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The Uncertainty Principle

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Most girls probably would have made an admirable attempt to rip giant holes right through reality itself if it meant they’d get to have Tony Stark all to themselves. Even though she was theoretically doing that long before he’d shown up on her doorstep, Jane had shooed him out of her laboratory space after approximately half a day anyway. She’d heard from an aghast Darcy later that he’d flown back to Los Angeles sometime in the early evening. She’d been too busy to notice. After briefly flicking to her facebook page later, Jane had to wonder why Darcy was so upset; she’d posted enough candid pictures of Stark on her wall to crash the internet several times over.

It wasn’t that the man didn’t have considerable charm. They’d only been together a matter of hours, and he’d more than lived up to his reputation. Once upon a time his easy smile and wry commentary might have left Jane as tongue-tied as had Thor’s irrepressible enthusiasm for anything and everything. But that was precisely it – he wasn’t Thor. He didn’t even come close.

Coulson had sent him over – though Tony had rolled his eyes as soon as he’d sauntered in and renamed it “a casual suggestion. And I had a couple free days, so I figured what the hell, might as well see how close I have to get to the border before the tequila starts getting good.” Jane had only just repressed an eyeroll of her own at the thought anyone could possibly believe Tony Stark ever had swathes of conveniently free time.

Despite the casual setup she hadn’t bothered to hide how much she appreciated both the thought and the gear he had brought her. While the man undoubtedly had more money than sense, saying so wasn’t much of an insult; he was both a billionaire and even by Jane’s standards the man had smarts. She’d found it very hard to equate the swaggering chameleon she’d seen on the television with the man working beside her. Within five minutes he’d had his shirt sleeves rolled up and his hair sticking wildly in all directions, half a mad scientist’s workshop in orbit around them both as he began to explain what he’d brought her. When the story of Iron Man had first broken she, Darcy and Erik had placed bets on how likely it was that Tony Stark really had created the suit himself. Any doubt she’d had had long since evaporated, even though she’d been the one to profit most out of the old bet.

But even though they’d both realised quickly enough he could best let her proceed by giving her his toys to play with and going off to get some more of his own, her heart thrummed with sudden gratitude every time she looked around her crowded lab space. While she still didn’t know how to use even a quarter of stuff he’d left her to experiment with, she’d had already incorporated bits and pieces of gifted Stark tech into her own equipment.

The Einstein-Rosen bridge was no longer a dream. And there was something far better than a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.

Though their first and only meeting had been two weeks ago, it didn’t feel much like a dream – she’d been on the phone with Tony earlier. As if her life wasn’t odd enough, she was now getting work-related calls from the man who was so down with himself he’d broken the cardinal rule of being a superhero so quickly almost nobody could remember not immediately associating Stark and Iron Man. Every call had been so conversational they might have known each other for years, and she had to think it strange that he freely admitted he didn’t think himself much use to her even before she’d explained she didn’t need to build a lot of gear.

“Like I said, I’m just trying to open the bridge from our end,” she said as Tony tilted a curious look at the latest proofs she’d forward, “because it’s the path of least resistance, yeah? We already know the Bifröst will run this way when it’s opened from Asgard. We just have to figure out a way to harness that potential from our end.”

Her current theories tended towards particle excitation while taking advantage of favourable atmospheric conditions. While no astrophysicist, Tony tended to catch on to the general gist of her theories with admirable speed; today seemed no exception. “You sound like you’re close.”

“I am.” He raised an eyebrow, looking away from her unbalanced and unfinished equations. She just barely contained a sigh. As useful as a genius engineer was, she really needed something a little stranger as a consultant. “But…I don’t know.”

“What don’t you know?”

“It’s science, but it’s not.” Lacing her fingers under her chin, she looked pensively into her computer’s mounted camera. “Thor actually said what we call science they call magic, but even with all the readings we got and what he told me…it’s just different. And he really couldn’t tell me a lot, I have to say. Magic was never his thing, apparently – he usually left it to his brother.”

“The charming one who used those little tricks to level the downtown metropolitan area?” Amusement curled about both Tony’s words and his generous lips, but Jane sensed no mockery in it. Besides, according to Darcy he’d been nothing less than his usual charismatic self the one morning he’d spent in town. He’d wandered over to the diner to pick up a couple of coffees, and apparently caused a riot – or as near to one as a person could get in a town with a population less than three thousand. Jane had been so engrossed in networking one of the Stark supercomputers to her laptop she didn’t even notice he was gone for fifty minutes rather than five. Or that he’d come back with so many napkins with phone numbers on it looked like he’d stuffed a paper mill into his pockets.

With a sigh, Jane frowned and concentrated on the present. “That’s the one,” she said, unable to repress a shudder; she could still taste the air as it had been that day, bitter as dry ice tinged with burning ozone. “It sounds stupid, I know, but…I almost wish I could talk to him. He’d know something about how to fix all this, from what Thor was saying.”

“I’m sure he probably had something to do with causing it, from what Coulson said about what happened down there,” Tony remarked, dark eyes more grave than she usually expected from him. “Just be careful, yeah?” Only then did d familiar smirk curve like a promise across his mobile features. “Because there’s a shortage of hot scientists in the world. We’ve got to stick together – the world needs our hotness, Jane. We can’t let them down now.”

Despite her increasing headache, Jane found herself grinning as she ended the call. Still, it soon faded into the silence Tony’s absence left behind. Her work called to her, waiting patiently as always. Instead she remained motionless in her chair with chin upon hand, staring out the window. The town radiated out before her view, still half-shattered from the attack a month before. Yet familiar faces remained everywhere, from streetcorners to car windows to sidewalks to shop windows. It made sense – it was not as easy to run away from a life as people sometimes thought, even when said life had been turned upside down.

“Where are you, Thor?”

No revelatory answer came. Jane hadn’t expected one; she asked the question so often that sometimes the words seemed to have no meaning, were just sound dancing upon the air. She finally turned away from the view of the street, empty now in the earliest hours of morning, and looked back to the opened notebook. She had not run away either. Even if the entire town had packed up and left, she would have stayed.

Tapping her fingers on the desk, cheek now propped on her hand, she stared at the page before her. Despite the assistance she’d been given both from SHIELD and Stark, Jane had no idea why Thor had not returned. Something must have befallen the Bifröst. Other fears lurked beneath that one, fainter but no less real for it. Perhaps he’d changed his mind about her; she had been the one to initiate their kiss. But greater than that was the memory of what his brother had done to him through the avatar that had made such short work of Sif and the Warriors Three. Even when she remembered how he had looked with Mjölnir in hand and his godhood restored to him, Jane could scarcely believe their so-called words could have ended any better.

Yet even the thought of his brother’s wrath wasn’t really what bothered her. All too well she could remember how he’d looked that night, under the stars when he’d drawn her Yggdrasil. She’d cradled the book in her hands as he’d stared at the sky. The words had come, halting at first, and then all in a flood – but while he eventually spoke easily of his home, the people he’d loved came less freely.

At first she’d thought the wound too raw, so soon after his failure to retrieve Mjölnir. Then, he’d admitted something else. The rich voice, otherwise so sure and so bold, had lowered; the blue eyes had darkened, shadows dancing a mocking quickstep across the strong lines of his face.

“He told me that our father is dead.” A deep breath, shuddering and seemingly too big even for his broad chest. “He said…that he wished I could come home. But it is impossible. I am not worthy of the throne, nor of their forgiveness. But…he came. He came, and he told me himself. For that, I will always be grateful.”

She’d laid a hand over his, murmuring meaningless agreeable syllables even as her mind rebelled against it. They’d always been so close, from what little Thor had brought himself to tell her; it seemed somehow wrong that he’d not done more for him, no matter the circumstances of Thor’s exile.

She had swallowed down on any misgivings that night, but only because he’d spoken of him with such affection. Such love. In that moment his heart had seemed as big and unreal as his world. In the end Jane thought that was why he had walked towards the Destroyer so calm, so unflinching, even after his friends had told him of all his younger brother had done in his absence. How it had been entirely possible his younger brother had been the instigator of all that had led to his exile.

“So why did you betray him?” she asked the notebook before her. She’d always been inclined to thinking aloud, whether within her lab or out under the stars. “Because you think he killed your father?” Immediately she shook her head, leaned back in her chair. “But that’s not right. Your father was never dead. Why would you lie about that? Why would you tell someone something like that?”

“He was not my father.” The voice that floated out of the darkness behind her paused, and then coiled about a rich, low chuckle. “Although I could hardly argue the point even if it had been true, considering that I committed technical patricide quite soon after myself.”

With a yelp Jane fell out of her chair, landed hard and ungraceful upon her tailbone. Without bothering to register pain she scrambled upward and braced against her desk, pens and papers scattering like the dust of a thousand nebulae.

A tall man lurked amongst the deeper shadows of her laboratory. Yet even in the darkness he seemed more real, more present for all his impossibility. Lean and watchful, her numb mind whispered of the way they said people could be hungry like the wolf. And yet despite the coiled menace of his form he remained motionless. He could have been a marble statue, but for the raven-black hair and the intense unblinking green of his eyes.

Her nails scraped against the underside the desk as her knees threatened to give way beneath the weight of that stare. Stars danced before her eyes, breath coming quick. She closed her eyes for a moment, but it didn’t help; all the darkness brought with it was the memory of Erik’s books, of the words in the old-style type emblazoned across the top of one page: Loki. God of Mischief.

When she opened her eyes, when she spoke, Jane almost didn’t recognise her own voice. The calm query of it seemed as precisely, impossibly alien as the man before her.

“Are you Thor’s brother?”

“Ah, well. It seems you were not quite listening.” He blinked only once, deliberate and disgusted. “I am not Thor’s brother, though one might suspect even now he might prefer to claim otherwise.” The accompanying twist of his lips might have been something like a smile on anyone else. “My poor, foolish Thor. That is not how it should be between us, not any longer.”

Jane’s dry mouth tasted of ozone again. And iron. She’d bitten her lip without even feeling it. “What?”

“We are not related by blood,” he said, a hint of impatience entering the melodious tone; Jane stared, a creeping horror beginning to solidify into a shape of decidedly non-Euclidian geometry.

“You lied to him? About something like that?”

It felt deeply wrong to call the sound that escaped his throat laughter; it roiled like a nest of snakes, uneasy and hissing and bloated with venom. “Ironically enough, I am not the one who originated that lie – nor did I even attempt to perpetuate it. In fact I was the one to enlighten him as to its very existence.” His head tilted to one side, skin near-luminous. “Not that he chose to believe it. Perhaps he will not believe it even when it comes to him from the lips of the Allfather himself.”

The word tasted of a thousand impossibilities. “Odin?”

“Odin,” he said, and he rolled the word upon his own tongue as if it tasted to him of bitter gall. Then, for the first time he moved; Jane started, slid sideways even as he paid her not the slightest heed. Instead he leaned forward over her desk, eyes narrowed as he examined the largest screen. Even when bathed in the blue glow of the monitor, they burned bright green. “So I see that your work continues.” He turned his head, sudden and slight, and she flinched. “Though of course I’ve been watching you for some time already.”

“I…”

“There’s no need to be shy, Ms. Foster.” Her name sat no more easily upon his lips than had that of his father, and his gaze moved now to the papers upon her desk. “I have no intention of interfering with your…admirable…progress. Quite the contrary, in fact.”

He remained silent for so long, once again still as he stared at her looping scrawl and fluid diagrams, that Jane had to break the impasse. Somehow she thought they both known its inevitability.

“Where is Thor?”

“There is no need to worry your mortal little head about his general health. I did not kill him.” Scorn coloured his words again as he looked up, straightening again to something close to his full height. “As it stands I have no particular desire to harm one precious blonde hair upon his head.”

Jane was used to being the shortest person in the room. She supposed long practise gave her the ability to raise her chin and state, “Well, given your little performance with the giant Zippo lighter action figure out there, I guess it’s not so weird I might think otherwise.”

The sharp flare of those unnatural eyes had her almost biting her tongue this time. Damn you, Tony Stark, she thought, random and almost hysterical. Two weeks in your company and I’m already mouthing off to people of unnatural power. Thanks a lot.

And yet Loki’s wrath did not materialise. Instead he narrowed his eyes again, an entomologist studying the butterfly he had sprawled and formulated upon a pin. “You do not understand.”

Her whole body shook, even with her arms crossed over her chest and her nails digging into her skin. She spoke with the level grace of a lady of war. “So enlighten me.”

The faintest hint of amusement brought vague colour to his frost-pale skin. Jane didn’t think that a good sign. “Do you not wonder why Thor has not returned to you, Ms. Foster?”

“Of course I wonder.” The conversational tone crept along her spine like the questing curiosity of a roused snake, and she shuddered. “Then I remember his brother is the so-called god of mischief and think maybe he had something to do with it.”

“And now here I stand before you.” He opened his arms to her, as if he had nothing to hide; the shadows all about him clustered closer with every word. “Oh, yes, they do call me Liesmith, but you may believe me on this much: his lack of return is not voluntary.”

“What did you do?”

He almost snorted. “He did it himself.”

“He wouldn’t have.”

“Oh, but he did.” Jane’s heart twisted, and like a Mobius strip she didn’t think it would ever lay flat even if undone – then Loki shook his head, eyes sharp with ravenous curiosity where they raked across her skin. “Although I must confess to the manufacture of certain…mitigating circumstances, shall we say?”

She spoke through numb lips. “So it was your fault.”

“How am I to deny it?” That peculiar twist moved his mouth again, as if he’d forgotten how to smile; it was accompanied by an odd flash in his eyes, a furrowing of his brows. Both vanished so quickly not sure she hadn’t imagined it. “Yes, Ms. Foster. My brother destroyed the bridge to the Bifröst, but only because I forced his hand.”

“Why would you do that?”

“You would never understand. Not that it matters. My work there remains undone, but it can wait.” Satisfaction shimmered like ice underneath his words. “When the time is right, Thor will be the one to achieve all that we were always destined to set in motion.”

And fine hairs prickled all along the back of her neck. “What?”

This time Loki ignored her, moving further down the curved collection of tables that made up her workstation to peer at another of the new holographic screens. Despite Tony’s standby offer of assistance, she hadn’t progressed very far with transferring her data to the beta system he’d set up for her to tinker with. Young as she was, Jane sometimes figured she might naturally belong to a generation long before the one she’d been born to; when it came to pouring out her initial thoughts and theories, she much preferred the simple reality of working with pen and paper over even the most technologically advanced computer systems on offer.

Loki stared at one of those systems now, dark brows furrowed though the pale face remained as difficult to read as a closed and shelved book. Yet he held himself so casually, imbued with a grace that did not make her doubt he had been raised as royalty. The fine cut of his long coat and the suit beneath flattered every long line, a sharp-dressed man who seemed utterly at odds with the shambles of her humble lab. My name is Mephistopheles, she thought, sudden, but you can call me baby.

“I didn’t expect you to look like this.” Jane’s hand covered her mouth far too late, but when Loki turned to her it was with nothing so threatening as a simple raised eyebrow.

“Then what did you expect?”

Though he spoke with a kind of urbane gentility it sounded almost to be a rhetorical question, as if any answer she could give would only be the inconsequential bleating of a mortal. That was not the only reason she didn’t reply immediately. The thought of Thor, the way he had looked in what Donald had never come by to pick up, roared to life. Even when clothed in someone else’s vague memory, Thor had been nothing if not utterly and entirely himself.

Green eyes fixed upon her, unblinking and unmoving. They brought with them the uncomfortable feeling that this creature could read her mind. A moment later, she drew a sharp breath; a shimmer overlaid his body like an echoing image. Though the suited man remained above, another vision of armour in gold, green, black flickered just underneath its surface like a double-exposure. The arching horns, moving in a graceful twinned curve from his proudly held head, stole his breath again: this was the god beneath the stupid man suit he wore so casually over it. Then it vanished, and Jane could breathe again.

“Could Thor do that?” she whispered.

“This?” Annoyance and amusement warred upon near-gaunt features, eyes flashing to match the green shimmer of fire that danced about his fingertips still. “Why should Thor wish to do such a thing? It is seid.”

Erik had taught her some Norwegian, over the years, but the word felt as unfamiliar as the god himself. “Seid?”

“Sorcery. A woman’s dominion.” His expression had become almost a sneer, eyes alighting now upon her scattered notes, the glowing screens with their mosaic diagrams and equations lighting the way to a world she knew only from a treasured diagram in a notebook. “Perhaps this accounts for his fascination with you,” he said, and his voice grew quieter still. “Perhaps I might even find this fortunate.”

Jane couldn’t be sure what that last bit meant. She wasn’t sure she wanted to; given the volume at which he’d spoken it, she suspected he hadn’t even meant her to hear it. “Is that how come you’re here when the Bifröst is broken?”

“Yes.” This time the look he condescended to give her really almost was a smile. She sincerely wished he hadn’t bothered. “And no. There are more realms than heaven and earth than any mere mortal could ever hope to dream of, no matter their philosophy, Ms. Foster.”

With that said he turned away from her. Still at the opposite end of her desk, Jane watched him continue to examine her work. After her experiences with SHEILD she felt surprised she could stand it; she’d been twitchy about that sort of thing even before they’d swooped in and swept all her research and equipment into the back of a truck. Somehow didn’t want to stop him, even as she felt the ever-present threat emanating from his lean form.

“Are you going to kill me?”

He didn’t bother to look up. “No.”

The text of Erik’s books danced before her eyes again – and he had himself so casually invoked the epithet of liesmith. Yet she believed him. It didn’t stop her asking why. “Am I so important to you then?”

He stilled, though he had not been moving much to begin with. “You have your importance to Thor.”

“You tried to kill him.”

He did not straighten, but he turned his eyes upon her and narrowed them to bare slits. “I’ve already informed you that you know nothing of what my intentions were. I suggest you don’t delude yourself into thinking you ever will. You lack the capability to understand such matters, not to mention you have other work to concentrate on.”

Jane stared, unable to speak. From what Thor had said of his brother that night they’d slept beside one another on the battered deckchairs, Loki had rarely expressed any true desire to rule himself. But he always said I was too hot-headed, and he’d shaken his head, rueful and melancholy and yet smiling still, even through his tempered misery. So I would need him, my brother, to stand always by my side and be the brains to my brawn. Alone, we were merely two halves; together, we would be the ruler that Asgard required. I think I forgot that, towards the end. He never did. Loki forgets nothing.

“So you want me to open the Einstein-Rosen bridge?” she asked finally, shallow and disbelieving. “You want me to see Thor again?”

“Hardly.” He returned to his examination of her work, so casual in its condescension. “You are unworthy of the hand of an Asgardian prince.”

That stung. Again, even though her legs were jelly that couldn’t hold her upright without hers hands clinging to the desk, Jane held her chin high and let her mouth run away with her. “It’s his choice, isn’t it?”

“In fact it is not,” he intoned carelessly, now flicking through the readings of a seismic drum with clear incredulity. “Use your lauded mortal mind, Ms. Foster – why should I wish to have you open the bridge?”

“If you’re not really his brother, then you’re no more Asgardian royalty than I am,” she snapped back. “So makes you so worthy to stand at his side?”

“Because Asgardian or not, I remain a prince.” The muttered words held deep scorn – but she felt it was not as directed at her as he wished it to appear. It gave her an odd confidence she grasped with both hands.

“What are you, then? The Prince of Lies?” She pursed her lips, stood her ground. “I can’t imagine that fairytale having a happy ending.”

“You mortals and your Midgardian tales of princes and princesses, witches and dragons,” he said, and one long finger absently traced the line of a geode upon one pile of papers before he moved it aside. “Always getting everything wrong.”

“Like the eight legged horse thing?”

Jane realised she’d actually surprised him for the first time; his eyes widened, and it seemed such a waste, over something so trivial. “Why is it, that everybody is so unable to move past the eight-legged horse?” he muttered, and then pushed aside his own question with a sharp slash of one hand. “But no matter. I lowered myself to this place for only two reasons.”

Only curiosity as to his answer allowed Jane to curb her indignant tongue this time around. She felt rather glad Tony wasn’t around to step up to the plate in her steed. “What reasons?”

“To see if his faith in you was as misplaced as I suspected.” A flash of rage twisted his face like rock under pressure, the fissures of his eyes and mouth revealing the roiling lava beneath. “For once I am gratified to be wrong.”

Jane felt so backhanded by the compliment it was as if he’d actually hit her; in order to speak, she had to catch her breath first. “And the other?”

“I wanted to meet you for myself.” The force of his contempt, even tempered as it was by the resumption of his polite façade, forced the breath out of her again as he leaned close. “This…mortal creature, who thinks herself worthy of the position of my brother’s consort.”

“He chose me!”

“Thor has not been known to make the wisest of choices.” An eerie sense of déjà vu hovered above like a sharpened sword of Damocles; that same concoction of misery and nostalgia had been upon Thor’s face when he’d spoken of Loki. Then something darker, something far more dangerous, incorporated itself and he murmured, “That is why I have been at his side from the very beginning.”

A strange dread began its genesis low in her abdomen, parasitic and ravenous, growing exponentially by the second. “As his brother,” she whispered, hating the way her voice wavered at its last syllable.

“As his better half,” he corrected, and that dread-creature bit sharp teeth into Jane’s stomach so strongly she gasped. “I may no longer be his brother, Ms. Foster. But do not doubt I will take my rightful place sooner rather than later.”

Even through the roaring in her ears her whisper sounded like a shout at the heart of the world. “You’re not making any sense.”

“I’m making perfect sense. It’s simply that I do not expect you to understand that.” Yet Jane was terribly, horribly afraid that she did. Loki’s face took on a peculiar distance, a melancholy that meant despite everything she had heard, to her horror she actually felt sorry for him.

“Thor and I have been together as long as either one of us can remember. This is but a moment, a shift in the nature of our importance to one another.” His head snapped around again, eyes dark and uncompromising. “We will be together again. I understand now what I must do, how it must be – do not doubt it, Ms. Foster, for I never will again.”

The strangeness of both his confidence and his very appearance reminded Jane of how she felt when she went three days without sleep and then wandered out onto the street in the middle of the night. The town would lie silent, the stars drifting overhead – and the world itself would seem too bright even in its darkness, as if every object was limned in unseen energy, hyper-real and ill-fitting. Yet that self-assurance was undermined by an odd vulnerability as he spoke of his brother.

Her fingers scraped on the desk, wanting to curve into fists. She wouldn’t feel sorry for him. She couldn’t. Her heart still ached from the memory of that day, her relief when the monstrous metallic creature had turned from Thor – the terror when it had spun back with one outflung arm. And now Loki stood here himself, the madness shining from his shuttered green eyes rather than the empty vessel of their father’s wrath. Loki never forgets, Thor had told her. And even though they’d known each other such a short time, Jane thought she knew the partner of that statement: Thor always forgives.

“He still loves you.” Though one eyebrow quirked upward, Loki’s sharp look passed through her like blades of ice. She pushed on regardless. “I don’t know why, but I’m sure of it. He still loves you. Don’t do this to him.”

“But I am no longer his brother.” The words floated upon the air, spoken so low as to be directed to only himself. “Without the blood connection, I’m just another hanger-on, someone of no consequence. I could be dismissed. He’d never have looked at me twice, if I hadn’t been his brother.”

Jane stared, any words of her own tangled deep in her throat. Every ounce of sense in her screamed to take the advantage, to turn tail and run. It wasn’t even the thought of the god’s sorcery that stopped her. It was the memory of his face, bathed in the light of the stars that had been her own confidants for so long.

I miss him so much already, Thor had said, trapped between incredulity and resignation. I cannot imagine it being any worse – and yet I cannot imagine it every becoming better. Will it sound so very terrible, if I say that the sorrow I bear for my father is at least an easier weight? For I already know I will never see him again. But my brother…he is still there, yet he is lost to me. They are all lost to me. But they can still be found, though I will never know the way back home to them. That’s the true agony of it.

“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” Loki whispered, and Jane started out of her memory.

“What?”

She had become dangerously used to his stillness, and knew it only when he moved towards her with the swift cold purpose of a cobra. The lean body, strong and unmoving, stopped scant centimetres from hers, hands either side of her hips. She’d barely had the time to blink. “Tell me, Ms. Foster,” he murmured, eyes searching and voice low, “how does my brother taste?”

Jane’s silence gained her nothing, but her heart had lodged itself in her throat and hurt so badly she thought she’d never speak again.

“No answer?” He was so close she could feel the reverberation of his chuckle deep in his chest; a moment later she wondered why she couldn’t hear his heart. “Well, perhaps I can still taste him upon you, then.”

His lips crushed down upon hers. At first the simple shock of it held her still. Then, objective observation kicked in; she had been born and raised a scientist, and she could conclude brute force would get her nowhere. While Loki lacked his brother’s muscle she could feel the whip-corded strength of the body pressing against hers. More than that, this close she could feel what she supposed was his sorcery, running beneath his skin like river configured in the shape of an ouroboros.

She had felt nothing of that from Thor. Even in execution, the kiss reminded her little of his brother. After his initial shock, Thor had swiftly given way to the unbridled enthusiasm that he’d had for everything. From the beginning she’d known him to be a man who lived life to its fullest simply because it was there to be lived. Loki could not be more different. Everything about his embrace felt probing, curious – and he made nothing about it gentle. He’d wanted his answer and he was taking it the way human scientists took knowledge from their experimental animal subjects.

With no chance to retaliate Jane forced herself to relax, to let him push her back. Even with that concession her breathing didn’t ease, and not just because of the kiss; his weight leaned heavy upon her as he sought ever deeper. Jane had no idea what he was looking for, but knew his concentration had wandered elsewhere. Letting her left hand move to the side, she gave a mental grimace; she was right-handed, but it would have to do. Then he pulled back, leaving mere inches between them, eyes dancing like the light-hearted song of a mockingbird.

“You enjoy this,” he said, something very much like childish wonder in his voice. Then its register dropped again, his eyes darkening into something that tasted very much like hate. “Whore.”

Jane didn’t think. She picked up the geode that doubled as a paperweight and slammed it into the side of his head. Loki reared back and she could breathe again; but even as she gasped, the small of her back still pressed painfully against the lip of the desk, she knew she had lost more than she’d won when he looked up and she saw no blood. She hadn’t even bruised the bastard.

“Ah, so there is something of the warrior even in you, perhaps.” Fingertips fluttered over his temple, and the briefest of bright grins flashed across his face as he actually laughed. “He likes that, of course. But I do have to tell you, Ms. Foster, that that didn’t hurt one little bit!”

“So kill me, then,” she gasped, somehow more disturbed by that fleeting smile than his words. That was the Loki that Thor loves, she thought as she remembered again his softly spoken memories, the easy smile, and laughter like blue sky rain – cool and bright and utterly and completely out of place.

“Kill you? Now why would I be so very wasteful?” His disdain was such that she almost expected him to tsk in the fashion of a disgusted mother. “Do remember that you have your uses.”

Though a physical scientist rather than biological, Jane knew the life and times of an experimental animal; she knew that they would be put down when their use was at an end. One hand rose to her lips, found the taste of him still there: cold and mineral-rich, like frozen springwater. Loki followed her movement, eyes widening with the faintest hint of mockery.

“You humans have…an interesting taste, I will admit.” One long-fingered hand moved in dismissal. “But allow me to give you a metaphor – you are sudden and sweet and cloying, like a cheap meal bought on a whim from one of your drive-through shacks.

“I, on the other hand, am crafted individually by the skilled hands of an artisan. A true flavour, one prepared especially for the palate of a single guest.” He raised an eyebrow. “How could you ever hope to compete with that?”

Compete?”

“Allow me to offer you some advice, Ms. Foster,” he stated, though she suspected he needed her allowance for nothing. “Remember that you are and always will be nothing more than mortal. My brother is divine.” And the god of mischief smiled broadly with his jealous green eyes rather than his lying mouth. “And he is mine.”

The challenge left her lips before she even considered its inherent foolishness. “He’s not your brother.”

“Hence the need for a little change in our circumstances, yes?” he said, and Jane wished she’d said nothing at all when his lips curved with the certainty of pure playful delusion. “I will be his equal – and that is something you can never be.”

“You can’t—”

“I think you’ll find not only that I can, but that I will.”

Gall burned her throat. “Thor wouldn’t.”

He laughed, and in that low, pulsing sound she heard the words he did not need to speak aloud: I’ve known him my whole Asgardian life; you knew him perhaps three mortal days. Can you be so sure? When he did speak, his voice resonated with the confidence of that undeniable truth. “Your work has its uses, Ms. Foster. As do you.” He gave a little sardonic nod towards the screens. “So carry on, then.”

“What?”

Loki reached over. Jane flinched. But he reached past her without once deigning to touch her, taking up one of her scattered mechanical pencils. Then his gaze fell upon the notebook, and Thor’s Yggdrasil diagram. Jane flinched again; she could see no reason why he would chose not to destroy this gift his brother had given her.

His quick movements, deft and economical, criss-crossed the beloved page. At their conclusion he tossed the pencil aside and turned back with a dark grin that curved like the illusion of the helmet she had seen upon his head. The bow he dipped her swept disdainful and low.

“I do look forward to seeing the result of your labours.”

Though she did not see him anywhere near the door, a moment after he had turned he had gone. Again she tasted ozone, the cold blue light of the screens like ice upon her skin.

Then she reached for the notebook: her own renderings of the planets, Thor’s world tree, and beneath both now Loki’s own coda. The neat writing flowed across the base, spouting new growth just above its roots. Its meaning did not strike her as immediately obvious. But she had no doubt the tangle of words and numbers would offer a breakthrough in the practical application of her own theories.

Braced against the desk, Jane closed her eyes and finally gave in to the demand of her exhausted body. As she sank to the floor she remembered with painful clarity the easy affection of a golden smile. Now it lay under the shadow of the dark curve of another’s lips. Even as her hand reached upwards for the warm familiarity of a four-colour pen, Jane wondered if creating the bridge was something she should still be doing given what she had since discovered.

She opened her eyes. Then, with her back against her desk drawers and her notebook balanced upon her knees, Jane began to write. She would not run away. Not when she had something to run to. Not when there was still so much more left to know.