Thank you for all your reviews! I continue to suck at responding, but that is mainly because I am trying to keep up my writing momentum. *points at new chapter with a flourish*
When I posted the previous chapter, I suggested we were almost done. One more chapter to wrap things up, I thought, and then we'd reached the finish line.
As I was writing that chapter, I found myself summarising events instead of showing them. This lessened their emotional impact and the effect they had on the characters.
That means there are still a handful of chapters to go. And that being said - have at it.
Chapter 32 - Rooftops
The moment stretched on, like the world had been put into slow motion. Wind whipped around them, the din of battle fading away as between one breath and the next reality changed forever.
Frigga was the first to move. She relaxed her grip on her husband, gently lowering him to the ground so she could smooth the hair away from his face, and place a gentle kiss on his forehead. Her face was white with shock, her eyes glassy and her hands shaking. It hurt even to look at her, her fresh pain like an exposed wound.
She did not weep, though beside her Thor was crying openly, his shoulders heaving. He discarded Mjolnir onto the concrete to grip his father's body, but in doing so his hands came away covered in blood.
Loki hadn't moved at all, crumpling in on himself like a lost child. He didn't look away from Odin, not even to blink. But he did not cry, and he did not speak. Darcy rested her hand on his shoulder, unsure of what else to do. He didn't react even to that.
An explosion sounded somewhere, far below, breaking the spell—or at least fracturing it.
Darcy looked up to find Tony still hovering near the top of the tower, where only moments before Thanos had disappeared with the girl. He'd raised his face plate, as if it would be disrespectful to be in the presence of the fallen king of Asgard with his face covered.
"I have to go. Do the thing," he said uncertainly, gesturing in the direction of the commotion and aiming his words more at Darcy and Jane than anyone else. He held out the Tesseract in its shielded container, and Jane took it from him tentatively, like a sleeping baby—or a bomb about to go off.
Frigga raised her head, dignified even in her fresh grief. "Of course. There is still a battle to be won."
"Right." He nodded, beginning to lower his face plate and drift downwards.
"Find Sleipnir," Loki said suddenly.
That had Tony at a loss. He shot a questioning look at the girls, but Darcy could only shake her head in shared confusion.
"My father's steed. He must still be out there—whether injured or…" He paused and swallowed. "Find him so we can return him to Asgard with my father."
"Roger that." Tony winced at his own crassness, then slammed down the face plate and sped away.
"Loki," Frigga said softly. "Come here."
He shook his head and planted his feet.
"You should say goodbye to your father before…before there are too many eyes watching. While we still have a moment of peace, and the pomp has not yet begun."
"I can't," Loki croaked, as if choking on the words.
"You can. You must."
He shook his head desperately. "This is all my fault!"
"Does even this moment have to about you?" Thor said, not with cruelty. He sounded tired. Nevertheless, it had an effect on Loki, who straightened his back and nodded. It didn't seem to be in response to Thor's question, but as if he was resolving something within himself. He must have managed it, because he took a step forward, and then another, his long legs easily taking him to Odin's side.
Together the family cried, and held each other, and grieved.
Darcy shuffled away from them, towards Jane, and they shared a glance which agreed they were intruding on a private moment. On the other hand, they couldn't leave, not when someone had to remain in charge of the portal machine. Jane shrugged, and they silently perched themselves out of sight until the first spell of mourning had passed.
"We cannot stay here," murmured Frigga when she was ready, brushing the hair away from Loki's face in a reflexive maternal gesture. "Our warriors must not find out before the battle is won. Their morale is too important."
That roused the princes, in a way that surprised Darcy. The line of duty seemed to help them rein in their emotions—even Thor, who had always been quick with his. Perhaps he had grown up more than she'd even realized.
"I must return to the battle," he said, as Frigga brushed her thumb over the tear tracks on his face. "They will have noticed Father's absence—I must prevent rumors from spreading."
"Don't lie to them," Frigga advised. "They will learn the truth later, and their trust in you must not be undermined so soon."
"I know. There is more to focus their attention on—a city to save."
With a whirl of Mjolnir, he was gone, only to be replaced on the helipad by the more petite figure of Natasha. She looked in worse shape than before, with a bloody gash on her head and a tear down the fabric over her left thigh.
"Tony sent me," she said. "Said I'd be more use up here now they're trying to wipe out the remaining Chitauri." She didn't look at Odin, keeping eye contact with Frigga.
"We need someone to watch the portal while we seek privacy."
"Sure, I can do that."
"Should we go down to the war council?" Darcy asked quietly, calling the elevator.
"No," replied Frigga. "I do not trust them to hold their tongues on this."
"Tony's apartment will be private," Jane suggested, and Frigga nodded in agreement.
Loki took off the furs he'd been wearing since Jotunheim and wrapped them around Odin, then hoisted him into his arms. He did not look down at his father, gaze fixed ahead as he entered the elevator with Frigga.
"We'll follow you down," Darcy said. She had a feeling it would be claustrophobic in there, between the body and the cloud of grief.
The doors slid shut, leaving an emptier helipad behind. There was a lot of blood where Odin had lain, and Darcy idly wondered if someone would have to clean that up. Or would it be left to the elements, the first rain washing away signs that a god—a man who was old enough to become a myth—had died there?
"How was Asgard?" Natasha asked, drawing Darcy away from her thoughts.
"I didn't see much of it, really," she replied.
Nat, too, was staring at the bloodstains. "Oh. Shame. But Thanos is dead, right?"
"Yeah. I think so. Truth be told, it was a bit weird, but I don't think he's coming back."
"Who even was she?" Jane asked, looking at Darcy as if she'd have the answer. And it was a reasonable question, the girl had seemed to know Darcy.
"I have no idea."
"Who?" Nat perked a curious brow.
"It's a long story," replied Darcy. "We should go, get that rock inside somewhere safe."
When they entered Tony's apartment, Pepper was returning to the living room from down the hallway.
"He's in a guest room," she explained, her voice soft. "And so are they." Her eyes widened at Jane holding the Tesseract, and she switched to business mode, ushering them to one of Tony's maximum-security safes so it could be locked away.
"What happened?" she asked when it was inside a foot of solid adamantium. She gestured in the direction of the guest room, so they understood what she was referring to.
"I don't know," said Jane. "One of the Chitauri brought him up to the tower barely alive. And then…" She shrugged heavily.
Pepper led them into the kitchen for the most privacy. "FRIDAY, did you witness what happened to Odin?"
The AI responded, quieter than usual, as if it understood the importance of not being overheard by the grieving guests. "There was a grenade attack. It appears Odin chose to take the blast rather than risk it injuring other soldiers."
"Maybe he thought he could survive it," Jane murmured, and Darcy murmured in agreement. "I guess I expected him to be bomb proof. He's been around for so long, hasn't he?"
"What about the horse?" Pepper asked, again directing her question at the AI.
"The Asgardian warrior Fandral retrieved him after the explosion: Sleipnir was spooked but uninjured. He is currently being stabled in the parking garage."
"And Thor?" Jane asked, obviously worried about more grenades.
"Is liaising with Mr. Stark and Mr. Rogers. Ground troops have been notified that Thanos is dead and the Tesseract is secure. They have the Chitauri corralled into four main areas and are planning for the best way to dispatch them."
Curiosity satisfied—for now—Pepper busied making tea for them all.
"A lot happened while we were gone, huh?" Darcy asked Jane.
Her friend nodded, leading her over to the main screen of Tony's interface again. "Once Tony was involved, he got JARVIS to work with FRIDAY and they were able to find a way into the Chitauri systems. JARVIS had been working on their language based on coding found in the weapons they left behind last time, so it actually seemed easy for him to communicate with the systems and override their orders. I don't know what we're going to do with Thanos' ship, though."
"Study it, knowing Tony," said Pepper.
Darcy nodded. "We need to know what's out there in the universe in case Thanos isn't the only advanced civilization that decides it wants a piece of us."
"But you got to see Asgard," Jane said in hushed awe.
"I don't know if you could say that. It was night time, and you know what my night vision is like. I saw more of Jotunheim when I was there."
"But perhaps one day you will see more of our beautiful city," said Frigga, appearing behind them. It was clear that, in private at least, she had wept; her eyes were now red and watery, her cheeks flushed and bloated. Even her voice cracked as she spoke. "And under better circumstances. You deserve to see Asgard as it truly is, not cloaked by darkness and fear."
Darcy nodded while Pepper bustled finishing off the tea so she could present a cup to Frigga. "I'd like that."
A commotion arose outside, and they rushed to the window to look down at the streets of Midtown. It was hard to tell, but it looked like the warriors—human and Asgardian alike—were cheering.
"I think we won," said Pepper, sounding slightly surprised.
Darcy looked around, but couldn't see Loki. Frigga followed her gaze, and managed a small smile.
"He is still with his father. However, you have questions which await answers. It would not do to put them off."
"I don't think—"
"Now is as good a time as any. Soon enough, Loki will be a prisoner again. She waits for you, and you should go to her."
Pepper just looked confused by the exchange, while Jane seemed torn. She chewed on her lip. "It's probably not a bad idea. You don't know if SHIELD are going to try and lock you up again as well…"
"Alright," Darcy agreed. "But I'm coming back, I'm not running. I've spent too much time running lately."
She found her way to the guest room, which was dark enough that the people within it were reduced to mere shapes, shadows against a deeper darkness. Only Loki's eyes identified him, glinting against the light that spilled through the door.
She averted her gaze from Odin, turning her body so she could not see him even in her peripheral vision. She hadn't even properly met the man, and she felt like she was intruding on his death by being here.
"We should go," she said quietly.
"The rooftop," Loki agreed. He didn't have to clarify which one—there could only be one rooftop which meant something to both of them.
"How are we going to get there?"
Loki considered it for a moment. "The tunnels."
At some point, Loki had memorized all of the tunnels which ran underneath Manhattan—probably when they escaped into them during his coup. It meant that he had no problems navigating them through the darkness, using a few of those glowing, floating orbs to provide light. They crossed subway tracks, silent and still while the trains did not run, and while occasionally things skittered away into the shadows, they didn't come across another living soul.
They did not speak. Darcy had nothing to say, nothing that didn't seem absolutely trivial in light of everything that had happened, and Loki evidently felt the same way.
They resurfaced through a basement, and only when they crept upwards into the lobby did Darcy recognize the old hotel where she'd once been kept captive. It was as empty as everywhere else. Shattered glass crunched underfoot, the revolving doors crumpled and hanging at an angle which meant they were impossible to get through. Not that it mattered; they had privacy, and that was what mattered. Even the street outside sounded quiet.
The power was still out—though they were on the outskirts of Midtown, it was still the area where the fighting had been at its most intense. Darcy almost called uncle, knowing she'd never get up all the stairs to the top floor, but Loki summoned the elevator wordlessly, the little orbs disappearing into the workings to get it moving. At least that meant when they'd finished the long ride to the penthouse apartments, they only had one flight of stairs to get onto the rooftop.
Loki prized the locked door open and held it for Darcy with a flourish, as if he was trying to prove he still had manners despite everything.
It was here that Darcy hesitated. The rooftop didn't exactly hold good memories for her, but she'd put it behind her, believing she'd never have to come back. Even on the journey, her mind had been tangled in questions she wasn't sure she wanted the answer to—but now she was here, she wanted to bolt. It didn't matter if she didn't fear Loki anymore. Much. This place had been her prison, and every instinct balked at returning to it willingly. Especially with Loki by her side.
But. If she didn't go up, those questions wouldn't be answered.
So she forced herself to move, up the stairs, and into the garden where she'd once been so close to the sky, and isolated from everything else.
It was unrecognizable—so much that when she reached the top, she came to an abrupt halt, making Loki bump into her. Where this had once been a well-tended garden, small plants yet to grow to maturity in planters, now it was a jungle. In their months untended, rather than dying in the unfamiliar environment, the plants had flourished, outgrowing their pots and reaching skyward, so now it was hard to find a path through the concrete to the seats in the center.
And the screens were gone. Those impossible screens, the fence intended to keep Darcy inside and hidden from the city, had been removed. Beyond the foliage she could now see Manhattan again. The Chrysler building, and Stark Tower, and the Empire State building, and all the fires and ruins between.
Her breath left her, all the tension she'd been carrying exhaled in a gasp of relief, and she began moving forward again.
"I'm surprised you didn't destroy it," she murmured to Loki as he followed her.
"Why would I?" He sounded genuinely surprised. "For a time, it was the only place where we'd been together."
It really was a struggle to get to the seats in the middle, where a small figure waited, clad in black. Darcy distantly realized, as she pushed ferns back from her face, that she needed to tell someone about this garden, before the Asgardian plants began to self-seed and become invasive species. Loki seemed less patient behind her, hacking away at fronds with his blade.
But then they were through, and face to face with the little girl. Her elfin face looked younger than it had on the top of Stark Tower, but maybe she just seemed smaller when they were this close. Her hair was braided and looped around her head, inky black against her chalk-white skin, and her eyes were unmistakably her father's; shrewd, pale blue.
She lit up when they sat on the empty chairs. "I am happy that you came," she said, beaming, her accent closer to Frigga's lilting pronunciation of English than Loki's crisp rendition.
"Yeah," Darcy replied, uncertainly. "We have…questions."
"Of course you do. You have never seen me before today. You do not remember me like I remember you."
Darcy was pretty sure this conversation was going to end in a headache. "Remember you?"
The girl nodded, and now Darcy was sure she was younger than she had been on the Tower. Her mannerisms weren't those of a teenager anymore, but of a pre-teen, one who hadn't yet discarded her childhood completely.
"Who are you?" Loki asked, his last thread of patience evidently wearing thin.
"You know that," the girl replied, chiding him a little. "I am your daughter, Hela. It has not even been a full day since Mother took from you what she needed, and created me."
"I remember," Loki said dryly.
"Is that why it took so long for her to send help?" Darcy asked. "Because she was making you?"
"Yes. It was harder than she expected, so I did not arrive until Thanos already had the stone. And Mother cannot come herself, she must stay in her own realm."
"I suppose—" said Loki, "I suppose I wasn't expecting to see you. You were supposed to be her child."
"And I am. But I am half-alive, and that means I cannot spend all my time in the realm of the dead, can I? So while you are on this side of life, I will visit you often. And you, mama."
She smiled hopefully at Darcy, who did her best to smile back. It was unnerving, all the implications that came with that word. Mama. She wasn't ready to have children, and yet here was one nearly fully grown treating her like a member of the family.
She really should have brought some aspirin with her.
Instead, she said gently, "You're older than we expected."
Hela shrugged. "I exist outside of time, or so Mother says. I can go whenever I want. Sometimes I will be different ages—you will get used to it. I am the same girl, and I will always remember you."
Darcy hesitated before asking the next question. "Do we raise you, then?"
"Yes." That brought another smile. "Not yet, though. You aren't ready, either of you. I will stay with Mother until you are, and then I will come back to you. Smaller, I think. So I can grow up properly."
Darcy's throat closed up, the enormity of it all hitting her. It really sounded like she was going to be a stepmother, and one to a child who was so far outside the bounds of normal that she didn't know where to begin. Co-parenting with a demigod and Death itself?
No wonder her eyes were leaking.
"Oh, mama, don't cry!" Hela said. "You will be a legend! Everyone knows your name."
"I never wanted to be a legend," Darcy protested, trying to stem the tide of tears. "I only ever wanted to be happy."
"And you will be! I promise, I swear, oh mama please stop!"
Loki looked as lost as she felt, his hand hovering uncertainly near her arm as if he wanted to give her a sympathetic pat, but wasn't sure if it was welcome, or even sufficient. Darcy took deep breaths to try and control herself while he considered his next question. "The mirror. The little boy—will he…"
"I cannot tell you everything, papa. Some things, you must just live through. Nana Frigga has made that very clear."
The look he gave Darcy following her words—the hope, unmasked as it rarely was, shone from his face—said everything. Loki was still looking forward to that future, even if his motivations had changed. Darcy closed her eyes, wiping away the tears even if the enormity of it all still clawed at the inside of her chest.
"If you exist outside of time," she began, "why that moment? Why not earlier?" So many deaths that could have been prevented…
Hela shook her head. "I could not be there if I did not exist yet, and when I did exist it was too late to change the past. That is the rule: I cannot change events from how they are meant to be."
"Not even to prevent Odin's death?" Loki asked quietly.
"No. And anyway, I needed a death," she said matter-of-factly.
"You were in the middle of a battle!" His temper was fraying once more.
"No, it had to be a good death," Hela insisted. "And grandpapa's was the best death—he'd lived so long it was easy to take Thanos through with me. Grandpapa did not mind, when he knew."
"What about the rest of us?"
Hela pursed her lips at the slight whine in Loki's voice. "It was his time, papa. He was never meant to survive the battle."
Loki closed up, then, his eyes glazing over and he retreated into his grief. Hela appeared to sense this. "Nana is calling for you. There is much to be done still."
"Yes, I suppose we should go back," said Darcy. Not that she was looking forward to what awaited them at the Tower anymore than raising Hela.
"I will see you soon," Hela replied, and her arms twitched, as if she wanted to hug them both and was holding back. "But I'm sure Mother is missing me already."
When Darcy paused at the top of the stairs and looked back across the garden, the little girl was already gone.