Part II: In the Dark
Chapter 27: Light the Way
In the hidden space between worlds, a figure is suspended in the dark, naked and trembling. When fire bubbles the skin on her back, a scream wrenches from her throat.
And realms away, an identical woman wakes up screaming, utterly terrifying her children and still feeling the flames.
"Okay, baby one," Eleanor says, bending to pick up Lenara after getting both kids dressed and ready for the day. Not that it really matters as they will not be leaving Odin's tower until Loki gets home, but this morning routine is comforting. The kids give her a reason to get out of bed and Eleanor's trying to keep their lives as normal as possible, even if Loki's absence is wearing on them all. "And baby two," she says, opening her free arm for Vali.
Instead of jumping on the mommy train, Vali crosses his arms over his chest and frowns at her. "I'm not a baby, Mama," he informs her.
Eleanor smiles so real and wide. A very rare thing these days. "Well, of course you're not. You, my dear, are obviously a penguin!"
"Pen! Pen!" chants Lenara, clapping her hands against Eleanor's chest.
Vali giggles into his hands as Eleanor tickles his belly. "No, Mommy! I'm not a penguin. Those are birds on Midgard."
"Right, what was I thinking? Of course those are birds. And you are very much a horse."
"A horse!" replies Vali.
Lenara laughs hysterically, making what might be horse sounds.
"I'm a boy!" Vali insists as Eleanor tickles him. "I'm a boy!"
"Yes, indeed you are," Eleanor agrees, running her hand through his dark hair and kissing the top of his head. "You are my dear boy."
Vali nods solemnly. "Is Father back?"
And just like that all the air is sucked from her lungs. "No, not yet."
"But why not!" Vali asks, stomping his little foot. "He's been gone forever."
It has actually only been four long, painful days, but that might as well be forever given where Loki is right now. Vali's taking his father's absence the hardest, asking for him many times a day, but Lenara isn't sleeping right. She fights long past her bedtime to keep her eyes open as if she is waiting for her typical bedtime story from her dad.
When Loki successfully got himself kidnapped, Eleanor moved their bed to Frigga's library, even if sleeping is difficult. When she does sleep, it is restless and plagued by dreams. She's woken up her kids too many times already and now they sleep with their grandfather. Strange as he is now, Eleanor is certain that Odin's still capable of protecting his grandchildren better than she ever could.
"Mother," Vali says. "I'm hungry."
"Well, then get to stepping, kid," she says, nudging him in the direction of the staircase. "Left, right, left, right."
Vali hasn't quite figured out his left from his right yet, but he marches with her downstairs anyway.
Sif, Quill, and Odin are already lounging around the table, enjoying a leisurely breakfast. Sif appears to be sharpening a spear, Quill is strumming a guitar, and Odin is sketching. Quill is technically a prisoner and can't actually leave, but Sif seems to have moved in on her own.
These three, along with Thor, Jane, and Sigyn are the only people who know that Eleanor was not actually kidnapped. She imagines the realm is mourning for her, angry and demanding something be done, but Eleanor cannot bear to find out the details. She's having a difficult time functioning as it is without taking on the guilt of lying to everyone. A-fucking-gain.
"Hey!" says Quill, waggling the guitar in her direction. "Teach me to play something."
This is a daily request and a perfectly fine distraction.
"Allow her to eat first, you fool!' Sif hisses before turning to Eleanor. Her expression is too soft, too gentle. "Please eat, princess. You've done nothing but nibble for days. A good meal will serve you well."
She rolls her eyes as she gets her family settled at the table.
Eleanor really tries to put on a good show, eating like a normal, non-terrified person would, but she still ends up nibbling.
The day passes slowly. Odin wanders off somewhere, declining Eleanor's offer to braid his hair. Vali asks for Loki three times and pouts about Eleanor keeping him out of the Asgardian equivalent of preschool, but gets happy again when Sif hands him a wooden sword and lets him whack away at a dummy. Lenara occupies herself on the floor with a pile of toys, ignoring Eleanor as she tries to encourage her to take her first steps.
Eleanor fights to stay present, in this moment, focused on her kids instead of her husband.
Sometime after lunch, as Eleanor is indulging in her misery by staring mournfully out a window, Odin returns to the tower with Bragi trailing along behind him. The friendship between these two should not be so surprising, what with both of them being a little different brain-wise, but it always surprises her to see them whispering conspiratorially on the rare occasions that Odin sees fit to bust Bragi out of the White Cells.
"Daughter!" says Bragi, the moment the doors are shut behind him. He rushes across the room, throwing his arms around Eleanor. She sighs and pats his back.
"Praise be!" he continues, taking her face between his hands. "You are not taken! They all told me he had you finally, the Mad Titan."
Eleanor winces, jerking her face from Bragi's hands. "Yeah, I should've came down and told you what was happening, probably. But it's not me. It's Loki."
"What a relief!" exclaims Bragi.
Eleanor and Odin both glare at him, but Bragi remains unaware of his insensitivity as he pats Eleanor's hand and stares softly as his grandchildren, currently crawling all over Sif.
With half an ear, Eleanor listens to Bragi and Odin talk about bees, of all things. She lets Bragi hold her hand. Mostly she stares in the general direction of her kids and leans into the bond. She can't feel anything distinct from Loki, as much as she searches and as hard as she pushes, but he's too far away. Lost.
Not dead. She would know if he was dead. Just lost.
Quill appears from somewhere, the gardens probably, strumming his guitar. The kids get distracted from crawling all over Sif when Quill starts up with their favorite silly song Quill learned on a planet Eleanor's never heard of.
"Son!" says Bragi, as if pleasantly surprised. "You're so old. Oh, no."
Everyone starts glancing around, from Bragi to everyone else. Quill stares at Bragi and Bragi grimaces, like a half-embarrassed little kid, nearly ready to bolt rather than deal with this situation.
"Ah," says Eleanor, snapping her fingers and nodding. Her vague plans to distract herself with the possibility of Bragi having another kid were completely lost to her in her missing Loki haze. "I totally forgot about this."
The enemy says Eleanor, girl, pathetic mortal whore, but the gendered names don't sit right with the naked creature suspended in The Void.
Blood in the mouth, burns on the back, and it is not female pronouns that should be cause of concern as the Titan giggles in the dark, but gender distracts from the pain, even if it shouldn't, even if it is nothing compared to terror and torture and no real knowledge of self.
There is the memory of existing as a man and there is the memory of existing as a woman and other genders, too, as well as no gender at all, but this Titan seems convinced that he speaks to a woman when deep within it is not the gender that he finds most comfortable.
That's it. That's the one. He is a he. At his very foundation, he fits. Although in the past he has become bored and wandered from this gender, it is what he will always return too. The he. Himself. He. Him. His.
He latches on to identifying as a man, even if he cannot find his own name.
This one fact, this one pronoun, is enough to anchor him in this body, and as painful as it is to be suspended in the dark, waiting for more torture, it is preferable to floating, detached from any sense of self.
He remembers this one thing about himself. He is a he, no matter what the Titan calls him.
Even the threatening little giggle from nowhere in particular is slightly less terrifying now that he knows he is a he.
His enemy hisses the name Eleanor again, and although it is certainly not what he is called, the name is familiar. It resonates in his chest, heart beating Eleanor, Eleanor, Eleanor, in three distinct syllables.
Eleanor is important. Perhaps even more important than knowing that he is indeed a he, but it feels like chasing wind. Thoughts, memories, visions all slip through his mind before he can understand them, leaving him with only the faint impression of too big blue eyes and an impossible voice.
The Void he remembers. With a sudden, painful clarity he remembers being here before, being unmade and remade. The physical torture was unpleasant and the loneliness was crippling, but the words whispered in his ear, confirming his every fear and every insecurity, broke him.
The words in his mind now, all centered on the frailty of the one called Eleanor, are not having nearly the same effect. He does not know who she is, but Eleanor is undoubtedly strong. The Titan has miscalculated, crafting the correct phrases to break Eleanor while he remains unmoved. Each sentence designed to devastate Eleanor is easily laughed off.
"He will not come, you know," hisses the Titan. "You know your husband not, for the Loki you think you know does not exist. He remains my son and he cares for you not at all."
The Titan continues, but he cannot hear past his own racing thoughts.
Loki. That is his name. Loki is his name and Eleanor is his wife. Vali and Lenara are his children. In one blur, his whole life returns to him, his whole self.
With the memories also comes his purpose.
He is here, masquerading as his wife, to kill the Mad Titan.
In the darkness of The Void, with cruel words whispered around him, Loki bites back a smile.
Bragi looks guilty. That's something. When he ambushed her in New Mexico with all his cryptic, terrifying warnings, he wasn't guilty. He strolled into her life like he had a right to be there, like he didn't leave her mother to die and Eleanor to be raised ignorant of her heritage.
With Quill, he looks guilty.
The three of them sit there, all in chairs facing each other. Vali and Lenara are coloring on the floor at their feet, apparently oblivious to the tension.
"You knew?" Quill hisses to Eleanor, throwing an occasional glare at Bragi.
"Suspected," Eleanor says, shrugging. She wonders if it's too early for wine. The real danger there is that she would start drinking and never stop. "The whole half-mortal, your non-mortal father never showing up even after your mother died thing was a big clue. Plus the music."
"Huh," says Quill, slumping a little in his seat. "You coulda told me."
"There's been kinda a lot going on, okay?"
"Ah," says Bragi before Quill can yell a reply. "The squabbles of siblings. Such a pleasing symphony."
Eleanor and Quill share a look and silently agree to save all their yelling for Bragi.
"Look," murmurs Eleanor. "He's a shitty dad. It's like, he cares in his own limited way, but can only focus on you if you're right in front of him. If you're not, he'll get distracted. He's selfish and completely undependable."
"Yeah, I'm getting that," Quill says, throwing Bragi a glare. Their father attempts a smile and shrugs.
"But he did once dance naked on the rainbow bridge for me," Eleanor continues.
"Yes!" says Bragi, bouncing in his seat. "Yes! That is the reason for my current imprisonment."
"What the hell?" mutters Quill.
"It was a diversion. A masterful diversion."
"Why did you have to be naked?"
"He really didn't have to be naked," Eleanor says. "One selfless act does not make up for a lifetime of neglect, you jerk. Just admit that you are a pretty shitty parent. Okay, Bragi?"
"Whatever you say, daughter," he says, getting to his feet. "Son, it was a pleasure. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a white cell to return to where I will very selfishly rot away. Good day."
He turns on his heel, and stomps over to the door, pouting the whole way.
"What the hell?" Quill mutters again when Bragi's gone.
"He's an ass. A very strange ass."
"How the fuck does he even know who I am?" Quill asks, failing his hands around his head, obviously frustrated, pissed, and disappointed. Eleanor knows the feeling.
"He just knows things," Eleanor replies, watching Lenara get crayon on the marble floor. "Might be a magic thing. He has prophetic dreams, probably has been keeping tabs on you your whole life. I'm pretty sure that's what he's done with me."
"Wow." Quill collapses back into his chair, shoulder slumped. "That guy is the worst."
"Like, really terrible."
"And you, like, hang out with him these days?"
"Yeah," Eleanor admits, sighing. "He's got good moments. And he's great with the kids. It's fine, that he's in my life now, I guess, but I'm glad that without him I learned to make my own family. Seems like you learned that, too."
Quill nods, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. He runs his hands through his hair.
"Yeah," he mutters. "I learned that too. And now the family I chose is with the family you chose, trying to kill the scariest asshole in the whole fucking universe while I sit here on my ass."
"It fucking sucks," Eleanor agrees.
"You're not bad though," says Quill. "Might be kinda cool. To have a sister."
"Hey, back at you. I always wanted a brother."
"Really?" asks Quill, perking right up like a golden retriever.
Eleanor laughs. "No. Not really. But you'll do."
The Void is quiet and Loki takes stock.
Although his mind is clear and his purpose restored, it is difficult to breathe past the pain. Every slight moment has the skin of his burned back stretching. Only the flayed flesh of his arms and chest matches the agony of his back.
He wastes valuable time collecting himself, meditating and gathering his magic until the pain is dulled enough to focus. In ten second increments he breathes and pictures Eleanor's face, breathes and pictures Vali, breathes and pictures Lenara. It reminds him that he has not been away from them for eternities, but only a handful of days.
Sufficiently reminded of what he fights for, what he has to lose, he stretches out his fingers, feeling ice gather under his nails. The Titan sees all, so he keeps his face pained and exhausted and an identical copy of Eleanor's as he feels out his magic. It glows warm in his chest just like his ice is cold in his hands.
And Loki knows he can succeed.
The wait is agonizing and Loki's shaking by the time the Titan returns, whispering harsh words designed to break his wife. They have no effect on him, but the memories do. This place twisted him up once, but never again.
He waits for the perfect moment. The teeth, said Gamora, over and over again. Watch for the teeth. He will grin and even in the crushing darkness of The Void, his teeth will shine. And you will know where he is and just behind him, the tunnel. Your path out. Watch for the teeth.
Loki lets out a particularly pathetic moan, the sound hoarse and defeated. Just as Loki calculated, the Titan laughs and then grins, his teeth shining in the crushing darkness of The Void even as the world remains black around him.
"All your fault," Thanos says, grinning wide with all his bright teeth. "For you, your husband will burn all. But first, I will burn you."
Ice crystalizes over his skin. As his hands turn blue, the temperature around him plummeting, he lifts his head to flash Thanos a grin of his own. The invisible chains prove vulnerable to his frost and around him they crack, breaking away and leaving him free.
The blue speeds from his hands, up his arms, and as he changes color he also changes shape, deliberately shifting back into his own shape.
He still sees the shine of teeth, but they are not made visible by a grin but by an expression of open-mouthed shock.
"You!" hisses the Titan.
And Loki offers nothing but silence in reply. He continues to smirk as Tony Stark's explosives materialize in his palms. Throwing his arms forward, ice shoots from his hands, taking the bombs with it and embedding them deep in the Titan's chest, just below those shining teeth.
Instantly, they begin to burn as they burrow into Thanos' body. The massive form of the Titan glows red before him, screaming, and finally the darkness of The Void is disturbed as the Titan collapses in on himself, his guts crumbling and his skin bright and burning before it turns to ash.
The last thing Loki sees before he throws himself into the tunnel once blocked by Thanos are the Titan's teeth, the only thing to remain of Loki's former tormentor.
She sleeps for less than an hour before the screaming in her dreams wakes her. The sound still echoes in her head, even when she gets out of bed, needing to walk, needing to move.
She doesn't think those screams were Loki's. They were too high-pitched, too strange, but she can't get them out of her head and it's disturbing.
The waiting is the worst. The not knowing what's going on with her husband is the fucking worst.
Even wrapped up in one of Loki's thicker tunics, she shivers. The night is balmy, but still Eleanor pulls the sleeves over her hands, cocooning herself as she tries to warm up.
There is nothing unusual about the night, but she's on edge anyway, more so than she typically is after she gets woken by nightmares. A pit rapidly forming, Eleanor rushes up the stairs to Odin's room, hoping with everything she has that her feeling of unease is just a result of exhaustion and fear. Hoping that it doesn't come from anything sinister or dangerous.
She can breathe again when she gets through the entrance to Odin's bedroom. In the very center of the massive golden bed sleep Lenara and Vali. Vali looks so serious when he sleeps, but Lenara's mouth is parted, drooling slightly. Eleanor relaxes; they are right here, safe and sound. Able to find some peace.
Right next to the bed, Odin is sleeping in a chair. He's got his staff propped up against the back, a sketchbook open in his lap. Eleanor gets a little closer, smiling slightly at the half drawn image of her kids asleep. She places the notepad on the end of the bed, covers Odin with a blanket.
She watches her children sleep for a long time, but even with this proof that at least part of her family is currently safe, Eleanor keeps shivering. The pit in her stomach does not shrink, but seems to be growing every moment.
Reluctantly, Eleanor leaves her kids, each step measured and cautious as she walks back down the stairs. On the floor just below the library where she's been failing to sleep, Eleanor stops to peek in on the guest rooms.
Quill's door is open, just a crack, and Eleanor looks in at the man who is apparently her brother. That fact should be more startling. She should be freaked out, or at least very angry at Bragi for being so fucking useless, but she doesn't feel much of anything. Just a bit of that she isn't the only half mortal, half Asgardian in the universe. And maybe a low simmer of gratitude that Quill is here, distracting her with music lessons and making her kids laugh.
He's snoring peacefully now and Eleanor is envious of his ability to sleep.
Across the hall is the room where Sif and Sigyn have been sleeping. This door is wide open. Sigyn is asleep in the bed, but Sif sits near the door, slowly and quietly sharpening a blade.
"You should sleep, Eleanor," she whispers.
"So should you."
"I find it difficult, when others fight and I sit here, useless, powerless."
Eleanor nods. "Well, you're not useless. I'm glad you're here. My kids are certainly safer with you around."
Sif nods back, looking down at the weapon in her lap. "Sleep, princess. Not five minutes ago, I checked in with the nights guards. All is quiet. All is as it should be."
"Okay," Eleanor says, but Sif's assurances do nothing to help with the dread swirling around in her gut.
Instead of going back up to the library and her bed, she goes down, to the main floor. She peers through the peek hole in the front doors, counting the four serious Einherjar stationed in the hall outside.
Trying to shake off her nerves as simply a byproduct of the screaming still in her head, she wraps herself in the illusion of Loki and steps out onto the balcony. There she pretends to be her husband and watches the Einherjar below make their patrol rounds.
There is nothing unusual outside, nothing unusual anywhere, not until she turns back around, heads inside, and sees the hooded figure across the room.
"Ah, there you are, coward," it hisses, head twitching around, strange metal grate over its mouth glinting in the torch light. "There you are, failure."
All training forgotten, Eleanor jumps in shock, squeaking and unintentionally jerking out of the illusion that makes her look like Loki.
The creature hums, slowly approaching, the sound almost like a laugh. "This explains it. He is so frustrated, that he has been unable to break the flimsy girl in The Void. So frustrated that her husband has yet to come. Sent me here to hurry along his wayward son, but there was no need. The coward has been in The Void the whole time, lying. Tricking. Of course."
Eleanor backs up and the creature gets closer, doing her best to keep the space between them and to find her voice, to scream for Sif or the Einherjar just on the other side of the door. The mention of Loki has struck her silent.
"And the children," says the creature, breathing in deep and tilting his head back, as if he can catch the scent of her kids. It makes her skin crawl. "The coward reproduced? How foolish. I will take them, but first I will take you."
It lunges, crossing the distance between them with speed that defies everything the mortals think they know of physics. She has no time to think or breathe or scream. She simply acts, Loki's scepter materializing in her hands just as the creature gets its hands on her shoulders. It's his own momentum that drives him forward, the scepter's blade cleanly through his chest.
The screech it lets out pierces her eardrums and there is sticky blood, hot on her hands, but she doesn't let go of the scepter. She can't let go of the scepter. Will never again let go the scepter, not when such power is surging through her veins. First she'll slay this enemy. Then she'll slay them all.
The creature stumbles forward and Eleanor falls back. When it lands on top of her, the scepter through its back, shining with black blood and glorious. Her fingers clutch the scepter and she doesn't feel the dead weight of the creature she killed.
She stares at the blue gem cradled by the blade with wonder. In it swims galaxies, and Eleanor's eyes go wide as she absorbs impossible knowledge, all flying through her head. Before her eyes she sees how to rule the universe, how to destroy it.
Her breathing picks up, harsh and loud in her ears, but even as she struggles to pull enough air to into her lungs, she smiles. She grins wide and manic, groaning as she feels every cell of power rush through her.
And then abruptly, a bearded old man is blocking her view of her scepter, her salvation, her power. Before she can protest the creature is pushed off of her, the scepter is torn from her hands, and the loss is so great that she immediately blacks out.
There are rocks at his back, sharp as they dig into his oozing burns.
For a moment the air is knocked from his chest from his hard fall to the ground and he doesn't really believe that his plan was successful, that he's out of The Void on his own volition rather than the Titan's benevolence.
Mere moments ago, he was watching with unrestrained glee as the Titan's body collapsed in on itself, his eyes melting from his skull and his flesh burning from the inside out, but now he is flat on his back, the rocks paining him just further confirming that he made it out alive.
When Gamora claimed with firm certainty that an exit to The Void would become visible with the obstacle of the Titan removed, Loki did not truly believe her, yet here he lies, writhing in agony but undoubtedly alive.
He did not confess even to Eleanor that freeing himself from The Void after destroying Thanos was the most fragile part of his plan and that he did not fully believe he would survive it, although he had no choice but to trust Gamora.
Trusting her was such a risk, but it's certainly paid off now.
Loki recognizes the bit of space around his speck of rock. Above him hangs the brilliant stars and a smoky purple nebula that once formed the background to his meetings with the Other, but now they spell salvation, for he made it out and he lives still, body and mind mostly intact.
Despite his flayed, burned skin and exhausted mind, Loki is jubilant, the weight on his chest lifted for the first time in a decade.
His laugh rings out into the quiet.
Soon, Gamora will destroy all of Sanctuary along with every minion of Thanos she can find, and Loki best not be on this rock when she does it. But for now he simply continues to laugh, reveling in this moment of victory until too much blood seeps from the cuts to his chest, the burns on his back, and the world goes blurry around the edges.
When she opens her eyes, the world is tinted faintly blue.
She blinks rapidly, struggling to sort through her muddled mind to determine who she is. Memories not her own, of wielding enough power to suck whole planets dry, sucking up life and absorbing their knowledge to get stronger and wiser.
She's seen all the secrets of the universe, all stuffed in her claustrophobic mind, too small to understand them.
Her veins are humming, demanding more. It is painful and nauseating and she blinks three more times before the blue clears from her vision, the roar of memories in her head quiets, and she remembers her own name.
"Eleanor," she wheezes out through her dry throat. With her name, it is easier to hold on to her own memories; Loki eating ice cream with blue lips, Lenara banging on a tambourine, Vali's face the first time he called her Mommy.
Her mind wrenches in two as she rejects everything now in it that's not hers, visions of giant beings destroying words, grinning as Loki's eyes are taken over by toxic blue, hands wrapping around a stone to understand every star and nebula.
"Fuck," she mutters, squeezing her eyes shut and pressing the heels of her hands into her temples.
"Eleanor?" There is a gentle hand on hers and the touch makes her skin crawl, but her name coming from someone else helps her wrangle the memories that are truly hers.
Taking a deep shaky breath, she tells herself that she is a mother, musician, wife, sister, not a power-hungry, homicidal tyrant bent on making the whole universe kneel.
Even with her mind mostly sorted, the humming in her veins demands she get up, find the scepter, wrap her hands around that stone, so she can steal souls, identities, knowledge, killing at random just to prove she can.
She opens her eyes, and the world's not quite so blue.
The face peering down at her is beautiful and familiar. If Eleanor could only get her hands back on the scepter, she could know everything the woman above her knows. She could take her mind or sink her blade into her heart and it would be divine, the greatest pleasure she's ever known, better than every fuck and every drug.
"Sigyn," Eleanor croaks and saying the name dissipates the urge to hurt her, to take from her. This is Sigyn, master healer and dear friend. She is her own person and Eleanor has no claim on her mind or her body, even if her veins ache for it.
"Hello," says Sigyn, tearing up slightly. "Welcome back. You had us so very concerned."
"Sorry," Eleanor mutters. Her mind is becoming a significantly less terrifying place, but her body just feels worse, skin clammy and crawling, head pounding, stomach rolling, heart racing, veins throbbing. "What the fuck happened?"
"You slayed the Other," Sigyn says, laying a cool cloth on Eleanor's feverish brow. It provides little relief. "He managed to infiltrate Odin's tower and you drove a blade through his heart."
Eleanor shivers, remembering now how sure she was that she would die, and the surge of power as the scepter materialized in her hands as she fell back. Even with the Other dead, she remembers her eyes burning blue.
"Oh," she says, exhaling. "My kids?"
"They are safe with their uncle and aunt, but miss their mother dearly," Sigyn says, starting up the soul forge and scanning Eleanor as she speaks. "It's been days."
"How many days?"
"Did they see me like that?" she whispers, shuddering. In her memories, she was more terrifying than Loki at his very worst in the bunker and she can't stand the thought of scaring her children.
"No," Sigyn says, voice gentle as she continues her checkup. "They slept soundly through the brief affair, although they've been in to see you everyday. Vali understands that you are sick, but Lenara seems rather annoyed that you would not open your eyes."
Eleanor's laugh rattles her chest painfully, making her wince.
"I imagine you are quite uncomfortable," continues Sigyn. "It is as if the power in the scepter has infected you, but it is fading now."
"Withdrawal," Eleanor murmurs, remembering all those days in Stark Tower with Loki confused and shaking. She held the scepter for less than five minutes and it hurts to breathe without it, but Loki had it for months and months. It's a miracle he didn't die.
"The term used on Midgard to describe the effects of drug detox?" Sigyn asks, glancing away from her soul forging for a moment. "Yes, it is an adequate comparison. I do not believe there will be any lasting damage, but it will be some time before you are feeling well. I'm afraid you will feel quite unwell, actually, although I can put you to sleep again."
Eleanor shakes her head and it's dizzying. "No. Don't do that."
"I have potions for the pain, but I believe it will only dim it rather than eradicate it."
This Eleanor agrees to, and the pain is a bit easier to bear before she even finishes drinking.
"Loki?" she asks, realizing that anything could have happened in four days. Four days in The Void is an eternity.
"There's been no word, princess," says Sigyn, pushing Eleanor's hair off her forehead "Neither good nor bad."
Eleanor nods and tries not to cry.
"Would you like to see the children?"
"Yeah," says Eleanor, closing her eyes. "I really, really would."
A slap across his cheek, delivered from a tiny, leathery palm, rouses him once more.
"Rise and shine!" says the furry creature filling up his vision. "Dude, you are naked as hell."
"Rocket," says Gamora from somewhere Loki cannot see. "Give him room to breathe."
Loki groans, his joints aching in protest as he attempts to sit up. The dried blood stuck to the rock beneath his back pulls painfully and it takes all his energy to keep from screaming as his skin breaks free from the rock.
"Oh, shit," says the raccoon, scurrying around to get a good look at the ruined, bubbled flesh of his burned back.
"Can you stand?" asks Gamora, kneeling before him now. There is a bloody gash spanning her cheek and her armor no longer shines, but she appears in much better condition than Loki. He glances up to see her companions loitering behind her. The tree is missing an arm, although that appears to be re-growing and Drax has burns on his shoulder, but on the whole they are remarkably unharmed, given Thanos is dead.
Gamora and Drax pull him to his feet, but his legs nearly give out. They support him as he hobbles back to their strange little ship. With his last bit of strength, he pushes his victory towards Eleanor, across the bond and the universe, hoping he conveys all his relief and none of his pain.
She comes awake slowly. Outside the world is still dark, and Eleanor takes stock of her surroundings. Sigyn let her come back to her own bed in Odin's tower yesterday, even if she couldn't really manage to stand and walk here on her own.
She's in Frigga's library now, safe in bed with Vali to her left and Lenara to her right.
There is nothing out of place, not even that prickle of fear that slithered up her spine in the moments before the Other made his presence known. She is not scared, so what was it that woke her up despite the sleeping draught Sigyn gave her?
Her chest grows warm and it takes her a few moments to realize that the bond is flickering weakly. She's never felt it so dim before, but Loki is there, screaming out his relief across the universe. It comes in blurbs, punctuated by exhaustion and pain, but Loki is clearly alive and letting her know.
Hot tears roll down her cheeks, and she tries to reply, to send back her own relief and all this love, but she's too tired, too sick, and instead she just drifts off to sleep.
Lying on his stomach with his eyes closed, he concentrates all his magic on the wounds from the Titan's fire, where his skin was burned off layer by layer. It is far from his gravest injury to date, but that does not make it any less painful. With every breath, he sends a wave of magic over his back, and the sting is great as his skin stitches back together.
The doors to the little metal box where Gamora dumped him after cleaning his wounds slide open, disturbing his meditation and making his magic fizzle out. He is injured enough that his magic is elusive, difficult to hold onto, and this interruption just makes it worse.
Opening one eye, he watches Gamora lean against the doorway, tossing a familiar sphere from hand to hand.
"Your Asgardians successfully kept the majority of the minions of Thanos contained to Sanctuary when it was destroyed," she says. "They were clear of the blast and will be meeting up with us in several hours to continue the journey back together."
"Good," Loki says with a grunt, struggling to sit up on the bed. He stretches out his sore legs and doesn't let his bare back touch anything. It's somewhat of a shock, realizing that for the first time in recent memory there is no Titan lurking, no Sanctuary left for Loki to be dragged back to and forced once more into servitude.
"That's a handy trick," she says. "Healing yourself."
"I contacted your king," Gamora continues. "Your brother. He is very pleased, although it seems they had a bit of incident several days ago."
Alert now, he sits up even straighter, grimacing as his damaged skin pulls. "What happened?" he hisses.
"Your wife killed the Other," she says, grinning. "An impressive feat, for one so tiny and weak."
"She what! Is she unharmed? What of the children? How did the Other manage to get anywhere near them? Eleanor is not weak!" His distress undoes an hour's worth of healing and he feels his back ooze.
Gamora laughs at his sudden terror. She tosses him the sphere and he catches it easily, although the rattle it sends up his arm to the recently healed skin there is painful.
"Ask her yourself."
In the morning, she drags herself out of bed and takes a few unstable steps to a lounge across the library. She plucks a cold sphere off the shelf and holds it in her lap, patiently waiting for her husband to get his shit together and make the call. That's what the bond is telling her this morning. That Loki is struggling with the magic to operate this high tech phone.
It's not long before the imprints of her fingers on the sphere glow orange and she slots her fingers into the spaces, answering the call like Loki taught her.
With a click and a whirl, the sphere transforms into a flat screen, hovering before her, and there's her husband, staring back at her for the first time in almost two long weeks.
For a few minutes they just stare at each other, Eleanor weeping and smiling, Loki drinking her up like he needs her to breathe.
"You look awful," he whispers.
Eleanor cracks a smile. "Back at you, sweetheart. Are you alright?"
"The Titan is dead. And the skin on my back is healing as we speak."
Eleanor's weeping turns into full-on sobbing. She hides her face in her hands, shoulders shaking as she relives every dream where she watched the Titan melt the skin off Loki's bones or felt it done to herself.
"Eleanor, please," Loki says. "Do not cry. I cannot bear it. Please, let this be a moment of triumph."
She takes a deep breath and forces herself to calm down. "Okay. I just hate what you had to do there, Loki. I fucking hate it."
"It's all over now, my love. Really, truly over."
Eleanor grins, trying to believe it. The enormity of what Loki did is going to take some time to sink in.
"What happened? You killed the Other?" Loki demands, his voice rising.
"Shush!" Eleanor hisses as she shudders at the memory. She turns the screen around, letting Loki get a good look at the two little lumps half hidden under the blankets, their children sleeping peacefully in bed.
"They are unharmed?" Loki murmurs when she turns the screen back to face her.
"They are perfect," Eleanor assures him. "Healthy and happy, but they miss their daddy."
"Father," Loki corrects absently, back to drinking up her words and her face. "How do you know they miss me?"
Eleanor rolls her eyes. "Because Vali asks where you are constantly and Lenara takes forever to fall asleep, waiting for you to tuck her in."
"Oh," he says, looking a bit like he might cry himself.
"I love you so fucking much," she says.
"And I you. Now, what happened with the Other? You must tell me. Immediately."
She skimps on the details as she tells him, seeing Loki's rage growing.
"He never should have gotten so close, Eleanor! How did he manage to get into Odin's tower, the most ancient and protected place in the whole of the realm? This is my brother's doing. We discussed the possibility of the Other coming for you countless times and still he let it happen. I shall kill him the moment I see him," Loki says, fists bunching in his lap.
"Okay, calm down," Eleanor says, rolling her eyes just a bit. "You can't control everything, Loki. That's why you gave me the scepter."
Loki grimaces. "You used it, then?"
"Yeah. It kinda fucked me up. Like, majorly. And I only held it for a minute or so. How the fuck did you keep it for so long?"
"If you recall, it majorly fucked me up also," Loki murmurs.
Eleanor smiles, never over the novelty of Loki cursing.
"You look awful," he says again. "Your skin is grey. And sweaty."
"Likewise," Eleanor says, grinning. "We're a goddamn mess."
"But we won the war."
A few minutes later, Vali stirs. He slips out of bed and struggles to climb into Eleanor's lap. She's too weak to help him, but he makes it, settling with his head on her chest. He babbles happily at Loki, trying to reach out to touch his father and frowning when his hand meets the screen.
They relocate to the bed when Lenara wakes up, pretending that Loki is really here, rather than just an image on the screen.
Eleanor's family distracts her from her nausea and crawling skin and from the call of the scepter, whispering, singing in her veins from somewhere in the weapons vault for her to touch, to take, to rule worlds.
But her personal world, the two kids snuggled into her sides and the man light years away, watching them softly from this screen, is safe and happy and whole. It is enough.
For anyone out there still reading this story after months and months with no update: You are the best and I love you I love you I love you.
This is the last real chapter. There might be a very short epilogue. But given how long it too me to write this, it might be awhile.
THERE WILL BE AN AU! In which Loki and Eleanor meet when Eleanor is a little kid and her father brings her to Asgard as a kid. It's going to be up so soon, as I finished it months ago when I was stuck with this chapter.
Heather and Erica are the best betas and you are the best readers. Thank so very much.