"I am impressed, Jane Foster," Loki says as he turns in a slow circle, taking in the desolate desert surroundings. The abandoned road is hazy with falling dust, lit eerily by the half-empty moon. "Not that you've managed to summon me, of course. Nor that you've figured out that I'm amongst the living. But rather that you came alone." His lips spread into smile. "Now it remains to be seen if you are brave or merely foolish."
Jane doesn't react to his taunting. She hugs a tattered roadmap to her chest. A piece of science equipment held together with duct tape rests on the hood of her idling Jeep. "Thor was looking for you," she says.
Her voice is strangely quiet. Muted, as if there isn't enough air to be had. Her lips are chapped, her hair in need of washing. Loki takes in the whole of her appearance without unlocking his gaze from hers.
"I find that unlikely," Loki says, matching her quiet tone. "I died. Quite heroically, if you remember."
Jane's gaze drops to his armored chest. "He figured it out."
The desert air is chilled to the point of freezing, but her sleeves are thin. Inadequate protection for a mortal against the cold. Loki's eyes focus past her, and he sees her jacket crumpled in the passenger seat. Drawing in a deep breath, he folds his hands behind his back and takes two very slow steps in her direction. Her eyes are still locked on his chest. Only the slightest tensing of her shoulders gives him any indication that she still has enough wits about her to fear him.
"Forgive my cynicism," he says. "But again, I find your claims unlikely. Thor, bless him, is more predisposed to immediately believe what he sees."
"Was." Finally, she looks up at him. Her eyes shine in the moonlight. "He was."
He watches her. Waiting. Listening.
Fingers itching to snap her neck if she dares confirm what he thinks she's implying.
"He told me you like to use the same tricks on him again and again," she says. "Just to see how many times he would fall for it."
Loki allows himself a smile, but it is cautious. "His record is four. That's the fewest times it's taken him to anticipate my deception."
Jane lifts an eyebrow. "Looks like two is the new record."
Loki shrugs one shoulder. "Let's call it an even three. When we were quite young, I pretended to drown in the river after he'd forgotten me in favor of his friends. It took him hours to notice I was gone, and he wept as he detailed my passing to the All-father. One of my finest victories."
He's lying. Not a lie meant to deceive but rather one meant to lighten her mood or force a reaction from her. Any kind of reaction. But that horrible look of grim acceptance refuses to budge. He fears what lies behind it. As her shining eyes spill rivers onto her cheeks, he inhales slowly and wonders why it's suddenly so difficult to fill his lungs. Perhaps he's drowning after all.
"I've been trying to contact someone for weeks," Jane says. "No one in Asgard would respond, or maybe my messages failed. So I kept looking for you—because that's what Thor was doing when he di-."
Loki slaps her so hard that she falls back against the Jeep. Her eyes are enormous. Full of shock. Fear. For once in his life, he does not revel in the chaos he has wrought.
"Finish that sentence," he pants, a finger jabbed in her face, "and I will strike the light from your eyes."
No. Loki has learned this lesson.
Learned not to ask questions he does not want to know the answer to.
Jane has already made it through the five stages of grief. She watches and waits as Thor's wayward little brother struggles under the crushing weight of the first.
He agrees to accompany her to her home but refuses to let her speak more than one or two words at a time. He cuts her off mid-sentence and steers their conversation elsewhere—if it can be called a conversation at all. As Jane guides the Jeep homeward, words spill from Loki's lips in an agitated stream of information. It's as if banishing the silence will keep the truth from taking root.
As Loki explains the glamour he wore to trick them in Svartalfheim, the air in the Jeep turns far colder than the temperature outside. The chill seems to radiate from him. So cold, it burns.
"I thought the skin discoloration an exceedingly clever touch," Loki says with a manic, dazed sort of smile. "Something repulsive." He laughs, his breath freezing as it leaves his lungs. "Enough to startle him and make him not want to look overlong at my body."
Jane wonders if he has any idea that he's crying. The talk of Loki's faked death is too close a subject to another forbidden topic, and he changes direction without bothering with a transition. Praises her efforts at sending him a message. Tells her where she went wrong with her attempts to reach Asgard: "You assumed they cared to respond to a mortal." Asks her about the buttons on the dash and interrupts with more questions when she tries to respond.
Jane nods and speaks quietly at the appropriate moments. But mostly, she keeps her eyes on the road as she listens and trembles. Neither of them speaks about the fact that he had slapped her earlier and then threatened to violently end her life—or that he had touched her swelling cheek a moment later and whispered words that immediately took the sting away. Loki acts as if none of it happened. But it did, and he knows.
He knows Thor is dead, and Loki is not merely in denial. He is insane with it.
When the manic babbling quiets into silence, Jane changes her route.
Denial has ended, and as the truth settles on Loki's shoulders like a physical weight, bowing him forward in his seat, she is suddenly terrified of what follows. She chooses her words and actions very carefully and recognizes that bringing him to her home would be a mistake. She aims the Jeep toward the wilderness. No one around for miles. No one for him to slaughter in the rage that is surely coming.
No one but her.
She clenches her teeth to keep them from chattering. The cold and her rising fear conspire against her efforts.
"Pull the vehicle over, please."
She does as he asks and guides the Jeep to the side of the road. There are no street lamps nearby. Only the moon and endless miles of sand, rock, and starved vegetation.
Loki gets out of the Jeep and fails to close the door behind him. Jane doesn't call out to him as he walks away with surprisingly steady legs. Her foot is still on the brake, the gear still in Drive. It would be all too easy to speed off and leave him here to descend further into madness.
She stares at the open door for five minutes before putting the Jeep into Park. She pulls her jacket around her shoulders and buttons it up to her chin, giving in to the chattering of her teeth as she waits. She half expects to hear screaming. Something ridiculously overblown and dramatic. Perhaps explosions or a great chunk of the moon falling away and burning up in the atmosphere. But either Loki's rage is quieter than expected, or he is truly gone.
She knows without a doubt that Thor had loved Loki. Perhaps more than he could have ever loved her, even given decades together. But before now, she has only ever suspected that Loki loves Thor in return.
It's for this reason alone that she leaves his door open and waits. A silent invitation for when he's ready to return.
When he climbs into the front passenger seat and shuts the door, nearly two hours have passed. The eastern sky is just beginning to lighten and promise a new day. Loki's hair is cut very short—but jagged, as if done with a shaky hand. And the hollows beneath his cheekbones are more pronounced. It could just be the shifting shadows playing tricks on her eyes, but something deeper than that has changed in him. All at once, he looks younger and older. Wherever he was, it was much longer than two hours for him.
"I came back to tell you," Loki says quietly, "that I will fix this."
His voice cracks as if he has recently abused it. His eyes flicker to her face, and they are so sad and bottomless and haunted that Jane finally understands why Thor had nightmares of his little brother's fall.
"And that I'm sorry for striking you," he continues. "I—I should not have done that."
Without speaking, she drops her gaze to stare at his hands. At the healing wounds on both sets of knuckles. She's surprised that he's reached the bargaining stage so quickly, particularly since she feels the anger still burning in him, despite his apology. She wants to tell him that there is nothing to fix. Death can't be changed. But bargaining is a natural stage in the grieving process, and she knows he needs to go through it, just as she had.
"How is that possible?" she asks.
The question is flat. She doesn't dare to hope. Even in the company of a god.
"Anything is possible," Loki says. "For a price."
His face is laid bare of any kind of mask for a brief moment. She watches his expression turn fearful—then resolute—then weary. He reaches for her hand and brings it to his lips for a kiss. And then he's gone.