CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

Life went on. Even underground, lying on her back, beneath suffocating tons of dirt, feeling like she was in a coffin, but knowing she was thoroughly alive.

Some may have argued miracle, but Darcy Lewis had seen too much of gods and magic, and science that looked a whole lot like magic, to believe in miracles. She had been saved by modern medicine. She had been saved by love and friendship from two people, who, despite their destructive, violent impulses, had been willing to sacrifice all for her. One was gone forever, and the other...

Darcy squinted at the big white clock on the wall. A chem lab's worth of drugs swam through her system and it took a minute for her to remember what the little hand

midway between seven and eight, big hand on six, meant. 7:30. In the morning, if the comatose state of her companion was any indication.

This was the first time in days that her mind could assemble coherent thoughts, but she knew he'd been around, tormenting the doctors and nurses with nasty mutterings of incompetence regarding her care. Even so, as she looked over at him, where he slept on a chair, in an uncomfortable origami of long limbs and black and green Asgard-lite, her heart ached with a powerful tenderness toward the insufferable bastard. He slept in unnatural stillness and her nerves jiggled, raw and edgy as she instinctively watched his chest. A long second followed another, then another; a tiny, irrational panic grew in her heart until there was movement and she knew he still drew breath.

She puffed out a sigh of relief, her attention next drawn to an out-of-place splash of white on his left hand. Her eyes struggled with focus before telling her that the hand was swathed in white gauze, a silvery glint of splints on two fingers. All that remained of the wounds on his face were watered-down bruises and a smattering of thin, red scratches, some leaving a crosshatch pattern like a lazy artist's shading.

Seeing her glasses sitting on the nightstand by the bed, she started to reach for them, only to find her attempt impeded by an IV and a heart rate monitor. She scowled at both, already feeling an impatience at her situation, helpless, trapped by her injury and these wires and tubes. Also, the IV, with its catheter buried in her flesh, icked her out.

A yawn pulled her mouth open and she gave up on the glasses. The drugs were keeping the worst at bay, but she could still feel spectral pain at her side, and her head throbbed dully. Grateful for a few minutes of conscious, lucid time, she took the opportunity to just watch Loki sleep. The ends of his black hair were still ragged with the cut-by-a-blind-barber style, but his clothes were blood-free and tidy.

With sleep stripping away his sly facade, he looked sweetly innocent and vulnerable, which ironically reminded her of new suspicions. When she'd awoken briefly after surgery, in the delirium of anesthesia, she had asked and received, from Jane, a summary of the events following the portal's explosion. Although Darcy was certain that his haughty highness was moderately fond of her, she found it hard to believe he'd suffer the torture of Odin's spell a second time on her behalf. What are you up to?

The question brought up another memory of an overheard conversation a day or so later. She'd still been wrapped in the thick folds of anesthesia residue and painkillers, too weak to open her eyes. Director Nick Fury's voice had broken the dark quiet of her half slumber. "You look like shit."

Well, d'uh, she thought, but the Director wasn't speaking to her.

"A fair improvement over dead," came Loki's voice, his velvety tone warmed by humor.

"That's debatable."

Loki laughed dryly. "Have I done something to upset you, Nick? Recently?"

"That's Director Fury, to you. And no, Odinson, you haven't. Because you're old news now."

"Truly? Then once Darcy is on her feet again, I shall endeavor to try harder."

"Uh-huh," said Fury. "Look at you, sitting here like her loyal dog. You're whipped, aren't you?"

"As an overworked carthorse." Apparently Loki understood that Midgard colloquialism, but he took Fury's jab at his manhood with easy humor. "What do you want, Nick? Ah, perhaps you're here to finally bring me the offered magazine."

Fury waited a beat before answering, probably giving Loki the evil eye in all senses of the term. "What's your game?"

"World of Warcraft, of course."

"I mean, with Ms. Lewis."

"Right," said Loki. "Together we shall conquer the Nine Realms." A pause. "Forgive the absence of maniacal laughter. I wouldn't want to wake my accomplice from her healing sleep."

"Somehow," said Fury, "I think you aren't joking."

Darcy had then dropped into sleep, a light smile on her lips, certain she could hear Loki's cryptic smirk.

Now, wide awake, more or less, she inspected the memory, finding the idea of conquering worlds with a supervillain both horrifying and minutely tempting. Her thoughts were interrupted when the door opened and a nurse entered the hospital room. What was her name? Ella.

"Welcome back, sleeping beauty," said Ella, sliding a brief, displeased glower in Loki's direction.

"Sleeping Beauty needed a kiss," said Darcy, intentionally not looking at her prince. "I'm doing awake all by myself."

"Good for you," said Ella, her smile white against skin almost as deep brown as Director Fury's. "You need anything?"

"I have to pee," said Darcy. "In there." She pointed weakly at the other door in the room, assuming it was a bathroom. "No more bedpans." She was stoned, but not enough to tolerate that indignity anymore.

Ella pursed her lips, taking in what Darcy hoped was the determined set of her chin. "All right, then." She unclipped the heart monitor from Darcy's finger, but the IV unfortunately, followed to the bathroom. Not that Darcy really wanted to be without her happy vein juice, anyway.

Loki snoozed on as Darcy and Ella made glacial progress toward the bathroom. "He always that sound a sleeper?" Ella perused the sleeping immortal with cold curiosity, possibly wondering if this would be a good time to jab a scalpel into his heart.

"He's not a morning person," explained Darcy.

"Honey, I'm not even sure he's a person."

"Yes, he is," snapped Darcy, halting and glaring defiantly at the nurse. Normally, she didn't fly to Loki's defense, especially with SHIELD's staff who had more than enough reason for their anger and thirst for revenge. But Sean's vengeance against another Norse god had left her with a life-threatening hole in her side and a broken heart, and her own understanding of right, wrong and justice was too shattered to deal with the someone else's pain.

Ella, no doubt equipped with a backbone of steel, stared back but soon turned away from Darcy's unrelenting ferocity. "He's my friend," Darcy explained, because whatever else they meant to each other, that part was true. With a nod, Ella continued to help her toward the bathroom.

As she wobbled out again, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and stopped. Her long hair was a tangled and dirty mess of brown. The pretty streaks of colorful lowlights were gone. She sported two reddish purple lumps on her face, one on her chin, the other on her left cheek. The bump on her chin came with a bonus bloody scrape. All the white in her left eye had been swapped for blood red and there was a spray of broken vessels in the right.

"I'm royalty," she said. "Darcy, Queen of the Undead."

Humoring her, Ella said, "Well, your boyfriend's some kind of prince, right? Makes sense that you'd be a queen."

Her prince consort woke up just as she and Ella were approaching the bed. Sitting bolt upright, his eyes went to the bed, fleeting alarm on his face before he spotted her. He rose and helped get her back in bed. Ella gave him one last disapproving look and then left.

He sat on the edge of the bed, and took one of her hands in his, studying the pink flesh where Bic had burned her finger a few days before. Loki's default setting was scrawny, but today he was gaunt with aspirations for skeletal. The dark half circles under his eyes were so dark, they resembled the eye black that football players wore. In short, he looked a lot more like death than Loki, but perhaps because the IV drip had her more wasted than Keith Richards, he was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen. Mostly because he had a pulse, and when she tightened her hand in his, the flesh and bone underneath had the distant tingle of magic, but in the normal, cinnamon-y way, and not threatening to rip apart in a chaos of out-of-control power.

"Where's Thor?" she asked.

"In a room down the hall. Jane's been staying in quarters here as well."

Because she was getting to be as bad as Jane, Darcy asked, "What about Inkblot? Bic? Did she...?"

"The guard...Pam? She's been going out and feeding the cat. Your reptile is in Jane's care." Amusement sparkled in his green eyes. "It followed Jane to the break room yesterday. A women from another laboratory complained about the animal's presence in the building and soon after there was a small fire in her lab."

"Bic takes after you," said Darcy.

He smiled slyly. "Keep in mind, the beast doesn't act of its own accord. That bit of mischief was Jane's doing."

"Jane? Jane Foster?" Even loaded on painkillers, Darcy couldn't make the idea of Jane the Arsonist work.

He nodded. "When the woman confronted Jane and accused her of this small crime, she said, 'Prove it,' and walked away."

Shaking her head at the idea of Jane being so feisty, she tapped a finger gently on his bandage. "How did that happen?"

He obviously knew she meant the bandage and not how he was injured. "When I was...incapacitated, Thor took advantage and demanded that a doctor set the bones. Fortunately, I awoke before they put needle and thread to my other injuries." He let go of her hand and started to pick apart the gauze and tape.

"Leave it alone," she said, swatting feebly at his hand, wires and IV tube assisting in the effort. "One more day, anyway." She didn't know why or how she knew, but somehow another day in the splints just seemed right.

The question had to be asked, so she did. "Odin's spell was for real, right, so why...?" She couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence.

"Why am I not 'Pushing up daisies'?"

"Or tumbleweeds." It was a halfhearted attempt at humor, since Loki's death didn't strike her as being very funny.

"Odin saved me, in a manner of speaking."

"The Odin?"

"No, Odin Martinez." Playful mirth sparkled in emerald green eyes. "You know? Short fellow? Brown hair? Lives in the blue stucco house in town?"

"Ha, ha." Wires and IV tube flapping, Darcy slapped him lightly on the arm. "Odin, seriously?"

"He turned the spell off briefly, before it killed me - entirely. I suspect my moth-, Frigga had a hand in the matter, but nonetheless, here I am."

"Totally Deus ex Machina," she observed. Loki's eyes narrowed slightly as he pondered what she meant. "Adopted or not, Frigga is your mom." She knew that statement would probably piss him off, but not only had he promised not to hurt her, but she was already so far beyond hurting, that what could he do anyway?

Two near-death experiences must have robbed him of the ability to glare malevolently, but the cool appraisal he swept over her was packed with mischief.

"Frigga's your mom." She dared him to do his worst with a tilt of her head and a raised eyebrow.

"Am I allowed at least to deny Odin?"

"Sure. He's an asshole."

His smile creased scratches and translucent bruises into interesting shapes. "With regard to things maternal, you may want to call your mother."

That gave her a jolt of surprise, enough to get past some of the chemistry in her system. "My mother?"

His expression positively angelic, he said, "She called, asking after you."

"Dude. You talked to my mother?" She inhaled deeply, thinking oxygen might help what he said make more sense. "She called?" This time, every year, her parents took a second honeymoon in Europe, and nothing, including their offspring, ever interrupted the trip.

"Yesterday evening." He pointed at the bedside phone with his eyes. "I answered. You were still in no condition to speak to anyone. When she asked who I was, I said, 'A friend.' She's rather astute as she then asked if that meant boyfriend."

"Does it?"

"I told her yes." He looked absurdly pleased with himself. "She asked my name and I told her."

Darcy slowly closed and opened her eyes. "You said your name was Loki."

Pressing his lips together, he shrugged. "It is my name and Mad Science may have disturbed her unnecessarily. She remarked that it was an odd name and went on to enquire on your health. SHIELD, it seems, told her that you had fallen off your bicycle and in a freak accident, been impaled on debris by the road."

"That's the official story, huh?"

He nodded. "I assured her that you had come through surgery well and your recovery was going even better."

"You-" At a loss for words, she ran her eyes over the form of the supernatural being who had become so ordinary to her over the course of a few months. She wasn't sure which concept was crazier: that the God of Mischief had chatted on the phone with her mom, or that her mother had bothered to remember that she had a daughter at all. The second, Darcy decided, because Loki, being Loki, was capable of anything.

Except self-sacrifice.

"What do you want?" she asked.

Loki's brow wrinkled with confusion, albeit with a twinkle of cunning in his eyes. "The throne of Asgard?" he tried.

"You let Odin's spell tear your magical self apart like confetti - for me. Why? I don't have superpowers. All I have is great T&A and," she tapped her forehead, "more going on up here than people give me credit for. Why save me? What do you want, Loki?"

It may have been her imagination, but for a micro-second something like hurt widened his eyes. Then the cool mask smoothed his features. He rose abruptly and began to pace the short distance from one side of the room to the other, his skinny frame vibrating with a contradictory combination of anger and nervous energy.

"What I want?" he said, stopping near the foot of the bed. Shoulders rising as he drew himself up, he flicked fingers on his right hand and the distinctive snap-crackle-pop of dying electronic bugs followed. No alarms went off, so Fury must have recognized that Loki wouldn't go long without making magic, and put the system on silent mode in her hospital room.

Dropping his chin toward his chest, Loki stared at her hollow-eyed, the shadow of near-death plain on his face. "What I want is to take you by the shoulders and shake some miniscule measure of sense into you. What I want is to tell you that you are a stupid girl, even though I vowed never to say such a thing to you, because what else save abject idiocy would drive you to tamper with the elf's spell?"

"You," she said. "And Jane and Thor. I was trying to save everyone's bacon." She tried to cross her hands over her chest, but gave up when the heart monitor's wire tangled. "And I did."

The anger left his face and body in a rush and his lanky frame sagged as if ire was all that had kept him upright. "At what cost?"

"A big leaky hole in my side." She shrugged and offered a smile, which made her cheek ache. "But I'm okay now. Yay, science!"

He took one wobbly step back, then several others until the wall stopped his retreat. There he remained, obviously using the wall to stand and Darcy realized he was still pretty fucked up from his brushes with death. "I would have killed the elf for what he had done," he said, staring at the floor. "But had he not thrown up the shield, nothing, including science, could have saved you."

Blinking back the tears that suddenly glazed her vision, she nodded. "I know." Her vision broken into bright shards by tears, she saw Loki's approach as if through a kaleidoscope.

His large, graceful hand enveloped hers and he sat on the edge of the bed. "Do not weep for him, Darcy. I may owe him some perverse debt for protecting you, for doing what I didn't, but you...you paid him tenfold in friendship and he threw that kindness away."

"I'm so stupid," she said, struggling against the sobs that wanted to jerk through her chest.

His lips were soft on her mouth and softer still on her swollen, bruised cheek. "Then I love you for that stupidity." He drew back, clever fingers combing through the hair at her brow. "For without it, why else would you want me?"

"It helps that you're smokin' hot," she said to distract herself from his use of the "l" word.

He cocked his head at that, wry humor in his eyes. "And if you were not beautiful, I would not be here, making humiliating declarations of love." That word again. Her pulse quickened, announced embarrassingly by the monitor.

With a glance at the machine, he said, "You know I detest the word. It speaks of a sentiment just a breath removed from hate. It is misapplied to the fleeting rush of desire at the onset of a romantic relationship." The angles on his handsome face sharpened, and his voice developed an edge to match. "It describes weakness.

"Yet I, for all my reputed gifts of tongue, can find no better word to express this maddening power that seizes my heart and makes me complete in your presence, and undone in your absence." His hand tightened on hers and she could tell he stopped himself before he squeezed too hard. "That my heart should set itself on one such as you, so terribly young, is a betrayal and an aspect of myself still rages at the injustice of it."

He circled the tip of his thumb over the juncture where her thumb met her hand. "Days before, when you demanded my true face in recompense for my eventual leaving, I tried to tell you that I would not abandon you to this place. When I leave, and leave I shall, I would have you at my side, if that is what you wish."

Her heart swelling with emotion, all she could do was nod faintly.

"I still hold to the belief that I will be the end of you, but I concede, in some ways, you are stronger than me. You see me for what I am and offer me friendship." His forehead creased with confusion. "Try as I may, I cannot understand the motivation behind your actions. It seems to be neither kindness nor pity."

"You're over thinking it, smarty pants," she said, sleepily, strong emotions warring with the painkillers. "I l-like you. A lot."

The confusion on his face deepened, his impervious mask cast aside. "Why?"

"Why?" she repeated and he nodded, his expression so honest that it tore at her heart. She wanted to say something eloquent and deep, but instead her reasons just came out in a babbling stream of consciousness. "Because...because on the outside you're all gorgeous, arrogant charm, but inside you're a total geek who loves books and magic and science. Because even though you're a fucked-up disaster, you sometimes let me in and I see the saner side of Loki. Because you're supposedly all about lies, but mostly you're brutally honest. Because all that honesty is usually awful, but sometimes it makes me laugh. Because you're never boring." She took a deep breath. "Because you tell me I'm smart."

"You are," he said.

Her speech had required more energy than she possessed and she yawned, and added smugly, "And because you need me."

At this, he composed his face in long haughty lines. "You presume much, girl."

"You hate it that I'm right."

"Yes, I do," he agreed, expression still arrogant. "I also hate it that the sight of you falling, your life's blood on my hands, threatened to take my sanity," his mouth twitched, "what little there remains of it."

The arrogance left his face, but he maintain the cool, regal bearing of a prince. "I would demand that you never do anything so foolish as to put your life in danger for me again, but I imagine that therein lies futility. So instead I will ask that you remember that I love you and that I cannot bear losing you."

Darcy tried to speak, but the right response just wouldn't pass her lips. Why was it so hard? This was what she wanted, wasn't it?

Say it.

I can't.

The words snagged deep in her chest, caught there by apprehension, the awareness of what he was. Even in this state of honesty, dressed in the impeccably tailored rich fabrics and soft leather, the stuff that cos-players dreamed of, utterly a creature of Asgard, he was a lie. Beneath the aristocratic features - high forehead and angular jaw made sharper by the severe sweep of black hair tight against his skull - lay another Loki. This deception not of his making, but one he hung onto like a miser with his last penny.

Both Lokis were beautiful, but Darcy knew that beautiful things came with a steep price. She met his gaze, trying to convey what she couldn't say and hide the indecision in her heart.

Her eyelids lowered and fluttered back open as exhaustion and drugs took over her body. "I...need you, too." With her remaining strength, she looked around the hospital room, and up at the many floors and steel and dirt that separated her from the surface, separated her from home. "So you'll stay? With me?"

"As long as you wish," he said, solemnly.


Never planned this to go over thirty chapters, but never planned much at all. At least, it won't go over forty.

Thank you, dear readers, for hanging on to the bitter, or not so bitter, end. One more chapter to go.