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The Green Gentleman

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People never talk about what happens after you save the world. They don’t talk about the consequences, the things you lose. They don’t talk about the nightmares, the anger, the hypervigilance.

They don’t talk about trying to cry silently so people will finally stop asking if you’re okay. Or waking up in the middle of the night and reaching for someone who isn’t there. Who will never be there again. Or the empty ache inside when you watch people walk by, oblivious to what you sacrificed to save them.

That’s what brought the anger, the bursts of white-hot rage lashing out at a hapless victim who’d done nothing to deserve it. It was promptly followed by days of listlessness and depression, only for the cycle to begin again.

Saving the world really sucked.

You lose your innocence and all sense of security. You lose the ability to feel safe, even in one of the most secure buildings in the country. You lose the ability to sleep at night, when all you see are the people you let down, the ones you couldn’t save.

And the future that you had seen for yourself, the one you hoped and dreamed for, is now irrevocably shattered. You may have saved the world, but you have no desire to live in it.

In the end you ask yourself, was it really worth it?

XxxXxxX

The dream was always the same. Sun-bleached sky, palm trees, the smell of sand. A well. And a humanoid figure, made from silver bark and green leaves, its presence familiar and yet not, ancient and vast and alien. And always the same words.

Come and be known .

Darcy had been having the dream with increasing regularity over the last four weeks. The pull had gotten stronger, the need to pursue it, to discover its meaning. Darcy had learned the hard way that her dreams weren’t just dreams. They had the tendency to come true.

She had a secondary mission, too. Find someplace to hide the Tesseract where it wouldn’t hurt anyone ever again. She had a feeling that her missions were actually one and the same. Of course, SHIELD didn’t know that Darcy had the Tesseract. If they did, they wouldn’t let her leave the building.

Darcy finished tying the laces of her boots and set her feet on the floor. Then she pushed  herself off the bed and stood up straight. The muscles in her stomach had finally stopped pulling painfully, and her legs finally felt strong again.

It had been a month since… well, since Ragnarok hadn’t happened. Darcy had spent the intervening time in SHIELD custody, but they didn’t try to interrogate or confine her, thanks to the efforts of the Avengers. Mostly Steve and Thor. The others were still a little wary about her. With good reason.

Darcy Lewis wasn’t really Darcy anymore. Holding Ragnarok, being Ragnarok, had changed her in ways she still didn’t understand. She’d regained a good deal of her memories, with some large, rather annoying gaps. She felt… more in tune with the universe. Even now she could feel the turn of the Earth beneath her feet, it’s orbit around the Sun.

It felt like waking up for the first time.

She got lost in it a lot, losing track of time. She’d remember something, but she couldn’t tell if it was past or future. Or she would get distracted by mapping a single person’s life, from birth to death. It was overwhelming, sometimes.

It was easier just to be Darcy, human being. But that Darcy was dead and gone.

Confident she wasn’t going to keel over and pass out, Darcy picked up her coat from the hospital bed. It was a deep purple color, covered in intricate embroidery in the same shade. Thin bands of flexible metal curled over her ribs, from under her breasts to her hips, like some kind of stylized armor. She shrugged it on over her plain black long-sleeved t-shirt.

Her long, dark brown hair was already pinned up in a simple knot at the base of her skull, and a purple ribbon the same color as her coat was bound around her forehead, from which a silver emblem of a horned moon hung between her brows.

Black cargo pants and combat boots completed her outfit. She wasn’t dressed to impress anyone (though the coat was damn stylish). She was dressed for a long hike. Because Darcy Lewis was leaving Earth.

It wasn’t the first time she was leaving the planet she’d been born on. It wasn’t even the second time. Darcy had lost count of all the times she (or at least her consciousness) had visited another realm. She’d been doing it on a nightly basis for the last two years, and on a monthly basis before that ever since she was thirteen.

She took a deep breath and turned towards the door. She didn’t carry any luggage with her. She didn’t have to. Everything she needed was stored in the tiny pocket dimension she had created. She would have access to it anytime she wanted. Squaring her shoulders, she marched over to the door and pulled it open.

There was a guard outside who looked sharply at her, his hand shifting towards the gun on his hip, and then he stopped himself. He wasn’t there to keep her from leaving. In fact, none of the agents in the building could have kept her from leaving.

Darcy was not a warrior, but she was something much, much more powerful.

Darcy Lewis was a norn.

She gave the guard a brief nod and walked down the hall. The guard fell into step behind her. He would shadow her until she left the building, and then she would pick up a new detail, who would tail her until she reached the Ways.

She wasn’t concerned. The Ways were protected, and even if the SHIELD agents literally watched her walk through one, they wouldn’t be able to find or use it themselves. It took a great deal of training to use the Ways, and there was only one person other than the norns who had been able to do so.

Darcy strode through the Triskelion, her strides long and her gait sure. People looked up as she passed and scrambled to get out of her way. She wasn’t a particularly imposing figure, being only five foot three and not in any fantastic shape, but the aura of power that simmered around her was enough to send people ducking for cover.

Except for one.

Darcy heard a patter of hurried footsteps, and then a woman, even shorter than her and at least twenty pounds lighter, slid around a corner on the slick floors before regaining her equilibrium.

“Darcy!” Jane Foster called, and ran towards her. Darcy had enough time to stop walking and brace herself before the petite scientist flung herself at her, throwing her arms around Darcy’s neck. Jane was a lot stronger than she looked, and Darcy rocked back on her heels.

“Oof,” she said, wrapping her arms around Jane’s waist on instinct. “Damn, Jane.What have you been eating, rocks?”

You should talk,” Jane muttered back. “You’ve lost weight.”

“I got stabbed in the stomach, Jane,” Darcy replied flatly. “It hurt to eat until last week.”

“I can’t believe you’re leaving already,” Jane said petulantly, releasing Darcy and stepping back. She kept her hands on Darcy’s shoulders. “And without telling me!”

Darcy shrugged unapologetically. “I figured it would be easier,” she said.

“You shouldn’t leave without saying goodbye,” Jane insisted, squeezing Darcy’s shoulders. “Come on, Darce. I thought we were friends.”

Darcy was silent for a long moment, staring at the other woman. “We are friends,” she said at length, and Jane subtly relaxed. “I just…” she trailed off. “I didn’t want to get emotional,” she finally admitted.

“I don’t cry easy,” Jane told her, tossing her hair. “Remember, you promised to come back.”

“I’ll come back,” Darcy said with a tiny half-smile. “This… this is my home. My world. I won’t stay away long.”

Jane nodded decisively. “Good.” She patted Darcy’s shoulders. “Okay. Go sort yourself out. Do what you need to do. When you get back, call me.”

“I will,” Darcy promised.

“I’ll miss you,” Jane told her. “We all will.”

“I’ll miss you, too,” Darcy said dutifully. Jane leaned forward to hug Darcy again, gentler this time.

“Do you want me to walk you out?” she asked.

“No, I’m good. Get back to work,” Darcy said, patting Jane’s back.

“Okay. Just, stay safe, Darce.”

Darcy leaned back from Jane with a raised eyebrow and a smirk. “Hey, I’m a freakin’ goddess. I think I’ll be fine.”

Jane poked her in the shoulder. “You are my intern, and my friend. Your goddess-ness is secondary.”

“Tell Steve and Thor I said bye?” Darcy asked, already turning towards the door.

“Yeah,” Jane said sadly. She wrapped her arms around her stomach. “Bye, Darcy.”

Darcy took a couple of steps backwards. “Bye, Jane.” Then she turned around and walked towards the door. She didn’t look back.

It was nine in the morning on a Tuesday in Washington, DC. Rush hour traffic was still in full swing, and the sidewalks were just as crowded as the streets. But Darcy’s aura was just as effective here as it was in the SHIELD headquarters, and people swerved to avoid her.

The Way was in a Metro station, an unmarked door that led nowhere. Darcy trudged down the stairs, not bothering to look back at the trio of agents that were following her, and made straight for the door at the end of the platform. It wasn’t locked, and opened into a dark, unlit doorway. She stepped through.

There was a flash of multicolored light, like a blink of the Bifrost, and then Darcy was walking on sun-heated cobblestones, the noise of a busy market erupting around her. She was assaulted by the smell of spices, leather, unwashed bodies, and cooking food. The world around her was a riot of color, and it took her a moment to adjust.

The exit of the Way behind her was a narrow archway wedged in the corner between two building made from orange-red stone. She stood in the middle of a bustling market that looked like a cross between Lawrence of Arabia and Mos Eisley. Most of the people surrounding her were humanoid, or close to it, with dark hair and dusky skin, wearing light-colored, loose fitting clothing to combat the heat.

And it was hot. The sun overhead was blinding, shining from a heat-bleached sky. Darcy merely adjusted the inner workings of her body, adapting her moisture loss and heat regulation. One handy skill she had recovered after being Ragnarok.

In her dreams, the ones that had been plaguing her for the last month, Darcy felt herself drawn to a desert. As far as she knew, Muspell had the most deserts of the Nine Realms. Hence her current location. Now, finding the exact location she had seen, that was going to be the real trick.

Thankfully, Darcy had sources. She started working her way through the market, ignoring the press of the crowd around her and the pushy salespeople hawking their wares. Her stomach growled as she passed a tent selling grilled meat, though, and reminded her that she had skipped breakfast that day.

She paused in front of the tent, and then remembered she had no local currency. She would eat when she got to her destination. She pushed onwards, heading towards the palace looming in the distance. She didn’t stop again until she reached the gates.

The guards moved to intercept her and paused when they took a second look at her. She drew herself up to her full, insignificant height, and said in a regal tone, “I am Lady Sigyn. I have come to speak with the master of your city.”

They stared at her for a long time. People didn’t try to impersonate the norns. The norns always found out, and they were not merciful. One of the guards stepped forward. “My lady,” he said, bowing deeply. “I will take you to the Lord Favrius immediately. Please follow me.”

Darcy lifted her chin and gave him a slight nod. She followed him through the gates into a large courtyard. There was a fountain in the middle of the courtyard, and palm-like trees and flowering shrubs in large pots. Overhead, stretching between the walls of the courtyard, was some kind of tinted, translucent membrane that cut down on the sun’s harsh glare.

The guard led Darcy into the palace proper, made from the same red-orange stone as the city. The main doors led to a great hall, at the end of which was a dais and a carved wooden chair under a canopy of red, gold, and orange silk.

There was a cluster of people just to the right of the dais. Most of them were natives of Muspell, the Eldjotnar. Darcy picked out the off worlders, and two people who were distinctly non-human. One of them had fur. The other had horns.

“My Lord Favrius,” the guard called as they reached the cluster of people. It parted to reveal a tall man, silver in his dark hair, standing at the head of a table over which several holographic images hovered. The man’s dark green eyes darted immediately to Darcy, and he reached up to smooth his fingers over his short beard.

“Who is this?” Favrius demanded in the native language of Muspell.

“My name is Lady Sigyn,” Darcy said in Allspeak before the guard could reply. “I come bearing the greetings of the norns.”

There was a low murmur among the people gathered around the lord of the city, all of them staring at Darcy. Favrius circled the table to face her. He was a handsome man, with dark olive skin and deep creases at the corners of his eyes. His clothing, while made of rich brocades, was practical and functional rather than opulent, and he carried a short sword at his waist. He wore no jewelry or marking of rank.

“It has been some time since we were graced by the presence of a norn, Lady Sigyn,” Favrius said, bowing and extending his hand. Darcy let him take her hand and raise it to his lips. “Welcome to Amirtha.”

“Thank you,” Darcy murmured, pulling her hand away when Favrius held it too long. “I am hoping you can help me with something.”

“Anything I have is at your disposal,” Favrius promised. “But come. You have just arrived in our city. Surely you would like to rest, and eat.”

“My journey here was not long,” Darcy told him. “But I will be glad to discuss business over a meal.”

“Of course, of course,” Favrius said, offering Darcy his arm. She stared at it for a second, then up at his face. She didn’t take his arm. He faltered for a moment, and then lowered his arm. “If you will come with me, my lady,” he said, sounding more subdued.

She followed him through the palace. While the walls were made of the red-orange stone, they were polished to a high gloss and carved with huge murals. The floor was white marble with veins of gold and black, and the domed ceilings were decorated with colorful, glass tiles. Darcy could smell myrrh, and cinnamon, and frankincense, burned in silver thuribles hanging at intervals in the hallways.

Favrius led her to a small, enclosed courtyard filled with plants and flowers. There was the same tinted membrane overhead, and jewel-colored birds flitted among the small trees. A table made of dark wood sat on a patio of white stone, surrounded by soft cushions.

As soon as Darcy lowered herself onto one of the cushions, a servant appeared, a comely girl with round, ruddy cheeks and a sweet smile. She placed a small, glass teacup in front of Darcy and poured a dark, fragrant liquid from a bronze pot.

Favrius sat opposite Darcy, and was likewise served a cup of tea. “It is almost midday,” he told Darcy. “I will have the kitchens send up a feast for you.”

Darcy sniffed the tea before taking a sip. It was strong and spicy, like chai without milk. “I have certain dietary restrictions,” she said out loud. “I would appreciate it if you would accomodate them.”

“It would be our pleasure,” Favrius assured her. “Tell the girl all you need.”

Darcy smiled at the servant, who was hovering nearby. “What’s your name?”

“Talisa, my lady,” the girl murmured, dropping a curtsy.

“Talisa, if you could make sure that the food served to me has no meat, and hasn’t touched anything that has touched meat, I’d be very grateful,” Darcy told her. “And if you have bread, that it hasn’t been baked in an oven used to cook meat.”

Darcy found it was often easier to forgo eating meat rather than try to determine if the meat she was offered was Kosher.

Talisa dropped another curtsy. “I will see to it, my lady,” she said, and glided off.

“So, what realm did you travel from?” Favrius asked, studying Darcy with a solemn expression.

“Midgard,” Darcy replied, tasting her tea again. She didn’t like it quite as much as kava, but it was a close second.

“Midgard?” Favrius asked, his eyebrows rising. “The mortal world? I would think such a place would be tedious for an eternal being. Such fleeting lives. How quickly the generations pass.”

“I like it there,” Darcy replied simply. “It’s been my home for a while.”

Favrius gestured lazily. “Well, it is one of the Nine Realms. Tell me, my lady, when were you last on Muspell?”

Darcy closed her eyes and summoned the memory. “Salarin ruled in Bazrahk,” she said. “I stayed to see the birth of his grandson.”

Favrius nodded. “That was nearly twelve generations ago. Our people are not as long-lived as the Aesir, but still, that is quite some time.”

“I’ve been...preoccupied,” Darcy said shortly, and put her teacup down. She heard footsteps approaching and looked up.

A young man, appearing no older than Darcy, appeared from behind a potted fruit tree. He had the same deep olive skin and dark green eyes as Favrius, and his dark hair curled appealingly. Unlike Favrius, he wore an abundance of gold jewelry, and his clothing was in the latest fashions of the city.

“Ah, come here, boy,” Favrius said, gesturing to the young man. “Lady Sigyn, this is my son, Hadris. Son, this is Lady Sigyn, of the norns.”

Hadris bowed deeply, his eyes never leaving Darcy’s face. “It is a pleasure, my lady,” he said in a low, velvety voice.

Darcy resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She knew exactly the kind of person Hadris was and what to expect from him. She really wasn’t in the mood for that kind of attention, especially so soon after--

Darcy’s mind abruptly went blank, her eyes unfocusing as her brain shunted away from that train of thought in pure self defense. She didn’t let herself think about it, not even for a second, not even when she was alone, because if she did, if she opened that door, she knew she would never get it closed again. She couldn’t afford to carry that pain right now.

Thankfully, Talisa returned at that moment, accompanied by two more servants, carrying platters of food. Hadris sat down at the table, slightly too close to Darcy for comfort, while Talisa and the other girls served the food. Darcy confirmed that the food she was given met Kosher standards, and thanked Talisa with a smile.

Favrius spoke once they started eating. “So, my lady. To business. What has brought you to my city?”

“I’m looking for a place,” Darcy told him. “In the desert. I’ve seen it in a dream, but I’m not sure of it’s actual location. I was hoping you could give me maps of this realm, so I could figure out where I’m going.”

“If you have only seen it in dreams, how will you know when you find it?” Hadris asked, swirling purple wine around in a glass.

Darcy gave him a level look. “I’ll know,” she said flatly.

“Our library is at your disposal,” Favrius said. “I will escort you there myself when you are finished eating. As always, it is our pleasure to serve the norns.”

“Yes, our pleasure,” Hadris said, watching Darcy with hooded eyes. “But the deserts can be dangerous, my lady. You should not venture out without a guide. I would be more than happy to accompany you.”

“My business is of a sensitive nature,” Darcy replied in the same flat voice. “I will be fine alone.”

The rest of the meal passed in halting small talk. Darcy didn’t feel very much in a friendly mood, and Hadris’ ham-handed attempts at flirting were giving her a headache. It was almost a relief when the meal ended, and Favrius led her to the library.

It wasn’t nearly as large as Asgard’s, but Darcy wasn’t expecting that. Favrius introduced her to the library’s curator, a wizened old woman named Agathe, and then took his leave, much to Darcy’s relief. Agathe was much more accommodating to Darcy’s desire to be alone.

The maps were thin, transparent sheets of a flexible material that displayed the areas of the desert with startling clarity, like high-definition TVs. Darcy found that she could scroll, zoom in, and zoom out by touch. The incredible detail allowed her to examine landmarks in the desert, trying to find a match to the images from her dream.

She’d been working for a couple of hours, sipping from the glass of iced, peppermint-flavored tea that Agathe had brought, when the curator approached her with a sheepish cough. Darcy looked up with a frown.

“Forgive me, my lady, but there is someone who is insisting to speak with you,” the old woman said in a creaking voice.

“If it’s Hadris, you can tell him to get lost,” Darcy muttered, turning back to the maps.

“It… is not, my lady.”

Frowning harder, Darcy looked up and saw a young woman, maybe a few years younger than her current vessel, standing a ways off and wringing her hands together. She was clearly a Eldjotnar, with the deep olive skin and dark hair. She wore flowing garments in deep red, and an orange scarf over her head. The scarf meant something, but Darcy couldn’t remember exactly what.

She beckoned sharply for the woman to approach. “What’s your name?” she asked, a bit harsher than she had intended.

The woman curtsied, hands still wrung together. “My name is Fatimah, my lady,” the woman said in a voice barely above a whisper. “Fatimah Mosaleen.”

“How can I help you, Fatimah Mosaleen?” Darcy asked, leaning back in her chair.

“I beg of you the service of mediation, my lady,” Fatimah said, her eyes fixed on the floor in front of her feet. “I seek justice for myself, and for others like me.”

That got Darcy’s attention. She leaned toward Fatimah, her brows drawing together. “What happened?” she demanded. “What do you need justice for?”

The woman reached up to touch the scarf around her head, and it clicked in Darcy’s head. Covered head: unmarriageable. “There are four of us, my lady. We tried to speak to the magistrates, but they would not hear us. The judges threw us out of their courts.”

“Why?” Darcy asked, keeping her impatience out of her voice.

Fatimah finally looked up to meet Darcy’s eyes. “Because it is the Lord’s son, my lady. Hadris. It was he who wronged us. And no one will believe us. They say we are lying, that we are greedy. But we only ask for the bride-price, as is our right.”

There was a sinking feeling in Darcy’s stomach when she realized where this was heading. “What did he do to you?” she asked softly, gently.

Fatimah took a deep, trembling breath. “He raped us, my lady.”

Chapter Text

Darcy got to her feet after Fatimah’s revelation, and crossed over to the girl. She gently took Fatimah’s hand and led her over to a chair at the map-strewn table. Darcy crouched in front of the young woman, still holding her hand.

 

“Fatimah, you know you cannot lie to a norn, right?” she asked in a soft voice. “I understand what you are saying, and I want to help you, but if you are lying to me, there will be consequences.”

 

“I am not lying, my lady,” Fatimah insisted. “I swear on my honor.”

 

Darcy nodded. “Okay. Fatimah, I’m going to do something. I’m going to look into your past so I can see what happened to you. You shouldn’t feel anything, but if you do, I want you to tell me immediately, okay?”

 

“Yes, my lady,” Fatimah said. Darcy reached up with her free hand and pressed her thumb to the center of Fatimah’s forehead. She’d done this accidentally several times in the last month, but never on command. She just hoped she could pull it off.

 

At first she got a confusing blur of images, flipping by too fast for her to catch. She got a few flashes of a small child, pretty and happy and laughing. Too far back. Darcy waded forward through Fatimah’s timeline, seeking for more recent events.

 

She found it with a suddeness that made her stomach lurch. She could feel Fatimah’s emotions toward the event, the horror, the disgust, the shame. It hit too close to home, bringing up Darcy’s own memories of-- No. She would not let herself chase that rabbit. She couldn’t afford to feel right now. Emotions made her weak.

 

He’d gotten Fatimah drunk, drunk enough to keep her from fighting, but not enough to erase the memories. She’d been flattered by the attention at first, until she realized what it was he wanted. He had singled her out during a festival, drawing her away from her friends, getting her alone. And then--and then--

 

Darcy pulled away from the memory before it got too graphic, unable to stomach seeing the actual crime. She’d seen enough, though. She believed Fatimah. She took her hand away from the other woman’s forehead, and released her hand.

 

Fatimah opened her eyes and blinked for a moment. She peered curiously at Darcy. “Did you--I didn’t--my lady?”

 

“I saw what I needed to,” Darcy said grimly. “You talked about a bride-price. What did you mean by that?”

 

Fatimah spread her hands. “It is our law, my lady,” she explained. “If a woman is made unmarriageable, for any reason, it is her right to demand the bride-price, so that she may make a living of her own. I--I am a weaver, my lady. With a bride-price I could start my own business, and care for myself, and my--” she cut herself off abruptly.

 

Darcy rocked back on her heels, feeling the unspoken words like a blow to the chest. “There’s a child, isn’t there?” she asked from a tight throat.

 

Fatimah pressed her lips together and nodded. “It will be born soon, my lady,” she whispered. “My father--he is a good man, but he cannot support me for the rest of my life. My mother, she is ill, and requires treatment. It is expensive, and I have brothers. My father will need to pay bride-prices for them if they wish to marry.”

 

Darcy reached out and took Fatimah’s hand again. “I will do everything I can to help you,” she promised. “You have my word. The other girls. Where are they?”

 

“I can bring them to you,” Fatimah said, hope in her voice for the first time. “We found each other, not long ago. We want to buy a home with the bride-price, and live together. One of the others has a child, as well. We thought, between the four of us, we might raise them well.”

 

“I’m sure you’re going to be a wonderful mother,” Darcy said, though the words were difficult to speak. She got to her feet. “I want to talk to the others, as soon as possible. Then I will talk to Hadris.”

 

Fatimah also rose. “Thank you, my lady!” she exclaimed, tears pooling in her eyes. “Thank you! We will be in your debt forever.”

 

“No,” Darcy said firmly. “You don’t owe me anything. You deserve justice. It’s your right.”

 

Fatimah bowed deeply, and Darcy finally noticed the clumsy, awkward movements of a heavily-pregnant woman. Her loose garments hid the pregnancy well.

 

Once Fatimah was gone, Darcy sank back in her chair and rubbed her forehead. It had been a long time since she’d served as a mediator, as an administrator of justice. Never in this lifetime, at least. And the crime had been perpetrated by the son of her host. Talk about awkward.

 

But she was a norn. She was impartial, completely neutral. Her own brother could have been the accused and she would still have to enact justice. She clenched her fist. She knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Hadris was guilty. She’d seen him commit the crime. A small, cruel part of her was glad that the norns were not merciful.

 

Darcy had no mercy for anyone who took away the agency of another person. Not after--Again her brain shunted away from the thought, rejecting the memory, the emotion, the pain. Darcy pressed her hand to her stomach, to the scar there, in between her navel and her right hip.

 

Fatimah was given a child when she wanted none, and Darcy… Well, Darcy would never be able to bear a child, even if she wanted to. Ragnarok had taken that away, along with the only pregnancy she would ever have. The thought of that child, the one that would never be, it was difficult. Part of Darcy was relieved to not have to face that child, to face every day what was forced on its father. And yet, to have the only chance to have a child snatched away like that…

 

It was better, it was easier, not to think about it. In time, she knew the pain would fade. Until then, she couldn’t afford to be weak. She had work to do.

 

While she waited for Fatimah to return with the other three victims, Darcy returned to her research, only to find she was too riled up to focus. She summoned her iPod from her pocket dimension and slipped the earbuds in. She chose her soundtracks playlist. The wordless music would help her focus without distracting her.

 

One hour passed, and then another. Still Darcy found nothing among the maps. Most of Muspell was covered in desert, and the realm was comparable in size to Earth. Trying to examine every square mile of desert would take days, even weeks. There had to be a better way.

 

By the time that Fatimah returned, Darcy was ready for a distraction. She noticed that all of the women were young, attractive, slender in build. One of them carried a newborn infant in a sling under her robe. Darcy got to her feet.

 

“My lady, these are my friends,” Fatimah said. “This is Buran Amoor, Adarsha Hasani, and Avigael Salome.”

 

Darcy nodded at them. “Hello. My name is Sigyn, but please call me Darcy.”

 

The young women exchanged unsure glances. Then Avigael, the one with the newborn, spoke up. “Fatimah said that you will help us get our bride-price, Lady… Darcy.”

 

“I am, but I will also see to it that Hadris is punished for his crimes,” Darcy said firmly.

 

Buran looked uncertain. “But he is the Lord’s son, my lady. The magistrates, the judges, they will not pass judgement.”

 

“Lady Darcy is a norn,” Fatimah interrupted before Darcy could reply. “She does not need the magistrates or the judges. She passes her own judgement.”

 

Darcy nodded. “Fatimah is right. I have the authority to punish Hadris for any crime I deem necessary. First though, I have to examine each of you. I need to confirm that you are telling me the truth.”

 

“We would not lie to the norns, my lady!” Adarsha exclaimed. “You can see our souls. How could we deceive you?”

 

“I administer justice,” Darcy said firmly, but not ungently. “That means I need to be impartial. I need proof of Hadris’ crimes.”

 

The women exchanged another significant look. “He took things from us,” Fatimah said after a minute. “He took a necklace from me.”

 

“And an earring from me,” Avigael added. Her baby made a small, snuffling sound, and she started to sway, the instinctive motion of a parent trying to soothe a child.

 

“He took my bracelet,” Buran said, nodding. “And Adarsha’s, too.”

 

Darcy frowned at the infant in Avigael’s sling. “Hasn’t anyone run a DNA test on your baby?” she asked. When she received blank stares in return, she tried again, “A paternity test?”

 

Avigael shook her head. “No, my lady. They refused.”

 

“Son of a bitch,” Darcy muttered, rubbing her thumb along her lips. She saw Avigael’s eyes get wide, and hastily added. “No, sorry, it’s just… It’s an expression of disgust, on the realm that I’m from. It doesn’t mean anything.”

 

“I… see,” Avigael said, and clutched her child closer.

 

Darcy sighed in frustration. “Okay. I, uh, I need to look back on each of your timelines, just to check. It’s not that I don’t believe you, it’s just that I have to. In the interest of justice.”

 

It was difficult, to relive the event three more times. This time Darcy forced herself to watch, to absorb the memories, the emotions. She would need them later, when she confronted Hadris. Then she summoned Agathe.

 

“I need a guard,” Darcy said.  “Someone above reproach. Completely trustworthy. And I need them now.”

 

“Yes, my lady,” Agathe said, giving Darcy a creaky bow. She hustled off as fast as her aged limbs could carry he. Agathe came through, because a guard appeared within three minutes, dressed in black and gold with a curved sword at his hip, and a leather helm on his head.

 

“My lady,” he said, bowing at the waist. “I am told you need my services.”

 

“What’s your name?” Darcy demanded impatiently.

 

“Rashid, Lady Norn,” the guard replied. “I am captain of the Lord Favrius’ honor guard.”

 

“Excellent,” Darcy said. “I need you to go to Hadris’ chambers immediately. You’ll be looking for a small box, or casket, or something. It’ll be hidden somewhere in his rooms. Inside will be assorted women’s jewelry. Rip the room apart if you have to.”

 

Rashid hesitated. “My lady, he is the Lord’s son. I cannot invade his privacy in such a way.”

 

Darcy gave him a cold look, and then relented. She understood his position. She was making him compromise his loyalty. “It is your duty to protect the Lord, correct? To uphold the laws?”

 

“Yes, my lady,” Rashid replied, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword. It was not a threat, simply a deeply-ingrained habit, a gesture of comfort. “I have sworn an oath to uphold the laws of the city.”

 

“And what are the laws of your city in regards to a man harming a woman?” Darcy demanded.

 

Rashid hesitated again, his expression clearly revealing he was of two minds about the matter. “That he is to be punished, my lady, and that he must pay the bride-price to the woman’s family.”

 

“And is the matter to be investigated?” Darcy asked. “Shouldn’t there be proof gathered?”

 

“Yes, my lady,” Rashid affirmed, his expression now pensive.

 

Darcy gestured toward the four women, who were watching her with bated breath. “These women have come to me, requesting the service of mediation. I cannot refuse. Therefore, I am requesting you follow the laws of your city and assist me in the investigation of said crimes.”

 

Rashid’s expression finally cleared and he broke out in a small, relieved smile. “It would be my greatest pleasure,” he said quietly. “I will do as my lady commands.” With that he turned on his heel and strode out of the library, his back straight and shoulders square.

 

“Come with me,” Darcy said, gesturing at the woman.

 

Adarsha startled, eyes widening. “Now, my lady?” she asked, breathless.

 

“Did you think I was gonna sit on this?” Darcy asked. “ Hell no. I’m gonna nail this bastard to the wall.”

 

The women looked shocked at her strong language, but followed her nonetheless as she stalked out of the library. She remembered the way back to the great  hall, throne room, or whatever they called the chamber, where she figured Favrius was likely to be.

 

Her gamble panned out, because he was once more surrounded by his cloud of advisors, hangers-on, and sycophants, discussing whatever the hell leaders discussed. The guards moved to intercept the women as the approached, but a single glare from Darcy sent them scrambling out of the way.

 

She really liked that part of her power.

 

“Lord Favrius,” Darcy called, letting her norn-voice whip through the room towards the owner of the name.

 

Favrius looked up with a frown, and saw the women Darcy was with. He sighed visibly, and waved his hand at the people surrounding him. They began to leave, but Darcy planted her feet.

 

“Let them stay,” she ordered. “I have been requested here as a mediator, and I would have witnesses.”

 

That brought Favrius up short. “You are here as a mediator?” he echoed, his eyes narrowing.

 

Darcy nodded. “Yes.”

 

Immediately, there was a clatter as every weapon in the room was frantically cast down to the floor. The noise startled Darcy for a moment before the memory surfaced to explain: no weapon could be held in the presence of a norn acting as a mediator. It was a law enforced by the norns themselves and, as everyone was so fond of reminding Darcy, the norns were not merciful.

 

Favrius stepped forward, and gestured at the women behind Darcy. “My lady, you should know, these women have already tried to have their lies heard in our courts, and were cast out. That they came to you is disgraceful, and should not have been allowed.”

 

Darcy tilted her head. “Is that so? It is still their right to request mediation. If they are determined to be in the wrong, then they will receive the consequences, but that is my business, not yours. Have someone bring the accused here.”

 

Favrius hesitated. “My Lady Norn, these women are clearly only seeking money to compensate for their imagined offenses. Let me give them the money they want, and be done with this.”

 

“I have accepted their request for mediation,” Darcy said firmly, implacably. “So will it be done. Bring Hadris here immediately.”

 

Favrius sighed heavily and gestured at one of the guards, who bowed and departed swiftly. Darcy took the opportunity to look Favrius up and down.

 

“So you were aware of their accusations against your son?” she asked.

 

“And they were clearly unfounded,” Favrius replied shortly, not quite successful in his attempt to rein in his temper. “Such accusations are made frequently, to take advantage of my son’s position.”

 

“There was no investigation?” Darcy pressed. “You didn’t look into it?”

 

“My son has no need to take from a woman what is not freely offered,” Favrius replied, frustrated. “He is the son of the master of the city, a nobleman, and wealthy. There is no end to women who freely give themselves.”

 

“But they didn’t,” Darcy said, and half turned to look at the women huddled behind her. “For pete’s sake, two of them have children . You didn’t even think to have them tested?”

 

“There is no proof that these women were taken against their will,” Favrius retorted, gesturing sharply. “Perhaps they regretted their decision, and now seek to coerce my goodwill.”

 

Darcy absorbed that for a moment. “So, let me get this straight. It’s perfectly okay for women to sleep around, but when one of them is raped, when she’s forced by violence, that suddenly makes her unclean? Unmarriageable?” She blinked a couple of times, her eloquence lost to her anger. “How fucking backward are you people?”

 

Favrius drew himself up proudly. “You are a guest in this realm,” he said coldly. “You do not write the laws here. You cannot pass judgement on our ways.”

 

“I can, and I fucking will ,” Darcy spat back. “It’s called basic human rights! Or Eldjotnar. Or… whatever. The point is, these women are not things for men to use and cast away when they are done. They are people , and they deserve your respect. And more than that, they are not broken because they are the victims of a violent crime!”

 

“They are our ways, our laws,” Favrius said stubbornly. “We have held them for thousands of years.”

 

“If you’ve had no progress in your laws for thousands of years, that should be your first clue that something is wrong,” Darcy replied grimly.

 

Rashid and Hadris showed up at the same time, coming from opposite sides of the hall. Rashid had been smart enough to leave his sword behind, but Hadris had a pair of daggers in his belt. Favrius noticed this a split second before Darcy did.

 

“For the love of the Nameless One, Hadris,” Favrius snarled. “Even you are not fool enough to carry a weapon in the presence of a norn during mediation.”

 

Hadris looked startled for a moment, his eyes darting to Darcy, and then to the women behind her. He drew his daggers and dropped them to the ground. “My apologies, Lady Norn,” he said stiffly. “It was a misunderstanding, nothing more.”

 

Darcy narrowed her eyes at him. “Hadris, do you recognize these women?”

 

He blinked, looking at their faces. “Should I?” he asked.

 

Darcy opened her mouth to fire back a smart reply when she realized the truth of his words. He truly didn’t recognize them. He didn’t even see them enough as people to remember their faces. She closed her eyes, hands clenched into fists.

 

I am impartial , she said to herself. I am neutral. Cold, unfeeling. I am a norn. I am a norn. She willed the anger to leave her, the rage to drain away, leaving the empty, emotionless shell she had clung to these last few weeks.

 

When she opened her eyes, Sigyn was very much in charge, the human personality of Darcy set on the back burner for the moment. The norn gestured to Rashid. The guardsman stepped forward smartly, carrying a small wooden chest in his hands.

 

“Guardsman, state your name and rank,” the norn said in a flat, cool voice.

 

“I am Captain Rashid Jefetra, of the Honor Guard, my lady,” he said, matching her neutral tone.

 

“Tell me, Captain, are you trusted among your men?” the norn asked.

 

“Without reservation, my lady,” he replied.

 

“Have you ever given your master cause to doubt your loyalty?”

 

“Never, my lady.”

 

“Very good. Captain, tell me where you found that chest in your hands.”

 

Rashid looked down at the small chest. “It was in Lord Hadris’ chambers,” he explained. “Hidden in a false bottom in an armoire.”

 

Hadris paled in anger. “Who gave you the right to enter my rooms?” he snarled at Rashid. “I will have you stripped of your rank! You will be thrown in chains!”

 

“The norn bade me to do my duty,” Rashid said, unperturbed by Hadris’ outburst. “I swore an oath to uphold the laws.”

 

“What is the meaning of this?” Favrius demanded. “What is the purpose of this charade?”

 

The norn turned around to look at Fatimah. “Child, did your attacker take something from you the night you were raped?”

 

“Yes, my lady,” Fatimah whispered. “A necklace, my lady.”

 

The norn nodded encouragingly. “Please describe it for us.”

 

“It was made of bronze,” Fatimah said, her voice still hushed in nervousness. “With blue stones. My mother had it made for me, for the day of my Dedication. My name is inscribed on the back of the pendant.”

 

The norn turned once more to Rashid, giving him a significant look. Rashid obediently opened the chest and reached inside. He pulled out a broken chain made of bronze, from which hung a delicate pendant set with blue stones. Without a word, he crossed over and offered the necklace to Favrius.

 

Favrius took the jewelry with wide eyes and a shaking hand. He turned the pendant over to examine the runes inscribed there. He looked up at Hadris. “Is it true, then?” he asked in a low voice. “Did you violate these women?”

 

“I have done nothing wrong!” Hadris exclaimed. “Father! How could you even ask this of me?”

 

Favrius thrust his fist towards his son, the necklace dangling from his fingers. “No Eldjotnar would give up their Dedication gift,” he hissed at the young man. “ Certainly not to a fickle lover such as yourself. This was taken, by force.”

 

“I have never seen that before in my life,” Hadris tried to protest. “It was put in my room, without my knowledge.” His hand snaked out to point at the norn. “It was her. She has set you against me!”

 

That brought Favrius up short. “The norn? What purpose could she possibly have to bring false accusation against you?” he demanded, ignoring the fact he was contradicting himself. “She gains nothing from this.”

 

The norn stepped forward, beckoning the young women behind her to come closer. “Do you see your attacker in this room?” she asked them.

 

“Yes, my lady,” the all murmured.

 

“Point him out,” the norn commanded. All of them pointed at Hadris.

 

The lordling made the mistake of trying to run. Rashid thrust the small chest into Favrius’ hands and, in a surprising burst of speed, caught up to Hadris, grabbing him by the back of his collar and twisting an arm behind his back.

 

“Release me, you traitorous dog,” Hadris spat, struggling against the guardsman’s grip. But Rashid did nothing but twist Hadris’ arm a little tighter, until the lordling cried out in pain.

 

Favrius looked down at the open chest in his hand, at the collection of broken women’s jewelry, and for a moment he appeared to age, deep lines appearing around his eyes and mouth. He glanced up at his son, and finally over at the norn. He bowed towards her.

 

“You have been requested as mediator, Lady Sigyn,” he said quietly. “His fate is in your hands.”

 

The norn nodded and marched over to where Rashid held Hadris still. She looked him dead in the eyes. “I am going to give you something that normal rapists don’t get. I’m going to let you feel all of the pain and the horror and the shame that you put these women through. All four of them. And when you’ve felt it, then you’re going to live the rest of your life carrying that.”

 

She saw the fear in his eyes when he started to struggle. He believed she could do it. Which made one of them. The norn just hoped she didn’t embarrass herself. She reached forward with both hands, pressing one thumb against his chest under his collarbone and the other against his forehead.

 

She took all the memories she had gathered from the young women and poured them into his skull. All of the emotions, the pain, the anger, the fear, the took all of it and passed it on to him. When she was done his eyes rolled up and he went limp in Rashid’s grasp. The guardsman lowered him gently to the floor.

 

Favrius started forward, his expression crumpling. “Is he--” he cut himself off, too afraid to finish the question.

 

“He’s not dead,” the norn replied indifferently. “When he wakes up, though, he may wish he was.” She stepped back from Hadris’ unconscious form. “I believe there is only one more matter to be settled,” she told Favrius.

 

The master of the city waved a servant forward. “Bring these women each a bride-price in gold. No, twice the bride-price.” Favrius turned toward the norn. “The children,” he said, gesturing toward Fatimah and Avigael. “They will be claimed as bar sinisters, and will have every need met. When they are of age, I will personally see to their education.”

 

He turned towards the norn and bowed, stiffly and shallow. “I believe that concludes your mediation, my lady?” he asked in a weary voice.

 

The norn inclined her head without a word. The servant returned with four large purses, and Rashid abruptly stepped forward. “It would be my pleasure to carry these for you, honored sisters,” he said, taking the purses from the servant.

 

The norn nodded at him. “Thank you, Captain,” she said quietly, and turned to the women. “It is done. Are you satisfied?”

 

They were too stunned to speak for a long moment, and then Fatimah broke away from the others. She clasped the norn’s hand and pressed it to her mouth.

 

“Thank you, my lady,” she said fervently. “Thank you! If there is anything we can do to repay you, only name it.”

 

The norn took a deep breath, and closed her eyes. She exhaled, and then Darcy opened her eyes and smiled weakly. “Well, I could use a place to stay,” she said. “Seeing as how it’s a little...awkward for me here.”

 

“Of course, my lady!” Fatimah cried, and began to tug her along, still clutching her hand. The women clustered around Darcy, escorting her out of the hall while Rashid strode along behind them, carrying the gold in his arms. Darcy was grateful for that, because she had no idea what the crime rate in the city was, and she didn’t particularly want four defenseless women carrying what amounted to a small fortune by themselves.

 

Fatimah led them through the city, as the four women chattered excitedly, discussing the house they would buy and the business they would build together. It helped soothe Darcy to know they had formed a strong friendship, that they had something good come out of their ordeal.

 

Fatimah’s family home was a low, sprawling building made of what looked like orange adobe. Fatimah unlocked the front door using a palm scanner and ushered them in out of the oppressive heat.

 

“Mama! Papa!” Fatimah called excitedly, rushing off into the interior of the house. The other three women followed her, leaving Darcy and Rashid standing awkwardly in the foyer, Rashid still holding the purses full of gold.

 

Darcy looked up at the taller man. “Thanks for all your help,” she said quietly. “I hope you don’t get in trouble or anything.”

 

“I would not trouble yourself over me, my lady,” he replied with a sunny grin. “I have been waiting for that wretched boy’s misdeeds to catch up to him. I have had plenty of offers for employment elsewhere. If Lord Favrius is unhappy with my actions I will have plenty of options.”

 

“Oh. Good,” Darcy said, just as Fatimah returned with a raw-boned, middle-aged man with gray hair that stuck out in all directions and sun-darkened skin.

 

“This is her!” Fatimah all but squealed. “This is Lady Darcy, the norn!”

 

The man, presumably Fatimah’s father, blinked at Darcy. “I… I do not know of a norn by that name,” he said hesitantly.

 

“My real name is Sigyn,” Darcy explained quickly. “I chose to go by Darcy for this lifetime.”

 

The man’s eyes widened. “Oh! Of course, my lady. Welcome! My daughter has told us what you have done! How can we ever thank you?”

 

“I could use a place to stay while I’m on this realm,” Darcy said, scratching the back of her neck.

 

“Then you must stay here! With us!” Fatimah’s father exclaimed. “Now we will celebrate! We have food, and wine.”

 

“I believe I should return to the palace,” Rashid said, looking around for someplace to set the purses down.

 

“No, you must stay and celebrate with us!” the older man insisted. His name, Darcy found out later, was Moishe, and his wife’s was Hariel. There were three brothers, too, that Darcy quickly lost track of because they all looked identical.

 

The meal was raucous and noisy, but the energy was good and everyone was practically giddy with excitement. Though initially reluctant to stay, Rashid ended up sitting next to Avigael and monopolizing her conversation the entire time. He even ended up holding the baby (a boy, named Ajan).

 

Darcy sat on one end of the table and sipped her wine, content to be apart and merely watch, until Hariel, who was a pale wisp of a woman with prematurely white hair, leaned toward her and asked in a reedy voice, “What brings you to our city, Lady Darcy?”

 

Darcy lowered her cup. “I’m looking for a place I’ve seen in my dreams,” she said honestly, unconcerned if anyone thought her crazy. No one would. She was a norn. All her dreams had significance. “It’s a place in the desert. And oasis, I believe. I’ve seen palm trees, and a well, and glass domes.”

 

“Like the Well of Fate?” asked one of Fatimah’s brothers (the youngest, Darcy thought).

 

“That’s nothing but a child’s fairy tale,” chided another of the brothers.

 

“Often myth is based on true events,” Rashid spoke up, finally breaking off his conversation with Avigael. He still held her son, though, in the crook of one arm, with the ease of long practice. He turned to Darcy.

 

“They say there is a place, in the deep desert, a temple, where the priestesses are of untold beauty, and that they guard the secrets of the Nine Realms. They also say that if you can find them, they will impart their wisdom on you, that is worth more than gold and jewels.”

 

Darcy frowned. “That sounds like my place. Do you know where it is?” A hush went around the table. Darcy blinked. “Uh… what did I say?”

 

“They say ,” Rashid continued with emphasis. “That it is beyond the saltlands, in the old sands where the dunes are as tall as mountains. No one goes that far and returns to tell of it.”

 

Darcy grunted. “Great. How do I get there?”

 

Everyone stared at her, eyes wide and mouths open. Darcy pointed at herself. “Norn, remember?”

 

“Norn or not, my lady, you are not accustomed to the deep desert,” Rashid told her. “It would be dangerous for you to go alone.”

 

Darcy’s first instinct was a snappy retort, that she was more than capable of taking care of herself, but then she stopped. “Yeah, so you were talking about job offers?” she said instead, raising her eyebrows questioningly.

 

Rashid chuckled quietly. “I will help you, Lady Darcy. It will take me a few days to get what we need together. Shall we say two days from now? At dawn?”


Darcy nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”

Chapter Text

She walked along stone passageways, following a green-gold werelight. She reached a small round courtyard, the sun-bleached sky visible through the glass dome overhead. In the center of the courtyard yawned a deep well, its bottom lost to darkness.

On the other side of the well stood a humanoid figure, its body covered in silver bark and green leaves. A cowl of vines covered its head, so only a pair of glowing, green eyes was visible. It stretched out a hand toward her, twiggy fingers grasping at her consciousness.

COME. It spoke in a voice as ancient as the mountains, deep as the sea, and dark as the depths of space. COME AND BE KNOWN.

“I’m trying,” she protested. “I don’t know where you are.”

YOUR PATH LIES BEFORE YOU.

The courtyard and the well abruptly vanished, replaced by the expanse of space, strewn with stars; pin-points of intense light. She could see the silvery branches of the World Tree binding them together, and she could see the darkness encroaching from the edges of the universe, swallowing the stars one by one, the branches dissolving into nothingness.

WE ARE DYING.

She stood on the edge of a high cliff, bare feet sinking into the spongy earth. Below her the ground was obscured by cloud and fog. Above her towered a giant oak tree with silvery bark and green leaves slowly turning black and brittle. They drifted down around her, turning to dust as they hit the ground.

SAVE US.

The plea was still ringing in Darcy’s head when she woke, her heart racing and her breath coming in shallow gasps. She rolled over onto her back, pressing a hand to her face. The dream was becoming longer, more vivid. This was the most she’d ever gotten.

It was warm in the bedroom. Apparently, despite advanced technology, Muspell had never heard of central air conditioning. Permeable membranes in the windows allowed airflow while blocking sand and insects, but it never truly cooled down in the desert during the summer.

Darcy peeled off the thin sheet covering her and got up. She had been given a sleeveless nightshirt that fell to her knees of some kind a diaphanous yet opaque material, but she was still suffering in the heat. It took concentration to adjust her body’s heat regulation, which meant she wasn’t able to maintain it while she slept.

There was an en suite bathroom in the guest bedroom, and Darcy palmed the lights on so she could go to the sink. She splashed water onto her face and the back of her neck. As she reached for a towel, her eyes fell on the line of black runes that circled her left forearm.

She had thought they would disappear, after-- After Ragnarok, and what had happened during. But apparently they were indelible, permanently inked onto her skin. It was an unpleasant reminder of what she had lost, of what she had never truly had.

Suddenly restless, Darcy flung the towel into the sink and stalked back into the guest bedroom. She deactivated the membrane over the archway to the balcony and stepped out to lean against the railing. The warm wind blew her hair back across her face and pressed her nightshirt to her body.

Amirtha smelled of sand and spices and woodsmoke, and even at night it bustled, lit with golden, solar-powered lanterns. In fact, most of the city ran on solar power. It was something they had plenty of. Darcy stared out over the city, not really seeing it.

Darcy Lewis, human, was twenty-three years old. She had grown up in the same house in Philadelphia, and had only moved out to go to college in Virginia, when she was eighteen. Darcy Lewis had been a normal person, right up a Norse god had fallen out of the sky in front of her.

Darcy Lewis, human, would be overwhelmed and awed at standing in an alien city on an alien planet, hundreds of lightyears from Earth. Darcy Lewis, human, would never have imagined she could have saved the world (twice). Darcy Lewis, human, wouldn’t have fallen in love with a partially-insane, megalomaniacal supervillain.

It was probably a good thing she was no longer Darcy Lewis, human.

She still clung to the human personality, that identity. It was almost a security blanket, a gesture of comfort. It let her block out the enormity of being a norn, let her shrink her universe down to a single point in time and space.

Maybe there was some truth in what Skuld had said. If Darcy let herself feel everything, all the vastness of the universe, all the billions upon billions of lives she was responsible for; if she let herself feel all of it all the time, it would drive her insane.

In a way Darcy pitied Skuld. She could almost understand why the Eldest would want it all to end.

But she could never, ever forgive Skuld for what she had taken away from Darcy.

Darcy scraped her nails over the top of the railing. She’d had no contact from the other norns since Ragnarok-that-wasn’t. She hadn’t made an effort to contact them, either. She had no desire to face their disapproval, their recriminations. She had taken the life of a sister. Not just her vessel, but all of her: her power, her memory, her existence. Such a thing was beyond unthinkable. It was a crime against the very nature of the universe.

Darcy didn’t for a minute regret it.

With a faint sigh, Darcy turned away from the city. It would be dawn in a few hours, and she and Rashid would depart, setting out for the deep desert in search of the legendary temple. Darcy felt no uncertainty about their quest. She’d stopped doubting the reliability of myths when she discovered she was one.

She and Rashid had spent the previous day in the markets, gathering the supplies they needed. Darcy didn’t have any local currency, and found she didn’t need any. Rashid had guided her to the wealthiest merchants, the ones with plenty of goods to spare, and they had given Darcy whatever she needed at no charge. Again, there was no doubt over who she was. If someone tried to impersonate a norn, the true norns always found out, and the punishment was severe.

Darcy returned to the bedroom and opened the trunk at the foot of the bed. Inside was the clothing Rashid had picked out for her: loose pants, a sleeveless tunic, and a wide sash all in a thin, tan-colored material. Over that she had a red-brown hooded robe and a scarf of the same material to wrap around her face. Her boots were lightweight with a flexible sole and a split toe, better for walking over sand. When she was completely dressed, all that would be exposed to the sun would be a strip of skin over her eyes, and her hands. Fatimah had provided her an ointment to rub onto the exposed areas, to protect from sunburn.

Leaving off the robe and scarf for the moment, Darcy left the bedroom and went to the kitchen, where she found Fatimah already awake and preparing a meal for her family. In the safety of her home, she wore only a simple, sleeveless sheath dress of pale blue, which showed off her swollen abdomen.

Avigael, Buran, and Adarsha would be coming by later to see them off, but breakfast was comprised just of the Mosaleen family. Rashid arrived when they were half-way through the meal, with several maps tucked under his arm.

“We will travel by qarib until we reach the Shield Wall,” Rashid explained, tracing his finger along a line of craggy mountains that protected Amirtha from the deep desert. “After that, the resonance of the engines attracts… things.”

Darcy eyed Rashid askance. “Are we talking, like, sandworms here, or what?” she asked.

“Sandworms? No,” Rashid replied. “But there are many creatures in the desert large enough to make easy prey of us. We’ll trade the qarib for a pair of eajamá in order to travel the rest of the way.”

Darcy held up her hand. “Okay. Let me just clarify. A qarib is some kind of airship, right? Like a skúta?”

Rashid nodded. Darcy lowered her hand. “And an eajamá is an animal,” she continued. “A pack animal we can ride?”

“Yes,” Rashid confirmed. “They are not as swift as the quarib, but their passing will not attract notice.”

Darcy pinched the bridge of her nose. “Great. Please tell me we’re not going to run into any Tusken Raiders while we’re out there.”

Rashid frowned. “I have never heard of raiders this far into the old sands,” he told her.

Darcy waved a hand in front of her face. “It’s a joke, sorry. You’d have to be from my realm to get it.”

“Ah. I see,” Rashid smiled faintly. “Someday I think I would like to see your realm.”

“It’s nice,” Darcy said. “And green. And very wet. Like, two thirds of it is covered in water.”

Hariel, who had overheard this, paused and turned to Darcy. “Are there oceans, on your realm?” she asked wistfully.

“Yeah,” Darcy replied off-handedly. “A whole bunch. Like I said, most of the realm is covered in saltwater.”

“I should like to see an ocean,” Hariel said softly, almost too quietly for Darcy to hear. “Before…” she trailed off and glanced over at her children.

Darcy focused on the woman, really looked at her, and saw how ill she truly was. The treatments would help, for now, but eventually Hariel’s body would build a tolerance to them, and she would slowly waste away. It would take decades, a century maybe, but it was inevitable.

Darcy leaned forward and touched Hariel’s arm lightly. “I will bring you to Midgard myself,” she promised. “And I will show you the oceans of my realm.”

Hariel’s eyes filled up with tears. “My lady, your kindness exceeds our wildest dreams. We have never known such kindness from the norns before.”

Darcy shrugged awkwardly. “I’m not much like other norns,” she muttered, and left to go check on their supplies, despite Rashid already having done so.

All of them, save Hariel, accompanied them to the docks, where their qarib waited for them in a small bay. It was shaped more like a gondola than a longship, and had a transparent half-dome shielding the passenger section. As the men loaded it up with the supplies, Darcy realized that Fatimah and the other women’s distress was no simple farewell emotions.

“Wait, you guys really think we’re not coming back?” she blurted, surprised.

“No one has ever returned from beyond the saltlands, my lady,” Adarsha said unhappily.

“Then where do the legends come from?” Darcy asked dryly. “Trust me, this isn’t the most dangerous, or even the stupidest thing I have ever done.”

“While I cannot comment on that,” put in Rashid as he and Fatimah’s brothers finished. “I will say, we most likely have the best chance of anyone at surviving. The knowledge and wisdom of a norn will no doubt be a great boon to us.”

Darcy pointed to him. “See? We’ll be fine.”

She had clearly not convinced the young women, who insisted on embracing her tightly--again. Amid many promises to come back and see them (if she survived), she and Rashid finally got going. At first it was kinda boring. Rashid steered the qarib, which left her to sit in the passenger seat in front of him and do exactly nothing.

Once they left the city, there was very little of interest to look at. They occasionally passed a cluster of tents or a string of suspiciously camel-like animals that Darcy guessed were the eajamá. In the distance, the line of jagged mountains loomed closer and closer.

It took them two days to reach the mountains. On the night of the first day, Rashid found a camping spot on the leeward side of a house-sized dune. Darcy discovered, to her delight, that the auto-tent is, in fact, automatic. All she had to do to set it up is place the heavy, folded package on the sand and push the big button on top. Out popped a two-person tent, complete with climate control and water reclamation.

They don’t make a fire, both because they have no need to cook their pre-prepared food, and also because smoke would attract unwanted attention. Rashid assured her that an attack was rare, but he had still replaced his mostly-ceremonial sword with a long-barrelled rifle and a smaller sidearm. Darcy didn’t bother asking for one. She had no experience with firearms, either as Darcy or as Sigyn. She had her staves. That would have to be enough.

Rashid tried to take first watch, but Darcy insisted. She wasn’t ready to sleep and face the dream, yet, and she was in charge of this quest, so she got to give the orders, dammit. Rashid finally gave up arguing with her and crawled into the tent to sleep.

Darcy wrapped her outer robe around her and hunkered down at entrance to the tent. Like her robe, the tent was constructed of red-brown material, making it all but invisible against the sand. While it was significantly cooler at night, it still was uncomfortably warm for cold-loving Darcy, and she found herself longing for the cool autumn nights of Pennsylvania.

Although… the night sky was far more breathtaking than anything she’d ever seen in Philadelphia. She shouldn’t have been surprised that she recognized the star patterns of the Muspell sky, but she still marvelled as the knowledge blossomed in her mind, swimming to the surface from the depths of her memories. Darcy loved the stars. She always had. Maybe it was the norn in her.

The desert was quiet at night, the only sound the whisper of the wind and the faint burr of shifting sand. It was a silence Darcy hadn’t experienced since the beginnings of her internship with Jane, when they spent most of their nights in the middle of the New Mexican desert.

Life had been far simpler back then.

It was easy for Darcy to keep track of time. She could feel the rotation of the planet beneath her and could trace the movement of the stars overhead. It was, she mused ruefully, a skill that would have come in handy during her college years. When her watch came to an end, she woke Rashid, who turned out to be a light sleeper.

After she crawled into her own bedroll, Darcy tried to clear her mind, walking through the steps to prevent dreamwalking. She didn’t particularly want to go anywhere at the moment, not back to Earth, not to Asgard, and definitely not to the Hall of Stars. What she would like would be to sleep and not dream, but she was rather pessimistic about her likelihood of that.

XxxXxxX

Darcy woke groggy and disoriented. The dream had come through the same as the night before, only this time Darcy had a pounding headache and mild vertigo. From experience she identified the symptoms as caffeine withdrawal. Since a cup of coffee was not going to be forthcoming, Darcy forced her mind clear enough to adjust her body’s dependence on caffeine, and got dressed.

Rashid had already set out their morning meal, consisting mostly of nutrient bars and preserved meat. While they could easily carry a travel-sized hot plate or whatever Muspell’s equivalent was, uncooked food was too hard to travel with, as the storage required took too much room. So Darcy choked down the sticky bars and chewy meat, washing it down with as little water as possible.

They reached the mountains by mid-afternoon. There was a small outpost village nestled at the head of a pass through the mountains, mostly occupied by traders and soldiers. They sought out a trader Rashid had heard well of, in order to trade the qarib for a pair of eajamá.

The creatures were long-legged, with flat, broad feet and knobby knees. They had short, coarse, reddish fur and long eyelashes surrounding doe-like brown eyes. With their humped backs and long necks, they almost resembled camels, but they had a prehensile, drooping snout that reminded Darcy somewhat of an elephant’s. While Rashid and the trader haggled, Darcy studied the animals carefully. She hadn’t ridden one in a very long time and she wasn’t in the mood for a feisty animal.

Her eyes settled on a rather placid-looking female kneeling near the edge of the pen. It was unconcerned with the bustling of the market around it, merely watching the proceedings with hooded eyes. When Rashid came over to join her, Darcy pointed the animal out.

“I want that one,” she said.

Rashid frowned as he looked to where she was pointing. “That beast is not young, my lady,” he told her. “Are you certain you want her?”

Darcy gave him a look. “It’s been over two and a half thousand years since I’ve ridden one of those things, and contrary to popular belief, riding ability is not passed down from vessel to vessel. So yeah, I want her.”

Rashid shrugged. “As you wish, my lady.” Once Rashid had picked his own animal, he painstakingly showed her how to put on the riding tack, and how to mount the eajamá. Like a camel, one mounted the beast while it knelt, as it was a good seven feet tall when standing. He grinned up at her after she’d successfully mounted and ordered the eajamá to her feet.

“She will need a name, my lady,” Rashid said, holding the reins to his own mount.

Darcy stared dubiously at the back of her beast’s head. “Uh...how about Cami? Cami the camel.”

Rashid raised an eyebrow. “I would remind you what the beast is called, but I have a feeling you are being facetious.”

“You would be right,” Darcy affirmed.

Rashid mounted his eajamá with far more grace than she had managed, and they spent the rest of the afternoon letting Darcy get accustomed to riding, learning the way that the newly-appellated Cami moved, and how she liked to be handled. It was too late in the day to make for the mountain pass, and they would be staying the night in the outpost, anyway.

Morning came far too quickly in Darcy’s opinion. The caffeine headache was finally receding, though, and it was nice to get a real breakfast before they tackled the mountains, and after that the deep desert. Most of the weight they packed onto the eajamás came from the the thin, slick waterskins. All the water they would need for themselves and for the animals, they had to carry with them, as there were little to no oases where they were going.

The mountain pass was actually well-maintained; wide and easy to navigate. At first it was a welcome change from the mostly featureless inner desert, but then Darcy’s muscles started protesting the unfamiliar movements of Cami the Camel.

It was midday, and the heat was straining the limits of what Darcy could adapt her body to, when it happened. At first it was nothing more than the trickle of gravel down the side of the pass. Darcy looked up at the sound, easing back on the reins to slow Cami down.

“Uh, Rashid?” Darcy called. “I have seen way too many action movies to say that’s nothing.”

Rashid also slowed but did not stop. “It could be an animal, or it could be bandits,” he said in an even voice. “I doubt it is a rockslide, though.”

Bandits ?” Darcy echoed uneasily.

“It is probable,” Rashid replied, still in that unconcerned voice. “We should keep moving. If we are about to be attacked, we should not alert them we know.”

“Awesome,” Darcy muttered. She summoned her staves to one hand and thrust them through her sash, just in case.

The next few moments passed in tense silence, and then there was another trickle of gravel. Darcy looked up again. There was a grinding, rumbling sound, and then a wave of gravel and car-sized boulders started sliding down the mountainside towards them.

“Not a rockslide, huh?” Darcy yelled at Rashid.

“Go, go!” He yelled back at her. Darcy drove her heels into Cami’s hollow sides, slapping the reins against her neck. She broke out into a shuffling trot, and then a gawky canter when Darcy urged her on again.

The sound of the rockslide grew as the rubble bounced down the mountain, gaining momentum and material. Darcy craned her neck over her shoulder, trusting Cami to follow Rashid’s mount, to gauge the approach of the danger.

Two hundred yards. They had to make it two hundred yards and they would be safe. Darcy could feel the ground trembling under Cami’s feet, and the eajamá trumpeted, sounding panicked. The air was thick with dust now, and pebbles and rock chips flew through the air, peppering the two beasts and their riders.

Eajamá had evolved for stamina, not speed, and both animals were struggling to keep the pace their riders demanded. But Darcy knew they couldn’t slow down, couldn’t stop, until they cleared the two hundred yard mark.

The wave of debris washed over the pass behind them, sending a thin layer of gravel underneath the eajamás feet, causing them to stumble and almost fall. Darcy, the inexperienced rider that she was, was flung out of her saddle and hit the ground on her shoulder and hip.

Pain exploded through her body as she impacted the hard ground, small stones tore through her clothing and ripped up her skin. The breath was driven from her body as she rolled to a halt, her brain temporarily disconnected from her limbs.

“Lady Darcy!” Rashid cried out.

Darcy had ended up on her back, staring up at the pale sky, trying to breath through the pain. Nothing was broken, she was sure of that, but every bone in her body felt bruised and shaken. “Ow,” she whispered. The pain was worse on her left side, where she had slipped her staves through her sash. The wooden staves had exerted additional pressure against her ribs.

Rashid’s face appeared above her. “My lady, are you injured?” He demanded breathlessly.

“Ow,” Darcy said again, a little louder this time. Her brain started functioning enough to allow herself to stir and push herself up onto her elbows. “I’m okay, I think.”

“Will you allow me to examine you?” Rashid asked. “I should check to see if you have broken bones.”

Darcy shook her head. “Nothing’s broken,” she panted. “Just bruised. Hang on.” She lowered herself back down and closed her eyes. She took three deep breaths and went through the steps to manage her pain, to block it out so she could get to her feet and keep going. But before she could finish, there was a strange zing sound and a sharp impact close by.

Rashid flinch and abruptly leaned over her, as if shielding her from something. “I apologize for being forward, my lady,” he said in a clipped voice. Then he scooped her up off the ground, ignoring her gasp of pain. He bolted across the open space until he reached cover behind a tumble of boulders.

“What’s happening?” Darcy demanded as he set her back down on the ground.

“We appear to be under fire,” Rashid replied mildly. He swung his rifle off his shoulder and popped up from behind their cover. He scanned the mountainside above them without firing his weapon and dropped back down.

“The rockslide was a diversion to get us into position,” he told Darcy. “They have the high ground, and the advantage. This will be tricky.”

Darcy struggled to sit upright, ignoring the sting of multiple cuts and the full-body ache. “Awesome. Give me a sec. I can help.” She took a moment to catch her breath, and then she slipped into the norn-trance. There were seven bandits, spread out along the opposite side of the pass, hidden behind boulders and scrawny shrubs. The temporary bout of motion-sickness that came with returning to her body nearly knocked her flat again, but she managed to stay upright.

“There,” she pointed. “And ten yards to the left. There, there, and there. And two over there.”

Rashid’s sharp eyes picked out the bandits as she indicated them, but the frown etched onto his forehead didn’t budge. “I do not have good shots,” he complained. “Three of them I cannot see at all.”

Darcy pinched her forehead, mind racing. “Just do what you can. I’ll come up with something in a minute.”

Rashid stood, bringing his rifle up to his shoulder. The weapon made an odd spitting sound, not at all like Earth firearms, and then he dropped back into cover. A spatter of gunfire struck the boulders they were crouched behind, and the mountainside around them.

Darcy reached out with her senses to confirm that Rashid’s aim had been good. There were now only six attackers. “They’re moving,” she told Rashid. Rashid popped up to try to take a shot, but the return fire was so heavy he had to duck down without firing. He spat a curse in his native language.

Darcy rolled over onto her hands and knees and crawled over to the edge of the boulder so she could peek out at the bandits. She could see them, track their movements, track where they were going to be, but in her state she’d do more harm than good with a weapon.

Suddenly there was a startled cry, and one of the bandits tumbled from his hiding place, limp body flopping down the mountainside the land amid the rubble left from the rockslide. Darcy glanced over at Rashid, but he was still crouched down, his rifle held low and pointing to the ground.

“What?” Darcy whispered to herself, just as another bandit’s presence winked out. She eyed the angle and turned to look at the side of the pass above her and Rashid, but there was nothing. Rashid stood and squeezed off three shots. One missed. The other two hit one of the bandits, but both were non-lethal injuries.

In quick succession, the remaining three bandits were picked off and the gunfire abruptly ceased. Rashid turned to look in the same direction as Darcy, his eyes scanning the side of the mountain. There was a shiver of movement, and then a figure appeared almost out of thin air, dressed in sand-colored robes with a scarf hiding its face. It held a rifle in its arms and it began to pick its way down the mountain towards them.

Rashid rose to his feet, holding his own rifle carefully pointed down, but ready. Darcy used the boulder to climb to her feet, even though her legs felt like jelly and black spots danced in her vision. As their mysterious savior descended towards them, Darcy saw that the person was tall and whipcord thin, and moved with inhuman grace down the uneven side of the pass.

The figure reached the bottom of the pass about fifty feet away from them, and turned to face them, swinging the rifle over one shoulder by the strap.

“Well, met, my friend,” Rashid called. “You have our thanks. Our pack-animals seem to have been frightened off, but if you would help us retrieve them, we will gladly pay you.”

“I don’t require payment,” the figure replied in Allspeak, voice muffled by the scarf. It strode forward a few paces, and then reached up to pull the scarf from its face.

Darcy got an impression of pale skin, ink-black hair, and green eyes before she pitched forward to the ground, the darkness swallowing her.

Chapter Text

She was on Asgard. She recognized the city below her, but she had never been on this terrace before. It was a few minutes after sunset, the last light of the dying day glimmering on the golden spires of the palace. She stood at the railing as the wind, heavy with salt from the ocean, whipped strands of her hair across her face.

 

Was she dreaming? Or was she dreamwalking? She honestly couldn’t tell. It seemed very real.

 

“Darcy,” said a familiar voice behind her. Darcy turned around.

 

“Oh,” she said. “Dream, then.”

 

Loki stood in the archway that led inside. He looked... good . The lines were gone from the corners of his eyes and it seemed as the weight was lifted from his shoulders. He wore simple garments in green and black, with a silver gorget around his neck, inscribed with the norn’s sigil. And in his arms he carried a tiny bundle wrapped carefully in a white blanket.

 

He smiled sadly at Darcy. “Yes,” he replied. “Perhaps.”

 

She wanted to step closer but her feet wouldn’t cooperate, keeping her at a distance from him. “You--” she tried to speak, but her throat closed over the words. “You’re--”

 

“You know the truth in your heart,” he said, still watching her with sad, gentle eyes. “But that is not why I am here.”

 

“You’re… here?” She managed. “This is… real?”

 

“Perhaps,” he said again. “Perhaps your subconscious has decided you need to see me. Perhaps I am some echo left over from holding Ragnarok within you. It matters not, only that I am here, now.”

 

The back of her throat started to itch, and her eyes to water, but she held back the tears. She wouldn’t show weakness. He would have hated her for it.

 

“You wear your guilt like armor,” Loki said, tilting his head. “It suits you ill.”

 

“It’s all I have,” Darcy protested softly. “It keeps me from feeling.”

 

His dark brows drew together. “Why would you not feel? Darcy, you were betrayed by the one who should have been most trustworthy. You lost a lover and a lagsmaðr. You were gravely injured. You contained Ragnarok. It is your right to feel.

 

“But I can’t,” she started, but her voice broke. “I can’t let myself fall apart. I can’t--I can’t be weak.”

 

“Darcy,” he said softly. “If you cannot allow yourself to fall apart, how will you ever put yourself back together?”

 

A sob escaped her throat and she pressed a hand to her mouth to keep the rest in. Loki finally dropped his gaze from her face to stare pensively at the bundle in his arms. “You cannot fulfill your purpose and carry the weight of the dead, Darcy,” he said. “You must let your guilt go.”

 

Darcy tried to speak, tried to reply, but she felt her grasp on the dream slipping, and it faded away to harsh sunlight and voices speaking above her.

 

“--No reason to question the ability of a norn,” Rashid was saying.

 

“Yes, well, norns have the tendency to hide the fact they are far out of their depths,” was the reply. The inflections were correct but the pitch was wrong, too high, and the timbre was too soft. “She had no business being on that animal.”

 

“You sound as if you speak from personal experience,” Rashid said dryly.

 

There was a long pause, and then, “I was sent to guide her, nothing more.”

 

Darcy was on her back, still lying on the sun-baked earth, but her head was pillowed on rough fabric and there was a cool rag on her forehead. She opened her eyes and had to squeeze them shut again at the assault of blinding light.

 

“Ow,” she said eloquently.

 

“My lady,” Rashid said quickly. “Are you well?”

 

Darcy opened her eyes a second time, squinting against the light. Two silhouettes leaned over her. One was easily recognized as Rashid. The other…

 

Disappointment struck Darcy like a physical blow. The newcomer was a woman, with angular features and cat-like green eyes. Her blue-black hair was caught up in intricate braids and pinned tight to her skull, and her skin was far too pale for someone who spent any time in the desert.

 

The woman crouched down over Darcy and peered hard into Darcy’s eyes for a moment, then held her hand over Darcy’s chest without touching her.

 

“At least two of her ribs are cracked,” she announced. “But nothing is broken, as far as I can tell. She shouldn’t be riding, but we have no time.” She spoke perfect Allspeak with a distinctly Asgardian accent.

 

“Our new friend claims she was sent to guide us,” Rashid told Darcy. “But she will not say to where, or who sent her.”

 

“I mean you no harm,” the woman insisted, sitting back on her heels. “The norn can read the truth of my words.”

 

Darcy was too woozy to try to get a reading on the woman, and closed her eyes again. The pain, the lingering effects of her dream… she just wanted to go back to sleep. But that was clearly not an option, so she took three deep breaths and fed her pain to the internal flame and felt it bleed away until she was clearheaded enough to think.

 

Darcy opened her eyes again and abruptly reached out, placing her fingertips on the back of the woman’s hand. Before she had a chance to snatch her hand away, Darcy got a brief mental image of glass domes sparkling in the sun, palm trees, and a deep well.

 

COME AND BE KNOWN .

 

The woman gasped quietly and recoiled from Darcy sharply enough to lose her balance and fall on her hindquarters and scrambled away from Darcy, eyes wide. Darcy frowned, clenching her hand into a fist.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said stiffly. “I was just making sure you were on the level.”

 

The woman got to her feet, not meeting Darcy’s gaze. She brushed dust from her close-fitting robes and tugged at the strap that held her rifle over one shoulder. “And am I… ‘on the level’?” She asked sarcastically.

 

Darcy turned to look at Rashid. “She’s telling the truth. She can take us where we need to go.”

 

Rashid looked up at the woman with a thoughtful expression. “You are a priestess?” He asked. “From the Well of Fate?”

 

That amused the woman for some reason. She laughed, a bitter, raw sound. “No,” she said after a moment. “I owe them a debt, nothing more.” She looked up at the sky. “We should not be here for much longer. There will be other outlaws coming.” With that she stalked off, out of Darcy’s line of sight.

 

She pushed herself upright with Rashid’s help. The eajamás were back, along with another saddle animal that looked similar, except shorter, with a shorter neck and a less humped back. The woman went up to the new animal and started checking the straps and buckles of the saddle, and the various bags strapped to the beast’s back and sides.

 

“Shall we follow her?” Rashid asked.

 

Darcy thrust her hand toward him. “Help me up.” He rose to his feet and pulled her up after him. “We follow her,” Darcy confirmed. She assessed her current pain levels. She wasn’t going to be able to control them for longer than a day, maybe two, before she would need to allow her body to heal. Her vessel was still human, and could be pushed only so far.

 

“Riding’s gonna be a bitch, though,” Darcy muttered in English. Rashid blinked at her a couple of times.

 

“My lady?” He asked.

 

“Nothing,” Darcy said, switching back to Allspeak. “I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”

 

“It would probably be best if you rode with me this time, my lady,” Rashid said. “As injured as you are.”

 

“She will ride with me,” the woman said, stalking back over to them. She walked like a predator, the warrior’s prowl. “My hisan has a smoother gait than your eajamás. It will cause her less pain.”

 

Darcy didn’t particularly find the idea of riding with the woman all that pleasant. She really just wanted to be alone, so she could mull over her strange dream in peace. “I’ll be fine,” she said again.

 

“I have been charged to guide you, and keep you from harm,” the woman said flatly, glaring at Darcy. “I cannot discharge my debt if I cannot do this. You will ride with me.”

 

“Fine,” Darcy said, more because she didn’t feel like arguing than because she changed her mind. She followed the woman stiffly over to her animal--hisan. The woman held the stirrup in place with one hand and offered the other arm to Darcy. With the woman’s help, Darcy managed to get herself into the saddle without landing on her face in the dirt again.

 

The woman mounted with far more grace, sitting in front of Darcy, and gathered the reins in one hand. With nothing else to hold onto, Darcy reluctantly wrapped her arms around the woman’s waist.

 

“What’s your name?” Darcy asked. She felt the woman tense, and she lowered her head.

 

“I am no one important,” the woman said at length.

 

“Listen, if I’m going to spend the next however long groping you while trying not to fall and get trampled, I at least get to use your name,” Darcy said irately.

 

The woman snorted, but Darcy couldn’t tell if she was amused or annoyed. “I am no one important, Lady Sigyn,” she repeated.

 

Darcy sighed. “Fine. But this means I’m calling you “No One” until you tell me your real name. And don’t think you can pull any Odyssey bullshit on me. I read that in highschool; I know how that cyclops ended up.”

 

The muscles under Darcy’s arms quivered, but No One didn’t make any further sounds. Instead, she merely bounced her heels off her hisan’s sides, slapping the reins against the beast’s neck. Darcy twisted to look over her shoulder. Rashid was not far behind, riding his own eajamá. Cami’s reins were tied to his saddle.

 

No One turned out to be a terrible conversationalist, which was just fine by Darcy. She really didn’t feel like talking. Seeing Loki in her dreams had made her feel things. Things she hadn’t wanted to think about since… Darcy took a deep breath.

 

Since Loki had died . There. She said it. Even if it was just to herself. Loki was dead and it was Darcy’s fault. She should have known, should have sensed that he’d been enthralled. She had even bound him as her lagsmaðr. She should have realized it much sooner.

 

But more than that, she shouldn’t have let him take Ragnarok from her. It had been her responsibility to stop Skuld, not his. She should have used her own life-force to bind Ragnarok once more.

 

Why had he taken her place? The question haunted her. He’d been under Skuld’s coercion long before he met her. Darcy had never even known the true Loki. Why would he be willing to lay his life down for her? Perhaps he had merely sought a way out. Maybe he just wanted everything to end. If she’d been in his place, if those things had been done to her, she would have wanted to kill herself, too.

 

She’d considered it, for about two seconds before she realized it would do no good. She had no way to end her life without simply being reborn. Loki had been the lucky one. He was done with his trauma. Darcy would have to live with hers for eternity.

 

Darcy’s face twisted into a scowl as she forced herself not to cry. She was a norn. She was supposed to be cold, unfeeling. She couldn’t let herself be weak, not even for a second, no matter what dream-Loki said.

 

But why had he been holding a baby?

 

Darcy’s throat closed at the memory of the tiny bundle dream-Loki had been carrying with such tenderness. It wasn’t fair , her subconscious summoning that image. Hadn’t she lost enough, losing Loki? Wasn’t her guilt over him already too much to bear?

 

“Lady Sigyn?”

 

The woman’s voice broke Darcy from her thoughts, and she realized she’d been squeezing the woman around the waist, tight enough to restrict her breathing. She immediately loosened her grip. “Sorry,” Darcy muttered.

 

“Hmm,” No One replied, and fell silent again.

 

Darcy concentrated on breathing for several minutes, willing the roiling thoughts and emotions to grow calm and still. It didn’t help that traveling through the desolate mountains was mind-numbingly boring. The landscape never changed. It was dirt, rock, dried-up bush, and oh look, more dirt.

 

They reached the other side of the mountains just before sundown. Darcy didn’t get much of a chance to see the desert stretching out in front of them before darkness fell, but she was pretty sure it looked like any other desert: dry, hot, and empty.

 

Setting up camp involved feeding and watering the animals. They had packed food for the beasts in the form of dry, brown pellets that smelled like dried grass. As both the eajamás and the hisan had evolved in the desert, they didn’t require much water, which was good, because they could only carry so much.

 

Darcy had tried storing water in her pocket dimension, but while her memories had returned, her actual skills had not, and she was still only able to store a limited amount. She couldn’t keep more than a couple of bottles while still maintaining control of it. Also, it had a tendency to freeze, something she was still trying to work on.

 

After the animals were tended to, and the auto-tents were set up, Rashid turned to Darcy. “If you would like to bathe, my lady, the water reclaimers on the tent will filter the water for reuse,” he told her.

 

“Yeah, that would be nice,” Darcy said gratefully. Rashid helped her fill one of their collapsible buckets with water into the tent for privacy. When Darcy stripped her robe and tunic off, it was to discover that her entire right side, from shoulder to thigh, was mottled red and black and purple. Few of the lacerations had bled, but pulling her tunic free had caused those that had to bleed anew.

 

Blocking off the pain was harder when she began to wipe herself down, but she gritted her teeth and kept going until most of the grime was gone from her skin. She hated having to put her dirty, dusty clothing back on, but she didn’t have any other options. She poured the dirty water into the reclamation system and emerged from the tent.

 

Rashid and the woman were sitting opposite each other, pointedly not watching the other for any wrong move. They had both gotten food from their packs, and though she was hungry, Darcy didn’t look forward to eating with much enthusiasm.

 

When she sat next to Rashid, he gave her a portion of the food: sticky grain bars, dried meat, and cracker-like bread. Darcy wrinkled her nose but dutifully began to eat.

 

“How long will it take us to reach the Well of Fate?” Rashid asked the woman.

 

She didn’t answer for a moment so she could finish chewing. “Two days, due north.”

 

“Any large animals or bandits between here and there that we need to worry about?” Darcy asked sarcastically. She jerked her thumb in Rashid’s direction. “He’s been a little tight-lipped about the ‘things’ in the desert. Doesn’t want to scare me or some shit.”

 

“If all goes well, we will never encounter any of the creatures, and you will not need to be told about them,” Rashid said firmly, giving No One a meaningful look.

 

“The djinn live in the deep desert,” No One said, staring flatly back at Rashid. “And blood-hawks. And Shaitan.”

 

“Shaitan is a myth,” Rashid said quickly, glancing sideways at Darcy. She frowned at him.

 

“The Well of Fate is a myth, but it’s clearly a real place,” Darcy pointed out. She looked at No One. “What is a Shaitan?”

 

“Not a Shaitan,” the woman corrected. “ The Shaitan. He is the devil of the desert, the great devourer. A great beast, like a dragon, who lives under the dunes and swallows the unwary.”

 

“No one has actually seen Shaitan,” Rashid interjected. “It is a story to frighten children at night.”

 

“Dude, you said there were no sandworms,” Darcy accused, scowling at Rashid.

 

“Shaitan does not exist!” He protested.

 

“Well, something is out there,” No One said dryly. “Or else your people would not make up a story of a ravenous beast to explain why people disappear.”

 

“It is the desert,” Rashid argued. “People run out of food, or water. The sands cover the bodies, and they are never found again. There is no fearsome monster waiting to devour travelers.”

 

“Truly?” No One challenged, and the way she said the word made a shiver go down Darcy’s back. She sat up straight, staring at the other woman with a frown. “The Shield Wall is less than two days from your city,” the mysterious woman continued. “You have technology that allows you to travel fifty times as far, yet you almost never venture past the mountains. What few travelers who do never return, even experienced men of the desert.” She raised an eyebrow. “And you wish to convince me there is no reason behind that?”

 

Darcy turned to Rashid. “She kinda has a point,” she said.

 

Rashid pressed his lips together. “There is no such thing as Shaitan,” he insisted.

 

Darcy looked back at the woman. “If we did encounter Shaitan,” she asked. “What would we do? Fight it off?”

 

The woman gave her a humorless, razor-edged smile. “No, my lady,” she said. “We would pray.”

 

XxxXxxX

 

The day that No One said they would arrive at the Well of Fate dawned much the same as the previous few. Darcy had dreamed of the darkness, the dying stars, and the bark-skinned figure bidding her come and be known. They fed and watered the animals before feeding and watering themselves, and then they set out once more.

 

Darcy had woken in pain, too sore to move. It had taken her almost fifteen minutes to wrestle the pain down to manageable levels so she could stand up and perform a few stretches to loosen up her abused muscles. Spending all day riding had not helped matters any.

 

Now, once more back on the hisan, Darcy was forced to use most of her concentration on pain management. The downside was, forcing her body to feel no pain slowed the healing process. Her bruises were still as bright and vivid as the day she’d received them, and the tiny lacerations had barely scabbed over.

 

No One provided the same scintillating conversation as always, which was to say, not at all, and Darcy was still grateful for it. She hated the desert, hated the heat and the monotony, and would probably have bitten off the head of anyone who tried to talk to her. Though she found her thoughts increasingly going places she didn’t want them to.

 

Why had Loki taken her place in Ragnarok? Why would he sacrifice himself for her? The questions went around and around Darcy’s head and she couldn’t find any answers. It ate at her. In her experience, people didn’t sacrifice themselves for no reason.

 

But that was just it, wasn’t it? Darcy didn’t know Loki. Not the real Loki. All she had ever seen was Skuld’s twisted game, baiting her along like a kitten chasing a string. Of course she had been stupid enough to fall for it, head over heels.

 

Maybe Loki, the real Loki, was the kind of person who would lay down his life to save the world--no, the universe . It wasn’t as if she didn’t know a few of those kind of people. Maybe, even as broken as he was, real Loki had been a good person.

 

Which just made the fact Darcy had never gotten to meet him all the more heartbreaking.

 

As the sun climbed, Darcy’s mood only got blacker, until No One pulled her hisan to a rather abrupt halt. Rashid reined his eajamá in alongside her. “What is it?” He demanded.

 

“Do you hear that?” No One asked, tilting her head to one side.

 

Darcy listened. It was a faint hissing sound, a susurration a shifting sand, except continuous, and getting closer.

 

“It’s nothing but the wind,” Rashid dismissed.

 

“No, that’s not the wind,” the woman insisted. “Something is coming this way.”

 

“Hang on a sec,” Darcy said. “Let me check.” Achieving the norn-trance while holding back as much pain as she was turned out to be more difficult than she anticipated, but she managed it after a moment. A scan of the surrounding desert turned up the source of the noise.

 

It was a ripple of movement, the wake of something big travelling under the sand, disappearing when it crossed a line of dunes and reappearing on the other side. It slithered side to side like the motion of a snake, but it was fast, far faster than anything that size had a right to be.

 

Darcy slammed unceremoniously back into her body with a wave of nausea and pain so intense she surprised herself by leaning over and throwing up over the side of the hisan. The animal jinked to the side at the smell before stilling under No One’s hand.

 

“God dammit , you said no sandworms!” Darcy rasped angrily at Rashid.

 

He went pale under his tan. “Shaitan,” he whispered.

 

No One started moving as soon as the words left Darcy’s mouth. She swung off her mount and lifted Darcy out of the saddle, keeping a hold on her just long enough to ensure that Darcy wasn’t about to tip over. She unbuckled a few of the bags and slung them over her shoulder before grabbing the reins again and turning to Rashid.

 

“Off, off,” she ordered impatiently, waving at him.

 

He stared at her. “What--what do you intend to do?” He demanded.

 

“I intend to create a distraction,” No One said sharply. “Hopefully Shaitan will find our beasts more appetizing than us.”

 

Rashid hesitated, but Darcy roused herself enough to glare at him and snap, “Do as she says!” He tapped his beast’s side and got it to kneel. Working as swiftly as he could, he unpacked as many supplies as he knew he and Darcy would be able to carry.

 

No One knotted the beasts’ reins together in a line before slapping the flank of Darcy’s eajamá. It leapt away with a squeal of protest and started galloping off, trailing the other two animals behind her. No One pointed in the opposite direction.

 

“That way, along the crest of the dune. Run!”

 

They ran as fast as the shifting sand underfoot would let them, Rashid in front, Darcy in the middle, and the woman bringing up the rear. The hissing sound grew louder, directionless and menacing. Darcy couldn’t use the norn-trance to track it and run at the same time, so she was limited to the same reactions as her companions: fear and a shadow of a hope whatever it was would take the animals and not them.

 

The sound was so loud now they would have had to yell to be heard over it, accompanied by the smell of overheated sand. Vibrations under their feet sent sand flowing down both sides of the dune, making their footing treacherous.

 

There was a panicked, high-pitched shriek of fear behind them, and Darcy turned to look, almost tripping in the process. She saw the trio of saddle-animals, but what else she saw almost defied belief. The sand under the animals resembled a whirlpool, rotating in an impossible manner. Then it, along with the animals, sank straight down, into a giant, dark pit that had to have been more than a hundred yards wide. The pit was lined with inward-facing slender spikes of blue crystal that caught the light.

 

Darcy realized a half-second later that it wasn’t a pit, it was the inside of a mouth , because the owner of said mouth began to emerge from the sand. Impossibly huge, it did kind of resemble a worm, only three million times larger, covered in dark brown scales like armor.

 

The creature let out a deep roar, and even half a mile away Darcy could smell its fetid breath wash over her face. It kept emerging, shoving its way up, up, up until it tilted over and slammed back onto the sand with enough force to knock all three of them off their feet.

 

No One managed to catch Darcy and prevent her from sliding down the dune, at the expense of losing her own balance. She fell off the crest of the dune, rolling down the face of it the valley between the dunes. The split second before she fell, Darcy saw her face, twisted into an expression of panic so visceral something tore inside Darcy's chest.

 

“Loki!” Darcy cried before she could stop herself. Rashid dragged her to her feet but she fought him, trying to get down to the figure at the base of dune. The figure scrambled upright and looked up.

 

The moment passed, and Darcy realized it wasn't Loki who had saved her, but a stranger who bore an uncanny resemblance.

 

“Go! Go!” the woman yelled at them, waving arm at them. Rashid obeyed, dragging Darcy along behind, while No One kept pace below them. The sound of the monster was still all around them, they just had no idea now where it coming from.

 

Darcy's breath came in harsh gasps, each one tearing up her throat as she gulped it down. Her muscles burned, screaming in protest at being used so soon after her fall. The crest of the dune began to curve down to the floor of the desert, and then suddenly there was no more dunes.

 

No One rejoined them and took the lead, her long legs eating up the distance. Darcy barely had time to notice the slender, metal pole sticking out of the sand before they were past it. There was a feeling of static electricity for a second, the hair on Darcy's arms standing up, and then the woman skidded to a halt and turned around.

 

Darcy stumbled to a halt beside her.  “Why--why are we stopping?” she panted.

 

“Look,” No One said, pointing back the way they had come. Darcy to obey.

 

The chevron-shaped wave barreled toward them, accompanied by the rising sound of the beast’s passage. Darcy resisted the urge to scream and instead grabbed a hold of woman's arm. Then, at the last moment, the wave turned away and headed east for a few minutes before fading away.

 

“What,” Rashid demanded, his hands on his knees, “In the name of the Inscrutable One, was that ?”

 

No One gestured toward the metal pole, which Darcy realized actually one of many, planted in a row as far she could see, ringing the dune-less area. “Electrostatic shield,” she explained. “Keeps away the sand storms and Shaitan.”

 

“Keeps them away from what ?” Darcy asked. No One looked at her.

 

“The Well, my lady,” she said simply, and turned again.

 

Darcy whirled around and saw what she had missed the time. A cluster of smooth glass domes stood out from the sand, reflecting glare of the sun. There nothing visible beneath them, and she could straight through them to the other side.

 

No One started walking towards them. Rashid and Darcy exchanged a look before following her. Before they reached the first dome, they came to a circular pit in the sand, lined with tiles of white sand. The woman clattered down a short flight of stairs in the side of the pit and crossed over to a door in the opposite side. Darcy and Rashid reached her just as she placed her palm to the center of the door. With a hiss, the door retracted in its frame, and a wash of cool, moist air flowed from the doorway.

 

No One strode boldly inside, Darcy and Rashid her heels. The door led into a round tunnel, lined with the same white tiles and lit by white globes floating near the ceiling. No One led them straight down the tunnel until they reached another round pit, only this one was covered by a glass dome. From underneath, the glass appeared to be polarized, because it filtered out the harshness and heat the sun.

 

The round chamber beneath was filled with plants and trees in pots of varying sizes, as well as tiny, jewel-colored birds and fluttering butterflies. And in the center of the chamber a woman stood waiting for them.

 

She was dressed completely in white, an unbelted surcoat over a plain chainse. Her golden hair was loose around her shoulders, and blue eyes sparkled from a pale, freckled face. She spread her hands out toward the three travelers.

 

“Welcome to the Well of Fate, Lady Sigyn,” she greeted.

 

Darcy froze where she was. “Untold beauty,” she muttered to herself. “Secrets of the universe. Right. Of course.” She walked forward a few more steps. “Thank you, Lady Dis,” she said wearily. “We gladly accept your welcome.”


The lady of the disìr bowed with a bright smile.

Chapter Text

 

“We have been waiting for your arrival for some time, Lady Sigyn,” the dís went on, still beaming brightly.

 

“You couldn’t have sent a map?” Darcy asked, tugging the scarf loose around her neck.

 

The dís’ eyes twinkled in amusement. “We felt the journey would be educational to you in your new vessel, my lady.”

 

Darcy rolled her eyes. “Of course you did,” she muttered.

 

Rashid leaned toward her. “You know this woman?” He asked, still staring at the dís.

 

“Yes,” Darcy said with a sigh. “She’s a lady of the dísir. They work for, and with, the norns.”

 

Rashid blinked in surprise but was still unable to tear his gaze away from the blonde woman. “They work for you but you did not know the location of the Well of Fate?”

 

Darcy pinched the bridge of her nose. “Look, I’m kinda new in this vessel, and I’m still recovering my memories.”

 

“I see,” Rashid murmured. “Well, the legends are true,” he continued. “Beings of untold beauty.”

 

It was Darcy’s turn to blink. She turned to stare at the dís, who was deep in a private conversation with No One. Okay, Darcy supposed the dís was good-looking. She certainly wasn’t ugly . But she was a dís, and Darcy was a norn. Darcy was physically incapable of being attracted to the dís.

 

She elbowed Rashid hard in the ribs. “Give it up,” she said when he turned to give her an injured look. “Trust me, that’s not going anywhere.”

 

“I did not--I was not,” Rashid tried to protest, but Darcy shook her head at him.

 

“My lady,” said a voice behind Darcy. She turned to see another dís standing in a doorway, beckoning to her. She was identical in every way to the first dís, from the color of her hair to the sound of her voice. Even the placement of her freckles.

 

Rashid did a double-take, but Darcy didn’t react. She knew that the dísir where exact copies of each other, all twenty-seven of them. They functioned as a single unit, a hive mind, a collective. Darcy wasn’t creeped out by them, but she still thought they were a little weird.

 

Darcy walked over to the second dís, who smiled, folded her hands over her stomach, and bowed. “Allow me to show you to the bathing rooms, my lady,” she said. “I am sure you would like to wash away the desert after your journey.”

 

“Yes, please,” Darcy said gratefully. “And I’m sure my friend, Rashid, would like the same.”

 

“Of course, my lady,” the dís replied. “Come this way, please.”

 

Darcy gestured for Rashid to follow as the dís led them out of the arboretum and down another of the tile-lined tunnels. They passed through two more of the glass-domed rooms before they reached the bathing rooms.

 

“There are towels and clothing inside each,” the dís told Darcy and Rashid. “When you are finished, we will escort you to the dining hall.”

 

“Thank you, Lady Dís,” Darcy said.

 

The dís bowed once more. “It is our pleasure to serve, Lady Sigyn.”

 

Rashid stared at her as she walked away. “Are they all--” he began

 

“Yes,” Darcy interrupted. “All twenty-seven of them.” With that, she opened the door to her bathing room and stepped inside.

 

Just inside the door was a small chamber, the air warm, but dry. There was a wooden rack full of giant, fluffy towels, and a closet full of the same chainses and surcoats the disír were wearing. One of the shelves was empty but for a single white under-dress, and a surcoat in deep purple. Darcy snorted softly and grabbed one of the towels before opening the second door.

 

The air on the other side of the door was so heavy with water it was almost hard to breath. The chamber beyond was round, topped with a polarized glass dome. The floor and walls were white stone, and a large, copper pool was set into the floor, steam rising from the surface of the water.

 

Darcy stood in front of the doorway, towel clutched to her chest. It shouldn’t have reminded her of Helke’s house on Rhia, but it did , and the memory of it was so intense her legs felt shaky. It was almost as if she was still there, still with--

 

No. She shut the memory down and stuffed it back into the dark depths of her mind, never to see the light of day again. Those memories were wrong . They were bad . Loki hadn’t been a willing participant. He’d been coerced, enthralled, and Darcy didn’t want to contemplate what that made her .

 

She bathed as quickly as possible, despite how amazing the hot water felt on her sore, bruised muscles. She didn’t want the memories to return unbidden, of strong, gentle hands and cool skin just beginning to be warmed by the hot water.

 

Just as she stepped out of the tub and wrapped the towel around herself, there was a sharp knock on the door and then it opened, allowing a dís to enter. She carried a basket in one hand, and her hair, unlike the other two, was neatly pinned up.

 

“My lady,” she greeted with a sketchy bow. “We were told by our guest that you had been injured on your journey here.”

 

Darcy shifted, clutching her towel tighter around her. “Uh… yeah,” she said at length. “I fell off my camel.”

 

“If you would allow us, we have something to ease the pain and assist healing,” the dís said, lifting the basket. “And we should wrap your ribs. Our guest said at least two were cracked.”

 

Darcy hesitated for a moment longer, but eventually decided that medical care trumped modesty. She let the dís spread the white ointment over her bruises and was immediately glad she did. The relief was instant, allowing her to release to concentration she’d had to maintain the last two days. The dís also wrapped Darcy’s ribs with strips of clean, white cloth, which made it easier for her to breathe. So, by the time Darcy got dressed, she actually felt like a human being again.

 

Rashid and No One were in the dining hall when she arrived, as well as half a dozen of the dísir. There were platters of food on the central table, allowing the diners to serve themselves, buffet style. As Darcy approached the table, one of the dísir intercepted her, placing a plate already piled high with food in her hands.

 

“We made sure to abide by your dietary laws, my lady,” she said with the same sunny, serene smile all the dísir shared. “We hope it is to your liking.”

 

Darcy blinked down at the plate. It was a meat meal, augmented by vegetables, grains, and tubers. “Uh, thanks, I’m sure it’s fine,” she said after a moment, and went to sit by Rashid and No One.

 

The other woman was wearing the same chainse and surcoat as Darcy and the dísir, only her under-dress was deep emerald, and the surcoat was black. Her hair was also loose around her shoulders, tumbling in a blue-black wave down her back. Darcy stopped in the process of sitting down, unable to stop herself from staring.

 

No One looked up sharply from her own plate, green eyes meeting Darcy’s blue ones. She raised a delicate eyebrow. “Do you need something, Lady Sigyn?” She asked.

 

Darcy finally tore her gaze away and sat down opposite Rashid. “No,” she said, more sullenly than she had intended. She turned to Rashid. “So, is this everything you expected?”

 

He looked around pointedly, staring at the six identical women in the room. “No,” he said after a moment. “It is not at all what I expected.”

 

XxxXxxX

 

Darcy was restless after eating, not quite ready to settle down. Rashid was more than happy to retire to his room, and No One vanished without a word. One of the dis offered to show Darcy around, but she turned it down, preferring to wander on her own.

 

The facility was quite extensive, all of it underground. A web of tunnels connected round chambers of varying size, some with glass domes, some without. Most of the rooms were functional, the kitchens, several laboratories, an observatory, a library.

 

Darcy turned down one tunnel that looked different from the rest and found herself in a massive chamber, perfectly circular. The ceiling was slightly arched, but not domed, and covered with the same gray, interlocking tiles as the floor and the walls. Darcy reached out to touch the nearest wall, trying to figure out what the material was. It was slick, warm, and didn’t feel like either metal or stone.

 

Doorways were set into the walls at regular intervals, open, yet completely black. Darcy did a quick count and stopped after seventy-five. She walked over to the nearest doorway. There was a plaque next to it, inscribed neatly in Allspeak. It read “Paris, France, Midgard.” Darcy moved to the next doorway. This one was marked “Fólkvangr, Vanaheim.”

 

They were Ways, Darcy realized. Over a hundred of them, each to a different place in the Nine Realms. Darcy walked to the center of the chamber and turned around. “Holy crap,” she murmured to herself. The Well of Fate was a nexus of Ways, instantaneous travel throughout the Nine Realms, perhaps the whole galaxy. From here one could go anywhere .

 

“Now you see why we guard our secrets so closely,” said one of the dís behind Darcy. She came over to stand next to the norn. She was about four inches taller than Darcy. Her hair was braided and pinned to the back of her head.

 

“Yeah,” Darcy said. “From here, you could launch an attack pretty much anywhere you wanted.”

 

“It is a deadly weapon, and a great boon,” the dís agreed. “Thankfully, between the desert and Shaitan, we have few visitors.”

 

Darcy blinked. “Shaitan… is your guard dog?” She asked after a moment.

 

The dís smiled, one corner of her mouth curling upwards. “Not… originally. But the location of our home was chosen inside his territory with deliberation.”

 

Darcy shook her head. “So, not many visitors, huh?”

 

The dís smoothed the front of her surcoat. “In the last century, we have had… three.”

 

Darcy raised her eyebrows. “Wow,” she said, rubbing her lower lip. “So, the woman, the one you guys sent to guide us. What’s her story?”

 

“You will have to ask her,” the dís said serenely. “That is not our story to tell.”

 

“Of course not,” Darcy muttered. She glanced at the doorways again. “Well, at least we won’t have to take the desert route home,” she said. “I hate the desert so much.”

 

“Not many people can find peace in the desert,” the dís agreed. “But we have striven to make it our home, and we are happy here.”

 

“No, yeah,” Darcy said quickly. “This place is amazing. And beautiful. I’m sure you guys love it.”

 

The dís nodded, still smiling that half-smile. Darcy rubbed her lip again. “Uh, you probably know why I’m here, though, right?”

 

“We do not presume to know the business of the norns,” the dís said mildly, folding her hands in front of her.

 

Darcy tilted her head. It was hard to tell when the dísir were being facetious. She wondered if they actually had a sense of humor at all. They probably did, and they just liked being all mysterious and cryptic. Typical.

 

“I’ve been having these dreams,” Darcy said with a sigh. “About this place. About a well. And this figure, like an ent, but kinda shorter. And the stars going out. It’s weird, and hard to explain.”

 

The smile slipped off the dís’ face. “Yes,” she said softly. “Over the past few weeks, we have discovered that many of the Ways are gone, severed. Even some of our own.” She gestured at the doorways around them. We have been cut off from many stars. It has caused us a great deal of concern.”

 

Darcy stared at her. “Have you talked to the other norns?” She asked. “They’d probably know more about it than me.”

 

“We did,” the dís affirmed. “And the only reply we received was ‘Sigyn will come and be known.’”

 

Darcy frowned at that, crossing her arms defensively. “And which of my generous and sharing sisters said that?” She said with a bite in her voice.

 

The dís raised an eyebrow. “Wyrd,” she replied tersely. She looked away, and back at Darcy. “With Skuld gone, it is possible--” she cut herself off.

 

Darcy stepped back warily. She had no idea what the dísir felt about Skuld, or the fact that Darcy had killed her. Ostensibly they existed to serve the norns, but Darcy didn’t believe that precluded the ability for them to form their own opinions.

 

The dís stared blankly ahead for a brief second, eyes glazed and mouth slack. The dísir had the ability to communicate between themselves telepathically. What one knew, they all knew. It was part of their shared consciousness. Then the dís blinked and focused on Darcy again.

 

“Come with me,” she said, and turned to the exit of the chamber, her strides long and deliberate. It took Darcy a moment to catch up and keep pace with her. The dís led her down a winding path between tunnels and round chambers, until they reached a door made from dark wood and gray metal. The dís turned back to Darcy.

 

“What you seek is beyond this door. What form it may take, we cannot tell.” She sketched a short bow, and then retreated down the hall. Darcy stared after her.

 

“Why does everything have to be so damn cryptic?” She asked herself out loud. As there was no answer forthcoming, Darcy turned around and looked at the door again. When she put her hand on the handle, it swung open with an easy push.

 

The room beyond was, like all the others, round, floored with flagstones of dark gray. The walls were covered in panels of unpolished wood, and the ceiling… Even though Darcy knew it was still daylight outside, the glass dome overhead revealed the night sky, velvet black strewn with bright stars.

 

Darcy stared upwards for a moment, wondering if it was some kind of projection. She walked forwards a few steps and almost lost her balance when the floor disappeared under her foot. She looked down, startled.

 

A circular pond dominated most of the floor, the water flat and glossy, and black as the void. There were no reflections on the surface, neither of the star-strewn ceiling, or Darcy as she leaned over. The only reason she knew it was water and not glass was the fact the bottom of her shoe was wet. The water didn’t even ripple where her foot had broken the surface.

 

Darcy knelt down at the edge of the pond and stretched out her hand. She touched the water with one finger tip. The water was the exact temperature as her skin, and again didn’t move when she touched it. A drop fell from her fingertip back to the surface and vanished as if it hadn’t fallen at all.

 

“Spooky,” Darcy said softly. She stared at the surface of the water, almost willing a reflection to appear.

 

A hand burst from the pool, with skin like silver bark and wrapped with green vines. Darcy screamed, but before she could recoil, the twiggy fingers closed over her wrist like a vice, gripping her with bruising strength. Darcy was yanked forward, into the pool. There was no splash as she broke the surface, only a soft gurgle.

 

For a moment the water pressed around her, filling her nose and ears and mouth, and then it was gone, and she could breathe again. Her eyes flew open in shock. She was standing in a cave. No, not a cave. The ground underneath her was smooth dirt, and the walls and ceiling were made of twisting tree roots. And standing in front of her, towering at least twice her height, was a now-familiar figure.

 

It was vaguely humanoid, its skin made of silver bark and covered in green leaves. A cowl of green and brown vines shaded its face, of which all was visible were a pair of glowing, green-gold eyes. Darcy took two steps backwards, craning her head back to look up at the creature. Her heart began to slow after the initial panic. Now she felt no fear, just curiosity.

 

“It’s about damn time,” she said, crossing her arms. “You want to finally tell me who the hell you are, and why you’ve been contacting me?”

 

YOU KNOW WHO WE ARE, the being replied. The voice was even more intense in person, heard with the ears and mind and soul all at once, shaking Darcy down to her core. She had to catch herself against the wall when her knees gave out. The tree root was warm under her hand, surging with familiar energies.

 

“Yggdrasil,” she said breathlessly. She looked back up at her companion. “This is Yggdrasil.”

 

YES, it affirmed. It fell into expectant silence, staring at her unblinkingly.

 

Darcy stared back at it. She looked from the root under her hand and back to the being. “Oh,” she said, feeling infinitely stupid. “ You’re Yggdrasil, aren’t you?”

 

YES, it said again, sounding pleased this time.

 

Darcy swallowed thickly. She was standing in the presence of the personification of the World Tree. It was practically the personification of the whole damn universe . The knowledge and power of this being was so vast that its presence should have been enough to shatter even Darcy’s mind, and she realized that it was holding itself back, protecting her.

 

“What do you want from me?” She whispered.

 

THE MOTHER IS DEAD. There was no emotion in the voice, just a statement of fact. It made no other move toward Darcy, neither threatening nor comforting. It merely was .

 

“You--you mean Skuld?” Darcy stuttered a little over the question. She wasn’t ashamed to admit that this being intimidated her. Even as old and as powerful as she was, she was tiny and insignificant compared to it. She was a finite creature, existing in the present, one moment at a time. Yggdrasil was all things, everywhere, in all of time.

 

YES. THE MOTHER IS DEAD. THERE MUST BE A MOTHER.

 

Darcy frowned. “I don’t understand. Why does there have to be a… mother?”

 

WE ARE DYING. WE NEED THE MOTHER.

 

Yggdrasil was dying . The implications made Darcy weak in the knees again. Stars disappearing, Ways collapsing. And it wouldn’t end there. Planets would start dying. The universe would fall apart. Darcy suddenly found it hard to breathe. Had she saved the universe only to kill it?

 

“How am I supposed to help you?” Darcy asked when she’d regained her composure.

 

YOU WILL BE THE MOTHER, it told her simply.

 

Darcy stared at it, mouth hanging open. “What?” She said, her voice squeaking. “No. No, no, no, no. I can’t. That’s--No! I don’t even know what that means!”

 

Yggdrasil moved with unnatural speed. Before Darcy could react, it was standing directly in front of her, hands gripping her head, fingers digging into her skull. She felt its presence pressing against hers and she fought it out of pure panic. It crushed her defensives with embarrassing ease, quickly overwhelming her.

 

She had an abrupt feeling of vertigo, of weightlessness, silence, calm, and then knowledge rushed into her brain, foreign and for several seconds unintelligible until she--or Yggdrasil--managed to translate it.

 

Symbiosis: norn and World Tree, caretaker and nurturer, gardener and garden. Joining of life forces, tethering Yggdrasil to the physical world and pulling norn into the metaphysical one.

 

The grip on her skull relaxed and Darcy came back to herself, Yggdrasil once more on the opposite side of the chamber. This time Darcy’s knees gave out completely and she sat down on the dirt floor, her breaths coming in gasps.

 

Joined to the life force of the World Tree. The consequences were enormous. She would be able to create and destroy Ways, and it would be her task to monitor their use. She would have access to a well of knowledge far beyond even the norns. And it would extend her lifespan by thousands of years.

 

That stopped Darcy cold. Norn though she was, she was still human . Her lifespan was measured in decades, not centuries. If she joined with Yggdrasil as it was asking, she would far outlive every one of her friends and family. She would have to live with their loss for thousands of years before rebirth made their memories easier to bear.

 

Darcy was smart enough to know that immortality was not always a gift. It was a double-edged blade; giving with one hand and taking with the other. She would live, but oh, the pain of it…

 

Darcy used the roots to pull herself back to her feet. “I can’t…” she tried to say, but Yggdrasil stared at her disapprovingly. “I need… to think,” she said instead. “I can’t make this decision right now. I need time.”

 

It considered this for a long time, so long that Darcy was almost afraid it would refuse her. Finally, it inclined its head once. It reached for Darcy once more and, despite her flinch, it seized her around the middle and thrust her upwards.

 

Instead of hitting the ceiling of tree roots, Darcy felt herself pass through dark, silent water, and then she fell backwards onto her hindquarters, her tailbone impacting painfully against the flagstones at the edge of the pool.

 

“What. The. Fuck,” Darcy gasped. She scrambled backwards from the pool and then drew her knees up to her chest. “Holy crap. Holy crap.” She stared off into space for a few moments, clutching her knees and rocking slightly back and forth. When that didn’t prove conducive to her recover, she dropped her head to her knees and pressed her hands to either side of her face with a groan.

 

“Did you see it?”

 

At the sound of the voice, Darcy twisted around fast enough she had to catch herself with one arm against the floor, gathering her legs under her as if to flee. No One was standing between Darcy and the door.

 

Her black hair was disheveled, as if she’d clenched handfuls of it and pulled. Her dress and surcoat were rumpled, and her pupils were dilated, black centers almost swallowing the pale irises. She stared unblinkingly at Darcy and then slowly tilted her head to the side.

 

“Did you see it?” She asked again, and there was an odd note to her voice, something that told Darcy it wasn’t quite right.

 

“See what?” Darcy asked warily, pushing herself to her feet.

 

No One gestured sharply with her right hand. “All of it. It’s laid out in front of you but you’re blind to it. All of you. You can never see it, any of it.” She stepped toward Darcy and all of Darcy’s alarm bells went off. She took a long step back.

 

“Are you okay?” Darcy asked, eying No One nervously. “You--you don’t look so good.”

 

“Pieces. Pieces of me. Still… looking. Can’t quite find them. Lost. My mind wandered off and it didn’t come back. No. Shattered. It was shattered.” No One took another step towards Darcy, her eyes never leaving Darcy’s face.

 

“I’m sorry, I don’t--I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Darcy said. No One was clearly having a break from reality, and Darcy wasn’t in the frame of mind to deal with it. Where were the dísir when you needed them?

 

“It all makes sense now,” No One said, ignoring Darcy’s words. “You keep what you kill. The king is dead, all hail the king. There’s a little boy. He’s lost. Doesn’t want to be found. Cold. So… cold. But you came.” No One seemed to focus on Darcy’s face for the first time, and her expression twisted into a snarl.

 

“You!” She growled. “It was your words! You brought her . You brought her and she took and took and took until there was nothing left!” She lunged at Darcy, her fingers hooked into claws.

 

Darcy ducked under No One’s hands and spun around, striking out at the other woman’s shoulder to knock her off balance. Her blow bounced off No One with no effect, and the woman whirled around with inhuman speed. There was a knife in her right hand, where it hadn’t been before.

 

Darcy summoned her staves without thinking, but glanced at the door. Judging from No One’s speed, she’d be on Darcy before she made it to the door. She turned back to the woman.

 

“Listen, No One, please, you don’t want to do this,” Darcy pleaded, slowly stepping backwards. “You saved my life, remember?”

 

“I have a name,” No One snarled. “It was taken from me, but I took it back.” She lunged at Darcy again, her knife flashing towards Darcy’s belly.

 

Darcy struck the knife away with one stave and swung the other towards No One’s head, but the woman caught it easily in her free hand. Darcy smashed her forehead against No One’s nose, causing her to stumble backwards a step, releasing Darcy’s stave.

 

Darcy knew her only chance was to catch No One off-guard, so she immediately pressed her attack, spinning to gain momentum. One stave swept towards No One’s ribs. The woman easily blocked this with her forearm. The other stave slammed into the side of No One’s temple, whipping her head around.

 

No One dropped to one knee, catching herself against the floor with her empty hand. “I am not…” she gasped. “I am not nothing,” she said, almost to herself. “I move, I breathe, I am. I am not nothing. These are my hands, these are my feet. I command them.” She braced her other hand against the floor as well, the metal of the blade ringing against the stone.

 

“I am not nothing,” she muttered again. “I move, I breathe, I am. I am not nothing. These are my hands, these are my feet. I command them.”

 

Darcy stood frozen in place, staves still raised defensively. She stared at the woman crouched in front of her. No One repeated the mantra once more before sitting back onto the floor. She looked wrung out-exhausted, dark smudges under her eyes.

 

With the hand that still held the knife, she reached up and rapped her knuckles against the side of her head. “I cannot stop them, sometimes,” she said mournfully. “They speak so loudly, and I cannot hear myself.”

 

Darcy swallowed. “You… you hear voices?” She asked hesitantly.

 

No One nodded sadly. She gestured with the knife. “I see… things. Past. Present. Future. All together. All the same. Sometimes I cannot see the path.” She looked up to meet Darcy’s gaze, and her eyes had returned to normal. “Sometimes I am… as I was before. And all it serves is to remind me how far I’ve fallen.”

 

Darcy lowered her staves, dismissing them back to her pocket dimension. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I… didn’t know.”

 

No One snorted softly and scowled in embarrassment. “Of course you didn’t. I did not tell you. I thought I could--” she abruptly cut herself off and swiftly raised her knife hand towards her face and then froze with the knife inches from her eyes. She stared at the blade for a moment, as if surprised at its presence. Then she fluttered her fingers, and it vanished.

 

“I put you in danger,” she said softly. “I beg your pardon, Lady Norn.”

 

“Don’t sweat it,” Darcy said. “I was having a weird day anyway.” She looked at the door again. “Uh, are you okay, or do you want me to get someone?”

 

No One drew her knees to her chin, wrapping her arms around her shins. “I will be fine,” she said woodenly. “I would like to be alone to collect my thoughts.”

 

“Sure. Okay,” Darcy said, and started walking towards the door. She pulled it open easily enough, but before she stepped through, she looked back at the woman.

 

She looked lost, like a frightened child, huddled into a tight ball to protect herself. The expression of hollow-eyed exhaustion was all too familiar. It made Darcy ache, and it was all she could do not to turn back and try to comfort her.


But no. No One was not Loki, despite their similarities. No one was a stranger, and bug nuts, at that. Darcy should just be grateful she hadn’t freaked out on them in the desert. Darcy turned resolutely away and pulled the door shut with a resounding thud.

Chapter Text

After leaving No One at the Well, Darcy found herself exhausted. It was no wonder, after the day she’d had. She asked the first dís she came across for somewhere to crash. The dís showed her to a small bedchamber off a long tunnel of identical doors.

Unlike the other chambers Darcy had seen in the facility, this one wasn’t round. It was simple, bordering on spartan. It had a bed, an armoire, a desk, and a chair. That was it. It was lit by a white globe that hovered near the ceiling and could be positioned anywhere she needed more light.

Inside the armoire, Darcy found several sleeveless night shirts folded in the shelf at the bottom, and three white chainses hanging on the top, along with a spare purple surcoat. In reality, Darcy shouldn’t have been surprised. The dísir had probably known she was coming for months.

For a moment she wondered just how powerful the dísir really were, and then decided it didn’t matter. They were unfailingly loyal to the norns. It wasn’t in their nature to rebel. Darcy changed quickly and crawled into bed.

Despite her weariness, and the comfort of the bed, she slept fitfully, dozing and waking over and over. When she finally did manage to get to sleep, it was to find herself once more under the roots of the World Tree.

“Oh, come on !” She protested, turning around in a circle.

Yggdrasil stood watching her, as patient and implacable as a glacier moving toward the ocean. It stood without moving, eyes piercing with their intensity.

TIME, it said. HAVE YOU DECIDED?

“Dude, you literally just asked me, like a couple of hours ago,” Darcy told it, gesturing angrily. “I’m gonna need a week, tops!”

TIME FLOWS DIFFERENTLY FOR US, Yggdrasil explained. FASTER. AND SLOWER.

“How about this,” Darcy said, holding up her hands. “ I will get a hold of you when I’ve made up my mind, okay?”

WE ARE DYING, the being reminded her.

Darcy nodded. “I get that, but are you going to die in the next couple of days?”

It stared at her silently for a moment, then asked, DEFINE.

She blinked at it. “Uh, define what?”

TIME PARAMETERS. DEFINE.

Darcy lowered her hands. “Day. Rotation of this realm around its sun,” she said slowly.

Yggdrasil nodded to itself. DEATH IS NOT IMMINENT DURING THAT TIME PERIOD, it told her.

“Great. Then I will get back to you in a couple of days,” Darcy said, crossing her arms. She shifted her weight when the being didn’t say anything. “Can I ask you a question?”

ASK, it replied.

Darcy hunched her shoulders. “Why me? I mean, there’s eight of us left. Wouldn’t Wyrd be a better choice? She’s older, and stronger, than me.”

OLDER, YES, Yggdrasil agreed, and then fell silent.

Darcy blinked again. She stared at Yggdrasil. It showed no sign of movement, not even the rise and fall of breath. The only sign of life from it was the glowing eyes. “Older… but not stronger?” She asked after a moment.

YOU CONTAINED RAGNAROK, Yggdrasil told her. YOU OVERPOWERED THE ELDEST.

Darcy shook her head. “What does that have to do with anything? Any of the others could have done that.”

NO, Yggdrasil said, almost interrupting her. THEY COULD NOT.

That threw Darcy for a moment. “They couldn’t? Why--why couldn’t they?”

Yggdrasil’s eyes flickered, not quite a blink. THEY ARE NOT KIND. THE MOTHER FELL BECAUSE SHE WAS NOT KIND. WE WILL NOT MAKE THAT MISTAKE AGAIN.

Darcy narrowed her eyes and glared up at the being. “You are trying to back me into a corner, aren’t you?” She accused. “You’re not giving me much of a choice, here.”

IF YOU REFUSE, ANOTHER WILL SUFFICE. IT IS NOT DESIREABLE, Yggdrasil told her. BUT YOU WILL NOT REFUSE.

“Seem awfully sure of yourself, buddy,” Darcy said dryly.

WE GIVE YOU A GIFT, Yggdrasil said, raising one hand to make a vague gesture. A flutter went through the green leaves sprouting from the vines covering it.

“‘Gift’ is not the word I would use,” Darcy replied. “Responsibility. Burden. Unsurmountable task.”

NOT THE JOINING. ANOTHER GIFT. SOMETHING YOU LOST, BUT NEVER HAD. The leaf-fluttering grew stronger, and Darcy thought perhaps it was a sign of agitation.

“Something I-- That doesn’t even make any sense,” Darcy protested.

IT WILL, Yggdrasil assured her.

It was a sharp dismissal, because Darcy woke up abruptly, tangled in the blanket. Her inner sense of time told her it was a couple hours before dawn. It wasn’t worth trying to go back to sleep, so she dragged herself out of bed and got dressed, fighting her hair into something resembling presentable with the help of many pins. Then she went in search of food.

There were two dísir in the kitchen when Darcy arrived. One was kneading dough and the other was slicing fruit. The kitchens themselves were something out of an interior designer’s wet dream, all sleek metals and pristine ceramics. There was counter space galore and self-monitoring ovens, and a stove that apparently was able to heat food while staying cold to the touch. The dísir looked up when Darcy entered.

“Good morning, Lady Sigyn,” they said in synch. “Did you sleep well?” Asked the one slicing fruit. “Can we get you anything?” Asked the one kneading the dough.

“Good morning, no, and if you have coffee I will kiss you,” Darcy said, plopping down on one of the stools at the large metal table in the middle of the kitchen.

The dís slicing fruit set her knife down and got a handleless ceramic cup down from a cupboard. She went over to a egg-shaped appliance on the counter and set the cup in the alcove in the center of the device before pushing a button.

“Space Keurig,” Darcy observed with an amused smirk, then the smell of coffee hit her. “Oh my god, you have coffee.”

The dís set the cup in front of Darcy, and then brought her a tiny bowl of cane sugar and a dish of real cream. “We have a nexus of Ways,” the dís reminded Darcy. “We can acquire any supply from any realm.”

Darcy spooned sugar into her cup. “You are officially my favorite person ever,” she told the dís. “Maybe second favorite.”

The dís gave Darcy that bright, sunny smile. “It is our pleasure to serve, my lady.”

Once the caffeine had started to wake up Darcy’s brain, she offered to help prepare breakfast, but the dísir flatly turned her down. Two more showed up after a few minutes, and then, just as Darcy was considering asking for a second cup of coffee, No One wandered in, eyes heavy-lidded with sleep. Her hair was pulled up and pinned in a distinctly Asgardian style, and she wore the same black and green ensemble as the day before.

Darcy eyed the other woman warily, trying to gauge what sort of state of mind she was in. She was fairly certain if No One tried to attack her again, the dísir would step in, but she really didn’t feel like finding out for sure.

No One stood in the doorway for a moment, staring blankly around the kitchen, and then her gaze focused on Darcy’s cup. She took a couple steps closer. “What is that?” She asked, gesturing toward the cup in question.

“Uh… coffee,” Darcy replied, staring at the other woman. “It’s from my realm. From Midgard.”

No One looked up at Darcy’s face. Though a little bleary, her eyes looked clear and, more importantly, sane. “Is there any more?”

“Um,” Darcy turned to the nearest dís, only to find one already standing at her elbow, pouring more coffee into Darcy’s cup from a ceramic carafe. She placed a second cup on the table and filled it as well.

“That’s creepy,” Darcy told the dís. The dís merely smiled and drifted off to another task. Darcy slid the sugar bowl and dish of cream towards No One. She picked up the mug and stared down at the sugar and cream.

“Some people don’t like it plain,” Darcy explained. “They put cream and sugar in it.”

No One sniffed the cup in her hand before spooning in a tiny amount of sugar and cream. She tasted the liquid gingerly, and then raised her eyebrows. She sat at the stool next to Darcy. Darcy looked at her for a moment.

“Do you like it?” She prompted.

No One turned to face Darcy. “Yes,” she replied simply.

Darcy gave her a half smile. “You think this is good, wait til you’ve tried a frappacino.”

No One tilted her head. “What is that?” She asked.

“It’s cold, blended with ice and milk,” Darcy explained. “And a crap ton of sugar and calories. It’s delicious.”

“It sounds… inventive,” No One said.

“Yeah. Humans, man. They love their coffee,” Darcy said, and took a sip of her own.

No One continued to watch her for a silent moment, and then, just before it got creepy, she asked, “Lady Sigyn, are you… angry with me?”

Darcy set her cup down. “Why would I be angry with you?” She asked, forehead creasing.

“I attacked you,” No One told her. “I put your life in danger.”

Darcy shifted uncomfortably. “Look, if you were really a danger to me, then the dísir wouldn’t let you anywhere near me,” she said. “And besides, you are clearly dealing with things, and I can’t fault you for that. So we’re good. Don’t worry about it.”

No One blinked at her for a moment. “You are not like the other norns,” she said.

Darcy raised an eyebrow. “You know the other norns?” She asked.

No One looked away abruptly. “I have met a few others,” she said tersely.

Darcy frowned at her again. “Are you ever actually going to tell me your story? How you got roped into all of this?”

The other woman raised an eyebrow. “If I knew that myself, then I would tell you,” she said. She got to her feet, took her cup, and walked out of the kitchen, passing Rashid as she went. He paused in the doorway, turning to watch her leave. He turned back to Darcy.

“Did you say something to her?” He asked, brows drawn together. “She looked as if she bit into a soursop fruit.”

Darcy hummed to herself. “I think there’s something going on with our mysterious friend,” she said.

Rashid snorted and sat down at the stool No One had vacated. “That woman has more secrets than an Amirthan moneylender, my lady,” he told her. He sniffed and leaned toward her, looking at Darcy’s half-full cup. “What is that?”

XxxXxxX

After breakfast, Darcy retreated to one of the gardens, hoping to get some time alone to think. It was a peaceful space, with grass underfoot and small palm trees in  huge pots set in the ground. A large, colorful bird landed on the ground in front of her as soon as she sat down, eying her with one black, beady eye.

“I don’t have anything for you,” Darcy told it, showing it her empty hands. “Sorry, buddy.”

The bird whistled, sounding almost annoyed, and flapped away, landing on one of the larger flowering bushes. In the center of the garden, not far from where Darcy sat on a bench, was a small pond. Unlike the Well, this water behaved normally, reflecting the clear sky visible through the dome overhead. A white statue of a woman carrying a golden pitcher stood in the center of the pond, water flowing from the pitcher into the pool.

Darcy slipped off her simple shoes and buried her toes in the grass. She abruptly found herself missing her friends. It had only been a couple days, objectively, since she’d left earth. But she’d had a lot laid on her yesterday, and she could have used some advice. Steve was pretty good to bounce ideas off of, and Jane could be relied on to always have a level head.

It didn’t even occur to Darcy to contact her sisters. None of them had even shown up when she was in the hospital, recovering from having a knife in her stomach. Darcy didn’t have much faith that they would be eager to see her, not after she had killed the Eldest of them.

Darcy scowled and kicked the grass. Wyrd would be Eldest, now. Darcy didn’t have a problem with that, per se. She’d liked Wyrd. But then again, she’d liked Skuld. And after Skuld’s betrayal, a dark, sneaking voice in the back of her head whispered that if the Eldest could fall, who could Darcy truly trust?

It wasn’t likely that Darcy, after having killed Skuld, would get the approval of the others to be the new Mother of the Ways. By all rights, it should be Wyrd, not Darcy.

A harsh caw made Darcy look up, startled. A large, black raven was perched on a palm frond not far from her. Darcy stared at the bird for a moment. In a place where everything had been chosen for beauty, a carrion bird seemed jarringly out of place.

It took a moment for Darcy’s brain to catch up with the rest of her. Ravens were used as messengers on Asgard. Why they used such an outdated mode of communication was beyond Darcy, but apparently the Allfather’s ravens were above reproach. With the nexus of Ways here, it was no wonder a few of Asgard’s ravens would be, too.

The raven stared at Darcy for a moment, tilting its head back and forth. It clacked its heavy, gray beak, and then fluffed up its feathers. There was an eerie intelligence in its black eyes. It walked along the stem of the frond to get closer to Darcy, its eyes never leaving her face.

Darcy narrowed her eyes at the bird. “What are you looking at?” She demanded.

It cawed again, bobbing its head up and down. In a harsh, croaking voice, it said, “Harken, harken.”

Darcy jumped. She knew that ravens could be taught simple words, like parrots, but she hadn’t expected it. “Okay, that’s just downright spooky,” she said out loud. If a ghostly apparition appeared in front of her at this point, she wouldn’t be surprised.

“So… do you have a message for me, or what?” Darcy asked.

The raven bobbed its head again and repeated, “Harken, harken.” Then it leapt from the branch, flying down one of the wide tunnels. Darcy turned to watch it leave.

“Okay,” she said to herself, “If that’s not an omen, I don’t know what the fuck is.”

No One appeared in the mouth of the tunnel the raven had flown down. She caught sight of Darcy and pointed over her shoulder. “Did you see a raven--”

“Yeah,” Darcy interrupted. “Yeah. Pretty sure it was real. I hope it was real, or else I’m a lot farther gone than I thought.”

No One stood for a moment, frowning. “I… sometimes see things that are not there,” she said at length. “Things in the past, or the future.”

“That’s gotta be disorienting,” Darcy said mildly. While she remained wary of No One, she was not going to ridicule the woman for her mental illness. If she had a mental illness. She very well could be precognitive, seeing the future and the past. Darcy wouldn’t discount it out of hand. After all, she’d had some pretty hard breaks from reality, visions and everything.

“It sometimes is,” No One agreed. She stepped into the garden and looked around. “Sometimes company keeps my mind centered. May I?”

Darcy nodded. “If I can help, sure.” She patted the bench next to her. “You want to talk, or..?”

No One walked over to the bench and sat down. Like Darcy, she kicked off her shoes so she could dig her bare feet into the soft grass. “Talk, if you like,” she said with a shrug.

Darcy nodded. “You’re from Asgard?” She asked, hoping that was a neutral enough question to not send the other woman running.

No One raised her eyebrows. “Am I that transparent?”

Darcy gestured vaguely. “I, uh, recognized your accent.”

“Ah,” No One said. “On the other hand, you have an accent I’ve never heard before.”

“Probably Midgardian,” Darcy said with a nod. “No one in that realm has spoken Allspeak in… geez, going on two thousand years?”

“Why did you chose Midgard?” No One asked. “They do not remember Asgard or the other realms as anything more than myth and legend.”

“I didn’t really have a choice,” Darcy said dryly. “My vessel was killed on earth--Midgard--and I was reborn there a dozen or so times before I was able to fully awaken.” She shrugged. “It’s my home,” she added simply.

No One’s eyes turned wistful, unfocused. “Home,” she said softly. “Yes.”

Darcy waited for a moment to see if the woman would continue, and when she remained silent, Darcy prompted, “Do you miss home?”

The other woman blinked, her eyes refocusing. “Miss home?” She echoed. “No. Not precisely. Home is… complicated.” She scratched at her right forearm fretfully, fingernails digging into the green cloth.

“I get that,” Darcy said.

No One swallowed, looked down, and then back up again. “Why did you come here, Lady Sigyn?” She asked.

Darcy raised an eyebrow. “Would you believe I was led here by a dream?” She said wryly.

“Yes,” No One replied seriously.

Darcy snorted. “Right. Of course.”

No One shifted her weight, scratching at her arm again. “Do you know what the dream meant?” She asked.

Darcy sighed and leaned back, using one arm to prop herself up. She didn’t know No One, not at all, and the woman had tried to attack her. But again, Darcy had to trust the dísir’s judgement. No One wouldn’t have been let this close to the Nexus if she wasn’t trustworthy. What the hell, Darcy wanted to talk to someone, anyway.

“So, last month, one of the norns… died,” Darcy said delicately. No One watched her with an unreadable expression. She didn’t react to the news, so Darcy continued. “And apparently she had this special relationship with Yggdrasil, and now it’s dying, and it needs someone to take her place. And it’s chosen me, for some ungodly reason.”

No One blinked a few times, her expression unchanging. “And this… displeases you,” she said, more of a statement than a question.

“No, not exactly,” Darcy said, wrinkling her nose. “It confuses me. I don’t… I don’t know if I should accept the offer. I don’t know if I can . I mean, I’m not the oldest norn. I’m not even the strongest, so I don’t--”

“That isn’t true,” No One interrupted, her gaze abruptly turning intense. Darcy stopped talking and stared at the woman for a moment.

“What?” She asked.

“You said you were not the strongest norn,” No One echoed. “That isn’t true.”

Darcy continued to stare at No One for several silent seconds. “How would you know that?” She asked slowly.

No One pointed to her head. “I see things,” she said simply. “Past. Future. It’s all the same to me. You… you shine brightly. Brighter than anyone I’ve ever met.” She smiled faintly, thin lips curving upwards. “You have great things in store for you, Lady Sigyn. You could bring the universe to its knees.”

Darcy’s brows drew together. “Thanks… I think. But I don’t really want anyone to kneel for me.”

No One scratched her arm again, harder this time. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. What stops you from taking Yggdrasil’s offer.”

Darcy pointed her thumb at herself. “Mortal,” she said bluntly. “I’m looking at eighty, ninety years tops. I do this, and it’ll be more like three thousand .”

No One frowned. “That is no bad thing.”

“Not for you , maybe,” Darcy said. “Your people were designed to live, what, four, five thousand years? I’ll still be human , with a human brain. I don’t know if my sanity will last three thousand years, and I’ve seen crazy norn. Trust me, it ain’t pretty. Not to mention I have family and friends that won’t last more than a century. I will literally lose everyone I care about.”

The other woman tilted her head. “Memories fade after a few centuries, my lady,” she said softly, but bitterly, her eyes slanting away.

“But it will keep happening,” Darcy pressed. “I’ll keep living and people will keep dying.”

“Then make friends who are not mortal,” No One said, a sudden bite to her voice. “It is not as if you have no options.”

Darcy clenched her jaw. “It’s different for you. You expect, from the time you’re born, to live for thousands of years. For me, it’s…” she sighed and gestured. “Like I said. I can’t guarantee I won’t go banana balls after a few centuries, and I have no intention of another norn going nuclear. The universe literally won’t survive it.”

No One kept scratching at her arm, not meeting Darcy’s gaze. “I am not exactly in my right mind,” she said tightly. “So I’m afraid I couldn’t advise you on that.”

Darcy bit her lip and looked down, embarrassed. “Sorry,” she muttered. No One grunted softly in reply. Darcy’s gaze fell on No One’s right arm. The green fabric was blotched with dark, brownish stains along her forearm. Darcy frowned.

“You’re bleeding,” she said, leaning forward and reaching for No One’s arm without thinking. Before the other woman could react, Darcy closed her fingers around No One’s wrist. When their skin made contact, it felt like a current of electricity jumped between them, and Darcy received a disorienting barrage of images that flashed past her eyes too swiftly for her to process.

No One hissed as if in pain and snatched her arm from Darcy’s grasp. “Don’t touch me,” she snarled, jumping to her feet.

Darcy shook her head to clear it. “I’m sorry,” she said dazedly. “I didn’t mean to--I’m sorry.”

No One half turned away, one hand on her hip and the other pressed to her forehead. “It is difficult,” she said stiffly, “For me to… contain myself. To shield you and the dísir. Touch negates my efforts. I would ask that you do not do that again.”

“Yeah, sure,” Darcy said quickly. “But, um, you’re still bleeding.”

No One lowered the hand pressed to her forehead and regarded the stains on her sleeve. “It is nothing,” she said dismissively.

Darcy didn’t believe her, but decided against pressing the issue. “Okay,” she said.

The sound of wings came from the tunnel behind them, and the raven appeared, flapping over Darcy’s head to land on No One’s shoulder. The woman froze, green eyes growing wide. The raven settled its wings and turned its head to stare at Darcy.

“Harken, harken,” it croaked at her.

Darcy gasped softly. She stared at No One for a long, silent moment, while the woman stared apprehensively back.

“Raven-born,” Darcy said. She smacked her hand to her forehead. “How could I be so stupid ?” She lunged to her feet. “What is your name?” She demanded, clenching her fists. “Who are you?”

No One swallowed and stepped back, the raven easily keeping its balance on her shoulder. “I am no one,” she said, her voice shaking.

“You’re not no one,” Darcy said fiercely. “Tell me who you are! Say it!” Hope bubbled up in her chest. She could hardly breathe as it pressed all the air from her lungs.

No One shook her head. “I am no one,” she insisted.

“Stop it!” Darcy yelled, tears filling her eyes. “Just for once, stop lying to me! I know who you are! Say it!”

No One’s face twisted into a mask of rage with a swiftness that startled Darcy back to her senses. “I am not who you want me to be,” she snarled. “That person is dead! He was ripped to shreds and scattered across the universe, and pieces of him were shoved inside my brain! I didn’t ask for it! I didn’t ask for any of this!” She jabbed her finger towards Darcy.

“This, all of this, is your fault . Your words brought him to Skuld’s attention. You chose to start Ragnarok. He only sacrificed himself because of you . If you had let him be, if you had let him die, I would not have him living inside my mind, and I would have peace !”

Darcy took a step backwards, reeling from her words. The tears spilled over her cheeks now. “I didn’t know,” she whispered. “I’m sorry. I didn’t--I didn’t know.”

No One slashed her hand as if she could physically wave away Darcy’s apology. “You lost him,” she spat. “But he was never yours.” She stalked past Darcy, the raven launching itself from her shoulder.

Darcy sank back to the bench, chest heaving as she tried to catch her breath. It was too much. It was all too much. Somehow, some part of her had hoped… but no. Ripped to shreds , No One had said. Darcy could still see him, in the center of Ragnarok, dissolving in the fury of the storm.

Oh, god. What had she done? Was No One right? Had Loki been scattered across the universe? Had some part of his consciousness ended up in No One’s brain? How did that even work?

Darcy choked on her sobs, trying to regain her composure. She would not cry. She wasn’t allowed that. She didn’t deserve to grieve. That was too selfish. She hadn’t earned that right.

The raven landed on the bench beside Darcy and stared at her with its glittering, beady eyes. Darcy glared at it through watery eyes and, in a fit of pique, swatted at it with one hand. It easily hopped up, fluttering its wings, and then landed again. It danced from foot to foot, and then cawed loudly.

Only then did Darcy notice the silver band around the bird’s right leg. Darcy paused with a frown, and then dashed the tears from her eyes. She reached out and the raven obligingly lifted its right foot. She brushed the band with her fingertips, and a thin membrane peeled off into her hand.

Scowling to discourage any more tears, Darcy held the membrane up to the light. It was printed with tiny, black letters in Allspeak, too small for her to read. She squinted at it for a moment, and then got to her feet. She turned around and held the membrane out, stretched tight. Sure enough, the sunlight shone through the membrane, projecting the runes onto the pale surface of the bench.

I thought you might want to know , it read. I found Skaði on Nornheim. She is well, and very cute for her age. It was signed, Embla .

Darcy’s hands started to shake and she lowered the membrane, accidentally crumpling it when her fingers tightened involuntarily. She had to sit down.

Skaði was her twin sister, born the same moment as her, the only multiple birth among the norns. Her vessel had been killed by Skuld a month prior, when Skaði had discovered Skuld’s plans to start Ragnarok. Darcy knew that her sister would be reborn into a new vessel, but to read it, to have the confirmation of another sister...

Tears blurred her vision again, and she couldn’t tell if they were from grief or happiness. Skaði was reborn, she was well, and her sister had seen fit to inform her of this. Perhaps they--or at least Embla--did not resent her the way she feared.

Perhaps she could be forgiven, after all.

Chapter Text

For the first time in over a month, Darcy dreamwalked that night. She had spent the rest of the day avoiding contact with anyone as she tried to fool herself into believing she wasn’t sulking. And while the news from Embla had been encouraging, it was overshadowed by No One’s outburst. Darcy hadn’t been much in the mood to talk to anyone at the Well of Fate until she remembered that she could contact anyone she wanted.

Finding Steve was easy. Before Darcy had control over her dreamwalking, the only times she dreamwalked to earth were with Steve. The first time had been during the Battle of New York. The second time had been during a mission in Estonia. This time, however, she was relieved to find him in his apartment in DC.

He appeared to be elbows-deep in paperwork, as his laptop was set up at the kitchen table and he had SHIELD files scattered around him. Darcy had appeared in his living room, just inside the front door. She knocked loudly on the door. He looked up sharply and caught sight of her. His eyebrows jumped upwards.

“Darcy?” He asked, getting to his feet.

“Hey,” she greeted with a reluctant smile, going to meet him.

Steve wrapped her in a tight hug. Steve gave good hugs. “When did you get back?” He asked when he stepped back, keeping his hands on her shoulders. He looked her up and down. She was still wearing the clothes provided by the dísir, and her carefully-pinned hair had wisps drifting around her face.

“Technically, I didn’t,” Darcy said, patting his arm idly. He dropped his hands.

“Dreamwalking?” He asked. She nodded. “Where are you?”

“A realm called Muspell,” Darcy replied. “I’m at the home of the dísir. They’re like… um, personal assistants to the norns.”

Steve nodded. “Oh, okay. It’s good to see you, though. Especially since you left without saying goodbye.”

Darcy rubbed the back of her neck. “Yeah. Sorry about that. I just… I just didn’t wanna talk, you know, about… stuff.”

Steve nodded. “I get it. What can I do for you now?”

Darcy took a deep breath. “Do you wanna grab a drink?” She blurted. “Maybe a lot of drinks? There’s some things I want to tell you, and I don’t think I can get through them sober.”

He blinked a couple of times. “Okay,” he agreed. “But do you want to go wearing that?”

Darcy looked down. “Oh. Yeah. Maybe not. Let me run down the hall and change, first.”

“I’ll meet you by the elevator,” Steve told her. “Oh, and Jane’s at your apartment, I think. Did you want to invite her, too?”

“Yeah, probably should,” Darcy said with a sigh. “She gets jealous when I tell you things first.”

Steve smiled faintly and went back to the table. He started tidying up the folders. “Ten minutes?”

“Sounds good.” Darcy left his apartment and summoned her keys as she walked down the hall. When she opened the door to the apartment she had shared with Jane, she was met with the scientist in question, holding a taser out with both hands.

Darcy froze, eyebrows arching upwards. “So,” she said mildly. “You got my present.”

Darcy ?” Jane squeaked, lowering the taser. “Oh my god!” She bounded forward and threw her arms around Darcy’s neck in a tight hug. “You came back!”

“Technically, no,” Darcy wheezed. “Gotta breathe, Janey.”

“Sorry,” Jane said, and let go of Darcy. “What do you mean, ‘technically, no’?”

“Dreamwalking,” Darcy explained tersely, slipping into the apartment and closing the door. “What time is it?”

“Uh, quarter to eight,” Jane replied, putting her taser down on the entryway table. “If you’re not back, what’re you doing here?”

“Getting a drink,” Darcy said. “You, me, and Steve. Grab a jacket, it’s chilly outside.” She opened the door to her room and went in. It was completely untouched, right down to the shoes she’d left in the corner by the closet. She changed quickly into one of her bar-appropriate outfits. She thought about makeup, but Steve had said ten minutes, so she had to make do with eyeliner and lipstick.

When she emerged from her room, Jane was waiting by the front door, fidgeting restlessly. “Any particular reason we’re getting drinks?” She asked.

“You’re gonna wanna be drunk when you hear what I have to tell you,” Darcy replied, a bit grimmer than she’d intended. Jane’s eyes went wide.

“Oh,” she said uncertainly. She followed Darcy into the hall where Steve was waiting for them by the elevator.

They went to the Presidential, mostly because it was close, but also because they had gone there regularly enough that the wait staff didn’t freak out when they recognized Steve. Sometimes there were downsides to being friends with Captain America.

Rather than sitting at the bar, they chose a table in the corner where Steve could put his back to the wall and see the whole bar, including the front door. Darcy ordered them all shots and the local microbrew Steve liked. When she brought them back to the table, Jane raised her eyebrows.

“You were serious about being drunk,” she said.

“Trust me, you’ll want it,” Darcy told her. She looked at Steve. “Sorry you can’t get drunk.”

He eyed her a bit nervously. “I’m a little scared now.”

“Me, too,” Darcy said, and tossed her shot back.

“Can you just tell us what’s going on?” Jane asked, fiddling with her bottle of beer.

Darcy sighed. “I’ve been offered a position among the norns that would potentially increase my power and extend my lifespan by about 300 percent. It would entail me entering into a symbiotic relationship with the personification of the World Tree.”

Both Steve and Jane stared at her for a long, silent moment, and then Jane picked up her shot and threw it back. She put the glass back on the table with a loud clink . “So let me get this straight,” she said, putting her hands on the table. “The World Tree has a personification?”

Darcy nodded.

Jane narrowed her eyes. “So… that means that it’s sentient, right?”

Darcy nodded again.

Jane’s eyes widened. “Good god. The universe is sentient.”

Without a word, Steve picked up his own shot and downed it. Janey eyed him sidelong and then turned back to Darcy.

“Why does the World Tree require a… symbiotic relationship?”

“Hell if I know,” Darcy replied. “All I know is that if it doesn’t have a connection to one of the norns, it will die.”

“Die?” Steve asked, lifting his beer to his mouth. “How can the universe die?”

“It’ll start with the Ways between the Worlds,” Darcy explained. “They’ll collapse. Then the planets will start to die. And then the stars will start to go out.”

Jane and Steve stared at her silently again. They both raised their bottles to drink. “What are you going to do?” Steve asked.

“I don’t know,” Darcy said miserably. “If I accept, I’ll become Mother of the Ways. I’ll be able to create and destroy Ways between the Worlds, and I’ll have access to a crap ton of information from Yggdrasil.”

Jane shook her head. “Hold on,” she said, holding up one hand. “You are being offered access to information from the sentient universe, and you don’t know if you want to take it? Are you insane? Do you have any idea the kind of scientific breakthroughs we could create with just a fraction of that information?”

Darcy frowned at Jane. “Just because I have that information doesn’t mean I can share that with just anyone,” she said.

Jane blinked. “Why not?” She demanded.

Darcy pressed her thumb and forefinger against her eyes. “Because I’m a norn, Jane. I have a responsibility to maintain balance. I can’t interfere unduly with the natural progression of a sentient race.”

“But you’re, you know, human,” Jane protested. “Can’t you share that information with your own race?”

Darcy lowered her hand. “I’m a norn ,” she said again. “First, and foremost.”

Steve cleared his throat. “You said earlier that it would expand your lifespan,” he said.

Darcy sighed. “Yeah. I’d be looking at three, maybe four thousand years.”

Jane choked. “Four thousand years?” She sputtered. Steve looked equally astounded.

Darcy scowled and took a long drink from her beer. “Yeah,” she said tersely.

“That’s--that’s a long time,” Jane said, eyes wide.

Steve tilted his head. “That wouldn’t be easy,” he said quietly. “You’ll outlive a lot of people.” He had some experience with that.

“I know,” Darcy said unhappily. “I don’t want to be Darcy for that long. Darcy is human. She’s not meant to live that long.”

Jane grimaced. “I hate it when you refer to yourself in the third person.”

Darcy shifted. “Darcy is a vessel,” she reminded Jane. “I am Sigyn. I will always be Sigyn. Darcy is temporary.”

“And I hate it when you talk like that, too,” Jane muttered, taking another drink of her beer.

“Why you?” Steve asked abruptly. “There are eight norns left, right? Why does it specifically have to be you.”

Darcy wrinkled her nose. Most people assumed he was primarily a soldier, a blunt instrument, just following orders. They had no idea how eerily perceptive he was, or that his IQ was pushing into genius territory. So she wasn’t surprised that he was asking all the piercing questions.

“Technically, it doesn’t,” Darcy said. “I got Yggdrasil to admit that any of the norns could do it, but it said they weren’t preferable. It wants me.”

“Why?” Steve pressed.

Darcy twirled the liquid in her bottle. “Because I killed Skuld,” she said quietly. Neither Jane nor Steve had a reply for that. “Because apparently that makes me the strongest norn. Because I’m kind ,” she added bitterly.

“All of that’s true,” Steve told her. “But what is holding you back?”

Darcy put her bottle down and leaned back in her chair. “What if I bug out, like Skuld?” She blurted. “What if I completely lose my marbles, and I try to snuff the universe? Who’s gonna be there to stop me? I barely survived Ragnarok. By rights, I shouldn’t have. I only did because--” her voice broke. “Because Loki saved my life,” she finished in a voice barely above a whisper. She swallowed thickly. “And he’s not gonna be there next time.”

“What about the other norns?” Steve asked. “Have you talked to them?”

“No,” Darcy said sullenly.

“Why not?” Steve asked.

“Why should she?” Jane cut in. “She was in the medical wing for over a month, and none of them came to visit her. Not one. And they’re supposed to be her sisters. They clearly don’t care enough to bother.”

Darcy grimaced. “That’s not technically true,” she said. “I think at least one of them would have come, but the new Eldest, Wyrd, told them not to.”

“How come?” Jane demanded.

“They knew I was being contacted by Yggdrasil,” Darcy said wearily. “They don’t want to interfere with my decision.”

“That’s still not a reason to visit you when you almost died ,” Jane said with a sniff.

Darcy got up. “I’m getting more beer. I really don’t want to be sober when I tell you the rest.”

“There’s more ?” Jane asked, a whine in her voice.

“Yup,” Darcy said. She went to the bar and ordered three more beers. By the time she’d returned to the table, Steve and Jane had finished their beers. Darcy sat down, raised her bottle, and chugged half of it in one go.

“What’s bothering you?” Steve prompted, leaning his elbows on the table.

Darcy rubbed her forehead. “I met this woman, a few days ago. The dísir sent her to guide me to the Well of Fate. Which is where I am now. Which is where I’m supposed to contact Yggdrasil and shit. Any way, she has this… thing.” She took a deep, steadying breath. She’d never spoken about this out loud. It had hurt too much. It still hurt. “Apparently when Loki… died, he didn’t just die . He was… scattered. And some part of him, his memories, ended up inside this woman.”

“Oh, Darcy,” Jane breathed. She leaned forward and put her hand on Darcy’s arm. “Are you okay?”

Darcy sniffed and wiped her nose on the back of her hand. “Not really,” she admitted.

“You never talked about it before,” Jane said, rubbing Darcy’s arm.

“I wasn’t ready,” Darcy replied, and swallowed thickly. “Still not really ready.”

“You should talk to someone,” Steve said quietly, looking down at the table. “It does help. Eventually.”

Darcy looked at him. “Did you?” She asked. “‘Cuz  you never talked to me.”

He sighed heavily. “SHIELD assigned me a psychiatrist,” he told her. “Required I go every week for six months. I still have once monthly appointments, but that’s because I choose to go.”

“Oh,” Darcy said in a small voice. “I--I didn’t know that.”

Steve shrugged and looked up. “Not really something I wanted everyone knowing. Captain America seeing a shrink… didn’t really look good for my reputation.”

“We wouldn’t have thought any different about you,” Jane told him. Her hand was still on Darcy’s arm, her body heat soaking through Darcy’s sleeve.

“I know that now ,” Steve said. “It was different a year ago.” He looked at Darcy. “You really should talk to someone,” he said again.

“I’m talking to you,” Darcy said, flicking her almost-empty bottle with one finger.

“Are you?” Steve challenged, raising an eyebrow.

Darcy pushed away from the table, leaning back in her chair again. “I lost Loki,” she said, staring Steve straight in the eye. “And it hurt like a bitch because he was never really mine in the first place. He was mind controlled . Everything he did, everything he said, was a lie. And my sister was the one who did it. Someone I should have been able to trust unequivocally. My sister betrayed me and then I killed her.”

Darcy crossed her arms over her chest, maintaining eye contact with Steve. “And it’s more than that. We are eternal beings. We are reborn. I ended Skuld. Her power, her memory, all of it gone. And because of that the universe is dying. I did that. I really don’t think talking about it is going to help much.”

Steve blinked. His blue eyes were sad. He broke eye contact, looking down. Jane got up from her chair and circled the table to hug Darcy fiercely. “It wasn’t your fault,” she said into Darcy’s ear. “None of that was your fault.”

Darcy reluctantly hugged her back. “Doesn’t stop the guilt,” she muttered. Jane leaned back to look at Darcy’s face.

“The guilt is part of being human,” she said. “Don’t lose that part of yourself, Darcy.”

Darcy blinked back the threat of tears. “So, you wanna hear how I straight up saw a sandworm?”

“A what?” Steve asked, staring at her. Jane released Darcy and sat back down again.

“Sandworm,” Darcy repeat, swiping at her eyes. “And don’t let the name fool you; thing was fucking enormous . I was on Muspell, right? And I’m trying to find this place I’ve been dreaming about for the last month…”

Just as Darcy finished her story, the bartender came over to their table and put a vodka martini with three olives down in front of Darcy. She blinked at it in surprise. “I didn’t order that,” she said.

“Yes, it’s from the gentleman over there,” the bartender said, pointing at a man wearing a gray suit at the bar. When Darcy turned to look, the man raised his glass to Darcy and smirked at her.

“Seriously?” Darcy asked. “I’m with people.” The bartender shrugged and walked off.

Jane eyed the man at the bar. “Yeah. That’s a little presumptuous, isn’t it.”

Steve straightened. “Do you want me to talk to him?” He offered.

“No, I got this,” Darcy said, and reached out to pick up the martini glass. As soon as her fingers touched the glass, she suddenly felt a wave of dizziness and nausea that vanished the second she snatched her hand away.

“Son of a bitch ,” she snarled, and snatched the drink up again. She stalked over to the man at the bar and flung the drink into his face. He recoiled from her, blinking the stinging liquid out of his eyes.

“The hell, you crazy bitch?” He sputtered.

Darcy summoned her cellphone and snapped a picture of him. “I may be a crazy bitch, but I’m the crazy bitch who is sending your photo to local law enforcement and letting them know you like to rufee women in bars.” She leaned forward, keeping eye contact with the man and using her norn voice. “You are going to leave now, and you are never going to come back again.”

The man blinked a couple more times, and then got up and left. Darcy returned to her table.

“What was that about?” Steve demanded.

Darcy quickly texted him the photo. “He spiked the drink,” she explained.

“What, is he an idiot?” Jane demanded. “You didn’t come alone, and you would think Steve would be enough to discourage anyone.”

Steve’s phone chirped in his pocket and he pulled it out to study the photo. “I’ll run this through SHIELD’s database. I’m sure I can dig up some dirt and make his life miserable.”

Darcy grinned wolfishly. “See, I knew I could count on you.”

Jane got to her feet. “I’m gonna get us another round,” she announced. “After all that, we need another round.”

“A-fucking-men,” Steve said.

XxxXxxX

Darcy woke up with a pounding headache and a mouth that felt like it had been stuffed with cotton. She blocked out the pain but that didn’t change the fact she was badly dehydrated. She gathered her clothing and shuffled down the hall to one of the bathing rooms. She felt marginally more human by the time she went to the kitchens.

One of the dísir met her with a glass of water and a small, blue tablet. “Bless you,” Darcy said, taking both.

Rashid and No One were already at the table, and the smell of coffee drifted over to Darcy as she sat down on Rashid’s other side. Another dís put a plate in front of Darcy. It was a dairy meal, heavy on the raw fruit and vegetables.

Rashid eyed Darcy as she started eating. “You look… unwell, my lady,” he said cautiously.

“Monster hangover,” she told him between bites.

“Oh,” he said, looking startled.

“Brought you something,” Darcy said, and summoned the box from her pocket dimension. She slid it over to him.

“For… me?” He asked, eyes widening.

“Yeah,” Darcy said. She slid the box closer to him.

He opened the box almost cautiously and reached in. He pulled out a can of ground coffee and a french press.

“Remind me to show you how it works,” Darcy told him. “So you can have some when you go back home.”

Rashid opened the lid of the coffee and brightened at the scent. “Thank you, my lady! This was very thoughtful.”

“Welcome,” Darcy bobbed her head. No One eyed the objects sitting in front of Rashid and then turned away. She finished eating in silence and left the kitchen without a word. Darcy watched her leave, and then made a decision. “Excuse me,” she said, putting down her fork. She got up and followed No One down the hall.

She caught up with No One in one of the solariums. “Hey,” she called. “Hey, stop, please. Can we talk?”

No One stopped, shoulders hunching, and then turned around, her expression neutral. “Talk about what, my lady?” She asked flatly.

“Last night you said that you--that you had some of Loki’s memories,” Darcy said, wringing her hands together. “That part of him somehow got inside your head.”

No One’s jaw clenched. “Yes,” she said tightly.

Darcy inhaled slowly. “I just wanted to know how that happened. I don’t really understand and I want to try to make sense of it. Maybe it would help--”

“Help what?” No One snapped. “Help you grieve? Help release you from your guilt? What makes you think you deserve to be free of it?”

Darcy blinked against sudden tears and scowled. “I’m not asking for forgiveness,” she said through clenched teeth. “I just want to understand.”

“I do not owe you understanding,” No One told her harshly. “I do not owe you anything. If it weren’t for you, I would not be cursed with this affliction.”

Something inside Darcy snapped. “You know what,” she said, stepping closer to No One. “Screw you. Loki dying wasn’t my fault . I was fully prepared to sacrifice myself to contain Ragnarok, and the only reason I started Ragnarok was because it was the only way I could stop Skuld!” She jabbed a finger at No One. She could feel heat flushing her face. “And Skuld was the one who enthralled Loki, not me. Just because I spoke words over him doesn’t make me responsible for her actions. If I hadn’t stopped her, she would have destroyed the whole damn universe . So you can take your bad attitude and shove it .”

No One stared at her for several long seconds, green eyes wide and lips parted. Then her mouth curled up slightly, her eyes glinting. “Yes,” she said smugly. “This. This what I was waiting for.” She stepped back from Darcy and closed her eyes. A shimmer of green energy enveloped her, from head to toe, and her features dissolved, revealing…

Darcy stumbled backwards, the breath evaporating from her lungs. There was, thankfully, a bench behind her, and she sank onto it. “Loki?” She whispered.

He knelt in front of her, studying her face with his brows drawn together. “Hello, Darcy,” he said softly.

She reached out unknowingly, her hand stretching toward his face, but she remembered at the last moment and snatched her hand away. “How?” She managed. “I saw--I felt --”

“If I knew, I would tell you,” he said with a sigh. “All I remember is holding Ragnarok, and then I am told I appeared within the Well, unconscious.”

Darcy gasped as realization dawned. “A gift,” she whispered. “Something I lost, but never had. Holy shit.”

The crease between his brows deepened. “I beg your pardon?”

She shook her head. “Never mind. Why didn’t you tell me you were alive?”

His eyes slanted away. “I… have not been myself. It was easier to… not be myself. And when I saw you, saw the guilt you carried… I wanted to draw that out of you.”

That brought Darcy out of her shock. She scowled at Loki. “Wait. You were an asshole to me on purpose ?” She thumped him on the shoulder. “You jerk !”

He tilted his head at her, a faint smile on his lips. “Would you expect anything less from me?”

Darcy shook her head. “I can’t-- Are you real ?” She stretched out her hand again. “Can I..?”

He leaned back from her, his expression sobering. “It would be best if you did not touch me. The woman you called No One, her afflictions were my own.”

Darcy curled her fingers into a fist and lowered it. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

He reached out and touched her knee, their skin safely separated by layers of fabric. “It was my choice,” he told her gently.

Darcy looked down at his hand and clutched her fists to her stomach to resist the urge to touch him. “Why?” She whispered. “Why would you do that for me? You didn’t owe me anything. You only--Skuld--”

Loki’s expression darkened for a moment before clearing, and he delicately removed his hand from her leg. “I would rather not speak of Skuld for the moment,” he said tightly.

Darcy bit her lip. “Sorry. I’m sorry. I just thought…” she trailed off. “Loki, you sacrificed yourself for me. Why would you do that?”

Loki closed his eyes and drew a deep, slow breath. Then he opened his eyes. “Why were we able to form a lagsmaðr bond?” He asked in a carefully neutral voice.

“What?” Darcy asked, thrown for a moment.

“Think about it,” Loki instructed.

Darcy blinked a couple of times. She hadn’t thought of it before, hadn’t thought of how Skuld could have managed to force Loki into the bond with her. Lagsmaðr bonds were only supposed to be formed between willing parties. But most of all, lagsmaðr bonds could only be formed if there was already a strong emotional attachment between the two. A strong emotion; namely, love. Something Skuld would not have been able to force on Loki.

Darcy suddenly found it hard to breathe again. He was watching her with a careful expression on his face, his eyes guarded, cautious.

“Oh,” was all she was able to say for a long moment. She felt numb, detached. The shock of seeing Loki alive, and now this… it was more than she wanted to handle at the moment. She suddenly felt claustrophobic, even in the large chamber and the blue sky visible through the glass dome overhead.

“I have to go,” she said slowly. “I have--There’s something I have to do.”

Loki blinked, and then frowned. He rocked back onto his heels and then stood. “Yes. I see.” He sounded hurt, and confused, but Darcy couldn’t bring herself to reassure him. She had a clear purpose in her mind, and everything else paled in comparison. He stepped backwards to give her room to get up. She edged around him and headed for the door, without looking back.

She didn’t remember walking, but the next thing she knew, she was standing by the Well, staring down at the midnight water. She knelt at the edge of the pool and leaned over.

“Yggdrasil,” she called softly. “I’ll do it. I accept.”

This time, she was expecting it when the vine-wrapped hand broke the surface, twiggy fingers seizing her wrist and dragging her into the water. She landed on her feet underneath Yggdrasil, facing the being. The chamber was larger than she remembered, and the dirt floor was deeply inscribed with runes in swirling patterns.

YOU HAVE MADE YOUR DECISION? Yggdrasil asked, staring at her with burning eyes.

Darcy nodded. “Yes. I’ll do it. I’m ready.”

It stared at her a moment longer. WHY? It demanded.

Darcy took a shaky breath. “You gave me something precious, something… Something I thought I would never have again. This is the least I can do to repay you.”

WE DID NOT GIVE YOU THIS GIFT TO CREATE A DEBT, Yggdrasil told her.

She nodded. “I know. I’m still choosing this of my own accord.”

It inclined its head toward her. VERY WELL. IT WILL BE DONE.

Darcy nodded again and looked around. “So… what are we waiting for?”

YOU ARE PREPARED? Yggdrasil asked.

Darcy took a deep breath. “No, but let’s do this anyway.”

Yggdrasil crossed the chamber in two steps, far more graceful than a thing of its height and build had the right to be. It reached out and cradled her head gently in its large hands. Darcy felt its presence press against her consciousness; vast, powerful, alien, and again her first reaction was to fight. She forced herself to relax, and to open herself to it.

There was a moment of weightlessness, silence, darkness, and then her brain lit up with sensation.

She was vast, ancient, all-encompassing. The stars were the cells of her body and she carried the planets like a mother carried her children. They were hers, her own, billions upon billions of lives, tiny and ephemeral as insects, bright as supernovas. The galaxies turned within her, spiraling around in celestial circles. She was everywhere and in all things; in the darkness between the stars, in the colors of the nebulae, in the burning suns orbited by a million planets. She was all of them, and they were all of her.

She held all of it within her, and she was undone by it. She was Sigyn, and she became no more.

Chapter Text

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.

XxxXxxX

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.”

Chapter Text

The chamber was dimly lit, illuminated only by spotlights on the simple, white pedestals spaced around the edge of the room. On each of the pedestals sat a different object, most of whose origins and uses were a mystery to Darcy.

 

Two of the dísir stood behind her, Loki beside her. Darcy stared down at the empty pedestal in front of her, biting her lip. Loki touched her shoulder gently, just a brief pressure of his fingertips. “This is a safe place for it,” he told her quietly. “Between the desert and Shaitan, no one will come looking here.”

 

Darcy nodded. “I know. It’s just…” She shook her head. “No. It needs to stay here.” She held out her hands, palms facing each other, and concentrated. The Tesseract appeared between her palms, hovering in mid air. Its blue luminescence reflected off Loki’s pale skin, and his eyes darkened at the sight of it.

 

Though she dare not touch the Stone, Darcy could still feel the high-pitched hum vibrating in her chest and the back of her teeth, just at the barest edge of hearing. She carefully lowered it down onto the pedestal, and then stepped back.

 

Loki touched her arm, drawing her another step back. “Thousands of your people have died for that accursed thing,” he told her in a low voice. “You are doing the right thing.”

 

Darcy nodded and finally tore her gaze away. “It’s their nature,” she said, swallowing thickly. “They want to be used. They are seductive.”

 

Loki directed a brief, dirty look in the direction of the Infinity Stone before turning away. “Thanos will not find it here,” he assured her.

 

Darcy turned away as well. “I sure hope not. I’ve already died because of that thing. I’d hate for the dísir to get hurt, too.”

 

“We have ways of protecting ourselves, Lady Sigyn,” one of the dísir said. “We will not allow it to be used,” the other added.

 

“Thank you,” Darcy told them, and shot the Tesseract one last look before they left the chamber. It felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders, and her mood lightened instantly. “So we’ve got the Aether and the Tesseract under control. Two down, four to go.”

 

A strange expression crossed Loki’s face for a moment, and then it passed. “Will you make that your mission?” He asked. “Collecting the Stones?”

 

“God, no,” Darcy said forcefully. “No. I do not need that crap in my life. I am done with Stones. Done.”

 

“That is a relief,” Loki said dryly.

 

They made their way to one of the solariums and Darcy flopped onto one of the cozy armchairs under the dome. It had been a week since waking up from her post-joining coma, and the dísir had finally deemed Darcy recovered enough to travel. They would be leaving for Asgard the next day. Rashid had already departed, escorted back to Amirtha by a dís.

 

Loki remained standing, hands clasped behind his back in a familiar pose. Every line of his body was tense, coiled and taught, but that was his new normal. He expended so much energy keeping his mind and his powers under control that it bled over into his body.  It made Darcy sad to see him wound so tight, but for the moment there was nothing she could do.

 

“Are you ready for tomorrow?” She asked, staring up at him.

 

“I have no idea,” he replied honestly, his gaze fixed on a point far distant. He was wearing a simple tunic, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, revealing the lagsmaðr markings on his left arm. He’d been doing some kind of seidr-working when she’d asked him to accompany her to the dísir’s treasure room. She’d found him surrounded by books in one of the libraries, with several transparent white-boards covered in his spidery handwriting.

 

Darcy stared at him a moment longer. “How do you feel about your hair?” She asked. He was, as usual, wearing it pulled back with a golden clip. He gave her a confused look. She gestured helplessly toward him. “It’s so long ,” she complained. “Do you want it that long, or--”

 

When she didn’t continue, he prompted her, “Or?”

 

She scrunched her face up. “Can I cut it?” She asked hesitantly.

 

He blinked a couple of times. “You wish to…” He frowned at her. “Does it bother you that much?”

 

“No,” Darcy said quickly. “I just think it’s a little… out of control.”

 

His expression turned amused. “Really?”

 

“Dude, it’s almost as long as mine,” Darcy told him. “When was the last time you got a haircut?”

 

His amused expression vanished, replaced by another frown. “I… do not remember.” He reached up and removed the clip before running his fingers through his hair. “It is long,” he admitted.

 

“If you like it, then don’t worry about it,” Darcy blurted.

 

“No,” he said. “If you are willing, I would have you cut it.”

 

Darcy bounced up to her feet. “Excellent.”

 

It didn’t take her long to find a pair of scissors sharp enough to suffice, and they stole a stool from the kitchen before setting up on the grass in one of the arboretums. Somewhere along the way they were joined by Víl the raven, who looked intensely interested in the proceedings.

 

In order to respect Loki’s boundaries, Darcy wore a pair of thin, fabric gloves to prevent skin contact. As she cut the strands away, she tried to ignore the way he flinched every time her fingers came in contact with him, gloves or no.

 

Víl was joined by several jewel-toned songbirds who fluttered down by Darcy’s feet to snatch the discarded hair up in their beaks before darting away. “I didn't realize it was nesting time,” Darcy commented.

 

“Seasons run differently here,” Loki replied after a moment.

 

Darcy finished as quickly as she could and then stepped back to examine her work. She was not a hairdresser by any means, but she had a good eye and a steady hand. Loki got to his feet and ran his fingers through his hair a few more times to shake loose any remaining clippings. It was now just above jaw-length, and reflected the sunlight blue-black like Víl’s feathers.

 

“How do I look?” he asked Darcy with a half-teasing smile.

 

Young, she wanted to say, and was startled by that reaction. He did, indeed, look young. Darcy did some quick mental mathematics. Relative to a human, he was barely older than twenty-five, and had already suffered so much. He looked young, and vulnerable, and fragile.

 

“Dashing,” was what she said out loud, and returned his smile.

 

“That will do, I suppose,” he replied, brushing clippings from his tunic. “I would hate to be less than presentable when meeting the king and queen of Asgard.”

 

“Your parents ,” Darcy emphasized. Loki paused, looking thoughtful.

 

“Adopted parents,” he finally conceded.

 

Víl jumped from the shrub he'd been perched on and glided over to Loki, who raised his arm out of instinct rather than intent. Víl landed on Loki’s proffered forearm, black talons digging into Loki’s skin. The raven darted his head forward to take a lock of Loki’s hair in his beak and tugged it almost playfully before releasing it and taking off again.

 

“I think he likes you,” Darcy said, her eyes tracking the flight of the bird.

 

“I cannot imagine why,” Loki said, also starting the raven.

 

Darcy dropped her gaze and saw a line of dark red blood trickle down Loki’s wrist where Víl’s talons had pierced his skin. Knowing Loki would refuse to allow her to examine him, she eschewed permission and grabbed his arm with her still-gloved hand, pulling it toward her.

 

There were two puncture wounds the underside of his forearm, both leaking blood. But there were also half a dozen or so deep, silvery lines slashing crosswise down his arm, too deliberate to be accidental.

 

Loki yanked his arm out of Darcy's grasp hard enough to pull her off balance. “I have asked you not to touch me,” he snarled at her.

 

“You were bleeding,” Darcy said flatly.

 

“I hardly require assistance,” he growled, swiping the blood off onto the front of his tunic, where it left dark, brownish stains.

 

“The scars,” Darcy said, refusing to let her emotions leak into her voice. “The ones on your arm. How did you get them?”

 

Loki yanked the sleeves of his tunic down. “That is none of your concern,” he told her harshly.

 

“Yes, it is,” Darcy insisted. “You’re my lagsmaðr, Loki. It's my job to help you.”

 

“I have not asked for your help in this,” he replied. “How I control the chaos within me is my business, and I will not have you meddle. If you cannot respect a simple task, then I have nothing more to say to you.” With that he turned and stalked away,leaving Darcy staring after him, feeling blindsided. She sunk down onto the vacated stool and propped her chin on her hands. If this was how every one of her interactions Loki was going to end, she did not foresee a good future for their relationship.

 

XxxXxxX

 

Darcy stood in the center of the Nexus, staring at the black doorway labeled “Asagarth, Asgard.” She wondered why it had never occurred to her to ask the name of Asgard’s capitol city.

 

She wore one of the plain white chainses provided by the dísir, but over it she had on the purple coat given to her by Frigga a couple of months prior, when Darcy had gone to Asgard during the Aether situation. And though her hair was loose and unbound, the horned moon emblem hung from the ribbon around her brow.

 

She'd been waiting for seven minutes, but it felt like hours. The three dísir waiting with her had said nothing, thankfully, and likely wouldn't out of respect. Finally, just when Darcy was about to leave the chamber to go searching, Loki strode through the doorway.

 

The tension between Darcy's shoulder blades abruptly relaxed. Loki was wearing formal Asgardian clothing, all in his customary green and gold and black. His eyes were bright and clear, his stride purposeful. Víl rode on one shoulder, the raven dancing from foot to foot in excitement.

 

“Hi,” Darcy greeted, smiling in relief.

 

“I apologize for keeping you,” Loki said sheepishly. “This fool bird kept following me and I could not convince it to stay.”

 

Darcy reached up and stroked the raven's back. “He likes you,” she said. “You are, after all, Raven-born.”

 

Loki frowned at that but didn't argue with her. The dísir stepped forward to make their goodbyes, and one of them held out a small, flat wooden box. “For you, my lady,” she said.

 

Darcy took it a little uncertainly. “Thank you?” She said, and looked between the three dísir. “Should--should I open it now?”

 

They smiled. “If you like, Lady Sigyn,” the one on the left said.

 

Darcy undid the latch and opened the box. Inside were four objects, one of which was a plain black credit card with no name or expiration date, just a number. The other objects were a flat gold bar the size of Darcy’s forefinger, engraved with the Asgardian rune for money, a silver coin with a square hole in the center, and a token in the shape of a stag.

 

“For when you need money, Lady Sigyn,” the dís in the middle said. She pointed to the gold bar. “This will be accepted on Asgard and Vanaheim.” She pointed to the coin. “This will be accepted on Muspell.” She pointed to the stag token. “And this will be accepted on Niflheim, Nornheim, and Rhia.”

 

Darcy carefully closed the lid of the box and stored it safely in her pocket dimension. “Thank you,” she said sincerely. She embraced each dís. “Thanks for everything,” she told them.

 

They bowed to her. “It is our pleasure to serve,” they said in unison. Then the one on the right looked at Loki. “Any debt you owe us is paid in full,” she told him. “May your path ahead by easier than your path behind.”

 

He offered them a bow in return. “You have my thanks,” he said gravely. Then he offered Darcy his arm. She rested her hand on the crook of his elbow, smiling faintly up at him, and they stepped through the doorway.

 

The Way brought them directly into the palace, through an archway of stone in one of the gardens. Darcy looked around. It was evening, the garden lit by hanging lanterns of gold and crystal. The garden was empty and silent, insulated from the city and palace beyond.

 

Loki stood rooted to the spot, eyes fixed ahead, glassy and blank. Darcy squeezed his arm, peering worriedly up at him, and he shook himself. “I think perhaps I should wait here,” he said. “And stay out of sight.”

 

Darcy nodded. “I’ll go get Frigga and bring her back here. Are you going to be okay alone?”

 

Loki gestured to Víl on his shoulder. “I will not be alone,” he said dryly. “I will send him after you if I have need.”

 

She slipped her arm out of his. “Okay. Fair enough. I’ll be back in a bit.”

 

He nodded, and Darcy reluctantly set off through the gardens back toward the palace proper. With the return of most of her abilities, it was a simple enough matter to pinpoint Frigga’s location and go to her. She was in a private audience chamber with a gaggle of courtiers, discussing what appeared to be the palace budget, if Darcy was reading the runes on their scattered books correctly.

 

Frigga looked up as the guard opened the door for Darcy, and smiled broadly. “Darcy! What a wonderful surprise! When did you arrive in Asgard?”

 

“Literally, like, five minutes ago,” Darcy replied, returning Frigga’s smile a little nervously. “Am I interrupting anything?”

 

Frigga waved the courtiers away. “No, of course not. Can I have some tea brought? Have you eaten?”

 

“I’m good, thanks,” Darcy said, wringing her hands together. Frigga must have caught on to her anxiety, because her smile slipped a little. “I was hoping we could go for a walk.”

 

“Yes, of course,” Frigga said, stepping toward Darcy. The two women left the audience chamber, Darcy leading Frigga back to the garden. “You seem troubled, my dear,” Frigga observed. “Is everything alright?”

 

“I have to show you something,” Darcy told her. “And it might upset you. I just need you to promise to not freak out.”

 

Frigga smiled wryly. “I am not in the habit of ‘freaking out,’” she assured Darcy.

 

“It’s about Loki,” Darcy said bluntly. “So you still might.”

 

Frigga stopped walking in the hallway, staring at Darcy with round, blue eyes. “Loki?” She echoed in a breathless whisper.

 

Darcy nodded. “Like I said. Don’t freak out.” She started walking again, and Frigga followed her after a moment. They entered the garden and Darcy felt her anxiety ratcheting up several notches. They made the last turn, and…

 

Loki stood waiting for them on the path, hands clasped behind his back and Víl still perched on one shoulder. His expression was carefully blank though his eyes were nervous. Frigga came to a halt as if she had hit an invisible wall, one hand flying up to her mouth.

 

Loki swallowed, sighed, and then said, “Hello, mother.”

 

Frigga made a sound suspiciously like a sob. “My son,” she exclaimed, and started toward Loki, hands stretching out. Before Loki could flinch away, Darcy grabbed Frigga’s arm to stop her.

 

“You can’t touch him,” Darcy blurted.

 

Frigga froze again, blinking in confusion. “Is he… Is he not here?” She asked hesitantly. “Is this only an illusion?”

 

“No, I am here, mother,” Loki assured her. “I just… I cannot bear to be touched, at the moment. I am sorry.”

 

Darcy let go of Frigga’s arm and Frigga clasped her hands in front of her to keep from reaching out to Loki again. She stared silently at Loki for several long moments, and then asked, “How can this be? Thor said you were slain, on Svartalfheim.”

 

“I nearly was,” Loki admitted. “And to Thor’s knowledge, I did die there. But I lived, and I made my way to Midgard, where Darcy was able to tend my wounds and saved my life.”

 

“Well, actually Wyrd told me how, I just followed her instructions,” Darcy said, embarrassed. Loki tilted his head and gave her a look. She shrugged in reply.

 

“And you have been on Midgard these last months?” Frigga asked, her voice shaking slightly, but otherwise she was under tight control.

 

Loki’s expression darkened momentarily. “No,” he said after a moment. “I was… I have been…” He struggled with his words for a moment and then turned to look at Darcy. “I cannot… please?”

 

She nodded and took a deep breath. “Shortly after the whole thing with Malekith, we discovered that Skuld, my sister, had been manipulating events in order to start Ragnarok before its time.”

 

Frigga gasped, turning to look at Darcy. “Ragnarok?” She echoed. “But how? And why?”

 

“To remake the universe,” Darcy said bitterly. “A universe with no one in it, except the norns. It was her idea of utopia, I guess. She just… snapped.” It was Darcy’s turn to swallow. She looked at Loki. “You want me to tell her?”

 

Loki nodded silently, jaw clenched. Frigga looked between them, brow furrowed.

 

“Tell me what?” She demanded.

 

“When Loki was born, I spoke words over him,” Darcy said, her eyes never leaving Loki’s face. “Among other things, I said he would start Ragnarok,” Loki flinched, and Darcy paused before continuing. “Skuld heard that, and decided to use Loki for her own purposes. When Loki was younger, Skuld mind-controlled him. All the things he did, on Jotunheim, here on Asgard, even on earth, they were all done under Skuld’s coercion.”

 

Frigga pressed her hand to her mouth again, and this time tears welled in her eyes, spilling over onto her cheeks. “Oh, Loki,” she whispered. “My son.”

 

“Loki’s not responsible for the crimes he committed,” Darcy pressed on. “All of it was Skuld’s doing. She was the one who had Thanos try to murder me on earth, to get me out of the way. She tried to use Loki to start Ragnarok.”

 

Frigga lowered her hand once more, but tears still fell from her eyes. “But she failed,” she said in a surprisingly steady voice.

 

“Yes,” Darcy said flatly. “Because I used Ragnarok to kill her.”

 

Frigga’s eyes widened and she stared at Darcy, mouth parted in shock. “You… slew her?” She asked softly. “Your sister?”

 

Darcy pressed her lips together. “She was trying to end the universe,” she replied harshly. “I didn’t have a choice.” Darcy glanced up at Loki, who was even paler than usual and breathing heavily. He looked cornered, trapped, and it was all he could do not to flee. She wished she could reach out to him, reassure him, touch him, but that would only drive him away.

 

“Loki saved my life,” Darcy said softly. “The first thing he did after getting free from Skuld. He took Ragnarok and saved me. It almost killed him.”

 

Loki met her eyes and managed to smile faintly, one hand reaching out to brush her arm with his fingertips, where the lagsmaðr markings were hidden by her sleeve. A silent reaffirmation of his promise. She smiled back at him.

 

“Yggdrasil saved Loki, as a favor to me,” Darcy continued, turning back to Frigga. “So we came here, to tell you guys what happened. To clear Loki’s name.”

 

Frigga wrapped her arms around herself, shoulders hunched and head lowered. For a moment she remained in silence, deep in thought. Then she heaved a deep sigh and straightened once more, looking at Loki.

 

“I am so sorry, my son,” she said quietly. “We failed you, your father and I. We did not see the truth of things.”

 

Loki shifted his weight from foot to foot uncomfortably. “You could not have known,” he said sharply, unable to meet his mother’s gaze. “No one knew. Not even the other norns.”

 

Darcy twitched at that. That was the rub, wasn’t it? She’d bonded Loki, was inside his mind and his soul, and she still had had no idea he was under coercion. Loki may not blame her, but that didn’t mean some small part of her didn’t hate herself.

 

Frigga took a deep, shaky breath. “This… this is heavy news. Have you… does anyone else know?”

 

“Thor knows,” Loki said, still staring fixedly at the ground in front of him. “He does not know I yet live after Ragnarok, but he knows.”

 

Frigga frowned at that and Darcy cut in, “Loki was MIA for a few weeks after Ragnarok. We kinda assumed he was dead.”

 

Frigga smiled faintly at that. “It appears as if he has become quite adept at that,” she said ruefully.

 

Loki snorted and glanced up quickly. “Not by intent, I assure you.”

 

Frigga clasped her hands together and pressed them to her chest. “Loki, I cannot express in words my joy at seeing you alive,” she told him. “And my sorrow for what you suffered. I am glad… I am glad you have returned home. When your father hears of this… you will be welcomed back, I promise you.”

 

Loki raised his head and met his mother’s gaze for the first time. “I have not returned,” he told her with a frown. “I come here as a courtesy, but I do not intend to stay. Darcy and I will return to Midgard, as is her desire.”

 

Frigga seemed taken aback by that, and at loss for something to say. Loki belated realized how his words could have been taken, and a brief expression of frustration passed over his face.

 

“No, mother, I only meant…” he trailed off and looked to Darcy for assistance again.

 

“I’ve taken Loki as my lagsmaðr, Frigga,” Darcy explained gently.

 

“Oh,” Frigga gasped. “ Oh . That is--that is wonderful news. I am so happy for you both. Of course. This is--” She cut herself off and turned around as if to pace away, and then immediately turned back. “Your father. I must--He must hear of this. I shall fetch him straightaway. I will go and return. You will--you will be here when I get back?” Her expression was torn between hope and fear, as if she dreaded that Loki would vanish when her back was turned.

 

Loki took two steps toward his mother and raised his hand, briefly closing his fingers around her wrist before releasing her. “I am not going anywhere,” he assured her with a smile. “I will be here when you return.”

 

“Yes, of course,” Frigga said, but she sounded more as if she was reassuring herself. “I--I will be swift.” She started to walk away back toward the palace, but she stopped and turned back to look at them one last time before disappearing around the bend.

 

Darcy and Loki stood in silence for a long moment. “That went well,” Darcy finally observed.

 

Loki hummed to himself. “I did not anticipate her being the difficult one,” he told Darcy. “My mother, throughout everything, never lost hope for me.”

 

The corner of Darcy’s mouth curled upwards. “I like your mom.”

 

“Yes,” Loki agreed. “So do I.”

 

Darcy chewed on her lip for a moment. “Your dad’s not gonna be as easy,” she pointed out.

 

Loki reached up and offered Víl his closed fist. The raven obligingly stepped from Loki’s shoulder to his hand. Loki stared at the bird for a moment before launching him into the air. “No,” he said. “He will not be.”

 

“Are you gonna be okay?” Darcy pressed.

 

“I could not say,” Loki replied. “If I am… not, can I trust you to intervene?”

 

“Of course,” Darcy said immediately. She sincerely hoped she wouldn’t have to intervene. Despite being a norn, despite being joined with Yggdrasil, she was still very much human. If Loki or Odin snapped, she would have to rely on her non-physical abilities to keep them separate, and she didn’t put much faith in her ability to talk Loki down from a murderous rage.

 

So she really, really hoped she didn’t have to intervene.

 

As time passed, Loki’s anxiety grew. He began to pace, drumming the fingers of one hand against his thigh. He flinched at every noise heard in their corner of the garden, even just the chirp of a songbird. Even more, Darcy wanted to touch him, hold him, find some way to comfort him, but she held herself apart, hands shoved deep into the pockets of her coat.

 

They heard Odin long before they saw him, his voice raised and interspersed with Frigga’s more sedate replies. Loki froze at the first sound of his father’s voice, eyes going wide and his face growing truly bloodless.

 

Darcy stepped forward. “We don’t have to do this now,” she said. “We can still leave.” She gestured to the archway behind them. “That’s a two-way door.”

 

“No,” Loki said stiffly. “I told Frigga I would stay.”

 

Darcy nodded. “I won’t let anything happen to you,” she told him. “You know that, right?”

 

He blinked and looked at her, studied her face for a moment. “ I am supposed to be your protector, dear heart,” he told her.

 

Darcy’s breath caught in her throat at the term of endearment, but she didn’t let anything show on her face. “Partners,” she said. “How many times do I have to tell you?”

 

“At least once more,” he replied, and then Odin appeared around the bend in the path.

 

The Allfather stood in all his regal glory, armor gleaming and cloak fluttering in the slight breeze. He gripped his spear in one hand, Gungnir, if Darcy’s memory served. He stared at Loki with his one good eye, expression thunderous. Loki lifted his chin under Odin’s gaze, staring defiantly back.

 

“What is the meaning of this?” Odin demanded sharply. “You would dare stand there before me, as you were a guest in my house and not a traitor ?”

 

“My husband, if you would but listen ,” Frigga tried to speak, but Odin cut her off with a gesture and a glare.

 

“The time has long past to plead on his behalf, wife,” he interrupted her. “Loki has admitted his crimes and will be brought to account for them.”

 

There was a gleam to Loki’s eye that Darcy didn’t like, so before he could say anything, Darcy stepped in front of him, between him and Odin, and turned to face the Allfather. “I have brought Loki here,”she said, falling back on Sigyn’s speech patterns in the face of Odin’s anger. “He is here under my authority, and my protection. I have seen fit to take Loki as my lagsmaðr, and as such any crimes you would lay on him must be set aside.”

 

Odin’s weathered face darkened as it was suffused with blood. His mouth moved silently for a few seconds until he found his voice again. “You would make a mockery of me?” He boomed at Darcy. “You would conspire against me? Is this how the norns would cast their lot? To flaunt before me the one who would kill and betray me?”

 

Darcy gritted her teeth together, anger flaring in her chest. She took a deep breath to reply, probably just as hotly, when Loki gripped her shoulder hard enough to make her bones creak and thrust her aside, stepping toward his adopted father.

 

“Would you for once shut up and listen ,” Loki hissed at Odin. “Or have you become so inured to the sound of your own voice you are deaf to all others?”

 

Odin lowered his spear to point directly at Loki’s chest. “You will hold your poisonous tongue,” he growled.

 

“Will I?” Loki challenged. “I have held my tongue for long enough. I have seen all you have done to Loki, to one you once claimed as son , and I will be silent no longer. You were always so quick to count my faults, father .” He spat the last word as if it tasted bitter in his mouth. “But that should be no surprise, should it? You knew from the start what I was. Is that what you told yourself? How you comforted yourself in your own failings? ‘But of course he should be troublesome. He is, after all, a Frost Giant .’”

 

Loki walked forward until the point of Odin’s spear pressed into his chest, wrinkling the fabric of his tunic. Frigga gasped, pressing a hand to her mouth, and Darcy reached out, only stopping when Loki waved a hand at her, not taking his gaze from Odin’s face.

 

“And when you thought I had betrayed you, when it was my hands that put you in danger,” Loki continued, his voice trembling with the weight of anger it carried. “You told yourself there could be no other explanation. You never asked yourself why , after a lifetime of loyalty and obedience, after professions of love, why your faithful son would throw all of it away simply because he found himself to be--” Loki’s voice broke, his mask of anger shattering into one of pain. “Because he found himself to be a monster ,” he finished, barely above a whisper.

 

“Loki,” Darcy said, and reached out for him again. Loki twisted away from her, raising one hand to ward him off.

 

“Don’t!” He barked at her. He backed away, from her and from Odin, and his eyes were wide, wild, pupils almost swallowing the irises. “I can’t… I cannot…” He twisted his hand into an arcane gesture, and then vanished in a flash of green energy.

 

Shit ,” Darcy spat. She whirled on Odin. “You are the stupidest , most selfish, arrogant , short-sighted-- aargh!” She threw her hands into the air in frustration and stomped past the royal couple down the path. “You tell him,” she snarled at Frigga, and headed toward the palace.

 

Loki might have had ways to hide himself from Heimdall, but Darcy wasn’t Heimdall, and Loki couldn’t hide from her. Even if her norn-senses would have failed her, the bond between them, now that she was aware of it again, was as strong as ever, and it would have led her straight to him.

 

When Darcy reached the doorway her senses were guiding her towards, she hesitated, and then knocked. There was no reply, so Darcy tried the handle. It was locked. Darcy knocked again. “Loki,” she called. “It’s me. Let me in.” For a moment, there was no answer, and then the lock turned, the door swinging open in her hand.

 

The room beyond was a sitting room, quite standard by Asgard’s standards. There was nothing about it that seemed to distinguish it from any of the others Darcy had been in. It was also notably empty of Loki. Darcy caught sight of another door on the other side of the room and crossed over to it, pulling it open.

 

She stepped through into a bedchamber, and she knew immediately whose it was. The bed was narrow by Asgard’s accounting, shoved carelessly into a corner but made neatly. The walls were lined with shelves and stuffed full of books, hundreds of them, in some places stacked atop each other.

 

A work bench and a writing desk took up one end of the room, and Darcy walked over to inspect both. The shelves above them were filled with small objects; tiny automations, bits of machines, and open boxes of spare parts. A case of tools sat on the bench, ranging from tiny picks and pliers to what appeared to be a welding gun.

 

The desk held a neat stack of journals, and several loose pages, some written with a familiar, spidery hand, and other with intricately detailed sketches and diagrams. Darcy didn’t try to read the notes, and touched nothing.

 

She scanned the room one last time. It hadn’t been touched, not a single thing moved, in over a year. Darcy was pretty sure that was Frigga’s doing, wishing to preserve the last good memory she had of her younger son.

 

There was a third door, over in the corner by the bed. Darcy knocked on it, waited, and received only silence. But when she tried the handle, she found it unlocked. It opened into a closet the size of a normal person’s bedroom, but it was only partially filled with clothes. The rest was taken up by boxes and jars and bags and baskets of odds and ends, machine parts and bits of metal and tiny gems and wire.

 

Loki sat in the furthest corner, back to the wall. His knees were drawn to his chest and his head was bent forward, hair falling across his face. He didn’t speak, or look up, not even when Darcy lowered herself down beside him, close enough that their shoulders were pressed together.

 

Darcy didn’t say anything, just sat there, staring straight ahead, waiting. She waited for a long time, listening to Loki breathe, deep and steady, until he finally unwrapped one arm from where it curled around his shins. Darcy’s own breath faltered when she felt him slide his hand into hers, skin against skin.

 

She wasn’t prepared for the barrage of images, the press of infinity against her mind, but she clutched tight to Loki’s hand and fought back against it, erecting her mental shields one brick at a time until finally the storm calmed and she became aware of herself again.

 

They sat there, in the safety of Loki’s childhood room, hand in hand, until Ragnarok finally released Loki enough for him to speak.

 

“Thank you,” he whispered, his voice a harsh rasp.


Darcy squeezed his hand. “Anytime,” she replied.

Chapter Text

Darcy didn’t keep track of how long she sat with Loki, his hand clutching at hers, but as each hour passed, her mental barrier corroded bit by bit until flashes of his inner chaos began to bleed through. Darcy desperately didn’t want to let go of his hand, but her mental powers had suffered after her rebirth, and she was still building her skills.

 

So it was with great reluctance that she squeezed his hand one last time and then let go. He immediately released her hand, snatching his own back with a speed that cut deep in Darcy’s chest. “I am sorry,” he said quickly. “I should not have imposed on you.”

 

“You don’t have to apologize for that,” she told him, bumping his shoulder with hers. “I’m here for you, no matter what. And hey, it’s good practice. Apparently my mental skills didn’t pass on with my last reincarnation. I’m a little rusty.”

 

“I could instruct you,” he offered, turning to look at her. “If you wanted.”

 

She smiled at him. “Yeah. I’d like that.” She stretched her legs out in front of her, pointing and flexing her feet to work out the kinks in her calves. “Your mom is probably looking for us,” she said ruefully.

 

Loki leaned his head back against the wall. He dropped one knee, propping his elbow on the one still upraised. “I would wager Frigga knows exactly where we are,” he said, one corner of his mouth turning down. “This is not the first time I have taken refuge here away from my father. Or Thor. Or for any number of reasons.”

 

Darcy scrunched her mouth to the side. “Everybody needs a safe place, I guess,” she said at length.

 

He snorted, clenching his hand into a fist. “I should have long outgrown it, the inability to face my father in his wrath.”

 

Darcy raised her eyebrows. “I think you did just fine a little bit ago.”

 

“Those were not my words,” Loki replied tightly. “I had no intention of--” he cut himself off. “Whatever… wrongs he may or may not have committed against me, he is the Allfather, and no one, least of all myself, should have spoken to him thus.”

 

Darcy waited for a further explanation, but Loki fell silent once more, expression pensive. “What do you mean, they weren’t your words?” She prompted him.

 

He blinked, glanced at her and quickly away. He raised one hand to tap the side of his head. “There are voices, inside. Many of them I don’t recognize. But one… One is my own. It speaks things. Terrible things. And I cannot control it all the time.”

 

Darcy frowned in thought, her mind racing to scrounge up every bit of knowledge from her undergraduate psychology class. Of course, there was nothing in her textbooks that could even come close to Loki’s level of trauma, but perhaps something could be comparable.

 

Loki hearing voices was concerning, but schizophrenia was genetic, wasn’t it? And besides, the voices could be a side-effect of the memories of past-present-future he’d absorbed during Ragnarok. Hearing another version of his own voice, however, was something completely different.

 

“Do you feel like this voice is… a whole other person?” Darcy asked slowly. “Someone who isn’t you?”

 

Loki considered that for a moment, and then nodded slowly. “It is the person Skuld created,” he said flatly. “The villain. The traitor. Not the man… Not the man I desire to be.” He rubbed his forehead, brow furrowing. “He digs and scrapes at my defenses. I try to hold him at bay but I fear I am not always successful.”

 

Darcy bit her lip and kept her expression carefully schooled. If Loki was talking about a whole other personality he had locked up in his head, then he needed far more help than she could provide. She had a sneaking suspicion, that if she suggested he seek out the mind-healers, that he would reject the suggestion out of hand.

 

Skuld had messed Loki up bad . And Darcy was going to have to live with her part in that. How Loki could have gone through all that and still stood the sight of her, she had no idea. She bumped his shoulder again, drawing his gaze to meet hers.

 

“We’ll figure this out,” she told him. “I promise. You’ll get better.”

 

His eyebrow twitched. “So you keep saying. I’m afraid I do not hold out the same hope.”

 

“Then it’s a good thing I’m a lot more stubborn than you,” Darcy told him, crossing her arms over her chest. She kicked his leg lightly. “Come on. I don’t think your dad is still mad by now. Your mom probably gave him the most epic dressing down of his life.”

 

That teased a smile out of him. “Yes. She is such a formidable woman.”

 

“Dude, she almost took out Malekith by herself,” Darcy said. “He only won because he cheated.”

 

Loki tilted his head at her. “I heard you saved her life.”

 

Darcy shrugged. “I distracted him until Thor got there and lit him up. Of course, I got zapped too, so it was kinda a sucky plan, but your mom didn’t die, so, win.”

 

“Then I am glad you were there,” Loki said softly. He rose gracefully to his feet and offered her his hand. “Shall we?”

 

Darcy looked from his proffered hand to his face, eyebrows raised questioningly. When he nodded permission, Darcy put her hand in his and he pulled her easily to her feet, dropping her hand as soon as she was upright.

 

“Let’s just see if we can find your parents without getting arrested,” Darcy said dryly. “Neither one of us left Asgard on good terms. You know, with you breaking out of jail and me doing the breaking out.”

 

A slow, wide smile bloomed across his face. “Yes. We make quite the pair, do we not?”

 

“Down with the constabulary,” Darcy said in a horrible imitation of an English accent. It must have translated well through Allspeak, because Loki snorted and shook his head at her.

 

She followed him out of the closet and into his bedroom. Loki paused for a moment, eyes roaming around the room as if seeing it for the first time. Since he probably teleported directly into his closet, he likely was. His gaze fell on his workbench, and he crossed over to it, picking up the half-made device resting by the toolbox.

 

“What is it?” Darcy asked. Loki turned so she could see his hands. He pushed a knob, twisted a screw, and the device began to tremble and whir. He smiled ruefully.

 

“I intended it to project a false image, like a wall or a door,” he said turning it over in his hands.

 

“Really?” Darcy said, impressed. “It’s so small.”

 

“I hoped to use magic to augment the mechanics, in order to minimize the size,” he explained. “But I could never find a way to make the spell to bind to the metal.”

 

“Because magic binds better to living or once living things,” Darcy said, remembering their lessons from before.

 

“Yes,” Loki confirmed. “Wood, leather, plant material, even flesh.” He blinked. “Which reminds me.” He held out his hand, palm up, and a familiar object appeared.

 

Darcy gasped faintly, eyes widening. It was the bracelet he had so painstakingly made for her while in his cell. Made of ivory, it was shaped like a serpent biting its own tail, eyes set with green stones and scales picked out in rose gold. It was carved with a pattern of runes and it served as a talisman; a focus for seidr-working.

 

“I made sure to examine it closely,” he told her, his eyes watching her carefully. “It contains no harmful magic. I thought… I thought you might still want it, even if…”

 

Even if he had created it under Skuld’s control. But it was still a thing of beauty, and had been made by Loki’s hands. And if he had kept it, clearly he was proud of it. Darcy reached out and carefully plucked it from his hand, feeling the hum of magic against her skin. She slipped it over her right wrist and looked back up at him.

 

“I’d love to keep it,” she told him. He didn’t smile, but his eyes softened, becoming warmer. He put the device back onto his workbench and took one last look around before heading toward the door, Darcy following. Loki didn’t pause in the sitting room but when he reached the outer door, there was an Einherjar waiting for them.

 

Both of them jerked to a halt, Loki moving to place himself between Darcy and the guard. He extended one hand to warn her back, the other brought up to his chest, ready to summon his dagger. The Einherjar blinked a couple of times, and then stepped backwards away from them before bowing.

 

“Her Majesty requests your presence,” he said in a neutral voice.

 

Loki lowered his knife hand and straightened. “Oh,” he said, sounding surprised. Darcy stepped up beside him and touched his arm briefly.

 

“Remember how I said I liked your mom?” She stage-whispered. “I think I love her.”

 

He shook his head briefly and then once more gallantly offered her his arm. The guard led them to Frigga’s sitting room using back corridors and avoiding any common areas, keeping them out of sight the entire time. Frigga was waiting for them when they arrived.

 

“I am so sorry,” she said as soon as they stepped through the door. “I did try to explain everything to him before we returned but he would not listen. I cannot excuse him, but you know how your father gets.” She crossed the room to join them, her hands clasped over her stomach. “I have told him what you told me. He… thought it best that he not see you for a while.”

 

Loki blinked a couple of times. “Is he that angry with my impertinence?” He asked, pressing his elbow, and Darcy’s hand, tight to his side.

 

“Oh, no, my son,” Frigga assured him. “He fears you would be too upset to speak with him.”

 

“I see,” Loki said slowly. He looked down and then back up at his mother. “I am not upset,” he assured her.

 

“You have every right to be,” Frigga told him. “What he said to you, and you,” she turned and nodded at Darcy, “Is inexcusable.”

 

Darcy raised an eyebrow. “I have a feeling that Odin doesn’t really like me,” she said.

 

“You challenge him,” Frigga replied with a sigh. “He does not like being challenged.” She gestured for them to sit down at the couches. “Odin is going to issue a proclamation tonight, to announce you have been declared innocent of all crimes.”

 

“Oh, excellent,” Loki said acidly. “Announce to the whole realm that Loki was weak enough to have his mind coopted and played like a puppet on a string.”

 

The tone of his voice and the use of third person rang warning bells in Darcy’s head, and she squeezed his arm. “Loki, you okay?” She asked. “You still with me?”

 

He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. On the exhale, Darcy felt him force his muscles to relax. By the time he opened his eyes again, he’d gotten himself under control. “Yes,” he said at length. “I am fine. Thank you.”

 

Frigga watched him, concern evident on her face. When Loki turned his gaze back to her, she said, “We do not think you weak, Loki,” she told him softly. “Skuld was a norn. Few of us could have stood against her, and certainly not a child.”

 

“They will still see me as weak,” he said, more weary than bitter. He stepped away from Darcy and began to pace slowly around the edge of the room. “They will see me as a victim. They will never trust me to lead them. Whatever the Allfather says, I will still be a pariah.”

 

Darcy watched him silently as he paced, his agitation evident in every line of his body. He was not in the mood to be comforted, she could tell, and pushing him more often than not just resulted in his other, meaner personality rearing its ugly head.

 

“Please, Loki, will you sit?” Frigga begged. “Can we not sit and share a meal, as we used to?”

 

Loki stopped pacing and looked at his mother. “Nothing can be as it was,” he told her sharply. He shook his head. “We should not have come here. There was no point . We do not belong here.”

 

“Yes, you do,” Frigga insisted. “Whatever else, Asgard is, and always will be, your home. Regardless of what has happened, that has not changed.”

 

“My home?” Loki echoed. He looked over at Darcy. “No. Not any longer.” His shoulders slumped and Darcy took that as an invitation to cross over to him and put a hand on his arm.

 

“Hey,” she said softly. “I get that it’s hard, but she’s right, you know. Your family is here. You were raised here. This is your home.”

 

Loki gently pulled away from her. “I do not see why you are insistent on this. It is your desire for us to return to Midgard.”

 

“That doesn’t mean I want to take away your home,” Darcy insisted. “And besides, I’ve been coming to Asgard most of my life. I like it here. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable when you--when we --come back here.”

 

Loki looked down at her, head tilted to the side, bird-like. He said nothing, but at least didn’t disagree with her. He transferred his gaze to the floor for a moment, thoughtful, and then looked back up. He offered his elbow to her once more.

 

“May I escort you to the table, my lady?” He asked with a faint smirk.

 

Frigga breathed a sigh of relief as Darcy took his elbow, beaming up at him. “You may, my lagsmaðr,” Darcy replied.

 

XxxXxxX

 

They were summoned to Odin’s council rooms later that afternoon, after they had spent several hours telling Frigga everything that had happened since Loki’s supposed death on Svartalfheim. When the Einherjar appeared and delivered his message, Loki had turned pale and had fallen silent, green eyes going wide and nervous.

 

Darcy was not accustomed to this version of Loki. The Loki she had seen (and fallen in love with) was confident, ambitious, and not a small amount arrogant. To see him unsure, uncertain, was strange and unsettling. But after everything he had been through, how could he not have changed?

 

Again, the Einherjar escorted them through back corridors and private hallways, keeping them out of sight at all times. They entered the council rooms through a secret door, where Odin waited with one or two of his advisors, including Heimdall.

 

At the sight of her old friend, Darcy broke out into a grin and, despite the onlookers, bounded over to throw her arms around Heimdall’s waist. The guardian of the Bifrost gently embraced Darcy back.

 

“Hello, Darcy,” he said in his deep, melodious voice. “It has been some time since I saw you last.”

 

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Darcy said, pulling back. “It’s been kinda crazy last few months.”

 

“I can imagine,” Heimdall said mildly. “I would hear your tale, if you have the time. Later, perhaps.”

 

“Absolutely,” Darcy promised. “I’ll tell you everything.” She turned back to Loki, who was eying Odin silently. Odin returned Loki’s gaze with an unreadable expression. Then the Allfather turned to Darcy.

 

“Lady Sigyn,” he said formally. “My advisors are not known to you. This is Tyr, and Freyr.”

 

Darcy looked both Asgardians up and down. Freyr was probably middle aged, with silver threaded in his auburn hair and beard. He had crows feet at the corners of his blue eyes and he wore formal garments of blue and bronze.

 

“You are Frigga’s brother, right?” She asked. “I remember you, when I was here, a long time ago.”

 

Freyr bowed deeply to her. “Yes, Lady Sigyn. We did meet once or twice while you were in your former vessel.”

 

Darcy nodded and turned to Tyr. He was surprisingly young, about Thor’s age, maybe a century or two older. He had golden-brown hair and eyes to match, sparkling with youth and vigor. He was not looking at Darcy, but rather at Loki, his expression not quite distasteful enough for her to call him out on. He was wearing full armor in silver, accented by a golden cloak trimmed with silver fur. It was very ostentatious and, in Darcy’s opinion, overstated.

 

“You, I haven’t met,” Darcy said flatly. “You must’ve been just a kid when I was here last.”

 

“I am from Vanaheim, Lady,” Tyr replied, finally turning to look at her. “I did not have the pleasure of meeting you before you were… indisposed… on Midgard.”

 

“Attempted murder,” Darcy said bluntly. “I wasn’t indisposed. Someone tried to kill me. And failed, FYI.”

 

“Yes,” Tyr said dryly. “It seems as if you have been remarkably resourceful. For a norn.”

 

Loki stepped forward, placing his hand protectively at the small of Darcy’s back. “Norns are, by their nature, particularly difficult to...indispose,” he said icily.

 

Odin waved his hand. “Peace, both of you. I did not intend for this to be a match of wills. Tyr, you would do well to mind your tongue.”

 

Tyr turned and inclined his upper body towards Odin. “Of course, my king. My apologies.”

 

Darcy noted that he very pointedly hadn’t offered apologies to either her nor Loki. Odin either didn’t notice (not likely) or decided not to comment. He gestured towards Loki and Darcy to come closer to the table the others were standing around.

 

“I have given your words thought, Loki,” Odin told his adoptive son.

 

Loki cleared his throat. “My lord, I hope you did not take what I said as--”

 

“I took them as truth, my son,” Odin interrupted him. “I am an old man, but I am not an old fool. I know when my anger has gotten the better of me. You deserved neither my accusations nor my actions, and I can only hope you can forgive an old man his mistakes.”

 

Loki could only stare at Odin, eyes wide and mouth hanging open. Freyr chuckled and leaned forward, bracing his hands on the table. “Tis a rare day indeed that you can catch the boy speechless, my Lord,” he told Odin.

 

Odin looked Loki up and down. “Indeed,” he agreed. He turned to the table and picked up a thin sheet of viscous membrane printed with runes in Allspeak. “I will be sending out this proclamation tonight,” he told Loki. “Declaring your exoneration and reinstatement as prince of Asgard.”

 

Loki’s mouth moved silently for a moment, and then he lurched forward, extending his hand toward the sheet in Odin’s hand. Odin let Loki take it and stretch it out in his hands to read it. Darcy leaned over his shoulder to read along.

 

“Celebration?” Darcy read, raising her eyebrows. “You want to have a party?”

 

“The people of Asgard need to see the Allfather’s welcome of the prince, not just read it in a proclamation,” Freyr told her. “Also I am told we must celebrate your union with the prince.”

 

Darcy looked up at Loki, who was staring blankly at the runes on the sheet as if he wasn’t really seeing it. She turned back to Odin. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Loki’s not too good with people right now, and he’s a bit sensitive in the psychic area. Forcing him to go to a party would be like throwing him to the sharks.”

 

“He would only need to make an appearance,” Tyr said offhandedly. “Just a show of solidarity with the Allfather. If he cannot bear to do any more…” he trailed off, giving Loki another not-quite-disdainful look.

 

Loki broke from his shock and glared at Tyr. “I will be fine,” he snapped. “I am more than capable of suffering through a single banquet.”

 

Darcy put her hand on his arm. “Are you sure?” She whispered up at him.

 

He brushed her away impatiently, rolling the membrane into a tube and handing it back to Odin. “That will be acceptable,” he told the Allfather flatly. Darcy frowned, piqued at being ignored, but she said nothing, not wanting to push Loki when he was already barely hanging on.

 

“Your brother will be summoned home, of course,” Odin went on, turning to the table and running his fingers across the surface. A holographic screen shimmered into existence before him, streaming runes and unfamiliar symbols vertically.

 

“Who are you sending after him?” Loki asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

 

“Sif,” Odin replied without looking at him. “The Warriors Three are far too excitable. We’ve caused enough damage on Midgard already. There’s no need to stir up the mortals any more.”

 

Loki swallowed and nodded. He shifted uncomfortably for a moment, and then blurted, “Is there anything else you need of me, my Lord?”

 

Odin swiveled his head towards his younger son and frowned at Loki for a moment. Then he nodded his dismissal and waved a hand. Loki bowed slightly. He turned and all but bolted away. Darcy darted after him, catching up with him in the corridor outside.

 

“What the hell was that?” She demanded, falling into step with him when he finally slowed down.

 

Loki shuddered without looking at her. “Tyr. Could you not feel it?”

 

Darcy frowned. “Not unless I read people, which I try not to do. What did you feel?”

 

“He loathes me,” Loki told her, his mouth turning down at the corners. “He practically reeked of it. He hates that Odin intends to reinstate me.”

 

“Why?” Darcy asked. “What does he have against you?”

 

“He is my cousin,” Loki replied. “He is my eldest cousin. When my father disowned me and cast me into the dungeons, he became next in line to the throne behind Thor.”

 

Darcy groaned and slapped her hand over her face. “You’re fucking kidding me,” she said. “This is a power struggle? Fucking feudal monarchist societies.” She lowered her hand. “He does realize that you being my lagsmaðr pretty much cuts your from the line of succession, right?”

 

“But not my children,” Loki said, slowing to a halt behind a giant pillar. He finally turned to look at Darcy, leaning his back against the column. “Any child of mine would be heir above him, until Thor has children of his own.”

 

Darcy had to swallow against a sudden surge of nausea. She turned away so Loki couldn’t see her face, one hand braced on her hip and the other pressed to her stomach. She heard Loki stir behind her, and then he touched her shoulder lightly, briefly, before pulling his hand away.

 

“I did not mean--I only meant…” he tried and failed to explain himself, and then sighed. “If you have no desire for children, Darcy, I did not mean anything by it. I only meant to explain Tyr’s feelings.”

 

Darcy swallowed again and reached up to swipe at her suddenly watery eyes. She took a few deep breaths to make sure her voice was even, and then turned back around. “It’s not that,” she said, proud of how calm she sounded. “I… I didn’t have a chance to tell you, that’s all.”

 

Loki frowned at her, pushing away from the column and stepping close to her, crowding into her personal space. “Tell me what? You are distressed, Darcy. What is it?”

 

Darcy had to crane her head back to look in his face, but she wouldn’t let herself look away. Loki deserved her to be brave. He deserved to know the truth. “Before… Before Ragnarok,” she started softly. “I was pregnant.”

 

Loki blinked in surprise, his lips parting. His eyes darted down to her stomach, and then back up to her face. “You… were?” He asked, sounding breathless.

 

Darcy put a hand up to stop him from speaking further. “I was ,” she repeated softly. “After Ragnarok, I wasn’t. And probably not ever again.”

 

She heard his breath catch in his throat, his expression stricken. “Oh… Darcy ,” he whispered, and reached up to cup her face in his cool hands. She closed her eyes against the assault of his inner storm, rebuilding her shields until she could order her thoughts again. She opened her eyes to see Loki’s face near her own, his eyes staring deep into hers.

 

“I am sorry,” he said, voice barely audible. “I am so sorry. I did not know, or I would not have spoken.”

 

“It’s not your fault,” Darcy mumbled, unable to break her gaze from his.

 

He leaned down and kissed her, just for the briefest of seconds, a mere brush of lips. “I would not have you bear this pain,” he whispered when he pulled away. “I would not have you bear any of this.”

 

Darcy pressed her lips together, determined not to cry. “None of this was in our control,” she told him. “We couldn’t have stopped it. And if I had a choice, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. Skuld needed to be stopped and Ragnarok…” her voice broke. “Ragnarok demands sacrifice.”

 

“That was not one you should have had to make,” Loki said, his voice suddenly sharp. “You used Ragnarok to save me. I--I am not worth your life, nor the life of your child.”

 

Darcy pulled back from him, breaking the contact before his presence overwhelmed her. “You don’t get to make that decision,” she snapped at him. “ I decide what is and what isn’t worthy to me. I love you, Loki, and I wasn’t going to let anyone, not even Skuld, take you away from me!”

 

She froze, her voice dying in her throat, when she realized what she had said. The L word. It had finally been spoken out loud, after so many times of the both of them unable to get it out. Loki stared at her, his hands hanging limply at his sides, face bloodless.

 

He made a quickly-aborted motion towards her, as if reaching out again and deciding against it. “Darcy,” he said, but ran out of words.

 

Darcy balled her hands into fists and raised her chin. She would stand by what she had said. It was there, out in the open, now. She wasn’t going to back down.

 

Loki was saved from replying by a staccato rhythm of booted footsteps, running down the hall towards them. Both of them turned abruptly, Loki once more moving into a protective position in front her. She really wished he would stop doing that.

 

It was Sif. She was wearing a simply, loose tunic without sleeves and tight breeches with leather pads on the thighs. Her short sword hung on her belt and her hair trailed out of its high tail to cling to her face with sweat. Her cheeks were flushed with exertion. She’d clearly just come from the training field.

 

“So it is true,” she declared when she caught sight of him, her eyes fixed on Loki. “You do live.”

 

He straightened, meeting Sif’s gaze. “I do,” he replied neutrally.

 

Sif eyed him for a moment. “Thor said you died protecting him.”

 

“Yes,” Loki said in the same emotionless voice. Darcy admired how quickly he could switch tracks, completely turning off his feelings.

 

Sif nodded slowly. “The Allfather wishes me to go to Midgard,” she told him. “To fetch Thor. Do you know this?”

 

“I have just come from his council rooms,” Loki informed her. “He intends to hold a feast to honor my… return.”

 

Sif’s eyebrows jumped skyward. “Your return?” She asked sharply. “ Do you return? In what manner?”

 

“I have been cleared of all crimes and reinstated as prince of Asgard,” Loki said, a note of weariness in his voice. “The Allfather is sending out a proclamation tonight explaining everything.”

 

Sif’s eyes darted from Loki to Darcy and back again. “Is this the norns’ doing?” She demanded. “Have you enlisted them to your cause?”

 

“It’s because Loki didn’t commit any crime in the first place,” Darcy snapped, shoving past Loki and setting her hands on her hips. “ Skuld did, and just used Loki as a weapon. None of it was Loki’s fault. Which you would have learned, if you had gone straight to Odin, like you were told, instead of chasing us down.”

 

Sif took a step backwards from the bite in Darcy’s voice, and then bowed. “My apologies, Lady Norn,” she said. “I meant no insult.”

 

Darcy took a deep breath and dragged her hand down her face. “I know,” she said tiredly. “I know. I’m sorry. Look, you--you should really go talk with Odin, okay? Loki and I were in the middle of something.”

 

Sif bowed again. “Of course, my lady.” She looked at Loki, and then inclined her head. “My prince,” she added stiffly, and turned to go.

 

“Sif,” Loki called, and she looked back at him. “We were friends, once, as children,” he told her. “I would have us be so again.”

 

She nodded slowly, but said nothing, and strode away from them, her booted feet ringing on the floor as she left. Darcy turned away with a sigh, pressing her wrist to her forehead. She had no warning before Loki abruptly wrapped himself around her in a tight embrace. She squeaked, startled, and then realized that none of his skin touched hers.

 

He held her for a silent moment before releasing her and stepping back. “I will mourn with you the loss of our child, but I will not dwell on what cannot be.” He hesitated and tilted his head, still watching her. “And should you desire children, perhaps in the future, there are Asgardian children in need of homes. Not many, but it would not be difficult for us to obtain one.”

 

That brought tears to her eyes again and she grunted in disgust at herself as she scrubbed them away. She couldn’t find anything to say for a long time before she realized that Loki wasn’t expecting a reply. He waited until she regained her composure and looked back up at him again.

 

He gestured down the hall. “We did not get much of a chance to see the gardens,” he said in a much lighter voice. “They are quite impressive, if you’d like to see them.”


Darcy nodded. “Yeah. I’d like that.”

Chapter Text

Darcy woke to a gentle shake of her shoulder and Loki softly calling out her name. She startled for a moment, drawn abruptly from a muddled dream where she was torn to pieces by a horrible storm. When she blinked her eyes open, Loki was leaning over her, a frown pinching his features.

He saw her eyes open. “Are you alright?” he asked. “Were you dreaming?”

“Yeah, it was nothing,” she said dismissively, pushing herself upright and rubbing a hand down her face. “What’s up?”

“Breakfast was sent up,” he told her. “My mother thought we would not be up for joining the household for meals at the moment.”

Darcy smiled faintly. “I’ve mentioned that I love your mom, right?”

“Several times,” Loki replied, returning her smile. He gestured toward the door to the sitting room. “I will be waiting for you, whenever you are ready.”

“Thanks,” Darcy said, and got out of bed to head to the bathroom.

Frigga had put the two of them in Loki’s old room. Loki had insisted that Darcy take the bed while he slept in the sitting room, if he had actually slept at all. Having to sleep separate was an unfortunate necessity and it hurt Darcy to the core, but she said nothing.

In the bathroom, she unbraided her hair and brushed it out so she could pin it up, washed her face, and slipped a thick robe over her nightgown before heading to the sitting room to join Loki. He was sitting at a small table on the terrace, the table itself loaded with more platters of food then they could possible eat in one sitting. He was reading from a tablet of some transparent material, golden runes displayed on the surface. As Darcy neared the table, she was met by the smell of coffee.

“Coffee?” she asked in disbelief. “How the hell did we manage to get coffee here ?”

Loki looked up at her and, with a perfectly straight face, replied, “Magic.”

Darcy rolled her eyes as she sat down. “Right. Of course .” She still poured herself a cup from the copper carafe and spooned sweetener into the dark liquid. Since it appeared that they had been given a dairy meal, she went ahead and added milk. She settled back in her chair and raised the cup to her lips, staring at Loki.

“So your dad is throwing you a party in two days,” she said. “You gonna be up for it?”

“It will hardly be the first time I’ve suffered through a banquet I had no desire to attend,” he said with a sniff.

“Yeah, but you’re, you know,” Darcy said with a vague wave.

“Broken?” Loki said archly, putting the tablet on the table with more force than strictly necessary.

Sensitive ,” Darcy corrected firmly. “I don’t think it’s healthy for you to be around that many people right now.”

Loki looked down at his own steaming cup of coffee, turning it around with restless fingers. “I do not have much of a choice,” he said at length. “As a prince, there are certain… expectations.”

“Even at the expense of your mental health?” Darcy challenged.

Loki still didn’t meet her gaze. “It would not be wise to allow Asgard to see me as weak, or afflicted,” he told her softly.

“You’re not weak,” Darcy interjected, more bite to her voice than she’d intended. Loki looked up at her, his eyes inquisitive. “Being a victim does not make you weak. You were barely more than a kid when Skuld…” She trailed off and shook her head. “You’ve never been weak, Loki,” she finished instead.

Loki licked his lower lip. “The Asgardians will not have so intimate a knowledge of what occurred as you,” he told Darcy. “They will not understand things as well as you have.”

“Well, they can all go to hell as far as I’m concerned,” Darcy said flippantly with a shrug.

Loki snorted, a smile touching his mouth. “You are… remarkably unconcerned with everything, my dear.”

“I try to be,” Darcy said, putting her cup down so she could load food onto her plate. It was the usual Asgardian breakfast; fresh fruit, yoghurt, cheese and cheese curd, fresh bread studded with dried fruit, butter, and clotted cream. As they ate in comfortable silence, Víl the raven flew in from the city and landed on the arm of Loki’s chair.

Loki studied the raven for a moment before offering it a chunk of bread. Víl daintily plucked the morsel from Loki’s fingers and gulped it down before hopping onto Loki’s arm and side-walking up to his shoulder, where he settled down and began preening Loki’s newly-shortened hair.

Darcy snorted while trying to cover up a laugh and Loki glared mildly at her while trying to keep his head still under Víl’s ministrations.

“Admit it,” Darcy challenged. “You like it.”

Loki’s glare grew more heated but he didn’t reply. Instead he allowed the bird to continue to preen him until Víl deemed his self-appointed duty complete, and began to beg for more bread, which Loki immediately caved and gave him.

A servant appeared on the terrace and bowed to both of them. She caught sight of the raven on Loki’s shoulder and stared for a moment before remembering herself and turning to Darcy. “My lady, Lord Heimdall requests the privilege of your presence at your convenience.”

Darcy nodded regally. “Thank you. I will be along shortly.”

The servant bowed again and exited the room. Darcy turned back to her food to see Loki watching her. “What?” she demanded.

He smiled faintly. “It is good to see you as Lady Sigyn, sometimes,” he replied. “She suits you well.”

Darcy shrugged. “She’s me. It’s hard to reconcile that, sometimes, but she is.” She put down her fork and got to her feet. “I should get dressed. Do you want to go to the Bifrost with me?”

Loki nodded. “I will,” he replied. He was already dressed; wearing simple, plain garments, not at all in keeping with his status as prince. It was more suited to a lagsmaðr of a norn, who needed no accoutrements of rank.

Due to her spending the night in Loki’s room, Darcy had no Asgardian clothing to change into. She decided against putting on the white chainse from the Well of Fate and went with the black t-shirt and black jeans she still had from earth, layering her purple coat over it. When she rejoined Loki in the sitting room, he raised an eyebrow at her.

“What?” she asked defensively. “I’m human. No harm in reminding people of that.”

“Human, yes,” Loki agreed. “But mortal no longer.”

Darcy’s brow furrowed. “Right,” she said slowly. She’d tried not to think about it, the fact that her lifespan was now measured in the thousands. “Moving on,” she continued briskly, shoving her hands in her pockets. “Are you gonna invite Víl along, too?”

The raven was now perched on the table, drinking milk from a glass Loki had poured for him. Loki eyed the raven for a moment, and then raised his arm. He whistled sharply, experimentally. The raven immediately abandoned his milk and flapped to Loki’s arm, which he crab-walked up to settle on Loki’s shoulder.

“I guess so,” Loki said, looking back at Darcy.

“He is a messenger bird,” Darcy pointed out. “Probably wouldn’t hurt you to use him as such.”

Loki reached up absently and rubbed Víl’s head. The bird closed his eyes blissfully under Loki’s attentions. “Perhaps,” he said.

The walk to the Bifrost was a long one, and took them through most of the palace and through the city of Asagarth. Everywhere they went, people stopped to greet Loki, their expressions guarded, wary. Darcy got the impression they were watching him, trying to evaluate him, to see exactly what sort of man he was now. Loki returned each greeting with neutral politeness, remaining distant and regal but above reproach.

They were almost out of the city when they ran into a group of young nobles, all gathered in a tight knot around Tyr. For a moment Loki looked as if he wanted to flee, and he grabbed Darcy’s arm, drawing her close to him as if he intended to teleport them. But then one of the noblewomen caught sight of them.

“Loki!” she cried out, and broke away from the group to bound over to them as if intending to throw her arms around Loki. Darcy pressed herself against Loki’s side to discourage this, and the young woman thankful ground to an awkward halt in front of them.

She was beautiful, as most Asgardians were, with bright, honey-gold hair and deep, emerald eyes. She was wearing an elaborately embroidered gown of dusty rose and had two heavily-jeweled daggers sheathed on the right side of her gold belt.

“Hello, Hretha,” Loki greeted, a bit stiffly. Hretha clasped her hands in front of her and composed herself.

“Hello, Loki,” she replied solemnly. “I was pleased to hear the Allfather’s proclamation last night.”

“Thank you,” Loki replied, relaxing slightly. He inclined his head in Darcy’s direction. “May I present my spouse, Lady Sigyn of the Norns? Darcy, this is Lady Hretha, my cousin.”

Hretha blinked. “I am sorry, shall I call you Lady Sigyn, or Lady Darcy?”

“Darcy, please,” Darcy replied, holding out her hand. “It’s the name of my current vessel and I prefer to use it.”

“Of course,” Hretha said instantly, squeezing Darcy’s hand firmly. “It is wonderful to meet you, Lady Darcy.”

“Yeah, you too,” Darcy agreed neutrally.

“You must meet everyone else!” Hretha insisted, tugging Darcy along by the hand towards the cluster of young Asgardians. Darcy shot a look at Loki, who only shrugged helplessly. “This is Baldr,” Hretha announced, pointing to a golden-haired young man with somewhat effeminate features. “And his wife Nanna.” This was a young woman with a solemn expression and grave, brown eyes. “And that is Bragi and Idunn.” They were fraternal twins but still looked eerily alike. “And this is the eldest of us, Tyr.”

“We’ve met,” Darcy said flatly.

Hretha must not have picked up  on Darcy’s tone, because she smiled and finally released Darcy’s hand. “I suppose we are your family now, for we are all Loki’s cousins!”

Darcy blinked and looked back at Loki again. “How many cousins do you have?” she demanded.

“On my father’s side, this is all of them,” he replied. “On my mother’s side… many.”

“Good grief,” Darcy said.

Idunn stepped forward and offered her hand to Darcy. “We are all very much looking forward to the banquet in yours and Loki’s honor,” she said as Darcy took her hand. “It has been some time since the Allfather has held such an event.”

“Yes, I’m told it will be quite… extensive,” Bragi added.

“Of course, if Loki is not feeling up to it, I suppose the two of you won’t attend,” Tyr said, tilting his head and staring challengingly at Loki.

“But if I did not, you would be so distraught at my absence,” Loki returned, his voice sickly sweet.

Hretha frowned and looked between them. “There’s no need for that here,” she said firmly. “Can you two not be civil to one another for a few moments? We have a guest .”

“Oh, but I would hate to give Lady… Darcy … a false view of life with her new family,” Tyr replied.

Hretha scowled at him and turned to Darcy. “I wish I could say they are not always like this, but they are always like this.”

“So I gathered,” Darcy said dryly. She looked up when Loki once more took her arm, drawing her close to his side.

“It was lovely to see you again,” he told Hretha. “But Darcy and I are on our way to see Heimdall. I bid you good day.”

“Yes, of course!” Hretha said. “Good day! We will see you soon, I hope.”

“If all goes well,” Loki replied, throwing a dirty look at Tyr, who grinned maliciously and inclined his head mockingly.

“It seems as if very little is going well for you these days, my lord cousin,” Tyr said.

Baldr smacked Tyr upside the back of his head. “Shut your mouth, you dolt,” he said in a surprisingly deep voice. “Loki is our kin, and a prince . You would do well to remember that.” He turned to look at Loki. “We do not share his sentiment, my friend.”

“No, Baldr, I never thought you did,” Loki said mildly, and started walking past them without another word.

Darcy blew out a deep breath. “Dude. You weren’t kidding when you said Tyr loathed you. He has hate down to a science .”

Loki looked down at her. “You felt it, then?”

She nodded. “I wanted to see what you were talking about. Does Odin know?”

Loki pressed his lips together. “Tyr is not subtle,” he said at length.

“And Odin appointed him as his advisor?” Darcy demanded.

Loki sighed through his nose. “It is… complicated.”

“Make it simple,” Darcy ordered.

Loki sighed again. “Odin’s brother Odr governed Vanaheim, for a time. He was entitled to a position in Odin’s council, as a ruler of one of the Nine Realms. But Odr was not a wise man, and the Vanir grew displeased with his rule, so they removed him from the throne and elected a ruler of their own.”

“Their very own revolutionary war,” Darcy muttered. Loki gave her a quelling look and she gestured for him to continue.

“Odr died shortly after, of shame, some say, but his son Tyr inherited a great many lands on Vanaheim, and much wealth. However, the Vanir are afraid he will try to claim kingship over them once more, and have forbidden him from returning to Vanaheim. But he is still entitled to his father’s holdings here, on Asgard, and to his father’s place on Odin’s council.”

Darcy frowned. “If Odr was Odin’s brother, how come Odin didn’t try to stop the Vanir from kicking him to the curb?” As soon as the question was out of her mouth, her recalcitrant memories filled in the blanks. “Because they did everything peacefully and legally. Right. Sorry.”

“The Vanir were well within their rights to depose an unfit ruler,” Loki told her. “The Asgardians can do the same. It has been so for many thousands of years.”

Darcy rubbed her forehead. “Okay… but Odin still lets Tyr parade around the palace while making it no secret that he hates you?”

“This hate… this is a new thing,” Loki told her. “Before, we merely did not get along. I did not get along with many people. It is only now that he actively loathes me.”

Darcy glared. “Well, he needs to back the fuck off before I break his nose. I won’t let him talk to you like that.”

Loki shook his head. “As a norn, you are above our laws and customs,” he said. “But it would be extremely unseemly for you to resort to physical violence over a childish feud. You would lose a great deal of respect on Asgard, and I will not allow that.”

Darcy’s glare devolved into a scowl. “Fine,” she relented. “But if he keeps talking to you that way, you need to break his nose. Can you challenge him to a duel? Do Asgardians duel?”

Loki snorted. “I am a member of the royal family, even if just by adoption. I will never sit on the throne of Asgard, but I am still considered too valuable to be allowed to partake in a duel.”

Darcy pouted. “Shame.”

Heimdall was, of course, waiting for them when they arrived at the Bifrost. He stepped down from the dais to greet them, eyes resting on Víl perched contentedly on Loki’s shoulder.

“Hello again, Darcy,” he said, choosing to raise Darcy’s hand to his lips rather than embrace her, as he was wearing his full armor. “I am glad you accepted my invitation.”

“As if I would refuse,” Darcy said with a snort. “How you been? Seen anything exciting?”

“Mostly I have been watching you,” he replied with a faint smile. “Though you have been hidden from my sight since you reached the Well of Fate.”

“That would be my doing,” Loki said softly. “I shielded us both from unwanted attention.”

Heimdall nodded gravely. “That was a wise decision.”

Darcy frowned and pointed at Heimdall. “Wait a sec. You’ve been watching me?” she demanded. “Since when?”

“Since the Convergence, most recently,” Heimdall said easily. “But I have always kept at least one eye on you, since your death on Midgard.”

Darcy blinked and exchanged a look with Loki. “So… you knew Loki was alive?” Darcy asked slowly. “After, you know, Svartalfheim?”

“Yes,” Heimdall said, resting his hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword.

It was Loki’s turn to blink and stare at Heimdall. “You knew, and said nothing?” he pressed.

Heimdall shrugged with the scrape of metal against metal. “It was not my place to do so,” he told the two of them. “You were not a threat to the safety of this Realm, and Darcy seemed to have the situation well in hand.”

Darcy and Loki exchanged another look, Loki’s sour and Darcy’s resigned. Loki turned back to Heimdall, schooling his expression. “Heimdall,” he said slowly. “Any grievances I might have caused you--”

“--Were not caused by you,” Heimdall interrupted dismissively. “And you have nothing to apologize for.”

Darcy felt a surge of affection for Heimdall, her oldest friend, and couldn’t hide the smile that spread on her face. Loki, for his part, looked taken aback, and then inclined his head gratefully towards Heimdall. Heimdall turned and strode back to the dais.

“I invited you here because Sif is shortly to return to Asgard with Thor,” Heimdall told the two of them. “I thought you would want to be present to greet them.”

Loki drew in a sharp breath, audible enough to cause both Darcy and Heimdall to look at him inquiringly. But all he did was slowly nod his head, and then reached out almost instinctively for Darcy’s hand. When their skin touched, however, Loki jerked his hand back, remembering himself, before Darcy had a chance to absorb anything from Loki’s mind.

Heimdall drew his sword and slid it into its place on the dais, waiting for a signal only he could see and hear. After a few seconds of silence, he pressed the sword down, triggering the Bifrost. The chamber began to spin as the mouth of the bridge lowered into position. The panels bordering the mouth of the bridge opened, ready to safely deposit the travellers into the reception chamber.

The rainbow energy surged forth from the generator, piercing the far distance, shimmering and humming with its own power. It lasted only a handful of heartbeats before three familiar figures stepped out of the column of light and into the chamber.

Jane blinked and looked around, slightly dazed. She caught sight of Darcy almost right away, and squealed in excitement before bounding over and wrapping Darcy in a hug so tight that Darcy’s feet came off the floor.

“Eep,” Darcy squeaked, and hugged Jane back. “Good to see you, too, Janey.”

“Oh, my god, I was so worried about you!” Jane babbled without letting go of Darcy. “The last time we heard anything you were going to do the symbiosis thing with Yggdrasil, and then we didn’t hear anything from you for like, three weeks, and we didn’t know what was happening, and then Sif comes back and tells us Loki is alive , which--”

Jane abruptly cut herself off and whirled to look at Loki, who was watching Jane with something akin to amusement. “Can I hug you?” Jane demanded of him. “Or would that be too weird?”

Loki’s amusement vanished behind a smooth mask of emotionlessness. “I’m afraid I cannot bear to be touched at the moment,” he told her in a neutral tone. “But otherwise I would say no, it would not be strange, nor unwelcome.”

“Oh,” Jane said weakly, stepping back from both Darcy and Loki, and looked uncertainly up at Thor, who had spent the last few moments staring intently at Loki.

Thor closed the distance between himself and Loki and held out his right arm, staring Loki straight in the face. “Well met, brother,” he said quietly. Loki reached up to briefly grip Thor’s forearm before dropping his grip.

“Well met, indeed,” Loki replied. “It is good to see you, Thor, after everything.”

“I am very pleased to see you are not dead,” Thor said earnestly. “And it pains me that this is the third time I’ve had cause to say that.”

“Not by intent, I assure you,” Loki replied wryly, his mouth twisting into the ghost of a smile. “I would hope not to do it again.”

Darcy rolled her eyes. “Tell me about it,” she said dramatically. “I don’t think I could take it a fourth time.”

Jane looked between the two of them. “So, are you two, you know, still… together?” she asked hesitantly. “Because didn’t you guys bond while Loki was still…” she trailed off, a frown creasing her features.

Darcy and Loki exchanged a look, during which Loki shrugged fractionally to Darcy’s unspoken question, causing Víl to shift his balance.

“Yes,” Darcy said finally, choosing to leave it at that.

“Oh,” Jane said, and they fell into awkward silence. “Oh!” Jane said again, more enthusiastic this time, and reached into her pocket. “Before I forget.” She pulled out three creased envelopes of differing sizes and colors, and shoved them towards Darcy. “These are for you.”

Darcy took them curiously. Each one had a name somewhere on it. One read “Steve,” another “Natasha,” and a third one “Erik Selvig.” Darcy blinked at them through suddenly watery eyes. “Thanks,” she told Jane, and carefully stored the envelopes in her pocket dimension for later.

“So… Apparently there’s gonna be some kind of party?” Jane asked, looking between all of them.

Darcy cleared her throat. “Yeah. Supposed to be pretty big, too.”

“All of Asagarth has been invited,” Sif replied flatly, restlessly playing with her sword-belt.

Thor beamed and, forgetting himself, clapped Loki heavily on the shoulder. “Of course! We have much to celebrate! Loki’s return, and his bonding with Darcy. Father wants all of Asgard to share in our joy!”

“Father wants to present a united front after our family being in conflict for so long,” Loki replied dryly, but not bitterly. “And to show his support for the norns, now that it is publically announced I am Darcy’s lagsmaðr. It would be unseemly for him to continue his… disapproval of Darcy.”

“Wasn’t he considering banning you from Asgard at one point?” Jane asked Darcy.

“Yeah, he didn’t take too kindly to me helping bust this one out of jail,” Darcy replied, hooking her thumb in Loki’s direction.

“No, he didn’t,” Thor agreed, but then recovered his jovial mood. “But come now, that is all in the past! For now, we celebrate!” He turned to Darcy and held out his arms. Darcy obliged by hugging him, and like Jane, he lifted her off her feet in his enthusiasm. “Now you truly are my sister, in more than just spirit.”

“What’d I do to deserve that?” Darcy asked mockingly, but Thor only laughed and put her back on her feet.

Bidding farewell to Heimdall, the five of them set off back towards the palace, Thor regaling them with tales of previous celebrations, one of which had almost incited a battle much like the one they had been celebrating. Apparently that one had been Sif’s fault.

They headed straight to the throne room, as Sif had been instructed to bring Thor directly to Odin. When they arrived, both Frigga and Odin were waiting for them, along with Freyr, Tyr, and another Asgardian male Darcy hadn’t met yet. He was wearing formal clothes, but not armor. His hair and eyes were both dark brown, and his expression was haughty though he was not especially attractive.

“Thor!” Frigga said, extending her hands to her older son. Thor took her hands in his and kissed her cheek.

“Hello, mother,” he greeted.

“It is good to see you again,” Frigga told him, and then turned to Jane. “Hello, Jane Foster. Welcome back to Asgard.”

“Thanks,” Jane said breathlessly. “It’s good to be back.”

While Thor greeted Odin, Freyr, and Tyr, Darcy elbowed Loki in the ribs and indicated the unfamiliar Asgardian. “Who’s that?” she asked in a low voice.

“Svein Lothbrokson,” Loki whispered back. “He is Tyr’s blood brother and sworn companion. They were fostered together on Vanaheim.”

“So he’s a flunky?” Darcy asked.

Loki raised an eyebrow. “Essentially, yes.”

Darcy rolled her eyes. “Awesome.”

As if attracted by the mention of his name, Svein Lothbrokson zeroed in on Darcy and then prowled over, his focus entirely on her. “Lady Sigyn,” he all but purred, extending his hand towards her. “So wonderful to meet you. I am--”

“Svein Lothbrokson, I know,” Darcy interrupted him, not taking his hand. Rude and petty, yes, but she was a norn, and she was allowed.

Svein, however, was not fazed. He merely lowered his hand and smiled faintly. “I have been looking forward to meeting you, ever since I’d heard you were a guest here.”

“Yeah?” Darcy asked, raising her eyebrows. “Which time? I’m here, like, every other week.”

“For the banquet, of course,” Svein replied. “Have you ever attended one of the Allfather’s banquets before, my lady?”

“Not for over a thousand years,” Darcy replied mildly. Víl decided to hop from Loki’s shoulder down to Darcy’s, and Darcy managed not to jump in surprise. Svein’s intense gaze was momentarily sidetracked by the raven when the bird started pecking at the sparkly pins keeping Darcy’s hair up.

“I fear you may find it a bit overwhelming after so long spent on such a… quaint Realm as Midgard,” Svein continued, dragging his eyes back to Darcy’s face.

Darcy shook her head to discourage Víl from stealing any of the pins, which had been gifts from Frigga, and leveled a mild glare at Svein. “I’m sure I’ll be fine, Mr Lothbrokson. But thank you for your concern.”

“Oh, do call me Svein,” Svein said in a manner that would have been called coquettish had he been female. “If you desire, I would be happy to attend to you at the banquet, should you need someone to… guide you.”

“Lady Sigyn will be in attendance with the royal family,” Loki interjected coldly, staring at Svein with ice in his eyes. “As is her right, as a spouse of a prince.”

Svein merely smiled back with that same smug, unfazed expression. “I was given to understand that bonds with the norns are more… informal. So could she really be called a spouse? Is that the correct term?” Before Loki could respond, he turned once more to Darcy. “I ask only for the sake of my own education. I would hate to appear ignorant.”

“How they want to define their relationship is up to each norn and their lagsmaðr,” Darcy said flatly. “Which is, frankly, none of your business.”

“Is it not?” Svein looked genuinely surprised. “Does it not concern the royal family, which in turn concerns us all? Loki is, after all, second in line to the throne, and as a member of the court, it is my business to be aware of all… political aspects.”

“Do not hide your meddlesome plots behind some veneer of duty,” Loki abruptly snapped, and Darcy, who was standing close to him, could feel the temperature of his body plummet. “You have always been a dreadful climber, Lothbrokson; intent to claw your way up to power, using whatever and whomever you can along the way.”

Svein pressed a hand to his chest. “You wound me, my lord,” he said, without looking insulted. “I pray you, do not defame me in front of such a noble witness.”

Loki stepped forward, bringing himself face to face with Svein. He was a good three inches taller than the other man. “She belongs to me,” he growled in a low, dangerous voice. “Come near her again with your treacherous words and I will slit your throat.”

Svein didn’t blink, didn’t waver from his cat-like smirk. He didn’t reply, and didn’t have to, because Odin’s voice cracked out in the ensuing silence.

Loki !” Odin barked. Loki’s head jerked around towards his adopted father. The king of Asgard scowled at his younger son, and gestured angrily. “Are we so ill-mannered that we offer insults and threats to members of our own court?” the Allfather demanded. “I would no longer expect such behavior from you. Not anymore.”

Loki swallowed, his fists clenched, and stepped back from Svein, who continued to watch Loki with a predatory expression. Loki bowed stiffly to the Allfather, and then turned and left the throne room without a glance in Darcy’s expression, leaving the raven to stare forlornly after him. Once Loki was gone, Svein drifted back to Tyr’s side, forgetting Darcy as if she was suddenly beneath his notice.

Jane crossed over to Darcy. “What the hell was that about?” she whispered.

“I have no idea,” Darcy whispered back, reaching up to stroke Víl’s head with one finger. A moment later, Frigga joined them.

“Is Loki well?” she asked Darcy quietly.

“No,” Darcy said bluntly. “He was imprisoned in his own body for hundreds of years and then he had the entire universe downloaded into his brain, after which he was torn into tiny pieces and put back together.”

Frigga flinched at Darcy’s words. “It is so easy, to forget,” she murmured. “All we want is for things to go back as they were, but they cannot. Not for him.”

“No,” Darcy agreed, pressing her lips together.

For a moment Frigga stared after Loki, her expression pensive. Then she shook herself and looked down at the two shorter women. “Well, I suppose we need to find you both something to wear at the banquet. You will be the center of attention, no doubt.”

Jane gulped. “Um. Yeah. Maybe can we not be that?”

Frigga took Jane’s arm and looped it through hers. “Oh, there’s nothing for it, I’m afraid,” she said. “You will spend the evening on the arm of the heir to the throne. Every woman will envy you and every man will want you.”

“Oh,” Jane said, deflating. “Fantastic.”

“Do not be troubled,” Frigga told her kindly. “It will be no different for Darcy. At least the two of you can commiserate.”

“You’re so considerate,” Darcy said sarcastically as they headed out of the throne room. She looked over her shoulder in the direction Loki had left one last time, and wished she knew what was going on inside his head.

Chapter Text

They didn’t make it to the dress fitting. As soon as they were out of earshot of the others, Jane leaned around Frigga and asked Darcy, “Is now a good time to ask what in the hell is going on ?”

Darcy sighed and slapped a hand over her face. “Oy vey,” she muttered, and then frowned. She’d had more and more causes to say that over the last year. At this rate she was going to end up sounding like her poor bubbe Rosa.

“We can talk in my chambers,” Frigga said primly. “It will be free from… unfriendly ears.”

Jane’s eyes widened and she looked around suddenly. “Are there unfriendly ears here?” she asked in a low voice.

“My dear,” Frigga replied. “There are unfriendly ears everywhere .”

None of them said another word until they were in Frigga’s sitting room. Frigga herself closed the doors, and Darcy saw a green sparkle pass from Frigga’s hand to the door handle.

Now can someone explain what’s going on?” Jane asked, exasperated.

“Where do you want me to start?” Darcy asked dryly, collapsing onto her favorite of Frigga’s armchairs.

Jane eased onto a couch opposite her. “How about the part where you were considering the symbiosis with the World Tree and then disappeared for three weeks .”

“I accepted the symbiosis with the World Tree and was in a coma for two weeks,” Darcy replied, entirely too flippantly.

Jane gaped at her, eyes and mouth wide open. “You… what ?” she demanded, her voice a high-pitched squeak.

Frigga stopped dead in her approach to the circle of chairs and couches, her hands coming up to press against her stomach. She stared at Darcy with surprise in her blue eyes. “You are the new Mother of the Ways?” she asked.

Darcy nodded wordlessly. Jane twisted to look at Frigga, and then back at Darcy. “You accepted it?” she echoed in disbelief. “Just like that?”

“Yup,” Darcy said, drawing out the word.

Jane blinked a couple of times. “Why?” she asked, sounding lost.

Darcy reached up and pinched the bridge of her nose as she blew out a long sigh. “It’s complicated.”

“Don’t give me that bullcrap, Darcy Anne Lewis,” Jane snapped. “Un-complicate it.”

Darcy lowered her hand. Frigga had taken a seat next to Jane, her hands folded in her lap, but her face was solemn and pensive.

“Pretty sure that’s not a word,” Darcy said to Jane.

Jane jabbed her finger at Darcy. “Explain!” she ordered sharply. “Now!”

Darcy sighed again. “I found out Loki was alive,” she said bluntly. Frigga and Jane stared back at her, not comprehending the meaning behind those words. “I thought Loki was dead, but then he wasn’t , and I knew…” She trailed off, suddenly unable to find the words to express the dreadful weight of knowledge.

She leaned forward, bracing her elbows on her knees, and took a deep breath. “I couldn’t take on that burden until I found out Loki was alive, because I know he’s the only person who can do it.”

Jane shook her head. “Do what, Darcy?”

Darcy stared back at her friend. She was so naive, so young. So mortal . “He’s the only one who can kill me,” Darcy said softly.

Frigga went pale, one hand rising to her mouth, and Jane shot to her feet. “ What ?” she demanded. “Why would Loki kill you? Why would you want him to?”

Darcy didn’t react to Jane’s outburst. She leaned back so she could continue to meet Jane’s gaze. “Loki knows what happened with Skuld. Knows better than most. Felt it, too. He won’t let that happen again. So if it comes down to it, if I need to be stopped, Loki will kill me.”

“Darcy, that’s insane!” Jane protested.

“No it’s not,” Darcy cut her off. “Loki is my lagsmaðr. He’s the only one who could get close enough to actually have a chance at stopping me. If I go off the rails, he won’t let that happen. He won’t let me hurt anyone.”

“You think he would actually do it?” Frigga asked, her voice quiet. “You think he would willingly cut you down?”

“Not willingly, no,” Darcy said. “But he would, yes, if it meant saving the universe.”

Frigga nodded solemnly, and that only served to incite Jane. “You can not be serious!” she exclaimed. “How is any of this okay? You want to spend the rest of your life with a gun held to your head on the off chance that you’re going to go off the deep end? What kind of--”

“It was my decision!” Darcy suddenly barked, her patience evaporating quickly enough to startle even her. She knew it was wrong to yell at Jane, that it wasn’t fair, but she couldn’t stop herself. “Why do you still see me as a child, as your intern? I am not that person anymore, Jane! I never was! I don’t answer to you. I don’t need your advice, and I don’t need your permission!”

For a moment she stood there, opposite Jane, hands curled into fists and chest heaving as if with exertion. Jane stared back, wide-eyed, hurt, and shame filled Darcy. She didn’t have the ability to teleport out of uncomfortable situations, like Loki, so she did the next best thing.

She fled.

She didn’t pay attention to her surroundings until she found herself in an unfamiliar hallway filled with pillars and closed doors. Too despondent to try to navigate her way back to somewhere familiar, she leaned her back against a pillar and slid to the ground.

There were people bustling up and down the hallway in preparation for the banquet in two days, but no one paid any attention to Darcy who, half-hidden in the shadow of the pillar and dressed in Midgardian clothing, looked nothing like the norn she was expected to be.

She sat there for a long time, listening to the footsteps behind her. She wondered how much strain her relationship with Jane could take before the scientist snapped. When a pair of footsteps approached her hiding place, she looked up with a glare, preparing to tell the intruder off, but it was Loki.

“Oh,” she said, her glare evaporating. “Hey.”

He looked down at her for a moment. “Are you well?” he asked.

Darcy shrugged. “I guess.”

He sat down next to her, leaning back against the pillar and stretching his long legs out in front of him. He was close enough that their shoulders bumped into each other whenever they moved. “Do you wish to speak of it?” he offered.

Darcy shook her head wordlessly. She hadn’t talked to Loki about it, yet. Hadn’t told him the truth of why she had made the decision to join with Yggdrasil immediately after finding out he was alive. She didn’t think he was ready to bear that burden quite yet.

“I am sorry for leaving you earlier,” Loki said into the silence.

Darcy shrugged again. “It’s whatever. Don’t sweat it. Svein was being a dick and you didn’t want to make a scene. I get it.”

“I did not use to have such a lack of decorum,” he said, looking down at his hands. “I was not so easily provoked.”

Darcy snorted. “I think we have a pretty good excuse for being high-strung at the moment,” she said bitterly. She saw Loki glance at her, and then away. They were silent again for several moments.

“I have something for you,” Loki said abruptly.

Darcy blinked and turned to look at him. “What?” she asked.

Loki smiled faintly. “It is traditional, on Asgard, for men to present their intended bride with a small dagger, as a courting gift.”

She raised her eyebrows. “You give your girlfriends a knife ?” she asked in disbelief.

“It was intended to give the woman a weapon that she would always have with her,” Loki explained. “Should her husband ever become violent towards her.”

“Oh,” Darcy said, frowning.

“These days they are mostly ornamental,” Loki continued.

“Like the ones Hretha had?” Darcy asked.

Loki nodded. “I thought, however, you would prefer something more… practical.” He held out his hands, palms up, and a small dagger appeared out of thin air.

Darcy stared at the small weapon, her throat suddenly tight. She looked up at Loki. “Are you sure?” she asked softly. “You can still walk away.”

Loki didn’t reply. He presented the dagger to her again. Darcy swallowed thickly and picked it up carefully. The handle of the dagger was made of a deeply-whorled cognac-colored wood, polished to a high shine. It had a slightly conical shape, and there was no crossguard, just a circle of metal at the base of the blade. The sheath was made of silver metal, with two triangular panels of dark brown tortoiseshell on each side.

When she pulled the dagger from the sheath, it didn’t make the scraping sound of metal she’d expected. A glance inside the sheath showed that the locket had been padded with leather. The blade was about seven inches long, and an odd shape; triangular, with no narrowing before the hilt. A deep groove ran down the center on each side, and the metal was marked with a swirling, shimmering pattern like frost on glass.

“It’s beautiful,” Darcy breathed.

“Keep it with you always,” Loki instructed. “You never know when you might need it.”

Darcy looked up at him, raising an eyebrow again. “Even in Asgard?” she asked dubiously.

Especially in Asgard,” Loki told her grimly. “This may be the Realm Eternal, but it’s certainly not eternal peace. There are plotters and schemers here just as anywhere else.”

“You mean Tyr and Svein?” Darcy slid the dagger back into its sheath and set it in her lap, folding her hands atop it. “You really think they’d try something?”

“I am not being paranoid,” Loki retorted, his voice suddenly harsh.

Darcy eyed him. “I didn’t say you were,” she said slowly.

He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths through his nose. He opened his eyes again. “I know,” he said in a much calmer voice. “Thor was dismissive of my concerns, when I approached him earlier.”

“What, exactly, are your concerns?” Darcy asked, curling her fingers around the cool surface of her new dagger.

Loki snorted. “I do not need you telling me that I am seeing specters in every shadow, as well. It is nothing. Put it out of your mind.”

Darcy reached over and touched his forearm, resting her hand on his sleeve. “Hey, if it matters to you, it matters to me. C’mon. What is it?”

Loki stared down at where her hand rested on his arm, dark brows drawn together. “Tyr’s feelings for me, and Svein’s extremely unsubtle advance towards you… it puts me in a dark mood. I do not trust their intentions.”

Darcy rolled her eyes. “No duh. Those two are definitely up to something. We should probably keep an eye on them.”

He looked up at her. “I doubt they will be overt, but they are not above whispering lies into receptive ears.” With a grimace, he continued, “Neither was I, once upon a time.”

Darcy squeezed his arm. “Hey. We’re not going there, okay? If Tyr and Svein get out of line, we’ll kick their asses. No sweat.”

He narrowed his eyes. “This facade of yours, this unconcern. Does it ever weary you?”

“Fake it ‘til you make it, babe,” Darcy said breezily, withdrawing her hand.

Loki’s expression froze. “Babe?” he echoed, his nose wrinkling.

“Uh...yeah,” Darcy said, suddenly nervous. “It’s just a term of endearment. It doesn’t mean anything.”

He leaned toward her until their faces were very close and she could feel his breath cool against her skin. Her heart rate sped up, crashing suddenly over-loud in her ears. He commanded her gaze, forbidding her from looking away.

“You will find,” he said in a low voice. “I am not an infant. Very much so, in fact.”

A thought suddenly occurred to Darcy and she giggled, leaning back away from him so she could slap her hand over her mouth to muffle her laughter. Loki looked indignant, and then scowled at her.

“What is it?” he demanded.

“You were,” she said before breaking down in giggles again. “You were a baby, when we first met. Oh, god…” She cracked up and had to take a few minutes to calm down while Loki glared at her. She finally wiped her eyes with one hand and sniffed. “You know, that should be weird, me saving your life as a baby. But somehow it’s not.”

Loki finally relented and his expression softened. “It was a different lifetime,” he offered with a half shrug. “A different vessel.”

Darcy hummed in acknowledgement and looked down at the dagger still in her lap. She picked it up. “Thank you for this,” she said with a smile, storing it in her pocket dimension.

“You are most welcome,” Loki replied gallantly.

“I don’t have anything to give you,” Darcy said, her expression falling. Which was closer to the truth than she liked. Other than a few belongings stored in her pocket dimension, she had nothing to her name. She’d left everything behind on Earth, and had basically been living on the goodwill of strangers for the past month.

“You’ve already given me more than I can ever repay,” Loki told her softly. “Don’t trouble yourself with trinkets.”

Darcy nodded, but she was already mentally plotting. She heaved a deep sigh. “I should go and grovel to Jane for yelling at her,” she grumbled.

“You yelled at Jane?” Loki asked. “Whatever for?”

Darcy rubbed the side of her nose. “She keeps second-guessing all of my decisions. I didn’t mean to snap; it’s just been a long… you know… whatever.”

“I’m sure she will forgive you. She cares too much for you to be deterred by a single argument.”

“I hope so.” She reached over and lightly slapped Loki’s thigh. “Help me up.”

He rose gracefully to his feet and offered her his hand. Rather than risk tapping into his chaotic mind, she grabbed his forearm, safely covered by his sleeve, and let him pull her to her feet. She looked up and down the hall they were in.

“Where the hell are your mom’s rooms?” she asked.

“One day you will have to learn to navigate on your own,” Loki told her as he indicated a direction. “You do have such a terrible sense of direction.”

Darcy let go of his arm with a huff. “I do not ,” she protested.

Loki raised an eyebrow challengingly. “Yes? And how many times did you get lost in the dungeons?”

She shoved him playfully. “That doesn’t count.” It felt nice, to be able to tease about something that happened during . During the lie. During Skuld’s control of not just Loki, but of Darcy, too. It felt nice to be able to have some memories of them together that weren’t tainted.

They did have so few of them.

XxxXxxX

Darcy had told the dressmaker that she wanted to make a statement. Looking at herself in the mirror, she could say with confidence she was definitely going to make a splash. The mirror itself had been brought in by the dressmaker, as Loki didn’t have one anywhere in his chambers.

It had taken the dressmaker, an elderly Aesir named Brida, and two assistants to get her into the dress, and Darcy was pretty sure it was going to take an act of god to get her out of it. But at the moment, she didn’t care one bit. She was in love.

The bodice and overskirt were made of a deep emerald brocade. It had no back other than a criss-cross of gold chains. There were tiny gold disks sewn to the bodice, thicker at the neckline and thinning out towards the gold belt that sat low around the hips. The overskirt was gathered up at her right hip to reveal the sheer, black underskirt that shimmered gold when she moved. The sleeves were detached from the rest of the dress, made of green leather, and ran from her wrists to her shoulders, lines of golden embroidery running down the outside.

For jewelry she wore only the ouroboros bracelet Loki had given her and a thin gold circlet with a horned moon around her brow. She looked, and felt, like a princess, and it was awesome . She wanted to twirl, but refrained, knowing that she had an image to uphold.

Brida walked back over to her, carrying a rectangular, flat box. “The item you requested, Lady Sigyn,” she said, holding the box out to Darcy.

“Thank you,” Darcy said, and then gestured toward herself. “And thanks for this. It’s amazing. I love it.”

Brida smiled and stepped back to look her up and down. “I think your statement is quite eloquent, my lady. Well said.”

Darcy managed a one-handed curtsy, still grinning. There was a knock on the door, and Darcy spun around. One of the assistants opened it, and then dropped a curtsy of her own.

“My lord,” she said, stepping back from the door.

Loki stood frozen in the doorway, wide eyes fixed on Darcy. She beamed at him and turned slightly this way and that so the light caught the gold sequins. “You like?” she asked.

He looked slightly stunned as he slowly stepped into the room and began to circle her, eyes roaming over her body. “I thought--” he started, and cut himself off. “I thought you would wear white.”

Darcy let him circle her to get a full appreciation for the dress. “I was , and then I was thinking about what you said, about Svein making a pass at me, so I decided to, you know, stake out my territory.”

That earned her a slight smile. “Your territory?” he echoed.

“Yes,” Darcy said firmly. “Mine. Now stand still. I wanna look at you.”

Loki was not wearing armor, and it was rather telling. His garments were formal, all sleek lines and tailored seams. His black leather coat was decorated with tiny squares of gold and green and he had two golden armbands around his right bicep. His dark hair fell in loose waves to his jaw. The shadows around his eyes were deeper than they’d been since they’d left the Well of Fate, and she could see the tension in his brow and jaw.

Darcy didn’t want to comment on his anxiety, knowing that bringing attention to it would only aggravate him, so she held out the box in her hands. “For you,” she said, suddenly shy.

Loki frowned faintly and walked over to her, standing just inside her personal space, close enough that the moment abruptly became intimate, just the two of them. He took the box from her and eyed her for a moment. “What is it?” he asked.

“Open it,” Darcy prompted, clasping her hands behind her back to remind herself to keep them to herself. He opened the lid and tilted it towards Darcy.

She’d requested it made two days ago, the same day he’d given her the dagger. The craftsman had tried to refuse payment, but Darcy had insisted, using the ingot the dísir had given her. It had only been finished this morning, and the craftsman’s young apprentice had run it over himself.

It was a gorget, made of gold and inscribed with the symbol of the World Tree crowned with a horned moon. It was ornamental, not functional; a large crescent of gold suspended by a gold chain.

“Like I said,” Darcy said softly. “Marking my territory.”

There was a strange expression on Loki’s face as he stared down at the gorget, turning the box slightly to get a better look at the engraving. Darcy’s stomach sank lower the longer he stayed silent.

“Do you like it?” she asked, her voice catching slightly.

He looked up sharply. “No, yes! It’s perfect! I just--I wondered, what made you think to have this made?”

Darcy bit her lip. “Promise you won’t laugh?”

“Why would I laugh?” he asked, tilting his head.

She sighed. “I saw you wearing one in a dream I had,” she admitted.

He blinked. “You had a dream… of me?”

“Of course I had a dream about you,” Darcy said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Don’t you have dreams about me?”

His fingers tightened on the fragile box, crushing it slightly. “Every night,” he replied softly.

Darcy’s breath caught in her throat. But before she did something foolish, she unclasped her hands and poked him in the chest. “You never said if you liked my dress.”

He took a deep breath and took a step back again. “You look beautiful,” he told her, smiling at her. “Perfectly stunning.”

Darcy showed off her curtsy. “Thank you, good sir.”

Loki lifted the gorget out of the box and made the box disappear. He fastened the gorget around his neck. It was the perfect length to lay on his chest under his collar bone. Darcy reached up and tapped it with one finger.

“Looks good,” she said, satisfied.

Loki offered her his arm. “To battle?”

She placed her hand on the inside of his elbow. “To battle,” she agreed.

Darcy and Jane had been briefed the day before about the series of events during the banquet. The guests would be gathered in the hall, awaiting the royal family. They would be announced and make their entrance, and Odin would make a toast. After that the noble families of the royal court would each present a gift to the Royal Family, and would receive one in return. Only then would they move from the throne room to the banquet hall, where the meal was laid out on the tables.

It all sounded exhausting to Darcy, and she vehemently did not want to be doing this, but she had a duty as a norn, and as the spouse of a prince of Asgard. Spouse . She got a funny feeling in her stomach whenever Loki used that word to describe her. It wasn’t a bad feeling, per se. Just funny.

They met the rest of Loki’s family in the antechamber outside the throne room. Jane and Darcy made identical noises upon catching sight of each other. They both broke away from their respective significant others and hurried over to each other.

“Oh, my god , you look fantastic!” Jane gushed, her hands fluttering in front of her.

“So do you!” Darcy replied.

They’d put Jane in blue again, which suited her well. There was a molded strip of bronze along the sweetheart neckline, and a short overskirt of leather strips studded with bronze squares over the narrow underskirt.

Odin cleared his throat and glared mildly at the two human women. “If we are quite ready?” he said with an air of long-suffering.

Jane blushed and ducked her head but Darcy lifted her chin and returned Odin’s stare flatly. Odin rolled his single eyes and turned to his wife. Darcy returned to Loki’s side. He leaned down to whisper to her.

“It does good to remind him he is not all-powerful.”

Darcy looked up at him. “I don’t think he likes that.”

He grinned wickedly. “All the more reason to do it.”

The next hour passed in a blur for Darcy. She kept reminding herself to look straight ahead, to keep her face calm and expressionless, to block out the press of minds and souls around her. She had a death-grip on Loki’s arm, which he had pressed tight to his side so her hand was caught against his ribs. She could feel his breathing, rapid and shallow, and knew that he wasn’t much better off than she was.

They made it through the entrance, toast, and gift-giving, though Darcy couldn’t remember for the life of her the gifts given or received. When they finally passed into the banquet hall, Darcy was relieved to discover that the Royal Family was seated at a table all their own.

Darcy’s stomach was in knots and her appetite was nonexistent, but she reached for the goblet a young waiter put in front of her. Whatever was in it was sweet and went down deceptively easy. When she went to take another sip, Loki caught her hand.

The contact took her off guard and for a moment she reeled under the onslaught of images and noises. Before she could grit her teeth and force the chaos back, Loki withdrew his hand.

“I am sorry,” he told her in a low voice. “But you should not drink any more of that. You are human and it will overwhelm you quickly.”

“Gotcha,” Darcy said, and looked around for the server. She caught sight of him and waved him over. He was a handsome young man, golden hair and brown eyes. “Can I just get some water, please?” she asked. He nodded and glided off.

Darcy looked around the banquet hall. Thor and Jane had their heads together, talking in low voices. Odin was watching the proceedings in the room  with a benevolent expression on his face, and Frigga was speaking with one of her handmaidens, gesturing towards somewhere else in the hall.

She looked over at Loki, who was staring at his plate with a glassy expression. She poked him in the arm and he startled slightly, eyes lifting to her face. “You okay?” she asked.

He shook his head fractionally. Darcy grimaced. “Yeah. Me, neither. Can we leave?”

Loki glanced quickly around the room. “Not until the third course has been served, at least,” he told her softly. “We have an image to upkeep.”

Darcy grimaced again. “Screw that.” She grabbed his arm and stood up. “Let’s go.” She tugged him up alongside her and looked over at Frigga. The queen frowned questioningly at Darcy, who shrugged back at her. Frigga nodded, granting her permission, and Darcy headed towards the nearest exit, dragging Loki along behind her.

The corridor outside was quieter, with a few guests scattered throughout, carrying drinks and small plates. Darcy breathed a sigh of relief and took shelter behind a pillar. “Oh, thank god,” she muttered.

Loki leaned against the pillar and looked down at her. “Thank you,” he said. “I do not know how much longer I could have held on.”

“I was getting ready to scream, or start throwing punches,” Darcy agreed. She braced one hand against the pillar and removed her shoes one at a time. Apparently her Asgardian stylists had decided to make up what Darcy lacked in height in her shoes.

“Have you eaten anything recently?” Loki asked her.

Darcy had to think. “Uh, not since breakfast.”

Loki pressed his lips together. “Wait here.” He turned to leave. Darcy tried to grab his sleeve but he pulled out of her reach. “You need to keep your strength up, Darcy,” he told her.

“What about you ?” Darcy demanded. “You haven’t eaten, either.”

“I will be fine,” he assured her, and left.

Darcy sighed and slumped against the pillar. She felt warm and slightly light-headed. Maybe eating something was a good idea. Asgardian liquor was much stronger than anything you could get on earth, and it probably hadn’t been a good idea to drink any on an empty stomach.

Come to think of it, she was actually feeling a bit floaty, too. Maybe she should sit down. Darcy slowly slid to the floor, leaning forward to put her head on her knees. The background noise went dim and muffled, and she could hear her heartbeat in her ears, too slow and uneven.

“Lady Sigyn?” asked a voice in the distance. “Lady Sigyn, are you well?”

Darcy raised her head, which suddenly felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. Svein Lothbrokson was standing over her, leaning down towards her. “I’m fine,” she said, but the words came out slurred. She blinked a couple of times, trying to clear her head. “I think I’m drunk.”

“Let me take you to your chambers,” Svein said, reaching down and taking hold of her arms. He pulled her to her feet, pushing her back to pin her against the pillar.

Darcy tried to pull away from him, but he was much stronger than him. “Loki is coming back,” she protested, tugging vainly away from him. “Loki is--”

“I can take you back to your chambers,” Svein said again, his voice soothing. “It will all be well, my lady. Come with me.”

“No,” Darcy moaned as he tugged her away from the pillar. She stumbled and fell against him, giving him the chance to slip an arm around her waist.

“I have been waiting to speak with you alone, my lady,” Svein said in a low purr. “I believe we have much to discuss.”

Darcy’s brain didn’t seem to want to work properly. Her thoughts were slow and sluggish. “I don’ wanna,” she slurred, trying to look around for Loki. None of the people they passed in the corridor seemed to think anything was wrong, and Darcy found herself unable to call out for help.

Cold fear pooled in her stomach. She knew something was wrong, that something bad was going to happen. She needed to get away from Svein. She didn’t trust him, didn’t want to be alone with him. But she couldn’t pull away from him, couldn’t break his hold on her.

Svein abruptly let go of her, pushing her away from him. Darcy tripped and collapsed to the ground. She looked up in time to see Svein draw his sword from his sheath and catch the downswing of Loki’s dagger. Loki’s expression was twisted into a snarl of rage, his eyes dark and animalistic in his fury.

Svein laughed and pushed Loki back, forcing the slighter-built man backwards. Loki sidestepped and directed Svein’s weight past him, his blade flashing out to catch Svein in the meaty part of his shoulder.

Darcy heard a baby crying nearby, and looked around to try to find the source, distracted from the duel in front of her. The wail was thin, weak, and reedy, and Darcy suddenly felt desperate to find the child. She crawled away from the combatants, scanning the floor, until she saw a writhing, white bundle in the shadows.

When she reached the child, she gasped to see ink-black hair and blue skin ridged with Jotun clan markings. She recognized the patterns and for a split second she thought it was Loki, thought perhaps this might be a memory, but then she saw the child’s watery eyes were not ruby-red, but blue, and human.

Darcy reached for the infant, but the child’s cry was abruptly silenced, and when she touched it, it was cold as ice as still as stone. A silent scream built up in her chest, blocked by thick tongue and reluctant lips. She blinked, and the child was gone, vanished as if it had never been there. She sagged to the floor, breath hitching into silent sobs.

Behind her, Loki snarled in anger, and Darcy forced herself to look up, to see what was happening. Loki and Svein stood apart, Loki clasping on hand to his bicep where red blood welled between his fingers. Svein laughed again and lunged at Loki once more, sword flickering in the light of the flaming lanterns.

Loki twisted away from the blade, bloody fingers flickering in a complicated gesture, and a flash of green light impacted the side of Svein’s head. He staggered sideways, knocked off balance, and Loki struck, his dagger plunging into the side of Svein’s throat. Loki yanked his weapon free and a gout of blood burst from the wound.

Svein fell to the ground, stirring weakly and making wet gagging sounds as each heartbeat pumped more blood from his severed artery. Loki didn’t look down at the dying Aesir as he strode over to Darcy, going down to one knee beside her. He staggered and had to catch himself with one hand.

“Darcy,” he said, and sounded out of breath. “Are you hurt? Did he harm you?”

Darcy struggled to focus on his face, but his features kept blurring. She could bring herself to speak, couldn’t form the words or shape them on her tongue. Her limbs felt heavy and her mind as if it was enclosed in fog. Everything was so distant…

Darcy saw Loki lurch to the side, sitting down hard on the stone floor. His dagger clattered from his hand and his head sagged to his chest, shoulders slumping. She wanted to reach for him, but her hand refused her orders. A strong grip took hold of her and lifted her up, tucked her against a tall, firm body.

“See, my lady,” said a familiar male voice in her ear. “Everything is going according to plan.”

Chapter Text

Darcy drifted for a long time, somewhere between waking and sleeping. When she came to herself again, she was sitting in a chair in a garden, facing an ornate, abstract fountain. She felt inexplicably weary, too tired to bother trying to move, or call out for anything. She really just wanted to go back to sleep. Maybe curl up in Loki’s bed… Maybe with Loki in it…

“You are certain it is working?” said a male voice behind her. It took her a moment to place the voice.

Tyr.

That bastard .

“Of course it is working,” snapped an unfamiliar female voice in reply. “I formulated the draught specifically for a mortal of her height and weight. It will keep her under control for as long as we need.”

Darcy struggled to clear her mind, to readjust her metabolism to clear whatever drug she’d been given out of her system. But her grasp on her powers seemed to slip away from her control even as she reached for it.

“You are aware how powerful she is as a norn, yes?” Tyr snarled. “If she wakens, our plans will fail.”

“You forget whom you speak to,” the woman retorted just as hotly. “She will not waken, and our plan will not fail. Norn she may be, but she is yet mortal, with mortal limitations.”

They didn’t know she was the Mother .

Darcy wasn’t sure how that worked in her advantage, but she figured it might. She forced her sluggish mind to work faster. She’d been drugged, probably in the little amount of alcohol she’d drunk at the banquet. Svein had tried to take her away, tried to kidnap her, possibly? But Loki had stopped him. No, Loki had killed him. That was...distressing. And Tyr had been there. He’d taken her away, after Loki had collapsed. Had he been drugged, too?

Everything is going according to plan .” That is what Tyr had said, wasn’t it? Had Tyr planned to drug her, to have Loki kill Svein? Why?

Tyr walked into Darcy’s field of vision, coming to stand in front of her. He looked down at her thoughtfully for a moment, and then looked up at something behind Darcy. “Can she understand me?” he asked.

“She is aware of everything around her, for the moment,” replied the female. “She is just unable to do anything about it.”

Tyr looked down at Darcy again. “It appears you will be my guest for a few days, Lady Sigyn. I hope you will be comfortable. If you need anything, do be sure to say something.”

It took a titanic amount of effort for her to be able to whisper a single word. “Why?”

Tyr gave her a smug smile. “What else would be worth it? I was born to be king, my lady. And one day, I will be.”

Darcy stared at him for a long moment before closing her eyes. Fucking feudal monarchist power-hungry bloody societies. She felt cold metal touch her lips and she opened her eyes again. Tyr was holding a cup to her lips.

“Please do not make this a struggle,” he said.

Darcy glared at him with all the strength left in her body. If she struggled, he would overpower her immediately, and probably restrain her. Lock her in a room. She still needed information. What his plan was. Where she was being held. So she opened her mouth and let him pour the sweet liquid in. She swallowed it, and within moments, she was drifting again.

This time she found herself in a large, open space, without walls or ceiling or floor. Everything was completely white, filled with a soft, diffused light. She looked around. It reminded her of the whitespace from the first Matrix movie.

“Hello?” she called into the silence. Her voice was muffled, and fell instantly dead. There was nothing for her voice to echo from.

She found that the effects of the drug was gone. She could easily move around and her mind was thankfully clear. She turned around in a complete circle. “Where the hell am I?” she asked out loud.

“It is called the Other,” said a voice behind her.

Darcy whirled around. There was no one there. “Hello?” she called again. “Who are you? Where are you?”

“I am not permitted here,” the voice replied. Darcy couldn’t tell if it was male or female. All she knew was that it spoke Allspeak with an accent she couldn’t quite place.

“What the hell does that mean?” Darcy demanded, still turning, still trying to make some sense of where she was.

“You have not invited me into your Other,” the voice explained.

Darcy gave up trying to find the source of the voice and stood still. “What is this Other thing?”

“It is the space between waking and dreaming,” the voice told her. “The line between conscious and subconscious. It is the point that touches all the universe, everywhere, at the same time.”

Darcy scowled. “That doesn’t actually tell me anything,” she complained.

“The Other is a mental reality you yourself create,” the voice said, now sounding flat and annoyed. “The Hall of Stars is a corner of the Other shared by the norns. This is merely your own Other. Share it with whom you will.”

Darcy blinked. She had to think about that for a while. She looked around again. So… this was an empty space, then, waiting for her to create it, shape it into something of her own choosing. “If I haven’t invited you, how come you can talk to me here?” Darcy asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Because I’m already in your head, child,” the voice responded, now sounding very annoyed. “You’ve already invited me there .”

“I didn’t invite anyone in my head,” Darcy protested. “I’m not that stupid.”

“You invited me when you took on the burden of Mother of the Ways,” the voice snapped. “How are you a norn but still so dense ?”

“I am not dense!” Darcy yelled, and crossed her arms. “I’m just kinda new to all this, which, FYI, you should know if you’re inside my head. Which is creepy and totally not cool, by the way!”

“You show an unfortunate propensity to cling to your fragile humanity, which benefits you in no way,” the voice said with a disdainful sniff.

“Look, I don’t need to be dragged by the voice in my head,” Darcy said petulantly. “Either chill out or tell me who you are.”

“Invite me in, then,” the voice said.

Darcy narrowed her eyes. “If I invite you in, can I un-invite you?”

“It is your Other,” the voice pointed out. “You may do as you please.”

“Fine,” Darcy said with a huff. “I invite you in.”

A woman appeared in front of Darcy, as if out of thin air. She had steel-colored hair and bright blue eyes set in a face untouched by wrinkles. She wore a simple white chemise and a pale green robe over it. Darcy recoiled in horror away from her, recognizing her immediately.

“You’re dead ,” she gasped.

The woman rolled her eyes impatiently. “I am not Skuld,” she said. “I am the summation of her memories and knowledge, passed on to you as Mother of the Ways.”

Darcy eyed the woman warily, looking her up and down. “You look like Skuld,” she said suspiciously.

“A footprint looks like a foot,” the woman said, crossing her arms over her chest. “I am an echo, a static imprint, nothing more.”

“So… you’re not Skuld?” Darcy asked slowly.

“Have you heard nothing I just said?” snapped the woman.

Darcy nodded. “No, I heard you. You know, Skuld was bat-shit crazy, but at least she was a lot nicer than you are.”

“I do not exist for the purpose of being nice,” the woman replied shortly. “I exist to serve the Mother of the Ways, which at the moment happens to be you.”

Darcy set her hands on her hips. “Okay. If that’s true, then riddle me this; I’ve been drugged and kidnapped, and I don’t know where I’m being held. How do propose we get out of here?”

The woman stared at Darcy for several seconds. “You are the Mother of the Ways,” she said flatly.

“I know that,” Darcy retorted. “How is that supposed to help me now ?”

The woman stared at Darcy for a few more seconds. “You are Mother of the Ways ,” she said again, slower this time.

“Will you stop saying that?” Darcy ordered. “I know I’m friggin’ Mother of the friggin--Oh.” She cut herself off mid sentence, mouth open. “Seriously? Can I do that? Can I just make a Way out of here?”

“No,” the woman said bluntly. “Not alone, at least.”

“Are you saying you’ll help me, then?” Darcy demanded. She really wished this… person… would give her straight answers instead of beating all the way around the mulberry bush.

The woman pointed at herself. “Technically, I do not exist,” she said. “I am an avatar, a personification of knowledge. I am a part of you. You’ll need someone else. Your brain is simply not capable of handling the amount of power needed in order to open a Way. Not yet, anyhow. Give it a couple of decades joined to the World Tree and you should be evolved enough.”

Darcy held up her hands in protest. “Okay, that is way too much to process all at once. Focus on the immediate problem. Are you saying I can’t take the amperage it needs to power a Way? I’ll short-circuit or something?”

The woman rolled her eyes. “A primitive analogy, but apt. You will need someone to form a psychic bond with, the ground the excess power so you do not destroy your brain trying to tear a hole through time and space.”

“Awesome,” Darcy said dryly. “Who am I supposed to do that with?”

“You have a lagsmaðr,” the woman pointed out.

“Yeah, but if you hadn’t noticed, Loki isn’t here ,” Darcy retorted.

The woman slapped a hand over her face with a long groan. Darcy glared at her impatiently. The woman lowered her hand and stared at Darcy. “You can invite whomever you will into your Other,” she said slowly, as if speaking to a small child.

“Oh,” Darcy said, her glare evaporating. “Right. I’ll, uh, I’ll just do that, then.”

Darcy had brought people to the Hall of Stars before; her parents, and the Avengers. It was a useful trick to show people she was, in fact, a norn, and not cookoo for Coco Puffs. If what her new imaginary friend said was correct, bringing Loki into this Other place should be along similar lines. She hoped, anyway.

Closing her eyes, Darcy reached out along the bond that tied her mind and soul to Loki’s, and she found him easily enough, but it felt as if he was on the other side of a thin, permeable wall. She could sense him, metaphorically see him, but she couldn’t feel him at all. And when she tried to bring him into her Other, she found he was completely out of her reach.

For a moment Darcy was at a loss, until she realized that the barrier was Loki’s own mental shields. She paused, uncertain of what to do next. When her unreliable memories did not provide an answer, she reluctantly turned to the woman still standing nearby, giving her a “now what?” expression.

The personification of Skuld’s memories merely made a “get on with it” gestured, her expression impatient. Darcy scowled and turned back to the barrier between herself and Loki. She pushed at it a couple of times but was unwilling to try to force her way past it. Loki had had his mental agency violated before; she was not about to do it again.

So, failing everything else, she knocked.

There was a sudden sense of expectation, like the indrawing of a breath. Then the barrier rippled. When nothing further happened, Darcy knocked again. The barrier rippled once more, and then began to thin. Excited, Darcy tried to reach through again, and the barrier parted for her.

The pain hit her with a force of a bullet train, and then it was her entire world. Every cell in her body screamed in agony as the universe poured through her consciousness: eternal past, infinite present, and unending future all at once. She could feel every soul in existence, ones already dead, the ones currently living, and the ones not yet born. She could feel all their joy and sorrow and fear and misery.

It tore her apart, atom by atom, rending her into pieces and scattering her back and forth in the void. The whiteness of the Other collapsed around her, spiralling like milk down a drain…

Darcy woke with a gasp, hands clenching the arms of the chair she sat in. Her body burned with remembered pain, her skin over-hot and sensitive while her muscles tensed defensively. Her breaths came in shallow, ragged gasps, and there was a high ringing in her ears.

She was sitting by a fireplace that gave no heat, multi-colored flames licking fuel that it did not consume. The room around her was not nearly as lavishly decorated as the Royal palace, but she knew without a doubt she was still on Asgard, perhaps even still in Asagarth.

Darcy was alone in the room, and for a moment she wondered if she’d been left unguarded, but then she realized that she was still under the influence of the drug, as her body was reluctant to move, even to relax the muscles that had tightened reflexively from the pain. It took much more effort than it should have to unclench, and it left her shaking and sweaty.

The door behind her opened, and footsteps approached her. Darcy was unable to turn her head, but whoever it was quickly came into her field of vision. It was a boy, still in adolescence, with unruly blond hair. Darcy recognized him. He’d been the one to serve her drinks during the banquet. So that was how Tyr had managed to slip her the drug.

The boy was carrying a tray with two cups, one of them steaming slightly. When he put the tray on the table next to her chair, she recognized the scent of kava . The boy picked up the steaming cup and raised it to Darcy’s lips.

“You will drink, my lady,” he said. He didn’t appear nervous, or overly solicitous. He had a job to perform, and he did it. Darcy wondered if he knew who she was, or why Tyr had kidnapped her.

Refusing to drink would likely have resulted in the boy forcing the issue. Despite his age, he was an Aesir, and as such, much stronger than her. So she opened her mouth and drank the kava . In any case, she was hungry.

The second cup was plain water, which Darcy gulped greedily, spilling it down her chin and onto her dress. Once that was gone as well, the boy picked up the tray and left her alone again. Darcy stared at the fire for a moment, trying to gather her thoughts.

She poked around inside her brain for a while until she stumbled across the right place, and the echo/memory of Skuld appeared in front of her, hands folded in the opposite sleeves of her robe. She looked around the room in mild disinterest before focusing on Darcy.

Darcy couldn’t form the words to speak out loud, but considering that the echo/memory was inside her head, she figured that she could understand Darcy just fine.

Did you know that would happen? Darcy thought at the woman.

The Skuld doppelganger shrugged her shoulders. “Not any more than you did,” she replied. “I am a compilation of knowledge. I cannot conjecture.”

Fantastic , Darcy thought dryly. Now what?

“You will need to find a way to endure, or redirect, the remnants of Ragnarok in Loki’s mind,” the woman told her.

Redirect? Darcy wondered. It was difficult to keep her mind on the subject. Her thoughts were sluggish and sleep called to her like a siren; enticing, alluring.

“If you cannot bear it, find someone who will,” the woman said, pointedly not looking at Darcy.

Darcy managed to narrow her eyes. Can you ?

The woman turned to look at Darcy again, just out of the corner of her eye. “I am the part of your brain that is capable of handling the burden of the norn. I could, theoretically, shield the… human aspect.”

Good. Do it.

“We will need to be in your Other. You will have to attempt to bring Loki in again. Then I will be able to assist you.”

Darcy blinked. I don’t know how to get back to the Other.

The woman rolled her eyes. “Of course you do. Just as you know how to get to the Hall of Stars. Your vessel may not, but the norn remembers.”

Darcy took a deep, slow breath. Every time she had gone to the Hall of Stars herself, she had been either extremely injured, or… Or she had been Sigyn. Perhaps her injuries had served to draw Sigyn out of her, and to suppress Darcy. She would have to be Sigyn in order to return to her Other.

She just wished that she didn’t feel like she was giving up a piece of Darcy every time she became Sigyn.

Darcy reached down, deep within herself, finding the well of power, and let it consume her, filling up every corner of her consciousness until Darcy was gone, just a one-dimensional facet of an eternal being.

Sigyn found it easy to step between waking and dreaming, to find her path to the Other. She also had no emotional reaction to seeing Skuld standing in the whitespace next to her, except for maybe a faint hint of regret.

“Are you prepared?” Sigyn asked the memory/echo of Skuld. The woman inclined her head respectfully.

“I am, Mother,” she said.

Sigyn nodded back, and summoned her lagsmaðr. The barrier between them was no longer thin and permeable. Now it was made of steel and stone, impenetrable. Clearly Loki had sensed the pain he’d inadvertently inflicted on her and had taken steps to prevent it happening again.

Sigyn had no patience for his misplaced chivalry. Her lagsmaðr served at her pleasure, and she had need of him now.

Loki was a master sorcerer and quite skilled at mental magics. Sigyn knew that she could not simply overpower his shields by strength alone. (Skuld could have, but then again, she was--had been--Eldest.) She would need a more finessed approach.

Sigyn searched up and down the barrier, feeling every inch of it, searching for any crack or weak point. Even the strongest of beings had a weak point, as miniscule as it might be. It took her longer than she liked to find it, the size of a pinhole, between layers of his shield.

Sigyn gathered up her power and formed it into an adamantine needle, glowing white-hot with energy, and stabbed it at that weak point with all her strength.

Loki’s shields shattered like glass and the full force of his chaotic mind slammed into her, and over her, and then past her, without touching her, funnelling off into the echo/image of her sister beside her. Sigyn blinked, refusing to show her surprise on her face. So. That had worked.

Loki stood in front of her, eyes wide. He looked more vulnerable than she had ever seen him; raw, unprotected by the hard layers he had constructed around the remnants of his fragile soul. For a moment she felt… not pity. No. She had no place in her heart for pity. But she felt something.

Empathy?

Surely not. Sigyn was a norn. There was no creature in existence even close to her level of consciousness that she could empathise with.

“Darcy?” Loki asked in an unsteady voice. He didn’t look around, didn’t take stock of his surroundings. His eyes fixed on her, like a wild creature poised any moment to flee. “What have you done?”

“I had need of you,” she replied, lifting her chin. “So I summoned you. Do not presume to cut yourself off from me again, lagsmaðr.”

He frowned, lips parting. “You are not Darcy,” he said, his body angling away from her. He was drawn to her, of course he was, the bond was like a solid tether between them, but he was also frightened of her.

“I need to be more than Darcy at the moment,” Sigyn said disdainfully. “She is not enough to ensure our survival.”

His frown deepened. He held himself tense, leaning back against the bond, stretching it to its full length. He finally glanced around, eyes flicking over the emptiness of the whitespace, and then to the echo/memory of Skuld. Loki recoiled away from the personification with a hiss, hands coming up in a gesture that would have sent bolts of seidr crashing into the woman, had they all not been in Sigyn’s Other.

“What is she doing here?” he demanded, hands still raised out of instinct.

“She is not Skuld,” Sigyn said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “She is a personification of Skuld’s memories, passed on to me as Mother of the Ways.”

Loki had yet to tear his gaze away from the woman, who had an expression of fixed concentration on her face, eyes staring straight ahead. “She looks like Skuld,” he said.

Sigyn, ignoring the fact that she had said the exact same thing, sighed impatiently. “A footprint looks like a foot,” she said sharply.

Loki blinked and lowered his hands. He slowly turned away from the echo/memory and looked once more at Sigyn. He still eyes her warily, as if he did not trust her. “What has happened? Where are you? Are you injured?”

Sigyn decided to allow these questions. He was, after all, her lagsmaðr, and her safety and well-being was his primary concern. “I am not injured,” she told him. “I was taken, by Tyr. He used a drug to overpower me, and you, I believe. He says he has plans to usurp the throne.”

Loki frowned. “How could he possibly think he could--” he abruptly cut himself off, his eyes wandering away. “He means to kill me,” he said flatly. He looked back at Sigyn. “He means to discredit me, and then kill me. Then he will kill Thor. I do not know how, but he will find a way. And Thor, that trusting fool, he will never see it coming.”

Sigyn raised an eyebrow. “I have no desire to see Tyr as king of Asgard.”

Loki gave a harsh bark of humorless laughter. “Nor I. I trust you have a plan?”

Sigyn nodded. “Where are you currently, my lagsmaðr?”

He pressed his lips together. “I am being held in a cell.”

Hot rage flashed through Sigyn’s chest, catching her by surprise. Once she had suppressed it, she asked, “They have returned you to the dungeons?”

Loki scoffed. “No. They have kept me comfortable. But my magic has been taken from me. Also…” He sighed through his teeth. “I am also being drugged.”

A spasm of irritation passed over Sigyn’s face. Yet another emotion she should not be struggling with. What was it about her lagsmaðr that brought this out in her? “You allowed yourself to be drugged?” she demanded.

“The first time was not intentional,” Loki snapped. “Svein’s sword was poisoned. When I woke, I was already imprisoned and my powers bound. No one is permitted to see me save a servant. He brought the poison and told me that if I refused it, you would be killed. Given time, I would have found a solution, but at the moment I had no recourse.”

Sigyn shook her head. “It does not matter. I intend to create a Way from my current location into the palace, but as my vessel is inferior, I require assistance.”

“Your vessel is not inferior,” Loki snarled at her, and then caught himself. He met her gaze boldly. “Darcy is the best of you,” he told her.

“Darcy cannot save either one of us at the moment,” Sigyn retorted.

Loki smiled faintly. “That is where I would wager you are wrong.”

Sigyn sniffed. “We will see.”

XxxXxxX

Four hours later, both Sigyn and Loki were at the end of their patience.

Sigyn had, for the sake of convenience and to save them from the oppressive environment of the whitespace, fashioned her Other into a more comfortable place. Since Darcy was her current vessel and her memories were the strongest, it was modelled after Jane Foster’s laboratory. Not the one in the Triskelion, however, but the one in Puente Antiguo, situated inside the old service center.

It was dusk outside the glass bank of windows, the setting sun half-hidden by the desert horizon. Inside the lab, papers and photos and journals covered nearly every flat surface, and a few not-so-flat ones. Computers and other equipment blinked and beeped quietly to themselves, and the three whiteboards had been pulled into the center of the large, open room.

Sigyn had one of the whiteboard markers behind her ear and another uncapped in her hand. The side of her hand was smeared with ink from being too impatient to reach for an eraser. She was standing beside Loki, facing the three boards, which were covered in multicolored script.

“It is the balance of power,” Loki insisted, pointing at a line of symbols on the right-hand board. “That is why it will not work. An imbalance here will disrupt the whole process.”

“The balance is fine ,” Sigyn retorted. “It’s the origin point. Something is wrong with it, I know there is. It is not correct.”

“You are at Tyr’s holdings in Asagarth, I’m sure of it,” Loki told her, unable to keep the frustration out of his voice. “There is nowhere else he could expect to keep you without attracting notice.”

“Well, it is still wrong , and without a correct origin point, we cannot extrapolate a path to the destination point!” Sigyn said in disgust, capping her marker with more force than strictly necessary.

“You said the origin point only needs to be accurate within a three-mile radius,” Loki said, reaching over to pluck the marker from behind her ear. Sigyn snatched her head away from him in a fit of pique and glared up at him.

“Yes, that is correct,” she replied. “Time and space are fluid, and forgiving… to a point.”

“Then it would be a simple matter to reformat the equation to allow a range instead of a single origin, leaving it flexible. All we would have to do is calculate the origin and apply the equation.” He stepped to the board and rubbed out half a line of orange glyphs so he could scribble down a new row of green symbols.

“That is ridiculous,” Sigyn protested. “That is not going to…” she trailed off, her eyes roaming over the boards. “Hmm.”

Loki gestured toward the boards with a theatrical flourish, and set the marker down on the tray. Sigyn continued to study the equation for a moment. “There is a problem,” she pointed out.

Loki sighed and rubbed his forehead. “What?”

“I do not know where I am being held. I do not recognize the place,” Sigyn reminded him.

Loki blinked a couple of times. “Can you show me?”

Sigyn tilted her head. She turned to look at the echo/memory who sat on a stool in a corner, occupied by her task of shielding Sigyn’s consciousness from the remnant of Ragnarok in Loki’s. “Can I do that?” she asked. “Allow him to see through my eyes?”

The echo/memory did not look at the norn, but raised an eyebrow. “You may do as you wish, my lady,” she said mildly.

Sigyn turned back to Loki. “I do not know how to do it,” she admitted. “My memories… I am not fully awoken.”

Loki stepped close to her, raising his hands to hover on either side of her head. “If you will permit me?” he asked, staring down into her eyes. Sigyn nodded slightly. He rested his fingertips against the sides of her head.

It felt like falling in reverse. One minute she was standing in her construct in the Other, and then the floor fell away from her and she was sucked up out of it, landing in the same chair she had been in four hours ago. Only this time, she was not alone.

She felt Loki as if he was standing over her shoulder, close enough that she could feel his breath on her cheek. She could feel the meager heat from his body and smell his scent like balsam and fresh-fallen snow. She was sure if she could just turn her head, she would see him standing there…

Then the sensation was gone and they were once more in her Other. The sun had finally set outside, and the stars were visible despite the lights on in the lab.

Loki stepped away from Sigyn, dropping his hands. “That treacherous bastard ,” he snarled, his face a mask of rage.

Sigyn frowned up at him. “What is it?” she demanded.

Loki clenched his fists and turned slightly away from her. “You are not in Tyr’s holdings,” he said through gritted teeth. “You are in Freyr’s.”

Chapter Text

Darcy woke up to find that she had been moved once more while she slept. She was now in an office-like room, complete with a desk, bookshelves, and a terrace that overlooked the garden. Tyr stood on the terrace with another Aesir whose back was to Darcy. The second man was speaking, but too low for Darcy to catch his words. The sunlight caught the silver threads in his auburn hair, and Darcy felt as if she should recognize him.

 

“No, we will not have to kill the norn,” Tyr replied to whatever his companion had asked. “That would attract too much attention. Our benefactress will alter her memories. As far as she will remember, she was called away by another norn from the banquet.”

 

The second man spoke again, still too quietly for Darcy to hear him. Tyr waved a hand dismissively. “The spell will last nearly a hundred years. The norn’s vessel will be dead by then, and it will take her decades to recover her memories. By then it will be too late.”

 

They definitely didn’t know she was the Mother of the Ways. Darcy was going to live a lot longer than a hundred years. She still had no intention of letting anyone alter her memories. Loki believed Tyr meant to kill him. How Tyr intended to do that without it leading back to him, neither Darcy nor Loki knew how.

 

The second man clasped his hands behind his back and walked out of Darcy’s field of vision without showing his face. Darcy closed her eyes again as Tyr turned toward her. She needed him to think she was still asleep, at least for the moment.

 

Her head ached, a sharp pain between her eyes. The echo/memory of Skuld (and she really needed to come up with a better term for her--it? Whatever) had warned her that she’d be in pain after accessing the knowledge needed to open a Way. It had something to do with her inferior human brain.

 

Darcy was glad that Sigyn was once more dormant when she woke up. She didn’t particularly like the norn part of her all that much, especially when she went around violating people’s mental agency. She would have to do some major-league grovelling for that one. She wondered if Loki liked apple cake…

 

She heard Tyr move around the room a bit, and then his footsteps led away. When Darcy opened her eyes, she saw the room empty and the door standing open. She took a deep breath and focused her powers. It took everything she had to fight past the effects of the drug, but with a titanic effort, she managed to purge it, at least partially, from her system.

 

It was a testament to the arrogance of the Asgardians, Darcy mused, that they didn’t bind her hands, or even leave her under guard. They simply assumed that she, as a mortal, would be unable to escape their cunning plan.

 

Darcy staggered to her feet and had to catch herself from face-planting when she overbalanced. She swayed unsteadily for a moment before lurching toward the nearest wall. In order to create a Way, she needed an existing structure, a frame to attach the portal to. There was a door-sized alcove in the wall with what appeared to be a liquor cabinet. It would do in a pinch.

 

She had to lean against the wall for a long time and build her energy back up. She just wanted to curl up on the ground and sleep. Maybe if she just closed her eyes for a few minutes…

 

Do not close your eyes ,” snapped Skuld’s voice right in Darcy’s ear.

 

Darcy’s eyes flew open again and she startled badly, a jolt of fear stabbing through her chest. As her heart rate spiked, she remembered the echo/memory that had taken up residence in her brain. It wasn’t Skuld, not for real.

 

She shook her head to clear it and stepped back, eying the alcove. She used her arms to measure its width. Then she bounced a couple of times on her toes, shaking her arms out. She blew out a deep breath. “Okay,” she muttered. “I can do this. We. We can do this.”

 

Opening a Way was an insanely complicated process, and Darcy didn’t completely understand how to do it. She had to trust her Skuld-shaped imaginary friend and Loki that they were doing it right. It involved bending the fabric of time and space and then snipping a tiny hole through it.

 

The fact that she was capable of doing something like that was mind-blowing. Literally, it seemed, since she needed Loki’s help.

 

Once she was ready, Darcy traced along the thin, silver thread that connected her to Loki, reeling him in until his mental shields once more pressed against hers. She pushed at them, not hard enough to damage them, just to let him know she was ready.

 

When he lowered them, there was a brief moment of indescribable pain before the echo/memory of Skuld took over. Then, for the first time since he’d been free of the real Skuld, Loki’s mind touched hers.

 

It made her instantly forget the pain she’d just endured, snatching the breath from her lungs. She could feel every corner of his psyche, the lightning-fast flicker of his thoughts and the tumultuous jumble of his emotions. He filled up all of her senses, fitting perfectly into her mind and soul as if he belonged there.

 

It was intimate in a way that had nothing to do with sex, a joining, a sharing to an extent that she had never thought possible. It felt as if they were one person, a single soul. There was no need for them to speak, they knew the other’s thoughts the moment they came into existence.

 

Darcy drew them both deep into the norn-trance until they could feel the fabric of the universe, solid but malleable under their hands. The bending was the easy part. It was the hole-cutting where things got tricky.

 

There was a bright, white flash and it felt as if Darcy had been hit in the chest with a pillow by a troll. She flew backwards and hit the desk with her right hip and leg. Pain flared up her side as she hit the ground, colors swirling behind her retinas. Loki’s presence in her mind was gone, but she could still feel the silver thread tethering them together.

 

It took her a moment to regain her equilibrium, and for her vision to clear. When she looked up at the alcove, her heart jumped in her chest. The archway was now a deep, impenetrable black, smooth and flat, sucking in the surrounding light.

 

Darcy had to use the desk to claw her way to her feet, but when she tried to take a step, her right leg crumpled and she pitched forward with a pained cry. She lay there for a moment, hands braced to push herself up, and she felt like crying. She was just so tired and now she hurt .

 

“Get up, you foolish girl,” barked the echo/memory of Skuld, who crouched next to Darcy. “If you do not leave at once, they will kill you and your lagsmaðr both!”

 

Darcy gritted her teeth and, with a low growl, pushed herself once more to her feet. She had to drag her right leg behind her as she walked, but she started moving towards the brand new Way. Just as she reached it, she heard footsteps behind her. She turned to look.

 

Freyr stood in the doorway, staring at her with his mouth open. The blood had drained from his face. His mouth moved to shape words, but Darcy let herself fall backwards, and the Way swallowed her whole.

 

Either using a new Way was much different from long-established ones, or Darcy was crappy at making them, but it was a bumpy ride. When she was spat out at the other end, Darcy hit the ground at a much higher velocity than when she’d gone in, and she rolled several yards.

 

Pain made her gasp for breath, and this time when she tried to stand, her leg refused to take her weight at all. She glanced around and saw she was in the palace, just as she’d wanted, but she had no clue as to where. She took a deep breath and screamed at the top of her lungs.

 

Freyr came through the Way, stumbling and almost falling on his exit. He caught sight of Darcy and strode toward her. Darcy tried to crawl away, heading toward a pillar she could use to support herself. Freyr overtook her in seconds, dragging her to her feet by one arm and slamming her back against the pillar.

 

“I really am very sorry, my lady,” he told her, and she knew he was sincere. “But I cannot allow you to escape. We have waited far too long to allow this opportunity to pass us by.”

 

With that, he closed his hands around her throat.

 

Darcy clawed at his wrists, her fingernails biting into his skin. Her lungs were already burning, and her heart crashed in her ears. In her panic, she lashed out with her powers, and images flashed before her eyes, voices murmuring over the sound of her heartbeat.

 

Tyr and Freyr and a woman, shrouded in shadow, clustered in an alcove, speaking in low voices. “It must look like suicide,” the woman said. She was thin to the point of frailty, her dark hair the only feature Darcy could make out. “His mind is already broken, they will not question it.”

 

Darkness encroached on the edges of her vision and it felt as if her head was in a vice. Darcy made one last, vain effort to force open Freyr’s hands.

 

“Keep it with you always. You never know when you might need it.” Loki’s voice whispered in her ear, and if she had the capability, Darcy would have gasped. With the last of her energy before she lost consciousness, Darcy summoned her dagger.

 

She stabbed blindly, desperate only to get Freyr to release her. His hands disappeared from her neck and she collapsed to the ground, sucking in deep breaths of air. She immediately began coughing as her damaged trachea protested.

 

Freyr lay sprawled out on his back, the hilt of Darcy’s dagger protruding from his left eye. Blood and ocular fluid trickled down his face. She stared blankly in horror at his body. She reached out, hand shaking, and poked his arm. He didn’t move, didn’t react.

 

Her brain was too numb with pain and oxygen deprivation to fully process that he was dead , that she had killed him. All she could think at the moment was that Loki had given her that dagger, and she wanted it back. She crawled over to him, seized hold of the hilt, and pulled it free.

 

It made a horrible squelching noise as it came out of Freyr’s skull, followed by a renewed swell of blood that spilled over onto the floor. The ruined remains of his eye socket glared emptily up at Darcy. She twisted abruptly and threw up. It was all liquid and stomach bile, and the smell made her vomit again. When her stomach had nothing more to relinquish, she pushed backwards until her back met the pillar.

 

There was something warm and sticky on her hand. She looked down and saw blood smeared on her skin. Her stomach turned again and she dropped the dagger so she could scrub her hand on her skirt, ruining the green brocade.

 

Running footsteps approached her, and then two Einherjar appeared. They slowed to a halt and surveyed the scene with wide eyes: the brother of the queen dead and a norn sitting beside his corpse with a bloody dagger. They looked at each other for a moment, and then one leaned toward the other and whispered frantically. The second Einherjar nodded, and the first ran off as fast as his armor and spear would allow him.

 

The remaining Einherjar cautiously approached Darcy, who watched him coming with dull eyes, beginning to succumb to what was left of the drug in her system, oxygen deprivation, and exhaustion. He bent and picked up the dagger from the ground, slipping it into his belt.

 

“My lady,” he said, crouching to get on eye-level with her. “Are you injured?” His eyes flicked down to her throat. Darcy guessed she must have markings there; bruises were probably already forming. “Can you tell me what happened, my lady?” he pressed.

 

Darcy opened her mouth to speak and surprised both of them by bursting into tears instead. The Einherjar looked more horrified at her tears than the corpse of the king’s councillor, and had no idea as to what to do. Darcy ignored him and scrubbed the tears away with her clean hand, but despite her efforts, they did not stop.

 

The Einherjar returned a few minutes later with Thor and Fandral in tow. Thor missed a step at the sight of his uncle’s body, but then his eyes found Darcy, who was still quietly sobbing, each breath burning in her injured throat. Thor crossed over to her and waved the Einherjar away.

 

“Darcy, what has happened?” Thor asked. “Who did this? Can you tell me?”

 

Darcy sniffed, wiped her nose on her sleeve, and then hiccuped. “I did it,” she said unsteadily. “I k-killed him. He’s d-dead!”

 

Thor frowned, his eyes flicking aside at Freyr’s body, and then back to Darcy. Reaching up with one hand, he touched the still-tender skin of her throat. Darcy flinched away before she could stop herself, raising one arm defensively to cover her face.

 

“Did he hurt you?” Thor asked in a low growl. Darcy nodded. Thor’s jaw clenched. “Is he the one who took you, these past three days?”

 

Darcy nodded again. “Him, a-and Tyr,” she stammered. Thor’s head snapped up at the Einherjar closest to him.

 

“Find my cousin Tyr and detain him immediately,” he barked. Both Einherjar bowed and hurried off.

 

Fandral came over to stand behind Thor. “Bloody business, this,” he said with a sigh, but his tone was as if he spoke of a minor inconvenience, not treason. “What about the dispute Loki had with Lothbrokson? I suppose that had something to do with this, as well?”

 

Darcy scrubbed more tears away with her sleeve, which, being leather, was not all that absorbant. “Tyr made Svein challenge Loki,” she explained. “So Loki would kill him and be arrested. They were gonna--they were--” she gulped and swallowed with difficulty.

 

“We need to get you to the healers,” Thor said, reaching out to curl his big hands around her elbows. He lifted her easily to her feet and then caught her when her right leg gave out.

 

“No,” Darcy protested weakly. “Loki. Loki first. He needs to know--I need to tell him it worked.”

 

“That what worked?” Thor asked. Darcy could see past him where the Way still stood, black and empty and so obvious. To her, at least.

 

“I need to see Loki,” Darcy whispered again.

 

Thor turned to look at Fandral. “Find my father. Tell him that Freyr and Tyr have conspired against us, and that Freyr is dead. Do not let my mother see his body, not yet. Then have my father meet me in Loki’s cell.”

 

“Yes, my lord,” Fandral said, sketching a slight bow, and jogged off.

 

Rather than letting Darcy limp her way halfway across the palace, Thor simply picked her up, bridal-style, and carried her. Enclosed in strong arms she trusted, and bathed in the heat radiating from his body, she very nearly fell asleep, and only roused when Thor called her name softly.

 

“Darcy, we are here.”

 

She raised her head from his shoulder. They weren’t in the dungeons, but rather a different part of the palace without windows. Two Einherjar stood in front of a heavy, barred door. Thor nodded at them to step aside, and they hesitated.

 

“Open the door,” Thor ordered.

 

One of the Einherjar tried to protest. “My lord, the Allfather has--”

 

“Open the door or I will have you assigned to the training arena with Lady Sif,” Thor growled, cutting him off. The Einherjar paled, and then stepped back, palming the lock pad. The gears of the locking mechanism spun and the door swung open, allowing Thor to stride through.

 

The room beyond was small and simply-furnished, but was miles beyond Loki’s spartan cell in the dungeons. Loki, notably, was nowhere to be seen.

 

“If he thinks this is some game,” Thor muttered under his breath.

 

“Check the closet,” Darcy said in a raspy voice. Thor looked down at her in surprise for a moment, and then did as she bid. He had to set her down in order to open the closet door. Loki was wedged in the furthest corner of the closet, knees drawn to his chest, head bowed, arms wrapped around himself.

 

Darcy lurched forward, collapsed, and crawled forward the last few feet. She reached out and put her hand on Loki’s sleeve. His head snapped up and he stared at her, pupils dilated so wide there was only a thin halo of pale green visible. For a moment he seemed to hold his breath.

 

“Darcy?” he whispered, as if unsure if she was real.

 

“Yeah, I’m here,” Darcy rasped.

 

Loki continued to stare at her for a heartbeat or two, and then he lunged forward, taking Darcy’s face in both hands and crashing their mouths together. The kiss was sloppy and artless, with more enthusiasm than skill, but just the fact that he was touching her was enough to make Darcy’s brain light up.

 

Loki only pulled away when Darcy needed to breathe, and demanded, “Are you alright?” at the same time she did. Then he caught sight of the bruises on her throat. He touched the side of her neck with a trembling hand.

 

“Who did this?” he asked in a flat, dangerous voice.

 

“Freyr,” Darcy whispered.

 

Loki looked up at her with murder in his eyes. “I will kill him,” he said, and the conviction in his voice was frightening.

 

“You will be too late,” Thor replied grimly. “Darcy has already slain him.”

 

Loki blinked, his eyebrows drawing together. He stared at Darcy questioningly. Darcy reached up to take his hand away from her neck, squeezing it in hers. There was no pain at the contact, no dizzying maelstrom of images and sounds.

 

“The dagger was a good gift,” she said softly.

 

Loki stared at her for another beat, and then a slow smile spread across his face. He leaned forward to kiss her again, soft and gentle, but hungry at the same time. Darcy wanted to stop time, to stay in this moment forever, forget everything that had happened the last few days, but Odin’s arrival ruined it for her.

 

XxxXxxX

 

Darcy lost track of how many times she told the story, stuttering it out to Odin, Frigga, Jane… she couldn’t remember who else. She was currently in the healing rooms, letting an Aesir woman dab salve onto the bruises on her throat. Loki had not let go of her hand since they’d left his temporary cell. He sat next to Darcy’s bed, his elbow propped next to her thigh, and the back of her hand pressed to his cheek.

 

Darcy glanced down at him. His expression was spaced out, eyes still dilated. The healers had given him something for the debilitating headache caused by acting as the grounding wire for Darcy, and it had combined rather well with the drug still in his system. He was currently high as a kite and completely useless whenever someone asked him what had happened, but he had punched Fandral in the face when the other Asgardian had tried to lead him away from Darcy.

 

“To be honest, my lady, I am not certain how long it will take a mortal to recover from wounds like this,” the healer told Darcy. “But I urge you to apply the salve daily, and have someone observe your sleep, lest you stop breathing.”

 

Darcy looked back down at Loki. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” she said dryly, her voice hoarse. Loki didn’t seem inclined to let her out of arm’s reach, much less allow her to sleep alone. The healer finished her work and gave Darcy the small bronze pot of salve.

 

Another healer approached them. “Lady Jane Foster is requesting to speak with you,” she told Darcy. “Shall I send her away?”

 

“No, let her in,” Darcy said quickly. She tugged at the hem of the thin shift they’d given her to wear, making sure the length was decent.

 

Jane charged into the room like a woman with a mission, which she usually was, and marched right up to Darcy. “I can’t find it,” she said, putting her hands on her hips.

 

Darcy blinked at Jane, nonplussed. “Find what?” she asked blankly.

 

“The Way you made!” Jane replied impatiently. She waved a hand in the air. “I went all over the place where you said it was, but there’s nothing there!”

 

Darcy groaned and rubbed her face with her hand. But before she could respond, Loki stirred himself enough to speak.

 

“It is hiding,” he said, his words slurring a little. Jane stared at him in disbelief. Loki rolled his head to the side so he could see Jane. “It does not like strangers. You will not be able to find it if it does not want to be found.”

 

“Is he… drunk?” Jane asked Darcy, still staring at Loki.

 

“No, just heavily medicated,” Darcy replied, stroking Loki’s hair. He closed his eyes and hummed in pleasure.

 

“Oh. Is he okay?” Jane asked, her passion for science bleeding away in favor of concern for her friends.

 

“Headache,” Darcy explained. “He kinda took the brunt of the backlash of energy from opening a Way. Apparently my delicate mortal constitution can’t handle it.”

 

Jane nodded and transferred her gaze to Darcy, or rather, to the strip of purple-red bruises that ringed her neck. “Does that hurt?”

 

“Like a bitch,” Darcy replied. “Word of advice; don’t ever get choked out.”

 

“I’ll take that under advisement,” Jane said dryly. She sobered. “Are you… you know… okay? Like okay okay?”

 

Darcy knew exactly what she was talking about, and she shuddered at the memory of Freyr’s corpse, his ruined eyes leaking blood, the smell of her vomit. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I just need time. I need to think. Right now everything is just so…” She trailed off and gestured vaguely.

 

Jane nodded again. “Did they tell you that Tyr got away? He just vanished. Nobody knows how.”

 

“The Ways,” Darcy said softly. “The woman working with him, she knew things about the norns. I’d bet anything she knows some of the Ways, too.”

 

“Well, Thor said Odin’s sent messengers out to all the realms, telling everyone to look out for him,” Jane told her.

 

Loki snorted derisively. “As if that would actually work ,” he muttered. “He should be sending Einherjar to scour the realms, but no, he cannot bear the embarrassment.”

 

Darcy petted his hair again. “Shh,” she said. “Tyr’s gonna think twice before trying anything again.”

 

“They did catch that serving boy you were talking about,” Jane went on. “He gave up the names of a couple of other people working with them.”

 

“Preventing inter-galactic space coups, all in a day’s work,” Darcy said.

 

Jane studied Darcy for a moment. “You look wiped. Are you going to get some sleep?”

 

“Eventually,” Darcy said with a sigh. “I think I have to take care of a few more things for Odin. He’s been having me confirm the guilt of the people he’s been arresting, to make things simpler.”

 

“You were drugged, kidnapped, and strangled ,” Jane said fiercely. “You need sleep. Odin can go jump off a bridge.”

 

“Rainbow bridge,” Loki corrected solemnly.

 

Darcy snorted, trying to cover up a giggle, and Jane rolled her eyes. “Seriously, Darce. Screw Odin. Go to bed.”

 

“Bed,” Loki murmured happily. He looked up at Darcy and sighed deeply. Darcy giggled again and leaned down to kiss him lightly. It just felt so good to be allowed to touch him.

 

“I’ll make you a deal,” Darcy said, straightening and turning back to Jane, who was watching them with a strange expression. “I’ll get some sleep, but it’s not gonna be here, and you’ll wake me if anything happens, or we get news.”

 

“Deal,” Jane said instantly. “Can you walk or should I get Thor?”

 

Loki frowned at Jane. “I am more than capable of walking ,” he said indignantly.

 

Jane raised an eyebrow. “In a straight line?” she challenged.

 

Loki’s frown deepened as he thought about that. Darcy hopped down from the bed, putting her weight on her left leg, and held out her right arm to Jane. “I think we can make it between the three of us,” she said.

 

Jane slung Darcy’s arm over her shoulder, and Loki wrapped his arm around Darcy’s waist. He didn’t do more than prop her up, but Jane was stronger than she looked. They must have made a comical sight, hobbling (and occasionally lurching, thanks to Loki’s compromised balance) down the corridors to Loki’s quarters, but no one who passed them stared or commented.

 

When they at last reached Loki’s chambers, Jane didn’t leave until Darcy was tucked in bed, with a jug of water and a cup on the side table, and a threat to send a servant in every hour that Darcy waved away. When she finally left, Loki shrugged out of the jacket he was still wearing from the banquet and let it fall carelessly to the floor.

 

His tunic followed shortly after, leaving him in a sleeveless undershirt. He sat on the edge of the bed and clumsily unlaced his boots, dropping them to the floor as well. Then he crawled under the blankets next to Darcy, snuggling up right beside her and wrapping his arms around her.

 

Darcy pressed her face against his shoulder and breathed deeply, breathing him in. He buried his fingers in her hair and hummed to himself.

 

“Loki?” Darcy asked after a minute.

 

“Hmm?” he replied, running his fingers through her hair.

 

“I’m sorry for what Sigyn--what I did, you know, to your defenses,” Darcy said softly. “I didn’t have the right to do that.”

 

“Hmm,” Loki said again. “Not you. Who did it. Was not… you . Not you you, anyway.”

 

Darcy snorted. “That’s really articulate there, babe. But you know that’s not true. Darcy, Sigyn… we’re the same person.”

 

“Mm-mm,” Loki said, shaking his head. “You can be whoever you want to be. The norn doesn’t define you. Doesn’t make you who you are.”

 

Darcy wasn’t satisfied with that answer. She shoved herself half-upright and glared at him. “How can you just keep forgiving me like that? Don’t you get angry about anything ?”

 

Loki blinked at her a few times, his expression confused and a little dazed. She felt bad for throwing this at him while he was drugged up to the gills, but at least now she might get some answers out of him.

 

“Why would I need to forgive you?” he asked petulantly. “You did not do anything wrong.”

 

Darcy glared at him harder. “I bonded you against your will, Loki. I don’t even know how you can stand to be in the same room with me.”

 

Loki closed his eyes and blew out a deep, noisy sigh. He opened his eyes again and looked at her. He reached out and touched her face gently, then cupped her cheek. “When you came to my cell, and told me you would fix me, I knew then.”

 

Darcy couldn’t help but lean into his touch, and it took her a moment to process his words. “Knew what?” she asked, her glare fading.

 

“That you would free me from Skuld,” Loki replied matter-of-factly. “Skuld never planned for us to bond. She never thought I would--that I could --” He seemed to struggle with his words for a moment, and stroked her cheekbone with his thumb. “It wasn’t against my will,” he said at length. “It was never against my will.”

 

Darcy’s eyes watered, and when she blinked, she felt them overflow with tears. Loki leaned forward and kissed her. She could taste salt on her lips. Before she could deepen the kiss, however, Loki pulled away, and tugged her down next to him again.

 

“Sleep,” he commanded. “It’s over. Just sleep.”

 

“Okay,” Darcy murmured, letting her eyes drift shut.

 

XxxXxxX

 

She stood in a small room, cold; so cold she could see her breath. It was empty, save for a tiny cradle in the center of the floor. Apprehension filled her chest as she approached it with slow steps; one, then another, until finally she stood over it.

 

The cradle was empty, filled only by a crumpled, white blanket embroidered with the World Tree. She couldn’t breathe enough to cry, but a scream built up in her chest, trying to rip its way free from her damaged throat.

 

Blood dripped onto the blanket, bright crimson against the pure white. She whirled around. Freyr grabbed her by the neck, lifting her off her feet. He bared his teeth at her, snarling in fury, and the ruined remains of his eye dripped blood and fluid down his cheek.

 

Darcy woke with her stomach already heaving, and she barely made it across Loki’s room to the bathroom in time. She threw up the thin broth and kava the healers had made her drink. The smell only reminded her of Freyr, of the feel of his blood on her skin, and she threw up again, until her stomach was cramping and her throat burned.

 

She huddled in a miserable ball in front of the Asgardian toilet, and then a cool hand touched her shoulder, feeling icy against her feverish skin. She looked up. Loki crouched next to her, holding a cup of water in one hand and a wet cloth in the other. She took the cup wordlessly and used it to rinse her mouth out. Loki moved her hair out of the way and placed the cloth around the back of her neck.

 

“Your first time?” he asked quietly.

 

She frowned at him. “Throwing up?” she croaked. “No. I went to college.”

 

“Taking a life in battle,” Loki clarified. The drugs had worked their way out of his system. His words were clear and his hands steady.

 

Darcy grimaced. “I--I don’t know. During the Convergence, I might have, but I never stuck around to check. This was the first time I--”

 

Loki nodded, even though she hadn’t finished her sentence. He rubbed her back soothingly. “You did the right thing,” he told her. “You were defending yourself.”

 

“It doesn’t make it easier,” she replied.

 

“I know,” Loki said softly.

 

Darcy leaned against him, closing her eyes. “I wanna go home,” she mumbled.

 

Loki tightened his arm around her. “Very well,” he agreed. “We shall leave tomorrow.”

 

Darcy looked up at him. “Really?”

 

He nodded again. “If that is your wish, I will take you to your home.”


Darcy sighed with relief. “Okay.” She was really really glad she could touch him again. It was the only place she could feel safe.

Chapter Text

Neither Darcy nor Loki got any more sleep that night. Darcy didn’t dare, lest the nightmare return, and Loki remained awake to keep her company. They spent the rest of the night huddled together, not speaking. Sometimes Darcy would almost start to drift off, exhaustion taking hold, only to jerk awake when her brain thought it was once more unable to move her limbs. Each time, Loki would stroke her back, murmuring soothingly in her ear, until her heartbeat calmed and her breathing slowed.

 

By morning, Darcy was bone-tired and strung out. Loki was no better off. His headache had returned and he was irritable and light-sensitive, which Darcy only found out when she accidentally hit the control for the window coverings on her way to the bathroom.

 

Morning light flooded the room, and Loki made a startled sound of pain, burying his face against a pillow and dragging a second one over his head. Darcy hurriedly stabbed the panel with one finger until the coverings darkened again, blocking out the light.

 

“Sorry,” she mumbled. “Loki, I’m so sorry.”

 

She heard his muffled groan, his only reply, and sighed before finishing her shuffle into the bathroom. Loki had no mirrors anywhere in his quarters, not even in the bathroom, which Darcy suddenly found herself grateful for, because she really didn’t care to see how awful she looked. She was further grateful that Loki was a fan of expediency, and had a shower stall rather than an olympic-sized bath tub.

 

Her hip and leg were still covered in bruises, but they had faded to yellow-green, thanks to the care of the Asgardian healers. The bruises around her throat were similarly faded, and her throat was barely sore. Score one for advanced medical care.

 

Showering did nothing to wake her up, and she didn’t feel like struggling with her hair, so she braided it into a simple plait and went in search of something to wear. Frigga had provided her with several dresses, but she didn’t feel like struggling with those, either, and stole a shirt from Loki’s closet. It was olive green, with darker stitching around the neck and hem. She had to roll the sleeves up so she could free her hands, but Loki’s lanky build meant that she filled the chest out pretty well. She put on the black jeans she’d left earth wearing and a pair of flat slippers that had been meant to go with one of her Asgardian dresses.

 

Loki was still in bed when she emerged, head still buried under the pillows. Darcy poured a glass of water and shook out a tablet from the bottle of painkillers the healers had given them. She also summoned a pair of sunglasses from her pocket dimension.

 

“Loki,” she said, poking his bare shoulder. He grunted and didn’t move. She poked him again. “ Loki .”

 

He pulled the pillow aside enough that she could see one eye squint blearily at her. She held out the painkiller. He took it from her and swallowed it dry, ignoring the glass of water she offered. When she handed him the sunglasses, he held them gingerly in one hand, eying her inquiringly.

 

“What?” she asked. “They’re unisex.”

 

They were oversized aviators, which Darcy honestly believed flattered everyone. Loki put them delicately on the side table and rolled reluctantly out of bed. It wasn’t until he was showered and dressed that he realized she was wearing one of his shirts.

 

He stared at her for several seconds, expression unreadable, eyes dilated and bloodshot. Darcy eyed him back, unable to read his reaction. “What?” she asked again. She plucked at the shirt. “Did you want to wear this?”

 

Loki crossed over to her and put his fingers under her chin, tilting her head back. He kissed her, slow and sweet, deliberate, but only as a means to its own end, leading nowhere. He asked for nothing more. It was still enough to make Darcy’s breath catch in her throat and she swayed forward, having to catch herself with one hand against his chest. She didn’t try to follow when he pulled away. She would let him take the lead with this, let him determine what he was comfortable with.

 

“Keep the shirt,” he told her with a faint curl to his lips. “It suits you.”

 

Despite his initial reaction, Loki took the sunglasses when they left, and Darcy allowed herself a moment of amusement at the sight of him, wearing Asgardian clothing and dark-tinted aviators, before her mood darkened again.

 

They both knew where they were heading without speaking, and when they arrived in the antechamber of the throne room, the rest of Loki’s family was already gathered, including Jane. The other human was the first to greet them, hugging Darcy silently and putting her hand on Loki’s arm, smiling sadly up at him. Loki nodded solicitously back at her.

 

Frigga was sitting in a corner, staring blankly out the window. She was not dressed in mourning for her brother. Darcy figured she probably wasn’t allowed, since Freyr had committed treason. She hesitated for a long moment, and then slowly walked over to the queen.

 

“Frigga?” she asked softly. The Aesir woman looked up, startled, and her expression cleared when she saw Darcy.

 

“Ah. Good morning, my dear,” Frigga said, sounding as weary as Darcy felt. Darcy offered Frigga her hand, which Frigga took and held tightly.

 

“I’m sorry about your brother,” Darcy said, her throat closing up.

 

“Oh, Darcy,” Frigga said, clearly fighting back tears. “Please do not blame yourself. Freyr… Freyr made his choice.”

 

“He was still your brother,” Darcy replied.

 

Frigga nodded, and pressed Darcy’s hand briefly to her cheek. “You and Loki are leaving, are you not?”

 

Darcy nodded. “We’re gonna stay with my parents on earth for a while.”

 

“Good,” Frigga said, her eyes unfocusing again. “I am glad. Hopefully it will do the both of you some good.”

 

“Absolutely not,” Odin said behind Darcy, and she turned around, pulling her hand free from Frigga’s. The Allfather was glaring at Loki with his one eye, and Loki scowled back behind his sunglasses. “You cannot leave now. It is out of the question.”

 

Darcy’s first instinct was to dive into the conversation, to tell Odin that it was her idea to go to earth, and he could back the fuck off. But something, some part of her made her stop and bite her tongue. No. She needed to let Loki handle this. If she wanted him to let her fight her own battles, she needed to give him the same courtesy.

 

Loki pushed his sunglasses up his nose and stared through them at his father. “And why is that?” he asked pointedly.

 

“What would the people think?” Odin snapped. “You leaving, so soon after--”

 

“After you once more accused me of treason, solely on the grounds that I am the monster that lives in your palace?” Loki said archly.

 

Thor stepped in, holding his hand out to Loki. “Brother, you know it was nothing--”

 

“Do I?” Loki interrupted. “Let me tell you what I know , brother. I was imprisoned without trial, again , for defending my spouse against ones who would harm her, without recourse, without a chance to explain myself, because I am Loki, the Jotun, the hostage that the Allfather plucked from battle to raise like some twisted mockery of a war trophy! So that he could look at me and say ‘Yes, I defeated the Frost Giants! See this stunted misbirth of theirs I keep as a pet .’”

 

Again, Darcy wanted to jump in, to contradict him, to prove him wrong, but still she held her tongue, watching, listening. Frigga pushed to her feet beside Darcy and crossed over to him, putting a hand soothingly on his arm.

 

“We do not see you that way, my son,” she told him softly. “But you must see this is not easy for us.”

 

Loki looked down at his mother in disbelief. “Easy for you ?” he echoed. “ You were not the ones imprisoned in your own mind for nearly half your life, or forced to try to kill your own kin, or to slaughter hundreds of innocents in a senseless bid for power. What does it matter if it has been easy for you ?”

 

He shook his mother’s hand from his arm and stepped backwards away from his parents. “I am leaving, by your will or no. I know not when I shall return, if I shall at all. Do not seek me out. Do not send me messengers. For once in your lives, just leave me in peace.”

 

He held his hand out to Darcy, who silently crossed over and took it in hers. Loki turned toward the door, and she followed him.

 

“Loki!” Thor called after them.

 

Loki stopped, but he didn’t look back. “No, brother,” he said, just loud enough for Thor to hear him. “Not this time.”

 

With that, they left.

 

Darcy didn’t say anything until they were alone, halfway back to Loki’s chambers to retrieve their belongings. “Are you sure that was a good idea?” she asked, looking up at him.

 

He didn’t look back at her. “What, precisely, do you mean?” he asked tightly.

 

“Kinda burning your bridges there, babe,” Darcy pointed out. “Odin can be a dick, but he’s your dad , and you were kinda harsh on your mom and Thor.”

 

“They deserve far harsher,” Loki bit out.

 

“Loki,” Darcy tried to begin, but he cut her off by dropping her hand and whirling on her.

 

“I remember it, Darcy,” he snarled. “All of it, during . I remember being cast into the dungeons without so much as a lipservice of a trial, and every moment I was confined there. And now they did the exact same thing, when I was equally unable to speak for myself.”

 

Darcy forced herself not to step away from him, assured herself that his anger was not directed at her, but she could feel the air temperature drop as his anger coalesced around him. “Loki,” she said again, and again he cut her off.

 

“They act like it is different, that they understand, but it is still the same! They still treat me as a traitor!” He clenched his fists and turned away from her, the lines in his back tense with restrained anger. “They will never see me as anything but their pet monster.”

 

I don’t think you’re a monster,” Darcy said sharply. He hunched his shoulders and ducked his head, hands still clenched. Darcy cautiously walked up behind him and put her hand on his back. He flinched, but didn’t pull away. “Hey. It’s okay to be mad, I get it,” she said softly. “I would be, too. But you can’t just cut them out of your life because they need time adjusting.”

 

“I do not owe them time,” Loki snapped, but without any heat. “I do not owe them anything.”

 

Loki ,” Darcy said a third time, a warning in her voice.

 

He held himself tense for a long moment, and then abruptly relaxed with a deep sigh. Darcy rubbed his back a couple of times. “It’s okay,” she said again. He turned around and caught her hand, bringing it to his lips.

 

“I am sorry,” he said softly. “You did not deserve that.”

 

“I know,” she replied, nodding. “But I also know that there’s a lot you’re going through, and you need to blow off steam sometimes. I did take Psych 101 in college. I know what PTSD is.”

 

He held her hand to his chest and stared pensively down at her. “And what about you?”

 

Darcy shrugged. “What about me?”

 

“Everything you have suffered,” Loki pointed out. “Who bears your burdens?”

 

“I do,” Darcy said firmly. “I’m a norn. I’ve lived for literally ever. I deal with my own shit.”

 

Loki’s expression, even hidden behind the sunglasses, was sad. He lifted her hand again and kissed her knuckles. “You do not have to,” he told her.

 

Darcy smiled somewhat wearily. “It’s okay. Let’s handle one person’s baggage at a time.”

 

Víl the raven was waiting for them when they got back to Loki’s rooms, perched on the railing of the terrace. Darcy made a beeline for him as soon as she caught sight of him. “Aw, poor thing,” she cooed. “Did you think we were going to leave without you?”

 

“Harken,” the bird replied, bobbing his head up and down.

 

Darcy cooed again and offered him her arm. Víl hopped up, causing her arm to sink under his weight, and side-walked up to her shoulder, where he settled down with a satisfied fluffing of his feathers. Darcy turned around to see Loki watching her, and he shook his head in fond exasperation.

 

Most of Darcy’s things were already stored in her pocket dimension. All she did was retrieve her coat and the ribbon-strung emblem of her rank. Loki moved through his room with a purpose, retrieving things from boxes, books, several of his journals, and all of his tools, storing each away in his pocket dimension.

 

When he was finished, he crossed to her side, hesitated, and then held out her dagger to her. “Did you want this back?” he asked.

 

Darcy stared at the blade and swallowed thickly. It all came rushing back, the sight of Freyr’s ruined eye, the horrible squelching sound, the smell of blood and stomach bile. She took an involuntary step back. “Can--can you keep it for me?” she asked softly. “Just… just until I’m ready.”

 

Loki quickly made the dagger disappear. “Of course,” he assured her. “Whenever you are ready.”

 

Darcy bit her lip and nodded. “Okay.”

 

Víl suddenly jumped from Darcy’s shoulder to Loki’s, shuffled his wings together, and ran his beak through Loki’s hair a couple of times, causing Loki’s shoulder to hitch upwards slightly. Darcy smiled faintly and rocked back on her heels.

 

“Guess we’re all set, then,” she said.

 

Loki shot Víl an annoyed look with no bite. “Yes, I believe we are.”

 

XxxXxxX

 

In retrospect, Darcy realized she really should have called her parents beforehand. Unfortunately, it didn’t occur to her until they were standing on the sidewalk in the middle of the Philadelphia suburbs, staring at the front door of her parent’s house.

 

Loki stood beside her, waiting silently, Víl still on one shoulder. He was dressed completely in black, from his tunic, to the leather vest over it, down to his knee-high boots. That, along with his anemic complexion and his ink-black hair, really should have made him look like a death metal band groupie, except for the fact he was 6’3”, ridiculously attractive, and had miles of self-confidence.

 

Although the raven was just a tad far.

 

Darcy heaved a deep sigh, shifting her weight back and forth. She jumped, startled, when Loki put his hand on her shoulder. He squeezed her shoulder wordlessly, just letting her know she was not alone. Really, it shouldn’t be this difficult to just walk up and ring the doorbell…

 

With one last sigh, Darcy started walking towards the front door, Loki dropping his hand and falling into step behind her. She only hesitated a fraction of a second before knocking. She took a deep breath, bracing herself to face whichever of her parents answered the door.

 

It was neither. The door was abruptly yanked open by a young man with a shock of curly, dark blonde hair and a tiger-striped t-shirt. He was two inches taller than Loki, with the same milk-pale skin and lanky build, but his eyes were pale, sky blue.

 

“Darce?” he asked in disbelief, looking down at her.

 

“Coop?” Darcy replied, stunned. “When did you get here?”

 

“Yesterday,” the young man said. “Mom didn’t tell me you were coming.”

 

“It was kinda last minute,” Darcy said, still staring up at him.

 

“Awesome!” he replied, and swooped down to hug her tightly. “Dude, have you lost weight?”

 

Darcy pulled free from his embrace and smacked his chest. “Seriously? That’s gotta be a record. Two seconds!”

 

“Hey, at least you lost it,” the young man retorted. “So you’re going in the right direction.”

 

“Ass,” Darcy muttered, and turned to look at Loki, who was watching the proceedings with interest, head tilted to the side. “Uh, this is my youngest older brother, Cooper. Coop, this is…” Darcy trailed off. “Uh, Loki. This is Loki.”

 

“Did you kidnap him from the Ren Fair?” Cooper quipped. He thrust out his hand. “Are you dating my baby sister?”

 

Loki didn’t extend his own hand, but he bowed regally, causing Víl to shift his balance. “No, I am not,” he replied honestly. “A pleasure to meet you, Cooper Lewis.”

 

“Ooh, nice accent,” Cooper said, dropping his hand. “A raven, though? Really?”

 

“It’s a long story,” Darcy interjected. “And I’m not your baby sister. You’re eighteen months older than me.”

 

“You’re the baby, and you’re my sister,” Cooper retorted. “Ergo…”

 

Darcy pushed Cooper out of the way and stepped into the house. “You don’t even know what that word means.”

 

“Hey, I read!” Cooper protested, waiting for Loki to enter before closing and locking the door. “Ma! Darcy’s here!”

 

There was a crash and the shatter of glass, and then Joanna Lewis appeared from the kitchen, her face bloodless and a dish towel clutched in her hands. “Darcy?” she asked in a shaky voice.

 

The sight of her mother brought a rush of emotions Darcy was not prepared for. Her throat closed up and her eyes watered. “Hey, Mom,” she said, her voice breaking.

 

Joanna lunged forward and caught Darcy up in a rib-cracking hug. “Oh, baby,” Joanna whispered breathlessly. She abruptly pulled away and took Darcy’s face in her hands. “Are you okay? Is everything okay? What is--” She caught sight of Loki standing next to Cooper and froze, eyes widening.

 

Loki bowed again, clasping his hands behind his back. “Hello, Madam Lewis,” he said politely. “I believe I owe you an apology for our first meeting.”

 

Joanna stared at him for a moment. “Darcy, sweetie, didn’t you say he was… dead?” she asked, her voice pitched an octave too high.

 

“Uh-huh,” Darcy said.

 

Joanna blinked. “Okay.” She dropped her hands from Darcy’s face. “Okay,” she said again.

 

Cooper looked between the three of them with a baffled expression. “Is there something I’m missing?” he asked slowly.

 

Darcy looked at her mother. “You didn’t tell them?”

 

Joanna stared wide-eyed back. “How would they believe me?” she demanded.

 

Darcy slapped a hand over her face. “Oy,” she groaned. “I did not get enough sleep for this.” She pulled her hand from her face. “What time is it even? I have no idea what the time difference is.”

 

“Five thirty,” Joanna replied. “Do you-- Do you want a cup of coffee?”

 

“Yes,” Darcy said firmly, and started for the kitchen.

 

“Tell me what?” she heard Cooper ask behind her.

 

“It’s a long story,” Joanna replied.

 

“Why do people keep saying that?” Cooper complained.

 

There were porcelain shards scattered across the kitchen floor, and the sink was half-full of dirty dishes. Darcy stopped at the sight of the mess and sighed before heading to the pantry for the broom.

 

“Darcy,” Loki said behind her, and she turned to find Loki holding her mother’s favorite casserole dish in his hands. The floor was now completely clear.

 

“Oh,” Darcy said.

 

Cooper and Joanna stood in the doorway to the kitchen, Cooper’s mouth hanging open. He pointed at Loki. “Did you see that?” he gasped.

 

Loki put the casserole dish onto the kitchen table and wiped his hands on his thighs. He looked self-conscious and uncomfortable, which was kind of endearing, in its own way. Darcy snorted and crossed her arms over her chest.

 

“Hey, Coop,” she said. “You heard about Thor?”

 

Cooper blinked. “Thor? You mean the alien? The one who was with the Avengers in New York?”

 

“Yup,” Darcy said. She hooked her thumb in Loki’s direction. “This is his younger brother.”

 

“Adopted,” Loki blurted. He cleared his throat. “Adopted brother,” he said again.

 

Cooper’s eyes widened. “You… you’re an alien ?”

 

Loki’s nose wrinkled. “That is a relative term,” he complained. “I am no more alien than you are. I am merely from a different Realm.”

 

Cooper turned to stare at Darcy. “You brought home an alien ?”

 

Loki sighed heavily and turned to survey the kitchen. He caught sight of the coffee machine and wandered over, opening cabinets until he found the ground coffee.

 

“He doesn’t like being called that,” Darcy told Cooper.

 

“How the hell did you meet an alien?” he demanded.

 

“I used to work for Jane Foster,” Darcy said with a sigh of her own. “The scientist who was Thor’s first point of contact when he came to earth. We worked for SHIELD for a couple of years, and then we were in Greenwich. You know, giant space ship, creepy white elves, red tornado of doom?”

 

“I think I need to sit down,” Cooper said weakly.

 

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell the boys,” Darcy told her mother, slightly accusatory.

 

Joanna threw up her hands. “It’s not like I had any proof, Darcy,” she retorted. “They’re not going to believe it coming from me!”

 

Cooper pulled out a chair from the table and sat down, big hands braced against his knees. He stared at Loki, who was busy brewing a pot of coffee, Víl still riding on his shoulder. “How long?” he suddenly asked.

 

“Two years,” Darcy replied. “Since I met Thor. Just over a year since I met Loki.”

 

Cooper nodded numbly. “Why… Why is he here? I mean, why’d you bring him here?”

 

Darcy rubbed the back of her neck. “Um…” She trailed off and looked at Loki, who looked back at her and shrugged unhelpfully. “To be honest, we really just needed a place to crash that’s not Loki’s place or SHIELD,” she said. “Things with Loki’s family are kinda weird right now, and SHIELD sorta hates Loki’s guts, so…” She gave a shrug of her own.

 

Joanna twisted the towel in her hands. “How did Loki survive?” she asked softly. “You said, you know, when it happened, that he had died.”

 

“Magic,” Darcy said flatly, leaning back against the counter. “The universe wanted him to survive. Literally. It figured it owed me a favor for saving it, or something.”

 

Cooper blinked a few more times. “You saved the universe?” he asked.

 

“Twice,” Darcy replied, more perkily than she felt. “Well, I guess I only helped the first time.”

 

Cooper put his head in his hands. “My head hurts.”

 

Joanna reached over and patted his back. “That’s not even half of it, honey,” she said sympathetically.

 

Loki walked over to the refrigerator and pulled out the carton of milk before going on a brief hunt for the sugar bowl, which he found after only a few seconds. Darcy watched him make himself comfortable in her mother’s kitchen with a small smirk.

 

“So, you were on Asgard, since you left?” Joanna asked, still rubbing Cooper’s back.

 

“Just for the last few days,” Darcy said, her mood souring again. “Before that we were on Muspell.”

 

Cooper raised his head. “Wait. Were you on another planet ?”

 

“Dear god , Cooper!” Darcy burst out. “It’s the twenty-first century! We’ve answered the question of ‘Are we alone in the universe’! Yes , I was on another planet.”

 

“Language,” Joanna warned, flicking her towel in Darcy’s direction. Darcy stuck her tongue out at her mother. “You are enjoying this too much,” Joanna accused.

 

“A little,” Darcy admitted. “I wanna see how long it takes Coop’s head to explode.”

 

Loki walked over to her and handed her a mug of coffee. He’d picked out a mug with bright yellow sunflowers for her. She took it with a brief smile of thanks and took her first sip. For being a novice, Loki was damn good at making coffee.

 

Cooper shook his head and leaned back in his chair. “Let me get this straight,” he said. “You’ve known about aliens for two years , you’ve met two of them, and you’ve gone to a different planet , and you never said anything?”

 

“Well, until recently I’d signed several non-disclosure forms,” Darcy said. “But then I realized SHIELD can kiss my ass, so I don’t care anymore.” She took another sip of coffee. “This is good. Thanks, babe.”

 

Loki frowned at her. “I thought I asked you not to call me that.”

 

She waved her finger at him. “Nuh-uh. Tiny, naked blue butt. I think I’ve earned the right.”

 

Loki raised an eyebrow challengingly at her. Cooper frowned at the two of them.

 

“I thought you said you weren’t dating,” he said plaintively.

 

“We’re married,” Darcy said at the same time Loki said, “We are not.” He shot her an inquisitive look.

 

“What?” Darcy asked. “ You were already using ‘spouse,’ so…”

 

Cooper continued to stare at the two of them. “You’re… married,” he said flatly. His face screwed up. “Darcy, you jerk, you didn’t even invite me!”

 

“Considering the ceremony was self-officiated in the living room of Jane’s mom’s apartment in London after we’d broken Loki out of prison, there wasn’t much of a guest list,” Darcy said sarcastically.

 

Cooper shook his head. “I can’t… I just can’t do this. No. I need to…” He got up. “I’m gonna go lie down for a while. When I come back I want the whole story, from the beginning. Okay?”

 

Darcy toasted him with her coffee cup. He left the kitchen, shaking his head as he went. Joanna gave Darcy an annoyed look. “ Really , dear,” she said.

 

“What?” Darcy asked defensively. “Oh, come on , Mom. That was funny!”

 

Joanna rolled her eyes and sat in Cooper’s vacated chair. “Okay. Let me have it. What’ve you been up to the last month?”

 

Darcy didn’t mince words. She knew her mother was capable of handling pretty much anything she threw at her by now, having introduced her mother to the norn in the harshest way possible. Joanna paled when Darcy told her she now had a life expectancy in the thousands, but didn’t say anything until Darcy was finished. Darcy did, however, leave out the whole part where she killed someone.

 

“I… see,” she said shakily. “Okay. Well, I’m sure this makes it easier for the two of you.”

 

“Huh?” Darcy asked, blinking nonplussed at her mother.

 

“Well, you have similar life expectancies now,” Joanna pointed out. “I mean, before, you would have aged normally, right? He would have outlived you by a lot. But not anymore.”

 

Darcy blinked, her mouth slack. “Uh… yeah. I guess.” She hadn’t thought of that, not even once. She’d taken Loki as her lagsmaðr, thinking as the norn, that she was an eternal being. It had never occurred to her that she would have aged and died as a mortal had she not become Mother of the Ways.

 

“Holy shit,” she suddenly blurted, and set her mug on the counter hard. She launched herself at Loki, wrapping her arms around his waist and burying her face in his chest. He caught her easily enough, without spilling his own coffee, and looped his free arm around her shoulders.

 

“I’m so sorry,” she said, her voice muffled by his tunic. “I didn’t even think about what that would have done to you. God, I’m so sorry.”

 

He bent his head to press a kiss against her hair. “It does not matter anymore, dear heart,” he told her softly, in the First Tongue. “What’s done is done.”

 

Darcy clung to him for a few more seconds, wrestling down her suddenly rebellious emotions while he rubbed circles into her back. She took a deep breath, inhaling his scent of balsam and fresh-fallen snow, and leaned back without stepping away.

 

“I’m a selfish idiot, aren’t I?” she asked ruefully.

 

“No more than any of us,” he replied, switching back to Allspeak.

 

The door to the garage opened and George Lewis walked in. He stopped dead at the sight of his youngest child still in the embrace of the would-be conqueror of New York. He blinked a couple of times, and then lowered his briefcase to the ground.


“So, Darcy,” he said in an even voice. “When did you get back?”

Chapter Text

Darcy followed Loki as he drifted around the house, poking into all the corners, exploring her childhood home. Víl had been banished outside at Joanna’s nervous request, and George had already been brought up to date, again leaving out the part where Darcy stabbed someone in the face. Darcy may be a norn, but they were still her parents, and some things you just couldn’t tell them.

Loki stopped in the living room, standing in front of a bookshelf stuffed full of framed photographs. The one that had caught his interest was about five years old, at the beginning of Darcy’s sophomore year of college. It was of her and all three of her brothers during an outing to Dave ‘n Busters.

“Your brothers are twins?” Loki asked, picking up the photo to study it better.

“Alex and Bran were, yeah,” Darcy said softly.

Loki looked up at her. “Were?” he echoed.

Darcy nodded. “Yeah. Uh, Bran died about eight months after that photo was taken. Killed. He was serving in Afghanistan.”

A strange expression passed over Loki’s face. “I am sorry.”

Darcy shrugged. “It’s okay.” She walked over and took the picture from him. “That’s Alex. He lives in Los Angeles. He’s a cop. He’s got two kids: Alex, Jr and Tommy. His wife’s nice. I like her. Don’t get to see them much, though.” She stared down at the photo for a long time. “Alex took it hardest,” she said. “He was in Afghanistan at the same time. Different unit. He felt… he felt like he should’ve been there, you know. For Bran.”

Loki hummed to himself. “The guilt of the survivors is rarely logical,” he replied.

“Tell me about it,” Darcy said, putting the photo back on the shelf.

Loki’s attention drifted to another photo, this one more recent, of Darcy and Jane sitting on the roof of the lab in New Mexico. Erik had taken the picture. It had been about six months after Thor had come and gone, and Darcy and Jane had fallen asleep in the same deck chair, heads tilted together.

“After Thor, before you,” Darcy explained.

The most recent photo in the collection was one of Darcy, Jane, and Clint, all crammed together on the couch in Jane’s lab at the Triskelion. Natasha had snapped it in the middle of a heated discussion about Star Wars versus Star Trek, with Darcy having just made a comment about Clint seeing the former in theaters, which he’d taken particular exception to.

George came up behind Darcy. “Dinner’s almost ready,” he said, his eyes on Loki. “Is he gonna be okay eating Kosher?”

“He’s never complained so far,” Darcy replied.

“Cooper’s back downstairs,” George went on. “He’s asking questions.”

Darcy sighed. “Yeah,” she said. “You told him anything?”

“Just that you would explain everything.”

Darcy turned to look up at her father. He was precisely six feet, with rimless glasses and a salt-and-pepper goatee that Darcy had always said made him look vaguely sinister, but really only served to add to his professor persona. He taught military history at Temple University, something of a fulfillment of a life-long dream for him, and a culmination of over twenty years of his own military service. In a weird twist of fate, he’d also been serving in Afghanistan at the same time as Alex and Bran, working military intelligence in the northern part of the country. He’d been the first informed when Bran’s convoy was hit by an IED.

“That’s gonna be fun,” Darcy said, a trace of bitterness in her voice.

George wrapped his arm around Darcy’s waist and hugged her to his side. “He deserves to know,” he told her.

“I know,” Darcy said with a sigh. “I just… I don’t want him looking at me any differently.”

“We didn’t,” George reminded her. “Whatever else you are, you are Cooper’s younger sister. That’s never gonna change, sweetheart.”

Darcy rubbed her nose. “You guys remember that I’m literally, like, a million years old, right?”

“Not to us,” George said. “You’re twenty-three, you’re the baby of the family, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

That brought a smile to Darcy’s face. “Thanks, Dad.”

George pressed a kiss to the side of her head and went back to the kitchen. Darcy turned to find Loki watching her. “Your parents are very kind,” he observed. “Allowing me to stay here.”

“My parents are good people,” Darcy said. She patted Loki’s arm. “Besides, they know we’re a package deal, now.”

Cooper pounced the moment they got back to the kitchen. Darcy managed to fend him off long enough to get a plate of food, which was pot roast with rice pilaf and fresh salad. The conversation dominated the entire meal, with Cooper firing off rapid questions and Darcy answering just as rapidly.

When they were done eating, Cooper leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Holy shiznits on a fishstick, Darce,” he said. “How have you not said anything to anyone ?”

Darcy shrugged. “How was I supposed to tell anyone without people thinking I’m crazy?” She nodded at Loki. “I mean, he helps prove my point, but I didn’t have him before.”

Loki had gotten fourth helpings on the food, and there would be no leftovers on anything, which Joanna had clearly taken a note of, because Darcy saw her making a grocery list on her phone, and it looked a lot like the ones from when all three boys still lived at home.

Cooper dragged a hand down his face. “So you can, like, see the future?” he asked.

Sometimes ,” Darcy said. “I’ve only ever done it successfully…” She trailed off. “Huh.” She turned to look at Loki. “Only when Jane was involved. The bomb at Stark’s, and the Aether thingy.”

Loki shrugged. “She is precious to you,” he observed, fiddling with his fork. He’d been oddly silent during the entire conversation, not adding a single remark to the winding, complicated, and on occasion disjointed story. Darcy had only hit the highlights: Thor falling out of the sky in New Mexico, meeting Loki, the Convergence, Ragnarok, and the joining with Yggdrasil.

Cooper leaned forward again, propping his elbows on his table. “And now you can make… portals? What did you call them? Ways?”

“I did it once, and I’m never doing it again,” Darcy said, holding up her hand. “It kicked the crap out of me and Loki, and I’m not revisiting that for at least three hundred years.”

Shit ,” Cooper said.

“Language,” Joanna and George said at the same time.

Cooper shook his head. “Holy crap , Darce. Are you really gonna live that long?”

Darcy grimaced. “Apparently.”

Cooper pointed at her. “I expect you to keep an eye on my descendents and make sure all of them get into decent colleges.”

Darcy raised a hand. “You have my word.”

Joanna finished her grocery list. “Your father and I are gonna pick up a few things for breakfast from the store,” she announced. “You guys can handle the dishes.” She turned to Darcy and hesitated. “I’m assuming you’ll be sharing a room?”

“Yeah,” Darcy said, and waved at her mother. “I’ll handle that, don’t worry.”

Loki followed Darcy and Cooper into the kitchen, helping them clear the table after George and Joanna left. He began to load the dishwasher under Darcy’s instructions. Cooper eyed Loki for a moment.

“Are you usually this quiet?” he asked. “I didn’t figure Darcy to like the quiet ones. She needs someone to keep up with her motormouth.”

Darcy threw a dish towel at her brother. “Leave him alone. He’s got a headache.”

Cooper caught the towel and flicked it at Darcy’s butt. She dodged easily. “I still can’t believe you didn’t tell me!” he complained. “I mean, c’mon, Darce! Me , of all people! I could just--argh!” He raised his hands toward Darcy’s throat, fingers curling in a mocking gesture, and Darcy knew it was Cooper, knew he was nonthreatening, but her brain abruptly flicked into overdrive and she was on the other side of the kitchen before she knew it, her staves held out in a defensive posture.

Her breathing was ragged and her heartbeat crashed in her ears. She could smell blood and stomach bile. Cooper was frozen in place, hands still outstretched. He stared at her, mouth slack. Loki slowly walked toward Darcy, one hand reaching for her staves.

“Darcy?” he asked softly. “Can you hear me?”

Darcy couldn’t order her muscles to relax, or her body to move. She watched Loki approach her. “Yeah,” she mumbled. He reached her and took her staves from her hands, putting them on the counter behind him. Then he curled one hand around her forearm, the other hand pressing to the small of her back.

“It is alright,” he murmured, for her ears only. “You are safe. Freyr is not here. You are safe.”

Darcy started to shake as the adrenaline began to fade away, her breathing getting even harsher. Loki pulled her against his chest and held her there, strong arms enclosing her. “You are safe,” he repeated. “Freyr is not here.”

She pressed her face against his shirt and struggled to rein in her breathing. She hadn’t meant to react that way, hadn’t even had time to think before instinct had kicked in. Loki held her for a long time before guiding her over to a chair and easing her down. He got her a glass of water and returned to her side, crouching down in front of her and rubbing her arm.

“Are you well?” he asked softly.

“Yeah,” she said again. Cooper walked toward her and she flinched involuntarily, leaning away from him. He stopped in his tracks.

“Hey, Darce,” he said. “You okay? What was that about?” Darcy shook her head at him. She couldn’t seem to stop shaking. Cooper looked unhappy, but didn’t press the issue. He gestured at the dishes in the sink. “I can take care of this,” he told her. “You go take care of yourself.”

Loki helped Darcy back to her feet, and she started for the stairs, Loki behind her. He followed her up to her bedroom, which had remained untouched since she’d moved out after getting accepted into Culver. The same band posters were hanging on the walls, the same bedspread on the bed. Even her plushie Cthulhu was still sitting on the corner of the dresser.

Darcy collapsed onto the bed and curled up into as tiny a ball as possible. Loki took her slippers off her feet and put them next to the door.

“You should sleep,” he told her.

“Don’t wanna,” Darcy muttered back. Loki circled the bed so he could see her face and leaned over so he could stroke her hair.

“You should sleep,” he told her again, and then extended his hand. In his palm sat the small, silver vial that contained the elixir Frigga made, the one that stopped you from dreaming. Darcy stared at it for a moment. She had completely forgotten that she had given hers to Loki what felt like ages ago, before Ragnarok, before Rhia, back when they’d first bonded and he was laid up on the couch with a sword-wound in his chest.

She pushed herself into a sitting position and took it from Loki, unstoppering it and tilting her head back so she could pour a single drop onto her tongue. It tasted sharp and sweet at the same time, thought the flavor faded almost instantly. She handed the vial back and laid back down again.

Loki unlaced his boots before laying down behind her, molding his body to hers so there was as much contact as possible. She fell asleep to the feeling of his hand stroking her hair.

XxxXxxX

Loki was gone when Darcy woke up. It was a couple hours after dawn, and it was the school bus outside that had woken her up. She rolled over and stared blearily at the window, wondering why the bus was so loud, and realized that the window was open, the screen removed and propped against the wall. Confused, Darcy sat up.

That was when she saw Víl perched on the back of the chair in the corner, his head under one wing. Loki must have opened the window so the bird wouldn’t have to sleep outside, as he made Joanna uncomfortable.

Darcy reluctantly got out of bed and shuffled into the bathroom. She’d gone to sleep still dressed in jeans and Loki’s shirt, and she didn’t bother getting changed. She just unbraided her hair, brushed it out, and twisted it into a knot at the back of her neck.

The bruises around her throat were nonexistent, and the muscles in her right leg weren’t even stiff anymore. Gotta love Asgardian medical care.

Joanna was making breakfast when Darcy got down to the kitchen, and Darcy hovered in the doorway, blinking in confusion. “Why aren’t you at work?” she asked out loud.

“Called in some vacation days when Cooper got here,” Joanna said, turning to look at her. “How’d you sleep?”

“Fine,” Darcy said noncommittally, and crossed over to the coffeepot. “You seen Loki?”

“No, I’m sorry. Did he leave?”

“I dunno. He wasn’t there when I woke up.”

Joanna stopped in the act of stirring blintz batter. “Should we be worried?” she asked.

Darcy shrugged one shoulder. “I wouldn’t be. He comes and goes as he pleases. Where’s Dad?”

“Temple,” Joanna replied.

“School or synagogue?”

“School, sorry. He forgot some papers he was supposed to grade over the weekend.”

Darcy hummed to herself as she leaned against the counter, sipping from her coffee cup. “Need help?”

“Yeah, can you chop the figs?” Joanna gestured toward the cutting board with the whisk. A pile of dried figs and a kitchen knife waited on the counter, and at the sight of the knife Darcy’s blood went cold.

“Um,” she said, swallowing tightly. Joanna picked up on her sudden discomfort and looked up.

“Darcy? What is it?” Joanna asked. She put the whisk into the mixing bowl and walked over to her. “You okay? Cooper told us about last night.”

Darcy swallowed again and put her mug down. “Uh, a few days ago, on Asgard, I kinda got… kidnapped.”

“What?” Joanna gasped, and reached out to take Darcy’s hands. “What happened?”

Darcy looked down. “It was, um, Loki’s uncle. On his mom’s side. They were--they were gonna try and kill Loki. Some stupid political thing. They were making a play for the throne. Anyway, I got away, and…” she trailed off, the words dying on her tongue.

Joanna squeezed her hands. “It’s okay, honey. Whatever it is. Just tell me.”

The back of Darcy’s throat itched, her eyes burning. “Freyr… he came after me. And he tried to kill me. Choked me.” Darcy’s eyes started to water and she sniffed loudly. “I had this dagger… Loki gave it to me… and I--I killed him. I killed Freyr.”

“Oh, Darcy,” Joanna breathed, and pulled Darcy into her arms.

All of Darcy’s control abruptly vanished, and she ended up sobbing into her mother’s shoulder while her mom stroked her back, murmuring soothingly into her ear. Joanna didn’t let go until Darcy’s sobs had faded to ragged breathing and her tears had run out.

Joanna leaned back from her daughter and took her face in her hands. “You did what you had to, you know that, right?” she asked. “You did what you had to to survive.”

“I know,” Darcy said hoarsely.

“It doesn’t make it any easier,” Joanna told her. “But you need to keep telling yourself that, okay?”

Darcy nodded. Joanna kissed Darcy’s forehead. “You know, you could talk with your father,” she told Darcy. “He understands that sort of thing. He’s been where you are.”

Darcy scrubbed her face clean on her sleeve. “I know.” In over twenty years with military intel, her father had seen and done things he still couldn’t tell his family about, but it was unspoken knowledge among the Lewises that Dad had been to Bad Places and had done Bad Things. Not even Joanna knew everything her husband had done, and George would likely never tell those stories, even if he was allowed.

Joanna pursed her lips. “I guess Dr Minrith would be out of the question,” she said.

“God, Mom,” Darcy said, her voice thick with tears. “Seriously? He doesn’t have the clearance to hear half the things I’ve been through.” And her childhood psychiatrist probably wouldn’t believe a word Darcy said, either.

“Could SHIELD give you a therapist?” Joanna asked.

Darcy snorted. “I’m not dealing with SHIELD anymore. The last time we had contact with them, they threw Loki into a cell, and I’m really sick of people doing that.”

Joanna grimaced. “Yeah, but you really can’t blame them, can you? He kinda did try to take over the world.”

Darcy rolled her eyes. “ Mom .”

Joanna held up her hands. “I know, I know. Not willingly. But that’s kinda hard for people to accept when they’re not there, when they don’t see it up close.” She went back to making breakfast. “He seems nice, though. The real Loki. Polite.”

“He’s a prince,” Darcy muttered. “He has etiquette.”

“Does that involve leaving in the middle of the night and not saying anything?” Joanna asked archly, and immediately caved under Darcy’s glare. “Sorry.”

Darcy blinked a couple of times. “How did you know he left in the middle of the night?”

“The burglar alarm was reset at 2:34,” Joanna replied. “Though how he knew the code, I have no idea.”

“Magic,” Darcy replied.

Cooper shuffled in, rubbing his face with one huge, bony hand. He was wearing a jungle-print tank top and bright orange and blue basketball shorts. Without opening his eyes fully, he trudged over to Darcy and proceeded to drape himself over her.

“Oof,” Darcy protested, reaching up to wrap her arms around Cooper’s waist. “Good morning.”

Cooper mumbled incoherently and patted the back of Darcy’s head before stealing her cup of coffee and shuffling over to the kitchen table to slump into a chair. Cooper really wasn’t a morning person, even more so when he was on vacation. Darcy decided not to fight him over the coffee and made herself another cup.

Loki didn’t reappear in time for breakfast, so it was just the Lewises, and conversation was subdued. Darcy spent what little they made asking Cooper about his recent performances, the tour his company had just completed, and the video project he was currently working on.

They finished breakfast, cleaned up, and Loki still hadn’t returned. Darcy still wasn’t worried; there wasn’t a lot earth could throw at Loki that he couldn’t handle. She cornered Cooper after her brother had taken a shower.

“You wanna go to Reading Terminal?” she asked.

Cooper scratched his forehead. “Uh… sure, but didn’t you wanna wait for Loki to get back?”

Darcy shrugged. “No clue when that will be. He’ll get back when he’s done doing whatever it is he’s doing.”

Cooper blinked. “And you’re not worried?”

“Nope,” Darcy replied. “He’s a centuries-old Norse god. Pretty sure he can take care of himself.”

“Well, when you put it that way,” Cooper said dryly.

They borrowed Joanna’s car and, despite the fact she hadn’t driven in over a month, Darcy took the keys, because Cooper hadn’t driven in even longer, and besides, she was a better driver.

Reading Terminal Market was a covered marketplace in downtown Philadelphia with a variety of vendors, from street food to gourmet candies to handmade crafts. It was Darcy’s favorite place in the city, and she made a point to visit every time she was in town. Even if she didn’t intend to buy anything, she loved wandering between the stalls and watching the people. Before she knew what she was, she liked to “guess” their stories, not realizing she was actually reading them.

She and Cooper were discussing which flavor of homemade fudge to bring home for their mother when a strong hand suddenly gripped her upper arm and a familiar presence pressed itself against her back.

“We need to leave, now ,” Loki murmured into her ear.

Darcy looked up at him with a frown. “What is it?” she asked softly.

“Holy shit !” Cooper blurted, staring at Loki. “When did you get here?”

“Three SHIELD vehicles just stopped outside the marketplace,” Loki told Darcy. “I was careless. They tracked me here.”

Fuck ,” Darcy growled. “I told Fury to leave us the hell alone.”

“Wait, SHIELD is looking for you?” Cooper asked. “I thought you didn’t work for them anymore. Oh, my god, are you guys fugitives from SHIELD?”

No ,” Darcy spat. “I made it very clear to the director that we were parting on good terms, but he clearly didn’t get the memo.”

Cooper scanned the crowd. “Well, we probably can’t head back to the parking garage. They’ll look there first.”

Loki slid his hand down to grasp Darcy’s and began to tug her along. “This way.”

“Wait, Loki, can’t we just--you know--teleport?” Darcy asked.

“You can teleport ?” Cooper demanded.

“I would not be able to carry both of you back to your home,” Loki said tightly. “And I am not familiar enough with this city to take us someplace closer.”

Darcy twisted to look at Cooper, who stuck close to her and Loki. “Call Mom and make sure there’s no one at the house,” she ordered. “SHIELD knows I’ve gone to Mom and Dad’s before.”

“I don’t have an American cell phone,” he reminded her.

“Shit,” Darcy said. Her last cell phone had been destroyed on Rhia, and she’d never bothered to get a new one, as she had intended to leave earth as soon as she’d recovered from the stab wound left over from Ragnarok

Loki suddenly changed direction and Darcy looked over her shoulder. She caught sight of three men in identical black suits, earpieces in their right ears. When Cooper slowed to ogle them, Darcy grabbed his arm and yanked him along.

Loki’s steps slowed and he released Darcy’s arm, one hand lifting to trace a complicated gesture while he frowned in concentration. A perfect double of himself and Darcy, right down to the clothes they were wearing, stepped away from him and started walking in the opposite direction.

“Oh, that is cool !” Cooper exclaimed in a hushed voice, watching the doubles walk away.

Loki grabbed Darcy again and pulled her out of sight behind a booth selling Amish dairy products, and Cooper thankfully had the presence of mind to duck in beside them. Two more SHIELD agents walked by, following the doubles Loki had sent in the opposite direction.

Once the agents had passed, Loki led them through the market again, his hand almost crushing Darcy’s in its grip. She kept checking over her shoulder to make sure Cooper was still behind them, and her brother looked more excited than nervous, which was good, she supposed.

“What did you mean, they tracked you here?” Darcy asked Loki. “Where have you been?”

“Dismantling a cache of weapons left nearby during Thanos’ play for the Tesseract,” Loki told her grimly. “I was careless enough to allow myself to be observed. I thought it would be safe. I was a fool .”

“It’s not your fault,” Darcy said automatically.

“If we get out to 12th street, we can get a taxi, get us away from the market,” Cooper suggested.

Loki slowed again. “Which way?” he demanded. Cooper pointed, and Loki changed direction again, striding through the crowd with such an air of purpose that people instinctively gave way to him. They emerged from the terminal, and Darcy scanned the street.

“Oh, fuck ,” she said in a defeated voice. Loki pulled up short, moving to block both Darcy and Cooper. He didn’t summon a weapon, not yet, but he planted his feet and drew himself up to his full height, glaring down at the much-shorter man standing on the sidewalk not far away.

To his credit, Agent Sitwell didn’t react to being the recipient of Loki’s ire, as intimidating as it was. He merely stared back with a mildly pleasant expression on his face. “Hello Miss Lewis, Mr Odinson. And Mr Lewis. You were avoiding me. Should I feel insulted?”

Darcy stepped out from behind Loki. “What the hell, Sitwell?” she demanded.

“I believe we requested you alert us when you were back on the planet, Miss Lewis,” Sitwell replied. “And for now we’d like to keep tabs on Mr Odinson’s presence on our planet. I’m sure you understand.”

“You didn’t have to stalk us in public and corner us,” Darcy spat. “If you wanted to talk, you could have called.”

“You don’t have a cellphone,” Sitwell pointed out.

Darcy crossed her arms. “What do you want?” she asked.

“Just to talk,” Sitwell replied. “If you’ll come with me.”

Darcy looked back at Loki, who pressed his lips together, and then nodded. Switching to the First Tongue to prevent eavesdroppers, he said, “We should probably do our best to avoid undue conflict.”

Darcy sighed and turned back to Sitwell. “Fine. Loki and I will come with you, but Cooper is going home.”

“I’m not leaving,” Cooper insisted immediately.

Yes , you are,” Darcy shot back. “We can handle this, Coop. Go home.”

“We’d be more than happy to escort Mr Lewis home,” Sitwell said. “We’ll have an agent stay with your family until our… talk… is completed.”

“How kind of you,” Darcy said sarcastically.

Cooper tried to protest again, but Darcy bluntly told him to go back to the house and take care of their parents, after which he finally agreed to go with the SHIELD agent. Darcy and Loki were loaded into one of the black SUVs. Neither of them spoke, to each other or to Sitwell, who was in the passenger seat, but Loki laced his fingers with Darcy and held tight.

They arrived at a non-descript office building a few minutes later, and were escorted down blandly-decorated halls before entering an equally non-descript office. There were two chairs and a table already set up. Darcy took one of the chairs, but Loki chose to stand protectively behind her, arms crossed over his chest.

Agent Sitwell took the second chair and put it on the opposite side of the table before sitting down. “See?” he said. “This can all be very civilized if you’ll let it.”

“What do you want?” Darcy demanded flatly.

“What is your intention for your stay here on earth?” Sitwell asked, giving up his facade of politeness and finally getting down to business.

“We’re visiting my parents,” Darcy replied irately.

“So you’re here on vacation?” Sitwell asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Since when do I have to justify being on my own damn planet?” Darcy snapped.

“Since your associate was seen at the location of what was discovered to be a weapons cache this morning,” Sitwell said bluntly. “And I’m sure you’ll understand why we get a little twitchy when Mr Odinson gets near large amounts of weapons.”

“If you investigated my presence, then I am sure you would have discovered I destroyed the weapons in question,” Loki replied evenly. “They were stockpiled during…” He trailed off, and Darcy looked up at him. “They were placed there during the Tesseract incident,” he continued. “And as I am the only one with knowledge of it, I felt it my responsibility to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.”

“We would prefer you not take any such actions without notifying us, first,” Sitwell said, folding his hands on the table. “We are more than capable of dismantling a single weapons cache.”

Darcy shifted in her chair. “Cut the bullshit, Sitwell. Why are we really here?”

Sitwell stared at Darcy for a beat, and then replied, “We have a need for someone of Mr Odinson’s… talents.”

“You wish me to complete a task for you?” Loki asked in disbelief.

“Essentially, yes,” Sitwell replied.

Darcy put her hands on the table and leaned back. “Okay. One, don’t you have the Avengers at your beck and call, or something? And two, why the fuck do you think we’d do anything for you?”

“Honestly, Miss Lewis,” Sitwell said. “You were a SHIELD employee. You are also directly responsible for the loss of the Tesseract, which was cause enough to detain you, which we very graciously did not. Also, we have no proof other than your word that Mr Odinson here was not, in fact, responsible for the attack on New York, yet here we are, not detaining him.”

Darcy tilted her head. “Are you threatening us?” she asked, her voice ice cold.

Loki put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed briefly. “You surely have access to both my brother, and Captain Rogers,” he said softly. “Both of whom would be a match to me in ability. Surely you do not need to resort to coercion to complete your task.”

“Given the nature of the mission, and the value of both Captain Rogers and Thor, we determined that, in the interest of reducing asset loss, you would be the best option,” Sitwell replied in an emotionless voice.

“Ah,” Loki said bitterly. “You do not expect whoever takes on your mission to survive it. So of course I would be a more acceptable loss.”

“What the fuck !” Darcy exclaimed, shoving to her feet. “You actually think that we would agree to a suicide mission? And if we don’t, you’re going to do what? Lock us up? You really wanna try that?”

“If you want my advice, Miss Lewis, I’d tell you to pick your battles,” Sitwell told her. “You really don’t want us making your stay here on earth… inconvenient.”

Darcy leaned toward him, bracing one hand on the table. “You can take your suicide mission and shove it up your--”

Darcy ,” Loki interrupted sharply. Darcy froze, then straightened and turned around.

“What?” she asked.

He frowned. “Do you remember what you told me, about cutting my ties to Asgard?”

“Yeah, and?” Darcy crossed her arms.

“I would hate to see you do the same,” Loki told her quietly.

Darcy gestured in frustration. “Yeah, it would suck, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna okay a suicide run because SHIELD here thinks you’re fucking expendable!”

“I am hardly expendable,” Loki said dryly.

“That’s not the point ,” Darcy snarled. “I’m not letting SHIELD strong arm us into doing their dirty work.”

“Not us ,” Loki corrected. He put his hands on her shoulders. “You have many gifts, my dear, but you are not a warrior.”

“You’re not going without me,” Darcy insisted. “I just got you back and like hell am I gonna let you do this alone.” She threw her hands up. “Fucking hell. Now you’ve got me agreeing to do this shit.”

“Sometimes the path of least resistance is the correct one,” Loki told her grimly, and dropped his hands from her shoulders. He looked across at Sitwell. “What is it you want us to do?”

Chapter Text

Sitwell held out his hand and one of the guards handed him a file. He put the file on the table and opened it, pulling out photos and arranging them facing Darcy and Loki. “We have a research facility on the West Coast called the Redoubt. As of Wednesday at 2100, control of the facility was taken by a rogue group of security personnel who are currently holding the scientists hostage.”

Darcy slid a couple of the photos closer. They were grainy shots from security cameras, showing men and women in black tactical gear and some in white lab coats. “And you need Loki why?” she asked.

“The facility is located beneath 125 feet of ocean water,” Sitwell said dryly. “Exits and entrances are extremely limited and easily defendable, putting the advantage square in the hands of these terrorists. Mounting a full-frontal attack in order to gain entry would cost too many SHIELD agents to be practical.”

“That is a serious design flaw,” Darcy pointed out sarcastically.

“Do you have a map of the facility?” Loki asked. “Number of assailants and hostages? What weapons are they carrying? You said it was a science facility. What technology do they have access to?”

Sitwell didn’t blink in the face of Loki’s rapid-fire questions. He pulled out a folded blueprint and opened it up, sliding it over towards the Asgardian, who scanned it in one go. “There were thirty-one security personnel stationed on the base. Standard weapons: automatic assault rifles, semi-auto sidearms, smoke and tear gas. No explosives. There’s too much of a risk of a breach.”

“But there’s systems for that, right?” Darcy demanded, pulling the blueprint over so she could study it. “You can seal off parts that get flooded?”

“Yes, there are,” Sitwell said, not quite rolling his eyes. “It’s part of the security systems, which we lost access to before the rogue agents took control.”

Loki tapped his finger on one of the photographs. “Then how did you get these images?” he asked softly.

“We have a… contractor,” Sitwell replied. “Very good with computers and such. She was able to hack in and get us more intel, but they managed to block her out after about seven minutes.”

“So what’s the play?” Darcy asked. “How are you planning on getting us in there?”

“You are not accompanying me,” Loki said again.

Darcy straightened slowly, staring at Loki with a closed expression. “Sitwell, can we have a minute?” she asked in a deceptively sweet voice.

Sitwell looked from Darcy to Loki and back. “Sure,” he said slowly, his first show of uncertainty. He waved at the guard and they both left the room. Darcy, never taking her eyes off of Loki, pointed to the ceiling.

“Cameras,” she said tersely.

Loki sighed and fluttered his fingers, green sparks dancing around his hands. There was a quiet pop , and the power lights on both cameras flicked off. “Yes?” he asked wearily.

Darcy poked her finger into his chest. “You died ,” she said quietly.

“I assure you, I did not,” Loki protested. Darcy poked him again.

“You died. You were dead . I had only just found out the truth about you, about us , and then you died to protect me. I had no idea the kind of person you were, or how you felt about me, and then you go and sacrifice yourself like that. Can you see how that kinda messed me up?” She took a step backwards, crossing her arms over her chest.

Loki pressed his lips together, his head twitching to the side. “Darcy,” he started, but she shook her head.

“I hate how SHIELD is practically holding us over a barrel,” she said. “I don’t want them as enemies any more than you do. But if you are really gonna do this in the name of playing nice, I am going with you. End of discussion.”

“If you were to be hurt,” Loki said in a low voice. “If you were to be hurt and I allowed it, even in the most indirect way, I could not live with myself, not after all I have done.”

Darcy met his gaze squarely. “Don’t you think I feel the same way about you?”

“You are not a warrior,” Loki insisted.

Darcy shrugged uncaringly. “I’ve lived through more wars than you have, babe. I survived then, I’ll survive now. Also ,” She said, raising one finger. “I’m still not sure SHIELD isn’t out to screw you over, and you need someone to watch your back. I’m going . Period. Conversation over. Finite.”

Sitwell opened the door again and glared mildly at Loki. “We are going to have to replace those cameras, aren’t we?” he asked sourly.

“Yes,” Loki replied unapologetically. He looked away from Darcy and turned to the SHIELD agent. “I believe we were discussing how you plan to transport us to the base.”

XxxXxxX

Darcy froze and looked up at Sitwell when he held a pistol out to her, grip first. “Uh, I don’t know how to shoot a gun,” she said.

Sitwell continued to hold out the gun. It was strange-looking, black and silver with blue lights on the slide. “It’s called an Icer,” he told her. “It’s non-lethal. The rounds will knock a human out for up to an hour. All you have to do is point and pull the trigger.”

Darcy eyed the pistol for a few more seconds. “Okay?” she said. She took it gingerly, and then the thigh holster he handed to her next. She continued to hold them for a few confused minutes before Sitwell sighed impatiently and waved a female guard over.

Darcy was already dressed in black tactical gear, including a ballistics vest that felt too thin and light to be effective. There was a slot in the side of her belt that fit her staves perfectly, and her taser clipped to the small of her back.

The female guard took the thigh holster from Darcy and knelt in front of her to unceremoniously strap it on. When the guard stepped back, Darcy gingerly slid the Icer into the holster. The guard reached over and flipped the tab over the back of the slide that would keep the gun in place.

The guard lifted a black briefcase and opened it, allowing Sitwell to remove a small earpiece and a pair of narrow, rimless glasses. He offered both to Darcy. She took the earpiece first, slipping it into place, and then took the glasses.

“And these are?” she asked, twirling them in her fingers.

“Portable head’s up displays,” Sitwell told her. “They’ll show you the layout of the facility in real time, as well as relay live video feed to operations command. They also have facial recognition, which will help you ID hostage from hostile.”

“Groovy,” Darcy said, and put them on top of her head as if they were sunglasses. That annoyed Sitwell, so Darcy left them there. “Where’s Loki?”

They’d separated them for gear up, taking them to different locker rooms. The female guard had stayed with Darcy while she’d changed, a not-so-subtle silent threat. Darcy wondered if there was a guard watching Steve whenever he changed into his Captain America uniform. Probably not.

Sitwell motioned for her to follow and then led her out of the locker room, down yet another nondescript hallway, and out into an interior courtyard where a helicopter waited. Loki was standing on the edge of the helipad, flanked by not one, but six guards, all of whom had their hands very near their weapons.

Darcy stopped dead in her tracks. Loki was wearing the same black tactical gear she was, right down to the combat boots. He, very notably, had not been provided with any sort of weapon, not even an Icer. He stood with his legs spread apart, hands clasped behind his back. Without his Asgardian attire, he really didn’t look that different than the SHIELD agents, except maybe for the jaw-length hair.

Sitwell shot Darcy another annoyed look, and she started walking again, heading straight for Loki’s side. He looked down at her when she reached him and grimaced. “It does not become you, carrying a weapon.”

“Zip it,” Darcy retorted. “And nice move, changing the duds.”

Loki ran his hand lightly down the ballistics vest. “They… discouraged my armor.”

Darcy tilted her head. “Yeah, running around looking like the guy that trashed Manhattan is maybe not the best idea.”

“Apparently,” Loki replied in a voice drier than dust.

If we’re ready?” Sitwell asked pointedly, and gestured toward the helicopter.

Darcy rolled her eyes and climbed into the chopper. After the doors were sealed, everyone was strapped in, and they got headphones in place, she leaned forward to ask Sitwell, “So, let me get this straight. You’re taking us to Los Angeles, sticking us in a submarine , and it’s gonna automatically take us to this base of yours, the Redoubt, and we’re just supposed to magically be able to get in?”

“According to our intelligence, Mr Odinson here is able to teleport short distances, correct?” Sitwell said smugly, staring challengingly at Loki.

Loki’s expression was carved in stone. “Correct,” he replied flatly.

“Then you shouldn’t have a problem,” Sitwell said.

Darcy wanted to point out that Loki could only teleport to places he could see, or was familiar with, but Loki hadn’t brought up either of those points, so she bit her tongue. She gestured vaguely. “You know, when we’re done with this shit, Fury and I are gonna have strong words.”

“I’m sure we’ll be able to book you an appointment,” Sitwell said.

Darcy leaned back in a huff, and Loki rested his hand on her thigh, as a warning both to her and to Sitwell. She looked up at him, but he was staring out the window, face unreadable. It wasn’t like him, to just roll over like this, to let people bully him. He was serious about making nice to the humans on her behalf. She just hoped that their agreement to do this mission wasn’t an invitation for more to come.

The helicopter took them to a private airfield, where they switched to a quinjet. Darcy noticed Loki’s fraction-of-a-second hesitation before boarding it, and how gingerly he took a seat. When Darcy and Sitwell both strapped in, he ignored the harnesses, sitting as if at any moment he would jump up.

“Hey,” Darcy said softly as the jet lifted off. She reached over and slipped her hand into one of his. She switched to the First Tongue, fairly certain Sitwell wasn’t fluent in ancient Norse. “Are you alright? You look nervous.”

“I do not like being entrapped in a contraption that flies,” he told her in the same language. “If I am to be airborne, I would prefer to see the sky.” He looked down at their entwined hands. “Also, the last time I was in one of these things, Thor threw me into the side of a mountain. It was not pleasant.”

“I’m sorry,” Darcy said, and squeezed his hand.

“If you don’t mind,” Sitwell spoke up, looking between the two of them. “We’d prefer it if you two stuck to English during the duration of this mission.”

“Loki doesn’t speak English, Sitwell,” Darcy retorted.

“Neither are you,” Loki told her softly.

Darcy blinked and looked up at him in surprise. He was right. She’d been using Allspeak since she’d left earth for Muspell, and had never bothered to switch back. It had just felt so intuitive. It took her a moment, but she realized she’d been thinking in Allspeak, as well. She leaned back in her jumpseat, eyes wide and now fixed on the deck.

“Holy crap,” she said softly.

Loki gently bumped her shoulder with his and squeezed her hand in return.

They spent the rest of the flight going over the mission; the compound and the technology inside, the training of the rogue agents and their weapons capabilities, how to get the security system back online, and a hundred other things that Darcy hadn’t even thought of. Loki knew what questions to ask; his mind darted in a thousand directions at once, grasping and clinging to every detail Sitwell gave them.

It was a long flight to Los Angeles, despite the speed of the quinjet. Loki distracted himself from his discomfort by going over the details of the mission over and over until even Darcy had everything memorized. Darcy was keyed-up and distractible, but Loki endured her nervousness with far more grace than Sitwell.

The quinjet landed on an isolated dock in San Pedro where an entire platoon of SHIELD guards waited. Loki didn’t react to the show of force. Darcy scowled at Sitwell and had to restrain herself from telling him off.

The submarine was already waiting for them, a small two-person submersible filled with more technology than the Moon Lander. Loki balked again on entering it, and Darcy had to touch his arm to startle him out of his dark thoughts. When they were both in the submarine, one of the guards sealed the airlock.

The Redoubt was built into the side of the Santa Catalina Island, 25 miles off the coast. It would take them just over twenty minutes to arrive, and in the meantime they were stuck in a submarine the size of a sedan. It had a single viewport in front of them, but since it did not have any lights turned on, the water outside was black and dim. Occasionally a fish would swim close enough that the interior lights would illuminate it, and every time Darcy would flinch.

Loki remained pale and silent for the first ten minutes, his hand icy in Darcy’s. He abruptly turned to look at her. “Darcy,” he began.

She held up a hand. “You know they’re listening to us, right?”

A frown passed briefly over his face, and he switched to the First Tongue. “I will not allow any harm to come to you.”

Darcy heaved a deep sigh. “Loki, you do not need to protect me from everything . You can’t. You’ll kill yourself trying, and I’ve told you that I won’t let you kill yourself for me.”

“English, please,” Sitwell said in both of their ears.

“Screw you,” Darcy snapped.

Loki leaned forward and kissed her, one hand coming up to rest against the side of her neck, teasing her lips open with his tongue so he can take full possession of her mouth. The bond snapped into place between them, heightening every touch, the slide of skin, the taste, until Darcy’s entire body sang with the sensation.

It was Loki who broke away, leaning his forehead against hers. “I would burn this whole realm to keep you safe,” he told her in the First Tongue, his voice hoarse.

“Hopefully you will not have to,” Darcy whispered back.

That was all they spoke until they arrived at the base. It had lights ringing the outer edges of the base, which looked like prefab boxes connected by round tunnels. The submarine came to a halt outside an exterior airlock. There was a window in the airlock door, showing the interior of the lock.

“We’ll be monitoring your progress from here,” Sitwell told them, sounding annoyed that they had ignored his orders again. “Remember, eliminating the hostiles and securing the base is your priority, no matter what it takes.”

Jesus , Sitwell,” Darcy breathed. “Are you telling us to kill your own people?”

“They stopped being our people when they decided to take over a sensitive research base and hold it hostage,” Sitwell replied grimly.

“We will do what needs to be done,” Loki said tersely, and took Darcy’s hand tightly. He stared through the viewport and into the airlock window for a long moment. Darcy felt the buildup of his magic, a stomach-lurching jerk , and then they were standing in the airlock.

Darcy reached out to put her hand against a wall as a wave of nausea washed over her. Loki’s teleporting ability was super neat and really convenient, but being a passenger definitely left something to be desired. When the queasiness passed, she looked up to see Loki was poking at the airlock control to open the interior door. When it didn’t respond, he merely took hold of the handle and wrenched the door inward, breaking the seal and ripping the door off its hinges.

“The glasses, if you please,” Sitwell said.

Darcy sighed and reached up to lower the glasses to her nose. They obligingly lit up with a first-person map of the facility, glowing red and green arrows to point the way.

Sitwell sighed. “ Try not to damage the facility more than you have to.”

“You told us to do whatever it takes,” Loki reminded him, and strode out into the hallway. Darcy stepped through the damaged airlock to follow when a figure, wearing much the same gear as they were, stepped around the corner, lifted his rifle, and opened fire.

Darcy recoiled back into the airlock as bullets pinged off the metal door frame. She could see Loki in the hallway, pressed against the wall to offer a smaller target. The rogue SHIELD agent side-walk across the hall to get a better shot at Loki.

Loki flung out his hand, and two glowing green darts of energy flicked down the hallway towards the man. They impacted his chest and neck, throwing him backwards. Loki immediately turned to Darcy. “Are you hurt?” he demanded.

Darcy shook her head, not trusting herself to speak. Despite all her insistence, getting shot at was scary as hell, and she was fighting to keep from shaking. Only when Loki started walking towards the downed gunman did she step away from safety, her entire body trembling.

Loki crouched over the man’s body, tilting his head to study the corpse. Darcy stayed several steps back. She had no desire to see any blood. She’d seen enough of that the last few days. Maybe coming down here hadn’t been the best idea…

“Hey, Loki,” she called softly.

He looked up at her, pale green eyes studying her face. “Yes?”

“Maybe from now on we can try to avoid killing if possible?” Darcy asked, swallowing thickly.

He stared at her for a moment longer, and then nodded wordlessly. He stood and looked down the hallway perpendicular to the one they were in. He wasn’t wearing a pair of Sitwell’s glasses. He’d probably memorized the layout of the base on the way here. He started walking down the hallway, his steps silent. When Darcy started after him, he waved her back so he could shield her with his body.

They reached a T intersection. Loki closed his eyes in brief concentration, and two identical projections of himself stepped away from him and started walking down the left-side passage. Darcy ogled them for a moment, wondering at the level of multitasking skills it took to maintain them, and then followed Loki down the right-hand passage.

“Where are we going?” Darcy whispered.

“The main laboratory,” Loki replied. “That is most likely where the hostages are being kept.” He twitched suddenly, his eyes flicking back the way they’d come.

“What is it?” Darcy demanded, her anxiety jumping a notch.

“One of my projections was fired upon,” Loki replied tightly. “Our presence here has been detected.”

“Awesome,” Darcy muttered.

They reached another intersection and Loki paused, checked both directions, and sent another projection down the hallway he didn’t take.

“How many of those can you handle at one time?” Darcy asked.

“Twenty-seven,” Loki replied. “More if they do not have to do anything.”

“And you can see what they see?” Darcy pressed.

Loki stopped and looked back at her. “Now is not the time for this conversation, my dear.”

Darcy held up her hands. “Sorry, sorry.”

They reached the hallway with the main laboratory a few minutes later. There were two guards outside the lab door, both armed with automatic rifles and wearing full tactical gear, including helmets and bulky goggles.

Loki and Darcy stayed behind the corner of the intersection, Loki watching the hostiles and Darcy watching Loki. He seemed to formulate a plan, because he gestured for her to stay put. Darcy scowled at him.

“I’m not here to look pretty, you know,” she hissed.

He scowled back, and then ran his palms down his chest from shoulders to waist. His form seemed to ripple, fade, and then disappear, leaving Darcy staring where he’d been in shock. She reached out a hand, but her hand encountered nothing between her and the wall. She peeked around the corner at the enemy agents.

For several seconds, nothing happened. Then one of the agents suddenly lifted off his feet, slamming into the ceiling with bruising force. Loki appeared before the agent hit the ground where he stayed, unmoving. Loki grabbed the rifle out of the hands of the second agent and used it to bludgeon him in the head, dropping him to the floor, as well.

He looked up at Darcy and gestured for her to come closer, and she padded down the hallway to them. “Are they..?”

“Alive,” he replied tersely. He took the gun in his hand and bent the entire thing, rendering it unusable. He dropped it and did the same thing to the second gun while Darcy stared, eyes wide. It was one thing to know he was preternaturally strong, and another thing entirely to see it.

Darcy punched in the code to deactivate the security on the doors and slid it open. There were five men and women in civilian clothing sitting on the floor inside, their hands bound behind their backs. They recoiled at the sight of Darcy and Loki standing in the doorway.

Darcy held up her hands. “It’s okay, we’re the good guys,” she announced, stepping inside the lab. She turned to look over her shoulder at Loki. “Stay here, just in case.” He nodded and she walked over to the cluster of scientists. “My name is Darcy,” she told them. “We’re here to help.”

“You’re from SHIELD?” one of the men asked hesitantly, staring owlishly at Darcy from behind thick glasses.

“Yeah, sort of,” Darcy replied, circling around behind them so she could check the bindings on their hands. They were plastic zip-ties. “Hang on, I’ll get you out of these.” She went back over to Loki and held out her hand. “My dagger, please,” she said softly.

He gave her a searching look, and then pressed it into her hand. Her gorge rose when she curled her fingers around the hilt, but she forced it back down again as she turned back to the prisoners. The dagger made short work of the bindings, and the scientists stood up, rubbing their sore wrists.

“Where are the other hostages?” Loki asked the man with the glasses.

“The cargo loading bay,” he replied. “There’s only twelve of us on base right now. The rest went to the mainland for an R&D briefing.”

“Do you know why they wanted to take control of the base?” Darcy asked, dismissing her dagger to her pocket dimension with some relief.

“I heard them talking about a private buyer,” said a mousy-looking woman. “I think they plan on selling the technology we’re working on here.”

“What exactly are you working on?” Darcy asked.

“It’s classified,” replied the man with glasses, who was staring at Loki. “Excuse me, why don’t you have any weapons?”

Loki gave him a disdainful look. “I have all the weapons I need,” he said with a sneer.

All of the scientists edged away from him nervously. “You’re one of them , aren’t you?” asked the mousy woman. Loki raised his eyebrows at her.

“One of whom?” he demanded archly.

“On the Index,” the woman said, and then looked at Darcy. “Are you one of them, too?”

“Look, we’re just here to to help,” Darcy said again.

Loki grabbed her arm and pulled her into the hallway. “Can you stay here with them while I rescue the other hostages?” he asked her in a low voice.

“You’re going alone ?” Darcy demanded with a frown.

Loki rolled his eyes. “Darcy, I am more than a match for a handful of humans with projectile weapons. Stay here and keep them calm and still. I will send word when it is safe for you to join me.”

Darcy rubbed her eyes. “Fine. Just remember not to kill anyone else, okay?”

“I will attempt to do so,” he said, and then leaned down to kiss her, disappointingly brief. “Be cautious,” he whispered in the First Tongue. “I do not trust Sitwell nor his cronies.”

“You be careful, too,” Darcy replied in the same language. She heard Sitwell’s frustrated sigh in her ear. “Shut it, Sitwell,” she growled, once more in Allspeak. “You should just be happy to we agreed to this in the first place.”

“Oh, trust me, I would be more than happy to do the alternative,” Sitwell snarked back.

Darcy seriously considered taking the earpiece out, but decided it would be best not to antagonize him any further. She nodded at Loki and he touched her cheek gently before striding down the hallway. Darcy watched him go and tried not to let her stomach sink too much.

She turned back to the scientists, who were clustered on the other side of the lab. “Just try to stay quiet, okay?” she called across at them. They stared at her and didn’t respond. Darcy looked around the lab. It didn’t look much like Jane’s lab, back when they worked for SHIELD. There were microscopes and centrifuges and specimen coolers on each table, and racks of sealed test tubes with yellow labels. Darcy walked over to one table and leaned over to get a better look at the tubes. She didn’t recognize the words on the label.

“You shouldn’t touch those,” said one of the scientists behind her. Darcy straightened and turned around.

“What is it?” she asked.

The scientist walked over to her and pulled one of the tubes free. “They are highly sensitive to movement,” he said, despite the fact he was now holding it in one hand. “And corrosive to the skin. We’re working on ways to disable large groups of people through non-lethal nerve agents dispersed through aerosols.”

Darcy eyed the vial in the man’s hand nervously and took a step backwards. “Okay. That sounds… interesting. Why don’t you just put that away, then?”

The man gestured using the hand that held the vial. “We haven’t had much success with the non-lethal part. Unfortunately all the samples we’ve worked on so far have had significant side effects.”

Alarm bells started ringing in Darcy’s head. “Okay, sir, you need to put that down, now ,” Darcy ordered, pulling her staves out of the loop on her belt.

“We have , however, had great success with the disabling aspect,” the scientist continued, ignoring Darcy’s command. Before she had the chance to speak, he twisted the cap off the vial and flung the contents at Darcy.

She flinched backwards, raising an arm to shield her face. The liquid splashed onto her sleeve and the front of her ballistics vest, not on her skin. The fumes struck her like a blow, throwing her into a coughing fit so severe she dropped to one knee, struggling to draw breath through convulsing lungs.

Her eyes and nose were running uncontrollably, and she clawed at the buckles of her vest, trying to rip it and the offending chemicals away. She never saw the blow to her head coming, not until it lit up a bright flash behind her eyes, and then there was darkness.

XxxXxxX

Darcy woke up wheezing, the smell of ammonia clogging her nostrils and the taste of blood in the back of her throat. Her eyes were gummy and sinuses were raw and sore. She forced her eyes open and rolled over just in time to see a black boot come down on her earpiece with a crunch.

She squinted up to find a black-clad man standing over her, a grim expression on his rugged face. “I take it if they dropped you, then you’re not on their side,” he said in an Australian accent.

“Go figure,” Darcy rasped. “What the hell?”

The man crouched to get a better look at her face. “SHIELD sent you?”

“Yeah,” Darcy replied, pushing herself up to a sitting position. “Who’re you?”

“Name’s Franklin,” the man told her. He had dark hair, two days’ of stubble on his jaws, and brown eyes so dark they were almost black. His skin was dark olive despite being stationed on an underwater base, and he had a scar on the side of his nose. “Who’re you?”

“Darcy,” she said, scrubbing at her eyes. “What happened?”

Franklin sighed. “My guess, they’re setting you up to take the fall for this place going to shit, you and your clever friend. You know, the one who can make copies of himself?”

Darcy shook her head. “ Who wants us to take the fall?” she asked, feeling slow and stupid.

Franklin raised a dark eyebrow. “You’re doing their dirty work and you haven’t figured it out, yet? Hydra , girly. I’m talking about Hydra.

Darcy stared at him blankly for a moment, and then everything clicked into place. “ Shit ,” she said. Franklin snorted. “You guys, the security guys, you found out this was Hydra, not SHIELD,” Darcy said, her brain skipping along far faster than she could blurt the words out. “The scientists, they’re Hydra, and you were trying to stop them from… But that means Sitwell is Hydra, and that means…” Darcy’s eyes widened. “ Shit .”

Franklin pointed at her. “Now you get it,” he said, darkly amused. “It’s never been SHIELD at all, and we’ve all been fucking played. It’s been Hydra all along.”

Darcy struggled to get up. “I’ve gotta warn Loki,” she said.

Franklin held out his hand to stop her. “You mean your clever friend?” he asked, his voice suddenly icy. “His name is Loki ?”

“It’s not what you think,” Darcy said quickly. “He didn’t--he’s not responsible for New York.”

Franklin’s expression was grim. “Well, someone named Loki sure did a good job trashing the place.”

Darcy growled, despite it tearing up her already burning throat. “You know how Barton and a couple other agents were mind controlled?” she asked.

Franklin frowned. “Yeah,” he said slowly.

“So was Loki,” Darcy bit out. “And he’s trying to help now, so if it’s the scientists who’re the bad guys, then we need to warn him.”

Franklin stared at her for a long moment. “Okay. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. ‘Cause I’ve met Barton and he’s not half bad. If what happened to him is what happened to your boy… But he steps wrong, I’ll put a bullet in his skull.”

Darcy stuck out her hand. “Help me up.”

Chapter Text

“Where is Loki?” Darcy demanded as soon as Franklin got her on her feet.

 

“Last I checked he was headin’ to the cargo loading bay,” Franklin replied. He was already heading for the hallway, swinging his rifle around from where it had been slung across his back. “I got six men there with the rest of the scientists. If your boy gets there before we do…” he trailed off darkly.

 

“I already told him not to kill anyone,” Darcy reassured him.

 

“Tell that to McQuitty,” Franklin muttered.

 

Darcy blinked at him. “Who?”

 

“My man your boy killed when you first got here,” Franklin said tightly. “We weren’t expectin’ anyone so soon. I told the men to contact me first, but McQuitty panicked.”

 

Darcy’s stomach turned sour. “I’m sorry.”

 

“‘S Hydra’s fault,” Franklin replied with a shrug. “You seem like a decent enough kid. Couldn’t blame you.” He strode through the hallways with confidence, unconcerned about the five Hydra scientists who had escaped Darcy’s custody.

 

“Speaking of which,” Franklin went on, looking down on her. “What’s a nice girly like you doin’ with the likes of him , anyway?”

 

“Seriously?” Darcy demanded flatly. “You’re asking that ?”

 

“It’s a fair question,” Franklin retorted. “You’ve clearly got more n’ half a brain, and you’re a looker. You could have any guy you want. Why’re you foolin’ around with an alien?”

 

Darcy raised an eyebrow. “Who says I’m fooling around with him? We could just be mission partners.”

 

Franklin snorted. “Nice try. I got access to the security cameras. Although, that does bring up the question of how the guy that tried to destroy New York is workin’ for Hydra.”

 

“We thought we were working for SHIELD,” Darcy said bitterly. “Sitwell basically blackmailed us into it.”

 

Sitwell ,” Franklin hissed angrily. “That son of a bitch. I shoulda seen that one coming.”

 

Darcy rolled her eyes. “ I didn’t see it coming, so I wouldn’t feel too bad.”

 

“What, can you see the future?” Franklin asked, only half-joking.

 

“Sometimes, yes,” Darcy replied, matter-of-fact.

 

Franklin frowned. “I would ask if you were shittin’ me, but there’s a goddamn alien on my base, so I guess that puts things in perspective.”

 

“He doesn’t like being called an alien,” Darcy said.

 

“I bet he doesn’t,” Franklin replied tersely. He raised his hand to his ear. “Anyone got eyes on the male? I’ve got the female, she’s gonna be non-hostile.” He scowled suddenly. “On our way.”

 

“What is it?” Darcy demanded.

 

“My men sealed off the cargo bay before your boy got there,” he told her and broke into a jog. “He’s trying to get in.”

 

“Fuck,” Darcy said, hurrying to catch up with him. “A door isn’t gonna take him long.”

 

“It’s a really good door,” Franklin told her.

 

“And he’s really good with magic,” Darcy retorted.

 

Franklin didn’t respond, only shook his head, and picked up his pace. They turned a corner, Franklin a couple steps ahead of Darcy, and he skidded to a halt with a curse. Darcy ran into his back and bounced off.

 

Loki stood in the hallway, just turning towards them, his hands glowing green. Darcy knew instinctively that it wasn’t Loki, it was just a projection, and the magic it held was a mere illusion. She stepped out from behind Franklin as the SHIELD agent raised his gun.

 

“Loki, you need to stop!” Darcy exclaimed.

 

The projection paused, looking from Franklin to Darcy, and lowered its hand. “Darcy?” it asked, tilting its head.

 

“It’s a long story, the hostages are the bad guys, and the hostiles are not hostiles,” Darcy said in a rush.

 

The projection froze, a frown stamped on its features. “I will wait for you at the cargo loading bay,” it said, and then flickered out of existence.

 

“Fuck me,” Franklin muttered under his breath.

 

“Welcome to my life,” Darcy replied wryly. Franklin lowered his gun and started walking again, his pace brisk.

 

“You know, you never told me how you ended up with him,” he said casually.

 

Darcy shook her head. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

 

Franklin snorted but didn’t push the issue. When they arrived at the huge, double doors to the cargo loading area, Loki was waiting for them, one shoulder leaning against the wall. He pushed away upon seeing them and Darcy crossed over to stand close to him, just inside his personal space.

 

“Are you alright?” he asked her. She reached up and took his earpiece out, dropped it on the ground, and stepped on it with a crunch.

 

“Sitwell is Hydra,” she told him flatly.

 

Loki blinked. “What is Hydra?” he asked blankly.

 

“An evil Nazi organization from World War II,” Darcy explained. “Steve fought them, you know, before he got iced.”

 

“Clearly he did not do a very thorough job,” Loki said dryly. Darcy hit his arm.

 

“He did his best!” she protested on behalf of her friend.

 

“If Sitwell is… Hydra,” Loki said, changing the subject. “Then is it safe to say all SHIELD is Hydra?”

 

“No,” Franklin said bluntly. “Me and my men, we ain’t Hydra.” He eyed Loki up and down for a moment. “No telling how far it goes, though.”

 

“So, you discovered the scientists belonged to this Hydra legion, you attempted to interfere, and Sitwell sends us to eliminate you,” Loki said, his voice bitter. “Then, if anything goes amiss, he can pin the blame squarely on the man who has already wreaked havoc and destruction on your world.”

 

“Exactly,” Darcy said with a nod.

 

There was a dangerous light in Loki’s eyes. “He put you in danger,” he said softly, staring unblinkingly at Darcy.

 

“It’s fine,” Darcy said. “We just need to figure out how to get back to the mainland, contact Steve. He’ll know what to do about this.”

 

“Are you talking about Steve Rogers ?” Franklin asked. “As in, Captain Rogers?”

 

“Yeah, he’s a friend,” Darcy replied, not looking away from Loki. She didn’t like the look on his face, a sort of fey intensity. “We can trust him.”

 

“Who the hell are you, girly?” Franklin demanded.

 

“She is a norn, and you will refer to her with respect,” Loki suddenly spat at him, causing Franklin to take a step back and raise his weapon.

 

“Whoa, whoa!” Darcy said, jumping between them and raising her hands. “Loki, chill out. He’s not insulting me.”

 

Franklin lowered his weapon but Loki continued to glare at the human for a moment before turning away. Darcy eyed him for a moment, and then turned to Franklin. “You wanna tell your men to let us in?”

 

Franklin glowered at Loki. “He gonna behave?” he growled.

 

Loki bared his teeth at Franklin, not in a smile, and Darcy put her hand in the middle of his chest and pushed him hard. She didn’t have the strength to even rock him back on his heels, but he took a step back.

 

“He’ll behave,” Darcy told Franklin.

 

Franklin scowled at Loki for another minute, and then pounded his fist on the door. “Davies! Open up!”

 

There was a long, silent moment, and then one side of the door grated open just wide enough for them to squeeze through. Franklin went first, Darcy next. The cargo bay was mostly empty, a few plastic crates stacked against the walls and covered in tarps. Seven men and women in civilian clothes were ziptied hand and foot against the back wall, and six men in tactical gear were scattered around the bay.

 

The one who had opened the door looked from Franklin to Darcy and Loki. “Who the fuck are they?” he asked bluntly.

 

“Allies,” Franklin said. “Sitwell tried to set them up to take the fall for this shitstorm. Lucky for us, they’re not idiots.”

 

“They killed McQuitty,” Davies protested.

 

Hydra killed McQuitty,” Franklin corrected harshly. “I say they’re good. Anyone wanna argue?” The men exchanged looks and shook their heads. “All right. Now someone tell me we got eyes on those five that escaped.”

 

Darcy grimaced, but no one appeared to blame her for that. One of the agents walked over and showed Franklin a camera screen strapped to his arm.

 

“Two of them headed to life support control. Elizondo and Springer went to head them off. The other three tried to make the sub dock on level four. Clements killed Hodges, but we’ve got the other two in custody. Clements and Vargas are bringing them down now.”

 

“Alright,” Franklin said. “Now that we’ve got clever boy on our side,” here he jerked his head at Loki. “We might have half a chance of getting to the mainland without Sitwell blowing our asses outa the water.” He raised his hand to his ear. “Zondo, Springer, report.” He frowned and lowered his head. “Zondo, Springer, come in. Fuck.”

 

Loki didn’t hesitate. He turned toward the line of prisoners against the wall and flung out his hand. A dart of green energy pierced the thigh of a woman on the end of the line. She screamed and thrashed, trying to get away from Loki as he stalked forward.

 

“Loki!” Darcy cried, darting forward to intercept him.

 

He beat her to the prisoner and seized the woman by the neck, lifting her up and slamming her back against the wall. “What are your men planning?” he growled at her, sliding her up the wall until she could barely reach the floor with the tips of her toes.

 

Darcy grabbed Loki’s arm and tried to pull him off the prisoner, but she might as well have tried to bend a marble statue. Loki was resolute and unmoveable.

 

“Go to hell,” the woman spat at Loki.

 

“Do not test me,” Loki snarled. “I have much less concern for your well-being than these men.”

 

“Loki, stop !” Darcy yelled, pulling at his arm again. He half-turned toward her and pushed his free hand out, fingers spread. An invisible force smacked into her chest and shoved her roughly backwards, causing her to trip and fall hard onto her ass. She was so stunned by the action that she stayed where she was, staring up at Loki with her mouth open.

 

Loki put his hand on the woman’s thigh, pressing his thumb against the circular wound and making her scream. The SHIELD agents raised their weapons, pointing them at Loki, but Franklin stepped forward.

 

“Stand down,” he ordered, his gaze calculating and fixed on Loki.

 

“What do your men intend to do?” Loki demanded again.

 

The woman’s scream of pain turned into a breathless laugh. “You were dead when you stepped into this base,” she panted at Loki. She bared her teeth at him. “Hail Hydra.”

 

Loki’s expression became cold and bloodless, as if his features had been carved from ice. Darcy saw the muscles tense in the hand around her neck, knew exactly how much pressure it would take for him to crush her throat.

 

For a moment she was shocked that he would even consider it, that he would torture and kill a person in cold blood. Then she was afraid.

 

Loki !” Darcy barked, using her norn-voice. “ Stop !” He froze in place, still pinning the prisoner to the wall, hand still around her neck. He didn’t look away from the woman’s face as she stared defiantly back at him.

 

Put her down ,” Darcy ordered, getting to her feet.

 

Loki fought her. She could see the muscles in his arms quiver, his jaw clenched so hard the cords stood out in his neck. The cold feeling in Darcy’s stomach grew. She’d never had to pit her will against Loki’s. Could she steel herself enough to do whatever it took to win? She couldn’t let Loki kill the woman, not just for her own sake, but for Loki’s, too. She didn’t want him to live with that. But she also didn’t want to violate his agency, just like Skuld had done.

 

But did she have a choice?

 

Put her down ,” Darcy said again, stepping closer. She hardened her will until it was diamond, adamantine, unbendable. She could feel Loki pressing back, fighting her, clawing and scratching at the bond that made her hold over him all the more stronger.

 

Then, with a full-body muscle spasm, Loki stepped back, dropping the woman to the ground. With her hands tied behind her back, she fell awkwardly on her face and lay there, wheezing noisily. Loki turned to look at Darcy with an expression somewhere between anger and betrayal.

 

“Loki, I’m sorry,” Darcy whispered, reaching out to touch his arm, but he pulled away.

 

“Don’t touch me,” he snarled at her.

 

An explosion rocked the floor beneath their feet, and the lights went out, replaced immediately by red emergency beacons.

 

“What the fuck was that?!” Franklin demanded.

 

“Life support just went down!” one of the agents called back.

 

Franklin pointed at two of his men. “Stafford, Hawthorn, get to the dock and prep the submarines. The rest of you, grab the prisoners and haul ass. When the subs are ready, just go. We’ll be right behind you.” He pointed at Darcy. “You two, come with me.”

 

Darcy glanced uneasily at Loki and didn’t move to follow Franklin until Loki did. “We need to find Zondo and Springer,” he told them. “And take out the two Hydra bastards that got away. Think you can handle that without freaking out?”

 

The look Loki shot him was absolutely murderous, but he didn’t say anything, just fell into step behind Franklin and just to the right. Darcy took up the rear, staring at the back of Loki’s head. She was angry; angry that he had tested her like that, that he had tortured a woman for information, that he had forced her to bend him to her will. And she felt guilty. She shouldn’t have used the norn-voice on him. She should have tried something else.

 

If only, if only, if only…

 

Another explosion rocked the base, and the metal walls creaked ominously, the red emergency lights flickering. “They’re trying to blow the whole thing,” Franklin growled.

 

“Themselves included?” Loki asked.

 

“They’re Hydra,” Franklin tossed back in reply. They reached an airlock, and Franklin keyed in the code. When nothing happened, he frowned and keyed in the code again. “Fuck. They’ve gotten past our security lockdown. Here, clever boy, help me.”

 

Franklin slung his rifle over his shoulder and threw his shoulder into the manual wheel lever. Loki rolled his eyes and seized it with both hands, spinning it sharply enough to cause Franklin to lose his balance. The human scowled at Loki as he regained his feet, and then pulled to swing the door open. He gestured for Loki to go in first, and then Darcy.

 

Another explosion went off, this one much closer, strong enough to knock Darcy off her feet. There was a screech of distressed metal, and then a rush of water slammed into Darcy, ice-cold, the salt abrading her skin. For a long moment there was nothing but the water, dark, disorienting, and airless, until she was abruptly yanked upwards into air.

 

She coughed and spat up ocean water, blinking it out of her eyes. She was being held up by Loki, and they were in a long, straight corridor, filled with water up to her waist. Franklin was nowhere to be seen. The water was freezing, and Darcy was now drenched. She shivered uncontrollably as she clawed stray strands of hair out of her face.

 

“F-f-franklin?” she stuttered, looking up at Loki.

 

He was also soaking wet, but the temperature didn’t seem to bother him. He had one arm looped underneath Darcy’s, holding her upright, as her numb legs didn’t seem to want to. He looked down at her and shook his head, lips pressed together. He gestured toward the airlock.

 

“The chambers on either side of us have flooded,” he told her grimly. “And I do not believe this corridor is sealed tightly. There may be a leak.”

 

“Great,” Darcy muttered. She looked around. “C-can you t-t-teleport us to the submarine?”

 

Loki shook his head. “Sitwell knows by now we’ve betrayed him. No doubt he had it destroyed already.”

 

Darcy wrapped her arms around herself. “So what do we d-do?”

 

Loki sighed. “The only thing we can do. We need to create a Way, quickly, before we run out of air.”

 

Darcy stared at him for a moment, and then pushed away from him, wobbling, but standing on her own. “What about the oth-thers?” she demanded.

 

“If they are not already dead, there is nothing we can do to save them,” Loki told her harshly. “Their survival is not my concern. Yours is.”

 

Darcy scowled at him and reached for the wall for support. She didn’t say anything because she knew he was right. They were trapped in a leaking container 125 feet underwater. It would take enough energy to get themselves out of this mess. There was no way they could open enough Ways to save the others, even if they could get to them.

 

“It took us hours to make one last time,” she said out loud.

 

Loki gestured again. “We clearly do not have hours,” he replied, his tone matching the temperature of the water.

 

“I get that,” Darcy snapped back. “Just give me a minute.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, fishing around in her brain. The cold and the fear and the anger made it difficult, but she was finally able to summon the echo/memory of Skuld.

 

The image of her sister appeared in front of her, unconcerned by the temperature and the water. Her clothes didn’t get wet, either. She merely looked around and snorted. “Well, you are in a right mess, aren’t you, little sister?”

 

“Shut up,” Darcy snarled. “Are you gonna help me or not?”

 

The echo/memory rolled her eyes. “Of course I am going to help you. I exist to serve the Mother, after all.”

 

Loki was staring intently at Darcy, as if he could will himself to see what she saw. She didn’t look over at him, keeping her focus on the echo/memory. “Show me what I need to do,” she ordered.

 

“You know what needs to be done,” the echo/memory retorted. “Where do you intend to open a Way to?”

 

“My brother lives in LA,” Darcy replied. “Let’s try there.”

 

“Very well,” the echo/memory said, folding her hands into the opposite sleeves. “But remember, you are opening a Way through space and time . If you do not compensate properly for the time, then it will take you as much time to travel through the Way as it would for you to walk the equivalent distance.”

 

Darcy frowned at her. “We didn’t have to worry about that before,” she pointed out.

 

“You were only creating a Way five miles long,” the echo/memory said dryly. “Time was irrelevant.”

 

Darcy frowned harder. “Okay. So it takes us a couple hours to pass through. No big deal.”

 

“Darcy,” Loki said warningly. “We do not have the time.”

 

“Just hang on,” she snapped back.

 

“Yes, it will take you a couple of hours to pass through a rend in time and space with no oxygen ,” the echo/memory retorted.

 

“Shit,” Darcy said. “Okay, got it. Compensate for time. Great. Can we do this, then?”

 

The echo/memory inclined her head in Loki’s direction. “You will need your lagsmaðr.”

 

Darcy sighed deeply. She couldn’t feel her legs, and her teeth wouldn’t stop chattering. She knew if they stayed in the water much longer, she was going to start suffering from hypothermia. She looked over at Loki, and then reached one arm out to him.

 

He sloshed over and slid his arm around her waist, pulling her tight against him. She couldn’t feel any body heat through their soaking clothing, his too low to provide her any relief, anyway. He leaned down until he could press the side of his forehead against hers.

 

Molding their minds together was as easy as breathing, but neither of them took any pleasure in it. Loki held his emotions tightly in check, only giving of himself what was absolutely necessary, and Darcy did the same. Neither of them wanted any deep joining at the moment.

 

Time , Darcy thought. Compensate for the time.

 

She chanted it in her head as she focused her power, drew a line between their current location and her brother’s apartment in old downtown, LA. Time , she told herself. Don’t get the both of you killed. Compensate for the time . The fabric of the universe bent under her hands. Then, very carefully, she cut through it.

 

The backlash was more than Loki could handle. Darcy was yanked off her feet and flung backwards in an explosion of energy and a spray of salty water. Loki lost his grip on her and she hit hard, unyielding ground and rolled.

 

It took a few moments for the world to stop spinning. Darcy felt bruised from the top of her head down to her toes, and she was still soaking wet and freezing cold. She pushed herself up and rolled over to a sitting position, looking around.

 

They weren’t in Alex’s apartment.

 

It was some kind of office building, with rows of heavy, wooden desks and old-fashioned phones. A glass-walled private office stood in one corner, and in the doorway were a dark-haired woman in a vintage dress, and a dark-haired man in a suit leaning on a crutch.

 

Loki was already on his feet in the middle of the room, his hair straggling over his face, almost but not quite hiding the wild light in his eyes. There were a scattering of men, all in suits, around the room, and they were all pointing sidearms at Loki.

 

In a sudden moment of clarity, Darcy realized that this was the second time Loki had come through a portal to somewhere unfamiliar, in pain, surrounded by strangers pointing weapons at him. It didn’t matter that this time there was no Thanos and no Skuld to sink their claws into his brain. He was right back in that moment and he was desperate to escape.

 

Darcy struggled to her feet and held out her hands. “Wait!” she called out. “Everybody just hold on!”

 

“Who the hell are you?” asked the dark-haired man with the crutch. He looked around at the mess of overturned desks and seawater. “How the hell did you get in here?”

 

“Look, it was all an accident,” Darcy said soothingly. “It was a mistake. We were trying to get somewhere else.”

 

“But how did you get in?” the woman demanded in a British accent. “This is a secure building!”

 

Darcy started to reply, but the anxiety she was picking up from Loki suddenly skyrocketed. She turned in time to see Loki fling his hand at one of the men creeping closer to him, blasting him backwards hard enough to leave a dent in the wall.

 

The other men started firing, and Loki twisted his hands, teeth bared and eyes wide. The bullets impacted a shimmering, green shield enclosed around him, and then went zinging back in all directions.

 

Fuck ,” Darcy spat, and lurched forward, her muscles still cramped and numb from cold. She didn’t head for Loki, not yet, but for the two people outside the glass-walled office. By the time Darcy reached them, both of them had pistols out and pointing at Loki. Before Darcy could stop them, the woman fired three rounds in quick succession.

 

The first two impacted Loki’s energy shield. Then his attention must have slipped, because the third bullet clipped the side of his head, blood spraying from the wound. Loki staggered backwards, head snapping to the side, and Darcy screamed in shock.

 

Loki didn’t fall. He straightened, turning back around to face them, and Darcy’s blood ran cold. His eyes were red, blood-red; sclera, iris, and all. Only his black pupils broke up the carmine orbs. More red sheeted down the side of  his face, dripping off his jaw.

 

“Bloody Nora,” whispered the dark-haired woman, her gun dipping lower in surprise.

 

Loki made an inhuman sound of anger and threw his hand out towards the woman, green energy lancing from his fingers. Darcy did the first thing she thought of.

 

She threw herself directly in front of her.

 

The energy darts impacted her shoulder and chest, sending her backwards into the woman whose life she had just saved. The wounds burned with pain and deep, aching cold. The cold stole her breath away, causing what little managed to escape to cloud into the humid air.

 

Someone supported her as she collapsed, still struggling to breath. It was still so cold , and now she hurt even worse than before. It was just easier to go to sleep…

 

XxxXxxX

 

When Darcy woke, the first thing she noticed was that her arm was still cold. It was the only part of her that was still cold; everything else was toasty warm. She tried to move her fingers and discovered that she could barely even twitch them, as her arm was almost completely numb.

 

She opened her eyes, lifting her head to look down. She was in a small, narrow bed with white sheets and a scratchy gray blanket. Her arm was resting atop the blankets and was completely wrapped in bandages. She blinked a couple of times, and then looked around. The room she was in was small, like the bed, with pale yellow walls and bars over the windows. It smelled faintly of bleach and antiseptic. There was a table beside the bed with a pitcher of water and a cup.

 

Also beside her bed was a chair, and in it was the dark-haired woman who had shot Loki. She was wearing another vintage outfit, her hair pinned up carefully in a mid-forties style, if Darcy was correct. She was watching Darcy with a pair of bright, intelligent brown eyes.

 

“Hello,” she said, not unkindly. “How do you feel?”

 

Darcy stared at the other woman for a moment, and then replied. “Hurts like a bitch.”

 

The stranger raised a delicately arched eyebrow. “You know, the doctors have never seen wounds like yours before,” the woman continued. “Burn wounds, surrounded by frostbite. It’s highly unusual.”

 

“So is two people appearing out of midair, I bet,” Darcy said dryly, trying to wiggle her fingers again. She still didn’t get more than a twitch.

 

“Well, I’ve seen some rather strange things over the course of the last few years,” the woman replied, looking down at her hands folded demurely on her lap. She looked back up again, her expression sincere. “I’m sure we can find a reasonable expression.”

 

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Darcy said sardonically.

 

The woman tilted her head. “What is your name?” she asked.

 

“Darcy Lewis,” Darcy replied promptly. “What’s yours?”


A smile curled the corners of the woman’s red-tinted lips. “My name is Agent Peggy Carter.”

Chapter Text

“My name is Agent Peggy Carter.”

Darcy’s brain skipped a beat and she stared at the woman for a long moment. She recognized the name, Steve had mentioned her often enough. She’d been to the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian; she’d watched the interviews. But this… this was not possible.

“What… what year is it?” Darcy asked hesitantly.

Agent Carter was not expecting that question. She frowned slightly, tilting her head to the side. “1947,” she replied.

Darcy froze, her good hand clenching in the blankets. 1947. How the fuck had that happened? She heard laughter in the back of her skull. Compensate for time, child . Darcy pressed the heel of her hand to the bridge of her nose and fought to keep her breathing steady.

Okay. 1947. She could handle this. She had handled everything else that the universe had decided to throw at her. And if she’d gotten them here, she could theoretically get them back, right? It was just a matter of bending time .

She lowered her hand and looked back up at Agent Carter, who was watching her with a wary expression. “Where is… Uh, what happened to Loki?” Darcy asked, her voice quivering.

“Loki?” Carter echoed, her eyebrows raising. “I take it that is the man who was with you?” Darcy nodded. “He’s gone,” Carter told her simply. “He vanished.”

That was all it took to slam Darcy into a full-blown panic attack. Her lungs contracted, forcing her to gasp for breath. She tried to rip the blanket off and get out of bed. She didn’t know where she was trying to go, she just knew she needed to get away .

Agent Carter leapt up from her chair and tried to grab Darcy’s hand, tried to force her back down, but Dracy ripped her hand out of Carter’s grasp and then shoved the other woman back hard enough to knock her off her feet. Darcy was out of bed and at the door in seconds.

The door wasn’t locked. Darcy bolted down the hallway, her lungs burning, past nurses and hospital personnel. It was too bright , too noisy, too many minds and souls pressing against her, all the pain and sickness and death all around her…

A man stood in the hallway in front of her, blocking her way. She recognized him distantly, the man with the crutch. He looked surprised to see her, and then he reached out for her. Darcy turned and tried the door to her right. It was also unlocked, and led to a storage cupboard.

She ducked into the cupboard and slammed the door behind her. There wasn’t a light, but Darcy didn’t need to see. She found a wooden shelf and tipped it over in front of the door before backing away until her back met a wall. She slid down to the floor, drawing her knees from her chest.

She still couldn’t draw a full breath. Her skin felt like it was on fire and she couldn’t stop shaking. She could still feel the press of minds around her, clamoring for her attention. She needed Loki. She needed him. She couldn’t do this without him. Even after everything that had happened over the last several hours, she wouldn’t have thought he’d just leave .

Breathe, child , Skuld’s voice said sharply in her ear. You are of no use to anyone in this state .

Darcy tried to inhale but her lungs wouldn’t cooperate. All she could do was hyperventilate, her heart racing in her ears.

Inhale , the echo/memory instructed firmly. Slowly. Inhale… and exhale. Good. Again. With the coaching from the voice in her head, Darcy’s breathing finally began to regulate and her heart rate began to slow. Her mental shields returned, blocking out the clamor of thoughts and pain and sickness she was picking up from the other patients.

“... think she’s dangerous?” she heard a man ask outside the cupboard door. The man with the crutch.

“No, I don’t,” Agent Carter replied. “She threw herself in front of me, Daniel. She may very well have saved my life. I don’t think she’s dangerous. I think she’s frightened.”

“Of what?”

“Of the man we saw with her. The one who attacked her. I told her he had escaped and that was when she ran. He is still out there. No doubt she’s afraid he will come back for her.”

“Did she say how they managed to get inside the building? We upped the security from New York. Hell, even Stark consulted on it.”

“We didn’t get that far.”

“Well, what did she say?”

“She asked what year it was. And I don’t think she was expecting my reply.”

“She didn’t know what year it was?”

“Her name is Darcy Lewis. The man who was with her is called Loki, I believe. That’s all I have.”

“Do you need me to stay?”

“No, no. I’ll take care of it. Are--are you heading for the morgue?”

There was a long pause. “Yeah. The ME has the preliminary autopsy report.”

“Will you be alright?” Carter asked, so softly Darcy almost didn’t hear her.

The man--Daniel--coughed. “Yeah. Yeah. It’s just… when it’s one of ours…”

“I know. Do we have any leads?”

“The concierge at the hotel saw a man wearing a dark suit and a hat. No one else saw anything.”

“It’s the Arena club, I know it. There has to be something, some one we missed.”

“We’ll get ‘em, Peggy. You stay with her. Stay on this. The last thing we need right now is another crazy person running around with unexplained powers like Whitney Frost.”

“I know, I know. I’ll handle it. Just… keep me updated.”

“I will.” There was another silent pause, and then the sound of the man’s crutch clicking against the floor. After a moment, someone knocked on the cupboard door. “Miss Lewis?” Agent Carter called. “Miss Lewis, you’re safe, I assure you. Will you please open the door?”

Darcy didn’t move for a long time. She knew that this woman would one day found SHIELD, the same SHIELD that turned out to be Hydra in disguise. But Steve had trusted her with his life, on multiple occasions. The way Steve had talked about her… he’d even loved her, as much as he could.

Steve had trusted her, and Darcy trusted Steve. That would be enough. Darcy pushed herself back to her feet and shuffled forward in the dark. She pulled the shelf out of the way and cracked the door open. Agent Carter stood a step back from the door. There was a nurse and a doctor behind her.

“Send them away,” Darcy said. Carter half turned and waved the others away. Only then did Darcy pull open the door enough to slip outside into the hallway.

“Are you alright?” Carter asked kindly. Darcy nodded mutely, clutching her injured arm to her chest. “Why don’t we go back to your room?” Carter suggested. Darcy allowed the other woman to escort her back to her room and sat on the side of the bed facing the window, staring out at the city beyond. Carter sat on the bed next to her.

“Where are we?” Darcy asked after a minute.

“Los Angeles,” Carter replied, watching her carefully.

“Oh,” Darcy said. So at least they’d gotten that right.

“Miss Lewis,” Carter said gently. “I think you should tell me what happened.”

Darcy blinked. “What was his name?”

“Whose name?” Carter asked, frowning.

“Your friend, who died.”

“How did you know that?” Carter demanded sharply.

Darcy shrugged her uninjured shoulder. “I heard you through the door.”

Carter stared at her for a long moment. “Jack,” she finally said. “His name was Jack.”

“I’m sorry,” Darcy said.

“Thank you. Now please, I need to know how you were able to get into the highest-secured building in the city.”

Darcy took a deep breath. “I created a portal through time and space,” she said flatly. “I was aiming for my brother’s apartment, but I kinda missed. By sixty-six years, apparently.” She continued to stare out the window, ignoring Carter’s look of disbelief.

“A… portal,” the other woman eventually said.

Darcy sighed. “Yeah. I’m not very good at making them. I’ve only done it once before.” She rubbed the side of her nose. “It was a total accident we ended up inside your… office. Or whatever.”

“We?” Carter echoed weakly.

“Yeah,” Darcy said wearily. “The guy who was with me. Loki. I wasn’t scared of him or anything. He’s… well, he’s my husband.” Darcy decided the fib was easier than explaining the concept of lagsmaðr to someone with 1940’s sensibilities.

Carter stared at her for several minutes. “Maybe you should start from the beginning.”

Darcy giggled, high-pitched and manic. She got herself under control and cleared her throat. “Yeah, no,” Darcy said. “That’s… that’s a bit too far back. I’m, um, I’m not human. Not completely at least. Neither is Loki. And this morning, when we started out on this whole disaster, it was 2013.”

“Two thousand and thirteen what?” Carter asked, sounding a bit stunned.

Darcy finally turned and looked at her. “The year. 2013. Sixty-six years from now.”

“That simply isn’t possible,” Carter said, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, Miss Lewis, but you are going to need to come up with a better story than that.”

Darcy summoned her Stark pad from her pocket dimension and turned it on. She opened her saved video files and picked one her mother had recently emailed her.

Carter had gasped when she saw the tablet appear out of thin air and leaned over. “What is that?” she demanded. “Where did it come from?”

“It’s a computer,” Darcy explained. “A tablet, to be specific. They were invented in the late 1990’s, I think. They really came into popularity in 2010...ish.” She hit play on the video.

It was of Cooper during a recent tour in London, standing in Trafalgar Square and surrounded by a group of his coworkers. They egged him on with whistles and catcalls, until he finally, with agile movements, climbed up on top of one of the metal lion statues and performed a perfect handstand. Then, while still upside-down, he did several hand presses, which met with cheers from his coworkers. The video went shaky, and then cut out.

“How is that possible?” Carter demanded. “Who developed that technology? That sort of thing doesn’t exist!”

“Not now,” Darcy said. “Give it fifty years. That was my brother, in London, two weeks ago.”

Carter stared at the tablet for a few seconds. She held out her hand. “May I?” she asked. Darcy handed the tablet over. Carter spent a few minutes poking at it, opening and closing apps. She discovered Darcy’s photos and figured out how to scroll through them. She found one of Darcy, Jane, and Tony Stark way back when they went to Stark’s fundraiser party with Steve.

“Who is that?” Carter demanded, pointing at Stark. “He looks...familiar.”

Darcy suddenly began rethinking the wisdom of giving her unrestricted access to the tablet. Carter could have come across a picture of Steve, and then there would have been hell to pay. She took the tablet back and closed it. “His name is Tony Stark,” Darcy said, and vanished the tablet back to her pocket dimension.

“Stark?” Carter repeated, her eyes wide and fixed on Darcy’s hands. “Any relation to Howard Stark?”

“His son,” Darcy replied.

“Good lord,” Carter said, blinking. “Howard was allowed to reproduce?”

“Tony’s not bad,” Darcy said with a shrug. “Hella messed up, but not bad.”

Carter got to her feet and began to pace. “You are serious, then, aren’t you?” she asked, one hand on her hip and the other pressed to her forehead. “Cripes. How did you get here? And what did you mean when you said you’re not human? Why did your husband attack my agents?”

Darcy held up her hands. “Whoa. Yeah, it’s a lot, I know. Sorry. Um, yeah. Portals. I can sort of create them. It’s a complicated process, and I meant to land in my brother’s apartment, except I overcompensated for time and landed in your secure building. My bad.”

Carter lowered her hand and stared at Darcy for several seconds. “You can create… portals,” she said slowly.

Darcy nodded. “Among other things. Like I said, not completely human.”

“Well, if you’re not human, then what are you?” Carter demanded.

“Norn,” Darcy quipped.

Carter shook her head. “I don’t know what that is,” she said.

“Ancient, powerful being, lots of whacky powers,” Darcy said, far more lightly than she felt.

Carter continued to stare at her. “Where are you from?” she asked slowly.

“Philadelphia,” Darcy replied.

“And your husband?” Carter asked.

“Loki,” Darcy said. “As in, ancient norse god. Loki the trickster. God of mischief.” Darcy tilted her head. “Ringing any bells?”

Carter raised her hand. “I’m sorry, you’re expecting me to believe that not only did you travel in time , but your husband is an ancient norse god?”

Darcy wrinkled her nose. “You saw him stop bullets, throw a man into a wall without touching him, and walk away from being shot in the head.”

“Yes, but a norse god!” Carter exclaimed. “I’ve seen a great deal, but that is ridiculous.”

Darcy rubbed her eyes with one hand. “I don’t know what else I can tell you. You wanted the truth, that’s it.”

Carter took a deep breath. “Fine. We’ll just leave it for a moment. Why did your husband attack my agents?”

Darcy groaned and rubbed her eyes harder. “We’ve had a difficult… year. Something really, really bad happened to Loki a little while ago, and he was kinda having a flashback. He didn’t mean to hurt anyone, he was just… scared.”

Carter set both hands on her hips. “A flashback?” she said. “He has shellshock?”

“Yeah,” Darcy said, lowering her hand. “Pretty bad. He’s not a bad person, I swear. He just… doesn’t react well when he’s threatened, and your guys were pointing guns at him, and making the portals gives him a killer headache, and, well, you know…” she trailed off with a shrug.

“Do you know where he is?” Carter demanded.

Darcy picked at the nightgown she’d been dressed in. “I could probably find him, if I tried hard enough,” she said after a moment. “But honestly, I’m exhausted, I’m in pain, and I really don’t think I have the strength.”

Carter sighed deeply and sank onto the bed next to Darcy again. “Bloody Nora,” she said breathlessly.

Darcy nodded. “Yeah. Tell me about it.”

XxxXxxX

Darcy eyed the white convertible that pulled up to the curb in front of the hospital. She loved it immediately, of course, because it was a late 1940’s model and it looked awesome. She was not, however, much enthusiastic about Agent Carter’s plan.

The agent herself was standing next to Darcy. She’d managed to procure a blouse and skirt for Darcy to wear, as well as a pair of hospital slippers. She’d apologized profusely for the lack of stockings, which Darcy had brushed off. Darcy’s injured arm was in a sling, as it still hadn’t regained feeling or mobility.

The car parked and the driver side door opened, allowing a tall, lanky gentleman in a three-piece suit to unfold out of the car. “Miss Carter!” he greeted jovially, grinning broadly.

“Mr Jarvis,” Carter replied, much more subdued.

Mr Jarvis coughed into his hand and sobered. “Yes, of course. This must be Mrs Lewis.”

Darcy was so thrown by being called “Mrs Lewis” that it took a moment for the man’s name to register. “Wait a sec,” she blurted. “Did you say Jarvis ?”

Mr Jarvis blinked a couple of times, staring down at Darcy with open apprehension. “Yes?” he said, his voice jumping an octave.

Darcy stared back up at him for a moment. He was an attractive man, though his nose was a bit on the thin side, with brown hair and intelligent eyes. Darcy tilted her head to one side and called up his timeline, scanning through his future until she gleaned the information she wanted. Apparently this man would be more a father to Tony than Howard ever would be.

“Huh,” was all she said out loud.

Mr Jarvis looked nervously from Agent Carter to Darcy and back again. “Who, exactly, did you say Mrs Lewis was again?” he asked Agent Carter.

“A person of interest,” Agent Carter replied mildly. “I need you and Ana to keep an eye on her for the moment. I need to focus on finding whoever killed Agent Thompson right now, and I can’t babysit her.”

“Right, of course,” Mr Jarvis said quickly. “This way, Mrs Lewis. Ah, let me get the door for you.” He deftly cut in front of Darcy when she tried to open the car door. He held it open for her and let her slide in. Darcy looked around for a seatbelt and found none.

“I assure you, Mrs Lewis, you will be quite comfortable at Mr Stark’s estate,” Mr Jarvis said when he got back into the car. “We are more than happy to host any… friend of Miss Carter’s.”

“I’m not her friend,” Darcy said flatly. “I’m a ‘person of interest.’”

“Well, considering her last person of interest happened to be a genius, helped save Los Angeles from certain destruction, and is now a valued member of Stark Industries, I would say your future is very bright,” Jarvis said cheerily.

Darcy nodded. “Awesome,” she said flatly. “Did she also tell you there’s a good chance that my husband is going to show up unexpectedly and he’s currently wanted for attacking two SSR agents?”

“Ah, no,” Jarvis said, his voice falling. “No, she failed to mention that.” He looked at her in the rearview mirror. “Is that why you will be staying with us, Mrs Lewis? Protection?”

“From my husband?” Darcy said. “No, absolutely not. Loki would never hurt me.” She stopped and looked down at her immobile arm. “On purpose,” she added in a mutter.

“Oh, well I’m sure Miss Carter will be able to work everything out,” Jarvis went on, but his cheer sounded forced now. “She’s very resourceful, you know.”

Darcy stared out the window, watching the city slide by. “Oh, trust me. I know.”

Howard Stark’s west coast estate was pretty much what Darcy expected from a Stark; large, opulent, and overstated. She was not , however, expecting the flamingo. Or the koala. Mr Jarvis ushered her quickly in through the main doors while throwing dirty looks at the animals.

“Mrs Jarvis!” Mr Jarvis called as soon as they were inside.

There was the click of heels on the hardwood floor, and then a petite woman with bright orange hair appeared from further inside the house. “Mrs Lewis!” she exclaimed in an Hungarian accent. “Welcome! Please come in. Are you hungry? I’ve just put tea on and I’ve made some delicious sandwiches.”

Mrs Jarvis came right up to Darcy and took Darcy’s uninjured hand in both of hers. There was a moment that the world tilted sideways as this woman’s past and future downloaded itself into Darcy’s brain, and then the intense jolt of pain in her stomach.

For a moment, Darcy thought her long-closed stab wound from Ragnarok had reopened. Then she realized the pain was a memory, and not hers. It was Mrs Jarvis’. And not a stab wound. A gunshot. Though it had had much the same effect.

“Oh, poor dear,” Mrs Jarvis cooed. “Everything will be alright. There’s no need to cry. You’re quite safe, I assure you.”

Darcy sniffed and tugged her hand free to wipe the tears that had leaked onto her cheek. “I’m sorry,” she said hoarsely.

Mrs Jarvis put her hands on Darcy’s shoulders and rubbed them. “No need to apologize. From what I hear you are having a very difficult day. Come with me.” Without waiting for a reply, the other woman looped her arm through Darcy’s and tugged her along.

They lost Mr Jarvis somewhere along the way to the kitchen. When they arrived, Mrs Jarvis all but shoved Darcy into a chair and placed a steaming cup of tea and a plate piled high with sandwiches in front of her.

Darcy was hungry. The last time she’d eaten had been breakfast with her family in the twenty-first century. It felt like weeks ago. She reached for one of the sandwiches and froze. “Um, what’s in them?” she asked hesitantly.

“Cucumber, watercress, and brie,” Mrs Jarvis replied. “Why? Are you allergic?”

“Uh, no,” Darcy said, picking up one of the sandwiches. “I’m just… I keep Kosher.”

Mrs Jarvis face lit up. “Oh, how wonderful! We are practically sisters, Mrs Lewis.”

Darcy blinked a couple of times. “You’re Jewish?”

Mrs Jarvis nodded happily. “Yes, I am. I am from Budapest, in Hungary, but I came here after I married my husband, Mr Jarvis. Where are you from, Mrs Lewis?”

“Philadelphia,” Darcy replied, taking a bite of the sandwich. “Oh, my god. This is delicious .”

Mrs Jarvis beamed. “Have as many as you like.”

Darcy tried not to gorge herself, but she was starving and Mrs Jarvis kept pushing the plate closer, and then she ended up eating all of the sandwiches by herself, as well as drinking three cups of quite excellent earl gray.

Darcy was shoving the last sandwich into her mouth when she heard voices and two men walked into the kitchen. One was tall and dark-skinned, with close-shorn hair. He was wearing a button-up shirt and suspenders. The second man was shorter and dark-haired with a mustache, wearing a dark red shirt, trousers, and a dressing robe. He also bore a startling resemblance to Tony Stark.

“Holy shit,” Darcy said through a full mouth.

“Ana!” declared the man who could only be Howard Stark. “We’re outta coffee! How’re we supposed to work without any coffee?”

“I’m so sorry, Mrs Jarvis,” said the Black gentleman. “I offered to make some myself, but he said he only wanted yours.”

“Oh, don’t trouble yourself, Dr Wilkes,” Mrs Jarvis said, jumping to her feet. “We are all quite used to Mr Stark’s idiosyncrasies.”

“Well, hello ,” Howard Stark said, catching sight of Darcy, who was still trying to chew her last sandwich. “And who might you be?”

“Darcy Lewis,” Darcy replied. Or at least, she tried to. It came out more like “Darfy Oo-is.”

“Well, I’m charmed to make your acquaintance,” Stark said, taking Darcy’s hand and raising it to his lips. Darcy snatched her hand back before he could kiss it, and swallowed her food.

“I’m married,” she blurted.

“Well, there’s no need to get all formal,” Stark said with a leer, not deterred in the slightest. “We’re just getting to know each other.”

Mr Stark,” Mrs Jarvis said disapprovingly. “Mrs Lewis is a friend of Miss Carter’s, and she is a guest in this house.”

“Well, it’s my house,” Stark retorted. “Don’t I get to know my guests?”

Mrs Jarvis handed both men a porcelain cup of coffee. “Not this one,” she said firmly. “She’s just come from the hospital, and she doesn’t need anyone mooning over her.”

“You see how I’m treated in my own home?” Stark said plaintively to Darcy.

“Mrs Lewis,” interjected the Black gentleman. “I’m Dr Wilkes. How do you do?” He offered his hand.

Darcy shook his hand, returning his smile. “I’m doing okay, thanks. How are you?”

His grin grew even wider. “I’d have to say I’m doing pretty swell, Mrs Lewis. I’m sorry about your arm, though. How’d you manage that?”

“I got shot,” Darcy said flatly. Stark did a double-take, and Dr Wilkes’ smile faltered.

“Oh,” Dr Wilkes said. “Sorry to hear that.”

Darcy shrugged. “Not the first time. Probably not the last. I tend to attract people trying to kill me.”

Stark eyed her up and down. “Well, that just makes you all the more interesting.”

“Out,” Mrs Jarvis ordered, pointing back out the door.

“You never let me have any fun,” Stark complained. He looked down at Darcy. “I take it you’ll be around for dinner?”

“I have no idea,” Darcy replied honestly.

“Well, you are now. Ana, make sure she has something nice to wear. Something that compliments her… assets.”

Mr Stark!” Mrs Jarvis exclaimed, scandalized. She pointed towards the door again. “She is a married woman!”

“Well, then her husband is invited too!” Stark said, and ducked out of the kitchen, taking his coffee with him. Dr Wilkes grimaced.

“I’d tell you he’s not always like that, but he’s always like that,” he said apologetically.

“Don’t worry, I’m not surprised,” Darcy told him with a dry little smile.

When the two men had safely left earshot, Mrs Jarvis turned to Darcy. “That man. The nerve of him. I tell you, I do not know where he would be if he did not have myself and my Mr Jarvis to take care of him.”

“Trust me, I am well aware of Howard Stark’s reputation,” Darcy assured her. “If he’s so frustrating, why do you stay?”

“Oh, no, we could never leave Mr Stark,” Mrs Jarvis said, pressing her fingertips to her throat. “He has no one else in the world.” She looked proudly down at the empty plate in front of Darcy. “Now, Mrs Lewis. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Darcy smoothed the lap of her skirt. “Um, I could really do with a bath. The last one I had was in the Pacific Ocean.”

“Of course!” Mrs Jarvis beckoned with one hand. “Come with me. I will also get you a change of clothes, and some stockings, yes?”

“If you have to,” Darcy muttered, but followed Mrs Jarvis anyway.

The bathtub in the bathroom Mrs Jarvis led her to was almost on par to the ones in Asgard. It was a huge claw-footed affair, big enough for five people, and had a wonderful view of the back gardens. Mrs Jarvis started it running, adjusted the temperature, and fetched a huge towel and a silk dressing gown before leaving Darcy to it.

Darcy took her arm out of the sling and unwrapped the bandages. Her skin was white and cold to the touch. The wounds on her shoulder and chest were red and swollen, tender and sore. She kept her arm pressed to her stomach as she pulled the pins out of her hair.

Her hair was stiff with salt and greasy from being unwashed for goodness knows how long. Darcy winced as she shook it out. Her scalp was sore from having it pinned up so long. Undoing the buttons on her blouse was more difficult with only one hand, and Darcy struggled with it until she was able to slide it off.

She sensed a change in air pressure behind her and whirled around, summoning her taser to her good hand. Loki raised empty hands and took a step backwards. “I am sorry,” he said softly. “I didn’t intend to startle you.”

Darcy lowered her taser, her shoulders slumping. “Oh, thank god ,” she breathed. “Where the hell have you been?”

He dropped his hands, swallowing thickly. “Darcy,” he said roughly, and his eyes flicked to the exposed wounds on her chest and shoulder. He froze, his face going very still and pale. He stepped forward haltingly until he stood in front of her. He lifted one hand to brush over the circles of burned flesh.

Darcy shivered, both in sudden pain, and at the touch of his hand on her bare skin. But it was Loki who hissed in a sudden breath.

“I did this to you,” he said in a low voice.

She shook her head. “It’s not your fault,” she told him.

“Yes, it is,” Loki replied, his tone harsh. “I lost control, and in my mindlessness, I harmed you.” He snatched his hand away. “I should leave. I am nothing but a danger to you.”

Darcy reached out and grabbed a handful of his jacket. He’d lost the ballistics vest, but he still wore the black tactical gear provided by Sitwell. “I swear if you leave I’ll hate you forever,” she warned him.

He froze again, staring down at her. “Loki,” Darcy whispered. “We’re sixty-six years in the past. I hurt all over like a motherfucker, and I need you right now. Okay? Please don’t leave.”

He hesitated for a long time, and then finally reached up to cover her hand with his. “This is not the first time you have been injured because of me,” he told her. “And I fear it will not be the last.”

Darcy closed her eyes and took a deep, shaky breath. “I don’t care. Loki, I don’t care . I am just so tired and I hurt and I really, really need you to be here.”

Loki took her injured arm and guided her over to a nearby chair, urging her to sit. He crouched in front of her, studying the two wounds with close interest. It was all Darcy could do to keep from shivering. She was sitting in front of him in just a bra, and the expression on his face was… intense, to say the least.

After what seemed like an eternity, Loki reached out and pressed his first two fingers to the wound under Darcy’s collar bone. She hissed in pain until the familiar buzz of his magic washed out the pain. When he withdrew his hand, there was only a faint, pink circle of newly-healed skin. He repeated the process with the second injury, and feeling flooded back to Darcy’s arm.

“Oh, god,” Darcy breathed, and wiggled her fingers. She’d regained the full range of motion back. “Thank you. God, thank you.”

“It is the least I could do,” Loki said bitterly.

Darcy scowled at him for a few seconds, and then reached out and grabbed his collar with her newly-healed hand. She yanked him forward with enough force that he had to catch himself against the arms of her chair.

Darcy crashed her mouth against his, noses bumping together in her haste. Loki didn’t try to pull away, but he didn’t respond until she flicked her tongue against his lower lip. Then he sighed into her mouth and met her tongue with his.

The bond between them was as strong as ever, and all of Darcy's pain and weariness was forgotten in the sensation of joining, of simply being with him, of his chapped lips against hers and his tongue curling against the roof of her mouth.

Loki lifted his hands to cradle her face before he gently pulled away. Darcy swayed forward, trying to follow before remembering herself and leaning back. He didn’t meet her gaze as he dropped his hands and got to his feet.

“You will feel better once you bathe,” he told her, still looking down.

“Right,” Darcy said unsteadily. “Yeah, of course.”

Loki turned as if to leave, and then came back. “I do not know whose home this is,” he said somewhat sheepishly.

“Howard Stark’s, if you can believe it,” Darcy said dryly.

Loki’s eyes narrowed. “Stark?” he echoed.

“Tony Stark’s father,” Darcy explained.

Loki frowned. “How did you come to be here?”

Darcy got up out of her chair and gestured theatrically. “Pull up a chair. I’ll tell you all about it. But first I am getting into that water because I still feel like I went ten rounds with a troll.”

Loki’s frowned deepened. “If you would like, I can--”

“No,” Darcy said, holding up a hand. “You’ve already helped enough. I just want to take a bath, and you probably shouldn’t be wandering around without warning people.” She walked over to the bath tub and unzipped her skirt, letting it drop. She stripped out of the rest of her clothing and crawled into the bathtub, sinking all the way to her chin.

Loki sat gingerly on the edge of the chair, hands clasped between his knees, and stared straight ahead. Darcy snorted in amusement and tipped her head back to get her hair wet.

“Okay,” she began. “So, after I passed the fuck out I woke up in the hospital, and you will never believe who was sitting there…”

Chapter Text

Dinner turned out to be a spectacular disaster.

In retrospect, Darcy really shouldn’t have expected anything different. After all, she’d put Loki and Howard Stark in the same room. Take Loki’s sensitivity and innate jealousy, add Stark’s complete lack of respect for boundaries, and viola: catastrophe.

She and Loki had decided it would not be good for him to simply appear out of thin air when the SSR was still suspicious of him, so he left as soon as she was done with her bath, intending to return once Agent Carter had been notified. Darcy wrapped herself in the silk robe and went in search of Mrs Jarvis for that promised change of clothing.

Instead, she found Howard Stark.

Normally, Darcy wasn’t so much of a prude that she’d have a problem running into a guy she wasn’t dating (or married to) in just a robe, but when it was a Stark, things went downhill quickly.

“Hello again,” Stark said, giving her a smarmy smile. “I see you’re making yourself comfortable.”

Darcy was not the type of girl to clutch her neckline closed at the first unsavory glance, but Stark’s rather intense attention on the area below her collarbone was a little much. So she crossed her arms in a way that interfered with the view.

“Do you know where Mrs Jarvis is?” she asked with a faint sigh. “She was supposed to get me some clothes.”

“I can help you pick a few things out,” Stark offered with a leer. “You can even model them for me.”

“I’m good, thanks.” Darcy said, stepping back. “I’ll just find Mrs Jarvis. Oh, but you should probably call Agent Carter. Tell her I got a hold of my husband, and he’s on his way over.”

Stark blinked. “Here?” he said, pointing to the ground.

“Yeah,” Darcy said with a nod. “Where else?”

“Did I approve of this, or was this Carter’s idea?” Stark demanded. “‘Cause I don’t remember approving of this.”

“Well, Agent Carter wanted to talk to him,” Darcy said, shrugging.

Mr Jarvis appeared from around a corner and caught sight of them. A brief expression of resignation and annoyance crossed over his face, then vanished. He started walking briskly towards them. “Ah, there you are, Mrs Lewis. Mrs Jarvis is looking for you.”

“I was looking for her, too,” Darcy said. “Where is she?”

“In the dressing room, down the hall, second door on your left,” Jarvis replied, indicating which hallway to take.

“Wear something yellow,” Stark said. “I like a girl in yellow.”

“I hate that color,” Darcy said flatly. “Don’t forget to call Agent Carter.” She turned away and followed Jarvis’ directions.

The dressing room was a giant closet, racks of hangers covering all four walls. A screen blocked off one corner, and there was a three-way mirror on the opposite side of the room. Mrs Jarvis had draped a selection of dresses over a chest of drawers in the center of the room.

“Ah, there you are,” Mrs Jarvis said brightly when Darcy poked her head through the door. “I sent Mr Jarvis after you.”

“He found me,” Darcy told her, and stepped into the room. She went right up to the dresses Mrs Jarvis had picked out. None of them were yellow. “Oh, I love this one,” she said, picking up a deep purple dress with a sensible pleated skirt.

Mrs Jarvis gestured toward the screen. “I have under things and stockings waiting for you,” she said.

Darcy decided, after several minutes of struggling with them, that she hated stockings. They wouldn’t stay up, they itched like crazy against legs that hadn’t been shaved in a couple of days, and it took her forever to get the seams in the back straight. She finally emerged, fully clothed, to Mr Jarvis’ polite knock on the door.

“Miss Carter is here!” he announced.

Darcy sighed, ran her hands down the front of her skirt, and went out to face the music.

XxxXxxX

Agent Carter hadn’t arrived alone. The man with the crutch--Daniel--had come as well. Both of them looked grim and determined, not nervous at all. Both of them looked up sharply when Darcy stepped into the room.

“Where is he?” Agent Carter demanded immediately.

“Who’s he?” Darcy countered, gesturing towards the man.

Agent Carter pressed her lips together. “Yes, sorry. This is Chief Sousa, of the LA branch. Daniel, this is Darcy Lewis.”

“Pleasure,” Chief Sousa said tightly, not offering his hand to shake. Darcy didn’t take offense. “Jarvis said your husband was here?”

“He can be in a minute,” Darcy replied. “As long as you promise not to shoot him again.”

“I won’t shoot him if he doesn’t throw anyone into the wall,” Carter retorted instantly.

Darcy nodded. “Fair enough.” She closed her eyes and traced along the silver thread that connected her soul to Loki’s. She gave it a gentle tug, just enough to get his attention. Without joining minds completely, he wouldn’t know what she was thinking, but she could still do this.

There was an abrupt change in the room’s air pressure, and then Loki appeared in a wisp of green energy.

“Bloody hell,” Carter blurted, jerking back.

Loki stood very close to Darcy, close enough that his arm brushed hers. He’d somehow (read: magic) gotten a change of clothes, and was now wearing an Asgardian tunic in deep emerald, a black leather surcoat, and even darker green trousers. He wore no armor except for the ornamental gorget Darcy had given him.

The wound on the side of his head was completely gone now, his hair slicked back behind his ears. His eyes were their normal pale jade color, and his expression was composed. He looked between Carter and Sousa for a moment.

“Hello,” he said when they continued to gape at him. “My name is Loki Odinson. How do you do?”

Sousa gestured vaguely with the hand not holding his crutch. “How--how did you do that?” he demanded.

“Instantaneous transport over short distances,” Loki replied crisply, clasping his hands behind his back. “I believe your word is ‘teleport.’ It’s a rather rudimentary skill. I learned it as a young adolescent.”

Carter shook her head. “I would say that that is impossible, but I’ve rather had to change my definition of that word over the last few weeks. Mr...Odinson, your wife tells me you are a Norse god?” Carter asked the question warily, as if she didn’t believe the words coming out of her mouth.

“Prince, if you are going to use the correct title,” Loki said. Carter and Sousa stared blankly at him, and Darcy rolled her eyes at Loki’s dramatics.

“I beg your pardon?” Carter said.

“You called me ‘mister,’” Loki explained. “‘Prince’ would be the correct form of address. My father is king of Asgard.”

Darcy elbowed him in the ribs. “Stop showing off,” she told him.

He gave her a fond expression and circled his arm around her waist, pulling her close against his side. “I am entitled to showing off,” he told her primly. “You asked me to convince them of the truth.”

Darcy rolled her eyes. “They are not calling you ‘prince.’” She looked at Carter. “You don’t have to call him ‘prince.’ Just don’t call him ‘Mr. Odinson.’ He doesn’t like that, either.”

“Very well, Mr Lewis,” Carter said with a glint in her eyes.

Darcy had to slap her hand over her mouth to stifle a bark of laughter, and looked up at Loki, who had his head tilted to the side, expression pensive. Finally he nodded, as if acquiescing. “Yes,” he said. “I am the Loki of your ancient legends, that your ancestors called a god. I am not, by any means, and actual deity. Merely a different, much older species of being. And I do apologize for our first meeting. I did not intend to hurt anyone.”

Chief Sousa nodded slowly. “So...what is your intention?”

Loki looked down at Darcy for a moment, and then back to Sousa. “Return home, as soon as possible. I am grateful for your care of my spouse, but we do not belong here.”

“No, you certainly do not,” Carter said decisively. “If anyone found out where you came from… If Howard found out…”

“If I found out what?” Howard demanded, wandering into the room with a cup of coffee in one hand. He caught sight of Loki immediately and looked the Asgardian up and down. “So. This is the competition, huh?” He took a sip of his coffee. “Dinner. We’re all doing dinner. Including you, Mr Tall, Dark, and what the hell are you wearing?” He eyed Loki again. “In any case, I don’t mind a fair fight. Besides, Ana’s making roast.” He wandered out again, leaving Loki staring blankly after him.

“Is that…” Loki began.

“Tony Stark’s father,” Darcy confirmed.

Loki looked taken aback. “The resemblance is striking,” he remarked.

Sousa shook his head. “Wait a second. Are you saying Stark is gonna have a kid?” he demanded. “Is that legal?”

Darcy didn’t have an answer for him.

Sousa and Carter tried to talk Howard out of dinner, but Howard insisted, and he wasn’t accustomed to being told “no.” They probably would have preferred to conduct the rest of their interview of Loki in private, but at least by now they seem to be convinced he wasn’t about to go axe-crazy anymore.

Howard insisted they eat outside, so Mr Jarvis set up a table on the veranda. The food was waiting for them when they sat down, and Mr Jarvis stuck around only long enough to pour drinks before vanishing inside.

“So, Mrs Lewis, why’s Carter taken an interest in you?” Howard leaned forward to ask, propping his elbows on the table.

“Not anything that concerns you, Howard,” Carter interjected.

“Aw, c’mon,” Howard protested. “You know me. I can keep my mouth shut. Is it classified? I bet it’s classified.” He leaned toward Darcy a little bit more and dropped his voice conspiratorially. “I bet you my clearance is higher than yours.”

“Leave it, Howard,” Carter warned, giving the man a mild glare.

Darcy poked listlessly at her potatoes. When it came down to it, she didn’t have much of an appetite and, if she admitted it, she still felt achy and slightly nauseous.

“Well, can you tell me if you’ve ever been to LA before, or is that classified, too?” Howard asked plaintively.

“No, I’ve never been to LA before,” Darcy said more sharply than she intended. She put her fork down and reached for her glass of wine. Not probably the best idea, but Darcy had had a long day.

“Then how about you and I do some sightseeing tomorrow?” Howard suggested. “Or is Carter gonna have you tied up in business all day?”

“She will not be going anywhere with you at any time,” Loki said cuttingly, staring coldly at the future Stark patriarch.

“Hey, let the lady speak for herself,” Howard retorted, holding up one hand. “Unless you’re one of those kind of men, in which case, you can back the hell off. She’s her own independent woman and she doesn’t need you making all her decisions.”

“I am more than familiar enough with Darcy’s mind to be able to speak for her,” Loki snapped. “And you have no right to make such an invitation.”

“You’re staying in my house, pal,” Howard growled. “You don’t like my hospitality, don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.”

Darcy wanted to head off Loki’s reply before he could give it, but there was a sudden ringing in her ears and the world began to spin around in rapid circles. She put her head down on the table and took deep breaths until the sensation faded somewhat.

Beside her, Loki launched to his feet, and Darcy shoved herself up by instinct, moving to put herself between Loki and Howard, who was standing, as well. It took a moment for the ringing to clear from her ears so she could hear what they were saying.

“...known plenty of jerks like you. You’re all the same; manipulative and controlling,” Howard was sneering at Loki. “And paranoid, too! Can’t stand the thought of your woman doing anything without you!”

“Howard, that’s enough!” Carter said, coming to stand behind Howard and putting her hand on his arm.

“You have made your intentions infinitely clear,” Loki spat back. “Any concerns on my part are quite valid.”

Darcy put her hand in the center of Loki’s chest and pushed him backwards, away from Howard. “Chill, Loki,” she ordered.

He didn’t look down at her and only slapped her hand away. Gently, but still… He took a step towards Howard, eyes glittering with cold anger. “The last time someone spoke that way to my spouse, I slit his throat,” he hissed at the human.

A wave of dizziness washed over Darcy again, and she felt something warm and liquid slide over her lips. When she reached up to swipe her mouth clean, her hand came away bloody. She stared at the red smear on her fingers for a blank moment.

“Loki…” Darcy said weakly. She blacked out before she hit the ground.

XxxXxxX

Darcy woke up in stages, reluctantly and with great effort. She realized she was in a bed and covered with a soft blanket. Occasionally she would hear the turn of a page and the scratch of a pencil against paper. She could sense Loki nearby, but she was too groggy to judge the distance. She was finally able to blink her eyes open enough to look around.

For a moment she didn’t know where she was. It took her several seconds to remember everything that had happened; that she had managed to strand them sixty-six years in the past and they were staying at Howard Stark’s mansion in Los Angeles, at the suggestion of Agent Peggy Carter.

“Fuck,” Darcy muttered, and reached up to cover her eyes with one hand.

“That would be a succinct description of events,” replied Agent Carter’s clipped accent.

Darcy rubbed her eyes and lowered her hand. “What happened?” she croaked, looking over at the other woman.

Agent Carter, as usual, looked impeccable. She had changed both her clothing and her hair, so Darcy assumed it was probably morning. She held a pad of paper on her lap and a pencil in one hand. She pressed her lips together before answering.

“Your husband and Howard Stark were about to come to blows when you had a sudden nosebleed and then collapsed. We had Howard’s personal physician examine you.”

“What’s the damage?” Darcy asked, pushing herself into a sitting position.

“Undetermined,” Carter said tightly. “He was unable to find a cause for your condition.”

“What exactly is my condition?” Darcy asked with a frown.

“The doctor noted your heart rate is thready and weak, and your blood vessels appear to be very thin,” Carter explained. “You’ve recently suffered chemical burns in your sinuses, which attributed to your nosebleed. The doctor is concerned, however, about the blood vessels in your brain. If those have thinned as well, then you could be at risk for an aneurysm.”

Darcy pinched the bridge of her nose. “What did Loki say?”

Carter hesitated a moment, and then replied. “He believes it is a side effect from creating the portal that brought you here.”

“Awesome,” Darcy muttered, and dropped her hand. “Where is he?”

“In one of Howard’s labs,” Carter told her. “I told him that the doctor would only examine you if he was out of the room and stayed there. Thankfully, Dr Wilkes was able to distract him with some equations.”

Darcy nodded slowly. “Yeah. Loki’s a science nerd.” She rubbed her temple. “Okay. So. Thin blood vessels. Anything else?”

“Not without running some tests,” Carter said. “But I thought it best if we got your permission before drawing any blood.”

“I appreciate it,” Darcy said tiredly. She nodded. “Knock yourself out. I’d like to figure out what’s going on, too.”

“I’ll have Mr Jarvis draw some immediately.”

“So he’s a butler and a phlebotomist?” Darcy said dryly.

“Mr Jarvis has mastered a wide variety of skills in his employment under Howard Stark,” Carter assured her. “I can tell you from experience he is the master of the needle.” She rose to her feet. “Oh, and your husband mentioned you were suffering from muscle fatigue, as well?”

“Yeah,” Darcy replied with a sigh. “Just sort of an all-over ache.”

Carter nodded. “I’ll be sure to mention that to Dr Sheffield. In the meantime rest, drink plenty of fluids, and I’ll send your husband in shortly.”

“Thank you,” Darcy said quietly, looking up at Carter. “For sitting with me. I know you have other things you want to be doing.”

Carter held her gaze. “Well, you are my responsibility, whatever that may entail. Get some rest, Mrs Lewis. We will have plenty more to discuss in the future.”

“Look forward to it,” Darcy said with a nod. Carter nodded back and left. Darcy slouched back against the pillows with a faint groan.

Great. Now she was experiencing some nebulous malady that could result in a fucking brain aneurysm and she only had access to 1940’s level of medical science. Just fantastic. And if this was a result of her bringing them back in time, then trying to bring them forward in time would just exacerbate her condition. Darcy groaned again and rubbed her hand down her face.

There was a knock on the open door and Darcy looked up. Mr Jarvis stood in the doorway, a black medical bag in one hand. “Miss Carter said you were ready to have your blood drawn,” he said, half-apologetically.

Darcy straightened again. “Yeah, come on in. Carter says you’re not half bad as a bloodsucker.”

“Well, I would hardly use that word,” Mr Jarvis protested, setting the bag down on the bed and opening it up. “But I have been required to become quite the student of science over the last few years.”

“I can imagine,” Darcy said dryly. She watched as he pulled out a bag of cotton balls, a glass bottle of iodine, a glass syringe, and a sterile needle packaged in paper. He even pulled on a pair of thin, rubber gloves.

As it turned out, Carter was right. Jarvis was quite skilled in the practice of bloodletting, and Darcy barely felt a thing. He drew two syringes of blood, placed each one in a metal case, and then packed everything back in his bag.

“We’ll do everything we can to discover the cause of your illness, Mrs Lewis,” he told her.

“Thank you,” Darcy told him.

Mr Jarvis turned to leave. “Oh. Mr Lewis. Excuse me.”

Loki stepped to the side to let Mr Jarvis through the doorway, and then crossed the room to perch on the side of Darcy’s bed. He reached out and took her wrist in one long-fingered hand. He turned her arm over and brushed his fingertips over the tiny puncture wound in the crook of her elbow, healing it and the faint bruise that had begun to develop.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“Tired,” Darcy admitted. “Achy. Little woozy.”

“The strain of creating the Way, no doubt,” Loki replied, rubbing his thumb against the inside of her wrist. “The human body was not meant to withstand such things.”

“Skuld said--” Darcy began, and then cut herself off. She tapped her temple. “This Skuld said I’d evolve after a few centuries of being joined to Yggdrasil.”

“I would imagine so,” Loki said with a nod. “Such a bond would have to change you. In the meantime, it would seem that we are doomed to remain here, then.”

Darcy blinked at him. “What are you talking about?”

“I cannot, in good conscience, allow you to risk yourself by opening a way back to our own time,” Loki told her, his gaze steady. “The mortal healer said you could suffer a brain bleed. That can be fatal, even to my kind.”

Darcy looked away. “I know,” she said softly. “I don’t--I don’t want to be sick, Loki. I feel like my body is breaking down and I don’t want to be breakable.”

He continued rubbing circles into her wrist. “I know, dear heart. But we have time. As I said before, we are immortal. We can afford to wait.”

Darcy bit her lip and nodded, still not meeting his gaze. He took hold of her chin and tilted her head back up to meet his eyes. “I will not allow any harm to come to you,” he told her gravely. “You know this, yes?”

Darcy leaned back out of his grasp. “I know you’ll try,” she said, only slightly bitter. “Some things you can’t protect me from. Like my own mortality, apparently.”

Loki studied her pensively for a moment. “Will you try to eat?” he asked her, changing the subject.

Darcy shook her head. “I’m not hungry.”

Loki cupped his hands together, and then steam began to rise from between his fingers. He opened his hands to reveal a earthenware cup in Asgardian style. The rich, meaty scent of kava reached Darcy, and her stomach abruptly growled, betraying her.

She scowled. “Fine,” she muttered, and reached for the cup.

Loki pulled it away from her reach and leaned forward to kiss her. “You will recover, my dear norn,” he murmured, and pressed the cup into her hand. “I will not allow anything else.”

“Hey, I’m the norn,” Darcy protested. “I get to give the orders.”

Loki chuckled and kissed her again. “Drink. Rest. Grow stronger. Those are my orders to you.”

“Bossy,” Darcy accused, and drank from her cup. “I love you.”

The words slipped out so easily, before Darcy even had the chance to really register she was saying them. They felt perfectly natural, and rang with absolute truth. Loki blinked, taking a sudden indrawn breath. He stared at Darcy for a moment, and then turned his head away.

“Thank you,” he said softly, and then rose to his feet. Darcy reached out and caught his hand.

“It’s okay,” she told him. “If you can’t say it. I know how hard it is. And it’s okay.”

He looked down at her, his expression grave. “I do not know my own mind anymore,” he said. “And even after everything I have told you, I cannot say those words. Not until I am sure they are mine.”

Darcy nodded. “I understand. You don’t have to go. Can you stay?”

Loki hesitated, and then sat back down again. “Yes. I can stay.”

XxxXxxX

Darcy went from dead asleep to wide awake in an instant, her heart pounding unsteadily in her chest. The force of it hurt her ribs, like her heart was drumming against them. Adrenaline sang in her blood, and she was filled with the absolute certainty that someone was about to die.

Loki was still asleep next to her. She’d fallen asleep with her head on his shoulder, her back pressed against his ribcage. His head was turned toward her because she could feel his breath cool against her hair. Darcy pushed herself up to a sitting position, and half-turned to shake him awake.

“Loki,” she whispered. “Loki.”

He burst into motion so suddenly that Darcy squeaked in surprise and fell backwards, flailing until she caught herself against the bed. Loki was across the room, facing the door with his dagger in his right hand, before he was truly awake. He blinked a couple of times and focused on Darcy.

“Darcy?” he asked. “What is it? What is wrong?”

“I don’t know,” she replied, trying to get her racing heart beat under control. “Something bad is about to happen. I can feel it.”

Loki straightened from his defensive crouch and lowered the dagger. “Can you tell what it is?”

Darcy shook her head. “No. But it’s close. Here. In the house.”

He walked over to the bed and gestured. “Show me.”

She clambered out of the bed and grabbed his hand, letting him lead the way to the door. He opened it and cautiously looked out into the hall before leaving the room, tugging Darcy along behind him. “Which way?” he whispered.

Darcy took a deep breath, willing her senses to sharpen, to focus, and then pointed with her free hand. “That way.”

Loki headed in that direction, his hand still clasped in hers. His bare feet were silent on the cold, tile floor as he navigated the pitch-dark house. Darcy followed and trusted him not to lead her into any furniture. They finally reached a door, and Loki tilted his head at Darcy, giving her an inquiring look. She nodded.

Loki silently turned the knob and eased the door open, letting go of Darcy’s hand at the same time. She hung back, her breath catching in her throat. As the door opened and the interior of the room was revealed, Darcy saw a tall, shadowy figure leaning over the four post bed by the window. The person on the bed was struggling weakly, kicking at the blankets covering them. It was too dark for Darcy to make out who they were.

Loki crossed the room in a flash, the weak light flickering from the blade of his dagger. The shadowy figure turned at the last minute and caught Loki’s forearm against its own. It lifted its other hand from the face of the bed’s occupant and aimed a punch at Loki’s ribcage.

Loki caught the attacker by the wrist and twisted, easily throwing the person off their feet and into the wall. Carter coughed and gasped from the bed, rolling over onto her stomach and scrabbling at the bedside table. Darcy stood rooted to the spot, unsure of what to do.

Her first instinct was to rush into Loki’s aid, which was ridiculous. He was a warrior prince of Asgard, and more than capable of defending himself. Her second instinct was to go to Carter’s aid, which would put her in the way of Loki and his opponent. She should raise the alarm, go for additional help, but she couldn’t leave Loki. So she stayed where she was, watching, heart racing and breath burning in her lungs.

The assailant picked itself (himself? It was built too thickly to be a woman) from the ground and squared off against Loki again. Loki darted forward with no warning, driving his dagger towards the attacker’s neck. The man ducked at the last minute, Loki’s blade biting into the wall. The attacker made a grab at the back of Loki’s head as if to slam Loki’s face into the wall, but Loki yanked his knife free with ease and lashed out, slicing the inside of the man’s arm to the bone.

The man gave a grunt of pain but no other indication he’d been injured. He backed away from Loki and drew a pistol from a holster on his thigh. Before he could aim it at Loki, Carter pushed herself upright, gripping the gun she’d retrieved from the nightstand, and fired three shots, all of them directly into the man’s chest.

He collapsed without a sound, sprawling on his back in the middle of the room. Darcy leaned into the doorway and flicked on the lights. The man was dressed all in black, a molded leather mask over the bottom half of his face. A pool of crimson spread out across the rug beneath him.

Loki crouched over the assassin and ripped the mask off his face before pressing fingers to his throat. He looked up at Carter. “Dead,” he reported flatly.

Carter coughed a few more times and lowered her gun. “How did you know?” she rasped.

Loki got to his feet and turned around to face her, ducking his hand to examine her neck. “Darcy can sometimes sense the future,” he told her briskly. “Hold still. I am going to ensure there is no swelling.” He brushed his fingers against the red marks on her throat. Carter gasped and jerked away.

“Bloody Nora,” she said, her voice much clearer. “What did you do?”

“I healed the damaged tissues, what I could, at least,” Loki replied.

Darcy heard running footsteps behind her, and turned to see who it was. Mr Jarvis, Dr Wilkes, and Howard Stark all came barreling down the hallway, not a single one of them armed. They skid to a halt, crashing into each other comically, at the sight of Darcy standing unharmed in the hallway. She silently pointed into the bedroom.

“Carter!” Howard called, pushing his way to the front of the trio of men and barging past Darcy. “Carter, you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Carter said, getting to her feet. Like Darcy, she was dressed in a silk nightgown with her feet bare. She carefully edged around the soiled rug so she could kneel by the dead man. She started going through his pockets. “It seems that someone else has been sent to kill me.”

“Does this happen to you a lot?” Dr Wilkes asked weakly, staring at the corpse.

“More frequently than I’d like,” Carter said with mild exasperation. “Mr Jarvis, a hand, please?”

“Must I?” Mr Jarvis asked, looking distinctly queasy.

Loki made his bloody dagger vanished and went down on one knee so he could roll the corpse onto its side. Carter reached into a pouch on the dead man’s belt and pulled out a folded photograph. She opened it up. “Oh, hell,” she said flatly.

“What is it?” Howard demanded, holding out his hand. Carter gave him the photograph, and Darcy tiptoed forward to peek over his shoulder.

It was a photo of Carter, clearly taken without her knowledge. Across the bottom were scrawled red Cyrillic letters. Darcy really shouldn’t have been surprised when she realized she could understand them.

Terminate at all costs.

“Holy hell, Carter,” Howard said, unusually subdued. “I thought we took care of Leviathan.”

“Apparently not,” Carter said, rising to her feet.

“I do not know who or what Leviathan is,” Loki said, getting to his feet as well. “But this man was not human. Not completely.”

Carter looked up at him sharply. “What do you mean?” she demanded.

“He was strong,” Loki told her. “Unnaturally so, for a mortal.”

“Shit,” Darcy said softly. She edged closer to get a better look at the man’s face. He was dead, so his timeline was hidden from her, but she could at least identify his species. “Uh, he’s human,” she announced, looking up at Loki. “Which means…”

“He must be one of your super soldiers,” Loki replied grimly.

“Oh, dear,” Mr Jarvis said.

For a moment the room was silent, and then Howard slewed around to stare at Loki. “How the hell do you know about super soldiers?”

Loki froze in place and glanced at Carter. She sighed and pressed her thumb and forefinger against her eyes.

“That’s not important right now, Howard,” she said, lowering her hand. “If this is a super soldier, we need to find out for sure. And then there is the question of who made him, and how.”

“I’ll make a call,” Howard said, still staring at Loki. “Have the body transported to cold storage at my local facility. We’ll run the full gamut.” He tore his gaze away from Loki and glanced down at the rug. “Aw, hell, Peggy. That carpet’s a authentic Persian! D’you know how much that costs?”

“I am sure you can replace it,” Carter retorted, and grabbed her dressing gown from where it was draped over a chair. “Mr Jarvis, Mr Lewis, if you don’t mind, I’d like both of you to walk the perimeter with me. Perhaps we can discover how this man made it past the security measures.

“Yes, of course,” Mr Jarvis said quickly. He immediately turned to Darcy. “Mrs Lewis. Would you please keep my wife company in the kitchen and let her know everything is safe and well?”

Darcy glanced quickly at Loki, who nodded at her. Only then did Darcy reply. “Sure. I can do that.” She turned and padded back to the bedroom she’d been provided and dug a dressing gown of her own from the closet before heading to the kitchen.

Mrs Jarvis was pacing the kitchen floor, her bright red hair braided and pinned up. When Darcy entered the kitchen, she rushed up to Darcy and grabbed her hand.

“What is it?” she demanded. “What is happening? Is anyone hurt?”

“No one’s hurt,” Darcy assured her. “Someone broke into the house, but Agent Carter took care of him. Everything is safe now.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” Mrs Jarvis said, pressing her fingertips to her throat. She stood still for a moment. “I should make tea,” she said abruptly, and turned to the stove. “And breakfast. I do not think anyone will be going to sleep after this.”

Darcy rubbed her face. “You need help?"

Chapter Text

Someone made the decision to kill two birds with one stone and Darcy ended up in an examination room at the Stark Industries facility, sitting on a narrow cot with her hands pressed between her knees. Loki was sitting in the room’s one chair, a cloth spread over his knees containing the disassembled remains of what Darcy believed was a battery-operated radio. She wasn’t sure; she hadn’t seen him acquire it.

 

Darcy hated hospitals. Granted, this wasn’t technically a hospital, but it was close enough. She’d hated them ever since she’d woken up after Ragnarok, with no lagmsaðr, no pregnancy, and twelve stitches in her stomach.

 

She watched as Loki carefully examined each component of the erstwhile radio, turning it over in his clever fingers as if he learned just as much from feeling it as looking at it. He had an Asgardian writing stylus behind one ear, and used it to label each component in a few runes of Allspeak.

 

Darcy jumped when the door opened abruptly and Dr Sheffield breezed in. As she had been unconscious when she’d first been examined, she didn’t know what the doctor was like, but, given the decade, she certainly hadn’t been expecting Dr Sheffield to be a middle-aged woman.

 

The doctor was athletically thin, dressed in a practical business suit under a white lab coat. Her silver-streaked blonde hair was pinned up in a plain, sensible bun, and she carried a fat manila folder under one arm. She stopped just inside the door and glared at Loki. Then she jabbed a finger in his direction.

 

“You are only allowed to be here as long as you behave,” she said shortly. “One word out of you sir, and it’s out to the hallway. Capiche?”

 

“Perfectly,” Loki said dryly, folding up the cloth and the components with it. He dismissed it to his pocket dimension, which made the good doctor blink in surprise a few times before shrugging and turning to Darcy.

 

“Mrs Lewis. How are you feeling?”

 

“Tired,” Darcy replied honestly. “Still achy. Um, I had another nosebleed on the way over here.” She brushed at the speckles of red on her cream-colored blouse. “Yeah, so that sucked.”

 

“I see,” Doctor Sheffield said gravely. She put the folder down onto the counter and walked over to Darcy. She reached up and felt the lymph nodes under Darcy’s jaw before putting her fingers on Darcy’s wrist and counting off fifteen seconds on her wristwatch.

 

“Your pulse is still a bit thready,” the doctor announced. “And your lymph nodes aren’t swollen.”

 

Darcy raised an eyebrow. “Should they be?”

 

“Your white blood cells are very low,” Dr Sheffield told her. “Your entire immune system is compromised at the moment. You’ll need to take precautions not to pick up an infection. It could go badly very quickly.”

 

“Awesome,” Darcy said sarcastically. “I’ll wear a face mask. What else did the blood test show?”

 

Dr Sheffield turned and retrieved the folder. “I’m not one to mince words, Mrs Lewis, so I’m going to be blunt here.”

 

Darcy shrugged. “Hit me.”

 

“Your blood showed high levels of myoglobin and other indicators that could mean the breakdown of your muscle tissues,” the doctor told her. “Which is a sign of Rhabdomyolysis. It’s still a relatively new condition; we’ve observed most recent cases during the War. Have you recently suffered any kind of trauma or extreme physical exertion?”

 

“Yes,” Loki spoke up, getting to his feet. He drifted over to stand next to Darcy, resting his hand on her thigh. “Extreme physical exertion, yes.”

 

Dr Sheffield pressed her lips together. “Unfortunately, this condition can lead to kidney failure, and we’ve got the additional worry of your thinning blood vessels. We can treat the Rhabdomyolysis, but as for your other symptoms… well, we’re going to need some time.”

 

Darcy felt like she’d been punched in the stomach. For a long moment, she didn’t trust herself enough to speak. Finally she nodded. “Okay. Okay. Um. Am I--Is there any risk of me--”

 

“I don’t consider any of your symptoms terminal,” Dr Sheffield interrupted her firmly. “I promise you, Mrs Lewis, I am going to do everything in my power to see to it you make a full recovery.”

 

Tears sprang unbidden to Darcy’s eyes. “Oh. Okay. Thank--thank you,” she said a bit unsteadily. Loki slipped his arm around her waist and leaned in to press a kiss to her temple.

 

“I have no intention of losing you to illness,” he whispered in the First Tongue. “You and I both are far too stubborn for that.”

 

Darcy sniffed and leaned against him, reaching up to wipe at her eyes. “I love you,” she whispered back. “ Ek ann þher .” He kissed her temple again, rubbing her back.

 

Dr Sheffield looked between them. “I want you to be very careful, Mrs Lewis. Don’t do anything that could result in bruising, or injury. You’re going to find you bleed very easily. I don’t want you take any undue risks. Can you do that for me?”

 

Loki gave Darcy a skeptical look and she glowered up at him. “Yes,” she said mulishly.

 

“You do have a rather distressing habit of putting yourself needlessly at risk and getting injured,” Loki pointed out.

 

Darcy elbowed him in the ribs. “I can be careful, thank you very much,” she told him icily.

 

“In the meantime,” Dr Sheffield interjected. “I’d like to start treatment with isotonic saline right away. We need to flush the myoglobin out of your system before it does permanent damage to your kidneys.”

 

Darcy nodded. “Okay. How--how long is it going to take?”

 

“You’re going to need at least six liters over the next twenty-four hours,” the doctor told her. “You’ll need to stay here until treatment is finished. Then you can go home, rest a bit, and we’ll redo your bloodwork to make sure your kidneys are functioning properly.”

 

Darcy scrunched her face up. “Do I have to?” she asked, trying not to whine.

 

“Yes,” Dr Sheffield said firmly. “We’ll need to monitor your condition, seeing as your immune and vascular systems are compromised.”

 

“It is only one day, my dear,” Loki murmured. “I will stay with you the whole time. I will ensure you are not bored.”

 

“She will need to rest ,” Dr Sheffield said sharply, looking down her nose at Loki. The fact that she managed to do that when he was at least a foot taller than her was actually quite impressive. “I won’t have any hanky-panky going on during treatment.”

 

Darcy broke out in a sudden giggle that turned into a full-belly laugh at the sight of Loki’s face. Whatever Allspeak translated that term as, it certainly wasn’t anything he was expecting. Loki turned to glare at her indignantly, which made her laugh even harder.

 

Then there was a warm slide of thick fluid from her nose over her top lip, and she clapped her hand over her face just in time to stop her blouse from being further stained. Loki made a white cloth appear from nowhere, and he pressed it under her hand as she tilted her head back, pinching her nose closed.

 

“Fuck,” Darcy said in a nasally voice. Loki was thin-lipped as he scrubbed blood from her face and hand.

 

“And try not to do anything that increases your blood pressure,” Dr Sheffield said with a sigh.

 

“Yeah, got it, thanks,” Darcy said darkly.

 

Once they got her nosebleed under control, Dr Sheffield escorted her to the treatment room, which was set up like a normal bedroom. The bed was wide enough for two people, there was a good-sized  television set, and a window with a nice view of the city.

 

“There’s some clean clothes in the armoire if you’d like to get comfortable,” Dr Sheffield said. “We’ll be back to start the IV in a little bit.” As she turned to leave, she gave Loki a hard look. “Behave,” she hissed warningly, and then swept out.

 

Darcy mournfully looked around the room that would be her home for the next twenty-four hours and sighed deeply. Loki crossed over to her and wrapped her in an embrace, allowing her to hide her face against his chest and take deep, shuddering breaths.

 

“Are you well?” he asked after a moment.

 

“No,” Darcy replied sullenly.

 

“No, I should think not,” he observed. “But the healer said she will do all she can, Darcy. You will recover. I believe it.”

 

Darcy hunched her shoulders and leaned harder against him. “I just can’t help thinking… I’m gonna go through all of this again when I take us back,” she said, her voice muffled by his shirt.

 

His arms tightened around her. “No,” he said flatly.

 

Darcy pulled away from him and looked up at his face. “What d’you mean, ‘no’?”

 

“I will not allow you risk yourself attempting to create another Way through time,” he told her sharply.

 

Darcy pulled fully free from his grasp and crossed her arms. “Since when do you get to tell me what I will or won’t do?” she demanded acerbically. “That has never been okay.”

 

“It is my duty and my oath to protect you,” he reminded her. “Even from yourself. Especially when there is no need to risk yourself that way. Darcy, believe me when I say that six decades means nothing when you are immortal. If you wish to return to your own time, all we have to do is wait.”

 

“Immortal or not, I’m still human, and sixty-six years is a long fucking time,” Darcy retorted. “Sixty-six years, Loki. What about my family? My friends? And what the hell are we supposed to do for sixty-six fucking years ?”

 

Loki shrugged. “Anything we wish. We do not have to stay on this realm. We know the ways to and from it. We can go anywhere we please.”

 

Darcy pinched the bridge of her nose. “No. I don’t want to think about it right now, okay? I just want to get better and not screw up the timeline too much. Can we just do that right now, please?”

 

Loki stepped towards her and took her hands in his. “Yes. Of course we can. I am sorry, Darcy. I did not mean to cause you distress.”

 

Darcy took a deep, uneven breath. “I know. Thank you.”

 

He lifted her hands and kissed her knuckles. “You should get changed before the healer returns.”

 

When Agent Carter stopped by to check on them several hours later, Darcy was dozing against Loki’s shoulder while he read from a book he’d plucked from his pocket dimension. An orderly had brought a record player for them to listen to, as the radio and television programs were finished for the night, and the soft crooning of Bing Crosby was enough to lull Darcy back to sleep.

 

She startled awake at the knock on the door, just as Loki called out, “Enter.”

 

Agent Carter poked her head in and took in the room’s interior. Darcy was under the coverlet, propped up with a mountain of pillows. The IV stand was by the bed, hung with two bags of saline. The needle was inserted in the back of Darcy’s hand and taped down to ensure she wouldn’t accidentally pull it out. Loki was sitting atop the coverlet next to her, supported by the same mound of pillows. He lowered the book as Carter entered the room fully.

 

“I spoke with Dr Sheffield,” she said. “She told me your diagnosis. How are you holding up?”

 

Darcy rubbed her eyes with the needle-free hand. “No comment,” she said blearily. “What’d you find out about your super-powered assassin friend?”

 

Carter smiled tightly. “As grateful as I am for the two of you saving my life, I can’t share the particulars. It’s an ongoing SSR investigation, and neither of you have the clearance.”

 

“Uh-huh,” Darcy said, yawning. She snuggled back against Loki’s shoulder. “Okay. Just let us know if you need us for anything. Like, you know, saving your life. Again.”

 

Carter sighed and rolled her eyes. “You know, we haven’t definitively established that you are even trustworthy.”

 

Darcy’s eyes popped open and her head shot up. “What?” she demanded flatly. “How can there possibly be any doubt? I’ve saved your life twice , and I think I’ve proven that we’re telling the truth.”

 

“Oh, I believe you when you say you’re from the future,” Carter assured her, going over to the gramophone and turning it down. “But we have yet to discuss the full scope of your so-called ‘abilities’, and your husband’s status as a Norse god.”

 

“Asgardian,” Loki corrected, fingers tapping against the cover of his book. “I’m not a god. I am an Asgardian.”

 

Darcy didn’t fail to note he didn’t say Aesir , which was the race his adoptive family belonged to. Oh well. Small favors.

 

“And where, precisely, is Asgard?” Carter asked, crossing his arms.

 

“It is a separate realm,” Loki explained.

 

“Planet,” Darcy supplied.

 

Carter blinked a few times. “Wait. You mean to say you’re… an alien?”

 

Loki sighed heavily and opened his book again, pointedly checking out of the conversation. Darcy looked past him at Carter. “He doesn’t like being called that,” she explained.

 

“If you’re from another planet, how on earth did you get here ?” Carter demanded.

 

“Portals,” Darcy said glibly.

 

“Oh, yes, of course,” Carter said weakly. She passed a hand over her eyes. “Why is it that every conversation I have with you reveals some new and impossible information?”

 

“That’s how we roll,” Darcy said, putting her head back down on Loki’s shoulder.

 

Sensing the clear dismissal, Carter eyed both of them warily. “I see. Well, good night. Try to get some rest. I’ll see you both in the morning.”

 

“Night,” Darcy muttered, waving one hand in her direction. Carter sighed and left, closing the door after her.

 

“You should be nicer to her,” Darcy mumbled to Loki. “We need her help.”

 

“I do not see why your people have to assign the term ‘alien’ to everything that does not originate in your realm,” Loki replied with a sniff. “It implies that you view yourself as the standard by which the universe must be measured.”

 

Darcy pressed the back of her right hand to his chest as if offering it to him to shake. “Hi, I’m a human and I think I’m the center of the universe. Or haven’t you figured that out by now?”

 

“That’s hardly a unique sentiment,” Loki told her dryly. “Have you met the Asgardians?”

 

She poked him. “Yes. I have. Several of them. I married one of them.”

 

“Why do you use that word?”

 

Darcy opened her eyes and looked up at him. “What word?”

 

“Norns do not marry,” he said, his eyes fixed on his book. “They do not accept anyone’s authority over them, nor do they wish to be obliged to anyone.”

 

Darcy slid up her left sleeve and presented her forearm for his inspection. “‘Your people are my people. Your enemies are my enemies. Your oaths are my oaths. I will be your sword, your spear, and your shield, until the day of my death, or yours. My bond is my word.’ It says that on my arm too, you know. If that’s not a wedding vow, I don’t know what the hell is.”

 

Loki licked his thumb and turned the page, still staring intently at the book. But his eyes betrayed him; they stared at a single spot rather than tracking words across the page. “Norns do not consider themselves beholden to their lagsmaðr,” he said softly. “If the norn wishes to take another, there is no promise of fidelity.”

 

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Darcy pushed herself upright and yanked the book out of his hands, forcing him to look at her. “Seriously? After everything we’ve been through together? Yes , you are good enough for me. Yes , I want to be with you. And hell fucking yes we are absolutely fucking married .” She threw the book back in his lap. “Now shut up and let me sleep, okay? I’ve had a long night.”

 

Loki sniffed and picked his book up again, opening it to a random page. He didn’t say anything, but she definitely saw a faint smile curling his lips as she settled against his side once more. He freed his arm so he could slip it around her shoulders, drawing her tighter against his side. Darcy fell asleep listening to the slow, steady beats of his heart.

 

XxxXxxX

 

The worst part about getting IV fluids is that it made you have to pee. A lot. Of course, the whole idea was to try to flush out Darcy’s kidneys, so she figured that was the whole point. Still, having to make umpteen trips to the lavatory over the next twenty-four hours was not her idea of fun.

 

But, when Dr Sheffield removed the IV needle and declared her free to return to Stark’s mansion, she was grateful for the doctor’s care because she did, in fact, feel significantly better. An orderly led her and Loki to the atrium of the facility, where Mr Jarvis was supposed to pick them up.

 

The atrium was large and airy, full of glass windows that, to Darcy, seemed to pose an unnecessary security risk. Especially when the owner of the company stood in the middle of the marble floor engaged in a loud argument to the closest person he had to a best friend.

 

“Absolutely not,” Carter was saying as they approached. “If anyone is going to Russia, it certainly won’t be you.”

 

“C’mon, Peggy,” Howard wheedled. “I’ve got more contacts than the SSR does and you know it.”

 

“No, what I don’t want to know is why you have Soviet contacts,” Carter retorted. “You’re a scientist, Howard, not a soldier. You wouldn’t last twelve hours.”

 

“Hey, I lasted the entire war!” he protested.

 

“And at any time did you actually see combat whilst carrying a gun, or was I there every time to make sure you didn’t get shot or blown up?” Carter demanded.

 

“Who needs guns, anyway?” Howard asked. “I’ve got my toys. I’ll be fine , Pegs.”

 

Carter stuck her finger in his face, suddenly furious. “ Don’t call me that,” she snarled. Her ferocity seemed to catch her off guard and she blinked, reining in her anger. “You don’t get to call me that,” she said, much calmer.

 

Howard raised his hands. “Fine, whatever. Sorry. I just think you’re wrong. I bet Sousa would let me go.”

 

“Daniel will do as I tell him,” Carter said pointedly. “As should you.”

 

Howard glared at her and then caught sight of Darcy and Loki standing somewhat awkwardly nearby. “Lewis!” he yelled at them. “How you feeling? You don’t look so peaked anymore.”

 

Darcy waved. “Fine, thanks. Lot better. Really, though. Thank you. For everything. You’ve been a lot kinder than we deserved.”

 

Howard strode over to them. “Don’t mention it. Friend of Peggy’s is a friend of mine.” He unexpectedly thrust his hand out towards Loki. “Look, about the other night. I was outta line. I had no right to be talking to a married woman like that.”

 

Loki looked taken aback and for a moment simply stared down at the much shorter man. Then, cautiously, her reached up to take Howard’s hand, clasping it only as long as was strictly polite. “I… accept your apology,” he said.

 

“Great,” Howard said briskly, slapping Loki on the shoulder. “Now that’s outta the way, I’m gonna pick your brain about all things super soldier. How’d you say you knew about them again?”

 

“Howard,” Carter said warningly, coming over to join them. “Really, though, Mrs Lewis, you are looking much better.”

 

Darcy smiled. “Thanks. And seriously, call me Darcy. Literally no one calls me Mrs Lewis.”

 

“Darcy,” Carter echoed, matching her smile. “I’ve called Mr Jarvis for you. He should be here any minute.”

 

Darcy nodded, tucking her hair behind her ears. “Okay, sweet.” Carter blinked and pursed her lips, tilting her head thoughtfully, but didn’t say anything at Darcy’s choice of phrase.

 

A young man in a brown sweater vest came up to them, holding out a clipboard and a pen. “Mr Stark,” he said. “I just need you to sign this.”

 

Howard turned toward the man, taking the clipboard without looking and reaching for the pen. The man grabbed Howard’s wrist and yanked him toward himself, and then stabbed the pen into the side of Howard’s neck.

 

Carter was moving before anyone had the time to react. She grabbed the man’s arm and yanked his hand away from the pen, kicking Howard out of the way. Howard stumbled and fell, clutching at the pen still embedded in the side of his neck. Darcy dropped to her knees beside him, slapping his hand away.

 

“Son of a bitch !” he yelled as blood trickled down his neck to soak into the collar of his shirt.

 

There was a small button on the side of the pen, presumably to inject something into Howard’s bloodstream. Darcy had no idea if it had been pressed or not, but she carefully removed the pen from Howard’s neck and staunched the thin stream of blood with the cuff of her cardigan.

 

She looked up to see what was going on with the attacker just in time to see Loki appear behind the man, who was locked in combat with Carter. Loki simply seized the man’s head and twisted. The crack of snapping bones echoed loudly in the atrium, and the man dropped limply from Loki’s hands, head at an unnatural angle. Darcy flinched at the sound.

 

Loki didn’t even glance down at the corpse as he stepped over it on his way to Darcy. He didn’t look at Howard, either. He dropped to one knee beside her. “Are you hurt?” he demanded of her.

 

“Is she hurt?” Howard growled, glaring up at him. “ I’m the one who was stabbed! In the neck .”

 

“He might’ve been injected with something,” Darcy said as Carter joined them.

 

“His safety is not my priority,” Loki said dismissively. He pulled Darcy’s hand away from the wound in Howard’s neck and made another white handkerchief appear, wadding it up and pressing it to the wound. Howard reached up to hold it in place.

 

“Your concern is heartwarming,” the millionaire inventor said sarcastically.

 

Half a dozen security officers raced into the atrium from different directions, converging on them. Carter set her hands on her hips. “What the bloody hell took you so long?” she snapped at them. “There’s been an intrusion. Search the entire facility for anyone out of place. And somebody get me a radio!” She pointed at one of the hapless guards. “You. Fetch Dr Sheffield immediately. Mr Stark may have been poisoned.”

 

Within moments, the atrium was boiling with people, guards and staff darting in all directions. Howard had been whisked off to be examined, and Carter was busy shouting orders at anyone who looked as if they didn’t have something to do.

 

Darcy and Loki stood in an out of the way corner, Darcy staring stubbornly ahead as Loki cleaned blood from her hand with a wet towel. She didn’t look at him, didn’t try to start a conversation, and neither did he.

 

Mr Jarvis picked his way through the throng towards them and looked around. “Oh dear, he said. “What did I miss?”

 

XxxXxxX

Darcy didn’t know what it was about Howard’s lab that offered peace to her chaotic thoughts. Maybe it reminded her of better times, the long hours with Jane identifying portal data, or even earlier; their efforts to find an Einstein-Rosen bridge in the New Mexican desert. In any case, it was her refuge away from the frantic world of assassins and spies, even if just for a few hours.

 

She sat on one of the tables and stared at the chalkboard currently covered with what appeared to be the schematics for some kind of giant particle accelerator. Or maybe an early arc reactor. She couldn’t tell; she wasn’t an engineer. Her shoes were on the floor below her, idly kicked off. She had a hole in the toe of her right stocking. Mrs Jarvis would sigh if she knew.

 

She sensed Loki’s approach before she heard him, the silver thread vibrating with higher frequency the closer he came. Then she heard his footsteps pause in the doorway. There was a moment of silence, and then, “You missed dinner.”

 

“Not hungry,” Darcy replied dully.

 

Loki hummed to himself. She heard his boots against the tile floor as he crossed the room, and then he appeared in front of her. “Mrs Jarvis saved you a plate,” he told her.

 

She didn’t look up at his face. “Still not hungry.”

 

He reached out and put his hand on top of hers where it was braced against the table’s edge. His skin was cool, as it always was, his fingers slightly calloused but still nimble. “Darcy,” he said in a low voice.

 

Something in his tone made her look up at him. His eyes were unusually dark, and thoughtful. “Are you angry with me?” he asked her. “Is that why you’ve been avoiding me?”

 

Darcy took a deep breath, and then deliberately pulled her hand away from his. “I’m not angry with you,” she said, and it was only half a lie. “I understand why you did what you did, and I understand it was necessary.”

 

“But you are not happy,” he observed.

 

“No, I’m not,” she said flatly. “I just… I didn’t want you to kill anyone.”

 

He tilted his head to the side, bird-like. “Why?” he demanded bluntly.

 

Darcy pressed her lips together. “I don’t--” she began, and then cut herself off. “You make it look so easy. Like it means nothing to you. Like you feel nothing at all.”

 

He stared down at her for a long moment. “Should I?” he asked. “If given the chance, that man would have killed you.”

 

Darcy looked away again. “I know, but…”

 

“No, Darcy,” Loki interrupted, his voice suddenly harsh. Darcy’s eyes flew back up to meet his. His jaw was clenched, brows drawn together. “No one’s life is worth more than yours,” he told her in a tight voice. “And there is nothing I wouldn’t do to protect you.”

 

“I don’t need you to protect me!” Darcy burst out, reaching up to push him away. He grabbed her wrist and slammed it against the table, pinning her there. He leaned forward, his face so close to hers she had to cross her eyes to meet his.

 

“You still do not understand,” he hissed at her, his voice shaking with emotion. “I would murder this whole wretched realm to keep you safe, Darcy Lewis. I cannot lose you. Not after everything. You are the one thing that anchors me to sanity. Your loss would break me, and I cannot bear that a second time.”

 

He ran out of words and stared at her, breathing hard. She stared back, eyes wide, and for a brief, solitary moment, she was afraid of him, afraid of what he might do. But then the wild, animal look vanished from his eyes and he released her hand.

 

He reached up and caressed her cheek with his fingertips. “I need you to be safe,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. “Perhaps more than you need to be safe.”

 

Darcy reached out with the hand still sore from being slammed against the table, clenching a fistful of his shirt and tugging him down. She kissed him softly, close-lipped, gentle and sweet. “ I need you to trust me,” she murmured, her mouth still pressed against his. “I’ve been taking care of myself long before you came around, Loki Odinson.”

 

It was Loki that deepened the kiss, teasing her mouth open and slipping his tongue inside to curl against hers. His hand moved from her cheek to cup the back of her head, fingers burying themselves in her unruly hair. She tilted her head back, responding in kind. As she always did, she let him take the lead, let him determine how far he was willing to go.

 

So when she felt his other hand ghost up her thigh, sliding under the hem of her skirt, she sucked in a breath of surprise. He responded with a rumble deep in his chest, lips curling where they pressed against hers. He found the top of her stocking, fingers stroking the bare skin there with a lightness that made Darcy shiver.

 

Loki pressed forward, stepping between her thighs so they were pressed chest to chest. Surely he could feel her heart crashing almost painfully against her ribs. His hand dropped from her hair to her waist, pulling her blouse free from her skirt so he could slip underneath, cool fingers tracing along the smooth skin of her back, up to the clasp of her brassiere.

 

He didn’t seem in much of a hurry, his kiss languid and his touches light, as if he was cautiously exploring. She could feel him resisting the mindless urges of the bond, the drive for union, for joining that overpowered all conscious thought. She followed suit, holding herself apart, letting herself find pleasure in his hands without getting lost in it.

 

He sucked her bottom lip into his mouth and bit down, not hard enough to hurt, then soothed it with his tongue before his mouth wandered from hers, trailing along her jaw to find the pulse point under her ear. When his teeth scraped over the sensitive skin, she couldn’t help arching against him with a sigh, craning her head to the side to give him better access.

 

His hand at her back moved higher, and then he had her blouse over her head before she realized what he’d done, the cool air of the lab raising goosebumps on her suddenly bare skin. He traced the line of her neck with the tip of his tongue down to where it joined her shoulder and nipped lightly at the corner there, even as he inched her stocking down her thigh.

 

Darcy still had enough sense to push back at him. “Loki,” she said breathlessly. He didn’t respond, and she pushed him again. “Loki, stop.

 

He recoiled as if he’d been burned, pulling away with a suddeness that nearly caused her to lose her balance and fall forward off the table. His pupils were blown wide, showing just the thinnest halo of jade green, and his breathing was heavy.

 

“I am sorry,” he panted. “I did not mean to impose. If you do not wish…”

 

“No, Loki,” Darcy interrupted, fishing around behind her and finding her blouse. “I just don’t want to do this here . Someone’s gonna walk in.”

 

Loki blinked. “Oh.” His expression relaxed. “Oh,” he said again, and approached her once more, close enough that he could slip an arm around her waist and lift her up, curling his other hand under her thigh. “I can remedy that.”

 

The world switched around them, and once the momentary motion-sickness had faded, Darcy saw he’d teleported them to their bedroom. Darcy smirked. “Real smooth,” she said.

 

He nipped at her bottom lip. “Yes, I thought so.”

 

Darcy dropped her blouse onto the floor and wrapped her arms around Loki’s neck. “Are you sure you want this?” she asked him soberly. “You’re ready? I don’t want you to do anything you’re not--”

 

He cut her off neatly by covering her mouth once more with his, and she didn’t realize he was walking until he lowered her backwards onto the bed, climbing up after her and bracing himself over her with one arm. The other hand went back to her stocking and successfully removed it this time.

 

“Hateful thing,” he muttered against her mouth, flinging it off the bed.

 

You don’t have to wear them,” Darcy replied, and grabbed double fistfuls of his shirt. “Off,” she ordered.

 

He balanced himself on his knees and tugged his shirt off over his head, throwing it to one side before leaning down to recapture her mouth. Darcy ran her hands slowly up his sides, feeling the ripple of muscle and rib bones, before tracing the lines of muscles around to his spine, pressing her fingertips against the jut of bones there.

 

He shivered under her touch, humming against her mouth, and his searching hand began to strip off her other stocking. She heard it tear from his impatience and she didn’t care in the slightest. Then his hand was between her thighs, pressing and rubbing at her through the satin fabric of her underwear.

 

Darcy squirmed and pushed him away again. This time he responded quicker, shifting his weight back on his knees and giving her an inquisitive look. “Too many clothes,” she explained, sitting up. She reached behind her back to unhook her brassiere, and Loki’s eyes dropped as she tugged it away.

 

But when she reached for the laces of his pants, he pulled her hand away. Instead, he unzipped the side zipper of her skirt and tugged it down over her legs. Her underwear followed suit, and then Loki stopped, expression unreadable, and simply stared at her, eyes travelling over her exposed body.

 

She didn’t move, but remained still, her breath catching at the intensity of his gaze. He reached out and trailed a hand up her thigh from her knee, up over her hip, along her side to her breast, his cool fingers raising goosebumps in their wake. His fingers lingered on the fullness of her breast for a moment before continuing their journey, up to finally cup her face.

 

“You are more beautiful than I remembered,” he said, his voice husky.

 

“You’re not half bad yourself,” Darcy replied breathlessly.

 

He made a strange noise in the back of his throat and surged forward to kiss her again, lowering her back down so he could stretch out atop her, bracing his weight with one hand. The other curled under her thigh, lifting it out of the way. Darcy obliged by wrapping her legs around his waist and arching her back so the tips of her breasts brushed his chest.

 

Loki shivered again, and broke off the kiss, his mouth finding her nipple instead. Darcy gasped at the difference in their body temperatures, at the sensation of his cool tongue against the sensitive skin that sparked lightning along her nerves.

 

She braced her hands against his shoulders, feeling the tense bulge of muscles there, digging her fingernails against his pale skin and earning another hum that vibrated against her own skin, another burst of sensation zinging along her nerves.

 

His hand was between her thighs again, finding the core of her, slick and warm against his cool fingers, and when he slid his fingers inside her, Darcy no longer had the breath to gasp. It didn’t take him long to find that place that made her arch up against him with a soft cry, and he began to stroke her, achingly slowly, deliberately.

 

She was torn between sensations, his teeth scraping at her breast and his fingers inside her, and she couldn’t breathe, lost all semblance of thought, her only existence the heat building in her belly and the lightning under her skin. Her hips made tiny, desperate movements, canting forward, urging him on, but he kept the same slow pace, holding her on the edge of a precipice. She could feel his smile against her skin, enjoying the small sounds he enticed from her throat with growing urgency until finally the flood of warmth washed through her entire body like a sigh and Darcy felt herself go limp, all her muscles loose.

 

Loki lifted himself up and kissed her mouth, gently, with just the barest suggestion of tongue, and then rolled off her, propping his head on one hand so he could look down at her. It took Darcy a few minutes to regain the power of speech.

 

“You’re still wearing your pants,” she pointed out.

 

He nodded, raising his eyebrows. “I am,” he confirmed.

 

“Well, we’re not going to be able to get much done with those in the way,” Darcy said, reaching for the laces again. And once more, he took her hand and pulled it away.

 

“No,” he said simply.

 

Darcy blinked, and then rolled over to face him, levering herself up on one elbow. She frowned. “Are you… okay?” she asked softly. “Is everything okay?”

 

He reached out with his free hand and dragged his fingers down her arm, back over her buttock, and then down her thigh, then up again, finally resting against her cheek. “I wanted to see you,” he said honestly. “I wanted to see how you responded to me. Me . The man I am now. I wanted to prove to you I can be trusted to protect you. But I do not want anything more from you. Not yet.”

 

Darcy traced a finger from his collar bone down to his navel, but no lower. “Okay,” she agreed. “But whenever you’re ready, I am, too. Okay?”

 

He leaned forward to kiss her again. “Thank you, elskede .”

 

Darcy’s heart skipped a beat at the word. Beloved . It ignited a strange emotion deep in her chest, something she’d never felt before. Possessiveness. Yes, that’s what it was. He was hers , even as she was his . The words came unbidden, dredged from a childhood memory of a Sabbath at Temple, and she spoke without realizing it.

 

“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”

 

Loki inhaled sharply and blinked a few times. Then a slow smile spread across his face. “What a beautiful sentiment,” he said. “Is that poetry?”

 

“Yes,” Darcy replied. “It’s from the Song of Solomon, part of the Tanakh. It’s the holy book of Judaism. That and the Talmud.”

 

Loki ran his fingers down her arm again, stopping at her wrist. “You’ve never spoken to me of your religion before.”

 

Darcy shrugged. “It’s never come up.”

 

“I find it curious that you, as a norn, still cling to a human god,” Loki’s eyes were no longer on her face, but once more roaming up and down her body.

 

Darcy rolled away from him and off the bed. “First off, I am not going to have a conversation about my religion naked,” she said, retrieving her robe from where she’d flung it the previous morning. Once garbed, she returned to the bed, stretching out next to Loki again. “And secondly, it’s not a human god. He’s the God. Yes. I still hold onto my religion, because nothing I’ve learned since discovering I’m a norn has done anything to convince me He doesn’t exist.”

 

The corner of Loki’s mouth quirked up. “You know, your ancestors once worshiped us as gods.”

 

My ancestors have been following the Talmud long before you guys visited earth,” Darcy replied primly.

 

Loki reached out and took hold of her hand, bringing it to his lips so he could kiss her palm, and then her fingertips. “And what does your holy teachings say of binding yourself to an outsider?” he asked.

 

“Generally, they say ‘don’t’,” Darcy replied, trying her hardest not to get distracted by his ministrations. “But in the event it happens, a child of a Jewish mother is still considered Jewish.”

 

Loki’s expression changed, and he pulled her hand away from his mouth, lowering it to press it against his chest. “Darcy,” he said softly. “Did you… Did you ever want children? Before?”

 

Darcy swallowed. “I never thought about it,” she replied honestly. “I mean, I was young, single. Had my whole life to figure that out.”

 

“And now?” Loki asked, his voice even quieter.

 

“Now it’s probably best not to think about it,” Darcy said, her voice only shaking a little bit.

 

Loki stroked the back of her hand where it rested against his chest. “You would be a magnificent mother,” he told her. “It seems a shame to waste that.”

 

Darcy shook her head. “Maybe we can talk about adopting later. When our lives aren’t non-stop crazy. Besides, we’ve been together for, like, four months. Isn’t it a little early to start thinking about kids?”

 

“Four months?” Loki echoed blankly. He pushed himself into a sitting position, their joined hands dropping to his lap. He frowned as he calculated in his head. “Ymir’s blood. It has only been four months. It feels like a lifetime.”

 

Darcy snorted. “Tell me about it. Five months ago I was pissed at you for making a move, and now I literally can’t imagine life without you.”

 

Loki thumped back down on the bed next her, bouncing her slightly. “I do remember that quite vividly,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “You said some particularly cruel words, as I recall.”

 

Darcy hid her face against the coverlet. “Oh, god,” she said in embarrassment.

 

Loki tugged on their entwined hands. “Yes. I believe you mentioned something about me being a murderer , and a traitor.

 

“Stop!” Darcy protested, her voice muffled. “I’m sorry!”

 

He released her hand, but only to dig his fingers against her ribs, causing her to squeak in an undignified manner and squirm away. “I do not think I accept your apology,” he said, grinning wickedly. “I think I shall extract punishment.” His hand darted forward again, and Darcy shrieked and scuttled backwards, nearly falling off the bed.

 

Loki lunged forward and caught her at the last minute, pulling her back and pinning her underneath him. He kissed her slowly, languorously, exploring every part of her mouth with his tongue while his hand caressed her slightly-sore breast through her silk robe.

 

Someone rapped sharply at the door, and Loki broke off the kiss, raising his head to glare murderously at the door. Darcy groaned and slapped a hand over her eyes.

 

“Yes?” she called out.

 

“Mrs Lewis, you left your shoes in the laboratory,” came Mrs Jarvis’ bright voice. “Though why on earth you were wandering about in there without them I can’t imagine.”

 

Darcy patted Loki’s chest and he rolled off her with a sigh, allowing her to get to her feet. She adjusted her robe and tied it closed, ensuring her modesty, and went to open the door. Mrs Jarvis stood on the other side, holding Darcy’s Mary-Jane pumps in one hand.

 

“Thank you,” Darcy said, taking them from the redhead.

 

“I wouldn’t advise you to go about the laboratory barefoot,” Mrs Jarvis admonished. “I can’t tell you how often I sweep up broken glass.”

 

“I’ll be careful,” Darcy promised. “Oh, have you heard anything about Howard?”

 

“Mr Stark is going to be just fine,” Mrs Jarvis assured her. “He didn’t even need stitches.”

 

Darcy thanked her again and shut the door, turning to lean her back against it. Loki was still stretched out on the bed, his skin startlingly white against the dark coverlet. Darcy tilted her head, letting herself enjoy the rare sight of him shirtless.


“You know what?” she said abruptly. “I think I’m hungry now.”

Chapter Text

The room was so cold she could see her breath puff out in white clouds. It was completely empty save for the cradle in the center of the room, a white blanket hanging over one side. She didn’t want to see what was inside the cradle, she really didn’t, but her steps drew her inexorably towards it.

Shivers wracked her body as she approached the cradle, from cold, from fear, from the sobs she somehow kept from ripping free of her throat. Finally, she got close enough to see inside the cradle, to see it was empty. She reached out to pull the blanket aside, hoping maybe, maybe she was mistaken.

Her fingers smeared crimson onto the white fabric, and she realized her hands were covered in blood. She stared at them in horror, unsure of where the blood had come from, until she looked down, and saw the handle of a knife protruding from her stomach.

Darcy woke up thrashing while someone held her down. She clawed frantically at the hands on her shoulders, trying to get free, trying to breathe through the sobs wracking her body. She heard a voice nearby, speaking something she should have understood, had she been of a mind to listen.

Then the hands were abruptly gone from her shoulders and Darcy flung herself away, only to get tangled in the bedsheets and fall with a teeth-jarring thump to the floor. The impact served to fully wake her, and she lay where she fell, dazed.

The bedroom was still dark, no sunlight leaking in through the curtains. She’d dragged the sheets and the coverlet to the floor with her, and she was still tangled up with them. She heard bare feet against tile, and then Loki was crouched next to her, pulling away the sheets.

“Are you alright?” he asked, helping her to sit up.

Darcy was still shaking, the nightmare still fresh and vivid in her mind. Not trusting herself to speak, she shook her head wordlessly. Loki sighed and gathered her into his arms, cradling her tightly against his chest until the trembling stopped and her heartbeat started to slow.

“Do you wish to speak of it?” he asked when she leaned against him, limp and exhausted.

Darcy scrubbed at her face and made a sound far too close to a whimper for comfort. “I’ve had this one before,” she said in a rough voice. Loki made a sound of encouragement, rubbing slow circles into her back. “It’s cold, and there’s a cradle, all alone in the room. There’s a white blanket, and the cradle is empty. And it’s my fault.” She hiccuped and started crying in earnest. “It’s my fault.”

“It is not your fault,” Loki said soothingly, still rubbing her back.

“Yes, it is,” Darcy insisted. “I knew--I knew I was pregnant before Ragnarok. I knew what would happen, and I did it anyway. I knew , Loki.”

Loki froze for a split second as he absorbed her words, and then he continued his comforting motions. “You had no other choice, Darcy,” he told her softly. “Skuld had to be stopped. There was no other way.”

“But why do I have to keep seeing this?” Darcy sobbed. “I already know it’s my fault. I don’t need to keep seeing it.”

“Darcy, shh,” Loki soothed. “You are not to blame.”

But the tears wouldn’t stop, not until Darcy was wrung out and limp, her head aching and her sinuses clogged. “It’s my fault,” she mumbled again.

Loki’s arms tightened around her. “Do you want me to say I blame you?” he asked sharply. “That I am angry you sacrificed your pregnancy to stop Skuld? Of course I wish you had not had to make that choice, but Skuld bears that blame, not you.”

Darcy wanted to argue, but she was too tired and she knew Loki would not concede his point, making the discussion pointless. So instead she fell silent, letting his presence comfort her until she slipped into a light doze. She barely felt Loki pick her up off the floor and put her back on the bed, laying down behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist. She also didn’t notice the almost imperceptible nudge against her mind, nor the sensation of joining when he slid past the barriers she’d carefully erected to protect herself.

In any event, she did not dream again that night.

XxxXxxX

Mr Jarvis brought Howard and Carter back in the middle of breakfast. Darcy had insisted on helping Mrs Jarvis prepare it, and that the redhead join her and Loki for the meal, despite the woman’s protests. They were on their third pot of coffee when Howard stomped in, looking foul-tempered and followed by Carter and Mr Jarvis.

Mrs Jarvis jumped to her feet and fetched several more plates while Howard slumped into a chair and reached for the carafe. Darcy finished chewing her bite of scone and looked up at Carter.

“Did you find any other assassins?” she asked in a neutral tone.

“No,” Carter said wearily, sitting down on Darcy’s other side. “Thank you, Ana,” she said when Mrs Jarvis put a plate in front of her, and started serving herself.

Loki leaned forward on his elbows so he could look around Darcy at the SSR agent. “I think it is high time you began trusting us and allow us to help you,” he said reprovingly.

Carter paused in the act of scooping scrambled eggs onto her plate. “Yes,” she said with a sigh. “Yes, you’ve certainly proved yourself.” She took a scone from the basket and three links of sausage. “Have you ever heard of an organization called Leviathan where you came from?”

Darcy shook her head. “Nope. But to be honest, I’m not really a spy. I was a lab assistant.”

“Leviathan is an organization we believe to be Soviet in origin,” Carter explained. “We encountered them for the first time last year, after they framed Howard for treason, stole several of his inventions, and attempted to kill him and a good bit of Manhattan.”

“Why is it always Manhattan?” Darcy asked tonelessly, eying Loki sidelong. He shrugged in reply and reached for his coffee.

“Other than one of their member’s particular hatred of Howard, we actually have very little knowledge about their goals,” Carter went on. “We had two of their agents in our custody, but neither of them have been very forthcoming.”

“Had?” Loki echoed.

“Yes, well,” Carter said, looking uncomfortable. “One of them recently escaped.”

“What I want to know is how they got an agent inside my own company!” Howard burst out, sulking over his coffee cup. “Don’t we do background investigations or something?”

“The gentleman in question had an immaculate background,” Mr Jarvis put in with a sigh. “And unimpeachable letters of recommendation.”

“Either he was a plant, or he’d been turned,” Carter said. “We’re still investigating. For right now, all we really know for sure is that they want me and Howard dead.”

“Not surprising, considering everything you did last year,” Mr Jarvis said. He looked vaguely uncomfortable at sitting at the same table with his employer, but by now it was less a breakfast table and more a war council.

Darcy frowned and thought for a moment. “Could they have a connection to Hydra?” she asked hesitantly. She didn’t want to inform Carter that the intelligence organization she would one day found would turn out to be infected by the same Nazi organization that she’d fought a war against, but the question still had to be asked. All the 20th century natives turned to stare at her.

“What do you know about Hydra?” Howard demanded.

Darcy looked at Carter. “You want me to answer that question?”

Carter sighed and pressed her fingertips against her forehead. “Yes, yes, go ahead.”

Darcy turned back to Howard. “Hydra was a Nazi splinter organization that the SSR fought against during World War II, lead by Johan Schmidt, who’d received an early form of the super soldier serum from Abraham Erskine. The SSR’s efforts were led by Colonel Chester Phillips and Captain Steve Rogers, whose team of commandos did not, as was popularly rumored in the late 1940’s, actually fight against Hitler’s forces.”

Howard scowled at her. “All of that is classified information. How the hell did you get your hands on it?”

“Actually, it was declassified in 1969 and entered standard public school history curriculum in 1971,” Darcy told him.

Howard stared at her, slowly lowering his coffee cup. “1969,” he echoed flatly.

“Yup,” Darcy said, leaning back in her chair.

Howard glanced at Carter, and then back at Darcy. “Are you telling me you can see the future?” he demanded.

“Yes,” Darcy said promptly, nodding. “But I didn’t have to in this case.” She waved. “Hi. My name is Darcy Lewis and I’m a time traveller.”

Howard and the Jarvises stared at her, eyes wide and mouths agape. Carter primly spread clotted cream and jam on her scone and began to eat, ignoring their reactions. Howard began to sputter incoherently for a few seconds, and then burst out, “You have got to be joking!”

“I assure you, she is telling the truth,” Carter put in. “She’s proved it quite beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

Time travel ?” Howard demanded. “That’s not possible!”

Darcy waved her finger between herself and Loki. “We’re from 2013,” she told him.

Howard shook his head. “2013? If you’re going to time travel, why the hell would you only go backwards sixty-six years?”

“It was hardly our intention,” Loki said darkly, pouring himself another cup of coffee. That made five for him. Darcy wondered if he just really liked the taste, or if it took a heck of a lot more caffeine to make a difference for him. “We found ourselves in a leaking capsule 125 feet underwater, and in our attempt to create a portal to the mainland, we overcompensated for time.”

Darcy raised her hand. “My bad.”

Howard frowned and propped his elbows on the table. “Portal?” he asked, attitude suddenly changing. “What kind of technology were you using to create this portal?”

“No tech,” Darcy said, shaking her head. “Whacky psychic powers.”

“I’m sorry, did you just say psychic ?” Jarvis asked nervously, exchanging a look with his wife.

Darcy sighed and crossed her arms over her chest. “Okay, not technically psychic . But I have the ability to create portals through time and space in order to travel between planets. Except for the fact I’m remarkably shitty at it and apparently it almost kills me and Loki every time I try it.”

“Oh… oh my,” Mrs Jarvis said, fluttering her hands in front of her.

“You can create portals… to other planets ?” Howard asked.

Darcy leaned forward and summoned a pen and pad of paper from her pocket dimension, causing everyone except Carter to jump in surprise. “How much do you know about Norse mythology?” she asked the table in general. When she received blank stares in reply, she began sketching.

“Okay. So basically there are nine main realms, or planets, inside our sphere of influence that are all intertwined. Midgard--that’s earth--Asgard, Nornheim, Niflheim, Jotunheim, Svartalfheim, Vanaheim, Muspell, and Rhia. All of them share at least a passing knowledge of each other and most of them, except for Midgard, Jotunheim, and Svartalfheim, acknowledge the authority of the Allfather, king of Asgard.”

Carter had been listening with close interest. “That would be Odin, yes?” she asked. She leaned back to look at Loki. “Your father? You said your name was Odinson.”

“Yes,” Loki replied simply, and went back to eating.

“Asgard has a device known as the Bifrost,” Darcy went on. “It allows transport between realms. My people, the norns, use what we call Ways between the Worlds, hidden portals that connect the planets together. Most of them were created thousands, or even millions of years ago. The problem is, the person responsible for creating them died recently, and I sort of inherited the position.”

She turned her paper around and held it up, showing a half-decent sketch of Yggdrasil connecting nine circles neatly labelled with the names of the Realms.

“Mrs Lewis, are you saying that you are not… human?” Mrs Jarvis asked, staring at Darcy’s face.

“Yes and no,” Darcy said. “To be a norn is more of a position than a race. It gets passed down from generation to generation. I was born a human, in Philadelphia, actually, but I was also born a norn. It’s… complicated, really, and kind of confusing if you’re not aware of norns in the first place.”

Howard blinked a few times. “What does this have to do with you travelling through time?” he demanded.

“Like Loki said,” Darcy said with yet another sigh. “We were sort of trapped, didn’t have anywhere to go, so I was forced to try and open a Way to get us out. Problem is, when you create a portal through space, you also have to create one through time , or else you end up trapped in an airless vacuum for days, or even years. Seeing as it was only the second time I’ve ever made one, I sorta went a little crazy with the time part.”

Howard turned to Carter. “And you believe all this?” he asked her.

“I do,” Carter replied. “The two of them appeared out of thin air in the middle of headquarters, along with a considerable amount of seawater. Mr Lewis then proceeded to fling Agent Haynes into the wall without touching him, block bullets with some kind of green energy, and then vanished again without a trace.”

Loki pressed his lips together sourly, no doubt reminded he’d also landed Darcy in the hospital. Darcy reached over and poked him, causing him to give her a sharp look. She shook her head at him warningly, telling him silently to forget about it. He exhaled sharply through his nose and looked away.

“So you’re telling me that he ain’t human, either?” Howard demanded skeptically.

“I am Asgardian,” Loki said tightly.

“Christ,” Howard muttered. “I’ve heard a lot of horse shit, but this really takes the cake, Carter.”

Loki fluttered his fingers, green sparks dancing around him, and Howard yelped, dropping his coffee cup onto the table. It landed with a dull thud and rolled. The coffee, now frozen solid, slid out of the cup and sat in a icy chunk on the table cloth.

Loki continued to gesture with one hand, green energy swirling in the air around him. The salt and pepper shakers changed into miniature Einherjar figurines, the scones turned a horrible puce color, the coffee carafe suddenly became solid gold, and the sausages started to sizzle, once more piping hot.

Mrs Jarvis leapt from the table in alarm, clutching her hands to her chest. Howard and Jarvis stared, eyes bulging from their heads, and Carter reached out and forked two more sausages onto her plate. Darcy elbowed Loki in the ribs.

“Show off,” she accused.

He smirked and reached for his coffee cup again.

“So,” Darcy said casually. “What’s the plan for dealing with this Leviathan thing?”

XxxXxxX

“You’re going to what ?” Darcy demanded, crossing her arms over her chest. They were in the SSR headquarters for the first time since their unforeseen arrival, standing in the corridor leading to the bullpen and Chief Sousa’s office.

“Agent Carter has asked me to accompany her to Russia,” Loki repeated, his voice pitched lower than hers.

“And you agreed?” Darcy asked, staring up at him.

“You were the one who suggested I be kinder to her,” Loki retorted. “We are, for all intents and purposes, at their mercy. It would benefit us to ingratiate ourselves to them.”

Darcy rubbed her eyes. “I didn’t mean for you to go halfway across the planet,” she muttered darkly. She lowered her hand and looked up at him again. But he cut her off before she could open her mouth.

“You are not coming with us,” he said sharply.

Darcy frowned. “Why not?”

“Because you are ill , Darcy,” Loki reminded her. “You are risking organ failure and brain bleeding already. You need to stay here and receive treatment.”

Darcy scowled but didn’t argue. She wasn’t a complete idiot, thank you very much. “I just don’t like the idea of being separated for that long,” she admitted.

“I agree, it is not ideal,” Loki replied. “But I would rather Leviathan never learn the truth about the two of us, and if that means eliminating the lot of them, so be it.”

“And what the hell am I supposed to do while you’re traipsing about the Russian countryside?” Darcy asked sourly.

“Put your skills to use here,” Loki told her. “Leviathan will no doubt continue to send agents until we destroy them completely. You have much to offer the SSR. You can make yourself invaluable.”

“I know what kind of jobs they offered women in the 40’s,” Darcy said bitterly. “I’m not going to sit around answering phones and filing paperwork.”

“Is that what you see Agent Carter doing?” Loki challenged. Darcy’s mouth twisted and she shook her head.

“I don’t want you to go,” she said softly.

He brushed her cheek with the back of his fingers. “No more than I wish to go,” he said. “But I believe it must be done.”

Darcy reached out and took hold of his lapel. In order to not raise suspicion with the other SSR agents, he’d acquiesced to wearing local clothing, and was currently garbed in a charcoal-gray three-piece suit with a green shirt and tie. Darcy had to admit that part of her was really, really happy at seeing him in the outfit. (The other part of her wanted to rip it off of him.)

“You’ll be careful?” she asked softly.

He snorted. “It is hardly likely that a motley collection of mortals can conjure anything that would be a threat to me.”

“Promise,” Darcy insisted.

He covered her hand with his, pinning it to his chest. “I promise.”

“When do you leave?”

“Two days. Agent Carter needs time to assemble the remainder of her team, as well as transport and supplies.”

“I’m gonna dreamwalk to you,” she told him. “At least every couple of days. To make sure you’re okay.”

“That would be acceptable,” Loki agreed.

“How long will you be gone?”

Loki pressed his lips together. “I am not sure. Agent Carter is following somewhat nebulous intelligence, and we will need to investigate what leads we can find. It could be weeks, or it could be months.”

Darcy made a face. Loki stooped and kissed her softly, curling one hand around the base of her neck so his thumb rested in the hollow of her throat. “If you do not wish to leave this realm, we need to make a life for ourselves here,” he told her quietly. “At least in this we would be doing something noble.”

Darcy nodded. “Yeah. I know. Maybe…” She trailed off, an idea taking root. Loki peered closely at her.

“Yes?” he prompted.

“Maybe we can keep Hydra from infiltrating SHIELD?” she suggested hopefully.

His hand tightened at her neck, and then dropped. “I do not know if that is wise,” he murmured.

“Why not?” Darcy demanded.

“I do not have much experience with time travel,” Loki said dryly. “But I do know that it is dangerous to purposefully alter the timeline using future knowledge. Suppose you change something that prevents us from ever meeting? What then?”

Darcy shuddered. “God, no,” she agreed instantly. “You’re right. We have to be careful.” She tugged on his lapel again, prompting another kiss. “Just, come back as soon as you can, okay?”

“I will,” he promised. “I have to meet Agent Carter in a few moments. I will see you tonight at Stark’s residence.”

“Might as well start calling it ‘home,’” Darcy said dryly. “Howard’s not letting us out of his sight now that he knows the truth.”

“I will say I did not expect him to believe us,” he commented.

Darcy rolled her eyes. “Well after your little performance he didn’t have much of a choice.”

The tell-tale click of an aluminum crutch against the floor heralded Chief Sousa’s approach. Loki stepped back from Darcy for propriety's sake, and Darcy dropped her hand from his lapel. Sousa looked preoccupied and disheveled, dark hair sticking in all directions. He had dark circles under his eyes and Darcy wondered when the last time the poor man got any sleep.

“Lewis,” Sousa greeted as he approached, his eyes on Darcy. “You happen to know any Russian?”

Darcy knew Allspeak, which was just as good. “Yeah,” she replied.

Sousa gestured for her to follow him. “I got something for you to do. Peggy said I could put you to work.”

Darcy nodded. “Sure. Of course.” She glanced up at Loki and smiled tightly. He put his hand on her shoulder, only dropping it when she stepped away to follow Sousa.

“Including you, I’ve only got four people who speak Russian in the building,” Sousa told her as he limped down the corridor back towards the bullpen. “And Peggy’s leaving in a couple of days. New York’s just sent over all the intercepted Russian communications we’ve decoded in the last year. I need you, Chapman, and Goodwin to comb through everything and see if there’s a connection to Leviathan.”

Darcy nodded. “Okay. Got it.” She glanced over her shoulder but Loki was already gone. “So, this Russian mission. It’s gonna go okay, right?”

Sousa glanced at her. “Well, from what I’ve seen of your husband, I’m pretty sure between him and Peggy, they’ll be alright.”

Darcy studied Sousa for a moment. “Is it hard? Seeing her go off into danger like that?”

“She’s an agent,” Sousa said stiffly. “It’s her job.”

Darcy’s mouth twisted. “She’s not just an agent,” she said.”Not to you.”

Sousa eyed her again. “Anyone ever tell you that you’re nosy?” he asked dryly.

Darcy pointed at herself. “Norn. Comes with the job.”

Neither Chapman nor Goodwin had any compunctions about working with a woman. In fact, they just seemed happy to have someone to share the workload. And there was certainly quite a bit of it. When Darcy walked into the conference room that had been set aside for their use, her eyes widened at the stacks of boxes against the wall.

“Holy shit,” she blurted.

Sousa shot her a disapproving look, but Chapman snorted in amusement. “This ain’t the half of it, lady,” he said in a Boston drawl. “We got a whole ‘nother truckload coming up the elevator.”

“Awesome,” Darcy said darkly, and pulled out a chair. “All right. Hit me.”

XxxXxxX

Darcy lost track of time and hadn’t realized it was dark when Mr Jarvis came to collect her. She’s spent most of the morning and the entire afternoon poring over narrow lines of typewritten Cyrillic letters, which her knowledge of Allspeak easily translated for her. They hadn’t paused, even when a cheerful, heavy-set woman named Rose brought them sandwiches. Darcy had kept translating between bites, jotting down anything that seemed even remotely interesting.

“Mrs Lewis,” Jarvis announced from the doorway. Darcy startled and looked up. “It is nearly half past eight,” he told her. “I’ve been ordered to make sure you do not over-exert yourself, given your condition.”

Goodwin looked up, eyes narrow. “Condition?” he echoed. “You’re not knocked-up, are you, Lewis?” The three of them had quickly reached an easy sort of camaraderie, making the question feel natural.

“No,” Darcy replied, getting to her feet. “Rhabdomyolysis.”

Chapman grimaced. “That bites. Buddy of mine got that from the War. Mortar collapsed a wall on him.” He eyed Darcy up and down. “You do what the doc says and get better, ya hear, doll?”

Darcy sketched a mock salute. “Aye aye! See you boys tomorrow.”

“I also need to collect Miss Carter and Chief Sousa,” Jarvis told Darcy. “Mrs Jarvis’ orders, you see.”

Darcy nodded. “Where’s Loki?”

“He should be with Miss Carter,” Jarvis replied. “Last I heard they were discussing weaponry with Dr Samberly.” His tone did not indicate much approval for this Samberly person. In the end, they had to roam over the entire headquarters building to collect everyone and usher them out to the waiting vehicle.

Sousa tried to protest being dragged away from his work, but Carter sharply told him that if she had to quit for the night, so did he. He ended up falling asleep against the window in the front passenger seat on the way back to Howard’s estate.

“How is the translation going?” Carter asked Darcy. The two women and Loki took up the back seat, which was thankfully wide enough to accommodate all of them, and even had enough room for Loki’s long legs.

Darcy rubbed her eyes, which ached from peering at scraps of paper all day. “Slowly,” she complained. “You know, in my time, we have computers that do all this for us.”

“Computer?” Jarvis asked curiously. “Do you mean Turing’s device? The ENIAC?”

“Trust me, they come a long way in six decades,” Darcy said.

“How fascinating,” Jarvis murmured. After the initial shock, he’d accepted Darcy and Loki’s origins with typical British aplomb, accepting it as yet another consequence of working for Howard Stark.

Sousa snuffled in his sleep, and Carter’s gaze went soft as she watched him. Darcy eyed the other woman surreptitiously. Steve had told her about Peggy Carter, one night that he’d hung out in the lab while Jane pulled an all-nighter. Told her how Carter was one of the few people, other than Bucky Barnes and Dr Erskine, who’d seen him as a person first, and not just his disabilities. Told her how he probably would have married her, if things had gone differently.

Darcy knew what losing someone you loved felt like. She was glad Carter had been able to move on.

Mrs Jarvis had dinner waiting for them when they arrived. Howard and Dr Wilkes, she informed them, were at Stark Labs, redesigning the building’s security. Sousa fell asleep again in the middle of the meal, and Carter eventually coaxed him into one of the guest rooms.

Before Loki and Darcy made their own exit, Mrs Jarvis stopped them. She had decided, like her husband, that time travellers and aliens were within the scope of her duties to Mr Stark, and had gone back to treating them with the same cheerfulness as before.

“Dr Sheffield called while you were out,” she told Darcy. “She’d like you to go back in tomorrow for another blood test.”

Darcy nodded wearily. “Okay. Swell. We’ll stop by first thing.”

Darcy hadn’t expected to be exhausted from spending the day reading, but she found she could barely keep her eyes open as she got ready for bed. Not getting much sleep the night before certainly didn’t help. Maybe she would be tired enough to sleep without dreams.

Yeah, and maybe Heimdall would take a vacation.

“Darcy,” Loki said as Darcy settled next to him under the blankets.

“Mmm?” she asked.

“If you like, there is something I can try, to keep you from dreaming.”

Darcy opened her eyes and looked at him. “Really?”

He nodded. “It was something I have been working on. It does not, unfortunately, work on me, but I believe it could help you.”

Darcy shrugged. “Worth a shot.”

“I will attempt to create a static dreamscape for you to rest in,” Loki said, bringing his hands up to cradle her head. “I need you to lower your defenses and let me in.”

Darcy closed her eyes and felt Loki’s mind press against hers. It was easy enough to allow him entry; he belonged there just as much as she did. For a moment she felt nothing other than him rummaging around in her memories, and then--

She blew the candles out to a burst of cheers around her and the flash of a camera. Really, seventeen was a little old to be documenting every part of her birthday. But Mom still held up the camera and the boys huddled behind Darcy, pulling faces and giving her bunny ears.

The presents on the table were sparse. Dad hadn’t found a job after reaching his mandatory retirement age, and Mom’s teaching salary didn’t have much to spare, especially since Cooper had only gotten an apprenticeship, and not the corps position they’d been hoping for. But they few packages were wrapped in the most colorful and obnoxious paper the boys had been able to find.

“Are we gonna cut the cake, or what?” Brandon demanded, rubbing his knuckles against the top of Darcy’s head. She squeaked and batted his hand aside, glaring up at him indignantly. “C’mon, Darce. We don’t got all day.”

As was tradition in the Lewis household, the birthday girl (or boy) got to cut and serve the cake, and Alex handed her the cake knife so she could dole out the pieces. Once everyone had a slice, they all waited for her to take the first bite.

“Hey, Darce,” Alex said, leaning towards her. “You got something on your face.”

“Where?” Darcy asked, raising her napkin.

“Here!” Cooper announced, before smashing his slice of cake in her face.

The world reset itself, and Darcy blew out the candles to a burst of cheers around her and the flash of a camera...

Chapter Text

Darcy really did try not to mope the next day. She tried to be cheerful at breakfast, or at the very least not outright grouchy, and had minimal success. She tried not to sulk during the drive to Stark Industries with equally dismal results. When they got out of the car, Loki gave her a long, steady look, and then tucked her hand into his elbow.

 

“You have no need to sulk, elskede ,” he told her softly as they were escorted into the building and past the beefed-up security by Mr Jarvis. “As you said, you will be dreamwalking with me every few nights. We will not be separated for long.”

 

“I know,” Darcy said, blowing out a deep breath. “But you’re going to Russia and doing field work and hanging with Agent Carter. I’m stuck translating supply orders and weather reports.”

 

“Only until you are recovered,” Loki told her. “Once the healers deem you fit, request a more daring position.”

 

Darcy sighed again and leaned her head against his shoulder. “I hate being sick. I don’t even get sick! My whole life, I’ve never had a cold, or chickenpox, or a fever. Mom always said I was a miracle child.”

 

“You are a norn,” Loki corrected. “It is likely no other mortal could have survived what you have. The universe itself is interested in keeping you alive.”

 

Darcy wrinkled her nose. “Literally,” she agreed.

 

They didn’t see Dr Sheffield, but rather a white-clad nurse who took three vials of Darcy’s blood, gave her a glass of orange juice, and sent them off again with Mr Jarvis. When they arrived at the SSR headquarters building, Carter was waiting for them in the foyer.

 

“Hello again, Mrs Lewis!” Rose greeted warmly. “Oh, this must be your husband. Hi, Mr Lewis, I’m Rose!” The rotund woman was still quite attractive, made even more so by her cheerful smile, and she blushed when Loki lightly took her hand and brushed his lips against her knuckles.

 

“Greetings, Madam Rose,” he said, smiling in response. “I am told by Mr Jarvis you are quite reliable in certain… sensitive matters.”

 

Rose blushed again and preened. “Well, I am an SSR agent, Mr Lewis.”

 

“Wonderful,” Loki said, a canny gleam to his eye that Darcy suddenly didn’t like. “Then perhaps I could entreat you to see to my… wife… while I am gone.”

 

Darcy opened her mouth to protest when his chosen vocabulary caught up with her. She’d almost gotten used to calling him her husband, but that was the first time he’d returned the favor. Her jaw snapped closed and she stared hard at him. He pointedly didn’t look in her direction.

 

“Darcy will require further treatment for her illness,” Loki went on, clasping his hands behind her back. “And as she is a singularly stubborn woman, it is not likely she will endure it willingly.”

 

“Oh, don’t you worry about a thing, Mr Lewis,” Rose said, waving one hand. “I’d be more than happy to keep an eye on her.” She leaned toward Darcy and said in a stage-whisper, “He doesn’t have to know what we do after your appointments.”

 

Darcy rolled her eyes but still managed to smile. “ Thank you, Loki, but I can take care of myself,” she told him, sticking her nose up. “I’m an adult. I do adult things.”

 

Loki nodded sagely. “Yes, I do seem to recall you insisted on starting your hand-to-hand combat training while you were still recovering from being shot through the lung, and you set out to cross a desert while you were recovering from being stabbed in the stomach,” he said gravely. “You have a fine reputation of being an adult and doing adult things.”

 

Darcy glared at him darkly before turning back to Rose, who was staring at her with her mouth slightly open. “You’ve been shot?” the other woman asked. “And stabbed ?”

 

“And blown up, and thrown off a camel,” Darcy added dryly. She saw that Carter was watching her with a mildly impressed expression. “And electrocuted, that one time,” she finished. She poked Loki’s arm. “Courtesy of your brother.”

 

“Yes,” Loki mused. “I still need to have words with him about that.”

 

“In any case,” Carter interjected swiftly before they could get sidetracked again. “Rose would be more than happy to help Mrs Lewis with anything she needs. In the meantime, Mr Lewis, we still have a great deal to go over before we leave tomorrow. If you don’t mind?”

 

Loki sighed faintly and nodded. “Of course, Agent Carter. Lead the way.”

 

Darcy watched them walk into the back room to the security door, her mouth twisting sourly. Rose patted her arm sympathetically.

 

“How long you two been married?” she asked.

 

“Four months,” Darcy replied.

 

Rose’s eyebrows jumped up in surprise. “That’s barely any time at all!” she exclaimed. “Did you two know each other long before?”

 

“About a year,” Darcy told her. She leaned her hip against Rose’s desk. Loki was right; if they were stuck here permanently, she might as well make friends, especially with the person who was apparently going to ride herd on her for the next few weeks. “It was kinda last minute, and neither of us were really expecting it.”

 

“Oh,” Rose said unevenly, and her gaze dropped involuntarily to Darcy’s stomach, which was noticeably trim under the tailored pant suit Mrs Jarvis had somehow managed to procure for her.

 

“No, I’m not pregnant,” Darcy said dryly. “Loki was in some trouble, and marrying me gave him-- us -- time to sort it out. Family drama, you know.” She waved a hand vaguely.

 

“That sounds like a real fascinating story,” Rose said, eying Darcy with renewed interest.

 

Darcy shrugged. “Probably not as much as it sounds. In any case, it happened, we’re very happy about it, and him leaving really sucks.”

 

“Of course it does, you poor thing,” Rose crooned. “But that’s life in the SSR. You go where the big man sends you! Look at me. Six months ago I was in New York City. Now I’m on the West Coast!”

 

Darcy’s mouth twisted. Apparently no one had told Rose that she and Loki weren’t SSR agents, but merely innocent bystanders caught up in the murder and mayhem. “Yeah,” was all she said at length, and then pushed away from the desk. “Well, I should get to work, or Sousa is gonna turn his devastatingly effective puppy-dog eyes on me. I don’t think I can take that twice in one day.”

 

“Twice?” Rose asked curiously.

 

“He somehow managed to wheedle the last piece of toast this morning at breakfast,” Darcy said, heading for the security door. “Don’t let the limp fool you. That man is sharp .”

 

She brought a fresh pot of coffee to apologize to Chapman and Goodwin for being late, which they quickly forgave her for at the offering of hot caffeine. She heaved a box of correspondence onto the table and started her painstaking task.

 

Three hours later, she burst into Sousa’s office while he was in a meeting with an older man, waving a handful of pages in the air. “You have got to see this!” she exclaimed excitedly.

 

“Excuse me, miss,” the stranger said, getting to his feet and glaring down his nose at Darcy. “You are interrupting a very important meeting. Do you know who I am?”

 

Darcy looked him up and down. “Yup.” She waved the pages at Sousa. “I’ve got something that’ll help Loki and Agent Carter,” she told him.

 

Sousa struggled to his feet. “Sorry, sir, but we’re gonna have to reschedule,” he said hastily.

 

“Reschedule?” the man demanded, indignant. “Do you know what my schedule is like?”

 

“Yes, and I appreciate you’re a busy man,” Sousa went on, grabbing the man’s arm and hustling him out the door. “But I’m a federal agent, sir, and I’m dealing with matters of national security.” He all but threw the man out of his office and turned back to Darcy. “Show me.”

 

Darcy slapped the pages down on his desk and spread them out. “Okay, first I thought that your people had recorded these messages wrong, or something, because they didn’t make sense. Then I found these coming from the same location. They’re numbered, see? They were sent out in the wrong order .”

 

Sousa quickly read the paragraph of Darcy’s sloppy handwriting. “This still doesn’t make any sense. It’s about potato crops and vodka.”

 

“No, it’s a skip code,” Darcy told him triumphantly. “It’s easy enough to break, but then you get to the real code.” She grabbed a sheet of paper from the bottom of the pile. “They only use the first ten letters of the Cyrillic alphabet, which corresponds with the numbers 0 through 9. They’re coordinates!”

 

Sousa nodded. “Okay. Okay, coordinates. But what makes you think that these coordinates have anything to do with Leviathan?”

 

“Because this was the message they sent with the code,” Darcy said, thrusting a last sheet into Sousa’s hands.

 

Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope?” Daniel read.

 

“Job 41:1 from the Christian Bible,” Darcy said. She jabbed her finger at the page with the numbers. “This is it. Leviathan is here.”

 

“It’s a place to start,” Daniel said with a nod. “Good job.”

 

XxxXxxX

 

“...And from Helsinki we will travel east and then north to Onega,” Loki explained, trailing his finger along the map. “Agent Carter has a source here, a Russian double agent she worked with during their war.”

 

Darcy frowned. “It’s gonna be freezing,” she said.

 

“That will hardly matter to me,” Loki replied. He pointed at the map again. “From there we will travel along the coast to Oskolkovo. The coordinates you discovered are just outside the city.”

 

“And you’re going with the 107th?” Darcy asked, leaning her hip against the table. “You know they fought with Steve during World War II. They were his friends.”

 

“Well, then hopefully he chose his friends wisely, or it will be a tedious journey,” Loki said dryly.

 

Darcy pressed her lips together, refusing to be amused. “You’ll be careful.” It wasn’t quite a question.

 

Loki reached over and cupped her cheek with one hand. “And I told you, elskede . There is nothing these humans can dream of that can harm me.”

 

Darcy leaned away from his touch. “These humans can dream of a lot,” she retorted. “You’re not bulletproof.”

 

He reached out and snagged her wrist, pulling her closer to him. “I am much cleverer and more versed in the art of combat than any being in this realm,” he whispered in her ear. “I think I shall be fine.”

 

Darcy made a doubtful noise in the back of her throat and leaned against him, clutching the lapels of his jacket. They were still at the SSR. Loki and Agent Carter wouldn’t leave until they headed to the airstrip, busy as they were with prepping for the mission. Carter was closeted with Sousa again, and Loki had threatened to turn Dr Samberly into a medjalkar (whatever that was) one too many times, so he’d been thrown out of the research department.

 

They had claimed one of the briefing rooms for their own, stealing what would likely be their last moments alone before Loki departed. He’d placed a charm on the door so they wouldn’t be disturbed. Darcy’s mind had instantly darted to places most definitely not safe for work, but Loki had merely wanted to tell her as much as possible about the mission.

 

He stroked his hand down her back. “You are not angry, are you?” he murmured.

 

Darcy pulled away so she could look up at him. “Angry?” she echoed. “Why?”

 

“That I am leaving you,” he added. “When you are ill, and vulnerable.”

 

Darcy gave him an annoyed look. “ I’ll be fine. I’ve got the Jarvises and Sousa and now friggin’ Rose looking after me, thanks to you. I’m worried about you .”

 

He tilted his head at her. “You do know that I have led men into battle for hundreds of years, yes? That I have fought more battles on more realms than any but the most grizzled of the Einherjar? I am a prince , my dear, and that means I have been trained since birth to do war. You need not have any fear for my sake.”

 

Darcy crossed her arms. “Doesn’t mean I’ll stop,” she said sulkily.

 

He took her by the waist and lifted her onto the table, ensuring she was seated firmly before bracing his hands on either side of her thighs and leaning forward until their noses touched. “You are, without a doubt, the most impossibly frustrating creature I have ever encountered,” he told her, his voice pitched low.

 

“I live to fulfill your expectations,” she replied, and uncrossed her arms to run her fingertips along his hairline, smoothing it out of his face. “Kiss me,” she ordered, and he obliged, with tongue, as if committing her mouth to memory, swallowing her sigh with a soundless rumble deep in his chest.

 

Darcy had promised she wouldn’t push him, so when he pulled away, she let him go, heart sinking the tiniest bit in disappointment. “Will you do something for me?” he asked solemnly, watching her with an unreadable expression.

 

“Name it,” she said, swinging her legs slightly.

 

“Be careful,” he told her. “And watch your back. Leviathan has sent assassins and they will send more. Do not needlessly risk your life.”

 

“I’m not going to stand by and let someone get hurt,” Darcy said hotly.

 

He picked up her hand and turned it over, tracing a design over her palm. His touch left a trail of fire behind, and she winced, instinctively trying to pull her hand from his grasp, but he held her fast. When the design was complete, the pain instantly vanished, the residual warmth sinking into her skin.

 

“No, you will not,” he agreed. “That is not very nornish of you.” He took her other hand and made the same pattern with the same result.

 

“What are you doing?” she demanded.

 

“You said I was not bulletproof,” he replied. “That is not, precisely, true. Take off your blouse.”

 

Darcy blinked at him. “What?”

 

He started undoing the buttons of her shirt and she kept staring at him. “Seriously?” she demanded. “ Here ? Do you have a kink for semi-public sex or something?”

 

He gave her a withering look and undid the last button, moving her blouse out of the way. He pressed a fingertip to the center of her clavicle. “My mother taught me spells and wards for protection. They were the first magic I mastered. I placed them on all my friends, mostly without their knowledge. Thor still carries them to this day.”

 

Darcy narrowed her eyes. “You’re going to… ward … me?” she asked.

 

“It will not stop bullets, but it will increase your chances significantly,” he replied. “Though this may hurt you more than it would an Aesir.” His look turned smoldering. “I will make it up to you.”

 

Darcy raised her eyebrow. “Go to town.”

 

It did hurt. She felt as if she should have welts or blisters in the wake of his burning fingers as he traced arcane sigils onto her skin, the magic passing between them. He soothed the burn with cool lips and colder tongue, his mouth like ice, chasing away the fire. He covered first her torso and arms, then rucked up her skirt so he could move onto her thighs.

 

The process left her shaking and breathless and, despite the pain, incredibly aroused. There was no question about finding his mouth tracing invisible patterns on her skin erotic, and she could feel the transfer of magic, feel his energy soaking into her body, filling every sense with his presence.

 

When he placed the last sigil on the inside of her thigh and then straightened, Darcy wasn’t thinking clearly anymore. She grabbed him by his lapels and yanked him forward, leaning up to capture his mouth with hers. He didn’t seem upset or put off, as his hand hadn’t moved from her inner thigh. Instead, his fingers crept slowly, oh-so-slowly upwards until she was panting with anticipation.

 

She might have moaned when he made her underwear disappear. She couldn’t tell, because he chased the kiss forward, leaning her back until she was forced to brace herself behind her with her hands. Then his fingers dipped into her center, already hot and slick, before stroking upwards against her clit. Darcy definitely moaned then.

 

Like always, he wasn’t in much of a hurry, teasing her with barely-there touches until it was all she could do to hold herself still against his hand. It felt like her whole body was vibrating, buzzing with magic, every nerve over-stimulated, and she had to suck on his tongue to keep from crying out with it.

 

Perhaps taking pity on her, he stroked her just a bit harder, just a bit faster, until she climaxed with a deep shudder that seemed to suck all the energy out of her, leaving her blissful, but spent. He gathered her against his chest, letting her rest there while the afterglow faded, then he chastely kissed her cheek.

 

“You should return to the estate,” he murmured. “Get rest while you can. If you intend to begin dreamwalking in a few days, then you will need to sleep.”

 

Darcy made a sound of protest. “Don’t wanna,” she mumbled, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder.

 

“Darcy,” Loki said in mild exasperation. He set her back and began buttoning her blouse again. “There is no bravery in not caring for yourself,” he chided. “You will not win wars with exhausted soldiers. You have not been sleeping well.”

 

Darcy shivered, the lazy post-coital glow abruptly vanishing. “I have nightmares,” she admitted.

 

Loki pressed his lips together in annoyance, but not at her. The elixir his mother made to warn off dreams had been left in Darcy’s parent’s home, six decades in the future, and neither he nor Darcy had the knowledge nor means to make any more.

 

“The same?” he asked.

 

She nodded wordlessly. He took her face in his hands and tilted it upwards to force her to meet his gaze. “What was done was not your fault,” he said firmly.

 

“I know,” she replied softly. “And I know that it shouldn’t affect me like this. I’m a postmodern feminist girl. I know that I’m worth more than my ability to have kids.”

 

“Yes, you are,” he agreed heatedly.

 

“Doesn’t make it hurt less,” Darcy said.

 

Loki sighed and dropped his hands, stepping back from her. “Do you remember the words you spoke over me? When I was born. The prophecy you made.”

 

Darcy frowned. “Yes?” she said uncertainly.

 

He looked away. “You called me the Father of Monsters,” he reminded her tightly. “Perhaps… perhaps I was never meant to father children.”

 

Darcy gaped at him for a moment in shock. “No!” she finally exclaimed. “Loki, no ! I have no idea what those words mean, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that .”

 

He shook his head, still not looking at her. “I do not see how you can forget so easily.”

 

“Forget what ?” Darcy demanded irately, pushing off the table. She straightened her skirt; the stockings would have to wait. “Forget what , Loki?”

 

He turned back to her, his expression suddenly fierce. “What I am ,” he hissed at her. “You look at this form and that is all you ever see! You never see past it, see what lies beneath!”

 

She crossed her arms defiantly. “And what, exactly, lies beneath?”

 

“You know,” he snarled, hands curling into fists. “You know but you do not truly understand, do you? What it means to carry this every day. What it means to be a monster .”

 

“You are not a monster,” Darcy barked, stepping towards him. “You never have been, and you’re not now.”

 

“I am,” he spat. “I am a Jotun, whether you care to remember it or not, and not much of one, at that. Had it not been for your interference, I would have been cast out to die, as it should have been!”

 

Darcy felt her blood run cold, and she stepped forward again, grabbing the front of his jacket before he could pull away. “Don’t,” she said in a flat, icy voice. “Ever. Say that again.”

 

He was trembling with the effort to not yank himself free from her grasp. “My existence has caused nothing but pain and misery,” he told her in a thick voice. “Not in the least to myself. You never should have saved me.”

 

Darcy’s fingers clenched around his jacket. “Then the universe would be dead, because Skuld would have started Ragnarok.”

 

He finally pulled away from her. “ You killed Skuld,” he reminded her. “ You stopped Ragnarok.”

 

“I would have joined her,” Darcy whispered brokenly, tears starting in her eyes. Loki froze, slowly turning back to face her. “She was my sister,” she explained, her voice quavering. “And the Eldest. I would have done what she wanted.”

 

Loki’s dark brows drew together. “Why--” he began, and Darcy took a deep, shuddering breath.

 

“Because I loved you, you ass,” she told him. “Because I love you and she hurt you. She took you away from me and I couldn’t, I couldn’t forgive her for that. That’s why I stopped her. Why I became Ragnarok. I was trying to save you.”

 

He stared at her for a long moment, lips parted and face blank. “Darcy,” he said, and his voice shook.

 

She dashed tears from her eyes and glared at him without any heat. “Don’t you dare say you’re not worth saving,” she muttered at him. “I don’t hold with domestic abuse but I swear I’ll punch you in the face.”

 

He blinked. “You already did.”

 

“What?” she asked, frowning in confusion.

 

“You struck me in the face,” he repeated. “Do you remember?”

 

The memory returned and Darcy groaned. “Oh, god. I’m such an ass . I’m sorry.”

 

He stepped forward slowly, sliding one arm around her waist and taking her hand with his. He pressed her hand against his chest. “I won’t forgive you,” he told her. “Because I never want you to forget that moment.”

 

She peered up at him quizzically. “Why?”

 

He leaned down until their noses bumped, mouths centimeters apart. “Because that was the moment I knew I loved you.” And then he kissed her, sweet enough to make her teeth ache, until she was breathless and shaking all over again. It was the greatest gift he could have given her, those words, that confirmation, exactly what she needed to hear at that moment.


She never did get her underwear back, though.

Chapter Text

Loki decided, after much careful thought, that of all the things that the mortals had invented, the airplane was the thing he hated the most. There was no reason, if he was going to be thousands of feet off the ground, to enclose himself in metal and strap combustible engines to fragile wings. One might praise their ingenuity in the face of their lack of advanced technology, but after three days of travel, the majority of it over the ocean, he was not inclined to generosity.

The city of Helsinki could hardly be called a city at all. It was a squalid, sprawling, seething mass of humanity that made his skin crawl with the lack of proper sanitation, reliable energy supply, or any means of long-distance communication. Which meant, effectively, he had no way of contacting Darcy until she was able to dreamwalk to him.

He felt her absence acutely, his anchor in the storm, his rudder. He had anticipated the separation would be difficult, but not this arduous. He felt the other part of himself, the darkness, the villain, scratching endlessly at his defenses, always seeking to escape, to lash out in anger, to wreak death and chaos…

“Mr Lewis!”

Loki blinked and focused on the woman in front of him. Agent Carter was wearing a leather jacket and sensible canvas trousers, very similar to what he was wearing. Her hair was pulled back in a simple tail and her sidearm was hidden beneath her shirt. She looked up at him with a far too knowing expression in her brown eyes. She was clever, for a human, and more perceptive than he cared for.

“Yes?” he asked mildly. He’d refused every offer of a human-made weapon, flatly stating he would use his own, or none at all.

“As I was saying, we’ll be meeting the 107th at the Halt Geit. It’s a local watering hole. You mentioned you speak Norwegian?”

“I speak all human languages,” Loki replied, hitching his pack higher up his shoulders. He really would rather simply store everything in his pocket dimension, but Carter’s associates would not know his true identity, and he’d rather keep things close to the chest.

“Right,” Carter said slowly, eyeing him again.

“And do not call me ‘Mr Lewis,’” Loki told her shortly. “It is fine enough in front of Darcy, but that is her name, not mine.”

“I’m not to call you Lewis and I’m not to call you Odinson,” Carter said, rolling her eyes. “What may I call you?”

“My name is Loki,” he said. “It has served me well for sixteen hundred years, I am sure it will suffice.”

Carter blinked at him a few times. “Good lord, man. Are you really sixteen hundred years old?”

“Give or take a few decades,” Loki said with a sniff. He looked around. “Where is this… watering hole of yours?”

“Three blocks that way,” Carter said, pointing. “How old is Darcy?”

“Significantly more than I,” Loki responded flatly, and started walking. The press of minds around him was distracting. These humans battered at his defenses constantly. If he was not cautious, one of them, inadvertently brushing against him, would break loose the dam, and all his inner chaos would come pouring forth.

Carter kept up with him easily, though he’d subconsciously lengthened his stride in an attempt to pull away from her. He’d agreed to accompany her on this mission, not because he felt he owed her any great debt, but because this Leviathan posed a threat to Darcy’s safety. If they were to remain in this time, it would not be long before they would be noticed, especially if Leviathan continued to send agents to kill their associates. It would be better to wipe them from existence before they had a chance to identify himself and Darcy as targets.

And then they would go deep into hiding, somewhere no one, not even Heimdall the gatekeeper himself, would find them.

The Halt Geit was, as taverns went, disappointing. It was located inside a squat brick building lit with barely-functioning electric lights and stank of fish, stale beer, and unwashed bodies. Music played from a boxy device on the bar; a radio, if he remembered the term correctly. Men, and a few women, gathered in clumps around the great room, a clamor of voices obscuring individual conversation.

“There they are,” Carter said, pointing to a corner.

As positions went, it had been chosen well. The table had the best vantage point of the entire tavern, and would be the easiest to defend. A secondary exit was accessible nearby should they have need of it. Around the table sat five men of various races, each with a tankard of whatever foul liquid passed as ale in these parts.

Carter led the way over to them, but they caught sight of the two newcomers while they were still halfway across the room, so that when they arrived, Carter was forced to embrace first one man, and then the other.

“Carter!” exclaimed one of the men. He wore a strange sort of rounded hat and sported an impressive blonde mustache. “Didn’t expect to see you so soon! Get tired of riding a desk?”

“I’ve hardly been jockeying a desk, I’ll have you know,” Carter replied with a grin. “Never was one for sitting around.”

“Who’s the new guy?” demanded the man who bore a strong resemblance to the Vanir, with the same tawny skin and slanted eyes. Asia , Loki reminded himself. This race of humans hailed from the landmass called Asia.

“Boys, this is…” Carter eyed Loki for a moment, and then continued, “Loki Odinson. He’s a civilian consultant the SSR has recently acquired, and he’ll be tagging along for this mission.”

“Odinson, eh?” said the man with the blonde mustache. Really, though. Fandral would be envious. “Sounds like you’re a local lad.”

“Hardly,” Loki replied dryly. “Though my family has made one or two visits to the area.”

“Lovely to have another of the home boys along, though,” piped up a dark-haired man in a maroon cap, offering his hand to Loki. “Not nearly enough of us around.”

The man had a similar accent to Carter and he had mistaken Loki for one of his countrymen, as a quirk of Allspeak made the Asgardian accent sound similar to a British one, to the ears of English speaking mortals. Loki didn’t bother correcting him, and shook the man’s hand, breaking the grip as soon as was polite.

“James Falsworth, at your service,” the man continued. “And these rather dastardly gentlemen are Timothy Dugan,” here he indicated the blonde, “Jim Morita,” the Vanir-looking one, “Gabe Jones,” the dark-skinned one, “And Jacques Dernier.”

“It is always a pleasure to add new brothers in arms to the fight!” said the one called Dernier, lifting his mug. “A drink, man?”

“No, thank you,” Loki said, forcing a polite smile.

“He speaks French,” said Jones, nodding. “I like this guy already.”

Loki blinked. He hadn’t noticed that Dernier had been speaking a different language. That was the danger of Allspeak. It made all languages sound alike.

“He speaks Russian and Norwegian, too,” Carter offered, taking a seat next to Falsworth and propping her elbows on the table. There was an empty chair between Jones and Morita, which Loki took gingerly, setting his pack on the ground near his feet.

“Oh, good,” said Dugan. “Then he’ll actually be useful. Really, though, Carter, why’d you bring a civvie on this one?”

“Well, Loki did manage to assist in stopping both agents Leviathan sent so far,” Carter said dryly. “He speaks multiple languages, and he has many other skills that will no doubt prove useful.”

Loki exhaled sharply through his nose and tuned out their voices, taking several deep breaths and running through a mental exercise he used to calm and focus his mind in preparation for complicated magics. He was interrupted by a burst of laughter around the table, and Morita elbowed him in the ribs, most likely unconsciously.

Loki’s dagger was in his hand before he had a chance to think, the point pressed to Morita’s ribs under his arm, poised to slide between the bones directly into the heart. Loki blinked. The mortal didn’t feel the blade through his layers of clothing, and Loki was able to dismiss the dagger before the man even knew the danger he’d been in.

“No point wasting any more time,” Carter announced, getting to her feet. “We’d best be on the way.”

Carter’s associates had two motor vehicles waiting for them down the street. Loki chose to ride with Carter, Dugan, and Falsworth, simply for the fact that Carter’s company would be the least onerous of all of them, as she was least likely to pry him with unwanted questions.

He was tired enough to try to get some sleep in the truck; he hadn’t slept at all in the last three days and, while he needed far less sleep than mortals, that was still pushing the limits of his endurance. The jolting of the vehicle only allowed him a light doze, however, and he was completely aware of Carter’s conversation with Dugan.

“Of course I trust him,” the woman was saying. “Why else would I have brought him along?”

“I’m just saying, this ain’t the kind of mission we can babysit a civvie on.”

“Trust me, there will be no need to babysit him. He killed the second assassin with his bare hands.”

“Yeah? What’s his background? Military?”

“To be honest, I don’t know. But he has had training, and he’s seen combat. He and his wife saved my life, you know.”

“Huh. Well, in that case I guess he ain’t so bad.”

Please , Dugan. You are the worst judge of character.”

“You wound me, Peggy. You really do.”

Loki resisted the urge to roll his eyes and tried to get to a deeper sleep.

He came wide awake a few hours later when the truck came to a halt. Carter and Dugan were both crouched near the front of the truck, deep in conversation with Falsworth. Carter looked over her shoulder at him and saw he was awake.

“Dernier thinks there is a Norwegian patrol up ahead,” she informed him. “He says he saw lights through the trees.”

Loki moved forward so he could peer through the front window-- windshield , his brain provided--over Carter’s shoulder. “Do you wish me to deal with it?” he asked Carter in a low voice.

Carter eyed him sidelong. “ Could you deal with an entire patrol?” she asked, equally softly.

Loki did roll his eyes now. “Yes, of course,” he insisted.

“Very well,” Carter agreed. “But take Dernier and Jones. They have the best night vision.”

“Peggy,” Dugan muttered. “You really think that’s a good idea?”

“They’ll be fine ,” Carter insisted.

Loki moved to the back of the truck and prepared to exit, then turned back. “Just for clarity’s sake,” he said. “Do you wish me to eliminate the patrol, or merely distract them?”

Both Carter and Dugan stared at him for several seconds. “Distract,” Carter finally said. “Norway isn’t our enemy.”

Loki nodded and swung down to the ground, crossing over to the other truck. Jones was the one driving, with Dernier in the passenger seat. Loki rapped on the window with his knuckles until Dernier opened the door.

“You are to come with me to distract the patrol,” he relayed. “Agent Carter’s wishes.”

“Very well, then,” Dernier agreed instantly. “Let us test your mettle in the field of battle, my friend.”

Loki favored the shorter man with a razor-edged smile. The two mortals climbed out of the truck with their weapons. Jones looked Loki up and down.

“Hey, Odinson. You carrying a gun?”

“I have no need of one,” Loki replied. He looked at Dernier. “The lights you saw. Where?”

Dernier pointed. “East. Through the trees. Red and white. Four of them, perhaps five.”

Loki nodded and scanned the trees. “There is high ground southeast of here, can you see?” he asked, gesturing to a swell of ground a few miles ahead.

Jones squinted. “Take your word for it, pal. I can see in the dark, but not that well.”

“It should give us a good vantage point,” Loki said impatiently. As a whole, Loki found dealing with mortals tedious and frustrating, with the notable exceptions of Darcy and Jane Foster. Darcy, of course, because she was a norn, and Jane Foster because she was really quite clever for a human. What his brother did to deserve her, Loki simply couldn’t imagine.

Dernier gestured grandly. “By all means, man. Lead the way.”

At least both men had been trained in the art of forestry, and the three of them made little sound as they headed towards the ridge, nor had much difficulty navigating the terrain. It was an old forest, with little underbrush, the trees still thick with leaves enough to block out the stars overhead. Loki, of course, could see even in the blackest of nights, thanks to his parentage. It was a skill not even the Aesir had, and his brother and his friends had always accounted it to his magic. Now he knew the truth.

Loki’s guess had paid off, because they had a fine sight of the road from the ridge. Dernier and Jones lay on their bellies in the leaf litter, passing a set of double lenses between them. Binoculars . He didn’t think he’d need the word again, but he filed it away for future reference. He, of course, could see just fine.

There were four trucks stopped on the road, and precisely twenty-two men walking between them, occasionally venturing into the trees and returning. They were setting devices on and around the road, digging up the soil to conceal them. They were round things, made of metal, and Loki wondered at their purpose.

“Shit,” Dernier muttered under his breath as he took his turn with the binoculars .

“Tell me about it,” Jones muttered back.

“What is it?” Loki asked harshly.

“Those ain’t Norwegians,” Jones told him with a sigh, wriggling back from the top of the ridge. “They’re Ruskies, and they’re mining the road.”

Loki blinked, knowing that something had been lost in translation. “Mining?” he echoed, to ensure he had the word correctly.

Jones nodded. “We’re not far from the border,” he continued. “There’s no way we’ll get the trucks past without blowing ourselves to bits, and the trees are too close together to go around.”

“Ah,” Loki said, understanding now. The devices were explosives, likely pressure-sensitive, if they were being buried.

“There are very many of them,” Dernier agreed. “It would be difficult to disarm them. We will, no doubt, miss a few, and if we make a mistake… boom!”

Jones wrinkled his nose in distaste. “We’ll have to abandon the trucks to cross the border. Maybe steal some more once we’re in Russia. Damn. I hate walking.”

So did Loki. Which was why he’d taught himself to teleport when he was still in adolescence. “I will handle it,” he said, getting to his feet. Jones looked up at him, startled.

“Whoa. Where do you think you’re going?”

Loki stared down at him flatly. “To remove the men and the explosives,” he said, as if it should have been obvious.

“By yourself ?” Jones demanded. “You wanna get yourself killed?”

“I have faced worse odds,” Loki replied dryly, and set off down the ridge, veiling himself to mortal eyes. He heard Jones and Dernier both curse behind him, and the rustle of leaves as they moved. Neither men were fools, though, and would not risk themselves needlessly. Loki didn’t much care for their safety, but he thought Darcy would, as they had been battle-brothers of her friend.

He kept himself veiled as he reached the road and crouched to inspect one of the explosive devices. It was rather simple in design, with a pressure trigger, as he’d suspected. He briefly contemplated setting them all off at one time, eliminating both the explosives and the enemy, but discounted that with some disappointment, as it would attract too much attention and damage the road too much.

So instead he disabled the trigger and got to his feet, watching the mortals milling around in front of him. They would need to be eliminated neatly and silently. He had every confidence he could cut his way through twenty-two mortals, but to do it without noise would be a challenge.

Or perhaps not. He suddenly had an inspiration, and summoned his dagger. He used the edge to slice across his wrist, not deep, but enough to bleed freely, and let his blood drip onto the rotting leaves under foot. He circled the group of enemy soldiers, scattering his own blood along the invisible perimeter. When the circle was closed, he sealed the wound with a flick of thought.

Loki closed his eyes and prepared the spell, using his bloody dagger as a focal point, reaching out to the life-blood still warm on the ground. A mist began to rise from the drips of blood, first thin and wispy, then thick, white, and impermeable. It grew in volume and, unlike natural fog, rolled inward, filling the circle but not expanding past the boundary of blood.

The mortals trapped inside the mist called out in confusion, yelling questions that gradually became more feeble, until silence fell. Loki made a slashing motion with the dagger, and the mist began to dissipate, evaporating in the chill, night air. He wiped the blade clean on his thigh and dismissed it from his hand.

When the mist fully cleared, the Russians were laying scattered over the ground where they’d fallen, limp and motionless. He crossed over to the first one and stooped to feel at his throat. There was still a pulse, slow and weak. Loki hadn’t bothered to temper the spell for mortal constitutions, but it turned out it was no more deadly for humans as it was for Dvergar.

He heard multiple footsteps approaching, but he recognized the particular odor of the men of the 107th, and therefore did nothing to hide his presence when they arrived. Carter was the first on scene, standing a good ten yards off from the first truck, clearly having been warned about the mines.

“Good lord, man,” she said, eyes wide. “You did all that yourself?”

“They live, as you requested,” he told her, navigating the explosive devices to approach her. “Though they are not, as you thought, Norwegians.”

She nodded tightly. “Jones mentioned. He said they were mining the road.”

“Yes,” Loki replied. “They are simple enough to disarm, but they are numerous.”

Dugan, Falsworth, Jones, and Dernier all joined them at this moment. They looked around at the fallen bodies. Dugan whistled.

“How in the hell did you pull that off?” he demanded.

“We’ll still have to abandon the trucks,” Carter said, ignoring Dugan’s question.

“I can locate the mines,” Loki assured her. “Do any of your men know how to disarm them?”

Dernier stepped forward. “I do,” he announced, and eyed the stretch of road dubiously. “You are sure you know where they all are?”

“Yes,” Loki said again.

It took them the rest of the night to clear the road. Loki carefully marked each mine so either he or Dernier could disable them. Jones and Morita took the Russians’ trucks into the trees and dismantled them, cannibalizing them for parts and supplies. Carter, Falsworth, and Dugan dragged the unconscious Russians off the road and tied them up in a long chain, wrist to wrist and ankle to ankle. The soldier on each end was then tied to a tree. Carter insisted on leaving a flare gun with them, however, for when they woke.

Dawn was just painting the sky with orange and gold when they finally were able to drive their own trucks through the former minefield, and Loki found himself finally exhausted enough to sink into true sleep, despite the roughness of the ride.

XxxXxxX

They didn’t stop until nightfall, switching out drivers as they became exhausted. Carter had tactfully asked if Loki knew how to drive a truck, and when he answered in the negative, no more had been said on the matter. Dugan had tried to ferret answers out of him, but Carter had intervened almost immediately. Despite Loki’s reticence, no one seemed to distrust him. Carter vouched for him, and that was enough.

They were approximately halfway to Onega at this point, and would reach it the following night. They pulled the trucks off the road as far as they could and built a small fire so they could eat. Loki accepted his share of canned rations with stoicism. American field rations left much to be desired, and the amount simply wasn’t enough to sustain him. He could adjust his metabolism to accommodate for the meager nutrition for a little while, but not indefinitely.

None of the 107th seemed inclined to ask him to take his turn at watch, perhaps not completely trusting Carter’s word, and he was fine with that. Leaving a clone in his bedroll, he set out amid the trees until the fire was no longer visible, and the voices of the men still awake faded into the sounds of the forest. He waited only a quarter of an hour before Darcy appeared.

“Hi,” she said breathlessly. “I got your signal.”

She was wearing a dark green blouse and brown trousers, no jacket to speak of. Of course, she would not be affected by the temperature here. Wisps of hair fell out of the pins that held it up, falling down to frame her face. Loki closed the distance between them and took her in his arms, the noise in his head finally growing quiet.

Darcy pressed her face against her chest, and he could feel the warmth of her body through their clothing. She had a faint, sweet, floral scent he’d never quite been able to identify, and he hadn’t realized how much he’d missed her until she was with him again.

She pulled away just far enough to look up at his face. “Hey. How was the trip?”

“Tedious,” he replied shortly, reaching up to brush a strand of hair from her face. “Airplanes are, without a doubt, the least pleasant method of travel.”

“Yeah, sorry, and they weren’t great in the 40’s,” Darcy said sympathetically. “Bumpy ride, huh?”

“To say the least,” Loki agreed dryly. “Tell me though, you saw the healer again. What did she say?”

“Myoglobin levels are down, and my kidneys are functioning normally,” Darcy reported. “Blood vessels still a bit thin, but they’ve noticed a definite improvement. Dr Sheffield thinks I’ll need at least one more treatment with the isotonic saline.”

Loki rubbed her back. “That is good news,” he told her, some of his tension draining away. Illness was not unknown among the Aesir, but it was rare enough that few people died of it. The thought of losing Darcy to something so trivial seemed enormously unfair.

“So?” Darcy asked expectantly. He peered down at her again.

“Yes?” he asked.

She punched him lightly in the chest. “Tell me all about it! Where are you? Did you meet them? The Howling Commandos. What d’you think of them?”

“We are in Russia, approximately halfway to Onega,” Loki reported dutifully. “Yes, we are with the ‘Howling Commandos.’ And they are mortals. What more is to be said about them?”

Darcy punched him again, not nearly hard enough to have the intention of hurting him. “Dude! Those guys are heroes . I am so freakin’ jealous. How weird would it be if I asked you to get their autographs?”

Loki released his hold on her and stepped back. “No,” he told her firmly. She laughed and stepped forward again. He let her circle her arms around his waist and lean against him, her head resting on the center of his chest.

“I miss you,” she said softly. “It’s so boring here. Sousa moved me from translating communications to checking through wartime files, seeing if there’s any mention of Leviathan but ,” here she paused and leaned back to look up at him. “Something Sousa said, about Leviathan having female agents, made me think about Natasha. She’s Russian, and she worked for the KGB, I think. What if it’s the same people? Leviathan, and the ones who trained Natasha?”

Loki raised an eyebrow. Of all the Avengers, the redhead was probably the only one who even came close to his level, including his brother. The mortal was surprisingly devious, devastatingly clever, and lethally pragmatic. If Leviathan had access to more agents similar, then this mission might be more interesting than he at first thought.

“I will look into it,” Loki told her. “From what I recall, your friend was trained by an organization called the Red Room.”

Darcy blinked. “How the hell would you know that?”

Loki stiffened, then grabbed Darcy by her upper arms, peeling her away from him. It was not easy, to revisit the memories of his time under Skuld’s influence, but it was all the harder in the face of Darcy’s expansive forgiveness. How she could continuously accept and forgive all the things he had done, even to her, was beyond him. He certainly didn’t deserve it.

“When Agent Barton was… under my control,” he explained, mouth twisting sourly. “I ordered him to tell me everything he knew about the other Avengers. Their strengths and weaknesses. He had a great deal to say about Natasha Romanoff.”

Darcy stared up at him with an unreadable expression on her face. She wrapped her arms around herself and pressed her lips together. “You know that wasn’t you, right?” she asked after a moment. “You didn’t do those things.”

He dearly didn’t want to start a disagreement with her, but he needed her to understand . “My hands did them,” he told her. “I remember the crimes as if they were my own.”

She stepped forward and caught his hands in hers. “Loki,” she said, her voice firm. “You can’t criticize me about carrying my guilt when you haven’t even made an effort to deal with yours.”

He shook his head. “I do not wish to argue with you,” he replied. “Not tonight.”

Darcy took a deep breath, visibly restraining herself. “Okay. Yeah, you’re right. I don’t want to fight, either. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Loki decided not to tell her about the day’s earlier activities. “Everything is fine,” he assured her. He lifted one of her hands to his mouth and kissed her knuckles. She was easily distracted by gestures such as this. It had proven useful on more than one occasion. Predictable, she smiled and blushed prettily, blue eyes widening.

By Asgardian standards, Darcy was no great beauty, being too short and built too curvaceous. She was too opinionated, too stubborn, and too loud to fit in among the demure ladies of the Asgardian court. Even among the norns she was somewhat… unique.

He thought she was perfect in every way. If ever the God of Mischief was going to find his match, it would be in the one person determined to turn the whole universe on its head.

Seeing that she was sufficiently distracted by his courtly gesture, he pulled her closer so he could kiss her mouth, chastely and briefly, before pulling away. Her disappointment was evident on her face, but she did not press him nor ask for more.

“I should go,” he told her, brushing his fingers along her cheek. “And so should you, or Chief Sousa will be displeased about you sleeping on duty.”

Darcy wrinkled her nose. “What, you mean afternoon naps aren’t in my contract?” She stood on her toes, leaning her face up towards him. He obliged with another kiss.

“Try to get some sleep tonight,” Loki instructed.

Darcy grimaced. “I’ll try ,” she said morosely. She patted his chest. “Watch your back. Don’t do anything stupid.”

“I have never in my life done something ‘stupid’,” Loki informed her with an indignant sniff.

She narrowed her eyes. “Yeah. I’m gonna ask your mom about that one.”

He nodded at her. “Go. I will see you soon.”

She nodded back reluctantly. “Okay.” She took a deep breath. “I love you.” For the first time after saying that, she looked back at him expectantly, and he found it suddenly difficult to speak. The words were there, he wished to say them, he was just unused to them. So he fell back on the comfort of the First Tongue.

Ek ann þer ,” he told her.

She smiled slightly, nodded again, and then blinked out of existence as she ended the dreamwalk. It felt as if the air around him got colder at her absence. He shook himself, reining in his unruly thoughts, and veiled himself to return to the camp. No had noticed his absence, and no one noticed his return when he dismissed the clone and laid down on his bedroll. He would not sleep, he’d slept enough earlier. Instead he extended his senses as far as they would go in all directions. He didn’t put much faith in the mortals’ ability to keep watch. He’d be alerted to movement far before any of them noticed anything.

He passed the rest of the night in restive watchfulness, until the gray hours before dawn signalled the awakening of the others, and they began to break camp. Loki helped reload the trucks in silence, not looking forward to another day bouncing over primitive roads.

He did this for Darcy’s safety, he reminded himself. If this kept her safe, then the discomfort would be worth it.

Chapter Text

Darcy was not accustomed to being bored. In the last two and a half years she had discovered she was a reincarnated goddess, befriended multiple ancient Norse gods (and goddesses), traveled to distant planets, saved the universe (twice), worked for a super secret spy organization, gotten shot, taught a ninety-plus-year-old superhero how to cook, and finally finished all ten seasons of the X-Files. So she really hadn’t had a lot of time to be bored.

Unfortunately, her medical condition only allowed her to go so far, so she was stuck in an office sifting through boxes and boxes of old wartime intel, trying to find any mention of Leviathan. She had a pretty hefty “no” pile in one corner, a precariously stacked “maybe” pile on one chair, and a pitifully thin “yes” pile on the table.

She’d found a box of mostly-redacted files on Steve and the Howling Commandos, and stole a few photos. They were mostly of Sergeant Barnes and Carter. She’d keep them safe so she could give them to Steve when she saw him again, whenever that would be. He had so very little of his life before the ice: a single photo of Peggy, a newspaper clipping of Barnes, a stack of SSR personnel files, and a sketchbook returned to him by the Smithsonian.

It was hard, not being able to tell Stark and Carter that Steve was alive, hibernating under the ice somewhere in the Arctic ocean. She could see how much they missed him, especially Carter. After the first assassination attempt, Darcy had caught sight of the small photo propped against the mirror on the vanity in Carter’s bedroom, of Steve when he was still short and skinny, dogtags hanging around his neck.

Darcy wanted so badly to tell them that he was alright, that he was alive, that one day he’d be found and be back in the world again. But she knew if she told them that, they would stop at nothing to find him, and then there would be no Steve in 2012 to help stop the Chitauri invasion. Could the Avengers have stopped Thanos without Steve? Maybe. But Darcy really didn’t want to find out. Besides, Loki was right. Messing up the timelines would cause irreparable damage to the future.

Maybe Darcy could change events for the better. Maybe she could stop all the bad things from happening. But there was no way for her to be sure. And it was better the bad things she knew about rather than bad things she didn’t .

“Knock, knock!” Rose’s cheerful voice broke Darcy out of her reverie. She looked up to see the plump woman holding a bottle of Coca-Cola and a paper sack. “I thought, after going over so much paperwork, you deserved a treat,” Rose went on. “There’s a drug store down the street that always has cold pop.”

Darcy hesitated over taking the bottle. “Um, they don’t put cocaine in that anymore, right?”

Rose laughed and put the bottle and the sack onto the table. “Honey, they haven’t put cocaine in Coca-Cola for over forty years.”

“Right, sorry,” Darcy said, embarrassed. She slid the folder she had open back into the box and got to her feet. “Thanks. I’m starving.”

“Well, it’s half past one and you haven’t eaten the whole time you’ve been here,” Rose said, and then blushed. “I mean, it’s not as if I’ve been watching you or anything.”

Darcy shook her head. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it. The Jarvises have been eagle-eying me when I’m at Stark’s. I swear Mrs Jarvis counts how many bites I eat.”

Rose patted her arm. “We’re just trying to take care of you, honey.”

Darcy sniffed and wrinkled her nose. “Yeah.” She reached for the bottle of soda and twisted the cap off. The liquid was sweet and syrupy, with a very different taste than the one she was used to. She wondered what it would taste like mixed with Jack Daniels.

“How you holding up without Mr Lewis?” Rose asked kindly.

Darcy put the soda bottle down. “I’m fine,” she said too quickly. “Just fine. I’m okay. Totally fine.”

Rose raised an eyebrow, not convinced. “First time you’ve been separated?” she guessed.

Darcy cleared her throat. “Uh… no. Not really. But the first time that I knew he was still alive.”

Rose blinked a few times. “Oh,” she said uncertainly, and then patted Darcy’s arm again. “It’ll be okay. He’ll be back before you know it.”

“Yeah, I know,” Darcy said, poking into the paper sack. Whatever was inside smelled delicious. She pulled out a paper-wrapped bundle.

“Roast beef and mustard, from the deli over on Fifth,” Rose told her. “It’s Chief’s favorite, and I went over to get him one to try to cheer him up, and I thought about you and figured I might as well, since I was already there.”

“It smells amazing,” Darcy told her, and took a bite. “Oh, my god.”

Rose beamed. “Isn’t it just? I swear it’s something in the bread.”

Darcy nodded and swallowed. “That is the best sandwich I’ve ever had. Is Sousa moping about Carter?”

Rose nodded. “He’s got a special kind of worry for Peggy. She gets into so much trouble, you know.” Her expression changed. “Not that I’m saying I think they’re in danger or anything! I’m sure everyone’ll be just fine!”

“I’m not worried,” Darcy assured her. “Much, anyway. Loki’s pretty good at taking care of himself. I just…” she trailed off with a faint sigh.

“You miss him,” Rose nodded. “You wanna tell me about him? Maybe that will help?”

Darcy balked for a moment, unsure how much she could tell Rose without giving the game away. “Uh… I met his brother first,” she said uncertainly. “Actually, my boss ran his brother over with our car.”

Rose’s eyes lit up with concealed laughter. “Did he?” she asked.

“Yeah, she did,” Darcy leaned back against the table. “Jane is an astrophysicist, right? And we were studying this… aura… thing that was happening in the desert in New Mexico, and then he just came out of nowhere. We took him to hospital, but he was fine, and then he stayed with us for the weekend before his friends came to get him and take him home. Just long enough for him and Jane to fall completely head-over-heels in love, Disney style.”

“Oh, how sweet,” Rose cooed, enraptured by the story.

Darcy smirked. “Yeah, you should have seen them. That was like, two years ago, and they’re still at it. True love and all that shit.”

“When did you meet Mr Lewis?” Rose prompted.

Darcy rubbed her nose. “About a year later. I was visiting some friends out of town, who just so happened to be in the same city as Loki’s family, and we sort of ran into each other.” She bit her lip, thinking about her next words. “Loki had had a falling out with his dad, and I hadn’t heard good things about him from Thor, so my first impression of him was… not good.”

“What changed your mind?” Rose asked, fascinated.

“Well, we sort of argued our way through the next year,” Darcy explained. “I was friends with Thor and his mom, so we kept seeing each other, and then…” She paused. “He got hurt. Bad. Saving Jane’s life. Jane was pretty much my best friend in the whole world, so that meant a lot, you know.”

“Of course,” Rose replied, nodding.

“And of course Loki and his dad still weren’t on speaking terms,” Darcy went on. “And he’d disowned Loki completely, which sucked, because his family is, like, super wealthy, but my family has a lot of influence with Loki’s family so we decided if we got hitched, Loki’s dad wouldn’t be able to keep Loki locked out in the cold without risking pissing off my sisters…” she trailed off again with a shrug. “It was a business arrangement.”

“You married him for money?” Rose asked in disbelief.

Darcy grimaced. “Not for money. Loki was in a lot of trouble, and was facing criminal charges. That was totally not his fault, but we couldn’t get his dad to listen long enough to present the evidence, you know? But if Loki was part of my family, then my sisters would go to bat for him and it was enough to force his dad to listen to us and drop the charges. So it was also to keep him out of jail.”

Rose blinked rapidly. “Goodness. Well, you two seem really happy?” she said, more of a question than a statement.

“Oh, yeah, we are now,” Darcy assured her hurriedly. “I would totally do it all again. I mean, I love Loki, I really do. I just never saw myself marrying him until it actually happened.”

Rose nodded and pondered Darcy’s much-edited story. “How many sisters do you have?” she asked at length.

“Eight,” Darcy said, and then grimaced again. “No, sorry. Seven. One of them--she died recently.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Rose said sympathetically. “Sounds like it’s been a hard few months for you. And working here probably doesn’t help at all.”

Darcy screwed her face up. “Can I tell you a secret?” she asked.

Rose stared at her. “Of course,” she said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“Loki and I don’t work for the SSR,” Darcy admitted. “We’re just helping Carter and Sousa out.”

“Oh.” Rose didn’t look concerned in the slightest. “Well, we used civilian consultants during the War all the time! Take Stark, for instance. There’s no way they would actually let him work for the SSR.”

Darcy snorted. “Tell me about it. That man is one Jarvis away from being a supervillain.”

Rose giggled. “You know what? You’re absolutely right.”

The click of aluminum against the floor heralded Sousa’s approach a moment before he stuck his disheveled head into the office. “Rose,” he said. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”

Rose straightened, clasping her hands primly in front of her. “Yes, chief, what can I do for you?” she asked, blinking at him expectantly from behind her spectacles.

“I need you to go down and get the Research Division’s report on the Rift Generator from Samberly,” Sousa told her. “I was supposed to get it a week ago and I never did. And I need Thompson’s full autopsy report.”

Rose’s cheerful demeanor faded. “Yes, of course, chief,” she said in a subdued voice. She turned to Darcy. “I’ll see you after work to take you to your appointment, Mrs Lewis.”

“Darcy,” Darcy insisted. “Thanks for the sandwich, Rose.”

After Rose left, Sousa glanced around the room. “Making any headway?” he asked, his voice betraying his weariness.

“Not really,” Darcy replied with a sigh. “Who’s Thompson?”

Sousa came fully into the room and rubbed the back of his neck. “Agent of ours. Friend, if you could call him that. He was killed, same day you showed up. Shot in his hotel room.”

Darcy frowned. “Leviathan?” she asked.

“We’re still not sure,” Sousa admitted. “We thought it was something to do with a case we just closed, but now, after all this…” He gestured vaguely. “Anything you got, I’d appreciate it.”

Darcy squeezed her forehead and closed her eyes. “Is there anyone connected to the case, anyone who might know for sure? A prisoner, someone you arrested?”

Sousa blinked. “Yeah, actually. Guy named Vega. He worked for Vernon Masters, who was mixed up in the whole mess. Thompson was playing double agent between us and Masters. But Vega hasn’t been talking to anyone.”

Darcy lowered her hand. “He’ll talk to me,” she said grimly.

Sousa eyed her for a moment. “Please tell me you can’t read minds,” he said nervously.

“I can’t read minds,” Darcy assured him. “But I can come pretty damn close.”

XxxXxxX

Vega was being held in a secret prison underneath a dress shop in Pasadena. Darcy wasn’t really sure at the wisdom of keeping dangerous prisoners in the middle of a heavily-populated area, but she wasn’t the one in charge of the secret intelligence organizations.

In any case, they went through three separate security checks and two elevators. Darcy had to show off the shiny new SSR contractor ID Sousa had made for her. Then they were finally led to an observation room with a one-way glass showing an empty interrogation room.

“You want me in the room with you, or will it cramp your style?” Sousa asked.

Darcy loved the fact that she was being taken seriously, that not once had Sousa questioned her ability to interrogate this prisoner who was known to be able to resist standard interrogation techniques. She should have been surprised at Sousa’s aplomb, especially in a decade not given to women’s rights, but he did, after all, work with Peggy Carter.

“No, you can come in,” Darcy said. “Won’t make a difference.”

Sousa nodded and eyed her sidelong. “You’re not gonna… hurt him, are you?” he asked after a moment. “I’m not above a little rough handling, especially when an agent’s life is on the line, but…”

“But you don’t want to see a woman torture a prisoner?” Darcy asked dryly, her good opinion of Sousa wavering.

He frowned. “Oh, no, not at all. You haven’t seen a true interrogation ‘til you’ve seen Peggy at work. I just don’t want you overexerting yourself. I’ve seen your husband stop bullets in mid air. What d’you think he’d do to me if I let you get hurt?”

And Darcy’s appreciation for Sousa was firmly back in place. “Thanks,” she said with a smirk. “I’ll make sure not to tire myself out punching his face in.”

Two guards brought Vega in and handcuffed him to the table. He was a dark-haired man, Hispanic in origin. He was wearing a plain gray prisoner’s uniform with black numbers stamped on the breast, and he sported the remains of two black eyes. His lip was also scabbed over at the corner and he had purple mottling over his cheekbone.

“Dude, seriously?” Darcy muttered. “Looks like he’s been worked over by Andre the Giant. Geez, people.”

Sousa frowned at her again. “Andre the Giant?” he asked

Darcy waved her hand. “After your time.”

He nodded slowly. “All right, then. Ready?”

Darcy cracked her knuckles. “Yeah. We got this.”

Vega looked neither nervous nor intimidated when Sousa walked into the room first. “Came back for more, eh, Sousa?” he asked with a defiant smirk, and then caught sight of Darcy. “What’s this? Carter too busy, so you got a cheap knockoff? What’s your name, sweetheart?”

Sousa stepped out of Darcy’s way, standing back in the corner. Darcy didn’t respond to Vega’s taunt. She circled the table and sat down, folding her hands in front of her. Vega continued to smirk at her. “You gonna interrogate me, sweetheart?” he asked. “Come a little closer. I got something I wanna show you.”

Darcy tilted her head to the right, letting nothing show on her face. She spent a few seconds gathering all the information she could on him. Oldest of three boys. Abusive, alcoholic father. High school dropout. Served in the War with a clean record, but only because his sergeant covered for him. Got a job at the FBI. Quickly got noticed by Vernon Masters, who cleaned up all his messes, as long as Vega returned the favor.

Interesting.

“Well, if you ain’t gonna say anything, I can think of something your pretty mouth can do,” Vega said, clearly trying to get a rise out of Darcy. She continued to ignore him, seeing how far she could get with just her norn-senses. After a minute of silence, she realized she wasn’t able to glean anything specific about Jack Thompson other than the fact Vega hadn’t liked him.

“Look, doll, as nice as seeing a pretty girl like you is,” Vega began again. “I can see this isn’t going anywhere. So if I’m not gonna get my happy ending, I’d rather just go--”

Stop talking ,” Darcy interrupted in her norn-voice, and Vega’s mouth snapped closed, his eyes bulging wide. Darcy studied him for a moment, evaluating how strong her hold over him was. “ Stand up .”

Darcy’s norn-voice worked on Loki; Vega never stood a chance. He immediately shoved to his feet, ending up in an awkward hunch over the table, as his hands were still cuffed. “ Sit down ,” she ordered. Vega sat.

She leaned forward, placing her folded hands on the table in front of her. “Now that we’ve established what I can do,” she said softly. “I have a few questions.”

Vega’s jaw clenched until she saw the vein bulging at his temple, his eyes still bugging out of his skull. Darcy nodded as if to herself, and then said, “You can speak.”

“Who the hell are you, you crazy bitch?” Vega burst out, jerking as far away from her as the handcuffs would allow.

Darcy, externally serene, was internally doing cartwheels. She’d never put her powers to use this way, and was vastly relieved it was working. If it hadn’t, this whole thing would have been intensely embarrassing.

“I am the person who has the potential to become your worst nightmare,” Darcy said in a calm, mild voice. “ If you don’t tell me exactly what I want to know.”

“I’m not telling you anything, you fucking cu--”

Stop talking ,” Darcy interrupted again, and once more Vega’s mouth snapped closed. Darcy took a deep, slow breath. “Let me make this clear, Mr Vega. I am inside your head. I can make you do anything I want you to do. Which means I can march your out of this cell right into oncoming traffic. Think about that for a moment. Think about what I could make you do. Think about how you are never going to be sure of yourself for the rest of your life.”

Darcy leaned back, taking care that the pitch and timbre of her voice never changed. “You are always going to wonder, in the back of your mind, if it’s really you making decisions. If it’s not me, inside your head, playing you like a puppet on a string. And at night, when you go to sleep in your cell, all alone in the dark and the quiet, you’re going to close your eyes, and you’re going to see me staring right back at you.”

She heard a faint expulsion of breath behind her, and an even quieter “ Jesus .” Darcy didn’t take her gaze from Vega, didn’t let him look away from her, his dark eyes wide with uncertainty and fear. “Now,” Darcy said softly. “Tell me who killed Jack Thompson.”

Vega twitched, but didn’t say anything. The muscles in his throat rippled, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. Still he said nothing. He began to shake with the effort of remaining silent, tremors ripping through his body. Darcy didn’t break eye contact, letting him test her will.

And then she crushed him.

“I don’t know!” The words were ripped from his unwilling throat. “I don’t know! There’s no one from the Council left! Masters’ dead, they’re all dead. No one gave the order.”

His words resonated with truth, and Darcy nodded to herself. “Good,” she said, and then tilted her head. “Tell me what you know about Leviathan.”

He tried to resist. His efforts were noble and short-lived. After exactly seventy-one seconds of resisting, he slumped forward, breathing hard and sweating. “Leviathan is a Commie group from the USSR,” he said defeatedly. “They’ve been sending agents into the States from before the war. Masters had a few dealings with them; nothing he ever let me in on. I once escorted an agent of theirs from a warehouse to the airport. Something about information exchange, or some shit. Pretty dame; red hair.”

“What warehouse?” Darcy prompted.

Vega twitched. “Santa Monica. Second and Ferndale.”

“Thank you,” Darcy said softly, and Vega abruptly relaxed, all the tension draining from his body. “I expect that Chief Sousa will have some other questions for you in the future. I am sure you will be much more cooperative for him, yes?”

Vega didn’t respond. He slumped forward until he could put his head on the table. Darcy got to her feet and turned to Sousa. He was staring at her, wide-eyed, all the blood drained from his face. Darcy gestured toward the door, and he startled as if she had threatened him, and then moved to open the door, never taking his eyes off of her.

Once they were in the hallway, Sousa backed away from her, his free hand hovering a bit too close to his revolver for her liking. “How the hell did you do that?” he demanded hoarsely.

Darcy blinked a couple of times at him. “I’m a norn,” she said slowly. “I can… bend people a bit.”

Sousa flinched backwards at her answer. “You can make people do anything you want them to?” he asked.

“No,” Darcy said quickly. “I can’t. My power has limits. I can’t make people hurt themselves, or hurt someone else. I can’t force people to feel emotions. It’s just enough to scare people, I guess. I can’t really make Vega do a whole lot he doesn’t want to.”

That didn’t seem to comfort Sousa. “So you can’t make people… kill themselves?”

“What? No!” Darcy exclaimed, crossing her arms. “Seriously, Sousa, you look like I zombie-fied your grandmother. What the hell is wrong with you?”

He was silent for a long time, and then explained in a low, rough voice, “There was this doctor. Worked for Leviathan. Worked his way into our New York branch. Could make people do whatever he wanted, just by talking to them. Made an agent walk out in front of a truck. Made our chief strap on a bomb vest. God damn near made Stark kill half of Manhattan.”

Darcy flinched hard, stepping away from Sousa. Her stomach twisted itself into knots. “ Fuck ,” she said with feeling. “I’m so sorry. God. I had no idea. I’m sorry.”

Sousa swallowed. “So you can see that this makes us a bit twitchy.”

Darcy wrapped her arms around herself. “God, Sousa. I swear I would never do anything to hurt you, or anyone at the SSR. I promise I’m one of the good guys.”

He narrowed his eyes, studying her for a long moment without saying anything.

“Look, if I was going to hurt anyone, I wouldn’t have jumped in front of Carter,” Darcy said. “I wouldn’t have helped stop Leviathan from killing her.”

“I don’t know,” Sousa replied. “Could all just be a ploy to get us to trust you.”

Darcy nodded, and made a decision she knew Loki must never, ever find out about. “Okay. Okay then.” She swallowed. “If you really, really think that I’m a danger to you, or Carter, or anyone else you care about, take your gun and shoot me now.”

Sousa blinked in surprise, taking a half step back from her. “What?” he asked blankly.

Darcy gestured toward the revolver on his right hip. “You’ve got a gun. I’m not armed. If you don’t trust me, if there is the smallest doubt in your mind that I’m not a good person, I want you to shoot me.”

His face crumpled in disbelief. “I’m not gonna shoot you…” he said.

Darcy held out her hands, wrists pressed together. “Then arrest me. I’m clearly a danger to you and your agency. You can’t risk someone like me, with my abilities, loose inside your agency.”

Some of the color returned to his cheeks. “ Christ , Lewis. What sort of man do you think I am?” He took his hand away from his gun and clenched it into a fist. “You just gave me the heebie-jeebies, is all.”

Darcy dropped her hands. “Hey, I am just giving you every opportunity to make yourself feel safe. I know how scary it can look from the outside, but I promise you. I’m a good guy.” She summoned an object from her pocket dimension and held it out to him.

Sousa hesitated, and then limped forward a few steps to take it from her. It was her SHIELD ID badge, complete with the SHIELD logo, her photo, and her clearance level: Level 5-Restrictions. He studied it for a moment, then looked up at her. “What is this?”

“Someday, in the near future,” Darcy explained, “Carter is going to found a new intelligence agency, grown out of the SSR. She’s going to call it the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. And in 2012, I’m going to start working for them, on the Tesseract, the Cube that Johan Schmidt used to power his weapons during World War II. It’s going to be in SHIELD custody, and I will be one of seven people allowed to access it.”

Sousa looked down at the ID again, his expression lost in thought. After a long silence, he handed the badge back to her. “Any idea where I’m gonna be during all this?” he asked, half-joking.

Darcy squinted dramatically as she thought. “Retired and raising your four kids?” she said after a moment.

He looked startled. “Four?” he echoed.

Darcy nodded. Sousa absorbed that for a moment. “We’re still talking about Peggy, right?” he blurted. “I marry Peggy, right?” Darcy nodded again. Sousa turned red and passed his hand over his face. “Jesus,” he muttered. He turned and started walking back towards the security checkpoint.

Darcy hurried to catch up with him. “So you believe me?” she asked.

He turned to look at her. “Four. You’re sure about that?”

She grinned at him crookedly. “Yeah. Pretty sure.”

XxxXxxX

Darcy and Rose took a taxi to Stark Industries, as Rose did not know how to drive, and Darcy wasn’t licensed in this decade. Mrs Jarvis had already sent over a small suitcase of things for Darcy’s overnight stay, and Rose was sacrificing her evening to teach Darcy how to play poker. Darcy had tried to protest, saying that Rose didn’t need to spend her Friday night keeping her company, but Rose merely smiled conspiratorially and refused to be moved.

They put Darcy in the same treatment room as before, and let Darcy change into loungewear before inserting the IV. Rose arranged to have a table brought in, but when the orderlies kept bringing in chairs, Darcy got suspicious.

“Uh, Rose,” Darcy said as the redhead shuffled cards. “Exactly how many people are going to be playing poker?”

Rose kept grinning and shuffling. Just then, a polite knock sounded on the door, and it swung open to reveal Dr Wilkes holding an unlabeled bottle of wine and a box of glasses. “Am I early?” he asked, looking around.

“Not at all, Jason,” Rose assured him. “You come right on in.”

Dr Wilkes put the bottle and glasses on the table and turned to Darcy. “Hello again, Mrs Lewis. Been keeping busy?”

Darcy laughed. “You know what, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say we’re gonna be a lot more acquainted in a few hours, so you can just call me Darcy.” She stuck her hand out.

He shook her hand with a matching smile. “Jason.”

The door burst open without warning and Howard sauntered in, Jarvis on his heels. “I heard there was a pretty lady who needed entertaining!” Stark announced, leering good-naturedly at Darcy.

Darcy tilted her head. “I don’t know if I want to play poker with you, Stark. Pretty sure you’re gonna cheat.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Jarvis interjected, placing a box of cigars and a very expensive bottle of brandy on the table. “I’ll see to it he doesn’t count cards.”

“Excellent!” Rose said, finishing her shuffle. “Now, we’re just waiting for--”

“Sorry I’m late,” Sousa said, hobbling in with an armful of paper sacks. “I called in ahead, and it still took them forever to make our order.”

“Hey, Darcy, you’re in for a treat,” Jason told her. “It’s this little Italian place on Hanover. They make an amazing chicken cacciatore.”

Sousa looked up from pulling boxes out of the sacks. “Shoot. I forgot to ask. Noodles don’t have milk in them, right?”

“No, they do not,” Jarvis assured him. “I looked over the menu myself. It’s completely Kosher.”

Darcy looked around the table at all of them. “This is really sweet, guys, but you didn’t have to do all this.”

Jason patted her shoulder. “What are friends for?” he asked with a wide grin.

“And Mrs Jarvis will be by later with coffee and cake,” Jarvis announced.

Sousa pulled out a chair and nodded towards Darcy. “Come on,” he invited. “It’s not like we have a lot of places to be on a Friday night. We’re all married to our work. This is an exciting night out for us.”

Darcy pulled her IV stand over and sat down. “Okay. But I’m having a glass of that wine, and none of you are going to talk me out of it.”

“Oh, trust me, honey, we won’t try,” Rose told her. “Jason made that wine himself, and that man is an artist .”

Jason grinned and ducked his head. “I try.”

They played for nickels and dimes, and Darcy lost as often as she won, on purpose, because she didn’t have the heart to tell them she’d been playing poker with her brothers since she was old enough to count, and the Lewis boys didn’t see anything wrong with cheating.

When Mrs Jarvis arrived with the promised coffee and cake, they’d had to open the window to air out the cigar smoke, and Jason’s wine was completely gone. They’d made a good start on the brandy, but there was enough left to offer Mrs Jarvis a glass. It took them about fifteen minutes to convince her to join them.

“I have never played before!” she protested. “I only play gin rummy with the housekeeper and the cook.”

“Don’t listen to her,” Jarvis put in. “She’ll skin you all alive.”

Darcy had had a bit more to drink than her doctor would have recommended, and the cigar smoke was making her light-headed. She felt more relaxed than she’d been since arriving in this decade, and she’d been having fun. As a consequence, she’d let her defenses down almost unconsciously. So when the vision hit her while Mrs Jarvis was serving her a slice of cake, she had no warning.

She distantly realized she was slipping sideways, falling out of her chair, and then the vision took her.

Cold. So… cold. And dark. Can’t move. Hard to breathe. Inhale… liquid. Breathing in liquid. Why did it hurt. Hurt so bad. Never been in so much pain. Voices talking, can’t understand… Darkness lifting. Woman’s face. Know her. Carter. Looks worried. Why? Man with her. Dark hair, pale skin. He’s not worried. Green eyes, cold, like ice. Calculating. Reaches out his hand. Hurts! There’s a knife. Oh God, there’s a knife! Can’t breathe, blood in mouth, so cold…

Darcy hit the ground and all the air was driven from her body. For a moment she didn’t know where she was, who she was, and she scrabbled at her chest for a knife that wasn’t there. Her lungs hurt, ached like they were full of fluid, and she realized she wasn’t breathing. She tried to take a breath and ended up coughing, spraying blood from her lips.

“Darcy!” Rose exclaimed, dropping to her knees beside her.

“Fetch a doctor!” Jason yelled from somewhere nearby.

Then Mrs Jarvis was there, lifting Darcy’s head up to lay in her lap. “Take deep breaths, Mrs Lewis,” she said calmly. “Slow, deep breaths. That’s it.” She dabbed a handkerchief at Darcy’s lips. “You’ve bitten your tongue,” she informed Darcy. “Just keep breathing.”

“What happened?” Jarvis demanded, hovering over them. “Has she had a fit?”

“Step back, my darling,” Mrs Jarvis ordered quietly. “Give her some air.”

“Oh, yes, of course,” Jarvis said hastily, and backed away.

Darcy finally regained her equilibrium, turned her head, and spat out a mouthful of bloody saliva. “I have to warn them,” she said roughly.

“Warn who?” she heard Sousa ask, and then he appeared above her, going down onto his good knee. “Warn who, Lewis?”

Darcy struggled to sit up. “Carter and Loki,” she reported. “Something’s happened, going to happen. Something bad.” She reached up to grind her hand against her eyes. “Someone’s going to die.”

Chapter Text

They reached the outskirts of Onega in the small hours of the morning. Carter’s meeting with her double agent wasn’t until after dawn, so they set up camp in a copse of trees a short walk outside the city. They started a fire because Falsworth wanted tea, and by some small miracle Morita had a coffee maker so at the very least they had coffee to go with their meager breakfast.

Loki sat slightly apart from the others, nursing his single cup of steaming coffee (which, despite being made in field conditions, wasn’t terrible), listening and watching for dawn. Those without metaphysical senses did not understand the turning of the realms like he did. Dawn wasn’t just the rising of a sun, it was renewal, a fresh start, an easing of the darkness. It was soothing to him, to feel the darkness recede in favor of a new day.

The silvery thread that connected him to Darcy was stretched thin at the distance between them, but was no less strong. It vibrated abruptly, as if plucked, a pure tone resonating through him that caused his spine to straighten. Loki set aside his empty plate and got to his feet, keeping his coffee cup in one hand.

Carter looked up when he started to leave camp. “Something wrong?” she asked, frowning. He shook his head at her but offered no explanation. The mortal woman pressed her lips together. “Stay close to camp,” she warned him. Loki immediately ignored her warning by walking far enough away from camp that there would be no risk of them overhearing anything. Once he deemed himself a safe distance, he sent a reply vibration down along the silver thread.

Darcy appeared before the last of the reverberations died away, and instantly flung herself into Loki’s arms. “Oh thank god you’re okay,” she babbled into the front of his jacket.

Loki frowned and circled his arms around her. She was wearing a thin silk dressing robe, and smelled faintly of smoke and liquor. He could feel her panic fluttering around inside her, battering against her defenses.

“What is it, elskede ?” he demanded. “What has happened?”

She tried to burrow deeper into his chest, hunching her shoulders unhappily. “Had a vision,” she mumbled, her voice muffled. His frown deepened, and he rubbed her back in soothing circles until he felt the muscles relax under his hand.

“Tell me,” he instructed.

She told him in broken, disjointed sentences, and when she was done he held her until her shuddering breaths evened out. “It sounds to me as if I am in no danger,” he told her softly. “Nor Carter, but it was someone else you saw die.” He wondered for a moment how many deaths she had felt, how many last moments she had absorbed from nearby victims, and set the thought aside.

She nodded, and then finally leaned back to look at his face. “I know. But it could have been one of the Commandos, or someone important to your mission. If it wasn’t important, I wouldn’t have seen it, right?”

“I do not know,” he admitted.

“You’ll be careful?” Darcy asked, curling her hands around the lapels of his jacket.

“I will be watchful,” Loki promised. He studied her face for a moment, taking in the translucent skin under the blue eyes, the fever-flush of the cheeks, the paleness of the generous lips. “Are you feeling well?”

She shook her head. “Yeah, fine. I just… I guess I had too much to drink.”

He reached up to smooth a strand of hair out of her face. “You should not be drinking,” he told her. “It thins the blood and you already bleed too easily.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, you’re probably right,” she admitted. “But when Stark offers you a bottle of two thousand dollar brandy, you don’t exactly say no.”

“Do not have any more to drink until you are fully recovered,” he said firmly. “You do not sleep well when you drink.”

Darcy sighed heavily and rested her cheek against his chest. “Okay,” she agreed. For a moment they stood in silence, taking comfort in each others’ presence. Then Loki reluctantly began to pull away.

“Carter is to leave soon,” he explained. “And I would speak to her before she leaves, to pass on your warning.”

Darcy nodded unhappily. “Okay,” she said again. “I’ll talk to you later?”

“Yes,” he said with conviction, and leaned down to kiss her. “As often as I can.”

It was harder than he liked, to watch her leave, to feel as if a part of himself went with her. A voice whispered in the darkest parts of his mind, disgusted that he was so dependant on another being, that it was weakness, but he smothered that voice with conviction, refusing to give it heed.

The Commandos were still clustered around the fire when he returned. Loki set his now-cold coffee next to the fire and tapped Carter’s shoulder. “I would speak with you,” he told her.

She instantly got to her feet and followed him a few steps away from the others. “What is it?” she asked in a low voice.

“You remember how Darcy can sometimes see the future?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

Carter nodded slowly. “Yes, I remember. She said that was how she knew about the first assassin Leviathan sent after me.”

“She’s received a portent of danger,” Loki told her. “Of death.”

Carter’s eyebrows drew together. “First of all,” she said in a somewhat flat voice. “ How are you in communication with Darcy? And second, whose death did she foresee?”

“We have means other than mortal technology,” Loki replied tersely. “And she was not able to determine whose death, only that you were present.”

“Lovely,” Carter said grimly, and pressed her lips together.

“This agent of yours, that you are meeting,” Loki asked. “Do you trust him?”

“Of course not, he’s a double agent ,” Carter retorted.

“Then I will accompany you to meet him,” Loki said firmly. He purposefully left out the fact that he, too, had been present in Darcy’s vision, because if he told Carter she would most likely order him to remain with the others, not wishing to turn Darcy’s protent into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But Loki was of the opinion that, regardless of whose death she had foreseen, it would be better if Loki was present to watch over Carter.

Carter’s survival was necessary. If Carter did not survive, then there would be no SHIELD, and if there was no SHIELD, there would be no Avengers, and no one to stop Thanos’ attempt to claim the Tesseract. And even though Skuld had used Loki to purposefully sabotage Thanos’ efforts, Loki would rather not risk fate by changing it.

“I was going to take Dugan,” Carter said pensively, glancing over her shoulder at the men with her. “But I suppose you can come along.”

Loki summoned two objects from his pocket dimension. One was a small disk of bilgesnipe antler, the other a thin cord made from silk. He used his stylus to carve a rune on the disk of antler, and then strung it on the cord. “Here,” he said shortly, catching Carter’s hand and pulling it toward him.

She didn’t fight him. She was far too trusting. No doubt that would be why Hydra would grow inside her organization under her nose. Refraining from criticizing her, Loki fastened the cord around her wrist, and then infused the bracelet with a spell.

Carter jumped when she felt the buzz of magic against her hand. “What was that?” she demanded, snatching her hand back to examine her new bracelet.

“Magic,” he told her. “This,” he touched the antler disk, “Will tell me your heart beat and your location, so I can always find you.”

She looked up at him, eyebrows raised. “And is my safety so important to you?”

“Your existence is essential to future events,” he told her.

“Oh, you’re too kind,” Carter said dryly, rolling her eyes. She shook her sleeve down over the cord. “Well, we might as well get this over with.” She turned and marched back to the Commandos. “Dugan! Get moving.”

“But I haven’t finished my--” Dugan cut himself off at the sight of Carter’s face and sighed. He tossed the remains of his coffee over his shoulder and flung the cup at Jones. “Wash that for me.” Then he clambered to his feet and reached for his shotgun.

“Sidearms only,” Carter ordered. “We don’t want to attract attention.”

Dugan made a face, but left the shotgun, tugging his hat down to secure it. “What about him?” he asked, using his chin to point to Loki. “Doesn’t he need a sidearm?”

“Loki has… other skills,” Carter said primly. “Ready gentlemen? Step lively, then!”

The walk to Onega was uneventful. Onega itself was a tiny village, consisting of a cluster of brick and stone buildings that showed the ravages of war far too obviously. Darcy had told Loki of the war that had occurred a few years previous, and how the entire realm was still recovering. Some parts of this world clearly felt it harder than others.

The meeting place with Carter’s agent was little more than a lean-to attached to a tavern. The sour smell of ale mingled with the smell of cooking food, and Loki’s treacherous stomach reminded him that he was dangerously close to starvation mode. He said nothing though, enduring the hunger pains as penance for his lack of preparation. He should have anticipated his need before he and Carter left Los Angeles. He would survive, for now.

Carter checked her wristwatch twice as they waited in tense silence until finally there came the sound of footsteps crunching over the crusted mud and a man ducked into the lean-to. He was tall, but slump-shouldered, dressed in drab, greasy clothing. His hair might have been red, but it was hard to tell  under the grime and shapeless cap. He straightened, and then his eyes widened at the sight of Loki and Dugan standing on either side of Carter.

“I told you to come alone,” the man muttered, scowling at Carter. He had a strong accent, and Loki assumed he was speaking Russian.

“Do you really think I would have come without protection?” Carter retorted. Her accent had changed as well, indicating a change of language.

The man grunted and held out his hand. “Payment first.”

Carter rolled her eyes and reached into her jacket. She pulled out a wad of paper bills and slapped it into the man’s palm. He grunted again and ferreted it away in his own coat. Then he hunched his shoulders even more and leaned toward Carter.

Loki wrinkled his nose at the man’s body odor, and took a discrete step back. Not that the air was any fresher. Whatever was being cooked in the tavern beside them was particularly pungent, as well. The man’s eyes darted to and fro as he spoke nervously.

“The word is, Leviathan is moving. Something about a red room. Must be code for something.”

At the mention of the Red Room, Loki’s attention focused once more on the man, his eyes narrowing. He didn’t interrupt the man, though, as he continued.

“Leviathan’s got something, a weapon, they say, in Oskolkovo. Plan on moving it to America. Don’t know when, though. It’s big. Everyone is talking about it.”

“That is all?” Carter demanded sharply.

The man shrugged. “Leviathan is not easy to spy on,” he replied. “Not easy to get into. You asked for what I have. Said you would pay. That is what I have.”

Carter sighed, more of a growl. “Fine,” she spat.

The agent tugged his cap lower over his face and turned to leave. There was a loud crack , followed by the splintering of wood, and the man collapsed in a spray of blood. Loki spat out a curse and lunged forward, throwing up an energy shield before the man’s body hit the ground. He should have sensed danger coming. That’s what he got for being careless.

There was a series of loud explosions, and more bullets struck Loki’s shield, the chunks of metal dropping into the dirt by their feet.

“What in the name of--” Dugan demanded, frozen in place, staring at the shimmering, green forcefield Loki projected in front of them.

“I can’t see a damn thing,” Carter spat, pulling her sidearm from under her jacket.

Loki grunted and stepped forward, pushing his hands outward. The forcefield struck the side of the lean-to and obliterated it, conveniently clearing their line of sight. A open-bed truck, painted shades of green, sat on the road not far away, surrounded by men with rifles. A large gun sat in the bed of the truck, metal ribbons hanging from the body of it. Another man stood behind the large gun, holding onto it with both hands.

“Bloody hell ,” Carter growled.

The large gun barked once, twice, then several times in a row. The impacts from the bullets nearly knocked Loki off his feet. “I cannot keep this shield indefinitely,” he gritted out through clenched teeth. “You need to move .”

Carter stepped backwards, out of his field of vision, and Dugan followed her. Then Loki felt Carter tap his shoulder, and he began to walk backwards until he could duck behind the tavern and drop the shield. He could feel the burst blood vessels up his arms and in the muscles of his shoulders; he would have bruises later.

Carter eyed the distance to the next building. “It’s no good,” she said tersely. “We’ll never make it.”

Dugan was staring wide-eyed at Loki. “What in the hell are you?” he demanded.

“That can wait,” Carter snapped. “Right now we need to focus on getting out of here.”

“I can distract them,” Loki said, summoning his dagger to his left hand. He would need his right free for seidr-working.

Dugan looked down at his blade. “You’re gonna take on a dozen men with rifles and a machine gun with a pocket knife?” he demanded.

Loki sneered. “No,” he replied. He transformed his clothing into his armor, the green, gold, and black ensemble he’d worn to conquer Midgard. When he had time, he needed to design a new set of armor.

Dugan’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head, but Carter merely looked him up and down and then nodded slightly. “We’ll rendezvous with the others, but we’ll have to move,” she told him. “Can you find us?”

Loki gestured toward her wrist. “Do not remove that, and I will. At my signal, go, and do not look back.”

“What signal?” Dugan recovered enough to ask.

Loki flipped his dagger around to a reverse grip. “You will know by the screaming,” he said with bared teeth, and stepped out from behind the tavern. Immediately he was the focus of all of the men with guns, but they faltered at the sight of him, stalking forwards in his Asgardian armor. Then one of the enemy--Russians, he presumed--opened fire.

The bullets struck his breastplate and ricocheted, the impact light enough that Loki was able to shrug it off with no injury. The larger gun-- machine gun , Dugan had called it--swung towards him. That one would be a problem. Gathering himself, Loki launched himself forward over the heads of the footsoldiers to land in the bed of the truck.

His dagger severed the gunner’s spine before the man had a chance to turn around. Loki twisted his hand, sending a pulse of green energy seeking towards the fuel tank of the veh, and then leapt clear before the truck exploded in a shower of super-heated metal.

To their credit, the remaining men held their ground, spreading out to attack him from as many different angles as possible. Loki flung a handful of energy darts at two of the soldiers, dropping them where they stood.

Three of the survivors turned and ran. Loki let them go. His mission wasn’t to obliterate the enemy, merely to give Carter and the others time to retreat. The remaining soldiers withdrew behind the still-burning wreckage of the truck. One of them flung something overhand at Loki, what appeared to be a can attached to a stick.

He batted it out of the air away from him, and stepped forward, only for the object to explode behind him. He stumbled forward a few steps, caught off-guard, and then flinched when he felt a bullet pierce a gap in his arm, burying itself in the meat of his left bicep.

Loki muttered another curse and stalked forward, summoning another energy shield to block the barrage of gunfire until he reached the burning vehicle. Catching the wreckage with one hand, he easily flipped it over onto the last four soldiers, shaking the flames from his sleeve.

The men trapped under the burning truck screamed, but he ignored them, pulling away the shoulder plate of his armor so he could examine the bullet wound. It had not exited, but it hadn’t hit the bone. It would be a simple enough matter to remove it.

A mortal philosopher had once said, “Physician, heal thyself.” That was the irony. Loki could heal minor wounds in others, but his seidr did not work on himself. He would have to put up with the wound for the few days it would take to heal.

The mortals under the truck finally stopped screaming, allowing Loki enough peace to focus on the spell he’d placed on Carter. She had not gotten far, perhaps two miles from their campsite. He gathered up his energy and teleported directly to her location.

He did not, as he had intended, reappear inside the truck. Of course, it was difficult enough to land inside a moving target. When one was half-starved, bruised, and bleeding, it was next to impossible. He found himself directly in the path of the first truck, blinking stupidly at the oncoming vehicle as it skidded to a stop a few feet away.

Carter was out of the passenger side of the truck almost immediately and ran over to him. “Loki?” she demanded. “Are you injured? You’re white as a sheet!”

“I am fine,” he said dismissively, and shrugged. He winced as a jab of pain shot through his damaged muscles. “I will need assistance,” he admitted after a moment.

Dugan, Jones, and Dernier also got out of the trucks and came over to stare at him in his bloody, soot-smeared armor.

“Your hand is burned,” Dernier pointed out. Loki raised his right hand, staring dispassionately at the reddened and blistered flesh. He had always been susceptible to fire, which made sense, given his Jotun ancestry.

“Yes, it is,” he observed, and clenched the hand into a fist. The skin cracked and bled slightly.

“He’s in shock,” Carter said to Dugan. “Help me get him into the truck.”

“Did you really take all those Ruskies by yourself?” Dugan asked as he came over to Loki’s side and reached for Loki’s arm.

“I am not in shock,” Loki said stiffly, pulling away from Dugan’s hands. He started walking towards the truck of his own power, ignoring the scream of pain from his left arm when he used it to pull himself into the covered truck bed.

“Where else are you wounded?” Carter demanded, sitting across from him.

With one hand burned and the other shoulder damaged, it was difficult for Loki to remove parts of his armor, and when he tried to use magic to remove the interfering pieces, he got lightheaded. He had hardly exerted himself; he should not have been this affected.

It was the nutrition deficiency, he told himself distantly. It had been days since he’d eaten properly and the energy shield took a great deal of power. He blinked his way back to the present when Carter snapped her fingers under his nose.

“Where are you injured?” she asked again, enunciating each word carefully.

“There is a bullet in my shoulder,” Loki told her, lips pressed tightly together. “I--I cannot remove my armor on my own.”

She pushed off the bench and knelt in front of him, peering at the layers of leather, cloth, and metal before starting to tug experimentally at a closure. It only took her a few moments to strip the layers of armor off until he was down to his shirt, which he shrugged off on his own.

“Jesus, man,” Jones said, and whistled. Loki’s arms were mottled blue-black from his palms, over his shoulders, and halfway down his back. Jones had a medical kit out and had been in the process of pulling out a brown bottle and a paper package of sterile bandages.

“What the hell happened to you?” the dark-skinned mortal demanded, exchanging places with Carter. He gently took Loki’s left arm and leaned him forward. “No exit wound,” he announced before Loki could answer his question.

Loki watched dully as Jones poured liquid from the brown bottle over a pair of tweezers, and then raised the bottle to the wound in his shoulder. The liquid burned fiercely, but Loki bore it without sound. Carter carefully took Loki’s right hand and began to swab the burns clean.

In the midst of his pain and exhaustion, he missed the silver thread of the bond humming like a livewire, transmitting Darcy’s panic and worry. So when she materialized on the bench opposite him, he jumped, just like everyone else in the truck.

“Bloody Nora O’Reilly!” Carter yelped at the same time Jones and Dernier both said, “Shit!”

Darcy stared at Loki with wide eyes, taking in the bruises, the burns, and the trickle of blood that slowly ran down the length of his upper arm.

“What in the name of holy hell happened to you?” she demanded.

“What are you doing here?” Loki asked. She was wearing a nightshirt and nothing else, her hair pinned up out of the way.

“How the hell did she get here?” Jones demanded, staring at Darcy as if she was an apparition.

“That is a very good question,” Carter said, giving Darcy a very hard look. “How did you get here, Darcy?”

“I’m bilocating,” Darcy replied, never taking her eyes off Loki. “I can be in two places at the same time. What happened ?”

“Bilocating?” Jones echoed. “The hell?”

Later ,” Carter told him sharply. She turned back to Darcy. “Does this mean you are still in Los Angeles?”

“Yes,” Darcy said, losing patience. “Now will someone tell me what the fuck happened?”

“Carter’s meeting with her double agent was compromised,” Loki said tightly. “There were men with guns. I eliminated them.”

“And got yourself beat to kingdom come?” Darcy demanded. “And shot .”

Loki looked down at the hole in his bicep. “Yes, that was rather careless of me.”

Jones shook his head. “Okay. You know what, I can tell this conversation is gonna be shifty as hell, but I really need to get this bullet out of this boy’s shoulder, so can we hold the talking for a bit?”

Carter went back to swabbing Loki’s hand, which was finally starting to hurt. Loki stared straight at Darcy, who held his gaze, as Jones bent over his shoulder once more and began to probe the wound to retrieve the bullet. Jones was quite skilled, because it only took him a few moments to remove the slug of metal and drop it in the tin cup Dernier held out. Jones poured more disinfectant into the wound.

“I’ll need to stitch it,” he said, turning back to his medical kit.

“No,” Loki said. “Just bandage it and be done with it. It will heal on its own in a few days.”

Jones froze to stare at Loki for a long moment. “Days,” he said slowly. “Okay. Fine. I’ll just pack it and tie it.” He did just that, using clotting powder and the sterile bandages. Carter, in the meantime, had finished cleaning his hand and spread white cream over the burns before wrapping it lightly in more bandages.

Only once he was certain Loki was tended to, and had struggled back into his shirt, did Jones sit back on his heels, exchange a look with Dernier, and then turn to Carter. “Okay, Peggy. You wanna tell me how this boy took out a dozen men with rifles and a machine gun, and how this dame showed up in our truck in nothing but her nightie? Speaking of which…” He turned, grabbed a folded blanket, and handed it to Darcy.

Darcy took the blanket even though she didn’t need it and draped it over her shoulders. She looked like she wanted to speak, but she stayed uncharacteristically silent, no doubt aware that she was to blame for the awkward situation Carter was now in.

Carter sat on the floor of the truck and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Yes, well, we might as well start with introductions. Darcy Lewis, this is Gabe Jones, Jacques Dernier, and the man driving the truck is Timothy Dugan.”

Dugan turned around enough to tug at his cap. “Pleasure, ma’am.”

Darcy waved slightly. “Hi,” she said lamely.

Loki felt sympathy for her. She hated being embarrassed, and he knew she was regretting acting without thinking. She had, no doubt, felt his pain and discomfort, and hadn’t thought twice before dreamwalking to him.

“Darcy and Loki are civilian consultants the SSR picked up recently,” Carter went on to explain. “They have certain… abilities … outside the scope of normal human limitations.”

“Abilities?” Dernier echoed. “What sort of abilities?”

“And how’d they get ‘em?” Jones demanded, wiping blood from his hands with a dirty rag.

“Varied,” Carter replied shortly. “And they were born with them.”

“So that’s how you took out twenty men with land mines, and the ones in Onega?” Jones asked, eying Loki up and down.

“Wait, how many guys with landmines?” Darcy demanded, leaning forward. She fixed Loki with a baleful glare. “And why wasn’t I informed of this?”

“It was nothing,” Loki said quickly. “They were neutralized without anyone dying.”

“Twenty,” Darcy said flatly. “With landmines .”

Loki glared back at her. “Do you really think I can not handle a rabble of mortals with primitive explosive devices?” he growled.

“Well, clearly twelve guys with a machine gun is enough to do all that, so forgive me for being concerned,” Darcy retorted, gesturing vaguely to him.

Loki leaned against the side of the truck. “The bruising was my own doing,” he said tersely. “I have not yet mastered the energy output required for the force shield. It has a tendency to cause physical strain.”

“You look like an overripe plum,” Darcy told him.

“I am fine ,” Loki insisted.

Darcy crossed her arms and glared at him some more. Jones looked between them. “I don’t mean to pry, but are you two related?” he asked.

“Yes,” Loki said resignedly, at the same time Darcy said, “We’re married.”

“Ah,” Jones said, and went back to wiping his hands.

Loki closed his eyes and leaned his head back. He really did not care who did or did not know about his true nature. It would not matter in a few weeks, when they would be done with Leviathan and he could take Darcy away. If all went as planned, he would convince her to leave this realm entirely. There was an estate on Vanaheim he knew for a fact would not be used in the next century.

“So, the things that Odinson and his lovely wife can do,” Dernier began hesitantly. “They are safe, yes?”

Loki didn’t bother to open his eyes. He was tired, and would like to sleep, despite the jouncing of the moving vehicle. After a long silence, he heard Carter reply, “Yes. Yes, I trust them.”

“Well, we used to fight alongside a guy who could press lift a motorcycle with one hand, against another guy with a red skull for a face,” Dugan called from the driver’s seat. “I’d say our tolerance of the strange is pretty high.”

Jones chuckled in reply. “Too damn right, my friend.”

Loki felt a warm, blanket-wrapped body press against his right side, and he lifted his head to see Darcy leaning against him. He freed his right arm and looped it around her shoulders so he could pull her tight to his side. She snuggled against him, not interested in continuing their earlier discussion, much to Loki’s relief. He had no desire to quarrel with her in front of witnesses, especially since that so often led to his darkness being revealed. He tilted his head to press a kiss to Darcy’s hair, and she hummed soundlessly, drawing her legs up to curl into as tiny a space as possible.

“So how do you do it?” Jones asked, packing away his medical supplies. He looked up at Loki. “How’d you knock out all those Ruskies?”

“Magic,” Loki replied tersely.

Jones gave him a doubtful look. “You’re shitting me.”

Loki held up his left hand, ignoring the twinges in his shoulder, and allowed a wisp of green energy to dance amid his fingers. It glowed bright in the dimness of the truck, giving everyone’s skin a sickly cast. “Energy,” he explained. “The ability to manipulate it. Shape it to your will. Humans, most humans, do not have this ability. They fear the unknown, call it magic. It’s nothing more than simple science. Energy is not destroyed, only changed.”

“First law of thermodynamics,” Darcy mumbled.

“Even so,” Loki agreed. He absorbed the energy back into his skin. “When you learn to change it, you control it.”

“Incredible,” Dernier breathed.

“So that’s it, then?” Jones asked. “You some kind of, what, magician?”

“Sorcerer, is the correct term,” Loki replied wearily. “The ability… runs in my family.”

Darcy made a strange noise at that, almost like a cat’s purr, and twisted to look up at him with an inquisitive expression. He didn’t elaborate on whether he meant his birth or adoptive family. Truly, he didn’t know the answer, either.

Jones shook his head. “Fuck me sideways with a barrel,” he muttered, and then glanced up at Darcy. “Er, sorry, ma’am.”

Darcy snorted in amusement. “Yeah, Jones, watch your fucking language.” That teased a smile out of the dark-skinned man. Darcy disentangled an arm to offer a hand to shake. “Nice to meet you, by the way. Big fan.”

“It’s nothing like the comics, you know,” Jones told her, shaking her hand.

“I know,” Darcy said simply.

Jones squinted at her. “What about you? Bilocating the only thing you can do?”

“Nope,” Darcy said, and smiled enigmatically. When Loki had first met Darcy, she was as easy to read as a book. All her emotions showed on her face. She had gotten much better at concealing her thoughts, he was pleased to say. Perhaps she was learning other things from him, as well.

Loki tucked her tighter against his side and leaned his head back again. Yes, he could sleep, despite the rough ride of the truck. With Darcy next to him, all was well.

Chapter Text

There was something wrong with Loki. Darcy was sure of it. Because in all seriousness, twelve guys with rifles and a machine gun shouldn’t have beaten him up as much it had. Maybe the bruising from the energy shield, if he was right and it was a new spell he was working on, but getting shot ? And burned? No. Something was definitely wrong.

When she was completely certain he was fast asleep, she nudged Carter with her foot, attracting the other woman’s attention. “Is he okay?” she asked in a quiet voice, inclining her head towards Loki. He still had his arm around her, pinning her securely in place.

“You mean other than his injuries?” Carter whispered back. She shrugged. “He is not the most conversational of people, you know.”

“I know, but has he been acting weird?” Darcy pressed. “Has he been sleeping okay? Eating?”

“He sleeps during the day, in the trucks, and he is awake all night,” Carter told her. “And he eats with the rest of us.”

Something occurred to Darcy. “How much does he eat?” she asked slowly.

Carter blinked a few times. “Why?” she replied.

“He needs a lot more food than a normal human,” Darcy said with a sigh. “Let me guess, he hasn’t been eating.”

“Only the same amount as we have,” Carter muttered. “Bugger all. Why didn’t he say anything? We could have brought more supplies.”

“Because he’s an idiot and he doesn’t tell people what he needs,” Darcy growled, glaring at her unconscious lagsmaðr. She carefully disentangled herself from his side without waking him and tucked the blanket around him. He probably didn’t need it, but she couldn’t help herself.

“When he wakes up, tell him that I’ll be back,” Darcy told Carter. Carter wasn’t looking at her. The other woman’s eyes were fixed on Darcy’s forearm, the left one.

“What is that?” she demanded, reaching out to touch the runes marked to Darcy’s skin. “Loki has that same tattoo.”

“What’s a nice girl like you going and marking yourself up like that?” Jones asked, leaning over to get a better look at Darcy’s arm.

Darcy snatched her arm away from their curious gazes and pressed it to her stomach. “It’s nothing,” she snapped. “Just tell Loki I’ll be back soon.” With that, she ended the dreamwalk, abruptly waking up in the treatment room at Stark Industries.

The IV was still in place in her hand, but she discovered she had a desperate need to pee. She sighed, kicked the covers off, and grabbed the IV stand. Once that was taken care of, she returned to the bed. There was a phone on the bedside table.

“‘Ello?” came Mrs Jarvis’ sleepy mumble after the third ring.

“Ana?” Darcy asked. “I’m really sorry to wake you up, but I need a favor.”

“Oh, Mrs Lewis,” Ana said, sounding much more awake. “Of course. What is it?”

“With whatever you have in the pantry, how many sandwiches do you think you could make?” Darcy asked.

There was a long moment of silence, and then Ana said, “I would think about two dozen.” Darcy realized that the silence had been Ana calculating, rather than her disbelief at the question.

“Awesome,” Darcy said. “Can you make them and have Mr Jarvis bring them to the hospital?”

“Of course. Though… may I ask why you need two dozen sandwiches at… four o’clock in the morning?”

“I don’t,” Darcy told her. “But Loki does.”

“I… see. I will have Mr Jarvis bring them to you as soon as possible.”

“Thanks, Ana. You’re the best.”

Darcy had no doubt that the food would reach her as soon as possible, which meant she had some time to kill. She grabbed her dressing gown and slid it on, carefully unhooking her IV and reattaching it to do so. She retrieved her slippers from under the bed, grabbed the rolling IV stand, and ventured out into the building.

Despite being four o’clock in the morning, the building was not empty. Scientists were scientists regardless of what decade it was, and there was more than one laboratory that was occupied late and early. Also, security had been beefed up, so there were guards patrolling the halls. Darcy made sure she had her Stark Industries ID card visible, and the guards nodded at her as she passed them.

She’d only been to Stark’s personal lab once, but as Howard himself was in the lab at the moment, she didn’t have any trouble finding it. Jason was with him, and both of them were peering into the bowels of a partially-disassembled machine that looked like a cross between a cement mixer and a death ray.

“What is that?” Darcy demanded from the doorway.

Both men jumped at the sound of her voice. “ Jesus , Darcy,” Howard said, clutching at his chest. “You scared the hell outta me.”

“Sorry,” she replied unapologetically, and fully entered the room. “What is that?” she asked again, pointing to the device with her chin.

“It’s a rift generator,” Jason explained.

Darcy tilted her head. “I heard Sousa--Daniel-- mention that to Rose. What does it do?”

“It opens a doorway from this dimension into a different one,” Howard told her. “Only it worked the one time and we haven’t been able to get it to work since.”

“A different dimension?” Darcy asked, hopping up to sit on a relatively clear table. “What kind of dimension? And why?”

“Not anything like earth,” Jason told her gravel. “Dark. Empty. Cold, and hungry. It was awful.”

Darcy tilted her head. This sounded like an interesting story, and she needed to pass the time until Mr Jarvis arrived with the food. “Do tell.”

Jason took a deep breath. “It started with nuclear tests during the war. One of the tests Roxxon did went a bit… wrong. We believe that it opened a crack, if you will, into another dimension, and a piece of that dimension came through. We called it Zero Matter. Highly unstable, with enough energy to power an entire city indefinitely.”

Infinite clean energy. Darcy frowned, remembering the videos she’d seen, of Skuld- and Thanos- controlled Loki. “Unlimited power,” is what he’d said, taunting Fury with the Tesseract. What was it with people and unstable power sources?

“Go on,” she urged.

“It’s deadly,” Howard put in without looking up from where he was once more poking around the inside of the rift generator. “Killed anyone with direct contact with it, except for Jason here, and Whitney Frost.”

Darcy screwed up her face. “Whitney Frost?” she asked. “Why does that name sound familiar?”

“Well, she’s a well-known actress,” Jason told her. “Maybe you’re seen her films?”

Darcy snapped her fingers. “That’s right. The F Stands For Freedom , right?”

Jason nodded. “Yes. The Zero Matter fused with her somehow. Turned her into, well, a monster.”

“What did it do to you?” Darcy asked, frowning at Jason.

“It made me incorporeal,” he admitted with a grimace. “Like some sort of ghost. It was horrible.”

Darcy wrinkled her nose. “I bet. Where does the rift generator fit in?”

“Well, as it turned out, the only way to stop Miss Frost was to send the Zero Matter back to where it had come from,” Jason explained. “So we built the rift generator, based on schematics we stole from her, and opened a rift while she was nearby. The Zero Matter got sucked back through the rift.”

“If Zero Matter is so dangerous, why are you trying to get the generator to work again?” Darcy asked, swinging her legs slightly.

“If we opened a rift to one alternate dimension, imagine what we could do if we opened it to a different one!” Howard said, waving a wrench in the air. “The science, woman! The discovery! It’s all right for you ,” he accused, jabbing the wrench at her. “I bet they’ve done all sorts of crazy things where you’re from. You wanna sit there and tell me they haven’t done anything like this in the future?”

Jason slew around to stare at Darcy with wide, brown eyes. “Wait…” he said. “The future ?”

Darcy sighed, but she knew that they could trust Jason. She raised a hand and waggled her fingers at him. “Hi. Darcy Lewis, time traveller, at your service.”

Jason dropped the pen in his hand, still staring at her. “Seriously? You… travelled in time?”

She nodded and swung her legs again. “Yup.”

“How far?” Jason demanded. “I mean, what year are you from? How did you get here? What’s it like? Have they discovered a way of using nuclear fusion as an alternate power source to fission?”

Darcy held up both hands to ward him off. “Whoa, slow your roll, cowboy. I’m from 2013. I got here by accident, and no, we’re still using nuclear fission in most power plants. But there have been some huge leaps in clean, sustainable energy in the last few years, so nuclear power may be going the way of the windmill.”

Jason stared at her, not in disbelief, but in utter fascination. “That’s incredible,” he said softly. “Sixty-six years. So much must have changed.”

“Yes,” Darcy said, nodding. “With the Civil Rights Movement, the treatment of minorities is a lot better. I mean, racism still exists, it always will, but we have a black president, so win, I suppose.”

Both Howard and Jason stared at her now. “There’s a colored man as president ?” Howard demanded.

Darcy nodded again. Jason’s face lit up in a brilliant smile. “Well, that’s something to look forward to,” he said.

“Yeah,” Howard agreed, the corners of his eyes wrinkling in delight. “That’s gonna be something.”

Darcy felt a lurch in her stomach. She knew, like most people knew, that Howard Stark would die in a car crash in 1991. She’d been doing her best not to think about it, but there it was. She wriggled uncomfortably. “Uh, computers are a big thing,” she offered. “They learn how to make them smaller. And portable. And everyone has one.”

“Computers?” Jason echoed, leaning forward. “You mean the Turing machine?”

Darcy nodded. “Yeah. I forgot, didn’t it get invented, like, last year?”

“Yes, and most people think it’s rubbish,” Jason told her. “I’d love to see it, though.”

“Polio’s been eradicated,” Darcy went on. “And most people don’t get measles anymore. Or scarlet fever, or whooping cough. More people are surviving cancer. Organ transplants has come a long way. And prosthetics. Losing a limb isn’t such a handicap.” She rubbed the side of her nose. “Oh, and they’ve invented an implant that lets deaf people hear.”

Jason looked transfixed. Even Howard was lured from the rift generator to listen to her, tapping his wrench against the table. Darcy thought for a moment, trying to think of other, safe things she could tell them. “Um, women’s rights have come pretty far, too. They can be practically anything they want. Run a company, join the army, run for senate. There’s still a wage gap, which sucks, but we’re getting there. In fact.” Darcy eyed Howard. “There’s a woman running Stark Industries.”

“Is there?” Howard rubbed his chin. “2013, huh? I’ll be, what, ninety-something? Guess that’s about time to pass on the reins.”

Darcy’s stomach turned over again and she hurried to change the subject. “We’ve sent people into space,” she announced. “And there was a probe sent past Pluto. There’s satellites orbiting the planet that allow instant communications anywhere on earth.”

“Instant?” Jason echoed. “Isn’t that something. So you could have someone in New York, and they could talk to someone in, say, Japan, just like that?”

Darcy nodded. “Yup. It’s the age of information. Instantly accessible and infinitely available.”

“Sounds amazing,” Jason said wistfully.

“It’s not all good,” Darcy admitted. “We’re in the middle of economic recession, we’ve been at war in the Middle East for twelve years, unemployment is climbing, race and hate crimes are increasing, and the bees are dying.”

Both Howard and Jason stared at her for several silent moments. “The bees…” Howard said after a minute.

“Yeah. Do you have any idea how much American agriculture depends on pollination by bees?” Darcy asked earnestly. “Entire species of plant food could go extinct if bees die out. Colony collapse has been declared an ecosystem crisis.”

“But… bees ,” Howard said again, waving one hand vaguely.

Jason shook his head. “Okay, uh, aside from the bees, is there anything else we should be aware of?”

Darcy thought for a long moment. “Uh… yeah, I’m not sure how much more I can tell you without changing the timelines, and that would be very bad.”

“Why?” Howard demanded. “Couldn’t you, I dunno, change it for the better? Stop bad things from happening?”

Darcy nodded slowly. “Yes, theoretically, but that would change the future. And trust me, a lot of bad shit went down, but at least it’s stuff that we know, that we’ve dealt with. I’d hate to change something here, and make something even worse happen.”

“But you being here, now, changes things,” Jason pointed out. “I mean, aren’t you changing things by working for the SSR?”

Darcy shrugged. “Maybe, unless we’re part of a closed-loop timeline, and we were always meant to come back in time.”

“Come again?” Jason asked, frowning.

Darcy held up her hands. “Basically, there are two theories about time travel.” She waved with one hand. “There’s the variable-loop timeline, in which the things you do while back in time have extreme consequences to the future. And then there’s the closed-loop timeline,” here she waved her other hand. “In which all the things you do in the past have already been done, so there’s no effect on the future.”

Jason frowned and thought for a moment. “That’s an interesting conjecture, but I think the truth is more somewhere in between.”

“I think so, too,” Darcy said. “So Loki and I are being careful about what we do. We want to have a positive influence, without changing the major events of our time. I mean, what if something we do prevents us from ever meeting? Not only would that be horrible for our relationship, but it’s likely one or both of us would die, and so would a whole lot of other people.”

Howard blinked a couple of times at that, and then stared hard at Darcy for a moment. “You really think that would happen? If you two had never met?”

“I really do,” Darcy said with conviction. “I can think of half a dozen ways I could change the future by telling you a single fact, and all of those ways would probably spell disaster for me and my century.”

“Damn,” Jason said softly, rubbing the back of his neck. Then he frowned. “So, if you came to this time by accident, how d’you plan on getting back to your time?”

Darcy sighed heavily. “I don’t know,” she said honestly. “The trip backwards is the reason I’m sick, and Loki’s pretty adamant that we don’t risk the trip forwards. He’s convinced it’ll kill me.”

“So, you’re stuck here?” Jason asked softly.

Darcy shrugged. “I guess so.”

Both men were silent for a long time. Then Jason made a half-aborted gesture towards her. “Did you, uh, did you have family?” he asked. “Other than your husband, I mean.”

Darcy nodded. “My parents. Two brothers. Loki’s parents and his brother. Two best friends, and two almost-best friends.” She kicked her legs back and forth a few times.

“I’m sorry,” Jason said, his expression sympathetic. “It must be hard.”

It was Darcy’s turn to blink owlishly at him until she realized his meaning. “Oh, yeah, no. It’s not so bad. Uh, Loki and me, we… we’re gonna live a bit longer than the average human. We won’t age that much over the next sixty years. I’m gonna see my family again.”

“Wait, what?” Howard demanded. “Just how long do you plan on living?”

Darcy grinned. “About four thousand years,” she said glibly.

Howard threw up his hands and whirled around, stalking back to the rift generator. “Horse shit,” he muttered. “Absolute, utter horse shit.”

Mr Jarvis arrived at that moment, poking his head into the lab. “Oh, Mrs Lewis, there you are,” he said. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”

Darcy slid off the table. “Yeah, sorry, I got bored waiting.”

Mr Jarvis entered the lab, carrying a large paper box in each hand, secured by twine. “We had to make do with what was available,” he told her. “These,” and he lifted the box in his right hand, “Are roast turkey and cranberry, but these,” here he lifted the box in his left hand, “Are ham and aged gouda. Though Mrs Jarvis did say they weren’t for you?”

“No, they’re not,” Darcy said, grabbing her IV stand and rolling it over. “Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.”

“It was no trouble at all,” Mr Jarvis assured her. “Mrs Jarvis and I were wondering how you plan on getting them to Mr Lewis, however, seeing as they probably won’t keep during the journey.”

“I can take a shortcut,” Darcy told him, and took the first box. She stored it in her pocket dimension, and Mr Jarvis jumped slightly when it vanished from her hands. He did, however, hand her the second box, and didn’t react when she made it disappear, too.

“I’m going back to my room,” she announced. “If anyone needs me. Oh, and Jarvis, what kind of flowers does Ana like?”

Mr Jarvis frowned down at her for a moment. “She is particularly fond of irises, ma’am.”

“Perfect,” Darcy nodded to herself, and then shuffled out of the lab back to her room. By the time she had gotten settled back in bed, realized she had to pee again , and gotten re-settled in bed, she found she was tired enough to be able to sleep without forcing her body against its will. And as she dozed off, it was instinct itself to find Loki.

Loki was, thankfully, still asleep when Darcy returned to his side, appearing back in the truck, only this time wearing her robe. Carter, Jones, and Dernier all startled at her appearance, reaching towards weapons, and relaxed when they realized it was her.

“I’ve got presents for you,” Darcy announced, and summoned both boxes from her pocket dimension.

Carter, who’d already seen both her and Loki make things appear and disappear from thin air before, didn’t react, but Jones and Dernier stared at her wide-eyed.

“What is it?” Carter asked, reaching for the boxes.

“Sandwiches,” Darcy told her. “Ham and cheese and turkey and cranberry. There’s enough for each of you to have two, and Loki can get the rest.”

“How did you…” Jones trailed off, and then vaguely waved at the boxes.

“Magic,” Darcy said glibly. Carter handed Jones two sandwiches wrapped in butcher paper, and the man eyed the offerings warily, as if they would disappear at any moment. Dernier, however, was much more practical, and immediately started in on his first sandwich.

They stopped the trucks so Falsworth and Morita could get their share of the food, and so they could be brought up to speed on recent events. Darcy answered the barrage of questions as best as she could while having a minor internal freak-out. She’d grown up learning about these men in school, had seen their photos in museums and documentaries, had watched movies based on their lives, and here they were, clustered around her like she was the most interesting thing in the world.

Loki woke up about an hour later, no doubt roused by their voices, and glared around at all of them until he caught sight of Darcy. Before he had the chance to speak, she shoved a paper-wrapped sandwich into his hands.

“Eat,” she ordered ominously. “There’s more when you’re finished. And then we’re gonna talk about why you’ve been starving yourself.”

Loki turned his glare on her, but ate the sandwich, and the other five she gave him. Only when he was done did she cross her arms and ask him, “So? You gonna tell me what the hell is going on with you?”

He narrowed his eyes at her, and then said tersely in the First Tongue, “Not here.”

“Fine,” Darcy replied, equally tersely, and let him lead her down the road a couple dozen yards. She didn’t mind the cold, half-frozen dirt under her feet, or the frigid air temperature. As usual when she was dreamwalking, her environment didn’t affect her.

Once they were safely out of earshot, Loki turned and looked down at her. He gestured with a resigned expression. “Say whatever it is you feel the need to say,” he said with a sigh.

She crossed her arms again. “What are you talking about?” she demanded.

“Clearly you desire to chastise me,” Loki replied.

Chastise you?” she echoed. “I’m not your mother, Loki, I’m not going to chastise you. I’m going to ask why the fuck you haven’t been eating!”

“There was not sufficient supplies,” Loki replied woodenly.

“You could have said something,” Darcy snapped. She had no idea why he was being stubborn. It would have been a simple matter for them to have packed extra supplies before he’d left, or for her to bring more when it was necessary. “You didn’t have to starve yourself!”

Loki’s expression was aggrieved, but not repentant, and his jaw was clenched around whatever retort he wanted to make. Darcy growled in frustration and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Can you please, for once, tell me what’s going on in your head without making me dig for it?” she asked wearily.

Loki was silent for several moments, and then said in a tight voice, “During preparations, I failed to take into account that humans require significantly less sustenance than… Asgardians.”

Darcy dropped her hand. “So you’re what? Punishing yourself because you made a mistake? Jesus, Loki! You’re not perfect. You could’ve just told me!”

He didn’t meet her gaze, or reply, staring off over her right shoulder with a glassy expression. Darcy shook her head and resisted the urge to stomp her foot. Why was he being so stubborn ? It was as if he was purposefully--

Oh.

Symptom of depression: lack of self care; the failure to perform simple, necessary acts such as hygiene and eating. Type of self-harm: refusing to eat properly or at all. Both things she knew Loki was struggling with at the moment.

Darcy stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Loki’s waist, pressing her face to his chest. He smelled faintly of sweat, leather, and his own sharp scent of balsam and fresh snow. Loki stiffened, caught off-guard by her abrupt change of attitude, and then gingerly hugged her back.

“Please, for fuck’s sake, Loki,” she said softly. “Please just take care of yourself. Okay? Promise me you’ll just take care of yourself.”

Loki sighed faintly, his breath cool against the top of her head. “Very well,” he said. “I give my word.”

“Thank you,” Darcy replied, and then lifted her head to look up at him. “I’ll be back tomorrow night, bring you more food, okay?”

He nodded, but didn’t say anything. Darcy squeezed him around the middle. “Hey,” she said, getting his attention. “You don’t need to punish yourself, okay?”

He raised his eyebrow at her, but still said nothing. She pulled away from him and slapped his chest, not hard enough to hurt. “You’re impossible,” she muttered angrily. He reached up to take hold of her chin, tilted her head back, and kissed her. He was gentle, almost tentative, with just the barest hint of tongue against lips before he pulled away.

“You have no grounds to speak on that matter,” he told her.

She glared at him mulishly, but quickly relented. “Okay. Both of us are stubborn assholes. I get it. Just… don’t kill yourself or anything, okay?”

“I have no intention of ending my life so long as my oath and duty binds me to you,” he said gravely.

Darcy nodded. Since his oath lasted for the rest of their natural lives, that would do. “Okay. I should probably go. You know, let you guys get moving again.”

“Yes, probably,” Loki agreed.

Darcy braced her hands on his chest and went up on tiptoe. He tilted his head down to meet her. This time the kiss was deeper, and they lingered over it like a fine wine. When Darcy finally stepped backwards, preparing to end her dreamwalk, it was with great reluctance.

“I’ll see you soon,” she said.

He nodded, hesitated, and then said, in a voice barely above a whisper, “ Ek ann þer , Darcy.”

“I love you, too,” she replied, and then he was gone.

XxxXxxX

“So, how much can you carry when you dreamwalk?” Ana asked, handing Darcy the last can.

Darcy took it from her and stored it in her pocket dimension, along with the myriad of other cans they’d spent the afternoon shopping for. They’d gotten canned fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish, as well as perishable items like bread, cheese, fruit, chocolate, and milk.

“To be honest, this is the most I’ve ever attempted,” Darcy admitted. “Loki told me I’d be able to carry more the more I practiced, but I think I’m pushing my limits a little.”

“Well, we can always send more another day, yes?” Ana asked.

“Yeah, but I  hate the thought of Loki going hungry,” Darcy said, reaching for the first cloth-wrapped loaf of bread. In short order, she sent the rest of the food to her pocket dimension for transport to Loki.

“But the fresh food,” Ana said, gesturing. “That will have to be eaten quickly.”

“Not if Loki stores it in his pocket dimension,” Darcy replied. She’d explained the concept to Ana, who’d accepted it with the same grace she’d accepted everything else. “Food doesn’t spoil when it’s stored.”

Ana tilted his her head. “Is that because there are no microorganisms in your pockets that would cause the food to spoil?”

Darcy blinked a couple of times. “You know what, you’re probably right.”

Ana nodded to herself and brushed her hands together briskly. “Well, that takes care of that. I am about to go over next week’s menu. Is there anything in particular you would like, Mrs Lewis?”

Darcy had given up trying to get Ana to call her by her first name. “Can we get more of the cheese-stuffed olives?” Darcy asked. “Those were delicious.”

Ana laughed softly. “Yes, we can get more of those.”

They were in the kitchen of the Stark estate. Darcy had been cut loose by Dr Sheffield around noon, but Daniel had passed on the word that she was not to come into the office until the next day. Howard had not joined them for dinner, so it was just Darcy and the Jarvises at the estate now. Mr Jarvis was out with the animal enclosures, leaving the women to prepare for Darcy’s dreamwalk.

Darcy filled the kettle with water to make tea, and Ana had a pad of paper and a well-chewed pencil. Then Darcy heard Mr Jarvis’ voice somewhere in the house. She frowned, raising her head to listen. Who was he talking to?

“...authorized to access this area,” Mr Jarvis was saying in a flat, emotionless voice.

Ana’s head shot up, the blood draining from her face. “Oh no,” she gasped softly.

Darcy tensed. “What is it?” she demanded.

“The security system,” Ana said, getting to her feet. “It’s been breached.”

Mr Jarvis’ voice began counting, and Darcy padded over to the kitchen doorway to hear better. “Could it be Jarvis?” Darcy asked. “Or Howard?”

“They know the code to deactivate it,” Ana whispered.

Darcy reached out with her senses, and confirmed what she’d already suspected. Two minds, unfamiliar, and definitely inside the estate. She turned to Ana. “We need to call Daniel, tell him to send someone, asap.”

Ana nodded and the two women snuck into the next room, Darcy on the alert for the intruders, who were methodically canvassing the house, military style. Ana picked up the phone and held it to her ear, spinning the dialer several times. Then she turned worriedly to Darcy.

“I do not think the phone is working,” she said in a hushed voice. “It will not dial.”

“Fantastic,” Darcy said sarcastically. “Of course. Cut the phone line. Come on, we need to find your husband.”

Darcy led the way through the house and onto the grounds. It was a simple enough matter to avoid the intruders, as she could track their presences, but things got complicated when they reached the koala enclosure.

“Edwin!” Ana cried out at the sight of her husband sprawled on the ground, unmoving. She dropped to her knees beside him, catching up his hand. “Edwin, wake up, please!”

Darcy crouched next to Ana and pressed her fingers against Jarvis’ throat. No pulse. Her stomach plunged into ice water and she readjusted her fingers. No, there it was. Thready, but present. Relief flooded her chest.

“He’s alive,” Darcy assured Ana. She quickly felt the back of his skull and found the knot and patch of wet, sticky hair. “Gonna have a hell of a headache.”

“What do we do now?” Ana asked, still clutching her husband’s hand.

“Help me move him,” Darcy instructed. “We need to get to the garage.”

Jarvis was over a foot taller than either of the women, so moving him was slow and awkward. They managed to get his arms around their shoulders, and were making their way towards the garage when Darcy sensed one of the intruders suddenly close by.

She had to drop Jarvis, ignoring Ana’s squeak of protest, and whirled around, summoning her staves. The intruder was male, dressed all in black, standing a few yards away. A mask covered his lower face, and he had a gun in each hand, both of them pointed at Darcy.

Ana said something in Hungarian, too low for Darcy to catch. Darcy didn’t move, staring at the man in front of her. He stepped forward a few paces, but Darcy held her ground. She narrowed her eyes at him.

Stop ,” she ordered in her norn-voice. He immediately froze, muscles clenching. “ Drop the guns ,” Darcy went on. He twitched, and then his hands opened convulsively, dropping the guns to the ground. “ Get on your knees ,” Darcy said. He fought her, she could see him shaking, feel his will press back against hers. But he was no match for her, and after only a few seconds, he dropped to his knees.

Darcy walked forward cautiously, never taking her eyes off him, never letting her will waver, until she could kick the guns away from his reach. “Who are you?” she demanded. “Who were you sent to kill?”

His voice was muffled behind the mask, but Darcy could still understand him. “I am asset designation Delta,” he said in Russian. “No kill order; intelligence acquisition.”

Darcy narrowed her eyes. “Acquisition?” she echoed. “You’re here to capture us?”

“Affirmative,” the assassin said.

Darcy hissed through her teeth. They had no phone to call for backup, Jarvis was down for the count, and Darcy had no idea how long she could keep the Leviathan agent under her control. Not to mention he had a partner somewhere…

Darcy had just begun to stretch out her senses again when Ana screamed, “Mrs Lewis!” Then there was a terrific blow to the back of her head. It didn’t hurt; it was too sudden for that. But it drove Darcy down deep into black oblivion.

Chapter Text

It was a testament to the last couple of years that the first thing Darcy did when she woke up was not to panic. She lay very still with her eyes still closed, taking stock of her physical condition. There was a dull knot of pain on the back of her skull--no surprise there. Her shoes appeared to be missing, and her clothing felt rough and unfamiliar against her skin.

She carefully opened one eye a crack. The lights were thankfully dim, given her pounding headache, but they were enough to illuminate a metal-walled cell. She was lying on a thin mattress directly on the cement floor. Across from her was the door, and there was a covered slot on the bottom of it, presumably to slide food through.

Darcy closed her eye again and took three deep breaths, triggering a norn-trance despite her headache. As her consciousness expanded, she realized the facility she was in was not particularly large, but it was situated out in the middle of the southern Californian desert, with no civilization around for miles and miles.

Escape was going to be an issue, then.

There were thirty-six unfamiliar presences inside the facility, and two familiar ones. Darcy breathed a small sigh of relief when she sensed Ana and Mr Jarvis. Captured, yes, but at least alive. She’d figure out how to rescue all of them, but at the moment she needed more intel.

This was the late 40’s so there was no electronic security, but there were still plenty of guards with guns. There were, however, several Jeeps in a bay at the far end of the facility. Useful. Darcy was fairly confident they could commandeer one. The trick would be getting out of the cells.

If Loki were here, he’d probably be able to formulate a plan to gather intelligence at the same time as escaping, but Darcy’s head hurt and she just wanted to go home. Also, if Loki had been here, she probably wouldn’t have been captured in the first place. She groaned faintly. He was gonna kill her when he found out. Which made getting out before he suspected something a priority.

She instinctively checked her wristwatch, and then remembered she hadn’t worn one for months, not when she could literally feel the rotation of the earth underneath her. She pushed the headache aside and concentrated again. Crap. She’d missed her scheduled meeting with Loki to drop off the food. He’d already be suspicious. She needed to get herself and the Jarvises out as soon as possible.

A loud, harsh tone blared in her cell, loud enough to be painful both to her eardrums and her sensitive head. Darcy jerked in surprise and clapped her hands over her ears, trying to shut out the noise. It stopped after a few seconds, leaving ringing silence in its wake.

“What the fuck,” Darcy muttered to herself, sitting up and leaning her back against the cold, metal wall. Her clothing had been changed to a plain, gray sleeveless shirt and matching drawstring pants. There was a number printed on both articles of clothing: 23657. Darcy plucked at the scratchy material for a moment.

She reached up and probed at the back of her head, wincing when she encountered swelling and crusted blood. She dropped her hand with a sigh and let her head hang forwards against her chest while she concentrated again.

The noise sliced through her head, over-loud and abrasive, startling her once more. “The fuck?!” she yelled at the ceiling, and only then did she noticed the speaker set in the metal plates. She glared at the speaker. It was psychological tactic, she was sure of it. Keeping her on guard, maintaining elevated stress levels.

She’d been captured by an enemy organization. She supposed torture was inevitable.

“Awesome,” Darcy said out loud, and got laboriously to her feet. The concrete floor was freezing cold, but she tried to ignore it while she explored the cell. There really wasn’t much more to see. It was square, featureless, and lacking in any furniture other than the thin sleeping pad. There was hole in one corner that emanated a foul odor, giving Darcy an indication as to its purpose.

The first order of business was to contact Ana and Mr Jarvis, let them know that she was working on a way to get them out, tell them not to crack, no matter what Leviathan did. Second was to get in touch with Daniel, and have back up head in their direction. Both were things Darcy could do even with a headache. She just needed a few minutes of quiet and concentration.

She returned to the sleeping pad and sat down, crossing her legs. She took a couple of deep breaths and closed her eyes. And then jumped when the noise cut through the cell a third time. It was a shrieking, high-pitched siren, impossible to ignore. Darcy slapped her hands over her ears and clenched her teeth, waiting for it to end.

There was a definite pattern now. Any time Darcy closed her eyes or lowered her head. They were trying to keep her from sleeping. Perfect. That’s all she needed. To try to escape a guarded enemy base with no weapons while sleep-deprived.

“Jokes on you, fuckers,” Darcy muttered. “I already know how far I can go on no sleep.” She got up again, paced around the cell a few more times, and sat down. She stuck her legs straight out in front of her, rested her hands palms-up on her thighs, and stared straight ahead, making sure to keep her eyes open.

Now that she’d had practice, it was a lot easier to access her Other. It was also much simpler to bring people into it. In the matter of a few breaths, she found herself in the old lab in New Mexico, the sun half below the horizon in perpetual twilight.

Ana and Mr Jarvis stared around the room in shock, taking in the glass walls, the modern computers and equipment, and the sheer chaos of Jane’s so-called filing system. They caught sight of each other and moved together, Ana folding herself into her husband’s side.

“Hi,” Darcy said, waving slightly. Both of them jumped and turned towards her. “Didn’t mean to freak you out or anything.”

“Is this a dream?” Ana asked, looking around again.

“Not really,” Darcy replied, reaching out to steady a precarious stack of notebooks. “It’s sort of a mental landscape, created and maintained in my head. I can bring people into it for communication purposes.” She looked them both up and down. They were wearing similar clothing, grey prison outfits stamped with black numbers.

“So… we are really here?” Mr Jarvis asked, clutching his wife closer to him.

Darcy shook her head. “Not physically. Just your consciousness. Look, I can try to explain it later, but right now we don’t have a lot of time. We’ve been captured by Leviathan.”

“Yes, I think we figured that much out,” Jarvis said dryly.

Darcy held up a hand to hold off anymore snark. Jarvis was like her, the more nervous she got, the more sarcastic she became. “I am working on getting us out, I just needed to check in on you guys and make sure you’re okay. They’re probably going to try some kind of torture. I’ll try to move before that point.”

“Torture?” Ana echoed in alarm, and looked up at her husband. He held her tight again.

“Nothing is going to happen,” Mr Jarvis said firmly. “We’ll be alright, Ana. I promise.”

“Just do your best to stick it out,” Darcy went on. “It shouldn’t take to long. I’m gonna contact Daniel, now, let him know where we are.”

“Where are we?” Jarvis asked.

“In the desert, somewhere northeast of LA,” Darcy replied. “I couldn’t get anything more specific. We’re gonna have to trust Daniel to be able to pinpoint a location. I’m gonna put you guys back now, okay?”

Ana turned and gave Mr Jarvis one more tight hug before Darcy returned them to their individual cells. Then she reached out further, stretching her senses to the limit until she encountered the tumultuous mass of humanity that was the city. It took her several precious moments to track Daniel down, and when she finally did, the effort of pulling him into her Other left her breathless and panting.

Daniel blinked a few times, and then turned around in a full circle, examining his new surroundings with interest, but not much fear. He quickly caught sight of Darcy and relaxed. He gestured vaguely. “This is you?” he asked mildly.

Darcy nodded and pressed her hand to her chest as she fought to get her breath back. “Yeah. Hang on a sec.”

Daniel looked her up and down, and then started walking towards her. He froze after a couple of steps and looked down. He wasn’t holding his crutch. Eyes wide, he leaned down and poked his knee a couple of times.

“Holy cow,” he said to himself.

“We’re in a dreamscape,” Darcy told him. “You appear the way you do in your mind. Clearly you don’t see yourself mentally as an amputee.”

Daniel lifted his foot and shook it back and forth, still staring wide-eyed. “That’s incredible.”

Darcy clapped her hands together sharply. “Daniel, focus.”

“Right,” Daniel straightened and squared his shoulders. “You and the Jarvises have been missing at least four hours. There were signs of a struggle at the Stark estate, and we found blood by one of the animal enclosures.”

“We’ve been captured by Leviathan,” Darcy reported. “We’re being held in a guarded facility somewhere northeast of LA, several miles into the desert. We’re all fine, uninjured, but they’re starting some kind of psychological torture shit that’s gonna get real annoying real fast. Uh, thirty-six guards, two of them possibly super-soldiers.”

Daniel listened to her with an intent expression and nodded. “Okay. Just sit tight, okay, Darcy? We’re coming after you.”

Darcy rubbed the back of her head fretfully. “I’ll sit tight for now, but if I get an opportunity to move, I’m taking it. Ana and Jarvis are civilians. They don’t deserve to be in this shit, and to be honest I’m not sure how much they can handle before they break, and they’ve got valuable intel.”

Daniel grimaced. “Leviathan knows that. No doubt that’s why they got grabbed. Just… don’t get yourself killed, okay?”

“I’ll do my best,” Darcy said dryly. Distantly she heard that horrible siren sound again, and it set her teeth on edge. “I gotta go.” She flung Daniel’s consciousness back into his body and slammed unceremoniously back into her own. She blinked and realized at some point her eyes had closed, and plugged her ears again.

“Alright, alright, I’m awake!” she yelled over the noise. “Shut up!”

The noise cut off, followed by a brief spurt of static, and then a voice. “State your name.” It was impossible to tell if it was male or female, it sounded so flat and robotic. Darcy glared up at the speaker and didn’t respond. After fifteen seconds, the siren went off, louder and longer than before. It went on for almost a minute, so loud it penetrated through Darcy’s hands clamped over her ears.

It shut off, and then a few seconds later the voice asked again, “State your name.”

Darcy’s head hurt even worse now from the siren and the effort of bringing people in and out of her Other. She was pissed off and in no mood to play games with her interrogator. Besides, it’s not as if her name would give them anything. She didn’t even exist yet.

“Darcy Ann Lewis,” she replied, leaning her head back against the wall.

“State your birth place.”

“Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.”

There was a silence, and then the voice came back. “State the code to deactivate security at Stark estate.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Darcy replied, already prepared. She pressed the heels of her hands to her ears and gritted her teeth. It was gonna be a long night.

XxxXxxX

It was morning when they stopped trying to interrogate her, and Darcy’s head ached so much even her teeth hurt. They were still sounding off the siren every time her eyes closed for too long, or if she tried to lay down, or even if she put her head between her knees. She really wanted to meet the person in charge of them, and punch them really hard in the nose.

But her opportunity came when she heard distant footsteps on the other side of the door. She shot off the sleeping mat and crouched next to the door, waiting. Sure enough, the slot at the bottom of the door opened, and a metal tray slid through, containing a small cup of water, a slice of grayish bread, and equally grayish gruel.

Listen to me ,” Darcy said in her norn-voice. The footsteps silenced, whoever it was standing still. Darcy reached out for their presence, probed at it, let herself get familiar with him, and then pushed again with her will. “ Open the door .”

Overhead, the siren sounded, loud and screeching, but she didn’t let her focus waver, didn’t let her will slip. There was a metallic thunk , and she jumped to her feet, pushing the door open. The guard stood where he was, dull-eyed and swaying slightly on his feet. He held a ring of keys in one hand and a pistol on his belt.

Give me your gun and keys, ” Darcy ordered, holding out her hands. The guard handed both objects over and stood waiting for her next instruction. “ Go to sleep. ” His eyes rolled to the back of his head and he crumpled on the spot.

An alarm blared overhead, and red lights hung along the corridor flashed rhythmically. Darcy reached out with her senses and judged she had about seven minutes before the entire facility was crawling with guards.

“Okay,” she muttered under her breath, jogging down the corridor. “You got this. You can do this.”

She reached Jarvis’s cell first and fumbled at the ring of keys before she got the door open. He jumped up at the sight of her. She gestured sharply with the hand carrying the gun. “Hurry up,” she ordered. “We have three minutes to get Ana before the guards cut us off.”

He crossed the cell in two strides. “And do we have a plan after that?” he asked worriedly.

“Hightail it to the garage and hotwire a Jeep,” Darcy told him, padding down the hallway. She held her gun low but ready, the way she’d seen on movies and TV. She’d never actually fired a gun before, but she was pretty sure she could handle it. It was point and pull the trigger, right? She wondered how many bullets she had in the magazine.

“Lovely, and how do we prevent them from chasing us down?” Jarvis demanded.

“Sabotage the other Jeeps,” Darcy replied tersely. She tossed the keys over her shoulder at him. “This door. Let’s go.”

It took Jarvis four tries to get the door open, and Ana launched herself at her husband as soon as she realized who was there. Darcy sensed two presences coming around the corner, and swung around. She had the gun in position when they came into view. She pulled the trigger once.

The recoil was more than she anticipated, but her aim was true. The first guard went down, red spraying from his chest. Darcy adjusted her aim and fired again. She missed center mass and hit the guard’s right shoulder, but he still went down, dropping his gun. She sprinted down the hall towards them.

Darcy picked up both dropped guns and paused long enough to check if the injured guard was still breathing. She felt her gorge rise at the sight and smell of blood, but viciously shoved that part of her brain back. She couldn’t afford to feel right now.

She’d just killed someone. For the second time. She hadn’t even thought about it, hadn’t even hesitated. Just point, shoot, and bam . He was gone. Dead. Timeline extinguished. She’d felt it the moment his presence evaporated, and she’d done it.

No , she told herself fiercely. “Survive,” she muttered to herself, turning and heading back to the Jarvises. “Just do what you gotta to survive.” She shoved one of the guns towards Mr Jarvis, who took it gingerly, but not hesitantly. He was careful to point it away from both Ana and Darcy.

“This way,” Darcy said, jerking her head.

Getting through the facility was like the most stressful game of blind man’s bluff Darcy had ever played. She knew where the guards were, and they probably had some idea where she was, but she definitely had the advantage. She was able to stay one step ahead for the most part, but she was still forced to shoot two more guards, and Jarvis shot one.

The garage was guarded, and locked. Darcy popped around the corner, shot the guard in the leg, and ran over to kick his gun out of his hand. She pressed her gun to his head and growled, “ Tell me the code, ” in her norn voice.

“0-1-4-9,” he replied obediently, one hand pressed to the hole in his leg.

Do the outside doors have a code? ” she demanded.

“1-3-9-0-4,” the guard added helpfully.

Go to sleep .”

Once the guard slumped into unconsciousness, Darcy punched the code into the door and waved the Jarvises forward. She yanked the door open, and just as quickly slammed it closed as bullets ricocheted off the metal.

Shit ,” she spat vehemently.

“I believe there are men with guns inside the garage,” Jarvis announced.

Darcy glared at him. “No shit, Sherlock,” she muttered. Okay, so the garage was now inaccessible. She needed a new plan. She looked around. They had guards headed in their direction, and would be surrounded in less than five minutes. She needed some place defensible, with a door that could lock from the inside.

“This way,” she announced, and headed back down the corridor the way they had come, counting doors until she reached the one she wanted. “In here!”

Ana darted into the room first, and gave an unhappy cry when she realized it was a dead end. “We are trapped!” she said.

“Not quite,” Darcy replied, slamming the door shut. There were two bolts. They wouldn’t last long, but she only needed a few minutes.

“How do you intend to get us out of here?” Jarvis demanded. He dropped the magazine of his gun, checked the number of bullets he had left, and slammed it back into place. Despite his misgivings, he seemed familiar with the weapon.

“Remember how I can make portals?” Darcy asked, closing her eyes and reaching out along the silver thread that connected her to Loki. “I’m about to make one. C’mon, Loki. Where are you?”

He reached back for her the moment she found him, and she twined their minds together without explanation. But the moment their thoughts merged, he had access to her immediate memories, so he was aware of what was going on.

They’d done this before, created a Way only a few miles long. It shouldn’t be that difficult. “Can we get the timing right on this one, though?” Darcy thought. Loki didn’t find it amusing. Darcy let herself sink deeper into the bond until they were one mind, one flesh, one being reaching out, drawing the fabric of time together into a fold, and cutting through.

She was ready for the backlash this time, and rolled when she was flung backwards. When she got to her feet, the door to the room was replaced by a flat, black rectangle, swallowing the light like a black hole. She grabbed Ana and dragged her forward. “Go!” she ordered.

“Where?” Ana demanded frantically. Like all mortals, she wasn’t capable of seeing the Way, so Darcy simply shoved her forward through it. It wouldn’t be a pleasant journey, as Darcy was still pretty shitty at making Ways, but it would serve its purpose.

“Ana!” Jarvis cried when his wife disappeared. Darcy waved him over.

“You next,” she said, and pushed him through. There was a sudden loud banging from the other side of the Way. Darcy didn’t hesitate. She flung herself into the darkness.

She landed with more force than she’d gone in with, stumbling and falling onto asphalt and scraping both knees. When she looked up, she saw they were in an alley between two brick buildings, the Way gaping in the wall of the alley. Loki’s mind was still joined with hers, and she reached for the Way and undid it, stretching time back out and sealing the hole. The Way winked out as if it had never existed, leaving a plain, empty brick face.

Darcy groaned and rolled onto her back, uncaring that she was lying on the street. She could hear Ana and Mr Jarvis breathing heavily nearby.

“Are you injured?” Loki thought at her. “Where are you? Are you safe?”

“No, I don’t know, and I think so. I have to go. Contact soon.”

“No, Darcy--!”

Darcy felt the echo of Loki’s protest fade away when she pulled her mind free from his. She sat up and looked around. Ana and Mr Jarvis were sitting next to each other on the sidewalk, Jarvis cradling his wife against his chest.

“Are you guys okay?” Darcy asked.

They both looked up at her. “No offense, Mrs Lewis,” Jarvis said in a shaky voice. “But if we never have to use one of your portals again, it will be entirely too soon.”

“Fair enough,” Darcy said, getting to her feet. Outside the alley, the traffic on the main road was pretty heavy. Darcy padded to the mouth of the alley and looked around. They were in the middle of a shopping strip, both sides of the street lined with small shops.

Leaving the Jarvises where they were, Darcy stepped into the closest shop. It was a high-end women's boutique, clothing displayed with almost artistic fervor. Darcy made a bee-line for the counter. “Excuse me,” she said to the girl on the other side.

The young woman looked up at Darcy, and her eyes widened. Darcy knew what she looked like. Hair a mess, skin dirty, dark circles under her eyes, and wearing plain, prison-inmate clothing. The girl’s expression grew pinched.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” she said in a nasally voice. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“I need to use a telephone,” Darcy said, ignoring her.

“We don’t have a public telephone,” the girl said, turning her nose up at Darcy. “If you don’t leave, I’m going to have to call the authorities.”

“That’s who I’m trying to call, dimwit,” Darcy snapped. “Now give me the damn phone .”

The girl’s eyes blanked out and she reached under the counter, pulling out a rotary phone and placing it on the counter. Darcy dialed Daniel’s number from memory and bounced impatiently while she listened to it ring.

“Auerbach Theatrical Company,” came Rose’s cheerful greeting.

Darcy rubbed her forehead. “Rose, it’s Darcy. Where’s Daniel?”

The tone of Rose’s voice didn’t change. “Do you have an appointment with Mr Auerbach?”

Darcy screwed up her face as she sifted through her recent memories. “Authorization code Delta Lima 0313,” she said.

“Oh my gosh, Darcy, are you alright?” Rose demanded. “Where are you? Everyone is out looking for you right now!”

“I’m fine, we’re fine,” Darcy assured her. “We’re at...uh...Lucy Thorne’s Clothery. Closest place with a phone.”

“Chief Sousa’s out with a team in the desert,” Rose told her. “They found the facility they thought you were being held at. How’d you get back in the city? No, don’t answer that. I’m sending an agent with a car now.”

Darcy turned to check the front windows and found Ana and Mr Jarvis standing there, looking in at her. She waved at them and pointed at the phone. They both waved back a bit dazedly. “Send someone we know,” Darcy told Rose. “Chapman or Goodwin, if they’re available. At this point I can’t really afford to trust anyone.”

“Goodwin stayed behind to cover the office,” Rose told her. “I’ll send him. You sit tight, okay, Darcy?”

“Do our best,” Darcy replied shortly, and returned the phone to the cradle. She walked out of the store without looking back. “Rose is sending an agent to pick us up,” she told the Jarvises when she joined them.

“Oh, thank goodness,” Ana murmured. Mr Jarvis looked down at her and put his hand on her shoulder.

“It’s over,” he told her softly. “We’re safe.”

“We should get off the street,” Darcy said. They’d already garnered a few curious stares at their disheveled appearance. The three of them retreated back to the alleyway and perched on the street curb like a row of nervous birds on a telephone line.

Darcy felt herself nearly drift off, and yanked herself back to awareness. She’d been this exhausted before, back when she didn’t have control over her dreamwalking and she went days without sleeping. The pit of her stomach roiled, and her senses faded in and out. She felt slightly detached from her body, and she was just too tired to care about the fact she was dirty, barefoot, and stranded on the side of the road in the middle of downtown LA. All she wanted to do was curl up on the ground and go to sleep.

After what felt like forever, a car slowed to a halt at the mouth of the alley. Darcy got to her feet and stood protectively in front of the Jarvises, holding one of her guns in her hand. But it was Goodwin who got out of the car and started walking towards them.

“Lewis?” he called, catching sight of the gun in her hand and stopping. “Hey. You alright?”

Darcy lowered the gun and sighed in relief. “Yeah, we’re good. Real happy to see you, bro.”

He started approaching them again. Darcy handed him the gun and he retrieved the other two that had been discarded in the alley. “Chief’s losing his mind over you three,” he told Darcy. “He’s gonna be relieved to see you. But how the hell did you end up here?”

Darcy waved vaguely. “Long story. Classified. Can we just get the hell outa here?”

Goodwin hooked his thumb over his shoulder. “Hop in. I gotta take you to headquarters first, though. Stark’s climbing the walls,” he told the Jarvises. “Wants to see you right away.”

“Yes, I can imagine he’s been quite put out while we’ve been away,” Jarvis said with a sniff, guiding his wife towards the car. “He can barely dress himself, much less function without me. Ah, here we are, darling. In you go.”

Darcy slid into the other side of the car, closed the door, and promptly passed out with her head against the window.

Darcy woke up to the door opening. She almost tumbled out of the car but Goodwin caught her just in time. “Whoa there, sister,” he said. “Up you come. We’re at headquarters.” Darcy blinked groggily up at the building in front of them.

“Oh, right,” she mumbled, and let Goodwin support her to the front door.

“You look terrible,” the agent told her. “What’d they do to you?”

“Nothing,” Darcy said defensively as they stepped into the lobby.

“Ana! Darcy!” Rose was around the desk in a flash and threw her arms around Ana, squeezing the petite woman tightly. Ana squeaked in protest, but hugged Rose back. Once Rose was certain Ana was in one piece, she turned and gave Darcy the same treatment.

“We were all so worried ,” Rose said, tearing up behind her spectacles. “You were just gone . We had no idea where you were!”

“I gotta get ‘em back to Stark before he tears the whole building down,” Goodwin told Rose.

“Oh, right, yes,” Rose said quickly, and locked the front door. She led them into the back room and opened the security door for them.

Stark was in the bullpen, yelling at the one other agent unfortunate enough to have been left behind. “...shoulda heard something by now! Where the hell are they? It doesn’t take this long to get here from the east side! What if they got attacked, huh? What if Leviathan went after ‘em? What d’you plan on doing if--”

“Mr Stark!” Jarvis interrupted somewhat sharply. “Everything is quite alright. We’re here now.”

Howard spun around and caught sight of all three of them. He stared at them wide-eyed for a moment, mouth opening and closing wordlessly. Then he bounded forward and caught Ana up in a tight hug. She smiled wearily and patted him on the back.

“It is alright, Mr Stark,” she assured him. “I am not hurt.”

“Of course not,” he said gruffly, stepping back abruptly. “I had full faith in your ability to take care of yourselves. Knew it was just a matter of time before you’d fly the coop. No problem, I told Sousa. You don’t know the Jarvises like I do. Canny, I told him. Resourceful. Oh, Lewis, you’re okay, too! You’re okay, right? You’re not about to fall over? ‘Cuz you look like you’re about to fall over.”

Darcy stared at him for a few heartbeats, unable to absorb his rapid-fire talking. “I killed three people today,” she said, and passed out again.

How long she was unconscious for, Darcy wasn’t sure. When she came to herself, she was curled up on a pile of half-rotted leaves in a Russian forest, covered in a thin dusting of snow. She sat bolt-upright and looked around in alarm. It was still snowing, big fat white flakes drifting down through the branches overhead.

In the distance she saw a small fire, and shadowy figures sitting around it. When she reached out towards them, it confirmed what she was hoping. She’d found the Howling Commandos in her sleep. She pushed to her feet and began to brush herself off.

She was no longer wearing the Leviathan prison outfit, but rather a cotton blouse, sleeping pants, and a silk robe. Sometime during her black-out she’d been taken back to the Stark estate and changed. That was helpful.

Darcy started trudging towards the fire, snow crunching under her socks but never soaking in. She’d gotten to within a few yards of the fire when Loki appeared beside her and grabbed her arm, spinning her around towards him.

He enveloped her in an embrace that was less a hug and more of him trying to wrap himself completely around her, press every part of her against every part of him. She immediately relaxed against him with a whimper of relief.

“Are you injured?” he asked. His voice was quiet, but cold and flat as ice, under tight restraint. “Did they hurt you?”

“They tried,” Darcy replied. She tried to burrow deeper against him. “But I’m too awesome for them.”

“They captured you,” he said, and the barest edge of emotion leaked into his voice. “They took you. And there was nothing I could do.”

“You helped,” Darcy murmured. “Couldn’t’ve made the Way without you.”

His arms tightened around her. “I should have been there, with you,” he snapped. “Not halfway across this gods-forsaken realm.”

“Mmm,” Darcy replied, not really in the mood for any sort of conversation. “I handled it, Loki. I can take care of myself, you know.”

She felt him press his cheek against the top of her head, but he said nothing for a long time. “You are wearied,” he observed.

“You have a headache,” she replied.

He was silent again, and then he stooped and picked her up like child, clinging to him with her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist. He carried her past the fire to the trucks parked just off the road in the trees.

His bedroll was still in one of the trucks, and he spread it out over the bed of the truck so they could lay down, curled up together, Darcy’s head tucked neatly under his chin. She fell asleep almost immediately, soothed by his slow heartbeat under her ear.

Chapter Text

Humans were more susceptible to brain bleeds, Loki assumed, with their soft human skulls, and Darcy more so with her thin veins and muscle deterioration. So he woke her every three hours that night, just enough to get a coherent reply to the question “Are you well?” Each time she went right back to sleep almost immediately, trying to snuggle closer to him.

He did not sleep, could not if he had tried. Instead he watched her sleep, watched the flick of her eyes beneath their lids as she dreamed. He was almost afraid to look away, as if she would vanish at any moment.

They had tried to take her. Leviathan had tried to take Darcy away from him. Right now he was content enough to hold her, to reassure himself that she was safe. But they had tried to take her. They had tried to hurt her. It was all he could do to hold back the rage. They would whisper, one day in the future, of the day Leviathan died, and they would whisper his name.

Darcy stirred in his arms, rubbing her face against the woolen sweater he wore under his jacket, and then her eyes opened. She blinked a few times. “What time is it?” she asked in a thick voice.

“Almost dawn,” he told her. She groaned quietly and curled her hands in his sweater. “How does your head feel?”

“Mmm,” she said. “Better. Yours?”

“Manageable,” he replied.

He had shared her memories when he joined minds with her to create the Way, so he had no need to pester her on what had happened. He had known something had gone wrong when she missed their scheduled rendezvous. And then when she had reached out to him, frantic and desperate, it had nearly driven him out of his mind. The temperature immediately around him had plunged so suddenly that both truck engines stalled, stranding them in place until he was able to control himself enough to allow the engines to thaw.

Darcy stirred and tried to sit up, forcing him to release his hold on her. She ran the fingers through her disheveled hair, wincing when she encountered a multitude of snarls. She tried to detangle her hair manually for a few minutes without success. Loki watched her, amused, until she growled in frustration.

“Here,” he said, summoning a comb from his pocket dimension and gently turning her around to face away from him.

“You carry a comb around?” she asked in disbelief as he attacked the medjalkar’s nest that had attached itself to her head.

“I have hair, do I not?” Loki replied.

“Yeah, but you’re a guy .”

“You say that as if that explains anything.”

“I dunno. Guys don’t care as much about personal hygiene. The straight ones, anyway.”

Loki raised an eyebrow. “In what way could I be defined as ‘straight’?”

Darcy made a choking noise and he paused to assess if she was really having trouble breathing. “Sorry,” she said after a minute. “You’re right. My bad.”

He went back to combing her hair, working out the tangles gently, avoiding the still-swollen injury at the base of her skull. He saw her summon something from her pocket dimension, some kind of food item wrapped in foil. The smell of it was rich with fat and sugar, and a hint of bitterness. It reminded him that it had been over a full day since the last time he’d eaten properly, but he said nothing.

When he was done combing out Darcy’s hair, he quickly braided it and tied it off with a leather cord. Darcy wriggled around to face him. “Thanks,” she said, and offered him a piece of her food.

Whatever it was, it was melting in her fingers despite the frigid temperature of the Russian morning. Loki eyed the small, brown square dubiously. “What is that?” he asked.

Darcy’s eyes widened. “You’ve never had chocolate ?” she asked in disbelief.

“You know, in actuality, I have spent little time on this realm in modern years,” he told her, slightly annoyed. She held out the piece of chocolate again.

“Eat,” she ordered.

Loki stared at her for a heartbeat or two. She had always hated needless violence. Doubtless she would expect him to stop Leviathan with as few casualties as possible.

That would never happen.

So he had only a few opportunities to seek reparation for his deeds before she would likely send him away from her, disgusted and horrified at his actions, and rightly so. It was one thing to seek justice for crimes committed against his norn.

When he was done, they would beg for hell.

Loki deliberately leaned forward and closed his mouth around her fingers, claiming the morsel of food and licking her fingers clean. Darcy made a strange squeaking noise and he grinned triumphantly when he straightened. She was staring at him with an expression as if she did not know whether to slap him or tear his clothes off.

Then the taste of the chocolate registered. It was sweet, almost cloyingly so, but rich, tempered by the same bitterness he had smelled earlier. It was completely unlike anything on Asgard, and it melted even at his own, lower temperature.

His thoughts must have been visible on his face, because Darcy broke off another piece and offered it to him. He took this one with his fingers, ate it, and then leaned down and kissed her, chasing the phantom flavor on her tongue. She dropped the rest of the confection to the bed of the truck so she could bury sticky fingers in his hair, tilting her head back under the kiss.

“A hem .”

Darcy jerked away from him, clutching the blanket to her chest as if she were an innocent maiden caught out by a parent. Loki merely tilted his head and raised an eyebrow at Carter, who stood at the back of the truck, holding up the canvas flap with one hand.

“You know, not all of us get conjugal visits while on mission,” the mortal woman said dryly.

“Darcy suffered a head injury,” Loki said with a sly grin. “Her presence here was so I could monitor her for aneurism.”

“Yes, it looks like you were monitoring her quite well,” Carter replied.

Darcy buried her flaming face in her hands with a loud groan. She was quite attractive when she was flustered, and he liked to see her pale cheeks blush red. When she lifted her face, she was still crimson, but now she was glaring at him.

“This is your fault,” she muttered, digging her foot against his thigh.

“Although, it is good to see you safe and sound,” Carter went on, looking at Darcy. “We were all worried when you missed the rendezvous.”

Darcy sighed and rubbed the back of her head with a wince. “Yeah, well, I’m an idiot. Overconfidence will be the death of me someday, I swear.”

“So, what happened after you created the portal?” Carter asked. “What happened to the facility you were held at?”

“Before I passed out the second time, Rose told me that Daniel had sent men to take care of it,” Darcy replied. She started to take items out of her pocket dimension, cans and boxes and paper-wrapped bundles. “I’ll ask as soon as I get back and let you know.”

Carter’s eyes widened at the sheer number of supplies Darcy had brought. By his calculations, however, the food would only last them approximately three days, if he ate his fill.

“How are the Jarvises?” Carter asked as Darcy continued to unload food.

“Shaken up, but I think they’re fine,” Darcy said. “But if I were them, I’d either ask for better work benefits or find a new job.”

“They’re loyal,” Carter put in. “I don’t think they’re going anywhere.”

Darcy made a noncommittal noise and finished filling the back of the truck with supplies. “I should go. By everyone else’s count, I’ve been asleep for, like, fourteen hours. They’re probably worried I died in my sleep or something.” She turned to Loki. “Before you say anything, I promise I will be a good girl and not get myself beaten up or captured until you get back.”

“See that you do,” Loki murmured, and took her face in his hands. He switched to the First Tongue and lowered his voice even more. “I told you once I would burn this world for you. I still mean that.”

She didn’t believe him. He could see it in her eyes. She passed it off as a romantic notion, a metaphor. She smiled at him, and he committed it to memory. It would not be long before she would never smile at him again.

Uncaring of Carter’s presence, he leaned down and kissed her again, deeply, mingling his tongue with hers so he would not forget the taste of her mouth. She was the one who pulled away, breathing heavily and blushing again.

“I should, um, I should go,” she muttered, and then vanished, taking along part of Loki’s soul as she went.

“Well, at least we get fresh food for breakfast,” Carter observed, reaching for the net bag of apples. “The boys will be happy for that. Hand me that loaf of bread.”

XxxXxxX

Loki crouched in the shadows at the top of the ridge. The ridge was covered in trees and scrubby bushes, plenty to cover his silhouette against the sky. The ridge overlooked an old meat-processing plant set on the outskirts of Oskolkovo. Carter and the Commandos had scouted the land around the slaughterhouse the night before, and were planning on making their move a few nights hence. Loki had no interest in waiting that long.

As soon as the others had settled down for the night, leaving Morita on watch, he’d left a clone in his bedroll and slipped away. Whatever weapon Leviathan had in their disguised base, it would not be a danger for much longer.

The security on the building was laughable. The guards moved in predictable patterns, there were no palm readers, or card scanners, or even cameras, which Loki had encountered the last time he’d coordinated an attack on a secret human base. Of course, that had been nearly seven decades in the future, but still.

Loki considered his method of approach. He was fully healed from his adventure in Onega, and had had a good two days of adequate nutrition. He would be at full power. Taking out a building full of mortals would be a challenge, yes, but hardly impossible. There was, however, the possibility that there were super soldiers in the building, and that changed the game. Loki was more than a match for any of them, but multiple opponents at the same time… That could actually harm him.

He would need a distraction. Another scan of the base provided an idea. He crouch-walked forward until he was far enough down the ridge that he would not be seen against the sky, and then made his way down towards the base.

One of the guards was by himself, standing on the leeward side of a dilapidated shack so he could smoke a cigarette. He’d taken care to hide himself from the sight of his fellow guards while he indulged his illicit habit, making him the perfect target.

Loki was able to get right up to the mortal without being detected, grabbing the man from behind and looping an arm around his neck. It took less than two minutes for the man to asphyxiate. Pathetic. He lowered the corpse to the ground and scanned him from head to toe. Then he cloaked himself in the man’s appearance, down to every last detail. He picked up the man’s discarded rifle and stamped out the foul-smelling cigarette.

Slinging the rifle over on shoulder, Loki set off at a brisk walk towards the fenced-in area that once must have held the kine. Now the stables sheltered vehicles similar to the Commando’s trucks, at least two dozen of them.

As Loki made his way toward the vehicle bay, he passed other guards stationed around the building. None of them stopped him; a couple nodded at him as he passed. He nodded back and did not say anything, either. When he reached the bay, however, there were two men standing inside a small hut over a fire burning in a metal container.

“Hold on, Andreivich,” one of them called, waving at Loki. He slowed to a stop and turned toward the man who’d spoken, letting the other man approach him. “What are you doing here? Aren’t you assigned to the north side?”

“New orders,” Loki replied shortly, and gestured to the vehicle bay with his chin.

The mortal squinted at him for a moment, and then shrugged. “Well, it’s not like they tell us shit, anyway. Go on.”

Loki passed into the enclosure with no other incidents, and made his way towards the first truck. Human vehicles used old-fashioned, volatile fuel, easily combustible. He flipped open the fuel tank cover, and summoned a small wooden disk from his pocket dimension. He dropped the disk into the fuel tank, and moved on to the next truck. He deposited disks into twelve of the trucks before heading inside the building.

There was another guard at the door, but this one only looked up at Loki’s face, grunted, and waved him past. Loki strode down an empty, poorly-lit hallway until he turned the corner. Once out of sight, he summoned a last wooden disk to his palm.

The thirteen disks had been carved from the same branch of an elm tree, all carved with the same knife and inscribed with the same sigil. They were all, essentially, identical, which made them useful for this specific spell.

With a flick of will, Loki focused his seidr into the wooden disk, which promptly burst into green flames, as did the other twelve disks. As this flame was created from Loki’s own energy, it did not burn him. It did, however, burn everything else.

The explosions were so close together they almost sounded as if they were all one, and shook the building, dust raining from the ceiling. There was a moment of ringing silence, and then an alarm sounded overhead, and men started yelling. Loki tossed his stolen rifle aside, shed his false visage, and went hunting.

He would have preferred to keep himself veiled, but that was tricky to maintain at the same time as doing battle, so he settled for his full Asgardian armor and hoped they would not have any machine guns indoors. The first two mortals he came across he cut down without stopping, severing their spines with a single slash of his dagger. He made no attempt to hide his presence. If these mortals had any brains at all, they would detect him before long and attempt to hunt him. He would lead them on a merry chase that would end with all of them choking on their own blood.

The next mortal was able to fire off a few shots with his rifle before Loki reached him, the bullets ricocheting off his armor. While the bullets did not penetrate, the armor didn’t do much to stop the kinetic force of the bullets, and he would carry the bruises for a day or two. Still, the pain barely slowed him down.

He cut through half a dozen mortals before he found the first super soldier. As soon as the man rounded the corner, Loki knew what it was that faced him. He could tell by the predator’s prowl, the set of the shoulders, the smooth glide down the corridor. The soldier carried two pistols, but abandoned them quickly when he saw they had no effect on Loki. By the time he reached Loki, he’d pulled out a pair of daggers instead.

Like the assassin sent after Carter, this one was wearing a rigid mask over the lower part of his face. His eyes, dark brown, were wild and bestial, with no spark of consciousness. Loki frowned at that as they squared off. What depravity did it take to rob a human of its soul? Loki was quite aware of the answer, and did not like it. Whatever this creature was before him, it was not its own master.

Still, it was the enemy, and had to be eliminated. If Loki took pity on the creature, it would not stop until it was dead, or had completed its mission. It would be a mercy for Loki to put it out of its misery.

The soldier made the first move, slicing low at Loki’s inner thigh, hoping to catch him off-guard at the unusual move. Loki blocked the mortal’s wrist with his left one, his own dagger stabbing upwards toward the soft underside of the soldier’s jaw. The soldier didn’t pull back in time, no doubt thinking its mask would protect it. It did not count for Asgardian steel.

Loki’s dagger met leather and sliced through as if it had been silk, burying the point in flesh. The soldier grunted in pain and flung itself away from Loki fast enough to save its life, dropping one knife to rip the mask away from its face.

Blood spilled from the beast’s lips and dripped from its jaw. A painful wound, but not fatal. It spat out a mouthful of blood and lunged at Loki again, knife flashing towards Loki’s eyes. Loki saw the feint and ducked under the knife arm, coming up chest-to-chest with the soldier, his own knife buried in the mortal’s stomach, angled upwards to pierce the lung.

The soldier coughed, spraying blood into Loki’s face, but did not fall until Loki yanked his dagger free, blood spurting out over his hand. The mortal collapsed backwards, fumbling at the wound in his belly, making small, grunting sounds of pain. Loki stared down at the creature for a moment, eyes flat and inhuman, but then he crouched beside the mortal.

“You are not to blame,” he said softly, staring into the mortal’s dark eyes. “I am sorry for what they did to you.”

There was still no sentience in the mortal’s face as he choked on his own blood. Loki knew the man was dying, even enhanced as it was, but it would be several agonizing minutes before it bled out. So he gently held the man’s head steady and slit its carotid artery. It took less than a minute for the life to fade from the soldier’s eyes.

Loki got to his feet, absently wiped his bloody hands on his armor, and went in search of his next kill.

They were finally starting to coordinate, coming at him in squads of three or four. They still fell like herd animals before wolves, and Loki hadn’t even started to use his seidr. Not yet. For now he wanted the pure kill, to purge the rage and the helplessness and the fury he kept bottled inside since he learned of Darcy’s capture. He wanted the taste of blood in his teeth and the feel of flesh rending under his hand and the sound of their screaming until his whole world was red and hot and glistening ...

Loki came back to himself gradually, like a darkness lifting from his vision. He was breathing heavily, but with excitement, not with exertion. He stood at the end of a corridor, where it intersected with another, and in all directions there were corpses littering the floor. Loki could hear the slow drip of blood and realized it was from him. His armor was drenched in it, as well as his hands. He could feel dried droplets of it on his face, and even his hair was damp.

There was a door in front of him, heavy metal, and locked, quite unlike any other door Loki had seen in the base so far. He had been working his way towards this door, he was sure, but the last hour or so was lost to blood and fire and death.

He reached out and gestured, mouthing the word necessary to trigger his seidr, and the lock broke apart, allowing him to grab the handle and pull. As the door swung open, he was met with two gun shots. They bullets struck his breastplate and he stopped, blinking.

The room inside was larger than he anticipated. There were rods hanging from the ceiling, strung with wicked-looking hooks. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all metal, with copper pipes running along the walls. And inside the chamber, clustered against the back wall, were half a dozen mortal girls, all of them preadolescent. In front of them stood a severe-looking woman in a black uniform of some kind, holding a gun aimed at Loki.

Loki stepped over the threshold into the chamber, and the woman fired again. Loki kept walking, and the woman kept firing until her gun clicked empty. Only then did she look alarmed as Loki approached her. She dropped into a defensive crouch, hands raised in front of her face, but Loki was no longer in a killing mood. The sight of children had robbed him of his bloodthirst.

“Who are you?” Loki asked in a calm, emotionless voice. He knew the answer well enough. This woman was from the Red Room, and the girls were young Widows, just beginning their training.

The woman didn’t respond. She launched herself at Loki, kicking high at his face. Loki easily caught her by the ankle, twisted, and slammed her face-first into the metal floor. She cried out when she hit the ground and the bone in her leg cracked, loud enough that the girls, who were staring with wide eyes, all flinched at the sound of it. Loki released his hold on the woman and stepped back.

She rolled over, injured leg limp, and stared up at him. “What are you?” she demanded, voice shaking.

Loki crouched down, leaning his face close to hers so she could smell the stench of blood and death that clung to him. “I am your nightmare,” he said in the same calm, emotionless voice. Then he put his hand around her throat and squeezed. She fought him, clawing at the hand that cut off her air, uninjured leg kicking with increasing feebleness until her eyes finally drifted shut.

When he lowered her to the ground, her chest still rose and fell. Loki had no intention of killing the girls’ guardian in front of them. Besides, she would be a valuable prisoner. Loki looked at the six young children, who shrank away from him.

“I will not harm you,” he told them gently. “I will not let anyone harm you.”

They stared at him, wide-eyed, and then a brave one spoke up, pushing her way to the front of the group. “Will you cut off our fingers, then?” she asked in a high, piping voice. “They said you would cut off our fingers and toes.”

Loki crouched again to decrease the effect of his height. “No one is going to cut off anything,” he assured her. “I give you my word.”

The girl who had spoken didn’t even reach his waist, fine-boned and pretty, with auburn hair plaited into two braids. Her skin was the color of fresh milk, scattered with pale freckles, and her eyes were bright, sky blue, fringed with black lashes. She was missing two or three teeth, causing her words to lisp.

“You killed all the men,” she said, looking past Loki into the corridor.

“Yes,” Loki told her honestly.

“The men were supposed to protect us,” the girl insisted.

I will protect you, now,” Loki said.

The girl’s eyes flicked to the unconscious woman on the floor. “Will you kill Mistress, too?”

Loki raised an eyebrow. “Do you wish me to kill her?”

The child thought for a moment. “No,” she finally said.

“Then I will not,” Loki replied. “What is your name, meyla ?”

The girl scowled. “I’m not allowed to have a name, yet,” she muttered.

Loki inhaled slowly and resisted the urge to break his word and kill the woman, anyway. “Would you like to have a name?” he asked.

The girl’s scowl turned to a thoughtful frown. “Yes?” she said uncertainly.

Loki nodded as if a deal had been struck. “Very well, your name will be Astra.”

The girl blinked a couple of times, and then her face bloomed into a gap-toothed smile. “Astra,” she repeated.

Loki summoned the hand-held radio he’d taken from the camp when he left. “Agent Carter,” he said clearly into the speaker. “This is Loki.”

There was a long pause, and then the radio crackled. “Loki? Where the hell are you?”

“I am inside the Leviathan base, and there are six young children whom you should meet. I have cleared the way for you.”

“Cleared the way--what the bloody hell did you do?”

“I cleared the way,” Loki said again, and put the radio down. He looked at the newly-appellated Astra. “My friends are going to come to meet you. Will that be alright?”

Astra suddenly looked nervous again. “Are they going to cut off our fingers and toes?”

Loki measured his breathing again. “No one is going to cut off anything,” he told her again.

One of the other girls, this one black-haired and gray-eyed, elbowed her way to the front. “May I have a name, too?” she asked shyly, looking up at Loki from underneath her eyelashes.

Loki rocked back on his heels and examined her for a moment. “How about Gyda?” he asked her.

She tilted her head for a moment, considered that, and then nodded.

By the time Agent Carter arrived with the Commandos, Loki had cleansed himself of most of the blood using a spigot in one corner of the metal chamber, and was sitting on the floor, the girls clustered around him. Their mistress was tied hand and foot, her injured leg splinted, and gagged, glaring at Loki with murderous eyes.

Agent Carter was the first to step into the room. Her face was pale, almost greenish, no doubt at the carnage she’d just waded through, and at the sight of Loki with the children she stopped dead.

“Hello, Agent Carter,” Loki greeted. “May I introduce Astra, Gyda, Kari, Sylvi, Erika, and Tyra. Children, this is my friend, Agent Carter.”

Privet , Agent Carter,” the girls chorused.

“Hello,” Carter said with a brave attempt at a smile. “Loki, may I speak with you?”

“Of course.” He turned to the girls. “Excuse me for one moment, ladies.”

Carter pulled him aside and dropped her voice so the girls couldn’t hear. “Are they what I think they are?” she asked in disbelief.

“Little widows,” he told her with a nod.

“Were they the weapon my agent was talking about?” Carter demanded.

“It is likely,” Loki replied. “Raise them in your country, acclimate them to your culture. They would be completely invisible and utterly deadly.”

Carter nodded and looked pensively over at the girls. “What are we supposed to do with them now?” she asked, sounding tired.

“From what I have been able to deduce, they have not had much training,” Loki said.

“God, no, they’re barely more than five years old!” Carter exclaimed, and then winced.

“As I said, I think that turning them against their birth country would not be difficult,” Loki went on. “Give them homes in America. Let them lead normal lives. As for their mistress,” Loki gestured toward the woman bound hand and foot. “Perhaps she can give you the answers you seek.”

Carter pressed her lips together. “Well, there’s nothing for it, then. We’ll have to take them with us. How are we supposed to get them out of the building? There’s bodies three deep outside.” She looked back at Loki. “And don’t think I’m going to let that go. You and I are going to have a talk.”

“Blindfold them,” Loki said simply. “By now they trust me completely. We can make it a game of sorts. They need not see this.”

Carter nodded. “If you think it’ll work.”

Loki stepped away from the agent and returned to the girls, none of whom had moved an inch. “Mr Loki, sir,” Astra piped up, staring up at him with her large, blue eyes. “Are we to leave now?”

“Yes,” Loki told her. “But before we can leave you all must do something for me, and you must be brave. Can you be brave?”

“Yes,” they all said together.

“I need to cover your eyes,” Loki continued. “It is very important. But just for a little while. Can you do that?”

One by one they blindfolded the girls using handkerchiefs, strips of bandages, or rags torn from shirts. Carter, Jones, Falsworth, and Dernier each carried one of the girls, while Loki took Astra and Gyda. Dugan and Morita carried the injured Red Room mistress.

It was dawn by the time they reached the camp, removed the blindfolds from the girls, and gave them all something to eat. Loki had broken up a couple of chocolate bars to share between them, which turned out to be quite the novelty.

Then Loki felt Darcy pluck at the bond joining them, and he prepared himself for her arrival. She appeared a moment later, wearing a sensible dress in a fetching shade of green. She stood at the edge of the camp and looked around at the children for a long, silent moment.

Loki got to his feet and crossed over to greet her. She eyed him dubiously for a moment, not missing the bloodstains on his armor. “What,” she said in a flat voice. “In the holy fuck did you do?”

“I killed a Leviathan base,” he told her simply.

She blinked a couple of times and looked up at his face. “The entire base?” she asked, sounding a bit weak.

“Yes,” Loki replied. He looked over his shoulder at the girls. “And I may have adopted six mortal children.”

“May?” Darcy echoed, setting her hands on her hips. “You may have?”

“Mister Loki, sir?” Asked one of the girls, Tyra. “May we have more cho-co-late ?”

Loki turned to look at Darcy again. “Yes, I think I have.”

Darcy slapped her hand over her face. “Oy vey,” she muttered.

“Darcy,” Loki said, dropping his voice.

She pulled her hand down. “What?”

“I told you I would burn the world for you,” he reminded her. “You did not believe me. Leviathan hurt you. I will not rest until they are dead. All of them.”

She blinked again, eyes widening. Her mouth fell open, and she searched for something to say. “Loki,” she started, and then cut herself off. She sighed. “As Darcy, I want to tell you no, to forget it. But Sigyn… She’s telling me something different.” She shifted uncomfortably. “Can we… Can you come home, now? Can we just try to figure things out before you go walk the earth or something?”

Loki nodded. “Yes. We are coming home.”

“Thank god,” she breathed in relief, and reached up to pull him down for a kiss.

When they broke apart, Loki whispered, “Please tell me you brought more chocolate. The girls have already eaten all I have.”

Darcy grinned at him. “I got you covered.”

Chapter Text

It had never occurred to Darcy that Loki would be good with children. But seeing him with the little Widows was like seeing a completely different person. The six little girls were no older than four years, maybe five, and they already looked up at him like he hung the moon and stars. He’d stuffed them full of apples and bread and chocolate, and was now regaling them with an Asgardian nursery tale to keep them distracted while Morita and Jones examined their former mistress for additional injuries.

Seeing that Loki was sufficiently distracted, Darcy slipped easily away from the camp and started walking in the direction of the Leviathan base. “I killed a Leviathan base . That’s what Loki had said, but Darcy wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, and wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to. But she had to find out. Loki was her lagsmaðr, and therefore his actions were her responsibility. She also needed to make sure he hadn’t screwed with the timeline too badly. They had to tread carefully. Changing the future was inevitable, but Darcy needed to be sure that when they arrived back at the year 2013, it was not unrecognizable.

Especially now with the unveiling of the Red Room. They couldn’t wipe out the Red Room. No Red Room, no Natasha. And it wasn’t just about Darcy losing a friend, it was about the Avengers. At all costs, the Avengers must exist. So Darcy couldn’t let Loki dismantle Leviathan completely if it meant taking out the agency that would create the most famous Black Widow, just like she couldn’t tell Carter that Steve was alive and sleeping in the Arctic Ocean.

It was an incredibly fine line to walk, and every moment Darcy was afraid to tip the balance. Luckily, she was a norn, and this was pretty much her job: maintain fate and the balance of the universe. If anyone could keep them from screwing up the timeline, it was her.

The base was a good three miles away, but she was in halfway decent shape and the terrain was smooth until she got to the last couple hundred yards and the ground gradually began to rise before cutting off in a steep ridge. She stood at the top of the ridge and looked down.

There was still smoke rising from the car pool but the flames had long since gone out. The smell of burning gasoline was thick in the air, making Darcy cough. She surveyed the building for a long moment, but there was no sign of movement. Besides, it wasn’t as if anyone could hurt her during a dreamwalk. She was, effectively, invincible.

She started down the ridge, briefly wishing she’d worn something more sensible than a pair of low pumps. Her heels sank into the soft earth, threatening to trip her every couple of steps. When she finally made it down the ridge, she stopped to scrape the mud off her shoes and straighten her stockings.

“Fucking stupid 40’s fashion sense,” she muttered. “When the hell do they invent pantyhose?”

Once she had her clothing sorted out, she started toward the building. She came across her first body before she got a chance to even enter the base. The corpse was half-charred, giving off a disconcertingly hearty smell of roasted meat, and Darcy had to fight her rising gorge, turning quickly away.

She forged on, determined to assess the extent to which Loki had affected the future. A door into the building hung open on damaged hinges, and Darcy cautiously stepped inside. The light overhead flickered fitfully, and several of them had gone out completely.

The hallway was empty as far as she could see to where it reached a T intersection, but the smell assaulted her almost immediately. It was a salty, metallic, warm sort of smell, thick and cloying, and it had been so long since she’d smelled it this strong that it took her a long moment to identify it.

Blood .

Every human instinctively knew what blood smelled like. Humans lost teeth when they were children, which generally involved bleeding gums, and blood smelt a whole lot like it tasted. The smell of it touched a deep, primal part of the brain, inciting fear and caution. Darcy’s stomach turned queasily in her stomach, her skin starting to crawl. Every human instinct was telling her to turn around, to run, but every norn sense told her to keep going. She had to know.

She reached the intersection and looked to her left. The hallway was still clear, but when she turned to the right…

Blood was pooled thick and sticky on the floor, just beginning to dry. It was a deep red, wine color, almost black, slick and glistening. There was more spattered on the wall and ceilings in thick, arterial sprays. And the bodies…

Darcy didn’t let herself count them. They were scattered on the floor, left where they had fallen, deep red gashes across stomachs and throats and backs. They were all pale, bled dry, growing stiff with rigor. The stench of urine and feces mingled with the overpowering miasma of blood, and then Darcy couldn’t hold back the retching.

She fled blindly the way she’d come, bursting into the open and gulping down lungfuls of gasoline-tinted air. It did nothing to help, and she fell to her knees, tearing her stockings and throwing up the remains of her dinner. Stomach acid burned her throat when she retched a second time, bringing up more bile.

She was shaking by the time her stomach settled, her eyes and nose running. Her breath came in ragged gasps and her heart raced with suppressed adrenaline. She tried to screw her eyes closed to block out the images, but they lingered behind her eyelids. She got to her feet, staggered away from her sick, and collapsed again still sobbing.

A shadow fell over her and she looked up to see Loki standing over her. Before she could think, she recoiled away from him, from the psychic stench of death that still clung to him.

“Darcy,” Loki said with a sigh, and crouched down so he wouldn’t loom over her. “I never wanted you to see this.”

“You didn’t want me to?” Darcy croaked through a burning throat. “To see what you did? How many, Loki? How many people did you kill?”

Loki exhaled slowly through his teeth. “All of them,” he said after a minute.

Darcy scoffed and shook her head. “Oh, my god. Oh, god. I thought… I thought it was Skuld. I thought the darkness was Skuld, but it wasn’t, was it?” She pushed to her feet and backed away from him. She knew she was dangerously close to hysteria, that she was letting herself react emotionally, but she didn’t care. The shades of the dead soldiers behind her clung to her psyche like oil, all the severed timelines, all the destroyed souls.

Loki stepped forward, reaching a hand toward her, and for a moment she saw through the Aesir facade, saw the storm underneath his skin. It was wild and utterly primal, destructive by its very nature, unforgiving and untamable. That she ever thought she could restrain him was laughable and futile in the extreme.

He put his hand on her arm, and she flinched away from him. “ Don’t touch me!” she snarled at him. The cloak of death still hung over him, and she couldn’t bear to be in contact with that. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done ?”

“I made you safe,” he snapped at her, losing patience. “They took you, Darcy. They hurt you. I could not allow that to pass unavenged.”

“I was fine ,” she yelled at him, balling her hands into fists. “I took care of myself! I don’t need you to murder hundreds of people every time I’m in danger!”

He narrowed his eyes and lunged forward, grabbing her arms before she could pull away. He held her so tightly his fingers bruised her skin, and didn’t let go even when she kicked his shins and struggled. “You still do not see,” he hissed at her. “How many times must I say it? You are the only thing in this universe of any worth to me. I cannot let any harm come to you. Without you I have nothing . Neither sanity nor will to live.”

Darcy twisted and fought, trying to get away from him, but he was relentless, his fingers digging into her upper arms. “That’s not fair !” she protested through her tears. “You can’t put that on me, Loki! I can’t be the center of your universe! That’s not my responsibility!”

“I know,” Loki replied, his voice softening. “I am sorry, Darcy. I have nothing more to offer you than broken pieces. I cannot change who-- what --I am. It is unfair, but it is the truth.”

She stopped fighting him, too out of breath from crying and struggling. Against her better judgement, she slumped forwards toward him, and he released her so he could gather her to his chest, circling his arms around her while she sobbed. He stroked her hair, murmuring softly in her ear in the First Tongue until she finally stopped shaking and her breathing returned to normal. Even then, she stayed still, enclosed in the protection of his embrace for a little while longer.

She hooked her fingers into his armor and clung to him, despite the aftertaste of blood and death. “You didn’t want me to know,” she whispered hoarsely. “What you did.”

“No,” he replied, equally as softly. “But I should not have tried to hide it from you.”

She sniffed loudly and pressed her forehead against the inscribed gorget hanging under his collar bone. “Because you thought I’d be mad?”

“Because I feared you would not forgive me,” he corrected her gently.

Darcy snorted. “But you did it anyway.”

“I had no choice,” he told her.

Darcy looked up at his face, leaning back without breaking the embrace. “No,” she disagreed. “There’s always a choice, Loki. I--I’ll make you a promise. I promise I will never leave or send you away. But you have to promise me something in return.”

“Anything,” he said immediately.

Darcy huffed a soundless, rueful laugh. “My dad told me, when I was younger, never to marry a man thinking I would change him. But that’s exactly what I did. I thought I could… but I can’t. I want you to promise that you’re gonna try. Try to get better. Try to be better. I can’t change you… but you can.”

He stared at her for a long, silent moment, green eyes dark with emotion and thought. “I am not a good man, Darcy,” he told her softly.

She shook her head. “That’s not true,” she insisted. “You don’t have to be defined by what Skuld made you do.”

“There was a darkness in me long before Skuld enslaved my mind,” Loki said sadly. “I cannot promise I will be a good man. But if you wish it, I will try.”

“Don’t do it for me,” Darcy said, shaking her head again. “Do it for you .”

“Everything I do is for you,” he informed her. “That is simply how the universe works. Perhaps one day it will change, but for now you must be content with this.”

Darcy gnawed on her lower lip for a moment, considering his words. Finally she nodded. “Okay. That’s enough to start out with.”

He nodded back and tightened the embrace, tucking her head under his chin. She let herself relax against him and stopped resisting the urge to seek safety in his presence. He was her lagsmaðr, and he would always be her safe place, her refuge. No matter how dangerous he was to the outside world, he was home .

When she finally felt calm enough to face the others, she braced her hands against his chest and pushed gently. He released her immediately, letting her step back. “We should get back,” she said in a tear-thick voice. “The girls… they, uh, they really trust you. I’m sure they’re getting nervous without you.”

Loki shrugged. “I left a clone telling them children’s tales my mother told Thor and me. I know them so well I could tell them in my sleep.”

Darcy narrowed her eyes. “Your multitasking skills must be amazing.”

He raised his eyebrows. “They are,” he said without a trace of humility.

She snorted and slapped his arm with the back of her fingers. “Let’s go.”

As she stepped past him, he caught her hand and stopped her. She looked up at him with a curious frown. “I hurt you,” he said, scowling as he stared at her right shoulder. Darcy looked down. Her dress was short-sleeved, suited for the mild California autumn, and the striped bruises left from his fingers were already clearly visible against her paler skin.

With his lips pressed into a thin line, Loki reached up and brushed his fingertips against the bruising on her arms. She felt the familiar tingling sensation of his magic, and then the bruises faded. “No matter how many times I heal you, I always hurt you again,” he said unhappily.

Darcy shrugged and looked up at him. “Not your fault I’m a squishy human. Major strength difference between us. Bound to be unintentional injuries. Don’t sweat it. At least you can make it better.”

He didn’t look convinced, but he didn’t fight her when she took his hand in hers and led him away from the Leviathan base.

Carter was waiting for them when they reached the camp. She stood with her hands on her hips, pacing back and forth in the trees. Before she could speak, Loki gestured at her sharply, and then veiled himself so he could take the place of his clone without the little Widows noticing.

“It will be time to leave soon,” he told them, finishing the last story. “We will ride in the trucks. First we need to break camp, so remain here until we say it is time to leave.”

Da , Mr Loki,” they call chorused together.

Loki stood and went to join Carter and Darcy. “You’re good with them,” Carter noted, gesturing toward the girls with her chin.

Loki shrugged somewhat self-consciously. “They are children. Anyone can handle children.”

“Not everyone,” Carter disagreed. “But we need to talk about what the hell you thought you were doing, taking out that base on your own.”

“I thought we had a desirable result,” Loki said mildly, clasping his hands behind his back. “The base was neutralized, an asset was captured, and the children were liberated.”

“You went against orders,” Carter said sharply. “Deliberately. I can’t have an agent working for me that I can’t trust to follow orders.”

“I do not work for you,” Loki told her stiffly. “I agreed to help you remove a threat, and I have.”

“Loki,” Darcy said warningly.

“I think I have been fairly accommodating towards both of you, considering you are most literally fish out of water here,” Carter went on. “But regardless if you work for me or not,” here she paused to glare at Loki. “You are my responsibility and I can make life very difficult for you if you do not cooperate with me. So. What will it be? Will you follow orders?”

Loki looked very deliberately at Darcy. “Well, my lady ?” he asked sardonically. “What are your orders?”

Darcy sent him her own glare. “You know I promised never to order you to do anything,” she snapped at him. “But I’m for cooperating with Carter. She’s right, you know. She can make life difficult for us.”

Loki turned to Carter and bowed slightly. “My lady norn has kindly requested I accommodate your wishes,” he went on in the same sarcastic voice. “In the future I will endeavor to adhere to your orders.”

“Thank you,” Carter said viciously. “And for heaven’s sake, you can call me Peggy. You've certainly earned it.”

“Pegs!” Dugan called from the truck. “Are we gonna leave, or what?”

“We’re coming!” Carter--Peggy--yelled back. She looked over at the girls, who were still seated in a semicircle around the extinguished fire, eyes fixed on Loki. “You’d better round up your herd. It’s going to be a long trip home.”

“They will be fine,” Loki said dismissively.

Carter eyed him dubiously. “I do hope you know what you’ve gotten yourself into.”

Loki frowned at her. “They are children. How hard can it be?”

Darcy raised her eyebrows. “You are really gonna wish you hadn’t said that.”

XxxXxxX

The whole SSR office was in a state of anticipation. After over a week and a half of travelling, Peggy and Loki were finally coming home, along with the gaggle of baby Widows. Everyone was buzzing with the news, and Daniel’s mood was downright chipper. And of course, when the boss was happy, everyone was happy.

Darcy couldn’t concentrate on a single thing that morning. It didn’t matter that she’d seen Loki just three days prior, right before he boarded the plane in Helsinki. She was just so damn happy to get him home . She was only slightly apprehensive about the little Widows. She’d spent as much time as possible with them over the last week or so, but nothing could compare to their newly-formed bond with Loki.

It was… interesting… to see him dote on the girls. It made Darcy smile to see how gentle he was with them, and yet he treated them like small adults, and they blossomed under his attention. But part of her, the secret, selfish part of her, was angry and sad that she could never give him a child of her own for him to treat like that.

Still, she was looking forward to having everyone, children included, back safe where they belonged. What they were going to do with six four-year-old girls, she had no idea, but they could figure that out when the time came.

Darcy slapped down the file she’d been unsuccessfully trying to read for the last twenty minutes and got to her feet. Daniel’s office door was open so he could hear the moment Peggy and Loki arrived, so she walked right in.

“I’m going out of my mind,” she told him.

He looked up at her. His hawaiian shirt was unbuttoned at his throat and his dark hair was dishevelled. “I know, me too,” he admitted. He leaned back in his chair and rubbed his face with both hands. “I hate it when she leaves. She’s so far away and I can’t…” he dropped his hands and looked at her. “You’re lucky you can see him whenever you want.”

“Yeah,” Darcy said softly. “It’s still tough.”

“I haven’t even asked her out, yet,” Daniel muttered, mostly to himself.

Darcy laughed. “You wanna know how many dates Loki took me on before I married him?” Daniel raised his eyebrow. “Exactly zero,” Darcy told him. “The entire first year I knew him, I was visiting him in prison.”

“Yeah, Rose mentioned something about him being in trouble,” Daniel said, straightened. He seemed glad for the distraction. “What was that about?”

Darcy tilted her head. “Well,” she said, drawing out the word. “Loki doesn’t have the reputation for being the world’s cuddliest person.” Daniel interrupted her with a snort of laughter. “And so when some bad things went down on earth and Asgard, Loki got blamed. Loki’s dad tossed him in the dungeons without a trial. I got lost in the dungeons one day and Bob’s your uncle. Loki’s brother and I ended up breaking him out of prison, he accidentally faked his death, and then he showed up on earth. I basically married him to keep him from going back to prison.”

Daniel raised his eyebrows. “And all of this was four months ago?” he asked.

Darcy calculated mentally. “Five months now.”

He gave her a concerned look. “Honestly, kid. I would not want your life.”

Darcy laughed again. “Sometimes, I don’t even want it.”

Daniel’s phone rang and both of them jumped, staring at the phone for several heartbeats before Daniel snatched it up and slapped it against his ear. “Sousa,” he said shortly, then his expression relaxed. “Thanks, Rose. We’ll be right down.” He slammed the phone down and grabbed his crutch, struggling to his feet. “They’re back.”

It was all Darcy could do to keep pace with him, but she stayed beside him as they crossed the bullpen and headed towards the stairs. Carter had just reached the top of the steps with three of the girls. She looked pale, strung-out, and exhausted, but her face still lit up with a bright smile.

“Daniel!” she called, and hurried to greet him, taking his face in her hands and kissing him soundly.

“Mistress Darcy!” the little Widows chorused, and lined up in a perfect line in front of her. Darcy looked down at them, examining them for, well, anything. But they looked healthy, if a bit smudged, having shed their woolen coats for identical white uniforms.

“Hey, kids,” Darcy greeted. “How was the flight?”

“Unspeakably tedious,” Loki announced, making his own way up the stairs. “They had never been in an airplane before, and two of them were ill the whole time.” He reached her and slid an arm around her waist, pulling her close to him. He smelled like oily wool and engine fuel and mud. Still, when he stooped to kiss her, she tilted her face up to meet his.

“Welcome home,” she said softly.

Before he could reply, Darcy felt a tug on skirt, and looked down. Sylvi stared up at her with wide, brown eyes. Like Astra, she was missing teeth, and lisped through the gaps. “Mistress Darcy, Mr Loki said we would eat when we got here and we’re very hungry.”

Darcy was still a little surprised at how well-spoken the girls were, as young as they were. She nodded and stepped away from Loki. “You need a bath,” she told him. “You smell.”

“I have been in the field for over a month,” he replied, stooping to pick up Erika, who had started to droop. “You are fortunate I do not smell worse.”

Darcy took Sylvi and Gyda’s hands and led them into the bullpen, where lunch was waiting for them. The agents on duty stared at the herd of children, muttering among themselves, but no one bothered them. Peggy and Daniel joined them a moment later, and Darcy wondered if she should tell Daniel about the smudge of lipstick at the corner of his mouth.

“Mistress Peggy!” Astra called, waving to get Peggy’s attention. “Is this where we are going to sleep?”

“No,” Peggy said, a bit sharper than she clearly intended. “No. You are all going to sleep in beds, like proper little girls.”

“Oh,” Astra said, her face falling.

“And no one is getting handcuffed to the bed,” Peggy added.

Palpable relief washed over the girls, and Darcy whipped around to look at Peggy. “ What ?” she demanded in disbelief.

“They handcuff the girls to the bed, to keep them from running away,” Peggy explained.

Darcy felt her blood pressure rising and clenched her fists. “Where’s that bitch you captured? I need to pound her face in.”

“She’s at Stark Industries getting her leg X-rayed,” Peggy told her. “And you are not handling her interrogation.”

“Actually,” Daniel put in. “You know, she got Vega to crack.”

Peggy blinked a few times and looked at Daniel. “She did?”

Daniel nodded. “It was damn scary, too. I mean, not saying that you couldn’t’ve, or anything. She just has a… very different style. And it’s scary. I mean, you’re scary, too, when you want to be, but--”

“Yes, I think I get it, Daniel, thank you,” Peggy interrupted him, and looked over at Darcy with a contemplative expression. “Hmm.”

Daniel cleared his throat and looked down at the girls, who’d gone back to devouring their sandwiches and raw veggies. “Do any of them speak English?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” Peggy replied. “They’ve only spoken Russian so far.”

“In any case, it has been a very long few days for them,” Loki spoke up. Erika was now fast asleep in his lap, her sandwich dangling precariously from one hand. He carefully removed the sandwich from her grip and set it on a desk. “We should take them back to the estate, where they can bathe and sleep.”

Daniel scrunched up his face. “I’ll call Jarvis, but does Stark have a car big enough for all of them?”

“There’s a Jeep in the carpool,” Peggy said. “We can take that.”

“We can handle the girls if you want to stay here and, you know, give a report, or something,” Darcy told Peggy with a coy grin. Peggy replied with a dark look.

“Do you know how to drive?” Peggy challenged.

Darcy crossed her arms. “Hey, my dad made sure I could drive stick before I got my license.”

“Drive stick?” Daniel echoed, frowning in confusion.

“Manual transmission,” Darcy clarified.

“There’s a different kind?” Daniel asked.

“Not in this decade,” Darcy replied. “I’ll be fine.”

Daniel looked over at Loki. “What about you? Can you drive?”

“No,” Loki said simply, still holding Erika in his arms. Erika had a profusion of curly, dark brown hair that was escaping her once-neat pigtails, but her eyelashes, fluttering in sleep against her cheeks, were nearly blonde.

“Fine, I’ll get you the keys,” Peggy said with a sigh.

“You did remember to get new clothing for them?” Loki asked Darcy as Peggy walked away.

“Yeah, Ana and I spent, a whole day shopping. It still weirds me out how much inflation there’s been in the last seventy years. We spent, like, a hundred and fifty bucks. For all of them.” Darcy handed Tyra a couple more carrot sticks. “Almost finished, kids? We’re gonna go home and get you cleaned up.”

Kari, who to date had not spoken a single word, immediately put her arms out to be carried. Darcy stooped, gathered the tow-headed girl into her arms, and stood again. Astra claimed her free hand, clutching with all her strength, and then grabbed Gyda’s hand as well. Tyra and Silvi joined the line, with Silvi taking Loki’s hand.

Darcy laughed at the sight of them, strung together like a kindergarten class on a field trip. The girls seemed to do that instinctively. If they weren’t being carried, they insisted on holding hands, even with each other. At least it made keeping track of them easier.

Of course, that’s probably why the Red Room trained them to do it.

Darcy pursed her lips, trying not to let the thought sour her mood. Peggy escorted them down to the carpool and helped them get the girls loaded. Darcy fretted at the lack of car seats and seat belts, and then at Peggy’s lack of knowledge about car seats and seat belts.

“Maybe I can talk Howard into inventing them early,” Darcy told Loki as she pulled the Jeep out of the car pool. “Fuck. This thing handles like a tank.” She winced and checked over her shoulder to make sure none of the girls had heard her. All of them were half asleep, or, in Erika’s case, completely dead to the world.

Despite the Jeep’s handling, Darcy managed to get them back to the Stark estate without causing any damage, where Jarvis and Ana were waiting for them on the front lawn.

“Miss Carter called and said you were on the way,” Ana said as Darcy got out of the Jeep.

“I would have driven you,” Jarvis said, sounding personally insulted.

“We didn’t think you had enough room,” Darcy replied, opening the back of the Jeep. Loki handed Tyra to her, and one by one they unloaded the little girls, who quickly formed their straight line and stood, stiff-backed, waiting for orders.

“Goodness,” Ana said, pressing her hands to her mouth. “They are so small!”

“Girls, this is Mr and Mrs Jarvis,” Darcy said, gesturing towards the two.

Privet ,” they said together, clutching their hands together in front of them.

“Oh,” Ana said, blinking. “ Privet .”

“We need to get them bathed and changed before they fall over,” Darcy told her. “Think you can help?”

Ana raised her chin, eyes glittering. “Of course.”

Between the four of them, they had all six girls bathed and changed into sleeping clothes in under half an hour. For sleeping arrangements, they dragged two mattresses onto the floor of the largest guest bedroom and piled them with blankets. The girls were all half-conscious by this point, and were tucked in without protest. Darcy did check Gyda’s wrist, and found the circle of fading, yellow-brown bruises. She leaned down and kissed the girl’s dark hair, and then tiptoed out of the room, followed by Loki.

“Phew,” Darcy breathed, leaning against the wall. “This must be what running a daycare is like.”

“Hmm,” Loki said absently, rubbing his thumb along his jaw thoughtfully.

Darcy watched him for a moment. “It’ll be good to get the girls into stable homes,” she said slowly. “Find them families that’ll treat them better.”

Loki blinked and focused on her. “Oh?” he said, a little unsteadily. “You… would send them away?”

Darcy raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms. “You’re telling me you want to keep all of them?”

Loki eyed her for a few seconds. “Yes,” he said at length.

Darcy shrugged. “Okay, but when we have six teenage girls under one roof, I’m gonna sit back and laugh at you.”

He frowned at her. “What is that supposed to mean?”

She patted his arm. “I’ll tell you in ten years. Go. Bath. Now.” She shoved him in the direction of their bathroom. He turned to leave, but caught her wrist and tugged her after him.

“Will you join me?” he asked, almost shyly.

Darcy stopped and looked up at him, studying his face for a moment. Then she smiled. “Okay. Sounds good.”

Chapter Text

When Loki peeled his undershirt off in the bathroom, Darcy was pleased to see his bruising was completely healed. He half-turned away from her, not meeting her gaze, like a shy teenager. Darcy walked over to him and put her hands on his back, palms pressed to his skin and fingers spread. Loki stiffened and she felt his muscles bunch and tense.

 

“You’re cold,” Darcy announced. “Colder than normal. What’s up with that?”

 

He drew a deep breath, which made the muscles in his shoulders do interesting things. “My temperature has a tendency to drop when I over-exert myself. Have you never noticed?”

 

“Yes,” Darcy replied. “I have.” She figured it wasn’t a good idea to press the matter, given Loki’s colder body temperature was indicative of his Jotun nature. She slid her hands upwards, feeling the ripple of muscle and jut of bone under the smooth, pale skin. Loki’s breath shuddered in response and Darcy smiled faintly to herself.

 

He turned around slowly, and then stepped closer to her, reaching up to undo the buttons at the throat of her blouse. Darcy kept her eyes on his face. She didn’t want to push him any further than he was willing to go, and she didn’t want him to have to speak up before she stopped.

 

But he finished unbuttoning her blouse with steady hands and slid it down off her shoulders, leaning down to press a light kiss to the outside curve of her shoulder. He pressed another to the base of her neck, and then underneath her jaw, and Darcy arched her neck under his mouth.

 

He traced his hands up her sides, drawing gooseflesh in his wake, until he reached the clasp of her brassiere and flicked it open. He drew the garment out of the way before his hand came to rest on her breast, his thumb brushing over her nipple.

 

“Loki,” Darcy said a bit breathlessly as his teeth scraped over the sensitive skin under her ear. He made a soundless rumble in his chest and did not stop his attentions. “ Loki . The tub is going to overflow.”

 

Loki heaved an aggravated sigh and stepped away from her, crossing over to the over-sized tub and shutting off the spigot. Darcy took the opportunity to double check the door to make sure it was locked, and then stripped out of her trousers. She followed Loki over to the tub and hooked her fingers in the waistband of his trousers, turning him around. She reached up and drew his face down to meet hers.

 

He responded to the kiss instantly, tracing the tip of his tongue along her lower lip. She opened her mouth under his, letting her tongue join his. His hands were back on her body, and she returned the favor. Loki was built lean, with no extra fat and barely any extra muscle. But he did still have an attractive ripple of muscle over his ribcage that led down to the deep V of his hips.

 

When Darcy’s hands were impeded by Loki’s pants, she stopped, remembering the last time her hands had wandered this far down. Loki pulled away from her, and Darcy tried not to be disappointed, but Loki tilted his head towards the bathtub.

 

“The water will get cold,” he told her, the corner of his mouth turning up. “You should get in.”

 

“Don’t tell me you’re not capable of warming up a bathtub with magic,” Darcy retorted, stepping over the wall of the tub into the water. It was the perfect temperature for her and she was quite happy to submerge to her shoulders. There was a low bench along the edge of the tub, just high enough to be comfortable. She settled back and rested her arms along the top of the tub, raising an eyebrow challengingly.

 

“Well?” she said. “ You’re the one who smells. Are you going to join me?”

 

Loki cocked his eyebrow in reply and stripped out of his trousers. He wasn’t wearing underwear. When he sank into the water next to her, pressing against her, the warmth of the water equalized their skin temperatures. He glided his hand up her thigh to rest on her hip, and she barely felt the touch, not until his fingertips dug into her skin. She’d have bruises, but she didn’t say anything.

 

Loki’s mouth found hers again, insistent and demanding, tilting her head back and teasing her mouth open. His other hand came up to cup the back of her head, tangling his fingers in her hair.

 

They hadn’t had more than a few kisses in over a month, and even before that… well, suffice it to say it had been a while, and Darcy, despite her good intentions, wasn’t getting anymore patient. She wanted the joining, needed it, wanted to feel connected to him in the most intimate manner possible, to see inside his soul for the first time since…

 

Loki shuddered under her sudden enthusiasm and broke away, and Darcy realized she had switched their positions. He was now pressed back against the side of the tub, and she was halfway in his lap. Loki was breathing heavily, eyes closed, but she knew instinctively it wasn’t from arousal.

 

“Oh, god, Loki,” Darcy slowly backed away from him, moving to the other side of the tub. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to--I’m sorry.”

 

Of course he’d have flashbacks. It was the perfect environment for it. The last time they’d bathed together had been on Rhia, in her sister Helke’s home, while he was still under Skuld’s control, and they hadn’t done much actual bathing.

 

“I should go,” Darcy muttered, furious with herself, and started to stand. Loki’s hand shot out, spraying droplets of water, and clamped down around her wrist.

 

“No,” he said softly, and opened his eyes. He pinned her in place with an intense stare, head tipping to the side. His skin, despite the warm water, was still pale, but his mouth was flushed bright pink, and Darcy was having a hard time not staring. He had a surprisingly beautiful mouth, the lower lip fuller than the top, begging to be bitten.

 

He drew her back down, and didn’t have to use much strength to compel her, until she was seated on the bench opposite him. Then he moved forward until he was kneeling in front of her.

 

“I want to try something,” he said in the same soft voice. He put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her chastely. “Just, please, do not move.”

 

“Okay,” Darcy whispered, and he kissed her again, open mouthed and exploring. Darcy resisted the urge to touch him, and oh, it was hard. He was there , all lean muscle and restrained power, and her fingers itched to trace the curves in his upper arms.

 

She almost jumped when his hands slid down her shoulders, briefly cupping her breasts before traveling lower, down until he could draw her thighs apart so he could move closer, pressing them chest to chest. She half imagined she could feel his heartbeat racing in his ribcage, but that was probably just hers.

 

He broke the kiss, keeping his face centimeters from hers, and told her, “You can touch me, if you wish.”

 

“Oh,” Darcy gasped, and immediately reached up to explore the fascinating movement of his shoulders. She really did need to get him out of a shirt more often.

 

His mouth found the pulse point at her throat, a spot of which he seemed to be fond, given his attention to it. Darcy was a-okay with that as a shiver ran through her body despite the warmth of the water. She did jump when his hand skated up her inner thigh to find her center.

 

Darcy squirmed, reaching down to catch his hand, hold him in place. “Look, if we’re just gonna fool around…” she said, and trailed off, because the last thing she wanted was to pressure him into anything.

 

Loki nipped the side of her neck, making her shoulder hitch upwards. “Are you calling me a fool?” he asked in a low growl.

 

Darcy let go of his hand. “Noooo,” she replied slowly.

 

“I have no intention of ‘fooling around,’” Loki rumbled against her skin.

 

“Oh, thank god,” Darcy breathed. She arched her back, pressing as much skin together as possible, and hooked her arm around Loki’s neck. “Keep doing that thing with your teeth.”

 

“As you command,” Loki murmured, and nipped at her neck again.

 

She was sufficiently distracted by his teeth against her skin that when he entered her, it almost took her by surprise, and she couldn’t help the cry that escaped her lips. The bond snapped into place almost immediately, taking her breath away.

 

Loki bit down harder on her neck, pain providing a counterpoint to the sensation of joining. It was all Darcy could do not to move, to urge him on, but she did as he asked; she kept still. He did not leave her in dire straits long, setting a gentle, unhurried pace.

 

As much as she had wanted this, as much as she knew she needed this, part of Darcy had been afraid of it, if somehow they weren’t compatible after what Skuld had done to Loki, if the bond wouldn’t work they way it was supposed to.

 

She was wrong.

 

She didn’t think the joining could have been more intense than before, but it was, ten times more. It was more than pleasure, more than simple physical sensation. It was belonging , like she found the pieces of her soul that she’d been missing all her life. It was knowing , like she was remembering the truths about the universe she thought she’d forgotten.

 

Darcy felt as if she and Loki were drawn out of their bodies, drawn into a space that only contained themselves, and the galaxy. Stars wheeled and crashed around them, exploding in Darcy’s brain. And yet she was exquisitely aware of the pressure and friction as Loki moved inside her.

 

He left off trying the leave permanent teeth marks on her neck and attacked her mouth instead with far more force than was strictly comfortable. His teeth clicked against hers, catching her lip between them and pinching painfully, but she didn’t care, she just wanted more of him.

 

Loki had always seemed to be in control in these situations, always held himself back. Now he seemed as desperate as she was, to feel more, to sense more, and his rhythm became sloppy, needy, and when Darcy could no longer hold herself back and wrapped her legs around his waist, he didn’t seem to notice.

 

Darcy clung to Loki, and he clung to her, as if their lives depended on the contact. Their minds bled together until she couldn’t tell who was who, pleasure flowing back and forth between them in an endless cycle. It built up like a wave, pressure and pain and pleasure all wrapped up in one, filling them up until it finally crested with such intensity that their senses whited out.

 

Awareness returned slowly, and when it did, Darcy was back in her own body, once more only joined to Loki by a thin silver thread. He was still kneeling in front of her, hands on her thighs, but he leaned bonelessly against her, pinning her back against the side of the tub, his face buried in the side of her neck.

 

There were bruises on her thighs, and the bite mark was a throbbing point of pain. She was sore at the center of her, but the rest of her body was loose, and her skin felt like she was glowing. She reached up and stroked her hand over Loki’s hair, and he made that silent rumble he made when he was truly content. She stroked his hair again and he kept making that noise.

 

“Loki,” Darcy whispered into his ear.

 

He didn’t respond for a long time, then she only got, “Hmmm?”

 

Darcy smirked. “You’re purring .”

 

XxxXxxX

 

“You know, you really should get some sleep,” Darcy said an hour later. “You’ve been awake for, like, two days straight and the girls aren’t gonna cut you any slack when they wake up in the morning.”

 

Loki continued mapping the freckles on her back with his tongue. “You will find,” he said at length. “They are extraordinarily well-behaved children.”

 

Darcy shifted enough to look over her shoulder at him. “Well-behaved or not, they’re four years old. How many four-year-olds have you been around?”

 

Loki paused to suck a mark onto her fifth thoracic vertebrae. “At that age, Asgardians are still infants,” he told her. “So not many.”

 

He travelled lower, to the small of her back, and Darcy writhed a bit when he reached more sensitive skin. “Well, I have,” she went on. “And it takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep up with one, much less six . You need to sleep.”

 

“How could I sleep when you are here, being so distracting ?” Loki protested, and then added teeth to his ministrations. Darcy shivered in response and resisted the urge to kick him in the chest. She was ticklish there, and he knew it.

 

“It’s not my fault that your sex drive has apparently kicked into over drive,” Darcy complained. “If you don’t want to sleep, then I need to sleep, because I’m not going to be able to keep up with six preschoolers without sleep.”

 

Loki finally stretched out next to her, leaning half against her so they were pressed together, shoulder to shank. He brushed a few strands of hair out of her face and leaned down to kiss her, slowly and thoroughly, taking his time with it.

 

Darcy returned the kiss with equal enthusiasm, but when his hand wandered south again, she broke away and caught his hand, interlacing her fingers with his. “Sleep, Loki,” she said, her voice almost a plea.

 

“I have been deprived of my wife for over a month, and I have just become the guardian of six very small children,” Loki replied, lifting their joined hands and kissing her knuckles. “I do not think we will have the opportunity to be intimate again for a while so we must take advantage while we can.”

 

Darcy smiled faintly and squeezed his hand. “That’s the second time you’ve called me your wife,” she said softly.

 

He smiled back and kissed her knuckles again. “Are you not constantly insisting we are married?” he replied. “Or… perhaps you desire an official ceremony? Mortals do have wedding traditions, do they not?”

 

“Yes, they do,” Darcy affirmed. “And there are some pretty specific Jewish ones, but that’s not what I was talking about.”

 

“Then why point it out?” Loki demanded.

 

“Because that’s the second time you have called me your wife,” Darcy repeated. “Instead of saying ‘spouse.’ Like we’re equals. Like you’re worthy .”

 

He stared at her silently for a moment. “Did you not ask me to… be better?” he asked softly. “Is this not part of that?”

 

Darcy had to bite her lips to stop her from grinning widely. “Well, in that case, I want a ring.”

 

He blinked. “You may have all the jewelry you desire, elskede . Do you wish me to shower you with jewels? I can. I carry a variety of unset stones with me. They are useful in trading, and occasionally in creating talismans. Precious stones do not store seidr, but they do channel it.”

 

Darcy snorted. “Okay, leaving aside the fact you carry around a small fortune in precious gems, I’m not talking about jewelry. Wedding rings, Loki. Do they not have those on Asgard?”

 

Loki blinked again and frowned in thought. “Married couples occasionally exchange arm-rings,” he said after a long moment. “But no, I do not think they do in the manner you mean.”

 

“Humans, or Americans, at least, exchange rings on their wedding day,” Darcy explained. “It represents their commitment to each other, tells other people that they’re married, that they’re taken.”

 

Loki bent his head and brushed his lips against the lagsmaðr markings on her forearm. “Are these not enough?” he murmured.

 

“Yes,” Darcy allowed. “But no one else knows what they mean. I want the world to know I’m married to you.”

 

“Well, that is simple enough,” Loki said, releasing her hand. He balled his hand into a fist and closed his eyes in thought for a moment before opening both again. “Somethin