sam_storyteller: (Alternate Universe)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2012-10-04 05:24 am

Better to Reign in Hell 2/4

Title: Better To Reign In Hell 2/4
Summary: Loki has been lied to.
See Chapter 1 Header for Warnings and Notes

Chapter One

***

When Loki woke this time, he was slumped on a fragile-feeling chair, in a room with no visible doors. The walls were mirrored, reflecting endless Lokis back to him. He did look a sight; hair disheveled, ridiculously constricting trousers twisted at the cuffs, yellow shirt wrinkled and sporting a small hole where some assassin had hit him. Thor had never thought much of men who hid and attacked their enemies covertly, but Loki could appreciate the craftsmanship of stealth, and he took a moment to admire the small red wound. A clean shot, straight into a vein.

"You're awake," said a voice, and one of the mirrored walls opened to admit the man from before, the one who had laid hands on Darcy. Loki peered at him, curious. Clearly the captain of his men, but unassuming and almost slight, compared to many of the other warriors. "Welcome to SOHQ 112."

"Should that mean something to me?" Loki asked.

"Probably not."

"May I know your name? Or shall I call you Captain of the Guard?"

The man smiled slightly. "You can call me Agent Coul's Son. And you're Loki."

"Yes."

"Loki...?"

Loki shook his head. "I carry no patronym."

"I expected that."

"I am your prisoner, I take it."

"Depends on your answers."

"Well, then," Loki said, settling back and spreading his hands. "Ask me your questions."

The son of Coul tilted his head slightly. Like a bird -- one watching its prey.

"You have quite a grip on you," he said finally, pulling up his sleeve to show the finger-shaped bruises on one wrist. "An object falls from the sky in the middle of the desert, and soon after...you show up. But you don't strike me as a soldier of fortune type."

"I have yet to hear a question," Loki prompted.

"A man like you, in a place like this..." Coul's son shot his sleeve down, folding his hands in front of him. "No, you seem more like a solo artist. One of the old gentlemen-of-adventure types. Now you could be a harmless conspiracy theorist -- do you have a blog, by the way?"

Loki considered this. "No."

"If you do, we'll find it."

"I have nothing but the clothes I wear, and those borrowed," Loki said.

"That's an interesting dialect you speak. Not native English?"

Loki frowned. "I fail to see the relevance of my speech to my imprisonment."

"I think," Coul's son said, "that you might not be a soldier of fortune, but you are for hire. You'd like to get your hands on the artifact, which is why you were cozying up to Dr. Foster. No little luddite militia for you, either -- industrial spying is more your game, hm?"

"I am in no man's pay."

"I don't believe you. I'm a busy man, Loki, and I don't like having my time wasted."

"Set me free, and I will never darken your...excessively reflective door again," Loki said, eyes flicking to the thin seam of the mirror behind them. Coul's son sidestepped, blocking his view.

"Who do you work for?" he asked. Loki gazed up at him. "Advanced Idea Mechanics? Hydra? At this point I wouldn't put it past Stark Industries to hire you. We know how Stark likes his little pranks."

Well, honestly, it couldn't dig him any deeper, and it would buy him some time. "And if I were in the employ of Stark, what would happen to me?"

"We'll clear it up with a phone call. I don't especially like him, but with any luck I'll get Potts and she can bail you out. Contingent on your telling the truth, naturally."

"I neither confirm nor deny," Loki said. There was a soft buzzing noise, and Coul's son took a little device like the one they'd stolen from Darcy out of his pocket.

"Don't go anywhere," he said to Loki, and disappeared through the mirrored door.

When it shut, Sif was standing in front of him. Loki smiled.

"My lady, the most warlike Sif," he said, standing. "Has father banished you, as well?"

He regretted it, just a little, as soon as he said it; her eyes were red, her face worried.

"The Allfather has fallen into the Odinsleep," she said tightly. Loki raised his eyebrows. "Your brother rules as his regent while he sleeps."

"What an interesting reign that must be," Loki murmured.

"He's sent me to bring you home, Loki," she said.

"Gracious of him," Loki replied, but there was a slight waver in her voice that he didn't like. "Why such magnanimity?"

"You know how Odin is," she answered. "His temper is quick but he dislikes holding a grudge. If you return, by order of your brother -- "

" -- not. Not my brother," Loki snapped.

"Thor is your brother, Loki," Sif said.

"Did you know?" Loki asked. "Did you know I was not a fosterling?"

"I had heard rumors. I put no stock in them. Thor had not even heard so much and would not have believed them if he had. He misses you, Loki. He wishes you to return."

"He would have done better to prevent my banishment when he had the chance," Loki said, because he was beginning to work out what this was about. "It's a brave man to go against his father's wishes while his father sleeps."

"Thor is confident your banishment was not meant to be permanent. The Allfather will forgive you when he wakes." She hesitated, and then added, "If he wakes."

"If he wakes?"

"Frigga seems uncertain he will."

Loki grinned and leaned forward. More and more fascinating.

"How fares Asgard in my absence and while the Allfather sleeps, dear Sif?" he asked. She flinched. Ah; a bullseye. "Is it peaceful? No trouble from any quarter? Or have the Jotuns decided -- now that their spies are familiar with the palace, and Odin's precious hostage is banished -- that Asgard looks a tasty morsel to add to Laufey's feast?" he said, rising and circling her. "Does my brother wish me back because he loves me, Sif, or because he needs a prisoner? A puppet king to put on the throne of Jotunheim?"

"You can't think Thor would stoop -- "

"There were many things I thought the Aesir would not stoop to, and yet here I stand," he spat. "Return to Thor and tell him I have no desire to be hostage again in Asgard. At least on Midgard they have the decency to tell you when you're a prisoner."

"Loki -- "

"GO!" Loki shouted, and the door opened, Coul's son reappearing even as Sif vanished.

"Go?" he asked mildly. "But I just got here."

***

Phil Coulson had interrogated meaner, angrier, and less cooperative persons of interest than Loki in his time. In the Army, he'd been the expert in his unit; he'd questioned terrorists, collaborators, and the occasional frightened civilian (those were the hardest -- proving their innocence to the higher-ups was an arduous and politically delicate task). At SHIELD, when Hawkeye had brought Natasha Romanoff in, wounded and defiant and skittish as a beaten dog, he'd spent three days questioning her in Russian before she willingly spoke English to him. Outside her little cell -- this was before Nick rose to Director -- his supervisors raised hell and made threats, and Nick ran interference. Only when she started speaking English did the brass stop waving internment papers under his nose every time he emerged. Compared to that, Loki was downright pleasant.

Didn't mean he wasn't unnerving, though. His utter self-confidence and his unwavering slickness, his seeming detachment from the process and his odd, nerveless curiosity all made Coulson wary.

"Can you tell me," Loki said, when Coulson returned to the interrogation room, "who is it who rules this realm?"

"Why don't you define for me what you mean by realm?" Coulson asked.

"This place. This location. I understand we are in New Mexico. Does it have a lord or magistrate?"

"You want to speak to the governor?"

"That would suffice."

"Why?" Coulson asked.

"I beg your pardon, son of Coul, but I do not believe that to be the concern of men who rob and plunder that which they do not understand."

"You're angry we confiscated Dr. Foster's equipment."

"It matters not to me one way or another," Loki replied, leaning back, bright green eyes never wavering. "I have stolen and lied in my time. The principle is the point; not that you are thieves or that you robbed my hosts, but that I can't trust a thief, can I?"

"And what is it you can't trust me with?" Coulson asked, too wise to defend his actions.

"All manner of things," Loki replied, rising from the chair. Coulson kept still while he paced; he might not be able to take Loki on his own, not with the man's unusual strength, but he'd see an attack coming and could defend himself long enough for reinforcements to arrive. "Where I come from. What my business is in New Mexico."

"You'd allow the governor to question you?"

"Bring me to him, and we shall see."

"I'm afraid that's not going to happen," Coulson said. "We're not offering you options. You have no choices here. You can tell us what we want to know now, or we can keep you here until you do. That's hardly a position from which to negotiate. Let's work this out, so that we can move on to other things."

Loki had come to stand in front of him, and he had to lift his head slightly to look him in the eye. The man smelled of dust and coffee, with a coppery tang to both that made Coulson think of blood.

"You are trifling with things you cannot possibly understand," Loki said.

"Try me," Coulson replied evenly. Loki made a frustrated noise, but he backed down, settling back into his chair.

Coulson's phone beeped again; the text from Sitwell said Found him.

"I have to go trifle with some stuff," he said. "You want a glass of water or anything?"

"No, thank you," Loki replied.

Outside in the command center, Sitwell was standing behind one of the computer techs, studying the screen.

"So, fingerprint scan finally turn something up?" Coulson asked, joining him.

"Not a whole lot," Sitwell said drily. "Local hospital checked him in day before yesterday, right after the atmospheric disturbance. Records say he was hit by a car."

"He's looking pretty good for a crash victim."

"You'll love this. Car was registered to Dr. Erik Selvig, driver was Dr. Jane Foster."

"Hm."

"Could be he's just a small time con man," Sitwell said. "Car trick's an old one. Pretend to get hit, milk the driver as far as you can..."

"Yep, used it myself on an op once," Coulson said. "Could be. He's definitely playing with me. On the other hand..." he glanced at the artifact monitor. It sat there, unmoving, only the occasional body passing behind it evidence that it wasn't a still image.

"Does that look like a crown to you?" he asked.

"Not any crown I've ever seen."

"Are you a crown aficionado, Sitwell?"

"I'll show you my collector cards sometime," Sitwell said. Coulson gave him a warning look.

"You know why people buy into cons?" he asked.

"Stupidity?"

"That's unkind. People buy into cons because they either want to believe in something else or don't believe enough in themselves," Coulson replied. "A little voice tells them something's off, but they don't listen. And there is something off about a stranger who speaks like he stepped out of The Sword in the Stone showing up when that thing did. He's not a con man. Or at least, not a little one."

"There's one other thing," Sitwell said. "Storm's coming in. I need your authorization to send nonessential personnel to quarters."

"Keep security at full strength. Get the scientists tucked away."

"Should we cover the artifact?"

"Thing pulled the flatbed off a truck earlier today. I don't think a little rain's going to hurt it," Coulson replied. "I'm going to go take another crack at our guest."

It was barely ten feet from where he stood to the door of the interrogation room; Coulson glanced at the monitor on the room as he passed and saw Loki sitting calmly in the chair, still and composed.

When he opened the door, he paused.

"Monitor," he snapped, and the man watching the security feed looked up.

"Sir?"

"What's the timestamp on your screen?" he asked, checking his watch. 7:12.

"Nineteen hundred twelve, sir."

"So can you explain to me where my prisoner is?" Coulson asked, sliding the door fully open. The room was empty. The man on the monitor peered through, then looked back. He gaped at Coulson, shaking his head.

"Sir?" Sitwell called.

"Goddammit," Coulson said. "Put the facility on lockdown. Radio the gate guards we have a hostile loose in the compound. Seal all entrances to the artifact -- I don't care who's out there, seal them now. I want four patrols on the fences -- " he broke off as thunder crackled overhead. The monitors all around them began fuzzing. "Get agents with radios on the generators. Hawkeye," he called, lifting a radio off the wall, already heading for the artifact.

"Sir!"

"Get up high. Our hostile is loose."

"Already on my way, sir."

"Hold fire to my mark."

"No fun," Hawkeye complained, and Coulson could hear the whine of the crane through the thin plastic walls. Rain rattled against the roof. "How'd he get out, sir?"

"That's what I'd like to know, since all our computers say he's still there."

"Eyes on hostile," an agent broke in. "Southeast quadrant near gate 2B."

"Can't be him," another voice said. "I've got him heading due north."

"Sir, I am looking at the hostile on the second level overlooking the artifact," Hawkeye said.

"Permission to fire on hostile," one of the agents requested.

"Do not fire, I've got eyes on him," Hawkeye replied.

"What the fuck..."

"Agent, report," Coulson demanded.

"He just...disappeared, sir. Repeat, Southeast quadrant, hostile has...evaporated."

"I'm getting the same visual at the north gate."

"Permission to fire, sir?" Hawkeye asked.

"Nonlethal, when ready," Coulson replied. He couldn't hear the hiss of the bowstring or the thump of an impact over the radio, and the few seconds of silence were almost unbearable.

"Uh, this is Hawkeye," he heard, after a moment. "Hostile appears to have been a hologram. Sorry, boss."

It was times like this that Coulson sometimes wanted to find his young, idealistic, fresh-from-the-army self and punch him in the face before he could apply to join SHIELD.

"Maintain lockdown. Patrols, keep circling. Everyone else muster in the briefing room for a head count. Patrols, if you find any unauthorized persons, detach and bring them to the briefing room. Hawkeye, hit the ground."

"How the hell did he do it?" Sitwell asked. He tapped the interrogation room monitor. It blitzed for a moment, and the man sitting in it vanished. "Holograms?"

"I'm not certain, but I plan to find out. Hawkeye?"

"Sir."

"Get outside the fence. If you see tracks, follow them. Otherwise get to Foster and Selvig in case he goes to ground there."

He was watching the compound monitors, and he could see Hawkeye turn to find the nearest camera, lifting his face to look at it. "You want me the track and stalk the ninja master of illusion, sir?"

"Without being seen, if at all possible."

A grin broke over Hawkeye's face. "With pleasure, sir."

"Do not engage. You are code white until I say otherwise, understood?"

"Understood, sir," Hawkeye answered, trotting towards the fence. Things like lockdown never really meant much to him, and it was faster than getting Coulson out to authorize him to leave at any rate.

"We are going to go over every inch of this compound in detail," Coulson said, as Hawkeye cleared the fence and loped off into the darkness. "Somebody put on some coffee."

***

Loki had known since he was a young child that mirrors held a certain, potent, specific sort of -- well, undoubtedly the Midgardians called it magic.

He'd always been attuned to it, whatever you cared to call it, far more than Thor or his other friends, far more than most of the court. Not mirrors specifically, but as a part of a greater learning. How to cast mists and illusions, how to trick the senses, how to manipulate the voids between realms and the voids within them sometimes, too. Mirrors were a sort of void -- they presented an illusion of depth they didn't have. More than that, the kinds of mirrors in this little room reflected him back on himself, rows of Lokis extending to the infinite.

Mirror magic was powerful, but one could easily lose oneself in it. Loki kept a careful center as he inched each reflection just slightly closer to himself, pleased that whatever other magic he'd lost, he'd retained enough to manipulate the mirrors, enough to draw each reflection closer. With every second, he could feel power burning through them into him. Still not very much, but enough. He didn't trust the son of Coul, and he very much wanted to leave this place now.

By the time he had enough power for what he wanted -- only a few seconds, but it felt much longer -- a clammy sweat had broken out on his forehead, and his fingers ached from being pressed into his palms. He stood slowly, unsteadily, and left an illusion of himself behind in the iris of the little camera they were watching him with. The door slid aside silently at his gesture. He sent three others -- all he'd been able to construct on short notice -- scudding off in various directions.

There was a man sitting at a device nearby, and a coat on the back of his chair; as Loki passed, he lifted up the coat and pulled it tightly around himself, hiding the bright yellow shirt he wore.

There was the son of Coul, standing with another man, looking at an image on the wall. Yes -- that was his helm, and Loki's fingers flexed against the cuffs of the jacket. It would be so easy to steal through the halls of this labyrinth, find the helm and carry it off, but it was bulky and he had little time, and less energy. Better to get away now, and come back when he was recovered. Instead, he picked up Jane the Fosterling's notebook as he passed, and pocketed Darcy's little black box as well. Whatever it was, clearly it had value.

He slipped through the eastern gate using the last of the power from the mirrors, made his way up the road, and began to walk in the pouring rain.

He felt he was doing rather well adapting to Midgard, despite the imprisonment and the rain, when a giant van pulled up next to him, and a man leaned out of the window.

"Y'car break down?" he asked. Loki slicked his hair out of his face.

"It has!" he called up. "I'm heading east."

"Well, hop in. I can drop you in the next town."

"My thanks," Loki replied, and circled the enormous monstrosity to clamber up into the cab.

"Name's Henry," the man said.

"I am Loki."

"Well, Loki, I hope you like country," the man said.

Loki smiled at him ingratiatingly. "Of course I do."

***

The rain was washing traces away pretty quickly, but this wasn't the first time Clint had tracked prey through a storm. Once he found the tracks at the east gate and followed them up to the main road, he doubled back to the row of black sedans parked next to the gate and found Coulson's. Coulson always left a spare key in the glove compartment, wadded up in the remains of a food wrapper as camo; this time it was a cellophane from a roll of chocolate mini-doughnuts.

Between the rain and the time of night, the highway was empty, but Clint kept his eyes on the road, the asphalt and the edges of it. He slowed but didn't stop when he saw the truck treads in the mud, two or three miles out from the compound; they were a confirmation, nothing more.

Code white meant he was in a holding pattern, something he wasn't especially good at. He was cut off from the project, forbidden to contact them until they contacted him. He was simply to follow and recon until further orders. He'd been in worse Code Whites; he'd only broken it once, bringing Natasha in alive instead of dead.

The big rig that had picked Loki up was long gone by the time Clint rolled into town, but he was pretty sure he could track him on foot from here, especially since the rain had stopped. He parked the car behind a building at the edge, then went the rest of the way on foot, over rooftops mostly, until he had a sightline on Jane Foster's makeshift lab.

He settled down on a roof with a clear view, waiting for the light to come on; he couldn't believe the man would be that dumb, but he'd seen dumber, and his instincts told him Loki was here.

About three minutes later, by his internal clock, his suspicions were confirmed. He wasn't thrilled that they were confirmed by a cold, sharp pinprick between his shoulders.

"Move, and I will rip your entrails out," a voice said in his ear, and cold washed over his face. "Do not mistake docility for pacifism, my bright-eyed friend."

Stupid, stupid. The guy had skills, Clint would give him that. It took a lot to sneak up on him.

"Answer me yes or no. Are you sent to bring me back to the room of mirrors?"

Clint debated this internally. A chill spread down his spine.

"Answer me."

"No," he said.

"Are you sent to watch me?"

"Yes."

"Very good. Will you kill me, should your master give the order?"

"Yes."

"And why should I not kill you first, in this case?"

Clint chose his moment and turned, cold slashing across his ribs, legs kicking out. The face of the man above him was blue, not just the pale white of a man who didn't get enough sun. Loki went sideways and Clint leapt, but one cool hand caught his throat and the other pointed a needle-sharp weapon at his eye.

"Try that again and I shall leave you blind," Loki said. "You would rather die, I think." He smiled mirthlessly. "You have heart, at least. But you are sent to watch, not to kill, not yet."

Clint choked. His skin was freezing.

"And you do not kill without your master's order. So watch me if you will, archer," Loki said, throwing him aside. Clint skidded on the gravel roof, rolled, and crouched, ready to leap. Loki stood over him, the thin clear needle still pointed at him. "And when your master calls, to tell you to kill me or capture me, you tell him I will have my helm. He seems a sensible man; if he pleases he may come to me and barter for it."

"You haven't got anything we want," Clint growled.

"So you believe." Loki bent without moving the blade. He had to think of it as a blade because it sure as hell looked like an icicle. "Know this. My hosts are under my protection. Harm them and neither you nor your master will live to see what I am capable of when angered. There are politics at play you do not understand."

"Try me."

"Your master said that too. Perhaps someday I will, but not today," Loki replied. "I am going now. Fire on me at your peril."

He turned and strode towards the edge of the roof, back to Clint, not bothering to look back. Points for style, anyway.

"See you around," Clint murmured, as Loki dropped lightly over the edge.

***

When Loki reached the home of his hosts, Darcy was the first to greet him; she came out of the very large van next to the hut and ran up to him, beaming.

"You got sprung!" she said.

"I did?" he asked, mystified.

"They let you go!"

"Oh. Indeed," he said, because it saved time. "And I have returned to you."

"I was all fired up to go see if we could talk them into giving you back, but Jane said no, and Erik said we shouldn't go in without a plan, and then I said -- "

"I am certain even the master of the guard himself would be swayed by your charms," Loki interrupted. "But as you see, here I am."

"Oh -- you're back," Jane called, through a window in the overlarge van.

"I've brought you a gift, by the way," Loki said, reaching into the pocket of his trousers. He pulled her book out, holding it up. Jane shrieked and burst out of the van, almost knocking him over in her eagerness.

"How did you -- " she flipped through it. "Thank you! Oh, my God."

"Merely one of many," he replied. Darcy and Jane gave him odd looks.

"You couldn't have taken ten seconds to ask for my -- " Darcy began, but Loki held up the little black box the men had taken from her. "OH YEAH!"

"My apologies I could gain none of your machines back, Erikselvig," Loki said, as Erik joined them.

"I'm not worried," Erik answered. "Glad to see you whole, that's all. SHIELD has a nasty habit of disappearing people."

"We've got leftovers from dinner if you're hungry," Jane offered.

"No, thank you; it's been a most eventful evening," Loki said. He eyed Darcy, who had pushed a few invisible buttons on the box. Sound blasted out, and she was either having some kind of fit or engaging in what passed for dancing on Midgard. "I shall sleep soon, I think."

"Oh, uh." Jane glanced at the van. "Well, if you don't mind sharing a bed with Erik..."

"You assume I don't mind," Erik replied.

"Come on, Erik!"

"Well, a man likes to be asked, that's all..."

Loki watched, amused, as Jane and Erikselvig turned to climb back into the large van, still bickering about where he was to sleep, though Jane had her nose buried in her book as well. Darcy was still engaging in a celebratory dance to the primitive 'music' emerging from the device, eyes closed, and he settled down on one of the nearby chairs to consider his situation.

"What noise is this?" he asked, as the music changed to a new song.

"Watch it, metalhead," she replied. "This is Mumford & Sons. Do not diss the Mumford."

"He must be a great bard."

Darcy gave him a funny look, flopping into the chair next to him and fiddling with the box so that the music was quieter. She tugged a blanket off the chair and wrapped the thick woven wool around her.

"Aren't you cold?" she asked. "We could start up a fire."

"I was born a Jotun," he replied. "They are known in Asgard as frost giants. We do not chill easily."

"Whatever." She sniffed and looked up, following his gaze. "Never get used to seeing this many stars at night."

"Do they not have stars where you come from?"

"I'm from Boston. They don't have stars like this, that's for sure," she said. "The city lights blot them out."

"What a shame," he replied. "They seem so distant. On Asgard -- where I was a boy -- the stars look much closer. Or perhaps it was just that it was easier to reach them."

"So this Asgard, is it like a city or what?"

He shot her a sidelong smile. "It is the home of the Allfather. A city, and a realm, and more."

"A realm."

"It's difficult to explain. Your people use myths and legends to do it."

"Say I buy this," she said, sitting forward. "Say I buy that you're, what, an alien?"

"Something like that," he said.

"How'd you get here?"

"That is a long story."

"Condense it."

He cast her a smile. He liked Darcy; she reminded him of Sif.

"In essence, I was sent along a pathway between the realms. That storm the night I arrived -- that was a pathway."

"From another planet?"

"Not as you think of them, no. But...similar. Closer, even, and yet further off." He ran a hand through his hair. "All the realms are linked, you see, but not in a way you can easily prove. Even we don't fully understand it. One of the greatest mysteries left to Asgard -- and there are not many, now -- is how such different realms can lie so close along the branches of Yggdrasil."

"Eggbrazil?"

"Close enough. Many of the realms call it magic, but there is science in it. I have not the words on Midgard to describe it..." he slid from the chair to the ground, sitting crosslegged, and traced shapes in the desert dust at her feet. "As I learned it when I was young -- here is the great Yggdrasil, the world tree," he said, sketching out a structure he knew by heart. "Each branch reaches towards a different realm, but all are part of the great tree of the universe. Here is Asgard, where I was raised."

"You keep saying that," she said, leaning forward.

"What?"

"Where you were raised. Like it wasn't really your home."

Loki looked down at the inside of his left wrist, at the interlocking triangles. "It is not my home. It never truly was. Because as an infant I was taken from..." he traced another realm, "Jotunheim, during a great war, and kept as a hostage on Asgard."

"A hostage?"

"Against a further war," he said shortly. "And here," he added, to distract her, "Is Vanaheim, Alfheim, Hel, Svartalfheim, Niflheim, and Muspelheim. And here is Midgard, your home," he added, drawing in the final shape. "Its symbol is the serpent Jormungand, who encircles the Earth and grasps his own tail in his teeth. Someday, when Ragnarok comes to herald the end of all realms, Jormungand will rise out of the ocean and poison the sky. The sun will darken and the land sink into the sea, and steam will blot out the stars until fire touches the heavens."

He looked up and found she was bent almost double, but she was watching him and not his drawing; her face was very close to his. He froze for a second.

"Way to be, Debbie Downer," Darcy said, leaning back.

"It's only a legend," Loki replied. "Other legends say Jormungand is my son, which is patently not the case. So who can say? Old stories, ravings of madmen. But the star your planet orbits will die some day."

"Yeah, in like a billion years."

"You may not see it, but that doesn't mean it won't come," Loki said.

"So, what, live each day as if Ragnarok comes tomorrow?" Darcy asked.

"Not entirely unwise," Loki said, shrugging. "And who is to say when a man's world ends?"

She cast a sidelong look at him. "When did yours?"

"I was cast out of Asgard. I chose to defy the Allfather."

"Your dad threw you out?"

"Had I considered my actions beforehand I would have expected no less. And I prefer being a poor wanderer on Midgard to remaining a hostage prince in Asgard."

"What about your biodad?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Your parents in...Jordanhim."

"Jotunheim. A prince of the Jotuns raised in Asgard?" Loki shook his head. "No, it would never do. I was foolish to imagine."

"But don't they love you?"

"I suppose not. Laufey -- my -- what do you call it? Biodad?"

She nodded.

"Laufey made no move to protect me from my punishment. Doesn't make a bad title, eh? Loki of Midgard, the Unloved of All Realms."

He expected a laugh; instead she just looked sad.

"Rather like a terrible nursery story," he added. "Do you have a mirror, Darcy?"

"Uh...sure," she said, digging in her pocket. She presented him with a flat, round object, flicking it open. It held some pale cake of powder in one side, a little mirror in the other. He hovered his fingers in front of the mirror, concentrating, and then flicked them to one side. The tree burst to life, flame rising from the dust, and Darcy flinched and yelped, her chair almost falling over.

"You looked cold," he said, when she glared at him. The fire crackled merrily.

"You are deeply, unfathomably weird," she replied.

"Thank you," he said, pleased, hoisting himself back into his own chair.

"So what are you going to do now?" she asked.

"Rest. Regain my strength until I can reclaim my helm from the son of Coul. Perhaps raise an army."

"An army!"

"Many men seemed dissatisfied with 'the Feds'," he said. "Unrest is easy to foster. Either way, I will have my helm. Then I will present myself at court. Surely some petty lord will have a use for me." He smiled at her. "But tonight, I think I shall sleep."

"Gonna spoon with Erik?"

"I don't feel the cold. There is the fire," he said, slumping a little in the chair, which had a soft pad on it and a very long seat. "I shall sleep here. And then if someone comes, I will hear, and can defend the honour of yourself and Jane and Erikselvig."

"Well, I guess it's your funeral," Darcy said. She stood, tossing him the blanket, then leaned over and to his surprise kissed him on the forehead. No woman since Frigga had ever done that, and her not since he was a small child. "G'night, Lucky."

"Goodnight, Darcy Looooo'is," he replied.

Chapter Three

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