In the burrows of the Nightmare

Where justice naked is

Time watches from the shadow

And coughs when you would kiss

-W.H. Auden


Darcy dreamed about a well, set among craggy rocks in an unfamiliar grey place. The morose-looking landscape stretched for miles, dotted with a few gnarled, leafless trees. She moved towards the well, walking with trepidation and yet a great sense of urgency. A bird cried out in the distance with a shrieking caw, and cold pins and needles sloshed through her blood. Finally reaching the edge of the jagged heap of stones, she summoned her courage and leaned forward to look down into the well when a thin, icy hand clamped down over hers. She turned to see Skuld's terrifying face. ''Would you know more?'' the Norn demanded. Darcy screamed herself awake.

''Please stop, it's over, you're safe now,'' Loki kept saying as he tried to hold her, keep her from flailing wildly. She sucked in a deep, frantic breath, blinking and disoriented. ''It was just a dream,'' he assured her, gently gripping her face in his hands. ''It was horrible,'' Darcy whispered, forcing herself to focus on his eyes until she calmed down.

''This isn't really the way I wanted to wake up,'' she admitted, trembling. ''I was hoping it would be more cuddling, less screaming.''

''Then you slept with the wrong god, I'm afraid,'' Loki offered, only half-jokingly, releasing her.

Sighing, Darcy leaned back down and stretched out, willing her muscles to relax, trying to force the jumpy, cold adrenaline out of her veins. Feeling eyes on her body, she looked up and saw Loki staring at her intently. ''What? What are you looking at?''

''You. I'm trying to draw you in my mind.''

''Why don't you just use a pencil?'' she asked in a withering tone.

He shook his head. ''That never seems to lead to anything good.''

''Well...I mean...technically we met because of your drawings. Are you saying I'm not anything good?'' Darcy pretended to be insulted, but she kicked the blankets away and leaned on her side, angling her body enticingly.

Loki swallowed hard. ''That's not what I meant and you know it. I just...don't want to take the chance that someone else might ever see you the way I see you now. I don't want them to ever try and take you from me again.'' He reached out a hand and rested it against her forehead, then trailed downward, ghosting his fingertips along the side of her face, over her lips, down her throat. Her skin tingled with the cool, exciting sensation. Darcy gasped aloud as his hand moved over the slope of her breast and down over her belly before dipping lower. ''Please,'' she moaned and in response he slipped two long fingers inside her. She arched her back and gripped his shoulders, bucking her hips slightly as he brushed teasingly against her clit with his thumb. ''You are so very beautiful,'' he whispered, angling his fingers, searching for the place that would bring her over the edge, felt it, then pulled back, eliciting an almost animalistic growl from Darcy. He stroked her with an ever-changing rhythm, shifting every time he felt her about to come, drawing out her pleasure to a point that was almost maddening. ''Now,'' she begged, unable to stand it any longer, desperately wanting release. He was happy to oblige, sliding a third digit inside to the core of her, right where she so badly needed it. The intensity of her orgasm shook her, left her feeling raw and rattled in the most delicious way, as it had the night before. He slid his fingers out of her, releasing her almost reluctantly. ''See?'' he murmured, leaning down and pressing a kiss against her throat. ''That's art.''


A Few Hours Later

Darcy hadn't seen Jane since they'd first arrived and Thor had whisked her away to the healing chambers. Now, she was finally getting an update on the scientist's condition from Eir. Tall and willowy, with piercing ice blue eyes and long golden hair that was bound up in an intricate bun, the Healer was an imposing figure, yet she had a very gentle, albeit no-nonsense demeanor. She still refused to let Darcy into the Healing Chambers to see Jane, but stood with her outside the doors and patiently explained what was going on.

''You're friend's spirit is confused. Everything is shaking loose and so she does not know where to go.''

''Like the shamans!'' exclaimed Darcy loudly, then felt rather idiotic.

Eir looked mildly amused, then her expression fell stoic once again. ''Jane does not have the skills of a shaman, that is exactly the point. And even the most skilled seidkona would probably not be able to withstand this.'' She paused a moment, considering her words, then said gently, ''Think of a large house, or a palace. And in this palace there are numerous exits and entrances. Some people who live in the house know secret passageways in and out; they have been there before, and know the dangers. Now imagine that the palace is destroyed, but not in the traditional sense. Everything is bent, twisted, upside down. Everywhere you thought was an exit leads to a wall. Every supposed entrance leads you running in circles. And you're navigating blindly in the dark. This is what it will become. Her essence is scattered and dizzy. She's stabilized somewhat here, but that will not last long. This sickness will remain irreversible as long as the World Tree continues to tear itself apart.'' The Healer then looked more curiously at Darcy, staring at the space around her head as if she could see something, hovering and invisible.

''What?'' Darcy asked, irritable and disappointed. She'd been hoping naively for some better news.

Eir shook her head, her expression flattening once more. ''It is not important at the time being. Now, if you will excuse me, I must return to the Chambers.'' She opened the door and vanished inside, leaving Darcy alone in the hallway. But not for long.

Sif appeared from around the corner, striding quickly towards her. Again, oh shit. Darcy briefly wondered who would win in a fight: the Asgardian warrior, or the Black Widow. She felt a small pang of sadness in the pit of her stomach as she thought of Natasha, who had been so kind to her.

''I'm glad I have the opportunity to speak to you alone, though he's probably listening somehow,'' began Sif sharply, then softened the edges of her voice and attempted lamely at politeness. ''I want to tell you that you've been playing a very dangerous game. I'm sorry that you've been dragged into this, but nevertheless, you are a part of it all now, and I hope you will at least listen to what I have to say.''

''I'll try my damnedest, but if you really want me to listen, maybe you shouldn't open with an accusation. I'm not playing any games. I'm only here to help my friends, and my world,'' Darcy snapped, amazed at her own boldness.

''Is that the only reason?'' Sif asked, raising an eyebrow. Her tone of voice suggested that she didn't believe this in the slightest.''You wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. You're in love with him, aren't you?'' She sounded utterly disgusted by the idea.

Darcy felt as though she'd been punched. The fact that she was about to answer back with ''so what if I am, you got a problem with that, Xena?'' made her pause, and she bit her tongue. She stammered for a minute, unsure of herself, unsure of anything.

''You don't need to admit it, I already know you are. But you shouldn't be. He's...possessed you somehow, bewitched you. He's very cunning like that, like a serpent. But he poisons everything he touches. And now we're left to clean up his mess.'' Sif shook her head. ''He's put all of our lives, put the very fabric of the universe at risk. And you as well, his poor, misguided child bride.''

''Hey! I'm standing right here,'' Darcy shot back, unable to keep quiet any longer, harnessing her inner badass. ''I am not misguided, I am not a child, and I'm not anyone's bride! I don't know where you're getting your facts from, but you oughta check them. It wasn't just Loki who caused all of this. Sure, he didn't help anything with the whole using of the Tesseract-I'm still not sure what that thing even is, by the way—but it wasn't the only reason. People on my planet have been poking holes in the universe for a very long time, we just call it 'research.' ''

''I can't understand how you can let him touch you,'' Sif continued, almost wonderingly, clearly not listening to a word that she was saying.

''Good, then don't try to understand it. It's none of your GODDAMNED BUSINESS!'' Darcy practically shouted this into the other woman's face. As soon as the words left her throat, she cringed inwardly in terror, turned and darted back down the hall before Sif could say anything else to her. Or pull out a weapon.

She was rushing away so quickly around a corner that she failed to watch where she was going and nearly crashed into Verdandi, one of the Norns. Darcy seemed to be forever colliding—literally-with fate.

''Whoa, I'm sorry about that,'' she gasped, jumping back a bit, putting a hand over her heart. The three women were now almost a constant presence, drifting creepily through Asgard like slightly attractive Dementors.

Verdandi didn't say anything at first, just tilted her head to the side and acknowledged Darcy with a brief, curious half-smile. This Norn, for whatever reason, appeared to be the youngest of the three. There was an odd freshness about her, she seemed perhaps kinder.

''Follow the road that leads to the well. You must go farther, if you would know more,'' she stated, after a beat.

''Are you talking about my dream?'' Darcy asked, dropping her voice to a near-whisper.

The eerie woman did not answer, just stared, her pale, clear expression like rain sliding down glass.

''You know, your face-licking sister was there. She asked something about that, said 'would you know more?' What does that mean? Is there something I can learn? Something helpful?'' Hope, or at least curiosity, flooded through Darcy.

''You must go farther. Start back at the road that leads to the well, follow it onward,'' the Norn insisted patiently.

''What happens then?'' wondered Darcy aloud, not sure if she really wanted an answer, but needing one all the same.

''You will be very frightened.'' Verdandi's icy, sea-foam colored eyes looked deeply into hers.

''That's...incredibly reassuring, thanks,'' Darcy said weakly, turning away slightly from that unsettling gaze. ''Where does the road go?''

The Norn was once again silent. Then, soundlessly, she turned and ghosted back down the corridor in the other direction.

''I should've stayed on Earth,'' mumbled Darcy, gathering her annoying skirts with a sigh. She trudged wearily back down the hall, in search of Loki, or even Thor. Anyone who wasn't Sif or one of the Norns.

''There you are,'' called a gentle voice. Frigga glided out of one of the many doors, a smile on her face. It amazed Darcy that the Queen always looked so calm, no matter how horrendous the circumstances.

''I didn't know anyone was looking for me,'' she replied.

Frigga laughed. ''Well, I just always want to be sure that you don't get lost. And isn't it nice to know that someone is looking for you?''

''I suppose that depends on why they need to find me,'' Darcy answered with a shrug.

The Queen laughed again, smiled knowingly. ''Aha. Good point.'' She put her arm around Darcy's shoulders. ''Come with me.''

Frigga led her down a long staircase that seemed to descend for miles. At the bottom, there was a door, tucked under an alcove, almost hidden. She pulled the door open. Inside was a large room full of fabric, thread, and yarn. Beautiful tapestries hung on all of the walls, looms and spinning wheels of all sizes covered the floor. ''Is this a...a sewing room?'' Darcy asked in wonder.

Frigga nodded. ''Do you like to weave?'' she asked.

''I honestly never tried weaving,'' admitted Darcy. ''I did try to knit a Gryffindor scarf when I was in high school but it was kind of a disaster, and I gave up.''

''Sometimes giving up is a good thing, but then again, sometimes persistence is necessary. The real trick is knowing what the situation calls for. It's certainly not always clear,'' observed the Queen.

''Yeah, humans have been trying to figure that out for a long time. We have a famous song about it. You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,'' she sang tunelessly, then trailed off and shrugged.

An almost childlike grin lit up Frigga's face. ''You don't count your money when you're sittin' at the table, there'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done,'' she sang along in response.

''No way! You know 'The Gambler' ?'' Darcy cried disbelievingly.

''Why, of course. My dear, we watch your world very closely here. You're like...like my long-lost and faraway children. You all have such good ideas, but sometimes those ideas have terrible consequences.''

Darcy had a feeling that the Queen wasn't talking about Kenny Roger's fantastically botched plastic surgery.

''I want you to come over here for a moment and look at this thread,'' Frigga continued, leading her across the room to where an enormous loom stood. On it rested what seemed to be the loose beginnings of another tapestry. She took hold of a thick, strong-looking piece of thread. ''You see, my dear girl, everything, in this and every other world, is connected. Imagine that this string is you. And, here you are born,'' she gripped the beginning of the thread, ''and then your destiny, or what we call your Wyrd, gets woven in with many others. These are all the other people that you touch as you go along your way. And here, the creation begins. And you don't see this happening, don't know it's happening, but it is.''

''Loki said that now the universe is 'tearing apart at the seams like worn cloth,' '' recalled Darcy.

''Perhaps. But cloth can always be mended.'' Frigga set the string down and patted Darcy on the back. ''It may take a very long time. And a skilled weaver. The strongest threads possible must be used. But it can be fixed.''

Darcy considered this for a moment, then ventured, ''So, um...your 'Wyrd' or whatever you called it...is it already determined? Does the...weaver know exactly where your thread is going to end up?''

Nodding, Frigga responded, ''Someone has to decide. Someone who has the ability to see what the tapestry will become. Now, you had better be getting back. I'm sure Loki has been missing you.''


SHIELD Headquarters

Banner let out a deep breath, sighing at a small victory as the woman's face appeared on the screen via the shaky, fragile connection. ''Hello...hello? I'm Dr. Bruce Banner, I work with Jane Foster. Can you hear me alright?''

Her voice came over, thickly accented, out of synch with her mouth as the video faltered. ''Yes. Dr. Banner, I can hear you. My name is Dr. Hesja Martinsson, I work at the Tromso Observatory. Is Dr. Foster there?''

''Dr. Martinsson, Jane is very sick. I believe that she and Dr. Selvig are suffering from the same illness. Is anyone else at the Observatory showing symptoms?''

''Nobody else here yet but there have been reports from Oslo of at least 3 others who were admitted to hospital with signs of this condition. Things here are not good, Dr. Banner. We have already lost communication with two different satellites, and our cellular towers are failing. The power grids...'' she trailed off.

''Hesja? Dr. Martinsson, I need to ask you, do you know what Erik Selvig needs to tell Jane?''

''He was not making any sense,'' she replied, and Banner watched her shake her head. ''I think it is the illness. But he keeps insisting. And I am very worried. We may be stranded here, the roads are not able to be traveled. The government has expressly forbidden people to be outside because of the storm and-'' the audio broke up, the video skipped and jumped, jumbling the scientist's features.

''No. No, not now...'' Bruce mumbled angrily and swore at the screen. ''Hesja, are you still there?''

The video stuttered, trying to buffer. He could hear patches of her voice. ''I think I'm losing you, Dr. Banner,'' she said.

''Just hang on for a second. Please tell me what Dr. Selvig needed to tell Jane. I know you must have some idea. I don't care if it makes sense or not, it might be helpful.''

The video steadied briefly, he could look at Hesja clearly now without getting seasick. She was younger than he expected, sloe-eyed and pretty. She looked absolutely terrified, but managed a small smile of relief when she saw Banner's face. ''He is very superstitious for a scientist. But many of us here are, though we do not care to admit it. Erik said that he had a vision, he kept saying something about a light, and an eye.'' Dr. Martinsson pulled out what looked like a notebook and held it up to the screen. ''And he wrote the same phrase over and over again.''

Bruce squinted at the screen. Entire pages were filled with violently scrawled, foreign lettering. ''I can't read that. Can you? What does it say?''

Again, like an erratic heartbeat, the video trembled.

''It says 'and there he lies bound til the end'.''

''What does that mean?'' Banner demanded insistently. ''Who lies bound til the end?''

The connection stuttered crazily, about to fail for good. Bruce watched Dr. Martinsson shake her head again, her eyes lost and hopeless.

''It's just a story-'' she began, and then image froze, her voice disappeared, and an error message filled the screen stating that the connection had been lost.


Asgard

''I 'overheard' your little exchange with Sif earlier,'' Loki admitted to Darcy, sounding oddly proud. ''Thank you for...for saying the things you said,'' he added sincerely. They were sitting in his bedroom again, outside the window a golden orange light slowly swirled itself into the beginning blurs of violet and blue, indicating that it was late afternoon.

''That bitch is crazy!'' cried Darcy in response, feeling herself grow indignant and enraged at the memory of her conversation with the warrior. ''All self-righteous and holier-than-thou. 'I can't understand how you can let him touch you','' she mimicked nastily. ''Just because she probably hasn't gotten laid in a millenia. And she called me a child bride. A child bride! That's...somehow that's the most disturbing insult I've ever gotten.''

''I honestly don't think she meant that to be an insult,'' Loki admitted, albeit grudgingly. ''She used that term because...well, by mortal standards, you are quite young. And I...I think that the level of connection between us is...confusing to some here.''

''Come again?'' Darcy asked, cocking an eyebrow at him.

''I think I'll leave that to you,'' he replied with a rakish smile, and her entire body heated. ''But...suffice it to say that on Asagrd there is a certain...limited vocabulary with which to describe varying levels of intimacy.''

''Whatever,'' she snorted. ''You Asgardians should take lessons from the Inuit, they've got like 100 different words for snow, and that's pretty much the only weather that they have...but, dude, Sif's probably really got it in for me now. I don't know why I had to channel my Inner Badass.''

''Inner Badass?'' Loki repeated, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth.

''Yeah, I have one. Every normal woman does, we can't all be the Black Widow. I call mine 'Max'.'' Darcy shrugged, almost shyly, then added, ''Hey, can you please explain this Tesseract thingy to me?''

His face fell. ''Why, why, why must you always ask these enormous questions right when all I can think about is how much I want to take you to bed?'' Loki's voice was weighed down with terrible frustration.

''So sue me, I'm trying to be constructive. In order to do that, I need more details. Please? I promise you that I will make it up to you later.'' She mentally projected an image of herself kneeling in front of him, taking him deep into her mouth.

''Oh all right. All right,'' he relented breathlessly. Sighing and running a hand through his hair, Loki began, ''The Tesseract is an unlimited energy source. It is extremely powerful, and extremely intelligent. It is sentient, it is conscious, and it definitely has a will.''

''So...you used it to try and take over the Earth, is that right?'' Darcy pried.

''Technically.''

''You're really not telling me everything,'' she chided him, crossing her arms and staring pointedly. ''I know there's more to it than that. Show me.''

''No.'' Loki's voice was stony.

''Yes. Right now. Show me everything that happened,'' she demanded.

''I don't think that's wise-'' he started in a firm voice.

''Show me now or you'll be seeking a new friend for the end of the world. I'll get myself a nice chastity belt, there's gotta be one lying around somewhere...''

''Darcy...you are utterly impossible and infuriating,'' Loki growled, then threw his hands in the air. ''Fine. You win. But...it may be quite unpleasant.''

''I think I can handle it,'' Darcy retorted with false bravado. She shut her eyes and opened her mind; after a moment felt the rush of a shared memory, strong and crushing. But she wasn't just watching, wasn't a detached observer. She was inside of the memory, inside of him. Because her mind was linked to Loki's, she felt everything as he had.

She looked down at her arm, cold terror knifing her in the heart as her skin changed color, darkening to a deep shade of blue. What? Standing at the end of a hallway, confusion, a choking feeling of betrayal. Blue glowing light in front of her eyes, reach out, take hold. Am I cursed? Tell me! Anger, so much anger and pain. She gritted her teeth, wanted to yell. Dug her fingernails hard into the palm of her hand.

Holding on. Letting go. A rush of cold nothing. Alone, so very alone. She felt as though she were being ripped apart slowly. Screamed and thrashed in agony. Thousands of tiny teeth chewed at her skin, down to the bones. Then came a voice out of the nothing, deep and cruel, chuckling, raking its fingernails along the raw sides of her face, the sides of her soul, gouging with a malevolent power so deep and vast it almost felt like love. A promise, a nod. Then came the blue light again, so beautiful. At first, it began slowly, working its way inside of her, slipping into her veins and gnawing its way along her bloodstream. Then it rushed, it burned. Oh gods, it burned; the pain was both exhilarating and excruciating. She screamed and screamed as it began to fully overtake her, felt it slip inside her mind, her consciousness tossed into a dark corner, paralysed, to make room for this Other.

It's too late. It's too late to stop it.

Mercifully, the memory faded away and Darcy returned to herself. The first thing she saw was the ceiling, she must have fallen back onto the bed. Her entire body felt like a slab of cold stone. She couldn't move for a moment, couldn't speak. Loki was beside her, holding her with a pained gentleness. He looked devastated. ''I warned you,'' he ground out bitterly, his voice filled with regret. ''I didn't want you to see that.''

When she found that she could finally speak, it sounded like she was talking underwater, then gradually became more and more coherent. ''I'm glad that I know,'' she managed to croak out. ''Thank you.'' She struggled to sit up, and Loki helped her. The feeling was slowly returning to her body. Her limbs felt atrophied at first, weak and rubbery. Darcy leaned back against him, letting her head loll and rest on his chest. ''Just hold me like this for a little while,'' she whispered. ''That wore me out.'' A tear ran down her face.

''It's so quiet,'' she added, after a moment. ''It feels like we're the only two people in the world right now.''

''We are,'' he replied, brushing a kiss against her forehead.