Darcy Lewis was making a total jack-ass of herself in Central Park. At a different time in her life, she might have cared, but she'd just turned 31, and her supply of fucks was running dangerously low.
In the nine years since the frankly life-altering events of Puente Antiguo, her already nebulous plans for the future had, well, gone down the shitter. She'd only had six credits to go before being an official college graduate (which by the measuring stick she'd grown up with, qualified a person as a real, fully functional, adult member of society), but somehow she'd never found the time to actually finish them up.
In her own defense, it was hard to find time to study and go to class between saving the world and making sure Jane ate something that wasn't made entirely of chemicals.
Which brings us back around to making a jack-ass of herself. Turning thirty last year had been something of a wake-up call, especially since her mom had ended up in the hospital. Taking it as a sign, she'd enrolled back into college and was now one single solitary credit shy of finally being done with her illustrious college career. All that remained was to give one final presentation for that group of freakazoids in her class and the crazy old coot with tenure who was her professor. A presentation she would really prefer to ace, even if she'd sort of taken the class as a kind of a throw away. (She should have learned her lesson from Home Ec in high school that there was no such thing in the educational system.) Norse Mythology 101. Because how hard could it be when she basically lived with it? Turned out, it was pretty damned hard.
Hubris would absolutely be the end of her.
So here Darcy was, seated in the shade of a majestic elm on this fine spring day with JARVIS critiquing her performance. There were undoubtedly better methods of practice, but public humiliation tended to sear the most minute of details into her brain, so it was particularly effective. Also, if she'd been forced, yet again, to skip out on being able to enjoy a single, measly hour of yet another beautiful spring day, she might've actually started screaming and never stopped, so there was that, too.
She'd done ok so far, the words came quickly and correctly until she got to the bits about Loki. Darcy hadn't been a fan to begin with, and living in his general vicinity hasn't worked a miracle and endeared him to her. He was a self-centered jerk in real life (albeit a handsome one with a wicked sense of humor when he forgot about the stick in his ass), and he came across as ten times worse in mythology. Which was all (or mostly) fake, she realized that, but she was ready to believe nearly anything about him, especially since the whole prank war she'd accidentally started.
(His was the face she had increasingly seen in her head in those lonely, dark hours at night, when her fingers crept furtively up her thighs, though it shamed her enough that she would never, could never admit it.)
She waved a bee away from her face again, trying not to hurt it, but not interested in being stung, either.
Perhaps it was a combination of the insistently curious bee and the alarms sounding from her watch, tablet and phone that completely distracted her from her surroundings.
Darcy realized she was late dropping off the time-sensitive science sample for Jane, the errand she'd been sent on in the first place, and there was a moment where she regretted how entwined her life was with Jane's. She came within spitting distance of resenting that Jane's work was so all-important. It was drowned out quickly, that horrible miasma of impotent jealousy, with an inescapable feeling of impending doom. The panic was lightning quick, firing bolts down her neurons; shitshitshit she's nowhere near prepared - she's going to flunk - she's never actually going to graduate - she's never going to progress - it's going to rain - that sound - what is that awful sou -
The blinding pain in her head disoriented her. Though she didn't smell burnt toast, she was certain that she'd had a stroke, but that diagnosis could have been her hypochondria rearing its head. Something wet trickled down her face.
The spring afternoon, once so bright, dimmed even further, or maybe it was just her? The ground accelerated alarmingly towards her -
The grass was far more prickly under her cheek than it had been under her palms earlier. The pain faded, along with the daylight, the pounding in her chest slowing, slowing, and suddenly all Darcy felt was miffed.
She'd honestly thought her death would have been a touch more dramatic.
A set of fingers snapped in her face.
Startled, she automatically took a step back, stumbling a little, and her ankle rolled, crunchy, under her own weight. Darcy kept herself upright by sheer force of will, teeth gritted with determination and did not wince. She was not going to show weakness, not now, not ever, and certainly not in front of this guy.
This guy, of course being the immaculate, sentient goatee, Tony Stark, who looked annoyed while literally tapping his foot. "Well, do you?"
Darcy had no idea how she got here, much less what he'd asked her, but she was not about to tell him that. "Of course," she scoffed.
"It's your ass if this doesn't work," Tony scolded as she made a tentative move forward.
Pain shot through her ankle, but she did not wobble. Darcy gripped the strap of her backpack, knuckles white, and walked sedately down the hallway, as if she had not a care in the world. Tony's voice buzzed around her, as if to ensure that she knew he was there. That was what he did. Talktalktalk. She ignored him to the best of her ability, just let the flow of his words wash over her, since it was all she could manage to get to the lab without collapsing into a blubbering heap.
She'd been dead, or some weird dream approximation, less than five minutes ago, and she wasn't sure how she'd ended up here, but it was possible she was in actual, literal Hell.
Darcy did not slam the door in Tony Stark's face. The door was an automatic, hydraulically powered piece of state of the art equipment. To have slammed it was an impossibility. It was, however, possible that her hip might have bumped the manual lock button, but who's to say exactly?
She turned and pretended that she hadn't noticed that Iron Man himself was locked on the other side of a bulletproof glass door for at least five minutes.
The lab was not in total chaos. More like a mild pandemonium. And this was why Jane needed her, to keep the crazy contained, to keep the lab running, to smooth out the kinks. (To feed and water her, like a particularly picky and mobile plant). Darcy trundled through the tangled wires and metal bobs and bits, nearly falling on her ass at least four times. All the while her ankle throbbed in time with her pulse, increasingly frantic. Darcy only needed to drop off the godforsaken backpack -
Was that her Norse Mythology textbook?
Fucking goddamnit, she'd looked all over for it, and there it was serving as a prop to hold up a - was that a freaking laser?
And sure, JARVIS had downloaded a copy of her heretofore missing textbook to her StarkTab, but she liked books. Real books. With paper and ink. She liked the squeak of a highlighter across a sentence, the way her hand cramped from making itty-bitty little notes in the margins, using post-it notes as bookmarks. Sue her.
As she looked around for the person who was both her boss and her best friend, Darcy tried to remember that latter fact.
Who was currently on fire. Granted, it was limited to a gentle smoldering on the cuffs of her overlong sleeves, carelessly hanging over her fireproof welding gloves, but the fact remained: Jane was on fire.
Did Darcy have to do everything around here?
As she turned to grab one of the many, conveniently placed fire extinguishers, she got a face full of fire retardant foam. Wiping her face off, she saw DUM-E whirring in a circle as it's gears whined. The bot waved a fire extinguisher in what could only a gesture of victory, and Darcy wondered absently exactly how much trouble she'd get into if she did some 'tinkering' of her own.
Enough of the foam hit Jane to smother the proto-flames, as well as to alert the scientist to the presence of another human being. As Jane smiled at Darcy, the level of annoyance Darcy felt skyrocketed; her eye twitched, her pulse raced, her hands clenched. She shoved it down, boxed it up, because it was pointless to feel so aggravated. It wasn't even Jane's fault, her circumstances. Darcy chose this. Darcy was normally, if not happy, then content with this.
She held the backpack out by the left strap, watched as Jane's eyes lit up, watched and knew the precise second when everything else fell away for Jane. Darcy should have probably told her boss to eat, to have some water at the very least, but she didn't. It had only been a few hours since the last poptart, and insisting would be a pointless affair at this juncture.
There was a swoosh as the door opened, and Darcy made herself small, unobtrusive. It was honestly not hard to not be noticed by Tony and Jane. Not when there was a spiffy new science toy to play with. Darcy wished fervently that she was elsewhere, anywhere else, with anybody else. She would even voluntarily go to the other side of the lab, if only so she could escape from the Jane and Tony show for, like, five minutes. Maybe even ten. She needed to figure out what was wrong with her head.
It occurred to her:
It had to be Loki.
How hadn't she figured it out before?
It hadn't been an elaborate daydream. It wasn't a psychotic break. Loki was fucking with her. Had to be.
She looked across the lab, to the section that was so clearly his, it might as well have been demarcated with a green velvet rope.
It was Darcy's bad luck that he was looking at their side of the lab at that precise moment.
Their eyes met.
Look away, the flight response in her head pipes up helpfully.
LOOK AWAY, the flight response screamed when she didn't.
The so-familiar mess of the lab fell away.
She was in her room? Only, it can't be her room. It can't. Her mom had moved three years ago, to a smaller apartment in a better neighborhood. A nice couple from Korea lived there now, with their adorable little boy. It's not possible, but the walls are that familiar splotchy lavender, an accident from back when she'd outgrown the pink and wanted blue. That was her bed, that narrow bunk above her desk. It was as messy as she remembered, strewn with papers and multicolored pens and text books.
Her fingers itched to trace the cracked spines of the tidy rows of paperbacks lining the shelves. Even her posters were up -
Loki's face in a variety of permutations and expressions have replaced the faces of her teenaged selves idols. She could admit, if only to herself, that Loki looked just as alluring in a cream silk cone bra as Madonna had back in the day.
What do you want?
His voice was in her head, and she wanted to rage. She wanted to rip everything in this horrible nightmare of bone-deep familiarity to shreds, but she couldn't. Her limbs were as heavy and useless as if they've been encased in concrete. She couldn't even look down at herself.
Do you want a different life?
It's not real. It's no more real then the park.
It was not real.
Do you want a life without Jane?
There was a part of her that wanted that more than anything.
There was a part of her that recoiled from the very thought.
Loki was there, as suddenly as if he'd always been there, and she had just been too stupid to notice earlier.
He smiled, so beautiful, so dreadful, it made her organs and bones itch under her skin.
Jane sat at his feet, fiddling with a strangely liquid, completely improbable 32-sided Rubiks icosidodecahedron (a word that burbled forth from deep within her subconscious). Darcy couldn't see Jane's face through the curtain of her friend's shiny, honey colored hair, but she knew what she'd see there anyway - rapturous concentration. Loki reached down negligently, rubbing a curl of Jane's hair through long, thin fingers. Jane didn't seem to notice, as her fingers flicked and turned the toy in her hand over and over again, colors Darcy didn't know the name of changing too fast for her eyes to track.
His voice was still in her head, though his mouth remained frozen in that terrible parody of a grin.
I can give you an opportunity to get her back, if that's truly what you want.
Loki withdrew his hand from Jane's hair, smelling his fingertips with a gesture that set Darcy's gut churning. He snapped, and her best friend was gone.
Darcy was not prepared for the surge of emotion inside. It pressed up against her skin, against the invisible hold on her body, and she can, she will get Jane back, she simply needed to -
His laughter in her ears was infectious in his delight, rich with amusement. Her fingers were around his throat, squeezing with every single bit of strength she could muster. (She remembered the years of playing instruments like the clarinet and piano, the long nights pounding at her laptops keyboard, glorying in her superiority over the piss-ants who challenged her online, she remembered the stress-ball she squeezed over and over and over -)
He slipped away like sand spilling through her clenching fists, and still he smiled.
You might actually make it through this.
He sounded bemused. Her hands flexed convulsively on empty air.
But let's keep it interesting, shall we?
She whipped around, looking for him.
I can afford to be generous, though. You're only mortal, after all.
Darcy swallowed and rubbed her hand down her face, the absence of her glasses startling. She hadn't worn contacts in years; they made her eyes watery -
You have thirteen hours, Darcy Lewis.
She wanted to say, For what?, but her voice was still uncooperative, lodged in her trachea like a stone, and all the happened was that her mouth shaped the words without sound.
His breath tickled her ear, "Why, to get to the center of the Labyrinth, of course."