Even with a fan blowing straight on her, Darcy felt like she was boiling in her own skin. If she got a single ounce heavier, she thought she might actually suffocate under her own weight. The only saving grace to all of it was that she no longer had to hide beneath hoodies and blankets, even though she still hadn’t been able to speak about the problem directly. Though bit by bit though, it seemed like Loki’s magic had broken down. Whether it was time and distance between them, or more people figuring out what he didn’t want them to know, she wasn’t sure.

So she sat in the front room, watching re-runs of Judge Judy with every window open, and every fan trying to pull air in. With summer in full swing, every kid in the neighbourhood was outside, doing what neighbour kids did in the summer. As they played, their screams and shouts grew louder, and as they grew louder, she turned up the TV volume more and more.

Nothing about what she was doing was how she’d ever planned on spending her final summer before graduation, but at this point, not even graduation was in the cards. She’d never be able to go back to school. There were too many things to figure out. Too many things she’d never be able to figure out. So before her life turned to constant chaos and hell, she was determined to be as lazy and indulgent as possible. Which at the moment meant watching Judge Judy and picking at the bottom of a Ben & Jerry’s container.

SHIELD had at least finally stopped sending their goons around, but Darcy knew that only meant they’d stopped being obvious about it. Some part of her occasionally thought they were using her for bait, while another part wondered if they were waiting around to be right there when she went into labour. That was the next thing to get past. She didn’t know what was going to happen then. She didn’t trust SHIELD any farther than she could spit, and knew they were cooking up plans of their own.

But that was Future Darcy’s problem. Future Darcy had a lot on her plate that Current Darcy couldn’t do anything about even if she knew what to do. So Current Darcy’s plan was ice cream and crap TV while she tried to survive the summer, having once again given up on trying to do anything at all.

Finally accepting that her ice cream was completely gone, she hauled herself to her feet, struggling to free herself from the evil clutches of the sofa, and waddled her ass over to the kitchen. She felt even bigger on her feet than she had slouched down in the sofa, and wondered if it was possible to actually burst like the beach ball she felt like. As she tossed the ice cream container into the trash, the TV abruptly changed programming. She spun round as quickly as she could without knocking herself or anything around her over, finding the feed interrupted by a frantic news broadcast. At first, she thought the scene on the TV was some sort of riot, but quickly realised it was much worse than that. Washington DC was under siege, with armed military response rolling through the streets in tanks, along with coordinated attacks in Nevada and New York.

Suddenly, Darcy was thirteen years old again, standing in the same spot watching looped footage of destruction after being sent home from school. She felt sick, watching the all-too familiar scene play out. After a long moment of numb shock, she ran over to the window to peer out toward the direction of Manhattan, but the view from the house was only the back lot that allowed people to park off the narrow street. She ran up the stairs to her parents room, carefully navigating each step, and rushed to the window. But even that wasn’t high enough to see beyond the other houses behind them. She strained to see anything she could, but there was nothing to see within her line of sight. All she could see was the rest of her Astoria neighbourhood, quiet and calm like always. Instead, she rushed back downstairs to find her phone, and immediately dialled her mother.

Just like before, the lines were completely jammed. She tried to send a text, but even that failed. New York had apparently learned nothing after the last time the city’s communications network collapsed.

Unsure what else to do, Darcy fetched her laptop and sent an email to both her parents. Neither worked in Manhattan, which was where the primary attack seemed to be focused, but she had no idea what Staten Island or the Bronx looked like. Unable to breathe while seconds ticked by, she watched her email do nothing while the news report frantically carried on from the other room. She was barely listening, catching snippets about portals of light and monsters. She didn’t need to hear anything else. On some level, buried deep and ignored, she had expected this, though it made it no less terrifying. The psychotic bastard had kept every horrible promise he’d ever made. When he said he was going to come back and raze cities in revenge, he’d meant it. And the locations he’d picked hadn’t been a coincidence. Darcy knew that. She’d spent two weeks teaching him now to navigate her world. She’d taught him how their money and transportation worked, and how to spot a cop. With his magic working as intended, he could have been on Earth for months, hiding away and making his plans, and nobody would have ever known.

He must have found his Dragon Line after all.

And then he must have come back. Nevada wasn’t a coincidence. Darcy had suspected that’s where SWORD had taken him, and now she knew as some base she’d never heard of out in the desert had been reduced to a hole in the ground. SHIELD were headquartered in DC, and he’d sworn vengeance upon them as well.

But New York? Nothing was headquartered there. Nothing except Tony Stark, and his equally psychotic flying suit of armour. And Darcy. She didn’t live in Manhattan, but New York was New York at the end of the day.

She watched and waited, and finally her email refreshed itself to reveal a message from her mother, short and frantic, but a response. She was okay, which was all Darcy wanted to hear. It was enough to break her out of her trance and move back to the living room, taking her laptop with her. While she waited for a response from her dad, she watched in sickened horror as the news showed images of exactly what she’d already come to expect. Fantasy creatures straight out of a fucking Lord of the Rings novel were overrunning cities and armies alike, riding flying cats and unicorns. Loki had talked about elves, but Darcy’s mind refused to conceptualise it. Seeing it on her TV finally made it real. Shots of Tony Stark and the giant, green monster that had obliterated Culver filled her screen as they both tried to deal with an army of elves in their own way. But as the screen flashed images while a harried anchor tried to keep up, Darcy found herself watching for something else. Elves and cats and unicorns were the focus, but she knew who their leader was. Despite knowing who she was looking for, Darcy didn’t see a single hint of him amongst the carnage. Though she did see one thing that surprised her. One thing she hadn’t expected to see at all. First it was just a flash of colour so quick, she barely believed it. But another shot was clear as day, as Thor battered magic-casting elves with his hammer.

The sight of him made her sick with resentment. Where had he been earlier? Where had he been while Loki was dragging her half way across the world? Why hadn’t he put a stop to this sooner? Why had he waited until the whole damn thing had got out of hand?

He could have stopped it sooner. He should have stopped it sooner. And that he hadn’t made it all his fault as well. Maybe not directly, but his own inaction made him culpable. Watching him swing his hammer around, she wondered how much he already knew. How much he had known. She wondered if he’d only shown up now because this was when Loki finally crossed a line.

Jane had been so smitten with him. Darcy couldn’t imagine what Thor might be like behind closed doors. Crazy didn’t fall too far from the crazy apple tree, after all.

Watching it unfold should have been horrifying. It should have been impossible to comprehend and accept. But gods and aliens and monsters had been part of Darcy’s life for months. She had watched them fall out of the sky, and had to deal with transferring classes because the Jolly Green Giant had smashed up half her campus.

She had been kidnapped by one, and spent weeks listening to him talk about doing exactly what she was seeing play out before her. And watching it all happen in real time, high definition made her wonder once more what might have happened if she’d kept up. If Loki might have still done this if she were there to distract him.

Part of her thought she might have been able to redirect his attentions elsewhere. The rest of her knew she wouldn’t have made a difference.

She looked down at her laptop and saw another reply. This time her dad, stranded out on Staten Island while everything went to hell. Like the response from her mother, his was short, frantic, and direct. He was safe, and Darcy should stay where she was.

She didn’t need to be told twice. There was no way in hell she was going out into that. No way in hell she was going anywhere at all. But a thought did occur to her. A creeping suspicion she had harboured for months came back, slowly engulfing her with a sense of all-too familiar dread. Darcy had never truly figured out why SHIELD had let her go. Not when she was so involved with Loki, and had something both he and SHIELD would want. And yet, they had sent her back out into the world, occasionally making it known that they were still around.

Now, more than ever, Darcy wondered if she was bait. She got up and moved to peer out the window, careful hide behind the giant box fan as much as possible. Sure enough, two big, black SUVs that belonged to nobody in the neighbourhood were parked on the opposite side of the street, about thirty feet away from one another. She moved away from the window and walked back to her bedroom, peering again through the window that looked out over the lot behind them. Two more SUVs that didn’t look like they belonged to anyone she knew were suspiciously parked back there as well, ensuring every angle of the house was being watched.

She should have seen all of this coming, and she supposed part of her did. But she’d been too busy focusing on the what-ifs to think about the eventualities and foregone conclusions. Loki kept all of his promises; especially the horrible ones. She knew that, and she wasn’t surprised by any of it. But surprise wasn’t necessary for the rising flood of fear that slowly overtook her. She had spent so much time wondering what might had happened if she’d kept up. What might have happened if he’d taken her with him.

He was always going to leave her behind. Watching Tony Stark get batted around by a giant cat, Darcy realised that. She would have been in the way of Loki’s revenge. She’d have been a distraction, and she damn sure would have tried to be. But he kept all of his promises, and he had sworn revenge. He could have probably disappeared on his own at any point during their final days together, but he’d been dragging her along for what? To confuse her? To make sure he got as much information from her as possible? Darcy had given him all the resources he needed to do this. He sat by quietly and watched as she and members of the Rising Tide discussed hacks and leaks and stole things from secure databases. She let him fiddle around with her laptop in the name of keeping him occupied. He knew how every aspect of their transportation system worked, how their communications worked. In two weeks of being dragged all over hell and creation, Loki had learned everything he would have needed to know to infiltrate any system he wanted. He could change his face to be anyone else, change his voice and his language, and he’d never be spotted.

For so many months, he’d been gone. And he could have been back on Earth the entire time for all she knew.

The targets weren’t an accident. He’d found out where he’d been kept in Nevada. He’d found out where SHIELD was headquartered. And he must have found out about the armour-wearing psychopath in Midtown, and deemed him and his pals worthy enough of a threat to distract them on their home turf.

This wasn’t like watching the news when she was thirteen years old. When she was thirteen years old, watching lower Manhattan descend into chaos, it was like watching a dream; some detached reality she had nothing to do with. This wasn’t the same. She wasn’t detached. She was responsible. Maybe not directly, but everything she had done during those two weeks in January had led to this. And there was no turning back. She thought about running out to one of those SUVs on the street and throwing herself into the back seat, but she couldn’t force herself to move. She was glued to the sofa, able to only watch on TV the horror and carnage that played out before her. All because she’d tried to help someone who needed it.