It was growing steadily darker; all of the warm colors had gone out of the sky, which was unusual for Asgard, even at night. After her disheartening conversation with Heimdall, Darcy had taken a very long walk around through the gardens, trying to shake off all the emotions that were threatening to choke her. As she wandered through the rustling, curling vines and ferns, she heard a faint sound slice the quiet, almost like singing. Darcy followed it down the path and into a smaller garden, where she could see the outline of a person seated on a stone bench.

There, sitting in the spectral, fading shadows of late evening was Jane. She was sitting alone, wearing a long nightdress that flapped in the insistent, chilly breeze. Her feet were bare and dirty, her hair hung in limp strands around her pale, now-gaunt face. She was humming to herself as she rocked back and forth, staring straight ahead, eyes glazed over and utterly lost.

''Whither, o whither, o whither so high? To brush the cobwebs out of the sky, to brush the cobwebs out of the sky'', the scientist sang, in that now-familiar childlike voice that Darcy dreaded so. Jane barely resembled herself, anymore, she looked like a floating shell, an apparition.

''Jane?'' Darcy moved closer. The other woman made no motion to suggest that she knew she was no longer alone, her eyes remained staring forward. ''Jane, it's me. It's Darcy.'' Nothing. Not even the vaguest glimmer of recognition. Tears began to prick at the corners of her eyes, but there was no time for that. ''Why are you out here all alone?'' she cried her voice rising into a panicked cadence. ''Where's Thor? Where's Eir?''

Silence for a long moment. The breeze was now officially a wind, and a cold one at that. Jane's thin nightgown whipped at her ankles, her hair was tossed in dark slashes across her face. ''Come on,'' Darcy said, taking her friend gently by the arm and pulling her to her feet. ''You have to get inside, you're going to freeze.''

Jane leaned her head back and stared up at the sky. ''They've taken the stars away again,'' she observed and with a sinking heart, Darcy looked up and saw that she was, in fact, correct. All of the stars in Asgard's prismatic sky had vanished, leaving only hues in increasingly bleaker patterns and shapes, mirroring the sky over New York City, just before they had left.

The scientist's movements were spastic and shuffling, those of a sleepwalker. She was completely disoriented, she was like a dreaming child. Putting an arm tightly around her for support and to block the steady, ever-colder wind, Darcy led Jane slowly back along the path towards the main hall, but the other woman was now rapidly drifting into unconsciousness, lolling into dead weight, more than was easily manageable. Loki, wherever you are, I could sure use your help right now, she thought loudly, dialing up the volume of her mind and utilizing their connection, which was proving to be quite useful in sticky situations. Sure enough, just a few moments later, he appeared in the doorway just as Darcy struggled over with Jane.

''What...where was she?'' he asked, rushing to help. The god seemed more than a little taken aback by Jane's ghostly, wraith-like appearance and Darcy's tearstained face. ''She was in the garden, just sitting out there by herself, singing a nursery rhyme. Loki,'' she added, gripping his arm, ''look at her. She's...she's gone.''

''I can see that,'' he answered grimly. He lifted the now-sleeping scientist off of Darcy's shoulder and into his arms. ''Come on, let's get her back inside to Eir. My brother will want to know about this, I think.''

The Healer and two of her attendants were hurrying into the great hall just as the three arrived inside. Eir's ever-calm demeanor seemed rattled. Without a word, the attendants briskly but carefully took Jane from Loki and then rushed her out of the room and back to the Healing Chambers.

''How did she get out?'' demanded Darcy, her hands trembling. ''She could have gotten hurt!''

''She isn't a prisoner,'' Eir replied frostily. ''She can certainly come and go as she pleases, though I must admit I don't understand how she managed to even get out of bed. She's been sleeping for the better part of two days.''

''She didn't even know who I was,'' Darcy said, and her voice cracked like porcelain.

Eir shook her head, though her expression softened minutely. ''We are losing her, as I told you. She doesn't know who you are, or who she is, or where.''

''No,, she has to come back. She'll come out of it, before? She...''

The healer continued to shake her head as Darcy crumpled to the floor, overcome by a suffocating wave of sadness. She hadn't seen Jane since they'd arrived, and to witness the extent of the change, of the damage to her friend's brilliant mind, had been a devastating experience. Any trace of hope that she might have had was washed away in a cold, fierce tide.

''Get out, get out now, you're useless!'' Loki snarled at Eir. The sharpness of his voice made Darcy's skin sting.

The blonde woman scowled at him, though her eyes did flash with a certain amount of regret. ''I only told the truth. Would you rather I lie? Perhaps you would, but I adhere to higher standards than that.'' She drew herself up regally, and then turned to exit the room. After a few steps, she turned back with a reluctant flutter, for just the briefest moment. ''I am sorry, Darcy,'' she said, quietly and sincerely. And then she was gone.

Day 1: The Gloaming

I do spy a kind of hope,

Which craves as desperate an execution

As that is desperate which we would prevent

-Romeo and Juliet Act IV, Scene I

Darcy had held to a naïve shred of hope that when she woke up, she would find that the events of the previous evening had all been another nightmare. However, once she cracked an eye open and looked out the window, she knew. It had all been real. Loki was standing at the bookcase, thumbing through an old volume. Without even looking up from the page, he flicked two of his fingers and the curtains snapped closed, blocking her view of the encroaching storm. ''Don't look out there,'' he said, ''there's nothing to see.''

''You're right,'' she whispered, and a tear trickled down her face. She wiped it away, then asked ''Does Thor know about...about how sick Jane has gotten?''

Loki set the book down and nodded. ''I spoke with him last night. It was not a comfortable conversation. I always thought that I lived to see Thor beaten, broken, devastated. I must really be going soft because it felt rather awful to witness him in that state. I've never seen him so hopeless. He really, genuinely loves her.''

''It's like you said, it only hurts when its real,'' Darcy offered. Then she pushed back the covers with a manic fervour, snapping into rough alertness. ''I'm getting dressed and I'm going to the Healing Chambers. If there's any more bullshit meetings today, I won't be in attendance. If these are my last three days on this or any other planet, I'm not going to spend them going round in circles and not getting anywhere. All the rest of them are just laughing at us at this point, it seems.'' She threw her nightclothes on the ground and stormed over to the wardrobe where she had stashed some of the dresses from the room she'd been given on the first night they'd arrived on Asgard. Since then, she'd been sleeping in Loki's room, not really giving much of a fuck what anyone might think if they found out.

She went furiously through the selections, yanking out a silk, amethyst colored gown, Loki watching her as she did so. She was completely naked, but her movements were far from sensual, they were cold and angry. Like a line drawing, all limited and sharp, lacking the fluidity that he had come to associate with Darcy, with the way that she existed. His Darcy lived amid a wild blur of color, soft curves and many dimensions.

He moved closer to her. ''Do you think that Eir will let you in?''

''She damn well better. She damn well better. This might be one of the last chances I get to see my best friend. And I don't care whether Jane knows who I am or not, I want to see her before...before we're all gone.'' Darcy defied the tears that desperately wanted to fall. She'd cried so much the past few days, and where had it gotten her? No, she didn't have time for that.

She slid the fabric over her head and slowly worked at doing up all of the ties. Her fingers moved quietly, meditatively, like she was wrapping herself up in a magic curtain, in armor. When she was done, Darcy pushed back her hair, letting it tumble back over her shoulders, and took a long look at herself in the large mirror on the wall.

Soon, a second face joined hers there, and Loki fastened his fingers on her shoulders and turned her around. The anguish that he could see hiding behind her eyes felt like a knife against his skin. ''There's no need for this. You cannot let them do this, you cannot let them break you. I'm cold. You know that. I was born in a world covered in ice and part of me will always be thus. I need you to be warm for me. Don't let them take that.''

He leaned down, his mouth hovered over hers for what seemed like a thousand quiet years. ''Maybe that's why I love being inside of you,'' he murmured. ''When you want me, when you call for me. Hearing your voice crying out my name in your head, almost like you're praying.'' He paused, tilting her face up towards him. Her full bottom lip trembled delicately as she tried not to cry. ''Nobody ever prayed to me, they were too afraid. Nobody has ever worshipped me. There are no shrines. Nobody dared to invite in a presence such as mine. My love,'' he said, and her eyelids fluttered softly closed at the words like butterfly wings. One treacherous tear fell, cutting across her face, ''you have no idea how lonely it's been.''

Perhaps Eir was feeling slightly guilty about the events of the previous evening, because for the very first time, she relented and allowed Darcy through the doors of the Healing Chambers. The aura of the place was very different from anywhere else she'd been on Asgard. Her instant impression was one of peace and familiarity. It felt safe in there, the light was softer, and the shadows didn't seem to be alive. It was like regressing back to the womb. Everything was muted and warm.

''Why do I get the weirdest feeling that I've been here before?'' Darcy asked as she looked around.

Eir smiled. ''Well, healing is a very personal experience, and it works on many levels. Physical, mental, spiritual...what is healing to one person might do very little for another. So we designed these rooms to attune themselves to the energetic structure of each patient, for their own comfort.''

Eir paused a moment before adding, ''Or perhaps you have been here before, in another time, or another form.''

''That's impossible. I didn't even know these worlds existed up until like a year ago.''

''That's what you think, because that's how a mortal mind processes these things. But you no longer have simply a mortal mind—or its limits. Now, you can see.''

Darcy blinked, rather confused by that statement. ''I...I still have a mortal mind,'' she insisted. ''I just...we're just temporarily...''

Eir drew in a breath and then folded her hands. ''It's not temporary. Not anymore. Loki perhaps intended it to be but something has caused a more complete fusion. I saw the connection, the first time that I met you. It's very strong, too strong, almost, glowing all around you like a halo.''

''I've been worried,'' Darcy confessed. ''I've been having these weird nightmares that are starting to get much too real. Are you sure that I'm not getting sick?''

''You're not getting sick the way that Jane is, no. And really, you aren't sick at all.'' Eir fixed her pale blue eyes firmly on the younger woman. ''They're not nightmares. They're not dreams. I'm sorry to tell you this, but everything that you are seeing is real.''

''That's not really what I wanted to hear,'' Darcy admitted.

''I know,'' replied Eir.

There was silence for a long moment. ''Are you scared?'' Darcy asked the healer.

''Even if I was,'' she responded calmly, ''it wouldn't make a difference. Events happen regardless of the way we feel about them.''

The bed in the Healing Chamber where Jane lay was nothing like any hospital bed that Darcy had ever seen. It more resembled a pod, a pod that seemed, if not alive then at least very nearly aware. There were no monitors, no beeping sounds. The capsule glowed and pulsed every few moments with changing, colored light. Jane was deeply asleep.

''They don't think that you're going to wake up again,'' Darcy said, staring down at her friend. ''But I know that you are. Maybe you can't hear me, maybe you can. I'm afraid. I'm really afraid and I wish that you weren't just...lying there like that. I am so sorry that this is happening, Jane, and if I could do anything to stop it, I would. But nobody is listening to me, and the clouds are here now, too...''

She broke off and covered her eyes, cried out with wracking sobs so forceful that she stopped breathing for a moment. ''Remember back in New Mexico that one time when we all got really drunk on tequila and listened to Bruce Springsteen?'' A long moment passed. Darcy scrubbed at her face with the silk sleeve of her gown and laughed, though the tears were still falling. ''And Erik was trying to sing ''Thunder Road'' but he kept fucking up the lyrics? That was fun. We should do that again, sometime.'' She sat down on the floor, leaning her head against the edge of the healing capsule, which still glowed like a lightning bug. She closed her eyes and listened, reaching out to see if she could hear any flicker of consciousness from Jane, tried to locate her lost essence. There was nothing, only the soft illumination of the chamber. ''I hope that wherever you are they have lots of stars to look at,'' Darcy whispered.

Later that evening, a visitor arrived, just as it began to snow. He and Odin spoke together for a long while, behind closed doors. Except for the sound of flames in the fireplace and the occasional sound of footsteps out in the corridor, everything was quiet. Not serene, not ominous, simply a pervasive absence of sound. Darcy sat in the Hall, a cup of ale next to her, and a large, old text spread out open on the table. Loki was sprawled in a chair beside her, observing the crackling fire, thinking. She turned a page, trying to memorize the shapes of all of the runes, tracing each one with her finger.

''You can't even read that,'' he said.

''I know,'' she replied, ''but for some reason, its familiar. And I feel like if I stare at these letters enough...I'll just...know how to read them.''

Darcy reached for the ale and as she did so, Loki motioned with his hand and the cup slid quickly away from her and over to him. ''Do let me know how that works out for you,'' he said dryly, lifting it and taking a sip. Then he paused, listened. Turned his head to the doorway to discover that they weren't alone.

Their visitor, the one who had apparently been seeking council with Odin, was hideous, there was no other word for him. He was short, with papery, jaundiced skin, slightly pointed ears, and eyes that were a disturbing shade of yellow. They deepened when he saw Darcy, deepened to nearly the exact color of vomit, she noted with revulsion.

''Oh, interesting to see you both again.'' The stranger's voice was a rattling hiss. ''Loki, you're looking very well, after all of your...misadventures. And here,'' he said, moving alarmingly close to Darcy. ''Such a beauty. Such...a waste.'' His voice took on an eerie quality, then, his ugliness deepened into malevolence.

'Little girl, little girl, trapped in glass and snow. I'd like to keep you there myself, if I could...'' the awful being said around a smile full of ugly, jagged teeth. He reached out a gnarled hand and attempted to touch Darcy's face when Loki quickly got to his feet and moved protectively in front of her. ''I really don't think that would be wise. Do not touch her, ever.'' His voice was full of such venom and ice that Darcy shuddered.

The visitor chuckled, it was an ugly, wet, raspy sound. ''Oh my boy, you were always so filled with conflict. Destruction and passion. Love and death. It screams out to all of the worlds. You're more dangerous than me, than any of us. Because you are capable of too much feeling. It isn't hate that makes you a threat, it never was. Hate is too dry and banal, too beneath you...hate doesn't glow as brightly.''

She really didn't have the faintest idea what he was talking about, but whatever it was, it seemed to only be making Loki more angry.

''I could tell you,'' the old man continued, ''all of the possible outcomes, but then you already know. Somewhere inside, you know.'' He fixed a yellowed eye on Darcy once again, and his expression flickered with a troubling curiosity. ''But does she? I could show her. Everything that was, or could have been...''

''No,'' Loki said. The word was so soft, but full of bile and fury.

''I'm afraid so,'' the visitor insisted with a politeness that held an only thinly disguised malice.

A sudden and very strange feeling overtook Darcy. It was as if someone had wrapped their hands around her head and squeezed. She was hit with a sudden blast of tunnel vision. Her ears rang. There came the sensation of something urgently trying to claw inside of her mind. This wasn't like when her consciousness had so willingly and beautifully melded with Loki's, this was vicious, insistent. It was ugly, and it hurt. No. No. Never again. This place would never have her. She was so tired of nightmares, tired of Asgard. Tired of being played with like a rag doll. And so, she fought it. For Jane, and all the others on Earth who would find their reality suddenly collapsing underneath them. For Loki, and for herself. You cannot let them break you. She pushed back with everything, pulled all her rage and sorrow together. Melded it into a ball of psychic electricity and threw it. A low, surprised shriek echoed in her ears, and then the tunnel vision subsided. The invading force retreated. Darcy came back to herself long enough to see Loki grab the old creature roughly by the throat.

''Listen here. Listen close. I don't care what kind of treaty Odin made with you in the past, and I don't care what your purpose is here now. I promise you that if you so much as look at her ever again, you will need not fear the destruction of the realms, only me. You were right about one thing, I am more dangerous than you.''

Darcy could only watch as Loki dragged the old man over to the window. ''Look there,'' he demanded, pointing to the clouds that swirled in a counterclockwise motion, ghostly shades of illuminated grey-black, at the now-falling snow. ''Do you think I fear this? Did any of you ever truly believe for one moment that this would frighten me?'' He laughed wildly, menacingly, the laugh of a god pushed utterly to his limits. ''This storm is nothing, nothing compared to what I could unleash upon you. What I will unleash upon you if you continue trying to hurt us.'' He released his grip.

The old man looked shaken, yet even uglier and meaner than before. He scowled at Loki and rubbed his throat. ''You really are a bastard, aren't you. Just an absolute menace. You should have been left to die. Spared us all a bit of trouble.''

Darcy closed her eyes and heard his footsteps as he scurried out of the room like a rodent. Could hear Loki breathing, felt him trying to will himself to be calm. The sheer power that had flooded through him was absolutely catastrophic. Yet somehow beautiful. It glowed. She felt him kneel down beside her, pulling her roughly into his arms. ''Thank you for being so brave, for resisting.'' he whispered.

''I just couldn't take it anymore,'' she responded. Adrenaline was still racing through Darcy's veins, her entire body shook with it. It felt good. ''Everyone here feels so entitled to screw with me. Serious boundary issues on Asgard. And that creepy old fuck was just the last straw. I don't think these people are on our side. Something is wrong here. I've had enough, Loki, I really have. I feel it's a trap, somehow.''

Loki thought for a long moment, then replied simply, ''I know it is. But what if we were to wander willingly into that trap?''

''What do you mean?'' asked Darcy, with a quick raise of her eyebrow, studying his expression. Loki seemed younger to her, suddenly. He was like electricity.

''I think that we can trick the universe into repairing itself.''

''See, all of the realms were big into sacrifice back in the day, the bloodier, the better,'' Loki explained as he pulled the door closed, cloistering them safely in his room once again. ''The purer the sacrifice, the greater the result. Tragic, it always needed to be tragic, too. All that opera, and nonsense. I've been trying to figure it out for days, and I had my suspicions, but something that wretched old man said actually helped me confirm them.'' He took a deep breath, then looked her square in the eyes and said, ''I think that we're both meant to be sacrificed as a means of halting the destruction of Yggdrasil.''

This statement hit her like a bullet fired at point blank range. ''What do you mean sacrificed?'' yelped Darcy. Images of stone altars, bloody knives, and burning Wicker Men filled her mind and her stomach churned.

''Nothing quite so violent as anything you might be imagining. For whatever reason, Asgard tends to favor rather twisted psychological torture, or at least that's always been my experience.'' He chuckled, then added, ''Remember what I told you, about how Odin said that my true punishment would reveal itself in time? I think that time is now.''

''So...what is it?'' Darcy ventured, petrified of the answer. ''What's going to happen?''

''A hefty dose of tragedy, my love,'' Loki replied, wrapping his arms around her waist.''Or as you so aptly describe it, gloomy fatalism. When we were back at SHIELD, after the storm first began and Jane fell ill, you were hiding underneath a desk, as I recall, researching Ragnarok. Now naturally, you have gleaned several rare insights into the reality of what Midgardians call 'Norse mythology.' '' He trailed his fingers up over her chest, tapping along the uncomfortable corset as if drumming out a rhythm. ''These garments really are wretched, we should get you out of them. But I digress. You know for a fact that what is written down in your world can, at times, be quite far removed from the truth. So what did you learn? Specifically, what did you learn that you found to be...contradictory?'' He continued to fumble with and poke at the bodice of her gown as he spoke.

She paused a moment, first to smack his hand away, and then to think. ''Well, for one thing, obviously, you've never been married and you don't have any kids. And until the end of the world, you were supposed to be chained up with your-'' Darcy trailed off for a moment. The horror of myth began to slide into sharp clarity, bit by bit. ''Wait. Wait. Your kids! The ones that you don't have, I mean. I think I met one of them. Little girl with a serious complexion problem. Hel.''

''I've met her too, and I swear I had nothing to do with that.'' Loki said, making a face. ''Go on.''

''In my dream,'' Darcy continued wildly. ''I mean, the dream that wasn't a dream. And she told me that my children were dead. My children...our children. And then Ragnarok...'' It all came tumbling together in a terrible rush of understanding. ''Oh no.The pictures in your room, the ones that you drew a long time ago...there was one of a woman holding something up. I couldn't figure out why it bothered me so much but now that I think about the myths it makes sense. I think...I think I'm your wife. Sigyn. At least in this weird version of the story that seems to be playing out.''

Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to introduce Darcy Lewis, quantum freakshow, mythological surrogate and human sacrifice, she thought to herself. And my mom said I'd never amount to anything.

''They cast us in mythological roles as a sacrifice. Life imitating art. It's monstrous. It's poetic, really, I wish I'd thought of it,'' Loki admitted, sounding both disgusted and impressed.

''What do we do?'' This new information, though quite horrific, was actually oddly refreshing. Or rather, it filled her with an energy, a hope. The worst part of the past few days had been the creeping sensation of impending doom, without knowing what would transpire. At least now they knew what they were working with. But with this knowledge also came a pain. How could they do this to us? She wondered. How could Odin even think it?The Norns were clearly more than capable of being cold, vile, and unfeeling, but Odin? And what about Thor? Or Frigga? Had they all known? How long had she and Loki been part of this plan? Darcy's heart ached too much to even entertain the possibility.

Loki let go of her and paced the floor for a moment in thought. ''We're going to have to go a little Shakespearean on them,'' he said. ''We're going to have to 'undertake a thing like death,' so to speak. It might be unpleasant. But it will be temporary. And I will be there with you the entire time.''

''What do you mean?'' Darcy's mind immediately flitted back to high school, when she'd been cast as the Nurse in a production of Romeo and Juliet. On opening night, the kid playing Mercutio had gotten wickedly drunk on a stolen bottle of Schnapps and had thrown up all over her after gleefully relating that ''the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon.'' Since then, Darcy hadn't really cared much for Shakespeare.

''In less than three days,'' began Loki, moving back to once again rest his hands gently on her, pull her close, ''we are going to save everyone by sacrificing ourselves. But only for a minute. Remember when Odin told you that using the Tesseract could work but it needed a vessel to direct the energy? He was talking about me. They intend for me to use the Tesseract, knowing that I'm one of the few beings in all of the universe capable of channeling it, directing it to create a cosmic energetic shift that would reset the balance of the cosmos. But once I have done so, a rift will be created as the energies roll back. The scales have to tip. As the Allfather said, these kind of alterations demand sacrifice. And so I will remain bound in a kind of negative space, in order to hold everything together. It takes care of everything so neatly: I am locked away where I can't cause any more trouble, and more than sufficiently punished for all of my past misdeeds.''

''And what about me?'' Darcy asked. ''Why am I there?''

Loki's fingers reflexively tightened their grip on her waist. ''Because the Healer was right.'' He swallowed quickly and looked at the floor for a moment, the grin falling away from his face. ''I can't reverse it. The connection between our minds. It became too strong. It took on a life of its own. Whatever happens to me will also happen to you. You'd be trapped there with me. And you would have to spend eternity holding up a bowl, mourning for children that you never really had, your mind unable to tell the different between reality and myth. I would have to lie there and burn and know that it was all my fault. Because that is Odin's idea of justice. You are right, my darling, we live in a fucked-up universe.''

''At best it's indifferent, at worst it actively seeks out blood,'' Darcy remembered softly. ''Seeing what the supposed 'good guys' are capable of really makes you look at so-called villains a whole lot differently.''

''I'm not a villain, I'm a rebel, don't you remember?'' He smiled. ''Don't think for a second that I've been an oblivious, silent victim this entire time, either. You never went anywhere alone. Your 'dreams', for example? I was always there, watching.''

''You were?'' Darcy found strange comfort in this.

''I have never trusted a damn word that any of the Norns ever said. They're worse tricksters than I am. They like to manipulate dreams in particular, to create a desired result, make it seem like...fate. So I always kept an eye on you, only intervening if I had to, if you called for me.''

''Oh my god, it's just like Inception.'' Darcy shook her head with a violent understanding. ''I've been incepted. That's...that's disgusting. I feel so violated.''

''Those old witches have been playing you like a marionette ever since you got here. They want you to be scared and disoriented. From here on out you are going to need to be very discerning.'' He leaned down closer, his lips by her ear.

''If we do this, I need you to be brave for me,'' he explained, running a hand through her hair, his breath ghosting over her skin. ''It's going to seem very real.'' His eyes darkened, not in thought, but in desire as his fingers worked slowly at the ties on the back of her dress. She breathed a little faster, he continued speaking. ''I'm fairly certain that with our combined consciousnesses, we should be strong enough to control the energy for this purpose. Exactly sixty seconds will have passed, and in those sixty seconds, the damage to Yggdrasil will begin to reverse itself. The snow will stop. The waters will recede. The earthquakes will cease. Jane and all the others will get well. The stars will reappear.'' Sufficiently loosened, the dress slid off of her shoulders and onto the floor. She sighed as his hands found her bare skin, the sensation so soothing, so welcome. ''It will be very dark. You will think that you're asleep. Then you will hear a sound like water dripping, and it will wake you. That sound will echo, over and over will stand, and you will be very frightened. Trapped in a prison with only the dimmest possible slivers of light, you will panic. Because you will feel exactly what Jane was talking about. Memory and madness will bleed together and blur. It will last for what feels like a very long time. But once that minute is over, we will be restored, safe, and together. And all will be right and merry on each and every last wretched world.''

He slid down her body until he was kneeling on the floor in front of her, trailing kisses along the soft skin of her abdomen as he did so. She couldn't tell if he was trying to distract her from the gravity of what was to come, or to apologize for it, but that didn't matter to Darcy at the moment.

''But why is it going to have to feel like such a long time?'' she asked, gripping a handful of his hair, making him look up at her. ''Can't we just spend a minute there, if that's all it takes?''

''It's as I told you, it only hurts when it's real,'' he said with a grim, lopsided smile. ''And Odin really, really wants it to hurt. Think of it as a rather extreme form of method acting.'' He rested his head against her for a moment, a quiet motion that struck her with its softness and intimacy.

''So where do we go then? After the world tree is fixed, and assuming that we can create some sort of quantum loop and not get stuck there until the next apocalypse?'' She played with the ends of his hair, not really wanting to move. She could easily hold him like this forever.

''We can start wherever you like.''

''Or whenever! Can we do whenever? Travel through time and space like on Dr. Who?'' She giggled, and Loki gave her a crooked look.

''Don't push it, love,'' he warned and then pressed his mouth against her lower abdomen, moving slowly downward, threatening to obliterate her sense of reason. A moan escaped her throat and she yanked on his hair again to halt his movements, pulling him back to look up at her again.

''Not yet, I still have questions.''

''You and your questions, your endless, ill-timed questions,'' he groaned, clutching at her.

''You and your damned tongue and your damned hands,'' she responded, smiling, keeping a tight grip on his hair, keeping his eyes locked with hers. ''Just...just hang on for a second. This is a lot to process, all of a sudden. Won't they suspect that we know something? Or what if this is all part of their plan, and we're just feeding into it? We might think that we can bypass this eternal punishment and get out in a minute, but what if they've already thought of that and they're like 'psych! Got you, bitches, you're here forever, haha.' '' It was a very ugly, very uncomfortable thought.

''Remember when Odin told you something about how you can't find a loophole that doesn't become a slipknot in the end?'' asked Loki.

Darcy nodded.

''Well, luckily, finding loopholes and being one step ahead of just about everyone is what I'm the best at. There's a reason that the Norns and I don't get along. But just to be on the safe side, we are going to have to be very well-prepared. And we may have to do something a little extreme.''

''What is it?'' Darcy asked cautiously, though extremes didn't seem to matter much, given their current situation.

''I can't tell you just yet. But soon.'' He ran his fingers along her thigh. She reached down and slapped his hand away.

''And you really think that this will work?''

He rolled his eyes and growled in frustration. It made her wonderfully warm on the inside, knowing how much he wanted her. She liked to tease him, just a little. And she knew that he secretly liked it, too. ''I think that Odin has seriously overestimated my capacity for rehabilitation,'' he answered. ''And though he's clearly been testing you, he's underestimated you every step of the way. Specifically, your capacity for deviousness.''

''I don't know if I'd call myself devious,'' Darcy replied, though she smiled at the suggestion. ''Maybe a little bit crafty.''

''A little bit crafty, a bit of a bad girl. You do have a wild streak, love, I've witnessed it firsthand.''

''If you're talking about that one night in the window, and I think that you are, I swear I don't know what came over me,'' she said innocently, trying to hide the wicked smile that was creeping at the corners of her mouth.

''I do,'' he replied. ''Me.'' In one sudden, swift movement, Loki had gotten to his feet and lifted Darcy off of hers and into his arms. ''Now, Ms. Lewis, no more of this. As you said, we have about...two and a half days left. But tonight,'' he continued, leaning her down onto the bed and crawling over her, ''tonight, we are just going to have to practice.''

''Practice what?''

''Strengthening our connection, obviously,'' he said, with a roll of his eyes.

''Uh-huh. Are you just trying to seduce me?''

''I don't know. Why, is it working?''

''Maybe,'' she said, and then turned her head away, but she was smiling.

''You won't dream tonight, you won't travel. No more of that. I won't watch you torment yourself again,'' he said, sliding his long cool fingers over her face, threading through her hair, soothing her. ''No more shadows, no more nightmares.'' His fingers traveled down along her neck. ''Just you and I.''

She bit her lip, still trying to mask her smile. ''You have no idea how pretty you are, do you?'' He told her as he pressed a kiss against her clavicle.

''I think that you must, for whatever reason, see me differently than the way I got used to seeing myself,'' Darcy admitted. ''I remember the day that Fury called me into his office and showed your drawings to me. That day, I felt so violated, too. I couldn't believe that this guy was...was interfering like that. In a place that didn't belong to him. It belonged to you and me. And he's there, all eye-patchy and intimidating, essentially telling me what I should or shouldn't be thinking and feeling and doing...I...I actually hated him for that, for just a second. Because I knew how I felt and what I wanted,'' she said, reaching out and smoothing an errant strand of hair back from Loki's face. The warmth of her skin reached every raw space inside of him.

''I liked the way that you saw me. I liked the way that you drew me. I couldn't wait to get home at the end of the day to hide and watch you walk through the door. '' She smiled widely. ''I got felt up by a crazy, enormous Eastern European woman trying to buy lingerie all seductive for you and then right when I get up the nerve, your brother has to come knocking on the door.''

''Ooooh, that was an utter nightmare!'' Loki admitted, covering his face and laughing. ''I very nearly killed him, you have no idea the restraint I had to show. That was a true sacrifice.'' He laughed again and again, and Darcy had never heard anything quite so beautiful in her entire life.

He stretched out on the bed, sliding down and resting his head against her belly.

''I trust you,'' she told him. ''And now, like you said, I have to go with you wherever you go, so maybe in the end, it'll be ok either way. Because I guess, even worst-case scenario, at least we'll be together, and everyone else will be safe.'' She was going to cry, damn it. But the tears didn't hurt this time, somehow. There was no bitterness, only acceptance. ''And I think, no matter what, whether it's sixty seconds or an actual eternity, I can live with that.''