A/N: umm, all right, so it's seven months later and I'm kind of late. But I'm still here! We made it!

First, I need to take a moment to absorb the fact that this story has reached over 1000 reviews, because let me tell you, when I started writing this all the way back in the spring of 2013, I did not see it happening, so I'm incredibly emotional and grateful to all of you. Especially some old readers who have stuck with it through thick and thin (I'm being dramatic, but you know, the occasion calls for it). Second, thank you all for your lovely reviews, last chapter was big for me and I was really nervous about pulling off the kiss, so bless you for all your kind words and encouragements! Third, you kind of get more of the kiss this chapter? I know this one's a bit shorter than usual, but I felt that this installment should be separate because it deals with Loki's side of the story. Basically, you'll be rereading the last scene of the last chapter from his POV (and yes, his side of the kiss!). So, I singled it out because I think it's relevant for the arc that's about to unfold and also because feeeels.

The good news is, I've already written a bunch of the next chapter (the excerpt I posted on Tumblr is actually from that one) so maybe chapter 32/33 won't take me forever? Here's to hoping! Also, I do have a tendency to overwrite and over-edit this story, which is why you get it so late sometimes (curse my stupid self-sabotaging streak!). But once again, I couldn't do it without you. Really. Thank you.


Chapter 31: The ultimate prize

There was something arrogant, yet painfully innocent about the human desire to stock and preserve information. The servers processed data that the mortals could never hope to assimilate independently without the aid of technology. But they still believed they could contain this knowledge and control it. Their flesh-and-blood constitution still reached for the stars, even if only their machines could truly touch them.

He ran his hands across the jagged blocks of metal. There was so much they didn't know.

But there was something he did not know either.

For once, he did not know what to do.

Doctor Zola was still speaking to him in a muted monotone, describing to him a world in which he could be free, a world where the fallible creatures that governed his life would be removed from power, where balance would be restored. Gods above people, and people below gods.

It is, after all, a merit-based system. Those who rule must deserve the honor of ruling, mein Freund. They must have the capabilities to do so, to ensure maximum efficiency. I do not have to tell you that you were born for this. Whereas, the agents swarming around you were born to serve. There is nothing shameful in that.

Yes, Loki could verily agree. Of course he was better. He had been fashioned out of the most brilliant and everlasting fragments of the universe. He had been given so much more than anyone on this sorry planet. It wasn't the humans' fault they were impaired. They had been born under different stars…

Different stars? Zola echoed, reading his thoughts. Nein, mein Gott. Do not think of it in such concrete terms. Even if these humans had been endowed with your powers, they would not know what to do with them. They are all children.

Loki thought about these children, and the great and terrible things they sometimes wrought with their bare hands. He was standing in their rooms, working on their devices, breathing their air.

They were not very pleasant children - moody and volatile and prone to changes. They did not appreciate him. They envied his intellect. They resented his power.

But there was something unnatural about their hearts. Their emotions, primitive as they were, pushed them to do things… things that should not have been possible.

He thought about Carla Torres' tears when she had witnessed Rhys' betrayal. He thought about how she had shot her own partner, the man she cared for, because she'd had to do the right thing. He thought about the loudmouth Daniel Steele, who was a buffoon and an opportunist, and who had still come to his cell and told him to stay away from Darcy, not simply because he had wanted to see Loki suffer, but because he cared about his agents, in his misguided way. He even thought about Tony Stark, who always wanted an audience, who needed to know you were paying attention to him. Who, despite his self-important bravura, had not absconded with his funds to a private island, but was using them for something greater than himself.

There were many pockets of humanity all around him. Perhaps none so vast and strange as –

"Hey. Are you feeling okay?"

Suddenly, Darcy.

An anomaly in a perfect server. She was abusing her bottom lip, trying not to show how nervous she really was. Or guilty.

Good, she should feel guilty. She had fled like a coward right after their …private meeting in his cell. She hadn't even had the decency to say she would be gone.

"Yes. No need to check on me, Agent Darcy."

He didn't trust himself to sound anything but spiteful at the moment.

She started chattering about her job and her duties, as if that could somehow erase the fact that she had taken advantage of him. After all, she had seen him at his most vulnerable. He had cried on her shoulder. And now it was business as usual. He felt furious, although the object of his fury was as yet undetermined.

"Hey, I just came to tell you to take a break. Don't take your anger out on me."

How galling. She was trying to make him look culpable. Well, he wasn't going to give her the satisfaction.

"On the contrary, I believe you're just the person to take my anger out on."

And then they started fighting in earnest. He'd rather missed having a sparring match with her. Although, sometimes she could be incredibly thick. Or rather, she was pretending to be thick, not willing to admit that she had run away precisely because she regretted her actions. They both knew she'd gone to Jane Foster to receive confirmation that she shouldn't have sympathized with the big bad alien.

Because she was afraid. She was afraid of him again.

Many moons ago this would have pleased him immensely, but now the idea only left a bad taste in his mouth. The notion of having Darcy under his control was only appetizing if she –

If she wanted to be under his control.

Which meant that she controlled him too, in a way.

He was loath to show his frailty in front of her. Before, he had hidden his face. Now, he attacked her with barbed insults. He told her she had only been a crying shoulder for him, nothing more.

And in the end, maybe that's all they really were. Could anything change the fact that he was Loki and she was Darcy, two individuals separated by the very laws of nature?

"Okay," she finally admitted, after a tense silence. "I did talk to Jane about you. It wasn't…it wasn't a very productive conversation. She seems to think you manipulated me into feeling sorry for you."

The scenario suggested by Jane Foster was a highly entertaining one. If anything, he had tried his best never to inspire pity in his stubborn companion. But Darcy had been too human for her own good. "Ms. Foster flatters me, as usual," he drawled with a bitter chuckle.

"I told her you had nothing to gain from that. She thinks there's always gain with you," Darcy continued nervously.

Why was she suddenly nervous? No, it was simply the fear, the fear which had gripped her once more in his presence.

But he sensed something else behind it. Something shy and unspoken. What was it?

"Smart woman," he commented, pretending not to notice Darcy's increasing fluster.

"But see, I know she was wrong," she said, after a quick intake of breath.

Loki threw her a dubious look. "Do you?"

"Yeah. Most of the time I've known you, you've been pretty disdainful about my use. You mostly think I'm a nuisance."

He couldn't help the small smirk that played on his lips. He liked how sharp she was, underneath her foolish facade. It was why he enjoyed their rather pointless conversations. Her intelligence was crude and untrained, and yet so appealing. "That is correct."

Darcy shrugged, although her hands were trembling slightly, giving her away. "So, whatever our thing is, it has to be pretty genuine. It's not like we're winning the lottery by hanging out together."

Winning the lottery.

Loki had to pause for a moment to consider this aberrant piece of information. That was another thing about humans. They might be open books for him to read, but the language was sometimes convoluted and contradictory and plainly indecipherable. And sometimes it was funny. Funnier than it should be. Funnier than the situation called for.

Strong emotions, couched in mirth. He knew something about that, didn't he?

Yes, he did. He understood the depth of feeling beyond her colorful vernacular and it made his heart beat faster. What she was implying was that their bond was real. That there was nothing to be gained... except to be together.

Be together. How adolescentine and intoxicating. Yet he wanted for her to go on, because he craved her unrefined speech. He liked the unpolished manner of her words, the absurd imagery she conjured at every step, the positive disregard for decorum; it pushed him off his axis and reminded him of who he truly was. He might scowl at her inept jokes and roll his eyes at her impossible grammar, but he secretly condoned her mischief. How could he not? He was made for it.

Darcy, however, was waiting for him to speak.

He tried his best to betray nothing. He tried to couch his emotions in mirth. "You're saying that my disparagement of your existence is proof of my affection."

He watched her lungs fill up with air as she inhaled sharply, like a swimmer preparing for a dive. "I like you too. I mean, like like you."

There she went again, with her impossible grammar.

"You like like me," he repeated tonelessly, tasting the words on his lips. Double-like. A like which begat like. A like which denied like. A mathematical paradox.

Something flared in the recess of his cosmic mind. Something he had almost forgotten.

He was suddenly closing the gap between them, aware of the new power she had conferred on him.

Shad no idea what she'd done.

She could not know that on Asgard, marriages and unions were formed on less than that. She could not know that she had just offered herself to him in one sentence. She could not know that a mortal girl had just acquiesced to give him her soul.

Many a god dreamt of this gift. There were rituals etched in stone, scrolls writ in blood speaking of this mystery. He had seen drawings of mortals cupping their fists and kissing the air between their fingers and lifting the offering to the sky. He had seen them slit their throats in adoration and cup the blood too and offer it just as readily.

For when a soul was given willingly, without lies, without coaxing, it was twice as strong. Double-like.

This was the ultimate prize; the only magic the humans could do. A god who could inspire this kind of offering required no scepter. It was the purest form of power, the strongest thrall.

And it was…tempting. Beyond tempting.

He could reach out and seize it. She had given him consent.

Foolish, foolish girl.

"You are the most ridiculous person I've ever met, Darcy Lewis."

He said it, realizing in that very moment that he would not do it.

He would not seize power through her. He would not enslave her soul. Not because he was selfless and merciful. Not because he was strong and good.

But because he did not need to.

For once, someone was his, without deceit and control and power having anything to do with it.

He saw her lurch forward suddenly, trying to move away from him. Her eyes were filled with doubt and hurt. She had laid herself bare, and she thought he was rejecting her. He almost wanted to laugh.

He grabbed the side of her neck, latching his fingers around her pulse, and pulling her to him before she could react.

"I've denied myself long enough."

And he had. He had hungered for this for longer than he could remember.

She was so warm against the ice in his veins. He relished her little gasp at the contact, the way she parted her lips in surrender. It was not submission, but rather completion, as if she were seeking something in him that would realize her. And he sought something too. It was like tasting the sun, a wine of warmth and secret desires, a heady concoction that was achingly human. He had kissed and bedded many gods before, but he had never felt this much contrast between him and another being, the excitement of difference, their only connection being sympathy - sentiment. With his kind, he felt the liaison of the stars. With her, he felt unmoored, as if the stars did not matter. He groaned into the kiss, swept up by the euphoria of knowing she was mortal and precious and his. One of his hands sank into her tangled locks and felt their softness, their perishability. He tugged at them, wrapped them around his fingers, as his other hand wound around her waist and pressed her into the cool surface of the server. His grip was hard enough to break, but she seemed to enjoy the sudden rush, the total possession which left no room for others. They weren't confined; they did not belong to S.H.I.E.L.D or anyone else, not as long as he had his hold on her. He devoured her without the destructive impulse of the hunter, and she responded without the fear of the prey. His teeth bit into her lip and she received the sting with a moan, her tongue meeting his with equal fervor, their bodies carried away on this sea of yearning, until –

Do not forget, mein Gott, when the Dark Elves come, when the enemies attack…your lovely mortal will be defenseless, Zola Arnim's voice sang in his head like a funeral dirge.

And with those words ringing like hollow bells, Loki broke for air, feeling the cold splash of reality. Darcy was flushed, her eyes dark and her lips swollen. Her breath came up in short fits. She was the image of earthly delights; delicious in a terrestrial, transient way. Because she was ephemeral – his Darcy was impermanent.

She would not last forever.

No, he growled. The rejection echoed in the chambers of his mind, and far beyond. No.

He held her face in his hands, he held it between his fingers; he could feel the skull in his palm, the cartilages, the ligaments, the flesh, the blood, the cells, the elements that could so easily disintegrate. He ran his thumb over the roundness of her cheek, caressed her eyes and lips and nose, as if he were memorizing them, trying hopelessly to preserve them.

Like the servers all around them, trying to contain every bit of knowledge available. Trying and failing.


He was not human. He was a god. He could preserve her. He could contain her. He could make her last. He had a chance to do it.

He would not lose her.

Doctor Zola.

Yes, mein lieber Gott?

I say yes.