It was quite simple, really.
Loki had brought them back in time to when he'd been dead, to his flat across the hall from Verity's -- the one that hadn't existed at that point in time -- and as the world ended, Loki told stories. Not big ones, not like he'd told Those Who Sit Above In Shadows, but small ones. They were no less important.
"Are you writing von Doom one?" Verity asked. Loki had been at it for a week. She didn't think he'd finished any of the six she knew for sure he'd started yet.
Verity herself had spent the week so far trying to find if there was any way to make Loki's couch and carpet look more like they fitted together and less like a clown on acid had threw up all over them, all while knowing she couldn't get rid of either, because if she did the spot where the other Loki had burned to death would be visible and Verity was not spending eight months looking at that. She was going just slightly stir-crazy and the fact that Loki was spending pretty much all his and her time either writing or cooking wasn't helping. Non-fiction was pretty sparse on the ground in Loki's place; everything was pretty sparse on the ground.
"Victor? I would if he'd signed up," Loki said. There was an array of paper on the floor in front of him, each titled some variation on 'dear yuletide writer'. Verity hadn't even known Loki had a printer.
"So you're not writing me one either, then."
Loki was silent and looking her in the eyes far too intently. He might has well have been wearing a neon sign around his neck -- and he was doing it on purpose, because Verity might be able to see through any lie, but Loki could still easily lie to her by omission.
"Loki." Verity sat down cross-legged on the floor in front of him.
"I may have made you an account on ao3." He pronounced it like that, two letters and a number.
"A. O. 3." Loki held up three fingers. "Archive. Of. Our. Own." By the time all the fingers where down, Loki was a woman.
"Thought you were doing yuletide," Verity said. Whatever that was. It had the word 'yule' in it; it was probably a Norse thing.
Loki waved a hand vaguely. "Yuletide's on ao3. Anyway, I made you an account and I signed you up, so yeah, I'm writing you a treat. Don't worry, I'm writing your assignment too."
Verity stared at Loki.
"Yuletide is a fanfiction exchange," Loki said. She continued, "Fanfic -- fanfiction -- is..."
"I know what it is," Verity said. She understood the appeal of fanfiction, especially to the Goddess of Stories. Stories about stories. Stories changed, stories improved, stories render unrecognisable, stories mixed, stories remixed. Stories told anew.
Loki nodded, like Verity knowing what fanfiction was explained everything.
Verity kept staring. "That explains the fanfiction aspect, but -- exchange? Treat?"
"A treat is an extra gift you write someone," Loki said. "It's an extra because it's an exchange, so you already get a gift."
The way Loki said it made it clear the gift part was the most important part of this. That and the fact that Loki was planning on spending the seven and a half months leading up to the last incursion making those gifts.
"Why this one?" Verity asked.
"It's the biggest game in town!" Not a lie, but Loki's smile was that grin that meant the truth was a step to the left.
"Why not just give the gifts right away?" Verity gathered the letters and made a neat pile out of them.
"No!" The force of Loki's emotion startled Verity and the letters escaped her grasp. Quieter, Loki repeated, "No."
The oven beeped.
Loki turned male as he got up to turn the roast beef -- the food was one of the perks of this situation -- and answered, "The date is important."
"Christmas?" Verity had looked up this 'yuletide' thing on her phone. It was a Norse thing, but 'yuletide fanfiction' had given her the results she needed.
"No. Not that one. The other one." Verity could hear the sneer in Loki's voice from here.
Verity looked at the schedule more attentively. 'Stories due December 21'. "The solstice?"
"The stories have to be given on the solstice," Loki said. He returned from the kitchen and sat back in front of Verity. "They can be read later -- they'll pretty much have to be -- but they have to be given on the solstice."
The darkest night of the year for the Norse who'd first told the stories of Loki. Verity was beginning to see the shape of this.
"It's tradition," she said, half question, half statement. It wasn't a lie, so her question was answered even before Loki nodded.
"Yule tales," Loki said. "Fireside stories in the dead of winter to hold back the cold and dark. Did you really expect me to pass it up?"
Verity shook her head. "Why now -- why this year? And why so much of them?"
"Because this year the world is ending," Loki said, just like that. It was entirely true and there was no follow-up, which left Verity with only one option.
Loki stared at her. "The world is ending, Verity. You were there."
"Oh, I remember," Verity said. Loki and she still needed to have a talk about not turning her into a ghost -- or signing her up for story related shenanigans -- without her knowledge or consent.
"What's your question, then?"
"What's the --" for a moment, Verity's words failed her and she had to resort to tapping her index fingers together repeatedly until the word came back to her -- "link?"
"Connection," Loki said.
Was Loki correcting her word choice? Verity raised an eyebrow at him and leaned back against the couch.
Loki waved a hand and the fallen letters started spinning, like a kaleidoscope or a lantern show. "Connection is the link."
"Okay," Verity said. She lifted her hand from the couch's seat to point at Loki. "You've used up all your allotted cryptic statements for today."
"Stories are what hold the world together," Loki said.
Verity nodded. It wasn't a lie. That didn't necessarily mean it was true, but around Loki it was.
"I'm the Skald," Loki said. "The mythmaker at the end of everything. The narrator of sinners and sorcerers. The deceiver. The storyteller."
He paused. Loki's hair tumbled down and her smile was genuine. Verity had gotten used to Loki's switches and was starting to get a feel for which ones would stick around longer than others -- this one was settling in for the long haul.
"Stories are more than who tells them -- there is no one, not even the man himself, who remembers the name of the one who first came up with Wotan, all those millennia ago, in those dark forests of Europe," Loki said. "A story told to no-one is not even half-told; it's no story at all. More than anything, more than a teller, a story needs an audience."
Loki stretched. The spinning letters followed the movement. "But stories with teller and audience, with that connection, oh yes, that's power."
There was something ugly in the way Loki said that last word, something twisted and sharp like barbed wire. Even though Verity trusted Loki -- and, yes, she knew exactly how crazy that sounded, but she did -- sometimes something happened that made her realise that most of the time she was choosing to ignore that Loki was always aware of the possibilities for malice in her mischief.
"A story you make for someone is..." Loki drew a circle in the air with a finger. The letters followed before settling down. "'I thought of you'. It's 'I give you this part of me'. It's a gift in its purest form. It's not useful, it's not practical, you can't resell it or do anything else with it. The gift itself is the point. Taking the audience into your world is the point. Making people happy is the point."
"Wow," Verity said. "You're actually a gigantic sap."
Loki rolled her eyes. "I'm a sap with a purpose. That connection I mentioned holds people together; by telling stories to each other, they tell each other's stories."
"Like you did with me and the gods," Verity said. Putting herself on the same level as Freyja, Hela and all the rest made Verity feel awkward. Knowing that she was putting herself on the same level as Lorelei and Sigurd at the same time did make her feel better about it, though.
"Precisely." Loki gestured at the letters. "If I put enough of me in the exchange, I can use those two thousand or so people all over the world invested in these specific stories – a campfire vigil for the internet age -- as anchors to save all the rest."
Verity picked up a letter. "But that only works if people make an effort to get that connection, right?"
"Me most of all, but everyone, yes," Loki said.
"Then you're going to need help," Verity said. "Show me what you've got."