Lily's head came up from the table with a snort and she stared about the conference room until her gaze rested on Fury, sitting in a chair across the way, his arms folded. How long had she been asleep? She stretched, groaned as her muscles screamed in protest.
“I said you should have found a couch somewhere,” he shook his head, looked up to the ceiling, “What is it?”
“We're reading high electromagnetic activity in the atmosphere,” the disembodied voice replied. Fury was on his feet, followed closely by Lily.
“Whereabouts is this activity concentrated?”
“Ah, in the sky above us.”
Fury gestured to Lily as they headed for the conference room door, “I want agents on the heliopad now! We're on our way.”
The wind tore at the door in Fury's hand, making every effort to wrench it out of his grasp. Beyond him, Lily could see Tony Stark and Thor standing amid a circle of agents which parted as Fury strode forward. Lily was immediately apprehensive. It was obvious from the beginning that something was wrong in Asgard when neither the portals nor the bridge would work, now Lily was having a hard time fighting down sheer panic, forcing herself to stay in place instead of running to Thor, asking where her husband was.
When Stark spied her, he gave a wink and a smile. Under normal circumstances, she would have dismissed his actions but this time it gave her a measure of comfort. Maybe everything was alright after all, maybe there had been a glitch with the portals. It wasn't unheard of...
“Miss Lily,” Tony's voice cut through her thoughts, “Your husband says to tell you he's fine in case you were worried which of course you were. There now you look a little brighter, got a bit of color in your cheeks. He's waiting for you at...”
“Stark!” Fury bellowed, “What the FUCK is going on? Why have we been unable to contact Asgard for the past five goddamn days? Where the hell is agent Denehy? Why isn't he here with you?”
Stark held up his hands, “Keep your patch on, geez. Let's get inside out of this wind and then we'll tell you all we know, okay? I promise. No water boarding needed,” Stark offered his arm to Lily who gamely took it, “It's been a long time since I've had a pretty lady at my side. Don't tell Garick I said that, don't want him to take offense.”
Lily looked over her shoulder at Thor's grim countenance as they descended the steps into the lower hangar and the feeling of apprehension returned with a vengeance. What had happened while she was gone?
He took another long draught of wine, drew his robe tighter around him as he watched the scene in the south courtyard below. Countless times that morning he'd been compelled to turn away from the sight, forcing himself to remain, bear witness to the pain of separation. Already he could feel the wine twisting his mind, darkening his mood. In the courtyard, Eidra was lifting a crying Astrid up to Helgi in the wagon bed. Fen and Brenna sat upon the driver's seat, Cait between them. Gretten rose from his place beside Beth to extend his hand, pulling Eidra up into the back of the wagon.
In a moment of forgetfulness, he looked for Brynn's happy face, closed his eyes, a strangled cry escaping his lips. When he opened them again, Cait was gazing up at the balcony where he stood hidden in the shadows then Fen hit the reins and the wagon started forward, carrying all he cared about through the gates into the countryside. He stayed at the balcony for a long time, staring at the space where they had been until at last he bent down, picked up the ewer of wine at his feet and retreated into the darkness of his bedchamber.
Eidra buried her nose in Astrid's soft hair, trying to ignore the throbbing pain behind her eyes, hugging the sniffling child close beneath the fur robes.
“....but not even coming out to say goodbye?” Helgi whispered, “ 'Tis cruel..”
“He said his goodbyes last evening to avoid an upset this morn, and this is hardly the last time they shall see him in any case. The girls will visit him regularly with their sister and brother.”
Helgi frowned, cast a glance toward the retreating city, “No matter whether he was at the wagon or not, the children were still beside themselves. Better to shoulder his duties...”
“Helgi, please,” hearing Astrid whine, Eidra pulled her closer.
“Very well,” Helgi patted Astrid's back, “So what are we to do now?”
“Why we will go back to the manor house. I will raise my children with Ingrid's help. You will continue to enjoy your dotage while Gretten feeds our bellies,” she gave a gentle grin to Gretten who nodded, “Spring will come. We will plant our garden, tend our animals as we have always done.”
Helgi rubbed Eidra's hand, “You put on a brave face, that you do.”
“Life must continue. Nothing, not even death, can halt the relentless press of time. 'Tis far from bravery, trust me. 'Tis simply how it must be.”
The wagon bounced hard as it turned into the drive to the manor.
“That spot will be a job for the workers come spring,” she thought to herself as she rose to her knees to lean out over the side of the wagon. In the midday sunlight, a line of workmen were busy at the ravaged entrance to the house. Fires in low braziers blazed along the outer wall as the fieldstone and mortar came together, ready to create a new doorway.
What had been done was done. She would do what she must even if she must do it alone. As the wagon rolled to a halt before the half finished doorway, she pursed her lips, squared her shoulders and hopped down to the ground.
“Dōbārā bāriśa hō rahī hai.”
With herculean effort Noni raised her head from the pillow. After the anesthesiologist had finished the epidural and started the drip, the contractions had faded to a dull ache. She had soon after fallen into a dreamless sleep only to be awakened by the return of her parents from the hospital cafeteria.
“Maa, speak English,” she groaned, casting her eyes toward her fiance, Daniel, “I told you. It's like hiding what you are saying.”
“Very well,” her mother smiled woodenly at Daniel before turning her attention to the scene outside the hospital window, “I said it is raining again.”
“Pretend you're in Mumbai,” Noni lay her head back to the pillow, watched the monitor beside her as it registered another contraction until her eyes drifted shut for a moment.
“Mmm, I have always said we traded one patch of mud for another.”
“What could I do, Tārā?,” her father cried, “Find another job? You have always had everything you want, so has Noni...!”
“Baabaa, not now, please?” she rubbed her belly, feeling the muscles taut beneath her fingers, Daniel's hand on her forehead.
“I am only stating a fact, Noni....,”
There came the sound of running water in the sink outside the bathroom as the nurse called into the room, “How are we doing so far?”
“Better than I was, thank you,” Noni turned her head toward the nurse who was now drying her hands with a wad of paper towels. She walked over to the monitor and nodded, pressing a couple buttons on the IV delivery unit, “You're going to start feeling contractions again.Getting pretty close. Going to be time to push pretty soon,” the nurse smiled at Daniel, “Bet Daddy's ready to see the new addition to the family.”
Why correct her? It didn't really matter if she was talking to the wrong man, “Yes he is. I know I'm ready.”
“So are we,” her mother piped up, “I told her we could have this baby at home but she insisted upon coming to the hospital so that she could have drugs.”
Noni rolled her eyes to the nurse, “Maa, you make me sound like an addict. I'm not good with pain.”
“Oh I know. When she lost her first tooth she cried and cried...”
Noni closed her eyes again, listening to her mother's lilting voice, not really paying attention to the words, letting her mind drift back to the day she'd decided to tell Colin the news, stopping at his house after looking up the address from his grandad's files at the rest home, hoping he would answer the door. She had been invited inside by his father, brought to sit at the careworn kitchen table where she was told Colin would not be coming back to Helen's Bay. In typical fashion she'd broken down, telling him she was pregnant, expecting at any moment to be shown the exit, instead he'd fallen to weeping himself, wiped his eyes with a handkerchief while he told her of Colin's assignment in Asgard.
“He never told me where he was going. It was a big secret. I never imagined he'd be involved in something like that. It's been all over the news in the past few weeks.”
“Doesn't matter now does it? He's beyond secrets, lies,” Colin's father had rasped, “Wait here.”
She'd heard Colin's father trot up the stairs in the other room, trudge about overhead until at last he re-appeared with something in his hand which he pressed into her palm. It was a fine gold coin with strange letters around the edge and the likeness of a bearded man with long hair molded into in the center.
“Take this. Take it for yer little one and keep it as a memento of me boy.”
She'd held the coin in her hand, a shaft of sunlight coming through the kitchen window glinting off its dulled surface as the baby wiggled about in her belly. Before she left, she'd promised him she would keep him informed about the baby's progress, had in fact called the house two days ago, telling him they were inducing her labor because the baby refused to leave its comfortable flat. He was thrilled, asked if he and his wife could come see the baby after it was born. Of course she'd answered yes most emphatically. She carried the coin with her everywhere she went now. She'd had a sliver holder made for it so she could wear it as a necklace though now it sat in her purse because they'd made her remove all jewelry when they hooked her up to the Pitocin.
“Ohhaa, Maa, I feel like I need to push!” Noni flopped over to her back, “Call the nursssee!”
All at once, her mother was out of her chair by the hospital window, hands in the air, chattering excitedly in Hindi as she hurried out of the room.
“Should have had you do it...,” she looked at Daniel, “Hnnnn!”
“What do I do? Tell me!”
She shook her head. The excruciating ache had returned only slightly dulled now that the nurse had lowered the IV drip.
“The obstetrician is on his way. He was just down the hall checking on another patient,” the nurse sailed into the room, fresh sheets and a tray in her hands, “Okay everyone who's supposed to be here is present, right? Daddy, grandmother, grandfather?”
“All here,” Daniel nodded and Noni looked up into his soft brown eyes, “All accounted for.”
From then on everything seemed surreal, dreamlike, all focus brought to one bright point as she curled into herself, every muscle in her body bent on delivering the child from her womb. There were shouts of encouragement but they sounded muffled, her heartbeat louder in her ears than any voice. Another deep breath, another count of ten, her hand like a vise around Daniel's fingers. The gurgling cry as the nurse encouraged her to give one more good push and suddenly she felt woefully empty.
“A girl! It's a little girl!” the nurse patted Noni's leg, “Congratulations, Mama!”
A girl, a daughter. She lifted her head off the pillow to see Daniel's eyes brimful with tears, smiling down at the flailing newborn as he murmured, “Colleen it is then.”
The desk clerk eyed the stately woman, straining to meet the eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, “Where did you say you was from now?”
“Trondheim....Lars, come here. Stop pestering the young lady.....Lars!”
The boy who'd walked into the hotel foyer hand in hand with the woman had been immediately drawn away by a young lady sitting with her service dog in the waiting area off to the left of the entrance. When called, he seemed not to hear her until she raised her voice. Typical kid.
“Trondheim? That'll be Norway then.”
“What? Oh, yes. Norway.”
“I am sorry, mother. I only wished to pet the dog,” the boy sidled up to her, peering over the edge of the desk at the clerk who guessed the boy to be seven, maybe eight and a bit too precocious. Downright creepy as well. The clerk couldn't quite figure out why, only knew he wanted to get this pair out of the foyer and to their rooms as quickly as he could.
“Right, then. One room for three nights comes to two hundred forty quid. Will that be cash or card?”
“Cash,” the woman set her purse on the counter and lifted the flap. The thing was embroidered all over with strange symbols, odd markings and it looked big enough to hide a small family inside.....or a large gun. He flinched when she drew out a smaller drawstring pouch and set it on the counter, slipping her glasses off her face before working at the drawstrings. All at once, he was hoping she would stay standing at his counter for the rest of his shift. She was hauntingly lovely even though she looked to be a bit too old for him. Then again age had never mattered before. It all translated to more experience.
She drew a wad of bills out of the drawstring pouch and as she lifted them up to count out the money for the room, there was a metallic clink on the desk. A coin had dropped from between the folds. She reached for it, rather nonchalantly dropping it back into the pouch where it clinked again, joining its companions at the bottom. He stared at the spot where the coin had been. It too had been covered with strange markings and unless he'd been mistaken, it looked to be gold. If anyone else had stood there unrolling a handful of bills to give to him, he'd have thought the piece had to be gold plated, a souvenir from some odd museum but somehow he knew it was the real deal. As she placed the bills in his hand, however, he shrugged. Money was money and it was none of his business how it was come by.
“Very good, madam. Welcome to the Jury's Inn, Sheffield 'Ere's your entry card. You'll be in one eighty six. The maids is just finishing cleaning that room if you'll 'ave a seat in the waiting area, I'll fetch you when they're done. Enjoy your stay..”
The woman flashed the clerk a toothy smile he was of a mind would have looked at home on a wolf, lifted her purse to her shoulder and herded her boy over to one of the couches in the waiting area.
“Mother. Might I now pet the dog?”
Sif regarded the woman sitting in the love seat by the large windows with a book in her lap. Laying on the floor at her feet was a dog with a flaxen coat and eager golden eyes. Upon his back was a halter which read in large black letters “SERVICE DOG”.
“I would rather you stayed close by.”
“I will be but a few steps away, Mother,” Lorioi whined, “The dog is gentle, I promise you.”
“No,” Sif answered a bit firmer than she meant to, setting her purse atop the one piece of luggage which contained all they owned at the moment.
When Lorioi dropped down to the couch beside her, crestfallen, her tone softened and she leaned closer to him, “When we have found who we are looking for, when we are in a safer place we might find a companion for you.”
“A dog?” Lorioi sat forward, clapped his hands together, “Father would never let me have one in the palace. He said they were too messy, too wild for the nursery.”
Sif looked about at the woman, the desk clerk but neither of them seemed to notice Lorioi's prattle.
“My son,” she whispered, taking his hand and holding it tightly, “Have we not spoken upon this. We are not to mention our lives elsewhere lest we draw attention to ourselves. Do you wish to see me back in the cells? Yourself in the nursery like a babe in arms?”
“No, Mother. Oh no! I like this adventure we are on, I do not wish to return...home.”
“I thought not,” Sif lifted his hand to her lips and bussed it, “And do not call the oaf Father. Your father is dead, do you ken?”
Lorioi glanced once more at the dog then to Sif, “Yes, Mother......tell me again who we are going to see?”
Sif looked once more at the clerk but he was at the other end of the reception area, “We are going to see a man named Piritus.”
“He was once an Asgardian?” Lorioi slid up to her side to whisper in her ear.
“Yes but he was banished for his allegiance to your father, Magnus. Your true father. We may count him as an ally and so I will ask him for asylum until we might locate others whom Asgard has discarded.”
Lorioi nodded, “Then perhaps we might get a dog?”
Sif kissed the top of his head, murmured “All this and much more, my love. One day I will give you a kingdom.”
“Miss? Your room is ready,” The clerk called to her, “Right this way.”
Sif gave the clerk a nod and another bright smile as they followed him toward the elevator. Once inside, she gazed down at her son as he watched the numbers change on the panel by the floor buttons. She would find Piritus and soon. He had been loyal to her as well as Magnus and there were others back on Asgard who would follow them were they to return. She ruffled Lorioi's hair comforted as he leaned back against her, her thoughts on his future.
“One day, you shall be king.”