When she first became aware of herself once more as an individual, it took her a long time to readjust to having physical form again. At first the sense of being in a body was too confining, and she fled back to the comfort of the World Tree to drift through the universe a while longer.
But she was tethered to the body, and she felt drawn back to it for reasons she didn’t quite remember. Something important. Something… good. So she let herself be confined into the body, her senses dwindling, her universe shrinking down to a tiny pinpoint.
It was dark in the body. It took her a long time to realize this was because her eyes were closed. When she opened them she saw that she was in the tiny bedroom she’d been assigned. The lights were dim, she assumed for her own benefit, because they hurt her eyes, as low as they were.
Next to the bed where she was lying was a metal stand, and hanging from it were two large, glass globes filled with liquid. A thin tube ran from the bottom of each globe, merged into one, and was attached to a needle in the back of her hand. She could also feel objects attached to her temple, her throat, and the inside of her wrist.
Her limbs felt weak, the muscles unused. She was hungry, but not voraciously so. And though she felt sluggish and disoriented, she wasn’t tired.
Once she’d finished taking stock of herself, she moved her head just enough to look around. Loki was sitting in a chair next to her bed, legs outstretched and crossed at the ankle. He held a book in his hands, but he studied the pages too long to actually be reading it. In his lap rested a transparent rectangle of glass, across which a stream of golden runes flowed. He glanced down at the tablet every few seconds, far more interested in it than his book.
Darcy stared at him. For a moment it felt as if she was staring at a storm in Aesir form, thunderclouds and lightning bottled up in a physical body, shimmering with some terrible power, and then the vision faded, and he was himself again.
He was wearing Asgardian clothes in green and black: an elaborately pleated and embroidered tunic, a long leather jerkin, and boots laced up to his knees. His hair was pulled back into a tail and bound by a gold clip at the nape of his neck. It fell several inches past his shoulders. Darcy wondered if he’d let her cut it.
Darcy had to take a few minutes to remember how to move her arm, to force her muscles to obey her commands, and her hand moved a few inches toward him. He looked up sharply, eyes going first to her hand, and then her face. His expression changed when he saw her eyes open, softening, and he closed the book.
“Hello, Darcy,” he said, setting the book on the side table. “How do you feel?”
She swallowed and thought about that for a moment. She really didn’t feel all that different. “Little weak,” she finally managed.
He looked up at the glass globes, checking the levels of the fluid, and then down at the tablet in his lap again. “That is understandable,” he told her. “You have been asleep for sixteen days.”
Darcy blinked. “Oh.” It hadn’t felt that long. And yet, it had felt an eternity. Yggdrasil was right. Time moved differently, both faster and slower.
Loki gathered his legs underneath him and leaned forward, studying her face. “You accepted Yggdrasil’s offer,” he said. It was almost a question, as if he was afraid to ask. Darcy nodded, still finding speech too difficult. “You did not tell me this was what you planned to do,” he continued softly.
Darcy blinked again. She planned the words in her mind, practiced the sound of them, and then forced them past unwilling lips. “Would you have stopped me?”
He frowned at her. “That would not have been my decision to make,” he told her.
She swallowed thickly. “Can I have some water?”
He got to his feet and crossed over to the desk, where he filled a glass from a pitcher of water sitting there. When he returned to her bedside, he helped her sit up while carefully avoiding skin contact, and handed her the cup. She drained it and set it on the side table.
Loki went back to studying his tablet, swiping his fingers across the surface a couple of times. Darcy stared at him for a beat and then, in order to stave off the awkward silence she could feel coming, she said, “Yggdrasil saved you.”
Loki looked up at her. “I… beg your pardon?”
“That’s how you survived Ragnarok,” Darcy told him. “Yggdrasil saved you.”
A crease formed between his dark brows. “Why would it do that?”
“Courting gift, I think,” Darcy replied, leaning back against the headboard.
Loki tilted his head. “Is that why you accepted?” He asked. “Because it gave you a gift?”
“I didn’t do it because of you,” Darcy said quickly. “I made the decision. I think… I think it was the right one.”
Loki took a deep breath. “I do not think there was a wrong decision in this instance.”
Darcy put her hand flat on the blanket, fingers spread. She slid her hand over to the edge of the bed closest to him. “I’m glad you’re not dead,” she said softly.
He looked down at her hand, and then back up at her face. “So am I,” he said with a faint smile. He reached out and touched her wrist, covered by the sleeve of her nightshirt. “It is good to see you with this face,” he added.
“It’s good to see this face,” Darcy said, matching his smile. “I mean, you’re really pretty as a woman, like really pretty. But I like this you best.”
He circled her wrist with his fingers, still safely separated by her sleeve, and then released her. “I needed… time,” he said softly.
Darcy picked at the blanket for a moment. “So you really see all those things?” She asked. “Is it from Ragnarok?”
He nodded slowly. “Yes. I have… flashes, I suppose. Memories of what I saw in Ragnarok. Past… present… future. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between what is and what will be , or what was. ”
Darcy felt her throat constrict at his words, her eyes suddenly burning. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
He looked up at her sharply. “I don’t regret it,” he said forcefully. “I would do it again.” His voice softened. “I am your lagsmaðr, Darcy. It is my duty to protect you.”
“No, it isn’t,” Darcy said sharply. He frowned at her. “You didn’t choose. You didn’t ask to be my--” Darcy cut herself off abruptly. “I don’t hold you to that,” she said instead.
He looked away, pale eyes thoughtful for a long moment. He met her gaze again. “I choose it now,” he said simply.
At that Darcy couldn’t stop the tears of relief that spilled over onto her cheeks. “Oh,” she said. “I’m--I’m glad to hear that.”
He smiled at her again, thin lips curling upwards, but before he could speak again, there was a brisk rap on the door and then it opened to reveal Wyrd in the doorway, a familiar black bird on her shoulder.
The raven immediately jumped from Wyrd’s shoulder and glided over to Loki’s, flicking its wings as it settled them across its back. It eyed Darcy with one beady, black eye, and then croaked, “Harken, harken.”
Darcy hadn’t looked away from Wyrd, who was staring back at her, expression unreadable. Without breaking eye contact, Darcy scrubbed the moisture from her cheeks.
“Wyrd,” Darcy said flatly. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Loki leaning away from the raven so he could stare at it quizzically.
“Sigyn,” Wyrd said, matching Darcy’s tone. “So.”
“I don’t want to be Eldest,” Darcy suddenly blurted. Wyrd blinked. “I don’t want to lead the norns,” Darcy went on. “I just… I’ll be Mother of the Ways, but that’s it. That’s all I want.”
Wyrd blinked again, and abruptly relaxed. “Oh, wonderful,” she said, clearly relieved. “I was afraid we were going to have our first power struggle and, child, I was worried. After what we’ve lost, it would have torn us apart.”
“I don’t want that,” Darcy insisted.
Wyrd entered the room fully and crossed over to the other side of Darcy’s bed. She reached down and took Darcy’s hand in a strong grip. “It is good to see you, little sister,” she said gently. “We were concerned for you.”
“Really?” Darcy couldn’t help asking. “I wouldn’t have noticed.”
Wyrd gave her an admonishing look. “You know why we didn’t contact you after Ragnarok-that-wasn’t, dear one.”
“I know,” Darcy said with a sigh. “But still… I was in the hospital for a month .”
“Would you have wanted to see one of us?” Wyrd challenged.
Darcy thought about that. “No,” she finally admitted.
Wyrd snorted, her point made, and looked over at Loki. He had resigned himself to the presence of the raven and was now watching Wyrd with a wary expression.
“It seems as if we owe you a heavy debt,” she told him gravely. “It is not often the norns are in anyone’s debt.”
Loki pressed his lips together into a thin line. “I do not take it lightly,” he assured her. “But for now I would only request you keep your distance from me and mine. I have no desire to be in the presence of the norns at this time.”
Wyrd inclined her head toward him. “We will abide by your request. I only desired to make sure my sister was well.” She turned to leave, and then looked back. “The raven’s name is Víl,” she said, and vanished through the door. Loki looked startled, and once more stared quizzically at the bird, who stared placidly back. It ruffled its feathers and began to preen.
“Looks like you made a new friend,” Darcy said. “Víl, huh? Hope it doesn’t live up to that name.”
“He undoubtedly will,” Loki said dryly.
Darcy watched the bird for a moment, then asked, “What’s the story behind the ravens, anyway? Why does Asgard use them as messengers?”
“There is no reliable method of communicating between the realms that cannot be suborned in some manner,” Loki told her. “The ravens were a gift to the Allfather from the norns. They can pass between the realms without the use of the Bifrost. Using the Ways, I’d imagine.”
“Right,” Darcy said. She reached out experimentally, and the bird stopped preening to allow her to run her fingertip from the top of its head to the base of its tail.
“Harken,” it croaked.
“Is that all you can say?” Darcy asked.
It fluffed up its feathers again and went back to grooming itself. Darcy looked up at Loki. “So. What now?”
He raised his eyebrows. “What now, indeed.”
Darcy rubbed the side of her nose. “I want to go home.”
Loki nodded. “Very well.”
“We should go to Asgard, first,” she added. His head came back, eyes widening slightly.
“Why?” He asked, schooling his expression again. “What business do you have there?”
“I don’t,” she told him. “You do. You need to talk to your parents.”
Loki looked down and was silent for a long time, his jaw clenched. “They are not my parents,” he said in a voice that was barely audible.
“They raised you,” Darcy pointed out. “I know your mother cares about you deeply.”
He nodded, still not looking at her. “I would speak with Frigga,” he said absently, still deep in thought.
Darcy watched him carefully. As fas as she could tell, Loki would have been under Skuld’s control when he discovered his true nature. Or, at least, she was pretty sure. Skuld could have revealed it to him earlier, and still used his “discovery” to further her plans.
“They don’t know,” Darcy said. “They don’t know that you’re alive, they don’t know about Ragnarok, or Skuld.” She paused to gauge his reaction. “They deserve to know.”
He blinked and looked up at her again, leaning back in his chair. Víl the raven easily kept balance on his shoulder. “Not to mention it would go a long way to clearing my name,” Loki said dryly.
“That, too,” Darcy admitted.
“Yes, because we would not want to burden you with a criminal for a lagsmaðr,” he went on, bitterness edging his voice. “The shame of it!”
“Hey, I was always proud of having you as my lagsmaðr,” Darcy retorted. “Even when I thought you were a criminal.”
He paused for a moment. “Yes,” he said, subdued. “You were.” He rose to his feet, the raven fluttering its wings to keep upright. “I will let the dísir know you are awake. I am sure you would like to eat and perhaps bathe.”
“I would, thank you,” Darcy said with a nod.
He paused again, as if trying to think of something else to say, and finally nodded back and left the room, Víl still on one shoulder.
Darcy tried not to be embarrassed about being bathed like a child, but she couldn't help it, a little bit. It that the dísir were very professional and respectful, acting as if it was all in a day's work. Which it probably was. But Darcy could barely stand, much less bathe herself.
Once she was bathed and dressed, the dísir returned her to bed and fetched her something to eat. She immediately asked to see Rashid. He arrived mere moments later.
“My lady, it is good to see you awake,” he said when he entered the room. “I'll admit I was a little worried when they told me you were indisposed.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Darcy said, fiddling with her spoon. “So… Did the dísir tell you secrets of the universe?”
To her surprise, Rashid blushed darkly. “They told me… secrets, my lady,” he muttered.
Darcy grinned. “Good. I'm glad. You know, I'm gonna leave here as soon as I can walk again.”
“Will you need a guide back to Amirtha, my lady?” Rashid asked.
“No, but thank you,” Darcy told him. “And thank you for everything, Rashid. You saved my life.”
He bowed slightly. “It was my pleasure, Lady Darcy.”
“Is there any way I can repay you?” Darcy asked. “I don’t have any money, but--”
“The dísir have compensated me far more than I needed,” Rashid interrupted. “My lady,” he added belatedly.
“Good,” Darcy said with a nod. “Will you do one more favor for me?”
Rashid smiled and spread his hands. “Anything for you.”
“Take care of the girls for me? Fatimah and the others? They’ve kinda got the deck stacked against them. And I don’t trust Favrius. I know he said he’d take care of the kids’ education, but… powerful people have a way of making embarrassments go away.”
“They do,” Rashid agreed. “I will do all in my power to assist the women, my lady.”
“Thank you,” Darcy said sincerely. “I know we’ll run into each other again. And sooner rather than later.”
“I would enjoy that,” Rashid told her.
Once Rashid left, and Darcy ate, she slept, finding herself exhausted already. When she woke, almost fifteen hours later, it was to find she had a visitor.
Embla was sitting in the chair next to Darcy’s bed, dangling a piece of string so a white, half-grown kitten could play with it. Darcy recognized the animal. It’s name was Kneppa, and it had been Skaði’s, before Skuld had killed her vessel. Darcy was glad she had found a new home.
“Hello, Embla,” Darcy said, pushing into a sitting position.
Embla looked up, and her face brightened with a wide smile. “Sigyn! You’re awake! Oh, I’ve been waiting for hours !”
“What a hardship,” Darcy said dryly, but kindly.
Embla was the youngest of her sisters, and was of an excitable nature. She had pale, flawless skin, platinum blonde hair, and pale, almost colorless gray eyes. Her hair was plaited into two braids down her back, woven with red ribbons. Another red ribbon held the horned moon emblem on her brow. Over her white gown she wore a deep maroon jacket that reached her knees.
“I wanted to visit you earlier, but Wyrd said we mustn't,” Embla said, reaching down and scooping Kneppa up. She plopped the cat onto the bed next to Darcy. Darcy smiled and reached out to rub the kitten’s ears. “I think she still wants us to stay away,” Embla continued. “And your lagsmaðr wouldn’t speak to me at all.”
“He’s a little distrustful of norns at the moment,” Darcy said, rolling her eyes. “I think you understand.”
“Yes,” Embla said, suddenly subdued. She sighed heavily. “How are you, sister?” She asked Darcy solemnly.
“I’m… better than I was,” Darcy said after a moment of thought.
Embla nodded. “We were worried that we would lose two sisters,” she said softly. “We did not want to lose you, Sigyn.”
Darcy looked down at Kneppa. “I didn’t want to lose anyone, either.”
Embla touched Darcy’s arm lightly, and then withdrew her hand. “It was not your fault, you know. What happened with Skuld. You did what you had to.”
“Did I?” Darcy asked, looking up to meet Embla’s eyes. “What if I was wrong? Ragnarok… it will come. The universe ends. I know it. We all know it. What if that was its time, and I screwed it up?”
Embla blinked a couple of times. “But… it wasn’t,” she said, sounding uncertain. “We would have known if it was.”
“I know,” Darcy said, frustrated. Kneppa started to purr under Darcy’s hand, blue eyes drifting shut in bliss. “But I still wonder.”
Embla frowned, having no words of comfort to offer Darcy. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a thin gold tube, about the size of a cigarette. She handed it to Darcy. Darcy took it and held it between two fingers.
“Got a light?” She asked.
Embla’s frown deepened for a moment, and then her expression cleared. “Oh, no. Here, let me show you.” She took the tube back and held it with both hands. Then she pulled it apart, splitting it in half longwise. A thin, transparent membrane stretched between the two halves, and printed on the membrane was a picture of a chubby, black-haired infant with brown, almond-shaped eyes and tawny skin.
Darcy instantly recognized the child, no more than a month old, and smiled involuntarily. “Skaði,” she said. “Oh, she is fat .”
“You can say that now, but wait until she gets any older and she will get a complex,” Embla said, grinning back. She let the two sides of the tube retract together again and handed it to Darcy.
“Thank you,” Darcy said softly.
“I thought you might like that,” Embla replied. “It will be some time before she awakens, but in the meantime, at least we can get pictures.”
“Do her parents know?” Darcy asked, turning the picture tube over in her fingers. “Do they know who she is?”
Embla shook her head. “It is forbidden to tell them before she awakens,” she replied. “All they know is we’ve taken interest in the child. If they knew, they would treat her different. And we all just want a normal childhood, don’t we? Before the madness starts?”
“Yeah,” Darcy quietly, her gaze drifting away for a moment. “It was good to see you, Embla. I’m glad you came.”
Embla gathered Kneppa into her arms, the kitten mewling in protest. “I am glad it was you,” she said. “The new Mother. I am glad it’s you.”
Darcy smiled thinly. “That makes one of us,” she said, and then nodded. “Thanks, Embla. I appreciate your support.”
After Embla left, the dísir brought Darcy breakfast (lunch, really) and she slept again, this time just for a few hours. Loki was waiting for her when she woke, and he had something that strongly resembled a wheelchair.
“I thought we might go for a walk in the arboretum, if you felt up for it,” he said.
“I’d love to,” Darcy said, pushing back the blankets. She managed to stand upright, and waved Loki off when she wobbled. She managed to get herself into the wheelchair on her own. “I’m not sitting in this thing the whole time, though,”
“Of course not,” Loki agreed instantly. “You do need the exercise to speed along your recovery.”
He pushed her through the tunnels in the chair while they talked about nothing in particular. It felt nice, and a bit surreal. He took her to a part of the facility she’d never been to before. It was a massive chamber, large enough for the single, silver-barked mature oak in the center under the glass dome. The floor was covered with grass except for a white, smooth path that wound through the other various trees. A tiny creek burbled its way around the chamber, the light glinting from the occasional fish’s scales.
Loki pushed Darcy along the path to the center of the arboretum where there were a few tables and chairs set up on a small patio. One of the tables had a cloth and a meal set out. Darcy’s eyes widened at the sight of it.
“Oh, my god,” she said. “Is this… Is this a date ?”
“No, it is dinner,” Loki told her, but he smiled. “You and I, having dinner.”
Darcy pushed herself to her feet and conquered the short walk to the table, sitting down in one of the chairs. “That’s what a date means,” she told him.
“I am a prince of Asgard,” he said, mock-haughtily. “I do not date .” He began to put a measured portion of each dish onto her plate; meat, vegetables, grain, some kind of flatbread, and a leafy green salad. “If I found a woman worthy of my attention, I might be inspired to court her.”
Darcy raised an eyebrow, fighting down a smile. “If?” She echoed.
He gave her a very firm look. “If,” he confirmed, before putting food on his own plate and sitting down. “I did ask the dísir and they said it was not a good idea for you to drink wine at the moment.”
“That’s okay,” Darcy replied, picking up her fork. “I dreamwalked back to earth to have drinks with Steve and Jane before I tied the knot with Yggdrasil, and the hangover reminded me why I have a love/hate relationship with alcohol.”
“You did mention,” Loki said dryly.
The food was, as everything the dísir made, delicious, and Darcy was ravenously hungry. Her appetite had returned with full force, making up for over two weeks of being dormant. After devouring half her plate, she looked up to see Loki delicately picking at his food.
“So, how long do you want to stay on Asgard?” She asked.
“As little time as possible,” Loki replied, a little too flatly for Darcy’s taste. She considered pushing it, but decided to change tactic instead.
“When we get back to earth, are you gonna mind staying with my parents for a while?”
Loki blinked, and looked up. “I think a better question would be, will they have me?”
“Well, my parents are pretty chill,” Darcy said, pushing the steamed grain around her plate. “I’m sure it would be okay. Besides, I don’t really have anywhere non-SHIELD, so…”
“Ah,” Loki said, raising his eyebrows. “Yes. SHIELD. I am assuming you told them the whole situation?”
Darcy grimaced. “I didn’t have much of a choice.”
“Of course not,” he replied with a sigh, and put down his fork. “I would rather not… confront them, if it could be avoided.”
“Are you sure you’re gonna be okay with going back to earth?” Darcy asked. “We could stay here for a while longer.”
He gazed at her levelly for a moment. “Do you desire to go home?”
“I mean, if it’s going to make you feel uncomfortable,” Darcy began, but he interrupted her.
“Do you desire to go home?” He asked again.
Darcy clenched her jaw briefly. “Yes,” she finally said.
Loki nodded decisively. “Then we shall return to earth.”
She hesitated for a moment. “Okay.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “You are unhappy,” he said, not quite a question.
“No, it’s just,” Darcy started quickly. She stopped, thought for a moment, and then continued. “I understand that things aren’t easy for you. I’m just trying to help.”
A spasm of anger flashed across his face. “I do not need to be coddled,” he said sharply.
“I’m not trying to coddle you, Loki,” Darcy protested. “After what happened, when I woke up, I could barely speak to anyone. Couldn’t stand to be around people. I know what it’s like. I just want to do what’s best for you.”
His expression darkened. “You know what it’s like?” He spat, his voice suddenly venomous. “You know what it’s like to be torn to pieces? To lose all sense of your self, your identity? To be cast adrift and left exposed, like a nerve? You know nothing of it!”
He pushed his chair back and lunged to his feet, spinning away to pace along the patio. Darcy tried to stand and failed, her legs giving out under her. “Loki,” she tried, but he gestured sharply, cutting her off.
“I saw the universe. The heart of it!” He snarled at her. “All of that knowledge, all of time and space, pouring through my skull, too much even for one such as you to contain! You know nothing of the pain! I fought for weeks just to find myself in the chaos of it. All of the darkness, and the eternity, all of it, still, filling up the space behind my eyes, and I cannot--I cannot--”
He clutched at his head, fingers clawing against his skin as he hunched in on himself, a high-pitched keening sound ripping from his throat. Darcy gathered all of her strength and pushed herself to her feet again, and took three tottering steps toward him, her mind racing.
“You are not nothing,” she said, hitting on an idea. “You move, you breathe, you are. You are not nothing.” She inched toward him again, reaching out a hand. “Can you say it with me? You are not nothing.”
The horrible keening sound stopped, replaced by his ragged breathing. Darcy got close enough to lay her hand on his arm, protected by his sleeve. He flinched but didn’t pull away.
“These are your hands. These are your feet,” she continued. “You command them.”
A tremor went through his whole body, and he sucked in a deep breath. “I am not nothing,” he said in a harsh whisper. “I move, I breathe, I am. I am not nothing. These are my hands. These are my feet. I command them.”
“That’s good,” Darcy said encouragingly. “Can you say it again for me?”
He repeated the mantra, his voice growing stronger and his breaths calming. By the end of the third iteration, he was able to lower his arms from his head, though he could not meet her eye. He fell silent, breathing deeply. She kept her hand on his arm, squeezing gently.
“I am sorry,” he said at length. “I was unkind.”
Darcy sighed faintly. “Don’t apologize for being broken,” she told him softly. “No one apologized for making you this way.”
Loki finally lifted his head and looked at her with a confused frown. She shrugged. “Just something I read once,” she said.
“I am not broken,” he said, but his voice lacked conviction. “I am not. I am… chaotic. My thoughts.” He lifted his hand again, clawing his fingers and pressing the tips to the side of his head. “I try to grasp at them, and they slip away. The words I speak, they are not mine. They belong to another part of me. A reflection. Someone I once was, perhaps. Someone who never existed.” He clearly struggled to find the words to explain clearly, trying to get his meaning across.
“It’s okay,” Darcy told him quickly when his expression twisted into one of pain. “I get it. I do, Loki. It’s okay.” She squeezed his arm again and then dropped her hand. “We can deal with this. We can. You can get better.”
“Can I?” The despair in his voice nearly broke her heart. “This… affliction is not new, Darcy. There were seeds of madness planted in my mind long ago and I do not think…” He stopped to take a shaky breath. “I do not think I can fully conquer this.”
Darcy pressed her lips together and refused to let herself tear up. “Humans deal with mental illness every day, Loki,” she said. “We’ll find a way. I promise.”
He looked down and away. “You would be wise to take a different lagsmaðr,” he said bitterly. “One actually capable of protecting you.”
Darcy poked him hard in the chest, causing him to look up in surprise. “ You protected me from bandits,” she reminded him. “And from a giant fucking sandworm. You did. Bag of crazy and all. I don’t want any other lagsmaðr. You’ll do just fine for me.” She poked him again. “Now help me back to the table. I’m about to fall down.”
He caught her by the elbows and walked her back to her chair, easing her down. “I fear I will only be a burden to you,” he said sadly.
Darcy closed her eyes briefly, praying for strength to deal with stubbornly self-deprecating partners. “Okay. This is the last time I will say this, so listen good.” She opened her eyes and glared up at him. “You and me? We’re in this. Together. Partners, remember? Us humans like to say ‘in sickness and in health.’ So that’s it. No more of this ‘I’m not good enough’ talk. Got it?”
He stared down at her for a long moment. Then he tilted his head to the side. “You are a strange creature, Darcy Lewis.”
She snorted. “Yup. I’m one of a kind.”