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Tied for Last

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They're all down at the cell where Loki's kept and Darcy's there because her boss is there because Thor's there because his brother's there, and on and on, until you somehow include all of them.

Loki raises a brow at the crowd.

"The chamber you're in is a modified version of the one in the helicarrier. Thank you for breaking out of that one, you'll find that we've improved on the flaws you've pointed out," Nick Fury says in that blithe tone of his that is somehow simultaneously threatening. He pauses, waiting for a remark but Loki is silent. "Moving on to the details of your incarceration, you'll be kept in this chamber twenty-four-seven, monitored at all times. I'll also be assigning an unfortunate SHIELD operative to keep you company round the clock, or whatever reason you don't want to hear."

"I wonder who that poor guy's going to be," Darcy whispers to Jane in a voice so quiet he might have missed it without his heightened hearing. Loki's eyes dart to her and anything else she might have said stops in her throat as she stares back, eyes wide.

"Unless," Fury continues sarcastically, "you have a special request in mind?"

In a few seconds, Loki sees the possibilities: her casual appearance didn't strike him as a SHIELD operative, and she will be a better, easier alternative than one, she will be docile—or at least quiet, judging by the wary look she's giving him (fear tends to dissuade conversation)—and the peace to think is what he most wants at present. Fury will most certainly use her as a kind of surveillance ploy in addition to the visual feed to keep tabs on anything he might say, will count on her being untrained so that Loki might lower his guard. And Loki will count on that; Nick Fury will agree to his proposition. The scale tips in their favor.

"Actually, yes," Loki says. He smiles inwardly when Fury's eyes narrow and the rest of the Avengersseem to shift; he still takes a measure of pride at having that affect.

"That girl will do."

In another universe, the scene would be comical. Everyone follows the imaginary line of his finger to one numb and slightly panicking Darcy Lewis. The silence stretches uncomfortably, and Darcy doesn't like it when that happens because she feels compelled to fill it up with—

"I guess no one told you that it's rude to point on this planet, in this country, in this city, at me, huh?"

—stupid remarks that made her want to dig a hole in the ground, jump in, and only come out of it for the requisite Vitamin D.

"Brother," Thor began, the protest radiating from his tone, his confused look, his entire being but Loki could see Fury quickly reviewing the same scenarios, knew he would reach the same conclusion. "Why do you—"

"Alright."

Loki knew he would interrupt, too. He schools his expression as Agent Coulson says, "Sir?"

"Alright," Fury repeats. Tony Stark looks like he's about to chime in so Fury says curtly, "Save it for upstairs, this discussion is over." He turns on his heels and makes for the elevator, not looking back once because they'll all follow him out.

Only Thor remains.

"Loki," Thor addresses in the language of old, his voice quiet, for once. "I disagree with Father's ruling. You have proven yourself and this confinement makes a mockery of your earlier actions. And—" He looks pained. "You are still my brother."

"Thank you for your support," Loki says evenly. "But it is because of my earlier actions that I am now punished."

The coolness of his tone only frustrates Thor further. "Is there a purpose behind your lack of concern? What of this change?"

"I only wish to be left alonebrother," Loki says, voice dipping softly at the word.

With great effort, Thor holds back whatever else he wishes to say. Loki speaks slowly, coolly, when he's serious; Thor treads lightly.

"Then at least allow me to secure a better…" Thor's face is pinched. "You need not remain in this cage."

His earnest pleas are enough to disgust Loki, although a tiny, half-dead part of him stirs with brotherly affection. Loki marvels at their differences; Thor's face is an open book, while his is one that's bound and shut. Suddenly Loki wishes he would go away.

"Privacy is non-negotiable, I assume?"

Thor appears stunned at his acquiescence. "I… I will suggest it nonetheless." He expected a fight. Fire, brimstone, this is Loki after all. But Thor's not one to look at a gifthorse in the mouth so he makes to leave and casts one more look behind him before boarding the elevator.

Loki closes his eyes.

He is alone.

Quiet at last.

But the humming of his thoughts grows louder and he feels a pain in his chest that no flesh wound could create. He remembers his father's voice like a slow burning: how, even after he had explained his last-second alliance with his brother's friends against the Chitauri, Odin remained unmoved.

"You doubt me, All-Father?" Loki asked. A small part of him didn't blame him.

"It is not so simple," Odin said. He seemed so much older than the last time Loki saw him. "As the King I must doubt you, but as your father I must trust you. So, Loki: what will you do now?"

Loki had no plans. He had nothing and he was baffled by it. He was just… He looked at Odin sagging against the throne. Just weary. Of everything, and he didn't know what everything entailed. Solitude—that's what he needed now. To think, because…because…

"What would you have me do?" His voice sounded far away to his own ears. It was like watching one of his incorporeal forms from up high, only this was different; this time he was observing with the detachment of those who had no stake, no ambition to see a plot through.

"You have spent so long running away from me, from Asgard; if that is what you truly wish, then go. You are no longer burdened by the name of 'Odinson.' This is your punishment. You will let Thor take you to his human allies," Odin finally said. "Let them determine your fate."

The usual hot fury that would course through Loki's veins was a dim sensation. He did not feel anything because he did not know what to feel.

"Will you be taking my powers?" Like he did to Thor's. How ironic.

"You will keep them because you will not be able to use them." At Odin's words, Loki felt a ripple over his body. His magic still thrummed at his fingertips, but they remained just out of reach. He supposed he would view it as more than a frustrating inconvenience later.

Something unexplainable flickered across Odin's face before he turned away from his son for the last time, with the cryptic words:

"May you have the strength to regain them."

Loki opens his eyes. He's sitting on the bed suspended against the wall, which is thicker than cardboard, to his dull surprise. At least his incarceration will be tolerable in that respect, however long it is to be and if Thor fails. He has much time during which to think. The insignificant girl he chose as watchdog would exist at the edge of his consciousness, like a bit of dust in the periphery of the universe.

Yes, it was wise to choose her.

. . .

"What's Loki's motive?" Fury asks.

The question bounces off the walls of the conference room until all eyes turn to Thor, who hesitates. His inner conflict is painted on his face in broad strokes. These are his allies, his friends, but Loki is his brother (he would not call him a half-brother, not even in his mind). His conversation with Loki is private, he will not reveal details.

But it isn't really lying when he's just as perplexed as they are, is it?

"I believe my brother has no motive," he finally admits.

"No angle?" Tony shakes his head. "Scheming Loki, the God of Mischief, as he's enjoyed reminding us in the past, is here because daddy says so?" At Thor's deepening frown, Tony has the decency to look apologetic, if only slightly. "Sorry, I know he's your brother and he's helped us with the Chitauri invasion—unnecessary to remind you but I'll do it anyway—the guys he brought over in the first place—but I find it a little hard to trust him."

"I know not what he is thinking any more than you all," Thor says, frustrated.

"I just don't believe in reformed villains. Not a one-eighty-degree turn like that."

Steve tap-tap-taps a finger on the table's surface. "Don't believe in second chances, Stark?"

"The guy tried to enslave humanity. You do it once or twice and maybe I'll be more inclined to forgive and forget. But more than once? Nope."

"'Once or twice'?" Natasha folds her arms over her chest, meaning that she disapproves. "Good to know you have a limit."

"He did vaporize the one that was about to decapitate me," Bruce points out casually.

"If my brother means to make amends, then I will not stand in his way." Thor turns to Director Fury, whose eyes narrow at the determined set of Thor's shoulders. "I only ask that he is moved to another location, one with limited surveillance—"

"Last time I checked, Loki is not a celebrity," Tony grumbles.

"This prison is an insult! What have we to fear? His powers are locked away, my father has seen to that. And though I do not understand my father's methods, he would not have sent Loki here if he presented a threat to this world."

"Uh, because we're here to stop him if he tries again."

"My father, Odin, has disowned my brother,Thor says quietly, voice taut like stretched wire about to snap. "He has been cast out of Asgard. Indefinitely."

He stares resolutely at the glossy surface of the table as his words echo in the sudden silence. Not even Tony has a response. Jane squeezes Thor's hand for support.

Steve steps in diplomatically. "I think it's a… reasonable… request. We can keep a close eye on him without the use of SHIELD equipment or personnel." He nods at Fury. "Haven't there been budgetary concerns from higher up?"

"There are always budgetary concerns from higher up," the Director growls. It's a sore topic with him.

"Monsters!" Tony's at the point where he waves his arms wildly. "Falling from a hole in the sky! Brainwashed Hawkeye!"

Natasha's lips thin but Clint maintains his disaffected air with a shrug. He is a disciplined agent and he chooses his battles. "That was a long time ago; this situation requires a different approach." A small smile. "And I may have shot at him a few times while pretending to aim at some Chitauri."

Tony concedes a smile at that.

Fury sighs. "Agent Coulson, your thoughts?"

"This could be a bad idea."

"I agree." Fury nods curtly. "Request granted, Thor."

"What?"

"In our line of work, Mr. Stark, you'll come to realize that all choices have pros and cons. And there'll be one person working around the clock," Fury's lone eye turns to Darcy. "Ms. Lewis."

Darcy's too stunned at the sudden attention to formulate words so she says, "Um." She didn't think they were still abiding by Loki's one condition, what with the new living arrangements and all. And the meeting had largely transpired without mention of it so she had assumed that if she kept quiet…

"If Loki's as harmless as Thor says he is, than this would be an easy task, nothing to be afraid of. A 'panic' setting willbe installed into your cell phone, though, and Mr. Rogers will be living close by, as an additional measure."

Steve sends a reassuring nod to Darcy and some of the anxiety drains away. Still, she'll be spending an inordinate amount of time near SHIELD's ex-public-enemy-number-one... god or not, magic with or without, it didn't take much to stab someone with a pencil.

Thor's jaw tightens minutely. Darcy's touched that he's torn between his advocacy for his brother and concern for her safety. Nick Fury is a tricky bastard, and he does not let you forget that. Even so, it isn't out of a callous disregard for Darcy; she was mainly doing grunt work as a reader, scouring magazines, the paper, the internet—any form of media, really—for news of abnormal activity, the kind of work that could be easily done elsewhere. Plus she was on the lowest of low grade stipend for her eyeball-peeling efforts…

"She'll be upgraded to combat pay by the hour, right?" Agent Coulson confirms.

Combat pay. That was five times her current salary.

Darcy considers this, carefully.

A little house-arrest surveillance can't be too hard. Just a quick glance up from her work time to time to see if Loki's present… and if he tries anything funny she's got the panic button and Captain-freaking-America…

Jane's eyes widen; she recognizes that contemplative look. "Darcy, are you—"

"I accept." She ignores Jane's worried stare and chants in her mind, No more dollar meals! Grocery shopping at Whole Foods! Hell, I can treat myself to a nice restaurant whenever I want!

"Your cooperation is much appreciated, Ms. Lewis. Expect to be moved in two weeks." Fury stands, a gesture which typically signifies the ending of a meeting. He sweeps out of the room, Coulson a step behind. The others trickle out.

Tony leans back into the chair. "I still don't like this."

"You will be protected, Darcy, I promise that on my honor," Thor says, clapping a hand on her shoulder which doesnot send her flying across the room, to her relief, but still makes her worry about potential bruising.

"Let us know if you suspect anything," Natasha says, squeezing her shoulder briefly in support, the other shoulder Thor hasn't clapped, and Darcy's moved by the Black Widow's thoughtfulness.

"We'll miss your coffee around here," Clint tells her sadly as he follows Natasha out.

"I'll brew some and bring it sometime," Darcy assures. She thinks, briefly and wildly, Loki has no idea what a blessing he's been given.

"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" Jane asks bluntly, and Darcy loves her for it.

"Nope," she says, grinning. "Story of my life!" She laughs to mask the sad truth and perhaps they'll all think she's slightly off her rocker for finding amusement in the situation.

"Am I the only one taking this seriously?" Tony asks the empty room, looking stricken at the very thought.

He shakes his head.

"This is not a good day."

. . .

The last time Darcy's packed her life in a cardboard box was after finishing college and moving to New York to work for SHIELD. Jane had relayed, with a wince, the ultimatum Director Fury had given her: either work for them or work for no one.

Harsh choices, she'd thought, but it was not rocket science. Once you've seen gods and spandex superheroes and shady government operations that make your Uncle Ted look less insane than everyone had thought, you can't close your eyes and walk through life like that.

(Plus, she didn't want them to erase her memory; she'd seen Men in Black. Agent Coulson assured her—while smirking, she swore—that they did no such thing.

"What do you know?" Darcy said. "The government probably keeps secrets from its agents, too."

"I have Level-Seven clearance and I'm Director Fury's second-in-command. If anyone's keeping secrets from its agents, I'll be in on it."

Darcy had no idea what 'Level-Seven' clearance meant but it sounded impressive enough.

Still: "Alright, but if I see anyone whipping out a little metal stick, I will look away.")

So she'd said yes. Jane's face had brightened because it meant she wouldn't be without female companionship in the Big Apple and Darcy had marveled, not for the first time, why someone like Jane had so few (read: none, except Darcy) girl friends. Jane has delicate features, all proportion and uniform, just like her scientific and exacting personality, she's like a beautiful doll—and Darcy thinks that this is, perhaps, part of the reason.

Jane had already moved to her New York apartment with the help of Thor. Darcy had considered asking to borrow the Asgardian but hadn't wanted to separate the couple. Agent Coulson had been assigned to facilitate her transition, to her surprise.

Needless to say, the roadtrip had its ups and downs.

Darcy had thought she could wheedle some information from the agent but that was a plane that didn't fly.

("So, Agent Coulson, Level-Seven clearance, huh? You probably see all sorts of freaky stuff," she trailed off, hoping he'd pick up the thread.

"Yes."

"…Can I get Level-Seven clearance?"

"Absolutely not."

"Darn," Darcy said, folding her arms and sinking into her chair. She got a sneaking suspicion that the Agent didn't like her. Well, the feeling was mutual! He was way too serious and his discipline made her feel downright lazy in comparison. He's probably balding because he keeps too many secrets, she thought.

And then Coulson sighed, "I'm sorry if I come across as a bit testy, but I've had to deal with more superhero divas than most as of late," and he won the internet for calling Thor, Iron Man, and whoever else divas.

Darcy told him so.

"Superhero. Divas. You win the internet. I sense stories!"

After Coulson told Darcy of his shepherding efforts, including one about how long it took him to get Thor to stop addressing him as, "Son of Coul," Darcy decided that the agent was alright in her book.

She'll still call him "Son of Coul" in her head, though.)

For the next year or so it was Freshman Year of College all over again.

She stuck out in rooms filled with black and white.

("Do I have to follow this dress code?" Darcy asked Jane, eyeing a woman in a severe-looking ensemble.

"I don't think it's written down anywhere, it's kind of unofficial, from what I've gathered," Jane said, smoothing down her pencil skirt. It's dark blue.

"Oh, okay," Darcy said. "Good.")

She had a card that pretty much told everyone she was a SHIELD employee, but was mainly just for looks.

("You know what clearance this piece of plastic gives me?" Darcy waved it in the air. "The power to go to the lady's room without being interrogated!"

"Maybe if you dressed like an employee…?"

"Jane, the last time I tried shopping for office-appropriate clothes, I ended up frustrated enough to bark at the poor cash register girl, demanding an explanation as to why not one store carried sizes that didn't make me look like a frumpy cupcake."

"…I can see your point. You could ask Natasha Romanoff? She's more your body type than I am."

"She, unlike me, spends her time doing important things. I can't ask the Black Widow to help with my fashion issues! Besides, she kind of scares me; she could probably kill me with an eraser."

"Darcy, I don't know why you said it in such a blasé way."

"Oh, is my girl crush showing? Seriously, if I had to pick a way to die, death by Natasha, I say.")

And there were some days when all she wanted to do was huddle into some corner and get out of everyone's way because she truly felt useless and very much like a ghost with no right to be there and she hears her mother's voice, crackly on the phone over the distance, What are you doing in New York? and she replies Oh, you know, I keep busy,and thank god her mother doesn't pry because she still doesn't know the answer, even after a year and a half of pretending she's making a difference, that she's wanted, as she passes out steaming cups of coffee or as she teases Steve for his Yes, ma'am'sor as she teaches Thor how to use an iPod or as she trades hard and fast barbed comments with Tony and Clint or as she doodles smiley faces and rainbows on the post-its she pastes all over Dr. Banner's lab until Tony shoos her out—

(She asked Natasha, once, why Nick Fury allowed her to be there, and Natasha lifted a polished brow and gently shrugged. "I don't try to understand the man, but if you asked me, I like having someone around who I can talk with about stuff that has nothing to do with the fate of the world.")

She tells herself that the grins she gets are enough, these incredible people who do things she can only dream to be a part of, it's enough that they adore her coffee and let her float around in the lab and listen to her jokes and tell her how their day went without breaching protocol.

But that would be lying and Darcy Lewis is a terrible, terrible liar.

Except when it concerns people she cares about. For people who she would tear down mountains, if she could.

Then she hides behind her smile and laughs, and laughs, and laughs.

. . .

She knocks at the door before entering (it's her space, now, but she's been brought up with manners, believe it or not) but as she reaches for the doorknob it swings open and there is a god standing in front of her.

"Hello," she says, congratulating herself for remembering to breathe. She reminds herself that he is a depowered god and reigns in her instincts to whip out her taser and flee.

Loki surprises her by speaking.

"You're the handler."

His voice is smooth but flat and robotic, as if he wasn't really all there, more like a body going through the motions after the spirit has left. Loki's eyes are a vivid shade of green and she reminds herself that he is a murdering, depoweredgod as her thoughts make strange associations with green and leaves and life

"Has anyone told you that it is rude to stare on this planet, in this country, in this city, at me?" he says archly.

She freezes. A memory floats in her mind, like a smoke curling up:

"I guess no one told you that it's rude to point on this planet, in this country, in this city, at me, huh?"

She opens and closes her mouth like a fish but before she can reply he has swept away, leaving her to stare at his raven hair and—

"Your clothes," she says, shocked. "Normal, human clothes. Where did you get—"

Loki stills. He turns around, slowly, and the look in his eyes is so calculating that Darcy immediately clutches at the pocket where her taser is kept.

"You are here because you are clearly not a SHIELD operative. You are here because I do not wish to deal with one," he says, not even batting an eye at her confrontational posture. "This is an arrangement born out of necessity and sustained by tolerance. Tolerance of which I have very little."

Darcy relaxes ever so slightly, but does not remove her hand from her bag.

"To answer your question: Thor. He dropped them off along with a warning not to harm you." There's a heated emotion in there somewhere, if Darcy had the mind to look for it. "I am a man of my word, Ms. Lewis. As long as our interactions are limited and do not try my patience, I will not touch you." His voice drops into threatening waters.

"But do not forget that I am still a god."

He crosses the living room and is almost at his door when she says:

"I don't believe in gods."

Loki whips around but she's already making herself comfortable by the office desk crammed against a wall, pulling out various files and trinkets and making the space her home. He can see the slight tremble of her fingers as she sets up her laptop and waits for it to boot up, facing away. Centuries pass and Darcy thinks she dies twice before, finally, the sky blue screen welcomes her.

She sucks in a steadying breath when his door clicks shut.

Darcy has struck the first match and let it fall.

She wonders if he would catch the flame or let the ground burn.

Chapter Text

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Loki stares at nothing as he lay on the white bed. His room is large enough that he does not feel caged and small enough to make him feel like the only person in the universe.

He may very well be the only one in the universe; there is no one to tell him otherwise. It's a time-old game he played when he was younger, more foolish, and bright with a life unlived. On the days where he didn't have the strength to pretend they didn't eye him strangely, that they didn't whisper in the streets of his deficiencies—

(that his hair was black, that he didn't have an Asgardian's brawny frame, that his strengths lied in cunning and not in brave stupidity, that he practiced magic)

—on the days he didn't wish to see the weak smiles his father gave him in place of the answers he desperately wanted, he spirited himself away to a forgotten wood and played a game called let's pretend I am the only one in the universe who matters. He would stay in those woods for hours, even days—

(no one looked for him, except Thor on the seventh day who said, "It is unfair of you to have fun by yourself, Loki. May I join you?")

—letting himself believe his own lies so when he finally emerged from the trees it was so strange to see creatures so like him, but so very not.

Loki banishes the memory. He lifts himself from the bed and his scowl deepens at his reflection in the mirror. He's back in his usual black and green ensemble, the dark shirt Thor had given him earlier lay on the floor, forgotten. It was a mistake to wear it in the first place.

It's been three days since he arrived, three days since that girl came to work in his living room. (He supposes it's not really his, but he's always been greedy — or did he become that way?) For three days his mind was either a blank page or a stew of feverish activity and at all turns, the words would shoot through and tear all to pieces:

I don't believe in gods.

Of course someone of her painfully limited perspective, that of a human's, would think as much. He couldn't fathom the thought of a world with no gods, but, such is their way: they rarely see farther than what's in front of them, they rarely know what's best for them.

There's a loud crash and a string of impressive curses.

Mild curiosity and hunger drive him from his solitude and he enters the living room to a sight of broken glass and Darcy holding her hand to her chest.

Her head whips up. "Don't come here!"

The command stops him in his tracks, not out of deference, but out of shock that a mortal commanded him.

"Oh, right — sorry — the whole 'you're a god' thing. I guess a little cut won't matter to you, huh?" she says, glancing up at him. Her eyes widen at his attire — he really is more intimidating in armor — before lowering her gaze. "I — I dropped a cup and — let me clean it up quickly." Darcy claps her hand together in remembrance, only to yelp. She cradles her left palm, from which a steady line of blood drips to the wooden floor. She goes to the kitchen and retrieves a plastic bag and a roll of paper towels.

The bell rings.

Darcy frowns. Glancing between the mess on the floor and the door as the bell rings again, insistent, she decides the former can wait.

She's pressing a folded square of paper towel to her wound as she opens the door. "Yes, who is it…?"

Thor is so large that she wonders if his broad shoulders will fit through the frame. "Darcy!" His smile disappears. "Your hand — you are injured?"

The blood seeping through the thin sheet seems to distress him more than her. Thor spots Loki watching them by the couch. Loki's eyes narrow at the flash of accusation that his brother tries to hide.

"No, Thor, I cut my hand when I dropped my coffee mug. I was about to clean it up when you came," Darcy says quickly. "Speaking of which, what brings you here?"

He welcomes the topic switch and holds up an old Macy's bag. "I have brought more clothes." Thor tries to catch Loki's eye but his brother's back is turned to him. He swallows. "A moment of privacy, Darcy? I wish to speak to you."

"Um. Yeah, sure," Darcy says. She hesitates, then calls out to Loki, "We'll be outside for a few minutes."

She closes the door behind her.

"What's up, big guy?" She interprets his anxious look and sighs. "Look, Thor, I'm okay and he's okay. This is the first time he's come out of his room since I started." A thoughtful look crosses her face. "Random question — do you guys need to eat? I saw you eating before — man, twenty pizzas, I will never forget how light my wallet felt — but is itnecessary?"

His voice is far away when he replies, "Without nourishment we will not die, but we will experience the same starvation humans feel. We eat to avoid that and because we enjoy it."

"Hmm, Fury didn't mention if it's my job to feed him, either," Darcy trailed off, pondering. Her eyes fall on a stack of flat boxes against the wall. "Pizza?"

Thor nods glumly. "Hawaiian, Supreme, and Plain. I did not know which would suit my brother's taste."

Darcy's stomach rumbles. "You've nailed mine. I'm starving." She lifts one lid and the smell of cheese and marinara sauce nearly brings her to her knees. "I'm here for nearly six straight hours and I've forgotten my lunch today. Thor, you're a godsend."

He attempts a weak smile at that. "Darcy Lewis, you have more strength than meets the eye." He shakes his head. "I would not be able to live with my brother like you do, not after my failures."

I don't live with him, I work here and keep an eye on him, she thinks. The words come from some place within her: "Thor, no, it's not your fault."

It's not always a good thing to say the right words at the right time. Darcy is amazed at the way Thor's face crumples up with regret.

"I wonder what would have happened if I had not foolishly gone to Jotunheim. How different things would be now."

She lets her tone be light. "You can't take all the credit. Didn't Loki manipulate you into charging in?"

"Manipulate?" Thor chuckles and it has an artificial quality that sounds so wrong coming from him. "No, he let my own arrogance manipulate me."

She thinks this is very true. She thinks gods and humans are not different at all. This is why she doesn't believe in gods. She murmurs, "We all make mistakes."

But when gods make mistakes it's usually entire worlds that pay.

She doesn't say that. She can't. She doesn't want to know what the words can do to this man-child standing before her, so large and heavy that he's like the sun.

Thor looks unconvinced. She would, too, if someone had tossed her the same halfhearted comfort.

"We can't change the past," she says instead, truthfully, and Thor nods.

This, he can understand.

. . .

Darcy closes the door behind her. She resolves not to dwell on Thor's departure for long because there are three stacks of pizza in her hands and her stomach takes priority. Careful to step around her mug and coffee debris, she goes to set the boxes on the kitchen island. Loki is seated on the couch, various ill-suited articles of clothing strewn beside him, the emptied Macy's bag at his feet.

"There's pizza here, if you're hungry," she says, reaching into glass cupboards and pulling out glasses and paper plates. She looks in the fridge, stares at the expired bottle of juice, and makes up her mind to stock up the kitchen. She fills two glasses with tap water and peels back the lid of the box containing Hawaiian pizza.

Her eyes slide guiltily to the mess she has yet to clean even as she lifts a slice onto her plate. The first bite — a roller coaster of warm sauce and mozzarella and pineapple — and she sinks into the chair in bliss. She's reaching for another slice, this time Supreme, she's not picky, when Loki enters the kitchen.

She pauses, wondering what to do, and quickly decides to pretend like it's a daily occurrence that a murderous deity sits at the table and shares pizza with her.

She watches as Loki's nose wrinkles — does it mean he finds the smell repellent? — before he takes an experimental bite of Hawaiian pizza. He chews, slowly, cautiously, brows furrowed as if he was internalizing and assessing the taste. By the time he swallows, his forehead has smoothened and there's a thoughtful expression on his face.

Darcy grins. "Isn't that explosion of warm, sweet pineapple in your mouth just amazing? It's a weird juxtaposition but it somehow works."

She is shocked and oddly pleased when he replies: "Indeed."

Loki lifts the glass of water to his lips.

His expression twists.

"Sorry," she says, "It's better to pair pizza with Coke or Sprite to wash it down. Next time I'll make sure to have soda on hand."

It is only after she's finished with her Supreme slice that she realizes she's said next time.

But he hasn't objected so she doesn't correct herself.

. . .

The pizza has been put away in the fridge, the coffee has been wiped from the floor, and Darcy is back at her station, her fingers going clack-clackkity-clack on the keyboard punctuated by moments of mouse-clicking.

Loki sits like a statue on the sofa, hands on his knees, looking at — nothing. He has already scoured the entire apartment when he was first left here and there is nothing of interest, only Beech hardwood floors, one bedroom minimally furnished, white walls all over and sparse arrangements of white-potted plants, empty shelves built into walls, rows of tall bookcases devoid of books, an unused DVD player below the TV, and the walnut leather sofa with an attached chaise lounge he now sat upon. He supposes, though, that it was a little too nice for one of his reputation, according to Darcy Lewis's initial assessment—

(With wide eyes and open mouth, Darcy went to the sleek kitchen, muttering lowly under her breath, "Damn. This is more modern than my apartment." She continued her appraisal: the bar-height, granite-topped table incorporated into the island's side, the island's strategically-located two sinks, the leather-covered, high-back chairs, and "Oh, man, this view is to die for!" and a despondent uttering of "It's official: there is no justice in the world.")

—but he's not in the mood to appreciate aesthetics.

Loki reaches for the core of magic within him for the fifteenth time. In his mind's eye, it appears as a glowing, thrumming sphere of green suffocated in blue threads. He winces as Odin's threads repel him, and with a jolt, his consciousness is thrown back into the present. He growls.

"Um," says a voice.

He turns his head and Darcy flinches at the burning in his eyes. He looks angry and immediately she regrets speaking at all.

"If you want to watch," she says, her voice hesitant at first but growing in strength. "The television remote is on the shelf over there."

Loki is quiet, which may be a good sign, and he's not glowering at her, which is a fantastic sign. He continues to stare with what may be confusion.

Darcy gets up from her desk. "Here, let me." The sooner she turns the TV on, the sooner she can redirect Loki's attention away from her. She strides over to one of the built-in shelves, retrieves a black rectangle, and directs one end at the flat screen.

Loki blinks at the sudden noise and moving pictures.

"Three basic things to know: this button switches channels, this button adjusts the volume, and this button turns the TV on or off, so don't throw the remote at the screen." There's a quick flash of a smile. "Sorry, you don't look like you'll do it, but I had to mention it, just in case. That's what Thor did, the big dolt. Well, that's pretty much it — here."

She's holding out the remote for him to take. After a few seconds, he reaches for it and pale fingers brush hers.

Darcy scurries back to her desk. She resumes an article on The Nowata Star without comprehending what she's reading.

Instead, she's wondering why she's surprised that he is as warm as she is.

. . .

Loki's surfing channels like he was born to do it; he doesn't find any one channel particularly riveting, but the human technology is… interesting, at the very least. Mortal entertainment has significantly improved from shadow puppetry and beastly gladiatorial fights, though the cartoons are too childish, the reality shows are too vacuous (he sneers at a gaudy, tan group living it up by some beach), and he had no intention of watching the news if he wasn't on it.

"Needless to say I have some unusual habits," begins a wry, humorous voice that is also curiously lacking in true human depth.

Loki's thumb hovers over the 'next channel' button.

A plainly handsome man is observing a woman tear crab legs apart. "Yet all these socially acceptable people can't wait to pick up hammers and smash their food to bits. Normal people are so hostile."

Absentmindedly, Loki lays the remote to the side.

Odin's shield over his magic is not going anywhere, after all. He has time to spare.

. . .

Darcy sneaks a glance at the god in the living room. This is easy to do, and does not require her self-professed 'ninja skills' since said god is paying more attention to the television screen than he has ever to her.

Turning back to the papers before her, she groans in silence.

Loki is watching Dexter.

She doesn't know whether to find this amusing or worrying.

. . .

Over the next few days, the apartment becomes the inside of a vacuum cleaner. Little objects materialize from god-knows-where: Starbuck's cups litter the kitchen table, candy wrappers can be found in nooks and crannies, the garbage can contains a mountain of disposable utensils, there are pens lying on shelves and sky blue post-it notes on the refrigerator (Buy more OJ!), on the freezer door (Ice cream!), on the cupboards (Out of paper plates!). Loki follows the bright purple paperclips and crumpled paper balls like a line of destruction to Darcy's desk.

She's tapping her feet to a rhythm he can't place and tilting her head in time to the music coming from her earbuds. She doesn't notice him.

He taps her shoulder, once, a swift moment of contact.

"Wha—?" Darcy spins around in her chair and pauses her iPod. She sees his armor and immediately tenses. It's a knee-jerk reaction that she's failing to curb. "…Yes?"

"Evidently, you are the one living here, not I."

She doesn't understand; she furrows her brows.

Impatiently, he sweeps an arm over the expanse of the room.

Darcy's mouth is a little circle. "Oh — right, sorry about that." His eyes narrow and she rises from her chair, trying not to gulp. "Yeah, uh, I'll clean up now."

"Control your slovenly habits. Next time there won't be a warning."

Only after Loki's left for his room does Darcy dare to stick out her tongue in response.

"He's cranky because Dexter's only on Sundays," she grumbles as she collects coffee cups from her desk. "Dude needs a hobby."

. . .

It is Thursday evening and he is alone.

Loki pulls at the net ensnaring his magic. He's done this so many times by now that he anticipates the backlash of Odin's net and he reels back before it could thrust him away.

Loki stands from the bed abruptly, his eyes smoldering like coals. It is clear to him now that Odin's dam on his magic cannot be broken through sheer will.

He paces in irritation. His brother had reclaimed Mjölnir after nearly sacrificing himself for mortals. Does he have to do the same? Loki scowls. He had aligned himself to Thor's team because even he could admit to an error in judgment, at least in private; it had been a mistake to bring the Chitauri to Earth. They did not share Loki's grand plans for the planet, only seeking to destroy while he had wished to rule it. Thus an alliance, with his former enemies, however tentative, had been advantageous. Neutrality did not mean he had any desire to embrace humanity with the same gusto as his brother.

He abandons his room for the living room, finding it far too small for adequate pacing. But how to expel his irritation? He had already tried to while away the days until the next Dexter episode but after coming across an Avengers press conference on the news, he had rolled his eyes and laid the remote to rest.

Perhaps SHIELD hopes to defeat me with boredom, Loki muses as he casts a disdainful glance about his spare surroundings—

On one of the bookcases.

He draws near.

Four volumes are arranged in a neat line on the middle shelf, of varying height and thickness. A sky blue post-it note hangs from the edge of the upper shelf:

Help yourself

He crumples the post-it and browses the titles.

"'The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverent Romp through Civilization's Best Bits,' 'Murder on the Orient Express, a Hercule Poirot Mystery,' 'The Merchant of Venice,' and 'An Uncommon History of Common Things'."

There doesn't seem to be a method in the selection except that there were multiple M's.

After some deliberation, Loki selects The Mental Floss History of the World and opens the paperback.

Scrawled on the inside flap are the words:

Property of Darcy Lewis

Smiling, he discards the note in the wastebasket before settling on the sofa, where he begins his first conquest.

. . .

It is Friday afternoon.

Darcy enters the apartment, balancing her shoulder bag, a molded pulp drink carrier with three drinks, two stacked foam containers and a Bloomingdale's shopping bag full of books. She gently kicks the door shut behind her and spies Loki lying on his side on the couch, too absorbed in a small book to acknowledge her presence.

She smirks in satisfaction as she teeters into the kitchen and sets the drinks and the two rectangular containers onto the table.

"Loki, not sure if you'll like it but I've got sandwiches — and soda, this time!" she calls over her shoulder, popping open her lunch—

Darcy nearly shrieks when Loki suddenly materializes into the kitchen. She clutches blindly at her bag, her taser—

"More books?" Loki peers into the Bloomingdale's bag and pulls out its contents. "You have an eclectic taste in literature, Ms. Lewis."

—her taser is in a different purse. Darcy realizes that she hasn't even brought her taser in days.

"What?" she asks, distractedly.

He repeats, "Your selection of books is varied."

"Oh," Darcy says, relaxing. That sounds like a compliment. "I wasn't sure what you'd want to read so I picked them at random."

Loki lifts the small book he'd been holding. "This one is quite engrossing."

Darcy gasps and gushes, "I know, isn't Agatha Christie fantastic? I've read every single one her Poirot and Ms. Marple mysteries and she never fails to deliver!" She grins widely. "Did you finish it yet? You probably didn't expect that—"

"Ah, ah, spoilers, Ms. Lewis," Loki tuts disapprovingly. "I once turned a man into a mare for revealing the ending ofMedea." A smile ghosts across his lips. "He was chased by a stallion that wanted to mate with him."

Darcy wonders why she isn't alarmed by his anecdote. It wasn't necessarily a threat towards her, but it was a reminder of who she was dealing with.

"I'll make sure to remember that," she says, sitting down and popping out the two Cokes from the drink tray. He follows her move and sits as well. "So," she starts, casually, "Have you looked at the other books I've brought?"

"Yes. I've read them."

"'Read'? Already?"

"I've read The Merchant of Venice play — my sympathies lie with Shylock, of course — and the other two are trivia compilations so a skim was all that was necessary," he says, airily.

Loki unwraps his sandwich and looks at it dubiously.

"It's good, it's a 'Beach Club'," Darcy cajoles, taking a bite of hers as if to prove its edibility. She adds, slyly, "I'll bring you more Agatha Christie books if you do?"

"Bribery, Ms. Lewis?" His tone is lightly challenging.

"Just 'Darcy' is fine."

He pretends to consider the idea until he inclines his head in a nod. "Continue to do so." He takes a bite and doesn't look like he wants to spit it out, although, "Acceptable" is his judgment.

Darcy sips her Coke, amused. "A thousand apologies, I'll get better food for your refined palette."

Before taking another bite, she pauses. She looks at him with rising awe.

"We're having a conversation. Like, a more-than-three-sentences-long, actual conversation. Is this okay?"

Loki raises a brow.

"Let's see, you're not screaming, I'm not threatening to kill you, your Avenger associates are not charging in from all possible entrances," he ticks each point off with his fingers. "Shall I go on, Darcy?"

He responds to her incredulity with a pointed look that simply says, the world's not imploding, duh, I think we're in the clear.

That's Darcy's interpretation, anyway.

"I like the 'not threatening to kill' me part," she says, smiling.

They resume their meal with equal measures of congenial talk and companionable silence.

.

.

.

Chapter Text

.

.

.

Over the next few weeks, life in the apartment follows an unexpected rhythm.

Darcy would arrive around noon, bearing an armful of books and the day's lunch. They would exchange polite talk while eating and afterwards, Darcy would take her place at her desk while Loki sat on the couch to read when watching television proved too taxing on the mind ("How is this 'Jersey Shore' considered entertainment? I would probably get more amusement by watching the sublimation of ice," Loki says, to which Darcy replies, "I know, it's just mindless entertainment. Which I don't watch. Okay, maybe just once.")

It was as normal as Darcy never imagined it could be and naturally, she was wary.

Darcy is a cautious person by nature. Some would call her a cynic but she prefers the term realist.

Life's dealt her enough lemons for her to know that a good thing never lasts.

. . .

"Loki, food!" Darcy calls from the kitchen as she sets out foam containers of pasta.

Loki pops into existence behind a chair, looking at her with a displeased expression. "A simple, 'I've brought lunch' will do. I'd rather not be ordered like a dog."

"Sorry," Darcy says and rolls her eyes. "More importantly, this is the second time you've teleported. How? I thought your magic was on lockdown." Darcy's fingers skim over her taser. She'd taken care to have it on her person at all times.

Loki gathers forks and cups from the cupboards. "Teleportation was one of the first skills I ever learned; it's become engrained in my being that magic isn't necessary to move a few meters." He sets the utensils on the table and takes a seat, raising a brow at her. "At full capacity I can cross dimensions; what good is being able to teleport to the end of the room?" He smiles. "And if it provides you comfort, you can take out your little weapon from your pocket; you can reach it faster that way."

Darcy smiles cheekily. "I like the element of uncertainty." She doesn't take it out.

"Ah, yes," His eyes alight with mischief. "I believe there's a story here? How did you tase Thor?"

He's grinning as she tells the tale between forkfuls of spaghetti alla carbonara. By the end, Loki chuckles and congratulates her like she's successfully pulled off a wild prank.

Darcy decides she likes it when he smiles.

. . .

It's amusing to watch Loki's face shift from scholarly interest to slight confusion to utter disbelief.

"Well?" Darcy prompts, standing with her hands on hips.

He closes the Prose Edda, tightlipped. The Poetic Edda lies beside him on the couch with its innocuous, tan hard cover.

"These Norse mythologies are complete fabrications," Loki says. His disappointment is palpable. "Wrong, wrong, nearly everything is wrong. Especially the ones concerning Baldur."

"Baldur? The supposed beautiful and beloved god?" Darcy asks, surprised.

"He was a deceitful god and deserved to die," he says and, catching her inquisitive look, explains, "He had a strange power: everyone and everything would love him, no matter what he did." He smiles without humor. "And your Proseand Poetic Edda do not mention his unsavory deeds. Would you like to know?"

Darcy gulps. She wants to say no. "Like what?"

"Baldur never had a wife; he had conquests. Once, a mortal named Nanna rejected him and he engineered the death of her husband. She refused him still, but gave in when he stole her child." His smile sours with distaste. "Another time, Baldur made… inappropriate… advances towards Frigga. Odin put a stop to it, but Baldur pretended it was all in good fun, that he was simply paying his respects to mother."

In a horrified whisper, Darcy asks, "What did she do?"

"She was flattered. Baldur asked for invincibility and she made him immune to every object in the world," he says, flatly. "At first I suspected my dislike of Baldur had more to do with a difference in personality but when—" He almost says 'father,' but thankfully Darcy doesn't notice, she's too caught up in his anecdote. "When Odin confided that he suspected enchantment, I knew it was more than that. Baldur was poisoning everyone so he could claim the throne." He speaks quickly, now, for this is a little too close to home, to what he tried to do, before.

"So you killed him?" There is no judgment in her question.

"did not kill him myself," Loki says, careful not to sound defensive. He may regret some things he's done, but this is one of the things he thinks he's done right. "Your Norse myths are almost correct regarding this — I merely fashioned the mistletoe spear that killed him. Baldur's death lifted the enchantment and eventually everyone's memory of him aligned with the truth."

"What about that bit about you disguising yourself as a giantess at his funeral?"

He scoffs. "There was no disguise. I attended and left as myself. Whatever tears I may have shed were for that I did not kill him."

"This is the point where I should be calling you heartless," Darcy says with a shake of her head.

"By all means," Loki says, indifferent. He leans against the couch. "I care little for the opinion of mortals. You can't possibly comprehend—"

"I said that 'I should be calling you heartless,' not that I'm going to," Darcy says, cutting him off mid-sentence because she knows he hates it when people do that. Loki frowns, as she expected. She plows on, "I'm not one to pass judgment, lord knows I've done questionable things in the past, and I've had my fair share of people judging me but, whatever." She pauses, her steam flagging. "All I'm saying is that… It was good to do a bad thing."

Loki had long stopped caring for acceptance of his actions. He had learned that approval was not necessary in order to do what he felt was right, to follow his own principles.

Darcy fidgets under his green gaze. He lowers his eyes, away.

He had forgotten that acceptance, however unnecessary and unwanted it may be, was still gratifying.

"Well," Darcy says in a nervous exhale, "I should get back to work and leave you to your reading."

"Of course," Loki says, but he's miles away. His unseeing eyes don't see Darcy returning to her desk, but the bright glow of his magic core.

Curiously, he tugs at Odin's threads.

He reels back, perplexed to find them easy to pull. The threads have become loose.

Loki doesn't read anything else that afternoon.

. . .

Darcy opens the apartment door.

"Thor!" She bestows a hug. "It's been a while."

His nervous look hides behind a smile. "It has been long indeed, Darcy. How fares my brother?"

"Why don't you come in and see for yourself?" Darcy says, stepping aside to let the Asgardian through. She follows him to the living room but hangs back, observing with a grin as Thor halts.

Loki is lying on his back on the couch, his nose embedded in the book suspended over his head. He lowers The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to fix an unconcerned look at his audience. "What is it, Thor?"

Darcy knows Loki's as amused as she is at Thor's attempts to regain his speech.

"You seem… comfortable," is all Thor says.

"I am." Loki props himself up by one elbow and bookmarks his location. "This couch is marvelous, I think I'll have to get one for myself when I'm finally released. Tell me, brother, when do you think your SHIELD associates will realize I don't pose a threat and conclude this house arrest?" He flashes a sunny smile. "Television and books can only occupy my attention for so long; I may resort to more violent outlets to ward off the boredom."

"There you go again with the easy threats," Darcy says, shaking her head.

Thor clears his throat. "Actually, that is what I wish to speak to you of."

Loki exaggerates his sigh of relief. "As long as you aren't bringing those horrific shirts…"

"What is wrong with—" Thor begins, then thinks better of it. He turns to Darcy with an apologetic look. "This will not take too long."

"Sure, I'll be waiting outside," Darcy says. She clamps down her curiosity and heads for the door. She knows when she's not wanted.

. . .

The door closes behind Darcy.

Thor is looking at Loki and Loki is looking at his nails.

Thor clears his throat. "I have been speaking with Director Fury about the terms of your…" He waves a hand about the room.

"You mean the negotiations for my release?" Loki says archly. "Call it what it is, you will not be hurting my feelings."

Thor shakes his head stubbornly. "They are not keeping you here, they are merely watching you. They are afraid of you."

"'They'?" Loki rises from the couch; it is then that Thor notices his armor. "The Avengers and SHIELD, I assume? You speak of 'them' when you mean 'we'. Are you not a part of that group? Do you not mean that you are watching me, that you are afraid of me?"

"It is not as you say, Loki!"

Thor sends a quick glance at the door. He lowers his voice and continues, "I wish to believe that you mean no ill will, but the others do not trust you yet—"

"The others? Or you?"

When Loki receives no reply, he turns away, towards his room.

"I am trying my best," Thor says, his voice strained and pleading. As always, it both disgusts Loki and prods at the lump of coal that his theatrical side imagines is his heart.

"You always do," Loki sneers.

"Why must you always cast doubt on my efforts! I only wish the best for you—"

"Because you always lie," Loki hisses, eyes flashing with trapped magic; if he could, he would have thrown Thor back. A hollow voice in his head echoes—

("So I am no more than another stolen relic locked up here.")

—and there is anger, weary and familiar, that he welcomes with arms wide like an old friend. Instinctively he calls for his magic but there is no answer. He remembers suddenly that he cannot use it. The memory of his helplessness is enough to burn him alive with fury.

"Leave," Loki commands very quietly, and the air between them seems to freeze. "Now."

He does not even look at his brother.

Thor fights his words back down his throat. It would be unwise to attempt anything further, not when Loki is like this. Thor wonders if Loki knew how helpless he felt, the helplessness derived from the knowledge that he can never ease his brother's anger; but of course, how could he? Thor never said so. Loki is right and wrong; Thor is afraid, not ofhim, but of the truth in his words. Thor fears that perhaps he truly does hate his brother, that he is only fooling himself with false affection because that is how brothers should act.

Thor doesn't know what to do around Loki. What does it mean when the God of Lies speaks the truth?

. . .

Darcy pushes off the wall as Thor comes out and shuts the door behind him. Her question never leaves her lips when she sees his forlorn look.

"There was some shouting," Darcy says softly. "Couldn't hear anything though. Walls must be thick."

Thor's jaw is tight and his eyes look pinched and tired. He hands over her shoulder bag. "Go home, Darcy. I would not return inside."

She swallows, hard. "That bad, huh?" she says as they walk to the elevator.

"How it always is," he says, resigned. Thor seems to sink into himself. "But not how it always was."

Darcy reaches up and lays a hand on his shoulder.

"Tell me how it always was?" she asks as the elevator doors slide shut and they descend. "Go back to the beginning."

And Thor speaks from the beginning because there is finally someone to listen; he goes as far back as he could remember until he walks Darcy home and returns to Jane's house.

Darcy turns off the lights and pulls the bedcovers up to her chin. His wistful voice lulls her to sleep and she dreams of a shimmering rainbow bridge. She dreams of two brothers sitting, one clad in red, one clad in green, tossing their winged and horned helmets over the edge as they point at constellations.

"There is Pisces over there, and Aries, and Perseus carrying the head of Medusa. The vain queen Cassiopeia in her chair…"

"Loki, that one is Pegasus, correct?"

"Yes, it is."

"I am afraid that despite the many hours spent learning the position of the stars, Pegasus is the only one I can recall without fail." A laugh. "Because it is a large square."

"It will be easier with time, brother. With enough time one can do anything," Loki assures with conviction.

Thor believes.

. . .

"And the neighboring constellation of Perseus is…? Remember they were lovers."

"Ah, the Chained Lady Andromeda!"

"Very good."

Loki growls and leaves his bed. He cannot even think in solitude without undesired memories rising like ghosts in the mist.

He goes to the large bay windows overlooking the city. The lights of New York compete with the stars; he can only see them glowing faintly from where he stands.

Loki feels the heat ebb. He closes his eyes and lets go.

He never likes what follows. Anger abandons him and all that's left is emptiness as vast as the universe.

. . .

Loki doesn't expect that she would come the next day, but, there she is, stepping across the threshold armed with nothing but a greeting smile, a plastic bag that smells like chicken, and a tray of brown cups.

"I've been warned not to come here today," she informs him, gliding into the kitchen.

He follows her and she grins proudly like she's done something controversial and she loves it.

Loki didn't expect this. He's unsure how to respond.

Darcy interprets his silent question with a sigh that means, fine, I'll spell it out.

"I may not look like it, but I'm pretty diligent about my work. It's so important and all," Darcy says with self-deprecating sarcasm. She winks. "Besides, who's going to feed you?"

She sets out two foam containers with a flourish of her hands. "Bon appétit! It's chicken and wild rice. The real deal." She takes a plastic forkful to her mouth. "Well, it's not five-star restaurant quality but it's as close as you'll get with take out. I'll show you where to eat when we can go — oh!"

Darcy removes the brown cups from the tray. "I figured today's as good as any day for you to try coffee — the nectar of mortals." She looks at their food and laughs. "Hmm, I didn't think this through, did I? Coffee and chicken?"

Loki holds the disposable cup to his lips and the scent of toasted nuts and charred wood wafts to his nose. He takes a curious sip, mindful not to scald himself. The hot liquid rolls pleasantly over his tongue.

"How is it?" Darcy asks. "Marvelous? Heavenly?"

Loki takes another sip and watches Darcy over the rim of the cup. She's all eager energy as she places out a napkin and plastic fork for him, waiting to hear his opinion. There's a warmth somewhere in him that he's not sure comes from the drink.

"I am glad," he says quietly.

Darcy tilts her head.

"…that it is bitter. I dislike overly sweet things, and I have seen the amount of sugar you put in your coffee," Loki says primly. "It's quite good, as far as mortal beverages go."

"Tough crowd," Darcy says, smiling against the rim of her cup.

. . .

Loki shuffles through the latest selection of books Darcy's brought. There are two history books, one book on the existence of extraterrestrial life, and—

He pulls out the largest book in the pile. It's slim but tall and wide with a plain, dark hard cover. Opening it, he finds vivid photographs and star charts and maps accompanied by concise information boxes. An astronomy book, he realizes, feeling betrayed. He doesn't believe in coincidences.

Loki looks at Darcy but she's sitting at her desk, back turned to him, poring over some magazine.

He wonders if she's shrewder than he gave credit.

The book's pages are soft with age and with the care of many readings. It's beautiful and has the smell of an old attic filled with spice herbs. Loki's hand trails down a sky map of the northern sky.

Pisces, Andromeda, he recites in his mind. Pegasus…

He closes the book.

He doesn't take it with the other three.

. . .

At the end of the day, Darcy's lips press together into a thin line.

The astronomy book is still in the bag. Did he even see it?

No, of course he did, he just didn't take it.

Darcy shoulders her bag and leaves the apartment, one cheek puffed out resolutely.

. . .

Two days later and Loki is staring down into Darcy's bag of books. Three out of four are on astronomy. One of them is titled, Astronomy for Dummies.

He doesn't know whether to be indignant at Thor for sharing tales that are—

(memories, lies, forgotten, cherished, secrets, remembered)

—or at Darcy for trying to… to do… for whatever game she thinks she's playing.

It is nighttime and Darcy's already gone home. The books litter the floor. She knows he despises clutter.

Loki shoves the books into the bookshelf and doesn't look at them at all.

. . .

It's never a smart move to recount with as much passion as Darcy does, during a meal days later, between bites. Loki's not even sure she's swallowing properly and listens with half an ear, watching warily for the telltale moment when the food grazes against the wrong pipe and Darcy starts coughing.

She winces and pounds a fist against her chest. Loki gets her a glass of water and slides it across the table wordlessly.

Darcy gulps it down until it's halfway finished. She stares at the glass and then at him, grateful and astonished at the gesture.

"I kind of look forward to coming here," she says suddenly.

She appears as surprised as he is at her own admission.

"I… don't know whether to take that as a compliment or an insult," Loki says, trying to turn it into a joke. Her blunt honesty is something he's still getting used to.

"Take it as both," Darcy says. "Most things are a mixture. Like good cake. Or gifts that are curses and curses that are gifts. Or decisions. Right or wrong? There isn't a clear difference. They're both. You know?" She's beginning to ramble and she knows it. Pink pinches her cheeks.

He's certain that some of what she says is utter nonsense, but he's realized by now that Darcy Lewis blabs nonsense and truth in the same breath. He nods, slowly, even congratulates himself for disentangling the meaning from the mess. The girl spoke in her clumsy way… but they were, oddly enough, like hastily-packaged riddles. He wonders how she came to work for SHIELD, a place where efficiency and logic is valued, and how she fits in it all.

She is an anomaly in their world.

"I thought it impossible to find similarities between you and I," he murmurs.

Loki blinks. His thoughts had meandered into strange places and his tongue was looser than he wanted. There is power in controlling which words to place when and where—

I have spent too much time with her. I am beginning to babble.

"Loki?"

"How did you manage to start working for SHIELD?" he says, smoothly directing her attention.

Her smile is cheery and yet there's a bitter edge to it. "I've a tendency to be at the wrong place at the right time, I know too much… you know, the usual reasons why people who are laughably unsuitable for this kind of thing wind up smack in the middle." She jabs a finger at the manila folder of cut-out articles on the table. "I'm not really necessary. Anyone can do this stuff. I mean, they've pretty much relegated me to 'babysitter' now so I guess that's a step up—" Her eyes grow wide. "I didn't mean—"

Loki's face is like a door that's been closed. "I apologize for burdening you with my presence," he says, toying with a plastic spoon.

"I say stupid things sometimes," Darcy says, smacking a hand to her cheek and groaning. "It's part of the hazard in being around me. They should make a label: 'Warning! Stupid things may come out of mouth, no offense intended. Please disregard and carry on.' I'm sorry, really, I didn't mean it that way. At all."

She adds, "And thank you for the water when I was, um, hacking a lung."

Loki finally nods, stiffly, and Darcy forces herself to relax.

. . .

Darcy is a little concerned.

Loki has thrown himself into the books she brings and has already managed to polish off the Hercule Poirot mysteries. He hardly turns on the television due to the increased publicity the Avengers have been getting. The superhero team dominates headlines and is splashed across every possible merchandise: McDonald's Happy Meals toys, t-shirts at Walmart, posters, mugs, action figures elsewhere. Loki has never resented mortal consumerism as he does now.

After Loki glares at her for suggesting him to watch television, Darcy doesn't mention it as an option anymore.

. . .

Sundays mean Dexter episodes but even this does not lift Loki's foul mood.

At the end of the episode he flips through channels anyway despite his express desire not to. The news comes on and so do the Avengers and Director Nick Fury, all sporting various forms of a satisfied look. They have just thwarted HYDRA's bio-engineered bomb that was aimed for the UN summit meeting and the news is relentless in replaying the footage: there is the Hulk launching Iron Man at the bomb, there is Captain America directing Hawkeye's attention to a few HYDRA men rushing towards Black Widow, there is Thor sweeping across the sky.

He turns the TV off.

Loki dives for his magic core but the threads, while considerably loose, still cling against it. He wills it to snap, to break, to bend to his will but—

—nothing. He is still weakened and he is still trapped. He hates himself for being affected.

Darcy starts, gently, "There's nothing you can do…"

She stops at the look Loki's giving her.

"That's how you mortals always feel," he says testily as he shuts his bedroom door behind him.

. . .

It's Tuesday and Darcy's running late. She breezes into the apartment at one, looking haggard as she sets lunch on the kitchen table. Her usual rosy cheeks are pale. Brushing stray hair from her face, she says, "Doctor's appointment took longer than I thought. Annual tuberculosis shot." She gestures to the band aid on her left forearm.

Loki unwraps the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. It is meager compared to their other meals.

"I didn't have much time to get something," Darcy says tiredly, rubbing her eyes. "I should sleep more before getting my blood drawn…"

"Indeed." He gives her a dour look. "Another thirty minutes spent buying something better would have made little difference."

"Hey, I'm not obliged to bring you food," Darcy says. "I do it because—"

"Because you consider it part of your duty to take care of me," Loki says, picking at the oozing jelly.

Darcy is silent for a few stunned seconds.

"No," she says, voice shrill with frustration but she doesn't care. "I do it because I like you."

"You like me?" he echoes.

The laugh that bursts out of Loki's mouth is cruel.

"Silly little girl with your silly little sentiments. We share a few conversations and it's enough for you to forget who I am? I am Loki and I am a god. Not many months ago I nearly brought your world to its knees. Who is to say I won't try again? Alliances are out of style and persistence is one of my best attributes." He sneers, "I am a trickster and an agent of chaos, after all."

"You're more than all those things, not just the god of chaos," she says in reasoned tones that only serve to infuriate him.

"Naïve Darcy," Loki says.

"Blind Loki," Darcy counters. "You got tired of fighting everyone's expectations of you so you gave in. 'I'm the trickster god; I'm the god of chaos. My father lied about my heritage and I'm the very thing that everyone hates because I'm an ice giant. I'm evil so it must be true.'" She repeats, punctuating the words with emotion, "You gave in."

The blood drains from his face. He would appreciate her audacity more if he didn't feel like choking her.

"Do not presume to know me," he says coldly, and it's the only warning she'll get.

Darcy flinches but she's not afraid. By now she knows that half the battle with Loki is fought with words.

"Yeah, maybe I'm presuming too much," she says softly. "But I'm trying, aren't I?"

"And why, exactly, are you?" Loki drawls. Darcy stiffens at the sharpness in his voice. "Because it makes you feel special, doesn't it? It makes you feel necessary to SHIELD. By establishing relations with me, you become important." His voice lowers into pitying tones. "What are you doing, Darcy Lewis, working for them? You're just a grunt, the lowest of the low. Do you think that with me, you're more than all those things? That you become somebody?"

Her own words callously flung back at her hurts more than a slap to the face ever could.

"I thought," Darcy grasps for purchase but the jeering look Loki's giving her makes it difficult to speak, makes her feel so childish.

"I thought we could be…"

"Friends?" he supplies easily, like it's a game. "Colleagues, partners, lovers?" He smiles like she's told him a funny joke.

Darcy's eyes prick with tears and she wills them back, fights to level her voice. "Don't mock me. Why are you trying to wipe out the past few weeks? The past month?"

"The past month existed because I allowed it. chose you because you appeared a convenient choice."

Loki steels his face as Darcy searches for the truth. She weighs the depth of something in him. Her lips press together until they are nearly white.

"Fine," she says tightly, eyes glittering with defiance. "If that's the way you want it to be."

She stands abruptly and the chair legs groan against the tiles. She grabs her bag and coat and marches out of the apartment, not looking back once.

The silence is broken by the crinkle of plastic wrapper.

The sandwich tastes like ash.

. . .

Darcy doesn't show up at noon the next day and he isn't surprised.

Loki finishes Sun Tzu's The Art of War at one, eats half of leftover pasta, and throws the rest out.

He catches himself looking at Darcy's desk while reading Machiavelli's The Prince and scowls.

It is four when he gives up on books. He lays on the couch, legs propped up and crossed.

Time crawls at a snail's pace today, he thinks.

Loki can feel his magic stirring beneath his skin, dormant. He tugs lazily at Odin's threads. They give way more than usual, but even this improvement doesn't rouse a reaction from him. Odin's power wanes but he does not understand the cause; it is another addition to the list of problems he cannot figure out.

He looks at the ceiling and thinks that a warmer shade of white, like cream, would open up the room more.

The apartment seems so small today, too.

.

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Chapter Text

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.

.

"So until the particulars of your reinstatement in SHIELD headquarters are finalized, I expect the same attention to your duties as if nothing has changed," Coulson instructs.

"Roger that, Son of Coul," Darcy says with a sigh as she lifts the glass coffee pot. She freezes at the pointed look Coulson's giving her. "I mean, sir."

Clint smirks into his mug as he leans against the door of the lounge. This is what consists of his morning entertainment before the Avengers' meeting. Beside Darcy stands Natasha, adding milk into her steaming cup with a neutral expression but Clint knows that she's taking as much amusement out of the situation as he is.

Darcy hums absentmindedly to whatever else Coulson is saying as she opens the fridge door, selects the Fat Free milk quart and pours just enough of it to maintain the tree-bark color of the coffee. She adds exactly two packets of brown sugar and stirs the navy mug, watching as the liquid swirls and she wonders what to bring Loki for lunch—

But she doesn't need to think of that anymore. She hasn't been there in two days.

"Ms. Lewis, are you listening?"

Darcy hurriedly offers the navy mug to him. "Yes, I got it, no more daydreaming."

Coulson looks unconvinced. But after the first sip his scolding expression disappears and one quick thank you later, he turns on his heels and leaves for the meeting.

Natasha soon follows with a wave of her hand, her hand curled around her own navy mug.

Clint lifts his coffee and winks. "Glad you're back, Lewis."

"I know you've missed my coffee more than me, Barton," Darcy says, feigning hurt.

His laughter trails behind him and she's left alone in the lounge.

Finally, Darcy pours out her own cup of coffee. She has returned to her temporary desk by Coulson's office when she realizes that she hasn't added any sugar.

It is bitter and it reminds her of someone she does not want to remember.

. . .

Loki knows that three days have passed since that day. He knows this because he glances at Darcy's desk out of the corner of his eyes from time to time, and he tells himself that it's because he's only checking the little calendar left behind.

The nights are long, the days even longer. The television remains silent and he has read all of the books on the shelves—

(except the ones on astronomy, he has not touched those at all)

—and he misses the clack-clackkity-clack of her keyboard.

He tries to fill the day sharpening his anger but without a present target it is an exercise in futility; it grows dull until all that's left is a self-loathing so fierce it frightens him—

(behind every anger directed outward is anger directed inward because that is its nature)

—and behind the anger and behind the self-loathing there is simply him, and Loki isn't sure he's ready to face that yet.

He tackles a problem that is easier to fix.

Loki draws himself into a comfortable seated position on the couch. His eyes close and he sees the blue shimmer of Odin's threads. There are fewer of them encircling the magic core now, and the ones that remain are loose enough that he can pull them so they stretch a great distance.

His lips set in a grim line.

He thinks of Odin, and Thor, and frost giants. He thinks of his defeats and his triumphs. He thinks of Darcy, of ground beans and a ready retort. What immediately follows is an uncomfortable maelstrom of emotions that simmers beneath his skin for a few moments before he clamps it all down, packs it all into his Pandora's box.

He checks his magic core. Odin's threads hang around it like a carelessly tossed net. The heat of magic is at his fingertips.

Loki opens his eyes, hypothesis confirmed.

The threads respond to the turbulence of his emotions. Beyond that, Loki is clueless.

He rakes a hand through his hair, agitated at what this may mean.

. . .

Darcy curses her lack of willpower. She lasts out for four days before she caves and finds herself boarding the elevator. Thirty seconds of silky jazz and she gets off on the ninth floor and flashes her ID card at the SHIELD operative patrolling the hallway. The nondescript man in his nondescript black suit nods politely but she knows that he's questioning her motives and sanity. Nonetheless, he doesn't stop her from walking up to Loki's door.

.

Loki restrains the urgency that springs in him and he slowly pulls himself upright on the couch. Facing the TV with a stone-faced stare, he memorizes the lines and angles of its dark surface. He waits and listens for the familiar scrape of key on lock, the hushed click of the turning doorknob, but it's so quiet he can hear the very air moving.

.

And now Darcy wishes Mr. Agent Nobody had stopped her because she feels like a fool, having a blinking contest with an unsympathetic, two-inch-thick board of wood separating her and the man beyond it. The doorknob is right therebut it is only a mocking piece of brass holding the false promise of admittance. She has brought no comfort, no understanding, and there is no bridge to cross because there is no river.

She has not even brought lunch.

It's only a door, she tells herself roughly, but she's already walking away.

.

Footsteps grow softer.

At last, Loki turns his head.

The door does not open.

. . .

The more he contemplates, the more Odin's threads unravel.

This means that he is sprawled on the couch like an artfully draped coat, staring vacantly at the ceiling while his emotions carry him over oceans.

Loki spends the fifth day wishing things (his magic, to conquer Earth, to kill Odin) and regretting things (that he wantsfreedom, that he wants to apologize, he knows he has not been very civil to Darcy) and missing things (flat Thai noodles, Agatha Christie books, the starry firmament above, the boundless sea below and nothing but air across) and planning a to-do list for when he gets out (form a wardrobe of three-piece suits, steal Nick Fury's eye patch, turnAvengers action figures into Barbie dolls with his magic just because he can, subjugate an alien race if he wants to and no one really objects).

Loki has paced the length of the apartment so many times that he may wear away the wooden floor. Odin's threads are now so loose that he can play cat's cradle with them, if he wished, but every time he tries, the knowing, self-sabotaging part of him throws back Darcy's self-assured—

("You gave in.")

—and it eclipses him utterly.

He leaps into a flurry of activity: cleaning. Being the god of Chaos is no excuse for an untidy lifestyle.

Loki alphabetizes the books by author, then by title, then by subject matter, and finally by author again. When he finds an ant traipsing about on Darcy's desk, he kills it and tracks down the remnants of Darcy's existence: shredded documents, ballpoint pens pilfered from hotels, dried tangerine rinds that failed to actually make it in to the garbage can…

Something winks at him — he finds an innocent, neon-purple paperclip wedged between the valleys of the couch.

It is a curled, wire smile in the palm of his hand.

Loki sighs. Even in her absence she still manages to make a mess.

"I suppose it's a skill," he says aloud, and nothing more, because speaking to oneself is a sign that he's lonely, whichhe is not, or that he's insane, which is debatable.

Loki considers tossing it in the garbage. Instead, he goes to Darcy's desk and opens the first, second drawer. His hand hovers over a cream-colored note with his name on it. He reads her looping script:

A nonviolent means to ward off the boredom.

Consider it a one-month anniversary gift!

When you bust out of here, dinner's on you. — Darcy

The note is taped to the front of a green jewel case. Loki leaves the paperclip in the mesh desk organizer as an afterthought and turns it over in his hands. The front pops open, revealing another note with a list of titles and a flat circular object with opalescent hues that reminds him of the Bifröst. After some deliberation, he deduces that:

1. Darcy brings him things that she likes, such as books. Judging from the excessive amount of time she spends listening to her iPod, this disc most likely contains music.

2. There must be a way in the apartment to access the music; otherwise it would be a useless gift.

Loki thinks of her laptop and deflates against the couch. He is disappointed that the CD's contents will not be revealed to him for quite some time, or ever, and he doesn't think Director Fury will take it in kind if he asks for—

His eyes focus on the slim, rectangular box beneath the television, what did Darcy call it?

"DVD player," he murmurs, advancing toward it. He isn't sure it can play the CD but he inspects it anyway. Within a few minutes, he has inserted the CD into the disc drive and, snatching up the remote, he settles on the couch with a smug smile as the first notes pour into the living room.

It is a disquieting song: over the layers of guitars, drums, and keyboards, the male vocalist sings at a sedate pace, "No alarms and no surprises, no alarms and no surprises, please..."

The next song is loud and flashy, marked by trumpets and saxophones and lingering, brassy notes. "I've got the world on a string, I'm sittin' on a rainbow, got the string around my finger…" There's an art to the casual tossing of the words in the controlled swing of the baritone that Loki can appreciate.

The next song is a melodic, dance-infused indie-pop that has him tilting his head in puzzlement. What are "the pumped up kicks"?

Loki hits the next button.

It begins with a single cello, a bittersweet sound that is like liquid calm pouring through his veins. The cello softens and the sudden rise of violins propels the piece forward into three-four time, a swaying rhythm anchored by the soulful cello. The waltz takes him to places beyond the living room, to elegant ballrooms with velvet curtains and glowing chandeliers that throw warm light on the shoulders of dancers and dreamers.

For a glorious three minutes and forty-two seconds he forgets who he is.

. . .

It is the evening of the sixth day.

Thor is off 'Avenging' things so Darcy finds herself at Jane's place, sharing gossip and gin cocktails Darcy's made with the limited ingredients in the kitchen. Two hours and three drinks later, Darcy hears the question she's been waiting for.

Jane sets down her glass and sits straight-backed, the way she always does when she's about to tackle a potentially-thorny topic.

"What happened?"

Darcy is stirring her drink with the cherry, two fingers pinching its stem. The swirling liquid is suddenly very interesting. "Oh, the usual: I said things I probably shouldn't have, stepped over boundaries like they're just lines in the sand. We had an argument, I stormed out."

Despite the concern creasing her brows, Jane smiles wryly. "I figured that part out myself." She doesn't press her to elaborate and Darcy is reminded of why they are good friends.

"What are you going to do?"

Darcy flicks an errant strand of hair away from her face. "What else is there to do? I can't go back there, it's like there's a wall between us."

Jane exhales in relief. "Thank goodness. I was so worried that something would happen to you. I couldn't believe Director Fury even allowed it in the first place. How reckless of him." She shakes her head. "The first couple of nights I kept pestering Thor to head over there in case Loki tried anything—"

"Wait, were the clothes — the clothes that Thor brought with him the first time he visited," Darcy says, pieces clicking into place in her brain. "That was your idea?"

"Thor wanted to have an excuse on hand because he didn't want Loki to think that he didn't trust him."

"…You were that worried about me?" Darcy asks, astonished.

Jane gives her a look that manages to convey exasperation and love all at once. "Is that even a question? Of course I was, you — you — crazy, taser-toting fiend, you! You saw what he'd done before, what he was capable of, but you agreed anyway, and for what? Better pay? No amount of money is worth your life." Her tirade cools and she bites her lip, embarrassed.

Darcy supposes she should've been worried about herself, too, but at the time she was only thinking about doing:going to Loki's apartment, bringing food, bringing books, working, talking, laughing… the moments when she truly feared for her safety were few and far between. She beams at Jane and throws her arms around the startled woman.

"Don't worry, Jane, I'm going to be in your life for a long time." Darcy grins impishly. "Who else is going to name your and Thor's kids?" She laughs at Jane's alarmed look.

"Well, as long as you aren't going back to that apartment," Jane acquiesces. "No one expected the arrangement to last very long, anyway, so don't think that it reflects negatively on you to pull out," she assures. "I've heard Agent Coulson speaking with Director Fury about giving your old office back…"

Jane gathers her empty glass and goes to refill their cheese platter, leaving Darcy sitting alone on the bar stool.

Darcy turns over Jane's words and her good cheer evaporates. You gave in, she thinks. Is it a wall, or is it a door?She looks at Jane's couch and imagines a quiet man thumbing through a book before turning to her, raising a challenging brow and saying, "These Norse mythologies are complete fabrications. Wrong, wrong, nearly everything is wrong. Especially the ones concerning me. Are you going to believe them? I see you are no different from the rest."

Her grip on her glass tightens.

. . .

Darcy's CD has been on repeat for the better part of the seventh day. Loki has not lifted a finger since finding the CD and he finds that he doesn't mind the inactivity as much as he thought he would. He has memorized five songs and is well on his way with the current song:

"I used to rule the world, seas would rise when I gave the word, now in the morning I sleep alone, sweep the streets I used to own."

He sits up suddenly.

He lowers the volume.

There is someone outside.

The visitor walks with resolute steps and stops directly in front of his door. There's a little noise of aggravation and he knows it's her because he can recognize that sound anywhere. She shuffles her feet, paces back and forth. There are sighs. A firm step forward, then a timid step back. Footsteps echo in the hall, she's leaving

(He's been alone for so long that he should throw her away, this woman who has created associations like breadcrumbs from him to her, wrapping herself with colorful slips of Post-Its and books and wearing the scent of coffee beans like a second skin and making curious, cutting remarks that aggravate and confuse and delight him all at once. She is a complication offering no foreseeable value, there are no tangible benefits to be gained from a strategic alliance with Darcy Lewis yet he does not mind at all)

—and Loki strides to the door, jerks it open to pale cheeks and wide eyes.

Darcy stares back, one hand poised to knock.

"Hello," she says, thinking, we've done this before.

The sound of her voice brushes aside all thoughts from Loki's mind. He works his tense mouth, he is usually more eloquent but he's at a loss for words as the music drifts into the hall, "For some reason I can't explain, I know Saint Peter won't call my name, never an honest word, but that was when I ruled the world."

Darcy looks at him with pleasant surprise. "You found the CD?"

This, he can answer. "I was ordering the apartment and found a paperclip of yours… I was returning it to your desk drawer." He cringes inwardly, that did not sound suspicious in the least. "I did not snoop through your belongings."

Her eyes dance with amusement. "Relax, Loki. I believe you."

There is that knot loosening inside of him, the one that reminds him, oh, this is what acceptance feels like. He swallows it down and prepares to ask the question he's been waiting to ask. He does not like questions for they speak of vulnerabilities; they are sometimes more revealing than answers.

Loki erases all traces of self-doubt from his face. "Why did you come back?"

Darcy meets his cool gaze with a confident one of her own. "I would be a hypocrite if I didn't." She allows him a few moments to digest her words before lifting a large brown bag with a 'La Mesa' logo.

The aroma of melted cheese and sour cream makes his mouth water.

"Now are you going to let me in or not? These fajitas aren't going to eat themselves."

.

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Chapter Text

 

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FIVE

Excuse me, but can I be you for a while?

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.

.

Time seems to stand still whenever Darcy enters the apartment. Two days have passed since their reconciliation, bringing with it a kind of peace that she does not want to examine. She brings the Miss Marple series and CDs by way of friendship while Loki compliments her musical tastes and meal choices; neither talk of the argument and it becomes another one of the ghosts each pretends does not exist.

“You have an interesting taste in music,” says Loki, setting down their plates and utensils as the strains of “Rocket Man” drift into the kitchen. He is once again struck by how domestic it all is: sitting down, sharing a meal, partaking in aimless conversation, with idle words. He tries not to think about how taut his skin feels, stretching over the bones of his knuckles or the backs of his knees. He hides the dreaded restlessness that’s wrapped down inside, about to burst like packaged meat too tightly wound with coarse string. His companion is talking.

“I chose the safe ones,” says Darcy. “I didn’t want to shock you at first so, as tempted as I was, I left out the good stuff: Scissor Sisters, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga had better earlier material...”

“‘Shock’ me? I believe I can handle whatever Earth music you have to offer. What is it like?”

Darcy takes a swig of water to relieve her dry throat - - which is, he thinks in retrospect, the only warning he got. She smiles before she begins, speaking in what seems, to him, a foreign tongue: “This one is for the boys with the boomin’ system, top down, AC with the coolin’ system, when he come up in the club, he be blazin’ up, got stacks on deck like he savin’ up!”

The immediate silence is broken by Darcy’s laughter, mainly at Loki’s flat look.

“I haven’t the slightest idea what you have just…” He shakes his head. “Sung? I don’t know if you can call it that.”

“That was the rap portion,” says Darcy. “I can sing better, promise — hey! I don’t appreciate the skepticism. I’ll have you know,” she jabs a finger in his direction, “that I was in the high school choir for four straight years. There were auditions, too, so: legitimate.”

Loki eyes the offending digit. “And at this… ‘choir,’ you called upon your vocal talents to deafen people?”

Darcy rolls her eyes, already used to his goading antics. “Whatever, I didn’t even want to do it but my mom insisted.”

Her comment chases away whatever rebuttal Loki had. In their many conversations they had touched upon a multitude of topics: politics (not that he cared, but she insisted, and “I did major inPolitical Science.”), the internet (a strange world, is his impression), pop culture (dizzying, but he’s starting to catch the references she rattles off), history (“Is it linear or cyclical? Keeps me up at night.”). Nothing was untouched and everything was fair game, even his own background and although he’d been reticent about it, with each wheedled answer she grew bolder with her questions.

But she has never mentioned anything about herfamily.

“Your mother?” Loki repeats, inwardly surprised that she has one. He has never cared to ask. He has forgotten that there is a world beyond the doors of his apartment, and he is displeased at this realization. He’s getting complacent and complacency is weakness...

Loki draws himself out of his thoughts in time to notice the stiffening of Darcy’s shoulders, so minute he would have missed them if he isn’t so used to observing details. (Details are weapons, too.) The air around her stills and the smile that’s plastered to her lips is not real. He blinks and Darcy quirks her lips and says, “Yeah, it was all her,” in typical, lackadaisical fashion and the flash of something is gone. She’s standing up and collecting plates and lunch is over.

Loki takes his usual place on the couch and settles his book onto his lap. He doesn’t process the sentences and is instead remembering the hard glint that flickered in Darcy’s eyes, wondering how deep it goes, this bright line to track.

He has always been a curious creature.

. . .

Darcy doesn’t suspect anything of his comments, at first.

“Who taught you how to make coffee?” he says innocuously, stirring his mug.

“It’s a survival skill in college,” she responds, and Loki can hear the whistle of his question sailing past her tilted head as she regales him with her past experiences with coffee experimentation, including, somewhere, an incident with a possum, “Mr. Rosenbaum’s” toupee, and beakers stolen from the chemistry lab.

(He thinks she is only partially joking.)

“Do you ever visit your home?” he says another day, once he has steered the conversation in waters such that the query would not appear out of context.

She treats him to a funny look. “I’m not here all the time, of course I go back home.”

“I meant wherever your parents’ live,” he tries again, winces inwardly.

“Oh, but you’d said ‘my home’,” says Darcy.

“Apologies, I should have specified,” says Loki, smoothing conversation with courtesy. “Do you ever visit your parents’ home?”

Darcy appears to ponder. And then: “Nope, not often.” She lifts her mug. “More coffee?”

His has already gotten tepid.

. . .

Day thirty-seven of my incarceration - - my vacation from Thor and his troupe - - my exile from intelligent life-forms - - my extended hiatus…

Whereas before Loki would have turbulently swung from bottomless apathy to seething disgust, bemoaning the insufferable insolence and stupidity allowed free reign in the world, at the moment he merely grunted and flopped onto his left side on the couch. A rather undignified pose, but no matter - - he was alone in the apartment, Darcy had gone home, and he thinks not even Heimdall’s ever-vigilant-eye swept over his reposing.

Before Loki would have taken grievous insult at this lack of oversight. That was - - felt - - long, long ago, which was strange, since decades were grains of sand to gods, but Loki is tired of even those bits - -

(He doesn’t know then, but this is the first time in which he is closest to being human, and if he knew how close he was, he would have tossed his head back and laughed for centuries.)

- - simply put, he is bored of the past. Yes, he’d much rather decipher Darcy’s parentage, he’d been devoting a disconcerting amount of his thoughts pondering over the season finale of Dexter, simply put, he needs a distraction from his distraction and Darcy’s invisible parents will be suitable replacements.

Loki admits: she was surprisingly adept at ignoring his tacit invitations to expound on her background. His usual tactics hadn’t yielded him answers so far, and he wonders if his edge has grown dull.

The thought of it terrifies him in new ways so he stops thinking about it.

. . .

Loki abandons all pretenses. His plan is this: deliberately use the direct approach in order to produce true reactions and from those can he paint a psychological portrait of her family. He’ll hang the painting in some crevice of his mind and revisit it to his heart’s content. Not his most brilliant plan, but it is a solid one and it must be because he thinks so:

“Darcy, I would like to request more books by this writer. It’s a shame he is gone, we would’ve had glittering conversations,” says Loki, dropping a book on Darcy’s desk as he went to the kitchen.

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut stares up at her.

“Ha – ha – ha,” says Darcy, tapping the blue paperback with the end of her pen. “I thought you were more subtle than this?”

Loki slowly pivots around and invests in his blank look so utterly that even she is momentarily convinced that she was reading too much into his actions.

She sighs. “Would Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five be all right?”

“Both,” he says, smiling, “Both sound promising,” and she knows he’s playing and she thinks, bastard, and his low chuckle echoes from the kitchen like he heard her anyway.

.

“You speak to your mother more than your father. Both are alive and well, but you keep your distance because they smother you with affection and you want to show how mature and organized and tidy you’ve become,” says Loki. He waits until her head snaps up from the food cartons before her and, with grand gestures, he sweeps the paper balls from her desk and into the garbage can.

“Bullshit,” says Darcy, pouring shrimp bisque into separate bowls. “There’s no way you got all that information from observations. You’re good, but not that good.”

“I accept your meager compliment graciously with a minor adjustment: yes, I am ‘that good’.”

Darcy grins at him as he settles into his seat at the table and brushes imaginary dust from his knees. “I’m sure no one in Asgard has told you that you’re ‘full of it’, but only because that phrase doesn’t exist in the vernacular.”

“Full of what?” He feigns ignorance. “Deceit? Charm? Cultured intelligence? Full of good taste in literature?” He leans forward and though there are two seats between them, the space seems to shrink into air. “Was that developed in college as well, or as a result of parental guidance?”

The smell of French bread is a welcome diversion; her stomach sobs with relief. “My mother was a biology professor,” she says simply, distantly.

Loki is good at listening. He hears what isn’t spoken. “But not anymore.”

“No,” she agrees, and her tone marks the end.

Darcy offers spoons and Loki takes one without meeting her eyes.

. . .

“Don’t you - - I don’t know - - have some books to read? Have world domination plans to plot?” Darcy groans, laying her pen to rest. As far as she can see, there is Loki pestering her with questions on the horizon so she might as well rest her aching wrists. “Go be crazy, like, crouch in a corner and kill spiders or something!”

“You haven’t brought Slaughterhouse-Five despite yesterday’s reminder,” says Loki. He looks offended. “‘World domination’? What kind of crude, cardboard stock villain do you think I am? I’ll remind you that I specialize in the manipulation and subjugation of lower species, I know it’s difficult for you to store information in that airy head of yours but make an effort for this, at least.”  

She doesn’t mention that he hasn’t spoken of subjugation in weeks and he doesn’t mention that she tends to make promises she doesn’t keep.

(It is one reason why they are able to coexist in peaceful domesticity.)

“If I promise, will you go sit in a corner and kill spiders?”

The look he gives her isn’t promising. “You have a strange fixation with spiders.”

“They have those - - legs.” Darcy shudders. “And some are hairy. They’re like… large, moving dots.”

“Indeed,” says Loki. “If you answer one question for me, then I will not express my interest in getting to know my flatmate - - I will not ‘bother’, as you termed it, for the remainder of the day.” He is rather pleased that he has finally found a term for their dynamic; it sounds fitting, while companion is too personal and caretaker too removed, not to mention, stinging to his pride.

Darcy leans back against her wheelchair, spreads her arms out wide. “Come at me, bro.”

Loki takes that as an agreement. “What are your parents currently doing?”

“My mother’s working at the university and my father is abroad.”

Amusement ghosts across his face. “You,” he declares. “Are a terrible liar.”

“Wow, coming from you, it must be true. Do you give lessons?” she says and the customary bite of her humor has acquired a sharper edge.

“You get your sarcasm from your mother,” says Loki.

Her guarded humor slips from her face and she stares at him, surprised, as he continues, “But you get your emotional behavior from your father.”

Darcy regains herself. “How did - - are you just making insanely, scary accurate guesses or am I just that easy to read?” She flings a palm into the air. “Wait - - don’t answer that. I don’t want to know. Touché, Loki, touché.”

Loki feels another corner of the painting beginning to fill with color.

He does so enjoy completing things.

. . .

Loki is primed for Darcy’s entry; he looks forward to testing the waters again, it’s been good fun so far and there’s one more hour until he will hear her steps vibrating outside the door, the plastic rustle of lunch outside the door, the jangle of key outside the door and then finally the door itself pushed aside, sterile corridor air rushing in - -

“Hey, look who’s decided to visit us,” says Darcy, entering first, cheeks flushed from August heat, propping the door with a foot to wiggle the key free from the lock.

Loki glances at the time, eleven-twenty-one A.M., she’s early today. He regards their guest in veiled care, waiting for the first move.

“Hello,” says Captain America, crossing the threshold. But he’s not Captain America now, he’s Steve Rogers in sand slacks, hand-me-down button shirt and an olive jacket too contemporary-stylish to be his. Steve doesn’t look any smaller without his indestructible shield, not vulnerable like Tony Stark looks without his suit, no: Steve manages to fill up rooms with his personality without even meaning to, it is like a light he can’t shut off.

Loki disappears from the couch and pops into existence in front of him.

The muscle on Steve’s neck jumps, but otherwise he doesn’t leap away like Loki expects him to, which is frankly disappointing.

“I know you warned me of that but it’s still…” Steve smiles a small smile. It’s boyish and a bit self-deprecating and good-natured and it makes Darcy stand on her tiptoes and pat his head with familiar affection after she’s closed the door.

“You’ll eventually get used to his theatrics, Steve,” she assures, and walks between them to her desk, sighing as she relieves herself of her crammed bag.

“‘Theatrics’, Darcy?” Loki could make the minor act of tilting his head loaded with insinuations of disdain. “Once again, I protest your careless definitions.” He sizes Steve up with a sweep of his gaze. “And to what do I owe the honor of your presence?”  

“I’m here to observe you for the day,” says Steve, refusing to be cowed. “Get to know you, now that we aren’t trying to knock each other out.”

Loki grudgingly appreciates the novelty of his straightforward honesty but he can roll his eyes at the soldier’s euphemism, or more appropriately, his softness. For all their past scuffles, Steve had avoided killing whenever possible. Something to do with his sense of justice and fair play, whatever good those will do him. If Loki is any other man, he would have snorted.

“Oh, and Steve’s joining us for lunch,” Darcy announces.

Loki makes for the shelves of books, pretending to lose interest. “I have no qualms about another guest, provided that our plans for Chinese take-out are intact.”

Steve is beginning to shuffle out of his jacket. “I’m up for anything, thank you, ma’am.”

Loki snaps up Slaughterhouse-Five and takes his place on the couch, inwardly disgruntled by Steve’s damnnably accommodating manners.

.

Finally, Loki peers over the edge of his book and says, “Ye-e-es?”

Steve sits on the chaise to the left, elbows on knees, fingers linked. He’s far away and there is winter in his eyes. “You know, I met him once.”

Loki allows the past thirty-minutes of silence melt away. “You’ve met Vonnegut?”

“Well, maybe met isn’t the right - - I had one conversation with him.” Steve knits his brows. “It was on the American lines at Halle, Germany. The Russians were coming from Dresden, where they’d picked up some of our men. I was there to greet our troops, boost morale - -”

“Perform your symbolic duties,” says Loki and Steve nods without offense, without pride.

“He approached me after, and said, ‘They say you can raise the dead,’ and I said, ‘I raise their bodies onto my back, carry them off the battlefield, that’s all.’ He said, ‘And so it goes.’” The winter fades from Steve’s eyes. “I didn’t know he wrote those books until last year.”  

Loki touches the surface of Slaughterhouse-Five. “This is a man who knows how to laugh at the world.”

“I don’t know if he was having fun while doing it, though.”

Steve’s forever, old-fashioned politeness, his comportment of quiet assurance, the way he addresses Loki as if he were any other person in the universe, should have annoyed him, but strangely, it didn’t.

“Of course,” says Loki, setting aside the book. “I’d forgotten you had no sense of fun.”

.

Darcy thinks it should appear more surreal than it felt, the fact that the two most antithetical people are casually chatting on the couch. She doesn’t want to interrupt but the food has arrived and the growl of her stomach is loud enough to do it for her. She lifts the bag of take-out and Loki does his weird-pop-out-pop-in thing without warning, moving from the couch to kitchen table, sitting cross-legged.

“Now you’re just flaunting it,” says Darcy.

“I’ll have to report that to Director Fury,” informs Steve as he helps her set the table. “Anything else I should know?”

“He never helps with the dishes,” says Darcy and Steve grins.

Honest, fair, judicious, Steve Rogers was born from the opposing clay of Loki, but somehow, this isn’t a problem and lunch is a pleasantly-mischief-free affair. Loki observes Darcy’s attempts to coax Steve out of his yes, ma’am’s when addressing her (“It makes me feel old, and I plan on never feeling that way.”). He observes, surprised, as Steve takes Darcy’s rapidfire cultural reference-embedded speech in stride, albeit with confusion. Darcy tries to extract ‘sensitive’ SHIELD information - -

(“What I want to know,” says Darcy, twirling her lo mein noodles around her chopsticks, “Is how much of the budget goes to buying coffee. Everybody drinks at least four cups a day, that’s a substantial amount of coffee.”

“That’s confidential and you know better than to ask,” says Steve, looking as stern as her grandfather but a smile in his eyes.)

- - and shrewdly, innocently, she says, “So, how are things in the Department of Ms. O’Neill?”

A quick glance to Loki and Steve sputters. “There’s - - nothing - - ”

“Nothing going on, or nothing going on yet?” Darcy teases, mercilessly taking enjoyment out of embarrassing the man. Though, in Loki’s opinion, if little jibes like that is enough to fluster Steve, then he had no hope if Loki wanted to be serious.

Steve clears his throat. “It’s strictly professional.”

Darcy snorts. “If staring at your ass counts as ‘strictly professional’, then, hell yeah. And that time when she drew your blood and held onto your arm for a little longer than it was strictly necessary?”

Steve looks vexed; whether at her coarse language or her insinuations, Loki doesn’t know.

“Relax, only joking,” says Darcy. She leans over and squeezes his arm playfully, reassuringly, and it is only then that Steve smiles, sadly.

“I’m not looking for anyone at the moment.” He pushes rice around his paper plate, stops when he realizes what he’s doing, spoons some into his mouth. 

“Steve,” says Darcy, and something in the way she holds the name as if it were a wingless bird makes Loki pay attention. “It’s not healthy to…” she trails off, stops, then says, “Yeah, that O’Neill woman isn’t good enough for you anyway. I’d wait too, if I were you.”

She offers them both more beef with vegetables, says, “Growing boys have to eat.”

.

They’re beginning to clear away the food when Steve is called into headquarters. He thanks her for the meal and with an apologetic grin (“And I’d promised you I’d help with dishes.”). After Steve leaves and Darcy collects their glasses, she finds Loki coming up by her at the sink.  

She doesn’t comment, only raises an eyebrow. He has never offered to assist before. She cleans one glass and hands it to him, which Loki dries with a cherry-printed dishtowel.

“You were quite maternal to him,” says Loki, casual. “I was under the impression that your mother wasn’t a maternal sort of woman. Is that a trait of your father?”

“Here we go,” says Darcy under her breath. “I’m not saying anything.”

He looks hurt; she knows better. “You’re purposefully withholding information because you know the curiosity will wither me.”

“And I’m so honored to merit it.”

Loki tsks impatiently. “Come now, you are needlessly frustrating my good intentions.” She continues to resist and he cajoles, “And what of the soldier out of time? Has he not yet grown accustomed to the reality of the present?”  

“His name is Steve Rogers.”

Darcy scrubs the glass, at imagined stains.

“Yes, yes, it is ‘Steve’, isn’t it? You seemed close; does his naïve charm inspire your maternal instincts?”

Darcy turns off the faucet.

“Look,” she says, and he raises a brow at her tone. “I know you’ve been trying to get information out of me. Stuff about things I’d rather not talk about.”

“I’m simply returning the favor,” he says, annoyance piquing because, really, what right does she have when she has no qualms about prying into his life?

“I’m sorry about nosing around, but I don’t mind you asking if you...” Her next words sound like they’ve been looping in her mind for some time. “Do you want to know because you’re bored as hell and this is just an activity to generate personal amusement and because you want to extract information, or is it because you genuinely want to know?”

The look on Darcy’s face, sincerity thrown into sharp relief by desperation - - like she’d given him a lit match and was waiting to see whether he dropped it in oil or put it out - - gave him reason to pause.

“Is it because you care to know?”

Loki thinks, ah, he thinks, the game is over and it is no longer fun because now there is meaning and thought and feelings in the equation and he thinks, it doesn’t hurt to lie, and he says, “Yes,” and it’s the truth. He learns that it doesn’t hurt, either.  

He’s rewarded with a sigh as the sharp outlines of Darcy’s shoulders slope gently.

“I never thought you’d want to be regaled by my boring, mortal woes,” she says, pleased with his reply. “My dad got really sick towards the end of high school and mom had to put her job on hold for years taking care of him. It wasn’t that she couldn’t teach anymore that bothered her; it was that she couldn’t continue her big, important research. The years snowballed into resentment that still carries over to today and I don’t know if I’ve yet to forgive her.” Finally, Darcy looks at him. “Thank god I grew past the teenage angst phase already, darn you, Holden Caulfield! To conclude: usual family concerns, everyone has those, right?” She winces for his benefit. “Well, not as complicated as your family problems.”

Darcy shakes herself, as if she could loosen the past from her present. “Well, that’s that. Now: afternoon coffee? Actually, how about some tea for a change? I got the good stuff today.” She moves to boil water.

Five minutes later, Loki is on the couch, one hand warmed by the mug of tea steaming past his cheeks, the other hand resting on the cover of his book. He has not resumed reading yet, preferring instead to mull over the rooibos sliding across his tongue and the fact that he has told a truth without meaning to.

Chapter Text

Late one night Loki falls asleep on the couch.

Two hours later, the book he'd been reading finally slides off his chest. It falls to the ground, his page lost.

He stirs but is otherwise undisturbed.

In the morning Loki fails to banish a yawn and wonders what lunch will be.

Finds the book back on the shelf.

Doesn't think much of it.

(This would be a sign that the end is near, except signs are things made up to create the sense of control, as in I knew it was coming and I just failed to stop it or I didn't want to stop it. To fool one into believing one had a choice when there are no choices and there are no signs and there are no beginnings and ends, only miniscule points to mark out miniscule lives on an unbroken line. This is what he would think if he had noticed.)

Over lasagna that afternoon, Loki feels compelled to state something, but is unsure of what.

"This will be our forty-seventh meal," he says.

Darcy's brows rise. "Is it now?" Her voice lifts at the end, waiting for him to continue, but he pushes carrots and peas to one side of his plate, nods and says nothing more.

.

.

.

On the page, he pauses on the word magic and remembers with a start. He hasn't checked it in days.

Loki dives into his mind: the layers of Odin's shield are bafflingly easy to sweep aside and there is the glow of his magic core, strong and steady, the last threads clinging to the end. The familiar pulse of warmth brushing over him is faint but it exists, like a third skin (or second if you don't count the blue one, third if you're Loki and you do).

He opens his eyes and frowns.

Darcy turns from her laptop screen to ask at that moment, "Pepperoni or Sausage—what is it? Something wrong?"

(He hasn't checked it in days.)

"I don't know," he says, and that's exactly it.

.

.

.

The next day finds him peering at the little plastic cup in his hand. It's unusual to have dessert after their meals but today Darcy was "feeling whimsical" and "yearning for childhood" and "so what if I'm whimsical all the time, just try the damn Jell-O."

'Dessert' is translucent green cubes with yellow fruit(?) embedded inside.

"It jiggles." The way Loki looks at it, one would think that the Jell-O has offended him. "What is it made of?"

Saying ground up pig and cow hooves tends to dissuade the appetite so Darcy quips, "The tears of your enemies. I'm sure you'll like it." She spoons some into her mouth, if only to prevent from laughing at Loki's cardboard flat stare.

A tentative minute later, Loki has a considering look. The Jell-O is odd, slippery, reminded him of the slime creatures in one of the caves he ventured into as a child, and doesn't taste like much else except pineapple. He decides the main thing he likes about it is its color.

He decides he wants more.

Darcy chuckles as she brings him another cup, nods pleasantly when he says it's because he wants to pin down the strange flavor. She leaves him to his reading and returns to her desk, her work (and Loki pretends not to notice the Times magazine slipped under the SHIELD-logo-stamped documents.)

.

Three cups on the coffee table and he still can't decide his opinion of the strange Midgardian dessert. Loki figures he's probably so bored out of his mind that he latches onto the novelty of anything, even 'ground up pig and cow hooves,' as Darcy had finally told him.

Three, now four, plastic cups on the coffee table. The last pineapple piece rolls in his mouth. Loki dimly registers the tang of the fruit as he turns a page. Thirty-seven more until the end, how will the writer possibly attain a satisfying conclusion? Twenty, the protagonist is delivering a speech to his detractors, the condemners, the naysayers, but Loki is unimpressed by his oratory skill. Eyes scrolling down the page, Loki reaches blindly for another cup of Jell-O. Nineteen now and the protagonist is still railing, never taking action, defenseless, almost paralyzed by the urge to condemn with his last breath, how foolish. The edge of plastic touches his fingertips and his hand closes around the cup. Five pages left now as Loki reads the death of the protagonist, the hero he's followed for three hundred and sixty-five pages, born to mediocrity, soared to heroic heights, fell to an ignominious death: an epic life now no more than ink on the last page. The pineapple sours his mouth.

Loki places the book aside and drapes himself on the couch. "What a terrible book. How could you have possibly sat through it?" When she doesn't respond, he says, louder, "I hope you can return it because you have clearly been robbed."

"Loki," starts Darcy.

He's stretching his arms and rotating his wrists, sighing all the while, "A definite miss this time, I'm afraid. If your library is dwindling in selection, then perhaps there are other avenues of—"

"Loki," she says again, this time with a definite note of strain.

He straightens up impatiently. "What is it?"

The sudden focus of his attention stuns the words in her mouth. This is it, the thought rises from some remote part of her, this is where it begins. "You—" He catches her eyes flit to the empty Jell-O cup on the coffee table, then back to him, her wondering, stricken look stirring anticipation within him that rages like a wild animal.

"You didn't see it?" she asks, "You didn't see it?"

"What is it?"

In the tone of shared secrets she says, "You moved that cup without touching it."

The change is immediate and invisible. He's aware that the magic pulses through his skin, as sure as the blood in his body. How had I not noticed is a fleeting thought before it's swept aside by a deluge of commands, focus, concentrate, like cold water granting clarity and a rush to the head. He lifts his hand and beckons—anything, no, everything, no—the magazine and documents on Darcy's desk and they lift into the air as if caught by a column of wind, to the ceiling, back down, in front of her, suspended until she reaches for them.

They look at each other, united in a sliver of a moment—

Then Loki can't stop the wild grin from splitting his lips apart and Darcy thinks of the people kneeling in Stuttgart, but doesn't think to run. She watches as elation lights his face and burns away the austere shadow that clung to him like his armor. He rises to his feet and sweeps his arms, beckons all the books on the shelves to come forth and they do, at first trickling one by one before he gets impatient and the titles fly off, flapping wings of hard and soft covers. The apartment ceiling is filled with birds. His wide grin becomes subdued; it is a common spectacle, he considers this no more than a parlor trick, not even a sleight of hand in his impressive arsenal of things he can do.

But the undivided attention Darcy's giving him, the small laugh startled out of her at his flashy trick—it quenches some dry thing in him. She's seen gods, she's seen the Destroyer, she's seen the sky rip apart at the seam and an alien tide spill from the heavens not once but twice, he's done it all. But his tricks have not always had the purpose of striking fear; once upon a time, he had been fueled by a universal need. He still is.

He flicks his finger and the Post-Its on her desk leap into the air and align into a paper curtain, undulating in an unseen breeze like some live thing, reminding Darcy of a jellyfish. They break apart and form shapes: a paper crane flapping its wings, unfolding into a vortex of colors, then cycling into a serpent eating its own tail.

"Nice," she breathes, her attention too absorbed to notice the twitch of Loki's lips. Bored, he scatters them and the pastel slips of paper return to Darcy's desk in a blurred line.

The apartment lights snuff out, plunging them into darkness. Darcy suddenly realizes how early the sun sets in late August. She can't see the couch, the bookshelf or the floor.

"Loki?"

Like his name was the switch, there's an audible sound like that of a muted bomb and in the center of the room, between them, a dark sphere expands outward, through them, touches the walls, and soft light and stars and indigo cosmic dust spreads like a disk. They are standing in the center of the Milky Way galaxy as it swirls around them with an ancient slowness.

The stars reflect in Darcy's eyes. "This is…"

The galaxy continues to expand, growing larger like it was being magnified by a telescope, and spheres that she thought were rocks of some sort revealed themselves as the planets: they passed Neptune, Uranus, ringed Saturn, monolithic Jupiter, Mars, until Earth drew near, its clouded and blue-oceaned surface looking solid enough to touch.

"Everything is so…" Darcy searches for what she means to say.

"Large?" Loki says.

She shakes her head, tries to touch the Earth but the image scatters like dust; they shy away from her fingers, like they're opposite ends of a magnet.

"Small," she says. "Everything is so small."

She feels, then sees, his smile. "That is how gods feel."

The corner of the Earth reforms only when she withdraws her hand. "What makes you so sure that's different from what humans feel?" Her tone is curious, not defensive.

"I've shown you your galaxy, your Sun, your Earth. But before this," as he speaks, the sun and the planets shrink and they leave the arm of the Milky Way and the Milky Way itself is but one galaxy among billions, the universe shrinks until those billions are smudges of light, until all that is left is Loki and her and the darkness surrounding them like the inside of a cavern with no exit. "Before you were confronted with the small space in which your existence occupies—not even a breath in the universe's lungs, not even a blink in Time's eyes—did you ever think that everything is so small?"

His tone is curious, not cruel, and it gives her reason to pause.

She wants to say yes, nearly everyday, but that isn't true. She wants to match him somehow, to prove she can—why?—to push back when he prods her with challenges veiled as questions. But the gap between them widens. It gives her reason to pause because she can't find the words to bridge them.

Silence is her answer. Loki responds in kind; he relaxes, his face closes, and she feels as though she has lost a game that neither knew they've been playing.

The universe disintegrates, light suddenly floods the apartment, blinding her, and the door opens, "Is everything all right here?"

"Ah, Steve," says Loki. His hands have fallen to his sides.

The three flights of stairs Steve had dashed down had only ruffled his hair. The blasé manner with which Loki greets him throws him off and he answers, unsure, stepping into the apartment, "I'm… fine. Got a call from Coulson saying to get down here. Seems like they picked up some psionic activity and they wanted me to check it out…" He trails off, looks directly at Loki who looks right back with an air of innocence.

There's a few beats of silence in which Darcy wonders if she's duty-bound to report everything but then Loki speaks, voice clear and weighed with authority:

"My magic has returned. Tell Director Fury that I'll be leaving in—" an odd pause, and then Loki continues as if he hadn't stopped, "In three days."

.

.

.

The next day Darcy enters the apartment with a growing sense of unease. Loki stands in the living room, books untouched. He glances at her to acknowledge her presence then returns to the green wisps at his fingertips, expanding them to fit his palm and contracting them back. They seem to burn the air. They do not look as harmless as yesterday's paper cranes. She tells herself that he isn't going to do anything; she feels this as fact. If he is, it'll be somewhere far away… She sets her bag down at her desk and pulls out the day's documents to pore over, welcome distractions.

After lunch Thor arrives and Darcy can't say that she's surprised. Loki receives his brother with a civility that sets Thor at ease (though she notices the habitual tightness around Loki's eyes whenever they're together, even now. Thor continues talking, pretending not to see it or not seeing it at all, either unaware or uncaring, and Darcy is stunned to find a realization in her happenstance observation, a glimpse of their ouroboric dynamic that is at the root of Thor's why and Loki's because.)

Loki's civility soon gives way to more genuine pleasantry when Thor reveals the purpose of his visit: Loki's house arrest is coming to a close, as per yesterday's 'request'.

"You would leave with or without permission," says Thor. "Steve explained the situation and Fury was…"

"Furious?" says Darcy. "His one good eye was probably twitching."

"Yes, he wasn't exactly pleased to hear it." Thor clears his throat. "That aside, it is finally time; I had spoken for you every week, reminding him that you're still a prince of Asgard. To further keep you locked up is an affront to my trust, friendship and goodwill as a member of his Avengers Initiative, as well as your honor."

Irritation flashes in Loki's eyes but it's so brief that Darcy isn't sure she saw it.

Instead Loki says pleasantly, "Many thanks, brother, I did wonder whether he would give in so easily upon hearing the news." He lifts a hand, letting the magic snake up his arm and spin into visible form. He holds a green flare aloft for inspection, this one larger than the ones he'd been toying with the past couple of hours. Loki's eyes flit to his brother's face, expectantly, almost gleefully, as if he wants to be proven rightno matter what. As if he is more afraid of being proven wrong.

"Was this the All-Father's doing?" asks Thor, brows crinkling.

"I have a few theories," Loki side-steps.

As Thor thinks, his right hand, bereft of Mjölnir, clenches and unclenches over air. Loki scoffs gently for it is his brother's nervous habit, one that he hasn't outgrown from his youth. Finally, Thor squares his shoulders, obviously preparing himself.

(Ever an open page, Loki thinks, a volatile mixture of disdain and affection.)

"Now that your freedom is imminent," begins Thor. "What do you plan to do?"

Beside the blonde Asgardian, Darcy stills. Loki doesn't look at her but he feels her shift; he'd momentarily forgotten that she is there. Loki begins tossing the green flare between his hands in a casual show, smirking inwardly as Thor resolutely stares at his face.

"There are no plans," says Loki with a noncommittal shrug. It is a half-truth; at the moment he doesn't have plans, only inclinations, vague, floating ideas with no concrete line of thought to tie them down.

He supposes he will track the return of his powers. The corner of his lips twitches minutely in distaste. Asgard is most definitely not on his list of favorite places in the universe but he'd be most likely to get answers there. He can anticipate the reaction they'd have at his return: surprise at how quickly he'd come back, the inevitable whispers as numerous as the shadows in the palace. And guarded, always the guarded looks of the Warriors Three and the Lady Sif, although they try for Thor's sake, always for his sake. But his first move is logical so he sees no point in avoiding Asgard. He will get his answers and after that he will—

Will what? Is there even an 'after'?

Darcy is grinning from ear to ear at something Thor is saying. Loki observes her, distantly.

He wonders, And what is her 'after'?

.

.

.

Loki doesn't squander the use of his magic thusly but after such a long, forced removal he finds himself accessing even for mundane tasks, simply because he has his magic back and he can't understand how he existed without it.

Darcy doesn't comment on it, doesn't have anything to say like you must be a hit at parties, because she benefits from it too. When the deliveryman comes with lunch—Chinese, Loki loves it—he levitates it to the kitchen and sets the table without lifting a finger, already sitting cross-legged and waiting. He pulls back the flaps of the rice carton as his magic retrieves napkins, chopsticks, the hot-and-sour soup, the Hunan Beef, the Garlic Chicken and steamed dumplings from the bag.

By the time Darcy joins him, he's already digging in. She plunks herself into the chair and snaps her chopsticks apart, pouting when they break apart unevenly at the top. She fills her plate but instead of eating, she watches Loki as he deftly grabs chunks of rice and broccoli. The first time she'd ordered Chinese, she'd spent a good ten minutes teaching him how to use the wooden utensils, and had laughed as the mushrooms slipped before getting to his mouth, leaving lines of sauce on the table he'd immediately wipe while scowling. But he'd been stubborn and kept at it, and now made wielding chopsticks look like an art form.

Had a whole two months passed?

It's going to end soon, this arrangement. She knows that already but she doesn't have a name for the emotion that wells up in her, in that moment, watching Loki eat and looking down at her own plate. The sensation is akin to realizing that the ground she had been walking on, that had seemed so solid before, is actually made of clouds. What will she do? When have her days become linked to their fickle, fun conversations, to the glimpses of each other's lives, to their shared meals?

It's the people unexpectedly entering your life that you have to watch out for, she thinks, because they're the ones who later tend to matter more than they should. And if you don't expect them, then you don't prepare yourself for when they eventually leave.

She won't say it aloud because she's probably the only one thinking them. Her stomach drops and she doesn't feel like eating anymore.

"I know enough about Chinese food to know that it's not as appetizing when cold." Loki's mild voice is a gavel to her senses.

"Let's have a party," she says suddenly.

"A 'party'?" he echoes.

(He has not had a celebration in several millennia. No, there have been many celebrations; Asgardians are always eager for the chance to roll out the casks of mead.

Correction: he has not had a reason to celebrate in several millennia.

He had planned to throw a banquet in his honor after his first attempt to conquer Earth, and another, bigger one to make up for the the-first-banquet-that-never-was, but fate and the Avengers and something called a lack of will got in the way and he is here, within a few walls and invisible security that has comprised his life for nearly two Earth months and feasting on paper plates and good conversation.)

He comes out of his mind in time to catch the tail end of Darcy's rambling.

"Well, it'll just be cake or something, nothing fancy, I guess—unless you've got something fancy in mind but…" She trails off, waiting expectantly. She already knows exactly where she'll go to buy it, too.

"If you wish," he says finally and resumes eating.

Darcy nods and, when she remembers to, smiles.

.

.

.

The next day, she brings the cake.

(She refuses to call it anything except the next day because there may be a next day, and a next day after that. She refuses to call it the final day because it turns it into something worth more than what she is willing to acknowledge.)

The cake is relatively plain and light in texture, as far as cakes go, but designed with understated elegance in mind. Scrolls of buttery coffee cream run along the sides and the top is dotted with full strawberries, its leaves formed by shelled dark chocolate. Complementary birthday candles were taped to the box and Darcy had set them aside, explaining their purpose. Loki had wiggled his fingers and the candles had floated out of their wrapper and lit by magic.

"Hey, I was going to save those," she'd said. But she'd pluck each one out of the air and into the cake.

She'd set the cake on the kitchen table because it seemed fitting that their last meal should take place upon it—

(no, no, not 'last', never 'last')

—she refused to let her smile waver. "Come, sit here!" Her over-compensating enthusiasm grated her own ears. He's probably reading her like an open book, he's probably going to laugh at her or maybe he'll try to comfort her, but she really hopes it's the former because then she can laugh it off along with him even though it'll sound squeaky and nervous and false.

But Loki merely shakes his head with amusement, like she's a class act or something, and he takes the chair that she's pulled out for him, right in front of the cake that's glowing with all sixteen candles. The little embers warm his pale face into shades of honey and marigold.

She flicks off the kitchen lights and they are both bathed in the small warmth.

"What usually happens is the birthday girl—or in this case, the birthday boy—makes a wish in his head and then blows out the candles," says Darcy. "Well, before all that I'd sing the birthday song but I don't think you'd want a repeat performance, hmm?"

"No," says Loki with dramatic horror. "I shall pass on that."

She placed a hand over her heart and pretended to be hurt. "Oh, mother dear, your years of choral dictatorship were for naught! Your daughter cannot sing. Made a wish yet?"

"I'll play along with your charming Earth customs," he says, gently mocking. Then he falls silent and the smile that quirked his lips fades. She assumes that he's giving serious thought to the wish and is pleasantly surprised.

His next words rip the carpet from underneath her.

"You realize that I tried to kill you, before. I was the one who sent the Destroyer."

He says it like it was a throwaway line: today is colder than yesterday, we are having cake, I tried to kill you. She can't gauge the emotion behind his eyes, she sees herself reflected back. He simply seems to be… waiting.

Loki may be unpredictable but Darcy is adaptable.

"You didn't send it to kill me," she says.

"Regardless of intent, your life was endangered indirectly." Again, a statement of fact.

"Ithink intent matters. And you didn't even know I existed." She props her chin on a hand. "It's in the past. Why not let it stay there?"

Finally, a reaction: he frowns.

"The notion of past, present and future is a coping mechanism, a human-constructed mechanism. Time is an unbroken line." He seems determined to prove her wrong. Stubborn, but so was she.

"It's all a matter of perspective," Darcy insists. She makes an impatient noise in the back of her throat. "How about this, then: race you to the end of the world? We'll see who's right then."

She doesn't expect the laugh that sounds as if it was startled out of him. The smugness of her tone probably caught him by surprise. His laughter eases and his eyes brighten with mischief. "You know that I will win that wager."

"Not unless I change your mind before then, whenever 'then' is." She doesn't know what it is that keeps her talking. It must be the heat of her sweater and the candlelights, which have by now burned halfway down the wax. It must be because this may be the last time she'll see him and it's a kind of promise.

"So, how about it? Race you to the end of the world?"

Loki studies her: takes in the challenging tilt of her brows, the firm line of her lips offset by the mirth in her eyes. Her elbows have come onto the table and she's leaned forward during their conversation, which has been like a fluctuating, complex dance, one that he will miss.

"If you can keep up," he says.

Loki snaps his finger and the candles die, leaving them in sudden darkness and her nose tickled by smoke.

"Show off," she mutters, blinking away white spots. But she grins, wide enough to pull her cheeks, because their wager is a kind of promise.

It's more than she'd thought she'd get.

What follows is twenty minutes of comfortable silence. Darcy is on her second slice and Loki is taking a break from his third. He's leaned back in his chair, hands folded over his stomach, staring beyond the ceiling with a contemplative, faraway look that she's content waiting for him to break.

When he speaks, it is with quiet consideration: "Do you still not believe in gods?"

She hangs her fork between her lips as she deliberates, waggling it up and down.

Shrugging, she says, "You haven't given me a reason to believe otherwise."

He smirks at the ceiling and draws himself forward, reaching for his fork and leftover slice, hmm-ing all the while.

This is the picture of them she will carry with her for the next three months.

Green-eyed and green-winged in his armor, as familiar to her as his aristocratic brow rising in whatever emotion she can draw from him, he crosses and uncrosses his legs as he grabs another forkful of cake. He asks her where she'd bought it, how much she'd paid, whether she'd like to have all the strawberries. He is her next-door neighbor with whom she likes to have meals and conversation that meanders into unexpected roads.

She lifts a can of ginger ale as a toast—

"To two months of an easy uneasy coexistence!"

—and though he shakes his head, he really means that he agrees. He grabs his soda can and they meet in the middle, a satisfying tink that echoes into the next day.

.

.

.

"He left without saying goodbye," Darcy says to the apartment door.

The disappointment stings no matter what she does.

"You expected him to do so?"

Thor is part of the clean-up crew. He shifts the three boxes of books to better hold her duffel bags as they walk to the elevator.

"I shouldn't have," she scoffs. "But you already knew that, didn't you?"

She looks at him when he takes too long to respond. He's staring at the closing elevator doors but Darcy knows that what he's really doing is dipping into his past.

"Before embarking on our adventures—even when we knew we'd be gone for a long time—Loki never really gave more than a parting nod. I took care of farewells for the both of us to our parents." Thor chuckles and the smile on his lips is bittersweet. "Even hanging from the Bifröst's edge, over the wormhole that would spit him Freyja knows to where and in what shape… not even then."

Thor laughs, a forced little sound that's gruffer around the edges than usual. He nudges her against the shoulder. Darcy is thankful that the weight of the blow is softened by what he's carrying. "I've learned that my brother always returns one way or another."

Darcy busies herself by digging into the brown bag in her arms, which has a few books and various office supplies she's left on the desk. Her fingers close around familiar plastic and she pulls it out: the CD she'd burned for him months ago.

Something in her falters a bit at that. She tries to console herself with the fact that they probably don't have CD players in Asgard so—of course Loki wouldn't take it.

"Are you all right, Darcy?" asks Thor tentatively. He must've seen something on her face; she quickly covers it with a grin that pulls her cheeks like stretching leather.

"I'm not looking forward to going back to the little cubicle in SHIELD," she says and it's not a complete lie. But she sighs, wishing to reciprocate Thor's confession with one of her own. "I've been coming here for two months and it'll be a little weird not to anymore. There was a… pattern that I've grown accustomed to. I'll miss it."

Her voice softened at the end but Thor heard it all. He reassures her that she'll get back into the swing of things at the base, that she must like a change of pace now and then, that she can see Jane at work now so wouldn't she like that?

Together they drop off her stuff at her own apartment. With a one-handed salute he's picked up from Steve, he gives her one more beaming smile and bids her goodnight. He flies out of her window and Darcy waves him off, feeling a bit uplifted since she'll be seeing him and Steve and Dr. Banner and Tony and wow, look at that, she's missed Coulson and Fury, too.

The morning after, Darcy has a hand curled around a coffee mug while the other works to pop open Loki's CD case. She holds the disc and—

There's something on the back, a mint post-it note.

Darcy's eyes widen. She reads it, biting her lip to keep from smiling like a lunatic.

Written in thin, slanted script are the words:

 

Hold onto this