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The Hidden City

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The funniest thing about Jane’s upcoming wedding was how hopelessly and hilariously un-Jane it was. Granted, this was probably a given for intergalactic space glam weddings in general (Jane had admitted as much), but it always gave Darcy pause to see Jane stuffed into heavily embroidered dress after embroidered dress, introduced to every Lord Whatsit and Lady Whatsherface from all the nine realms, and to see her groomed to be a future queen.

What it amounted to, in the end, was an incredibly stressed and fish-out-of-water Jane, trying (ever the perfectionist) to nail a complex set of social customs she had not grown up with under the scrutiny of thousands of people older than dirt. And Darcy – who felt out of place, even more so than before, and increasingly unwelcome. After all, there was the horrible ‘I’ve been sleeping with your wayward son’ business that everyone was very politely Not Talking About.

In fact, Darcy was so very much Not Talking About It, and even Not Thinking About It that she had concocted three separate plans to change her life around –get a boyfriend (a normal one), get a new job, and learn to fight in case the first two fall through. So far none of them were remotely working and sitting in the halls where Loki grew up, his absence never mentioned but always conspicuous, was only making it worse.

So, Darcy was, well, not exactly hiding, but definitely strategically avoiding people. Currently she was practicing said strategic avoidance in the library, which was her preferred place to be. Most of the texts weren’t in English (or the All-tongue, she supposed), which meant she basically got to look at pictures, but enjoyed it nonetheless. She was leafing through the shelves, picking up covers that appealed to her when she found it. Wedged between two particularly ponderous looking tomes, it seemed to be made of hide and was soft when she pulled it out. It had been rolled and then thoroughly squashed, and she spread it out on the table.

It was a treasure map.

A real, honest-to-god treasure map.

It showed a landscape Darcy didn’t recognise (not particularly surprising), carefully annotated in a cramped font with descriptions of various landscape landmarks (mostly distinctive trees and rocks, judging by what she could make out). Directions for following a path – all vague and appropriately treasure-map-esque, directed the map owner to walk a path leading to something merely marked with a black ‘x’ and a label ‘the passage’. From there on there were no directions, only a vast, blank stretch of map and on the far edge of the page a larger ‘x’ which was simply labelled ‘Steinnleyndur’. She traced over it with her fingertips, her heart racing.

She touched the label for Steinnleyndur and muttered, “X marks the spot.” Then, looking around furtively to see if she’d been spotted, she quickly rolled it up and shoved it into her bag.

She was sure that she must have looked suspicious the way she was scuttling through the halls, but no one stopped her as she quickly made her way to Jane’s rooms. She knocked and then barged her way in.

Jane was sprawled on her stomach on the bed, propped up on her elbows and reading, while Thor sat at the desk making his way through a pile of documents nearly as tall as Darcy’s pile of data printouts to input back home.

“Hi,” Jane said, shutting the book with a snap. “You do realise there’s no point in knocking if you’re going to barge in anyway?”

“You will forgive me when you see this,” Darcy said, pulling map out with aplomb and flattening it out on the bed. “Voila!”

Thor chuckled at her excitement as he made his way around the bedframe to stand beside her. He picked it up and ran his fingers over its surface gently. “Where did you find this?”

“Library,” said Darcy. “Err… hoping you don’t mind me borrowing it.”

Thor gave a half-shrug. “It is no matter.” He ran his hands slowly over the map again. “I had thought that this was lost.”

“What is it?” Jane asked, curiously, crawling forward across the bed to peer at the map. “A map?”

“A treasure map,” corrected Darcy. “This is some straight-up Goonies shit, Jane.”

“Perhaps,” said Thor, thoughtfully. “Loki and I found it once, when we were much younger. We had planned to follow it, but it went missing.”

Darcy very successfully did not flinch at the sound of Loki’s name. Barely.

“Do you know where it leads?” Jane asked, squinting at the marginalia. “Half the directions seem to be missing.”

“Yes,” said Thor. “It is most mysterious. It was to be a grand adventure – to chart the way to Steinnleyndur,” he added, somewhat wistfully. “Though we had many after, I am still curious. It is odd to see it again now.”

“What’s Steinnleyndur?” Darcy asked.

“It is difficult to know for certain,” Thor said, passing the map to Jane, who let it pool in her lap, bending low over it to read the directions. “My brother believed it was an ancient city, referenced in some texts, hidden in a pocket between the nine realms.”

“A city full of treasure?” Darcy pressed. “Like El Dorado?”

“What is El Dorado?” Thor asked.

“Nevermind,” Jane cut in, hurriedly. “What’s meant to be there?”

“Wealth, perhaps,” said Thor, “though that was never of much interest. A lost people, more certainly. It is difficult to know what one might find in a place so long lost and forgotten.” Somewhat wistfully he added, “It would have been a truly great adventure to find it.”

“Well, why not?” Darcy said, cheerfully. “You could still go.”

Thor’s gaze flicked from her to the map and back again.

“No,” said Jane. “No, no. There’s so much to do!”

“Yes,” said Thor. “There is much to do – but why not? We have spent these past months preparing and attending tedious functions. Why not have a little fun? It has been far too long since I have set forth on a true adventure.”

“Hang on,” Darcy said. “You want to go on some kind of intergalactic stag-do?”

Thor looked blankly at her, as if he were deciding whether or not it was worth asking for clarification.

“This sounds like a bad idea,” said Jane.

“Are you kidding? It sounds like a great idea!” Darcy threw her hands up into the air. “C’mon Jane, we could be like pirates! Find some lost city and follow an honest-to-god treasure map. How often do you get that chance?”

“I don’t know…” Jane worried her lip between her teeth.

“And you can’t tell me you aren’t curious,” Darcy added, tugging the map down towards Jane. Thor seemed to catch her drift, and wrapped an arm around Jane’s shoulders, leaning in close. They circled Jane in, grinning conspiratorially.

“No one has seen this in thousands of years,” Darcy said. “We’d be the first humans ever to go.”

“Perhaps longer,” Thor added. “It was lost long before I was born.”

Jane worried her lip and looked down at the map. “It would be an incredible opportunity.”

“It will be perfectly safe,” Thor added, reassuringly. “I will be with you. Just a quick trip there to see what secrets this map holds, and then a quick trip back.”

“Just there and back?” Jane asked.

“Just there and back.” Thor smiled at her reassuringly.

“Oh, man,” said Darcy. “This is gonna be ace.”

“I have heard mutterings of plans for a grand adventure,” said Frigga, slipping silently into place next to Darcy at the railing and scaring the ever-loving crap out of her in the process.

“Apologies,” Frigga said, her eyes bright with amusement. “I did not mean to startle you.”

“No worries,” Darcy replied. In truth she’d been somewhat avoiding Frigga, something which she strongly suspected Frigga was aware of. She took a deep breath, looking out over the city. “Yeah, Thor’s got his heart set on going looking for buried treasure.”

“I am not surprised,” Frigga said, her voice soft as she too turned to face the same view. “He is rarely still for so long. I had expected something of this sort would arise. I understand it was you who found the map?”

Darcy felt herself blush. “Sorry – I didn’t mean to snoop.”

“You have free reign here,” Frigga said, dismissively.

It was hard not to feel a little guilty at that given she at least felt as if she’d betrayed their hospitality. She constantly felt as if she were waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never seemed to.

Frigga smiled at her gently, and then in a gesture that felt distinctly maternal, she brushed a lock of Darcy’s hair behind her ear.

“In truth,” she said, ”I had been meaning to speak to you for some time, but we do seem to keep missing one another.”

Darcy stared steadfastly out at the horizon. “I’m sorry,” she muttered.

“Perhaps it is I who should apologise.” Frigga’s hand came to rest on top of Darcy’s own. “I should have clarified our position, for I can see you are in some distress. You are welcome in our home, both as a friend of Jane and as a friend of Thor’s… just as you would be welcome as a friend of either of my sons.”

Darcy swallowed drily, wanting desperately to be anywhere but this conversation.

“I have often wondered what role your presence was meant to play, for no mortal sets foot in Asgard without purpose. I begin to see now where you fit, but I confess I have many unanswered questions.”

“I suppose answers are long overdue,” said Darcy. “What do you want to know?”

“Is he well?” Frigga’s voice was soft.

“Not really,” Darcy said. “I mean, physically, I think he’s fine. Mentally, he’s… well, kind of a mess.” It was like a dam breaking, and all of a sudden all the things she’d wanted to talk to Jane about but felt too awkward to say – too much like it was placing Jane in an awkward position with Thor – came spilling out. “I don’t understand him at all. He’s all over the map, like even he doesn’t know what he wants. He’s both impulsive and needy on one hand, and pushes me away constantly with the other.”

“In some ways he was always so,” said Frigga quietly. “Although he was once better at hiding it. It grieves me that he still does not know how to ask for what he needs, and accept it when it is offered.”

“So he was always like this?” Darcy couldn’t quite keep a lid on her curiosity.

“Oh, yes,” said Frigga, her expression both fond and sad all at once. “I’m sure my son believes he was not as loved as his brother growing up – he has said as much to me – but I watched them both equally, and worried equally.”

“I imagine he was a handful.”

Frigga looked amused. “No more so than his brother. They are both impulsive, driven by their emotions before logic. But friends came naturally and easily to Thor. I felt always that Loki saw friendship as a task to be completed – as if a certain combination of saying and doing would guarantee success. He envied Thor’s easy way, for he was not so outgoing and his interests were not so widely shared.”

“Like whacking things with a hammer?”

“My son is particularly adept, yes,” said Frigga, amused. “And many of the children of the Aesir respond well to such straightforward pursuits. But I believe Loki’s true problem was not that no one shared his interests, but rather that he did not wish to spend time without Thor, nor, Thor without he. He was very bookish and bright – Thor, sadly, does not share those traits.”

“I find that kinda hard to believe – that they were so close,” Darcy said, ignoring the fact that his mother had basically called Thor dumb and filing that away for later. “I mean, now…”

“Both great affection and great enmity are born of great feeling,” said Frigga. “They were very close.”

“That’s… awful.” Darcy looked down at her feet. “I don’t understand how it all fell apart.”

“I did my son a disservice,” said Frigga. “While I was aware of my own feelings and my love for him, I assumed that they would be known to him as plainly as I felt them. There are a great many things I should have said when I still had time.”

“Do you know where he is?” Darcy asked.

“He is beyond my sight,” Frigga replied. “And he will not return so long as he believes he is unwelcome.”

“Is he?” She regretted asking almost immediately, wondering if she’d stepped over a line. Frigga was silent for a long moment.

“Not for my part. But he cannot return without facing consequences for his behaviour. I cannot – and would not – keep him from that. Until he has repaid and repaired the damage he has done here, there is some truth to the idea that he is unwelcome. Though not so unwelcome or unloved as he believes.”

“What would happen if he came back?”

“Odin’s wrath is great, but fair,” Frigga said. “And Loki would be held accountable, but then forgiven. It is in the nature of parents to forgive their children their faults – after all, are they not also our faults as well? Decisions we made in raising Loki have brought him to this, and we pay for them even now.”

“You love him,” said Darcy.

“Of course,” said Frigga. “That has never changed. However for a long time I felt as though he were lost to us, and no matter how I looked at it I could see no path that ended with him returning home.” She turned and faced Darcy. “Until you.”

“I haven’t done anything…” Darcy began.

“Very few beings would walk into Helheim to retrieve someone they love,” said Frigga.

“I don’t –“

Frigga carried on as if Darcy hadn’t spoken. “And fewer mortals. My son has few true attachments, and fewer friends. I worried often when he was young of how he stood always to one side, always one step away from his chosen group of friends. Always following Thor’s choices rather than his own. And he has not listened to counsel in many years. I believe he would listen to you.”

“I really don’t think –“ Darcy said, feeling awkward and bare under the weight of Frigga’s gaze.

“I find your kind fascinating,” she said. “I had not understood Thor’s fascination with Jane, though I respect his choice. I do not understand my son’s fascination with you. Odin chose to send Thor to your realm and I was against it – after all, what could your people possibly teach my son that he and I were unequipped to teach? But I feel I am beginning to see the wisdom in his choice – he was always more fond of your kind than I.”

Darcy didn’t even know where to begin unpacking that. “I don’t understand,” she said.

Frigga smiled gently and sadly. “Perhaps not,” she said. “But it seems I have little choice to leave my son in your hands.” She picked up Darcy’s hands, cradling them in her own and running her thumbs across her palms. “It is an odd thing as a mother to come to realise others can give your children things you cannot. When they are young they look to you for everything. But you have reached my son where I have failed. For that you will always have my gratitude, and I would ask that you bring him home to me.”

“I don’t know if I can,” said Darcy, biting back the irrational urge to cry. “I don’t even know where he is.”

“Oh, I’m sure he will find you. Much as you found the map. As I said, mortals do not set foot in our realm with little purpose. That map was meant to be found, and I believe you were meant to find it. What you will find at the end of it remains to be seen, but I believe you have the capacity for remarkable things.”

Darcy didn’t feel particularly remarkable. She mostly felt very small, pinned under the age and weight of Frigga’s presence. It was sometimes easy to forget how long the Aesir had lived, but not now. She felt hopelessly out of her depth, and unsure.

“What if I can’t?”

Frigga gave her hands a squeeze. “Did I not already say you are welcome here? You will remain so, and remain a friend of my house. You have already done us a service – that will not change. But you must understand: I love my son very much. What kind of mother would I be if I did not try?” She let Darcy’s hands drop.

Darcy flexed her fingers, which suddenly felt cold without Frigga’s presence. “I’ll try,” she said, her throat feeling dry. “I promise, I’ll try.”

“That’s all we can do,” Frigga said gently. “And all I ask.” She turned toward the horizon again, sighing. “I have made you miss the sunset. I apologise.”

“It’s fine,” said Darcy.

“Perhaps,” replied Frigga. “But I will leave you in peace nonetheless.”

Darcy stayed there until long after it was dark and her fingers were nearly frozen to the railing from the chill night air. She looked up at the stars and wondered why here, amongst all this splendour, she felt so very small and alone.

She found Thor the next day huddled together with Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun and Sif, with Jane standing slightly to one side looking utterly exasperated.

“Oh thank god,” Jane said. “There you are.” She dragged her by the arm over to the huddle. “They’re in full adventure bro mode.”

“Darcy!” Thor exclaimed good-naturedly. “Splendid. We are making arrangements for our journey.”

Fandral flung an arm casually around her shoulder so naturally she wondered if it was simply a reflex responding to a female presence. “Yes! It has been far too long since we have ventured out in search of excitement.”

Darcy shrugged his arm off as politely and she could. “What’s the plan, then?”

“There has been some discussion about party members,” said Fandral, diplomatically.

“They don’t want us to go,” said Jane, more bluntly.

“It is no insult to your battle prowess, of course,” Volstagg chimed in. “But true adventure requires an element of danger –“

“I will be there,” said Thor, flatly. “There will be no danger.”

“Then there will be little adventure,” Fandral pointed out, begrudgingly.

“If my future wife is not welcome –”

And this, apparently, was the sore spot. Which wasn’t surprising, really. An awkward silence fell over the group.

“I mean, I guess I could stay behind,” said Jane.

“Nonsense,” said Thor, with forced joviality. “Where I go, my future wife is also welcome. Is she not?”

Fandral seemed to shake himself. “Of course,” he said, placing his hand across his chest and bowing to Jane. “My apologies.”

“And mine,” added Volstagg, more good-naturedly. “Forgive us, for we were caught up in the folly of our youth. We forget sometimes that our friend is growing up.” He slapped Thor on the shoulder.

Sif watched all this from behind half-hooded eyes, appearing bored, but when her gaze turned to Darcy she felt its scrutiny like a laser. “And what’s to say we cannot have an adventure with ladies present?” said Sif, teasingly.

Volstagg and Fandral launched into a series of increasingly elaborate and hilarious apologies to her, which ended with Fandral on one knee while Volstagg was singing some kind of ditty about her warrior prowess with his hands raised up to the heavens.

Hogun, who seemed both utterly used to and immune to this, simply turned to Thor and said, “and on a more practical note, how do we intend to get there? It was always Loki who sourced the paths for us. Finding gaps between the nine realms was always his speciality. It will be difficult without him.”

Like a bomb had gone off the whole group fell silent once more. Thor smiled in a way that both looked stretched and pained and said, “I am certain between us we can find a path ourselves.”

“Hogun has a point,” said Fandral, “loathe as I am to admit it. We do not know how to navigate the unmarked expanse, nor what this so-called ‘passage’ has to offer. We cannot follow it if we cannot pass through the front door. He may have been a traitor but he was cursed useful in a pinch.”

Thor looked dark, while Sif’s expression turned murderous and Volstagg shifted his feet awkwardly.

“Oh, come now,” Fandral said.

“Shall we look at the map?” Jane suggested, her tone light but underlined with a tightness that Darcy knew meant her friend was internally freaking the hell out. Which, to be fair, so was Darcy. She wanted nothing more than to tell them all to shut up.

They pored over the map together, re-reading the directions aloud. Jane shifted her feet beside Darcy, and reached a hand out to grab the map. “What’s this?” she asked.

She tilted the map up to catch the light, running her hand across the blank stretch between the passage and the city. “There’s something here,” she said. “Feel it.”

Thor gently ran his fingers over the map’s surface, frowning. “There is a pattern,” he admitted. “But it is slight.”

They tilted it this way and that in the light, but couldn’t make any of it out.

“Perhaps it’s simply a natural texture to the hide?” Fandral pointed out.

“I don’t think so,” Jane said, thoughtfully. “It’s only on this section here – and it feels regular, somehow. There must be some way to see it…”

“Maybe we need a different light?” Darcy suggested.

As one, the group turned to her. “You know,” said Sif, casually, “she might be on to something.”

“Great, thanks,” muttered Darcy. “No need to sound surprised.”

Sif ignored her. “What about Heimdall? He knows more of the realms and their scribal methods than any other on Asgard. Perhaps he will recognise something that might reveal its secrets.”

“At last!” exclaimed Volstagg. “A good idea.”

Sif smirked smugly. “My ideas usually are.”

“Not true,” said Hogun flatly. “I recall our last visit to Muspelheim.”

“That was not my idea –” began Sif, hotly.

“I am certain it was,” said Volstagg. “Thor?”

“It was definitely your idea, Sif,” Thor suggested, chuckling.

They bickered the rest of the way to the Bifröst.

“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” said Jane, softly.

Darcy linked her arm with hers pulling her close. “Why?”

“I don’t know – they make it sound dangerous. And they have a point, I can’t really defend myself. Neither can you. If something happens…”

“If something happens Thor will take care of it,” said Darcy. “I mean I’m pretty sure he’d chew his own arm off rather than let anything happen to you.”

“Still…” said Jane, softly.

“Do you want to go?” Darcy stopped, pulling Jane to a stop with her by the arm and then giving it a gentle, friendly squeeze. “Because if you don’t we definitely don’t have to – I’ll stay here with you.”

“Of course I want to go!” said Jane, throwing her arms out. “Another realm? We could go to a lost oasis, see things no one has seen! A culture entirely untouched for millennia.”

Darcy chuckled. “I knew it. We’ll be fine. If you want to go, we should go.”

Jane looked sheepish. “But I feel like we’re spoiling it… by being a liability.”

“Oh, stuff them,” said Darcy. “They’ve had upteen billion years of farting around to adventure with. Surely we’re allowed one? And I don’t think they will actually mind. It might be nice – you’d be able to get to know them better.”

“That’s true,” Jane said, tugging at her sleeves nervously.

“They’ll like you fine. I mean, Thor’s over the moon, and they like Thor – plus they’ve always been nice.”

“True,” said Jane.

“Stop worrying. Just have fun,” said Darcy. Then after a pause, she amended, “I realise how stupid it is to ask you to stop worrying. Maybe let’s just worry about how we’re gonna get there instead?”

Jane chuckled, pulling Darcy to her side and trotting along to catch up with Thor and the others. “I guess that’s as good a thing to worry about as any.”

“That’s the spirit!” said Darcy, punching the air with her fist.

“Agreed!” chimed in Fandral, joining them. “Adventure awaits!”

Jane’s grin grew so wide it seemed to stretch her face. Thor turned back and looked fondly over his shoulder at her.

“We are here,” he said, ushering Jane up to his side.

The Bifröst was one of Darcy’s favourite places in Asgard. The great window showed a sky full of stars that seemed close enough to reach out and touch. She nodded politely at Heimdall, whose sharp gaze watched her as she made her way around to the window.

Thor laid the map flat out in front of Heimdall, and began asking him a series of questions about realms and places Darcy had never heard about. Jane peered curiously over her shoulder the whole while.

Darcy felt Sif approach her and stand silently next to her looking out at the sky. “I am curious as to what you wish to accomplish on this trip,” said Sif, not mincing her words. “Why do you wish to come?”

“Uh,” said Darcy, stupidly. “Adventure, I guess? I don’t know – I’m just very curious.”

Sif looked at her appraisingly. “And that is all?”

Darcy frowned. “Yes, of course. What else?”

Sif gave an odd half-shrug. “It concerns me that you were the one to find the map. Events set in motion by mortals have a way of becoming… complicated.”

“What do you mean?” She felt a small shudder pass through her – Frigga had expressed something of a similar sentiment.

Sif gave the same odd shrugging motion. “Your fates are hard to quantify,” she said. “You are erratic and brief – unpredictable.”

“Do you think this is going to be dangerous?” Darcy pressed.

“Perhaps,” said Sif. “But that is always a possibility.”

Darcy turned back out to the stars. “You know, whenever I have a chat with you guys I feel like I’m only understanding maybe half of what’s being said.”

To her surprise, Sif laughed. “I often feel the same.”

Darcy shot her a lopsided smile. “Well, at least it’s not just me.”

“No.” Sif held out her arm, and when Darcy offered hers, grasped it in a Roman handshake. “I welcome your presence here. Life has grown dull – and if nothing else, this should certainly not be dull.”

They were interrupted by Heimdall. The observatory around them began to spin, whirring over Darcy’s head in a great arc and the aperture to view the stars began to close like an iris. Heimdall placed a glass circle, curved like a lens, over the aperture, and stepped back. It was Thor who held the map up to the light – and Jane gasped.

The starlight reflected bright onto its surface, but even brighter still, silver lines began to appear on the map, small dots joined with thin lines, forming an odd, somewhat irregular pattern of geometric shapes.

“Well,” said Fandral, “that’s progress.”

“They’re constellations,” Jane said, reverently. “It’s a star map.” She pulled a notebook out of a pocket and began to quickly sketch them down.

“We have a map,” said Volstagg, triumphantly.

“Well, we have a seasonal map,” said Jane. “They move.” She squinted at the page. “It says Midsummer Day.”

“That is in two weeks on Àlfheim.”

Hogun gave a low whistle. “That is very little time.”

“But these stars are on the other side of the passage,” Sif pointed out. “Midsummer might not be at the same time.”

“How can it not be at the same time?” Darcy asked. “I thought the map was of Àlfheim.”

“It begins on Àlfheim,” said Heimdall. “It leads beyond that.”

“But,” said Darcy, feeling somewhat stupid though not quite sure why, “we’re walking there. Right?”

“It is a tunnel,” said Heimdall, “connecting Àlfheim to another realm, outside the nine.”

“But we’re walking,” said Darcy. “You can’t walk to another planet.”

The look Heimdall gave her very clearly said you can. Jane was looking as bemused as Darcy felt.

“Splendid,” said Fandral, who didn’t seem bothered by any of this in the slightest. “Shall we leave at first light tomorrow? Midsummer will be upon us quickly.”

“I don’t recognise any of these constellations,” said Jane, looking at her sketch. “We don’t know how long the planet’s orbit takes, or how far this map represents. We could be waiting a long time.”

“Nonsense,” said Thor, and Jane shot him a look that would have withered a smaller man. Thor was – likely deliberately – oblivious. “I am certain it will be fine.”

“On what grounds?” Jane asked, in exasperation.

“Well,” said Fandral, “it would be a poor adventure if we were forced to sit for years waiting for the stars to align.”

The rest nodded as if this was in any way evidence that things were going to turn out fine.

“But that’s a very real possibility,” said Jane.

“Nonsense,” echoed Volstagg. “We would not have found the map, so close to Midsummer’s Day, if it were to lead us so astray.”

“Wait,” said Jane, flatly, “are you suggesting that because we are setting out on an adventure, the universe is going to align to make it more convenient?”

“Pretty much,” said Thor, grinning.

“But that doesn’t make sense!”

Thor wrapped an arm around her shoulders good-naturedly and began to site examples from their previous exploits that proved the point. The rest of the group began to eagerly chime in. Darcy heard Jane shout, “anecdotal evidence doesn’t prove anything!” as they made their way back across the bridge.

Darcy lingered awkwardly behind, watching them go.

“Ask your question,” said Heimdall, his voice low and patient.

“Do you know where he is?” Darcy asked, unable to make eye contact.

“He is hidden from my sight, as he has been for many years now. He reappears from time to time, but not now.”

“Oh,” said Darcy, unable to keep the disappointment from her voice.

“From what I have seen,” said Heimdall, mildly. “He will find you.”

A truly horrifying thought crossed Darcy’s mind. “And, uh, what have you, uh, seen?”

Heimdall looked amused. “Nothing to be concerned about. As I said, Loki is adept at hiding himself from my sight.”

“Oh, good,” said Darcy, blushing so furiously she was surprised there was blood still circulating in her body. “Well, that’s just… that’s good.”

“Frigga is not the only one who would see him returned home,” said Heimdall, unexpectedly.

“Were you… close?” Darcy asked.

Heimdall looked out across the sea of stars. “We have long memories. Loki has done much harm, but also much good. You will find few here who do not also remember him as he once was.”

“Do you… do you think he’ll come back?”

Heimdall’s piercing gaze turned to her. “You are in a better position to answer that than I.”

She didn’t exactly run away, but after a rushed thank you, her exit was fairly hasty. When she’d caught up with the group Fandral gave her an odd look, but she simply avoided his gaze and walked purposefully back towards the city.

“This is silly,” she said aloud. She was holding the pressed carnation Loki had given her on Vanaheim in her hand, standing in a raggedy old t-shirt she was using as pyjamas. She put it under pillow.

Then she pulled it back out and put it on the bedside table. She blew out the lamps and stared up at the dark ceiling for what felt like at least ten minutes before she cracked and shoved the flower roughly back under her pillow.

“This isn’t going to work,” she muttered.

It seemed like hours before she drifted off, lying in the dark tossing and turning and wondering – jumping at every small noise. But at some point she must have fallen asleep, because Loki was sitting at the foot of her bed looking bemused.

She sat up, tugging the covers up to her chest and wrapping her arms around her knees. “Hi,” she said.

He blinked slowly.

“You called me,” he said, at last.

Wordlessly, she pulled the flower out from under her pillow and dropped it on the bed. He picked it up, turning it over and over in his long, nimble fingers.

“Are you… injured?” he asked, at last, looking her over. He placed the flower carefully on her bedside table.

“What? No,” she said. “I just…”

He narrowed his eyes, then stood up, pacing around the room. “Why have you called me here?” He walked briskly around the room, peering out the window and popping his head out the door, looking for all the world like a skittish animal.

Darcy frowned. “Where are you? What have you been doing?”

He looked sharply at her. “Why do you wish to know?”

“Because you’re acting weirder than usual?” Darcy asked. She threw the covers aside and stood, leaning against the bedpost. “Are you alright?”

Why have you called me here?” he asked, sharply. He crossed the room and stood before her. His arms reached out as if he were about to grab her shoulders but he seemed to think better of it and he let them fall to his sides.

“I missed you, alright?” she said, flatly. “I just… I missed you. Which is stupid because there was a definite point in time when I would have literally paid to get rid of you, but here we are. And everyone here keeps talking to me about you, and I don’t know what to do because I don’t think I actually know you at all and I don’t want to let anyone down and –“

She was suddenly enveloped in his arms, pulled tight against his chest, and she felt his hands tangle in her hair. He shifted against her, turning his face closer to her and burying it in her hair. His thumb stretched out and traced lazy circles over her cheek.

“It’s so awkward,” she mumbled against his chest. “Being here – everyone knows.”

Loki snorted, and she felt the gust of his breath, warm against her scalp. “Asgard is full as ever of busybodies,” he said. “It is, after all, something of an insular community.”

“I’m coming to realise that,” she said. She snorted, and curled her fingers against his leather jerkin. “Small town syndrome, in space.”

He tucked her head underneath his chin for a moment, and they stood there in silence. Then, Loki released her, stepping back, and she felt his fingers trail down her arm as he let his hands fall once again to his sides.

“I often felt watched in Asgard – as a child of the king my actions were naturally under scrutiny. However with so few of us, it was impossible to go anywhere without being recognised, watched and often, without having my behaviour reported back to Odin.”

“That sounds… intense,” Darcy said, carefully.

His eyes glinted with dark humour as he looked at her. “Indeed,” he said, sardonically. “Nevertheless, it had its benefits: it was a desire to escape from Asgard that led to my cultivation of the knowledge of secret paths and magical arts of concealment.”

“Yeah?” Darcy asked wryly. “How’s that working out for you?”

He looked singularly unimpressed. “Regardless of what you may think, it served me many times as a useful skill. It made me useful to Thor’s friends, if nothing else. And for a time it gave me peace.”

As if she couldn’t stop herself she asked, “Were you ever happy?”

He looked contemplative. “Perhaps, once. But that was a long time ago. Before I began to realise certain truths.”

She opened her mouth to speak but he waved his hand dismissively. “Oh, not my parentage, although that was by far the greatest lie of all. Truths about my place in the world – always second best, second son. Always an appendage.”

She swallowed thickly, uncomfortable with how closely Loki’s words mirrored his mother’s and wishing, impulsively and probably childishly, that she could just bring the two of them together to talk it out. After all, she knew from experience that Loki wasn’t usually the talkative type.

“I don’t think –“

“Kindly hold your opinions on events you held no part in. You have seen very little of my family and Thor’s entourage. Do not pretend to know them as well as I.”

She sighed, and watched as Loki’s expression closed off and he wrapped his pride around him like a cloak.

She settled for changing the subject. “I feel a bit useless here. Or, at least, like I’m in the way. Jane’s busy and I’m not really sure what to do with myself most of the time.” She said, at last.

“Oh, I suspect you’ll find something suitably infuriating eventually,” he said. “You usually do.”

“I think you’re the only person who finds me infuriating,” she said flatly, sitting back down on the bend and crossing her legs. “And it’s not exactly a compliment.”

“It wasn’t intended to be one,” he said, perching primly on a side table and crossing his arms. “Living with it was not a pleasant experience.”

“Wow, thanks,” she said, drily, flopping backwards onto her back.

He made a dismissive gesture. “Fortunately you have other qualities. Why are you here?”

“What do you mean?”

He looked at her like she was an idiot. “In Asgard. If you find it so awkward.”

“For Jane,” she said, in the same you’re-a-complete-imbecile tone. “She wanted me here.”

His face screwed up in a scowl. “And you go where she says?”

“She’s a friend, so yeah, I do.”

“Well then you must face the consequences,” he said. “I don’t know what you expect me to do about it.”

“I don’t expect –“ she started furiously, sitting back up. She barely repressed the urge to throw the pillow at his stupid, smug face. “I don’t expect you to do anything. I’m sorry if my feelings are such a terrible inconvenience.”

Loki looked a bit blindsided, but also like he wasn’t going to back down.

“Anyway,” she continued, loudly. “I won’t be on Asgard for very long. We’re going on an adventure.”

“What?” He crossed the room, half throwing himself off the table. He stood, towering over her. “Where?”

“Jesus, calm down.” She scuttled back on the bed. “I don’t know. I found a map – leading to a place called Steinn-something or other.”

Steinnleyndur?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Do you know it?”

“I have never been,” he said, sitting down heavily next to her on the bed. “No one has. Thor and I once intended to go. It is a mysterious place – little record of it exists beyond this map.”

“Yeah, Thor said.”

Loki’s eyes flashed darkly. “Why are you going?”

“Fun?” She shrugged. “I found the map in the library. I want to see what’s there.”

“Thor is a fool,” Loki spat. “It is not safe.”

“I’m sure we’ll be fine. Thor’s coming after all.”

Loki’s eyes flashed dangerous. “Do not goad me.”

“Or what?” she asked. “You’ll hurt me?”

He recoiled as if she’d slapped him. “Why do you persist on mentioning Thor to me?”

“Why not? He is my friend.”

“And I am not?”

“Oh, don’t get petty,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Loki, I think I’ve made it perfectly obvious that I care about what happens to you. Don’t turn this into a pissing contest.”

He seemed somewhat mollified at this.

“Nevertheless,” he repeated, “It is not safe. Even if Thor –” he seemed to almost spit his brother’s name “– is going, especially if it was you who found the map.”

“Why does everyone keep saying that?”

He frowned. “Who is ‘everyone’?”

“Your mother, and Sif.”

“She is not –“

“Yeah, not your mother,” said Darcy. “I know. That’s definitely not what she says.”

Loki’s voice was tight with anger, and he seemed to be grinding words out through his teeth. “Stay out of things you do not understand.”

“I’d love to,” said Darcy sharply. “But Frigga keeps bringing it to me.”

That seemed to stop him short, and he looked taken aback, almost childish with surprise.

“Frigga spoke to you of me?”

“Yeah,” Darcy said. “I think that’s why I wound up calling you. I – She –“

“What does she want?” he asked, bitterly.

“She wants you to come home,” Darcy said.

He stood, and said flatly, “so that’s it, then. Frigga sends you to do her dirty work.”

“No, what the fuck? No.” She stood up, and put her hand on his forearm, pressing her fingers against his pulse point. “No, I’m not – Look, I’m not going to try and make you do anything you don’t want to. She was just worried about you, and… it made me worried. Look, you can go. It’s fine.”

Loki was staring down at her fingers wrapped around his forearm. “I don’t understand this,” he said. “I don’t understand you.”

“I don’t really understand why it’s so complicated,” she said.

“You asked me to leave.” He pried her fingers off his arm, tangling their fingers together briefly before letting go.

“I asked for space,” Darcy said. “But I also recall you saying you’d come back. It’s been nearly a year.”

Loki frowned. “Perhaps I was unclear on how much time you needed – I have not yet completed all that I need to. Should I have returned?”

“I don’t know.” Darcy threw her arms up. “Maybe? Yes? It would have been nice to know you were still alive. Maybe the occasional ‘hi, how are you?’”

He looked at her wearily. “I cannot come to you in Asgard.”

“No, fair enough. When I get back from this adventure, when I’m home, maybe we could meet?”

Loki looked pensive. Then, like the winds changing his mood seemed to lift. He flashed her a cheeky grin. “Perhaps.” He pressed a kiss to her temple. “I had no idea you missed me so terribly.”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Darcy said, flatly.

He was burying his nose in her hair, and she could feel his breath against her ear, raising her skin in goosebumps all over. “Oh, no, but you flatter me so well.”

She shoved at him, and he laughed, circling around her to run his hands down her shoulders and press a gentle, teasing kiss to the back of her neck. Almost on impulse her head fell back to rest against his shoulder, pressing back against him.

“I apologise,” he said, and she stopped short, whirling around in surprise.

“I apologise,” he repeated. “I did not mean to worry you.”

She stared open-mouthed at him until he began to scowl. “Surely it is not that remarkable to hear me apologise.”

“Pretty sure it is,” she said, gathering her wits back around her. “Pretty sure I have literally never heard that before.”

“Very funny.”

“No, hang on, I’ve gotta write this down. Do you think I could have this in writing? No one is ever gonna believe me.”

He grabbed at her as she scuttled about the room pretending to look for paper. “Do you wish me to completely abase myself, then? To beg?”

“No,” she replied. “Just don’t be an ass.” Then after a beat she added. “Well, as much as you can.”

His smile was somewhat bitter, and he gave an odd, mocking bow.

“What did you mean when you said it was dangerous that I’d found the map?” Darcy asked.

“Frigga did not explain?” Loki asked.

“No.”

He sighed, and sat down on the bed. “Are you familiar with the Norns?” he asked.

Darcy frowned. “Yeah, they tell the future, right?”

“That is something of a simplification,” Loki said. “But broadly speaking, yes. They extrapolate likely futures – or create them.”

“Extrapolate?”

“Guessing at a probable future is child’s play if you have enough data,” Loki said. “The Norns are able to predict likely outcomes to any event – except, notably, where mortals are involved. Here they become more erratic, and more invasive.”

“Why?”

Loki shrugged. “I suspect it is a question of data. The Aesir are long lived, as are the other races of the nine realms. We have made many decisions over a long period of time – we are, in essence, predictable. But you,” he gave her an amused half-smile, “are utterly unpredictable. Your kind appear and disappear, constantly breeding and dying. You are like fruit flies, gone in a day. The Norns find you hard to predict – and so, when our paths cross, they tend to interfere.”

“I’m not a fruit fly,” said Darcy.

“No,” said Loki, musingly. He reached out, touching the back of her fingers with his own very gently, as if he were about to grab her hand, and then dropping his hand back into his lap. “You are not.”

Darcy’s heart was racing a mile-a-minute, and her fingers tingled where he’d touched them. It had been so long, so long – and it was oddly chaste, especially given their previous encounters. He was staring down at his lap, looking lost in thought, and she barely restrained the impulse to run her hands gently through his hair.

He seemed to shake himself out of something of a stupor. “However,” he said, looking up at her. “The Norns always take an interest when a mortal sets us in motion – and it does not always turn out well.”

“So you really think it could be dangerous?” she asked.

“I think Thor is sufficiently self-assured to assume it won’t be,” said Loki. “He did always have a high opinion of himself.”

Darcy sat on the bed beside him, crossing her legs and tucking her feet up underneath her. Loki’s gaze was locked on the hem of her shirt as it rode up her leg, and she could see his Adam’s apple move as he swallowed.

“But, what could possibly happen that he couldn’t handle?”

Loki flashed her a vaguely disgusted look. “Go, then,” he said, looking away. “Enjoy your grand adventure.”

“That’s not what I meant –”

“I know what you meant,” he said, sharply.

“Do you have to be so damn prickly?” she asked. “I’m sick of arguing.”

“Then go,” he said, heavily. “Go explore Steinnleyndur with Thor the Mighty.”

“I don’t need your permission –”

“Certainly not,” he said, mockingly.

“Could you just stop?”

“What?” he demanded, sharply. “Stop what?”

“Flying off the handle.” She threw her arms out in exasperation. “All I want to know is if I go on this trip, am I going to die? Because I’m not really interested in decorating space with my corpse, if it’s all the same to you, when I could be staying home and doing living things like breathing and not being dead and, apparently, arguing with you just because I have the audacity to be friends with someone you hate. I’m not going to treat Thor like crap just because I know you.”

“He is rash,” said Loki, quietly, sitting eerily still. “And reckless. And perhaps underestimates your fragility.” Then, as if swallowing something vile, he added, “but he is an exceedingly competent fighter and would not willingly or knowingly allow you to come to harm. You are… safe with him.”

“I think you overestimate my fragility.”

“I have done so in the past,” said Loki. “It is likely I will do so again. But nonetheless, you are relatively defenceless, and the universe is very vast. Pocket realms, like the one you intend to visit, are volatile, and unwatched worlds, and the paths you must take to get there come always at a price.”

“What kind of price?”

“That remains to be seen,” he replied, enigmatically.

Darcy swallowed, tucking her knees up to her chest. “I wish you were coming.”

Loki let out a hollow bark of laughter at that. “I doubt I would be welcome.”

“I don’t know…” She rested her chin on her knee and deliberately avoided eye contact. “Before I came here I would have probably agreed, now I’m not so sure.”

He sat silently and still beside her for a long moment, then, as if reaching some unvoiced conclusion, he abruptly stood and offered her his hand. She took it, and in one smooth motion he pulled her to her feet and then flush up against him.

“As you wish,” he said, with a grin.

Then, abruptly he caught her mouth with his. In an instant it all came flooding back, every way he’d made her feel, the raw, helpless desperation of his kisses – like a man afraid that each one would be his last. She had just begun to tangle her hands in his hair, pressing herself up against the long, lean line of his body when he broke the kiss.

“See you soon,” he said, grinning wickedly.

The world around them began to dissolve, and Darcy sat up with a start in her bed.

“Well, fuck,” she said out loud to her empty room.