Blackness, deep like the inside of a cave but restless, somehow, not still, swirling around her like a hurricane, or is she the one spinning?
She cannot see, cannot hear, cannot cry out for help. Her body surges, and even in the encapsulating darkness it feels blinding, her mind supplying her with images of dark-red light even though she can see nothing.
"Jane? Wake up."
It feels – it feels almost lustful, the sheer energy coursing through her, crackling sharply beneath her fragile skin and wrapping burning tendrils around her heart and mind. It whispers in her ear of untapped potential, of a strength like no other that could be unleashed at any moment, if she would only let it happen.
"Jane, this is starting to freak me out. Wake up!"
But it is dangerous, she knows this. She is not meant to have it, and yet it is within her, as much a part of her as her own soul. Stronger than she could ever be alone. Wielding this she feels… like a goddess. Some omnipotent being that could breathe a universe into existence as easily as she could erase one.
Something begins to slip into the edges of her vision. Light, true light, not the dim, bloody glimmerglow that's blinding her. She cowers from it, fearing what will come with it. No, no, leave me here, let me stay, please –
Someone is shaking her by the shoulder, someone with small, cold hands that cling tightly, fearfully –
Jane Foster opens her eyes, and immediately regrets it. The light is blinding, burning, but there's someone next to her, stopping her from turning away.
"Jane, thank God. No, no, don't shut your eyes again!" A face swims into view above her, like a mirage. A mirage with glasses, and long brown hair that tickles her face.
"D'rcy?" She blinks hard, trying hard to focus, but after each consecutive blink, her eyes become less and less willing to open up again. The bloody, red-black light is still there, shimmering faintly if she looks hard enough for it.
Darcy slaps her face. Not hard, but it's enough to startle her into some form of wakefulness. She pushes her friend away and struggles to sit up. Big mistake. The room spins around her and a rough, dull ache sweeps through her whole body. She groans, and buries her face in her hands. Her skin is hot, even to her own touch. She swears under her breath, and feels Darcy's hand come to rest against her bare shoulder.
"You okay?" It's not a question she feels like answering, given that this is the furthest she has been from okay in her life, but she nods anyway, hating the lie but still not wanting to entertain the possibility that there could be something wrong. Even though this has been going on for too long now to be anything but a problem.
There's a glass of water in her hands, and it takes her far too long to figure out how it could have gotten there. Drinking feels like swallowing ice, and it makes her shiver without doing anything to quench the fire within her.
"You were asleep for ages this time. Eighteen hours." Jane nearly chokes. "This is the first time either of us have been able to wake you up. I would've thought you were in a coma or something, if not for the snoring and all." She's teasing now, trying to make light of the situation, but Jane silences her with a wave of the hand, too busy trying to process what she's heard to even take notice of the jibe.
"Eighteen hours?" she repeats, her voice scratchy and hollow even after the water. Darcy nods, her quizzical expression suddenly turning grave. "Then it's…" There's a wave of sudden vertigo, strong enough to cut her off. "…Then it's getting worse."
At first, it had been nothing of note. She'd felt worn to the bone at the end of their last escapade, but as far as she was concerned, that was normal and to be expected after hopping between three different Realms and saving the Universe. The fatigue she felt in the days following it was chalked up to the same thing, a theory supported by the fact that it went away.
Until it came back with a vengeance. She found herself retiring to bed earlier and earlier each night, and subsequently waking up later and later, heedless of the many alarms she set on her phone in an attempt to combat the issue. More often than not she found herself nodding off where she sat, whether she was working or simply watching TV. Her waking hours became a struggle, wrapped in an exhaustion that she tried to alleviate with a probably-lethal combination of extra-strong coffee and endless supplies of energy drinks. The excessive caffeine left her jittery and trembling, but did nothing whatsoever to her constant state of near-exhaustion.
It had only become notably bad in the last few days, though. Constant fatigue had become par for the course. Lapsing in and out of consciousness practically every half hour? Not so much. And the unwelcome arrival of an impossibly-high fever was just the icing on top of a really, really lousy cake.
"It's because of the Aether, isn't it?" It's the first time either of them have given actual voice to the possibility, and hearing it out loud frightens Jane more than anything that's happened so far.
But then, even in the midst of her panic, her drifting thoughts snag on something, on the smallest detail concealed within Darcy's speech.
"Either of you? Is Erik still here?" Her memories of her last wakeful period were hazy at best , but she was pretty sure she remembered Selvig leaving. Although that could have been a dream. Or a hallucination. She'd had plenty of both lately, and it was becoming harder to distinguish them from reality.
Darcy's eyes turn shifty. In all of her time spent with the bright, bubbly intern, the shifty look always spelled trouble. Jane has no time to sigh, roll her eyes or wearily demand what did you do this time? before somebody else appears in the doorway. Somebody who is definitely not Erik Selvig.
Any other time she would be happy to see him. But right now she's a little preoccupied with feeling like death warmed over and she doesn't have the energy in her for a reunion.
Thor crosses the room in four easy strides and bends to clasp her hands in his. He feels soothingly cool and she aches to put her arms around him, but she is suddenly painfully aware that she hasn't showered in a few days. Or brushed her hair; it just hangs around her face in limp, unruly tangles. She sighs ruefully. Yeah, this could be better.
She tears herself out of her self-pitying for long enough to skewer Darcy, who has hopped off of the bed to stand a respectful distance away, with a look that would have been enough to melt steel if she hadn't been feeling so weak.
"What?" Darcy squeaks, holding up her hands. "I didn't call him here or anything, he just showed up!"
Thor's hands tighten a little around hers. "Heimdall informed me that you were unwell," he said softly. "I thought it best to come at once."
"You didn't…" Damn, why is it so hard to speak now? "I mean, thanks, but you didn't have to come all this way."
"It was no trouble," he tells her brightly. "Asgard is still in safe hands, after all. And even if it were not, I would sooner lose a war than pass up an opportunity to visit you." He kisses her then, on the forehead, but draws back immediately, a look of alarm dawning on his face.
"I know," she murmurs before he can say anything.
"Have you seen a doctor?" Jane exchanges a glance with Darcy, both of them rolling their eyes in response to the question.
"A couple of weeks ago, yeah. He ran some tests, took some blood. Told me it was probably just a virus or something. Fluids, rest, all that nonsense. Obviously, it didn't work." Thor nods, muttering something under his breath of which she only catches a couple of words, one of which is primitive. She can't help but smile a little at that, recalling his not-so-pleasant experience in New Mexico. After being hit by her car.
He still looks less than reassured, so she tells him the same thing she has been telling herself, mantra-fashion, for weeks. "I think I'll be okay, though. Give it a few days." If it fails to convince him, he does not say, and she is thankful for that.
"While I am here, though, is there anything at all you need?" Jane thinks. This is the most awake she's been in a few days, and only one truly desperate need springs to mind.
"A shower," she says in a small voice. Darcy heaves a melodramatic sigh of relief, touching a hand to her chest, and it's only her lack of physical strength that stops Jane from launching a pillow at her.
God, Thor actually has to help her stand and walk the scant hundred yards from her bedroom to the bathroom, and standing only serves to remind her of how long it has been since she's done so. Every part of her body feel stiff and achy, but some warm water will definitely put a stop to that.
The painted doorframe is a touchstone; she reaches eagerly for it, clinging tightly whilst gently shrugging Thor off. "I'm good from here. Thank you." He withdraws obediently, though his eyes never leave her as she shoulders the door open and gropes for the light switch.
"Call for me if you need anything," he instructs her through the door.
"You'll probably hear me if I fall over," she quips in response, not wanting to dwell on the likelihood of that happening.
The door closes, and Jane turns to confront her reflection in the mirror. It's worse than she thought. Even when she disregards the oily, tangled mess that is her hair, she looks truly awful. Pale enough to rival the floor tiles, dull-eyed and hollow-cheeked. She pulls her tank top over her head, peering down intently at herself. It might just be the harsh light, but her collarbones look way too pronounced for her liking, and she can see the suggestions of her ribcage through the papery skin of her torso.
When did I last eat? This final piece of physical evidence of her deteriorating condition is enough to truly frighten her. This is no mere malaise, to be slept off and caffeinated into oblivion. This is illness, real and tangible.
Jane hurriedly turns on the shower, letting the roar of the water drown out all further thoughts. Steam kisses her face, and she moans in anticipation. She almost loses her footing stepping into the shower, and it takes a seconds-long age of frantically-pinwheeling arms and a racing heartbeat to regain her balance. The water burns her bare skin for a moment, enough to make her gasp, but then her muscles relax and her eyes close and it is the closest thing to bliss she has felt in ages.
It's glowing again, in her peripheral vision, like spilled blood but darker, and yet somehow still giving off a light of its own. Something inside of her hurts at the sight, like a stab wound convulsing around a blade that has long since been pulled free.
Shampoo. Rinse. Regret not brushing hair beforehand. Repeat.
The memory of the Aether somehow hurts more than the Aether itself ever did, phantom strength pulsing at her core, leaving her burning in its wake. She fights to breathe around it where it is nestled in her ribcage, feels her blood force itself to pulse through veins that are already crowded with energy.
Her eyes flash open in shock. The vision is gone but she still can't quite breathe. Her heart is racing in her chest, hummingbird beats making her dizzy. Jane holds out for long enough to rinse the last of the shampoo out of her hair, before conceding that she might have overdone it a bit. Before she can even grab a towel, the world tilts sharply on its axis, spilling her onto the tiles, slick with condensation. Her hands scrabble for purchase, and her stomach lurches alarmingly.
Oh, great. That's the last thing I need right now.
There's a bitter taste on her tongue; she fights not to gag, clawing her way inch by impossible inch towards the toilet. Her stomach is mostly empty, so there's not much to expel, but what does come up is red. Red like the Aether, only far too human.
Jane cries out, muffling it with her hand too late, scrambling back away from the horrific sight. Her head is truly spinning now, and between that and the nausea she's all but immobilised, clutching her head in her hands.
"Jane?" Thor's voice, from the corridor, raised in panic. Oh, no! She tries to stand up, but the floor is not steady enough beneath her feet, and she ends up sprawled again, shivering with a sudden, aggressive chill.
"Jane!" The door bursts open before she can say a word to stop him, and then he's beside her. In a moment of laughable humiliation, she remembers she is naked, but Thor is surprisingly unbothered, merely grabbing a towel and wrapping it around her. She nods her thanks, feeling her consciousness once more start to slip. His hand cups her face in an attempt to keep her attention, and she feels him stiffen as he no doubt catches sight of the blood on her lips.
"Thor…" Her voice is a ragged whisper. He says nothing in response, only holds her tighter. And that is how she knows that this is serious. Thor is afraid for her. His arm slips beneath hers; he slowly hauls her upright, allowing her to lean on him when she can't find the strength to walk.
The corridor is darker than she remembers it, drenched in shifting shadow, but she can see Darcy there, frozen in place, eyes huge and frightened behind her glasses.
Everything starts to happen in a rush after Thor kicks the door in. It's too long before he emerges, a pale, shaking Jane in tow. There's blood on her chin, and Darcy immediately thinks the worst. And all she can do is stand there, frozen in place, watching it happen. Jane's eyes, bloodshot and glassy, meet hers for the briefest of moments, but there's nothing at all in them.
"What happened?" she makes herself ask, not expecting an answer. Thor sits Jane, towel and all, back on the bed, and begins pulling clean clothes out of the closet, passing them to Darcy in a haphazard bundle.
"Help me get her dressed," he commands in a voice tight and rigid with fear. If Thor is afraid too, this must be bad.
Still, she does as she's told, awkwardly trying to coax her friend into a pair of thick leggings, hands shaking so badly it's a wonder she can complete the task at all. Jane just watches listlessly, shivering so convulsively Darcy almost thinks she's having a seizure. With this in mind, she grabs a warm sweater from the heap Thor all but threw at her, and pulls it over Jane's head. Her hair is wet, sweet-smelling, dripping cold all down her shoulders and back. Darcy picks up the discarded towel, and tries to dry her hair a little. Jane coughs, without warning, and suddenly there's more blood in her palm. It's all Darcy can do not to start weeping at the sight.
Thor scoops Jane up into his arms, heedless of the blood still dripping from her mouth, and carries her from the apartment. Darcy follows blindly.
"Where are you going?" Her voice is tiny in the dark hallway, Thor's purposeful footfalls threatening to drown it out completely. But he hears her, somehow.
"I have to get her to Asgard," he says, urgency in his tone like nothing she's ever heard before. He doesn't explain further, but Darcy can guess. Jane is far beyond the help of human medicine.
He takes the stairs two at a time; she almost falls trying to follow suit.
The wind is harsh out in the parking lot, not particularly cold, but she can imagine what it's doing to Jane, who instinctively huddles up tighter in Thor's arms. Darcy reaches out to squeeze her hand in wordless comfort. Her skin is on fire.
"Heimdall," Thor says, not shouting. Darcy steps back, knowing what to expect. Then there's a moment of channelled, brilliant light, and a roaring that drowns out all but the frightened pounding of her own heart. Then, nothing.
Darcy is left alone.
She waits until the symbol burned into the ground stops smouldering. Then she turns on her heel and walks back indoors, because it's dark, and it's getting cold, and there really isn't much else she can do.
I'm not going to say much here, in case I accidentally give away more than I want to. So, to be brief, this is the first of three parts, which will hopefully be uploaded at regular-ish intervals. This is all I actually have written so far, but I know exactly where I'm going with it, so the next part should be up pretty swiftly. Unless I feel like torturing you all for a few more days...
Anyway, please feel free to comment and leave feedback, as always constructive criticism would be gratefully accepted. (Especially if you spot a typo, I seem to be making a lot of those lately...)