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Hel's Bones

Chapter Text

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

-Arthur C Clarke

As Frigga had foreseen, her death came swiftly on the point of a blade.

She had known it would end like this, alone against the Dark Elf and his abomination, while her family fought elsewhere. Odin led his forces against the invasion, while Thor fought bravely as Frigga knew he would. Loki was safely out of harm's way in the dungeons, and Frigga found she could not be sad that her stolen son was not involved in this fight.

It was for Odin's sake that she had said not a word; for her son's sake that she hid young Jane Foster from Malekith's wrath. And it was for the people of Asgard that Frigga bit down on her fear in the face of her inevitable death. For millennia untold, they had laid down their lives in protection of the nine realms. In the end, Frigga could do no different in following the well-worn path to Valhalla.

She felt the creature's blade force its way though her ribs, biting thorough her heart. The pain blossomed into a world of white as gravity took her down. She heard a bellow of rage, Thor's rage, but the white flickered and faded and there was nothing but dark.

Then there was nothing at all.

She had no form, no being, she only was.

Then, came the pain, the writhing, the unbearable being, and she lashed out, she fought, she raged. A sudden gasp and she breathed, air painful and cold in her lungs. With breath came sound; voices that were not her own.

Touch. She opened her eyes to a blinding white, agonizing in her head. Hands, covering her eyes and touching her face. Words in unfamiliar tones; a soft voice, a low bass, and below it all a hiss, hiss, drawing around her with a heavy pressure over her legs, over her stomach, holding her to earth.

Hands, holding something to her mouth. She opened her lips and water slid into her mouth, cold and clear and life-giving. She drank as hands covered her eyes, held her to the earth. When the water was gone, she lay still and heaviness covered her, holding her together.

The light faded and the darkness took her again, into its warm embrace.

The soft hiss followed her into the dark.

Frigga woke.

She lay still for a long time, heavy warmth covering her. At first, she thought she was in a cave, then as her eyes adjusted to the faint light, her body to the sensations, she realized that a sheet covered her face. Reaching out, she pushed the cloth away and sat up.

She was in a small room, with furniture in colours and designs she had never before seen. Light came from a curtained window on the far wall, muted and soft. The room smelled of dried herbs and cloth.

She did not know this place.

Frigga pushed the blankets back and slid her legs off the side of the bed. Carefully, she stood.

The world hawed to the side and she stumbled, but her body adjusted itself in the soft quiet of the room. Her feet were bare and she wore a long white shift, of some soft material that stretched under her fingertips. Everything was strange and raw, different and familiar at the same time.

On the far wall hung a mirror. Frigga took one step, then another, and when she did not come to grief on her unfamiliar feet, walked to the mirror.

She recognized the woman reflected at her, and yet everything was different. The woman had her face, her hands, long hair sliding over her shoulder in a messy plait. But how could this be her, when she had died on Asgard?

Frigga looked at her hands. There was no blood, no dirt there. Had she not been sent to Valhalla? This was not Asgard; if she had not died, she would be on Asgard, but if she was dead and yet had not gone on to the afterlife in Valhalla…

Frigga stared at the mirror, reaching out to the wall to steady herself. If she were dead and this was not Valhalla, what was to become of her? Would she ever see her loved ones again, when they crossed into the afterlife?

If she were truly dead and this was not Valhalla, was she never to see Baldr again?

In the mirror, the woman's face crumpled as Frigga could not stop from crying out in rage and grief. She took a step back and stumbled, her unfamiliar body collapsing under the weight of it all. The floor was smooth as Frigga pressed her forehead to the wooden planks and curled her legs against her stomach.

For so many years, since the death of her Baldr, her youngest son, her baby, Frigga had held onto the knowledge that one day she would see him in the afterlife. On some days, that knowledge was the only thing that had kept her breathing.

A distant click, and footsteps approached Frigga. Hands folded around her arms and pulled Frigga up. "Come on, it's okay," said a somehow-familiar soft voice. "You're okay."

Frigga did not know the word okay, but she knew the woman's meaning, and she let the woman help her up and across the floor to the bed. Frigga sat and covered her face with her hands, trying to swallow her grief and her rage.

A blanket settled over Frigga's shoulders. "I didn't think you'd wake so soon," said the soft voice.

Frigga bit her lip so hard she tasted blood. If this was to be her fate, an afterlife separated from everything she loved, so be it. She was Frigga of Asgard, nothing could change that.


Frigga took a breath and lowered her hands. A cloth was held mid-air, and Frigga took it from the woman's hand. She used it to wipe her face, the cloth's cool wetness bracing against her skin.

The woman walked across the room to the door, her back to Frigga. "I suppose you are thirsty," the woman said.

Frigga's scope of awareness widened beyond her own pain to the other woman in the room. The woman was tall, dressed in trousers and a grey tunic, a fashion Frigga did not know. Her long black hair, streaked with strands of silver-grey, spilled loose over her shoulders. Frigga watched as the woman picked up a mug from the small table by the door, and turned around.

Frigga's breath caught in her unfamiliar throat. Her first thought was Loki, but no, for Frigga was familiar with all of Loki's female guises, every form he had used over the centuries to cause his mischief, and this was not her son.

This woman had Loki's dark hair and ice-green eyes, his high cheekbones and expressive mouth. But it was not only her similarities to Loki that shocked Frigga; it was the wariness in the woman's eyes that pulled ancient memories to the fore, and Frigga thought she might be sick.

"Hela," Frigga whispered.

The woman's mouth twisted up into a humourless smile. "I did not think you would remember me," she said as she returned to the bed. She held the mug out to Frigga. "Grandmother."

The word was said without malice, without emotion of any kind. Frigga reached carefully for the mug. "Of course I remember you, Hela."

The woman straightened her shoulders. "I don't go by that name any longer," she said as she moved around the room, picking up the blankets on the floor. "That is a child's name."

Frigga sipped at the liquid in the mug; warm and slightly sweet, an infusion of herbs in hot water. "It is the name of a child of Asgard," she said.

The woman dropped her armful of blankets on the bed. "Then it's doubly wrong, isn't it?"

Frigga took another sip of tea. The warmth slowly seeped through her body, centering her in this place. "What do you now call yourself?"

The woman sat on the edge of the bed, a distance away from Frigga. "Out there? Helen. But my brothers call me Hel."

Hel. A shiver ran down Frigga's back. She had known her son's daughter was named after the land of the dead on the frozen world of Niflheim, but to hear her say in her soft voice, made Frigga remember The Prophecy, the first one she had ever made as a child, the one that had chased after Frigga for her entire life.

Hel, keeper of the dead.

Frigga wrapped her hands around the mug and swallowed her reaction. "Your brothers, they are well?" Frigga asked.

Hela… no, Hel, sighed. "You mean after being banished from Asgard as children for the sins of our mother?" she asked, glancing at the band around her wrist. "They're great." She stood. "Look, I have to be at work in half an hour. Will you be okay alone for a little while?"

Frigga lowered the mug to her lap. "I believe so," she said. Everything was moving so fast; only a few minutes had passed since she had woken in this strange place, and so much had happened.

Her son's daughter, banished as a child from the halls of Asgard, had found her in this place, and had kept Frigga safe while she slept.

Hel walked across the room to the door. "Someone should be here in a few minutes, if you need anything."

Her hand was on the door handle when Frigga spoke. "Where is this place?"

Hel glanced over her shoulder. "What do you mean?"

"This place, here," Frigga tried to speak clearly. "What is it? Is this the afterlife?"

Hel raised her eyebrow. "This isn't the afterlife," she said as she pulled open the door. "This is Brooklyn."

And then Hel was gone through the door. Frigga heard footsteps, moving farther away. She stood and walked carefully to the window, pushing aside the curtain to look outside.

Sunlight lay thick upon this world of 'Brooklyn'. A road ran straight outside, with many buildings sitting close together on the other side of the grey strip. The buildings were short, showing no more than three rows of windows among their red bricks. Small boxy vehicles of many colours sat along the road.

This place was more alien than any world Frigga had seen in many years, and the strangeness of it all stabbed at her damaged heart.

A distant door slammed, and Hel walked across the bricks below. Her long hair streamed out behind her in the wind as she pulled her short jacket close, hunching her shoulders.

Frigga let the curtain fall into place. She made herself breathe evenly as she walked back to the bed. Whatever realm in which she had awoken, she was not without connection. Loki's daughter was here, as were her brothers.

Frigga pulled the blanket around her shoulders, huddling into its warmth. With Hel gone, the building around her was quiet. Taking a deep breath, Frigga closed her eyes and reached out with her magic to the world around her.

For a heart-stopping moment, nothing happened. Frigga choked on the air in her lungs; her magic was as much a part of her as breathing and if it had been taken from her in death, what was she to do?

Frigga pushed herself off the bed and sat on the floor. She placed her hands flat and felt the wood solid beneath her, and then deeper; the old stone and brick that held the building together, the wood running over the floors and in the walls. But there was more in this strange new place; small metal wires ran through every part of the building and out into the street, carrying sparks of power. Eyes open, Frigga let out a breath and pushed out along the wires, feeling the sparks of power stream through her like water down a riverbed; flowing, powerful, inexorable.

The power moved over the wires out of the building, into the street and beyond. In her mind, Frigga could see where the power gathered together in a cascade of sparks and potential, then streamed out again in all directions.

This was new, this magic she felt in the tips of her fingers. Curious in spite of herself, Frigga gathered the power into herself, feeling it spark along her bones, through her chest, electrifying the air in her lungs. Then she turned that power around and pushed out gently.

The overhead lights flickered and pulsed, then glowed steadily once more.

Frigga let out a slow breath. She didn't know if she was alive, but she certainly didn't feel dead. Magic, while sluggish, still flowed in her veins. The new magic of this world was strange but comprehensible. It had been a long time since Frigga had encountered such new magic.

It was almost enough to distract her from the impossibility of her being.

Slowly, Frigga stood. She was steadier now on her feet; she could feel the wood of the floor under her feet, the stones and bricks of the building around her, the sparking of the power flowing along tiny metal wires.

Frigga walked to the door and twisted the knob. The door opened silently, and Frigga stepped out into a dim hallway. Here, the colours changed; browns and tans overlying the white walls. Frigga ran her hand over one of the walls; not stone, but plaster and paint.

The hallway led to stairs. Frigga walked down twelve stairs, then stopped on the landing. The house around her was not as silent as she had first thought. On the floor below, somewhere, was movement.

Hel had said that someone would soon be arriving; was this that person?

If it was a person.

On silent feet, Frigga descended the remaining twelve steps. The room into which she stepped was large and warm, with fabric-covered couches and chairs scattered around a low wood table. Weapons of all sorts were mounted on the walls, between tapestries and portraits. There was no movement in this room, but Frigga sensed life behind the large door in the far wall.

She did not know what may lie on the other side of that door, but she was Frigga of Asgard, and she would not run.

Quietly, Frigga removed a knife from one of the sheaths on the wall and walked to the door. Steeling herself, she pushed the door open.

In the room on the other side of the door stood a man, his back to Frigga. He was tall and lanky, rather like Loki in his build. For a moment, he did not appear to notice Frigga; then his head went up and he whipped around, holding two white containers in his hands.

If Hel had resembled her father, this young man was nearly the spitting image of Frigga's stolen son.

Then he smiled, and the paternal resemblance softened into what Frigga remembered of his mother, Angrboða's wide eyes and strong chin; his mother's bones.

"You're awake," the young man said. He put the containers down on the counter behind him. "Hel wasn't sure when you were going to come back to us."

Frigga let the door swing shut behind her. "How long has it been?" she asked. The knife hilt was cold in her hand, and under her feet she could feel the wood of the floor, the stones and brisk of the building around her, the sparking of the power flowing along tiny metal wires.

"You've been asleep for most of the day," the young man said. He leaned against the counter with a languid grace, his eyes flicking down to the knife in Frigga's hand.

"That s not what I meant." Frigga move to where she could rest her hand against the back of a tall chair. "Before that."

"When you died?" the young man said bluntly. His voice held a soft lisp, nearly indiscernible. "I don't know." He turned back to the brown bag on the counter. "Hel might but she's not really much for talking about this stuff."

Frigga watched the young man pull another white container from the brown bag. His hair was short to her eyes, black hair curling at the nape of his neck. Loki had not worn his hair that short in a long time, since before he was grown.

Before his children were born.

"Are you Hel's brother?" Frigga asked.

The young man looked up with a slight frown, and that resemblance to Loki returned. "Didn't she tell you what was going on?" he asked. "She was here when you woke up, right?"

"She was." Frigga carefully laid her knife on the countertop. It was still within reach. "She said that she had to go to work."

The young man rolled his eyes. "Because the world stops turning if Detective Radolf takes a sick day," he muttered. "In that case, allow me to introduce myself." He gave a short bow. "I am Jormungandr."

Frigga kept her breathing even, did not let so much as a tremor show. Jormungandr, Loki's youngest son, had been just a baby when his mother was banished from Asgard with her offspring.

Jormungandr had been the reason Angrboða was banished, and it had been Frigga's actions that led to that banishment.

But that had been over seven hundred years before. Frigga made herself look at the man before her, Loki's son. Her grandson. "It's been a very long time since I have seen you," she said, letting a small smile cross her lips.

Jormungandr smiled widely in return. A little too widely. "Hel said that you were around when I was a baby, before everything happened," he said. "So you know about…" He waved his hand.

"About your nature as a child?" Frigga supplied. A wisp of memory drifted past, of the first time, the only time, Frigga had held her youngest grandson. How the baby had looked up at her in his blankets, his eyes sharp and attentive for one so young.

How the baby in her arms had without warning turned into a writhing black serpent.

Frigga had dropped the blanket to the floor and screamed so loudly that the guards came running; how little Hela ran into the room and picked up the serpent and cradled him in her arms, putting her tiny fragile body between the serpent and the sharp weapons of the guards.

How Angrboða entered the room then, ignoring her children and staring at Frigga with dangerous eyes.

Frigga shook off the memory. Many centuries had passed since that day, much blood spilled over the years. "Yes, I do," she said. "Do you still…"

Jormungandr raised his eyebrow. "Turn into a giant snake?" he suggested. "Yes." He stepped away from the counter. "I wasn't sure what you'd feel like eating after coming back from the dead, but I was in Chinatown so I picked up some congee and some hot and sour soup. I think we also have a can of chicken soup around here somewhere, if you want."

Frigga was unconcerned about the food; it was the custom to eat the food of one's host, no matter the size of the host's hall or the strength of his armoury. Loki's son was the more pressing matter. "If you are here, as is your sister, is also your brother?"

"Yeah, he's around," Jormungandr said vaguely. His shoulders tensed as he spoke, a detail Frigga filed away for later. "He's working on a job that needs to get done before it rains later this week."

Without conscious thought, Frigga reached out to feel the air, the growing heaviness of the water in the air, the faint thickening that spoke of rain over the city. The air in this place felt different than Asgard – thinner, lighter, with an edge of metal and toxins. "Your brother will need to work fast," was all she said.

"He's one of those guys who gets his frustrations out by lifting heavy objects," Jormungandr said. He retrieved two bowls from a cupboard, and spoons from a drawer. "Which soup do you want?"

Frigga made herself stand straight, even as her body grew weary. She would not admit weakness over such a small thing as death. "I will try both," she said.

Jormungandr poured soup into the bowls and carried them over to the wood table in the corner of the room. "How about tea?" he asked, arranging the bowls on the table with relentless hands. "I'll make tea. Or do you want water?"

Frigga let him pull out one of the large chairs for her. The chair's ungainly appearance belied its comfort; the wood was worn smooth by hands and age. "I will have tea," she said. She picked up the small metal spoon and examined it carefully. The handle was intricately carved to look like a piece of wood, with the bowl of the spoon seeming to grow from the handle. It was a skilled piece of metalwork, and it felt old in her hand.

She dipped the spoon into the first bowl and lifted it to her lips. Salty, with the taste of cooked grains and herbs. The combination was strange to her palate, but not unpleasant.

Next, she dipped the spoon into the other bowl. The flavour of this soup was sour and carried a slight heat from spices. Frigga's stomach twisted at the spices, and she put the spoon down.

"That might not be the best thing to eat after coming back from the dead," Jormungandr said as he put a small glass by her hand. "Maybe save that for a few days in. We can go for dim sum next weekend or something."

Frigga returned to the first bowl. "What happens now?" she asked between sips from the spoon. Her mind didn't want to eat, but her empty stomach cried out for food.

Jormungandr sank into a chair across the table. "What do you mean?" he asked. "Bringing you back, that's permanent. You're not going to fade into mist in a few days or anything."

Frigga went still, as her mind took in what Jormungandr's words meant. "You have done this before?" she asked, lowering the spoon. "Brought one back from death?"

Jormungandr shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "A few times," he said after a minute. "Well, Hel did. Me and Fenrir are just along for the ride."

Frigga put the spoon down with a clatter. A few times, he said. A few times, had Hel brought someone back from the dead.

Frigga thought of all the death she had seen in her long life, of the loved ones lost to war and to accident. Her brothers, all dead in the wars of long ago; her childhood friends cut down in the war with Jotunheim, the war that had given Frigga her stolen son.

Of Baldr, her youngest son, still a toddling child when an accident born of Frigga's own carelessness snatched him away into the arms of death.

The impossibility of it all, the unfairness, stole the breath from her. She put her head into her hands and tried to press back the gibbering madness at the insanity of this; that she be the one yanked back from death's grasp, separated forever from her loved ones, her son.

Distantly, Frigga was aware of movement in the room, of a faint burbling, and she could feel the tiny sparks in the wires in the walls coalesce in a point of heat. Outside the walls of the building, she could feel the growing heaviness in the air, the faint thickening that spoke of rain over the city.

She might not be really alive, but she was far from dead.

The burbling turned off with a snap, then the faint clink of earthenware on stone, followed by the sound of pouring water. Footsteps soft on the ground, and Frigga lifted her head from her hands as Jormungandr placed a steaming cup on the table before her. "Here," he said quietly, his hand resting momentarily on Frigga's shoulder before he returned to his seat.

Frigga wrapped her hands around the mug, the warmth seeping into her hands. She breathed in the steam and tried to gather her chaotic thoughts into words.

Finally, she looked at Jormungandr. "Why me?" she asked. "So many of my people must have died in the Dark Elves' attack on Asgard. Why did you choose to bring me back?"

Jormungandr leaned back in his chair, bringing one knee up to his chest. He ran his tongue over his lower lip, eyes fixed on the table. After a long moment of stillness, he spoke. "It doesn't work like that. Hel doesn't really have a choice in who she brings over."

"How can she not have a choice?"

Jormungandr's left shoulder twitched up in a shrug. "She says, it's like there's a tear in the universe." He brought his hands up and placed them together, then slid his fingers apart. "And she sees the empty space left behind, and she just stitches it back together." He twined his fingers together.

Frigga set the mug down on the table. "It cannot be that easy," she protested. Bringing a soul back from the dead was necromancy, the darkest and most difficult of magics in any realm. What Jormungandr spoke of sounded as easy as the magic Frigga used to start a fire across the room.

Jormungandr met her gaze steadily. "It's not easy," he said quietly. "It nearly kills Hel, every single time."

"So why do it?" Frigga asked. "Why risk her life for someone she hasn't seen in centuries?"

Jormungandr shook his head. "I have no idea, all right?" He stood and went over to the counter, poured water into another mug, and dropped a small white sachet into the water. "But she did, and you're here now."

"Will she be well?" Frigga asked. "When we spoke earlier, she did not seem happy to see me."

Jormungandr slumped into his chair. "She's in the middle of a case that's messing with her head," he said. "A woman disappeared last month and half the squad is convinced her boyfriend did her in and hid the body, but Hel's not sure."

Frigga tried to decipher the thread of the conversation. "Is this what your sister does?" she asked. "Find missing people?"

"Sort of," Jormungandr said. "Mostly she works homicide, but the murder rates are down so low since the Chitauri attack last year that her squad has been helping out other areas."

"The Chitauri?" Frigga echoed. She pushed herself up straight in her chair. "Are we on Midgard?"

Jormungandr frowned at her. "You could call it that." He tapped the edge of his mug. "Didn't Hel tell you that before she left?"

"She told me we were in Brooklyn."

Jormungandr looked at the ceiling and shook his head. "Saints preserve us," he muttered. "Hold on."

He stood and went through the large swinging door. Frigga sipped at her tea and waited, trying to sort her chaotic thoughts. Angrboða and her children had been banished centuries before to Niflheim, but it was not inconceivable that Angrboða had skipped between the realms; she and Loki had been causing that sort of trouble since they were children.

But why Midgard?

Jormungandr swept back into the room, a large book under one arm and a folded paper in the other hand. Frigga moved her mug as he opened the book on the table and shuffled the pages. "Here is Midgard." He swept his hand over a large map, displaying lands and oceans on shiny paper. "And we are here." He pointed at a spot in the centre-left to the map.

Frigga leaned in to look at the space he indicated. "We are near the ocean?"

"Damn close." Jormungandr flipped a few pages more. "This is New York," he said, indicating the new map. "We are here," and he pointed at the bottom of the page. "The Chitauri attack was up in Manhattan, at Stark Tower." He moved his finger up the page. "They've mostly cleaned up the mess now, but the political bullshit continues."

Frigga traced the flat lines on the map. She had not realized she was so close to the place Loki had led the Chitauri to attack. "I should like to see this place," she told Jormungandr.

He raised his eyebrow, an echo of Hel's expression earlier that day. "Anything you want," he said. "But let's give it a few days until this round of alien conspiracies dies down."

He dropped his folded paper onto the centre of the map, and opened it to reveal a picture of one of the Dark Elves' ships embedded in the ground. The picture was blurry and from a distance, but there was no mistaking the shape that Frigga had seen from the distance on Asgard, moments before Malekith had ordered her death.

An icy shiver ran through Frigga. "What has happened?" she demanded, turning to Jormungandr. "Was there an invasion?"

"Nothing like that," Jormungandr said. His eyes were wide and unblinking. "It's all over the news; this ship appeared out of nowhere and embedded itself in the middle of a Greenwich courtyard, a bunch of aliens fell out, then Thor appeared and twenty minutes later everything was fine. The ship disappeared and everything."

Frigga pressed her hand to her mouth. The Dark Elves had attacked Midgard during the Convergence, that was the only answer. As the universe had not fallen to darkness, something had stopped them; could Thor alone have done so?

"What of Thor?" Frigga asked, reaching out to touch the picture of the Dark Elf vessel. "Was there word of him? Did he survive?"

"As far as we know," Jormungandr said. He slid into the chair beside Frigga. "The BBC interviewed a bunch of people on the site, and they said that after the alien ship disappeared, Thor stood up and walked off. So that's good?"

Frigga let out a breath. Her son lived. He had been victorious against an unbeatable enemy, and he lived. "Yes," she said. "That is good."

Thor, alive; Loki likely still in his lonely prison but alive. Her two sons, on such different branches of the tree of life, but alive.

Frigga folded her hands on her lap, to stop the shaking of her hands. Her sons, alive; Odin still on the throne of Asgard. They would have survived her death.

"Can I go back?" she asked after a long silence. "To Asgard, to my life."

Jormungandr ran his hand through his hair. His eyes changed shape slightly, his irises taking on a slightly yellow sheen. "That's not an easy thing to answer—"

"Try," Frigga interrupted, lacing the word with a slight push to obey.

"You died, all right?" Jormungandr said. He adjusted the book on the table, his fingers moving in agitation. "This wasn't one of those things where Hel found you on the battle field and fixed you. You died, and Hel had to drag you back from whatever nothing there is on the other side. That's all there is to it; you can't just go back to your life—"

Frigga raised her head and looked straight at Jormungandr. "You have not given me a true reason," she said.

Jormungandr let out a small breath, his tongue flicking to the corner of his mouth; only it was not a normal tongue, but the forked barb of a serpent. Frigga went still, but Jormungandr didn't seem to notice anything out of the ordinary as he stood and took three long steps to the counter. He twisted a metal lever, and water streamed from a shiny metal tap.

For a few minutes, Frigga had been able to push her grandson's nature to the back of her mind, but here it was, the shift of his eye, the change of the shape of his tongue. The marks of the serpent.

Jormungandr put his hands into the stream of water and held them there for a few minutes. After a while, he turned off the water, and wiping his hands on a piece of cloth hanging on a hook. His skin was as white as Loki's, a paleness that hid his true nature. Only with Loki, it had been hiding his true frost giant form, not the serpent standing before Frigga in the shape of a man.

"I can't give you a reason," Jormungandr said, tossing the cloth onto the counter. "Talk to Hel about this, this is her crazy world. But if you really want to get back to Asgard or whatever, there's a problem that has nothing to do with your corporeal state."

"And what might that be?" Frigga asked, willing herself to be calm. The fact that her grandson might turn into a serpent at any moment was not the strangest thing that had happened in the last few hours. She would not fixate on that.

Jormungandr crossed his arms over his chest. "Hemidall doesn't see people like you," he said. "Not anyone Hel's brought back over. I guess the dead aren't part of the landscape for the all-seeing eye."

"None?" Frigga asked sharply. "How does Hemidall not see? He sees everything under his eye's path."

Jormungandr shrugged. "Not us," he said, and the way he met her gaze was very direct. It had been a long time since anyone had cast such a look at the Queen of Asgard. It was very nearly a challenge. "Not the people Hel brings back. We're ghosts in this world."

"But you are not ghosts," Frigga objected. "I touched Hel, I felt her hands upon mine. No ghost could be so real."

Jormungandr shook his head. "I don't know," he said, and his voice had dropped lower. "Fenrir doesn't talk about it and Hel really doesn't talk about it, but I think it had something to do with our mother."

He nearly spat the last word, coating the sound with such vitriol that Frigga went still. She had known Angrboða was dangerous; mad even, that was why she had been banished from Asgard. But what has she done to her children to have her own son speak of her as if she was anathema?

Other than to twine his being with that of a serpent, Frigga reminded herself.

"I don't remember what happened after we were banished," Jormungandr was saying. "My first memories are of England, on this world. By then, Hel was a young woman and fully capable of keeping her brothers safe from all dangers, be they Midgardian or from the other worlds." A smile ghosted over Jormungandr's lips. "It is for the best, Hel has always said, that we are hidden from the sight of the gods. All the gods ever do is to make things worse."

"That is not true," Frigga said, taking in her grandson's words. "The warriors of Asgard strive to protect the nine realms, to keep the peace between worlds."

Jormungandr pushed away from the counter and began to collect the plates on the table. "Every time the gods appear on Earth, things go badly." He gathered up the spoons in a clatter of metal. "Maybe not for them, but for the rest of us, we get to pick up the pieces after the everything has been ripped apart."

Frigga thought of Thor's description of the disaster wrought on Midgard by the Chitauri at Loki's conniving; of the quickly glimpsed destruction brought to Asgard by the Dark Elves, minutes before her own death, and said nothing.

Jormungandr dropped the tableware into the metal sink. "It doesn't matter," he said, voice subdued. "We're here, and so are you, so that's what we have to deal with now."

"And how will you?" Frigga asked. "Deal with me?"

Jormungandr pushed a short black curl off his forehead as he glanced over his shoulder at Frigga. "We'll have to get you some clothes, to start with. Everyone here is too tall for you to borrow anything."

Frigga stared at Jormungandr. "You wish me to stay?"

Jormungandr stilled. "Why would you leave?" he asked in what sounded like honest confusion. "Hel brought you back; we'll take care of you."

Slowly, Frigga stood. The floor was cold under her feet, and she could feel the stone and brisk of the building around her, the sparking of the power flowing along tiny metal wires. "In spite of all that was done to you?"

Jormungandr shrugged. "Hel said you were the only one who spoke up for us when Odin was banishing Angrboða."

Through the haze of centuries, Frigga remembered that fateful day in the Great Hall. Odin had summoned the entire court to bear witness to Angrboða's crimes.

Angrboða had stood in the centre of the hall, paying the children at her feet no attention. Hel held the baby in her arms while little Fenrir, barely toddling, clutched at his sister's skirt with pudgy hands.

"It was no use," Frigga said. She could no longer remember what words she had used to ask for fostership of Loki's children; the words had not mattered. Only one person in all of Asgard could have taken the children from Angrboða in her banishment, and Loki had stood at Odin's side in silence. "There was nothing under our law that I could do."

Jormungandr smiled, a soft smile that held nothing of his parents in the lines of his face. "You spoke for us when no one would. That meant something to Hel." He crossed the room and put his hand on Frigga's wrist; his fingers warm as any man's. "That's why she heard you, when you died."

"Is that why I am here?"

Jormungandr squeezed Frigga's wrist gently. "We pay our debts," was all he said.

End part one.