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Kill all the pretty lies

Chapter Text

Contrary to what might’ve been popular belief, Darcy did in fact have a life outside being an undergrad underling in a highly classified physics project that she only grasped the basics of.

 

It was a pretty simple life, true. It involved a lot of YouTube and Facebook and other stellar time-wasters, her actually accomplishing work while she bitched about doing it, and then bitching again some more after it was done just to keep all her bases covered. And somewhere in there was class-work for whatever she was taking online at the moment, and, whenever she had the chance, mocking any suited-up drone that dropped by from SHIELD.

 

Even further outside, though, were the other significant yet often overlooked fundamental layers of her existence. The crust to her pie, as it were.

 

Like how she had two brothers - one older, one younger - a mom she talked to fairly often, and a dad she talked to not nearly as much. Like how she had a string of former boyfriends that’d ended in a series of mostly amicable breakups, some of whom she still occasionally Facebook-stalked. Like how her major was Political Science and she was actually kind of interested in that, dammit.

 

Like how she actually did have friends.

 

She was pretty sure a lot of people, like say, Jane and Erik, had at some point taken it for granted that she didn’t. Possibly because she didn’t get along with anyone in Puente Antigo because people in Puente Antigo sucked.

 

But in fact there were others she was close to because as if it hadn’t already been clearly established: hello, internet.

 

One such of these was Ruth. Darcy had met Ruth her second semester freshman year and about immediately approved of her crazy sense of humor, as well as her hearty appreciations for both sarcasm and fruit rollups. They’d stayed in contact ever since, even after Darcy had found herself somewhat more permanently relocated to no-seriously-I-can’t-talk-about-it-it’s-classified Puente Antigo.

 

‘Okay,’ Ruth had at one point written to Darcy, ‘but my Christmas present this year had better be a dead alien’s toenail clipping. Covertly disguised as one of those necklaces that’s my name on a grain of rice.’

 

Even though all they had were emails, there were honestly some times when reading a message from Ruth was the brightest part of her day.

 

Which was why, when Ruth ended up working some archaeological dig in Colorado, like not even a full day’s drive away, and she emailed Darcy eagerly telling her she should swing by and visit the site for an extended weekend, Darcy’s reaction was basically, holy shit, no brainer.

 

Because even if it was four days in the dirt with yet another group of professional scientists whose work she might not understand that well, it was Ruth, and not having to listen to an astrophysicist moon over a literal god and a rainbow bridge, and maybe possibly some cute anthropologist guys, and she could think of a lot worse ways to spend a weekend than that.

 

And really, Darcy figured she probably could use a change in scenery anyway. Because as boring as it was on the day-to-day, it was still trying to create a wormhole for a secret government organization so they could reach a land of mystic Vikings.

 

It could only be a good thing to take a break and do something relatively normal for a change.

 

*

 

“Are we there yet?”

 

“Dude, seriously? You really going to start with that?”

 

About three paces in front of his buddy on the dirt path, Jake looked back with clear disbelief.

 

Casey met his gaze and shrugged, not the least bit ashamed.

 

“It feels like we’ve been walking out here for hours.”

 

“Yeah. Like, one and a half.” Jake started walking again. Casey had little choice but to follow along or risk getting left behind. “That guy back in town said it was a two hour hike to the site. So suck it up, pussy, and keep those feet moving.”

 

Casey groaned, rolling his eyes, which prompted Jake to shoot him another look.

 

“Hey.” He laughed incredulously. “Whole reason we’re stuck doing this is because you didn’t want to drive from campus, remember? You wanted to take the bus. Tell me, hot shot. Still in love with that idea now?”

 

“My car’s a beater, Jake,” Casey retorted, irritated. “Like hell I’m dragging it all the way out to fuck-nowhere in the middle of the woods.”

 

He glanced around, like the very presence of the trees and moss offended him. “What I don’t get is why the hell we’re even doing this. I mean, it’s Bio 102. How badly do you need extra credit in Bio 102?”

 

“Speak for yourself, man.” Jake shifted the strap of his backpack. “If I don’t pull at least a C, it doesn’t count for my major. And I’m not sitting through those lectures again. One weekend in ‘fuck-nowhere’ volunteering; a hundred points. Sounds like easy math to me.”

 

“You wouldn’t need it if you didn’t keep sleeping through lab,” Casey said.

 

Jake ignored that. “Besides, do you know what’s at these archaeological sites?”

 

“Um…old stuff? Dirt?” Casey guessed badly on purpose, uninterested. “Rocks? Bugs?”

 

“No; anthropology majors, that’s what are at these sites.”

 

“So?”

 

So, you ever taken an Anthro course? It’s like eighty percent chicks.” Jake stopped to grin at him. “Hot chicks. The nerdy kind of hot.”

 

Casey didn’t know whether he wanted to laugh. “See. It’s all starting to make sense now.”

 

Jake moved more purposefully in comparison to his slow, resentful steps, so he quickly outpaced him again. “I’m telling you, pal. When we get there…you’ll see.”

 

Casey stared at the trees because he needed a break from that stupid expression on Jake’s face. “You know if you spent less time thinking with your dick and a little more with your textbook we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

 

When the other boy didn’t respond, he turned to give him a more pointed look…and froze in surprise as he didn’t see Jake anywhere.

 

“Jake? Man, where did you go?”

 

The path before him was mostly clear, pretty much a straight-shot that’d been cut between trees, going at a slight uphill angle. But a few feet ahead it curved behind an oak’s trunk, the foliage thick enough he couldn’t see past it.

 

Casey marched toward that spot, figuring Jake must’ve moved fast enough to reach it and be hidden from him on the other side.

 

“Jake,” he called again. “Jake. Very fucking funny. It’ll serve you right when we get to the place and these ‘honeys’ you’re looking forward to are nothing but a bunch of-”

 

But on the other side of the tree cover, there was no sign of him either. Casey started feeling less pissed off and began to be a little alarmed. Unless Jake had broken into a run, and he really didn’t think he was enough of a douche to do that to him, he shouldn’t have disappeared so completely.

 

So where in the world had he gone?

 

Casey turned around, on the wild chance he’d missed his friend behind him somehow, and that’s when he saw the rock, tucked securely beneath the shade of the oak tree’s branches.

 

It was a gray boulder of a thing, sort of shaped like wide oval. It was about as tall as he was and with something manmade definitely carved into it. He went for a closer look.

 

He had to crouch a bit, squinting, as he brushed off some of the moss. There was a human-looking image that took up the central shape of the rock, female he thought. But below her were two much smaller images, figures in profile locked in combat.

 

The one on the right was a man with a long beard and wearing a helmet, wielding a sword or maybe a stick. The other one; Casey squinted harder…most of the details were faded away…

 

“Gotten lost, have you.”

 

Casey whirled around at the voice, startled.

 

There was a woman standing in the path where there sure hadn’t been anyone before, eyeing him with a cool smile.

 

Casey had to stare at her. She was unnaturally pale and wearing all black, hood covering her hair. There were tattoos along her cheekbones, another on her chin. A freaking sword hung from her belt, and it didn’t exactly look like the cheap replica kind.

 

“I-” he opened his mouth to speak, dazed, but she was already taking brisk steps towards him.

 

“Don’t worry,” she said. Her voice was gravelly and completely devoid of emotion. “I’ll make sure you get where you need to.”

 

And then she was grabbing his face between her hands, fingers digging into his skin, her grip like a vise.

 

The woman opened her mouth wide, baring a set of inhuman fangs, her eyes boring into Casey’s, who found himself unable to move, unable to even blink.

 

There was some sort of light coming off of his skin. It spiraled through the air, twisting itself into a single thread, which the woman was drawing into her open mouth with an unending hiss.

 

Casey’s vision was fading, and he could feel himself getting weaker, his pulse rising, his stomach clenching as his lungs went into spasms, struggling to breathe. He tried to pull away but he couldn’t, there was nothing he could do, and he could feel the life leaving his body…

 

The woman let go, making a small, distracted sound of satisfaction.

 

As she released him Casey’s body and clothes, even the items he’d been carrying, crumpled into dust and disintegrated completely, everything there was to him vanishing into the air. Not leaving behind a single trace.

 

*

 

So much time, so little to do - to twist a common phrase.

 

Not that Loki did not know how to wait for something. Indeed, patience was an art form he’d long perfected, many years ago. One oft overlooked and underappreciated, dismissed as useless by the Asgardians he had grown up alongside…like magic, and cunning.

 

And deception.

 

No, Loki knew that sometimes, if you wanted something, the best way to get it was to bide your time. Watching. Waiting for all the right pieces to fall into place.

 

Then, and only then, would it be worthwhile to make a move.

 

Precisely what he was up to, at present: waiting – for all the seeds he’d planted to come to fruition. To see what developed. And then decide, how next to proceed.

 

There was only so much he could do on Midgard right then, anyway. Every move he made was a cautious one, using magic to cloak his steps, to keep himself hidden from Heimdall’s ever-vigilant eye.

 

He knew everyone on Asgard had to think he was dead. Small wonder, considering that’s what Loki himself expected, when he let himself fall.

 

But he had survived, and no one knew to even look for him, giving him quite the advantage. One he planned to utilize as long as he possibly could.

 

Eventually he would be ready to face off again with Thor, as soon as he had a plan together. Right now he was still in the stage of gathering resources.

 

The power source that the human scientists at SHIELD were working on, for example. Loki made sure to keep a very close eye on that. He’d also dug his fingers into one of the men involved, Erik Selvig; using magic to pull his strings a bit, keep him twisting in the directions Loki preferred, the mortal of course none the wiser.

 

Even when Loki wasn’t manipulating his puppet he made a point to keep observing him. Wouldn’t do to have his pawn getting unwanted ideas of its own, deciding to go off-script.

 

So like many days he found himself in Selvig’s workspace, the one he shared with Thor’s chosen mortal paramour, Jane Foster. The woman that thought she actually stood a chance of reinventing the Bifrost.

 

Loki supposed he should’ve been indignant at her arrogance, but really, he found the idea more intriguing than anything. And he’d seen enough of her notes, understood just enough of the Earth science, to know she might actually not be all that far off.

 

Not that he had any intention of making things easier for her.

 

Loki leaned against the countertop, arms folded, invisible as he watched the scientist search through the notes on her desk, flustered.

 

“Erik,” she called, flipping over the same notebook for the third time. “Erik!”

 

“Hmm?” The other mortal wandered in, mug of coffee in hand. Jane waved her hands at him.

 

“The graphs I had made up of that data on aurora clusters. Have you seen them?” Frustrated, she returned to futilely shuffling her papers around. “I swear that they were right here, but I can’t find them anywhere.”

 

“Wouldn’t be the first time something’s gone missing over these past few months,” Selvig remarked sagely, rubbing his forehead. “Think we all must be working too hard.”

 

Part of the man’s exhaustion was, actually, a side-effect of all the magic he’d experienced in a very short period of time. Not that he stood any chance of knowing that. Feeling particularly callous that day, Loki gestured with his fingers – Selvig grimaced as he took a sip of his drink and discovered it had turned ice cold.

 

Cursing, he approached the coffeepot. “Maybe Darcy knows where it is.”

 

“Maybe I know where what is?” Their assistant bounded into the room as if on cue.

 

“My aurora graphs.” Jane slammed the cover of a book shut. “This is ridiculous. They were right in my hand not half an hour ago, now I can’t find them anywhere!”

 

“They didn’t just grow legs and boogie on out of here,” the other woman replied. She took in the state of the desk. “They’ve gotta be around someplace. It is kind of a major disaster area.”

 

Jane glared at her, looking for a target to her anger. “And whose fault is that?”

 

Darcy only rolled her eyes and went to the kitchenette. “You don’t pay to me clean. You want a maid use some of SHIELD’s funding to hire one. Or maybe they can send over one of their secret agents. Have them do something remotely useful for us for a change.”

 

As she opened up a cupboard she added, “By the way, Erik, have you thought about that thing I asked you?”

 

“The…” He gazed blankly at her, puzzled; it seemed like he vaguely remembered having this conversation but couldn’t recall any specifics. “The what?”

 

She came back over, unwrapping the foil from one of those rectangular pastries she seemed to like so much. “I asked if you wouldn’t mind giving me a ride to the bus station tomorrow, right?” She took a bite, pulling a face at him. “Wow, you are going totally senile.”

 

He gave her a dirty look but didn’t comment. “I think I can probably do that.”

 

“Cool, thanks.” She sat herself in a chair next to one of the computers, swiveling around on its wheels. Joking, she went, “You guys gonna be able to get along without me for a whole four days?”

 

There was a crash as Jane let a stack of binders drop to the floor, livid at her lack of success finding what she was looking for, and then stormed out of the room to continue her search elsewhere.

 

Meeting Darcy’s eyes, Selvig deadpanned, “I’m sure we’ll find some way to manage.”

 

Drinking his coffee, he continued, “Where did you say you were going again? An archaeological dig?”

 

“Yeah; a friend of mine from school is working on it. Some kind of prehistoric, cave people site. I guess there’s evidence of a long term settlement and some human remains and stuff.” She chewed her pastry. “You know, it’s actually kind of funny: Ruth said that the people running the excavation think some of the artifacts look almost Viking-like in design.”

 

Loki had just been on the verge of deciding to leave the mortals alone, for now. But hearing that got his attention.

 

“Oh?” he prompted; and like a good little puppet, Selvig repeated out loud, “Oh?”

 

“Yeah. Like the iconography’s really similar. Like, creepily similar. Especially when you consider how long ago these guys must’ve lived and it’s not like they could’ve met any Norsemen themselves face-to-face.”

 

“Well there’s always the possibility of a similar origin between two cultures,” Selvig offered. He frowned as he tried to shake off the daze Loki’s prodding had momentarily thrown him into.

 

“Yeah, that’s true,” Darcy said.

 

“Or, who knows…” Selvig chuckled. “Maybe they crossed paths with some ancient visitors from Asgard.”

 

Almost funny that he mentioned it. It was a thought that crossed Loki’s mind as well.

 

It wasn’t impossible: highly improbable, but by no means impossible. He knew that warriors had been travelling from Asgard to the other realms since long before they’d been worshipped as gods by the Old Norse, long before even the war with Jotunheim.

 

And surely there would’ve been some instances where they’d have made on the locals an…impression.

 

Loki decided right then it was worth checking out. He would follow the mortal girl on her little trip and see these artifacts for himself. Who knew; if there really was a connection to Asgard, he might find something useful.

 

Something he could use in his inevitable war against his brother.

 

“Yeah, right,” Darcy was saying, with a sigh. “Well, as neat as that might be, I hope it’s just a coincidence. I could use a break from the whole horned helmet, road to Valhalla trip for awhile.”

 

“Real Viking sailors didn’t actually wear horned helmets,” Selvig corrected her automatically.

 

“Whatever.”

 

And then Darcy let out a squeal as she went falling to the floor, her chair pulled out from under her by an invisible force.

 

As she groaned and rubbed her injured body, Selvig helping her back up, Loki scowled at her.

 

Impetuous little mortal. In a way he hoped she was right after all. The less time he had to spend in her vicinity, the better.

 

*

 

The battle was over, and they had fought hard, and won.

 

Odin Borson removed his helmet, drawing in a breath of the Midgard evening air.

 

Turning his head, he looked to his Asgardian kinsmen, who were already lost to the glory of a successful fight’s aftermath, roaring and beating their shields with their fists.

 

The human warriors they had fought alongside raised their clubs and stone blades to the sky, shaking them as they celebrated their victory with howls and shrill cries.

 

Their weapons might have been crude, their bodies unarmored and mortal, but they had battled fiercely. They had proven themselves more than worthy to be friends of the sons of Asgard this day.

 

Dismounting Odin led his steed by the reins, so that he could walk alongside the mortals as they returned to their village. Their leader marched up to place beside him.

 

“Your people fight like the gods, Woden Borson. You fight with great joy. And honor.”

 

“As do yours, Brynhild,” the young king returned, speaking in the All-Tongue so that he knew he would be understood clearly. “You should be most proud.”

 

She grinned. “You think that I am not? What leader isn’t proud of bringing her warriors to a mighty victory?”

 

Odin had to return her smile. “A grim one, indeed.”

 

Reaching their home the mortals ran forth, quickly beginning to make preparations for a victory feast. Their new allies were invited, of course, and even if Odin had not already wished to stay, he wouldn’t have dared deny his men the pleasure.

 

As the smoke began to rise from the campfire however, he spotted a lone figure approaching the outer ring of the village: a woman, darkly-clad. She remained at a distance and watched the villagers, calmly.

 

One of the men, noticing, came up to Odin’s side.

 

“The shaman,” he explained in a hushed tone. “Very powerful woman. Great friend to our people.”

 

Intrigued, Odin approached her. She saw him coming and turned to face him, otherwise motionless and silent as she waited.

 

“Greetings,” she hailed him, once they were face to face. “You are the one they call Odin, Son of Bor. They say that you are King of the Aesir.”

 

“That I am,” he returned. “And what name do they call you?”

 

“I have had a few in my time. Brynhild’s people call me Selinde.” She smiled enigmatically. “But my first name is Selene.”

 

Even if she had not been pointed out to him as a shaman, Odin would’ve likely known her one on sight. Her face was covered in red and black paint, her dark hair in a waist-length braid across one shoulder, plaited with dozens of charms and tokens. Beneath her furs he glimpsed a bone knife in her belt, thick-handled and engraved with signs.

 

“You have collected many signs of power,” he noted, knowing something of magic as he did. “Almost too many to have been earned in what seems your few years.”

 

“Ah,” Selene said. “But perhaps I am older than my years appear to be.”

 

Odin had no trouble believing it. When he looked into her eyes he saw something very old indeed. Much older than any normal mortal’s lifespan.

 

That wasn’t all that he saw in Selene’s eyes. Though her manner was pleasant enough, her way of speaking both obliging and polite, there was something about her that troubled him. Something dark, and malicious. A feeling that rose off her and prickled along Odin’s skin.

 

Though they had just met and had every reason to be allies, Odin did not trust Selene.

 

There was something about her that he feared would one day bring great trouble.

 

*

 

Shaking off her cobwebbed dreams of the past, Selene rose in the cavern she had made her circle of power, yawning at the morning.

 

Though she had ‘fed’ the day previous and therefore had power aplenty, she was cautious and alert as she made her usual patrol of the nearby woods.

 

The humans with their excavation had drawn a lot of new activity to the area; activity that she could just as easily suffer as profit by if she was not careful. After all these years, it wouldn’t do to have anyone unwanted find her latest hiding space.

 

Luckily even after all these centuries, this area of what they’d named Colorado had plenty of untamed wilderness still. Wilderness Selene knew on instinct, while most dared not even attempt to tread.

 

As she crept along the leaf-strewn trails and between the rocks of the hills however Selene sensed something. Muted to human senses but very clear to her after ages of practicing spell-craft. A mystical disturbance in the air.

 

She quickly began following the feeling, trying to pinpoint it.

 

Not far away from there was an area where the ley-lines, the natural magic of the land, ran much thinner than usual. An inherent weakness between the realties, Selene was well aware of its location. It made a good place for various kinds of sorcery particularly any which called for the creation of a doorway between dimensions.

 

And now Selene’s senses had it calling to her; its magics shifted by some strange hand, its powers having somehow been utilized already this day.

 

When she reached the spot Selene crouched down. She scanned the dirt and the grass with her eyes but found no sign of footprints. Not that that meant anything, to an accomplished mage.

 

She could still see – though perhaps not with her eyes - the traces of magic, the lingering remnants of spell-craft, there on the ground.

 

Cupping her hands together she took a slow, purposeful breath and then blew into them, shaking her hands as if to rattle the air inside, and then swiftly made a hole between her fingers for the air to escape out as she still exhaled.

 

As if concealed by some dust that her breath had stirred away, in between the blades of grass a circle of entwined lines about three stride-lengths across appeared.

 

Selene stared at it, her eyes wide. “Asgardian magic,” she noted in astonishment.

 

One of the Aesir, here, after so long? But there was no mistaking the distinctive patterns of one of their travel spells – rare as it was to see one used by an individual, when most travelled by their Bifrost.

 

She had reason to fear the righteous fury of Asgard, but it seemed doubtful this one was hunting her. After all, why would they suspect her of returning to her old grounds after so long? More likely it was a coincidence.

 

What a coincidence. In fact, if she played her cards right, a most fortuitous one for Selene.

 

She grasped a fistful of dirt from the outer-most ring of the spell, bringing it to her face and sniffing, trying to sense the essence of the one that had cast it.

 

What she discovered brought a deep frown to her face.

 

“Asgardian magic,” she repeated, perplexed, “but Jotun blood?”

 

The war between realms had come long after her dealings with the King of Asgard, but certainly she had heard of it, through the tales of lands far to the North. The combination of the two magics; she could make no sense of this.

 

Well, little did it matter, she soon decided. Either Jotun or Asgardian, both were a strong race with plenty of energy. Strength enough to put even the healthiest mortal to shame.

 

It looked as though Selene had found herself her next quarry. She smiled, calculating and cold.

Chapter Text

For going on two moons the King’s band of warriors from Asgard had feasted, dwelled and fought alongside the mortals that made their home in the rocky meadow.

 

None of them even thought to complain, at least not yet. The women of the land were beautiful and mighty. The men were boisterous and eager to share. So far they wanted for nothing, not food nor companionship and certainly not excitement.

 

Their King himself, it was seen, had grown quite close with the leader of the human warriors, Brynhild. Not in a romantic sense perhaps, for Odin Borson knew well his duty as ruler, and that before long he would have to wed one of the many noble daughters of his courtiers that waited back home. Besides, it was said that Brynhild’s heart already belonged to another, though she dared not speak aloud of his name.

 

But the two warriors had struck up a fond friendship, and were often seen walking together, sharing stories of battle and discussing strategies, among many other things. Brynhild was one of the few brave enough to spar with Odin, and though she could never best his Asgardian strength she fought with such fire and determination all the same.

 

So even if he had no interest in her as a woman, or in making easy bed sport with her, it was easy to see that Brynhild had great value in Odin’s heart.

 

It was these thoughts that were in Ve’s mind as he sat in the grass dwelling that passed for the mortals’ feasting hall, watching across the room as his king and brother-in-arms told fair Brynhild the tale of how he had once slain the giant Ymir.

 

Ve couldn’t help but smile at the memory. What a fierce battle that had been! And up against Ymir it had only been Odin, his good friend Vili, and Ve himself.

 

The three kinsmen, warriors closer than if they had been made brothers by birth: the three of them inseparable since childhood.

 

“She really is a beauty, isn’t she?” the voice of the mortal sitting to his left stirred Ve from his fond recollections. Ve turned and found Sigurd gazing at Brynhild with an ensnared look. “And so mighty on the field of war! Why, she’s as good as any man.”

 

Ve chuckled. “Not quite like your women where you come from, is she, Sigurd Fafnirslayer?”

 

Though Sigurd was as mortal as the rest under that roof, he was not part of the village. He had been born on another part of Midgard entirely, and found by the Asgardians when he was but a youth – but at that age already a worthy hero and warrior. Ever since then he always rode with Odin’s men whenever they came to this realm.

 

Ve indicated Brynhild’s younger sister Gudrun, sitting demurely next to her. She had all Brynhild’s golden beauty but none of her spirit or love of fighting. “I would have thought something like that more to your taste.”

 

Sigurd made an indignant sound. “Do not jest with me, my lord!” he protested. “Gudrun is a pretty flower, aye, that is true. But my heart soars at the thought of a woman such as Brynhild, who could ride beside me and share in the glories and joys of battle.”

 

“Your heart, Sigurd, or your loins?” Vili broke in wryly from the other side of Ve, where he of course had been eavesdropping all along.

 

Vili and Sigurd quickly fell to playful bickering with one another, as Ve’s eyes continued their absent-minded journey across those seated around him.

 

Unlike most of his brethren, he had yet to ‘partake’ of any of the mortal women the village had to offer. Not that he found them unpleasing. It was just that none had truly caught his interest.

 

But then his gaze fell upon the fair-skinned, dark-haired woman who sat in a place of honor not far from Brynhild and Odin. Head slightly lowered the woman watched the room before her, unblinking.

 

Ve’s breath caught in his throat and he found that he could not look away. She had this strangeness to her, an exoticness, which he found utterly captivating.

 

“Is that the shaman?” Vili remarked mildly, following Ve’s stare with some surprise. “She looks very different without her trappings and painted face.”

 

Yes, Ve thought. Very different indeed.

 

As he watched her, Selene lifted her head and, possibly feeling the weight of Ve’s eyes, turned to look at him.

 

There was a moment frozen in time, where Ve could do nothing as Selene looked him up and down, seeming to carefully consider the expression on his face.

 

And then suddenly, she met him in the eye, and smiled.

 

*

 

Darcy hadn’t thought she would miss the bone-dry, penetrating heat of New Mexico.

 

But then, she hadn’t exactly prepared herself for the persistent damp chill that hung in the air of the Colorado forests, either.

 

She tugged up on the zipper of her jacket, and tried not to think about how much colder it was going to get once the sun went down. Especially since, if she remembered the details of Ruth’s email correctly, they were going to be sleeping in tents.

 

She also tried not to think about what she was mentally terming the “likely unreasonable to be worried about stuff”, like wolves. Or bears. Or incredibly testy rabid raccoons with an unnatural fondness for human flesh.

 

At least the bus ride hadn’t been so bad. Mostly on account of she’d been asleep through most of it: she’d had to get up pretty early to catch one that was making a stop in San Luis.

 

Once she’d gotten to the town, and she used that term so very loosely, it wasn’t hard to see why. It was like Puente Antigo all over again, possibly with even less population. Though at least a park ranger had been nice enough to give her a lift part of the way, once he’d heard where she was heading.

 

Helpfulness towards young research students in need put the people of San Luis a solid point above the ones in Puente Antigo, in Darcy’s book.

 

Even with the cool air and the helpful lack of unclouded sun, by the time she reached the site Darcy found herself panting. The walk sure felt way longer when it was uphill and through supremely uneven terrain. Though, she made a mental note that it probably wouldn’t kill her to start working out more, when she got back home.

 

At least SHIELD had finally ponied up with her iPod.

 

She found herself in a partially cleared area of the forest. She could still see a few stumps dotting the ground where trees had only been recently removed.

 

Way more noticeable, however, were the rectangular holes dug into the ground, spaced apart equidistantly. Each was a good two to three feet deep and had a tarp set overhead held up by four poles. Further back nestled between the trees were several tents, small green ones that were probably for sleeping in and then a much larger white one with some metal picnic tables set up in front of it.

 

“Darcy?”

 

A familiar-looking head of curly red hair popped up from one of the furrows.

 

Darcy felt a grin spread across her face as she met her friend’s eyes, a grin which was instantly returned.

 

“Ruth!” She took a few running steps forward and was met halfway as Ruth scrambled out of the hole. Darcy flung out her arms and they hugged, squealing in excitement.

 

“Oh my gosh. It feels like it’s been ages. Like, entire periods of history have gone on since I’ve seen you last.”

 

“I know the feeling.” Ruth pulled back, beaming. “Seriously, I am so glad to see you again, girl! You get here alright?”

 

“If I hadn’t, would you be talking to me?” Darcy pulled her hand away from where it still rested on Ruth’s bare arm, belatedly realizing something. “Wow, you are really dirty.”

 

And sweaty,” Ruth informed her brightly. “This is some killer soil we got out here. I’m going to have wrist joints of steel by the time we’re done.” She rotated one glove-clad hand.

 

“Nice.” Darcy looked around, noting the other workers had paused in what they were doing but hadn’t approached yet.

 

“Oh, duh!” Ruth saw what she was looking at. “I am such a flake! Okay, you want me to introduce you to people?”

 

“It might make things a little harder, otherwise.” The two oldest people present, a man and a woman, left the spot of earth they had been poring over and walked towards them. The man held out his soil-stained palm with a grin. Figuring she was probably going to end up a mess at some point anyway, Darcy took it. “Hi. You must be Darcy Lewis.”

 

“The one and only,” she returned. The guy looked like he was in his late fifties, short-statured with a pudgy belly, and hair and a full beard that had gone completely gray.

 

“It’s nice to meet you, Darcy,” the woman said. She was younger by maybe a decade or two, dark hair secured in a bun and wire-framed glasses. She also spoke with a faint but distinct French accent.

 

Ruth gestured to them. “This is Dr. William Rubens, and Professor Jeanne Fournier. They’re the ones running this show.”

 

“Please, call me Bill,” he said with an overly goofy smile. “Everyone does. Otherwise I might start feeling like an old man hanging out with a bunch of college kids.” And then he laughed at his own joke.

 

Ruth exchanged a look with Darcy, shrugging as if to say ‘what can you do?’

 

Darcy thought maybe she shouldn’t complain so much about things like Erik being too sleepy to remember if he’d set the security alarm or not.

 

“William is an expert in forensic anthropology and human bones,” Professor Fournier elaborated with a polite smile, apparently trying to balance out her colleague. “Whereas my specialty is in linguistics.”

 

“Does that really come in handy at a prehistoric site?” Darcy had to ask, recalling a mix of what Ruth had told her and what she knew in general. “I thought this would be before actual writing, right?”

 

“Yes,” Professor Fournier agreed, “but I actually also have a lot of experience in what you might call ‘proto-linguistics’: the interpretation of symbols and signs used as a form of communication prior to the advent of written language.”

 

She spread a hand as she indicated around them. “So far we have already found several items, mostly funerary objects, with such things carved into them.”

 

“You’ll have to take our word for it that that’s super exciting,” Ruth put in, making two thumbs-up.

 

“No, no, I get it.” Darcy looked about. “Yeah. That is really neat. Especially when you think about how old some of it probably is.”

 

“Exactly.” The professor nodded. “Which is why we’re very lucky to have access to this site.” She and Bill started to move back towards where they’d come from. “If you’ll excuse us…”

 

“You can show Darcy around, give her the full scoop, right Ruth?” Bill asked. “We’re in the middle of making a sketch.”

 

“It’s cool, I’ve got this.” Ruth turned back to Darcy, hands on her waist. She grinned. “So. What do you think so far?”

 

“I think it’s a lot of dirt surrounded by trees with some dead peoples’ stuff buried in it,” Darcy chirped sweetly, not missing a beat.

 

“See! I told you that you’d love it.” Tugging her by the wrist she pulled Darcy towards one of the squares of excavation, where two girls their own age labored. “Okay, so: Darcy, this is Grace and Amanda. Grace, Amanda, this is my friend I was telling you about.”

 

Both girls looked up, giving the distracted waves of people that were usually probably friendly but at the moment were very busy with something.

 

“Hey.” “What’s up.”

 

Grace had blonde hair in two braided pigtails and glasses that looked suspiciously like Harry Potter’s. Amanda was dark-haired, a cloth headband keeping it all out of her face.

 

“And over there,” Ruth pointed, “are our boy-toys. That’s Lindsey, Kevin, and Garrett.”

 

“And proud of it!” returned Lindsey, who was blond and dimpled.

 

Garrett, with auburn hair and built more like a typical jock, grinned and winked at Darcy. Kevin was scrawny and brown-haired, and he just made an annoyed face.

 

“I’m not going to like Kevin, am I?” Darcy said aside to Ruth.

 

“No,” her friend was quick to agree. “You’re not going to like Kevin.” She clapped her hands together, scattering a few clumps of dirt. “Well! That’s your orientation; I can give you the ‘grand tour’ later tonight. You’ll get to talk to everybody more at dinner, anyway.”

 

“Ruth, I’ve gotta ask,” Darcy said, a little suspiciously. “You didn’t just invite me here so I could be an extra pair of hands you put to work in the mines, did you?”

 

Ruth rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on. What, you thought you’d visit and just sit comfy and watch us all day?”

 

No.” Though she had to admit in an idealistic unreal world that would be nice. “But I can’t help noticing you guys have got like two extra tents set up over there.”

 

“Oh, that.” Ruth made a face. “Forget that. We thought we were getting another couple of guys. Professor Fournier had a deal with one of her colleagues at the university; he was gonna send them out here for extra credit. But they never showed. We think they got scared off by the idea of a little hard work and roughin’ it and chickened out.”

 

“Lame,” Darcy confirmed.

 

“I know, right?” Ruth snapped her fingers. “That reminds me. Right now I’m sharing with Grace and Amanda, but later when we get a break I’ll drag my stuff to your tent. It’ll be like a slumber party, only with no beer or bad movies.”

 

“And a lot of bugs,” Darcy added.

 

She let Ruth hook an arm over her shoulder and start walking her towards an open patch of dirt. She draped an arm around Ruth’s waist to give her a half-hug.

 

“So, what do you want me to do first, boss?”

 

“Well…” Ruth considered it. “How would you like to cross-section a PPM?”

 

“You know, I’ve already spent the past couple months working with some pretty hardcore scientists,” Darcy reminded her. “I’ve learned exactly what it sounds like when you use a super-official term to talk about a job that’s in actuality really boring.”

 

“Well that’s great!” Ruth told her, happy. “That just means you’re one step ahead to becoming one of us already.”

 

Darcy responded with a sound that was equal parts laughter and groan.

 

*

 

Loki had spent almost the entire day exploring the hills and valleys enclosed by the spread of the forest.

 

It hadn’t taken him long to uncover that his search was not in vain. The area was dotted with hidden runestones: rocks carved with images and symbols, anywhere from four to even ten feet tall. They emerged from the land at uneven intervals, faded and moss-covered in their great age, forgotten.

 

Loki stopped before the latest he’d found, a dark gray stone with interlocked patterns of repeating simple shapes that nonetheless his eyes struggled to disentangle.

 

He pressed a hand to one whirl and traced it with his fingers, tilting his head back, considering. It certainly looked as though it could’ve been Asgardian-inspired.

 

But looks, he well knew, weren’t enough to go on. There wasn’t enough yet for him to be certain of the truth.

 

Looking at the stone again he wondered: had the mortal historians doing their digging nearby even found these ruins? Had they any idea they were here?

 

Most were well-concealed, the trees grown around them in a way that naturally hid them from all but the most careful eye. They were spread out as much as miles apart in areas not well-travelled, that few would walk through of their own inclination…

 

And almost the moment the thought passed through Loki’s mind, he realized that he was not alone.

 

He stiffened, and then slowly turned, looking back over his shoulder, taking in the shaded clearing he stood in. And of course he saw no one. But he could feel the prickling on his skin, the weight of some pair of eyes watching him.

 

Stepping away from the stone he strode to the very center of the space, drawing himself to his full height, his expression cold and commanding. Though he didn’t turn his head his eyes never stopped warily searching for any sign of movement.

 

“I can tell that you’re there, whoever you are,” he called. “I demand you stop hiding and show yourself.”

 

There was a pause. And then-

 

“You know, I had almost thought I was going to be able to sneak up on you, for a moment there.”

 

Loki turned sharply to find a pale woman half-crouched on top of the very stone he had been examining, looking down at him composedly. It went without saying that she hadn’t been there before. Where she had been hiding, and how she’d managed to move without him seeing her, were questions at the moment he chose not to examine.

 

She jumped down, smoothly, and once she was standing began walking a curved path, moving herself inevitably closer to Loki but also forcing him to turn if he wanted to keep facing her.

 

“Yes, well.” He glanced at the ground briefly, feigning carelessness. “It’s been quite some time since anyone has been able to take me completely by surprise.”

 

“I see.” She was giving him the same aloof, examining look he was giving her. “You must have had a lot of practice.”

 

Loki allowed himself a small smile. “I assure you, you have no idea.”

 

“Oh, I think that I might. More than you expect.” Her tone became curious, conversational, and she pointed at him. “You’re a long way from Asgard.”

 

Loki inhaled a short breath, not anticipating that. But then she kept speaking.

 

“Or, is it Jotunheim?” Her head canted to the side. “I can’t seem to tell.”

 

Fury and disbelief bubbled up in Loki’s chest, but not just at the awful truths about himself she was reminding him of. She was reading him, somehow, and far more thoroughly than he would’ve thought possible without his sensing it.

 

He managed, “You must not have a great mind for riddles.”

 

“Not really, no. I am a very direct individual.”

 

He took her in. About average height and build for a human female, skin so pale it was almost white. Below her eyes, from ear practically all the way to the bridge of her nose, were black tattooed lines he could recognize as symbols of power. A similar one split the bottom half of her face from lower lip to chin. She was wearing boots that came up to her thighs and some sort of long-sleeved, hooded trenchcoat. All of her clothes were made of black leather, or something that looked a lot like it.

 

Her eyes were dark, hard, and not the least bit friendly.

 

“What do they call you?” he asked.

 

“A lot of things.” Her voice was downright flippant. “Your turn.”

 

At about every word, the woman kept taking a step towards him, and every time Loki moved back, careful to not let her box him in with his back to the stone and the trees. He would not run from her, whoever she was, but it seemed prudent to not let her too close.

 

“The same.” He allowed a small concession, in the hopes it might lead somewhere: “Loki.”

 

“Selene.” She’d noticed the way he kept from allowing her any closer, of course. “Are you afraid of me?”

 

There was something purposefully mocking about that question: trying to goad him into confrontation. It might’ve worked on about any other Asgardian, but not on him.

 

He explained, in a reasonable if superior-sounding tone, “I make it a point not to trust anyone I have just met straight away.”

 

She actually laughed at that. In an odd, privately amused way.

 

Loki let her laugh – concealed by his cloak, his right hand worked where it hung by his side, preparing to summon one of his attack spells.

 

“That’s not a bad tactic,” Selene said, continuing. She moved in again and this time Loki let her. “One the Aesir I’ve had dealings with in the past could’ve stood to use. They were, possibly…a little too quick to trust me.”

 

Loki sneered.

 

“Perhaps you should take your own advice.”

 

And then he swung his hand hard, flinging the green bolt of energy.

 

Only ten paces between them and no warning, Selene had no chance to evade. The attack hit its mark perfectly, leaving a solid hole halfway between her heart and left shoulder. Selene made a sound of surprise, the momentum bringing her neck to the side and her head inward so that it was facing the injury.

 

Feeling a satisfied thrill Loki studied her, but he couldn’t see her expression. Her hood had been knocked back, revealing shoulder-length hair that hid her face from view.

 

“Magic. I wasn’t expecting that,” Selene rasped.

 

Then she lifted her head, and the smile dropped from Loki’s face.

 

The entire left side of Selene’s face was blackened, charred by the close proximity to the corrosive energy. But before Loki’s eyes the darkened skin was fading, the injury knitting itself back together.

 

The hole in her shoulder filled itself in, flesh creeping, blood flowing backwards. Her clothing even stitched itself back together, like nothing had ever been there.

 

It was clear to Loki in that moment he was facing something far more dangerous than he might’ve originally thought.

 

“It’s good,” Selene continued. She was grinning in the most awful way. She moved her fingertips and just like that, there was a sword in her right hand. “I like magic.”

 

Her weight shifted, and Loki barely had time to prepare himself before she charged him.

 

Selene had her right arm all the way across her body, aiming for a long horizontal slash. She was crouching as she ran; Loki guessed she was targeting his legs, intending to cut them off, or possibly hoping to spill his entrails from his abdomen.

 

Her low aim was a good thing. It was the only way he was going to pull this off.

 

He waited until the last second and then rushed forward. One step, two steps and then he started gathering his strength, three steps and he turned it into a leap, flinging his body over the top of Selene and past her.

 

His landing wasn’t perfect – he hit the ground half standing, half sideways, and rolled to keep his momentum going. He pushed himself up on one arm and looked back at his assailant.

 

Selene had just finished making her swing with her blade, not having time to stop after Loki’s evasion. She half-kneeled in front of the runestone, her sword arm now all the way out to her right, having reached the end of its arc.

 

There was a creaking sound and it took Loki’s senses a moment to catch what was wrong with the scene.

 

In that time, Selene had looked over her shoulder and turned around, coming in for another strike.

 

Loki got up and ran, letting her chase him, mind racing as he tried to formulate a plan.

 

What he knew: Selene was far tougher than she appeared. Possibly physically stronger. She knew magic. And he did not want that blade of hers anywhere near him.

 

Because he’d figured it out: the entire top of the runestone had slid downward, at a slightly diagonal angle.

 

Selene’s sword, missing him, had gone straight through the base of three-foot-thick stone, cutting it right through.

 

The slice came from above this time, going vertically down, and Loki moved out of the way as he heard it cut through the air. Selene whirled on him, slashing at his midsection and again, he just barely stepped back in time.

 

He lobbed another blast of magic at her head and Selene ducked to avoid it.

 

This was getting him nowhere. Loki made a fist, filling it with an especially strong burst of energy.

 

How much could she heal? He decided to let her get closer and hit her with one of his most explosive spells right in the stomach. It was a killing blow on just about anything. Surely that’d be good enough for her.

 

Selene moved in and Loki braced himself, standing his ground. She got very near and he was already bringing his hand towards her torso.

 

It’d never occurred to him that she wanted to get in close.

 

Selene reached out and seized Loki by his collar, dragging his face towards hers. She opened her mouth wide and began to inhale deeply with an inhuman roar.

 

Loki was paralyzed, attack plan forgotten. His pulse pounded, his head swimming, his chest screamed in pain. His vision went in and out, but between the bursts of darkness he could see the energy being drawn off his body, vanishing into Selene’s mouth, and he knew what was happening.

 

Fight! He did not come so far to die now, at the hands of some strange monster who knew nothing of all he’d been through, of who he was.

 

His limbs felt boneless and like they’d been turned to stone. But the spell was still clutched in his hand, waiting, and he ignored the throbbing anguish as he shoved it at her abdomen.

 

There was a burst of green light and they were both thrown apart, Loki stumbling backward and dropping to his knees, Selene being hurled several feet through the air.

 

She landed with a sickening thud, limbs splayed, her entire body limp and motionless. A burst of blood erupted from her mouth. A gaping hole ran her belly straight through.

 

Loki wasn’t in much position to admire it. On his hands and knees in the dirt, he gasped for air; every muscle seized by pain, his legs too weak to lift him.

 

Then there was noise from Selene’s direction, and he slowly lifted his head to see.

 

Selene’s back arched upward at an unnatural angle, her legs and arms twitching. The wound began closing, and Loki was well aware she was using power she had gained by stealing his own magic, his life, to heal herself.

 

Quickly he stood, ignoring the protests and pains of his body every step of the way. He dragged himself behind a nearby tree and cast an illusionary double, still kneeling on the ground in agony where he’d just been.

 

Selene got up. Looking far from amused now, she wiped her mouth off on her sleeve, her blood vanishing into the darkness of the fabric.

 

Spotting Loki’s helpless double however she gave a mirthless smile. The sword appeared in her hand again and she slunk to it, reaching toward its throat.

 

Her hand went through and her eyes widened in confusion. “What?”

 

Selene whirled, expecting an attack from behind. Loki rushed out at her from the side, spells firing, and she was forced to move back again, dodging.

 

He wasn’t trying to do damage with his spells any more; it was clear to attempt such a thing was pointless. But if he could keep her off guard, keep her far enough away he’d have time to come up with something else.

 

Selene grew visibly impatient. Evading another series of green sparks she stepped out of his immediate range, chanting words in a Midgard language Loki didn’t know. A fiery halo appeared above her head – she raised a hand and grabbed it, hurling it in Loki’s direction with all her might.

 

Loki shoved off of the tree he’d been taking partial cover behind, trying to avoid it. Only he had miscalculated; Selene wasn’t trying to kill him with the attack, she had been aiming at his hands.

 

He gave a shocked cry as the flames hit their mark.

 

Gasping in pain Loki stared down at his hands. Both were burned raw, bright red and blistered, yellow pus weeping against his skin. They throbbed terribly, fingers gone stiff in protest against the hurt.

 

He looked up and was horrified and stunned to see he couldn’t find Selene. Where had she gone?

 

The space of ground where he’d seen her last was darker than the area around it. Loki squinted at it.

 

A…shadow?

 

And then it began to move. Sliding across the ground like a snake, too quick for any human steps, and when it reached Loki’s feet he dove out of the way on instinct, just in time as Selene burst out and made a futile grab for him.

 

Clutching his injured hands to his chest, Loki stared at Selene. She stared right back.

 

Each of them waiting for the other to make a move.

 

Within reach of Loki was Selene’s sword, sticking out of the dirt. She made no move to stop him from going for it. In fact she gave him a look that dared him to try.

 

It only confirmed Loki’s suspicions. The blade was long, tapered, but pale silver almost the color of bone, and covered with markings.

 

Magic stacked on top of magic, so much that it literally hurt his eyes to look at. Not the same magics either, but ones from different schools. Mixing unlike enchantments: difficult, if not dangerous.

 

There was no way Loki was touching that sword. No doubt it’d been cursed to bite any hand except its rightful owner’s.

 

Realizing he wasn’t falling for the trick, Selene spread her hands. “What now?”

 

“If it’s to be a waiting game, I can outlast you,” Loki spat, summoning all the bravado he could. “Strong as you may be I’ll bet my lifetime’s still much longer, for starters.”

 

Selene scoffed at him. “You don’t know how old I am, little Aesir.” She gestured. “Besides, you’re injured. I’m not.”

 

Loki said nothing. In his mind, he was trying to piece out how she’d done that trick with her shadow. There were only a couple ways he knew that she could’ve managed it – and if it was the one he thought then it might provide an avenue for his escape.

 

Under Selene’s wary gaze, Loki managed to draw a knife from his belt.

 

Instantly her manner turned taunting. “You must be fooling with me,” she gasped, disbelieving. “Or maybe it’s yourself that you’re trying to fool.”

 

Loki couldn’t really blame her. It took most of his concentration even to hold the hilt in his badly-burned hand, let alone wield it. Still, he drew himself up haughtily, like he actually intended to go through with it.

 

“On Asgard you’re trained to be a fighter since almost before you can crawl. Not afraid are you, witch?”

 

“By all means.” She gave a mocking bow. “Come at me.”

 

Loki charged – but not towards her. Instead he bolted in the other direction. Selene spluttered, having expected an attack, and by the time she came to her senses Loki had gotten far away indeed. Long legs and a lifetime spent trying to stay just ahead of trouble had made him an excellent sprinter.

 

Selene growled in vexation, and then abruptly stopped. At that signal Loki stopped running and looked back to watch.

 

A focused expression on her face, Selene was melting slowly down into her own shadow, like it was a puddle she was sinking into. The shadow itself wavered, growing darker, its outline writhing.

 

Loki felt a sense of triumph and relief as he realized he’d been right.

 

Dreams, shadows, reflections – all existed in a state of perpetual in-between, caught midway from one extreme to the other. With the right spells, any could be used as a catalyst for gateway magic, a way to move between dimensions.

 

Selene had somehow turned her own shadow into a door between realities, using some nether realm adjacent to Earth as a shortcut to swiftly move from one point to the next. It probably took a lot of practice and no small amount of concentration, since one misstep could mean getting stuck on the wrong side forever.

 

The important thing though was that doing such a thing temporarily weakened the lines of the dimension around it, making it much, much easier to slip through.

 

Even as Selene’s shadow crept toward him Loki was quickly casting the spell he would need to teleport away to safety. It was half-formed, weak magic, but under the circumstances it was all he needed.

 

Selene remerged from her shadow as Loki was about to lay the final cantrip down. She grabbed at his arm and he jerked away, only to be startled to realize she had a firmer grip on him than he thought. Somehow she’d managed to hook her fingers beneath the gold armband he wore on his upper arm, concealed beneath his tunic.

 

Loki shoved at her, trying not to panic. The magic was building; in a frenzy he left the part of the spell for destination blank, in a greater hurry to be gone than care where he was going. It didn’t matter if it flung him to the Sun or the very heart of Jotunheim, either would be less dangerous than where he was.

 

He managed to pry loose two of Selene’s fingers – when the rest wouldn’t budge he gave up, and instead with a great deal of effort slid the band down his arm so that it came loose. With his other hand he twitched blistered fingers, and spoke the final word.

 

Selene fell back, clutching nothing but a handful of jewelry and the fabric that’d been his sleeve. The travel spell engulfed him and Loki almost sighed in relief as he felt himself disappearing.

 

The last thing he saw before he vanished was the burning rage in Selene’s eyes.

 

*

 

As the sun went down and evening started to set in, Darcy was dirt covered, dry-mouthed and exhausted.

 

One thing was for sure: she didn’t have a leg to stand on for complaining how labor-intensive Jane and Erik’s brand of science was, ever again.

 

Though chances were low that when she got back she was going to admit that to them.

 

As Dr. Rubens and Professor Fournier called it a wrap for the day, one by one they all climbed back up and started dusting off. Darcy pulled herself out of the pit she was in with some difficulty, seeing as her legs had gone totally stiff after hours of kneeling. Ruth hurried over to grab her arms and help her out.

 

“Lemme guess. This is the part where you tell me ‘you get used to it’.”

 

Ruth grinned wanly. “Sort of. More like, you learn to live with it.”

 

Darcy shook her head, which was hard when she had sore aching spots from her neck all the way down her spine. “I can’t believe you seriously want to do this for the rest of your life.” She looked over at the other students. “All of you. Spending entire days all hunched over in the dirt, every now and then actually finding something-”

 

“That might change the world, and everything we know about history, or mankind, when we do,” Ruth finished. She was smiling but her tone was completely serious.

 

Okay, so the sentiment was pretty awesome. But it was corny enough that Darcy couldn’t help giving her a dubious look. Ruth just laughed a little self-depreciatively, shrugging.

 

“Besides, not all of us want to be archaeologists,” Grace put her two cents in.

 

“Oh yeah. Grace here is our future cultural anthropologist.” Amanda gave her a nudge. “Someday soon you’ll find her de-worming orphans in Zimbabwe and writing ethnographies about the effects of malaria on isolated tribes in South America.”

 

“Oh, shut it,” Grace responded to the teasing, annoyed, giving Amanda a half-hearted shove back.

 

“Are you two done?” Kevin broke in. His tone was one of complaint. “I’d like to get these covered so we can eat and go to bed.”

 

They shot him an annoyed, withering look, but before they could say anything, Garrett had come over and picked up the tarp.

 

“Here, ladies.” He gave them a winning smile. “I’d be more than happy to help you with that.”

 

Even though everyone had been working all day it hadn’t been in silence, and Darcy had picked up enough from talking and observing. Grace and Amanda were like frick and frack, always together and best friends for life, all that. Kevin, as she’d suspected, was something of a snob and a whiner. He didn’t seem to like anyone else at the dig much and nobody liked him right on back, except Garrett for some unfathomable reason. Maybe because he wasn’t competition; Garrett was an obvious flirt. And as a residential beam of sunshine Lindsey was friends with everyone, especially the girls.

 

“Boy, nothing like a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli after a long hot day,” Lindsey was saying with fake cheerfulness.

 

Darcy made a face around where she was drinking from the bottle of water Ruth had passed her. “Yum,” she practically gagged. “Don’t tell me that’s all you have to eat?”

 

Lindsey’s eyebrows waggled. “Sometimes it’s spaghettios.”

 

Darcy grimaced; but she couldn’t say she was too surprised. After all, it was basically camping. Crappy portable food was just part of the experience. Besides, after a long day of trowel-ing, picking, and sifting, she was starving enough to eat anything.

 

Sitting at the picnic tables, tucking into their portable stove-warmed pasta and canned fruit cocktail, everyone compared notes on what they’d found.

 

“A chock ton of nothing,” Garrett said. “There’s a dark stain in our sector that might have been a garbage pit, but we didn’t find much.”

 

“All right, well,” Rubens considered. “We’ll keep going on that one in the morning, but if there’s still nothing by the time we break for lunch, we’ll call it quits on that spot and use it for backfill. What about you girls?”

 

“More lithics,” Grace answered. “And some petrified wood.”

 

At Darcy’s confused look, Lindsey helpfully told her, “Lithics are pieces of stone. Like arrowheads, or sometimes the chips left over from making one.”

 

“Should I be taking notes on this?” Darcy joked feebly.

 

“Only if you want to be.” Fournier leaned forward, with an encouraging smile on her face. “Don’t worry about it, Darcy. Trust me when I say that you’re already being a big assistance by helping out at all. These sites always need less experts, and more willing hands.”

 

“Not to mention by showing up you prevented us from turning into a total sausage fest,” Grace commented. This got a laugh from Lindsey, an appreciative hoot from Garrett, and an eye-roll from Kevin.

 

“Yeah, check it out.” Ruth gestured to the four of them. “There’s enough of us to cover all the Indy movies! Grace is Elsa, Darcy is Willie, of course I’m Marion, and…Amanda, I guess you can be Colonel Irina.”

 

“Oh, fuck you bitches,” was Amanda’s matter-of-fact retort. “I’m Lara Croft.”

 

As they all had a laugh, Darcy turned back to Professor Fournier, curiously.

 

“So, how old is this stuff we’re digging up, anyway?”

 

“Until we take the specimens back to the lab and have a chance to date them more thoroughly, none of us really can say.” The professor folded her hands neatly, meal forgotten. “Right now we’re relying on relative dating, from the specifics of the objects we have found and the stratigraphy of the soil. But it should be very old. The Stone Age, at least. Certainly no later than the Bronze.”

 

“Right.” Darcy mulled that over. “Wow, so that’s…thousands of years ago, at least, correct? Maybe even millions.”

 

“Yes. From the few remains we’ve found we know that these were not pre-human ancestors, but still they must have been from the very earliest stages of civilization.”

 

“It’s so crazy to think sometimes that there were actual people like us walking around the planet that long ago.” Darcy glanced back over at where she could still make out the tarps over their excavations in the dark.

 

Fournier followed her line of sight and smiled.

 

“I know. It is, isn’t it? Just imagine, the things that they must have seen.”

 

After they were done with dinner, Ruth pointed out a few other things to Darcy in the fading light.

 

“The port-a-potties are about ten feet that way, behind that line of trees. There are a lot of roots over there and stuff, so if you have to go in the middle of the night, take your flashlight. And there’s some camping showers a short ways down the road but, to be honest, they’re pretty shitty, so most of us haven’t really been bothering. Just rinsing off in the mornings and using deodorant.”

 

“That explains why Garrett reeks of Old Spice whenever you get downwind of him,” Darcy said. “So, sleeping and peeing outside, food from a can and learning to live in your own filth. Glamorous.”

 

“Not exactly like the movies,” Ruth agreed. “All that stuff said though, I hope you are still having a good time, at least a little?” She grinned hopefully. “At least for the pleasure of my company?”

 

“No,” Darcy deadpanned. “You suck and I hate you.” After they both giggled at that, she continued, “Seriously though, it’s fine. It is sort of cool in a way, getting to do this kind of thing. It’d be a little cooler if we found some kind of ancient cursed relic or something, but…”

 

“Well you might just get your chance,” Ruth remarked. “They’ve been holding off on it until we found enough at the base site to get started, but there’s this secondary site in the woods that Bill and Professor Fournier think might be a human burial. We’re probably going to open it up tomorrow.”

 

“Okay. So, at least that’s something.” Darcy rubbed the back of her neck. After spending the whole day bent over her upper body was still protesting pretty heartily.  “Some amount of compensation for my aches and pains.”

 

“Word to that.” Ruth stifled a massive yawn. “Okay, well I’m gonna go…oh no.” She rubbed the area close to her eyes. “Shit, I totally forget to get my bedroll out of the other tent earlier.”

 

“And now, you’re totally beat and don’t want to,” Darcy finished. Before her friend could apologize, Darcy waved her off. “It’s fine. I’m exhausted too, anyway; it’s not like we’d be able to stay up and talk. You can move in with me tomorrow.”

 

“You sure?” Ruth offered, grateful but still sheepish. “I really am sorry.”

 

“I know. I’ll find some way to get you to make up for it.” Darcy gave a yawn of her own. “Now go on. Good night.”

 

“Sweet dreams, Darcy!” Ruth headed off with a smile and a wave.

 

She hadn’t been kidding in the least about how tired she was. Once she got to her tent Darcy changed into her pajamas, stowed her glasses in their case and lay down in her sleeping bag without even brushing her teeth.

 

Maybe she and Ruth hadn’t gotten to hang out quite as much as she’d have liked, but oh well. She was here for another two days.

 

There was always tomorrow. After all, it seemed like the next few days were planned out pretty predictably. There was no reason to think any of that was going to change.

 

*

 

With such weak, poorly-constructed magic to fuel it, Loki’s spell of traveling didn’t take him very far at all.

 

In fact, he couldn’t have ended up more than a few hours’ walk from the very place he’d started.

 

It mattered little though, he decided, in the long run. He found a thick copse of trees to rest in and put down spells to conceal him, both from mortal perceptions and any who might try to use magic to track him.

 

He hoped that would be enough.

 

Loki stared down at his hands, flexing his fingers thoughtfully.

 

He could’ve waited for his naturally enhanced Asgardian abilities to take care of the burns but he hadn’t wanted to. Instead he’d cast a spell of healing, feeling much better as the blisters and pain vanished, the skin pale and whole and perfect again.

 

His injuries taken care of, his thoughts returned to what he’d escaped from.

 

No doubt about it, Selene was incredibly dangerous. She was an accomplished sorceress. It was clear she’d met with people from Asgard before. She’d also made it very obvious she was older than she looked. Not that that particularly surprised Loki, once he’d realized what she was.

 

A psychic vampire. Loki had read about them, had heard stories, but he’d never crossed paths with one before.

 

He still shuddered at the memory of her feeding on him, at how close he’d come to being nothing but a withered husk as his life-force was stolen away.

 

He supposed the wisest course of action would be to leave, but Loki didn’t want to do that. Not after he’d gone to all the trouble and especially not now that it turned out there was some connection to Asgard after all.

 

The problem though, was that if he wanted to stay it meant he’d have to find some way around Selene.

 

Selene, who’d probably love nothing more than to make a meal out of him and his powers the first chance she got.

 

Loki frowned in thought. It wasn’t just that she was strong; it was that she was quick. She could think on her feet almost as well as he could. And she was dangerously observant. She’d realized he still relied heavily on his hands for casting his more martial spells and made a move to stop him from using them.

 

It was a little cleverer than he liked his legitimately deadly opponents to be, used to running mental laps around them as he was. Ironic that under different circumstances he might’ve relished the challenge.

 

Loki sighed, pressing a finger to his lips as he thought.

 

The key, he decided, was getting more information. Selene had managed to surprise him three times during their confrontation, which was three times more than he would’ve liked. He needed to know more about her, her history, what she was capable of.

 

Perhaps he could learn more of this area’s strange connection to Asgard while he was about it.

 

As for how he would get that information…well, Loki had ways.

 

He sat in his hiding place in silence, planning his next move for tomorrow.

 

*

 

Every last scrap of power gained from feeding the day previous had been spent healing and using her magics in the fight. She’d be back at square one, if not for that single mouthful she’d managed to get in the process.

 

Fuming in disappointment, Selene made what she knew would be a fruitless search for any sign of where her prey had gone to, before settling back down in her cave.

 

She had been both far luckier and more unfortunate than she could’ve imagined when she’d gone after the Asgardian.

 

True magic-users were rare among the Aesir, being the incredibly physical battle-driven people that they were. Their limitless vitality, spell-crafted weaponry, the occasional healing charm; that was the most could be expected of them.

 

But a full mage, and a far-advanced and powerful one at that? Never could she have anticipated that.

 

It made him a more dangerous and difficult opponent, but one she thought was well worth the effort, if it meant she could take his magic for her own.

 

Yes; so much energy she would take from such a bounty. For Selene knew that he couldn’t have gone very far with that weak spell. She would get what she wanted yet.

 

For the moment however, there was nothing to do but lick her wounds and wait.

 

Absently, Selene pulled out the golden band she’d wrenched from his arm during the battle, and looked at it.

 

She quickly gave it much sharper focus as she realized the design bore a royal insignia, and a very familiar sigil.

 

“The House of Odin,” she breathed, astonished.

 

The enchanter she’d tangled with was, in fact, a prince of the Aesir?

 

She briefly considered that the armband might’ve been stolen. But no, looking at it she could clearly see the edges of the soft gold where it’d been shaped through ages of wearing. In fact something about the design seemed overly simplified, as if it had been presented to a youth with the assumption it would be discarded when he became a man and earned a different token as a warrior, only for that to never happen.

 

Well, she supposed the one she’d fought had been awfully skinny, for a child of Asgard.

 

And even smaller besides, if his parentage was also Jotun. Selene had tasted his life force now, she had no doubt it was there. Though he was fair like an Aesir, and carried himself like one, and fought using only their kind of magic.

 

Had Odin taken a tumble with some Frost Giant slattern? By Selene’s reckoning, he’d been away at war for long enough. Or perhaps he’d carried a babe home as a trophy to amuse himself, once all the fighting was done.

 

It didn’t particularly matter, though. Both the Jotun and the Asgard were inherently mystic by nature. Such things were malleable, especially in youth. Mongrel or full giant, a baby nursed at an Asgardian breast, cradled in the arms of an Asgardian mother, would grow to be Asgardian - simple as that. Though no amount of Asgard’s warmth could ever fully melt away the icy touch of Jotunheim.

 

Selene rolled the armband between her fingertips as she considered this information.

 

“So Odin Borson is a father in his own right now, eh? Not surprising, now that I think on it. Enough time has passed.” She frowned.

 

But it put a great change in her plans.

 

The Aesir’s King bore her enough hatred as it was. Selene was not fool enough to think she could so much as injure his son and get away with it, let alone kill the brat. Odin would stalk her with all his wrath to the ends of the world if that happened.

 

Such a frustration; she wouldn’t be getting her feast after all. But Selene had not lived so long by not knowing when to pick her battles.

 

But even if she couldn’t drain this Loki, she couldn’t simply leave him alone, either. Not when he would inevitably run home to his father and tell him where he’d been, who he’d seen.

 

Selene rose to her feet, tossing the band aside. She went to the side of the cavern and found the tools she would need.

 

She hummed a chant under her breath, allowing herself to enter a half-trance as she worked. The ring of magic she wove around her left arm would keep her powers of healing at bay until she removed it. Then with the obsidian blade in her right hand, she began carving a pattern into her palm.

 

She kept going until the skin was excised completely, until the symbol was written in her blood.

 

An Aesir rune-spell for an Aesir magister. It was fitting, and besides, it was the safest way to keep the magic from backfiring.

 

When all was said and done, Selene would make certain he had no tales to tell.

Chapter Text

Darcy managed to roll herself out of her sleeping bag bright and early the next day.

 

Considering her punctuality was rewarded with a breakfast of instant oatmeal and a shower in a concrete stall - ice cold and smelling of pond water - it was hard for her to see the upside.

 

Most of the morning was consumed with further excavations at the base site; digging deeper into the same ground, literally. Before long her neck and shoulders, not exactly recovered from their labors of the day previous, were starting to hurt again. She was also getting blisters on her thumbs, though when she made a remark to that, she was dismissively told she was just holding the trowel wrong.

 

Darcy was completely unaware there was more than one way to hold what had to be the most common gardening tool on the planet. She really was learning all kinds of things.

 

At first she drew the short straw and got partnered with Kevin, who wouldn’t let her map anything because he didn’t trust her drawing skills. And he wouldn’t let her bag any samples, because apparently he didn’t trust her writing, either. And about every few minutes Darcy caught him making disapproving faces at whatever she was doing over her shoulder, only when she asked him “What?” the only response he gave was “Oh, nothing”, and went back to making his own overly-precise cuts in the earth.

 

Needless to say, those first few hours? Really dragged.

 

About midway to lunch though Dr. Rubens came over to check on their progress and took pity on her. Or maybe he took one look at Darcy’s face and took pity on Kevin, at least enough to move him out of range before he got decked with a shovel.

 

“Okay guys, I think that’s enough for this spot, since you don’t really seem to be finding anything. Kevin, finish up your maps and then you go join Amanda and Grace. Darcy, why don’t you pair up with Ruth and start another adjacent sector.”

 

Opening up a new spot, Darcy quickly discovered, meant they had to chisel down about a foot through useless topsoil that pre-dated their point of interest first. Ruth hadn’t been kidding: the dirt was practically concrete. And not even the still-wet kind.

 

At first, they sweated and labored dutifully. Then about half an hour in Ruth stopped what she was doing, glancing up at something across the site. Darcy followed her gaze.

 

Rubens and Fournier, who had been until that point looking at the artifacts they’d pulled out of the ground that morning, were heading off into the trees deep in conversation.

 

“What’s that all about?” Darcy asked.

 

“Oh, they’re probably going over to the second site. Like I said, Professor F really wants to get cracking on it. Bet they’re drawing the grid out so we can start after lunch.” Ruth wiped some sweat off her brow with the back of her hand. “Come on, it’s high time you and I had a chance to really catch up.”

 

“Uh, what are you doing?” Darcy blinked as Ruth set down her tools and stepped up out of the indented square.

 

Ruth beamed at her, brightly. “Taking a well-earned water break.”

 

All it took was a little sweet talk to Garrett, and a slightly more earnest request to Lindsey, and the next thing Darcy knew her and Ruth were at the picnic tables sipping almost regally from their water bottles and shooting the breeze, while the two boys dug their hole in for them.

 

It kind of felt like cheating – no, actually, she was pretty sure it absolutely was cheating. But Darcy had to admit, she didn’t care.

 

Besides, while it was hardly a proud feminist moment, there were clear-cut extenuating circumstances. She and her friend hadn’t had a chance to just talk to each other since she’d arrived at the dig. It wasn’t as if they were plain lazy or anything.

 

Well, she knew Ruth wasn’t lazy, anyway. As herself was concerned Darcy was willing to firmly state that she worked hard…as long as it was on something that was important to her. Or if she was getting paid. Or course credits. Or if it was at least mildly amusing.

 

When the two site leaders came back from their miniature expedition, if they noticed the girls deep in conversation and laughter instead of working neither of them said anything.

 

Fournier was deep in thought enough she legitimately might’ve not noticed. She walked right past them with a focused look to the main tent where her notes were kept. Rubens on the other hand, paused long enough to shoot a pointed look at Lindsey and Garrett digging, then give Ruth a look that was way too severe and disapproving to be genuine. 

 

He followed it up with a shake of his head, a cluck of his tongue, and finally a wink, before disappearing after his colleague.

 

“Is he for real?” Darcy had to ask.

 

“Most of the time he comes off as like, a mix of the kindly old grandpa, and the wannabe ‘cool’ uncle that’s trying too hard,” Ruth told her. “But when it comes to bones and anatomy, he really does know his stuff.” She pulled her gloves back on. “Come on, boys. We’ve let you guys have all the fun for long enough.”

 

“It’s all yours.” Lindsey stepped back, handing Darcy his shovel with a tired smirk. He sounded earnest enough though when he said, “I hope you two got your chatting that you needed.”

 

“We did.” Darcy found herself returning his smile, like pretty much every time she and Lindsey were talking. His good nature and cheer were ridiculously infectious. “Thanks for covering.”

 

“No sweat. I mean…lots of sweat, but.” He shrugged, and they both chuckled. “What can you do?”

 

Thanks to the leg up they’d gotten, Ruth and Darcy at least had a chance to start into the actual excavation part of the digging, before it was time to break for lunch.

 

More pasta, this time. Of course.

 

“All right everyone.” Fournier stood up and made an announcement as soon as they finished eating. “As I’m sure most if not all of you have realized, William and I would like to begin opening up the ground on what we’re calling Site B. So for this afternoon, we are going to split up. I would like to take three of you with me to explore the cairn, and the rest to remain here to continue what we have already started on.”

 

“Cairn?” Darcy murmured in an undertone to the nearest person, who happened to be Grace.

 

“Oh, a simplified tomb structure, essentially,” Grace said in reply. She wiped a smudge off her glasses. “It’s probably not a real cairn, terminologically speaking, but that’s what the professor’s been calling it ever since she started suspecting it was an organized burial site.”

 

“Oh. Right. Okay.” She was beginning to regret not taking notes after all.

 

After some hemming and hawing, the three that got picked to go work on the burial were Amanda, Garrett and, to some surprise, Darcy herself.

 

“Me? Are you sure about that? It’s not like I know what I’m doing.”

 

“You would be surprised how little there is to handling human remains, once they are in the skeletal state and can be counted upon not to be too fragile,” the professor explained to her, as they hiked their way to Site B. “Besides, it’s quite the opportunity. I wouldn’t think you’d be in a hurry to pass it up.”

 

“Well…no,” Darcy had to admit. “I’m not. Uh. Thank you.”

 

First Jane and Erik, now this. Maybe all the teacher experts she’d had for her major were just assholes, but she wasn’t used to full-time scientists being so helpful and eager to share with plebeians who had no idea what they were working on. She sort of expected them to be a little more like…

 

Well. Kevin.

 

When they got there, Darcy was in for quite the surprise. She’d expected the second site to look virtually identical to the first, maybe with some sort of earthen mound to mark it as a potential grave.

 

Instead, in the middle of the clearing there was a large rounded stone that had to be twice as tall as she was. She counted at least three more much smaller ones organized in a rough circle around it, partially poking out of the greenery of the woods.

 

“Whoa. Are those freaking monoliths?” She stared up at the big one. It was covered in some sort of squiggly, zigzagging pattern. Darcy squinted at it, but it continued to make no sense.

 

“Not exactly.” Garrett chuckled. “This ain’t no Stonehenge, if you get what I’m saying.”

 

“Uh…no. No, I really don’t get what you’re saying.”

 

“The term for these would be ‘runestones’.” Fournier ran a hand along the large craggy face carefully. She gazed up at the pattern with a reverent expression. “Normally you find them in Europe. Particularly, they were left behind by the Celtic cultures and-”

 

“The Norse?” Darcy found herself supplying, before she could help it.

 

Fournier smiled at her. “Precisely. Yes, the Nordic civilization was very fond of these. Hence the term: rune stones. It’s not uncommon to find them covered with Norse runes.”

 

She stepped away from the stone, still gazing back at it as she moved away. “It’s where some of our earliest information about their legends and major religious figures come from.”

 

“Yeah, go figure,” Darcy muttered. “It’s like those guys are everywhere.” Garrett gave her a curious look.

 

“What?”

 

“Don’t worry about it,” she told him, more clearly.

 

“Okay, I’m going to say it.” Amanda looked up from the gear she was unpacking. “I know that the Vikings eventually sailed all over, even to North America. But isn’t Iceland and Greenland and all of that, really far away? Don’t tell me Leif Eriksson took a break from his day job to stroll way inland and plant a few carved stones in the mountains of Colorado.”

 

“These were not left by Vikings,” Fournier was quick to assure her. “In fact this group of people we have found must pre-date the foundation of the Nordic culture by several thousand years. Either we are looking at one of two possibilities. The similarity between the symbols we have found and traditional Norse symbolism is a coincidence, which is not unheard of.”

 

“But that’s not what you want it to be,” Darcy guessed, feeling pretty certain.

 

“No,” Fournier admitted, all too easily. “I think the level of similarity is far too great for there to be no connection at all.”

 

“I vote aliens,” Garrett was quick to joke.

 

Amanda rolled her eyes. “Oh yeah, sure. It’s always the aliens. Because there’s no way a couple of regular guys can get it in their heads to build a pyramid all on their own.”

 

“Bear in mind, considering the age of this settlement, the continents of the world were arranged far differently than they are now,” Fournier explained to them all. “I’m not talking about Pangaea, but it is not so hard to believe that a common ancestral group split into these people and the one that eventually Vikings descended from, spread out over time and across land.”

 

Darcy thought about that. At first it sounded a bit like something from a Dan Brown book - but then again, she’d heard about Mitochondrial Eve in one of her classes that touched on genetics. Maybe the ancient world really was a whole lot smaller than some people might’ve thought.

 

“Still,” she said aloud, “it’s probably going to be pretty hard to prove that hypothesis of yours.”

 

“Oh, I know.” Fournier was taking Polaroid snapshots of the runestones now, and marking notes on them with permanent marker. “But then, that is exactly why I’m here. Doing this.”

 

Darcy couldn’t think of many responses to that. “Good point.”

 

Fournier and Dr. Rubens had already had someone come through with heavier construction equipment to rid the area surrounding the burial site of extraneous dirt cover. There really was nothing left to do but start digging in, and see what they came up with.

 

Before long, Darcy found herself picking through what appeared to be a jumble of tiny beads, shell fragments, and what had to be bones from either a bird or a fish. She prodded at the clump of earth with the wooden tool she’d been given, careful not to actually dislodge any pieces as she mulled over it.

 

“Bet it might be a necklace,” Garrett offered – all of a sudden he was right next to Darcy, hands on his knees as he leaned down into what she generally considered her personal breathing zone. “Some kind of jewelry, definitely.”

 

“You think so?” Darcy tried to keep her tone more civil, and not blatantly start gagging on the funk from his deodorant spray. “Some kind of offering, left behind with the dead?”

 

Garrett grinned at her in a meaningful way that she was betting had nothing to do with prehistoric graves. “Guess this was before they invented, ‘can’t take it with you’.”

 

“Got bone,” Amanda interjected from about three feet to Darcy’s right, loudly.

 

“Oh, you’ve got that right.” Darcy gave Garrett the sideways eye. “Somebody sure does.”

 

“No, I mean, I’ve got bone,” Amanda repeated, impatient. “I’ve found human remains, over here.”

 

Darcy quickly forgot the issue of Garrett’s mostly well-meaning lecherousness as both of them scrambled to take a look at what Amanda had found.

 

Fournier’s head shot up from where she was working her own spot. “Bundle burial?”

 

“I sure hope so.” Amanda stood for a better look. “That or this dude had a mutation where the head sprouts straight outta the pelvis.”

 

“I think I saw a picture of an old-timey carnival freak like that once,” Darcy commented. “Bundle burial means re-burial, right?”

 

“Yep.” Garrett nodded. “Like somebody died during the winter and they had to wait until the ground wasn’t as hard in spring. Or for some other reason they transferred the body. But they didn’t bother putting the bones back together the second time.”

 

“This is excellent,” Fournier was saying, examining the bones in the ground that still held them. “Exactly what I was hoping we’d find. This will help to prove that this was a long-term settlement site.”

 

Fournier took over the bones herself, and Amanda moved on to quickly finding another burial. Then another. Then Darcy found one, and then finally, Garrett.

 

“How many do you think there are in here?” Darcy asked as she carefully outlined a skull with her pick. Trying not to feel too weird about how the size meant she was poking at what had to be somebody’s dead baby of long, long ago.

 

“There could be dozens.” Fournier’s voice was intense, almost feverish. “Hundreds-”

 

“What the fuck?”

 

Garrett’s startled curse split the air, bringing the rest of them to a halt. Darcy started pulling herself up but Amanda was the first to reach him.

 

“What’s up, G?” she asked. “What did you find?”

 

Garrett shook his head, a mixture of frustrated and confused. “Trash.”

 

“Trash?” Fournier repeated, as much at a loss as the rest of them.

 

Trash.” Garrett held up his hands for emphasis.

 

What looked like part of somebody’s torn backpack, a crushed Gatorade bottle and a few candy wrappers. And some other things beside that were hard to make out, crumpled and covered with mud as they were. “Everyday, throwaway modern crap.”

 

If Darcy hadn’t been able to guess from Garrett’s reaction that was a bad thing, she got it by the time Fournier let loose a careless curse in French.

 

At least, Darcy assumed it was cursing, by the tone. She’d taken German and she barely remembered that.

 

“Wonderful.” Fournier scowled, her expression exceedingly dark. “That means this site has been contaminated.”

 

“Not enough to completely undermine everything you’ve collected, I hope?” Darcy questioned, almost timid since she wasn’t sure how Fournier reacted to anger. Whether she was the type to snap at everyone around or not.

 

The professor shook her head. “No, no. But it will make things not at all easier, when it comes time to offer solid proof. This throws an air of uncertainty into everything we find here from now on.” She pointed around her in obvious annoyance. “How do we know for certain everything is exactly the way it was when the ancients buried it?”

 

“What I don’t get,” Garrett put in, “is how the stuff I found ended up so far down. I’m on the same level as the remains we’re finding. Did some jackass seriously dig a deep hole here as he was passing through for kicks?”

 

Amanda looked at him dubiously. “What, do you think it just teleported itself in?”

 

Without anything to add to the conversation one way or another, Darcy examined the scraps. Her eyes caught on a square of white plastic, half-buried beneath shreds of paper. She flipped it over.

 

“Hey, a student ID,” she remarked. “If we want to track this guy down and kick him in the nads for what he did, we totally can. He even goes to the same university as us.” She read off the name: “‘Jake Hutchinson’. Weird.”

 

Still scowling, Professor Fournier made a dismissive gesture. “Leave it be. It’s not important.”

 

*

 

When it came to magic, there was very rarely only one way of doing anything.

 

Different methods, different teachers, different cultures always had their own variations on spells that were, at heart, the same. And by combining enchantments, re-applying them, it was possible to use unrelated magics to accomplish the same thing.

 

It could seem like overkill to the inexperienced, but given the nature of magic, it was never a bad idea to have a backup plan.

 

And Loki, always very thorough even in his spur of the moment schemes, tended to know offhand at least three different ways to do whatever it was he wanted to achieve.

 

He never considered himself fully learned on a subject, until he knew four or five.

 

So when he decided to use magic to try and have a little peek into the past, in search of information about Selene and Asgard, there was more than one way he could go about it. It was only a matter of deciding the best for the situation.

 

For what was available to him, and what specifically he wanted, in this instance Loki found the decision to be a particularly easy one. The most straightforward and effective way was a ritual he had learned, with no small of amount of difficulty, some centuries ago.

 

He would weave a web of his energies, and the power of the earth around him. The stones and the trees and the ground had the longest memory of all. And with a little prodding, they would tell Loki everything they had witnessed. What he desired to know.

 

There was one caveat: the ritual was what the Asgardians and ancient mortals called seiðr – woman’s magic.

 

Bit of a hurdle for any other sorcerer.

 

None such for Loki, who’d learned to master shape-shifting very early on in his studies.

 

Standing in the shadow of an eight-foot runestone, he closed his eyes and exhaled, calling upon the powers he needed and letting his sense of physical self go.

 

He pressed both hands to his forehead and ran them back over his scalp and down to his shoulders. His woman’s shape, familiar for all the times he used it, flowed over him like water.

 

Knowing what he did now, it made a kind of sense, that changing forms came to him with such relative ease. Shape-shifting was a tricky ability some of even the most accomplished wizards never could master, yet Loki had been able to do it practically in adolescence.

 

But why not? Without even knowing it, he had been a shifter for a very long time, since almost the day he was born.

 

Everything about what he had thought he was was a lie, a deception. The face he wore was false: an Asgardian skin covering up a Frost Giant monster.

 

Loki’s eyes snapped open and he shook himself, roughly.

 

He could seethe and rage on all his hurts some other time. Right now there was more pressing work to be done.

 

Walking close to the runestone he placed one palm against it, feeling the warmth it had absorbed from the sun. The patterns and images it held still made no sense to him, but if what he planned worked correctly soon enough they would.

 

Loki leaned into the age-marked side of the ruin and murmured, “I have come for your secrets.”

 

Then stepping back, he let his arm drop, and went to work.

 

*

 

In the shadows of their village, the mortal warriors and their allies sparred and laughed and played.

 

The women called the ones who came from beyond ‘Aesir’, and listened with raptness to all they had to tell. They led them into glorious battles against neighboring tribes. Their husbands filled their cups with the crude drink they wrested from the fruit of the woods. Their children laughed and played about their feet.

 

In exchange, the Asgardians gave them gifts. Fine white steeds the likes of which would not be seen on that part of Midgard for many an age. Silver forged armor and weapons that mortals had not yet learned to make for themselves.

 

And to some of the beautiful women, the men of the king’s honor guard played favorite.

 

None was more prominent than the love of Odin’s own blood-brother Ve, for the shaman woman named Selene.

 

Ve walked hand in hand with her, along the many paths of the hills and forest. He brought her flowers, beads, the finest kills, even words of poetry from his own lips. With every waking moment he courted her and paid tribute. He fawned upon her beauty and grace. He worshipped the very ground she stepped on.

 

Odin watched it all, with a frown upon his face, and a foreboding sickness in his heart.

 

“I wish you would not pay her such favors, Ve. I wish you would not flock to her so.”

 

“I regret that I do not have your approval, my lord,” his friend protested. “But it is not so simple as discarding one favorite for another! I don’t only fancy Selene; I love her.”

 

“Aye,” Odin spoke sadly. “I know that you do.” His words were weighted with severity. “And that is exactly why I fear for you at her hands.”

 

Ve turned for a moment, shaking his head in rueful confusion.

 

“I do not know why you dislike her so. Is it because of her power? She is the only one among mortals we have met with so much, it is true, but you yourself have more than a passing fancy for the art of magic.”

 

“Do not confuse my dabbling in sorcery for what it is that your chosen sweetheart does,” Odin returned, sharply. “I have no name for what she is but Selene is no mere mortal. Brynhild’s people say she has been with them for many generations.”

 

He drew in a breath. “But I suspect she is even older than that. Ve, she lies. She hides her true self from you and the others, and her true intentions.”

 

“Her true intentions!” Ve repeated with a scoff, laughing in disbelief. “What ‘true intentions’? Odin, she helps their wounded, their elderly. She visits their sick and saves them with her art.”

 

“How many does she save?” Odin demanded. “I have spoken with those of the village, and I have heard their stories – I have kept a careful account. I think Selene has saved far less than her so-called friends realize.”

 

“I’m sure she does what she can,” Ve disagreed, completely dismissive.

 

He was surprised when Odin reached out, seizing him firmly by the shoulder. His king and kinsmen turned him to meet his eyes.

 

“You think she is in love with you as well, Ve, but I don’t believe it for a moment. When you are with her she is all smiles and pays more than fair return to your suit.”

 

Odin’s every word was careful and precise, heavy with his insistence and his worries. “But you do not see the way her face changes when your back is turned. Her eyes are cold, like that of a snake. Another creature known for its way with deception.”

 

“Oh, Odin,” Ve protested, amazed at these accusations. “Are you jealous of the attention I pay her, Son of Bor? I would never have thought it, but the way you act makes me wonder.”

 

With a smile amused and reassuring, he patted Odin’s shoulder. “I promise to be careful, my liege.”

 

“I hope that you would,” Odin sighed, as Ve walked away, already out of earshot. “But alas, I fear when it comes to her, it will not be nearly enough.”

 

*

 

Any potent magic always made a trail one could follow if they were practiced, inevitably. But Selene was pleased that her quarry had left a path for her to find so soon.

 

Using her shadow as a method to creep upon him stealthily Selene travelled to the place where she sensed the Aesir was. She appeared behind an old tree and stayed there, peering around the trunk for a look.

 

A short distance from the stone that dominated the forested area, the enchanter sat with legs crossed and wrists resting upon knees. Eyes closed, Loki was in some form of trance. The air around fairly shimmered with the presence of magic, flickering in and out of sight to the naked eye.

 

The more interesting part however was that the figure at the center of the spell was female: a raven-haired maid that nonetheless still possessed the same aristocratic features as the man Selene had fought with.

 

Selene knew the lay of the land well. Not far from there was where the people of old chose to bury their dead. And that runestone was one of the eldest the area held, made to honor the spirits of their ancestors. If there was a place that could be said to be at the spiritual heart of it all surely it was this.

 

So, he was using seiðr to get draw upon the memory of the land. A simple enough way to go about it, if the path was open to be walked.

 

“Clever boy,” Selene murmured, eyebrows rising in surprise and a rare moment of admiration.

 

It was enough to make her regret again that she couldn’t kill him and take his power for her own. Ah well.

 

She glanced at her left palm, where she had wrapped a thin scrap of deer hide around to temporarily cover the rune she had marked in her own flesh and blood.

 

Symbolic rune magic was simple, yet powerful, and more to the point she didn’t dare attack with any spells that were not Asgardian there. It was one thing to use djinni elemental fire against him during a fight. It was another entirely to risk the collision of countering magics in a place he’d clearly laid down lines of power. If there was a backfire, it could hurt Selene far more than him.

 

Leaving her sword in her belt for the moment, Selene drew her shaman’s knife from the side of her boot. Then she stepped from her hiding place and slunk toward the spell Loki was weaving, knowing he’d be all but blind to her in his trance.

 

Surrounding where Loki sat was a woven web of magic, spells knit together like threads that curved around him in a protective dome. Selene recognized it immediately: a magical security system, to keep out any would-be intruders or attackers, and act as an alarm if any got too close.

 

She hesitated at the first fastening point where the spell touched earth. Turning her head, she squinted purposefully until her vision began to blur.

 

As soon as it did what had already been partially visible to her became even clearer – there was a web on top of the web. A second line of magic that hovered like a ghost beside every one already expected to be there.

 

Selene was tempted to chuckle but settled for a smirk. Nice try, she thought. But she was not so easily fooled.

 

Using the point of her knife she carefully cut through both magics simultaneously, not bothering to sort out the genuine from the decoy. Continuing to move forward she gathered the threads to her, slicing as she went.

 

She kept enough distance from the Aesir that she would not disturb him. Wouldn’t do to have him catching on to how his little plan was about to backfire so soon.

 

Once she had enough of the magic collected, Selene could use her will to make the web her own.

 

And then the enterprising little spider would be caught in a trap of his own making.

 

*

 

The further back that Loki reached, the stronger he felt the pull of the land, and the harder it was for him to have any sense at all for the present and what was around him.

 

But even swimming deep in the magic, he felt the ripples of a disturbance on the surface. And though it was no more than a brush against his skin he knew it was not something he should ignore.

 

With some difficulty he fought off the urge to remain still and awakened himself. His eyes were heavy as if weighted down with slumber when he opened them.

 

Selene stood within arm’s reach of him. He could see the skeins of his magic that she had gathered to her, bundled thickly in her arms.

 

She smiled at Loki, her eyes narrow with triumph.

 

“Good morrow,” she greeted. “Your countenance is much changed since we saw each other last.”

 

“Is it now,” Loki said dryly, not sure if she was mocking him for taking on a woman’s form or merely trying to brag that she’d seen through the change.

 

Please, that’s nothing to be proud of, he thought; if he’d wanted it to be an actual disguise he’d have changed far more than his general shape.

 

Selene indicated the magic she held. “You probably must be missing this,” she hissed menacingly. The way she held herself it was clear she thought she had the upper hand.

 

Loki eyed the still-active magic, considering.

 

So she had seen through his double layered spell. Well, he had already expected as much.

 

“Oh no, not really.” With careless ease he got to his feet. “In fact, you know: if you want it all so badly…”

 

Loki snapped his fingers – the third layer of spell he had woven, hidden even more secretively beneath the second, flared to life.

 

At his command the strands of otherwise purposeless web that Selene had gathered twisted around her, entrapping her arms and legs, leaving her all but hopelessly tangled in the stuff.

 

“You’re welcome to it.”

 

Selene screamed in indignation. Loki carefully moved even further back as she twisted herself around, breaking through the threads of magic but a handful at a time.

 

“This looks like it may take awhile,” Loki remarked. “Would you prefer it if I went for a walk, gave you some more time? Perhaps came back later?”

 

Selene wrenched her arm up, tearing through an entire line of magic all at once. The net around her was slowly vanishing, whittled away by her determination.

 

“You will not be laughing so hard Odinson, when I am done with you.”

 

Loki bit his lower lip in reflex, feeling some of the color drain from his face. “How did you…”

 

His gaze fell to his own bare right arm.

 

“Oh.” Of course. The armband carried his father’s…Odin’s sigil on it. “So you can read, can you? Well, that’s good for you,” he snapped, finding it slightly harder to remain flippant.

 

Names held power – even false ones. He did not like that she had a piece of his identity no matter how slight.

 

All the more reason to finish the ritual. Find what he was seeking and then settle the score. But he didn’t dare go back into his trance with Selene right there, even if she was occupied.

 

And it didn’t look as if that last part was going to remain true for very long.

 

Loki took another set of steps back. He noted that Selene was using her own magic to break apart his, her own strength and nothing else. That sword hung visible on her belt but she never reached for it.

 

So there was something the enchanted blade could not cut through after all. That was worth knowing.

 

Selene broke free at last with a growl. Before she could make a move Loki dashed past her, running out of her sight.

 

When she turned around she was faced with the sight of three of him, each an equal distance apart, and giving her the exact same insolent look.

 

“That trick already grows old.” Selene’s sword leapt to her hand. She lunged forward, swinging the weapon in a wide arc as she did. It cut effortlessly through the three figures which instantly dissolved into nothing.

 

Loki rose from where he’d been hiding crouched behind one of the illusions and flung himself at Selene, thrusting a knife through her throat.

 

Selene gave a pained gurgle of surprise. Then her expression shifted to aggravation.

 

Bringing her arm back she drove her sword’s hilt hard into Loki’s mostly unarmored chest.

 

“Ohh!” Actual tears of pain sprung to Loki’s eyes at that unexpected attack, his jaw dropping in a breathless gasp. He barely had the wherewithal to stagger back, doubled over, arms reflexively guarding his torso.

 

Selene didn’t attack again immediately. She spun herself around on one heel, facing him with a look of lofty amusement.

 

“Stings, doesn’t it?” Raising her sword to the level of her chin she used it to point at him. “You male shifters always forget that part.”

 

Loki straightened up, glaring at her. Unabashed, she made a series of quick, almost playful twirls of her wrist, the point slicing the air before him with a humming swish. Loki didn’t bother dodging – there was no force behind those blows. They could do nothing to him. She wasn’t even trying.

 

Looking down he watched the progression of the sword as it cut through the uppermost layer of his clothing, leaving a gaping tear each time. Once above his belly. Diagonally following the line of his right arm. Another diagonal, from top left all the way down to his hip.

 

He leveled an icy look of disdain at her. “Done playing with your food?”

 

Selene’s laugh was low, mirthless. “Oh, do not tempt me.” She bared her teeth. “It is the least I can do to make you suffer before I am done.”

 

“The least you can do. Indeed. I think that the most you can do is try.”

 

He flung a spell at her and turned to move, not wanting to give her any chance to catch him and feed upon him. But Selene had ducked under the attack and jumped forward as one movement. Stretching out a hand she caught the edge of his cloak. Loki was momentarily jerked back, dragged towards her.

 

Fingers flying to the clasp he swiftly unfastened it and threw the thick cloth back in her face. Selene fumbled with it for a minute then tossed it aside to the ground.

 

She was disappearing into her shadow again. Loki started to run toward her hoping to interrupt the process but it was too late. Selene sunk down and disappeared, tugging at something on her left hand.

 

Cursing, Loki curled his fingers together, summoning a more powerful spell. All the while his eyes darted about frantically, looking for any sign of the shadow. She had to come back. He wasn’t going to get another chance.

 

He almost missed her. He had but a split-second of warning as he turned his head, the dark shape appearing on the trunk of a tree just above him. Selene dove out, arms over her head as she rolled forward. Bringing himself about Loki cast the magic toward her, willing it to do the most damage he could.

 

But Selene didn’t dodge. She took the attack head-on, muscles already poised in an outwardly suicidal lunge that carried her forward even after a chunk of her body was ripped from her. All she did was turn slightly, to keep her arms hidden safely behind her.

 

And then when she got close enough she lashed out, fingers splayed around the nape of Loki’s neck, palm down pressed against his skin.

 

Selene spoke three words, a clear incantation. Before Loki could piece them together the back of his neck where she touched him burned.

 

It wasn’t only pain. The magic coursing through him, invading his body, his mind…

 

Everything became hazy. It dug in, the fog spreading. He could feel his legs start to give out under him, and then everything went white.

 

*

 

“Where do you want this skull fragment?” Darcy asked, and then tried not to think about how creepy and surreal a question like that was.

 

“Here. I got it.” Amanda took it from her. She then proceeded to carefully wrap it in tinfoil, and pulling out a marker wrote down a provenance on it.

 

Darcy refrained from watching her, considering how many times she’d seen it by now, and went back to poking through human bones on her hands and knees.

 

After what felt like a seriously borderline unbearable amount of time, they’d finally progressed on to removing the bones from the ground. There had been several steps of photographing, sketching and labeling before anything could be removed, a concept which Darcy approved of on principle but in the reality had found pretty boring to watch.

 

With that taken care of, each piece still had to be excised with caution, and then packaged and labeled separately for transport.

 

“Boy,” Garrett was saying, “they’ll be having a lot of fun with these guys, back at the lab.”

 

“I imagine so.” Fournier didn’t even look up from the samples she was gathering. “All of you, make sure that you mark any items we pulled from the grave with their corresponding number. We don’t want to mistake which funerary artifacts belong to whom later.”

 

“This isn’t our first time, Professor. Well, except Darcy. It is her first time. And even she’s been doing great so far.”

 

“Gee, thanks Garrett.” Darcy stood to give her aching joints a brief rest. “I take it when you said bag the other stuff, you weren’t talking about that crap we found in the garbage hole?”

 

“Actually we do have to bag it,” Amanda told her. “Or at least document it. To acknowledge that it was here. Now ain’t that a kick in the pants?”

 

“The scientific process can be a real bitch sometimes.” Darcy shook her head.

 

She knew it was pointless to wonder about, but she still found it a freaky coincidence that another student from the same college had been camping all the way out there. One who’d managed to leave stuff behind where they’d find it in their excavation, at that. What were the odds?

 

Hell, considering the size and remoteness of the area, she was surprised at other people crossing paths at all.

 

“Hello?” a voice called from somewhere beyond the trees, further off into the woods. “Somebody? Is…is anybody there?”

 

Darcy’s head jerked up as she stared toward the sound, vaguely aware that the others alongside her were all doing the same.

 

This was starting to be one too many a weird occurrence for her. Especially in the course of a single afternoon.

 

“Jesus Christ,” Darcy exclaimed incredulously. “Is somebody filming the Blair Witch Project out here, or what?”

 

They all continued staring as the rustling and footsteps continued, coming closer. Finally the source of the voice appeared.

 

“Hello?”

 

The woman stumbled in toward them, clothes catching on the branches of trees as she broke through them in a hurry, seemingly no regard for not injuring herself in the process. The look on her face was frightened and bewildered, only subsiding slightly when she saw the four of them.

 There was a startled sound from Amanda and a quiet “Oh, mon dieu,” from the professor. Fournier quickly rushed to help the stranger, who was clearly injured and disoriented, with Garrett only a few steps behind.

 

She practically collapsed into Fournier’s grasp, hugging herself. Fournier draped an arm across her shoulder and placed the other hand on her forearm, helping to hold her upright as much as keep her secure.

 

“I…can you help me? Please?” she asked the professor, voice shaking.

 

“How did you get out here?” Fournier asked, her tone gentle but still very clearly surprised. Not that Darcy blamed her one iota. “Where did you come from?”

 

The woman shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t…”

 

“Whoa. She’s like, totally in shock,” Garrett remarked.

 

“Good call, Doogie Howser,” Amanda said, annoyed. “Why don’t we all move back and give the lady some breathing room?”

 

“Oh, right. Sorry.” Sheepishly Garrett relocated a few feet away, as Fournier led her a few steps in toward them, away from the forest.

 

Darcy took the newcomer in. She was tall and slim, with long black hair and deep green eyes that kept staring around in timid uncertainty. Her clothes were, well…weird. It was hard to tell since they were all torn up and stained with dirt, but it looked like she had on a long shirt over a pair of leggings and maybe even something kind of like chainmail, all in shades of green and gold.

 

“Are you hurt?” Fournier helped her to sit down on one of the tinier runestones, looking her over inquisitively. “What happened to you?”

 

“I’m not sure. I don’t-” She gulped. “I don’t remember.”

 

“It’s all right. Take a breath, slow,” Fournier tried to soothe her. “Do you have any idea where you came from?”

 

The only response was a quick shake of her head.

 

Garrett tried to help…well, ‘help’: “What’s your name?”

 

Darcy watched the woman’s eyes grow wider with panic and distress.

 

“I don’t remember,” she said, tearfully. “Not anything. I don’t know who I am!”

Chapter Text

All activity at the base site had been halted, at least for the moment. There was something that temporarily had become far more interesting, and important, than the discovery and documentation of ancient history.

 

Darcy and all the others stood midway between the dig itself and the main tent. The front flap had been propped open to let in the air, and inside they could see as the strange woman that’d come from the woods sat in a chair, Dr. Rubens examining her as Professor Fournier lingered nearby.

 

“So you seriously just found her out there?” Ruth asked Darcy in a hushed tone. “All by herself?”

 

“Garrett even took a twenty minute hike through the woods around the burial site in a big circle,” Darcy informed her. “He didn’t find any signs that someone had been camping out there.”

 

“What, did she walk?” Lindsey said dubiously. “I don’t think so. We’re miles from San Luis. Somebody had to have dropped her off.”

 

“But with no gear?” Darcy turned toward them. Nearby she could see where Amanda was talking to Grace, and Garrett to Kevin – no doubt all of them having variants on the same conversation. “Not even a thing? Besides that doesn’t explain her memory. She couldn’t tell us if she backpacked down from the mountains with Bigfoot and the cast of the X-Files; she doesn’t even remember her own life story.”

 

“She was probably in an accident or something,” Lindsey offered. “Head trauma. That can cause amnesia, right?”

 

“If she was, there’s no sign of that either.”

 

“Jesus, it’s like she fell from the sky,” Ruth remarked. When Darcy winced, in reflex, Ruth poked at her with a frown. “What?”

 

“Nothing. Just…poor choice of words. Long story.”

 

Darcy looked away evasively, and Ruth stared at her for only a moment before taking the hint with a shrug.

 

The last thing Darcy wanted to think about was the first time she’d met a stranger in the middle of nowhere. That had turned out pretty freaky in a way that’d basically changed her life forever.

 

This situation was weird enough on its own. She didn’t need it going the same direction.

 

Looking back over at the tent she saw Rubens shining a penlight in the woman’s eyes.

 

“So, Dr. Rubens is an actual medical doctor?” she asked, both to change the subject and out of real curiosity. Considering how many PhDs she had in her life it hadn’t even occurred to her to check when they’d been introduced.

 

“Sorta. He has medical training. He’s an ME, not an MD,” Lindsey said. “A coroner.”

 

Darcy made a face before she could help it. “No wonder he knows his way around dead bodies.”

 

“Apparently they go through a lot of the same classes.” Lindsey looked around her, also watching. “There’s just…a slightly different focus.”

 

Rubens finished up and stepped outside, Fournier moving close behind him. The students all gathered in with interest.

 

“Amanda, Darcy,” Fournier spoke before any of them could. “Why don’t you go in and talk to her? She’s understandably very scared and shouldn’t be alone right now, and the two of you are already familiar to her.”

 

“Uh,” Amanda looked over at Darcy, and they both shrugged. “Sure.”

 

Leaving the ‘experts’ to talk outside Darcy went with Amanda inside the tent. The other woman was gazing down at her own hands, blankly, but at the sound of their movement she looked up.

 

“Hey.” Darcy gave a slight wave, careful to make her movements slow and non-threatening. Sure, she was dealing with a person, not a feral cat, but the principles were probably the same. “Mind if we hang in here and chill with you for a moment?”

 

The woman blinked slowly, as if she needed a moment to piece the meaning of the question together. “No, I do not mind. That would be…nice. Though I can’t offer much in the way of conversation.”

 

“That’s fine.” Darcy sat down in the nearest chair, scooting it closer but leaving enough distance she wasn’t crowding her.

 

“You want something to drink?” Amanda jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “The water bottles are out back, but there should be a couple things still in the cooler.”

 

“Yes, actually. Thank you. I’m very thirsty.” As Amanda walked off she turned to Darcy. “I must’ve been out there for awhile.”

 

“Probably. Uh, I’m Darcy by the way. That’s Amanda.”

 

“It’s nice to meet you both. Really. You are all being very kind to me.” The more she spoke, the more Darcy could hear she had some kind of accent, though nothing she could identify. “Shame that I cannot give my own name, as well.”

 

She looked down at her hands again.

 

“Okay, I know this is probably the stupidest question ever,” Darcy began, softly. “But, are you okay?”

 

The other shook her head ruefully, pressing one hand to her throat. “It’s strange to think that only yesterday, I must have known who I was. But today…” She trailed off, giving Darcy a look that was equal parts bitterness, fright, and frustration.

 

“You don’t have anything on you that might be a clue? Like a membership card to a club, or a bus ticket, or a photo maybe.” Darcy glanced down at her odd get-up. “Do you even have pockets in that thing?”

 

“I already looked. I could not find anything.” As if to demonstrate she patted herself in a few places, then tugged on the hem of her – Darcy guessed it’d be called a tunic? Smoothing out the fabric.

 

They actually might have been pretty nice clothes, construction-wise, if not for the part where they’d also clearly been to hell and back. The front part of her top had several long tears, an entire sleeve was missing, and between mud and burrs and the holes they’d had ripped in whatever was on her legs was basically ruined.

 

“I’m not attired the same as the rest of you,” she remarked, telling Darcy she’d noticed and been perplexed by the discrepancy as well.

 

“Maybe you’re part of the Society for the Creative Anachronism,” Darcy offered.

 

Her brow furrowed, and she frowned. “I do not know what that is.”

 

Darcy rolled her eyes briefly. “Oh, almost nobody knows what it is. Except the people that belong to it. And I think sometimes even they’re confused. The only reason I’ve ever heard of it is because I once dated a guy who was a member, like two years ago – look, it actually turned out really bad. Bit of free advice, never go out with a SCAdian.”

 

The only reply she got was a very empty, very confused look.

 

“…Or, you could just ignore everything that I’m saying, because you already have enough problems, and I talk way too much,” Darcy said. “I’m sorry.”

 

It was a surprise but gave her a warm sense of relief at the same time, to see the other girl smile, albeit faintly.

 

“It’s all right. I think I prefer your voice to the echoing inside my own head, right now.”

 

Amanda reappeared, bearing an already opened can of diet soda. “Here. I was trying to see if I could find a cup or something, but of course everything around is dirty.”

 

“That’s…fine.” Her tone was aimed at polite but she took the can in both hands like she didn’t completely know what to do with it. After a pause she took a careful, slow sip. “Oh.”

 

“What’s the matter?” Amanda asked. “Don’t like it?”

 

“No. Not at all. It’s just…it’s sweet.” Her surprise was evident. She turned the drink around in her hands, examining it curiously. “And it…bubbles.”

 

She sipped it again, pausing each time as if trying to quantify the taste.

 

Amanda and Darcy exchanged a look. But before either of them could say anything, there was the sound of slightly hushed voices outside the tent. It sounded as if Fournier and Rubens were involved in a pretty intense conversation.

 

Leaving the newcomer to puzzle over the soda can, the two girls went back out.

 

“You just told me that she was fine,” Fournier was saying. Her arms were folded, a firm look on her face. “Is that not what you just said?”

 

Medically fine, yes. As far as I can tell, with what very little equipment I have access to out here,” Rubens retorted. “But there’s the little problem of her having a severe and absolute case of amnesia! Obviously something happened to her. Me not finding a concussion isn’t the same as no proof of trauma. We need to take her to a hospital.”

 

“So that, what? The young lady can sit there, all alone, while the doctors can offer her no more answers than we can?” Fournier said, insistent. “We are going into town for our regular supply run in a few days anyway. We can take her in then.”

 

“For god’s sake, Jeanne.” Rubens sounded completely exasperated. “Don’t try to talk to me as if I’m the one being unreasonable here. We have a truck. It’s one trip. Hardly a drain on our gas budget. We both know the reason you don’t want to leave is because you don’t want to take a single second away from this site if you don’t have to.”

 

“We’re on the verge of the find of a lifetime! I can just feel it.” She was unflinching. “You’re right, I don’t want to leave. I can admit that. But if I honestly thought there was any difference we could make by taking care of her now, I would drive her in myself. I just do not think it’s necessary.”

 

Darcy looked over and saw the other students standing nearby, eyes going back and forth between their two leaders like it was a ping-pong match, riveted.

 

She guessed that easygoing Bill and soft-spoken if fixated Professor F had had very little reasons to disagree like this before.

 

“She needs to be looked over by someone who knows more than me! With no sign of a head injury, her memory loss could be the result of a brain tumor, or an aneurysm.”

 

“Be honest with me, William. How likely do you truly think that is?”

 

Rubens stopped, rubbing his beard with a frown. “Not very,” he was forced to admit. “Not without any other symptoms. But I’d also like to point out the alarming fact that it looks very much like someone assaulted her and then dumped her out here. The police should be notified.”

 

“Can I say something, here?” Amanda suddenly interjected. Darcy’s estimation of her bravery, considering how all the others had been stunned into silence, went up by a couple of points. “I vote hospital. She is so messed up she doesn’t even know what soda pop is.”

 

“Oh, that’s not that odd,” Rubens said, dismissive. “Retrograde amnesia doesn’t happen like on TV. It isn’t just your memory of personal events that’s affected.” He waved a hand. “An amnesia patient might not remember what the word ‘soup’ means, or have to be re-taught how to brush their teeth.”

 

“Maybe she’s foreign,” Garrett put in as a suggestion. Darcy swore he sounded excited. “Think about it. She doesn’t sound like she’s from around here.”

 

I don’t sound like I’m from around here,” Fournier noted, a bit dryly. “I’ve been a citizen of the United States for almost ten years, and I’ve lived in this area of the country for the past three.”

 

“Oh.” Garrett deflated at that, forcing a grin. “Right.”

 

“This is all beside the point.” Rubens shook his head. “If we don’t take her back to town, then obviously she’s staying with us until then. Either way, we have to do something.”

 

“Let her stay! We have room, and we can easily spare food and water.” Fournier spread her arms. “This is fine by me.”

 

“Okay. You know what?” Ruth raised a hand. “Here’s what I think. Is it fine by her?” When she was certain she had everyone’s attention she continued, severely, “If it’s not a pressing medical thing, why don’t we let her decide if she’d rather go to the hospital or stick around? I mean, it is her life and well-being we’re talking about here.”

 

Darcy reflexively moved a few steps closer to her friend, but resisted coming right out and giving her a hug.

 

“Well…I guess that seems reasonable enough,” Rubens admitted, slowly. He looked over at Fournier. She nodded.

 

“It is a compromise that works for me as well.”

 

The two of them went back into the tent, and for some reason Darcy found herself following along.

 

Maybe because some part of her just wanted to see how they planned to explain all this.

 

She had to give the doctor and the professor credit, though. They were both honest, brief, and to the point when they told the lady what her choices were.

 

The woman mulled it over for a minute, her hands folded as she looked at them.

 

“If you really think there’s no chance of me getting any sicker, I…think that I would prefer to stay,” she said, finally. “I’m still only getting my bearings. If you would have me, I’d like to be around you all for a little while longer.”

 

Fournier and Rubens both told her that was fine, of course, and then after exchanging a few more words with her they left again. Darcy came over and sat herself down in the same chair as before.

 

“We’ll take care of you, I promise,” Darcy told her. “At least until you can get with people who will hopefully help you find out who you really are.”

 

Where the woman’s fingers were laced together on her knee they suddenly tightened. “I do not think I like the idea of being ‘taken care of’,” she remarked. “After all, I am not a child.” She forced her hands to unclench and spread them across her lap. “But I suppose as things are right now, I have no choice.”

 

“I didn’t mean it to be patronizing or anything,” Darcy reassured her. “I just meant…we’ll help you. I’ll help you. Whatever I can.”

 

She nodded. They both were silent a moment and then rather suddenly she went, “The back of my neck hurts.”

 

“Does it?” Darcy got up, worried. “Do you mean like, someone hit you there, or you’re cut?”

 

“Not like that.” Frowning she reached a hand back but stopped, hesitant. “It stings. Like a healed wound. Or an itch.”

 

“Let me just – do you mind?” Carefully Darcy pulled aside the curtain of thick black hair. The woman leaned forward obligingly, not stopping her.

 

“The doctor said that I have a mark of some sort back there,” she explained. “A tattoo, he thought. He asked me if I remembered whether or not it was recent. Of course I couldn’t tell him.”

 

“Yeah, there’s definitely something.” A round pattern-like mark, practically the size of Darcy’s fist. She tilted her head, examining it closely. The color was a deep red, almost more like a burn than a tattoo. “Does it hurt when I touch it?”

 

 Darcy cautiously poked the center of it. The skin felt slightly raised under her fingertips.

 

“Not really.” She shook her head. “Do you know what it is?”

 

“No. Sorry.” Darcy bit her lip. “Actually you know what? It almost looks like some of the stuff I’ve seen on the artifacts around here. Maybe it’s some sort of rune or hieroglyph.”

 

Pulling out her iPhone she snapped a picture. “I’ll show it to Professor Fournier. Who knows, maybe it means something.”

 

“Maybe.” As Darcy sat back down the other brushed her hair back into place, frowning doubtfully. “Do you think it’ll help explain anything about me?”

 

“It can’t hurt,” Darcy said, trying to sound hopeful.

 

The expression on the woman’s face didn’t brighten though. If anything she looked more caught up in her worries. More depressed.

 

Darcy didn’t always jump straight to physical contact with complete strangers, but she thought given the circumstances, maybe a little touch could be reassuring. She reached out a hand and rested it on her shoulder, gently squeezing.

 

She almost regretted it and pulled back right away when the other turned her head and stared at Darcy’s hand with a very taken aback expression.

 

But before Darcy had a chance to chance her mind, her face shifted. She relaxed more and she did seem, slowly, more comfortable.

 

It was almost like she wasn’t used to being touched – but now that she had been, she discovered she liked it after all.

 

After a moment’s hesitation the other girl placed a hand of her own atop Darcy’s. “Thank you for being so helpful to me, Darcy.” She met her eyes in earnest.

 

Darcy smiled. “Hey, anything for a friend.”

 

“Friend?” she repeated, startled. “Are we friends? You don’t know anything about me, and neither do I. We only just met.”

 

But it didn’t sound like she was against the idea, either.

 

Darcy gave a gentle laugh. “Sure,” she told her, brightly. “After all, you have to start somewhere.”

 

*

 

In the central open space of her home, Brynhild practiced with her sword.

 

The blade sang as she moved it through the air, slow methodical circlets from side to side. She held the hilt in one hand, on occasion switching her grip from one in favor of the other.

 

So swift it was, so sturdy in her hands, yet with a lightness that belied its killing power. So unlike the weapons she had trained for, those passed down from her mother, from her grandmother.

 

But Brynhild had not become her people’s leader in combat by foolishness. The gifts of their allies from beyond the sky were valuable indeed. To accept them was both wisdom and a sign of honor.

 

It had taken her not three days to learn technique for the sword, and she was already swiftly becoming a master.

 

Her warriors too had discarded spears and clubs in favor of the silver blades. Traded their pelts and skins for breastplates and helmets, and learned to ride the creature the Aesir called ‘horse’.

 

Already it was said the enemy tribes spoke of them in whispers, their leaders trembling at the very thought of a conflict. There had been fewer and fewer attacks into their land, ever since the Aesir began joining their battles.

 

Truly theirs was a people blessed.

 

Brynhild gave her weapon one last approving glance before returning it to its sheath. She decided to go outside and check on her mount.

 

As she reached the opening that served as the door however, Brynhild realized the beast was already being taken care of.

 

Hair still bound in girlish braids and wearing a thin shift, Gudrun smiled as she fed the horse an apple.

 

Brynhild looked on her younger sister with absentminded fondness. Gudrun should have held the honor of making her first kill by now, if not two or even three summers before. But hers was not the way of battle. She was frail, and meek.

 

But even if she did not help the village by defending it she still paid her due in keeping the people fed, by gathering foods from the land and helping to prepare them after a hunt. She had a place in their world, as did they all.

 

Gudrun was speaking to someone. Curious, Brynhild drifted closer, trying to see without alerting them to her presence. She knew her otherwise charming sister could often become shy around her, intimidated, and she did not want to interrupt.

 

“She is a good animal,” Gudrun said. She rubbed the horse’s nose, and combed her fingers through its mane. In a way she almost loved the mare more than her sister did. “There is a cleverness in her eyes.”

 

“Easily one of the finest I have ever seen,” came the response, agreeing. “But King Odin would not have given his dear friend anything less.”

 

Brynhild recognized that voice with a start. Though there were none to see she turned her head, hiding the very uncharacteristic flush she could feel across her face.

 

Peeking out she caught a glimpse of him standing there, sunlight shining on him: Sigurd, handsome and brave.

 

What lands Sigurd came from originally, none ever said. It did not seem to matter. He had proved himself worthy to ride with the Aesir. Already his exploits were legendary. It was said that he had felled countless enemies in battle, that he spoke the language of the birds, that he had slain a dragon.

 

But one great feat he had accomplished was not in the tales, for it was not yet known. He had stolen Brynhild’s heart.

 

Where normally she would have charged forward Brynhild now hid. She watched Sigurd conversing so easily with Gudrun, and fought the urge to sigh.

 

Both she and her sister were of the age to be choosing husbands. And Sigurd was unwed still. Surely there could be no fault found in such a perfect match as between the two of them, both strong and healthy warriors, who would hopefully in time bear many children.

 

And yet Brynhild hesitated, overcome with uncertainty, and put off confessing her feelings and presenting her suit.

 

“One day soon,” she swore, but even her own voice sounded unconvincing to her ears.

 

This she did know for sure: eventually she must do something about her love of Sigurd, or this burning feeling in her heart would surely be the death of her.

 

*

 

Not that she put any kind of thought into it, but Darcy figured dying of dehydration had to be close to the bottom of her list of ways she could go.

 

So when she’d been told to go with Lindsey and refill the camp’s bottles at the shower station, she hadn’t argued. Water, even the kind that came out of a pipe mounted on the outside of a concrete park building, was definitely a good thing.

 

Still she couldn’t resist asking as they finished topping off the last one, “Are we entirely sure this is safe to drink?”

 

“Probably,” Lindsey said with a shrug, indicating he basically tried not to think about it. “We bathe in it, don’t we?”

 

“First of all, that’s not the same thing.” Darcy gave him a pointed look. “And second of all, most of us avoid bathing in it.”

 

They started lugging the containers back. “We’ve been doing this long before you came. None of us have gotten lead poisoning or mad cow yet. I’m assuming we’ll be fine,” Lindsey chuckled.

 

“So you seriously signed on for a month out here, in the less-than-boonies?” Darcy remarked, shifting a bottle in her grasp. “You’re a brave man, Lindsey.”

 

“I’m a future archaeologist,” he stated. “You think this is bad? I haven’t even picked my specialty yet. I could just as easily end up in the jungle, or a desert somewhere. Some more literal form of the middle of nowhere.”

 

Darcy couldn’t resist a disbelieving, almost pitying laugh. “I wish you all the best with that.”

 

At least her major, and even her work with Jane and Erik, involved being part of civilization.

 

When they got back Darcy wasn’t really surprised to see that everyone had resumed working. What she was surprised about was that ‘everyone’ seemed to include their recently-discovered amnesiac.

 

Where Amanda and Garrett had paused for a break in their excavation, the black-haired woman stood nearby, carefully sketching what they had so far while Dr. Rubens looked encouragingly over her shoulder.

 

“Geeze, how long were we gone?” Darcy dropped her bottles off by the main tent and wandered over, leaving Lindsey to sort them out. “You get desperate and start running a pressgang?”

 

Looking up, Rubens chortled lightly. “Actually, it was Lethia’s idea.”

 

“I felt odder sitting idly by and doing nothing while everyone worked,” she confirmed. “Besides, I’d rather be helpful. Least I can do, isn’t it?”

 

“Lethia?” Darcy repeated in confusion, knowing she was missing something.

 

Fournier looked up from where she was consulting her notes and various artifacts she had spread out on a table. “My idea,” she explained. “It comes from ‘Lethe’, the name of the river of forgetfulness in the Greek underworld, which runs alongside Mnemosyne the river of memory.”

 

“It beats having to go ‘hey you’ all the time,” Garrett said with a smile.

 

Darcy took a better look at ‘Lethia’. They’d gotten her out of her torn clothes too, apparently borrowing from the others at the dig. She looked pretty normal standing there in jeans and hiking boots, hair loosely tied back. Darcy didn’t have to guess who’d lent her the tank top: she recognized one of Ruth’s, bright pink with “Save The Ta-Tas!” written in bold letters.

 

Darcy wondered if anyone explained to Lethia it was for breast cancer awareness. Or if she knew what “ta-tas” meant, for that matter.

 

“It turns out our friend here has quite the steep learning curve,” Rubens commented. “Not to mention she’s a talented sketch artist.” He looked at her. “Who knows: maybe you’re a grad student.”

 

“You think so?” It was easy to hear the hope in her voice. Darcy’s heart went out to her: she was clearly looking for anything even resembling a clue toward her real identity, and clinging to it.

 

“Most of the graduate students I have met do not have that good handwriting,” Fournier said. “William, could you confirm something for me, please?”

 

Rubens hurried over to join her at the table, leaving Darcy blinking in the wake of how fast he’d moved.

 

“Wow. They’re…intent,” she observed. “What the hell happened, they find a clue pointing toward the lost Ark of the Covenant?”

 

“Practically.” Amanda wiped her hands off on her overalls. “While you guys were out on your water run, Bill started going through the photos we took of the burials. Giving possible ages, genders, all that.”

 

“So it turns out, the graves where the people were buried with weapons?” Garrett chimed in. “Mostly female.” He leaned forward eagerly, his eyes wide. “We’ve found a lost tribe of freaking Stone Age Amazons!”

 

“That’s a very premature statement without further study first!” Kevin shouted from the other side of the dig.

 

“Quit being a wet blanket, Kev!” Garrett yelled back.

 

“Yeah. Good luck with that,” Darcy deadpanned. “So, what should I do? I’d ask the bosses but…right now it looks like if I interrupted them, I might lose a hand.”

 

Amanda glanced at the sun’s position. “Well, you’ve probably got enough time before it gets dark to take Lethia and go cross-section a couple PPMs.”

 

“Oh joy. I love doing that.” Still Darcy looked toward the other woman. “You wanna give it a try, then?”

 

“Oh, all right. Certainly.” Lethia nodded. “Just give me a couple moments to finish this up.”

 

Darcy glanced over her shoulder at the sketchpad she was working on. Rubens hadn’t been kidding. Lethia had tiny, inhumanly perfect printing, and all her lines were drawn with painstaking patience for exact detail and scale.

 “They’re not even going to need to photo that one,” Darcy exclaimed, weirdly jealous. She’d given up on art back in high school. Even her stick figures looked deformed.

 

Lethia lifted her head, meeting Darcy’s eyes. “If you’re going to do something, it might as well be as best as possible,” she said, almost timid, like she wasn’t entirely sure she hadn’t done something wrong.

 

“Lighten up,” Darcy said. She cuffed her lightly in the shoulder. “I’m not mad. I’m just…amazed. Now, come on. Leave that thing somewhere safe and grab a shovel.”

 

Lethia stopped eyeballing her shoulder where Darcy had hit her and obediently followed her instructions. They headed to where a line of darker circles in the dirt had been carefully marked out, along one edge of the dig.

 

“Okay. So here’s how this works.” Darcy pointed down. “See that? It’s a PPM. It stands for ‘possible post mold’. Meaning it could be a spot where, once upon a time, there was a structure standing. Or it could just as easily be a random worthless hole.”

 

“How do we find out which?” Lethia asked. Darcy held out her shovel. “Oh. I understand now. We dig.”

 

“Yep. We dig,” Darcy agreed. “And a lot of the time, it isn’t until you’re several feet in that you find out you’ve been wasting your time completely.”

 

Lethia nodded. “I can see why you dislike this task,” she said, mildly.

 

They both did it anyway. It turned out for once Darcy had an actual post-hole. Lethia didn’t. She didn’t seem to mind.

 

She didn’t actually come out and say it, but Darcy had a strong suspicion Lethia was just happy to be doing something. Probably anything was better than the idea of sitting around, freaking out about not knowing who she was.

 

After that, it was time to clean up and head in for dinner. Fournier and Rubens were very clearly going nuts over the possibility they might’ve found an ancient tribe where the women did they hunting and the men the gathering, and that pretty much dominated the conversation. Darcy sat in a quieter corner with Ruth and Lethia, and the two girls gently took turns questioning the third to see if there was anything she’d remembered.

 

When it came time to bed down for the night – Garrett had enthusiastically given Lethia his bedroll, claiming he was fine with only a blanket – as Darcy still had room in her tent, it made sense for the new girl to move in with her.

 

“Here, you can sleep in this t-shirt. Good thing I brought so many spares,” Darcy remarked. “I promise I don’t snore or talk in my sleep or anything.” She removed her glasses. “I’ve been told that I’m apparently ‘a clinger’? But that doesn’t matter, since we’re not sharing a bed.”

 

“Sorry I can’t warn you about any bad habits of my own.” Lethia was smiling a bit as she said it. Darcy took it as a good sign that she was trying to make a joke.

 

“It’s cool. We’ll chalk it up as a learning experience. For us both.”

 

Darcy went to double-check that the tent flaps were zipped. When she turned back she found Lethia lying on her back, staring up at the ceiling with a far-off look in her eyes.

 

Darcy reached out and poked her, gingerly. “Want to talk about it?” she offered. She felt pretty helpless – if there was only one thing she could do, then she was going to do it.

 

Lethia rolled over on her side, facing her. “I asked the doctor what the chances were for me recovering my memories,” she said, hoarsely. “He told me that when we figure out where I’m from, with the help of people that know me and in a familiar place, some of it may come back to me. But the odds of me ever remembering my life, fully…”

 

She trailed off, breaking eye contact as Darcy could see her eyes watering.

 

“Oh.” Darcy felt awful. “That’s…I’m so sorry.” She really didn’t know what else to say to that. ‘That must really suck’?

 

“I’m glad that he was honest with me, at least.” Lethia sounded kind of numb. Like she was talking about something else. “He also tried to cheer me up by saying in a way I was lucky; that so far I haven’t shown any signs of short term memory problems that plague most amnesiacs, and…something else. I wasn’t really listening.”

 

Darcy got out of her sleeping bag, came over on her knees and pulled the other woman into a hug.

 

Lethia hesitated only a moment before hugging her back.

 

“It’ll be okay, somehow. Seriously,” Darcy promised. “It’ll get better. We’ll find your family, and then if nothing else, you’ll know where you belong.”

 

Lethia pulled back, enough to gaze desperately into Darcy’s eyes.

 

“Will I ever know where I belong, though?” she whispered. There was something almost childlike about her voice – it was a needy, lost plea for help. “Really?”

 

“Sure you will.” Darcy gave her shoulders a reassuring squeeze. “One way or another, it’ll come back to you. And you’ll know, like, in your heart that it’s right.”

 

Lethia smiled at her, trying futilely to fight a sniffle.

 

“Thank you, Darcy. Thank you so much.”

 

“No sweat.” Darcy brushed some hair away from Lethia’s face. “Let’s get some sleep, okay? I’ll bet you’ll feel better in the morning. More refreshed.”

 

“Yes. All right,” Lethia agreed. She lay back down and closed her eyes; though Darcy had a feeling peace was going to escape her for awhile.

 

Darcy lay down as well and then, after she was settled, reached out a hand intertwining Lethia’s with her own. So she could remember that no matter what at least she knew there was one person already there for her.

 

Without saying anything Lethia gripped back with cool, slender fingers.

 

Neither of them let go before they fell asleep.

 

*

Erik stood in the middle of the lab, trying not to feel overwhelmed as he took in the towering masses of equipment around him.

 

He had been a physicist for all his life; sometimes, he almost thought, for too long. And yet he barely knew what some of the machines even did.

 

It certainly looked very different from when they’d first started. But then so much had happened in only a few months, not just the funding from SHIELD but all the discoveries they’d made, in leaps and bounds.

 

Well, no. He could be honest. Most of it hadn’t been him. It was Jane’s doing, the true brilliance, driven by a fire that’d all but possessed her.

 

A fire fueled both by the knowledge she was standing on the edge of something amazing, something unprecedented that could change the field forever – and by a more simple yearning, straightforward and human.

 

She rarely spoke of it. Of Thor. Knowing Jane most her life Erik hadn’t had to guess why.

 

She was afraid of sounding foolish. Of appearing weak. How humiliating, to admit she was literally moving the heavens for a man.

 

But Erik, if he’d ever had the chance, would’ve told her she had nothing to be ashamed of.

 

He knew sometimes the greatest accomplishments were committed in the name of the heart.

 

Then again, what did he know? Maybe he was getting too sentimental as he grew older.

 

At the thought Erik chuckled to himself, rubbing at his temple as he briefly closed his eyes.

 

It was true he was getting old. He’d been feeling it especially hard lately: constantly exhausted, mentally out of sorts. He tried to convince himself it was all the hours he was working, run ragged as he went back and forth between Jane’s project and his research on the so-called ‘Cosmic Cube’ for SHIELD. He was only successful part of the time in believing it.

 

Though, the past two days he’d been feeling much better. More like his old self again. So, who knew, really? Maybe his flagging energy had been just a temporary thing.

 

Jane strode into the room, interrupting his thoughts. “Erik, come here,” she said breathlessly. “Take a look at these readings, and tell me if I’m seeing what I think I’m seeing.”

 

He came over as bidden, taking the printed pages she thrust at him. It took him about a minute and a half to translate what he was seeing, and Jane was already looking at him with visible impatience by the time he lifted his head.

 

“It looks like there’s going to be a storm,” he stated, not entirely sure where this was going. “One with heavy electrical activity. Somewhere out in the desert, not far from here.”

 

Tonight,” Jane stressed. She was practically vibrating. “Erik, don’t you see? The circumstances are perfect. This is it. This is exactly what we’ve been waiting for.”

 

She snatched the papers back from him, and turned around to start grabbing items off of the nearest desk. Erik watched her, finally catching on but still in disbelief over what he was hearing.

 

“You want to try and force a trans-dimensional bridging event? Right now? Tonight?”

 

Jane walked past him with a stack of various small pieces of equipment in both arms held precariously in place by her chin, heading in the direction of the van. “Can you think of any reason not to?”

 

Erik stepped around, getting in her way and stopping her. He took about half the items from her, though more because he was worried she’d drop them and hurt herself than because he wanted to prevent her from leaving.

 

“Jane, our last actual trial run was almost a month ago,” he reminded her. “And even then we were only halfway there.”

 

“We’ve made a lot of progress in a month,” she argued – making a grab for something in his arms, which he pulled away from. “You know we have! We have a much better model for how to make this happen.”

 

“A theoretical model.” Erik set down what he was holding on a table, the better to express his disapproval by gesturing. “I thought we were agreed that we needed more data, more time. Last report you gave to Agent Coulson you said we should be ready to make a fully-actualized test three months from now.”

 

“That’s what I thought, and then – then I kept finding more patterns, more energy signatures in the data we’d collected, I kept making new adjustments to my equations, and that changed. And then now, this…” Jane’s frenetic energy seemed to build to a point and then just as suddenly burst. She trailed off.

 

“Jane?” Erik prompted, albeit gently.

 

She drew a breath. “The conditions are going to be perfect tonight. Too perfect. What if this kind of combination doesn’t come along again for awhile? How long will I – will we have to wait for another chance?”

 

“It wouldn’t be the end of the world.”

 

Jane shook her head, and then biting her lower lip, stared him right in the eye. “Being able to complete this first step successfully will put us so much closer to our end goal. It’s the key to us being able to create a real, functioning Einstein-Rosen bridge.”

 

Translation: it was the key to her being able to one day see Thor again.

 

Erik gave what was clearly a sigh of surrender, because Jane had brightened again, eyes shining with her feverish intensity, before he even said, “All right.”

 

He glanced at his watch. “If this is really going to happen, then we’d better hurry.”

 

“Right.” Jane snatched up the same things again, somehow even more haphazardly. “I’ll get this stuff loaded.”

 

As she dashed out Erik looked heavenward, shaking his head.

 

“Darcy’s going to be sorry that she missed this.”

 

*

 

When they woke up the next morning, Darcy figured she’d been completely right about a good night’s rest being just the thing Lethia needed.

 

The other woman appeared in better spirits, at least as much as could be expected with her still having no clue who she was. If the despair that had grabbed her the night before still haunted her, she made no mention of it.

 

After breakfast, Fournier had wanted some of them to return to the burial site and double-check a few things for her. Ruth and Amanda had quickly volunteered, and Darcy did too before she even really thought about it.

 

It’d been a tiny surprise when Lethia had as well. Darcy wondered if maybe she wanted to get another look at the place where she’d been found – or if she was just following Darcy around now, clinging to her for the safety of familiarity.

 

Well, if that was the case, she didn’t mind. She could think of worse things to be than her new friend’s security blanket.

 

Besides she’d promised to help Lethia, and she’d meant it. If that meant letting her stick close then so be it.

 

The four of them set off with a much lighter set of gear than they’d had the day before, and a conviction Ruth had gained from looking at a trail map that they could get there much faster if they followed a slightly different path through the forest.

 

Darcy, very familiar with Ruth’s directional ‘prowess’, decided to keep her mouth shut. They’d find out pretty quick if she was right or not. Besides, it was a really nice day. So what if they spent the morning walking around in circles rather than picking away through the dirt.

 

Lethia was looking down at her t-shirt with a perplexed frown. This one had been lent by Grace, who apparently turned out to have an unanticipated girly streak.

 

“So, the name of the cat is ‘Hello’?” Lethia asked, sounding dubious at best.

 

“Sweetie, trust me,” Ruth said emphatically. “I don’t think there’s any way I can explain it that you’re really going to understand. Best just to let it go.”

 

Lethia was still frowning, but she shrugged and listened to her. “I really must thank all of you for offering me your clothing like this. It’s very accommodating.”

 

“Well it’s not much of a choice, between that and letting you cruelly run around naked,” Ruth was quick to reply. “Besides, I don’t feel like we’re doing you that much of a favor, considering just about everything we’ve got has been worn at least once and probably carries residue of dirt and unfiltered water.”

 

“Yeah.” Amanda gave Lethia the onceover, eyebrows raised. “Frankly, I’m still surprised that skinny white ass of yours can even fill out my jeans.”

 

She and Ruth kept walking, but Darcy noticed Lethia stopped and she hung back with her.

 

“What’s the matter?” Darcy asked, surprised to see Lethia giving Amanda’s back a distrustful frown.

 

“What she just said about me,” Lethia said, accusing. “I’m not sure I understand. Was she calling me unattractive? Because you know, I don’t really think that’s true.”

 

Darcy almost laughed out loud as she realized Lethia sounded…huffy. Haughty, even.

 

It was definitely the least modest thing she’d heard out of her so far; circumstances being what they were, Darcy took her showing actual signs of self-respect as a good thing.

 

“No, no, no. That wasn’t what she meant.” Darcy managed to keep most of the amusement from her tone. “I think she was trying to say that you’re too thin.”

 

“Too thin,” Lethia repeated, slowly. “Am I? Too thin?”

 

“You have the body of a supermodel,” Darcy said neutrally. Which in her mind meant: ‘Yes, I really think you could stand to eat a sandwich, or maybe three.’ But she wasn’t going to give the poor girl body issues on top of everything.

 

Besides, it looked like there was at least some muscle on Lethia’s slender frame. Maybe in her other life she was some kind of health nut.

 

She probably did yoga. Or maybe Pilates. Darcy wondered if she started sprouting phrases like ‘downward facing dog’ at her, something would click.

 

“I am not holding the map upside down!” came Ruth’s voice from up ahead, loud in indignation.

 

“Uh oh,” Darcy said. “Knew we shouldn’t have left those two unsupervised. Come on.” She and Lethia jogged to catch up with the others.

 

“Well maybe you’re not,” was Amanda’s reply. “But I’m telling you, we didn’t pass that tree yesterday.”

 

She pointed at a massive dead oak. Darcy wasn’t going to argue with her for believing they’d have remembered it: the thing had been struck by lighting at one point, or something, and looked like it practically might topple over any minute.

 

“So what if you didn’t?” Ruth argued. “The whole point is that we’re going a different way.”

 

“Yeah, but according to you, we should be close enough to the site by now that as we came by yesterday, we’d have seen the tree then, too.”

 

“Maybe you just missed it.”

 

“Oh, come on!” Amanda stormed closer to the oak. Ruth followed her, and Darcy stuck close if only because she had a feeling she might have to act as a buffer soon.

 

Amanda thrust a hand upward, demanding, “Does that really look like something you could miss?”

 

Darcy wasn’t sure what happened next. Maybe Amanda and Ruth’s yelling carried enough to make vibrations. Or maybe it was a complete coincidence.

 

Either way, without the slightest bit of warning, a huge branch broke off of the tree directly overhead and plummeted straight for the three of them.

 

Darcy had about enough time to look up and scream “Oh my god!” in abject terror. If that whole life-flashing-before-your-eyes thing happened in real life, it would’ve been happening to her right then.

 

Strangely though, there was a flash. A bright green flash.

 

It shot through the air like a missile, and blasted the tree branch out of the way. Amanda, Ruth and Darcy all ducked, shrieking, hands over their heads.

 

When they looked up again, blinking, they found themselves completely unharmed. Behind and around them were the remains of the branch, big chunks of bark and rotten wood, some of which were smoking.

 

Darcy lifted her head and looked at Lethia, standing a few feet away from the tree.

 

Lethia stared at her own outstretched hand in a mixture of uncertainty and utter shock.

 

“What,” Ruth asked, bemused, “did you just do?”

 

Lethia’s head shook, slowly. Her eyes were so wide it made her bright green irises look like they were glowing.

 

“I-I haven’t the slightest idea.”

Chapter Text

Darcy stared at Lethia.

 

Lethia didn’t seem to notice – she was too busy still gaping at her own outstretched right hand and arm.

 

Darcy hadn’t really seen what happened. She’d been too busy cowering. But if she understood right, apparently Lethia had just summoned some kind of green…bolt and used it to smash an enormous tree branch into kindling.

 

“What did you…?” Ruth and Amanda took slow shaky shapes toward Lethia, as if they were afraid of getting too close. Ruth’s eyes kept darting between her hand and her face. “How did-?”

 

“I don’t know,” Lethia said in almost a whisper. She looked up and saw their expressions. “I don’t know!

 

The yell, filled with indignation, almost anger, startled all of them. Amanda and Ruth froze where they were. Lethia shied further out of reach, as if anticipating a blow.

 

“I have no idea what just happened. How I could have…” She stared at her hand again, like she thought it might move of its own accord. When she met their eyes again it was with pleading. “Please, you must believe me!”

 

“Whoa.” Ruth held her palms out, head shaking. “Relax. I wasn’t-”

 

“Of course we believe you. Don’t be stupid.” Darcy quickly shouldered her way to the front of the pack. She talked to Lethia directly, ignoring the other two for the moment. “We already know that you’ve got like no memories. So why should this be any different?”

 

“Yeah,” Ruth agreed. “It was just…surprising, is all.”

 

Lethia didn’t say anything. Again she lifted up her right hand, bringing it close to her face for examination. She wriggled her fingers slightly, and touched on her palm with her left fingertips.

 

Judging by the look on her face – still mystified, and uneasy – the actions gave her no answers.

 

Darcy moved over, standing as close as she dared with Lethia still on-edge. After a moment she reached out, placing a hand on her shoulder. At the touch Lethia’s head lifted, and she met Darcy’s gaze with frightened eyes, but was otherwise silent.

 

Ruth continued, “I mean, we saw what happened. You threw your hand out there, and it made some kind of electricity-”

 

“That wasn’t electricity,” Amanda interrupted. “It was more like, I dunno. Plasma?”

 

“Well it doesn’t really matter what it was; the point is, she created it.” Ruth glanced at Lethia, wide-eyed. “With her bare hand. How does something like that…happen?”

 

“I wish I could tell you,” Lethia murmured. Under her touch Darcy felt her tremble, ever so slightly. Darcy moved her arm, draping it entirely across Lethia’s shoulders. “I wish that I could remember.”

 

“Maybe she’s a mutant,” Amanda suggested. When the others turned toward her she shrugged, her face oddly blank. “I got a cousin that’s one of those. He’s gonna be starting at that Xavier school, come August.”

 

No one asked further questions since it was pretty clear she didn’t want any.

 

Ruth nodded, though. “Maybe that is it.” She scratched the side of her cheek. “Better than no explanation at all, right?”

 

“I don’t know if I could do it again.” Lethia winced. “I don’t know that I want to try.”

 

“You don’t have to,” Ruth responded, gently. “No one was saying you should.”

 

Lethia carefully shrugged out of Darcy’s grip, and Darcy let her since it looked like she had recovered enough to stand on her own and without flipping out.

 

Turning her head, Lethia caught all of them in her gaze. “Please, let’s not tell any of the others about this,” she asked. “I don’t want them to know.”

 

Darcy and Ruth exchanged a glance, though out of pure surprise rather than anything else.

 

“Yeah, sure,” Ruth exclaimed.

 

“Of course we will,” Darcy agreed.

 

Amanda was nodding as well. “It’ll be our secret.”

 

“We won’t tell a soul,” Darcy added. She smiled thinly. “Do you want us to spit on it? Or maybe do a pinky swear?”

 

“No, that’s not necessary,” Lethia replied, showing she took that suggestion a little too seriously for what it was intended. “I believe all of you to keep your word. I trust you.”

 

“Well, good,” Ruth said, forcing a bit of her enthusiasm at first. “I’m glad to hear it.”

 

There was a beat before she continued, “So, that’s all settled. It’s like it never happened. Now, don’t we have a burial site to find?”

 

The rest of them followed her cue and, with a few minutes of bickering and assessment of their directions, they eventually found the right way again.

 

They got to where they were going, and set down to work. And for the most part, it was exactly as the four of them agreed: like the strange incident, and what Lethia had done, had never happened.

 

But Lethia was noticeably silent for the rest of their excursion. Every once in awhile Darcy stole a glance at her, and saw that she’d gone awfully pale.

 

*

 

Atop the twisting spires and gilded domes of the Asgardian skyline, another day was drawing to a close.

 

It truly was a breathtaking and awe-inspiring sight. The gleam of the sun’s last fading rays upon the towering wrought works of silver and golden metallic hues, the way the smudges of pink and orange that tinted the sky looked beside the shapes of grandly twisting architecture as the reflective surfaces threw the colors back again.

 

Its majesty however, was lost on Thor Odinson, as he himself was lost in his thoughts.

 

The first and now only prince of Asgard sat alone, his red cape billowed carelessly behind him, hands half-clasped where they rested between his legs. Mjolnir lay at his side just in reach should he need it.

 

Not that Thor anticipated any trouble. Not here, in the heart of his home world, with nothing left to threaten her.

 

His chosen perch was the towering roof of a pavilion alongside the rainbow road out of Asgard’s capitol that once led to the Bifrost, halfway between the palace and the gaping chasm where the mechanism that housed the mystic portal had stood.

 

A somewhat dangerous rest perhaps. But Thor had no fear of heights. Besides, he had spent many an idle day as a boy climbing to the top of places such as these, both around and away from the palace proper.

 

So many memories, of he and his brother laughing and calling to one another as they searched for foot holds, grabbing hands and offering a boost where necessary. Of course before long it was Thor who was doing most of that, but he never minded. Loki always had the far sharper eyes, so quick to find the perfect spots to grasp on with chubby little fingers or place a boot, things that Thor never would have seen. They’d goad each other to go closer to the edge, to climb higher and higher, scared of nothing but that they might be seen and the trouble they’d find were they caught.

 

The recollection almost brought a faint smile to Thor’s face, but the impulse was stilled as context worked its way in. Gaze dropping, he hung his head.

 

Perhaps one day, he would able to look back and feel only happiness. The simple joy and innocence appreciated for what it was, unmarred by confusion, hurt or grief.

 

But that day was not today. And Thor could only imagine it was a ways off yet.

 

He closed his eyes and sighed, drawing in the sweet scent of fruit and flowers that seemed to always hang in the air, feeling his hair ruffled by the warm breeze.

 

And then his eyes flew open again, as there echoed the sound of an almighty crash.

 

Thor rose to his feet, Mjolnir leaping to his hand. He looked over what lay below him for the source of the sound.

 

Down at the shattered end of the bridge, there it was. It appeared nothing so much as a contained lightning storm: the strange and frightening sight of bolts of silver electricity dancing back and forth in a contained amount of space.

 

Thor leapt down and raced toward the disturbance as fast as his legs could carry him. Up close the ripples of energy seemed even more violent, the very fabric of space appearing to warp and stretch beside them for brief flashes at a time. The mystics who were a constant at the Bifrost’s edge now, studying the break and trying to find a way to make the eventual repair, fell back with arms raised and voices crying out.

 

Thor turned to Heimdall, the ever-vigilant watchman who had not deserted his post after all this time.

 

“What is it, Heimdall?” Thor demanded in alarm, ignoring the panic and hurried consultations of the others. “Do you know what is happening?”

 

Heimdall’s great helmet nodded evenly.

 

“It is the work of the mortal, Dr. Jane Foster,” he told Thor. “An opening from our realm to hers.”

 

Thor’s heart jumped. He stared at Heimdall, almost unable to believe the astounding words, even as he so wanted them to be true.

 

“A portal?” he managed. “A passage? That is what this is?” He pointed with Mjolnir. “Jane has accomplished this, truly?”

 

At the thought of the woman he had known for so little time and yet had made such an impression on him, Thor felt his throat constrict. Something inside him ached at the thought of a reunion, which he had been denied against every intention he’d had when they’d parted.

 

“I do not believe it was what she intended at this point,” Heimdall intoned. Thor supposed he would know: often had he asked Heimdall, with his ability to gaze on that so maddeningly far from Thor’s sight, where Jane was, what she was doing, how she was. “But yes. It is a path from here to Midgard, going one way, which will only be open for a short time.”

 

“Only a short time?” Thor repeated. He glanced back towards the palace. His home, his birthplace. All he had ever wanted for so much of his life.

 

Until he’d been sent from there, a prodigal outcast, and learned there were many glories that not even Asgard held.

 

Before he’d even looked at the shuddering portal another time, Thor’s mind was made up.

 

“Thank you, Heimdall. I know what I must do.”

 

“My prince.” Heimdall’s armored forearm rose, blocking Thor’s path, and the warrior brought himself to a halt automatically. “There is something that you must understand.”

 

Heimdall’s golden eyes never blinked, boring deep into Thor’s.

 

“This is a far cry from a true, working Bifrost,” he said evenly, his every syllable carefully-formed and grave. “If you go through it, you will be stranded on Midgard, unable to return.”

 

Thor swallowed. For a moment his gaze lowered to the glinting surface of the road.

 

Then his eyes rose back up. “Unable to return,” he stated with complete conviction, “until Jane is able to create the bridge again.”

 

Heimdall said nothing. But both his hands returned to the grip of his sword, and for Thor that was more than enough.

 

“How much time?” He indicated the shimmering energy.

 

“Not long,” Heimdall said. “Before the passing of an hour.”

 

Thor nodded. He raised Mjolnir over his head to soar back to the palace, for he had goodbyes to make, and not enough time at all to do them proper justice.

 

*

 

The distance between the hut of the shaman, and the village where her people dwelled, was not a long one.

 

Ve, who had walked the way so many times he felt he could do it with his eyes closed, on that morn couldn’t help feeling the journey had grown both strangely long and short.

 

Anxiety and eagerness warred within him. Both in turns seemed to play tricks on his mind, deluding his senses.

 

It was to be a day of great happiness for him, or so he planned. He hoped it still would be. Even though much had changed.

 

The young warrior wished to wed Selene. It was, he felt, the obvious conclusion to their courtship. The end to which all things had been leading, since he first he caught Selene’s eye and felt his heart grasped in the fist of desire inescapable.

 

But as an honorable servant of Asgard, Ve had to receive the blessing of his king upon his marriage.

 

And with all his mixed feelings of foreboding and mistrust, that was something that Odin refused to give.

 

Ve felt no anger at his friend. Perhaps another man would have, but he’d known Odin for too many years. Understood him too well. Odin took his duties as ruler very seriously. Though he loved Ve dear, and did not want to stand in the way of his happiness, he could not in good conscience give permission to a union which he felt so negatively about.

 

Ve wished with all his soul he could convince his friend and king to believe in Selene’s love for him, and her goodness, but after many moons he had given up on trying. Odin’s mind was Odin’s mind. It could not be made by any other.

 

So Ve had found himself caught, conflicted. He could wed Selene without Odin’s blessing. It was a formality rarely abandoned, but not entirely forbidden. But Ve could not – he valued the oaths he’d made and would not break them now.

 

But he dared not live the many years he had knowing Selene could never fully be his.

 

So Ve thought of another way. He knelt before the throne, and asked that Odin take away his powers as an Asgardian; rendering him mortal and accountable to the rules of honor in Asgard no longer.

 

Three times Odin asked Ve if it was truly what he wished. Three times Ve affirmed it was.

 

And just as Ve had with him, Odin knew when his kinsman’s mind would not be changed.

 

He had done what Ve had requested. The sorrow in his eyes as Ve left was unmistakable.

 

But the last words Odin spoke were, “If Selene refuses to take your hand Ve, now that you are mortal, I will not hold you to your decision. I will not abandon you with nothing. If she rejects you, and it is your wish, you may come home again.”

 

Ve thought it a wasted offer, though he valued his friend’s good intent. Of course Selene would still love him even though he was powerless. Why should anything change?

 

He made his way to Selene’s home on feet somewhat unsteady, both from his nerves at the proposal he was about to deliver, and how strange his body felt to him now that he was so much weaker, so different.

 

But he didn’t regret his decision. Selene was worth everything. He could learn to live as but a man, if it meant he grew old with her as his wife.

 

Ve entered the hut and found Selene in the midst of preparing some ritual. The half-gutted carcass of a stag lay before her, and her arm was up to its elbow inside of it, her forearms and half her face covered in its blood.

 

She looked up with no surprise. Nothing ever could startle Selene, her keen senses always detecting movement before it came close to her, a thing Ve found all the more amazing now that he was limited to a mortal’s ability. He wondered if he would ever grow used enough to it, that he would see and hear with eyes and ears sharp as hers.

 

“I wish you’d sent word you were coming,” Selene said mildly. She rose to splash water on her hands and face. “I would have made certain I was clean before your arrival.”

 

“It’s never necessary,” Ve told her, “that you do anything to change yourself for me.”

 

Selene smiled, and held her arms out as he moved to embrace her. But at the last second as he went to press lips to hers, she frowned in confusion, sensing something was amiss. She stopped him, brow furrowed.

 

“You have lost your power.” Her tone was carefully even, though obviously stunned. “What has happened to you, my love?”

 

“Odin took it…with my permission. Nay, at my request. I am but mortal now.” Ve stared deep into her eyes, holding her by the shoulders. “I did it so that I may be with you whom I love, Selene. For today I would ask that you marry me.”

 

Selene’s pale face was completely unreadable. No trace of emotion to be found, though he could see something considering inside her dark eyes.

 

And for a moment, Ve was afraid. Was Odin right? Did Selene only love him for his glory as an Asgardian?

 

But then Selene smiled at him again. No, she beamed.

 

“Of course I would marry you, Ve! To do so would bring me the greatness happiness that I could ever know.” She hugged herself to him, and Ve felt his insides threaten to burst with joy.

 

Gently pulling away, Selene looked up into his face and caressed him with one hand.

 

“And now that you are human, we will live a contented, mortal life together.” Her fingers brushed against his cheek. “Is it true, as I have heard, that it’s custom among the Aesir to have a friend stand beside you during the wedding ceremony, to serve as your barrister of honor?”

 

“It is our way, yes,” Ve answered, bemused by the odd question. “Why?”

 

Selene met his eyes with such warmth. “Then you should choose your man soon, and send him to me. For I have a token I wish to present him with, for the ritual, and as a symbol of my thanks.”

 

Ve laughed, interested. “What sort of token?”

 

“It is to be a surprise,” Selene said sweetly. “I will not tell you.”


  “All right, all right.” Of course Ve surrendered. “I will do as you ask. But you already knew that. How many times have I sworn to you, I’d do anything for your approval? I will tell Brynhild and the others to begin making preparations for us at once. And of course I will send one of my friends to you.”

 

Selene rested her head on his shoulder. “Tell him to come alone. To ensure that it stays a secret.”

 

Ve closed his eyes and sighed aloud as he held his betrothed, overwhelmed as he was with such bliss.

 

*

 

After a late lunch with the group at the main excavation site, Lethia snuck off on her own, back to the tent she shared with Darcy.

 

Despite the heat of the day she zipped up the flaps and sat inside in almost complete darkness. She raised her hands before her face and stared at them. There was a knot twisting inside her stomach. She drew a breath and tried to fight her body’s urge to start shaking.

 

What was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she remember who she was, and how had she done such an impossible thing?

 

It made no sense. The branch had fallen – she’d watched it head towards Darcy, Amanda and Ruth, frozen in alarm. Automatically she’d flung out her hand, not because she actually thought she could do anything but only as a reaction, completely unbidden and without thinking.

 

The thought had been fervent in her mind, if only there was something she could do, if only she could get that branch out of the way before it hit, before it hurt anyone…

 

But somehow, there had been something she could do. And she knew it had been her. She’d seen it emerge from her fingers with her own eyes. She’d felt the energy build, before she even knew what was happening.

 

Lethia gazed at her right arm as if it belonged to a stranger. And really, for all purposes it did.

 

She knew nothing about the person the limb belonged to: not who they were, not what their name was, not where they had come from. Not even what they were capable of.

 

Not even, what they really were.

 

She grasped her wrist in her opposite hand. There was something so…oddly familiar about this. She couldn’t shake the sensation, the faint nagging insistence she’d been here before: sitting alone, staring at her own arm, and wondering.

 

Though of course, she couldn’t for the life of her remember anything more.

 

Lethia let her hand drop and let out a defeated sigh. Her hair was clinging to her skin in the humidity; she slipped one of the elastic bands she’d been leant out of her pocket, and used it to tie the lot back.

 

As she did her fingers brushed the mark on her neck. She paused, touching it absently. At least it didn’t sting anymore. Not for the most part. Though she still felt a twinge from it occasionally – it seemed, whenever she was thinking the hardest. Usually wondering about her missing past.

 

At the sound of the zipper from the tent’s opening, Lethia started.

 

Darcy stuck her head in. “I knew I’d find you here,” she announced. “What’s going on? Why’d you wander off like that, without telling anyone where you were going?”

 

“I told Kevin I was going to the bathroom,” Lethia murmured.

 

“And you’re lucky he remembered to tell the rest of us that.” Darcy made a face, as she came inside. She sat herself down on top of her sleeping bag facing Lethia and gave her a concerned frown. “I knew something was up though, when you took too long coming back. What’s wrong?”

 

Thoughtlessly, Lethia looked at her fingertips again. Darcy sighed.

 

“Are you really still worried about that? I mean, don’t get me wrong. It was a freaky thing to happen. But you’ll have to believe me when I say I’ve seen worse.”

 

“What if what Amanda said about me is true?” Lethia asked her. “What if I am a freak?”

 

She had no idea why the idea terrified her so. Just that the very thought, that she might be something different, something other, summoned some nameless sense of panic from deep inside her.

 

Darcy blinked. “Okay. First of all, mutants are totally people too. Not that I like, know any personally,” she admitted, “but I’ve been reading a lot of stuff on the web and blogs about their civil rights’ movement and everything. That Beast guy was even on The Daily Show last month. So, if you are a mutant? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.”

 

She must’ve seen the lack of conviction in Lethia’s face because very quickly she continued. “And anyway, we have no idea what really happened. Maybe it was some kind of crazy fluke. There’s really nothing we can go on, unless it happens again. So stop freaking out, okay? You’re gonna be fine.”

 

“You’re always so…certain,” Lethia observed, not really knowing what else to say.

 

Darcy smiled, and shrugged. “I’m an optimist.”

 

Lethia managed a wan smile in return. “That must be nice.”

 

Darcy just reached out and grabbed the nearest part of Lethia, which happened to be a knee. She gave it a comforting squeeze. Lethia ducked her head, avoiding eye contact, but her smile became a little more genuine with the assistance from Darcy’s good cheer.

 

“You coming back? Or do you need a little more time by yourself?”

 

“I’ll be along,” Lethia promised. “Just give me a minute.”

 

Darcy nodded, and left her alone to her thoughts.

 

For some reason Lethia’s instincts screamed at her not to be so trusting. That to be as open as she had with these people, to allow herself to rely on them so much, was a huge mistake.

 

And it wasn’t bad advice, really. Not at all. Being careful was more than prudent given how little she knew.

 

But that was just the problem, she argued with that part of herself: she knew nothing. She had no alternatives. True she could easily lie to these people, mislead them and get away from them. But what she couldn’t think of was a reason why.

 

She didn’t know enough of herself to think of why she shouldn’t let her guard down. Didn’t it make much more sense, to tell them everything so they could help her as much as they could?

 

Besides, these people were kind to her.

 

She supposed that was it really. The thing that made her so unwilling to put up her walls. The kindness they showed her, the gentleness and helpfulness. Especially Darcy - her friend.

 

She still remembered how it felt, the first time Darcy had reached out and laid a hand on her. At first her skin had almost itched, the sensation of such casual physical contact so alien.

 

But as the alarm of unfamiliarity had died she realized how much better she felt. As if it were something part of her had been craving for a long time.

 

Darcy gave herself, her friendship with such ease, and Lethia couldn’t stop herself from wanting more, from moving in closer with complete disregard for that warning voice in the back of her mind that tried to tell her ‘stop’. She was drinking in that simple happiness, like a flower turning its face toward the sun.

 

And distantly she was aware: not everyone was so paranoid. So defensive. It wasn’t the norm to have such behavior as the first instinct, as she apparently did. She wondered what sort of life she must have led, what sort of people she must’ve dealt with, that her initial impulse was to think in such a manner.

 

Clearly with unscrupulous types; and indeed, look where she’d ended – abandoned, helpless in the woods, with no memory and no one to turn to.

 

So yes, Lethia intended to still be careful. She was going to use her head. But she was also going to use her heart.

 

Because the last thing she wanted, she’d decided - the thing that she feared the most - was to end up alone.

 

*

 

As the storm raged on, Jane kept her attentions to her equipment and the read-outs.

 

Everything was going good so far. No; everything was going perfect. She’d been right about that night’s weather offering the perfect conditions for a new test of her methods.

 

If everything continued like this? It was going to be an excellent evening.

 

The wind buffeted at her hair, and she could barely hear the occasional beep from the various electronic devices surrounding her over the rumble of thunder and the frequent cracks of lightning that broke the sky.

 

The air smelled like ozone, like moisture. Jane couldn’t help it: after all the time she’d spent ‘storm-chasing’ as part of her research, the smell filled her with a sense of anticipation and excitement. Waiting for the next big moment, the next clue to come.

 

It was always around the corner. It was always the tip of the iceberg, only giving her a glimpse of the answers she sought at a time. Just enough to fuel her drive to keep going. Just enough to remind her she was right.

 

But this time, that feeling was going to pay off. She knew it.

 

“Is the camera still rolling, Erik?” she yelled. She turned her head and could barely see him, a silhouette blurred by all the interference from the wind.

 

“It is,” he yelled back, with good-natured patience. “Just like the last three times you asked me to check.”

 

Jane bit the inside of her cheek, but she didn’t have a chance to apologize. At that moment one of the monitors in front of her started a high-pitched insistent beeping. She examined the numbers she was seeing with surprise.

 

With some difficulty Erik moved closer. “What is it?”

 

“It’s spiking,” Jane told him. She looked towards the test area. “It’s building faster than I’d thought!”

 

They were a safe distance away from the spot where they’d set up the output devices, an area of hard dirt carefully marked off with drawn lines and white tape. Within the confines of the space the air seemed to shimmer slightly, like a drawn stage curtain being moved by whatever was behind it. On and off this happened; if a person wasn’t looking hard enough they might think they were imagining it.

 

But as Jane watched the shimmering grew more constant, more violent. The space fairly rolled, and white sparks began leaping through it.

 

“Isn’t that a good thing?” Erik demanded. “It means you were right! It works; now that we know that, all we’ll need to make a real viable bridge is-”

 

“It’s too unstable,” Jane cut him off, frantically typing into the control keyboard. There was very little she could do to adjust the flow of energy at that point, but she had to hope she could accomplish something. Not now, please, she begged, not when I’m so close…  “If it keeps going on like this the whole thing will break apart way too soon – in order for my theory to be correct it has to hold as a stable wormhole for at least five hours!”

 

Erik took another look at the writhing energy. “It’s never going to make it that long.”

 

“I have to try-”

 

There was another crack, but this time it was clearly not the lighting. It was too loud, too close. Glancing over her shoulder Jane could see the air morph into a vortex. It’d gone critical.

 

Her stomach sank. “No, oh no!” she practically screamed over the howl of the wind.

 

Even knowing it was futile she went back to pounding at the controls. Her entire life’s work; why did she keep thinking she was getting there, only to constantly be stopped just short of true success? For all the things she’d discovered, to still be denied that one impossible goal, just past her fingertips…

 

Erik was still staring at the vortex site. “Jane,” he said, slow but adamant. “Something’s happening.”

 

At that odd note in his voice she had to look. The air still twisted, the whirl curling in on itself as it moved towards inevitably collapsing. But there in the middle of it growing ever more distinct was something else.

 

A figure?

 

“It can’t be,” Jane breathed. Her body moving on autopilot she took a few steps closer; she would’ve kept going right past the safety barriers if Erik hadn’t grabbed her wrist.

 

The figure grew clearer. And larger. The vortex kept shaking: for one horrifying moment it seemed it would break apart before they made it through, and then-

 

Thor Odinson jumped through the spiral, landing on his feet, hammer held aloft and cape swaying behind him dramatically. Behind him the portal closed in on itself and quickly ceased to exist with a burst of flying blasts of white-hot energy and a sound that caused the ground to rumble.

 

Jane and Erik clung to each other for support, trying to keep from falling over. Thor stood where he was, unfazed by the vibration.

 

When everything stopped Jane straightened up again, carefully prying herself from Erik’s grasp. She stared.

 

Thor blinked a few times, moving his head to get his blond hair out of his eyes where it had been blown by the wind. He took in the shell-shocked figures gaping at him.

 

His face broke in a wide grin, blue eyes alight with familiarity. “Jane!”

 

Jane’s hand flew to her mouth, her throat choked with disbelief. She realized the corners of her eyes were stinging.

 

Thor began striding towards her, and the reality came home to her all at once. Jane shoved the barrier out of her way and broke into a run.

 

“Thor!” she cried. He opened his arms and she threw herself into them. Thor’s strong embrace surrounded her, and Jane made a sound almost like a sob where she pressed her face into his neck.

 

She could feel his fingers tentatively touching her hair. Jane pulled back, to look deep into his eyes.

 

“I missed you, Jane,” Thor said softly.

 

She was still too tongue-tied, too shaken, to respond with words. So instead she took his face in both hands and she kissed him, deep.

 

Questions like ‘how’ or ‘why’ could wait, for the moment. For now Jane had the only answer she needed.

 

*

 

Darcy helped Ruth move the end of the tarp into place. Once it was secured with a rock she got off her knees, wincing slightly at her sore muscles, and brushed the dirt off her gloves.

 

“Well, that’s it,” Darcy announced. “The last dig of the weekend.”

 

 Ruth shook her head. “I can’t believe tomorrow’s already time for you to go home,” she exclaimed. “I mean, it went by so fast.”

 

“Honestly?” Darcy stole a look over at where Garrett and Lethia were talking. Or rather, Garrett was talking at Lethia, and she was doing her best to nod politely. “I can’t believe it’s only been three days. Considering everything that’s happened.”

 

“It has been a pretty crazy weekend.” Ruth gazed at her friend, and sighed. “Well, it was fun while it lasted.”

 

“At times wildly varying levels of ‘fun’,” Darcy remarked, wry, “but sure, yeah. And it was great getting to see you. Like always. Even if it was only for a little while.”

 

With a smile Ruth hugged her. As they broke apart however she said, “You haven’t left yet though.” Her eyes were bright and eager. “Tonight, we’ll do something fun.”

 

Darcy chuckled. “Oh yeah? Like what? I wasn’t aware there was a go-cart track or a shopping mall hiding behind one of these trees.”

 

“Come to our tent after dinner,” Ruth insisted. “You’ll see.”

 

“After dinner?” Darcy frowned, playing with a limp handful of her hair. “I actually thought I might risk the typhus again and go take a shower.”

 

“Even better. Stop by after that. It’ll be a girl party. I’ll let Lethia know.”

 

Darcy let out a sigh, though not at anything Ruth had said. “Lethia…right.” It’d skipped her mind completely that leaving the site would also mean leaving her amnesiac friend behind. “I guess she’s going in tomorrow too, huh?”

 

“Yeah. Bill’s probably going to drop her off in town the same time as you. Poor kid.” Ruth folded her arms. “I hope someone can at least eventually figure out where she came from.”

 

“They probably have ways to track that down, right?” Darcy offered hopefully. “Fingerprints, or pictures, or DNA…”

 

“That’s assuming she’s actually in somebody’s system.” Of course Ruth had to be more pragmatic about it. “Not to mention, the people doing the search, at least at first, will be the local yokels at San Luis’ sheriff’s department. It’d probably be a lot better for her if they got the FBI involved, or…”

 

Ruth trailed off, a thought occurring to her. She pointed at Darcy.

 

“Hey. Those guys that you work for. That your boss is doing her research with. They’re Feds, right?”

 

“Well.” Darcy faltered, trying to come up with right response. “Sort of. They’re kinda like the Secret Service, or…they’re government employees, technically. They work, um, with the government, and-”

 

Darcy wasn’t quite sure about those nondisclosure agreements she’d had to sign, and sometimes she felt like even mentioning SHIELD by name counted as a violation.

 

“Whatever,” Ruth interrupted. “Thing is, they probably have access to all kinds of super top secret Big Brother databases, right? Bet they could find out who she is like that.” She snapped her fingers.

 

“Whoa, hey. You’re probably right.”

 

“You think they’d be willing to help her out? Maybe if you asked nicely?”

 

‘Asked nicely’, her ass. After all the grief and difficulty SHIELD had put her through at times, Darcy was making it a demand, because the way she saw it they so owed her one. It was the least they could do to help a person in need. It’s what they did anyway, right? Just on a much smaller scale.

 

“Oh,” Darcy said, “I think I can handle it.”

 

“Awesome.” Ruth looked at Lethia and Garrett. “Now maybe one of us should step in there before she’s in danger of getting her vagina mugged.”

 

“Yeah, I’m on it.” Darcy moved, glancing at Ruth over her shoulder. “I won’t forget: after dinner, your guys’ tent, girl’s night. Wouldn’t miss it.”

 

By the time Darcy reached the other two however, Lethia had already managed to excuse herself from the conversation, and Garrett was walking off on his own, waving back at the dark-haired woman with a chipper grin.

 

Darcy fell in so she and Lethia were walking side by side. “You know he totally has the hots for you, right?”

 

“Yes, I had realized, actually,” Lethia replied flatly. Darcy laughed, and then nudged her, curious.

 

“So…?” Just because the lady had no memories didn’t mean she was without hormones, Darcy figured. “You thinking you might want in on that?’

 

“No. No, definitely not.” Lethia shrugged. “He’s a nice enough person. But he’s not really my type. He’s too…” She trailed off, not seeming to know how to word it.

 

“‘Good-natured’?” Darcy offered, her tone rife with meaning. Namely, that Garrett might be a bit on the dim side. They both laughed that time.

 

“Yes,” Lethia agreed, “precisely.”

 

“What is your type, anyway?” Darcy wondered out loud. “Or, I guess you don’t really know, huh?”

 

“Well, I may not remember but, I’m sure I’ll figure it out eventually,” Lethia guessed, peaceable enough. “I don’t imagine it’s the sort of thing that can really change.”

 

“Well, good. That way when you find your boyfriend, you’ll still be attracted to him.”

 

“You think that I must have a boyfriend?”

 

Darcy gave her a look. “Yeah, clearly I need to show you what you look like in a mirror.” As Lethia chuckled, Darcy pulled out her iPhone. “Or, I can do you one better, even. Smile!”

 

Lethia did as instructed, and Darcy held the phone out to her to show her the picture. “See? Practically billboard material.” As long as she had it out, she slipped an arm around Lethia’s shoulders, tugging her closer. “Here, let’s take one together.”

 

After she was done messing around, they headed on to dinner.

 

As soon as her canned pasta was down Darcy followed through on her plans, going back to the tent to gather her stuff and heading down the road for a cold and stinky shower. But at least she felt like she was something resembling clean.

 

After she had managed to towel her hair into being mostly dry, long having surrendered on the issue of frizz and humidity, she went to the tent that Ruth shared with Amanda and Grace. Inside she could already hear the giggled whispers and low murmuring that automatically signaled a group of members of the feminine gender hanging together.

 

Although, was that Lindsey’s voice she heard, as well?

 

Darcy popped open the tent and slipped inside. Sure enough, there was Lindsey. On the floor of the tent nearby him was a jumbled assortment of hairspray, brushes, nail files, clippers, tissue, and a few bottles of polish.

 

Grace and Amanda were making a team effort of putting Lethia’s hair into a somewhat elaborate looking multi-braid style. At the same time Lethia was carefully painting Ruth’s toenails magenta, while Ruth thumbed through a two-month old copy of Cosmo.

 

“Told you,” Ruth said, looking up as Darcy came in. “It’s a girl’s night.”

 

Lindsey beamed as he held up a handful of emery boards, seeming to bask in his token exception to the ‘girl’ part of that statement. “Nail polish party!”

 

“So this is a regular thing for you guys?” Darcy inferred, finding an empty spot and sitting down cross-legged.

 

“Once a week, if we can help it,” Ruth told her.

 

Grace looked up from her project. Her usual pigtails were undone, and even with her glasses still on, she looked really different with loose hair. “Hey, whatever we can do to keep feeling human,” she remarked. Amanda made an agreeable sound.

 

“Cool beans,” Darcy decided. And then she let Lindsey file her nails, and paint them with a really nice shade of OPI polish, a deep color somewhere between dark purple and indigo.

 

It was easy to see that Lindsey was already experienced with doing such a thing.

 

Darcy cleared her throat. Figured; Lindsey was such a nice guy. “So, it hasn’t exactly come up before or anything. But, I guess you must be-”

 

“Nope,” Lindsey stopped her before she could finish. “But I do have four sisters.”

 

“Oh!” Darcy would’ve felt embarrassed if not for how he was clearly used to that mistaken assumption, and didn’t seem to be bothered by it. “Got it. That would cover it.”

 

Lindsey chortled. “Oh yeah. I grew up really comfortable with my feminine side.”

 

It went on like that. Between five bottles of polish, one of whiteout, and a silver felt-tip marker all the women ended up with painted nails, and Lindsey even consented to having his toenails done. All the girls were long-haired so they each had at least one ‘experimental’ hairstyle, although Lethia’s turned out to be the hands-down favorite to play with, since it had a weird uncanny ability to go back to looking perfect and sleek every time.

 

Ruth started reading articles from her Cosmopolitan out loud; then they passed it around and took turns, going out of the way to use overly-serious voices. They’d also hold up the pictures of guys to rate them on attractiveness and date-ability.

 

Assuming, of course, at any given point they weren’t all laughing too hard.

 

Darcy did Lethia’s nails herself, using the same purple-blue polish. “So I forgot to mention this earlier, but I think I might be able to help you.”

 

“You mean, more than you already have?” Lethia held her hands perfectly still as she waited for the polish to finish drying. They were as pale and slim as the rest of her, Darcy noted, and her fingers were long and elegant. “How so?”

 

“I was thinking actually you could come back with me, tomorrow,” Darcy explained. “To New Mexico. There’s these guys I work with, well sort of work with…it’s hard to explain. But they have connections. And I think if anyone would know where to look to figure out who you are, it’s gotta be them.”

 

Lethia froze, looking at her searchingly. “You…you really think so?”

 

Darcy nodded fiercely. “Totally.” She smiled. “Plus, it’d mean you and I could stick together a little while longer.”

 

“I’d like that,” Lethia admitted. “I was trying not to think what it might be like, once you left. I think I’ve come to rely on you for a lot. A sense of stability, if nothing else.”

 

Darcy nodded again, and then winced as she pulled a crick in her neck. Her entire upper back ached in protest. “Oww.”

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing. Just my stupid body, that’s all.” Darcy rubbed her shoulder. “I’ve been sore practically since I got here. Guess I’m not used to putting in so much time on my hands and knees. I’d make a joke about that, but you probably wouldn’t get it.”

 

Lethia didn’t say anything in reply. She scooted over behind Darcy and started firmly massaging her back and shoulders.

 

Darcy was caught off guard, but leaned forward trustingly once she realized what Lethia was doing. Almost immediately she started to feel her muscles un-tense.

 

“Wow.” It came out as a bit of a relieved moan. “You are really, really good at that.”

 

“Seems to be so,” Lethia said mildly.

 

Eventually it got to be late, and they couldn’t ignore how tired they were any longer. The party broke up with good-nights exchanged and all involved heading to their respective tents.

 

As she settled down for the night, Darcy tried to get comfortable but realized she couldn’t.

 

No matter how hot the days were temperatures plummeted in the Colorado forest once the sun went down. And after the warmth of the tent with six chatty bodies squeezed into it, no matter how tightly she curled in her sleeping bag Darcy still felt like she was freezing.

 

She tried to keep quiet, but Lethia heard her wriggling around. “Darcy?”

 

“I’m too cold,” Darcy complained. She hugged herself with a groan. “Ugh. It feels like my toes are turning into popsicles.”

 

“Would you like my blanket?”

 

“No, no, I can’t do that to you,” Darcy groused, flipping over onto her side. Not that it made any difference. “You need it.”

 

“I don’t feel cold at all,” Lethia insisted.

 

“You have to be kidding me. You’re not cold? It feels like it’s gotta be thirty-five degrees.”

 

“Well maybe we…” Lethia paused.

 

“What?” Darcy stuck her head up, puzzled.

 

“I was just going to suggest we could move closer together,” Lethia explained, hesitantly. “So we could both be warmer that way, without you feeling like you were taking anything from me.”

 

Darcy considered it. Not like it was a common occurrence, but she’d shared beds with other girls before. It was a great way to save money if you needed a motel room in a pinch. Or cram as many guests as possible into a dorm.

 

“Yeah, sure. That’ll work.”

 

With a little difficulty, and some maneuvering of limbs, they both got into the same sleeping bag with the extra blankets on top.

 

They wound up on their sides, facing each other. Darcy could hear Lethia’s gentle breathing. In the dark, she could just make out the green color of her eyes.

 

“I guess that whole thing about me being a clinger gets to be your problem after all,” Darcy joked, quietly.

 

“I promise I won’t mind,” Lethia told her.

 

They’d sort of ended up in a half-hugging position by the time Darcy fell asleep.

Chapter Text

When Darcy awoke in a sleepy half-daze it took her a little while, the space of a few blinks, to remember where she was.

 

Once she had the presence of mind to look at her surroundings a few things cleared up. She found herself gazing into Lethia’s sleeping face.

 

Her head was pillowed on the taller woman’s shoulder. Darcy’s arms were lightly wrapped around her torso, and one of Lethia’s rested across her hip.

 

Well, they’d managed to go the night with neither of them kicking the other in the face or something. Darcy counted that as a victory.

 

With a gentle shove she managed to extract herself without waking her sleeping buddy. Lethia made a half-formed sound, then curled on her side, face buried in the pillow.

 

Lost in slumber she looked relaxed for once, not worried or sad or frightened.

 

Darcy wondered what age Lethia was. A few years older than her, it looked like. Outside of that she couldn’t really be sure. Without any context to go on, she certainly wasn’t going to guess.

 

Glancing at her iPhone she confirmed that it was way, way too early. The other campers wouldn’t be waking for at least two more hours.

 

But as long as she was up, Darcy figured, she might as well be up. She could always sleep on the bus ride back to New Mexico.

 

Moving with care so as not to disturb the sleeping woman, Darcy gathered up her things. Once she had everything shoved into her bag she left it just inside the tent, and headed to the main excavation site to see if anyone was actually awake.

 

Everything was quiet and a little damp, the gray misty chill from when the sun wasn’t all the way up yet still creeping across the ground. Like Darcy had figured there wasn’t a soul to be found at work yet. But she was wrong about no one being up.

 

Professor Fournier was sitting at one of the picnic tables, carefully writing in a notebook. There was a mug in her other hand; from the burning smell in the air, she must’ve made coffee in a pot of water over the camp stove.

 

She glanced up, and smiled lightly. “Good morning, Darcy.”

 

“Hey.” Darcy came over and sat across from her. It didn’t surprise her that much to find the professor still hard at work. “Tell me something. Have you been sleeping at all?”

 

“Not really,” Fournier admitted, easily. “A few hours each night perhaps. I’ve been too excited to go to bed for very long. Every time I lie down, I think of something and get up to continue working.”

 

“That doesn’t sound really healthy,” Darcy remarked.

 

“No. It’ll catch up to me eventually, I’m sure.” Fournier took a sip of her coffee. “Once I am finished here and go home, I imagine I will sleep for three days. But in the meantime, I can manage.”

 

She wrote a few more things down. Darcy tried to get a look from the opposite angle. She could make out a lot of abbreviations in some kind of shorthand, and a few crude quick sketches of artifacts, with arrows pointing at them and various labels.

 

“You really are into this, aren’t you?” Darcy looked back at the older woman, curious. “Are you like this with all your research, or is this one just that much of a big deal?”

 

“I wish I could say that every site I have ever worked on was this much of a ‘big deal’,” Fournier replied, with some trace of amusement. “Since the very beginning of what we’ve known about early humans, it’s been accepted that men almost strictly did the hunting, and woman the child-rearing. Not because of some kind of gender discrimination but simply because of a natural division of labor.”

 

She flipped her notebook and pushed it towards Darcy, tapping at the page. Darcy recognized a drawing of a small totem they’d found at the burial site, a seemingly female figure holding a club and spear.

 

“But this site has ample evidence to contradict all that. These people are what we’d call early or even pre-civilization: a semi-nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers with a traditional tie to the land.” Fournier gestured with one hand. “And it looks as though they had an established pattern of female hunting and men doing domestic work going back generations. Everything taught at the heart of archaeology, gone, in a single excavation.”

 

Even through the sleepy lines of her face, her eyes burned with excitement. “This could change everything. There have been other findings of so-called ‘Amazon’ tribes in the Middle East, but never anything like this.”

 

“How long do you think it’ll take you publish?” Darcy asked, knowing that was ultimately the big word in academia. The find of the century meant squat if there wasn’t a paper out on it.

 

“Oh, not long.” Fournier was dismissive. “We finish up here, and a few months will go to running lab work on the artifacts and bones. Beginning of next year at the latest. You can bet I won’t be letting this discovery linger, unheard about, any longer than I have to.”

 

“No.” Darcy had to smile at her driven enthusiasm. “Definitely not.”

 

She expected Fournier to go back to her notes, but to Darcy’s surprise she changed the subject. “So, I understand that Lethia is going home with you.”

 

“Oh, yeah. Dr. Rubens is taking us both into town, and then I should be able to get her a ticket on my bus.” Darcy nodded. “I know people that I think can help her.”

 

“Good. That’s very good to hear. Especially that you two will be staying together: I know that Lethia has grown close to you, and it’s probably much better for her state of mind to be with someone she feels comfortable with.”

 

Fournier frowned, meeting Darcy’s gaze.

 

“I hope you do not think I’m a callous person, Darcy. Perhaps it might’ve seemed like I cared more about my research than getting Lethia the help she needed, but that isn’t true at all. I’m as hopeful for her finding out who she is and getting home as the rest of you.”

 

“No. Believe me, I understand.” Darcy shook her head, eyes rolling briefly as she thought of Jane. “I know what it’s like around a scientist with a serious case of ‘eyes on the prize’.”

 

Fournier laughed faintly. “Yes. Exactly.”

 

With not much choice in what else to do, since everyone was still sleeping, Darcy headed back to her tent.

 

Lethia was where she’d left her, cuddled in the sleeping bag, out.

 

Except as Darcy was checking for the third time to make sure she’d packed everything, she heard Lethia give an unhappy moan.

 

“Lethia?” Darcy crawled over; the woman was gripping her blanket with white knuckles, a cold sweat dotting her face. She thought she heard her say ‘No, no, no’ in her sleep. “Lethia, wake up. Are you okay?”

 

Lethia’s eyes flew open with a gasp and a start. She turned toward Darcy, shaken, and then glanced around at their surroundings, slowly coming back to herself.

 

“It sounded like you were having a nightmare,” Darcy noted, surprised.

 

Lethia sat up slowly, nodding. “I was. I…” She looked down at her hands, flexing fingers as she stared at them, swallowing. The dread and anguish were written all over her face.

 

“I turned blue.”

 

Darcy blinked. It took her a minute to be sure she’d heard that correctly. “You what? You turned-?”

 

“Blue,” Lethia repeated. “My hands, my arms, my face; my skin all over my body…I could see outside of myself, the way you can sometimes in dreams. It was awful.”

 

“Wait. I’m not – what do you mean, you were blue? Do you mean like, you were turning into a Smurf, or an Avatar cat person…?”

 

Lethia stared at her.

 

“I’m sorry,” Darcy apologized swiftly, “I swear I’m not trying to make fun of you. Guess I just don’t understand…I don’t get it.”

 

Lethia screwed her eyes shut, pressing one fist to her hairline. “I can’t really explain it. I know it doesn’t make any sense.” Opening her eyes again, her head shook. “But seeing myself like that…knowing that I had changed, that there was something wrong with me. It was horrifying.” Her voice broke as she looked at Darcy. “It felt like the end of the world.”

 

“So I guess it wasn’t really a literal fear so much as a representative one,” Darcy mused aloud. “It’s very Freudian. Or maybe Jungian.” She shrugged. “Well, whatever it means, you’re okay. It was just a nightmare.”

 

“Right.” Lethia managed a very weak smile, trying to be reassured. “Only a bad dream. It’s over now.”

 

*

 

Ve had broken the announcement that he was betrothed to a somewhat mixed reaction amongst his Asgardian brothers.

 

They were pleased and excited for him that he was getting married, that he was moving on to become a husband and most likely not long after, a father. But the cost he had paid for this seemed to some of them too dear. Especially for a mortal woman they found a bit…strange.

 

Vili, one of Ve’s oldest and dearest companions, could certainly never imagine giving up his strength or his longevity for a mere woman. But if Ve was truly happy, well, who was he to judge?

 

And he had seen how happy Ve was when he spoke of Selene. He knew how much he loved her. Vili only wished them the best.

 

It was no surprise perhaps that Ve had asked that he stand beside him during the marriage ritual. It was an honor reserved for only the best of kinsmen; for Ve, his choice could only be Odin, or Vili. His two almost-brothers.

 

And everyone knew that Odin did not approve of Selene. Asking him to serve such a role would be an embarrassment to him.

 

So Vili it was. And he intended to do his duty with pride.

 

The day was unseasonably cool as Vili walked to Selene’s, and he wasn’t at all surprised to see that the bride-to-be had a fire going outside. He saw the plume of black smoke long before the rest of the hut, or the lone figure before it, was clear to his eyes.

 

“Ho, shaman!” Vili called in greeting, boisterous with good cheer. “Or should I perhaps call you sister? After all, it will be true soon enough.”

 

Selene turned enough from where she was feeding grass into the flames to smile at him aside.

 

“Indeed,” she said in her usual low, nearly toneless voice.

 

Vili waited patiently for her to finish stoking the fire, watching silently. Despite the chill of the day she wore only a thin, long dress, with no furs or cloak. There was no paint on her face, and barring the charms that never left her hair for once she was without the trappings of a shaman.

 

With white arms bare and a face unmarred by charcoal or blood, Vili found it much easier to see why Ve was in love with her. Underneath it all she really was a handsome woman.

 

Selene turned at last and Vili beamed at her. “Ve tells me that you have something for me to use in the wedding? A token, of some sort?”

 

“Yes,” Selene purred. She surprised him moving quickly to his side. “I do.”

 

There was hardly the space of a finger between them. Selene stepped in even closer, so her body was pressed against his. Her eyes were half-lidded, her lips parted. Reaching upward she ran her fingers gently through his long hair.

 

Vili was completely bemused, so stunned he was unable to move or speak. Surely this was a jest of some sort? Selene had not struck him as a very sensual woman to begin with, so for her to behave in such a manner toward him, when they both knew well she was promised to his kinsman, was…shocking.

 

Selene’s hand caressed along the side of his head, fingers brushing against his jaw, stroking his beard.

 

“Is it the same with all you Aesir,” she murmured in the ghostly whisper of a lover. “So strong, so beautiful. So full of life.”

 

And then in a heartbeat everything changed. Selene’s face twisted into a feral sneer, grabbing onto Vili’s face. She wrenched him toward her.

 

“So…powerful.”

 

Selene’s mouth opened wide and a low, inhuman sound came from her throat. Like the shriek of some wild animal triumphantly seizing its prey.

 

It was the last thing that Vili ever heard. Even as he struggled in her grasp, he was already lost.

 

His body dissolved into nothing, the golden light of his life’s force disappearing inside Selene as she drained him completely dry.

 

Selene’s eyes tipped back, her head lolling, a look of almost intoxication on her face. So much strength, so much psychic energy, and from just one man! She felt the life rush through her, her limbs filled with such vigor. She felt as though she could do anything.

 

So this was the power of a god.

 

“No!”

 

Her eyes flew open and she beheld Ve standing there, his face bone white, his eyes gone wide with hatred and horror.

 

Selene tilted her head. “My love,” she said, with an empty sweetness designed to be mocking, “you’re early.”

 

Ve’s hands trembled, clenched tightly into fists. He stepped toward her slowly, his strides long but stiff.

 

So she had been so occupied, killing Vili, that she had not even sensed Ve’s arrival. Well, no matter, now. He had served her in every way he had left that was useful.

 

“Selene…Vili.” Ve stared at the space where his friend had been, distraught. “What have you done? You monster!”

 

Selene almost felt sorry for him. He had fallen for her of his own accord, but it had been so easy to manipulate him. So easy to convince him she loved.

 

Tired of waiting for Selene’s reply, Ve threw himself at her with a roar.

 

But she had the strength of an Aesir now, and he was nothing but a man. It was child’s play to stop him.

 

Selene looked down at his broken body with a distant smile. Ve moaned on the ground where he lay, unconscious.

 

She could have drained him; every little bit added to her power. But drunk as she was on the thrumming magic of Vili, Ve’s puny remaining life seemed of no consequence.

 

No. She would just kill him, and then be done with it.

 

Selene went to fetch her horse.

 

*

 

Darcy chucked her sleeping bag into the bed of the truck. “And that’s all she wrote!”

 

She rubbed her palms against each other, as if they actually needed dusting off, and felt someone tap her on the shoulder. Turning around she found herself face to face with Ruth.

 

“You don’t have to say goodbye yet,” Darcy pointed out. “Aren’t you coming into town anyway, as part of the supply run?”

 

“Yeah, I know,” Ruth said easily. “But I wanted to give you your present before we left.”

 

“My present? I get a present?”

 

“Duh! I mean, c’mon. You came all this way and I haven’t seen you in months!” Ruth smirked. “Okay, so you remember my ‘Archaeologists do it in the dirt’ t-shirt?”

 

“You mean the one you try to wear like once a week for as long as I’ve known you?” Darcy said. “If not more often?”

 

“Well, they didn’t have one for Poli-Sci, but…”

 

Ruth whipped a light brown shirt out from behind her back. In black script it read, “Scientists do it experimentally.”

 

“You are so awesome,” Darcy exclaimed.

 

She took the shirt to examine it better, but then Ruth handed her a book.

 

“But wait, there’s more.” Ruth giggled. “Okay, so this one’s more of a gag. But I think it’s worth a laugh or two.”

 

“A romance novel?” Darcy eyed the cover with dubiousness, to say the least. “God, Ruth, this looks so trashy.”

 

“Oh, it totally is,” the redhead assured her.

 

“Why would you even-” She flipped it over to scan the description on the back, and then saw that the heroine’s name was ‘Darcy Lewis’, and did a double-take. “Wait. What?

 

“It’s from this website online,” Ruth explained. “You can order the pre-written story and fill it out with your name, the name of someone you’d like to be your fictional lover, and some relevant description stuff like hair color and eyes - wouldn’t do to have him stroking your flowing raven’s wing locks when they’re really more like golden shafts of wheat. It’s like the world’s corniest mad lib.”

 

“You’re unbelievable,” was all that Darcy could say.

 

Anything else she might’ve come up with was cut off as Dr. Rubens wandered up with Lethia close behind him, the former shutting his phone. Darcy quickly hid her new book behind her back.

 

“Okay,” Rubens announced to them. “I just did the cell phone rain dance and managed to get enough reception to call into San Luis and talk to Sheriff Boomer.”

 

“Please, tell me that is not his real name,” Darcy demanded.

 

“It’s his nickname,” Ruth informed her sweetly. “If that helps any.”

 

Darcy just groaned.

 

Anyway. I told him what all’s been going on out here, with finding Lethia and the garbage that turned up at the mass burial. He said he’s going to send somebody out here to investigate, see if they can’t find any sign of illegal camping activities.”

 

“The professor’s gonna love that, Bill,” Ruth remarked.

 

“As long as they don’t touch any of the excavations or artifacts, she’ll be fine.” Rubens paused. “Mostly. I’m sure.”

 

“Well that’s great. You guys all have fun being interviewed by the coonhound brigade.” Darcy gestured at the truck. “But we are getting out of here.”

 

Rubens actually grinned. “Oh, I know. Shame, really. You’re taking off just in time to miss all the fun.”

 

“Real shame,” Darcy deadpanned in response.

 

The older man looked between her and Lethia. “You two finished making your goodbyes already?”

 

“Yep.” There had been a lot of hugging and wishes of all the best. Darcy had exchanged emails with everyone – except, of course, Kevin. She’d even written them down on another piece of paper for Lethia, assuming that after she got herself situated she wanted to keep in touch.

 

Lethia nodded as well. “I think I said everything that needed to be said.”

 

“Well, in that case, guess we’ll be hitting-”

 

Dr. Rubens was cut off mid-word by a loud exasperated yelling coming back from the direction of camp.

 

“God,” Darcy cried. “Now what?”

 

“What in the world?” Rubens stepped forward shading his eyes. Ruth did the same. Realizing they were looking up, Darcy followed their example.

 

And could barely believe her eyes.

 

Closer to the sleeping tents than the excavation, Kevin was standing at the base of a small but still nonetheless very tall elm tree. The rest of the team was quickly crowding in towards him, pointing upwards with exclamations.

 

The very tops of the elm’s branches were draped with a sleeping bag, a few personal items, and lots of articles of clothing. Everything from a raincoat to socks and underwear. Men’s clothing.

 

In fact judging from the anger and frustration on Kevin’s face as he stormed around the tree, looking up in disbelief, and the poorly-concealed amusement in everyone else’s expression, it was all his stuff.

 

Darcy gaped, even as she started to laugh. “Oh man. Looks like Kevin’s gonna be having himself a very busy morning.”

 

“I wonder who did that?” Rubens asked, more puzzled than indignant on his student’s behalf. “And how?”

 

“And how’s he gonna get it back down?” Ruth added.

 

“It’s a good climbing tree,” Lethia said, calmly. “I’m sure he’ll manage somehow.”

 

Darcy turned to stare at Lethia, belatedly realizing she was the only one of them who hadn’t looked to see what the shouting was about – like she had already known.

 

Lethia gazed back at her evenly, expression perfectly innocent.

 

Darcy’s mouth opened, and then quickly closed again.

 

Her biggest question was when. She tried to think back on the morning, and couldn’t recall Lethia having been missing for any extended period of time; which, if she had to guess, was probably part of the plan. Every last one of them could swear Lethia was in sight at all times, except for a few minutes where she went to the bathroom, or back to the tent to get some things, or so on.

 

She must have snuck off quietly again and again, stealing a few moments whenever she could, carefully climbing up into the tree and leaving all of Kevin’s crap there one or two items at time.

 

It was somewhere between completely insane and brilliant.

 

Darcy stole a glance at Ruth and the doctor, who were still looking at the treed clothing and shaking their heads, apparently not having noticed anything. She whispered at Lethia, “But, why?

 

Lethia only shrugged. “Oh, I don’t really know, it seemed like the thing to do.”

 

It looked like Kevin must’ve made the same impression on Lethia that he had on everyone else.

 

Darcy grinned, pulling her into a spontaneous hug.

 

*

 

From her hiding place concealed within the thick of the trees and the dark of the woods, Selene watched as the pickup pulled away from the campground and along the dirt path back towards civilization.

 

The old man was driving, the shape-changed Aesir sitting at his side. In the back of the truck along with piles of boxes and their scattered belongings were the two children, the dark-haired one with glasses and the one with the curly red hair. The girls were laughing and talking to one another, their voices loud to be heard over the wind.

 

As soon as she was certain they were too far away to see her even if they’d been looking back, Selene stepped out into the road. She watched them leave with satisfaction.

 

She hadn’t been entirely sure her spell on Loki would hold. Rune magic was tricky that way, particularly when cast on another magic user. Sometimes will alone was enough to breach through it.

 

But it’d been three days and there was no sign of the enchantment breaking. He seemed to have no memory of who he was or any chance of recollecting it at all.

 

Good. Perfect. Odin could search for his offspring all he liked, but even if he found his son, by the time he broke the spell on him Selene would be far gone. And she knew how to cover her tracks.

 

First, she had much to clean up, out in the wilds.

 

Mere mortals or not so many easy pickings so close were too much of a temptation for her – but she had to be careful. People already knew this group was out there and so they couldn’t just disappear. It had been bad enough when they found her one victim’s belongings where she had buried them. She had to make sure there were no more questions, or at least not the kind that had search parties combing her woods, possibly stumbling across clues.

 

Selene pressed her tongue to the point of a fang, and thought.

 

An unfortunate accident, that took out multiple victims and left the bodies too badly mangled to be identified. That was always a good way.

 

She was pulled from her reverie by the sound of a car engine. Selene turned her head, and spied a different vehicle coming down the road, back towards her this time. A sheriff’s patrol car.

 

Selene made no effort to hide herself. She stayed exactly where she was, waiting with her hands on her hips.

 

The car pulled to a stop in front of her. Two young men were inside, obviously not full-fledged lawmen yet, but trainees. One of them, the driver, started to get out.

 

“Told you we should’ve brought a map,” his partner was saying to him. “Or radioed in for directions.”

 

“Man, I signed up to be a policeman, not a goddamned forest ranger!” the driver snapped. His partner gave him an annoyed, dismissive hand gesture.

 

Ignoring the other man, the first walked towards Selene.

 

“Uh, excuse me, ma’am?” he said a little sheepishly. “We’re looking for the archaeological dig that those folks from the university got going on out here.”

 

He gave Selene’s outfit and overall appearance a dubious look. “You wouldn’t happen to know where it is, would you?”

 

Selene smiled at him.

 

Reaching out, she said, “Oh yes. I’ll get you where you need to go.”

 

*

 

Darcy was a big believer in it being better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

 

So when they got to the San Luis bus depot, after making their final goodbyes to Ruth and the doctor and sending them on their way, the first thing Darcy did was purchase a second ticket back to Puente Antigo for Lethia.

 

Then she called Jane to let her know she was bringing a friend home with her.

 

She wasn’t sure if she was relieved or annoyed that it went to voicemail. Glancing at her watch Darcy confirmed it was late enough in the morning for Jane to normally be awake.

 

Probably she was too busy doing something in the lab, too focused to even hear her cell ring. Darcy left her a message.

 

She wandered over to where Lethia was standing in front of the blinking bulletin board with hands loosely clasped behind her back, reading the names of the destinations. Probably trying to see if there were any she recognized.

 

At Darcy’s approach she turned. “So?”

 

Darcy shook her head. “Missed her. She’ll call back, though. Jane’s pretty good about getting her messages.”

 

“We still have several hours until our bus arrives,” Lethia pointed out.

 

“Do we?” Darcy squinted at the projected arrival time. “Oh yeah. Well, that’s perfect then. We can get some real food to eat. And maybe buy you some clothes so you’re not stuck with mine and Ruth’s hand me downs.”

 

“Are there places around here to do that?” Lethia wondered.

 

Darcy pointed at the desk labeled ‘Information’. “Let’s find out.”

 

The kid sitting behind the dust-covered desk had to still be in high school, and looked bored as possible to be there. When he saw them he was already pulling out a bus schedule to shove at them, likely used to that answering all the questions anyone could ask of him so that he’d be left in peace.

 

“Uh, no thanks.” Darcy waved it off curtly. “I was just wondering, is there any place to go shopping for clothes around here? Not like, hunting gear or anything, just regular everyday threads.”

 

The kid blinked slowly. “There’s a Wal-Mart back towards the center of town.”

 

“Great. Thanks.” Darcy managed a smile for him. “And, where’s your McDonald’s at?”

 

About fifteen minutes later Darcy was sinking her teeth into a Big Mac, closing her eyes as she felt herself in the throes of a cheeseburger orgasm.

 

“Mmm.” She looked at Lethia, sitting across from her in the plastic booth. “So much better than canned beef-a-roni.”

 

“After four meals of it almost anything would be.” Lethia nibbled enthusiastically on her fries. “I don’t think this sort of food can be very healthy,” she observed, although that didn’t change the fact that her burger was already half gone.

 

“It’s so not,” Darcy agreed. She stopped stuffing her face long enough to wipe the ketchup off her fingers. “Which is exactly why it tastes so good. Anyway, I don’t eat like this all time. But I figured, we’ve been in the woods for a few days, we deserve a little treat on our return to civilization.”

 

Lethia glanced down at her meal, as if something had just occurred to her. “What you used to pay for this. That was your money, wasn’t it? And the fare for my travelling pass, that was yours as well. You shouldn’t have to be spending all your wages on me.”

 

“I don’t mind,” Darcy told her. “You’re, you know, in need and everything. Besides, I was planning on trying to get reimbursed for it anyway.”

 

“You were?” Lethia frowned, surprised. “How are you going to do that?”

 

“Oh, I’ve done it before, once or twice.” Darcy waved a hand. “The guys we get funding from, for our research, we have to submit these expense reports into them every month.” She shrugged, returning to her burger. “You can slip just about anything on there, if you really want to…as long as you find a way to word it so that it sounds science-y.”

 

“Oh.” Lethia considered that information a moment. “Is that like stealing?”

 

“Noo, of course not,” Darcy reassured her. “It’s what we call ‘creative accounting’.”

 

“‘Creative accounting’,” Lethia repeated slowly, testing the phrase. She smiled. “I like that.”

 

“Great.” Darcy finished her soda. “Now let’s go get you a new wardrobe. For science!”

 

Wal-Mart was, shockingly, not exactly a high end boutique. Probably a good thing ultimately, since right then all Lethia really needed was the basics. Jeans, shirts, socks, underwear, pajamas…a few trendy accessories…

 “I swear to god, I own these arm-warmers,” Darcy said, holding up a knit pair in black. “I got them at Urban Outfitters for like twice the price. Figures.”

 

Lethia dug past her in the bin, pulling out another set that were moss green.

 

“Those will go great with that camo top you picked out.” Darcy chuckled. “Green’s your favorite color, isn’t it?”

 

Lethia paused, startled. Taking a look at their shopping cart though it was definitely the most popular hue. She gave Darcy a sheepish smile. “I guess it must be.”

 

“It’d be mine too, if I had your eyes,” Darcy remarked. Reaching out she casually brushed a strand of hair out of her friend’s face for a better look. “Seriously, are we completely sure you’re not wearing tinted contacts?”

 

“Are you jealous of me?” Lethia tugged at her own locks, uncertain.

 

Darcy rolled her eyes. “A little. Well, a lot. But not in like a mean way. You’re just obnoxiously pretty, that’s all.”

 

“You’re very pretty too, Darcy,” Lethia said, in all earnest. “I like your nose. And your mouth.”

 

Darcy preened, half-serious. “Well, thank you. They are my most distinctive and refined features.”

 

And then that thread of conversation was forgotten as she spotted a rack of cute jean skirts.

 

“Ooh. Nice.” She did a quick size estimation, grabbed a pair and shoved them at Lethia. “Go try these on.”

 

Lethia clutched the skirt, wide-eyed with disbelief. “They’re short,” she protested, scandalized.

 

“And it’s even warmer in Puente Antigo than it is here,” Darcy countered. “You really plan on wearing cargo pants and jeans only? You’ll melt into goo.”

 

“I have bony legs,” Lethia muttered, sullen. Darcy gave her a considering once-over.

 

“Alright, yeah, maybe you do. But trust me, nobody’s going to notice. Nobody’s going to care. Now go,” she ordered, making a shooing motion. “After this we’re headed to the cosmetics department.” Darcy shook her head at the warehouse-style facility and bright white lights. “Someday, I promise I’ll take you shopping for real. At an actual mall.”

 

After Lethia went off, Darcy pulled out her phone and frowned at it. Still no call from Jane. Dialing the number she got voicemail again, so she gave up and called Erik instead.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Hey, Erik, it’s me. Is Jane okay? I’ve tried calling her like twice and she never responded to my messages.”

 

To her surprise and further confusion, Erik chuckled. “Oh believe me, I think she’s more than okay right now. She’s just…very busy.”

 

“Whatever. So, the reason I’m calling is - well it’s sort of a long story.”

 

She proceeded to explain the whole thing as quickly as she could, about Lethia and how she was bringing the woman home because she thought SHIELD could help her.

 

To his credit, Erik didn’t go completely ballistic or anything. In fact he was incredibly sympathetic. “And there really is no sign of where she came from, or how she got amnesia in the first place?”

 

“None whatsoever. So, you don’t think it’s going to be a problem, do you? I promise she’s really nice. Super polite, even.”

 

“Well it’ll be up to the agents at SHIELD whether or not they can actually do anything for her. But I certainly don’t think it would hurt to ask. As for you bringing her to stay with us…” He laughed again. “Sure. What’s one more guest at the inn?”

 

“What? What’s that supposed to mean?” Darcy asked.

 

“It’s quite a story of our own. I’ll explain better when you get here. But the short end of it is…Darcy, Thor’s back.”

 

“What?” Darcy practically squealed, right there in aisle four of Wal-Mart. “He is? Oh my god. What happened?”

 

“Jane’s theory ending up turning out to be right on the nose. In fact you might say it worked a little too well.”

 

“I can’t believe you guys made a rainbow bridge without me!” A lady pushing her shopping cart past gave Darcy an odd look. Darcy glared at her until she went away. “Finally something interesting with all that weather data and anomaly crunching happens, and it’s the one time I’m not there?”

 

“I promise you it wasn’t on purpose. We weren’t trying to actually make a full connection to Asgard yet. Things just…lined up, that way.”

 

“I want to hear everything, eventually,” Darcy insisted. “Well, skip over the really boring technical parts, but other than that.”

 

“Of course. I’ll meet you two ladies at the bus stop this evening. Goodbye.”

 

Hanging up, Darcy glanced at her watch and saw they were almost out of time. She swiftly collected Lethia and herded their shopping cart toward the register – though not without stopping in the food aisles for a box of frosted wild berry poptarts and a big bag of neon gummi worms first.

 

The ride itself went without much incident. Darcy gave Lethia her iPod to listen to, while she started reading the book Ruth had given her.

 

It wasn’t well written, but it made up for it by being incredibly steamy and very ridiculous. Darcy was just getting to the part where James Van Der Beek was unlacing her corset, the better to caress her ‘heaving bosoms’ (ha, she wished), when Lethia gently tapped her on the shoulder.

 

Darcy jumped, and tried not to flush.

 

Lethia held up the iPod, having removed one of the ear buds. “I enjoy this song. What did you say the name of the noble lady that sings it is, again?”

 

“Gaga. And she’s not really…well, it’s complicated.” Darcy quickly stashed the book away for later, figuring it was the sort of thing best read in private. “Here, give that to me.”

 

Sharing the ear buds and not caring what anyone else thought, they ended up belting out a slightly off-key duet of “Born This Way”.

 

*

 

“You’re sure that I didn’t drool on you or anything?”

 

“I’m quite certain you didn’t.” Lethia tugged her bag up over her shoulder, and gave Darcy an amused look.

 

Considering how early she’d been awake that morning Darcy wasn’t really that surprised she’d fallen asleep. Still, she rubbed at her eyes grumpily and tried not to feel embarrassed.

 

True to his word, Erik was waiting for them outside the depot. He smiled at Darcy and waved to get their attention.

 

“Hey, Erik,” Darcy greeted him brightly, and dumped her backpack in his arms.

 

He let out an annoyed huff, but shook his head and went to put her luggage in the trunk of his car, which was just parked at the curb. “How was the ride?”

 

“Long. Dark. A little smelly. And some drunk guy who got on at the border kept talking to himself. So that was a little disturbing. But eventually he passed out.”

 

“I’m surprised you didn’t get up and tase him,” Erik remarked dryly.

 

“I left my taser here, remember?” Darcy gave him a look. “And it better be exactly where I put it, too.”

 

Erik ignored the accusation. “Are you girls hungry?”

 

“No, thank you,” Lethia said, politely. “We had poptarts.”

 

“Ah. Of course you did. Darcy’s pattern of dietary staples proceeds itself.”

 

“I fed her gummi worms too,” Darcy responded, defensive. Erik ignored her again – this time in favor of shutting the trunk and turning to see Lethia better. He extended his hand with a warm smile.

 

“Erik Selvig. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

 

Lethia, however, stared at Erik with a strange look on her face. After a solid moment of awkward silence, she snapped out of it enough to realize Erik’s hand was still hanging in the air, and that both he and Darcy were giving her odd looks.

 

“Oh! I’m so sorry.” Lethia took his hand, a bit tentatively. “It’s just that…something about you. You seem awfully familiar.”

 

“I do?” Erik said, surprised. “I don’t believe we’ve ever met before.”

 

He squinted his eyes and peered into her face searchingly. Darcy’s heart was in her throat for a second in anticipation, but then Erik shook his head.

 

“No, I don’t think so,” he apologized. “You don’t seem at all familiar to me.”

 

“That’s all right.” But Lethia still acted a bit confused, and shaken. “It must have been my imagination. Strange.”

 

As they got into the car Erik told Darcy, “Thor and Jane probably won’t be around at all tonight. She wanted to take him to see a movie, and she said they wouldn’t be back until ‘late’. And he’s staying with her anyway.”

 

“Yeah, I’ll bet he is,” Darcy remarked, innuendo strongly implied. “If he’s going to be around now, she needs to get into gear and find a real apartment. SHIELD’s paying her enough.”

 

“Says she never has enough time to go looking,” Erik reminded her mildly – it was pretty clear he agreed with Darcy’s assessment. Jane still sleeping in an RV after so many months, too busy in her lab to take even a couple minutes to check the classifieds, was an exasperating state of things.

 

Darcy glanced back at Lethia, huddled in the backseat. “Jane is my boss,” she explained. “She’s a lot like the archaeologists at the dig, really. Nice but kind of intense. She’s also a total workaholic so don’t be surprised if she doesn’t have more than five words for you.”

 

Lethia nodded, absorbing the information. “And, there’s someone else, as well?”

 

“Thor.” Erik shook his head, keeping his eyes on the road. “How do we go about describing Thor?”

 

“Actually I think he’ll get along with her pretty well.” Darcy looked at Lethia again.

 

“I mean, he gets along with just about everybody, if they’re not trying to physically assault him. But you two actually have a lot in common. You both don’t always get modern stuff, or pop culture, you both talk a little funny sometimes, you both showed up under really strange circumstances – oh my god, I’m a moron!”

 

Darcy felt like she’d been whacked so hard with an epiphany she expected to see stars in front of eyes.

 

Erik stole a glance at her, startled by her outburst. “What? What is it?”

 

“That accent. And, and she didn’t know what diet coke was. And she’s got weird powers, and she was wearing a crazy elaborate outfit when we found her…” Darcy sat up on her knees and twisted around to gape at Lethia, frantically pointing at her. “She could be from where Thor is! Huh? What if she’s Asgardian?”

 

Lethia shrank back instinctively, bewildered. “What are you talking about?”

 

“That’s…” Erik risked turning his head to look at the woman, as well. “Not impossible, I suppose. But I don’t think it’s very likely. For starters, Thor didn’t mention any of his people being missing when he arrived.”

 

“How much talking exactly did he get done before he tripped and fell on Jane’s lips?” Darcy asked, highly skeptical. “Besides, she has amnesia, so who knows what happened! Maybe she-”

 

“Went for a walk off a cloud and accidentally fell through a wormhole while she was about it?” Erik said. “I realize with everything we’ve learned it’s hard to keep the idea of ‘reality’ all in line, but you have to still try and make some sense out of it.”

 

“Will someone please tell me what is going on?” Lethia demanded. “What’re the both of you even saying?”

 

Darcy paused to stick her tongue out at Erik, just for good measure, before facing Lethia and answering her question.

 

“It’s a bit of a long shot. But there’s a chance that Thor might know who you are.”

 

Lethia’s eyes lit up. “Really?”

 

“Yes, really,” Darcy assured her.

 

“If”, Erik stressed, “the two of you actually turn out to be from the same place.” When Darcy shot him a look, he evenly responded with one of his own. “Don’t get her hopes up over nothing. Do you really want to disappoint her?”

 

“No.” Darcy huffed. To Lethia she said, “But if I’m wrong, you’ll be no worse off than you are now.”

 

There wasn’t much to do once they reached their destination but unpack and go to sleep. Darcy’s room at their compound was little more than a closet and there wasn’t a guest bed, so they dragged out plenty of pillows and blankets to make Lethia comfortable on the sofa.

 

“I’m showering tonight, because I really need to wash off the smell of camping,” Darcy announced. “Erik, make sure you wake me up for breakfast tomorrow, okay? Don’t let me sleep in! Lethia, if he forgets, I want you to smack him one in the arm. Actually, if does anything you don’t like, do that anyway.”

 

“I promise I’ll be on my best behavior,” Erik called back at her, sardonic.

 

Darcy waved. “Goodnight Erik. Goodnight, Lethia.”

 

Lethia yawned from the couch, sounding as if she’d be dropping off in very little time. “Sleep well, Darcy. And thank you both for everything.”

 

Darcy distantly hoped that Lethia had no more nightmares about turning funny colors, whatever that was about.

 

But if she did that night, no one came to tell Darcy.

 

The next morning she awoke on her own, to the sound of voices in the kitchen and the distant smell of frying bacon. She pulled on her slippers and headed down, noticing that she passed an empty sofa on the way. Lethia must’ve been getting dressed in the bathroom.

 

Jane and Erik were already seated at the table, but what immediately caught Darcy’s eyes was the familiar, very tall, very broad blond man in the t-shirt and jeans standing by the refrigerator.

 

“Thor!” she cried, excited. “It’s really true! I can’t believe you’re here!”

 

Thor gave a booming laugh as she ran to him, hugging her. “Darcy! How wonderful it is to see you again!” When they separated he smiled at her. “Have you been well since we parted last?”

 

“Oh yeah, been pretty much super.” Darcy looked up at him, nodding. She paused. “Hey, how’s that one friend of yours, the guy with the Carey Elwes mustache?”

 

Erik cleared his throat, pointedly. “Darcy, wasn’t there something else you wanted to ask Thor about?”

 

“…Right.”

 

“Ah, yes! Erik has already mentioned this to me,” Thor exclaimed. “This new friend of yours, the one who has tragically lost her memories. You believe that she may be of my race?”

 

“Well it would explain a lot,” Darcy said. “At least, I think it would.”

 

“But you said that the Bifrost on your end was destroyed,” Jane put in, turning in her chair to look at Thor. “How could she have gotten here without it?”

 

“It is said there are many passages between the Nine Realms, and one only has to but find them,” Thor remarked. “Outside of that, I could not tell you. I have heard of no one who has gone missing from Asgard but then, I do not know of all our people personally.”

 

He gazed at Darcy intently, and really, it wasn’t that hard to see how he made Jane go all weak in the knees.

 

“But whether she is of Asgard or not, I swear to you, in the name of my father and his father before him, that I will do all that I can to assist her.”

 

Darcy took a moment to recover her language abilities. “Awesome,” she managed, eventually. “I mean, that’s great! I’m sure she’ll be really happy to hear that.”

 

And then she took a few steps back, because it occurred to her she was probably standing a little too close to Jane’s almost-boyfriend.

 

Erik was looking at something behind them. “Ah,” he said brightly, “speak of the devil.”

 

Darcy turned around to find Lethia standing there, already dressed, with slightly damp hair. Evidently she’d had no trouble finding her way around the shower.

 

She nodded at the group, demurely. “Good morning.”

 

“Hey, you’re up,” Darcy said by way of greeting. “You sleep okay?” Lethia nodded an affirmative and Darcy took that as sign to continue. Pointing over her shoulder, she made introductions. “This is Jane, and the big guy is Thor.”

 

Darcy turned back, already speaking; “Thor, this is…”

 

But she trailed off as she got a look at Thor’s face. His blue eyes had gone very wide, and he appeared to have been stunned into speechlessness.

 

He was staring at Lethia in disbelief and confusion, looking as though he’d been hit by one of his own lighting bolts.

 

Darcy glanced between the two of them, but Lethia didn’t appear to have a clue what was happening. There was no recognition, but his reaction clearly unnerved her.

 

Thor took a step closer, moving like he was afraid he’d frighten her away, or maybe more like she would literally disappear.

 

“My brother?” Thor breathed, his voice all amazement. “You are alive?”

Chapter Text

Darcy was staring at Thor. Jane was staring at Thor. Erik was staring at Thor.

 

Thor, however, was staring at Lethia.

 

But instead of something similar to the three wide-eyed looks of utter bafflement he was unknowingly on the receiving end of, Thor was doing his staring in a completely different way.

 

He was shocked…but that shock was slowly giving way to unanticipated joy.

 

“Brother,” Thor repeated. He gave a faint laugh that sounded oddly broken. “I…I can’t believe it! When you fell from the Bifrost, I thought it for certain that you had died!”

 

He took a step forward, and then another more quickly as awoke from his overcome state. Reaching toward Lethia with those mighty forearms of his, clearly intending to embrace her.

 

“Why, this is wonderful-”

 

Lethia froze, at first, and then very swiftly wrenched herself back from his reach.

 

Thor stopped, his face falling. “What is the matter?” The big lump that was his adam’s apple visibly worked as his voice softened. “Are you still angry with me?”

 

“Who are you?” Lethia demanded, staring up at him in alarm and intimidation – a pretty understandable reaction to some giant stranger trying to hug you and seeming to think you had the completely wrong genitalia, Darcy figured.

 

Thor blinked, catching on. “Then it is true, after all, that you have lost your memories?” he questioned. “It is not some trick?”

 

“Of course it’s true,” Jane exclaimed, getting up from her chair at the kitchen table. “What an awful thing to say!” She walked towards Thor, gawking at him. “Why would somebody lie about something like that?”

 

Thor gave a strained chuckle, trying to placate her. “If you but knew my brother…”

 

Okay. Darcy had had about enough of the wacky bullshit, and she couldn’t go being quiet any longer.

 

“Thor,” she said, in what she suspected was going to end up being her ‘talking sense to the crazy Viking alien’ tone, “Lethia can’t possibly be your brother. Because in case you’ve somehow failed to notice, she’s a woman.”

 

Thor opted to make the situation even more bizarre by giving a dismissive sound. Like, ‘Oh, you mortals and your quaint notions of things like proper gender’.

 

“My brother Loki is a master of magic,” he explained. “He has changed his shape many times before. Including to that of a more feminine guise.” He looked sideways at Lethia again, offering her a cordial smile. “Hence why I recognize it now. I have seen this one before.”

 

Darcy couldn’t help herself from muttering, wooden, “You’ve gotta be freaking kidding me.”

 

Jane frowned at Thor in puzzlement. “But, you said you thought your brother was dead. Why? What happened to him?”

 

“Did you say Loki?” Erik’s face had gone an entire shade paler than usual.

 

“There was…an incident,” Thor said, evasively. “But it doesn’t matter now. Everything can be made right again.”

 

Jane shook her head, irritated. “But-”

 

“I still can’t believe-” Darcy started.

 

Erik opened his mouth as well, but he never got out more than a syllable.

 

“No. You’re wrong.”

 

At the sound of Lethia’s voice, curt and a bit louder than usual, everyone turned to look at her in surprise.

 

She was gazing at Thor intently, face screwed into an affronted mask, shoulders rigid and hands worked into fists.

 

“I don’t know you,” she snapped at him. “I am not who you think I am.” She repeated, “You’re wrong.”

 

And then without another word she spun around and hurried from the room.

 

Thor started to go after her, distressed, but Jane quickly put herself in his way stopping him.

 

“Thor, wait. It’s pretty obvious she doesn’t want to talk to you, at least not right now.” Gingerly she reached out to place a hand on his arm. Her voice was patient but insistent as she continued, “But in the meantime, there are still a few things that need to be explained.”

 

“What needs explaining?” Thor demanded. There was an almost desperate undercurrent to his tone. “Loki is my younger brother. He was lost to us all this time past, at the destruction of the Bifrost. Now he is found again. Whether or not he remembers who and what he is at present, does not change that!”

 

“Well I still have some questions,” Jane stated.

 

Thor made that one expression of his that always reminded Darcy of a puppy that was being scolded and had no idea what it’d done wrong.

 

Unfortunately for Thor, while Jane had a weakness for just about all of his faces, the puppy-dog one she was strangely immune to.

 

With very little effort she was able to steer Thor back into one of the empty kitchen chairs, and got him to sit down.

 

“All right,” she began. “For starters, if I’m remembering this right, wasn’t your brother the one that sent that huge suit of armor thing that tried to kill everyone?”

 

“The one that shot fire from its face hole?” Darcy put in.

 

“The one that almost killed you?” Jane stressed, apparently needing to have the last word.

 

Thor looked uncomfortable. “Yes,” he admitted. “But that was-”

 

“Was what? A misunderstanding? Light-hearted family fun?” Jane scowled at him. “Please, tell me, Thor, because I’m really not getting it. Why would your own brother be trying to murder you?”

 

Thor shot to his feet, muscles taut and teeth clenched with indignation. The energy behind his sudden motion caused his plastic chair to fall over and skitter a bit along the floor.

 

Erik grabbed at Darcy’s wrist but he didn’t need to – she was already reflexively moving back, along with him.

 

Only Jane remained exactly where she was, arms folded, unblinking.

 

At the reserve in her expression, something in Thor’s crumbled.

 

“It is…complicated,” he told her, pleadingly. “And I am sorry I cannot tell you more than that. Truly I am.” He swallowed. “My brother…did an awful thing. But I am loathe to try and explain it to you, because I…I am not gifted in words. They have never been my strength.”

 

Thor hung his head, looking more defeated than Darcy thought she’d ever seen him. “And there is no good way for me to truthfully relate my brother’s actions without coloring him as something he is not.” He sighed. “The only person who has any right to explain, I think, is Loki himself. Because he alone knows his motivations for how he acted. I certainly do not, though I have tried time and time again to understand, since it happened.”

 

Jane’s face softened, distressed. “Thor…”

 

When she placed a hand on his cheek he reached to grasp it in his, meeting her eyes.

 

“I knew Loki all of my life,” he said. “We grew up together. But in the wake of what happened I am starting to think…maybe I never truly understood him.”

 

It sounded like a painful thing for him to admit.

 

There was a poignant silence that stretched on for long enough it started to get awkward. Jane cleared her throat.

 

“So,” she managed, trying to compose herself again, “your relationship with your brother is…complex. Good to know. But what happened to him?”

 

“When the Bifrost was destroyed, there was a void created,” Thor said. “I believe it resembled something you once described to me as a ‘dark hole’.”

 

“Black hole,” Jane corrected automatically. And then she looked horrified. “He fell into a black hole?”

 

“Yes.” Thor hesitated long enough that there was clearly more to that part, but no one really wanted to press him just then. “I’ve no idea how he survived, or ended up on your world. Or what could’ve happened to him since then.”

 

The entire time they’d been speaking, Erik was massaging the bridge of his nose and his forehead with one hand. “I’m sorry,” he interjected at last. “Did you say that your brother’s name was Loki?”

 

“Let me guess.” Darcy looked at him, weary. “You know that one from the myths, too?”

 

“From the stories of my childhood, yes.” Erik gave Thor a very wan grin. “Your brother has quite the reputation.”

 

“Loki has always been a player of mischief, a spinner of falsehoods, all in the name of his amusement,” Thor stated. “He never meant any harm by it.”

 

“Among the Norsemen he was known as the god of deceit and lies,” Erik stressed, far from convinced. “About half of the stories’ problems have him as the cause of it. If I recall correctly, he was even said to play a part in bringing about the destruction of the world.”

 

“Your ‘stories’ are just that,” Thor thundered, offended, and Darcy finally realized where she recognized this type of bluster from – the big brother standing up for his younger sibling. “How dare you imply that some tall tale spoken by mere mortals, by old men thousands of years ago, could capture the truth of what we are!”

 

“Thor, calm down.” Jane put herself between the two of them. “Erik’s just trying to figure this out. The same as the rest of us.”

 

Erik had his hands raised defensively, eyes nervous, but he nodded in agreement. “I mean you…and your family, no offense.” Thor backed off at that though he was still visibly on-edge. “You have to understand, it’s a little difficult to transition from treating beings you’ve always thought of as half-forgotten lore to real, living people.”

 

Thor nodded, but it looked like he barely listened to what Erik said. He’d started pacing restlessly across one end of the room by the sink.

 

“I only wish I knew what has happened to Loki,” he said aloud. “Why he is hiding in that form, and why he cannot remember me or anything else.”

 

“Are we sure he isn’t lying?” Jane asked the question as delicately as she could. “I mean, both you and Erik did mention he kind of has a thing for doing that.”

 

“You’re the one who thought he wasn’t faking,” Thor pointed out. Jane sighed, eyes briefly going heavenward.

 

“Well, yeah, but that was before I knew…everything,” she explained. “Besides, if what you say is true, then he’s an Asgardian right? I’ve seen the kind of damage you and your other friends could take. What could he have gone through that could possibly cause him to lose his memories?”

 

“Falling through a wormhole to another dimension, and god only knows where else, for a start,” Erik offered. “I don’t know the limits of your people, Thor, but I’m willing to bet even for one of you, that’d be pretty rough.”

 

“Perhaps,” Thor responded, forehead wrinkled in thought.

 

Darcy was pretty sure the others had forgotten she was there, judging from the surprised expressions on all three of them when she spoke. “Does your brother have a birthmark? Or like, a tattoo? On the back of his neck?”

 

“A…no.” Thor gave her a perplexed look. “He has no mark of any sort there that I have ever seen. Why do you ask?”

 

“Well,” Darcy pulled out her iPhone, bringing up the picture she had taken that very first day, “because Lethia does.” She handed her phone to Thor. “See?”

 

Thor squinted at the device’s screen at first, as if he wasn’t sure how to look at it. But as it came together for him he slowly sat down, leaning his body against the countertop behind him. He looked at the picture of the round reddish mark with deep scrutiny.

 

“One of the people they had working at the dig, her specialty is linguistics,” Darcy said, mainly to fill up the silence. “When I showed that to her she said it seemed to resemble a Nordic rune, but it wasn’t any actual symbol she’d ever seen before.”

 

“It is a rune. But not one belonging to any mortal nation,” Thor replied, slowly. “I recognize this pattern now – it’s a type of magic, practiced on Asgard by those they call rune mages.”

 

Jane ducked over to stare at the image herself, and Erik attempted to crane his head around her for a look as well.

 

“Are you telling us that that’s some sort of magic spell?” Jane asked Thor, aghast.

 

“Yes. I read very few runes myself, but this one I do know. It’s the sign once used for one of my father’s messenger ravens.”

 

“Odin’s ravens,” Erik said, evidently recognizing that story as well. “Their names were Huginn and Munnin. Thought, and-”

 

“Memory,” Thor finished. He turned the screen of Darcy’s iPhone towards them and tapped it with his thumb. “This is the rune of munnin.

 

Darcy quickly took her phone back from Thor, because his expression suggested that if he held onto it much longer he was going to crush it without thinking.

 

“Someone,” Thor intoned, grimly, “has used sorcery to block my brother’s memory.”

 

*

 

The better part of a day had passed, and Jane had come to realize she was completely off her schedule.

 

For the past few months, ever since the series of events that’d started her working with SHIELD, she’d as good as lived for her research. Even more so than she had before which, given the pattern of her life, was saying something. Every day was devoted to reviewing data and coming up with new ideas and progress.

 

And then Thor had returned. Unexpected, unplanned, but far from unwanted.

 

Suddenly research didn’t matter quite as much anymore. Work was far less important.

 

Thor was here, and this time he seemed to intend to stay. Jane found herself spontaneously making a new schedule for her life, one with room for him.

 

There were still plenty of ‘mortal’ things he needed to be introduced to. Earth things that she wanted to show him. And at some point of course they’d have to let SHIELD know he was around, Jane expected there would be questions to answer and forms to fill out or something; Agent Coulson would want to finally debrief him. And, it occurred to her she really needed to find herself an apartment – living in an RV wouldn’t cut it anymore, not if she was constantly going to be having a ‘guest’ around.

 

Jane hadn’t exactly sat down and made a list. In her head, though, there was a list.

 

But then, when things hadn’t even begun to get settled, Darcy had brought her new friend home with her, and everything was shaken up again.

 

Jane couldn’t help but wonder if this was a preview. Things had been turbulent enough during Thor’s first visit to their world, after all.

 

Was this what life would always be like, having someone like him around?

 

Jane sighed. And then, shaking her head, she poured two mugs of coffee and went to find Thor.

 

She found him sitting outside on the ground next to where they’d parked the van, his back against the side of it. Long legs half stretched out before him, he was gazing upward at the building. Jane followed his eyes and found herself looking at Darcy’s room: the curtain was drawn but she could see two figures moving behind it.

 

Presumably, Darcy and Lethia…or was it Loki? What should she even call her? Or, was she supposed to think of ‘her’ as a ‘him’?

 

Jane gave another jerk of her head to clear it. “Here.” She crouched to hand Thor one of the mugs, and he took it without comment. “It’s hot, so, when you take a sip be careful not to burn your tongue-”

 

Thor took a deep drink from the coffee and didn’t seem the least bit bothered.

 

“…Of course,” Jane finished, lamely. She’d forgotten now that he had his full powers back, Thor’s limitations were even less than they’d been before.

 

She held her cup in both hands, absorbing the warmth, and let the air lapse into silence.

 

After a minute, Thor said, quietly, “He still won’t speak to me. In fact, he’s hiding from me. I suppose it’s strange I should even be surprised – our parting was not on the best of terms.”

 

Jane carefully slid down against the van, lowering herself until she was sitting beside Thor.

 

“You really missed him,” she observed softly, “didn’t you?”

 

“Yes. In the time since my return home, I have found my thoughts dwelling on him constantly.”

 

Thor ducked his head to look at the ground a moment, pensive, and then he met her eyes. “On him, and…on you.”

 

Jane smiled, and there it was – that fluttering in her stomach, that happened whenever her eyes and Thor’s locked. The one that made her suddenly a twelve year old schoolgirl again, giggling and daydreaming of a boy whose locker was four down from hers, the one she’d never spoken to yet somehow her whole world revolved around. She bit her lip, and could feel herself flush.

 

Thor was still looking at her, and now he was smiling as well. Gentle. His eyes seemed a completely different shade of intoxicating blue.

 

“Jane,” he said, and nothing else. As if that one word, her name, was more than enough.

 

For some reason Jane could feel her eyes misting. Her face crinkled up as she tried to fight the stupid, pointless, completely misplaced tears.

 

“I thought about you all the time too,” she told him, and it was true. She’d thought about him as she worked, as she went about her day, even as she slept. Her dreams were all about the shape of his body in both her ex’s clothes and the armor she’d glimpsed him in, the feel of his hand around hers, little flashes of blond hair, golden skin and storm cloud colored eyes.

 

She’d thought about him so much in fact, that she’d tried to convince herself she was being ridiculous. They had known each other a grand total of three days. That wasn’t long enough to have fallen in love.

 

But it was long enough, to get a feel for things. To know that there was something there.

 

“I was so afraid,” Thor confessed, all in a rush, “that you would’ve chosen to forget about me. That you’d mistakenly think when I failed to return it was because I didn’t wish to, not because I could not.”

 

“I was scared of that, at first.” Jane forced a weak laugh; “It crossed my mind more than a few times. But, you’d promised me, that you were going to come back. And I…believed you. The way you said it, it sounded like I could trust you at your word. And so when you didn’t show up again,” Jane gave a twitchy shrug, “I guess I just realized something must’ve happened.”

 

“I am so glad that you didn’t give up searching,” Thor told her. “That you didn’t stop trying.” His face broke out in a wide grin and Jane found herself giggling as she automatically mirrored him. “It’s because of you now that we’re together again.”

 

“Eventually I’ll perfect my method,” Jane said, hurried. “It might take some more time, but we’ll be able to create an Einstein-Rosen bridge whenever we want to, not just during pre-existing climate events, and it’ll be much more stable. You won’t have to stay stranded on Earth. You’ll be able to come and go as you please.”

 

But even as she was speaking Thor already started fiercely shaking his head.

 

“It doesn’t matter. Jane, listen to me.” Reaching out he cupped her chin in his fingertips. “None of that matters right now. As long as I am with you. That’s the decision I made, when I came through the portal, and I intend to stand by it.”

 

“…Oh,” Jane breathed, a giddy laugh falling from her lips before she could stop herself.

 

Hadn’t she told herself she was too old for romantic daydreams, the day she’d set aside her dolls in favor of her first science kit? Hadn’t that been what she thought it meant to be an adult?

 

So why did Thor’s sweeping gestures of chivalry always turn her to mush?

 

Oh well, Jane thought to herself, as Thor pulled her in for a kiss. She was just going to have to get used to it.

 

After all, practice made perfect.

 

*

 

Darcy hadn’t really spoken much to Lethia all day, outside of practical things like “Do you want lunch?”, “Have you seen my iPod?”, or “That top looks really good on you.”

 

The way she figured it, she was still in a state of shock and confusion over the whole thing.

 

By evening however she decided she’d avoided the issue long enough.

 

Of course it only figured at that time, she couldn’t find Lethia anywhere.

 

There was no sign of her in the kitchen, the bathroom, or Darcy’s own room, and she wasn’t taking a nap on the couch. Erik was in the lab and hadn’t seen her, Thor and Jane had gone ‘for a walk’ (she was so sure), and it seemed unlikely she’d decided to hide herself inside the van.

 

Darcy was on the point of giving up when she remembered the roof.

 

Stealthily climbing up there, which for her meant creeping along with an exaggerated slowness of motion like she was in a cartoon, she found Lethia standing close by the edge.

 

Her hair drifted a bit in the wind behind her as she hugged herself lightly, staring up at the rapidly darkening night sky.

 

Geeze, even when she brooded she looked picturesque. Maybe she really was an Asgardian pseudo-god.

 

“Taking in the view, huh,” Darcy remarked, coming over to join her.

 

Lethia came out of her daze just enough to spare her a glance, then nodded absently before returning to her thoughts. Darcy sighed.

 

“Look. I think we need to talk.”

 

“I am not going to have anything to do with that man.” Lethia pressed her mouth into a line, her lips going white. “You cannot make me.”

 

Darcy examined her face for a moment before asking, slowly, “Do you really not remember anything?”

 

That got Lethia’s attention. She twisted her body completely to face Darcy, eyes wide and face wrought with angry hurt at the implied accusation.

 

“Of course I don’t! I have no reason to lie about that, do I?” she demanded. “Why would you say that to me? I thought you were my friend.”

 

“Calm down,” Darcy ordered her, evenly. “You’re right, I am your friend. Which is why I can’t ignore what’s going on here. There’s something you’re not telling me, and as your friend I can’t just let that go.”

 

Lethia blinked a few times, rapidly, and started guiltily to turn her head. Darcy moved a few steps closer so that Lethia couldn’t ignore her; short of turning her back completely or shutting her eyes, there was no way to remove Darcy from her line of sight.

 

“Ever since I met you, you’ve wanted nothing more than to figure out who you are, where you came from,” Darcy reminded her. “You’ve been totally desperate for information. Now, someone comes along who claims to know everything about you, and you won’t even talk to him? All of a sudden you know just enough to be sure that Thor’s wrong and anything he has to say is a waste of time? Do you really expect me to buy that?”

 

“Darcy…” Lethia all but whimpered. Darcy reached out to put a hand on her arm, gentle but firm.

 

“Tell me what’s going on,” she asked her. “Please.”

 

Lethia closed her eyes, exhaling. When she opened them again she lifted her head towards the stars, even though she didn’t appear to really see them, before meeting Darcy’s gaze.

 

“I don’t remember anything more than I did three days ago. Really.” She paused. “It’s just that, ever since I set eyes on him-”

 

“You mean Thor?”

 

“Yes. Thor.” Lethia pronounced his name carefully, tasting it on her tongue. “Now whenever I try looking toward my past…I find myself not wanting to dwell on it any more.”

 

She pulled away from Darcy and went back to looking outward off the roof, wrapping her arms around herself more tightly. Darcy couldn’t help noticing her nails were still perfect. How unfair. It just figured; Darcy’s polish was already halfway chipped off.

 

“When I look back, I feel such…guilt, and shame,” Lethia murmured. “I think I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to remember who I am after all. Maybe I really am better off this way.”

 

“Are you sure?” Darcy questioned, trying to understand but having an admittedly hard time of it. “You think it’s best, you not knowing any of your own life? Having to start from a total blank slate?”

 

“The way things are now…I admit, I feel lost, but I have faith that I can be happy,” Lethia told her frantically. “When I think about my other life, what sense I get from that…” She swallowed, and shook her head. “I’m not sure if the same is true.”

 

“You really think that it could be that bad?” Darcy was skeptical.

 

Lethia’s head shook some more before she could get out the words. “Darcy, what if I-” But then she stopped.

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing,” Lethia said. Her voice was soft but closed off. “Never mind.”

 

Darcy looked at her own shoes for about thirty seconds while she tried to think of what to say next. What she could possibly say in response to any of it.

 

Finally she went, “You’re really not the least bit curious, if whether or not what Thor had to say down there is true? You’re not maybe…weirded out by any of it?”

 

Lethia gave her a confused frown. “What do you mean?”

 

“Well, for starters,” Darcy pointed out, “if it’s the truth, then that means you’re really a guy.”

 

Lethia laughed shortly, a mixture of amused and endeared. “Oh, Darcy. Only you would fixate on that first, out of everything else.”

 

“So it…seriously doesn’t bother you,” Darcy insisted.

 

Lethia tilted her head, considering it, and then shrugged carelessly. “No. It doesn’t.”

 

“Huh. Interesting.” Darcy wondered if it was an Asgardian thing. Or maybe, what with the way Thor went on about his brother being a shape-shifter, it was more inherent than that: maybe, deep down, some part of Lethia already knew she was supposed to be male and had decided the point was moot.

 

It was still utterly bizarre to think about, far as Darcy was concerned.

 

The two of them stood there for a moment, side by side, in companionable silence. Darcy watched the stars looking for any comets or satellites. Half hoping she didn’t see any, because that was the sort of thing Jane always griped at her about needing to write down. She was close enough to Lethia that their shoulders were practically touching.

 

Lethia looked at her from the side. “What’s going to happen to me now?” The question was almost timid. Darcy blinked.

 

“The same thing that was going to happen before, I guess,” she replied. “We talk to SHIELD, maybe. See if there isn’t anything they can do. But I guess if you’re really not into finding out where you’re from anymore, now it’s more about like, getting you settled.”

 

“Settled?” Lethia repeated.

 

“Getting you legal documentation and stuff so you can find a job, a place to live, sign up for email and Facebook.” Darcy smiled at her, shrugging. “That sort of thing.”

 

“Ah yes, this Facebook device of yours,” Lethia said slowly, recalling. “The source of near-infinite knowledge about anyone else.”

 

“Well not if they’re using their security features correctly. But uh, yeah, that’s pretty close.”

 

“You’ll have to teach me how it works.”

 

“Sure. Of course.” Darcy placed an arm around her shoulder, and Lethia gave in automatically, letting her pull her body closer. “I’ll show you the ropes.”

 

*

 

The afternoon’s sun was high when Brynhild left the village, claiming that she was going out to hunt.

 

At the edge of the tree line was a concealed indent behind a rock that served her well in the past as a hiding place. There she left her weapons and pack for safekeeping, to be retrieved later.

 

It was considered respectful, to approach the home of the shaman unarmed.

 

Brynhild was somewhat surprised to find Selinde alone, outside, for she’d not seen Ve around since much earlier that same morning.

 

“Hail Brynhild, leader among many, slayer of all who oppose her,” Selinde greeted her loftily. She did not rise from whatever task she was about; tossing ashes upon the remains of a fire’s embers, her arms hidden in all but brief glimpses by the thick pelt of her cloak.

 

“Hail Selinde of the People, Selene of the Aesir, shaman of the generation of my mother and her mother before her, and,” Brynhild grinned, “as of this day, a bride soon-to-be. Though may she not tarry as one for long, but pass on into becoming wife.”

 

“Have you come all this way then, to deliver me congratulations?” Selinde asked her. There was something shrewd about her tone. “I am receiving today so many visitors.”

 

“I can only imagine. But where is your betrothed? I confess I did expect him to be also here to greet me.”

 

“Oh, he rides over the hills, at present.” Selinde smiled. “He is with his brother Vili.”

 

“Attending to some rite of preparation, then,” Brynhild gathered. Glancing about her she could see that Selinde must’ve already been planning to add to or remake her hut as Ve was joined to her household. Most of the usual adornments had been removed from the outer walls and through the door Brynhild could see some sacks packed. “Or who knows, perhaps merely engaging in some sentimental fest, before their friendship is severed by marriage.”

 

“Why, they have all the time in the world together, Brynhild,” Selinde said sweetly. “I would not dream of parting them.”

 

“You are in high spirit today,” Brynhild observed. Tilting her head she looked at Selinde more closely. “There is very clearly something different about you.”

 

Indeed the shaman seemed to possess a greater energy than ever been before. She all but visibly glowed with this strange new vitality.

 

Selinde went entirely still. Lifting her head she met Brynhild’s eyes carefully.

 

“Is there?”

 

Brynhild smiled, nodding. “It must be the anticipation,” she guessed, teasing her. “The blush of the waiting bride.”

 

Selinde chuckled, her mouth twisting with amusement. “Ah yes, of course. What else could it be?”

 

Bending down she scooped one last handful of ashes onto the dead fire. “But I will waste no more words with you, warrior Brynhild. I know your mind and your nature, and you did not come all this way during your good hunting time to bless me only.”

 

Brynhild bowed her head in concession. “I would speak on a matter with you. One most secret and dear to my heart,” she confessed in a rush. “Your impending marriage, though time of great happiness for us all, has made it impossible to bear my own desires in silence any longer.”

 

“Ah,” Selinde noted, “you speak of love. Your infatuation with Sigurd Reginsward.”

 

Brynhild felt her cheeks color. “Am I so obvious?”

 

“Depends on who you ask.” Selinde considered it. “Perhaps not to Sigurd.”

 

“That is my very problem,” Brynhild groused. She carried herself to a nearby rock and sat on it, melancholic. “Sigurd admires me as a warrior I know, but what does he think of me as a woman?”

 

“Presuming that he has eyes and the full use of them, that you are striking to look upon, and without equal in battle,” Selinde responded, flatly.

 

“But…” Brynhild wrung her hands together. “It is said that among his people, women are not fighters or hunters. They are…timid, dainty things. What if that is what he prefers? What if I am not at all to his liking?” When Selinde did not speak at first, Brynhild added, “I have seen him often look with favor on my sister, Gudrun.”

 

Selinde’s expression was calculating, her clever mind at work as she took in all that Brynhild was saying to her.

 

“Maybe he does love Gudrun and not you, Brynhild,” Selinde spoke to her, with soft intensity. “Maybe she has already caught his eye. Such a shame, since you both have the same beauty. But if that’s the case, what is to be done?”

 

Brynhild pressed her mouth shut tightly before she risked speaking again. “Surely there must be something. Something, that with your power…?”

 

“A charm of some kind?” Selinde offered helpfully. “A spell, to help you win over his heart?”

 

“I would not have you…enslave him to me,” Brynhild told her, hesitant.

 

“Not at all,” Selinde was swift to assure her. Stepping closer to the warrior, she gestured. “I can brew a potion that will enhance your natural attraction, the desire you arouse, in Sigurd’s eyes. It won’t overwhelm his senses but rather help him to realize what he should already feel. For surely, yours was a union destined to be.”

 

“You will do this for me?” Brynhild demanded, excited. She shot to her feet. “You’ll intercede on my behalf?”

 

“I’ll need some help, from you.”

 

“Anything. Name it.”

 

“A lock of your hair, for one,” Selinde mused. “It will have to go in the potion.”

 

There was a small knife on her belt that Brynhild had not removed with her other weapons, for it was more suited to eating than killing. In a flash she drew it and cut the end from one of her unbound tresses. She pressed it into Selinde’s hand.

 

“There. Done. What else?”

 

Selinde’s fingers closed tightly around the flaxen bit of hair. “Oh, just that I will need to see Sigurd alone,” she added. “In order for it to work best, when I weave my magic nothing can interrupt us.”

 

“I can easily come up with some excuse to send him to you,” Brynhild said with great eagerness. “Oh, Selinde. Truly you are my friend, for this!”

 

“Why not at all, Brynhild. Think nothing of it.” Selinde lowered her eyes and bowed, a thin smile splitting the length of her face. “It would only be too wonderful, if all who lived could be as happy as I am on this day.”

 

*

 

Thor woke early the next day, quick to find everyone else was still abed but unable to fall back to sleep. He made his way to the kitchen in search of sustenance.

 

As soon as he stepped into the room however he realized he was not alone. Loki stood with his back to him, pulling something from the cupboard.

 

Thor froze, uncertain what to do or say. It turned out he didn’t need to do anything: Loki sensed he was no longer by himself almost instantly. Turning he saw Thor and he flinched back, caging himself by the countertops, eyes wide and frightened as he looked around for an escape.

 Thor let a slow, reassuring smile form across his face, sickened by the fact he had to treat his own brother like some wild animal ready to bolt.

 

“Good morning,” Thor greeted in an even cordial tone. He made a gesture to indicate the foil-wrapped poptart still in Loki’s hand. “You know, they’re even better if you warm them up first,” he said helpfully – a discovery he’d made far into his first visit to Midgard, which had both surprised and delighted him.

 

Loki’s responding tone was far from cordial, or reassured. “Stay away from me,” he snapped.

 

This wasn’t going to work. Thor dropped the pretense and let his disappointment show.

 

“Why do you hide from me?” he demanded, unhappily. “I have done nothing to harm you that you know of.”

 

“That I know of,” Loki repeated, with meaningful emphasis. “Interesting choice of words.”

 

Careful, Thor told himself. Despite not remembering who he was, Loki was still clearly very much Loki. Perhaps worst of all, a Loki without the context to trust him. If Thor wanted to persuade him of anything he’d have to speak with care.

 

“I am not the cause for your loss of memory,” Thor insisted. “I want only to help you.”

 

“I don’t need your ‘help’. I don’t want it,” Loki said, in almost the exact same thin, vicious tone he’d used during their fight at the Bifrost. Thor’s heart ached at the recollection: ‘I’m not your brother. I never was.’

 

It wasn’t true. Thor would never let it be.

 

“You do not know what you’re saying,” he said hoarsely, voice rough as he forced it to action past the clenching of his throat. Loki glanced past him, contemplating whether or not he could run by Thor and get out. Thor felt compelled to reach out beseechingly. “Brother, please!”

 

“Why do you keep calling me ‘brother’?” Loki cried, exasperated. He gesticulated with both hands wildly near his head. “Do you not have eyes? Are you insane?”

 

Automatically Thor followed Loki’s indications, taking in the female body within which he currently resided. Truly it was a masterful illusion. If he hadn’t already known it was possible, if he hadn’t seen it before, Thor might have not realized. But there was still something of Loki about the proportions if not the general shape, and there was familiarity lurking in the angles of her face, somewhere in the nose and the cheeks and the chin. The hair, though longer, was still Loki’s, and the eyes were undoubtedly his.

 

He could distantly remember the first time Loki had ever changed into a woman. They’d been well into their period as youths, their paths already diverging as Thor excelled ever more as a warrior while Loki had all but given up on the martial arts in favor of books and tomes of sorcery.

 

It had been, it’d seemed, an odd time for it: the gender line, the difference between boys and girls was becoming ever clearer, more meaningful by the day. The desire to know what one was, to feel secure it in was pressing; to begin experimenting with making changes to one’s self, even temporary ones brought about by magic, seemed problematic at best. Looking back Thor honestly doubted he himself would’ve had the courage.

 

But not only had Loki done it, he’d gone about it in as showy a manner as possible. A late entrant to dinner, the entire hall had gone silent at the distantly recognizable figure that had strode in and seated herself at the second prince’s spot at the table, calmly asking Thor to pour her a glass of mead.

 

Frigga had, unsurprisingly, stopped blinking the fastest of any of them. “Thor, your brother has made you a request,” she chided him, mildly.

 

And considering some of the other things Loki had already done by then with his magic, it was probably one of the least outlandish and definitely the least literally explosive.

 

But the room had filled with a muted cacophony of mutters, sniggers, and some more lewd remarks. The outrage was one thing, but the slander was another: most of the worst catcalls halted the instant the All-Father ‘accidentally’ slammed his goblet down too hard. But even he could not silent every mouth in the hall. It would’ve been impossible.

 

“It has to be a glamour,” Fandral muttered. He was giving Loki such close scrutiny that would’ve made Thor incensed were it actually his sister. “You can’t have truly…Sif, pinch him. See if it’s real.”

 

“Do it yourself,” she returned, annoyed.

 

Loki leaned back in a way that presented certain parts of ‘her’ anatomy that almost seemed accidental. Almost. “By all means, good sir Fandral,” he said to him, smooth. “Would you like to examine me more fully?”

 

Fandral stammered and then, as Hogun and Volstagg fell to mocking him instead, turned beet red and actually tried to sink under the table.

 

Loki had sat through it all with a composed expression, acting as though he heard not a word of any of it.

 

Afterward on the way back to their rooms, Thor had accosted him, and almost sighed in relief as Loki released the spell the instant Thor grabbed his arm, reverting to his male self.

 

“I was almost afraid you’d gotten yourself stuck that way,” Thor said, jokingly.

 

“You have such little faith in my ability?” Loki asked in response, mild. He glanced at the hand on his forearm. “Thor, you’re squeezing. Let go.”

 

“Sorry.” Thor shook himself off, sheepish. “I just don’t understand. Why do it? Why would you wish to learn such a thing?”

 

“Why not?” Loki returned. He shrugged beneath his cloak. “I can think of a few ways where it might come in useful.” His eyes were bright as they met Thor’s carefully. “Besides. Maybe I only wanted to prove to myself that I could.”

 

And Thor could see it now, with the clarity of hindsight. For all Loki’s careless nonchalance that had been as good as an invitation, an opening to praise him for his cleverness and skill. It would only have been fair: a small compliment on his progress, like the ones he paid to Thor constantly whenever he did well at his own lessons, even though Loki cared about as much for Thor’s feats of brute strength as Thor did for sorcery. A reassurance after the names he’d been called at dinner, to make it all worthwhile.

 

But Thor hadn’t said anything of the kind. Instead he’d laughed, patting Loki on the shoulder and telling him again that he didn’t understand him, but he was free to do whatever he liked.

 

In his memory, it was hard to see Loki’s responding smile as anything but forced.

 

In the present, Thor managed to keep his voice relatively calm. “I have already explained the reason for that.”

 

“Oh yes, of course. How could I have forgotten?” Loki’s eyes rolled upward. “Not only am I from some different world entirely, but I’m also a powerful sorcerer, able to take on other shapes at a whim. Not at all an outlandish tale in the slightest.”

 

He gave Thor a flabbergasted look of incredulity. “I mean, are you entirely serious; you actually believe that? Do you have any idea how crazed that sounds?”

 

Thor felt the urge to smile, despite how saddened he felt. He recognized this trick: it wasn’t that Loki had any doubts himself. He was only pretending, the better to push the emotion off onto Thor. He wanted Thor to doubt it could actually be true, and therefore leave him in peace.

 

“Why do you want nothing to do with me?” Thor said, honestly, “I don’t understand.”

 

Loki stopped. His free hand curled into a fist, digging into his chest near his heart. The action was so emotive it had to be unconscious.

 

“I don’t know what happened, or how it has anything to do with you,” he whispered, “but every time I look at you I feel like a darkness is about to swallow me whole. There is so much despair – if that’s what I am to gain by an association with you, then I don’t want it.”

 

Thor was stilled to his very core. “That’s all that you can see, when you try to remember? That’s all you that you feel: despair?”

 

What about the entire life they’d shared together, when they were children? All the adventures they’d had as young men? Had all that happiness been erased in Loki’s heart entirely in those final moments, eaten up by the pain and rage Thor had been too blind, too stupid to see building?

 

“What, isn’t that enough?” Loki said, with strained casualness. He scoffed. “Can you blame me for choosing not to remember, if the past is so terrible? Can you fault me for not wanting to go back?”

 

An awful thought occurred to Thor: could Loki have cast the rune magic on himself, to erase his own memories?

 

Surely the last time he’d seen him, his brother had been in an unhinged state. He had already proved himself capable of things Thor would’ve previously never thought.

 

But no, he reassured himself: Loki prized his control, his self-reliance too much. He would never have willingly put himself in such a vulnerable condition.

 

The knowledge was very little comfort, though, after having mourned and longed for his brother so long, to have him right in front of him and yet still denied him.

 

“It isn’t fair,” Thor said, knowing he was reverting to childlike selfishness but unable to stop himself. “You have no idea how much this hurts me. I want my brother back.”

 

“And what would happen to me, then, when he returns?” Loki asked coolly.

 

Thor stomped a foot, exasperated. “You are already him!” he cried.

 

Loki only blinked at the outburst instead of fleeing or shying back. “Maybe that’s the part that worries me,” he admitted.

 

Thor’s anger vanished instantly in his confusion. “What do you mean?”

 

Loki opened his mouth and the quickly shut it again, wordless. The silence stretched on for what seemed a tense eternity before finally he spoke.

 

“What did he do, anyway?” he asked quietly. “Your brother?”

 

Thor’s heart leapt to his throat. “I don’t understand the question,” he lied.

 

Loki shook his head ruefully, clearly knowing that wasn’t the case. He hesitated yet again before meeting Thor’s eyes with unblinking intensity.

 

“He was a terrible person,” he said slowly, his voice filled with fear, “wasn’t he?”

 

Thor was struck dumb at first, but at last he pried his mouth open. He tried to ignore the phantom pain he felt gripping his chest, the dread that churned in his stomach.

 

No,” he insisted. “No…it is true, he made a mistake. He did terrible things.” Thor’s voice had become a plea. “But my brother was not a bad man. There was no true evil in his soul.”

 

Loki’s face had hardened.

 

“I don’t believe you,” he said. Without another word he left the room, leaving Thor staring after him, devastated.

 

Thor sank heavily into one of the plastic chairs, face dropping into his hands.

 

So that was the truth of who Loki was, without his thoughts twisted around inside his head and the knowledge of how to deceive himself.

 

He didn’t only hate Thor. He despised himself, as well.

 

*

 

The situation was a tense one, to say the least. Darcy had gotten pretty sick of that whole ‘walking on eggshells’ feeling, but what could they do about it?

 

Lethia resolutely still didn’t want anything to do with Thor. Thor still maintained Lethia was really his brother, but now he was avoiding her as well.

 

There was a lot of ducking out of rooms constantly in their mutual hurry to stay the hell away from one another. At times it almost seemed like they were chasing one another in a giant circle through the house. Darcy kind of wanted to start playing the Benny Hill theme – or start screaming at them to knock it off and start acting like grownups.

 

Jane just wanted to be alone with Thor a lot, talking science at him or asking questions about Asgard and the Bifrost or cuddling up with him on the couch.

 

Erik called Agent Coulson to apprise him of the situation, had left his Norse mythology book sitting on one of the tables in the lab open to ‘L’, and announced he was going to the bar.

 

He hadn’t come back since.

 

Darcy, out of lack of anything better to do, was stuck marking star chart data and muttering to herself without even her iPod to keep her company, since she was pretty sure Lethia had borrowed it.

 

When her cell phone rang, she practically dove on it with relief.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Darcy? It’s me.”

 

Ruth’s voice was at first somewhat unrecognizable, not just because of the static of occasional interference but also the trembling note to her tone. It sounded like she’d been crying.

 

“Ruth? What…what’s wrong?’ Darcy sat up straighter. “What’s happening?”

 

She was the opposite of reassured when Ruth bit back a sob. “Oh god, Darcy. It’s awful. I can’t…I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know what to do.”

 

“Take a breath and try to calm down. Talk to me.”

 

“There was an accident.” Ruth’s voice was breaking. “Professor Fournier is dead, so is Kevin, and Lindsey’s in the hospital.”

 

“Oh my god, what,” Darcy exclaimed, jaw dropping. “What the hell happened?”

 

“I don’t know,” Ruth wailed. “I wasn’t there. They were off on their own at the burial site. The cops said that the big runestone just fell over on them, but…Darcy, you saw that thing, same as I did. How does that even make sense? That stone was in the ground pretty deep.”

 

“What are you trying to say?” Darcy’s heart was pounding in her chest. “You think something’s out there? That somebody…did this to them?”

 

Somebody: like a sorcerer that was potent enough to beat up an Asgardian and give them amnesia while they were at it.

 

“I have no idea. Ugh, I’m not even sure what I’m saying right now. The whole thing is a mess. The dig’s been shut down but we’re not allowed to go anywhere, and it’s just the sheriff and his deputy and five cadets. Two of whom are missing!”

 

There was a pause before Ruth added, “Darcy, I’m scared.”

 

“I don’t blame you,” Darcy had to say, honestly. “Just sit tight. I’m coming back, and I’m bringing some friends to help.”

 

“What? But what can they do?”

 

Darcy craned her head to look into the next room, where she had a clear view of Thor eating his way through an entire box of Chex Mix.

 

“Trust me. I’ve got some pretty potent friends.”

Chapter Text

Selene finished driving the last stake into the ground and looked around at her work, satisfied.

 

The place where her hut had once stood was empty. Torn down completely, the only sign it had ever been there a handful of dried grass scattered across the ground.

 

The area was dotted at intervals with thin ceremonial spears Selene had carved herself and thrust into the ground. She wanted nothing left of herself there that could be used against her. She had both destroyed her lines of power and made the area too corrupt for any other to use magic in, at least for some time.

 

What Selene could not take or keep for herself, she saw no value in leaving for others to have.

 

For almost five generations she had lived with this band. Served as their shaman, commanded and enjoyed what respect and power over them that gave her. She doled out small favors here and there, enough to make them believe in her ability and trust her.

 

But when they sent for her to heal the old and feeble, the young and sick, or the grievously injured in battle, Selene took as much as she gave. Stealing the life force of those who never knew: killing many of them outright, though none ever suspected because those who died at her hand were already dying.

 

It had been a good deal they had going, even if the knowledge was all on her end. But that was over now. She’d played her hand and it was time to move on.

 

By now the Aesir had to have found Ve’s body – what was left of it, anyway. And even if there was no trace of Vili eventually they’d assume he was dead as well.

 

Selene wasn’t going to stay and let them find her, though she had to admit part of her thought fighting them would almost be interesting. She felt so strong now. Her powers intensified by the mystic energy of an Aesir coursing through her veins.

 

And then also, there was Sigurd. He was no Aesir, a mortal – but a young man, a strong man.

 

No, not an Aesir, but his power was still too good to pass up. So when Selene saw the opportunity that foolish, lovesick Brynhild was offering her, of course she took it.

 

If she listened closely to the wind, Selene thought she could hear the screams and wailings of the mourners. She knew they’d already started the funeral pyre – if she looked up in the direction toward the village she could see the smoke.

 

Selene felt a heat emanating from her face, near where her thick braid lay across one shoulder. She snatched it in her hand and quickly held it aloft for inspection, smirking knowingly as she spied what was the cause: the single strand of blonde hair, woven in among the black.

 

“So you are coming to kill me now, Brynhild?” Selene looked again toward the village, far off and out of her physical sight that it was. “You and your Aesir allies both.”

 

She stood with hands half-fisted, the wind lightly ruffling her pelts, and she laughed.

 

“Come and try. You’ll be in for a surprise.”

 

Selene grinned.

 

“I can move a lot faster than you think.”

 

*

 

“We must leave at once, with all due haste!” Thor shouted.

 

Actually, no – ‘shouted’ was the polite term, Darcy realized. There really was no word for what he did at that point with those massive vocal cords of his other than ‘bellowed’.

 

“There is no time for any more words,” Thor continued, striding about the room like at any moment he was going to start flipping tables for dramatic effect. Darcy was keeping well far back from him, just in case. “Innocent lives are in danger!”

 

Erik was also keeping his distance alongside Darcy, and unsurprisingly so was Lethia.

 

Jane however had to throw herself right into the fray.

 

“Now, hang on,” she exclaimed. “Wait a minute here!” Getting next to Thor she tugged at his arm, making him turn to look at her. “You can’t just go bounding off to another state like that, without any warning or any idea what you’re up against!”

 

“I have travelled to realms unknown to fight uncounted perils before, Jane,” Thor told her, in that tone of voice he always used when he seemed to think she should know something already and was being silly. “This is nothing new to me. You forget, I may be trapped here once more but this time, I have my powers. I have Mjolnir. There is nothing I can’t face.”

 

Jane closed her eyes hard, like she was trying to will the reckless insanity away. “But-”

 

“Besides, you have heard what Darcy has said.” Thor pointed at her, and Darcy couldn’t help lifting her hands in a ‘leave me out of this’ gesture. “Her friends need help! Why should we not provide them with it, in their hour of need?”

 

Thor’s expression shifted dramatically, darkening and becoming much grimmer.

 

“Besides,” he added, “whatever foe stalks them may very well be the same that did such injury to my brother. And I cannot let that action go unanswered.”

 

“That’s, like, the best gift you know how to give someone, isn’t it?” Darcy mused out loud. “Beating people up on their behalf.”

 

Thor blinked at her, surprised at the question. “Yes,” he said honestly.

 

“I’m going to give you a bit of advice, for the probable future,” Erik put in, wryly. “For anniversaries, try jewelry. Maybe flowers.” He nodded at Jane. “She likes orchids.”

 

“Thank you Erik, but that’s really not important right now,” Jane said tersely.

 

Darcy sighed. “Okay, everybody just calm down. All right?” She stepped forward, tentative. “I did ask Thor to go to San Luis and help me. That is what I wanted.”

 

“But you can’t just go rushing off without a plan,” Jane argued. “It’s the middle of the afternoon. By the time you get there, whether you drive or take the bus, it’ll be nightfall! Are you really planning on wandering around in the Colorado forests in the dark?”

 

“If that it what it takes, then yes,” Thor replied. “Besides, who said anything about using one of your vehicles? I intend to fly.”

 

Jane’s mouth dropped, not having thought of that. “…Oh.”

 

Darcy glanced at her. “Yeah,” she admitted, “I kinda forgot he could do that, too.”

 

“Well what are you going to do with Darcy then?” Jane started up again, recovering. “Obviously she’s coming with you, since she’s the one who knows where you’re going. Are you planning on carrying her?”

 

“If I must,” Thor stated smoothly. Darcy could feel her own face get a little pale.

 

“That’s…whoa.” She rubbed at her forehead. “I don’t know how well I really thought about that part.”

 

“Can you carry both of us at once, though?” Jane demanded. “Because there is no way I’m letting you go off without me!”

 

“Jane, what are you doing?” Erik said, alarmed. She only glanced at him a moment, giving him a look both condescending and pleading, before going back to Thor.

 

“I have just found you again, after months of waiting,” she insisted. She gazed at Thor beseechingly. “After not really knowing if we would ever get to see each other again. Besides, you don’t know what’s going on out there, what these people really need. It’s probably not all someone to fight for them – maybe all they want is another pair of hands. There must be something I can do to help.”

 

Thor took both her hands in his. “If that is truly what you want, Jane, then I will not try and deny you.”

 

“What about me?” Lethia suddenly spoke. Turning to look at her Darcy saw she had a shaky but determined look. “Because I am coming along as well.”

 

“Wha – no. Stop. Time out.” Darcy waved her hands. “What are you talking about? No you’re not.”

 

“Ruth and the others helped me when I was in need as much as you did,” Lethia said, firm. “I owe them, for their kindness.” Drawing a breath she raised a hand before her face and looked at it. “Besides, maybe I can-”

 

“Even if you have magic powers, you still don’t remember how to use them,” Darcy interrupted. “Not to be a bitch, but face it. You’re not exactly fighting fit.” Her voice softened, concerned. “I’m afraid you’re only going to get yourself hurt if you go.”

 

Lethia met her eyes, mouth set into a thin line. Darcy’s heart sank.

 

“There really is no talking you out of this, is there?”

 

She jumped at the unexpected sound of Erik pounding a fist on the nearest table.

 

“Oh, for god’s sake,” he muttered. He looked up at Thor and the women. “Well, if you’re all going, you don’t really expect me to be the only who stays behind, do you?”

 

Thor beamed, thrusting his hand in an upward warrior’s salute.

 

“Then it is onward to adventure, for all of us,” he exalted, sounding like he was really proud of them. “Together we will stand in glory, united!”

 

“Yes,” Erik said, woodenly. “Wonderful.”

 

Darcy and Jane exchanged an uncertain look.

 

“So, um, is Thor going to carry all four of us on him piggyback style?” Darcy wondered awkwardly.

 

Jane chewed on her bottom lip briefly, thinking.

 

“Thor, just how strong are you?” she asked. “Do you think you could lift a car?”

 

About twenty minutes later they were all sitting there parked in the driveway, Erik behind the wheel (not that it mattered) while Darcy, who had called shotgun, fired up the GPS. Lethia and Jane were in the back and seemed to be endeavoring not to look at each other.

 

And of course that was when one of those unmistakable black vans from SHIELD pulled up.

 

“Great, here comes the G-Men,” Darcy muttered as Agent Coulson and three other suits piled out.

 

“Got your message, Dr. Selvig,” Coulson said as he started walking toward them, flanked by his groupies. “Sorry it took so long to respond. We’ve had kind of a busy week.”

 

“Your timing could have been a little better,” Erik said wryly in response. Coulson stopped about a foot from their vehicle and gave them all a look, though his expression was hard to read behind his standard issue secret agent-style sunglasses.

 

“Going somewhere?” he asked.

 

Thor appeared from inside the building, wearing his full armor and cape regalia, hammer in hand.

 

“Son of Coul,” he greeted, noticing the new arrival. “It is good to see you again.”

 

“Donald,” Coulson said, the tiniest bit of a sarcastic smirk appearing. “Always a pleasure. Dr. Selvig tells me you intend to be in town for a little bit longer this time?”

 

“Yes, that is so.” Thor nodded. “But I am afraid we’ve no time to talk, at present. My friends and I must be off.”

 

“I can’t really let you do that,” Coulson replied. Though he hadn’t made a move his agents had each slipped a hand inside their suit jackets, no doubt preparing to draw their guns. “I think we’ve put off this conversation of ours long enough.”

 

Thor actually chuckled. “You are a bold one,” he boomed. “Be glad I think too highly of you to be offended by your antics.”

 

He stepped back toward the van, and the next thing Darcy knew she was gripping the dashboard for dear life and trying not to scream, as she and the others found themselves unceremoniously hoisted into the air.

 

“I promise to speak with you the moment I make my return,” Thor finished, casually. “Good day.”

 

And then he bounded into the air over the head of Agent Coulson and the others, soaring off as he carried the van on his back.

 

Darcy recovered her wits just in time to blow a raspberry out the window. Though considering how small the figures of the agents had become, they probably didn’t see it.

 

*

 

Despite the fact that what they did had obviously been planned out in advance, Darcy found herself…ill-prepared, for the reality that was zooming along in a flying car.

 

When they landed in the woods, finding a public parking area for campers not far from the excavation site, it took Darcy a few minutes after she’d clamored out to feel steady on her feet and sure her knees weren’t going to start shaking.

 

Jane and Erik seemed to be having similar difficulties. It was hard to tell with Lethia who was standing beside the van, balancing herself against it with one hand, looking at least composed if a little wide-eyed.

 

Thor however was impatient to be on the move.

 

“Which way, Darcy?”

 

“Okay, okay, just give me a minute.” Darcy spun around, squinting, while she tried to reorient her compass directions. “Um…okay. It’s that way.”

 

They started walking. Even though she’d been pretty sure of herself, Darcy felt a slight twinge of relief as she spotted the familiar white tent and picnic tables.

 

The whole group, or what remained of it, was sitting outside. They all appeared in various states of shock if not outright dejection. At the sound of feet approaching, heads popped up, surprised at the recognition of Darcy and Lethia.

 

“Darcy, you made it.” Ruth rushed over to hug her, a much fuller embrace than when she’d arrived the first time. Now she wrapped her arms around Darcy’s neck, squeezing for assurance. “You did come, after all.”

 

“I said I would, didn’t I?” Darcy pulled back and looked around. Garrett had gone to Lethia, who’d managed to put him off by going to hug Grace and Amanda instead. Erik and Dr. Rubens were shaking hands and introducing themselves politely. “I take it things haven’t gotten much better since we talked.”

 

“No,” Grace blurted. Her eyes were red, her face tear-streaked and grubby behind her glasses. “If anything they’ve gotten worse.”

 

“The cops still can’t find anything,” Garrett chimed in. He shoved his hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched. “No signs of foul play. No signs of their missing guys, either, which I kind of think counts as a sign of foul play, but hey. I’m not a sheriff.”

 

“How is Lindsey?” Lethia asked, quiet.

 

Amanda hugged herself and grimaced, shaking her head. “They don’t know if he’s going to be able to walk again.”

 

“Still, he’s the lucky one.” Rubens rubbed at his forehead. “I saw what was left of the others, when they pulled them out from under that rock. Bodies so crushed they almost looked…withered.”

 

 Grace buried her face in her hands with a sob. Amanda held her firmly by the shoulders.

 

The doctor continued, shaking his head, “Poor Kevin. And god, Jeanne…she was so looking forward to telling the world about this…”

 

“She still can,” Jane said, firmly. “You can still finish her work, publish on her behalf.”

 

“I fully intend to. It’s the least I could do for her.” Rubens laughed bitterly. “Assuming they ever let us out of here.”

 

“Have there been any…” Erik hesitated, obviously not sure how to word it. “…odd happenings, since the accident?”

 

Amanda, Garrett and Rubens looked at each other, shaking their heads.

 

“No,” Garrett said. “Not that I can think of. Like what?”

 

“Anything.” Thor stepped forward. Their eyes got a little bigger as they took him in, heads tilting back to look up at him. “Anything at all that would seem the slightest bit unusual to you. The woods being unnaturally silent. Someone being here who is not supposed to be.”

 

Grace lifted her face from her hands. “Lindsey said something.”

 

Amanda made another grimace, this one pained, and tried to shush her. “Grace…”

 

“He did,” she insisted. She tugged out of her friend’s grasp slightly, addressing the others. “When they put him in the ambulance to take him away. He could barely speak, they already had him on pain meds-”

 

“He was delirious, Grace,” Rubens admonished her lightly.

 

She kept going, undeterred. “But I heard him saying, ‘Watch out for her’.”

 

“‘Her’?” Darcy frowned. “Who is ‘her’?”

 

“I don’t know. He just kept saying it over and over again, like he thought it was really important.”

 

Jane murmured in an aside to Thor, trying not to let those from the dig hear her, “Do you think that could be our…sorcerer?” It sounded like she had a hard time getting the word out, still unused to the whole magic idea.

 

“Perhaps,” Thor said back, not as quietly. Not that it really mattered. The others weren’t listening. He hefted Mjolnir slightly in his hand. “I am going to search the nearby area.”

 

“Um,” Darcy offered, uncertain, “do you want someone to come with you? Show you where the other site is and everything?”

 

She didn’t really want to go out there, especially if some sort of witch or monster was prowling around. But even still.

 

“No, but thank you,” Thor said, curing Darcy of her dilemma. “I will be fine. You should remain here, and guard the others.”

 

He marched off and vanished somewhat dramatically between two pines.

 

Ruth blinked. “Guard?” she repeated, blankly.

 

“He’s a little weird,” Darcy admitted. “But don’t worry. It’s kind of a long story, but if there’s one thing Thor is it’s capable. In fact, you might say he’s kind of like a superhero.”

 

“Well, whatever he is, Thor can take care of himself,” Erik stated. “Come on. We should probably get everybody inside. The sun will be going down soon and I heard on the radio it’s going to be cold tonight.”

 

It was crowded inside the main tent with so many people, it not having been designed to accommodate more than three or four at once. But no one wanted to leave for their own tents. Nobody wanted to split up.

 

Darcy got the feeling no one was going to be doing any sleeping that night. She sat near one of the corners, her arm draped silently around Ruth who had her knees hugged to her chest.

 

Lethia was on the other side of her. After a short time Darcy felt her reach out and take her free hand, squeezing it gently. Darcy didn’t let go.

 

Amanda and Grace left together to visit the bathroom. Even knowing it was likely an illusion, time seemed to stretch on eerily while they were gone. Every second felt like an hour – an hour too long they’d been about getting back, and Darcy could tell from the looks on everyone’s faces they were all starting to get worried.

 

There was a rustling from outside.

 

Lethia’s fingers gripped tighter and Ruth huddled in towards Darcy. Erik and Garrett had gotten to their feet. The latter grabbed a flashlight but didn’t turn it on, instead holding it backwards in his hand like he intended to wield it as a club.

 

“Who’s there?” Garrett called, warily. He crept towards the opening of the tent.

 

Thor suddenly appeared in the flap, sticking his head and one broad shoulder in. Garrett flailed back with a yelp.

 

“My apologies.” Thor frowned at him. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

 

“Did you find anything?” Jane asked, starting to get to her feet.

 

Thor shook his head. “No. Nothing.”

 

“Did you see Grace and Amanda?” Ruth asked, anxious.

 

“Amanda, she is the one darker of skin and hair, yes?” Thor frowned, surprised by the question. “I saw her standing near the edge of your encampment. I did not see her companion however.”

 

“What?” Ruth shot up, alarmed. She hurried out, Darcy and Lethia going after her – before they knew it, everyone was following in a line.

 

Amanda was by the tree line just as Thor said. She had her hands cupped to her mouth and was yelling Grace’s name into the woods, frantic.

 

“She was right behind me!” She whirled on them as soon as they reached her, not giving anyone a chance to speak. “She was right there, I swear to god-!”

 

“Amanda, calm down.” Rubens grabbed hold of her. “That’s not going to help anyone. Now, when did you last see her?”

 

“After I took my turn on the toilet, Grace went. As soon as she finished we started to head back. I started to get a bit ahead of her, but I could still see her out of the corner of my eye…then I turned my head, and she was just gone.”

 

“Should we go looking for her?” Garrett demanded.

 

“Go looking for whom?”

 

The entire group whirled as one, shocked, to find Grace standing there frowning at them.

 

“Grace,” Ruth exclaimed, relieved.

 

“Grace! Jesus Christ, girl, what the fuck.” Amanda raced to her. “Why would you scare me like that?”

 

“I’m so terribly sorry,” Grace told her. “I didn’t mean to worry you. I just got a little turned around.”

 

“A little turned around?” Darcy repeated, incredulous. “It’s a straight shot from here to there!”

 

“These woods can be awfully confusing at night,” Grace said calmly.

 

Amanda shook her head and sighed, reaching out to hug her. Grace gave a sympathetic smile and petted her friend’s hair with one hand, making an almost clucking, cooing sound that was probably meant to be reassuring.

 

“Just…don’t do that again,” Amanda ordered, practically sagging in relief.

 

The rest of the group was already walking back towards the tent, muttering things about false alarms. Except for Lethia.

 

Lethia stood there, frozen in place, staring at Grace and Amanda.

 

“Lethia?’ Darcy questioned, tentative. She reached for her.

 

“Something’s wrong. She’s not…” Her green eyes went wider. “She’s not right.” Her voice went from a murmur to a shout and she started to lunge past Darcy towards the other two girls. “No! Get away from her!”

 

Darcy automatically caught onto and held her, not sure what the hell was going on.

 

“Lethia, what are you-”

 

“No!”

 

And then Amanda screamed. Darcy whipped her head around.

 

Grace was smiling coolly, one arm still wrapped around Amanda’s waist. The other held a knife that looked like it was made of bone, the blade so thick and wide it was more like a stake. Darcy could see it pretty clearly, considering it’d been stabbed through Amanda’s ribcage and out through her back.

 

“Grace,” Amanda stammered, lost. “What…what are you…why?”

 

Grace tilted her head, reaching to stroke Amanda’s cheek. “It’s all right. I have you, now.”

 

Instinctively Amanda flailed, trying to get away. She struck Grace with her knee, forcing the other woman to pull back. The knife slid out with a sick wet sound. But then Grace grabbed hold again in a crushing grip – Amanda wailed as her arm snapped like a twig.

 

Garrett rushed over, getting Grace by one of her blonde pigtails. He yanked and successfully dragged her off of Amanda.

 

Jane and Rubens ran to the injured woman, dropping to their knees as they laid her out on the ground. Thor appeared and at Jane’s direction gathered Amanda easily up in his arms – he started carrying her back toward the tent.

 

Garrett kept walking, bringing the attacker further away from her intended victim.

 

“I don’t think so, you-” His voice died away in shock as he pulled too hard and Grace’s hair came off in his fist.

 

But not just her hair. Her entire face.

 

Garrett stopped, staring wordlessly down at what he held in his hand: a misshapen, deflated piece of skin with a full head of hair attached. It looked like a rubber Halloween mask.

 

Except Halloween masks weren’t usually red and sticky on the inside.

 

Darcy was going “Oh god, oh god” before she even realized it. Garrett made a strangled sound and the thing slipped from his fingers, dropping to land by his feet.

 

He turned to look back at ‘Grace’ – who had changed into a completely different woman, taller and dressed all in dark clothes with black hair and unearthly pale skin. A thin layer of blood covered her face.

 

With a growl, her hand snaked out, seizing Garrett by his throat.

 

“Now I’ve got you,” she intoned. She bared a set of fangs with a hiss.

 

Rubens shouted “No!” and rushed to defend his student. Easily the strange woman backhanded him with her free arm, hurling him away.

 

He flew several feet through the air landing on one of the excavation pits. Rubens moaned as the tarp crumpled around him.

 

The woman was now lifting Garrett up, his toes dangling above the ground. There was a strange howling sound as she opened her mouth wide, and she sucked a light off of Garrett into her waiting maw.

 

“Get Thor!” Erik had gone to Rubens, checking him – at least it looked like he was still alive. “Darcy, get Thor! Now!”

 

But Darcy couldn’t move. She felt rooted to ground with horror. She could still feel Lethia, now shaking in her arms, and from far away it sounded like Ruth was screaming.

 

Garrett was…dissolving. Bit by bit his body was collapsing in on itself and fading away, a look of agony on his face as he hung there, helpless, more of the light being drained into the woman’s mouth.

 

Darcy’s voice finally broke free – it wrenched itself up from her throat with such force she felt scraped raw in the process.

 

Thor!” she cried. “Thor, help!”

 

Before her very eyes Garrett ceased to exist.

 

Thor had burst out from the tent, hammer raised already over his head, the ground actually vibrating from his pounding feet. But it was too late.

 

The dark woman held out her hands, as if to emphasize she held nothing. Like it was a magic trick. Like she was mocking them.

 

Thor swung his weapon heavily at the woman – she jumped back, leaping out of the way. Then she turned around and dashed off into the woods, turning invisible quickly in the branches and thick underbrush. Thor chased after her, cape flapping in the night air like a red flag, before he too was gone from sight.

 

“Everybody, back inside.”

 

Erik had dragged Rubens up, managing to hold the man in an upright position by throwing one of the doctor’s arms over his shoulders. Unconscious, Rubens’ head lolled, and blood trailed from his nose beneath broken glasses.

 

Darcy spared one last glance into the woods, but she saw nothing at all.

 

*

 

Thor made no effort to move quietly as he tore through the forest, branches snapping and leaves rustling beneath his feet.

 

His senses were heightened, his body readied and wary for any movement, any sign of attack. He could just make out a dark shape flitting amongst the trees before him. Thor assumed it was the sorcerer. He kept following.

 

Eventually the tree cover broke. Thor found himself in an open clearing by a small hill, even the night’s darkness bright to his eyes after the gloom of the woods.

 

He looked back and forth, intently, but could see no sign of his foe.

 

“Where are you?” he swore aloud, voice thunderous. “Show yourself and face me, you coward! I demand it, in the name of Asgard!”

 

“So you are an Aesir,” a low voice said. Thor spun to find the strange hooded woman standing atop the hill in front of him, a short distance away.

 

She smiled at Thor thinly, hands placed on her hips. “Though I suppose I should have guessed it anyway from the way you run about, smashing and bellowing. Oh yes – recognizable traits for a son of Asgard.”

 

Eyes half-lidded she tilted her head to peer at Thor, considering.

 

“I wonder just how powerful you really are.”

 

Thor assumed that remark was meant to be mockery but for once he did not react with anger. He was too unsettled by the strange look in her eyes. They seemed almost…hungry.

 

“I will gladly show you all the might of my strength,” Thor promised her, and was unnerved further when she wasn’t at all threatened by that – in fact, her smile grew.

 

He took a few steps forward and was almost immediately halted when he hit something soft with the toe of his boot.

 

Thor looked down. There was a grim twist in his stomach as he realized he beheld a human body.

 

He recognized the clothes as the same ones worn earlier by one of the mortals at the camp – Grace, her name had been. But he didn’t have to check to see if the poor girl was alive or dead.

 

Her entire head, everything from the neck upwards, had been skinned.

 

“You took her face,” Thor said with a mixture of anger and horror, understanding. “You used magic to steal her form and then attempted to infiltrate the camp in your disguise.”

 

The sorceress smiled, spreading her hands in a posture oddly reminiscent of a bow.

 

“Indeed I did. Though I would say there was very little about it that was ‘attempted’.”

 

Thor pointed at her, enraged. “You are a caster of darkest magic, and a murderer! It was all your doing, wasn’t it? All the deaths in these woods have been at your hands.”

 

She gave a humorless laugh. In that moment, something about her sounded completely unhinged. “More than even you know.”

 

He gave a wordless roar and began striding towards her up the hill.

 

“It was you who transgressed against my brother Loki, and stole his memories away!”

 

At long last, her expression fell from one of triumph and indifference. She frowned at his words.

 

“Your brother? The little spell-caster was your brother?” She took a step back from Thor, and actually hissed in what sounded like annoyance. “So then you are also a son of King Odin.”

 

“Yes!” he declared, in a resonant tone, “I am Thor Odinson, first prince of Asgard, wielder of Mjolnir and heir to the throne, defender of the nine realms! And whoever you are, I will make you pay for your actions, and your crime against my family.”

 

“It figures,” the woman muttered, still sounding aggravated. “It only figures.” Pausing she gave another look at Thor, taking him in.

 

Finally, she remarked, with derision, “Well. At least you look like your father.”

 

Thor felt the stinging indignation on his brother’s behalf. With a growl he lunged at her, hammer raised for an attack.

 

She moved quicker than he’d expected – not any faster than those he was used to sparring with on Asgard, but certainly more than he’d expected from a human. He threw Mjolnir at her and she dodged out of the way. Thor spun as she moved behind him, keeping her in his sights.

 

He turned just in time to see her summon a long blade into her hands. He pulled back as she swung at him. The first strike only just missed his head, close enough to feel his hair ruffle. Undeterred she brought the sword upwards again for a second attack, carrying through on her momentum.

 

Thor evaded again but gave a shocked cry as the blade glanced off his armor near one shoulder, and he could see the thin crack where it had actually gotten through.

 

“What trickery is this?” he demanded, stunned. His armor had been forged by the most talented smiths in his father’s kingdom. Asgardian metal was not made to give with anything like ease.

 

His assailant did not answer him. She merely smirked, cruelly, eyes seeming to flash.

 

Thor raised his hand and Mjolnir flew back to him. Lifting the hammer high overhead he brought it down to hit the ground, shaking the earth beneath them.

 

With a surprised squawk the sorceress lost her footing, knocked backwards, and she tumbled over the side of the hill out of sight.

 

Thor smiled grimly as he walked in the direction she’d fallen, ready to finish things.

 

But when he looked down his opponent was nowhere to be seen. He peered into the ravine, searchingly. There was no sign. It was as if she’d vanished into the air.

 

Thor took a step down the incline. His head craned from side to side.

 

It made no sense. Where could she possibly have gone to? And how could she disappear so fast?

 

No matter how hard he looked he saw nothing. Only the grass and the dirt, spotted intermittently with shadows even blacker than the rest of the night.

 

He felt a chill down his spine, the hairs on the back of his neck rising. Something was wrong. Thor took another step, gripping the short handle of his weapon tight.

 

And then all of a sudden the sorceress was in front of him – she shot up from the ground, seeming to rise right out of it. One minute there was nothing, the next she was there, right on top of him. Gripping Thor’s neck in one hand, her bony fingers clenching with astonishing strength.

 

Thor choked, coughing. Did she mean to squeeze the very life out of him? Or did she intend to lift him up and throw him, as one would a child’s toy?

 

Normally he would’ve considered the idea laughable – that a mortal so much smaller than he could handle him in such a way. But he was beginning to have difficulty doubting she could do anything.

 

Still holding him by the throat she leaned in, mouth parting, almost as if she planned to kiss him.

 

Whatever her intent Thor had no desire to find out. With his free hand he struck her hard in the torso, forcing her off.

 

With a grunt she was shoved back, stumbling.

 

“Bah! Odinson, you’re more trouble than you are worth to me,” she cursed, livid. Her sword leapt to her hand and she swung it pointlessly. It made a shrill sound as it sliced against the wind, venting her ire. “Just like the other one!”

 

“Why did you attack Loki?” Thor shouted at her, shaking Mjolnir in a threatening manner. “For what reason did you bind my brother with your enchantments?”

 

“Because he was off-limits to me and thus, worthless,” she spat. “Just like you.”

 

Lifting her head again she met Thor’s eyes coldly.

 

“But the others still at the encampment are not.”

 

Thor understood at once what she was saying. Darcy, and the others she had worked with, and Erik…

 

And Jane.

 

“No!” he roared.

 

The sorceress had already darted past him, running back in the direction from which they’d come. Thor raced after her, his heart thrumming inside his chest.

 

He would not let her hurt his allies, his friends, the ones he had sworn to protect.

 

He would not let her lay so much as one finger on Jane. He would die first.

 

But not before he had used every power he had fighting against her.

 

As he ran Thor began to spin Mjolnir over his head in a circle, the air whistling as he whipped the hammer’s head around, faster and faster.

 

Soon the view of Mjolnir was nothing but a blur, just the vague shape in a loop that moved at the end of his arm. And above in the sky, clouds gathered – rolling, dark clouds that rumbled with a promise as the wind rose and the air began to cool.

 

Thor, god of thunder, was bringing the storm to him.

 

The dark woman paused in her flight to look back, bemused, eyes wide. The wind tore viciously at her clothes, hair whipping across her face, hood torn from her head.

 

Good. A still target, in one place, made it all the easier.

 

With a low guttural cry Thor brought his hammer down, bicep flexing as if he intended to throw it. Instead he merely held himself with his arm outstretched, pointing at the foe that stood not ten feet away.

 

A single bolt of lightning crackled down, striking the sorceress directly in a blinding burst of white light.

 

She had not even time to scream.

 

Thor only stayed long enough to wait for the lightning’s illumination to fade, to take in the smell of freshly-split ozone and charred flesh. Then he turned to march back towards the camp, wanting nothing more than the reassurance of seeing Jane’s face. Of knowing, for certain, she was safe.

 

If he had stayed any longer, he might’ve seen the blackened, twisted body of the one he thought he’d surely slain rise back to its feet.

 

He might have seen the torso shudder as the skin regrew, as the entire left arm that’d been destroyed regrow itself, starting with the bone outwards.

 

He might have watched as the mouth reformed from blistered lips, the eyes lost their milky sheen, and the hair changed back into a thick dark curtain.

 He certainly would have noticed as the sorceress reformed herself completely into something that was dangerous once more, and then snarled, before disappearing into her shadow.

 

Thor would find out all about it after the fact however. After all, she was headed his way.

 

*

 

The ground rumbled as Odin led his company in a rapid gallop across the land, through hills and fields and into the wood without ever halting.

 

In full armor the king rode, teeth set in a line so grim his lips were forced back in a snarl, the reins tight in his fists. Alongside his men came also Brynhild and her warriors, the milk-white steeds they’d been gifted beating the ground with their hooves in time.

 

The horses…Odin could not help it as his mind drifted to his kinsman Ve. Of Ve, and his blinded adoration for the one that had proved his downfall.

 

After much searching they had found what remained of once-gallant Ve’s body. Selene had tied the man, still living, behind her horse – the very same black mount that Ve had given her, another token of his love. Then she’d bound ropes woven of briars to the animal’s hindquarters, the thorns pricking and forcing it to run without stopping.

 

And Ve, stripped of strength by his own misplaced if heartfelt desire, had been dragged to death in the dirt.

 

Odin had fallen to his knees over the broken, ruined remains, wailing to the sky of Midgard and the other eight skies beyond his anguish. For no one in his right mind could’ve doubted at that moment the king’s right to grieve.

 

The horse had stood frothing, shaken, destroyed by how it’d been made to run, and at length Odin rose to his feet to put it down himself.

 

An act of mercy, not vengeance, for against it he bore no ill will – it was only the instrument in Ve’s death. What had happened was not its fault.

 

Ve, his sentimental, earnest friend. His brother-in-arms. Murdered, given a cruel death unfitting him as a warrior.

 

Ve and Vili: his two oldest friends. Both cut down by the one who called herself Selene.

 

There had been nothing of Vili to find, nothing to honor with a funeral as at least there’d been with Ve. But Odin knew his second friend was also dead. The moment a devastated, shrieking Brynhild had brought to their attentions what was of Sigurd’s body, Odin had understood.

 

Sigurd’s form had withered and shrank like a piece of dried fruit, little left but skin and dust that clung to brittle bones. His youth, his energy, his very life had been drained away.

 

Had been eaten away. Odin found his suspicions proved right in more chilling way than he could’ve ever thought. Selene was a monster that fed on the life force of others.

 

In her greed, in her lust for power, she’d killed his two brothers. She’d killed Sigurd; the mortal Odin had took under his wing and fought alongside with pride and affection.

 

For this, she would die that day. His honor and his heart could bear no less.

 

At the head of their convoy alongside him rode Brynhild, hair streaming wildly beneath her helmet. Her sword was already drawn, clenched in her fist as if she could not wait to use it.

 

Distantly Odin hoped that vengeance would do its part to still her fury, calm her grief. That and the eventual passing of time.

 

But he had seen the look in Brynhild’s eyes as they’d burned Sigurd’s body, the way she stared into the flames. Odin could not help but feel that everything in Brynhild that was mortal, that could love, had died that day.

 

It was the least he could do for his ally to send Selene with it.

 

Before long they’d reached the clearing where Selene made her home, but when they did they were in for a great surprise. There was no sign of Selene’s dwelling. Odin could sense the magic of the land had been tampered with, destroyed.

 

Selene was gone.

 

A horrified cry rose up among the warriors, mortal and Asgardian alike.

 

“The village!”

 

Immediately they turned and raced back towards it, swifter than they’d moved the first time if such a thing were possible. But Selene vanished from the land so completely, had somehow moved past them without being detected. Stood they any chance of beating her there at all?

 

The answer, it turned out to be, as Odin caught the first glimpse of smoke rising from atop the village’s huts, was no.

 

The women kept riding, frantic now for their people they had left behind, and Odin kept on with them. The village had only just begun to burn, he could see. Maybe it was not too late.

 

And then something went cold inside him as he saw that Selene stood before them, at the edge of the village, waiting.

 

She was not alone: in one arm she held a powerless, frightened Gudrun, hands bound behind her back. And in the other she clutched a thick bone knife, its blade long and curving.

 

As Selene saw them coming towards her, as they were close enough for them to make out her face, and her theirs…she smiled.

 

It was a heartless, destructive smile.

 

Odin hefted Gungnir to his side, readying to throw his enchanted spear, even as something told him he was already too late.

 

“Sister!” Gudrun cried.

 

“No!” Brynhild screamed.

 

Selene stabbed Gudrun through the heart. Blood burst through her dress – Selene yanked her blade out again, it dripping wetly in her hand as she let Gudrun’s body drop, limply, to the ground.

 

And then the sorceress turned and simply walked away, sparing one glance over her shoulder, full of disdain.

 

Odin brought his steed to a halt and dismounted. He stood there as the mortal women rushed into their burning houses – knowing that inside they would find that their husbands, brothers, and children were already dead.

 

He watched from a distance as Brynhild cradled her sister in her arms, sobbing.

 

They would search for as many days after as they liked. None of them would ever see Selene again.

 

*

 

Darcy and Ruth were on the ground, hands clutched together like they were each other’s lifelines.

 

Ruth breathed in and out audibly, a shaky whimpering sound, as if she were constantly on the verge of crying or breaking down in hysteria.

 

Darcy however made no noise at all. It was all she could do to sit there, feeling cold, rigid, staring blankly at everyone and everything around her.

 

Rubens was stretched out toward the back of the tent, still unconscious. The damage to him didn’t seem to be too severe, though he may’ve had some broken bones – he groaned in pain whenever they tried moving him.

 

Erik knelt near the doctor, trying frantically to get enough reception to reach help on his phone, cursing as he punched buttons again and again.

 

Lethia sat at the one of the tables, fingers laced absently, her face half-hidden beneath her hair. There was an odd look in her eyes, fixated yet unfocused, as she gazed ahead.

 

Darcy watched with a distant sort of surprise as Jane tended to Amanda, packing her wound and binding it tightly. The other woman mumbled something, head lolling.

 

“Shh, be quiet now,” Jane told her, eyes never leaving what she was doing. “You can save it for later, whatever it is. Right now I need you to be quiet and still. Okay? Just…relax. Rest.”

 

Amanda stopped trying to talk. Jane leaned forward, head bent as she pressed an ear to her chest.

 

“What…” Darcy’s mouth had gone dry without her realizing it; she swallowed and licked her lips before continuing. “What’re you doing?”

 

“Listening to see if her lung’s been perforated,” Jane explained, holding the same position with an expression of concentration. After another three seconds she was apparently satisfied by whatever she heard and pulled back. “It doesn’t sound like it, though. She’s lucky. That knife already just missed her spine.”

 

As Jane spoke she was already working with Amanda’s broken arm – trying to put it back into place best she could with the limited supplies of a camping first aid kit, it looked like.

 

Darcy stared at her, bemused. “How do you know how to do that kind of stuff?” She didn’t think it was just from watching a lot of episodes of House or Grey’s Anatomy.

 

“Oh.” Jane’s eyes met hers, briefly. “I, um, went to nursing school for a little while. Just about a year.” She gave a faint, distracted laugh. “I went through this period where I guess I was afraid of ending up too much like my dad. But eventually I realized I’d still be interested in physics, no matter what I tried to do, so…”

 

She trailed off as she did something to Amanda’s arm that resulted in a popping sound and an exhale of pain.

 

“Sorry.” Jane winced. “I’m trying to be gentle, I promise.”

 

“I didn’t know that,” Darcy said feebly, surprised by this new information about her boss and, she supposed, fire-forged friend. “That’s cool, though.” She sniffled, absently, running one hand through her tangled hair. “My mom’s an RN too. Well, she used to be. She’s semi-retired now. She’d rather be helping take care of her grandkids.”

 

Amanda was moaning again: “Grace…” Jane tried shushing her but she kept going, the words half-formed. “Grace…she’s dead…isn’t she…?”

 

Darcy and Jane exchanged a look. Had Amanda actually realized her attacker was somehow disguised as Grace, or was she so in shock she couldn’t remember what happened properly?

 

Either way, Darcy figured just about anything was better than having to think your own friend tried to kill you.

 

“Yes,” she said softly, leaning forward to try and meet the other woman’s eyes. “I’m really sorry, Amanda. I know you guys were really tight.”

 

Amanda only gave a pained whimper and fell into silence, squeezing her eyes closed. Darcy didn’t know what else to say so she left her alone.

 

Ruth nudged her. “That wasn’t Grace who stabbed her,” she mumbled feverishly. “It was something else. And Garrett…what happened to him? It was like he just-” Her voice broke and then she stared at Darcy. “What the hell is going on?”

 

Darcy swallowed. “I’m not entirely sure.”

 

It was only half a lie. She probably had a better idea than Ruth, but that didn’t mean she really understood it.

 

Ruth was about to say something else. But then both their attentions were caught by Lethia abruptly moving, when she’d been unnervingly still since almost the moment they’d set foot back inside the tent.

 

She straightened up, lifting her head as she looked towards the tent flap, her green eyes turned to deep-set jade by the dark.

 

“Someone is coming.”

 

Darcy held her breath as she and Ruth squeezed each other tighter. They, Jane and Erik all followed Lethia’s example and stared nervously at the door.

 

The footsteps that came soon after were loud, heavy. A familiar voice called out, “Jane?”

 

Thor,” Jane exclaimed, sagging with relief.

 

“It’s all right, Jane! You may all come out now. All is well, and I-”

 

But Thor cut off as there was a strange whistling sound, followed by a sharp noise that Darcy couldn’t even begin to identify.

 

The five people still awake inside the tent exchanged looks of confusion, worry, and fear.

 

They heard Thor bellow in pain and surprise as something struck him.

 

You! How can this be? I thought-” And then Thor stopped speaking as he was hit again.

 

Jane leapt up as what sounded like a fight was already beginning to rage outside. “Thor!” She ran to him.

 

“Jane, wait!” Erik cried. Both he and Lethia were out of the tent right behind her.

 

Darcy spun around, gripping Ruth’s wrists. “Ruth, stay here, okay?” she commanded firmly. “Just…stay right here, with the others, and don’t come outside!”

 

“But-” Ruth began, flummoxed, her mouth hanging open.

 

But Darcy was already on her feet, running after the others.

 

Outside she only got a few feet away from the tent before she froze immediately. In the clear area that was the site, not far from the trees, stood Thor and the strange dark woman, glaring at each other with intensity.

 

Blood trickled from the corner of Thor’s lips. He stood with his feet apart, bracing himself, his hammer’s handle in both hands.

 

The woman snarled at him. There was an odd smell in the air, like ozone. It looked like smoke was rising faintly from her fingertips.

 

“How do you still live?” Thor demanded of her.

 

She gave a humorless, low laugh – and something about the sound of it made Darcy’s skin crawl.

 

“Practice,” the sorcerer snapped. She made a gesture and a white hot blast flew from her palm towards Thor – he raised Mjolnir in front of him, using the head as a shield, his feet leaving furrows in the dirt as he bounced her attack back at her.

 

She dodged, the blast leaving a charred patch of earth.

 

Darcy glanced over at the others. Erik had grabbed onto Jane by the arm, holding her back so she couldn’t run towards Thor, as she still seemed half-determined to from the desperate look on her face.

 

Lethia stood halfway between Darcy and them, hanging back from the battle. Her shoulders were squared, her fists clenched by her side, her eyes wide as she watched.

 

Darcy couldn’t eye them for long though. She looked back at the two fighting. At Thor, and the one that was attacking him.

 

What was she? She was strong enough to take on Thor and what he could dish out, and she had killed who knew how many people, one of them right in front of Darcy’s eyes. She still wasn’t even sure what that woman had done to Garrett; all she knew was that it’d destroyed him.

 

Rubens said the bodies of Fournier and Kevin had looked “withered”. Was it the same thing?

 

It was, Darcy thought sickly, almost like she was consuming them.

 

Thor rushed at the woman, ready to strike her. She raised her arms over her head crossing them to block an attack from his fist. She pushed Thor back by kicking him with her boot in the ribs, shoving him away.

 

When she whirled around for another blow, spinning into him, he grabbed her in one hand by the scruff of her neck and threw her, hurling her in the direction of the trees.

 

Instead of crashing down though she managed to stop herself, reaching out to grab a branch and using it as a slingshot to redirect the momentum. She rolled forward onto the ground and then kept running.

 

She was moving in a path diagonal to Thor, heading like a missile straight for the rest of them.

 

Erik gave a wordless cry of alarm, futilely trying to move back. Jane screamed. Thor ran toward them, horrified, his hammer raised as if he intended to throw it.

 

Darcy could feel her hands going to clutch over her mouth, her legs shaking like they were about to collapse.

 

She didn’t think Thor was going to make it in time. How many of them could the woman kill, before he finally stopped her? Would she start with Jane and Erik, or would she go instead with Darcy and-

 

Lethia. Darcy’s eyes snapped to her in sudden realization, temporarily having forgotten her but now afraid for her friend.

 

Lethia was staring straight at what came towards them, her face gone white. Darcy could understand perfectly what was behind the desperation in her eyes, because she felt something similar herself.

 

If only I could stop this. If only there was something I could do. If only there was anything…

 

All of a sudden Lethia gave a cry, of what sounded like pain, and confusion.

 

Her eyes were glowing – no, Darcy realized; it wasn’t just her eyes. Lethia’s whole body was glowing with an aura of acid green, getting brighter and brighter. She half-crouched, hunching in on herself as she hugged arms to her chest.

 

The woman in black stopped running and actually shied back as she saw what was happening, eyes wide.

 

It was like there was an explosion. The light grew so intense it blotted out Lethia’s form completely. Darcy had to turn away, shielding her eyes.

 

When she looked back, her jaw dropped open in dismay.

 

Lethia was gone. In her place stood a man, of similar build, wearing an intact version of the clothes Lethia had when Darcy first met her.

 

But he was no stranger. Darcy still recognized those facial features, that body posture.

 

He blinked a few times, slow, seemingly in a daze. Then his eyes drifted over to Thor.

 

“Brother,” he said, voice low in his throat.

Chapter Text

Loki felt not unlike he was going to explode.

 

It was too much to take. It was all too much. He hugged himself loosely, hardly aware of his own limbs; his legs felt strangely hollow, as if he could barely stand.

 

One moment he had almost nothing – no sense of self, no past, no purpose. And the next-

 

She didn’t know what was going on, only that she was frightened and worried and in terrible danger.

 

That her friend and the people that’d tried to be kind to her were in trouble.

 

And she wanted to help; she wanted desperately to do something, anything. Why couldn’t she do something?

 

Didn’t she have power? Wasn’t she supposed to be capable of extraordinary things?

 

If only she could remember. In that moment she wanted nothing more, than with every fiber of her being to remember…

 

The back of her neck began to burn. Her vision started to glow. Something was happening to her body, it felt wrong, and it twisted.

 

She cried out. And then-

 

The spell that’d been cast on him broke. He regained his Asgardian form. He remembered his true self.

 

Knowledge and awareness had rushed on him all at once in a flood.

 

Loki stood in place, incapable of much anything else, trying to put the pieces together as he fought to relearn how to breathe. His skull felt crammed with memory. His heart was choked by emotion, thudding in his chest.

 

He was in a fog, numb, struggling to shape the inside of his mind into order. His eyes cast about, recognizing with different context now Dr. Selvig, Jane Foster, Darcy…

 

His gaze landed on Thor and he croaked out, “Brother.” Not out of affection but as a lifeline, some sense of stability to cling to.

 

Yes, he remembered who Thor was, now. More than he could say two minutes ago.

 

Thor stared back, heated.

 

 “Loki,” he said quietly, for him, voice filled with relief. And some notable triumph as well – no doubt he was pleased, to be proved right all along in identification of his brother.

 

Loki would’ve rolled his eyes. Or laughed. Or spat at him in derision – the problem was, he was having trouble deciding what to feel about anything.

 

The others stared at him as well. Jane Foster with faint wariness but mostly surprise, Dr. Selvig with an expression Loki currently was unable to read. He hoped not recognition. He thought he’d covered his traces too well for that.

 

Darcy was gaping. Her eyes behind her glasses were oddly wide, and the rest of her face was a mask of complete shock and confusion.

 

It seemed almost as if she, too, was as lost as Loki felt.

 

But there was yet another there, Loki recalled. He turned his head ever so slightly, to catch a glance of the sorceress who still stood a few feet away.

 

Selene.

 

She looked back at him darkly, scowling. Upset the curse she’d put on him had broken, no doubt.

 

Loki felt his first brush with clarity, in the white-hot rage he felt all of a sudden as he gazed at her.

 

You…” he ground out, arms dropping to his sides as his hands turned to fists. “It was you…who…”

 

But his attempts at forcing out the words were halted, interrupted by Selene herself as she made an impatient gesture – fingers moving as she began working some spell of attack.

 

Thor rushed in before she could complete it, getting between them and shoving into Selene with an aggressive yell.

 

Ever the protective big brother, Loki thought distantly with a mixture of hatred and fondness.

 

Undeterred Selene turned on Thor instead. They fell into a fight between the two of them – and even in his state it didn’t take Loki long to see that Thor was in trouble. That he might even be in danger of losing. They were matched in strength, or as matched as anyone could be with Thor, but Selene was swift, cunning.

 

Thor valued his honor in all things, and that honor was a weight around his neck. Selene was a dirty fighter – she used elbows, the pointed heels of her boots, even clawed with her fingernails where she had opportunity. She had no shame. The only thing she cared about was victory.

 

Loki winced automatically as Selene used her shadow to slip behind Thor, catching him by the hair and slamming his face into one of the nearby aluminum tables. She brought him in for another slam and the table gave underneath the weight of the assault, crashing to the ground. Thor bellowed as he lashed out, kicking her away from him before he climbed back to his feet.

 

Something else was wrong, and Loki’s eyes narrowed in consideration as he watched the two of them, frowning.

 

Thor wasn’t actually holding back, was he?

 

But that train of thought paused as Loki watched Selene hold out her hand, her sword appearing in a twist of grey and silver.

 

Thor called Mjolnir to his grasp with a lifted arm. He raised the hammer high in his fist, teeth bared as he strode to meet his opponent.

 

Selene wielded her blade two-handed, unhesitant as she rushed towards Thor, the sword readied for a slicing arc that would meet Mjolnir’s assault head-on when the weapon lowered.

 

Loki’s eyes bounced between Thor and Selene charging at one another. Between the two weapons about to collide: enchanted sword on enchanted hammer.

 

“Oh no,” Loki exclaimed.

 

He dove as far to one side away from the brawl as he could, crouching, head ducking as he pressed hands tight over his ears.

 

This was not going to end well.

 

Whatever could be said about Selvig, that he was unobservant was not it. The moment he saw Loki drop and processed it he threw himself to take cover as well, grabbing Jane and dragging her down with him. He even wrapped his arm around the woman’s head, shielding her.

 

Selvig reached his other arm out to tug at Darcy’s jacket, trying to pull her to the ground as well.

 

“Get down!” he yelled. “Darcy, get down and cover your ears!”

 

“What?” Reflexively as a result of his pulling, too confused to really resist, she ended up on her knees. But she still looked at the older man in puzzlement. “Why? What’s going on?”

 

“I’m not sure.” Selvig nodded in Loki’s direction. “But if he-”

 

He didn’t get a chance to finish that statement.

 

At that moment, Selene and Thor reached each other. He swung Mjolnir in a mighty downward arc. She sliced her sword swiftly up towards him. The two weapons met in the middle – two indestructible magics, each centuries old, each built to withstand and deal out so much power, crashing into each other with massive force.

 

There was a resounding clang as metal hit metal, but it was completely overshadowed by what happened next.

 

Loki believed the mortal term for it was a “sonic boom”.

 

The massive explosion of sound and energy shook the earth, the ricochet threatening to level the entire campsite. Thor and Selene were thrown apart in an instant, hurled back in opposite directions the entire length of the clearing. Loki shut his eyes as what felt like a physical blow struck him.

 

When the ringing faded from his ears and his teeth no longer felt like they were rattling against each other, he opened his eyes again and slowly got back to his feet.

 

Glancing around he saw a few trees had been leveled; half of the big tent had caved in. He had no idea what might’ve happened to the mortals inside. The three he could see nearby, however, were rolling about on the ground, groaning and disoriented.

 

The backlash had shaken Loki up quite a bit, but he was made of stronger stuff and had a faster recovery time. The impact probably had a very different effect on them.

 

Darcy he noticed was bleeding, and he was caught off-guard at the way his stomach briefly clenched in concern.

 

Loki quickly wrenched his head away. He had far more important things to worry about.

 

Turning around, he saw Thor pulling himself up from where he landed, shaking his head and stumbling at first as he took a few steps forward. Of course Asgard’s finest was back to normal within seconds however. By the time he reached where he’d been standing before, Thor was moving just fine.

 

No, not entirely fine, Loki realized. There was something wrong with the way Thor was holding his right arm. It didn’t appear to be broken and he saw no blood but his brother seemed unwilling to move it much, stiffly when he did, and Loki caught a grimace when Thor hefted Mjolnir’s weight in his fist. He must’ve landed on it wrong, or hit against something in his flight.

 

There was a low sound, and both of them turned to see Selene crawling back up with a groan, shoving broken tree branches out of the way as she got back to her feet.

 

Thor quickly shifted so that his injury was no longer obvious before she could look at him, though to hold it so must have pained him. But to let Selene know of the damage would be dangerous. Any fool could’ve understood that.

 

Wordlessly Selene and Thor eyed one another, expressions grim and wary.

 

Selene held her sword in one hand. She looked at the blade; her eyes darted over to Mjolnir, before back to her blade again.

 

“Well that is annoying,” she said with dark exasperation, lowering the sword though not sheathing it.

 

Thor said nothing but stayed where he was, watching her, ready to either attack or defend.

 

Both knew now that their weapons were effectively useless against one another – Mjolnir could not be broken, and neither could the enchanted sword. But, Loki realized, they could not afford to drop them either. The instant one did, it made them vulnerable to an assault from the other’s weapon, without any comparable defense.

 

It was all Loki could do at first to stand apart and watch, not truly part of this fight yet feeling drawn up in it anyway. Selene was still his enemy. Thor…well that was more complicated.

 

But for any number of reasons, it still did not profit him if Thor were to actually lose.

 

Tired of waiting, Thor charged at Selene, already adjusting for his weakened arm by leading with his left. Selene was able to block some of his attacks, and take what he dished out from the rest. Even with his armor he was still vulnerable in some places and Selene did what she could to pummel him.

 

Thor struck her across the face with a vicious backhand. She stumbled, and then actually responded by biting the back of the hand that had slapped her. Thor cried out in pain and surprise but it did not change the fact the sorceress had temporarily lost her footing. Using that to his advantage Thor was able to toss her away from him with ease.

 

The action though, strained his already injured shoulder – Thor hung back, resting his hand on it with a wince.

 

Selene was already recovering, and by now Loki was frantic. Why did Thor not press harder to finish her while she was down?

 

“Thor,” he hissed urgently. The only response he got was his brother staring at him, startled. “What are you doing?”

 

Thor opened his mouth in bemusement but before he could speak Selene attacked him again, and Thor whirled to engage her. Loki watched very closely the blows Thor chose to make, the areas he targeted.

 

 And at last he understood. But he was far from reassured.

 

Thor was trying to wear Selene down. Too wary of her speed and strength, he was trying to outlast and then finish her off, instead of throwing his energy into a head-on assault. It wouldn’t have been a bad strategy against probably any other mortal, but had Thor really failed to notice what a poor choice that was against the psychic vampire?

 

Had he missed the fact that she could heal any damage he managed to deal her?

 

Why was Loki even asking himself that question; he’d known Thor all his life. He knew exactly how far his older brother’s powers of observation went. In a nutshell: not very.

 

Loki grit his teeth to prevent a groan of vexation from escaping. Keeping a wary eye open for his chance, he slid a knife from his belt.

 

There – Selene lunged for Thor’s throat, the warrior already moving back to evade her. Loki hurled his dagger at Selene’s face and didn’t wait to see if his attack landed; he tackled Thor, dragging him bodily a good distance away.

 

He’d no idea why Selene hadn’t tried to feed on Thor yet, but the further they both kept from her, the better.

 

“Brother, what are you doing?” Thor demanded, trying to shove him off. Loki held on determinedly, keeping Thor down and back.

 

“Thor, look at her! Look!” he insisted, and both turned their heads to gaze back at Selene.

 

It was even better than Loki planned. He’d aimed for Selene’s face but she hadn’t bothered to duck, and the blade of the knife had gone straight into her eye.

 

Standing right next to Thor with arm still around him he could feel the other man’s breath falter in surprise as they watched Selene pull the dagger straight out, coated in her blood. Her expression was only one of anger, and the eye grew back in seconds.

 

Thor exhaled. “She heals,” he said softly, comprehending at last.

 

“Yes,” Loki confirmed. He dropped his arm but didn’t move away.

 

Neither of them had taken their eyes off Selene. They didn’t dare.

 

Loki leaned in, commanding in low urgency, “Do not let her get too close.”

 

Thor nodded. He did not ask why, he merely accepted the advice as the truth. Loki wasn’t sure whether to commend his reason and loyalty or feel derision for such trusting foolishness.

 

But there was no time for any of that, not now. Selene stretched out her arms, her fingers curled like claws as she ran at them.

 

Thor made a fist with his left hand; Loki shifted so that his body shielded Thor’s weakened shoulder, bringing both his hands together as he summoned up a spell.

 

They could live to destroy one another later, Loki figured. For now, the brothers would once more fight side by side.

 

*

 

Darcy was in a daze.

 

That seemed like such a cutesy, fluffy phrase really: “in a daze”.

 

When the reality was that she was lying on her elbows and knees on the ground, glasses missing, a ringing in her ears so loud she thought it was going to pop her head like a grape.

 

She felt like she’d been slugged in the chest. Her body seemed numb and disjointed, like all her nerve endings had been wrapped in cotton wool, which could probably be chalked up to sensory overload.

 

She crawled forward, grunting, on her forearms. Her vision was blurrier than it should’ve been, at first. Usually she could still see mostly fine without her glasses. But she had to find them, before they got kicked away or stepped on and smashed.

 

Her tangled hair fell across her face, blinding her even further. Her mouth tasted of blood and dirt.

 

Darcy finally felt her fingers close around a familiar pair of frames. Her hands trembled slightly in a way she couldn’t seem to control as she pressed her glasses onto her face.

 

She looked up, towards the rest of campsite, trying to figure out what’d happened. Trying to understand what the hell was going on.

 

Jane and Erik were nearby, Darcy almost sensed more than saw. They both were probably in about the same state, though Erik had managed to sit up and Jane was clutching her ears, slowly shaking her head. It looked like their mouths were moving but Darcy couldn’t hear anything over the ringing.

 

About thirty feet away Thor was still fighting the strange woman, only now he wasn’t at it alone. He’d been joined by…Loki, Darcy guessed she might as well get used to thinking of him as.

 

Thor’s brother. Another one from Asgard. It was a hard thing to wrap her head around.

 

Lethia was her friend. Darcy realized she had already been planning things to do with her, assuming somehow they were going to be parts of each other’s lives for a while – shopping trips and movie nights, maybe even a visit to the beach or the nearest outdoor swimming pool.

 

But Lethia basically didn’t exist anymore, did she? And it was hard to reconcile the polite, friendly if somewhat shy girl Darcy knew with the man she’d only heard about, but had sounded like he might be bad news.

 

Darcy squinted at first, and then less as her vision gradually improved again and lost the haze. She should’ve probably been paying attention to the whole fight but instead she found herself looking mostly at Loki. To see if she recognized any trace of the person she’d known for the past few days.

 

It was hard to do, especially from a distance. Darcy guessed the shape of the face was the same, some of the anatomical stuff (though obviously not everything), but that didn’t tell her anything about temperament or personality.

 

She couldn’t say if he had the same smile as Lethia. Not when since changing back, she hadn’t seen Loki smile even once.

 

Thor and his brother were fighting on the same side, maybe, but without looking at each other. Not that it appeared they needed to – it was obvious they’d done this before, in tune to each other’s motions after what was probably a really long lifetime of experience. An attack came toward Loki and Thor blocked it. Thor dodged and Loki was right there, moving into the gap with an assault of his own.

 

Darcy watched as a volley of green energy crackled and burst from the end of Loki’s outstretched fingertips. And that at least she recognized. It was similar to what Lethia had done, though there was nothing at all weak or half-formed about it now.

 

What had Thor said? That his brother was a “master of sorcery”? Darcy didn’t know squat about magic, but she could guess Thor’s description was right on the money.

 

She stood there, listless, watching the distant fight between the men and the dark-haired witch.

 

After a moment she was vaguely aware that someone was calling her name quietly. No, wait; actually it sounded like it was pretty close-

 

“…Darcy!” Ruth yelled again, snapping her back to reality as she turned her head and grasped her friend was practically standing on top of her.

 

Darcy pulled back, eyes crossing, her vision momentarily nothing but of red hair and the other woman’s wide intense eyes.

 

Ruth grabbed her by the forearms. “Darcy! Are you okay?”

 

“Ruth,” Darcy managed, still coming out of her fog, “what’re you doing here…?” She’d thought her friend was hiding inside the tent with Rubens and Amanda.

 

Ruth was breathless, dirty, and frantic. “What’s the matter with you? Your nose is bleeding!”

 

“Huh?” Darcy pressed fingers to the skin just above her lip, and they came away smeared with red. So that explained the taste in her mouth. “Oh.”

 

“Is it broken?” Ruth questioned, worried.

 

“No…no, I think it’s just bleeding.” She’d been turned around, her back to the fray now, and her eyes wandered away from Ruth to where Jane and Erik were standing past her.

 

It looked like they were better now too, both on their feet, though Erik was leaning on Jane a little.

 

“Darcy,” Ruth said yet again, forcing her attentions back. “Talk to me.”

 

“I thought you were gonna wait inside, with the injured people,” Darcy said to her, murmuring in a concerned sort of way. She didn’t want a chance of Ruth getting hurt – and she really didn’t want to have to explain things to her, any more than she had to.

 

“I heard that…sound. It was like an explosion. What was it?” Ruth’s head shook slowly from side to side as she gazed at her. “I could feel the ground shake and part of the tent came down on us.”

 

Her fingers tightened, gripping Darcy in a forceful sort of way. And Darcy knew from experience that now Ruth wasn’t going to be satisfied until she had what she thought were good answers.

 

“What the hell is going on?” Ruth’s voice was frightened, but that didn’t make her any less determined.

 

“I don’t know if I can explain,” Darcy began, which was the truth, really. Sometimes she hardly believed the insanity herself. And at the moment she was pretty lost.

 

A jumble of facts swam inside her head. Lethia was Loki, Loki was Thor’s brother, Thor was from another world, and none of that explained who the freak was that’d murdered all of their friends and was trying to off the rest of them.

 

All of a sudden, Jane screamed “Run!” at the same time she heard Erik shout “Look out!”

 

Darcy looked over her shoulder with a jerk.

 

Something huge was heading straight her way. Like a computer starting to grind down from being run too hard for too long, her brain seemed to fizzle before offering up the helpful identifier of ‘tree’.

 

A big tree, to be more exact. Darcy stared straight ahead and her eyes were filled with what looked like five feet across of trunk. One that was about to fall right on top of them.

 

Later she would never be sure if it was panic, or disbelief, or if she was still dazed at that point, her mind and body simply too overwhelmed by all that’d happened that night to process even one more thing quickly.

 

But whatever the reason, the result was that Darcy just stood there, staring up, even as a little voice in the back of mind said numbly, “If that lands on us, we’re both going to die.”

 

The next thing she was aware of after that was Ruth making a startled sound, a sharp intake of breath that trailed off in almost a yelp, and of Ruth shoving Darcy away as she stepped back herself.

 

Darcy went one way, pushed back into the dirt by Ruth. Ruth went the other, having successfully flung herself to safety and rolling away on her side. The oak hit the ground between them with a shattering thud.

 

After a moment Darcy pushed herself up, coughing in the cloud of dirt raised by the tree’s impact. She called Ruth’s name tentatively but couldn’t see her friend around the fallen tree. She scrambled up, walking on wobbling legs around so that she could see what had happened.

 

On the other side Ruth stood a short distance away, eyes closed and head bowed as she coughed violently into her fist, the dirt having aggravated her lungs as much it had Darcy’s. Other than that she was completely unharmed.

 

Darcy felt a crazed grin of relief split her face.

 

“Ruth…”

 

She trailed off, voice sticking in her throat, as the pale woman suddenly appeared right behind Ruth and grabbed her by the arm.

 

Her face a complete blank, she spun Ruth around to face her. Ruth sputtered protests and kicked, trying to free herself. When the woman latched a hand around the lower half of her face she started yelling in terror.

 

None of it made any difference.

 

“No,” Darcy mumbled, numbly. And then, “No!” she screamed, as the horror began to sink in. But it was too late.

 

Her friend crumpled up and split into vaporized particles right before her very eyes. With a draining roaring hiss Ruth’s energy vanished inside the gaping fangs into the blackness inside.

 

The monstrous woman barely gave Darcy a second’s glance as she seemed to wriggle down into a pool of shadow and vanish.

 

Jane and Erik were both rushing to her side but Darcy didn’t have anything to say to them. All she could do was hug herself, whimpering disbelievingly, as she stared at the vacant air. The woman was gone and so was her friend.

 

Ruth was gone.

 

*

 

Thor hadn’t meant to let the sorceress out of his sight. It merely happened.

 

He wasn’t entirely sure how. One moment he’d been locked with the woman, exchanging blows, and then she’d deflected a shot of balefire Loki had aimed at her, sending it straight into Thor’s face in the process.

 

Calculating wretch. Thor roared, and spun around, beating at his face with one hand until it was extinguished. He was singed but otherwise unharmed by the spell.

 

Opening his eyes again Thor whirled about, intently seeking his opponent. But he could not find her.

 

“Behind you!” Loki had yelled, pointing.

 

Thor looked to behold the sorceress standing next to a massive tree. Her sword was in one hand. The other rested purposefully against the trunk. There was a new, raw slash across the base of the tree where it’d been cut through.

 

Thor had just enough time to put it together when she shoved the tree hard, and it came flying at him with an unsurprisingly dangerous amount of force.

 

Thor dove out of the way – though Loki could no doubt be counted on to fend for himself, by instinct more than anything he seized his younger brother by his shoulder and dragged him along to safety.

 

The way Loki shoved his hand away after was familiar: annoyed, almost petulant.

 

The look on Loki’s face however was not: insulted fury that made his green eyes burn, and Thor took a step back, his hand fisting, a sour and unsettled feeling heavy in his stomach.

 

“I was only trying to-”

 

“I can fend for myself!” Loki snapped, his voice a vicious hiss. His mouth twisted into a sneer. “I would have thought you’d realized that by now, all considered.”

 

Thor remembered the Bifrost, the attacks by Gungnir wielded in Loki’s hands, the almost manic cries of “Fight me!”

 

Oh yes. Thor was well aware. “I am sorry-”

 

Whatever showed on his face it must’ve made his feelings, his thoughts too obvious, for Loki instantly swallowed back his rage, composing himself into a hardened blank again. “Now isn’t the time,” he said, curtly.

 

Thor wanted to make time, but Loki was right of course – they were in the midst of a battle.

 

And then they heard a woman screaming.

 

“Jane?” Thor reacted, alarmed. But no – that wasn’t right. It wasn’t her voice.

 

“Darcy,” Loki breathed, startled.

 

They ran forward and then stopped short as they caught sight of the sorceress again. She had Darcy’s companion, the red-haired woman in her grasp. And what she was doing to her…

 

Thor could scarcely believe it as the mortal turned to dust before his eyes.

 

For a moment he could not speak. It was all he could do to watch as Darcy collapsed and Jane and Erik tried comforting her.

 

“That was why you warned me to stay away from her,” Thor realized; he rounded on Loki, wide-eyed.

 

“Yes,” his brother confirmed.

 

“What is she?”

 

“Nothing you have ever heard of,” Loki muttered, but as Thor kept staring at him, he relented. “There are a few terms for it. The most…apt is ‘psychic vampire’. Selene draws strength and vitality by stealing the life force from others.”

 

“And killing them!”

 

“Most of the time, yes, it would appear so.”

 

“We must stop her!” Thor declared. “She’s a monster that must be destroyed! Where did she vanish to?”

 

“Behind you, fool.” It was not Loki’s voice but Selene’s that answered him. Thor had no idea where she had come from. But he spun around to witness her as she threw her sword at his head as though it were a spear.

 

It was an unusual tactic, to say the least. Thor pulled to the side and felt the very edge of the blade successfully glide past his face, drawing blood in a thin line across his cheek. The sword landed in the felled tree, burying itself halfway to the hilt.

 

Selene charged. As Thor braced himself to meet her she dove past him, grabbing hold of her weapon. She used it as a fulcrum, swinging herself around to kick Thor in the chest with both legs. He went down with a grunt.

 

He landed on his face in the dirt. Pain shot through his already wounded shoulder and Thor barely repressed a noise. Pushing himself back up on his hands, he saw Selene standing next to her sword, her back to it. Without looking, she smirked, placing her hand on the hilt.

 

It slid out into her grasp so easily it didn’t even look like she pulled – the blade moved not at all as if it’d been embedded in something so resistant as wood, and jumped into her hand.

 

Yet another part of the blade’s enchantment, Thor figured. It was impossible that it was driven in deep enough to support her weight one moment and loose enough to be easily removed the next.

 

An arc of green crackled through the air as one of Loki’s spells hit Selene. A spasm went through her body and the sword fell from her hand as she withdrew, injured, trying to find safety. Thor reached for it, thinking he could use such a powerful weapon against its owner.

 

Loki’s next ranged spell struck the back of his hand with a sizzle and Thor drew it back with a yelp, surprised. The aim was too good for it to have been accidental.

 

“Are you mad?” Loki shouted at him, irritated. “You know that sword is crafted with powerful magic! But it isn’t yours and it knows that; it would probably take your arm off!”

 

“Oh,” Thor said, suitably chastened. But what had he thought would happen, really? After all he was the only one who could wield Mjolnir.

 

Loki glanced over his shoulder, then back down at him. “Find some place to hide.”

 

And then he ran off into the forest.

 

Thor followed. Loki was not his enemy, no matter what had happened before between them. But the witch called Selene was.

 

Together, they could defeat her. Just as things were meant to be.

 

He heard voices, and just as Loki had told him to, Thor found a space behind a tree to hide. He peered out around the corner.

 

Loki stood in the middle of a small clearing, surrounded on all side by trees so densely packed it was as though their branches had been woven together. Selene was facing him, and she stalked towards him slowly.

 

“How long do you think you can keep this up?” Loki was asking her. “You’re burning through your power at a tremendous rate.”

 

He stood his ground calmly, gazing at her with an air of curiosity.

 

“Making yourself strong enough, fast enough to be on even footing with an Asgardian. I’m certain you think you have plenty of magic to spare right now, especially with what you’ve stolen from those mortals, but eventually you’re going to run out.”

 

Selene gave a harsh chuckle. “Eventually. You’re right. But I have more than enough, for the moment.”

 

Making a gesture with her right hand, she curled it into a fist as sinister electric blue energy twisted around it like serpents. Selene sucked in a rasping breath through teeth clenched with sudden ferocity.

 

“I am very good at conserving my energy, drawing it out. Making it last. I’ve had a lot of time to practice.”

 

She charged at Loki, ready to strike him down with the spell she carried curled in her hand. He made no move to evade or respond.

 

Small wonder as Selene rushed through empty air when she reached him, the illusion vanishing in a glimmering instant.

 

The magic fell from Selene’s hand as she dismissed it, wasted. Looking over her shoulder sharply she tried to figure out where the real spell-caster was hiding.

 

She started walking in a small cautious circle, looking searchingly into the woods around her all the while.

 

“Are you able to form doppelgangers that can actually speak, or did you merely throw your voice?” she asked the empty night with interest.

 

Loki’s answer came from somewhere close, but echoing enough it was impossible at first to discern exactly where.

 

“If you can’t tell for yourself, I see no reason why I should.”

 

Selene growled, either at his hiding or his obvious smugness. “So it’s to be hide and seek, is it?” With a snap of her fingers she held her sword again. She started approaching some of the trees. “So be it. I always win at this game. I am an excellent seeker.”

 

“How interesting. I always win as well. I’m an excellent hider.” It was amazing how Loki could keep his tone perfectly even and yet still sound like he was laughing at her. “This should be one for the record books.”

 

Thor had seen enough. With a battle cry he rushed out, seizing up a heavy fallen branch he could use as a weapon along the way. A poor substitute for his hammer, but he dared not use it while Selene had her sword drawn, knowing what would happen.

 

Lifting the improvised club overhead he bashed at Selene from behind. She took the first blow, stumbled, and then spun with ferocity to slice the branch in half as Thor brought it in another swing toward her head.

 

He stepped back as his weapon was suddenly gone but then struck at her with his bare arm. At her responding attack to his right shoulder Thor couldn’t help flinching in pain, and he saw her eyes light up as she realized he was injured. She readied to attack the spot again and he quickly retreated out of her reach.

 

Loki appeared behind him. “Silly me for neglecting to tell you to wait,” he said to Thor dryly.

 

“I have had enough of this!” Thor responded, angry. He turned to face Selene as he continued. “You insolent cow! How dare you attack ones such as us, mere mortal that you are! Do you not know that once upon a time you humans viewed us as gods?”

 

Selene stopped, her eyes wide. But it wasn’t with surprise, or fear. Not anything even close.

 

Her gaze was like ice, damning in its intense and empty coldness. She gave a mirthless bark of a laugh, so twisted it seemed to be clawing its way out of her throat.

 

Stupid little Aesir,” she exclaimed, low and hollow in intonation. “You have no idea, do you. I’ve seen whole nations rise and fall. I was worshipped as a god too, in ancient Rome. Mere mortal indeed,” she spat. “Your father still had both his eyes, when I met him!”

 

She pointed at them. Thor could feel Loki, gone completely still, at his side.

 

“I’m seventeen thousand years old, boy,” Selene declared. Her eyes gleamed manically. “How old are you?”

 

And then in the stunned paralysis that followed her pronouncement, she charged.

 

Before Thor could react he heard Loki say, “Get behind me!”

 

Thor did as asked, ducking behind his slightly shorter brother best he could, one hand pressed to his hurt shoulder.

 

Loki waved both hands and an object appeared in them: the Casket of Jotunheim.

 

His skin turned blue, his eyes red, but perhaps more importantly a wave of ice erupted forth from the Casket. It made a tall wall effectively blocking them from Selene.

 She brought herself to a halt, but not completely in time: her left hand was too close and frozen solid by the deadly frost. It shattered and Selene howled in pain, shaking her wrist furiously as bones and flesh regrew.

 

She spat out two words in disgust. The first was from a language so archaic the All-Tongue couldn’t even properly translate it to Thor’s ears save that it was a foul curse.

 

The second word was “Jotun”.

 

Once her hand was healed Selene straightened up, her image distorted through the ice. She pointed at them again, making a threatening gesture.

 

“Not over,” she declared. And then she turned around and darted into the forest, disappearing.

 

Uncharacteristically, Thor did not feel like going after her.

 

Her heard footsteps after a moment or two and was startled to see Jane appear from the direction of the campsite. Erik trailed after her, leading Darcy.

 

“Is she gone?” Jane asked tentatively. “When it got quiet, I just…we didn’t know what was happening.”

 

“Yes,” Thor told her. “For the moment.” He couldn’t resist reaching out, briefly, to caress the bottom of her face.

 

“But this isn’t finished. And she is…even more than I imagined.” He breathed out, still astonished at the thought, “She knew our father.”

 

Your father,” Loki corrected.

 

Thor turned to look at him, nearly overwhelmed with relief to see the last traces of Jotun skin were fading from Loki’s form. His eyes had already gone back to green.

 

Loki watched him, face unreadable.

 

“You were startled,” he noted, after a silence. “But not surprised.”

 

“No,” Thor admitted softly. “I knew. Father told me.”

 

Loki turned away, disgusted. “Of course.”

 

“He told me because I demanded it of him,” Thor said quickly, almost desperate in his insistence. He moved toward his brother and Loki took a step back, evading him. “After what happened I knew there was more to it than I understood. At first he would not tell me, but I refused to leave him alone until he did.”

 

“And now it all makes sense, doesn’t it,” Loki said quietly. He wouldn’t meet Thor’s eyes. “Why I was destined to be in your shadow. Why I never belonged.”

 

“You belonged! You – Loki, Asgard is not the same without you.”

 

“A fact of which I’m sure everyone is quite glad.”

 

“We thought you were dead,” Thor expounded. “Do you not understand that? And I…brother, I missed you. So much.” Thor reached for his arm, and Loki twisted away. “Are you really going to pretend that you hate me? You aided me, just now.”

 

“Because it was in my best interests, you thickheaded oaf.”

 

Thor saw Jane wince, but Loki had called him far worse at times. Clearly Jane had grown up without any siblings.

 

“You saved my life at least three times,” Thor insisted. “Why go to such trouble if not because you still care for me?”

 

“I was fighting Selene. If she killed you, it would’ve changed things in her favor. Especially if she fed on your power,” Loki stated. “It would have been impractical not to defend you.”

 

Cold words, meant to drive him away. But instead Thor smiled, faintly.

 

“That was not a denial,” he pointed out.

 

At first Loki flinched in annoyance, the same way he would at any time Thor might’ve actually paid enough attention to see through his careful wordplay.

 

But his expression changed to something much harsher. And more weary. Suddenly Thor was acutely aware of the haggard look to Loki’s face, the dark circles under his eyes.

 

“Oh no, Thor. Since you’re so insistent on it then, fine: I do still have love for you. I love you, and I hate you as well, just as strongly. A curious situation. I’d advise you to keep your distance, until this matter is sorted.”

 

“You don’t have to do this,” Thor insisted, pleading. “Loki-”

 

“Stay away.” Loki backed away, his hands up in a shielding motion, warning Thor to keep at a distance. “Stay away from me. I can’t do this. Not now. It hurts.”

 

He met Thor’s eyes then, his eyes brimming and conflicted and raw.

 

“It hurts just to look at you.” Loki swallowed. “Please, brother. I beg of you, let me be.”

 

Thor said nothing but he stayed where he was, defeated.

 

Darcy spoke then, her voice scratchy like she’d forgotten how to use it. “Where are you going? You…you can’t just leave. Not after-” She choked. “All of our friends just got killed.”

 

Loki’s expression changed to one of disdain. “Your friends, you mean.”

 

Darcy gazed at him with wounded disbelief. “I thought they were yours too.”

 

Loki tilted his chin, lofty, and frowned.

 

“You can’t be serious.”

 

Darcy made a wordless sound, full of weak hurt. Erik held onto her more strongly as if afraid she’d fall over without him. Indeed it looked like her legs were about to give.

 

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Jane said quietly, staring at Loki with shocked intensity. “Don’t do this to her now.” She shook her head in anger. “She helped you. You said that you were her friend.”

 

“I couldn’t remember anything,” Loki reminded them, flat.

 

He glanced at Darcy, face blank of any trace of caring. “Obviously, with nothing to compare it to, I’d have no choice but to prefer whatever I could find.”

 

Without another word he drew the hood of his cloak up and walked off into the forest.

 

Once more, Thor’s brother had left him behind.

 

*

 

The night had grown even later, and cold. Thor’s breath clouded the air where he stood but he stayed where he was, positioned outside the tent, gazing absently upwards at the night sky.

 

He did not recognize any of the stars here. Not yet, anyway. Jane had been telling him of some of Earth’s constellations before but they’d yet to stick in his mind.

 

Though he was not really bothered by the chill Thor rubbed his hands together absently. He was as much guarding the tent and his friends inside it as he was trying to clear his head.

 

Erik had managed with some difficulty to at last contact SHIELD. It seemed Coulson was still angry for them “blowing him off” earlier, but when he heard there were injured people he’d agreed to send help.

 

A flying machine Jane had called a helicopter had come and gone, taking Amanda and Dr. Rubens to get the medical attention they needed. There’d been no room inside the machine for the rest of them to ride along. Erik said they would leave at first light, as soon as it was safe to drive.

 

There was a rustle from the tent, and Thor turned to see Jane coming out, arms wrapped around herself.

 

“You’re cold?” he asked as she reached him, gentle.

 

She shrugged. The wind blew strands of hair into her face and she reached to fix it. “Aren’t you?”

 

“My body is much more resilient to such things than yours,” Thor explained with an absent smile. He unfastened his cape and draped it over her shoulders. “Here.”

 

“Oh. Thank you.” Jane wrapped herself up, looking at the ground for a moment before curiously meeting his eyes. “You gonna stay out here all night?”

 

“I must. I dare not rest, knowing that Selene may return and seek to do us further harm.” Thor looked across at the forest again as he spoke, as if Selene might be standing right there, waiting to strike.

 

Jane rested a hand on his arm and he looked at her.

 

“Is everything okay?” she asked him. Thor sighed.

 

“I came here looking to defend those who could use my protection, and find answers.” Not knowing where else to turn he gazed at the sky again. “Instead almost all of those people are dead. It seems I mostly have further questions, instead of answers.” His voice dropped. “And my brother is still lost to me.”

 

“Thor…” Jane’s voice was tight. “I know how this is probably going to sound to you, but from where I’m standing, the Loki thing isn’t much of a loss.”

 

“He didn’t use to be this way,” Thor insisted. “He could be unkind but it was always fleeting.” He shut his eyes, pained. “Or if it wasn’t, I never noticed.”

 

Jane opened her mouth but shut it again, shaking her head. She merely stroked the side of Thor’s face, trying to comfort him best she could.

 

“Poor Darcy,” Jane said, after a moment. “This has been a really bad day for her.”

 

“Aye. I wish there was something I could do to ease her pain.”

 

Another time Thor would’ve sworn vengeance against Selene, thinking that was all it would take. But he had changed, grown wiser. He understood now that nothing, not even the death of the murderer, would fully repair the loss of her friend.

 

The crowing of a raven caused both of them to look up with a jerk.

 

“What in the…?” Jane clung tighter to Thor, alarmed. The raven was far larger than normal, rivaling an eagle in size. It flew down from the trees and circled over their heads.

 

And then it was joined by another. The two formed a circuit, keeping an exact distance apart. Thor’s heart jumped.

 

“Can it be?” he exclaimed, amazed.

 

“Thor, what’s going on?”

 

“I think these are my father’s ravens. I haven’t seen them in an age. They can fly between realms without need of the Bifrost, but the All-Father hasn’t had to use them in a while.”

 

“Use them?” Jane asked warily, never taking her eyes off the ravens’ flight. “What for? What do they do-?”

 

Even as she asked the question her answer came in a shimmering rainbow flash that filled the air, a weaker version of the Bifrost’s light.

 

When it cleared an image of Odin hung in the space marked by Huginn and Munnin’s wingtips, transparent and slightly distorted. He gazed down at them, his expression calm.

 

Thor carefully released Jane and came forward, taking to one knee.

 

“Father,” he greeted, unable to fight the burst of homesickness that thickened his voice. He’d made his choice to leave Asgard and he wouldn’t change it, but it was still strange to think of his family and friends as so far from his reach.

 

“Rise, my son,” Odin commanded him evenly.

 

Drawn by the brightness of the light Erik had come to the flap of the tent and pulled it aside, revealing both him and Darcy. Darcy sat where she was and gazed up at Odin numbly, not seeming to care or fully take in what was happening.

 

Erik’s jaw was hanging open. “Oh my lord.”

 

“Father,” Thor gestured, “these are my friends. The ones of whom I already spoke.”

 

“Uh.” Jane raised her hand, fingertips waving. “Hey.”

 

Erik had dropped his head to one side, hand massaging his forehead as he muttered something to himself.

 

“I know who they are,” Odin stated. “And what’s more, I know what has been happening. Heimdall has told me everything.”

 

“Loki is still alive,” Thor felt the need to say if only to express how the news still overwhelmed him.

 

“Would I were it wasn’t so, Loki is the least of your concerns at present. Which is why I am here, why I had to reach you by such methods. To warn you of what you are facing.”

 

Odin’s good eye narrowed and Thor was stunned at the sudden venom he heard in his father’s voice. “If only time had done its work in destroying what I could not myself…Selene Kinslayer.”

 

He pronounced the name with such anger but notes of pain as well – Thor watched how he drew himself up, the way he bristled.

 

“Who is she?” Thor asked. “If she’s an enemy of Asgard why have I never heard of her before?”

 

“She is an enemy to every living thing with a soul. To myself in particular.” Odin drew a breath, sharp. “It was thousands of years ago, after I was king but long before the war with the Frost Giants, before anything in our history you would’ve cared to remember. I visited Earth, with a company of soldiers and two of my friends…my dearest friends.”

 

“What happened?” Though Thor felt he could venture a guess.

 

“One of my friends was naïve enough to fall in love with Selene. Using that to her advantage she murdered both him and my other companion.”

 

Even after all the years Odin’s voice was raw as he recalled it, and it made Thor tremble to hear.

 

“I was as close to them as you are to your chosen battle-mates, Thor. We were like brothers. And Selene destroyed them. She devoured Vili. And Ve she tied to the back of a horse and dragged to his death. It was no way for a warrior to die.”

 

“I am so sorry, Father.” Thor didn’t know what else to say.

 

“Save your sympathy for the departed. Selene’s victims – the ones she left alive, worst of all. Do you remember Brynhilde?”

 

 “The leader of the Valkyries? Vaguely.” Since she’d been brought to Asgard and allowed to have the golden apples she’d far outlived her mortal lifespan, but she’d still died when Thor was only a child.

 

All he remembered was a fierce warrior with fair hair who never smiled. “What does that have to do with this?”

 

“The Valkyries were the women of the village we’d visited – or rather, they became the Valkyries, after Selene slaughtered their families,” Odin explained heavily. “I brought them to Asgard; it was all I could do for them. Some of them were eventually able to be happy again…but poor Brynhilde.”

 

He sighed wearily, lifetimes away in his memories.

 

“Selene killed her sister, and the man that Brynhilde had loved – Sigurd, another friend of mine. And I watched everything capable of love in Brynhilde die, the day she looked into Sigurd’s funeral pyre. Were it ever in my power I would’ve destroyed Selene for everything she had done.” Odin shook his head. “Were it not for my duties as king I would’ve combed every inch of this world, searching, until I hounded her out.”

 

“But now that she’s reappeared, the Bifrost is gone, and you cannot go to her,” Thor remarked.

 

“No,” Odin agreed, tense. “I am powerless.”

 

As if he sensed what Thor was about to say he stretched out a hand: “Do not swear to destroy her in my stead, son. Selene was powerful when I knew her on Earth, and she’s had centuries to grow stronger still. I would love to see her struck down but not at the cost of adding you to her victims.”

 

“Then what should I do?” Thor questioned.

 

He realized that Odin’s image was already fading – the line of mystical communication could not stay open much longer.

 

But all Odin did was meet his gaze. “Be on your guard. Her worst weapon is not her inhuman lust for power but the way she manipulates others.”

 

Through ripples of time and space Odin gave his son a sad smile.

 

“And, Thor. When you see your brother again, tell him that your mother sends her love to you both.”

 

*

 

Once he walked far enough away to be certain he was out of Thor’s line of sight, Loki broke into a run.

 

He sped through the forest fast as his legs would carry him, barely heeding the leaves that crackled beneath his feet, the braches that brushed against his cloak, the trees he narrowly avoided running into. His fingers twined in the fabric of his hood, clutching at it. His breath came steadily in ever-increasing puffs and pants.

 

It was madness, really. Thor was not following him. The sorceress could be nowhere close, having no doubt retreated to some safe hideaway to heal and fume.

 

But though he wasn’t pursued Loki ran anyway. He ran because he had no choice. He needed to run – he needed to flee.

 

Even though he knew it was futile. There was no escaping what he felt hounded by: the thoughts that crowded his head.

 

All that he’d suffered, all that he had ever felt - the pain, the rejection, the shame, the anger, the despair. Once the rune had broken everything that he’d forgotten, everything that’d been taken from him had been thrust on him all at once, poured into an empty vessel as he was forced to relive it fresh.

 

Agonizing. Unbearable. Made all the worse by his still being able to remember his experiences during his amnesia – how helpless he had been, how weak.

 

But the sting of humiliation twisted inward where it bubbled into rage.

 

Selene. How dare she! How dare she do this to him, make him suffer, bring him so low. She’d gone too far, done too much; it was past the point of living with. Loki would make her pay. His wounded pride demanded no less.

 

Worst of all, however, had not been how she’d weakened him, but what had been revealed about himself in the process.

 

Loki’s will was strong. Too strong to have been so easily contained by her rune magic. Even without memories something in him should’ve fought back almost immediately, breaking the spell and freeing himself…unless, deep down, he hadn’t wanted to.

 

No memories, no past; no pain. Whatever part had still known himself, it’d chosen surrender over recollection.

 

Somewhere in his heart he would have rather been no one at all, than to have been Loki.

 

He supposed he couldn’t blame himself. But it still made him feel sick and hateful to admit.

 

His anger at Selene burned, scorching, and he couldn’t be sure which part enraged him more. The pain forced in having to relive his memories all over, or the peace he had experienced without them. The trespass dared by stealing his power, his very self, away; or the bitter truth he had to live with, knowing part of him preferred it that way.

 

No matter which, it was all the same – he would destroy Selene either way.

 

If her bloody demise wouldn’t heal the way she’d wrenched his scars open, it would at least bring him grim satisfaction.

 

Loki finally slowed to a walk, his weakened body protesting against running any further. The sound of his blood was heavy in his ears as he hung his head, numbly watching the progression of his feet on the ground.

 

Unbidden the image of Darcy’s face, wounded and confused, came to his mind.

 

No. Loki shut his eyes tight and willed it away. This couldn’t be. He wasn’t meant to have friends. He never had been. All his life he supposed he’d known that and now that he’d accepted the truth he would never make the same mistake.

 

He remembered Darcy’s hand around his shoulders, her tugging at his hair, taking his hand. He remembered her hugging him, the good and simple warmth he’d felt.

 

Back there at the camp even after regaining his memories his skin had itched with longing – he’d had to curl his hands into fists, fighting the temptation to reach out. It would’ve been so easy.

 

When exactly had he become so physically withdrawn, stopped letting people touch him save when it was necessary? It’d seemed an easy enough thing to do in childhood but somewhere along the way he’d just…stopped. Had others shunned him first, rejecting his touch, or was it he that’d stopped reaching, stopped trying, and built up walls around himself? He couldn’t remember. Maybe it was a little of both.

 

For a few days though, he’d been someone else. Someone who could be embraced. Someone who laughed more easily. Someone who was trusted and cared for. Someone who could be a friend.

 

The next time Loki exhaled it came out sounding perilously close to a sob. He stopped and held his breath in his throat, until he felt in control enough to continue.

 

Darcy was only a mortal. She was nothing, a silly girl who gave herself far too easily. He couldn’t care less about her. Even if he wanted to – she was one of Thor’s companions. No doubt who she would choose to favor.

 

So Loki would not waste his time with such folly. He’d push whatever ghosts of feelings still lingered away.

 

He looked up at last and found he’d come full circle, back to the same clearing with the runestone where he’d attempted his spell, where Selene had ambushed him. It was almost laughable.

 

The magic he had begun that day still hung in the air, half-formed. He could feel its traces.

 

It was somewhat ridiculous after everything that’d happened. But it seemed a waste not to finish the spell now, after what he’d been through. Besides, he needed information about Selene, now more than ever.

 

He needed to know who she was if he was going to kill her.

 

Loki rested a hand against the stone, leaning on it for support. He took a deep breath and let his body shift.

 

He ignored the voice in his mind that whispered ‘Lethia’, and threw himself into the work of casting his spell.

 

*

 

“We shouldn’t be here.”

 

“I agree – you shouldn’t. The last thing I want is for you to get hurt. But Jane, I can’t just leave. Not knowing that my father’s enemy is still out there.”

 

“Thor! Isn’t this exactly what your father tried to warn you against? Trying to continue his wars?”

 

“That was different. Selene is dangerous. And she has already hurt many innocent people. Do you really intend for me to let their deaths go un-avenged?”

 

“We’ll go back to New Mexico; we’ll talk to Agent Coulson and his people…SHIELD can probably send a team out here or something to help-”

 

“You have much faith in the resources of these warriors. But I highly doubt they have anything that could stand against one such as this sorceress. She may be of this world, but she is not human.”

 

“You could at least…”

 

Jane and Thor continued their conversation, debate, argument - whatever they wanted to call it. But Darcy had stopped listening.

 

The inside of the tent was dark and empty. Erik was back at the car. Jane and Thor had gone outside to talk, trying not to disturb her.

 

They hadn’t realized Darcy was already awake. That she hadn’t actually slept a wink all night.

 

She curled up in the tent’s corner, hugging her knees to her chest. She was still wearing the same clothes from yesterday. Her hair was uncombed. She felt gross. Her stomach hurt.

 

There was a lump in the middle of her throat, like a balled-up wad of paper, that just wouldn’t go away.

 

Inside the tent tables were still set up, and here and there were signs of the research that’d once taken place there. A few battery-operated lights, switched off. Notebooks and papers held down by rocks.

 

And if she looked closely at the dirt, she could see dark stains of red from Amanda’s blood.

 

It didn’t feel real. It was like something that had to be happening to another person. She’d spent three days working with these people…and now, most of them were dead. Three of them were in the hospital.

 

Ruth was dead.

 

The only other people Darcy had known that had ever died were grandparents, and she’d still been a kid then. Now her friend, one of her closest friends, maybe even her best friend, was dead. And not just dead, murdered. Somebody had killed her right in front of Darcy’s eyes. And not just somebody, but some kind of supernatural monster.

 

And Lethia…well, Lethia was a fake.

 

Darcy had always thought she was secretly a great judge of character. Well, obviously, that wasn’t true at all. She’d befriended someone who didn’t even exist. Not to mention secretly had the personality of a sociopath.

 

As soon as Loki remembered who he was he couldn’t blow her off fast enough. He didn’t just not like her: he didn’t even think of her as existing on the same level as him. He’d looked at her like she was, literally, an insect – something smaller and weaker and kind of icky, that could be easily crushed, if he even bothered to care.

 

After all she’d done for him. He couldn’t even pretend to be grateful. That jackass.

 

Well, fuck him, then. Darcy wasn’t going to let herself be hurt by his rejection. He wasn’t worth her being upset over. Not when she had so many other things on her mind.

 

Not when she felt so messed up she couldn’t make up her mind whether she wanted to vomit, or scream, or just fall into a coma and never wake up.

 

Belatedly she realized it’d gotten quiet again outside. Thor and Jane must’ve headed off elsewhere. To the van, or off into the woods, maybe.

 

Thor could’ve flown Jane up into the sky for a mile-high quickie sans the airplane, for all she cared.

 

Darcy felt suddenly aware of how stiff her joints were, how stuffy it was inside the tent. Slowly she got to her feet. Pulling aside the tent’s plastic flap she looked outside.

 

It was a grey, overcast day. How fitting.

 

She started walking out into the campsite, taking slow steps, looking down at the ground. She didn’t really plan on going anywhere. She just wanted some fresh air.

 

At first she thought about taking another look at the excavation pits, but that was a mistake. Too many memories. How weird to think that just a couple days ago her and the site’s team had all been out here together, talking and working. Everything just fine.

 

Darcy felt a sudden chill and she rubbed her arms. She glanced back towards the tent but there was nothing, just the opening moving slightly in the wind.

 

She turned back and found herself face to face with Selene.

 

“Hello, Darcy,” the woman drawled, her voice low and husky. Close up she was even more terrifying, fangs and dark eyes and ghoulish pale skin.

 

Darcy screamed. Selene lashed out, fisting one hand in her hair, grabbing hold of her by it.

 

“No! Let go of me, you…!” Darcy struggled but Selene dragged her closer, and she squealed at the way Selene was hanging onto her tightly by her scalp. It hurt.

 

“Don’t even think about it.”

 Selene’s eyes bore into her, face twisted somewhere between a sneer and a snarl. And Darcy couldn’t get away, she was just too strong.

 

She pulled Darcy even closer, wrenching her abruptly. Her face was so near it was like she was trying to smell her.

 

“You,” Selene said, “are coming with me.”

Chapter Text

Loki awoke stretched flat on his back, eyes opening to behold the shafts of sunlight breaking through the overhead foliage. From the looks of them it had to be late morning.

 

Groggily he pushed himself to a sitting position, pressing his hand to his forehead.

 

He could feel the thin layer of sweat that still clung to his entire body from the day previous. There were leaves in his hair, which probably looked half a fright.

 

The spell he’d performed to read the past and the area’s memories had gone off without a hitch. All the knowledge he’d sought, he found.

 

His head had swum in the layers of the past he’d unraveled, ghosts and shadows whispering, his senses muddled. He’d stumbled away from the clearing with the stones, just barely having the wherewithal to change back his form.

 

It’d occurred to him too late he hadn’t slept a wink the night previous. Not that he’d never gone without a night’s sleep before, and his body could sustain itself without rest. But he’d been through a lot in a very short time, both mentally and physically. His energy was drained from all the magic he’d used. His mind was in even worse condition.

 

He found a space deep in the forest where the leaves and pine needles already made a natural bed. With a few quick, almost sloppy gestures he set up a circle to cloak him from sight, and conceal his life force from any who might be searching.

 

Then he collapsed to the ground and slept. A deep, numbing and dreamless sleep.

 

He’d probably slept too long, actually. Loki wasn’t accustomed to sleeping in late; it tended to make him unsteady, and cranky. But he did feel wonderfully refreshed.

 

He stood up. With a flick of his hand and a muttered incantation he cast a spell to clean his skin and restore his usual immaculate appearance. He didn’t have time for anything else.

 

Now that he knew his quarry better, and was prepared, it was time to begin the hunt.

 

Standing still he took some time to carefully organize his magically-gained memories inside his head. He had the whole story now – there was quite a lot to it. Selene’s betrayals, her blind lust for power. The names and faces of those she had destroyed, human and Asgardian alike.

 

A young version of Odin was among them, and it made something inside Loki twist and writhe uncomfortably. It was odd to think of the man he’d been raised to call ‘Father’ as anything but one-eyed. To see him with hair any color but aged white.

 

The young king’s anger and pain in the visions had been so obvious as to be almost palpable. It gave Loki pause, if only for a moment. It was a bitter pill that once again he and Odin shared an enemy.

 

And look how well that had turned out the last time.

 

Loki stopped himself before he recalled it with any clarity, the feel of hanging off the Bifrost into space, the look on Odin’s face as he stared down at him and said “No”. It didn’t matter, none of it – he wasn’t fighting Selene to prove anything, it was only about revenge.

 

It was not for Asgard, and it was not for Odin. It was only for himself.

 

He was perversely grateful for it, really: this newfound rage against the sorceress. It gave him something to cling to, when her machinations had completely upset the house of cards built of grudges and deceptions that had until recently made up Loki’s psyche.

 

In the long term he didn’t know what any of his plans were anymore. He needed time to re-gather himself, time to focus and to think.

 

He was still as hurt and angry as he ever was, but it was all tangled now, too confusing and painful to be dealt with right away. No. He would take care of Selene first.

 

And then he would hide himself away somewhere for a while, and ruminate.

 

The only thing left to be decided at present was what his first move would be. Selene had made this area her home, once; no doubt she had many favorite hiding spots he could uncover. Now that he understood her powers better there were ways he could track her down.

 

But a nagging burr at the back of his thoughts wouldn’t leave him alone – while he hunted, Selene would still be out there, and so, presumably, would Thor. And unlike Loki, Thor still had very little idea of what he was dealing with.

 

Loki tried to convince himself he had no problem with that, and failed utterly. The ties of false kinship he’d tried to sever still remained, at least partially, intact.

 

He could dwell on hatred and how he’d been wronged all he liked; even with his heart at its hardest, Thor would always be ‘brother’ before he was anything else.

 

Another time Loki would turn that into ammunition, yet another thing to feel spiteful about. But presently he was too wearied to build up a fitting pique.

 

For old times’ sake, then. He’d give Thor a warning. Let him know what he did, enough to defend himself.

 

Nothing more than that.

 

Assuming Thor would be sticking close he checked the campsite first. Teleportation between realms was a complicated matter that required preexisting conditions, but moving short distances within one world when he knew where he was going was easy. He appeared a few feet away from where the tent they were likely to have spent the night in was, materializing between a thicket in a ripple of green and a twist of shadows.

 

Immediately he was welcomed by Mjolnir hurled directly at his head.

 

Loki ducked, shifting his weight to one side. Raising a hand for good measure he blocked the hammer’s path with a defensive ward.

 

Perhaps he’d been found unworthy of wielding Mjolnir, but that didn’t mean he had to subject himself to everything it could do to him.

 

Standing his ground, he eyed Thor coolly. “Interesting manner that you choose to greet me, brother,” he remarked.

 

Thor beckoned Mjolnir back to his hand, wide-eyed. He looked at Loki with an expression both surprised and guilty.

 

“Loki,” he exclaimed. “That wasn’t – I thought that the sorceress – I did not mean-”

 

“Certainly there must be a full sentence in there somewhere. Keep trying, I’m sure you’ll get there eventually.”

 

Thor actually reddened a bit beneath his beard, though Loki wasn’t sure if it was embarrassment or anger, and he shut his mouth forcefully.

 

“I am sorry,” he finally said, curt.

 

“Apology accepted,” Loki replied, toneless enough to nearly count as menacing.

 

It wasn’t ire so much as he felt nothing. So empty it was registering as an ache. He found himself missing the anger, even as he wasn’t sure that he wanted it back.

 

Keeping his face composed he shook himself under the guise of smoothing his cloak regally around his shoulders. “I have a need to speak with you. I’d prefer to keep this brief.”

 

Disappointment rippled across Thor’s face; he was and always would be such an easily-read book. It was almost understandable, how he’d remained so oblivious to his younger brother’s closeted, layered feelings of envy and abandonment, when he himself expressed everything on the surface.

 

But understanding did not, and never would, equal forgiveness.

 

“Tell me, then,” Thor said, trying valiantly to keep his tone as even and impersonal as Loki’s. “I will gladly listen to whatever it is you have to say.”

 

Fool, Loki thought, scornfully. He reined himself from saying it out loud; he supposed that counted as improvement. “I thought it would only be sporting to pass along some information that I’ve gathered. I was able to use my magic to look into the past. I saw Selene. I saw what she was, then. What she’s capable of. I have a story to tell you.”

 

“You came to warn me?” Thor realized, expression warming again.

 

Loki clenched both his hands, fingers curling inward tight and nails biting into his own skin. His mouth set into a hard line.

 

“Yes, well.” He tried for a sneer that didn’t feel right on his face, and so he let it go. “As I have said before, it does me no good to have her end you first.”

 

First?” Thor repeated. His voice rose sharply. “Then you would still make yourself my enemy? Why?” He shook his head in frustration as he tried to find the words. “Has our time apart taught you nothing? Hasn’t it done anything to repair whatever it was that first went wrong?”

 

“‘Whatever it was’ – as if you still don’t know.” Ah, there, at least a flicker of the old anger. “Your own words should be answer enough!”

 

This time he sneered without hesitation: “What, did you think that I would return to you groveling? Begging the mighty prince’s forgiveness for how I had lost my way? And then all would go back to being as it was before. As if it was nothing more than some silly misunderstanding. My feelings, just some passing bit of foolishness, I suppose. A trifle.”

 

“No, no, that isn’t…” Thor shook his head again rapidly. “That isn’t what I was trying to say.”

 

“Of course - it’s never what you’re trying to say, Thor,” Loki responded, terse. “It’s always what you do say. That’s what counts.”

 

“Peace, I beg of you. Enough,” Thor ordered. He looked tired, maybe even as tired as Loki felt. “Is this all you had to say to me?” He sighed. “I already know about Selene.”

 

That took Loki aback quite a bit. “What?”

 

“Among our people they call her Kinslayer.” Thor’s expression darkened, his words hard. “She is responsible for the deaths of two warriors of Asgard – three if you count Sigurd Reginsward, honorary member of the All-Father’s guard. It was her that slaughtered the husbands and children of the Valkyries, so that they had nothing left and became the legendary warrior-women in times of old.”

 

“Yes,” Loki began, slow and mistrusting. “That’s it, exactly. But how do you know all this?”

 

Thor hesitated a moment before answering. “Father told me. He sent his ravens.”

 

Of course, Loki thought, but he didn’t say it aloud. At that moment he felt so full of bitterness he was afraid if he opened his mouth he would scream.

 

Odin would go to the trouble to warn his favorite – and in the end, only – son. Loki would as always be given nothing. Left to fend for himself.

 

Once again Loki found himself taking on unnecessary burdens for Thor, on his behalf, only for the gesture to be rendered meaningless.

 

I am nothing to them. I am worth no effort at all.

 

Apparently his feelings were so great Thor could see them clearly on his face, because the other stretched out a hand towards him, instinctive, placating.

 

Loki drew his arm back violently, cloak whirling. “Don’t. Don’t bother.” His voice lowered as he spat, “I don’t know why I ever did.”

 

“Don’t turn every last thing into a strike against you,” Thor said, sounding almost angry. “Not every slight is intentional, or personal. Don’t imagine that they are.”

 

“I’ll ‘imagine’ whatever I please to,” Loki snapped. “Don’t you dare to tell me otherwise, as if you would command me. You are not my king. You aren’t my brother. I am accountable to none but myself. I have no home, and no family!”

 

“Loki, no. No.” Thor’s eyes widened, distraught. “Nothing could be further from the truth!”

 

“Don’t insult me!” He was yelling now, reaching the same manic note as when he’d confronted Thor at the Bifrost. “You know what I really am!”

 

Just as suddenly as it was on him the fury faded – his voice lowered to a heated murmur, broken but still intense.

 

“A fraud,” he choked out. “A monster.”

 

“You are neither.” Thor spoke without hesitation. “You aren’t anything of the kind.” For one that was nearly always so loud his voice was shockingly gentle. “You are Loki, and you are my brother. It matters not how it came to be, only that I know in my heart it is so.”

 

Loki did not speak. He couldn’t. His eyes were brimming, stinging, and so he kept them wide and still to prevent anything from spilling over. He breathed so forcibly uniform it started to turn into small ragged, desperate gasps.

 

Thor was skilled at many things, but deception was never one of them. If that was what he claimed to feel - could it be anything but the truth?

 

But how could it be? After everything, how could it possibly be? He had done terrible things. He was a terrible thing. So how could Thor, flawless and valiant as he was, still feel anything for him but condemnation?

 

To be rejected hurt. But to be loved, felt worse.

 

Loki turned his head, sidling away. “I must go,” he said softly, distant. “There’s business I have to attend.”

 

“Loki, wait,” Thor called. He took a half-step closer but no more, eyeing his brother carefully. “Do you have any idea where Darcy is?”

 

The question was very much an unexpected one. For a moment Loki was tempted to pretend he didn’t know who Thor was talking about, that he’d already forgotten her name.

 

But that would be foolishness. And more than that, childish. Loki sighed, “No, Thor. I do not.”

 

Belatedly it hit him; the implications, the gravity of what his brother was asking him. “Why?” he questioned slowly, sharp. “Don’t you?”

 

Thor shook his head, worry overtaking his face plainly. “She vanished early this morning. At first we thought…so much has happened to her, perhaps she merely needed to be alone with her thoughts. But Jane was worried that she still gave no word of warning to us. And then I thought, that maybe you-”

 

“Don’t be absurd,” Loki cut him off, brusquely. “What would I want with her?”

 

Finally, at long last, Thor gave him a look that could be called disapproving. “She considered herself your friend, brother. She was very protective of you.”

 

“The fact that she even thought I needed protection such as she could give only goes to show she knew nothing of what I was,” Loki observed wryly. But his disdainful mask did nothing to swell the tide of worry in his stomach. Where could Darcy be?

 

“I know before you at least felt gratitude.” Thor’s tone was undeniably judgmental.

 

Loki laughed at him. Thor flinched at the sound, and so did he, though he concealed it far better.

 

“So that is what it takes then, to earn my fair elder brother’s anger?” he remarked. “Not conspiracy. Not destruction. Not threats on the innocent, not even an attempt on his own life. But should it be that I neglect to be respectful of some little mortal’s feelings, oh! Then, surely, I go too far.”

 

“Stop this, Loki.” There was indeed strained anger in Thor’s voice, tempered by an edge of desperation. “It is too much. I don’t know why it is so necessary that you prove yourself to be incapable of compassion, but the only one you’re hurting with this farce is you.”

 

“Oh no, Thor,” Loki responded in a near whisper. He pictured easily the look of betrayal on Darcy’s face. “Not only me.”

 

He drew his cloak more tightly around himself, indicating his intent to depart.

 

“But it’s of no consequence. I do not have the girl. If you want to believe anything that I say, then believe that.”

 

Thor nodded. “Alright – but then, where is she?”

 

Loki’s throat constricted briefly.

 

“Figure it out for yourself. I already have.”

 

He faded swiftly from Thor’s sight as he transported himself away, a name ringing sharply in his thoughts.

 

Selene…

 

*

 

Darcy was unceremoniously half-dropped, half-flung away from Selene’s grasp.

 

Not sparing a backward glance at her the sorceress strode towards the back of the cave. She crouched down and began poking through a pile of objects.

 

Darcy took a few slow shaky steps and then allowed herself to flop to the floor, sitting on her rear in the dust.

 

She shivered in the coldness, the sticky damp of the cave she could feel through her jeans only worsening the effect. Shifting, she pulled her knees close to her chest.

 

Selene continued to ignore her. Darcy glanced at her sparingly, not entirely sure she wanted to attract her attention. Instead she looked at their surroundings.

 

It didn’t help; all she could really tell was they were deep inside a cave somewhere. To one side there was a narrowing tunnel, and Darcy could just make out stalagmites and stalactites if she squinted into the gloom. To the other, there was a bend from around which could be seen a glimpse of sunlight.

 

The way out. Assuming she was lucky, or brave, or crazy enough to try and take it.

 

The fact that Selene had made no attempt to bind her, no effort to cage her or tie her up, spoke volumes as to how likely an escape would probably be.

 

Selene was tearing something that looked like it was made of woven colored straw in half. And then ripping it into pieces again.

 

It took all of the little that remained of Darcy’s strength to keep her voice from trembling more than slightly. “Where are we?”

 

“Oh, nowhere special,” Selene murmured, not lifting her eyes from what she was doing. “Just a cave, one that leads deep into the bowels of the earth.” She dropped the tattered fibers from her hands. “Not far from my circle of power in the days of old.”

 

“Not far from the village you destroyed, and all the people you killed, you mean.”

 

Darcy wished she could’ve sounded like a bold action heroine, all grit and determination and snarky disdain. But instead her words came out timid and feeble, broken up like she was on the edge of tears.

 

Either way they had no impact on Selene. She sounded more annoyed than dangerous when she said, “It would be a very good idea for you to stay quiet right now.”

 

But then she straightened up, looking at her absently over her shoulder.

 

“Although it’s true in a way I have the big mouths of you and your other companions to thank.”

 

Darcy shied back, leaning away as Selene stalked within arms’ reach of her, looming above. “What do you mean?”

 

Selene gave a cold smile. “Before I thought it would be too dangerous for me to attack Odin’s children directly, because then I would have to worry about becoming a target for their father’s rage.”

 

She bent forward so that her dark eyes bore directly into Darcy’s.

 

“But then I overheard the older one and his lover talking.” Her smile turned condescending. “I know that the rainbow bridge of Asgard is no more. Even Odin All-Father cannot get to Earth now.”

 

Her teeth showed as she intoned, concluding, “Guess who that puts back on the menu.”

 

“What do you want with me?” Darcy demanded, at a loss and completely intimidated.

 

Selene got up and moved away from her again.

 

“The most effective method of hunting is to use live bait.” From her stash of items she produced a long flint knife, looking distantly at its blade. “I thought it may be worth keeping you alive for just a little while longer, if it means there’s a chance your friend will come after you.”

 

At first Darcy thought she was talking about Thor. But it slowly occurred to her that wasn’t it at all.

 

“You mean Loki?” Darcy swallowed, mouth dropping into a tight frown. She tasted bile just thinking about that creep. How he’d used and then rejected her. “He is not my friend.”

 

Selene turned sharply, her gaze fixated on Darcy. “Well then that makes things very unfortunate for you.”

 

Easily the stone knife snapped in two between her hands. Darcy scooted away on her hands and knees, careful not to move too fast, never taking her eyes off Selene.

 

“What do you want with him so badly, anyway?” she asked. “First you gave him magical amnesia, and now this?”

 

“He has power. I desire it. Surely you can understand. It’s easy.”

 

Darcy’s mind whirled, trying to process it all, everything that’d happened. Selene had turned Loki into Lethia. Selene was responsible for the deaths of the people in the graves they’d found. She’d killed Dr. Fournier and Kevin, she’d hurt Lindsey and Dr. Rubens and attacked Amanda, she’d killed Grace, Garrett…Ruth…

 

“You went after everybody. All those people that you hurt… and my friend…” Darcy bit her lip to keep from crying. “Why do you do it? How can you live with yourself for so long? What are you?”

 

“There have been many names for what I am throughout the ages. Obake, asura, ghul, liche…by modern conventions you would call me an energy drainer, or psychic vampire. I think the term speaks for itself.”

 

“You feed on other people to keep yourself alive?” It wasn’t so much a question Darcy was giving as a statement. A grim one, at that. “You steal their energy, their lives, so you can be stronger and keep going?”

 

Selene’s eyes were wide and bright, but the look behind them was very dead. Merciless.

 

“I was born thousands of years ago, at the very dawn of what you would call ‘civilized’ mankind. The elders of our tribe knew what I was – something to be respected, worshipped. Feared.” Selene’s gaze wandered a bit, lost in recollections of the past. “They instructed the rest of our people to give me whatever I wanted. To let me feed on them, to sate myself and grow stronger. And they did. One by one, I devoured all of them, including the woman who bore me.”

 

Darcy felt such disgust and terror she could barely speak. “…You killed your own mother?”

 

Selene gave the barest of shrugs with one shoulder. “Well. I was only a child when she died. I never really knew her.” Her eyes went from distant to hardened. “Not that it would have made any difference.”

 

Darcy made a choking sound, all but gagging on her own disbelief. Selene ignored it.

 

“After the last of my tribe was dead, I left that part of the world. I wandered, through many lands and many lifetimes.” Her lips curled slightly upward. “I still go by the name our shamans gave me as a token of my power, Selene, but I have been called many different things by those that have known me. At the height of the Roman Empire I was a goddess. Temples and sacrifices were made in my honor. And the Hellenistic people called me Celaeno, ‘the dark one’, and knew me as a thing to be feared.”

 

“Good for them,” Darcy spat out.

 

Selene’s faint smile dropped. “Do not mock me, little one,” she said harshly. “It will be the last mistake you ever make.”

 

Darcy shivered, and huddled even further on herself. But she didn’t look away from Selene.

 

“You’ve murdered all these people, taken and destroyed all those innocent lives, and it’s all just been for yourself. Because you want more power. Because you want to take everything. And for what?”

 

She made no effort to hide her sick disgust.

 

“So you can live forever? Why? You haven’t done anything with all the time you’ve already had. You’ve been around for centuries and all you’ve ever done is kill people!”

 

Darcy pushed herself up, though she didn’t dare get to her feet. As she kept on speaking, her revulsion was palpable in every word. “You want to be stronger. You want to be a god. Why, because you can? You’re nothing but a self-centered, purposeless monster.

 

Selene was unaffected, and unimpressed.

 

“It’s what I am,” she stated, before once more turning her back, indifferent. “It’s simple.”

 

She returned again to the scattered piles of objects, and continued with her systematically destroying them. Darcy had no idea what she was up to. But she didn’t really care.

 

At first she kept a wary eye on the sorceress, but it didn’t seem like Selene had any real interest in keeping watch over her.

 

Carefully as she could Darcy slipped a hand inside the large pocket at the front of her hooded sweatshirt. Her fingers brushed against the edge of her taser.

 

Like hell she’d been willing to leave it behind when they were going to a place where people she knew were disappearing and dying. But if she’d tried to sneak it to the campground inside her bag, she’d known Erik would’ve figured out what she was doing and tried to stop her.

 

So the night before, when she was sure no one was watching, Darcy had gone to the car and stuck her taser inside her sweatshirt.

 

She’d been afraid it might’ve fallen out in all of Selene’s jerking her around. But no, it was still there, exactly where she’d left it. Still in the off position – but as far as she knew, fully charged.

 

Darcy’s hand closed briefly around the grip, squeezing it for reassurance, before pulling it away again. It was a taser after all, not a bazooka; once she decided to use it, she was probably only going to get one shot. And considering how much damage Selene could take she’d need to make sure it counted.

 

She’d have to watch carefully, waiting for her perfect chance.

 

There was a crackling sound and Darcy was jolted into looking up, wondering what was happening.

 

She went completely still as she beheld Selene standing there with a burning ember floating just above the palm of one hand, a brand in the other.

 

As Darcy watched Selene calmly held the end of her stick into the flame until it caught, then shook her free hand, dismissing the presumably magical ball of fire. She turned and stood facing her captive.

 

The light from the makeshift torch cast moving shadows across her face, making her look even more monstrous. Her voice was eerily toneless when she spoke.

 

“I suppose you must be wondering, what happens now?”

 

Darcy looked at the glowing hot end of the long stick in her hand, and gulped.

 

But then another voice spoke, answering from the darkness to one side of the cave.

 

“I know exactly what’s going to happen.”

 

Loki didn’t so much appear as seem to melt out of the shadows. It didn’t make any real sense; they weren’t thick enough in that particular spot to have so fully hidden him, given him such a perfect place from which to dramatically arrive…and yet he did it anyway.

 

As the shadows finished receding from his ankles he stopped and stood equidistant to Darcy and Selene, his eyes only on the latter as he finished speaking – a cold and threatening pronouncement:

 

“Your agonizing and very absolute demise.”

 

Darcy stared woodenly. Loki had changed his outfit from the elaborate but still well-worn getup he’d had on previously to something more tailored. And dramatic. Golden armor gleamed in the dim against bright emerald green brocade, and not many people Darcy had ever seen could pull off the flowing cape look un-ironically, but he so did. He held an ornately-carved staff in his hand that had to be at least seven feet long, considering it stopped well above his head.

 

Overall it was a look meant to make a serious impression, but still very much ready for a fight. And its wearer matched that completely with his poise and bearing.

 

Darcy was struck very strongly with the reminder that Thor and Loki were sons of a king – that they were princes, after all.

 

Selene took her would-be adversary in with a sweeping glance. “Well now, what’s this? Were you thinking you could put on a display, intimidate me into submission?”

 

“Intimidate you, yes.” Loki swiftly lowered his weapon, gripping it in both hands as he pointed it her way. He enunciated so sharply his teeth showed on every word. “But I will not be satisfied with mere submission. I have come for your death. And I’ve no intent of leaving without it.”

 

“For the glory of Asgard?” Selene’s question was mocking. She tilted her head Darcy’s direction. “Or have you come to rescue your pet?”

 

Loki’s gaze never so much as flickered away from Selene.

 

“It was careless of you, at best, making an enemy of Asgard.” He hissed, “But you signed and sealed your own doom, when you dared to make yourself an enemy of Loki.”

 

“Do not crow too loudly. How embarrassing would it be for you, if I’m not so easily felled after all?” Selene took a step closer, the torch in her hand crackling. “I was holding myself back before.”

 

Loki kept his eyes on her, expression unintelligible as whether he believed her or not. “And why was that?”

 

“I was reasonably afraid what might happen to me, if Odin came to your rescue.” She smirked. “But I know that isn’t going to happen now. Now that I’ve learned the truth.”

 

Loki flinched; it was a brief, jerking reaction that was over in the flick of an eyelid, but it was still unmistakable for how it sent a spasm through every muscle in his body.

 

“Have you now. I see. But yes, of course you’d understand.”

 

It was strange – his voice didn’t grow any louder, his face and body language were completely composed. But there was venom that registered itself so strongly he may as well have been screaming himself hoarse. Even from where she sat Darcy could see how tight the set of his shoulders were.

 

“No; why should you expect Odin to come, for the benefit of his worthless second, stolen child? For a Jotun changeling, why would he go to any sort of trouble? It would be irrational to expect he should do anything at all.”

 

Selene blinked exactly once – a startled, calculating reaction.

 

“My, my,” she murmured, almost sweetly; “Sounds as though you have quite the ice chip on your shoulder.”

 

Loki gave a wordless yell, enraged, and blasted a spell at her from the end of his pole.

 

It was blinding in the bleak interior of the cave. Frightened, Darcy shrieked and rolled onto her side, knowing the attack wasn’t aimed at her but still acting on instinct to get out of the way.

 

Selene had known it was coming, having baited him on purpose. She dodged easily. And then, turning back towards Loki, she laughed.

 

“Not so different after all! Deep under that icy countenance, Frost Giants run just as hot-blooded as any Aesir. But they’d have to be, I warrant, else even they would freeze to death in their barren home.”

 

Selene lifted her torch again, meaningfully.

 

“That’s the power of fire.” Her smile turned to a sneer. “Eventually, it burns through everything.”

 

In a fluid motion she turned and blew heavily on the flames, moving her arm with the torch in a curve. Fire licked out across the pile of damaged items, catching with supernatural ease.

 

Too late Darcy realized Selene had scattered the bits into an arc behind her, forming an almost perfect circle. Within seconds the otherwise innocuous pieces of junk had transformed into a towering, raging inferno.

 

Darcy got to her shaky feet, stumbling backward in fright, tripping over the cave’s uneven floor when she couldn’t take her eyes off the spires of orange and red. She landed hard on her back, pain jolting her tailbone and shooting all the way up her spine.

 

But she couldn’t stop there. The fire was spreading and the cave was getting hotter by the minute. Already smoke and ash began to fill the air, stinging her eyes. If she stayed put, she’d fry.

 

Unable to get back up right away Darcy kept crawling on her hands and knees, still moving in reverse, gaze fixated on the flames.

 

“Destroying every token that you possess, anything that might have magic that I could possibly turn against you?” Loki had to raise his voice above the roar of the flames. “Interesting. It seems to me you’re running scared.”

 

“Do not overestimate caution for fear,” Selene countered. “Know this: I want you to come after me.” Her face twisted in a harsh grimace. “I want to devour your soul. All that beautiful power of yours will be mine, and I hunger for it.”

 

With those final words she slunk down, disappearing into her shadow. As it slid along the floor, creeping up onto the walls, her distorted voice called out one last taunt.

 

“Catch as catch can!”

 

The shadow vanished as she made it all the way to the passage that led deeper down into the cavernous darkness.

 

Darcy was coughing violently. She stopped her retreat, holding a fist in front of her mouth as her lungs hacked and seized, struggling for breath. Her glasses were smudged with soot and behind them her eyes were tearing violently, leaving her all but blind.

 

It was a huge surprise when she felt slender fingers close around her upper arm, a pair of arms hauling her bodily to her feet.

 

“You need to get out of here,” Loki told her, impatient. He steadied her in his grasp. “The fire she started will burn itself out in short order once it’s out of both magic and kindling, but you’ll have suffocated from the smoke long before that.”

 

Darcy blinked at him stupidly, hardly able to make out his face, let alone read his expression.

 

“Why…why are you-?”

 

“Aren’t you listening? Go!” Loki shoved her, and Darcy barely managed to keep her footing as she took that first forced step. “The last thing I need is the distraction of you getting in my way.”

 

“But what about you?” Darcy rubbed her eyes with her sleeve, managing to clear them enough she could look back at him. “What’re you going to do?”

 

“Isn’t it obvious?” Loki replied, dismissive. “I’m going to kill her.”

 

“Are you nuts? Wouldn’t the smarter thing right now be to get away from her, as far as you possibly can?”

 

“You don’t understand. This isn’t about mere survival.” Loki rested his staff on his shoulder, turning to face the direction Selene had gone. “After the humiliation she gave me, I can’t permit her to live.”

 

In a flash and a shimmer he faded out of existence, using his magic to teleport away. Darcy was left gaping at empty air.

 

For a second or two she stood there, staring.

 

Then she heard an angry crackle behind her, and Darcy spun around to find herself forcibly reminded of the fact she was trapped in an enclosed space with something that was on fire.

 

She bolted.

 

She headed in the direction she knew the way out was, but the smoke had gotten even thicker and now she really couldn’t see. Slowing down so she didn’t plow headfirst into a rock, but still jogging so she could get out quickly, she stuck her hands out in front of her trying to feel the way.

 

In her panic, she couldn’t remember: which way did she need to turn to go towards the light, towards above-ground, towards air and safety? Was it right, or left?

 

Heart beating faster and head starting to spin, Darcy picked right.

 

The smell and sounds of the fire and smoke receded rapidly. After being nearly flambéed the air was almost heavy with the cold and damp, and the scent of moss, and mud.

 

Darcy was still running, and then she tripped, again.

 

This time was a whole lot worse. She went forward, and she hadn’t realized she’d been standing right at the start of an incline. She slid and rolled down, over rocks and uneven terrain, bruising all over and scraping her arms and legs.

 

She lay in a sprawled huddle where she finally stopped, moaning.

 

Gingerly, slowly, she rotated so that instead of lying on aching back she was lying on slightly less aching front. Making tiny pained sounds with every movement she reached for her glasses, which had been knocked askew. Examining them she found a crack running almost all the way through one of the lenses.

 

“Of course. Perfect,” she huffed in frustration.

 

But she was distracted from her plight when she realized she heard something, and she wasn’t alone in that part of the cave.

 

Darcy pushed herself up onto hands and knees, ignoring the stinging protests from her body save for a grimace. She peered around the cluster of stalagmites that blocked her vision.

 

What she saw was Loki and Selene, locked in what looked to be a genuine fight to the death.

 

The bottom to Darcy’s stomach dropped out as she realized she’d gone the wrong way after all. She wasn’t closer to getting out of the cave, she was deeper in. And only a few feet away from a crazed hostile god-alien and a sociopathic vampire witch.

 

“…Crap.”

 

Some burst of energy from a spell, she wasn’t sure whose, collided with the ceiling and sent an avalanche of stalactites crashing down. Darcy took cover in a fright, hands clutched over her head.

 

When the rumbling stopped and the dust finished settling it was all she could do at first to lift her eyes from the floor and watch.

 

It wasn’t just about magic, she observed rapidly. Selene and Loki fought as much physically as they did with spells. They charged and struck at one another, pummeling with the kind of force Darcy was willing to bet would’ve killed a normal person on impact. At one point Selene actually managed to hurl Loki into the opposite wall of the cavern and the resulting sound from the collision was like an earthquake.

 

Selene was a brute force brawler, slowing down only when she needed to recover from a wound, and barely even then. Loki…Darcy was kind of surprised, actually: she assumed he was a brain over brawns type, but he was a capable fighter. He didn’t just hit things – some of his moves almost looked like a kind of martial arts.

 

The problem was Loki couldn’t let Selene get too close to him. She demonstrated exactly why when she grabbed hold of the front of his armor, dragging him in and sucking a mouthful of his energy with a low roar.

 

Loki managed to shake her off, maneuvering the staff in his grasp to viciously stab upward, slicing straight through the middle of her face.

 

Selene dropped him and slid back out of range of further assault, shaking her head hard as if dazed. The wound on her face healed too fast to even be seen properly; from her vantage point Darcy had a glimpse of a crimson ribbon against her skin and then it was gone.

 

Selene grinned coolly at Loki, showing her fangs. Then with a hiss she ran at him. Loki braced against her with his staff held horizontally, shoving her back and then pursuing her with a fistful of crackling green.

 

Selene knocked the magic away effortlessly. She lunged for Loki again and they began to grapple, both of them colliding bodily with the nearest wall. Huge as the space was the entire area began to shake.

 

Darcy glanced around nervously. Maybe the two of them could survive a cave-in but she sure couldn’t. She didn’t want to get buried alive.

 

Selene was struggling in Loki’s grasp, clawing and writhing, but she couldn’t get away. He leaned over her, keeping her face well away from his as his hands went tight around her neck, attempting to strangle her. Whether that’d be enough to actually kill her was a mystery but it sure looked like it’d do a good job to subdue her, and Loki’s face was set in grisly determination as Selene choked and gagged at the end of his arms.

 

Selene managed to cast a spell but it went wide, going way over Loki’s head and smashing into the cavern opposite. This time there was an even bigger rumble – rocks and pieces of the wall began tumbling down.

 

Darcy stumbled back, her shriek hidden beneath the sound of stone breaking against stone as she narrowly avoided being hit by debris.

 

But the bad news was yet to come: when everything settled again she could see the area where the collapse had happened was right over the tunnel she’d come through. The way out was buried under what looked like tons of rock.

 

Now she really was trapped in with them.

 

She looked back at the fight, just in time to see Selene stretch out a hand, her sword appearing. Before Loki had a chance to notice she swung upward, almost impaling him. There was a metallic scream as the blade raked along the front of his armor. Loki released her swiftly and pulled back in avoidance.

 

Selene threw her sword straight up into the air over her head, just as Loki threw a knife charged with his magic at her. Uttering a word Selene held up her newly-freed hand and the knife bounced harmlessly off an invisible barrier.

 

Then she reached above her and the hilt of her sword returned perfectly to her grip, like it was the effortless path of a boomerang.

 

Loki backed off further, frowning in concentration as he tried to keep Selene at a distance. At the moment she seemed willing to let him, settling for merely glowering at him in an aloof threatening manner.

 

As Loki stepped back he caught a glimpse of Darcy’s hiding space, and she flinched as it was clear he was looking right at her. His eyes widened but he didn’t turn bodily toward her.

 

“Had enough yet?” Selene was calling out – Loki’s gaze snapped back to her. “Because I can keep going for a while.”

 

“How considerate of you to worry about my stamina,” Loki returned.

 

Selene gave a harsh chortle. “Fight me as long as you like. But I’m catching onto you. You’re starting to run out of tricks.”

 

Loki smiled. “I am never out of tricks.”

 

Selene looked like she was going to lunge at him again but he beat her to it, running at her and using his staff like a pole vault to launch himself above her head, bearing down with an attack from above.

 

Bracing herself Selene readied her sword to cut through him, swinging her blade two-handed in an arc…and slicing through nothing but air. At the last possible second Loki had teleported away.

 

As Selene growled in aggravation and looked around searchingly, in her concealed corner Darcy jumped as Loki showed up next to her.

 

“What are you doing here? I told you to leave!”

 

“Believe me, I tried,” Darcy retorted. “You think I want to be trapped here in the murder cave?”

 

“So then what happened?”

 

Darcy avoided eye contact furiously. “I got lost.”

 

“Of course,” Loki sighed, terse, eyes rolling. Darcy folded her arms, as much a defensive gesture as it was an indignant one, about to say something in reply. But then she noticed the patch of sticky red on Loki’s temple.

 

“Hey, you’re bleeding.”

 

Loki touched at the wound, his expression only irritation. “It’s nothing.”

 

“If you say so.” Darcy eyed him dubiously. “A suit of armor that fancy, you’d think it’d come with a helmet.”

 

Loki’s lips twitched. “It does, actually. But in case you haven’t noticed we’re underground and I was concerned about the low overhang.”

 

“Huh-?”

 

Shhh,” Loki shushed her harshly; Selene was getting closer. “Stay quiet.”

 

As the sorceress wandered closer, eyes raking the darkness of the cave, Loki stretched out his hand. His lips moved soundlessly and his eyes were focused: even Darcy could tell he must be casting a spell.

 

Three perfect Loki doubles rose from the ground, staffs lifted as they simultaneously moved to attack Selene.

 

Selene was less than amused. “Enough of this farce! Is that the only thing you know how to do?”

 

She stabbed the first illusion through the stomach and it disappeared. As the second approached her she stood still, waiting; when its arms went right through her ineffectively she banished it with a sideways stroke from her sword.

 

The third illusion stopped before her and Selene huffed, dismissive. She reached a hand through its throat intending to dispel it like the others.

 

But the double didn’t evaporate. When Selene’s hand plunged into it, it got stuck there, up to her elbow in a surface that warped and rippled like jello. Selene made a short astonished sound and tried to pull back out, to no avail.

 

Loki made another gesture – the double gleamed brightly, and then its entire surface and form was transformed into glowing tongues of emerald fire. The flames snaked up Selene’s arm, wrapping around her body, and she shouted in pain and anger. Stumbling off to some darker, deeper part of the cave, she attempted to beat the fire out.

 

Darcy crouched down where she was, watching. She looked over at Loki, impressed.

 

“Nice moves, Brer Fox.”

 

Loki frowned at her, not getting the reference. Darcy rolled her eyes but before she could say anything he stood up swiftly, leaving the rocky enclosure behind.

 

Selene had successfully removed her long hooded coat and thrown it down some chasm, the green light of the flames swallowed by the dark. The few embers that still clung to her she smacked with the flat of her hand, extinguishing them.

 

Underneath she wore a sleeveless dress that looked like it was made of deer hide. She looked marginally less intimidating without her head to toe black cover. But only a little bit.

 

Loki stepped towards her, and she turned to glower at him.

 

He stared her down evenly with an odd smirk on his face. “Am I still boring you?”

 

“You’re being to annoy me, is what,” Selene told him. “That’s less in your favor than you might think.”

 

While they were speaking Darcy left her hiding place, sneaking up behind them as best she could.

 

“What I think, is you’re more talk and less ability than you would have me believe,” Loki remarked.

 

Selene cocked her head. “Oh? You think I am anything less than what I claim to be?” She laughed humorlessly. “You find me an easy opponent, then?”

 

She spread her arms. “For all your efforts so far, you have yet to leave as much as lasting scratch on me. How many more ‘surprises’ do you have planned?”

 

“Well here’s at least one for you!” Darcy yelled.

 

She fired her taser into Selene’s back.

 

The wires connected and Selene twitched in a rather satisfying manner, a look of complete bemusement on her face before she went down like a stone.

 

The moment was short-lived. Just as Darcy was starting to think she might’ve actually been knocked unconscious Selene was back on her feet, snarling, and she yanked the wires out of her back. Whirling around she pulled hard on them – Darcy let go of the taser lest it be used to drag her any closer to Selene.

 

The enraged sorceress crushed the tiny device in one hand. Darcy couldn’t help letting out a reflexive “Hey!” in protest.

 

Before Selene could decide to attack her Loki threw a magical volley at her head, grabbing her attention. Not sure what else to do Darcy raced to his side, looking for cover.

 

Loki had a calculating expression, weapon held upright between his hands.

 

“Hold tight to the floor,” he instructed Darcy.

 

“What?” She stared at his back as he went to approach Selene again. “Why?”

 

Loki didn’t glance back at her. “Because it’s about to become the ceiling.”

 

That made about zero sense to her, but she really wasn’t in a position to argue. She went back to the curving cave wall and knelt down, grabbing with both arms onto a big rock that jutted out of the wall.

 

On one knee Loki struck his staff hard into the bedrock, burying it almost halfway up the pole. Holding it with one fist over the other he narrowed his eyes, focusing.

 

From where she stood at the opposite end of the cave, Selene charged. Sword in both hands she rushed forward, and then she jumped impossibly high. The blade was over her head as she dove in Loki’s direction, looking to land right on top of him.

 

Loki waited until she was at the zenith of her leap. Then he turned the staff counterclockwise like it was a key, producing an odd echoing sound from the rock.

 

Instantly everything shifted.

 

It wasn’t just that gravity seemed to reverse itself; from Darcy’s perspective she could actually see the cavern rotating, first onto its side and then its bottom, as if they were inside a box someone had decided to turn upside down.

 

She let out a cry and clung for dear life to her handhold, because all of a sudden she was hanging onto the top with only her arms, the rest of her body dangling over a distant bottom. It was a huge cave, after all, and turning the cavern roof into the floor meant it looked like it might be as much as half a mile away.

 

Darcy swallowed, willing her palms not to sweat so much as she looked down, down, down at what had been stalactites and now were basically huge pointy rocks waiting to impale her. Her vision momentarily swam with vertigo.

 

Her glasses started to slip and she didn’t dare let go to make a grab for them – they dropped off her face and Darcy quickly looked away so she wouldn’t have to watch the progress of their fall.

 

Selene, who had been in the process of leaping downward, was in big trouble when everything reversed itself. All of a sudden her momentum was carrying her the wrong way and she didn’t have forewarning to stop herself. She crashed into the roof-turned-ground hard and lay there in a battered heap, senseless.

 

Darcy looked around for Loki and her brain almost twisted itself inside out at what she saw.

 

When last she saw him he’d been kneeling on the floor. He was still in the exact same position and spot, which meant he was kneeling on the ceiling, upside down, his cape hanging but otherwise acting like he was immune to gravity.

 

The muscles in her arms were already in pain, and Darcy had no choice: this wasn’t going to work.

 

“Help me!” she called out, feeling stupid, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Loki’s head snapped around. “I can’t hang on like this much longer!”

 

He looked down, and Darcy followed his gaze. Selene had gotten up again and was climbing her way up the wall, heading their way.

 

Loki stood and walked towards Darcy, still upside down, feet apparently sticking to the rock. She stared dazedly.

 

“Okay, that is too weird.”

 

Loki stretched out a hand to her. “Come on.”

 

Despite not having much of a choice, Darcy couldn’t help glaring at his hand mistrustfully. “If you drop me, I’ll-”

 

“You’ll do what?” Loki demanded, incredulous, unable to resist pointing out how weak any threat of hers could possibly be.

 

“I don’t know!” Darcy snapped, irritated. “Haunt you forever, I guess!”

 

“Just hang on to me,” Loki commanded, sounding like he was running out of patience. Darcy took a breath and then reached out, grabbing his forearm. Loki pulled her to him and she let go of the rock.

 

He kept his arm around her waist and Darcy couldn’t help being distantly aware of how she was sort of clinging to him.

 

Just like she couldn’t help being distantly aware of the fact that under his armor Loki’s body didn’t feel exactly skinny. Godly muscles must’ve run in the family.

 

Loki continued walking, now along the wall instead of the ceiling, holding her effortlessly. Selene was about halfway up the opposite wall, and she stopped, eyeing them. Loki kept going until he was about even with her and then halted.

 

Selene pushed herself upwards to a standing position.

 

“Oh great,” Darcy said feebly. “She can do it too.”

 

Loki ignored her. Extending his free arm he motioned with his staff, this time turning it the opposite direction.

 

Darcy shut her eyes, realizing what that meant – her head spun as the cave righted itself, directions going back the way they were supposed to be.

 

Suddenly she heard Selene laughing. Her eyes popped open, but the woman was nowhere to be found.

 

Loki jumped back to the ground, letting go of Darcy abruptly. She took a few stumbling steps to avoid getting knocked to the floor.

 

“Where did she…?”

 

“She’s turned into her shadow,” Loki informed her, shortly. He moved forward several strides. Head turning he looked at the cavern all around them. “I tried to keep my eyes on her but she moved too quickly. She could be anywhere.”

 

He wasn’t kidding. The darkness of the cave, the many patches of shadows and deep chasms made it the perfect place to hide.

 

Darcy hung back automatically, hugging herself as she shivered, nervous.

 

The sound of Selene’s laughter rang out again, but this time it echoed. It could be coming from any place.

 

“What’s the matter?” her voice demanded, sardonic. “I thought you said you were good at hide and seek!”

 

“I thought you said that you wanted my magic,” Loki responded. “I hardly see how hiding like a rat amounts to getting it.” Quietly, more to himself he added, “You’re going to have to show yourself, eventually.”

 

He held his staff at the ready, bracing for action. Darcy moved even further away.

 

There was a clatter of rocks shifting. Darcy whirled to face the sound but there was nothing there, just a few pebbles falling from the ceiling.

 

Loki hadn’t been fooled however – he was facing the opposite direction, and that was from where Selene emerged. Ready and waiting he cast an attack at her from the end of his staff.

 

But Selene successfully evaded it, and then before he could get ready she melted into her shadow again, disappearing once more.

 

Even though Darcy still could barely see it, it looked like Loki was tracking her. When she rose up again he was prepared with a throwing knife. Selene knocked it away with her sword.

 

Then grinning evilly she quickly vanished again.

 

It was starting to look hopeless. Selene was going to wear Loki down, fray his nerves to the breaking point with her attack-and-run technique, and then move in for the kill.

 

But Loki didn’t look like he was giving up. The next time she appeared from her shadow he swung his staff at her, and she parried with her sword. There was a warning creak as the blade knocked his weapon away; Loki pulled it up close to examine it, revealing a deep cut left in the ornate golden side.

 

He shot a look over at Selene, who didn’t disguise her mirth. She waved mockingly as she slunk down into her shadow, gone.

 

The instant Selene was out of sight however, a subtle change seemed to come over Loki. He exhaled, drawing himself up, his eyes hardened with steely reserve.

 

He stood still, waiting. When Selene showed up this time, he didn’t attack first.

 

Selene saw her opportunity and moved in closer – as soon as she reached for him he knocked her hand away with his staff. She swiped at him with her other hand and he readied another knife.

 

She stepped away, already preparing to turn into her shadow once more.

 

But as she started to go down, already in the shadow up to her knees, Loki dropped his knife. Instead he brought his staff around overhead, wielding it like he intended to use it as a club.

 

Selene unsheathed her sword and threw it at him, point first. Loki dodged easily, looking as though that was exactly what he expected to happen, and then he cast a spell at her. Making a fist Selene knocked it out of the way with a defensive ward.

 

Loki’s face shifted: half grimace, half grin of triumph. At first Darcy didn’t understand.

 

An eerie sound started coming from Selene’s shadow. The edges of it began to warp, churning and bubbling like an angry sea instead of a smooth even puddle.

 

Selene looked down, her eyes widening in some awful realization.

 

“No!”

 

Loki merely watched from a safe distance, his expression cold.

 

Selene struggled to pull free from her shadow but she couldn’t. She was still going down but the motion had changed. Instead of sinking of her own free will she was being dragged.

 

Selene ripped a limb free only for it to be sucked back down. She fell forward, clawing at the rock floor of the cave. Shrieking in rage and fear she tried to hang on.

 

The shadow would not give. It pulled her to it, unyielding, the edges of it shrinking with each passing second as if it was going down a drain.

 

Over Selene’s howls something else could be heard from inside the depths of the black void: chittering and keening, unfriendly sounds made by something indescribable. Selene’s nails left scratches in the stone as she tried to resist.

 

Darcy stood there and watched, incapable of looking away, as the ancient sorceress was slowly swallowed, her shadow disappearing along with the rest of her.

 

There was a strange empty silence in the cave once she was gone.

 

The enchanted sword fell down from wherever it had been looming, blade embedding itself in the stone, ownerless.

 

“Is she dead?” Darcy asked at length, quietly.

 

“No. She’s trapped. In whatever ethereal dimension it was she used as a bypass, every time she utilized her shadow as a gateway.” Loki gave the empty cavern floor a considering glance. “Judging from what we just saw, I’d say it is a far from pleasant place.”

 

“No kidding.” Darcy wrapped arms around herself more tightly. She realized, “That was your plan all along, wasn’t it? What you just did?”

 

“Not precisely. But it was a backup strategy.”

 

Loki reached up, unfastening his cape. He approached Selene’s sword warily, as if expecting it to somehow attack him. When nothing happened he draped the fabric over it, making sure both hilt and blade were well-covered before unsheathing it from the ground.

 

“I knew if it got to the point where she started using her shadow many times in succession, there was a chance that I could distract her enough to break her concentration, causing the balance of her spell to fall apart.”

 

He eyed the sword a moment. And then, with a whirl of both hands, made it disappear.

 

“What are going to do with her sword?” Darcy asked uncertainly.

 

“Put it somewhere safe,” was all that he replied. Darcy blinked, and then frowned, thinking.

 

“If getting Selene stuck inside of her own shadow wasn’t what you wanted to do, then what was?”

 

“I told you already. I fully intended to kill her.” Loki gazed off stoically. “I had a plan as to how, but I was never able to put it into action.”

 

“Why not?” Darcy questioned.

 

In response, Loki turned and looked at her, hard.

 

“Oh, I see. It’s my fault because I got in the way.” She huffed. “Well, whatever. Sorry it didn’t turn out like you hoped, but the end result is the same. She’s gone.”

 

“She’s thousands of years old. She’s built up tremendous power,” Loki said softly, in what sounded unnervingly like a warning. “I’m sure others have trapped, defeated, or even killed her before. She’ll escape from this. Eventually.”

 

“What?” Darcy exclaimed, her voice a feeble croak.

 

Loki gave a thin smile. “Oh, you don’t have anything to worry about. I’m certain it will take far longer than your mortal lifespan. Centuries, at least.”

 

“Great. That’s…great.”

 

Now that it was all finally over, Darcy felt numb, empty. She was completely drained both emotionally and physically.

 

Whatever she would’ve normally been feeling was a million miles away. Right now all she was…was tired.

 

She dropped her head into her hands for a moment. When she looked up again Loki was still standing there, eyeing her.

 

“I’m glad that you took care of her,” she told him honestly.

 

She wasn’t going to take credit for helping; she knew better. The whole time she’d been scared out of her mind, able to do little more than run and hide. Even the taser had been pure desperation, and look how much that’d actually accomplished.

 

Darcy wasn’t the kind of person who got brave in the face of adversity when the adrenaline kicked in. She just tried to cope and do the best she could. And so what? She was friends with superheroes. That didn’t mean she had to be one.

 

Loki seemed unmoved by her gratitude. “It wasn’t for you.”

 

“I know that, but…” Darcy trailed off, floundering with confusion and frustration. “Why did you save me?”

 

She stared up into his face, searching. “You could’ve let me burn, you could’ve let me fall…if all I did was get in the way of your master plan then, why?”

 

Loki was quiet a moment. He didn’t quite meet her gaze – though with him that was likely because he thought she was beneath his focus.

 

“Much as I probably wouldn’t have needed your help, you did try to aid me when I was without my memories,” he explained at last. “So as a point of honor, I would owe you for that.” He drew a small breath. “I prefer not to be in anyone’s debt.”

 

“Oh,” Darcy said, toneless. She looked down. “I see. So I guess this makes us even, then.”

 

“No.” Loki surprised her by stepping forward and resting his hands lightly on her shoulders. “Not quite.”

 

Before Darcy could gather her wits to ask what he was doing, everything went green and sparkly and the ground dropped out from under her feet.

 

When her vision cleared a few seconds later she blinked, looking around at their surroundings to realize Loki had transported them back into the woods not far from camp.

 

She turned to look at him, mouth open, stopping as she saw he held her glasses.

 

Balancing them carefully between his fingers Loki brought them up and blew a light puff of air across the frames. A tiny flicker of green flashed across them – when it was gone all the cracks and scuffs had disappeared, repaired good as new.

 

He folded them up and handed them back to Darcy. “There,” he stated. “Now, we are even.”

 

Darcy slid her glasses back on, not sure what to say. “Thanks.” A thought randomly occurred to her: “You were wrong, by the way.”

 

“What?” Loki frowned at her, puzzled.

 

“The reason that Selene knew it was okay to go after you. It wasn’t because she thought Odin didn’t love you or whatever – it was because she found out about the Bifrost being under construction.” Darcy dared to glance up at him, shrugging. “So…that’s why.”

 

Loki was completely still. It looked like he was struggling to keep some emotion from showing, but whether it was anger or something more than that, Darcy couldn’t even begin to guess.

 

“It makes no difference,” he declared.

 

Darcy nodded, looking away again. It wasn’t any of her business anyway. What did she care?

 

Picking up his staff Loki moved off, starting to stride away. He was on the verge of disappearing from sight when he paused.

 

“Oh,” he said, almost as an afterthought. “When you see Thor, tell him our paths will cross again. But our next meeting will not be on anything like friendly terms.”

 

Darcy didn’t think it was humanly possible for her to feel any more tired. “Sure. I’ll give him the message.”

 

She shut her eyes a moment, because they were starting to throb. When she opened them again Loki was gone.

 

She stayed where she was. A light breeze kicked up, sending the tangled strands of her hair drifting across her face. But nothing else happened.

 

With nothing else left to do Darcy began walking back in the direction of the campsite.

 

*

 

Odin All-Father, High King of Asgard, stood on a balcony above his palace, overlooking his realm.

 

Craning head back with his one eye he gazed at the crystal towers and golden spires of the great city in all her glory. But he barely saw any of it.

 

His mind was in a dark place. And his thoughts, to say the least, were troubled.

 

He had been unable to sleep the night before. In the wee hours of the morning, forsaking the company of the living he sought refuge among the dead, visiting the graves of Vili, Ve, Sigurd and Brynhilde.

 

And in the cold and empty catacombs of those he once numbered among his friends, he prayed that he would not soon find his heir among them.

 

Odin made a fist, striking it hard against the railing of the balcony.

 

Selene Kinslayer was his enemy – not that of his sons. It should be he and he alone that risked himself to destroy her once and for all.

 

But Thor had already proven he had the bad habit of seeking out his father’s old battles. And in spite of all he had learned, Odin feared that this time his eldest would follow that path once again.

 

It made Odin almost sick with worry, and dread, but most of all frustration. For all Thor’s brashness there were times his father felt he understood the impulses behind his actions too well.

 

After all, hadn’t he once been a younger man himself, headstrong and brash, all-too ready to make decisions without considering the consequences he’d be doomed to spend centuries regretting?

 

Odin let out a low and weary sigh. His fingers slowly uncurled as he did not so much relax as surrender to the weariness in his heart.

 

Lowering his gaze he took in the sights of the royal gardens. If he searched carefully among the foliage he could just make out the sight of his wife, back facing his direction, head bowed.

 

Odin wondered what her eyes focused on, the pages of a book, perhaps, or some work she was making with needle and thread.

 

Or far more likely, his queen sat with lap empty, staring with distant and distressed expression at her own hands, as she had all too often ever since what they thought was the death of their younger son.

 

The revelation that Loki still lived, but cared not to return to his family or even let them know that he survived, had done less than it would be hoped to assuage Frigga’s grief.

 

Odin breathed in again. He drew away from the railing, standing tall as he clasped his hands behind his back.

 

“Guard!”

 

A helmed servant appeared from the hallway beyond and hurried to his side, eager to answer to his king’s summons.

 

“Take word to the Gatekeeper at his vigil. Tell Heimdall to send a messenger to us at once, in order that we may hear of what he has seen on Midgard with his watchful eyes.”

 

“Yes, my king.”

 

“We would know of all that has happened with Thor,” Odin continued. “And also, all of that which-”

 

“My king!”

 

A second guardsman rushed into the room, interrupting, almost out of breath. Odin and the other guard turned to look at him, startled. He bowed quickly, still panting.

 

“My humblest apologies for the intrusion, your highness. But something has transpired in the Vault. Something you must come and see at once.”

 

Flanked by his men, Odin hurried down to the highly secured and carefully guarded chambers far below the palace, where they kept their most dangerous secrets and prized treasures.

 

The source of the guards’ alarmed commotion was obvious to him at once.

 

On the stone plinth where once rested the Casket of Jotunheim, which had until lately lay empty, there was an object, long and thin, wrapped in a green shroud.

 

“How did this come to be here?” the king demanded.

 

“No one knows, All-Father. It appeared without warning some short time ago. The previous round’s watch swears they saw no sign of it, and no one has entered or left these rooms since.”

 

Odin stepped forward past the guards and examined the unknown object on the pillar. He could see with scrutiny the threads of magic woven into the fabric with care. Spells to bind power, to create a layer of protection. Whatever had been covered by the cloth was clearly not meant to be touched by the unguarded hand.

 

Cautiously he reached out, pulling aside the very edge of the green fabric. A long bladed sword was revealed.

 

Odin’s breath momentarily caught in his throat, his chin lifting. He recognized the corrosive charms of darkest sorcery layered atop one another, beneath a kind of charm that not seen use since the days of ancient mortal shamans.

 

And he could practically smell the familiar twist of Selene’s dark power.

 

“What is it, your highness?”

 

Odin pulled the remains of the cape back around the sword.

 

“It is a gift from my son,” he answered, simply.

 

Turning he made to exit the Vault. The guards exchanged nervous glances, confused, but of course no one dared question their ruler.

 

“Get our sorcerers down here as soon as possible. That must be sealed away, with strongest magic, carefully. It is an evil thing.” He paused, voice lowering. “A trophy taken from an evil creature.”

 

“And…where will you be, your highness?”

 

“I am on my way to the gardens,” Odin stated, quietly. “My wife is in need of comfort.”

 

*

 

The battle might have been over, but the cleanup was far from simple.

 

All told, there were five deaths, four disappearances, and three cases of severe injury that needed to be explained. The excavation site still needed to be cleaned up. Grieving families and confused locals needed to be quietly compensated.

 

Agent Coulson somewhat crankily agreed that SHIELD would step in and take care of all of it…provided that when everything was said and done Thor would allow himself to be debriefed thoroughly on what had happened and anything else Coulson wanted to ask him about, for as long as it took; quote “if I have to tie him to an office chair and post armed guards to do it, so help me”, end quote.

 

Thor went off with the guys from SHIELD. Jane and Erik bickered a bit, though it was the friendly good-natured kind, and probably about nothing important, and presumably went back to work.

 

Darcy took a long shower, turned down dinner because she didn’t feel like eating, changed into her sweats and went silently to her bedroom.

 

It was the middle of the day. She was exhausted, but she didn’t know if she could sleep.

 

The numbness, the shock from everything that had happened, was finally wearing off. She wasn’t in a state of panic high on adrenaline any more. She could finally slow down, really take in and think about everything that had happened.

 

Darcy sat down on her bed. She removed her glasses, folding them up and placing them on the side table.

 

And then she laid her head on her pillow and started to cry.

 

It was finally hitting her, in a way that felt like a punch to her stomach. All the awful things she had seen over the past few days. All the things she had experienced and that’d happened to people she knew personally.

 

The fact that Ruth was dead.

 

That really was the worst of it, when it came right down to it. She was never going to hear Ruth’s laugh again, or see her smile. There’d never be another email. They’d never hang out and exchange stories and jokes, giggling crazily like they were way younger than they really were.

 

Ruth was gone, forever. She was the same age as Darcy but it was still too late, game over. Her life was finished. The end.

 

Darcy drew shaky breaths through her sniffles, the tears coming heavier and heavier until they turned into sobs.

 

This seriously must be what it feels like, she thought, when it gets so bad you think your heart must be breaking.

 

And then, without warning, there was a weight pressing on the edge of her bed beside her. She felt a hand upon rest gently her shoulder, coaxing her up.

 

Her body limply responded, unthinking, and two hands began massaging her shoulders with a skillful practiced touch, rubbing some of the aches and pains away. Darcy relaxed into it at first, until she remembered why it felt so familiar.

 

She spun around.

 

Loki was sitting right next to her. He looked bizarrely normal: instead of fancy armor or his medieval attire he had on a black dress shirt, sleeves rolled up past his elbows and the collar unbuttoned, paired with a set of olive gray slacks. But the part that was strangest of all was the look on his face.

 

When it came to Loki, Darcy was used to cold anger, or disdain, or cruel mockery. Indifference, at the absolute best.

 

But he gazed at her with a softness in his eyes, unmistakable emotion and unconcealed sympathy. And in that moment, his face reminded her so much more of Lethia.

 

Darcy flinched, angry at herself for falling for the trick. She pushed Loki away from her, and when he wouldn’t budge, began beating at his chest with her fists.

 

“No. Get away from me,” she insisted. “You…you jerk! You bastard! Haven’t you done enough damage? Leave me alone!”

 

Loki said nothing, but he caught her fists firmly, doing very little to restrain her even as he kept her from assaulting him further. Darcy struggled, her voice rising to a shriek.

 

“I said, just leave me alone! Go away! You don’t care, anyway – you’re heartless! You’re nothing but a monster!

 

“No,” Loki spoke then, swift. Keeping her wrists in his hands he tugged her closer, forcing her to look him in the eye. “I am not. And you know it. If I were truly a monster, then nothing would ever trouble me. I’d have no feelings at all.” He almost sighed. “Would it be I wish it were so, at times.”

 

He was right, Darcy realized, slowly catching her breath. She lowered her hands.

 

She had thought Loki was bad, but that was before she’d gotten a look at what pure evil was like, up close and personal. Loki was a lot of things…but he was nowhere near that.

 

With no target to be enraged at anymore Darcy sat there, lost, befuddled. Loki released her hands and reached to brush fingers against her cheek. It took her a moment to realize he was wiping away tears.

 

Oh, Darcy thought dimly, that’s right. I was crying.

 

The remembrance brought a wave of fresh grief.

 

Wordlessly Loki pulled her in, arms carefully wrapped around her upper body. Not sure what else to do Darcy pressed her face into his shoulder, sobbing into his shirt.

 

“It’s alright. Let it out.”

 

Loki cradled the back of her head, fingers brushing her hair. Darcy kept on going, weeping steadily, but all he did was say, completely genuine, “I’m sorry for the loss of your friend.”

 

It didn’t matter who or what Loki really was, just then. It only mattered that he was there.

 When she was finally all cried out Darcy extracted herself from his grasp, moving back as she sat on her knees and rubbed at her eyes.

 

Loki shifted, making himself more comfortable, but remained silent. His face was a carefully-composed blank.

 

“So, what gives?” Darcy asked him quietly, mistrustful. “I thought you made a big deal out of saying I didn’t mean anything to you.”

 

Loki looked briefly annoyed. “I lied. Obviously.”

 

“Oh, and so now you’re telling the truth?” Darcy found that hard to swallow after everything, and she made her disbelief quite clear.

 

“It’s been known to happen, on occasion,” Loki remarked. “And yes, I am. It seems you left more of a lasting impression on me when I was indisposed than I at first realized. Somehow I’ve come to care for you no small amount.”

 

“And I’m just supposed to take your word for that?” Darcy shook her head. “How do I know this isn’t part of some scheme to use me to get at Jane, or SHIELD, or Thor?”

 

“You don’t understand.” Loki cut her off with obvious frustration, and it got Darcy to stop and look at him, surprised. “This isn’t convenient for me, this connection to you. It’s the absolute opposite.”

 

Darcy took in the struggle and tension on his face; the pained, almost desperate, look in his eyes.

 

“You don’t want to like me, do you?” she finally understood. “Because I’m one of the puny earthlings.” She rolled her eyes, derisive. “If you actually care about me that makes it harder for you to play the big bad god.”

 

“It’s all well and good, you making fun,” Loki retorted, weary and no small amount irritated. “Just a moment ago I think you made it quite clear you’d prefer if you didn’t care for me either.”

 

Darcy made a face but she couldn’t argue with that. She eyed him silently, not sure what to think, what to feel. What she did know for certain though was she wasn’t ready to give in just yet.

 

“Almost everything I know about you is a lie.”

 

“Is it?”

 

And just like that, he shifted back into Lethia, sitting there on Darcy’s bed sideways, wearing the jeans Darcy had lent her and the matching camouflage top and arm-warmers they’d bought together. Her nails even had the purple polish Darcy had painted on.

 

Darcy flinched. “Quit it,” she complained. “That isn’t funny.”

 

“In a way I was more honest with you than I’ve been with anyone, for a very long time,” Loki-as-Lethia continued, ignoring her protests. “Don’t you see? Lethia didn’t know how to lie to you.”

 

He changed back even as he was still speaking, causing a weird shift when his voice went straight from feminine to more masculine tones.

 

“Every reaction you got from her was never anything but genuine.” Loki gazed at her evenly. “So when I said that I trusted you, and valued you, I meant it.”

 

She believed him. God, or gods, help her, she wished she didn’t. But being able to just dismiss what had happened would make life too easy.

 

“So, what does this mean?” she asked, at a loss. “Are we friends or what?”

 

“I don’t know,” Loki murmured. He looked down and away, avoiding her eyes with a frown.

 

Darcy thought about it. Loki had saved her life, as much as he’d tried to play it off like it was only about repaying her. And Lethia…she had wanted to be friends with Lethia. If that person was still inside Loki somewhere then all she could think about was how Lethia had been so desperate for reassurance and affection, how obvious it was that her greatest fear was being alone.

 

The part that confused Darcy was that Loki was the opposite, full of rejection and defiance, completely antisocial.

 

But maybe the truth was only that somewhere along the way, he had given up on trying.

 

Tentatively, Darcy reached out to try and give him a hug – and Loki drew back automatically out of her reach, bristling.

 

She caught a glimpse of some nameless hunger, a flash of pain in his eyes, like try as he might he couldn’t dig deep enough to root out the part that wanted to trust her.

 

“I’d be willing to give it a try,” Darcy said gently. “I mean, if you were.” She felt, sudden and strong, like she just wanted a friend – not to replace the one she’d lost, but to give her something grounded to cling onto, because she was becoming gradually aware that the way things were going it wouldn’t be long before nothing in her life made sense. At some point, she’d need someone to talk to, someone she could just be honest with, or she would go insane.

 

Loki pressed his lips together thinly. “I’ll have to think about it.”

 

“Oh.” Darcy was caught off-guard by how disappointed she felt. People not wanting to be friends with her hadn’t left her so depressed since the eighth grade. “Okay.”

 

Loki looked up, taking in the expression on her face. Apparently she sucked at guarding her emotions, or at least she did when faced with someone who’d had centuries to practice reading people.

 

“It’s nothing personal.”

 

And then he reached out, fingers briefly touching Darcy’s forehead. “Go to sleep.”

 

She was passed out stone cold before she had time to even realize it was a spell.

 

When she woke up the next morning she did feel better, the way she kind of had to after a good cry and a lot of sleep. With nothing else to do, she resumed going about her routine.

 

Jane was giving her a lighter workload, at least at first. She told Darcy if she ever needed to talk she was there for her, which was nice, but Darcy didn’t really want to bother her. Not when it was pretty clear all Jane wanted to be doing was spending time with Thor.

 

They were looking into getting an apartment together. Thor seemed pretty excited about that, and the new job he was apparently getting with SHIELD.

 

Erik brought in another mythology book with a faint smile, pointing out where he’d left a few post-it notes on the ‘relevant parts’. Darcy promised him she’d get around to reading it eventually.

 

Agent Coulson offered her the names of a few local grief counselors, in case she needed their services, and gently reminded her that in time he’d need to get “her account of what happened” for the records. Darcy planned to keep putting him off at least until she could figure out what the hell she was going to say.

 

She went online and put in an order for a new taser.

 

Then she called her mom and had another long cry on the phone.

 

Ruth’s family had bought whatever explanation SHIELD had given for why there was no body and was planning funeral services. Lindsey was in pretty good spirits for someone who was going to have to learn how to walk again. Amanda was supposed to make a full recovery. Dr. Rubens had thrown himself fervently into finishing up Professor Fournier’s work and making it presentable.

 

In one way or another, time marched on.

 

It’d been almost two weeks to the day when Darcy checked her email and found a message waiting for her from an address she didn’t recognize.

 

After a scan to make sure it wasn’t carrying a virus she clicked on it, curious.

 

From: mnemosyne@yggdrasil.net

 

Darcy-

 

Just checking up to see if you’re doing all right, and how things are with you.

 

If you’re interested you may write me back at this location.

 

The email was unsigned, but after looking up a few things on Wikipedia to confirm the writer’s identity, Darcy found herself smiling.

 

She saved the address to her contacts. Then opening up a new message, she started to type.