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The Unnamed Days

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The railing felt cool beneath her fingers, flecks of peeling paint catching in the nervous scratch of nails. She shifted along. Dogs had never really been her thing. She’d never been a cat person, either. In fact pets had never been high on her list of priorities, but that probably wasn’t the only reason why the scene before her felt quite this weird.

“Are you sure that’s safe?” she asked finally, wincing on the words as soon as they left her mouth. He didn’t seem bothered by them, and in fact smiled as he leaned further into the mesh wiring. The creature on the other side curved closer, great maw in a grotesque parody of a smile as the small eyes closed, the swell of its abdomen vibrating with something oddly close to a purr.

“He seems to be enjoying it,” Thor said mildly, and Jane couldn’t help but tilt her head sideways, her own arms firmly crossed over her chest.

“Are you sure it’s a he?”

The zookeeper at Jane’s side chuckled, though the faint nervous air hadn’t left her since Thor had decided to stick his hand through the barrier and actually pet the miserable-looking creature inside. “We haven’t got that far yet. We were hoping your friend could tell us, actually.”

Curving his hand, Thor followed the line of one of the creature’s great mandibles. From the way it crowded closer yet, it apparently enjoyed the attention. “Unfortunately, I have met but one of these beasts before, and that only briefly.”

“And?”

His hand stilled on the horned ridges of its thickened skin, head bowing forward so that she could not quite make out the expression upon his face. “I…put my hammer through its head.”

“I’m guessing it didn’t appreciate that,” the keeper remarked with clear disapproval, and Thor gave a half-hearted chuckle. Still, when he looked up, there was a faint sparkle in his eyes.

“It did not do much for its mental faculties, no.”

Shifting from one foot to the other, the woman frowned again at where Thor still touched the creature; Jane could understand it, though it was pretty hard to argue basic animal safety with an alien prince who could call down lightning with a hammer no-one else could lift. “But you do know something about where it is from, then?”

“Not in any great detail, no, though it was upon its homeworld that I met one of this creature’s kin. It was a much larger specimen.” Even the faintest vestiges of amusement fled his expressive features then, entire great body going very still. The creature made an unhappy noise and butted its head against his hand, though Thor’s eyes had gone distant and strange when he spoke next. “Laufey unleashed one upon our company.”

“Laufey?” Jane repeated, curling her tongue about the unfamiliar word. If possible, Thor stilled even further.

“The former King of Jötunheimr.” Again, the creature gave an unhappy whine that sounded oddly like a puppy denied his master’s attention; Thor rubbed an open palm over its neck, and sighed. “He was Loki’s sire.”

The confused look on the keeper’s face in the silence that followed might have been comical, if not for that continuing distance in Thor’s eyes. It reminded her of the sea of gold, of the sky of silver, and of a thousand voices held silent in their mourning.

Thor at last withdrew his hand, gave a little soothing click of his tongue to the frost beast; it curled up against the boundary fence, the wire bowing alarmingly under its weight. “We were never permitted to go to Jötunheimr, after the war – which was won when I was but a very small child, and Loki himself scarcely more than an infant.” Stepping back, he brushed his hands over his thighs, pursed his lips. “And after the destruction of the Bifröst, it did not suffer so greatly as did other realms in the chaos that followed; it had not the resources or appeal for the marauders we fought off elsewhere. I have not returned to that place since my first journey.”

“So you can’t give us any advice on how to care for this creature?”

A frown bisected his brow. “I should think the best thing would be to return the creature to its home,” he said with firm command, though the words were kindly enough given. “It will grow to be very much larger than it is now, and though it seems it is not...disinclined to flesh, I am not certain that would be its usual fare.”

“Then what would be?”

The woman’s eagerness appeared to disarm him utterly, and Jane pressed the back of her hand against her mouth. It didn’t mask her giggle in the slightest. “I do not know, not for certain. Jötunheimr is a place of dark legend, told to children to scare them into good behaviour. I am not at all sure that anything I might tell you of its lands or its creatures would be in any way true. It should be returned to its home.”

His sober expression took any amusement out of the situation for Jane, then. “And even if you don’t, SHIELD’s probably going to swoop in here and confiscate the big guy anyway. You might as well let the poor thing go home.”

Jane did choose not to add that said poor thing had taken out the Thames’ floodgates on what appeared to be a swim up towards Gravesend, but then it seemed to need the moisture. And in a very strange way, it was sort of cute. For something that seemed to be a cross between an overgrown Labrador and Godzilla.

“I do understand your fascination,” Thor was saying, and Jane recognised the regal tone he couldn’t help but adopt when he did not expect to be argued with; it shivered down her spine like thunder. “But he has a home, and he will be happier there. Who are we to deny him that?”

“But this is an entirely new creature, one we’ve never seen before on this planet!”

“From the stories I recall, it has seen your planet before. It did not end well.” His hand rested light upon her shoulder, his smile crooked and kind. “Midgard, it seems, is no place for those born of Jötunheimr. I will ensure he returns home.”

The keeper seemed no happier for that assertion, and the same could be said of her colleagues, yet it seemed hard to see it ending any other way. Thor was very quiet when they eventually walked away together, leaving in his wake promises made to ascertain the logistics of returning said creature to its homeworld.

They were perhaps five minute’s dawdling walk from the quarantine enclosure before he spoke, sudden and wondering. “Your zoological gardens are…very interesting.”

“You don’t have zoos on Asgard?”

His brow furrowed, the low ponytail of his hair shifting between his shoulderblades as he shook his head. “Mother kept her birds, as did many ladies of the court. Father had Muninn and Huginn, though of course they could not be called pets. But as to a menagerie of this kind or scope…no. Animals are farmed as stock, and there are hounds and housecats and other beasts of burden throughout the homes and the streets, but the greater beasts live where they are born. If one wishes to see them, then one must go to them.”

“If we did that, there likely wouldn’t be any left to see.” Digging her hands into her coat pocket, she found a roll of Polo mints, tightened her fingers about it. “We haven’t managed the Earth all that well. I guess Loki had that much right, at least.”

She could have bitten her tongue. But Thor did not break stride and instead kept moving, all fluid grace beneath denim and the cotton of his shirt.

“It’s okay to miss him,” she said, sudden, voice half a pitch higher than normal. “I mean, despite everything else he did…he did the right thing. In the end.”

Again she regretted the words almost as soon as they left her lips. Though he’d scarcely been in London forty-eight hours he’d already shown he was not inclined to speak of Loki around the others, though she could hardly blame Erik for not wanting to hear about him. But then he had never spoken in any detail, either, of the discussion he had had with his father before he had returned to Earth.

But then, too, she could remember all too well how he had been, hunched over the colourless corpse of his brother. The sky had tasted of ozone, the iron tang of heavy water sharp upon her tongue. Despite having no love for the brother he had lost, her skin had crawled to see the way Thor had lain him down. Had left him behind. There had been a war to win, of course. Battles to be fought. Sacrifice could not made in vain.

But Thor had left something behind with his brother. Jane did not think it was something he could share again with anyone, not even her.

It didn’t mean she didn’t intend to let him know that he could, if he wanted to.

They’d come to a stop before the tiger enclosure. This early on a weekday morning there were scarcely any other visitors; the tiger, however, moved like a restless soul through the long grass, mouth half-opened on an unvoiced snarl. Her own stomach gave an inquisitive rumble, as if it too wondered when breakfast would be forthcoming. “So how are you planning to get that thing back to Jötunheimr?” she asked, leaning against the outer barrier, turning her gaze back to Thor. “Heimdall?”

Thor drew up beside her, weight upon his forearms as he leaned closer to the enclosure’s boundary. Thankfully, he made no attempt to reach through this time. “I will call to him, yes. I believe he will aid me.” She could not read the tone of his voice when he answered, mild as a summer breeze: “I am no more exiled from Asgard and her assistance than he is no longer her gatekeeper, for all our trespasses against her king.”

“I…I really want to say thank you to him for that.”

He turned his face to her, then nodded his head upwards. “You may say it any time, and he will know of it.”

“Yeah, but that omniscient knowledge thing kind of lacks the personal touch, you know?”

Even the faintest of his smiles reminded her of the dance of a Tesla coil’s discharge. “I know.”

“Can I help?” The odd look he gave her bordered a very thin line between incredulous and downright insulting. “Well, not with the animal wrangling, obviously, but…I would love to see the Bifröst in action again. It would help with my work.”

He took his time about the answer, wary as a hunter taking the measure of unexpected quarry. “I am sure Heimdall would be pleased to offer you the chance to observe.”

“No, I mean…I could come with you. If you’re actually going there, I mean. Or are you just going to shift it there?”

To his credit, he did not immediately say no. “Jötunheimr…is not a place I should take you. Or indeed, anyone.”

“But you want to go.”

The startled look he gave her said everything he apparently thought he could not. Then, he looked away, eyes following the pace of the tiger’s paws. “I have not been there since that first time, as I said.” There he paused, and she could almost see how his mind sifted through a thousand years of memories, brought up only those that could make sense to her. “When I was a child, it was a place of nightmares, of monsters. Yet when I ventured there with Sif and the Warriors Three, with Loki at my side, I…in many ways, I had become the monster. I brought down the nightmares upon them.” His shoulders hunched forward, voice tangled low in his throat. “Upon my own brother.”

The stars could not be seen so easily from London. Too much light pollution. Yet that first night they’d crawled out of an upstairs window onto the tiled roof, and with feet braced against a chimney stack had stared upwards at a sky both familiar and utterly alien. The air had been heavy and bitter compared to that of dry desert nights, but his fingers curled around hers like a memory as he’d told her of all that had happened since their first parting.

“It wasn’t your fault.”

He just shook his head. “I am not ashamed to accept what blame I am deserved, Jane.” The expression on his face then was lopsided, as if he couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. “The first lies are always the easiest to tell. It’s only later than they become so hard.”

The tiger growled, and Jane closed her eyes. When she opened them, Thor had not moved. For some reason she could not help but think of clocks, of how the hands of second and hour moved about the same face in the same rhythm and yet could never match the other’s unit of time.

“I hope you can get him home before SHIELD does show up. I’m sure they’ve heard about the giant blue monster rampaging through Notting Hill.” Thanks to youtube and twitter, there were possibly undiscovered Amazonian tribes in the deep rainforest who had heard of Mister Frosty. “But…are you going to talk to SHIELD? Or…you know. The Avengers.”

The name still felt slightly ridiculous in her mouth, though Thor only nodded. “I will of course tell them that I am here. If they need my aid, I will be only too happy to assist. I declined to ascend the throne so I might be free to do such things.” And yet despite the simple authority in his voice, he looked down to his hands, eyes shuttered. “But I think, for now at least, I would rather…a little quiet.”

“Me, too.” She shuffled her feet a little. The tiger paced still, a kaleidoscopic movement of black and orange and white over the tense muscles beneath. “Although if you are going to Jötunheimr—”

“Jane.” She could hear fondness there, but troubled lurked beneath like the rumble of new brontide. “It is not an easy place.”

“Yeah, but we wouldn’t be staying, right? Just long enough to drop off the big guy. Then bam, back home.” Breathless, suddenly, she had to pause a moment, nails digging into her palms. “Actually, all I really need is the ride. I’ll just strap on a few instruments and make some observations and that’s going to give me plenty to go on.” She pulled up short, eyes widening. “Unless…”

“Unless?”

“The Foster Theory.” Saying it aloud pinked her cheeks, but then Erik refused to call it anything else. She just had to think that while remembering his numerous post-graduate qualifications, and not his habit of going commando while positing ground-breaking theories. “It’s all about crossing the borders between worlds, right? And I don’t think we’re ever going to build a Bifröst, not without someone like Heimdall to keep an eye on it, but…” Her fingers tangled together, the only ring she wore digging deeply into the skin. “…Loki’s other paths. Like the one he showed us. It was just…well, I obviously didn’t get any readings on it. But it felt an awful lot like the anomalies caused by the convergence.”

He inclined his head, his attention still upon the sleek passage of the feline body. “It did.”

“And I guess it’s always there, right?”

“I would assume so.”

“So…” Digging teeth into her lower lip, Jane worried the thought for a little longer. “I wouldn’t mind seeing it. Again. Only this time with, you know, my instruments. And other things. Stuff. For a bit longer.” She could not quite claw back the desperation when she looked up to him this time. “It would really help my work.”

He looked both regretful and intrigued. “Jane.”

“Look, I know your father’s not my biggest fan, and your mom…” This time she did wince, hands clenching into fists as if that might substitute for punching herself in the face. “…I’m sorry. I’m just…I’m sorry.”

She hadn’t known how to deal with his grief. Her own mother had always been little more than a vague spectre in her life, too busy with her work and her friends to bother much about a daughter she had little in common with. Jane had instead grown up with something closer to two fathers, between her real one and Erik.

Now she still had not a clue how to offer him the slightest comfort in his loss. When Jane laid her hand upon his arm, she could feel the flexure of muscle beneath, warm and withheld. “It’s okay, Thor.” Her fingers tightened. “I’m just glad you’re here.”

“As am I,” he said, and though the smile did not quite reach his eyes, it was still beautiful. “But there are others who must be seen home. Come, we will discuss this with Heimdall.”

 

*****

 

Darcy’s expressive face took on a look of utter tragedy, eyes widening to those of a puppy denied a lift up onto an owner’s warm lap. “Jane, you totally ditched me last time. I think you owe me an in to this party.”

Blowing out an exasperated breath, Jane reached for another box, scowled at the Magic Marker scribble that deemed it filled with Fancy Schmancy Science Crap. She should never have let her intern do the filing. “Darcy, I don’t even know that I’m going to be welcome. I kind of sassed the King of Asgard the last time I was there, and then…well.”

Darcy appeared unmoved by the increase in volume of rummaging. “It’s not your fault, Jane.” Though she did pause then, her voice taking on an odd note that seemed almost dreamy, as if she were a small child recalling a bedtime story from the previous evening. “From the way you told it, the queen was totally a Momma Bear. She would’ve done it whether or not you were there. She probably would have done it for anyone.”

“Thanks, that makes me feel a whole lot better,” she muttered, ignoring the burn of salt at the back of her eyes. There was a loose piece of copper wire digging into one of her fingertips, but she welcomed the sharp sting of it.

“Like, has Thor ever told you he blames you for it?”

Her hands stilled, caught in the multi-coloured web of wires tangled with her fingers in the misnomered box.

“Jane? Hey, Earth to Major Jane!”

“No.” It came out as barely a croak, and she shook her head as if that would clear her throat. “No. He just…no.”

“Then hey. Cool. Don’t let it get you down.” And it was utterly Darcy all over that she promptly moved on, generous lips pursing into a crimson moue. “I still wish you’d let me come see Mister Frosty though. Why didn’t you wake me up?”

“I don’t think Mister Frosty stampeding through the flat could have woken you up this morning.” Sitting back on her heels, she cast a harried look about the hurricane of science that was her living room, as if she expected to find her saviour lurking behind the curtains. “Where’s Ian, anyway?”

“Out. Budgens.” Perching herself upon the arm of the sofa, Darcy thumbed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. “We needed milk. And batteries.”

“…batteries?”

Jane had the feeling she would regret the question, and Darcy’s blithe answer offered no reprieve. Her eyes sparkled with a kind of mischief that reminded Jane that she’d half-woken no less than three times the night before to the sounds of odd thumps, laughter, and what she’d thought was Darcy using the electric hand-beater for a late night Nigella Lawson escapade. “Yeah, we borrowed some out of your stuff last night. Emergency.”

“What did you – all right. No. Forget it.”

Drumming her heels against the side of the sofa, Darcy beamed at her. “Hey, not everyone has a boyfriend who can charge himself up like the Energiser bunny, you know? Some of us have to make do with the old school ways.”

“Darcy,” she snapped, and when it earned her a raised eyebrow, she sighed, looked back down to where her hands were still buried in the mess of electronics. The ring finger on her left hand had finally started bleeding. “I’m…I’m sorry.”

“For having a hot boyfriend? Hey, it happens. And Ian’s not bad. For an English kid. You know, he opens doors for me?”

Finally locating the missing component – definitely never letting Darcy rearrange so much as the cutlery drawer ever again – Jane flicked open one of the front pockets of her satchel and stowed it safely inside. “Before or after you demand he does?” she asked idly, and Darcy kicked her feet in glee.

“After. But he still does it. David never did that.” A brief cloud passed over her face, as fleeting as any of Darcy’s more sombre moods. “Seriously, though. Are you sure you’re gonna be okay? Because I have fresh batteries in my taser, at least.”

Jane had to snort. “As always.”

“Hey. Be prepared.” She leaned forward a little, tilting her head to watch with a sparrow-like curiosity as Jane secured the last of her gear. “I mean, that’s what they told me about London, yeah? Get ready for a spot of tea and a bit of knife-crime.”

She looked up, stared. “Darcy.”

“Yeah?” But her innocent look had too big an accompanying grin to be anything of the sort. “No, really, I could help! I know I’m not so up with all this portal stuff, but if you give me a box that goes ding I’ll totally let you know when it goes ding. Or boop. Or even beep beep beep.”

“Thank you,” she said, sudden but slow. “For everything.”

Darcy’s brow furrowed. “…wait, are you like, eloping to the magical golden kingdom in the sky?”

Ignoring the twist that such words wrought low in her abdomen, Jane laughed. “The only reason why we’re here right now is because of you.” Rising from her knees, she stepped closer to her friend, she gave Darcy a lopsided little smile from behind the curtain of her hair. “I’d have just moped around until the sky caved in, if not for you.”

“Well, probably,” Darcy granted with casual assurance, and shrugged. “But I’m sure you would’ve picked it up again sooner or later. I mean, he’s hot as hell, sure. But you almost like, came when you got that page of equations to balance that one time, and then—”

Hands thrown upward like a traffic officer warding off a speeding bus, Jane backed off half a step. “Yeah, okay, I get the idea.” And before she could think better of it, Jane reached forward with both arm and enveloped Darcy in a hug.

Darcy, never one to deny a good bit of friendship, returned it with interest, and in fact dug her nails into Jane’s sweater when she made her first attempt to abort. The third time she relented, grinned like a freshly-born star. “Wow.” And then it morphed into a sly smirk. “Like, are you dying or something?”

Taking her satchel and slinging it over one shoulder Jane rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “I better go.”

“Definitely dying,” she declared with a worrying satisfaction. Then her eyes lit up. “Hey, can I have your car?”

Later, Darcy.”

 

*****

 

“I have a boon to ask of you, Father.”

The King of Asgard, resplendent in gold robes as he stood upon the balcony overlooking the palace training yards, did not shift his gaze from where two ravens soared and circled in the sky overhead. “I see you have already assumed my answer.”

Thor reacted not to the flat disapproval of the Allfather’s tone. “I brought Jane here to confer with Heimdall on a task she will help me complete, as part of Midgard’s efforts to recover from the recent Battle of Greenwich.” And though he did not reach for her hand – it would hardly be appropriate – his great body inclined towards her, the heat and nearness of him almost as good a comfort as his touch. “But I would like to ask your permission to bring her further into Asgard once more.”

One gauntleted hand extended, and in a flurry of black feathers one of the ravens landed hard upon his arm. He did not flinch, even as the claws seemed to dig far deeper into the boiled leather than necessary. “I had the impression you wished to spend more time on Midgard, not bring your mortal companions home.”

“I’d just like to gather more data on the thin places between the worlds,” Jane offered, and her voice did not tremble even as her bones felt to be made entirely of gelatine. “…sir.”

When he turned his one eye upon her Jane regretted that the afterthought of the title sounded like she was being a smartass. She felt very small beneath his scrutiny. Though some part of her protested that she had every right to be here, as his eldest son’s treasured guest, she remembered how it had been: standing in the chamber that seemed to pulse with the life of a great tree, both within and without its scarcely-seen walls.

He is a king of near-immortals, and you are only human.

“And what is it that you plan to do with this data, once you have gathered it?” he asked, perfectly mild, and she swallowed hard.

“Apply it to my research.” Odin seemed no more impressed, and she raised her chin, forced a smile. “We know now we’re not alone, on Earth. We shouldn’t have to sit there waiting for everyone else to visit us. We need to be able to do it, too.”

“There was a reason your realm was set at the heart of the great tree; neither high nor low, neither great nor terrible,” he returned, though she sensed no condemnation nor admiration in his tone. “I rather suspect you have no idea whatsoever what such hubris will bring down upon your heads.”

Anger struck her sudden and quick, a spark to a bundle of fireworks. “Well, that’s how you see it. And that’s fine. But we can’t always rely on Thor to be there to help us, when we need him. We need to be able to do something for ourselves.”

Thor had stiffened at her side, but made no motion to silence her – and, breathing hard, Jane looked nowhere but to the Allfather himself. In turn he looked only to her, still with that one watchful eye. She wondered why it felt as though the one behind the ornate patch was examining her, too.

“…very well. I will not forbid your passage into Asgard for a short period, in order to further your research. But you will not be presented to court, nor will you have free rein of the city.”

Jane had no chance to protest such judgement, nor even offer thanks; Thor was already inclining his head, one hand upon her arm. “Thank you, Father. If you will excuse us?”

Only when they were back in the cool shadows of the cloistered corridors did Jane release the breath she’d been holding, long and shaking. “You know, your Dad scares me silly.”

“I would never have guessed it, from the way you address him.”

She stopped dead, indignation like a sharp blade shoved up between her ribs. “Hey, it’s not like he was being all nice with me!”

“It is different.”

“How?” She did not move, forcing him to slow his steps, to turn back to her; she still had to half-shout her words down the corridor, the sound ricocheting from the gilt surfaces like a chorus. “Because he’s like, king of the universe?”

He came back to her, his jaw held tight. “Something like that.”

“And this from the guy who got smacked down to Earth because of the way he talked to his father.”

His face wore no discernible expression when he stood before her, the single word a low rumble of thunder. “Precisely.”

Deflating, Jane’s shoulders sagged, though within a moment she looked up, hands raising in an aborted motion. “I’m sorry. I just…I don’t know. He winds me up, I guess. It’s just…when I went through college, the department I studied in, the groups I worked with, the post-grad stuff I did…mostly everyone else was male. And shitty with it. Because I was a girl and could show them up and it pissed them off.”

The considering look he gave her was something entirely new, and not entirely unpleasant. “It is not common to be a woman of science, then?”

“Oh, it can be. In certain fields. Not so much mine.” And she couldn’t help her smirk, tainted as it was of many a bitter memory. “But I did it. And I’m here now. The closest those jerks will ever get to riding a rainbow is tripping on an empty Skittles bag.”

His smile matched hers, though he shook his head. “I know not what that means, but I will assume from your tone it is a great victory.”

“Damn right it is.” Taking a deep breath, she smoothed out her dress – the only halfway decent piece of clothing she owned, though she still suspected it hadn’t really stood up to a royal audience – and let it all go. They had better things to do. “So, can we go check out the thin place Loki showed us? And then go arrange to take the Big Frosty back to Jötunheimr?”

“The Big Frosty?”

“Well, he hasn’t got a name.” At the faint look of guilt that flickered over his broad features, Jane only just avoided putting her hands on her hips like some sorely tested fishwife. “Thor, you didn’t name him.”

“I…might have considered one.”

“And you were the one insisting we had to take him home.”

“We will be taking him home!” Almost flustered, he looked away. “I simply…we should go, acquire a ship. Perhaps Fandral or Sif would care to accompany us.”

“Do they have to?”

This had him looking back, confusing warring with unease. “Not if you do not wish it. But they have been true friends to me for a very long time. I am always eased by their company.”

“I…” Feeling like an idiot, she paused, realised that she was only going to make this worse no matter how she delayed it. “How do I say this without sounding stupid? It’s just…I don’t think they like me.”

He paused, searching for something diplomatic. “They admire your skill.”

“For a mortal?”

His shoulders rose, fell on a shallow sigh. “Jane—”

“Look, if you want them to come, then that’s cool. Your town, your rules.” Shaking back her hair from her face, which felt hotter than she’d have liked, Jane bit her lip. “I’d just feel better if it was only you and me.”

“Sif would not be able to accompany you even if you wished it.” They both turned, Jane half-catching a shriek; Fandral appeared not at all apologetic, his attention fixed primarily upon Thor alone. “I am sorry to interrupt, but I had heard you had come to speak with your father again. I thought we might share a drink, perhaps a meal in the city before you left again.”

Her earlier flush crept up her cheeks when Fandral glanced over, gave her a nod and a half-distracted smile that was not his usual easily flirtation. She’d never been sure how to speak to him. But more than any insult she might have offered his friend, Thor appeared more concerned about Fandral’s actual words. His usual open expression had taken on a guarded look, eyes darkening to a blue that reminded her of a sky bruised by thunder and storm.

“Where is Sif?”

Pushing a hand back through the hair fallen over one eye, Fandral shook his head. “On an errand for the Allfather, with Volstagg.” He paused, then grimaced. “Gone to see the Collector, or so I am told.”

The moniker meant nothing to Jane, but the air seemed to thicken around Thor. She could almost taste the rising ozone. “They seek some item for the Allfather?”

“Rather to give one into his safekeeping.” Far from appearing disturbed by Thor’s odd mood, Fandral’s own expression had turned wry. “Did you not wonder what would be done with it?”

“I thought it would be kept in the vault, with all other artefacts.”

“Ah.” Something flitted across the other warrior’s face, too quick for Jane to assess, but his quick lips quirked into a half-smile that still bore no amusement whatsoever. “You do recall the legend of the infinity stones?”

“That is a myth,” Thor replied, flat and disbelieving.

“Apparently not,” Fandral returned, and raised his hands, as if such knowledge was beyond him. Given the demarcation between the sword and sorcery, Jane suspected it probably was. “The aether is one. The tesseract another. The Allfather did not think it wise to keep them so close together.”

“Yes, I see.” And his hand moved to hers, gripped it so tight she almost tried to pull it back from the bruising she suspected it would earn her. “Thank you, Fandral.”

“Do you not wish that drink?”

Thor turned back, letting go Jane’s hand in the process. “Alas, Father would not have us tarry about our own work here.” A hand moved to his shoulder, squeezed the muscle there; something in the gesture seemed to relieve the pressure in the air far more than did the wry expression he now wore. “Fear not, friend Fandral – I will return soon enough.”

The two men took their leave of one another, then; Fandral gave her a nod and a grin, but nothing more. She remembered how the same man had pressed a kiss to Darcy’s hand back in New Mexico, and then shook it off. There were more important things to worry about than her current social standing in Asgard. “Thor?” she asked, having to quicken to a pace and a half for every step of his long legs. “What’s wrong?”

He slowed half a beat, but did not stop moving. “Even Mother said it was always a legend,” he murmured, as if speaking only to himself, and Jane frowned.

“What? What’s an infinity stone, anyway?”

The looked he gave her was startled, and he drew to a halt. She almost walked into his side but he did not seem to notice. Instead he stared at her, but for a moment it was as if he stared right through her as if a pane of glass. “It is a way to remake the universe,” he whispered, and his eyes burned with quicksilver flame.

“Thor—”

“Come.” And he turned away, a golden god in the halls of his home in its nest of stars and supernovae. “There are things we must do.”