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Smoke & Mirrors

Chapter Text

It seemed to Loki that inside this cell there existed a perfect stillness. Without windows, time did not move forward, day and night equal to each other. No sounds filtered through from the outside world to come disturb him; not even the shuffle of rats or drip of water down the dank walls. He was suspended, manacled to the wall, his whole world reduced to one dark corner of a forsaken cell.

At first he welcomed the stillness after the chaos he’d left behind—he’d been running and fighting for months, and even he needed time to recuperate. But when he was healed and time had become important to him again, the utter silence rankled him, urged him to pace. Yet he couldn’t even rise to his feet, shackled tightly in place, and he couldn’t yell or outwardly make his frustration known because the silver gag still gripped the lower half of his face.

There was little to fill his time with, no outlet for the dissatisfaction racking him. He hated being pinned down here, knowing the leader of the Chitauri would make good on his threat and hunt Loki down. He wasn’t safe. He needed to be free, with all his magic available to him, ready for the oncoming war. Not that Loki didn’t have plans for the future—plans that had nothing to do with rotting for eternity in this cell. He had secrets even the Allfather didn’t see and he was weaving a path for himself out of them as he waited. For what, he wasn’t quite sure.

Being caged thus wasn’t his only frustration. It had been an age since he’d found release by anything other than his own hand, and he’d reached the point long before his failed conquest of Midgard where he refused to sink to that anymore. It kept him on edge, a good edge, sharp to the failings of others and to his own, his guard always up. His current circumstances meant he never had a single moment’s privacy, Heimdall charged to watch Loki despite the tailor-made gaol. He certainly wasn’t going to give Heimdall, or any of his jailers, that kind of show. If he was miserable, and hungry, and weary, and itching for action of any kind then it would only spur him onto greater things.

He had visitors to break up the tedium—two, in particular. The first was Thor, stern and disappointed, an echo of the Allfather’s own thunder. When reproaching Loki failed, he turned to stories of their childhood, trying to appeal to their brotherly bond, unaware—or unwilling to acknowledge—how shrouded in bitterness those memories were. Thor wanted Loki’s redemption more than Loki himself did. That was one of the caveats of his sentence: if Loki were to show remorse, true remorse, for his actions then he would be released. Loki didn’t regret anything he’d done and knew he wouldn’t be leaving the cell at the behest of Thor or the Allfather.

The other visitor was his mother.

Frigga was the one piece of warmth he still held in his chest, had always held even during his exile. Of her, he remembered motherly embraces and kind words. Any reproach he’d gained as a child from her, she’d given just as freely to Thor. She might not be his blood, but she was still his mother, more deserving of the title than his usurper of a father.

The disappointment in her gaze had faded since his initial return to Asgard, replaced with a hope Loki couldn’t find within himself. No doubt she wanted him to repent, to agree to return to Thor’s shadow and be satisfied with living that life. He could never abide such a thing. Even so, the fact that she still came as often as she could, when he hadn’t seen the Allfather since his sentencing, kept his warmth for her alive. He kept it quiet, though, aware that any chink in his armour could and would be used against him. For the Allfather’s benefit, he built his walls as high as they would go. He imagined Frigga knew—indeed, hoped she did—because despite his terse demeanour and often callous silence, she always came back, ever burdened with love. She asked for the gag to be removed in her presence so he could speak to her. She didn’t fear him, smoothing his hair, the lines on his face, the bruises left by the mask. She brought ointments and soothed his cracked skin, cleaned him, looked after him, just as she had when he was a child and got caught in a fight Thor started and couldn’t finish.

When he heard the locks click free, Loki knew it would be her before the door opened. Thor had been only the day before and left in terse defeat. She carried only a looking glass, no bigger than a dinner plate. The mirror was a new addition to her collection of accoutrements, and her hope seemed ever brighter today. Loki glanced at the sheet of glass and turned his gaze back to the wall.

“I’ve brought something I believe will interest you,” she said, coming to her knees before him as she always did, despite the fact her fine gown would grow filthy on the cell floor. He glanced at her briefly, gave his best impression of nonchalance and looked away again, examining the brickwork. He’d have preferred her to come armed with bowl and cloth. His hair was slick with grease against his crown and neck, and he wanted the sensation gone.

“I’ve been working on this since you came home,” she continued as if he had expressed interest in her words. Perhaps she read him too well. Perhaps her hope shone bright enough to eclipse his indifference. “It’s a way for me to share my gift—a very small part of my gift—with you. To show you that this is not all that fate intends for you.”

That caught his attention, and he stared fiercely at the glass resting in her lap, his hand forming a fist though he couldn’t reach to snatch it away. He’d never heard of such a thing before; Frigga’s sight was hers alone, not even shared with the Allfather. What had she seen of Loki that bade her work such an impossible piece of magic?

She tipped his face towards her with gentle hands. “It’s but a brief thing, caught in the looking glass. Do you wish to see?”

The word almost died in his throat, so long since he’d spoken, even longer since he’d attempted civility. “Please.”

“Very well.” She lifted the glass and he held his breath, waiting for her to pass the flame of hope onto him. Had she seen him ascending a throne? Did she see him being acclaimed over Thor for some deed he’d performed? In the future, would people finally realise he was the better strategist, better ruler, better brother? The image in the glass flickered by, clear as his own reflection, but making no sense. It looped around when it reached its end after mere seconds, repeating from the beginning. Only on the fourth showing did it become clear to Loki what he was witnessing.

He turned his face away with a snarl. “Sentimentality. Small, petty things. You offer me a hint of future glory and deliver this?” He shut his eyes and leaned his head against the wall, indicating the visitation was over. In time, he heard his mother leave without another word. She took the mirror with her, and that he came to regret it as the hours ticked by. He wanted to study the magic involved, if nothing else. Was it a true fragment of his future, or a trick dreamed up by her foolish side?

But when she returned the next day, glass in hand, he devoured the image eagerly, watching it replay for a full turn of the hourglass. Frigga patiently waited for him to grow weary of it. He’d dreamed of it overnight, it’s true meaning growing clear to him.

“What you’ve seen can’t be achieved by force,” she warned him when he finally allowed her to set the mirror down. “It has to be earned—gained with trust, not with tricks and threats.”

He ignored her advice, because he wouldn’t need tricks or force to get what he’d seen—that would be the easiest part. One small part of a much bigger plan, already elaborated beyond its meagre beginnings of a few days ago. He’d have everything he wanted and he had his dear mother to thank for encouraging him to go after it.

Now there was just the small matter of escaping this cell and the Allfather’s gaze to deal with.

Chapter Text

We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to bring you an urgent news broadcast.

Darcy Lewis glanced up from the stitches she’d been squinting at to frown at the TV. She only had it turned on for the background noise—it provided a little company in her tiny Brooklyn apartment. She didn’t pay much attention, but those words dragged her back to the real world. They couldn’t herald anything good.

She waited, like she expected everyone who’d just heard the words were, and cursed under her breath when she realised she’d lost count of her stitches. Now she’d have to unpick and reknit the row. Silence rang and the screen flickered blue before an empty podium filled it. The podium stood on a stage that looked suspiciously like the one the President normally gave press conferences from.

After a pause, a middle-aged woman with an immaculate twin-set and chignon stepped onto the stage, heading for the microphone. Text scrolled across the bottom of the screen, announcing her as Violet Mayhew, Head of the World Security Council.

“Please don’t be world war three,” Darcy muttered to herself.

“Just over a year ago,” Mayhew began, “the city of New York, where I now stand, suffered the worst catastrophe in its history following the invasion of an alien race.” Her delivery was flat, robotic. Like she didn’t believe what she was saying. “Their invasion was halted and the city—the entire Earth—was saved from destruction at their hands.”

Darcy hadn’t been here at the time, but she’d watched the devastation on a TV back in New Mexico. Even when she arrived in New York three months ago, the damage was still evident in places. Hell, it’d been the one of the most surreal points of her life, watching the guy she’d once tasered stop the invasion with his superhero friends. Only slightly less surreal than the time his brother had tried to destroy the town she was living in, but infinitely more scary when she’d realised he was the one leading the invasion. She’d seen the same CCTV stills as everyone else, and he’d looked like he was enjoying himself far too much.

“It has now come to our attention,” Mayhew continued, “that our planet is still at risk. We cannot stand alone against the forces that would seek to attack us if they could. We must unite, every country, every nation, as one. We must come together under one leadership…” She paused, took a deep breath. “The leadership of a protector. An emperor.”

There had to be a reaction from the crowd, but they were mute save for the rhythmic clicking of camera shutters.

Darcy glanced down at the glass of Coca-Cola she’d been drinking, trying to remember when she’d accidentally spiked it with hallucinogenics. There was no way the head of the World Security Council just announced the Earth needed an emperor. But this still didn’t rank as the strangest day of her life. If Darcy wasn’t high, then Mayhew was making this speech under duress.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you our noble protector…his exalted highness, Loki of Asgard.”

From behind a curtain a tall figure emerged, black-haired and cloaked in armour—several cows’ worth of black leather—heavy boots pounding on the floor as he stalked up to the podium. His hair was longer than it had been in the photos from his last jaunt to Earth, now falling around his shoulders. It was choppy, looking more like crow’s feathers than real hair at the ends. His skin wasn’t just pale, but pallid, bloodless, and the armour was battered and tarnished. It was impressive—intimidating—and Darcy knew this was the effect he wanted to have. In his gloved hands he carried a glowing blue box, its surface patterned with runes and emanating an eerie light.

She’d never properly seen his face before—rude, when you considered he’d tried to kill her once—and if it weren’t for the expression on his face, she might have called him handsome, but pulse-racing fear overrode any other reaction she might have felt.

“Thank you for your introduction,” he began, and his voice shocked Darcy. He sounded genuinely courteous, and his accent was pure, crisp upper-class English. She’d been expecting more inflection, more evidence that he wasn’t of this world, but she’d met people who spoke in that accent. He looked so different to his brother but sounded so alike. “I graciously accept the role of Emperor and the burden that befalls me in doing so.” He set the box down on the podium and stared directly into the camera. His eyes glittered, taking on the same blue glow, and Darcy got a glimpse of the maniac who’d wreaked havoc the last time around. Not so like his brother, then.

She realised with a start that Mayhew was now on her knees beside Loki, head bowed towards him. Darcy couldn’t see her face, but her posture suggested she was not happy at being there.

“Some of you may be wondering why you should accept me as your lord and ruler. You may have heard stories about me before, whether ancient or much more recent. Alas, those stories have all come from those who would seek to diminish me, and you must learn to take only my own words as the truth. Further, you are all used to your apparent freedom, or subjugation at the hands of your fellow man. I am not like other men. I am a god—older than any nation and far more powerful than any man has ever been or ever will be. To demonstrate this to you, I conducted an experiment yesterday.”

The screen changed to an idyllic atoll—Darcy guessed somewhere in the Pacific. The sand was white, the ocean turquoise, and palm trees swayed in the breeze. It was travel porn. “The island of Eloau yesterday,” Loki said. His voice really was soothing, when you couldn’t see his face. “And how it is today.”

An iceberg came onto the screen, jutting out of azure waters. “No one lives on Eloau, because I do have it in me to be merciful. I have not yet wastefully killed any of you to prove a point. But you see, my ancestors caused ice ages here in this realm, and I have the same ability. That may be one small island, but make no mistake, I can do the same to any country that defies my rule. You either accept me as your ruler, or an endless winter will return.” The camera cut back to Loki, a manic smile on his face, and Darcy shivered at the sight.

The screen went black, more words scrolling up. You will await further instructions from your Emperor. In the meantime, please go about your daily business as usual.

Knitting abandoned, Darcy decided it was in her best interests to get to Stark Tower, and any sanctuary SHIELD could provide, as fast as she could.

Chapter Text

Darcy’s logic was simple: her tenuous link to Thor meant she might be a target. Loki didn’t strike her as the kind of person to let a grudge go. His return to Earth proved that.

While a part of her hoped that maybe she was so far down on everyone’s radar he wouldn’t even know who she was—and she never thought she’d be praying for insignificance—she’d be in SHIELD’s files, and it was only a matter of time before Loki got to them. If he hadn’t already. Not only was she connected to Thor, even though she’d never seen him again after Puerte Antigua got smashed, but now she was working for Tony Stark. Loki wasn’t a fan of his either. While she didn’t hold any significance for either man, Loki might be so hellbent on revenge that tenuous links were good enough.

She expected chaos on the subway but received quietness instead. In fact, it was almost deserted. It gave her time to mourn the loss of her taser, left behind in New Mexico at SHIELD’s insistence. She wouldn’t be able to take it into Stark Tower, but that was safe ground anyway. She needed it if goons came for her on the street (if there was one thing she was sure of, it was that she was too far down the totem pole for Loki to come for her himself).

More people lingered above ground when she emerged in Manhattan, but the quiet remained. The broadcast played on a loop on TVs and electronic billboards, on cellphones and tablets. Life had temporarily come to a standstill, everyone remembering the frozen island and waiting for the other shoe to drop. It was clear their new emperor was crazy and it wouldn’t take much to make him flip.

Her role, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t that important. She was the assistant of the assistant’s assistant to Pepper Potts, CEO of Stark Industries. She barely even interacted with Pepper, never mind Tony Stark, who she’d met a grand total of once. It wasn’t the most fulfilling of jobs but it kept her under SHIELD’s watchful eye, dangling the carrot of work in Washington in front of her to keep her compliant.

Darcy retrieved her security pass from her bag and entered the vast glass-and-steel expanse of the Stark Tower reception. No one paid her any attention as she swiped herself through the barriers, letting the machine scan her fingerprint, since everyone was so focused on the HD screen behind the desk. She didn’t know what they hoped to learn from the looped newsreel. People who knew nothing would be paraded as experts and provide empty analysis of the situation; reporters would analyse the broadcast from every possible angle; nothing would change.

The ride in the elevator was hushed too, so Darcy was surprised by the calamity when the doors slid open. It was Saturday but the office was full, a cacophony created by everyone talking at once, printers working at full speed and the frantic clack of keyboards. A lanky girl ran towards her with a stack of documents in her hand.

“Darcy! Am I happy to see you!”

“What’s going on, Bridge?”

“You mean apart from the complete restructuring of the company?” Bridget led her to one of partitioned offices off to the side. Bridget was technically Darcy’s boss, though they were nearly the same age and Bridget was the closest thing Darcy had to a friend in New York. “Because of Mr Stark’s history with our new emperor…can I use his name? Are we supposed to call him His Highness or something? Can he hear us? What if he’s cast a spell that can hear us whenever we say his name and we’re snatched away to be punished…”

“Calm down, Bridge. That was Voldemort. Until he issues some sort of decree, I think we’re okay to call him Loki.”

Bridget looked dubious but continued. “Well, Mr Stark helped defeat Loki the last time he tried to take over the world, so he’s realised Stark Industries is probably going to become a target for revenge. We’re transferring it all legally into the ownership of this complex chain of holding companies that will still ultimately give Mr Stark and Ms Potts control of the company. We’re changing the name too. Hopefully that will make Loki less likely to come after us—although Mr Stark took a lot of persuading about the name change.”

“What’s the name changing to?”

“Global Energy Industries.”

“Catchy.”

“It was the best we could come up with at short notice. I think if the situation changes anytime soon, the name will change back. The plan is to say it was a rebranding exercise that failed.”

“So I guess Mr Stark is hoping the situation is going to change…like, maybe he’s planning to get involved?” Darcy asked, cutting off Bridget’s babbling.

Bridget glanced around. “I wish I was in the loop. But he doesn’t like being forced to do things by other people, so I’d guess so.”

That was good news. The Avengers had defeated Loki once. He didn’t even have an alien army with him this time, it would be a piece of cake to do it again.

Static fizzed up from the desk and Bridget started, scrabbling for a walkie-talkie. “We’re going old school,” she explained to Darcy. “It makes it harder to tap.” She pressed a button down and speech buzzed out of the speaker.

Some…crackle…upstairs…crackle…NOW.”

Darcy vaguely recognised the male voice, though it was so distorted she couldn’t place it. Bridget pressed another button and replied. “Be right there.” She stuffed the walkie-talkie into her pocket and shuffled together an armful of folders. “Can you carry these?” Darcy nodded and Bridget shoved them at her before gathering a pile for herself. “We have to take these up to Mr Stark before he blows a gasket.”

“Wait—that was Tony Stark?”

Bridget led her to the elevator and called it with her elbow. “Pepper insisted he had to be involved in this. He has to sign for all these changes, but I think she needs him nearby for comfort too. After all that stuff that happened a few months ago…”

Darcy remembered headlines of Stark’s Malibu home exploding spectacularly and realised she didn’t exactly blame Pepper. The ride in the elevator was hushed, giving Darcy a few moments to ponder. She was only in this situation because of Thor, but Loki had made no mention of his whereabouts. She knew, by Jane letting things slip when she really shouldn’t have, that the Bifrost was nowhere near repaired, but that hadn’t stopped Thor getting here the last time Loki tried to takeover.

Given she was thinking about members of the Avengers meant she should have less surprised when the elevator doors slid open to reveal Captain America sat across a conference table from Tony Stark, watching him bat a digital ping-pong ball back and forth.

“Tony,” Pepper snapped, “must you—” She cut off when she saw them step out and smiled, though it didn’t hide how frazzled she was. “Are those the files?”

“This is them,” Bridget replied. Darcy trailed her across to the table, dumping her pile down before her arms gave out. She thought she managed to smile at the two men but figured it probably came out as more of a mad leer.

“Bridget, this is Steve Rogers,” Pepper said by way of introduction. Steve gave them both a polite nod. “And this is…”

“I’m Darcy. I’m Bridget’s assistant,” she said, thanking all her stars that she managed to do it without making an idiot of herself. “I know Thor.” Or maybe not.

“Do you really?” Tony asked. “Do you have him on speed dial? Because that would be really helpful.”

“Well, I haven’t actually seen him in, like, two years, but he’s got this thing going with my ex-boss--”

“You know Dr Foster?” Pepper asked. Darcy nodded. “I guess that’s how you got your SHIELD clearance.”

“Wait—she has clearance?” Tony protested. “They won’t give me clearance!”

“They revoked it. For good reason,” Pepper replied. “Anyway, we’re good to talk in front of them. Bridget, I need you two to sort these documents into what we need to destroy or mail.”

Darcy found herself doing the eager-puppy nod again, sinking into a chair two seats down from Captain-freaking-America.

“So have you heard from them at all?” Pepper prompted Steve, returning to whatever conversation they’d been involved in.

“Natasha and Clint are on their way back to the safe house,” Steve began, “with their mission successfully completed. SHIELD are searching for them but Natasha’s arranged decoys out of state.” Darcy wasn’t sure who he was talking about, but suddenly this sounded juicy. “Fury is already in custody—”

“Fury’s in custody?” she asked, curiosity overruling any shyness she might have felt around the others. “Why?” She couldn’t imagine being able to subdue the Director, who she’d met a total of two times and been scared witless of.

“Because Loki wants him there. Without Fury, SHIELD is rudderless. A puppet has been put in his place, and right now it’s in all our interests if we stay out of SHIELD’s hands.”

Tony grinned widely. “You broke rank.”

“Tony,” Pepper admonished.

“No, it’s good to see the little soldier boy breaking the rules.”

“With respect, I’m doing what I’m supposed to. I’m protecting America. I can’t do that from within SHIELD anymore. What about you? Can you help?”

“It’ll take me a few hours to build myself a new suit, but sure. We can all have one, it’ll be fun.”

A new voice broke in over head, in a pleasant British accent. “Unfortunately, sir, a few hours is no longer an option. SHIELD operatives and US military officers are approaching Stark Tower and escape will be cut off within twenty minutes.”

“Yeah, thanks for the warning, JARVIS. You were supposed to let me know as soon as they left the base!”

“Closing our link with SHIELD’s servers to ensure they had no way of accessing ours meant we couldn’t access theirs either.”

“Excuses.” Tony gestured across the room and a fire burst to life—luckily, in what appeared to be a fireplace. “Since we don’t have time to shred the files.” Everyone rose and grabbed an armful of the ‘Destroy’ pile, heaving them over to the flames. As they worked Pepper kept a constant stream of instructions up to Bridget.

“Make sure these are locked away when you’ve copied them all—if you need a reminder about any of this, just ask JARVIS—”

“Come on, Pepper.” Tony was waiting for her beside the elevator. “We gotta go.”

“I’ll follow you down.”

“What? No. Get in here.”

“I have to make sure everything’s in order before I leave. I can’t just abandon the company, Tony. People rely on us. I’ll be five minutes.”

“Um…shouldn’t we all be evacuating the building?” Darcy asked.

“You’re a civilian,” the captain said. “You aren’t in any danger from SHIELD operatives.” He almost seemed to believe what he was saying.

“Pepper, you can leave it to these two, they’re perfectly capable—” Tony implored.

“JARVIS,” Pepper said, and it seemed to be an order, because the elevator doors slid shut. The last Darcy saw of Tony was him diving for the hold button, but it was too late. “Don’t let that elevator come back up here. Tell Tony I’ll meet him at the bottom.”

Darcy was relieved to turn to Bridget and realised she was white-knuckled too. She couldn’t seem to shake a background of white noise in her head, which she thought was probably fear.

“We should take these down,”Pepper instructed, hoisting up one of the piles of documents.

Bridget tucked the walkie-talkie back into her pocket and cast a despondent glance at the elevator. “Guess we’re going to have to take the stairs”.

Luckily, they only had to slog down three flights before reaching a floor which had an elevator they could use. Bridget pressed for the floor her office was on, but they’d only been moving for a few seconds before it came to an abrupt halt.

“What the—”

“Darcy,” Bridget whispered as the lights dimmed, “did I ever mention my fear of getting trapped in one of these?”

“Right there with you.”

Pepper tensed in front of them, but nothing happened for a few seconds. “JARVIS..?” The computer remained silent.

My fondest greetings to the inhabitants of Stark Tower. The voice crackled over the speakers, and Darcy grabbed for both Bridget and Pepper. She recognised that voice. This is your emperor speaking, issuing his first edict. All members of the group who call themselves The Avengers must surrender themselves immediately to me. Failure to do so will be classed as high treason, punishable by death upon capture. Anyone who aids and abets an Avenger in evading capture will also be considered guilty of treason. You have fifteen minutes to make your presence known in the penthouse of the tower. All civilians should make their way outside for questioning.

The elevator started moving again, but none of them seemed eager to let go of each other.

“Oh crap,” Darcy muttered. “Do you think they’ll make it away?”

“Of course,” Pepper said, a little too brightly. “They thought this would happen. They have an escape plan. So long as they’re gone, we’ll all be fine. The soldiers won’t care about us.”

“Yeah. Sure.” Inwardly, Darcy wasn’t totally convinced, but the captain was a soldier, just like the others on their way. Loki becoming emperor didn’t suddenly turn all the soldiers who obeyed him evil. They had jobs to do, orders to follow. Families to fear for if they disobeyed.

“But if they think you know where Tony is…” Bridget began.

“I’m a lot harder to hurt than they think I am,” Pepper reassured her.

Finally, the doors opened to the floor they needed. It was empty, computers left running and papers scattered where people had bolted. Darcy could still hear the chaos of people fleeing down the stairwells.

“Wow,” Darcy said. “They even left their Starbucks behind.”

Static sputtered from Bridget’s pocket and she yipped. Darcy didn’t feel great about the situation, but it was obvious Bridget wasn’t holding down well. She pulled the walkie-talkie out with shaking hands and squeaked into it.

“Uh…Bridget?” Tony snapped. “Is Pepper on her way down here? Because she needs to be on her way down here.”

Pepper took the device and turned it off.

“Who’s looking after Milo, Bridge?” Darcy asked. Milo was her friend’s toddler son.

“My mom has him for the afternoon.”

“Maybe it’s best you get out of here. If it’s about to get chaotic, you don’t want to be here.”

Bridget shook her head. “No, there’s work to be done.”

“It’s fine. I’ll stay behind to finish it. Me and SHIELD are old buddies.”

Pepper took in Bridget’s ashen face. “Bridget, if you leave now, you have plausible deniability. You wait any longer and they’re going to know you helped.”

“But what about—”

“Just go!” Darcy said. Bridget nodded and span on her heel, the clack of her heels on the stairs echoing up behind her. “You should go too,” she told Pepper, “before Tony comes back to search for you.”

“And what about you?” Pepper asked. “You came here for a reason, didn’t you?”

Darcy shrugged. “Loki terrifies me.”

“And you think he might hurt you because you’re friends with Thor?”

“Well, he didn’t ask The-Avengers-and-Darcy-Lewis to make themselves known, so I think he’s settling bigger scores first.”

“Okay.” Pepper seemed to consider this for a moment, making a decision. “I need you to come with me. Someone has to shut JARVIS down when we leave, and you’re the only trustworthy person left.” She grabbed Darcy’s hand and pulled her along, heading for the stairs. They set off down them, two at a time—a miracle in the heels Pepper was wearing—and Darcy only felt more uneasy with every step. She’d come to Stark Tower for sanctuary and now it looked like she was winding herself deeper into trouble. When they escaped, she’d be left behind, moved up from someone Loki might have carried a grudge against to a near-guaranteed treason charge.

But. If it meant Tony and the captain escaped, they were helping Jane, and whatever she needed to do meant they couldn’t be found? They were the only people left who’d be able to defend the earth. It’d be worth it.

They approached another floor and the lights dimmed, just as they had in the elevator. Darcy’s skin prickled, and just before she drew level with the door to the landing, she slipped, only her grip on the railing keeping her from falling onto her ass. It was only that grip that kept her upright even then. Beneath her feet, the concrete began to melt.

 

 

Chapter Text

Darcy had never moved faster. One hand still gripping the railing, she swung herself out of the molten concrete and onto the still-solid stairwell. She turned to find Pepper, who’d been a step behind her, already being swept away.

She didn’t even yell, just grabbed Pepper’s arm before she disappeared out of sight. Pepper twisted and clung on, lifting one foot out of the muck and pressing it against the wall to give herself leverage enough to land beside Darcy.

They stood for a moment watching the torrent of sludge while Darcy tried to persuade her knees to hold steady.

“Those were Louboutins,” Pepper said, more exasperated than anything. Darcy looked down and realised Pepper was now barefoot, her feet caked in grey slop. Her own Chucks weren’t faring much better.

“That was our escape route,” Darcy pointed out. “Do you think that means..?”

“He’s here? I think so.”

“Okay. We’re still on the fourteenth floor,” she gestured to the sign above their heads, “and we have no way down. What do we do?”

“We could jump,” Pepper suggested, leading Darcy out of the stairwell and across the office floor towards a window.

“You know, that was never my preferred suicide method.”

“We’d survive,” Pepper replied, and Darcy was wondering how that was possible without relying on divine intervention as Pepper peered between the blinds to stare down at the street. “Unfortunately, we’d be surrounded by soldiers.”

“So we just wait for him to turn up and interrogate us?”

Pepper shook her head. “JARVIS?” she called.

“Yes, Ms Potts?”

“Are all surveillance systems turned off?”

“As instructed.”

“So he can’t see where we are?”

“No. I am, however, continuing to monitor the Tower in its entirety. Activity will only be reported to yourself or Mr Stark upon voice recognition.”

“I need a status report. Stairways and elevators?”

“All stairs have been destroyed and power to all elevators has been cut off.”

“What about the escape pod?”

“I’m unaware of what you refer to.”

Pepper smiled. “Come on,” she said to Darcy, leading her back to the stairwell--away from the windows--and past the elevator. She paused at the door to the maintenance shaft, flipping up a panel to enter a security code. When the door swung open, a tiny cupboard was revealed instead. Pepper ushered her in and shut the door behind them.

On the opposite wall, she leant against the wall--which looked like ordinary drywall to Darcy--jiggling it until it began to shift, sliding away to reveal the interior of another elevator. Sprayed across the rear wall were the words Escape pod, looking like the kind of graffiti a ten year would leave behind.

“Tony installed this for me when he built the Tower,” Pepper explained. “He took the idea from panic rooms people have built into their homes, and this one runs all the way up to my office.” It rocked a little when Darcy stepped in and she shuffled over the other side, clinging to the handrail that ran around the interior. Pepper flipped on a lamp hanging from the roof and pushed the make-shift door shut. “He had it removed from the official plans and then deleted it from JARVIS’ memory. No one knows about it except us. It doesn’t run on electricity, either, so no one can locate it through power usage, or cut off escape by turning off the power.”

“Then how does it work?”

Pepper grabbed a lever and yanked it. “Mechanically.” They began to move.

It was not as smooth as Darcy would have liked and the clanking made her sure it couldn’t be as stealthy as Pepper thought it was. She also realised there was no real door, just a smooth wall of concrete rolling past behind Pepper.

Still, it seemed rude to criticise the only thing standing between her and the most evil being she’d ever heard of. For now. And speaking of which--

“You know Loki’s a shapeshifter and that voice activation thing might not be as secure as you think it is?”

“That’s why even JARVIS doesn’t know where we’re going when we leave.” The elevator lurched and Pepper grabbed for the lever. “Do you really think he can shapeshift?”

“I’ve never seen it, but all the myths said he can.” Darcy had read a lot of myths since meeting Thor. “And he can make stairs melt. I wouldn’t put anything past him.”

She was pretty sure that Pepper’s answering expression could be translated as We’re doomed.

The elevator lurched again, then froze. There was utter stillness for a moment, before they dropped a foot, stopped for a second, and plummeted again. Darcy screamed, past caring what Pepper thought of her. They only fell a few more feet before jerking back up and stopping for good.

The drywall in front of them read Escape route.

“I really need Tony to fix the braking on this thing,” Pepper grumbled. There was a handle on the inside of this door, which made opening it much easier. The pair shuffled out into an identical cupboard to the one they’d come through, but this time the door out opened before Pepper could reach for it.

“Look what we have here!”

Darcy was immensely proud of herself for holding back another scream. Pepper just smacked Tony in the bicep. “How did you know we were coming down that way?”

“I heard the screaming. Figured you were using that for stealth rather than taking the stairs.”

They were in a basement, but not the Tower’s ordinary parking levels. It was much narrower, with a ramp leading up in one direction, but seemed to go on forever in the other. Hard to tell in the poor light. A sleek red saloon waited for them, the only car down here. She couldn’t see the badges from here, but the long, low body and huge hood told her she was looking at a custom piece of machinery with enough horsepower to fly a jet and a price-tag higher than the average mansion.
“The stairs are gone,” Pepper retorted, “and so is my spine after riding in that thing.”

The captain waited behind Tony. “Did you say the stairs are...gone?”

“Melted away, like a mudslide.” She showed them her feet.

“We need to be going,” Tony replied, suddenly business-like. “Like, twenty minutes ago. I for one don’t want to be here when the Prince of Darkness realises we won’t be meeting him. I think melting stairs is just his warm-up.”

“How right you are.”

A new voice joined the conversation, quiet but echoing around them.

If Darcy thought she was afraid before, it was nothing compared to Loki peeling himself out of the shadows, blacker than black and crossing the basement towards them. She’d been running on adrenaline until now, but it deserted her, fight or flight no longer an option. She could only stand, quaking, as he stalked around the car, and hope her own little patch of shadow kept her out of the limelight.

“I had my suspicions you would try to flee,” Loki said. “And if you couldn’t go up anymore,” he nodded to Tony’s suitless body, “you’d surely go down.”

“Pepper,” Tony said, “get in the car.”

“Tony...”

“We don’t pose a threat to you,” Tony said, but Darcy was all too aware of the tension in the captain’s body in front of her. He didn’t have his shield, but she’d been told he could do plenty without it.

Loki gave a low chuckle. “Not anymore. Not without the fair prince to save you. You saw what I did to that island--now imagine the damage I did to my dear old brother.”

“JARVIS!” Tony yelled, and the car engine roared to life. He pushed Pepper towards the rear door, opening it while she argued.

“You have to get in too!”

“I can handle this--”

“So can I!”

While Loki was distracted, Steve leapt towards him. Loki reacted too quickly, ducking away and blocking the blow meant for his face. Darcy winced as Steve was thrown onto his back, but it seemed he’d anticipated that--he pushed himself back up into a crouch and swept Loki’s feet out from under him.

Darcy started backing away, wondering if it was the right time to try and disappear back upstairs. She could make the ramp, if she was quiet enough. Loki wasn’t expecting her here, and would never notice that she’d gone.

“Why are you driving?” Pepper yelled as Tony jumped into the driver’s seat, while Steve continued to battle Loki. Both men were on their feet, Loki shifting so quickly that the captain only kept up due to his own superhuman reflexes.

“Because you’re too cautious!” Tony replied, backing up the car with the rear door still hanging open. “Get in,” he instructed Darcy.

Darcy froze again, the car lights flooding out her shadows and any chance she had of remaining hidden. “What?”

“We’re not leaving you here,” Pepper said, reaching for her. “Why else do you think I brought you all the way down?”

“But--”

Too late, she realised the fight seemed to have stopped. She turned her head, just an inch, to meet Loki’s gaze. Even from across the basement his stare was intense, his grip on Steve’s throat apparently forgotten.

“You,” he snarled.

That got her moving, scrambling into the backseat beside Pepper and slamming the door shut. She didn’t know why Loki was so focussed on her, but his murderous glare was the most blood-curdling thing she’d ever experienced. The flimsy sheet of aluminium, or whatever they made European supercars out of, wasn’t going to be any match for him, but the illusion helped.

With Loki’s attention elsewhere, Steve disentangled himself, only to be flung against the wall for his effort. Darcy winced as he rolled down, winded, and she continued to slide over the rear seat, putting as much distance between herself and Loki as she could.

“Steve,” Tony yelled. “Whenever you’re ready, grab on.”

He shifted into reverse and launched the car backwards. Loki circled around, hands spread in a gesture Darcy suspected was about to unleash all hell. Behind him, Steve got to his feet, shaky but determined.

Tony floored the accelerator, and Darcy was slammed against the back of the passenger seat. Even Loki wasn’t fast enough to get out of the way of whatever muscle was in Tony’s engine, and a second later he was doing a backwards roll over the hood, roof and out onto the asphalt behind them. Another thud followed, and Steve’s face appeared in the sunroof.

“Hold on, soldier boy,” said Tony. He pressed a button, and a gate slammed behind them, a slab of steel rolling down to cut off one side of the basement from another. He didn’t let up on the gas, and Darcy realised they were no longer in the basement at all, but a tunnel.

“Was this in the plans?” Darcy asked Pepper.

“I doubt it,” she replied.

She had no idea where they were heading, but for now there was a couple of tons of steel and about a thousand horsepower between her and Loki. That was good enough for her. Maybe then his poisonous stare, the memory of the way he’d looked at her, wouldn’t wake her in the night screaming.

Chapter Text

The tunnel turned out to be a warren, turnings appearing out of nowhere and spidering off into the darkness. Tony took apparently random turns, until Darcy noticed the directions flashing up on the steering wheel: the car was guiding them.

“Please tell me you didn’t build all these tunnels, Tony,” Pepper said.

“These were already here, I promise. Old subway and service tunnels. We just plugged into them.”

“Are you sure he couldn’t follow us?” Steve yelled through the sun-roof.

“If it was Thor and his hammer, I’d say he could get through the gate. Little brother, I think we’re safe. I added a few boobie traps to be sure.”

“What’s your back-up plan if he does get through?”

“Speed.”

Though there was nothing to see, it didn’t stop Darcy staring out the window, her adrenaline slowly ebbing. She’d escaped, but now what? She had no idea where they were going. She’d left everything behind, except her cellphone, apartment keys and wallet. Somehow, she knew she wasn’t going back for them. Not for some time.

Darcy didn’t even have contact lens solution or her glasses with her, which sucked because something was irritating her eyes and she needed to take her lens out. That was the only reason her vision was blurring up. It had nothing to do with Loki’s words.

You saw what I did to that island—now imagine the damage I did to my dear old brother. Thor wasn’t going to come save them. He was stuck in Asgard, blasted by a box of ice hoodoo that had obliterated an entire island. Chances were he hadn’t survived, because what could? She’d seen him die once and come back to life. No one could pull that off twice.

The more she thought about it, the worse it seemed. Asgard had sent Thor to help the last time, so they couldn’t rely on help from anywhere else. SHIELD had defeated Loki once, but SHIELD were obeying Loki’s orders, and that meant other government agencies were too. There was nowhere they could escape to for long, not when Loki would make finding what remained of the Avengers his biggest priority. They couldn’t hide forever and this journey through Manhattan Below was just delaying the inevitable.

However she looked at this, it wasn’t going to end well for her. And she had to admit, she wasn’t being cool about the situation. She was piss-in-her-pants terrified.

The ground began sloping upwards and Tony dipped the headlights, killing his speed so the engine fell to a gentle purr. When Darcy squinted out ahead, she could see they were on a ramp, and then the tunnel levelled out again. They rolled to a stop in front of another steel gate.

Tony leaned out of the window to wave at a camera, and the gate began to reel upwards.

Pepper frowned. “They don’t use biometric security?”

“There’s no point—we already know Loki’s willing to cut off body parts to gain access to places. Besides, she knows me.” He inched the car forwards and when they were clear, the gate slammed shut again. They were in another basement, smaller than the space under Stark Tower. An official-looking black sedan waited ahead, engine ticking over.

“Identify yourself,” a woman ordered, stepping out beside the car with a gun aimed at Tony’s head. She was dressed all in black, a hood drawn up over her head. Tony didn’t seem phazed at all, wiggling his fingers as he held his hands up. She stared, long and hard, into his eyes, then gave an abrupt nod. Steve dropped down beside her, his hands held out for surrender too, and she lowered the gun after repeating the check.

“Not the greeting I was expecting,” said Tony.

“You’re late. I had to be sure.”

“Wanna see a trick, Romanoff?” Darcy knew the name, but she couldn’t remember where from.

“We need to move,” Romanoff replied, ignoring Tony’s question. “They haven’t closed the roads yet, but they will.”

“It’ll only take a minute.”

She jerked away from the car and cursed in a language Darcy didn’t know. As she did moved her hood fell backwards, displaying scarlet hair. That was more of a hint to Romanoff’s identity. The red-haired assassin, the unnamed Avenger who was whispered about in SHIELD circles. It was a relief she was on their side, although rumor had it she had a bone to pick with Loki.

Darcy’s attention snapped back to the car. From where she sat, she could see the hood of the car fade, the red leaching away to a dull grey.

“Holy shit,” she whispered.

“That’s very impressive,” Romanoff said to Tony, “but we need to be out of Manhattan before they lock the bridges down. You also need to toss your cells.”

The moment Darcy had feared had come. She passed her cell to Pepper, who handed them all over to Romanoff. They were crunched underfoot. Now Darcy was down to just useless apartment keys and a purse with no money in it.

Romanoff leaned in to speak to Pepper. “Can you drive the other car? I need to be watching the roads for a tail and I can’t do that from behind the wheel.”

Pepper opened her door and Tony sent a sharp glance backwards. “Where are you going?”

“The other car.” She slammed the door behind her.

“No you’re not. You stay in here. Steve can drive that one.”

“No offense, Captain, but we need someone who operate the electronics in that thing.”

“Tony,” said Pepper, “we need two fighters in each car and two civilians.”

“You’re not a fighter, and I am not a civilian.”

“Right now, we are. You don’t have your armor, but I always have mine. We don’t have time to debate this.”

“Pepper!”

“What happened to your shoes?” Romanoff asked as Pepper climbed into the driver’s seat of the other car.

“Blame Loki. They were some of my favorites. Louboutins.”

Monster.”

As Pepper reached out to shut the door, Darcy caught sight of a familiar face in the passenger seat, previously obscured by the dark glass in the sedan.

“Eric!” she called.

He turned in her direction. “Darcy?”

“I can’t believe it! Do you know where Jane—”

“Darcy?” another voice said, one she recognised, but the car’s engine revved to life, and cut them off. Romanoff slid into the seat Pepper had just vacated and gave Darcy a cool appraisal.

“Who’s this?” she asked the captain, who was now in the passenger seat. They were already in motion, the sedan ahead pulling down an exit ramp into a steady stream of traffic on the road beyond.

Steve’s expression in the rearview mirror was blank, and Darcy tried not to be offended by it. There was no way Tony would remember her name. “I’m Darcy Lewis.”

“Natasha Romanoff. Are you affiliated with SHIELD?”

“I was. Kind of. I worked with Jane. She was in the other car, right?”

“Yes.” Romanoff was already focussed elsewhere, and that was fine with Darcy. She was unnerving. Something about the way she moved and the way she stared. Darcy’s mood was lifted anyway—Jane was alive, and on her way to safety too.

Although she didn’t know about Thor yet. Which meant Darcy would probably need to be the one to tell her.

Judging by their surroundings, they were cutting through Harlem. Darcy hadn’t really made it this far north since she’d arrived, and didn’t recognize the white suspension bridge they were queueing for to cross the river. Despite her jitters, it was wonderful to be above ground again. She just hoped they all knew what they were doing—even Tony was nervous, his knee bouncing up and down. The captain sat perfectly still. Romanoff seemed full of coiled energy, motionless yet ready to explode in any direction, and her hand was not far from her holstered gun.

There was no checkpoint onto the bridge, despite the sluggish traffic, but none of them began breathing freely till they were on the other side, speeding away from Manhattan.

“How much do you know about where we’re going?” Romanoff asked Tony.

“You give me the coordinates, the car finds them,” he replied.

“They can track GPS.”

“Not mine. It’ll also update with roadblocks as they set up, avoid major roads and tolls. So far this journey has doubled in length.”

“Which is why we’re in the Bronx and heading in the wrong direction,” she replied drily. “What about licence plates?”

“Ours match a SHIELD service vehicle. Theirs is a SHIELD service vehicle, which is in the repair shop according to their records.”

“You’ve planned this down to the last detail. Did you really think Loki would come back?”

“Loki? No. I did suspect that one day SHIELD or some other government wing would come for me. Maybe I’d refuse to build them the weapon they wanted, or let slip the wrong classified intel. What can I say, I’m a conspiracy theorist at heart.”

They fell silent again while Tony took the roads heading upstate. All Darcy wanted out of this was somewhere as swanky as Stark Tower or Tony’s Malibu dreamhouse (pre-demolition) to live in, even if she had to clean it to earn her keep. Scratch that. All she wanted was for them to not get caught.

Her boredom fed her morose mood and several times she reached for her cell—because what would cheer her up more than cats videos?—only to remember it was gone, destroyed under Romanoff’s boot.

Out there, her friends and family were going on with their lives. Her mom would try and call at some point. Maybe she’d see on the news about the invasion of Stark Tower and panic, or maybe she’d assume that Darcy wouldn’t have been there on a Saturday and call next week. When Darcy didn’t answer—and when did she ever?—she’d try again. And again. Eventually someone would realise she’d disappeared, but what could they do about it? She was probably going to be on a long list of people who vanished into thin air when they pissed off Loki.

Yeah, only the Malibu dreamhouse would make up for this. Sadly, they seemed to be heading for upstate New York, so it was doubtful she was going to get a sea view.

Tony got bored as quickly as she did, making barbs at Steve and Natasha to pass the time. Neither took the bait. Then he tried to initiate a game of Eye Spy, which was aborted at Romanoff’s insistence. She was able to come up with incredible threats very casually.

“Oh, come on, someone needs to keep me entertained. We have another two hours at least, and if you won’t let me stop for a break, you gotta keep me focussed. Tell me stories. Regale me with tales of daring do and hard-won battles like Thor wou—”

He shut up.

In the silence that followed, Darcy had the opportunity to ask the question she’d been mulling over for hours. “Do you think he killed him?”

Everyone looked at her with guarded expressions and no one wanted to answer. When the pause stretched too long, Natasha spoke. “No. If Thor were dead, the whole world would know about it. Loki would use that knowledge to help control people. If their hero was dead, they’d lose hope and be less resistant.”

“Besides,” Tony said, “I’ve seen the big guy take a lot worse than a little frostbite. He can call lightning—if anyone’s going to survive a blast from the blue box thingy, it’s him.”

“What is that box?” Steve asked.

“It’s called the Casket of Ancient Winters.” Darcy surprised everyone, including herself. “It belongs to the frost giants, or at least it did. They used it to invade Earth years ago and caused an ice age.” She’d only just put together the link between the casket and what it could do. “But when Asgard defeated them, Odin took it and locked it in his weapons vault.”

“Oh, great,” Tony grumbled. “Why does nothing he locks away ever stay put?”

“How do you know all that?” Natasha asked Darcy.

“I read all the myths after I met Thor. Some are obviously wrong, and they tend to contradict each other. The stories about the frost giants’ invasion is pretty detailed though, and the casket gets mentioned a few times.”

Natasha’s level stare made Darcy feel like she’d just got upgraded from “useless moocher” to “potentially useful”.

“Is there any way to make contact with Asgard?” Steve asked.

“We have Jane and Eric,” Darcy said. “They’re experts on the Einstein-Rosey bridge things, right?”

“What?”

“Wormholes, basically,” said Tony. To Darcy, he replied, “Most of their work is theoretical. Apart from Dr Selvig’s little experiment while under Loki’s command, and that was done with more than a little boost from the Tesseract. What they didn’t have before is me.”

“Can you do it?” Steve asked.

“I can’t build a suit and a bridge across the universe.”

“The bridge is more important.”

“And I’ll help,” Darcy promised. “I don’t understand most of what they were doing, but I know my way around Jane’s data and built a few of the programs she used.” This was a purpose. If anyone knew how to rock at assisting, it was her.

“Is there anything we can do?” asked Natasha.

“Keep SHIELD away,” said Tony. “Keep Loki away. Keep us all from killing each other while cooped up in the safehouse.”

“Two out of three, I can do.”

“So. It was Darcy, right? Tell me, did any of these myths feature orgies?”


Half an hour later, Darcy realized why so many myths had undergone Chinese-whisper style transformations. It was so tempting to add your own embellishments when you were telling them.

“So then Loki tied his balls to this goat and—”

“Bullshit,” Tony cut in. “You’re making that up.”

“No, that’s really in there, I swear!” But other parts had definitely been her own invention.

“No wonder Loki always looks so pissed. I bet Thor started that rumor and didn’t expect it to get immortalized.”

“I think the moral of the story is, don’t invite Norse gods to your wedding,” said Steve.

“Or your planet,” agreed Tony. “Say, Darcy. You never mentioned you’d met Loki before.”

“I haven’t.”

“Yet he recognized you.”

“It must have been from SHIELD files or someplace. I only knew Thor for, like, two days, and that was when he was exiled here. Loki was on Asgard. When Loki invaded the last time, I got shipped off to Norway with Jane.”

“So you hung out with Thor, huh?”

“Yeah. We found him out in the desert—I kind of tasered him the first time I met him.”

“Wait. You’re the girl who tasered Thor? You are my new favorite person. After Pepper. And myself. Feel free to repeat the tasering on his brother.”

“I don’t have my taser.”

“Sweetheart, I will build you the best taser in existence.”

Night was already closing in when they passed a sign for a small town, one of many they’d driven through. Newford. Population 2300. It was barely more than a cluster of streets around the county highway. Foothills rose on either side of the town, carpeted in evergreens.

“Romanoff, why is the GPS giving me a half mile indicator?”

“Because we’re a half mile from the safehouse. I told you it was rural.”

“But this—do they even have electricity?”

“We’re not in Siberia, Stark. It's only a short journey to Albany.”

“And why would I want to go to Albany?”

Natasha didn’t bother responding. Once they were through Newford, they turned off the highway onto a smaller road, then onto a track that didn’t even count as a road. Tony muttered and cursed about the damage to his car all the way along it. Trees created a tunnel around the track, making it impossible to see where they were, but it was only a few hundred yards before they emerged onto a gravel driveway. Tony slammed on the brakes and cursed again.

The passengers of the other car were already out: Pepper, Jane, Eric, and a stocky guy in a black jumpsuit who Darcy didn’t recognise. She stayed sitting, not trusting her legs after the long journey and trying to make out where she was going to be living. The lack of streetlighting didn’t help, but from what illumination the headlamps gave, Stark Tower it was not. In fact, it looked more like the abandoned hotel from every horror story ever.

Going into hiding sucked.

Chapter Text

Tony was the first to react. “I’m not living here.” Pepper picked her way over the gravel towards them, the expression on her face making it clear she was expecting a meltdown. “You promised me a safehouse. This is not safe. We’re going to get yanked out of our beds by cannibalistic yokels and chased through the hallways by creepy twin girls.”

“It’s supposed to look like this,” Natasha said. “It keeps people away. The inside’s fine.”

“I’m not ever going to find out—I’m not going in there!”

Darcy snuck away while Pepper tried to talk sense into Tony, crossing to to where Jane and Eric waited. Natasha seemed to be having a reunion with the guy from the other car, talking quietly but rapidly, and Steve trailed Darcy, apparently unwilling to intrude on either conversation.

“Darcy!” Jane greeted as she approached, pulling her into a hug. “I’m so glad they remembered you.”

“Well, I’m kind of here by accident. Wrong place, wrong time. You know me.”

“At least they didn’t banish us to Norway this time.”

Steve held his hand out to Jane. “Captain Steve Rogers.”

“Yeah, I know who you are,” she replied, a little incredulous, shaking his hand. “Dr Jane Foster.”

“I’ve heard a lot about you. Tony praises your work very highly.”

“Tony Stark? He does?”

“Of course. Thor talked about you plenty too. Dr Selvig, good to see you again.”

“I wish the circumstances were different.”

“Don’t we all.”

“Things will get better when Thor gets here,” Jane said confidently.

Darcy opened her mouth to tell her what Loki had said, and thought better of it. That was the kind of conversation that happened in private. With tea and cookies. “Can you believe this place?” she said instead.

“We should go in and make sure we really can live here,” Steve chimed in.

The four of them turned to stare dubiously at the heavy, warped front door.

“We’re not going in there,” Natasha shouted over. She and the guy in the jumpsuit walked over to join them. “Our entrance is through the garage.” She pointed to a lean-to on the side of the main building, a later addition that looked like it was in better condition than the rest. That wasn’t saying much. “The first thing we need to do when we go down is turn the generators on.”

“Down?” Darcy asked.

“The facility is underneath this area. That’s how we’ll remain hidden. Without the generators on, there’s no light or air conditioning down there.”

This was sounding less and less appealing.

“That reminds me—we’ll need to move the cars before dawn. They’ll have to stay under the tree canopy, so they can’t be seen from the air.” She retreated back to the sedan to retrieve whatever she needed to get them inside, leaving them with jumpsuit guy. For the first time, Darcy noticed he had something slung over his back, but it was too dark to properly see what. “I’m Clint Barton,” he said by way of introduction.

“Oh my God, you’re Hawkeye!” She cringed internally at how much she sounded like a fangirl.

He smiled at Darcy’s outburst. “Clint’s fine.” The bundle on his back was clearer now she knew what it was—arrows and, presumably, a bow, but it must have been folded away.

Natasha returned clutching a handful of flashlights and handed them around. “We’ll be needing these. Try not to waste the batteries.” No shadow puppets, then.

“Were you able to locate Dr Banner?” Steve asked Clint.

“He’s in rural Iceland, and he intends to stay there.”

“That’s a shame. He’s the only person who seems to have a moderating effect on Tony. Plus we could use his science skills.”

“I’d rather not be cooped up in this place with him, and I think he’d agree.”

“Everybody stay behind me,” Natasha instructed. She waved Pepper and Tony over. “I know my way around, but it’s been awhile.”

Darcy found herself in the middle of the pack, which she was extremely happy about. There was less chance of being picked off that way, by whatever might be lurking around the creepy house in the middle of the night.

“How are we looking for supplies?” Clint asked Natasha.

“There’s a good stock of food, though nothing fresh, and plenty of gas for the generators.”

“What about clothes?” Pepper asked. “We’ve only got what we came in.” She was still barefoot.

“There’ll be enough for everyone to change, but I can’t promise any choice. Or designer labels.”

She unlocked a rusting side door into the garage and flipped her flashlight on, shining it inside. It was empty, save for moths, cobwebs, and a forlorn Jeep decaying in one corner. They all followed her across the garage, like ducklings waddling after their mother, and when she reached the Jeep she brushed away several inches worth of cobwebs from the wall. Darcy took an involuntary step backwards and bumped into Eric, who patted her shoulder in an attempt to be soothing. The creepy things were almost definitely going to be Acromantula.

A door had appeared beneath the matted gossamer. Natasha removed the padlock pinning it shut, the hinges squeaking as she pulled the door open. “We’ll need to get oil on that.”

Through the door, a set of stairs descended into the underworld.

It was all blessedly cobweb-free as they crept down them, but the combination of eight flashlight beams twisted into flickering, grotesque shadows that did not help Darcy’s imagination.

“How do SHIELD not know about this place?” Steve asked.

“They didn’t build it,” Natasha replied.

“Then who did?”

“An old employer of mine.”

That ended that round of questions, and silence fell as they left the stairs behind, turning into a short corridor. Unmarked doors opening on either side of them and it truncated in another. The decoration was minimal and completely at odds with the structure above ground—this was newer, and had the air of government or military about it. Probably some unholy combination of the two, and it wasn’t even the US government. The only thing that stopped it from feeling like every time she’d been marched up to Fury’s Washington office was the musty air and darkness.

Natasha pushed open the final door, and though the torch beams didn’t illuminate the whole space, Darcy could make out a large kitchen-cum-dining-cum living space. The kitchen to the right was industrial in style, designed to feed more than the average family, and twin cafeteria tables took up the middle of the room. On the far left, a group of couches clustered around a giant plasma screen fixed to the wall, and from the far wall two more corridors branched away.

“Wait here. We’ll be back when we have power.” She took Clint and Eric with her. The rest of them automatically migrated to the couches. Darcy sank onto one and Jane curled up beside her, while Tony sprawled himself out opposite and Pepper perched on the end. Steve remained standing, arms folded and expression intent.

“So. This is nice,” Pepper said.


Darcy had already nodded off before the power flickered on, though she was dimly aware of a distant hum starting up. Jane shook her awake, and she allowed herself to be led down of the corridors into one of the mysterious rooms, bundled up on a cot and left to sleep.

Her first thought, when she was still fighting her way back to consciousness, was that she’d been hospitalised. The room she was dark, but a chink of light filtered through the door opposite, the quality of it harshly fluorescent. It all just felt industrial. Only the hush, the room soundless except for the whir of air conditioning, and the absence of beeping machines reminded her of where she really was.

There was no bedside lamp, so she had to crawl out of the cot and turn on the overhead light. She blinked against the sudden brightness, shielding her eyes as she surveyed the room. She’d slept like the dead, a miracle considering how narrow the cot was. The room was simply furnished: bed, chair, desk. At the foot of the cot, a pile of folded clothes waited with a note lying on top.

Hope these fit. It’s all they have. Bathroom’s down the hall. - Jane.

Darcy shook the fabric out to discover a black hoodie, t shirt, cargo pants and underwear. There was clearly a dress code in place.

She had no idea what time it was—morning, afternoon, middle of the night—and reached into her pocket for her cell before remembering it was gone. Only the gnawing in her belly gave any indication to how much time could have passed. It made prioritising easier: food first, then showering.

She half-expected to be locked into the room, but the door opened into the hall she’d sleepwalked down the night before. With the striplights now working, white painted walls glaringly bright and sterile, she could see that some doors had numbers on, and some symbols. Two doors down from her room was a little shower sign.

She kept going past, back to the communal space.

“Good morning, sleeping beauty,” Jane greeted. She sat at one of the cafeteria tables, munching on toast, in her own set of all-black garments.

Darcy crossed to sit opposite her and snatched up a bagel from a plate in the middle. “Where is everybody?”

“Most of them are still sleeping. They were all focussed on getting things running again last night and checking out our supplies before they went to bed. I think Tony was up all night trying to set up a lab.”

“A lab? Down here?”

“It’s perfectly safe,” said Natasha, appearing silently at the head of the table. “The facility was designed with space for engineers and scientists in mind, so their workspaces contain fire and explosions well.”

Darcy could remember Natasha telling them last night that this place wasn’t the work of the US government, which was frightening considering what it meant. Convenient for them right now, but also convenient for anyone plotting against the government.

“Did you even sleep?” asked Jane. “You were still awake when I went to bed.”

“I napped,” Natasha replied. “There were more important things to do. Our supplies won’t last long, not when there are this many of us. Some of us will need to head out to procure more.”

She said the last sentence while staring directly at Darcy.

“Me?” she spluttered through a mouthful of bagel.

“You are the least likely to be recognised out of any of us. I won’t send you out alone, not at first, but we can’t expect Steve to walk into any grocery store and not attract attention. There are things we can do to make ourselves less recognisable.”

Darcy didn’t like the sound of that, but she was essentially getting a free ride here and couldn’t argue against it. She wanted to say that Jane was pretty unrecognisable too, but that wasn’t true. Jane always attracted attention, even if she was oblivious to it, whereas Darcy had a tendency to fade into the background.

“Are either of you trained in self-defense or combat?” Natasha asked.

“Nuh-uh.” This is also sounded ominous, and from the corner of her eye, Darcy could see Jane’s eyes widen.

“Then I’ll arrange for the captain and myself to provide some. We don’t know when you’ll need it.”

Darcy hoped it’d be the captain. She’d hated gym in school, but more time with the captain couldn’t be a bad thing.

“I should go look at the lab too,” said Jane, rising from her chair. “The sooner we start work, the sooner we’ll make a Bifrost of our own. I’m really confident that between the three of us, we’ll crack this and have Thor here in no time.”

“Uh. Yeah. About that.”

She had no excuse to delay that conversation anymore. While Natasha slipped away, Darcy recounted to Jane exactly what Loki had said.


Despite that one dramatic conversation and its aftermath, the day seemed dull and slow to Darcy. Jane had retired to her room, requesting time alone, and since Darcy had already spent time dealing with her hysterical outburst, she was happy to oblige. She’d showered—dealing with the fact she had to use whatever was to hand—peeled out the contacts she’d accidentally slept in, wandered around the facility while everyone else snoozed away and finally flopped down on one of the couches, counting the cracks in the ceiling. Everything was blurry without anything to fix her eyesight but she was out of luck on that front too. No one else had ventured out to entertain her. There were probably avoiding running into Jane. Cowards.

The plasma screen refused to turn on. She’d scoured the area for reading material and come up empty. If she’d had her phone, she could at least have played Candy Crush. Time was going to drag by here, and she still had no clue what the time even was.

She blinked, and Natasha was planted at the end of the sofa, her stare direct.

“Gah!” Darcy tried to muffle her squeal so as not to wake anyone who was still sleeping. She wasn’t all that successful. When the heart palpitations slowed, she asked, “Who do I have to kill to get an internet connection?”

“Ask Stark. If anyone can arrange it, it’s him. But you know you won’t be able to contact your friends or family.”

Darcy let out an exaggerated sigh. “Do you have any Harlequin stashed around here, then? Since I guess it’s not your first visit.”

If she hadn’t known better, she’d have sworn Natasha almost smiled. “You can buy stuff to read at the grocery store.”

“That’s a long time to wait. What can I do in the meantime?”

“We’re going this afternoon.”

Darcy rolled upwards so fast she nearly span off the couch. “Wait. Don’t you have to teach me to be a superspy or something first?”

“Not at all. We just need to fix your appearance.” Darcy was already regretting the not arguing back thing from earlier. “Did you wash your hair earlier?”

“No. I couldn’t find a comb—”

“Perfect. Come with me.”

Despite her reticence, Darcy obediently followed, back down the corridor towards the stairway they’d entered through, and opened the door nearest them. “These are my quarters,” she said, and Darcy tried to keep her eyes averted. It was difficult, given she was inherently nosey, and the room looked almost lived in. It was as sparsely furnished as her own, but showed signs of being personalised: a plush, woolen blanket on the cot, a rail of clothes in the corner, and a trunk at the foot of the cot, locked with the biggest padlock Darcy had ever seen. There was even a huge poster of a sunrise over a lake, and a calendar pinned up over the desk showing a waterfall spilling down a cliff.

“You get whatever sunshine you can get in here,” Natasha said, following Darcy’s gaze. “Sit,” she instructed, pulling the chair out. Darcy obeyed, staring at the calendar while Natasha rummaged around behind her. It was open to the wrong month. Possibly the wrong year.

Natasha deposited three things onto the desk: scissors, a flatiron, and a box of hair dye. Honey blonde.

“Woah! I didn’t realise we’d be going so permanent. I thought we’d be using wigs or—”

“I only have one wig,” Natasha replied. “And I’ll be using it. Red is hard to cover up. Don’t worry so much, I don’t need to change a lot to make you look different. Some highlights and bangs will make you unrecognisable.”

“I don’t want bangs—they always go frizzy.”

“And I don’t want to live on tinned soup for the next month. I’ll cut them long enough you can brush them to the side when you want to.”

In the end, Natasha did what she wanted, and Darcy didn’t even have a mirror to watch the progress. Only when she’d been instructed to wash the dye out in the shower and nearly had her ears burned off twice by the flatiron, was she permitted to go check the bathroom mirror for the finished product.

“You did a really professional job.” It wasn’t a style Darcy had chosen for herself, but the color wasn’t an extreme change.

“Try not to sound so surprised. I’m trained in many things.” Natasha guided her to the clothes rail and began to flick through. “We’re similar in size, apart from the obvious.” Her gaze tracked the front of Darcy’s torso, and Darcy forced her hands to say down at her sides instead of shielding her modesty. “We’re aiming for a particular look and you can’t wear what you did yesterday—they’ll have released CCTV stills of us.” She pulled out three dresses and held them up against Darcy before hanging them back up. “Okay, these. Go back to your room and put them on. But before you do, apply this everywhere. That means your face too.” She dropped a bottle of fake tan on top of the pile and paused, waiting for Darcy to leave.

The fake tan stank, but it was instant so she was able to keep it streak-free where she applied it to her arms and face. Natasha had given her a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, but it was a t-shirt that clung a little more closely and plunged more deeply than any Darcy would have picked out herself. The hem of her jeans overhung her Chucks and hid them.

When she returned to Natasha’s room, someone else opened the door. An orange-skinned, blonde bombshell with hair down to her waist and huge false eyelashes. It could have been Paris Hilton, except she was wearing more clothes.

“Wow. You do not look like you.”

“And you don’t look much like you did yesterday,” Natasha replied. “You weren’t wearing glasses in your SHIELD ID or driver’s licence, right?” When Darcy nodded, she handed over a pair. “Wear these. They won’t help your eyesight but they’ll disguise more of your face. You have new ID and a new credit card.”

“When did you make these?”

“This morning. I have the materials I need here.”

Darcy took the cards and slid them into her pocket. Natasha grabbed a huge pleather purse and swung her room door shut behind her. It locked with a snick.

“We’re going now? Right now?”

“No time like the present. We need to hit a wide area.”

Darcy was numb as she followed Natasha up the stairs back into the real world. The angle of the sunshine leaking through the cracks in the garage informed her it was afternoon. Natasha swung the door shut and took a canister from her bag, spraying a thick layer of cobwebs over it. Then to Darcy’s consternation, she led her to the Jeep. It was definitely cleaner than last night, free of Acromantula webs, and generally looking a lot newer than it had. Darcy was beginning to doubt that Natasha had slept at all. Or that she was actually human.

Natasha climbed into the driver’s seat, but Darcy hesitated before reaching for the passenger-side door.

“What’s wrong?”

“Loki has all of the US government at his disposal. SHIELD, the CIA, the FBI, the police…how are you so sure he won’t have tracked our location down already?”

“He doesn’t have the entire government at his disposal,” Natasha replied, without a hint of concern. “He just thinks he does. All those agencies will be looking, but they won’t be trying their best. The FBI and CIA know better than to look for me—for that matter, so do SHIELD. They’ll search, but if they miss the occasional lead or don’t follow it up straight away…well, no one can accuse them of not trying.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure.”

Fighting the urge to run back into the compound and curl up on her cot, Darcy got into the Jeep.

They headed through Newford, but rather than pulling into the grocery store just off the county highway, Natasha drove straight past it. “We can’t go in there—it’s a small town, anybody they don’t know will stand out. We have to go somewhere bigger.” She took them instead to the outskirts of Albany, over an hour away, while Darcy fidgeted in the passenger seat and stared out at any car that seemed to be following them. None tailed them for long, but it didn’t make her any less jumpy. If the Black Widow could be driving a ten year old Jeep, there was nothing to stop SHIELD from using a rusty old pick-up truck instead of their usual high-end German vehicles.

Natasha eventually pulled into one of the busiest parking lots Darcy had ever seen. They had to cruise around three times to find a space. When the engine cut out and Natasha released her seatbelt, Darcy didn’t move.

“Why are you hesitating?”

“Because I really don’t want to go in there. There are too many people inside.”

“That’s the idea. There will be so many other customers, we’ll just be part of the crowd. If it makes you feel any better, I’m armed.”

Darcy gave her a dubious look. “How? There’s nowhere to hide a weapon.”

“There is always somewhere to hide a weapon.”

In the end, it wasn’t too bad. Natasha was efficient, hitting the aisles with the goods they needed and refusing to let Darcy wander away. Not that she wanted to. If people glanced at Darcy at all, it wasn’t at her face. Men, women, children…all distracted by her chest.

“I hate this,” she hissed to Natasha as they loaded the cart with dried staples. “This is why I cover up!”

“Trust me, I know how you feel,” Natasha replied. “But in situations like this, we have to use whatever resources we have available. No one’s going to remember your face and that’s a good thing.”

Darcy’s one indulgence was the craft aisle, where she picked up a set of knitting needles, a crochet hook and some wool.

She’d never sweated as much as when the clerk rang their items up and Natasha used her credit card—which was saying something, since she’d grown in New Mexico. She waited for the clerk to ask for another method of payment, or to call security. Or for a buzzer to go off and marines to drop out of the sky on ropes and surround them. Natasha didn’t even flinch. She was a completely different person: relaxed and talkative with the clerk, even commenting on some socks she’d tossed into the cart.

“My boyfriend is always losing these at the gym. I swear he thinks little elves leave them out for him overnight…”

It was only when Darcy was helping her load everything into the Jeep that she realised something crucial. “This isn’t going to last very long.”

“This is only the first store,” she replied, sliding back into the driver’s seat. “We can’t buy enough food and clothes for eight people in one go, that would definitely raise suspicions. We’re going to two more stores today and then we’ll try a couple more later in the week. Why do you think we didn’t pick up any frozen items in there?”

“You mean I have to go through that again?


When they got back to the facility, Natasha despatched Steve and Clint to help empty the Jeep and it’s overflowing trunk. Darcy had picked up a pair of cheap glasses that fit her prescription in the last store, so she found it much easier to admire their backsides as they walked away. Everyone else was gathered in the communal area, with the conspicuous absence of Jane.

“Has she left her room at all?” Darcy asked. She was going to go fetch her out if not, and force her to eat.

“She’s been in the lab since we woke up,” Pepper explained. “Tony’s going to join her but he was fixing the television feed first.”

“We have TV?” It was tragic how excited she was about that. “Cable or regular?”

“Technically, it’s satellite,” Tony explained. “I routed it through the satellite we use for the GPS. I tapped into the feeds from stations all over the world. It’ll help keep an eye on what’s going on out there.”

“I’m going to check on Jane,” said Darcy. It was easy to locate the lab: it was the only room with a touchpad entry—albeit disabled—and hazard signs along the route. She found Jane inside, hunched over a soldering iron, fixing tiny fragments of metal together. Beside her on the bench, three pieces of unidentifiable machinery lay dismantled, cannibalised for parts.

“Hard at work already?”

At first she thought Jane wasn’t going to reply, but when she’d finished the line she was working on, she looked up. “I have to know, and this is the only way I’m going to find out. Even if I asked Loki straight, he could lie to me and I’d never know it. But if I can fix the Bifrost—if I can build a Bifrost—then I’ll know.”

Thousands of channels of free satellite TV were calling to her, but Darcy knew she couldn’t abandon Jane to it. Most of it was probably reruns anyway. That made it marginally less painful. She grabbed a notepad and pen from a jumble of stationery on top of one of the desks, and pulled a stool over to sit beside Jane.

“What do you need?”

Chapter Text

“Anything?”

Darcy looked up from her position on the couch to where Steve had appeared at the foot of it. “Nothing.” She waved the TV’s remote control lazily. “Over a thousand channels, and not a clue about what he’s up to.”

It’d been mostly the same for the month they’d been in hiding. They took it in turns to flick through TV stations, looking for information about whatever Loki was doing, under the pretense that it was a useful task and not an excuse to laze around. While some things had changed—the UN no longer existed, with all former heads of state now reporting to a central agency who were working on a unified penal code—the news broadcasts were very careful not to mention Loki. Or any protests, and they were all convinced that somewhere protests had happened. He hadn’t appeared on camera again, though all edicts were being issued with his name attached.

None of it tied in with what they knew about Loki: he didn’t want power for power’s sake, but for the attention and glory it would bring him. He favored extravagant speeches that stroked his own ego. Shying away from the media was not his M.O. It made them all unnerved and suspicious—Natasha especially.

“Aren’t you needed in the lab?” Steve asked.

“Nah. They’re fully coffee’d up, and at this point they’re just running random experiments based on the data they’ve extracted. The machines records the results for them, so they don’t need me.” Tony wasn’t used to having a human assistant and had automatically built a program that did 90% of anything Darcy could.

“We could fit another training session in before dinner.”

“Still waiting for my muscles to forgive me after the last one. Thanks for the offer though. I think there’s a Man vs Food marathon on, if you want to watch that.”

“It’s either that or paint the hallway again.” He sank onto the other couch. Out of boredom, since their daily tasks—cook, clean up, patrol the perimeter—were limited, they’d taken to decorating the facility, covering up the stark white walls with warmer colors. Darcy’s room was now plastered in posters, her cot swathed in the fuzziest blankets Walmart had to offer, and there was also a shiny espresso machine on the kitchen counter. Tony had insisted on it. When he got into a pissing match with Steve over breakfast one morning, Pepper had insisted on it too. “You aren’t knitting.”

When she was bored—which was a lot, lately—Darcy knit. She’d made several cardigans, hats and pairs of socks, and was working her way up to another blanket. “I’m out of yarn. It’s on the list for my grocery trip later: yarn, coffee beans, gas for the generator. If you need something, the list is on the refrigerator.” They’d settled into three shopping trips a week, trying to avoid hitting the same place more than once a week, and for the last few Darcy had gone on her own. She dutifully flat-ironed her hair everytime and donned a low-cut top.

When she couldn’t put it off anymore, Darcy dragged her carcass up and back to her room, preparing for the trip. On her way through the communal area she picked up the shopping list and waved at Clint, who’d taken her place on the couch. When she reached the garage she sprayed the instant cobwebs over the door, like Natasha had shown her, and set off in the Jeep.

At least this got her out of the facility and into the real world: the others were cooped up, stuck patrolling the grounds when it was their turn. Cabin fever had long since set in, so they stuck to their own territories as much as they could. Steve spent his time in the training area, Tony stuck to the lab, Pepper was often found in the kitchen organizing meal plans and color schemes. Natasha was like a ghost, and Clint spent most of his time in the house overground, getting as high as he could to survey the land around them. Darcy’s spot, when not in the lab or at the espresso machine, was here on the couch.

Jane hadn’t gone outside since they’d arrived. In fact, she didn’t leave the lab much, only coming out for meals and sleeping. Tony refused to let her eat in the lab, and it wasn’t safe for her sleep there either, though if she’d found a way to skip the two, she’d do it. Jane had always been focused, the real world a distant second to whatever her brilliant mind was working away at, but this was something else. She didn’t talk about Thor, and when someone mentioned his name she only talked about how great it would be to see him when they finished the bridge. The glassy-eyed combination of denial and determination would have made Darcy haul her to see a doctor, except that was out of the question.

The best thing about the Jeep? The radio. Music was a blessing given the ever-present hush of the facility—minus the occasional explosion from the lab. Here, without Natasha present to roll her eyes, she could crank up pop songs she would ordinarily have hated and sing along at full blast.

She headed for one of the stores they’d only been to once, just off a busy road leading into downtown Albany. Only when she parked did she rummage in her purse for the cell phone Natasha had entrusted her with. She’d been forbidden from turning it on until when she was well away from the facility, as a means of contacting them if something went wrong. There was exactly one number saved in the memory, for the phone’s twin, which Natasha carried with her at all times. They were burners, whatever that meant, and supposedly untrackable according to Tony, once he’d spent half an hour fiddling with their source code. Natasha was the one insisting on caution, keeping it turned off when within a twenty mile radius of their hideout.

If Darcy was being honest, she lingered in the craft aisle, but no one else was around. She picked out a new pattern book and ten balls of yarn. She did grab three different kinds of coffee bean, so that nobody would complain she hadn’t got their favorite. At least she knew Tony was bankrolling all this spending, and didn’t feel too bad about the regular fraud she was committing.

Her visit to the second store was much the same, though she bought less yarn. It was when she left that things went to hell.

Despite not receiving any super-spy training, even Darcy could tell when someone was tailing her. Or maybe it wasn’t so much that another car followed her as she pulled out of the parking lot, as the type of car. SHIELD-issue, nearly guaranteed, down to the tinted glass.

“Shit.”

Her hands shook on the steering wheel as she paused, waiting for a break in the flow of traffic to exit the lot. The glass meant she couldn’t see who was in the car, but it was probably more than one person. Hell, even if it was one person, she was screwed. She was unarmed and no match for anyone who’d gone through the training SHIELD required of its agents.

Keep calm. What would Natasha do?

Not lead them back to the facility, for a start. She needed to act like she hadn’t even seen them. She was Darcy Lewis. All their intel about her would say she had no skills to speak of. There was no way could she outsmart them. Well, she had desperation on her side, and no way was she getting delivered to Loki.

She turned in the wrong direction, heading further into Albany, brainstorming ways to throw them off her tail. She wasn’t a great driver and though there were plenty of SUVs around, no other Jeeps, so she stuck out on the road. The one piece of luck she had on her side was that it was rush hour, commuters clogging the roads, and dusk would make it harder for them to watch her.

Up ahead, a crowded strip mall lined the road, and she waited for the last minute to pull across the lane and make the turning. While they went sailing past her, the beeping of horns telling her they were causing traffic chaos while trying to turn around, she strode towards a drugstore as confidently as she could manage.

The place was busy enough she could lose herself in the crowd. She grabbed a pack of hair ties and a hoodie from a rack of merchandise for some movie that had just been released. She almost made the mistake of paying for them, but since she was already on the lam, she might as well add shoplifting to her rap sheet. In the customer bathroom, she changed as quickly as she could: plaiting her hair and pulling the hoodie on over her t shirt. Then she shoved the cell phone, credit card and ID into her pocket, leaving her purse behind.

Two grey-suited men were in the drugstore when she emerged and she crept down another aisle, making a break for the door while they were talking to the cashier. Outside, she almost headed back to the Jeep, but saw another Grey Suit across the lot, keeping watch. She’d have to leave it behind for now. Instead, she turned on her heel, crossing the pavement back towards the road and the line of people waiting for a bus. The small amount of cash she had would be enough to pay the fare into Albany. They could wait for her to go back to the Jeep until it turned to rust.

It should have been that easy. Relief was already surging through her body, carried along on adrenaline, as she joined the waiting passengers, shuffling into the heart of the group. She allowed herself one backwards glance—casual, uninterested—as the city bus pulled up, and saw him.

Loki. In the parking lot, beside the Jeep, his sharp gaze searching the area for her.

Chapter Text

Darcy whipped back to face the road before his gaze reached the place where she stood. With the hood up and her back to him, she could be anyone, just another commuter.

The bus door opened and people poured up the stairs. She let herself be pulled along, tossing money down for the driver and finding an empty double seat on the opposite side to the parking lot.

Even when she sat, the hood her key to anonymity, her heart rate didn’t slow. She didn’t dare look out of the window, just counted down the seconds until the last person boarded and the bus departed. Any moment now there’d be forward motion, and that would be space between her and Loki.

She fumbled with her phone, pulling it out of her pocket to begin a message to Natasha. On bus in Albany. He’s here.

There was no creak of leather, no warning, just the brush of a leg against hers as someone took the seat beside her, pinning her in place. The bus was too silent. She didn’t look up, just kept staring at her phone. If she didn’t look, he wasn’t there. He didn’t need to be on a bus in upstate New York, not when he was busy subjugating the entire world. She wasn’t important enough for that.

When he leaned in he brought a scent with him, cool and fresh, not mint but something close to it. “If you come with me,” he said in a soft voice—but not a whisper— “then everyone can go on with their journey in peace.” Not a threat, not until her imagination put the pieces together. He sounded perfectly civil, and it was inappropriate to notice how beautiful his voice was. She did the only thing she could; she nodded.

He rose again and swaggered back down the aisle without checking if she was following. She almost yelled for the driver to floor it, but caught sight of his expression in the rearview mirror—he had the wide, panicked eyes of a horse about to bolt. He wasn’t going to do anything to piss off their emperor. Darcy did what she had to do. She followed Loki off the bus, back into the frigid night.

When she stood beside him on the pavement he held out a hand in expectation. The message to Natasha had been sent, but she still had to will her knuckles to loosen from the phone as she handed it to him.

“Thank you.” It dropped to the concrete and crunched beneath his boot. The doors of the bus pfffed shut and the engine rumbled, horns blaring as it pulled out into the line of traffic without warning. Loki’s hand was still in mid-air, waiting. For the first time she looked at him, and nearly wilted under the force of his gaze.

His expression was impossible to decipher—was that a smile at the corners of his mouth? She wasn’t seeing the funny side of the situation, but then the god of mischief would see the humor in the most horrible of circumstances. Despite the threatening mirth, there was a heaviness to his stare, a force you either backed away from or met head on. There was no mercy there.

“Your hand,” he requested after a pause, a moment when she was ready to back away, metaphorically and physically. She was a tiny, inconsequential thing next to him, and spending any time around him was only going to diminish her further.

She mutely held her hand out and he took it, threading his fingers through hers. His skin, she was surprised to learn, wasn’t biting cold but pleasantly warm, especially compared to the wintery air. There was no jolt of electricity, nothing to suggest he was anything but an ordinary man. But the way he held her was closer to a lover, strangely intimate when they’d never even held a conversation. She’d never said a word to him.

It’s better than the way he looked at you the last time, she reminded herself. Though that just scared her further—why was he going so far to be polite—no, chivalrous—when he’d seemed ready to flay her alive the first time he saw her?

“My lady, our chariot awaits,” he said, gesturing down the sidewalk to the end of the block. A black-and-chrome SUV idled at the curb. No limousines for this emperor, at least not tonight. She allowed herself to be led to the car, his long-legged stride easing for her shorter gait, swathing herself in that same mute disbelief she’d worn since he’d stepped onto the bus.

A black-suited guard silently opened the back door and she scrambled up and in, Loki’s hand on her lower back. The handle on the other side was disabled and he climbed in after her, wedging her in place. He took her hand again and she wished he wouldn’t; not because his touch was unpleasant, exactly, but being this close just reminded her of how much power he had. Besides, she was aware of how sweaty her hand was in his.

“You seem terrified,” he murmured. “I like that response. It shows you are a sensible girl and have the proper respect for me. You have no need to be, but I’m aware mere words will do nothing to ease your fear, and I must admit I have little wish to do so.” She kept her gaze averted. His words actually invoked the opposite response—her terror spiked—but at least when she wasn’t looking directly at his face and the evil she’d seen written there before, his voice was easier to swallow, low and soft across her skin. She waited for the demands to begin, questions about where the rest of the team were hiding, but they never came.

She didn’t know why he continued to hold her hand like this. The car sped through the streets, ignoring lights and signs and traffic laws, and she held her breath as they approached the turn off towards the suburbs and, further away, Newbury. She hoped Natasha had seen that message and they’d had chance to scramble. The facility was half an hour away, even at top speed, so they had the time to get out. This had to be why Loki kept a firm grip on her—what was the point in asking her where the others were when her thundering pulse at each intersection gave the game away?

Except they swept past that road, heading back towards the interstate, and Darcy tried to swallow down her confusion.

“Oh, don’t worry, I’m not here for them,” Loki whispered. She glanced at him, startled, and he smiled brightly. “Your relief is too obvious. If I want to find them, I shall, but that’s not why I’m here today.”

“Then why—” She forgot herself for a moment, forgot she wasn’t with Tony, the megalomaniac with a conscience, and bit down on the rest of that question before it could escape. He just smiled wider.

“Why you? We’re going to have fun exploring that.”

“Look, I don’t know anything.” The words spilled out, beyond her control, panic loosening her tongue. “When I worked at Stark we didn’t even make weapons anymore, and if Mr Stark left some designs behind, I have no idea how to make them work. You can tell when someone’s lying—you know I’m not!”

“Yes, I know you’re not lying. I’m not looking for information, nor am I looking for a weapon. My sweet girl, I already have an artifact that allows me to freeze entire continents, not to mention near boundless abilities of my own. All I ask of you, for now, is a little company.”

Her fear spiked again, and his lips curled in that terrifying smile.

“Oh, yes, I really rather do like that.” Her hood had fallen back, balanced precariously on the back of her head, and he reached out to tip it all the way down. “You changed your hair, Ms Lewis. That is not the shade described in the SHIELD files. Camouflage I presume?” She felt him take hold of her hair, carefully undoing the plait with nimble fingers. She felt it spill out over his hand when loose and a moment later her scalp tingled. The hair that fell over shoulders when he dropped it had faded back to its normal deep brown. “That’s better.”

His words meant he’d researched her, personally, instead of leaving it up to SHIELD to find her. It made everything so much worse. He’d recognized her despite never having met her, and now he’d spent time analyzing her. Not just as a minor member of the team who’d fled him, or a some-time friend of Thor’s. He had a purpose in mind for her, one he’d apparently decided to extract with honey rather than flies. The world was shifting beneath her feet, the rug and any semblance of safety being pulled away. Whatever he wanted was inevitably going to be betrayal of the Avengers, of humanity, and probably of herself. There was nothing she had to give—that he could possibly want—that wouldn’t need the worst of her.

“You should relax, as much as you can. We have some time before we reach my chosen palace. Perhaps you would like to read? Or knit?”

He gestured to a bag of groceries—groceries taken from the Jeep. The pattern book and her newest set of needles were sticking out of the stop.

No. I’d like to shove one of the needles into your heart. And I’d try it if I didn’t think you’d snap my neck before I moved an inch.

Darcy kept her mouth shut.

“It was the hobby that allowed us to trace you. It was apparent when we searched your apartment that it would be a clue to your whereabouts. When you have access to the sales data of all stores in North America, and the kind of statistical software that allows you to triangulate anomalies to very specific location, it becomes a remarkably simple task narrowing your locality down.”

She flinched at the casual way he described rummaging around in her life. Like it was nothing to go into her apartment to find clues about who she was. For him, it wasn’t. He wrote the laws everyone danced to now. He decided what he could and couldn’t do.

Time to face the inevitable: she was screwed.

She turned her head away from him, not as an act of defiance but to get her bearings. They passed road signs all making it clear where they were heading: back to New York City.

He chuckled at her movement. “By all means, take in our surroundings.” She leaned her head against the window and watched time eat the miles.

The flickering of the landscape made her drowsy, but the residual adrenaline kept her awake. Loki was perfectly still beside her, so much that if it hadn’t been for his ability to feel present, she’d have happily pretended she was in the car alone.

They approached Manhattan over the George Washington Bridge, and it struck Darcy as wrong that the city looked the same as she’d left it. Cranes sprouted above rooftops, building the latest monuments to the sky. Life was going on as usual.

“Now, I’m afraid I must keep you in the dark about our location.” He produced a blindfold from thin air, smiling at his own joke. She cringed away, but he deftly tied it around her head before she could move too far, cutting out all light. She couldn’t see above or below. “Can’t have you trying to communicate with the traitors, can we?”

Trying to maintain a sense of direction was useless. She couldn’t even guess at distance, because the stop-start of the traffic—apparently Loki wasn’t invoking special privileges within the city—meant they could have been crawling along for quarter of a mile, or three. The abrupt cutting of the engine startled her, and then the blindfold was removed, revealing an underground parking lot. Not the one in Stark Tower, though it might as well have been for all the difference it made. All that effort put into escaping and staying hidden, and yet here she was.

Loki hooked their arms together and rested his other hand on her forearm, though it felt more like a guiding maneuver this time and less like chivalry. He led to her an elevator, called only by his handprint in the biometric reader, and in she was shepherded. Nothing inside the elevator gave any hint about what building they were in. The floor buttons totaled thirty, and they were going all the way up.

On the penthouse landing, there were two doors. One had soldiers stationed outside it. She knew which one she was going through.

They looked at their feet rather than at Loki as he passed, which she thought was a small act of insubordination, even if he didn’t know it. To him, it probably registered as deference. With another swipe of his hand in front of a biometric reader, several locks unlocked inside and the door pushed open easily.

Utter blackness met her eyes, and if it hadn’t been for Loki’s guiding hand, she wouldn’t have entered at all. She’d only taken a few steps inside when Loki released her arm and backed away.

“I’ll return in due course. It would be best if you settled yourself as much as you are able—you’ll be here for some time.”

The door closed behind him, and the locks rattled shut again, leaving her in darkness.

Chapter Text

Darcy’s immediate impulse was to find the means to kill herself.

She’d never considered suicide before. All things told, she was an optimist, and she didn’t want to die, but whatever she faced had to be worse. Torture at Loki’s hands—physical pain and mental trickery—until she gave up the Avengers’ location. If careless words tumbled from her lips, then Earth’s only hope would be extinguished.

It wasn’t a courageous decision, because to feel courage, she needed to feel anything at all. Instead, she was numb after hours of fear-induced adrenaline. Lethargy swamped her, and below it ran a jittery undercurrent, a low-level buzzing in her brain that was probably a distant echo of panic. Yet she made the decision anyway: she was going to find a way out of here, or die trying.

She fumbled for a light switch, fingers exploring the wall until she found it. The room was not what she expected when illuminated, more a hotel suite than a prison cell. She quickly explored the space, examining the limits of her confinement. From the door, a short hallway led into the main room, furnished with a king-sized bed, sofa, wardrobe and a small breakfast bar. The wardrobe was empty, even of coat hangers. The counter lacked a coffee maker, but she did have a plasma screen on the wall, and a small bookcase. The tumbler left on top of the mini fridge was plastic rather than glass, and when she gave it an experimental toss against the wall, it refused to crack. With that established, she quenched her thirst with a Coke—grumbling at the lack of alcohol—and kept searching.

A small hatch was set into one wall, and when she strode over to investigate, it opened to reveal a dumbwaiter. She’d never seen one in real life, only in movies where they got used as escape routes. This one was too small for her to get into. On the tray inside lay a room service menu and a pencil, tied down on a chain like the ones in banks. She tossed it down and resumed her investigation.

Heavy drapes covered the windows. She crossed to yank them open, but found the glass behind boarded over with steel. She had nothing to try and pry the steel away with, though that didn’t stop her trying until her fingertips bruised.

Her next stop was the bathroom. It was smart, clean, sterile, devoid of scissors or blades. It was styled as wet room, with one tiled corner comprising a shower. No shower screen, no rod, no tub. They’d only left towels and bottles of luxury toiletries. The small first-aid kit in the cabinet contained gauze and band-aids, acid indigestion pills and two pathetic painkillers. He’d known what she’d try and do.

Darcy took the towels back out to the bedroom, sizing them up against the bedsheets. She only had the most rudimentary idea of how to hang herself, and this room did not provide the opportunity. There was nothing to fasten a noose to—the spotlights lay flush against the ceiling—and as the sofa was the only chair, she couldn’t kick it out from under herself.

She’d covered most of the suite and been thwarted at every turn. There was one last door to try—a sturdy exterior door that she guessed was for the fire escape. She’d left it for last with the assumption it was going to be locked and guarded like the other.

She tested the handle, and when it snagged open, she held her breath, expecting to find a soldier on the other side, ready to shove her back into the room and fix the error.

Instead, she found stairs.

Even from the bottom of them, Darcy could feel the breeze and knew she was tasting fresh air. It didn’t make any sense—why lock her away and then leave her an exit? Loki wouldn’t make a mistake like that. She crept up the concrete steps, listening for other sounds and pausing at the top when she reached another door. At first she thought it was painted black, but a hand on its glassy surface told her she was staring out at the night.

She wrenched it open, spilling out in a tangle of limbs before someone came along to yank her back inside. She was on the rooftop, the vast night sky sprawling out above her, stars failing to compete with the glow Manhattan cast upwards. Around her, flowers slumbered in the dark. He’d created a garden up here, pots and planters covering the concrete. She turned in place, seeking the edge—her last hope a glorious swan-dive into oblivion. Instead, she found more steel bolted in place, ten feet high around the entire perimeter. There was no way to climb it and no way for her to see beyond it. She couldn’t even place herself in the city—all she knew was that this building didn’t stand in the shadow of any close by. Nor was there any sign of the fire escape she’d been hoping to find. There was no way off this roof except back down the stairs into her suite.

That was it, then. She had to live.

There was a kind of disappointment to failing in her quest, one completely at odds with the part of her that had no desire to die. She’d failed in her goal and had probably failed humanity in the process. Yet, she was more relieved than anything, and piss-her-pants terrified. She got to live, which she wanted to do more than anything, but she had no idea what she was going to live through. Based on Loki’s initial approach—all this luxury, the courtesy—then she should expect mind games. They’d be his specialty, right? When he really started playing, she’d crack and fall apart, and it would have been better to have bled out on the white tiles of the bathroom floor.

She’d already cracked a little. The proof of that came in the way she was kneeling on the concrete, bawling her eyes out. She hadn’t cried like this once since he’d become Emperor, sparing only a prickling of her eyes when she heard about Thor. He was more deserving of her tears, but here she was, shedding them in self-pity. And Loki would see this, he had to, because there was no way the rooftop wasn’t being watched. He’d see how easily broken she was and use it against her.

When she woke, she couldn’t even remember how she’d made it back to the bed. She hadn’t even bothered undressing, it seemed, and her clothes were a crumpled mess. They weren’t exactly what she’d have wanted to be taken captive in, since they were a costume. Only the Chucks discarded on the floor were hers.

In the dumbwaiter she found clean clothes. Hers, from her apartment. Darcy would’ve preferred to stay in what she wore—her things felt tainted now. She’d known Loki had been in her apartment; he’d said as much yesterday, but for him to take her belongings and pass them back to her like gifts was an insult. He was flaunting his power over her.

When she returned from her shower, the red only just fading from her eyes, breakfast had arrived too. Plastic cutlery only. Loki really wasn’t taking any chances. She could hurt herself with them, if she really wanted to, but they were useless as tools on steel.

She had little to do with her time except watch TV and read the books on offer…and wait for Loki’s next move. She kept formulating escape plans in her mind—distracting the guards outside the door, pretending to be taken violently ill, anything to get out of this trap of a suite—but when she rapped on the door and called through it, she got no response.

She tried the garden again in the daylight. It was breathtaking in the morning, with dew still dripping from petals. There weren’t just flowers, but shrubs and small trees, a dwarf flowering cherry scattering pink blossom over the ground in one corner. Her mom was an avid gardener but Darcy didn’t recognize some of the plants—not the gold-hued, trumpet-headed flowers that came up to her waist, or the ones that looked like English bluebells, but with heads the size of her fist. Scents competed for her attention, blending together to create the kind of perfume women spent good money on to wear on their skin. It was supposed to be a peaceful place, she supposed, a sanctuary of a kind, but her reflection in the steel reminded her of its true purpose as a cage.

Time moved even more slowly than it had at the facility. There, she’d had constant human contact—to the point where she’d often had to seek solitude in her room. Now, she saw no one, the dumbwaiter her only link with other people. She took to scribbling notes on the menu, but while they complied with her more reasonable requests—magazines and movies—they never responded to her words directly. At this point she had no idea who ‘they’ even were.

The only faces she saw were on the TV screen, in mind-numbing repeats of sitcoms and reality shows. Three days in, and she was desperate for someone to talk to. This was why solitary confinement got used as a punishment.

The bed was lush, but she’d have given anything to trade it for the narrow cot, and her half-finished blanket. She asked through the door for knitting needles, but her request got ignored. Every so often, the dumbwaiter would crank into life, sending up more clothes, her own books and DVDS, and three meals a day. She still had nothing to hang the clothes up with, but if they wanted her alive they weren’t going to provide hangers. When the heavens opened she was stuck inside, but when the sky was clear she took to the garden. Even bees didn’t visit her there, but she could close her eyes and listen to the bustle of the city around, horns beeping a mile below.

On the fourth day, she opened her eyes to find Loki sat across from her.

She only just contained her curse, biting down hard on her lip to stop it slipping out. He watched her, expression veiled. She clutched the arms of her lawn chair and sat up straight.

“You are enjoying our hospitality?” he asked, fingers idly trailing over the petals of a bellflower.

She nodded mutely, focusing on the movement of his hands rather than look at his face. He wore a suit this time, the ends of his hair blending into the black of the fabric. It had grown longer, the choppy cut falling into softer curls now.

“I am glad. You only need ask and we shall provide. Except,” he held up one finger with a wry smile, “freedom. You are safer here, under our watch.”

Darcy didn’t feel safer.

With a twist of his hand, two cups materialized from thin air, filled with a caramel liquid. He held one out to her. She didn’t move to take it, and with an elegant shrug, he set it down beside her. “You should try it. I searched hard to find the right ingredients to make it. There is nothing on Midgard like hunangbrugga.” She caught the scent of honey and spices. Her mouth wanted it, but her stomach rolled in rebellion.

He sipped at the drink for a moment, then peered at her over the rim of the glass. “You are awfully quiet. That is not like you—or so I am told.” He paused, waiting for an answer. This time, she couldn’t remain silent. His expression demanded a response.

“I don’t know what you want from me.”

His laugh was soft, creeping across her skin like a thousand tiny caresses. “My dear, I don’t want anything from you. Is it not enough that you forget about the world and enjoy what I’m providing for you?” He took another sip and licked his lips. “There is wealth in this kind of peace.”

She wanted to scream at him that she hadn’t known peace since he’d found her, but instead she knotted her fingers together and dug her nails into her palms. Apparently her survival instinct was stronger than she’d known.

He sighed. “Very well. I shall leave you with your thoughts. Perhaps more reading material will soften your mood?” She blinked and he’d disappeared. Only the cup beside her chair hinted he’d even been there.

Now he was gone, she was tempted by it. She reached down to pick it up, the unfamiliar scent catching in her throat. He’d been so eager for her to try it.

She stopped with the rim an inch from her mouth. Then she poured it away into the nearest trencher.

This garden couldn’t be real. She was a prisoner, not a guest, no matter what Loki pretended. Only now did Darcy realize how absurd it was, like the moment in a dream where she’d recognize she wasn’t experiencing reality. She’d known Loki would play mind games, but what if that wasn’t all? They controlled all her food and drink; it all came up in the dumbwaiter, plated up ready for her to eat. She had no idea what was going into it.

When her evening meal arrived, she flushed it away in the bathroom.

She survived the next day, and the one after that, drinking tap water, ignoring her rumbling belly. Loki did not return, and she was grateful, because she was free to scour the rooftop for edible items without interruption. She’d hoped for one of the shrubs to offer berries, or one of the potted trees to bear fruit, but the garden was ornamental. Even if the berries were poisonous, she’d have taken them. At least a purge would force whatever drugs they’d given her out her system faster. That was why she drank so much water—it wasn’t just to keep full, but to wash everything out.

Her suspicions about being watched proved true. While she was in the garden, she never heard a sound from her rooms, but when she headed down the steps, fresh towels would be bundled in the bathroom, and the bedsheets changed. Her laundry was taken and exchanged with clean clothes, the mini fridge was restocked and the carpet vacuumed. They’d taken to leaving food out too.

By the fifth day of her fast, the garden was still there. She’d expected it to fade, to crawl up the steps one morning to find bare concrete awaiting her, but it never went away.

She started eating again.

He came back twice, offering her the drink, and the second time she tried it, because why not? It was good, though she’d have preferred Starbucks, and she remained resolutely silent in his presence. He seemed content to sit and drink with her, vanishing when his cup was empty, leaving her confused as to why he’d even bothered. He didn’t ask questions. He didn’t ask anything of her.

The waiting was unbearable. Whatever he was going to do, she wished he would get the hell on with it. At least then she’d have something to focus on other than her boredom, and her shredded nerves could find relief.

She’d been there for perhaps two weeks and was taking advantage of a sunny day to read a book of fairy tales she’d been gifted. Not her preferred genre, but the reading material she’d been left was clearly curated by Loki and leaned towards folklore and the macabre. This volume stuck close to the original Grimm stories, neatly combining the two. Rapunzel’s pregnancy had just been discovered by the old witch, who’d cut off her hair and cast her out of the tower. The prince was coming to visit Rapunzel, completely unaware of the trap he was walking into.

Darcy snapped the book shut. She was Rapunzel, or at least Rapunzel’s severed hair. She was bait.

And there was nothing she could do about it.

Chapter Text

Darcy woke to muffled footsteps and a flash of red in her peripheral vision.

She lay frozen in place, thinking it was another waking dream. She’d had so many of those lately; the impression of someone in the room, gone before she could muster her eyes open. But tonight, between one blink and the next, a shadow appeared at her bedside. It loomed over her, fierce eyes staring down.

“Natasha?” she whispered. She scrambled to sit up, until the blade at her throat stilled her.

“What’s your room number in the facility?” Natasha asked, her words barely an exhale.

“Th-thirty-one.”

“What’s the pattern on the item you were making?”

“The blanket? There isn’t one…”

Natasha nodded and removed the blade. “I had to check.” She reached for the pile of folded laundry on the counter and tossed some clothes over to the bed.

Darcy remembered her revelation and shot upright. “No, no, no—you can’t be here! This is a trap. This is what he wants!”

“You think I don’t know that? That’s why it’s taken three weeks to come up with a plan to get you out. I’m no fool. Can you walk?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. He was never after me at all.”

“Darcy, get dressed. We’ve prepared for this. We waited until Loki was out of town. This isn’t a big rescue mission involving all the Avengers. Everything will go smoothly so long as we’re out of here immediately.”

She dressed in record time, logic chasing the last of sleep out of her head. It didn’t matter if this was a trap—Natasha was here now, so either Darcy was going to escape, or she was going to gain a cellmate.

Outside the door, the two guards slumbered on the carpet. Natasha made no effort to creep around them. “They’ll be out until the relief shift arrives in the morning.”

“What about the cameras? Everywhere up here is watched…”

“Right now a loop of the last hour is playing in the security control room. They won’t even realize you’re gone until the morning.”

They ignored the elevator, heading for the stairs, and Darcy had an overwhelming sense of deja vu. By the time they’d gone down ten flights, Darcy was regretting that the elevator was unavailable to them. At least if the stairs melted again they could slide all the way down. Natasha kept darting back and forth, gun posed steady in her hand, her thighs apparently not suffering quite as much as Darcy’s were.

To Darcy’s horror, they kept going below even when they’d reached ground level, down into the basements. “Please not more tunnels.”

“Don’t worry,” Natasha muttered. “Stay here.” They’d reached an exit door. Natasha peered through the glass, then disappeared through the door so swiftly Darcy barely saw her move. A moment later she returned. “Clear.”

Darcy followed her, not in the parking lot she feared, but a corridor. Natasha led her in through the third door, which turned out to be a janitorial closet. She retrieved a supply box from a shelf and began to pass items to Darcy. “Put these on.” She pulled a tiny device from her boot—it looked like a credit card with a screen—and swept it over Darcy from head-to-toe. She seemed satisfied with whatever it told her. “They haven’t chipped you,” she explained. “There’d be no point taking you anywhere if they could track you.”

They covered their clothes in cleaner’s aprons and covered their hair with caps. Darcy stashed her glasses in a pocket, and Natasha handed her a pass. “These will get us out of the building.”

“You played dress-up a ton as a kid, huh?”

Natasha gave her a blank look. “I don’t know.” She opened the closet door and crept back out. Darcy followed, for the first time feeling sorry for her. She’d meant it as a joke, not really expecting an answer at all, and while Natasha’s demeanor hadn’t invited pity, the implications of her words did. She’d never revealed anything about herself—all Darcy knew about her was her name and her poorly-concealed soft spot for Clint. But exactly how did someone become a superspy? Every one of the Avengers had a backstory—and Darcy had never heard Natasha’s. She doubted she ever would. “The next shift change is in fifteen minutes, we’re leaving with them.”

They headed back up, using a service elevator this time, Natasha acting like she’d been in the building some time, she knew the layout so well. It wasn’t entirely outside the realms of possibility. When they were on the ground floor the hush of the building vanished, clear sounds of occupation replacing it. Footsteps echoed from other corridors, and the rumble of traffic passed close by.

They emerged into a small lobby, manned only by a security guard. A clock on the wall told Darcy it was approaching 4am and it took a lot of willpower to keep from swaying on her feet. Knowing the time made her suddenly very tired.

Other cleaners were just disappearing through a door onto the street. The guard shouted over to them. “You! Paperwork says only four cleaners on tonight.” If Darcy had been forced to place his accent, she’d have said Eastern Europe.

Natasha sauntered over, and when she spoke, her words were accented as thickly as his. “Supervisor fucked up our shifts. We worked all night and don’t even know if we’re going to get paid.”

“Again? Second time this week—she needs firing. Ty russkiy?

“Da.” She gestured vaguely in Darcy’s direction. “She’s Polish. Her English is non-existent—and her Russian is even worse.” She was wrong, though it wasn’t the time to point out that Darcy had taken two Russian classes in college and could just about follow the conversation.

“I need you to sign the form,” he said, “so I can get this mess sorted.

Sure.” Natasha scribbled something down then walked away, jerking her head to indicate Darcy should follow. They exited through the revolving door, stepping out onto a street where dawn was still some hours away yet.

She recognized where they were immediately, even if she didn’t know exactly which building they’d just exited. It took up the entire block, a grander entrance visible on the corner, where the street met First Avenue. Over the Avenue she could see the United Nations complex—a place she’d often visited when she moved to New York, even if she’d never gone inside. The usual rows of flags had disappeared, flagpoles standing empty, where a higher one had been raised to loom above them all. A horned serpent of gold twined around itself on a viridian background, gusting out over the roof of the complex.

Natasha led her away from the plaza, back towards the heart of Manhattan. Few people were around at this hour, though a steady stream of cars drove past.

“That almost seemed too easy,” Darcy said.

“We still have to get off Manhattan first.”

“How are we doing that this time?”

“The subway.”

“You never struck me as the type to use public transport, Agent Romanoff.” Loki appeared on the sidewalk in front of them, lounging against a street light. He was less casually dressed than Darcy had seen him in some time, back in the full leathers he’d worn when he announced he was taking over the world. He cocked his head. “Sorry, ex-agent Romanoff.”

Natasha’s gun had been in her hands before he’d finished his third word, though Darcy didn’t think it would do them any good. She backed behind her anyway, just to be on the safe side. “Cover on East 45th,” she said quietly. Her voice betrayed none of the terror Darcy felt.

“Then again, you never struck me as the type to work for no pay,” Loki continued, as if Natasha hadn’t said anything at all. “Still trying to wash away the red?” He pushed himself away from the post. “Such discourtesy.” This time he addressed Darcy. “To leave without saying goodbye, after all I had done to make you at home. Did you really think I wouldn’t notice your absence?”

“How did you—”

“You’re so peaceful in sleep. I like to remind myself of that, sometimes, since all you offer me in wakefulness is sullen silence.” He caught the arrow that span towards him easily, and Darcy reflexively looked towards the sky. Clint was somewhere nearby. Loki tossed the arrow away, but wasn’t quick enough to avoid the one that came on its heels. It pierced the leather of his sleeve and he hissed a curse.

Natasha pushed her away, running back in the direction they came, and Darcy felt the sidewalk rock beneath her feet as the arrow exploded behind them. She stumbled and Natasha kept her upright with a hand on her arm, pulling her along. Somehow Loki was in front of them again, his armor a wreck but his skin unmarred. Natasha veered away, pulling them into the road. Headlamps blinded Darcy, and a blaring horn warned they were in the path of a car.

The world moved too quickly—she was yanked off her feet, then landed on her front with the sidewalk below her. Natasha never hit the ground fully—she rolled and stayed upright. A horrible crunching sound came from behind Darcy, like metal and stone colliding. She rolled over, still dazed and half-blinded, to find the front end of a cab wrapped around Loki. To his credit, he was mostly upright and looking less smushed than Darcy would’ve expected. Clint took the opportunity to loose another arrow his way.

“Come on.” Natasha urged Darcy to her feet and they ran again, despite the jelly-like consistency of her legs. She wasn’t exactly sure what had just happened. She’d been pulled out of the path of the cab—and while logic dictated Natasha had done it, the force behind the way she’d been pulled made it unlikely she was strong enough. That theory also didn’t explain why Loki had been in the middle of the road. Had he pulled them away?

They took the first right, and then into a building, Natasha backhanding the doorman before he could react. They sped down the stairs into the basement, and once more Darcy found herself entering a tunnel below the city.

Again, Natasha seemed to know the way, which was helpful because Darcy couldn’t see a thing. They walked for what could have been five, fifteen or fifty minutes, time meaningless without a reference point, before Natasha halted. They’d reached a door—an ordinary, unassuming fire door—and Natasha disappeared through it, leaving Darcy to wait in the blackness. She returned with a rucksack, pulling her hair free of the cleaner’s cap and discarding of the apron too. Out came a dress and a brunette wig for her, with a change of clothes for Darcy too.

“Turn around,” she said, and Darcy complied, letting her deftly plait her hair. No wig for her, for which she was thankful.

They left the cleaner’s stuff behind in the tunnel, sneaking into the basement beyond the door, which turned out to be another underground parking lot. Natasha surveyed the cars, selecting a black SUV, and had it unlocked and running by some voodoo in under a minute. Darcy headed for the passenger seat, but Natasha stopped her.

“You need to drive, I need to cover us.”

“What about Clint?”

“He’s got another mission in the city.”

“Right. Where are we going?”

“It doesn’t matter. We just need to get off the island before any blockades are in place.”

Darcy’s grip on the steering wheel was shaky. Dawn was just about creeping up over the skyscrapers, giving them flashes of cerulean every time they passed between them. Natasha gave directions and Darcy followed, too tired and bewildered to argue. “Where are we going when we’re out of Manhattan?”

“Back to the facility.”

“You guys didn’t leave?”

“Tony’s got back into SHIELD’s systems. We were ready to leave if they were coming for us, but they never did. You didn’t give us up.” An expression close to pride hovered on Natasha’s face.

“He never asked me where you were.”

The pride gave way to something shrewder. “Then what did he ask you for?”

“Nothing. That was the weirdest thing—I barely saw him and he never asked me any questions.”

“Yet he liked to watch you sleep and just threw himself in front of a moving vehicle to save your life.”

“What are you saying?”

Natasha gave her a sideways glance.

“Oh, come on. Eric told me how Loki sees us. Ants.”

“And yet.”

“No. No. That’s gross. Besides, he never tried anything…that wasn’t what he wanted. I was bait. That’s all.”

“That’s all," Natasha echoed.

They didn’t speak again until they reached Queens. Darcy tried to absorb herself in freedom—how lovely it was to be on the expressway, to get glimpses of the wooden houses around the borough, to not be surrounded by steel sheeting. Anything better than to think about Natasha’s suggestion. Which was completely absurd. He’d looked at her with such hatred the first time he’d laid eyes on her, and he barely knew her. The only thing that would interest him in her was connection to Thor, Jane and the Avengers.

In Queens, they abandoned the car and borrowed a new one, another SUV, which Natasha switched the plates on. Natasha drove this time, letting Darcy catch up on her interrupted sleep. She napped until they stopped at a gas station, where Natasha procured caffeine and bagels. Then it was back on the freeway, heading north again, and back to blessedly dreamless sleep.

Only when Natasha shook her awake, back in the confines of the rickety garage, did it finally feel like she’d escaped. The shadows and cobwebs didn’t scare her anymore, instead seeming like old friends. She practically skipped down the steps into the facility, turning the corner to find a few of its inhabitants waiting with wide eyes.

“Welcome back,” said Steve. “You look well.”

“Bruce is fetching Jane,” Pepper breathed, pulling Darcy into a hug.

“He’s here?” she asked.

“We needed him,” Tony explained. “We’re nearly there.”

“With the Bifrost?”

“Of course. I’m a little disappointed in myself it’s taken this long.”

The door at the end of the corridor opened, and Jane peeked through. Darcy gave her a wave. “Honey, I’m home!”

Jane came sprinting up, nearly barreling Darcy over when she reached her and taking her in a hug so tight she nearly choked. “I thought I’d lost you too,” she whispered tearfully, and then Darcy was crying too.

“It’s okay. I’m okay.”

“No, it’s not okay. I’m sick of Loki doing what he wants, hurting who he wants. When we finish the Bifrost, we’re going to find out what happened to Thor. Then we’re going to take Loki down. For good.”

Chapter Text

“So he really didn’t hurt you?” Pepper asked for the tenth time.

“I’m fine. Not a scratch,” Darcy replied. She wiggled her fingers and swung her legs to show how whole she was.

“You don’t have to be brave, you know,”Pepper responded with a sympathetic tilt of the head. Darcy wondered if she’d been on a therapy course to learn it. “We’d all completely support you whatever you needed to tell us.”

“Seriously, he didn’t lay a finger on me. But I did miss you guys.”

Natasha paced at the foot of the stairs, beyond the knot the group had formed around Darcy. Waiting for Clint to return, probably. Darcy finished her last round of hugs and promised to meet Jane in the common room.

Everyone else returned to whatever they’d been doing, and Darcy shuffled over to Natasha.

“I just wanted to say thanks.”

Whatever Darcy had expected, it wasn’t confusion. “What for?” Natasha asked. At least she’d stopped wearing a hole in the floor tiles.

“Y’know. Rescuing me. Putting your life in danger to protect mine.”

“Oh.” Natasha thought for a moment. “I don’t think anyone’s ever thanked me before. Not in words. Usually they pay me.”

“I can only afford to pay you in knitted goods—”

“No, I’m not saying that. It’s just strange to me. You’re part of the team, so of course one of us would come for you, and I was the only one here who was going to do it without blowing up half of Manhattan.” She paused, considering her next words. “You’re welcome.”

Darcy briefly considered a hug, then thought better of it. Instead she gave an awkward wave and headed for the common room.

While they waited for Clint’s return, Darcy met Bruce, and Jane went through the breakthroughs they’d made with four of them working on the project. She’d retreated back into her safe, astrophysics-shaped shell, where emotions couldn’t touch her. Darcy nodded along to her science babble, only understanding every tenth word and wondering if anyone had curtailed Jane’s caffeine intake in Darcy’s absence. The rings under her eyes were edging towards raccoon territory; it was likely she’d only slept when her body had refused to stay awake anymore.

“It really helped having other perspectives on this—Tony’s an engineer at heart and Bruce’s background is in nuclear physics, so they were looking at it from different angles to me and Erik. They proposed we try the Morris-Thorne model instead. It helped we had the footprint for the original Bifrost from my old research and SHIELD’s records—we could look at the readings and try to replicate those. Bruce is working on a model right now that will create a miniature bridge within the lab, and if that works we just need to ensure we can control it and scale it up.”

“Didn’t Bruce’s last big experiment go…very wrong?”

“He’ll be the only person in the lab when it’s running. The rest of us will be observing from outside. His genetic mutation will protect him from any adverse side effects…unless, of course, we accidentally create a black hole in the process. That’s pretty unlikely—the precautions we’ve taken with negative charges…”

Darcy felt it kindest to let Jane ramble, and ignored the alarm bells the words “black hole” set off in her head. At least this was a break from work for Jane.

“Bike on the drive,” Steve shouted across the common room. While Darcy was away, Tony had assembled a computer out here and rigged up a security system, with cameras watching the entire estate and feeding in. It meant no more perimeter searches, and the system was easy enough to handle that Steve could monitor it.

“Is it him?” Natasha appeared out of nowhere. She didn’t wait for an answer, peering at the screen before turning and vaulting herself up the stairs. They all clustered around to watch her appear on the road before the motorbike, which had to spin to avoid hitting her. It had barely stopped moving before she had a knife to the rider’s throat, repeating the question-and-answer routine she’d gone through with Darcy. Evidently satisfied, she let the rider off and follow her back inside.

When Clint appeared at the bottom of the stairs, apparently unscathed, the tension in the room burst like a balloon.

“Did you get it?” Tony asked.

“Of course,” he replied. He tossed a disk over to Tony and slouched onto the sofa. “Loki was too busy searching for our little fugitive to pay attention to other security breaches. You make an excellent diversionary tactic, Darcy.”

“She’s not a tactic,” Erik growled.

“I know she’s not. Getting the disk was just a bonus. Who wants pizza—I always feel pizza rounds off a successful mission, you know?”

“We have no pizza,” Pepper pointed out.

“Good job I picked some up then. It’s on the back of the bike—Tash is inspecting it in case Loki’s going to somehow use it to infiltrate us, but when she’s satisfied she’ll bring it down.”

As if on cue, she entered with a stack of pizza boxes, and everyone cheered. Darcy helped Pepper hand out plates, and they all gathered at the table to eat. Even Jane seemed to relax.

“What’s on the disk?” Darcy asked after she’d inhaled her first slice.

“It’s a copy of some files I’m having trouble accessing via the usual methods,” said Tony. “Look likes SHIELD finally got someone who actually knows a thing or two about server security on their staff. This ought to tell us what Loki’s been up to lately.”

“We really need to put all our effort into the bridge,” said Jane. “We’re so close, we don’t want to lose momentum now.”

Tony shrugged. “It’ll take me twenty minutes.”

Jane bristled but didn’t speak again.

When the pizza was annihilated, Tony brought out a small stash of booze, and the gathering turned into a party—a chilled-out, mostly sober party with no music, but fun nonetheless. They played Blackjack for literal peanuts, then Natasha showed them a stack of board games in a supply cupboard, and the Avengers settled down to the most argued over game of Monopoly in history. Jane disappeared long before that happened, and Erik caught Darcy’s eyes, letting her know he’d be the one to take care of her that night.

It was the most fun and the most peace Darcy had known since the invasion, but it didn’t last when she crawled into her cot after midnight. Then her thoughts were free to meander as much as they wanted.

It seemed where they most wanted to go was back to that conversation with Natasha. She tried to think of other things: what she could knit with the limited yarn she had left, what she was going to do when the yarn ran out, how much taking up training with Steve again was going to hurt after three weeks of sitting on her butt. But her mind would not be corralled, and soon she was fretting over Natasha’s words.

“Yet he liked to watch you sleep and just threw himself in front of a moving vehicle to save your life.”

The first part was admittedly creepy, and Loki had owned up to that creepiness. It made Darcy’s skin crawl thinking about how he’d been there in the night, when she’d been unaware and unable to defend herself.

Defend yourself, how?

Maybe he just understood the Avengers too well and knew Natasha would come for her in the night. The second part didn’t mean much of anything. It hadn’t harmed Loki to take the hit from the cab, but he knew she’d be hospitalized or worse. All it meant was she wasn’t just bait—she had a bigger part to play. What part that might be, she couldn’t fathom. Didn’t want to fathom.

Why, then, the luxury he’d shown her? Why, if he only intended to keep her captive, had he visited her? He could have left her there until he actually needed her, but he’d come to her on the rooftop all those times.

The last time had been a cloudy day, with the threat of rain in the air, but the open air was preferable to Darcy than the confines of her room. She’d been reading, as ever, and didn’t bother to look up when she sensed his presence: a whisper across her skin. If he wanted her attention, he’d demand it.

“You should wrap up warmer,” he said, and she finally glanced up. Her cup was resting on the armrest of her chair, waiting for her to drink. He was dressed in earth colors today: shades of brown and moss green that suited the backdrop of the garden. His skin didn’t look nearly so pale as it did against the black.

“I’m fine,” she replied. He ignored her; a moment later he was draping a thin blanket over her knees. It was the closest he’d come to her since he’d left her in the suite that first night, and she held her breath, unsure if the spice filling her senses were from the cup, from him, or both. It took too long for her liking—he tucked it in around her thighs, hands never touching her directly but coming so close. The blanket was gold. Naturally.

He lifted his own cup when he sat back down. “You’re a child of the desert. The climate here is quite different.”

“I don’t mind the cold.”

For some reason, this amused him, a smile creeping over his lips. “I’m glad to hear it.” Darcy was never sure if she preferred Loki with a smile or not. If she didn’t know who he was, she could describe him as handsome; cut from a completely different cloth to Thor, but not without his charms. The smile softened the angles of his face and also hinted at a wickedness that probably translated well in the bedroom. However, knowing exactly who he was and what he was capable of dampened the effect.

With the hint of spice still teasing her, she picked up her cup, replacing it on the armrest with her book. His gaze dropped to the title. “The Pantheon of the Greek Gods. I’m unfamiliar with this branch of Midgardian mythology.”

“It’s more interesting than the Norse myths.”

He laughed, a sound that seemed to creep everywhere at once, bolder than his fingers had been. “I’m sure you’d find the truth more interesting. I can tell you, if you’d like.”

“I’m good.”

He shrugged. “You only need ask if you change your mind.” A moment later he was crouched beside her chair, in front of a trough of fluffy flowers. “These are blooming marvelously.” They were like dandelion clocks, only three times the size and silkier, the silver stems reaching up to Darcy’s knees. “I didn’t know how well they would fare here.” He set his cup on her armrest and plucked one of the flower heads off, holding it out to her. “You can take blossoms downstairs to brighten your chambers, if you wish.”

It was so big she needed to put her cup down beside his, the pair balanced precariously on top of the book, to cradle it in both hands. He gazed up at her from under mile-long eyelashes, some unfathomable expression on his face. She sat there awkwardly until Loki stood back up, took his cup, downed the contents and disappeared.

She hadn’t been sure what to make of that episode, other than he was a strange fish. Giving her the flower could be construed as an artless attempt at courtship, but if all the stories about Loki were true, he’d have more game than any man she’d ever met. He’d had a thousand years to work on it. Besides which, he didn’t need to court her at all. He could have threatened her family until she did what he wanted, or easily overpowered her, or just plain old mind-wiped her like he’d once done with Erik.

She was really thankful he hadn’t done any of those things.

There was also no reason at all for him to pick her. It wasn’t like they had an actual history. He’d never officially met her before he kidnapped her, and he definitely hadn’t become enamored of her across the parking lot during the first escape. It had been shitty lighting, for a start.

Darcy wasn’t completely lacking in self-esteem. She had her assets—not just the things men usually went for first, but a pretty face and a decent mind. She spoke four languages and had ended up in minoring in data engineering. She could dance, and sing well enough to not be painful at karaoke. She was honest, and funny, and easy-going. Any man would be lucky to have her. Somehow she didn’t think any of that was what Loki wanted in a woman. He’d put politics before personal preferences—a woman from a wealthy or royal family—and if his aesthetic ideals had been shaped by his upbringing on Asgard, then she didn’t fit. He’d want tall, athletic, someone strong to bear his heir. Conversational skills would be bottom of the list, because it wouldn’t be like he’d actually want to talk to a human being—his attempts with her aside.

Nothing added up.

With sleep evading her, she got up and headed to the common room. At first she was going to turn on the TV, or maybe see if she could access the internet through the computer. It definitely had a connection; she’d just need to figure out how to get through the security Tony had put in place. For a moment, she was tempted—her family still didn’t know whether she was dead or alive, unless Loki had been to terrorize them for information—but she’d spent too much time killing her Sims to learn the skills she needed to take Tony on.

Instead, she wandered on, down the corridor to the lab. She could tell the lights were on from outside, and knew who she’d find inside.

“Can I come in?” she called through the door after knocking.

“Sure,” replied Jane.

Darcy entered to find her tapping numbers into one of her machines. “I can do that for you.”

Jane didn’t look up. “Shouldn’t you be asleep?”

“Shouldn’t you?”

“Sleep is not my friend lately.”

“You should try. You’re more likely to make mistakes this way.”

“I don’t make mistakes,” Jane snapped. She paused, sighed, and finally raised her head. “Sorry. I’m too wired to sleep. I have to keep going. I can sleep again when I know.”

“When you know wha—oh. Thor.”

Jane flinched at the name. It was probably the first time she’d heard it in weeks. “That’s why I can’t sleep. He’s all I dream about, and I don’t mean the good kind of dreams.” She saved her work and turned the screen off, rubbing her eyes. “Did Loki talk about him at all?”

“No.”

“Did you ask?” she said fervently.

“I’m sorry—I didn’t speak to him much…”

“Do you think he did kill him?”

Darcy wanted to say no. She wanted to say “Of course not. They’re brothers—Loki wouldn’t kill him on purpose.” But they’d both know it was a lie; they’d both been there the first time Loki had tried to kill Thor, very deliberately, with the Destroyer. Darcy was too honest for that, and Jane wouldn’t swallow the lie anyway.

“I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t know him, but he seemed too calm in New York. It’d affect him somehow, right?”

“He will. Soon. We all will.”

“And you can’t have let him drive you into an early grave before you do. Come on, let’s get some cocoa. Somewhere on the planet there’s got to be a live feed of something we can watch—it’s already morning in Australia.”

Jane rose from her seat and crossed to Darcy’s side, flipping the lights off. “It’d be nice not to think for a while.”

The security computer was closed down, which Jane said meant Clint had taken the night watch, high up on the roof of the old house where he could see for miles around. They ended the night snuggled under Darcy’s blanket. Jane succumbed to her exhaustion before she did, but she followed soon after, the closeness a refreshing change from the isolation she’d had in abundance lately.


Darcy woke with a crick in her neck, but after the best night’s sleep she’d had in a while. Jane was gone—Darcy didn’t need ten guesses to figure out where—and Steve was back at the computer, reading a book.

“Morning,” she greeted, when the power of speech had returned. “For breakfast I will mainly be having coffee.”

“Better not. We’re nearly out.”

“Guess I need to do a supply run soon.”

“I don’t think that’s your job, anymore.” Steve gave her a kind smile. “Not when we know Loki is searching for you. Clint took over as Natasha’s tagalong.”

“Great.” While Darcy was thankful she didn’t have to do that anymore—there was no guarantee getting caught the second time would be as peaceful as the first—it also meant she was stuck inside, underground. She’d already been cooped up for three weeks and was now facing longer without even the sky above the roof garden to make up for it.

“Tony’s called a meeting in a half hour.”

“Tony did?” she asked. That was too organized for Tony.

“Pepper called a meeting and told Tony he was running it. Apparently he’s got something he needs to go through with us all.”

Darcy had managed to shower by that time and was back on the sofa, demolishing Nutella on toast. The other members of the team gradually arrived, stragglers rounded up by Pepper, Jane arriving last of all. Tony showed the telltale signs of lack of sleep as much as she did.

“Tell them what you told me,” Pepper instructed.

“Did we really have to do it this way?”

“Yes. We all need to know.”

“Fine. I got into the disk,” his expression made it clear it’d been a certainty, “so we know what’s on it now.”

“And?” Pepper prompted. “Tell them about Fury.”

“Yeah, this is the stuff they really didn’t want us knowing. For a start, Fury’s not a prisoner anymore. He’s Director of SHIELD again.”

The room went so quiet Darcy stopped chewing, conscious of how loud it sounded.

“Do we know why?” Natasha asked. She hadn’t made any attempt to deny the likelihood of such a thing.

“No. Could be blackmail, could be mind control.”

“Blackmailing Fury would just piss him off,” said Clint.

“And we’ve seen no evidence of mind control this time around,” said Natasha.

“I’m just telling you what the disk says. It’s up to the superspies to figure out the whys. That’s not the only thing—there are blueprints for new weapons. Some are pretty sophisticated, although I could improve them on almost every detail.” Pepper cleared her throat before he could go off on a tangent. “There are comprehensive training plans and schedules for every army on Earth to learn how to use these weapons, and compulsory drafts are being implemented in places that don’t have a standing army, or where the army is too small. Existing soldiers are being sent to centralized coordination points across the globe. It’d make sense if Loki was trying to control the population, if these points were anywhere near major population centers. They’re more—” He stopped and turned to the computer, bringing up an image of a soccer ball. “You see where each of the sections meet? Imagine a military base at each one. On land, in the ocean, in the Arctic and Antarctic—they’re all equally spaced out, practicality be damned.”

“What about food and supplies?” asked Natasha.

“There are plans in place to increase production and stockpile non-perishables too.”

“It’s like he’s planning for war,” said Steve. “Do you think there’s a rebellion about to happen?”

“Not rebellion, no.” All eyes turned to Natasha. “He’s not expecting war from within. This is all defensive—”

“—like he’s preparing for a siege,” said Darcy.

“You think he knows about the Bifrost?” asked Jane.

“If he thought we were about to make contact with Asgard, why bother stockpiling food?” said Pepper. “He doesn’t need it. He’s preparing us.”

“Exactly,” agreed Natasha. “And what is Fury’s objective? What is the one thing that would make him willingly work alongside Loki?”

“He thinks the world’s in danger,” said Steve.

“It’s why we’re still here,” said Clint. “He hasn’t been hunting us at all—because while we’re around, we can help. Once he’s won, he’ll exterminate us without a second thought, but right now, we’re an asset. If the world’s invaded, we’ll fight back too.”

“It makes sense,” said Tony. “He’s seen what we can do. I’d bet on us.”

“But then who is he expecting to invade us?” asked Darcy.

“Given the design of the weapons,” Tony replied. “I suspect it’s his scaly gray friends. There’s a couple of things in the schematics that would take the flying worm things down easy.”

“The Chitauri,” said Erik quietly. “They—or their leader—promised Loki the Earth in return for the Tesseract. Now the Tesseract is on Asgard out of their reach and he got most of their fleet blown up.”

“We think it’s most of their fleet, but we don’t know,” said Steve. “There have to be way more out there, for them to consider attacking us.”

Pepper nodded in agreement. “It makes more sense now, why he didn’t bring the Tesseract back to Earth. It means they might not come here after all, and if he pits them against Asgard, it’s a more even fight. He’s safely out of the way here. This is all precautionary.”

“It’s not,” said Erik. “The leader will want Loki punished for his failure, or his betrayal, or whatever it was. Loki knows they’ll come. They just don’t know when.”

“Shit,” said Darcy.

“Pretty much,” agreed Tony.

“So what do we do?” asked Steve.

“We finish the bridge and get word to Asgard,” said Jane. “They need warning.”

“Agreed,” said Tony.

“We need to warn people what’s coming too,” said Pepper. “They need to be prepared.”

“Bad idea,” said Darcy. “They will freak out, riot, loot for food, and generally make things worse. People would die needlessly.”

“She’s right,” said Bruce, who’d been so quiet during the whole thing Darcy had nearly forgotten he was there. “We can’t cause that kind of panic.”

“We need more intel,” Clint said. “We need to confirm it really is the Chitauri coming so we can arm ourselves.”

Tony was already loading programs. “I’ve got feeds incoming from the SHIELD servers, but there isn’t anything else to get right now. If this is what it is, Loki wouldn’t be stupid enough to write it down. I doubt anyone knows any of this except for him.”

“There are ways to get the information from him directly.”

Darcy didn’t realize Natasha meant her until everyone in the room was staring her way. “Huh?”

“He won’t harm you and he might speak to you.”

Jane rounded on Natasha. “Are you insane?

Darcy placed herself between them. “Dude, you are totally barking up the wrong tree. I’m an ant to him. He’s not going to reveal his super-secret plans to me.”

“He might.”

“Are you seriously suggesting sending Darcy back there?” Pepper asked, horrified.

“Only if she’s willing. She’s capable of it.”

“Darcy isn’t your protégé,” warned Tony.

“We have to use every tool at our disposal,” she pointed out.

“And Darcy isn’t a tool!” said Jane.

“Look, I get where Natasha’s coming from,” said Darcy, holding her hand up so everyone was looking her way. “If I thought it would work, I’d try it, but honestly, Loki doesn’t have a thing for me. I don’t know why he took me if he wasn’t after you guys, but it’s not that. It’s gotta be deeper than that, we just don’t know what yet.”

“Maybe when we make contact with Asgard they’ll be able to explain,” said Erik.

Natasha shrugged. “I was just exploring options. I could try and make contact with Fury.”

“Not yet,” said Tony. “There’s no way Fury isn’t being watched 24/7 and we don’t want to tip Loki’s hand. The bridge needs to be our focus.”

“Great,” said Jane. “We’ll be needing more coffee.”

It didn’t stop them bickering on for another half hour, until they eventually dispersed. They left Darcy and her blanket alone on the sofa, save for Steve.

“Do you ever get tired of having to save the world?” she asked him.

He chuckled. “I don’t think it’s up to me this time. I think Jane will take most of the future credit for this one.”

“Yeah.” She untangled herself from the blanket. “I should really go help her.”

Because that was Darcy’s role in all this. Help Jane be brilliant and build a bridge to other worlds. She wasn’t the Black Widow’s protégé—not nearly good enough, for a start, since she’d got herself captured on one of her very first solo missions. There was no way she should be considering heading back to Loki’s stronghold to try and trick the truth out of him, not when it was the last place on Earth she wanted to be.

But if her thoughts wandered during the quieter moments of data input, she had no control over them. Her daydream-self could be brave and brilliant too.

Chapter Text

Their first attempt to create a bridge was a failure, but since it didn’t result in a black hole, Darcy decided it wasn’t a complete disaster.

Not that she got to witness it. She was in the common area with everyone except Bruce. Jane and Erik scrutinized the data readings, she took notes, and Tony made sure the red flags coming up on SHIELD’s systems were deleted before anyone saw them. There were two issues: building a bridge created atmospheric disturbance and energy readings that SHIELD were now familiar with, and the facility was also having to draw a ton of power from the grid for the experiment to work. Both served as a big red flag to their location and what they were doing—and there was less chance Loki would leave them alone when he realized they were repairing the Bifrost.

“We need even more power,” Bruce said when he emerged from the lab, after everything had been shut down. “It collapsed because it just didn’t have enough energy.”

“I’m doing the best I can,” said Tony, “but if I try to pull any more from the grid, it’s going to end up blacking out towns. I can’t hide that from SHIELD.”

“What if the blackout had an entirely normal cause to explain it?” asked Natasha.

“Can you give us that?” Tony replied.

“Sure. Parts fail all the time.”

They didn’t make another attempt until a couple of days later. Tony made sure nothing had been picked up by SHIELD, and all the scientists reworked their calculations to ensure the attempt would work with the little amount of power they could pull. It failed again, leaving Jane in a foul mood and the others despondent.

“It’ll work,” said Erik. “We just have to keep trying. We almost had it—”

“And you’ll keep causing blackouts,” Natasha pointed out. “I can’t keep sabotaging substations.”

“We need another generator,” said Bruce, “one that’ll give us all the power we need.”

Everyone looked at Tony. “I suppose if I built an arc reactor in a cave in Afghanistan…”

Natasha and Clint were dispatched to locate the parts he didn’t already have, and Darcy was tasked with yet more data input. Nowadays she dreamed of numbers and Greek letters, when she dreamed at all. More often than not, she kept herself awake, pushing through her work or watching bad films late at night until she passed out. Anything was better than letting Loki surface during sleep.

When she gave him the chance, she’d find herself back on the rooftop, but with the steel sheets now a mile high and the flowers around overgrown, taller than she was, their stems bending to catch her by the ankle and pin her down. Loki would sit opposite her with a cup of hunangbrugga and that twisted smile. When she asked “Why?”, he’d say “We were just getting to know each other.” Then he’d force her to drink, pushing the cup against her lips while tipping her head back, his hand tight around her neck, until she choked. All the while laughing, cold and rich, like winter wind.

Exhaustion was the lesser of two evils.

From time to time she considered Natasha’s words, but the fear that choked her in her dreams made it apparent she couldn’t go back there. He’d been courteous before, but there was no guarantee of that the second time. All the while, she struggled to figure out what he needed from her.

In the end, on an afternoon where she’d been given her freedom while Tony and Jane tinkered with the machinery, Darcy sought Natasha out.

That was easier said than done, because usually she found you when she needed you, turning up in group conversations without needing to be summoned. Where she went the rest of the time tended to be a mystery. Darcy did two circuits of the facility, poking her head into closets and rooms she’d never entered before, and knocking on Natasha’s door. Then she approached the stairs to the surface. It was possible Natasha was above ground, as Clint often was. As Darcy wished she was more and more.

“Thinking of escaping?” said a quiet voice behind her.

Darcy turned to find Natasha leaning against the wall, an almost-smile on her face.

“Looking for you, actually.”

That resulted in a raised eyebrow. “Aren’t they providing enough excitement for you in the lab?”

“I’m an assistant, not a referee. Or a robot. Sometimes I think they forget that.”

“What did you want to talk about?”

“Him. Obviously.”

Natasha nodded. “Come on. I know somewhere quiet we can talk.”

Darcy expected to be led to one of the empty rooms, but instead Natasha cut across the common room, down the corridor with the sleeping quarters, and to the very end, where the generator room was. She took them past the humming machinery to a panel in the wall, and with a delicate shove of her shoulder, it came loose, sliding aside to reveal another room beyond it, its cinder block frame unfinished and raw. Darcy followed Natasha inside, who slid the panel back into place.

“More secret tunnels?” Darcy asked. Another corridor led off into the gloom, unlit. She’d thought they were the province of old houses in horror films, but she’d spent more time in them since Loki’s takeover than any movie heroine.

“If you’re going to build a secret facility underground, you need more than way to escape it,” Natasha explained. She pointed to a couple of beanbags on the floor, discarded coffee mugs beside them. “Sit, no one will disturb us here. You can talk about whatever you want.”

Darcy flopped down onto the beanbag and curled up. Now she knew where Natasha and Clint disappeared to when they wanted privacy. “I guess I’m just still confused.”

“About what?”

“Why he took me. At first I thought it was because I would lead him to you guys, and then when he didn’t, like, torture me, that I was bait. You’d come to rescue me and it’d all be a trap. And it wasn’t so now I can’t figure out why he even bothered.”

“You know my opinion.”

“No, see, even that doesn’t make sense. We barely talked, so I hardly won him over with my winning personality. And I don’t think it’s just lust either. He never made a move, which he’d have done once I realized I was trapped.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Come on, he had all the power. He didn’t even have to ask nicely—he could’ve threatened my family, could’ve locked me up somewhere much worse if I refused. There were so many ways to get me to do what he wanted, if that’s what he wanted.”

Natasha’s smile indicated she approved of Darcy’s logic. “Pepper and Jane remain convinced you’re hiding something from us, that you’re protecting them from some dark story.”

“You don’t.”

“I know how to read people. He’s scared you, but he hasn’t hurt you. You give too much away with your body language.”

“So you can tell, but they can’t?”

“Pepper’s a better judge than she believes. She overthinks things and lets it overrule her gut instinct. Instinct is rarely that—it’s formed on the clues you pick up from the world around you. Jane spends too long locked in her own thoughts to pick up on those cues at all.”

“What about me?”

“You rely on instinct, almost too much.”

“Gee, thanks. I think you just insinuated I don’t think.”

“Not at all. You’re good at figuring out what makes people tick and how to handle them. You just need to learn to judge your own instincts before you act on them. Someone like Loki could use that against you.”

“I can’t help it. I’m just me.”

“And that’s not a bad thing.”

“Anyway, he definitely wasn’t bowled over the first time he saw me,” Darcy continued. “You weren’t there—you didn’t see the look on his face. He recognized me, and he wasn’t happy about it. It wasn’t instant lust where he felt the need to scour the Earth for me. I don’t know what it was.”

Natasha sat up straighter. “No one ever mentioned that. He noticed you when you were escaping? Did he say anything?”

“Just ‘You!’. Then Tony ran him over with the car.”

“That is interesting. You’re right, I don’t think we’re dealing with anything like a schoolboy crush. Loki always has a reason for what he does, often more than one. I’ve been investigating it myself, but there’s nothing on any security system for any agency. Standing orders to capture you and not to harm you, but no reason why. Not that I’d expect Loki to leave explicit clues, but there’s nothing cryptic either. Without that, I keep returning to your link with Thor.”

“Thor’s not here.”

“No, but I’m not convinced he’s dead either. Loki needs leverage in case Thor does return. Their father sent Thor the last time Loki invaded, and this time he’s stolen from them. I’m willing to bet that casket is from Asgard. If they find a way to connect to us, it won’t just be Thor coming, it might be Odin himself. Loki needs a bargaining tool.”

“So, not bait. A hostage. But why me? Why not Jane?”

Natasha shrugged. “This is only a hypothesis, and a weak one. Maybe it’s because you fit the profile of the young maidens heroes are supposed to rescue. Maybe Jane’s scientific skills are too useful to Loki to have to threaten her life. I don’t know. And I don’t like not knowing. But whatever it is, Loki has developed an attachment to you, and it’s not healthy.”

“I should stay down here until he’s defeated, right?”

“I wish that was an option, but sooner or later, we’re going to be forced out into the open. I guess we’ll find out what his plans are then.”

“Thanks for the reassurance.”

“I can’t give you that. But I can give the tools to protect yourself. Steve’s training has helped you, but you need more. It’s not enough that you can defend yourself in a fair fight. It’ll never be a fair fight. You need to know how to avoid capture and to escape when you’re trapped; you need to learn how to lie so well even the man who styles himself as God of Lies can’t tell. You need to know enough to not become the damsel in distress.”

“Can you teach me that?”

“I can try. If Loki’s play is what I think it is, you need to take yourself out of the equation. Any hostage is a distraction from the fight, so if Thor doesn’t have to worry about saving you, he can concentrate on defeating Loki.”

“You make it sound so easy.”

“Sometimes it is. I’ll train you, yes. I’ll come for you when I have time.”

Natasha rose, and Darcy scrambled up from the beanbag. She wasn’t any more at ease with the Loki situation, but at least she was going to do something about it. Natasha slid the secret panel open again, and Darcy waved goodbye to Narnia on the way out.

“One last thing,” said Natasha. “You tell anyone about this place, and I’ll kill you.”

Darcy believed her.


A week passed—a week featuring two surreptitious sessions with Natasha, which revolved around psychology more than the ability to kill a man with her thighs. Darcy had taken a couple of basic psych classes at college, so she wasn’t a complete novice, but Natasha covered new ground anyway. No papers written by dead men to read here, though the homework—practice telling lies and making them believable—was far from fun. Especially when Natasha deconstructed Darcy’s method afterward.

“Don’t chew your lip. That’s your tell. Hold eye contact—but not for too long. Keep it simple.”

It was little white lies here and there, things that mattered to no one, but it went against her nature to make up casual fibs. Keeping it secret from the others also sat uneasily with her, but Natasha pointed out the others would try and interfere out of a misguided sense of protection. This was a test of its own: could she keep her training a secret and make sure no one ever noticed?

The common room was empty as she padded in to forage for breakfast. She had a training session with Steve planned for later in the day, but he wasn’t at his usual place by the computer. She ate her cereal, changed out of her pyjamas and headed to the lab, only to be brusquely told by Jane she wasn’t needed that day.

With nothing better to do, she flopped down onto the sofa and hoped either Steve or Natasha would arrive for a session. When neither of them did, after an hour, she went wandering the facility again. Not looking for anyone in particular, just a little company. She hesitated before she reached the generator room; she could pass through and into Natasha’s hideaway, but it felt like trespassing. Instead, she doubled back, once again finding herself at the foot of the stairs to the outside. There was no interruption this time. Steve still wasn’t in the common room—no one was—so Darcy retired to her cot to read.

It was a day like so many others in the facility. Boredom and isolation. It just felt worse because she was turning twenty-two, and no one here cared.

She was alone, nothing more than a distraction to Jane and a cog in Loki’s machinations. Even Natasha’s interest in her was part of some wider scheme to bring down Loki. She hadn’t seen the sky in weeks, hadn’t seen her friends in months, hadn’t seen her mom in nearly a year, not since she set off for New York, and she got to spend her birthday in a grey-walled cell, while the world went on around her. She succumbed to the self-pity and let herself cry. Quiet tears that wouldn’t attract the attention of anyone passing by her door, but fat, hot tears that tasted of salt when they reached her lips.

When she was done, she crept to the washroom and splashed cold water on her cheeks until the evidence was washed away. She felt emptier and lighter, like the self-pity had been purged. Now she just felt silly for it.

She stayed in her room for a few more hours, opting to read on her cot rather than veg out in front of the plasma screen. Then Steve finally collected her for training after lunch, and she got to spend the afternoon taking out her frustrations on a punchbag. With endorphins doing their stuff, she showered and headed back to the common room for dinner.

The lights were out when she reached the end of the hallway, and she crouched—if anyone tried to grab her she wouldn’t be where they thought she was. Something flickered across the room—the strike of a match, a tiny flame—and then an out-of-tune voice:

“Happy birthday to you…”

More voices joined in while the match lit candles, gradually illuminating Pepper at the table, surrounded by the other Avengers.

“…Happy birthday dear Darcy, happy birthday to you!”

She got to her feet and stumbled towards the table, clapping her hands as she spotted the cake the candles were crowning. “You guys remembered!”

“Of course we did,” said Pepper. “I know when everybody’s birthday is, except Natasha’s. Now close your eyes, make a wish and blow out the candles.”

When she was done, someone turned the lights back on. “What did you wish for?” asked Jane.

“I can’t tell you that! It’ll mean it won’t come true.”

“That’s just a superstition.”

“And making wishes isn’t?” Her wish was pretty obvious anyway; defeating Loki. Though she probably needed more than twenty-two candles for that.

Clint had provided pizza again, and since they’d exhausted their original supply of board games, he’d picked up two version of Clue: Spongebob Squarepants and Sherlock. Natasha swept the floor with them all, but it didn’t matter. Darcy went to bed happy, and for the first time in a while, her dreams were free of both data and Loki.


“Do these readings look familiar to you?” asked Erik. He’d just printed off a ream of paper and passed it to Jane. She scanned them and frowned.

“They match the original anomaly. When are they from?”

“Last night.”

Darcy stopped typing. “Do you mean the anomaly that you found before Thor felt out of the sky?”

“Yes,” said Jane. “I mean, these aren’t precisely the same. But the patterns—are they from New Mexico?” she asked Erik.

“No, they’re from here. The atmosphere above New York state.”

Jane’s eyes widened. “Darcy, get Tony. He needs to see this.”

She sprinted down to the other lab where he was building the new arc reactor. Even she understood the urgency—if they were picking up signs that matched the original Bifrost, then that meant someone out there was building their own bridge. She explained that to Tony in a rush, then grabbed Bruce from the kitchen, where he’d been making tea.

“How did you even spot this?” asked Bruce.

“I’ve been pulling all kinds of data while we’ve been testing,” explained Erik. “Both at the sites we know the Bifrost used to connect and here. I wanted to do a comparative analysis and see if there were any changes.”

“Could this be something we’ve created?” Tony asked.

“Possibly, but I doubt it,” replied Bruce. “There’s a time delay, one that’s too long to be naturally occurring. It’s only raw data and I’ve not had chance to conduct a proper analysis, but top of my head calculations make it unlikely. It could be someone has picked up on our attempts. Maybe SHIELD have faked them somehow?”

Tony tore his gaze away from the data. “I’ll double check the server logs, but considering we’ve been doing so much rewriting of their tracking data, I don’t see how.”

“It’s Asgard,” said Jane, her face lit with excitement. “They already have the technology, so they must be repairing their bridge too.”

“We can hope that,” Erik said, “but it could also be the invaders Loki is worried about. What we’re doing might be acting like a beacon across space, and if they’re already aiming for us, we’re just lighting their way.”

“Then that makes it all the more important that we connect to Asgard. How close are you to finishing the reactor?”

“A day, maybe two,” said Tony. “I’m doing this on my own—”

“Could Darcy help?” Jane asked.

“Well, I suppose—”

“I know what I’m doing with a screwdriver and a soldering iron,” Darcy said. “My dad used to teach me that stuff.”

That was how she found herself soldering for hours straight, while Tony breathed down her neck to make sure she didn’t fuck up. She was pretty sure that he redid a lot of her work when she slept, but it didn’t matter. The next morning, after extra coffee, she entered his workshop to find him ready to turn the reactor on.

“All we have to do now,” he said, “is connect it to the other machinery.”

That took a couple of hours, and though everyone else was ready to get on with the next test, Jane had other ideas. “I checked the readings again, and the ones for last night. I cross-referenced them with weather patterns and predictions. There’s going to be a storm tonight, and I think we should wait until then.”

“Atmosphere won’t make any difference,” Erik pointed out. “We’re only trying it out in the lab. Even if we were starting up a full bridge, it wouldn’t make any difference.”

“I know you’re right. I just…I just have this feeling. And look where that led us last time. This all fits. I think they’re going to try to connect to us, if they can.”

Everyone conceded, leading to a tense day where they all bickered over what to watch on TV, what to eat, and who cheated most at Clue.

Night fell, not that they could see it, and according to the systems the storm began overhead. Darcy imagined she could hear the wind whistling and lightning cracking, but in reality it could have been dead calm for all they experienced under the concrete. Bruce retreated to the lab, Tony sat with the arc reactor to ensure it functioned, and the rest of them gathered around the machinery lugged out to the common room. Steve was given a program to run to disrupt SHIELD’s servers while they performed the experiment.

“Did we start yet?” Darcy whispered, and Jane ignored her, turning dials and making notes. Though she’d been in the lab with them all this time, Darcy still had only the faintest idea of how this worked. Something hummed away in the background, louder than the air conditioning, while Erik and Jane worked in silence.

One of the machines began making printouts, spitting out sheets almost as fast as Jane could skim through them. Darcy didn’t need to ask if things were going well: Jane beamed and chewed her lip, tapping her nails as time went by. Erik was more subdued, but even he became visibly excited as the minutes crawled by, smiling at the readouts as Jane passed them to him.

Then the machine stopped. No more printouts, no more numbers flashing across the screen, and Jane sat staring at the last sheet.

“Well?” asked Pepper. “Did it work?”

Bruce come bounding down the hallway from the lab. “Does your data match mine?”

“It does,” Jane confirmed, then looked up from the paper and laughed. “It does!” She leapt to her feet, dragging Erik to his and gathering the two men in a hug. “We did it!” Darcy winced at the pitch of her excited shriek, but bounced up and down in her own spot.

Tony peered around the corner. “Am I missing out on a hug?”

Bruce gestured for Tony to join them. “We are officially the first people to create a stable bridge.”

The room was a whirlwind of screeching, high fives and hugs for a few minutes, the jubilant mood sweeping everyone up—even Natasha and Clint. Darcy found herself doing a ridiculous victory dance with Steve—while an awestruck voice in the back of her head reminded her he was still Captain America—and then hugging Jane fiercely over by the machinery.

“Uh, Jane?” she said, peering over Jane’s shoulder.

“—I’m going to win a Nobel Prize, I’m going to get all the funding I ever wanted, we’re going to go down in history—”

“Is the machine supposed to have start recording data again?”

Jane froze and broke away, spinning around to read the screen. “Tony, did you turn the reactor off?”

“No.”

“I turned all the lab machinery off,” said Bruce.

“So where is this coming from?”

Erik scrolled back through the data. “This isn’t from the lab. This is outside, from the atmosphere.”

“It can’t be—” Jane made a fresh print-out, then flipped through her little black book, comparing the new readings against old. “Look at this. It’s the same. Almost exactly.”

Darcy checked the date at the top of her scrawled notes. “That’s the date Thor arrived.”

“Holy shit.” Jane threw everything down and ran for the stairs. “It’s Thor!”

“Jane, wait!” Erik called. Natasha and Clint didn’t even wait, taking off after her.

Steve brought up the security footage on the computer, scanning through different cameras. “Do we know where it happened?”

“It had to be using the arc reactor, right?” asked Darcy. “That’s why our machines are picking it up.”

“Makes sense,” said Tony. “So close by, if not on the estate itself.”

The screen showed Jane being pursued by Natasha, then empty fields, and back to the pair of them being lashed by the storm as they sprinted across the driveway. More empty fields, then a scarred circle in the grass, concentric rings burned away to soil.

“There,” Darcy said. The circle was empty but there was no doubt it was a landing site. Steve stayed in that area, panning around the field. It wasn’t easy to see in the dark, not with the occasional lightning flash flooding the picture. The field appeared to be empty, until they spotted a flash of gold. Steve swung the camera back and zoomed in.

“That’s not Thor,” said Pepper.

“Not unless he’s made some serious lifestyle choices since we last saw him,” said Tony.

The figure on the screen was a woman. Approaching middle-age, with an unmistakably regal bearing, she waited under a tree out of the rain, in a dress of gold silk that wasn’t intended for a night like this. Her honey-colored hair was pulled back from her face in an elaborate set of curls with a long braid tossed over her shoulder, almost reaching her waist. At her waist, a dagger was tucked into her belt. Even if Darcy had only ever met one Asgardian before, she knew without a doubt where their visitor was from.

It was Steve who asked the obvious question. “Then who is she?”

Chapter Text

Nobody could answer Steve’s question. They watched as the screen showed Natasha approaching the woman on the field, gun aimed. The woman made placating gestures, then began to follow Natasha and visibly awestruck Jane back across the compound.

“If Romanoff didn’t shoot her, that’s got to be a good sign,” Tony remarked.

Within a minute, the three descended the stairs, trailed by Clint. Natasha and Jane were soaked to the bone, but the mystery woman looked suspiciously untouched by the storm. The rest of their group gathered at the bottom, waiting for an introduction.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Natasha. “Meet Frigga of Asgard.”

“Holy—” Darcy cut off the curse before she could finish it. “Thor’s mom?”

“The goddess?” asked Erik.

Frigga replied to them both with a graceful nod, then momentarily stilled as her gaze reached Darcy. So momentarily, Darcy thought she’d imagined it. “I’ve been given that title in the past.” Her accent was as refined as Thor or Loki’s, though not entirely the same.

No wonder Jane looked like she was about to pass out.

“I have traveled far to reach you and require rest,” Frigga said, “but I’m sure you have many questions.”

Pepper straightened. “Where are my manners? Come on, sit down.” She ushered them all back into the common room. “Would you like some tea? Coffee? I’m not sure what you’re familiar with.”

Erik pulled out the seat at the head of the table for Frigga to sit in, while Pepper bustled around in the kitchen.

“Perhaps a little honey in warm water,” requested Frigga, while the rest of them took up seats around her and tried not to gawk like they were in a zoo. A few of them introduced themselves, and she greeted them each in turn. Then she turned to Jane, who sat beside her, and took her hand. “You are Doctor Foster?” Jane nodded, and everyone around the table held their breath. “Thor has told me much about you.”

“Is he—?”

“No, my child, he is alive. Gravely injured, but he will live, and he misses you terribly.”

Jane’s lower lip wobbled. Pepper deflected the tears by shoving a cup of tea into her hands, while placing Frigga’s drink delicately on the table in front of her.

“Let me know if you want anything else. If you want it warmer, or cooler, or more honey—”

Frigga smiled. “Thank you. Sit, I do not need to be attended to.”

The scent of honey from Frigga’s cup reminded Darcy of when she’d last tasted some.

“What’s hunangbrugga?” The question slipped out before she’d thought it through.

Frigga looked over with surprise. “In your tongue it would be called honey brew. It’s a drink, nothing more. Why do you ask?”

Given the way everyone was staring at her with confusion, Darcy merely shrugged in response. Natasha’s shrewd stare promised she’d be asking questions later, and Frigga’s own expression suggested she was also putting puzzle pieces together. Darcy should have been relieved: Frigga’s answer meant Loki had not been poisoning her or making her drink a potion—nothing out of the ordinary, it seemed—but now Frigga knew she’d met Loki. Darcy had attracted her attention, and the weight of her gaze meant she probably wasn’t going to escape it any time soon.

“Your name?” asked Frigga.

“Darcy.”

“You were Thor’s other friend here on Midgard. He had high praise for your bravery.”

“Me?” she squeaked. Even now, Frigga’s stare seemed to unpeel her, layer after layer. Whether she was satisfied with what she found, Darcy couldn’t tell; her gaze swept to the other people around the table. Introductions went on around her while Darcy cringed at how stupid she’d been.

“So how exactly did you get to Earth?” asked Tony.

“Have you fixed the Bifrost?” said Jane eagerly.

Frigga sipped her drink and addressed them all. “We have made progress in our repairs, though they are far from complete. Those of us with enough skill in the manipulation of such things could travel, but we are few. I was only able to achieve my journey with the help of your own bridge to connect to.”

“Why you?” asked Natasha.

“It was either myself or the Allfather; and the Allfather cannot leave the throne, not with Thor injured and unable to rule in his place.”

“You aren’t a warrior,” observed Steve.

“One warrior would not defeat Loki, and that is not my purpose. I am here to make amends—I begged that Loki’s life be spared, and in doing so, gave him the opportunity to escape.”

“You’re his mother,” said Pepper. “It’s understandable.”

“And as his mother, I know him better than anyone. I can help you bring his end to a rule.”

“Would you help us kill him?” asked Natasha. “If it came to that?”

“That, I cannot promise. But Loki is not the true danger here. There is worse to come.”

“You mean the alien invasion en route?” said Tony.

“The Chitauri. Heimdall—the gatekeeper, he can see more than most—has been watching them. They head for Midgard and you are defenseless against them.”

“Loki’s been preparing,” said Erik. “And so have we.”

“That’s why we’re trying to repair the Bifrost,” explained Jane. “Can Asgard help?”

“Certainly. If you can rebuild the bridge, you will have Asgard’s warriors to protect your realm. Odin himself will lead them.”

“What about Thor?”

“He will come, if he’s healed. Loki was able to inflict great damage with the Casket. It is fortunate his father was there to begin the healing process—otherwise the outcome may not have been so fortuitous.”

“But you’d still forgive him,” said Natasha quietly. “Despite everything he’s done, even to Thor.”

“Thor himself forgives him,” replied Frigga. “We have loved him for so long and it is difficult to let go of that. Yet I am, first and foremost, Queen of Asgard. I must put the safety of the realms above even my son, but I can promise you he will be valuable in the fight against the Chitauri, whether he fights with us or not.”

They talked for some time more, the group telling Frigga all they knew about Loki’s war preparations and everything he’d done since arriving on Earth. Darcy kept quiet, and they glossed over Darcy’s kidnap, whether out of an attempt to protect Frigga’s feelings, or because it was Darcy’s story to tell, she couldn’t say. Eventually, when the clock on the oven blinked one a.m., they began retiring to their rooms. Pepper arranged for one of the cots to be made up for Frigga, and Darcy shared a glance with Jane, wondering how royalty was going to cope in one of those tiny beds.

Jane trailed Darcy to her room and shut the door behind them. Before Darcy had time to react, she’d been pulled into what felt a hug from a boa constrictor.

“Can’t…breathe…”

“Sorry,” Jane whispered, releasing her. “I’m just so happy—he’s alive!” If she smiled any wider, her face was going to split.

“Yeah, that’s awesome news. Thor’s a tough cookie. Aaaand he’s mentioned you to his mom.”

Jane’s eyes widened. “I know. Like, she called me Doctor Foster.”

“She did. I think she likes you.”

“That’s good. Right? That’s a good thing. I mean, I didn’t say anything stupid, did I?”

“No. You did good. You know what you also did today? You created a wormhole.”

“I didn’t, didn’t I? Crazy day.” Her deadpan mask slipped and she let out a happy squeal. “Still, more work to do. We have to build one now that actually connects to Asgard. Can I ask something?” she finished thoughtfully.

“Sure.”

“Why did you ask about that drink?”

Darcy’d had the time to prepare for the question, even if she hadn’t expected it from Jane. “The smell just reminded me, that’s all. Loki used to drink it.”

“I thought you barely saw him.”

“I didn’t. He just always seemed to drink it when he was there.”

“Are you sure? You can tell me…if there’s more—”

Darcy almost smiled, remembering Natasha’s words about Jane disbelieving her. “There’s nothing to tell. I promise. He was weird but oddly harmless.”

Jane shook her head. “I can’t believe Frigga forgives him, after everything. And Thor too…I can’t. Not when he tried to kill Thor again. I think she hopes they’ll cart him back to Asgard when this is over, and lock Loki away again. But he’s not safe—he’ll always try and escape, and it’ll always be Thor he hurts the most. I can’t let that happen.”

“You’re a scientist, not a superhero. Let them decide what happens to Loki.”

“He’s dangerous! Don’t you want him dead?”

“Not especially. Thor would be devastated. I just want him out of here.”

That gave Jane pause. “Maybe you’re right.”

“Look, this is all way over our paygrade. Let’s leave the big decisions to royalty and just make sure we don’t get annihilated in the process. Deal?”

“Deal.” Jane gave her one last hug before leaving for her own room.


In the morning Darcy managed to shower, dress and comb her hair out before there was a soft knock at her door. It was a good thing she’d already done all that, because when she opened up expecting Jane, it was Frigga instead. Facing a goddess in pyjamas with bedhead and morning breath was not a way to make a great impression.

“Um, hi…morning!” she said, while trying to kick a discarded bra under the cot.

“I wish to speak to you,” said Frigga, “privately.”

And here it went. “Sure. Come in.” She winced as Frigga passed, taking in the state of her room. Frigga stroked the knitted blanket as she passed, then took the chair. Her hair was perfectly coiffured again, and she was in another elaborate silk dress. Darcy didn’t remember her bringing luggage.

“You created this?” Frigga said, indicating the blanket.

“Yeah. It’s a hobby, when I’m not helping Jane in the lab.”

“A woman of learning yourself, then.”

“I guess you could say that.” Darcy perched on the edge of the cot, wishing she had a mug of tea, something to hold to help her resist the urge to fidget.

“Tell me, how have you heard of hunangbrugga?”

Finding it difficult to meet Frigga’s gaze, Darcy stared at the balls of wool on the desk instead. “I kind of met Loki.”

“Met?”

“Was kidnapped and held captive by.”

Frigga’s stoic expression wavered, a glimpse of disappointment peeking through. Then the calm returned. “And while you were there he drank hunangbrugga.”

“Yeah. I had some too.” Her next words came out in a rush, an appeasement. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, he treated me great. The room was really fancy and he’d made this amazing roof garden. He didn’t hurt me or do anything inappropriate. He’d just come and talk to me sometimes, but he always brought that drink with him. I wasn’t there long, Natasha busted me out in the middle of the night.”

Frigga reached over and took Darcy’s hand. “Nevertheless, I am sorry. I expected more of him, but Loki does not always follow the advice given to him.”

Huh?

“I do not try to make excuses for him, but he’s been through much, and his experiences drive the poor choices he makes now. When he returned to Asgard, he bore scars. Terrible scars that should never have taken root in his flesh and yet did. I knew, then, something had happened to him in the time between falling from the Bifrost and arriving upon Midgard. Thor, too.”

“So that’s why you’ve both forgiven him.”

“We believe Loki is motivated by fear as much as by hatred. His attack on Thor was a necessity to facilitate his escape, not a true attempt at murder.”

“He still tried to kill Thor in New Mexico.”

“True. He was not in his right mind then either. There are circumstances we’ve kept quiet, for his sake and ours, but Loki no longer believes he is part of our family. We do not agree. Whatever he has done, he is Thor’s brother, and my son.”

“That’s great,” Darcy replied, though she wasn’t sure she meant it. What she wanted to know was why Frigga was telling her all this.

“I said that I blamed myself for Loki’s escape, though yesterday I said it was because I begged for his life. While true, it is not why I hold myself accountable. I did something worse—something which prompted Loki to escape and flee to Midgard.”

“I’m pretty sure he was going to try and escape anyway.”

“Perhaps, though he would have attempted to disappear, rather than seize the throne of another realm. Instead he took a path which threatens both our realms.”

“You don’t have to tell me this. You don’t have to make anything up to me because Loki kidnapped me. I came out of it unscathed.”

Frigga’s grim smile carried guilt and sorrow. “I recognized you yesterday.”

“Well, you said Thor had talked about me.”

“Yet he had no means of showing me your face. No, I’ve seen you elsewhere.”

That look she’d given Darcy. Now it made sense. Darcy did not like where this was going. “That’s strange. Maybe you just know someone who looks like me?”

Frigga shook her head. She held out a mirror—a mirror Darcy was pretty certain she hadn’t been holding a minute earlier, nor that she’d been carrying when she entered the room. “In here.”

She took the mirror, peering down into the glass. It didn’t reflect her face, instead seeming to be covered in smudges—only the smudges were moving, shifting around and reshaping themselves. She blinked, wondering if it were her eyes, but then the image in the glass sharpened. It showed her another place entirely.

“That’s me,” she said, then dropped the mirror, horrified at what she saw next.

Chapter Text

Darcy needed a paper bag to help her breathe. Or a bottle of Jagermeister. Or a machine to help her jump to a universe where this wasn’t happening.

Frigga retrieved the mirror from where it had fallen. Thankfully, it hadn’t cracked, so Darcy wasn’t subject to seven years of even worse luck than she was already experiencing.

It took her a minute to remember how to speak. “What was that?

The mirror rested across Frigga’s lap. She polished the glass gently with her sleeve, drawing Darcy’s attention back to the image it held. It played out, like a brief snatch of home video, if home video was filmed by Dali. “A glimpse of the future.”

In the glass, Darcy knelt on a lawn, vibrant plant life sprawling on the edges and reminding her of Loki’s roof garden. He crouched beside her and their attention focused on a small boy a few feet away on the grass. He was tiny, not even a toddler yet, his shaky legs indicating he might still be finding his feet. Beyond him, Thor stooped, holding his arms out. Thor said something, and though the mirror didn’t provide a soundtrack, his smile and gestures indicating he was trying to get the little boy to run to him. Instead the boy glanced at him, shook his head with a stubborn frown, and ran to Loki’s open arms.

Just before it looped to show again, Darcy got a good look at the boy’s face: pale and narrow even with the roundness of baby fat, crowned with fine black hair. There was no doubting he was Loki’s son. Yet she recognized those big eyes too. She saw them everyday in her own mirror.

“That’s not possible,” Darcy replied, tearing her gaze away from the glass. “Nobody can see the future—and that’s…that’s Loki. And me. No!”

“While we may wish for some things to be impossible, it doesn’t mean they are,” Frigga said softly. “I do have the ability to look at what is to come. It is a skill I must use prudently and frugally. Alas, what you see here passes neither of those requirements. This was the folly which drove Loki to Midgard.”

“He’s seen this too?” Keep breathing. This is a bad dream.

“When he returned to Asgard, it seemed nothing could reach him.” Frigga’s expression turned pained, her eyes staring at something beyond the room they sat in. “He was going to spend his life locked away, without knowing or accepting love, not even from me. In an attempt to ease my own heart, to provide hope that he would know some measure of happiness in the days ahead, I called upon my gift and this is what I saw. Then I was compelled to show it to him—I believed it would lead him onto a path of redemption. Instead—”

“So you showed Loki his future?” The words came out sharper than Darcy intended. She bit her lip to stop the tirade brewing inside, to prevent herself from railing against Frigga and the damage she’d done. Frigga was their strongest ally—and an alien queen who Darcy knew little about. Instead, she asked the question that was making her do mental gymnastics to work through. “Doesn’t that create a paradox?”

“I never said my actions were wise. Look at all they have caused. I thought I was showing him family, love, and acceptance—I know the last to be his deepest hope. Rather, he saw an heir, and if he had an heir, he needed a throne to pass to him. For the child to run to him, Loki must be deserving of respect and have something that Thor did not. Loki could not see that his son would run to him out of unconditional love. I failed to understand how his time away from Asgard and imprisonment had changed the way he would react. I underestimated how much he’s been cut off from some parts of himself.”

Darcy fiddled with the edge of her blanket, resisting the urge to burrow under it and hide from the world. “I guess now I know why he’s taken such an interest in me, even if it’s not the answer I wanted.” She suppressed a shudder at the memory of Loki holding her hand, the day he’d captured her in Albany.

“I did warn him that he couldn’t use force to reach that future. I don’t believe he listened.”

Darcy gave a hollow laugh. “No, I don’t think he did either. I guess it also explains the way he looked at me the first time he saw me—if looks could kill… Probably wasn’t expecting me to be a lowly Midgardian. Or working with the Avengers.”

“Perhaps not. Even I did not know who you were, not until I met you upon my arrival. It was as much a surprise to me.”

“Not good enough?” She said it in jest, though she had to wonder at the truth of it.

“Darcy, I do not know you. It is not my place to judge you, and I do not share my son’s antipathy towards your kind. But he can learn, just as Thor did. To reach this future will require much work—”

“What? No. We aren’t going anywhere near that future. I don’t want it.”

Frigga held up the mirror. “Look again. Look at yourself. How do you appear?”

Despite her best intentions, she did. The version of her in the mirror was older, and wearing some fancy silk. She also radiated joy. “Happy,” Darcy said grudgingly.

“That surprises you so much?”

“Yeah. Kids aren’t really on my radar and Loki…Look, I know he’s your son and you love him, but I can’t ever imagine him making me happy.”

“I understand. You have met him at his worst. You have yet to see what he can be.”

“Can be? Is that a definite, or one of many possibilities?” What Darcy wanted to know was whether the future was nailed down, or whether she was free to run screaming away from it while she had chance.

Frigga offered an enigmatic smile. “That would be revealing too much.”

Not a helpful response. “But see, you already thought him knowing about a son would make him do the right thing, and it didn’t. Dangling me like a carrot—and I guess that’s your plan here—is pretty unlikely to work too. He showed minimal interest in me even when he held me captive, so I’m pretty sure he sees me as a means to an end.”

“Darcy, I showed you this only because it is your future too, and you have equal right to know about it. I made a grave error, and I am here to remedy it. All I seek is to have Loki returned to Asgard. What you do with this knowledge is your own decision.”

Darcy doubted it was as simple as that—Frigga enraptured glance at the glass, at her future grandbaby, suggested she was not above meddling to make it happen. It didn’t matter: if there was one thing which was categorically never going to happen, it was that.

“I’m with you on getting Loki sent back to Asgard,” she said. “As for the rest, there’s no decision to make. That vision is never going to come true.”

Chapter Text

With that bombshell, Darcy had to carry on with her life.

The most important thing she knew was that she couldn’t tell any of the team. The best she could expect from them would be awkward avoidance: they’d try to pretend they’d never heard her tell them about Loki and the mirror and go on as they were. Still, they’d second guess her, and when she walked into a room and the conversation faltered, she’d know. At worst, they’d grow hostile, waiting for her to align with Loki. She would lose any trust they placed in her, perhaps becoming a prisoner so she couldn’t betray them.

Natasha would see the potential in the knowledge—even Darcy knew what the potential was—but she just wasn’t ready for that. She couldn’t face Loki until she’d got her head around what it all meant. Was she doomed to the future in the mirror, or was Darcy free to forge her own path in the opposite direction? Did knowing her future create a paradox that would render it void? The only person who really knew the answer to that was Frigga, and she wouldn’t tell. She had too much invested in this. She wanted Loki’s happiness, and Darcy was little more than a pawn, a tool to achieve an ends. Frigga might be Earth’s ally, but she wasn’t Darcy’s. At least the universe wasn’t unraveling around her ears, which seemed to be what happened with paradoxes in sci-fi shows.

And Jane…Jane would flip. She hated Loki with a depth that Darcy suspected meant she would only be satisfied when he was dead. If she knew Darcy was destined, however loosely, to become the mother of his child—and presumably, his wife—she’d see it as a betrayal. Darcy would lose a friend over a choice she hadn’t made yet, and may never make. Would never make.

What Norn had she inadvertently pissed off? It seemed obvious now that there was an unseen being warping the threads of Darcy’s life, and she’d met enough mythological characters to stop ruling anything out. Maybe if she asked Frigga she’d find out where to send the fruit basket that would put an end to all of this.

With the shell shock wearing off, she trudged to the lab, where the scientists worked with feverish intensity. They were immersed in their bubble of excitement—they’d achieved the impossible and now had a chance of making it happen on an even bigger scale. It gave her plenty of opportunity to sit and mope while she worked on the tasks they’d listed for her. Time to mope and brood, and mull over how much she didn’t even like Loki. There was nothing likable about him, and what was apparent to her now was the kidnapping had just been his opening salvo of courtship. His idea of ‘getting the girl’ clearly involved snatching the girl and locking her away from the world with only himself for company. She’d been put out of harm’s reach, where he wanted her, while he dealt with the important business. When he had the time he’d throw a few crumbs of attention her way and of course Darcy would fall in love with him, because she was only a silly human girl; he was a king, and after all, it was destiny.

Screw him.

Noticing Jane was starting to power down, Darcy took it upon herself to head to the kitchen for coffee. Pepper sat at the table preparing the next week’s meal plan, idly chatting with Steve who was watching the security feeds, as always. A tray of cupcakes cooled on the counter. Pepper had recently discovered an enthusiasm for baking, which kept her busy and made everyone else happy.

“Where’s Frigga?” Darcy asked, turning the coffee machine on.

“She’s with Tony,” replied Pepper. “He’s showing her the arc reactor and they’re trying to figure out if it’s enough of a power source to work. She’s really impressed with what he’s built.” She beamed, taking delight in the praise in a way Tony could never show.

“It’s impressive she follows what Tony’s saying,” said Bruce, who’d trailed Darcy to the common room.

Pepper bristled. “Why, because she’s a woman?”

“No, because she comes from a world of magic. Science should be her antithesis.”

Pepper rose, mollified, to help Darcy with the coffee. She offered a cupcake to Bruce in silent apology. “Well, she’s lived a long time.”

“Besides, magic and science are basically the same thing on Asgard,” said Darcy, remembering how Thor had once explained it.

When Frigga and Tony emerged, many cups of coffee later, it was not good news.

“The reactor just won’t cut it, not at this size,” said Tony. “Even the one that powered Stark Tower wasn’t big enough.”

“Can you build a bigger one?” asked Steve.

“Not here. We don’t have the space.”

Hush fell over the scientists, a cloud of despondency hanging above them.

“We shall work on refining the design,” said Frigga. “We may be able to adapt what we have, condensing it to the point where size is not a constraint and we can produce the power we need.”

Natasha emerged from the corner none of them had known she was in. “Stark, if you were able to build this in the outside world, would there be any obstacles?”

“Of course not. I’d have unlimited space and unlimited resources—I’d have it built in a matter of days.”

She nodded. It was obviously the answer she’d been expecting. “Fury’s back in jail.”

The words took a moment to register, they were such a change of topic.

“What?” said Pepper, Steve and Erik at once.

“There was a rebel group in Texas. Loki’s orders were to slaughter their families and Fury disobeyed him. Loki has now warned SHIELD personnel that he will personally deal with the next attempt at rebellion, and he’ll use the Casket.”

No one questioned how she knew all this.

Tony looked up from the cupcake he’d been picking apart. “So what you’re saying is unlimited space and resources are out of my league right now.”

“Perhaps. It shouldn’t be. The world is in danger, we’re trying to save it, and Loki is just getting in the way.”

“We know.”

“We need him out of the way.”

“We know.”

“If he was out of power, we could have full access to SHIELD’s resources. We could build an arc reactor the size of a small town. Loki’s a diversion here, and we need to focus on the bigger problem. We need the world ready and waiting when the Chitauri arrive. We need Asgard’s support, or we face annihilation.”

“If you’re suggesting we take down Loki,” said Steve, “I agree, but I don’t see how. We fight back, he’s going to freeze a city or two just to teach us a lesson.”

Darcy swore Natasha’s gaze slid to her before she responded to Tony.

“The Casket is keeping everyone cowed for now. Every government, every army, is bowing down to him out of fear of what become of their people if they don’t. If he didn’t have the Casket, he wouldn’t have the throne. Not for long.”

“The Casket is Loki’s birthright,” said Frigga. “Only a frost giant may wield it, and he is a jotun prince. He can call it from the ether — it’s how he escaped his imprisonment in Asgard. Taking it from him is an impossibility.”

“By force, yes. But I know he keeps it on show in New York, to remind people of their place. When it’s on show, it’s vulnerable.”

“So we take the fight to him?” Tony seemed torn between excitement and caution.

“Too messy. We need a distraction.”

It was Frigga who looked Darcy’s way this time. Natasha was too savvy to make a slip like that, but Frigga put the pieces together that other people couldn’t.

“You have an idea?” asked Steve.

“Sure,” said Natasha. “We break Fury out.”

Darcy was positive that was Plan B, but she kept her mouth shut, staying on the edge of the group where only Frigga’s gaze sought her.

“Like it’s that easy,” said Tony.

“It doesn’t have to be successful. It’s just a bonus if it works. I know where he is, I can find out what the security is like, and you can build us some weapons to help us along the way. We already know Loki doesn’t want to use the Casket on us if he can avoid it. While he’s stopping us from springing Fury, a second team can be retrieving the Casket.”

There was a long pause before Bruce spoke. “There are a lot of risks in there. If we fail, he’ll use the Casket to freeze a city or two out of spite.”

“He’ll do that anyway if the cavalry arrive from Asgard,” pointed out Steve. “She’s right, we need to deal with Loki sooner rather than later.”

“What do we do when we have it?” asked Erik. “If he can summon it, it’ll be gone before anyone can make a move against him.”

“I may be able to build a shield,” said Frigga, “with Mr. Stark’s help. Something to hide it from Loki’s sight and anchor it to where we wish to hold it. It will be temporary, but it will hold until Odin can secure it properly.”

“We’re agreed then?” Pepper ripped off a new sheet of paper, ready to start planning. “We move against Loki.”

“Tentatively,” said Bruce. “I’m not convinced Fury is enough of a distraction.”

“Well, if anybody thinks of a better distraction, they can let me know,” replied Natasha. “For now, this is the best we’ve got.”


Natasha was waiting in Darcy’s room when she headed for bed. Any other time would’ve given Darcy a heart attack—the other woman sitting silently on the cot in the dark—but tonight, she was expecting it.

“Frigga came to you this morning,” said Natasha.

“Yeah.”

“And you don’t want to tell me what it was about.”

Darcy didn’t bother to grace that with a response. Natasha already knew the answer was no, and Darcy feared whatever she said would just let Natasha get into her head and figure out the pieces. She’d already had enough of them before Frigga’s arrival.

“You could be our distraction,” Natasha continued.

“Not really. I’m a sucky liar, and I don’t react well under pressure. Besides, what you’re asking—what I think you’re asking…”

“Six billion people, Darcy. Sometimes you have to do what’s right for everyone, even if it costs you. You could be the leverage we need.”

“You’re thinking he’s more interested in me than he actually is. If you make him choose between me and the Casket, he’ll go for the Casket every time. He wants to be King far more than he wants me.” Vision or not, Loki would choose securing his own power over whatever he thought Darcy could offer him.

“It doesn’t have to be that way. You can change it.”

“He’ll never believe a word I say to him.”

“Then make sure he isn’t listening to your words.”

No. I can’t do what you’re suggesting.”

“Won’t.”

Can’t. You don’t understand—” Because Darcy could see how it would work. Putting herself in that situation, allowing herself to open up to Loki enough to be that kind of distraction…and ending up the girl in the mirror. Trying to manipulate the master of lies would only result in her being manipulated by him in turn. He had charm in spades, when he wanted it, and the idea had already been planted in her head. It would feel like succumbing to the inevitable. “You think it’ll help defeat Loki, but it might make everything worse.” If Loki was happy in Frigga’s vision, the chances of him losing his throne were unlikely.

“Maybe you’re right.” Natasha rose smoothly. “I don’t have all the information I need to make the call properly. What I do know is you’ll blame yourself for every life lost when the Chitauri arrive and we’re unprepared—fairly or not. That’s the kind of person you are.”

Darcy knew that Natasha was angling for the full story, but she wasn’t convinced she would escape that conversation alive. If Natasha thought Darcy would end up on Loki’s side, what was to stop her killing Darcy outright? “I’m helping in other ways.”

“The scientists can cope without you. Sure, it’s a noble pursuit, but it might not save us.”

“I’m sure my mother would be so proud when she found out what I did to save the world.”

“Then figure out the best way for you to be that distraction, a way you’re comfortable with. Aside from anyone here, other than Frigga, you’ve spent more time with him. You’re the tiniest chink in his armor. We only need a couple of hours, and you’re a resourceful girl. You can find a way to keep him occupied and stay fully clothed.”

“I’m pretty sure Loki won’t be interested in playing Scrabble with me.”

Natasha gave her a shrewd look. “You underestimate yourself. Too often. You think you’re the weak link in the team, but the only thing making you that way is how you sell yourself short. You’re capable of anything, if you put your mind to it. And we need you. We all need you. Remember that the first time Loki makes good on his threats with the Casket.”

She padded out, leaving Darcy to a sleepless night.


The following week was punctuated by Natasha’s warning echoing in Darcy’s head. “You’ll blame yourself for every life lost.” In quiet moments she span those words around, over and over. None of this is my fault. I’m just caught up in the middle of it, like all those other six billion people. If any of them die, it’s Loki’s fault. It’s the Chitauri’s fault. Not mine. But Natasha was right; the first spilled blood would have her wishing for a way to change the decisions she’d made.

She was also spending time dealing with Frigga’s familiarity, which was causing confusion from the rest of the team. When Frigga wasn’t in Tony’s workshop or providing assistance in the lab, she was treating Darcy like a long lost family member. It caused incredible confusion from everyone except Natasha, and a little envy from Jane.

“I keep thinking now she’s met me she thinks Thor can do better,” Jane confided one evening when they had relative privacy. “She fusses over you and she’s nice to me, but it’s just not the same.”

“Do you really want her to offer to braid your hair?”

“No,” Jane admitted.

“Pepper thinks it’s because I’m so young. Compared to everyone here, at least. And Frigga never had a daughter, so maybe I’m just satisfying some weird maternal urge?” Darcy had never been more grateful to Pepper than when she’d come up with that theory. It was the perfect cover for how Frigga was reacting. Jane might be potential daughter-in-law, but Darcy was sure she was getting the full on familiarity because Frigga was already convinced Darcy was a definite.

One morning Darcy stumbled into the kitchen in search of breakfast after another night of tossing and turning, to find the atmosphere in the common room decidedly subdued.

“What’s happened?” she stage-whispered.

Steve pointed the remote at the rolling news report on the flatscreen. “It happened overnight—Loki made good on his word after the Fury incident. A guerrilla army had been forming in Chile, and he wiped them out. SHIELD are sealing the perimeter.”

From the outside, it didn’t look like much: a chunk of ice in a forest. Only when the camera moved did she see the dark shapes within, shadows of limbs and torsos encased in the ice. Remain calm, read the banner over the image. Only traitors will face the ice.

“What about their families?” Darcy asked. One hand was balled into a fist, pressed against her ribcage like it would prevent her heart from accelerating its way into escaping her chest. The other rose to cover her mouth, keeping her secret from slipping free.

“Not this time. It’s difficult to identify people from inside that. This wasn’t a warning to SHIELD—this was a warning to everybody.”

She slipped away after pushing her cereal around her bowl for a suitable amount of time, to sneak into Natasha’s hideaway. Natasha followed a few minutes later.

“You’ve seen the news,” she said.

You’ll blame yourself for every life lost. “Yes,” said Darcy. “And I’ll do it. I’ll be your distraction.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Natasha smiled, one of those enigmatic lip curves that could have meant she was anything from hiding boredom to reveling in the death of an enemy. “I hoped you would.”

“Yeah, well, things change. I can’t leave Loki to freeze half the world over.” Darcy was well aware it had been a guilt trip on Natasha’s part—she wasn’t clueless—but that didn’t sway her in her decision. Left unchecked, Loki really could go on a killing rampage, leaving barely anything for the Chitauri to pick over when they arrived.

“You know Jane won’t agree to it.”

“She can’t know. Not about Loki and his—thing for me. She’d freak.”

“You don’t want anyone else to know?”

She paused to consider their reactions. Erik would take Natasha on if he knew she was encouraging Darcy to do this, and Darcy would lose his trust for sure. Though he rarely spoke about his time as Loki’s puppet, his expression whenever Loki was mentioned was cold enough to cause another ice age. Everyone else would try and talk her out of it out of good-natured but misguided paternalistic instinct. The only person who might approve of the plan was Frigga, and if that led to a rift between her and the rest of the team, their work would be slowed down.

“No. They wouldn’t let me do it. It has to be a secret, at least until I’m gone.”

“You don’t have to shoulder the burden alone.”

“I just don’t want a fuss, that’s all. It’s not a committee decision. It’s mine and I’m not going to let anyone else try and overrule it because they’re older or have fancy degrees or superpowers.”

“Fine then. We’ll go tonight.”

Darcy’s breath hitched. “Tonight?”

“You’ll give us away if we wait any longer.” There was no malice in Natasha’s words, just candor.

“Oh.” She was right, though it stung to hear. “So are we going somewhere in particular?”

“There are a few options for having Loki discover you—I’ll need a few hours to set up the best one.” She paused. “That means this time tomorrow you’ll be back in his control. Once we leave the facility, there’ll be little chance to turn around. If you want to back out, you need to do it in the next few hours. I won’t question you and I won’t judge you, but once we’ve gone, it’s too late. Understand?”

Darcy nodded. “And when I’m back with him I have to create a distraction…” She winced.

“However you can do that best. It’d take a lot of sleeping pills in his drink to knock him out, but feel free to experiment. It doesn’t need to be tomorrow—in fact, you need to wait a while, because Loki will be on high alert at first.”

“How do I let you know that it’s the right time to take the Casket?”

“I’ve got my sources.”

She flopped down onto the beanbag and stared up at the concrete overhead. “How am I going to do this? I can’t—I’m not seductive or anything. And he terrifies me.”

Natasha crouched down opposite. “You don’t have to do anything. Be terrified, let him do all the running. We know he wants to. Follow your instincts. Resist him when it feels right to. If your behavior matches his expectations, he won’t suspect a thing.”

“Every word out of my mouth will be a lie, and you think he won’t notice?”

“Don’t lie. Stick to the truth.”

Darcy snorted. “Yeah, that’s a great idea.”

Natasha shrugged. "This is your truth: Frigga's here on Midgard and she’s shown you the future. You're in denial. You’ve been separated from your family for months and want to see them. Is any of that a lie?"

“No.”

“And that’s all he needs to know. For the rest, you keep your mouth shut. Let him make assumptions and fill in the blanks. Wear your fear as a shield. You shouldn’t ever have to lie to him at all.”

It made sense, and Natasha’s confidence was, if not infectious, soothing. The idea seemed simple, even if Darcy wasn’t entirely sure her occasional motor mouth could stick to it. “But how do I get back to him without making him suspicious in the first place? I can’t just hang around waiting to be captured again.”

“Of course not. I have a plan.”


Fifteen hours later, Darcy watched the world whizz by against an inky backdrop. They were in the car Natasha had stolen earlier in the day and hidden at the edge of the estate, speeding towards Boston. The car would not be missed for a few days, long after their need for it was over.

“You wanna enlighten me on this plan any further?” she asked. Her reflection stared back at her from the passenger window, the dark exterior turning it into a mirror, though her image was bleached to gray-and-white. It made her new blond wig seem that much starker.

“Just be yourself. Follow your own instincts, do what feels right. Loki’s looking for you so you really don’t have to do much at all.”

“But how would he know to look in Boston? Am I supposed to go buy some knitting needles to tip him off?”

“You’ve been spotted hitchhiking away from Albany in the last day. The tip off may be genuine or it may be a distraction, so Loki has SHIELD watching all major cities within a day’s travel of Albany. There should be patrols along this road, except there’s a little confusion and two teams each think the other is covering it.”

“You managed all that today?”

“I had the plan in place, all I had to do was implement it.”

It made sense, considering the ease they’d had with leaving the facility. Darcy had spent the day in her room, feigning an unholy visit from Mother Nature, to ensure she didn’t alert anyone with weird behavior. She packed a backpack with the few things she wanted to take with her and stashed it under the cot until it was time for action.

Natasha had warned her it was going to be a long night, so she tried to nap while she could, though she spent more time staring at the ceiling. Every half hour she decided it was a stupid idea and that she shouldn’t go through with it. Then an echo of the reporter’s words from that morning would play in her head, and she scolded herself for wavering.

A gentle knock came at the door at noon. She curled her knees up to her chest like she would if she were trying to alleviate cramps and called out for whoever it was to come in.

Frigga entered with a bowl of soup. “Doctor Foster informed me your monthly courses were causing you great discomfort.” She crossed to the cot and knelt down beside it. “Warm food should help, and I have added a few herbs that will aid you.”

“Thank you.” Darcy uncurled herself and sat up to take the soup. “It smells wonderful.”

Frigga laid a hand across her forehead. “You are not unusually warm. I used to assist human women with their pain, many centuries ago. They tended to be hot to the touch at this time.”

“No. I think I’m feeling a little better. I’m just tired.” She concentrated on sipping at the soup rather than meeting Frigga’s eye. Frigga’s forehead creased in thought, a mere flicker of movement, and Darcy knew she was suspicious.

“You have good color in you too. That is a good sign.” She paused, holding Darcy’s eye. “Is there anything else that will help?”

Darcy glanced away. “Only painkillers. I’m okay once I’ve rested a while and the cramps have worn off. I used to be on birth control to help and I can’t get hold of it in here.”

“I see. I may be able to assist with that, if there are the right ingredients available to me. Your race is finally on the right path to truly effective contraception, but there are still a few skills beyond you which I have.”

“So even goddesses have to deal with this?” It was a bold question, but since Frigga didn’t seem fazed talking about Darcy’s tubing, it figured she’d be fine talking about her own.

“Our kind is much longer lived, so not every lunar cycle as you do, no. But we do, of course, have our own cycles. Naturally, we sought out ways to control our fertility and the discomfort that came with it.”

At least Frigga wasn’t giving her the whole speech about it being a blessing that she’d heard from so many older women when she was growing up. It was refreshing.

“Wait here,” said Frigga, rising. “I’ll be back with whatever I am able to concoct.”

True to her word, she returned within an hour with another bowl of liquid. “This should last for three cycles. You will not bleed in that time or suffer as you do now, nor will you be able to conceive.”

“Thanks.” Darcy took the bowl and sniffed at the contents. They were vaguely sweet, though it could have been water she was holding. “If you decided to sell this, you could make a fortune.”

Frigga laughed. “Unfortunately, you need to be able to perform transmutation—a spell, I suppose you would call it—and that is beyond the skill of any of your kind. Drink up, it will begin to work quickly.”

It was like sugar water, gone in a few gulps. “If you made this in chocolate flavor, you could be richer than Tony.”

“Are you sure there is nothing more I can help with?” Frigga asked. Darcy wanted to squirm under her gaze but kept her fidgeting under control. “You seem burdened.”

“I’m good. I just need to rest.”

“That, I can certainly assist with. Lie back.” Darcy obeyed, and Frigga laid her fingers over her forehead again. Darcy shut her eyes, and for a moment she floated in a pool of light. When she opened her eyes, Frigga was gone, and the time on the wall clock told her she’d been asleep for four hours.

Natasha had come for her after everyone had headed to bed, and even when they crossed the common room, the lab was unusually silent. No matter the hour, someone was usually in there, fueled by caffeine and their own persistent thoughts, but tonight the lights were off.

“That’s so weird,” Darcy whispered when they reached Natasha’s room.

Natasha thrust the wig—the one she’d often worn on supply runs—at Darcy. “Frigga mentioned at dinner how tired everyone appeared. People are often susceptible to suggestion.”

Yeah, and they’re susceptible to Asgardian mojo too.

“I don’t think I can do this,” Darcy murmured as they passed a sign marking the miles to Boston. She wasn’t whining, hoping Natasha would call it off, or even looking for validation. It was a simple statement of fact. She was woefully unequipped to carry out the mission she’d set out on.

Natasha ignored her words, as she had every time Darcy had said them over the past few hours. Instead she focused on the unholy tangle of exits and toll roads they were passing through, turning away from the route to the heart of Boston and following a road that coasted round the edge of the city. Now it lay to the east instead of ahead, millions of lights casting a glow up to the heavens that would never hold the warmth of a sunrise.

Ten minutes later, they made another turning, pulling off the road. Darcy groaned as she caught sight of the yellow Denny’s sign.

“Are you trying to kill me?”

Natasha left the engine running. “You only have to order what will give you a valid reason to stay inside. There’s cash in the bag, a couple of Tony’s cards and some ID. Stay here, but only pay in cash. The mall opens at 10am, go and buy some food on one of the cards.”

“What mall?”

“It’s a bus ride from here.” Natasha nodded at the stop over the street. “Try to blend in—you need to make it look like you’re trying to hide and you only went in there for food.”

“But if I was trying to hide, the last place I would go is the mall.”

“If you caught a ride out of Albany you wouldn’t have the luxury of choosing where you make pit stops.”

“Okay.” It didn’t seem very okay, but the goal was to get caught. “Where are you going to be?”

“I’ll be in Chicago.”

“How are you going to get there without being spotted?” She was asking a lot of questions, but Natasha wasn’t rushing to enlighten her with the details of the plan.

Darcy wasn’t expecting an answer, but Natasha smiled. “I might not be able to fly, but I’m happy to hitch a ride from those who can.”

The only people Darcy knew could fly—in very loose terms—were Tony and Thor. “You’re taking a plane?”

“I won’t be traveling in luxury, that’s for sure.”

There was every chance SHIELD would fall apart without Natasha’s machinations. She’d heard variations of the story of the battle of New York from Erik, Steve and Bruce, and they’d all singled her out for praise. She could be ruthless and unyielding, but she might be the best of them all.

“There’s one last thing you should know about Loki, one thing to remember when you’re around him,” she said, peering out at the night over the steering wheel. “For the likes of us, it’s his Achilles heel. He’ll underestimate you.”

“Yeah, I don’t actually think that’s possible.”

“It is. Not just because you’re human, but because you’re a woman. He assumes he can always outsmart us purely because of that difference. He won’t look beyond your youth and your pretty face, and that’s how you need to strike.” The look on Natasha’s face seemed to imply Darcy would be striking a blow on behalf of womankind, but the bite of her words belied a personal vendetta too. Whatever had happened between them, she had a score to settle with Loki.

“I’ll bear that in mind.” Guys dismissing her because she had boobs wasn’t exactly new to her—she’d dealt with at college, then when working with Jane and at Stark Industries. It was unlikely Loki was going to introduce a fresh twist to misogyny. “I guess this is where we part ways.”

“For now. Good luck, Darcy Lewis. No pressure, but the fate of the world may lie in your hands. Prove they’re safe hands.”

For a moment it seemed like Natasha was going to say more, but the silence hung between them until there was nothing left to do except for Darcy to scramble out of the car. “Bye,” she mumbled, following it up with an awkward wave, and shut the door. Natasha didn’t hang around, peeling away without the squeal of tires, and Darcy headed into the diner before it became creepy hanging out in the parking lot.

She’d been awake for too long, but the edge of adrenaline was keeping her too alert, so she was off-kilter. She’d felt smaller doses of this, mingled exhaustion and exhilaration before, when she’d pulled all nighters to study, or during childhood vacations when her parents had woken her in the small hours to begin the long drive to the coast. She was half a beat behind the world and half a beat ahead, all at the same time. She knew she needed sleep, the chances of it happening were slim.

The waitress didn’t even blink at the girl entering at 3 a.m., apparently stranded. A few truckers sat around swilling coffee. Darcy found a corner booth and ordered a coffee of her own. She curled up with a book she’d packed. At one point she nodded off and was jerked awake by the blare of a passing horn. She asked for a stack of pancakes to stop the waitress eyeballing her.

Breakfast rolled around, and feeling worse for the fractured sleep, Darcy ordered pie and watched the clock on the wall as it ticked round to ten. Then she settled the bill, leaving a hefty tip since they hadn’t hauled her out for loitering, and headed into the brittle chill of the morning.

She used the last of her cash for the bus fare, and ten minutes later she was outside the doors into Macy’s.

She took a moment to straighten the wig, using the glass in the entrance door as a mirror. It didn’t look anymore natural now than it did at midnight. A gaggle of soccer moms swept past and she ducked in line behind them, through the door and into the kind of reality she’d been divorced from for so long.

The first thing that hit her was the overpowering cloud of perfume, which let the nausea in the pit of her stomach blossom. It was too much after the sterile world of the facility—it forced her away from the group she was following and towards the nearest exit, into the heart of the mall.

She hadn’t seen space like this in months. Not in the facility, where the ceiling always felt low even though it was a pretty generous height, and not in the hotel room that had been her prison for those weeks with Loki. Even the roof garden had felt confined because of the steel walls that reached so high around, and the grocery stores they’d visited had been aisled boxes. Now she was in a cathedral, lit to within an inch of its life, two storeys high and many football fields long. It was ferociously clean at this hour, the taint of bleach lingering in the air, and sparsely populated. She was tempted to flee, back to the cafe until she had somewhere to hide, and she did take that first backwards step. But what did it matter now? She was only delaying the inevitable.

If she’d hitchhiked all the way to Boston, why would she risk coming into a mall? Food. Despite the nagging assumption that eating would make the nausea worse, Darcy had to give the watching world a believable reason for coming here. She shuffled over to the map of stores in the center of the walkway and picked out the nearest coffee place. Because what she needed was more caffeine.

When she arrived, her stomach decided the coffee-and-baked-goods aroma was a massive improvement, so she added extra cream. She debated sitting down to drink, but runaway Darcy would want to stay on the move—get fed and get back on the road—so she got it to go and added a couple of muffins to stash in her backpack. She recognized the card she handed over at the register; one Natasha had decided they needed to stop using after three grocery trips before it could be traced back to them.

It was amazing how her hand didn’t shake when she collected her mocha.

She retraced her footsteps, but paused at a booth tucked into a niche. Calls — Emails — Texts. Pay per minute. The mall offered WiFi but it wasn’t like Darcy had a cell she could use. This was her one chance, her window of opportunity between one captivity and the next.

Since I’m getting caught anyway.

She wasn’t stupid enough to use her existing email account—nothing would shout I want to be found! like that would. Instead, she set up a new one, then opened up a blank message and typed.

Hi Mom, it’s Darcy. I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch but I couldn’t until now—I’m in hiding. I’m safe and well and I met some more superheros! I can’t check this address so don’t reply, and delete this as soon as you’ve received it. I love you and miss you. Say hi to Dad and everyone else for me.

She didn’t have time to think the words through, and the fog of exhaustion meant she couldn’t feel enough to bring tears. She hit send, logged out, collected the card receipt and backed away. Going back through Macy’s was a bad idea: she needed to go a different route on her way out. Nordstrom opened onto the parking lot too, and she could just doubleback towards the loading bay from there.

Bracing herself against the perfume stench, she set off towards the exit doors.

And stopped dead when two agents came in through them.

She didn’t run, though she did whirl around, duck her face and head back into the mall concourse. They’d gotten here in twenty minutes, which would have been impressive if Darcy hadn’t known about Natasha’s tip off. The state had to be crawling with SHIELD personnel.

That meant, of course, that she couldn’t go back through any of the department stores to get outside, because all the doors would be watched. At least the place was getting busier, because she stood out less.

If she were really desperate to avoid SHIELD and get out of here, what would she do? She needed to get to the loading bay and stow away in the rig of a truck. That meant getting into the supply tunnels—but once inside, she’d inevitably get lost in the maze. She’d worked in a couple of malls and they were never easy to navigate.

Why the hell hadn’t Natasha taught her how to pick locks?

Okay, if that wasn’t an option, she could either hide in the bathroom or head upstairs. Both were temporary diversions but they’d keep up the pretense of Darcy trying to hide.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” announced the P.A. system “please make your way to the nearest exit.”

There was a moment of utter stillness, then all hell broke loose.

“What’s going on?” one woman asked another. The question echoed around Darcy, passed from one mallgoer to another, though they all filed towards the exits like lemmings. The escalators came to a grinding halt, and there was no way she could fight against the flow of people to get up them.

There was an opportunity to go down though.

Across the throng of people, a guy in a Starbucks apron was unlocking a staff door, and Darcy elbowed her way through to him.

“Excuse me?” she asked, “Do you know what’s happening?”

The guy turned to her, and immediately became distracted by her boobs. This was her chance. She surged forwards, ready to push him aside, but something caught her. She twisted around to find an agent looming over with a hand clasped tight around her wrist.

Fight, whispered the part of her brain still not sold on going to Loki.

She wrenched herself free with a motion Steve had taught her, then doubled back, barreling down the central concourse of the mall. She was buffeted by the crowd, but she had the element of surprise—the agent behind her had his path blocked as the people who’d moved aside for her turned to gape. She needed the edge—he had longer legs and hadn’t spent the past few months being a couch potato. She couldn’t outpace him for long, and others would be waiting for her wherever she ran.

But she would fight, and she would do it like she meant it.

The crowd thinned close to the food court exit, and it gave Darcy a clear view of the gaggle of agents in her way. She surprised herself by dropping into a forward roll, passing neatly under their waiting hands. Okay, so maybe she hadn’t been allowed to become a complete slouch. Thanks, Steve.

All that defensive training came in handy, and it helped she knew they were ordered not to hurt her—they couldn’t throw a punch to subdue her, while she had no qualms about kicking out.

When all this is over, I’ll find out your names and make sure Fury gives you a bonus, okay?

She was still outmatched and outnumbered, and one delivered a pinch to her arm that drove her to her knees. She scrambled to get back up, but already the agents were backing away, the atmosphere dropping in warmth.

She pushed herself to her feet regardless, wiping the dirt from her jeans before raising her eyes—and her chin—to the new arrival.

With a brilliant smile, Loki held his hand out for her again.

 

 

Chapter Text

Darcy didn’t take his hand, keeping her chin high and her gaze below his eyes. Loki’s victorious smile was itching to be smacked away but she wasn’t brave enough, not by a long shot, not when even in a moment of triumph she could sense the ice lurking within him. He’d found her, and he’d won again, but she was nothing to him, nothing more than a prize.

When she made no move to take his hand, he reached out to pluck her wig from her head. He tossed it away with disdain, and she ducked away before he could capture her himself, to run fingers through her own hair now it was loose. He tracked her movement with narrowed eyes.

“No more running,” he murmured. “Things will be so much easier if you obey.”

She wanted to keep fighting, to keep running, even if this was the plan all along, but Loki wasn’t the kind of person you lashed out at. He took her by the arm, hand clasped above her wrist, and led her back down the length of the mall.

There was no one to witness her progress, all the mallgoers outside where they’d been ushered, which she was thankful for, because nobody could see how she fast she was blinking, how she had to gnaw at her lower lip to keep its quiver hidden. The long day and night, the exhaustion and burst of adrenaline were catching up with her, along with the enormity of the situation she was in, all too real with those fingers gripping her like a shackle. She was marched out of this temple of humanity, away from the white and gold and sterile surfaces, out into the unknown, surrounded by the blank faces and blank backs of the SHIELD agents.

Dead silence rang from the crowd outside, heads bowed in fear as Loki passed. The wall of agents kept Darcy hidden from them, even as she clambered into the waiting SUV. When the door closed behind her, the black glass shutting the world out entirely, she stopped trying to hold it in.

She was ashamed to cry, but that didn't stem the flow any.

In the midst of the tears, Darcy realized Natasha had never told her to cry, despite it being an obvious and useful tool. A quiet voice in the back of her head whispered why: Natasha had known she'd cry anyway, so why not let it happen without prompting. This was authentic. If Darcy cried on purpose, Loki would see through the artifice, but this way, it was only another truth.

Loki slid smoothly into the seat beside her and barked orders at the driver. It was only then he noticed the tears, tipping her face up to his. His frown was worth it—he was perplexed and unsure, and Darcy knew then that he’d bought the whole charade. She was in, ready or not, and now she had to keep up the performance of her life.

“Are you going to try anything foolish this time?”

She shook her head, an act of defeat.

“Good. I would rather not reduce your chambers to resembling a cell, all in the name of protecting you from yourself.” The uncertainty had vanished, replaced with a mask of indifference. “I know my mother is on Midgard and has made contact with your merry band of traitors, and I know her well enough that she has shown you what she showed me. Yet this is how you greet your emperor and future husband? Bitter tears? I can give you anything, including a throne, but instead you flee and weep at the very sight of me.”

Despite his words, she’d managed to get herself under control. She bit back all the comments on the tip of her tongue about what a bad husband he would be. “I don’t want a throne.” Her voice was steady, if quiet.

“You shall have one. My heir will not be born to any less than a queen.” She noticed the disparity between his title and hers, but let it slide. Whatever Loki’s plan for her, whatever position he intended to elevate her to, it was only ever going to be symbolic. She wasn’t going to be given any power.

The SUV passed parked traffic, come to a standstill on the highway. “How did you know about Frigga?” she asked.

“Try as they might, Doctor Foster and her accomplices can’t hide all their activity from me. I’m not so far from your hideaway that I can’t recognize that kind of atmospheric disturbance for what it is, and I’m quite familiar with my mother’s magic. It makes sense, doesn’t it, sending the last member of my adoptive family with whom I still have any allegiance here to shatter me.”

“I don’t think that’s what she wants to do.”

He regarded her intensely. “Perhaps not. And yet the Allfather will have his own designs—”

“She came here without him knowing.” Darcy didn’t know why she was telling him this. Maybe because she liked Frigga and knew how upset she would be if she learned Loki had turned away from her. Maybe because it would help win Loki’s confidence. “He’s got nothing to do with this. She wants to help you.”

She almost missed the flicker of uncertainty. “I’m sure by help she means return me to Asgard, to the healers and jailers. That’s not the kind of help I desire.”

Even over the engine Darcy could hear another noise, a familiar rumbling, the kind she’d come to associate in the desert with searches for fugitives and missing people. It grew loud enough to rattle the car. She watched as the helicopter passed over them, swooping down into the field beside the road, and the SUV followed in its wake, pulling up a safe distance away.

“Our chariot awaits. I’m afraid my preferred mode of transportation will not work with you alongside, and I won’t be leaving your side until you are safely in your new lodgings.”

“Preferred mode of what?” She was barely listening, focusing on the spinning blades only yards away, and what they meant for her.

“I’ve heard one of the agents refer to it as apparition, another as teleportation. I believe both are references to fiction, but describe it well enough.”

Oh yay. He could beam himself around the planet. It made her task that much more impossible: she didn’t just need to separate him from the casket, she needed to distract him enough that he didn’t go whooshing straight to it when they tried to take it. She’d thought his previous vanishing acts had been little tricks.

And new lodgings? She’d been assuming they were going back to New York and the roof garden. Perhaps she wasn’t going to get any outside time at all now.

He ushered her into the helicopter, where she was offered a pair of headphones—both to keep the noise out and to allow her to communicate through a microphone. She shoved them on, strapped in, hunkered down in her seat and screwed her eyes shut. Loki neither knew or cared that she hated flying, and now she was doing it in a machine the size of her old car—the one whose engine never started and would cut out at the worst times. Her only course of action was to ignore the world until it was all over. Hey, if they all went down in a ball of flames, it might take Loki with them.

“Is something the matter?” His voice was far too intimate like this, delivered straight into her ear, even with the roar of the engine.

“We’re in a death trap.”

He chuckled. “Not at all. Not even death will snatch you away from me this time.”

If he was aiming for romantic, he overshot by a mile and landed in creepersville. “It’s best that I keep my eyes shut. Really. So I don’t throw up.”

He seemed to take her word for it because he didn’t speak again. Even without vision she knew when they lifted off the ground, from the jolting movement and change in air pressure. She refused to open her eyes anyway, praying sleep would come when she knew it wouldn’t.

Focus on something else.

Thanks, brain. Any suggestions?

Yeah. What the hell is going on at the facility right now?

That was a good question. The early risers would have been up for a couple of hours already, but they might not notice her disappearance until she didn’t emerge in time for lunch, or if someone came looking for her to help in the lab. Maybe someone would look for Natasha too. Would they put two and two together? Natasha was pretty close with Clint, but she knew Clint’s fury towards Loki, though quieter than Jane’s, ran a thousand times deeper.

He and Erik had bonded over the way Loki had gone rummaging through their heads, though it was an uneasy bond, and far from a lighthearted one. Clint’s ongoing disquiet at what had happened was what kept him apart from everyone else in the facility, an onlooker more than a participant in their little community, and she figured what drove him to act as their shadowy watchdog. Only Erik ever hinted at his motivations and how deep his anger lay. But he might be the only one Natasha had told of her whereabouts—but did she tell him about the real plan, or the fake plan where she went off to Chicago? Would he be the one to link their absences together, or someone else? Darcy hoped no one did, because that way Natasha kept her place in the facility and her trust, which was so needed for them to continue working together. The moment that fractured, the team was over, and anything Darcy might gain for them was pointless.

The news of her capture might be in SHIELD’s servers by now, and if they were looking for it, they’d know. Jane would be having a meltdown and the rest would be throwing a plan together to rescue her. Natasha had to get back before they did anything reckless. Would she open up about the plan or pretend she hadn’t known, but persuade them to go along with it anyway? If they didn’t listen and turned up to rescue her before she was ready to be rescued, she was going to hand them over to Loki herself. No way was she going through this ride for nothing.

The helicopter rocked and she flailed, reaching out to grab hold of the nearest object. She felt skin, and then another hand wrapped around hers. She opened her eyes, blinking against the light, looking down her arm at the set of twined fingers, then up the other arm to Loki’s face.

She gasped, then saw the open, endless blue over his shoulder and squeezed her eyes shut again, yanking her hand away and balling it tight, resting in her lap. She wouldn’t be doing that again.

He chuckled, and she went back to ignoring him, pondering how bad of a meltdown she’d inspired in Jane and whether Frigga’s influence would be enough to keep them all calm and rational. At least Tony didn’t have his suit so he couldn’t do anything really impulsive…and Pepper could chain him down if it looked like things were heading that way.

After what felt like forever, the pressure changed enough for Darcy to know they were heading downward—to land, she hoped, rather than falling into a death spiral. The motion was relatively smooth, at least.

There was a bump and then stillness, the blessed stillness of solid earth beneath her. Darcy finally unballed her fists, letting out a breath and peeling her eyes open. Only as the motor span to a halt did she realize the monumental stupidity involved in keeping her eyes closed all the way. She had no idea where they were—what direction they’d set off, what landmarks they’d passed over, or anything that would give her a clue as to her current whereabouts.

Loki was already out of the cabin and rounding to escort her out. Two SHIELD agents waited in the field beyond, and as Darcy peered around, she noticed a few key features: woodland, a beach, and water—a lake, or the ocean. She wasn’t in any hurry to get up, since she wasn’t sure if her legs would cooperate yet or if the chances of her tossing her cookies had properly diminished. She hauled herself up before Loki could reach her, since she wasn’t ready for his brand of chivalry yet.

The air that greeted her was fresh, clean and salty, immensely soothing after the ride she’d just endured. The salt meant this was the shoreline, and the distant squawks of gulls hammered that in. In fact, that was one of the only things she could hear, other than waves and the wind in the trees. No distant traffic. He’d brought her to a pretty isolated spot.

“Welcome to your new home,” he said, gesturing for her to follow him. “Plum Island.”

“Island?” she echoed. The implications of that sank in. That wasn’t merely the shoreline. If this was an island, she was all but trapped. She could see more land, in the distance, but further than she was capable of swimming, and for all she knew that was just another island.

“It was, very handily, owned by the prior government and uninhabited apart from its workforce. It’s now been repurposed as my retreat away from the city, with a newly completed manse built to my specifications. The only way off the island is by helicopter or boat, neither of which are available to you. It does mean I’m able to give you the freedom to roam the island as you wish—a palatable alternative to your previous lodgings. The island lacks internet or telephone connections, not that you require them. I’m sure the peace will do you good.”

Panic was starting to settle in, and something close to shellshock. She was woefully underprepared for this. Loki could come and go at will, but she was stuck here. Worse, she had no way of contacting anyone. Could Natasha really have enough eyes and ears within SHIELD to find and monitor her here? Darcy had just walked into the dragon’s lair without a weapon, without backup, and blocked the escape route on her way in.

The manse Loki had referred to appeared ahead, looking out onto the beach, which was little more than a narrow strip of white sand and rocks. The house was built of stone and glass, single storey for the most part except for the soaring roof at its heart. Further up the path, Darcy spied another building, two storeys of stone, and there was no doubting what it was. Loki followed her gaze.

“The lighthouse,” he confirmed. “Keeping the mariners of Gardiner’s Bay safe. It’s fully automated, and you are free to enter it as you wish. It did not suit my taste for a dwelling.”

Darcy preferred it to the new building—it had an old world charm to it.

“I trust you will enjoy these new surroundings. Your mother confirmed you liked the ocean.”

She stopped dead in her tracks. “You spoke to my parents?”

“Naturally. I needed to know if you had contacted them and then it seemed pertinent to introduce myself, given our shared path.”

She had so many things she wanted to ask, and yet she couldn’t expect the truth from Loki even if he answered. Instead she could only stare out over the bay, the wind whipping at her hair and panic chilling her blood.

“They are safe. I did not harm them. I have no reason to harm them, not with your continued compliance.”

There it was. The threat. She hadn’t even thought of what Loki would do to the people she’d left behind in his quest to find and keep her—she’d assumed that by running away she’d be keeping them safe. She should have asked Natasha to get them into hiding, but now it was too late. If Loki ever figured out this was all a ruse, if it failed, then they would suffer, and there was nothing she could do about it.

He led her into the house, and she was pleasantly surprised once inside. Everything was open plan and high ceilinged, letting the light stream in through skylights. The furnishings were rustic antiques, which probably reminded Loki of Asgard, with wooden floorboards and plush rugs. She counted three wood-burning fires, not currently lit, and gaped at a kitchen bigger than the apartment she’d left behind in Brooklyn. It beat anything she’d ever seen on Cribs.

Then they crossed into the center of the house, where the glass roof soared high overhead, and Darcy fell in love.

It was a library. Lined with bookshelves that almost reached that roof, the kind you needed ladders to navigate, while plump sofas gathered round another hearth. Some of the plants from the Manhattan roof garden had found their way here, and the way the room flooded with light made it feel like she’d stepped outside again.

Whatever his flaws, Loki knew how to pull a living space together.

He didn’t say a word as she stood there gaping, but he radiated satisfaction. He knew he’d pleased her.

One of the agents had followed them in and cleared her throat delicately.

“Yes?” Loki said.

“May I speak in front of your guest?”

“You’re forgetting something.”

The agent’s eyes widened, and she dropped into a bow of supplication. It was an act of emotion Darcy had never seen in a SHIELD agent out in the field before. “Your Majesty.”

“You may speak in front of her.”

“Romanoff has been sighted in Chicago. When we arrived there was no trace of her but we have three eye witnesses who confirm the account and some footage which indicates in all likelihood it was her.”

Loki dismissed the agent with a flick of his hand. “So the Widow was busy elsewhere and you took the opportunity to escape?” he asked Darcy. “My mother must have spooked you terribly.”

Natasha’s words echoed in her head. “Stick to the truth.” She decided it was better not to respond at all—he wasn’t wrong about Frigga’s revelation, but admitting it so directly was going to piss him off. The way he watched so intently for her reaction meant “We are never, ever doing that,” was going to lead to the kind of rejection spiral that burned worlds.

He rolled his eyes at her silence and strutted off through another door. “Your quarters are this way.”

They were at the back of the house, full of light and opulent furniture, as well as all the belongings she’d left behind in New York. He waited at the door while she explored—the clawfoot tub in the bathroom was a definite highlight—and she shuffled back to the threshold when she’d given everything a cursory look.

“Are you living here too?” she asked shyly. She’d never really known if he was living in the other half of the Manhattan penthouse or not, but this building seemed to be symmetrical and her rooms only took up one half of the back of the house.

“My quarters mirror your own. I have no secrets and you are free to explore them if you wish—you will find nothing of import.” His lips curved lasciviously. “Other than where I bathe and sleep.”

She stared down at her feet, aware her cheeks were flaming.

“Dinner will be served at seven,” he continued, a smile still lighting his voice. “Your attendance is required, not just this evening but every evening. Alas, running an empire requires much attention from me, so if I have other business preventing me from joining you, you will be notified by an agent. Otherwise, your days are your own.”

She nodded absently while he ducked away, performing an elaborate bow. Then he was gone, between one blink and the next, leaving Darcy aware of how big the house was, and how empty. This was so different to being in Manhattan: there, she’d be isolated but all too aware of all the life going on around her. Here, she was alone with a handful of agents and a vast space. It was too different, after all those weeks underground. She’d experienced too many shifts lately, and had no idea how she was supposed to adjust yet again.

With an exhausted sigh she shut the door to the room—like it would make any difference—ready to take a shower and get into clean clothes after her night on the lam. The room was full of her possessions, which happily meant her clothing, though it was eerie how everything had been brought in and neatly staged. It wouldn’t last, and that was a good thing, because she needed to make it feel more lived in for her peace of mind. The whole building was of Loki’s doing but she’d be the one doing the living in it, and she was going to make sure it felt like it.

As she crossed to the bathroom she passed a rack of DVDs beside the television. The Disney ones were at the top—The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Tangled. She couldn’t imagine making Loki watch any of these.

A giggle bubbled up from inside her when the parallels to one story became obvious. She’d been given quarters, a library, and instructions to attend dinner. Just like the prince’s poor attempts at courtship in Beauty and the Beast.

Loki mining Disney for dating advice. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

So she did both.

Chapter Text

Darcy wasn’t sure what to wear to dinner with the alien who’d taken over world and proclaimed himself emperor. She didn’t have much choice among her wardrobe of jeans and cosy knits, and definitely nothing that screamed seducing the crazy person. In the end she picked out a black t-shirt and a green cardigan and hoped the little nod to his own color palette appeased him.

She’d napped the afternoon away, having reached the point where she was running on fumes. There was an alarm clock ready to wake her up when it was time. In fact, she really wasn’t lacking in gadgetry all round—when she’d explored the kitchen there’d been a cherry red Kitchenaid, a shiny espresso machine and a range cooker, as well as surround sound speakers linked to the bed-sized screen in the living room. Unfortunately, none of it would provide a way for her to connect with the outside world.

While exploring, she’d discovered the dining table in a room leading off the kitchen—a huge carved-oak monstrosity with matching chairs and a wrought-iron chandelier overhead. If she didn’t already know where it was, all she needed to do right now was follow her nose, because the whole house was filled with the aroma of spice and herbs.

Every surface in the room had been dressed with candles, with two places set at the table, one at each end. Not exactly conducive to conversation. Loki was already seated, lounging in his chair like it was a throne. He was dressed the most casually she’d ever seen him, in a moss-green tunic and embroidered pants, though it still put most Ren Faire participants to shame.

He raised an eyebrow at her appearance. “Is that what you wear to dinner with your emperor?”

“It’s all I had.” She slipped into her seat, examining the cutlery rather than looking at him.

He made a derisory sound. “The chef this evening has prepared some Asgardian delicacies—as close as can be managed with what ingredients are available.”

“There’s a chef?”

“Brought here especially and under guard at all times. Not a friend or a lifeline.”

“Right.”

Each course was brought out and announced with pride by Loki—fish stew, roast herb-encrusted fowl, and then a thick vanilla yogurt—but they ate in near silence. She had nothing to say, and she needed to be careful that nothing she did say gave anything away. The smallest hint might lead Loki to the truth.

When she’d finished her dessert, she sat twisting her fingers together in her lap, wondering if she needed to wait to be excused. There hadn’t seemed much point to her even being here—Loki had barely glanced at her.

“Did you enjoy the spread?” he asked, focusing on her for the first time since dessert had arrived.

“It was great.” What she wouldn’t do for a pizza right now.

“You lack enthusiasm.”

“I’m not a huge fan of fish.”

“A pity.” He rose, his attention already elsewhere. “I have difficulties to attend to and will see you at the same time tomorrow.”

With that, he was gone, and when she ventured into the kitchen the chef had already been ushered out. She wandered into the library, threw herself onto one of the sofas, and aimed the remote at the TV.

If this was how good she was at distracting Loki, the world was doomed.


Taking Loki at his word, she decided to venture out the next day to explore the island. It wasn’t like she had anything better to do, and knowing the lay of the land was never a bad idea.

There was a map of the island pinned up on the library wall and she’d scrutinized it overnight. The house was at the bottom end of the island, which was less than a mile long, almost triangular with a section trailing off to the east. There were no other buildings marked on the map, although one area showed a demolition site, and another an old military base. Just up the beach was a harbor. The map also placed her location in the wider scheme of things: north-east of Long Island, in the sound between New York and New England. Not so far from civilization at all.

The sky was clear, so she bundled herself up in a coat and headed off, following the shoreline. The harbor was only five minutes away from the house, but it did lead Darcy to a philosophical question—was a marina without any boats actually a marina? There were moorings but a total absence of anything in them.

Yes, Darcy. Yes, it is. This is not Schrodinger’s harbour.

Tracks criss-crossed along the way, veering away from the beach and cutting through the woodland that seemed to cover most of the island, but she stuck to the shore. She had days ahead of her to fully explore every inch of this place. At the northeastern tip, the land narrowed into a thin spit, and the lack of clouds gave a clear view of the coast in the distance. It made her feel immensely less isolated. There was a beauty to the peace here, especially on a crisp morning like this, but she couldn’t stay here forever. It would drive her out of her mind.

On her walk down the northern shore back towards the lighthouse, a ferry crossed the water, the blue lettering on its white hull too small to read from this distance. She checked her watch and made a mental note of the time.

Back up plan A: learn the ferry timetable and find a way of raising an SOS to get off this damn island.

It had taken less than an hour to complete a circuit of the shoreline, and clouds had drawn in, bringing the threat of rain with them. Reaching the lighthouse was a relief. The door was unlocked, and she snuck inside, half expecting an agent to appear from nowhere and drag her away. She hadn’t seen any this morning, but they had to be around somewhere.

The interior was dark and she fumbled for a lightswitch. The cobwebs, she hadn’t expected. Nobody had been in here for a while. Things scuttled away from her into the shadows and she kept her arms close to her body, shoulders drawn as she held her breath and hoped nothing was going to drop onto her.

The downstairs of the lighthouse formed abandoned living quarters, but they were a downgrade from the house over the way. It wouldn’t have taken much to make it habitable but there was much less space to be had. The bathroom suite had been left to rust and the kitchen had been stripped of appliances. One room was covered in old charts and what she guessed were journals, numbers and symbols scrawled in faded pen ink.

She found what she was looking for on the second floor—a solid, creaking door led to a spiral staircase. It was only a short distance to the controls, then up again to the light itself. The balcony around the light was open to the air, but given the drizzle spattering against the glass she decided to stay inside. On a summer’s day maybe it would be a pleasant place to enjoy the breeze.

She headed down to the control room, and stared at it in consternation for five minutes. She’d mastered all of the equipment in the lab, after much tutoring from Jane and Erik, but how to work this was beyond her skill—dials and meters all over the place, none of it properly labeled. No ‘For emergency lightbeam, pull this lever’. No wonder Loki wasn’t at all worried about her being able to access this place.

Still, it was only a minor defeat, forming part of back up plan B. With the rain curtailing a full exploration of the remainder of the island, she headed back into the house.

Given the chef had been parachuted in for dinner, she figured she was on her own for other meals, but the pantry was well stocked, and the refrigerator the industrial kind, looming over a foot taller than her. She could handle a sandwich.

There were leftovers on a plate in the refrigerator, so she decided to give the bird that had died for dinner last night a decent reason for its sacrifice. She peeled back the foil it was wrapped in, and her fingers caught on a napkin inside.

She frowned and tugged the napkin loose, noticing a thin streak of blue against the white. She glanced around, checking for any sudden agent appearances. Convinced she was alone, she unfolded it. A message had been added in pen.

We know where you are and Monsieur Renard is acting as our link. His Imperial Majesty does not deign to eat leftovers. Notes left in the refrigerator will be unobserved.

The note was signed with a sketch of a spider.

Darcy kissed the note and did a happy dance on the spot. She wasn’t so isolated if this worked. Somehow Natasha had got to the chef—probably before the chef knew he was cooking for them. Chicago had been a diversion, a way for her to slip into Loki’s headquarters while all eyes were elsewhere and set this up.

No wonder they’d named her after a spider. She had more eyes than the average human, that was for sure, and could get into anywhere she wanted.

Darcy dunked the napkin in some gravy, obscuring the note, and chucked it in the trash. She drafted her own reply on a fresh sheet of kitchen towel—Missing you guys. Someone needs to check on my folks—and folded it up under the bowl full of last night’s dessert.

Then she headed into the library to see what it had on the subject of lighthouses.


One agent brought a gift to her room at six thirty, a white box tied with a chiffon bow. Darcy recognized it from films as being the kind of thing designer dresses turned up in when they were sent as presents. Being in the same situation as Pretty Woman made her feel distinctly icky inside.

She idly wondered what the agent felt about being used to deliver gifts and monitor the chef. A complete waste of her training, for a start. Darcy couldn’t imagine any of the SHIELD staff being thrilled about the kind of missions Loki was sending them on right now, least of all babysitting duty. Plus possible janitorial stuff, since her room had been given a hotel-worthy turn down while she was out.

Not going to dinner in whatever was in the box was out of the question. She wasn’t here to piss Loki off and she needed to let him think his flattery was working. So, holding her breath, she tugged at a loose end of the chiffon and unwrapped her gift.

All told, it wasn’t too bad. Not cocktail wear or lingerie, which was the worst case scenario. Just a simple, classic black dress, the kind she could wear to the office, if her budget ever stretched that far.

Once changed, she ventured back out to the dining area, which was once again the land of the thousand candles. Only this time, instead of the two opposite ends of the table being set, her place had been moved to Loki’s side.

He was already seated, but rose to tug her chair away, allowing her to sit before taking his own place.

“Do you like my gift?” he asked, seemingly indifferent.

“It’s nice,” she said, forcing enthusiasm into her voice. It was unnerving being this close to him again.

“Some jewelry would certainly enhance the effect.” His voice had deepened to a rasp, and she realized where his gaze had fallen. The last guy to stare so brazenly had got a jab to the ribs, but no way was she trying that here. Instead, she shifted, trying to position her arm so her chest was out of his eyeline, and make it clear how uncomfortable she was.

“Seems a shame if no one’s ever going to see me wear it.”

“I will.”

Whatever expression was on her face, it made him reconsider what he was going to say. He shifted, leaning back into his chair. “Some Midgardian delicacies tonight.” He gestured, and Monsieur Renard came bustling out of the kitchen with plates.

“Tell me about your day,” Loki prompted.

Darcy poked at her ceviche with a fork. “I went for a walk and then I checked out the library.”

“And have you satisfied yourself that the island is without escape?”

“I won’t be swimming for it, if that’s what you mean.”

He chuckled. “Did you go anywhere in particular?”

“I went to the lighthouse, but I’m pretty sure you already know this.”

“When I said your time is your own, I meant it. The agents do not trail you, and there are no devices monitoring you.” He frowned at his own plate. “Did you find the lighthouse interesting?”

She shuddered. “Too many spiders.”

Conversation lulled again as they ate, but when the plates were cleared away Loki plucked a couple of cups out of thin air and placed one in front of her.

Hunungbrugga?” he offered.

“What is this stuff? Why are you always trying to get me to drink it?”

He shrugged. “It reminds me of Asgard and I wish to share what I can of my culture with you. One day I will take you there and show you all its wonders—when I am ready to claim the throne.”

Her eyes widened. “Of Asgard?”

“You think I name myself emperor when I rule but one realm? I’ll rule them all, in time, as is my right.”

She sipped obediently at the drink, feeling like she’d barely made any progress. He’d been bored when she spoke, barely holding his attention. Right now, if the choice was between her and the casket, he’d choose the casket without hesitating.

When he’d left, she slipped into the kitchen pretending to pick in the refrigerator—just in case he wasn’t being truthful about watching her. This time, an extra layer of foil covering the tiramisu had been written on.

I have people watching your parents, ready to move if Loki does. The lighthouse is your signal. Light it up when you’re ready.

Like it was that easy.

She could ask for help, but they weren’t here to study the controls and it would only distract the scientists from the work they needed to be doing. She’d figure it out on her own—it would give her something to do when Loki wasn’t around.

Roger that, she wrote. Don’t think distraction is going all that well. I bore him.

With a bowlful of coffee-liqueur-saturated-sponge and cream, she headed back to the library to plot her next move.


Loki wasn’t around for dinner the next day, though the chef still arrived to feed her. She told him—via the agent in charge—that she didn’t need a three course meal and she’d be eating in the library. There, she was pouring through all the electrical texts it housed, trying to give herself a crash course. It was probably more advanced than she needed but it would give her a good grounding.

She’d been back to the lighthouse during the day and picked up a few of the charts and journals too, as well as making some sketches of the control room. If anyone was watching her, it was really obvious what she was doing, but the sketches she kept in her room, hidden under the mattress. She’d also done some drawings of the view from the balcony as a cover. A lame cover, but she was trying. At worst, if caught, she could tell Loki she was trying to figure out how to use the light to signal for help. Not a total lie. Just not plan A.

Natasha’s note that night was lengthier.

Don’t worry. He’s invested in you. Let him feel like you’re growing closer. He’ll see it as a victory, an inevitable one, and he’ll never question exactly why you’re giving in to him. He expected it all along.

Cap insisted I tell you that if Loki hurts you, you tell the chef and we’re coming for you. No ifs or buts.

All probably sound advice, especially since Darcy could feel her guard dropping around Loki. It was no longer pants-shittingly terrifying to be in his presence, only extremely scary, but she wanted off this damn island already.


Darcy’s new dinner strategy was, if she said so herself, brilliant. She got Loki to talk about himself.

The idea had come to her one night when she’d been trying to string a sentence together about her daily island walk and noticed the contemptuous look on Loki’s face. She wasn’t only boring him, she could sense she was reminding him why he looked down on humanity so much. So she’d asked him about a particular myth. A carefully chosen myth she’d read about that didn’t feature Thor.

He took to the topic with great relish and proved his worth as a storyteller.

Once she realized how effective it was, she stuck to it every night. Prompting him with a myth, asking him a question about Asgard or something he’d mentioned on a previous night, or enquiring about his day. He was most definitely his favorite topic of conversation. She hung on his every word—and only a little of that was pretense, since he was the best thing passing for entertainment around here—and he basked in the attention.

He bought her more gifts—not jewels, not after her lukewarm reception to the idea—but more dresses, and even comfortable clothes for her to spend her days in. And books, by the crateload.

By her third week on the island, he wasn’t disappearing straight after dinner, but following her into the library to continue the conversation. Being around him had become an easy thing, her fear heavily muted, and if she looked forward to his company, it was because he was the only company she had access to.


“His Majesty will be unavailable for dinner.”

“Okay, cool. I’ll take mine in the library.”

Loki had been around a lot less over the past week, leaving straight after dinner—though he was as close to apologetic as he ever came about it—and skipping it entirely the last couple of days. Something big was going down, but there was no hint of it on any of the news channels Darcy had access to here. She sprawled out on the sofa, drinking carrot and coriander soup from a mug and idly flicking through the stations, a guide to circuit repair open in her lap.

Darcy had actually made a ton of progress on understanding how to get the lighthouse to work, and taught herself stuff that would make her more useful in the lab when this was all over. The journals and charts left behind by the old crew had helped, and years of deciphering Jane’s scrawl made it a breeze to read their notes. She’d picked apart a few gadgets to look at their insides, using rusty old tools from the control room, and the Kitchenaid still worked, so she wasn’t terrible at it. She’d established that most of the dials and gizmos up in the lighthouse control room were for fine tuning and she didn’t need to touch them—she just needed to adjust a few settings to override the automated protocols, and she’d been able to figure out which controls she used for that.

Of course, she couldn’t test that it worked without turning the light on and alerting every SHIELD agent in the surrounding area to what she was doing, so if she was wrong, the Avengers were going to miss their slot at stealing the casket. But Darcy was 95% sure she knew what she was doing.

We go live, at the Emperor’s request, to Mexico.

That caught her attention. Darcy glanced up from her book to see chaos on the screen. SHIELD agents battled alongside local police in what appeared to be the middle of a riot, men with bandannas covering their lower faces and machine guns in their hands taking aim at the bullet-resistant shields of their opponents. The camera seemed to be shooting from higher ground, out of the action.

And then Loki was in the middle of it all.

“Enough!” he yelled, but total silence didn’t fall, not straight away. Some retreated, but a few gunmen turned and aimed at him.

The bullets ricocheted from Loki’s armor without leaving a mark, and with a jab of his hand they found their target in the man who’d fired at him. Another man found himself aiming at his own chest before he fired.

The men began fleeing, but hit an invisible wall, and were quickly surrounded by the police, herded to their knees before Loki.

“You think you can disobey me?” Loki spat. “You think you can ignore my laws and continue to steal, rape and murder? Go on selling your chemicals and carrying out your petty feuds against every rule I have laid down?”

One man spat in Loki’s direction and was rewarded with a backhand that knocked his jaw clean from his face. Blood and teeth splattered and Darcy screamed.

Monsieur Renard and the agent on duty came running into the library to see what the commotion was. She was dimly aware of them, both as transfixed to the action on the screen as she was. She heard the chef curse under his breath.

“I’ll show you what it means to disobey me,” Loki continued. He shifted his hands and the casket appeared between them. The camera focused on his face, smiling but without a hint of warmth or humor to be found. The wolf baring his teeth. Something was happening to his skin—like ice creeping over it, it shifted from its usual pallid white to a frigid blue, ridges and lines spreading across Loki’s face. He blinked, and his eyes were on fire, crimson red and blazing, the anger pouring out of him.

It was the demon inside Loki come to life.

He poured all that anger out, focusing it into the casket, and the kneeling men were caught in its path, frozen solid or shot in the head as they tried to flee. Darcy was distantly aware she was still screaming even as Loki disappeared from the camera.

“Whatever is the matter?” he asked, now behind them, and Darcy only screamed louder, shoving herself off the sofa and around to face him. He still held the casket and fury radiated from him despite his calm question.

The chef backed away but the agent held her ground, hand casually resting on her hip, ready to draw if it looked like shit was going down.

Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod,” Darcy chanted, trying to put as much space between the casket and herself as she could. Loki’s jaw tightened and the casket disappeared with a flourish of his hands.

“Leave us,” he instructed, and the agent dutifully escorted the chef out, relief clear in the slump of her shoulders. Darcy was anything but relieved. She was backed into a corner, literally, and though the blue and red visage had faded, the memory of it was burned into her mind’s eye.

“Where did it go?” she whimpered.

“I keep it safe in another dimension.” He stalked towards her. “So. Even you cannot handle my true form.”

“I just watched you kill a ton of people!”

“They had each earned the death penalty of their own country many times over and escaped it through luck. I was merely delivering their sentence.”

“On live TV?”

“It serves its purpose. Others will watch and learn.”

But Darcy felt like a failure, because this was the sort of thing she’d come here to stop happening. Alright, she was going to stop it by bringing Loki down, but she’d allowed it to happen on her watch.

Loki sensed her turmoil. “Shall I tell you a little about some of those men? Luis Camarena—slaughtered his way to the top of his cartel. Federico Herran—a glorified assassin. Arturo de Velasco—acts as an executioner, likes to film the women he desecrates before he beheads them. Need I go on?”

“No, I get it, they were bad men! Are you any better?”

Oh shit.

When Loki replied, his voice was soft but firm, silk over a poised blade. “I was their monarch and it was my right to punish them as I saw fit. I am your monarch and it does not do to question me.” He captured her chin, tipping her up to face him. “Do not overestimate your place here. I protect you from my enemies and tolerate your company, but I still find myself questioning why it is you in my mother’s vision.”

Well, that stung.

He released her and stepped back. “I expect to see you at dinner, tomorrow, as always. I should have plenty of time now that matter has been dealt with.” He whirled and stormed away, leaving a shaking Darcy alone in the library.

She curled up for a little while, staring at the now-blank screen, reliving what had just happened. First, she’d discovered there was no way for the team to get to the casket. No matter how well she distracted Loki, it would always be out of their reach.

Second, he was as repelled by the idea of having a child with her as she was. Despite everything she’d done to show an interest in him and try to forge a bond, he didn’t care. At least it showed how very wrong Frigga’s vision was, but it left Darcy feeling bereft, a spare part in a world of important pieces, incapable of making a man like her even when it was supposedly destiny.

It didn’t matter. She was useless here, useless to the cause, and they needed to find a new way of defeating Loki, because she wasn’t it.

Chapter Text

In the end, her stomach dragged her out of her pity party by insisting on being fed.

The soup she'd abandoned when faced with Loki's frosty side had cooled and congealed, while Renard had been sent home, so she fixed herself toast and left a note under some gravy.

Pissed him off and he basically called me an ant. Also, the casket is kept in another dimension when he's not using it, so we're screwed.

There was no disguising how despondent she felt.

Natasha's reply arrived a day later, after another tense dinner with Loki, where she was back at the opposite end of the dining table. He didn't say a word to her.

Frigga assures us she can get to the casket, or cut Loki off from storing it on other planes. I'm informed your reaction to his true nature will have hurt his feelings—you'll need to be the one to make overtures. The plan is still in play.

Easy for her to say. Darcy had to apologize? Totally unfair. She hadn't even killed anyone.

But in the interests of saving the world, she waited until after dinner the next night, as Loki was rising to leave.

"Can I talk to you?" The words came out meek and hesitant.

He cocked his head and shrugged.

"In the library. Without all this—" she swept her hand at the expanse of the table "in the way."

He followed her to one of the sofas but did not sit down, instead pacing in front of the hearth.

"I'm sorry for what I said the other day," she mumbled. That stopped his movement.

"What was that? I didn't quite catch it."

"I'm sorry." The words 'if I upset you' were on the tip of her tongue, but he'd never admit that her words could have any effect on him, so she abandoned them. "You scared me and I reacted the way I felt. It's how I am." Maybe honesty would gain her some ground. "I don't bottle things up inside or keep them quiet. If I'm frightened, I scream. I wasn't expecting to see that happen and it terrified me."

"I see." He didn't speak but she had nothing else to say, so she left the next move up to him. "This changes nothing." Yet she could see it did; his stance had softened, even if his tone hadn't. "I do what I must and I will make no attempt to shield you from it. You must see all of me—and you have already seen the worst."

Darcy doubted it, but didn't contradict him. "It was the killing that scared me. Not the blue skin."

"My jotun side?" He tossed the words out with a practiced nonchalance. If it hadn't been for Frigga's insight, she wouldn't have heard the edge to the words. "I show it only when using the casket—if this form pleases you more, then this is the form you will see."

Not what she'd been aiming for—but at least this was a sign he was trying to appear favorably in her eyes. "Thank you," she said.

He nodded. "I will see you tomorrow."

When he left, she went to the mythology bookshelf, to find all she could about frost giants.


It took time for him to melt but soon they were back in their old routine. Darcy wondered exactly how much had been relayed to Natasha about her confrontation with Loki, and whether the agents weren't another set of ears around the place. She only ever saw two or three, on rotation, and it would be easy to leverage their disloyalty to Loki into turning spy here. She also asked for more information about Loki's true heritage and any leverage Frigga could provide. Darcy had known about his adoption, but not how he felt about his frost giant side. Hell, she'd barely even considered what that meant before she saw it. But as Darcy learned his soft spots, it became easier to stay away from topics that would piss him off, and lead him to calmer waters.

Loki even turned up sporadically during the day, requesting Darcy's presence on a walk around the island, and with every occasion she felt more comfortable in his presence. But less easy in her own skin. How far would she have to push this before the Avengers were ready to strike? Loki was charming but this couldn't carry on forever.

He brought gifts for her too, nearly every night. Not jewelry, since her reaction to his offer hadn't exactly been encouraging, but flowers and books and anything that seemed to catch his eye. He brought single white roses and bouquets of exotic blooms that reminded him of Asgardian flora; antique editions of long dead philosophers, Shakespeare and first edition Tolkien; honey from Peru or chocolate from Belgium, a sure sign of where he'd been that day.

She recognized it for what it was, a tentative courtship, and also a sign she was in his thoughts when he was away from the island. A promising step forward, even if they still had nothing in common, and she still couldn't picture their paths leading to the future from the mirror. His attempts at pleasing her were driven by the knowledge of where they were supposed to end up, not any interest in her as a person.

But when he smiled, and he meant it, she definitely felt it. Like when Thor or Steve smiled—she might not have any interest in them beyond friendship, but damn they could make her weak at the knees.

And he knew the effect it had on her, just like he knew the effect kissing the back of her hand before he took his leave from her did. It left her breathless and confused, staring up her bedroom ceiling during the night examining exactly how he made her feel. Dampened hate, a smidgen of fear, and yet beyond his charm and skill at storytelling, she still couldn't say she liked him either. He was alien, too haughty for that, too caught up in his own myth. His arrogance acted as a shield between them and Darcy offered up a silent prayer of thanks, because it reminded her of who he truly was, and why love was never in the cards for them.


It started as another crisp day, winter arriving with a bite but nothing Darcy couldn't wrap up against. Not a cloud in the sky and not an inch of rain forecast. She ventured out, pretending she was exhaling smoke when she breathed out and it created a little cloud of fog, like she was five years old again. As the day wore on the sun chased the hint of frost away, and she spent an afternoon up on the lighthouse balcony.

The perfect blue of the sky and assurances of the weatherman were what made the storm such a shock. She'd settled in the library a few hours before dinner and now rain was beating down on the glass roof, drowning out the surround sound unless she turned it up to earsplitting levels. When she looked up, the sky through the warp of the rain looked like cotton wool soaked in black ink.

She crossed into the kitchen to peer out through the windows at the bay. The lighthouse had not burst into life, because the sun hadn't gone down yet, but it was the perfect time to practice. If anyone saw the beam it could be put down to a fault, triggered by the black clouds.

As she dashed out into the rain, a ferry was crossing the sound. The wind was picking up and the air carried a charge to it, but she hadn't heard the split of thunder yet. She pounded through the door and then up the steps to the control room.

Hold that down, flip that, twist that and—voila?

She held her breath, peering up the stairs to the light, waiting to see what happened. Already she could hear the crank of machinery working around her.

One. Two

The central bulb flickered to life. Three.

She reversed what she'd just done, returning it to its automated settings, then rushed back across to the main house.

Moments after she'd got back into the library after toweling her hair, the agent and Monsieur Renard arrived. It was one of the male agents tonight, and he seemed very interested in whatever was coming through his earpiece.

"You've been out in this?" he asked when whoever had been speaking to shut up.

"I didn't know it was supposed to rain," she replied.

He peered at the roof to eyeball the clouds. "Neither did the 'copter pilot. Anyway, you're eating alone tonight."

"Okay." The agent sloped to the kitchen to supervise Renard, leaving Darcy to her own devices. The rain was already tapering off and Darcy settled in to watch a Cupcake Wars rerun.


Another evening alone, this time with a smattering of rain against the glass room and a murder mystery to keep her company. She was halfway through dinner when she heard shouting from the kitchen. She froze, instantly thinking of the one thing she feared most. Had the agent found a note?

She scrambled up, ready to make a run for it—where to, she didn't know—when the agent burst into the library.

"Ms. Lewis, I need you to come with me. We're under attack."

"We're what?" She followed him, to where a trembling Renard waited by the front door. Over his shoulder, through the window, she could see the shore and just within frame, the harbor. Where a ferry was currently moored, listing badly. "Holy crap."

The agent had the door open, ushering them both out, and Darcy was too confused to do anything but follow him, even though logic said this was some kind of rescue mission. What had she missed? Was something going on in the outside world that she had no clue about?

"Where are we going?" she asked. Their options were limited.

"The helicopter pad," the agent replied. She really needed to find out his name, but it wasn't like the agents wore name badges.

The scrap of concrete the helicopter usually landed on was closer to the harbor, and even as they rounded the house and aimed for it, figures crossed their path. Not many—a handful—but in the fading light, Darcy's already poor eyesight made it difficult to tell.

The agent swore and veered away, tearing back towards the house with Darcy and Renard in close pursuit.

"The lighthouse!" Renard yelled, so that's where they headed. When they barreled in, panting, Darcy leaned against the wall beside him.

"Thanks for all the food," she said between gasps. "I owe you one hell of a tip."

He laughed, then cast an uneasy glance at the door. Evidently this was the first time he'd ever had to run for his life.

They headed up to the second floor, but stayed away from the tower, which had one exit—off the balcony. Not that there were many other options in the rest of the lighthouse.

"Are they after Loki?" Darcy asked the agent. "And who are they?"

He shook his head, muttering away into his earpiece. "We don't know their identities. They boarded the ferry on Long Island and threatened the captain unless he brought it here. He managed to get an SOS out because they didn't seem to understand what it was. Now he's in radio contact."

"Can't we just go and tell them Loki isn't here?"

"Ma'am, my duty is to protect you. They know you're Loki's…whatever you are and intend to use you as leverage."

"Whatever I am," she echoed flatly. He didn't meet her eyes.

All of a sudden it wasn't a fun diversion anymore. This was no rescue mission.

"I've alerted central command and—"

The door below creaked open. Darcy pressed herself into the wall and held her breath. The agent pressed a finger to his lips, like she or Renard were going to start yapping away like idiots, and leaned around the door frame of the room they were in, gun poised.

"Show yourself, mortals. We know you're in here."

Mortals? Darcy recognized the voice—female, a little bit haughty—but it took a moment to place it. She waved at the agent to catch his attention. "Asgardians!" she mouthed, but he frowned in confusion, turning his head away so she couldn't distract him further. Undeterred, Darcy crept closer. That was Sif's voice, one of Thor's friends—one of the good guys. She'd be safe when they realized it was her. "They're Asgardians!" she whispered. "It's okay, they're—"

Thunder on the stairs as Sif and her companions came bounding up them. The agent got off a few shots, before a crack to the head knocked him out.

Darcy squealed and threw herself in front of poor Renard before Sif could round on him. "He's just a chef! He's harmless!" She threw her hands up in the air for good measure.

The warriors three followed Sif into the room, weapons drawn but moving cautiously.

"Lady Darcy?" Fandral asked, smiling widely.

"Hi. Loki's not here, by the way."

"We gather."

Volstagg beamed. "It is good to see you!"

"Is it?" Sif interrupted quietly. "We'd been told Loki's mistress hides on this island, yet the only person who could fit that description is you." She drew her blade and took a step closer. Fandral and Volstagg exchanged puzzled glances, but Hogun stepped up behind Sif.

"I'm not Loki's mistress. I swear!"

"He keeps you here in luxury, attended by servants," she jutted her chin at the cowering chef, "and hidden from the world. What else could you be?"

"Sif, don't be too hasty—" said Fandral.

Sif shushed him. "She's the one we seek. It's all too obvious she has betrayed us, and Thor. Our plan hasn't changed. If we cannot get to Loki, she will do."

She swung her blade and Darcy screamed, scrambling out of the way just in time for it to bite into the floorboard. Renard scrabbled after her, only to be hauled out of the way by Volstagg. Darcy was facing this on her own.

She almost wasn't quick enough the second time, the blade catching her just above the eye, and she yelped, scooting away on her ass.

Volstagg grabbed Sif's elbow and she whirled to face him.

"That's enough blood," he said. "If she is what you believe her to be, she'll serve just as well as our captive."

Sif yanked away with a snarl. "Thor counted her as a friend!" She swung at Darcy again.

"Please, don't!" Darcy shrieked. She rolled again, coming up hard against a leather boot. Lots of leather. Loki had appeared, a barrier between her and Sif, with scarlet fire fading from his eyes and ridges smoothing from his skin. The quiet anger wasn't going anywhere.

"The girl tells the truth," he said, meeting Sif's blade with the metal plate on his forearm. "Hello Sif. I see your bloodlust hasn't dimmed any."

They circled and Darcy crabwalked to keep behind Loki.

"If you aren't tupping her, then why is she here?" Sif asked.

"Hey!" Darcy protested, then winced as Sif's sword slashed a little too close to Loki's exposed side. For some reason, the only weapon he had was a dagger, useless against Sif's longer blade.

"Long term plans," he replied.

Darcy's back was at the door and she took the opportunity to scuttle out. Hogun moved to block her, but Fandral gripped him by the shoulder and shook his head. He leaned down to whisper to Darcy, below the crash of steel on armor and warcries.

"The widow makes her move. She needs at least two hours to secure it—if you can give her that, make it known."

She nodded her understanding and made a break for the stairs up to the control room, slamming the door behind her. Hands shaking in the dark, she fumbled around for the switches she needed. Outside, the wind was picking up again, rain spattering against the glass at the top of the tower. She got the combination wrong once but nailed it on the second attempt, in time for the door below to slam open.

"After her!" Sif yelled. Darcy crept up the remaining stairs to the light, knowing someone would be on her at any moment. She reached the door onto the balcony and swung it open, stepping out into the storm. She had nowhere else to go.

Arms wrapped around her waist from behind and she opened her mouth to scream, only for a hand to clamp down over her lips.

"Ssssh. It is I." Loki's voice in her ear, closer than it ever had been. The door crashed open and Hogun was on the balcony a second later, weapon drawn. Loki laughed and, tightening his grip on Darcy, leaped.

This time she did scream, a sound swallowed up by the lashing of waves on the rocks below. They landed smoothly, like he'd hopped over a fence instead of dropping four storeys.

Loki was already on the move as Darcy found her feet, his hand around her upper arm as he swept her along. Fandral and Volstagg emerged from the front door of the lighthouse a moment later, Volstagg supporting an injured Sif, her hand around a stab wound in her abdomen. Blood seeped between her fingers. She had the agent's abandoned gun in the other hand. Loki stepped in front of Darcy to shield her, and they hurried away, Hogun taking a leap from the tower to follow them. Loki dogged their footsteps, and it was clear where they were heading when they passed the house. Where the agent had been leading them before they were cut off.

She could barely keep up with Loki. "I must cut them off," he said, but she sobbed and clung to his arm. She couldn't allow him to dematerialize away—once she was out of his sight, she'd be out of mind, and it was game over. Instead, she pushed herself even harder, and even then he was ahead of her when they reached the helicopter pad. It was already in midair, Sif's gun clearly aimed at the pilot's head.

"They can't—not in weather like this—" Darcy said.

Loki flexed his outstretched palm, as if considering something. "Well then. Let the weather do its worst." He balled his hand into a fist instead.

Agents were swarming up from the harbor, but they already seemed to sense the battle was over.

"You!" Loki yelled at the nearest. "Track that machine, be ready to capture them wherever it lands. Remove the cook from the island, and your fallen comrade. You'd better redeem yourselves for allowing this to happen, or you will all pay!"

Darcy gave another sob, wiping at her forehead and only managing to smear the blood further. It caught Loki's attention, as he began bundling her back towards the house.

The lighthouse was still blazing away, but it seemed entirely right in the heart of a storm. Just doing its job. Loki didn't spare it a glance, leading her into the library and setting her on a sofa. With a gesture the fireplace crackled to life, casting a glow to Loki, far gentler than the energy she could sense in him. He knelt before her, peering at the wound.

"I'm fine. It's only a scratch," Darcy said, wanting to squirm under the attention.

He didn't reply, fingers reaching up to press at the cut. She felt cool, tingly energy, a prickle across her scalp, but Loki held her firm, one hand cupping her chin to keep her steady. "And now it is nothing," he said, rocking back onto his haunches.

"Did you…was that magic?"

"The wound is healed, yes. How fare you? You lost blood."

"Not much."

He nodded in satisfaction, shifting to rise. Ready to depart.

On impulse, she reached out to grab him, fingers curling around his bicep, then yanking them away like she'd been burned. "What if they come back?" she whispered.

He was torn for a moment, eager to chase his brother and slake his rage, but she saw his gaze travel to her blood still on his fingertips. He settled himself again.

"You mortals are so frail. So easily lost. Sif will pay for every drop shed tenfold."

She winced. "How did you know about the warriors? Your timing was impeccable, by the way. Another second and…" She let her thoughts drift to what could have been, to the too-real sting of the sword's tip slicing open her skin. It gave her a well of panic to draw on.

"The agent's communication device was still working and the events were being relayed to me while I dealt with another matter in New York."

"Another matter?" She absently poked at the place she'd been cut—as smooth as it had ever been.

"My brother led an attack against me."

She tried to keep her reaction limited to neutral surprise. "Thor? Thor is here?" Thanks for the heads-up, Natasha. "The storm yesterday—that must have been him and the warriors—"

She hadn't had chance to think about how they'd arrived, but now the storm's origins were clear. Another bridge. Had Jane finished her work?

"Yes." If he was unhappy at her reaction to Thor—and at least she hadn't cheered—he kept it hidden. "They managed to make the crossing to Midgard and wasted no time in leading an attack against me—though, as usual, one without any kind of planning or forethought. My mother with them, too." Of course, she had to be, to sever Loki's link to the casket.

"Did you capture Thor?" Darcy asked breathlessly, though she already knew the answer.

Loki gave a sharp laugh. "At the opportune moment, I had to depart to save a fair maiden."

Darcy frowned, then spluttered. "Me?" I hope he's not taking the maiden thing seriously.

"My brother survives to be a problem for another day, since the incompetency of SHIELD means he escaped, but it did not seem like you would survive facing Sif."

The mention of Thor had caused a new tension within him, and she felt him drawing away. Loki would want to chase Thor down, and if Thor was the one who'd captured the casket, he and Frigga needed a clear path to wherever they were taking it.

"No, I don't think I would have," she murmured. She was shaky enough that it was easy to let color her voice, for her hands to tremble as she brought them up to her face. "Sif was really going to kill me, wasn't she?"

He didn't sugarcoat his response, though he did frown at the tears threatening to escape. He reached up as if to brush them away from her eyes, then seemed to think better of it. "Yes."

"Why? Didn't they know I'm only a prisoner?"

Emotion rippled over his face, a moment of hurt quickly concealed. "Is that how you see yourself, still? A prisoner?"

"Isn't that what I am?"

"After all I have offered you—if you take it freely—"

"I know what the price for that is. You think I'd want to bring a kid into this? You're at war with the rest of the universe."

"For now. But when I am victorious, there will be nothing to stop me from keeping my heir safe."

For some reason, that only made Darcy cry harder, and Loki's confusion increased.

A knock at the door. "Your Majesty, we have news—"

"Leave us!" Loki snarled.

Darcy glanced at the clock, wiping the tears away. An hour and a half, at least, to keep him distracted. Weeping wasn't going to cut it for much longer.

"You are conflicted," he continued. "There is no need to be. This isn't a betrayal of anyone. Wouldn't it be simpler to allow what must happen to happen—to let what you have already seen guide you? Do not let fear or the whispered poison of others tear you away from what must be."

He was so close, his scent spice and warm honey, his voice featherlight and mesmerizing. When she met his eyes they were pure black, the iris swallowed by desire, and she realized she'd never seen him this close before. She'd never seen his eyes like this, thick lashes framing them and swooping languorously when he blinked, his usually sparse mouth seeming plump and inviting.

She did the only thing she could. She kissed him.

He smiled against her mouth, and she could taste the victory in it—his victory—enough that it made her hesitant, tentative, ready to break away and run for safety at the first sign of trouble. He lacked the chill she'd been expecting, not just in his lips, but in the fingers that cradled her face. No doubt all part of the illusion that made him appear as he did, but she didn't care. The way his mouth moved against hers, the sure movement of his tongue, meant she'd take him as a giant Popsicle right at this moment.

Loki knew what he was doing—centuries of practice probably helped—and it dampened her hesitation, even while her brain raced away on its hamster wheel.

She shouldn't do this. If she went to bed with Loki, she was proving Sif right, she had betrayed them all.

No. No she hadn't. This was purely physical, just like any other one night stand. She could at least admit she was attracted to Loki, and he'd offered. She had the right to share her body with whoever she wanted to and it didn't have to mean a thing. She'd have a good time, keep Loki's focus off the casket, and in the morning be able to blame it on being upset. Frigga's potion would make sure the little boy from the mirror didn't make an early appearance.

"Do you assent?" he asked.

"I-I…" Let go. Let it happen.

It was easier to keep kissing him than to say it out loud, and he took the answer greedily.

Chapter Text

Loki led her by the hand to his rooms, the ones Darcy hadn’t seen, lighting them up with candles at a gesture of his hand. They were a mirror image to her own, but dressed to his tastes, dripping with gilt, with lush carpet underfoot. They lacked much in the way of furnishings except the bed, dominating the space, carved oak to match the dining room, and dressed with gold silk hangings.

She was aware of how much taller he was when they were stood this close together. His skin was cool against hers, not cold, and she idly wondered if her skin felt clammy to him. Not that he gave her much room to think: his lips were insistent on hers again, tipping her head back and pulling her to tiptoe so he had all the access he needed.

Unsure of what to do with her hands, she let them rest against his chest, curling her fingers into the leather as best she could. There was no urgency to the way he kissed, but a sureness. Even that level of arrogance couldn’t put her off, not the way he was setting off delicious fluttering in her belly and making every inch of her skin hypersensitive. She’d never been kissed like this before and was sure she’d never be kissed this way again.

She was dimly aware she may have whimpered and he took it as a signal, moving faster, turning up the heat. The metal beneath her fingertips melted away, then the leather did too, and she pulled away to gasp at the change. He was in his casual clothes once more, and for the first time ever seemed to carry a flush in his cheeks, faint as it was. His lips appeared pinker and plumper, glistening as he moistened them with his tongue. They were the one feature that usually let him down, so sharp they appeared thin, which matched the angles of his face but hardly seemed sensual. But on hers they were soft, and that was what counted.

While her mouth was free, she took the opportunity to speak. “Um…we need protection.” They didn’t, but if she didn’t raise the issue, it would make her look all too willing.

“You are safe here.”

“That’s not what I mean.” She ducked her head, wondering how she was going to explain it to Loki. He caught her chin and brought her face back to his.

“I see,” he said. “Tonight, we need nothing. You are not fertile.”

He was right, thanks to Frigga, but Darcy was also sure he was bullshitting. He had no interest in preventing a pregnancy. “Are you sure?” she whispered between brushes of lips.

“No child will be conceived tonight,” he lied. She melted into him, and the hand at her chin brushed against her throat before moving down, coming to rest on her breast over the cotton of her t-shirt. She gasped again and felt his lips curl into a smile. His thumb began to circle, slowly, and then he dipped her backwards, giving his mouth access to her neck.

Open-mouthed kisses followed, the warmth of his breath, the wet brush of his tongue. He kissed a trail down to her collarbone, pulling the fabric aside to give him unfettered access, where he explored with teeth and tongue. She curled her fingers into his hair, trying to keep her grip on reality, but a nip of his teeth had her tugging, hard. He wrenched away, smiling a feral grin down at her while her back was still arched, his thumb stilling.

She reached to tug at his tunic, hands dipping under it to find the smooth skin there. She lifted it just an inch, then dropped to her knees, tipping her head back to see his reaction. Stoic, but curious. She nudged the fabric up with her nose then licked along his exposed hipbone. He yanked the tunic off, tossing it out of sight and leaning down to relieve Darcy of her t-shirt too.

She still had her bra on underneath—not her favorite, but Loki’s slow smile yielded lust. The planes of his chest were now exposed to her, and she pushed at him until he walked backwards to rest on the edge of the bed. She had no idea how people thought of Loki as slight—he was muscled everywhere. In the glow of the candlelight he was pale enough to resemble flawless stone, the work of a master sculptor. She crawled after him—crawling had to be a turn on for him—and worked her way up his torso with hands, lips and tongue. He kept perfectly still as she worked, then reclaimed her mouth greedily when she was level with him.

He reached behind her to unhook her bra and trailed the straps down her arms, fingers leaving a path of goosebumps in their wake. Then he pulled her onto his lap, the hand in the small of her back pressing in so she arched, offering everything to him. He took the offer with relish.

She didn’t stay still while his mouth went to work, shifting her hips against the leather below her. There was a lot of fabric between them but she could feel him ready, and she rocked a careful rhythm against him.

For the first time his calm facade faltered, moving with her, panting himself. He reached a hand between them, and with a few frantic movements released himself. He was impressive, long enough to rest against his own stomach, pleasantly hefty when she curled her fingers around him.

“Enough,” he hissed, rolling them over with a sudden shift of his hips. She found herself half underneath him, his cock pressing against her bare skin, while he deftly shoved his pants down and kicked them away. Without pause he reached for the button on her jeans, wrenching them away too until there was nothing left between them. “That’s…not what I was expecting,” he murmured, running one finger along the top of her thigh. She snapped her legs shut but he was already there, cupping her. “So smooth. A pleasant surprise.”

He raised up, pinning her arms over her head with one hand and using the other to explore as he wished, at first soft fingerfalls that made her squirm, then more urgent caresses over her slick skin. He pushed her knees further apart and circled her entrance with one finger, two fingers, and pushed in.

“Not a maiden,” he said as she cried out, “thank the Nine.” He explored languidly, watching her face for her reactions, an eager smile appearing whenever she moaned particularly loudly or rocked her hips up.

As close as the sensations pushed her towards falling apart, it wasn’t enough. “Please—” she whimpered.

“You know what I want,” he replied, moving ever softer.

Maybe she did, but she couldn’t remember it right now, not when flickers of electricity were licking across her body this way. Instead she arched up, using the power of her hips to twist them over. He still had her arms pinned, but it didn’t matter because she could pull free of his other hand, tackling his throat until he relented with the other.

Then she moved down, a hasty exploration of his chest and abs ending with her taking him into her mouth. She wasn’t kneeling, but he didn’t seem to have any complaints. She put more enthusiasm into this than she ever had, rolling her eyes up so she could meet his, and watch as he surrendered to something that wasn’t his own anger.

He soon wanted the upper hand again, tugging her away, scooping her up and tossing her into the center of the bed. Then he was covering her, chest to chest, hips to hips, her legs tangled around his. He didn’t waste a moment before pressing into her.

“Not a maiden,” he repeated through gritted teeth, “though you feel close to one.”

“Tell me about it,” she muttered. He was the biggest guy she’d ever been with, and it had been a while, and she was definitely feeling maidenly. It wasn’t painful, but it took a minute of gentle back-and-forth motions from Loki before it became comfortable, and then…incredible.

When Darcy relaxed, Loki raised himself onto his forearms and began to move with ferocity, and she writhed beneath him. She didn’t have much scope for movement so she focused the intensity she was feeling into the nails clawing at Loki’s back and the teeth at his shoulder. It only seemed to spur him on, and she could feel herself sliding across the silk until she had to brace herself against the headboard.

He shifted then, an arm under her waist bringing her upright so she was sitting with her back to the headboard, and he pushed her legs as wide as they would go. He took a moment to admire the view, greedy gaze torn between her breasts and spread thighs. She blushed when she realized what he was doing, reaching to cover up, but he was already pushing back inside.

If she thought he’d been fast before, he knocked the breath out of her now. His movements verged on rough, but her body responded with delight and she returned her nails to his skin, because it was the only outlet she had. Not that she was going to come this way: it was intense, to the point of overwhelming, but that was the problem. She could feel pleasure building but it wouldn’t crest based on this alone. Loki was too focused on his own pleasure to deal with hers.

She snuck a hand between them and Loki froze, eyes opening to pin her in place.

“What are you doing?” he rasped.

“Um.” It took two deep breaths and a swallow to speak. “Touching myself.”

“Is this not enough?” He punctuated each word with a hard thrust.

“N-no—”

He replaced her thumb with his own. “But this will bring you release?”

She nodded and he began to touch her, his hips resuming their previous speed.

“You know what I want to hear,” he whispered.

“Please,” she replied, and his thumb stilled.

“Close, but not right.”

She whimpered and twisted against him. “I don’t know,” she panted. He kept teasing: a few moments of touch and then nothing. She was right there, overfull of pleasure and ready to spill out, too wrought to think.

“You do. Say it,” he demanded. “Say the name of the man who gives you this gift. Utter my name in supplication and I will grant your prayer.”

The silk of his voice, dripping over her skin as much as his sweat, was almost enough to tip her over. Almost.

“Loki,” she said on a sigh. She clung to the word like an anchor.

“Again.”

“Loki.” This time louder, wilder, and he rewarded her for it, ripping the anchor away and pushing her under. Pleasure cresting as a torrent, and this time Loki himself was the anchor. Her body had its own effect on him and he shuddered against her, biting back whatever he’d been about to call out.

In the moment they were both submerged, she met his gaze. An accident on her part, a glimpse at him as all his walls shut down for just a second. At first she saw nothing but her own pleasure echoed in him, but as they surfaced and it receded, a flicker of uncertainty followed. A little vulnerability. Something she could swear was hope. Only a flicker. Then it was gone, swallowed by male pride in a job well done.

He retreated gingerly, and Darcy could do little more than slither down the sheets until she was entirely horizontal again, sated and boneless.

“You need rest?” he asked, and she nodded wordlessly. Maybe with a little cuddling she could bask and then she’d be ready for more, but that wasn’t Loki’s style. Still, he was still on the bed beside her, instead of leaping up to pull on his clothes. Always a good sign. Besides, once could be explained away as temporary leave of her senses. Twice was harder to brush off. He was entirely too comfortable with his nudity—and if she’d had his body, she couldn’t have blamed him—but he was relaxed in a way that spoke too much of surety. If he wanted to talk about what this meant for them, she had nothing to offer him.

She offered him a shy smile and reached for the sheets to cover herself. They smelt of laundry powder, so were either clean or Loki didn’t normally sleep here. He’d rolled onto his side to observe her, and she shut her eyes, hoping it would shield her from his scrutiny. She wiggled around until she was properly comfortable, wincing a little at the soreness between her legs and the wetness leaking from her. Then, despite Loki’s watchful eyes and the absurdity of the entire situation, she let sleep claim her.


Dawn brought birdsong and soft light, as well as a disoriented Darcy trying to figure out where the hell she was. For a moment she wondered if she’d stepped into a mirror universe, then the gold drapes fluttered into vision and she remembered.

She remembered all of it.

She was sprawled inelegantly across the bed, and the other side of it was cold and empty. Not that she’d been expecting snuggling or spooning. This was a bonus: she didn’t have to face Loki straight away and deal with whatever was going to come next. Instead, she slipped out of the bed, pulling her underwear back on and making a dash for her own room.

The hour was entirely too early for her to be awake, but her body seemed perfectly happy with the amount of sleep she’d had. So she showered, water as hot as she could stand it to soothe the aches of the previous day and dressed, creeping out into the library to check whether the coast was clear.

Three agents guarded the front door. Three agents she didn’t recognize. It looked like security was getting beefed up after the day before. She waved at them and headed for the kitchen to sort out breakfast. There was no sign of Loki which meant he was probably out searching for the casket.

And with that she lost her appetite. If he had even the slightest clue that she’d thrown herself at him last night so they could steal it, he’d kill her. Of that, she was pretty certain.

She suffered her way through a bowl of Cheerios then approached the exterior door. “Am I allowed to go out?” she asked.

The middle agent was the only one to look at her. “Depends where you want to go.”

“Just for a walk.”

“Then you’ll be accompanied.”

This was new, but she went with it. She didn’t intend to go far, just a loop around to the harbor to see what kind of state it was in.

There was no trace of the storm from the previous night, the sky a dishwater grey, and the lighthouse was back to its darkened self. She trudged over to it, an agent on her tail, and slipped inside.

She wasn’t sure what drew her in—maybe to see whether there was any remnant of what had happened the day before. There should be blood in the upstairs room they’d hidden, but it looked cleaner than ever. Someone had been in to clear up. She expected the same when she headed up the control room, but instead found it in ruins. Plastic and metal littered the floor, wiring ripped out at the roots, while more glass than could possibly have come from in here glittered over every surface. She glanced up, to where the center of the spiral stairs gave her a clear view of the light. What was left it.

Someone had taken a sledgehammer to it—or blasted it apart with magic.

Footsteps sounded overhead, leather boots coming into view as she backed away. She stumbled down the steps, and Loki continued his languid descent. She shut the door behind her with shaking hands, then burst into a sprint, past the agent who called out and gave chase. Down the stairs, out of the front door, across the field—it didn’t matter if the agent caught her, she just needed to outrun Loki.

She had no idea where she was going or where she could hide, but in the distance she could see the harbor, the ferry’s carcass removed and what she hoped were smaller boats in its place. She pushed herself as hard as she could. If he caught her…

Because he knew. The smashed up lighthouse proved that. Whatever game he was playing wasn’t going to end well for her.

She was halfway across the helicopter pad when he flickered into place before her, and she collided with him. She was too winded to scream even as one hand clamped down over her mouth and the other gathered her hands together.

His posture was too tight, too rigid. She couldn’t find a trace of mercy or the man she’d glimpsed last night.

“You’ll be pleased to know,” he told in her clipped tones, “that Thor has the casket secured out of my reach and intends to challenge me today.”

He dragged her towards the helicopter. One of the agents approached but he fell back with one glance from Loki.

“We’re going on an adventure,” he continued, shoving her down into the seat and clipping her into place. She didn’t have time to move before he was in his own seat, barking orders at the pilot. She had the ear protectors but nothing else: whatever he was saying, she wasn’t privy to.

The helicopter lifted and Darcy didn’t shut her eyes straight away. Instead, she sat quaking in her seat, proud of herself for not resorting to tears yet again but unable to stop shivering. The house disappeared beneath them, the lighthouse beyond it, and then they were over the water. That was when she closed her eyes.

Like the last time, the journey seemed to last for an eternity, and this time she had no interest in knowing where they were going. Loki couldn’t have anything positive planned on this adventure, and nothing that would end well for her.

When they came in to land, neither she or Loki moved, though the helicopter was surrounded by men in overalls. They were in a field, somewhere nondescript with a hanger in the distance.

“How far will this take us?” Loki demanded of the pilot.

“We won’t need to refuel again, Your Majesty.”

They took off and Darcy tried to keep her eyes open this time. If she was going to die anyway, she might as well enjoy the view. Loki’s presence was a wall of ice at her side. As far as she could tell, he didn’t so much as glance at her. She wasn’t entirely successful in keeping her eyes open, since the view of mountains below them made her stomach churn, but her fear of what was to come overrode the fear of what could happen in the sky.

For the first time since she’d decided to willingly become Loki’s captive, she regretted her choice. What have I done?

All she knew about the place they landed was that it was a plateau thousands of feet above where she was comfortable being. She couldn’t have even identified the mountain range, because snow-capped at this time of year meant nothing.

She was hauled out of the helicopter again in the direction of the mountainside, the edge of a building jutting from the rock. They’d landed within a heavily-guarded perimeter, the distant hum of an electric fence audible. A line of soldiers with machine guns stood at attention outside the building, though they all fell to their knees at Loki’s approach. He kept one hand wrapped firmly around Darcy’s arm, making her walk in front of him.

As they passed by she noticed the soldiers wore SHIELD emblems, and even Loki had to pause while two of them opened the heavy door with swipes of their palms. It rolled aside, metal half a foot thick, and she was shoved into the darkness. He marched her down a set of steps, a faint light at the bottom the only thing guiding her way, and then through another door.

At first she feared this was a prison, Loki’s last trap for her, but her eyes adjusted and she saw it was a warehouse, cluttered with cages but none bearing human cargo. Instead they passed chunks of metal and stone, guns and swords, glittering fragments of weapons and whirring machinery—a rocket launcher or two. This was a storage facility. The layer of soldiers inside told Darcy how seriously SHIELD took the security of what it held.

The path they took was the central aisle, leading to a crate at one end. A crate made of solid stone with a scrapyard full of hardware keeping it locked tight.

“Open it,” Loki commanded the soldier in front of it.

The soldier didn’t even blink at him. Another man, looking more SHIELD-y in the traditional suit, approached Loki. He did not bow. “There are protocols. Fury said this could only be opened in certain circumstances with his authorization. There are codewords and—”

“Fury does not command SHIELD anymore. I do. Or shall I demand his removal from the cell he rots in, to be brought here and provide your authorization, before I slit his throat and let his life ebb away over that crate?”

The agent made an apologetic little hand gesture. “It’s not that simple.”

Loki grabbed him by the throat and hauled him up. “Oh, but it is.”

“No!” Darcy shouted, reaching out to where Loki held the agent, but his free hand caught her and crushed her to his side. “There, there, pet. Soon all your worries will disappear.”

As if Darcy had any reason to doubt he was going to kill her.

He dropped the agent who landed heavily on his ass, choking, scooting away as fast as he could. The atmosphere in the warehouse had thickened, every person present waiting for the shit to hit the fan.

“Out of the way,” Loki demanded of the soldier in front of the crate, and when he didn’t move, Loki swung his arm, as if he was throwing a punch, though he was too far away to hit the guy. Instead golden light blasted from his outstretched hand, knocking the guy off his feet. Guns cocked, but Loki met the defiant stares of the soldiers head on. “You know your weapons will do no good against me. Stand down or your families will only have you to blame for their fates.”

The soldiers in the room dropped to their knees, an eerie echo of the men outside, though Darcy read clear defiance in their bowed necks.

“Now leave us,” he said. “I’ll get this crate open on my own. And when I do, you’ll all bow your heads to me with not a shred of defiance in your hearts.” They began filing out, but Loki rounded on the agent he’d almost force choked. “You, stay.”

The agent looked like he’d prefer to put a bullet into his own brain, but stayed still, watching his comrades exit the warehouse.

“Shall we?” Loki asked no one in particular. He gestured for the agent to crawl over to the crate, and without any further prompting he began to undo each of the locks. “And what about this one?” Loki asked when they were all undone except one, one that didn’t seem to have any opening for a key or biometric reader. It was basically a featureless lump of steel.

“That needs Fury’s DNA. There’s no way around it.”

“I see.” Loki reached down to touch it, then thought better. “And a forcefield which detects DNA not belonging to the man of fury? Ingenious, but not impossible to work around.” As an aside to Darcy he said, “Did I ever tell you how much I detest men who wear eye patches?”

With a blast of the golden energy the lock seemed to change, a biometric pad appearing on its side. Then Loki grabbed the agent’s hand, sliced along the palm until blood welled, and held his arm out to let the blood drip down. The agent whimpered and Darcy kept her gaze on the lock. It shimmered and the agent screamed, smoke seeming to pour from his hand, then Loki shoved him away. He grasped the lock in his hand and crushed it, tossing it away when it was in three pieces.

“Well, now that’s dealt with.” He grabbed the nearest handle on the lid and heaved it open.

It took both of his hands, giving Darcy precious freedom, a few steps from his side. Those steps turned into strides as soon as she saw what was in the crate.

A scepter, one she’d heard about but not seen in real life, bladed at one end and with a stone in the center, crackling with blue energy. A scepter that would allow Loki to control minds.

Loki went for the agent first, who’d been binding up his hand with his tie. Darcy knew running was pointless: there was a host of soldiers outside waiting to capture her and return her to Loki, and that was before he had total control over them. Never mind they were in the middle of a mountain range and she had nowhere to run.

Soon all your worries will disappear. Fuck, no. She would die before she’d give him her mind, and this time she had a lot more options.

She didn’t make it far. Loki materialized in front of her, and when she span around to head in the opposite direction he was there as well, in all his terrible glory. He didn’t need to give chase, not when sooner or later she would run straight into him.

For the first time since he’d descended the lighthouse stairs he wore an emotion, that blank mask replaced by triumph. Ugly triumph, driven by motives and desires Darcy didn’t even want to think about, and it sickened her to see.

A clang came from behind her, a noise that shook the walls of the warehouse. Loki’s mirth flickered and died, though his expression was no less ugly. This time it was colored by a rage that burned so deep it should have been enough to singe her from this distance.

The next boom knocked Darcy off her feet. When she rolled over, already scrabbling to get back up, she saw Loki yards away, on his back with the scepter fallen from his outstretched hand. Mjolnir lay on his chest, pinning him to the floor.

The shadow in the doorway belonged to its owner.

 

Chapter Text

Darcy stayed put until Thor had crossed the warehouse floor. He nodded to her solemnly and passed by to pause beside Loki’s prone form.

“Still playing these games, Loki?”

From where she was, Darcy could see the scars whirling up Thor’s arm—shiny patches of skin that looked raw in the harsh lighting. Remnants of what Loki had inflicted on him.

Loki cackled, but even Darcy could see it was a mask, humor covering up his desperation. His fingers still scrabbled for the scepter. Thor kicked it away and the laugh cut out, replaced by an ugly rage.

“It’s over,” Thor said. “The people of this world know the casket is out of your reach. They cower before you no more.”

Soldiers filtered inside, and Thor stooped beside Loki, deftly capturing his wrists and clicking something into place; the most intricate pair of handcuffs Darcy had ever seen. Then he shifted Mjolnir, hauling Loki to see his feet while keeping the hammer poised, ready to swing.

Loki took a long, slow look at the soldiers around the room. “You fools!” he yelled. “You think this is the end? I was preparing you to win a war and now you’ll be obliterated. Far worse than my reign is to come."

“Enough,” said Thor. He hauled Loki forward, and Darcy saw the way the soldiers reacted as Thor passed by, the awe radiating from them. He’d earned their respect in a way Loki could never have dreamed of. “Bring the scepter,” he commanded one of them. “You will need to fashion a case to contain it.”

Footsteps sounded next to her, and Darcy glanced up to find Sif looming over her.

She scooted backwards but Sif offered a contrite smile, and a hand to help Darcy up. “I am sorry for trying to kill you,” Sif said. “The agent Romanoff told me partial truths and has now explained the entire story. You are a brave woman.”

Darcy accepted the hand but kept a wary distance when she was on her feet. “What did she tell you?”

“That Loki’s mistress was kept in luxury on that island. We saw the house; it certainly seemed to be luxury.”

“It was.” Darcy was going to miss that house. “But I was never his mistress. I was his prisoner.” One night doesn’t make a difference.

“You were, and I understand that now. Few would have taken the risk that you did to bring Loki down.”

Darcy shrugged it off. Sif was acting far too friendly to know the whole story yet. “I can’t believe Natasha did that.” Except she totally could. “You almost killed me—would have if Loki hadn’t arrived—”

“That was the plan. Loki had to choose between you and the casket, and only your imminent demise would force his hand. She predicted my reaction to seeing you as his mistress entirely too well.”

“Yeah, she can be like that.” Had Natasha been that confident in the plan? Had she really assumed that it would all work as she expected and Darcy would come out of it unscathed?

“I’ve learned.” Sif did not seem impressed. “I asked her to explain her actions and she apparently found me entirely too honest to convince Loki I meant you harm when I did not. Still, we have the casket and the queen has hidden it even from Loki’s grasp.”

Loki was eyeballing the pair of them over his shoulder as Thor hauled him out of the warehouse, his face bereft of expression but chilling nonetheless. Sif returned his stare with convincing menace.

“I owe him a dagger in the gut,” she said. “I hope this time he rots. There’s an interesting story here on Midgard—Erik told it to us last night while the queen healed my wound. When the Allfather got sick of Loki’s lies and treachery, he had his lips sewn shut. I would gladly volunteer myself with a needle.”

Darcy had no reply to that. They followed the brothers outside, onto the plateau crowded with agents and soldiers. Not all of them had been here when Darcy arrived.

“One thing I still don’t understand,”Sif continued, “was why Loki would put your life before his opportunity to defeat Thor. Agent Romanoff was utterly convinced it would work, the queen backed her convictions, and yet neither have deigned to explain why. Surely it can’t mean he has finally given his heart to another?”

“Not at all,” Darcy said, with absolute sincerity. She was still sure that whatever form Loki’s obsession with her took, it had nothing to do with his heart and everything to do with his desire to prove himself in the eyes of the universe. Not that Darcy had any intention of telling Sif about her dalliance with him, or even the boy in the mirror, not when Sif had just demonstrated such open hatred for Loki. She was rescued from having to provide a good explanation by the appearance of the Warriors Three, dashing over from the knot of soldiers they’d been talking to.

“Lady Darcy!” Fandral greeted, sweeping her up into a hug. “It is so good to see you not avoiding Sif’s blade.” Sif tutted beside him.

“Thanks for believing in me the other night,” she whispered. He’d been the one to figure out what was going on and helped her light up the beacon in the process.

“It was nothing. I have learned to scarce believe the words that fall from the lips of a woman as beautiful as Agent Romanoff.”

“Funny, many women have been heard to say the same of you,” said Volstagg, leaning in for his own hug. Beyond him Hogun gave her a nod—a friendly nod with traces of a smile.

Beyond them, Thor placed his hand on Loki’s head and pushed him down into a waiting helicopter, securing him with more irons and dropping Mjolnir into his lap. Thor carried a weight in him he hadn’t the last time Darcy saw him, scars beyond the ones marring his skin. It was there in the tightness of his shoulders and his uncharacteristic frown. Loki sent one more chilling stare her way before the door shut on him.

There were a cluster of helicopters surrounding the one they’d just climbed into, obviously how the rescue mission had arrived on the mountain.

“Why didn’t we hear you guys arrive?” she asked.

“The warehouse is soundproofed and topped by half a mountain,” said a new voice from behind them. “Stone is not the best conductor of sound.”

Darcy whirled to find Tony and Steve walking up to them, still in the casual clothes they’d taken to wearing around the facility.

“You’re here!” she said.

“Some of us are,” said Tony. “Bruce decided traveling in a helicopter was an especially bad idea.”

“But we decided we had to come back up Thor,” explained Steve. “We didn’t know how messy it was going to get. Loki isn’t known for surrendering with grace.”

“Where’s Natasha? And everyone else?” Darcy asked.

“Natasha is in New York, with Pepper, at SHIELD mission control. Everyone else is still at the facility working on the bridge.”

“Wait, I thought you’d done it? How are these guys,” she pointed at the warriors, “here if you still don’t have one working?”

“We’ve got one working intermittently,” said Tony, “with major intervention on Asgard’s part. We’re still struggling to get one strong enough to move entire armies between worlds, and that’s kind of what we need.”

Thor’s helicopter lifted off in a roar of sound, and Darcy felt herself relax, although not before an alarming thought occurred.

“You know Loki can just poof out of there?” she pointed out.

“Not with the chains that bind him,” said Fandral. “He is anchored in place and prevented from using trickery or illusion. Thor also claims Mjolnir pins him in place, stopping him from even employing magic to escape.”

“Where are they taking him?” she asked.

Tony gave a wave at the departing machine as it swooped over the mountainside, disappearing from view. “SHIELD’s version of a maximum security cell. Romanoff claims they built it after he wreaked havoc the first time. Thor’s volunteered to do guard duty until Papa can whisk them both back to Asgard for an ass-whooping.”

“So who’s in charge right now?”

“Fury, pretty much,” said Tony. “Old governments are being reassembled, but right now SHIELD are the big kahunas and Fury has claimed Loki’s throne. He’s already bitching about the paperwork.”

“There’s still work to do, though,” said Steve. “We need to reassure everyone that the situation really has been dealt with, so we’re being used as…mascots, I guess.”

“Keep calm and carry on,” said Tony.

“That was only going to be used if we lost,” said Steve.

“We still might,” reminded Tony. “You’ve seen the files—the situation is worse than we thought. Loki’s out of the way, but Thanos is on his way and he is going to make Loki look like a schoolyard bully.”

“Fear not,” said Sif. “Together the might of Midgard and Asgard will send whatever army he can muster up back to the where they came from in blood and bondage. What remains of the army once we are through with them.”

“I like you,” said Tony. “You’re spunky and you’ll definitely keep the soldiers’ spirits up.”

Sif’s smile returned his smile until she processed what he meant and she took a step forward. Volstagg stepped between them.

“Tony, tone down the misogyny a little,” Darcy instructed. “Or we’ll let her hand you your own ass.”

“I’m just saying!”

“I’m a warrior,” Sif spat, “and I will not be leered over.”

“How would Lady Pepper feel about your comment?” Fandral asked.

Tony glared at them all. “Since we’re no longer reduced to hiding in the boondocks, I get my suit back, which means no one is going to be handing me anything, least of all my ass.”

Steve turned to the warriors, effectively blocking Tony behind the bulk of his shoulders. “While I admire your enthusiasm,” he said to Sif. “It might not be that easy. The creatures in his army are tough to kill and we only saw a small fraction of their numbers.”

Tony raised his hand. “Uh, I blew up half their armada. And nearly died in the process.”

“Yes, you did,” Darcy said, patting him on the arm.

“But SHIELD did some research on the ones left behind when we closed the portal, and they believe the soldiers are clones. Which makes it easy for them to replenish their numbers.”

“Then we must prepare,” said Volstagg. “Because I, for one, will not stomach defeat.”

“That’s the spirit!” said Tony, clapping him on the bicep. Darcy thought he’d gone for the shoulder but not been able to reach. “First thing’s first, where can I get some caffeine around here? It’s been a long night.”

Despite outward appearances as an inhospitable place, the warehouse did have a staff canteen, where Darcy was able to grab a sandwich for a belated lunch. Tony sampled the coffee, refused to drink anymore, then caved when someone pointed out there was no other coffee to be had for several thousand miles. Volstagg tried a little bit of everything, despite apparently already having eaten breakfast and snacking on the helicopter ride.

For a short time the canteen resembled a tavern with the warriors and Sif holding court, beguiling the SHIELD employees with stories of daring do. The only thing missing were flagons of ale. Steve took the mayhem as a cover to have a quiet word with Darcy.

“You okay?” he murmured. Tony was less discreet, eyeballing her as if he could X-ray her deep, dark secrets out of her.

“I’m fine. More than fine.”

“You sure—because if he laid a finger on you, we’ll make him pay.”

“He didn’t hurt me. He never even threatened me.”

Neither man looked convinced, but Darcy wasn’t about to start going in depth about it in the middle of a crowd of soldiers.

Then the call went up and they had to head back up to the helicopter pad, where their chariots awaited. Darcy ended up sandwiched between Volstagg and Sif, with Steve sat opposite, his back to the pilot, which was actually a pretty sweet deal because between them they blocked the view out of the window.

It didn’t stop Darcy from gripping her seatbelt with white knuckles. Sif noticed and offered her a sympathetic smile.

“Truth be told, I do not like riding in these flying contraptions either,” she confessed. “I prefer my feet firmly on the ground.”

“You’re less likely to die if we fall out of the sky than I am,” Darcy replied.

She felt a tap at her shoulder, and a hand appeared holding a metal flask. “No thanks, Tony,” she said.

Just before the door shut, two agents appeared carrying a long box between them. They placed it at the warriors’ feet.

“As requested,” one of them said, “aluminum casing, coated in silicone, lined with lead.” They departed, leaving Darcy to poke at the box with her toe.

“Careful,” said Steve. “It’s the scepter.”

She jerked her toe away. “Why do we have to bring that thing?”

“When we realized what Loki was heading here for, Frigga said she believed she could destroy it,” said Steve. “Better that than in Thanos’ hands.”

“Did Loki really think he could use it to keep control?” asked Tony. “What was he going to do, take over one agent at a time?”

“He’d lost,” said Fandral. “He turned to the best weapon available to him after the casket—he was desperate.”

Darcy gave a tiny shudder, which Sif noticed. “He was going to use it to control you, was he not?”

“I think so,” she replied. “When he found out I’d betrayed him.”

Then all speech was cut off as the engines roared into life. They could have kept up the conversation through the headsets, but the Asgardians probably didn’t understand how to use them, and the last thing Darcy needed was to give Tony Stark a platform to speak for the next few hours. She turned hers off, shut her eyes and hoped for the best.

They made another pitstop in the middle of nowhere for more fuel, which Tony insisted on using to go in search of better coffee. He came back with a tray full of lattes and espressos, and Darcy gratefully took one of the former, letting the heat from the cup warm her hands and the cream settle her stomach.

Despite the fact they’d been in a flying deathtrap, she was feeling safer than she had in a long time. She was sat next to a woman who’d tried to kill her less than twenty-four hours earlier—albeit the longest twenty-four hours of Darcy’s life—but the constant nerve-jangling dance she’d been doing was over. She didn’t have to worry that someone was going to see a note they shouldn’t or guess something about her plan and leave her at Loki’s mercy. Sure, he was still out there, but she trusted Thor. She’d have trusted him anyway, but his grim determination earlier had made it clear he wasn’t going to let Loki slip through his grasp. She was free.

So long as Loki kept his mouth shut about the night before, and even then, she could blame Stockholm Syndrome or a million other things. She’d come through for them when it counted and they could hardly bitch about the route she’d taken.

Right now, she was safe again. Even if they fell out of the sky, she could trust someone to catch her.

She left the headset on during the next leg, though it seemed most people were napping even after the influx of caffeine. She knew they were nearly at their destination when she heard Sif’s exclamation.

“It looks so different from the air!”

Darcy peeled her eyes open to glance beyond Sif. While she’d not been paying attention dusk had fallen, and below them the skyscrapers of Manhattan glittered and gleamed.

“It truly does,” said Fandral. “Like this, it’s almost as beautiful as Asgard.”

Volstagg chuckled. “Don’t let Thor hear you say that.”

One building stood out among all the spires, an obnoxious sweep of glass and steel with five letters blazing from its side.

“Are we landing at Stark Tower?” she asked.

“Of course,” replied Tony. “Unless you want to spend the night on the helicarrier.”

She clutched her belly as it recoiled at the idea and shook her head. “I want to be back on the ground, please.”

She got her wish a few minutes later, the helicopter dispatching them onto the landing pad that jutted out of the tower and departing for SHIELD domains. Pepper was waiting in the rooms off the pad, back in the kind of suit she hadn’t worn since they’d fled all those months ago.

“Welcome back to Stark Tower,” she greeted, and as Darcy glanced around she realized they weren’t in the office spaces. “In honor of our esteemed guests and their assistance in the defeat of Loki, we’re throwing a banquet tonight. Rooms have been prepared for you all to relax in before the feast begins. Rachel here will show you to them.”

Sif and the warriors three bowed and marched off behind Rachel, a girl Darcy recognized from her days of working here. Darcy made to follow them, but was stopped by Pepper.

“It’s good to have you back,” she said, pulling Darcy into a hug. Apparently it was a hugging kind of day. “I was so worried about you. We all were.”

“I missed you guys too,” Darcy said into her shoulder. She stepped back. “And hey, I survived, and we won. This is not where I thought I was going to end up today.”

“Me either. The last couple of days have been manic. I mean, Frigga is one thing, but then all these warriors started turning up, and they need so much feeding!”

“Well, if Stark Industries is back in business, do I get my job back?” Saving the world was awesome and all, but it didn’t pay the bills.

Pepper put on a stern frown. “I don’t know. There have been some pretty high instances of absenteeism lately, we may not be able to overlook them.” She broke into a grin. “Of course. In fact, I’m sure we can arrange a promotion and a raise for you.”

“As awesome as that sounds, I can’t deal with anything stressful right now. Not after the last few months. I need the easy life for a little while.”

“I’ll see what we can do. Speaking of stress, SHIELD have sent a doctor over to conduct a physical on you.”

“They’ve what now?”

“You’ve been in Loki’s care for a while. They need to check you’re okay.”

“Is everyone going to start assuming Loki raped me again? Because he’s done some shitty things, but not that. Not the first time he kidnapped me or the second.”

Pepper held her hands up in surrender. “Hey, you said it yourself, it’s been a stressful few months. Everything you’ve eaten and drunk has been under Loki’s control. It’s not a bad idea to let someone make sure you really are fine.”

Darcy sighed. “Okay. Where do I need to go?”

“Bridget will show you.”

Her old friend appeared behind Pepper and waved. Darcy squealed, dashing across the room to wrap her arms around her. “You got out!”

“Of course I got out,” Bridget replied. “I didn’t know you had, not until today. Where the hell have you been?”

“In hiding. Duh.”

Bridget led her out of the room and down a corridor lined with doors.

“You did a good job. None of the hacks here could find you, and trust me, I made them look.”

“You came back to work?”

“I had to. I had rent to pay, mouths to feed, and someone had to make sure there was a company left standing. We did a lot of covert searching for people who’d gone missing. Someone found a way to reconnect the old link to SHIELD’s servers so we did what we could—anyway, here we are. I have tons to do for this party, but when I’m done you are telling me everything.”

“You should probably let Pepper and Tony know what you were doing while they were gone. I’m pretty sure Tony will give you some kind of bonus for it.”

“Maybe.” Bridget waved goodbye as she walked back down the corridor, scribbling away on her Starkpad.

Darcy knocked on the door she was in front of, and it swung open. A willowy woman in a white lab coat held out her hand. “I’m Dr. Sibley.”

Darcy shook it and shuffled into the room. It was a bedroom, a hotel-style guest room that looked exactly like Tony and Pepper had collaborated on designing it: bold to the point of being garish, when Pepper had obviously tugged on Tony’s reins and told him no more. One wall was Ferrari red, the bed sheets were black satin, and everything else in the room was made of glass or black marble. Yet there were vases of Calla lilies and a sleek white rug across the floor, with soothing artwork on the walls.

Dr Sibley had set up shop at a table in the living space.

“I need to go through a checklist with you, Ms Lewis, to establish exactly what you’ve been through and if there is any assistance SHIELD can provide in helping you adjust back to civilian life.”

Darcy snorted. “I never stopped being a civilian.”

“Nevertheless, I’m assured you’ve been in an extremely high pressure environment lately with no small amount of danger involved. And this is all, naturally, at SHIELD’s expense.”

Fury was going to choke Natasha when he realized.

“Fine. What does it involve?”

“A blood test. I’ll also perform a physical exam and run through a series of questions to determine your mental state. If it’s determined you need extra support, we’ll bring a counselor in.”

It was only when the needle was in Darcy’s arm that she realized why SHIELD—and specifically Natasha—would want Darcy to take a blood test. They wanted a look at her hormone levels.

“So who gets to see the report you’re going to write up?” she asked Dr Sibley.

“This is entirely confidential, Ms Lewis,” the doctor insisted. “It is SHIELD procedure that all field agents are thoroughly physically and mentally evaluated upon return from lengthy missions. I would never break my Hippocratic oath, not even if Director Fury demanded it.”

“Sure, I believe you. I really do.” The doctor meant what she was saying, but she was a fool. Fury didn’t need to demand anything, he’d just pull the results out of the servers. Besides, Natasha was behind this one. It was all a smokescreen to ensure Loki’s heir didn’t make an unexpected appearance. If the blood test showed anything out of the ordinary, it gave her plenty of time to slip something in Darcy’s tea to bring it to a swift closure.

Not that Darcy had anything to worry about. Frigga had given her that potion and she’d been within the three month window, so Darcy was in the clear. Unless Frigga had lied so Darcy would assume she couldn’t get pregnant and do something stupid…

Time around such tricksy people was making her second guess everything they did, and giving her a headache to boot. Instead panic welled inside her. Why couldn’t something be simple, just this once? Sibley picked up on it as they were running through the questions that composed the psych evaluation, and when she’d finished making notes she put on her best concerned face.

“Based on what we’ve just discussed, I would recommend you speak with a counselor. You aren’t displaying any symptoms of post-traumatic stress—that you’ve disclosed—but prevention is more effective than treatment. If we can help you understand the trauma you’ve been through, it may stop any symptoms manifesting in the future.”

The doctor meant well, of that Darcy was sure. And her reasoning was sound. Darcy just didn’t want to be going through that with anyone on SHIELD’s payroll. If she was still employed then she still had insurance, and would find a doctor of her own. Maybe Pepper could suggest someone who SHIELD couldn’t manipulate.

“I’ll think about it. When will you get the blood test results?”

“They should be in tomorrow. We will need to conduct a follow up every few weeks to ensure nothing unusual shows up. Your blood pressure is a little higher than it should be, that ought to resolve itself now you’ve been removed from the source of stress, but I want to monitor that too.”

“But that’s it for now?”

Sibley pursed her lips. “Yes.”

“Great. I have a party to get ready for. Do you need anyone to show you the way out?”

The doctor confirmed she didn’t and left, leaving Darcy staring at the suitcase of her stuff that had been brought from Plum Island and the facility. Time to go out and face the music, with more people than she’d spent time around than since the day they’d fled Stark Tower. A lovely counterbalance to her time in isolation, and less time to sit worrying about what a blood test could reveal to SHIELD. Not that anything would show up on the first day, but if they were going to do follow ups, she’d be stressing about it for weeks. For tonight she could get merry and ignore the clusterfuck that had become her life.

She picked a dress and entered the bathroom for the second shower of the day, washing away the grime of two helicopter rides and rolling around on the warehouse floor. In a fit of perfect timing, she found herself frantically searching her stuff for the box of tampons. Aunt Flo had invited herself to the party, just under three months since Frigga had handed her that potion.

Darcy had never been so happy about it being that time of the month in her life, but it had been a strange year.

Chapter Text

All Darcy had to do to find the party was follow the noise, although it did take a helpful employee to show her to the elevator that would shoot her up to the penthouse. She checked her reflection in the mirror since the car was empty, frowning at the best outfit she’d been able to find at short notice. She’d lost weight in the months of Loki’s rule and all her old dresses were a little too big, but she’d cinched the waist of this one in with a belt and it didn’t look terrible.

At least when she got to the penthouse, Sif and the warriors were still armored up, though Sif’s hair was now loose from its ponytail and sleekly groomed. She waved from across the room, then returned her attention to Paul from IT, who looked like an awestruck tomato.

There were a ton of people here Darcy didn’t know, though she was pretty damn certain the man she’d just crossed paths with was a senator. She grabbed a champagne flute from a passing server, winced at how dry it was, and searched for someone she knew.

Some faces she recognized, though she could only place a few: Stark Industries employees and possible SHIELD agents. Natasha was nowhere to be found and given how Thor tended to dominate a room, he seemed to be absent too. She polished off her glass and went in hunt of another server instead. If she didn’t find Bridget or someone else from her old office by the time she’d finished her second champagne, she was heading back to her room to hibernate.

“Darcy?” She stopped and turned, searching for the speaker, for the voice she recognized.

“Erik?” He was there, tucked away in a corner, and she stumbled her way through the crowd toward him. When she was clear, she saw who stood next to him. “Jane!”

Jane turned, eyes widening, and Darcy could have sworn things were moving in slow motion, but maybe the champagne was just hitting her hard. Then Jane ran towards her, arms wide, grabbing her in a rib-crushing hug.

“Ow, ow, ow,” Darcy yelped, but she hugged back just as hard.

“Don’t you ever do that again!” Jane demanded. “I’ve been so worried.”

“Okay, mom.” It was the champagne’s fault she was getting a little teary too.

“I mean it,” Jane pulled away, and she was tearful too. “You could have told me. You should have told me, you brave, reckless, brave, foolish, brave idiot.”

“And you would have clung onto me by the ankles to stop me from doing it.”

“Of course I would’ve.”

“I’m sorry,” Darcy whispered. “But it all worked out in the end.”

It was Erik’s turn for a hug and he repeated Jane’s sentiments, only with what Darcy presumed were Swedish swearwords.

“I hear you two finally built that bridge,” she said, eager to turn the topic away from her captivity.

“We did!” Jane flipped instantly into excitement. “It works, and it’s not strong enough yet for what we need, but now we can work from here with all of Stark Industries’ technology behind us, we’ll have it sorted in no time.”

“And Thor’s here.”

“And Thor’s here,” Jane echoed, her smile softening, teeth biting into her lower lip.

“He’s not the only one,” Erik said, pointing at someone over Darcy’s shoulder. She turned, and the tears became a torrent.

“Mom?”

Then she was squeezed between her parents, allowing herself to truly cry for the first time in months, but her cheeks ached with the width of her smile.


Thor never arrived, but Darcy saw Frigga making the rounds, draped in finery and solemn diplomacy. Darcy spent the rest of the night with her friends and family, bringing everyone up to speed over what had happened since she disappeared from New York or made herself Loki’s prisoner on purpose, depending on when she’d last seen them. Even then she skimmed over the truth, keeping the little boy from the mirror tucked away in the recesses of her mind, next to what she’d done with Loki the night before. The boy was forever gone, a future that would definitely never happen after all that had passed between them, and no one else needed to know he’d ever even been a possibility.

Instead, she danced and got merry. She made Tony tip Renard the chef a thousand dollars and did routines to Spice Girls songs with Jane. She wasn’t drunk, but lightheaded nonetheless, all the pressures weighing her down for months now removed.

Those who’d come because it benefited them politically left early, and in the end there was a core of guests left behind: the Asgardians, those who’d hidden at the facility, and their loved ones. Searching for fresh air, Darcy took herself out onto the observation deck, despite the cold winter air and her fear of heights, just to take in the view. She’d spent weeks in Manhattan as Loki’s captive the first time and heard it but been deprived of the cityscape. Now she could soak it in. Her gaze tracked to UN plaza, but in the dark she couldn’t see the roof she’d spent so much time on. Was the roof garden still there, or had he destroyed it when she escaped?

The fact she even heard the footsteps behind her meant Frigga had made an effort to be heard.

“I hoped I would be able to speak to you alone.”

Darcy nodded vaguely and continued staring out at the night. There was so much life going on out there. Distant fireworks that probably broke a ton of laws, but who cared? The world was celebrating Loki’s defeat.

Frigga came to stand beside her. “You appear to have weathered your time with my son well. I trust he did not mistreat you.”

She pulled her wrap tighter against the cold. “No, actually he treated me pretty well, on the whole.”

“And yet you care for him no more than you did before.” Frigga sounded tired. Defeated.

“If by that you mean not at all, then yeah.”

Frigga nodded, though she scrutinized Darcy for longer than was comfortable. In the end, she said, “You are the only one who knows I put Loki on this path.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell anyone. I’d have to explain your logic and no way am I doing that, not when…” Darcy shut up, because she didn’t even want to admit it to Frigga. It was too late, because the queen could apparently read her all too well. Frigga’s eyebrows rose in the millisecond before her expression smoothed back to neutral.

“Ah. I see.” They were bonded by secrets then, though Darcy had never been all that good with secrets.

“So. Did you ever consider giving me a phony potion?”

“No. Never.” Frigga turned, her back to the railing, to stare up at the lights of the tower.

“Plenty of people would have. Even I had my moments of doubt.”

Frigga didn’t appear to take it as a slight. “I once told Loki his happiness could not be stolen,” she explained. “To employ my own trickery would have made his future even less fairly earned. You would hate me, you would run from Loki as far as you could, and where would that leave us? Besides, my son would not make for a good father at this juncture.”

“You’re not wrong. He did try to take control of my mind this morning.”

Frigga tutted. “Too often I fear he will never learn.” She tilted her head and reached out to smooth Darcy’s hair. “Yet he did that only when he realized how firmly against his rule you were. Despite everything, I think he truly wanted you to feel something for him.”

“As strategies go, chocolate would’ve been more effective.” They lapsed into silence for a while, more fireworks bursting over Central Park. “Have you seen him?”

“Yes,” came the hushed reply. “Briefly. He is now less willing to suffer my company than ever. Though he did demand I look to his future again.”

“Did you? Would you?”

“I can’t. Not here, away from the tools I need. And I would not, if I could. I have enough blood on my hands.”

Darcy reached over to pat Frigga’s hand, one awkward movement before she realized who she was speaking with and gripped the handrail. “You didn’t free him and you were instrumental in defeating him. No one can hold a grudge against you. This is all his doing.”

“Then you have even less to fear in judgment.”

Darcy snorted. “That’s a nice theory.”

They watched the fireworks for a few more minutes, until the cold got too much and Darcy shifted to head inside. As she turned, Frigga caught her hand.

“Whatever happens from this moment forward—I have come to treasure you. You are a brave woman and you will always have a place within my family, even if that place is no longer earned through marital bonds.”

“Thanks. As far as potential mother-in-laws go, you are pretty incredible, but I just want my life back. My boring, human life.”

“I fear that may not be your path.”

“Yeah, me too.”


The next morning, a note from Pepper confirmed Darcy still had a job to go to, but she also had at least a week’s vacation to spend with her parents. Then she was back to assisting the science bods, this time in Stark Tower’s fancy-ass labs. That was at Jane’s request.

She seemed to be the only one taking a vacation, but hadn’t seen her family in so long that it was a joy to spend the week showing them round New York. She had one afternoon to herself, which she used to visit her old apartment, picked clean of her belongings by Loki and SHIELD, so she handed the keys back to the landlord and walked away. She was safer staying in Stark Tower anyway, though she was being moved to a proper suite she got to choose the decor in. When the assignment was over, she could find a better place. Maybe she’d even be able to afford somewhere in Manhattan.

She didn’t pay much attention to the news, though it was the topic on everyone’s lips wherever she ventured. Her part in taking Loki down wasn’t ever part of the story, not that she minded. SHIELD was lapping up the glory, and even Tony was too focused on work to protest. Much.

Her blood test results came back clean, but a discrete word with Pepper meant Darcy found herself in a room with another doctor. One she’d requested to see.

“Good afternoon, Ms Lewis,” Dr. Wilson said, shaking Darcy’s hand. The therapist was a lot like her high school history teacher, down to the messy chignon and chipped nail varnish. “I trust this location is comfortable for you? I was asked to meet you here—”

“This is fine.” They were in one of the empty guest rooms in Stark Tower. Pepper had told her the room was clean of any kind of listening or monitoring device, and the connection to JARVIS had been switched off for the duration of the appointment. “Where do you want me?”

“Wherever is most comfortable for you.”

Darcy led her over to the armchairs and got settled in one of them. She noticed Dr. Wilson didn’t seem to have brought anything with her, not even a phone. “Do you normally take notes?”

“Sometimes, though it’s not my preference to. My discretion has been requested and that means ensuring any interested third parties can’t access my records, so I will not be keeping any, not unless I realize they’re important. I want you to feel comfortable enough to talk about whatever you need to without fear that someone will found out. They won’t—not even your employers.”

God bless Pepper. Darcy hadn’t even mentioned that quiet, niggling fear, but it had been anticipated and dealt with.

“I’ve never done this before,” Darcy explained. “So I don’t really know what to expect.”

“Then we are equals,” said Dr. Wilson. “I have come with no expectations. I don’t know you, and I will not judge you. But you felt the need to speak to someone,” she prompted.

“Yeah. It’s been a crazy few months, and now I’m not sleeping well—I’m having these dreams, awful dreams. I guess I just want to talk to someone who isn’t wrapped up in everything that’s gone on, but everyone is.”

“I’m not. You can talk to me.”

So Darcy did. About everything—about Loki, the mirror, being kidnapped, and her night with Loki, and all the times she’d nearly died. They didn’t cover it all in that first session, but Dr. Wilson came back the next day, and the next.

Chapter Text

“So what does this button do?”

“Don’t touch that button, Darcy!” Jane warned, swiping her hand away.

“What? I was just asking.”

Jane bent her head back over her calculations and silence fell in the lab again. Darcy pushed her chair away from the machine she’d been poking at and wheeled back over to her laptop. She was bored. Tony’s fancy equipment replaced most of the need for her presence in the lab, bar getting snacks and coffee, and the building was rigged so she didn’t even have to do that half the time. If she tried talking to people she felt like she was distracting them, they were so buried in their work, and even when they did strike up a conversation she couldn’t follow a tenth of what they were saying. Finally building a working Bifrost was supposed to be way more fun than this—she’d expected frantic excitement, maybe a few explosions—and instead she was busy trolling the depths of the internet for lolcats.

Vacation had only been over for three days, and she was ready for another one.

The lab doors pffffed open and she was the only one to notice Natasha stride in, followed by the mother of all badasses. She recognised Director Fury from TV—not that he ever gave interviews, but after the invasion of New York he’d become a much talked about figure. Now he was acting King of the World while the UN got back on its feet, so she felt like she ought to be saluting or something. Everyone else ignored the newcomers and continued to work.

Darcy glanced around, wondering if she should be pretending to work too, but Natasha caught her eye and nodded for her attention. Fury cleared his throat and the scientists gradually stopped what they were doing. Jane turned around and blinked at him like an owl dragged into sunlight.

“Stark, put the spanner down.”

Tony ignored the order. “Talk, I can keep working. Time is of the essence and all.”

“We need to take this to a meeting room. I know you wouldn’t appreciate me bringing the Secretary of Defense into your inner sanctum.”

Tony threw the spanner down. “JARVIS, facilities required in Conference Suite A. Plus coffee, cookies and milk.”

Everyone rose from their desks to follow Fury, although Jane took her notebook with her and kept scribbling as she walked. She wasn’t the only one.

As Fury passed Darcy he paused, his gaze flicking to the name badge she wore. Only then did recognition filter into his expression. “You can stay here.”

Natasha interrupted. “She should come.”

“She doesn’t have clearance.”

“It’s being processed. In the meantime, she’s earned the right.” Natasha’s crossed arms and level stare made it clear she wasn’t backing down. Fury didn’t back down but he did consider her argument.

“Fine. On your head be it, Romanoff.”

He stalked away and Natasha stayed at the back of the group, so Darcy dropped back to walk beside her.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. I meant it when you said you’d earned your place.”

“So what’s this about?”

Romanoff gave a blank smile. “Not until we’re in the conference room and we can control the eyes and ears involved.”

The meeting room was on the same floor, and the floor-to-ceiling windows offered a decent view until they were dimmed to black, a map of the stars projected onto them. The tables were set in a horseshoe facing the front of the room and there was a definite hierarchy to seating, which left Darcy over in the farthest corner from Fury and a couple of men that practically smelled like politicians.

Tony made a big show of striding over and shaking the hand of one of them. “So you’re the new Secretary of Defense. I’ve been so busy that election must have passed me right by.”

The Secretary frowned and Fury squared up to Tony. “These are not ordinary times, Stark. We can only put the world back to how it’s meant to be if there’s still a world left. If you sit down and give us a chance you might actually realize we’re trying to ensure that.”

Tony slumped down into a seat and waved a hand to say “go ahead”. Everyone else stared at Fury.

“Time is running out,” announced Fury, turning to face the room, hands behind his back. “Those of you who don’t know officially have already guessed what’s going down. War is coming our way, and it’s bigger than anything we’ve faced before. It’ll make the Battle of Manhattan look like a skirmish, and we already lost one of our best assets. The Tesseract is gone and so is our chance to build weapons that can match the Chitauri’s technology.”

“That’s why we’re working on the bridge,” said Jane. “Once we’ve got contact with Asgard, we can ask for it back—”

“It’ll be too damn late. What we need from Asgard is back up. The Tesseract caused this mess in the first place—Loki didn’t tell me much when he was in charge, but he did say this army will tear Earth apart looking for it. They don’t know we don’t have it anymore and they aren’t going to take our word for it when we say it’s gone.”

“But we’re only weeks—maybe days—away from a working bridge.”

“And we’re only weeks away from an invasion.”

Gasps rang around the table, stunned faces gaping at Fury.

“That soon?” asked the Secretary.

“That soon,” Fury confirmed. “We’ve got every suitable satellite monitoring the skies. That army is moving fast, using bridges of their own from what I’ve been told.” Behind him, lights flickered on the star map, dates scrolling across the top as one cluster of dots shifted, from the outer edge inward. “Loki made preparations. There are stockpiles of supplies and defense points across the globe.” A spinning globe appeared on another wall, tiny flags showing the locations he spoke about as it span. “But they won’t be enough. We are going to be outnumbered. Even if we arm every man, woman and child on Earth, we believe there will be more Chitauri.”

“Have you spoken to him?” Darcy asked, then flinched when everyone turned to look at her. “He’s the only person who’s had real contact with whoever’s behind this. He knows why they want the Tesseract and he might know their weaknesses.”

“He’s not feeling particularly chatty right now, and I always got the impression he’d been kept in the dark. He was a pawn—they made him a deal and he didn’t care about the endgame. He just wanted his throne. Now they’ll be coming for him too.”

“Don’t tell me SHIELD never did a little research on the leftover critters,” said Tony.

“We recovered all the ones we could, and yes, we’ve been conducting research on some of them. Kept the rest on ice. That’s where you come in. We need you to take that research and use it to build a weapon that will work against them. If we’re going to send our soldiers up against them, we need to arm them with something that will actually work. I can have every manufacturing facility on this planet ready to go in 72 hours.”

“No pressure or anything.”

“If I didn’t think you could do it, I wouldn’t be asking.”

“Technically you didn’t ask, but since that’s the closest you’ve ever gotten to a compliment I’ll take it. What about the bridge?”

“Doctors Foster, Selvig and Banner will continue overseeing that project. If you need anything, tell me. If there’s anyone you know of who should be on this team, tell me. We need that bridge working.” Jane nodded and shared a glance with the rest of the team. They were so close, but time could run out on them. Worse, they could make a mistake that destroy the planet or kill anyone trying to cross the bridge. “As for the rest of our strategy, we’ve got a World Security Council meeting in an hour. We’re going to build on the plans Loki already set in motion. Soldiers in every nation will be mobilized.”

Silence fell as Fury eyeballed them all.

“I don’t have to tell you that what you just heard does not leave this room. The last thing we need is global panic. If I hear even the sniff of a rumor and can trace it back to someone who was in this meeting, you will form part of the Chitauri greeting party.”


Darcy was rescued from the tedium of another afternoon by an appointment with Dr. Wilson. Oh, the world was about to end, but that didn’t mean she had anything more to do in the lab, and she’d have lost her mind if she’d been left to fester in her own worry.

“You’ve been quiet today,” Dr. Wilson commented towards the end of the session.

“Tired, I guess.” Truth was, she felt awful for keeping quiet about the impending invasion, but if Darcy couldn’t keep her mouth shut then what was to say the doctor could? Fury would be good on his word in tracking down the leak.

“But your sleep has been improving.”

“It has.” Though her nightmares hadn’t stopped, they were less vivid, and the doctor was teaching her grounding techniques to help her calm herself in the small hours. She was also writing about her experiences on Dr. Wilson’s suggestion, scribbling the dreams down when she woke from one. The notebook was kept in a locked safe in her suite, only taken out when she was going to and from her appointments, which were still held in the guest quarters of Stark Tower—neutral ground. “I’m kind of bored during the day. Guess I need to ask to be reassigned.”

“Taking charge will help. Any small measure of control will.”

Jane was waiting outside her room when she arrived back, fidgeting with nervous energy. “I can’t concentrate—no one can. We’re having dinner up in the penthouse to try and figure out what we’re doing.” She guided Darcy away from the door, oblivious of the glances Darcy cast back. The notebook was still in her bag, with a three page account of her night with Loki in it, and she wanted it back in the safe.

“I just need to—”

“Besides, we need a break from the inside of the lab and I’m hoping Thor will come. I haven’t seen him since they captured Loki.”

Never mind. No one knew about the notebook anyway. It was safe in her purse—demanding to drop it off in her room would only draw suspicion. “You miss him, huh?”

“I’m worried about him. He’s been through a ton of stuff and I don’t think he’s had anyone to turn to, but I’m cooped up in the lab all the time and he’s determined to guard Loki.”

When the elevator opened on the penthouse they found a buffet had been set up, sampling cuisine from all over the world, while a long table dominated the room. The Avengers and the Asgardian warriors were already seated, plates piled high, but there was no sign of Thor. Jane’s face fell.

“It’s still early,” Darcy murmured. “Maybe you could ask Fandral or Sif to swap places with him to give him the night off.”

“That’s not a bad idea.” Jane grabbed a plate and Darcy grabbed them seats at the end of the table, next to the Asgardians. Sif was sniffing at a mound of chilli dubiously, while Volstagg was mopping up the last of some curry with naan bread.

“This is the quietest feast I’ve ever been to,” said Fandral in greeting.

“I don’t think this is supposed to be a proper feast,” Darcy replied. “And we all found out we’re facing annihilation today.”

“Nonsense. We’ve been in tighter spots. Remember when we faced the Muspell hoard?”

When the warriors had finished telling the story, Steve was prodded into explaining how he’d wiped out a Nazi facility, and Tony told them about his time in Afghanistan. The mood was lighter when they realized how much they’d all faced so far and survived.

Darcy excused herself to refill her plate and when she returned Jane’s seat was empty, but Natasha was sat opposite.

“She went to the bathroom,” she said, ripping into a chicken wing.

It took ten minutes for Jane to return and when she did, she dropped Darcy’s purse into her lap, sliding back into her seat without meeting her eye. Darcy froze, dropping her poppadom.

“I needed a tampon,” Jane whispered. But Darcy could tell by the way she was gripping her fork that wasn’t all she’d found.

“We should get some of the nachos before they all go,” she said, guiding Jane up by the elbow and over to the buffet table, just out of earshot. Everyone was still too involved in war stories to listen to what they were saying.

“You read it, didn’t you?” Darcy asked. She sounded calm to her own ears. She felt calm, apart from the urge to vomit, but it wouldn’t last long.

“I didn’t mean to.” Jane didn’t meet her eye, dumping a spoonful of guacamole onto a clean plate. “I really was looking for a tampon, and it fell out. I saw his name when I picked it up—”

“You had no right to!” She forced herself to whisper, because Natasha was paying attention even if no one was else was. “Those were my private thoughts.”

“I get that, okay? I just wanted to know what was going on in your head, because you don’t talk about it. Any of it. You were gone for months and brush it off as no big deal. But I can’t believe you kept me out of this. The mirror? That is huge, and you never thought to share that with me?”

“I was trying to get my head around it, and trust me, it was better that you didn’t know that stuff. How do you think people would react if they found out I slept with Loki?”

“You slept with Loki?” asked Jane, her question ringing across the room.

Shit. She hadn’t read that part. Every person at the table dropped their cutlery and gaped at Darcy.

“So you were his mistress,” said Sif, pushing herself to her feet. She reached for a sword that wasn’t there—Fandral had already removed it, while Volstagg restrained her with an outstretched arm.

“No, I wasn’t! It was a one night thing. If I hadn’t done it, you wouldn’t have the casket, and Loki would still be in power.” It wasn’t the whole truth, not by a mile, but it was the truth she needed to wield.

Jane turned on Natasha. “This is your fault! You made her do this, made her think she had to lower herself to that so she could be the hero—”

“—I’m not a kid!”

“I didn’t make her do anything,” Natasha replied quietly. “You’re making this into a bigger thing than it is. She slept with a man—that’s her choice.”

“She slept with an enemy!” said Sif.

“He’s done less to harm her than you have.”

“So that makes it okay?” yelled Jane. “She’s not you! She’s not a spy! You can’t just manipulate people into doing fucked-up stuff—”

Hey!

“Maybe it was Stockholm Syndrome,” Erik remarked.

“Maybe it’s not, because I have zero sympathy for the guy. And don’t talk about me like I’m not here! This was my choice. I wanted to sleep with Loki, not just because it would help save the freaking world from him, but because I wanted to know what it was like. There. Happy now?”

Only Jane very obviously wasn’t happy—Jane was looking at her like she’d grown another head.

“I can’t believe you just said that.”

“What’s so hard to believe?”

“It’s Loki,” said Sif, her words dripping with disgust.

“That’s rich,” muttered Fandral.

“That was years ago, before we all learned what he truly was.” For a moment everyone stared at Sif like she’d grown an extra set of appendages too, but Jane was quick to draw their attention back to Darcy.

“You know what he is and what he’s done. To Thor. To Erik. To all those people he killed.”

“I’m not saying he’s a good guy. I’m not even saying I like him. I spent one night in his bed, and you all get to judge me like I killed someone?”

“This isn’t just a bad one night stand, Darcy. This is Loki.”

“Please tell me I am not hearing what I think I’m hearing.”

Darcy spun to face Fury, who was stood only a few paces behind her. Jane backed away from her and no one else said a word. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” she said, and it was the truth, but she knew it didn’t matter.

“We’ll see about that. Romanoff, I want you in my office. This is definitely on your head. Rodriguez, Brown, take Ms Lewis to the secure holding area. She has questions to answer.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 23: Mulder and Scully

The calm inside Darcy shattered, replaced by blind panic. When she felt hands clamp around her arms she struggled, but only until Natasha made eye contact and shook her head. One firm movement, one instruction, and though it didn’t make Darcy feel any safer she understood the message. Fighting back would only make things worse.

“With respect, Director, I think you’re overreacting,” Darcy heard Natasha say, as she was dragged towards the elevator. Then Jane spoke up, her anger finding a new source.

“Where are you taking her?”

“Somewhere secure,” Fury replied.

“Because a tower swarming with agents isn’t secure enough?”

“This is not up for discussion. You know what mind games he’s capable of and until we know what control he has over her, we cannot trust her. She knows too much.”

The elevator doors slid shut, and the metal looked all wrong, blurred and distorted. Oh. She was crying. She couldn’t wipe her tears away because her wrists were still clamped, and she was pretty damn sure that was a gun jammed into her ribs.

She’d left her bag on her chair. Now anyone could read her notebook. Read  her . They knew the worst of it, but they didn’t know everything, and she was all laid out in those pages, every thought and emotion she’d recalled in her dreams, scrawled down for Fury to dissect.

The journey down took longer than she’d anticipated, and by the time the doors slid open again she was a mess of panicked tears, biting her lip to stop herself sobbing out loud. They exited into the darkness of the parking garage, from the looks of it the same level as the day of their escape from Loki all those months ago. If she’d had her wits about her—if she’d been Natasha, or someone who didn’t fall apart at the worst possible moment, if she wasn’t the kind of person who made stupid decisions and then compounded them with dumber mistakes—she could have freed herself. Two agents was nothing, not when they were barely touching her. Steve had shown her how to disarm someone holding a gun. She could escape into the tunnels, disappear under the city until this was all sorted out.

But no. She wasn’t that kind of person, she was Darcy, the spare part, the dumb-ass. All she could do was let them lead her to the car, climb into the back and listen to the locks click in place.

They hadn’t even handcuffed her. That was how much of a nonentity she was.

She stared out at the gloom of the garage and wished for a time-turner, or a vortex manipulator, or anything to turn back the clock. If she’d stayed at home after Loki’s announcement to the world, instead of rushing over to Stark Tower, she’d have never been involved in any of this. She never would have met him—he wasn’t actively looking for her, here on Earth. He’d told her that once: the look of hatred when he first saw her was because it had never occurred to him she’d be mortal. He’d assumed he would claim his throne and find the girl in the mirror when his empire was secure, not among his enemies. If she hadn’t been there, she’d have escaped his notice and carried on with her life, until the Avengers found a way of bringing him down. Right now she’d be blissfully unaware of the impending end of the world, instead of it hanging over her head when she could do nothing about it.

The agents sat up front, and she was behind a barrier that looked like glass but hummed ominously. The tinted windows darkened as the car rolled out into the street, darkening so much she couldn’t see through them anymore. God, she was sick of being moved around like a pawn on a chessboard.

The journey didn’t take long, and when the door slid open again, it was to another underground garage. At least she’d stopped crying, and had cleaned herself up as best she could. Mulder—or was it Scully?—gestured for her to get out with the barrel of the gun, and when she was standing her wrists were clamped again. Into another lift, and down again, then into an industrial corridor. The walls were untreated cinderblock, and strip-lights flickered overhead. Doors led off, most of them open, and inside them empty cells waited.

One figure sat at the end of the corridor, outside the very last door, and she rose as they approached one of the central cells. Frigga hurried towards them in a swish of gold silk and unbound hair.

“What is the meaning of this?” she demanded of the agents. Up close, she looked tired, the lines around her eyes appearing deeper than they’d been the last time Darcy saw her. Her eyes themselves were shot through with red, and the state of her hair indicated she’d not taken much time for herself at all lately.

“Director Fury’s orders, ma’am”, replied Scully.

“On what grounds?”

“They know what I did with Loki,” Darcy said dully.

“I wasn’t aware such an act was a crime on Midgard.”

“If you have objections, ma’am, you should raise them with the director,” said Mulder.

“Fine, I will do so. And for now she is to be locked away down here like a criminal?”

Both agents nodded and ushered Darcy into the closest cell, though Frigga followed, to their obvious alarm.

“I must insist—”

Frigga hushed Mulder with a wave. “You insist nothing. You can see I am not armed and I have no intention of spiriting the girl away. I only wish to speak with her. Stay and listen or guard outside the door, but make sure you send word to your director that I demand an audience with him.”

“Yes ma’am.” The agents seemed to reach a silent agreement and retreated to the corridor, though the door was left open.

The cell was a cube, and even Darcy could cross it in three strides. A bench ran across the back wall, with blankets set at the end, and a basin and porcelain throne hung on the one of the side walls. Other than that, it was completely featureless.

“What happened?” Frigga asked, and Darcy gave her the shortest possible explanation. “I see.”

“Do you really think you can change Fury’s mind?”

“It would be a shame to let such a thing sour the burgeoning relationship between our two realms.”

“Oh, come on. I’m not worth that.”

“Whatever you are thinking, you must dismiss at once. I’ve already told you I consider you family and I will not allow such a disgrace to occur…not to someone who has not earned it.” She cast a quick glance to the side, in the direction of the cell she’d been waiting outside. Darcy didn’t need ten guesses to figure out who was being held in there.

“Can he hear us?” she mouthed, and Frigga gave a graceful shrug. Their voices sounded loud in the confines of the cell, but who knew how well that carried. “Where is Thor?”

“He waits in the cell with him, at all hours. He trusts none but himself to guard Loki, and he does not trust Loki when there is a door blocking his sight.”

“Uh, ma’am?” Scully stepped back into the cell. “Director Fury has declined to discuss this issue with you.”

Frigga rose to her full height, the motherly aura stripped away. “Then take me directly to him.” The agent gaped but nodded his head. “I will return for you, Darcy. You won’t be in here long.”

That was easy for her to say. She didn’t have to face the metal door shutting and trapping her inside. Suddenly the cell felt impossibly small, and Darcy wanted to claw at it, for all the good it would do her. She was staying put until someone argued for her freedom.

“Any chance of some reading material?” she called out, but got only silence in return.


 She tried to nap but it was too still, too oppressive, and the bench wasn’t going to be putting the Hilton out of business any time soon. Even with her eyes closed she could feel the walls far too close for comfort. Living underground for months, or living in the suite Loki had provided for her the first time around was nothing compared to this. Not that she’d ever admit this to him, but she’d be thankful for an hour on the rooftop terrace right now. A day of this and she’d be climbing the walls.

And her skin felt all wrong, knowing how close he was. Not tingles or goosebumps, but hypersensitive, too aware of the temperature and every tiny sensation. Did he know she was here? He must have heard them bring her down. God, he must be so smug, to think she’d ended up in the same place as him in the end.

The footsteps outside echoed all the way from the stairs. She anticipated a meal shoved through the tiny slot at the bottom of the door, but instead the whole thing swung open to reveal Natasha.

“Wha—?” Darcy began, but shut up with Romanoff’s sharp head-shake. She turned to raise an eyebrow at Mulder, who shuffled away, and she stepped inside. The door clanged shut behind her.

“Little bit of privacy,” she explained.

“How come you’re here? I thought Fury was blaming you for all this.”

“I’m on desk duty until further notice.”

“This is desk duty?”

Natasha shrugged. “I don’t actually have a desk. What I do have is full clearance and the ability to keep it that way, even when Fury thinks it’s been withdrawn. Plus a pressing need to save the world.”

“Then you should be doing that.” Darcy wasn’t a fool. She no longer had a part to play in Natasha’s plans.

“I’m going to. But I’m also responsible for you being here.”

Darcy gave a hollow laugh. “No, that is entirely my own fault.”

“I suppose me telling you how stupid it was to write down everything that happened is a little redundant now.”

“You think?”

Natasha sat herself down on the bench, and for the first time ever she looked tired to Darcy. Almost as weary as Darcy felt. “For what it’s worth, I didn’t expect people to react the way they did. I know Pepper spread the word that Loki never forced you into anything, so they all assumed that meant nothing at all ever happened between you. Then maybe they could have swallowed that you did it because you had to, up until you said you  wanted  to.”

“And now they’re all being judgmental dicks who never slept with the wrong person. I get it.”

“Basically.” Natasha sighed. “They wonder if he got under your skin, especially now they know about the mirror—”

“Oh great. They kept reading.” Sarcasm was all she really had left. Better to don it like armor than leave her wounds open for the world to pick clean.

“That was Fury. Jane tried to slap him for that.”

Darcy almost smiled. “So how come she isn’t in the next cell?”

“Because she means something to Thor, and Fury’s a diplomat when he needs to be.”

“But I mean nothing. Politically.”

Natasha shrugged. “I wouldn’t go that far. And sometimes being a political non-entity is a good thing. Keeps you out of the crosshairs. Right now, you’re in the line of fire. From Sif, especially, but no one’s sure how far they can trust you. Even Jane is questioning why you couldn’t tell her what happened.”

“She was busy,” Darcy mumbled. “And you?” Those last words were more of a croak.

“Do I trust you?” Natasha stared at her shrewdly. “I’ve seen what you’re prepared to do to protect this world. I’d trust you with my life.”

Darcy held it together. Barely. Natasha gave her the space to blink away her desperation.

“Listen,” Natasha continued. “I want to get you out of here. I really do. But where I go next, I have to go alone. And you’ve spent too much time on the run lately. You’ll be safer here, at least until we’ve managed to talk Fury around. Which we will. Frigga puts Fury to shame, diplomatically speaking.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” Darcy gestured to the cell. “Could you at least ask them for a better pillow and some Harlequin to read?”

“I’m all out of favors with Fury.” Natasha stood, listening intently. “In fact, I need to get going before I end up taking extended leave down here.” She swung the door open and stepped out, shooting one last glance at Darcy. “Take care of yourself.”

She was gone, the door was shut, and Darcy was alone again.


 Darcy never did hear Frigga return. Without a watch it was hard to guess how long she’d been down here. They hadn’t brought her a meal, but even if she hadn’t already eaten, she doubted her churning stomach would have accepted any food. She lay down on the bench again, counting her heartbeats as a way to measure the time ebbing away from her.

At least when the world ended she’d be the last to know.

It must have worked, if only for a moment, because when she peeled her eyes open Sif was looming over her.

She opened her mouth to scream, but she couldn’t get the air she needed. It took her a second to realize it was because Sif’s hand was clamped around her throat.

“I was right about you the first time,” she spat at Darcy. “Traitorous little whore.”

Darcy reached out, flailing, hoping to do whatever damage she could, and now she was screaming—

Darcy.  She could hear Frigga’s voice, soft and close, but why wasn’t she saving her from Sif?  Darcy, this isn’t real. All you have to do is—

She toppled from the bench, half-caught in Frigga’s arms, though her knee took a nasty bang on the tiled floor. It shocked the last of sleep away.

“There, there,” Frigga murmured, smoothing her hair away from her face. “It was just a dream, that’s all.”

All Darcy could do was wordlessly shake her head, still fighting for breath. Just because it wasn’t real now, didn’t mean it wasn’t exactly how everyone saw her. Sif would kill her without giving it a second thought, and all the people she counted as friends would believe, deep down, that she deserved it.

Frigga shifted, still holding Darcy, and rose to her feet, carrying Darcy like she weighed nothing. She backed out of the cell and Darcy was dimly aware of one of the agents on guard being warded off with one arched eyebrow. But they were moving in the wrong direction,  down  the corridor, to the very end. Frigga said a gentle word and the door opened, revealing the prisoner and his warden. Both grim-faced, yet bewildered by their new visitor.

Frigga gently set Darcy on her feet, one soothing hand still resting on her shoulder as Darcy tried to back away. “My son,” she said. “It is time you saw what you have done.”

For a horrifying moment the only sound in the cell was Darcy’s hysterical breathing. Frigga had moved even closer, holding her up, while her sons stared at Darcy. Thor with concern and Loki…she swore that, for the split-second she forgot to avoid his gaze, she read concern in him too, but it was gone, shuttered away behind a callous stare.

“You bring me a blubbering Midgardian wench and expect me to feel—what?” he asked Frigga coolly. “Pity? Remorse? I feel neither of those things for a goat slaughtered for the feast, why would I feel more for her?”

“You would speak of her so casually?” Frigga demanded. “So callously of the mother of your son—”

“There’s no baby!” Darcy protested shrilly, spurred on by Thor’s sudden flinch at the revelation. “There won’t ever be a baby!”

Loki’s eyes narrowed and Darcy realized Frigga had never told him that she wasn’t pregnant. Only the movement of his throat betrayed that the news meant something to him. What, she didn’t know. He rallied too fast. “Of course not,” he said. “They call me the Master of Lies, yet it will take me years to become as accomplished as those who schooled me.”

“It was not a lie,” Frigga told him. “It was a  possibility , and you can only blame yourself now it has been destroyed.”

“Well, look to your mirror now and what do you see? Oblivion. Not even the good son can save our skins now.”

“Quiet, Loki,” growled Thor. “The only reason you still live is because mother has pleaded for your life and I do not have the Allfather’s authority to contradict her. Yet even my patience has its limits.”

Loki threw back his head and cackled at Thor’s words, his laugh an angry bark shorn of any real humor. “Ah yes, the patience you are  so  famous for. I am as good as dead, as are we all. Swing the hammer and have done with it.”

Thor’s hand twitched around Mjolnir’s handle but he made no other movement.

“Loki,” Frigga tried again, the calmness of her voice a thin veneer over her own last thread of patience. “I know you. You will have laid plans and counterplans to save your own skin, if naught else. If you tell us what measures you created to defeat Thanos, your father will show lenience.”

Loki laughed again, though this time it was tired. “I used the Midgardians’ own resources. They know the full extent of my plans.”

“Not all of it. What you had set in motion was not foolproof. There was still a great chance Thanos and his army would win.”

“So there was.” Loki shrugged.

“And what then? What did you intend when that plan failed?”

“He would run,” Thor interrupted. “He would use the chaos he had set in motion to disappear, as is his way, and leave Midgard to Thanos’ wrath.”

“That’s about the extent of it, yes.”

Something gave in Frigga’s posture then—a visible deflation, though she didn’t say another word. Instead, she took Darcy by the hand and led her out of the cell, back into the hallway. To her astonishment, Thor followed. He kept the door propped open and Mjolnir firmly gripped in his hand, never turning his back to Loki.

“I wish to speak with Darcy alone,” he said to Frigga. “For a moment.”

She nodded and stepped back into the cell, and a glittering forcefield rose behind her, earning a glare of contempt from Loki.

“She has granted us a measure of privacy,” Thor explained. “They cannot hear us, and should Loki attempt to escape it will at the very least slow him down.”

Darcy was trying her best to do the opposite to Thor, and keep Loki out of her line of sight, placing her back to him, not that it stopped the space between her shoulder-blades itching. “I don’t think it would hold him for long. I don’t—I’m not sure how safe your mother is with him.”

“Neither am I. I believe she still places faith in him which he would willingly shatter, if it would save his own skin.”

This was not the same man Darcy had once met, or at least the side she’d seen of him was shielded from her. He was tougher, like a weatherbeaten oak, his stern posture nothing like the playful and trusting Thor she’d met in Puerte Antigua. The attack that had left the scars on his skin had done as much damage on the inside. But his skin was healing, slowly, and she hoped he was inside too. She couldn’t bear for the easygoing Thor to be lost forever. The universe needed him as a counterbalance to Loki.

“What will you do now?” she asked.

He paused. “I can’t discuss this with you, Darcy. My allegiance lies with SHIELD until the threat to Midgard has passed, and it is clear you are not an ally of SHIELD at this time.”

She jerked back, his measured words striking home. “I’m not  his  ally either!”

“I’m not a fool, Darcy. It is apparent what has transpired between you, even if you are not lovers at this time—and my mother clearly expects you to become so again. I wish I could warn you away, but you are no match for Loki. He will burrow his way into your psyche and one day you will turn your back on the rest of us just to please him.”

“No—that’s not—I  hate  him, okay? It’s all his fault that I am locked away down here. I hate this whole thing—how can you say this when I made sure you could take him out?”

“I know what you did to achieve that, even when you knew the damage he had inflicted upon me. I cannot blame you for what you did, but nor can I find it within myself to still see you as a friend.”

This time, Darcy refused to cry, the heat of rage carrying her voice past the knot in her throat. “Fuck you. Fuck you, and Sif, and everyone else who gets to act all high and mighty like you’ve never made shitty decisions. I’ve got nobody’s blood on my hands and you can’t say the same thing.”

A muscle in Thor’s jaw twitched as he clenched his teeth, signaling to Frigga with a jerk of his head that she could drop the forcefield. “We’re done, Darcy.”

“Thor!” Frigga admonished as she strode to Darcy’s side.

“What did you expect, mother?” he said.

“I’m fine,” Darcy told Frigga, waving her off, moving down the hallway back towards her own cell. The night watch was getting twitchy with all the to-ing and fro-ing. Frigga followed her.

“I shall keep you company tonight.”

“Agent?” Thor called out. “I wish for my mother to be removed for the night.”

Frigga whipped around, only the agent blocking her path keeping her from returning to Thor. “You do not have the authority to request such a thing.”

“I have the Allfather’s authority.” Thor sounded terse, though Darcy could see the weariness settling around him like a cloak. “Given directly to me when I came to Midgard in his place, in the seal you have seen with your own eyes. And I use that authority to demand your removal so you cannot use your tricks to assist Darcy.”

The silence stretched out while Frigga assessed him through wary eyes. “When did you become so cruel?” she eventually asked.

“I am doing what I have to, to ensure the safety of our realm and theirs. My actions may seem cruel, but what is necessary is not always fair or just.”

“Very well, my son. I shall take my leave—but I will not be kept away forever.”

She swept away, leaving Darcy to ushered back to her cell in her wake. When the door slammed shut, silence fell, leaving Darcy aware of just how alone she really was now.

Chapter Text

Breakfast arrived before sleep did. Darcy’s eyelids felt heavy and scratchy, but her mind had refused to shut off even in the quietest hour of night. She could sense when the building came to life, despite how isolated the cells were, with distant sounds echoing down the airshafts and through the corridors. Around her the world was carrying on, most people blissfully unaware that it wouldn’t for much longer. Though apparently whoever prepared her breakfast had already given up on life. It was the only way to explain the slop they sent her.

After that she napped, dragged under by pure exhaustion, though not for long. She jerked awake to the sound of footsteps along the corridor, pausing outside her cell. She took the moment while they rummaged for the key to sit up and run a hand through her hair.

“You look like shit, Lewis.”

She peered through half-crusted lids at Fury. Not who she’d been expecting. “I’ve had better days.” She should have been terrified of the power he held over her fate, but she didn’t have the energy left to care. Compared to Loki, who’d had the same power for months, he just wasn’t worth summoning up the energy.

“This isn’t an out,” he said pointedly. “I’m only bringing you by some reading material, since I heard you were asking for it yesterday.” He dropped a stack of books on the floor. “I picked these myself, so there won’t be any coded messages inside, in case you were inclined to look.”

Darcy rolled her eyes. “Romanoff never got as far as teaching me code anyway.”

Fury frowned at her, his visible eye narrowing. “If Frigga speaks to you—not that she has permission to come down here anymore, but let’s assume she finds a way to contact you—then you tell her we’re giving you special privileges. We’re working on better quarters right now, even though you should be at the bottom of our priorities list.”

“I’m touched.”

He shook his head and disappeared with a resounding slam of the door. Darcy curled off the bed and took a moment to rummage through the stack: The Da Vinci Code, Gone With The Wind, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Bridget Jones’ Diary. Titles she doubted were taken from Fury’s personal library. She shuffled back to the bed and curled up, looking to anyone who cared to watch like she was napping, not trying to eavesdrop on the conversation happening a few cells away.


“You’ve had plenty of time alone with your thoughts,” Fury began. “Got anything new I can use?”

“You know all that I do.” Loki’s laconic response may as well have been delivered over a pleasant dinner.

Fury’s laugh was sharp. “You and I both know that’s not even close to true.”

“What is relevant, at least. You know she’s listening.”

Darcy held her breath, like it would make any difference, waiting for the response.

“What, like she’s got anything better to do?”

“You should let her go,” Loki continued, remaining absolutely casual. “She’s of no use to me. Never was.”

“Sure. I’ll just let the brainwashed woman go strolling out into the world for her to do your bidding.”

“I can assure you I had better things to do with my time than addle her mind. Not the traditional way, at least.”

Oh, ick. She restrained the urge to yell “You wish you were that good!”

“I’ve heard of Stockholm Syndrome,” Fury responded, “I’m not taking the risk. Not when you’re the one suggesting I set her free.”

Gee, thanks Loki.

“You judge her so harshly for an act countless of your agents have committed in the name of duty. She was my captive, completely at my mercy, and yet you care only because she was willing.”

“You sound just like your momma. If you’ve got nothing new to offer, I’m out of here, and I won’t be coming back. Think on that while you’re rotting away.”

“When I reclaim my throne, all the arsenal in the world will not save your skin, director. There shall be no merciful imprisonment for you this time.”

“If, not when,” Fury said. “And it’s hard to care about your reclaiming the throne to a world that might not exist much longer. If you want to die down here like the rest of us, be my guest.”

Darcy could hear Fury’s leather duster swishing behind him as he strode away.


Darcy had started and abandoned The Notebook, The Hobbit and The Time Traveler’s Wife before her next visitor arrived.

It started as a glimmer in her peripheral vision, one that had her cleaning her glasses before she realized it wasn’t dirt on the lens. Before long, there was a circular patch a foot wide floating in the centre of the cell, the air inside it off-kilter like a filthy mirror. She could see through it, but it was refracting all wrong. That only lasted as long as it took for Frigga’s face to appear.

“Keep your voice low, dear,” was the first thing the queen said. “It wouldn’t do to be interrupted.”

“Of course,” Darcy murmured. “Nifty trick.”

“It’s easier when I have the proper tools available to me,” Frigga replied. “That’s why it took so long to set up. Are you well?”

“Mostly. I would love a shower though.” She kept a smiled fixed in place, a rictus grin which wasn’t going to fool anyone.

“I don’t merely mean physically, Darcy. What Thor said—”

“Is said. He’ll get over it, or he won’t.” It was the last thing Darcy wanted to discuss with Frigga. She didn’t have the emotional energy to poke at that particular bruise, not and keep from descending into hysterical tears. Darcy had until the end of the world to brood over Thor, but her conversation with Frigga could be interrupted at any moment.

Frigga sighed, but moved on without further prodding. “I have spoken to Director Fury and he remains unmoved by my plea for your freedom.”

“Yeah, he stopped by this morning. What exactly did you threaten him with?”

“I am the official emissary for Asgard, despite Thor’s presence, and it is my right to withdraw our offer of assistance to Midgard.”

Darcy sprang off the cot, leaning closer to the apparition. “Don’t!” She paused, listening for a reaction outside the cell to her outburst, before continuing in a whisper. “Not for me. There are billions of people out there who have done nothing to deserve what’s coming, and they’re more important than me getting Vitamin D.”

“Oh, Darcy.” Frigga lifted her hand, as if she would reach through the vision, but stopped with an expression of regret. “I am not that heartless, I only tried to use the leverage available to me. Even then, Director Fury did not flinch. I fear he knew all too well I wouldn’t turn my back on your people.”

“Yeah, he’s no fool.”

“We have discussed the issue. He indicated this imprisonment is as much for your safety as anything else, given there are those who would wish to harm you now they know about your relationship with Loki.”

“Sif.”

“Sif has been expressly forbidden from harming you, on pain of exile. She has also been reminded—at length—that not every woman can take up arms the way she has, and wars are rarely won through battle alone. But she is not alone in her opinions, and those I cannot control.”

Darcy smiled again, trying to put a brave face on. “Maybe some peace and quiet will do me some good. Anyway, there’s only so many times you can escape from captivity. It’s turning into a habit.”

Frigga’s responding smile hinted that maybe the habit would linger.

“What are you planning?” Darcy asked.

“I have looked to my mirror again,” Frigga responded, with a smile that said she was changing the subject and that was that. “I do not lament what I see there.”

“Oh come on, you don’t have to be cryptic all the time. Have a little pity on the mortal.”

“I am loathe to disclose too much, not after all that has happened already. But…Loki is wrong to be so fatalistic. Even if you reject this future, you may yet live to see one.”

“It’s the ‘may’ that worries me.”

“Have hope. I must leave you now, yet I am glad you are as well-treated as you can be. If you can, rest before nightfall. The coming days bring burdens to us all, but the nights even more so.”

The vision disappeared in a blink, nothing like its appearance, and Darcy frowned up at the blank cell wall.

“Tonight,” she muttered to herself. “When am I ever going to catch up on my reading?”


Darcy waited for night to fall. All she had to judge the time by how quiet the building went, shortly before her evening meal was delivered. And by meal, she meant more slop. All the office workers above had headed home, leaving her with whoever was on night duty. 

She tried getting into another book, but her attention span was still M.I.A. There was just no point getting invested in Bilbo Baggins’ journey when she wasn’t going to be finishing the book anytime soon. And perhaps her restlessness wasn’t that she was waiting for something to happen, but the effects of being confined. After only one day, she was ready to climb the walls.

How long had Loki been down here—ever since he’d been captured? Just him, alone with his thoughts, and Thor’s brooding anger. Not even E. L. Grey’s finest to keep him entertained...though having that read to him probably counted as cruel and unusual punishment. She almost felt sorry for him. Almost. She was more worried about the damage this was doing to his psyche, and his battered ego. If he ever got loose again, chances were he had a hit list, severe blood lust, and the creativity to make his revenge truly catastrophic.

Good thing she was getting out of here and the hell away from him.

When she heard footsteps outside her cell, she braced herself, but when the cell door opened Frigga wasn’t on the other side.

“Move,” ordered Mulder, his Glock aimed steadily at her. 

Shit.

Darcy nodded, scrambling off the bed and edging towards the door with both hands in the air, like they didn’t already know she was unarmed. Another agent stood waiting, not Scully this time but one Darcy hadn’t met before, her expression as unfriendly as her partner’s. 

Had they somehow figured out about Frigga’s plan? They must have overheard their conversation. Well, of course they had. Every inch of this cell must be bugged. Now they were moving her somewhere Frigga couldn’t get to her. Somewhere even worse.

They blocked the route back to the stairs, instead herding her down the corridor towards Loki’s cell. She stumbled in her confusion. 

“What—?”

Mulder didn’t answer, jabbing the pistol into her side to cut off her question and keep her moving. The other agent strode ahead to meet Thor, who had risen from his post at the commotion and was now blocking the cell door.

“What is the meaning of this?”

“New orders,” replied Not Scully. “Step out of the way.”

“No. You may not access this cell.”

“That wasn’t a request.”

Darcy had to admire her balls, considering Thor looked about twice as tall as her, the way he was towering over her now and doing an immaculate impression of a wall of solid muscle.

“And how do you hope to move me if I do not wish to do so?”

“The Director thought you might say that.” Not Scully gestured towards Darcy. “If you fail to comply, we kill her.”

Mulder shifted the gun to Darcy’s temple as a helpful clarification of how they were going to achieve that. She whimpered, not daring to look directly at Thor. Given everything he’d said yesterday, she didn’t hold out much hope in him caring.

“He would stoop so low?” Thor demanded.

“This is the fate of our planet we’re talking about,” said Not Scully. “All we’re going to do is ask him a few more questions.”

“Then why do you need Darcy?”

“Security. We know the value he places in her. So long as everyone behaves, she’ll be unscathed.”

Thor remained silent, and Darcy dared to raise her gaze to his face. Behind his pensive frown she saw the anger he carried with him, and it made her flinch. Yet his focus was on the barrel of the Glock. Eventually, he responded.

“Very well. Though I fear you place her too high in his affections.” He shifted, pushing the door open and turning to face the cell’s occupant. “No doubt you have heard their threats. If she dies due to your actions, I will kill you.”

There was no response, and Thor stood aside to let the three of them pass. Darcy winced when the door clanged shut behind them, realizing that her purpose as ‘security’ might have been a simplification. If they really wanted to test her worth to Loki, they might want to see if it would prize more information out of him.

She braced herself for more threats, but instead the gun was removed, and Not Scully held a finger up to her lips, for both Darcy and Loki’s sakes. Mulder seemed to be passing his hands over the door, and when Darcy peeked in Loki’s direction he was watching with an arched eyebrow.

“Have you finished, mother?” he asked when Mulder straightened.

Mulder turned to scowl at him, but during the turn his form changed, twisting and dissolving into someone else entirely. “Do you want spend to your life in here?” Frigga asked pointedly. “At least wait until Thor can’t hear us, you fool.”

Darcy glanced at Not Scully, who now appeared to be a vaguely amused Natasha. “This was you guys the whole time?”

“Of course. It’s a simple enough glamour,” Frigga replied. Natasha shrugged like this was an everyday occurrence. “Now, making it look like there’s a third person with us when we leave, that’s the tricky part.”

“Because I’m not going with you,” Darcy realized. “But why have we come—oh. No. I thought you were getting me out!”

“I am,” Frigga reassured her. “However, despite Loki’s repeated denials, I know he has another plan to defeat Thanos. He’s been sitting here for weeks with nothing to do and has to have to dreamt up at least five. He’s had plenty of time to whittle them down to the best one and perfect the details.”

Loki scowled. “You pretend to know me so well, and yet—”

“Oh, hush. We both know I do. Besides, I’m here to save your life, and giving you the opportunity to redeem yourself at least a little.” Loki’s scowl hadn’t abated, and Frigga’s own expression turned stern. “When I release you, you’re to take Darcy with you to assist you, and when you succeed I will ensure your father grants you clemency. I believe that’s a fair bargain.”

“Um,” said Darcy. “I know you have a lot of faith in him, but I’m pretty sure the first thing he’ll do is toss me off a cliff.”

“That would be most unwise,” Frigga replied. She retrieved a length of cord from somewhere in the depths of her gown, holding one end herself and handing the other end to Natasha, who pressed it to Darcy’s wrist.

“Ow!” Somehow it had cut her, and she watched Loki flinch away in annoyance when Frigga held her end to his own wrist. Darcy stared at the tiny hook embedded in her skin. The cord shimmered, hanging between them, then faded from view.

“There,” said Frigga. “You are bound, and only I can undo it. If you die, Darcy, so does Loki.”

“She’s mortal!” Loki exploded. “They die if there’s a particularly strong gust of wind…”

“Then I suggest you take extremely good care of her. Like your life depends on it.”

“And if he dies, then I do too?” Darcy asked. “What if his plan involved noble self-sacrifice?”

Natasha snorted, and Frigga’s expression suggested she was fighting her own amusement. “Darcy, I know my son better than that. Your fate would mirror his, but he is far more robust than you.”

“Natasha,” said Darcy, turning to who she hoped was the only sane adult left in the room, “you can’t think this is a good plan. You fought for months to capture Loki, and now you’re going to help set him free?”

“We’ve run out of options, Darcy.”

“And what if Loki just runs off to the other end of the universe, dragging me with him? What if his plan is just to escape?”

“It may well be so,” replied Frigga. “But know this, Loki: I will remain on Midgard until this crisis is through, one way or another. If every soul in this realm perishes, then I will perish with them. As will Thor. Only with my death will your tie to Darcy be severed.”

Loki’s face was often hard to read, but even Darcy could detect the flicker of distress which passed over him at Frigga’s words.

“Furthermore,” she continued, “Asgard will know of your desertion, and you will never be able to return, nor seek shelter with any of our allies. You will hunted across the stars and will never know rest.” 

It was clear Frigga was the victor. Loki’s options were stark: refuse to leave and wait for Thanos to find him, pinned down in this cell while his family died around him, or actually do the decent thing. Only one gave him a chance at survival.

“And how do you plan to get me out of here, mother?” Loki asked, directing a sneer at Mjolnir in his lap. She tutted and quickly snapped open all that shackled him to the chair, before curling her hand around Mjolnir’s handle.

“Of course, if this fails, it’s back to the drawing board,” she muttered, before lifting. Mjolnir came away effortlessly. “See, she still finds me worthy, which means this can’t be such a bad idea.”

Loki glowered at the hammer in her hand, a contrast to the impressed expression on Natasha’s face. “I suppose I’m to make my own way out of here.”

“I can’t do everything for you, dear.”

“Fine.” Loki rose from the chair stiffly, and grabbed Darcy by the wrist. His grip was tight, though not hard enough to hurt. It didn’t stop her wincing, and her heart began pounding. Just because he had to keep her alive... “We’re going to have so much fun,” he said, his voice a low menace, before the cell disappeared around them.

Chapter Text

Darcy was too busy concentrating on not throwing up to pay much attention to where they emerged. Her vision was a blotchy mess, sparks of light flickering in the periphery from where her head had apparently been squeezed through a much-too-small tube. Unfortunately, it hadn’t just been her head, but her entire being, her limbs left trembling and her chest heaving for lungfuls of air.

“What the fuck?” she panted after the pain began to recede, the splotches fading into a haze of gray.

“This is why I have never traveled with you in this way before.” Loki’s voice was close by, and her gaze tracked him to where he stood, leaning against the wall a few feet away. Looking up at him from her perch on her knees made the world swim again momentarily, but after that settled she noticed his skin was ashen. Apparently she wasn’t the only one suffering side effects.

“Good to know,” she replied. “Next time I complain about a helicopter, remind me of this moment.”

He didn’t reply, and she waited until she was convinced her legs would hold her before she tried standing up. When neither her head nor her stomach rebelled at the idea, she stayed upright. Then she took a glance around at her surroundings.

“Here? Really?”

He pushed away from the wall to stand under his own steam, any hint of his own discomfort hidden away. Though the movement didn’t bring him any closer, it put him at his full height, looming over Darcy. “You know as well as anyone how good a hiding place this serves.”

She sighed. “We aren’t supposed to be hiding. We’re supposed to be doing.”

He moved away, following the line of the wall until he reached the door into the lean-to garage. From there, the hidden steps would lead down into the facility Darcy had spent weeks hiding from Loki in.

Now she was here with him.

“It is only for the night.” He pushed the door aside easily, and a glowing orb appeared in his hand to light the space. There was no car in the garage this time, and the cobwebs were the real deal, not fresh-out-of-a-can. “From here, we can travel much further afield.” He swept the webs aside, shoving the hidden door open and lighting the stairway. The air from below was stale.

“The generators need turning on to power everything,” she pointed out. “Are you sure no one is going to track us here?”

“I can deal with the power soon enough, and we shall be long gone before anyone looks for us.”

It was a testament to how tired Darcy was that it took another few moments for the pieces to click together. They were in the corridor which led to the common room before she realized what Loki had brought them here. “The bridge!”

He nodded, hesitating as they passed through the door into the kitchen. She doubted he’d ever been here before, and was instead moving based on received intelligence. 

For her, it was a completely different feeling. She’d spent so much time here, she knew the entire layout like the back of her hand—could probably have moved around it in the dark if she needed to—and yet it felt like a million years since she’d been here. Especially in the ghost-light and the stillness, which the facility had never truly had when it had been full. There was always someone sat monitoring the security feeds, and the TV was on, even if the sound was muted. Tonight, it was a black void, the space too empty, a layer of dust beginning to settle over the items abandoned and never retrieved.

“Crossing to other realms will be easier if we use a Bifrost,” he confirmed, raising the orb to read the signs on the other doors, “rather than relying on hidden doorways between worlds.”

“I know they got it working when I was gone,” she said, barely above a whisper, “but it took a hell of a lot of power. Enough power they will definitely notice. How far are you planning to go?”

She wondered, as she trailed him to the lab, if he was going to bother answering her. Instead, he waited until they were inside, his little orb barely illuminating the machinery. It had certainly expanded since Darcy left.

“We’ll use as much power as we need,” he replied. “As I said, we’ll be gone before they know to chase us here.”

She noticed that he ignored her last question. They backtracked to the generator room. Because the facility hadn’t been mothballed, merely shut down temporarily, it only took a few switches to get everything back online. That was Darcy’s doing; she shrugged as Loki studied her when she flipped the wall-panel of controls shut.

“I studied electronics while I was on Plum Island. How else do you think I got the lighthouse working?”

She should have been too wary to mention that to him, but either she was too tired to give a shit, or so much had happened that her fear of him had been eroded to nothing. She’d find out after she’d slept. On his part, his face was a blank mask, hiding whatever he was feeling behind a veil of indifference. But she knew he had to be feeling something, given how angry he’d been before their escape.

As she was considering if sleep was even going to be a possibility, Loki led her back to the common area.

“Tonight, I will work on preparing the bridge, but you cannot travel in this state. You have quarters here?”

She pointed down the corridor that her room was lay off, wondering how far they were able to move from each other while Frigga’s cord bound them.

“Then go rest. I will wake you when I am ready.”

“Are you not going to sleep?”

His answering smile told her everything. I’ll sleep when I’m dead. And if he was dead, they all were.


Turned out, Loki didn’t wake her. She came to naturally, after falling into something approaching a coma in her cot. Tempting as it was to stay put, hoping the end of the world would pass her by in this little cocoon beneath the world, she forced herself up. Her thoughts wouldn’t allow her to ignore the situation anyway, circling back to the events of the previous night and the implications of what had happened. 

Every time she thought herself free of Loki, she ended up with him again, their paths apparently tangled together for the foreseeable future. Her only comfort was that, if Frigga was to be believed, it wasn’t inevitable that their paths would be entwined forever. Merely too likely for Darcy’s comfort. 

One small mercy was that, judging by their current distance from each other, they could have some space and privacy even despite Frigga’s latest interference. Darcy understood that Frigga meant well, and that her hand had been forced to a certain extent. She’d needed to set limits on Loki and had few tools at her disposal. And yet, her choice of Darcy suggested she probably hadn’t learned her lesson about trying to manipulate events to reach the future she wanted. It also pointed to her placing too much faith in what Darcy could do.

So here she found herself. Exhausted, over-her-head Darcy, anchored to a god/demi-god/alien who had contempt for every part of her that wasn’t her reproductive system . She suspected part of her mission was to act as a buffer to Loki’s worst impulses, and she’d be no good at that asleep in her cot. She wasn’t convinced she’d be any good at it awake and fully caffeinated, but she had to attempt it. The fate of the world was in her hands.

Yeah, she definitely required caffeine.

She showered, her first since she’d been remanded into SHIELD’s custody, and dressed in some of the clothes she’d left behind in her room. Standard facility issue, all black. At least she and Loki would look like they matched. 

Darcy cast a glance around room 31 before she left, convinced that this really would be the last time she ever saw it. Whatever happened from here on out, she was never coming back to this facility.

She expected to have to go to the labs to find Loki, but instead she stumbled across him in the common room, sprawled across the sofa. Asleep.

He didn’t look peaceful, his skin pasty and the circles under his eyes bruise-dark, but she decided that if he’d succumbed then he obviously needed the rest, no matter what he might say to the contrary. She had no idea what lay ahead, but he needed to be at full power.  She was relying on him to keep them both alive.

She beat a hasty retreat back down the corridor, veering instead for Clint’s old room. If anyone had kept a stash of snacks handy, it was him. Sure enough, among the items he’d left behind—magazines, a deck of playing cards, and a handheld console—were a bag of cookies and several protein bars. The cookies were long since stale, but the protein bars fit the bill. She ate one and scooped the rest up.

This prompted her on a scavenger hunt through the halls. She grabbed a small satchel from Jane’s room and shoved the bars inside, pausing only to stroke the blanket she’d never finished knitting before she’d volunteered to act as Loki’s distraction. Apparently after she’d left, Jane had taken to sleeping with it on her bed. 

She wondered where Jane was. Probably giving Fury hell for locking Darcy away. She hoped, more than anything, that if this wild goose chase actually led to the world being saved, that she’d have the chance to sit down with Jane and talk. Properly talk, with no one listening and no consequences to the words said, and get the poison of the months spent under Loki’s rule out of their systems. Hell, even if the world ended, Darcy wanted the chance to see Jane one last time before it did.

Steve’s room was the least lived in, with only clothes left behind. The quarters that Tony and Pepper had shared were similarly empty—Pepper had insisted that Tony keep all of his tinkering to the labs, and she’d apparently taken her belongings with her. Bruce’s room contained incense and several books, none of which looked like light reading, and Erik had somehow decked his room out like a scene from the IKEA catalog. He also had a stash of snacks: chocolate, nuts, and trail mix. She stashed them in the bag and moved onto the last two rooms.

Frigga’s was, at first glance, completely bare. Darcy wasn’t sure the woman had ever actually lived in this room, even if she’d appeared to retire to it every night. Darcy was about to close the door and move on, when she felt a breath at her side.

She turned her head to find Loki stood a foot away from her, head cocked and eyes focused, but not on her.

“There is magic in that room,” he said.

She shrugged and stepped back, allowing him full access. He stepped over the threshold, paused, then backtracked. “My mother values her privacy,” he stated, gaze focused on something Darcy couldn’t see—and she suspected Loki couldn’t fully see either. He swept back through the threshold and down the corridor.

“I’ve got food,” she called as she broke into a trot after him. “And I can work the coffee machine.”

That gave him a direction, though he continued to pace as she switched the machine on.

“It’ll have to be black, there’s no creamer.” She emptied out the snacks onto the counter for him to raise an eyebrow at.

“I thought you said you had food.”

“I do. Plus, Tony will definitely have left snacks in the labs, but I didn’t want to go in without you. And I haven’t looked at Nat’s room yet. She has a huge trunk in there.”

Loki stalked off with a head bob she thought meant “follow me.” It was freaking annoying, but she traipsed after him, since he might be her only chance of getting into said trunk.

Nat’s room was as chaotic as ever, with the familiar rail of clothes in the corner, and the bed left like she’d just slept in it. Loki had already discarded the padlock from the trunk and had the lid open, fishing through the contents. Wigs and cosmetics, but also weapons he was slipping into his overcoat—daggers and small pistols—and what appeared to be instruments of torture. It was hard to tell. There was also more chocolate—good, European chocolate which made Darcy yell in triumph—and more snacks. Loki turned them all over to her to bundle into her bag.

Darcy returned to fix the coffee, while Loki swept the rest of Nat’s room for hidey-holes containing other useful items. If he found anything, he didn’t let on, but took the mug of black coffee and chewed on a protein bar quietly. 

“We good to go?” she asked as she rinsed her own mug out to rest it in the sink. The coffee had been bitter, but it was better than nothing at all.

He eyed her clothing. “You’ll need something warmer.”

That sounded ominous, but Darcy went and fetched the blanket from Jane’s bed. She draped it over the satchel, ready to wrap it around herself when necessary. “Better?” she asked when she returned to the common area, but instead found a coat, gloves and a scarf laid out on the counter. Darcy vaguely recognized them as coming from Nat’s stash of clothing. They were obviously heading somewhere cold, and wasn’t it just her luck that they couldn’t save the world from a nice, warm beach in the Caribbean?

“I don’t suppose you’re going to let me in on your plan to save the world?” she asked as she pulled the coat on, shoving the gloves into one pocket and looping the scarf loosely around her shoulders.

“You suppose correctly.”

“Do you not think it’s better for my safety—and yours—if I know what it is we’re meant to be doing?”

“Not so long as you do as I tell you.”

“I’m not a fucking child,” she snapped.

“I’m aware of that. My proclivities are not as perverse as some would like to claim.”

She was half-tempted to make a sly comment about goats, but something in the set of his jaw warned her lizard brain it would be a bad idea. Apparently it really was fatigue which had stripped her of her fear the night before, and now she had the clarity to recall that she probably should be afraid of him. After all, Frigga had only linked their lives together—there was, as far as Darcy knew, nothing to stop Loki from harming her and not feeling a thing.

So instead she bit her tongue and attempted civility. “I know you think I’m an idiot mortal who will only get in your way, but I worked with Jane for a long time. I’m not an astrophysicist, but I know my way around her equipment.”

“Your friend’s understanding of the universe is barely greater than that of an ant.”

“Does it matter if it’s all you have to work with? Besides, your mother obviously thought I could be useful to you. There’s no way she’d have sent me along just as insurance.”

That gave Loki pause, but not for the reason Darcy wanted. Instead, his lips curled themselves slowly up into sneer. “Exactly what is it that has my mother so fond of you?” It was a pointed curiosity, dripping with contempt.

Darcy bit her lip, instinctively shying away from the obvious answer. Even Loki would have come to that conclusion, and they didn’t need the added friction of that mirror-bidden future hanging over them at this point. And yet Loki’s rudeness rankled at Darcy, because damnit, she’d earned Frigga’s affection. At least some of it was because of who Darcy was, and his mother saw it even if he never would. Darcy lifted chin to stare him in the eye.

“She took the time to get to know me and realized that just because I’m mortal does not mean I am an ant, or a goat, or in any way unworthy of being cared for. I might not live as long as an Asgardian, but I’m as complex and interesting as any one of you.”

He laughed, bitter and sharp as glass. “Most amusing. I don’t remember you showing me any of this complexity during all the time we spent together. I hoped that I would find some small measure of interest, some sign that you were more than a bug and worthy of my attention, and yet came up entirely short.”

“Because I was your prisoner!” Realizing she was on the verge of yelling, she took a deep breath and focused on using her inside voice. “I was trying to avoid your attention and get away from you. I was terrified of you—I didn’t want to lure you in, which by the way, was easy.”

Loki gave a derisive snort, though his eyes tightened when she mentioned her fear. “Is that so?”

“It worked, didn’t it? You think you’re so different from any other man, and yet I only had to swoon in your arms and you completely lost your brains. So don’t tell me you didn’t find something about me interesting, because there is no way that’s the whole truth.”

He glared at her, rising to his full height, and for the first time since they’d been bound her fear of him came roaring back in full force. His flaring nostrils and tight jaw had her scooting away, and he took a step forward with clenched fists, before closing his eyes and visibly swallowing the anger away. When he opened them again, a flicker of something almost vulnerable was chased away by utter coldness. A voice inside Darcy whispered it was one more mask, though it didn’t make it much less imposing.

“Ah, but you welcomed a monster to your bed, didn’t you?” he said softly. The softness was as cold as a January breeze. “A creature you cannot trust. One you know to look unlike you, under the skin, not like the other ones you’ve met—the golden ones. One who might tear out your throat if you bare it unwarily, or will steal your warmth if you deign to share your bed with it. The kind of creature your ancestors told stories about around campfires, and whispered to you as a bairn even when you should have been safe in your concrete world. But trust me, you must, for I am your only path home.”

Darcy stared at him, goosebumps crawling across her skin after his speech. It took her two attempts to respond, punctuated by a heavy swallow. “You aren’t making it easy to trust you. Not when I don’t know if you wouldn’t enjoy seeing me get hurt.”

His demeanor changed again, twisting into impatience. “Fine,” he spat. “I have no intention of seeing you injured. I will not maim you or attempt to cause you more than minor discomfort, so long as you agree to do as I ask. For your own safety. Does that suffice?”

She almost said yes, almost gave in, but it wasn’t enough for him to promise with such careless words. “Not really. If you want me to do what you say, I need at least a general idea of what’s going on ahead of time. Believe it or not, I could help.”

“I certainly hope so. Your ability to ‘lure’ me and what it cost me has made our next move that much more dangerous.”

“Which is?”

He turned in the direction of the labs once more, striding off without looking back to see if she was following. “If you wish to be free of me, you must face what I am in its entirety.”

Chapter Text

The sky hung dull and heavy overhead, the color of wet slate, and the wind carried a whisper of ice as it brushed over Darcy's skin. Somewhere in the distance, the structure of the abandoned hotel creaked and groaned, an ominous sound in the otherwise quiet scenery.

They'd emerged from the facility into the fields above, the equipment primed and ready for Loki's command. Above ground, there was little to see of the complex machinery which would open the bridge. The only hint of what lay below their feet was a spiked rod, erupting from the grass beside them. But below the surface, wires and equipment linked the rod to the control room, feeding it with the power it needed to work. Loki had recognized the design as his mother's influence, taking what she knew of Asgard's own apparatus to help fashion a rudimentary version here. The portion above ground acted as a focus to create the bridge with, the emptiness of the fields around it a necessity.

While Darcy slept, Loki had cannibalized other machinery to make a hand-held device to control the equipment below ground, and now he was stood poised with it gripped between his fingers. He seemed to be searching the sky for something, some sign, but all she wanted to do was tell him to get on with it. The air wasn't getting any warmer, and the fatness of the clouds suggested they were due a good downpour soon.

Though Darcy knew she shouldn't complain about the weather here, not with where they were probably heading. Her stomach twisted at the thought.

"When I summon the bridge, there will be a delay as the machinery pulls the required energy to make it work," Loki instructed. "You must not move during that delay, not unless I tell you to. You must also keep contact me, so we are not parted during the journey, and do not wander off when we arrive."

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes at him issuing commands like she was a toddler. "Wasn't planning on it. If they think I'm with you, they won't think I'm a tasty morsel and try to eat me."

Loki froze, eyes flaring as he realized she had figured out their destination. Only his jaw worked, the muscle tight as he ground his teeth together. "Frost giants do not eat humans."

She shrugged. "How am I supposed to know? I've only ever met one, and the way Thor told it, you probably aren't a full-blooded one."

His nostrils flared, a sign of impending anger, but he smothered it. "Kindly do not say that in earshot of any of my subjects. It will be quite hard enough keeping myself on their throne following recent events without giving them cause to overthrow me."

She zeroed in on that. "Why, because you've been away for so long?" Another, more worrying thought occurred. "Are you dragging me into danger? What if they have mutinied?"

He took a deep breath, as if bracing himself, but Darcy had no sympathy for him. He might not intend to get her injured, but she'd seen how his plans had a tendency to spiral out of his control. "Firstly, it would not be a mutiny. That is a nautical term and not applicable to a monarchical realm. Secondly, I have left appointed advisers in my stead, and unless war has been declared by another realm in the weeks since my last visit, everything will be running smoothly."

"Weeks? You've been on Earth for months."

"I have indeed, but I have traveled back plenty of times to ensure there is no unrest, and my plans are on track. I would take one of my frequent paths this time, were I alone."

"Oh. Then how come it will be hard to keep your throne?" She was beginning to feel like a toddler, asking question after question, but this was stuff she needed to know and he was never going to share unless she pried.

"Because I no longer hold the casket."

He turned away from her, searching the skies once more, numbers running across the device he held.

"I get it," she replied, her mind catching up with the implications. "The casket is the seat of your power—you used it to gain control there, because wielding it proved you deserved the throne. And now you're returning without it."

He sighed. "Yes. Exactly."

"You could pretend."

That caught his full attention. "Pardon?"

"You can do illusions, so just pretend you still have the casket. As long as you don't need to actually use it, they'll never know."

He gave her a long, appraising look, then nodded. Darcy wondered how the idea hadn't occurred to him before now, but perhaps he'd been too tied up in the bigger scheme to see the obvious answer. "Pray I don't need to use it, because if they discover I am deceiving them, we are both done for. Are you ready?"

"As I'll ever be."

"I don't mean only for the journey: I mean for our destination and my appearance when we arrive. You once balked at my true form."

"Well, I didn't exactly get any warning last time." She considered it for a moment. "Maybe you should change here and give me a chance to get used to it."

He stared at her intently, searching her face for something, so she did her best to look resolute. Honestly, now she knew what to expect, it was going to be less of a shock to the system. Eventually, he came to a decision. "I trust you won't run from me, screaming, this time."

Loki closed his eyes, and Darcy wasn't sure whether she was supposed to look away, or if he'd be offended if she did. Slowly, the pink leached out of his skin, dulling through the gray of the sky above to a deep cobalt. Ridges formed on the surface, like patterned scar tissue, and when he opened his eyes they flared red.

She felt her breath stutter at his fiery gaze, and his expression turned to defiance.

"At least you aren't screaming," he commented, his sour tone belying the indifferent words.

"It's the eyes," she replied firmly. "That's all. The rest of it is…kind of cool." She waited to see if he picked up on the pun, but instead he appeared to be too focused on her first statement.

"That is easily resolved, for the moment. Though while in Jotunheim, having you unnerved would be beneficial, in many ways."

"I don't think that's going to be a problem," she muttered.

But the scarlet glow eased back to the more human—or Asgardian—eyes she was familiar with. "Very well, if you have adjusted, we must depart now. Hold onto my arm."

She did as he instructed, wrapping her fingers around his forearm and staring at the rod with trepidation. It didn't look like much—certainly not capable of transporting them to another galaxy—and even though she knew they'd got it all to work in the past, she'd seen plenty of previously-working equipment crap out in use. She also really wasn't sold on the idea of visiting another galaxy, not unless it was somewhere which served cold beers on a sunbaked beach.

Loki twisted something on the console and waited. Nothing happened for a moment, though Darcy could hear the low hum of the equipment gearing up below. The hum became a rumble, a vibration beneath their feet, then a spark of electricity climbing up the spike. It shot straight up to the sky with a crack, and if anything would pinpoint their location on a map for Thor to find them, that was it.

The surge of power forked, then split again and again, until there was nothing in front of Darcy but a wall of whiteness, so bright she had to close her eyes against it.

"Now!" Loki commanded, and urged her to step forward. She did it blindly, trusting him to guide her, and kept her eyelids squeezed shut even when the light beyond them faded. She didn't know if it would make a difference to the journey or not, but she wasn't taking any chances with travel sickness again.

There was a rushing in her ears, the feeling of wind roaring past and her hair whipping around her face. She wasn't sure if she imagined the way her stomach lurched or if it was psychosomatic. The sensation only lasted a few moments, before there was hard earth under her feet again, and she tentatively opened her eyes.

They'd apparently swapped one foreboding sky for another, and the wind was no less icy. Darcy snuggled further into the coat and hastened to pull on the scarf and gloves she'd brought with her.

When Loki turned to face her, his eyes were ablaze once more, and he gestured to the path that lay before them with a nod of his head. "The guard will have seen the bridge and be on their way—stay alert and stay behind me, as they will assume it is foe, rather than their king returning."

She nodded and shifted away from his side, letting him take the lead. Wherever the bridge had deposited them was a rather desolate landscape, the barren rock and snow of a mountain plateau. It was a jagged and raw terrain, with what appeared like giant stalactites hanging down from above, their origins lost in cloud cover hundreds of feet higher up. They were formed of clusters of columns of rock, reminding Darcy of basalt formations she'd seen in volcanic areas.

It wasn't much of an introduction to Loki's kingdom, but she guessed this was as good as it got. Nothing she'd read about Jotunheim had ever suggested a civilization, just plenty of ice and stone, and when your population was entirely carnivorous it didn't matter if agriculture was a lost cause.

The path was, at least, relatively flat and easy to move on. They were covering it at a fair pace, Darcy scurrying to keep up with Loki's long stride, when he stopped abruptly. Only the fact that she'd been lagging behind stopped her from barreling into the back of him. Around them, figures peeled out of the shadows, surrounding them in a ring, spears aimed at their throats. All were impossibly tall, easily twice Loki's height—maybe more, it was hard to judge from her low vantage point—and deeply ridged blue skin on full display despite the cold. She shuffled closer to Loki.

He spoke then, in guttural words she didn't understand, a short phrase which began low and ended in a roar. A glow erupted from his hands, the same azure as the casket he'd once wielded in front of the world, and she knew what he was pretending to hold.

The spear-bearers fell to their knees and bowed their heads.

It was an impressive display, but it didn't make her feel any less skittish. Especially not when she noticed the many sideways glances she was receiving as they rose back to their feet.

"You are playing the part beautifully," Loki murmured.

"What part is that again?" she replied. It was an easy assumption to make that the frost giants didn't speak English. "Other than terrified human."

"You are a Midgardian servant, brought to ease my comfort as I travel. Your demureness tells them all they need to know."

Darcy didn't like the idea of being demure, or what kind of comfort they'd be assuming she was easing. But if they translated her unease as submissiveness to Loki, and it gave her a measure of protection, she'd deal with it.

They began to move again, this time with the frost giants acting as a guard around them. Darcy kept behind Loki, though not too far this time, wary about being separated from him. His hands moved freely as they traveled, indicating he'd packed his fake casket away for the time being, and he kept talking in that guttural language. Despite not understanding a word of it, Darcy recognized his utterances for what they were: commands.

The path sloped downwards, the plateau opening out until Darcy could see dark shapes sprouting from the snow-covered ground, away from the shadows of the stone stalactites. Unfortunately, her view was obscured by the way her breath was billowing out and steaming up her glasses, and she was now very close to grabbing onto Loki to make sure she didn't lose her footing.

She gave up, shoving the glasses on top of her head underneath her hood, and although her vision was no less blurry than before in the distance, up close she was fine. It also reduced the risk of them falling off and getting destroyed, which was the last thing she needed. At the same time, she pulled her scarf up so it shielded the lower half of her face as well.

As they approached the foot of the path, the shapes began to look like rubble, until they got closer still and she realized they were actually buildings, half-buried in the snow. Some were little more than rubble, ruins scattered across the earth, but others were whole, if rudimentary. They were built of the same dark stone as the mountains, probably quarried directly from them.

This was the jotun city.

Further away, taller buildings lay silhouetted against the peaks across the plateau, camouflaged amongst more of those basalt-like outcroppings, only the brushings of snow on parapets and gables helping her distinguish them from the rock. These had to be their destination: the palace must be among them. Loki hadn't mentioned a palace, but Darcy knew there'd be one, if this was a kingdom.

Despite the half-finished feel of the place—or, more accurately, the way it looked like it should be abandoned, the bones of a long-dead empire being smothered by the snow—there were a surprising number of frost giants in the town. They crept out of their homes as the retinue passed, bowing low to their king without prompting, and he nodded in response to all of them.

There was also evidence of industry the closer they got to the castle, plumes of smoke drifting up from chimneys, and the distant sound of hammers. Now that Darcy had a better view of the taller buildings, she could see some were crowned in what looked suspiciously like scaffolding, blue figures moving across it.

The walk through the town took, at Darcy's best estimate, an hour, since Loki seemed in no hurry to their journey along. Her one sliver of joy was that it wasn't snowing, even if the sky hung heavy with the promise of it. By the time they'd reached the other side, where the buildings blended into the stalactites, what passed for sun had started to fade, the light turning inky blue.

Close up, it appeared that this complex was hewn directly out of the rock, soaring high into the mountainside. One of the buildings was in worse repair, gaping holes in the walls and the crumbled remains of long columns scattered across a cracked, uneven ground. Work was going on to repair it, but as far as she could tell, it had never had a roof anyway, or any subdivisions: it seemed to consist of one large courtyard, with a stone dais at one end.

"The temple," Loki murmured as they passed by.

Its partner building was a blockier affair, even it too was enveloped in those column clusters. The ground to reach it was bare, crevassed rock, sheltered from any snowfall. Either this building had sustained less damage, or repairs had been focused here, because it seemed mostly whole to Darcy.

Another giant waited on the threshold, which was a stone archway without doors that led through into an enclosed courtyard. He bowed his head again, and something about the movement made Darcy realize it wasn't natural; not to any of them. This was something Loki had taught them to do. And yet, they didn't seem to rankle at the need to show their obeisance.

The giant greeted Loki in that unfamiliar tongue, and Loki spoke to him, gentler this time, not commands but what she thought might have been words of thanks. The jotun certainly seemed pleased at whatever was being said, even if he seemed as unsmiling as the rest of them. Loki gestured several times up towards the scaffolding, and Darcy could only wait for them to finish their conversation. Now they'd stopped moving, the cold was settling in, and she resisted the urge to stamp her feet in a vain attempt to get warm.

Exchange over, the giant led them inside the courtyard, which was lined in a series of heavy steel doors. One of the guards hurried ahead to open a set of them, and Darcy found herself ushered inside.

The room was dark, windowless, but it did have a hearth, and within moments the low flames had been stoked to a full blaze. It revealed the high ceiling, straight and severe in its lines but intricately carved. The giants retreated, shutting the door behind them, leaving Darcy alone with Loki.

"Apologies," Loki said, speaking English for the first time in what felt like hours. "These are not the finest quarters the throne of Jotunheim has to offer, but they are the ones which offer heat."

Darcy was under no illusion what the heat was used for: a spit hung suspended above the flames. "I definitely prefer the heat right now," she replied, pulling her scarf loose and stripping her gloves off. Though she decided to keep her coat on, while the room heated up.

Loki's eyes had faded back to their usual sedate gray. "I thought as much. My chaplain informs me they've been experiencing a wonderfully mild spring, but it's still less than habitable for warm-blooded creatures."

She nodded, scooting closer to the fire. The only furniture in the room was a stool which looked like it had been hewn out of the same rock as everything else, but being off her feet was better than being on them right now. "Protein bar?" she offered, digging one out of her bag.

"No, save your provisions. I shall arrange for something more substantial to be brought to us. And furs." He opened the door and called a command out to a waiting attendant, before hastily shutting it when the wind gusted in and made the fire gutter. Darcy shivered where the breeze caught her.

"What exactly is there to eat around here?"

"There are several beasts which taste as good as any from Midgard, but I would recommend young fjallbeast. It's flesh will be sweeter, and when roasted tastes much like swine."

That didn't sound very kosher. Instead, Darcy took a stubborn bite of her protein bar. She was willing to hold out, right until the attendant returned with furs—including enough to drape over the stool to make it a little softer on her butt—and a plate of steaming, crackling meat. Her nose told her that Loki's assessment was right, but she hadn't had a hot meal in days, and found herself tearing into it when offered. She'd soon reduced it to bone and greasy fingers that she had to discretely wipe on the furs.

There were cups of water too, and Darcy eased her thirst before realizing that she had no idea what passed for a bathroom around here. Loki filled up what looked like several water skins from a jug, and hooked them to his belt.

The distant, rhythmic pulsing of hammers on the rock echoed above them. "The scaffolding. Are they building?"

"Rebuilding. And repairing. My predecessor—and his predecessor—preferred to sulk in the ravages of their lost war with Asgard instead of healing their realm. I took a different approach."

"Canny."

"It wasn't only the casket I used to persuade them that I was a better choice of ruler than any of my half-siblings and rivals for the throne—including the one I deposed. Fear will only get you so far."

"Strange how you learned that lesson here, but not on Earth."

He shrugged. "The population of Jotunheim is far smaller and were desperate for someone to take charge and help drag them from decay. Midgard, I learned to my peril, are quite happy to wallow in their decay."

She narrowed her eyes at him, but he didn't seem phased at her reaction to this assessment.

"How small? Is this, like, the capital city, or are there bigger settlements elsewhere?"

"This is the only settlement. There are the remains of other settlements, but the jotun have dwindled greatly in number after centuries of war and misrule. Without a firm hand to guide them away from this rot, they would have been extinct all too soon."

Darcy let that sink in. "This is it? This is the entirety of a civilization?"

"This is what is left of a once-great civilization, brought low by its own desire for more than it had, checked by Odin until the ruins were all that remained. A worthy heritage, wouldn't you agree? A fine inheritance for a young prince to be gifted with after a lifetime of lies."

"If you didn't want the throne, you didn't have to take it."

"I am merely claiming my birthright, as Odin always intended me to do. Only instead of coming to them as a benevolent conqueror, I returned as one of their own, with their best interests at heart."

She turned away from the bitterness in his words and face, staring at the hearth. "So are we just here to check that everything's tickety-boo? Or have you decided that ruling here is better than not ruling at all?"

"I'll admit that it is prudent to keep on eye on my realm regularly, lest a sibling I failed to eliminate comes crawling out of hiding to challenge my loyal men. After all, my throne should only fall to my own heir."

That thought struck Darcy with horror—that in the end, she would be trapped in this place, with him, and the child in the mirror would come to pass anyway, prince of a cruel and desolate realm.

Loki must have noticed her reaction, but whatever it made him feel, he concealed behind a tight smile. "However, we are only passing through. There are three things we require to aid Midgard, though ideally only one will be utilized." She must have brightened at the idea of leaving. "Ah, don't be so eager for us to make haste. There are worse places even than here. I suggest you gather your strength and rest before we head onto one of those."

She sighed, glancing around the draughty chamber. "No, we should get moving. The sooner we get on with it, the sooner we succeed or fail."

He shrugged, a movement that was more elegant than it had any right to be. "If you are so eager."

Darcy draped one of the smaller skins around herself, anticipating that the cold would bite harder after the stifling warmth of the fireside, and followed Loki back out into the courtyard.

She wasn't wrong about the shocking chill of the air, and now tiny flecks of snow span in the wind too. An honor guard appeared to lead them further into the palace, the courtyard giving way to dark corridors lit only by guttering torches. The air was warm, though, and smelt of burning coal. As they hurried past one set of propped-open doors Darcy spied a workshop, giants at work on anvils and red-hot metal. They moved too fast for her to see what they were forging.

At last, they reached a small gate which let them pass through an immense set of walls, and they emerged onto a clifftop. Darkness had taken full control of the sky now, and whatever lay at the base of the cliff and beyond was cloaked by the night. Flurrying snow settled on a rusting golden orb, tall enough to walk into even if you were a good-sized jotun. It had been patched with the darker metal everything else was made of here, and from the top of the orb a spike emerged.

"Is that..?"

"It is the repaired mechanism by which jotunheim will once more be able to travel the Bifrost. The first of the tools we can use to aid Midgard—to transport the second tool, my army."

The workshop had been a smithy. "You're making weapons," she realized.

Loki nodded. "Replenishing the armory."

An army sounded like a fine idea, right until Darcy did the math. If all the remaining jotun were gathered in this one settlement, it didn't seem like they would be a very sizeable group against the Chitauri—certainly not enough to stem the tide in Earth's favor. And worse, Darcy doubted they would be happy that their new king, who seemed so different from the others, was leading them to war once more. They might take the opportunity to rebel, especially if they thought they stood a better chance in what was left of Earth. It was a desperate gamble, and if this was Loki's grand plan, then Frigga's own gamble in releasing him had been for nothing.

"And the third thing?" she asked with foreboding.

"Something different entirely," he replied.

Chapter Text

Darcy wasn’t sure if it was getting progressively colder as they trudged away from the jotun settlement, or if she was feeling the absence of the fireplace too keenly. Night was in full effect as they left the plateau and began to descend further down the mountain, and though the snow had stopped falling, there was no cloud cover. Darcy’s breath came out in clouds of ice, and it felt like ice was exactly what she was breathing back in. 

They’d left the palace and the jotun behind, only the two of them treading an isolated and ill-defined path through the snow. She hoped Loki knew where he was going, because she could barely see in front of her, her glasses once again shoved on top of her head to avoid condensation.

The sky was pure indigo, but the stars it revealed were familiar to her; not their constellations, but the blanket of them high above reminded her of being in the New Mexico desert, where the sky seemed endless and the universe infinite. Somewhere out there, in that dizzying array of pinprick lights, was the Sun, and the Earth, and home. That was comforting, despite the distance between them.

A thought occurred to her, one she had to gather her breathing for to ask Loki. “Am I the first person to ever come here?”

His face registered astonishment, before he schooled it back into his usual mask of disdain. “Ah, so you still consider the jotun to be nothing but mere beasts. And me with them, I suppose? But no, your mighty Thor and his band of merry idiots have been here before, so you aren’t quite as special as you might hope.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she replied, trying to keep her response soft and free of the irritation she felt. “I meant human. Am I the first human?”

“Oh.” He was silent for a few steps. “Yes, I suppose so. You were certainly considered a novelty by my subjects.”

“Cool.” Because that’s what Darcy had decided she was taking from this journey: she’d become a pioneer, a voyager who’d visited a place most humans didn’t even realize existed, never mind aspired to visit. It was a miserable place, true, and the journey wasn’t exactly one she’d been willing to make, but for once in her life she’d done something else no one had ever done.

“I doubt you’ll be much lauded for it,” Loki said, rather peevishly, like he knew what she was thinking and was hoping to burst her bubble.

“Jane will care,” she said, with absolute conviction. Her friend would be thrilled, and it didn’t matter if nobody else ever knew what Darcy had done, or if they used it as evidence she was in cahoots with Loki, because Jane would know and Jane would be excited about it.

He didn’t respond to that, picking up his pace until she was stumbling after him.

“Wait,” she panted, finally crying uncle. “My leg’s aren’t as long as yours. I can’t keep up!”

He came to an abrupt halt, and when she caught up she could see his jaw working as he clenched it. “Excellent. Let’s walk at your pace and freeze before we reach our destination.”

“You won’t freeze,” she pointed out.

“No, but I won’t survive long if you do. Though that would help us reach our destination a little faster,” he muttered.

“What?” She strode up until she was right in front of him, barely a foot away, so he was staring right down at her. “Where is it we’re going?”

“There’s a passage in these hills,” he said, glancing away and focusing on some distant point she couldn’t see. “I’ve only been through it once, but it will take us to another realm.”

“Which realm?” 

He ignored her to begin walking again, but moving at a much slower pace, one she could easily match. It suggested he’d been deliberately walking too fast earlier, to spite her.

“Loki, which realm are you taking me to? Is it Asgard?”

“If I tell you, you will do everything in your power to prevent us from going there. And in truth, I cannot name it. It is not one of the nine realms. You will understand when we reach it.”

“Now you’ve got me seriously worried. Is it really worse than this?” She cast a hand around at the landscape they stood in: barren, windswept rock, leading downwards to a black void, shrouded in shadow. It made it appear like there wasn’t anything at the foot of the mountain, and the one settlement was high above them, out of sight.

“Infinitely.” He turned to her, and for the first time she saw a new emotion on his face: fear.

She sucked in her breath, her feet skidding and sending stones clattering away. “Why?”

“Must you ask so you many questions?” He was trying to mask that fear with anger, but she had his measure now.

“Yes. If it scares you, I have the right to know why, at least.”

“Very well.” He looked away, trying to rescue his dignity and regain his detached composure before he answered. “For a start, I have no power there. No authority nor illusion: I am entirely at the mercy of the guardian of the realm. As is every creature foolish enough to stray there, and yet there we must go.”

“We’re going to see that guardian, aren’t we?” she asked, the inevitability of the answer already apparent.

“Yes. We are going to see that very guardian, and throw ourselves on their mercy.”

“Are they known for showing it?”

He laughed, sharp and bitter. “Not at all.”

“Great. I’m loving this plan so much.”

“She does like a bargain though, and if luck is on our side, she will be ready to make one.”

“She?” Darcy shook her head, shoving that tidbit aside for later. “Do you even have anything to bargain with?”

“She will make it known if I do—she likes the esoteric and the unattainable, the things most people cannot imagine or would ever think of being of much value.” He cast a sideways glance at Darcy. “Pray she does not take an interest in you. Whatever she wants will be painful to extract, I can guarantee that.”

“Well, the good news there is there’s absolutely nothing interesting about me,” Darcy says with feeling. 

There was that fear again, before he replied quietly. “I once thought the same, and that’s what concerns me.”

“So you think I’m interesting?” The smile she forced onto her face made it clear she was teasing him, even though it made her cheeks ache. It was a dangerous question to ask, like poking an angry bear with a very short stick, and yet she’d rather follow that train of thought than mull over who this mysterious guardian was and what she could do.

“My mother certainly believes so, as we have previously discussed. And my brother.”

“No, no. You just said that you once thought there was nothing interesting about me. Past tense. What’s changed?”

“Absolutely nothing.” 

“Ugh. You make my head hurt. Fine, be like that.”

For the first time, she was the one in the lead while he trailed behind, but it couldn’t last long. Not with Darcy as blind as she was—literally, and figuratively. She still couldn’t see further than a few feet away, not with any clarity, and she had no idea what direction to head in anyway. Even the stars had been swallowed by clouds, the sky above as piano black as the world below. She heard Loki’s determined steps behind her, and then for the first time in months, touched her, his fingers clasping her shoulder.

“Stop,” he commanded as she tried to shrug him off, though he kept his touch light when she ignored him, rather than tightening his grasp. “Darcy, stop…please.”

It was the plea that got to her, astonishment turning her to face him before she’d realized what she was doing. There was a curious expression on his face as she gaped up at him. “What? You’ve made it perfectly clear that you think I’m a waste of space, and I’d rather not keep hearing it, if you could possibly manage that.”

“Did you really think I would go to so much effort to have you close to me, to woo you, if I didn’t find you utterly fascinating?”

“Yes, given how you told me this morning that you couldn’t find a single reason to like me. But guess what, buddy, the feeling’s mutual.”

“I know,” he replied, the words hollow, his face drawn. “And I have been far from honest with you of late.” There was a new urgency to him, an earnestness shining through that unsettled Darcy. “But despite this being the best plan I have, the best chance we all have of defeating Thanos, it is still a gamble. Few have ever returned from our destination and the odds are slight that we will join them. To escape twice would be a first, I am sure, and with this likelihood I find it harder to conceal the truth from you.” He paused to draw a breath and lick his lips. “So you should know that my attitude towards you, though often prompted by your uncanny ability to be infuriating, has been caused by your own disdain for me; a mask I have worn to protect myself from the reality of rejection. You do not care for me, and it is easier to pretend the feeling is mutual, rather than admit how long you have fascinated me, and how much you dominate my thoughts.”

Darcy stood, frozen in silence, for several long moments, listening to nothing but the hiss of her cold breath as it passed in and out of her lungs, and stared out at the void that was this hellscape of a planet. And then—

“Are you kidding me?” She could feel hysterical laughter bubbling inside her, though she knew better than to let it loose—even if Loki was admitting to feeling something for her, her lizard brain never let her forget how much damage he could do to her if he chose to. “You did nothing but make me miserable for months, have done nothing but insult me for the past few days and your final big plan to woo me was to steal my will using—oh God.” She covered the face with her palms. The staff, dragging her all the way to where he’d kept it secure, was his last-ditch attempt to make her love him. 

“I was not thinking clearly,” he explained, a whine creeping into his voice. “I knew I had lost my throne, but I was desperate not to lose you too. But time provided the clarity I needed to know it would have been abhorrent, and I am glad the attempt failed.”

“Yeah, that makes two of us!” She turned away from him again, watching her breath fog the air in fast gusts. It didn’t deter him from carrying on.

“The truth is, I am terrified that she will see something special in you—as I have, as my mother has—and refuse to let you go. She has the ability to see the true value of a person, however well they attempt to mask it. And you do hide it from the world, Darcy Lewis. Your bravery, your quick mind, your loyalty—you don’t know what I would give to have someone speak of me the way you speak of your friends, or they speak of you.”

This felt like Loki was exposing some hidden part of himself, a vulnerable flank he never left open to attack. The temptation was there to go for the kill, but Darcy shoved it aside. Frigga would want her to be kind to her son, a kindness apparently rarely shown if this was what he had grown into, and like it or not, they needed to trust each other if they were going to survive.

“Thor did,” she told him.

She had to turn to him so he could see the candor in her expression, and even then his brow creased in confusion.

“Thor had some fraternal affection for me,” he said, with a shake of his head, a dismissal of her words, “but he didn’t understand me. He couldn’t see why I didn’t enjoy the same things as he did, why his friends barely tolerated my presence, why I would choose to wield magic rather than a sword. He never cared more for me than he thought he ought to.”

“Of course he did,” Darcy protested. “Half his stories when he was stranded here on Earth were all about his brother, this insanely smart guy who always had his back and got him out of trouble. He adored you. Why do you think he reacted so badly to what you did to him?” She barely gave him chance to consider the question. “He never, ever expected that you would betray him, let alone try to kill him. You were the person he trusted above everyone else, and you destroyed that bond.”

If Loki was blinking rapidly, it was only because the cold was making his eyes water. His nostrils flared as he breathed rapidly, trying to control his emotions. 

“And that is why he disavowed you,” Loki finally replied. “Because you were another person he trusted, and yet he believed you had betrayed him as well.”

“What, now you’re feeling guilty?” she asked sharply, wrapping her arms around herself as the reality of standing still too long sank in. Even her bones were aching with the cold now.

“Yes,” he said simply. “Believe it or not, I never intended to make you unhappy, or see you suffer. I thought…” He paused and sighed. “I thought when we found each other that we would bring each other happiness. I should have known that was not to be.”

She nodded, only half-listening to his words as her teeth began to chatter. He frowned with concern and reached out to touch her face, though his fingers lingered an inch above her cheek when she flinched away from him.

“You are suffering now,” he said. “Here.” He made a gesture with those fingers, closing and then unfurling them until a ball of light appeared between them. “If you hold this, it should stave off the worst.”

She reached out gingerly and took the ball from him. It was hard to describe the texture when she wore gloves, other than the warmth it radiated. In fact, it barely felt like there was anything between her fingers except heat. She held it up to her face, letting it ease the ache in her ears.

“It will ebb away soon enough, but it won’t be long until we reach our destination now.”

They continued in silence, though Darcy caught Loki giving her sidelong looks every now and then. She did her best to ignore them. Whatever Loki thought he felt for her, it wasn’t love. She didn’t think him capable of that, not the kind of love she wanted, not until he’d had about a hundred years of therapy. It was too rooted in what he wanted, and what he hoped she could give to him, rather than any real tenderness on his part.

They were moving across a ridge on the mountainside, the rock face fissured with cracks. It was at one of these cracks, barely the width of Darcy’s shoulders, that Loki paused. He ran a hand through the air, and a symbol appeared above it like a cloth had fallen away from it. A simple star glittered against the stone.

“I left that here, in case I ever needed to use this passage again,” he explained. “I know this does not appeal to you, but you must hold onto me.” He held out his arm, and she stared at it until she realized he intended her to take it.

She wrapped a hand lightly around his elbow, but he shook his head impatiently. 

“Your grip must be tighter than that. If we become separated, I cannot keep you safe.” He demonstrated, shifting until her arm was wrapped around his own, like some bizarre parody of a couple going for a stroll. “This will not be comfortable,” he warned. “There will be times you will not be able to see anything, and it is inevitable that you will panic, but I will do everything I can protect you.” He cocked his head towards the crevice. “We cannot delay anymore.”

She gave a firm nod of her head, pretending that she had some reserve of that bravery he’d mentioned earlier. Instead, her stomach was threatening to expel the fjallbeast she’d eaten, and she wasn’t sure if she could trust her own legs to keep her upright. Loki had done too good a job of impressing the dangers of this other realm on her.

He led them forward, turning sideways so they could each ease into the crevice while remaining linked. Though she did not so much as brush against rock as they stepped inside, the immediate blackness brought a blanket of claustrophobia down on her. She fought against the panic, dredging up old breathing techniques she’d learned in yoga, but the darkness didn’t ease as they moved further inside.

There was nothing to signal that their surroundings had changed, not at first. The only hint lay in the air, the sudden breeze on Darcy’s face. It was no less cold than the one outside, but this was wetter, like a kiss of fog. Then she heard the howling.

She hoped it was wind: distant, roaring wind, but there was no way of really knowing. The blackness stretched on and on, even as they walked, even as Loki seemed to follow some unseen path. She clung to him fiercely now, unwilling to let anything between them, and the howling became all-consuming.

Finally, Loki came to a halt, and raised another of those little balls of light in his free hand. It did little to illuminate the space around them. If Darcy hadn’t know better, she’d have thought they were stood in nothingness, with only a small patch of terra firma beneath them.

“Stay behind me, and stay quiet,” Loki warned in a whisper. “The less attention you draw, the better.” Then Darcy heard the footsteps, the distant tap of heels on stone. Or what she hoped were heels.

The guardian was approaching.

It seemed to take hours for her to reach them, though it could only have been a minute or two, and Darcy didn’t peek around Loki when they came to a halt. She switched her grip to the back of his leather overcoat. She didn’t want to see who he stood facing, what had his back so straight and his jaw so tight. Darcy didn’t want to draw her attention.

“Loki,” the guardian said. “Were you so eager to return to me?” The voice wasn’t really a voice at all, the grinding of bone, the echo of a thousand distant screams, and it vibrated inside Darcy’s skull until her teeth ached and her vision swam. “I am flattered.”

Loki bowed his head low, only the pallor of his skin giving away his fear. His greeting in response made Darcy freeze in terror. 

“Mistress Death.”

Chapter Text

“How is my love?” that awful voice continued.

There was a pause before Loki replied, a pause which told Darcy he was grasping for the best answer. Darcy was grasping for some kind of context. This thing—Death, as Loki had named her—loved someone? 

“In truth, I have not seen Thanos in some time.”

Darcy knew that name from somewhere, but she couldn’t place it. The creature hissed, a rattle that made the hair on her spine stand on end. 

“Now, now, Silvertongue. That was not our arrangement. You were to return to him and help him find a way to be with me, without surrendering his life.”

“I found it more expedient to work on the problem away from his presence. He often found me to be a distraction.”

Death laughed, a hollow, hacking sound with little mirth. “He never treated you with much kindness, did he, my little emissary? Such cruelties to keep you as our go-between.”

Darcy heard Loki swallow. “And I thank you for letting me return to my own path. I believe the time away from Thanos and his…tender mercies gave me the space to work on your problem. Though I had not yet reached a solution, one was imminent.”

“Pity.” The voice lowered to a rumble, an attempt at seductiveness that made Darcy want to throw up. “I do get so very lonely. Perhaps I could persuade you to stay with me this time, since you have failed me so…”

Loki’s silence only ended when he cleared his throat, which sounded completely dry, his voice little more than a rasp when he spoke. “Much as I enjoy your company, Mistress Death, I fear I am a poor substitute for the one you truly want. Though I recognize that my exit from your realm is entirely at your discretion.”

“Don’t attempt to flatter me, Loki,” came the sharp response. “I am not a madman who needs to be placated. Your fear is enough.”

“My apologies. I have spent too long amongst those who crave flattery and worship.”

“Yes, I am aware you have spent a while locked up with only yourself for company.”

Loki stiffened and Darcy bit her lip to stifle the giggle which threatened to slip out despite the horror of the situation. “Mistress,” was his tight response.

“If this solution was so imminent, why have you returned to me before its completion?” She was silent as she realized the answer to her own question. “You seek a favor from me.”

“I do.”

“Then your situation must be very dire.”

“It is. I would not have trespassed upon you again, not unless I had any other recourse. You may be the only one who can help.”

“Ah. My love is up to his old mischief?”

“He is planning to sack an entire realm as a sign of his devotion to you.”

Darcy finally put the pieces together in realizing that this Thanos—the one in love with Death—was the person on his way to destroy Earth, the head of the Chitauri army. Suddenly coming to Death for help seemed beyond foolish. What was Loki playing at?

Death tsked. “I have warned him such actions knock the balance of the universe out alignment, and yet he persists. He’s so stubborn, though he is a sweetheart,” she finished with a fond tone. “You wish for me to intercede and prevent this?”

“Yes.”

“Such a request will come with a high cost indeed.”

“I’m aware.” He stiffened, like he was waiting for a blow, and Darcy shuffled a little closer to his back.

“Despite the fact that I laid the solution to bring my love to me at your very feet, and you failed to use it. The path, the one I sent you running down when I let you go the last time, could be used to bring him here. You thought to use it to return to me yourself, but not Thanos?”

“No, Mistress. I—I do not believe that would work.”

“I fail to see why. You go to my love and you tell him that he can walk right into my arms. All you need to do is show him where to begin.”

“He would not come,” Loki said hesitantly.

That, for the first time, seemed to ruffle Death. Even though Darcy couldn’t see her face, she could feel the astonishment, and then the disquiet. “What do you mean? He loves me. He has devoted his life to proving it, and to finding a way to be with me.”

Loki’s tone was soft, sympathetic, when he continued. “While I don’t doubt that he loves you deeply, and that he would want to spend the rest of eternity in your arms, he would not want to do it…here. After all, there is more than one path to your realm, and yet he has never sought them out.”

Death was silent for so long that Darcy thought she’d left, though she dared not peer around Loki to check. Eventually, the grinding voice returned. “I see.”

“Forgive me for saying so. I truly believe he will do anything in his power to be united with you, but his plans involve elevating you to our plane of existence, rather than joining you in yours. He seeks to tear the veil between the worlds, if he can. That’s what he hopes to achieve with the Tesseract.”

This was news to Darcy. Terrifying, game-changing news.

Death sighed, a long rattle that stirred the air around them. “That certainly changes things. My poor, desperate love—when will he learn? It shall certainly be dealt with, one way or the other, but I make no promises about this realm you seek to protect.”

“I will pay whatever price you deem fit,” Loki swore. 

“And yet, I think there is little more you can give me. Your life has practically been a bed of roses since your last visit. Your mortal companion, on the other hand…she remains an intriguing little morsel.”

Darcy’s knees almost gave out beneath her. She held her breath and buried her face into Loki’s back, like if she couldn’t see the monster, it wouldn’t see her.

“No,” Loki said firmly, the first time he had raised his voice above deference. “She is only here because I am here, and we cannot be separated.”

“I had noticed. The link between you—your mother’s work? But you know the toll for leaving my realm; even if I ignore your request for aid, I still require payment.”

There was that awful clicking sound as Death moved, walking around Loki to get a look at Darcy. It didn’t matter than the pair of them circled away, Darcy trying to keep out of her sight; Death was faster. There was probably a metaphor in there somewhere. Darcy kept her gaze fixed to the ground, but even that didn’t help—two skeletal feet appeared in her field of vision. 

The sound wasn’t heels at all, but bone against rock.

She didn’t want to look up, and yet the horror of the realization dragged her head upwards, to see if the rest of the body matched. It was hard to tell—Death was cloaked, either in shadow or an actual cloak—with even her face shrouded, and Darcy sagged a little with relief. Then a cold hand shot out of the folds of the cloak to grab her arm.

The hand, too, was nothing but bone, shining white in the darkness, and only the layers of fabric which Darcy still wore as protection against the cold kept it from touching her bare skin.

“She doesn’t know, does she?” Death asked Loki, gently mocking. “You dragged her here without telling her what I will take from her.”

“What?” Darcy asked, panicking, trying to step back, but she might as well have been shackled to the being holding her. “What does she want?”

“She has nothing to give,” Loki said, attempting to sound reasonable even though his voice rose in panic. “She is young, she has seen nothing.”

“Oh, I doubt that. She is bound to you, after all.” Death began peeling Darcy’s glove away, and though Darcy wriggled in her grip, she could not break free. “Besides, you forget that I enjoy the full range of experiences.”

“I’m sorry, Darcy,” Loki whispered. “If you resist, it is likely to hurt more.”

“It may not hurt at all,” Death said to her. “All I want to do is feel what you’ve felt. I am the guardian of this place and I must not leave it—so if I want to experience more than infinite darkness, I must seek it through others. I shall only have a little taste of your life—the good and the bad.”

She wrapped those bony fingers around Darcy’s bare hand, and Darcy squeezed her eyes shut.

The howling, which she’d been fighting so hard to ignore, came roaring back, crescendoing until it hurt to listen to it, but she couldn’t close her ears . This was worse than the way the cold had made them ache deep inside, a pressure she thought was going to tear her eardrums. The world swam, her balance shifting, until she was falling forwards.

Nothing stopped her fall.


Loki falls through empty space, through the ruins of the Bifrost, through the rift it has created in reality, until he is nothing more than scattered atoms. It doesn’t hurt at all, not after his breath has been stolen and refuses to return. He simply…

Ceases.

He is nothing. He is at peace.

But then comes the voice. Harsh after the void, harsh compared to anything. “So long I have waited for one with your magics to enter my realms,” it coos in glee.

He is forced out of peace, back into being, despite his every protest. Thrust out of the realm beyond and back into his universe, where more pain awaits.

Well, what do we have here?” A colossus, blue-skinned like the jotun but bulkier, as wide as he was tall, with a wide grin which denotes anything except joy. 

Loki doesn’t have the opportunity to pass on the message he’s been asked to before he is back with Mistress Death, his mortal form shredded to ribbons once more.

He’s so eager to show me his love,” she says when he returns.


Darcy is back in the penthouse, the lush prison Loki had once held her in, before she’d ever learned why he wanted her. She is searching for something, anything to get her out of here—however she leaves, alive or dead, she will not betray her friends. Panic is her driving emotion, spiraling deeper with every failure to come up with a solution. Surviving on nothing but tap water until she can barely stand, terror making her shake with the notion that she might fail the Avengers and with them, the world.

She bursts out into the roof garden, hope squelched into despair when she realizes this is no path to freedom. For the first time, she notes the tiny figure watching her from behind a potted plant. The shade of a girl in the corner of her eye, gone before she can turn to search for her.


Are you so eager for more?” 

Loki’s torturer greets him with glee, every time he appears again on the bench Thanos has him strapped to. He has learnt his name, and the broken pieces of the love story Thanos believes himself to be in, though in Loki’s eyes it is a grotesque mockery of a romance.

He says nothing though. Whether he speaks or not makes no difference: Thanos treats him as a project, a study in how much punishment his body can take before it gives in. More than he ever realised, and it is not a happy realisation. It keeps him on the bench for longer, though time becomes meaningless when he is gasping for breath or slowing drowning in his own blood.

Tell the Mistress I love her.


Darcy is staring out of the SUV window, watching other cars pass them by, though she is sure the tinted windows hide her from the outside world. Her, and the man who has her gripped by the hand. Her heart pounds, and she struggles not to spill the contents of her stomach, or her thoughts. Either might come tumbling out if she opened her mouth, or she might succumb to her hurried, uneven breathing.

He is smiling at her, pleasantly, and yet all she can see is the mask of hatred when they’d met for the first time.


I will do…” Loki croaks, his voice as broken as the rest of him, “anything.” He sucks in a breath, and he’s not sure if it’s that the air is cold enough to hurt, or if everything he does now will be shadowed in pain.

Oh, Loki. I do not harm you to break you. I harm you because I enjoy it so much.

Please.

The grin widens, dripping in sinister glee. “Have you ever heard of a realm called Terra?


Below the helicopter, mountains await, their snow-capped peaks like jagged teeth ready to tear into them should they fall. Darcy regrets opening her eyes: not only because of that view, but because Loki is still staring at her with maniacal intensity, his pale face almost gray and the circles under his eyes like smudges of soot. Wherever he is taking her, it will not end well for her.


She is resplendent against the gold of Loki’s bedsheets, dark hair pillowed around her head as he drives into her. She bites at a plump lower lip, nails digging into his skin as her eyes drift shut. Her body is everything it had hinted at beneath the shapeless clothes she wears, soft and yielding beneath him, and the moment is everything he’d hoped it would be after months of chasing after it. 

He has dreamt of her, since the first night she became his guest, and despite his flawed, rejected attempts at a courtship, his body has clung to a stubborn yearning for her. Now that yearning is being sated, but he doubts this one night will be enough. Not when she fits against him so well. All he needs to know is that she, too, aches for him. He focuses on driving his name from her lips.


No one ever questioned how he survived the void the first time, too focused on the havoc he’d wreaked on Midgard. Now, that failure to gather proper intelligence will cost them once more.

When he leaves his cell, he also leaves behind one hand and a great deal of blood. It doesn’t matter. He is free of the shackles, and has enough basic magic to flee to the surface, to the great ruin of the Bifrost. They are rebuilding, but the work will take time, and until then the edge of the world flows into a void.

He is discovered before he reaches his destination, the assumption being that he is trying to reach the new Bifrost and take control of it. They try to stop him; they send Thor, hoping Loki would not harm his brother, and his pet warriors, who surround him and keep him from his goal. 

Thor is the one who stands directly between himself and freedom, so Loki retrieves the Casket from the dimension he has it stashed in and blasts his brother with the full effects. It will not kill him—cause him pain, yes, but nothing compared to what Loki has been through—and creates the space to flee. 

Below the Bifrost, the rift still awaits, ready to swallow and scatter anyone careless enough to fall from the bridge.

Loki does not fall. He throws himself off, into its gaping void, knowing he will return to Mistress Death’s realm. If she accepts his bargain, she will return him, whole once more, to this universe.


Darcy woke in Loki’s arms, tears staining her cheeks.

He’d died. Over and over again, suffering the entire time, until Thanos found another use for him. She’d lived through it in his head: felt it like she was in his body, felt like she was the one being ripped apart, and all she wanted to do was rock him, cradle him, and give him the comfort Frigga would want him to have.

And yet. It was his choices which had led to him falling into the void. His choices had led him to Earth, and then back into the void. The decisions he’d made, to serve his own selfish ends, had led to the suffering and death of so many people. Even Thor, when he had stood against Loki once more, had been hurt more than he should have been. A warning blast would have been sufficient to move him out of the way, but Loki had chosen to use the full force of the Casket.

“That was interesting,” Death commented, sounding a little buzzed. “I’ve never experienced that with two people bound like you are. You’ve certainly put the girl through trauma, Silvertongue. All her worst moments, and you were the cause of them. Oh, it was delicious.” She turned her attention to Darcy. “I like sunny days and joy as much as anyone who dwells in the dark, but there’s nothing quite so fulfilling as the darker moments.”

Darcy turned her face up to Loki, who wouldn’t meet her gaze. “You died,” she whispered.

“Of course he did,” said Death. “How else would we have become companions?”

“And you let him go, just so he could be tortured until he died again, so you could feast. Is that how it worked?” She pulled away from Loki so she could rise to her haunches.

“He returned to me of his own volition. He gave it all to me so I would show him the way out, and he could fulfill his end of the bargain. Though I never expected him to return with a mortal in tow, and reliving those experiences through you was like feeding on them for the first time. For that, you have amply secured your safe passage home.”

“What about Earth?” Loki asked. “Is there nothing we can offer you?”

“As it happens…”  She flourished one hand in the air, drawing an object out of the shadows. It glinted, somehow, despite the absence of light, until Darcy could make out its shape: a silvery disc. A mirror—a very particular mirror.  Darcy was sure that if she could see Death’s face, she’d be wearing a wolfish grin. “You never told me you’d be having a child with her, Silvertongue. I have a special fondness for children.”

Darcy felt the air leave her lungs, and struggled to find the power to suck more in.

“No,” Loki replied. “Not him.”

Death sighed. “Do you know often people say they will give me anything, and then make refusals? It’s infuriating.”

“He’s not mine to give.”

Darcy understood, then, that Loki meant it was her choice. And the whole thing was absurd—were they about to start bargaining over her first born? A child she never wanted to exist?

And yet. She couldn’t imagine carrying a child, giving birth to him, to abandon him to this realm. Jotunheim would be a miserable existence, but it would at least be an existence.

“I don’t want your child,” Death replied. 

In the confused silence that followed, she began pacing, that horrible click-clack-click-clack a constant punctuation to her speech.

“I want to be a mother, and yet my very nature will not allow it. Nor can my love give me with one—that way is sure to lead to the veil between realms being irreparably torn. I have yearned for eons, but now the way is clear to me.” She paused in front of Loki, who had risen from his kneeling position into a crouch. “You can provide me with one.”

“Any particular one?” he asked, his tone light even though he looked simultaneously bewildered and terrified.

“Yes. My child.”

Pale though he already was, Loki visibly blanched. Darcy was struggling to visualize how that would even work, when Death didn’t appear to have a body to speak of…and then wished she hadn’t tried.

“You come from a long-lived race,” Death continued. “Your life force is not infinite, but it is far larger than most. I could take it and mold it into a daughter.”

“I fear I may have need of it, though, Mistress.”

She waved a skeletal hand dismissively.

“I will leave you enough. A reduced life span, certainly, but one which will ensure you don’t mourn the death of your mortal love for centuries.”

Loki opened his mouth to protest her wording, then apparently thought better of it. He was silent as he considered her proposal, though Darcy wasn’t sure what there was to consider. Yes, selfishly, she hoped to save Earth, but it seemed too much to hope that Death would really care much about the fate of a planet. Nor that Loki would, not when he so obviously hated the idea of mortality. “This will secure the safety of Midgard?” he eventually asked.

“It will secure the safety of Midgard,” Death confirmed, “and liberate you from your previous bargain to bring Thanos here. I will make my own arrangements.”

“Very well. I agree.”

“Loki! What are you doing?” Darcy protested.

He turned to her, face set with resolution and no little amount of fear. “It will save your home.”

“You don’t care about Midgard, not really.”

“No,” he replied simply. “But you do.”

“Wait—are you doing this for me?” she asked.

“Somewhat. I have much to atone for, and not only with yourself.”

“You can’t—this isn’t—why would you—” She struggled to protest, because she didn’t want him making this gesture on her behalf, for her, not if it would force her hand towards forgiveness, and yet she didn’t see how they had a choice.

“This will not seal you in any bond of forgiveness towards me,” he vowed, sensing her internal struggle. “Nor will I debate it with you. If this is the bargain you wish to strike, Mistress Death, then I believe it is the fairest one you have yet offered me.”

Death inclined her cowled head in agreement. “If you agree, you will be giving me more than any other being ever has. Anything my love has to offer will be insignificant in comparison.”

“Will it hurt?”

“I don’t know,” Death replied. “Though I am sure it will be nothing to what you have experienced in the past.”

He rose to his feet. “Then do it. Quickly.”

“First, I must remove the bond between the two of you.”

“You can do that?” Darcy asked, scrambling to her feet herself.

“I can do anything in this realm, my dear. It is mine and it bends to my will.”

She took Darcy’s hand again, before she could react and flinch away, and Darcy felt a sharp pain in the skin of her wrist, much like she had when Frigga had bound them. Then Death turned to face Loki, who squared his shoulders and looked somewhere into the distance over her head.

Death reached towards Loki’s torso, but rather than resting her hand on his chest, it sank through the leather. Loki convulsed, but remained standing, while Death twisted her arm and pulled it away.

“Is that all?” Loki asked, though he was panting, a sheen of sweat appearing on his forehead.

“That it all,” Death confirmed. “You may leave now.”

A path lit up for them beneath their feet, back into the darkness, and when Darcy turned around to ask Death another question, she was gone.

“Do we just…go?” she whispered to Loki, who still looked like he needed a sit down.

“Yes. And quickly.”

Darcy held out her arm to Loki, just as she had in Jotunheim, and indicated he needed to take it again. He didn’t look ready to move under his own steam all that fast, so if he needed to rest some of his weight on her, that was fine. So long as they got moving.

He hesitated for only a second before linking arms, and they began the walk back to the realms of the living. Darcy was actually looking forward to returning to Jotunheim, even if the feeling would fade fast with the memory of this place. There would be food, and warmth once they reached the palace, and the opportunity to rest before they sought a path back to Earth.

A light appeared at the end of this path, a very literal light at the end of the tunnel, brighter than she would have expected from Jotunheim. She had no idea how long they’d been in Death’s realm—it hadn’t felt too long, but did time move differently? So long as she didn’t step out into the past or the distant future, she’d cope.

The sky beyond the portal was definitely blue, the blue of a cloudless summer day, and she was practically dragging Loki along when they reached it, eager to get out of here. Away from the howling, away from the sense of Death’s presence, and away from the memories she’d been forced to relive.

They stepped through, still linked, and instead of the harsh mountainside they’d left behind, Darcy’s feet touched upon grass. They were in a field, with the sun—one sun, her sun—high overhead, and the skyscrapers of Manhattan visible in the distance.

Above their heads, marring that perfect blue, a warship hung in the sky. 

Chapter Text

Chapter 29 - The War Council

The ship hung in the air like someone had taken a serpent and thrown it into the sky, where its long body had been pinned. It bore a helix twist down the full length like it had been writhing as it was tossed upward, and though it appeared to be built from metal, the narrow segments that formed its outer wall even looked like snake skin. There were no visible windows and the metal itself was dark and pitted, the casualty of space travel and battle.

It all meant that, despite the ship bearing no markings, Darcy knew who it belonged to, and that its purpose was war.

“We’re too late,” she said in dismay.

“No,” Loki replied, reaching out a hand as if he was thinking of soothing her, before pulling it back. She noted a fine tremor that he hid from her observant gaze by clenching his fist. “The city is unharmed for now—there are no flames or smoke. He is here to parlay, or at least to pretend to. He wants the Tesseract before he begins his scourge.”

“So what exactly is her plan? If he’s here, she’s cutting it fine.”

“I don’t know,” he admitted.

“Is there a chance she’ll…y’know. Double cross us?”

Loki shook his head. “Unthinkable to her. She deals in truths, however unpalatable they might be. If she had intended not to aid us, she would have told us so, and likely kept us there for her entertainment.”

“So we have to wait until she comes through.”

“Yes, I suppose.” He swallowed. “Or we buy the realm some time.”

The suggestion seemed casual until Darcy noticed the shudder that went through him, the flash of panic and fear he hastened to bury. Before it would have seemed unthinkable to her, but now…now, she knew what he’d been through. She’d been in his head while Thanos tore into him, over and over.

“You can’t be thinking of facing him again!”

“I must,” Loki said. “It may be the only way of keeping him from beginning his destruction—he has little patience as it is. Once he knows that the Tesseract is no longer on Midgard, he will think nothing of letting the Chitauri reduce it to ash, and moving onto Asgard.”

“And when you can’t tell him where the Tesseract is, he’ll take his anger out on you, and he’ll find creative new ways of trying to get that information out of you. I don’t think Mistress Death is going to take too kindly to you returning so quickly, do you?”

“Ah, but I can let him know that I have seen his Mistress recently. Nothing diverts his attention better.”

“So what’s your grand plan for getting to see him?”

“First, we must contact my mother. She will undoubtedly be involved in the diplomatic mission.”

“Great. Do you have her cell number, because I forgot to ask for it?”

Loki rolled his eyes at her and clapped his hands, making her jump at the sudden, sharp noise. “We have other methods of communicating.” He stared at the sky for a moment until a black object, far away, began to descend towards them. Darcy fumbled for her glasses, still perched on top of her head, and when they were in a position to help her see again, she realized it was a bird. A crow, or a raven—she’d never learned the difference.

The bird landed on Loki’s outstretched arm, its little black eyes unnervingly perceptive as it stared at the man who’d called it. He had a moment of silent communication with it, before it erupted into the air again, heading for the city.

“Is she going to let you know where she is?” Darcy thought for a moment, then sighed. “Are we going to have to do that thing which ends with me throwing up?”

“Unlikely. Though it may help if we head towards the nearest road.”

Darcy pointed in the direction of the traffic she could hear, and they began the trudge to the road in silence. The raven did not reappear, and the road turned out to be further away than she expected, so her calves were aching once they’d crossed the fields. She’d done too much walking over the last few days for her liking, and wanted nothing more than a hot bath, but she doubted it was on the cards for her. The looming presence in the sky only promised chaos and sleep deprivation.

Even Loki was looking worse for wear, deep circles blooming beneath his eyes and his skin sallow, tight across his cheekbones. He wore his weariness like a shroud.

“How are you doing?” she asked quietly. Because no matter what she’d been through in the last few days, it was nothing compared to what had been done to him within the last hour. Having part of your life force ripped away had to hurt—and even if there was a gentle way to do it, something told Darcy that gentleness wasn’t in Death’s repertoire.

“Hmm?” Loki responded, distracted. “I am…tired. Yes, I believe tired covers it. Or possibly exhausted, down to the marrow.”

“Maybe we’ll get to sleep soon.” Oh, she wanted that too. She’d even pass up a bath to collapse into bed right now. Any bed, even her lumpy old cot at the facility.

“I believe it will be over soon, one way or the other. Whether it is to our favor is yet to be determined. Eternal sleep is not off the table.”

The unspoken end to that possibility hung between them: a swift return to Death’s company. They had to be careful how they proceeded until she came through on her word.

“When this is over—if we survive…” Loki seemed to ponder how, or if, he should finish the sentence. “I would like the opportunity to court you. Properly.”

“I think that ship has sailed,” Darcy replied, putting as much flippancy into it as she could. Because the idea was too…too everything to contemplate right now, especially with everything else going on. Too big, too much, too complicated. And the right answer had to be no, had to be to turn him down flat and make sure there were light years between them. No matter how he really felt about her, or how sincere his feelings may be underneath it all, things had been tarnished from the get-go in ways Darcy didn’t think they could come back from. 

“Perhaps. But I would like to try anyway.”

She had no answer to that, so they carried on walking in silence. When they reached the road, it turned out to be little more than a back country ribbon of tarmac cutting through the farmland, though the traffic seemed regular enough. It was strange to think there was open space this close to the city, but the skyscrapers seemed no closer than they had before, their size making them appear closer than they really were. She stood with Loki at the side of the road and waited for their ride.

If anyone recognized the apparent hitchhikers, wrapped in furs despite the sunshine, they ignored them. Or maybe they did recognize the man beside Darcy, but kept their eyes on the road, pretending it was an illusion, the beginnings of an urban myth. “One time I was driving on this country road upstate and Loki himself appeared in the middle of the road, holding the Casket.”

It was a measure of their fatigue that they didn’t hesitate when a dark-windowed SUV pulled up, and trudged over to get in. A familiar figure rolled down the driver’s window.

Nat smiled at Darcy. “Get in losers, we’re going to save the world.”


It was strange to be back in Stark Tower, returning to it through the underground tunnels they’d once used to escape.

“Traffic’s backed up,” Nat explained. “Everybody’s trying to get out of the city.” She also confirmed that Frigga had sent her to pick the pair of them up and bring them to the war council that had been hastily assembled. She didn’t probe about where they’d been, her face thoughtful as she drove.

Loki was uncharacteristically quiet too: Darcy thought he might have been napping in the backseat.

“What happened when we left?” Darcy asked. “Did you and Frigga get into trouble?”

Nat snorted. “I don’t think anybody has authority over Frigga—not on this planet. Fury tried to read me the riot act, but then Thanos arrived and a state of emergency was declared. They need everybody on the team, not me on the bench. I’m sure if we manage to survive this one, I’m looking at disciplinary procedures, but I’d rather be alive and fired than dead.”

“But Thor can’t be happy with Frigga.”

“He isn’t. Wasn’t. She hasn’t let him sulk about it, though, and keeps pulling rank on him.”

“Can she do that?”

“She is queen and ambassador,” Loki said groggily. “He is merely the crown prince.”

“As she keeps reminding him.”

 They parked in Tony’s private garage and used the elevator to ride up to the floor that had been given over the war cabinet.

It was being staged in one of the open plan rooms that took up nearly an entire floor of the tower, but the windows had been blacked out and replaced with screens that showed maps, streams, and scrolling data. 

“I don’t see the threat—” someone was saying as the elevator doors opened. “It’s one ship! Hardly the flotilla you keep mentioning.”

“Thanos must have acquired a portal,” Frigga calmly replied. “It is the only way he could have got here so quickly—and that will allow his army to follow as swiftly.”

The cabinet themselves were seated around a circular table with more screens gathered in the center, above head height so they could still see each other. Darcy glimpsed Frigga, Fury, and most of the other Avengers, as well as a few figures who looked exactly like Darcy always pictured shadowy diplomats. 

She got one glimpse at the table they were holed up at, and then a wall of heavily armed agents blocked the way. Loki could probably see over them, but she sure as hell couldn’t. Nat gave an annoyed huff beside her.

The debate at the table came to an abrupt end, replaced with tense silence and stillness.

Tony broke it. “Where have you been, young man?” Darcy heard him say, his words dripping with sarcasm. “We’ve been worried sick!”

“Stark”, Fury cut in, “Stand down and shut the hell up.”

Amazingly, there wasn’t another peep out of him, though another voice spoke up.

“Get him out of here,” said Thor. The agents parted to let him through. “And her, too.” He didn’t even look at Darcy, and though he tried to hide his anger beneath an imperious mask, it seeped around the edges like boiling water.

One of the agents stepped up, gun firmly pointed at her face, and gestured for her bag. She handed it to him without question—there wasn’t anything interesting in there, unless he had a thing for protein bars. No clues to where they’d been.

“Ah, brother,” Loki replied. “So good to see you again. Your injuries seem to have healed to an astonishing degree in even a few short days.” It was the true—the angry scars that had criss-crossed Thor’s arms had now faded to faint, silver patches. Soon there would be no evidence of Loki’s attack at all. “I suppose my absence has given our mother time to fully attend to you.”

It was entirely the wrong tack to take if they wanted the room on their side, but apparently Loki couldn’t resist the chance to poke at old wounds. Darcy stood on his foot, shooting him an annoyed look, but he seemed as determined to ignore her as his brother did.

“The furs are a little ostentatious, don’t you think?” Stark said. Darcy had left hers in the SUV, aware how ridiculous it made her look, but Loki was still wrapped in his.

“Take them,” Thor commanded. “Separate locations, twenty-four hour surveillance, do not let my mother into see either of them.”

“No, Thor.” Frigga passed through the wall of agents too. “They will not be going anywhere until we have heard what they have achieved.”

“Why should I listen to you, when you let them escape?” Thor seemed to have no qualms letting his fury spill over in Frigga’s direction.

“Because they returned.” She reached out a hand towards him, and he stepped away. “We must listen to what they have done.”

“Clearly, they haven’t done anything!” Thor motioned in the direction of the warship, neatly framed on one of the screens. “In fact, knowing Loki, he has only managed to make things worse and has come to us for shelter.” 

“He hasn’t,” Darcy said. Around them, the agents were filtering away, back to lining the walls at gestured commands from Fury. “He had a plan, and we did it, and then we came back.” Now Darcy could see that the Warriors Three were also here, and Sif was glaring daggers her way.

Fury was eyeballing her with intense interest, but Thor continued to ignore her, pretending as if Loki had spoken instead.

“We can prise information out of him under lock and key if we need to, though no words which pass his lips will be anything but lies.”

“I, for one, want to know where they went when they got that bridge working,” said Tony, “and how the hell they landed back on Earth without using it again. Because we were monitoring it.”

“Thing is,” said Fury, “we’ve got bigger issues right now. There’s only so long we can delay Thanos and convince him we know where the Tesseract is. We need that time to prepare our armies, and every resource we have to throw back at him when he starts a fight. We can’t be babysitting Loki or letting him distract us from the real problem.”

“That doesn’t matter!” Darcy spoke again. From the corner of eye, she noticed that Loki’s sallow skin had taken a turn for gray. It was why he wasn’t standing up for himself—he needed rest, or it wouldn’t be long before he’d keel over. “Loki’s dealt with Thanos. He’s probably saved us all.”

“Uh, Lewis, he’s right up there in the sky,” said Tony. “Sent us a big list of demands not fifteen minutes ago.”

“He told us he’ll destroy a major city every hour until the Tesseract is handed over,” Steve said gravely. “That’s no version of saved I’m familiar with.”

“We cannot listen to her—she is under his thrall!” Thor said, turning his back on her completely.

“It’s Stockholm Syndrome!” Jane cut in, speaking for the first time. “Like I’ve been trying to tell you all—it’s not her fault.”

“I don’t have Stockholm Syndrome, okay?” said Darcy. “You all just need to listen—”

“So we can hear his lies come from your mouth?” Thor growled.

“Be quiet, Thor!” instructed Frigga. “You are letting your emotions rule you. Director Fury, I would like the right to speak to my son—my younger son—and determine where he has been. That way, you may continue with your council, and I will return with any information I deem important.”

“Is he going to try to escape again?”

“No,” said Loki, and the strain in his voice was apparent to everyone. “I would not have returned if I intended to flee again.”

“How will you know he’s telling you the truth?” Fury asked Frigga.

“He has never been able to lie to me,” she replied, and Thor nodded begrudgingly in agreement.

“Alright. There’s an office on this floor. You should use that.”

“I want to speak to Darcy,” Jane said, rising from her seat.

“Very well,” Frigga replied. She cast a concerned glance at Loki. “I would like a moment to examine my son in private anyway.”

Darcy didn’t much want to be separated from Loki or Frigga—she didn’t have the energy to spare on dealing with Jane right now. The last time she’d seen her friend was when she’s revealed to half of SHIELD that Darcy had slept with Loki, and the guilt on Jane’s face said she was all too aware of it.

She was ushered into the corridor to wait outside the room where Frigga was attending to Loki, and no agents followed them, but Thor did, and that was another thing Darcy didn’t feel much like dealing with.

“I’m sorry,” Jane murmured, looking around for anyone that might be listening to them. “I wasn’t thinking, and I had no idea they’d drag you away and lock you up. I spent hours arguing with Fury, threatened to quit my research if—”

“I know,” Darcy said flatly.

She glanced briefly at Thor, who was still doing his best impression of ignoring Darcy’s existence, hoping that made it clear to Jane that she didn’t want to do this in front of him.

Jane caught on. “Thor, sweetie, could you maybe back off? Or even leave us alone for a moment. It’s private, girl talk.”

“I cannot do that, Jane. I have sworn to protect you.”

“Protect me from what? It’s Darcy.”

“She is Loki’s—” However he was intending to finish that sentence, he thought better of it, slamming his mouth shut instead. “You cannot trust her.”

“Alright, buddy, that’s it!” Jane poked him in the chest. “You once swore to protect Darcy as well, so if there’s anyone we can’t trust, it’s you, for going back on your word. It’s you, for being a judgmental A-hole about my friend. So what if she slept with Loki? It helped us defeat Loki! You have actual blood on your hands from centuries of battle, and you want to blame her for something she did in the middle of a war that harmed nobody except maybe Loki’s ego?”

Thor was gaping like a fish now, and Darcy had the feeling she was too.

“You start treating her with respect,” Jane continued, “or we’re going to have serious problems in this relationship. She is my friend, she’s been around longer than you have and she’s saved my ass more times than you, too. So the next time I catch you badmouthing her, you think of all the nights you’ll be sleeping alone. And no, she isn’t going to hurt me—I don’t care how much Loki has or hasn’t got into her head, Darcy would not ever do that.”

It was, possibly, the most words Darcy had ever heard Jane say at once that weren’t related to science. The effect on Thor was obvious—he clamped his mouth shut again and backed out of the corridor, behind a door where he could peer through a glass panel to watch the conversation. Jane had her back to him, but Darcy could feel his eyes on her through the glass over Jane’s shoulder, and the message was clear: I don’t care what she says, I still don’t trust you around her.

She had no idea how to go about making amends with him, or if it was even possible, but she had one good friend standing in front of her who’d just come to her defense despite everything, so that was the relationship she’d focus on repairing first.

“It’s not Stockholm Syndrome,” she began in a rush, “I swear! I remain completely aware of the fact that Loki is an asshole.”

“You do?” Jane asked.

“I do.”

“But are you aware that I’m an asshole too?” The question came out in the tiniest voice ever.

“Janie, you’re not asshole.”

“I am! I got you locked up, and Frigga told me what that cell was like. All because I was snooping, and then I didn’t think, I just blurted it all out there. I was too involved in what I was feeling to think about you at all. And that obviously goes for more than that day, since you didn’t feel like you could tell me what happened.”

“No, Janie, that’s not it at all.”

“Really? Because it seemed like a big deal, and you had to go to a therapist rather than speak to me.”

“I know, I know, but—you were busy. Trying to save the world busy! We were all busy, and you had Thor to look after too. Plus, I couldn’t count on Tony not bugging every inch of this tower while we were here. So keeping it a secret seemed safer.”

“We could have found a way to talk!”

“Then you’d have had to keep it secret from Thor, and that wouldn’t have been fair either. I’m not saying I enjoyed being locked up, and I don’t look forward to being a pariah around here, but so long as you’re still my friend it doesn’t matter.”

Jane’s chin lifted defiantly. “Of course I’m still your friend! And don’t worry about anyone else—one wrong word, one dirty look, and Natasha will have their guts for garters.” She pulled Darcy into a hug as she spoke, and that brought Thor out from behind his door, glowering at Darcy.

“Jane—” he muttered in warning, and she whirled on him.

“I mean it, buddy! See, she hugged me, no stabbing happened, are you happy?”

He nodded begrudgingly, but Jane didn’t seem appeased. “You could have done so much more to get Darcy out of prison, and you didn’t—yes, your mom told me! So you owe her an apology too.”

“Actually, Jane—” Darcy cut in “—I think, in the end, Frigga had the right idea, getting me out like she did.” Thor scoffed. “No, really! Because she was right, he did have a plan. And it turns out he needs the therapist more than I do.”

Thor scoffed again, louder this time, and it was Darcy’s turn to whirl on him. “Hey, did you ever even ask him what happened to him after he fell off the Bifrost and into the void? Ever think that maybe it’d be important to find out how he turned up on Earth as Thanos’ bitch?”

“Of course we asked,” Thor replied, cold anger washing through his words. “He refused to tell us the truth.”

“So you never thought to ask him how he got to be on first name terms with Mistress Death, then?” The spasm in Thor’s jaw suggested that, actually, Loki probably had mentioned her at some point, and been disbelieved. “Because, true story, I got to meet her too.”

Jane gasped and Thor shook his head incredulously. “More lies, even as you profess not to be in his thrall.”

“You met Death?” Jane asked.

Darcy nodded in response to her question. “Not my favorite memory, but it turns out Loki’s spent enough time there to find us all a way out of this mess.”

“How?” Even Thor was paying attention to this answer, but the door opened behind them, and Frigga emerged.

“Darcy, we are ready for you.”

“No, we need to hear this first,” Thor insisted.

“You must still learn patience, my son,” she replied. “This won’t take long.”

“I’ll wait out here,” Jane promised.

Darcy stepped into the room with Frigga on her tail, and it took her eyes a moment to adjust to the dimmer lighting. The overhead lights had been turned off, and instead the only illumination came from several glowing balls gathered around a couch against one wall. They were like the one Loki had conjured in Death’s realm, but she doubted he had the strength to produce that many of that size. No, these had to be Frigga’s handiwork.

Loki was on that couch, sprawled backwards in a pitiful imitation of his usual arrogant posturing. His head resting against the back cushions, tipping his face towards the ceiling. His eyes were closed, but he peeled them open as she approached the couch, though he didn’t move his head at all. Pure exhaustion was carved into his features.

His armor and regalia had been loosened and stripped away, so the leather hung loose around his chest. Darcy only had one night to measure it against, but she was pretty sure he’d been—bigger—then. Not that he didn’t still have plenty of muscle, but she swore she could see the shadow of his ribs at one side.

“I have tried to get him to explain to me what has happened,” said Frigga, drawing level with the couch so she could smooth Loki’s hair away from his fair, “and where you have been, but all he does is plead for rest.”

“You would understand,” Loki murmured, “if you knew.”

“You want me to explain?” Darcy asked Frigga, to which she received a nod in response. 

“He is changed. Physically, he is as he ever was, but I sense a change to his energy.” Frigga moved her hands above Loki’s body, in an arc in the air around him. “Normally he has an abundance, but now it had dissipated. I have never seen such a thing done before. It is as if it has been stolen from him.”

Loki managed a dry cackle at that. “Oh, not stolen, mother. Freely gifted.” His eyes drifted shut again.

“What? How?” She turned her attention back to Darcy when it became clear that Loki would not answer her.

“He offered it in exchange for help in saving Earth.”

“But who would have the ability to do such a thing? And why?”

“Death does.”

Frigga stared at Darcy gravely, as if waiting for the punchline to follow, but when none followed she took her by the hand and guided her to sit on the couch beside Loki. “Please, explain everything.”

Darcy did her best, helped in her story only by dry commentary from Loki that did little to advance the narrative. She left out Jotunheim and skipped straight to their visit to Death’s realm. She even tried to avoid the subject of Loki’s torture by Thanos, but Frigga kept asking how Loki knew how to reach Death until Darcy cracked.

In the end, Frigga knelt before Loki, cradling his face in his hands, and for the first time Darcy saw her tear tracks in the flickering light. 

“Oh, my son,” she whispered, bending to press a kiss to his forehead. “You have been so brave.” She turned to Darcy, taking the girl’s hand in her own. “You have both been so brave.”

“And all for nought,” Loki replied, opening his eyes once more. “I am mortal, and we may yet all perish.”

“You were always mortal.”

“It never felt that way.”

“You are not dying yet. Not again, not unless this Mistress Death wishes to come claw you from my arms. You are merely weary, and I can help with that.”

She bent to kiss Loki once more, her lips lingering on his skin, and Darcy swore she saw the air around them glow faintly—even as the floating orbs dimmed and drooped. When she pulled away, some of the pallor had drained from Loki’s face, and when he opened his eyes there was a refreshed focus to them.

The door opened, and Fury strode into the room with Tony hot on his heels.

“I’d like to be patient,” he addressed Frigga, “but that’s a luxury we can’t afford right now. Have you learned anything useful?”

Thor loomed in the doorway and Darcy caught sight of Jane hovering behind him, undecided, before she slipped into the room as well. At a sideways look from Fury, the door was closed for more privacy.

“I don’t think you’d believe me even if I told you,” Loki replied with a tight smile.

“I’d believe Frigga, if she thinks it’s the truth.”

“What I’m wondering,” said Tony, cutting in, “is if it’s a coincidence that you turn up around the same time Thanos does? That would explain how you didn’t need to use the bridge to get back to Earth.”

“It’s certainly an explanation,” Loki agreed. “Though not the correct one. I have not seen my old master for since before I came to Midgard the first time; those are not chains I would readily return to.”

“We took a shortcut through Death’s realm,” Darcy announced, to skeptical looks from the gathered men. 

“That is the truth as I understand it,” confirmed Frigga. “A deal has been struck with Death, and she intends to send aid to allow us to defeat Thanos.”

“Death is a she?” asked Tony, before shaking his head. “Never mind. What aid are we waiting for? Do I need to paint a big welcome sign on the helipad?”

Jane, who’d been following the conversation with a furrowed expression, tilted her head towards him at his last sentence. The frown had deepened, but Darcy knew her well enough to recognize the metaphorical light bulb appearing. Whether it was about anything useful, or some entirely theoretical piece of science that had no bearing on the situation, was another thing altogether.

“We don’t know,” Darcy admitted. 

“Then understand why I’m not willing to rely on it,” said Fury. “Her. Whoever. If you have nothing else helpful to say—”

Jane wafted a hand in his direction to silence him. “The helipad. I have an idea.”

“Yes?”

“I need Erik. And my lab. And something I’m sure is already here in the Tower because Tony was trying to figure out how it worked. But Erik would know, because he helped build it.”

Whatever it was, Tony and Fury were one step ahead of Darcy, because they seemed to understand what she was talking about without her needing to provide further explanation.

“I can have it taken to your lab,” Tony agreed.

“And I need Darcy,” Jane continued.

“No,” said Fury. “Her clearance has been revoked.” His tone broached no argument, but that didn’t stop Jane.

“She’s the best assistant I ever had, and the others have all either run away or been sent home, so you need to un-revoke her access!”

“Dr. Foster, while I appreciate your assistance, and I admire your loyalty to your friend, I have yet to see any proof that neither she or our would-be Emperor are not conspiring against us. We can discuss it again if we manage to survive.”

Jane clenched her jaw and looked like she was going to argue more, but Darcy laid her hand on her friend’s arm. “It’s not worth it. You go science. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Are you sure?”

Darcy nodded, and Jane returned the gesture, squeezing Darcy’s hand before pulling away and leaving the room with one last dagger-filled glare at Fury. Tony went with her, presumably to retrieve whatever she’d been talking about.

“I have a war council to return to,” Fury said. “Thanos only gave us a few hours to get the Tesseract to New York. I trust you two aren’t going anywhere?”

“I will ensure it,” said Thor, and the pair left the room, Thor returning to sentry outside the door, his broad frame blocking the view through the glass.

“I guess there’s nothing we can do,” Darcy said. “Since we’re grounded.”

“You can rest,” suggested Frigga. “Whatever is to come will require all our strength.” She held out a hand to Darcy, guiding her to the sofa where Loki rested. There was plenty of room on it, so Darcy had no qualms about curling up in one corner with one of the cushions.

It was funny. In her old life—before gods came invading, before aliens were a part of her reality—she’d always struggled to get to sleep, and never been able to nap. But now, she could sleep anywhere. Or maybe she was just that tired.

The next time she opened her eyes, she could tell hours had passed by the way the light had changed in the room, coming through the window at a different angle. She was amazed to feel refreshed, rather than groggy, even if it took a moment to stretch her limbs out and get rid of the kinks. Loki was awake and watchful, while Frigga sat on one of the other chairs in the room, posture regal as ever, her expression pensive. The atmosphere had thickened in the room, an electric hum that Darcy could almost reach out to touch.

“He approaches,” Loki murmured. “Can you feel it?”

That made Darcy and Frigga glance out of the window at the ever-looming presence in the sky, but that looked unchanged. Instead the door opened, with a grim-faced Thor stepping through.

“Thanos has arrived.”

“I should be there,” said Frigga, rising to her feet.

“No,” Loki protested. “He wants to know where the Tesseract is. You represent Asgard, and in that capacity you are not permitted to lie.”

“I do not need to lie to him. I have been a diplomat, in one way or another, far longer than you have lived. They may say your tongue is made of silver, but mine is golden.”

“Mother, you don’t understand. When he senses that you do know where it is, he will target you.”

“I can protect myself.”

“At least allow me to attend.”

“Absolutely not,” said Thor, his tone broaching no argument.

“There will be a video feed,” said a voice from behind him, one that almost made Darcy smile in spite of herself. “We all get to watch from the outside.”

Nat stepped around Thor and while she didn’t even acknowledge Loki, she smiled at Darcy and held her arm out to Frigga. “My lady, allow me to escort you.”

They left the room, Thor leading the group with a rough grip on Loki’s arm that the younger prince bore with an amused smirk. Whatever mojo Frigga had performed had restored him to a good imitation of full strength, and that apparently went hand-in-hand with trying to rile up his brother.

It was only the tension in his shoulders that indicated he wasn’t looking forward to being so close to Thanos.

Thor ushered them into a meeting room where the other Avengers waited, some paying more interest than others while Thor and Frigga disappeared further down the corridor to the War Council. It didn’t escape Darcy’s notice that Nat hovered close to her and Jane, her constant pacing motion cutting a line between them and Loki. Steve cast a wary eye down the room, and Tony was eyeballing Loki with no amount of disdain.

The video screen covering the wall behind him showed the war room, with Thor and Frigga entering through a set of double doors. Something about Frigga’s demeanor had changed, her bearing instantly more regal despite the simple clothes she wore and the lack of a crown. Thor looked less refined, but he was still charismatic and undeniably powerful.

The man sat at the head of the conference table—if you could describe him as a man—had to be Thanos. He easily matched Thor for size and bulk, though it was hard to tell when they weren’t side by side, only Thanos was more heavily armored. And deep violet-blue, like the ugliest of bruises.

Loki wasn’t looking at the screen, not yet, but his hands were clenched into fists as he stared out at Manhattan below them. Darcy had never met the man, but even the memory of Loki’s memories made her stomach turn. The way he sat in a simple chair—lounging, legs spread, hands gripping the arms like he was on a dais—suggested he was entirely comfortable in the situation, even enjoying it. He held all the power, and he knew it. The smug tilt to his lips suggested he liked it that way.

Thor helped Frigga to her own seat, pulling out the chair beside Fury for her, before taking up watch against the real wall. It was clear who was here to speak to Asgard, and who was intended to be an enforcer. He was framed by his warrior friends. Frigga and Fury shared a wordless look. Other world leaders sat around them, fanned around the curve of the table, but those two were in the middle, the symbolic leaders of the contingent against Thanos.

“Thanos,” Frigga began, “thank you for agreeing to meet with us. I am Frigga of Asgard.”

Thanos’ face peeled into a sickening grin. “Here I thought I was on Terra. What business is this of the queen of Asgard?”

Only half of Darcy’s attention was on the unfolding discussion—instead she watched Loki shudder at the sound of Thanos’ voice, and then his gaze swing towards the screen as if compelled by magnetism. 

“This realm is under our protection,” Frigga continued.

The grin broadened. “Much good it will do them.”

“Do not underestimate us. We have defeated invading forces on Midgard before, and we will do so again. If you take your leave now, we will not pursue you. I am able to grant clemency if you agree a ceasefire.”

“What I don’t understand,” replied Thanos, leaning forward in his chair, “is how you intend to defeat us when your armies are light years away.”

“We have methods you cannot comprehend.”

“So do I. But I am willing to negotiate. I will leave this planet intact—mostly—if you hand over the Tesseract. I notice that despite my clear instructions, the stone does not appear to be here. Nor can I feel it nearby.”

“We cannot allow that you have it.”

“’We’? I’d say it’s in Terra’s best interests to give it to me.”

“It’s in no one interests for you to have it, because you seek to harness its power for greater destruction. Am I wrong?”

Something changes in Thanos’ expression, understanding lighting his eyes. Loki appeared to see it too. “No,” he cursed. “He knows.”

“Exactly how much say does Terra have in its own protection?” Thanos asked Frigga, and her expression went blank. She’d seen what he was trying to confirm—that the Tesseract was in Asgard’s possession—and would have to misdirect him.

“You have to let me in there!” Loki said to the gathered heroes. “I can distract him with the only thing he cares about more than that stone.”

“I don’t think so,” Tony said, and Steve moved to block the door.

“We have every say,” Fury said to Thanos from the next room. “We know that if you get that stone, you’ll probably destroy us anyway.”

“Is that true, your majesty?” Thanos replied, directing his question to Frigga, who his eyes had never left.

“That you will destroy them?” she said mildly. “Only you can answer that.”

“Tsk, tsk. I know a diversion when I see one,” Thanos chided.

Loki strode across to where Steve stood. “He knows the Tesseract is not on Midgard, and he intends to force my mother to confirm it. You must let me through. I can delay him.”

Darcy had never seen Loki this agitated, but his urgency didn’t move Steve.

“I can’t let you in there. You don’t represent us, and you don’t represent Asgard either.”

“He will hurt her to get the truth!”

“Your brother is in there too. He can protect her.”

“Fine,” but the way Loki was shaking his head suggested it was anything but. Instead he whirled, leaping across the room—up, onto the conference table, and across it—in the direction of Pepper, who’d been left alone at the other end of the room when Tony moved closer to block Loki. 

“Loki, what are you—” Darcy began, as both Tony and Steve rushed to Pepper’s aid.

“If my mother is hurt,” Loki announced, laying one hand on Pepper’s shoulder, “she will be in turn.”

“JARVIS, I need my gauntlets,” said Tony, as he and Steve circled Loki. Pepper looked furious but did not attempt to twist away from Loki’s grip.

“No, said Darcy firmly, “she won’t be.”

Every head swiveled towards her, including Loki, who narrowed his eyes at her. “Pardon?”

“You are going to take your hands off of her, and find a better way to protect your mother than by threatening other women!”

She didn’t think it would work, but she hadn’t had the blessing of Frigga’s rejuvenating voodoo like he had, and her patience was beyond frayed. Had he learned nothing, in all these months? 

“Why should I?” he asked, words quiet and icy.

“Because she would be horrified.”

He met her eyes, and the glare smoothed away, fading into vague revelation and a twinge of remorse. Though the latter could have been her imagination. Then he removed his hand from Pepper’s shoulder.

Darcy belatedly became aware that everyone in the room was still staring at her, and she was even less sure of her reading of their expressions—surely Cap wasn’t looking at her with respect?

Their attention was soon diverted by movement on the screen. Whatever had been said in the other room during their disagreement, Thanos was now on his feet. Darcy revised her opinion of him being the same size as Thor. He was bigger. No wonder Loki didn’t trust Thor or the other warriors to protect Frigga against him.

Loki followed their gazes to the screen behind him. It only took one glance, and he was on the move again, through the door before any of them could react.

Tony moved to followed, but Steve held up a hand to still him. “Let him go. We need all the distractions we can take right now.”

“You really don’t have Stockholm Syndrome, do you?” Jane murmured to Darcy. Darcy didn’t look at her, or Nat, who hadn’t appear to have moved during the whole thing.

Loki barged into the other room as Thanos took his first step towards Frigga, and that stilled Thanos, but only to fuel his uncanny mirth.

“What is this? Come to protect your mama?” He leered at Frigga. “Does he know any other jokes, or does he just relish being torn into scraps?”

“Neither,” said Loki, and his calm voice did not betray the fear he had to be feeling. “I carry a message from Mistress Death.”

That gave Thanos pause. “Impossible. Not unless you have died again, and from what I hear you’ve been very much alive.”

Loki offered an enigmatic smile. “I have traveled those paths so many times I have no need to cross that threshold any more. You have given me a great gift in that regard, and she knows it too. In fact, she has come to doubt the love you proclaim to have for her.”

“You lie!” Thanos snarled.

“Not at all,” Loki continued, with a charming smile that belied the knife he was about to twist in. “After all, I have readily visited her. I have shown willing to return to her, which is more than you ever have. Instead, you shy away, concocting grand schemes to delay the moment you will be in her embrace. Does that sound like a willing lover?”

Loki looked around the room, as if he expected an answer from the other people gathered there. “It doesn’t to me, nor to the Mistress. She wants to know why you won’t allow me to take you directly to her. You could leave all of this behind and be with her, forever, within moments.”

Silence fell on the room—both rooms, with only the underlying hum of air con and systems as a background to the tension, and the quiet breathing of the people waiting for Thanos to respond.

“You lie,” Thanos repeated, though he sounded unsure, as if he was testing the edges of a trap he knew was there and waiting to be sprung.

“It is the absolute truth,” Loki replied quietly. “I can take you to her realm and you would never have to be parted from her again.”

Another pause, as Thanos contemplated the offer. He knew the sincerity of it, as they all did at that moment, except he’d be a fool to trust the word of someone he’d tortured and killed repeatedly.

Thanos apparently agreed with that assessment.

“I have a better idea. It involves the Tesseract, which I know is on Asgard. But how to get Asgard to hand it over, I wonder? It would appear to me that if Terra is under Asgard’s protection, the existence of this planet should be sufficient enticement.” He strode towards the doorway. “You have one hour to bring the Tesseract from Asgard. If I don’t have it by then, I will destroy this realm for good.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 30: The Heart of Battle

Stunned silence reigned in Thanos’ wake, but not for long.

“This better not be the end result of whatever you’ve been cooking up,” Fury said to Loki.

That prompted activity in the room Darcy remained in, with Steve, Tony and Clint making a break for the war room. She shared a glance with Nat, who shrugged, and they followed.

“Big help you were there,” she caught Tony saying to Loki as they filed inside. “Very effective.”

“I did my best,” Loki replied through clenched teeth.

“What now?” Steve asked Fury, trying to cut through the impending conflict to the real problem.

“You heard Thanos. We’re going to war.”

There was pandemonium after that; through the open doors agents poured in, bringing with them screens on wheels to line the room. It was being turned into a command center around them. 

“Jane’s beeped me,” Nat murmured, “and we need to fill her in on what just happened.”

Darcy clung to Nat as they were left to find an elevator that would take them down to the lower levels of Stark Tower. Loki was swallowed up by the crowd; the last Darcy saw, Thor had a meaty fist around Loki’s bicep, preventing him from slipping away in the chaos. 

Hush descended when they stepped into the elevator. Frigga had remained behind. She had a role in all of this, as queen and emissary. A role that Darcy didn’t. This wasn’t her world. Except…

“I need to be in there,” she said to Nat.

Nat didn’t respond in words, merely raising her customary questioning eyebrow. 

“Nat, you’re an Avenger. Surely you should be involved in whatever they’re planning.”

The elevator slid to a stop, the doors opening to the floor all the labs were on. The other woman stepped out, but Darcy remained planted.

Nat shook her head. “I’m a spy, not a soldier. Soldiers are what they need right now.”

“Okay, but I need to be in that room. There’s no other way to make sure they listen to Loki. And they do need to listen to him.” She tapped the door hold button to keep the elevator in place.

“Why?”

“Because Mistress Death has promised to help him. Help us.”

“I don’t know who she is,” said Nat, “but I know that right now, we can’t rely on her to come through. She doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of person who worries about civilian deaths.”

“No,” Darcy agreed. “She’s the embodiment of death, I think, so those aren’t high on her list of concerns.”

To Nat’s credit, she didn’t blink at the description. “Then it’s up to us to prevent them from happening. We have to rely on help from other places.” She nodded in the direction of Jane’s lab.

“Darce, we got the bridge working!” 

Jane came running down the corridor, taking Darcy’s hand and tugging her out of the elevator. Darcy allowed herself to be led.

“You did? Holy shit, Jane!”

“It took a lot of work—Erik repressed a lot of his memories so we were having to fill in blanks as we went, and it would have easier with you there to help—but we got the device that Loki used to open up the portal last time. It was the missing piece to make my machine work, so we can call for help.”

“And the help we’re getting is-?” They stepped into the lab, Jane holding the door open so that Darcy could pass without having to provide her identity. 

“From Asgard. Right.”

The machinery they’d been working on before Darcy’s arrest took up most of the room. It was in better shape than it had ever been, thanks to generous funding and materials from Stark Industries, but underneath it were the bare bones of the repurposed machinery parts Jane had cannibalized from other things in the facility. In the very center of it all waited a spikier contraption, not unlike the pole stuck in the field that had opened the bridge to Jotunheim. This one was silver, and portable, judging by the way it was set on a trolley.

Erik waited on the far side of the lab, not looking at the machinery, his arms folded and every inch of his body language screaming that he didn’t want to be there. Darcy didn’t blame him: it was a necessary evil to involve him, since he’d built the device originally, but he’d done so under horrific circumstances.

“All we have to do is set the machine up on the roof and open up a portal,” he said. 

“Tony’s gonna love it,” said Nat. “He only just finished remodeling and we’re inviting an army to use the tower as a landing pad.”

“I thought that thing was powered by the Tesseract?” asked Darcy.

“It was, but Stark Tower is powered by the arc reactor Tony built,” explained Jane, who was already unbuckling straps that held it in place. “We’re going to switch the Tower to pulling power from the grid, and use the arc reactor to power this instead. Hand me that wrench.”

“Are we sure Thanos isn’t going to see us up on the roof with a big chunk of machinery?”

“I can arrange back up,” said Nat. Somehow Darcy suspected cover amounted to Clint and a hoard of arrows.

But what else was she meant to do? Sit around waiting for Death to do something and watch people die in the process? New York was pretty empty but there hadn’t been enough time for everyone to get out. Besides, there was little chance that Thanos would keep the destruction to Manhattan, or even to the five boroughs. He’d promised planetary destruction, and that meant she had to help minimize the damage.

So she switched her brain off for a few minutes, following Jane’s instructions to carefully prep the machine and wheel it to the service elevator at the back of the lab. It was a tight squeeze, but Nat refused to let them be separated when chaos could descend any moment. Erik waited behind, preferring to run the rest of the machinery down here.

The elevator took them directly to the roof, and they maneuvered the device out onto the concrete. 

What was this thing even called, anyway? Had Jane had the time to give it a name, during all the months she’d spent creating it? Or was that going to be something that fell to someone else, after it had been proven to work? It wouldn’t be beyond Tony to steal the glory and name it himself, elevating his role in the creation and reducing Jane to a footnote.

Well, not on Darcy’s watch. Not if they made it through this. The whole world was going to know that Dr. Jane Foster had created the means for intergalactic travel and saved the world to boot, with her brains, her tenacity, and more than a little duct tape. Tony and Erik had played vital roles, but Jane had been the driving force, the one who’d never let go of the possibility until it paid off.

The warship still hung above them, creepy in its stillness, and the city was quieter around them than it ought to be. The constant barrage of horns and sirens that made up the New York soundscape was silent, and it felt like the city was holding its breath, waiting for the next step. 

The last time Darcy had been on a roof this high, she’d been walled in. Stark Tower wasn’t like that—she had a full, breathtaking view of the soaring skyline and rooftops, most of them far below. If she looked hard enough, she could probably find that roof garden. But she didn’t want to look. She had work to do.

From behind them, a figure stepped away from the wall. Not out of the shadows—it was too bright a day for there to be many up here—but he looked like a shadow in and of himself, tall and dark against the concrete and glass. 

Darcy yelped when she caught sight of him. “Loki!” Because no matter how much time she’d spent in his presence, or how much she’d seen of his worst hours, he still unnerved her a little. He’d been through so much, but that just might make him capable of more, and she hadn’t forgotten his capacity for illusion. Or for violence.

“Mother told me of the bridge. I thought you would come up here.” He nodded towards the machine.

Above them, another figure appeared, casually draped across a steel beam as if he was lounging on a sofa. Yet nobody missed the way Clint’s arrow tip was aimed at Loki’s heart.

Loki nodded to Clint, and stayed very still. “You are vulnerable up here, but I will mask you.”

The others acknowledged this with cautious nods, while Jane kept Darcy busy for a few minutes, connecting the device to the power supply. When she was satisfied with the connection, she waved them all backwards.

“I need to test it, but we should stand back to be safe.” She pulled a walkie-talkie from her back pocket. “Erik, light her up.”

There was a nothing for a moment, then a crackling sound, before the center of the device began spinning. Slowly, at first, and then faster, until it was a blur of motion. 

“Do you have the coordinates Frigga provided?” Jane asked, and the muffled reply indicated that Erik did. “Okay, here goes.”

A beam of light erupted from the spiked end, blasting skyward and into the atmosphere. It missed Thanos’ ship—which struck Darcy as a shame—and disappeared among the highest layer of clouds.

Darcy hadn’t been in New York for the first Chitauri invasion, but she’d seen photos—it was hard to miss them when they’d been headline news for weeks. The beam of light that had opened the portal last time had been a brilliant, cyan blue, but this time it was pure white.

“Is it working?” she asked. “It doesn’t look like it’s the right color.”

“It’s because it isn’t powered by the Tesseract,” Loki answered. “There is only one way to know for sure if it truly works.”

He clapped his hands as he had in the field, and Darcy held her breath, searching the skies for his messenger. It took a while, but a raven descended to his outstretched arm. A moment later it was gone, following the beam upwards into the sky where it would breach the portal.

“The bird carries a message to Asgard,” he told them all. “So Asgard may come to our aid.”

There really wasn’t anything they could do now except wait. It might take some time for Odin to muster his forces, but Darcy knew they wouldn’t leave Earth undefended if they knew it needed Asgard’s help. She only hoped they would not come too late.

As if in answer, a dark shape descended above them. At first it was small enough that Darcy thought it was the raven returning, but it grew larger until it appeared more like a zeppelin, except impossibly large. It docked beside Thanos’ ship, and similar shadows began to appear in the sky behind it.

More of his army was arriving.

Below them, Darcy could see the streets filling up, this time with bodies in camouflage gear and body armor. The military and police alike, armed with every weapon that Earth could get its hands on at such late notice.

There were other alternatives. Darcy had heard—probably against Fury’s direct orders—about how the World Security Council had planned to nuke Manhattan to defeat the Chitauri the first time. They’d evidently been less keen on that solution when they sat on the island themselves. The problem was, none of them were sure how large Thanos’ fleet really was, so they’d probably run out of missiles before they ran out of targets for them, and to bomb a ship out of orbit would just bring it crashing to Earth, radiation and all. 

She wanted to trust Death, she really did. But as more ships descended from the atmosphere, the twisting in the pit of her stomach only grew more intense.

“Our hour is up,” Nat murmured beside her. 

They all glanced at the beam of light, and the point where it vanished into the sky, but nothing had changed. If Asgard was coming, they weren’t going to make it before the attack started.

Hatches began opening in the bottom of the Chitauri ships, their soldiers dropping from them on smaller, one-man crafts that sped downward toward the city. Leviathans, small in comparison to Thanos’ ship but easily the size of a Subway train, also began to flow out.

The humans were impossibly outnumbered.

But they weren’t defeated yet. Something glinted in the corner of Darcy’s eye, and she turned to see Tony Stark rushing past in his Iron Man suit, blasters on full as he took down as many Chitauri as he could. In the distance, the darker suit of Iron Patriot was following a similar tactic. On the ground, Darcy caught sight of Cap stood on top of a bus that was being used to blockade one street, directing orders at SHIELD agents. Further away, Thor, Sif and the Warriors Three were charging the first Chitauri to reach the ground. On a rooftop, Bruce tangled with one of the leviathans in his less-friendly form.

So the resistance had begun, but even the Avengers had only won last time against a smaller invasion force. Chitauri ships continued to amass above them, fanning out until they shadowed the city.

“Clint,” Nat yelled. “Get me one of those.” She pointed at a Chitauri speeding past on one of the smaller crafts. Clint nodded, aimed, and brought it tumbling down onto the roof of Stark Tower.

Loki was on the alien before he’d finished rolling, tossing him off the edge of the helipad with a casual flick of his hand. Nat leapt onto the speeder and was away, yelling “Stay safe!” over her shoulder.

The door opened behind them, and Loki turned to face the intruder with a dagger in each hand—heaven only knew where he’d got them from. Frigga stepped out, and they all eased, as much as they could with the chaos occurring around them.

“I saw the portal,” she said. “It might be prudent for me to be here to greet Odin.”

“If we last that long,” said Jane.

“Have faith.”

It was easier said than done. The Chitauri swarm now carpeted the streets, engaging in open battle with the human soldiers. Darcy was glad that she her eyesight wasn’t that great even with her glasses: blockades were falling, pushing their troops back, and as they retreated she was sure they left bodies behind. The Chitauri also covered the rooftops, filing inside buildings through maintenance doors. Darcy hoped everyone had got out of the city instead of staying to hide: it looked like that wasn’t going to be a possibility.

A leviathan flew past at the same level as the helipad, writhing through the air like it was moving underwater instead of above the earth. Jane clung to her, but it did not turn in their direction, aiming instead for the higher floors of another tower.

“I can’t believe we’ve not had any try to land here yet,” Darcy said.

“I’m masking the helipad, not just the people on it,” Loki explained. “As far as they are concerned, there is no space to land, and no way to get into Stark Tower. The beam is projected from the lightning rod at the apex instead.”

“You’re protecting the War Council as much as us,” Jane observed. 

“Yes. They’d make useful hostages.”

Three blocks a way, an explosion rocked an apartment building, the low boom followed by shattering glass, then billowing smoke.

“Shit,” said Jane.

“Was that them or us?” Darcy asked.

“There got to be more we can do.” Her eyes were on the ships above them. “We know they’re coming through a portal of their own, so why can’t we find a way to close it?”

“The portal will controlled on Thanos’ mothership,” said Loki. “And even if you did find a way to close it, you would only trap their army on this side of the breach. With Thanos.”

“Is there no way of getting onto his ship? Or getting him off of it so we could get to the portal?”

Loki shook his head and turned away. Darcy swore she could hear him mutter, “Would that I were brave enough.”

“I gotta go,” Clint said. “Nat says a bunch of soldiers are being herded into one block, they’re trapped on all sides. She thinks the Chitauri are going to blow it up and we have to give them an opening to get out of there.”

“I can protect them,” said Loki, gesturing to Darcy and Jane, making it clear who he was talking about.

“As can I,” confirmed Frigga, unsheathing a pair of swords which had been strapped to her back, hidden by her long hair. 

“Mother—”

“Don’t you ‘Mother’ me.”

Darcy thought Clint might have rolled his eyes before firing an arrow at the roof of the closest building, many storeys below, the rope it left behind creating a zip wire for him to fly down. A moment later, he was gone.

“I can see them,” said Jane. She was pointing in the direction Clint had headed, down the avenue to an intersection. Nat had been right: more soldiers were being pressed in from all sides. Chitauri gathered on the buildings around the intersection, leviathans looping around the area but out of sight from street level. They might not be planning an explosion, but it did look like they intended an ambush. “They need more help. Where are the other Avengers?”

“Fighting their own battles,” replied Frigga. For the first time, Darcy noticed the tightness around her eyes. Her son was out there, in the midst of the hoard, and there was no guarantee he’d return unscathed. How many times had Frigga watched him ride in battle and wondered if he would return? Was this the first time she’d been present at the battle herself, watching the worst unfold?

More Chitauri emerged on rooftops, leaping from one to another towards the intersection. There were easily a hundred soldiers crushed into it now, some being cut down as they fought to defend the front line. They were doomed.

Jane grabbed her arm.

“Look at the light!”

Darcy followed Jane’s gaze to the beam, which was slowly becoming multi-colored, the white separating into stripes of color. A rainbow.

“Asgard has extended the Bifrost to your portal, to ease the strain on your resources,” said Frigga. “They will be here soon.”

They all turned their gazes skyward again, and watched as the colors spread down its length, until all the white had vanished and the spectrum touched the tip of the machine.

“Stand back,” Frigga urged, pulling them back to the edge of the helipad. There was a rushing sound, a blast of color, and then…

A man on horseback. A giant, black horse, which barely fit on the helipad, with eight legs, and Dumbledore in its saddle.

Okay, maybe he wasn’t quite as old as Dumbledore. And his beard was nowhere near as long. Plus, Dumbledore never wore an eye patch or a fancy golden helmet.

“My queen,” he greeted Frigga. “We have heeded the realm’s call for aid.”

“And not a moment too soon, my king,” she replied. “The battle is already turned against Midgard.”

“So Heimdall told me. Leave the bridge open, the army is following.” Odin—because who else could it be?—looked beyond Frigga to the dark figure skulking in the background. “What is he doing here?” he said sharply, pinning Loki with a distrustful stare.

“Assisting,” Frigga replied.

“Oh my God,” Jane breathed, distracted by movement below them. The Chitauri had fallen, en masse, on the trapped soldiers. Darcy had to look away and close her eyes.

It caught Odin’s attention too. He turned, single eye narrowed in the direction of the ambush, and observed it for a second. “Bid the soldiers follow me,” he ordered Frigga, then with a sharp tug of the reins, guided the horse off the rooftop.

“You cannot mask this place for much longer,” Frigga said to Loki. “Not when the entire Asgardian army will soon pass through.”

“I know,” he replied. “But their arrival will ensure Thanos’ attention is diverted away from here anyway.”

This time, Darcy was prepared when the distant rushing sound began, although it still made her jump when a trio of soldiers appeared on the roof in a blur of color. These men were on foot, but heavily armed nonetheless. They saluted to Frigga and turned to survey the chaos below them. Odin appeared to be charging into battle on horseback, which scattered the Chitauri and seemed to unnerve the human soldiers too. The Chitauri which didn’t get out of the way fast enough got crushed underfoot.

Darcy noticed that Loki had, once again, faded into the shadows while the soldiers were on the roof. She supposed all would recognize him, and none would take kindly to him being there.

Odin’s appearance had provided sufficient distraction for Clint and Nat—Darcy saw the petite figure of her friend speed past the rooftops the Chitauri were gathered on and toss something down at each of them. What it was became apparent a second later when the grenades exploded, sending chunks of alien spiraling out across the concrete. Clint was picking other groups off which his own incendiary arrows. Meanwhile, the human soldiers had regained some spirit and begun to fight back, clearing a good portion of the road in front of them.

It was a small start. But it was a start.

Another figure came speeding up the side of Stark Tower, his billowing red cape identifying him long before there was cause for alarm. It appeared that Thor had commandeered one of the Chitauri speeders too.

“Mother!”

Despite everything—despite the overwhelming danger, despite the fact that there was a strong chance their side would be obliterated, and despite the sour mood Thor had been in since he came back to Earth—Thor seemed to be in good spirits. Something about battle put a smile on his face.

“I see Father has arrived,” he continued. “This place will not serve as a refuge for much longer. You should seek shelter in the Tower.”

“Someone has to be here to guide our soldiers as they arrive,” Frigga replied, “and it cannot be your brother.”

“Jane is vulnerable. If Thanos learns that she is the one who created the bridge—if he comes to know how brilliant her mind is—”

“I agree. She must go somewhere safer. But I cannot leave. I must also protect this portal.”

“No—you go. Take her, and Darcy.” He seemed oblivious to the fact that he was including Darcy in his mandate for protection once more. “I will remain here.”

“Thor, I know you better than anyone, and I know this is not where you wish to be in the heat of battle. Nor is it where you are best placed.”

“I will protect them.”

The voice which spoke these words astonished all of them. Including, it seemed, the person who spoke them, judging by Loki’s already regretful expression.

“You?” 

“Yes.” Loki’s chin jutted upward in defiance. “I will keep them safe from harm. I swear it.”

Thor looked not to Loki, but to Frigga, who gave a slow dip of her head. “He means it.”

Thor didn’t have much choice, not when it was clear Frigga was willing to vouch for Loki, and unwilling to leave her post. “Very well. But understand this—”

“You do not need to threaten me, brother. If either are harmed, I will already be beyond your reach for punishment.”

“Then go. Into the residences, where Lady Pepper already waits. Mother, we can use this flying contraption to ferry the soldiers to ground level. I will capture more to make the process faster.”

That was the last Darcy heard; she and Jane were ushered back through the door and into one of the elevators.

Loki took them, as instructed, to Tony’s living quarters, where Pepper waited with Happy, anxiously watching the melee on the streets. She yelped when the elevator doors slide open, yanking a gun from Happy’s hip holster and taking aim.

“He’s not going to hurt you!” said Darcy, shuffling out into the room. To his credit, Loki held his hands in the air and attempted to look harmless. “He’s here to keep us safe.”

“To keep us safe?” Pepper repeated incredulously. “He threatened to hurt me earlier!”

Jane glared at Loki with the revelation, but Loki had the grace to look contrite. “I apologize. It was crass and unnecessary. If it helps, I did not expect to actually have to hurt you, as I knew Stark would not allow any harm to befall you.”

“Doesn’t help, dude,” Darcy muttered.

“Oh, that’s okay then!” Pepper replied. Not for the first time, Darcy decided she and Tony were a match made in sarcasm. 

“You may keep the weapon pointed at me, but I intend only to observe the battle, and protect those I have sworn to.”

“There’s a little too much glass in here for my liking,” said Jane. “Couldn’t the Chitauri smash through like they have in other buildings?”

“Not if the window appears to be a solid wall from the outside,” replied Loki, “…as it now does.”

That made them all feel safe enough to gather at the glass and stare downward, though Loki took a spot a few feet away, trying to still appear aloof. Happy stayed facing the elevators, alert to danger, but Darcy had no doubt that if trouble came looking for them Loki would be the quicker to react.

“I haven’t seen Tony in so long,” Pepper said. “I wish we had a way of communicating with them while they’re out there. Even JARVIS is out of reach for me—all resources have been directed towards the battle. I know it’s important, but I just want to know he’s okay.”

“Even if we could communicate with them,” said Darcy, “we’d probably just be a distraction.”

Something brushed her hand, and she glanced down to find Jane tentatively trying to hold it with her own. Now she wasn’t able to focus on the portal anymore, deep worry had etched itself into her friends’ face.

“Hey,” she whispered, lacing their fingers together, “it’s going to be fine. They’re all tougher than we think, and that’s pretty damn tough.”

“Do you think other cities are already being attacked?” Jane asked.

“I tried to get into the War Council’s communications,” Pepper said, “to find out, only they’ve gone analogue. But the last we knew, this where the fleet is docked.”

“They probably want to wipe out New York and move on, city by city,” said Jane.

“They’re going to have a fight on their hands,” Darcy vowed. “Just you watch.”

The tide did seem to be turning a little in Earth’s favor down on the streets—more Asgardian warriors could be spotted on the speeders, using their swords to cut down earthbound Chitauri by the dozen. But there always seemed to be more Chitauri to replace the dead ones, whereas the Asgardians has stopped arriving. There were several thousand of them out there, but from what Frigga had said Asgard’s population wasn’t as large as Earth’s. 

“Is the entire Asgardian army here?” Darcy asked Loki.

“The majority, yes. There will only be a small force left behind to guard the Bifrost and the Palace. The citizens will be capable of depending themselves, if they need to.”

“I can’t keep watching,” said Jane. “I can’t keep standing here and not doing anything.”

“What can we do?” asked Darcy, gesturing at the battle outside.

Jane turned and pointed at the computer system which spanned one of the walls: it was Tony’s own, configured so he could entertain, work, or relax in this room. “Can we try to communicate with the Chitauri fleet’s systems? Give them a virus, or something?”

“Janie, this isn’t Independence Day.”

“It’s worth a try, isn’t it? You’ve hacked things before, you could give it a go.”

“I’m good, but I’m not that good. We don’t know what language their systems will be running, or if it’s compatible in any ways with the way we code, or if we can connect with them.”

“JARVIS could,” Pepper ventured. “I don’t know how, but he was good at finding vulnerabilities and backdoors.”

Jane nodded fervently. “And if their ships are communicating with each other, they must have Wifi or something up there. Some way we can get in.”

“Except JARVIS is too busy,” Happy reminded them.

“Except Tony has a back-up program—FRIDAY,” said Pepper. “She’s not used as much, so she hasn’t had chance to learn the same way that JARVIS has, but she’s newer. Surely that means she’s better?”

“Maybe.” Darcy chewed her lip, turning towards the curved glass screens that comprised the body of the computer. “But this is Tony’s baby. I can’t hack Tony; he’s too good.”

“You don’t need to.” Pepper stepped forward, brushing her palm against one of the screens. “He trusts me. I have full access. Mostly because he knows I’ll never use most of the things I have access to,” she finished with a wry smile.

It took Darcy ten minutes just to understand the operating system: the computers they’d used in the tower when she’d worked and lived here had been designed for people more used to conventional OSs, but Tony hadn’t worried about that for his own use. Once she was in and comfortable, locating FRIDAY and coaxing her into action was a simpler task. Coding the request was easy: it was up to FRIDAY to find a way to complete it.

“I’ve done all I can for now,” she said. “She’ll alert us if she does find a way into her systems. Then we’ll have to see if it’s even possible to manipulate them.”

That left them back beside the windows, although Darcy did pull a few news feeds onto the screens to give them a different view. Not that the feeds told them anything different—it didn’t seem like any news crews were on the ground in Manhattan, either through choice or by order.

The battle rarely came close to the upper levels of Stark Tower, and it was easy to see that the fight was being corralled away from it. No wonder: the War Council still sat in one of these rooms, and the portal had to be protected to ensure the Asgardians could return home. 

Some needed to return home sooner than others. They were ferried past by comrades on speeders, grisly wounds making it apparent why they were being transported back. Darcy noted that Loki was cataloging the ones he could see, recognition creeping across his face when he knew a passing soldier.

One speeder flew by and seemed to be struggling under the weight of its Asgardian passenger: he was easily bigger than Thor, even crumpled as he was. Darcy wasn’t sure if his cloak was black to begin with, or if it was blood which stained it that way, the same blood that coated all visible skin. The craft was being steered by a smaller-than-average Asgardian, who also seemed to be covered in the same blood, and dwarfed in a cloak that shrouded most of his body. Or was it hers? They were so small…

Darcy’s compassion shifted to unease.

“Thanos knows the Tesseract is on Asgard.” She spoke aloud as her mind connected the pieces, already backing away from the window towards the elevator, which had been held at the residence since their arrival. “Most of Asgard’s defense is here on Earth. What’s to stop him using the portal to get to Asgard and stealing the Tesseract while he has the chance?”

“Using the battle as a distraction,” Loki finished. He took a step towards the elevator too, then paused, torn. “But I swore to protect you, and taking you towards Thanos is not doing that.”

“Come on!” Jane urged, pressing the button to close the doors. It only gave Loki a moment to throw himself through before it departed. “I’ll leave a note for Thor absolving you if I die.”

Loki didn’t laugh. “We may be too late.” There was a thread of panic in his voice, and no wonder—Frigga was the sole line of defense keeping Thanos from getting to Asgard. If she had a moment’s doubt about him being a wounded soldier, he would go through her.

Loki was the first to step out onto the helipad, and Frigga stood alone, swords drawn before the portal, vigilant as ever.

“Mother, there is a great danger. Thanos is approaching under the guise of a wounded soldier, intending to seek passage to Asgard. We need to prevent him—we may even have to shut down the portal—”

Only Frigga had blanched, her horror-struck expression stopping Loki’s words.

“I thought it was strange. His companion abandoned him immediately, but there was so much blood—”

“Big guy, black cape, most of him hidden?” Darcy asked.

“Yes. He passed through, only moments ago.”

“Then we are too late,” said Loki. “Thanos is already on Asgard.”

Chapter Text

“I must go after him.” Loki didn’t look thrilled at the idea, and Darcy didn’t blame him. Even though Thanos had passed through the portal alone, it still wasn’t a fair fight between the pair of them.

“There are other people who can do that,” she said. 

Frigga was already sending ravens out into the battle. “This does not have to be your fight,” she agreed. “Thor will return, and he can defeat Thanos with Mjolnir.”

“That still leaves us with the problem of his army,” said Jane. “We should focus on our plan to cripple them; this is an opportunity, while he’s gone.”

“What is this plan?” Frigga asked, and they briefly explained it. By the time they’d finished, two figures had returned to the Tower on speeders: Nat and Thor.

“How long since he passed through?” was Thor’s first question.

“Minutes,” said Frigga. “Not long enough to even reach the Palace, and it would take him some time to determine where the Tesseract is hidden, if he can find it at all.”

“Yet we don’t know what weapons he had with him,” Loki said. “And his specialty is torture. Whatever we intend to do, we must hurry.”

“I have no response from your father, and it worries me.”

“He is acting the general, Mother,” said Thor, “and that means he cannot leave his men if they need his guidance. He trusts you to do what is needed.”

“Then I must return to Asgard,” she said. “Only my authority will gain us access to the chambers and mobilize the guards if we need to.”

“And I will come with you,” Thor volunteered immediately.

“No,” she replied gently. “This mission requires stealth. Your prowess is best used here, where you can replace my post. Protect the portal.”

“Then I am coming with you,” said Loki. His words sounded empty, as if he’d locked all of his fear away somewhere inside, but he couldn’t summon anything to replace it. 

“Yes. I taught you how to fight, and how to weave illusions—we will work well together.”

“This means you are relieved of your vow to protect Jane,” said Thor. “For now. She will remain here with me.”

Loki nodded his understanding.

“We can work on his army, can’t we Darcy?” Jane asked.

“You don’t need me for that, you need Tony.”

“What’s this?” asked Nat, and once more they explained what they were trying to do with FRIDAY. “I can pass the message onto Tony. He can get JARVIS on the problem too. Your help might be needed, though, Darcy, so be ready for messages on his systems.” 

“Then we must leave,” said Frigga. “We have laid our plans as best we can.”

“But you don’t even have any proper weapons!” Darcy protested.

“They are plenty on Asgard I can retrieve. Not least my throne.”

Loki and Frigga stepped into the center of the helipad while the rest of the group gathered around the edge again. The surface had been scarred by the repeated opening of the bridge, the whirlwind it brought carving a geometric pattern into the concrete. Tony would bitch about it for weeks, but it meant they knew exactly where not to stand to avoid being dragged into the portal.

Jane was the one in control of the apparatus to open the bridge, and Thor hovered close to her protectively, while Nat and Darcy stood closer to the door that led back into the tower.

Everyone’s focus was on the machine gearing up, spinning so fast it blurred, and the rushing noise that meant the bridge was about to open. 

A shadow appeared on the ground at Darcy’s feet, and it didn’t even register that this wasn’t her shadow—that there was something above her casting it—until Nat yelled and shoved her out of the way.

She got a glimpse of Nat tangling with a Chitauri, aiming her pistol at its cranium, as Darcy rolled across the concrete. She collided with something, and she’d only just looked up to realize it was Loki’s feet, before the wind came.

It all disappeared, the world swallowed by a blinding light, the rushing becoming a roar and a lurch in her stomach.

She screamed, a yip that was silenced as the world changed around her. They were in a tunnel of light, stars and space rushing past them, entire galaxies bypassed in the blink of an eye. It was a better method of travel then the last time Loki had moved her between worlds, but the tunnel felt too open, like there was nothing keeping them inside it except the flimsy, transparent light streams.

She landed on the ground. Hard. More bruises to the ones she’d just gained—though thankfully she’d avoided grazes by having most of her skin covered up. Now, there didn’t seem much chance of a graze happening, not when the surface she was lying on was smooth as glass.

“Oh shit,” she murmured. She lifted her head, reaching up one shaky hand to push her glasses back into place, as she took in the vibrant colors of the bridge she lay on, which shone like it had been polished. The sky above was dark, stars twinkling in the night sky, but she could also see them in peripheral vision. The sky surrounded the bridge. At least two moons hung above them, one crescent, one almost full. They were reflected in the water below, which she could hear lapping somewhere in the distance.

At one end of the bridge, further away than she was comfortable with, a golden city also shone against the darkness, spires and towers rising against the black. The buildings all appeared to be on cliff tops, and the foaming water of many waterfalls reflected the moonlight.

Was that buildings floating? And rotating?

“Darcy, we’re not in Kansas anymore,” she murmured to herself.

“It appears we have a stowaway,” said Frigga with a hint of amusement, holding out a hand to help Darcy to her feet.

“It wasn’t my fault,” she grumbled, stretching her limbs tentatively. Oh, she was going to have bruises on her bruises. “Stupid Chitauri.”

She got a glimpse of that sky again, and her stomach flipped. Once again, she found herself in another realm, light years away from home.

“We must send her back,” said Loki, and there was a definite thread of concern in his voice. Or was it panic? “She is not safe here, not when we intend to confront Thanos.”

“She’s in no more danger on Asgard than she is on Midgard,” Frigga replied. “And we do not have the time to be—oh Norns!” The last words came out in a shocked whisper as she took in what lay behind them.

They were almost at the end of the bridge, and it culminated in the skeleton of a spherical structure which was still being constructed. In the center, the part seemed to be most completed, a small, stepped dais rose and was crowned with machinery. It wasn’t entirely like the device they were using on Asgard, but it wasn’t hard to figure out they shared a joint purpose.

At the foot of the dais a crumpled figure sat, his robes stained with blood.

“Heimdall, who did this?” Frigga rushed to the man, who was attempting to push himself upright. The answer of who seemed obvious to Darcy, but the queen was distracted in putting pressure on the wound.

Heimdall was dark-skinned—not the only such soldier Darcy had noticed among the Asgardians—and exceptionally good looking, which seemed to be another common trait. So good looking that she noticed it even as he bled out. His bright, amber eyes marked him out as inhuman more than any other Asgardian she’d met. Thor had once told her those eyes allowed Heimdall to see what was happening on every realm.

“Thanos,” he croaked, a voice that would have seemed deep and soothing at any other time. “There was too much chaos on Midgard for me to follow his movements.” Even now he spoke slowly, authoritatively, like the possibility of his death was no emergency.

“We need the healers,” Frigga instructed Loki, and he summoned a raven while she tenderly removed Heimdall’s two-horned helmet. 

“It is not a bad wound,” Heimdall continued. “But he took my sword.”

“So he has a weapon,” Frigga mused. “We must move swiftly.”

“Go,” Heimdall urged. “The healers will be here soon, and your mission is more important. He has already reached the palace, and is slaughtering all who cross his path so they may lead him to the vault.” His grim stare was fixed in that direction, and Darcy followed it. The shining path of the bridge formed a straight road all the way to the palace gates.

“We could open the bridge and bring more warriors here,” Loki suggested. “To reduce the danger Thanos presents.”

“We cannot afford to bring any back from Midgard,” replied Frigga.

“I did not mean from Midgard.”

“Then where?” Frigga asked, mystified.

“Jotunheim.”

Heimdall gave a dry laugh that ended in a hiss and a wince. “I would never allow it, even if it were possible. The Bifrost is not at full strength—we have only been able to complete the connection with Midgard when they have opened a portal at their end. But if the jotuns were to find Asgard so undefended, they would sack it.”

“No, they wouldn’t,” Loki insisted. “They are under my command, as king, and they know they would suffer to disobey me.”

“Loki, you no longer have the Casket,” Frigga reminded him, guessing at the weapon he used to keep the jotuns in line.

“You could return it to me, and I would have another tool to use against Thanos.”

“I could not if I wished to, not here on Asgard. And as Heimdall says, the bridge will not open.”

“It will; it is repaired on Jotunheim.”

“It’s a decision I cannot make in the absence of the king,” Frigga said.

“Cannot, or will not?”

Frigga shook her head. “Above all, I must protect Asgard. We must go!”

“Mother, there is a quicker way to the weapons vault. I can take us directly into the palace.”

She opened her to mouth to say something, then thought better of it. “It is meant to be protected from such travelers.”

Loki gave an elegant one-shouldered shrug, and Frigga took his hand with a tut, reaching out her free one to Darcy. 

Darcy took hold, closed her eyes, and prayed it would be over quickly.

The journey—that squeezing, vomit-inducing, motion, certainly seemed to be shorter this time, and the after-effects were lessened. When the pressure eased, she opened her eyes, to find herself in a dark, stone-walled corridor. Sparsely distributed flaming torches set in the walls provided the only light.

“Darcy,” Loki whispered, “Because I cannot leave you here and know you will be unscathed, you will need to come inside with us. This means I must cloak you, so you will not appear to Thanos’ eyes.”

“Cool,” she said, more casually than she felt. It was what he’d done on the helipad during the battle, and she wasn’t going to argue with the tactic. Thanos would spot her as the weak link immediately and go for her. “If I’m invisible, and I get the opportunity, should I trip him up?”

No!” Loki insisted.

“You sure?” She was trying for playful, trying to ignore the horrors of what they’d seen and what inevitably lay ahead of them.

He took her arm, gently, tugging until she turned to face him, and there was fear in his eyes again. “Promise me you will stay away from him,” he demanded.

“Okay, I swear. I’m not an idiot.”

“I do not think you are. But you have shown a talent for recklessness that Thor would be proud of.”

“I think you mean ‘courage’,” she mumbled. “But I really don’t have any plans on seeing Mistress Death again any time soon. Good enough?”

Frigga pulled her two, curving swords from the sheath on her back and gestured them forwards. They crept along the corridor until it branched, and they turned left. At the end, a set of thick, stone doors, wide and high enough to drive a truck through, stood ajar.

The bodies of fallen guards lay beside them, their armor splintered and their blood thick on the ground.

A dim room lay beyond the doors, one stone path lined by streams, before the path split into the spokes of a wheel and disappeared out of sight. The route which lay directly ahead had high, sloped walls engraved with geometric patterns, and ended in an empty plinth.

Loki approached the doors alone, with his own sword out, he stepped into the chamber cautiously. He turned, head tilted like a cat listening to something outside of hearing for a human being. “The tesseract is gone,” he announced. “And Thanos with it.”

Frigga nodded, then spun bringing one of her swords upwards in time to parry the downward thrust from Thanos’ blow. She pushed back, his surprise at her defense helping her to knock him off balance, before cutting at him with her other sword. “Not a trace of him,” she agreed, dipping as Thanos rallied and came at her again.

Darcy flattened herself against the wall and tried to stay out of the way.

Frigga was good, wielding her weapons like she was dancing, whirling while the silk of her dress span with her. He had the advantage of size, but not training, and only one weapon to her two.

“Thanos!” Loki yelled, advancing down towards the melee, and his appearance made Thanos pause, the blade of his swords locked against both of Frigga’s. Loki held between his hands the Casket, his skin blue, his eyes fiery red. “Leave her or I will end you.”

Thanos considered the threat for a moment, while Darcy’s heart threatened to beat out of her chest. She knew this wasn’t the real Casket, that Loki was playing the same illusion he’d used on Jotunheim, but Loki was chancing that Thanos didn’t know he no longer had access to the Casket. After a moment of consideration, Thanos grinned, a slow curl of his lips that said nothing of humor and everything of danger.

“Very well,” he said, “I have what I came for.”

And he shoved Frigga away hard enough that she was knocked into the wall with a terrifying crack.

The world seemed to move in slow motion as Darcy closed the distance between them, shock stealing her voice and keeping her from revealing her presence to Thanos. Not that he was likely to have heard her: not over the roar Loki had unleashed.

She fell to her knees beside Frigga, who had crumpled to the ground, eyes closed. She was too easy to move, limbs floppy as Darcy touched her, attempted to rouse her. Loki joined her, calling his mother’s name as he shook her.

“Stop it,” Darcy said, waving him away. Instead, holding Frigga’s head carefully, she lay her on her side, and then held her hand in front of Frigga’s face until she felt the telltale signs. “She’s breathing.”

“I’ll call for the healers.”

“And what will they do when they find a trail of bodies, you, and an unconscious queen?” she asked, brushing hair back from Frigga’s face and feeling gingerly along her crown for any sign of injury.

“That’s not important. I would return to my prison eagerly if it ensures she lives!”

Darcy was about to retort—a whine about what about her world, something so selfish after everything Frigga had done for her—but Frigga stirred.

“There will be no need for that,” she said groggily. “We have a realm to save.” She tried to push herself upright, and Loki held her firmly down.

“You were knocked out,” Darcy protested, “which probably means you have concussion. You should get that looked at.”

“Nonsense.” She gave Loki a firm look, one which seemed practiced enough to have been used many times during his childhood. It was a look he relented under the force of now, and allowed her to move. She turned her attention back to Darcy. “Asgardians are made of the sterner stuff than that. I have lost no limbs nor blood, which means I am able to continue with my task. And you!” This time, she narrowed her eyes at Loki. “This was a distraction, and you allowed him to flee.”

“You were more important, mother,” he insisted. “And I believe that by not immediately using the casket on him, I have revealed that I do not truly wield it.”

“Then we must sound the alarms,” Frigga said tiredly. “He has all the power he desires now, and our realm needs defending.”

“He knows the portal is undefended, and he has Heimdall’s sword,” replied Loki. “He will return to Midgard immediately, to finish what he started.”

“I know. Hurry—we may be able to catch him.”

Each summoned more ravens as they moved, and Darcy heard sirens echoing from the towers above the palace, a warning that the kingdom was in danger. She struggled to keep up with Loki and Frigga as they raced back along the corridor to the point where Loki had brought them inside. She didn’t need telling, grabbing hold of Loki’s arm so he could pull them back through space to the end of the Bifrost.

As her ears cleared, she heard the curse Frigga made—she didn’t know the word, but it had to be rude with the vehemence it was uttered. The air glowed when she peeled her eyes open, coming from the rotunda which Heimdall normally guarded. She recognized the sound coming from it—it was the same noise that had signaled an incoming visitor on the helipad.

“We are too late!” Loki shouted. A golden sword sat in the center of the machinery, piercing the central mechanism, and on the other side Thanos had vanished. He’d already opened the portal back to Earth.

“He has made one crucial mistake,” said Frigga. “He left the sword. Without it, we would not be able to follow.”

“He didn’t know how to remove it and keep the portal open,” Loki agreed. “Should we take it with us?”

“No—without Heimdall, we have less control over this side of the bridge. And when he returns to his post—which will not be long—he should find his weapon waiting for him.”

They ushered Darcy inside the rotunda and around to the opposite side from the bridge, Loki hastily adjusting the machinery so it would open the Bifrost for them again.

She’d only been on Asgard for an hour. Maybe not even that.

She kept her eyes closed this time, bracing herself for concrete at the other side. Despite that, her legs buckled underneath her, only a strong arm around her waist steadying her and keeping her upright. She opened her eyes to find Loki staring down at her, his face tight with worry and remorse.

“We should have left you on Asgard. Safe.”

“I wouldn’t have let you,” she replied.

It was staggering, to go from the uneasy hush on Asgard to the roar of battle here, but there was one big difference since before they’d jumped through the portal. The sky was clear, only Thanos’ mothership still hanging menacingly above them.

“Wha—” she started to ask, looking around for Jane, but her attention was diverted. So was everyone’s.

Thanos had climbed onto the very pinnacle of Stark Tower and was holding the Tesseract aloft.

“Time to admit defeat, Terrans and Asgardians alike!” he roared. Most people couldn’t hear him this high up, not when they had their own fights to concentrate on at street level. But on the helipad, directly below, they could hear him.

“The Tesseract won’t help you now,” retorted Thor. “Your army is cut off, as are you.”

“I don’t need my army when I have this,” Thanos replied with a sneer. “I could reduce this world to dust on my own.”

“Not without the right equipment to harness it,” piped up another voice. Tony came hovering up the side of the building, just above Thanos. “And most of that is now on galaxies away from here, thanks to a confusing little message that your ships’ systems received while their boss was absent, courtesy of future Nobel Prize Winners Lewis and Foster.”

“Holy shit, it worked,” Darcy breathed.

“It did!” Jane whispered back. “We gave orders to go home and they followed them. JARVIS booby-trapped the mothership too.”

“And you can’t call them back,” Tony continued, “because the portal’s been welded shut. We’re crushing your armies now they can’t keep being replenished, and you’re trapped here with a sweet piece of bling that you can’t use. You might as well hand it over.”

Thanos stared at Tony benignly, then turned his head to take in Thor, Frigga, and Loki in one sweeping glance. Darcy was caught in the backwash of it, though for her he reserved only a dismissive graze of his stare. It still sent a cold ripple down her spine.

“You’re going to have to take it from me,” he replied to Tony, his voice low and amused, though he did not look away from Thor. Thor took the challenge, lifting Mjolnir and preparing to knock Thanos from his perch, but froze. Darcy caught the shock in his face and followed his gaze, to the speeder approaching the helipad.

On it, Odin’s prone body lay crumpled.

The Chitauri manning the craft pushed Odin off and sped away, leaving the king to roll onto the harsh surface and groan in pain as he did so. He was alive, even conscious as he tried to keep his eyes open. His wounds did not appear visible, but blood bubbled between his lips as he breathed. Thor and Frigga immediately rushed to his side, Frigga dropping to her knees to cradle him while Thor glared up at Thanos.

Loki was absolutely still beside Darcy, but he couldn’t look away from the fallen king. She reached out to touch him—not sure if her hand on his arm would comfort him, or if she even wanted to give him comfort—but he didn’t react at all.

“You will pay for this,” he said, his anger colder than Darcy had ever witnessed from him. The threat was not delivered out of hot-blooded rage, but from a darker place, the kind of threat which would be carried out without mercy.

“You don’t have the stomach for it,” Thanos replied, mirth bubbling through his words. “Not the way I do—your brother can tell you all about that. I hope he bears the scars.”

This summoned a reaction from Loki: he lifted his chin to face Thanos, his back ramrod straight and his words as stuff. “I do not.”

“Pity. Mistress must have returned you to the world lacking them. It did give me such pleasure to cut into that pale, pristine skin every time you came back to me.” Thor and Frigga both flinched at his words, and Odin whimpered, whether from pain or the revelation. Darcy wasn’t sure if she reacted outwardly, but she could taste bile, the memory of Loki’s torture making her nauseated. “Did he ever mention that—how I killed him, over and over? How I cut him to ribbons until his blood formed rivers around my feet, and sent him to the arms of my Mistress, waiting for her to return him to me?”

Frigga was crying silently; Thor’s glanced at Loki before looking away again, his fist flexing against his side. Darcy remembered his denial of Loki’s story, but now shame and realization were creeping across his face.

“Oh yes, it was a delight to have him in my company. Before he failed me, and escaped my reach. But here he stands before me again, ready to become the emissary to my love once more.”

“You cannot win, Thanos,” Loki said. “You have already lost, even if you hold the Tesseract. Your army is about to be defeated, and we will take that cube from you whether you live or you die in the doing. Powerful as you may be, you are one man, and you underestimate Midgard if you think that you will defeat them. I have learned that lesson twice.”

“I am not you,” Thanos mocked him in reply. “I am not a weakling.”

“You fear death as much as any of us.”

Thanos scoffed. “I love Death. I am doing all of this for her!”

A new voice spoke up. “Then why won’t you come home?”

She was stood just below Thanos, tiny in comparison to him though she stared up at him with no fear. Darcy had no idea where she’d come from, and judging by Jane’s gasp, and Loki’s own confusion, neither did anyone else.

It wasn’t the only strange thing about the girl, who leaned easily above a precipice, cloaked in black, her long hair melding into the raven feathers of her garments. She was fine-boned and pale, barely a teenager in appearance, though she had an uncanny expression that suggested she was maybe, probably, older. She seemed familiar, though Darcy couldn’t pinpoint why or where she knew her from.

“Did anybody else see Wednesday Addams appear?” Tony asked. Nobody answered him.

Even Thanos blinked down at her sudden appearance. “Home?” There was unease in his question. Darcy didn’t blame him: she looked slight, but the girl gave off an aura of strength and power.

“Yes. It is time. Mother is waiting for you.”

“I don’t know who you are,” he scoffed, attempting to mask his unease. “Or who your mother is.”

“But you told her you love her.” 

Understanding began to creep over Darcy. As if sensing this, the girl looked towards her, the sharp movement of her head birdlike. “Mama!” she said, a smile unfurling that made her face much sweeter than it had been a moment ago. And when she saw Loki at Darcy’s side, “Papa! You must meet me on the rooftop later. We have so much to discuss.”

She turned her attention back to Thanos, as Darcy tried to ignore the stares of everyone on the helipad, and figure out how the daughter of Loki and Mistress Death was calling her ‘mama’.

The girl stepped up, level with Thanos, her movements blurring as she moved so quickly, and plucked the Tesseract from his hands. She tossed it behind her, in the direction of Tony, who caught it without a quip or comment. “Come on,” she said, taking Thanos’ hand. He tried to pull away, but her grip was iron and unbreakable. “Grandpapa Odin has to visit Mother now. We can use his path to go home.”

Darcy thought the air shimmered around them, while the girl pulled Thanos off of the roof and into the open air, before they disappeared from the world.

A few feet away, Odin’s last breath rattled from his lungs.

Chapter Text

The moment stretched on, like the world had been put into slow motion. Wind whipped around them, the din of battle fading away as between one breath and the next reality changed forever.

Frigga was the first to move. She relaxed her grip on her husband, gently lowering him to the ground so she could smooth the hair away from his face, and place a gentle kiss on his forehead. Her face was white with shock, her eyes glassy and her hands shaking. It hurt even to look at her, her fresh pain like an exposed wound.

She did not weep, though beside her Thor was crying openly, his shoulders heaving. He discarded Mjolnir onto the concrete to grip his father’s body, but in doing so his hands came away covered in blood.

Loki hadn’t moved at all, crumpling in on himself like a lost child. He didn’t look away from Odin, not even to blink. But he did not cry, and he did not speak. Darcy rested her hand on his shoulder, unsure of what else to do. He didn’t react even to that.

An explosion sounded somewhere, far below, breaking the spell—or at least fracturing it.

“Uh…” 

Darcy looked up to find Tony still hovering near the top of the tower, where only moments before Thanos had disappeared with the girl. He’d raised his face plate, as if it would be disrespectful to be in the presence of the fallen king of Asgard with his face covered.

“I have to go. Do the thing,” he said uncertainly, gesturing in the direction of the commotion and aiming his words more at Darcy and Jane than anyone else. He held out the Tesseract in its shielded container, and Jane took it from him tentatively, like a sleeping baby—or a bomb about to go off.

Frigga raised her head, dignified even in her fresh grief. “Of course. There is still a battle to be won.”

“Right.” He nodded, beginning to lower his face plate and drift downwards.

“Find Sleipnir,” Loki said suddenly.

That had Tony at a loss. He shot a questioning look at the girls, but Darcy could only shake her head in shared confusion.

“My father’s steed. He must still be out there—whether injured or…” He paused and swallowed. “Find him so we can return him to Asgard with my father.”

“Roger that.” Tony winced at his own crassness, then slammed down the face plate and sped away. 

“Loki,” Frigga said softly. “Come here.”

He shook his head and planted his feet.

“You should say goodbye to your father before…before there are too many eyes watching. While we still have a moment of peace, and the pomp has not yet begun.”

“I can’t,” Loki croaked, as if choking on the words.

“You can. You must.”

He shook his head desperately. “This is all my fault!”

“Does even this moment have to about you?” Thor said, not with cruelty. He sounded tired. Nevertheless, it had an effect on Loki, who straightened his back and nodded. It didn’t seem to be in response to Thor’s question, but as if he was resolving something within himself. He must have managed it, because he took a step forward, and then another, his long legs easily taking him to Odin’s side.

Together the family cried, and held each other, and grieved.

Darcy shuffled away from them, towards Jane, and they shared a glance which agreed they were intruding on a private moment. On the other hand, they couldn’t leave, not when someone had to remain in charge of the portal machine. Jane shrugged, and they silently perched themselves out of sight until the first spell of mourning had passed.

“We cannot stay here,” murmured Frigga when she was ready, brushing the hair away from Loki’s face in a reflexive maternal gesture. “Our warriors must not find out before the battle is won. Their morale is too important.”

That roused the princes, in a way that surprised Darcy. The line of duty seemed to help them rein in their emotions—even Thor, who had always been quick with his. Perhaps he had grown up more than she’d even realized.

“I must return to the battle,” he said, as Frigga brushed her thumb over the tear tracks on his face. “They will have noticed Father’s absence—I must prevent rumors from spreading.”

“Don’t lie to them,” Frigga advised. “They will learn the truth later, and their trust in you must not be undermined so soon.”

“I know. There is more to focus their attention on—a city to save.”

With a whirl of Mjolnir, he was gone, only to be replaced on the helipad by the more petite figure of Natasha. She looked in worse shape than before, with a bloody gash on her head and a tear down the fabric over her left thigh.

“Tony sent me,” she said. “Said I’d be more use up here now they’re trying to wipe out the remaining Chitauri.” She didn’t look at Odin, keeping eye contact with Frigga.

“We need someone to watch the portal while we seek privacy.”

“Sure, I can do that.”

“Should we go down to the war council?” Darcy asked quietly, calling the elevator.

“No,” replied Frigga. “I do not trust them to hold their tongues on this.”

“Tony’s apartment will be private,” Jane suggested, and Frigga nodded in agreement.

Loki took off the furs he’d been wearing since Jotunheim and wrapped them around Odin, then hoisted him into his arms. He did not look down at his father, gaze fixed ahead as he entered the elevator with Frigga. 

“We’ll follow you down,” Darcy said. She had a feeling it would be claustrophobic in there, between the body and the cloud of grief.

The doors slid shut, leaving an emptier helipad behind. There was a lot of blood where Odin had lain, and Darcy idly wondered if someone would have to clean that up. Or would it be left to the elements, the first rain washing away signs that a god—a man who was old enough to become a myth—had died there?

“How was Asgard?” Natasha asked, drawing Darcy away from her thoughts. 

“I didn’t see much of it, really,” she replied.

Nat, too, was staring at the bloodstains. “Oh. Shame. But Thanos is dead, right?”

“Yeah. I think so. Truth be told, it was a bit weird, but I don’t think he’s coming back.”

“Who even was she?” Jane asked, looking at Darcy as if she’d have the answer. And it was a reasonable question, the girl had seemed to know Darcy.

“I have no idea.”

“Who?” Nat perked a curious brow.

“It’s a long story,” replied Darcy. “We should go, get that rock inside somewhere safe.”

When they entered Tony’s apartment, Pepper was returning to the living room from down the hallway.

“He’s in a guest room,” she explained, her voice soft. “And so are they.” Her eyes widened at Jane holding the Tesseract, and she switched to business mode, ushering them to one of Tony’s maximum-security safes so it could be locked away.

“What happened?” she asked when it was inside a foot of solid adamantium. She gestured in the direction of the guest room, so they understood what she was referring to.

“I don’t know,” said Jane. “One of the Chitauri brought him up to the tower barely alive. And then…” She shrugged heavily. 

Pepper led them into the kitchen for the most privacy. “FRIDAY, did you witness what happened to Odin?”

The AI responded, quieter than usual, as if it understood the importance of not being overheard by the grieving guests. “There was a grenade attack. It appears Odin chose to take the blast rather than risk it injuring other soldiers.”

“Maybe he thought he could survive it,” Jane murmured, and Darcy murmured in agreement. “I guess I expected him to be bomb proof. He’s been around for so long, hasn’t he?”

“What about the horse?” Pepper asked, again directing her question at the AI.

“The Asgardian warrior Fandral retrieved him after the explosion: Sleipnir was spooked but uninjured. He is currently being stabled in the parking garage.”

“And Thor?” Jane asked, obviously worried about more grenades.

“Is liaising with Mr. Stark and Mr. Rogers. Ground troops have been notified that Thanos is dead and the Tesseract is secure. They have the Chitauri corralled into four main areas and are planning for the best way to dispatch them.”

Curiosity satisfied—for now—Pepper busied making tea for them all.

“A lot happened while we were gone, huh?” Darcy asked Jane.

Her friend nodded, leading her over to the main screen of Tony’s interface again. “Once Tony was involved, he got JARVIS to work with FRIDAY and they were able to find a way into the Chitauri systems. JARVIS had been working on their language based on coding found in the weapons they left behind last time, so it actually seemed easy for him to communicate with the systems and override their orders. I don’t know what we’re going to do with Thanos’ ship, though.”

“Study it, knowing Tony,” said Pepper.

Darcy nodded. “We need to know what’s out there in the universe in case Thanos isn’t the only advanced civilization that decides it wants a piece of us.”

“But you got to see Asgard,” Jane said in hushed awe.

“I don’t know if you could say that. It was night time, and you know what my night vision is like. I saw more of Jotunheim when I was there.”

“But perhaps one day you will see more of our beautiful city,” said Frigga, appearing behind them. It was clear that, in private at least, she had wept; her eyes were now red and watery, her cheeks flushed and bloated. Even her voice cracked as she spoke. “And under better circumstances. You deserve to see Asgard as it truly is, not cloaked by darkness and fear.”

Darcy nodded while Pepper bustled finishing off the tea so she could present a cup to Frigga. “I’d like that.”

A commotion arose outside, and they rushed to the window to look down at the streets of Midtown. It was hard to tell, but it looked like the warriors—human and Asgardian alike—were cheering.

“I think we won,” said Pepper, sounding slightly surprised.

Darcy looked around, but couldn’t see Loki. Frigga followed her gaze, and managed a small smile. 

“He is still with his father. However, you have questions which await answers. It would not do to put them off.”

“I don’t think—”

“Now is as good a time as any. Soon enough, Loki will be a prisoner again. She waits for you, and you should go to her.”

Pepper just looked confused by the exchange, while Jane seemed torn. She chewed on her lip. “It’s probably not a bad idea. You don’t know if SHIELD are going to try and lock you up again as well…”

“Alright,” Darcy agreed. “But I’m coming back, I’m not running. I’ve spent too much time running lately.”

She found her way to the guest room, which was dark enough that the people within it were reduced to mere shapes, shadows against a deeper darkness. Only Loki’s eyes identified him, glinting against the light that spilled through the door.

She averted her gaze from Odin, turning her body so she could not see him even in her peripheral vision. She hadn’t even properly met the man, and she felt like she was intruding on his death by being here.

“We should go,” she said quietly.

“The rooftop,” Loki agreed. He didn’t have to clarify which one—there could only be one rooftop which meant something to both of them.

“How are we going to get there?”

Loki considered it for a moment. “The tunnels.”


At some point, Loki had memorized all of the tunnels which ran underneath Manhattan—probably when they escaped into them during his coup. It meant that he had no problems navigating them through the darkness, using a few of those glowing, floating orbs to provide light. They crossed subway tracks, silent and still while the trains did not run, and while occasionally things skittered away into the shadows, they didn’t come across another living soul. 

They did not speak. Darcy had nothing to say, nothing that didn’t seem absolutely trivial in light of everything that had happened, and Loki evidently felt the same way.

They resurfaced through a basement, and only when they crept upwards into the lobby did Darcy recognize the old hotel where she’d once been kept captive. It was as empty as everywhere else. Shattered glass crunched underfoot, the revolving doors crumpled and hanging at an angle which meant they were impossible to get through. Not that it mattered; they had privacy, and that was what mattered. Even the street outside sounded quiet.

The power was still out—though they were on the outskirts of Midtown, it was still the area where the fighting had been at its most intense. Darcy almost called uncle, knowing she’d never get up all the stairs to the top floor, but Loki summoned the elevator wordlessly, the little orbs disappearing into the workings to get it moving. At least that meant when they’d finished the long ride to the penthouse apartments, they only had one flight of stairs to get onto the rooftop.

Loki prized the locked door open and held it for Darcy with a flourish, as if he was trying to prove he still had manners despite everything.

It was here that Darcy hesitated. The rooftop didn’t exactly hold good memories for her, but she’d put it behind her, believing she’d never have to come back. Even on the journey, her mind had been tangled in questions she wasn’t sure she wanted the answer to—but now she was here, she wanted to bolt. It didn’t matter if she didn’t fear Loki anymore. Much. This place had been her prison, and every instinct balked at returning to it willingly. Especially with Loki by her side.

But. If she didn’t go up, those questions wouldn’t be answered.

So she forced herself to move, up the stairs, and into the garden where she’d once been so close to the sky, and isolated from everything else.

It was unrecognizable—so much that when she reached the top, she came to an abrupt halt, making Loki bump into her. Where this had once been a well-tended garden, small plants yet to grow to maturity in planters, now it was a jungle. In their months untended, rather than dying in the unfamiliar environment, the plants had flourished, outgrowing their pots and reaching skyward, so now it was hard to find a path through the concrete to the seats in the center.

And the screens were gone. Those impossible screens, the fence intended to keep Darcy inside and hidden from the city, had been removed. Beyond the foliage she could now see Manhattan again. The Chrysler building, and Stark Tower, and the Empire State building, and all the fires and ruins between.

Her breath left her, all the tension she’d been carrying exhaled in a gasp of relief, and she began moving forward again.

“I’m surprised you didn’t destroy it,” she murmured to Loki as he followed her.

“Why would I?” He sounded genuinely surprised. “For a time, it was the only place where we’d been together.”

It really was a struggle to get to the seats in the middle, where a small figure waited, clad in black. Darcy distantly realized, as she pushed ferns back from her face, that she needed to tell someone about this garden, before the Asgardian plants began to self-seed and become invasive species. Loki seemed less patient behind her, hacking away at fronds with his blade.

But then they were through, and face to face with the little girl. Her elfin face looked younger than it had on the top of Stark Tower, but maybe she just seemed smaller when they were this close. Her hair was braided and looped around her head, inky black against her chalk-white skin, and her eyes were unmistakably her father’s; shrewd, pale blue. 

She lit up when they sat on the empty chairs. “I am happy that you came,” she said, beaming, her accent closer to Frigga’s lilting pronunciation of English than Loki’s crisp rendition. 

“Yeah,” Darcy replied, uncertainly. “We have…questions.”

“Of course you do. You have never seen me before today. You do not remember me like I remember you.”

Darcy was pretty sure this conversation was going to end in a headache. “Remember you?”

The girl nodded, and now Darcy was sure she was younger than she had been on the Tower. Her mannerisms weren’t those of a teenager anymore, but of a pre-teen, one who hadn’t yet discarded her childhood completely.

“Who are you?” Loki asked, his last thread of patience evidently wearing thin.

“You know that,” the girl replied, chiding him a little. “I am your daughter, Hela. It has not even been a full day since Mother took from you what she needed, and created me.”

“I remember,” Loki said dryly.

“Is that why it took so long for her to send help?” Darcy asked. “Because she was making you?”

“Yes. It was harder than she expected, so I did not arrive until Thanos already had the stone. And Mother cannot come herself, she must stay in her own realm.”

“I suppose—” said Loki, “I suppose I wasn’t expecting to see you. You were supposed to be her child.”

“And I am. But I am half-alive, and that means I cannot spend all my time in the realm of the dead, can I? So while you are on this side of life, I will visit you often. And you, mama.”

She smiled hopefully at Darcy, who did her best to smile back. It was unnerving, all the implications that came with that word. Mama. She wasn’t ready to have children, and yet here was one nearly fully grown treating her like a member of the family.

She really should have brought some aspirin with her.

Instead, she said gently, “You’re older than we expected.”

Hela shrugged. “I exist outside of time, or so Mother says. I can go whenever I want. Sometimes I will be different ages—you will get used to it. I am the same girl, and I will always remember you.”

Darcy hesitated before asking the next question. “Do we raise you, then?” 

“Yes.” That brought another smile. “Not yet, though. You aren’t ready, either of you. I will stay with Mother until you are, and then I will come back to you. Smaller, I think. So I can grow up properly.”

Darcy’s throat closed up, the enormity of it all hitting her. It really sounded like she was going to be a stepmother, and one to a child who was so far outside the bounds of normal that she didn’t know where to begin. Co-parenting with a demigod and Death itself?

No wonder her eyes were leaking.

“Oh, mama, don’t cry!” Hela said. “You will be a legend! Everyone knows your name.”

“I never wanted to be a legend,” Darcy protested, trying to stem the tide of tears. “I only ever wanted to be happy.”

“And you will be! I promise, I swear, oh mama please stop!”

Loki looked as lost as she felt, his hand hovering uncertainly near her arm as if he wanted to give her a sympathetic pat, but wasn’t sure if it was welcome, or even sufficient. Darcy took deep breaths to try and control herself while he considered his next question. “The mirror. The little boy—will he…”

“I cannot tell you everything, papa. Some things, you must just live through. Nana Frigga has made that very clear.”

The look he gave Darcy following her words—the hope, unmasked as it rarely was, shone from his face—said everything. Loki was still looking forward to that future, even if his motivations had changed. Darcy closed her eyes, wiping away the tears even if the enormity of it all still clawed at the inside of her chest.

“If you exist outside of time,” she began, “why that moment? Why not earlier?” So many deaths that could have been prevented…

Hela shook her head. “I could not be there if I did not exist yet, and when I did exist it was too late to change the past. That is the rule: I cannot change events from how they are meant to be.”

“Not even to prevent Odin’s death?” Loki asked quietly.

“No. And anyway, I needed a death,” she said matter-of-factly.

“You were in the middle of a battle!” His temper was fraying once more.

“No, it had to be a good death,” Hela insisted. “And grandpapa’s was the best death—he’d lived so long it was easy to take Thanos through with me. Grandpapa did not mind, when he knew.”

“What about the rest of us?”

Hela pursed her lips at the slight whine in Loki's voice. “It was his time, papa. He was never meant to survive the battle.”

Loki closed up, then, his eyes glazing over and he retreated into his grief. Hela appeared to sense this. “Nana is calling for you. There is much to be done still.”

“Yes, I suppose we should go back,” said Darcy. Not that she was looking forward to what awaited them at the Tower anymore than raising Hela.

“I will see you soon,” Hela replied, and her arms twitched, as if she wanted to hug them both and was holding back. “But I’m sure Mother is missing me already.”

When Darcy paused at the top of the stairs and looked back across the garden, the little girl was already gone.

Chapter Text

Stark Tower was still quiet when they returned to Tony’s apartment. Jane greeted them, letting them know that most of the Avengers were down in the war council. Pepper had arranged an impromptu buffet, as it was hours since anyone had eaten. Loki took himself to rest. Jane and Darcy grabbed a plate of food each and returned to the helipad, to get away from the stifling atmosphere. Darcy was practically vibrating with exhaustion, but she wasn’t ready to sleep yet.

New York was dark, for the most part, the electricity not restored yet. Only Stark Tower, and a few other buildings with their own generators, were lit up. And yet, it was far from silent now, the familiar noise of sirens and the horns of impatient drivers a welcome sign that the city was coming back to life already. With the war council’s involvement, clean up would begin. 

No doubt camera crews had already gotten back into the city—that distant buzz a helicopter or two—and would now begin a rolling news cycle. She wondered what the official line was going to be, since Thanos had vanished with relatively few witnesses.

The blood was gone from the surface of the helipad. Someone had taken the time to clean it up.

Darcy told Jane all about Hela while they calibrated the portal machine, and Jane listened sympathetically.

“Maybe I’m overthinking my relationship with Thor, but is going to make me her step-aunt or something?”

Darcy laughed, a tired and brittle sound that didn’t really encapsulate what she was feeling. “Or something.”

“I guess we can’t dismantle this yet.” Jane patted the machine. “The Asgardians are helping with the clean up.”

“Does that means Thor’s staying a little while longer?”

Jane only sighed in response. If Thor had a throne to worry about, there was every chance he’d return to Asgard and not give Earth a backward glance.

They went back downstairs, to the labs this time, where Erik was still lurking. He refused to share space with Loki, even now, and was still mostly clueless about what had actually happened during the battle.

They filled him in, and then Darcy went to fetch him some food from Pepper’s little buffet. When she got back to the apartment, no one seemed to be around, but she could hear voices from the kitchen: Thor, definitely. His voice carried even when he was trying to be quiet.

Unsure how he would react to her, she crept closer, until she could make out the other person’s voice as well.

“You must be pleased that my mother was able to plead your case and stop SHIELD from disciplining you.”

“I owe your mother a lot,” replied Nat. “We all do.”

“This is true.”

“Besides, I’ve been through worse. SHIELD would only fire me, or lock me up. I can always find work elsewhere, and I never stay locked up long. My previous employers tended to be more thorough in their discipline.”

“I heard tell of that once. I am sorry.” He sounded sincere. 

“Thank you. It doesn’t mean I’m not grateful to Frigga, but there are worse things to endure. Losing a friendship, for instance.”

There was a moment’s silence before Thor responded. “You are not as subtle as I have been led to believe.”

“Right now, I’m not trying to be.”

“You think I have been too harsh on Darcy.”  He didn’t sound as defensive as Darcy expected him to. Maybe tired, and that was to be expected.

“You don’t think these last few days—hell, all the months since Loki arrived—have been rough on Darcy? She’s not like you. She’s not even like me.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Yes. God knows, I’ve done my best to mold Darcy into a weapon we could use against Loki. I hated it doing it, but I thought it was necessary. Except now I realize what it’s cost her. And you don’t understand that.”

“Don’t I?”

“You’ve always had Mjolnir and your strength to rely on. Women? We don’t usually have that. We know, when we’re up against men, that we have to be faster, smarter, better armed. There are methods women have to use in war to survive, things you’ve never had to consider. Things we get punished for, things we get labeled for. Even Sif knows that, though she’ll deny it. So Darcy did what we needed her to, and she’ll suffer for it.”

Thor did not respond, and Darcy retreated back downstairs, to lie to Erik about the food being all eaten up.


Darcy found a quiet sofa in one of the rooms in the apartment, and napped. She didn’t dream, for which she was thankful, because she was sure her imagination would only offer up nightmares.

She woke with a crick in her neck and her exhaustion levels barely touched. The hazy light from outside suggested it was a new day. She wanted a shower, and a change of clothing, but even with her rooms only floors below here she doubted she’d be allowed to return to them.

That was a fresh batch of things to worry over, along with the old. Darcy was technically a fugitive from SHIELD, Loki was a wanted criminal on at least two worlds, and Odin was dead. Thor would be taking over the throne of Asgard, and there was no telling what his attitude would be like towards Loki. Plus, there was every chance he was going to break Jane’s heart by leaving.

She went looking for Loki, hoping she wouldn’t bump into anyone else at this early of an hour. Doors that were shut, she left closed, and she wandered until she found him in the same position she’d been in: curled up in a too-small chair.

He looked so peaceful like this, even though she knew the peace was temporary. His grief would return when he woke up, and all of his troubles too. Back into captivity, with his reduced lifespan, none of the sacrifices he had made enough to outweigh the sins he had committed.

He had to run.

The thought had her moving again, crossing to the bed so she could shake him awake, gently as she could manage.

“Loki,” she murmured, snatching her hand away when he roused, murmuring her name in return. When he opened his eyes and blinked he didn’t look fully awake, flashing a beatific smile. But it melted away as he came around properly, the relaxed, easy happiness turning to sorrow.

“I thought—” he said, then shook his head. “What now?”

“Loki, you have to leave.”

He surprised her by shaking his head and settling back down with a sigh.

“You have to! This might your only chance. Otherwise—”

“Otherwise I will be kept in captivity, judged and sentenced. I am aware.”

“Then why aren’t you moving?

“Because I have earned it.” He propped himself up on one elbow with a wry twist to his mouth. “I do not know exactly what I have done to merit this concern from you—or I would have done it sooner—but I know what fate awaits me, and I have decided to face it. For once in my life, I must take responsibility for my actions. It is a lesson my brother learned more readily than I.”

“But you did what you could to make it better. You went to Mistress Death—”

“Who is not a judge or executioner. What she took from my was not meant to wipe my debt to the universe, and thus it still stands.”

“So you’ll live what—fifty years? Sixty years? In a cage?”

He rolled back onto his back, shrugging. “It sounds more bearable than five hundred years. And perhaps I will be granted privileges this time, for the wrongs I have righted.” That wry twist returned. “Or perhaps my sins will be great enough to carry the ultimate sentence this time. My actions did lead to the death of the king, and I suspect many will view it as treason.”

“Not just the king. Your father.”

“Yes.” It was a simple acknowledgment, one Darcy doubted they would have got out of him before today. “But king first and foremost to those who will pass judgment on me.” He glanced at the door. “Has Thor returned from the war council?” he asked.

She nodded, remembering the heavy thud of Thor’s steps waking her not long ago. Her heart was unwilling to let go of the notion of Loki’s escape, even if she wasn’t sure why. She still didn’t like him all that much, but now she felt like she was the only one who understood everything he had been through. Thor and Frigga had heard about Thanos’ torture, but it wasn’t the same as seeing it, of being forced back into that moment and living through it with him.

“Then I must make my continued presence known,” Loki said, pushing himself upright. “Lest he begin to wonder if I have fled.” He said it in jest, but Darcy could see the set of his shoulders as he climbed off the bed and headed for the door. He was expecting to face a battle of his own, or at least a cold shoulder. Plus his grief must still weigh on him, fresh as it was.

Darcy followed him back towards the room where Odin lay. Thor acknowledged their entrance with a nod of his head. Darcy didn’t see Jane, but Frigga was on the other side of the bed, mirroring Thor. She still didn’t let her gaze stray to Odin.

“Have you slept?” she asked quietly.

“A little,” replied Frigga. “The council did not disband until a few hours ago. When we returned, I must have drifted off but there is so much to arrange…” Frigga paused, twisting her fingers together in her lap. “I would rather return to Asgard as soon as we are able.”

“I’m sure you can go whenever you like.”

Frigga’s smile was wistful. “I would like to say goodbye to the people I have come to know properly. But I believe I shall be able to do that quickly. When I am home, I shall rest.”

“You will accompany us, of course,” Thor said, only his cadence suggesting he was asking Darcy rather than commanding her.

“I—I will?”

“Yes. Jane will need a companion when I am too busy with preparations, and Mother told me she has already promised you a chance to really see Asgard.”

“I know, she did that, but—”

“But you did not expect me to honor it,” he finished, kindly. “It is the least I can offer you, Darcy, after the way I have treated you of late.”

“Are you sure?” Her words sounded tiny, even to her own ears.

“Very. I have had sense talked into me by the fiercest women I know. And beyond that, the events of the last day have changed me. It seems to become a regular thing, that I am forged anew by circumstance and hardship, but I hope this is a change which will bode well for the throne I will be claiming.” He glanced at the bed, where his father lay. “For a long time, I have felt numb—as frozen inside as I was when you turned your Casket on me, Loki. All I was capable of feeling was anger, which was hot enough to melt to the chill away, at least for a little while. But now, I am feeling again. It is not pleasant, not at this moment, but it gives me hope that I shall feel happiness again.”

“I’m sure you will,” Darcy said earnestly. “You’ll finally get your coronation, right?”

“I will, and I want you to be there for it.”

Darcy was pretty sure she had emotional whiplash, but she’d take it. She managed a tentative, watery smile.

“And Loki—” Thor continued, “brother, I intend to plead for clemency when you are tried again.”

If he was hoping for relief, and gratefulness from Loki, he’d misjudged. Instead, Loki went stiff beside Darcy.

“How can you say that?” he spat, his face had contorted into a snarl. “If it weren’t for me, none of us would be here. My choices, my actions—leading you to Jotunheim, having you cast out—this is what it led to.” He gestured towards the bed. “All because I was a brittle, pathetic wretch who craved his attention. But now I’ll never have that, nor his forgiveness.”

“But you had his love. No matter what,” Frigga replied softly.

Loki scoffed.

“It’s true,” said Thor. “I have no doubt our father hoped you would find a way to earn his forgiveness. Nevertheless—you have mine.”

“No.” Loki turned away, spinning so he had his back to them, and his voice quavered as he spoke. “You mustn’t.” 

“I must. If I only have a mortal lifespan left with my brother, then I will not waste it hating you.”

“You should hate me.” The words were so soft they were barely audible.

“I won’t.”

“And you cannot shoulder all of the blame,” said Frigga. “The Tesseract was here on Midgard all those years, and Thanos knew that. One way or the other, we would have needed to defend this realm and all others. A battle was inevitable.”

“Father’s death was not.” Loki turned to face them again, though his fists were balled at his side, his stance remaining defiant.

“No. But I kept secrets, and I tried to push you towards the future I wanted for you, which set this all in motion. Am I not as culpable?” It was clear from her face that she believed she was.

“What has happened cannot be undone,” said Thor. “I would rather cherish the family I have left, instead of letting us tear ourselves and each other apart through fractiousness and regrets.”

Loki’s eyes glittered, though he didn’t let the tears fall. “I once mocked you for your lack of wisdom, and yet now it appears you were the wisest of us all along.”

Thor smiled, then went back to being sombre. “I cannot make any promises about the fate which awaits you. It has already been agreed that you may never return to Midgard, on the understanding you will be judged under Asgardian law instead.”

That jolted Darcy. Once they went back to Asgard, Loki would never come back. And yet Hela had seemed very clear that they were both in her life. How was that even possible unless Darcy abandoned Earth as well? For a man she still held so little affection for?

“I understand,” Loki replied. 

“Well, the other inhabitants will be rising soon,” said Frigga. “Time to make ourselves presentable, and then do what we must.”


 Returning the Asgardian contingent from whence it came turned out to be as big a strategic mission as the battle they’d fought in. Using the helipad on Stark Tower wasn’t feasible, especially not with Tony getting antsy about so many people to-ing and fro-ing close to his penthouse, even if the army was currently shacked up in the empty quarters of the tower. They refused to go anywhere until their fallen king returned home, though plenty of them were enjoying the spoils of victory in a jubilant Manhattan. The comrades they’d lost were also kept in the tower, waiting to be ferried home and reunited with the families they’d left behind.

SHIELD commandeered an old airstrip outside the city to house the new portal in, and setting it up required astrophysicists. Astrophysicists required assistants. Darcy was the woman for the job: no one could deal with the idiosyncrasies of Jane and Erik quite like she could. They got offered more hands, they got offered more brains (specifically, Tony’s), and they got offered more equipment, but they worked best with what they’d always known.

 Darcy didn’t have much time to think or brood; it was like old times, for a few precious days—the three of them cobbling together a semi-permanent portal with parts from the upstate facility, and chunks from the device they’d used on the helipad. 

The weather wasn’t as nice as it had been those months in New Mexico, and the addition of Men In Black rejects watching their every move dampened the mood a little, but it was a thrill to have something to work on without the impending threat of the world ending being the primary motivation. And being in the vast aircraft hanger, practically alone, put Darcy in a better mood than she had been in a long time. No pressure, no looming catastrophe, only work and endless tubs of Red Vines. 

Things improved further when Nat replaced the suits as their primary security detail. She was off Fury’s shit-list and back on duty, which meant she spent almost as much time stopping Jane from electrocuting herself as Darcy did.

Darcy didn’t know where Loki was. With his family, she hoped. They wouldn’t have time to grieve together once they got back to Asgard, not with all the pomp and circumstance she’d got wind of. A state funeral, a state coronation…and probably a state trial. 

That thought became more sober at the first whirling surge of power from the new portal, a shimmering chunk of the air churning between the metal posts they’d set up wide enough to pass a truck through. They’d done it, but even as she and Jane exchanged high-fives, they knew they stood at a threshold in every sense of the word. They could cross to Asgard, but whether they stayed there or came home, their lives would never be the same. Though wherever she went, Jane was determined to claim the Nobel Prize she was entitled to. 

“No one’s pulling a Rosalind Franklin on me,” she vowed.

The first time Darcy saw Loki again, or indeed any of the Asgardian royal family, was on the day they departed. She and Jane had been outfitted in chic black ensembles, designers falling over themselves to dress anyone associated with the event. They waited in the hanger, watching it all unfold on live television: a massive procession out of Stark Tower, weaving through Manhattan, then the outer boroughs, and towards their semi-secret location. Just about every horse from the tristate area—and beyond—had been borrowed to allow the warriors to ride, though some had taken Chitauri speeders and refurbished them to shining glory instead, replete with new runes and chrome modifications. Better to carry the bodies of their lost brethren home on.

People lined the roads, holding out flowers and gifts for the ones they saw as their saviors. Many of the Asgardian soldiers took teddy bears and bouquets with open delight. Darcy supposed they didn’t have stuffed animals in Asgard.

Odin lay at the head of the procession in a covered litter which kept him shrouded from the world—especially from the helicopters competing for space above. Fandral commanded the horses pulling the coach. Thor and Frigga rode behind on matching white mounts, their faces somber and effortlessly regal. Between them, Loki steered mighty Sleipnir with a blank expression—all in black on his equally dark steed, though nothing hid the cuffs binding his hands and ankles and linking him to his brother. He had the freedom to steer Sleipnir but not to flee. Not that he’d get the chance—Hodun, Volstagg, and Sif were close behind, grim-faced and alert.

The procession reached the hanger, the first place out of public view where even the helicopters couldn’t peek into. They entered through one end and rode into the portal, which would spit them out the other side. It was already up and running, its stable thrum now controlled by SHIELD scientists, with Jane and Darcy waiting with their heads bowed respectfully at the approach. 

Erik was long gone. He didn’t want to get anywhere near Asgard or its royal family again.

The litter passed through without a hitch, and Darcy felt Jane sag with relief beside her. Then they glanced up to watch the rest of the family pass—and Darcy caught Loki’s gaze, his attention on her in the moments before they breached the barrier. What she was meant to read in his eyes, she had no idea, beyond the shuttered grief and despair.

The pair of them weren’t traveling on horseback—to Darcy’s relief—and were beckoned into one of the open-roofed carriages carrying the chosen ambassadors of Earth. It meant they found themselves sharing with the Avengers, and she couldn’t imagine more comfortable company for these weird next few moments.

“You’ve been to Asgard?” Steve prompted her. “What’s it like?” 

“Golden,” was all she could think of, right before the pressure in her ears grew fiercest and they slipped into the tunnel through space. The universe streaked past them in streams of blurred light, before it all came to an abrupt halt and they tipped out onto the Bifrost, the shining city in front of them.

“Oh my,” Jane murmured beside her, and Darcy understood the feeling. Asgard in the day was completely different to the shadowed, hushed city she’d experienced a few nights ago.

She knelt in her seat for a better view at all the glittering, golden towers—the palace still the most visible and most prominent. The Bifrost was empty except for the procession, but far ahead as it turned from bridge to road she could see the crowds lining the route towards Odin’s resting place. Word had already spread courtesy of Heimdall, so this wasn’t the shocking blow it might have been immediately following the battle, but Darcy suspected hearing it and seeing the evidence were two different things.

Tony was uncharacteristically quiet in his seat, though his appraising gaze suggested he’d be asking to speak to the local architects for ideas. Between his hands, he carried the Tesseract in its little cage.

Not the real Tesseract, of course. That was somewhere on Earth, buried somewhere only Tony knew, deposited there in his flight suit. Few people knew that, though, the illusion crafted by Frigga and Loki standing up to scrutiny. As far as the universe was going to be concerned, the Tesseract had been returned to the weapons vault in Asgard, under Thor’s protection. No one would come knocking on humanity’s door for it any time soon.

Up ahead, Darcy had a good view of horse’s tails, and the stiff postures of the royals. Water surrounded the bridge, small islands breaking the surface here and there, but the city itself crowned cliff-tops at the end of the Bifrost. Somehow, the bridge shone even despite the sunlight, in a way that wasn’t just reflecting it, but gleaming from itself. They moved at a decent pace, passing onto land within minutes, where the population lined the streets, many straining for a first glimpse of the safe return of their loved ones.

The atmosphere in Asgard couldn’t be more different to the world they’d left behind. The city was whole, unlike the battering Manhattan had taken, but the crowds were as ashen-faced and weary as if they’d lived through a battle themselves. Though there were no open tears, only bowed heads for the procession as it passed by, and more than a little curiosity at the Midgardians among its number. That would probably change as the full swell of the warriors passed by and the identities of the dead became known.

They went straight to the palace, ushered out of the carriage and into what had to be the throne room. It was a vast space, matched only by the ancient cathedrals Darcy had seen on her travels, with a full wall given over to rising as steps towards a dais. Columns rose around them, disappearing above to hold up the roof so far away she could barely see it, with the lamps aimed at shrouding it in darkness and casting the light downward. The rear wall didn’t exist at all, open to the rest of the city, and a path led all the way to the throne, with an almond-shaped area of the polished floor empty and cordoned off. Odin’s litter was placed carefully in the center of that space, the fabric covering him removed so he lay open to the room. 

 No one sat on the throne, though Frigga was already ascending those steps, gown trailing behind her. Someone had fetched a crown for her because it now adorned her head, and when she reached the top she turned to face the hall, her head dipped towards her husband. The two princes knelt at the foot of the steps, bodies turned so they were still half-facing their father.

Darcy’s party was brought to stand with the warriors three and Sif, at the edge of the cordon, and around them the rest of the warriors returned, filling out the hall, while other people filtered in from the city as well. This was the cream of Asgardian society, judging by all the finery on display. All was quiet and orderly, though the first sobs could be heard at the edges of the crowd. How many families had lost somebody in New York? More Asgardians had died than humans, in the end.

Darcy shuffled nervously, this close to Sif. They hadn’t seen each other since Darcy’s arrest and she half-worried that she’d end up with a dagger at her throat, but instead Sif offered a gracious nod of her head.

“I must offer my respect,” she said, and there wasn’t a note in her husky voice which suggested she was doing so begrudgingly. “To have walked into the realm of Death herself and emerged unscathed is a noble feat indeed.”

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Darcy replied with a wry smile. She wasn’t sure how much respect she’d earned when she’d had no idea where she was going at the time, but she’d take this warmth from Sif over continued hostility any time. The warrior woman reached out her hand for Darcy’s, clasping it in an approximation of a hand shake, before they returned their attention to the proceedings.

The crowd kept coming, but Frigga wouldn’t stand there forever, no matter how much it seemed like she had turned into a statue, carved into a impression of endless grace and patience. Instead, once all the warriors were in the hall and only civilians were the new entrants, she raised her chin. Darcy could see the faint pathway of tears on her cheeks, but it wasn’t audible in her voice when she spoke.

“The king is dead. Long live the king.”

“Long live the king!” Everyone echoed that last phrase back to her—everyone except Thor, who rose to his feet and turned to face the crowd fully. It looked like he had the weight of the world on those shoulders. Multiple worlds. If anyone could bear it, Thor was the most capable, but it was a lot to face. He’d need a good support structure around him.

This wasn’t the funeral; that would take place under cover of darkness in a few days time. For now, Odin would lie in state, allowing his people to pay their respects one last time. Frigga left the dais and her sons followed her, through some side door into their own personal world. Darcy found herself watching Jane watching them leave. So much was up in the air now that Thor was king, and Darcy hadn’t been the only one burying herself in their work over the last few days. Poor Jane might be facing a final separation from Thor.

 Tony departed with some of the warriors down the vault, to put the ‘Tesseract’ back where it came from, while the rest of their group was rounded up by attendants and taken to the quarters they’d be using during their stay. It turned out to amount to a wing of the palace, interconnecting suites with incredible vistas over the grounds and water. The crowds still thronged the streets, leaving Darcy with little desire to go out and explore. Instead, she sat cuddled with Jane on a little balconette, basking in the sunshine and marveling over the details of the city together.

“The amount of energy required to keep it up like that,” Jane said of one of the floating buildings. “And it has to be just because they can—there’s no real purpose to it being above ground level like that. It’s impractical to get in and out of, and it still has a footprint, so they haven’t gained any extra space from doing that.”

“Does Tony have Asgardian cousins? That’s the kind of thing he’d do—build something to prove he could.”

There was a knock at the door, then one of the attendants sweeping inside. “His Majesty the king,” he announced with a low bow.

Darcy shared a startled glance with Jane. Neither had expected to see Thor so soon. They scrambled to their feet but had no idea whether to bow or not, both doing an awkward shuffle until Thor strode towards them with a broad smile. “Sit, please, there is no need to stand on my count.”

Darcy wanted to do that, but once glimpse of the nerves on Jane’s face told her she needed to give them space. “Actually, I think I might go check out my own rooms. Apparently you’ve got the fanciest plumbing going and it’ll take me at least an hour to work out how to get the shower going.”

“Will you seek Loki?” Thor asked, and Darcy blinked at him in confusion. The thought hadn’t even occurred to her. “He is confined to his quarters, with guards at every entrance and countermeasures in place to stop him leaving by magical means. Though he has promised me he will not try to.”

“No, I don’t think he will.” She shrugged. “But I’m not going to go looking for him.”

Instead, she spent the afternoon in the company of the Avengers; the little band of fighters she’d spent all those months in hiding with. They picked at the spread of food which had been laid out for them, reminiscing over their months in the facility now they had better lodgings, and catching up on the threads of their lives while they’d been separated. Darcy haltingly recounted her escape with Loki and the other worlds she’d seen. This time, they offered only comfort, not judgment, though she suspected Nat’s persistent stink-eye in their direction had some hand in that.

When she returned to Jane’s room, her friend was crying tears of happiness. Thor had vowed his commitment to her, mortal lifespan or not. With the Bifrost repaired she’d be able to come and go between the worlds as she pleased.

The next day, and the one after that, they explored the realm, wandering until Darcy thought her feet were going to drop off. More than anything it felt like she was wandering through a dream, rather than the waking world. Sometimes as they left the palace, or drew close to it, she thought she could feel a gaze on her from one of the towers, but when she sought it she couldn’t find whoever it belonged to among all the windows.

On the third night Odin’s funeral was held: a sombre gathering of the crowds at the edge of the city, as he was dispatched over the waterfalls in a flaming vessel. It was a moving ceremony, especially the lanterns everyone let drift into the sky as his casket disappeared among the foam of the water. Then a city-wide feast was held, with the Avengers and company as guests of honor in the palace’s banqueting hall.

Decisions had been made in the past few days. It would take some time for Thor’s coronation to be arranged, though he was already king in name. As for Loki, he would be tried—a proper trial this time, instead of a swift judgment from Odin. Thor had decided he owed it to his brother, for the good and bad he’d done since Thor was banished to Earth. Someone else would look at the balance of his deeds and decide on the appropriate punishment.

Only as Darcy walked back to her rooms, in the stillness of an early hour, was she approached by Frigga.

“My son wishes to speak with you.”

Darcy knew Frigga didn’t refer to Thor. They’d healed that rift already.

“I don’t know what else there is to say.”

“There is goodbye, at least.”

Frigga was right. She owed him that. Darcy trailed the queen through the palace to what had to be the royal wing, judging by the increase in gilt—and the areas she’d already seen weren’t exactly lacking in it. Darcy worried she was being taken to Loki’s own rooms, but instead Frigga led her out into a sheltered garden, to a secluded bench under the shade of an immense oak tree. The garden was actually on a balcony or terrace, because the land dropped away not far from the bench, but there were no other balconies with a view over the area. It was private, with only one entrance, no doubt designed for the royals to have some outside space away from the watchful eyes of their subjects. In the darkness the night wrapped around them like a cloak of shadow, making it feel even more cloistered.

Loki waited for her under the boughs of the tree, chained as he’d been during the procession, and when Darcy turned to say something to Frigga she found they were already alone. Darcy ignored the bench just like Loki was and instead took up a stance on the other side of it, staring out at the Bifrost in the distance.

“You’ve heard I’m to be tried,” he began. It was a neutral statement, his voice and body carefully measured so she couldn’t read him.

“I have. By Norns, whatever they are.”

Loki made a non-committal motion with his hands. “They’re as fair as any judge can be. They’re not interested in justice so much as the truth, and the balance of ones deeds.”

Now that could get interesting. But it would be rude to point out to a consummate liar that he might not fair well in front of that sort of judge. “And a death sentence is off the table, so I’ve been told. It could be worse.”

“You’ll be returning to Midgard, of course.” And here was the first sign of real…anything from him. Interest, concern, something that wasn’t his practiced air of aloofness.

“Yep.” There was no point fluffing around it. She’d enjoyed her time in Asgard but there was nothing keeping her here—not even Jane. Loki’s distance made it easy to cut that cord and walk away.

“You will not think more on my offer of courtship?” Was that a crack in his voice?

“No.”

Frigga had never confirmed if the future was determined or not, though she had once called the mirror vision “a possibility”. And after all this time in her company, Darcy thought she understood better about Frigga’s own magic and her ways of manipulation. Loki was her son, in ways few people would ever fully comprehend: they couldn’t see past Frigga’s regal air and calm demeanor. She was the source of his ruthless streak, even if she wielded it in other ways, and knew Loki in ways he probably didn’t even understand himself. So when she showed him that vision, she’d picked what he’d respond to, what she knew would stir him, even if he thought it was for different reasons. The glass had reflected his deepest wishes—it had reflected what he wanted to see in it.

Sometimes a mirror was just a mirror, more or less.

When he turned to face her, she gasped at the expression on his face. The mask hadn’t just slipped—he’d torn it off completely, so for the first time she saw him, raw and open and naked in his desperation. He was black and white in the darkness, and it highlighted the lines of his face, bringing out the starkness of his feelings.

“After everything, you would walk away from this?” It was even in his voice, the strain and the despair.

She took a deep breath, sinking onto the bench so she didn’t have to look him in the eye. It took everything not to squirm in the presence of all that exposed emotion, and to focus on gathering the words she needed to say to him.

“My dad always said that the root of a good relationship is trust. Doesn’t matter what kind: love, friendship, business—if you don’t trust each other, it won’t work.” She paused, glancing up to make sure he was listening, before looking away just as quickly. “I don’t trust you. I can’t trust you. You bury what you’re feeling so far down that I’m not sure you really understand it—maybe Mistress Death got a good sense for it when she went rummaging around in your head, but I don’t have that ability. Worse, you don’t trust anyone, least of me. How am I supposed to know where I stand when you won’t ever risk letting me know?”

“There were things at stake,” he rasped. “There have always been things at stake before. Not anymore.”

“Then maybe it’s a little too late. You’ve spent months doing nothing except hinting and then covering it up by insulting me. You know what I want? I want something peaceful, and solid, with somebody who respects me.”

“You don’t think that’s me.”

She huffed sharply. “None of that describes what we’ve been through. And I can’t deal with a relationship that’s just about intensity. You know what Thor used to say your best quality was? Your sense of humor. But you’ve never made me laugh. Not once, not because something you said or did was actually funny.”

It was such a cliche, that requirement from the old lonely hearts: good sense of humor. Yet Darcy understood why people placed such value in it. Laughter would go a long way to make anyone’s company bearable. Whereas Loki…he made her feel things, alright. Confusion, attraction, occasional terror, consternation, but few emotions she could classify as positive.

“That’s fair,” he acknowledged, and she thought he was creeping back into his shell, drawing the shattered pieces of it around him to hide away from her once more. It didn’t matter if she was leaving—she accepted his need for emotional armor around everyone else. “I suspect the work I would need to do to win your hand would take the rest of my life. Making you laugh, I am reasonably sure I can accomplish, but making you feel safe, earning your trust, learning to trust—these are not easy at all. However, no one has ever accused me of backing down from a challenge.”

She felt him take the bench next to her, and that motion brought her full attention back to him. He sat, face dipped towards hers, with the most earnest expression she’d ever seen on him. Her breath caught in her throat.

“I will admit that I’m willing to use every skill I possess, every dirty trick I know. I’ve never been particularly interested in playing fair.” His lips twisted in an uncharacteristic show of self-deprecation. “But perhaps the best place to start is in placing my trust in you. If I show you my heart, and everything I am, you can do it with it what you will.”

He held out a hand towards her, resting, upturned, between them.

She shook her head. “What—”

“Take it, and I’ll give you the ability to rummage around just like Mistress Death. For a moment or two only, but that ought to be enough to begin with.”

“I don’t think—”

“Don’t.” He leaned in ever closer, so his breath ghosted over her skin. “Don’t think. For once I am offering you power over me, power I will never offer to another living being. Feel what I feel, and then use it to crush me, if you choose.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” she protested, and he inclined his head, a nod. Yes, I know. See? I trust you. 

When his pleading gaze didn’t lighten, and his hand didn’t move, she did as he asked, and she took it.

The effect wasn’t sudden. It wasn’t the falling motion of Mistress Death ripping into her thoughts and taking what she wanted, smashing them together. Instead, it was closer to them being two drops of ink dropped into the same pot, slowly blending together. She opened to him, and he opened to her, and then she was within him, feeling what he felt. 

For the first breath, it was fine. Intense and unsteadying, but under control. Then it swelled up, until there was too much for her to contain. Too hot—bruising and feral, a wave of desperate longing and the violent eddy of unrequited emotions. There was a note of tenderness underneath it all, but the torment swallowed too much attention, writhing in the pit of her stomach and deep within her chest like she was bleeding deep within.  Ferocious enough to knock the breath from her lungs.

She jerked away from his touch, pulse pounding, heart in her throat.

“You see?” he asked, his voice low enough that it crept along her like she was still buried in his emotions. “Nobody will ever love you like I love you.”

She turned to him with wide eyes, still fighting to control her breath, and he met her stare with the same vulnerability. He loved her. Somewhere along the way, in his pursuit of her and despite the way he guarded his heart, he really had fallen in love. She’d had no idea—Mistress Death’s casual hints didn’t come close to feeling it like that. It wasn’t a simple love, either, but one built from layers that went bone deep, uglier strands of possessiveness warring with softer tendencies. 

Some of that pain she’d felt wasn’t about her at all, echoes of the torture he’d suffered at Thanos’ hands bitter on her tongue, but most of what he’d revealed was about her. Except he wasn’t triumphing in revealing this to her; instead her own dismay was now reflected back at her.

When he spoke he was despondent, as if in bearing himself to her had made him examine his emotions and he’d not liked what he’d found. “My love is not a noble thing. It is untamed, and fierce, and searing.”

“I know.” It still rang through her blood—how could she not know?

He reached up to cup her face and she flinched, expecting to be pulled back into that boiling morass once more, but it was only skin on skin. He rested his forehead against hers but did not close his eyes, even while she let hers drift shut, still too raw to hold his stare. Moments passed, time measured in heartbeats and heavy breaths, until he spoke again. Darcy forced herself to look at him as he did.

 “No one should have to suffer such a love,” he decided, as determined as she’d ever heard him, “but I can bear it well on my own, and I would not want to inflict its worst excesses on you. For that reason—” He sighed, a brittle, shattered sound. “You should go. It is the only act of tenderness I fear I am capable of: to let you walk away and be happy away from me, when I cannot guarantee you anything of the sort with me.”

He withdrew his hands and slipped away from her, resuming his place in the shade of the tree, while she blinked at the space between them. It was as good an offer as she was going to get—the one time Loki had agreed to let her go since they’d met, and she was sure he’d change his mind before she actually set foot on the Bifrost, even if it would be too late to do anything about it.

She should seize this chance while she had it. Run from Asgard and never look back. 

So why wasn’t she moving from this bench?

Because even with the space he’d put between them, the intensity of what she’d felt within him hadn’t ebbed away. She’d felt his loneliness, the deep ache inside of him, twice. Before, when Mistress Death had laid bare the worst of his life, and now, as Darcy had brushed past the little boy he’d been, so different to everyone else in his world, so distant even to the brother he adored. That little boy still lurked within the man, even if that man had every right to expect lifelong isolation from this point forwards. She couldn’t abandon either of them. Not yet.

She lifted her chin and spoke carefully. “Someone needs to vouch for you in front of the Norns. If it’s about the balance of your deeds, they need to know the best of you.”

He turned, surprise glinting across his features. “That’s more than I have any right to ask of you.”

“You aren’t asking. I’m offering it.” With his growing, tentative smile, she grew in the knowledge that this was the right thing to do. “I will stay.”

Chapter Text

Nothing was as unnerving as facing three cloaked, faceless figures who were about to measure the worth of your soul.

Darcy couldn’t help the way she was sweating into her patent pumps, not while she was stood awaiting whatever it was the Norns were going to do. All she’d heard was that ambiguous statement about her soul, and then been shoved up onto the podium in front of them. It was like an entire panel made from Mistress Death’s equally creepy cousins—even their voices had that eerie bone-across-rock effect. The chamber itself didn’t help, a dark courtroom at the base of the palace which appeared to have been carved directly out of bedrock and furnished very simply with benches for the witnesses

“Darcy of Midgard,” they intoned as one, and Darcy bit her lip to control her shudder while she nodded in agreement that, yes, that’s who she was. “You stand before us to today to speak your truth about Loki, prince of this realm, on the matter of treason and invasion. First we must judge the worth of your words.”

Darcy nodded again, aware that her eyes were probably wide enough to show the whites all the way around. 

“Then we will begin.”

Nothing happened at first. Darcy stood there for a full minute, wondering if it was impolite to step out of the shoes which were already making her calves ache, before she registered the low buzz. She turned her head to find the source of it and noticed the air shimmering around the podium, warping out of focus like she had streaks of dirt on her glasses—except she was wearing contacts. Bands of light writhed around her and she yipped, searching the chamber for the reassuring gaze of Frigga.

Frigga was sat in the front row of those witnessing the trial and she gave Darcy an encouraging smile, though it didn’t make Darcy feel anymore calm. This probably wasn’t meant to hurt, but what if the average Asgardian could cope with was vastly different to what Darcy had the tolerance for?

The bands contracted, whipping across her skin, and she yelped again. Later she’d be ashamed, especially since the only effect was a faint tingling that might have been pleasant if she’d been expecting it. Then they constricted further, biting into her, and though she kept silent out of shock, it definitely earned a cry or two. Was this what being electrocuted felt like? But the lights had already passed through her and now emerged on the other side, massing beside the podium to create a Darcy-shaped illusion in the air of flickering orbs. They flashed orange, then evaporated. 

She had no idea what that meant, and when she twisted to look at Frigga again didn’t get much of a reading from her either. Was orange good? Bad? Was that the testing even done, or was there more weirdness to come?

It turned out that was the testing over, and the Norns didn’t seem bothered about elaborating on the result of the test. Instead, they got right down to it.

“Tell us of your dealings with Loki.”

“All of them?” she asked. “I thought there would be specific questions—”

“Tell us all of it, and we will determine what is relevant and what we must discard.”

“O-okay.” She glanced around the chamber, aware of the number of witnesses, and began her story in halting, rambling detail. Some parts she skipped over and others she felt she needed to elaborate on, those shadowed voids under the hoods not giving her much of a response to gauge how well she was doing. Did they want more detail, or were they getting bored? Water was brought for her to sip as she spoke, and the hours passed as she spun her tale. She got to the point of kicking of her shoes early on, bad manners or not, and only really faltered when it came to explaining what she’d seen in Loki’s head when they were in Death’s realm.

At the end of it, the Norns spoke as one again. “Thank you, Darcy of Midgard. Your testimony will be considered when the time comes.”

It was a dismissal if she’d ever heard one. She slipped her shoes back on and hobbled down in the direction of Frigga.

The dowager queen was the only face she recognized in the Norns’ chamber—Thor couldn’t attend, too busy with his new duties, and everyone from Earth had already gone home, taking the borrowed horses with them. Even Jane had returned to make sure the new portal was calibrated and functioning stably. 

“Was that alright?” Darcy asked as Frigga took her arm and led her out of the chamber.

“I don’t see why not. I think the orange is a good signal and that means your words will carry some weight with them.”

“You think? You mean you don’t know?”

 “The Norns are, quite literally, a law unto themselves. We don’t question their ways and trust that they will get to the truth. They always do. But to my ears it seemed you told the full story, good and bad, and that is likely to mean more to them than if you had only tried to focus on the good.”

“Except I’m sure everyone is going to focus on the bad,” Darcy grumbled.

“Perhaps they will. Perhaps the Norns will look at their souls and discount their words. We can only wait and see.”

The trial was expected to take weeks, if not months. Anyone who wanted to say their piece on Loki could stand in front of the Norns, and that fact had been advertised across the realms, so there were prospective witnesses from both Asgard and Earth, and likely further afield. Even Fury had been…was subpoenaed the right word? He’d definitely been summoned as a key representative of Earth. Thor would speak later, though Frigga had opted not to testify on Loki’s behalf, since to do so was in conflict with her position of trust within the realm. Thor would speak the good and the bad of it like Darcy had, but Frigga was too driven by maternal instinct to say a bad word against her youngest, and that would sour her subject’s opinion of her.

Loki himself would go last. After hearing everyone’s accusations and recollections, he would be able to spend several days justifying what he’d done. Darcy wondered what color his lights would be.

Darcy was glad her part was over, if nothing else. She wouldn’t be recalled, and there was no cross-examination, so she could wait for the judgment. In the meantime she’d be accompanying Fury home after he’d delivered his own testimony the next day. She could have stuck around to watch the whole thing, but what would she really learn from that? She needed to get back to her old life and start rebuilding it.

“Has Director Fury arrived?” Darcy asked Frigga as they reached the upper levels of the palace, where the living quarters were. 

“Yes, some hours ago. He declined a tour of the kingdom or to dine with us.”

“Don’t take it personally,” said Darcy. “He’s a suspicious guy. He’ll want to test all the food for poison.”

“Such is the spy’s lot.”

They swept into the room Frigga preferred to dine in, with its vastly smaller table than the banqueting hall, and sweeping vistas over the city.

“Do I hear Fury is in Asgard?” said Loki from behind them, and for the third or fourth time that day Darcy yelped.

“Loki!” Frigga admonished. “You are meant to be in your quarters until the judgment is delivered.”

“These are the royal quarters, are they not, mother?” Loki took a place at the table. “And if I am confined any longer I fear I will be compelled to break out just for the entertainment of it. Ah, roast swine! My favorite—although have you considered that Darcy cannot eat it?”

That made Darcy falter in taking her own seat, and Frigga to raise a questioning eyebrow in her direction. 

“He’s right,” she conceded. “I don’t know how he’s right, but he’s right.”

“That and shellfish,” Loki agreed with a nod. “I’ll draw up a full list.”

“But I can eat all this other stuff, it’s fine,” Darcy said, grabbing a plate and beginning to fill it. She was still thrown that Loki somehow knew that pig wasn’t kosher, when this had never come up in all their time on Plum Island. Then again—had there ever been problems with the food there? She cast her mind back but couldn’t remember him ever serving anything she wouldn’t eat.

He watched her puzzle over this, and the smile he wore was less self-satisfied than she might have expected. But it meant that he really had paid attention to the details of her life, all those months ago.

“But back to the subject of the suspicious old director,” he continued, “I was wondering if perhaps we should offer him father’s collection of eyepatches. They’re rather more decorative than his own.”

Darcy couldn’t help it. Between Frigga’s exasperated tut and Loki’s butter-wouldn’t-melt expression at the suggestion, she snorted. And that snort became giggles. Later she’d blame relief at her part in the trial being over, rather than Loki’s joke actually being worthy of so much laughter, but it felt good to let loose and giggle all the same.

If she expected self-satisfaction from Loki this time, she was further disappointed at the soft, awed look on his face instead. When she caught his eye, she looked away, amazed to find herself blushing. 

“As if I needed any incentive to make you laugh as often as possible,” he murmured, “I have certainly found it.”

Frigga cleared her throat and the conversation moved along while Darcy scarfed her food down as politely as she could manage. It had been a stressful day and the palace cooks were phenomenal at their jobs.

Only at the end did Loki’s side of the conversation turn more sober.

“I know Fury speaks tomorrow,” he said, “and I’m sure this will be seen as influencing him unduly—but politics are politics and if any man understands that, he does. I would speak with him tonight. I have information of value to him.”

Frigga and Darcy exchanged curious looks. “What kind of information?” Frigga asked cautiously.

“The kind I know he will want to hear.”

“Very well.” Frigga considered this for a moment. “I will arrange an audience in your brother’s presence within the hour.”

Darcy was torn between wanting to know what the information was, and leaving Asgard behind in blissful ignorance. Frigga decided for her, keeping her talking after dinner until it was time to meet in the antechamber near the throne room that Thor liked to use for these sort of meetings. 

If Fury was surprised when Loki showed his face, he was better at concealing his feelings than even Loki was. Instead, he rolled his eye when Thor gestured for Loki to come forth, and his stance didn’t change, though Darcy was sure the way he grasped his hands behind his back was to make it easier to get to any weapons he had on him.

“I should’ve known,” he groused. 

Loki raised his hands in fake surrender. “I am not here to continue our hostilities. I merely wish to crystallize something I’m sure you already have your suspicions about.”

Fury’s eye narrowed. “I’m interested. What’s the catch?”

“No catch. It is not within my power or yours to prevent you from speaking before the Norns. But perhaps this will niggle at my conscience if I do not disclose it, and that would not aid me at all when I have to stand before them.”

“Go on.”

“Do not trust Pierce or his pet project. The rot goes deeper than you fear—right to the core of SHIELD, and beyond. It’s been there from the beginning. The many headed beast infiltrated at the very start.”

The first part seemed to be where Fury’s suspicions already lay, whoever Pierce was. But the second part—that had him shaken. “You can’t mean—”

“I have no idea how embracing Zola was meant to be a wise choice, but there we are. You invited the snakes inside and they made themselves at home.”

Fury considered this. “And here I was hoping to announce my retirement. In that case, I have my own gambit to offer which ought to please one of you more than the other: I don’t think Ms Lewis should return to Earth.”

“What?” Darcy sat bolt upright, though Loki didn’t speak, cocking his head to one side instead.

“I can’t guarantee your safety,” Fury said to her. “Things have shifted while you’ve been in Asgard—it’s going to take some time to smooth them over.”

“I don’t get it—what things?” She was a nobody. Who could be after her now Loki was gone?

“Have you heard of Eva Braun?”

Darcy’s stomach dropped at the comparison. “Of course. But that’s—I’m nothing like her!”

Fury shrugged. “SHIELD aren’t in control of the narrative around you. There’s too much of the story that’s classified for us to clarify what’s out there in the press. The interest in Loki’s trial is intense. People have gone digging and found enough leads to spin their own yarns, whether it’s the truth or not. Nobody knows about what you did to protect Earth, but they will hear that you went first and spoke in Loki’s defense. We’re getting your family into protective custody but if you come home with me tomorrow, I’ll have to put you in witness protection.”

“What does that mean?” Loki asked, his voice low enough to sound dangerous.

“She’ll get a whole new identity and have to make a fresh start. No contact with anyone she knows.”

“What about Jane?” asked Darcy.

“Especially not Doctor Foster. She’s under a lot of scrutiny right now and nothing would give you away faster.”

“So those are my options? I stay here, or I go home and into hiding?”

“For now. But given enough time, we can take back control of the narrative. When it’s safe you can come back. That’s why I think you should stay here. Less strain on my resources, more chance of you actually staying under the radar.”

“I—shit, okay, I’ll think about it. Tomorrow.”

“Give it a couple of days,” Fury advised. “I’m used to debriefings, and I’ve got a lot to say about Loki—I’m going to be talking for some time.”


What Darcy did was closer to wallowing than thinking. She remained in her allocated quarters, even taking her meals there, enjoying the view from the balcony but refusing to step further outside. She didn’t want anybody influencing her decision making, and had a yearning for complete solitude. How long had it been since she’d had that? Months and months—probably since that day she left her little studio apartment in New York behind. Even when she’d been in Loki’s captivity there had been people around, or his own presence lurking to emerge at any moment. Now she had peace and quiet, and as many minutes as she wanted to turn the entire mess over in her head.

She’d assumed, naively, that Sif’s change in attitude to her would be mirrored by anybody else who knew her role in everything that had gone down. Mostly, she’d expected to be overlooked, with the Avengers taking the glory for saving the world again, allowing her to slip back into her old life with minimal fuss. Now that illusion was completely shattered, and it was only just dawning on her that she couldn’t go back. Her life would never be the same. She had to carve a new one, one way or the other.

On the second morning of her wallowing, one of the palace attendants delivered a note from Earth. Darcy recognized Jane’s handwriting straight away—she must have tossed it through the portal while working on it, ready to be plucked out of the air by Heimdall. She smiled as she imagined his expression at being made to play messenger like that.

She took the note to her balcony to read it, tipping her face into the sunshine to absorb some of it before she smoothed the paper out and hunched over to read.

Darcy — Fury was supposed to bring this but somehow “forgot” it. Anyway, I know he’s given you a choice. It’s a bullshit choice and you shouldn’t have to face it. Don’t forget you have all of the Avengers on your side. They know the truth and will speak out for you. Come home and we’ll fight it together.

Her friend’s words should have had a greater impact on Darcy. Sure, she could go back to Earth and face the world. With Stark Industries’ resources on her side, and Stark Tower as her shelter once more, she could weather the storm. 

But she was tired. So tired of it all.

If her options were vitriol on Earth, or the peace and glory of Asgard, she’d happily choose the latter. For now, at least.

She’d made that decision before Loki decided to break into her chambers. She’d been expecting him since she slipped away after Fury’s news, ignoring the pleas of the Asgardian royal family to discuss the issue with them. That it had taken him over a day to actually do it showed a measure of restraint she’d not thought him capable of.

“I come with an offer of my own,” he announced, and instead of being jolted at his presence, she rolled her head back and sighed. 

“I already decided to stay here, you don’t need to try and bribe me.”

“You misunderstand.” He crossed the floor to join her at the table in the sunshine. If anyone saw him on the balcony it would cause alarm, but Darcy suspected this was going to look a lot like she was talking to herself. “My offer is not an enticement to keep you here on Asgard.”

“Oh?” It seemed he did still have the ability to surprise her. “This I gotta hear.”

“You have chosen Asgard because it is the easier path, correct?” She nodded. “Not because you have any great desire to stay here, despite its pretty spires and ample attractions. It is not your home. But to return to Midgard represents too great a battle while you wait for your own kind to turn on you.”

“That about sums it up.”

“I can make them forget your part in all of this.”

“By ‘them’, you mean—”

“Everyone on Midgard, or close enough. I cannot rewrite history, but there are illusions powerful enough to make them forget why they’re interested in Darcy Lewis. You would be able to return home, and you would be safe. Nobody would want to harm you—they’d have no reason to.”

“You could do that?”

“I would have to call in some favors, but yes, I could do it.”

That sounded ominous. She wondered if he meant the kind of favors that led to him walking into Death’s kingdom. “What would it cost you?”

He hesitated. Their gazes locked, his brow furrowing as he considered his answer, and for a moment she was sure he was going to say “you”. She could almost see it forming on his tongue, that one word, that deep slice of honesty. But instead he changed tack, answering the question she’d actually asked. “Nothing that it isn’t worth paying.”

“Loki—”

“I would survive. And with mother’s help, creating the illusion might not even be that bad.” His lightness of tone suggested it was unlikely. It was a big illusion—Darcy might not understand how they worked but she could imagine it would take a lot of power and skill.

“Why would you even do that?” she asked. “I’ve already spoken in front of the Norns.”

His mouth twisted into the closest thing he’d worn to a smirk in a while, but not a true one. This was a distant echo of the real thing, a tired and stilted imitation. “Not everything should be done to curry favor with them. No—guilt is probably the simplest answer. Guilt, and love.”

“You love me so you’re willing to let me go?” She regretted the question as soon as she asked it—she’d felt the weight of his feelings for her, so she had no room to doubt them.

“Yes.” He was so quiet as he undercut her barbed question. “Precisely.”

“Why—do you think that I’ll be so thankful that one day I come back to you?” She kept her own words quiet now. It wasn’t an accusation, or way of throwing the offer back in his face, but a genuine need to dig into his motivations.

“No, Darcy, I don’t expect that at all. I may be a monster, and I may be as addled as they like to paint me, but I’m not a fool. If I did this and you returned to Midgard I would not expect to see you again. Rather, that’s the point. You are better off without me and you cannot be happy with me, it’s as simple as that. It’s time I accepted that truth and let you go where you can find happiness. That is what I want for you, Darcy Lewis. Happiness. With me or without me.”

“Wow.” She sat back in her chair, turning to stare a the city below them again, away from the intensity of his stare. “That’s definitely not what I was expecting.”

He spread his hands elegantly. “I live to surprise.”

“Tell me about it.” She was lost, her original decision now muddied. “I don’t know what to do,” she admitted.

“Take my offer,” he urged, though he rose as he did so. “It’s the only one which makes any kind of sense—let’s bring an end to this. Fury will return to depart at sunset. I trust you will be ready to leave with him.”

When she glanced up, Loki was already gone.


Sunsets on Asgard tended to put the ones on Earth to shame. Their sun wasn’t a distant smudge that disappeared over the horizon, but instead a giant fiery ball which painted the sky in streaks of candle-flame colors. The veil of night, its rich indigo studded with myriad, glittering stars, chased it down over the edge of the water until only starlight remained. It always drew Darcy’s attention to the Bifrost stretching out into that water, ending in the golden orb which would ferry her home.

This sunset, she went down to meet Fury as he made his preparations to leave, in a private stable which opened out onto the Bifrost. A horse—a big chestnut stallion—was saddled up and ready for him, with a smaller mare being brushed down by the grooms. For her, Darcy presumed.

Fury acknowledged her presence with a terse nod but didn’t let his opinion about it known. “Guess you need that horse saddling.”

“Actually, no.” She reached into the deep pocket of the gown she was wearing and retrieved the scrolls she’d brought with her, handing it over. “Can you take these with you?”

They were labeled with the names of the various people she’d set down words for: Jane, Natasha, her parents, her friends… By the end of it she’d almost been proficient with a quill and inkwell. 

“Is this a permanent thing?” Fury inquired, tucking the scrolls discreetly into one of his bags. 

“Probably not. But like you said, it’ll be easier if I wait until things have been smoothed over.”

Fury eyeballed her for a moment, then broke into a grin. “Allow me to savor this moment. Someone’s actually taking my advice! You have no idea how rare that is.”

“Savor it as much as you want. You won’t be seeing me for a while.”

“No offense, but I’m happy about that.”

Darcy left him to return to the royal quarters, but instead of going to her own rooms, she sought out another set. Ones she’d not been in yet.

They weren’t hard to find: the only doors with guards posted outside. They were doing that thing the soldiers in the fuzzy hats did at Buckingham Palace, standing to attention and refusing to be distracted by the world around them. It made it easy for Darcy to slip up to the door and, when she wasn’t challenged, knock on it with a shrug.

The occupant wasn’t expecting visitors, but then, why would he be? Loki’s scowl when he opened the door, obviously expecting an unpleasant summons, melted into soft surprise.

“Is this goodbye?”

“I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying right here on Asgard for the time being.”

His eyes widened. “I don’t understand.”

“Pretty sure that’s my usual line,” she teased. “You need to get your own.” When he didn’t respond beyond blinking at her, she gestured. “Can I come inside? We have an audience.”

He stepped aside to let her through, and the guards didn’t challenge her as she crossed the threshold—they only seemed concerned with keeping Loki inside. Shame they were doing such a poor job of it overall.

Loki closed the door as Darcy took in her surroundings, which seemed to consist of a large, gloomy chamber, lit only by one solitary candle on a desk on the opposite wall. Heavy drapes covered the window and looked like they hadn’t been opened in a long time. Towering doors opened onto other rooms, with this appearing to be a living room and study, lined with bookshelves, and the main furniture in the center being enormous, overstuffed sofas. It wasn’t as neat as she’d expected it to be, with parchment spilling from the desk onto the floor and one chair overturned onto its side.

As if following her gaze, Loki hurried to the chair and righted it. “I wasn’t expecting visitors,” he muttered sheepishly.

She waved it off. “I didn’t give you any warning. Pretty sure you saw my old apartment at its worst.”

“Not at all. It was quite charming, from what I recall. There was so much of your personality in such a small space—it was easy to imagine what kind of person you were.”

That had her curious. “Did I match up to what you’d imagined?” She’d never put much thought into what Loki had been looking for in a partner, but she doubted it was anything like her. Short, clumsy human girl with a tendency to flap her gums before thinking? Probably not his type. Definitely not queen material.

“You surprised me at every turn,” he admitted. “Though the little quirks I thought I would need to polish out of you turned out to be some of your most endearing qualities.”

The line on his forehead—the crease that said he was confused about her presence—hadn’t smoothed out since she’d entered the room.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure I can find something to annoy you with, given enough time.”

“So you are staying?” She’d never heard so much hope crammed into so few words, and his frown deepened as if quelling the hope he felt was physically painful.

“I am. Not permanently, probably, but for now.”

Loki let out a sharp breath, his face smoothing out from his frown and into the cusp of a smile. “Why?”

Darcy was getting restless, hovering on the periphery of the chamber and having this conversation with him from across the room. She crossed to the nearest sofa and plonked herself down on it, gesturing for Loki to sit on the chair he still gripped the back of. He wordlessly obeyed.

“You gave me a lot to think about earlier. I thought I was already pretty solid in my decision, but then you made me change my mind about a half dozen times. In the end, I just thought: what kind of life do I want?”

She paused and forced herself to make eye contact with Loki, who was now hanging on her every word like they were the first sustenance he’d had in days.

“It’s pretty obvious I can’t go back to the life I had before, and that’s not a bad thing. I didn’t really have a plan—I had vague goals which constantly got blindsided by the universe throwing me for a loop. So the best thing for me to do is evaluate what I do want and figure out how to get there. That’s easier here, where I’m disconnected from everything and I’m safe. Hard to make good plans when you’re paranoid.”

She smoothed her hand over the pile on the sofa cushion, a soothing motion that grounded her before she kept going.

“I’m still not sure what kind of career I want, other than I want to make a difference to the world. Working with Jane seems a good bet to make that a reality. Beyond that, I want to be happy. That’s not an easy thing to plan for, but you said something earlier which made me think about that. You told me you can’t make me happy, but we both know that’s not true. We’ve seen it.”

It took him a moment to catch on. “The mirror?”

She nodded. “In that vision, I was happy. You made me happy. So I’d be an idiot to turn my back on that and hope I’ll find that elsewhere.”

“What are you saying?” he asked gently.

“That I’m not just staying here to protect myself. I’m giving you a chance. You asked me twice if you could court me, but I’ve never answered you before. The answer’s yes.”

His smile unfurled like the glow of a sunrise, hope melting into delight and the shining warmth of his unguarded happiness. “You mean that? You will allow me to earn your love?”

She nodded, a little breathless at his open expression. It brought with it the memory of delving into his emotions, staggering under the intensity of his feelings for her.

“I can only repeat my earlier warnings: I will not play fairly. If I have the opportunity to woo you and win your heart I’ll do whatever I must—and I have a millennium of princely manners behind me.”

“I was kind of afraid you were going to say something like that, but you don’t have to try too hard, okay? Just show me why I should like you, why I should trust you—why I might think of you as a good man.”

“That sounds reasonable to me.” His smile didn’t diminish at all. “When can we begin?”

“Now’s as good a time as any. Have you eaten?”

He rose and held his hand out to her. “I shall arrange for a meal to be brought to us at once.” She  placed her hand in his and he brought it to his mouth, pressing a chaste kiss to her knuckles, following it up with a swipe of his thumb. A foreshadowing of those princely manners. “I may not be able to convince you I am a good man yet, but I can spin a good yarn.”


Loki’s trial continued with a long list of witnesses to be called. People came and went from Earth and Darcy mostly hid from them, her continuing presence on Asgard a secret. She learned through Thor, who got his information from Heimdall, that Fury had intimated Darcy had returned to Earth with him and gone into hiding. He threw resources into “keeping her hidden” which were actually a smokescreen from his real focus: rooting out the rot within SHIELD.

Darcy didn’t spend all her time with Loki. She didn’t think it would be healthy, and she also thought Frigga might latch on too hard if she spent more time with her, so instead Darcy looked for other companions to spread her time among. Thor was too busy with his new duties but his old friends were happy to entertain her, at least while they remained oblivious to her tentative thing with Loki.

Sif’s main interests were fighting and war, and Darcy had no interest in getting her ass handed to her by sparring, but the Warriors Three had a more varied regimen of hobbies which included feasting and regaling anyone who would listen with stories of their exploits. Since those stories involved Thor and, by extension, Loki, Darcy was happy to listen. Turned out Loki had got them out of a sticky situation on a regular basis during their younger years.

When they did spend time together, he put his full imagination and power of illusion to entertaining her as best he could within his quarters or hers. She explained the concepts of dates to him: dinner and a movie, watching a show, going out dancing, bowling… He got the concept and went completely over the top, transforming his chamber into an empty theater or a meadow for them to sit and have a picnic in. Half the fun was turning up to see what the illusion was going to be this time.

Though she wouldn’t admit it, she preferred it when there was no illusion at all and they slouched on the sofas, the room drenched in candlelight as she picked through his books and they drifted from random topic to random topic. He tried to teach her to read the runic alphabet so she didn’t have to rely on the illustrations, while she decided it was easier to make up her own narrative from those illustrations.

“Is that a goat? What’s the goat doing? There are so many goats, I don’t get it—is that the only animal your artists know how to draw?”

This evening he’d plied her with incredible pastries, which she ate on a blanket on the floor with her back to the fancy so she wouldn’t get crumbs all over it. Somehow she’d ended between his legs so he could see the book she had spread on her lap, though he held his body stiffly enough that the only place they actually touched was his tentative fingers in her hair. She hummed at the first touch and encouraged him to keep doing it while she tried sounding out the letters.

They’d come a long way from when she was terrified of his presence.

“Hey, that’s Jotunheim,” she said after turning the page. The drawing took up a full page and was an extremely stylized snapshot of the main plateau, looking across it to the temple and the palace. Only, unlike when Darcy had been, both buildings were complete, and the town sprawling in front of them filled the plateau.

“Indeed,” Loki confirmed. “It is a history book, so that likely dates to before the war.”

She studied the drawing. “Is that what you’re trying to return it to?”

“Something like that, yes.”

She twisted and craned her neck to look up at him. “What will happen in your absence?” she asked. “Will there be an uprising—will they know if you’ve been captured or will they—” She stopped abruptly at the glint in Loki’s eyes. “You’ve been visiting, haven’t you?”

He gave a sheepish shrug. “It’s in a fragile state and needs a firm hand to stop it sliding back into the mess it was before.”

He almost had her convinced by his earnestness. “Okay, so someone’s been sneaking out even though they promised not to. Hope you don’t intend to lie to the Norns about that.” She patted the blanket beside her. “It hurts my neck to talk to you like this, you need to come down here.”

If he had any urge to protest he swallowed it, shifting his legs and sliding until he was on the floor beside her, though he kept a respectful few inches between them still. In turn, she resisted her own urge to lean into his body heat, too aware of the importance of not building up his hopes unless she was sure she wasn’t going to smash them later.

“So what’s all this, then?” She pointed at the next illustration.

“Jotun crafts. They always had a good reputation for metalwork and masonry, which allowed them to trade for food with other realms. If you wanted fine jewelry or a well-balanced axe, you commissioned a jotun smith. They also knew their way around leather and furs.”

“Knew? You think that’s been lost?”

Loki sighed. “Laufey was too interested in war—he turned most of the craftspeople towards creating weapons and becoming warriors. Then when he was defeated he had little reason to encourage them to preserve their culture. It rotted for a long time and so much of their population died that I do fear many skills have been forgotten. The one boon is that jotun are so long lived, so there are those around from before the war who remember their old professions.”

“You know,” said Darcy, “if you can rebuild their culture, you’ve actually got a shot at going down in the history books as a good king.”

“Perhaps.” Loki shifted uncomfortably. “Once that’s all I wanted—the chance for a throne of my own—yet the more I’ve thought on the subject, the more I’ve realized I’m happy to cede it.”

Darcy’s head snapped up to study him. “You mean that?”

He nodded. “It’s very different to what one perceives from the outside. I don’t envy Thor at all anymore—and he’s doing a far better job than I ever could. Though I beg you not to tell him that.”

“I think you just handed me some excellent blackmail material,” she grinned. “But seriously, this shows real personal growth. I’m just worried that if you abandon Jotunheim it’ll lose its only chance of getting back to this.” She pointed to the illustration, which featured a heavy torc and studded shield, among other items she couldn’t identify. 

“I don’t plan to—though I hope to find a worthy replacement. Someone who will see the throne not as a burden, but as an opportunity, and not one from which to wage war.”

Darcy turned another page and squinted at the next picture. “What is that?” It looked like a metal barrel with a concave end.

Loki examined the picture. “Malmurstromma. I haven’t seen one of those in eons.”

“That doesn’t tell me what it is.”

“It’s an instrument. You beat it with various implements and it plays a melody as well as a rhythm.”

“Huh. Like a steel drum.”

“If you say so. I have a recording of one somewhere.”

That was something Darcy was still getting used to on Asgard—despite its pseudo-Dark Ages trappings, the technology was actually centuries ahead of that on Earth, so there was a way of listening back to recorded music. Loki had a console which allowed him to summon music—and that really was the best way she could describe it—that filled the room. Now he rose to replace the book on its shelf and did whatever mojo he needed to. 

He was right about the melody and the rhythm, and she was right about the steel drum, though the range of sounds were much broader—some deeper, some tinnier, almost like the bell-like overtone of a guitar harmonic. The first piece he played was brief and only had one drum in it, but the second piece had at least three, the lines overlapping. She went from tapping her toes to rocking up onto her feet, raising her arms to Loki.

“We gotta dance to this. I don’t know how, but we do.”

She expected him to shrink from her command, but instead he unfurled one of those wolfish grins. The room shifted around her, the chamber melting into an open, empty ballroom. She knew this was an illusion and they hadn’t actually moved because her ears weren’t ringing. She grinned at the change and took his hand.

Darcy didn’t know how to dance but Loki did. She learned the Asgardian equivalent of the salsa, or it might have been a waltz. Something that kept them close without being pressed up against each other, and left Darcy giggling every time she stepped on his feet while he gazed down at her fondly. Concentrating on foot placement had her admiring his long legs and the assured movement of his hips, and his cool hands reminded her of the other time she’d felt them on her skin.

If he knew where her mind had drifted to, he said nothing. No matter how much he might yearn for her, he was the ultimate gentleman, throughout out of all their dates. Even if Loki was fond of kissing the back of her hand, he remained respectful of her boundaries in every other way, pressing his suit with his infamous silvertongue instead, dropping compliments until she blushed and stammered. More than anything, she welcomed him opening up to her.

Still more people came and went from Earth. Jane accompanied Erik when it was his turn to speak in front of the Norns, though Jane herself didn’t have anything to say about Loki, since all her injustices were second hand. It was a glorified excuse to see Darcy and Thor again, and now Thor’s coronation was approaching it was important that Jane understood her part in the process. She was going to be his consort, rather than his queen, but she would still have a role in the ceremony.

Thor had begun flexing his muscles as king, making a few changes to the running of the kingdom. He’d assembled his own council of advisers, with some of his father’s allies encouraged into retirement. Frigga had been invited to join the council, for her experience as dowager queen, but she’d opted to retire to her home realm of Vanaheim after the coronation. 

Darcy didn’t understand most of the changes Thor introduced, since they were about taxation and obscure laws within Asgard, but others seemed designed to prove that he was a wise king. That included a contribution to the rebuilding of Jotunheim, on the condition that it was disarmed and had no standing army with which to attacked other realms.

Thor’s biggest decision was the most surprising: after Asgard had finished helping rebuilding the fractured cities of Earth—a concession made in recognition of Loki’s part in it all—they would cease diplomatic contact, rather than attempting to build a rapport between the two realms. Thor and Frigga agreed they’d done enough damage to the more fragile world.

“You’re invoking the prime directive?” was Darcy’s response. “Sure, that makes sense.”

Thor was wise enough not to ask her what she was talking about. Loki ended up getting an in depth lecture about Star Trek, then Star Wars, and then an overview of other beloved sci-fi properties.

Two months after the hearings began, the last witness had spoken: Loki, in his own favor. Darcy didn’t go to witness it, since she’d seen the best and worst in his own head. Though she was curious what color his soul was, she decided she preferred to learn that her own way. He’d spoken for nearly a week, and in the evenings had been withdrawn and restless—he refused company and skulked in his chambers.

Darcy wasn’t sure if the Norns would take some time to deliberate, but that turned out to be a “no”—they were summoned straight down to the verdict the morning after the hearings ended.

Loki took his place on the podium, where he regarded the Norns with the kind of sullen defiance which would make any teenage rebel proud. If this had been his attitude over the last week, it probably hadn’t done him any favors. But the Norns had that same detached air as when Darcy had spoken, unfazed or uncaring.

“Loki, prince of this realm,” they began, “we have over these many hours heard the words of those who would vouch for you, and those you have harmed. Some speakers have been both. We measured the souls of all and distilled the truth from their testimony. We did the same with you, and now, we have reached our decision. It is binding—none may challenge or undermine it. Do you understand?”

“Yes.” He seemed a little less nonchalant now, the way his fingers drummed on the podium belying his nerves.

“You spoke mostly the truth to us. You have done great harm to many and your disregard for the lives of others has tarnished your soul to an alarming degree. Nevertheless—you have suffered great harm of your own. By the time you reached this chamber, your own life force had been diminished to a fraction of its original capacity. We have considered the truth and the balance of what has happened, and decided the following.”

You could have heard a pin drop in the chamber as everyone leaned forwards, holding their breath to await whatever the Norns were going to do say next.

“For the damage you caused to Midgard, you are forever forbidden from returning to that realm.” This was an anticipated proclamation, but one which stung Darcy, though she wasn’t sure why. The Norns continued, “For your treason, you are exiled from Asgard for the duration of your remaining life. You have forfeited your title as prince and all of its privileges. You must be gone by sunset and never return.”

Surprised whispers started around the chamber. Loki didn’t acknowledge any of them. He remained on the podium facing the Norns, perfectly still.

“We would recommend you return to the realm of your birth which is in need of as much repair as your soul. The Casket of Ancient Winters must be returned to your possession, as its rightful owner, as Asgard has no right to it and its removal from that realm has caused much hardship. That is our decision and that is the end of this matter.”

It was a clear dismissal, with the Norns turning their backs on the chamber. People began filing out, the whispers growing louder, while Loki did not move at all.

“Is that better than we hoped?” Darcy murmured to Frigga. 

“Yes, and no,” Frigga replied. “He will face no further imprisonment, but exile does seems harsh.”

“Where will he go? To Jotunheim?”

“Perhaps. He may just come to Vanaheim with me.”

“So long as he does not attempt to sneak back into Asgard,” Thor muttered. “To do so would mean his death.”

“I can’t believe you have to give him back the casket,” said Darcy. “They must believe something has changed to decide it’s safe for him to have it.”

“I agree,” said Frigga. “He will not be tempted to use it for ill now.”

Loki seemed cheerful about the decision and Darcy couldn’t decide whether his mood was real or not. She hoped he felt able to be honest with her about things like this now, but old habits died hard. 

“I’m not being locked up and left to rot,” he said airily. “Anything’s better than that. Well—almost anything. But since Thanos is firmly in Mistress Death’s grasp, certain things were off the cards.”

Arrangements were made for his immediate departure to Frigga’s palace on Vanaheim, and Darcy was left behind on Asgard until Frigga could send for her. Instead, Darcy went for a stroll down to the Bifrost and spoke to Heimdall, who assured her the coast was clear on Earth.

She went home.


Sure, things weren’t exactly peachy on Earth. Darcy was getting the figurative side-eye from a lot of people, but she wasn’t in danger anymore. Somehow her name had been linked to helping unmask the Hydra faction lurking with SHIELD, which had been uncovered in her absence. It had swung the tide of public opinion away from viewing her as a traitor, and she was able to resume working with Jane. 

Coming home had been the right decision. There was so much about Earth she’d come to miss, the people most of all. She spent a few weeks with her family, booked in with a therapist, and ate all the chocolate she could get her hands on.

Life was great. Life was peaceful. And working by Jane’s side gave her the sense of fulfillment she’d been looking for. It was amazing the kind of equipment a Nobel Prize win could buy you, and the grants it attracted.

If only her apartment was a little less empty in the evenings.

She didn’t realize she missed Loki’s presence at first—she was too busy to miss anyone, but then when she did have quiet time, she found herself talking out loud to her empty living room. She explained what she’d being doing all day, any articles she’d read, various pieces of pop culture that came up as she went about her evening.

There was a Loki shaped hole in her life. He’d slowly created it, as he’d promised he would, and while she might not be in love yet—nowhere close to the way he felt about her—she could admit she missed him and wanted him around.

Maybe that’s what coming home had been about. It was a test, to see if it was worth continuing on this path towards some vague future with Loki, or whether she was content to forge her happiness in other ways. Despite the obstacles on that path, her heart wanted to keep exploring it.

This time, she had to coordinates for Vanaheim, so she and Jane were able to create a new gate that connected with the existing portal on that realm, one masked from the powers that be by some clever theoretical tweaking by Jane. Nearly three months after Darcy returned to Earth, she stepped onto Vanaheim for the first time.

Loki wasn’t there, in this realm of endless pastures and gentle spring days, but Frigga was. She sent for her son in Jotunheim and welcomed Darcy to her home, walking with her in the elegant, manicured grounds of the palace.

“He has missed you. He thought—” Frigga paused. “He’s been working very hard,” she continued brightly.

“He thought I’d gone for good,” Darcy finished the thought for her. “I didn’t. I just needed to get home for a while. But we have the portal so I can come here as much as I like.”

Frigga could hardly contain her delight. “That sounds promising indeed. You’ll be pleased to hear that he hasn’t sulked about your absence too much—he’s thrown himself into revitalizing Jotunheim. Treaties are in the works for trade between the two realms and he’s searching for an heir who has the strength to hold power and the skill to raise Jotunheim back to glory.”

Loki’s arrival was announced with a loud crash, the gate to the garden almost knocked off its hinges as he barreled through in search of Darcy. Frigga rolled her eyes fondly and walked away, leaving Darcy alone under the branches of a blossoming cherry tree.

He looked ravenous: hair wild, longer than it had ever been, and his breath coming in deep pants as he crossed the lawn towards Darcy. Snowflakes still lingered on his cloak and his eyes were wide, unblinking, as if he was unsure she was even there.

“The messenger said—” he rasped.

“That I’m here? I’m here.” She smiled up at him, suddenly nervous. He was so big up close, looming over her with all his usual intensity.

“Are you staying?”

She made an uncommitted noise. “There are some practical issues we need to work out, what with you being exiled from where I live and all, but I figure the portal will help with that immensely. They can wait. We’ve got other things to take care of first.”

His eyebrows rose. “Such as?”

“Such as this.” She propped herself up on tiptoe, snaking her hands up his chest for balance, and raising her lips to his.

Loki didn’t need it spelling out.

Chapter Text

Laughter peels through the air, a sound as sweet as the honey which is stuck in strands of Darcy’s hair. It glints as the breeze catches it, drawing Loki’s attention. Though his attention is never far from her—it can usually only be diverted by the toddler who put the honey there.

Said toddler is being enticed towards his uncle with a piece of candy, tottering on uneven feet across the grass with outstretched, grabby hands. Thor encourages him on with a fond smile and nonsense words, which results in giggles even when the little boy stumbles and has to right himself.

Never mind that Loki’s son has had plenty to eat already, the staff at the old palace on Vanaheim putting together a feast when they asked for a picnic. Even Thor hasn’t been able to make much of a dent in it—instead, Frigga will ensure it is distributed later to the people who need it more. 

The trees lining the meadow rustle in the breeze, the cornucopia of their colored blossoms shedding onto the grass. Spring on Vanaheim is a bright, warm affair, and so the family gathers from their respective realms to enjoy a few days at Frigga’s childhood home. She has retreated here to live out her time as dowager, except for when one of her sons needs her council.

It is the ideal home for her, brimming with pleasant memories from her own childhood and from Loki’s, and also has its own portal which allows swift journeys between realms. Its safety and neutrality also makes it the ideal place for her grandson to spend his own childhood, while Frigga gathers as many memories as she can with the family members she will outlive.

Frigga herself has not aged, not to Loki’s eyes. Darcy likes to tease him about his nonexistent gray hairs, but he cannot deny the passage of time on his face—lines he had not expected to wear for centuries. Yet his mother weathers the passing years much as she always has done. She sits as regally as anyone can on a picnic blanket, her silk dress somehow unmarred by sticky hands even though she indulges in as many cuddles as she can entice from her grandson. She is calm, content, freed from the pressures of her own throne and devoted instead to doting on the little boy.

Thor is freed of those responsibilities himself, if only for a few days. He can ride, and spar with his brother, and make an idiot of himself to entertain his nephew as much as his heart desires. Loki is pleased he is playing to his strengths. And yet, there is a calmness to him here, a carefree attitude that Loki rarely sees in him anymore. Much as it pains him to admit, he misses it, and mourns what his brother has lost in gaining the throne. Thor has confided that the spring days they spend in Vanaheim—which come around quickly due to the short solar cycle of the realm—are the happiest of his current life.

Behind Thor, Jane pulls faces at the little boy, eliciting more giggles. Jane adores him: the closest she will get to children of her own. Her chosen legacy will be science, and her love for Thor, when she is dust and he lives on. It doesn’t make her sad—not as sad as the thought of Thor raising and losing children with a human lifespan. Instead, he is under firm instruction to live and love again once she is gone, and raise his heirs then.

The little boy is aging slowly, though. It’s a positive sign that he may outlive his grandmother, rather than the other way around. There may be a throne in his future, but Loki has other hopes for him, no matter how long he lives. He knows Darcy feels the same.

He cannot count Jane as a friend—she will likely never trust him—but he values her sharp mind and the loyalty she has shown Darcy through everything. He wishes his brother could have eternity with her, if only for the happiness it would bring to Thor, but these things are not meant to be.

They make the most of it, their little extended family. Hela is on lying in the grass, soaking in the sun, though she will never tan. She could lie on a blanket, but she refuses, enjoying all the sensations Vanaheim has to offer. Even the allergies. When the itching becomes too much, she will rise to play with her little brother. 

Loki suspects sometimes that the Hela he sees one day is not the Hela he has seen on the previous, even if she still arrives in her teenage guise. One day, they have a girl with more naivety than the daughter of Death has any right to, and the next it is gone, all used up and replaced with a haunted edge. Perhaps she returns often to her mortal family whenever they become too much a part of the past, so she never really has to lose them. Today Hela is naive, experiencing this all for the first time.

She’s a strange creature, his first born, yet there is more of him in her than he would care to admit. She is often withdrawn, living in a world of her own imagination, prone to sulking and plotting revenge over trivial slights. But for all that, she delights in the sun, and in the warmth their family provides. And the older she grows, the more her uncanny resemblance to him does as well. Even though he never expected to have the fortitude to deal with a teenager—let alone one who can be a different age from one day to the next—he understands her, and that makes it easier.

As for his son—well, whatever physical resemblance he may have to his father, his sweet nature all comes from his mother. He does not brood, or hold grudges—though time will tell on that score—and he laughs far more than he ever cries. He delights in everything: case in point, the explosion of glitter Loki summons to tempt the boy away from Thor.

His brother feigns a pout of dismay as Loki’s son comes running, staring up at him like he’s the most wondrous person in the universe.

Loki’s heart turns over in his chest. It takes a beat for him to recognize that this is happiness, a moment of pure joy, and a very particular moment at that.

It passes, a fleeting thing which cannot be kept hold of, so strange to be inside it rather than witnessing it. But this slice of happiness, the simple joy of spending time together in the old palace gardens, spurred so much into existence.

Loki catches Darcy’s eye: she too has realized what has just passed them by. She wears her own happiness like a shawl, always draped around her and only momentarily set aside when she must. 

He brushes the hair away from their son’s face and hands him one of the candies. He looks so much like her, and the way Loki feels about the pair of them is a devotion so fierce he couldn’t have imagined it, those many years ago as he stared at this scene in the mirror. Darcy has taught him patience, and gentleness, and trust, and forced him to earn her trust until it is unbreakable. She also showed him how to accept, even love, Hela. She has molded him into a different being, a better man, and shown him that a mortal life span does not mean it will be any less fulfilling. He would be grateful to her for the son she graced him with, but even alone she took his existence from bearable to blissful. 

All the prices he has paid to be with her are worth it, and he still finds himself scrambling to remain worthy of her love. He is not an easy person to be with—he knows this, even as he refuses to “get some therapy” as she so often suggests. The throne of Jotunheim wears on him, even as he searches for a wise heir amongst the other claimants to the crown. His dreams are often little better than night terrors, black ghouls come to steal any semblance of peace he might hope for. And this is not the future he believed he was striving for when he first saw this moment in his mother’s mirror, but it is better. Infinitely better. He would not change any detail of it.

Hela has dabbled with her grandmother’s talent for mirror magic, but Darcy refuses to look at the visions her step-daughter captures in glass. Too much of her life became caught up around one moment, and even if all of them were as happy as this one, it wouldn’t do to spend her time waiting for them to arrive. Loki agrees. They have limited time before they must pass into Death’s realm permanently. It is better to enjoy each and every moment of sunlight while they can, just as Hela does. Instead, Frigga has learned to capture these memories in her mirrors.

Hela gives an excited yell. A butterfly has landed on her outstretched hand. It is calmly basking on her cool skin while she stares with awe, and her brother toddles towards it with a giggle. Loki pauses his progress, unwilling to spoil the moment, and he does not complain, happy to wave and babble at his sister while she studies her tiny visitor.

“It’s so fragile,” she breathes. “Beautiful, but fragile.”

“I once thought the same of your Mama,” Loki says quietly, and Darcy tuts at his obvious flattery. “But I was wrong.”

“Watch it, buddy,” Darcy mutters.

“She’s beautiful, yes,” he hurriedly corrects. “But not fragile. She’s the strongest person I’ve ever known. Strong enough to put up with me.”

Darcy smiles at him, twining their fingers together.

“They don’t live long at all, though,” Hela says with a pout. “All that beauty, gone so quickly.”

“Then make the most of it while you can,” says Frigga, as the butterfly alights from Hela’s finger and vanishes into the sky.