Midwinter in the city, a few minutes till midnight. Tucked away in a side alley under the glow of the ghost-lights, Loki knelt on the asphalt and cast the runes. They spoke of his imminent death.
"You can change your mind any day now," he told them, but they remained implacable. Frowning, he gathered them again and summoned the energy to recast, his eyes falling half-shut—ninth time the charm, or something like that—when a voice spoke over his shoulder.
"They're stubborn, just like you." Loki jumped and turned around, making a show of relaxing as soon as he met the newcomer's eye. It probably didn't fool him; Odin was always the best at seeing through Loki's lies. He folded his arms and gazed down at Loki, a shadow outlined by the light of a world that forgot him centuries ago. "What do they tell you?"
"They say, 'Don't tell Grimnir anything,'" Loki said deliberately, taking petty pleasure in watching Odin roll his eyes. He ducked his head as he folded the runestones into their little white cloth and scanned the alley; Loki didn't care to be noticed if he could help it, and Odin's Traveller's garments were conspicuous. The alleyway was still clear, luckily, though the low hum of the sky-rail above them remained. "Oh, and that we're doomed. Again."
"I knew that already," Odin snorted. "You're out and about, after all."
"Well." Not technically true; the greater part of Loki remained bound in his cave, and the only reason Loki managed to send an avatar anywhere was entirely due to Sigyn, who kindly kept him nice and undistracted by keeping the venom from burning off his face. Best decision of Loki's life, marrying her. "You have a point, there. But I don't actually plan on dying, you see."
"You never do." Odin proffered his hand, and Loki eyed it for a moment before accepting. Odin hauled him up and held him fast. Loki squirmed, quite unaffectedly, much to his chagrin. Damn this weakling avatar. Not that he ordinarily could have bested Odin in anything but trickery, but at least he could have made the man twitch a little. "Loki, what do you have up your sleeve this time?"
"Nothing," Loki said truthfully; he was more the fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants type, anyway. This didn't seem to make Odin any more inclined to let him go. "I'm telling the truth, Odin." He paused significantly. "But if I did…"
"Yes?" Odin looked impatient. Loki flashed him a bright smile.
"Well, what's good for me is good for the Æsir right now, isn't it? All of us want to keep living, and since I'm—how shall I put it?—the key to the engine of the end of the world, you might want to let me go so I can figure out how to stall it."
"Stall the engine," Odin said flatly. Loki nodded, and gently tried to tug his hand away from Odin again. His grip was like granite. "And what makes you think you won't start Ragnarök just by trying to prevent it?"
Loki hesitated, decided that truth was better than lying in this case, and finally admitted, "Nothing." Odin's grip loosened, and stupidly, Loki added, "You'll just have to trust me."
Odin really was doing a lot of repeating today, Loki thought as Odin flung him away. He wondered if he should mention it. Probably not. He hit the wall with the point of his hip and ricocheted to the ground. Groaning, he rolled onto his hands and knees. That would bruise, and blood from his scraped palms already trickled blackly over his skin. Anger welled up inside him like oil under the earth, waiting to be tapped.
"Yes," he spat as he climbed to his feet. "Trust me. Trust me to clean up your messes, like I always do—"
"You're the one who makes them in the first place!"
"Oh, like you're so innocent? Does the time you dropped the ball on the farmer's boy ring a bell?"
"So one incident should earn you my trust when you've lived an eternity of treachery? If I let you go—you know the prophecies as well as I do—"
"If you hadn't locked me up in the first place, none of this would be a problem!"
"You killed my son!"
The ground shuddered, a prelude to an earthquake, and they fell silent, waiting for more. Nothing happened. Loki gnawed on his lip and tried to rein in his temper.
"Is that you?" Odin asked eventually, gesturing vaguely to the ground.
"Yes," Loki said with a sigh. His body tended to respond to pain even when his mind wasn't there to prompt it. "Sigyn's probably emptying the bowl again."
"Ah. So you aren't out." Odin smiled, looking Loki up and down. "And this is just an avatar. I thought so."
Despite himself, Loki laughed. "Do you feel better now?"
"I feel like I'm right, is how I feel."
Loki smiled too, an echo of Odin's expression but sharper, shrewder.
"I could do it," he said abruptly. "Give me a chance. What do you have to lose?"
Odin glanced at the city, then back to Loki, meaningfully.
"It would happen anyway," Loki maintained, and folded his arms.
Odin considered for another long moment, and Loki matched his hard gaze with steel of his own.
"Fine," he said, as Loki's patience was pushed to the breaking point. "How?"
Loki smiled and pressed a thoughtful finger to his lips, ignoring the blood he left on his chin. "Tell me, Odin, are prophecies inescapable?"
Odin narrowed his eyes suspiciously, but answered, "When all the signs they foretold lock into place. Which they have."
"Not everything." Loki held up that same finger, and when he smiled this time, he looked feral, triumphant. "One thing can still stave off the end. Or three things, if you want specifics."
Odin was smart; he figured it out quickly.
"No," he growled. "I am not voluntarily releasing your spawn unless you can give me a stone-cold reason why I should."
Spawn, was it? Before he could bite his tongue, Loki snapped, "You knew the prophecies, you still bound them. It's your fault."
Odin hissed and the ghost-lights went out with frightened sighs. Magic swept over Loki, the prologue to something much more painful, and he raised his hands imploringly, shoving his anger to the back of his mind.
"Just listen to me," he said quickly. The grid would sense the death of the ghost-lights immediately, and a repairman might arrive any time now. "Let me talk to them. That was never a part of the prophesies, now, was it? If I can ask them—"
Odin snorted, cutting Loki off. "I see where you're going with this." He gave Loki a hard stare. Loki leaned against the wall, for all appearances loose and languid. "Done. If your children swear fealty to the Æsir, I'll let you go."
"The children and Sigyn too, I assume."
Odin scowled. "Of course. If you can do it."
Fealty was a bit optimistic, and so was Loki, but he would work with that. He nodded decisively. "Done."
He spat in his hand and extended it to Odin, who did the same. They shook on it, and Loki's mind blurred as he remembered doing something very similar aeons ago, something with more ritual and a bit more pain.
"Fine," he said, staving off a shiver at the memory. It was no matter; Odin was Oathbreaker and Loki was Kinslayer, and all that remained was the ever-changeable future. "A year?"
"A year," Odin confirmed. "Good luck, Loki."
He turned away, and Loki called after him, "I'm sorry about Baldr."
The words made Odin's shoulders stiffen, and something dark and seething inside Loki hummed in satisfaction.
"No, you're not," Odin said quietly. Loki shrugged.
"It's the thought that counts," he offered, fully aware of how his lips curled in a sly, malicious smile, and Odin turned his back on him and walked away, becoming nothing but a shadow in the night.
Heaving a sigh, Loki tilted his head back and looked up at the sky. The sky-rail had passed, and he could just barely see the strings of polymers that supported it glimmering in the half-light. There was the unfortunate part when Odin hadn't actually informed him where his children were, but he had his suspicions, and if he found one, hopefully he could find the others.
"Come Hel or high water," he murmured, and grinned to himself. His task was near-impossible. Loki liked impossible.
. . .
She could sense them behind her, planning silently through a thread of magic. Hel felt their thoughts skittering against her skin. The connection was well-guarded; still, they were cocky, assuming she had no powers of her own. She stopped abruptly and knelt down as if searching for something she'd dropped. All around her, the little gang closed in, and the few people still in the streets hurried away. Hel clenched her living hand into a fist, and wondered if her halls would have new tenants tonight.
"You're young," she said, still kneeling. "Too young for death. Leave me alone, and I won't send you there."
A flutter of images and instructions from their leader—they didn't want to rape her, Hel discovered, but to strip her parts like she was an old car; cybernetics sold well on the black market—and they pounced. She shot to her feet and whipped around, saying loudly, "This is your last chance!"
One of them caught her living shoulder with a barbed bullet. She shrugged off the pain and spun in a quick semi-circle, flinging icy runes like knives from her fingertips. The six of them dropped with the finality of all dead meat. Their souls arriving in Niflheim was a feather brushing along her nerves, and she shivered. For a moment, she missed her hall fiercely, desperately wishing to go back there—but the moment faded instantly, and she remembered how stifling it was, and how long she had loathed it before finally learning the spells that would free her from the realm. She didn't need to worry over these deaths. Móðguð would know what to do with them.
Hel shook her fingers free of the frost slowly creeping up her knuckles, and used her other hand to dig out the bullet. Within seconds, the sensors in her fingers caught the bullet and latched onto it, and she heard the satisfying clink as it hit her metal fingertips. She dropped it on the ground and watched it corrode, just as the concrete beneath did; the blood of gods could do that.
She was late for work.
Hel closed her eyes briefly. To whom did the goddess of death pray when she wanted to mourn the lives she took?
She was being maudlin. The only answer to her question would be her relatives, and Hel drew the line at that. She quickened her pace. Astrild was entirely capable of managing the bar alone for a little while, but Hel enjoyed her company. As she ran, she muttered incantations under her breath, and the bullet hole slowly closed. There was an odd moment when she had to fight the poison from the barbs, but it was no more difficult than healing a wound from a poisoned arrow; in minutes, her skin was smooth and pale again.
A few blocks from the bar, a tingle ran over her skin, and she paused mid-step, trying to place it. Not the humans' rendering of magic, nor that of the few gods who came to Midgard—very few would venture close to her, anyway. Still, it wasn't totally unfamiliar.
Hel paused outside the door, seeing her pale face reflected in its mirrored surface. She surveyed herself, the cybernetic mask with one glowing eye covering her decaying right side, the plates on her arm like armor; but unlike armor, this wove below her skin, invisible wires entwined with her nerves and tendons, making her capable of so much more than either human or god. She exhaled heavily, and cursed herself for being so concerned about her appearance. She had a good idea about who was waiting for her within, and he had never cared about how she looked.
Hel opened the door slightly more forcefully than she needed to, and stepped through the shimmering curtain of the filter, feeling it whisk the blood and dirt from her clothes, along with nine-tenths of the common bacteria floating around the city.
Sure enough, her father was sitting at the bar, looking just how he had all those millennia ago; same freckles, same red hair. He was chatting with Astrild, though judging from her flushed face, he was closer to flirting up a storm than simple small talk. Hel cleared her throat, and Astrild glanced up.
"Hjördís!" she cried, shooting Loki a guilty look. He gave her a little toast, and glanced sidelong at Hel. Hjördís? he mouthed, and she narrowed her eyes at him.
"Hello, Astrild," Hel said courteously. "I see you've met my father."
"Your—I see." Astrild glanced between them, her eyebrows raising, but Hel knew she would accept it; in this age of rejuvenation serums and injections, such things were common. "You've never mentioned him."
This time Hel was the one to raise her eyebrow, and Astrild started to nod, clearly flustered. Loki propped his chin on his hand, amused.
"Right," Astrild said, still nodding. "Uh. I guess you two want to talk, so I'm just going to…go in here."
"You don't need—" Hel tried, but Astrild shut the door to the back room gently as she finished her sentence. "To go in there."
Hel stared at the door for a moment, then finally sat down at the bar. Loki held her gaze as she did, looking unwontedly serious. A few seconds later, he broke character and chortled, "Hjördís, really?"
"Goddess of swords," Hel said with dignity. "I thought it fit as well as any. I could hardly use my real name."
"True, true." Loki tilted his head to the side and reached out; Hel tensed. Touch made her uneasy, even after a decade on Midgard, but he only traced the curves of her mask with gentle fingers.
"You're like a bird looking for shiny things," she said, and Loki laughed. "How did you get out, anyway?"
He leaned on the bar casually, flipping a lock of hair out of his eyes.
"Easily enough," he said lightly. Behind his false cheer was a gleam of anger, and no little amount of despair. "Sigyn helped."
Hel nodded slightly. None of this explained his presence here; she knew he loved her, even if she hadn't thought so when she was young, but Loki was not the sort who, when given a gasp of freedom, went wandering around to chat with his children.
Mind games like his weren't her strong point; she preferred to be more direct, so she was. "What are you doing here?"
"What, a man can't visit his favorite daughter?"
"I have a life here, Father. As much of one as I can have, anyway. A stable, quiet life, and whether you mean to or not, you will destroy it. It's in your nature."
Loki was quiet for a long time. Finally, he cleared his throat, and said, "I did miss your bluntness, Hel. And you."
Hel inclined her head in acknowledgement. If she was reading him correctly, he was completely, utterly sincere, and that was faintly disturbing.
Loki licked his lips, and continued, after another moment of awkward silence, "In exchange, I'll be blunt with you." He hesitated. "I'm here to stop Ragnarök."
Hel waited for more, but none came; after Loki looked at her expectantly for a moment, she said, "How's that working out for you?"
Loki sighed and rolled his eyes. "I knew that was a bad lead-in. I'll be even blunter. I'm here to stop Ragnarök, and I need you and your brothers to help me."
"That isn't going to happen," Hel assured him. "Jörmungandr, maybe, but Fenrir is as likely to tear you apart as talk to you."
"What happened to him wasn't my fault," Loki said stiffly. "I tried to stop it."
Hel looked at him. More than that, she looked; she was the Lady of the Dead, and while her gaze was not far-seeing, it was deep, and could cut to the soul. Loki shifted in his seat, tense like a drawn bowstring, but stayed still as Hel delved deeper. Layers upon layers of joy, rage, love, despair, and a thousand other facets, all unclear and in shambles; Loki's mind was the most chaotic place she'd ever been. Amid the mess, she found a vein of guilt, and chased to down to its beginning. She found herself looking at her own face, and those of her brothers and half-brothers.
Carefully, she withdrew, and found Loki's hands clasped between hers. His face was white.
"I believe you," said Hel, and immediately dropped his hands.
"I hate it when you do that," Loki said, and laughed shakily. "If anyone else tried, I would make them regret it."
"Well, I'm your favorite daughter," Hel said, and her lips tugged up at the corners. "What can I do to help?"
"First off," Loki said, and winced as he spoke, "I'm going to need you to swear fealty to the Æsir. Or something close to it, I'm not picky."
"That…will be difficult," Hel said slowly. The concept chafed, but in practice it would affect her not at all, since she could come and go from Niflheim as she pleased even now. "I'm willing to do it, but my brothers? No. Even you couldn't convince them."
"Don't underestimate my powers of persuasion," said Loki. His mouth was laughing, but his eyes were grim. It was a look Hel could understand. "I'll need to find them. You wouldn't happen to know where they are, would you?"
In answer, she pressed her finger to the pad under the bar and a map of the city grid beamed onto the surface. Hel swept her hand across it, zooming out until the entire country was displayed in skeins of blue light.
"I know Jörmungandr is here," she said, tapping a spot on the northeast coast. "He takes a human avatar and works with a fishing crew in the summer. He might listen to you if I call and explain what you want beforehand. Fenrir, on the other hand—" She indicated an area high on the border and inland. "This is his territory. He uses an avatar but keeps his wolf shape. It's protected land, so he's rarely bothered by people."
"You can't get in contact with him, then?"
Hel shook her head. "I'm not sure if he'd want to talk to anyone. He's bitter. Much more so than me, or even Jörmungandr." And for good reason, though Hel's limited sense of tact told her not to say so.
Loki nodded, watching the map with distant eyes. His face was set, not a look Hel had seen often before; but of course, she wasn't a child any longer. He would no longer hide his darkness from her.
"Fenrir last, then," he decided, and stood up to go behind the bar, selecting a bottle of scotch—real alcohol, very expensive—and taking a swig from it. Hel idly observed, and made a note to pay for it later. Loki swallowed, and made a face.
"What happened to beer?" he complained. "Or wine? Anything but this."
"You're still drinking it," Hel pointed out. Loki shrugged expansively.
"Can't let it go to waste," he said, and took another gulp to punctuate his point. "Hel, can you see if this will work?"
"You know I can't do that," she told him, shaking her head. "I'm from a timeless realm. I can't see the threads of fate. Cast the runes if you want to know."
Loki paused, then said ruefully, "Good point."
He carefully took the white bag from his jacket, and smoothed it out on the bar, holding the runestones in his palm. Hel drew back several paces and pulled her magic in tight. Loki's power swelled, and that tingle from earlier raced down her spine. The runestones trembled in his grip, and at last, he cast them; the energy flooded into the stones, leaving Hel tense and gasping.
"Hel." Loki's voice was strange. "Look at this."
The runestones were all balanced on their edges, wiped clean of any sign. Curiously, Loki poked one; it wobbled but didn't fall.
"Congratulations," she said, a note of wonder in her voice. She had never seen such a thing happen before. "Apparently your future is undetermined."
"Just the way I like it," said Loki with a devilish grin. He glanced up at her, traces of that grin still on his lips. "Coming with me?"
For a brief moment, Hel was tempted; but she shook her head.
"No," she said gently. "Do you remember what I said about living a stable, peaceful life?"
Loki frowned, and looked down.
"I don't understand it," he said, sounding almost petulant. "But it's your choice, Hel." He raised his head and looked her in the eye. "I wish you'd come."
"I wish I could," she said. "Truly. But I can't."
Suddenly, Loki pulled her close and embraced her; Hel went rigid, but relaxed into his hold. It brought back echoes of her childhood, and she found herself hugging him back.
"I'll see you later, then," he said, and released her.
"Or I'll come to your funeral," said Hel, deadpan. Loki looked shocked for a moment, then burst into laughter.
"You would, wouldn't you?" He kissed the metal of her cheek, and stepped away.
"Goodbye, Father," she called to him as he went to the door. He waved at her, and tossed a tiny fireball at the filter before he disappeared; it sparked and wheezed, and the curtain flickered out of being.
"Typical," Hel sighed. Behind her, the back room door creaked open, and Astrild poked her head in.
"You're still here!" she said in surprise. "I thought you'd left."
"Why?" Hel asked, confused.
Astrild shrugged. "I dunno. I just thought you would. He seemed like the kind of guy who can make people do what he wants." True enough; Hel didn't mention it. Astrild picked up the scotch bottle, and frowned at it before glancing back up at Hel, shooting her a bright smile. "I'm glad you didn't."
"I didn't want to," said Hel. She looked around at the little bar, at Astrild with her curious eyes; she thought of her little apartment, the brisk night breeze, the brush of death in the city caressing her skin, and she smiled. "I really didn't."