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My Killer, My Savior

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Chapter 1

Jane stared at the thick, creamy envelope with her name and address handwritten in a golden elegant scrawl, now crumpled and flattened, with smudges of God-knows-what marring its beauty. A wedding invitation. Worse yet, from Donald Blake. She'd thrown it away several times, but always reclaimed it before Darcy could empty the trash.

It could only mean one thing: he'd finally found his soulmate. She should be happy for him, but it had barely been six months since he'd broken up with her after realizing they hadn't aged a day, and she found it hard to be gracious. Three years of a happy relationship meant nothing. Three years of her life, dedicated not only to her work but to his, meant absolutely nothing.

Snatching up the envelope, she ripped it in half, then again, and again, until she could no longer bend the stack of scraps. With a grunt of frustration, she hurled it toward the trashcan and grimaced at the cloud of festive confetti she'd made. Golden filigree sparkled in the sunlight as each paper danced and twirled its way to the floor.

Pity party indeed, she snorted.

A knock on the front door made her flinch in surprise, and then rush to snatch the lingering remnants out of the air while shoving the bits on the floor aside with her boot. "Just one moment."

Darcy and Erik wouldn't knock, no one from town ever stopped by, and her mom was in London the last time Jane checked. Her brows furrowed. Who could possibly be at her door?

"Dr. Foster?" a man asked.

After shoving the handful of paper in the trashcan, she darted over to the peephole and found a middle-aged man of average build and features in a dark suit with a fist raised, ready to knock again.

Jane kept her gaze trained on him. "Who is it?"

"Agent Coulson." He held his badge to the peephole and waited.

She'd never heard of SHIELD. "What do you want?"

"I have a couple questions I need to ask you." He paused. "May I come in?"

Fingers resting on the deadbolt, she hesitated. "What is SHIELD?"

"Soulmate Homicide Investigation, Education, and Law-Enforcement Department."

Homicide? She glanced at the bits of wedding invitation still littering her floor, and, in a rush, she unlocked the door to throw it open. "Is Donald okay?"

"Who?"

Her brows pulled together. "If this isn't about Donald, why are you here?"

"I'm working on a longstanding case, and we think you are linked to it." He walked past her, looking around, then gestured to the couch. "You might want to sit down."

"Jane?" Erik's voice preceded his entrance. "Whose car's out front?" When he stepped inside, he looked the Agent up and down. His voice lowered. "Do we need to get a lawyer?"

"There's no need for that, Dr. Selvig." Before the older man could act on his surprise, Coulson continued. "It's good you're here. Please sit."

He ushered them to the couch as if he owned the place, then removed a set of pictures from his coat's inner pocket, but kept the images hidden from view. "What is known about soulmates is that we don't age after we reach twenty-one until we find ours. We have roughly one hundred years to find them before we die." He waited for them to nod. “If someone finds their soulmate, they typically live happily until one of the mates dies. We know that the ones who die first try to return. Most don't have enough time to be reborn since the surviving mate does not often live very long.”

Jane made sure her gaze did not drift to Erik. His soulmate had terminal cancer several years back. To say he'd been a wreck was an understatement. If it hadn't been for their work, she was certain he wouldn't have lasted a month longer.

"What is not publicly known is that if someone kills their soulmate before the bond is triggered, they live far longer."

Jane gaped. To kill your soulmate was practically unheard of and just plain wrong, as wrong as choking on air.

"There is a man who has killed his soulmate three times," Coulson said.

She raised a brow. "Three?"

"Reincarnation. This person was fast."

 

Unease hardened into a rock in the pit of her stomach. "He's been alive for at least three hundred years then. He's learned how to be immortal, but how? How do you find out who your soulmate is, then get close enough to kill them without triggering the bond?"

"That's easy: sunglasses, gloves, not speaking. It's locating them that is the hard part. Luckily, we finally figured out his method." He watched her closely and took a breath, as if reminding her to do the same. The air was sticky and heavy. He was about to deliver some bad news. She just knew it.

Eric placed a comforting hand on her back. He sensed it as well.

"The serial killer, Dr. Foster," Coulson said, "is your soulmate."

She blinked once, twice, then shot off the couch and marched over to the kitchen. With a swipe of her hand, she snatched Darcy's bottle of dark rum off the counter and took a deep swig.

Her soulmate was a serial killer, and she was his only target. She'd been reborn four times now. Four times. Jane took another gulp.

After a long moment to herself, Jane replaced the bottle's cap and walked back to them, grateful they had given her the space to process. "I'll help."

Surprise flickered across Coulson's face.

"That's what you wanted, right?" she asked. "I'll do it."

She took the set of pictures from him. Some were black and white, old but well preserved. Others were more recent with clarity that showed every detail, from the magnificent green coloring of his eyes to the deep blue-black of his long hair. He was tall and lean with stances that portrayed grace and poise rather than clumsiness or rigidity. He was handsome, one of the most attractive men she'd ever seen.

She lowered her hand, careful not to crease the pictures in her tightening grip, and took another steadying breath.

Erik stepped to her side. "May I see?"

Without realizing it, she passed him the pictures and moved to the couch to collapse onto the cushions. An odd nebulous daze filled her mind. All she could see was a handsome ghost, moving through the shadows to sneak up behind her and slice open her throat.

"All we need you to do is go about your daily life," Coulson said, now standing before her. "We'll watch over you and intercept him when the time comes. You'll have nothing to worry about."

She must've nodded because he soon left, along with his pictures. In the days afterwards, she'd often wished she could look over them. She wanted to memorize the face of her would-be killer, but a small part of her just wanted to look at her soulmate. Instead, she poured herself into her work, escaping into the mysteries of the universe, barely registering the transition of day to night and night to day, or Erik and Darcy's concerned glances. Until her computer wouldn't turn on.

Jane glared at the empty port for the power cord—she'd already looked everywhere for it—then stood. "All right, give it back."

Erik paused flipping through the latest readouts to acknowledge her. "I told you I didn't take it, and I don't know where it is. But maybe this is a good thing. You need a break."

"Darcy," Jane chided her. She had to be the culprit.

The woman in question wore an innocent expression. Too innocent. She lifted the van's keys. "I guess we need to go buy another one."

Jane let out a long breath. "Fine, but I'm driving."

Darcy's red lips spread wide as she grinned and tossed her the keys.

The trip out of town to the mall was uneventful, if you didn't count the black cars and SUVs discreetly following her, then setting up a perimeter to keep an eye on them.

"While we're here, why don't we get our nails done and do some shopping?" Darcy declared.

"No."

"Please."

"No."

"Pretty please?"

"No. No. And no." Jane kept a brisk pace, slipping around strolling couples and straggling children, passing shops without a glance in their direction. "We're only going to the electronic store and that's it."

Five minutes later, Jane found herself in an oversized reclining chair with her feet soaking in scented, warm water, her hands coated in paraffin, and cucumber slices covering her eyes. If Darcy had a superpower, it was the ability to get her way no matter what. It was nice though, a colossal waste of time, but nice.

The sound of boots thundered into the salon, followed by gasps of surprise. Jane bolted upright as soldiers with lowered guns looked around corners and in each of the small rooms. One questioned the receptionist.

"Which way did he go?"

The young woman's mouth still hung open.

"The tall man in a baseball cap and black attire." When he got no response, he continued. "He just came in."

Darcy leaned toward Jane and whispered, "He was here, and not one person saw him."

All Jane could do was nod. Her frantically beating heart clogged her throat.

Another soldier announced there was a back exit, and they all vanished through it.

"Do we stay or should we get out of here?" Darcy asked.

Jane touched her throat. He could've killed her, and no one would've been the wiser.

"Hey." Her intern prodded her with a finger. "Snap out of it."

Taking a deep breath, Jane slid out of the chair and then grabbed her purse. An unexpected weight nearly pulled the bag out of her hands.

Darcy sidled up to her. "What is it?"

"I don't know." She slipped her hand inside and found a thick, hardback book with some loose papers stuck between the pages. Her insides sunk to her feet, like a rock in a pond. He'd gotten close enough to sneak her something, close enough to kill her. And yet, he hadn't.

Darcy shoved her hand inside and just as quickly pulled it back out. "A book?" She snorted. "He is your soulmate."

Jane was tempted to look, but decided to wait. Something told her to keep this secret. "Let's go."

They wasted no time buying the cord and getting back to the van. As soon as she slammed the heavy door closed, she pulled out the book. "Norse Mythology?" Jane questioned.

"So weird," Darcy said, looking over her shoulder. "Open it."

She turned the cover, then unfolded one of the loose papers and read aloud. "Jane Foster, read this with an eye of a philosopher instead of a scientist. What you and I seek lies inside."

"Damn," Darcy exclaimed. "It's not signed. A name would've been a nice clue for Coulson. But maybe he can get prints off it." At Jane's silence, she added, "Yeah, you're right. He would be smarter than that."

Jane flipped through the book, pausing only long enough to read his handwritten notes along with the highlighted texts. Rainbow bridge? Realms? Seers? "He's crazy."

"Well, yeah. What did you expect? The man is a serial killer. A sociopath. Probably delusional."

Jane closed the book and stared blankly out the window. What you and I seek lies inside.

"Agent Coulson," Darcy said, not to Jane.

Snatching the phone from her intern's hand, Jane stabbed the red button to end the call. "What are you doing?"

"Updating Coulson."

"Not right now. Just give me a day to wrap my head around this." The rainbow bridge did sound awfully similar to an Einstein-Rosen bridge, and the realms were nothing more than inhabited worlds with alien life. But seers? She didn't believe in fortune tellers and astrology. "Maybe I'm missing something."

Darcy watched her carefully, then slowly nodded.

Gripping the steering wheel, Jane drove home with her mind elsewhere.

Jane spent the next week with her nose in books about all things Norse mythology, using his notes to guide her. She started thinking of her work in a new, more abstract way. If her colleagues knew what she was doing, they would blacklist her forever. Erik was bad enough. They fought and fought until Darcy couldn't take it anymore and scolded them as if they were no better than squabbling children. Erik had come back from his room after a long bout of bitter silence, unhappy with her decision to use what the serial killer had provided, but willing to help, if only to keep her safe.

The entire section on the Convergence had been highlighted and contained the most notes, so she focused her work around it, and quickly realized one was about to happen. Such an alignment would cause the affected worlds to vibrate in the same frequency, thereby creating pockets that were nothing more than spontaneous wormholes. It was quantum mechanics on a large scale. All she had to do was find an anomaly, record it, and present her findings in a scientific journal using language the community understood. It would be a breakthrough similar to the confirmation of Einstein's theory of gravitational waves.

It took another week, four sleepless nights, and three cut fingers to design and build a handheld device that could detect the wormholes. If one didn't look too carefully, it appeared no different than an older blackberry with an oversized screen.

Erik and Darcy huddled around her, pressing shoulder to shoulder, as she breathed out, counted to five in her head to calm her nerves, and then pressed the power button.

The screen lit up, but it was nothing more than a colorful staticky mess.

Muttering under her breath, Jane adjusted the filters and reset the codes. It didn't help.

"Hit it," Darcy suggested.

Erik sighed. "That's not going to—"

Jane banged it hard against her hand several times, and the screen cleared to show a rotating miniature Earth along with actual readings. It even beeped incessantly.

"Hell yeah!" Darcy whooped.

Jane smiled wide. Multiple anomalies were scattered all around the Earth. There was even one relatively close by. Excitement gave her a stronger buzz than any triple espresso could.

"We have to go there," Darcy demanded.

On the verge of agreeing, SHIELD came to mind. Deflated, her arms fell to her side. "We can't. If I leave, they'll follow me and find the wormhole as well. Hello bureaucracy, goodbye scientific freedom."

"Maybe it's for the best," Erik said. "We don't know what we're dealing with. Something could come out that we're not prepared to handle. Or it could grow and envelop us, depositing us on one of those inhospitable worlds."

"Or." Darcy paused for effect. "I disguise myself as you, take the van, and get them to follow me. You sneak out and take my car."

"No," Erik declared.

Jane ignored him as she took in Darcy. Lose the red lipstick, add a pair of sunglasses, throw on a hat, carry a large box to hide their most obvious difference in body type, and her intern could very well pass as her. "That could work."

It took all of five minutes for them to enact their plan, despite Erik's protests slowing them down. She watched Darcy leave, and then the agents. As soon as they were clear, she darted out of the lab and hopped into the small car, surprised to find Erik right behind her. She lifted a brow as he quickly buckled up, but said nothing. If he wanted to come, he was more than welcome. He often picked things up she didn't. It's what made them a good team.

The beeping sped up the closer they drove to an abandoned warehouse. She parked outside the metal building and walked where the device guided her. Their footfalls on the metal walkways echoed in the cavernous room. Without air conditioning, they were moving through an oven. Sweat slid down her back, but she kept going.

Several stories up, she stopped near a corner that appeared perfectly normal, yet her readings were going haywire.

"This is it?" Erik asked.

Jane nodded and bent to scoop up a crumpled and faded magazine.

He stepped closer to her. "What are you doing?"

"Seeing if it's actually there." She tossed the magazine, and it disappeared mid-air.

Her heart thumped offbeat and she swallowed hard. Not because she'd found a wormhole, but because she caught sight of someone hidden in the shadows on the other side of the walkway. A tall man with dark hair and sharp features that were both beautiful and frightening. Her soulmate and would-be killer. His glasses hid his eyes, but she knew he was looking right at her.

An odd mixture of cold fear and warm desire filled her. It was as if her body recognized her soulmate even without the bond and rejoiced, pulling her towards him. And yet, her mind knew him as her serial killer, screaming at her to run away. In the end, she stood frozen and confused.

"Jane, what's wrong?" Erik asked, looking around but unable to see the man through the darkness.

Her soulmate smiled at her.

This was a trap, to get her to leave the safety of her lab and SHIELD. She expected him to raise a gun, throw a knife, shoot a poisoned dart, do something to kill her and buy himself another hundred years.

Instead, his gaze returned to the wormhole, and he took a step in its direction.

The movement caught Erik's eye, and he gasped, pulling her back.

"Stop!" a familiar voice shouted from down the walkway behind her serial killer.

Before she had a chance to find Agent Coulson, at least twenty soldiers in combat gear moved to the edge of the walkway above them in unison. They snapped their rifles over the railing and aimed at the tall man who had heeded the command. He'd paused mid-step with his weight about to lift off his back foot.

"You are under arrest for the murder of three previous soulmates and the attempted murder of your current one," Coulson said as he approached the taller man. He had a pair of handcuffs in his grasp around his raised gun.

He didn't seem like he was about to kill her, though. He had been focused on the wormhole, ready to walk right in even.

Her soulmate lifted his hands as instructed, his face twisting with fury. He seemed to ignore Coulson reading his rights and the soldiers ready to shoot-to-kill.

Once he was cuffed, Coulson turned to Erik and thanked him for keeping them informed. Jane bit back a curse and glared at her old mentor.

As soon as they were walking back to Darcy's car, she said, "I can't believe you've been spying for them."

"You should be glad I did, or we might both be dead right now."

But she wasn't relieved. He hadn't been about to kill her. Right before Coulson had stepped out, a look had crossed his features that she had recognized even with his glasses on. A look of relief. Just what was on the other side of that wormhole? And why did he want to go there so badly?

She glanced back as they drove away from the metal building being cordoned off with tape and stationed with armed guards. Looked like she'd never know.

Unless...

Except for the lone man handcuffed to a metal table, the room was empty. Jane stepped inside and then nodded a dismissal to the soldier who had unlocked the door. She'd agreed to work for SHIELD on the wormholes if they allowed her a private visit with her soulmate.

The door clicked shut behind her, but Jane didn't move an inch. Her stomach held a thousand butterflies from hell. Part of her yearned to walk right back out that door, but she had no other choice if she wanted to finish her project without SHIELD dictating her every move. She had worked too long under her own authority and was too close now to retreat.

His gaze was trained on his intertwined hands, handcuffed to the table and resting atop a pad of paper. He refused to look at her, of course. He wore no glasses and didn't want to risk triggering the bond. He wouldn't speak, either, which was why SHIELD had granted him the paper and pencil.

She told herself it didn't matter, that he was not mentally well, but her heart ached all the same. Out of all the people in the world she had to be bound to someone who would rather kill her for more years than spend his last days happily fulfilled at having found his soulmate. Not everyone got that chance.

Ready for whatever might happen, she took a breath and then asked him what was on the other side of the wormhole, all the while being careful to not accidentally bite the tiny device hidden under her tongue. When—if it was time, she'd use it to signal Darcy.

He flinched, then relaxed when her words didn’t set off the bond. But it could still be his words that did it, or a touch, or an eye-locked gaze.

"Well?"

He picked up the pencil in his long fingers with perfectly kept nails and wrote something down. Moments later, he turned the pad toward her.

She didn't want to step any closer to him, but her curiosity demanded otherwise.

In a stylish scrawl that reminded her of calligraphy, he'd written that Asgard resided on the other side. So it was all real. Which meant there were frost giants and fire demons.

"Why?"

He didn't take back the pad, not even after the third time she asked the simple question.

"Everyone here believes you set me up to kill me."

Besides a hardness setting his shoulders, he showed no other sign of what he might think.

"Everyone but me."

Even with his face lowered she saw his brows pull together.

"You wanted that wormhole, not me." Forgetting herself, she took a step in his direction. "You've been waiting hundreds of years to get back to Asgard. Killing me—the past me's—was out of necessity, wasn't it?"

Silence.

"You had to wait for the Convergence, for someone to help you find a wormhole, but why? Why do you need to leave?"

She leaned over the table, waiting for an answer he would not give.

Heart thumping, slowly trying to work its way to her throat, she steeled herself and lowered her voice to barely a whisper. "I can help you."

That almost had him jerking to gape at her, but before their eyes could meet, he schooled himself and looked back down at his hands.

She licked her dry lips, but her tongue might as well have been a dehydrated husk. Could she actually go through with her plan? Could she chain herself to a murderer knowing that very bond would make her feel something for him? Her stomach rolled.

“Is there a way to break the soulmate bond?” she asked.

He sat unmoving for such a long moment he might have dozed off. Then he nodded.

Relief flooded her so thoroughly she nearly collapsed into the chair opposite him. "Trigger the bond, be my test subject for the wormhole, and you'll be free to go to Asgard. Of course, once you're there, you'll have to get rid of the bond before our separation kills us both."

The pencil snapped in his white-knuckled grip.

"I'm not going to risk breaking you out of here, only for you to kill me again and again until the end of time." She shook her head. "You either die rotting in a cell on Earth, or die a free man on Asgard."

His chest heaved with a sudden, deep breath, then he looked her in the eyes. His gaze gripped her more firmly than had he done so with his hands. Green consumed her, and yet nothing clicked. No world-altering effects. Which could mean nothing. Many people didn't feel a thing. It was how roommates could suddenly realize they were growing old, thereby discovering they were each other's soulmate. Not to mention why a couple could live together for years and only realize they weren't meant to be until they saw the truth in their unchanging faces, she thought bitterly.

"You will come to regret this, Jane Foster."

A cool sensation washed over her, as if she'd just walked through a gentle waterfall on a sweltering day. A shiver raked her body, as it did his. Jane looked at him, a connection settling in place that unnerved her. She'd never heard of a bonding that strong before.

Dragging her feet back, she breathed out in relief that she was still in control of herself, that she wasn't madly in love with him. She searched her feelings and found a kernel of fondness for him that hadn't been there before. She could live with that. So long as it didn't grow into anything more.

"What now?" he asked.

She bit down on the tiny device in her mouth and waited.

The fire alarms shrieked and flashed. As he glanced up at them, finally showing his face fully in front of her, she absorbed everything about him. The pictures hadn't done him justice. He looked like he was about to put on a fashion show of orange prison garb. It just wasn’t fair.

Jane wanted to slap herself. She didn't care that he was handsome. He was a means to an end, that was all.

The door opened and a female soldier stepped inside. Darcy.

Jane sighed. So far so good.

After the door clicked shut, her intern smiled at them. "You called?"

Jane motioned for her to unlock the handcuffs, and then peeked outside to find a guard waiting close by despite everyone else moving swiftly to the exits.

"Fire?" Jane asked because she needed a reason to be poking her head out.

He gave a sharp nod and answered, but her attention zeroed in on Agent Coulson and two soldiers walking around a corner toward her.

She popped back into the room. "We have to go. Now."

Darcy drew herself up, hardening her features, then marched outside holding onto Jane's still semi-bound soulmate. The handcuffs would surely fall from his wrists if he jostled them. The other soldier fell into step with Darcy.

Jane glanced back to see the hallway mostly empty and Coulson picking up his pace. He shouted something, but it was lost to the alarms. She looked at the soldier's ear-piece, certain he would be radioed to halt and wait for the Agent to catch up to them.

Her chest clenched tightly with each pounding beat. She might die of a heart attack before they made it to the stairwell or out of the building.

Just as they rounded a corner, her soulmate elbowed the guard in the face hard enough to make the stout man drop as if his bones had melted.

Darcy yelped in surprise, but it was Jane he addressed. "Calm yourself. I can feel your fear like filth on my skin."

Before she could give him a piece of her mind, he knelt to strip the uniform off the man and don the too-baggy clothes. It took all of three seconds, just a flash of his bare skin, pale and taut over defined muscles, then they were moving again, down the stairs with other employees and soldiers. His longer legs made her take two steps at a time, risking her neck to keep pace. Darcy struggled just the same.

By the time they reached the bottom floor, she was out of breath and lagging well behind her soulmate. He waited at the door, his jaw ticking like the second hand of a clock.

They strode through the lobby with Jane glancing over her shoulder and jumping whenever someone got too close to them.

"Stop that," her soulmate demanded.

Heeding his advice, despite wanting to balk, she fixed her gaze on Darcy's back and repeated pi's long sequence of numbers as they flowed with the stream of people out the exit. It wasn't until they were in the car and driving away that the tension drained from her coiled muscles and locked rib cage.

"Where are we going?" he asked.

Darcy answered for her. "There's another wormhole out in the desert."

He fell into silence at that, and Jane wished she could hear his smooth, mellifluous voice again, until she wanted to triple slap herself for even thinking that. He had killed her numerous times. He didn't want the bond. And he was plainly an arrogant asshole.

He clicked his tongue. "One should not hold such distasteful emotions toward their soulmate, dear Jane."

How could he feel her that strongly? She got nothing off him. The realization as to why that was hit her like a punch to the gut. He felt nothing for her, not hatred nor desire. Just nothing.

Darcy cleared her throat. "What's your name? SHIELD doesn't have anything on you besides some pictures."

After a long pause, he said, "Loki."

Jane twisted in her seat to look back at him, thinking of the Norse mythology book he'd given her. "Loki, brother to Thor, Prince of Asgard?"

He nodded, though just barely.

"Are you really a Frost Giant?"

His gaze sharpened to daggers.

Undeterred, Jane continued on. "Can you shapeshift? Did you really turn into a mare and give birth to a horse for Odin?"

"Oh, for Norn's sake. If it'll shut you up, yes, I am a shapeshifter, and no, I did not birth a horse or any children for that matter. And as to the absurd Frost Giant accusation—" He ended with a disdainful scoff that was answer enough.

The car swerved slightly, but other than that Darcy seemed to be taking it well.

Turning back to him, Jane realized their intense bonding had to have been because he wasn't human. If not for her situation, she would've believed interspecies soulmates were impossible.

His stare pulled her out of her thoughts. "So where's your magic? Why are you stuck on Earth?"

"It was my punishment. To live and die as a worthless mortal."

"What did you do?"

"Ruined Thor's inauguration by nearly starting a war between Asgard and Jotunheim. People died. The Casket of Ancient Winters was almost freed from the Vault." He shifted, picking imaginary lint off his borrowed uniform. "It was not my finest hour."

Jane took a moment to process everything he'd said. "Why would you want to go back to where you're clearly not wanted?"

"Because it's the only home I know."

Jane faced the front of the car and settled into her seat for the drive. He hadn't lied to her. She didn't know how she knew, but she did. She wasn't even certain if he could lie to his soulmate. The bond reacted differently for each couple, and theirs seemed particularly strong.

As much as she hated it, she understood him. She never felt like she belonged either, not in school, not with her family, and not in her lab. But she'd always attributed that to not having a soulmate bond. Now, she wasn't sure about anything.

They stopped at the site, and she stuck sensors on him while Darcy set up the equipment. His taller height blocked the sun from her eyes and silhouetted his shirtless form, but she did her best not to stare. Regardless, her body hummed in delight at their close proximity, at each little brush of skin on skin.

Stepping back, she checked on Darcy's work and nodded in approval. Everything was hooked up to the car's battery and already spitting out readings.

Loki moved to the edge of the anomaly, his grey prison guard shirt now draped over his shoulder, and paused. He looked back at Jane. Something inside of her twisted. She shouldn't feel anything for him, let alone regret his leaving. She shouldn't. But repeating his offenses over and over in her mind didn't help soothe the pang building in her chest.

He shifted and one of the sensors went silent. They all needed to be working to get an accurate reading.

She told him to wait a moment and plodded over to him. His gaze shifted from her to the portal, his hands clenching and unclenching.

When she was close enough to adjust the defective sensor, he gripped her arms and pulled her closer to him. "I warned you, Jane Foster."

And then she was surrounded by darkness that pushed against her like a thousand bodies. Her skin and marrow stretched until their very molecules would rip free to drift across the universe.

What felt like a thousand years in a scant couple seconds passed, and the darkness vanished. Golden light blinded her, forcing her to shield her eyes until they adjusted. Jane turned, taking in the beautiful city in the distance with its towering spires glinting in the sunlight, the sparkling water of the lazy river not four feet from her, and the vibrant green leaves of trees so full they appeared to be overgrown bushes.

Jane's mouth fell open. "Asgard."

Chapter Text

Day peeled back to expose a night sky teeming with galaxies and nearby star systems. Jane stared at them, causing her to stumble and trip over every rock, fallen branch, and thick root. Her wide-eyed wonder both frustrated and captivated Loki, though he did his best to smother the latter emotion.

He tugged her along with a steady grumble—she'd already tried to escape two times and he wasn't about to let her get away from him a third. The golden spires of the palace extended far above the tree line, but even if he had no visual aide, he would know exactly where he was going. He'd played and hunted far too often in these woods to not know.

"Is it like this every night?" she asked. Her voice had become less tremulous over the hours they'd spent walking together. His had hardened. He hated this slow progress. If he had his magic, they would already be inside, clean and comfortable.

If he had his magic, he wouldn't be bound to a mortal. He wouldn't be a mortal.

Jane struggled to free her arm from his grip. "You're hurting me."

Not realizing he'd clenched his hand, Loki loosened his hold on her and covered the reason with a lie. "Then focus and try to keep up."

She gave him a sidelong look. "I can't believe, of all the billions of people on Earth, you are my soulmate."

"I assure you, Jane Foster, the feeling is mutual."

He didn't know why the Midgardian soulmate magic had worked on him. Sure, he had been made mortal when Odin had stripped him of his powers and cast him out, but he was from Asgard, not Midgard.

Anger roared in him, and he had to be careful not to hurt her again. She wasn't the cause of the bond, just a reminder of how far he'd fallen.

Insects and animals croaked and chattered in the distance. Those nearby silenced at their approach, but the gentle breeze rustling the trees never wavered. The chill sliced through the flimsy prison guard uniform and cut right to the bone. He hadn't dared to don the previous owner's sweaty undershirt.

They needed to change clothes. Not just for warmth, but because Midgardian attire was not conducive to keeping a low profile in Asgard. He glanced at Jane's jeans and flannel shirt with distaste. Besides, they were ugly scraps of material pretending to be cloth.

"What?" she asked with considerable heat.

Loki gave her a thin smile, which seemed to irritate her more. She glowered in response, but it only served to make her look like a furious kitten.

His lips stretched into something more genuine.

Lifting her chin with an indignant sniff, she turned her attention back to the sky. Moonlight bathed her in a soft glow that made her already-creamy skin turn to lustrous silk. Wisps of her dark hair brushed across her face to obscure the soft curving line of her profile from his view. His fingers itched to brush them back and tuck them behind her ear to see if her cheeks were as smooth as they appeared.

The toe of his boot caught on a tree root, jerking his attention off her and making him adjust his footing before he actually stumbled. He hadn't jostled her—she still stared upward without a clue as to what had just happened—but he berated himself for acting like a fool.

No matter her incarnation, he'd always found her attractive and was naturally drawn to her, as if she were a soothing light at the end of a suffocatingly dark tunnel, but this was absurd. The soulmate bond was messing with his mind. The need to be rid of it before he found himself officially attached to her clawed at his insides.

They couldn't be together—she was Midgardian, unwelcome in Asgard—and he had every intention of reclaiming his position as a prince here. She did not fit in his future.

A glance at Jane had admiration for her bubbling up within him, and he hated it. Granted, she seemed to despise the bond as much as he. A corner of his mouth lifted as he realized her contempt for him would be his saving grace. All he had to do was continue to make her think she repulsed him. Cutting the bond would be effortless then.

He lengthened his stride, willing to drag her along if she could not keep up, and disregarded the little yelp of surprise she gave at their sudden change of pace. For every one of his steps, she took two, sometimes three. Her breaths came and went quicker and quicker, until she planted her feet, chest heaving, and forced him to stop.

"Enough," she said. "Unless you're going to carry me, I need a break."

With a swipe of his arm, he scooped her up, hoisted her over his shoulder, and began walking again. He snickered as she pushed against his back to lift herself up from hanging like a wet noodle.

"Put me down," she demanded. "Put me down right now."

He slid her off his shoulder and dropped her. It wasn't a big enough fall to cause harm—that would slow him down even more—but she landed hard enough to knock her on her rear.

The impact forced the air from her lungs in a heavy exhalation. She glared up at him. "I didn't ask to be here, you know. I didn't ask for a murdering soulmate. I didn't ask for any of this." She got to her feet and stepped to him. "You clearly don't want me here. So why are you dragging me along with you?"

He basked in her ire, reveling in a job well done.

She turned and marched away, and he easily caught up to her.

"To destroy the bond, both soulmates must be present," he explained as if she were slow, all the while lying. He had no clue if the bond could even be broken. It was why he took her, just in case it couldn't. He wasn't going to risk his plans and end up dying because they weren't together.

Her brown eyes flashed at the condescension lacing his tone.

"Unless,” Loki added, “you want a murderer as your mate for the rest of your life."

She hesitated, her feet slowing just slightly, before she continued her charge.

Loki's eyes widened. She couldn't actually want him...could she?

"Of course I don't want a murderer," she said with a hardness that made his insides twist.

He pulled her to a stop and quickly removed his hand from her arm. His fingers tingled with pleasure. “Then work with me to rid us of this unfortunate connection. I won't drag you around and you won't try to run away.” When she didn't argue, he continued, “Since my magic might be needed to cut the bond, that must come first.”

She crossed her arms. “Might?”

“We are in uncharted territory, Jane. We might need the Gauntlet and ten Valkyries for all I know.” Her brows furrowed in confusion, but he went on. “Just know that I am committed to ending this absurdity.”

“And you won't try to kill me once it's over?”

“I'm not some mindless murderer.” That she thought he was squeezed his chest like an invisible fist. “I won't need to kill you.”

She drummed the fingers of one hand against her arm, then released them with a sigh. “Fine. Let's get this over with.”

He watched her for a moment longer, trying to read her emotions like he had on Midgard but found it surprisingly muted, if there at all. But maybe she was just content with the course of action. Maybe she felt absolutely nothing for him. Anger and loss warred within Loki. Of course she didn't. No one but his mother had ever cared for him.

Without making sure she'd follow, he started walking in a slightly different direction than where she'd been mindlessly traveling. "We need to change clothes. There's a farm nearby where we can steal some."

"Steal?" she squeaked, rushing to catch up.

Detesting how he wanted to smile at her innocence, he gritted his teeth and ignored her.

At least, he tried to. The woman trampled through the woods like a herd of lazy cattle, breaking every twig in her path, rustling every leaf, all the while huffing and puffing. "Must you be so loud? They'll hear us coming a field away."

'They' meaning no one. There was an annual festival this time of year, and everyone, even the farmers, stayed in the city, pulling all-nighters until the grand finale.

She stopped and glared at him. "Humans don't see as well in the dark, you—"

Hearing the insult she’d left unvoiced had him clenching his hands, then, appalled by his reaction to her scorn, he instantly relaxed them.

They stood in tense silence until she sighed. "Am I really that loud?”

“Is a rampaging wild boar loud?”

She rolled her eyes. “Okay then, carry me.” When he laughed incredulously, she added, “I'm serious. Just not like a sack of potatoes again.”

He prowled toward her, enjoying the sight of her straightening her back and locking her knees. “Are you certain?”

“Unfortunately, yes.” She watched his every move, like a rabbit wary of a wolf. “You're right. I'm too loud and, while I don't condone stealing, we need clothes that will help us blend in."

"I'm glad you're capable of recognizing superior intelligence." This time, he allowed himself to fully smile at her annoyance.

Without further ado, he swept in, hooking an arm under her legs before catching her with the other. Then, lifting her to his chest, he looked down at her brown eyes shining in the moonlight, wide and...lust-filled? He almost dropped her in surprise.

No. It was just a trick of the light. Or maybe wishful thinking. He tore his gaze off her and forced himself to focus on the path ahead. She seemed to both cling to him and hold herself away. If she wasn't the most confusing creature in the nine realms, then he was the Alfather.

He placed her down when they reached the cottage, bleached stone with a bronze-colored roof, just like all the others lying on the outskirts of the city. She followed his every move: stopping to listen, creeping under the large windows, slithering along the wall. None of it was needed, of course, but he enjoyed her earnest effort.

When she noticed him quietly sniggering, she glared at him and made to leave. He caught her arm before she could get far.

"Loki, I swear," she said in a furious whisper, "if you keep this up, I will..."

He waited for her to finish.

"I will..."

Dispensing of the unnecessary stealth, he pulled her toward the door and spoke aloud. "You are a kitten with no claws, Jane."

She jerked her arm free. "I will go straight to the Alfather and tell him everything."

He watched her carefully. She stared at him without a flicker of doubt. She was serious. His brows lowered and his lips thinned. "You'll be lucky if they don't kill you first. Warriors think more with their fists than with their heads."

She shrugged. "That only means you'll have even less time to cut the bond."

Because he would die soon after her, die as a powerless mortal. Spinning on his heel, he stalked to the door and kicked it open.

"Loki!" she hissed in surprise and rushed after him.

"There's a festival in the city. No one is—"

A sword's gleaming blade swiped at his head. He ducked, pushing Jane back, then darted in, eliminating the distance needed for the weapon's effectiveness. In one smooth movement, he grabbed the man's head, kicked his legs out from under him, and twisted the attacker's neck until it snapped and the body went limp. He let it fall to the floor in a satisfying thud.

Jane gasped. The sharp inhalation was louder than his heartbeat pounding in his ears. Loki's gaze jerked to hers. She sat on the ground, just outside the door where he had pushed her, with a hand over her mouth and shocked eyes that were fixed on the large corpse.

He took a step toward her, and she scrambled backwards.

She looked at him then, differently than she had as of yet. Her pointed stare, untrusting and afraid, was like a spear to his chest. She might have called him a murderer, but knowing it was different than seeing it done.

This was in self-defense though, and, honestly, the times he had killed Jane, he knew she wouldn't truly die, not so long as he was alive.

Turning from her, he made to enter the hallway leading to the bedrooms, but a woman leapt out of the darkness, fingers clawing for his throat. Loki swiped her hands away and snaked an arm around her neck. Her strained cry was cut off as he cinched his grip tighter.

"No!" Jane shouted.

The woman flailed about, struggling to breathe.

Jane jumped to her feet and rushed into the small house. "Let her go."

He couldn't hold her gaze. "No one can know we're here."

"You don't have to do this. You don't have to kill her."

"If she lives, then news of my arrival will spread. I will be hunted and locked away for good by morning."

The woman's movements slowed.

Jane eased closer to him, as if he were a skittish animal. "So we bind and gag her. That'll give us more time."

He considered everything. News of the couple's death would spread as well, but that would take at least a day, and no one would know he was the murderer.

"Please," Jane whispered, her eyes shining with unshed tears.

He let the woman go.

As she slumped to the floor, Jane rushed to her side and checked for a pulse, then sighed in relief. "Thank you."

"Search the rooms for clothes." He grabbed the woman's arms and dragged her into the bathroom where he could stuff her in the freestanding tub and tie her limbs together. He grumbled the entire time about the effort needed to do such mundane tasks when his magic would have completed it in a flick of a finger.

After he hid the man's body and changed into the too-wide clothes Jane had wordlessly handed him, he waited for her in the living room, pacing the small space with hands clenched behind his back. Why did he care if she truly saw him as a murderer now? It was for the best. The more she hated him, the more she would desire to rid herself of him. Despite it guaranteeing her cooperation, her untrusting eyes haunted him.

Minutes passed and Jane was still holed up in the room. What was taking her so long? The farmers couldn't have owned any lady's clothing that required attendants to pin, button and tie everything together.

Marching down the hallway, he rapped his knuckles on the wooden door. "For the love of Asgard, Jane, have you fallen asleep?"

He took a step back when she cracked opened the door wide enough to show only half of her face. She looked at the floor instead of him. "I'm having a little difficulty, okay?"

"Let me see."

She flushed and her gaze snapped to him. "I'm not fully dressed."

"Clearly, otherwise we would've already been on our way." He placed a hand on the door and gently nudged it open.

She shoved it closed. "Hold on...let me put something on first."

Sighing, he gave her a moment then pushed his way in. He faltered at the sight of her, fully covered and yet barely so. The gauzy, nearly translucent shift hung off her and pooled around her feet like a loosely wrapped threadbare blanket, exposing her curves without fully revealing them.

He forced out a breath and focused on the task at hand. She at least had the undergarment correct, even if it was much too large. He hadn't realized she was that much smaller than the Asgardian woman. Her presence was certainly larger than her body.

Swaths of fabric lay on the bed, dresser, and floor. While the fashion here wasn't as simple as it was in Midgard, she should've been able to put the three sections of the dress together.

Grabbing a black skirt, a tan wood-stiffened stay, and a green gown, all rough fabric that made him grimace just touching them, he set to dressing her.

She stood straight-backed with cheeks that were pink, bordering on red. A corner of his mouth lifted, and he moved closer to her, enjoying the warmth her embarrassment radiated, until she flinched slightly away. He wondered if she would ever not be afraid of him now. Part of him desperately wanted her to be, but then the other half wanted her to desire him as much as he did her.

Everything about her intoxicated him, from her sharp mind to her soulful eyes. His body craved to be near her, always had.

Closing the space she'd created, he had her slip an arm through the stay, then the other, no different than putting on a jacket. He brushed back her silky hair, skimming his fingers over her bare neck before lightly adjusting the garments over her shoulders. Her eyes fluttered closed and her lips parted in an exhalation that made his knees weaken.

Admonishing himself for his reaction to her—again—he returned his attention to the stay and moved to stand in front of her. The shift gaped at her chest and would need to be adjusted if it were to look right when he tied the garment together.

Upon opening her eyes, Jane saw his hands inches away from her breasts and she nearly jumped away from him. "I have it now, thank you." Pushing him toward the door, she continued. "I just wasn't certain what went on first and whether this thing was supposed to be tied in the front or the back."

Before he could reply, he found himself out in the hallway with the door slamming in his face. He stood there, smiling like the ridiculous fool he was, then forced his legs to move back to the living room.

Several minutes later, the bedroom door creaked open and Jane appeared before him as an Asgardian farmwife, too poor to afford proper fitting clothes, and yet he still found her ravishing. The bond, he reminded himself. It was just the bond and nothing else. They had no future together. She was a mere mortal. He was a god.

Without acknowledging her, he made for the front door and then down the road leading to town. Another hour walk and they would be blending in the crowded festival.

Neither of them spoke, and he did his best to forget about a nearly naked Jane, skin flushed and lips beckoning him. It did no good, though. The image was seared in his brain. He had to plan how to sneak into the palace. He had to make sure no one noticed him. He had to do many things, but his mind was frustratingly fixed on that small woman on his heels. Maybe once the bond was gone, he could focus properly again.

Only a smattering of the shops' lights were on. He'd expected more to be open, but they were still far enough from the festival that it could be normal. The sky was still dark with night. Bakeries, however, were always busy well before the sun made its appearance. The mouth-watering aroma of bread wafted to them as they traveled down the oddly empty streets.

Jane's stomach growled. Thankfully, his own didn't announce the hunger that had begun to twist his stomach. Or maybe that was her hunger he was feeling. Regardless, mortal bodies were weak and demanding. He squashed the need to consume food and kept moving.

He expected her to complain or at least ask when they might next eat. She did neither.

The merest glance back at her immediately caught her attention. He swung his head to look forward again and rolled his eyes at himself. He shouldn't care about her, shouldn't be intrigued by her. She was nothing.

Buildings were gradually positioned closer together and increased in size and opulence the deeper they walked into the city. Dirt roads shifted to cobblestone, then to smooth, polished marble. And yet, music and raucous voices did not fill the air. Instead of merry townspeople and rowdy children, only the occasional guard walked the streets.

Just what had happened here?

He pulled Jane around the corner of a stately house and flattened them against the cool wall just before a woman in gold armor marched by. Her clanging footsteps drifted out of earshot, and he exhaled.

"Loki, where's the festival?"

The fact that she hadn't fought him spoke of her own unease. "I don't know."

He looked down at her and realized he had her trapped between himself and the house, his hands pinning her wrists to the wall. Her racing heartbeat ticked under his touch. Thinking their position frightened her, he stepped back.

"Something is wrong," he said.

Her silence only enhanced the city's eerie stillness. It was as if half of the people were gone and somberness was left in their absence.

"War," a new, yet familiar voice said.

Loki spun around to find his mother walking out of the shadows obscuring the far end of the house. He smiled at the sight of her, still as beautiful and regal as he remembered, before a frown took over. "War?"

She moved closer to them, a dark hooded robe hiding her glittering jewels and radiant gown from twinkling in the streetlights and calling attention to them. She reached a pale hand toward him and paused before she actually touched his cheek. "My boy has finally returned."

Jane's gasp pulled his mother's eyes off him. "You're Queen Frigga." Her gaze bounced from Loki to his mother, then she attempted a curtsy that resembled a stumble.

A corner of Loki's lips lifted.

"Jane Foster," Frigga said, as if she'd been waiting for this moment. "I thank you for returning my son to me, though I regret the path that had been taken." At her last words, she trained an intimidating stare on Loki.

He was not one to be quelled, even if it had been over three hundred years since he'd last been the focus of her disapproval. "I did what had to be done. Where are you?"

Jane's brow furrowed in confusion, and Loki swiped a hand through his mother to show her Frigga was just an illusion.

"Magic?" she asked, circling his mother.

Frigga nodded, then looked at him. "Meet me near the pavilion in the Orangery. Do you remember the secret way?"

"I may have been made mortal, but I have not lost my wits."

Jane narrowed her eyes at him, clearly irritated and yet—

"Hurry, but be careful," Frigga warned. "No one can know you are here."

Just before his mother disappeared, she smiled at him and Jane. It had held a touch of sadness and worry that left him wondering how badly the war was going. Asgard had won every battle and defeated every foe. He couldn't imagine this time being any different, but there she was—here the city was—proof that something was horribly wrong.

Chapter Text

Jane was gone.

Darcy blinked at the now-vacant spot where her friend had just been standing, fixing the sensors on Loki...an alien. She still had a hard time believing that.

One second, they were there and then they weren't.

No, that wasn't right. He had grabbed her. That rat bastard had pulled her boss-lady through the wormhole. He had killed her several times already. Who was to say he wouldn't do so again?

Her stomach dropped. Jane was bound to a madman, stranded on an unfamiliar planet, all alone with zero sense of survival. Her work-obsessed lifestyle was proof enough. Darcy shuddered at how her friend had been before she came along.

She had to get her back before it was too late.

Other than the soft purr of her idling car, the desert was silent. Too silent. She looked over at the equipment hooked up to her car's battery and darted over to the one Loki's sensors had been connected to. It wasn't running anymore, but the data was there. She checked the others and found the same thing. Except, without Jane, she had no clue as to what any of it meant, no clue as to how to get her back.

Erik. She could call him, but Jane would kill her. Realizing her friend might not be alive much longer to do such a thing spurred her into action.

Grabbing her phone, she called him and waited, biting her lip, for him to pick up.

"Where are you?" Erik asked.

"Well, hello to you too."

"I'm serious, Darcy. SHIELD just called looking for you two and that man."

"That man is officially her soulmate—"

"They bonded?" He didn't wait for an answer. Instead, he sighed and said, "Oh, Jane, what have you gotten yourself into?"

She shifted, sand crunching under her shoes, and stared at where the wormhole had been. "That's why I'm calling."

In a single breath, she told him everything, and, surprisingly, he caught every word.

"Don't go anywhere," he said. "I'll be right there."

He hung up and she waited, pacing at first, then sitting inside her car to rummage for something to eat. Jane might be able to work through a meal, but not Darcy. Nerves made her hungry.

All she found was gum.

At the sight of Erik's car plowing toward her with a dust cloud trailing behind him, Darcy tossed her magazine to the backseat and hopped outside.

"About time," she said around an entire pack's worth of gum. "I was about to take a nap."

He ignored her and moved straight to the equipment.

Darcy followed him.

"This is remarkable." He flipped through the readouts faster than she had with her fashion magazine. "The test subject's vitals were stable before being cut off." He moved to another machine.

"That means they're alive, right?" she asked, careful not to smack her gum. He'd always hated that, which meant sometimes she did it on purpose.

He nodded. "And this tells me the wormhole hadn't collapsed. They made it out."

"All good news, but how do we get her back?"

"We find another wormhole using Jane's device." He glanced at her. "You still have it?"

"In the car. But how do we know which will be the right one? She said they could lead anywhere, like the pit of a volcano."

He scratched his chin. "I'll just have to figure out how she did it."

"Not ‘she.' He was the one who knew how to use the wormhole to get back to Asgard."

His hand fell, as did his hopeful expression. They stood in silence for minutes that felt like hours, until he pulled out his phone.

"No one will deliver pizza out here." She'd checked already.

"I'm calling Agent Coulson—"

"SHIELD? Jane only used them to get to Loki. She won't like you involving them."

"We don't exactly have a choice, now do we?" He was on the verge of yelling in frustration.

Darcy lifted her hands. "Chill, okay? We can figure this out without them."

He placed the phone to his ear and turned away from her.

She rolled her eyes. Were all scientists stubborn or was it just her luck she'd been saddled with two rarities?

She eavesdropped, because there was nothing else to do, but mainly because, why not?

Erik told Coulson about the wormhole, about Loki and Asgard—that part he had to repeat twice—and about how the supposed God of Mischief had abducted Jane. There was a long silence, then rapid-fire answers to questions she could only guess at, mostly about wormholes and other worlds.

Erik's impatience came out in a burst of words. "Are you going to help or not?"

Darcy's gaze followed him as he stalked around the site, kicking up dirt as he moved, before he abruptly stopped. "What do you mean?...an artifact?...top secret?...and this can help me get Jane back?...then I agree."

He shoved his phone into his back pocket and started unplugging everything from the car battery.

"What just happened?" she asked.

"They're coming. We need to get everything ready."

"Ready for what?" When he didn't answer her, she blocked his path to the last machine. "Erik, ready for what?"

He pointed to the sky and, sure enough, there was an aircraft flying in. That was fast, but then they weren't far from the detention center.

"Apparently soulmate homicide investigation is just one of the things they do, and mainly because of Loki's case. Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Department is their other name."

"Strategic home what?"

"They have something that can help, but we have to help them in return. If you agree, you come with me to a top secret compound. If not, you go back to school and forget about all of this."

Was the world spinning or was it just her? She placed a hand to her forehead. "Whoa, slow down. It's now or never?"

"Yes." He slammed the hood of her car down.

The aircraft was near enough for her to make out. It wasn't like anything she'd ever seen before, closer to a jet than a helicopter. It hovered its way down to the dusty ground, creating a billowing cloud that nearly reached Erik and Darcy. Several people filed out of the back.

Situated in the middle of the three, and the shorter of the two men, was clearly Agent Coulson. The other was definitely the muscle. His black vest exposed his nicely shaped arms, and he walked like he was ready to kill. Oddly enough, he wore an archer's glove. Who uses a bow as a weapon these days? Then there was a red-headed woman rocking a form-fitting uniform that made Darcy rethink her stance on catsuits. It was definitely hot.

"Dr. Selvig," Coulson said, extending a hand for him to shake. "I'm glad you decided to join the team." He turned to her and offered the same greeting, but Darcy hesitated. "You're welcome to come as well. You were in contact with the alien, after all."

So they weren't after her smarts, then. "I'm considering it."

"Consider faster," the redhead said, "because we're leaving now."

The other man started picking up the equipment Erik couldn't carry.

"Are there free meals?" Darcy asked.

Coulson's brows lifted. "Yes."

"Free lodging?"

"Yes."

"Internet?"

He took a slow, calming breath, which made her want to smile. "No."

"I'm out." As his brows climbed higher, she laughed.

None of them caught on, though.

"It's a joke. Lighten up, people. I'm game...if I get one of those?" She gestured to the redhead's outfit.

Coulson shook his head, clearly exasperated, and turned to the aircraft. The other three followed him.

Glancing back at her shiny blue car sitting all alone in a sea of gritty sand with nothing but a harsh sun to dull the paint job, she asked, "What about my car?"

"Someone's on their way to pick it up."

Life has certainly become more thrilling since I met Jane. She hurried after them, worry for her friend making her steps fall faster than her usual languid pace. If they found her with one hair out of place, then Darcy was going to kick some serious alien ass.

oOoOo

Jane and Loki slipped through the perfectly trimmed orange trees lining one side of the palace with her following only a step behind him. Neither of them spoke. Well, she, for the most part, kept quiet. There were too many intriguing things that she needed to know more about, like the flowers, especially the glowing one, or the shrub that moved as if to watch them go.

But Loki would only speak to remind her to stay out of view, even though there were hardly any guards patrolling the area. Their winding path, keeping them under the trees' canopy, suggested he meant out of view from above. Except, nothing was up there that could spy on them. There were only birds, some small sparrow-like creatures and two large ravens darting overhead before the sun rose, no aircraft or drones, and no specks of light floating amongst the stars like Earth's satellites.

He stopped, and she slammed into his back. The man had an annoying knack for doing that. It was like he knew when her mind drifted and enjoyed punishing her for it.

She grumbled but said nothing. That only encouraged him.

When he didn't continue moving, she whispered his name in question.

He didn't respond, not a single movement. He might not even be breathing, for all she knew.

Jane tried again. "Lok—"

"Mother."

He stepped forward, still under the tree's foliage, and Jane looked around him to catch sight of the Queen. She was exactly as the illusion had portrayed her, radiant and regal, tall with keen eyes and a smile that was both warm and sly. The latter definitely reminded her of Loki.

Frigga moved straight to her son and embraced him with a welcoming hug. "Finally." She held his face in both of her hands and gazed at him as if this might be her last chance to do so.

"What of this war?" he asked.

Her hands fell to her sides and she drifted to the tree next to theirs where she plucked a plump orange from a slender branch. She turned it over and over.

Loki's brows pulled together as he carefully watched his mother. "Who are we at war with?"

Frigga sighed. "Jotunheim."

One of those slim brows lifted. "Impossible. They're too weak without the—"

"Winter Casket?" She faced him fully with a meaningful look.

"But they didn't get it. Odin stopped them." When she said nothing, he staggered backward, his imperious form deflating.

Jane, however, was stunned, pinned to the spot by the fact that Loki hadn't almost started a war. He'd done exactly that, and, to top it off, he'd given Asgard's greatest enemy the strength to fight back.

"You said they were killed in the Vault," Loki accused his mother. "You said Odin was only angry because of the perceived betrayal. You said—"

"He was—is," she amended. "And I said what would give you some peace of mind. Banishment, not to mention the loss of your powers, is hard enough. Knowing you started a war, had given the Casket to our enemy might have broken your mortal spirit."

Anger replaced his astonishment in a heartbeat. "I am not weak."

"No, you wouldn't have survived this long if you were."

Her placating, though sincere, words calmed him. "It has been three hundred years. Why haven't we crushed them already?"

"They have help." At his unasked question, she said, "The Dark Elves are back."

Jane did her best to remember what the book Loki had given her said of the species. Their planet was called Svartalfheim and it was supposed to be dead, along with the pointy-faced humanoid creatures. Clearly that wasn't the case.

"The Convergence," he said in understanding. "They've been lying in wait all this time."

"Yes." Frigga walked to him. "Thor cannot fight both of them. He needs you." Loki scoffed. "We need you or else Asgard will perish." She placed the orange in his hand and it withered to dust. "And so will all life in Yggdrasil."

 

Magic. Jane stared in wonder. If she could get her hands on some of that dust to bring back home and examine, she just might—

Loki turned his palm over and let the fruit’s remains fall to the grass before slapping his hands clean. "I'll help, but I'll need my powers restored and this Midgardian soulmate magic removed."

Jane's stomach clenched. It was such an odd dichotomy to mentally want one thing while her body demanded another. This was exactly what she feared. She just had to keep a clear head and stay focused on why she triggered the bond to begin with. It wasn't for him or for the connection. It was for her work. And she needed to get back home to complete it.

Frigga smiled, as if she knew something they did not.

"I'm serious, Mother. How else can I be of any use?"

"The only way to restore your magic is to prove to Odin you did not mean to give Laufey the Casket.”

Jane noticed she did not include the bond.

"But you—"

"His magic is different than mine. Different than anyone's. Nothing and no one but Odin can reverse it."

His jaw ticked. "How do I get there? I can't teleport anymore."

"Heimdall is waiting for you in the Bifrost."

At the mention of the Einstein-Rosen Bridge, even if they didn't call it that, Jane's eyes widened and her heart skipped ahead in excitement. She hadn't dared to hope to see it during her time in Asgard. Maybe the Gatekeeper would send her back to Earth while Loki fixed his mess. They could find her when it was time to sever the bond.

"Heimdall?" Loki asked incredulously. "Father's lackey is going to let me go free?"

"Not free, but to fight. He understands the importance of your mission."

"He's how you knew I arrived and where I was for you to cast your magic."

She nodded. "I've had him watch you despite the Alfather's forbiddance of it. Odin's rage clouds his judgement concerning you. And it is why you must leave now before he discovers my subterfuge."

"Tell me of your vision first."

"I've had many, though in several of them your magic is restored and you are happy." Just as he looked away, her gaze flicked to Jane's.

It nearly made her take a step back. She'd seen them happy together?

Loki scrubbed a hand over his face and turned to Frigga again. "Fine, but how will I survive in the cold with my mortal form?"

"With this." She took a necklace out from one of the inner pockets of her cloak. "It has been magicked to protect you from the extreme cold." Without a second look at him, she turned to Jane. "I have one for you as well, my dear."

"Jane?" Loki asked. "She's staying with you. Here."

 

“Or you could send me back to Earth,” Jane offered.

Frigga shook her head. “I'm sorry, but you must go with him.” She glanced at the palace, her eyes tightening around the edges, then addressed Loki. "In every vision where life succeeds, she is at the heart."

"That's preposterous," he said.

Anger burned away Jane’s astonishment. "I'm not useless, you know."

He ignored her. "Mother, be realistic. She will only slow me down."

"Do you want your magic back or not?" Impatience made Frigga’s words harsh.

His lips thinned. "It will be dangerous."

 

Now Jane was confused. Was she a burden or did she cause him worry?

"Very much so," Frigga agreed.

She handed Jane the same necklace as Loki's, a golden snake woven through gnarled roots as large as the tree's foliage. Tiny red stones—on Earth she would've called them rubies, but who knew what they were here—made up the eyes and seemed to sparkle despite not a single light reflecting off it.

Jane didn't have long to examine the intricate design before the queen placed it around her neck. An odd staticky sensation swept over her, but nothing else felt different. The night's lingering cold still nipped at her arms through the thin shift.

Jane looked from the necklace to her. "I—" Should she curtsy? Kiss her hand? "I don't know what to say besides thank you."

Frigga brushed her gratitude aside with a wave of her hand and a gentle smile, though her gaze darted back toward the palace. "There is not much time left, and I have one more thing for you." She produced a slender black box, no bigger than her palm and engraved with symbols Jane had no understanding of, and practically pushed it into her hands. "Whatever you do, don't let anyone else open it. When the time is right, you may do so, but only when the time is right."

The queen nudged them to leave. Loki actually allowed himself to be moved. Based off his raised brows and wide eyes staring at the strange carvings on the box, he was too surprised to resist.

"Mother, that isn't—"

"Yes. And it is for Jane only. Do you understand me, Loki?" She continued to move them further along the orange trees. "The fate of the Nine Realms depends on your success."

"What am I supposed to do with it?" Jane rushed to ask.

"Protect it." She scooted them away. "Go to the Bifrost. And hurry."

An invisible force, like a gale of wind, swept them up and carried them forward several paces. By the time Jane found her feet and turned to look back, Frigga was gone.

She took a breath and was about to comment on the queen's magic to Loki, but he had eyes only for the box. He might not even have realized what had just happened.

"What's in it?" Jane asked.

"Power. Ancient and formidable and stronger than just about anyone and anything."

Watching him carefully, she slipped it into the pocket sewn into her skirts. Based on what his mother had said, he might try to take it and then they would fail.

He scoffed. "Calm yourself, dear Jane. I know I must not open the box. At least, not as I currently am."

She didn't consider that an assurance.

“The question is,” Loki continued, “why give it to you to protect when there are more powerful people in Asgard?”

It was a good question, but now was not the time to ask it. "Where's the Bifrost?"

"This way."

Loki walked with quick steps that meant a light jog for her, and, in the span of minutes, they made it out of the garden and reached a river that would lead them directly to the water surrounding the Bifrost.

While she was practically gasping for air, he breathed as if he were taking a meandering stroll. It irked her, almost as much as his consideration of her worth had. He thought her useless, a necessary burden to bear, but she was none of those things and he would soon find that out.

When the Bifrost came into view, she slid to an abrupt halt, but Loki's firm hand gripped her arm and made her walk again. It didn't stop her from gaping, though.

Situated out in the sparkling water with the sun just peaking over the horizon to cast vibrant shades of orange, red, pink, and violet—practically a rainbow of colors—across the sky and glint off the golden dome that was the Bifrost. It was majestic.

Loki pulled her into a run, which wasn't easy on a normal day. On a sandy beach, it was hell. Despite his grumbles, she did her best, and, soon enough, they were speeding down a railless, translucent bridge connected from the Bifrost to somewhere deep into the city. Surprisingly, it lit up with colors at each of their footfalls. She tried to stop—just for a moment—to examine the marvel, but Loki gave her a hard look and held onto her tighter.

A large man encased in gold armor with a broadsword that might have been as tall as her stood at the arched entrance.

"Heimdall," Loki said in greeting. It was a little cool, making Jane wonder at their history.

"You are late." He turned to usher them inside.

"Yes, well, being mortal does have its disadvantages."

She wasn't sure if that was an honest account of himself, or an insult to her and her kind. Either way, she narrowed her eyes at him.

He simply smirked in response.

As they moved toward the circular platform in the center of the large space—more gold—a clatter of hooves sounded down the bridge.

"Halt!" someone called. "By order of the Alfather, halt!"

Jane peeked over her shoulder and gulped at the sight of at least ten soldiers, all on horseback, charging toward them.

"Did you tell Odin? Did you betray your queen? Yggdrasil?" Loki accused Heimdall.

The Gatekeeper’s knuckles paled on the sword hilt. "The ravens were out. They must have spotted you."

"No, I accounted for them."

The tumult of galloping horses and shouting men grew louder, along with her heartbeat pounding in her ears.

Jane had seen the birds, but it wasn't the time to point out to Loki that he wasn't infallible. "Can't you send us anyway?" she asked Heimdall.

"I cannot disobey my king."

The din stopped, and as the men slid off their horses and approached the entrance, some with swords out, they blocked the sunlight and darkened the interior.

"Loki Odinson, you have violated the terms of your banishment and are charged with spending the rest of your mortal life in the dungeons." The hard man with an even harder voice turned his attention to her. "The Midgardian is to be sent back right away."

Loki laughed. "I do not get a trial? Can Odin not face me?"

The man ground his teeth so hard she thought they would crack under the pressure. "You are a traitor and a disgrace. You do not deserve—"

One of the soldiers behind him coughed, which made the one speaking stop and stand taller. He pulled out a pair of handcuffs and chains from the bag tied to his belt. "Do not resist."

 

She wanted to hoot in victory—she would go home and her murdering soulmate would go to jail—and yet she said, "But we're just trying to help the war effort. Heimdall is sending us to Jotunheim."

The soldier ignored her and faced the Gatekeeper. "Odin wants a word with you as soon as you send her back."

"You're not understanding," Jane persisted. "Loki is going to stop the Frost Giants. He's going to fix his mess." She didn't mention that he was only doing so to get his powers back. That wouldn't have helped at all. But, based off their incredulous looks, maybe that would've made it more believable.

The soldiers chuckled. "Loki only worsens things."

Their mocking tone and harsh words made her hackles rise. She took a step in their direction, but Loki held her back. Disbelief, as if he couldn't understand what she was doing, flashed across his face, which made her question herself. The only plausible excuse was that the bond was messing with her mind. Why else would she stand up for him?

"This isn't your fight." Loki turned from her and gave a meaningful look to Heimdall.

The soldier grabbed his arms and roughly bound them. He took up one of the chains and the man who had coughed took the other. Without a word, they hauled him toward the Bifrost’s opening.

Loki looked over his shoulder at her, his face a smooth mask. Whatever he felt for her—if he felt anything at all—was neatly hidden away, and yet he wanted her to go to Jotunheim, to find Thor, and use the tools Frigga had given her to help end the war, even if that meant going alone. Did he actually have that much faith in her?

She wanted to go home, but she had to help. She would help. And then she would ask Odin to remove the bond.

Her chest—and something else altogether she didn't understand—ached.

The soldiers jerked the chains, forcing Loki to look forward again. Then they were outside and gone from her sight.

Chapter Text

Darcy followed Erik and Coulson through the sterile hallways of the super-secret government compound. During the flight here, she'd learned the redhead's name was Natasha Romanoff and the archer's was Clint Barton. He hadn't given his first name easily, had said it was none of her business, but she'd worked her magic on him. It was basically the same technique she used on Jane and, occasionally, Erik: pure, unadulterated tenacity and her knack for knowing which buttons to push and how hard to push them, not to mention her natural charisma. Everyone caved.

Another agent had joined them, Maria or something of the sort. She led the small group to a pair of double doors, while updating them on the artifact’s latest activity, and into a cavernous room filled with computers and data machines and people in white coats. It was Jane's dream lab, the kind she'd have if people actually gave her money to work.

"And here, Dr. Selvig," Agent Maria announced, "is the artifact we call the Tesseract."

She gestured to a large metal contraption that held a glowing blue cube. It was pretty. It would make for good mood lighting if she was able to sneak a sexy soldier in here while everyone was asleep.

Erik reacted far differently. His mouth slackened and he stared at it, wide-eyed as if in awe. "What is it?" he asked.

"We don't exactly know," Agent Coulson said. "But we think, if put in the right hands, it's capable of producing portals. This is how you'll get Dr. Foster back. You just have to figure out how."

Erik and Darcy were being used, but she was fine with that so long as it was mutually beneficial. She would get Jane, they would get the ability to teleport.

"May I?" Erik asked, stepping to one of the computers.

Coulson nodded, and Erik wasted no time in getting to work. They watched his fingers fly over the keyboard as if he'd been working there for ages, muttering about what he'd found. He lost her at gamma radiation.

"He's probably going to be busy for a while," Darcy said. "Where can a girl go to freshen up?" She was covered in dust, her hair was windblown, and she was still partly in the guard uniform from breaking out Loki.

"Later." Romanoff nodded to the doors. "We need you debriefed and quickly, before you forget anything."

She gasped in mock offense. "I have the memory of an elephant." With a bright smile, she added, "Lead the way, boss."

oOoOo

The royal guards ushered Loki down the extensive Rainbow Bridge stretching across the water, through the city, and straight to the palace. The long walk would feel endless, each dogged step a reminder of his inability to teleport, of his imposed mortality.

He didn't look at the soldiers—they were beneath him, after all. Practically servants. Instead, he held his head high and walked as if they were simply attending him. The chains' constant clanking ruined the effect, not to mention the cuffs digging into his wrists. The guard who had bound him would pay, one way or another.

Jane's concerned gaze flashed in his mind like a knife thrust between his ribs. He hated that she had such an effect on him, but it was just the bond. He was actually pleased to have a moment free of her. Longer than a moment if Odin had his way. The knife twisted, and his steps faltered just enough for one of the soldiers walking the horses to take notice. The young man said nothing, though.

A strong breeze pushed into him, fluttering the rough fabric of his farmer's tunic and whipping his hair about. Not being able to smooth back the stray strands irked him, but the vain thought was forgotten as an odd smell had him lifting his nose and breathing in deeper to place the scent. It reminded him of charged air, of Thor. But that wasn't right.

Halfway over the water, he stopped and looked over the Bifrost toward the empty sky. It rippled, like on a Midgardian blistering day. Except it wasn't hot, not even warm. The guards tugged at his chains and spoke meaningless threats, but he only had eyes and ears for the oddity.

Heimdall stepped out of the golden dome and looked out into the distance. He sensed it too.

"What is he doing?" one of the soldiers asked. "The mortal should've been sent away by now."

Jane moved to the Gatekeeper's side, and Loki had a sinking feeling. "Get down!" he yelled.

The guards looked at him like he was mad, but then a shimmer, gliding through the air, caught their attention and they finally understood.

"We're under attack!" the commander shouted. "Protect Asgard!"

The two holding his chains dropped them to reach for their swords. Steel rang as weapons were slid from their scabbards. Footsteps clomped against the crystalline bridge as the men shifted into fighting stances. What they could do against the enemy was beyond Loki. Then again, they could do a great deal more than he. Irritation hardened his jaw.

The invisibility cloaking the long, slender aircraft vanished as fire bloomed in the core. Heartbeats later, a flash erupted and the Bridge bucked in response to an explosion. It had happened so fast his mortal eyes hadn't caught the fired shot. Two more deafening explosions occurred before he realized he'd been knocked to his back and was staring up at a swarm of Dark Elven aircraft streaming overhead in one direction like a tumultuous river.

"Help me!" the soldier who'd bound him pleaded.

Loki flipped over and saw the man hanging off the edge of the Bridge by his forearms. The royal guard couldn't pick himself up. He was a disgrace.

Loki considered letting him fall to his death. Payment would be settled then, but he thought of that blasted woman, Jane, and the wretched bond.

Cursing himself under his breath, he crawled to the soldier, gripped one of his arms with both of his still-bound hands, and pulled back, just enough for the royal guard to get his weight forward and haul himself over the edge.

"Thank you," the soldier panted, pale from fright.

Loki ignored him and looked around. A couple bodies lay not far from them, fire consumed half of the buildings leading toward the palace, bubbles of dark smoke filled the air where the enemy aircraft had been taken out, tracer rounds, bright and unmistakable, flew through the sky toward the Dark Elven force. Most missed or were easily maneuvered around. Then he turned to see how the Bifrost—Jane—had fared, and he jerked back.

A monstrous version of the Dark Elves aircraft hovered behind the dome, far larger and imposing. However, it was Heimdall, running at him with his sword raised overhead that had him clambering to his feet.

"Hands!" the Gatekeeper yelled.

Loki stretched his arms out and pulled his wrists as far apart as the cuffs allowed. It wasn't much, a mere inch or two. He twisted back from where the blade would fall, doing his best not to think of how much it would hurt if Heimdall missed. The Asgardian weapon could easily cleave him in two.

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. The Gatekeeper's heavy footfalls landed as fast as his heart pounded. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Louder. Closer.

A slight breeze, a soft snick, then the cuffs fell from his wrists, and he was free.

Loki breathed out hard.

"Come," Heimdall said, already running back to the Bifrost. "I can't start the force field until you two are on your way."

And without the force field, Asgard would surely fall, especially with half of its forces off world. Loki ran faster.

They sped past Jane standing at the entrance and stopped at the central platform where Heimdall thrust his sword into the slot. Jane moved to them, staring at the lightning streaking out of the sword and forking across the curved ceiling and walls.

"Stand here." Loki motioned her to the other aperture, now opening and closing in a dizzying effect as the dome's outer shell spun faster and faster.

"Remarkable," she said, watching everything closely. The sheen of her wide eyes reflected the white lightning.

The long protrusion extending out of the Bifrost clanged into place, leaving the aperture officially open and lit up in a sea of colors.

Jane inched closer to him. "This is it?"

"Yes," he said, absorbed in her presence again.

She took his hand into hers, interlacing their fingers as if they'd done it a thousand times. Not expecting the casual, yet intimate contact, he gaped at her.

"May the Norns favor you," Heimdall said, then pushed the sword further in.

An invisible force seized his body, sucking him into the opening, pulling every molecule through space and time. As a mortal, the effect was stronger, harsher. His mind swam to catch up, tumbling end over end, as if falling over a waterfall and hitting every rocky prominence on his way down.

Jane's touch never left him, though. They held on tighter, flying as one across the Void, colors streaming past, hair and loose clothing whipping about, and Jane...smiling? Loki peered at her the best he could through the torrent and discovered that she was indeed beaming. The sight made his heart flutter, just as it had when he'd first seen her this lifetime.

Three hundred years of isolation with only her as his North Star, because she could both help him gain a longer lifespan and find the portals to lead him home, had brought him closer to her than anyone besides his mother. Only, Jane didn't know that, couldn't know that. Not if he was to be free of the soulmate bond.

In every one of her incarnations, she'd been brilliant. It was just that technology needed to catch up to her theories. Killing her was the only way. The first time had been easy. He'd been angry, spiteful, and he refused to die as a mortal.

But then, it got harder, especially as he took the time to observe his would-be soulmate and found her alluring in every way. The realization that the Midgardian magic was not a fluke, that it had aligned him with his perfect match, had set him off enough to end her life the second time. If he ever hoped to restore his position as a prince of Asgard, he could not be saddled with a Midgardian. She would be a goat at a banquet table. Loki, the God of Mischief, son of Odin the Alfather, bound to a goat—it was preposterous.

The third had taken longer. He'd almost slipped and triggered the bond. His body had craved to be near her, despite his mind’s protest. Finding her was even easier. It was as if he could sense her general location as soon as she'd been reborn. As a little girl, she had an uncanny knack for understanding what lay outside her planet. That was when he realized he could use her for more than just a longer lifespan, she was his way home. He'd sculpted her interest in the cosmos by leaving books of Yggdrasil, the Bifrost, and the Rainbow Bridge for her to find. The one he'd given her this lifetime had definitely not been the first.

The tunnel of light burst as it slammed into solid ground, and Loki righted them before they would hit head first. The landing was not as easy as a mortal. His knees buckled and his bones felt like they might shatter, but, at least, they were on feet instead of backs. The bitter memory of Odin throwing him into the Bifrost's path to Midgard like garbage, of crashing to the ground nearly broken and alone in the middle of nowhere, came to mind and made him grind his teeth.

"We made it," Jane announced, looking out across the snowy expanse.

Loki didn't acknowledge her. For some reason the streaming tunnel of light didn't instantly die out as it should have.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"Heimdall should have shut it off by now."

"Maybe he's busy."

Fighting. He could very well be holding back the Dark Elven army. But he wouldn't leave the Bifrost open, not when it could destroy the planet and everyone on it. Unless he was dead. Which meant they would all soon die as well.

She tugged on their still-interlaced hands. "What aren't you saying?"

Jane. His chest ached for her. How was he supposed to tell her she would never get to finish her work, never see her loved ones again?

He faced her, caught her staring up at him, eyes full of worry, and swallowed. She truly was beautiful.

Loki smoothed back a lock of her hair, and, surprisingly, she didn't flinch away.

It would all be so much easier if she would just despise him. But he didn't think she had one hateful bone in her body, not in this life or any of the others. He certainly couldn't feel any such emotion from her. On Midgard, he'd sensed her so strongly. Maybe the effects of the bond was dampened offworld.

“Jane...” He took in an unsteady breath, his heart suddenly pounding. “I. This bond. You—” Words failed him. He was too used to hiding his emotions, too used to holding himself at a distance from everyone to say or even know how he he felt about her. He exhaled and tried again. "You were unexpected. And maybe—"

The tunnel's light flashed brighter, making them shield their eyes, then flickered in and out before erupting into an explosion that sent them flying through the air.

They collided with a mound of hard snow. Breath fled their lungs and left them coughing, gasping for air.

"What was that?" Jane finally asked, her teeth chattering slightly from the cold.

He stared at the spot where the tunnel had been, blinking back the bright spots still lingering in his vision. "The Bridge has been destroyed."

"How?"

"It's not impenetrable," Loki said harshly, pushing himself to his feet and away from her. Not only were they stuck in enemy territory as helpless as newborn babes, but Asgard had probably fallen to the Dark Elves.

Mother, he thought, pain lancing through him. They would surely kill her when they found out she had sent the Aether away. He looked at Jane, the box still hidden in her dress, and the pain nearly dropped him to his knees. Then they would kill her.

Chapter Text

Carrying a hot mug of chamomile tea, Darcy slipped into the dim lab, partly shut down for the night, and nodded up at Clint in the rafters. They called him Hawkeye, apparently because he was a superb shot. She was more inclined to think the name stemmed from him acting like a bird, nesting up there, watching everything, ready to attack like those annoying mockingbirds. Once, they had set up shop under the porch of her childhood house, and every time she had to use the front door they would dive-bomb her head. Annoying little suckers. She gave Clint a too-big smile and moved deeper into the large room.

Erik was hunched over a computer, its bright light bathing him in a sickly glow. That image could've been more from his sagging eyelids and wild hair, though. He must have run his hands through it a million times.

She pulled over a chair and sat next to him. "It's three in the morning. You should be in bed."

He said nothing. At least not to her. Mumbling to himself, his eyes darted side to side, taking in the computer's screen.

Right in his ear, she said, "Erik." He jerked back, looking around frantically, and she plopped the mug on the desk in front of him. "Go to bed."

"I'm working."

"Yes, but sleep is important for prime cognitive performance." She'd read that somewhere once and used it in her arguments with Jane. "You won't get her back if you make stupid mistakes that could've been avoided had you slept properly."

"How can I sleep? She could be in trouble, and we have the answer right here." He turned back to the computer. "I just have to..." He faded from her, mumbling again and eyes glued to the screen.

Darcy sighed.

oOoOo

"We need to move," Loki said without looking at Jane. "If our arrival didn't get anyone's attention, then the blast surely did."

Her teeth chattered as she stared at him, who just happened to be completely unaffected by the temperature. Jotunheim was freezing and that was with the amulet. She estimated death from hypothermia in approximately fifteen minutes for any unprotected humans. Maybe he was just better at hiding his discomfort.

Jane clamped her mouth shut and stood straighter.

And just what was with his sudden indifference towards her? For a moment before the Bifrost exploded, it seemed he actually cared for her, that the soulmate bond had affected him, imparting some warm feelings like it had for her. Instead, now he made the frosty air seem tropical.

Not that she should care. Because she didn't. Not truly.

"If Heimdall put us near the camp, then we should hear their noise. But I don't," he observed, gazing out at the snowy landscape made rough and uneven by jagged mountains, steep crags, broken ice shelves, and drifts of compact snow. "Do you?"

She couldn't talk, not if she didn't want him to see her as any weaker than he already did.

"What's wrong with you?" He finally looked at her. "Normally, I can't get you to stop asking questions."

In a large exhale that made her whole body resume shivering, she said, "Cold."

"Yes, it is."

"But”—she rubbed her arms to warm them—”you're not reacting the same as I am."

"Maybe your amulet is defective."

She shook her head. "I felt an odd energy pass over me as Frigga put it around my neck."

He was silent, even confused, by the look of him. "Let’s switch and see.”

As soon as she lifted the necklace overhead, she thought her lungs might seize, her eyeballs might freeze, and her nose and ears might fall off. She slipped it back on as fast as her numb fingers would allow, all the while holding her breath. That hurt worst of all.

Loki hadn't even had a chance to remove his. “I take it yours is working?”

“Yes.” Not fifteen minutes, she corrected herself, thinking of her estimated amount of time it would take to die of hypothermia. More like five.

“Then let's get moving. That should help warm you, at least."

They started in a direction with him in the lead. Snow piled around her ankles like hands gripping onto her. Wind fought her every step, pushing against her and stealing her breath. Eventually, little pellets of ice rained down on them, not hard enough to cause harm, just enough to make her even more miserable.

Minutes or hours later, the weather suddenly stilled, and she started to fall over from no longer having to fight the wind. Loki glanced back at her, then swung around and caught her before she landed on her face.

"I told Mother it was too dangerous," he said more to himself than to her. "You should have stayed with her."

"Dark Elves," she reminded him. Being in his arms warmed her blood more than she cared to admit.

He scoffed in response to her words and helped her stand on her own. "Yes, well..." He pulled his tunic off, completely bare from the hips up. Jane did her best not to stare at his lithe form.

"It's not much, but put this on," he said.

"But you—"

"Don't need it. Trust me,” Loki said. “It'll be colder when night falls. We need to find shelter.”

Without word, he turned, adjusting their course, and made their way toward a tall cliff face. Most of it was covered in snow, but some spots were bare. The rock seemed to reflect the soft light of the Jotunheim sun, like the glassy surface of a frozen pond.

So far, she'd seen no birds, no critters, no hardy shrubs or even insects. Besides the snow crunching under their feet and the sound of their breathing, it was quiet, eerily so.

By the time they reached the cliff face, he had to hold her to his side. The cold had begun to fade. She knew it wasn't a good sign, that she probably had hypothermia, but it was pleasant to not feel like her bones might rattle out of her icy skin.

“We're almost there,” Loki consoled her. “If I remember correctly, there should be an opening right here.”

He kicked at a mound of snow and knocked down some icicles to expose a curved aperture no higher than her waist. If she bent over, she might break in half.

After catching her dubious expression, he chuckled. Or maybe he read the bond. Except, he hadn’t mentioned any of her emotions since they left Earth. Securing her gaze on his face and not on his bare torso, she thought that was a good thing.

“Do you want me to drag you through?” he asked with a sly smile.

Unclenching her crossed arms was like trying to straighten a crooked branch, but she hardened her jaw and forced herself through the cave opening.

Once Loki stood beside her, he gestured to a dark patch in front of them. “It goes up. It'll be warmer there, but it'll also be darker.”

“I'll take it,” she said, her teeth still chattering.

He took her hand, and they followed a path that wound its way upward. All light was left at the opening. Darkness pressed against her like granite walls, quickening her pulse and filling her with adrenaline.

Surprisingly, she felt no panic, instead, finding her senses sharpened. The cave’s crisp, earthy scent tickled her nose. The crunch of dirt under their shoes echoed in her ears. His touch was a beacon. Just focusing on it pushed back those walls, giving her space to breathe. Too bad the adrenaline didn't keep her from tripping over every unseen rock. He tsked each time her stumble tugged on him.

“The path ends here,” Loki announced, pulling her to a stop. “We'll have to crawl on our stomachs to get inside. The space is small, but it'll hold our body heat enough to warm you.”

She nodded before remembering he couldn't see her. “Do you want to go in first?”

“You go. I'll block the opening with my body.”

Feeling around the cold rock, she lowered to her knees. Still no opening. He wasn't joking about getting on her belly. After doing so, she finally found the entrance into the cranny and slithered through. It wasn't big enough for her to stretch out, let alone for both of them to lie flat on their backs.

Loki came in right behind her. Literally, right behind her. Not apologizing for invading her space, he pushed in closer. He lined the front of his body against the back of hers and curled around her so perfectly they were a completed puzzle.

His warmth penetrated her marrow, and she snuggled closer to him, enjoying the softness of his relaxed muscles, like a firm pillow she wanted to burrow into. He tensed, but she didn't care. She didn't even care that part of her wanted to be free of him.

“How do you know so much about this planet?” she asked.

“Thor and I used to sneak here when we were children. We'd spy on the Jotunns, learn the terrain, and plan how to destroy our enemy.”

What an odd thing for children to do, but then they are a warrior race. “That's...nice?”

His exhale came out in a puff of laughter that caressed her neck and sent jolts through her body. She suppressed a shiver.

“When mother found out, she threatened to have my powers bound and to banish Thor to the library with only his tutor for a companion for the rest of our lives.”

She smiled, thinking of her mother’s overreaction to the time Jane had blown up the garage in one of her early experiments to build an Einstein-Rosen bridge using gasoline as her energy source. “Why weren't you allowed here? The war was over by then.”

“The treaty between our realms was tenuous at best. Children or not, we could've started another war.”

“I see.” She yawned. The all-pervading warmth was making her sleepy, but Loki seemed amiable to conversation, and she wanted to take advantage of it. “What were you going to say before the explosion?”

Silence passed for a long moment before he said, “Go to sleep, Jane Foster.”

She twisted around to look at him even though it was pointless in the absolute darkness. “Loki—”

“Forget it. It's not important anymore.”

“If it was important then, it's important now.” She could've sworn he felt something for her, more than the bond. Just thinking about it had her heart pounding against her ribs. It even overruled everything she kept telling herself about him: she didn't really know him (she hadn't had the time to), he was rude (except when he wasn't), he had killed her three times (because he was trying to survive), he killed that man (in defense), would've killed the woman if not for her (he listened to her), he didn't want the bond (maybe), she didn't want the bond...right?

“You and I are not meant to be. When the bond is severed, you'll see that.” He turned to face the opening and ended up scooting her away from him. “Now, get some sleep while you can.”

‘Liar,’ she wanted to say to him. He felt something for her. He was just too stubborn, too proud to admit it. Still, if he didn't want her, then she didn't want him. She turned her back to his and pressed herself closer to the rock wall away from him.

Maybe it was her exhaustion from everything she'd been through, maybe it was the fact she hadn't eaten in nearly twenty-four hours, but she fell asleep in a matter of seconds.

Jane awoke to a softly snoring Loki tucked behind her, arm around her waist and nose buried in her hair. Everything about her came to an abrupt stillness. Everything except her pulse. It leapt forward like a bucking bronco in a race for its life.

Then she remembered he'd said they weren't meant to be. And she elbowed him. Hard.

He jerked back and cracked his head on the low ceiling, blurting out an exclamation in another language. “What was that for?”

She lazily turned to face him, affecting innocence. “What was what for?”

“You struck me.” Before she could deny it, he added, “You're a poor liar, Jane Foster. Besides, in an hour I'll have a bruise as proof.”

“Well…” She was thankful for the darkness. Otherwise, he would see the color rising in her cheeks. “Sometimes I twitch in my sleep.”

“More like battle a rock troll,” he muttered, then shifted toward the opening. “Since we're up, we might as well get moving.”

She groaned, not looking forward to freezing again, and followed him out of the cave. The frigid air hit her like a slap to the face. She turned to retreat back into the cave, but Loki grabbed her arm.

“We must keep moving,” he said, not too unkindly.

She huffed and accidentally glanced at his coiled arm and chest muscles, glinting under the starlight. If she wasn't so cold, she'd give him his shirt back, just so the squirmy feeling deep in her abdomen would quit writhing every time she looked at him. Clearing her throat, she nodded for him to lead the way.

She followed Loki's steps to the tee, using his large footprints to help aid her progress. No more snow sucking at her feet. The weather wasn't all that bad either. There was no wind to fight and no ice pellets to bear. The dusky sky, sparkling with innumerable stars, cast a soft, almost magical light to the planet below.

Jotunheim really wasn't that bad.

Sure she shivered and wore her shoulders around her ears like a scarf, but this sort of cold she could adapt to. It reminded her of visiting Erik’s Swedish hometown and staying in the mountains for a night of stargazing.

Before she could take her next step, she collided into Loki's bare back. “I told you not to do that anymore.” How did he always know when her mind wandered?

“Quiet.” He spoke the word under his breath, so low she almost missed it.

Her gaze flew around them.

Nothing. Just the normal mounds of snow, icy crags, and dark mountains lining the distance.

Still, she heeded his warning, muscles tense and yet shaky.

Loki backed towards her. “When I say run,” he whispered, ”do so.”

“Loki.” Panic suddenly gripped her throat, and his name came out like a croak. Just what was out there? “I'm not leaving you.”

He shot her a level look. “That's just the bond talking.”

She returned his stare. How dare he tell her how she felt when she wasn't even certain.

Three mounds of snow near them lifted, standing taller than even Loki. Clumps of white fell from solid blue figures. Frost Giants, she realized. They were shirtless, lined with both hard muscles and some kind of markings she couldn't distinguish from her distance and the poor lighting. Their red eyes seemed to glow in the night like burning coals.

One of them spoke in a harsh, discordant language that grated her ears.

Loki responded in that language he'd used earlier.

She watched them all, a semicircle of blue beings centered around her and Loki. No one moved, including Loki, but at the same time, they seemed to coil, readying for a fight.

Loki lifted his chin, whether in disdain or defiance, she couldn't tell. He spoke again, and they appeared to laugh. The rough sound died and ice slid down their arms to form thick blades, extending far beyond where their hands had been.

When one of the Jotunns took a menacing step forward, Loki spun to face her. “Run!”

Chapter Text

Loki yelled for Jane to run.

The Jotunns hadn't believed Loki's lie that he was there to strike a bargain with them to get his magic back.

But, of course, she stayed. Blasted woman.

The Frost Giant in the center of the semicircle stalked toward them at a leisurely pace. The others didn't bother to move.

There was nothing he could do but distract them in hopes Jane might escape. That is, if she would ever leave. He swung around to face her. “Go.”

She shook her head, her gaze fixed on the Jotunns, eyes tight with worry.

He breathed out and clenched his hands into fists. “I. Don't. Want. You, a pathetic mortal, average in every way. Why do you think I killed you three times?” He gave her the hardest, most disgusted look he could manage and waited for her to turn her back to him.

She returned that level stare ounce for ounce, her jaw set.

Loki turned on his heel, nearly twitching from his frustration with Jane, and poured that into the rage he felt for the Jotunns. If they would have just died the day they tried to take the Casket of Ancient Winters like they were supposed to, he wouldn't be in this mess.

He slipped into a fighting stance and waited for the Jotunn to come to him.

The Frost Giant’s laughter was an avalanche in the distance. “Your courage is admirable, but you and the girl will still die this day.”

“What has been taken from me is my powers, not my hundreds of years of training.” Loki shifted, keeping the Jotunn from attacking his flank.

The Jotunn’s ice blade grew in length. “I will enjoy killing you.”

Ignoring him, Loki watched the Frost Giant's movements while counting, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

Time stretched, making each heartbeat linger, an echo in his ear.

One. The Jotunn’s torso twisted, blue muscles rippling.

Two. His arm raised. His weight shifted.

Three. Loki darted in.

The Frost Giant's swinging blade whooshed past his ear. One strike to the throat, one kick to the ankle bearing the Jotunn's weight, and Loki leapt out of the way.

The Jotunn flailed. A breeze fluttered Loki's hair as the Frost Giant crashed to his back, breath coming out in a rough grunt.

Stepping on the Jotunn's grotesque face, sharp ridges catching on his boot, Loki grabbed the ice blade, wrenching the attached arm to do his bidding, and thrust the weapon through the Frost Giant’s thick neck, corded with muscles and bulging with veins. Loki grit his teeth and pushed harder through bone and sinew. One moment, an endless struggle. The next, the ice blade slid effortlessly into the snow, severing head from body. It rocked free, surprise forever cemented on its face, eyes wide, mouth open, exposing jagged teeth and blue tongue.

Breathing hard, Loki turned to confront the others and found one nearly on him. He took a step back to prepare himself for another fight and tripped over the corpse. Snow buffeted his fall, but its dampness, moistened from sticky Jotunn blood, served to ensnare him. It was like trying to climb out of a tar pit.

The Frost Giant's long stride brought him closer. Too close. He raised his blade, ready to cleave Loki in two. One more step and Loki would be done for. His only thought was of Jane, not his lost powers or his position as Prince of Asgard. He searched her out, and, instead, saw a flash of brown hair, of green skirts and black tunic.

Jane slammed into the arm bearing down on Loki, making the Frost Giant stagger off balance. The two fell to the side as one.

Loki pulled himself free, trying to reach her before it was too late, before she was unwittingly stabbed through.

It wasn't him who reached her, though.

The last Jotunn, the tallest of the three, latched onto her neck and hoisted her in the air, while kicking at the Frost Giant on the ground. He snarled at him to get to his feet, calling him a disgrace. Loki’s eyes, ears, his everything focused on Jane.

She kicked at her assailant futilely and clawed at the hand squeezing her neck as she struggled for air.

“Let her go,” Loki demanded.

The two Jotunns redirected their anger for each other at him. Their hate-filled eyes pinned him to the spot. The air, growing more frigid and crisp, could've sprouted icicles.

Loki cursed himself. Their squabble would've been the perfect distraction, but he couldn't think clearly with Jane at their mercy.

“We watched Qatar die by your hand. Now you will watch her die at ours,” the one holding her said.

Dark blue, speckled with frost, spread out from his touch on her neck. She tried to gasp, to scream, but sound refused to come out and breath refused to flow in. She hung from his grip, wild-eyed and rigid, like a horror-filled statue.

“No!” he yelled. She couldn't die. Not now. Not ever. That insufferable woman was his. “Let her go!”

Something tickled the back of his mind, threads of musical notes, weak and distant, appearing and disappearing just as quickly. Loki shook his head and glared at the Jotunns.

The one holding Jane lifted her higher. Dark blue frostbite stretched up to her jaw, and she renewed her efforts to free herself, tilting her head back, as if trying to escape its death crawl, and lashing out more intensely. She was a cat backed in a corner, but only a cat. They were lions, hungry and ruthless.

Without thinking, Loki charged them.

But before he took two steps, a silver blur streaked by, ramming into the Jotunn holding Jane. They flew backwards, her hair whipping past her face, her skirts fluttering out. Thor swept in out of nowhere and caught Jane in one hand, his hammer in the other. He swung his arm in a wide circle and then the last Frost Giant was sailing through the starry sky far off into the distance.

A smiling Thor landed next to Loki with Jane draped over his shoulder. “Brother, it is good to see you.” He hooked his hammer to his belt, then clapped him on the shoulder, harder than he ever had before. “But where are your clothes? I don't believe I've ever seen you in such a state before.”

Loki stumbled backwards from the affectionate strike and glared at his brother, not caring that he was shirtless, bloody, and thoroughly disheveled.

Thor eyed him, his smile dropping. “So father did not return your powers? He didn’t send you here?”

“You know he would do no such thing.” Loki stood straighter. “Now, give me back Jane.”

“Who?”

“The woman so carelessly slung over your shoulder. Quick. She is injured.”

Thor gently lowered her to the ground, her eyes closed and face soft as if she were asleep.

Please let her be only unconscious and not… he couldn't finish the thought. Avoiding her blackened neck, he lifted her hand and touched her slender wrist to search for a pulse.

Thor breathed out through his mouth, almost a sigh. “Why bring a mortal here, Loki? This is no place for—”

“She's alive.” His ever-constricting chest loosened and, simultaneously, tightened at the implications of Thor's words. He, a mortal, wasn't supposed to be there either. “Where is the camp? Do you have healing stones, hot water?” When Thor didn't answer fast enough, he added, “Hurry, you lumbering oaf, she is dying.”

Thor's brows rose—Loki had never given voice to his insults before. “Keep going west.” He pointed in the direction, as if Loki didn't know where it was, frustrating him even more. “I will fly her there, then come back for you.”

“No, stay with her. Make sure she is well tended to.”

Thor nodded, bent to pick up Jane, and flew toward the camp.

Loki pushed back his tangled hair, his fingers trembling from the adrenaline still coursing through his veins. To burn it off, he started jogging without a backward glance at the headless Jotunn he'd killed. As a mortal, he thought victoriously.

Dark clouds rolled in, blocking the sun and casting a dreary grey over the bleak land. Wind followed quickly, a blast of stinging cold. Icy pellets rained down on him like a shower of needles. He welcomed it all, feeling invigorated and alive.

The moment he had landed on this forsaken planet, he'd felt stronger, as if coming out of a long hibernation. Wondering what that meant, he concluded it was because of how close he was to reclaiming his birthright.

And yet, while he was thriving, Jane would've surely died if they hadn't sought shelter for the night. The amulet’s magic must have a stronger effect on him. He wasn't born a mortal, after all. Asgardian blood ran through his veins.

Loki didn't realize he was nearing the camp until he was practically on the white tents. They seemed to disappear if he didn't look right at them. And the Asgardians were quiet. He could only hear the wind and the rumbling of an ice calving far off in the distance. No wonder he couldn't pick up its direction when he and Jane had landed.

Magic, he realized. They had magic-wielders amongst the warrior class. My, how things had changed.

“Halt!” a strong, feminine voice called before a golden-haired woman in snow-white armor stepped out from the magical camouflaging barrier. “State your name.”

He slowed to a stop. “Loki Odinson. Thor is expecting me.”

She nodded, hand still on the hilt of her scabbarded sword, eyes wary, and stepped aside.

Loki walked past her with his back straight and his nose in the air. As soon as he stepped through the barrier, the din hit him like Thor's fat fist. Metal on metal clanged as blacksmiths worked and soldiers trained, people chattered and laughed, animals snorted, bleated, and brayed. After such a quiet trek across Jotunheim, even with Jane and the brief fight, he wanted to cover his ears from the onslaught.

“This way,” she said, directing him down one of the slender makeshift roads between the rows of tents.

Soldiers and servants alike stopped and stared as he passed, whispers calling him a traitor and mutterings of surprise reaching him. Still, he held his head high, not acknowledging any of them, and followed her to the largest tent in what must have been the center of the camp. All other tents branched off it, like spokes on a wheel.

He looked for the magi, searching out their light robes. Known as scholars and inventors, they were never important enough to be brought on war campaigns. Loki had been the first. Maybe, after three hundred years of fighting, Odin was low enough on manpower to send the magi.

Two hooded figures—magi—passed from one tent to another, and Loki strained to see them just as they disappeared from view. He could've sworn one of them had carried a basket. None of the warriors would ever lower themselves to perform support duties.

Loki's excitement fled him in one long exhale. The magi were here, but they were still not equal to the Warriors. Not yet, at least.

His escort stopped in front of the large tent, held open the flap, and let it fall behind him as he walked inside. The delicious aroma of warm bread and meat nearly bowled him over. His stomach twisted and growled.

“Someone is hungry,” Volstagg said. He sat on one of the plush couches circling a fire, while rubbing something on his blackened forearm, which looked just like the mark on Jane’s neck.

”You're one to talk,” Fandral countered. “Aren't you always hungry?” Then he directed his gaze to Loki. “And just why are you shirtless?”

Ignoring him, Loki strode over to the larger man and grabbed his forearm. “When did you get this?’

Volstagg snatched it back. “Just what are you up to?”

Loki shot him a look. “Answer me.”

His red brows furrowed. “Not long after the war started. Why?”

That was hundreds of years ago. If they couldn't heal an Asgardian, they most certainly wouldn't be able to heal a mortal. “Where's Jane?”

“The Midgardian?” Hogun asked.

Loki swung around to look at the dour, dark-haired man standing at a table, sharpening his blade on a wet stone. “Yes. Thor brought her maybe a couple hours ago.”

He pointed off to the side. “In his room.”

The three of them watched Loki as he nearly ran to the hallway made of thick cloths. Red carpets lined the floor and kept the entire space nicely insulated. Too insulated. Sweat beaded on his forehead and stuck his hair to the back of his neck.

Loki touched the cloth door and hesitated. What if she was dead? No, he would've surely felt the bond vanish. Her emotions might be concealed to him now for whatever reason, but that would never be. Steeling himself, he eased back the coarse material.

Jane sat, leaning against several pillows, under the covers of a large, stately bed, smiling with eyes that twinkled as she listened to Thor. He was next to her, legs swung over the edge with boots on the floor, talking animatedly, no doubt telling her of one of his many conquests. And Jane was eating it up. Loki's hand fisted around the tent flap.

She seemed well, not counting the frostbite still marring her slender neck. A tray of half-eaten food was on the small table next to the bed, along with the same container of cream Volstagg had at his side. Maybe the mark was just a scar and nothing more.

“Loki,” Jane said, finally aware of his presence. “Your brother has been telling me stories of your adventures.” She laughed and his heart fluttered.

“Come in, Brother,” Thor said. “Do not stand sulking by the door.”

Loki’s jaw ticked. “I was not sulking.” He walked in and noticed Sif standing in the corner, far from them, her arms crossed and her face dark. Still pining for Thor. He smiled at her as he passed. Stopping at the foot of the bed, Loki asked, “How is she?”

I am fine,” Jane said before Thor could answer. “Just tired, that's all.”

“What of the frostbite?”

She shifted. “It's nothing. I just have to keep using this cream and make sure I don't fatigue myself.”

She was lying. It was as obvious as the room’s suffocating warmth. His jaw ticked again, but he let her have her falsehood for now. He had other methods of finding out what was truly wrong with her.

“Just how did you find us?” he asked Thor. His brother always just happened to save the day somehow, thank the Norns.

Thor puffed up and smiled at Jane. “Yes, you are lucky I was nearby, flying patrol duty, aren't you?”

Jane returned the smile. “Tell me more about this Soul Forge. I think I know how it works.”

He laughed, clearly not believing her. If he only knew just how clever she was.

“You'd have to ask Eir,” Thor said. “I only understand just the very basics of it. But if you learned how to track and utilize the portals, then I am certain you could figure out anything.”

Loki's jaw dropped. Thor was sincere in his belief in her intellect. Thor was kind, patient, caring. He was almost a different person from how Loki remembered him. Where was his gloating, his self-centered, holier-than-thou attitude? And why was he watching Jane like she was a star fallen from the heavens?

Sif stepped to Loki and said, “Come, Lady Jane said you haven't eaten in over twenty-four hours. Not that I care, but Thor asked me to make sure you find sustenance.”

Loki didn't want to move, didn't want to leave Thor and Jane alone together, but Sif grabbed his arm and hauled him out of the room.

“What exactly is going on back there?” Loki asked, too stunned to remember the enmity between him and Sif.

“I think he is enamored.” Her voice was tight as she led him to the dining room. “He has been by her side since the moment he brought her, holding her hand as the healers dusted her with the stones, calming her when she finally regained consciousness, feeding her, talking with her—”

“About what?” He couldn't imagine them having anything in common.

“Everything. Her life, his, yours. Asgard. Yggdrasil. He explained what her necklace was, how magic works. What he could not answer, he promised to send others who could. She's insatiable.”

That he knew, but he had always refused to talk with her...refused her. And now she was content with Thor. His molars might crack if he grit his teeth any harder. “Did she talk of soulmates?” Loki asked cautiously.

She shook her head and he nearly breathed out in relief. “Why?” Sif asked. “Is she yours?”

Loki laughed, doing his best to keep it condescending and not strained. Grabbing the ladle hanging near the big soup pot, he scooped thick stew into a bowl and said, still half laughing, “Of course not, that only works on Midgardians.”

She sat on a bench lining the long table and watched him carefully. “You are mortal now, are you not? You wear the same protective necklace as she does.”

He'd completely forgotten about the thing. “Yes, but I don't have Midgardian blood.” That obviously wasn't how the magic worked, but she didn't know that.

Sif nodded and tapped her fingers on the table, lost in thought.

Loki sat across from her and took a tentative bite of the stew. Familiar spices and hardy vegetables blended together with savory meat to make for an appetizing dish. It reminded him of home, of all the years he'd missed. His tense muscles uncoiled, and he took his time consuming the food, partly because Sif was still with him and he had to maintain his dignity, but also because he wanted to enjoy every spoonful.

“Do you love her?” Sif asked out of nowhere.

Loki nearly choked on his food. “Love?”

“I saw the way you looked at her...at them,” she added bitterly.

“Absolutely not. She's a mortal.” For some reason, he couldn't look her in the eyes. “Besides, I will soon be a prince again, and there is no place for her in Asgard. Odin would forbid it.”

She brightened considerably. Slapping the table hard enough to make his dishes rattle, she stood and said, “You're right!” Then just before she left him alone in the dining room, she turned to face him. “Oh, and, Loki, put a shirt on. Nobody should be subjected to such a sight.”

Her words might as well have been the howling wind outside for all he cared. His mind was thoroughly elsewhere.

Did he love Jane Foster? Loki studied his spoon, examining all of his encounters with her from a different angle. Was it possible?

Chapter Text

A crackling ball of blue energy erupted in the control center, at first the size of a pin prick, then expanding wide enough for a person to step inside.

Darcy whooped. “You did it,” she shouted to Erik over the loud hum of power coursing from the Tesseract to the portal. The overhead lights flickered continuously, creating a strobing effect, and the blue artifact was brighter than ever. All they needed was some house music and glow sticks, and they'd have a decent rave on their hands.

“Excuse you,” Tony hollered back at her, “I think you meant we did it.” He gestured to himself and Erik.

“Eh, you had your part.” She grinned at him. He was a good guy, and he liked to banter. Her smile widened as she remembered how surprised he had been when he'd first met her, discovered she knew all of his obscure references, and could hold her own against his quick wit.

“None of this would've happened without the vibranium SHIELD supplied,” Fury declared, staring at the portal, all dark and solemn. “Not to mention the Tesseract.”

The director was an intimidating man, even if you discounted the black leather and eyepatch, but, thankfully, Darcy had a labrador personality and a Teflon exterior. If she could handle Jane on one of her wild science binges, she could handle anyone.

The rest of the team watched the monitors, tracking the readouts, and doing other science-y things. Their excitement showed in their bright eyes and the little zip to their movements.

“What now?” she asked.

Fury glanced at the clock on the wall and raised his hand for Erik to turn off the Tesseract. The portal vanished the same time as the lights returned back to normal and the noise level dropped, leaving behind a soft ringing in her ears. “Now we learn how to focus the portal on a particular destination,” the director said.

“To find Jane,” Erik added, eyeing him pointedly.

Fury nodded. “I want a full report of the experiment on my desk in an hour, along with possible methods to locate her.” Then he spun on his heel, his trench coat billowing out with his sudden movement, and stalked toward the entrance.

When the doors closed behind him, Tony said, “Finally, I thought he'd never leave.” He fished his car keys out of his pocket and jingled them. “Who's up for a celebratory drink? I'm buying.”

Darcy strolled over to him, blowing a bubble from her gum, then popped it as she snatched the keys from him. “And I'm driving.” Not that it was far: just on the other side of the compound. Knowing Erik's answer before she asked, she looked at him. “You coming?”

He was already sitting at his workstation, flipping through the readouts. “No, but you go. Along with the rest of you.” He lifted his head to take in the entire team. “You all deserve a break. Just don't be gone for long. We need to plan our next move.”

Darcy had a couple ideas on how to focus the Tesseract on Jane. “Got a spare suit you can lend me?” she asked Tony. He had extra, had even let her go on a joyride twice, always on autopilot, though, regardless of how much she pleaded.

His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Why?”

“Just a couple things I need to pick up from Jane’s trailer.”

“Okay, but Pepper has a no drinking and flying policy.”

She shrugged, unconcerned. “Trailer first, drinks later.”

oOoOo

Jane had finally stayed awake long enough to figure out the camp’s schedule: council meetings every morning and night, some of which Thor attended, patrol rotations every hour announced by soft bells that rang through the camp, and a raid or skirmish every day.

Three days had passed since the Jotunn had tried to kill her, three days of constant pain that lessened to discomfort only when it was finally time to apply the healing cream. She would slather it on every waking moment if they weren't rationing it—rationing everything now that Asgard was unable to send supplies and food.

The news of the Bridge’s destruction apparently hadn't gone over well for morale. She'd heard that little tidbit from a couple servants cleaning her room, speaking low but not low enough to actually be quiet. Not only did they think humans were fragile creatures, they thought she was deaf too.

Jane smiled at that and listened for the two women. It wasn't time for them to show, but she had to be certain.

The everyday drone of the camp filtered in from outside the tent like a low hum spiked occasionally with a clatter of noise. Inside, however, silence greeted her.

Tossing off her covers, she slipped into the farm dress she'd stolen back on Asgard, now properly fitted. The small container of cream went into one pocket of her skirts and Frigga’s box went into the other. She threw on Thor’s thick red cloak he'd given her—it encompassed her entirely, even dragging on the floor— tiptoed to the cloth door, and poked her head out into the hallway.

More silence.

Creeping out, she made it into what could be considered the foyer, and froze as a couple voices swept in from the dining room.

Fandral lavished kisses on one of the scullery maids’ neck, who giggled insistently, while walking her back toward his room. With his face buried into her hair and her eyes squeezed shut, neither of them saw Jane standing out in the open like a deer caught in headlights.

As soon as they disappeared around the corner, she slipped out the front of the tent. Two very tall, very broad honor guards in full armor stood on either side of the entrance with hands on broadswords. They looked back, then down at her, brows lowering. Her steps faltered, but she straightened her back and kept moving.

When she was too far for them to stop her, she allowed herself to breathe. They wouldn't have done anything except keep her locked in the tent, but if she stayed in there a moment longer, she would go stir-crazy. They couldn't keep her on bedrest for the entire war. She needed fresh air and mental stimulation. She needed her freedom.

Several soldiers passed by, looking down at her with confusion evident on their faces. A hooded man observed her with eyes that were bright and sharp, reminding her of Loki. Some women carrying baskets tucked under their arms stared at her for even longer. Most kept walking without a second glance. All were taller than she was. Every single one.

Jane turned down the nearest row of tents and moved toward a small clearing where several groups of men and women played some sort of game, laughing and teasing one another. It reminded her a bit of American football, except without pads or helmets.

As she walked by, the man running with a golden ball—metal, by the look of it—evaded the other players trying to block his path or knock his feet out from under him, and threw the ball up in the air just as a woman tackled him to the snow-covered ground. Jane grimaced at the sound of the hard collision, but then the metal sphere expanded, splitting into bits and pieces that rotated around a smaller ball. Her mouth fell open.

Stumbling to a stop, she almost tripped over her cloak in her haste to better see the hovering object. It was magnificent, twirling around in a spiraling pattern while maintaining its height.

Another player leapt up and snatched the smaller ball out of the air, despite two people trying to stop him. The other pieces dropped to the ground as if their supporting invisible strings had been cut. One team hooted and hollered, slapping hands and backs. The other heckled them while laughing boisterously.

“Care to play?” a deep voice asked.

Jane blinked.

A sweaty, long-haired male, tossing another golden ball, looked straight at her.

Glancing around and finding no one else paying them any attention, she asked, “Me?”

A woman walked up behind him and thumped him on the ear. “That is the Midgardian, Askel. Thor would have our hides if we killed her.” She pulled his arm to haul him away. “Come on.”

“I knew that,” he grumbled. “I was just having some fun.”

“Excuse me,” Jane called. When they stopped and turned to her, she asked, “What is that?”

They looked at each other, then at her.

“A ball,” the man said slowly.

“I know that, but what powers it?”

“It's a ball,” he repeated.

Jane sighed. “May I see it?”

oOoOo

They used magnetic propulsion and interpolarity to achieve levitation, not just for the ball but for moving heavy objects with ease. They had a quantum field generator in the medical tents, and braziers that used no fire, electricity, friction, chemical or any other reaction that she could observe without the necessary equipment. Apparently, it was the same heat source used for cooking and warming water to bathe and clean.

She wanted to continue exploring, but her frostbite burned enough to take her breath away. Plus, her legs wobbled worse than jello. She'd kept careful track of the time—only one hour had passed and yet her body felt like she'd spent the day trudging up Mount Everest during a blizzard.

Jane leaned against the post of a tent and wiped the sweat from her brow. Her fingers trembled and her head swam. The cream. She wasn't supposed to apply it for another hour, but—

Her knees gave way and she slid down the post, plopping to the snow with a groan. Black spots appeared in her vision.

Slipping her hand into her pocket, she searched for the familiar round container and found nothing.

Jane's heart shot to her throat. She needed the cream to not only take the edge off, but to stop the frostbite from spreading. Overexertion hastened the advancement. But she'd only been walking, talking...tearing apart braziers to get to the source of their power, fleeing the medical tent after the staff caught her poking around the quantum field generator.

The trembling crawled up her arms. Coldness settled over her like a layer of ice. Her teeth chattered.

She was in the later stages. How long had they said she would have before it killed her? She wracked her brain. Ten minutes. Maybe twenty. Not long.

Closing her eyes, she inhaled cool, crisp air: lungs filling, belly expanding. Then she exhaled warm, moist air: lungs emptying, belly flattening.

After several more deep, calming breaths, Jane crawled to her hands and knees, gripped the post, and climbed to her feet.

She had to find the cream before it was too late.

Deciding to backtrack, Jane made her legs move, her feet lift so as to not drag them through the ankle-deep snow, and doggedly worked her way back to the dismantled brazier. Except a sea of people were out now, flowing from all around, and swept her up in their current.

Before she knew it, she was further from her destination, not closer. Arms and legs surrounded her like swinging prison bars, trapping her in the forward movement. The Asgardians towered over her, didn't notice her, and would probably even trample her. She was a mouse amongst a herd of giraffes.

“Excuse me,” she said, attempting to turn around, to push her way to the side, to do something besides end up in the food tents on the opposite side of the camp. “I need to get by.”

A man glanced down at her, but continued to talk to the person next to him.

Jane squeezed between them, then several more people, fighting her way to the side, to not panic. But her heart raced as fast as her spinning mind. She needed the cream, her wound burned, stung, throbbed, she was freezing and tired and couldn't breathe, and she needed the cream. She needed the cream.

Her gaze darted around, and she found an opening. Leaping for it, she landed on unsteady legs, stumbled forward, and fell to her hands and knees. Jane scooted away from the endless stream of clomping feet, curled into a trembling ball, and wrapped the cloak tightly around her even though it did nothing to stop the coldness from spreading.

She was exhausted worse than the week she'd spent pulling all-nighters in college. All she wanted to do was close her eyes and sleep. But that wasn't the correct thing to do, right? Jane couldn't remember. She had a pillow for a brain. A nice, soft, fluffy pillow.

Her eyelids drooped, then slid shut completely.

oOoOo

Loki grabbed the ladle, stared at the soup pot with the bubbling stew, then sat the ladle back on the stand. He turned to go, but hesitated. Jane could be hungry. It was lunch, after all.

Picking up the ladle again, he reached forward, the steam rising from the stew warming his hand, and paused. The servants might have already brought her food before they left for their own lunch break.

Setting it back down again, he turned around. Unless they hadn't.

Grinding his teeth, he snatched up the ladle, filled the bowl, and walked out of the dining room into Jane’s chambers only to find her gone.

His stomach dropped.

She wasn't in her bed. Her cream wasn't on the nightstand. Her shoes and Thor's cloak were gone. That blasted woman had snuck out. Unless Fandral was with her, which didn't make him feel any better.

Loki went to put the bowl of stew back in the dining room and stopped at the sound of giggling. It was too high-pitched to be Jane’s, but no one else was supposed to be here except her and Fandral.

Dropping the bowl on a slender table lining the curtained wall, he followed the sound toward the Warriors Three’s rooms.

A low groan had his hands tightening into fists.

Barging into the tiny-brained, good-for-nothing Asgardian’s room, he demanded, “Where is Jane?”

The scullery maid squeaked and rolled off Fandral, covering herself with his bed linen. A blush colored her cheeks, and she kept her eyes on the floor.

Fandral sat up, not caring that he was completely bare. “I am busy, Loki. Now is not the time for your games.”

“You were supposed to watch her,” he growled.

“She's in her room.”

“If she were, I would not have to inflict this wretched sight upon myself.” It was certainly one he had never wanted to see and would do his best to forget.

Fandral’s eyes widened, and he jumped out of bed to slip on his breeches. “She's not?”

Loki grit his teeth—the fool knew nothing—and stormed out of the tent. Stopping in front of the guards, he asked, “Where did the Midgardian go?”

One pointed to the side.

Loki ran. He didn't care that people were casting him sidelong looks, muttering under their breath. She was on bed rest for a reason. He didn't know exactly why—she refused to tell him, and Thor honored her desire—but it obviously wasn't because she was healthy.

A man putting away a ball told him she'd been at the field an hour ago, and a couple soldiers saw her pass by their tent. There was a small group of magi strengthening the wards surrounding the camp that could have seen her, but Loki avoided them. He hadn't spoken to a magi since he cast off the hooded cloak and thousands of years of tradition. They could not see how they limited themselves in magic nor how they subjugated themselves to the warrior class.

When a nurse told him Jane had been chased out of the medical tent, he rolled his eyes.

Blasted woman, poking around when she could've easily secured a meeting to examine whatever she wanted. With Thor at her fingertips, she could do anything.

Then he found a brazier broken down to its components, and he suppressed a chuckle. She would be declared a menace to society.

The streets were mostly empty now that lunch was officially underway, and, still, he couldn't find her. He was about to check back at the tent when he caught sight of red cloth partly buried in a heap of snow near another tent.

Thor's cloak.

Jane.

He darted to the mound, then with his bare hands, he pushed away the slush half obscuring her—the cold having no effect on him—and ripped away the red cloth.

Curled into a ball, Jane was as still and as cold as a lump of ice. He scooped her up and ran to the medical tents, careful not to jostle her too much.

“Is she well?” Fandral asked, suddenly on Loki's heels.

Loki ignored him and pushed through the flaps, calling for someone to help Jane.

A man went to take her from his arms, but Loki stared at him. Hard. Instead, the medic directed him to a side room where they removed her freezing clothes—Loki refused to leave, not even to protect her modesty—and applied the ointment to her neck and top half of her chest.

His knees nearly gave out. The frostbite had spread.

“What is happening to her?” he asked as they dusted her with the healing stones.

“She's dying.”

They must have assumed he'd been talking about her hypothermia. “No, I mean with the frostbite.”

“We can only slow its spread. There's no stopping it. It will eventually kill her.”

“That can't be.” Asgard had the highest technology, the most advanced medicine...and yet couldn't entirely cure Volstagg.

“She is fine for now,” the medic said, “but this incident has hastened her decline.”

“But—” An apprentice rushed in past him with self-warming blankets, and they covered Jane nearly head to toe.

“If you'll excuse us, we need to focus on her.”

The men and women didn't look at him as he nodded and drifted out of the room.

Jane was dying.

His heart thudded in his ears, but it was a distant echo. He moved, he breathed, but he felt nothing.

Jane was dying.

He rubbed a hand over his face and found himself sitting in a chair, still in the medic tent. It was silent, yet people’s mouths moved, a basket was dropped and items spilled out, and someone struck their boots to knock off snow before fully entering the tent.

Thor barged in, nearly running over the person cleaning his shoes, and went straight to Loki, saying or maybe asking something. Loki just blinked.

‘Do you love her?’ Sif’s question rang in his head. It had been haunting him the past several days. ‘Do you love her?’

Yes, he did. He loved Jane Foster, a Midgardian, mortal, weak...clever, tenacious, kind.

Admitting such sentiment almost had him hyperventilating. His head fell into his hands, and he curled his fingers into his hair.

He loved her, and now she was dying.

Chapter Text

“You think it'll work?” Darcy asked Erik. She watched him fiddle with the Bridge. The containment unit was now only used when they wanted to keep the artifact dormant, which wasn't very often. Not with Erik working nonstop.

He typed commands into the computer situated on the blunted end of the Bridge. “I hope so. If it doesn't, that could mean it isn't functioning properly, or DNA isn't the correct method to locate someone, or Jane…”

Was dead, Darcy finished what Erik had left unvoiced. It weighed on her enough to make her stay silent instead of gloating for thinking of using Jane's DNA to begin with, and then to have provided the hairbrush that held several of her boss lady’s strands. There'd been much gloating already. Perhaps she was was bored of it.

Nah.

Tony patted Darcy on the shoulder as he passed her to reach Erik. “Ready?” he asked the older man.

“Almost.”

“Fury should be here in several—”

The doors opened, and marching footfalls reverberating in the concrete room grabbed everyone’s attention. A squadron of SHIELD soldiers in black combat gear with rifles tucked in their arms streamed in and encircled the round chamber where the portal would appear. Fury walked in behind them, along with Natasha and an armed Barton on his heels.

They looked ready for war.

Damn it, Darcy had forgotten to grab her stun gun from Jane’s trailer.

“Where's your suit?” the director asked Tony.

“Relax, don't get your boxers in a bunch—or do you wear briefs? Go commando?” He shook his head and lifted his hand. “No, I don't want to know.” Walking over to the empty suit, a silent sentry standing at the ready, he added, “You're early. I was just about to put it on.”

The metal pieces opened in a series of snips, clicks, and whirs, as if a zipper had been pulled straight down the back of it, and Tony stepped inside. Everything cinched together seamlessly in a matter of seconds.

His faceplate raised, and he clomped over to them. “See. No fuss, no muss.”

“Let's hope the operation goes just as smoothly.”

The Bridge beeped, and Erik said, “It's ready.”

“Everyone in position,” Fury announced.

In unison, the soldiers’ rifles snapped up, aiming where the portal would be.

Natasha appeared behind Darcy, making the younger woman nearly jump out of her skin.

“Holy bananas.” Darcy placed a hand over her chest to soothe her poor fluttering heart. “You trying to scare me to death?”

A half-smile gave the redhead a sly look, like a crafty fox. “You should stand with the other civilians.”

“Why? I'm not afraid of what might come out of that portal.”

“Everyone knows you're very brave, Ms. Lewis—”

“I told you to call me Darcy.”

“—but you still need to stand with the civilians.”

“Did you call me brave?” Darcy stood taller. “‘Cause I've always thought so. I mean, Jane pulls all these crazy stunts, but that's because she's obsessed, you know? Whereas I—”

“Fine, just stay behind me.”

Darcy saluted her. “Yes, ma'am.” Erik’s counting down filtered into her awareness, and she stood on her tiptoes to see around Nat. Come on, Jane. Be there. Be alive.

A hum filled the air, lights flickered, the Tesseract shone like a blue sun, and an energy beam shot out of the Bridge.

The portal expanded. Rather than an empty black filling the center, white, blue, and grey appeared. Something was on the other side.

Darcy craned her neck to see better. A white wall. No, it looked softer, more like sturdy cloth.

Snow drifted into the chamber, then gushed in with a burst of icy wind. Her skin prickled with goosebumps and her teeth wanted to chatter with the shivers coursing through her body. Holy hell. Was Jane on Hoth?

The soldiers surrounding the portal took a step back, then another before falling to the floor like knocked-over statues.

A layer of frost spread out from the portal, coating the ground, the energy stabilizing panels, the curved wall.

“Shut it off,” Fury yelled.

Erik’s hanging mouth snapped closed, and he typed the commands into the computer. A second later, the portal vanished.

“We need a team of medics down here right now,” the director said into his comms as Barton and Nat rushed to the soldiers.

Darcy blinked. Her skin felt frozen.

“What was the temperature?” Fury asked.

“Two hundred eighteen degrees below zero,” Tony answered. “Nearly messed with my systems.”

Barton sighed and stood from the soldier he'd been attempting to touch. “They must be dead.”

“I'm not getting any readings on them,” Tony said.

Fury rubbed his brow. “Did anyone catch what was on the other side?”

“A tent.” Tony shrugged, his suit whirring softly with the movement. “That's what JARVIS claims, at least. Thermography couldn't pick up anything.”

“Where was the portal connected?” Fury seemed to wonder aloud.

Everyone, including the scientists, looked at each other, completely dumbfounded. Darcy was sticking to her Hoth theory, and, so long as she didn't have to wear a Tauntaun, she didn't care how cold the mystery planet was. She would go there herself and get Jane, even pull her out by the scruff of her neck if she was all caught up in exploring a new world, which was more than likely.

Erik said something under his breath as the doors burst open, and a slew of people pushing stretchers barged in.

“What was that, doctor?” Fury asked.

“Jotunheim.” He collapsed in a chair. “If Asgard is real, the Frost World must be as well.”

Darcy jerked forward. “Jane asked Loki if he was a Frost Giant. He said he wasn't, but what if he lied? What if he took her there instead of Asgard?”

“Giants?” Barton grumbled. “Great.”

“There's no way she'd be alive then,” Erik said, trying to not look at the frozen soldiers being wrapped in blankets and hauled onto the stretchers. “They didn't last a minute.”

“She has to be alive,” Tony declared. “Otherwise, the Bridge wouldn't have found her.”

“Why would he take her there?” Fury asked. “What's his motive? His goal?”

Tony stepped out of his suit as if walking out of an elevator. “Give me two days and I'll have the suit ready for an expedition.”

Fury nodded, then looked at Natasha. “Have Rogers brought in too.”

“Not Capsicle,” Tony groaned.

oOoOo

Jane walked—shuffled—toward the dining room, as Loki stepped out with a bowl of stew. He stopped just shy of running her over.

“What are you doing out of bed?” he asked.

“I'm fine, Loki.” She eyed the bowl. “Is that for me?”

He looked down at it as if he'd forgotten it was in his hand. “Yes. No.” His gaze darted to hers. “You slept in and the servants had to run an errand, so I…”

She smiled. “That's very kind of you, but you don't have to be nice to me because you're the one who found me...like that.” She couldn't say, almost dead. Just thinking of it made her shiver.

“Are you cold? Do you want me to get you a cloak?”

Lifting a hand, she said, “No, I'm fine.” When he looked ready to argue, she added, “Honestly, I'm fine. Just a little hungry.”

“Wouldn't you rather eat in bed? The wooden benches are surprisingly not up to par for a royal tent.”

“If I don't get up, I'm going to get bedsores.” She eyed him warily. “Why are you being so nice? ”

He shifted on his feet. “Well, I. You see. It's just that—”

“Look, your secret is safe with me.” He began to protest, but she lowered her voice and continued. “I won't tell anyone you're bonded to a lowly mortal.”

He winced, but then his brows furrowed. ”How did you know I haven't spoken of that?”

Grabbing the bowl from his hands, she walked into the dining room. “People would act differently. They'd ask questions, perform tests, and do who knows what else.”

He followed her in. “True, but—”

“It's okay. You're keeping my secret, I'll keep yours. And, soon enough, you'll be free of the bond. No one will ever have to know.” She winked at him conspiratorially and sat down on the bench nice and slow. Her entire body ached as if she'd been in a skiing accident, except there were no bruises or scrapes for proof.

“Your secret?” he asked.

Ready to eat, her spoon paused halfway to her mouth. “The box your mother gave me. Are you sure you aren't the one not feeling well?”

“I honestly don't know anymore,” he mumbled, his focus solely on the table.

He did seem a little strange, but she'd chalked it up to him finding her halfway dead. That would shake up anyone, soulmate or no. He'd been hovering around her, rarely leaving her side. Unless Thor came to visit. Then he hightailed it out of there without a look back at them. As a matter of fact, she rarely ever saw the two together anymore.

On the verge of asking him about his suddenly-strained relationship with his brother, Loki said, “I should let you have some peace and quiet. The others will be back from patrol soon.”

“Wait, I've been thinking about the box actually. You said it held an ancient and formidable power. What is it exactly? How can it be trapped inside this tiny box?” She slipped it out of her pocket and placed it on the table.

“Put that away before someone sees it.” He turned to leave.

“So others will know what the runes mean?” she asked while secreting it away again.

He stopped. “Probably not. No one studies the ancient languages anymore. Not even the magi.”

“Then tell me.”

“No.”

“If I'm to hide and protect it, then I should know. Maybe I can use it to help stop the Dark Elves.”

He spun to face her. “You shouldn't use it. Ever.”

“Why?”

“Because it would kill you.”

The intensity in his eyes made her swallow. After a long moment of them staring at each other, the world disappearing, she whispered, “I'm dying anyway. The least I can do is help save our worlds.”

He deflated and sat across from her. “It's called the Aether…”

She had a hard time wrapping her head around a substance that could destroy everything and remake it into whatever the bearer chose, let alone why the Dark Elves hated life so much. There'd been a war, and the Aether had been hidden from everyone, yet his mother had found it and sealed it away in the box Jane held in her hands. The runes were a nearly extinct protection spell, disguising its energy signature enough so the Dark Elves couldn't easily locate it.

“So,” Jane said, “Malekith has to absorb it in order to use it.”

He nodded reluctantly.

Leaning forward, she asked, “Can anyone use it? Will it absorb the same way? Work the same?”

“We're done.” He got to his feet, and Jane grabbed his hand. Surprisingly, he didn't pull back.

“Loki. Please.”

He sighed. “Yes, it would be the same for anyone. But the Aether would consume a mortal body, killing it.”

“Well, maybe your mother saw the Jotunn touch me and knew the frostbite would eventually kill me. Maybe that is why she gave me the Aether.”

“No, she wouldn't. Not if she foresaw—” he bit off whatever else he was going to say.

“It makes sense, Loki. You have to admit it.” That he gave no excuses meant he knew it too, emboldening her to go on. “I'm going to tell Thor so we can strategize”—Loki barked a laugh, but she ignored him—“coordinate an attack, clear a path for me to do what I have to, or—”

“Thor will just get in the way. Trust me.”

“Nice to know you think so highly of me, brother,” Thor said, stepping into the room with them.

Loki stiffened, and Jane started, spilling her stew on the table. She dabbed at the mess with her napkin, fixing her gaze on the mess she’d created instead of at them.

“It is true, is it not, brother?” Loki asked. “How many times have you rushed into a situation without thinking? How many incidents has your rashness caused? Not that you ever had to pay for them,” he finished with a tone that could draw blood.

Thor sighed. “Father should not have done what he did to you.” His leather attire creaked as he moved toward the table. Every fiber of Jane’s being wanted to look up at them. She imagined Loki glaring at him. The two at a standoff.

“You must know,” Thor continued, “I did everything I could to change his mind. I did not want your banishment, even after finding out you had brought the Jotunns to Asgard that resulted in them attaining the Casket.”

Although the stew’s liquid had been absorbed, Jane continued wiping the table, pushing around the solids as she listened.

“My plan did not turn out so well, but I won't apologize for it,” Loki declared. “Not ever.”

Jane could've thrown her dirty napkin at him. Thor was trying to make peace, and Loki might as well have spat in his face.

The silence stretched to a razor-thin edge. One wrong move and heads would roll. She considered burrowing through the carpets for an escape.

“Lady Jane,” Thor announced.

Her gaze jerked up. “Yes?”

“I came here to inform you the lead engineers will be meeting with you today.”

She shot to her feet, knocking her bowl over and spilling the rest of its contents onto the table. “Me?”

He beamed as Loki scowled. “Can you be ready in an hour?”

“Of course.” She climbed over the bench and scurried as quickly to him as her sore legs would allow. After a rushed thank you—and a furtive glance at a disgruntled Loki, she hurried to her room to wash up.

oOoOo

“You cannot have her,” Loki said to Thor once Jane was gone. He fought for control over his anger, but found his hold to be a frayed thread latched to a jagged boulder.

“I don't think anyone can truly have her.”

Loki stood, his jaw ticking. “You know what I mean.”

“Speak plainly then, brother.” Thor appeared calm, his hands hanging limp at his sides. “Do you have claim to her?”

“She—” Loki wanted to say that she was his soulmate, not Thor’s or anyone else’s. Instead, he snapped his mouth shut.

Thor sighed. “Do you know she treats me normally? I am not mighty Thor, wielder of Mjolnir, leader of the Asgardian army, Crowned Prince of Asgard beholden only to the Council. She wants nothing from me, has no expectations. I can breathe when I'm around her.”

“So get a dog,” Loki retorted. “She's here for one reason only, and that doesn't include either you or me.”

“Tell me, then.” He threw up a hand in frustration. “Why did mother send two mortals to Jotunheim? How can you possibly help end the war?”

Loki ground his teeth. He couldn't tell Thor about the Aether. The Council would weasel it out of him and ruin everything.

“How long have you despised me?” Thor asked, his shoulders sagging slightly, yet his hard stare had turned to steel.

Happy, playful memories flashed in Loki's mind, but they were crushed by the abundant painful ones, of always being in the shadow of his brother, of Loki’s talents and contributions looked down on instead of celebrated, not to mention all of the thoughtless slights, the hurtful remarks Thor and his friends had made.

Loki looked his brother in the eyes. “For as long as I can remember.”

Thor’s brows furrowed for an interminable moment as they continued to stare at each other. Neither spoke, neither moved...until Thor broke eye contact and looked down. “I have always loved you, brother. And I always will.”

Loki's pounding heart whooshed in his ears, like waves beating at a levee, trying to break free.

Then Thor turned and left.

Loki's knees gave way, and he plopped down on the bench. For hundreds of years, he'd dreamt of telling Thor how he'd truly felt, of putting him in his place. He'd always imagined himself standing victorious, buoyed by elation.

Why now did he feel like a capsized ship?

A nearby explosion rocked the ground, rattling his bones, the table, and the dishes. A magical alarm screeched. People yelled.

Loki sprung to his feet, his stomach dropping. He had to get to Jane. But before he could move an inch, a piercing scream of a whistle had him looking up.

The tent’s ceiling shuddered, then tore, exposing a glimpse of grey daylight before everything turned black. He sailed through the air and hit something hard, his ears ringing. Jane. He opened his eyes, but everything was a blurry haze. Trying to move was also pointless. He was trapped.

Another piercing scream, a ground-rumbling explosion, then something struck him across the head and pulled him into the dark depths of unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

“Ready, Capsicle?” Tony asked Steve, flashing him a smile that showed teeth.

The oh-so-perfect man winced, but kept his back straight and his focus solely on where the portal would appear.

Tony’s grin finally reached his eyes.

If an AI could groan, JARVIS did just that. “Might I suggest we focus on the mission, sir? Dr. Selvig is counting down.”

Sure enough, the scientist was speaking. “Five, four—”

Tony turned to give Darcy, who was huddled far away from the portal with the rest of the team, a thumbs up. She'd made him promise to bring Jane back alive and well. If he didn't, she'd burn every one of his rock t-shirts. Pepper had even agreed to follow through with it on her end. Miss Potts had been looking for any excuse to do that for years now.

“—three, two, one.”

The portal erupted in front of him and Steve. Cold blasted him as if he'd stepped naked into a freezer, something he was all too familiar with.

JARVIS’ voice crackled in his ear. “All systems are working properly, sir.”

“I don't see any combatants,” Steve announced.

“Mission is a go,” the director said. “Good luck.”

They took one step in the portal’s direction, then paused. A soft whistle seemed to come from the other side. “Do you hear that?” Tony asked JARVIS.

“Bombs,” Steve answered as if he'd heard the question. “Dr. Foster must be under attack.”

The sound of explosions and people hollering reached them. Gasps rushed through the room behind him like a soft breeze.

“Jane.” Erik’s quiet, grave voice might as well have been a yell.

“We'll keep the portal open for as long as we can,” Fury said, “but I will not jeopardize our planet.”

Tony looked at Steve and gestured to the portal. “Age before beauty?”

Rogers jumped in without a ruffled brow or a sideways glance.

Grumbling, Tony flew in behind him and shot to the grey, wind-streaked sky to assess the situation.

They were in a large military camp with white tents blending in nicely with the surrounding snowy landscape. If it wasn't for the enemy, overgrown blue beings that looked just like the images in Jane’s book, coming in from all sides, he would've thought it was well hidden.

A quarter of the tents were in shambles, crushed by massive ice boulders. Debris coated the ground, obscuring what was road and what was someone’s temporary home. Soldiers in white medieval armor—Asgardians, he placed them—ran to meet the invading Frost Giants, swords in hands. Livestock, free from their pens, darted around. Women in long skirts and people in hooded robes helped the fallen or grabbed weapons to pass to the soldiers streaming by.

“JARVIS, do you see Jane down there?”

“Negative, sir.”

“Keep searching. I'm going in.”

Tony landed next to a blonde woman pressing a cloth to another woman’s head. Blood gushed from the wound. As soon as his feet touched the ground, she was standing over her friend, dagger at the ready, and a fierce look etched on her face.

Lifting his hands, he said, “I come in peace.”

The woman just stared at him harder.

He supposed he shouldn't have expected a nonhuman to get the joke. “I'm a friend of Jane Foster from Midgard. Do you know where she is?”

“Let me see your face,” she demanded.

Sly woman. “And let it freeze solid? Look, you're just going to have to trust me on this—”

“Someone at your six,” JARVIS said.

Tony turned in time to duck under a swinging arm. He grabbed the wrist, twisted it, and brought the man to his knees, sword falling to the snow. “I'm not here to fight you.”

JARVIS warned him of another attack, and Tony spun to intercept a female soldier this time. A couple well-placed blows and she was out of commission. Then a barrel-sized, redheaded man with a beard fuller than Santa’s came in from the side, hefty double-headed axe raised overhead. Tony shot it out of his meaty hands with a controlled blast from his arc reactor.

The newcomer looked from his weapon, lying half-buried in the snow, to Tony. “Who are you?”

Before he could speak, the woman tending her friend said, “He says he's here for the Midgardian.”

“To bring her back safely,” Tony threw in.

“Lady Jane?” the burly man asked, his thick red brows rising.

Lady?

JARVIS seemed to read his mind. “I suggest you go with it.”

“Yes, Lady Jane,” Tony corrected himself. “Where is she?”

Irish Santa bent to grab his axe. “How did you get here?”

“A portal.”

The others, now on their feet, encircled him.

Eyes narrowing, the redheaded man gripped his weapon. “Midgard doesn't have the ability to teleport. Did the Dark Elves send you? The Frost Giants?”

“The Dark Who?”

JARVIS said, “You might want to make your leave now.”

They took a step toward him.

“I’m a friendly. Friendly,” Tony said, lengthening out the word. “Do you know what that means?”

They took another slow step, eyes roaming his armor, looking for a weak spot.

He cursed and prepared to fly out, but voices drifted to him, one of which was awfully familiar. “Is that who I think it is, JARVIS?”

Before the AI could respond, Rogers rounded a corner along with two men, talking as if they were old pals.

“Stark?” Steve asked. “What are you doing?”

“Oh, just playing with my new friends here.” He hoped Rogers could hear his eyeroll. “What do you think I'm doing?”

“Volstagg, lower your weapon,” a blond man with a ridiculous mustache said. “They're here for Lady Jane.”

Tony eyed each of them and laughed. “You're the Warriors Three. I remember you from Jane’s book.”

Volstagg lowered his axe, and Fandral puffed out his chest, saying, “That would be us.” He gave a fancy bow that would've been comical had anyone else attempted it.

Hogan, a dour man with an even more serious tone, looked at the soldiers near them. “Go. Defend the camp. We will be on the front shortly.”

Everyone but the woman helping her friend nodded and ran off.

With a flourish, Fandral said, “The tent is this way. Follow me.”

“Just what are you?” Volstagg tapped Tony’s suit as they walked. “Do you have a body in there?”

“Yes.” He brushed his finger away. “It's my Iron Man suit.”

“Why don't you have one?” Volstagg asked Steve.

Tony barked a laugh. “There's only one Iron Man.”

“I'm...built differently,” Rogers said, ignoring him. “Sturdier than the average human.”

Fandral led them down a narrow road that was largely untouched by the assault. Still, the thundering noise of battle could easily be heard. Jane was probably holed up in her room, frightened to near death. Her file had said she'd led a quiet, solitary life.

“It's good that Lady Jane is here with you instead of Loki.” Tony said. The Warriors Three glanced at each other, and the hair on the back of his neck rose. “Loki's here?”

“He cannot do any harm as a mortal,” Fandral said.

Rogers stepped further into the group, nearly pushing aside Tony. “He abducted her. You cannot trust him. He's already—”

“He was the God of Mischief,” Fandral cut in. “We've never trusted him.”

Volstagg nodded. “Besides, Lady Jane and Loki are friendly with each other.”

Rogers’ brows pulled together. “Friendly?”

“Yes,” Volstagg said a bit too cheerfully. “He's the one who saved—”

Fandral interrupted him with a cough. “The tent should be just over here.”

They turned onto another road and stumbled to a stop. The once-large tent was half-caved in, squashed under an ice boulder.

Running to the entrance, Tony and Rogers rushed in.

“Where's her room?” Steve asked the Warriors Three, cutting into their discussion about Thor's possible location and where he'd been last seen.

“This way,” Fandral said, ushering them to the opposite end of the destruction, and down a hallway.

They pushed aside the cloth door to find the room empty of people but filled with a massive bed, trunks, a table, and a multitude of blankets and rugs.. At least, she'd been taken care of...he hoped. There was something off with Volstagg and Fandral.

“She couldn't have gone far,” Volstagg said.

Tony turned to face him, his suspicions coming to a head. “Why?”

The rotund man glanced at Fandral. “Well…”

Just when Tony was ready to tell him to spill whatever they were trying to keep hidden, JARVIS spoke up. “There are two heat signatures in the tent.” An image appeared on screen. “Right there.”

Tony darted out of the room. “They're over here.”

In two seconds they were in what had to be a dining room. Broken wooden tables and benches, a spilled soup pot, and cracked dishes were scattered on the floor. A support beam had fallen from the ceiling, draping half the room in fabric, which was exactly where the heat signatures were.

Tony walked over the legless table and lifted the cloth. Jane, covered in a red cloak, struggled to lift a beam off an unconscious Loki.

She looked at them, wild brown hair and determined eyes lending her a ferociousness he had not expected to see on the supposedly sweet, waif-of-a scientist. “Are you going to stand there and stare, or are you going to help me?” she asked.

All five men leapt into action. Tony blasted a post lying over a beam pinning Loki, which Fandral and Volstagg lifted. Hogun hauled Loki free of the trap, and Steve pulled Jane back in case the whole structure decided to collapse.

Jane tore herself out of his grip and darted to the dark-haired unconscious man, her cloak fluttering out behind her. She placed a couple fingers to his neck and her furrowed brow softened. Then she slapped him.

Tony winced. “Did she just...?”

JARVIS answered, “Yes. But his heart rate is picking up.”

“Wake up, Loki,” she demanded.

His eyes flickered open, then widened as he stared up at her. “Jane,” he breathed out, his hand lifting to tuck back her hair, his thumb grazing along her cheek, lingering longer than it should have.

The barely-there whisper was easily picked up by Tony’s speakers. The single word seemed to convey more emotion than he had ever thought possible of the villainous man who allegedly cared only for immortality.

Jane seemed just as confused. Her brows furrowed again, but then she tilted her head and leaned into his touch.

Tony's mouth fell open. “Did she just…?”

“I believe we've been given wrong information,” JARVIS said.

They loved each other. They actually loved each other.

A dark-haired warrior woman barged into the room, breaking the spell. Everyone’s gaze jerked toward her. Some had shifted into fighting stances, weapons at the ready.

“Have you seen Thor?” the newcomer asked, slightly out of breath.

The Warriors Three relaxed, and Jane and Loki got to their feet. She shifted the cloak to keep her neck covered, then the two realized how close they were standing together and nearly jumped away.

In love but not out in the open, probably not even spoken aloud to each other.

Jane cleared her throat. “He wasn't around when the tent was hit.”

“He's not on the frontlines?” Volstagg asked.

“No. The Council is secure, but the Jotunns have broken through.”

Before she could leave, Loki said, “Send the magi to help fight.”

“Now is not the time for your games.” Spinning on her heel, the woman darted out of the tent, along with the Warriors Three.

Loki’s face twisted into a sneer, then looked at Tony and Steve. “How and why are you here?”

“We've been sent to bring back Dr. Foster,” Steve said. “And if the Frost Giants are in the camp, then we need to go. Now.”

He started for the exit, but stopped when he realized no one had followed him. “They won't keep the portal open for long.” His blue eyes zeroed in on Tony, while Jane’s nearly widened enough for them to fall out.

“Portal? An Einstein-Rosen Bridge?” she asked. “You guys built one? Is Erik with you? Did he use my data from the wormhole? What power source is being used?”

Tony ignored them both. All of the bits of information clicked together, from Jane not rushing to the portal, to what Volstagg had wanted to say, and what Fandral had tried to keep hidden. “They're not leaving because they have to be here. But they're not prisoners either. And he doesn't want her dead. In fact”—he pointed to Loki, then to Jane—“you saved her. From what, I don't know. Something to do with—”

JARVIS said, “Her neck. She's covering it again.”

Tony stepped to her. She backed away, but not far enough to evade him. He tugged down the red cloth, exposing blackened flesh that could've been charred, if not for the smooth, glistening appearance.

“What happened to you?” Rogers asked as he moved to see better.

Her eyes blazed, but it was nothing compared to Loki's tidal wave of fire. “Leave her be,” he demanded.

The air filtering through Tony's suit seemed chillier. Foster even shivered. The action, or maybe it was the cold, made her grimace and curl her fingers into fists. “Did it get colder?” he asked JARVIS.

“It dropped twenty-three degrees, sir.”

“The Jotunns?”

“Most likely. I suggest you leave for the portal.”

While Steve asked her about the wound, Tony told JARVIS to scan it.

“The closest diagnosis would be frostbite, sir. But it seems to be alive, similar to a fungus. The glistening you see is a substance put on it. Perhaps to dull the pain.”

“Will it kill her?”

“Without further tests, I cannot say.”

To Jane, Tony said, “We can have that looked at once we get back. Erik and Darcy are waiting for you. They miss you.”

Her eyes screwed shut at the mention of her friends, but she shook her head. “We have our mission here.”

“This war is between Jotunheim and Asgard, caused by Loki,” Steve said. Darcy had told them what Loki had done at Thor’s almost-coronation, and Steve must have put two and two together. “You don't need to stay here. You don't owe him anything.” When it was clear she wouldn't relent, he added, “Have you forgotten that he has killed you three times? That he took you offworld against your will? That—”

“Enough,” Loki said, the room growing frosty, his forced breaths coming out in cloudy puffs despite the braziers pumping out heat. “What we do here affects every realm.”

“Is that what he tells you?” Steve asked Jane.

“It's true,” she said. “Queen Frigga put this task on us. The Dark Elves want to destroy all of us.”

Rogers watched her closely and, apparently, saw no lie in her words. The tense set to his jaw softened. “Then come back with us. Tell SHIELD. They can help.”

She nodded, but Loki shook his head. “No. Mother said nothing of the Midgardians. If they are involved, her vision may not play out as foretold.”

“But she didn't tell us everything either. They could be part of the solution.”

His eyes gave no ground.

“We have to try everything, Loki.”

After a long moment, he sighed. “Five minutes.” He leveled his gaze on Tony and Steve. “The portal stays open, which will remain in our sight. I will not be arrested, and we will both return to Jotunheim without any resistance. Understood?”

“Yes, Mother,” Tony said.

Rogers just nodded.

Chapter Text

“The Tesseract?” Jane asked Iron Man—Iron Man!—as they ran from tent to tent, stopping only to let her catch her breath. “You mean a four-dimensional analog of a cube?”

“No.” He pointed in a direction, and they all darted that way. So far, he hadn't steered them wrong. The echoing grunts, thuds, and clangs were always just on the other road. “It's a cube. Though, it looks bottomless and in constant motion. SHIELD just named it that.”

“SHIELD didn't name anything,” Loki said, his words almost a snarl. “It has been called the Tesseract, as well as the Cosmic Cube and other names, for as long as it has existed, which not even our scholars can pinpoint. And if Odin finds out you're playing with it—”

“How did you stabilize the portal?” she asked Stark while shooting a glare at Loki. He needed to learn how to play nice.

“Iridium.” Tony stopped them with a raised hand, and a giant blue beast charged by with an Asgardian in its large jaws. Each of its footfalls shook the ground and left behind bloodstained prints in the snow.

Jane looked away, grimacing. Her stomach roiled. Hopefully, the person had died quickly.

Tony lowered his hand, and they all moved forward again, stepping over the clawed prints. Jane had to really stretch her legs to make it across.

“We're almost there,” Captain America told her reassuringly.

She did her best to give him a smile that didn't wobble. She hated the death, the destruction of war. Putting her focus on a more pleasant subject, she asked Tony, “What kind of energy does the Tesseract put out?”

“Mostly gamma radiation.” His metal boot crushed a fallen basket as he walked. “The energy can be harnessed and used to power a city.”

“And weapons,” the Captain added, none too happy.

Loki moved around a protruding beam from a collapsed tent. “It was once used to create the—”

Several tents down, a Jotunn ran by, turned his head toward them, and skidded to a stop.

Jane’s half-raised foot, ready for the next step, stayed suspended in mid-air, her heart racing, but Tony’s helmeted head swiveled toward her and brushed away her concern with a lazy swipe of his hand. “It's just one. I got this.”

Three more came into view.

“It's cool.” The section above his suit’s shoulders opened and a little rectangular box lifted out. “Watch this.”

A tiny explosive sound popped, then thin streams of smoke shot toward the Frost Giants. The bullets or missiles or whatever they were, struck hard enough to knock them back a step.

Jane strained to see better from their distance, her heart now sprinting, each beat a hard thump against her ribs and a bass drum in her ears.

The Jotunns looked down at themselves, then at her group with a rage that could've been seen from the moon.

She licked her dry lips and fingered the box in her pocket. Was now the time to use it?

“Well,” Tony said. “It's good Grandpa tagged along.”

Rogers blew out a soft breath, clearly trying to maintain his composure. He gripped his shield and moved to Iron Man’s side. “You take the left.”

“Nah, the right looks more fun.” And then Tony was in the air, firing his arc reactors at the Frost Giants.

The Captain glanced back at her. “Go hide in the crevice of that tent. Don't come out until we return. You understand?”

She nodded, and Tony added, “We didn't come all this way just for you to die in the homestretch.”

With his back turned to her, already running to fight, he didn't see her wince. How was she going to tell Darcy? Erik?

Loki weaved his fingers into hers and gently squeezed them. Her gaze fell to their joined hands, a perfect fit, then lifted to his green eyes flecked with gold. There were times when they were soft and warm, inviting her in, but, mostly, they were cold and guarded.

A loud crash sprayed them with snow, and Loki led her to the fallen beam covered with a ragged cloth. They huddled in the crevice, still holding hands. She wanted to ask him what he really thought of her, of the soulmate bond. She wanted no more secrets, no more lies between them. Instead, she asked what they would do if another Jotunn found them.

He slipped a dagger out from under his tunic. “I've killed one already when you were...when they…” He stared at her hard enough to pin her ribs and steal her breath. “I won't let them touch you again.”

She didn't know how to respond to that. She didn't know if she could even if she wanted to. So she settled on a nod.

The whine of Stark’s arc reactor was awfully close, but the ensuing blast was further away. Jane turned to peek over the edge of the beam.

Rogers rammed his shield against a Jotunn while kicking another away, then flipped over the head of a third, latching onto it and twisting mid-air. When he landed, the Frost Giant collapsed to the snowy ground, already forgotten as the Captain moved on to another opponent in his flowing, deadly dance.

One of the Jotunns threw sharp icicles at Rogers, whirled out of the way of Tony’s arc blast, and ended up locking gazes with her. Jane dropped to her bottom behind the makeshift wall, panting.

“Calm yourself,” Loki said. “It'll be over soon.”

It didn't feel like that. Stars could've been birthed and died for every second that had passed while she had watched. She started at each grating sound: a bang, a thump, a grunt, a curse.

Squeezing her hand again, Loki said, “Look at me.” She did and he continued. “Breathe.”

He inhaled and she followed suit, eyes fixed on his until everything else disappeared. Her chest rose and fell in time with his, but that too vanished under the weight of his gaze. In that moment, she saw him for who he truly was: proud but insecure, a recluse but lonely, harsh but only to protect himself, fiercely loyal, and immensely sad. It wove through him like a dark thread in a brilliant tapestry of greens and golds.

“Odinson,” a gravely voice, like a tumbling rockslide, said.

Loki jerked away from her, jumping to his feet with his dagger between him and the Jotunn. “Leave now or die.”

The Frost Giant's lipless mouth opened, exposing sharp teeth, and a rough sound came out. The way his eyes crinkled gave her the impression he was laughing. Then he said something that made Loki lunge for him.

Steel lashed out toward a blue abdomen, lined with thick muscle. The Jotunn pivoted, and Loki's blade nicked his skin. A thin trickle of red blood seeped out.

Loki spun on his heel, ducked under the swinging Frost Giant's arm, and thrust the dagger toward the vulnerable spot again. Except, this time, the Jotunn latched onto Loki's wrist and held tight.

Jane scrambled to her feet, icy fear strangling her. Her neck burned in memory of being under the Frost Giant’s touch. She shivered, but all she could think about was Loki having to suffer the same fate as she.

The cloth around Loki's forearm fell to the snow in hard pieces, as if they had been dunked in freezing water and turned to ice. Jotunn fingers gripped his bare skin.

Loki stared down at his arm, eyes wide, mesmerized. The Jotunn's sneering smile lessened as he too watched.

Jane craned her neck to see better. Blue spread out from under the Frost Giant's touch, but not the dark black-blue of her frostbite. It was near identical to the Jotunn’s own coloring. Her brows furrowed. Nor did he seem under any pain. The agony she'd experienced was still as fresh as a bleeding cut.

Pale blue spread from the Jotunn's hand. It slid under Loki's tunic, up his neck to replace the creamy skin of his face. Raised lines appeared around his cheek and forehead, but with his profile to her, she couldn't make out their design.

The Frost Giant gazed at Loki, his mouth hanging ajar. “Laufeyson.”

Whatever the word meant made Loki flinch. He grabbed the dagger from his bound hand and rammed it under the wide ribcage with enough force the two moved back. They continued staring at each other even as the Jotunn dropped to his knees and took a shuddering breath.

Loki pulled his hand free, gaping at his arm, and turned away from the now-dead Frost Giant lying on the ground. When his eyes lifted to meet hers, she gasped. They were a solid crimson red, no white at all. The lines formed a bisected half circle on his forehead, and streaks across his cheeks and up his chin. The time it took for her to observe the differences, the blue and red had begun to fade.

He rushed to her, pulling her down behind the makeshift wall. “I won't hurt you.”

She blinked at him, his skin and eyes completely normal now.

He glanced down at his hands holding her tightly and lifted them. “Jane?” He took a deep breath. “I swear I'm not a monster.”

That word snapped her out of her stupor. She shook her head and opened her mouth to tell him she knew that, but nothing came out. It was as if her body was still in shock.

“You two okay over here?” Rogers asked. He and Tony walked around the beam and their gazes immediately landed on the dead Jotunn.

Stark stepped to the body and pulled out the dagger. He wiped it clean on the scrap of cloth hanging off the Frost Giant's hips, then looked from the blade to Loki and Jane. “You okay?” he asked her.

Loki watched her carefully, silent and unmoving.

She swallowed. “Yes. I've just never seen...never seen them before. He came out of nowhere, and Loki...” The memory of his red eyes, surprised and hurting filled her vision. He was a Jotunn. He was what he'd grown up hating. “The dagger. They fought,” she bumbled on, half-aware of what she said. “And then he was dead.”

Tony handed Loki the blade. “Then I guess it was good you had this.” Though his words were relatively kind, his tone was hard and untrusting.

Taking the weapon, Loki slipped it back in place, offering no thanks. His gaze bounced to Jane constantly, relief and something else altogether filling it.

Rogers helped her to her feet. “We should get going before any more find us.”

They moved through the camp in a similar fashion as before, only, now, she bored a hole through the back of Stark’s helmet. She was afraid that if she looked at Loki, the truth would spill out like rice from a torn bag.

“Cat got your tongue?” Rogers asked Jane.

She jumped. He now walked beside her instead of behind them, guarding the rear. “No. No, I'm just thinking.”

“About what?”

She glanced at Loki who was far enough away to appear disinterested, yet close enough to see and hear everything. The man was a Frost Giant. A blue being who could manifest ice as well as whatever else. She didn't really know that much about them. She should learn. Fast.

“Dr. Foster?” Rogers asked, his hand on her shoulder.

She jerked back, on the verge of shouting that Loki was a Jotunn. Thankfully she swallowed and inhaled at the same time, replacing words with coughs.

He patted her back. “Are you are okay?”

Nodding, she cleared her throat and purposefully trained her gaze on him. Loki had drifted closer to her. “I'm fine. Thank you.” Was her voice higher? She should really work on controlling her—

Holy mother of science, her soulmate was a Frost Giant. Her eyes went wide, her legs went stiff, and she missed a step, stumbling over nothing.

Steve steadied her with a hand on her elbow. “Are you sure you're okay?”

Loki was so close now, she could feel him like the chilly blast of an incoming storm. “Yes!” she answered Rogers. The word came out in a high squeak. She cleared her throat. “Yeah.” She grimaced. Much too deep.

He eyed her like she might be unstable. She just might be. The only reason she hadn't questioned bonding with an Asgardian was that they looked similar enough. Their DNA must be similar too. Otherwise, the bond couldn't have been triggered. But a Jotunn and a human had to be too different. Right?

Rogers leaned closer to her. “Not everyone is cut out for war. It's okay if you want to stay on Earth. SHIELD can help the Asgardians, and you can recover from that wound.” He gestured to her neck.

He still didn't get it. There was no cure for the frostbite. But, at least, he didn't suspect her true thoughts. “I’ll be okay. It just takes getting used to, you know?”

He nodded, his mind elsewhere, for which she was grateful. She had to figure out what to do with Loki's secret. Would she keep it? Should she keep it?

They continued on, skirting around the pockets of fighting, she doing her best not to look at the dead bodies, Loki, apparently, doing his best not to hover too closely. At times, he'd end up so close to her, they'd brush shoulders. Other times, he was so far away, they wouldn't touch if they both stretched out their arms. Their tracks probably showed a zigzag pattern. And wasn't that the perfect metaphor for their lives?

Stark raised his hand, and they all stopped in the field where the Asgardians played ball.

“They've closed the portal,” Rogers announced.

“Fantastic powers of observation, Cap,” Tony said.

Jane’s heart fell. She really wanted to see Erik and Darcy one last time before she died. Her fingers shifted the cloak to cover her neck. “What do we do now?”

Repositioning his shield, Rogers answered, “Help fight off the Frost Giants until they open another portal.”

“But how will they find us?”

“Our DNA,” Tony cut in. “So long as one of us three is alive, they'll be able to locate us.”

DNA?

She opened her mouth to ask the thousands of questions suddenly filling her head, but Tony lifted a finger. “There'll be plenty of time for that later. Right now, you two stay here.” When he walked by her, he added, “Don't worry, kid. You'll get to see them soon enough.”

Was she that obvious?

Before they got too far from them, a shimmer streaked through the sky. No, more like a ripple.

“Dark Elves!” Loki announced the same time Iron Man’s repulsors lit up.

Tony aimed around him. “JARVIS senses them, but can't get a lock. More new technology.”

He groaned, or maybe the sound was a strangled expression of excitement. Either way, he shot at the shimmers to no avail. They always seemed to appear in the corner of her vision before completely disappearing again. If she focused too hard, she’d get a headache.

“Does anyone know why they're here?” Rogers asked.

Jane looked at Loki. The box—the Aether—was in her pocket. She could feel its weight tugging ever so slightly on her skirt.

“They have aligned with the Jotunns,” Loki answered, “and must have come to aide them.”

Tony shot at nothing. “Then why aren't they trying to disintegrate the tents?”

Why was it so quiet? There should be explosions and screams and all sorts of disheartening sounds coming from everywhere. The aircraft were certainly capable of it—the attack on Asgard was proof enough.

Loki threw up his hands. “Maybe the alliance is no more. I cannot possibly say what they might be conspiring.”

“Well, we're sitting ducks out in the open.” Rogers stayed close to her, shifting as he tried to protect her from wherever the shimmers appeared. “Maybe we should move back to the tents.”

“For once, Capsicle,” Tony said, “I wholeheartedly agree with you.”

Rogers gestured for her to run with him. She tried. She really did, but several footfalls into the retreat, she had to stop. Her frostbite prickled worse from the effort, and her chest heaved despite the easy pace he'd set. Ever since the Jotunn had grabbed her, her lungs refused to take in much air. She was always out of breath.

“Give me the Aether,” someone said from behind them.

They whirled to find a grounded T-shaped aircraft sticking straight out of the snow. It was as if an oddly shaped mountain had just appeared out of nowhere. And the palest man she'd ever seen, white hair braided away from an angular face with icy blue eyes staring at them, stood in front of it. Guarding him were a team of armed and armored humanoids wearing creepy white masks. Large black circles concealed their eyes. All had the pointy ears one imagined elves to have.

“You mean this?” Rogers threw his shield at them.

One of the masked elves shot the colorful disc from the sky with a rifle that crackled from energy—or maybe plasma—rather than banged from gunpowder. The shield landed off to the side, partly submerged in snow.

“Way to go, Muscle For Brain,” Tony said, his hands raised, ready to shoot.

The center Dark Elf’s gaze didn't veer off hers. “It is faded, repressed. But here.”

Jane’s heart tripped over itself trying to climb to her throat. She gripped the box in her pocket, thinking this had to be the right time.

“No one knows what you're talking about, bud,” Stark called. “So why don't you hop back on your Capital T and go.”

The Elf held out his pale hand. “Give me the Aether.”

She eased back, gripping the box so hard its edges bit into her skin.

When he mirrored her movement, Tony shot at him with both hands and shoulder missiles. Two guards jumped to protect their leader and returned fire. Energy beams streaked by, and Loki grabbed her hand, pulling her away from the fight.

“They know you have it, Jane. We have to go.”

“But Stark and Rogers—”

“Are capable enough to hold their own.”

Before he could pull her another step, a loud thud, as if another ice boulder had dropped from the sky, grabbed their attention. They turned to find a monstrous being straight from hell—horns, tusks, spikes and all—standing up from his crouched position in the crater-like pit his sudden appearance had caused.

She blinked. What in the?

The creature walked calmly toward a cursing Tony taking to the air and batted him aside, a fly against an oncoming train. Stark crashed into the snow several feet away, sparks shooting out of the massive dent in his red and gold armor. The newcomer didn't even pause to look at his handiwork. He just kept moving for her.

Jane and Loki edged back. “Should I use it now?” she asked.

“Never.”

“But your mother said I would use it. It’s inevitable.”

He shook his head in protest. “There has to be another way.”

Rogers had found his shield, picked it up, and threw it at the horned monster. It bounced off the back of his large head, not slowing him down in the least. The shield circled back to the Captain in time to block several shots from the masked elves.

“I'm going to use it. We can end this here and now.”

He stared at her. “You will die.”

“I'm already dying!” Every step brought him closer to them. He really was an oncoming train. And about as tall as one.

She shoved her hand into her pocket, but Loki grabbed her wrist. “I will find a way. Trust me.” Then he pushed her away from him and ran toward the creature.

Jane fell hard on her rear, her teeth clicking together. Grumbling, she scrambled to her feet and pulled the box free from her pocket. Her fingers lingered on the clasp, ready to open it if need be.

In two bounding steps, Loki was on the monster, sliding under an attack. He clasped onto a thick ankle to stop his momentum, and the creature howled. Loki leapt up, climbed on the spikes protruding from the elf’s back, and grabbed the snarling head. It was like watching a rodeo with a cowboy trying to ride a raging bull. The two thrashed to the side, then the other. The creature struck at Loki, but had a hard time connecting with his bulky armor getting in the way.

Loki held on, and the wild movements slowed. Jane's hands fell to her side. He was doing it. Somehow he was stopping the elf.

When the creature went limp, tipping to the side, Loki jumped off his back and landed on his feet. His face was cerulean blue. And, damn, she still found him insanely attractive. Cream-colored skin spread out, like clouds stretching across a midday summer sky.

“No!” the white-haired elf yelled.

Jane tensed, gripping the box, fingertips on the clasp, but, instead of pulling out some kind of death trap, he merely dashed toward his ship, followed by his personal guards. The elf fighting Rogers turned and ran to join them before the Captain’s punch could connect. Steve ended up stumbling forward and spinning slightly.

Tony’s garbled laughter from the crumpled heap of metal was drowned out by a thunder that boomed loud enough to make the ground tremble. Loki stopped mid-trot to her and looked up. Lightning flashed. Then another that stayed a blinding bolt, connecting to something Jane could not see.

“Get down!” Loki said.

They dove to the snow just as lightning shot toward the leading Dark Elf, only to strike one of his soldiers dead. The white-haired elf didn't look back at his fallen guard as he rushed the rest of the way to the ship.

The large door closed behind them, and the ground shuddered as the central engine engaged, a red ball of energy. Thor flew in their direction, landing while still sending a steady stream of white-hot lightning at the ship, even as it disappeared into the sky.

His raised hand fell to his side, limply holding the hammer. He took deep breaths, from exertion or anger she did not know. His face was smeared with grime, his hair hung limp around his face, and yet he was glowing. He looked at her, then took the couple steps needed to reach her.

Holding out a hand for her to take, he asked, “Are you well?”

Jane slipped the box back into her pocket and let him lift her to her feet. She didn't think she had enough strength left to chew pudding. “I am, thanks.” His gaze fell on her neck, and she quickly covered it with the cloak.

“You missed,” Loki said, running to them.

“I know.”

Loki finally reached them and looked down, his brows lowering and his jaw ticking.

Jane’s gaze followed his and realized Thor still held her hand. She quickly pulled herself free, which earned her a lowered brow from him now as well.

“Loki killed that giant Dark Elf,” Jane threw out, hopeful they would stop looking at her like she had insulted them.

“You killed Kurse?” Thor asked, shock nearly bowling him over.

Loki just stared at her, so Jane answered for him. “If that's the beast’s name, then yes. You should tell him about it.” The last sentence was a neon-lit hint for him to confide in Thor about his true nature.

He just continued staring at her.

“Odin’s beard! Well done, Brother!” Thor clapped Loki on the back, but she and Loki never broke eye contact.

Come on. Tell him. Don't make me keep this secret.

Rogers, shield on his back and supporting Tony with an arm around his suit, stopped next to them. His blue eyes skipped over Loki unfavorably and landed on Thor. He held out a hand to shake. “You must be Thor.”

“And you Captain America.” Thor grabbed the outstretched hand with gusto. “Fandral spoke of you.” He looked at Tony, slightly dubious. “And you too, my metal friend.”

Tony groaned. “I'm not made of metal.”

In the lull, Jane bugged her eyes to prod Loki into telling them.

Nothing.

“Loki killed the giant Dark Elf called Kurse,” she said again.

They looked at her for a long moment, then Rogers said, “I noticed that.” He didn't offer a congratulations like Thor had. If anything, he was even warier.

“I killed many today as well,” Thor announced, standing taller.

Loki ignored him. “We should let Jane rest.”

She fiddled with the cloth covering her neck. “It's not bad right now. I hardly feel a thing.” She lied. It hurt, but then it always did. The only time it truly overwhelmed her was when it spiked into an ocean of needles that threatened to drown her.

“Come on.” Loki waved them toward the tents and started walking. “We need to regroup anyway. I'm sure the Council will want to have a meeting.”

Thor muttered something under his breath, something harsh based off his hard expression, but then he brightened and followed Loki, saying, “I did kill many. Whole squadrons. At one point, they had us surrounded and I...”

Tony and Steve stayed back, looking at the dead elves, specifically at Kurse. There wasn't any ice or frostbite on the body—at least, as far as she could tell with all of that dark armor and skin.

So why were they focused on it?

Blood. There should be some if he'd used his dagger like he had with the Jotunn. And yet the white snow around the body was pristine, not splattered red.

They faced her, silent, watchful. Their loaded stares, even Tony's concealed one, was a heavy weight on her chest.

Kurse had batted away Iron Man and ended up denting the armor as if it were made of paper. A vibranium shield, thrown by an enhanced human, merely bounced off him. How could an Asgardian, turned mortal and powerless, using no weapon, defeat such a formidable foe?

She shrunk under their gaze.

They knew the truth or, at least, suspected it.

Chapter Text

“Shut it off!” When the portal didn't vanish, Fury spun to face a hesitant Erik. “I said shut it off.”

“But Jane. She's not a warrior. She won't survive that.”

A hulking, half-naked blue being ran in front of the portal, kicking up snow that fell into the lab. The scientists scooted further away, bumping into Darcy. Normally she would've told them to back off, but she was too busy gnawing on her lower lip to speak. Not only was Jane in trouble, but so was Tony and that USDA Prime beef, Steve Rogers. Dammit all to hell, not only was he the best-looking man she'd ever laid eyes on, he was the sweetest as well.

“Dr. Selvig,” Fury said, his tone chillier than the temps on Jotunheim, “if I have to repeat myself again, you are off this project.”

Still, he hesitated.

Darcy pushed her way forward, wrapping her arms around herself even tighter. Each step closer to the portal added a new meaning to the word cold. “Do it, Erik.”

He looked at her, worry filling his eyes.

“She's scrappy. She'll survive. Besides, we can open the portal whenever we want to check on her.” She didn't glance at Fury for confirmation. He would agree, or he would experience the wrath of Darcy Lewis.

Erik sighed, then hit the button to turn off the Tesseract and slumped into his chair, head falling into his hands.

The portal shrunk in on itself until it vanished with a soft hiss.

“Romanoff, Barton,” Fury said, “come with me to the debriefing room.”

Darcy unclenched her arms and ran with the two agents.

“Did you hear me call your name, Miss Lewis?” the director asked, his one eye staring her down like she was an unruly child.

“Hey, I have valuable input.”

“Like what?”

“Like putting together another team.”

“No one else can step foot on that planet.”

Natasha coughed.

He looked at her. “No one we can trust to not add to our problems.”

“That's exactly what I'm talking about,” Darcy said, not fully understanding just who they were going on about, but needing them back on topic. “You make a suit that's ten times better than what those guys in Antarctica wear, and I'll be your woman.” She finished with a strong nod.

“No.”

He turned to the exit, and she scrambled to keep up. “Why? No one knows Jane better than me, knows how her mind works, how to anticipate and counter her.”

“We're not trying to capture her, Miss Lewis.”

“So you think. That girl is science first, self-preservation fourth. She's alive, which means Loki needs her, for awhile longer at least, and if Jane’s able to learn about the universe, different planets, and all that, she won't be jumping for joy at a rescue attempt.”

He pushed through the doors of another hallway. “Why didn't you bring this up before?”

“Because, with two superheroes impervious to cold, there would've been zero chance for me to convince you to make a kickass snowsuit.”

He looked down at her for a long moment. “I'll see what we can do.”

Smiling, she pulled out a stick of gum and popped it into her mouth. Damn, she was getting good at this.

oOoOo

Loki rounded a corner and stopped midstep. Jane stood with Thor at the edge of the ruined camp, covered in his red cloak, talking while pointing at something in the distance. His brother knuckled his beard in thought, then nodded. He gazed down at her rapturously as she continued on, and Loki wanted to hit something. His reaction made him shake his head. He was not inclined to pointless violence. That was his brother.

Thor lifted his hand for her to take, and Loki leapt forward as if he'd been prodded by a hot poker. “Jane, I need to speak with you,” he said.

They turned to look at him, Thor's hand falling away from Loki's surprise appearance, not from embarrassment at being caught trying to court her. The oaf even had the audacity to beam at him.

“Brother! Come with us. We're considering possible sites for the new camp. I was just about to show Lady Jane another location.” He held out his hand for her to take again, and she clasped it, eyes refusing to meet Loki's.

Loki ground his teeth. He was her soulmate, not Thor’s. She knew that. She—

When she took a step, relying on Thor’s grip to support most of her weight, Loki blinked. The handholding was not a lover’s embrace. Only years of controlling his emotions kept his face a blank mask.

Focus solely on Jane, he kept pace with them as Thor talked.

“The magi will cover our movement with fog and keep us silent to enemy scouts. A crew in the rear will sweep away our tracks. Warriors will be placed around the perimeter. We will need all able bodies to help with the wounded, the livestock, and the supplies. Can I count on you to assist them, brother?”

Loki heard the speech as if it were in the background. Why would Jane not look at him? Why was she so tense?

“Brother?” Thor asked again.

Loki pulled his gaze off her to Thor. “Why don't you include the magi on the perimeter?”

He came to a stop, face twisting in confusion. “What?”

“They can help fight.” Loki noticed Jane paying extra attention, almost forgetting her anger.

“They are not warriors,” Thor noted. “Besides, they already have their places—”

“I fought and provided support.” Not that he ever got much acknowledgement, let alone appreciation for his efforts.

“You are different,” Thor said offhandedly and started moving again.

“I was allowed to be different because Odin is my—” He stopped, realizing what he was about to say but forced it out anyway. “Father.” Thor was quiet, thoughtful, so Loki continued. “Others might want to be more as well.”

Thor sighed. “Will you help or not?”

“I will, but without reinforcements, there might come a time when you will need them and it will be too late.” He moved to Jane's other side, and she quickly set her jaw and straightened her back again. “May I speak with you?”

She inhaled. “Thor, will you take me back to the tent?”

“Aye. And then maybe you will finally rest?” She shot him a look, but he was busy watching people loading what was unable to be fixed or repurposed into piles. “The Midgardians have been a great help. If they are an example of your kind, I am greatly impressed.”

Sure enough, Rogers and Stark were part of the group hauling mounds of what appeared to be junk. Jane didn't even look their way. It seemed she was intently focused on nothing at all.

The woman was in pain, he realized, and she was doing her best to hide it from him. But why?

Thor went on as they walked, talking about the last time they'd been on Midgard, stopping only to address someone seeking his attention, though it was not nearly as often as it should have been. His gaze swept the area and found more people gathered around the head members of the Council.

The entire way back to the tent Jane held her head high, brown eyes stronger than steel and yet softer than the finest swaths of amber-colored silk. Nothing could change them. They'd held the same fierce determination, the same loving kindness since the first time he'd found her. This lifetime, with all of its challenges, was no different.

He had to keep her alive, be it from the death crawl of the frostbite or the Aether itself. He would not lose her.

After Thor left them in her room, Jane rounded on Loki. “Why haven't you told him?”

Loki’s eyes narrowed. “Why haven't you rested?”

Her mouth fell open before she snapped it closed. “I'm fine.” She slowly made her way to the dresser in the corner and began tossing things into an open chest.

He stalked to her side and closed the drawer shut. “You are not fine. You are in pain and should not be out gallivanting around with Thor.”

“So that's what this is all about?” She glared at him. “I'm not interested in Thor that way.” She yanked the drawer open, muttering under her breath, “Not that it's any of your business.”

She didn't like Thor? Everyone fell in love with Thor. “You? You're not? Then why do you speak with him so frequently? Why do I always see you two together?”

“I like being around him.”

Her nonchalant words were a blow, knocking him back a step. She had been avoiding him since the attack. If he came into the room, she left. If she noticed him looking at her outside, she would suddenly disappear as if she'd been the one born with magic. She either did not care for him now that she knew he was a Frost Giant or she never liked him to begin with. All the times she'd said she wanted to be free of him sprang to mind. “Then I shall not burden you with my presence.”

He made his way to the cloth door and left, just barely catching her sigh. Most likely one of relief. He clenched his hands into fists.

Passing Fandral and the others, he walked out of the tent, then to the camp’s exit.

“You do not have permission to leave,” said the same woman guarding the camp’s entrance when he and Jane had first arrived. She blocked his path but held no weapon and stood passively. If she knew what he truly was, she would slice his throat without a moment's hesitation. They all would.

“I am Loki Odinson. I do not need permission.”

“You are Thor’s guest. And a mortal.”

Inside, he raged, anger filling his blood with thousands of barbs. Outside, he was the perfect example of self-possession. “I am assisting with patrols.”

“The bells have rung and patrols have been changed. Go back to your tent.”

“I don't care about schedules. Everyone must do their part and no one knows the terrain better than me.”

She didn’t move, but there was a softening to her edges.

“Thor will not be pleased if you slow the progress of the camp’s relocation.”

Her lips thinned, but she stepped to the side and let him pass. He walked as if he had a mission to accomplish, when he really just needed to be free of everyone, to breathe, and to think. It had been a full day since the attack and no one had stopped to sleep, eat, or rest. People were everywhere, always needing something. He hadn't had the space to come to terms with what he really was, with who he really was.

With Thor and Jane, he had been distracted enough to forget the truth for a long blissful moment. And then she just had to bring it up.

“Laufeyson,” he said under his breath. The Jotunn had looked at him and claimed him to be the son of his greatest enemy and the long lost prince of Jotunheim.

Loki stomped through the snow, not caring to be stealthy. He would relish in the chance to dismember another Frost Giant. They did this to him. He looked down at his hand and let his true skin show through the fake pale hue. It was bad enough when he thought he was a mere mortal, but now, this. Coldness pooled to his palm. It swam along his veins, swirling and looping, to a soft tune that played in the back of his mind, too faint to hear properly. Ice solidified in his hand, and he threw the jagged clump as far as he could.

Then he did it again. And again. And again until he was panting from exertion. He dropped to his knees, his head hanging, black hair falling around his face.

Odin knew. He'd known all along, had to have been the one to place this disguise on him. It explained so much, and yet not enough. Why not make him look more like everyone else? Why set him apart?

Loki wanted to laugh, to scream, to cry. Instead, he stared down at his hands and commanded the cold into them. He envisioned his daggers and shaped the ice in their image. The sharp edges and smooth flat surface glistened under Jotunheim’s weak sun.

Loki turned them over, thinking of his old daggers he could magic into existence. He'd missed the weight of them in his hands. These were not Asgardian steel, but they would work just fine. A thin smile stretched across his lips.

If Odin knew, did Frigga? He stuck the daggers into the snow and pulled the necklace she'd given him out from under his tunic. Jane had said she'd felt something when she'd put it on. He'd thought her observation was just a matter of newness and, therefore, a prominent sensation for her. Whereas he'd barely felt a thing, so used to magic as he was. Now, he wasn't so sure.

He removed the necklace. The realm’s temperature didn't affect him in the least. He put it back on, and, again, noticed nothing, not one inkling of magic.

Ripping the necklace off, he hurled it away from him. They both knew. She'd lied to him. The one person he'd trusted, he'd loved, and she had lied to him.

He fully embraced his Jotunn side, let it wash over him like a cool stream of water on a hot day. Strength suffused his muscles. Newfound vigor zipped through his veins.

Loki gripped his ice daggers and stood. If he was truly a monster, then it was time he embraced it.

Walking to the necklace, he picked up the gold chain and slipped it back on, then looked around the white landscape. Vast amounts of snow, ice, and rock stretched out before him. Part of him had hoped looking out through Frost Giant eyes would've given away the Jotunns’ location. But, of course, that wasn't his luck.

With a flip of his ice dagger, he set out in search for their camp. And if he couldn't find it, then he would make certain the Jotunns found him.

Chapter Text

“Have you seen Loki?” Jane asked Fandral as soon as she walked into the newly set-up dining room. She leaned against the tall cabinet for support.

He looked up from his bowl of stew that was more gravy than meat and vegetables. That didn't stop Volstagg from seconds or thirds, based off the number of bowls in front of him. “He left after he spoke with you.”

“That was hours ago.”

“Maybe he is assisting Thor.”

She highly doubted it, but it wouldn't hurt to check.

Fandral leapt away from the table and followed her out. “Thor said you must rest.”

“I tried, but I need to speak with Loki.” Ignoring the spike of pain emanating from her frostbite, she glanced at him. He was a little thinner. “You should finish your meal.”

“Pretty ladies should not be left unaccompanied outside.” He smiled and winked at her.

She lifted a brow, but she didn't mind the company, so long as he didn't mind moving like a fatigued elderly turtle.

“Last time you went off by yourself,” he said in all seriousness, “you almost got yourself killed. It's a good thing Loki was there.” He shivered. “I don't think I've ever said that before.”

Giving him a sidelong look, she said, “He's not that bad, just...misunderstood.”

“If you say so.”

They walked for a while longer in silence, his eyes always coming back to her. He was truly worried for her health.

She stopped.

When he faced her, brows knitting together in confusion, she said, “I'm sorry for not telling you I wanted to leave the tent and for getting you in trouble.”

He shrugged. “I would've done the same thing.”

“Dr. Foster,” Steve yelled, running to her. He looked pretty sweaty under his star-spangled uniform. If there was any dirt on this planet, it would have been smeared on his face and caked in his hair.

“Captain America.” Fandral gave one of his signature dramatic bows. “After I escort Lady Jane to Thor, come eat with me, Volstagg, and Hogun. We'd enjoy hearing more of your adventures.”

Somehow they had become friends. Somehow he'd become friends with everyone. The people flowing by all gave him an approving nod and a brief greeting. Jane didn't know half of them. Granted, she was often kept holed up in the tent.

“I need to speak with Dr. Foster first,” Steve responded.

“Of course.” With a twirl of his cape, he turned and sauntered over to a woman packing a chest.

As soon as Fandral was out of earshot, Steve said, “They'll open the portal soon, and we'll need to be ready to leave. Do you have your things?”

His gaze fell on her frostbite, and she lifted the cloak to cover it. “You know I'm staying here.”

“Stark has a new machine. It can heal pretty much anything. Maybe even—”

“Steve, you should know better than anyone about doing whatever it takes to complete a mission.” She looked right at him. “No matter the risks to yourself.”

He stared back at her, blue eyes meeting brown like two stones unwilling to crack. After a long moment, his finally softened. “Then I will stay with you. Stark’s going back. Something about his suit and Miss Potts.”

Jane nodded, her knees threatening to buckle under another spike of pain. She grit her teeth and forced her legs to hold steady.

“He'll galvanize SHIELD to help,” Steve added. “But my mission still stands. I will bring you back to Earth. Alive.”

“I understand.”

Thor's deep voice caught her attention, and she glanced in its direction. Sure enough, he walked with an elderly man who seemed to only listen with half an ear. One of the Councilmen, she realized. He looked at Thor with feigned respect. She'd seen that expression all too often from her scientific peers. “Excuse me, Steve.”

Without checking to see if he'd even heard her, she moved in the Thunder God's direction, but stumbled over her sluggish feet. By the time Steve caught her elbow, Fandral was at her side.

She looked at each of them, concern written on their faces. “Don't you dare say it.”

“I have no idea what you mean,” Fandral said. He lifted his chin and moved them toward Thor.

“Lady Jane,” Thor said while parting ways with the Councilman, “why aren't you resting?”

She kicked snow at him, but only a dollop splattered his boot. If frustration fueled strength, a mountain would've landed on him. She was tired of everyone telling her to rest. Did they expect her to lay down and die?

Fandral placed her hand into Thor's and backed away while gesturing for Steve to follow suit. Giving her one last look that flicked to her neck, Rogers went with him.

Her fingers twitched to adjust the cloak, but she curled them into a fist. If only Asgardians wore turtlenecks.

Thor squeezed her other hand. “What troubles you?”

“Have you seen Loki?”

“Nay, not since we parted ways this morning.”

She pursed her lips, wondering where he could be and why would he just disappear.

Then a gut-wrenching spike of pain left her grimacing. And groaning, apparently. She snapped her mouth closed.

Thor wrapped his arm around her to keep her from falling. “When was the last time you used the cream?”

“Do you know where Loki might be?”

“Jane,” Thor said harshly, then repeated his question.

The pang finally ebbed—they were lasting longer—and she stood on her own. “It's been a while.”

“How long?” His words came out more a growl than actual language.

She made to leave but his hold on her became steel chains. “Thor, I need to find Loki.”

He didn't let her move an inch. “How long?”

“Since the camp was attacked.”

His brows lowered, sharpening with a flare of anger that made his grip on her tighten. “Every two hours, Jane. Unless you're resting. That's what the healer said.”

Somehow, he'd turned her to fully face him, hands on her arms. He seemed to want to shake her.

Well, she wanted to do that and more to him. “There's not much left!” She blew out a breath, feeling even more tired from their tiff. “I'm conserving what I have. I'll use it if I feel faint.”

His face went blank. “Why conserve?”

If he didn't have hold on her arms, she would've thrown them up in frustration. “Because of the ration. There are others with frostbite, Thor. More since the attack. I'm not the only one.”

“You are the only one who will die from it.” He stared at her, and so did the others near them, she realized. Sif was the worst. She appeared both sad and murderous. Where was a portal when you needed one? Jane would jump into it in a heartbeat. “If you wish to conserve, then do so by resting. At least then you won't have to use it as often.”

All sense and reason left her, and she tried to free herself. “I'm tired of resting. If I rest anymore, I'm going to rest myself into Crazy Land. I need to do something. I need to—”

He pinned her arms to her side and forced her to stillness. “I care for you, Jane. I care for you in ways I have never cared for anyone, and I will not let you die.”

She winced and glanced at Sif. The dark-haired warrior seemed as fragile as a crystal figurine. Then Jane took in the sincerity in Thor's bright blue eyes, and she forgot all about the constant pain coursing through her. “I appreciate your care and your friendship, Thor.”

His face fell, but Sif seemed to finally breathe. When his hands slid down to hers, gripping them as if she were the one now supporting him, she knew she was in trouble.

As far as she saw it, there was only one way out of this mess. “Will you walk with me?”

His brows furrowed, and she cleared her throat, looking pointedly around the people surrounding them. Thor followed her gaze and straightened. By the time he took her arm in his to begin their walk, everyone had already went about their business, including Sif.

The tension between them was a thick, overgrown forest no machete could clear. But she had to try. “I do care for you. Greatly, as a matter of fact. You're probably the sweetest person I know. Certainly the least judgemental. You're like a big fire in a cozy house nestled in the mountains during winter. People can't help but be drawn to you, to feel comfortable around you.”

“But I do not light a fire within you?”

“Maybe under different circumstances.”

“What do you mean?”

She breathed out. Loki wasn't going to like this one bit. “Do you know of soulmates?”

He stopped them in front of their tent, mixed emotions playing out on his face like a complicated dance. “Do you have one?”

“Yes.”

Brushing back her hair, he said, “The Norns favor this person.”

“Actually, I don't believe he feels all that favored.” She laughed and was surprised at the bitterness lacing the edges.

“Then he is unworthy of you.”

One corner of her mouth half-lifted in an attempt to smile. “If you see Loki, will you send him here?

“Of course.” He kissed her knuckles in a farewell that was more than a simple goodbye.

She sighed, went to her room, hearing the raucous laughter and talk from the men inside the dining room, and collapsed in her bed. Slipping out the container of cream from her skirt’s pocket, she opened it and stared at the last of the thick, sparkling white gunk pushed into the corners. She removed the smallest amount possible and spread it over the dead-like skin on her neck. The wound had some sensation—she could feel her fingers touching it—but it was distant, like brittle paper had been placed over the area.

The relief was instantaneous. It always surprised her how adapted she'd become to the wound’s constant ache.

When she put the container back in her pocket next to the Aether’s small box, she traced the runes carved into the lid. She couldn't use it to save everyone if she was dead, be it from the Aether itself or from the frostbite. There had to be a way.

Her mind ran through everything she knew of the Aether, of what Frigga had told her.

‘Whatever you do, don't let anyone else open it. When the time is right, you may do so, but only when the time is right.’

Now that she knew she would die from the frostbite, she understood why it had to be her to use it. But when would be the right time? And how would Jane know?

oOoOo

Loki walked through what was essentially a chasm of ice with two Jotunns on either side of him. They were taller, of course, and they hadn't spoken a word since they had found him. They knew who he was, had said Laufeyson the moment they saw him.

After that, Loki had claimed his birthright for sanctuary. The two hadn't knelt, let alone bowed their ugly, spiked heads. Instead, they turned and expected him to follow, like a lost dog.

They stopped at a wall of frost-covered ice, and Loki looked up at them. “Well?”

One lifted a hand, and Loki sensed him pulling magic to his palm, but not normal magic, the kind he'd grown up around and mastered. It held a different texture, a different scent. It was completely foreign and yet absolutely right. How he had not sensed it before this moment was astounding.

Part of the wall melted away, like a door sliding open, and they flowed inside a cavernous room with stalagmites littering the ground. Jotunns stopped what they were doing—walking, talking, helping the injured, carrying baskets of the thick, black root they subsisted on—to watch them move past.

Loki saw them all but pretended not to. He kept his chin up and gaze straight ahead.

Hallways branched off to the side, disappearing into darkness. Instead of veering down one of them, they stepped into an even larger space, one where their lamps emitting eerie blue light could not illuminate the ceiling, nor fully reach the center of the room. This area was empty of the icy protrusions, empty of everything besides a half-shadowed throne as hard and stark as the Jotunn sitting in it and the Casket of Ancient Winters resting on the stand next to him.

“What is it?” Laufey asked, his hand snaking out to grab the formidable weapon Loki had unwittingly allowed them to take.

The two Frost Giants led him to the dais and knelt, forcing Loki to bend knee as well. He ground his teeth, wishing he could sever their gnarled hands from his arms.

Staring at the blue-black ice coating the ground, Loki thought of Jane, of the blue-black frostbite coating her neck. His heart fluttered from just the memory of her pressed against him in the cave, sleeping soundlessly; of the joy lighting up her face as they traveled through the Bifrost; of her care for him as they huddled together from the Jotunns attacking the camp...all before they had found out the truth.

No matter what her feeling for him were, he would make sure she survived. As for him, there was no hope, not after what he was about to do.

Loki looked up, letting Laufey see the markings on his forehead. The king took a sharp inhalation, and Loki smiled. His lips stretched wide and thin, teeth and eyes surely glinting in the lamp’s light. “I have returned home, Father.”

Chapter Text

Everyone stood far away from the freezing-cold portal, Darcy included. They watched and waited, soldiers holding guns at the ready, scientists observing the monitors and readouts, a medical team gripping the stretchers, and Erik standing next to her with an arm wrapped around her shoulders. She'd never been that close to him—Jane had always been her go-to person, practically a sister—but now their mutual desire to get her back made him part of her kinfolk.

She peered at the clock on the wall—two minutes had passed, yet it felt like twenty—then went back to staring at the portal. It was a shifting ball of energy, like normal; there was snow, same as before; but this time, there were no sounds of battle to cut her in hundreds of places. She hated being blind, of not knowing what was happening. But, most of all, she hated just standing there.

“Sure would be nice to have a cold suit,” she said loud enough for Fury to hear.

“Just because you want something, doesn't mean it will magically appear,” he responded without taking his eye off the portal.

Barton twirled the arrow in his hand. “How much longer do we wait?”

She shot him a look.

“Several more minutes,” Erik answered.

She shot him an even harder look.

He squeezed her shoulder in sympathy. “Any more and the portal will become unstable. The whole building could fall on our heads.”

She sighed and went back to silently urging Jane, Steve, and Tony to suddenly appear. Loki could stay where he was, for all she cared.

“If they don't show, it doesn't necessarily mean something bad. They could be busy,” Erik told her.

Busy dying.

Another minute passed, much to Darcy’s annoyance.

She chewed on her lower lip. The seconds ticked by in her head like a suspenseful soundtrack.

“One minute to powering off,” Erik said.

No one moved. Their absolute stillness could shame those ancient Chinese warrior statues.

A leg stuck out of the portal. Darcy shot to her tiptoes to see better. A red and gold metal leg. She dropped back to her heels in disappointment.

Tony's boot clunked on the floor and the rest of him slipped through the portal. Flakes of snow swirled off his beaten-up armor. He walked away from the portal, his suit grinding like when she had to learn how to drive a standard. Every time she had to change gears, she worried she'd strip them bare.

When he was far enough away from the portal, his suit opened and he stepped out.

Darcy leaned forward to look around him.

“I'm okay. Glad no one was worried about me.” He lifted a hand. “Got any H2O?”

“Where's Jane and Captain Rogers?” Darcy asked, tossing him her water bottle.

Tony gulped it down.

“Quick,” Erik said. “We must close the portal.”

“Then do so.” He wiped the droplets off his goatee. “She's not coming, and Capsicle is staying with her.”

Darcy’s heart dropped to her feet, but she swung to face Fury. “What’d I tell you?”

The bubble of energy died and the lights returned to their normal brightness.

Fury ignored her. “What happened?”

Tony talked about the Jotunn attack while fending off the medical team trying to check his vitals and take his blood. What caught her attention was when he spoke of Loki’s miraculous victory over the giant monster-elf. He didn't come out and say Loki was not a simple mortal, that he was a Jotunn after all, but he might as well have. How else could someone do what two enhanced badasses could not?

“There's one more thing,” Tony said. The tone of his voice pulled her gaze to him faster than if he had yelled ‘fire.’

Darcy wrapped her arms around herself. He was about to give bad news, she just knew it.

“Jane isn't well.”

“What do you mean?” Erik asked before she could.

Tony pointed to his neck. “There's some kind of frostbite slowly killing her. Apparently, when the Frost Giants touch bare skin, they can freeze you to death. Thor—”

“The God of Thunder?” Barton asked. “This just gets better and better, doesn't it? Next you'll tell me Odin was there too.”

“Odin is in Asgard, which, by the way”—he looked at Fury—”was attacked by the Dark Elves. Oh, and they destroyed their Bifrost. So everyone is stranded on Jotunheim, rationing food and whatnot.”

Barton rubbed a hand over his face. “I need a drink.”

“Can we please get back to Jane?” Darcy asked.

Tony sighed, but went on to explain everything everyone wanted to know about the Dark Elves and their mission of death for all, about Frigga’s vision to counter them, about the Jotunns and the Asgardians, about the camp and advanced technology, about everything he witnessed. It was a lot of good information, but one thing he glossed over was Jane and Loki's relationship. Maybe he didn't see it as important, being male and all that, but she felt like he omitted important bits of information.

Information she would undoubtedly ferret out.

oOoOo

Loki walked toward the man guarding the entrance of the nearly disassembled camp. Most of the tents had been broken down, the makeshift roads were practically bare, the livestock were gone and so were the braziers. It was almost as if it had never existed.

“Thor is looking for you,” the guard told Loki as he passed.

Loki didn't stop, only nodding once in acknowledgment. What did his fake brother want now? How did Thor even run the camp before he had arrived? The official advisors on the Council were useless and slow-witted, not much different from Thor. But they were greedy, taking advantage of the drawn-out war and the time cut off from Asgard to seek more power.

“Where have you been?” Sif asked, appearing out of nowhere, her tone dripping with venom.

So, she had come looking for a fight. Loki smiled.

“I told you already, Sif. I'm not interested. Go work your charms on someone else.”

Her mouth had fallen open, but it twisted into a sneer as soon as she realized his gaze was on her. She had been the bane of his existence while he lived on Asgard. Always trying to push him out of the group, always suspecting him. The fact she was often right made her more infuriating.

“Best not to try Thor.” Loki stopped to look her dead in the eyes. “He's never shown any interest in you, has he?” He enjoyed the flash of pain across her face. “It must be so incredibly frustrating, so defeating, so—”

She pushed past him hard enough to knock him back a step. On Midgard, the blow would've jammed his shoulder. But not here, not now. He was a Jotunn, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. His grin stretched even thinner.

“Brother,” Thor said striding to him, “you should not aggravate her so.”

“Then she should not be so aggravating.”

Thor shook his head. “Jane has been searching for you.”

Who hasn't?

“Come before she wastes away and—”

“She's worse off?” Loki moved for the tent, forcing Thor to catch up to him.

“No, she's as well as she can be. She's just—what was the term she used?” He scratched his beard in thought. “Antsy. She's antsy, and she won't tell me why.”

A thousand emotions sprang up in him like a supercell of storms, everything from relief that she was well to jealousy of her and Thor's easy relationship, from joy that she still wanted to speak with him to bitterness at still loving her despite her not loving him. Not that he could blame her.

“She's not at the tent,” Thor said as he turned, expecting Loki to follow him. “She's been helping with the supply train.”

Loki clamped down on his irritation that she never did what she was supposed to. “You have the location picked out?”

“Aye. Northeast—”

“No,” Loki interrupted a bit too enthusiastically. He quickly schooled himself. “There are Jotunn tracks moving in that direction.”

“You saw that today?”

“That and more.” Which he would never tell.

Thor watched him, most likely looking for any sign of trickery. My, how his brother had grown from the mere simpleton of his youth.

“Then I will inform the others.” He clapped Loki on the back. “You have no idea how much I have missed your honest counsel.”

Loki looked away, his gaze landing on the tail of the supply train where the livestock were being herded and tied together. Less than half the original amount was left. Even with the ration they were eating through the food too quickly. If they didn't die from war, they would soon die of starvation.

“I do not see Jane,” Loki said.

“She is around somewhere, probably fiddling with that brazier she broke.” Loki lifted a brow in question. “She thinks she might be able to do something with the components. Ah, there she is.”

The crowd of people around the supply train shifted, exposing the slip of a woman that was Jane. She stood out like a flower in a desert. A flower with thorns, of course. She directed those around her with a quiet command that garnered no reproachful looks or hesitation. She truly was perfect for him.

“Brother,” Thor said as if it wasn't his first time to do so, and Loki found they were standing still.

“Why did we stop?” Loki asked.

Thor looked at Jane, then at him. “I fear I must give you bad news.”

Jane had chosen his fake brother after all. Loki's heart leapt forward, pounding against his ribs as if to break right through them. He clenched his fists and braced for the devastating news.

“Jane spoke with me, confided in me, really…” He stood a little taller, the smug bastard.

Loki wanted to punch him, wanted to drop him off a cliff, then throw him into the Void.

“She has a soulmate on Midgard.”

Loki's jaw dropped. His heart hammered away for a whole other reason. “She told you?” She'd sworn not to give away his secret. Next would be his identity.

“You know too?” Thor asked, his brows furrowing.

“Of course I know.”

“Then why have you been harboring feelings for her? I understand, but there's no point in continuing down that road. Nothing can break a mortal’s soulmate bond.”

“What?” She hadn't told Thor he was her soulmate?

“We're both lost causes, it seems.” It appeared he was more amused by the situation than hurt. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

Loki smoothed his face. “I'm just surprised you're taking it so well. You were quite besotted with her.”

“Aye.” He watched Jane as she continued her work, whatever it was, with an odd sort of reminiscence. Loki wanted to snap him out of it. “I feel it is for the best.” Then he turned that blue, considering gaze on him. “Maybe the rift between you and me will disappear now.”

Thor always saw the positive in everything. Instead of it annoying him, Loki found himself wanting to confide in him. Maybe he would be the one person who would accept him. Even Jane had said so.

Loki drew in a breath. “Shall we see what the Lady Jane needs?”

Thor's face fell, but it was quickly replaced with his normal exuberance. “No, you go. I will speak with the Council.” He made to leave but then paused. “Loki, before your banishment, I was young and foolish and big-headed. I was not a good brother. And I hope one day you will forgive me.”

Then he turned on his heel and strode away without waiting for a reaction. For which Loki was grateful. Apparently, he was having a hard time concealing his emotions today.

Just when he was used to the new Thor, his brother—fake brother—did something unexpected.

Shaking his head, Loki walked to Jane. “The whole camp said you were looking for me.”

“Don't exaggerate.” She'd nearly dropped the mechanical pieces of the brazier she'd kept at his sudden appearance, but her voice was unruffled, her gaze on the people preparing the supply train. “I just wanted to make sure you didn't do anything outlandish.”

She wasn't telling the whole truth. Not looking him in the eyes was her tell. “And the pot calls the kettle black.” Before she could retort, Loki went on. “What need did you really have of me?”

From the corner of her eyes, she peeked at him. “You look well.” Her shy perusal turned into a full-on stare, and she faced him. “Better than well. You're truly okay?”

“Why would I not be? We won the battle and scared off the elves.”

“Loki,” she warned. “You know what I'm talking about.”

“I just heard some fascinating news.” She opened her mouth to speak, but he lifted a finger and leaned closer to her. “I heard you have a soulmate—”

“I—”

He placed the still upraised finger on her soft lips, doing his best not to think about how they would feel against his own. “On Midgard. Why tell Thor such a lie?”

She removed his finger, holding it a moment longer than necessary. “Would you rather I had told him the truth?”

Loki watched her watching him. Then a blush spread out on her cheeks. Was she embarrassed he knew she'd told Thor? Embarrassed he was her soulmate? The last thought ignited his ire. He stepped even closer to tower over her. “The truth pales in comparison to other revelations, now doesn't it?”

“Not really.” She merely looked up at him. “Both are your secrets to do with as you please.”

“Is it my secret you were protecting”—his jaw ticked just thinking about the most likely truth—”or yourself from humiliation?”

She lifted to her toes, her eyes now two burning amber-colored coals. “Why do you always assume the worst in people?” She lifted her chin higher. “Maybe my actions weren't devious at all. Maybe it was rather simple. Maybe I—”

“Is there a problem here?” Rogers asked, his hard gaze fixed on Loki.

Jane blinked, glancing from the Captain to Loki and the slither of space separating herself and him. In an instant, she stepped back. It was the fastest he'd seen her move in ages.

“No, we're good,” she answered. “He just said I should be resting and you know how that gets me.” She laughed nervously.

Loki laughed with her, but mockingly so. “Yes, we all know how frustrating you can be.”

Her quasi-chortle died, and she was back to glaring at him.

He smiled innocently at her. “I have something to share with you.” He glanced at a confused Rogers to include him. “If SHIELD truly does have the Tesseract, then Odin can use it to repair the Bridge. We need reinforcements and supplies. And the wounded need to be sent back.”

Curiosity and interest replaced Jane’s visible frustration with him. “But SHIELD needs DNA from someone on Asgard to teleport there.”

“Back in the war,” Steve said, “buddies of mine often kept a memento of a loved one: a picture, a letter, a scarf—”

“Which could hold a strand of hair.” The excitement in her eyes did not extend to the rest of her body. She really was tired, drained even, but there was nothing anyone could say to convince her to rest.

“Asgardians will not give away such a beloved possession,” Loki said. “They are all brainless, sentimental fools.” Rogers gave him a sidelong look, but Jane’s pointed stare was the attention grabber. Loki sighed and tried to cover the slip. “Which doesn't include me, of course. Or my mother. She may be sentimental, but she is no fool.”

“If SHIELD opens another portal soon, you'll have to tell them and make sure they agree,” Jane explained to Steve. “I'll figure something out.”

“Where's the other one?” Loki asked while peering around the crowd for the red and gold metal suit.

“Other what?” Rogers asked.

Jane rolled her eyes at Loki. “Tony is back on Earth. He left while you were away.”

Loki ignored her prodding look and said, “Good.” Hidden behind the helmet, the irritating human thwarted Loki's attempts to read him. “And will you be leaving us bereft of your presence?” he asked Rogers, a tad hopeful.

Shaking his head with his gaze on Jane, he said, “I have a promise to keep.”

“Ah, yes. Bring the mortal back alive.” He nodded for effect, then paused as if in thought. “But what if she does not want to go back? What if she wants to explore the known realms and search the unknown?

“There are worlds you guys don't know about?” Jane asked.

Steve answered him, “My mission is to bring her back, not keep her there.”

“Are they in other galaxies?” Jane continued on. “Can you travel to other galaxies?”

“You still have not addressed my first question,” Loki said, ignoring her.

“From what I understand that's not a relevant question.”

Cold pulled to Loki's hands, forcing him to focus on not forming his daggers, to focus not on Jane and their nonexistent relationship. He loved her, but she didn't—couldn't love him. It was as simple as that. Nothing to cry over.

She shivered, pulling the cloak tighter around her. A grimace of pain thinned her lips, and the cold vanished from his awareness.

“Time to apply the cream,” Rogers said to her. If he had been speaking to anyone else, Loki would've mocked him. But he was assisting in taking care of her, and Loki couldn't help but feel a little grateful. The emotion, especially toward an annoying mortal, was a bitter taste on his tongue.

“Um, sure. It's in my room.” She wouldn't look Rogers in the eye. Why was she lying? Then her gaze landed on Loki. “Don't think for one second we're done with this whole unknown worlds business.”

Rogers helped support her weight as she walked away, and Loki couldn't take his eyes off her.

Maybe he didn't have to break the bond. He could lie, say it really was impossible. Mostly everyone believed it to be. And if he fed her crumbs of knowledge, if—when—he got his magic back, showed her his true power, and helped her explore, she would willingly stay with him.

He became aware of the soft smile that had formed on his lips only when it fell. None of that would guarantee her love.

Jane wouldn't even be thinking like this. Her motivations were sincere. She told Thor of the soulmate bond because she didn't want to lead him on. Despite everything, she was kind to Loki. And she stayed to help stop the Dark Elves for purely unselfish reasons.

He needed to stop doubting her, stop lumping her in with everyone else. She was his perfect match, and he had to earn her love.

Chapter Text

“Thor!” a male voice called.

Along with Jane and his fake-brother, Loki turned to see who it was. Rogers didn't look up from the tent pole he was hammering in place. The new camp was mostly set up, appearing not much different than the previous one, albeit smaller and more defensible.

A young soldier ran to them followed by several older ones. Those nearby stopped their tasks to watch the newcomers. This, of course, included Sif and the Warriors Three.

“We’ve just returned from patrol,” the young man said as soon as he stood in front of Thor, “and Loki was right about the northeast. Jotunns are there. Many of them.” He glanced at Loki and nodded in approval.

Loki wasn't quite sure what to think about that, let alone how to feel. The positive attention was enjoyable, and yet it made him want to slink away. He didn't need any more eyes on him than he currently had. Sif already watched him as carefully as a cat stalking its prey.

“Aye. I did not doubt the word of my brother.” Thor slapped Loki's back. “From now on, he is my top advisor. Heed his orders as if they are my own.”

A murmur swept through the growing crowd, some surprised, some questioning. The Council was the loudest. Sif merely whispered in Fandral’s ear.

“He may be mortal and a banished prince,” Thor said, addressing the crowd, “but he is here, sent by our Queen, to help fight our enemies. I, the Crowned Prince of Asgard and commander of this army, have faith in him, and so should you all.” He stared at those closest to him as if waiting for another bout of dissent, gaze falling on the head members of the Council more often than not. They glared at him but said nothing. “Let us make haste in finishing the camp before nightfall.”

After lingering looks at Loki, especially coming from the magi, everyone turned to go about their business. Everyone except Sif. She and the Warriors Three walked to Loki.

Thor smiled at his friends before putting his attention back on Rogers and the tent they'd been constructing.

“Congratulations on your promotion,” she said, the hint of vinegar barely disguised in her honeyed words.

Jane stood, a silent observer. Although, based off her rigid stance, she was more a sentry.

“Why, thank you, Lady Sif. You are truly a dear friend.” Loki gave a curt bow, then gestured for Jane to take leave with him. The last thing she needed was to stress over these brainless twits.

But Sif was not done with him. At her intake of breath, he sighed and faced her as she went on to speak.

“Out of everywhere you could have patrolled, it is quite fortunate you just happened to go where the Jotunns are.”

“The Norns must have finally decided to grant me a kindness. Now if you'll excuse me.” As he turned to leave, a firm hand on his arm stopped him.

Sif leaned closer to him and pitched her voice low enough for no one else to hear. “I will find out how you killed Kurse and how you knew where the Jotunns would be.”

“You can choose however you waste your time. As for me”—he pulled his arm free, careful to not display his Jotunn strength—“I will escort Jane back to her tent before my next patrol.”

“Maybe I will go with you.”

Loki stared into her hard, dark eyes. “Maybe you should.” Cold pulled into his hands, the accompanying sonorous whisper barely registering. He could then easily blame her death on a Jotunn attack.

Jane flinched as if she'd heard his thoughts. The action snapped him out of the anger-filled moment and, ready to explain and apologize, his gaze shot to her. She wasn't looking at him. Her eyes were screwed shut in a grimace of pain, fingers curled around the edge of that blasted red cloak, pulling it tighter around her.

Forgetting about Sif, he shrugged off his jacket and draped it over the cloak. Green suited her coloring much better than red.

Jane’s eyes popped open in surprise.

“It’s only a coat,” he said. “You will not owe me a life debt.”

Her eyes managed to widen even further. “You guys do that sort of thing?”

He chuckled, and her look of wonder melted into a glare. Riling her up was easy and the perfect way to make the pain release its hold on her.

“I should've known better,” she said, but there was no heat behind her words.

“Shall we go now?” He held out an arm for her to take.

She did without pause. That she didn't attempt to hide her fatigue made his insides twist into heavy knots. Her decline seemed so sudden. At this rate, he didn't know how much longer she would last.

“You have that crease between your brows again,” Jane said as they walked. “What are you thinking about?”

“You.” Honesty had never been easy for him, but he would do what was necessary to win her heart.

She laughed. “Me? You have much bigger things to worry about than me.”

“You are no less important than winning this war or me becoming a prince again.”

“Until you're able to cut the soulmate bond, that is.”

She thought he was concerned only for his life should she die. The fool woman. “You know me better than anyone, yet you do not scorn me. That is more precious than any crown.”

If she had looked surprised earlier, then he was sorely mistaken. Her lips softened, mouth falling open slightly, beckoning him. He had to force his gaze onto her wide eyes.

“You are always surprising me,” she finally said.

He hesitated before asking, “Does it annoy you?”

She shook her head and trapped her lower lip between her teeth. He wanted to tug it free with his own.

Someone walked by, offering a greeting that sounded distant and garbled in his ears. All of his senses had been focused on her. He found himself leaning closer to her, his arms gripping her tighter. His body demanded he maintain their position, but Loki eased the tension by returning the greeting to the faceless man. With his gaze off her and his head turned away, he could breathe again.

How much truth could she handle? Would she scorn him if she knew he loved her? Would she willingly stay with a monster?

“Loki?” Jane asked.

He looked at her, fearing the worst. “Yes?”

“We just passed the tent.”

Loki jerked to a stop, which yanked Jane back from her forward momentum. Half of her kept going, hair swirling around her face, then ended up bent over her middle, nearly hanging off his hold.

He quickly righted her, afraid she’d been hurt. It would be just his luck for him to nearly kill the person he was trying to save. He apologised and offered self-effacing comments that rolled off his tongue in a very non-Loki manner.

Still using him for support, she stood with lips pressed together, her shoulders shaking from repressed mirth. Then a chuckle escaped. The laughter grew until she hung on his arm, gasping for air between guffaws and leaking tears.

His brows drew together as he held onto her, refusing to let her collapse to the snow. “Are you laughing at me?”

Several people watched them, all of which he tried to ignore.

“No. Maybe,” she answered, straightening herself. “I haven't laughed like that in years.” She wiped at her eyes, still chuckling. “I can only imagine what that looked like. And then you with your ridiculous concern—” She looked at him and her laughter died. “You were serious? I thought you were teasing me.”

“Your well-being is no joking matter. I would rather cut off my arm than hurt you.”

She looked on the verge of laughing again as her expressions warred between disbelief and confusion.

“I am serious.”

“Because of the bond.” Her words were a cross between a statement and a question.

He growled in frustration, and her brows shot up. His might have as well. He'd never made such a low, guttural sound before. He couldn't help but wonder if it was his Jotunn nature trying to break through the magical Asgardian disguise.

He glanced at his pale hand in relief.

“I would've told you if you started to change,” she whispered.

His gaze shot to hers—brown eyes filled with sincerity and compassion—and warmth flooded his body, bringing life back to his numb core. He yearned to tell her how he really felt, but it was too soon. Their conversation was proof enough.

“I know you would.” Because he trusted her, more than anyone, more than himself. He glanced down at her neck and pulled the cloak and his jacket tighter around her. “Whatever you do, do not stay warm and, most importantly, do not rest.”

Her eyes narrowed, and he couldn't stop the snicker from escaping his lips.

“Reverse psychology will not work on me, mister.”

He smiled. “I had to try.” His fingers itched to feel the softness of her cheek, the smooth curve of her jaw. One day he would do that and more. “I will fix everything, Jane Foster. This war will end, you will be well, and—” The soft bells announcing change of patrol cut him off.

“And?” she asked, slightly breathless.

You will understand the depths of my feelings for you. “I will have my magic restored.”

She blinked, as if coming out of a daze, then nodded halfheartedly.

The bells tolled the final time.

Loki turned from her and walked several paces before catching sight of Thor watching him. His fake-brother shook his head, and Loki could practically read his mind: you are wasting your time, brother. She is bonded to another.

If he only knew.

Loki slipped out of the camp and in the direction of the Jotunns, careful of Sif or of one of the Warriors Three possibly following him. It didn't take long. The snow and ice seemed to bolster him, instead of weigh him down. The energy and vitality he had felt when he'd first arrived on the realm finally made sense. His body was at home here. And yet it gave him no pleasure.

He passed the hidden sentries, the guards in front of the shifting ice wall, and the people working inside the fortress, acknowledging no one until he stopped in front of Laufey, sitting in his shadowed throne, holding the Winter Casket. With a dip of his head, he knelt and said, “My King.”

“Rise, my son.”

Loki stood and waited for the next move. He knew how to play this game. And losing was not an option.

“I gave you information. Now it is time for you to return the favor.” Laufey leaned forward in his throne and rubbed his pointed chin. “Where is the Asgardian camp?”

What a foolish thing to ask. “If you attack so soon, they will know there is a spy. Our advantage will be lost.”

“If we kill them, we will not need your spying. We will be able to focus on ridding Yggdrasil of the Asgardian menace once and for all.”

“Respectfully, sir. Do you not wish to—”

Laufey slammed his fist on the armrest producing a crack that reverberated in the cavernous room. “Asgardian blood will flow this day.”

“Then might I suggest eliminating a patrol party?”

He sneered, contorting his face into an even more dreadful version of itself. “Why would I waste my time?”

“Because they know the general location of your fortress. If they find it, your true mission will fail.”

“How could they know such a thing?” The suspicion lacing his words was thick, intended to intimidate.

Dropping his gaze, Loki let a slight tremble enter his voice. “As much as it pains me to say, they do have a modicum of intelligence, at least when it comes to war. Lead them away from here.” He gestured with his hands, putting on a show. “Take out the patrol as a misdirection. It will buy me more time to retrieve the Aether for you. Before the Dark Elves return.”

“If we storm the camp, we kill the Asgardians and take the Aether from the mortal’s dead fingers. Yggdrasil will be ours.”

Loki did his best not to grind his teeth. “Last time you tried that, she almost escaped. The mortals have a way to teleport now.”

He jumped to his feet, gripping the Casket with both hands. The temperature plummeted. “What?”

This time, Loki dropped to a knee and bowed his head. “They have the Tesseract and have unlocked its secrets.”

Laufey growled, just as Loki had with Jane, making him even more agitated. He was not like these bloodthirsty fiends.

“But I have convinced her to stay,” Loki added, looking up. “Give me more time, and she will hand you the box personally.” He would kill them all before they got within two feet of her.

Laufey paced in front of the large throne. Each footfall was a clomp that shook the icy ground, bouncing the broken shards and flecks of frost. Loki waited patiently. He could outwait a rock if need be.

Finally, the king stopped and swung to face him. “Give me the patrol’s location and size.” He stepped to Loki, lifted his chin, peeling away the Asgardian magical disguise, and said, “Prove yourself true, and I will announce you as heir to the throne of the greatest realm in Yggdrasil.” His grip on Loki’s chin tightened, sharp nails digging into his skin. “Prove yourself false, and I will kill you myself.”

oOoOo

Jane repositioned the mechanical pieces of the brazier she'd broken; it worked now, after many failed experiments resulting in much frustration and even some minor burns. With the pieces in the proper place, it produced a soothing heat, as it was designed for. But that was not why she'd asked for it to be brought to her instead of it being discarded with the other trash.

“Dr. Foster?” Steve asked outside her cloth door.

Finally. She put the brazier pieces to the side and sat up straight. “Come in.”

The red cloth peeled back to expose a tall, broad-shouldered man with the face of an innocent babe. She was going to have to somehow convince him to sneak and steal. “You know you can call me Jane, right?”

He nodded, standing like a soldier at ease, with his legs spread and hands clasped behind his back.

“Has the patrol come back?” She didn't mention Loki, certain Steve knew exactly who she meant.

“No. But some intense weather has moved in, so it could be slowing them down.”

She shoved away her unease—Loki was fine. He was a Jotunn, after all—and pushed herself up out of her chair. Her wobbly legs made her unsteady and appear frail, something she chose not to hide.

He was at her side in an instant, buttressing her with an arm. “You don't have to stand for me.”

“I need your help. It's for the Einstein-Rosen Bridge.”

“The Tesseract?”

“Yes. Remember when you said your buddies from war kept mementos of loved ones back home?” He nodded. “I know which personnel have spouses in Asgard. All we need to do is see if any have a stray hair we might use to teleport SHIELD to Asgard so they can repair the Rainbow Bridge.”

His face brightened. “Someone agreed to let you go through their things?”

“Not exactly.”

His smile fell.

“It turns out Asgardians are very private when it comes to personal matters and artifacts.”

Now his brows lowered. “What are you planning?”

“I need you to help me sneak into a tent.” When his eyes widened, she quickly added, “But you don't have to do anything. Maybe just stand watch. I'll look for what I need.” He started to shake his head, but she went on. “It's for the good of everyone, Steve. Without a functioning Bifrost, without Earth and Asgard working together, we lose.”

He sighed. “Where's the tent?”

She would've jumped in joy if her legs weren't made of week-old jello.

oOoOo

“It's just over here,” Jane whispered to Steve.

They passed several people, all of whom she smiled at. Was she being too friendly? Was everyone watching them?

“Relax,” he said out of the corner of his mouth.

“I am.” She wasn't. She totally lied...to Captain America. Did that qualify as a sin?

They stopped at the tent she'd told him about earlier. It was in a more secluded area, away from the rec and food tents. Plus, he was a newlywed, by Asgardian standards—one hundred years was not what she would call new—and said to be recovering from the Jotunn attack in the medical tent. It was perfect.

“All clear,” he said after a surreptitious look around.

Without a backwards glance, she slipped inside and paused to breathe. Her heart beat far faster than it should and her palms were clammy. Her gaze swept the pristine tent: a made bed with linen pulled so taut they looked painted on, a perfectly arranged, unadorned chair and desk, and two simple chests. She made her way to them.

The first held clothes and a kit to repair them. The second had shoes, toiletries, and containers full of different types of gunk. She sniffed them, shrugged, then put them aside. At the very bottom, was an ornate wooden box.

Thrusting her hands inside the chest, she pulled out the box and placed it on her lap. Letters from the Asgardian’s ancient language were carved on the top. She lifted the lid and found a thick golden ring and a note written in the same masculine scrawl that lined the box. But no scarf, no shirt, not even something more private.

Closing her eyes, she let her shoulders sag. There were other soldiers, of course. She would just have to try again.

“Hi,” Steve said from outside, loud enough for her to hear. Jane jerked upright. “I'm Steve Rogers, I don't believe we've met.”

A reply came next, muffled but definitely male. He sounded calm, not at all alarmed.

Was it a random passerby? Or the owner of the tent? Regardless, she slammed the box shut and shoved it inside the chest just before the tent flaps opened.

Jane froze, bent over the chest with the soldier’s boots and containers in her arms.

“Wait!” Steve said as if the person was about to walk off a cliff. “I'm actually lost. Can you point me in the right direction to Thor's tent?”

“Of course,” the soldier said before the tent flaps closed again.

Jane breathed out and placed the bundle into the chest, then looked around. How was she to escape? There were no window flaps, no open edges.

She tiptoed to the entrance and listened. Sure enough, Steve and the soldier sounded slightly further away. She eased back a flap and peeked out to find the soldier’s robe-covered back facing her. He was a big man.

Glancing back inside the tent, she sighed. It was a shame he hadn't kept anything of his loved one. Her gaze landed on the desk, specifically the drawers.

She looked back outside and caught Steve’s eye. If he saw her hold up a finger for him to wait, he showed no reaction. He just asked the poor man another question, sounding even more confused than before. The layout of the camp wasn't all that complicated. A child could've figured it out. She would've laughed if not for her heart clogging her throat, beating a frantic pace.

Racing to the desk—more like slowly shuffling—she opened the drawers. There were knickknacks, some sort of watch, a knife, and a book. Leaning on the desk, she cursed under her breath. Nothing. Damn it.

On the verge of closing the drawers, she noticed something hanging out of the book. At first, she brushed it off as a ribbon placeholder, but now that it was staring up at her, it looked like something else. She opened the book and found a lock of smooth, dark hair bound together by string.

A long wail pricked her ears and made her stomach drop. Something was wrong. Quickly pulling out a strand, she placed it in her empty container of cream, and escaped the tent while everyone’s focus was on whatever was happening. Jane moved through the snow as fast as she could to reach the source of the lament, her heart in her throat. Was Loki okay?

A large group had gathered near the camp’s entrance, obscuring the disturbance. Hushed whispers tried to soothe the person making the sad sound, only to be swallowed by outraged cries.

Ignoring her rapid breath and aching chest, she urged her body to move faster.

The crowd bumped into her as she worked her way forward, nearly knocking her back, but she finally broke through the wall of people to discover a line of people carrying bodies into the camp. The missing patrol. Maybe even Loki.

She stood on her toes and stared at the body of each man and woman that was marched by. There had been five, and none had included the God of Mischief. But there was one she hadn't gotten a look at: the first soldier carried in. Jane wrung her hands and made her way to the back of the crowd.

Would she have felt his death? She wracked her brain for some piece of information on soulmate psychic connection. Loki had certainly felt her emotions. He'd said so back on Earth, but he hadn't really noted them since, hadn't been aware of them since, she realized. Otherwise, he would've known she wasn't romantically interested in Thor.

Which meant he could've died, and she wouldn't have had a clue.

“Have you see Loki?” she asked the person closest to her.

The magi, a woman covered in a hooded robe, looked at her blankly, like Jane had spoken a different language.

Jane turned from her, walked several paces down, and then asked a man holding a basket the same question.

He shook his head.

“Was he—was he—” She couldn't bring herself to ask if he was one of the fallen.

Regardless, he seemed to understand and merely shrugged before turning back to watch the procession.

Picking up her pace, she hurried toward the front of the line. Loki could've been the first one brought in. He was the brother of the crowned prince, after all.

As she passed people, she asked one of three questions, sometimes all of them jumbled together: “Have you seen Loki?” “Is Loki one of the dead?” “Did Loki come back from patrol?”

Everyone answered no in some form or manner.

She was at her wits’ end and the line seemed miles long. The snow might as well have been quicksand. But she had to find out if Loki was the first one brought in.

“Have you seen Loki?” she asked a vaguely familiar man carrying a basket.

He looked at her askance, and she recognized him as the same person from earlier. Jane glanced around to find all of the people she had passed, now passing her. Tears stung her eyes.

With legs that refused to budge, she was a rock in a stream of people flowing around her. She'd stopped asking about Loki, but she didn't stop worrying about him. Every face she saw, she made sure it didn't have penetrating green eyes lined with dark lashes, thin lips that always seemed to hold secrets, a face that embodied sin.

She searched until no more passed. The tail of the procession moved deeper into the camp where Thor would surely be.

About to turn away, she noticed someone strolling toward the entrance of the camp. Jane straightened. Someone tall and slender. She held her breath. Someone with long black hair that danced in the wind.

Jane smiled.

Loki walked through the magical bubble that surrounded the camp. He watched the mournful procession with a gaze that held no surprise or sadness, no anger or loss. He was perfectly stoic with eyes made of ice.

Movement across the street caught her attention. Sif and the Warriors Three looked at each other knowingly, then darted around a tent and out of sight.

Jane blinked. Loki couldn't have had anything to do with the patrol’s death. Could he?

Chapter Text

Darcy stepped through the portal into the Asgardian camp on Jotunheim...and didn't feel a hint of the freezing winds that knocked against her. She looked down at her metal-plated hand. Damn, Tony really knew his stuff.

“You have ten minutes, Miss Lewis,” JARVIS reminded her.

She scoffed. Fury could've given her more time. But no, she wasn't a trained fighter, Jotunns or the Dark Elves could attack at any moment, something could go wrong with the suit, blah blah blah.

“All right JARVIS, find me my boss lady.”

“I'm not a genie, Miss Lewis. You have to actually look for her.”

Tents surrounded Darcy, and yet nobody just happened by. Where was everyone? She shifted, looking left, then right. “Which direction should I start in?”

Did the AI just sigh?

“Fine,” she conceded. “I'll go to the biggest tent.”

“Wise decision.”

She started forward, loving the feeling of walking around in the Iron Man suit and not one of his copies. Part of her wanted to shoot off into the sky and barrel roll back down. But she promised Tony she'd take care of his baby while he worked on making the other suits Jotunheim-ready. Which was progress, at least. Fury wasn't any closer to developing her kickass snowsuits.

Passing rows of tents with not a soul in sight made her feel like she was in a ghost town—ghost tent city? Either way it gave her the heebiejeebies.

“There's a mass of heat signatures just up ahead,” JARVIS told her.

“A meeting?”

“Possibly. Everyone is standing still. They appear to be—”

“Somber,” she finished for him. It was not easy looking at the little footage of red blobs on the screen while staying on a straight path. She couldn't imagine fighting for her life, utilizing the suit’s various weapons, constantly analyzing all the doodads on the screen, and throwing out classic Tony barbs.

When she passed the next row of tents, she paused. A crowd stood in front of the largest tent, surrounding what looked like tall floating pyres, except the bodies lying on top weren't burning. She zoomed in to get a better view.

They were being dissolved, but not like in a horror movie. There was no blood or goo. It was closer to a petrified body turning to dust. Only that dust floated upward, sparkling in the sunlight, despite there not being a weird updraft. It was oddly beautiful.

The last of the bodies disappeared, and the people turned to leave, quiet except for the few who spoke of Valhalla. They passed her with barely a glance. At least she didn't have to explain her presence.

“Stark?” Rogers asked suddenly beside her. “Has there been a development?”

Just your hot buns. Damn, he was looking good. “No, it's me. Darcy.” She gave him her best smile before realizing he couldn't see it.

“Oh.” His eyes widened for a brief moment. “Well, it's good to see you again.”

She almost squealed in delight.

“Jane is over here,” he continued. “Follow me.”

Anywhere you want me to, baby.

“Miss Lewis,” JARVIS said, “might I suggest you go with him?”

“Just give me a moment.” She was admiring the view.

Waving her forward, Steve asked, “Any news for me?”

I love you. “Nope. How's life on this icebox?”

“It's not too bad. But something will need to be done soon. Everyone is down to eating every other day, except Jane.”

Darcy almost sighed in relief. That girl didn't have enough meat on her bones to begin with.

“That's why I'm here. Erik thinks we can use the Tesseract as an alternate path for the Asgardians to travel to Jotunheim.”

“Jane's one step ahead of you. She already has what you need to get there.”

“That's my girl.” The little bounce in her step faltered when she saw Jane sitting on a chair, slightly hunched over, covered in a too-large green jacket with a red cloth draped over her legs, like a little old lady. And she was skinnier, not to mention paler. Peeking over the edge of the jacket’s upraised collar was the blackened flesh Tony had mentioned.

All of this because of Loki. She wanted to strangle him.

“Tony!” Jane brightened when she noticed Darcy and Steve walking her way.

“Wrong,” Darcy said. “Try again.”

Jane’s mouth fell open before stretching into a wide grin. “Darcy!” She tried to push herself up out of the chair, but her arms wobbled.

The sight pierced Darcy’s heart. Jane was a tornado, a force to be reckoned with, not this frail woman unable to stand on her own.

A slender hand appeared on the astrophysicist’s shoulder, easing her back into her seat. Darcy’s gaze followed up the arm to a pointy, green-eyed face.

A mechanical whining sound barely filtered into her ears.

“I would advise you against that,” JARVIS said, startling her.

She'd somehow activated the arc blasters in her palms, and quickly turned them off. “Sorry.”

“Don't tell me,” JARVIS recommended. “Tell them.”

Sure enough, the Asgardians around her had drawn weapons, Steve stood with raised brows, and Loki had positioned himself in front of Jane. What the—? Was Tony right about Loki?

“Oops.” She lifted her hands to show they were not lit up. “I'm still learning how to work this thing.”

The soldiers grumbled something, but then moved on, and she noticed hooded figures dismantling the pyres with a flick of their hands. Darcy's eyes bugged.

“Who are they?” she asked.

“The magi,” Loki answered. He sounded wistful, yet slightly angry.

“And what kind of funeral was that? It was stunning.”

“It is a poor substitute for what should have been done. There is no water for boats to be let loose on, no wood for said boats, and fires are not allowed, lest they give away our location.”

Okay. Darcy faced Jane and told her their plan to use the Tesseract.

She nodded. “That'll be plan B. Loki says the Tesseract can actually repair the Bifrost.”

Darcy glanced at Loki to find him in his usual stance: standing as straight and rigid as a pole. But, with his gaze on her boss lady, his eyes were a field of soft and lush spring grass.

Holy bananas, Tony had been holding out on her. Loki looked very much like he was smitten. Except it had to just be the bond at work. He was incapable of loving anyone but himself. Certainly not someone he had killed numerous times.

“Erik is going to drool over that bit of news,” Darcy said. The Tesseract was endlessly fascinating to him. “But before we can do anything, we need a way to Asgard, and Steve said you already have that covered.”

“I do.” Jane slipped her hand under the red cloth and pulled out a container.

It didn't look like much, but based off Loki and Steve’s incredulous stares, it could've held the secrets of the cosmos.

Darcy didn't take the small container. “What's in it?”

“A hair from someone on Asgard.” Jane stretched her arm out further.

“Well, why didn't you say so?” Darcy took the container, not messing with opening it. With her luck, she'd end up pulverizing it and losing the all-too-important strand. “Now tell me why these two look like they're having an aneurysm.”

Jane was refusing to look at them. Another clue that something wasn't right.

“Because that should contain the cream that's keeping her alive,” Loki said from between clenched teeth.

Color rose in Jane’s cheeks. It actually made her look a little more alive. “I ran out.”

“Then get some more.” Loki's eyes sparked.

Jane whipped around in her chair to face him. “There is no more.”

“That's preposterous.”

“There was already a shortage before the Jotunns attacked the camp, Loki. After that, many more needed the medicine.”

Loki glared at her for a long moment, then, when he spoke, his voice was cold enough to make Darcy shiver from inside the suit. “You need it more than anyone else.”

“Damn it, Loki. We're all in this together. If the soldiers are too weak to fight, then we lose.”

“If you die, then we all die.”

Jane scoffed. “Again with the melodrama.”

They sounded like they'd been married for twenty years or were about to snap and jump each other’s bones.

“You heard what Frigga said,” Loki reminded her.

“Hold up,” Darcy jumped in. “You met the Queen of Asgard?”

Jane nodded, looking drawn. Arguing with Loki must have sapped her energy reserves.

Darcy wanted to shake her fist at him. Instead, she made sure Loki and Jane couldn't continue their sparring match. “I have five minutes left. Spill. Everything.”

“There's not much to tell.” Jane adjusted the collar of her jacket to better hide the frostbite.

Sensing her discomfort, Darcy said, “For the sake of the mission, we need to know all about Asgard and the Queen.” That would get her talking.

“Well…” Jane went into detail about the farms surrounding the golden city, the palace gardens, the incredible length of the Rainbow Bridge, and the Bifrost itself. She was about to start on the Queen when some bells sounded throughout the camp.

“What is that?” Darcy asked.

“Patrol change,” Loki said, still fuming. “It was a pleasure to see you again, Miss Lewis.”

He didn't sound all too pleased.

As he started to walk away, Jane said, “But you had one earlier today.”

“The more people are out there, the safer you will be.”

“Loki,” she admonished him.

He looked at Steve. “Take care of her.” With a single glance at Jane, one that contained so many emotions Darcy couldn't decipher them all, he strode away.

“You should be leaving as well,” JARVIS told Darcy.

She sighed. “I have to go too.”

Jane’s face fell even further. “You'll need to take the Tesseract with you to Asgard, so tell Erik to make the Bridge portable. Use the mini arc reactor from one of Tony’s suits to power it, and tell him to think quantumly.”

“Why don't you come back with me? Things will move faster with you there.”

“You know I can't.”

“Can't blame a girl for trying.” Darcy placed a hand on Jane's shoulder, wishing she could hug her friend. That was the downside to the suit, she realized. You were protected from both the bad and the good. “Don't do anything stupid while I'm gone, okay?”

“Of course not.” Jane smiled impishly.

And there was her old boss lady, her tornado.

oOoOo

“Shhh,” Fandral whispered to Volstagg. “You sound like a rampaging bilgesnipe.”

“I haven't done a stealth mission in many years,” the rotund man said, licking his lips, probably from hunger instead of nervousness. Though, it could very well be both. Most emotions drove him to the kitchens.

Sif sighed, annoyed with the two. “Quiet. Here he comes.”

Thankfully, they settled down and sunk deeper behind the crest of snow they’d made.

Loki walked by with his hands curled into fists and his eyes hard but distant. Good. That would work in her favor.

“What do you think has him so upset?” Volstagg asked.

Waiting for the perfect distance to separate Loki from her party, Sif didn't take her eyes off him. “It doesn't matter. Just thank the Norns he's distracted.”

“But—”

“It's time. Remember your positions”—she looked at Volstagg—”and don't make a sound.”

He nodded in response and then scurried across the snow-covered ground like a graceful woodland creature. His agility—when he chose to be agile, at least—always surprised her. Hogun merely glanced at her before moving out next.

“What do we do if we're right?” Fandral asked her.

She'd thought long and hard about that. Going behind Thor's back felt like betrayal, especially with all of the troubles he's had, but he just could not see Loki in any other light than as his kid brother. “We take our proof to the Council. Now go.”

They shadowed Loki, using their camouflaged armor and the natural surroundings to stay out of sight. Except, it seemed they could have stood upright and danced circles around him and he wouldn't have noticed. He truly wasn't present—if it was anyone else, she would've been concerned—and yet, he walked with purpose. He had a destination in mind and knew the path like the back of his hand.

Sif stopped dead in her tracks when a Jotunn seemed to materialize from the snow. No. Two Jotunns. She hoped the Warriors Three had followed her lead and halted.

Her fingers brushed the hilt of her sword. As much as she disliked Loki, she would not see him die this day. Not if he was innocent.

The Jotunns looked past Loki and scanned the surrounding area. Did they not see him? He certainly wasn’t visible. He was magicless now, purely mortal.

Loki walked between them, and they dipped their heads in acknowledgment.

That lying snake. That traitorous dog. He was working with the Jotunns.

Her heart broke for Thor.

oOoOo

“Why are you here?” Laufey asked Loki.

Loki wasn't scheduled to return for another day, but that didn't concern him. He had to find a way to save Jane before it was too late. “I want to fully embrace my Jotunn nature.”

The king placed the Casket on the stand next to his throne, all the while staring at him, leaving Loki to wonder if he had made a miscalculation.

Then Laufey flung an arm in a wide arc, and before Loki could blink, an icicle hurled towards him.

Loki leapt out of the way, rolled on the icy ground, and landed in a crouch, only to fling himself out of the path of another icicle. Then another. And another. They flew at him so fast, he had no time to think, only to react. One sliced his thigh and his arm, but not so deep as to be a distraction.

“Fight back,” Laufey said standing up from his throne.

An icicle whizzed past Loki’s ear, close enough its coldness was distinctly felt. “I have no weapons.”

You are a weapon. Your very nature is a weapon.”

The king stomped his foot and an icy stump burst out of the ground, knocking Loki over and flinging him into the air. He landed on his back, the air rushing from his lungs in a sharp exhale.

In the blank space of his stunned, swirling mind, he heard the ice call to him, a soft whistle beckoning him. It sang a song of pain, of cruel intentions, of another attack. And the song was familiar. He'd heard it every time he unconsciously tapped into his Jotunn side. It all made sense now.

Loki felt the next icy stump being formed underneath him and rolled out of the way just before it appeared. He staggered to his feet with an ice dagger in both of his hands.

“Good,” Laufey crooned. “Now do what I just did.”

Looking down at the semi-translucent floor, Loki considered how to create the icy stump. But before a scant second passed, a thin icicle pierced his shoulder. He fell to his knees, stifling a cry of pain.

“The answer does not lie in your head. It lies here.” Laufey gestured around him. “And here.” He thumped his chest with a fist.

Loki pulled out the needle-like icicle, refusing to show an ounce of pain, and dropped it to the floor, relishing in the sound of it shattering. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and listened for the song again. It greeted him with excitement, acknowledging their oneness. The next instant, he raised his foot...and was flung back by an icy wall barreling into him.

“Faster.”

With muscles like tremoring water, Loki climbed to his feet and spat blood off to the side. But the song was as loud as if he stood in the middle of an orchestra. He ripped the moisture from the air to form spiked hail that rained down on the king.

Laufey formed a shield over his head, laughing with delight as it was pounded on like a drum.

While he was focused on what was above, Loki merely tapped his foot, nothing like what the king had done, and yet an icy stump thrust up from under Laufey’s feet, slamming him into his own shield.

The laughter, and Loki suddenly doubted having gone straight to Laufey. He let go of the hail. The king could have him killed for any slight displeasure.

No, this was the only way. No other Jotunn would give him what he needed.

Laufey jumped off the tall stump and strode to Loki with a glint in his red eyes. He stopped right in front of him, and Loki refused to take a step back. They stared at each other as the seconds ticked by in his head.

Then Laufey spoke. “It is as I expected. You, my son, will be the strongest Jotunn in centuries.” Then he offered something that looked like a smile, exposing his ghastly pointed teeth, and clapped Loki on the back. “As an inexperienced runt, hindered by an Asgardian upbringing, you have already excelled beyond our promising young warriors, and you killed the dreaded Kurse.”

Loki's eyes widened at the mention of the overgrown, monstrous Dark Elf.

“We know all about that skirmish. Malekith wants your head, but we will soon have his.”

“Teach me more, Father.” Loki made sure not to let his distaste show, focusing on why he was there. “I yearn to know everything, including how to kill with a single touch.”

Laufey nodded. “Frostbite is not so difficult to learn.” He lifted his hand and cold steam seemed to emanate from it. “An easy, quick burst kills right away. But to torture, to make death slow and painful, requires control.”

“Can it be undone?”

Laufey watched him carefully.

“To give hope, only to crush it time and time again, is the best form of torture,” Loki offered, careful to not let his true intention show.

The king paused, then said, “I have not considered that.” He smiled again, and Loki cringed inside. “Yes, it can be undone. Let me show you.”

Hours passed, filled with pain and agony. Whatever he learned how to do, he experienced first hand. Blood coated thick patches of his clothes, he'd lost consciousness multiple times, and his bones were sore.

He walked back to the Asgardian camp, wincing with each step. The Jotunn healers would not mend his flesh nor flood him with vigor. He had to pay for his mistakes, for his slowness. Regardless, he walked with his head held high, for he now knew how to cure Jane.

She would no longer die. He would no longer have to see her wither away. People would question how her wound was miraculously healed, but he did not care.

Loki entered the camp, smiling at the guard and at the people milling about, until he caught sight of the elderly Council, standing in a row as if to barricade any further entry.

Coming to a stop, Loki scanned the small crowd. There were several soldiers carrying binds, more carried weapons, and Sif and the Warriors Three were off to the side, watching him. They were the cause of this commotion, and if Jane died because of their stupidity, he would kill them all.

“Loki Odinson, banished prince of Asgard,” the eldest of Thor’s advisors said, pulling Loki's gaze to him, “you are found guilty of treason for a second time and are, therefore, sentenced to death.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

“Did you hear?” a woman asked.

“I did.” another woman answered while clanking a metal tray down on the table next to Jane’s bed.

Jane covered her head with the blanket, grumbling about trying to sleep.

“Second time now.” The first woman—Bergunn, Jane realized—tsked. “I told you he hadn't changed a bit.”

Her chambermaids still didn't understand that mortals could hear just fine. Jane pondered throwing a pillow at them.

“Such a shame that it was all an act.” Astrid, the other woman, a stout blonde, grunted as she rustled through what must be Jane’s dirty clothes. “I wonder if Queen Frigga really did send him. It is awfully convenient no one can confirm what he says to be true.”

Are they talking about Loki? What did he do now?

“Poor Thor,” Bergunn said.

Astrid sighed, mumbling an agreement.

Jane’s heart thudded hard, then leapt into a sprint.

“He had to watch his brother be banished,” Bergunn continued, “and now he has to watch him be put to death.”

Jane tossed off the covers and bolted upright. “What was that? What did you just say?”

They gasped. Bergunn held a hand to her throat, her wide eyes returning to normal. “Forgive us, Lady Jane,” she said loudly. “We didn't mean to—”

“What's happened to Loki?” Jane demanded.

“Nothing for you to worry about. Now go back to sleep.” Astrid smiled and patted her shoulder, trying to ease her back into bed, but Jane swiped away the chambermaid’s hand.

“Tell me.”

The two maids looked at each other before Bergunn said, “I guess it's common knowledge now.”

Astrid nodded.

“They caught Loki sneaking off to the Jotunn camp,” Bergunn explained.

“They what?” Jane asked, thrusting a hand through her tangled hair. Did they know he was one of them?

“And now the Council has sentenced him to death,” Astrid added.

Jane's breath turned to lead in her throat. “Where is he?”

“They have him locked in a makeshift cell close to the Council’s tent. We've never had need for a penitentiary before. But it should hold. They have the magi helping with guard duties. Can you believe it, Bergunn?”

The two went on about what it meant for the societal roles, and Jane wanted to hit them.

“I need a moment,” Jane announced, careful to hide her frustration. “Please.”

“Of course,” Astrid said. “Let us know if you need anything.”

They smiled and left, carrying her laundry and dirty dishes.

Jane climbed out of bed, pausing every other second to catch her breath. Pushing the pain of her wound to the back of her mind, she got dressed and made her way out of the tent.

Was Loki really meeting with the Jotunns? He had been going on many solitary patrols and would often not come back for hours after he was due to return. But why? He hated them.

“Dr. Foster,” Steve said, catching up to her, “you shouldn't go to him.”

She knew exactly who he was referring to. “I have to know if it's true, and, if so, why.”

“They're not letting anyone see him.”

“They'll let me. I'm just a weak and dying Midgardian, remember? I'm no threat.”

He shook his head and fell quiet as they walked to where the chambermaid said he was being held. What if he really had been going to the Jotunns? It would only be to spy on them. But then someone would know, and he wouldn't be in this predicament. Damn it, Loki. Why did he always have to complicate things?

Jane found the small tent surrounded by guards, both the large, burly soldiers and the comparatively smaller, robed magi. The oddity was that all but one faced the tent, not taking their eyes off it for a second. They were more concerned about him escaping than someone trying to break him out.

“Halt,” the one facing her commanded. “No one is to speak with the prisoner.”

“It's okay. I'm Jane Foster, the Midgardian. I just need one moment with Loki.”

Nothing about him softened, not his spread-legged stance, nor his stony expression. “For your protection, you especially are not allowed to enter.”

Her brows rose. “For my protection? Is he not bound?”

“Aye. And muzzled.”

If her brows climbed any higher, they would disappear in her hair. “Muzzled?”

Steve grabbed her arm and prodded her to walk away.

“Muzzled?” she repeated, standing firm. “Was there a trial? Is he getting any food and water? How can I know he is being treated fairly—”

“Traitors deserve only death.” His nostrils flared as his face turned an angry red. “That he has not been beaten is out of respect to Prince Thor.”

Thor! He would listen to her and see reason. “Where is he?”

Before the guard could speak, Steve answered, “In Sif’s tent.” At her questioning look, he added, “I like to keep track of everyone. It makes things simpler if there's an emergency.”

Well, lucky her. Without a goodbye to the Asgardian, she spun around and marched away.

“You should leave it,” Steve said, not missing a beat with her change of plans. “This is not the U.S., let alone Earth.”

“Wrong is wrong, no matter where it is.” His gaze lowered from hers. “Besides, he's innocent...of this crime at least.”

“How can you be certain? Is it the soulmate bond?”

“Maybe. I don't know.” She wasn't certain about anything related to the bond anymore. When they stopped outside of Thor's tent, she asked, “Let me go in alone, okay?”

He nodded. If there was one person he trusted on this planet, it was Thor. “If you're worried about what will happen after…”

That she would soon die once Loki was dead? It hadn't even crossed her mind. “My days are numbered anyway, down in the single digits, I imagine.” She shook her head. “It's not that. I just won't let him die. It's not right, and I, I—” She loved him. She loved him despite his guarded heart and no matter his heritage.

He placed a hand on her shoulder and gently squeezed. “I understand.”

How could he? What she felt was beyond soulmates.

Turning from him, she pushed through the tent flaps and found Sif sitting next to Thor, rubbing his back. Slumped over, face resting in his hands, he looked like the nine worlds rested on his shoulders. He glanced at her and jumped to his feet, practically running to her. “Lady Jane.”

As soon as he caught her hard look, he stopped short of embracing her, and ended up standing with his arms awkwardly stretched out.

Jane glared at him. “Why aren't you stopping this?”

His arms flopped to his sides. “I cannot. The Council—”

“What do you mean you can't? You're the prince.”

“Exactly. Only the king can grant pardons to the guilty.”

“To the accused,” she corrected him. “What proof do you have?”

Sif stood. “I saw him pass two Jotunns, unhindered and even acknowledged as if one of their own.”

“So? He could be spying for us. That's what he does, right? He sneaks and snoops and lies.”

Thor started to nod in agreement, but Sif said, “And that is supposed to help his case? Besides, he would've reported something to someone. Certainly his brother. But he hasn't, has he, Thor?”

He dejectedly shook his head.

“Well, maybe that's because he hasn't found anything useful yet.” Jane’s voice grew louder with each word.

Sif threw up her hands and sat down. “I didn't want to be right. He's Thor's brother, for Odin’s sake. But he snuck the Jotunns into Asgard. They have the Casket because of him. This war is because of him.”

“That was hundreds of years ago,” Jane said. “People change in a tenth of that time.”

Thor looked from Jane to Sif, no different than if they were in a tennis match.

“People are who they are.” Sif’s tone and face were soft, as if she were trying her best to help Jane see reason.

“Thor has changed,” Jane countered. “Loki said so. He's more humble now, willing to listen to others, to think.” She looked at him. “No offense.”

He shrugged it off with a smile.

Sif gazed lovingly at him. “He is a better version of himself, it is true. But he has always been good natured, honest, and trustworthy.” She then turned her attention to Jane. “Loki, on the other hand, will always be cunning, self-serving and deceitful.”

Jane gave up. There would be no changing Sif’s mind. So, instead, she focused on Thor. “Surely you can do something? Anything?”

Frustration hardened his jaw. “The Council has decided.” Then his face sagged and that inner glow he always had seemed to dim a little. “Come morning, his punishment will be carried out.”

Jane turned from him before he could see the beginnings of tears line her eyes and stormed out of the tent.

Steve was at her side in an instant, quiet, just letting her be, for which she was grateful. The unshed tears finally fell free down her cheeks, hot against the bitter cold of midday.

By the time she reached the group’s tent, her face was dry and she was ready to take on the world.

“I'm going to break him out,” Jane declared when they were inside her room. “And you're going to help me.”

“Wait. What?”

“I mean, I can do it alone,” she said innocently and weakly, “but I'll most likely die trying. If you want to complete your mission, then you'll have to help me.”

“That's low.” He pointed a finger at her. “And wrong.”

“Sentencing a man to death without a fair trial is an even greater wrong.”

He said nothing.

“Come on, aren't you supposed to be on the side of good and righteousness? Just get me there and stand watch. You don't have to do any of the freeing.”

“And where will he go afterwards? How will he survive? Sending him out, alone and without supplies is just another death sentence.”

“He'll be fine. Trust me.”

“How will he be fine?” Before she could give him a half-lie, he went on. “And if you want me to go through with this, you're going to be straight with me and tell me everything.”

“Fine.” Jane paced the room as she told him about how she and Loki had discovered he was really a Jotunn, and that Queen Frigga had given her a box filled with what the Dark Elves were after, the Aether.

“That's not the only thing they want,” Steve said after taking a moment to process what she'd said. “Thor and his advisors think they're after everything in the Vault. It must be why they haven't made camp here, and instead only attack randomly.”

She remembered the Vault from the book Loki had given her, and it was entirely possible. “So you're okay with who he really is?”

“It doesn't matter what color his skin is. If he's an ally, then he's an ally. And having someone on the inside is a smart tactic. Granted, we'll lose that advantage once he's gone. The big question is how will you be?”

It wouldn't be easy, but she would make do until she could see him again. “So long as he's alive, I'll be fine.”

“It's settled then.” He moved to the cloth door. “I'll case the area and come up with a plan. Be ready to go when I return.”

She nodded and settled into her chair, conserving her energy for what was to come. If only she had more of her cream.

oOoOo

The night was dark, but, with the moonlight reflecting off the snow and the braziers giving off a warm glow, it was not too dark to see. Not that it mattered to Captain America. The man was practically a cat.

“The problem is,” Steve whispered into Jane’s ear as they crouched behind a tent, “the magi are linked. It's what makes them as a guard unique and quite effective. We'll need to take them all out at one time.”

Her eyes bugged. “That's not possible. We'll never get past them.”

“There's always a way.” He slipped a container out of one of his pant’s pockets. “Sleeping dust. A nice, young healer gave it to me after I mentioned how you hadn't slept in days.”

She could barely believe they just gave him some valuable medicine during a ration, but then she looked at his baby-blue eyes and understood. “How do we deploy it?”

“They're downwind of us.”

“So we wait for a gust and let it carry the medicine to them. What about the others on the opposite side of the tent?’

He tightened his grip on his shield. “Leave that to me.”

After handing her the container, he crept away, not noticing, or maybe not caring, that she gaped at him. If you needed someone to get something right in one go, she was not that person. He hadn't even said how long she should wait.

She tracked him for as long as she could before he disappeared into the night and then waited for the perfect gust of wind. Several swept by, but each time she wasn't sure it would be strong enough to carry the sleeping dust to them. It seemed like minutes went by.

If she waited any longer, the sun would rise. She could practically hear Steve’s polite admonishment.

Breathing out, her hair swirled with the beginnings of a breeze. She opened the container and held it up in the air, careful to not breathe in any of the remnants—wouldn't that just be hilarious?

A sudden rush of air knocked into her and she almost dropped the container, forcing her to grip onto it with every bit of strength she had left. The wind lifted the medicine and sent it across the distance between her and the guards.

Eons passed, tense muscles turning to rigor mortis, as she waited for something to happen. Did the sleeping dust not reach them? Was it diluted too much to have an effect? She didn't blink as she stared at the magi and soldier’s rigid backs, willing them to fall into unconsciousness.

Come on. Go to sleep.

Several shifted, their posture softening. Several more appeared to yawn.

Elation filled her to the brim. She clenched her mouth shut to not whoop in victory.

As one, they collapsed to the ground. Their white armor and robes disguised them as lumpy mounds of snow. So long as they didn't snore and a light didn't glint off a sword, they would go unnoticed.

Thumpthumpthumpthump.

Jane jerked at the soft, yet lightning quick sounds. By the time she looked in their direction, Steve stepped around the other side of the tent and waved her forward.

Ignoring her stiff limbs, she climbed to her feet and made her way to him, careful not to disturb the guards. Though, based off their heavy breathing, nothing short of a war would wake them.

“As quickly as you can,” Steve whispered, while handing her a knife. “If you can't cut through the binds, come get me right away.”

Gripping the hilt, she nodded, then stepped into the small, one-person tent. A single brazier gave off enough light and heat to make the space cozy. Without that, it would've been bleak. A stiff cot, along with a plain chamberpot, lined the opposite wall. No color, no softness, no luxuries.

Loki, mouth covered in a metallic muzzle, stared at her with wide eyes. His crouched position, even with bound hands, made her think he was ready for a fight. But then he stood, his gaze flicking from her to his palms, his face a war of emotions.

“Loki?”

He zeroed in on her, eyes now hard emeralds. It took one of his long strides to cross the space to her, and she nearly dropped her knife. She'd expected him to be surprised to see her or even disdainful of her rescue attempt. She did not expect him to greet her like a starving man being served a feast.

Stretching open his hands, he reached for her. She inhaled, heart pounding against her ribs. He breathed out, the tips of his fingers grazing the frostbite on her neck.

A long moment passed where they stood as still as statues, his eyelids clamping shut and brows furrowing. Despite the hardening of his features, his touch remained a soft embrace she barely felt through the deadened skin.

As much as she wanted to revel in the odd display of affection, she touched his hands to lower them and said, “I'm getting you out of here.”

Instead of releasing her, he redoubled his focus. Sweat beaded his brow. His jaw ticked with strain.

“There's not much time left,” she said, breaking the heavy silence. “I need to free you before it's too late.”

He snatched his hands back, sucking in air as if he'd been holding it the entire time. The green of his eyes was liquid again, but heavy, filled with agony and loss. And anger. He curled his fingers into fists, knuckles white and sharp.

Then he breathed out long and slow. Finally, he shook his head and gestured for her to go.

“I'm not letting you die.”

She took another step in his direction, but he moved as far back as he could, practically stepping on his bed.

“Quit being ridiculous and hold out your hands.”

He pointed at the exit, then at her, before sliding his fingers across his neck.

“They won't kill me because they won't know I helped you escape. Now, hold still.” She grabbed his wrist and proceeded to slice at the golden rope. “Have you really been going to the Jotunn camp?”

He nodded, and her heart fell.

Forgetting what she was doing, she looked him in the eyes. “Why?”

Please let it be for something good. Her chest ached with the need for him to not be evil. She couldn't love him then, and yet she wasn't sure if she could ever stop.

His words were stifled by the muzzle and she started, having forgotten about it. She dropped the knife on the bed—it wasn't cutting through the strangely thin and delicate rope anyway—and circled around him to find where the latch was.

“I can't see. Bend your knees or something.”

He grumbled, but did as commanded. Not that it helped. There was either no latch or it was expertly hidden. Maybe so it would be impossible for him to work free.

She felt around the back and front for something. “Why is this so difficult?” she grunted while tugging at the blasted thing.

Gripping her hands, he stood and nodded for her to leave.

“Not until you're free.”

He brushed back her hair, caressing her ear as he tucked away the strands. His green eyes seemed to whisper a beautiful sonnet filled with love and regret. Unless she saw only what she wanted. He could very well think she was a fool.

“Sif is coming,” Steve said as he rushed in, shield still on his back, which meant he wasn't too worried. He looked at them and sighed. “Jane, we need to go.”

She shook her head. “See if you can free him first.”

In two seconds, Steve had the knife and was at her side. He pushed the blade against the restraints with no luck, trying again and again. “It's not going to work.“ He faced her. “We’re running out of time.”

“Then we'll run,” she declared. “Loki can go to the Jotunn camp. Maybe they can free him. Steve and I will hide out until SHIELD opens a portal.”

Loki nudged her to the tent flaps and made a sound that could only mean ‘go.’

As much as she tried to resist, she was too weak to plant her feet. But then, he stopped. Both he and Steve stood as if listening to something. She couldn't hear a thing outside the tent.

Loki was the first to react. Taking the knife from Steve, he sliced through the tent, ripping a line from the height of his head to the ground, and pushed her through it.

“Guards down!” Sif yelled for more to come, for someone to sound the alarm, and for something else Jane missed.

Loki swept her in his still-bound arms, eliciting a surprised squeak from her, and ran. Steve was right behind them, shield in hand and gaze scanning all around them.

His footfalls rattled her bones and aggravated the wound. She grimaced, but sealed her lips. He had to focus on fleeing, not on her.

“Stop!” Sif hollered behind them before her voice was swallowed by a piercing wail. The alarms.

Jane twisted around to find the warrior woman running after them, gliding across the snow like a graceful deer. Coming up from behind her were three charging bulls, Volstagg, Fandral, and Hogun. She liked them all, but, right now, they could fall in a pit, and she wouldn't feel bad.

“Faster, Loki,” she croaked. Her mouth was dry, her throat lined with sandpaper. Frankly, she was surprised she got any words out around her clenched teeth.

The steadily building pain seemed to race to its peak as they sprinted to the edge of the camp. She screwed her eyes shut and focused on breathing, letting the yells and ear-splitting alarms fade away.

It didn't help.

The wind his momentum created scraped across her bare skin like broken glass. Each of his footfalls was now a blow, pounding her into a bloody mess. If there was anything outside of the agony enveloping her, she could not find it.

Not until she was jerked out of her misery.

Jane opened her eyes to find Loki on his knees and an arrow sticking out of his shoulder. “Loki,” she tried to say, but uncertain if the word made sense, let alone came out at all.

He placed her on the snow and then grasped onto the arrow’s shaft, yanking it free from his body. Blood immediately soaked through his tunic.

As he bent to pick her up, another arrow zipped by. He rolled away from her and gave her a pained look before taking off in the direction the arrow had come from.

She struggled to move—she had to make sure Loki was okay—but each inch was a spear through her middle. It didn't matter, though, not when every sensation was just a different form of torment. She pushed herself upright, her limbs quivering despite feeling frozen solid, and caught sight of Loki fighting the camp’s guard. Even with bound hands and a wounded shoulder, he fought with a ferocity that awed Jane.

Grunts and clanks drew her wavering attention. Blackness occasionally overwhelmed her, but she clawed her way back to consciousness each time. Steve fought the Warriors Three as Sif ran at Loki.

Jane had to warn him. She opened her mouth, but closed her eyes. By the time she opened them again, she was lying down, her gaze half obscured by snow.

Her lips formed his name but no sound came out.

Fatigue wrapped around her like a smothering blanket. She struggled to free herself, but it had her bound tighter than a straight jacket.

Loki.

Darkness pulled her into its warm and comforting depths.

Chapter Text

Loki ducked under a blow to glance at Jane, and nearly left himself open for the guard’s swinging punch. He shifted out of the way, but the strike still grazed his cheek, gauntleted fist drawing blood. The viscous liquid slid down his chilled skin like liquid fire. He didn't care.

Jane had fallen over, her face half buried in the snow with eyes closed, appearing dead to the world.

No.

He turned to her, his chest in a vise, squeezing out his breath and crushing his heart. She couldn't have left him. She would not leave him. He lifted a foot, intending to run to her, to try healing her again even if it was a wasted effort with the magic-suppressing ropes binding his wrists, but a boot rammed into his back, propelling him forward.

Jane’s face swam in his mind: her liquid brown eyes, the little freckle on her cheek, the soft curve of her lips.

Shifting the careening dive into a roll, he fully embraced his true nature and ripped away the golden ropes. The strength it had given him to do so had shredded the Asgardian disguise concealing his true form, and he came up roaring, howling for his love.

The guard’s eyes nearly bulged through his helmet, his fists going lax.

Loki sprinted toward Jane, listening to the song that swirled with the wind and flowed in his blood. He wrapped it around his hands, like a tender lullaby. All he had to do was touch her.

Each bounding step seemed to only cover scant inches. She was right in front of him and yet leagues away.

Sif darted between him and Jane, her face flickering from shock to fury. “You're. You're a—” She settled on bitter hatred. “You've tricked us all. You're a traitor. A murderer. A—”

“Get out of the way, you brainless fool,” he yelled at her, still running.

Drawing her sword, she said, “For Thor.” Then she charged him.

Loki covered his arms in ice, but left them blunted at the ends. He did not want to kill her. He just had to get her out of the way.

They met in a swirl of blade and ice, of pale skin and frosty blue. She lunged as he skirted steel. He ducked and dodged, searching for an opening to escape her insanity.

“I can heal Jane,” he said. “Let me do so before she dies.”

“Lies!” She twirled, sword ready to slice him in two. “Jotunns only kill and destroy.”

He stepped out of the blade’s path just in time, its breeze fluttering his hair, before swiping it away from piercing his midsection. “I went to them to see if she could be healed, to see if everyone can be healed.”

“You're a Jotunn.” She said the word as if it explained everything, as if, from now on, what he said or did would never be acceptable. In a way, it wasn't much different from how she usually treated him.

Loki stared at her. She would not see reason, let alone see beyond the color he wore. Grinding the toe of his boot into the snow, a wall sprang up between them. A tall, circular wall that curved around her like a prison cell. Irritating woman.

He turned from her as she pounded on the ice, hurling curses at him like paper daggers, and crossed the distance separating him and Jane.

Kneeling beside her, the song shifted from sharp notes to the tender lullaby again. He placed his hands over her wound and poured all of his love, his hopes, and dreams of them spending the rest of their lives together into her.

A soothing coolness spread over her, coating her in a frosty haze. It seeped into her pores and blended with her cells. He could feel it as if he were manually righting what was wrong. But there was so much damage, so much pain. She truly was on her last breath.

oOoOo

Thor flew to where the commotion seemed to come from. Everyone, the Council, the soldiers, and aides, had said Loki had escaped, that Sif and the Warriors Three were after him, and, oddly enough, that the mortals were with Loki. He'd told everyone to stay put, and, thankfully, they had listened.

The Council seized more power everyday, playing at politics instead of working with him to win the war. Each loss, each passing decade he became more of a figurehead. None of which would have happened if Father was here instead of him.

This campaign was supposed to be a quick victory, proof he knew how to lead an army, and that he was ready to become king. But he wasn't. He'd learned that early on. And Loki had been right. That realization only made him love his brother all the more, made him miss his honest counsel and his sincere companionship.

And now that he had him back, Thor could lose him all over again. This time for good.

But that wasn't going to happen. Loki would somehow best him and just manage to escape. Thor only wished he could have given his brother the necessary supplies to stay alive on the inhospitable planet, but this was the best he could do. Until he was able to secret out food and blankets, that is.

Catching sight of people fighting, Thor watched the small one-sided group as he zipped by overhead. Captain Rogers stood against the Warriors Three, and was, surprisingly, holding his own, using fists, feet, and shield to keep Thor's friends at bay. The metal disc even flew back to him after being hurled away, no different than Mjolnir for Thor.

Refocusing on his search, he slowed his flight and peered through the night, only to find a petite brunette lying in the snow. Jane, he realized with a stinging sadness. Out of everyone he'd met, she seemed the purest of heart but with a bite that made her formidable. Yggdrasil would be lesser of a place without her in it.

Someone, most likely Loki by the look of him, was huddled over her, and Thor smiled, angling himself to land.

But then he noticed the person had blue skin, not white. Frost emanated from the Jotunn’s hands over Jane, and Thor nearly lost his hold on his hammer.

No.

Thor sped to the ground, hitting the snow with enough force to make it fly up around him. His eyes remained fixed on the fully clothed Jotunn while he spun his hammer. They had caused her enough pain.

“Thor!” Sif called from behind him. She was sprawled over a curved wall of ice, ready to slide down the outside.

Thor clenched his teeth. The Jotunn had probably trapped her in it. He glared at the monster’s bent back, still hunched over Lady Jane, doing who knows what to her, and loosed Mjolnir.

“Loki is a Jotunn,” Sif called out. “He's not just a traitor, he's the enemy!”

Loki? A Jotunn? In his mind, he saw the Frost Giant's clothes, his slender form, and shorter stature, and realized just why he'd seemed so odd.

Thor reached out for Mjolnir, calling it back to him. He stretched his fingers as if they could grow long enough to clasp onto the weapon. The magic connecting them grew taut. It's momentum continued pulling the hammer forward despite Thor clawing for it.

“Loki!” he shouted. “Move!”

His brother stayed fixed on his task.

And then, just before stopping mid-air, Mjolnir slammed into him.

Loki sailed across the snowy clearing, his arms and legs trailing limply behind, no different than a rag doll tossed aside by a cruel child. And Thor ran. He ran as fast as he could to reach him, his hammer falling to the ground. He prayed to the Norns his brother was alive, he prayed to his father and grandfather and whoever might be listening. Please don't let Loki die.

His brother hit the snow, tumbling end over end before coming to an abrupt stop. Thor fell to his knees beside him. With shaky fingers, he touched Loki's pulse. It fluttered like a delicate bird’s wings, but it was there, and Thor breathed out a sigh of relief.

Sif reached them, a silent guard standing watch.

“Get the healers,” Thor commanded.

“But he is a Jotunn,” she said. “If people find out—”

“I don't care!” He inhaled, observing the face he knew to be his brother’s but was now blue with raised lines forming some kind of marking. They reminded him of something. “Get one for him and Lady Jane. Now go.”

She lingered a moment longer before sprinting away.

How was his brother a Jotunn? Father and Mother must know, but why not tell him? Why hadn't Loki told him? And then he remembered Loki's words about always hating him. “Forgive me, brother. Forgive me for this and for all the other wrongs I unwittingly committed against you. You are dearer to me than my own life. And you were right about everything. I wasn't ready to be king. I wasn't—”

Thor jerked as Loki's normal pale hue and smooth skin slid over him like the fluid transition of night to day. He checked his brother’s pulse again and exhaled. He was still alive.

Behind him, footfalls clomped into the snow and continued onward, toward Jane. Almost too afraid to take his eyes off his brother, as if his will alone kept Loki's heart beating, Thor glanced to the side.

Captain Rogers moved to Jane's too-still form and flinched back.

The hope Thor held that she would be alive faltered with a thud that knocked the breath out of him.

Then Steve practically leapt on her, pulling the red cloak back from her neck.

Thor's brows drew together.

Looking up from Jane, Rogers found his gaze and beamed. “She's been healed!”

Healed?

Loki huddled over Jane, frosty air flowing from him and surrounding her.

Healed!

Thor stared down at his brother, grinning just as broadly as Steve. “You healed her, Loki. Do you hear me? You healed her.”

He wanted to crush Loki to his chest in a hug he had yearned to give upon first seeing him again. More determined than ever, he would tear down the wall that had been built between them.

“She's not waking up,” Rogers called, gently lifting her in his arms to walk to Thor and Loki. “Breathing is fine. Pulse is strong. She doesn't even feel cold. I'm not sure what's wrong with her.”

“The healers will know.”

“Do you think he did it?” Steve asked, looking at Loki.

Was this why he had been sneaking off to the Jotunns? It would be just like Loki. “Aye, he cares for her.”

He loved her, if Thor was correct. His brother had never looked at anyone like he gazed at her. No one could hold his attention for longer than a mere couple hours. No one could consume him the way Jane had. And the pitiful fact was that she had a soulmate on Midgard.

“Will this pardon his sentence?” Steve asked.

Thor’s back stiffened. “I will make sure it does.” The Council would listen to what he had to say or they would soon know what it meant to be insubordinate.

“Here they come.”

Peering into the night, Thor saw Sif and the Warriors Three followed by the Council, healers, and several other soldiers. They walked briskly with an air that had his hackles rising.

He stood, planting himself in front of Loki, and called Mjolnir to him. The weapon slapped into his palm and he curled his fingers around the handle, the leather creaking satisfactorily.

The healers ran past Thor to attend to Loki and Jane, not even sparing him a glance.

“Peace, Prince Thor,” the eldest Councilman said with his hands raised. “We've only come to ensure the prisoner is apprehended again.”

“Nay.”

The elderly man’s brows rose. “But he is a traitor and—”

“He has healed Lady Jane.”

“Impossible. Nothing can cure frostbite.” Others murmured an agreement.

One of the healers stepped back from Jane still in Steve’s arms. “He speaks true. Her flesh is renewed.” He folded his hands. “There is nothing for me to do here.”

The one over Loki pulled out more of the crushed healing stones from her pouch. Her face was tight, but she did not seem worried.

“How?” several of the Council Members demanded.

“When the time is right,” Thor declared, “I will call a meeting to—”

Loki bolted upright, barely missing the healer as she jerked back, falling to her bottom. His wide eyes showed more white than green and his hands patted the side of his ribs where Miljoner had hit him.

Thor turned to him and lowered to his knees. Placing a hand on his shoulder, he said, “You are well.”

“Jane?” His gaze took in everyone and instantly dismissed them. When he found her hanging limp in Steve's arms, he jumped to his feet. “Did it not work? Is she...is she—”

“It worked, Brother,” Thor said.

“Then why is she still unconscious?” he asked aloud to himself.

Jane’s healer stepped forward. “We will conduct a more thorough examination in the tents.”

Loki skimmed his fingers over the unblemished skin on her neck as if he were touching the most fragile Vanaheim porcelain.

“Aye,” Thor agreed with the healer. “Let us depart.”

“Nay,” the eldest Councilman said, “we demand to know—”

“You demand nothing. I am Prince Thor Odinson, the future king of Asgard.” He forced his grip on Mjolnir to relax. He had to be more like his brother. “I assure the Council, all will be explained at the proper time. Right now, Lady Jane will be sent to the medical tents. And Loki will accompany me as a free man.”

“Thor,” Loki pleaded. His gaze was still on Jane, completely besotted.

It was a shame she had a soulmate. It was more of a shame Loki could not see reason enough to let her go. That was normally Thor's place. “You may go to her later. For now, I need answers.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 18

Darcy stared at the portal as Natasha, Clint, and Fury walked through it. She and Erik were next.

She was anxious and excited. She was also kind of concerned for her racing heart. Maybe she should actually use the gym in the compound instead of sitting outside its windows for the daily show of sweaty, bulging muscles. But running would be required. She pursed her lips in distaste.

Clint’s hand appeared out of the bubble of energy. The portal made it look like a floating, dismembered limb. He gave them a thumbs up, then pulled his arm back in.

“Ready in three,” Erik counted down, gripping the portable bridge tighter than a woman popping out a baby, “two, one.”

He pulled her forward and they leapt through the energy field, only to stumble into Natasha, Clint, and Fury. The three agents stood their ground like a grove of oak trees, moving only to look dubiously at her and Erik. Well, mainly Darcy.

She'd talked her way into the Asgard meeting despite their protests. Erik had been a definite. However, she wasn't necessary to the mission and a liability. That was insulting. She was smart and charming. People liked her. And the Asgardians had to know not all Midgardians had a stick up their asses.

Erik straightened and shut off the portal. It vanished with a soft hiss, taking the light with it.

In the sudden darkness, she realized she had no idea where they had landed. “Nice place, huh?”

Shhhh

The rough sound had most likely come from Fury. He always shushed her.

“Do you think someone is outside?” he whispered.

“Yes,” Natasha answered in just as quiet of a voice. “We should announce ourselves.”

Were they supposed to shout, ‘Take us to your leaders’? She snickered.

Shhhh

Darcy rolled her eyes, pleased no one could see her.

“Hello?” Fury called.

No one answered.

“We—”

The door burst open. Light flooded in, blinding her. Something big and heavy swooshed through the air. A shuffling of feet brushed across the wooden floor and someone pushed her back. Soft thuds and puffs of exhalations played like a muted drum solo. Then a flash of white light accompanied with the sizzle of Natasha’s stun cuffs brought stillness to the small space.

“Who are you?” a deep voice asked.

The encounter had lasted a matter of seconds, just long enough for her eyes to adjust to the light. She blinked to clear them faster.

A large, blond man, chiseled to perfection, knelt with Natasha and Clint each holding one of his massive arms in a lock that had him slightly hunched over.

“I’m Nick Fury, Director of SHIELD, from Midgard. We've come to meet with the Alfather about the war on Jotunheim.”

“Midgard does not have a Bifrost. How did you get here and how do you know about the war?”

The man did not act like someone being held against his will. She liked that.

“We have the Cosmic Cube.” He gestured to the portable Bridge in Erik's hand. “The rest will be explained once we meet with Odin.”

The Asgardian’s mouth had fallen open upon seeing the blue cube. “How?”

“Will you take us to him or not?”

The blond Adonis’ lips pressed together, jaw ticking.

Fury was doing this all wrong. Darcy stepped forward. “Hi. Nice to meet you. I'm Darcy. You remember Loki, right?” His mouth formed an even tighter line. “I knew you would. I mean who could forget that jerk?” She smiled. “Look, he took my friend off our world against her will. To Jotunheim. We're trying to get her back, but there's this little problem.” She knelt to look at him eye to eye. “The war.”

“The Dark Elves destroyed the Bifrost,” he announced.

“We know,” Fury grumbled, and Darcy shot him a look.

“That's why we're here,” she said, facing the Asgardian again. “The Tes—er, Cosmic Cube can repair it.”

His head lowered, and he murmured a name. The rough sound barely concealed his pained worry. The name probably belonged to the guy Jane found the hair off of, his partner.

“The Dark Elves and the Frost Giants found the camp,” she told him. “They attacked, broke through the perimeter. People died.” She paused to let that sink in. “The wounded need to be brought back. Food is running low. I don't know how much time they have left.”

He breathed out. “I will bring you to the palace. But you must all swear this is not a trick, that you are here as an ally.”

Darcy popped to her feet with a victorious grin firmly set in place. All four of her companions stared at her in disbelief, though Natasha nodded in approval.

Unnecessary my ass.

oOoOo

Wary eyes followed Loki down the road to the medical tents and bored into the back of his head. They all knew he was a Jotunn. Every single one of them.

“How is he not guilty?” the councilman had asked Thor in the meeting. “Sif and the Warrior’s Three—your friends, might I add—gave testimony against Loki.”

“And they are not wrong in what they saw,” Thor had responded.

Gasps swept through the large tent like a sudden rush of wind.

“But they did not know the reason why he'd been there,” Thor nearly shouted.

“You said he didn't come to you about spying. Did you lie?” The eldest councilman licked his lips.

“I am no liar.” Thor's fingers curled into fists for a brief moment. “But new information has been exposed.” He looked at Loki, eyes pleading for him to cooperate.

Loki nodded, controlling his breath to give an appearance of utter calm. However, his insides were a writhing mess.

“After the first Jotunn war,” Thor continued, “Asgard had its second prince. But that baby was not Odin’s and Frigga’s—”

An angry din cut off his words, and he surprisingly waited it out. Loki counted the seconds turning to minutes. Still, Thor stood with quiet authority, unfazed by the uproar. He looked like a young Odin, strong and just but merciful...a king.

“That baby belonged to Laufey,” Thor finally finished.

An even louder, harsher bout of dissent erupted. If the entire camp couldn't hear the commotion, Loki would be surprised.

As part of his and Thor’s plan, Loki stood...on legs that wanted to wobble. If he went through with this, he would never be Prince of Asgard again.

The space fell into silence.

“I am Odinson,” Loki said, then paused to inhale deeply, relishing the crisp, chilly air, “but I am also Laufeyson.” He removed the magical disguise as if he had to strip himself of clothes to stand bare before everyone.

Pandemonium had broken out.

Loki refocused on the medical tents, blocking out the stares of passersby. Soon he would see Jane. It didn't matter her eyes would be closed and that her lips would not move to form words he longed to hear. And it didn't matter what those words were. He just wanted to hear her voice again.

oOoOo

Darcy waited with her companions in a large golden room lined with opulent couches and ornate tables. No one sat.

The palace was untouched by the ravages of war, unlike the rest of the city. Refugees had filled the streets around the architectural marvel, protected by a shimmering force field. Outside that bubble, plumes of smoke streaked the sky like prison bars. Most buildings appeared half standing, if standing at all. She'd been told the Dark Elves had made camp somewhere out in the fields. The two sides fought daily, neither gaining ground. Not with half of the Asgardian forces stuck offworld.

“How much longer do you think they'll be?” she asked while taking the proffered drink from a beautiful young lady. Granted, young was subjective around here. She could easily be fIve hundred years Darcy’s senior.

Barton recrossed his arms around his chest for the tenth time. “Hopefully not much longer.”

The young lady smiled, glancing a bit too long at all of them before leaving the room.

“How long do you think it's been since they've seen a human?” Darcy asked with a soft chuckle, her cup chilly against her fingers.

Erik stood from his hunched position over one of the tables. “This looks fragile, does it not? It's lightweight, thin, nearly translucent.” He held up a small decorative bowl to the light, then dropped it to the hard floor.

Darcy winced, waiting for the inevitable shattering crash.

Instead, it merely bounced off the floor several times before rolling to a stop.

“It must be a new kind of metal. It does not bend, nor—”

“Are you mad?” Natasha chided him, scooping up the bowl and placing it back on the table. “One wrong action and this mission is a failure.”

“Romanoff is right,” Fury said. “We need them to see us as equals, not as children marveling at their superiority. Otherwise, they will seize control and take the Tesseract. They might not care about Dr. Foster’s survival the same as you and I.”

Erik recoiled as if he'd been slapped, then nodded and plopped onto the couch nearest him.

oOoOo

A robed mage passed Loki as he neared the medical tent. The woman, partially obscured by her hood, looked at him and dipped her head. She'd been one of the first to step forward when he'd brought Thor to them.

If Loki had to out himself to the Council, then Thor had to at least consider letting the magi actively participate in the war.

“They won't fight, brother,” Thor had told him.

“I'm not your brother,” Loki corrected him, as he had every single time Thor used the title. “And some will. We need them to if we're going to win this war.”

“There is no honor in trickery. Besides, Father would forbid it.”

Loki wanted to grind his teeth, instead he grasped Thor's shoulders and looked him in the eyes. “You are not Odin.”

“I know.”

Thor went to brush Loki away, but he continued. “You are better.”

His brother—fake brother—came to an abrupt stillness, staring at him as if he were a stranger.

“You are better because your heart is full and your ears are open. It is time for you to open your eyes as well.”

Thor blinked and Loki hoped he had not stunned his brother stupid.

“The warrior class needs to be expanded. Times have changed, Thor. The Dark Elves are working with the Jotunns. Midgard is not a muddy planet full of overgrown children. We must adapt—”

“Or we will die,” Thor finished with newfound grim determination. “Aye. If the magi will fight, then I will grant them the freedom to do so. No matter what the Council says.”

Loki sighed in relief.

“But what will we do with them? They will need to develop offensive skills. And integrating them with the warriors will take time. Time we do not have.”

“You are correct. But I have a plan just for the magi…”

The woman continued on down the street, disappearing behind her hood. There'd been many who had stepped forward. Nearly all of the twenty who had been sent to Jotunheim. Loki had never stood taller than in that moment.

oOoOo

With Clint behind Darcy, she followed Fury, Natasha, and Erik into the massive throne room. Every inch of it glinted in all of its golden glory. Everything except the ceiling. It was so high, darkness swallowed it whole. They walked between two rows of royal guards standing shoulder to shoulder with their upright spears, capes, and odd helmets sporting two curved horns nearly touching each other at the top. Eyes didn't follow them as they passed, but she sure felt like she was being watched, even dissected. It made the hair on her arms straighten.

“Director Fury of Midgard,” a masculine voice said, somehow managing to fill up the room without being loud, “you have accomplished a nearly impossible feat.”

Darcy stopped next to Eric facing a set of stairs leading to a circular dais with more stairs leading to a massive throne. The golden thing was absolutely huge, bearing a resemblance to the guards’ helmets. An older, bearded man, decked out in shiny armor and an eye patch, sat in it, regal in the way he held himself and the way he gazed down at Darcy and her companions. Light streamed in from the windows, casting him even more in a golden glow.

She swallowed and planted her feet before the rest of her tried to bolt for the door.

What with his authority over Asgard, the staff he held, and the magic flowing through his veins, that man had more power in one of his nose hairs than her little party did, even with the Tesseract in their possession. All he had to do was nod and it would be taken from them. They could be thrown in prison. Or maybe tossed to some fearsome creature’s den à la Luke Skywalker and the Sarlacc Pit.

“A feat accomplished by the man standing next to me”—Fury gestured to Eric—“and a women held captive by your son, Loki.”

A long silence followed. Odin just barely shifted his head, looking at something or someone off to the side. Darcy leaned forward to see who it was and found a tall woman in a glorious gown, gazing up at him. They seemed to be silently communicating. Then the woman, who had to be none other than Queen Frigga, looked at Darcy, and Darcy straightened faster than a veteran grunt being called to attention.

“Why did he take this Midgardian?” the Alfather asked.

“My only guess is that they are soulmates,” Fury answered.

Another bout of long silence passed.

Darcy and Erik seemed to be the only living things in a room full of statues. They tried to glance everywhere at once, shifting uncomfortably.

“Why are you here?” Odin finally asked.

“You have need of the Tesseract and of more armed forces. We have both.”

“And what do you expect to receive in return?”

“A formal alliance.”

“What of the Cosmic Cube?”

Fury paused. She did not know how he was not quaking under the Alfather’s stare. “What of it?”

“It belongs in the Vault.”

“And yet it has been on Earth for thousands of years. Some would say it is ours now.”

She would've said finders keepers, but his response was probably more appropriate.

“How do Midgardians believe they are capable of fighting the Dark Elves and Frost Giants when not long ago you were throwing rocks at each other?”

Darcy’s mouth fell open. That was a third degree burn right there.

“And in that short amount of time we have managed to make our own Bifrost and develop weaponry strong enough to destroy a planet.”

If this was a rap battle, she would be hooting and hollering.

“Do we have a deal?” Fury asked after a moment.

Odin stood, and Darcy wasn't certain if she should bow. No one else did, so she locked her knees.

“The Midgardian will be returned to you and Loki will be ours,” the Alfather declared.

Darcy shook her head. He couldn't separate them. It would be too cruel. “But the bond—”

“Does not exist off of Midgard.”

The room tilted. At least she thought it did. Erik caught her arm, and she placed a hand to her forehead. Loki and Jane had looked at each other like no one else existed, just like all soulmates looked at each other. They were bonded. They had to be. Otherwise it meant they really did love each other. And Loki, he couldn't be that selfless. He was a murderer.

“Agreed,” Fury announced.

Did Jane and Loki know? Would they have felt the bond’s disappearance?

“It is done, then.” Odin banged the end of his staff on the ground and a deep thrum filled the air.

oOoOo

Loki went into the medical tent and strode straight to Jane's room. He'd been there often enough the past two days, he could walk with his eyes closed and not bump into a single stand or brazier. A woman signaled his attention, but he merely nodded and continued on. He wanted to tell Jane about the magi’s progress. They were competent enough and willing to learn despite his situation. Although, at times, they were easily distracted.

One of his ‘students’ had interrupted him during their training session to ask about Jotunn magic.

“How does it differ? Do you tap into it the same way?”

Loki had to unclench his jaw to speak. “It is limited, unlike—”

“But how do you have both? Are you only part Jotunn?” another asked.

“I don't know, and it does not matter. What you need to focus on is—”

“How did you not notice it before?”

An icy stump seemed to spring up out of nowhere and flung the mage into the air. He landed with a satisfying thud, hood thrown back, hair in disarray, and wide eyes. Loki bared his teeth in what might be considered a smile and continued the lesson as if nothing had happened. Not one person interrupted him again.

Loki pushed back the tent flap to Jane’s room and nearly tripped over his suddenly leaden feet.

Jan was sitting upright in her bed with a bowl of soup in front of her. She paused with her spoon halfway to her slightly parted mouth, and stared at him.

He stared back at her.

Radiant. She was simply, wonderfully radiant. More so than before the frostbite. More so than any of her previous incarnations.

Her spoon fell to her bowl and she beamed at him. “Loki! The nurses told me you healed me. That you'd been pardoned.” Her voice lowered to a whisper. “And that you're a Jotunn.”

Loki pulled himself together, making extra sure his jaw wasn't hanging open. “Everyone knows, dear Jane. No need to whisper.”

“I know. It just feels weird to say it out loud.”

Because she disliked the fact?

“It's not like that, Loki,” she admonished him. “I'm just used to keeping it a secret.”

How did she know his thoughts? Was the bond stronger now after the healing? He searched the thread, but found only his feelings for her. That it was so muted here was the strangest thing.

He walked to her bedside. “You look...” Breathtaking. Her lips and cheeks held color again, her eyes were bright, and she seemed to glow. “You look well.”

“I feel like I can run circles around the camp. The only reason I'm in this bed is because they threatened to tie me down if I got up.”

He chuckled, enjoying the way her eyes crinkled with mischief, as if she was plotting a breakout.

“Thank you,” she said, suddenly serious. “I was dying. I felt it. I felt my body shutting down. And—” She looked away, taking a breath. “Thank you for healing me.”

Loki's heart puttered offbeat. Normally he would've come up with a witty response to make his action seem more grand or to make it known there was now a debt that must be repaid. Instead, he stood there uncertain of what to say or do. Part of him even wanted to slink away in shyness.

“How did you get to me in time with everything happening?” she asked. “How did you learn to do it?”

“I don't know how I broke through the magic-binding ropes.” He couldn't believe the power of love did it, but what else could it have been? “And the Jotunns taught me how after they believed I was on their side.”

She watched him, her eyes flicking as she took him in. “But you're not, right? You're—”

“I am not. But I must keep up the charade. I leave to go back soon.”

“How soon?”

“Half an hour.”

Her face fell and his heart soared. Maybe she could love him one day.

“In the meantime, will you stay with me?” she asked cautiously, like he could deny her.

“So long as you finish your soup.”

She picked up her spoon, smiling again, and he pulled a chair to her bedside, resisting the urge to take her in his arms.

Chapter Text

“So, you're saying we can't use the Tess—Cosmic Cube—for our mini Bifrost?” Darcy asked the royal guard removing the artifact from the device in Erik’s hands.

Mouth firmly closed, he didn’t answer her. He barely even looked at them.

She wanted to snap her fingers in his perfect face.

“Darcy,” Erik warned her.

“We need to tell Jane she's not bound to that psychopath.” She tapped the soldier on the arm as he put the Tesseract in a clear tube. “Did you hear that? It'll be a quick jaunt across worlds. Realms. Whatever you call them. This is vital information. Vital,” she said slowly and loudly.

He turned and walked away from them.

“How rude.” Realizing she'd crossed her arms over her chest like a pouting child, she released them.

“Director Fury and the Alfather agreed that work on the Bifrost should start right away. Besides, it's for the best. So long as Loki thinks his life is tied to hers, she's safe.”

“Maybe.”

oOoOo

Steve walked into Jane’s room in the medical tents with a smile that could melt a heart made of ice. “I came as soon as I heard you were awake. How are you feeling?”

“They won't let me out of my bed. Not only do they think mortals are deaf, but, apparently, we're made of glass too.” She took in his Thor-sized broad shoulders and how they all treated him like he was one of their own and amended her statement. “Well, my kind of mortal.”

He chuckled and walked to her bedside with his hands behind his back.

“What do you have for me?” she asked.

“How did you—” He stopped as if it wasn't worth the effort, then presented her with her modified brazier. “I thought you might need something to occupy your time.”

Sitting up straighter, she took the smallish contraption, the core of the brazier that produced heat, and turned it over, checking each of the pieces. “Nobody touched it while I was unconscious?”

“No. I took it from your room as soon as we got back to the camp. And I've kept this safe as well.” He handed her the container holding the Aether.

She stared at the lacquered box with its runes carved in the sides. What was she to do with it now? Jane had been certain that she was supposed to use it because she was going to die from the frostbite. Now she had no idea why Queen Frigga had given it to her.

Steve sat on the edge of her bed. “What are you going to do?”

He was talking about the Aether, of course. He knew everything now. More than Thor, even. Maybe she wouldn't need to use it, after all. Erik and SHIELD had to be in Asgard. Soon, they would have the Bifrost fixed, and the forces of two worlds would be fighting against the Jotunns and the Dark Elves. For now, there was only one thing to do. “Protect it. Which means I need to get this working.”

She pried open the back panel of the brazier and rearranged the focusing lens.

oOoOo

“I must advise you against this course,” the eldest councilman said to Thor. Asger was made of steel-encased petrified wood. He'd been unafraid to speak truthfully to Odin, making him a fantastic advisor. Before the war, Thor considered him a mentor, even a friend, but now he was a rival to the throne. If the Odinsleep overcame the Alfather before the war was over, then he might very well seize control. The military and the Council had grown used to him issuing commands. They would undoubtedly side with him.

A chorus of ayes filled the tent.

“I appreciate the advice, but the time is here to accept the magi as one of our own,” Thor countered, doing his best not to show his frustration.

“The Alfather—”

“Will lay the blame on my shoulders if this fails.” Thor looked at each of them. “You need not fear retribution.”

They scoffed. As distinguished warriors too old to fight, they would most certainly balk at even the hint of being called cowards. He hoped this would both allay concerns and spur them to follow his lead.

Loki had made quick and impressive improvements with the magi. While they were not yet adept in a melee, their value on the battlefield would soon sway even the staunchest opposition. They just needed to demonstrate that.

“Cancel the next patrol and bring the soldiers to the field when the bells toll,” Thor commanded.

Asger shook his head. “The patrols are vital for the camp’s protection. They must continue without interruption.”

“If this works, Jotunheim will be ours tomorrow. And the next time Malekith arrives without the protection of his army and Laufey, he will be in for a sore surprise.”

Thor turned and walked out of the tent. He would not remind them of his authority as crowned prince again. Loki had told him doing so would only cement the lack of it in their minds. He hoped his brother was handling his nest of vipers better than Thor was.

oOoOo

“You've been gone for two days.” Laufey’s voice was a poisonous cocktail of distrust and anger.

Loki did not look up from the supplicant position on his knees. “They were growing suspicious, Father.”

After a bout of silence, Laufey stood from his throne and stepped down to him, his bare feet coming into view. “Then give me the camp’s location. Let us end their pitiful resistance.”

“The Aether—”

“Will be ours this day!”

Loki's ears rang, but he did not wince. That he would not give the Jotunn.

Grating laughter filled the silent space. “You finally have a backbone. Good, you will need it to show the Asgardians who you really are. Stand.”

After doing so, Loki looked him in the eyes, even if it meant having to tilt his head back. All this time, Laufey wanted him to show strength, wanted him to command his place. That suited Loki just fine.

“Something is happening to the Bifrost,” Laufey said. “Malekith thinks it is being restored, which means we have limited time before the Asgardians return. What else does it mean?”

Loki kept his face carefully composed, not even letting his breath change with the sudden alarm sounding in his head. “The Tesseract is occupied.”

“Yes.” He spun away and walked to the stand holding the Winter Casket. “The mortal will be unable to teleport offworld. We must claim what is ours.”

oOoOo

Jane tried to bend the thick panel on the back into place again. The blasted thing wouldn't budge, though. Screws would make her life easier, but that was not how the Asgardians made things. Some decent tools, like a hammer, would be nice too, but she might as well wish for the Dark Elves to disappear.

“What exactly is that supposed to do?” Steve asked.

“Compress the core’s heat energy into a beam that will project through here.” She tapped the hole at the tapered end of what looked like an ostrich egg wrapped in crisscrossing gold sheets of metal. Eight fingertip-sized slots dotted the thicker end. It wasn't pretty, but she was proud of what she'd built.

“You're weaponizing a brazier?”

“What else am I to do? I'm not Asgardian, I don't have magic, I can't control ice, and I don't have your super soldier serum running through my veins. I don't even know how to fight.”

He lifted his hands. “I was just making sure I understood you.”

She sighed. “I'm sorry.” Placing the useless egg in her lap, rather than chunking it like she wanted, she rubbed her temples. “All I have is my brain and right now that's not much help.”

“I'm not an engineer or a scientist, but I can certainly use these enhanced muscles to put that piece back.”

She gladly handed it over and, after a total of five seconds, he smoothed the panel back into place. When he returned it to her, he smiled.

“Step away,” she said. “I want to see if it works.”

He did, and she pointed the open end of the egg down at the floor, then turned the thicker half to activate the brazier’s core. The warmth radiating into her hands did not sear off her skin this time. That was good.

Taking in a breath, not to mention praying to anything listening for this to work, she dug her fingers into the slots, squinted one eye closed, and squeezed.

Nothing happened.

Drawing her arms back, she went to hurl the piece of junk at the canvas wall, but Steve took it from her before she could.

“It's warm,” he exclaimed with raised brows.

“It's supposed to emit a blazing beam of fiery death, not be a hand warmer.”

His sudden good-natured chuckle soothed her ire. It reminded her of how Darcy would've reacted.

“Tell me what I can do to help,” he said.

She thought about it for a moment. Maybe if she tried a different material for the conduit.

oOoOo

The soldiers marched to the field in perfect lines and columns, their armor gleaming under Jotunheim’s weak sun. Outside the bubble of magic protecting the camp, the planet’s unpleasant temperatures and unyielding winds would be distinctly felt. Thor had never thought much about it before, but the Asgardians did owe a large part of their way of life to the magi.

The small group of hooded figures stood huddled together in the center of the field, slowly being enclosed upon by the soldiers. They did not stir, nor try to hide themselves from all the eyes watching them. If anything, they stood taller. Loki would be proud.

Thor and the Council, not to mention quite a few of the servants, were positioned on the one side the soldiers did not swallow whole. Asger wore a stony expression. It would take much to convince him.

The first row of soldiers stepped forward in unison. Peering through helmets at the hooded figures, they drew swords, axes, and spears.

Most quaked when faced with a single armed Asgardian warrior. The magi were granite statues.

A moment passed, then another. Each heavier than the last. Thor stared at the soldiers, muscles tense, willing them to attack. If they did not, it would be an insult to the magi, to Thor, and a declaration of fealty to Asger.

With the slight shift of one soldier’s head, catching the eye of another, they charged with all the ferocity of a real battle.

Thor breathed out, yet still held himself rigidly.

The warriors ran. The magi did nothing, not even to remove their hands out from under their robes. In three bounding steps, the soldiers slammed into a wall of air. They fell to the snow in crumpled heaps, some unmoving, some groggily trying to sit up.

The magi fanned open in a semicircle facing the squadrons and threw out their hands. The ground bucked, tremors reaching Thor, and tossed the soldiers side to side, like a churning ocean of white metal. The field could very well split open from under their feet. Neither side was using their full strength to avoid casualties, and Thor couldn't help but wonder if such a feat was a real possibility.

An inferno erupted over the squadron’s heads. Soldiers, not already sprawled out on the ground, dropped to their knees to escape the heat melting the snow on the field. They sunk into newly-made puddles, forcing them to wade through water to reach more solid footing.

Gasps filled Thor's ears, and he smiled. If this did not convince everyone, nothing would.

Yells from the camp tore everyone's attention off the magi. Fire consumed a portion of one of the medical tents. Dark smoke streamed upwards.

Thor's stomach bottomed out. Jane. He pushed through the crowd, grabbing Mjolnir. By the time he reached the edge, the smoke and fire were practically gone. He spared a glance back at the magi, finding them with their arms outstretched and hoods thrown back. Beads of sweat lined their faces.

Lifting Mjolnir, he took to the sky and landed next to the tent where Jane was lying in the snow. She blinked as if coming back to consciousness.

“Are you injured?” he asked.

She shook her head, and Thor got to his feet ready to charge into the tent, but Rogers walked out carrying two patients while shepherding the healers.

Thor ran to help him. “Were you attacked?”

“Not quite,” the Captain answered. His gaze swung to Jane who slipped something gold into one of her skirt’s pockets.

Thor growled. When things were settled, he would share harsh words with her.

oOoOo

A Jotunn soldier dashed into the hall to stand along the walls with the others. They were not sharp and orderly like how the Asgardians would have been, but they did look fierce, ready for what may come. And Loki had no idea what that would exactly be.

A messenger had run in before Loki could persuade Laufey to not attack the camp and whispered something into the King’s ear before rushing out again. And now the advisors, commanders, and royal guards stood with Loki behind the throne. Not one person spoke of what was happening, nor bothered to greet him. Not that he minded. They could all fall into the Void, and he would not feel a modicum of sadness.

Laufey sat with the Winter Casket in his lap, not aggressively gripping it—that would be too obvious—but as a precaution. Maybe as a reminder. Which could only mean Malekith was coming.

Heart pounding, Loki focused on an image of Jane's pleased smile upon seeing him in the medical tent. His shoulders loosened and his pulse slowed. He was in his Jotunn form. The Dark Elf did not know who he really was. Everything would be fine.

A thunder of booted footfalls reached their ears before a single pale face became visible through the shadowed hallway. Those around Loki shifted. Laufey sat straighter.

“Where is the Aether?” Malekith asked as if barking orders at a recruit instead of addressing a king. That would certainly aggravate Laufey. Loki made sure not to let his delight show.

“It is near—”

“I know it is near. I can feel it.” He stopped not two feet from Laufey, glancing once at the Winter Casket as if it were a trivial toy. A small collection of his soldiers filed in behind him, spreading out in perfect rows and columns, their stances rigid, and their faces hidden behind the white masks.

“Why not retrieve it first before coming here?” Laufey asked.

Malekith took in the room, as if counting how many Jotunns were present. His gaze skimmed over Loki and returned to Laufey. Ignoring the question, he asked, “Where are the Asgardians? I will get it myself.”

“We do not know.”

Jaw clenching, Malekith said, “Then we will camp here until the Aether is in our hands.”

Laufey had not stirred once, and Loki would've killed to see the Jotunn's face. He wondered how much frustration showed, if his hands were clenched into fists.

“How goes the war on Asgard?” the King finally asked.

The simple question was a grave insult. However much they were allies, they were still enemies, barely able to keep from tearing at each other’s throats. Loki had an idea.

“If the Aether was ours, as was promised for not invading your world, there would be no Asgard.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “The Convergence is nearing its end. We will work together to claim the Aether.”

Not if Loki had any say in the matter.

Chapter Text

Darcy walked through the market district under a warm sun with a cool breeze. The cobblestone pathways were quaint, along with the stone buildings lining them. It had the feel of a medieval town, but the robed people flowing between the shops were very Romanesque, and then there were children playing with a weird self-opening golden ball and petite women pushing heavy crates that hovered and glided. It was an odd sight, both ancient and futuristic, and Darcy loved it all.

She was out for a stroll. The palace was too stuffy. The soldiers there on duty might as well have been statues, but off duty at the taverns, they were a hoot. She'd learned not to drink the ale straight, and to not drink too much. While the alcohol here didn't cause a hangover, if she wasn't careful, she'd end up in her bed well before she'd intended and wake up in the morning with no memory of the previous night.

“Good day, Darcy,” a man walking by said.

She beamed at him, all the while not having a clue who he was. People greeted her often and only half of the time she recognized them. If you didn't insult their warrior-ness, they were the nicest people.

A sudden commotion stopped her in her tracks. Gasps and murmurs filled the quiet, lazy day. Everyone looked up, beyond the energy dome. She followed their gazes and nearly took a step back.

All of the Dark Elves’ slender ships were taking to the air, nearly blotting out the sun. A woman called her kids to her, then several more followed suit. Steel rung as swords were drawn from their scabbards.

Instead of attacking the city, though, the ships flew up and away from the planet. Darcy breathed out, but then her chest tightened. She had a horrible feeling Jotunheim would be getting a bit more crowded.

Darcy ran back to the palace, darting between gawking, chatting civilians. It seemed they all were thinking the same as her. The war on Jotunheim would soon be over, and without the Bifrost functional, it would not be in their favor. But no one knew the Aether was also on the Frost World. That her best friend protected it.

At least Jane was well now. Heimdall had told them that little nugget. The big man was their only connection to what was happening on Jotunheim, and when he'd relieved her of that worry, she'd jumped on him and planted a kiss on each of those mesmerizing eyes. He could have swatted her away like a gnat, but, nope, Mr. Stoic had let her accost him and had even chuckled.

Jane, you hold on, girl. We're moving as fast as we can.

oOoOo

Ignoring the watchful faces following him, Loki sped through the camp to Thor's tent. It didn't matter who they were: soldier, magus, or Councilman. There was no time to spare.

Pulling back the tent flap, Loki stopped short of coming in. Jane stood facing Thor in a combative stance, cheeks pink with anger. And Thor was just as confrontational. Absorbed by their argument, they didn't notice the light streaming in. Rogers and Sif did. They looked up from where they sat on the couch.

A loud cough from the side barely pulled their attention off each other. Instead, they barked out a ‘what’ at the Captain.

“We have a visitor,” the mortal said.

Their gazes jerked toward Loki. The two of them backed away from each other and assumed more relaxed demeanors.

“Brother,” Thor greeted him with a strained smile.

Loki wanted to grin at them butting heads. Thor had only known her while she was weak and tired, drifting with no specific mission to drive her. He had not met her ferocity, her determination. Loki relished it.

“We were...discussing something Lady Jane has been pursuing. But I think we are in agreement now.”

Her mouth fell open. “We have not agreed on anything. I will continue perfecting the brazier until I can use it as a weapon.”

Loki's brows drew together and, he walked in, letting the tent flaps close behind him. “So that's what you've been doing with it.”

She nodded once, hard eyes still on Thor.

Laughing, Loki's shoulders shook. “What happened? Did she blow something up?”

“Yes,” Thor and Sif answered as Jane said, “Not really.”

Thor matched her incredulous look with one of his own. “You nearly burned down one of the medical tents.”

“No one was hurt. And I need it for protection.”

“You have all of us as protection.”

She crossed her arms, and Loki could practically read her mind about what she thought of their protection. He laughed even harder.

“Just what is so funny?” She faced him with lowered brows.

“All of this.” It was so typical of her to want to protect herself, to need a project to work on, and so typical of Thor to want to do the protecting, to keep civilians safe by shielding them from everything, including what they wanted.

“I'm glad you find it amusing.” She pushed past him and out of the tent.

“Jane,” Loki called after her.

Before he could leave to apologize, though, Thor said, “What news do you have for me?”

Loki sighed, clenching his fists. If this set him back in her eyes, he would throw a boulder of ice at Thor. He turned away from the tent flaps. “The Dark Elves are here.”

Rogers stood. “When?”

“You mean just Malekith and his guards?” Thor cut in.

“No, I mean the entire army, and just now, while I was meeting with Laufey.” He told them everything that was and wasn't said between the two leaders.

“The magi aren't ready.” Thor rubbed his beard. “And the soldiers need to learn how to best incorporate and utilize them.”

Sif walked to Thor, while asking Loki if he saw the entire army.

Loki’s spine straightened. “What are you implying, dear Sif?”

“I don't trust you.” Thor tried to stop her, but she shook her head and addressed him. “I can't. Not after everything. Besides, he's hiding something. I know it.”

Rogers was too silent, staring at the floor. He must know about the Aether. Jane, he thought with an internal sigh.

“The Elves are here whether you believe me or not.” To Thor, he said, “Don't worry about the magi. I have something else planned for them.”

After quickly explaining what those plans were, along with stern words about keeping them secret, he rushed out to find Jane walking to her tent.

“What, Loki?” she asked, not sounding pleased to find him at her side.

“I was not laughing at you, but at the situation.”

“Fine. But I still don't see what's so funny.” She lifted the red cloak around her neck, the action officially a habit now.

He wanted to tug the cloth down to let her unmarred skin show, but mostly he wanted to rip Thor's cloak in shreds and light it on fire. “Your pragmatism pleases me, partly because it annoys Thor.”

She barked a laugh.

He smiled until she said, “While I believe you get pleasure out of whatever tortures Thor, I can't believe my pragmatism pleases anyone.

He stopped her with a hand on her arm. “You are a brilliant, vivacious woman. What I have said and thought about you in the past, I wish I could take back.” He swallowed, uncertain if now was the right time to share his feelings for her. Smoothing down the cloak, he grazed a thumb over where the frostbite had once been. She took a sharp inhalation, but didn't jerk away. Hope blossomed in his chest. “Jane, I—”

“Loki,” a soldier called out as he approached them. His gaze bounced from him to Jane's bare neck.

Loki straightened, his hands dropping to his sides. “If you have need of Thor, he’s in his tent.”

Two more soldiers joined him. One had a limp and the other's arm was held stiffly at his side. No one else walked by the little makeshift street they were on. Loki tensed.

The first soldier showed his teeth in a fake smile. “We were looking for you.”

Loki casually stepped in front of Jane as if going to greet them. “What a surprise. I have been avoided this entire time as if I had the plague.”

They laughed harshly. “I see the mortal is well now,” the first said.

Not taking his eyes off them, he nodded.

“What say you heal our wounds?”

“You know I cannot. Word will spread around camp. More will come to me. It simply cannot be risked.”

The soldiers grumbled. “No one will know of three healed men.”

Loki sighed at their stupidity. “His limp will have mysteriously vanished, and his arm will be free to use again. Unless they are superb actors, which I highly doubt, a blind person would see the difference.”

They looked at each other, then zeroed in on him, taking a step closer. “We're willing to risk it.”

“Are you willing to risk our enemies finding out?” Didn't the Council explain this to everyone? Why did he always have to deal with people like them? “If they see more healthy soldiers, my position will be compromised,” he explained slowly, each word carefully enunciated.

“We don’t care,” the first soldier said just as slowly, his tone growing harsher with each utterance.

“Hi.” Jane stepped forward and waved. “Firstly, Jane is my name, not ‘the mortal.’ Secondly, I suggest you walk away before it's too late.”

They stared at her, unblinking and unstirring. Loki didn't know if they were going to keel over from suppressed laughter or blow a gasket at being addressed by her.

She smiled and took out the egg-shaped brazier from her skirts. “You see, this is what caused the explosion in the medical tent. The core is very unstable right now. It could blow any second. And the blast could easily kill all of us. Which is why I need to get back to my tent and fix the irregularity.” She twisted the thicker end. “Feel how warm it is.”

Tossing it to him, he caught it on instinct, brows shooting up, then sent it right back to her before creating space between them. “You are not right in the head.”

“So I've been told.” Her lips stretched wider, almost maniacal.

They moved further away. Pointing at Loki, the soldier said, “We're not done.”

“No doubt nothing can get through that thick skull of yours.”

The man's eyes narrowed, but soon they disappeared around the tents.

Loki looked at her as she twisted the end again. “Impressive.”

“Thanks, but it's not working as intended yet.”

He lifted her chin to look at him rather than at the brazier. “I meant you.”

She blushed. The soft pink made her brown eyes stand out even more.

What if he kissed her? His lips tingled at the thought. Instead, he cleared his throat. “May I see that?”

Her brows creased in confusion before she looked where he was pointing. “Oh, sure.” She handed it to him. “Just be careful with the mechanisms.”

He peeled back one of the crisscrossing gold panels and peered at what she'd cobbled together. It was crude, but she was onto something. “Given the brazier’s heating element, only an uru coil can be used. Anything less will burn out, resulting in your accident today. I'll have one dropped off at your tent later.”

When he glanced at her, he almost dropped the brazier. She watched him under her lashes, pupils dilated. The woman was turned on. He licked his lips and leaned closer to her.

She blinked, as if coming out of a daze, and her blush deepened to a bright red. Snatching the brazier from his hands, she offered a garbled thank you before scurrying away.

His heart pounded, racing faster than it had in front of Malekith and Laufey. Then he beamed like an utter fool, and he didn't care if he looked it.

oOoOo

Jane sat on her bed, nearly breathless from her mad dash across the camp. Loki had almost kissed her. And she wanted him to. Oh boy, did she want him to. Her core still churned in delight from the intense moment.

She hadn't wanted to believe he really cared for her, but maybe he did. Then again, maybe it was just the soulmate bond affecting him. Even her. She used to be envious of soulmates. How amazing it all seemed to find your perfect match, to know they would truly love you until death. But was it true?

If only she knew for certain. Maybe once he got rid of the bond...

Her heart sank.

Then he would have no reason to limit himself to staying with her, a mortal who can't even weaponize a brazier. She glanced down at it. The way he had casually mentioned the Asgardian metal for the core was damn sexy. He knew more than she could imagine, about things she could only imagine.

She flopped back on her bed and held up the brazier. At least she'd been right about a different material.

oOoOo

“No,” Loki said to one of the magi. “You have to see yourself as you want to be. You have to believe it to be.”

She sighed. “If I could just watch you do it, then—”

“I can't,” he snapped. Urgency made his tongue sharp. If his plans were to work, they had to learn, and learn fast. “Besides it would not help. How I weave my magic will be different from how you weave yours. You must find your path.”

The others surreptitiously watching them snapped their gazes back to their outstretched hands.

He sighed, and continued the lesson. “Magic can be shaped, molded to your desires. The only limitations are what you impose on yourself. That is the problem with the guild. You all limit yourself to an idea of what is right and wrong, to the roles others have made for you.”

“But some magic can be dangerous,” one of them said.

“Yes, breathing can be dangerous if it's toxic air. Walking can be dangerous if you don't see the cliff in front of you. But do we stop doing these things out of fear?”

“No.”

“Exactly. We are cautious when we need to be and that is enough.” He let down his Asgardian disguise with only a moment's hesitation. That was getting easier, at least. “Now, look at me. See yourselves as me, but taller and bald with different variation of markings and horns.”
A young woman flickered blue.

Loki clapped his hands. “Good.”

oOoOo

Hours later, Loki and the magi walked out of the camp cloaked in an invisibility spell. The sun had settled beyond the horizon and darkness smothered the snowy land in thick shadows. That wouldn't stop him, though. They would reach the Dark Elf camp, and they would complete their mission. So long as none of the magi lost their nerve.

Chapter Text

Loki and the magi walked to the pair of Dark Elf soldiers guarding the entrance to their camp. Their steps slowed, but his did not. The Jotunns and Elves were allies. They had a right to be there. Loki stood taller and hoped the others would follow suit. One wrong slip and their generic Frost Giant illusions would be worthless.

One of the Elven soldiers looked at them—eyes invisible behind the mask. He tensed, yet he did not move to block them.

The two quietly spoke in their language.

Loki waited for their response, but did not stop, nor slow his stride.

The Elves shifted on their feet, then stepped aside to let them pass.

Keeping in the breath he wanted to let out, Loki continued into the camp as if he owned it. Small fires lit up the trampled snow in front of tents, pushing back a few paces of the night’s suffocating darkness and providing warmth only felt if standing over it. Without the Asgardian magical dome, the space would hold heat no better than a closed freezer.

Many Elves—sans masks, though they looked almost the same with their pale faces and dark eyes—were huddled around the fires. They had a similar tolerance for cold as the Asgardians, which meant they wouldn't succumb to the frigid temperatures like the Midgardians, but they would definitely not feel at home in it like the Jotunns.

If any of the magi shivered in the slightest, he would have their heads.

No one spoke to them as they passed. Instead, the elves’ heads swiveled their way, gazes boring holes into his body.

Loki had not heard any merriment outside the camp and there appeared to be no evidence of it inside. He almost frowned—his mission would be easier if there was even a hint of revelry—until he saw several Elves holding onto small metal cups. One thing he could count on was the need for alcohol in every society.

Stopping, Loki picked out the closest Elf to him. “What do Dark Elves drink?” he asked in an affected voice, deep and gravely.

A cup was handed to him from his other side. He clasped it, letting some of the liquid slosh over the edge, then swallowed it one gulp. Despite the burn, it had a pleasant aftertaste. The alcohol lacked refinement, of course. Nothing surpassed Asgardian liquor.

“Not bad,” Loki said, then gestured to the magi. “For my friends.”

More cups practically appeared out of thin air.

They each took one and downed it as fast as Loki had, out of mimicry or out of nerve, he did not know.

“And one for yourselves.” Loki took a bottle from an elf and poured himself another cup. “As allies.”

The Dark Elves took a sip as he emptied the cup, then wiped his mouth clean with the back of his hand. “Is that all?” He laughed. “We will soon fight and die together. Drink.”

They did not.

So be it, then.

“The Aether is on our planet now, yes?” Loki didn't wait for an answer. “Does it then not belong to us?”

One of the magi grunted. “We've been the one fighting and dying for it.”

“While you all run and hide on Asgard,” another added.

The Elves did not even bristle.

Just when Loki thought their words had fallen on deaf ears and the mission was a waste of time, one of them stepped forward. He wore his hair in a similar fashion to Malekith, a commander perhaps. “We have been searching for it far longer than it has been here.”
His words were surprisingly clear with an elegant accent. Definitely a commander. Loki withheld a smile of victory.

The elf continued, “An agreement was made—”

“Between our leaders,” Loki cut in. “Laufey may be king, but we are not slaves. And I say the Aether is ours.”

“It is not yours until it is in your hands.”

Loki barked a laugh, as if he knew something they did not.

The commander quirked a white-haired brow. “When we fight the Asgardians, it will be ours.”

Loki poured himself another glass. “You will not find it there.”

“What do you mean?”

Loki waved him away and pretended to stagger to another fire pit with a different batch of Elves who had been clearly trying to listen in. The magi fanned out as part of their plan. They needed word to spread as quickly as possible and they needed to appear drunk to give reason for such loose lips.

“Do you have anything stronger than this pitiful excuse for a drink?” Loki could hear the others badgering the Elves for more liquor as well, peppering in insults, just to aggravate them further.

“No, but have as much as you want.” The elf clapped his shoulder and poured the clear liquid to the brim. “Tell me more of your progress with the Aether.”

“I know it is no match for the Winter Casket,” he lied. The Aether could undo life as they knew it. “I know a mortal holds it. A weak mortal girl.” He guffawed, then cut it off short, as if he realized he'd said too much.

The hand on his shoulder tightened. They knew who held it. Malekith had sensed it on Jane. And now they knew the Jotunns knew, lending validity to their words. Warm delight spread through Loki.

Lurching forward, he made his way to the other magi and rounded them up under pretext they needed better liquor. One of them nearly fell over, and Loki could not tell if it was an act. His head did feel a bit woolen. Who knew how the alcohol would affect an Asgardian. Maybe it hit them harder.

Another magi blustered about something while barely able to stand on his feet. Loki walked to him, laughing and waving around his cup until he heard him shouting that the Aether was theirs and the Elves were being used, calling them fools. He did not even realize the Elves had gotten to their feet and were reaching for weapons.

Loki clapped him on the back of the head. “This one is young and stupid. And drunk.” Loki spat on the snow. “Pathetic.”

They were not trying to start a battle right then and there. Not if they wanted to get out alive.

As he dragged him toward the camp’s exit, the commander, said, “Tell your king, Malekith will not stand for betrayal.”

He hoped not. Otherwise, this mission would've been unsuccessful.

The magi’s eyes rolled, practically swimming in the Elven liquor. His Jotunn disguise flickered. Blond hair appeared out of nowhere. Loki's gaze darted around, but the other magi had them surrounded enough to obscure what the dark night did not.

The commander stayed back with the others, but called out, “If you are withholding the Aether, your kind will pay.”

Loki snorted. “I hold nothing, but this runt.”

They passed the guards without a backwards glance, and Loki finally let out that long-overdue breath.

oOoOo

Jane paced Thor's tent for the hundredth time. “I can't believe you let him go!” She wanted to hit him. Loki comes up with a crazy idea, and Thor and Steve just go right along with it.

“Loki has done this since he was a child,” Thor explained.

She threw up her hands. “When he had magic!”

“He is a Jotunn, Jane.”

“I know, but—”

“The other magi are with him.”

“I know—”

He placed his hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eyes. “You care for him. I see that. But Loki has been a warrior for many centuries. You must trust him.”

“I do.” She laughed, on the verge of crying tears of confusion and loss. She trusted Loki with her life. Worse yet, she loved him more than she ever thought possible.

He pulled her into a hug. “I see that too.”

“See what?”

After a deep breath, he said, “I didn't think it was possible for a bonded Midgardian to love another.”

She smiled against his shoulder. Loving Thor would've been so much easier.

“Thor—” Loki's suddenly strangled voice filled the tent.

Jane's eyes narrowed, and she pulled away from Thor to march to Loki and glare up at him.

The anger hardening his face melted into uncertainty. “Jane?”

One moment her hand was at her side. The next, it was tingling from slapping Loki's cheek. She gawked at it, then quickly refocused her attention on him. “You left me. You left without saying goodbye, without a warning that you might not come back. You—why are you smiling?”

He was rubbing his cheek and grinning like a child caught with a hand in the cookie jar. “You care for me.”

“Of course, I care for you. You're my—” She stopped before finishing that sentence in front of Thor.

“I don't care if he knows anymore,” Loki said. “I don't care if everyone knows.”

“Knows what?” Thor asked.

“You don't? But I'm just a...and you want to get rid of...” Jane's heart pounded against her ribs, ticking in her neck like a timer counting milliseconds.

Loki looked down at her as if she were the only person in existence. He grazed a thumb around the shell of her ear, sending tingles cascading throughout her body, and slid his knuckles under her jaw to lift her chin higher.

Her breath congealed in her lungs. Her legs felt like water.

When his lips touched hers, she thought her knees would give way, but he wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her flush to him. Jane lifted to her toes and threaded her fingers into his hair. Everything about him was soft, yet hard. He yielded and reached for more until she knew only him. There was no Thor, no war, no Aether. It was just Loki's affectionate lips, his sweet taste, and heady scent.

“I take it there is no other, that you two are bonded,” Thor said, his voice hard around the edges.

Jane nearly jumped away from Loki. Her swollen lips pulsed in time with her heartbeat, and she almost touched them in wonder.

“Yes, Brother,” Loki answered impatiently, then turned back to Jane. “Now, if you'll excuse us.”

“What of the mission?”

Though Thor changed the subject, she could tell he had not let this go. That he avoided her eye made her wish she had told him, but then she would have broken her promise to Loki. Jane sighed.

Loki touched her cheek, gathering her attention again. Gazing down at her with eyes the color of warm spring grass, he smiled again, bigger than before. Happier. Then he faced Thor with all the seriousness of a general. “It was a success. They believed we were Jotunns, that Jane is Laufey’s prisoner, and that he might have the Aether.”

“Do you think they will attack them?” Thor asked.

“They will certainly make a visit to the Jotunn camp tomorrow. I should be there to sow more discord.”

Jane shook her head. “What if they point you out?”

“If I'm not there Laufey will be suspicious.”

She crossed her arms. “I don't like it.”

“What if we coordinate an attack?” Thor rubbed his beard. “If you can instigate a fight between them, our army can come in and finish off the scraps.”

Loki's gaze drifted around the room in thought, then settled on Jane. “Do you have the box on you?”

She nodded and slipped it out of her skirt’s pocket.

“I can make a copy of the box and use it to convince Malekith the Jotunns have the Aether.”

“But he won't sense it. He'll know it's a fake.”

“I'll carve more runes onto the box, make him think it's better concealed now after having been discovered.”

That could very well work. When she realized Thor was awfully quiet, she glanced his way to find him staring at the box, his mouth hanging slightly open.

“I thought mother had the Aether,” he said, eyes still fixed on the box.

“She gave it to Jane and sent us here.”

“Why didn't you tell me?” Thor now watched Loki carefully.

“I didn't trust you.”

She wanted to slap him again. Surely he could have a little more tact than that.

“The last I knew you,” Loki continued, “you were brash and careless. This was too important to get wrong.”

To her surprise, Thor merely nodded. “Agreed. But why did she give it to Jane?”

“Because I was too selfish to be trusted with it. I only cared about one thing, power.”

Now, Jane's jaw went unhinged. But at his devilish smile, she snapped it closed.

“You could have taken it from her at anytime,” Thor said.

“No, that was before I knew I wasn't a mortal, and, by that time, it was too late for me.”

He watched her as he said that last part, and she realized he was telling her that he had come to love her by then. Jane's insides turned to mush. She didn't even care if it was simply because of the bond. Frankly, she didn't care about the bond anymore. What she felt for him was real. It had to be.

“Mother foresaw all of this?” Thor asked. He looked like his head hurt. And Jane held back a snicker.

“I believe so.”

Thor straightened, touching the hilt of his hammer. “Then tomorrow, when our enemies are divided, we will end this.”

Chapter Text

“The Elves are coming,” a Jotunn told Laufey. “And they look ready for war.”

“All of them?” the king asked, sitting straighter in his icy throne. At the young soldier’s confirmation, he stood. “Why do they march on us?”

The Jotunn lowered to a knee. “I do not know. No messengers have been sent.”

“They must want the Casket.” He snatched it off its stand and addressed the growing crowd. “If the Elves think to usurp us, we will show them we are not soft Asgardians.”

A loud holler broke out, and Loki turned over a copy of the aether’s box in his pocket for the tenth time. Either fighting would occur once the Elves reached the camp, which suited him just fine, or talks would ensue. Regardless, he would make certain the two sides clashed. He had to. There was no way Thor's meager force, even with the magi, could overcome both Laufey's and Malekith’s armies.

“Outside,” Laufey ordered everyone over the din. The crowd flowed out of the space, taking the noise with it.

Laufey nodded for Loki to follow them out, and Loki did so, grateful he would not have a chance to speak with the king. He needed the claim that he had the Aether to be believable, and Laufey would question why he had not brought it to his attention beforehand.

Loki moved with the others, skin the same hue as theirs, yet he was shorter, he had hair, and he was dressed like an Asgardian. They treated him differently too. No matter how tight the hallways got, they did not come near him. A simpleton would have thought it was a gesture of respect for the son of the king, but Loki knew better.

The current of Jotunns swept them out of the ice fortress and into a sea of more Jotunns all mashed together like the unruly horde of brutes they were. Their lack of order made them seem easy prey, but they were fierce warriors. Loki would give them that.

He slid through the crevices between bodies and gradually moved to the front. People gave way when they saw who he was, but this time, he barely noticed. A line of black stretched out in front of them, punctuated with white spaces: columns and columns of Elves. Their ships stuck out of the ground behind them like spikes.

With his guards, Malekith walked into the empty space separating the two forces. Loki made his way to where Laufey emerged from the jeering Jotunns. While they were a writhing, seething mass of bodies, the Elves stood with an eerie stillness.

“You dare to march on me?” Laufey said to Malekith as Loki reached the Frost Giants behind him. Their voices easily carried in the snowy valley.

“You dare to claim what is mine?” The elf retorted.

The Jotunn king exhaled frosty air. “The Casket of Ancient Winters belong with the Jotunns.”

“Your pathetic weapon is not why I'm here.”

Laufey’s jaw hardened. “Then why do you risk breaking our alliance?”

“Do not play the fool, Laufey.” Malekith stepped closer to him. “You have the Aether.”

A harsh, grating laughter filled the suddenly quiet moment. Everyone now watched and listened. “The Aether is with the mortal girl.”

“Whom you have!” At his shout, the Elves behind him snapped their rifles to ready position, producing an impressive clap that echoed between the mountainous glaciers around them.

Laufey didn't flinch, nor glance their way. “You have been fed lies.”

“Some of your soldiers came to my camp—”

Loki yanked the box out of his pocket and thrust it into the air for everyone to see. “I have the Aether!”

Everyone's gaze jerked to him, then followed up his arm to the dark lacquered box with runes etched into its sides. The brief silence erupted into a frenzy.

While Malekith commanded his forces to charge, Laufey ran to Loki with the Casket dangling from his hand. The Jotunns shouted their inevitable victory and leapt forward to meet the oncoming Elves.

“You should've come to me right away,” Laufey said, then continued before giving Loki a chance to offer an excuse. “Give it to me.”

The look on his face was pure joy, red eyes wide and bright. He hungrily snatched the box from Loki and flipped open the lid.

Loki breathed in and formed an ice dagger in his hand. He made sure the tip was razor sharp and the blade was long enough to reach Laufey’s heart.

The King’s surprise at finding the box empty had his hairless brows climbing and his hard-pressed lips slackening.

Loki gripped the hilt and coiled into a striking stance, ready to lunge, to kill.

Laufey’s gaze landed on him, a boulder on his chest. Could he murder his father? Would Jane kill hers, even if he was a cruel, bitter man?

Breathing out, Loki dropped the dagger.

And Laufey pounced.

An icicle glided straight to Loki's head. He dodged it, then ducked under another only to be rammed into by the king. The two fell, twisting and turning to land in the dominate position.

Air rushed from Loki's lungs as his back hit the hard snow. Black spots swam in his vision. He tried to move. He tried to lash out, but only his legs were free to kick uselessly. His arms were pinned to the snow, covered in thick blocks of ice.

With the Casket in his hands, Laufey sat on Loki's ribcage, preventing more than a thin stream of air into his lungs. “You betrayed your kind,” Laufey said. “You betrayed me.”

Loki's feet slid in the snow as he tried to buck off the larger Jotunn.

“I should have killed you when you were born instead of abandoning you at the temple.” Laufey bent closer to a suddenly still Loki, his voice harder than cold steel. “I should have killed you the moment I saw my mark on your head.”

So that was how Odin had found Loki: a lone baby in a temple during the War. But why? His racing mind was forced to refocus on the ice encasing his legs, hips, and chest to join with the thick blocks around his arms. It crept up his neck, over his jaw, and his lips, fastening his mouth shut.

Lungs unable to expand under the icy prison, he panted through his nose, trying to draw in a deep breath before it was sealed from him.

The Jotunn song of magic played in his mind: sharp, staccato notes, as if to pick through the ice, but it might as well have been a toothpick against an iceberg.

Laufey spoke in his ear. “I will enjoy watching you die.”

Loki cursed the king against his suffocating muzzle. He struggled, no different than a paralyzed man trying to move.

Ice filled his nose and covered his cheeks. Panic clawed at his insides, threatening to tear apart the threads of his consciousness.

He focused on the magic in him. His Jotunn side could not undo Laufey's weave, not while the king held the Casket. But maybe his Asgardian magic was somewhere buried inside him. Maybe Odin had left something behind, in case he was ever in dire need.

Loki scanned, sifted, and examined every inch of his being. But there was nothing. Not a shred of who he was before. Acceptance replaced anger, and he relaxed into his cocoon of ice and snow.

He could not save himself, but he could pray to the Norns that Jane would somehow be safe.

oOoOo

Jane paced the small length of her tent, fingers digging into the slots of her brazier. The normal background noise of the camp was gone, a deafening silence that made her heart thump all the faster.

“Did the uru metal Loki sent work?” Steve asked.

Her dogged steps faltered. “Yeah. No. I mean, it should. I haven't had a chance to check it.”

Loki had left, then the metal coil was delivered to her as Thor and the soldiers were departing. Before they even disappeared from sight, her guards had ushered her back to her tent where she—the Aether—was to be kept safe. Everything was happening too quickly. The weight of it all sat on her chest and prevented her from taking a full breath.

“Loki will be fine,” Steve said.

She swung to face him. “But that's just it. I won't know if he is. This stupid bond isn't working right. It's almost like it's not even there. But that's ridiculous, right?”

He shrugged. “It's probably the stress. Tell me more about the Foster Theory. How did you come up with it?”

While she knew he was just trying to help take her mind off the situation, she wanted to throw something at him. “How long has it been since they left?”

“Two hours.”

That was about the time it should've taken the Asgardian army to reach the Jotunn camp. “Everyone should've gone. You should be there.” She threw a hand at him, then at the tent flaps. “And the guards. Every soldier is needed to fight. One person could make all the difference.”

“The Aether—”

“If Malekith is dead, then there's no threat.”

“Laufey,” he reminded her.

“Loki will take care of him.” She winced. How callous had she become since leaving Earth? Patricide was not something she condoned. Death was not something she wished for anyone. She glanced down at the egg-shaped brazier, her first deadly creation.

Placing it on the small table next to Steve, she crossed the room and sat on her bed. She didn’t build weapons. She wasn't Tony Stark. She was just an astrophysicist.

“You okay?” Steve asked.

She nodded absentmindedly.

“It's okay to be nervous and doubt yourself. It happens to me every time before a mission.”

Her gaze found his, and she took in his softness. He was an enhanced soldier, the very definition of lethal, but he was kind and gentle and had a moral compass truer than a global needle. “Is it wrong that I want them dead?”

His eyes flickered wide, clearly taken aback by the question. “I think it is a natural reaction to the threat they pose.”

“But is it wrong?”

“That's something only you can answer.”

oOoOo

Grinning down at Loki, Laufey said something Loki could not hear past his heartbeat pounding in his ears. While he could hold his breath longer than a mortal, he could not do so forever.

“—Odinson will be next. And the mortal wench will be mine.” He laughed as Loki's eyes bugged.

Loki struggled to free himself, knowing it would use up his oxygen faster. Laufey could not get to Jane. He could not—

The Jotunn jerked as the tip of a blade, smeared in blood, appeared out from his bare chest. He looked down at it in confusion, no longer laughing.

As quickly as the sword was thrust into him, it was yanked back out, and Laufey fell to the side.

Sif stepped over Loki, her face grim, covered in sweat and splattered with blood. She lifted her weapon overhead, and Loki wondered if she would seize the opportunity to finally rid herself of him. He closed his eyes and thought of Jane, wishing her well and a long life, despite the bond not having been broken.

A loud crack filled his ears, and his eyes flew open. Sif lifted her sword overhead again, then slammed the hilt into the ice imprisoning him. She had to do it two more times before his torso and arms were free. He peeled off the layer of ice over his nose and mouth with a grimace. Half of his skin felt like it had been ripped off.

After Sif freed his legs, she held out a hand for him to grasp. He took it and got to his feet.

“Thanks,” he said. “For a moment there, I thought you were going to take off my head.”

She gave him a sardonic smile, as if she had considered it, and gestured for him to follow her. “Come. Thor is fighting Malekith.”

That was as good of an acceptance as anybody would get from her. His gaze fell on Laufey...on his father. He pushed the mixed emotions to the back of his mind, and swept up the Winter Casket. Strength and vigor flooded him. It was such a rush, his knees gave slightly.

“What's wrong?” Sif asked.

Loki smiled. “For once, nothing.”

She nodded then took off in a run, and he followed her, finally catching sight of the battle raging not far from them. Everyone—Asgardians including the robbed magi, Jotunns, and Elves—were fighting each other with no battle formations. It was chaos, and he couldn't tell which side was winning.

“The oaf should have sent out scouts and waited for the Jotunns’ and Elves’ numbers to dwindle,” Loki said to himself.

Sif stopped in her tracks and faced him. “That oaf was going to do just that until one of the scouts came back with news of your dire situation,” she chided him, practically yelling to make herself easily heard over the cacophony of clashing swords, booming thunder, roaring fireballs, and shouting soldiers. “You would be dead right now if it wasn't for him.”

Thor risked everything for him? Warmth suffused his chest, and he bristled. “So you offered to rescue me out of the kindness of your heart?”

“I offered because I finally trust you.”

It only took him nearly dying for her to reach that point.

“And because Thor needs to lead the army,” she continued. “The Council must be kept in their place.”

“That we can agree on.” Loki gestured to the battle so close now he sidestepped a gutted Elf staggering to them. “Shall we?”

She turned, running into the thick of the fight, and just as he moved to do the same, he noticed Malekith and his guards, sans Thor, walking in his direction. The white-haired Elf stopped and looked at the Winter Casket in Loki's hand. As if he were piecing together a puzzle, Malekith’s gaze darted to Loki's other hand, hanging open at his side, then to Laufey.

Loki tensed at the sight of the lacquered box lying open next to the Jotunn’s body. Damn. He should have grabbed it along with the Casket.

The corners of Malekith’s lips curved upwards, but his eyes glittered cruelly. As he turned from Loki, the dead Jotunn king, and the battle, a young Asgardian soldier, bound and gagged, was shoved along with him. Loki gripped both handles of the Casket and a stream of winter’s magic burst from the weapon, encasing the Elven guards who had stepped behind their leader into statues of ice.

Following after Malekith, Loki kept up the torrent. A Jotunn accidentally fell into the white stream and landed in the snow as a solid block of ice. Loki would not—could not—afford to stop his attack.

As if receiving an order, Dark Elves slipped out of the fight with the Jotunns and Asgardians, moving back toward their ships.

Lightning crackled overhead. Where was Thor? Where were the Warriors Three?

Elven soldiers converged on him from all sides. Loki swung around to ensnare them in the Casket’s magic, but there were too many. He could no longer move to follow Malekith. He couldn't even see him or the Asgardian soldier anymore, but Loki knew where the Elf was headed. The slender ship was not far from them.

And Jane was practically alone in the camp.

oOoOo

Jane flinched at a sudden barrage of gunfire, blaring alarms, and shouting men. Steve leapt from his chair, telling her to stay inside, and ran out of the tent with his shield in hand. She hadn't even had a chance to blink, he moved so quickly.

Her heart pounded against her ribs, until a thought dawned on her: one of their enemies, most likely Malekith, was here, which meant the battle must not be going well. Her heart then stumbled near to a halt. Was Loki okay? Was Thor?

Gripping the Aether’s box in her lap, Jane stood and shoved it into her pocket. She stared at the brazier on the table. If she used it to kill Malekith, then she would not have to absorb the Aether. It was her or him. Kill or be killed.

Mind made up, she went to cross the room, but her feet didn't budge.

Maybe Steve and the Asgardians would save the day. Maybe she wouldn't have to kill anyone or use the Aether. Maybe there was another path Frigga had not foreseen.

She collapsed onto the bed, her head hanging in her hands, breathing hard.

The alarms had stopped, but the sounds of battle had not. Each blast of gunfire made her jerk, made her inhalations come faster. The entire Dark Elf army could be outside her tent. Thor and Loki could be dead. Steve could be dead for all she knew. Jane might very well be the last defense for the universe's survival.

With wobbly legs, she stood and made her way to the brazier. The gold plates were cool to the touch, until she twisted the end and it warmed her hands. She curled her fingers into the slots, careful not to press too hard and activate the fiery beam. She was strong and capable. She could do whatever needed to be done.

Facing the tent flaps, she waited.

And waited.

And waited.

The cacophony outside slowed: gunfire was few and far between, soldiers no longer hollered orders or grunted with effort or in death, But that was no guarantee her side was winning.

Her muscles were so tense she would be sore for days if she survived this.

A hush settled over the camp, heightening the sound of her pulse whooshing in her ears, like a raging storm with thunder that vibrated her limbs. She aimed the brazier at the tent flaps.

The cloth peeled back. Light streamed in behind a tall, broad-shouldered man, casting him in shadows.

Was he Steve or Malekith?

Her fingers tensed around the brazier, but she couldn't squeeze the levers until she knew for certain. She would kill Malekith and even sacrifice herself, but she would not kill Steve.

The tent flaps closed behind a white-haired Elf, and Jane ignited the brazier.

Malekith watched her as she clenched the egg over and over again to no avail. “I sense the Aether here.” He looked around the small space, dismissing her as a threat and asked, “Where is it?”

Her knees shook as she tried to accept what was happening. The brazier wasn't working. Malekith was in her tent. The others must be dead. She should've checked the device. She should've—

“If you make me search for it,” Malekith said, “your death will be as painful as the Jotunn who thought to protect you.”

“Loki,” she breathed out. He was dead. A sob wracked her body and she almost dropped the brazier.

“But I can be merciful.” He stepped to her in a languid pace. “Give it to me, and I will end your life swiftly.”

She stared at the canvas wall. It was over.

“Give it to me!” he snapped.

Jerking from him, she blinked away the tears lining her eyes and banged the brazier on the table. Work, damn it.

She lifted the device as he took the last step to reach her and squeezed.

A thick, fiery beam shot out, nearly knocking her backwards.

Malekith flung himself away from her and collided to the rug-covered floor, panting and shaking.

Steering the heavy beam was like trying to move a firehose. She used two hands and still struggled to direct the brazier. Before it reached him, the beam spluttered out and the brazier singed her hands. She dropped it, wincing as it peeled away skin.

He turned to her, half of his face charred and puffy. Hatred twisted his face even further. He pushed himself up and climbed to his feet.

Jane backed away, reaching inside her pocket.

He lunged.

She flipped the clasp on the box.

The tent flaps burst open and Iron Man charged in, hands up and repulsors engaged. An arc blast hit Malekith in the chest, flinging him backwards. Tony said something, but a low buzz drowned him out. Dark crimson permeated the room, until nothing else existed.

Thousands of needles pricked every pore, pierced every cell in her body, filling her, consuming her. Her consciousness receded, as if fleeing the Aether’s invasion.

Jane fought with every fiber of her being. She clung onto the moment, remembering who she was and why she was there. But she could let go. Malekith was dead. Loki was—

A universe filled with the light of innumerable stars grew dark as a shadow swept through it, a fierce storm wiping out everything in its path. And Malekith was at its center.

No. He was dead. Tony had killed him.

Jane grappled for control. She had to. Billions of lives could not end because of her.

She tumbled end over end in a sea of red. It tugged at her, trying to pull her under, but she pushed back. She resisted and struggled and flailed. Then a realization dawned on her and she stopped.

The Aether went still as well, curious at her sudden change.

Instead of fighting, embracing it seemed the most logical course. Until she died, it was part of her, and she had to treat it no differently than an artificial limb.

In a flash, her vision returned.

Iron Man stood in front of her, metal hands on her shoulders, asking if she was okay. Explosions and gunfire rang out in the camp again.

She blinked and looked to the side. Malekith was still lying on the floor, unconscious but alive. She could feel his pulse as if it were her own, see it like the sun in the sky. Both he and Tony were the same, two living creatures, just like all the rest on Jotunheim and the other inhabited worlds. They were the innumerable stars she'd seen in her vision, and still saw.

Jane lifted a hand, and Tony backed away. She clasped onto Malekith’s light—the Aether flowing from her in black waves—and crushed it. Darkness devoured him until he was no more, a flame snuffed out by the night’s wind.

“Holy shit, Jane,” Tony said as the Aether rushed back to her.

But she was not done.

Walking out of the tent, she moved through the ongoing battle as if the people in the many Iron Man suits, the Asgardians, and the Dark Elves fighting for their lives were just a hologram. Bullets, missiles, spears, plasma and arc blasts zipped by in every direction. The black cloud surrounding her absorbed and eviscerated any that got too close.

Jane stopped in the center of the fight. The breeze on her skin was a muted cold, yet she knew the protective dome over the camp was gone. The magi holding its magic together were now dead. Asgardian bodies—three of which she recognized as the men who had threatened Loki to heal them—lay in the snow along with trampled tents and furniture. Blood-soaked snow brought an odd sense of festiveness to the monotone camp.

“Jane,” Steve yelled at her from outside the swirling cloud of Aether. “Malekith is dead. You can stop now.”

She shook her head.

Reaching out with the Aether around the camp, she eliminated each of the Elves’ lives. The power flowing from her stretched across the planet to another battle, this one between Jotunns and Asgardians. The Frost Giants were now outnumbered two to one and losing to the replenished Asgardian forces.

Her heart pounded, like a distant, chaotic knocking in the back of her mind. Still, she reached out across the galaxy, searching through the specks of light for those that belonged to the Dark Elves.

Ships floating in space held many, whereas their planet held little. Some even hid on other worlds, bidding their time for Malekith’s rise. All of their lives were within her grasp. The Aether yearned to be used, whispering how they all needed to die. So long as one lived, there would always be another Malekith, and that if the Dark Elves wanted darkness instead of light, she should give it to them.

No. This wasn't her.

But the power was enticing. People would finally respect her. Her friends would be safe. Wars would be nonexistent.

Her fingers curled into fists. No. She'd already eliminated the threat. That would have to be enough. No more killing.

Drawing the Aether deep into her, she tucked it away almost as surely as if it resided in the box once again. The dark red tinting her vision vanished along with the energy sustaining her. Her knees buckled, heart thumping erratically, painfully in her chest, and she collapsed to the snow.

Steve and Tony rushed to her, checking her vitals and asking her questions. Their mouths moved, but she heard only a deep silence. Fatigue swept away every care and concern for herself. Rest was all she needed. Just a nice, long nap.

Her eyes drifted closed, but then lifted part way at being forcefully shaken. Loki stared down at her, his face urgent, distraught. His bright green eyes glistened from unshed tears. She tried to smile at him. He should be happy. She’d seen that the Elves were no longer a threat, that the Jotunns had surrendered to the Asgardians, and that the Bifrost was functioning again. Everything had worked out, everyone was safe.

His face faded, the colors turning white, the lines blurring. A fuzzy band of black closed in from the sides, her consciousness receding, slipping away from her, a thin stream, a sporadic trickle, then nothing.

Chapter Text

Loki shook Jane, but this time her eyes would not open. He held her to his chest, forehead resting on hers, gasping for a breath that refused to come.

“She is gone, Brother,” Thor said from behind him.

Her pulse was nonexistent under his fingers, yet he continued searching for it, pressing harder against her neck.

“Brother—”

Loki jerked away from Thor's fingers on his shoulder. “She's not dead.” He looked down at her and pushed back her hair. “The Aether still resides in her.”

Thor stepped back, snow crunching under his boots and murmured something to Rogers.

Scooping her fully into his arms, Loki stood and looked up at the cloudy grey sky. “Heimdall.” His voice came out thin and reedy. Clamping down on his fear, he forced in a full breath. “Heimdall! Open the bridge.”

Loki's gaze fell on Jane. She looked at rest, peaceful. His heart ached for the wide smile she'd finally started greeting him with. Her brown eyes would sparkle like polished amber stones, and his nerves would tingle with delight.

Come back to me, my love.

A wide swath of light erupted in the sky and slammed into the ground not far from them. He walked toward it and found Thor, Rogers, and Stark following closely behind.

Without looking back, Loki stepped into the Rainbow Bridge, holding Jane as tight as he dared. If—when—she woke up, she would not appreciate any broken ribs.

Colors streamed by, but he only noticed them as they played off her face, lighting her in flashes of blue, pink, yellow, green, and all the many shades even her eyes would be unable to pick up.

When the rush of energy thickened, he took a step and landed in the Bifrost with Heimdall standing over his sword, lightning streaking out from the hilt to around the golden dome.

Loki walked toward the Bridge, nodding to Heimdall in thanks as the large man slid his weapon out of the center consul. The spinning protrusion slowed to a stop, leaving the broad exit finally open. Several horses were waiting outside for them along with their attendants.

Stark’s repulsors fired, lifting him a foot off the ground. “Thanks, but I already have a ride.” He looked to say something else, but he glanced at Jane's limp form and closed his mouth.

“I will take her to Eir,” Thor said. “I can get there faster and it will be less jarring for her.”

Part of Loki wanted to turn away and clutch her tighter to him, but Thor was right. Eir might be able to help and time was of the essence.

“We will see each other again,” Loki said to Jane before kissing her on the forehead and handing her to Thor.

Rather than watching him fly off with her, Loki hopped onto the horse and sped down the Bridge, pushing the animal to its limits.

It took minutes to reach the palace, then minutes more to reach the throne room. All the while, Rogers was right behind him, a silent companion.

“You must heal Jane,” Loki said to Odin and his mother as soon as he stopped at the stairs leading to the throne.

“The Aether has made her its host.” Odin looked down at him in his normal court attire. “Only Malekith can draw it out.”

“But he's dead.”

“She was a brave girl.”

“Is!” Loki corrected him. “She is brave and kind and...and...I love her.” He looked at Frigga, emotion making his voice thick. “I love her, and you knew I would. You knew it and you still gave her the Aether.”

She touched her heaving chest, her normal regal posture caved in.

Odin stood. “Your mother did what was best for the nine realms.”

Loki’s molars might crack under the pressure of how tightly he clenched his jaw. “She is not my mother. You are not my father.” He tore away the magical Asgardian disguise and stood with his head held high. A slight shifting of the guards lining the walls created a rustle that swept through the massive room.

“You took me from a temple during the War. You took me because of this mark.” Loki touched his forehead. “Laufey's mark.” Another rustle. “Because you wanted to use me. But then I messed up. I was a failure. Or was it part of your plan that I be banished to Midgard to find a soulmate whom you could also use?”

“None of that was ever my intention.”

“Do not lie to me!” Loki's muscles trembled with rage. His fingers itched to grab the Casket from under his jacket.

The doors flew open, and Thor practically ran into the room, carrying Jane. “Brother, Eir cannot cure her. Whatever can be done to help, must be done now.”

A cruel hand grasped Loki's heart and squeezed unmercifully. He swung to face Odin. “Give me back my magic.”

“I cannot.”

“You took it from me. You can give it back.”

“Magic cannot be taken. It is as part of you as your skin is.”

Loki blinked, his jaw finally slackening. “Then what happened to it?”

“It has been suppressed.” Odin sat, then added, “A magical potion slipped into a drink to bind the powers of an unruly magus.”

Loki slipped a hand inside his coat and gripped the Casket, ready to do whatever was necessary to save her. “Where is the antidote?”

“None exists. If it did, I would give it to you for your valor, for guiding Thor, and helping win this war.”

Loki's hand fell to his side. Odin just complimented him. His mind swirled from the shock of it.

“Loki,” Frigga said, the word soft and tremulous. “I did see it all. I knew you'd love her. And I knew her love would soften you, make you care once again enough to fight for the lives of everyone. I knew she would use it as I hoped she would. You both were needed to win this war.”

He looked at Jane in Thor's arms. “I can't lose her.”

“There was one vision where she survived,” Frigga said cautiously.

His gaze snapped to his mother. “How?”

She shook her head and stepped down to him. “I do not know. But you were so happy, so light. Your smile, when you were with her...it was glorious.” Her eyes glistened, and she took his hand. “I had hoped—I prayed that would've been the vision to unfold.” She gripped him tighter. “I am so sorry.”

The doors banged open and Darcy shouted, “Where's Jane?”

Erik and Tony were right behind her, barging into the throne room. When they noticed her in Thor's arms, they ran to him.

Darcy looked from her to Loki. “You did this to her. If you hadn't taken her from Earth, none of this would've happened.”

“I had to,” he said, more to himself than her. Because it was his fault. “The bond would've killed us both had we separated.”

She barked a laugh.

“Darcy,” Erik shushed her.

“No. He needs to know.”

Loki's churning barbed wire of self-loathing stilled. “Know what?”

“The bond only exists on Earth. The Midgardian magic is inherent to the planet, not the people.”

“What?” His brain was like murky swamp water and her words just bobbed on the surface. But then he thought of how clear her emotions were to him on Midgard, only for them to practically vanish once they were offworld. “We have been free of the bond this entire time?”

“Yes. And if you—”

Loki took Jane from Thor. “What we feel for each other is real?” He lowered her to the floor.

“I guess, but—”

“I would give up eternity for her.” He placed his hands over her chest.

“Didn't you kill her three times for that?”

Not only that, but Loki closed his eyes, shutting out the room and its inhabitants. He loved Jane, more than himself. She made him vulnerable, yet stronger than ever. He'd taken on a Jotunn when he'd thought he was mortal, he'd found the patience to teach magic to others, he'd embraced a part of himself he loathed, and he hadn't killed Laufey.

His Jotunn magic opened within him like the beginning flurries of a storm. Gentle notes played in the back of his mind. He touched her chest and a layer of frost coated Jane in soft white, preserving her body and connecting her to him. He felt her as clear as he felt his breath come and go. The Aether lie dormant inside of her, hanging onto the last thread of her life force.

There was still hope.

Loki searched himself again, similar to when he thought he was going to die, but this time love, not fear fueled him.

The results were the same, though.

He dug deeper. His magic was there. No potion could keep it from him. Not when Jane needed him now more than ever.

The Aether seemed to feed off her, hanging onto the thread as if it were trying to absorb every crumb.

Let her go, he thought to the Aether.

He poked it with his Jotunn magic, an ice pick against the dark crimson mass. It squirmed, but hung on tighter.

Release her.

Pouring more of himself into the ice pick, he tried to pry it off her.

You will not have Jane.

Every bit of his strength and energy went into dislodging the Aether. It was draining, but his love for her refilled him. The cycle repeated itself over and over until, when he thought he had nothing left, a sparkle of gold flickered in his eyes.

Recognition pricked him with excitement and relief.

He reached for his Asgardian magic, but the specks drifted away, like dust motes floating in the air.

Please, he pleaded to the Norns. Jane's thread was frayed, barely holding together.

The sparks brightened, like thick gold confetti. He scooped them up and breathed them in. Energy flooded him, invigorating him.

He reached out and seized the Aether with both halves of his magic. It writhed under his touch, then fled Jane to take refuge in the box in her pocket.

Catching the frayed thread before it disappeared forever, he soaked her in gold and light and love. He gave her every inch of himself. He gave her what he'd yearned three hundred years for. He gave her the power.

Jane jerked upright, gasping for air. Frost fell off her like snow. Her skin was surely icy cold, but she glowed with warmth and life. She cleared her eyes with a hand and noticed him beside her. She took him in with a slightly dazed look.

He sat as still as a rock, not knowing if she really wanted him. If she knew they were not bonded, would she still want to be with him?

“You're alive!” Darcy pounced on Jane, wrapping her in a giant hug that almost knocked them both over. “You're cold as hell, but alive.” Darcy shivered, then pushed back to look her in the eyes. “If you ever do anything this crazy again, I will lock you in your lab so you could science to your heart's content, but you'll never be allowed to leave. You hear me?”

Jane laughed. “It's good to see you.” She looked up at Erik and smiled. “You too.”

He fell to his knees and hugged her around Darcy, a pile of arms and heads. “I second that notion.”

“I don't think he's slept for a month,” Darcy said.

Jane frowned. “You're the one who's always getting onto me about sleep. You should know better.”

“I thought you were in danger.” He glanced at Loki.

All of their gazes followed his, and Loki's heart thumped harder. Jane stared at him with an expression he couldn't read. Was it guarded?

“Malekith said you'd died. I thought I'd never see you again.”

Was that what she wished? His insides turned to lead, but, somehow, he found the strength to stand.

She clasped his hand before he could fully straighten himself. “Wait.” After getting to her feet as well, she added, “When he said that, it nearly crushed me. I don't care about the bond anymore, Loki. I know what I feel for you is real.”

He blinked. She does love him.

Wrapping his arms around her, he eliminated the space between them and kissed her. He kissed her so fully, he forgot they were in a room filled with people, his family, hers. He forgot about needing to breathe, needing to tell her about the bond. She was alive and she wanted him and that was all that mattered.

Someone coughed. It took several more of the grating sounds to get them to pull apart.

Instead of looking for the source of the interruption, he held her eyes. “I love you, Jane Foster. And I'm grateful for you showing me how to do so again.”

She smiled, radiant and beautiful. His heart felt full to the brim.

Darcy leaned to Jane's ear and whispered something.

Jane's eyes widened in surprise. “There's no bond?”

Loki shook his head, on the verge of chuckling as Darcy answered, “Not on any planet besides Earth, Boss Lady.”

“So all this time…” she trailed off in wonder.

He laughed, thinking of their relationship’s odd start, but then his stomach clenched and his mirth died. He clasped her hand. “Can you forgive me for taking your life all those times? I don't expect you to right away, of course. But it makes me sick with regret. I—”

She touched his face. “I could not love you if I had not forgiven you.”

“But—”

“Do anything like that again, though,” she said mischievously, “and I'll skin you alive with the Aether.”

“Jane, dear,” Frigga said, gathering everyone's attention. Darcy and Eric stepped back as the Queen glided down the steps to her. “Loki cleansed you of the Aether. It now resides in the box.”

“What?” Jane's gaze bounced between them. Then she fumbled in getting the box out of her skirt’s pocket. It fell into Frigga’s hands and Jane sighed in relief. A haunted look crossed her face, and Loki swore he would do everything in his power to mend what the Aether had done to her psyche.

“You are safe now, child.” Frigga touched her cheek, then looked at Loki, and smiled with a knowing look in her eyes.

“Why do I feel different?” she asked hesitantly.

“What do you mean?” Erik asked.

Jane looked down at herself, suddenly wary. “I don't know exactly. But it feels like strength, like possibility.”

“Magic,” Loki said.

She stared at him in question as did everyone else, except Frigga and Odin. “I got my magic back after all.”

“And you used it to cure me,” she said in understanding. “Am I feeling the remnants of it?”

He shook his head. “You are feeling all of it.”

“What?” the mortals asked in unison. Jane just continued staring at him.

“You were so close to death,” he explained, “mortal strength, even bolstered by mine, was not enough to fully save you.”

“But you did all of this to get your magic back.”

“Losing you would've been a worse fate.”

Her lips parted and he desperately wanted to kiss them again.

Darcy lifted a finger, stalling his advance on Jane. “You're telling me that you killed her three times to get your magic back, only to give it away to save her.” She shook her head as if the notion boggled her mind.

“I would've given my life if needed,” he said before taking Jane in his arms. Breathing her delicious scent in, he smiled against her neck as she giggled in delight. She was alive and she loved him.