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The living room in the guest suite in Stark Tower is chilly, like someone has set the air-conditioning to maximum. Two walls are lined with floor to ceiling windows. A couch faces the windows, and on the couch is a man. Silhouetted against the sky, his features are just a flat dark shadow to Darcy's eyes.

She blinks, and the shadow turns. As Darcy's eyes adjust, she sees skin the same color as the clear blue sky beyond the window, with two raised streaks below the eyes, and three raised lines above his eyes like a crown. And those eyes...they are red-orange like the most perfect setting sun. She'd been prepared to say something funny and cheerful. Something like, "Hi! I'm Darcy, your new minion!" But instead she just gasps.

"Not what you expected," Loki says, his voice smooth, British, familiar...and not. It's not like the voice she'd heard in the footage taken during the first Chitauri invasion. It's calmer. There is no maniacal edge to it.

"No," says Darcy. Thor had told her to be prepared for a monster.

"Without my magic, I revert to my true form," says Loki, and now she hears the familiar bite of bitterness in his words. A cruel smirk twists across his face, and that is familiar, too, even if the robin's egg blue of his skin is not. Black hair, loose, and shorter than she's used to curls around his ears. Below the neck he is decked out in armor, but the helmet with the crazy, deranged rabbit ear horns are thankfully nowhere to be seen.

Taking a step forward Darcy says, "You're lovely." She puts her hands behind her back because she's afraid she might reach out and touch him.

The smirk vanishes. They stare at each other for a few moments, and then Darcy coughs. "Can I get you anything? Are you comfortable?"

Loki blinks those orange-red eyes. "What I suffer most from is boredom. I doubt you can help with that."

Darcy's heard that unlike Thor, Loki's technology savvy. If he's not surfing the internet or watching DVDs, it's because he isn't interested. "No, probably not," Darcy agrees, biting her lower lip and rolling on her feet.

He tilts his head and that lovely raven black hair falls down like a curtain. His brows draw together, not like he's angry; more like he's confused. But when he finally speaks, all he says is, "You can go now."

Darcy leaves.

x x x x

The next day Darcy goes to visit Loki and she's better prepared - with things to keep Loki occupied and something to keep her occupied when he invariably dismisses her.

Loki's sitting in the middle of the couch in lotus position staring at the sky beyond the window. Today he is wearing clothing that looks like it's on loan from a Shakespearean acting troupe - a loose green shirt that hangs like linen and well-worn dark gray pants that might be leather.

It's another clear, beautiful day. The city is peaceful. There is no sound of weapon fire, and no smoke. It's hard to believe that somewhere out there the Avengers, the mutants known as the X-men, and armed forces from the U.S. and at least a dozen other nations are on a mission to clean up the remnants of the second Chitauri invasion. Pockets of Chitauri mercenaries are scattered across the globe. But if it hadn't been for Loki's intervention, things would be much worse.

After Loki's bid for world domination and the failure of the first Chitauri invasion, the dark prince of Asgard had been returned to Asgard for punishment. Under mysterious circumstances he escaped, and vanished for three years. And then the Chitauri had returned, this time on their own.

For reasons known only to himself, Loki had aided in Earth's defense. He'd given humans access to Chitauri technology, shown them the weaknesses in the Chitauri weaponry, and then fought beside them on the ground until a Chitauri weapon drained him of his powers. Now he is a "guest" of SHIELD. Several governments would like Loki in their custody, but Thor won't stand for it, and Thor is too powerful of an ally - and too dangerous a potential foe to ignore.

"I brought you books," says Darcy to Loki. She drops the books down heavily on the coffee table and lays them out. She slips her own book beneath her arm. "I thought you might find these interesting," she says. The books on the table are rare things on physics and astronomy that she's borrowed or nicked from Bruce and Jane. Thor has said magic and science are one and the same - she thinks Loki might find them of interest.

Loki looks at them for a moment and then says, "I've already read all of these."

"Oh," says Darcy. The disappointment in her voice is heavy and embarrassing.

"Why did they give you this job?" Loki says.

Darcy looks up at him. He sits so perfect and poised on the couch. His skin that lovely shade of blue. They say all his magic is drained from him, but Darcy thinks the way he looks is magic enough. Unlike Thor he looks alien, but unlike the Chitauri he is beautiful, like a being that might show up in Star Trek as the love interest. She doesn't sigh.

Bobbing her head, she sucks in on her lips and then says, "I'm expendable."

Loki blinks at her.

She shrugs. "I'm not a genius scientist, so I can't help find Chitauris. I'm not a trained assassin and don't have super powers so I can't kill Chitauris. I already know about Thor and you so I'm not a security risk so..." Her voice tapers off. And Thor has said Loki won't hurt her when his powers come back because it would be beneath him to attack one so weak. She gives a tight smile and pretends that being expendable and being weak don't hurt.

He stares at her like she's an incredibly odd specimen of insect, but Darcy gets that a lot so it doesn't unnerve her. Very much. And then inclining his head to the book under her arm, he says, "What's that?"

Blinking, Darcy pulls it out. "It's The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. Kind of a classic."

Loki holds out a hand. It takes Darcy a moment to realize he's asking for her book for the afternoon. She places it in his hand and he pulls it to his chest. Bowing his head, he begins silently to read. Darcy just sits there. After about half a dozen pages he says, "What sort of science is this?"

Darcy blinks. "Pop sociology maybe?"

He looks up at her and those orange-red eyes may not be magical but they do make her go warm. Licking her lips she clarifies. "Popular sociology."

"It's entertaining," he says looking down at the book.

"I think so, too," says Darcy.

"You can go now," he says and she and wonders what she is going to do for the rest of her day now that he's stolen her book.

x x x x

"These noodles are soggy," Loki says, pushing the box of Chinese take-out across the coffee table. He's in the Shakespearean get-up again.

"It's take-out. If you want fresh noodles and you don't like the noodles I make, which we both know you don't, we have to go out. Stark's chef is on vacation." Darcy pushes the noodles back across the table. Darcy is one of the few people Loki will tolerate for any length of time - Darcy figures it's because she's non-threatening. She's under orders to try and get him to eat. Loki has only been a "guest" in the suite a few weeks and he's noticeably lost weight. He declines assistance from the SHIELD medstaff. Fury is concerned. Loki may be magic-less, but apparently his brain is worth keeping alive.

"You know going out is impossible!" he snaps.

"I don't know that!" says Darcy. "You don't look so different from Mystique and Nightcrawler. Since the invasion, blue people are getting a lot more respect!" He is so obviously caught up in the being blue thing. She kind of gets it. Thor stopped by one time when she was here. He could hardly look Loki in the eye, and then of course there was the way Thor described Loki's new appearance as monstrous. She also kind of doesn't get it. Loki's so obviously beautiful. Even when he's glaring at her. Like now.

He looks like he's about to say she can go so she quickly pulls two books out of her bag: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay, and its rebuttal, The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.

He takes both but tosses the first back. "I read this when it was first published," he says. Darcy peeks in the dust jacket. It was first published in 1841.

"But this is new," he says. He flips it over in his hands and starts to read the back.

She expects to be told she can leave at any moment, but instead he says, "You never ask me why I helped your people."

"You'd laugh in my face, if I did," Darcy says. He laughed at Tony Stark and Nick Fury for the same reason. Considering her considerably lower place on the totem pole...

He snorts. "That's true."

Pushing up her glasses, she grins. "I suppose you maybe did it because you figured if you couldn't rule the Earth, no one else could."

He scowls for a moment and then smiles a wide toothy smile. "Maybe," he says. His teeth are white and flat. Thor said they would be sharp and pointed; Darcy's not sure why.

"Oh, speaking of world affairs..." she pulls the most recent issue of The Economist from her bag and hands it to him. It's slightly worn - she read it as soon as it arrived. The cover features Kim Jung-un, North Korea's most recent baddie.

"I would have taken care of this situation," he says, looking down at the cover. "24 million people constantly under the threat of starvation, death, torture and persecution and humans do nothing."

"Nothing isn't true," she says. "There are aid organizations there, and we have talks -"

"Talks, talks, talks," he says in a sing-song voice. He raises his eyes to her; his lip is quirked up.

She huffs. "Yeah, it is a situation where a benevolent world dictatorship would be nice-"

Loki blinks.

"But would it be worth the cost?" she says.

Loki's smile returns. "That is the question, isn't it?"

Darcy pushes some fried rice towards him. "You should try this; it's good."

His smile fades. "It is disgusting. You can go now."

x x x x

A few days later Darcy shows up at the door to Loki's suite at the usual time and he doesn't buzz her in. She tries the handle of the door, and it is unlocked, so she enters.

"Loki," she says quietly.

He doesn't respond. She really should pull out her cell and call security, medical, Fury or all three. But she doesn't. Instead she walks into the quiet suite towards the living room. Her eyes go wide. Loki is in his armor, spilled out on his back on the floor, blue skin and black hair a shadow on the beige carpet.

Darcy gasps and falls to her knees. "Loki!" she says, pulling out her cell. A blue hand shoots forward and grabs her wrist before she's even hit the speed dial for Fury. The phone falls from her hand and Loki hisses. "Don't."

She stares at him, mouth open. "Are you alright?"

He scowls. "Of course I'm alright." The hand on her wrist shakes ever so slightly and he takes a deep breath.

Darcy blinks. "No, you're not. I'm calling medical."

"No!" says Loki, his torso raising off the floor, and then sagging back down again. He closes his eyes. "I am not alright, but I will be."

Squinting, Darcy says, "Are you sure?"

Rolling his eyes, Loki says. "Of course I'm sure."

He meets her gaze. She must not look convinced because he says, "After my first misadventure with the Chitauris, they managed to find me...they hit me with the same weapon. This time the damage is more extensive; I will recover, but it will take longer and I'd rather not share the scope of my injuries with the world."

Her eyes widen. "When you disappeared! You'd lost your powers..."

He rolls his eyes again. "Yes." He puts a hand on his face. "Well, not as badly. I was able to maintain my true...my Asgardian form...most of the time."

The self loathing is so palpable. Darcy stares at his long elegant blue fingers covering his eyes. It's also silly.

"Do you want to stay on the floor?" she asks. Really, he's so prickly, she's not sure he'll appreciate her help.

His fingers flutter on his face for a moment, and he seems to consider the question.

"No," he says at long last. But it sounds half hearted.

Darcy holds out her hand. He takes it. His hand is cooler than hers, but isn't cold. Thor told her frost giants could freeze you with just a touch, but apparently that is a magical ability. She stares for a moment at the contrast of their skin tones and then looks up. Loki is looking down at their hands, his mouth slightly open. He swallows.

Whatever inner hurt he's experiencing, Darcy wants it to go away. "Okay," she says, standing up and wrapping her other hand around his wrist. "On the count of three, I pull you up..."

The walk to the couch is awkward. Loki hangs an arm over her shoulders and uses Darcy like a third leg. Hominids aren't meant to walk on three legs. Also, he's really heavy.

"So," Darcy says, as they hobble over to the seat. "You're not usually on the floor when I come in..."

Breathing deeply as though he's expending a great deal of energy, Loki says. "I had a meeting with Fury and Mr. Stark downstairs this morning. I overexerted myself."

"At a meeting?" says Darcy.

Loki stops for a moment a few feet from the couch and takes a deep breath. "It was a long way to walk, and I had to sit up for a long time."

And he was wearing his armor which Darcy is beginning to suspect weighs at least a ton.

They hobble a few more steps and Loki falls onto the couch. Laying his head back Loki takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. He's all long lines of silver, green, black and blue. Even in less than tip top shape he makes Darcy's mouth water.

Darcy sits down on the coffee table. "And all this time I thought you just never stood up because you wanted to be intimidating."

Shrugging, Loki says, "Well, there was also that."

He smirks, a sexy, insufferable blue smirk, and Darcy is pissed that it makes her lick her lips.

x x x x

"You must have better things to do with your time," Loki says. He's walking arm and arm with Darcy in his suite.

They have an agreement; he'll let Darcy help him get better if she keeps her mouth shut about just how weak he is. Helping Loki get better at this moment means helping him get some exercise. They're doing laps in the loop that runs from the living room to the kitchen to the dining room and back again.

"No, not really," says Darcy. "Really, my life is a mess right now - except for you. I totally don't belong here at SHIELD, I feel like an idiot and an incompetent half the time. Before you came along they tried to make me an administrative assistant, but my attention has the propensity to wander away and not come back. Since you've come along I've gotten paid to read Freakanomics, Foreign Affairs Magazine, the Economist and study Norse Mythology. It's awesome."

Loki squeezes her arm. "I meant this. Leading around a monst-"

Darcy glares at him.

Looking away he says, "-an invalid."

He says it like walking around in circles with a hot blue alien guy is really terrible Darcy purses her lips. "Nah, I don't mind."

"I mind," says Loki. "I'm bored."

A bored Loki is a grumpy Loki, so Darcy tries to distract him. "I read a really cool story about you called Thor Meets Captain America last night!" says Darcy brightly.

"How can it be about me if I'm not even in the title?"

"You are Captain America in the story," says Darcy.

"How flattering," says Loki dryly.

"No, it was. All the other gods were working for the Nazis and you helped the rest of humanity get rid of them."

Loki is silent for a few more steps, and then he says, "That's a bit of a stretch from the old myths, isn't it."

Darcy tilts her head. "Not really, well, not when I reread the stories. You're kind of the folk hero in a lot of the myths."

"Folk hero?" says Loki sounding vaguely amused.

"Yes, you know, you were always giving the gods their comeuppance. Laying out their hypocrisy at that feast you went to -"

"To be fair," Loki says, "I was extremely drunk that night."

"Giving them a taste of mortality when you stole Idunn's apples," says Darcy.

Snickering a little, Loki says, "Did you know Thor develops male pattern baldness?"

"And..." Frowning, Darcy hesitates.

"And?" says Loki.

"Well, you are the destroyer of the gods in the stories, aren't you?" says Darcy quietly.

Loki stops walking.

Licking her lips, Darcy looks up and meets his orange-red gaze. It still makes her a little weak kneed. She knows Thor has said the destruction of Asgard was something Loki never wanted. "Not that I'd necessarily want to see the gods destroyed, I mean, not if they are the way Thor describes them, but as they are described in the myths I don't know that I'd want them as my gods, if you know what I mean."

Loki's lips quirk up - they're so close and so kissable. "I do know what you mean," he says, mercifully turning his head and starting to walk again. They're moving at a snail's pace but Darcy's heart's beating like she's been running laps.

"Of course," says Loki, his voice playful, "Your myths also say I killed Baldur, the one perfect god. And no, he won't be coming back after Raganok; there's no Hel ruled by my daughter where he waits until the end of time..." He takes a breath at that and turns his head away.

Thor says that the whole Loki killing Baldur thing is a myth, that some human named Hothur did it over a "faithless" woman. Thor also says Baldur was perfect and wise and wonderful and brave - which kind of makes Darcy wonder why anyone would would want to kill him, much less how a human could accomplish it.

"Yeah, well, I guess if you believe in perfection, that's a bummer," says Darcy.

Loki looks at her sharply.

She shrugs. "I'm a post-modern girl."

That elicits an eyebrow raise.

"Nothing is perfect," says Darcy. "It's all about what imperfections you want to deal with." She snorts. "And what made anyone think Baldur was so perfect? He never did anything."

Loki laughs. "What indeed?"

They're quiet for a few more paces and then Darcy says, "So you have a daughter?"

It was the wrong thing to ask; she can feel his arm tense. Darcy should have known better. They never talk about personal things.

"No," says Loki after a long while as they step into the living room. "Take me to the couch."

"We did three more laps than yesterday," says Darcy, trying to sound chirpy.

Loki doesn't even grunt in response.

"Are you coming to the pre-launch party for Prometheus? Thor won't be there but..." She shrugs.

She's trying to get him to come out of his funk and out of his lair. Thor not being there is actually part of the bait. Thor loves Loki more than anyone - and he's also the most visibly uncomfortable with Loki's blue form. But no one at the small private party tonight will bat an eye at Loki for being the would-be-ruler of the world, and more importantly from Loki's perspective, for being blue.

The other part of the bait is Prometheus itself. Prometheus is a new deep space probe built by Stark Industries. Jane and Tony have figured out that a big problem in creating Einstein-Rosen bridges is the pull of Earth's gravity. To avoid gravity they're opening the bridge in outer space and sending Prometheus through. They're not sending it to any of the nine realms, just to the Eridani system 10.5 light years away. It will shoot some pictures and come back. It's new, and techie, and Loki does like techie stuff when it's genuinely new and not just repackaged Asgardian tech. Since she's pretty sure Asgard doesn't have space ships, she's pretty hopeful.

Loki sits down on the couch. He doesn't answer her question. Staring out the window he says, "Darcy, in those myths of yours, the god who kills me, do you remember who he is and what he does?"

Darcy's brow furrows. "Yeah...Heimdall. He's the gatekeeper." And in the story Loki kills Heimdall, too.

Loki's orange-red eyes meet hers. "He's also the creator of classes among men." Looking back out the window he says, "What good is a gatekeeper if there's no fence?"

"That's a no then?" says Darcy.

Loki frowns. "The party's a bit premature."

Chapter Text

 

It's the day after Prometheus explodes at the edge of Earth's solar system. Darcy is in Loki's suite. Her eyes are bleary; it's very early. But Loki paged her here at 7 a.m. To. Do. Laps. Evidently it couldn't wait.

Loki is agitated. Leaning on her arm, he is panting, walking faster than he's ever walked before. Darcy's arm is starting to ache.

"Dude," she says as they round the bend into the kitchen, "what are you running from?"

Orange-red eyes shoot to her. At exactly that moment the front door buzzer sounds.

"Help me get to the couch, quick!" Loki snaps.

She helps him to the living room as best she can. He collapses onto the couch gasping for breath and she grabs the phone. The buzzer sounds again. She presses the button that connects the phone to the front door. A picture of the would be visitor appears on the phone's tiny screen.

"It's probably Thor," says Loki, face in his hands.

Darcy blinks at Thor, standing in the line of vision of the entryway camera. He's staring at the door knob, oblivious to her peering eyes. "You called it," she says, handing Loki the phone.

Taking it, Loki swallows and sits up straighter. He puts one arm on the back of the couch, as though he's just been casually relaxing there.

"Should I leave?" she says.

The orange-red gaze lands on her again. A smirk appears on his face and he winks. "No. Why don't you make us a cup of tea?"

Darcy nods and heads to the kitchen. She hears the door open and Thor's booming footsteps.

"Thor, what a pleasant surprise!" Loki says just as the burner on the stove comes on. She can't see either of them in the kitchen, but she can hear the smirk in Loki's voice.

"The humans suspect Asgard's role in the destruction of Prometheus!" Thor says loudly without preamble.

That's news to Darcy. Her eyes go wide and she drops the spoon she was holding.

At the sound of the spoon hitting tile, Loki says, "And now they know. Darcy was just making me a cup of tea, Thor. Would you like some?"

"No, thank you," says Thor tightly.

A few tense minutes later, Darcy walks out of the kitchen with a steeping teapot of green tea and cups on a tray. Thor has seated himself on a chair across from Loki. Loki hasn't moved. As Darcy enters, Thor looks at her through narrowed eyes, and then at Loki.

"Should I go?" Darcy asks, putting the tray down on the coffee table.

Neither of them says anything for a moment. And then Thor, eyes on Loki, says, "No, Lady Darcy."

Without looking at her, Thor says to Loki, "Stark and Fury have asked me to speak to father on this matter."

"Of course," says Loki. "They see the attack on Prometheus as just another violation of their sovereignty on Asgard's part."

Darcy pours his tea for him and a cup for herself. He doesn't reach for it. He probably can't without shaking. He was very tired when he collapsed on the couch. Darcy's managed to get him to confess that the weapon that ripped his magic from him also rattled through his lungs and left abscesses. He says he'll recover when he gets his magic back.

"Another attack on their sovereignty?" says Thor.

Loki purses his lips and looks over at Darcy. "Darcy, what other threats to Earth's sovereignty has Asgard sent Earth's way?"

Darcy blinks as Thor's eyes turn towards her. "Well..." she says looking nervously between the two men, "your father seems to regard Earth as a sort of penal colony."

Winking at her, Loki says, "You do have to deal with so much Asgardian rubbish, don't you?"

"Ummm..." says Darcy.

"Fortunately, the frost giants you occasionally get to entertain somewhat makes up for it," says Loki with a bright smile.

Darcy almost snorts.

Thor blinks at Loki for a moment, and then he rolls his eyes. "Father will rightly point out that Earth is unstable. He will suggest they are unready to leave their solar system."

Darcy opens her mouth but doesn't speak.

Loki nods at her.

The words on the tip of her tongue rush out. "That's friggin' paternalistic!"

Loki looks at his hands and sighs. "Oh, I don't know. It is a shame that humans don't have an efficient tyrant to whip them into shape before they launch themselves into the realms. A united front would be so much better when facing the nasty creatures out there..."

"Brother..." says Thor warningly.

Loki smiles brightly. "Oh, don't worry. I have no aspirations for efficient tyranny; I've discovered that it really isn't my forte." His smile drops. "I'll confine myself to mischief."

Thor takes a deep breath. "What do I do?"

Loki stares at him for a few moments, and then he says, "Tell father to apologize, and to claim it was a mistake. Humans will know it's a lie...but..." He tilts his head, "It will give both sides a chance to breathe. And maybe it will give Asgard enough time to realize it was a mistake."

"Hmmmm..." says Thor. He settles back in his chair and looks at Loki. His gaze goes from knowing to uncertain. It's the way he usually looks at Loki - kind of sad, a little frightened, definitely uncomfortable. When he speaks, his voice is thick. "It is good to have you on my side again, Loki."

"Should you say that?" Loki snaps, not meeting Thor's gaze.

Thor's face goes hard, then slack, and Darcy feels sad for him.

When he leaves, Loki follows his retreating form with his eyes.

Dropping his head into his hands he says, "How do you like actually playing the game of politics, Darcy?" She's kind of sad for him, too.

Darcy looks towards the door and down at Loki. She picks up Loki's teacup and hands it to him. Grasping it with two shaking blue hands, he takes a sip. Darcy eyes fall on the raised ridges of flesh on the back of his hands that seem to track his veins.

Loki catches her eye and then hands the cup back. His fingertips meet hers, and their coolness is in stark contrast to the warmth of the cup.

There are games within games going on here, and she's not sure of all that's going on, but...

"Being a pawn or a king kind of sucks," she says.

Orange-red eyes meet hers and Loki smiles, his eyes crinkling at the corners. Leaning forward he licks his lips. His smile still in place, he whispers conspiratorially, "But kings get to eat better, don't forget that."

She grins and his glance falls to her mouth.

He is so close to her she can smell the green tea in his breath. She swallows.

He leans back, with a low breath. "You can go now, Darcy," he says, not meeting her gaze. "Please give my regards to Fury."

She puts her cup down slowly. But she goes.

x x x x

The Avengers are all back in Manhattan. SHIELD is throwing a Welcome-Home-Winter-Holiday-Of-Your-Choice party. Christmas is two and a half weeks away. Cap and Thor stopped by briefly, Darcy thinks she saw Tony and Pepper for a bit, but Banner never came by, nor did the Widow or Clint. Mostly it's the techie geeks and the underlings.

Considering how cute the techie geek she is talking to is, that isn't really so bad. Darcy's got an unhealthy preoccupation with her job, that is to say, with Loki, and Patrick, tall and slender, blond haired and geeky chic is just the way to get over it.

"So what do you do again, exactly?" says Patrick, waving his drink.

"Oh, I'm just a glorified gofer," says Darcy with a smile. Her security clearance is higher than his. She can't tell him she is the gofer of Earth's ex-supervillain extraordinaire.

He gives her a half smile. "You're cute and funny."

Darcy takes a sip of her punch and smiles back. "And you're very smart."

"Heh. Yeah. They don't pass out degrees at MIT for nothing. Where did you go to school again?"

"University of New Mexico," says Darcy. Technically she hasn't actually graduated...but she's really close.

"Huh." Looking around he says, "Let's get out of here. This place is slowing down."

Darcy follows his gaze. "Yep, you're right about that." Looking up at him, she smiles and says, "What have you got in mind?"

He leans in very close. "I was thinking of my place."

Oh. Kind of flattering but, fast. Still...he is a geek. A gorgeous geek. But a geek.

"So are we going to sit around and watch Star Trek reruns, 'cause we could do that downstairs in the lounge," she says, trying to keep everything light and happy. They could make out there, too, without it being too weird or going too far.

The edges of his smile turn a little hard. "No," he says, letting a finger trail down the 'V' of her wrap dress. "That's not exactly what I was thinking of."

Trying to keep her smile - hey, at least he's honest - Darcy says, "I'm flattered really, but no...that's okay. You're a great guy and all, but that's just a little too quick for me."

His smile drops completely. "What's wrong with you?" he says looking at her like she might be a Martian.

"What?" says Darcy, her brain going on a weird little loop. She just can't believe he said that.

"You got daddy issues or something?"

The whole leap of logic there just sort of makes Darcy's brain blink out for a moment. Her mouth drops. And then she snaps. "Dude, you are so lucky that tasering you would probably get me jail time because I am so close -"

His face contorts in disbelief. "Like you would."

"I'll have you know I tasered -" Darcy's phone starts to ring. Which is good; she's not supposed to talk about the time she tasered Thor. Turning away she opens her purse. It's a text from Loki. I want to go out. Come get me. She blinks. Well, that is new. And good. She's been trying to get him to budge from the suite for months.

Without looking back, she leaves the conference room where the party's being held. She hears Patrick's voice behind her, something about "little gofer" and then laughter.

She's furious by the time she gets to Loki's suite. And hurt, even though she knows she shouldn't be. The trouble is she is a glorified gofer, with only one talent - managing blue ex-supervillains. And that's a skill that won't be in demand for very long or is very transferable.

She hits Loki's buzzer, and the door clicks almost immediately, which is kind of weird. Usually it takes him awhile to get to the phone.

She enters and hears Loki saying, "Well, that will be all, Director Fury. Darcy is here."

Darcy walks into the living room. Loki is on the couch staring at the Director. Fury looks at her like he's really not glad she's there, but he only turns to Loki and says, "Think about it."

Saying nothing, Loki turns his attention to a spot on the carpet.

As soon as Fury is gone, Darcy says, "You wanted to go out?"

Loki purses his lips and doesn't look at her. "You know, Darcy, being sane is very overrated."

Not feeling sympathetic at the moment, she says, "You called me from the party; let's go."

"Maybe we should just stay in and watch Star Trek reruns?" says Loki, batting his eyelashes at her and smiling. She's gotten him hooked onStar Trek, Sherlock, TED Talks, and weirdlyMad Men.

"No!" says Darcy with vehemence that surprises her. Suddenly she can't stand to be in here, even if watching television or TED talks on the intertubes with him is usually one of her favorite things.

Loki blinks his orange eyes. "Fine, I'm sick of the chef here anyways."

x x x x

She thought maybe she'd have to pick the restaurant, but Loki is the one that decides they are going to Junoon, some upscale Indian restaurant Darcy's never heard of. He must not have been lying about being sick of the chef's cooking. Obviously he's been doing research.

"You're in a foul mood," Loki says over the first course.

She hasn't been as talkative as usual, but she just doesn't feel that chipper. The food is great, and that alone should make her happy, but she's thinking about Patrick. And she's also noticing that Loki is getting a lot more less-than-friendly stares than she expected. She doesn't think it's because they recognize them. Really, the blue skin, shorter, darker curlier hair and orange eyes are an awesome disguise - he doesn't look like the guy who tried to take over the world not too many years ago. But apparently blue skin isn't as well received as she'd made it out to be. Oh, the staff is nice enough, but they're getting paid to be nice.

Glancing at a man who keep shooting her worried looks, like Loki might eat her or something, she says, "Humans suck."

"My, what happened to you?" says Loki picking up the wine list.

Surprised, and a little hopeful that he might actually care, Darcy puts down her fork. "Do you really want to know?" she asks.

Looking at the wine list in his hands Loki says, "No, that was just a rhetorical question."

"Seriously? A rhetorical question?"

Still not even glancing at her, he says in a bored voice, "Yes. Only rhetorical."

"You suck just as much as the humans giving you dirty looks and I should taser you just for being mean!" Darcy says in what might be a slightlymisplaced bout of aggression.

At that Loki does look up. He blinks those orange-red eyes of his and smirks. "My, there is a little back-bone in you, Darcy!"

Darcy doesn't feel like she has backbone. She feels like she wants to cry. But she just crosses her arms over her chest and glares at him.

Loki stares at her a moment and then he says, "So, the Avengers are gathering at Stark's retreat in the Adirondacks for two weeks over the Yuletide. I've been asked to attend. Should I go?"

Darcy's eyes widen. "That's Tony's new home - he bought it for Pepper. Her family used to go there every winter for skiing -"

"There will be snow?" says Loki, and there is something in his voice. Is that the tiniest little bit of wistfulness?

"Yes, probably," says Darcy. "And it's supposed to be beautiful." She's actually slightly jealous he'll be going. Darcy would love to see it. Besides, it's a house that is supposed to be stunning, Tony has a small private ski slope there. Tony claims it is much too small, but it has sentimental value for Pepper, apparently.

Loki purses his lips. "Excellent, I'll tell them we're going."

"We?" says Darcy.

Loki puts down the wine list and leaning forward he hisses. "No other mortal is going to play my crutch - and certainly not Thor." Pulling back he says, "Besides, you have no other plans."

"How do you know that?" Darcy says indignantly.

"You let it slip days ago. Your parents are going to go visit your brother at St. Andrews in Scotland for the holidays," Loki says.

Darcy glances to the side thumping a finger. She told him that? He remembers that? Because she doesn't remember telling him that. The man giving Loki worried looks catches her eye. Darcy scowls at him and then turns back to Loki, now looking at the wine list again.

"Also, you want to go," he says.

"How do you know that?" she says.

"I can hear it in your voice," he says, not looking up at her.

She stares at him a moment, and then says, "And you want to see snow."

Loki puts the wine list to the side very slowly and deliberately. He narrows his eyes at Darcy.

"I can hear it in your voice," she says.

He smirks, and then whispers. "Maybe."

A few hours later they're walking out of the restaurant and he's leaning on her arm. Looking down at her dress he says, "You know, Miss Lewis, if you would dress like that more often I might be convinced to go out more often. It's easier to lean on you when you look like my date and not someone I borrowed from a second-hand store sweater sale."

"It's cold in your suite!" Darcy says. "And I don't earn enough to buy luxurious cashmere dusters."

All Loki does is make a loud hmpff.

Outside the restaurant Darcy steps away from him to hail a cab. One pulls over immediately. Darcy's just about to open the door when Loki steps away from the curb. The driver's eyes fall on him, spring open very wide, and then the cab takes off.

Darcy stares after the retreating taxi, looks at Loki and swallows.

Loki takes a deep breath. Frost giant he may be, but he is still warm blooded enough that his breath is hanging in misty clouds in the cold air. "I am neither surprised nor disappointed by the stares or that gentleman's behavior."

"Humans still suck," she says, turning away from his warm orange gaze.

She can hear the smirk in his voice when he says, "That may well be. The question is, do they suck more than anyone else?"

Darcy looks up at him and he holds out his arm. "I promise you," he says, the smirk tightening, "I would not be treated so hospitably in Asgard."

Darcy slips her arm into his, and he leans on her just a bit and looks up at the sky. "I could walk for a little while," he says.

They stroll in silence for a few minutes, and then just to make conversation, Darcy says, "I guess Fury would be ticked if you told me what he was talking to you about."

Loki's lips curl in a half smile. "I could care less about what ticks Fury off," he says. He looks down at Darcy, and his orange eyes are a deep red in the low light. Chuckling, he says, "He just wants me to play my part, of course."

There is something forced in that chuckle, and it makes Darcy stop. "Your part?" she says.

Stopping beside her, Loki says, "My part. And part of me really does want to." He's still smiling. A little. But his eyes seem to be focused on a point on her chin.

She swallows.

And his smile vanishes completely. For a reason that actually isn't inconvenient, misplaced, and misguided lust, Darcy finds her heart beating very quickly. She squeezes his arm, and licks her lips.

Turning away, he says, "Why don't you try to hail us a cab again? I suddenly feel very weary."

Chapter Text

The foyer in the lodge in the Adirondacks is decorated with furnishings from a different age. It reminds Loki of visits to Earth just before the first world war. The style is more opulent than his suite in Stark's tower. The colors are darker. There is a lot of frivolous decoration - bric a brac if his English serves him right. It is as though he has travelled to another world, not seeing the styles of the same people just 100 years previous...In Asgard fashions remain static for centuries.

"Wow, this is pretty swank," says Clint, craning his neck to see the light fixtures. There are murmurs from the other team members. Loki's brain notes them duly somewhere, but his attention is focused on a long intimidating staircase opposite the door.

At his side Darcy whispers, "The bags have already been taken to our rooms. All we have to do is get up those stairs."

Loki glances over at Thor across the wide foyer. Jane is on Thor's arm, smiling and talking to Pepper. Thor has never been able to hide his emotions, and right now he's looking at Loki with a look of deep concern.

Loki looks away. He finds himself staring down a hallway. He pauses, sniffs, then inhales deeply. His lips quirk.

"I'm sure you'd all like to see your rooms," Stark says clapping his hands together. "Right this way, ladies and gentlemen."

Loki hangs back, and Darcy stays with him. Stark's halfway up the stairs when he happens to turn. He looks at Loki and his mouth opens. Before Tony can even formulate a question, Loki smiles and says, "I think I'll stay back here and have a look around."

Tony blinks only once and says, "By all means. This place is fully wired. I've uploaded Jarvis, he'll be able to show you the way to your rooms later." It was the answer Loki was expecting. Tony will indulge him. Loki has things Tony wants very badly. And Fury, too. As well as the governments of half a dozen nations.

"Jarvis is here?" says Steve. His arm is in a sling after a recent adventure. Apparently a broken arm can take a few days to recover, even for someone with super-healing.

Tony laughs, turns, and begins up the stairs again. "I can handle the vintage charm, but not without the comforts of our more civilized age."

Loki doesn't wait to hear the response to that. He just walks down the hall, the old floorboards creaking beneath his feet. Darcy follows beside him. Staff took their coats when they came in, but she still has on a strange knitted burgundy cap and matching scarf. She is wearing the blue denim trousers that are the traditional clothing of her people and a tight fitting cream colored sweater that dips a little low in the front.

She looks very fetching, the hat and scarf not withstanding. He tries not to stare.

Some say that Loki is the devious one, but Thor is not without his own streak of deviousness. Leave it to Thor to find a pretty, buxom young lass to be Loki's keeper.

Darcy looks backwards. "They can't see," she says and holds out her arm.

If he takes her arm and Jarvis reports it, Tony will suspect nothing more than a light dalliance with a mortal. He is tired and could use the support, but that isn't the only reason he accepts her help. She does not flinch as he slips his arm into hers; in fact her cheeks redden slightly. He's not sure if it amuses or saddens him that she finds him attractive in this state. She sees only his hands and his face which are relatively scar free. If she could see the rest of him...

His stomach constricts, and this train of thought is mercifully interrupted by the sight of two double doors open to their left. Loki stops, looks in, and sure enough...

"A library!" says Darcy. "How did you know it was here?"

Didn't the warrior Volstagg tell Loki and Thor Jotunn have a sense of smell as keen as beasts? Smirking at the bitter memory he taps his nose and says, "Thor used to joke about me being able to smell books from a mile away. Apparently he was right."

Darcy smiles wider than necessary at his joke. She is so easy to read even without magic.

Dropping Darcy's arm, he walks over to a far shelf and runs a finger over a group of matching tomes. On each binding is the word 'The Book of Knowledge.' Loki pulls one out and opens it. The publication date is 1910. Darcy comes over and takes one of her own. He flips through the pages - it quickly becomes apparent it is a book for children. There are fables, and articles on weather and woodcraft. He finds it quite charming.

"Whoa," says Darcy looking at the book she's chosen, "...Imperialism is only acceptable in so much as the lot of the subjects is improved upon, for even lesser races are owed our compassion and respect..."

"Quite an enlightened attitude," says Loki putting his book away.

"You're kidding, right?" Darcy says.

Loki only smiles. Enlightenment is relative. Certainly by Darcy's standards that attitude is barbaric. But it is an attitude light years beyond the attitude of the Aesir. Odin may say a wise man avoids war, but there was no Marshall Plan for Jotunheim, and even the Romans built roads.

He puts his own volume away and pulls out another. Randomly opening it, he finds himself in a section on Norse mythology. He shouldn't read. But he does.

...and Odin's folly in allowing Loki to remain among the Aesir was the downfall of the Gods...

Loki snaps the book shut and puts it back. Putting his hands behind his back he turns from the shelf. What is destruction, really? Many of the fashions and ideas from the time when this house was built are long gone, or mutated so much they are nearly unrecognizable. He doesn't think Darcy or any of the Avengers mourn for them. Maybe Steve does...or maybe not. He has heard Darcy casually mention how glad Steve is that segregation has ended.

"Loki?" Darcy says.

He takes a breath and finds himself staring out the library's wide bay window. The backyard is a riot of trees, their black branches in sharp contrast to the snow. Beyond them he can see a wide open plain, and then the swell of gentle mountains.

"Get our coats," he says. "We're going for a walk."

Her mouth opens like she might protest, but then she turns and leaves the room.

A few minutes later they are walking through the trees, a few feet apart, snow crunching under their feet. Darcy is wearing a fitted down jacket that comes to just below her hips. She's wearing mittens now, and her arms are wrapped around herself; her teeth are chattering. Loki is breathing hard with exertion. Centuries ago he was held captive by a giant for 30 days and 30 nights and missed the yearly harvest of Idunn's apples. He caught pneumonia. When Thor came and rescued him, Loki could not walk a flight of stairs without pausing to catch his breath. This feels exactly the same. He is in no pain. Just exhausted, and the exhaustion is a heady thing. Their pace through the snow is a crawl, but Loki feels as though he's flying.

He's also hot. He unzips his coat and takes off the gloves he is wearing. Heimdall's words before he crossed the biofrost bridge to Jotunheim come to mind. "A little under dressed..."

Loki laughs and Darcy says, "What is it?"

Shaking his head he says, "I always was overly warm in Asgard. Without my spells I would sweat..." It had been humiliating. The worst had been being in the training yards under the hot sun. "...I always wondered what was wrong with me." He smiles. "Now I know."

Darcy punches Loki in the arm. He's not surprised. Did he make the self-deprecating joke because he means it, or if he wanted her to touch him - or maybe both? She is transparent, lovely, non-threatening and he likes her touch. He doesn't like it when most people touch him, especially not after the void, his fall, and his landing in...

He shakes his head. He must not think of it. "That's no way to treat someone in my condition!" he says, holding up a hand for mercy and looking at her sideways through one eye. She's glaring at him and looks like she's about to swing again. But when he holds out an arm, she drops her fist and slips her arm in his instead. They walk on together through the snow towards the wide open plain and it feels comfortable and right. Are frost giants like humans - do they have some social primate creature as ancestors? Does he need touch as much as humans do to stay healthy and sane? It was after his divorce from Sigyn that he went mad - and he'd had no lovers at the time.

They come to the wide plain of snow, and Loki's breathing is labored, but it feels oddly good. The cold air on his face and hands and in his lungs feels almost like a balm.

"Maybe we should go back?" says Darcy after they've walked a few meters out into the vast expanse of snow.

They should. It's getting dark and colder - which may affect Darcy if not Loki. But Loki's not sure how many more chances they'll get to walk like this away from prying eyes.

Just as he thinks that thought he hears voices behind them. Pulling quickly away from Darcy, he walks a few paces further out onto the white expanse. He hears something groan beneath him, and scowls.

Turning around he sees Thor and Steve approaching. Both are wearing casual Midgardian snow attire. Thor isn't carrying Mjolnir and he has a wide smile on his face. Loki momentarily forgets the groaning noise.

"Brother! A beautiful evening, is it not!" says Thor. Thor's happy shout seems to make the ground itself quake.

Loki sighs. So much for his quiet walk.

Thor slaps his hand on Darcy's shoulder. As she falls under the friendly onslaught, she catches Loki's gaze and crosses her eyes and sticks out her tongue. Loki bites his lip to keep from smiling too broadly.

Waving the arm that's in a sling, Steve says, "There is a lake somewhere out here. You should maybe be careful."

Loki frowns and looks at his feet. The noise beneath the snow...

"I think I found the lake," he says.

Thor's happy smile vanishes, and he takes a step towards Loki. There is the sound of a crack, and Loki rolls his eyes. Damn.

He is not at all surprised when the ice gives way and he crashes into the water. As his head goes under he hears Darcy scream. He pushes to the surface and spits out some water in a long stream. Darcy is closest to the hole in the ice, sensibly lying on her stomach, Thor has her ankle, and Steve is behind him.

Darcy releases an audible sigh of relief.

Loki blinks and treads his feet. "You know, it's not bad." He blinks again. "It's actually...invigorating." It's cold but not that cold. He looks down - his heavy boots have got to go though. He takes a deep breath and lets himself sink down, kicking off his boots as he does.

Opening his eyes he finds himself in a beautiful alien world. The last rays of sun are coming through the ice and casting everything in a lovely blue light. In the distance he sees the glint of silver as surprised fish dart deeper. It's peaceful, and quiet, and he wants to stay there as long as he has breath.

Through the water he hears a frightened bellow. "Loki!" A giant ball of bubbles plunges into the water beside him. It's Thor, coming to rescue him. Thor always rescues Loki; although once someone convinced Loki otherwise. Once he had been convinced Thor rejoiced in his fall, once he had been tricked into believing Thor laughed at the cruelties of his torturers in the void. But that was before the Chitauri came for him in Asgard, before his magic was ripped from him - and ironically he was freed. Somehow their ties to him had been severed with his magic. And that was before Thor used the confusion caused by the Chitauri presence in Asgard to spirit Loki into hiding on Earth.

Loki sighs inwardly. Kicking his feet he surfaces. A moment later Thor's head pops up beside him. Thor's eyes go wide, and Loki can see relief writ large. Shaking his great mane of hair, Thor says, "Were you jesting? This water is freezing! "

Loki stares at him.

From the surface of the ice, Steve says, "Uh, Thor..."

Darcy finishes for the Captain. "Dude, he's a frost giant."

Thor wipes his hands through his hair and shoots Loki a pained look. And then he smiles, and laughs, a deep rich, good natured patented God of Thunder laugh. "So he is." Raising an eyebrow at Loki, he says, "If you don't mind, I'll get out."

Loki doesn't know what to say, so instead he just says, "Fine. I'm going to get my boots." Taking a deep breath he disappears into the quiet water again. When he comes up, boots in hand, Thor is already on the ice.

In their native tongue Thor says, "Brother, do you need help getting out?" Licking his lips, Thor adds nervously, "I know it is not just lack of magic that ails you."

Loki's mouth drops, and he looks to the water. Loki could use Thor's help. As much as he is enjoying this little dip, he is tired, and pulling himself out is suddenly very daunting.

...but there are battle lines being drawn and Heimdall is watching. Loki knows which side he will fall on.

Thor holds out his arm and Loki stares at it. Surely Heimdall will not count this gesture of goodwill against Thor? Loki takes the hand and happiness floods Thor's face. With a nod he heaves Loki out.

They sit together for a moment, Loki panting as he puts on his wet boots. "Please, tell me you are not in pain," Thor says softly.

Loki's hands still. "I am not."

"Truly?" says Thor and his concern is so deep it is gut wrenching.

"Truly," says Loki, unable to meet Thor's eyes. "Since I have assumed this form I have been in less pain than I have been my entire life."

It is the truth. After losing his powers the first time, he had to stay in his Jotunn form for prolonged periods of time. When he slipped back into his Asgardian form to battle beside the Avengers it was as though every inch of his skin was too tight and too hot. He'd lived thousands of years with that pain, and thought it was normal. Perhaps it is letting himself off too easily, but maybe that constant pain was partially to blame for his madness. Partially to blame for giving into his captors in the void so easily. There was no memory of a painless time to hold onto.

"Then stay this way," Thor says, putting his hand on Loki's shoulder. "You don't have to hide from me."

Loki cannot look at him. It is not Thor Loki foresees needing to hide from. He looks up towards the sky.

"Um, guys, I can tell you're having a moment," says Darcy.

Steve coughs. The ice groans.

"Everyone on their bellies!" Steve commands, and Loki and Thor both snort at the indignity but comply.

When they reach the shore, are all upright, and Thor is shaking himself and shivering, Darcy says, "Should you worry about hypothermia?"

Thor looks at Loki, and says, "Brother?"

"Dude, I was talking about you," Darcy says.

Thor blinks, and Loki gives him a wide smile. Narrowing his eyes, Thor speaks again in their native tongue, "Are you sure you don't want to have hypothermia, Loki? You know what the treatment is..." He gives Darcy a sideways glance and says, "I think she likes you." He looks back at Loki, smiles good naturedly and winks. "And I know you like her."

The time honored treatment for hypothermia is to curl up naked next to another. Out of everyone here, Thor alone knows just what the raised indentations of skin beneath Loki's clothing must look like. Loki glares at him even as his face flushes a deep shade of ultramarine.

"Don't be crude," Loki says. Panting, he bends over, packs a snowball quickly in his hands and throws it at Thor's face.

Holding up a hand to catch the snowball, Thor laughs. "A lovely bosom still makes you blush! It is good to know some things don't change..." And then he catches himself, and his expression becomes pained. "I don't mean to say..."

Loki looks down. "You don't have to explain. It is as much a shock to me as it is to you."

Darcy gets indignant about Thor's discomfort with Loki's new appearance. But every time Loki looks in the mirror or slips into a bath he is uncomfortable: he doesn't expect Thor to feel any differently.

Thor still looks hurt, but then a beeping begins in his pocket. Thor pulls out a cell phone from his water logged jacket - apparently it is still fully operational because Thor looks at it and says. "We have been called to duty." He looks at Steve with his broken arm, and back to Loki. In Asgardian he says, "Let Rogers help you. Of everyone I would trust him most to keep your ailments a secret - if that is what you wish."

And then Thor turns. There is a sound of breaking glass somewhere and Mjolnir flies into Thor's hands. A moment later he is vanishing into the air.

A cold wind picks up and Loki's wet clothing hits his skin like icy nails. Wincing, he turns to Darcy and holds out an arm. "Now, I am cold. And tired."

Darcy looks uncertainly at Steve. With a shallow breath, Loki says, "It is alright." He looks at Rogers. His stomach constricts uncomfortably at the words but he says, "I may need your help, too." The treatment for hypothermia is worse than that admission.

Tilting his head, Steve doesn't say anything, just walks to the elbow opposite Darcy. Together the three make their way across the snow.

x x x x

By the time they reach the house, the temperature outside has dropped and Loki is shivering violently. At the top of the stairs he's nearly ready to collapse. He isn't sure if it's because he's chilled, or because his lungs are damaged.

"I'm going to get you a thermal blanket," says Steve helping Loki pull off his jacket. "Get your clothes off; you're soaked. Darcy, help him if he needs it."

Loki glares at Steve, but Captain America just narrows his eyes and says, "This is no time for modesty."

"Jarvis, where is Loki's room?" Darcy says.

"Right this way, Ms. Lewis," the machine says and little lights come on in the baseboards in the floor.

"I'm...fine...just tired..." Loki mutters through chattering teeth.

"Yeah, I'm really convinced," says Darcy, leading him into a room off the main hallway. The lights come on and he's looking at a room filled with dark wooden furniture. There is an enormous dresser with a mirror, a desk, a four poster bed. Along the far wall are two plush chairs and a low stool in front of a fireplace packed with wood and a full log-bin.

"If I put you in the bed, you'll soak the sheets," Darcy says. She sets him down on the stool, his back to the fireplace. He kicks off his boots but makes no move to undress.

"Take off your shirt," she says.

"Go get me a towel," he says trying to distract her and get her out of the room. She doesn't move. He puts his shaking hands to his shirt but makes no move to undo the buttons. The shirt's a Midgardian affair, a green knit with buttons that go a quarter of the way down his chest. Without undoing the buttons, it won't pull over his head.

"Can you do the buttons?" she says.

"I can," he lies. His fingers are too numb for such delicate work.

"No, you can't," she says. Reaching forward, she says, "Let me help."

Loki leans down so his chin is nearly at his knees, his chest protected from her small, perfect, unblemished, human hands. "Leave," he says.

"Please," says Darcy.

"Leave!" It comes out a scream, though he didn't mean it that way.

There is a popping noise. Something warm and delicious rushes through him, green light flares from behind, and more warmth spills against his back.

Loki's mouth drops open and Darcy takes a step back, her face bathed in a familiar green glow.

Loki begins to laugh.

"I'll go get you a towel," Darcy says, nearly running from the room, her face distressed. He should say something, apologize, but she is already gone. Loki turns his head to emerald flames turning to orange as real fire takes hold.

His magic is back.

x x x x

Loki spends the night and next morning in his room, eating, sleeping and repairing his damaged lungs. He doesn't bother Darcy with his requests. Instead, he utilizes JARVIS and the household staff. She's earned a break.

By lunchtime he isn't entirely healed, and his magic is nowhere near where it was, but he is able to slip into his Asgardian guise. It is tight and too hot, but it gives him confidence, too.

Stepping into the hallway, he nearly bumps into Darcy. He smiles at her, holds out his hands, looks down, and then waggles his eyebrows at her.

She just stares at him, mouth open for a moment, and then she says, "What's with the..." She shakes a hand at him. "Why are you doingthat?"

Shrugging, he smirks. "Because I can."

Her face scrunches up like she is sad, or confused, and she says, "Isn't that a waste of energy?"

Bending down, he takes one of her hands and brings it to his lips. Her skin is so very soft and warm beneath his kiss, and that warmth sparks from his lips through the rest of his body like an electric current; it's wonderful. Between his injuries and the nightmares he sometimes forgets his body can be a conduit for pleasure as well as pain. "You are so perceptive," he says.

Her face softens, but it is only when he takes a breath and lets his jotunn form ripple to the surface that she relaxes. He does need to conserve the energy. He drops her hand and gestures toward the stairs with a courtly bow.

She holds out an arm. "Do you need..."

He smiles. "No." But then he tilts his head and puts his arm in hers anyway. "For old times sake."

She smiles and as they go down the stairs, him not leaning on her for once, she says, "You feel good?"

He turns his head to look at her and feels that rush of warmth again. "Better than I have in centuries."

x x x x

There is a fireplace in the living room of the lodge. The flames in it are dancing orange and green. Loki is sitting on the floor in front of it, feet stretched out to the fire. He is still blue. He tilts his head. The heat feels good against his feet despite this form. He looks down at his hand and opens and closes it. He is still warm blooded, still enjoys some heat, even if he can handle much colder temperatures. That is comforting for some reason.

Behind him he hears a door open and close. He turns and smiles, not surprised to see Steve and Darcy walk in. The three of them have been together most of the day on the slopes - Steve insisted on skiing even with a broken arm. The rest of the Avengers aren't back yet, and the significant others of Thor, Tony and Bruce have gone off to do other things.

Steve is smiling, but Darcy's brow is furrowed. Loki came in a little early. He does feel good, but he is still out of shape, magically and physically. He attributes her scowl to worry. As the day has worn on, she has appeared more and more unhappy.

"A fire, what a great idea!" says Steve. Loki scoots over and makes room. Darcy comes over and sits down next to him, quiet as a mouse, and Steve sits on the other side of her.

Loki leans back on his hands. In a thousand years you learn to recognize the calm before the storm; this is one of those times. He is determined to be happy in this moment...and oddly finds that he can be. Perhaps it is his new skin, unfortunate as it is in some ways. It is easier to relax in physically.

Perhaps it is the company. Of course Loki is very fond of Darcy, for reasons innocent and not. But he doesn't mind Steve either. Not only does Steve not show any unease at his blue form, he has an ability Loki has never really possessed; he can 'let things go'. Once they may have been enemies, but Steve has evidently decided that Loki has repaid his debt and treats him as a new man. He a flicker of worry crosses his mind. Perhaps Thor has told Steve what happened in the void...perhaps that is the reason for his kindness. Loki sighs and lets the thought go. As long as Steve never asks him to 'talk about it', they will get along fine.

Tilting his head to a tray next to him, Loki says, "There is some wine and cheese."

Steve looks at the tray and says, "I'll take some wine, but ugh, I can't eat any more food. I can't believe you beat me at that eating contest at lunch!"

Loki smirks. "I've only been beaten in one eating contest in over 1,000 years," he says.

"I'd like some wine," says Darcy sitting up straighter. "I'll pour us all a glass."

Still leaning on his hands, Loki says, "Wait, I've got this!" He closes his eyes and concentrates, imagining the wine bottle popping open and pouring three glasses, and then he imagines the glasses hovering in the air to Darcy, Steve and himself.

"Wow," says Steve. "Thanks..."

Loki opens his eyes and plucks his glass out of the air. He raises a toast, and the humans do the same.

Over her glass, Darcy says, "So was it Logi in Utgard-Loki's disappearing castle who beat you in the eating contest?"

"Disappearing castle?" says Steve with innocent enthusiasm. "That's a story I want to hear!"

Loki smiles at the memory. "Well, it wasn't so much a disappearing castle, as a floating castle, and it started, like most things, with Thor deciding he was bored and needing to bang his hammer..."

When he finishes the tale, telling how the castle floated away after Loki lost his eating contest with Logi, the personification of fire, and Thor lost a battle with the personification of old age Darcy looks up at the ceiling and taps her lip. "A floating castle...do you remember that YouTube video we saw about humans colonizing Venus?"

"What-what?" says Steve, face contorting in confusion at the seeming non-sequitur, a little wine dribbling down his chin.

Wincing a little at the spilled wine, Darcy says, "Sorry, sometimes, I'm a little random."

Loki puts his wine down and tilts his head. He likes her randomness. "Actually, it is an interesting connection." He lifts an eyebrow at Steve. "During my convalescence Miss Lewis and I watched a video on the subject of colonizing Venus. Cities that float above the sulphuric acid clouds that line Venus's surface might be more feasible than habitations in Mar's near vacuum."

"Above the low-lying clouds the pressure, heat, and gravity would be about the same as ours," says Darcy. "The only thing to contend with would be a mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere."

Steve raises an eyebrow at her.

"I'm kind of a geek," says Darcy a little shyly, rubbing her nose with one finger. Loki absentmindedly gives her back a pat.

His face flushes as he realizes what he's doing, and he hopes Steve doesn't notice. Dropping his hand, he smiles bitterly at the fire. "Frost giants do have the technology...alas, they cannot share it with Earth." Not yet. But the storm is coming.

Steve looks towards the flames. "It sounds awesome."

Loki smiles for real then. "Yes."

Steve's phone goes off. Pulling it from his pocket he groans. "The gang's back. I better go to the debriefing."

He smiles at Loki and says, "Thanks for the wine and the story." Smiling wider at Darcy, he says, "See you later."

Darcy doesn't smile back as widely. The pressure and the heat in the room seem to increase when Steve leaves the room. Darcy leans back on her hands, her fingers nearly touching Loki's. It is ridiculous how much her proximity and that almost touch affects him. By Yggdrasil, how long had it been since he's had a lover?

He doesn't move his hand. Nor does he speak. But he hazards a glance in her direction.

Darcy's eyes are downcast. She's looking at some undefined spot on her trousers.

She turns her head and their faces are very close. "Now that your magic is back, you'll be leaving won't you?"

His heart drops. He doesn't really like to think about it. All he says is, "You're very perceptive, Darcy."

She pulls herself up and wraps her arms around her knees. "I'll miss you."

A lock of hair falls in front of her eyes, and Loki moves his hand to brush it to the side. For a moment he stares at the perfect peaches and cream of her complexion next to his hand. His own skin is nearly sapphire in the dim light, raised ridges on the back a lighter robin's egg. With a bittersweet smile, he gently moves the lock aside. She doesn't flinch or shudder.

His smile drops and he feels only heat. If there is no compulsion, there is no harm. He places his hand back on her cheek, and she closes her eyes, but he knows it isn't with disgust. He bends and places a long slow kiss on her opposite cheek. "Thank you," he whispers near her ear.

Her hand goes atop his, their fingers intertwine and that is really all the affirmation he needs. He presses his lips to hers.

Chapter Text

Loki's breath moves against Darcy's skin when he whispers "Thank you." It makes her simultaneously flush and shiver to the base of her spine. When he presses his lips to hers he's gentle, but not shy. It's practiced. He moves to kiss her top lip, then her bottom, and then he moves to the center and flicks his tongue against her mouth so softly she parts her lips almost unconsciously.

He brushes his tongue inside just a little, and before Darcy can even react he withdraws, and then does it again, this time flicking the tip of her tongue. Darcy leans forward, but he leans back and smirks. And then he does it again, and again, and again, just barely touching the tip of her tongue over and over like it is...

"Ohhhh..." Darcy gasps.

She can feel him smirking as he leans forward again and this time he traces the outside of her lips lightly with that very talented tongue.

She suddenly has a very vivid picture of exactly what he wants to do with her, and it's delicious. A moan floats through the air and it takes a moment for her to realize it came from her.

He huffs a soft laugh, and she swallows. Her body is reacting probably just the way he wants it to, he's so practiced at this...it's almost scary.

She pulls back just a little, and Loki kisses her more firmly. She pushes that niggling feeling down deep.

Loki shifts his weight. The hand intertwined with hers squeezes tighter, the other hand wraps around her waist and pulls her around so she's on his lap, her back to the fire, her knees by his hips. He's already hard, just below her, and even through their clothing the feeling is intense. Loki lets go of her hand and suddenly both of his hands are on her hips, pulling her down. Not hard, not insistent, just firm, careful and controlled, his mouth softly sucking on her lower lip.

It feels so good, everything fades to black; it takes Darcy a few moments to realize that she's closed her eyes. She's afraid to open them. Maybe because it's a dream, maybe it will end, it probably should end, she's way out of her depth here...

He guides her hips so she slides against him and she whimpers.

...stupid, stupid, stupid, brain shut up! This is a once in the lifetime chance and she should grab it with both hands...

His hands slide down along her backside and...ohhh. She has a sense of vertigo, pulls away from his mouth and leans forward so her chest is pressed against his. Her mouth goes to his cheek. With her eyes still closed, she finds one of those raised ridges on his cheek and kisses it.

Loki takes a sharp breath of air, his hands shudder, his hips buck slightly. He ducks his head down to the corner of her neck and shoulder and gasps. He suddenly doesn't seem quite as controlled. And that's kind of a relief. Emboldened, Darcy brings her hands around and runs them down the flat planes of his back - and finds it isn't so flat. Through the light sweater he is wearing she can feel tiny ridges like the ones on his cheeks. She rakes her nails down the paths they make. He bucks beneath her, catching her just at the right spot, and she bites her lip at the sensations. She hears a moan. It's his, not hers this time.

Loki takes a deep breath and she's suddenly on her back on the floor so quickly she's not even sure how it happened. One of Loki's knees is between her legs, pressed to her center, he's got her hands pinned above her and he's holding himself above her. She can barely make out anything besides his glowing red eyes, but he looks almost angry. She swallows.

"Loki?" she says.

He silences her with a kiss that is a little too hard, his hands on her wrists slide to her hands and holds them with a little too much force. Still, with his knee where it is, the warmth of the fire and the fact that it's him, it is almost okay.

There is the sound of a lock clicking open. Leaning down he nips her neck and there is a swirl of green. Something soft but very cold is beneath Darcy's back, and it's very, very dark. It takes her a moment to realize that they're in Loki's room, on his bed. Loki is panting at the crook of her neck, the hands holding hers relax a fraction, and when his lips meet his he's gentle again, controlled, lips fitting hers perfectly.

But it's not working. She's trying to respond, but she's cold, and she's a little scared. She tries to bring her hands to his back, to slip them up under his sweater, but he catches them and his body stills. The red eyes are above her again, and his hands squeeze, and she thinks he's angry. But then he drops his forehead to hers and whispers. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

He kisses her again, letting the length of his body touch hers, his chest pressing to her breasts, their hips only separated by a few thin layers of fabric, and it feels good again, really good, but she can't seem to make her lips move.

Loki lifts himself up, so his weight is on his hands . She can barely make out anything but his shadow. Bending his head down, he presses a kiss on her cheek by her ear and whispers, "Darcy, is this alright?"

His breath is so close to her ear, like a caress again...Darcy blurts out, "Yes," before she even really thinks about it.

Loki lets out a breath of air like he is annoyed. "Darcy, don't lie to me."

Darcy swallows and scrunches her eyes shut, not that it matters here in the dark if she closes her eyes. "Maybe. I don't know. I can't see even you. Where are your eyes?"

She feels the mattress sink as Loki falls onto the bed next to her. A light by the bedside brightens slowly until the bed is bathed in a warm glow.

Loki is lying on his side, in his Asgardian form again. Startled, Darcy pulls away, just a little. "It's not because you're a frost giant!"

He looks at her hard for one long moment, and then blue sweeps across him and his eyes go from green to glowing red. Darcy relaxes a little.

Taking her hand, Loki kisses her knuckles. "I know," he murmurs. He says it in the exact same tone you might say thank you. Pulling the hand from his lips, he intertwines their fingers and stares at Darcy.

"What's wrong?" he says, his voice so low and cultured and smooth. It makes her stomach twist and she can't meet his gaze, because nothing is wrong...but it is... "I don't know...I...I really like you, and you're about the only person around here who takes me at all seriously and treats me like I have a brain, and I know you're leaving and this isn't going to happen again, or maybe it will while you're here, and I could help you get over your whole issue of being a frost giant, and that should be great but somehow it isn't, and you're leaving..."

She stops because she's about to sob, which would be even more pathetic than the gibberish that just spouted out of her mouth.

Loki looks at her for a moment and then stares down at their entwined fingers. He moves her hand against his, flexing their digits. It seems like forever but at last he says slowly, "I'm leaving. And you feel...expendable."

Darcy takes a strangled little breath. She feels incredibly stupid. And all of about 12 years old. "Maybe a little," she says.

Not looking at her, he smirks a little ruefully. "I can't make that feeling go away, Darcy."

His eyes meet hers, and the smirk drifts away. And then all business like, he sits up and stands from the bed. He holds a hand to her. Not looking at her, he says in a voice so inflectionless it would make Agent Coulson proud, "Come on, you had better leave."

Darcy hesitates only a moment and then takes the proffered hand. He leads her to the door. Just before opening it, he stops and looks down at their fingers. Lifting his gaze, he smiles a twisted half smile and runs a hand down her cheek. Closing his eyes, he drops his hands, opens the door and gestures towards the exit with the tilt of his head. "Go."

Darcy hesitates a moment, but when he opens his eyes, he's staring down at her and the red glow in his stare looks like pure fury. Darcy leaves.

x x x x

Loki is sitting in front of the fireplace in his room in the lodge of the Adirondacks. Green flames are licking up towards the chimney. He doesn't need the fire. He just finds it soothing to look at.

He hears a knock at his door. He doesn't have to use magic to know who it is. He fights the urge to pretend he isn't here - or to teleport from the room and really not be here at all.

Instead he says, "Come in."

Just as he expects, Darcy comes in, her hands clutched in front of her. "Do you need anything?" she says.

"No," he says, trying to smile kindly. She doesn't move. He takes a few steps closer and puts his hands in his pockets. "In fact," he says, "I think you can safely assume that your services are no longer required. You're discharged, free to enjoy the rest of our time here as a vacation."

Darcy drops her head and looks distinctly less happy than she had a moment before. Loki restrains the urge to sigh. He wants to go to her, wrap his arms around her and tell her everything will be alright, but he doesn't trust himself.

Last night she'd felt so good and so perfect beneath him. And her nails running down the raised flesh on his back had been a revelation. They'd never removed any of their clothing, and he'd felt absolutely naked in that moment and had almost lost control.

All he has to say is, "I need you, and only you. I love you, and I'll keep you," and she'll be his. The thought makes his chest pound even as it disgusts him. When he'd realized what was bothering her last night, he had longed so desperately to return to his state of madness, to be truly and utterly uncaring, to float through existence and his actions without fear or guilt.

He has caused so much pain in this realm and Jotunheim, and surely the pain those little lies would bring would be smaller than the agony caused by the death and destruction he's wrought. He takes a step closer and then stops himself.

He could keep her, of course. Like a pet for a decade or so, in a style much grander than she is accustomed. It is something Asgardians have done with humans for centuries. They have little respect for creatures whose lives are so brief and fragile. His jaw tenses; it is just the sort of behavior he tells himself his schemes will end.

Darcy twists her fingers, and looks up at him. "Can I ask you a question?"

He tilts his head, very wary. "You may." He may not answer.

"What do I do?" she says.

Loki blinks.

"I mean..." she looks down. "I'm not really good at anything here. I mean besides tasering Thor, and taking care of you...I kind of haven't done anything...or nothing that anyone really notices."

"Ah," says Loki. He raises his eyebrows and takes a breath. Well, then. "Would you like a frank assessment of your strengths and weaknesses?"

She swallows. "Yes, I guess..."

Loki sighs. "Your train of thought tends to wander."

She swallows again. Loki takes another step closer and then stops himself. "You aren't threatening, tasering Thor aside." He smiles, hoping to make the moment lighter but she just stares at him.

"Can you tell me some of my strengths?"

Loki tilts his head. "Those aren't necessarily weaknesses."

"They're not so great for an administrative assistant type."

Loki lifts his eyebrows. "You are very open minded."

Darcy scowls. "And that and a buck 50 will get me a coffee at just about any Dunkin' Donuts."

Loki's brow furrows. "You are also very perceptive, very clever - even if you are..." He tilts his head and looks away. "...unfocused."

Darcy looks up at him like she might hit him or cry or both. "So what do I do? Do I stay? If I don't...what then?"

He wants to go to her, let himself be her punching bag if she needs it. But he knows that will end with his arms wrapped around her, pulling him tight against him. The thought sends currents of electricity along the markings that follow his veins on his back, chest, stomach and other places.

His jaw tightens and he shakes his head. "I don't know. But you're free. Make the most of it."

He is not free. He owes a debt to two realms, and even if things go exactly as he plans, that debt will never be fully repaid.

She exhales in what may be frustration and turns.

Just before she opens the door, Loki says, "Darcy..."

She stops and looks at him.

"I am fond of you," he says.

Her face crumples a bit, and she leaves in a hurry.

He rubs his eyes with one hand. He hadn't meant to be cruel and managed to be anyway.

When Darcy gives her two weeks notice not much later, Loki isn't really surprised.

Chapter Text

In his office in Stark Tower, Loki sits back in his chair puts his feet on his desk and flicks on his tablet. Opening his browser, he clicks on a bookmark and smiles at what he sees. An update.

Unbound ~ the Blog of Darcy Lewis

I'm Baaaaackkkkkk...

Hey internets buddies! I am back in Manhattan. Don't worry, I'll keep taking pictures and posting them here and in FB...and of course still make pithy comments on Twitter Because I. Can't. Help. Myself.

First impressions of the city after three years abroad: Coming here directly from Jakarta, it's like I've arrived in the country. Like, 'the country', as in rural oasis. It's so uncrowded, the streets are so wide and traffic is so orderly. A lot less monkeys, though.

I've got more exciting news, but it's got to wait. I've got a date to drop off some picts with a VIP blog reader - see you soon, JMStar!

Putting the tablet down, he looks at the blank space on the wall where Darcy's 'picts' will go. JMStar is him; it's a pseudonym for his current pseudonym, Jacob Morgenstern. The smile on his lips twists into something wry.

He looks forward to seeing her, even if he can't reveal his true identity - Fury is insistent on that. As much as Loki likes to get under Fury's skin, it's probably better for Darcy if she knows as little about the Hercules project as possible.

After she left SHIELD, Darcy went abroad. Loki didn't make an effort to stay in touch. It seemed better to let her go and lead a normal life.

But he did discover her blog and followed it avidly. She's managed to hit all the other six continents in 3 years and has recorded it all. The text entries were always witty and observant, but what really made her blog stand out were her photographs. Over 3 years she's gone from being a gifted amateur to an artist and has achieved a small amount of fame in her niche. She takes lovely portraits - it seems like no one is afraid to open up to her, and she has a keen eye for landscape imagery. But what sets her apart now is her photo manipulations. She creates photo montages that are more like abstract paintings, but they are always abstract art of that rare kind - the kind that has genuine emotional heft.

There is a knock at his door. Not looking up, Loki says "Come in," affecting the slight German accent he keeps in this form.

Janice, the slightly dowdy woman who is his receptionist, enters the room. "Mr. Stark here to see you, Mr. Morgenstern. He says it is a matter of great importance."

Before Loki even stands up, Tony bursts in.

"You can go," Loki says to Janice. The woman nods and quickly exits.

As soon as the door's shut Loki says, "Is something wrong with the vault?" He can think of nothing else that can be of great importance. The vault is the name for the floors within Stark Tower Loki and Tony have engineered to be free from Heimdall's prying gaze.

"No!" says Tony, scowling and tossing a black folio in Loki's direction.

Loki catches it. Opening it up he finds technical drawings inside of the Ironman suit. He tilts his head. "The chest plate is different," Loki says.

"Yes," says Tony, pacing across the room, hands on hips. "The chest plate is different and the way it is different will allow it to absorb impacts of 5% greater intensity."

Loki's brow furrows. "And this is a problem because?"

"Because I didn't think of it and the asshole who did is currently being interviewed by HR as an industrial designer for the Hercules project."

"I still don't see the problem," says Loki, closing the folio. He rubs the bridge of his nose. He suddenly longs to go down to an unoccupied corner of the vault and slip into his Jotunn form, if only there was room for a personal office there, or a suite of rooms...

"It's a problem because the guy can't be for real. He's a baby, 29 or something. He's created fabulous water systems with shit materials in the Sudan for poor farmers and he is redesigning my suit!"

Loki looks sideways. "I don't see how those two things contradict each oth-"

Waving his hands, Tony says, "His resume says he speaks German, Mandarin and some Japanese, too. That's impossible!"

"Improbable," says Loki, pursing his lips.

"We're going to bust into the interview and you're going to speak German, Mandarin and Japanese to him and expose him as a fraud."

Loki stares at Tony. While he hides from Heimdall in this form, it's best not to use magic. No matter how much he wants to transport an old sock into Tony's mouth.

Tony smiles at him. The bastard takes advantage of Loki in his human state - and not in the vault.

Narrowing his eyes, Loki says, "If I do this, will you leave me alone for the rest of the day?"

Tony blinks. "Hey, is that chick...the one who was your nurse or something and is going to do the Avenger's PR picts and make us all human and approachable and improve our image...is she coming by today?"

"Her name is Darcy Lewis," says Loki, steepling his hands in front of him. He actually recommended her to Fury for the job. There was a recent incident in New York - excessive destruction and civilian deaths; the Avengers need some humanizing pictures right now. Darcy not only has the skills, she already knows the Avengers' secret identities and they'll be able to give her greater access to the team.

"She has a nice rack," says Tony.

It's true Darcy's physical attributes in that regard are rather unforgettable, still...Loki is annoyed. Smiling with all his teeth he says, "Someone should turn you into a toad, Mr. Stark." Sooner or later the two of them will be in the vault together and Loki will be free to use his magic.

Tony goes a little green; and it isn't due to enchantment. "I promise to leave you alone for the rest of the day," Tony says.

Loki stares at him a moment before rising from his chair. "Fine. Let's get this over with."

A few minutes later Tony bursts into the meeting room, Loki a few steps behind. Two women Loki doesn't recognize are sitting in front of a young man with dark curly hair, tan skin and brown almond eyes that are flecked with yellow. If Loki were in one of his female forms, he might find him attractive.

"Okay, ladies, we're taking over from here," Tony says with his usual bluster. They're not even out of the room when he turns to the young man and says, "So you think your work's hot shit?"

The young man does not stand up. He doesn't even blink. In a voice with a thick German accent he says, "None of my work iz sheet."

Tony's eyes and mouth go wide simultaneously.

Loki starts laughing. In German he says, "Well done. I'm going to recommend they hire you just so you can keep him in his place."

Turning his head to Loki, the man says, "With all due respect, I want to be hired to help design space ships for the colonization of the moon, not to be his babysitter."

Loki raises an eyebrow. Stark Industries is claiming they're going to put colonies and solar farms on the moon. They might do that, but that isn't really the end game. Still, the young man's chutzpah will help them reach that other end game. Holding out his hand, Loki says in Mandarin,"Understood. My name is Jakob Morgenstern. And you are?"

For the first time the young man stands up. He is nearly as tall as Loki. Taking Loki's hand, he answers in Mandarin. "David Adler, pleased to meet you."

Loki blinks. "Your Mandarin is nearly flawless."

For the first time David looks a little sheepish. "My mother is Chinese, my father is German. They made sure I could understand both sets of grandparents - it's not a real gift for languages."

Loki purses his lips and says in Japanese. "And the Japanese?"

"I was design student there for a year. It is not very good, but I get by." Looking suddenly very sheepish he says in English, "My worst language iz English. But my fiancee iz American and it iz getting better."

Loki turns to Tony, "He's for real. I'm late, I better not see you later."

As he leaves the room he hears Tony say, "Do you even know who I am?"

David responds in a very firm voice. "Yah."

"Okaaayyyy..." says Tony, sounding not as firm. If he doesn't hire David, Loki will take it to Fury. The kid will keep Tony on his toes.

x x x x

Darcy's left hand hurts. She looks down at the bandages wrapped around her left pinkie and ring finger. There is no blood showing. She looks at three canvasses next to her. They are over 6 and a half feet tall and are each 2 and a half feet wide. She inspects the brown paper covering them; no signs of blood there either. She breathes a sigh of relief.

With the help of several of Stark Industry's very helpful maintenance staff, Darcy got her three canvases from the truck to the lobby of Stark Tower. Now the canvasses are leaning against the security desk. The guards are eyeing them suspiciously.

Pushing the ends of her short bobbed hair behind her ear she says, "I have a delivery for Mr. Morgenstern."

One of the guards looks at his computer and says, "Ah, he is expecting it."

"Maybe I can take them up?" Darcy says. "He said we would like to meet..."

"No visitors without staff accompaniment," says the guard. "You can leave them here. We'll see they are delivered."

Darcy blinks. Security has gotten even tighter here. She's disappointed. Morgenstern, aka JMStar, is one of her favorite readers and commentators. Also, he's dropping 15 big ones on these canvases - less than the 20k she suggested, but more than the 10k he originally offered. It would be a big sale anyway, but since these have never hung in a gallery and there's no overhead or commission to pay, it's a very big sale for someone like her. Her biggest ever, in fact. She'd kind of like to meet the guy. Maybe he'll want to buy something else.

Jane still works here. Jane always got cranky with Darcy, because, let's face it, Darcy wasn't the most helpful of assistants when it came to the actual astrophysics part of the job, but maybe she'd take pity and...

From behind her a voice that is smooth, cultured, and just a wee bit German says, "Miss Lewis?"

She turns. Morgenstern is tall. He's got short, slicked back strawberry blonde hair that looks like it wants to be wild and wavy, very pale skin, thin lips and green eyes. His nose is prominent, but nice. Maybe it's that she's been reading his comments online for three years, but she feels like she knows him already.

She smiles broadly, and he blinks. Holding out a hand she says, "Nice to finally meet you!"

He takes her hand and gives her a half smile. "Indeed."

He looks at the canvasses leaning against the security desk. "I can't wait to get these open." He turns to her. "Would you like to see their new home?"

Darcy grins. "Would love to!"

Morgenstern gestures for the maintenance guys and they all get into the elevator.

"I'll show you how I like them displayed," Darcy says.

"I would appreciate that," he says, that half smile still on his face. He does seem familiar.

"Of course," Darcy says, "I'm not gonna wear a black beret here. You can display them as you like them. When I sell sets like these I encourage my clients to play with their positioning." Not that she's ever really sold a set on this scale. "Move them around and it's a bit more like they're alive."

Raising an eyebrow he says, "I'll take your word for it."

The elevator keeps going up. They're near the top of the building where she knows Tony's offices are when they get off. They walk past a receptionist who smiles at them and opens two huge double doors, and then Darcy's in an office that is bigger than any place she's lived in...ever. Off to one side there is a free standing fireplace surrounded by some chairs, like a little living room.

Morgenstern must see her staring because he says, "I find fire meditative." And then he directs the maintenance guys to a wall that is just across from a really big desk...behind which is a freakin' awesome view of Central Park.

Catching her staring again, he says, "Nothing like a picturesque rural view, is there?"

She grins. He must have read her update this morning. She turns and finds him waving the maintenance guys off with a "Thank you, I can handle it from here."

She raises an eyebrow and says, "I don't think you ever told me what you do?"

He shrugs. "No, I don't think I did. I manage security."

Darcy grins and tilts her head. "I'm guessing not of the rent-a-cop variety?"

He smirks. "Always so charmingly random."

Darcy's suddenly hit with a sense of deja-vu. Her mouth drops.

"Help me?" he says going to the canvasses.

Shaking her head, she goes over to the canvasses and helps him unwrap them. The composition is called "Water Lilies." It's not a picture of water lilies at all. It's a picture of a columbus clouds and blue sky reflected in a skyscraper tower spread across the three canvases. It's kind of hard to realize they are reflections in glass. The metal bars that are the window frames are set at a diagonal; they glow orange in the sunlight.

As she shows him the order she prefers they be in, she says, "I think you were one of the few people who got the joke in the name."

He huffs a soft breath and that smirk is back. "I love the name. The play on Monet's 'Water Lilies' is part of what makes these so fun."

Well...flattery...flattery will make her grin. "It is great to finally meet you," she says. "If you want, now that I know where you obviously live..."

He raises an eyebrow and she says, "Oh, come on, anyone with an office this big obviously lives here, most of the time anyway." Like Tony or Pepper.

"Perceptive as always," he says.

She takes a breath. Deja vu again. "...I'll put you on my mailing list for next time I have a show," she finishes.

"I'd like that," Morgenstern says. "I've heard you're going to be photographing the Avengers."

Darcy's jaw drops. "How do you know that? I haven't blogged about it."

His face goes blank for just a heartbeat. And then he says, "Tony Stark was just talking about it this morning."

"Oh," she says, still feeling somewhat uneasy.

Smiling brightly he says, "It's lunch time. Would you like to get a quick bite?"

Darcy blinks. "Oh, no, actually, I can't."

His face falls slightly.

"I'm meeting my fiance for lunch," she says.

"Your fiance?" he says, eyes falling to her left hand.

"Oh, yeah..." Darcy says looking at the bandage. "I cut my finger on some barbed wire while I may or may not have been trespassing to get a really awesome shot." She holds out her right hand. "I'm wearing the ring over here, though I guess you might not know it's an engagement ring..."

It's a rectangular sapphire, her birthstone, ringed with smaller diamonds in a platinum band.

"It suits you very well," he says quietly.

He tilts his head and looks at her with a wry smile. "Does the gentleman have a name?"

Darcy stares at Morgenstern for a moment. The smile...she tilts her head. "David. He's interviewing here today actually, for a job as an industrial designer."

Morgenstern's eyes go wide. "David Adler?"

"Yes!" says Darcy, with a smile.

"I understand he's very good," says Morgenstern.

"He's not good," says Darcy smugly. "He's awesome at what he does. We met in Japan, while he was studying there." Her smiles softens. "He actually is the one who got me into manipulating my photos." And gave her the confidence to start selling them, and he was always finding things...odd little things in nature, books, and online that fascinated him and in turn fascinated her. He was her muse in many ways. She's not sure what her life would be without him. Would she have discovered photography? Would she have bumbled back to New York broke and desperate and begged for a job she really didn't want at SHIELD? She's come to know a lot about herself in the past three years, and one of the things she's discovered is she really is not a good fit for the bureaucracies. It's not exactly something she's proud of. People who handle red tape, and are persistent enough to cut through it, are kind of heroic. But she isn't that.

...and maybe she isn't heroic but she is in love with her life, her work, and her fiance. She's pretty much so happy she expects at any moment she'll be hit by lightning.

"Ahhh..." says Morgenstern, and the moment seems a bit heavy.

Darcy's phone beeps in her bag. "That's my alarm," she says. She swallows, "I have to put all my dates on my phone, even the ones with my fiance, I tend to be..."

"Unfocused?" Morgenstern supplies.

"Yeah," says Darcy, her breath catching in her throat.

He holds out a hand towards the door. "Come, I presume you're meeting in the lobby. I'll show you out."

They go down the elevator in silence. The doors are just opening and their feet are clicking on the slate tiles of the floor in the lobby when Morgenstern says, "Marriage is a good thing, Darcy."

It's something about the way he says her name...it reminds her so much of Loki. She looks up at him. He meets her gaze. His expression is too flat. Another elevator opens behind them, and suddenly she hears David's voice. "Darcy."

She turns around. David's stepping off the elevator. For a moment his eyes are on her, and they're soft, and then his eyes go to Morgenstern, and he puts on his 'German' face. Stern, a little angry - or as Darcy says, like he's thinking about invading a small country.

Morgenstern nods at him. "Get the job?"

The corners of David's mouth quirk. He's fighting breaking into a grin. Darcy can see it.

Nodding, David says, "Yah."

Morgenstern smiles. "Excellent. It will be nice to have someone around I can have a beer with at lunch without them looking askance."

David's brow furrows the way it does when he wishes Darcy would speak a little more slowly.

"You, him, beer at lunch - it's good."

David relaxes and grins. "Whew! Yah! What is it with Americans...so prude..."

Morgenstern nods, and says, "See you around then. You'll excuse me..." and then he steps into an elevator whose door is just closing and is gone.

Darcy stares at the door a moment.

"Morgenstern, he iz alright," says David.

"Hmmm..." says Darcy. He can't be Loki...she's just a little on edge being back here is all.

And then she smiles. Even if he is Loki, which he isn't, she wouldn't care. Richer, magical, blue and hot, whatever. She has forgiven herself for the crush she had on Loki when she worked for SHIELD. She was adrift and he paid attention to her and well - he was magical, blue and hot; of course she would have a crush. But she's not sad nothing happened. Any time she spent with him would have been time she would have missed finding out who she was and what she loved. She was terrified when she left, but now she doesn't regret a moment of it. Her life feels like it is unfolding just the way it should.

"Why are you so happy?" says David.

Turning to David, Darcy smiles, "Because I have the most awesome fiance ever."

He grins and says in German, "I love you, too."

Darcy tweaks his they walk out into the afternoon sunlight, David's hand on her hip, he says, "You were right about Stark. He iz an ass."

"Did you use your best 'I am going to invade Poland' face when you met him?"

David laughs. "Ya, and you were right. It worked! He told me they looked forward to having me invade the moon with them."

Darcy's cheeks hurt from smiling too much. She is over the moon already.

x x x x

Darcy doesn't think about Loki very much, if at all, over the next month or two. She is too busy finding a place to live, and then setting up shoots of the Avengers. She's going for casual, candid, one-on-one sessions. The schedule keeps getting interrupted. Sometimes she sees the reason why the interruptions occur on the news.

She's managed to get some pretty good pictures of Tony and Steve when the Avengers disappear. Well, Agent Maria Hill doesn't say they disappeared, just that they are unavailable. Darcy knows it's the same thing.

She's worried about them, but she keeps busy. She's got tons of inspiration all around her, and the slow pace of portrait taking gives her a chance to focus on her more artistic montages.

It's a Saturday afternoon and David's stretched out in a sunbeam by the huge floor to ceiling windows that grace their 600 foot studio. Darcy's got her headphones on and is cracking on a collage. And then she gets the call.

It's Steve on the other end, and she can tell he's off near the line of fire somewhere because she can hear the fire.

"Darcy," he says. "Look, it's Loki...and I don't know who else to turn to. Thor's in Asgard, I'm away - and I'm really worried."

"Ummm..." says Darcy. "I think you overestimate my importance in the -"

"Darcy! Listen to me! He needs someone he trusts."

His voice is so frantic, and Steve doesn't do frantic. Darcy listens, her heart tumbling. When he's done, Darcy says softly. "Okay, I'll go in."

"Great," says Steve. There is a pause, and then there is a knock at the door. "That will be Maria Hill and the boys. They'll escort you to HQ."

Darcy hangs up the phone and David meets her eyes. Her mouth goes dry and her heart sinks a little more.

Chapter Text

Loki sits sideways on the couch in the suite in the Avenger's Mansion. He is in his jotunn form. One of his legs is in a bulky human cast.

Fury is sitting on a chair across from him, leaning forward, looking concerned. Of course he's concerned...he needs Loki for his schemes.

Loki does not, cannot, look at him. Instead, he stares at his hand, holds it up to his face and lets an emerald flame jump from his fingers into the air. It dies in just a few seconds from lack of fuel. He does it again. And again. And again.

"Can I get you anything?" It's Fury. He sounds far away.

He feels the same sort of peculiar exhaustion he felt before he let go of Gungir. Before he plunged into the void and madness. Because that was the start of it, wasn't it? As much as Thor blames the Chitauri, it was Loki who let go first, wasn't it? There is something within him, something intrinsic that wants to let go.

Loki does not answer the other man, just watches the flames, each slightly different, each doomed to die.

Fury says something, gets up, goes somewhere, and comes back, an apparition at the edge of Loki's vision. Like the pain in his leg and ribs are apparitions at the edge of his awareness. To be mad is to feel no pain.

He closes his eyes. No. There was pain in the void. Isn't that how they controlled him? Maybe it wasn't, maybe it was all him.

The door buzzer sounds on the phone. Loki does not answer it. Fury picks it up. He says, "Someone is here to see you." His voice sounds like it is coming from another room.

Fury leaves again.

Another voice comes, this one clearer, closer, but still far away. "Loki?"

He looks up, and blinks. Darcy is standing there, her hands behind her back, like the first time they'd met so long ago. To see her is a relief, bittersweet and painful. "Why are you here?" His voice sounds strange and disembodied. He wants his voice to be real and his own. Smirking, he whispers, "Did Fury tell you I am psychologically fragile?"

Darcy steps forward. "I came because I -"

Loki snears. "There was a time when he had enough respect for me to call me batshit fucking crazy, but now -" Flames leap from all his fingers.

"I came because I'm worried about you!"

Loki feels his skin go hot. "Worried about me, or worried that I might blow up New York?"

Darcy frowns. "Do you know what I had to go through to come here? Fuck you, questioning my motives! I'm leaving." She turns and starts to leave.

Loki's skin cools, his stomach sinks, and the moment is real and true. "Darcy!" he calls.

She stops and looks back, tears standing in her eyes.

Taking a deep breath, he closes his eyes and restrains a slightly maniacal laugh bubbling at the back of his throat. "I am sorry," he says. "Forgive me."

When he opens his eyes she is sitting on the coffee table, her knees almost brushing the couch. She's wearing a purplish skirt, and blue tights. Not something you'd catch a SHIELD agent wearing. It's a nice change from black and gray.

"You know, it is okay to be a little out of your gourd after what happened," she says.

Loki meets her eyes. His leg hurts. He takes a deep breath and is rewarded with a sharp pain in his ribs. And the pain is a relief. Another anchor to reality.

"What did they tell you?" he says.

She stares down at a point on her knees. "That the Avengers disappeared. After a few days you got worried; you went and found them in an alternate reality where the alternate version of you had taken over Earth and was burning it to the ground."

Loki raises an eyebrow. It is a fair enough abbreviation, though it leaves out some rather weighty details. His jaw tenses. His other self didn'tjust kill. That twisted Loki was just like the one's who tormented him in the void. He brought their ideas, their warped belief that to be ruled was to be free to Earth, and instilled that idea in humans much the same way the Chitauri instilled it in him. Cut by cut, agony by agony, twisted word by twisted word.

Darcy's eyes flit up to his and away. He suspects she knows what his other self was.

Swallowing, Darcy says. "You killed evil you...afterwards the other Thor broke your leg and cracked a bunch of your ribs with the other Mjolinar which has some sort of enchantment on it so that you can't heal yourself."

Loki rolls his eyes. "And then my brother rescued me from the other Thor. Who isn't evil, is actually quite heroic, just somewhat prejudiced when it comes to frost giants." Why did Thor always get to be the hero?

Darcy snorts. "Yeah, whatever," she says.

She takes his hand. Her skin is so warm, and very soft. "Steve said you had to do it...you had to kill the other you...there wasn't any other choice."

Loki smirks. "I am sure if I really wanted I could have found a way to turn him over to the other Odin. But apparently I am unable to do that even to my worst enemy."

She lifts her eyebrows at that but doesn't say anything.

With a sigh, he entwines their fingers and pulls them close to him. Staring down at their hands he says, "The other Loki really wasn't that much different. He had the same vision, saw his purpose as the same...we just had a slight variance in our philosophy of the practical implementation of chaos." That other Loki was also shortsighted. He only saw the immediate chaos his invasion wrought, and thought it fulfilled his purposes, when really it fulfilled his master's.

"The practical implementation of chaos..." Darcy says softly.

Loki sighs. "I tried to turn away from it for so long. I tried to be good the way father - Odin - believes in good, the way Thor believes in good, but it just isn't in me. I can't be that...and when I came to Earth, when I lost my powers and had to step back, and looked around I thought maybe the way I am is acceptable, maybe even necessary." He threads his free hand through his hair. "But maybe I am deluding myself, maybe I am just that other Loki, maybe I bring only needless senseless destruction, maybe -"

Pulling their joined hands quickly to her stomach, Darcy says, "Steve told me in that other universe, that other Loki killed nearly a third of the population. Steve told me he is dead in that universe, so is Fury..." she looks down. "...and so am I."

"He believes chaos can only and necessarily be random," says Loki not meeting her eyes. Or rather, he thought that if he spread pain randomly it would bring about more perfect chaos.

He tilts his other Loki's actions seemed too calculated, they fed his madness. Rejecting his Jotunn form. Killing the people who were most likely to make him want to hold onto his sanity. He couldn't kill Thor of course, but the others...

Let's face it, what Fury wants in this universe, it is part of what Loki wants, and it does help him hang on. Steve is a friend. And Darcy, who he thought was so inconsequential at first - she is a living example of the potential of his philosophy. The Galatea to his Pygmalion. He almost smiles at the vanity inherent in that comparison.

"We're not dead," says Darcy. "And you're not that other Loki."

Oh, but he was that other Loki, once; and he could still be...

Loki meets her eyes. She stepped away from order, let herself be shaped by chaos and she's come back from the experience alive and more radiant than ever before. He wants to pull her to him, to kiss her, not out of lust, just for existing...but of course, it wouldn't be just that if he started, would it?

He smirks down at their hands, her warm pink next to his cool sapphire. Closes his eyes. Remembers how he once toyed with the idea of keeping her as a pet - the way the Aesir had done with humans for centuries. That would have killed the radiance in her.

Really, he can't keep her in any way at all. His schemes will be taking him from the realm more and more often now.

To change the subject he says, "Steve tells me you've become quite the photographer, and the blogger. He lives vicariously through you quite a lot I think."

Her grip on his hand loosens and he lets her fingers slip through his own.

"Yeah...sometimes I think that isn't a good thing," she says.

Loki raises an eyebrow.

Shrugging, Darcy says, "If he couldn't live vicariously through me, maybe he would actually go out and live the life he wants."

Loki purses his lips. "He lives the life he wants and the life he believes in. You just make it easier." Maybe not just for Steve.

Darcy's brows come together.

Loki smiles. "So any other news you'd like to tell me?" He looks hard at her left hand and smiles impishly.

Darcy's face reddens and she looks down at the sapphire ring. She swallows. "Yeah."

It's not the enthusiasm he's expecting. He's not sure what to say when a high pitched whistling sounds from the kitchen.

"What?" says Loki.

"It's the tea kettle," says Darcy springing from her seat. "I'll go get it."

x x x x

Darcy sprints from the room grateful for the escape. She just needs a moment to get her thoughts under control. In the kitchen she turns off the burner and opens the kettle to let the steam escape.

Walking into the suite and seeing flames jumping from Loki's hands as though he was doing an imitation of a Zippo lighter had been disturbing. She'd been frightened for him.

She heaves a breath. Just another reason it's good he's not your full time problem, Darcy.

She leans against the counter and closes her eyes. She only took his hand to comfort him, and if she felt anything else when he pulled it to him that was a biological reaction, and she could be excused for it.

She huffs, remembers the look of his robin's egg blue skin against hers, opens her eyes and calls sharply. "Do you want some tea?" Her voice sounds too loud and angry.

"Yes, thank you," says Loki, very close to her ear.

Darcy jumps turns her head and finds him standing on his good leg in a rapidly dissipating cloud of green mist.

Wincing, he cradles his ribs with a blue hand. "Does your fiance know you're here?" he says.

Pulling the teapot out of the cabinet, Darcy puts it on the counter with a little too much force. "He doesn't know I'm here. Where I am is top secret. The only thing he knows is that three men in black suits came and took me away."

Loki winces again. "That cannot have gone well."

"He was furious! At Hill -" Darcy shakes her head at the memory. "You know 'American fascists' sounds pretty funny coming from a guy with a German accent."

Loki smirks.

Turning back to the counter and dropping some tea in the teapot, Darcy says. "I thought he was going to try and kill the agents with his bare hands...which would have been really bad considering any of them could probably kill him with a pinkie finger." She scowls at the memory of David stepping towards Hill, and the guys in black suddenly stepping forward to block his path.

She pours the hot water from the kettle into the pot to steep the tea. "And then when I told him I was going with them, he got angry at me..."

He'd actually yelled at her. David never yelled at her.

Loki sighs. "He wasn't angry at you, he was frightened for you."

Darcy glares at him.

Shrugging he says, "I would have been." He shifts a little on his leg.

"Great distinction," says Darcy. "I'm not a child. He knows that; he should trust my judgement."

Loki smirks. "Agent Hill could kill you with a pinkie finger, too. David is justifiably terrified that you'll be hurt, or he may never see you again."

Narrowing her eyes, she crosses her arms.

"Come now," says Loki. "Surely you know that your dear David loves and respects you."

Scuffing her foot on the kitchen tile, Darcys says, "Yeah, I guess..."

And then she looks at Loki. "Wait...I didn't tell you his name."

Loki puts a hand to his mouth and snickers. Then he disappears.

Hearing a sound like a pop in the living room Darcy runs back there and finds him lying on the couch batting his eyelashes at her.

Picking up a throw pillow, she pitches it directly at his smirking face. "Did you seriously vet my fiancee?" Darcy says.

Catching the pillow in mid air, Loki waggles his eyebrows and grins. "Don't worry, he passed with flying colors. Almost."

"Almost?" says Darcy putting her hands on her hips.

Putting a hand to his chin, Loki says, "Well, David declared the moniker 'Captain America' to be antiquated and a bit barbaric. Steve is very proud of that name, and Steve is a friend." Tapping his chin, Loki says, "I'm not sure how I feel about it."

Darcy is about to respond when an explosion rocks the suite. Before she knows what's happening there's a swirl of green, and she's flat on her back on the floor, pinned underneath Loki. "Stay down," he whispers, his red glowing eyes so close, his chest pressed against hers, their legs a tangle.

"Brother!" It's Thor's voice, so loud the windows rattle, so anguished it makes Darcy's heart ache.

For a moment Loki's and Darcy's eyes meet. He smiles sadly and whispers, "Sorry."

She shouldn't feel guilty, like she's cheating on David, but she suddenly does.

"Brother? Where are you?" Thor shouts again. Darcy can't see him.

Loki pulls himself up, cradling his rib cage, the cast on his leg making the movement awkward. "I'm right here -"

"It's all lies!" Thor shouts.

As Darcy watches from the floor, Loki blinks. "Pardon?"

"Father was never going to let me marry Jane, or let her partake of Idunn's apples! It was all a lie!" Thor bellows still outside Darcy's range of vision.

Loki tilts his head. "But I thought Odin had agreed. She would be tested; if she passed she would rule by your side. She is brilliant and strong minded, surely -"

"The test was always to be rigged," says Thor. There is the thunder of his footsteps, and then suddenly he's standing over Darcy, looking down at her lying on the floor.

She smiles waves up at him. "Hiya."

"Am I interrupting something?" says Thor, looking apologetic and baffled.

"No!" squeaks Darcy, scrambling to her feet.

Loki flushes a deep shade of ultramarine. "No, I was protecting her. You know you could have buzzed." Darcy wonders if that should make her heart melt as much as it should. Looking away, she sees the source of the "explosion." The door to the suite is lying on the floor just centimeters from the couch.

"Excuse me, Brother," says Thor. "I am...agitated."

Darcy meets Loki's eyes. "I think I should go," she says.

He nods.

She's almost at the empty frame of the blown out door when he calls to her. "Darcy."

She turns. Loki is still standing on his good leg. Thor is rapidly looking between them. "Take care," says Loki.

Darcy gives him a long look. She doesn't really want to be with him, and definitely doesn't want to be part of his messed up family, but she still cares for him deeply. Maybe more than she should. "You too," she manages and then leaves the room.

x x x x

Loki watches Darcy go and then settles down onto the couch with a sigh. "What happened?"

Thor sinks into a chair. "I spoke to my other self. I asked him if he hadn't met Jane in his universe. He had...and had taken her to Asgard for the trial. But..." He closes his eyes, and brings a hand to his forehead. "Father tested her against a Fear demon! Even I, with all my mental and physical training, would be hard pressed against such creature!"

Loki's brow furrows. "And you verified that this would be your father's plan, too?"

Thor nods. "I went to Mother."

"Ah," says Loki. Steepling his fingers, he says, "And she can do nothing to intervene?" Frigga has disrupted Odin's plans before, and succeeded.

Shaking his head, Thor closes his eyes and wipes his face with his hands. "She says she must pick her battles."

Loki blinks. He would have expected Frigga to take Thor's side.

Besides the Bifrost bridge, the youth and immortality bestowing apples of Idunn are perhaps Asgard's greatest treasure. Odin guards who may partake of them jealously. Few outside of the realm have been granted the honor.

Loki can see where Odin disagrees with a union between Thor and Jane. Jane may be brilliant by the standards of any realm, but she is not politically savvy. She is Midgardian, and Odin wouldn't see a union of Midgard and Asgard of particular benefit.

It wouldn't be the first time Odin's displeasure sabotaged a marriage. He had been so cruel to Aggie, and had added fuel to the fires of their brother Baldur's lies.

Loki looks down at his fingers. Thor had laughed along with the rest. But he wasn't really to blame, was he? Blinking and pushing the thought from his head, Loki says. "What will you do?"

Thor looks up at him. "You can do nothing?"

Loki draws back. Of course, Thor wants the Apples of Idunn. Once, long ago, Loki had stolen them. But the path he used is closed to him now.

"I can't," says Loki. "Though I wish I could. Truly, Thor."

Thor looks down. "I thought not," he says. He heaves a deep breath. "She carries my child."

It's like a punch to the gut. Loki's eye's meet his brother's and his breath catches in his throat.

"I will marry her here on Earth," Thor says. "She shall have my child...and I shall stay with them until they both grow old, wither, and die."

"I am truly, truly sorry," says Loki, his skin going cold.

Standing, Thor puts a large hand on Loki's shoulder. "I know, Brother."

Thor's voice takes on an unfamiliar bitterness. "And when they are gone, will I be able to talk of loss and finally be able to look you in the eye, Loki?"

Loki's body, even his heartbeat, freezes. It is as close to an apology as he's ever received. "That wasn't your fault, Thor," he says. At least no more than it was anyone else's.

Thor pats his shoulder. "Liar," he whispers. And then he walks away.

Loki stares down at his fingers. There might be another path to Idunn's Orchard. But it is treacherous. If he was captured it would destroy all his other schemes. What was it that the pointy eared hero in that TV show Darcy made him watch would say? The good of the many outweighs the good of the few.

Loki cannot risk it. Not yet. The knowledge weighs heavy on him.

It is still weighing on him a few weeks later when he sees Darcy again.

Chapter Text

Darcy is rifling through her dresses in the closet. Finally coming to one that is basic black and not too funky, she pulls it out.

David is pacing by the window, wearing only a tee shirt over a pair of dress gray pants. His arms are crossed, and even though she can't see him, she knows he's scowling.

"We're going to be late!" she says holding the dress up to her chest.

"Maybe we shouldn't go," he says, not looking at her.

"It's your work function!" Darcy says. And there is someone who will be there she wants to confront. A certain someone who went to lunch with David and shared a beer...just before said someone went skiing in South America and broke his leg. Supposedly.

Uncrossing his arms, David turns around and walks over to the closet. "Maybe we should leave thiz whole country! Who knows when thoze fascists might come again?" He's yelling, and she hates that.

Dropping the dress with a huff she says, "First, they are former colleagues of mine, and okay, maybe a little fascist-ish, but they're not really fascists. Second, it wasn't a big deal! Just a debriefing about something that happened a long time ago. Finally, I doubt it will ever happen again."

Standing way too close he says, "When you worked for SHIELD, which launched ze Avengers initiative-" Holding up his hands he makes quotes in the air and adds, "-as a go fer." She can see the gold flecks in his eyes, and David really doesn't look bad in a tee shirt. He's not Thor; David's longer and leaner and...

Darcy shakes her head. Focus. "Yes, as a go fer!"

Crossing his arms, he narrows his eyes. "I don't believe it!"

"Well, it's true!" says Darcy, starting to feel the temperature beneath her skin rise in a not good way. "And being a go fer for SHIELD is probably what got me in as the Avenger's photographer, so don't knock it!"

Shaking his head, he looks down, his lips set in a pout which would be kind of adorable if she wasn't so pissed at him. "No, you are too talented and too smart. You did zomething else."

Actually, that pout's starting to look adorable. "Something else?"

"Iz thiz a La Femme Nikita thing?" David says meeting her eyes and looking completely earnest.

It takes Darcy a moment to parse that. "No, I am not an assassin - or ever was one." But she is really, really, flattered that he might think so.

"I am okay with it, if you were..." David says taking one of her hands. "But I need you to be safe...if you want to run away, South America, itz okay, I've worked in poor countries before and -"

Darcy plants a kiss on his lips. Before she knows it they're backing into the closet and clothing is falling down around them on the floor.

x x x x

David and Darcy are very late to the product launch party, which David, the good punctual German, would normally be bristly about, but he's actually really, really relaxed. All it took was nookie in the closet. Darcy files that observation away for future reference.

She spots "Morgenstern" almost immediately across the room. He's talking to Pepper. David waves to him, and he nods at both of them. Darcy just narrows her eyes.

She gets a drink and then follows David around a bit. She chats with his work associates and their significant others and generally makes nice. When David gets deeply engrossed in a conversation of tensile strength of various alloys, she excuses herself.

"Morgenstern" is staring out one of the large windows at the New York City skyline.

Without preamble Darcy says, "You know, the reason David might not like the name Captain America is because he comes from Germany and they tend to find overt displays of obsessive nationalism a little offensive."

Morgenstern turns his head and beams at her. Yeah. He is sooo Loki.

She narrows her eyes, plucks her olive skewer out of her drink and waves it at him. "That's something someone with a Jewish sounding last name ought to understand."

Smirking, he cocks his head, and looks up towards the ceiling. "Duly noted."

Darcy purses her lips. His height is about the same as her Loki. His ginger hair is still wavy, and his nose isn't that different. And there's a tightness about the eyes, as though he isn't quite comfortable, in his own skin. Come to think of it, he has that tightness in his Asgard form, too.

He lifts his eyebrows and looks down at her, smirk still in place. "I hear the wedding is three months away in Mexico. You know, in some cultures it's polite to invite work associates."

What? Whoa. "Not in our culture," Darcy says. "And wait...you talked wedding plans with David?" The thoughts in her brain are running fast, but like a hamster on a wheel getting nowhere. Loki doesn't look unhappy that she's found him out, doesn't seem unhappy that she's with someone else, and in fact at this moment looks very smug. He's grinning and waggling his eyebrows.

"You're not coming," she says with strange vehemence.

Sighing dramatically, he looks out the window. "That's alright, I have an extended business trip I'll be going on then."

Darcy is suddenly and inappropriately concerned. "Like your ski trip to South America? How's your leg, by the way?"

Loki-Morgenstern shifts his weight. "Much better, thank you. No, not quite the same as the ski trip to South America. This is a planned adventure."

Feeling a little relieved, Darcy plops the olive in her mouth.

Looking back at Darcy, Loki-Morgenstern smiles and says, "So when can I expect to be a god parent?"

Darcy doesn't choke on the olive, but it's a close call. Just barely managing to spit it into her drink, she turns to him, glares and says, "I'll tell you what I told my mother, not for another ten years at least." Not that she'll be making him a godparent. No way.

Morenstern-Loki's shoulders fall. "Really? So long?" He sounds genuinely sad. Like a little boy who has just discovered Christmas has just been cancelled. It's so weird.

"I fail to see how this is any of your business," she hisses.

Eyes focused just outside the window, he says, "I just think the world would be a better place with little Darcy's in it." He sounds so...earnest. And it's kind of a sweet thing to say. A really, really, really, sweet thing.

Darcy stares out at the skyline, the little spinning hamster in her brain slowing down at bit. She looks over at him. She wasn't going to ask but finds she can't help it. Waving at his disguise she says, "Who knows?"

The air around them shimmers a bit. She looks askance and he shrugs. "A little magic that will make Heimdall think we're discussing the weather. You're asking who knows who I am?"

Darcy nods and takes a sip of her drink.

"Just Stark and Director Fury," Loki says.

Not Thor. That frightens her for some reason.

"What are you up to, Loki?" she whispers.

He smiles, but it doesn't reach his eyes. "Why mischief, of course."

Games and more games. Darcy rolls her eyes, exasperated with him for doubtlessly getting himself into more trouble, and exasperated with herself for caring.

On the plus side, it does make her glad that she's not sleeping with him.

x x x x

On a cold and rainy Monday a week before Darcy's own wedding, Jane marries Thor in a small private ceremony in the Avenger's mansion. Darcy takes the pictures.

David catches her retouching them in their studio apartment a few nights after the event. It's not a big deal that he sees them, no one is in their superhero get ups, and Thor even has short hair and is clean shaven. At least that's what Darcy tells herself.

"Who are zey?" he asks.

"Some friends of Tony Stark. He lent them his mansion for the wedding," she says.

"Who iz the blue guy?" David asks. "A mutant?"

It's Loki. He's a shape shifter, so there really is no burning need to protect any secret identity for him. "The best man," she says. "I think he is actually an alien." There are a few mutants who are turning out not to be "mutants" so much as orphan extraterrestrials. The ones who fought on the side of humans during the Skrull invasion are well known.

"Wow," says David leaning in close. "What iz hiz homeworld like? How did he get here?"

"I didn't really get to talk to him," Darcy says. It's true. Loki was too busy being the best man.

"Oh, that's too bad," says David.

She moves her stylus and removes a little bit of shadow from Jane's cheek.

"Why doez the bride look sad?" David says.

Darcy's heart sinks and it occurs to her that maybe she really wanted to be caught with these pictures. Jane's smile is beautiful but fragile in all the photos. And Darcy needs to talk about it. "She loves the groom," Darcy says. "But...well, she's pregnant, and I don't think they were really ready to get married."

What she doesn't say is how Jane wept to her before the ceremony. How Jane told Darcy she probably wouldn't marry Thor if it weren't for the baby, how she could already see the burden of her and the baby's mortality weighing on him.

"Oh," says David. He puts a hand on her shoulder and gently massages it, right where she gets tense from holding the mouse. "Who iz the hot older woman with the blue guy?"

Darcy turns her head and raises an eyebrow at him.

He blinks at her innocently. "What?"

Darcy sighs and looks back at the screen. It is Frigga, queen of Asgard, she is standing by Loki. Next to her is Thor's grown son Magni, and his stepson Ullr. It is strange to think of Thor as having grown children. When he first came to earth he seemed to be in a suspended state of adolescence. Darcy's not sure if it was from being a spoiled prince, or from not aging. Apparently, for Odin and Frigga, aging was a choice.

Odin is not in any of the pictures. He didn't show. Darcy shakes her head and looks at the woman David is talking about. "That is the groom's mother. She is very...kind. I liked her. We chatted."

"Hmmm..." says David.

Darcy doesn't tell him how when they were introduced Frigga held out her hand and said, "Ah, Loki's friend." She can't say how comfortable that felt, how it made her feel...not so expendable.

And she doesn't tell him about the conversation she'd had with Frigga when she was alone with her for a one-on-one shoot.

Frigga was sitting in the alcove of a large bay window, overlooking the mansion garden as Darcy snapped the pictures. The wedding had been planned for outside, but the rain had interfered. Whether it was nature, or nervousness on Thor's part, Darcy wasn't sure.

"Tell me, Miss Lewis, what do your modern myths say about me?" Frigga asked Darcy.

Lowering her camera, Darcy said, "That you're the only person who can get away with outsmarting Odin." Her voice came out a little more accusatory than she meant.

Frigga met her eyes and smiled sadly. "You wish for me to do something more to allow Thor's marriage to be recognized in Asgard." Her voice held no trace of anger.

Darcy swallowed and nodded.

Frigga sighed and looked away. "Sometimes you must lose a battle to win a war."

Without even thinking, Darcy blurted out. "If it's a war, whose side are you on?"

Turning back to her, Frigga smiled mischievously, "The side of my sons, always."

And then Frigga's smile had become soft. "I understand that you yourself are getting married soon."

Darcy blinked. "Yes." She tilted her head, suspiciously. "Our myths say that you can also know the future, but you never tell what you see."

Frigga raised her eyebrows. "There is no future, Miss Lewis, just possibilities that become probabilities, and probabilities that become realities, some by chance, some by effort." Standing from the alcove she came to Darcy's side. "If you let it, Miss Lewis, your marriage to David will be a happy one." Frigga tilted her head, leaned forward and whispered. "And give you strength for the battles ahead."

At that moment, Loki, in his blue form, wearing a tuxedo, came down the hallway. The tuxedo fit him perfectly, of course, and his hair was loose, medium length, curling just below his ears the way Darcy liked it best. He looked quizzically between Darcy and Frigga and then said, "Mother, the ceremony will be starting soon. I need to go over some last minute details with you."

"Of course," said Frigga, taking his arm. Just before he led her away, Loki nodded at Darcy and said, "I'm sorry I'm so busy, it would be nice to catch up."

Darcy shook her head. "It's alright." She held up her camera and smiled wryly. "I'm busy, too." It surprised her how much she meant it. She was fine without further validation from Loki.

Loki smiled, nodded, and turned to his mother and said, "Right this way."

Darcy might have been imagining things, but she thought she saw Frigga wink at her before turning and walking with Loki down the hall.

David leans in towards the monitor and Darcy jumps. He squints at the monitor. "You know, the groom kind of lookz like -"

"He isn't!" says Darcy, her mind racing into the present.

David pulls back; his face hardens for a moment. And then he rolls his eyes. Kissing her cheek he says, "Whatever. I am going to bed, Nikita."

As he walks away, her body relaxes. She hadn't realized she was tense. But she guesses she just expected the pictures from the Stark mansion to turn into a fight.

She smiles and lets go of a deep breath.

...a week later Darcy marries David in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. David and Darcy's parents are there, as are their brothers and sisters. The day is perfect, sunny, but not too hot. The vault of clear blue sky above is the perfect temple.

Darcy is so happy she has trouble not laughing.

x x x x

Loki is in his Morgenstern disguise again. He's in the halls of STARK industries a few meters down from two double fire doors, the entrance to the Vault. His sleeves are rolled up, and his arms are deep within a device that looks like a disassembled fuse box. That isn't what it is precisely. If one looks closely, between the wires is the light glow of magic.

"Is it sabotage?" Director Fury says, holding Loki's suit coat in his hands.

Loki shakes his head. "No. Actually, I think there has been some water damage. You have everything on lock down? No one can see the schematics?"

Fury nods. "All the computers are off and we gave everyone the day off."

Loki yanks out a few of the wires and looks up into the small dark box in the wall. "Get someone to track down the leak. I'll rewire when you're sure it's fixed."

He pulls his arms out, turns, and rolls down his sleeves. Fury hands him back his jacket and says, "I'll be in touch."

At that moment Loki looks up. David is standing down the hall looking at the double doors. He is unshaven and his hair is rumpled. So is his shirt. Which is odd for him. He's nursing a rather large coffee.

"Guten tag," says Loki, as Fury walks away.

David blinks at him and says in German, "How long do I need to work here to get in there? I hear it's where all the action is."

Loki tilts his head, immediately on alert. "I'm sure that's not true."

"Hmmm," says David.

"You look terrible," says Loki.

Grumbling, David runs a hand through his hair.

Getting closer, Loki sees that David has dark circles under his eyes. Loki checked Darcy's blog as soon as he came back to Earth. She doesn't write much about personal matters there, but she has said she'd been feeling under the weather lately. Perhaps something she picked up on their honeymoon in Mexico? Maybe David got it, too.

"Would you like to get something to eat?" Loki asks.

"Sure, I could use a drink," says David.

Loki manages to wheedle out what's wrong before David's done with his beer.

Loki stares at him a moment, then holds up his hand to summon the waiter.

"I probably shouldn't drink anymore," says David.

"No," says Loki. "You need another."

He orders a drink for himself as well.

x x x x

Darcy walks through the rooms of what could be her and David's new apartment. It's in a slightly less eclectic neighborhood. It's still in the city though. Unlike their previous apartment it isn't a studio. It actually has three bedrooms and one and a half baths. The place is ancient, and the rooms are pretty small, but the ceilings are high and it has beautiful antique moldings on the walls. She's here to sign for it but she's pacing the room, absolutely furious, cell phone pressed to one ear, hand on her growing stomach. The line at the other end picks up.

"Darcy!" says Loki, in his normal slightly British tones which says he's in his blue form and not playing Loki-Morgenstern at the moment. "What a delightful surprise. How did you manage to get this number?"

"Fury," says Darcy.

"He's not supposed to -"

"Shut up. Look, I am in an apartment, a very nice apartment and the real estate manager is waiting just outside the door. She's offering to let me rent this place for about half of its market value."

"Excellent! Don't delay, sign away!" says Loki and she can hear the smirk in his voice.

"Do you know why I can get this place for half of its market value?" says Darcy.

"I can't imagine," says Loki, sounding positively smug.

"Because everyone else she's shown this place to has seen snakes! Snakes! Poisonous snakes. Freakin' poisonous adders!"

Loki tsk-tsks and says, "Disgusting. I can't abide those creatures."

"Adders don't live in Manhattan, Loki!" Darcy says.

"That must be why you haven't seen any," says Loki.

"I haven't seen any because you put them here to scare everyone else away so that we could get a cheap apartment!"

There is a pause at the other end of the line. "And this bothers you because?"

"Because it's not fair - what about the other people who were looking at this place, what about the person who owns this place?"

There is another pause. "The other people who were looking at the place have enough money to afford an apartment elsewhere. The owner inherited the building from his parents and is a rich playboy deadbeat. Would you like to know how much of your country's TARP funds he personally received?"

"What if David finds out? He'll be mortified! He'd never accept charity, and if he found the charity was from a...a...a..." Darcy stops, she doesn't really know.

"It's from a friend, Darcy," says Loki.

There's that word again. Darcy swallows. "It's not fair," she says softly.

"It's not fair that after so many years of being my crutch I'm yours?" says Loki. There is an edge of bitterness in his voice. "I should tell you I've found your descriptions of pregnancy to be delightfully honest and very amusing. As was your account of your recent trip to Germany. Who knew that security is so lax for pregnant women. I'll have to remember that."

"Loki..." she says.

She hears him sigh at the other end of the line. "Take the apartment, Darcy. If not for yourself, for your children."

Darcy can't think of anything to say. When Jane got pregnant, Darcy wondered how a smart girl like Jane allowed a mistake like that to happen. And now she's pregnant, despite being on birth control, and she's wondering if this is a particularly nasty bit of karma come to bite her in the butt.

"Oh, yes," says Loki. "And congratulations. Or should I say, mazel tov?" There is a sound like he's tapping something with his fingers, and then he says, "Although, since you're expecting twin boys, a wish of 'good luck' might be more appropriate."

Darcy closes her eyes and leans against a wall. Her life has taken a sudden detour she did not expect and really didn't want; she's just trying to hang in there and make the best of it. The thing she'd worried about most when she discovered the news was having to leave the city. Leaving would mean a long commute for her work-a-holic husband, and she might never see him. It would also mean leaving the vibrant, diverse place she loves.

"Thank you," she says softly.

"No, thank you," says Loki his voice equally soft. Which makes Darcy feel like she's cheating on her husband somehow.

Then Loki's voice becomes bright. "Now go take some pretty pictures and write something pithy on your blog. I must go. Ciao!"

The line goes dead. Darcy puts down her phone, and then goes to sign for the apartment.

x x x x

Darcy's got the perfect shot. She's looking over Clint's shoulder as he sits in an overstuffed chair in the living room of the Avengers' mansion. His face is hidden, but you can still see the outline of the reading glasses he's wearing. It's Monday, but he's got the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle on his lap and the angle of his crossed legs, the paper, and the pen is perfect. And the way the morning sun is slanting in the window - there will be a lot of fantastic lights and darks in this picture.

She snaps one, two, three shots and then Agent Hill comes in and says to Clint, "Director Fury is calling for another debriefing on the Doom episode."

Clint looks up, his glasses falling down his nose, and Darcy gets a shot of that too.

"Now," says Hill nodding her head.

As Clint gets up, Darcy says, "Is everyone going to be in the debriefing?"

"Yes," Hill says.

Darcy tilts her head and lifts her camera, "Maybe I can..."

"No," says Hill quickly. "This is classified. Sorry." She spins on her heel and follows Clint out of the room.

Crap. Darcy gets an advance for her shoots with the Avengers, but final payment only comes on delivery - and she needs the final payment. She scowls and turns to the window.

Maybe she can get some more freelance photo retouching. Not her favorite job but it pays the bills.

There is a rush of cool air behind her, and her ears pop. Darcy, spins and there is a man standing facing away from her. He's wearing a long coat of black leather with a high collar, from behind she can see his hair is short and black, he has on gloves so she can't see his skin...but...

"Loki?" she says quietly.

The man's head turns, and sure enough, it is Loki. He's in his Jotunn form, his red eyes are wide and his mouth is open in surprise. And then he blinks and smiles. "Darcy!"

Darcy has an urge to run up and hug him. It has been so long. She takes a few steps forward, and then puts her hand to her mouth and says, "Oh my, God."

Turning fully around he smirks and takes off his gloves. "Flattery will get you everywhere." He looks as beautiful as ever, even though he's thinner, and there are dark circles under her eyes.

"It's been five years!" she says, and her words are louder, happier and more accusatory than she means them to be.

He looks up at the ceiling, a furrow forming between his brows. "When did I see you last?"

She shakes her head and looks pointedly upwards. There is a flicker of understanding in his eyes and then a shimmer of green in the air. Darcy looks at it. "Heimdall can't hear?"

Loki raises an eyebrow. "He'll hear a conversation about the weather. Was it at the Stark Industries Christmas party right after Franz and Max were born?"

Darcy swallows and nods, her hand still at her mouth. It was a horrible evening; the boys were just a few weeks old and she was tired, frazzled, anxious about her first night away, and she felt horribly fat and squishy.

Loki-Morgenstern had taken her hand, kissed her cheek and told her she looked lovely. Which was a lie, but she'd been grateful for the chivalry anyway.

"Where are my manners?" says Loki. Stepping forward, he takes her hand and kisses her on each cheek. So very cosmopolitan, but Darcy is feeling very middle American at that moment and she throws an arm around his neck and hugs him. His coat feels brittle and frigid beneath her fingers and even the air around him is cold. He smells different, not bad, but there is a metallic scent in the air. His body tenses for a moment, but then the hand not in hers goes behind her back and he pulls her tight.

"Where have you been?" she whispers.

"A secret," he says. But she knows from the cold. He's been to Jotunheim.

She doesn't call him on it, just says, "Everyone has been worried about you!" Well, everyone might be Thor, Steve, Frigga and Darcy.

He rubs her back. "It hasn't been that long."

"5 years!"

He sighs. "Well, maybe in mortal time that is long, but it is barely the blink of an eye."

Pulling away, Darcy slaps him hard across the chest. He takes a step back with a look of such poorly feigned pain it would be comical if she wasn't so flustered; and then he smirks.

She just glares at him.

The smirk vanishes. "Oh, come now. I checked in with Fury on regular intervals. Surely-"

Narrowing her eyes, she nearly hisses at him. "Yes, Thor, Steve and I all asked. And Fury told us that you were deeply involved in a very important project but were making regular check ins. No, that did not make us feel better." Her jaw tenses. "Fury would send you to Hell with a clear conscience if it furthered the greater good!"

He takes a deep breath and pushes a stray lock of hair back from her forehead. "I'm sorry," he says. He looks down. After a long moment he says, "I came here to see my brother and my niece. I know he sometimes brings little Ava here."

Thor did use to bring Ava here, a lot. Being an Avenger was a lot like being a fireman. Long periods of intense boredom, punctuated by short periods of intense excitement. Thor brought Ava here while Jane worked. If he was called away, one of the maids would watch her until Jane came to collect her. As Darcy understood it, playing primary caregiver for a baby wasn't something men in Asgard did, but Thor seemed to like it. Apparently Thor missed most of the childhoods of his other children. But now...

"Thor's in a debriefing. And Ava's not here. She's at school, Loki. She started kindergarten this year."

Loki blinks. "It goes so fast...didn't I tell you that?"

She takes a deep breath. "You did." He'd said that at the Christmas party when she'd been about to burst into tears. "And it's true. But it was intense." She smiles wryly and says, "And there was a lot of poop involved."

Loki smiles broadly. "Ah, how glad I was to have servants when my twin boys came along."

Darcy shoots him a dirty look. And then she realizes he hasn't let go of her hand.

They're standing very close. Her heart does this weird fluttery thing. She feels like crying. It's not like she wants to throw herself at him, or mash lips - not that he doesn't look astoundingly good. It's just...the moment is heavy, and emotional, and she was worried about him.

Actually, she does want to kiss him, just for being alive.

She squeezes his hand instead. That can't be misconstrued, can it?

"Well," says Loki, "how are Franz and Max?" He entwines their fingers and squeezes. They both simultaneously look down at their hands. Loki's storm cloud blue coloring is in vivid contrast to Darcy's pale peach. Their eyes meet for one very heavy moment. And without another word, they let their hands drop.

Biting her lip, Darcy pulls out her phone and clicks to the photo album. Handing it to him, she says, "The taller one is Franz." Loki takes it and walks over to the couch and sits down. Scrolling through the pictures he says, "They're beautiful, Darcy."

"I know," says Darcy. It's not modesty, but she figures it's a mother's prerogative. He smiles up at her like she's proven some point, and then looks down again. He scrolls a bit more and then scowls.

Darcy sits down next to him. He's looking at a picture of her boys standing in front of a star map painted on the side of a wall. Her boys are both frowning.

Darcy smiles. "They love space. But they were upset with that map because, and I quote, 'it shows Pluto but not the other dwarf planets and the Kuiper Belt'."

Loki laughs and Darcy says, "Jane is so jealous. Not that she should be. Ava is brilliant, just more Jacque Cousteau than astrophysicist."

"Franz and Max must be in school too, now," says Loki.

Darcy nods. "Yes." Suddenly she has a lot of time on her hands, and unfortunately, not enough work. At least if her kids weren't in school 7 and a half hours a day she wouldn't notice it so much.

Loki scrolls to a picture of Thor, looking like his civilian persona 'Donald Blake'; his beard is shaven and his hair is short. Before he left to wherever, Loki enchanted Mjolnir so that it would magically restore Thor's long hair and his beard when he called the hammer. In the picture are also Jane, Ava, David and two blurs that are Max and Franz.

Darcy leans in and looks at the picture. She and Jane have become much closer since being pregnant at the same time. "Thor and David get along okay," she says. "Though they don't have much to talk about."

Loki touches a finger to Ava in the picture and Darcy whispers, "David did find out who Thor was, and Thor declared disguising the truth dishonorable...they've gotten along a little better since then."

Pursing his lips, Loki says, "David is a smart man. I'm not surprised. How is he?"

Darcy swallows and her heart drops. "Well...he quit his job at Stark, actually."

Loki looks over at her sharply, and Darcy smiles tightly. "He and Tony got in a huge, loud fight, and Tony...and well, I think he might have slipped off the wagon that day, because he called David some names and then basically dared David to quit..." she shrugs. "So David did."

She takes a deep breath. "It was a few months back. David's applying at some other independent space firms...but the job market is pretty tight right now." She shrugs again. "We might move back to Germany, which would be okay, I guess, even if I lose a lot of my clients."

Loki tilts his head. "Is that what you want?"

Darcy takes a deep breath. "To be honest...I don't think I care that much. I'll be happy here, I'll be happy there. I don't think it's what David wants. I think he wants to work at Stark, but he's too stubborn to go back." She closes her eyes. "I honestly don't know who was right in the fight. It was about a stupid atmospheric pressure guage and its location on the spaceship's cockpit dashboard." Rubbing her temples she says, "But David wants everything to be perfect for the moon shuttles."

At home she calls David "The Neatness Nazi." In truth, their biggest arguments stem from David's desire for everything to be just so, which is a damn tall order in an 1100 square foot home with two little boys underfoot. Darcy's not sure if it's because he's German or a designer.

Loki lifts an eyebrow. "And Tony wants everything to be perfect and when they don't agree..."

Darcy shakes her head. David may have overreacted just a touch. Looking down at the phone in his hands, she says, "David's also frustrated because he can't get clearance to the Vault. He thought it was because he wasn't a citizen...but he is now." She smiles wryly. "We've heard you actually have to be born here to get clearance - who'd think it was like being president? Anyway, that's where he believes things are really happening. It might be a contributing factor."

Loki straightens and looks at the photo in the phone again.

"It will work out," Darcy says, half to herself. Hopefully before they burn through their emergency savings. She worked part-time before the kids started school. Back before she and David got married, when she made her Grand Life Plan, she hadn't realized how much she would want to be with her children when they were small. David's salary was their primary income. Now Darcy's trying to build her business back up, but it's not happening fast enough.

"I'm sure it will," says Loki softly.

Darcy shakes her head. "This is all small stuff." She puts her hand on his shoulder. "You're alive...and I'm sure your life has been way more exciting than mine, and a lot less tedious than changing diapers and trying to keep children from wandering into traffic."

Loki turns his head, and his red eyes meet hers. "I am back for a while." The corners of his lips pull up just a little, and he puts his hand on her back.

They're too close to each other again.

Frigga called Darcy and Loki friends. But that doesn't seem quite like the right word.

There is something in Loki's eyes. There is wistfulness in the way he is looking at her. It's not the heated look he'd given her so long ago. She blinks. No, that heat is in there, too.

Or maybe it's just in her.

Darcy drops her hand and pulls back a bit. There is the sound of footsteps in the hallway, and Loki drops his hand from her back.

Thor bursts into the room, and his eyes go wide. "Brother!" he shouts and it's all Darcy can do to get out of the way as Thor comes barrelling by to pick Loki up in a bone breaking hug.

x x x x

She's back at the Avenger's mansion again on some pretense, back in the same room as before. Loki is there again. Alone. Wearing the same long dark coat.

He doesn't say a word to her. He just walks over and kisses her full on the mouth. There is no playful teasing, just their lips and their tongues sliding together, warm and too perfect.

Before Darcy knows it he is backing her towards the couch and her clothing just isn't there. Magic maybe? She's tumbling backwards and things are happening much faster than she usually likes them to go, but it's working. Loki's long and lean, blue and hard and above her. Every pleasurable nerve in her body seems to be set to on, and there's nothing, just Darcy and Loki. He slides into her and she feels too full, it's too good, it can't be this good, she might climax right away...and she feels absolutely terrible...

Darcy's eyes bolt open. She's lying in her own bed, in her own room, horribly aroused, and completely terrified.

She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. David is lying beside her. It was just a dream - a stupid dream. She did not just cheat on her husband.

She pulls the covers to her chin. It is not the feelings you have; it's what you do with them. And she has two little boys who need their stubborn neatness Nazi father who doesn't disappear for 5 years at a time.

An arm crosses her stomach and pulls her close.

"Hey, whatz the matter?" David whispers.

"Just a nightmare," Darcy says.

He pulls her tighter to him. "If you're worried about that shoot with that new client tomorrow, don't. Itz going to go great."

She has been stressed over her upcoming portrait session with Erik Lehnsherr. He's not known for being an easy man to get along with, especially if you're not a mutant. Darcy sighs and puts her head on his shoulder. She might need her stubborn Neatness Nazi, too.

x x x x

A few days later David goes out to lunch with Morgenstern, supposedly back from a stint at Stark's Shanghai office. A few days after that, Tony Stark apologizes for calling David nasty names, and David concedes that Tony's placement of the gauge might be "acceptable." He gets his job back.

Loki does stick around for a while. But by some quiet unspoken agreement, Loki and Darcy never really speak to each other - except in passing at Stark events when he's in Morgenstern form. And they're never alone together.

Morgenstern-Loki doesn't even comment on her blog. She tells herself she shouldn't be surprised. It's kind of morphed from a travel blog to a mommy blog, and Darcy thinks that instead of being called 'Darcy Unbound' it should be 'Darcy Unhinged.'

He disappears sometimes, but never for more than a month or two. Darcy tells herself that she knows he's alive and that's enough.

This goes on for many years.

So Darcy's a little surprised when she gets another phone call from Steve.

Chapter Text

Darcy sits in the "office," the third bedroom of the apartment her little family has lived in all of these years.

Against one wall is a bookshelf that is David's, not hers. It is filled with books bound in black cloth, neatly labelled and organized by date. In them he keeps all of his random inspirations and design puzzles he's worked out after dinner.

The rest of the office is Darcy's. Children's pictures, her own art, free promo postcards she's picked up, and odds and ends line the walls. She has a filing cabinet filled with paints, pastels, and crayons of all types. Against one wall leans a portfolio filled with all sorts of exotic papers; she scans them, merges them with her photos and uses them for 'texture.' A large wooden desk from the 1950s that she and David found in the trash faces the window. Always good with his hands, David cleaned it up for her, and it actually looks very modern and quite chic. On it are two enormous monitors.

It's mid morning. The boys are at school and David is at work. Normally she'd be playing with photoshop right now, but she is watching CNN instead and becoming increasingly alarmed.

They are playing a video taken a few hours ago of a fire that broke out in the Adirondacks. A giant horned creature is in the thick of it, facing off against a man in armor who looks comparatively small...and blue. In the video feed the horned giant sends fire in the blue man's direction and the blue man's armor leaps into flame. Despite that a swirl of green pulses in the armored man's hands, it whips up towards the giant creature, the screen goes black, there is a flicker, and Darcy is staring at the announcer.

"That is the end of our footage. However, we've confirmed that the fire in the Adirondacks and been contained, and there is no sign of what our mythological consultants have labelled a 'Fire Demon'. We don't have confirmation on the identity of mutant or alien in the footage, but SHIELD has come forward to say he was working on behalf of the Avengers Initiative. Now for a report on how the stock market is reacting..."

Darcy puts the computer on mute. Her cell rings and she jumps. Pulling it from her pocket she sees the number and her eyes widen.

Tapping to accept she holds it to her ear. "Darcy," she says.

Steve's voice crackles on the line. "Glad I caught you."

"Is he okay?" Darcy says.

She hears Steve take a deep breath. "He'll live."

Her body relaxes. A little.

There is the sound of engines on the line and Steve says, "But...well, we're all being shipped out on the Helicarrier now, and I was wondering if you could check in on him? Since you guys are still so close."

"Close..." Darcy repeats softly.

"Yeah, he's always telling me what you and the kids are up to. The science fair project they did on Dark Matter - did he help with that?"

She hasn't spoken to Loki in months...maybe almost a year now, and she'd know if David had lunch with Morgenstern.

Darcy closes her eyes. She blogged about the boys' preparations for the science fair just two days ago. Loki has been reading her mommy blog after all.

"No, no..." she says. She hears an intake of breath at the other end and she says, "I mean, yes, I'll go in to see him. Of course." She's already out of her chair, walking towards the door.

"Thanks, Darcy," Steve says. "I've gotta go."

Darcy's slipping on her shoes in the tiny foyer as the line goes dead. She looks up in the mirror there and checks to see if the long ponytail she's sporting today is at least neat. The sun is slanting in from across the apartment at just the wrong angle. The crows feet around her eyes are hidden a little bit by her glasses, and the bangs over her forehead hide the lines there, but in the sun's harsh beam the laugh lines around her mouth are deep and noticeable. She looks all of her 40 years.

It's not something she can help. She grabs her coat.

x x x x

Darcy raps gently at the bedroom door at the suite in the Avengers mansion.

"Come in!" says a very irritated voice.

Darcy pushes the door open slowly. Loki is lying in bed, a sheet up to his chest. He's not wearing any a shirt and what shows of his arms and chest is an angry purplish color. There is a cloud of green hovering all around him. He is looking out the window, but as she comes into the room he rolls his head around to look at her. His eyes go wide and he smiles. "Darcy!"

Darcy walks over to the bed and winces. In the purple skin are some striations that look like the markings on his face, but what hurts to look at are the large ovoid blisters interspersed over his arms, shoulders, neck and on one side of his face. Catching her eyes he scowls, "It isn't thatbad. It's well on its way to being a first degree burn."

Swallowing, Darcy says, "That's so comforting."

"Come, come. It's really nothing, I've experienced far worse..." A shadow falls across his face. It's only there a heartbeat, but it is enough to chill Darcy's heart. As her friendship with Jane has deepened over the years, Jane has let things slip, things about what happened to Loki between the time he tried to destroy Jotunheim, and when he tried to take over Earth. No real details per se, just that Loki was tortured physically, emotionally and chemically. Jane said Thor didn't believe even he could withstand it, and Loki was already reeling from finding out he was a frost giant.

She doesn't know what to say, but then Loki smiles, and it is surprisingly genuine. "And now I have the pleasure of your company!"

She looks at his burns. "You can teleport and take other forms; can't you make yourself better faster?" Her voice sounds angrier than she means it to be.

He sighs. "If I'd burned myself on the stove, of course. But this is a magical burn." He shrugs and then winces.

"Oh, Loki." It comes out as a sigh.

He winks. "At least you look good."

She raises an eyebrow at the obvious lie.

Tilting his head he says, "What's worse than the burns is the fact that I'm bored out of my mind. Sit down. Talk to me for a while."

Darcy sits a little gingerly at the edge of the bed and looks down at his purple blistery arm and hand. His pinky and ring finger are tapping a little nervously. They seem to be the only part of him not touched by the flames. Her stomach does a flip flop that isn't love or lust but worry.

But he doesn't need that from her. Putting on her game face, she meets his eyes. "What were you thinking?"

Looking relieved he smiles again. The nervous tapping of his fingers stops. "That Earth is my dominion and no Fire Demon is allowed to stake a claim."

Darcy raises an eyebrow. "Your dominion?"

Loki shrugs and then winces. Through clenched teeth he mutters. "God of Chaos...I own this place...haven't you noticed?"

Darcy huffs a laugh. Opening one eye, Loki favors her with another smile. "But enough about me. How did the boys' science fair project go?"

"They are going to the state finals," Darcy says.

"How exciting," says Loki. They talk about the boys for a while. Loki seems to hang on every word, which seems odd for a So-Called-God of Chaos. But then he says, "Talking to you brings back such memories of my days with Sigyn and raising our own sons."

Darcy wants to ask him about that, but before she can he says, "And the Neatness-Nazi? Is he well?"

Darcy blinks. "Did he tell you I gave him that nickname?"

Loki waggles his eyebrows and smiles mischievously.

Rolling her eyes, Darcy says, "He's fine." She smiles. Things between her husband and her really do seem okay - not perfect, but happy enough. Most of the things she hates about him she can laugh about. Like how he is constantly reorganizing the office so that she can find her stuff better - his pursuit, he says, "Of ze perfect zystem". Of course, by constantly reorganizing things he makes it harder to find stuff - and makes her want to stab him in the eye with a pencil. But it's still funny. Mostly. She drives him crazy for not caring if things are organized, so they're pretty much even.

She's at the age where she's seen a lot of couples in their cohort getting divorced, and she doesn't think she and David are near that. He still spoils her on anniversaries, Christmas, Mother's Day, her birthday - heck, he still insists they do something together on the anniversary of the day they met. They should have sex more. That's her fault, she should fix it...but she's so tired most of the time, and putting maintenance sex on a to-do list seems so wrong. When they do finally get together, things are usually really great.

She blinks. Loki is smirking at her. "I'm glad to know things between you are good." He looks down and the smirk disappears. "Things between my brother and Jane are not so good, I think."

Darcy's face goes slack. "Yes," she says quietly. "I've noticed that, too."

Loki purses his lips. "Do you know what's wrong, Darcy? I'm at a loss."

Darcy looks at his unburned fingers, very close to her own. She does know. She takes a breath, and says quietly. "Jane is getting older, and Thor is not."

Loki is quiet. Darcy looks up his face. His brow is slightly furrowed.

Darcy shrugs. "She's still beautiful now, but she still looks older than him and soon - she feels like she is holding him back, that he's stuck with her and he won't be attracted to her, that she'll just be a burden."

She looks out the window. She remembers talking about this very subject with David. When she told him how Odin wouldn't acknowledge Thor's marriage to Jane, David's exact words were, "The godz suck."

Loki curls his two unburned fingers around hers. "Darcy," he says. "You must tell her that isn't true. She's thinking like a mortal."

Darcy looks down at their fingers a moment. Tightening her fingers around his, she says, "She is mortal."

His voice heavy, Loki says, "And her life is very short. Every moment Thor can spend with her is a gift. If she leaves him - he will miss it all. It will be devastating."

Darcy looks up and he smirks. "You must tell her I said that. If it comes from her wicked brother in-law, she has to believe it."

Darcy stares down again at their entwined fingers. Jane doesn't believe Loki is evil, but Darcy doesn't fight him on that. "I will," she says.

Loki is quiet a moment. He gives her fingers a squeeze and then he suddenly says, "Are David and the boys going to space camp this year?"

Darcy blinks at the change of subject and looks up. "Yes, they are." Her sons are just old enough to do the NASA Astronaut Training program with their father. The three of them have been looking forward to it for years.

"Excellent, excellent," says Loki with a smile. "Tell me more."

Darcy tilts her head. Long ago she'd told him she suspected Steve of living vicariously through her. Really though, it hits her that Loki is much worse. What had Loki said? That Steve had chosen a path that he wanted and believed in, but living vicariously through Darcy made it easier to follow.

Darcy swallows. Her face hard, she says, "Loki, what games are you up to?"

The easy smile on his face drops. He looks down at their hands. "Why, chaos, Darcy. Chaos of course." He smirks and looks up at her. He winks and whispers, "Perfect chaos."

Darcy narrows her eyes at his theatrics. "Nothing is perfect."

He grins like a school boy. "No, no, no, it isn't, is it?" He waggles his eyebrows and says, "There is always a price to be paid!"

Smile not shrinking, he says. "Now, tell me about space camp. If I was human, I would love to go."

Darcy purses her lips, and glares a moment. She tells him. But the words "price to be paid" weigh heavy on her mind.

x x x x

Darcy and David are on the freeway in upstate New York. They're on their way to visit some friends, old work associates of David's. Darcy is watching the trees roll by as David drives. After being in the city for months on end they seem so wild and exotic.

She's thinking about her last visit with Loki. It had been so much more comfortable than when he popped in from Jutunheim. He'd held her hand with his two fingers the whole time. Just before she'd left he'd interlaced all of his fingers with hers and grinned. "See, better already?" His skin had felt too hot, but Darcy didn't argue with him. Just kissed his good cheek and been on her way. And it was fine. No nightmares. She's just too married and boring now.

She looks over at her husband and smiles. He shifts his grip on the steering wheel. His brow is a little furrowed behind the glasses he wears now. He's very quiet. Which is weird. Usually he wants her to chat with him, which can get painful if he gets too deep into a topic such as the ideal aluminum content of galvanized steel.

"What's up?" she asks.

His grip shifts on the steering wheel again. "I think I know what they're working on, in the Vault," David says.

He still hasn't been given access to that project, but he'd seemed so happy working on the astronaut interfaces for the asteroid mines and fuel up stations. Darcy sits up straighter in her seat. "Oh," she says.

"It'z not something different, it is all part of the moon project..." He shakes his head.

Darcy hears a rattling outside the car behind them.

Her brow furrows, not following his train of thought. The moon project is Stark Industries' famous boondoggle. They're planning on putting solar panels on the moon and then using super high-tech batteries to store the energy and shuttle it down to Earth. Their stock has been steadily falling over the years. There just isn't enough neodymium, dysprosium, or other precious metals on Earth to build the batteries.

"But they're doing it wrong. If they want to do what I think they want to do, the shuttlez they're building...the storage cylinders are wrong. The fuel tank is too large, they don't need as much fuel...the trip will be shorter..." David says.

The rattling outside gets louder, but Darcy doesn't turn her head. She's confused. The shuttles are common knowledge, not some top secret project.

"What are you talking about?" Darcy says.

David turns his head to the side and meets her eyes. "The design iz all wrong, the shuttlez will be torn apart by the stress -"

There is a loud clanging noise. David and Darcy both look ahead as a flatbed semi carrying narrow steel bars pulls in front of them. Darcy sees the words Heimdall Trucking Lines. And then the next few moments are a blur that last an eternity.

One of the steel tubes is suddenly flying through the air directly in Darcy's direction. The car swerves, there is the crash of glass, a streak of gray, the smell of metal and rubber and blood and the car is skidding, but not spinning, and Darcy is shrieking, but she can't turn her head or look or see what is going on.

When the car finally stops she lifts her eyes. She's dimly aware of people running forward outside of the car. She's in pain, but not. The windshield isn't there...there is a bar to her left. Her eyes go over to David. The steering wheel is a tangled knot too close to his stomach...the metal bar that flew through the windshield is protruding from his abdomen.

"Darcy?" he whispers. His hands are on his stomach, his head is back...his seat is nearly in full recline from the force of the blow.

Darcy is somehow out of her seatbelt. She is saying things; she doesn't know what they are.

"Pro..." whispers David. "Pro...me..."

"Promise, promise, promise, anything, David! Anything!" she's murmuring or shrieking, she's not sure.

"Liebst du," he murmurs.

Hands are lifting Darcy out of the car, pulling her away, voices rolling over her like water. Somewhere a woman is screaming.

Later she will realize it is her.

Chapter Text

Funerals are for the living.

So Loki goes as himself, in his Jotunn form. He thinks that Darcy will appreciate it.

Walking between Tony and Fury up the green bluff in the cemetery, he sees that Darcy's back is to him in the distance. She stands between her boys and Jane. Her body is shaking and Loki frowns.

Dr. Selvig, whose mind Loki had temporarily controlled, is there. He sees Loki from afar and scowls. Loki's eyes flit to Clint Barton, the archer long since retired from SHIELD. Clint scowls at Loki, too.

As well they might. And hundreds, thousands, of others here on Earth. How many funerals did Loki himself cause?

For nearly two thousand years, Loki inhabited a body that wasn't his, and it hurt. Not like the sting of snake venom, or the thirty days of starvation he'd faced once captive in an enemy's dungeon. No, it was a low grade but constant presence. He remembers complaining about being unwell as a child, not being as rambunctious as Thor or the others, being quicker to cry...but the healers had no remedy for his vague, diffuse symptoms. In the end he'd accepted it as normal and himself as weak.

When he finally saw what he was, in those first terrible moments when a frost giant touched his arm in Jotunheim intent on freezing him, his skin had cooled and his body had rejoiced even as his mind recoiled in disgust. So many things had made sense in that moment...and yet, the revelation was a time of complete and utter horror.

He had gone mad. If he looks at it rationally, that actually makes him quite ordinary. Want a recipe for insanity? Take undiagnosed, chronic pain for nearly two millennia. Mix in emotional trauma caused by said pain, and add emotional shock. Then continue to ignore the pain.

It's all very logical really. But it doesn't take away what he's done. He carefully avoids Selvig's and Barton's gazes. Any words he says to them will be hollow. He can only continue to make amends through actions.

Beside him Tony takes out a flask of something alcoholic and takes a sip. Whether in honor of David or because being around Loki makes him feel guilty, Loki is not sure.

They're almost to the grave site when Tony stops and says, "Tell him."

Loki draws to a stop, too. He looks between the two men.

"Tell him or he'll find out," says Tony, eyes on Fury.

Loki's eyes go to Fury. Fury looks pointedly towards the sky. Loki whispers under his breath and forms a magical curtain between them and Heimdall's eyes. "We will not be heard," he says.

Fury's one good eye meets Loki's. He's lost weight over the years. His beard is a little more gray. "The name of the firm transporting the steel bars was Heimdall Trucking Lines."

Loki feels heat under his skin.

"Coincidence?" asks Tony.

"Or a warning," says Loki his voice coming out a snarl. But why David? He wasn't that deeply involved in the project. Is it just for being close to Loki? Even when he means to do good those caught up in his vortex seem to be destined for pain.

Tilting his head, Fury says. "You've worked too long and too hard for this; you cannot deviate from the plan."

Loki grits his teeth. And then he smirks. "Of course not." Justice will come...in time. Raising an eyebrow he says, "You are investigating?"

"We are," says Fury.

Loki looks down and runs his tongue over his teeth. "This is not the time or place for this discussion," he says. He slides his hands into the pocket of the suit he is wearing and walks the remainder of the way up the hill.

People turn as he approaches. He is blue, after all. The original Avengers are all there in civilian guise, and some new faces from that team as well. Loki nods at Thor and spots Erik Lensherrer across the way; they nod. There are also other humans who seem to be ordinary people. Loki catches sight of what surely must be Darcy's parents and David's.

Darcy doesn't look up at him. Her boys stand next to her. At 14 years old they are tall and gangly with nearly black hair. They have Darcy's lips and nose and Asian shaped eyes that are vividly green. Loki notices that Max's eyes are wet, but Franz's eyes are dry. Franz looks like he is in shock. Max has his mother's arm and is very close to his mother, but the boys, even though they are not touching, are even closer to each other.

The sermon starts and ends. When the grave begins to fill, people move away. Darcy, her boys, and Jane remain. Loki remains, too. At last Darcy, with Max, Franz and Jane, starts to move away. It must be the first time she sees him because she blinks and then strides over, Max and Jane in tow.

Her face is wet, her nose and eyes swollen. "Why?" she says her voice cracking. "Why did this happen?"

Loki blinks, his hands slide from his pocket. "Darcy, I didn't..."

"He knew!" she says. "He knew what you're doing in there, in the Vault! Is that why?"

Eyes widening in alarm, Loki puts his hands on her shoulders. He is dimly aware of Franz's fist tightening, and the boy stepping closer. "Darcy, whatever David said, don't repeat it."

She crumbles, sobs, and looks down. "He didn't tell me anything...he was just about to..."

Loki's stomach tumbles, in relief that Darcy won't be a target, and guilt. Surely David's death was not accidental. But other people have been working on the project and haven't been the subjects of Heimdall's ire...of course, Loki's spells have been, very, very, very good. Not only has he hidden what goes on inside the Vault, he's blurred and distorted the faces and identities of those who work within.

"You're doing something wrong!" Darcy hisses.

Loki's eyebrows go up.

"Come on," says Jane, pulling Darcy forward. "Not here, Darcy."

Loki tries to give Jane a look of gratitude, but she just glares at him.

x x x x

Darcy stands in front of the mirror in the bathroom tries to open the bottle of sedatives with shaky hands and fails. She puts the pills down, walks over to the bathroom door, reaches for the handle, but does not open it. Instead she buries her face in David's robe, still hanging on the back of the door. It still smells like him. She tucks her face in it, inhales and weeps. She's not sure if she's grateful she hasn't put the robe away, or furious.

It's after midnight and everyone has left. Her parents and David's are at their hotel rooms. The boys are in bed.

Darcy can't sleep. She keeps wandering aimlessly around the house, like a ghost. When Max and Franz were small and she had a bout of insomnia, sometimes she would go into their room, sit in the chair she used to nurse them, and the sound of their breathing would lull her into peace. Now they're too old for that.

She sobs and looks up at the robe. How long will it smell like him? Pulling it off the hook, she wraps it around herself like armor and walks out into the apartment. No lights are on, but the lights from the city outside are bright enough to navigate by. She doesn't go to her bedroom, just walks over to the largest window in the living room and clutches the too large robe tightly to her.

And then her hands go cold. David said he knew what was wrong with the Stark moon shuttles. She's known David for over 14 years, he would never have said that unless he knew for sure, and he would never know for sure unless he'd worked it out somewhere...

Spinning around, Darcy runs for the office, nearly slipping on the wood floor. Her breathing loud in her ears, she goes to the David's bookshelf, but the most recent sketchbook isn't there.

She looks frantically around the room, patting the top of the shelf above her line of vision and opening every door in her filing cabinet. With a sob she puts a hand to her temple and tries to think. Where would he have been sketching? Where were they last?

The evening before the accident they were sitting on the couch. Darcy was flipping through a magazine tickling David with her feet. He'd been grumpy and swatted them away as he scowled and drew.

Tearing out into the living room, she goes to the end table by the couch. And there it is. People have been in and out of the apartment for the last three days, and she has seen it at the edge of her consciousness but has not moved it. Maybe she was waiting for David to pick it up.

She goes slowly to the black book, runs her hands over the cloth of the cover, and then she sees it...a slight green shimmer in the air. The air pressure in the room drops just a little bit.

Grabbing the book she turns. Loki is standing there, a blue shadow with orange-red eyes.

Shaking the book, Darcy shouts. "Is this what you came for!"

The boys should wake up. She wants them to wake up to chase Loki away. But they don't, and dimly she realizes Loki is probably casting a spell blocking this conversation from prying eyes and ears.

Taking a step forward, he says, "Only in part."

Darcy's face crumples. "What do you want?"

Stepping very close to her he says, "I've always thought the worst part about these times is when everyone is gone."

Clutching the book to her stomach, Darcy leans forward. She might have fallen but blue arms wrap around her. She feels him lay his chin on the top of her head. As sobs wrack through her, he pulls her hair from her face.

There are a million things she is thinking - terrible, banal things. That there is a chair by the table David will never sit in again, that dishes are piling in the sink because that is his job and she just forgets them, how she misses picking up his dirty clothes off the floor - his one messy habit. All that comes out though is, "I can't sleep."

"I know," he says.

And she knows he does.

x x x x

Darcy is warm and snug. Her hands are in a death grip on David's robe, but her head is on her own pillow. Covers are pulled up to her chin. From the light in the window she can guess it is nearly 4 a.m. In the kitchen she hears shouting.

Body going cold, she sits up in alarm.

Two orange-red lights appear in a shadow sitting on her bed. "It's Franz and Max," says Loki. "You better go to them."

She turns to look at him. Sitting on top of the covers, he is leaning against the headboard, his feet stretched out in front of him, his hands clasped on his stomach.

She looks at the bed. She doesn't remember coming in here, or falling asleep.

"Thank you," she whispers.

He just nods.

From the kitchen she hears Max scream. "You didn't even cry! You don't even care!"

There is a thud and Darcy dashes out of the room. She finds Franz slamming Max's whole body against the wall. "Franz, get off of him!" Darcy shouts.

Remarkably, Franz does - he never did when the boys were small. He's taller than Darcy - they both are, but Franz suddenly looks very small. Max looks like he is about to lunge forward and grab his throat, but Darcy steps between them. Closing her eyes she says, "Max, we're all in pain, we just show it in different ways. Please don't speak to your brother like that again. We need each other too much, okay?" She doesn't quite sniffle when she says it.

Wiping his nose, Max avoids her gaze. Darcy wraps her arms around him and sighs. "I love you. Can you please give me a moment with Franz?"

Max nods, glares a little at his brother, and then goes to the bedroom and slams the door.

"I do care," says Franz, hanging his head low.

Darcy almost starts to cry again. Maybe she does cry. She's not sure if Franz is in shock, or if the news hasn't sunk in a bit, or if he's just holding it all inside. Going to him, she wraps her arms around him. He's all wiry muscle and bone. "I know, honey, I know you do."

Franz's arms go to her back, and she feels him sob but he doesn't make a sound. Forcing a wry smile through her tears, Darcy says, "Please don't show your pain by killing anyone, especially your brother...and don't become a drug addict or anything either, okay?"

"Okay," says Franz. They hold each other for a long time. But eventually Franz goes back to his bedroom. Darcy watches him a little bit jealously. At least he has Max. As much as they fight, they are very close.

She looks to her own bedroom with foreboding. She's a little afraid to go back there alone - she is sure Loki's popped off by now. She scowls. Probably with David's book. Pulling David's robe tight around her, she sighs and heads to the bedroom. She should try to sleep at least. If Loki's stolen David's book, she'll give Fury hell tomorrow.

She opens her bedroom door and draws back. Loki is still there, still leaning against the headboard, just quietly regarding her. Her eyes flit to a dark shadow on her night stand; it's David's sketchbook.

She draws a quick breath. "You didn't leave."

In the slant of a street light beam she can see him smirk. "That would be impolite without saying goodbye."

The smirk vanishes. His expression sobering, he says, "Of course, I'll leave if you want me too." He tilts his head. "But if you want, I'll stay here until you go to sleep."

Darcy closes her eyes. She doesn't feel lust, or anything wrong, she only feels relief. "Please, stay."

Still sitting on top of the covers, Loki pulls the blankets back from her side, then carefully crosses his hands over his stomach again.

Gratefully shuffling forward, Darcy slips between the sheets and curls into fetal position. Loki is there, she can hear his steady breathing. And he is miles away at the same time. She still feels hollow, but she doesn't feel alone. She closes her eyes and tries to sleep.

Chapter Text

Leaning against the headboard, hands clasped over his stomach, Loki looks down at Darcy. Her eyes are closed, but her breathing is shallow and uneven. He recognizes the sound of sleeplessness. He has had trouble sleeping for years. He has nightmares about his time with the Chitauri - and of the faces of the frost giants he almost killed in Jotunheim, and the humans he did kill when he tried to take over Earth.

He looks out the window, cracked open to the night air, and waits. His heart feels heavy for her. The curse of being sane is empathy and pain.

Beside him he hears Darcy stir. He still says nothing, nor does he move. But then she speaks. "Loki, who did you lose?"

He startles at the question and looks down at Darcy. Her hair is a long dark tangle, nearly spilling over her eyes. She looks so young and so fragile in the dark. Uncrossing his hands, he almost reaches to brush back her locks. Resisting that impulse, he puts his hand on the bedspread between them instead. With the other hand he rubs his eyes.

He has lost many friends in nearly 2,000 years. Some have left the Aesir, some have died in battle. But he knows what she means. He blinks down at her. It was such a long time ago...

"My first wife, Aggie," he says softly. "And then our daughter."

He sees her brow furrow in the low light. "The Aesir don't die except by accident..."

Loki smirks a little. Amazed at how the truth still stings, despite himself he answers anyway. "My wife committed suicide." The smirk twists into a frown. "And then Helen was murdered."

Darcy's hand finds his in the darkness. Intertwining her fingers with his she squeezes. "I am sorry."

He stares at their fingers, his dark and shadowy against her pale flesh. She doesn't know what her simple gesture means. Neither did he, until his extended stay in Jotunheim. It's been his secret little cheat for so long. He squeezes her hand in turn and moves both of their hands to rest on his stomach.

She doesn't ask him how, or why, but he finds himself speaking anyways. "I think you know her in your myths as Angrbooda...as a troll woman, a bearer of monsters."

Squeezing his fingers, Darcy says, "I'm sure that isn't true."

"It wasn't," says Loki. "She was so very, very sweet." As sweet, as innocent, and lost as Darcy when Loki first met her. "And the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen." He smirks in the darkness. "She had the misfortune of catching the eye of my brother Baldur. He wanted her as his mistress; she was too low in station to be the wife of a prince."

Loki stares at Darcy's hand. "She refused him, and he did not forgive her." Loki remembers finding her fleeing the palace, drenched and alone in the rain.

"But you married her," says Darcy.

"Ahh...well, I was always one for chaos and mischief," says Loki. "It wasn't so much of a stretch for me."

"You're lying," says Darcy, squeezing his hand.

Loki smirks. "You're right. Odin was furious, I think he wanted a more advantageous union for his second pawn. But Mother supported me." Which is why Loki still doesn't understand how - or why - Frigga hasn't gotten Odin to accept Jane. He says nothing for a few long moments. He shouldn't be burdening her, but then Darcy says, "Keep going...if you want to. I don't mind."

He scowls for a moment; the words are at the tip of his tongue and they are begging to be released. He takes a breath and then he says, "We weren't as lucky as you and David. It took us decades to have a child." And there had been so many miscarriages over the years. "And Aggie bore the brunt of the blame of court for that..."

He takes a deep breath. That was when he started to lose her. Though he'd tried to help.

"Fenrir, I'm sure you've heard of him -"

"Your wolf child," says Darcy and he notes the lack of derision in her voice.

"Not our child. Just a puppy I brought home to lift Aggie's spirits. Without children of our own we perhaps doted on him a bit too much." He looks out the window. "I still don't know how we got to be rumored as the parents of the world serpent, Jormungand." He closes his eyes. "No, I do know. We were out on a boat one time, he poked his nose above the water and Aggie was delighted. She had the nerve to talk to the supposed-destroyer of Thor. He's not a bad fellow, actually. He is more ancient than Odin, I think...mysterious, and he talks in riddles, but good fun. We liked him, and saw him now and then, until Odin commanded he slink back to his depths." Loki's hand flutters. Why had Odin insisted on that?

He shakes his head. "In time we finally did have a child, Helen. She was, I suppose you'd say, physically handicapped. The midwives offered to 'take care' of her for us..."

Darcy's hand in his has become viselike. Ahhh...modern Midgardians of the first world countries - so soft. It is a welcome change, actually.

"...we kept her though, Darcy." He remembers screaming at the midwives, sending them from their halls in the middle of the night, his little girl tucked in his arms, her arms twisted at strange angles, like tiny delicate backwards wings.

"She was also half blue." Loki rubs his eyes. "Everyone knew that meant Jotunn blood, and of course Angrbooda got all the blame for it. To say it came from me, well, that would be to blame our abomination on the royal family." He shrugs his shoulders. "There were wars going on at that time - I was abroad a great deal. I wasn't there to protect Aggie from the gossip, or the cruelty...it got to be too much for her."

There's hardness in Darcy's voice when she speaks. "All your parents had to do..." Her voice drifts off, and she stirs a bit under the covers.

All they had to do was tell the truth. But evidently the shame of raising a Jotunn was at least half as wicked as being one.

"It is better not to think of it now," says Loki. Even Frigga hadn't protected Aggie - but then Baldur was alive, and he warped everyone's perception of everything with his words that no one could - or would gainsay.

"I'm sorry," says Darcy again, as is the Midgardian custom.

Loki tilts his head. For a long moment he says nothing. These are not things he speaks of. But even as he closes himself off he feels the words building up behind his lips as though they are water caught behind a damn. And before he knows it they spill out again. "You would have loved Helen, Darcy." Darcy loves Loki; he knows it though they have not spoken of it, and despite the fact that years have gone by without them exchanging words. If she can accept Loki, of course she would be able to see the beauty that was Helen, his tiny little girl with warped bones as delicate as a bird's, a body half pink and half the color of the sky.

"She was the most magical of all my children. At least as magical as Baldur...And her magic was a beautiful blue color."

"Like your skin?" says Darcy.

Loki actually laughs, low quiet, and bittersweet. "Around her, my skin would look blue and I used to attribute it to her magic rubbing off on me. But it wasn't that. Her magic, her natural magic, was to reveal the truth of people and things - not just of appearances, but what lay in people's hearts. Even I couldn't lie around her." He stares down at their joined hands and says, "It makes no sense that a God of Mischief and Chaos would have a daughter who could have been the goddess of truth..." He shrugs his shoulders. "But so it was."

When Helen was alive was the only time he'd been on remotely good terms with Heimdall. Though they were so different, Heimdall and Loki worked for the same thing, the benefit of Asgard. Heimdall was a slave to order, and duty, and would do anything to fulfill his obligations - even terrible things, like murder. But he did not relish death. Loki looks down at Darcy. Was Heimdall watching now? Did he appreciate the irony of the trickster comforting the wife of the slain?

"What happened to her?" says Darcy, her voice pulling him out of his reflections.

Loki smirks. "She was murdered. Truth is inconvenient, especially in a court. And especially if you have a reputation for being brave, beautiful and wise - and that reputation is nothing but twisted magical glamour."

"Baldur?" whispers Darcy.

Loki squeezes her hand. "Always perceptive my dear." Too quickly he says, "I didn't kill him." Which is the truth, but not quite. Loki consulted on the death of Baldur - at Odin's behest. Even the All Father had seen the danger of a prince who was exalted as the purest expression of the beauty and wisdom of the Aesir - and who was a complete lie. Baldur could have been the God of Narcissism. Loki smirks again. "But I found it impossible to cry at his funeral."

He looks away for a moment. In a way those old wounds, the deaths of Helen and Aggie, hurt more than the memories of the Chitauri. The Chituari never claimed him as their own. They used him, he was their puppet, but they did not betray him.

There is a long moment of silence and then Darcy says, "The godz suck," mimicking a German accent.

Loki raises an eyebrow and looks down at her.

Not meeting his eye, she says, "Sorry, that is something that my husband says."

He doesn't correct her use of the present tense. Instead he smiles. "What gods?"

She looks up at him and actually smiles back, but her face is wet with tears.

Loki isn't sure if he is precisely a god, but he is more than a being that bends magic to his will. He is, at some level, chaos incarnate. But whatever he is, he does not feel that he is superior to the human beside him. That illusion fled with his madness, and left guilt and grief in its wake. They are equals, at least in grief.

He raises an eyebrow. And in some ways she is actually his superior; she is a far greater artist than he. It took a long time to convince his friend Erik that judging mutants or magic wielders above ordinary humans was folly. It wasn't a mutant that discovered the theory of relativity, or a magic wielder who painted the Mona Lisa. Superiority is circumstantial.

The Aesir don't know that. Someday Loki will ensure they do, out of penance to Earth, and Jotunheim. His face goes hard.

"Loki?" Darcy's voice is a choked sob.

Again he resists the urge to wipe her tears away. "Yes?"

"I feel like...I feel like...that as painful as this is, I'm glad, I'm glad it wasn't Franz or Max." The words come out fast and he can hear the tears and the shame in them. But he does understand. He looks out the window. "Losing a spouse is like losing half your life. Losing a child is death of hope." He had such hopes for Helen. When he discovered the extent of her abilities he imagined her becoming a great ambassador, a seer who could expose the lies of Asgard's enemies. Sadly she exposed the lies Asgardians told themselves.

"It. Still. Hurts." Darcy says through gritted teeth. "How did you do it? How do I get through this?"

Loki takes a breath. "You get through because you have to."

Darcy lets loose a long sigh. He doesn't see her cry but feels it in the way her body trembles. She keeps his hand clutched tightly in her own, pulled close to her face. When she finally falls asleep he closes his eyes for just a moment.

x x x x

Loki opens his eyes and find himself staring at an unfamiliar ceiling. He has one arm splayed out to the side, and he's laying on top of the covers, and yet he feels more comfortable and better rested than he has in a long time. The room smells familiar, and good; there is sunlight all around. He hears Max and Franz's voices and suddenly remembers where he is. Turning his head, he looks to where Darcy had lain the night before. She's not there.

"Good morning," says a soft voice. He blinks, his vision clears, and there is Darcy standing just in front of him. She's still wearing the robe that might be David's. She looks uncomfortable.

And then he remembers his words to her the night before, "I'll stay just until you go to sleep."

Rubbing his eyes he says, "I'm sorry, I -"

"No, no, no, don't apologize," says Darcy. She closes her own eyes and nods, "I have the feeling nights will be the worst, and this...this...this..." She waves her hand.

And Loki knows. It was a reprieve for her. But uncomfortable just the same. It must be disorientating to have another man in her bed so soon, no matter how innocent.

"Mom!" someone says outside the door.

"I have to..." she starts to say.

"I know," he says.

"Can you?" She waves her hand.

He smirks. "I will disappear."

"I'm sorry, but -" she waves her hand in the direction of the door.

Her boys would want to skin him alive if they knew he was here - blue or not, innocent or not. "I understand," he says.

"Thank you." Her eyes go to the sketchbook at the side of the bed.

"I already ripped out the relevant pages," he says.

Her eyes go wide, her nostrils flare.

His jaw tenses. "You can't afford to put yourself in danger."

"Mom?" says a voice outside the door.

Darcy's expression softens, but only a little. "It was important?"

From what Loki can tell, David divined the true destinations of the 'shuttles' and realized there was a design flaw. He has saved them a lot of work, and caused Heimdall and Odin to show a little of what they know; they realize the Vault is dangerous. It also shows how much they don't know. Some human engineer was bound to find the problem, but Odin and Heimdall don't understand the strength of the decentralized information. They think by killing one they've derailed the whole scheme. Loki will have to move the Vault, but the scheme is hardly over.

"You married a smart man," he says to Darcy.

She swallows, and nods her head.

"Mom, are you alright?" says another voice.

"I'm coming," says Darcy. "Just a minute."

Loki disappears. But he doesn't leave. As Darcy goes into the living room he walks over to the ancient window that Darcy has partially open. He doesn't envy the journey before her. The nights will be the worst, and he can provide no comfort. Which is a shame because he likes this place that is so small and smells like her.

He looks out the window. It swings out over a ledge about 5 inches wide. Loki peeks out and sees an alley cat walk along the ledge. He blinks. And smiles.

x x x x

"Hi," Darcy says to the young man who is standing in front of her in the Avenger's Mansion kitchen, "I'm here to photograph your boss." It's been nearly four years since David died, and Darcy does more abstract photography than portraits now, but she still keeps some of her best clients - the Avengers, and Erik Lehnsherr among them.

The young Avenger who might be Billy or Teddy, she has trouble remembering, scratches his mop of blond hair. Steve's putting together a younger team to follow in the footsteps of the original Avengers. Clint and Bruce are retired, and Tony works almost full-time for Stark Industries; their older bodies aren't able to handle the strain anymore. Natasha hasn't aged - turns out she was the recipient of a modified version of the same Super-Serum Steve got, but she's on other projects. Thor is still around, but he's in Asgard today. Apparently Earth and Asgard are still trying to come to some diplomatic closure to the Prometheus incident.

A girl with long dark hair says, "Oh, you're the photographer." She blinks. "Haven't you been the official photographer since the Avengers were first founded?"

"Yes," says Darcy brightly. "That's me."

The girls' eyes go wide. "Wow, that must make you..."

Darcy smiles tightly. "44."

"Oh," says the girl. "I hope I look as good as you when I'm 44."

Darcy does not sigh at the sort-of-compliment. "Thanks," she manages to say. She is actually in the best shape of her life. Part of it is coincidence. After David died, she stopped eating for a while. Food lost all of its flavor. And now she has two teenage boys in the house, the only things she can keep in the fridge are nonfat plain yogurt and vegetables - everything else disappears as if by magic.

But part of it is by design. Or rather a happy side effect of her becoming an exercise addict after David died. It was one of the ways she tried to stave off depression without relying on chemicals.

She puts a hand through her short pixie cut hair. "So Steve?

A wiry young guy with dark hair tilts his head. "No one told you?"

"No one told me what?" says Darcy.

The big blond boy grimaces. "He's kind of laid up right now."

Darcy blinks. "Well, I'm an old friend. I'd at least like to stop by." And a photo of Captain America in a cast would be super humanizing.

There are winces all around, and the dark haired boy says, "No, I don't know if you'd want to do that. He's with the Big Blue, and the Big Blue issuper cranky."

Darcy purses her lips. "Big Blue?"

Blond guy nods. "You know. Loki. And you don't want to be around him when he's cranky."

The dark haired boy slips closer to the blond. "Yeah. Stay away. Among other things, one time, like eons ago, he turned some guy from SHIELD IT into a gopher."

"IT...go fer.." says Darcy.

The girl nods vigorously. "Yeah, it turned out okay, the guy turned back, he's actually head of the department now. Patrick someone..."

Darcy remembers Patrick of the inappropriate pick up lines, and her brain does a little hiccup. "He had Patrick from IT demoted?"

The boys blink at her. "No," says the smaller one. Very slowly as though talking to a child he says, "Gopher, as in a small furry rodent."

"Oh," says Darcy tapping her camera. She smiles. "But it's okay. Loki is a friend of mine. Where are they?"

At the word "friend," the body language around her changes subtly, and they all start slowly backing away. "They're in the media room," says the small dark haired boy. Maybe he's Billy.

Darcy sets off with a wide smile. "Great," she says. She actually saw Loki about a week or so ago. They aren't in constant communication. He has been 'out of town' a lot over the years, but when he is in New York he checks in on her from time to time - though he calls it spoiling himself with her company. He's a liar, but a sweet one.

They usually meet up during the day, for lunch or tea. Darcy likes to be there for her boys during the evening. At first just because they needed her so much - and now because they're just weeks away from going to college.

As she walks down the second story hallway to the media room she notices the air getting warmer, and wetter. She's wondering about that when she hears Steve's voice, "Well, it is reversible, and it's actually kind of neat. Are you sure we can't go in the pool."

"It would kill us, you oaf, or at the least make us very sick! Don't you realize chlorine can cross mucus membranes?"

Darcy purses her lips. Yep. That's Loki. And he is certainly cranky.

There is a moment of silence, and then Steve says, "I really did have a good time though, Loki. And I'll never forget it. That was really the best birthday gift anyone has ever given me."

Darcy steps up to the door of the media room. She feels warm humid air near her feet and squints down at the floor. She can see moisture droplets rising from beneath.

As she raises her hand to knock, she hears Loki say, "Well, I'm glad someone had fun," and Darcy finds herself smirking. He doesn't sound glad about anything.

She knocks at the door, only to have it swing open. Two heads immediately swivel in her direction. Steve, ever youthful, looks over his shoulder from where he is sitting in an EZ boy next to a humidifier at full crank. Looking incredibly bashful he says, "Uh, hi, Darcy."

Loki is sitting sideways on the couch. The back of it is blocking everything but the view of his Jotunn face - now a deep shade of ultramarine. Loki's told Darcy he is excluded from the yearly harvest of Idunn's apples, but if he's aging, Darcy doesn't see it. He's as handsome as ever, but normally, Loki smiles when he sees her. At the moment, he looks positively humiliated. Or annoyed. Darcy blinks. Or both. She and the boys have sort of adopted a stray alley cat. Once the cat slipped into the sink when Darcy was washing some dishes. Loki has the look of an annoyed, sudsy, drenched cat right about now.

Stepping into the room, far warmer than the rest of the house, Darcy says carefully, "What happened?"

Glowering, Loki says, "It's all his fault."

Steve bites his lip and says, "It really is all my fault." He looks at Loki. "But I had such a great time."

Coming forward Darcy says, "What, what is your fault?"

And then she sees.

Chapter Text

She puts a hand to her mouth to keep from laughing.

Steve and Loki are both wearing bathrobes and pajamas. Sticking out from below said pajamas are enormous, slightly moist, glistening frog feet. Loki's are actually a rather nice shade of blue. Steve's are the same color as his skin, and Caucasian coloring and frog feet are actually a rather bad combination.

"Don't asphyxiate yourself containing your laughter," says Loki dryly, looking very much the annoyed wet blue cat - even if besides his feet the rest of him is completely dry.

"Mmmpfff," is all Darcy manages. She closes her eyes to keep from crying.

"Since you're here, you might as well sit down and stay a while," says Loki his glowing-red-orange eyes narrowing, which might be threatening, if she didn't know him so well.

Biting her lip, Darcy lifts her camera. "I'm not sitting down, I need to preserve this for posterity."

Steve sits up straighter. "Uhhhh..."

"You're not taking a picture of me," Loki hisses.

Darcy grins at him and gives a wink. "Oh, no, I'm only paid to take pictures of the Avengers. Assistant Director Hill would be upset if I wasted my time on you."

Loki blinks, and then smiles.

"Hey, he works for us sometimes!" says Steve as Darcy goes and kneels down right in front of his enormous webbed feet.

"Not in the contract," says Darcy. She knows whose side she's on.

Loki snickers.

"If you take a picture of me like that, people will have a clear view of my face," Steve says.

"Setting the aperture to make your face a blur," says Darcy.

"Oh, I think you should get at least one for private consumption with his face in it," says Loki.

"Done," says Darcy, and Steve groans good naturedly.

"What happened?" Darcy says, snapping a few more pictures.

Sounding excited rather than put out, Steve says, "Loki took me to Alfheim!"

Darcy blinks. "Wow." Alfheim, land of the elves. She's actually a little jealous.

"I've always wanted to go and somehow he knew..."

"You've been hinting about it for nearly twenty years," says Loki.

Leaning forward, eyes wide, Steve says, "He even got me invited to dinner with the queen and everything."

"And he managed to get me banned for a century," says Loki darkly.

Darcy scowls a little. Normally it isn't Steve who finds himself banned from places.

"Tell her what you did!" says Loki.

Steve blushes all the way down his neck. "I commented on the queen's age."

Darcy's eyes go wide.

Steve fingers his feet. "For being 3,000 years old, she looks gorgeous! I mean, I would have thought she was 26 or something."

Darcy looks down at her camera, feeling a little empty. Hanging around ageless mutant super- hero types can be a little rough on the ego sometimes.

"And he told her," says Loki.

"I don't know what the big deal is," Steve says plaintively.

Loki heaves a throw cushion at him. "You failed to acknowledge her obvious wisdom and maturity!"

"Turning our legs into frog legs doesn't seem mature!"

Darcy stares at his feet. "I don't know. It seems like a teachable moment."

Loki snorts.

She blinks at the slight haze of green around their...flippers...and smirks. "How long will it take to fix?"

"Another few hours," grumbles Loki as Darcy takes some more pictures. Steve puts on a movie with a sigh and pretends she's not there.

She's wrapping it up when Loki swings his frog feet to the floor and pats the cushion next to him. Looking at the camera, he says, "Let me see," with a gleam in his eye. Darcy sits next to him on the couch and sets the camera to display.

Really, it's impossible not to sit close to him as they stare at the tiny screen. The room feels warm and she takes off the jacket she was wearing.

Loki makes snarky comments as they tab through frog-footed Steve pictures. Steve makes non-committal grunts on the EZ boy. And then they come to a picture of a tall thin black cat. Loki smiles, "Ah, and this must be Cock Block."

"Cock Block?" says Steve.

Darcy winces. "It's the name my boys gave to our part-time-sort-of-cat."

"Cock Block?" says Steve again and Loki grins.

Darcy sighs. "He came into our life a little after David died. Franz and I came home early from a chess tournament to find my second son with a half naked girl - and a hissing spitting cat in my bedroom."

Darcy finds herself heating up at the thought. She had never felt such revulsion. Max said that Darcy and David's bedroom had been the girl's idea since the couch and his bunk bed were too narrow.

"And you didn't kill Max, which is proof that you are a good mother," says Loki, his hand falling on hers.

"I still don't know what he was thinking," she says, closing her eyes.

"Probably not much," Loki and Steve say nearly in unison.

Thankfully, Cock Block had apparently slipped in the window that afternoon, made himself at home on Darcy's bed, and hadn't taken kindly to Max's amorous adventure either.

Darcy shakes her head. After the girl had put on her clothes and Darcy had sent her on her way, Franz shouted at Max, "Who is she? Were you even going to use a condom?"

It turned out Max had just met her, and Darcy's straight-A, science fair acing son was going to trust her word that she was on the pill. What followed was a very painful conversation about how they'd been conceived on the pill. Ultimately it might have been a good conversation, because both managed not to get anyone pregnant in high school.

"Anyway," says Darcy. "Franz dubbed him Cock Block...I try to call him CB though." She scowls at the picture. "He hasn't been around for a few days."

Loki slides his fingers between hers and squeezes. "I've told you. He's a tom cat. They do that. You shouldn't worry."

"You should neuter him," says Steve from the chair. "It will keep him from spraying, too."

Loki tsks. "Barbaric Midgardians."

"He doesn't spray - he doesn't even use a litter box; he just slinks out the window," says Darcy. Which is kind of perfect actually. She never wanted a stinky litter box in their tiny apartment, which is why she'd never gotten a cat. "And every time the subject of neutering has come up, he's disappeared."

She doesn't like it when he disappears, sometimes for months at a time. He really helped her through those first really terrible months. She'd fall asleep with him clutched in her arms. Even now she still dreams a lot of David being alive sleeping next to her. When she realizes it's a dream she invariably wakes up. It's nice to have someone there, even if it is just a cat.

She frowns a little more. Sometimes she dreams of David sleeping next to her. Sometimes she dreams of Loki.

Loki flips to some earlier pictures of Cock Block, stretched out on her bed looking decadent and far too comfortable, and one of him sitting on the edge of the tub. Cock Block likes looking over her shoulder while she reads magazines in the bath.

Darcy tilts her head. "I think he is one of those cats that has a second family. He ignores the food we leave out. Unless it's smoked salmon, or expensive cheese."

Loki laughs. Steve turns his head and his brow furrows, but then he looks back to the movie.

"How are things otherwise?" says Loki.

His hand is still in hers; she's loathe to pull it away. She feels...she feels turned on. This is what happens when you haven't had sex in over three years and you sit next to an attractive man and he holds your hand - even if he has frog feet. She almost laughs at herself - the feet would be like clown shoes. She takes a deep breath to keep from laughing at the mental image. The horrible thing is, she is still turned on.

"Are Franz and his girlfriend still together?" says Loki, thankfully disturbing her very uncomfortable reverie.

Darcy blinks. "They haven't broken up...yet." But she knows they will. Melissa used to talk to Darcy like Darcy was her second mother. But now she and Franz are getting ready to go to colleges across the country from one another and Melissa has become distant and Darcy knows why. What she doesn't know is what to do.

At first when David died, Darcy had worried about Franz's lack of communication. It was one of Franz's chess buddies at Washington Square Park who alerted her to the fact that Franz had a girlfriend, Melissa. It turned out Franz was communicating with her. Darcy is terrified of what a breakup will be like.

"It will be alright," says Loki. "He isn't as fragile as he was before."

Darcy's not so sure. She feels her mood sinking.

Flipping back to the pictures of Steve and his frog feet, Loki says, "How big can these be? I want one for my wall."

He pulls her from her funk. Pretty soon she's telling him about a show she'll be having in the fall, just after the boys leave for college. Face going somber, he looks up and says, "I'll just make it..." And she smiles, happy to know he can come.

They talk on about random things, and she doesn't really notice that they're getting closer and closer, like two teenagers, until Steve says, "Hey, guys, get a room!"

Darcy sits up straight and her face goes hot. It's just...

She looks at her watch. "It's late," she says far too suddenly. Standing up, she makes some excuses and hurriedly leaves the room.

x x x x

Loki stares at Steve as the door closes and Darcy leaves the room. Steve is oblivious, his eyes focused on the television.

Almost against Loki's volition he imagines the molecules of the Midgardian chair Steve sits on vibrating, humming, and becoming quite hot.

"Argh!" Steve says, lifting his arm quickly. "What are you doing?"

Loki sits back in the couch and forces himself to relax. What did David once say? "If you killed all ze stupid people there would be no one left."

Steve does have redeeming qualities, even if at the moment Loki is having trouble remembering them.

Tilting his head, Loki says, "You humiliated and embarrassed her - and frightened her away." He tries to speak calmly and logically, but his voice sounds low and malevolent. He allows himself some small pleasures, Darcy's company is one of them.

Steve blinks. "I just thought..."

Loki narrows his eyes.

Steve's face hardens. "You don't have forever, you know."

The hairs on the back of Loki's neck stand on end. He suddenly wonders how much Steve knows.

Steve gives him a sort of twisted half smile. "Or you may have forever, but she doesn't."

Ah. It is Darcy's impending end they are speaking of. He relaxes a fraction.

"She won't date until her boys fly the nest," says Loki. Darcy's children are what have kept her afloat these past few years - they've needed her, and consumed her. Her only other source of buoyancy has been her career. When the boys were small she'd built up quite a reputation as a portraitist. Now she's been working more abstractly. She says depression is good for art. Loki hasn't noticed her being truly depressed, slightly blue sometimes, but generally she manages to be her optimistic self. She pours her dark thoughts into into her work, he suspects.

Steve blinks. "Well, that time's coming up pretty fast." He looks slightly bashful and says, "She's still really cute, you know, for 44."

Loki doesn't roll his eyes; it takes effort.

"If you don't act fast, your window of opportunity will close," says Steve.

Loki glares, but he says nothing.

x x x x

The opening night for Darcy's photography show is almost over. The crowd is dwindling, and she hasn't seen Loki. She's trying not to be disappointed, and mostly she's not.

She knows he's been doing some work with the Avengers in the last few weeks. Another fire demon popped up on Earth. Loki helped send the monster back where it came from. His blue face is all over the news as the mystery new Avenger. Darcy purses her lip at the memory. He had on new armor in the news footage, more GI Joe than Asgardian. It protected him better, though - she'd texted him as she watched the news, a quick, desperate, Please tell me you're not cooked again. He'd responded touchingly quickly. I'm fine. Stark Industry's new battle armor quite effective against fire. If only it could protect me from dreary debriefings. :-P

She scowls. Maybe he's on a mission with them. Shaking her head, she does not sigh. she's been busy the whole evening smiling and answering questions. She wouldn't have been very good company anyway.

The gallery owner comes over to speak to her, and as she listens, she catches sight of one of Franz's friends from his Washington Square park chess matches. It's Mr. Sanchez, the retired school teacher Franz occasionally plays against. The same one who knew Franz had a girlfriend before Darcy did. He's not a real 'regular' at the Park, but she knows Franz enjoys his company. She's exchanged a few pleasant words with him this evening, but Darcy's been distracted with so many other guests. Franz must have told him about the show. It's nice that he came.

Sure that Mr. Sanchez wants an update on Franz's progress at MIT, she starts to walk in his direction. A girl standing in a group of other young girls dressed very fashionably says, "Excuse me, ma'am?" Darcy stops and blinks. They aren't young girls. They're young women. They look to be in their mid twenties.

Giving an apologetic look to Mr. Sanchez, she turns to the young woman - and finds herself telling her life story. When she finally leaves them - suitably awed by her worldly adventures at their age, she goes over to Sanchez.

He's maybe a little older than Darcy. He has wavy dark hair and a deep tan. He wears glasses with thick black modern plastic frames. He's not unattractive. Darcy has noticed him, but her notice has only been on an intellectual level. She hasn't been interested in dating...and even if she had been, her boys weren't ready for it. Last time one of Max's friend's fathers tried to chat her up in the kitchen. Max had scowled. Franz had suddenly decided to sharpen the knives. She smirks. Even Cock Block had sat on the counter, glared at the man with his yellow orange eyes and flexed his claws.

Smiling, Mr. Sanchez takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. It strikes Darcy that he seems to have grown physically taller since the last time she's seen him. She looks closely at his face. There's a line of tension between his eyes, as though his skin is too tight. It almost reminds her of...she takes a breath, and he meets her gaze. His features seem to flow, the chin becomes a little narrower, the lips become thinner. She blinks.

"Loki?" she whispers.

A familiar smirk flashes across Sanchez's face, and Darcy finds herself smiling so much it's almost painful, but...

"Why aren't you blue?" she asks. He usually is in her presence now. Even when they are in public.

He looks in the direction of the young women. "Fangirls; don't ask me how I know. I didn't feel like dealing with it this evening."

Darcy follows his gaze to the women; they are so young and so beautiful. She'd rather Loki be blue, because blue is how he is her Loki; but she also doesn't want to share. She doesn't request that he change.

She tilts her head. "Did you just borrow this persona for the evening, or have you always been Mr. Sanchez?"

Loki-Sanchez smirks, and lifts his eyebrows. Instead of answering he says, "I'm starving. And I've noticed you haven't eaten any of the food put out. Want to go out to eat?"

No matter what the answer is to the first question, there is only one answer to that. "Yes," says Darcy.

He holds out his arm and Darcy takes it. As they walk by the "fangirls," Darcy hears one say, "I swore I saw the blue guy walk in here earlier."

Her eyes meet Loki's and they both smirk.

Darcy gives a brief goodbye to the gallery owner, they step outside, there is a swirl of green and suddenly they're at a very nice restaurant.

There are no fangirls in sight, but Loki is still not blue. As soon as they sit down, Darcy says, "You look kind of uncomfortable as Mr. Sanchez. Are you sure you don't want to be yourself?"

Looking annoyed, Loki glances around the room. "No, I don't want to draw attention to myself. Ever since that latest video came out, I haven't had a moment's peace." Then he turns back and smiles beguilingly at Darcy. "And besides, I'd suffer far more discomfort than this for the pleasure of your company."

Darcy blinks and then grins. "Ah, so that time you were burned -"

"I'm a sentimental fool," he says with a shrug, but it looks like he's fighting to keep from laughing.

She narrows her eyes. "And the frog feet?"

Face going hard he says, "Let's not discuss that." And then his face softens. "How is Franz?"

Darcy looks down at her drink. "Well, the girl did break up with him. He didn't take it well." In fact, Franz had left his summer job, gone off for a walk in the pouring rain, and not texted or called. Darcy and Max were frantic. Max called all their mutual friends, and then took a cab to check out all Franz's favorite haunts.

Darcy had just gotten off the phone with the police - she knew they didn't respond to anyone missing for less than 24 hours, but it was worth atry, when Franz walked in the door. He was soaked and carrying a soaking wet Cock Block in his arms. By way of explanation Franz said, "I found him in the park. I think he was lost. I brought him home." Never mind that the park was not along the route to his job, or that he had been incommunicado for hours.

Darcy tells the story to Loki and adds at the end, "I don't think it was the cat that was lost."

"No," says Loki looking at his plate. "I suspect not."

Darcy stares at her silverware. For a part-time, never around for long cat, Cock Block does seem to turn up at the right times. She purses her lips. She's supposed to think of him as CB.

"But how is he now?" Loki says, and Darcy looks up. With a smirk and a wave of a hand he adds, "Franz, not Cock Block."

"He's doing well," she says, and tells him.

It's a nice dinner/ Darcy still doesn't think she's quite extracted all the details of the gopher story. Of course, trying to wheedle them out of Loki was half the fun. She doesn't want the evening to end, and as they're leaving the restaurant, it occurs to her that for the first time in years it doesn't have to end. She's free.

As the air of the warm fall night hits them, Darcy says, "Do you want to come over to my place?" They're arm in arm. She looks up at his human features and grins. "You could slip into something more comfortable." He lifts an eyebrow and entwines their fingers and she flushes. She hadn't meant it like that. Had she?

She shrugs and looks away. "I mean, you can be yourself...we can sit around and watch Star Trek, or the latest TED Talks, have a beer." She glances quickly at Loki-Sanchez. His brown eyes almost look sad, but there is a swirl of green and they're in her apartment.

She looks up at him again and he's blue; he has the starburst patterned raised striations on his cheeks, and the striations like a crown above his eyes. Are they more prominent now? She can't tell, really. She is immersed in those eyes that are now a warm orange red, and glowing. Darcy laughs, just because she's happy and he smiles. Arm still in his, she lifts herself to her tippy toes - even higher than the heels she's already wearing, and gives him a kiss on the cheek.. "It is you!" she says kissing the other cheek because she can't resist. And maybe she holds it too long. Maybe.

He doesn't say anything, which is strange, because quick quips are something of a sport to him. She drops down to her heels, looks up, and Loki is staring down at her. His smile is completely gone and he almost looks angry. Darcy swallows, suddenly very self conscious. Maybe she's like his mom to him now. Frigga's beautiful, but she's one of the only Aesir to allow herself to age - and he hasn't aged. Maybe she reminds him of his mother and maybe she's just made him very uncomfortable.

Unhooking their arms and backing up, she says, "I'm sorry, I..."

"Darcy," he says, and he does sound angry, but he isn't letting go of her hand. She doesn't have time to process it. He reels her in by their entwined fingers, his free hand drops to her lower back, and he pulls her forehead to his.

They stand like that for just a few heavy heartbeats; but it feels like an eternity. Darcy can't move. Can hardly breathe. She's frozen, even though she wants to kiss him so very badly. She closes her eyes and reaches blindly to touch the striations on his cheek.

He pulls her tight to him, and she can feel his body, lean and strong against hers. A jolt of electricity that could be magic even if it isn't shoots down her spine.

And then he kisses her.

Chapter Text

Loki is certain that the kiss he gives Darcy cannot be misconstrued. It is a shared language across their races. An invitation. Maybe a plea.

At first she does not respond, but then her purse falls to the ground with a soft thud and her lips are working beneath his in a clear answer. Her free hand falls across his chest, and her nails graze a sensitive striation beneath his shirt. He pulls back with a gasp to avoid biting her lower lip and looks away, unable to meet her gaze.

Darcy stills the hand on his chest, and for a moment they are both motionless, the only sound their ragged breathing. He hadn't planned on this. He'd told himself when she made the invitation to come home with her that sitting on the couch, watching television together, or laughing over a beer would be fine.

But now that the opportunity is presenting itself he needs this like air, water or magic. There is just one issue, one thing he must not leave unambiguous with her.

Darcy rises on her tiptoes and puts a kiss timidly on his cheek, right where his skin is raised and he fists his hand against her back.

"Loki?" she whispers.

His words almost flee him, but he manages to say it through gritted teeth. "Darcy, I still cannot give you time."

It is as difficult to say as, Brother, I am sorry.

Pulling away, just a little, Darcy says, "Oh."

Not meeting her eyes, Loki says, "I have an obligation...to SHIELD." More than that, to Earth and to Jotunheim. A red ledger he has to wipe clean. A purpose he needs to fullfill.

Taking a breath he whispers, "It will take me off world for...an extended length of time."

"Like when you were gone for 5 years in Jotunheim?" says Darcy.

He decides it's a close enough approximation. "Yes," he whispers, his lips very close to her ear.

Darcy is too quiet. Which is the same as no.

He lets go of her hand and pulls her in close. Resting his chin on the top of her head, he revels in how soft she is, how good she smells. He lets his hand run up and down her spine, but it is nothing inappropriate. He closes his eyes. Really, is there anywhere else he'd rather be?

"Yes," she says.

"Pardon?" says Loki, eyes opening.

"Yes," says Darcy. "It's okay."

What's okay? The hand on her back? He really didn't think he was breaking any taboos, and she feels so perfect next to him - is he pressed too close? Even if he is, he thinks he may just play dumb because her breasts, rubbing against him are exquisitely soft, even through the layers of clothing.

Darcy pushes back with too much force for Loki to ignore. Before his brain is really processing what is going on, her hands go to his cheeks, her thumbs just brushing the delicate striations beneath his eyes. Her touch starts an electric cascade of pleasure that goes everywhere and nearly makes him dizzy. She rises to her tip toes and the motion gives him just enough warning for the kiss that comes next.

It's difficult to kiss with finesse when you're smiling like a silly schoolboy.

Darcy drops down to her heels. "I have no idea what I'm doing," she says, shaking her head and scowling slightly. "It's been so long."

Loki feels like laughing. He's aroused, happy, and this has all the appearance of being horribly awkward and absolutely delicious. Catching her hands, fighting back the laugh, he leans his forehead against hers and employs a Midgardian idiom. "I'm sure it's like riding a bicycle, once you learn how..."

He moves to kiss her, but before his mouth is on hers, she says, "Have you ever tried to ride a bicycle after not riding one for a while? It's hard, I don't know why -"

He silences her with the kiss. For a moment they stand in the tiny foyer, devouring one another. His free hand sliding along every forbidden curve, her nails raking against his back - the suit coat he's wearing keeping the pleasure from being too much. He's not sure who sets them in motion, stumbling and spinning together into the living room, their lips coming together, their teeth, their tongues. Loki drops her hand and slides out of the suit coat he's wearing, shrugging it off one arm before getting frustrated and just making the damn thing disappear completely.

The backs of his knees hit the couch and Darcy rakes her nails down his chest and he freezes as his skin heats and his body pulses.

"Like that, do you?" Darcy asks.

Stifling a shudder, Loki raises an eyebrow. Like is not quite the right word. Instead of answering, he lets himself sink onto the edge of the couch and pulls her by the hips so she's standing between his knees. Now his face is just at the level of her breasts. Smirking up at her, he finds a nipple beneath the fabric and sucks, hard.

Darcy makes a little whimpering noise. He looks up to see her tilting back her head. Her hands go to his hair and his go to the tie holding her simple black wrap dress together.

He sucks hard on the other nipple, making sure the cloth is drenched. Darcy presses hard against him and moans. With a deft movement of his wrist, the tie of the dress releases. He leans back and opens it, letting the fabric spill over her shoulders and pool on the floor.

She is wearing his favorite bra, he's admired it discreetly in his feline form many times. It's black lace that doesn't hide much of anything really. He can see the warm rose of her nipples through it, and it lifts her breasts up as though they are beautiful, delicious, abundant offerings.

Considering the scenery, Loki thinks that it is really very much to his credit that he manages to look up and meet her eyes. She's giving him a knowing smirk.

Lifting his hands to cup her breasts, he restrains a sigh. The weight, the softness, in his palms is just perfect. With a smirk of his own he tries to shrugs nonchalantly - as though he doesn't want to rip off her panties, make his clothing vanish and pull her on top of him right now.

He breathes a gust of magically cold air onto one breast, and a thin layer of frost forms. With an "ooh," Darcy arches towards him.

"Your turn," Darcy breathes. "Take off your shirt."

Loki just stares up at her, for a moment her words an unintelligible jumble. And then he sees his hands against her skin as though for the first time, blue, the raised marking on the backs in stark relief. Her skin is like porcelain and so smooth and unblemished.

Darcy slides into his lap, knees straddling him. "Loki," she whispers, "I've seen you burnt to a crisp, and with frog feet. Really, you can take off the shirt."

He knows she won't care, but it is something that is difficult to feel. He just sits motionless like a fool, like an idiot, a boy. Darcy puts her fingers up on the first button and meets his gaze. All he can do is nod.

She works the buttons loose one by one, pausing to press kisses to his lips, and his cheeks. When she gets to the last one, she helps him peel the shirt off.

He still has his undershirt on, but his arms will be bare, and the veins on his forearms are especially prominent. So he concentrates, uses his magic to smooth his skin. Darcy looks down his arms, and then up at him quizzically. "You're scowling," she says. And he is. A little. He can disguise himself as a cat, or a human, and have infinite control. But when he is in this form there is a template his body naturally wants to return to. She brushes a hand against his cheek. A few moments ago it would have made him buck against her and throb, but now all sensation is dulled.

"Loki," Darcy says. "Just let go."

He doesn't have the luxury of eternity with her. He meets Darcy's eyes. Despite the fine lines below them, they still have a wide open innocent look. Averting his gaze he relaxes and feels his skin rise and twist. His eyes flit down to his arms, and Darcy's eyes follow. The ridges on his lower arms are so thick they are almost a texture.

"It's likened to tree bark, the patterns on frost giant skin." He chuckles mirthlessly. "In Asgard, 'put a log on the fire' is a bit of a double entendre."

"I think you're beautiful," Darcy says, tracing a raised track along the inside of his elbow. He closes his eyes and his hips buck slightly against hers.

"Stop being self-conscious, or I'll start being self-conscious about sitting in your lap and being forty-four," Darcy says.

Loki shakes his head and says in a low voice, "Don't do that." It would make things so much less fun.

Leaning in, Darcy hums against his lips and slides her hands beneath his tee and up his stomach. As she does, her bust dips forward and he has a lovely view of those marvelous pillows from above. The sensations: her softness against his hardness, the electrical currents shooting through his skin, it's nearly too much. He takes a sharp breath that comes out a hiss and grabs her hips, grinding her against him. She slips her hands back down, raking her nails over his skin. His fingers sink into her flesh, and he pulls her down harder. His mouth opens as he feels himself uncoiling beneath her.

With ragged movement he catches her hands and catches his breath. He feels himself flush a deep shade of ultramarine.

"Darcy," he says. "Perhaps we should do this with my Asgardian form."

Darcy straightens on his lap. "Loki, I like you blue...and I love what I can do to you when you're like this." Leaning forward, she flicks her tongue against one of the sensitive spots on his cheek.

He shudders, throbs beneath her, and it takes a moment to speak. "It's not self-consciousness," he mutters.

He flushes again. "I have a reputation nearly two millennia old to maintain."

"Reputation?" says Darcy.

Gritting his teeth, he closes his eyes so he isn't looking at her breasts and tries not to think about what they would look like as he pounds inside her, swaying to his rhythm. "I don't think in this form I can maintain adequate control."

"You think you'll hurt me?" Darcy asks, kissing his other cheek.

He locks his arms and hips to keep from doing something he'll regret. Teeth still clenched, he says, "No, I think..." That this will be very short. He takes a short breath. "That you will be left unfulfilled."

Darcy shifts in his lap and he almost groans. "You need to relax," she says.

Loki huffs. So easy for her to say.

Gently pushing his hands off her, she stands up. "Lie down. I have an idea."

Loki opens his eyes and scowls at her. She smiles down at him. Between the sweetness of her smile and the fact she's only wearing that particular lingerie ensemble and heels...compliance doesn't seem unreasonable.

Loki lies back on the couch and arches an eyebrow up at her. Darcy sets herself down near his knees and then leans forward on her hands so her mouth is directly above his hips, the suit pants he's wearing not hiding his arousal particularly well at all.

And then he knows what she's thinking, and normally he'd be all for it - except normally he'd be in control, at the moment however. "No," he says.

With a wide smile, Darcy bends down kisses the end of his length. Her face, her gorgeous full lips, the heightened sensitivity of his natural state. Her hands go to his zipper and he finds himself completely at a loss for words.

x x x x

Loki gasps for breath and stares at the ceiling, aftershocks of pleasure still rocking through his system. He untangles his hands from Darcy's hair and puts them over his face. It really didn't last long.

Darcy crawls up his body and lies down on his chest. He peeks at her through his fingers.

Smiling she says, "Feeling more relaxed now?"

He huffs. "If I wasn't so relaxed I'd be furious."

She smirks like a satisfied cat and gives a long, "Hmmmmmmm..." Leaning forward she kisses him and he can taste himself in her mouth. Their tongues slide together in a languid dance and he slides his hands down her back and over the soft rise of her backside.

Pulling away, he licks her lips, and then whispers, "You know you will pay for this."

"Promises, promises," she says.

He's actually finding he is a little angry. "I will make you beg."

She sighs much too happily and he finds himself becoming aroused again.

"Stand up," he says and it comes out a hiss.

Darcy blinks and rises. He wants to catch her breasts in his mouth but restrains himself. Instead he sits up, zips his pants and tucks in the t-shirt he's still wearing.

Standing in front of him, she says, "Hey, no fair, I'm nearly naked."

Raising an eyebrow, Loki reaches forward and yanks her panties down over her hips. "Now you're more nearly naked."

She scowls at him.

Tilting his head he says, "What? Do you suddenly feel exposed? Vulnerable?"

Her eyes narrow.

Pointing he says, "To the bedroom. March."

She bites her lip like she's biting back a smirk. In retaliation he leans forward and nips her hip just firmly enough to make her yelp.

Pulling back he says, "March."

Darcy turns but before she can move he grabs her waist. He puts a kiss on the red spot where he nipped her. "Now," he says.

x x x x

Much later, when his face is very wet with her juices, and he feels like his honor is restored - she did beg, quite sincerely, he finally allows himself to climb above her. Darcy looks up at him, with slightly wild eyes. Her hands go to his face, she caresses his cheeks and wraps one of her legs around his hip, the heel of her shoe biting into his skin. He drapes her other leg over his arm. He's completely naked, and completely jotunn. With a sigh he slowly sinks into her. Darcy's mouth falls open but she makes no sound.

His eyes close with the exquisiteness of the moment. There is the tactile sensation, pushing into a woman is like slipping between warm, wet, heavy silken pillows. And there is the jolt of electricity that seems to run from the tip of his length to the base of his skull. Both of these sensations are familiar but more intense in this form.

He opens his eyes. Darcy is smiling up at him.

And then there is the emotional sensation. Like coming home after being out in the cold for centuries.

"Hi," says Darcy still smiling, completely guilelessly. She is mostly guileless, she always has been.

This short time is a gift, and he's been very silly, being worried about honor with her. He pulses involuntarily inside her. Closing his eyes he takes a sharp breath. Releasing it, he opens his eyes and looks down.

A smile that is easy and guileless comes to his own lips. It feels wonderful, like releasing a heavy burden, or slipping into his real skin.

"Hello," he says. Darcy laughs, and Loki begins to move.

Chapter Text

Darcy wakes up to an empty bed. She reaches out and touches the pillow next to her. It's cold. Closing her eyes for a moment she wishes for Loki to materialize. But he doesn't. She pulls her hand back, closes her eyes, and buries her face in the pillow. She doesn't cry. In fact, she smiles, even if it's bittersweet. How many years will her memories keep her warm?

x x x x

Darcy woke on her side in darkness, her back pressed to something cool and hard, a weight draped over her waist, her fingers splayed with another's entwined between them. For a moment she thought it was another dream - the linked hands could only be a dream of Loki. She squeezed the hand, and it squeezed back. Closing her eyes, she felt the marvelous feel of muscles spent in positions they hadn't enjoyed in a long time.

It was no dream, and he was still with her. Darcy wiggled and rolled over, disengaging their fingers. Loki was a shadow silhouetted against the light creeping between the cracks in the shade. His eyes fluttered open, two warm orange lanterns, and she laughed.

"What's so funny?" he whispered, finding her hand in the darkness, slipping his fingers against her own again.

"It's just, I think that usually when people talk about the light of their lover's eyes they're talking metaphorically," she said. And then she stilled, her body going rigid, and his, too. Lovers. It was maybe not the right word. Doesn't it have connotations of something with permanence? Something eternal? He said he still can't give her time...maybe this is it. And if it is; that is alright. Who else would she want to step into the future with this way?

The hand in hers squeezed. Pressing his forehead to hers, Loki whispered, "I have two weeks, 1 day and 5 hours, Darcy," he said, the specificity startling her.

There was something important about that date too, but she couldn't place what it was at that moment.

"I'm yours in that time." He took a breath. "If you'll have me."

"Of course I'll have you!" It came out a slightly undignified squeak. Darcy's lips spreading into a smile so wide it hurt.

Loki pulled his forehead from hers. Her eyes had adjusted to the dimness and she could see him smiling. It was a completely uncalculated smile, wide, stretching all the way to his eyes. And innocent, the way smiles from a so-called-god of mischief and chaos aren't supposed to be.

x x x x

Darcy lifts her head from the pillow. The memory of that uncalculated smile makes something in her stomach uncoil and puts her on the verge of tears more than anything else. The alarm in her phone sounds. It's time for her weekly Skype call with Franz and Max. Turning off the alarm, she pulls herself up and finds a silken blue pajama top with a cinch tie waist that David got for her years ago. It has a matching pair of pants. David loved the set because, "If you only wear zee top it iz sexy. If you put on zee pants you can wear it in front of the boyz. They never know zee memoriez I have with you only in the top..."

Loki liked it, too.

x x x x

Darcy stepped back into the bedroom wearing only her pajama top, cinched at her waist. It went to just below her hips and wasn't really decent, but she'd left the room in a hurry. A noise in the office had awoken her. Thinking it was Cock Block, she'd slipped the top on quickly, tied it automatically, and dashed out of the bedroom to try and catch the sneaky creature. But there was no cat, only a breeze through an open window rifling some papers on her desk.

As she came back into the bedroom, she was scowling a little bit. Loki's back was turned to her, a blue storm cloud in white sheets. As she climbed back into bed, he turned his head, raised an eyebrow - perhaps at her expression - and then rolled over onto his back.

Her hand went to untie the sash at her waist band, but his hand stopped it. His eyes drifted down over her body, before they came back to her own. "What's wrong?" he asked. Sitting upright, he reached out with a hand to stroke the curve of her side.

"I thought I heard Cock Block." She frowned. "I wanted to give you a proper introduction...and I haven't seen him in a while. I'm worried about him."

His face went slack for a moment, and the hand stopped, but then he said, "I wouldn't worry about him, Darcy. He's a tom cat." He smirked. "They get around."

With a sigh, he reached for her and pulled her so she was straddling his legs. Sliding his hands down her back, he pulled her closer. "So, any idea where you want to go for lunch?"

Darcy looks down. "I guess Alfheim is out of the question?"

Loki pressed a kiss to her neck and huffed. "I am afraid so."

"Vanaheim? You aren't banned there, are you?"

Pulling back, Loki said, "No, but if I took you there, they'd kill me."

Darcy's brow furrowed. "Why?"

Loki tilted his head and looked away. His hands found the edge of the fabric on her hips, but didn't slide under. Instead, he traced small circles through the fabric. "The Vanier have never believed that Asgardians should meddle in the affairs of humans. They cannot stop us from doing so here on Midgard, but they can help it in their own realm."

"They don't like humans?" said Darcy.

Loki pressed a kiss to the side of her breast through the fabric. "No, they have no quarrel with humans. They just don't believe Asgard should interfere with the evolution of humans or any other race." He pressed another kiss a little closer to her nipple. "Be it by coming here and trying to take over, shooting your spaceships out of the sky, or bringing you along for a tour."

"Oh," she was disappointed but was doing her best to hide it.

Loki straightened, and Darcy noticed a green mist rising into the air.

Putting his head above her shoulder, he pulled her close again. "Jotunheim is actually quite lovely, in a stark, bleak way...what little I've seen of it. I never got to see much more than the receiving halls, and some of the mines. I wish I could see more of it with you..." He reached up and brushed a lock of hair from her eyes. "To see it through your eyes..."

Looking away he said, "Darcy, I can't risk it. As my experience with Steve shows, it can be dangerous, no matter how innocent the intent. Too much is at stake to risk another accident."

Darcy blinked. Around them green mist rose higher. Face very serious, Loki said, "Sometime soon you will get the opportunity to travel to Jotunheim. Promise me when you get that opportunity, you will take it."

Darcy tilted her head. As far as she knew Asgard was still claiming the space between solar systems off limits. The upcoming moon-shuttle launch, a few days after Loki's upcoming departure, is the most ambitious of Earth's extraterrestrial adventures. "How?"

"Just promise," he said, pushing his forehead to hers.

"Okay," she said. A smile crossed her face. "And will I see you there?"

Loki said nothing for a moment. And then he said, "You'll see for me."

"What -"

"Shhhh. There are things I cannot speak of," said Loki. His hands flowed over her back, and along her sides. Darcy had known him long enough to know when he started talking in riddles it was time to let her questions go.

For a few moments they were silent. His hands continued rolling over her, the silken top shifting against her skin. And then he took in a long breath of air and said, "I love how soft you are."

Darcy smiled and put her hands on his arms. "And I love how hard you are."

Loki tilted his hips up a little bit and gave a soft huff. She took a deep breath as she felt him below her, separated by only a wisp of fabric. But she wasn't going to give in so easily.

"Actually, I was referring to these," she said, stroking his biceps. She slipped her hands down to his stomach. "And these." As her hands brushed the ripples of the six pack around his torso, she grazed some sensitive areas. Loki's hips tilted upwards again, but by his sudden intake of breath she could tell it wasn't intentional.

"Seriously, Loki," she whispered, enjoying the tease. "Work out much?"

Voice a little raspy, he said, "Sparring with Thor and Steve."

She brought her nails up his front and used them to trace long lines that started at his chest and didn't stop until below his hips. "But I thought you hated sparring?"

Almost unconsciously, Loki said, "Despise it. But have to stay in shape..."

His hands came around to her front and he cupped her breasts, thumbs brushing her nipples. It was her turn to gasp. She sat up a little straighter and a thin bit of fabric that had separated below pulled away.

Loki's eyes met hers, his pupils dark and wide. She pulled herself higher on her knees and positioned herself above him.

And that's when her phone's alarm rang. Darcy's eyes went wide and to the side. "It's time for my weekly Skype call with Franz and Max."

His lips came together in a thin line that could only be described as a pout. For a moment Darcy swore the air shimmered as though by heat. And then he narrowed his eyes and flopped down on the bed. "Go!" he said raising a hand in the air.

"Are you sure?" said Darcy, already pulling away.

In response, Loki put a pillow over his face.

Darcy slipped on the pants that went with the pajama top.

From beneath the pillow covering Loki's face came a muffled, "Aarrrrrgggghhhhhhhhhhhhh..." and then he kicked his feet like a disgruntled toddler. All things considered, it's pretty gracious on his part. But he has children, he understands.

With a laugh Darcy headed into the office.

Darcy finds herself in front of her computer three minutes before the call with Franz and Max. It is just her and the ghosts of the men who she's loved most. There is the desk that David refurbished for her, and all his notebooks in the bookshelf. She looks beyond her monitor. And there is the space beyond the desk where two calls ago Loki had stood.

x x x x

Darcy straightened her hair, using the computer's camera view as a mirror. She connected with Franz and then with Max, their faces appearing in a split screen.

"Mom, you're late," said Max, sounding faintly indignant.

"Hey, Mom," said Franz leaning in to adjust his camera. "What'cha been doing?"

"Well, I ..." said Darcy.

There was a pop in the air beyond the monitor. Outside the line of vision of the camera Loki appeared, wearing a long black t-shirt, layered with a short black tee with the words, "Black Sabbath" on it. With one hand he mimed holding something cylindrical up to his cheek. Opening his mouth, he pumped the hand, making a bulge in his cheek with his tongue to the same rhythm.

Darcy's mouth fell open. It was the best pantomime of a blow job she'd ever seen.

Loki smirked. She narrowed her eyes, looked at the screen, and then said, "Just a moment. I hear something at the window." Hitting the mute button, she stood up so she was outside of Franz's and Max's line of vision. With her straightest face, in her sweetest tone, she said, "If you need a toothbrush there's extras underneath the sink in the bathroom."

Loki stopped his rude gesture. From the quirk of his lips she could tell he was fighting a smile. Sitting back down, she unmuted her computer and tried to stifle a smirk of her own. God of Mischief, indeed.

There was a poof of green, and Loki vanished.

Over the speaker Max said, "How was your show?"

She gave them the details, but didn't tell Franz she'd met his some time chess partner there.

They were moving on to discuss her sons' lives, when Loki popped back in the room, still outside their line of vision. This time he had a toothbrush in his mouth - and he looked rather bored. Darcy should have known to be worried.

Max started to talk about joining the rowing team and Loki started pantomiming rowing - toothbrush still in mouth, bored expression still on his face. It was hard, but Darcy successfully stifled a laugh. When Franz started talking about a robotics competition and Loki began a surprisingly good imitation of a street performer robot, she cracked up.

Loki beamed. Franz and Max said nearly in unison, "Mom, is someone there?"

Blinking at them she said, "No, no one. Nobody."

Looking wounded, Loki mouthed the words, No one? Nobody?

Franz went back to talking about the robotics competition - but it was hard to pay attention. Loki was grimacing comically and putting his hands over his heart. There was a swirl of green, he threw back his head, and suddenly there was a raw, slimy, bleeding, heart in his hand - Darcy knew it was a heart from a photoshoot she'd done with a cardiologist.

She screamed.

"Mom!" said Franz.

"What's wrong?" asked Max.

Chest completely intact, Loki plucked a bright silver knife out of the air and started stabbing the heart over and over again.

Standing up, Darcy shouted, "Get that bloody thing out of my house!"

Loki looked up at her, his face the picture of innocence.

"Mom!" screamed her children.

Sitting down quickly, shooting Loki a glare, she said, "It's just Cock Block...he...found something. Something bloody and dead."

She glanced up to see Loki smirk. There was another swirl of green and a pop, and he was gone.

"Where's Cock Block?" said Franz.

"You know bringing their humans their kill is the way cats show their love," said Max.

Darcy glared at the camera.

And then there was a soft thud on the desk beside her.

"Awww, it's Cock Block!" shouted Franz.

"Is that a heart in his mouth?" said Max. He was pre-med. "I bet he stole it from the butcher down the street."

Darcy turned her head to see Cock Block on the edge of the desk, a raw heart in his mouth. He sidled up beside her and dropped the organ. It fell with a plop on her clean desk. Darcy's nose wrinkled up and she found queasiness rising in her stomach.

"It is a heart!" said Max, sounding way too excited. "I think from a sheep."

Darcy blinked at the raw meat, fighting back nausea. And then it clicked.

Cock Block's mysterious absences and Loki's "business trips"...they did coincide, didn't they? Whenever Loki came back she always complained to him that she hadn't seen Cock Block in a while,and Loki would always tell her not to worry. And sure enough, usually within 24 hours, Cock Block would show up at her window. Almost always at night. He'd crawl into bed with her, or join her in the bathroom while she bathed...

Narrowing her eyes at the cat, Darcy said, "I'm going to kill you."

"Mom!" yelled Max.

"You can't kill him," said Franz, sounding horrified. "He just gave you his heart!"

Darcy turned and stared at her sons, too mad to say anything. Loki-Cock Block sat down, wrapped his tail around his feet and purred. It sounded suspiciously like a laugh.

x x x x

Darcy taps her finger on the desk. As soon as she got off that call with her sons she had chased Loki-Cock Block into the bedroom and walloped the "cat" with a pillow. Cock Block had morphed into a Loki in hysterics.

Her computer chimes as her sons come online. Darcy clicks to accept their calls.

The conversation is dominated by the upcoming launch of the Stark Industries moon shuttles with their payloads of solar panels. The boys are dying to see it. Darcy's feelings are mixed. David spent so much of his life on this project. And Loki won't confirm, but she thinks David gavehis life to the project.

Tapping her finger on the desk, Darcy looks to the side as the boys describe the journey of the ships. Loki has been gone a few days - he'll miss the launch. She did ask him if his trip had anything to do with the moon shuttles. He'd laughed and said, "Moon shuttles? Not at all. I'll be on a more...ceremonial assignment."

"Mom?"

Darcy blinks at the screen.

"Are you okay?" says Max.

"You look a little blue," says Franz.

They're looking at her so earnestly. Their eyes are Asian, like David's, but startlingly green. They have Darcy's nose and wide lips, their father's black hair. Their personalities are more like David's - only they go even beyond him in the math-science-geek department. It's strange how different they are from her and yet how much she loves them. She thinks even now that she could give up her life for them, or kill for them.

"Is Cock Block gone again?" says Max.

Darcy smiles bitterly at how close to the mark that is. "Yes, yes, I think that's it."

"Don't worry, Mom," says Franz. "He always shows up when you really need him."

Darcy doesn't start to cry at that, but her eyes well up. And then the conversation becomes nothing but her boys reminiscing on Cock Block's antics. Darcy sits back in her chair and begins to wonder how much of Loki's visits in feline form were about her and how much of them were about recreating the family he lost in Asgard. She knows he divorced his wife Sigyn and disowned his sons Nari and Valli when he began planning his sabotage of Thor's coronation. He told her he did it so they would have impunity - and that they never forgave him.

Her phone chimes. Shaking herself, she looks at note from her calendar that pops up. "I have a meeting with a client in an hour, guys. I have to go."

"Watch the moon shuttle launch!" says Max.

"Leave the window open for Cock Block," says Franz.

Darcy says her goodbyes and gets ready. Not too long after, she's in the foyer at the Avengers' mansion. She has prints to deliver to Steve. He meets her there alone. He's wearing workout gear.

Darcy's wearing a neat pants suit and a light coat and scarf. Her hand clenches involuntarily. She feels naked.

x x x x

In the four days since Darcy has said yes to Loki's offer to 'be hers,' their life has fallen into a pattern. Wake up at a decent hour with a plan to do something or go somewhere for the day. Eat something. Get distracted by sex. Fall asleep. Wake up famished. Nix plans. Eat at one of the local diners. Possibly go somewhere, possibly come home and get distracted again. Take nap. Go out to a restaurant Darcy would never ordinarily be able to afford. Maybe go to a bar or a late night show afterwards. Come back to Darcy's house. Be distracted, fall asleep. Repeat.

On the fourth day something new happened. It was after breakfast, and after their post-breakfast distraction. Darcy's head was on Loki's shoulder and they were both drifting off to sleep when Loki's cell started to chime the Star Spangled Banner. There was a pop in the air, and she felt Loki shift under her but didn't open her eyes.

"It's Steve," Loki said. "He is inviting me to lunch. He wants me to meet the new girlfriend."

"Hmmmmmmm," said Darcy. "I don't like the idea of you leaving." She sighed. "But you should go. You won't see him for a while."

Loki tensed beneath her. "You won't come with me?"

Darcy opened her eyes. Loki's orange-red gaze was focused on her. He looked hurt.

"Well, of course I'll go if you want me to," she said.

Relaxing instantly, Loki turned back to the phone in his hand and started texting with a thumb. "I'm telling him we'll meet him at two."

Darcy did her best not to tense up.

Normally when they went out, Loki was all over Darcy. An arm around her shoulder, or more often, his hand in hers, fingers entwined. Nothing inappropriate. Well, not if anyone was watching. He'd pulled her into a dark corner on occasion and been less than appropriate, but it had always been fun to oblige.

Darcy wondered how he'd be around Steve. Were they hiding the change in their relationship? She would have asked, but remembering Loki's look of hurt earlier, she decided to play it by ear.

At lunch, Loki was as affectionate as ever. As soon as his utensils were down, his arm was around Darcy's shoulder or his hand was in her lap, fingers in hers. Darcy's smiles came easy. She and Loki bounced the conversation off each other effortlessly, and had Steve, his date Sharon, and themselves laughing.

They had several more visits with Steve during their time together, and with Jane and Thor. Loki behaved in exactly the same way.

At the time it felt wonderful to feel so cherished and possessed.

x x x x

Darcy stares at Steve. She feels so exposed, her loss on display.

"How are you doing?" Steve says. And the since Loki left is implicit in those four words.

Shrugging, Darcy says, "Alright, I guess." She lifts her portfolio like a shield. "Where would you like to look at the final prints?"

Nodding, Steve says, "This way."

They're walking through a hallway when Steve says, "You know, it was too short. But what you and Loki had...it seemed perfect."

Darcy looks down. It had been perfect - or nearly. But there was a reason for that. "We didn't have time to get on each other's nerves," she said. It was like a honeymoon.

"You've had plenty of time to get on each other's nerves," says Steve.

"We actually did get in a pretty nasty fight," she says quickly, her voice cold and inflectionless. And she knows what she's doing. She's trying to erect armor.

x x x x

"I have to get ready," Darcy said. It was 8 AM. She was throwing clothes down onto the side of the bed that wasn't occupied by her frost giant...whatever. Loki was leaning on one arm, looking at her wardrobe selections.

Picking at a button on a suit coat he says, "Why don't you play hooky today?"

Turning around, Darcy scowled and headed to the bathroom. "I have been playing hooky. I haven't worked on my own stuff for the past five days, and that's bad enough."

She turned on the water in the shower above the bath. From the doorway behind her, Loki said, "But surely a vacation now and then is in order?"

And Darcy broke. Spinning around she said, "Don't you get it? This is a commission. It's how I support myself, yes, I have David's life insurance, but I've still got two boys in private college, and retirement. And I can't fuck up."

Loki didn't look hurt or angry, only quizzical. "If it is only money, I can help with that."

Darcy stared at him, and her mouth fell open. She sank down to the edge of the tub and put her head in her hands. "It's not just the money. It's what I do, it's who I am. And it's all that I'll have when..." She waved a hand at him, and despite herself she actually started to cry.

It would be all she had when he left. She dropped her head and wiped her cheek.

For a few moments there was only the sound of the shower. But then Loki came forward; his hands went to her shoulders. He was so close, his body so long and lean, and she wanted to stay...and she didn't. Couldn't.

She looked up at his face. It was hard and cold. "You're right ,of course," he said. And then he said, "There's something in your nose."

Embarrassed, Darcy put a hand up to her face, but Loki was quicker. With a flick of his wrist he tweaked her nose and pulled a flower out of mid-air. He presented it to her with a smirk.

x x x x

Darcy opens her portfolio in the dining room of the Avengers' mansion. Steve starts flipping through the pictures.

After her fight with Loki' she had gone to her client. Loki had gone to spar with Steve and Thor here at the mansion, saying he should have been going regularly anyway. The rest of his visit they'd been more careful to give each other space.

As if reading her mind, Steve says, "It was fun having him here so often the past month or so. He's a challenging opponent to spar with." He leans back on his heels looking at a photo of Thor. "And he and Thor really went at it," Steve says.

Darcy rifles through the photos. She has one of Steve and Loki she wants him to see.

"Did you know Loki has a sword?" Steve says and Darcy freezes.

"He used it in some of his matches with Thor."

Darcy straightens and her eyes go to the window beyond the grand dining table. "Lævatein," she says. "I saw it when he took me to his home."

"His home?"

Darcy shakes her head, her eyes going wide. "His place here in Manhattan. I wheedled and whined until he took me there."

x x x x

"There, are you satisfied?" said Loki as Darcy walked out of the green cloud that had followed their teleportation.

"The living room is bigger than my apartment," she said.

"Yes, I suppose so," said Loki tersely.

Darcy looked around. The outer walls were floor to ceiling windows, now overlooking the nighttime lights of Manhattan. All the other walls were lined with bookshelves, and, she noted, artwork. Some of it hers.

She peeked in a doorway. There was a desk and some large computer monitors.

"The office," said Loki. His voice sounding far away. Darcy moved on. There was an enormous kitchen with stainless steel appliances that looked like it had never been used, a powder room, dark with slate tiles on the floor and walls, and a wide open dining area. There were many closets. Darcy opened one. "It's empty," she said. "I told you I only use this place to eat and meditate," said Loki. He looked tense and uncomfortable.

When she came to the last doorway, she smiled back at him and waggled her eyebrows. "I can guess what this is."

Loki rolled his eyes, but he smiled - for the first time since they'd arrived. Not waiting for an answer, Darcy slipped in the door. Sure enough there was a bedroom. Her eyes went immediately to the enormous king size bed and she gasped. There, like a scar of black on the dark green duvet was a sword in a black scabbard, its silver handle gleaming dully in the low light. Darcy swallowed and felt a chill.

Loki stepped quickly by her. "Lævatein," he said. Picking it up he said, "I keep it for sentimental purposes. It's mostly ritualistic, really."

He disappeared into what looked like an enormous walk-in-closet. When he came back, he said, "Shall we go back to your place?"

Darcy sat down on the edge of the bed. "Comfy," she said, giving a little bounce. She looked backwards. "And huge."

"I like your bed," said Loki, coming forward so he was almost at her knees. "I sleep better there."

Darcy fell back onto the mattress and let her hands drift up as though she was making a snow angel. She was wearing a light gray form fitting dress she knew he loved. It had a princess neckline that was absolutely demure, and it went to just below her knee. It hid everything important and nothing at all. Loki described it as "Innocently wicked."

"Maybe you just need to make some better memories here," she said sweetly.

Smirking, Loki put a knee down on the bed to one side of her. She grinned up at him. Raising an eyebrow, he put his other knee on her other side, and then he dropped down onto his hands so he was on all fours above her.

"Maybe you're right," he said, pressing his lips down to hers.

But Darcy was wrong. She woke, still in Loki's apartment. Loki was beside her, twisting and shaking beneath the sheets. His brow was contorted, and he rattled off words in a language she didn't understand, but the tone sent a chill up her spine. It took her a few moments to realize he was having a nightmare.

Touching him with a hand, she whispered, "Loki, it's alright, it's alright." His body tensed, and then the orange light of his eyes suddenly shone in the dark. For a moment he didn't say anything, just gasped for breath. She heard him swallow.

She slid her head onto his shoulder and he wrapped his arms around her and held her tight. After a while he kissed the top of her head, but said nothing.

"Let's go home," she said.

Loki didn't respond, but a few moments later there was the swirl of green, and then they were lying on top of Darcy's familiar sheets.

x x x x

"Do you know where he's going?" says Steve, and Darcy turns quickly.

Steve's put her photograph down. "All he will tell me," Steve says, "is that he's working for Fury -"

"Causing perfect chaos," says Darcy, running a hand through her hair and turning away. She's heard it so many times, she's stopped asking.

Raising an eyebrow, Steve says, "Yeah...sometimes he says it's what he was always meant to do." He shakes his head, "He's seeking some sort of atonement for Earth and Jotunheim, but I can't figure out what."

Darcy freezes. For some reason, at that moment, David's last words before he died come back to her. Right before he said he loved her...

"Pro...me," Darcy whispers. "Prometheus!"

She looks around wildly. David said he didn't think the shuttles were going to the moon. But before anyone could leave the solar system, they'd have to get past the watchful eyes of Heimdall first.

Darcy swallows. Her breathing sounds too loud.

All the sparring with Steve and Thor with Lævatein...

Ritual. Ceremony.

What was Loki always meant to do, in all the myths? Cause Ragnarok, the end of the world. More specifically, lead the armies of Hell against Asgard - and kill Heimdall. And be killed by him.

She doesn't know how exactly Loki sees it as atonement, but she does know what Loki is doing.

She turns to Steve and grabs his shoulders. "We've got to get to Stark Tower before the shuttle launch. Loki's preparing to die!"

Chapter Text

"Loki's preparing to die!"

In the training room of Avengers Mansion where Thor is pummelling a punching bag, Darcy's voice rings through Thor's ears. Or maybe it is ringing in his heart. Thor is a magical being as much as Loki, though his magic lies in his strength, in his honesty and his courage, and in healing. Occasionally, he hears prayers, and that is essentially what Darcy's cry is.

With a grunt he gives one last punch to the bag and sends it hurling towards the wall. He is in Midgardian workout gear, but as he turns to the door he reaches into the air for Mjolnir. The hammer springs into his hands, and armor ripples outward from his chest as he strides up the stairway and down the hall.

"What are you talking about?" says Steve out of Thor's line of vision.

"Jotunheim," says Darcy. "The moon shuttles are going to Jotunheim. And Asgard...they'll use the Bifrost to shoot them out of the sky!"

So. It is today. He suspected the Stark merchants trip to the moon was a front. Thor steps at that moment into the room, his face hard, his hand tightening around Mjolnir.

Darcy's eyes go to him. "Won't they?"

"Yes," says Thor.

"Take me to Stark Tower!" says Darcy. "We have to stop them."

"No," says Thor. He walks past them towards the doorway to that leads to the backyard.

Running after him, Darcy says, "They're using Loki!"

Thor tilts his head. He is quite sure Fury and Stark think they are using Loki. But Loki is too sane now to be anyone's puppet. If anything, he suspects the opposite is occurring.

Frantically grabbing his arm, Darcy says. "They're sending him to kill Heimdall - aren't they? Aren't they? And Heimdall will kill him!"

"Heimdall may kill Loki, but I doubt Fury has assigned Loki the task of assassin," says Thor. Fury will seek to minimize diplomatic damage. And Thor doubts Loki's first instinct will be to kill Heimdall, anyway. Loki's lived among humans too long and grown as soft as Thor. Besides, as antiquated a weapon as Heimdall is, he is still a weapon. Loki's will not want to leave Asgard defenseless. Sigyn, his sons, Hoenir, and their mother still dwell there.

Holding out a hand, he knocks through the door to the outside.

"Why aren't you calling down lightning, why aren't you going to confront Stark and Fury!" Darcy says following him out, Steve close behind. Tearing at his arm she screams. "Why aren't you angry?"

Turning quickly, Thor grabs her wrist. "Lady Darcy. I am furious. But not at Stark or Fury, or my brother."

For decades he's warned Asgard this day was coming. For years he warned Asgard that their policy of denying humans access to the larger universe was folly and hubris. And for years Asgard told him humans would be no match for them. As close as they watch this world, they do not understand it.

Now he looks up at the sky and scowls. He is worried for his people, on Midgard and in Asgard. He is worried for his brother.

But he's not particularly sorry.

How strange it is, the intersection of human myths and reality. In myth Loki leads the creatures of Hel to bring about Raganok. In mythology Hel is populated by the weak, those who did not die in battle. In this reality Loki is leading the people of Earth, most of whom have no aspirations to die anywhere but in bed.

Lifting his head to the sky, Thor roars. "Father! Heimdall! If you hear this, bring me home so I might lessen the damage!"

There will be damage to Asgard, Midgard, Heimdall - and to his brother.

There is no reply.

x x x x

There is a place in the universe where the threads of space entwine so closely that the difference between here and there, now, before, and later are so miniscule they almost don't exist. Of all the places in the universe, slipping between realms is easiest here.

It is the place where Heimdall the Gatekeeper's vision is most acute, where he can most easily see from Asgard to any of the nine realms, and to the dark places, and the uncharted places as well.

This place is paradoxically where Heimdall's vision is weakest. The shifting strands of space and time make it difficult for Heimdall to see the here and now, and even the gatekeeper can be confused and see before or later and there.

The place is Asgard's Observatory, gateway to the Bifrost, and Heimdall's gatepost. And it is where Loki is hiding. He does not hide in shadow. He literally hides in light, letting the photons bouncing from one gaudy golden wall to another pass through him.

He's been here since the morning he left Darcy - three days ago, and in the twisted time of this place, an eternity. Eternity is a long time to think about things, and the place inspires plenty of things to reflect about.

This is where Heimdall watched the Chitauri torture Loki, but kept it from Thor on Odin's orders for fear the golden son would destroy himself trying to rescue his fallen brother. It is where Heimdall must surely have seen what Baldur was, if not by looking at him directly, by seeing his deeds. Baldur - who fornicated with nearly every woman in Asgard, and some of the boys as well by duplicity and force. Baldur who met his end trying to steal Nanna, the beloved of the human warlord Hothur. The human only prevailed because Loki slipped to Hothur in shadows and gave the secret of Baldur's one weakness, mistletoe. Baldur who sent Aggie running from the palace into the rain...Baldur who killed Helen for letting the world see him for what he was - the dream of the perfect prince.

Loki pointedly does not think of Darcy, or Franx and Max, and how they remind him so much of his own sons. And he doesn't think of his sons, Nari and Valli, so very close. Or even Sigyn. She's moved on to another, but they did not part on poor terms. He never did say he was sorry, though. If he thinks of the good things he might be tempted to walk away. And he can't. Too many lives are depending on him.

Besides, this is his masterpiece. His greatest work of chaos - and most likely his last.

So he remembers all the injustice that is Asgard. There is plenty to think of. Even Odin banishing Thor to Midgard, not wanting to let his sons wreck havoc on his own realm.

Odin is pacing before the raised dais Heimdall stands on, guarding the Biofrost control. Loki isn't surprised they are suspicious on this day. It is why he slipped in earlier, when their guard was down.

Slowing his pace, Odin says, "The three vessels that the merchant Stark plans to send to Earth's moon? Their destination is set?"

Arms crossed, Heimdall does not move from his post. "The three vessels are docked at the space station, orbiting Earth."

Loki can see the space station in his mind's eye. It is nuclear powered, a cone, with 12 spokes springing out to a wheel. Docked to that wheel, at 12, 4 and 8 o'clock are three vessels. At all other positions are thrusters.

Heimdall's voice booms. "All human crew have left the station. The engines of the station are engaging and it is changing position so that the ships' trajectories are in-line with the most efficient path to the moon. Aboard the vessels all crew are prepared to go to the moon. None foresee any other destination."

Odin leans on the staff Gungir and sighs wearily. "If they go to any other destination you know what to do."

"Yes, my king."

"They are too young a race, they know not what they do," Odin says.

"No, my king. The vessels are now disengaging from the station."

Loki tenses.

"Any sign of Loki?" says Odin.

"No, my king."

Loki's shoulders relax a fraction.

"As soon as the humans have reached the moon, resume your search for him," says Odin.

"As you command," says Heimdall.

Odin's eyes scan the Observatory, and for a moment Loki holds his breath. But then the old warrior exits. Loki nearly sighs aloud.

Odin has not been gone ten minutes when Loki's phone starts to ring. Specifically, it starts to play Beethoven's Ode to Joy.

Heimdall turns immediately in Loki's direction, spear upraised.

Smirking, Loki steps out of the light, in his full Jotunn form, and casually turns off the ringer on his phone. He wears Stark Industries armor of vibranium fiber reinforced Kevlar. At his side hangs his sword. He is weak from days spent in magical hiding, but this won't take long. "That's my cue," he says raising his eyebrows.

He reaches out with a hand and the great door of the Observatory closes with a clang that must resound throughout the Realm Eternal.

Heimdall lowers his head, "You only delay the inevitable, Trickster. I will put an end to any mischief your mortal friends are up to as soon as I am done with you."

Clenching his fist, Loki smirks again. "You'd best get to it, then."

Neither of them move.

Heimdall sighs. "You do not have to do this, Trickster. You can go back to your mortal plaything and love her before she withers and dies."

Loki's fist clenches again, and he feels an ache at his core, but he does not waver.

Heimdall shakes his head. "I had hoped that you had grown during your banishment on Midgard."

Loki smirks. "I have grown." He lets the smile drop. "You don't have to do this either, Heimdall. You do not have to be Odin's puppet. You can help establish new order - it will be needed if my tricks work."

Scowling, Heimdall's voice rises. "You admit that your schemes, if they succeed, will bring chaos to Midgard and Jotunheim, the realms you claim to owe debt to, and yet you still pursue them!"

Loki shrugs and smiles with all his teeth. "It will be chaos. But it will be their own."

Heimdall lunges forward, spear upraised. Lævateinis in Loki's hands and blocking the Gatekeeper's onslaught without any conscious thought.

x x x x

"This is all about Prometheus, isn't it?" Darcy says, wind whipping her hair, Steve standing just beyond her.

Thor looks at the two humans. They are so very young.

"No," he says. "It isn't just about Prometheus. Various governments and merchants have launched probes - even manned ships in the past decades, through Einstein-Rosen bridges. They've all been shot down by the Bifrost."

Steve's and Darcy's jaws both drop.

"Don't be surprised you haven't heard of it," Thor says. "No government is going to want the 7 billion inhabitants of Earth to know that there is an alien weapon aimed at their hearts that can be used to end their existence in minutes."

Thor smiles bitterly and looks skyward. "After each attack, I begged my people to reconsider." He tilts his head. First he'd begged, then he'd raged. "They told me to be pleased they are enlightened enough not to destroy your world outright."

Darcy scowls and her lips tremble. "But even if Loki kills-takes care of Heimdall, the Bifrost can still be used to destroy Earth."

Thor shakes his head. "Your people are far cleverer than that." He gazes at the alien cerulean blue vault of Midgard's sky. The humans cast Loki as Thor's sidekick - he thinks even Loki believes it. Thor knows better. Very quietly he says, "And my brother is far cleverer still."

Behind him he hears Steve say, "Darcy, let's go to Stark Tower."

He hears their footsteps leave the garden. Keeping his eyes on the sky, he waits.

x x x x

Heimdall's spear swings down over Loki's head. Loki barely raises his sword in time.

"You grow weary, Laufeyson," Heimdall hisses.

Denying it would take energy Loki doesn't have. Instead he lets himself fade to a whisp of green. Before Heimdall has a chance to swing his gaze to the heavens, Loki re-materializes just a few paces away behind the gatekeeper. "Yoo-hoo, over here." With a smirk he blows the gatekeeper a kiss.

Heimdall grunts and turns but does not advance. His eyes narrow. "What foolery is this?"

His eyes flicker upwards, and for a moment Loki's breath catches in his throat. But the gatekeepr's gaze went to the wrong direction, and he doesn't turn away from Loki. Nor does he engage. Loki has to keep him focused on the present for just a few more minutes, but he doesn't have energy to do much more than parry at this point.

With a smirk, Loki says, "Heimdall, the universe knows the story of your nine mothers, but did you know that there is a story among humans that I am your father?" Not that Loki believes it; in that particular myth he also had the head of a dog. That would be something he'd remember.

Heimdall almost snarls.

Loki looks upwards and smiles. "Nine women at once...you know that is something I would do..." Heimdall takes a step forward, spear at the ready.

Tilting his head back down to Heimdall, Loki says darkly, "And all of Asgard knows I am often the father of monsters. And if you're half frost giant, I guess a monster is what you are."

Heimdall swings his spear wide. Loki doesn't have energy to transport again. He raises Lævatein in a shaky defense.

The next moments move in slow motion. Sparks dance off their weapons. Loki tries a few times to create illusions of himself, but his strength is nearly gone, and Heimdall sees through each trick. It's all he can do to hold his own.

And then Heimdall swings his spear and Lævatein flies from Loki's grasp across the room. The gatekeeper moves forward so quickly Loki falls backwards and hits the floor. He scoots back on his hands as Heimdall advances, the blade of his spear near Loki's throat.

"It's over, Loki," Heimdall says, his lips curled in a snarl.

From a few feet away the Ode to Joy starts to play again. Heimdall and Loki's gazes both sweep to where Loki's phone lies on the floor. Closing his eyes, Loki laughs. "It is over,Heimdall; look above."

The snarl falls from Heimdall's lips, and he lifts his gaze. His mouth drops.

Loki cannot see through the observatory walls, but he knows what Heimdall sees. The space station that had hovered above Earth, that had been the docking point for the vessels bound for the moon - and to Jotunheim, is a space going fortress. And now it is above Asgard.

"If you try to shoot it down," Loki says, "you may succeed. But it will release Midgardian nuclear weapons on Asgard. The same goes if you try to destroy Earth or Jotunheim, or any vessel that travels between them."

Heimdall staggers as though he's been physically struck. "If the humans try to invade Asgard..."

Panting, Loki smiles and shakes his head. "There is nothing here they want badly enough to invade Asgard for." No minerals. No technology that couldn't be gleaned from their alliance with Jotunheim. The only thing Asgard might be good for is tourism. Imagining humans with bum packs roaming the golden streets, Loki bites his lip to restrain a laugh.

Snarling, Heimdall steps forward. "You have planted the seeds of destruction for the Realm Eternal!"

And that may be true. Loki has shifted the power in the Nine Realms from Asgard to Earth and Jotunheim. It won't be long before the Vanir, elves and the dwarves try to establish relationships with humans and to re-establish ties with the frost giants.

But leaning back on his arms, Loki rolls his eyes. "Yes, Realm Eternal, ever since we stole it from the Vanir."

He never did know when to keep his mouth shut.

With a cry of rage, Heimdall charges forward. Loki calls Lævatein to his hand, and lifting his body he swings. Pain shoots through Loki's midsection as Heimdall's head flies through the air.

Panting, Loki's torso is back onto the floor. Glancing down he sees Heimdall's spear protruding from his abdomen. Grimacing, he rubs his face. Ah, the myths, not quite right. In the myths it was Heimdall that cut off Loki's head.

He feels warmth below his back and realizes blood has begun to pool around him on the floor. The world goes black.

He sits on Darcy's couch. Darcy is above him gasping, and he is spent. It is their last night together. As they'd stepped through her door after their dinner with Jane and Thor, he meant to kiss her gently - he wanted to take it slow, to make every moment last. But as soon as his mouth had fallen on hers he'd begun to lose control. His hands had become frenzied; he'd fallen to his knees pulling off her dress. And then everything had gone so fast.

Darcy wraps her arms around his shoulders and laughs. Their bodies are sticky. The cushions below him are soaked. He presses the side of his face against her breasts and listens to her heart.

"Sex...it's like life," she whispers. "Chaotic...and..." she sighs. It is a happy sound. He can't see her face but he imagines her eyes closing, a smile on her lips.

"Yes, I suppose it is," he says.

Pounding at the door of the observatory pulls Loki back to consciousness. He's in agony and strangely numb at once.

Tony Stark's voice is coming from the floor a few feet away. Loki looks to the side and sees his phone. "Loki? Loki? Can you hear me? Can you teleport up to Naglfar. The shuttle to Earth is standing by...we've got it on robot pilot, all you have to do is get there. Loki, do you hear me?"

Naglfar, they mythical ship Loki supposedly charted to Asgard at Ragnarok, the end of the world...and the beginning of the new. Loki doesn't have the energy to chuckle at the name they've given the station. Swallowing, he says, "I don't think that will be possible, Mr. Stark." His eyes start to slip closed.

Suddenly, Darcy's voice floods the room. "Loki! Loki! Don't you dare die on me. Loki! Do you hear me! I swear, I'll kill you -"

Loki does chuckle. "So nice to hear your voice, Love." And it is. He didn't want her to know about this - well, not until later, but he finds he's rather glad she's at the other end of the line.

Darcy's voice rises to a wail and it is the most beautiful thing he's ever heard. "Loki! Lo-"

There is the sound of shattering plastic. For the first time Loki notices that the pounding on the door has stopped.

Suddenly Sif's face is above his own. "You killed my brother. You will pay, Monster. Don't think for a moment I will let you die."

And then Loki's world goes mercifully black.

Chapter Text

If there is one thing Darcy has picked up from David, Max, Franz and Jane it is this: Gravity is a bitch. It's something Loki probably knew well, too, but he never talked about. In retrospect that was probably just another big warning sign that Darcy, Steve, Thor and Jane all missed.

Gravity is the reason that to board Stark's interstellar craft you first have to hop aboard a thing that looks like a really big airplane that takes you out of the atmosphere and then docks with said interstellar craft. From there you float down a tube and enter the space going vehicle, where gravity hits you again like a ton of bricks and you stumble to the floor. Then it's kind of like an airplane flight. You haul your carry-on luggage down an aisle to your seat and stow it in the overhead bin.

Which is what Darcy is doing now. Only she's not so much stowing as slamming. When the bag doesn't quite fit, she starts banging on it with her fist. Beside her, Steve's hand goes to her shoulder.

A smooth voice that doesn't belong to Steve, says, "Easy there, Doris."

Turning, Darcy says, "Fuck you, Stark." He didn't remember her name when she ran into the control room two weeks ago with Steve, and he still doesn't. When Steve had awkwardly explained, "This is Loki's...girlfriend," Tony had looked her up and down and said, "Not what I expected."

Now Steve says, "Her name is Darcy," squeezing her shoulder, probably to restrain her from strangling Tony. Tony's not in an ironman suit, not all that tall in person, a lot older than he looks in his publicity photos, and she has rage on her side, so she's pretty sure she could do it.

Tony Stark just smiles blandly at her and looks at his watch. "Oh, we'll be departing for Jotunheim in five minutes. I have to give my speech. Enjoy!"

"Come on," says Steve. "Let's sit down."

Darcy looks around what is the shuttle to the Jotunheim. It's packed with reporters and photographers from several major news networks, some guys in suits that may be diplomats, or maybe lawyers, and soldiers. Lots of soldiers. Jotunheim isn't the safest place to travel. There seems to be some sort of civil war going on. She only sees one or two other women.

She doesn't belong here. But apparently Loki had a contract; she was to be on this voyage to his homeworld as a photographer.

Stark decided to honor the contract, even though all intelligence from Asgard says Loki is dead. She remembers Thor showing up at Stark Tower, five days after the ships bound to the moon had dropped off their solar panels, headed to Jotunheim and come back with enough precious metals to pay for the entire moon-solar-panel-power-plan fiasco three times over.

Thor's head had been bowed. "Loki has been declared dead. His body burned without ceremony...as befitting a traitor." Shaking his head he'd said, "I cannot believe it."

Darcy still can't believe it either. Ducking her head, Darcy slides into her seat. There is a small porthole and she gazes out. There is Earth, just as beautiful as everyone always says it is from space.

Beside her Steve says, "Would you look at that?"

Darcy starts to cry, because Earth is so beautiful, or because Loki is gone, she isn't sure. Gritting her teeth, she clenches her fist until her nails bite into her palm. She misses him. And the hollowness she feels is so similar to what she felt after David died. But there is something else - this time she is soangry. Angry at Stark and Fury for using him - even if they had a plan for him to come back to Earth they had to know it was a one-way trip, a suicide mission. Didn't anyone else read the myths? And she's angry at Loki for lying to her, and angry at herself for not seeing through his lies - it was all there, right in front of her face the entire time.

Taking a deep breath, she slips out one of her cameras and takes a picture of the porthole. Down the aisle Stark is talking about Stark Industries' skyrocketing stock, and their dominance in interstellar travel for the foreseeable future.

Stark had seemed remorseful about Loki's death. And she knows this is partially for show, he's just being the consummate salesman. Still, Darcy finds herself restraining the urge to puke. Next to her Steve says, "I think I might be sick."

Darcy heaves a breath. Stark shuts up and sits down. They're about 60 seconds from launch when all of a sudden all of the cell phones in all the reporters' pockets start buzzing. The phones work in space; they're Stark phones...it was part of Stark's speech.

Someone at the back of the cabin shouts. "Mr. Stark, we've got reports that Mitsubishi and Daewoo are about 3 months away from an interstellar craft. How do you comment?"

And then someone else shouts, "Mr. Stark, reports are that Volkswerft, Fergusen, Austal, SAS, and ASNAR are working on their own vessels."

Shouts rise from throughout the cabin; it's an unintelligible soup of acronyms and names that Darcy doesn't recognize. Darcy and Steve are just close enough to Stark to hear him say, "That's impossible, there is no way they could have the technology that fast, unless..." And then he wipes his forehead. "Loki...that fucker sold us out."

For the first time since Loki disappeared, Darcy smiles. But it's more of a smirk.

"Perfect chaos," says Steve. She glances over at him. He's wearing the same smirk she's got on.

x x x x

Jotunheim is dark and cold, although at the end of the first day Darcy hasn't seen anything beyond the particular gray rock fortress that passes as a palace of King Vili. Jotunheim has been, since the great war, a feudal world. There are many kings. Laufey had been the most powerful and most despised of all of them. Now he is gone, and his son Hellbendi is trying to exert a semblance of the same control, but he has been failing.

There has been some trade between Earth and Jotunheim for the past twenty years. Just a trickle, minerals from Jotunheim carried on backways of the World Tree exchanged for food and weapons. The kingdoms like Vili's with the most successful mines haven't been thriving precisely, but they've had a lot more food - and they've been better armed. They've been able to just barely resist Hellbendi's control. Now that Earth can use space ships to carry goods between the realms, trade is exploding. What this means for ordinary people in the little kingdoms Darcy doesn't know.

No one knows. No one is allowed out of the fortress.

It's been a long day, full of speeches by diplomats from Earth, and by King Vili and his generals. Darcy is glad it is over. Right now she and Steve are being led down long corridors of giant stones packed with snow. Her arm is in his, which should feel awkward, but doesn't at all. Everywhere she looks, frost giants who are not in ice armor do it. It is warming, and they are warm blooded creatures.

All the other humans were ushered someplace else. Steve and Darcy are receiving "the royal treatment" and being taken to quarters by King Vili himself and eight silent guards. The guards probably don't speak English. Darcy's learned that the ability is magical, and only frost giants with magical training are capable.

"You are friends of Lopt," says King Vili. "And he is a friend of mine." Turning, he looks down and graces them with a toothy smile. Lopt is one of Loki's many names in Earth mythology. He went by it here. Darcy supposes going as Loki-the-guy-who-almost-destroyed-your-world wouldn't have been wise.

Vili's giant yellow eyes blink. Darcy forces herself not to swallow. Vili is about ten feet tall. His hairless skull is wide and crested with a bony ridge. His teeth are too big, and too sharp, and they don't allow him to fully close his mouth. Instead of fine lines on his face like Loki, he has deep valleys and intricate raised dots.

She gets the feeling that Vili doesn't really consider Lopt a friend. His smile is too wide. His behavior to her and Steve a bit too unctuous. But she does think Vili wants to stay in his good graces.

"Thank you," says Steve.

The King cants his head. "A pity he is not on this mission. Is he in Alfheim perhaps? We would like to trade with the elves too. The ancestors said they have lovely mead."

"I'm not sure," says Steve. Darcy and Steve have been instructed not to let anyone know Loki is dead. It helps everyone that King Vili and others want to be in his good graces.

Darcy shivers, and Steve squeezes her arm and entwines their fingers.

Vili's eyes drop to the motion; the guards glance too. Canting his head again, Vili says, "I was going to give you separate quarters, but perhaps I have misunderstood your relationship."

Steve and Darcy both straighten at once.

"Pardon, Your Tallness?" says Darcy, and then blushes furiously at the mistake in royal etiquette.

Vili's lips pull apart dangerously and Steve tenses at her side. A loud barking comes from his mouth and he says something in a low guttural language to the guards and they all do the same. It takes a moment but then Darcy realizes they're laughing. And good naturedly at that.

Wiping an eye with a talon like fingers Vili says, "Your fingers say you are lovers. Do you want the same room, Your Smallnesses?" One of the guards must understand a little English because he chortles.

Steve and Darcy both look down simultaneously at their fingers and let them slide apart. Steve does that thing where he blushes down to his neck.

Darcy feels herself going hot. How many times did Loki link his fingers with hers just like that after she was withDavid? All those times when she thought he was being sweet - was he copping a feel? She huffs a breath and drops Steve's arm with too much force. "It doesn't mean that where we're from," she says through narrowed eyes.

Vili shrugs and starts down another passage. "Right this way," he says.

Memories start playing in Darcy's mind.

When she'd seen Loki after he'd met his other self he'd linked their fingers.

And when she'd gone to the Stark holiday party right after Max and Franz were born, feeling tired, overwhelmed, and completely unbeautiful, Morgenstern-Loki had taken her hand. Linking their fingers he'd told her, "You look radiant." The lie, the affection, it had made her feel better.

Had he known it then what the linked fingers meant to Frost Giants? Or was it just instinctual?

Certainly he must have known when he came back from Jotunheim. That time on the couch when Darcy had almost forgotten herself...and then when he'd been so badly burned...

Was he just copping a feel or just expressing longing for something he couldn't have?

By the time she reaches the fur skinned covered doorways that lead to her rooms, she's settled on both. She's touched nearly to tears...and still so furious.

She's scowling when King Vili claps his hands, and out of the furs comes the first female frost giant she's seen. She is about Darcy's size, but her form is angular, not feminine, despite her delicate heart shaped face. It takes a moment for Darcy to realize she's a child.

"This is Eisa, Your Smallness. She will be your maid," says Vili. One of the guards barks another laugh. But it doesn't sound at all cruel.

One side of the girl's face is covered in lovely intricate swirls, the other is nearly free of markings. Her hair is black and straight. She's dressed in a plain light beige dress that looks like it is made of wool and contrasts beautifully with her skin. A mercenary part of Darcy's brain is calculating the best possible angle to take a photograph, and another part is wondering if she is a little bit like what Loki's half blue little girl looked like. The corners of Darcy's mouth turn up in a bittersweet smile.

The girl catches her eyes and turns a deep shade of ultramarine. Bowing her head, the girl holds back the fur skin curtains - there is very little wood in Jotunheim. Darcy gives a last look at Steve, and then steps through. The curtain of furs falls back with a soft sigh and Darcy hears Eisa's feet behind her.

The room is lit by sconces on the walls that cast a blue light. The walls are draped with tapestries, between which are a few narrow windows in walls made of stones held in place with cement, not snow. It is warm. There is a squat wood burning stove in a corner, from the grate she can see an orange glow. Darcy blinks; no, not wood-burning - there is a bucket of coal set beside it. There is a raised platform draped with furs she thinks must be a bed.

On an intricately woven rug at the center of the room is her luggage. The trunk she stowed the majority of her photography gear in looks unharmed, but she goes to it immediately. Eisa follows her.

King Vili has promised an "official portrait taking" to be held a few days hence but hadn't allowed any pictures to be taken today. He'd cited security concerns. The 22nd century worries amid the 13th century surroundings are in odd contrast.

Opening the trunk up Darcy finds everythingintact. There are various cameras, lenses, battery packs and storage cards; she also has a small printer, paper, digital tablet and a battery to recharge her electronics. As she inspects each item she glances up to see Eisa peering down with poorly disguised interest.

Smiling, Darcy says, "Hi." She doesn't expect an answer, since the ability to understand languages is rare.

To her surprise, Eisa beams back and says, "Hello! You're Darcy Lewis. You are an artist, and a friend to Lopt. I know Lopt. Sometimes he would stay in this very room. He helped me learn the All Tongue. He said of course you would talk to me even though I am only a maid and a child, and he was right."

Heart aching a little, Darcy says, "Well, of course I would talk to you."

Narrowing her eyes, Eisa says, "He also said you would show me pictures."

It is such an obvious display of fishing that Darcy snorts.

Eisa blinks and looks suddenly a little fearful.

Instantly feeling sorry she's frightened the girl, Darcy says, "Of course I will show them to you. I just need to unpack."

Bouncing on her feet the girl says, "Of course m'am."

Infected by her enthusiasm, Darcy finds herself smiling. But then Eisa says, "Will Lopt be coming later? I haven't seen him in a while."

Darcy's face falls. "No, I don't think so."

Eisa's face mirrors Darcy's concern. "Do you know where he is?"

Looking back to her gear, Darcy attaches a lense to one of her cameras a little too forcefully. Biting her lip she says, "No. No, I don't."

x x x x

Loki opens his eyes to warm white light. The bed beneath him is comfortable, but the bedclothes are too tight. The wounds in his stomach are only the slightest bit sore. The room around him is unadorned and windowless. Worse. It is magicless.

No. That isn't quite right.

He looks down. His hands are bound on his stomach by the same magic dampening cuff he wore when he had been returned to Asgard after the Chitauri's first invasion of Earth.

And the tight bedclothes are actually restraints.

He curses. There was a moment, a beautiful, bright and shining moment, when he thought for once he'd pulled off a scheme without a hitch. Not being dead is a serious let down. He clenches his teeth and tries to hold back the wave of rage he feels building up inside of him. He must think.

With a deep breath, he tests the bonds holding him down by trying to pull himself up. He gets nowhere. So he tries again with more force. This time the muscles in his injured abdomen constrict painfully and the bonds at his shoulders and hips almost seem to burn.

There is the sound of shuffling feet and a soft voice says, "Don't," and then the face of Eir, the chief healer, is suddenly above him. Her hair is dishevelled. Dark circles are under her eyes. Her clothing looks unkempt. "Odin himself designed those restraints centuries ago; you won't escape."

Eir is a close friend of Frigga, and she has attended Loki, Thor, Sif and the Warriors Three on more occasions than he can remember. She has never looked so tired, or sounded so weary.

"How long have I been here?" he demands.

"Two weeks," she says. "As have I."

Cursing again and trying to twist his hands free from the magic dampening cuff, Loki says, "Don't expect me to thank you for patching me up."

"Believe me," says Eir, her voice bitter, "it was not my first choice. And now I'm sure I'll see all my handiwork undone."

Loki's eyes slide to hers. Of course he will be punished. He feels the prickle of sweat on his brow. Will they give him to the Chitauri? If that is their plan, he must find a way to escape - or take his own life before they do.

He feels laughter rising at the back of his throat. Take his own life. He's zero for two on that score, isn't he? It's like the universe can't let him go.

There is a knock at the door. Before Eir has even answered it, it swings open. Sif enters, her eyes blazing, her hand on the hilt of her sword.

Loki is about to let loose a biting retort - like how it took bindings for her to get him back in bed for her again.

But then Odin steps in. The coldness in his eyes takes Loki's breath away.

Glancing at Loki, Odin turns to Eir. "You will tell no one of this, not even Frigga, on pain of death."

Loki swallows, even as he tries to keep his face impassive. He can't see Eir's face as she bows and exits.

Then Odin looks back to him and shakes his head. "This won't do," he whispers.

He touches Loki's shoulders. A familiar tightness and slight burning returns to Loki's skin.

Odin has made him revert to him to his Asgardian form. Loki screws his eyes shut, rolls his head, and wills whatever little magic he might have left in him to return his to his true form. In the background he hears Odin say, "Now you are almost ready to face the Twelve Judges of Gladsheim like a man."

The judges...he may be able to convince them of how much he deserves execution. But then the word 'almost' make his eyes snap open. Sif is scowling. Two new guards are entering the room. Between them they carry the muzzle.

Loki screams.

Chapter Text

Loki screams. In anger, in fear, in sheer frustration and at everyone. He calls Sif much worse things than he'd called Natasha on the helicarrier, relishing the ways it makes her lip curl, and her knuckles turn white as she fists the pommel of her sword. He calls Odin all sorts of things, horrid things, and gets no response. And then right before the guards get the mask on, Loki smirks. "Can't bear I might be in the right, eh, brother?"

The slight is based off something Darcy told him, an ancient human myth long forgotten in Asgard. Loki didn't think anything of it until now. Odin's eyes are burning in loathing...and fear?

The flat side of the spear Gungnir comes round to Loki's head and everything goes black.

When Loki comes to his face is pressed to cold stone. His hands are locked behind his back, the muzzle still on his face. He tries to call his magic. There is no response.

"He's awake," someone says.

As he is hauled to his knees, the room comes into focus. He hadn't thought that his spirits could sink any lower...he'd been wrong.

The great hall is dimly lit. He is at the center of half circle formed by the throne of Odin and the dais of the twelve Diar, the judges who helped Odin manage the affairs of Asgard and the nine realms. Loki has been here before many times. When he was accused of killing the servant Fimafeng - which was really a proxy trial for his failure to grieve over the death of Baldur. When the dwarf Eitri demanded Loki's head. When Thor's hammer was stolen - he hadn't done it. And when he stood trial for the crimes he'd committed under the sway of the Chitauri.

The judges don't frighten him as much as the silence. He casts a gaze backwards. The hall is empty. Just the guards, Sif, Odin, and the judges. There will be no Thor to speak for him this time. He can feel the sheen of sweat on his lower back and forehead.

They're reading his sentence.

"...for the rest of eternity," intones the judge furthest on the right.

Loki wants to cry. Wants to laugh. Wants to fall over in despair. But he only scowls. He won't break in front of them.

"Is there anyone here who would dispute this sentence?"

Loki closes his eyes. There is no one. No one...

"I do!" says Sif.

Loki's eyes open. Striding past him, Sif places herself right in front of Odin himself. She does not kneel. "This trial is a farce! This is not justice! Let the people of Asgard see who has wronged them. What has wronged them. Let him know their scorn-isn't that what he most despises?"

Loki feels his stomach flutter. He hates and loathes that she knows him that well. As much as he believes in what he has done, as much as he can see it even being for the good of even Asgard in the very, very, very long run...he spent millennia trying to win the approval of these people. And he does still want it.

Raising her head higher, Sif lifts an arm. "And let the people have the execution you know they'll demand! So we may be rid of this monster once and for all!"

Loki blinks. An execution. The word hangs in the air and is beautiful. An end. He is so weary, so tired - and Sif...Sif, Thor's one time wife, faithless whore, and mighty warrior...is trying to deliver him. If his jaw wasn't locked in place by the muzzle, it would be agape.

Rising from his throne, Odin pounds Gungnir on the ground. "You question the wisdom of the Diar?"

"It was the Diar who allowed a frost giant to be raised in the halls of Asgard!" Sif says.

Loki tilts his head and feels his lips twist in a smirk beneath the mask. She's a xenophobe, but if deliverance comes for all the wrong reasons, he'll still take it.

Pacing before the dais, Sif shouts up at Odin and the Diar. "This is just a way to hide your mistake!"

"Silence!" says Odin. "Your king, and the Diar have spoken. Our word is law."

Sif stops. Even though her back is to him, Loki can feel her glare.

"You will give your oath that you will tell no one of these proceedings," says Odin.

Sif trembles, not with fear, Loki knows. With rage. She may be all the nasty things he's said about her, but Sif is not a coward. Nor does she renege on an oath.

She turns slowly, head bowed.

"Sif!" says one of the judges.

Her eyes meet Loki's. And he knows what she is thinking. They may be enemies, but they are close enemies. The guards' arms are heavy on his shoulders. He cannot stand. But he tilts his head as far to the side as he can, exposing his neck.

Sif's hand goes to her sword. It is out and slicing through the air in an instant. The flash of the blade is the brightest, most beautiful light in the dim hall. For a moment, Loki's heart beats fast with hope.

And then there is another searing blast of light and Sif crumples to the floor, her sword falling just inches from Loki's knees with a clang.

"Put her in the dungeon!" says Odin, lowering the still flaming tip of Gungnir.

Loki slumps as they drag her limp form away.

"And you know where to take him," says Odin. Loki can feel the weight of the All Father's glare on him.

Loki starts to laugh. It comes out a strange huffing noise through the mask. He thinks he hears someone mutter the word depraved, and it is, but he can't help himself.

When it comes to suicide attempts, he's 0 for 3.

x x x x

Darcy half walks, half jogs down the halls of King Vili's palace fortress, her backpack jostling uncomfortably against her back. Eisa is scampering just behind her. In front of them are Uxi and Bera, two enormous frost giants - and Darcy's personal body guards. They don't mean to make her run; they are actually very respectful of Darcy.

Frost giant society is, in most senses, extremely patriarchal. It is a warrior-mage society, and since males tend to be larger, stronger, and unburdened by childbearing, they wield considerably more power...in general. It would follow that Darcy, being female, human, non-magical, and very small by anyone's standards, wouldn't command a lot of respect.

However, in Jotun society widows of warrior-mages are very respected. Loki-Lopt apparently told King Vili about David's death and talked up David's role in bringing the Earth ships to Jotunheim. Small Darcy may be, but Uxi and Bera look to her as a fount of wisdom and confidant of all warriors. They just can't walk much more slowly than they already are, and the ceiling isn't quite high enough here to put Eisa and Darcy on their shoulders.

Darcy's panting when they round a bend, pass a great hall and someone calls out, "Darcy! Darcy!"

Uxi and Bera stop and turn, their great fanged maws half open, their yellow-orange eyes turning to her in puzzlement.

From down the hall come two young reporters. She sighs. Here she goes again.

"Darcy," says Laura Osborne, of the Times. "Have you spoken to King Vili about getting us out of here?"

Except for Darcy, all other reporters and photographers have been confined to the palace grounds.

Laura and a few others made the mistake the first night of thinking that because King Vili's fortress looks like it belongs in 13th century Earth, that 13th century Earth technology was all the king had access to. The press corps had griped about their host in what they thought was privacy. Everything they said was heard through a magic mirror on their wall. All talk of any reporters leaving the compound was halted.

But Darcy, friend of Lopt, widow of David, is given free reign.

Keeping her expression carefully neutral, Darcy says, "Yes."

Laura scowls. "I just..."

Darcy sees Laura's fist clench at her side. "There is just a story here that I don't think is being told...and we haven't been able to leave the palace in 2 months."

It's insulting, but Darcy does her best not to get angry. Darcy has been taking pictures and writing about her travels through King Vili's lands. She's been sending her dispatches out regularly with the shuttles ferrying between Earth and Jotunheim. She is trying to tell the story of this place, but these young reporters probably find her too sympathetic to King Vili. His mines are destroying the environment. Workers toil in grueling ten hour shifts. Child labor is the norm here. Traditional ways of life are breaking down.

Darcy doesn't see herself as overly sympathetic to Vili. She sees herself as sympathetic to the people of Jotunheim. They want the mines. They want 12 hour shifts so they can be richer. It is King VIli who has made more than 10 hours illegal - labor is scarce and he doesn't like losing laborers to accidents. As for child labor, the conditions that Darcy has seen in the mines are better than on the tuber farms, or among the children she's seen herding giant oxen like creatures between the glaciers, as picturesque as those occupations may be. It would be better if the children were in school, but sometimes a child working means the difference between life and death for the children and their families.

Darcy bites the inside of her lip. "I'll do what I can," she says. She actually thinks that many of the reporters will be balanced, and that letting Laura and those like her spin the Jotun tale negatively won't matter. But trying to convince Vili that the negative publicity won't matter is...difficult.

Laura's scowl deepens. Uxi barks something. Darcy has no idea what it means, but she smiles as apologetically as she can and says, "I have to go."

A few moments later, she is stepping gratefully out into the brisk cool air of a Jotunheim spring. It is just above freezing, and it feels balmy. The light of Jotunheim's white dwarf sun dances on the icy turrets of the palace and the white peaks of the mountains surrounding it. About a mile down from where Darcy is standing is a valley where geysers waft steam. Around the natural chimneys are large circular patches of brown grasses where blue figures herd giant beasts. She isn't going that way today.

Uxi bends down and gestures for Darcy to climb aboard one shoulder. After 2 months, Darcy is way past being embarrassed. She hops on and rubs his head affectionately.

Nearby, Bera does the same thing for Eisa. They are travelling through the mountains today, and it really is easier and faster for the giants just to carry them.

Soon they are making their way along high, treacherous staircases cut in ice and snow. Uxi and Bera's bare feet don't slip or slide. It was strange at first to Darcy, but frost giants in the higher echelons of society wear less clothing, and seldom wear shoes. They keep their bodies warm with magic, but that magic comes at the cost of increased calories. Proving that they can afford those calories is a sign of their high rank.

Darcy slips out her camera and starts taking pictures of landscape. It is beautiful and harsh. The mountains and ice cut stark geometric patterns against the sky. She won't need to retouch the pictures to make them appear abstract.

When she left SHIELD all those years ago and started travelling through foreign countries, she didn't have to work hard to keep her focus from straying. Everything was so different, she found it impossible not to be in the moment. Being in Jotunheim is like that...times 10.

Is that why she hasn't gone home? To not think beyond now? To skip over all the stages of grief? To not be in her apartment, and not have to look at her bed or a chair Loki once sat in and want to set it on fire rather than have it remind her that she will never see Loki - or David, again?

Closing her eyes, she takes a deep breath. Eisa says something that makes Bera chortle, and Darcy asks the not-so-little girl to translate. She lets Eisa, Uxi and Bera distract her with their jokes and tales, and pushes Earth and Loki from her mind.

Soon they reach their destination, a frost giant village of igloos along an icy peak. On the peak itself are frost giants of every age, men and women. They are cutting apart great blocks of ice and preparing them to be taken to Earth. A Chinese agricultural conglomerate bought large swathes of land in Sudan and is importing a glacier's worth of ice to turn the desert into rice paddies. Talk about environmental havoc on both sides - and more food for poor people on both ends of the transaction.

Someone on the icy peak waves to them and a frost giant man, ostentatiously nearly unclothed, comes down to meet them. Unlike Uxi and Bera, the man's face, like Eisa's, isn't fearsome. All frost giants are shapeshifters. Most can't pop into other forms like Loki can - could, but all frost giants can alter their appearances, and their stature. Warriors and royalty are very tall, with frightening features, by magic and effort. It is another sign of status.

This man, who Eisa says is the village leader, has black hair and only a few sparse lines on his face. His height is average for ordinary frost giant males - about 7 and a half feet. The women tend to be closer to 6 and a half feet tall.

The village leader starts talking about what he and his village are trying to accomplish here and takes them on a tour. He's heard that Darcy can "magically" reproduce pictures, and he asks that she take photographs and reproduce them so that he can use them to convince other giants how much opportunity there is here and get them to relocate. It's the typical request. Everyone is short handed. Darcy complies with a smile. It isn't her primary interest, but she knows if she does as he asks, later she'll be able to take photographs closer to her heart.

After the tour, an afternoon feast is prepared, and Darcy, Uxi, Bera and Eisa are honored guests. As preparations are underway, Darcy asks if she may visit with "the other women" and "meet the children." The request is not seen at all odd. She is a woman, a widow, a mother - of course the men in the group expect her to want to be "closer to her own." And unlike some of the male reporters who have made the mistake of asking for similar privileges, Darcy is completely and utterly non-threatening. It isn't always a weakness.

She is outside the igloos, standing around an open fire pit taking candid photos, trying not to be carted about like a doll by one of the bigger girls, when a lookout gives a shout. Eisa, who had been playing tag, is suddenly by her side. "A supply...caravan," says Eisa. "Come to bring food. Take ice. They are early."

Just as Eisa finishes that explanation, over the ridge comes a giant polar bear. On his back is a saddle so enormous it makes the hooded figure astride it look small in comparison.

The village leader comes out of an igloo, along with Uxi and Bera and many of the village men. More frost giants and their polar bear mounts begin to come over the crest. A frost giant child swings from a bear and runs to the leader of the village. He says some words very quickly and a murmur goes up from the crowd.

"What is it?" says Darcy.

Grinning, Eisa bounces on her feet. "Oh. Gossip! There is news from Asgard. Heimdall the watcher and Prince Loki the Destroyer killed each other...maybe two months ago? Maybe more! Oh, everyone is soooo happy!"

Darcy's jaw falls. For a moment her mind is completely empty. And she shakes her head. Of course they would eventually hear of what happened between Loki and Heimdall...and they don't know Loki is Lopt, the one responsible for all the recent changes on their world. Changes they want...They only know how he nearly destroyed their world.

Darcy swallows. That was before the Chitauri had gotten their tentacles in Loki's mind.

Barking laughter sounds around her and the muffled growl of bears rise into the darkening evening air. More and more villagers are running down the slopes and coming out of their igloos to meet the caravan merchants. The street is crowded...everyone is happy...Suddenly Darcy can't breathe and the sound of her heart beating in her ears is louder than the commotion around her. She has to get away.

Eisa has darted off. Darcy doesn't even try to find her. She stumbles out of the crowd and then breaks into a run, ice crunching beneath her feet. She doesn't stop until she is at a little icy lean-to at the edge of the village. Leaning against the outside wall of a crumbling structure, she slides to the ground and puts her head in her hands.

The sound of laughter is echoing in the distance. She swallows. Another sound catches her attention. Directly overhead she hears a 'rawk, rawk.' Looking up she sees two ravens circle above the village. They cry a few more times and then dart off into the distance. Dropping her head, her attention is caught by two hooded figures standing about 50 yards away in the overhang of an igloo door.

She squints at them. They seem a little small; maybe they are children. One drops his hood and Darcy's stomach falls.

It's Loki. He beckons her towards him with his hand and then turns quickly and vanishes into the igloo with his companion.

Darcy is on her feet running towards the igloo a second later, barely registering the dark shadows in the sky. She slides into the dwelling, nearly falling over, but two strong hands catch her before she hits the snow floor.

For a moment, she sees two Loki's before her in the dim light, and she almost smiles. So like him to tease her with a double. But then her smiles drops. They both look like Loki, so much like him...but they're wrong...not quite right. Their shoulders too wide, their jaws too square, their faces too stereotypically handsome.

Struggling in her 'rescuer's' arm she tries to shout, but a hand shoots quickly over her mouth.

Shaking her head, she tries to snag a finger in her teeth, but before she does one of the almost-Loki's leans in her ear and whispers. "Shhhhhhh...we need your help - we have to rescue our father."

Chapter Text

Darcy's eyes go wide. She looks at the man in front of her who looks so much like her Loki but isn't. He is blue, his eyes orange...

She must cease her struggling, because the hand over her mouth drops, the second man slides around to the front, and suddenly she is looking up at both of them.

"Valli and Nari?" she says. Loki's sons. Her eyes shift from one man to the other.

One of the men smiles wide and bright, and he actually laughs. Too loud. The other gives him a reproving look.

"At your service," say the one who laughed, teeth glinting. Bowing briefly, he says, "I am Valli."

"And I am Nari," says the other, his face and the timbre of his voice more somber.

Darcy squints and tries and see the difference between the two, but it is nearly impossible.

And then their skin fades to pink, their eyes change to blue, and their hair to dark wavy brown. As they transform they relax. They stand taller and shrug their shoulders as though they're stretching. The movement makes their cloaks slide back.

The one who is smiling wears a curved sword, like that of a samurai. The other man has a bulky European looking scabbard at his hip with a pommel of nondescript appearance poking out.

Darcy shakes her head. "But you...you haven't forgiven him for disowning you..."

Stepping forward, Valli's smiling face turns to a frown. "He what? You lie!"

Backing up, Darcy's back hits an icy wall. Her hand going automatically to the taser in her pocket. But before she's even withdrawn it, Nari's hand wraps around Valli's arm and pulls him back. "Of course father would have told her that, brother. He was protecting us."

Valli slumps backwards a little and he blinks.

Arm still on Valli's, Nari says, "Father disowned us to protect us. Otherwise when he sabotaged Uncle's coronation, our lives and mother's could be forfeit along with his..."

"Like they almost were after Hothur killed Baldur," says Valli darkly.

Darcy looks at them blankly. Nari sighs. "When father went to the cave with the snake, it was only because the Diar threatened to have us all banished to Midgard."

"That was in 1342," says Valli with a tight smile.

There is something about that date...

"That the year the plague came to Europe," says Nari, seeing her look of confusion. "We would have died. For all of us, father went to the cave. We are forever in his debt. That is why we helped Uncle release him during the Chitauri attack, and why we help him now."

Tapping the pummel of his sword, Valli pulls away from his brother. "Though he could have let us help him ruin Uncle's coronation."

Nari looks sharply to his brother. "You know he could not..."

"He didn't go far enough," Valli grumbles. "With our help he could have brought the whole monarchy to its knees."

"The people were not ready!" Nari snaps.

Still tapping the pommel of his sword, Valli rolls his eyes. "Who cares if they are ready? Why wait for justice?"

Valli's body is in silhouette against the faint blue light filtering into the igloo from outside. They both are as tall as Loki, and definitely Loki's sons, but their shoulders are broader, though not as broad as Thor's. Their features are more classically handsome. Valli and Nari are two of the most beautiful beings Darcy thinks she's ever seen. But Valli frightens her.

Edging closer to Nari, Darcy says, "Where is your father now?"

Nari turns to her. "We don't know."

"Sif won't tell us," says Valli tersely. "She is afraid we'll try to mount a rescue without Uncle's help."

Nari looks a little nervously at Valli, and Darcy feels like she can read his thoughts. She'd be afraid of Valli doing something rash, too. But she tilts her head. "Sif? I know Sif doesn't like Loki...She's helping him...Why?"

"Oh...she still hates him," says Valli, crossing his arms over his chest and pacing the room. Darcy pulls back a little to be safely out of his path.

Turning back to her, Nari puts a hand on her shoulder. Darcy feels her nervousness dissipate. "Sif has been in the dungeons these past few months. She was the only one present at a secret trial for our father - where Odin and the Diar expected no advocates on Father's behalf."

"They muzzled him again," says Valli with a snarl.

Ignoring his brother, Nari looks into Darcy's eyes. "She did not agree with the sentence, protested, and was punished for it - without trial. And at last Sif began to see what we see. That the monarchy is rotten to the core and must be reformed to be fairer and more just."

Darcy feels her heart lift, and an inexplicable feeling of hope.

"Or it should be destroyed," says Valli.

"Everyone should have the Assistance of Counsel for their defense..." Darcy says, mesmerized by Nari's voice and stare.

Nari smiles and it is the loveliest thing she's ever seen. "Excellent! The Sixth Amendment. I am a big fan of your Bill of Rights!"

Valli steps forward. "We both are. And now Father has killed Heimdall and we can assemble almost freely. Change will come at last to Asgard. We will make sure of it." His mouth splits into a feral grin.

Darcy blinks and swallows. "Why have you come to me?"

Valli's smile tightens. "Odin still has other spies. We cannot go near Uncle Thor without them following, and Sif has told us that we need Uncle and Mjolnir to free father."

"But you can go to him," says Nari. Reaching into his robe he pulls out a scroll bound with a red wax seal and presses it into her hand. "This is from Sif, sealed by our grandmother, Frigga. It can be read by no one but Uncle. Take it to him as soon as you are able."

From outside she hears Eisa. "Lady Darcy! Lady Darcy!" And then Uxi bellows, "Smallness! Smallness!"

Valli and Nari look at one another. Their skin changes to blue, their eyes go orange, and they look so much like Darcy's Loki her heart skips. But the transformation doesn't stop there. Their chins narrow, and their bodies straighten. Instead of short frost giant men she finds herself staring at frost giant children.

"He didn't tell me you were shapeshifters," she whispers.

"Our magical abilities manifested just lately," says Nari, pulling his cloak over his sword.

"But we will never be as powerful as Father," says Valli, pulling on his own cloak, his voice thick with bitterness.

Before Darcy can think of anything to say, Eisa slips in, Uxi and Bera bending low right behind her.

"Oh! Hello!" says Eisa to Nari and Valli.

Uxi barks something at them and rubs one of their heads. They glance at Darcy and then slip from the igloo.

Darcy watches them go. She belatedly remembers something Loki once told her. If Godly titles were still given my son, Nari would be the God of Democracy and Valli would be the God of Armed Rebellion. They have so much bloody glamor...they must have gotten it from their mother's side.

She swallows. Valli scares her. And Nari is beautiful - but there is something about him that is almost too smooth, too perfect...

"The merchants are to be invited to the feast! We will celebrate the death of our enemy!" shouts Eisa happily and Uxi barks.

Loki. Their enemy and their savior. Darcy looks down at the scroll in her hand. Loki, like his children, is dangerous - but beautiful, too.

And she loves him.

x x x x

It's harder leaving Jutenheim in a hurry than she expects. It's easy enough to tell Uxi and Bera that they are leaving the village right now. She is Darcy, friend of Lopt, widow of David, and they obey.

And King Vili might be upset that he won't have her services for propaganda any longer, but he concedes relatively quickly to her demands.

Coordinating rapid transit out of system isn't so hard either. Stark Phones work across the galaxy. And even though she doesn't pull as much weight on Earth as she does with the frost giants, all she has to do is call Steve, who'd left Jotunheim a few weeks earlier. She doesn't even tell him why she needs to come home, only that it is urgent. He presumably calls Tony, because everything is arranged within an hour.

What is hard is saying goodbye to Eisa. Darcy is frantic to leave; she keeps nervously tapping the scroll concealed in her coat to make sure it is there. But as she waits for the helicopter that will take her to King Utgard's floating castle, Eisa throws her arms around Darcy and bawls. Darcy finds herself crying, too. She wishes she could take Eisa with her, give her a real chance at an education and a different future. But that it isn't what Eisa would want.

Sniffling in Darcy's arms, Eisa says, "We may be different creatures, but we are both women."

Eisa is only 10. But Darcy doesn't laugh. She just pats the little giantess' hair and smiles through her own tears. Eisa represents all that is hopeful and open and good in Jotunheim.

"Come back, someday," Eisa says, and Darcy feels like she is rushing off to save one Frost Giant, but leaving so many behind.

The wings of the chopper beat in the air above their heads, whipping snow in a blizzard around them. Darcy has to yell into Eisa's ear to be understood. "I'll try."

Eisa pulls away, the glow of her eyes magnified by her tears. The sound of the chopper is too loud for any words, and Eisa just nods as Darcy turns to the waiting machine.

The frost giants could use magic to reach the floating castle, but magic costs calories. Helicopters only cost fuel, and Jotunheim is blessed with thousands of years worth of untouched petroleum reserves. This chopper is piloted by a human and a frost giant pilot in training. He nods at Darcy as she enters.

A few minutes later, they are airborne. Nervously tapping the scroll in her coat, Darcy stares down at the brilliant white tableau of Jotunheim, watching Eisa become smaller and smaller.

When the chopper touches down on Utgard, Loki's floating castle, she sees Steve running towards her. As she gets out of the chopper, the thin air makes her gasp - as does the sight of humans all around, talking with Frost Giants who are too small to be warriors. Mages, most likely, talking to human engineers. As Steve takes her arm she remembers the conversation they had so long ago about using Frost Giant technology to colonize the clouds of Venus. She pats the scroll beneath her coat, knowing she's crushing the paper cylinder, but needing constant reassurance that it is safe.

Next to her Steve says, "Is our friend in trouble?" Tightening her jaw, Darcy nods, and then they race to a waiting aircraft on what is now King Utgard's floating airstrip. The aircraft will take them to the interstellar ship that waits in orbit above Jotunheim's gravitational pull. It's a cumbersome way to get from world to world compared to the Bifrost. But it's theirs.

Darcy finds herself choking up again.

x x x x

Steve and Darcy go to straight to the Avengers' mansion after arriving on Earth. Thor is waiting along with Jane.

Darcy holds out the scroll, and Thor takes it without a word. Before she can give any explanation, Thor looks at the seal and says, "So mother's found Loki. I knew he could not be dead."

There's so much surety in that statement. But Darcy isn't in a mood to ask questions. "Open it."

Thor's fingers are already peeling back the wax. When it falls away, two slips of parchment unroll. Thor scowls down at the first. "This is from mother. She begs me not to kill father - she says he is trying to avert a civil war."

"Where is Loki?" Steve asks, his voice tense.

Thor lifts the second piece of parchment. "From Sif..." he says, voice trailing away.

As Thor reads, his brow furrows, his lips curl, and then Darcy smells the telltale smell of ozone. The papers in his hand suddenly burst into flames. Lifting his hand, Thor calls Mjolnir to his side. He turns and screams at Steve in a language that isn't completely English, but Darcy hears the words Stark, spaceship, Asgard, and Prometheus. And then Thor is bodily grabbing Steve, dragging him from the room, already swinging his hammer. There is the sound of wind, a door exploding outward and they are gone.

Jane sidles up to her and puts her arm in Darcy's. Darcy puts her hand to her mouth but doesn't cry.

x x x x

"You mocked me, you rejoiced at my death, and then you watched the Chitauri torture me and you laughed!" The words spilled from Loki's mouth in a torrent, but they were not his words. They were the other's words, Thanos' words. But Loki believed them. Because he'd seen. He knew. They were true.

He was in Asgard's dungeons just after he nearly conquering Earth. His hands and feet were still bound, but the muzzle was just released. Thor stood above him, the darkness of the prison held at bay by just a small torch.

"Brother, listen to yourself! How could I rejoice at your death and mock your torment? This is madness."

For a moment Loki's mind settled...Thanos' words retreated, Loki's vision sharpened. And then he heard an explosion far away. Thanos had sent the Chitaur to Asgard to reclaim him.

Dread uncoiled in Loki's stomach. His mind spun and swirled. He felt as though he might be sick. Loki screamed. "You're returning me to them!"

Thor fumbled at the bindings on his feet. "No, Brother. Though the Diar may wish it. I know what happened to you."

Liar. Liar. Liar. Loki twisted. "You did see my torment!"

Thor's hands went to Loki's shoulders and he shook him so hard Loki's teeth rattled. "No, Brother! I did not know until just recently. I went to the Norns."

At the word Norns, Loki's body stilled. And then a he felt a tug at his mind. Run, run, run. He is not your brother. He is a liar.

Thanos would torture him.

No, no, no. Thanos would give him truth.

Loki ran.

Thor followed. Or the Chitauri followed. No, the Chitauri were ahead in the corridor. Loki froze. He wanted to go to them. Wanted to run back to Thor. Wanted to hide. Wanted to die.

One of the Chitauri raised a weapon like Loki had never seen. It ripped through him, took his breath away, took his magic away. Loki fell and Mjolnir streaked through the air above him in a bright crackle of lightning.

Ozone filled his nostrils. Loki knew without looking that the Chitauri were dead. It is only him and Thor left in the corridor, and Thor was staring down at him with a look of horror...Loki scowled...and then it all came to him. All he'd wrought on Midgard...and how he'd been used as Thanos' puppet. Loki covered his eyes. "What have I done?" he whispered.

Thor's voice was suddenly close. "It was not you. You could not have fought it. I've been to the Norns...I know what Thanos did..."

Loki pulled his hands from his eyes. His mouth twisted in an effort to keep from crying. Thor knew how weak he'd been, how vulnerable, and he hated it. But what he said was, "You went to the Norns. You idiot! What did they take from you? Whatever it was, it was not worth it." The words were cutting and caustic even to his own ears.

Thor laughed, low and genuine. Unshed tears stood in his eyes. "My Brother, you've come back to me..." He put his hand to the side of Loki's head and something wet and warm fell on Loki's cheek.

There was an explosion above and the whole dungeon rocked. Dirt and rocks fell from the ceiling. "You came for me," says Loki. To this death trap...after everything.

Shaking his head, Thor smiled and patted his cheek. "I will always come for you. When you go too far I will come and pin you beneath Mjolinar. When you are wronged I will come and set you free. But I will always come for you."

Another drop falls on Loki's cheek. But this drop is cold and chill.

Loki's eyes open with a start. He is chained spread eagled to the mountaintop. He sees the light of dawn slinking up on the horizon. His wounds from the day before are healed. Of course. With dawn his wounds will come again. But it doesn't matter. Odin and the Diar have taken away Loki's physical freedom and his magic, but unlike Thanos and the Chitauri, they have not restrained his mind.

There are no drugs in his system. His mind is his fortress, and his sanctuary.

The rain begins to fall harder, and he sees the shimmering glimmer of the wings of a bird on the horizon. A bird of magic and metal and endless appetite. Loki laughs to himself at Odin's attempt at humor and retreats to his mental fortress as he has done for more days they he has bothered to count.

And it works. For a long time. And then something that Thanos had taken away but Odin couldn't starts to eat away at Loki's mental sanctuary.

It's all Thor's fault...isn't it always?

One day Thor comes for Loki. He smites the blasted metal bird with his hammer, and breaks Loki's chains the same way. He reaches for Loki. And Loki, for the first time in a long time, reaches for Thor, laughing as he does...and finds his hands are still bound and the bird is there and there is pain until he passes out and wakes to darkness. His wounds are healed, the bird is gone, but the dread of the next day is unbearable.

He is alone. There is no Thor. It was only a dream. A nightmare of happiness. Loki closes his eyes.

"I will always come for you, Brother."

No, Thor will not come, because no one but Sif knows where Loki is. And she cannot tell, she is in the dungeons. She will not tell, she wants him dead, and this punishment can't be that much of a let down.

"I will always come for you, Brother."

Loki clenches his jaw as a wind that smells like winter dances around him. Damn Thor. Always so earnestly trying to to do the right thing and blundering so royally.

"I will always come for you, Brother."

Loki blinks his eyes at the debri blown by the rising gale. His mouth twists.

Thor planted the seeds of hope in Loki and hope is destroying him.

Chapter Text

The dreams invade Loki's sanctuary both day and night. Loki learns quickly how to handle them - agony will make anyone a quick learner. The trick is to not move. To move is to feel the restraints, to feel the restraints is to confront reality, to confront reality is to confront agony and despair.

He lets the dreams happen, exists in them, lets them come and go.

As if to confound him, the dreams become more complex and enticing.

Sometimes Thor takes Loki to Loki's chambers on Asgard. They are exactly as they were when Loki left them. Thor lays Loki on Loki's bed and their mother Frigga runs her fingers through Loki's hair. Sometimes Thor takes him to the Avengers' mansion and sets him in the media room. Steve is there reminding Loki of Alfheim, or when he convinced Loki to change the lout Patrick from a gopher into a woman so that it might be a more "teachable moment." Sometimes Thor takes Loki to Angrboða, sometimes Sigyn. Sometimes Thor takes Loki to Darcy's apartment and Loki lies in her bed and looks at the pictures she has on the wall...they're just as he remembers them.. She is just as he remembers her and that in the end is always the giveaway. The unchanging nature of the memories Thor drags him into.

Sometimes it's not just Thor who comes to rescue Loki. Sometimes the Avengers are there, too. Or sometimes Nari and Valli along with Hoenir - for some reason Hoenir helped Loki escape during the Chitauri invasion. Loki doesn't really understand why.

Tonight is one of those dreams where Thor has company.

"We're here for you buddy! We're here for you!" The shout is from Steve. Steve is sitting next to Loki on the stone slab, his voice barely audible over the crack of thunder and exploding weaponry. They are fighting someone...Loki cannot see who. He will not look.

Nari is next to Loki, too...but in the surreal nature of dreams, he is in frost giant form. Loki's son has pressed the enchanted scabbard of Excalibur against Loki's side. "I think this will protect him," he is shouting.

Loki bites down on his lip. He will not respond. He will not be drawn out. He will not be deceived by his mind and dreams of Thor.

The dream is so vivid though...he smells ozone. The sounds of weapons and screams echo through the mountains. He feels rain falling on his face and running in rivulets down his body.

He feels pain, on his back and arms and legs from the rocks, in his stomach from hunger. And that isn't right; he should not feel that in his fortress.

Could it be...And then Sif comes into view with Fandral and they're fighting with Thor.

Loki cannot help himself. He laughs. Because obviously he is completely and utterly mad.

x x x x

Thor, Fandral, Sif and Valli form a circle around the stone to which Loki is bound on the slopes of Svartálfaheimr, land of the dwarves. Of course Odin would inflict this punishment here. The dwarves are a subterranean race and wouldn't notice a prisoner.

Steve and Nari are crouching over Loki. Emerging from the shadow on the mountain above and below them are at least ten Einherjar, Odin's elite guard. Their spears are alight with flame.

The numbers of the Einherjar have thinned since the engagement began. There were at least 30 before. Beside Thor, Fandral, Valli in the form of a frost giant, and Sif raise their M-16's and take aim. The weapons are new to them, but after centuries of combat, mastering new implements of death comes relatively easy.

Raising enchanted shields, the Einherjar take shelter from the incoming bullets. Sif, Valli and Fandral aim for their legs - and Thor flings Mjolnir forward and bowls them over like pins.

Echoing with the sound of weapons fire and the roar of thunder is Loki's laughter. Rising above all the noise comes Sif's voice. "Thor! Over there; they have the Tessaract! They are retreating!"

Thor turns his head and sees two Einherjar holding the Tessaract between them. Their bodies start to shimmer. Thor throws Mjolnir, but it is too late. The hammer passes through empty air.

The few Einherjar still standing try to rush forward. With a cry Sif flings down the M-16 and pulls out her weapon of choice - a glaive. He hears Fandral and Valli pull their swords, Steve and Nari are on their feet.

From there it is short work. Valli doesn't even bother to use the wind casting abilities of his blade, Fandral and Sif...are well, Fandral and Sif. No one is really a match for Thor in hand to hand combat, and Steve has his shield and a pistol. Nari is the only weak link in the chain, but the others cover for him.

The whole time Loki continues to laugh.

When it is all done, they stand over the bodies of their foes, panting. Fandral looks over to where the Einjahar with the Tessaract departed, fear in his eyes. "Well, there's no going back now," he says. No doubt the Einherjar recognized them. They are now all fugitives - with the exception of Nari and Valli who are disguised in their blue bodies.

The Warriors Three rescued Sif from Asgard's dungeons. But only Fandral insisted on aiding Thor on this particular quest. Volstagg has a wife and children and could not risk it. Hogun declined.

To be a fugitive from Asgard means no more access to Idunn's apples, and that means death.

Fandral swallows, no doubt that reality finally sinking in.

Thor has known for decades Idunn's apples would be lost to him one day - it was part of the bargain he made with the Norns. Today is that day. In a way it is something of a relief.

Thor puts a hand on Fandral's shoulder. His friend has a few wounds, and Thor transfers his healing magic to him, hoping the ease in discomfort will lift Fandral's spirits.

And then he turns to Loki. His brother is in his Asgardian form. Sif told Thor Odin had changed Loki back before the trial. His hair has grown long, as has an unruly beard. Odin's magic has kept him from starving to death, but he looks like he is starving, his limbs withered away to nearly nothing. He is pitiful to behold, but what really worries Thor is the vacancy in Loki's eyes.

With a cry Thor brings Mjolnir down on Loki's bonds. Loki doesn't move. Does not even look at Thor. Or speak. The only sound to come from Loki's mouth is quiet laughter.

"He should be executed," says Sif.

Meeting her eyes, Thor says, "Raise your glaive. I guarantee it will not come down on Loki."

"I stand behind that guarantee," says Steve.

"As do we," say Nari and Valli.

Fandral coughs. "After going to such trouble, I'd just as soon he live. He's paid in full for his crimes, Sif. Look at him."

It is touching to see that Loki has others who care for him. More now that Thor understands what Loki is. How people react to chaos says a lot about who they are.

But even if they weren't here, something would stay Sif's hands. Loki, like chaos, cannot really ever be destroyed. Only restrained or transformed.

In any case, Sif does not raise her weapon.

The Stark craft is waiting for them at the foot of the mountains. With a sigh Thor bends down and scoops Loki into his arms.

Loki just laughs.

Scowling at her computer monitor, Darcy mumbles a swear. The front page of the New York Times features an article by Laura Osborne: Jotunheim the Latest Victim of Western "Civilization."

Victim. As if. Participants in their own dance with the double edged sword that is progress maybe. But victims? Never.

She feels herself go hot with anger, and anger is good. Anger keeps her going, compels her to tediously review each page of the proof of her book chronicling her trip to Jotunheim. Anger keeps her from biting her nails to a quick and wearing a hole in the floor while she wanders through the house, an untethered ghost of worry.

Steve and Thor have been gone for three weeks, with only a few text messages back.

Narrowing her eyes, she wills the heat of her ire to rise again - and her focus with it. She flips on her screen to the PDF her editor has sent and starts tapping out little notes about things that need revised. The tap of her fingers on the keyboard is too hard, too fast, and too loud.

When the phone rings across the desk she jumps.

When she sees it is from Steve, she lunges for it.

Hitting accept she yells breathlessly into the phone, "Did you find him?"

Steve is silent, and Darcy feels anger fade to dread. "Is he alive? Steve...Steve...answer me!"

She hears Steve swallow. "Darcy, we brought him back...but..."

Standing from her chair she runs down the hall. "I'm coming, now!"

At the last minute she runs back and gets her digital tablet. And then she is out the door and in a cab. A few minutes later she is running up the steps of the Avenger's mansion. Steve already has the door open.

"What happened to him? What did they do?" Darcy says before she's even on the final step.

Steve's fists clench at his side. "I can't tell you," he says.

"Why..." says Darcy and then she hears a popping noise. With an exasperated grunt, Steve opens his hand. There is the mangled remains of a cell phone in his palm. He throws it to the ground and says, "Shit."

It is so uncharacteristic of him. Darcy feels her eyes sting.

"You have to tell me," Darcy says. "So I know what I'm dealing with."

Steve looks at her hard and long. Nodding he says, "Yeah. Come on. I may punch a hole in the wall, though."

x x x x

It is the same room in Stark Tower where Loki was brought after he nearly got burned to a crisp in the Adrinondracks by the fire demon. There is a pinch in his arm that the apparitions moving around him refer to as intravenous fluids.

All his brain playing tricks. He will not move. He will not respond. If he does he'll find the soft bed beneath him rocks, the prick on his arm some damned insect feasting on his blood.

The room is exactly the same as he remembers. Thor is sitting on the bed. Loki is not sure how long he has been there. "I will keep coming for you," Thor says. "Remember that, Loki. I won't give up."

It is exactly the sort of thing Thor would say. He has probably has said it, in a variety of ways, a thousand times over the last two millennia. It's just Loki's brain regurgitating again.

Mental vomit.

Someone somewhere snickers.

Loki hears Steve's voice. "He was there a few months...less than his time with the Chitauri. But In some ways, it is maybe worse than before. He doesn't move, or even speak."

The bed shifts as the imaginary Thor stands. Loki's clever brain is betraying him, supplying all these little details, just to confound him.

"Lady Darcy," says the memory of his almost-Brother.

There is a long pause, and then Thor says, "I will leave you."

A figment of Darcy enters his line of vision. She has a streak of gray in her hair that wasn't there before. Loki clenches his jaw and scowls. That doesn't make her real. That is a detail his brain surely could add. A simple deduction. He has been away. She is mortal. She has aged. Though not her face, he notices. And how long has he been gone? An eternity. So there. His brain is playing tricks.

"Hi," she says, sitting on the bed just as he would expect her to. She puts her hand on his. Fighting the urge to entwine their fingers, he frowns.

She swallows. "I went to Jotunheim," she whispers. "Just like you asked me to.

"I brought pictures." She holds up a digital tablet so it is in his line of vision.

Darcy slides up next to him so that her back is against the headboard. Her waist is close to his head that is elevated on pillows. In the one hand she holds his hand. With the other hand she places the tablet on his chest and taps it with her thumb.

The tablet comes to life. And there is the little frost giant girl, Eisa, her smiling face filling the entire screen.

Loki starts to shiver.

"Eisa was my maid and my translator," Darcy says. "It felt funny having a personal maid. And she is so young...I felt like she was my daughter sometimes, and sometimes I felt like I was robbing her from her family, and sometimes...sometimes...I would look at her and think of your little girl, Helen. And I wondered if Helen looked like Eisa."

Loki closes his eyes. Eisa does remind him of Helen. And that is evidence this is a dream, right? Because Darcy never knew Helen and wouldn't think that...and he wishes he could turn this dream off or stay in it forever.

"She took me to see her family," says Darcy. "It was my first trip out of King Villi's castle. You know I told him that I was a commoner and I'd feel more comfortable with commoners...and you know what? He said, 'Ah, of course! Of course!' like he was putting me out by having me hang around the court the whole time. And he let me go, because of you Loki, because I'm your friend and because I'm a widow, and because I'm not a journalist...And here is Eisa's family's home."

He'd never gotten to meet the common people, never gone off on a stomp with little Eisa. Despite himself, Loki opens his eyes, his stomach reeling. The picture on the tablet is of a sort of yurt. He'd seen them, but only from a distance.

"The home is made of skins stretched over bone," says Darcy. "Her family are herders. It's very dangerous...one of her brothers is missing a leg. Another was gored to death when he was small."

The scene on the screen changes. There is Eisa in the yurt, dwarfed by a man and woman. There is also a little boy and girl that can't be more than two. "She has one more brother in the mines," Darcy says. "Eisa thought about working in the mines, too. It's always warm there, and they have a lot of food. Also they didn't beat the children as much as they did in the castle. But you know what? Because they had so many servants run off to the mines, King Villi had to increase the food allotment for the servants in his castle, and had to make the older servants beat the children less - there are strict rules about it. And he made beating a child to death a crime...It doesn't sound like much...but"

Darcy's fingers don't entwine with his, but she squeezes his hand, and his eyes close. He feels her lips against his cheek. "You did good? See?"

But that's what he wants to hear? Isn't it?

He hears Darcy swallow. "Look." His eyes open at the command and she flips to another picture. At first Loki thinks he is looking at small dead animals on the floor of the yurt, but then Darcy says, "Shoes. These are their shoes..." And Loki realizes they are actually moccasins, and for all that they look like dead animals, the picture is rather lovely, the way the shoes cross the screen at a diagonal, the red his addled brain took for blood is dye. No artist on Asgard would think of taking a picture of shoes. Not shoes of commoners. He'd never think about it.

The screen flickers again, and he's looking at fire framed by black. "A coal burning stove," says Darcy. "They're quite the status symbol now. Before you came along there really wasn't enough wealth for people to think about stoves, but now they can. Their yurt was actually quite toasty..."

The screen flickers again, and there is Eisa, standing behind a boy, smiling, her arms wrapped around his neck. The bottom half of one of the boy's legs is missing; still, he is smiling, too, one hand on his sister's arm. Another non-Asgardian picture. Commoners and cripples.

"Sometimes, the frost giants will leave a weak child behind..." Darcy says, her voice shaking. "I guess when you have so little..." She doesn't finish. "But Eisa's and her other brother's jobs help her family...and Eisa is teaching him the magic of tongues. There are so many humans now. They think that even if he can't be a proper servant, or work in the mines, maybe he'll be able to be a translator..."

It's obviously raining in the mountains because Loki's face is wet.

X x x x

Darcy stares down at the picture of Eisa and her little brother. Her hand trembles. She shouldn't have shown Loki this picture...her eyes flit to Loki's. He looks strange to her in his Asgardian form. Steve said that Loki had been sunburned when they found him, but now his face is too pale; it's almost pasty. His hair is long, but lovingly brushed back from his face - probably by Thor's own hand. A short beard is on his chin, clipped neatly. His eyes...his eyes are blue but rimmed with red and...

He is weeping.

Her mouth opens. She's broken him, she's made it worse. She drops the tablet on his stomach and puts her hand to his face. Squeezing his other hand she whispers, "Loki, Loki, Loki, I'm sorry, I'm sorry...but you've changed things. Don't you see? I was so angry at you but now I understand why you did what you did. Jotunheim is changing, and you did it, you did it..."

Loki doesn't move.

From behind her come the heavy footsteps of Thor.

"Lady Darcy, I am sorry, but we should turn him onto his side," Thor says behind her.

Swallowing, Darcy nods. She slips from the bed and tries to pull her hand from Loki's, but his hand suddenly closes tight.

"Loki?" she says. He doesn't move, doesn't even turn his head.

Thor looks down at Loki's eyes wet with tears and his eyes widen. "Loki!"

"I'm sorry," Darcy says. "I didn't mean to..."

"No, no," says Thor. "This is good. This is new...Loki...Loki...listen to me. I am here. I came for you, I came for you." He takes one of Loki's hands and reaches to take the one in Darcy's, but Loki's hold on her is a death grip.

Thor laughs. He begins speaking in what must be old Norse. Loki doesn't respond. His eyes meet Darcy's and his mouth opens and moves. It takes a moment, but then a whisper comes from his lips, as faint as a breeze through grass. "Is this a dream?"

Beaming, Thor shouts. "No! No! This is no dream!"

Shaking her head, Darcy starts to cry. Her lover died and came back a shade of his former self - literally, and she's been to other worlds and...and...and...

The noise coming from her is a gurgle of tears. "How should I know? That's a crazy philosophical question to ask!"

Loki actually smiles. It's just a quirk of his lips, but on his face that had been so expressionless it's like the sun coming out.

Darcy puts her hand to his cheek. "And I don't care...if it is a dream. You're alive..." Slipping her hand to his shoulder, she shakes him. Hard. "And don't ever do that again!"

Dropping her head to his chest she lets out a ferocious sob. Bed springs creak, and the mattress sinks and she knows it must be Thor sitting down beside them. One of Thor's large meaty hands falls on her shoulder, but the hand climbing gently to her waist is smaller, lighter, and can only be Loki's.

Chapter Text

The sky is darkening outside; Darcy sits next to Loki on the bed in the Avengers' Mansion. Her knees are pulled up to her chest, her digital tablet perched there. After Loki 'awoke' and recognized her and Thor, they'd gotten him to sit up and drink some milk. And then Loki had promptly fallen asleep. When he'd rolled over on his own power and curled into semi-fetal position next to Darcy, Thor had been ecstatic.

Thor's left now to go see Jane.

There is some weird electrolyte vitamin drink by the bed, and a thermos of soup - just in case Loki awakes. He is absolutely not supposed to eat any solids yet.

Darcy's too keyed up to sleep. Blinking at the screen, she's looking at her email inbox. The page is literally a wall of requests for interviews. She opens a few, gets overwhelmed, and decides maybe she should seek out the Avengers' publicist.

She flips to the New York Times online. There's another article on Jotunheim - of course. This one mentions Darcy by name, and how she is too biased to be offer reliable reports, because among other reasons, she isn't trained as a journalist.

"What a..." The next words out of her mouth are in jotunn. "Steaming heap of polar bear shit," she mutters. Beside her she hears a soft laugh, and then a whisper. "Will your capacity to surprise me never end?"

With a happy yelp, Darcy sets the tablet on the bedside table and slides down so she's lying next to Loki. He presses his face to her cheek, his eyes closed. Very slowly, as though expecting resistance, he lifts a hand underneath the covers. And then he drags it out and reaches to take hers. His fingers slip between her own and her skin heats.

She knows what that simple gesture means now, and she wants it to be true...but it was easy before, when it was just a two week stand. Now there are so many other issues.

Closing her eyes she shakes her head. Those are thoughts for later.

Loki brings their hands to his lips and kisses her knuckles. The touch courses through her body like an electric shock, even though he's pale, pasty, and gaunt. His eyelids flicker open. He looks at their hands and his eyes widen. "I'm not blue."

"Yeah," Darcy says. "I was wondering about that. Last time you didn't have your magic, you reverted to your true form."

Loki sighs. His grip on her hand loosens, but he doesn't let go. He closes his eyes for a moment. His skin doesn't change color, but when he opens his eyes they're glowing orange-red. It's familiar yet still sexy. Darcy smiles, but Loki scowls. "Odin. He turned me back to my Asgardian appearance before I faced the Diar. Out of kindness or because he didn't want to rub the fact that he'd shown mercy to a monster, I still don't know."

Darcy's brow furrows. "So this is like the elf queen giving you frog legs?"

Loki nods. "Yes, someone else's magic. It will take some effort to undo. I have my magic. I'm just too tired to access it at the moment." He brings a hand to his temple. "This form explains the low grade headache. Funny, I didn't really notice it when..." Rubbing the bridge of his nose, he doesn't finish.

Darcy swallows. She can see how a headache wouldn't be your first concern while being chained to rocks as a weird robot bird thing ate your liver. Her chest tightens and she says, "I'm supposed to get you to drink some soup, or some of the green stuff..."

He grumbles something about knowing the routine. From the time he spent chained in a cave with the snake? Or maybe the myth of him being captured by a giant and starved for 30 days is true? Darcy doesn't feel like asking. She helps him sit up and drink the soup - he won't touch the green concoction. She follows him when he slides back down into the bed and puts her head on the pillow beside him. She's on her back. He's lying on his side.

Not meeting her eyes, he picks at her shirt. "Why are you wearing clothes?"

"Because no one knocks when they walk in," she says.

Loki lets out a low harumf and finds her hand. As his fingers slide against hers she reminds herself she's not questioning this. Instead she says, "I know what that means, you know."

"Then you know why you should take off your clothes," Loki whispers in her ear. Bringing their hands up to her chest, he gives a soft sigh.

"How is this a good idea?" Darcy asks, shifting her legs.

"It's very life affirming," says Loki, slipping his hand from hers and cupping a breast.

Smiling despite herself, she arches her back and murmurs. "Maybe we should affirm life when you can sit up unassisted?"

"The time to affirm life is always the present," Loki says. Rubbing his thumb against her nipple he groans and Darcy bites her lips.

"You are so soft and so warm," he says.

He stills for a moment. "So warm."

Darcy's eyes go to the door. It doesn't seem like a good idea...but maybe if they're careful.

She hears a long intake of breath by her ear. Loki's entire body shudders. It takes her a moment but then she realizes he's asleep.

The bed's too small. A beautiful man has just gone to sleep on her, leaving her inconveniently aroused. And her jeans really aren't that comfortable for sleeping in.

The moment is oddly perfect. Darcy closes her eyes and soon joins Loki in dreams.

Loki's arm is draped over a warm soft pillow. His leg is also draped over said pillow. He has a slight headache, his skin feels too tight, and he's hungry, but otherwise he's comfortable. And he's on his side. That is important. On the rocks he always lay on his back. Yesterday, last night - maybe they weren't dreams?

Thor is speaking some place far away. "I will watch him. Go now and get some refreshment."

The pillow shifts and slips away. And Loki's eyes open to see Darcy stepping away from the bed. If this was a dream, she wouldn't be walking away.

Behind him the bed sinks.

Thor. Suddenly, questions shoot through his lethargy, and his muscles tighten. As soon as he's sure Darcy is gone, Loki puts a hand to his face.

"Thor..."

"Brother!" shouts Thor far too loudly. The bed springs creak and suddenly Thor is up and around the bed, kneeling down and facing Loki with the happy expectancy of a golden retriever puppy.

"You're awake!"

"Thor," Loki says, not bothering to answer the obvious. "How much was a dream?"

Thor's smile drops. "What do you remember?" he asks quietly.

"Fighting," says Loki.

"Yes," says Thor. He gets up and moves wearily to a chair by the bed. Loki meets his eyes.

Looking away, Thor says, "The Einherjar."

"Some escaped back to Asgard," says Loki.

"Yes," says Thor.

Loki swallows. "Are you banished now?"

Thor raises an eyebrow. "Yes. Along with Fandral and Sif. Though we haven't been stripped of our magic, so it isn't as dire as last time."

Loki takes a deep breath and his chest tightens. Frost giants age very slowly, and Loki is so powerful that death, at least by aging, is many centuries away.

Thor, Fandral and Sif are magical; they will live for a long time. Still, to be banished is a death sentence. He closes his eyes. Thor especially is strong in healing; aging will progress slowly in him, perhaps at half the rate as a human. But by the time Darcy and Jane pass, Thor will...

Lokis's chest tightens further and his body constricts into a fetal position. They'll die before him. All of them.

And then a sudden thought chills him. Can he die at all? He tried so hard to die in the last few decades and failed miserably. Maybe he can't die. The idea is heavy, unsettling, and unwelcome. He closes his eyes and puts his head in his hands. He sees the bodies of the guards, killed during his little scheme during Thor's coronation ceremony. He imagines the Jotunn he killed with the Bifrost. He sees the human and Chitauri bodies after the first attack - because the Chitauri were slaves of Thanos, too, weren't they? These are all weights he would love dearly to leave behind. If he cannot die, then there is no way to drop them. Unless maybe he were to transform himself into a form without the intellectual capacity to hold onto those memories for a prolonged period of time. His magic wouldn't let him stay in the body of an animal for more than a day or so, he'd automatically revert...but a baby, maybe...and if everyone he loved was gone...

"Do not let it trouble you," says Thor. "We knew the risks. And anyway, I knew that the Norns would most likely take the apples of Idunn from me..." Shrugging casually, Thor says, "It was part of the deal I made with them."

Loki tilts his head and feels his blood go cold. The Norns are famous for extracting excruciating bargains.

Thor puts his hands together. Not meeting Loki's gaze, he cracks his knuckles. "I wanted to plead insanity on your behalf when we faced the Diar after the first Chitauri invasion. Heimdall would not tell me what befell you at their hands. So I went to the Norns. They see everything that happens, though the the future, you know, is only probabilities..."

Loki's mouth falls. "You pledged them your immortality, Thor, to gather evidence?"

Turning a little red, Thor says, "Not exactly."

Loki's eyes narrow. "What did you pledge?"

Thor turns completely red now. "I told them I would give them anything they wanted."

Taking a short breath, Loki tries to calm himself. He means to just give Thor a mild reproof. "You what? You idiot!" The words come out of Loki's mouth so loudly the windows reverberate.

Thor only laughs. "It is is so good to have you back, brother!"

"How could you be so stupid?" Loki shouts. "You promised them anything-and they took your immortality!"

Thor snorts a laugh. "Actually, they said I would lose my right to the apples of Idunn."

And then the big, honest, selfless oaf nearly doubles over laughing. "But it wasn't just that, Loki! They told me they would take my kingship as well!"

"Why is this so funny to you?" Loki says, suddenly finding the energy to sit up. If he had anymore energy he'd probably set the room on fire.

"Because, Brother..." Thor says, wiping an eye. "They took nothing! Don't you see? As soon as I testified on your behalf, the Diar started talking about the crown skipping my head. They said Earth had made me soft. And as for Idunn's apples...had I not gone to the Norns I still would have lost my right to them. I still would have rescued you."

Thor sobers up. "The truth is, I got off easy. I think because they rather like you. They are weavers, you know...like the three fates in Grecian myths."

Loki raises an eyebrow. He did not know this.

"They weave beautiful tapestries of everything that happens in the universe," Thor says quietly. "They said when you're weakened and father gets overzealous, the patterns aren't as dynamic."

He narrows his eyes at Loki. "And when you get overzealous the threads tangle into hopeless knots."

Loki sits back against his pillow and scowls. "Riddles don't suit you, Brother."

Raising his eyebrows, Thor gazes down and scratches behind his ear. "When I first went to them they didn't understand me when I called you brother...they thought I was speaking of Baldur." He favors Loki with a smirk. Smirking doesn't suit Thor's open face. "I think...I think...you may actually be my uncle."

Loki remembers Odin's face when he called him brother. He feels his heart rate quicken. It still doesn't explain some things. "Thor, did they tell you what I am...what Odin is..."

Thor's gaze grows distant. "No. And I didn't ask." He smiles. "But I know what you are."

Loki looks at him expectantly.

Thor's smile widens. "You are trouble!" he says and Loki's eyes narrow.

Looking down, Thor says softly, "And mischief, chaos, transformation and change."

Loki looks away, wondering if he's stumbled into a dream again.

And then Thor says, "If you don't mind, I would like to still call you Brother."

Looking back, Loki finds Thor giving him a twisted half smile. "Really, I am fine with dwelling in your shadow and being your side-kick, Loki. But calling you uncle..." He winces comically.

Loki feels far too heavy, and it is too hard to breathe. The galaxy is obviously spinning in the wrong direction, the universe is constricting instead of expanding, and Earth's poles must be in the process of reversing. "Of course," he manages to say.

Darcy chooses that moment to re-enter the room. Tension leaves Loki's body, and Thor visibly relaxes as well. Her arrival is a welcome distraction for both of them. This conversation has been too heady.

"Ah, Lady Darcy," says Thor, standing from his seat and giving her a wink. "I'll leave you two alone."

Darcy looks like she might protest, but then she looks to Loki and he nods at her. She looks at Thor and smiles. "I bet Jane misses you - or at the very least needs you to remind her to eat."

Thor chuckles and heads for the door. Loki's throat constricts for some reason. He calls out. "Brother!"

Thor stops and turns. "Yes?"

Heaving a breath, Loki manages a difficult smirk. "The Norns...did they appear to you as beautiful maidens or old crones?" They are known to take either form depending on their whims.

Thor tilts his head. "Crones."

Shaking his head, Loki widens his smirk. "You were robbed."

Thor laughs. "I know!" And then he turns around again and vanishes down the hall.

Loki turns to Darcy. She's very close to the bed now. Her eyes are on him, her smile gone. She looks sad.

"You are a beautiful sight for sore eyes," he says, his arm a little lower than might be appropriate if their relationship were different.

He pulls her close; her pensive expression doesn't change.

x x x x

Handing her winter coat to a robot butler, Darcy steps into the Avengers' mansion.

Someone must have a television on somewhere, because Darcy hears her own voice in the distance over a speaker. "The Jotuns are victims of progress? Do you realize how condescending that sounds?"

Laura Osborne's voice filters through the hallway. "I don't think you were in a position to look at it objectively. My training as a reporter allows me to -"

"Spare me the ad hominems," Darcy snaps. "I think the frost giants and I are being objective. They've weighed the reality of their children starving and freezing to death today against the threat of environmental degradation in the future and they're picking their children. Environmental degradation which wealth and prosperity may mitigate, I might add."

The male host's voice chimes in next. "Well, I think we know which political party you belong to."

Darcy hears her voice crack through the hallways. "No, actually you don't. What you can probably tell is that I'm a parent who can only imagine what it is like to watch her children starve."

She clenches her fist anticipating Laura's response and closes her eyes when it comes.

"The frost giants themselves sacrifice their children if they are weak. I think it's safe to say you're anthropomorphizing them if you think they value their offspring the way we value ours. Socially, and probably genetically, it's likely they just...don't."

There is a moment of silence in the mansion. There had been silence in the studio when Laura had said that, too.

Darcy had wanted to say something intelligent and logical. But all she could think of was Eisa, and her parents' hope for Eisa's little injured brother, and Loki defying Asgardian traditions to keep his handicapped daughter; it was all she could do not to spontaneously combust. Instead she'd exploded. "Are you crazy?"

She closes her eyes. She hadn't liked that response at the time. But the audience had loved it. She'd gotten a standing ovation.

She sighs as the sound of clapping comes over the TV. Her phone rings. The caller ID says Jon Hartman & Associates. Grateful for the distraction she answers.

"Hello, Darcy Lewis."

"Ms. Lewis, this is Jon Hartman calling on behalf of Mr. Lothur Farbautison. First, let me tell you how sorry I am for your loss. I am certain you must be still grieving, but Mr. Farbautison has you mentioned in his will, and I was to contact you if and when..."

Blinking, Darcy says, "Wait, Lothur Farbautison?" And then she closes her eyes. Farbauti was the name most commonly given to Loki's father. And Lothur was one of Loki's many names.

"Ah, perhaps you have not heard the news. He said that might occur. I'm sorry to say, Mr. Farbautison is dead."

Eyes widening, blood going cold, Darcy runs down the hallway. "No! Wait, that can't be true!" She'd just seen him this morning.

"I am sorry, it is. It may not be much of a comfort, but you are set to come into a sizeable inheritance, along with his sons and ex-wife -"

Darcy does a Thor and slams through the door of Loki's room without knocking. His bed is empty and neatly made. Her heart stops.

And then from the opposite corner of the room comes a familiar voice. "Look! I'm blue, and sitting up, too. You know what that means?"

Darcy turns to see Loki sitting on a chair. He is waggling his eyebrows and smirking.

The ice cold worry in her veins turns to hot anger. Holding up the phone, Darcy huffs. "Why is there a lawyer on the phone telling me you're dead?"

Loki blinks. "Oh, yes, that. I told him to contact you if he hadn't heard from me in three months time." He smiles. "But at least now you know I care."

Darcy hurls the phone at him.

Nonplussed, Loki plucks the phone from the air just before it hits his face and sets it to his ear. "Hello, Jon? Yes, yes, I'm fine. Mmmm-hmmmmm...give my regards to the wife and kids. Yes, yes, I certainly will."

Closing the phone, he smirks back at Darcy. "Now, where were we? Oh, yes, I was pointing out that I am upright and blue."

Walking over to the chair, Darcy restrains the urge to strangle him. Instead she slips into his lap and wraps her arms around him tight. "Don't ever do that again."

Gently kissing the soft skin just in front of her ear, Loki says, "Forget to get in touch with my lawyer? I will try to remember." He grinds his hips against hers and Darcy pulls back a little.

His pupils are dilated, the ring of fire of his iris just a very visible band. Aside from being thin, he hasn't changed at all since before he left her all those months ago. He's beautiful, with high cheekbones and taut, ageless storm cloud blue skin. Black hair. She's changed. After 45 years she got her first streaks of gray hair - probably on his account. The scare just now is probably going to cost her some more.

His hands tighten on her hips, and she feels his arousal beneath her. After the first realization that yes, he found her sexually attractive, she has been able to be unselfconscious about it. She has known a few younger men, handsome, vital, successful men, who have had affairs with women her age; it almost seems like a right of passage. But the affairs never last. And it is always the women who have to end it.

Darcy and Loki should talk about this. They really should.

Leaning forward, Loki whispers in her ear. "I saw your interview on television." His voice is thick with want and need and his hips grind against hers. "Darcy Lewis, I have never wanted to pound you into the mattress as much as I do now."

His lips connect with hers and Darcy decides 'The Talk' can wait.

x x x x

Loki sits with his legs stretched out on a plush chair in a hidden nook of a large "department" store's men's section. He is in his Asgardian form, just for convenience. Darcy is somewhere buying clothes for Franz and Max who are due home in two days time for their Yuletide break.

Loki is far from completely better. He gets exhausted easily. He had a brief moment this morning he when he thought he was back on the rocks; it had terrified Darcy. And magically he is too weak to teleport, or really do much more than change from his Asgardian form to his Jotunn form.

He is well enough to have spent the last few nights at Darcy's flat. He's followed her here - by subway no less, for the exercise. Also, just because he enjoys her company.

The trip has worn him out, though. When his Stark phone rang with a text from Nari in Asgard, he'd been grateful for the excuse to sit down, leaving Darcy to go off and run her errands.

Stark had given phones to his sons when they helped free Loki. There was also one that Nari and Valli are trying to get to Frigga, but whenever they speak to their grandmother, they are always under guard.

Now Loki scowls down at Nari's latest text. "They are grooming Ullr to rule as regent next time Odin goes into Odin's Sleep."

The acknowledgement that if anyone else takes the throne it will be to rule as regent only makes Loki blink. He'd suspected as much. But why Ullr? He suddenly feels very uncomfortable.

Ullr is Sif's son and Thor's adoptive son. Sif never revealed Ullr's father. Ullr looks so much like Thor...Most people just think that the two young lovers had had a happy accident before they were officially betrothed.

Ullr is strong in magic, but a cunning warrior, too. He loves Thor by all accounts - and looks so much like him. Like a son. Loki sighs. Or a brother. Loki rubs his eyes and blinks at Nari's next text. "They are changing his name to Odinson. Grandmother loves Ullr but is furious."

Loki feels a headache coming on that has nothing to do with his present form. Asgardians have open marriages, or have marriage contracts that last a set amount of time, typically a century. Frigga's and Odin's marriage has always been 'open,' but only Frigga's sons were supposed to be in line for the throne.

Nari's next text says, "Ullr is sympathetic to the cause of reform. I am optimistic. Though I fear he will expend too much energy trying to end Sif's exile."

Loki sighs and texts back. "Are you keeping Valli in line?"

"Always," Nari responds and Loki's brows furrow. Nari is the only one who can keep Valli in line.

They text a little more, and then Valli joins in. Loki loves Valli. He can be ruthless, quick to anger, and violent, but he can also be noble, self-sacrificing, and brave in a way Nari or Loki is not. He would give his life to anyone close to him, or even out of principle.

….He also tends to bring the intelligence of any conversation down a few notches. Sometimes it is welcome. Other times, not so much.

"Are you still with She of the Divine Bosom?" Valli texts.

Considering it is Valli and how rude he can be, it's rather an innocuous comment. It still makes Loki's stomach churn. Loki tilts his head and texts back. "Be respectful, and Yes. I understood she was in cold weather gear when you met. What makes you think -"

Nari responds. "We both noticed. It must be genetic, FATHER."

Well...that is uncomfortable.

"You intend to keep her, then?" Valli texts.

And then Loki's stomach tumbles. Keep her. Like a pet. It's so Asgardian. He wouldn't have thought much of it even twenty years ago, but now it rankles. He wants to say something, somehow explain that just because their time together will most likely be brief, Darcy is not less to him for it. But then Nari texts, "The servant just announced Hogun...don't worry, apparently unarmed."

Suddenly, Loki finds himself staring at a blank screen.

And then he hears Darcy's voice. "Hey, there, good chat?"

Loki tilts his head and manages a smile.

Grinning, she holds up a shopping bag triumphantly. "Lots o' underwear and socks. They'll wear stuff with holes in it if I don't get the basics for them."

Loki makes a mental note to buy Franz and Max some gifts that are actually fun, but smiles at Darcy - for real. She looks stunning. She's cut her hair again. It's a bob with shorter bangs across her forehead. There is a prominent streak of gray to one side she wanted to dye, but Loki convinced her not to. Loki thinks it's very exotic. The style looks very sleek and smart, and it's easy to manage. She's been called to so many radio and television shows in the last few weeks and it's a difficult style for show stylists to mangle.

Loki watches all Darcy's interviews. It amuses him how the shy girl with all the cogent observations is now not shy at all - but her observations have not lost their sharpness.

Standing with effort from the chair, he loops his arm with hers.

"Is that Fandral?" she says.

Loki looks up and sees Fandral about 70 paces away.

Darcy's nose wrinkles. "He did make a rather pathetic pass at me a long time ago - but he saved your life. I think we should say hi."

"Definitely," says Loki. He still hasn't discovered why Fandral rescued him.

Loki always believed Fandral to be a not particularly intelligent, shallow, would-be-ladies man, and altogether uninteresting. Yet when it counted, for whatever reason, Fandral had come to Loki's aid. He owes Fandral at least respect, and so, arm-in-arm he walks with Darcy towards Fandral and a display of shirts.

They're nearly there, but Fandral's back is to them and it's too crowded to call out. A large shopper steps in front of them obstructing their view. As said shopper walks away, Loki blinks. There is a man next to Fandral, dragging a hand down Fandral's back in a gesture that cannot be misconstrued for anything but intimate. Fandral turns his head to the side and smiles at his companion, and the look of adoration in his eyes is impossible to ignore.

Suddenly a lot of things make sense. In Asgard Fandral was always in the company of women but never was very successful at wooing them. It's a great joke about court. But Fandral never meant to be successful, had he?

"Oh," says Darcy, making no move to stop.

Loki spins them in the other direction.

"What?" Darcy says. And then she lowers her voice to a whisper. "Please don't tell me you're homophobic. I've read what Asgardians think but..."

"That's not it," Loki hisses.

Darcy draws to a halt. "We should go say hi."

"No. We will embarrass him," says Loki. "If he wanted us to know, he would tell us." Rubbing his temple, Loki says, "This sort of thing is not done in Asgard." Some homosexual acts are tolerated - and if a warrior feels the urge to rape a man or woman he's bested in battle, he is considered within his rights. But a romantic relationship, that is taboo.

"Don't tell me homosexuality doesn't exist there," says Darcy, her brows drawing together.

"Of course it exists," says Loki. "But it only happens behind closed doors...it isn't acknowledged." To do so would be dangerous.

"This isn't Asgard. We should say hi," says Darcy, her voice carrying. Loki looks to the side and sees Fandral stiffen. Fandral turns and sees Loki. He doesn't even acknowledge the man standing next to him. He just turns on his heel and walks quickly away, head bowed, breathing too heavily - because facing death is one thing, but being exposed as a man who loves other men? That is real fear.

"Fandral!" calls the man who'd been standing beside him.

"Please tell him I won't use it against him," says Loki. Once he would have.

The man's jaw drops, and then he races off after Fandral.

"Oh, no," says Darcy. "I didn't mean..."

"Of course you didn't," says Loki. "And it would have happened sooner or later."

Darcy stands stock still.

Pulling her gently, Loki says, "Come on, let's go home."

He tilts his head. Home. He likes the sound of that. But he's quiet for most of the trip.

x x x x

A little later, back at Darcy's flat, Loki looks over at Darcy wrapping Franz's and Max's gifts. "Your sons will not be happy that I'm here."

Franz and Max will be coming home soon. Darcy says that Loki's welcome to stay for the holiday and share her bed while her sons are in the house. Another thing that just wouldn't be done in Asgard. You were either married or you kept your sexual relationships completely under wraps.

Loki didn't just go to the cave for Baldur's death-in fact, his part in that was never proven. He went there for exposing all of Asgard's dirty laundry.

"I'm a grown up," says Darcy, not looking up from where she is pulling a pair of scissors along a ribbon. She releases it and the ribbon springs into a curl. "They can deal with it."

Picking up a piece of paper ribbon, he concentrates on the tip until it begins to smolder. He doesn't like the answer. Franz and Max will worry that he is using her - that Loki doesn't respect her because she is a human, younger, mortal-at least for the moment-and unmagical. He is troubled by his sons' perception of his relationship with Darcy. And bothered by Fandral's embarrassment and shame over his own relationship.

He looks at Darcy. She is staring busy, measuring out paper for a pair of socks she is about to wrap in a box that is far too large for them. She says it's to throw her boys off when they inspect the package. Her face is too pensive for the task. Every now and then he catches that pensive expression on her when she thinks he's not looking. Maybe she is more disturbed by the ambiguity of their relationship than she lets on.

He frowns at the ribbon curling in his hand. In his life he's had women he's used simply for physical pleasure, and he's had wives. He knows his feelings and which group Darcy belongs to.

"Let's get married," he says. As soon as he says it, he feels lighter. He loved Sigyn and Aggie, and he loves Darcy. And he likes being married. He does tend to attract chaos, and he likes having something that is emotionally steadying.

He tilts his head and looks at Darcy. Her eyes are wide, her mouth slightly parted in a way that makes her looks very young, and very innocent.

Asgardians will think he's absolutely insane; well they already think that, but more so now. He doesn't even have the excuse of pregnancy like Thor did. Although...He lifts an eyebrow. A baby, with Darcy.

He has a plan, a very tentative, probably unworkable plan to reclaim immortality for Thor and Fandral and grant it to Darcy and Jane. He cannot tell anyone about it now, not even Darcy. If word gets around, it will destroy every hope. As it is, hope for it to succeed is so small. And if it fails, which it most likely will...

A baby. A child. A being that he could look to and be reminded of her.

And to have Darcy now and know that she is his and no one else's, he wants that.

Darcy looks like she's gone into shock. But she always wanted commitment; her answer should be easy.

He smiles. "Well?"

Chapter Text

"We should get married."

Loki's words are so out of left field that it takes Darcy a few moments to process them. She just stands at the kitchen counter, scissors on wrapping ribbon hovering in mid-air.

And then Loki smiles. "Well?"

She slowly puts the scissors down. She is struck by two conflicting urges, to run over, jump up, wrap her arms and legs around him and shout, "Yes, yes, yes."

The other urge is to cry. She just has this horrible feeling that he doesn't really understand what he's asking.

She stammers, "I...I..." .

"Didn't you tell me once you missed out not having a little girl?" Loki says. He winks. "We could try and rectify that."

And then she knows he doesn't understand what he's saying. "Loki, it would be too risky for me to have a baby."

His shoulders slump just a little, and his face goes slack. "Why?" There is an undercurrent of worry in his voice that is heartbreaking. "You're healthy..."

She hears the question in the last statement, and she is at first stunned. Loki is brilliant - Bruce, Tony and Jane say his understanding of quantum mechanics and astronomy are far beyond what they could hope to achieve in their lifetimes. How could he not understand...

But then she knows. He is from Asgard. Asgardians don't age. "I'm a perfectly healthy 44 year old, but if I were to have a baby the risk of chromosomal abnormalities is too high. I don't want to risk it. I won't risk it."

Straightening, his gaze turns calculating, for just a moment. His face goes hard, resolute. "I still want to marry you."

Darcy's heart beats faster and her blood turns colder. She realizes that there was a part of her that hoped, coming from a rather traditional culture, he would drop the idea of marriage if childbearing was an issue. But...he loves her.

She feels prickles at the corner of her eyes. "I want to say yes," her words are punctuated by hot tears spilling down her cheeks.

Coming forward, almost cautiously, Loki puts an arm around her waist. "But?"

"But I'm getting older, Loki, and you're not!"

He smiles, and it's a happy, playful, mischievous smile. "But I am getting older."

She smacks his chest. "Not that anyone could notice."

He pulls her close, and she can feel his long lean muscles beneath his clothes. She buries her nose against his neck and feels the tautness of his skin.

"I don't care," he says. "You're good for me."

She knows that's true. He woke up just this morning on his back and in a flashback. For a frightening five minutes he was unresponsive until Darcy pulled out her tablet and started showing him pictures and telling him tales of her experiences in Jotunheim. He explained later that he needed to know he wasn't in memories - and that Darcy, not a warrior, or bureaucrat like he spent the last two million years around, was better able to pull him out of his mind than anyone else. In his words she always surprises him.

"...and together we can be even better," he whispers, kissing her cheek.

And that is true, too. Loki is like David - Loki pushes her, exposes her to new ideas and new worlds. Loki will be honest about where her strengths lie. She remembers his 'talk' with her before she left SHIELD all those years ago. Painful as the conversation had been, if he'd spared her, he wouldn't have been doing her any favors.

"No matter what, I will always take care of you," he says.

And that's when Darcy really breaks down. He is the most beautiful man she's ever slept with, will ever sleep with again. But she knows in this moment that if her choice is between being the ward of a beautiful young-looking man and the lover of some old codger...she'll take the old codger.

Pushing away, nearly blind with her own tears, she says, "But don't you see, I don't want that! I want a lover...I don't want to become...your...your...pet."

Loki's face goes hard. "You aren't! You'll never be! Don't you get that? That's why I want to marry you!"

He's yelling at her.

She screams right back. "Yeah? Really? Well, then ask me that again in 20 years!"

The scowl on his face softens. "20 years?" He blinks. The fingers of a blue hand start thumping against his thigh. "Can we be engaged at least so your sons do not think I am intentionally dishonoring you?"

That was too easy. Darcy stares at him. "I'm not guaranteeing that I'll say yes in 20 years."

He scowls. "Well, of course not. During an engagement either party may decide to leave..." His eyes narrow. "But during the time we are engaged, I expect sexual fidelity..." He looks away, as though slightly ashamed and says, "I do not share...well." Swallowing, he says, "I am willing to offer you an oath of the same in return."

He seems suddenly so vulnerable. Stepping forward, she puts a hand on his hip. "Loki, you're more than enough man for me." Really, if things keep going the way they have been, she won't have time for another man. Or even sleep.

Turning to her, he beams. "Then it's settled. A 20 year engagement."

"Settled?" says Darcy weakly.

Raising his eyebrows, he tilts his head, smiles rakishly, and runs his tongue across his teeth.

Darcy's breath catches and she goes hot. God help her, he's delicious, and worse - she loves him.

She swallows. She gives it five years, tops, ten. "Okay," she says.

Pulling back, he studies her a moment, and then his arms go around her back and he lifts her up onto the counter. Taking a deep breath, he presses the side of his head against her chest and closes his eyes as though the motion wore him out. Considering his overall state of health, it probably did.

"It's not the answer I expected," he says at last and Darcy bites her lip. "But it seems fair, and if it puts your mind at ease..." His voice drifts off. "And it's really no time at all."

Darcy blinks at that. 20 years is nearly half her life. This really seems too easy...

Later, she learns from Jane that Sif and Thor were engaged for a century after they were betrothed as children by their parents. And after she approximates Loki's exact age with help of Thor, she puts together that 20 years for Loki is like one year of her life time. Not that long of an engagement at all for an Asgardian.

Still, she gives it ten years tops.

x x x x

"I thought you needed something besides socks and underwear," Loki says. He's sitting in front of the Christmas tree. He's wearing jeans so dark they're almost black, and a muted green knit short sleeve shirt that's casual and yet somehow screams expensive.

Darcy, Franz and Max are wearing sweaters.

Franz looks up over the last present in his hand at Loki. The present is still wrapped, but it is obvious it's a video game cartridge of some kind. Not just because of its shape, but because of the new 50" flat screen TV and video game paraphernalia lying around them.

Franz gives Loki a cautious look and opens the package. "Battlefield Earth 900 AD: Frost Giants Versus the Aesir," he reads.

Franz and Max love video games, but they both look distinctly uncomfortable. It may be the choice in games...All-in-all she thinks they're taking the whole, "Yes, I'm dating a sort of substitute Avenger. It's Loki. He was brainwashed when he tried to take over the Earth, don't bring it up, it's still a sore spot. He's on our side now, but not a friend of Asgard, but a friend of Thor, it's complicated" thing kind of well.

Darcy's father died a little before she met David, and her mom takes turn coming to see her for Christmas and spending the holiday with Darcy's brother and his much younger children. For once, Darcy's a little relieved that it's her brother's turn to have their mom over for Christmas. The conversation with Franz and Max was awkward, and she's not precisely looking forward to doing it again.

Darcy's eyes go to Loki now. Grinning like a madman he says, "It has very good reviews. And you can choose if you want to be an Aesir or Jotunn - I know what team I want to be on."

Max looks down at the cartridge. "If we win, you're not going to turn us into frogs, are you?"

Rolling his eyes, Loki says, "Of course not."

Both Max and Franz visibly relax.

"I can't stand frogs," Loki says. "Now rabbits -"

Darcy hurls a couch cushion at him and he groans. Franz and Max seem to have picked up that he's only joking though; their lips are quirked upwards.

They're setting up the gaming equipment when Max looks down at the new diamonds on Darcy's left hand. "That's a nice ring, Mom."

Darcy's other hand goes to her throat. She put the diamond David gave her for their engagement on a drop pendant. It was at Loki's suggestion. One of the nice things about being with Loki is that he doesn't begrudge that David is still part of her life. Probably because he lost someone, too.

From where's he's helping Franz hang the flatscreen, Loki gives a snort. "It's only a placeholder ring until we go to Svartálfaheimr. Dwarf craftsmanship still can't be beat."

Darcy suppresses a smile. At first she was nervous about going to Svartálfaheimr. That is where Odin sent him for his punishment, but Loki insists that they'll only go to the dwarves who owe him allegiance - and anyway, the dwarves didn't know he was there since he spent the whole time on the surface. Now she's just excited. She could care less about a ring, but the chance to meet dwarves...that's awesome.

Connecting a wire with the wall, Loki mutters. "There would be a wedding band next to that engagement ring too, but your mother insisted we wait a while. If you feel your family honor is being besmirched, look to her."

To Darcy's mortification, Franz and Max both do look at her. Darcy glares at them and then sighs. "Cohabitation is done here, Loki."

Loki says something that sounds like a swear in some guttural language that reminds Darcy of Jotunn. He isn't taking the whole not married thing as gracefully as he could. It took her awhile to convince him that he doesn't have to sleep on the couch while they're here. As it is, Darcy and Loki haven't had sex since the boys' arrival. Loki's convinced they'll hear, or the floors will vibrate even if he manages a silencing spell, and then her sons will become enraged and they will all be forced into "an unfortunate confrontation."

On the one hand, Christmas nookie is nice. On the other hand, Darcy's catching up on a lot of sleep. Also, the way she catches Loki looking at her - as soon as the boys are out of the house they'll make up for lost time.

At the moment though, there is an awkward silence in the room.

Clearing his throat, Franz says, "I'd like to go to Svartálfaheimr..."

Loki blinks up at him, a game console in his hand.

"Me, too," says Max.

Pursing his lips, Loki looks at them. And then he grins. "You know, I think I can manage that. After your mother and I go. Maybe about the time of your spring break. I wasn't planning to take a Stark craft -" He throws a console at each of them. "I was actually planning on world walking..."

What follows is a conversation on the theories of quantum physics as it applies to interstellar travel and magic interspersed with video game blood and gore, and Loki's cries of, "This is not historically accurate! Thor and I weren't even born yet - and I resent the game's developers make me fight for the Aesir!"

It turns out to be the best Christmas Darcy or her boys have had in a long time. Maybe since David died. And they're all going to get to world walk...just because Loki has an overdeveloped sense of familial obligation and romance.

World walking to Svartálfaheimr isn't that much easier than taking a Stark craft - but since the Stark craft aren't going to Svartálfaheimr yet, it's their only choice. To world walk they first have to travel to a place where the fabric of space time is weak between Svartálfaheimr and Earth. It turns out that place is the caverns of Dan yr Ogof in Wales...which may not be convenient, but is certainly scenic.

Loki and Darcy follow a tour group into the caves. Loki is in his Asgard form to discourage curious looks, and they hang back from the tour group. Since the tour is in Welsh, Darcy isn't missing much.

They enter a cavern with a wide walkway and waterfalls tumbling from the walls. Turning to Loki, Darcy says, "It's beautiful." Not answering, his hand tightens on hers, there's a swirl of color, and suddenly she's in another, even grander cavern. This one has gems of all colors glowing in the ceiling. Darcy automatically lifts her head to look and her mouth drops in wonder. She takes her first breath of this new world's air - it's warmer, thick with unfamiliar smells, and she feels heavier.

She drops her eyes. They're on a narrow street. On either side of them are little dwellings and shops built into the walls. Stalagmites and stalactites form marbly looking columns. A few short, squat, muscular people stand around them - all staring at Darcy. Darcy blinks. Not people. Dwarves. None seem bigger than 4 and a half feet. There are no bulbous noses or long drooping beards in sight, but they have wide pale faces, and wide eyes that seem to glow in the low light - not like Loki's eyes, more like cat eyes. The few women she sees have their hair braided and pulled back. There is not a mushroom cap in sight.

She turns her head to Loki - he's blue again and smiling smugly. Evidently her excitement is written large on her face. Before she can say anything he leans in and says quickly, "The gravity here is stronger. That is why you feel so heavy."

He reaches behind her as though to give her a hug - and then drops his hand and gives her bum a pinch. Yelping, Darcy glares at him.

Opening his eyes wide, he blinks innocently. "What? It's a sign of affection here!" Turning around, he says, "But humans ordinarily aren't here...let's go find Svartálfar, Sindri's great grandson."

Darcy peeks to the side. Sure enough they're attracting a crowd and she hears whispers that remind her of the buzz of bees. Smiling anyway, she waves at a very, very small child as Loki takes her hand and drags her down the lane.

They haven't walked more than a few minutes when Loki pulls Darcy into a small building with a door tall enough they don't have to duck. On one side are cases of jewelry. On the other side are weapons. A little bell tingles as the door shuts and a dwarf woman looks up from where she sits behind a counter. She has a monocle on one eye. Whatever she has in her hand she drops, and the monocle drops, too, with a loud clang. Not seeming to notice, she gapes at Darcy.

"Is this the shop of the family Svartálfar?" Loki asks.

Eyes glued to Darcy, the woman says, "Yes."

Gesturing towards Darcy, Loki says, "I come for a ring for my intended."

From behind the counter where the woman sits a dwarven man pokes his head. "Well, you've come to the right place, friend Frost Giant." His eyes are on Darcy, too. She blinks. The height of the ceiling, their ability to speak all tongues - they receive customers from many worlds. Why are they staring?

The woman begins to stammer. "Are you...are you...are you...human?"

"Gilda," snaps the man. "Don't embarrass our customers!"

"It's okay," says Darcy, stepping forward and grinning ear to ear. "Yes, I'm human."

The woman puts a hand to her mouth. "Oh, I never thought I'd live to see the day! My goodness! My goodness...from Earth?"

"Where else would she be from?" the man snaps.

"Yes," says Darcy.

Loki clears his throat. Darcy feels a light prickle of electricity and turns to see Loki pull his hands apart as though he's clapping. The bag she usually carries her photography gear in materializes in mid-air and she catches it before it hits the ground. He folds his hand together and pulls them apart again and a large wooden trunk appears. He deftly catches it. Darcy saw him pack it with little wind up watches and clocks. He said the dwarves would find them quite interesting and wanted to use them to barter for her new ring.

"Darcy, darling," Loki says raising an eyebrow. "Why don't you have a look around, while I attend to the unpleasant business of haggling with Mister or Mistress Svartálfar." He looks between the two questioningly.

"I'm the one who handles the haggling here," says the man, looking Loki up and down and stepping around the counter. He turns to the woman, "Gilda, why don't you show this nice human around while I take master Frost Giant to the back."

Beaming, Gilda comes around the counter and bounces on her feet. "I would love to."

Rolling his eyes, Mister Svartálfar gives Gilda a pinch on the bum, and then gestures for Loki to follow him.

Darcy smiles so wide and so genuinely at Gilda that it hurts.

Loki stifles a grin at Darcy's obvious happiness as he carries his trunk into the back of the shop and lays it on a low table. He is going to get so many points for this.

Svartálfar closes the door behind them and says, "So what have you got for me?"

Loki opens the trunk revealing the collection of antique wind-up clocks and watches.

Svartálfar says, "Hmmmm...timepieces of some sort. I might be able to get you something small for those."

Loki chuckles. "No, no, no, those are just to put the heart of my intended at ease." He presses a lever concealed within the trunk's lock and a drawer pops open at the bottom. Pulling the drawer, he lifts out the first of the real goodies.

"This," he says, "Is an M16 rifle - a human weapon. It fires 700-950 shaftless arrows a minute, at approximately 940 paces a second. Its effective range is about 548 paces - if you're shooting for accuracy, but it can be deadly to as much as 770 paces."

He kisses the barrel affectionately and waggles his eyebrows at the dwarf.

The man's eyes widen for just a moment. But then the dwarf crosses his arms over his chest in a fair impression of indifference. "What are these shaftless arrows you speak of?"

Loki expected this question, and he pulls out a bullet and hands it to the dwarf.

Svartálfar scowls at the pointed metal cylinder between his fingers. "Interesting, but this will never penetrate magical armor. Humans still haven't got the magic it takes to fill a thimble apparently." Despite his words, Loki notices the dwarf's hands are trembling in excitement.

Loki purses his lips. "It will not pierce magical armour, it is true, but with a modified dwarven silver tip..."

The dwarf meets his eye. "I suppose I could get you a fairly nice ring for the...bow...and the shaftless arrows. After a suitable demonstration."

Straightening, Loki narrows his eyes. "I will, of course, demonstrate everything...in a soundproof room. But it is worth more than a fairly nice ring." He tilts his head. "Mister Svartálfar, long ago your great, great, great grandfather crafted the finest weapon in all the universe, Mjolinar."

Svartálfar mutters, "Aye, and assured we'd stay under the yoke of the Aesir."

Loki smirks. "I'm giving you the opportunity to create weapons just as powerful that will help dwarves cast off that yoke..." He raises an eyebrow. "I could take this opportunity someplace else."

"No, no, no!" says the dwarf. "You can have anything, anything in my shop!"

Loki smiles. "I'll want a little more than that."

The dwarf's eyes go wide.

Loki smiles happily and reaches back into the drawer. "But first let me show you the other goodies I have."

"This," he says holding up a beautifully crafted piece of synthetic polymers and metal, "is a Glock..."

x x x x

Loki isn't whistling as he walks into the kitchen of Avengers' mansion. But he is suppressing a happy whistle. His visit with the dwarves went much better than he anticipated. The haggling went about as he expected, and he is pleased enough by it. But what was really pleasing and surprising was what happened afterwards. Gilda invited Darcy and Loki to dinner with the Svartálfar clan. Oh, Mister Svartálfar had been upset. He'd taken his wife to the side and tried to convince her that Loki was too dangerous to invite to dinner.

"Oh, pshaw," said Gilda. "He must be a good man, coming all this way for a ring! And his intended, she is lovely; and as harmless as a glow worm - but less magical, I don't know how her kind survive. Oh, the children will be so excited to see a real human like in the stories!"

It had been a lovely evening. Darcy taken lots of photographs, and then brought out a digital tablet and shown everyone pictures from Earth and Jotunheim. Loki had mostly sat back, enjoyed dwarven ale and the ambiance as his intended be the goodwill ambassador for all humankind.

It had been...He tilts his head...a very happy experience. And definitely his best trip to Svartálfaheimr in two thousand years. The first time he hadn't been a wanted man, a criminal, an aggressor, or a prince confined to stiff functions of state.

Loki leans against the counter in the Avengers' kitchen and looks at the clock on the microwave. Steve is late. They were going to go out for lunch - and then maybe go back to Loki's and Darcy's place to play Battlefield Earth 900 AD. He likes it much better since Franz discovered that the Loki character in the game can switch sides.

Darcy's busy with the final stage of her book, and she's putting together an essay of her trip to Svartálfaheimr. Loki's under strict orders to stay out of her hair...or rather to stop pushing her into bed.

He smiles. It's nice that a new relationship can be so predictable after all this time. It feels exactly like those early days with Aggie or Sigyn when he couldn't get enough of them, when every time he laid eyes on them he wanted to devour them. He knows it will slow down, that the first flash of heat will transform to warm embers. That does not trouble him. He has been married before, and he knows how sustaining warm embers can be. But he'll take advantage of the heat as long as he can.

His stomach rumbles and he looks down. Although, all the romance can make one forget to eat. He looks at the refrigerator. Well, no harm in a bit of an aperitif before lunch with Steve.

He's just finishing the last stages of a Nutella-Peanut butter sandwich, thinking how much dwarves would love chocolate and how he must bring Nutella next visit, when he hears footsteps behind him. Smirking as he imagines exchanging chocolate goods for Asgard armour piercing ammunition, he turns. He expects to see Steve. But it's Fandral.

Fandral scowls. "What are you smirking about, trickster?"

Slightly affronted, Loki tilts his head. "Nothing that has to do with you, do not fear." The words come out too caustic, simply out of habit.

Loki bites his tongue. He needs Fandral on his side. "Really, Fandral. You don't."

Swallowing, Fandral says, "Not yet, anyway." His eyes narrow and his fists clench at his side.

There are words that are reassuring, and Loki should be able to use them. But the topic is...difficult. Instead Loki rolls his eyes in frustration.

Fandral scowls and then spins on his heel and leaves the room.

For a moment Loki is still, but then he takes off after him. He needs Fandral if he is going to slip into Idunn's orchard - even in the wrong season.

"Fandral, wait!"

Fandral doesn't turn around, even when he knocks into Steve coming down the hall.

"What is his problem?" Steve whispers as Fandral disappears down a long another corridor.

The word me, is on the tip of Loki's tongue. He scowls and his stomach constricts with thoughts of what he may have to do to fix this.

Chapter Text

The sun is warm on Darcy's back as she rolls up her yoga mat in Central Park and the members of her yoga group disperse, except Jane, of course. It's been one year since Darcy's engagement to Loki. She's just become closer to Jane in that time.

"You're quiet today...and scowling," says Jane. "Yoga is supposed to make you relax."

Darcy sighs and looks to her friend. Jane is the most beautiful 50 year old woman she knows. There are some tell tale signs of age, the way the bottom lids of her eyes and the skin under her chin sag just a tad. But Darcy heard one of the dermatologists that works out with them once exclaim, "You have no sun damage at all! How do you do it?"

Jane had smiled and said, "Magic."

Of course she meant it literally. Jane explained to Darcy that Thor can't reverse the pull of gravity, but sun damage he can fix. Jane says he does it because seeing herself age makes Jane sad, but Jane thinks seeing her age makes Thor sad.

Loki has told Darcy he can't really heal her aging. He could transform her into a young woman for limited periods of time, but the telomeres in her cells, her body's own clocks, would make her revert rapidly. He's thinks such a transformation would be dangerous if done repeatedly, and moreover, has told her that transforming her now would be pointless because she's "still stunning."

He's sweet. And not.

She's been with Loki for just over a year, and she'd recently found out all was not as it had seemed. Time to eat humble pie and 'fess up to Jane. They begin to stroll over the park's lawn. "Remember how I bragged about Loki doing housework -"

"I am so jealous! I can't even get Thor to do dishes! He's so clumsy. He always winds up breaking them!"

"Um, yeah," says Darcy, turning a little red. "Well, Loki doesn't actually do housework, either."

Jane blinks.

Darcy scowls, "He doesn't do dishes. He's been pushing our dirty dishes into random alternate universes and snagging clean dishes from the same universes..."

When Darcy asked him which universes, he'd snapped, 'Hopefully the ones that are stealing my socks from the dryer!' Which, actually, she thought was funny, but two wrongs really didn't make a right, and really, since there was no guarantee that was where things were coming and going, she didn't think his methods were ethical.

Jane makes a little gasp.

Taking a deep breath Darcy says, "...and I don't even think I really want to know where all the dirt went when he swept. He's wasn't sweeping it under the rug, he was sweeping it into another apartment, in another universe, where there is probably another me drowning in dirty dishes and dust bunnies!"

Jane snorts. She doesn't sound that sympathetic. For a moment Darcy thinks about telling her Loki informed her Thor doesn't break the dishes because he's clumsy - he breaks dishes because he knows it is a way out of doing them. But that seems mean.

"So what are you doing?" says Jane.

"Getting a maid," says Darcy. She actually feels really weird about that. It always seemed like a needless extravagance to her. Also, she's not sure she likes someone going through her stuff.

Jane nods sagaciously. "It's for the best. We finally just moved into a building with cleaners on staff."

"Loki's paying for it," Darcy says. She tilts her head. "He has money. I'm not exactly sure where from - but he says he didn't steal it." She purses her lips. "He does do some trading - futures, options, that sort of thing."

"Hmmm..." says Jane. Two men who are obviously a couple pass by.

Jane follows them with her eyes. "How does he treat Midgardian first-world tolerance of varied lifestyles?"

Darcy blinks at the non-sequitur. She remembers Loki's reaction to Fandral and his boyfriend. Loki seemed more worried about embarrassing Fandral than disgusted. "I guess okay."

Jane shakes her head. "Thor...well, he doesn't embarrass me as much anymore, and he says it's fine because it's our world and our culture...but sometimes I catch him rolling his eyes."

Darcy turns her head and looks at her friend. Jane is looking down at the ground. "In some ways he is so open. You know he accepted Sif despite the fact that she wasn't the ideal of the stay-at-home-and-do-needlepoint lady of the court. He even encouraged her. And he forgave her for...well...you know...she cheated on him...and they divorced...but he always says it was because she was forced into a marriage she really didn't want by her parents and Asgardian society. I don't think Thor wanted it either - he said it was like being married to his sister. It was lonely for both of them."

Now Darcy's eyes go very wide. She didn't expect this conversation.

Jane sighs. "But sometimes, we go by two guys and I catch him rolling his eyes."

"Oh," says Darcy. She is a little overwhelmed by the idea of the generosity of Thor's spirit for accepting his ex, who cheated on him, as a warrior and comrade. Of course Thor had forgiven Loki first, too, hadn't he?

"No, Loki doesn't roll his eyes, or anything like that," she says quietly.

"That's good," says Jane, tightening her hold on her own yoga mat. They walk a little while longer in silence, and then Jane says, "Is something up between Fandral and Loki?"

"What?" says Darcy. They're walking along a street now, the park on their left hand side.

"It's just..." Jane tilts her head. "Thor says that Fandral gets uncomfortable for some reason whenever Loki enters the room. He wondered if Loki had gotten up to some mischief..."

"No," says Darcy. "Not at all."

But all the rest of the way home her mind is spinning. Loki had called Sif a slag in Darcy's presence - and that was before Sif tried to kill Loki in front of the Diar. According to Loki she 'never deserved Thor.' Loki is not forgiving or understanding and yet he doesn't scoff openly at gay couples, and in fact tried to protect Fandral.

Not that she's displeased, but she does wonder why.

x x x x

Fandral's still on Darcy's mind when she comes home to find Loki standing in a cloud of green. He's wearing green pajamas and a black silk bathrobe. The clothes and the green means he has just teleported back from trading in the penthouse he bought above her. He uses the entire suite to keep his desk and computer in. It's very zen, if a bit of overkill, but it's his money and she doesn't ask.

He's got a teakettle in his hand, and he's smirking to himself. At the sound of her footsteps he turns and smiles wide. "Darcy, tea?"

"Yes, thanks," says Darcy, coming over to the counter. Putting the kettle down on the counter he takes two mugs out of the cabinet and turns his head and winks at her because he knows she hates it when he grabs them from other dimensions. Smirking, he pops a sachet of this Matta Cocoa stuff they're both addicted to at the moment in each. The kettle that never touched the stove starts to whistle.

As he pours the boiling water into the mugs, the smirk widens to a grin and Darcy tilts her head.

Loki has been, in Thor's words, "As happy as I've ever seen him. Much more like his old self since he's taken up with you, Darcy."

But the smile Loki's wearing now is a bit much. Forgetting momentarily about Fandral she says, "Okay, I give up, why are you looking so pleased with yourself?"

Loki bites his lip as though trying to contain his smile and almost bounces on his heels. And then he cackles.

Pushing a mug to her he says, "I just single-handedly devalued the currency of Latveria this morning."

Latveria. She's heard of it, some tiny Eastern European country. She blinks. "What?"

Waggling his eyebrows and pulling his mug to his lips, Loki leans against the far counter and says, "I know. Sometimes I outdo myself."

He takes a sip and shrugs. "Oh, and I made some money on the deal, too."

Darcy blinks. "You can't do that! It's illegal!"

"Oh, no," says Loki blowing an icy wind over his mug. "It's perfectly legal. That's the beauty of it!"

"Legal, maybe, but ethical?" Darcy says, waving her hands in the air.

Loki looks to the side. "I thought it was ethical."

"What about the people who live there? With the currency devalued, how will they be able to trade with other countries - they must rely on trade. Latveria is a really small place!" Darcy says.

Loki purses his lips. "That is a concern, I suppose."

"Well, revalue their currency then!" says Darcy.

"No," says Loki.

Darcy narrows her eyes. "No you can't or no you won't."

"Won't," says Loki.

And here it is...that conversation they have when Darcy is going to have to say, 'This really isn't working out.'

She takes a breath. The words never leave her lips.

Loki's phone begins to play the Darth Vader theme. "That's Director Fury," he says. "I have to answer it."

Darcy lets the breath out as Loki puts the phone to his ear. "Director Fury, so nice to hear your voice." He nods his head. "Oh, you liked that, did you? My would-be-wife wasn't as pleased. She did point out there might be a bit of a humanitarian crisis among the Latverian population - maybe you can see to it that there are aid camps posted at the border?"

Darcy blinks. Loki nods his head. "Good, good. No, really you don't owe me anything..." And then he looks over at Darcy. "Actually, maybe there is something you can do." Pulling the phone from his ear he pushes a button and then meets Darcy's eyes. "Director Fury, you're on speaker. Would you please be so kind as to tell my would-be-wife what I've done."

For a moment there is silence. And then there's the sound of Director Fury clearing his throat. "Ms. Lewis, the details are highly confidential, but the gist of it is, the leader of Latveria, a.k.a, Victor Von Doom, the self-described greatest super villain of all time -"

Loki snorts. "I couldn't let that stand."

Fury continues as though he hadn't been interrupted. "Tried to purchase some very nasty things from some other very nasty people but at the last minute found that the money he intended to use for said purchase was worthless..."

"Oh," says Darcy softly.

"...Innocent lives here and in Latveria were spared," says Fury.

Darcy looks to Loki. He raises an eyebrow and then looks at the phone. "That will be all, Director Fury. Thank you."

Darcy swallows. She was wrong. And Loki is wonderful.

He presses a button and then looks back at Darcy. "Who is the God of Mischief?" He says haughtily crossing his arms and raising an eyebrow.

This is a game they play, and Darcy's ready - because no matter how much she adores him, she can't let her adoration go to his head. Biting back her smile she says, "Indra?"

Loki's face goes hard, and Darcy takes off down the hall with a squeak.

Of course he catches her. For a while she forgets everything about Fandral.

x x x x

Darcy's head is on Loki's shoulder and she's hovering very close to sleep. He glances out the window; not yet noon. So early and already such a goodday.

Victor has been punished for his hubris. Loki's on Fury's good side - which may be important for his next excursion to Asgard. Loki's on Darcy's good side - no matter what she said, he could see the respect in her eyes when Fury explained what Loki had done.

Also, at the moment, he is very, very relaxed. His leg entwined with Darcy's, sweat cooling on his skin.

Darcy stirs on his shoulder and Loki looks down at her. Smiling gently, he traces a blue finger from her forehead down her nose. The way the sunlight hits her face, the lines there are etched vividly.

Males of most of the hominid species are programmed to be attracted to youth and fertility. Loki is not completely immune. But a younger human wouldn't be able to challenge him enough, wouldn't point out the flaws in his plans and keep him in line. Or maybe a younger human would, but could she be as full as Darcy the artist, mother, and widow? And would she be able to understand him, empathize with him so well? He doubts it.

He slips down on the bed and kisses her. Darcy smiles and answers. As the kiss ends she pulls herself up so she is lying on top of him, her hands folded on his chest, her chin resting on her knuckles. They talk like this often. She weighs nothing compared to his denser frost giant bones and musculature, and he rather likes wearing a Darcy blanket. Even if she is too warm and sometimes it makes him a bit sleepy.

"Why aren't you upset by the fact Fandral is gay?" she asks.

Loki blinks. That is so out of left field it makes him chuckle. "Should I be?" he asks closing his eyes.

"Yes," says Darcy.

Loki raises his head and meets her eyes. Sometimes he thinks Darcy is open minded to the point of near lunacy.

"I'm glad you don't care, but you were raised on Asgard, and based on how you were raised it would be expected for you to be a bit homophobic." She scowls and looks at the ceiling. "In the myths you're a magic user and Odin once accused you publicly of being argr for practicing magic..."

Loki stiffens at the word argr. It is a deep insult. It means not just to be homosexual, but to play the woman's role.

As though not noticing, Darcy says, "Which is stupid since Odin himself is the big-bad in magic user land."

"And he did play argr in his youth," says Loki darkly.

"Yeah," says Darcy, "I remember that. Something about shamanistic rituals to gain power."

Loki rolls his eyes. "Or he was just curious."

Darcy meets his eyes. "That should make you even more bitter and more defensive about the whole homosexuality thing, but you're not. Why?"

Loki blinks at her. It isn't exactly true that he's never been defensive. On Asgard there was one individual who tried to test the theory of Loki being argrby force. Loki made sure his punishment was painful, appropriate, and public. It never happened again.

"I'm just curious." She shrugs. "I know you're one for independent thought...but it is a big leap."

"Not if you're well read," he says. "There are other societies where the stigma isn't attached. In Alfheim, even Vanaheim...not to mention the Greeks and Romans of your own world."

Darcy rolls off of him and looks at the ceiling. "Oh, that makes sense."

She sounds disappointed. Loki's brow furrows and he runs a hand through her hair, completely unable to guess her train of thought.

"I guess," says Darcy, "I hoped those stories of you turning yourself into a woman were true -"

Loki's whole body goes cold. His hand in her hair stills.

Oblivious, Darcy continues. "And that gave you additional perspective." Her eyes open wide. "Because that would be so...cool."

Loki has a very keen sense for lies. Darcy is not lying now; she evidently finds the idea fascinating. His words are cutting anyway. "You do realize that even suggesting that is as insulting as saying a man is argr?"

Darcy blinks and rolls over on her side. "Why?"

She's all innocence, despite the ice in his tone. It's aggravating and endearing at once.

"Because that would suggest willingly wanting to be argr," Loki says with an annoyed huff.

"Sometimes I think Asgardians are stupid," she says. "If I could do that...I would totally try it. I mean, just to see how the other half experiences everything." She smiles. "What a way to improve your technique!"

Her statement is born of innocence and curiosity, nothing more. Loki's body goes very still. His mind, by contrast, is whirling. He sees a door opening that he never even had the courage to imagine opening before...but now that he sees the opportunity...

"I suppose...in theory, it could be interesting..." He looks sideways at her, unable to breathe.

Darcy bites her lip. "It would be more fun with a partner you trusted, to you know, get the full experience..."

Which is what Loki really didn't have last time. But now...this...He finds himself smirking.

Grinning, Darcy says, "I'll never tell anyone."

Loki can't fight the urge to pull her close and kiss her. Something new! In over 2,000 years.

It's a long kiss.

As he pulls away the sunlight hits her just so and he catches sight of the smile lines in her cheek. He strokes it with his thumb, his expression going somber. His mind traces back how this convoluted conversation came about in the first place. Fandral. He has to fix the Fandral situation.

He scowls. "There is maybe someone we should tell."

Darcy blinks in confusion, but Loki's mind is already jumping ahead. "And I don't think it would be right to change your body into a man's..."

Her expression turns sad and he grins. "But don't worry, I have in mind something better."

x x x x

"You can't tell your father about this," says Fandral.

"I promise I won't," Jessica whispers. She is Fandral's lover Doug's daughter. She is six years old and comes just to Fandral's waist. She has red-gold hair just like her late mother, and blue eyes and a full bottom lip that reminds him of her father. She has Fandral wrapped around her little finger more than any lady or man of the court of Asgard ever has.

"Alright," whispers Fandral, "let us begin our quest!"

Jessica giggles too loud, but then puts her hand over her mouth and drops her voice to a whisper. "Daddy's in the living room reading."

Raising an eyebrow, Fandral says, "Then we must proceed with stealth!"

Bouncing on the balls of her feet, Jessica giggles again.

In an exaggerated tip-toe, Fandral goes down the hallway, Jessica giggling behind him. They pass pictures of Doug and his late wife, Cherise, and a cross on the wall, a symbol of Doug's religion. It was that religion - or rather a strict sect thereof - that compelled Doug to marry Cherise, even in a culture as tolerant as Manhattan's Midgard.

Doug suffered as badly as Fandral, if not as long, due to his religion. But it enabled Doug to forgive Fandral for being an ass and a coward. And...Fandral looks at Jessica, it gave Doug a beautiful daughter, and a wife who did love him and moved Doug to a more tolerant interpretation of his religion before she died.

They move past the pictures to where the hall intersects with the living room. Doug looks up from the book he's reading. He's tall for a Midgardian, and his position at SHIELD keeps him in good shape. His brown hair is very short and neat. Today is Sunday though, and he's sporting two days worth of stubble, which Fandral thinks makes him look delectable. Grinning, Fandral puts a finger to his lips and then looks at Jessica so she thinks the gesture is for her. Jessica giggles too loud. Out of the corner of his eyes Fandral sees Doug smack his face with his palm, but then he pretends to go back to his book.

A few minutes later Jessica and Fandral are sitting at the kitchen table "secretly" eating blue popsicles. Jessica's swinging her feet and giggling and Fandral can envision her father rolling his eyes in the other room. They're so fragile, Fandral's humans, and they - and all this, popsicles on a lazy Sunday in a quiet house, on a quiet street where there isn't the weight of any secrets to he hidden, it will all be gone in the blink of an eye. The moment is so poignant it makes his heart hurt.

He spars daily with Thor, and helps Rogers and Thor train the newest Avengers recruits. Thor is Fandral's only connection to his old life. Fandral's had an unfortunate love for Thor. After centuries it's thankfully a platonic love, but it's still very strong. Thor has saved Fandral's life on countless occasions, on and off the battlefield. Whenever rumors had surfaced in Asgards halls about Fandral's deviant ways, it was always good, honest, too-trusting Thor who quickly put them to rest. That makes Fandral's heart hurt, too.

Loki will tell Thor, or try to blackmail Fandral. At some point Fandral is convinced he will have to choose between Thor's friendship and regard - and Jessica and Doug.

There is a ring at the doorbell of their narrow row house. Fandral hears Doug say, "I'll get it," as he runs down the stairs. An instant later, Doug says, "Honey, I think it's for you."

Fandral puts his popsicle in the sink and goes to the stairwell. Doug is still standing in the foyer, the door unopened.

"How do you know they're here to see me?" Fandral says coming quickly down the steps.

"One of them has glowing eyes," says Doug.

"Go get Jessica," says Fandral his brow furrowing.

"Yep," says Doug, already going up the steps.

Fandral looks through the peephole and his heart drops. Loki stands there in his Asgardian form wearing a Midgardian suit; next to him is the human woman Darcy.

It's not like Fandral can keep Loki out if Loki wants to come in.

Opening the door Fandral eyes Loki warily. "Come in."

Loki plows in ahead of Darcy past Fandral, and Fandral scowls. He's never seen Loki be so disrespectful to any woman but Sif. Something isn't quite right. He feels enchantment in the air and swallows.

"I think I'd prefer to be blue," says Loki turning to Darcy. "This form is uncomfortable."

Darcy nods and Loki's Asgardian form melts away. "Thanks," says Loki to Darcy.

Fandral scowls at the blue shadow standing in the foyer, and his hands clench at his side. Thor said that Loki finds his Jotunn form more comfortable, and Thor doesn't begrudge him taking it. Fandral thinks if he was in Loki's shoes he'd deal with the discomfort and stick to a form that was less hideous. Loki just smiles at Fandral as though he is amused.

Above their heads Fandral hears Jessica shout. "But I want to meet Fandral's friends!"

"No, Jessica," he hears Doug say, but then hears the sound of small footsteps on the stairs, and then there is Jessica two steps from the foyer shouting, "Wow! A mutant!" without any hint of fear in her voice.

Loki hunches down so he is at her level. "Actually a frost giant."

"Ooooh," says Jessica eyes wide. "We learned about you in school. My name is Jessica."

Loki smiles. "Hello, Jessica." His demonic red eyes go quickly to Darcy and Fandral, and then he looks back at Jessica and says, "This is a lovely house you have."

Bouncing on her feet, Jessica says, "Do you want a tour?" She's completely oblivious to the fact that she is in front of one the most dangerous beings in the Nine Realms.

Doug knows Loki is dangerous. Fandral has told him. At that moment Fandral realizes he and Doug are both frozen.

Loki stands, "That would be awesome."

Fandral blinks. Loki says awesome?

He hears Doug swallow. Fandral meets his eyes. "It will be alright," Fandral says. And he knows it will be. Loki has always had a soft spot for children. He relaxes just a smidge. Actually, as long as Jessica is around, Loki is unlikely to do anything more threatening than pull a rabbit out of a helmet. Or appear in his frost giant form. Fandral is a little insulted that Loki would pull a stunt like that in front of his family. Even if Doug and Jessica don't recognize the impropriety, Fandral does. Fandral's jaw clenches. Maybe Loki is misbehaving to rub in Fandral's own deviancy.

No one has moved. Throwing up a hand, Fandral says, "Let's give him the tour."

Doug nods. Jessica bounds up the stairs and Loki in his Jotun form follows them.

Fandral is about to follow, when a light hand falls on his arm. "You and I need to talk," says Darcy.

Fandral turns. Loki's human has a streak of gray in her sleek bob, though she doesn't look as old as Frigga. She is small, but curvy - Loki always did have a type.

It is ironic. Loki was the one that everyone on Asgard whispered was argr because he was a magic user, because he was rail thin, because he wasdifferent. In reality before he'd married Angrboda, Loki had been the seducer of women Fandral pretended to be, only Loki was quiet about it. Fandral hung around the ladies of the court enough to hear the rumors - Loki's nickname "Silvertongue" referred to something other than verbal persuasion among the women. There had been quite a few frustrated souls when he'd fallen for Angrboda, and then later for Sigyn.

Fandral hears the footsteps of Doug, Loki, and Jessica above him, and looks up. He can feel enchantment in the air and it makes him nervous. The hand on his arm tightens. Fandral looks down at the human woman and gasps. Her eyes are glowing green.

He looks up again and back at her. She is wearing a smirk that looks oddly familiar. Fandral's jaw drops.

"I'd like a cup of tea, or coffee if you don't mind," says the woman.

Fandral's eyes narrow. "So would I."

A few minutes later they're both in the kitchen. The tour seems to have moved to Jessica's room upstairs on the third floor. Fandral can hear the sound of her toy piano and giggles.

The woman who Fandral is beginning to suspect is not really a woman is sitting at the table, legs crossed neatly. She's wearing a light pencil skirt with green accents, a light green shirt, and very high heels. She's sipping her tea delicately as Jessica's popsicle melts into a blue puddle on a plate across from her. Fandral's leaning against the counter, an untouched mug of coffee in his hands.

"What are you doing?" he says at last.

Putting the cup down, the woman gestures towards her abundant bosoms in a lascivious way no lady ever would - but a prince of mischief might. "You mean in this body or in your house?"

Fandral stares.

"Well," says the woman, picking up her tea. "Darcy wanted to know what it would feel like to be a man. Because of the risks I didn't want to transform her, so we swapped consciousness instead. A lot of benefit to this approach really. She was only going to get the full experience with a partner, and I'm really not interested in men unless I'm in a female form - so we killed two birds with one stone. And it's a much simpler spell actually, too. Just a transfer of electronic impulses, oh, and I still control the magic. She accidentally set the bed on fire when I let her control it, and not just in a pleasant way."

Fandral's mouth drops. Identity confirmed. This doesn't make Fandral feel better. In fact it frightens him more. What is Loki's scheme?

There is a moment of uncomfortable silence. "Why are you here?" says Fandral.

The woman rolls her eyes. "So you will get over this ridiculous notion that I'm going to use your current domestic arrangements to blackmail you."

Fandral stiffens.

Sighing, the woman says, "I thought if I gave you some blackmail material of your own, you'd feel better."

"Bilgesnipe snot," says Fandral. "You want something."

Uncrossing her legs, Loki sits up straighter.

Fandral swallows. "I'm not as smart as you, Loki, but I've known you for two millennia. There's something for you in this show of goodwill."

Loki looks down at her hands. Fandral notices the veins are more prominent than on the hands of the court ladies. Something that happens when humans age? Loki almost seems to shudder, but then she-he looks back at Fandral and says, "I want something I'm sure you will want, too. And your goodwill and participation will make it easier to obtain."

"What is it, Loki?" says Fandral, his voice a low hiss.

"It's imperative that it remain a secret," says Loki still looking at her hands.

"I'm good at keeping secrets," says Fandral.

At that Loki laughs softly and looks at her tea. "That you are." And then lifting her head she narrows her eyes. "And are slightly more interesting than I gave you credit for."

"Spit it out," says Fandral.

A frown flickers over the human female facade Loki now wears. "Life. We both want life. Not just for us." Her eyes go to the sounds above them - Doug, Jessica and the frost giant that is Darcy stepping out onto the roof top balcony.

Fandral's eyes widen. "Planning on going apple picking again, Loki?" The words come out a whisper, hopeful and quiet.

The frown on her face deepens. "Something like that...but riskier, and less certain." She huffs a quiet laugh and looks towards the window. "But desperate times and all that..."

Somewhere buried back deep in his brain, Fandral remembers a time when Loki's mischief was fun and funny, and a Loki who could be loyal and self-sacrificing, who could fall in love. He looks at the fragile human shape before him. Thor said that Loki was back, but Fandral hadn't really believed him.

Thor told him opening up the heavens to Jotunheim and Earth was Loki's penance to both realms, but Fandral suspected it was for spite as much as anything else. Not that Fandral hadn't agreed with the results. He'd been to Earth on missions with Thor several times at that point. He'd met Doug. He'd seen how things were different here. He thought maybe the nuclear warheads hovering over Asgard would be a wakeup call to the denizens of the Realm Eternal that they were locked in the past in so many ways.

Maybe it was working - Fandral hadn't stayed to find out. When he'd heard what happened to Loki from Sif, he'd volunteered to help. Not for Loki; for Thor, who Fandral knew would try to rescue his brother.

But here Loki is, apparently thinking of making a mortal woman immortal. And more shockingly, willing to make himself argr for her whim. He remembers Loki's self satisfied smile as she gestured to the mortal's breasts. Maybe not just for the mortal's whim. Fandral scowls. And they call him deviant.

He hears the door to the balcony close and footsteps on the stairs. He looks into his coffee. Fandral finally has everything he thought would never be his - and lost the immortality he thought would always be his birthright. And even if he is pardoned at some point before he dies, or before Jessica and Doug dies, he will never have the opportunity to make them Aesir. Oh, if Fandral was an Aesir woman in love with a Midgardian man, the Diar might allow his Midgardian lover to be tested. But Fandral is argr.

"I'm in," Fandral whispers, even though he doesn't know precisely what he's in for.

"In what?" says Jessica.

Fandral raises an eyebrow at Jessica and then Loki in Darcy's body and says, "Why I've just agreed to go to a boring grown up dinner with Loki and his fiance. We'll sit forever and talk about boring things and probably eat snails!"

Jessica sticks out her tongue. "Ewwwww! Do I get to stay with Nonni?" she says referring to her open minded maternal grandmother.

"I'm sure Nonni would love to have you over," says Doug. He's smiling ear to ear and his eyes are alight with real happiness. He has always complained that Fandral should come out to his friends.

The frost giant that is Darcy is smiling, too. "We love going out to eat - especially when snails are involved."

Jessica makes a raspberry and Darcy the frost giant laughs.

Loki is scowling. Over the centuries he's referred to Fandral as boring, shallow, stupid, vain and self-interested among other things. "Fine," Loki says. And then she looks at Darcy the frost giant. "Let's go home. The blue popsicle melting over there is reminding me that I want one."

Doug coughs. Fandral drops his coffee with a crash and Loki laughs, light and feminine.

"What?" Darcy the frost giant says. "It's summer? We have popsicles." But the grin on his face tells a not so innocent story. Humans are nearly identical to Asgardians in appearance. How Darcy can let her body be touched by a frost giant - how she could deign to be one even temporarily, Fandral does not understand.

He shakes his head. Deviants.

x x x x

"Where is the toothpaste?" Darcy says looking around the sink. Loki and Darcy are just back from Vanaheim. They took a Stark craft and space travel always makes her feel dehydrated and like something is dying in her mouth. It's near 4 a.m., but she doesn't feel tired at all.

It's been six years since the first trip to Jotunheim, but the other realms are finally opening up. Besides Vanaheim and Svartheim, she's been to Nilflheim, the land of primoridial ice, and Alfheim too - it turns out the elf queen wanted some of the same clocks Loki traded with the dwarves and was willing to end his 100 year banishment. Darcy never thought wind up timepieces could be so popular, but Loki says sometimes it's nice to rely on something that isn't magical.

Darcy is always one of the first humans to get to any new realm. She's very famous now.

A Loki double pops up behind her in the mirror. She knows it's a double because Loki leaves them slightly translucent so she doesn't try to wrap her arms around them and meet only empty air. She always found it more disturbing than funny when it happened.

"Have you looked in the refrigerator?" says the Loki double.

Staring at the double in the mirror, toothbrush in her hand she says, "Why do you keep putting my stuff in the refrigerator?"

Leaning forward, the Loki double says, "I don't. You do it and forget. I have no idea why."

Darcy scowls and the double rolls his eyes. "Fine, fine, fine. You know, I can't help myself. God of Mischief and all that."

Darcy smiles and then catches her reflection in the mirror. Her hair hasn't really grayed any more - but her face looks so...old.

"Stop it," says the double stepping forward and putting an air kiss on her cheek. "You're lovely - even if you do look a little tired."

Being tired doesn't help, but she's almost 51 years old and it's beginning to show. Darcy gives him the evil eye and walks through him to the kitchen. Sure enough, the toothpaste is in the refrigerator.

Upstairs she hears Loki "unpacking" some crates from the little pocket in space time he carries around with him. She can see him in her mind's eye. Lean and beautiful as ever.

The past six years have been good. An old woman once told Darcy, "It doesn't matter who you're with. There's always the same amount of shit, it's just different shit, and how you fight about it." Loki and Darcy, like David and Darcy, fight well. The worst names they've ever called each other are "Frosty" and "Minion."

But unlike with David, the spectre of her aging hangs over Darcy's head. She doesn't even think Loki sees it, which is frustrating. She's just waiting...for what she doesn't know. A sign? Loki doesn't really need her anymore. His nightmares are receding. She should end it...

Shaking her head, she puts some toothpaste on her brush and wanders back to the bathroom. She's just rinsing out her mouth when she hears Loki coming down the spiral staircase that he put in so he didn't have to teleport between his "office" and their apartment.

Her cell rings in her pocket, and she blinks. Expecting someone in another realm, or at least in a different timezone on Earth, she pulls it out of her pocket. She blinks again. It's Fandral. Since their self-imposed introduction to Doug, Doug and Fandral have become one of Loki and Darcy's favorite dinner partners. Loki thinks Fandral is mostly boring and shallow, but he likes Doug well enough and Darcy thinks Fandral is funny.

Maybe there is an emergency and they need someone to watch Jessica? Darcy clicks her phone. "Hello?"

"Darcy," Fandral says. "You're back." He takes a deep breath. "I need you to bring Loki over to Morningside Park as soon as you can."

"At this time of morning?" says Darcy.

"Yes, it should be empty," Fandral says as though under his breath.

"Should I come? It sounds dangerous," Darcy says. She doesn't want to get in their way.

Loki pokes his head in. "Is something wrong?" he says, his lovely blue brow furrowed, his hair falling forward and curling around his ears. So beautiful and perfect as always. And even with the concern in his voice he isn't the dark person he was when they first met. The darkness in him during that first awful Chitauri invasion, and even during his recovery when he lost his powers and they first met a distant memory.

There is a long intake of breath at the other end of the line. "Yes," Fandral says, "you should come. It will be dangerous. Please, Darcy - as quickly as you can. Loki will need you."

And then the line goes dead.

Chapter Text

Loki snaps the fingers of his right hand and lets green flame arise from his thumb. His other hand is on Darcy's shoulder, her arm around his waist. They've just materialized on one of the paved trails at Morningside Park. It's that stage of dawn where the lamps lighting the park trails have turned off, but it is still dark outside. The air is dry and chill without a hint of dew. It's been a very dry fall.

Loki snaps his fingers again as the first flame dissipates. Fandral would not have asked him to bring Darcy here if he'd called regarding a mission, so this is a personal matter.

"Why do you think he called us here at this time of morning?" Darcy says. "Not even the jogging fanatics are up yet."

Loki suspects he knows. For the past six years Loki has urged Fandral to tell Thor about Doug and Jessica. Fandral hasn't done so, though he has quietly 'come out' as the humans say, to many of the other Avengers. And of course, now Thor has probably found out, and Fandral is going to blame Loki because even if it could have been the fault of one of a dozen others, as always in these matters, it's always Loki's fault.

He snaps his fingers again. The flame rises high.

From down the trail a figure comes towards them walking fast, blonde hair glistening in the low light. "Loki," says Fandral drawing closer. "I am sorry."

Is this some sort of trap? Loki scowls and immediately starts scanning the park for potential enemies, but they are alone.

"Sorry for what?" says Darcy.

Fandral stops about three paces away, his face drawn and pale. Swallowing, he straightens and meets Loki's gaze. "Nari was arrested in Asgard."

"What!" says Loki, stepping out of Darcy's embrace.

Holding up his hands, Fandral says, "Hogun helped him escape and got him to the Bifrost site in New Mexico. Nari is injured, but Thor is minutes from there and will aid with all his skills."

"Hogun?" says Loki in disbelief. A raspy noise is coming from Loki's chest; it takes a moment to realize it is the sound of his own breathing. He feels Darcy's hand on his arm.

Thor has skills in healing Loki will never have. He blinks his eyes. He still wants to go to his son but doesn't have enough energy to jump from New York to New Mexico. And...he blinks...Fandral is leaving something out.

"Where is Valli?" Loki says lowly.

"I am so sorry," says Fandral, and he comes forward and puts his hands on Loki's shoulders. Somewhere far away, Darcy says, "Oh no."

"Valli is dead," says Fandral.

"They will all die in fire!" Loki screams.

Or someone with Loki's voice screams.

There is the sound of bird wings, and a sound like thousands of twigs snapping. And then the dimness of the dawn is replaced by the flickering light of green flames.

x x x x

Darcy sits next to Loki on hard chairs outside of the intensive care unit. They are in the same hospital in New Mexico where Jane, Darcy, and Erik brought Thor so long ago. Men and women in white coats and blue scrubs walk by without a glance.

Not looking at her, Loki leans his head against the wall behind them. "Darcy, when the Chitauri came to claim me while I was a prisoner of Asgard, Nari and Valli aided Thor in my escape. But it was Nari, Nari, who thought to steal books and scrolls from Asgard's archives on Jotunn history and culture. He shoved them into my arms just before Thor used the Tessaract to bring me to Earth."

Slumping forward he wipes his face with his hands. "He'd put a letter in one of the books. It said, Father we are not monsters."

Darcy bites her lip. She's heard the story before, but now it is all the more poignant.

"He's all I have left," says Loki staring at the floor.

It doesn't hurt Darcy that he says it. She understands. Nari is Loki's child, his last child. He spent hundreds of years with Nari and Valli...and as for her...

Well, she loves her children more than she loves Loki, too. So she hurts for him, not from his words.

She rubs his arm, and he grabs her hand and slips his fingers between hers. His grip is so tight it hurts. She lays her head against his shoulder and feels tears slip from her eyes.

Apparently, Odin and the Diar, nervous at the restlessness in the Nine Realms building since Earth started transversing the stars, was anxious to subvert unrest at home. Unrest in Asgardese is the same as 'change of any kind.' Nari's peaceful attempts to institute reform and include a greater number of Asgardians in the political process were seen as a threat. Valli's popularity among the ordinary warriors and his loyalty to Nari were perceived as even more dangerous.

So Nari was arrested, with the hopes that Valli and anyone loyal to him would rise - and be wiped out. It worked well. What ultimate plans there were for Nari never had time to come to fruition. Hogun, aided by unknown forces in the Realm Eternal, helped Nari escape before he faced the Diar. But Nari took a spear wound to the abdomen during the journey. If he were human, he would be dead.

Loki's jaw clenches. If it wasn't a medical emergency, Darcy imagines he'd be in the thick of things. But Loki doesn't trust his powers of healing. Once Darcy cut herself while slicing vegetables. Loki had cradled her hand in his as blood dripped to the floor. "I'm sorry," he'd said sorrowfully. "I would heal it for you, but with my powers, you'd probably wind up with two heads or something utterly repellent."

So he sits and he waits, his blue skin in stark relief against the white of the hospital walls. Darcy waits with him. His foot is tapping nervously on the floor. A cup of tea beside him alternates between boiling and freezing.

Darcy knows why Fandral chose the park to tell him the news and why Fandral asked her to be there. He knew how Loki would react.

There were a few minutes as the flames raged around Loki, Fandral, and her when she thought none of them would escape. She'd wrapped her arms around Loki and shouted, "Nari! You have to live for Nari!" At the last moment, Loki seemed to hear her as she chanted his son's name. He teleported them all to the fire's edge.

Director Fury, much older than Darcy remembered, had been waiting for them there with a black car. He'd escorted them to the airport. The flight had been turbulent, and Darcy's not sure if it was real turbulence or magical in origin.

It strikes her that for the past few years she'd forgotten that Loki, under the control of Thanos, had nearly taken over Earth. That he'd slipped into madness when he'd learned of his heritage and nearly destroyed a world. Dodging of domestic duties aside, Darcy had thought of Loki as basically...well domesticated. But the fire in the park, the turbulence on the plane, his threat to make all of Asgard burn - she was in the eye of the storm the whole time.

As if to punctuate that thought, the tea cup beside Loki begins a rolling boil and then shatters. The scalding liquid splashes on Loki and he doesn't even seem to notice. His orange-red eyes are focused on a point down the hall.

Dary lifts her head and follows his gaze. There is a man who looks of Asian descent walking towards them. He wears human clothing, a long trench coat, black pants, and a gray shirt, but his hair is long and tied back in a foreign looking style. "Hogun?" she whispers.

Loki nods.

Hogun approaches them, hands tucked in his pockets. His eyes flit from Loki to Darcy and back again. Darcy sees a slight flare of his nostril, a twist of his lips-is it disgust at Loki's Jotunn form or her imagination? She squeezes Loki's hand as Hogun says, "How is Nari?".

Loki says nothing.

So Darcy speaks. "He made it through surgery, but his condition is critical and he hasn't woken up. Still, the surgeon has operated on Thor before and is familiar with Asgardian physiology. He believes he will make a complete recovery."

Hogun nods and looks away.

"I suppose I should thank you," says Loki.

Hogun turns to Loki. "I did nothing for you. You brought the threat of war to Asgard. Your actions made our young restless and foolish. I did this only for Nari. He was the only one who kept Valli and others who thirsted for revolution in check, and the only one who offered a way through this crisis without violence."

Loki's body stiffens.

Hogun looks away again. "Without Nari, Asgard will fall into civil war within the century. We need him."

"You can't have him," Loki snarls. "You don't deserve him."

Raising an eyebrow, Hogun turns to Loki. "Maybe not."

A doctor Darcy recognizes approaches, and Darcy squeezes Loki's arm. The doctor meets Loki's eyes. "He's awake."

x x x x

"How are you doing?" says Darcy, knocking at the door to Nari's room in Loki's penthouse. Well, Loki says it is Darcy's penthouse too, since it is joined by a staircase now, but she rarely comes up here.

Nari's room is nearly the size of Darcy's whole apartment, and the furniture, while not garish, oozes expense. Nari is sitting on a seat built into a bay window. Not answering her question he says, "This place is a little much. Your sons are going to come home for the Time of Thanks Feast and they will see this -" His jaw tightens and he looks away.

Not for the first time, Darcy finds herself thinking how much she likes Nari.

"Loki thought that you'd be more comfortable if you recovered in rooms...in a style you are accustomed to," she says.

Nari rolls his eyes. "We were disowned. Neither of us have dwelled in places this grand in a while."

We is Nari and Valli. It's been a few months now, but still Nari and Loki both speak of Valli in the present tense sometimes.

Obviously catching his slip, Nari takes a deep breath.

"I'm sorry," says Darcy.

He shakes his head and leans against the back of the window seat. "You know,I expected this would happen, that the Diar would do something like this...and Valli would..." Swallowing, Nari closes his eyes. "He shouldn't have tried to come for me."

"He loved you," said Darcy. "Like you love him."

Nari looks at her. "I did love Valli. He was my brother." He rubs his eyes. "He was also a psychopath."

Darcy doesn't let her jaw drop. It was something she'd thought about after meeting them that one time in Jotunheim. Loki's sons seemed to be like Loki, split in two. Valli was the part of Loki that set forests on fire without thinking. Nari is the intellect, the ability to see beyond the status quo, to imagine and to scheme things that are better and different. And Nari has Loki's ability to charm - though Loki says Valli had glamor, too, but that Darcy was too mature to see the glamor in violent rebellion.

Meeting her gaze, Nari says, "Please don't tell father I said that."

Darcy nods. "I won't."

Looking around, Nari says, "Maybe we can give this space to Franz and Max when they come home, and I can sleep in their room?"

Darcy raises an eyebrow.

Nari smiles at her. "I bet father will take me up on that suggestion if I lay off talking about my plans to go to Oxford for a week."

Darcy lets out a laugh in a short huff. "That's true."

As much as she likes Nari, she isn't entirely fond of Nari living with her and Loki. And it's mostly Loki's fault. Loki fights and henpecks Nari constantly. "Don't sit like that you'll stretch your stitches...What are you talking about going to Oxford to study English Law? Stay in New York, go to New York University and study American law...I don't care if you think the English system will work better in Asgard, you're not going back to Asgard! Eat more chocolate; it is nutrient dense and you are a magical creature and need your calories."

It is driving Darcy crazy. And probably Nari, too, though he doesn't complain. To her anyways.

"I am going to the library," she says. "Would you like to go?" His Loki sized intellect needs fodder.

"Yes!" says Nari, clutching his side and slowly rising to his feet. "Can we take the underground serpent?"

"Sure," says Darcy with a smirk. "We can take the subway."

"I'll get my keys," says Nari, walking to a sleek dark dresser.

"It's okay, I've got mine," says Darcy.

Nari raises an eyebrow at her.

"I do this time!" says Darcy. On their last expedition to the library she thought she had her keys but had forgotten them. They had to call Loki. She pats her coat to show him. When there is no familiar jingle, she scowls and starts searching the pockets of her pants.

"It's alright," says Nari, holding up his and giving them a shake. "I've got mine."

He walks slowly towards her, like an old man. It doesn't suit him. Despite some gauntness, a slight furrow to his brow, and a bit of an unhealthy pallor, Nari looks young. And he's gorgeous. His broad jaw and high cheekbones would fit in any fashion magazine or on a Hollywood leading man.

"Want a hand?" says Darcy, lifting an arm.

He sighs and slips his arm into hers. "Yes."

Darcy laughs mentally. Is there some sort of karma that she will be the crutch for beautiful men? Her brow furrows. And not just a physical crutch. She won't leave Loki now, she can't. He's just too fragile.

"Where is father, by the way?" asks Nari as they step out of the apartment towards the elevators.

"Oh," says Darcy. "He said something about teaching Fandral to use simple fire spells today."

"Hmmm..." says Nari. "I would have thought that too argr for Fandral."

"You'd be surprised," says Darcy, restraining a snort.

The word fire spell would have frightened Darcy after what Loki said about setting Asgard aflame. But Nari had put the idea of vengeance to rest quickly with a succinct, "My mother still lives there, Father."

She squeezes Nari's arm. Another reason to like him.

Tilting his head as they walk to the elevator, Nari says, "Nothing much will probably come of it. If Fandral had much talent for magic it would have manifested itself by now."

"Really?" says Darcy tensing up. "Loki warned me to not be surprised if he comes home with a few burns."

Nari laughs. "Oh, that wouldn't surprise me a bit. But by Asgardian standards, nothing much will come of it."

Darcy relaxes. For a moment there...she shakes her head. Loki is in mad overprotective daddy mode; he wouldn't do anything dangerous.

x x x x

The air of Muspellsheimr, realm of fire, is heavy with smoke. Loki and Fandral move along a path that traces the border of a wide mesa and take shelter by a boulder.

"How many do you think there are?" Loki asks.

Fandral pulls a pair of binoculars from the Stark Industries' flame retardant armor he wears. Loki's used up too much energy getting here to make them invisible, so to give themselves camouflage they've rolled in the red dirt at their feet. It coats their armor and skin. For once in a very long time they almost are the same color.

Lifting the binoculars, Fandral peers out over the mesa covered with tents of dragon hide, arranged around a circle of red dirt. Loki can just make out hominid shapes in dark armor with flames for hair. "At least 500. A full war host of Fire Ettin females. They'll stay on the mesa another few months, sparring with one another, until a faction emerges victorious - then they'll pack up and leave and claim their male prizes in the valley below."

Narrowing his eyes in a vain attempt to see better, and because the heat is making them dry and itchy, Loki says, "The branch of the World Tree leading to Idunn's Orchard will open just 40 paces to the right of that center circle -"

"Sparring pit," Fandral clarifies.

"-in exactly one month's time." Loki finishes and scowls. This is supposed to be the easy part of the journey.

Fandral squints. "Splendid." He tucks the binoculars into a pocket in the vest of his armor. Not looking at Loki he says, "They're essentially in heat...for battle. But, well, you might try diplomacy."

Loki raises an eyebrow. Fandral has more experience with Fire Ettins than he does. If Fandral suggests diplomacy as a possibility...

From behind them comes the scrape of rock on rock. Fandral and Loki both turn. The air around them shimmers, and then three female forms in heavy black armor emerge from the waves of heat. The flames of their hair rise above their sunshine yellow faces and twist in red, blue and white flames towards the sky. They are each easily two feet taller than Loki and Fandral.

"Ladies," says Fandral bowing low. "So pleased to meet you."

They all smile, baring razor sharp teeth. One steps forward. "Oh, look, our dinner can speak!" Laughing, they all pull their swords.

...or maybe diplomacy won't be an option.

Chapter Text

Fandral raises his own sword.

Loki pulls out a Midgardian glock - with ammunition provided by the dwarves. Assuming the stance Steve taught him, he smiles.

The fire ettin women stop their advance. One of them snickers. "My my, what is that?" Another laughs - light and feminine, if it didn't reveal the sharp points of her teeth it would almost be attractive.

But the third hangs back. "That one's crazy; be careful."

Swinging back her blade, the first one lunges forward. "That one will be on my plate tonight!"

Holding his position, Loki pulls the trigger. She's about four paces away, and he hits her squarely in the face.

For a breathless moment she just keeps coming. Out of the corner of his eye, Loki sees the second lunging at Fandral. He can't follow where the third has gone, the first is just a pace away and if he doesn't move quickly, she'll take off his head.

And then she stops, her eyes dazed. Loki can just barely see where the bullets penetrated her skin. Instead of exploding her skull, like they would have done to a human, the bullets look like they just slipped in, there's barely any blood.

Without a shout, or even a sigh, his would-be-attacker collapses, her eyes rolling backward.

There is a cry of rage from beyond where she lays, and the third ettin woman comes forward, sword raised in one hand, a small boulder in the other. Loki is momentarily confused by what she intends to do with a rock, and then the boulder goes red hot. She hurls it at Loki, and he throws himself to the ground, feeling the heat of it, even through his fire resistant armor. Rolling backwards he raises the glock and fires. His aim this time isn't as careful, and the bullets crash against her armor chest plate. Ignoring the bullets she rushes forward, sword upraised.

He fires until the clip is empty. He thinks he has done no damage, and that he may have to waste precious magical energy on teleportation, but then just as she is above him the armor on her chest cracks, and instead of swinging the sword forward, her body falls forward instead. Loki barely rolls aside in time.

As she falls to the ground, he catches sight of Fandral, sword still out, panting over the prone body of an ettin. Pulling out his own glock he catches Loki's gaze. "Well, at least we know the dwarven ammunition works." He narrows his eyes at Loki. "Wonder how they got the idea for that in the first place?"

Loki says nothing. Gunfire is still echoing in his ears.

Wiping the sweat from his face with the back of his arm, Fandral turns his head towards the mesa. His eyes go wide. Running over to Loki he holds out a hand.

Loki takes it, his ears still ringing.

Pulling him up without meeting his eyes, Fandral says, "Run."

Loki looks in the direction Fandral is looking. It isn't the echo of gunfire he is hearing, it is a stampede of fire ettin women running in their direction.

Loki and Fandral run.

A few minutes later they are tumbling through the branch of the World Tree that connects the Adirondacks to the realm of fire. The cold autumn air of the New York mountain range hits Loki like a balm as he crashes onto the leaf covered ground, Fandral beside him.

Panting, Fandral says, "Well, this is why we do reconnaissance."

Loki closes his eyes. It is the first time in centuries he's checked on the gate between Muspellsheimr and Idunn's orchard on Asgard. He covers his head with his hands. He should have come before, as soon as he and Darcy became engaged. But he's just been so...happy.

He felt like he deserved a bit of a respite, after last time. He had his fun with dwarven ammunitions of course, but other than that, he hasn't focused on this quest. He's confined his mischief to Midgard and nipping at the heels of any villain who has gotten too arrogant - or caused too many police and fire alarm sirens to wail by his window at 3 a.m. And he's been busy travelling with Darcy, in Midgard and the universe at large. He hadn't realized how limiting travelling as a prince was until he travelled as a commoner. It's true; magical creatures immediately sense how dangerous he is, but Darcy is not magical, and so open and approachable. He has found himself getting tours of the greatest monuments and libraries, not to mention pubs, inns and street celebrations in Alfheim, Vanaheim, Jotunheim and Svartálfaheimr as Darcy took pictures for her "Other Worlds" travel book series. And on her book tours he's seen much more of Midgard as well. It's been like a honeymoon. He doesn't remember a time in his life that has been so terriblyfun.

He wipes his face. And it's only been 6 years...the blink of an eye.

But then Nari almost died.

Now he remembers what is in store for everyone he cares about. Darcy, Thor, Jane, Nari...even Fandral.

Maybe the real reason he has hesitated is fear? Forget the fire ettins having him for dinner - if Odin catches him Loki will be lucky to only be skinned alive.

Loki pulls himself up with a deep breath.

Still on the ground, Fandral says, "After one faction of fire ettins emerges victorious there won't be another rematch for a decade or so." Climbing to his feet he adds, "Our humans are still young...we can wait another year to cross."

Loki closes his eyes. Some branches of the world tree remain open all the time. Other branches close and open again with the spinning of the galaxies. The branch between Muspellsheimr and Idunn's orchard is one such branch.

They begin walking through the forest. The trees are bare of leaves, and the sun is bright over their heads, but it is still cool.

Fandral is right. There is no way the small team they're thinking of can get through an army of fire ettins with battle lust, even with dwarven ammunition.

Loki's jaw clenches. But to wait a whole more year...

Fandral must see Loki's agitation, because he says, "We have a month before the World Tree branch between the orchard and the sparring grounds opens. Let us enjoy the Feast of Thanksgiving with our families...and then decide."

Loki nods.

They walk on in silence until they reach an open meadow where Fandral's man Doug has landed a private helicopter on loan from Stark Industries. Doug takes one look at the two of them, and says, "Christ! Minor fire spell practice? How did you manage not to catch the forest on fire?"

"Erm..." says Fandral.

"Interdimensional time pocket," says Loki smoothly. "Only accessible here. But yes, it could have been quite dangerous, hence our journey to the access point for the pocket."

"Alright, Doctor Who," says Doug. He doesn't believe Loki; Loki can feel it.

"Doctor who?" says Fandral.

Groaning Loki, opens a door to the helicopter and gets inside. Not for the first time he wishes travelling between worlds didn't leave him so exhausted.

"Dr. Who," says Doug, slipping into the cockpit.

"I asked you," says Fandral.

Loki sighs. If only he had a TARDIS right now.

x x x x

"It's the day after Thanksgiving. How is there no food in this house?" Darcy shouts.

Loki forces his eyes away from the video game he is currently playing with Franz, Max and Nari - Battlefield Asgard, the Aesir versus the Vanir. Loki loves video games. All the action of battle without the blood, guts, shit, sweat, pain, or practice.

Even Steve and Thor, who see enough action in their day jobs to theoretically be sated find gaming 'relaxing'. Darcy and Jane theorize that it is a Y chromosome 'thing'.

Steve is actually here now, watching them play. At Darcy's words he straightens on the couch. He has a quarter of the remains of a turkey sandwich in his hands. It was cobbled together with the butt ends of two different types of bread - the only bits of bread remaining as of twenty minutes ago.

Steve is currently between girlfriends, again. He spent Thanksgiving with them, and came back today not long after 11 a.m.

Now at Darcy's words, Loki finds himself meeting four guilty sets of eyes. Two magical creatures, a super soldier, and two active healthy, young male humans - they did make short work of the larder.

Clearing his throat, Franz says, "Well, it is nearly 5 p.m. We did make it through most of the day."

Walking over, Darcy puts a hand on her hips. "Two pies, two turkeys, stuffing, mashed potatoes..."

"...I think there is some cranberry relish left," says Max.

"And I believe I saw a quarter of a head of lettuce in the cool box," says Nari.

"Ummmm..." says Steve. "I actually ate that."

"Which?" says Franz.

Steve blushes. "Both?"

Loki smirks. "I think I've found an alternate reality where you are childless and unmarried, Darcy, I could steal some food from -"

"No!" come five separate voices.

Loki sighs dramatically.

Darcy laughs, and Loki smiles at her. As he suspected, she was never really angry.

"I suppose we can order Chinese for dinner tonight?" Darcy says.

"Cool," say Max and Franz in unison.

"That would be swell!" says Steve not even bothering to wait to be invited.

"Chinese?" says Nari.

"Very fattening the way they make it in the U.S.," says Loki to his son. Nari lost some weight in the past few weeks, but he is getting his color back. His natural form is Aesir, like his mother, Sigyn; and his cheeks now are a healthy pink. He seems to have given up on that ridiculous idea of going to Oxford and studying law, and hopefully his naive dreams of reforming Asgard as well. Odin, the Diar and the old Asgardians - the old "Gods" as they like to call themselves, will never share their power with the young.

"Oh, good," says Nari. He actually sounds somewhat enthusiastic - a good sign.

"I think I'll go to the store and pick up some staples, though," says Darcy.

"I can come with you, if you wish," says Loki. Although, he'd really rather be chopping off Freyja's virtual head. He's still angry at her for claiming it was his magic that convinced her to sleep with those three dwarves.

"No, no, no, that's okay," says Darcy. "I wouldn't mind escaping all the testosterone in here for a while."

Loki shrugs.

Max grins. "Too much testosterone in here? What do you mean?" Turning to his brother and holding out a finger he says, "Franz, wanna pull my finger?"

Loki tilts his head in confusion. But Steve laughs, and Franz looks sideways at his mother and grins. "Man, that joke never gets old." He doesn't, however, pull Max's finger.

Rolling her eyes, Darcy looks at Max and says, "I can't believe you graduated from med school." Looking at Franz she says, "Or that you are an engineer."

Both boys laugh and it reminds Loki so much of how Nari and Valli share jokes...He blinks, and swallows, though his mouth is dry.Shared.

Loki looks quickly to Nari. Nari has his eyes trained on the television screen, a slight frown on his face. He sees Loki's eyes on him and he shrugs, and focuses on the game.

Darcy walks towards the door. From behind, she looks even more youthful than when they first met. She walks more gracefully, and taller, more self assured. She's become more careful about her exercise regimen, and her diet as she's aged. Although she claims part of it isn't care but that sweets don't taste as good anymore, and being stuffed doesn't feel as fun.

He tilts his head; he still finds her beautiful from every angle. He's heard some mortal men remark that they don't quite see their wives as their real age, they see them as the age they fell in love with them. Loki has found he feels this way too. He muses if this is really what it means to be 'blinded by love'.

Just as Darcy reaches the door Loki and Nari both shout, "Don't forget your keys!"

"Got them," says Darcy, jingling them for all to hear.

The door closes, and Franz says, "And back to the game..."

"Watch me friends, as I decapitate Freyja for impugning my father's honor!" shouts Nari, and Loki smiles a little at seeing him distracted.

It's a rather happy ending to a rather happy - if simple and unexciting day and a half. Loki knows why he hasn't ventured to Idunn's orchard yet. Even when he is doing nothing he is just so very comfortable. He belongs. He is sufficiently mentally stimulated most days. He has a woman who understands him, he has a family - and Steve, Fandral, Doug and Jessica must count as extended family. Everything is just perfect, sometimes so much so he thinks he may still be chained to the rocks, and it all a figment of his imagination...except that Valli is gone.

He hazards another look at Nari; his son is wrapped up in stabbing the virtual Freyja. As well he should be. Loki relaxes.

They're still playing Battlefield Asgard when Darcy comes home. It's nearly 6:30 and Loki's got the Chinese menu in his hand while Steve takes his place on the virtual battlefield.

Coming into the living room Darcy says, "Loki, the store was so crowded! And some woman was so rude to me, I was so upset..."

She pauses, groceries in her arms and says, "Steve when did you get here?"

Steve stops playing. So does Max. "Mom," Max says, his voice quiet. "He's been here all day."

"Oh," Darcy blinks. "Oh...and who is your friend?"

Now Franz and Nari stop playing. When Nari looks up, Darcy blinks again. "Oh...Nari?"

Loki looks for tell tale signs of magic on Darcy but there are none. Confused, he looks to Steve. Steve's eyes are on Darcy too, his face writ large with concern. But what is really frightening is the look on Max's face. He looks utterly grim.

x x x x

There is no such thing as perfection. Loki knew that. How could he have deluded himself even for a moment?

He sits in a deceptively cheery office, talking to a Doctor Elamm. She is older than Darcy by a decade or more, but her eyes are sharp and clear. It's unfair. Utterly unfair.

Early onset Alzheimers. Loki didn't even know what Alzheimers was, Max had to explain it to him. It's a genetically dominant trait. Darcy's mother is healthy, so her father must have had it, but he died young, in his 50s, and it was never detected.

The doctor has been talking to them for quite some time. Most of it washing over Loki like water.

The only thing that stands out clearly in his mind is the prognosis. With new medicines patients' lives have been extended to as much as 15 years. The doctor says that as though 15 years is a long time.

And how long will Darcy be cognizant of who he is...who she is, during that time? The doctor cannot stay for sure. It depends on how Darcy reacts to the medications.

He can't focus or think. He squeezes Darcy's hand to remind him and her that he's still there. He cannot heal this, and it is beyond Thor's power too. It is genetic, and too deep.

"Do you have any questions?" asks the doctor.

Loki has only one. "So this is essentially, for Darcy, a disease of aging?"

The doctor sighs. "Well they say if we live long enough, we will all get Alzheimers." Loki's jaw tenses and the doctor says softly to Darcy, "Yes, I'm afraid Ms. Lewis, that you are facing this earlier than most. I'm sorry."

Loki takes that in, not looking at his human lover. She's often told him that he doesn't really understand what aging is, so asking to marry her isn't reasonable. Now he is facing it. Earlier than either of them expected.

On Asgard humans are mocked for letting themselves wither away in old age; it is perceived as cowardice for anyone to not die on the battlefield. But he feels now that a warrior's death is easier and quicker. The thought makes him seethe internally.

Odin could have shared Idunn's apples with humans long ago - and with frost giants and dwarves too. But only Odin's elite warriors, the Einherjar, have been granted the honor of immortality, by rules Loki doesn't understand or care to understand. He only follows rules when they suit him.

His eyes narrow. In a way, this makes everything easier. This year or next year - there is no decision to make. He will find a way to fight off an army of fire ettins.

The door to the orchard will open in Asgard's spring, not harvest time. So apples aren't his target, and he doesn't have time to waste.

Chapter Text

The SHIELD conference room feels too warm to Loki. The furnishings are black wood and chrome. There are no windows.

The conference table is designed to accommodate at least a dozen people. But only Steve, Fandral, Director Fury and Loki are there. They are clustered at the center of the table, Fandral and Loki on one-side, Steve and Fury on the other.

Loki is the only one standing. Leaning over the table he says, "I cannot world walk with more than six people." And that will be pushing it. "But we can take SHIELD operatives, augmented perhaps with a Marine battalion to Muspellsheimr in a space craft.

"The gateway between Muspellsheimr and Asgard will remain open for approximately 3 minutes. But Thor will use the energy of Mjolnir to keep it open for additional 5 while your operatives provide cover."

Fury and Steve are silent.

Loki's jaw tenses. "You have intergalactic space travel. There is only one thing between you and the gods, gentlemen, and that is immortality." He lifts his hand and clenches it. "I can give you that gift."

"I don't believe the Aesir are gods," says Steve. His face is flat. Loki was expecting more. Despite his reputation as a 'Boy Scout', Steve will unreservedly buck authority when he feels the cause is just. And isn't the most just as all causes?

Fury pushes back in his chair and looks down at his feet. His eyebrows and beard are gray, his body slighter and thinner than Loki remembers.

Sighing heavily, the director says, "I want to say yes."

Next to him Steve sits up straighter.

Loki's hand go to the edge of the table and clenches. He knows if he looks down his knuckles will be white.

Tilting his head, Fury says, "...but invading Asgard for apples."

Tilting his head, Loki holds up a hand. "Not apples, no. We will not be touching their current crop or endangering the share of any ordinary Asgardian."

Or Odin's. More is the pity.

Fury lets out a breath. Looking up at Loki and fixing him with a hard glare, he says, "Nonetheless sending an organized Earth force there would be an act of war. Asgard could turn the Bifrost on a city on Earth in retaliation. In the minutes before we activated our nukes thousands could die. We can't risk it."

The air around them starts to shimmer. Fandral puts a hand on Loki's shoulder. "Loki -"

Loki blinks and clears his vision. He turns to Steve. "What about an unorganized Earth force. Steve, your Young Avengers - they could hold off the Fire Ettins for a few moments, could they not? I think professor Xavier's team -"

"I won't do it," says Steve.

Pulling back, Loki blinks. It takes a moment for Steve's words to sink in. "What?" says Loki, his voice not even angry - more plaintive. Loki had always internally counted on Steve's support. He has no love for Asgard and he is as close to a real friend as Loki's had in centuries.

"I'm not sure immortality is in the best interest of humanity," Steve says.

"What?!" says Loki; this time his voice is incredulous.

"Your people haven't changed, haven't grown in centuries," Steve says, standing from his seat. Smiling ruefully he says, "Maybe millennia...because you don't die, and your old ideas don't die either. I don't want my people to become like your people."

"Easily said by one who won't age or die, who is himself virtually immortal," Loki snaps.

"Think about this, Loki," says Steve, leaning over the table. "You're only doing this now because of Darcy, because she's dying and you're afraid -"

"Of course I'm doing this because of Darcy!" Loki shouts. And Nari and Thor. Sneering, he hisses, "And don't you dare lecture me on fear, Captain Rogers! You want to talk about fear, how about the fact that you have never let yourself fall in love because the prospect of watching of someone slowly grow old and die is just too scary for you."

Steve's face goes white, and he trembles. He blinks and sucks in a breath. "The answer is still No! You succeed in this and you create a whole new type of inequality. There won't be enough apples for 7 billion people -"

Holding up a finger Loki says, "Not at first."

Pounding a fist down on the table, Steve shouts, "For a fucking long time, Loki! And even if you could there aren't enough resources on Earth to support them all."

Loki rolls his eyes. "Technology will take care of that. You do realize how close your kind are to colonizing Venus with Jotunn technology? And how many habitable worlds you will find as you spread your wings into space?"

"Hasn't happened yet, Loki!" Steve shouts.

"Yet!" shouts Loki, leaning so far over the table he can feel Steve's breath on his face, see the beads of sweat forming on his brow.

"Gentlemen," says Fury, grabbing Steve's arm.

Loki feels Fandral tugging him backwards. "You'll think of something, Loki," he whispers. "You always do."

"This meeting is over," Fury says.

Loki stands, his eyes fixed on Steve. He resists the urge to spit at the man.

Steve's hands are clenched at his side.

"Come on," says Fandral. "We'll accomplish nothing here."

Loki lets himself be led to the door. Just before they leave, Fury speaks. "Loki..."

Loki turns his head.

Nodding, Fury says, "Good luck."

Tilting his head, Loki bolts from the room. He would teleport Fandral and himself from the premises, but SHIELD has installed some new anti-magic technology and it is impossible. Instead he storms through the hallways and out the front door, Fandral at his side.

Putting his arm on Fandral's shoulder just as they exit the building, he almost teleports them away. But Fandral grabs his elbow and says, "Stop."

Loki hesitates. And then he sees him.

Tony Stark, now thoroughly gray and leaning on a cane, is standing in front of a black car. He's impeccably dressed, in an Italian suit, but without a tie.

Loki straightens and the former Iron Man walks forward. "Hear you need a team," he says.

Loki tilts his head.

Shrugging, Stark says, "I listen in on most of SHIELD's conversations."

Loki narrows his eyes. "You have a team?"

"No, but I can be part of yours."

Loki barks out a laugh.

Smirking, Starks hobbles a few more steps forward. "In my suit I don't need a cane, and I'd be protected from incoming fire."

"Your reaction time is still too slow," Loki says.

Tony nods. "Yep, but Thor's isn't. And I bet you Thor could hold back 500 fire ettins all by himself."

"We need Thor and the power of Mjolnir to hold the gate open," says Loki.

Reaching up to his collar, Tony rips his shirt open. His chest pulses with blue light and he smiles tightly. "You want power? I've got power."

Loki sucks in a breath. "That might work."

"It will work," says Tony. Nodding his head to a spot beyond Loki's shoulder, he says, "And she can help Thor fight the Fire Ettins."

Loki spins. Standing just behind him is Natasha Romanova, a.k.a., the Black Widow. His mouth drops open. She hasn't aged a day.

"Nice of you to show up," says Tony.

Natasha nods, but her eyes are fixed on Loki. Once, when he was under the control of Thanos, Natasha tricked Loki into revealing details of his plans. Loki would like to say that it was because he wasn't in his right mind at the time - but that would be a lie. It was Natasha who closed the gate between Thanos' troops and Earth. After the second invasion he hadn't really kept track of her. Now he gapes.

"Inferior version of the super serum," she says tersely. "I don't age, and I heal very quickly."

Loki nods.

"I will help you," she says. Loki tilts his head. Natasha isn't much stronger than a normal human woman her size, but she makes up for it with cunning. She is incredibly skilled in hand to hand combat and has vast experience with human weaponry.

Narrowing his eyes, he says, "What do you want?"

Unflinching, expression unreadable, she says, "Clint lives."

Loki blinks. He knows something of Barton - he married sometime after David's funeral and he has a few children.

When Natasha tricked him during the Chitauri invasion, she claimed to be willing to work with Loki because she wanted Clint to survive.

The best deception is based on truth.

Loki nods. "Very well."

x x x x

"They're planning something," says Jane, rolling up her yoga mat.

Darcy looks over at her friend. Since the diagnosis, Jane is one of the few people who doesn't look at her with wide eyed pity, or dumb down her tone, for which Darcy will be eternally grateful.

Darcy swallows. "I don't know," she says. "Things have been different since..." She shakes her head and a rueful smile plays at her lips. "But I think Loki is just wrapping his head around the fact that I won't be here very long. Literally and figuratively." Early onset Alzheimer's is harsher than its normal cousin. The drugs might help - but she hasn't begun taking them yet. She's still trying to wrap her head around the side effects - with Max's help. Maybe dawdling is a side effect of the disease, or maybe 'risk of stroke' is just really scary. Was it stroke? Or hemorrhage?

Jane shakes her head as they walk along the grass. "Thor hasn't touched me in nearly a month. And he doesn't walk around the house naked either."

Darcy snorts. Jane has told her frequently how Asgardians have different standards when it comes to modesty. Loki isn't one to flounce around uncovered, but she thinks that has more to do with still being a little shy about the markings on his body.

"I snuck in on him when he was in the shower yesterday morning," Jane says, her eyes narrowing. "He has bruises everywhere." Her jaw hardens. "If he has bruises, they're magical in origin. Loki and Fandral have been around a lot lately. They're up to something."

Darcy swallows. Jane looks at her sideways. "Keep your eyes on Loki."

Darcy nods and says, "Maybe I should make a note." She smiles at Jane. Jane is looking at her like she's not sure if she's joking. Darcy shrugs. "I'm fine. I'll see you next time, 'kay."

Jane stops walking and holds out her arms to give Darcy a hug. Jane isn't really huggy. It's the first and only sign that she's worried.

As soon as Darcy's out of sight of Jane, she pulls out a phone and does take a note. And she checks her calendar. There is a reminder she wrote this morning. It says: Loki is out of Nutella; stop by the store on the way home.

Darcy takes a breath. How long until she can't remember where home is? She bites her lip and starts walking.

She looks down at the reminder and narrows her eyes. She goes home instead.

She enters at the level of her and David's apartment. Loki isn't there, but oddly Nari is. He's standing at the kitchen counter, an open bottle of Dwarven mead next to him. He is looking at something in his hand.

Darcy comes over to the counter and he looks up at her. Scowling, he says, "What is father planning?"

Darcy tilts her head. "You're the second person to ask me that this morning."

Nari puts a small object down on the counter. Darcy peers at it. "Is that a bullet with a glass point?" She blinks. That has to be pretty useless.

Nari smiles. "That is a bullet with a dwarven crystal tip. Theoretically, it could pierce through just about anything - even enchanted armor. I found cases of them underneath the mead." He holds up the bottle, and his jaw tenses. He takes a swig of the mead. Putting it down on the counter, he almost snarls. "Valli said there were rumors of these existing."

He looks at Darcy. "You've travelled with Father to Svartálfaheimr. What is going on?"

Darcy pulls back. "I don't know...I don't know."

Taking a sharp breath, she looks quickly to the spiral staircase that goes up to Nari's bedroom and Loki's office. And then she runs to it, taking the steps two at a time, Nari at her heels.

Just as she reaches the top she stops and holds up a hand. She hears Loki's voice. She looks at the closed door that leads to his office. Putting her finger to her lips, she looks at Nari. He tilts his head but follows her silently as she goes down the hall. At the door she gasps. It sounds like he is talking to Franz and Max.

x x x x

Loki sits at his desk; four monitors sit in front of him. Two screens flash with financial information. In the two other screens are open calls with Franz and Max.

"No matter what happens," Loki says, "I want to make sure your mother is well provided for."

Franz swallows. Max nods grimly. They look so much like David and Darcy, it is eerie.

"I have created a trust," says Loki. "In the event I am unable to be here, I trust that you will be able to manage the funds and make decisions for your mother when the time comes."

Franz looks down. Beyond him is a shelf stuffed with black binders. Max leans back in his chair and taps his finger on his desk. Behind him Loki can see white walls of what he presumes is a hospital setting. Tapping his fingers nervously on the desk, Max says, "Of course."

Franz nods but doesn't look up. "What are the chances what you are planning will work?"

Less and less everyday. Loki doesn't say that though. Instead he shrugs. He hasn't told Darcy's boys what he's up to, just that he might have a magical solution to her ailment. "I managed something similar before," he says.

"Idunn's apples," says Franz, looking up again, his jaw tight. "You're going after Idunn's apples again, aren't you?"

Loki narrows his eyes at the monitors. Before he has a chance to reply, there is the sound of banging behind him. Spinning in his chair, he sees the door slam open. Nari is in its frame - Nari isn't particularly strong for an Asgardian, but he's much stronger than a human, or a human door lock. Loki sometimes forgets that. Darcy is standing just behind him. Neither looks happy.

"You didn't tell me about this!" Nari snarls.

Standing slowly, Loki runs his tongue over his teeth. A chill runs through him. He's annoyed, angry, suddenly terrified, and he can't look away from Nari's furious gaze.

"You can't do it, Loki!" Darcy says. She runs past him and shouts at the computer screens. "Did you put him up to this?" Before they can answer, she turns back to Loki and says, "Last time Odin caught you, he tied up to a cliff and let a bird peck out your liver - that was going to be your punishment for eternity!"

Loki hears Nari, and Franz or Max - or both, all swallow at once.

"You have to take me with you," says Nari.

Those are the last words Loki wants to hear. "No!" Loki shouts.

"You will take me," says Nari, his voice surprisingly calm.

"No one is taking anyone anywhere!" Darcy says, running between Loki and Nari. "Loki - they'll skin you alive," she says, grabbing hold of his shoulders.

Loki actually laughs. "That is exactly what I imagined they would do, too. Funny it was the first thing that came to both our minds."

Her eyes are wet. Trying vainly to shake him, she says, "I won't let you do this, not for me!"

Loki smiles bitterly. "It's not just for you."

Loki would like to claim to be intellectual, ruled by reason more than emotion, but that's a lie. He understands Steve's arguments, sees the validity in them, but it's not in his nature to care. He doesn't want to spend eternity alone - and since he can't have the love of those blessed with immortality, he will bring immortality to the ones he loves and love him back.

He stares down at Darcy. "I am going."

Turning to Nari, he says, "As for you," and smiling tightly, he holds up his hand and concentrates.

Nari starts to shimmer, wrapped in the green glow of Loki's magic. Throwing up his arms, he shouts, "No, Father! No!"

Loki swallows. He'd wanted to suggest that Nari go to England and explore Oxford in the coming week, but now he knows his son will see that as the ruse it is. He would rather risk Nari's anger than risk his life.

Nari's clothing crumples to the floor in a cloud of green and Darcy gasps. Loki walks over and helps the white dove entrapped by the fabric out.

Holding the angry bird by the feet he says, "Darcy, please keep him safe." Green magical energy still hovers in the air - remnant of a shift from a larger shape to a smaller shape. Nari flaps his fragile wings and tries to escape, but it is hopeless. Nari always was the weakest of all his children. Loki hadn't even really envisioned what sort of bird he'd turn him into - he'd just spontaneously become a symbol of peace.

"No! I'm not your servant!" Darcy says.

Loki turns to her. She's crying, her eyes red, her hair sticking to her wet cheeks. For the first time she looks old to him.

"No...no...no..." she shakes her head.

Loki feels his own eyes burn. "Don't be selfish," he says.

Darcy's eyes widen and she gasps.

He swallows and pulls the avian Nari to his chest. Stroking Nari's feathers he says, "You're not the one who will be left behind."

He trembles and Nari takes flight. Nari flutters behind Darcy for a moment and then he starts to shimmer.

Loki's eyes widen and Darcy turns. The green magic that had been hovering in the air swirls around Nari, and then it is Nari standing there - Asgardian, perfect, and unclothed just beyond Loki's lover.

Loki lets out a breath. Typically Asgardian, and unashamed of nudity, Nari snarls. "My magic is too close to yours for that to work effectively, Father." Taking a step forward he says, "Don't. Ever. Try that again. If you want to have a son."

Loki's breaths are suddenly coming too hard and too fast. And he's shaking. He looks between Darcy and his son, and his jaw tightens. He swallows, and even though he's been gulping down air he feels like he can't breathe.

So instead he teleports.

x x x x

Darcy stands between Nari, now picking his clothes off the floor and putting them on unhurriedly, and her sons on the computer monitors.

Both of her boys' eyes are wide.

"Well..." says Max. "That was different."

"Not really," Nari says bitterly and Darcy turns to look at him. He is at least now wearing underwear.

Running a hand through his hair, he says, "When Father doesn't want to face something he's rather adept at disappearing for a while."

Darcy's brow furrows. Nari always seemed so comfortable in the knowledge that Loki had disowned Valli and him to protect their innocence when he ruined Thor's coronation. She sighs. Intellectual understanding and emotional understanding aren't the same. Apparently, even when you're over 300 years old.

She watches him slip on his shirt. She's always thought Loki is beautiful, but Nari looks so much the Greek or Roman ideal of a god. He is just too perfect, too handsome, too charming, too intelligent.

She looks at her own sons. They are not so tall, or so like statues come to life, but they're beautiful. Their Asian eyes look very green - she realizes at some point they must have been close to crying. They love her terribly. And she'd gouge her own eyes out for them. She loves Loki, she loved David, but it's not the same as what she feels for her boys.

She looks down at Nari, reaching down to pick up his jeans. For the first time he doesn't look as beautiful so much as he looks young. It occurs to her he really doesn't understand why Loki turned him into a bird. He may be centuries old, but he isn't a parent. There are some things you have to experience to truly understand.

Loki's words ring in her ears. "It's not just for you."

Maybe her diagnosis has brought this scheme on early - if it is a quest for Idunn's apples as Franz said. But it isn't just for her.

Turning to the computer monitors she says to her sons, "I love you both. I have to go now." It occurs to her that there should be another word for the obsessive love parents have for their children. But there isn't, and she just smiles tightly.

"Mom?" says Franz.

"I'll be back," she says, and she walks towards the door.

"Where are you going?" says Nari.

"To find your father," she replies, walking down the hall.

"I'm coming with you!" shouts Nari; and she hears his footsteps behind her.

Darcy turns to him. Loki's son, Loki's last and only child, is standing in a shirt, jeans that aren't even closed, and bare feet.

Darcy sighs. "No, no, you aren't." She is about to turn around again but stops. "He loves you too much to talk to you rationally right now."

Nari tilts his head, his jaw drops a little. But when Darcy slips out the door he doesn't follow.

x x x x

Loki is standing on top of STARK tower in the same place he once used the tessaract to open a gateway for the Chitauri. Or Thanos had used him to open a gateway. The lights of nighttime Manhattan spread out around him. During the day the city isn't as clean or pristine as Asgard, but by night...by night it could be a city built by gods.

His cell-phone shudders for the fifth time in the past twenty minutes. He doesn't look at it. Everything is falling apart. By trying to preserve what he holds dear, he might actually lose it. He releases a breath and watches mist rise before him in the chilly night air.

His phone vibrates again. He pulls it from his pocket. It's a text from Darcy. He clicks to read it.

I understand, it says. Loki swallows, not sure he will respond and not really sure she does. She understands why, perhaps, but will she still insist he not go?

Another line of text comes through. Also, I forgot my keys, and I'm in Central Park.

Loki sighs and his heart constricts. He types. Where are you?

The bridge over the duck pond, she replies.

With a deep breath he materializes on the bridge. Darcy is leaning over the railing, her cell phone in hand. She turns immediately. She's wearing a long coat, and her hair is long again. In the low light she could be the same woman who greeted him when he returned from that first mission to Jotunheim, where if it weren't for his blundering brother he might have tried to seduce her and maybe ruined everything. Instead he'd just been able to thread his fingers with hers; but that simple gesture had felt so delicious and illicit.

He's torn between love, despair and anger, and doesn't move towards her.

"I'm sorry," she says, coming towards him. She swallows. "Even if it was just for Nari, you'd have to go."

Something inside him unwinds. Loki closes his eyes, feeling the prickle of tears for the second time in one day. He feels Darcy's arms go around him, weak and strong at once. He wraps his own arms around her blindly. Eyes still closed, he finds her lips with his. Their kiss is long and deep, and not enough.

He presses his body to hers. Darcy murmurs into his mouth, and he leans his forehead to hers.

"Nari's upset," she whispers. "He's probably prowling around the house."

Loki nods but doesn't pull away. Squeezing her tightly, he teleports them...but not home, to the suite in Stark Tower where they met so long ago. The rooms are dark and empty, as he knew they would be. Darcy laughs, and he guides her backwards towards the couch that sits in the same place where he'd been sitting when they met so long ago.

In the darkness she meets his eyes, and says, "You're lovely."

It's the same words she said so long ago. Catching his breath he catches her hips in his hands, and pushes her gently down onto the couch.

Chapter Text

Darcy wakes on her side in a bed that isn't her own, morning light shining in her eyes, a warm body pressed behind her. She blinks. And tenses. It looks like Loki's bedroom in Stark Tower in the days when they first met. She looks at the hand at her waist. It is blue. Familiar. Letting loose a breath, she remembers the day before. She tenses. This room, it's not quite right.

She feels lips upon her head. "Darcy, what is wrong?"

"Did they change the furniture in this room?" And the curtains, the carpeting, and the paint...

Loki squeezes more tightly against her. "Yes. They've updated everything. I believe the style is called Nouveau Edwardian?"

Darcy's body sags, and she laughs aloud with relief. Little lapses in memory and confusion that she might have taken as a temporary glitch a few weeks ago, tiredness, or stress - now they hint at something darker. She squeezes Loki's hand and threads her fingers with his. She hadn't forgotten, not this time.

Biting her lip, she feels tears in her eyes. "Loki, when you leave...when you come back, how long will it be? Will I still remember you?"

Loki rolls her towards him, so she's lying on her back, and she closes her eyes to avoid looking at him. She wants to be brave. She accepts that he has to do this, but she can't make herself like it.

"Darcy," Loki says. "Look at me."

She opens her eyes and feels tears stream down her cheeks. Lifting his hand from hers, Loki wipes them away. "It will take a few hours at most, Darcy. You'll remember me when I get back. I promise."

Nodding and screwing her eyes shut again, Darcy swallows. If he gets back.

As though reading her thoughts, Loki says, "And I will be coming back, Darcy. Then we can work on making you better."

x x x x

Thor stands with Ava and Jane in the Stark Space Station. Jane holds one arm. Ava is on his other.

A few paces away, Stark and his friend Rhodey are there saying goodbye to their wives. Rhodey had insisted on accompanying Stark. Their suits are in the shuttle that the team will be taking to Musselphemier. Rhodey looks not quite as frail as Stark, but that doesn't say much.

The Black Widow stands nearby them, silhouetted against the backdrop of Earth. As always, she is keeping her own counsel.

Nari is here. He is coming with them. Thor never would have advised it. Nari's magic scabbard was stolen when he was imprisoned in Asgard. Without it he is bound to be wounded, and he will be a liability. Thor knows Loki does not disagree with this assessment; but Nari has insisted on going and managed to convince Loki that better a man's body be slain than his spirit. And Loki mentioned something about having betrayed Nari, though he won't speak more of it.

Darcy stands between Nari and his father. Her arms are wrapped around Loki as though she will never see him again, her own boys looking on awkwardly.

Of course Jane has not let Thor go since they arrived here. Thor looks down at his wife who is so tiny, her eyes bright with tears. Once he would have mistaken both for weakness. She is terribly strong. He looks to his daughter, her face and form so much like her mother's, but a little taller, her hair a warm honey color, her eyes very bright blue - especially now that she is crying. She isn't as strong as her mother, through no fault of her own. Jane had had to fight so much growing up, first as a near orphan, and then in the scientific community because her ideas were bigger than the boxes her discipline prescribed for its followers.

Thor pulls his daughter tight to his chest and breathes in the scent of her hair. He would tell her not to worry, but she or Jane would probably slap him for it. And they wouldn't be entirely wrong.

In the myths at Ragnarok, the end of the world, Loki leads the denizens of Hel against Asgard. In Norse tradition, Hel is filled with those who did not die a hero's death. And now Loki is leading two old men, a woman - though Thor respects her his people will not - and Nari who is hardly a warrior, to Asgard for the final prize that separates men from gods.

In those same myths Thor fought for humankind against Jörmungandr the sea serpent so long he chases his own tail. Perhaps Jörmungandr is a symbol of man kinds unwinnable battle with death?

Thor looks over Ava's head. The only person beside himself who doesn't belong in Hel is Fandral. He is not an old man or a woman. He is a warrior through and through, noble and courageous. Thor smiles a little at him now, though Fandral does not see. Fandral is wearing Stark heat resistant armor and standing close to an Agent of Shield, a Doug...Doug something. Thor cannot remember Doug's father's name, but he knows Doug to be honorable from the few times they have fought together. Doug is not going further than the station, but he is speaking in hushed tones to Fandral, almost whispering in Thor's friend's ear. About strategy no doubt.

"It's time," says Stark.

Thor is momentarily distracted by Jane throwing herself against him. He clutches both his girls close. He sees Franz and Max huddled around Nari, Loki and their mother in the distance.

Pulling himself away from Ava and Jane, Thor says, "I'll be back."

"You better," says Jane, and Ava sobs.

The Black Widow walks past him, Stark and Rhodey go next, and then Loki and Nari finally pull away from Darcy. Loki claps Thor on the back, but Thor is looking across the room at Fandral and Doug. They aren't speaking, but they are so close together.

Beside Thor, Loki stops and claps his hand on Thor's shoulder again, with more force. "Come, brother," says Loki.

Thor is just about to call out to Fandral who is still stalling for no apparent reason. And then Fandral reaches and takes Agent Doug's face in his hands and kisses the man full on the lips. Thor's mouth drops, his eyes widen. He should kill Doug for insulting Fandral's honor...but...wait...it was Fandral who initiated the kiss. Thor's heart pumps fast in his chest. His brain just. Stops.

Pulling back, Fandral nods at Doug and then turns and runs towards Loki and Thor. Striding past them, head in the air, Fandral, says, "Let us be off."

"Wha -?" someone says. It takes a moment for Thor to realize the half-articulated question came from his own mouth.

Pulling Thor around by the arm and setting him in the direction of the gangway, Loki hisses at Fandral. "6 years! For the past 6 years I've been telling you to tell him, and you choose now."

It takes Thor a moment to realize that the pronoun him refers to, well, him. And wait...6 years? Loki has known about this for 6 years? Loki and Fandral aren't even really friends. Oh, Loki's said something about Darcy and Fandral getting along well, and Loki has apparently enjoyed Agent Doug's company at the symphony from time to time...

6 years?

He looks over at Nari. Nari is rolling his eyes. Did Nari know, too?

Fandral takes the last step from the gangway into the spacecraft, Nari follows, and then Loki drags Thor with him.

Stepping past the captain of the shuttle and into the narrow aisle, Thor puts his hand on Mjolinar's handle for comfort and bellows, "How come nobody told me!"

x x x x

The trip from Earth's orbit to Musselphemier takes only minutes. Nari looks through the window at the fiery world. From above it looks like pictures he's seen of Mars - it is orange and red, though there is no ice at the poles. He's told it is slightly bigger than Earth or Asgard.

In the background he hears his uncle mumble, "Why didn't anyone tell me..."

His father puts his hands to his face and lets out an exasperated sigh. He looks up at Nari and says, "You can still choose not to come. I will not think ill of you for it."

"No," says Nari. He swallows. He knows he isn't the best fighter, but somehow he also knows he has to be in on this...this is the greatest feat of democratization that the Nine Realms has ever known, and if he turns his back, he'll never be able to sleep at night.

"It isn't going to work," says Loki, despite just telling his human lover he'd be back.

Nari takes a deep breath. His father 'is in a mood,' as his mother would say.

"If anything goes wrong, I'm turning you into a gnat," Loki says for the hundredth time. "You're to fly immediately to Frigga before you change back."

Nari does not roll his eyes. "Yes, Father." He's actually glad he has that fail safe. He can't turn himself into a gnat. It's much too complex for him. But he can change himself back - they've been practicing these last few weeks. He would never have known if Father hadn't turned him into a dove.

"Where are Stark and Rhodey?" Loki says snippily. "They're going down first."

At that moment, there comes the clang of metal from down the space shuttle aisle. Nari turns and his mouth drops. Before him are two metal...creatures...he hasn't seen before, not even in footage of "The Iron Man." The suits - one gray, one red and gold - look like they belong on spider people, not humans. They have six arms and two legs. They both carry huge blast fields before them.

Setting down the blast fields with a clang that reverberates through the shuttle, the red-gold one holds up its six arms. "Check this out," says the voice of Tony Stark from the golden red suit. The arms point forward, and the hands retract and everyone in the shuttle gets the glimpse of multiple gun muzzles.

"Works with the magic ammo," Stark says. "I've been making modifications. Rhodey's got them, too."

Beside Nari, Loki snarls. "Stop showing off and get down there before you're late!"

"Heading to the airlock now!" says the red golden suit striding down the aisle. "Don't be so snippy!"

As the two metal monsters stride away, Loki puts his hand on Nari's shoulder and turns towards him. "Are you sure?"

Nari looks into his father's eyes. He is not as powerful as his father is. He doubts he will ever be, but courage isn't measured in strength, as the humans might say. He nods.

Loki looks away and deflates a little bit.

They gather in an open area near the cockpit with the woman, Fandral, and Uncle Thor and await the signal from the iron men. Nari's eyes keep darting between Fandral, his gaze focused straight ahead, and Uncle Thor, who is looking at Fandral with the expression of a kicked puppy. Nari swallows. This sort of emotional upheaval between comrades is not the best of starts before combat. He looks to his father; he is scowling and pursing his lips. The woman is paying attention to one of her guns and ignoring everyone. Deciding to do the same, Nari pulls out his M-16 and does a final check.

There is a little bit of electronic magic attached to Nari's ear. Over it comes Stark's voice and the sound of gunfire. "We need you here...now guys..."

There is the swirl of green and Nari is standing on a night time battlefield lit by flames, gun ready. Bullets explode all around him and he hears the shrieking of a cruel wind. He sucks in a breath of air and it is so hot and dry it is almost painful. Flipping down the visor of his helmet, he turns. He is standing between Uncle Thor and the two robot men. They've set up a perimeter of barricades around them.

"This is it," Loki says, and his voice sounds disbelieving. "You got the correct coordinates."

"Of course I got the right coordinates!" the red golden robot man exclaims, as lightning blooms from his chest. Unlike Rhodey and Uncle Thor, Stark is facing into the protective circle, towards Nari and his father, his bullet arms firing backwards. "I practically invented GPS - now get out of here!"

Fandral and the woman are already aiming beyond the protective circle of limbs and barricades. Nari looks out and for the first time realizes the shrieking noise is from women who are on fire.

Just as that realization hits, there is a vice-like grip on his wrist, a swirl of green, and when he takes his next breath the air is cool and sweet.

"Asgard." He breathes the word as he finds himself in the orchard of Idunn, aglow with moonlight, the little greenhouse that is their destination not ten steps away.

"Shush," says his father.

There is a feminine gasp behind them. Muttering, "Can't anything go right?" Nari's father spins and raises his gun.

Nari follows the motion and sees a figure he recognizes running through the trees. Beside him Loki takes aim, but Nari knocks his father's arm down just in time. The bullet plows into the Earth with a soft thud.

"What are you doing!" his father snarls. "She'll alert everyone!"

"Turn me into a dove!" Nari says, taking after the girl, throwing his helmet to the side, and loosening the collar of his suit. He hears his father curse, but then magic whips around him and he feels like he is falling...and then he is suddenly lighter than air, aloft and flying through the trees.

Loki isn't particularly proud that his first instinct is to kill a relatively innocent girl. But he is still furious with Nari for redirecting the bullet at the ground. When Nari sets off after the girl and asks to be transformed into a dove, Loki's not sure why he complies. Maybe his mind is addled by the strain of the back to back teleportation and world walking. Or maybe because he is so sure at this point the whole venture will fail, and he thinks Nari will at least be safer in the form of a bird.

But of course Nari keeps pursuing the girl in avian form instead of flying in the opposite and intelligent direction. Loki should head towards the greenhouse, but instead he takes after them, cursing under his breath the whole way. They don't have time for this.

He loses sight of them through the trees, and for a moment his heart is pounding in his ears and he's afraid he's lost everything. And then he breaks into a small clearing and freezes.

There is Nari in the moonlight, naked, perfect, Asgardian, unmarked, and clutching the girl's wrists. The girl is struggling, head bent, feet kicking at Nari's shins, but Nari doesn't let go. Instead he is whispering, almost chanting. "Hisberna, Hisberna, it's me."

Loki's brow draws together. The name sounds familiar. His eyes widen. It is Idunn's daughter. She is dressed in rough clothes like a servant, a satchel of leather tied to her waist. Idunn is elven, and though Hisberna's father is Asgardian, she has her mother's pointed ears and nearly glowing skin.

She gasps up at Nari. "Nari, you're alive...we were told..." And with that she throws her arms around Nari.

Loki blinks. He knows neither of his sons are innocent, despite their disappointing lack of children, but it is somewhat of a shock to have it brought to his attention. Holding her tight, Nari says, "We don't have much time..." The rest he whispers in her ear and Loki only catches snippets.

"...but a frost giant," says Hisbernia.

And he hears Nari say, "Didn't your elven mother tell you most of Asgard descended from Frost Giants..."

And then there is more. Loki looks at his chronometer. Stark was supposed to hold the gate open for 5 more minutes...they are up to three. He clears his throat.

Hisberna turns with a gasp, Nari's arms still around her.

She looks at Loki for one long hard moment. And then she speaks. "It will never work."

"Not if we do not get a move on," Loki says grimly. "Nari, restrain her." Killing her would be more efficient, but it is obvious Nari isn't going to be able to do that.

"No," says Hisberna. "You need my help."

Loki blinks and straightens.

The points of her ears tremble slightly from between walnut colored locks, her eyes glow pale and blue in the moonlight. "It's not just the magic of the apples you need, you need someone who knows how to tend them. I have learned everything from my mother...I have her same magic. Without me, it won't work."

Narrowing his eyes, Loki takes a step forward. She draws closer to Nari but doesn't flinch.

"What do you want?" Loki hisses.

"Isn't it obvious, Father?" Nari says.

Loki tilts his head.

"I want to come with you," says Hisberna. "There is no future for people of our generation in Asgard...not since...not since Valli and Nari..." she swallows. "I will never be but a shadow of my mother. I will never learn more than her. Nor even be revered as much."

Loki stares.

"Father, there isn't much time!" says Nari.

"We must go to the greenhouse," says Loki.

"No," says Hisberna, patting the satchel at her hip. "The best of the seeds are here."

"Seedlings -" says Nari.

Shaking her head she says, "Will never make it through the heat of Musselphemier. The seeds I carry are what you want."

"You swear this on your life?" Loki snarls.

"Father -" says Nari.

"I do," says the girl, staring straight at Loki and not flinching. Loki takes a breath. He can feel lies and she is not lying.

"Father," says Nari.

"To the world gate," says Loki.

The three of them run to the World Gate, Loki and Nari pulling Hisbernia between them. Loki would teleport, but he doesn't have magical energy to spare. As it is, he barely yanks his son and Hisbernia through the portal in time. When they materialize in Musselphemier, the light from Stark's chest piece is flickering.

"What! You brought back a girl?!" His head tilts. "Is she a tree in disguise?"

"Nothing is going as planned," Loki gasps. Trying to catch his breath, he pushes Nari and Hisberna down. Nari is naked, and both are unarmed.

And then he realizes...there are no sounds of battle. And only Thor, Rhodey and Stark are within the riot barricades.

"What?" he says. He glances over to his brother. Thor has his arms crossed over his chest and is looking extremely put out.

"Oh," says Tony. "Natasha is off talking to the recent winner of the Fire Ettin Death Match thingy - apparently they were suitably impressed by the ferocity of her sex-slave-harem-dinner-in-a-pinch men."

Thor snorts.

Rhodey lifts his face plate. "Your brother isn't thrilled-"

"This is unmanly!" Thor says.

"- but we outvoted him and we're just going with it," Rhodey finishes.

On the ground, Nari laughs. "The power of democracy."

All six of Starks mechanized weapon arms shrug. "Apparently they're negotiating some sort of weapons trading contract. There isn't much here that we want -"

"-but we'll gladly take our lives for now," says Rhodey.

Stark nods. Thor snorts. Loki looks above the riot barricades. "This isn't going at all to plan," he mutters. He sees Natasha off across the burning plane, Fandral beside her - probably acting as interpreter as she doesn't speak the All-Tongue.

He watches as Natasha pulls out a long knife and runs it over her hand. A fire Ettin woman with a blue plume of fire about her head does the same. They shake hands, and Loki winces, imagining Natasha's burning flesh. But a few moments later Natasha turns around and starts walking towards them, Fandral in tow. She's actually smiling a little, though the hand she gripped the Fire Ettin's with is clenched tightly at her side.

"I am now a part of their tribe and a blood sister," she says as she approaches.

"If there is some sort of ritual where you have to have public sex with one of us, to prove you know, we're your slaves, I claim first dibs," says Stark. "I'm sure Pepper will understand."

"I'm better dressed for it, though," says Nari, with laughter in his voice. Hisberna doesn't reprimand him, so Loki assumes they weren't that close.

Natasha's eyes go to Nari and for a moment she looks thoughtful, and then Hisberna does react, glowering at her. Perhaps Hisberna and Loki's son are not that close, but perhaps she has aspirations. Loki tilts his head and suddenly he has aspirations for Hisberna and his son too, and the aspirations are small, and look like Nari, and have pointy ears.

Pursing her lips, Natasha says, "I promised we'd come back with guns. Shall we go?"

Loki shakes his head. Exhaustion must have made his mind wander. He blinks. He is tired, and now he has one more body to carry.

"If we don't go, I might have to have sex with at least one of you," says Natasha. "To corroborate the story."

All the men in the group except Fandral stand a little straighter.

Tony lifts his faceplate. "And that's wrong because -"

Natasha rolls her eyes. "Or kill a few of you and eat you. I'm partial to that option."

Loki sighs. "Very well."

He summons what remains of his magic. A few moments later they are in the shuttle in orbit above the fire world. Loki looks around. There is Fandral, Nari, Thor, Natasha, and Hisberna. Over the ship's communicator he hears Stark. "We're right behind you, docking in 10, 9, 8..."

They're all here. Loki looks at Hisberna. "The seeds?"

She opens the satchel, and Loki peers in.

"They're fine," she says.

Loki nods. He can see the weft of power about the seeds, just a slightly darker shade of green than his own magic. He suddenly feels very light-headed and drained. And then the world goes black.

Darcy stands, arm linked with Jane at the space station, Doug standing behind them, Pepper and Rhodey's wife just a few feet away. Franz, Max and Ava pace by the window looking out to where the shuttle will dock.

There is a flash of light, and Franz yells, "There they are!"

Cell phones begin ringing around the room. Darcy picks up hers. Her heart drops as Nari's voice comes on. "We're here! It worked...I have to turn this off for docking." Darcy's mouth drops as the line goes dead. Where is Loki?

The shuttle docks, and everyone gathers at the gangway. There is the sound of heavy footsteps, and Ava and Jane throw themselves on Thor. And then out comes Tony, Rhodey, Fandral and the Widow.

Darcy, Franz, and Max crowd the gate, people laughing and crying beside them.

And then they see Nari walking up the gangway, a girl beside him who looks like she may be an Elf. Nari has one of the complementary wool blankets that come in the overhead bin on airplane and intergalactic shuttle rides wrapped around his waist. Other than that he looks to be naked. In his arms is Loki.

"What happened?" screams Darcy.

Nari beams. "Oh, he's fine. He just fainted from magical exhaustion."

In Nari's arms, Loki stirs. "Darcy?" he says.

"I'm here!" she replies.

Raising his head he frowns. "My plan did not work at all." And then his head droops backwards again and his eyes close.

Nari shrugs, the grin still on his face. "Everything worked out perfectly. No one got hurt, we got the right seeds, and we have Hisberna to grow them. His plans normally don't go this well." Shrugging, Nari says, "I think Father may actually be in a little bit of shock."

Darcy smiles, too. She doesn't care that much about magical seeds. They are an abstract concept, their payoff too far in the future to contemplate. But Loki is back. "I'm just so glad they didn't skin you alive," she whispers,and kisses his blue forehead.

x x x x

It is early morning. From the house Darcy and he now call home, Loki looks out at the slopes that will one day be an apple orchard in Washington State. He takes a sip of tea. The slopes are patrolled by men with guns filled with dwarven ammunition. Closing his eyes, Loki scans the skies and beneath the soil for signs of magic. Feeling none, he turns from the window. Leaning against a counter he finishes his tea.

Stark's involvement in the Seed Project, as it came to be called, turned out to be very fortuitous. There are people, organizations, and things that really want to get their hands on the growing seedlings. Loki and Stark both expended a great deal of material and physical resources finding a place Hisberna deemed best for apple growing. Now they protect it along with Thor, Fandral, Rhodey, Natasha, and a host of carefully selected deadly personnel.

Putting down his empty cup, Loki moves towards the hallway that leads to his and Darcy's bedroom.

For a while after Loki returned, Darcy and Loki still took trips on Earth and to other realms. Lately though, she has become more and more confused, and Loki deems it too dangerous. Loki has heard that some humans with Alzheimer's become angry and cruel. He's been spared that. Darcy is still herself and aware enough of her disease that she can accommodate for it. She even laughs about it.

They still meet with friends. Usually right before meeting with them Darcy will turn to Loki and say, "Remind me their names again, and what they do?" When he does, she smiles at him, as though they are sharing a joke. Which he supposes they are.

Thanks to Loki, people often don't realize how much she doesn't know. She and Loki keep the conversation in the moment, or about things long ago. Darcy can't remember yesterday very well, but she can remember Franz and Max's first steps, when she first met David, and when she first met Loki. Someday she will lose her facilities for language, but for now she's kept it remarkably well.

He comes to their bedroom door and gently pushes it open. Darcy is on the bed, arms wrapped around a pillow, asleep on her side. He slips into the bed beside her and wraps an arm around her. It is his routine most mornings. He kisses her shoulder.

After a while, she stirs in his arms. "David?" she whispers.

Sometimes she calls him that. Sometimes she calls Franx Max and visa-versa. He threads his fingers through her hair; it's still mostly dark. Sometimes he has to remind her to brush it, or help her straighten a bit of it in the back - she just...forgets.

"No, Darcy, it's Loki," he whispers.

She rolls away from him and is off the bed before he even knows what's happening, taking a sheet with her as she goes.

Clutching the sheet, she backs to the wall. "Loki? We didn't...I wouldn't...Where is David?" Her voice is filled with desperation.

Sometimes people with Alzheimer's seem to live backwards in time. It takes Loki a moment to understand what time she's in...and to remember the crush she once had on him.

Loki takes a deep breath. "You didn't cheat on him," he says softly. He swallows. "He died years ago."

Darcy slides down the wall, and a weight settles on Loki's shoulders. A reprieve he hadn't really realized he had is over.

Chapter Text

Darcy wakes up and doesn't know where she is.

She takes a shaky breath. Stay calm. Blink. Swallow. Look around. Think.

The pillow next to her is firm and full. The comforter on that side of the bed is neat and nearly unrumpled.

So.

She slept alone.

…And that doesn't feel right somehow. She feels like there should be someone. But she doesn't remember who.

And the room, it isn't her room in New Mexico or at college, or her room at home with her parents.

She blinks again. The room is filled with morning light. The walls are painted a rich, inviting green. A window with white trim is open. A chill, refreshing breeze is gently lifting the curtains. It smells like...fall maybe?

The bed is so comfortable she almost doesn't want to move. But she does move. She's frightened but also a tiny bit curious.

Rolling over so as not to disturb the unmade portion of the bed, she gasps. On the wall opposite her are rows upon rows of photos in neat metal frames. She can't make them out from this distance so she lifts herself out of bed. As she sits up for the first time, she notices what she's wearing. Green silk pajamas, a matching set, and - she peeks down the front, a very nice bra. She slides her hand along the comforter and the sheets of the bed. Both are very soft, opulent even. How does she have such nice things and not remember?

She lifts her head and sees pictures. Again. Oh.

Standing, she walks towards them. As they come into focus, she notices that beneath them are little labels. There are pictures of two little boys to the far left. She gasps - her sons! What are their names? Franz and Max! She looks more carefully at one. Sure enough, it has a neatly typed label that reads: My son Franz. 5 years old.

Next to it are pictures of more little boys, each a little older - and then it dawns on her, no, the same boys, just a little older. It's a picture timeline. She swallows. And breathes too fast. Her memory. Something is wrong with her memory. These are notes to herself, she's sure.

Biting her lip she follows the timeline of Franz and Max with her eyes. Some of the scenes she remembers vaguely. And some she does not. A wedding. Franz standing next to a woman in a wedding gown. Darcy's eyes widen; the woman has pointed ears! She is...an elf! But elves don't exist, do they? She blinks. The woman is lovely. Maybe she just has pointed ears? How charming. She sees a picture of a little baby with pointed ears after the wedding portrait. The label underneath says, David, grandson age 9 months. Darcy smiles at the smiling baby whose skin seems to be lit from within. What a magical little man! Too magical; maybe she is dreaming?

She looks at other pictures on the wall. There are some of a handsome man with a determined face who looks Asian. Her brow furrows. She knows him...he has his own timeline too and Darcy follows it with her finger. Her husband. Oh, yes. She blinks. At the final picture it says, David died in a car crash, and gives a date. Darcy puts her hand to her mouth. Oh, no. She stands for a long time looking at the picture. She has a deep sensation of loss, though she can't quite remember David. Just feelings. Love, frustration, affection - and a sort of gaping hole that seems to be in the pit of her stomach, not in her mind.

Biting her lip she turns away. It's too much. There are other pictures on the walls. A golden haired man with a little too much brawn named Thor. A beautiful woman with brown hair and brown eyes named Jane. There is a picture of a man who is too handsome and a woman who is too beautiful with a baby between them. The label says, Nari, son of Loki, and Freyja with their daughter Anna. In a scribbly hand there is a handwritten comment beneath that. Anna short for Anarchy.

The names Nari, Freyja and Anna don't have any particular resonance with her. But the name Loki...

She looks to a picture farthest to the right. There is a picture of a beautiful man and he's blue. He has redglowing eyes, but they seem warm, not frightening, and he is smiling. She shakes her head. He's too lovely. Between this man and the baby with pointed ears, she must be dreaming this all up. She tilts her head. But what a nice dream, and what a nice smile on the blue man - a tad mischievous. Unlike the other portraits, this one is unframed and a bit rumpled. There is a label attached to it, and unlike the others this label is handwritten in pencil with a loopy feminine hand. It says Loki. And then next to that it says Housemate...but that description looks like it has been erased and revised a number of times. Like someone couldn't make up their mind how to describe him.

She takes the picture off the wall and cradles it in her hands. From somewhere outside the room comes the cheery sound of a teakettle whistling. Swallowing, Darcy clutches the picture closer and opens the door. She steps into a hallway. At one end she can see a kitchen, and she hears the clink of porcelain and someone moving about.

Gathering her courage, she moves down the hall as quietly as she can. The kitchen comes into focus: lots of bright chrome counters, a dark green tile floor, dark wood, light green walls. And, she blinks. A very handsome blue man with black hair. He's wearing a green shirt - she senses a bit of a theme, and dark brown trousers. He's pouring tea into a cup. As she moves into the kitchen he looks up and says, "Ah, good morning," and graces her with a charming smile.

"Good morning," says Darcy, clutching something to her chest. "Where am I?"

He smiles. "At the moment you're in your kitchen."

"Oh." Darcy blinks. "What are you doing in my kitchen?" Wait, he has been nothing but polite. There must be some misunderstanding. Catching herself she adds, "Not that you're not lovely..."

He lowers his eyes at that. "You know you tell me that every day..." He lifts his head. "You know I find that it never actually gets old."

For the first time she realizes his eyes are red. Something about them...Oh.

She lifts up the photo she's been holding. How did she forget? "You're Loki! My housemate!"

"Yes," he says with a smile. "Would you like some tea?"

"I think that would be good," Darcy says. He gestures to a table, and Darcy sees croissants laid out and porcelain plates. There is also a digital tablet. Walking over she sits down. The tablet is open to the New York Times. The headline of the day is "Russia's President Katerina Putin Exchanges AK47's With Dark Evils for Chernobyl Clean Up: Alfheim Furious. "

She blinks. Actually, she remembers something about Chernobyl and a nuclear accident.

She looks back at the tablet. There is a smaller article about rioting outside an apple orchard in Washington State. She is about to read it when Loki puts a mug of tea down next to her and sits downs. He slides the tablet over to him as he does.

Loki. She remembers something about that name. "The Norse God of Mischief and Lies," she blurts out.

He is just lifting his mug to his lips and he stops.

Blushing, Darcy looks down. "Something I just remembered. I'm sorry. My memory. Something is wrong...I'm sure you're not..."

He smirks. "I'm not offended, though I prefer Loki, Agent of Chaos Incarnate."

Tilting his head, he looks thoughtful. "Actually, it's been a long time since you've made that association."

Darcy doesn't know what that means, so she helps herself to a croissant. Taking a bite, she looks out the window. They seem to be someplace rural. There is a forest - no, an orchard, right outside their kitchen. She tilts her head. "Seems like a rather quiet place for an agent of chaos."

Chuckling, he says, "Oh, you have no idea."

And then they chat. It's a lovely chat, and Darcy succeeds in making him laugh a few more times. But after it's over, she can't remember what they've spoken of. It's disconcerting.

As they finish up their mugs of tea and polished off some croissants, he says, "We should get you ready to go out."

Darcy blinks. "Where are we going?"

Standing from his seat, he offers her his arm. "Apple picking."

As she takes her arm a middle aged woman in a white uniform appears out of nowhere. Seeing the direction of her gaze, Loki frowns. "That is Claudine, our maid."

Darcy smiles at the woman and says, "Good morning, Claudine."

She smiles back at Darcy warmly.

Next to her Loki stiffens. "You still snip at me when I make all the dirty dishes disappear." His shoulders drop and his eyes narrow. "As though it is as big a deal as when I painted a moustache on the statue of liberty when that senator said those dreadful things about Asgardian refugees, or turned Congress' roof into soft serve ice cream. You took me to task for all the tax dollars those spells cost ordinary Americans, too."

Darcy blinks. He seems put out. But he must be joking. So she laughs and says, "And I'd do it again...those would be expensive pranks. But funny."

Loki smiles a bit triumphantly at that, but doesn't respond. Claudine snorts.

x x x x

Loki opens the door to Darcy's closet. She stares at the neatly hung rows of pants and shirts. "Can I dress myself?" she asks aloud. "Or do I pick out horrible things that don't match?"

Loki smiles. "Actually, this is one thing you have always managed to do fine on your own. I think it has to do with all your years of being a photographer. You still have a keen sense of color."

He backs away. "You still take pictures," he says. "Later I'll show you."

Darcy tilts her head. A photographer? How interesting. If she could remember. Shaking her head, she picks out some clothes and then dresses herself, very slowly. It seems her fingers don't quite do what she wants them to do. When she leaves her room, Loki is waiting. He looks her up and down and then says, "Ah, your hair. Come, let me help."

He guides her back into her room and in front of a dresser with a mirror. Sure enough, her hair is a mess, but what strikes her more is how much older she is than Loki. She is in her mid fifties perhaps, and he looks...well, it is hard to say, but he looks young, and healthy and vital.

He picks up a hairbrush from the dresser before she's even realized it was there and begins gently brushing her hair.

"You're so young and handsome," Darcy declares. "You shouldn't be here with me. You should be chasing some young woman and making babies!"

He raises an eyebrow and smirks. "You know the last woman I asked to marry and make babies with me turned me down?"

Darcy doesn't know Loki well, but she already likes him. "Well, she was a dummy. You're very handsome and babies are a lot of trouble but the best thing in the world!"

"Hmmmm..." Loki says. "I will remember you said that."

Shoulders falling, Darcy tilts her head. "But I won't remember."

"Never fear," says Loki with a mischievous smile. "I will remind you."

x x x x

When they leave Darcy's bedroom, she can hear people in the house. "That will be your sons Max and Franz, Franz's wife Hisberna and their baby, David," Loki whispers.

"Okay," says Darcy, even though it isn't.

He holds out her arm and she takes it.

"You're very kind," she whispers.

He smiles tightly and threads his fingers with hers. "Not really. But I take care of my interests."

Darcy blinks at that. She's not sure how she can interest him, but he is kind, and she follows him down the hallway. There are young men in the kitchen, they call her Mom, and she thinks she might remember them. She smiles and plays along. A pretty woman with elf ears lets her hold an adorable little baby.

When the one who is Max says, "Well, it's time to pick the last apple, I guess," Darcy smiles and nods and pretends to know what they're talking about. It seems to make them happy, so she surmises it is the right thing to do.

When they walk outside for the first time she notices that the sky is filled with quiet little flitters. "What are those?" she asks.

"Drones," says Franz. "To help protect the apples."

That makes everyone go quiet. Darcy looks around. She sees men with guns between the trees, too. "Must be some tasty apples," she says.

Max chuckles a little, but it is very hollow sounding. "Something like that."

Darcy walks with them to a tree at the center of the orchard. The woman with the pretty ears plucks an apple and hands it to Darcy.

Darcy stares at it, and her mouth waters. "I've eaten one of these before, haven't I?" she says.

Loki squeezes her hand. Franz tilts his head. Max smiles a little, and so does Hisberna.

"You remember," says Max. "That's good."

"That's new," says Franz.

"It is working, as I said it would," says Hisberna.

"What's working?" Darcy asks, staring at the apple in her hand. The shadow of a flitter crosses over her and she shivers.

Everyone looks uncomfortable. Beside her Loki says, "Each apple is capable of restoring approximately 19 months of youth. Last year you ate two. This year you've eaten one -"

"More than two a year and the effects would be too fast," says Max. "It could be dangerous."

Darcy stares at the fruit, and then looks up at the flitters and sees the men with guns moving through the trees.

"Everyone wants these," she says.

"Yes," says Loki. "But there aren't enough. Not now anyway."

Darcy holds the fruit in her hand, afraid, or ashamed of taking a bite, she's not sure. Loki's arm tightens around her own.

"Eat it, Mom," says Franz.

"Eat it," says Max.

"There never is enough of anything new and good to start," Franz says. "Let one of the first to receive immortality be you."

They're all looking at her so earnestly, and Loki's arm in hers is practically vise like.

"All of us miss you, Mom," Franz says. "Please...eat it."

The apple shakes in her hand. "Other people are eating these, too," she says.

"Yes," says Loki, too quickly. "More people every year, don't fret."

"Who?" says Darcy.

"Barton, Tony, Rhodey, Pepper, Jane, Thor, Fandral, Doug..." Loki rolls his eyes. "My son Nari - and his beastly wife. She only married him for his share. The orchard in Asgard was almost completely destroyed by guerilla fighters a few years ago."

The last part goes over Darcy's head. She looks at Franz and Max. "You?" she says, instinctively holding the apple out to them.

"Not yet, Mom," says Max staring at the apple. "By choice. Right now we're foregoing our share so that we can sell them to the highest bidder."

"Security is expensive," says Franz.

"But they will have a share, of course," says Loki, squeezing her hand. "We're growing new trees all the time."

"Please, Mom, just eat it," says Franz.

Everyone is staring at her, waiting, imploring her with their eyes. Hesitantly, Darcy takes a little bite. The flesh is sweet and tart at once, and very crisp. As soon as she has one little taste she can't stop. She has to be careful lest she swallow it whole. It is as though every cell in her body is crying out for the next mouthful. She feels pleasantly warm, and everything around her seems exceptionally clear.

Max, Franz and the lady with the cute ears start to smile, and talk about this and that, little David, if Max is seeing anyone. But Loki's eyes don't leave her.

Darcy reaches the core of the apple, and finally she feels sated. Loki hands her a handkerchief. Wiping her chin, she looks up at him. She feels a flutter at the pit of her stomach. "We're not housemates," Darcy says.

The idle chatter stops. Loki raises an eyebrow.

Darcy closes her eyes. "I remember you - in a tower. You were hurt, and sick..." She looks back up at him. "I helped take care of you. I remember." Her brow furrows. "Is that why you're helping me now?"

Everyone is quiet, as though they are holding their breath. Loki smiles mischievously. "Something like that."

Darcy's eyes narrows. "There's more to it." Though she can't quite remember what.

Loki looks down. Darcy's arm has slipped from his but their hands are still joined, their fingers entwined. He squeezes his hand gently but says nothing. And for a minute she thinks maybe they were...but no, that idea is preposterous.

"You won't tell me though, will you?" She's not sure how she knows this.

He meets her eyes. "No. It's better if you remember yourself." He shrugs and looks so sad she doesn't press.

She looks down at the apple core in her hand. "How long before I can remember?"

"Another three years or so," says Loki.

Darcy scowls. "That's a long time to be stuck with me."

Loki smiles, a wise, wonderful, wicked, gleeful smile. She half expects him to bounce on his heels.

"No, Darcy," he says, the corners of his eyes crinkling. "That is no time at all."