Chapter 1: Chapter One
This fic is an exploration of the dark what-if? of the Avengers. What if, instead of coming together and kicking ass, the team found themselves hunted down and on the run? The first inspiration for this story originated in the Thor universe, since I like Jane Foster and the Thor dynamic. I don't know where Jane will end up, as Thor is one of those fandoms where I like heroine/hero and heroine/villain with equal preference. I hope you enjoy the story!
When Thor disappeared from Earth (Midgard, she supposed it was, too) Jane Foster threw herself back into her work. Every night, she tracked down the pressure differentials that heralded an approaching storm and recorded the night skies underneath them, hoping and praying that the strange constellations that had attracted her to the phenomena would reappear.
They did not.
Darcy stayed with her until the end of the summer, driving the van while she recorded, measured, and photographed. While she continued to complain bitterly about the safety of driving a van into the whirling heart of a storm, she never refused to come with Jane, nor did she go to bed early when Jane stayed awake, developing and analyzing the masses of information taken from these storms.
SHIELD had been surprisingly helpful as well, offering equipment (even some spectrometers that Jane hadn’t known to be in existence), vehicles, and extra research personnel. She refused. Not that she carried a grudge, but she didn’t trust them. Even Agent Coulson showed a squirrely kind of urgency in her presence. They wanted Thor back just as badly as she did, but Jane knew that they didn’t want him back for the same reasons.
Something bad was either on its way, or coming soon.
She couldn’t think about that. She just wanted him back…whatever had sparked between them during the three days they had spent together, she didn’t feel whole without it, and she wanted it back. Sometimes it felt as though she were crawling around under her own skin, searching for something that should have been there, but wasn’t.
She wondered if he felt the same. She alternately hoped that he did, and hoped that he didn’t. If she was this miserable, it was hardly fair to hope that someone else was too. Then again…
She tried not to think about it.
Three months went by, and eventually Jane conceded defeat…sort of. She turned her concentration on the Einstein-Rosen Bridge. If the bridge was not going to open from Asgard on its own, then she would find a way to open it. Her theoretical models grew to frightening levels of perplexity—even Erik had to shake his head after a while and leave her to her speculations—but no matter how she tried to make it work, she was short one massive power source.
Theoretically though, her pathways were a beautiful quantum roadmap to the stars. The information Thor had given her, anecdotal as it was, had pushed her mind onto entirely new pathways, and with entirely different premises about the nature of energy and the universe, she had come to some impressive conclusions.
SHIELD agreed with her. One month after she started her theoretical research, she got a call from the infamous Tony Stark, who was apparently also affiliated with SHIELD, and he brought her to New York City, where SHIELD finally introduced her to the Cosmic Cube, the strange item that had stolen Erik from her for so many weeks during the past four months.
Jane forgot to be angry with him in her fascination over the Cube. It took her 48 hours to read through all the accumulated research that SHIELD gave her access to, and on the morning of day three she marched into the lab, flashing her newly-laminated ID card, and told everyone to stand back.
This was the key. This was the energy source and the manipulation potential both. Jane took measures and consulted with Tony—the Cube’s foremost specialist, despite Erik’s important contributions—and laid a proposal in front of Nick Fury one week later.
When the notoriously difficult-to-please SHIELD headman okayed her project, Jane felt another thrum of worry. After four months of being left on her own, out of the loop, away from the tremendous discover that the Cube represented…
Something big was happening. They would never have brought her in otherwise.
The night before the activation of the portal, Jane did not sleep. She wandered down to the lounge, which was always open, and found Tony Stark and Pepper Potts curled into each other on one of the wrap-around sofas that overlooked the city’s gleaming skyline. They separated when she entered—Pepper tightening her neat bun, Tony fumbling with the buttons on his shirt—and Jane felt her worry fade as her heart gave a knifelike expansion, gutting her with its sudden movement.
She wanted him back. Nothing else mattered.
Which was why, when morning dawned and black-suited agents that she had never seen before came to collect her and transport her out of the city, she screamed and lashed out and swore like she never had in her life before.
When she saw Erik waiting for her on the runway next to a nondescript private jet, she spat vitriol with all the strength she could muster and almost took out one of his eyes with a swiping fist.
Afterwards, she would look back on those passionate hours and wonder if she had ever felt so strongly about anything in her life before. She would wonder how such words came to her lips, how she could have behaved so to someone who had done nothing but love her damn near all her life.
Then she thought of Thor and their almost-had, their never-was, and she did not wonder anymore.
When he landed on the planet, drawn down the pathway opened by her research, she was not there. She knew that he had arrived, but had no idea if SHIELD had told him of her existence. She wondered if he thought of her, or if the threat that suddenly crashed down on them all had wiped her from his mind.
The thought of intergalactic war terrified her. Every morning when she woke up, she stared at the concrete wall of her room in the SHIELD compound in Uppsala, Sweden, and felt a dull blankness settle over her, blunting all emotions except fear.
That fear made her hands tremble when she washed her hair in the shower, made her feet uncertain when she trudged to the research laboratory to study the temporal holes ripped in the fabric of her world by the portals opening all over the planet, and made her heart lurch and stutter in her chest as she watched the media reports of the strange worldwide events.
Jane Foster was afraid. But what made it even worse was not knowing if he even thought about her, if he feared for her safety, if he had asked to see her…or not.
They did not tell her. She did not ask.
At the start of the Avengers War—which was what the newsrooms had started to call it, before they all went dark—Jane Foster merely continued the research she and Erik had been assigned. They could not fight, but they could try and help the Avengers (help Thor, her mind insisted) by finding predictors that could keep them from being outflanked by Loki’s movements.
Eventually, despite Erik’s less-than-enthusiastic nature, Jane did manage to find certain anomalies—in atmospheric pressure, go figure—that appeared every time Loki was about to launch a magically-dependent assault.
She did not know if Thor knew of her contribution, if he knew that she had helped turn the tide of their battle…she hoped he did. She couldn’t fire arrows, or fly, or turn into a green rage monster (oh, Tony) but she could help him fight.
But two weeks after her discovery, none of it mattered.
Because Loki won.
Stockholm was far enough away from Uppsala to be a decent hiding spot. The Swedish government had surrendered early to Loki after the breaking of the Avengers Initiative, and even though Jane knew that he had issued orders that any members of the SHIELD research facility were to be turned over to him, she did not think they would find her.
The two SHIELD agents who had stayed behind when the evacuation command had been given must have done their jobs and wiped all computer records, because to Jane’s knowledge, no warrants had been issued for her, Erik, or any of the other researchers or security on staff.
Jane stuffed her chilly fingers into the pocket of her gray jacket and walked faster. She wondered what had happened to those agents—just as she wondered what had happened to Tony, and Pepper, and Steve Rogers, and Clint BartonNickFuryNatashaDarcyandThor, Thor, Thor—but she stopped herself.
There was no use in wondering. There was nothing she could do.
She ran up the four flights of stairs to the apartment she shared with Erik. Everyone around them seemed to share the tacit assumption that the two of them were in some sort of illicit relationship—the older Swedish man and the young American—but no one asked any questions.
No one seemed to be curious anymore. Everyone seemed to be waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the war still raging in other countries on the planet to be over, and for someone to tell them that it was okay to think and feel again. The prevailing opinion in Sweden seemed to be that it didn’t matter who won…just as long as stability could reappear.
Jane thought sometimes that she might hate everyone in Sweden. And Finland, and India, and all the countries in Africa, and Argentina, Brazil…she couldn’t even remember all the countries that had surrendered thus far. She hated them all.
She slammed the door behind her and dropped her backpack onto the kitchen table with a thud. Erik didn’t even turn his head; he was used to her moods. Besides, he was busy listening to the one radio station (government run, overseen by the Kree-Skrull enforcers Loki had deployed in every conquered nation) still left in existence.
Jane still did not speak Swedish beyond the basics, but she didn’t need to; she heard the announcer’s timid, warbling voice and knew that he was spewing the same garbage that he had been for the past six weeks. Loki would bring the war to a swift close and bring the peace and strong rule that everyone on Midgard required….blah, blah, blah.
“I don’t know how you can listen to that crap,” she gritted out, yanking the zippers on her bag open and starting to unload the groceries. “It’s the same old stuff.”
Erik did not answer. Jane shrugged her shoulders and plopped the canned fish and soup onto the pantry shelves. This last run had taken nearly all their savings—inflation was through the roof and most of the neighboring countries were embroiled in fighting and not able to think about exporting—and she had no idea what they would do when this two-week supply ran out.
The possibility of starving to death no longer made her afraid. It pissed her the hell off.
She picked up a can of herring and hurled it at the radio. It spat sparks and lurched sideways off the coffee table.
Erik did not answer. He did not even move. Jane’s rage faded as concern rushed to take its place. Running to the living room, she grasped her old friend by his shoulders and gave him a gentle shake.
“Erik?” she murmured, trying to catch his eyes, “can you hear me?”
It was like talking to a puppet. His head rolled gently on his shoulders when she moved him, but his eyes remained focused on some sort of middle-distance, not registering anything, and not blinking, even when she snapped her fingers. Jane started to panic; she didn’t speak Swedish…how could she call an ambulance?
As she turned to go for the phone, she felt fingers close around her wrist, and nearly screamed.
“I’m all right, Jane,” the words were precise, almost annoyed.
“You were not!” she insisted, closing her hand over his fingers, “I came in, and you didn’t say a word, and you wouldn’t look at me even when I was—”
“I am fine.” Each word was as precise as a note on a scale. He stared at her, the corners of his lips turned down in an expression of disapproval she could never remember seeing from him.
Jane let out a shaky breath and collapsed onto the sofa next to him. “I’m sorry,” she said, burying her face in her hands, “it’s just,” she breathed again and tried to get a hold of her riotous emotions, “we’re out of money and running out of food, and I have no idea where anyone is and you’re not talking to me! And we can’t get information about how…how anyone’s doing because of this stupid government administered stuff!”
Erik did not answer. Jane grasped one of his hands in both her own, seeing streaks of her tears drying on the wrinkled skin of his wrist and she went on, “Why can’t we try to get over the border? We could go west, head towards Oslo—Norway hasn’t surrendered yet!—and then we could try and join up with…with everyone else. We could help them!”
“Jane,” his voice was flat, reproving, “there’s no getting out of this. We would never make it across the border; the Kree-Skrull are everywhere.”
She drew back, slowing drawing her hands away from him. “You don’t even want to try?” she asked, quietly. “You just want to sit here and eat soup and listen to the radio and wait for our world to end?”
He didn’t even flinch. “There’s no sense in trying. We’d both get killed.”
Jane stood up, feeling as though she were standing in front of a stranger. Those eyes were not Erik’s eyes. She had no idea where he had gone—who was she to judge how someone dealt with these crazy circumstances?—but she could not stay here.
“I have to try.”
The expression on Erik’s face hardened suddenly, and turned sharp. She felt as though he were actually looking at her, as he had not looked at anything for the last few months, but rather than feeling relieved at his sudden awareness, she felt a sudden lance of panic.
Her lips twitched, but other than that, she kept still. She spoke quietly.
“I won’t take much of the food; just enough to make it to the border crossing,” she backed off towards the kitchen and started to put some of the cans back into her bag, “and you can keep all the money. Somehow I don’t think those monsters will accept bribes.”
Her not-joke made no impression. Erik’s eyes stayed with her, sharp and calculating. Her stomach felt full of lead. How had she not noticed that she was living with a stranger?
“I’ll leave tomorrow morning,” she finished, zipping up the bag and leaving it on the floor next to the kitchen counter, “so if you change your mind, you can come with me.”
He said nothing. She walked past him and had to fight her gut instinct to keep her eyes on him at all times. It was only when she shut her bedroom door behind her that she felt the cold sweat of horror break out over her forehead, and she pressed her shaking fingers to her mouth to keep from screaming.
That night, like many others before, was spent in sleepless restlessness. Jane moved quietly around the room, packing her warmest, smallest clothes—two outfits was the most she wanted to bring—as well as rolling her printouts of research into tight tubes and packing the bottom of her bag with them. She made two electronic copies of her hard drive and secreted one in the most unnoticeable pocket on her backpack, and hung the other USB drive on a chain around her neck.
The rest of the night, she spent studying maps of the possible areas she might try to cross the border. Internet communication had been down since the surrender, but there were a few old almanacs left in the apartment by the previous tenant, and Jane traced the faded pictures with her finger, committing the strange names of the towns and hamlets on either side of the crossing to memory.
Not once did she discern a noise from the other side of the door. Not a sigh, a snore, a footfall, or a door closing. For all she knew, Erik was still sitting on the couch like a puppet without its master, staring at a radio that was long silent. Jane shivered.
When dawn finally peeked around the blackout curtains in her window, she shouldered her bag and eased the door open, breathing a silent sigh of relief when she did not see Erik in the living room, or the kitchen beyond. His bedroom door was shut, and she considered knocking…but no. Whatever had happened to him, this Erik was not the one she loved and depended on. Until he was that way again, she could not trust him.
Her feet were silent as she crossed the apartment. Everyone had learned how to walk silently over the last few weeks, but if Jane had not been so focused on her feet, she might have been able to grapple with the shape that lunged at her from behind the kitchen counter and clapped a cloyingly-sweet rag over her mouth.
Her vision tunneled and went dark, but what frightened her most was the voice that was at the same time Erik’s and not Erik’s, hissing at her:
“Oh, no, darling. You’ll not go running back to him.”
Jane’s memory of the trip was a haze of fuzzy images punctuated by jabs from a needle.
She saw the inside of a ship, but not the kind of ship she knew; one that was piloted by the nightmare Skrull who hissed and chattered at each other as they walked deftly between the consoles. As soon as she opened her parched mouth to scream, Erik’s hand was pressing down on her arm with enough pressure to bruise bone, and her vision went dark.
Then she was on a boat—a small one, for she felt the spray from the ocean—and she had enough time to sit up, though her stomach heaved as she did it. Jane thought she was going mad, for there, right above her, was the golden torch of the Statue of Liberty. The torch was there, while the head was nothing more than a crumpled, smoking ruin. She gasped and felt a wrenching in her heart. The pain in her chest drowned out the one in her elbow as someone drugged her again.
The third time she woke, Jane did not stop to take stock of her surroundings. She launched herself upright from the medical gurney—they had not strapped her down—and scattered nurses right and left as she bolted through the open doorway, her IV ripping a bloody line down the crux of her elbow and the back of her hand as she ran.
Her legs were so weak that she was not really running; she was simply delaying her fall. Eventually, her own exhaustion caught up with her and she crashed to her knees, and the doctors were able to drag her backwards without too much resistance; she could not even yell for help.
Back on the bed, looking at the faces around her, she realized that yelling would do no good. These people were human, but what deals they had made with Loki she could not know. She only knew that they looked at her with eyes that were stripped of emotion.
Jane couldn’t help herself; she was too frightened to be angry.
“Please,” she whispered, as the needle came down once more, “please.”
They did not say a word.
Her eyes fluttered open.
She was lying on a white sectional sofa, her head propped up on one of the armrests, and there was light coming through the windows. It was a gray light—pale, as though the sun had abandoned all efforts to get through the cloud cover. It was February, but she was not cold, even though she wore only a t-shirt and some cotton pants; this place, unlike all the others she had found herself in since the start of the war, clearly had enough money to be adequately heated.
Jane blinked, and shifted, trying to take discreet account of her body.
Her arm hurt, and a glance from the corner of her eye showed a thick bandage wrapped around her palm and one around her elbow. Otherwise, from her toes to the top of her head, she felt all right. There were a few bruises here and there, and her knees were sore, but she felt all right. She must not have been unconscious for too long…but then, how long does it take to travel from Stockholm to New York?
She sat up, slowly. The sedatives in her system made for a slightly woozy feeling behind her eyes, and her stomach warned her not to try running again, but her feet had enough strength to flex underneath her and get her upright.
Jane looked around the room and wondered at her overwhelming sense of déjà-vu.
Kidnapped, dragged halfway across the world…and here she was, in Tony Stark’s penthouse lounge! There was the dartboard where Clint had beaten them hollow, even after four shots…and the bar where Tony had insisted on juggling bottles of vodka until they all shattered…and the pool table, where she and Erik had talked string theory until the wee hours…and the sofa—she turned around and stared at it—where Pepper and Tony had cuddled and made her weep with jealousy.
That unbelievable bastard.
Her anger threatened to swamp her; her stomach roiled and her feet fumbled for purchase as her vision blurred with fury, but she hugged it to her. For whatever reason, she had been brought here, to the epicenter of the conflict, and whatever lay ahead, she would need all her anger to get her through.
“May I offer you a drink, Miss Foster?”
Damn her, but she flinched at the sound of that smooth voice. How many times had she heard it, flowing from that eerily beautiful face broadcast on TV, and felt sick with hatred or sorrow as she listened to its lies about truces and peace and then watched her world blown apart?
Loki. She turned, and raised her eyes.
He stood by the bar, at ease in a high collared dark green tunic and black pants. Runes stitched in silver ran around the collar and in two columns down the front of his shirt, and Jane picked out meanings here and there—spells of protection and summoning, mostly—before she looked up and met his eyes.
The even tone of her voice shocked her, but she noticed that his eyes widened momentarily as well. Clearly, she wasn’t just astonishing herself; but she kept her smile of triumph on the inside.
Suck on that, creep.
His expression of surprise vanished in an instant, and he inclined his head towards her in a mocking half-bow.
“As my lady wishes,” he said, and summoned an emerald-studded silver goblet out of empty air, offering it to her. His still posture told her that he had no intention of being enough of a gentleman to carry it to her; if she wanted it—and her body screamed for hydration—she would have to go to him.
Jane had no experience dealing with warlords. Or villains. Or psychopathic madmen. But she had the distinct sense that playing along would probably be safer all around. Her sore knees creaked as she moved, and she reached out with her right hand before remembering it was bandaged. The goblet was too heavy for the injured arm, and she grabbed at it with her left hand, a quiet “ow” escaping her mouth before she steadied the cup.
She took a deep swig of the water before forcing herself to lower the cup and breathe deeply. Drinking too fast after dehydrating would give her indigestion, or worse…she counted fifteen before raising the goblet again and taking two shorter pulls of water. Between her lashes, she could see Loki’s vibrant green eyes studying her actions, and almost choked on her swallow.
She breathed again, and set the goblet down. There was a long moment of silence.
“Thank you,” she said. The words were reflexive, not heartfelt, and she stepped backwards, placing another two paces between herself and his stolid countenance. Her eyes dropped to the carpet, and she focused on trying to sort out her riot of emotions.
“Look at me,” the command was soft, but no less a command for that. She almost felt the strands of magical influence he was rumored to wield plucking at her skin, wheedling her to do as he said.
She felt her heart beat sharply, twice. She took a quick breath.
The silence was awful; she waited through it, somehow not caring if he killed her, because if she were here, then her life was done anyway…
“Miss Foster,” the smooth voice was rough now around the edges, and she gritted her teeth and kept her knees from shaking, “look at me.”
She bit the inside of her lip; her knees were shaking now. “No.”
He lunged forward, faster than she could react, and her chin was between his long fingers, biting bruises through the tender flesh. Her eyes met his, brown against the green, and she felt his power tearing through the borders of her mind, ripping through memories as easy as he might tear the physical neural tissue.
Images passed before her eyes as he dragged them up: her hands, soldering a piece of equipment, Erik’s face, smiling at her, Darcy sticking her tongue out behind her iPhone, Thor smiling, Thor laying his coat over her, the night sky and Thor’s hands, sketching the branches of the World Tree…
Jane yelled, both her hands coming up to push his forearms away from her, and she lurched backwards, breaking the connection between the two of them.
“Those are mine,” she gasped, left arm grabbing at a barstool to keep herself upright, “how dare you?”
He laughed. It turned her stomach, the callous cruelty of the sound, the high pitch, the edge of hysteria that danced the periphery.
“How dare I?” He asked her, parroting her words in her breathy, offended tone, “Why should I not? You,” he snarled, the mirth of his voice turning instantly to disgust and malice, “are nothing. Your kind used to worship me as a god. Gods owe their supplicants no explanations.”
Jane stared at him, anger rising to meet his. “You aren’t a god. You’re just a pathetic little boy, lashing out at everyone that never did you any harm. An entire race that never did anything to hurt you. Your brother, when all he did was love you—”
His hand rose, and she felt the impact of the slap even though he did not touch her. Her head whipped to one side and her skin burned.
“You know nothing of me. Or of Thor. Or of anything beyond your pathetic store of mortal knowledge.” He drew closer to her, and she could not move, even when he laid his cold palm over her lips. “You know nothing,” his voice was soft, though his eyes were deadly, “so you should say nothing.”
And when he took his hand away, Jane found that she could say nothing. She opened her mouth and tried to speak, and then tried to scream, but not the slightest whisper came out. She touched her throat and could not even feel her vocal chords responding; he had paralyzed them. She looked up at him and bared her teeth in an animal snarl.
“Yes,” he nodded in satisfaction, “until you can learn to speak with humility and respect, I think you will stay silent. Now,” he smiled, the grin nearly splitting his face in two, “isn’t this a pleasant scene? A beneficent ruler and a…properly discreet supplicant, sharing a friendly drink in comfortable surroundings. Don’t you agree, Jane?”
Though she had no idea whether he would understand the gesture, Jane flipped him off.
He laughed again, but the sound was not so urgent as before. It was lazy, mocking.
“I must say, I had expected more of the erudite Miss Jane Foster. Everyone I have spoken to thus far has nothing but the highest praise for you. And your mentor, Erik Selvig…” he sighed, shaking his head, “he thought the world of you.”
At the mention of Erik, Jane flipped him off with both hands.
Loki stopped smiling. “Do that again, and I will cut those fingers off.”
Angry as she was, she did not doubt his word. She closed her hands into fists and ground her nails into her palms. He picked up where he had left off.
“Yes indeed, everyone has the highest opinion of you, Jane,” he took his glass of wine and sat on the sofa, staring at her still where she stood next to the bar, “the man of iron, his little redheaded lover, the archer, and the assassin…once the screaming stopped, that is, they all had nothing but good things to say of you.”
Jane did not look at him. She closed her eyes, feeling as though she might faint, throw up, or both. Tony…Pepper…Clint…Natasha…oh God, half of the Avengers! It couldn’t be true, she thought quickly, he was just saying it to throw her off, to get what he needed from her. She had to be tough; she had to hang in there. She opened her eyes and faced him, doing her best to keep her face nonchalant.
She lifted one shoulder in a so what? gesture.
He laughed again, the sound now full of genuine amusement.
“You know, I didn’t think you’d be worth keeping around, Jane Foster,” he said, eyes sparkling—Jane was struck by how truly happy he seemed—and grin boyish, “not after I’d used you as bait for Thor, that is. But now,” he stood and took her face in his two hands again, “I think I may have to keep you. You have no idea how quickly one can get bored with peons.”
Lost fingers or not, Jane struggled to get away from him. But his hands merely slid from her face to her shoulders, and her body froze in place. She bit the inside of her lip to get some control; if he tried to invade her mind again, she would have to beat him back, somehow. He could not ransack her memories like this…they were hers, they were all she had left of the world he’d destroyed…she would not let him do it.
But that was not his intention this time. He only studied her face, taking in every feature; then patted her shoulder with one hand and broke the holding enchantment. Jane stumbled two steps backwards and almost fell; this time, it was her weak right arm that stopped her. Though her cry made no sound, he still saw the expression of pain.
He snapped his fingers, and two Skrulls entered the room. He motioned with his head and they crossed the space to take each one of Jane’s arms.
“Take her back to the doctors and have them do something about that arm. Then take her to her room.”
They started to drag Jane away—she could no more resist them than a rag doll—but Loki’s voice stopped them once more.
She turned, and stared at him.
“I think next time I will let you speak. But do remember what I said about respect and humility, hmm?”
She clenched her fists, took a deep breath, and gave a sharp nod.
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
The two Skrulls walked Jane down the corridor after a trip to the doctors for some Percocet for her aching arm, frog-marching her at a pace just beyond the natural stretch of her legs. She clamped down on her pain and clutched at the bottle of pills in her hand, willing herself to focus on her feet and the hard edges of the plastic and not the warm trickle of blood she could feel emerging from under the edges of her bandages.
What was the point, she thought sourly, of taking her to the doctors to fix her arm only to rip it open again?
She would have raised the point, if she could have spoken. Then again, she was almost positive that, whether the subject of Loki's orders—and apparent care—or not, they would not mind hurting her in the slightest. After some of the news reports she'd seen, she was certain that they could snap her neck and leave her dead in the hallway if she so much as looked at them the wrong way.
Maybe it was better that she couldn't speak. Although even considering the idea that Loki might have done her a favor by taking her voice away was enough to make her give herself a swift mental kick.
Jane had completely lost track of what level of the tower they were in, but she could not recall seeing these doors before. Eventually, they brought her to the last room on the left, unlocked it, and tossed her inside. Jane barely had time to regain her feet and turn around before the door shut and locked soundly behind her.
She gripped her arm and winced as she saw the blood running down her forearm. It would be another few minutes before the medication could conceivably kick in; she would have to tough it out.
The thin voice, coming from the corner of the small room, made her jump. She whipped around, and saw a disheveled red head of hair sticking up from behind a camp cot. Her mouth dropped open, and she mouthed,
"Oh, Jane," the usually manicured secretary climbed to her feet and rushed out from her hiding spot, "are you all right?"
Jane let the other woman fold her arms around her, and felt tears pricking hot at the corners of her eyes. She hadn't been hugged…oh, she probably hadn't been hugged since Darcy embraced her at the end of the summer—"so long, it's been…something"—and sped off towards her senior year at New Mexico State. She brought her arms up to grip the rough material of Pepper's shirt, and shook her head, silent sobs jerking her lungs and shoulders.
"Oh, you're bleeding," the other woman moved swiftly, pulling the pillowcase off her pillow and leading Jane to sit down at the edge of the bed. "Let me take a look."
Pepper deftly unwrapped the medical gauze and gasped at the bloody gashes in Jane's elbow. "What on earth happened to you?" she asked, tearing the flimsy material of the pillowcase along the seam.
Jane opened her mouth, and closed it. She let out a silent sigh of frustration and motioned to her throat with her left hand, shaking her head. Pepper's forehead scrunched in confusion.
"You can't speak?"
Jane nodded. Pepper sighed, and wrapped the torn and folded material securely around Jane's arm, tucking the edges in tightly. Once she was satisfied that the wound was covered, she reached into the drawer of the night table next to the cot and fished out a paperback book and a golf pencil, its tip blunt and almost nonexistent.
"I'm sorry," she opened the book to the blank end page and gave Jane the pencil, "it's the best I can do. I think they swept the room for anything that could be used as a weapon; no pens, no light bulbs, and except for the beds, nothing metallic…believe me," she shook her head, "I've looked. That was wedged behind the headboard, so I think they missed it."
Jane scribbled, Loki's spell, can't speak. What's happening?
Pepper read her words and scowled. "That asshole."
Jane cocked her head and gave the woman a thumb's up. She didn't think she'd ever heard the other woman swear before…an impressive feat, given the fact that she was responsible for looking after Tony Stark. A weak smile teased the corners of her lips.
"Well, he is," Pepper gave her an answering smile before going on, "well, you've missed a lot. This may take a while."
The physicist looked around and gave an exaggerated shrug: what else is there to do?
Pepper was pretty good at reading lips, it turned out, because she laughed bitterly and said, "You're right. All right; you know that it was almost right after Thor came back to Earth that we suffered the first major assault; Natasha went missing and we had to leave New York after a week so that it wouldn't sustain any more damage.
"We evacuated to a SHIELD safe house in Berkley, near where Dr. Banner did most of his original gamma research, and regrouped. For the next few weeks, there were skirmishes in major cities all over the country; it seemed as though Loki were trying to test the strengths of each individual team member, because the type and intensity of the attacks was never the same.
"Natasha resurfaced in New Mexico, and Clint went after her…" for the first time in her grim recital, Pepper's voice faltered, "Tony told him it was a bad idea, but he was determined to go…" she was silent for a moment, then gave a shaky sigh and went on, "and that was the last we saw of Clint."
Jane squeezed one of Pepper's closed fists with her good left hand, trying to give her strength.
"Tony went after him, along with Steve and Thor," Jane's hand flinched and she struggled to rein in the wild beating of her heart. Pepper gasped, "I should have told you at the start! Jane, as far as I know—although I've been a prisoner for three weeks now—he's okay."
It was Jane's turn to give a shaky sigh. She nodded: go on.
"Anyway, they went after him, but they didn't find him. And…at the same time, Skrulls hit our compound in Berkley. That was when they got me, although I don't know if they managed to get anyone else. I didn't see anyone else, either on the transport ship, or since I've been here."
Jane scribbled, "Is that all you know?"
The other woman nodded. "That's pretty much it. Since they put me in this room, I haven't gotten out, and no one except the guards have come in to give me food."
"No, thank God," Pepper ground out, "I don't think I'd be able to keep myself from going for him. I don't even know why he wanted me captured; but I don't think it was a random event. But nothing's happened…that I know of, at least."
Jane smiled again. Something about no longer being alone was helping her regain her courage. But her smile faded as she remembered something Loki had said during their nightmare conversation:
The man of iron…once the screaming stopped, that is, they all had nothing but good things to say of you…
Loki had Tony…and Pepper didn't know. Jane broke out in a cold sweat, and her hands shook.
"Are you all right?" Pepper's hand moved to her forehead, "You look terrible! Is it your arm, because I have some water, you could take another pill…"
Jane shook her head, mind racing. Should she tell her? After all, it was clear that Loki had lied about torturing Pepper, and from the sound of it, he'd never even spoken to her—so it was possible that Tony was fine and still fighting with the other Avengers.
Then again…she would not have thanked Pepper for hiding the truth about Thor from her—whatever the truth might have been.
She wrote, "I think Tony's been captured."
It was Pepper's turn to shake. Her voice was a thin wisp as she said, "How do you know?"
"He might be lying, but Loki mentioned that he had you, Clint, Natasha, and Tony as prisoners."
"Oh, God," Pepper gasped, "What else did he say?"
Jane would have given anything not to think for one more moment about the conversation between herself and the mad god. She skimmed over the more terrifying moments—her most precious memories littered before her like so much refuse, his long fingers bruising her jaw, that unhinged laughter, I will cut those fingers off—and tried to dredge up the important parts.
"Only that he was going to use me as bait for Thor. Seems like it worked for Clint, and maybe Tony."
Pepper moaned, burying her face in her hands. "That's why he took me," she cried, tears blurring the edges of her words, "oh Tony…" she trailed off, and Jane could only wrap her arms around her shoulders and rock her slowly, trying to soothe her unfathomable sorrow.
"Do you…" she sniffled, trying to force back the emotion, "did Loki say whether he was all right? Do you know if he's okay?"
Once the screaming stopped, that is…
Jane swallowed, and shook her head, lifting her shoulders in helpless confusion. It would do no good to relay her suspicions of torture, especially if they were nothing but a horrible invention on the part of the trickster god. There was nothing either of them could do about it.
Or was there?
Jane Foster had always refused to believe that the events of the world were beyond her ability to control. It was the only way she could continue to pursue her line of—what most other scientists called crazy—research, and not imagine that she was going off the deep end. It was the only way she could have continued to look up at the night sky each night after Thor's disappearance and believe, without a shadow of doubt, that she could rip the stars apart to find him again.
If she was justified in her research, and if she truly had opened the pathways between the stars, then she could figure out a way to get them out of this room. If the other Avengers were in this tower, she and Pepper could get to them, set them free, and together they could escape and rejoin the others.
It was no more difficult a job than engineering an Einstein-Rosen Bridge. Jane smiled, with a hard edge to the expression. She had already done that.
She shook Pepper's shoulder, "We have to get out of here. We can find the others and get them out too."
"How?" the other woman's red curls bounced as she shook her head, "I've been over and over this room until I wanted to scream; there's no way out! And the Skrulls are much too strong; we could never get past them."
"We'll figure out a way. We have to try."
Pepper sighed, and swallowed what seemed to be another denial. "All right. We'll try."
Over the next hour, Jane milked every piece of information about their situation in Stark Tower out of Pepper.
Their room had been one of the servants' rooms; though Tony had most of the help he needed from Jarvis, he also required assistance from a human staff; their room had belonged to the butler. Apparently, the entire floor was the temporary home of some seven different staff members; Pepper suspected that all those rooms had been repurposed as prison cells, but she had never heard anyone else moving around, and the Skrull only ever stopped at her door.
Their floor was connected to the other levels of the building by private elevators which only operated under special staff keys; but if they had a key, they could access any area of the building they wanted.
The tower's interactive AI had been deactivated. Pepper had tried all the voice commands and codes at her disposal, but Jarvis had never made a peep. Jane latched on to this tidbit:
She was running out of paper, but this was important: "If we got Jarvis working again, could he operate the staff elevators without a key?"
Pepper nodded, "He could, but that still wouldn't help us get out of this room. That lock on the door is no technology I've ever seen; it's definitely from the Skrull. And who knows what spells Loki has put on it? Every time I tried to even touch it, it threw off so much heat that I burned my hands." And to illustrate her point, Pepper showed off one pink and blistered palm.
Jane ground her teeth. This plan would have to operate in several stages; on her last few inches of clean paper, she outlined her scheme to Pepper.
Step One: she could try to reactivate Jarvis by manipulating the controls via the butler's interface on the wall. Either the Skrulls had no idea what it was, or Loki had missed the discreet panel in his sweep of the room, but it looked intact. Jane was not a mechanical engineer, but years of putting together her own gadgetry had given her a feel for how machines worked, and it was worth a try.
Step Two: if she could get Jarvis to respond, she would order him to prepare the staff elevator at the end of the corridor. Then, she would have him trip some sort of internal alarm to attract the guards.
Step Three: she and Pepper would incapacitate the Skrull guards and make a break for the elevator.
Step Four: find the Avengers, and go from there.
Pepper took one look at her outline and said, "This is insane."
Jane huffed and arched one eyebrow, clearly communicating: you got a better idea?
"No, but this could easily get us killed! And you have no idea if you can even get Jarvis to respond to you!"
Her lips thinned and she stared hard at Pepper. The other woman finally sighed and said, "I know, I know…what have we got to lose? Here," she pulled two bobby pins from her bedraggled hair, "see if these will help you out at all."
Jane smiled, and hopped up from the bed. Now that she had a direction, something to do, she barely felt the pain from her sore arm. That, or the pain pills had finally kicked in and she was legitimately starting to feel better. Either way, she thought, she was going to try her damndest to get out of this room and get Thor and the rest of the Avengers to make Loki eat every smug word he had ever said.
Getting the console to work was much easier said than done, especially since nothing in the room could legitimately count as a tool. Jane had had to improvise with every bit of ingenuity at her disposal; flattening one of the bobby pins between the springs of the metal cot and using that to pry the smooth console open, stripping the wiring from behind the radiator to act as a circuit connector, and using the mirror from off the wall to reflect enough fading sunlight from outside to enable her to keep working as it started to dip below the horizon.
The whole process was maddening, and Jane had used her frozen vocal chords to scream her frustration more than once as it dragged on. It didn't help that everything she did was more or less a shot in the dark; the technology was much more sophisticated than anything she'd ever built, and though she'd worked with some advanced gear, she had always had SHIELD tech support on hand to help her with troubleshooting.
Pepper, thankfully, was not the sort of person to say "I told you so." In fact, she was the ideal assistant; fetching whatever Jane pointed at, holding whatever needed to be held, and acting as a tireless watchman, signaling every time the Skrull guard approached their end of the hall.
It was finally too dark to work, so Jane replaced the panel on the wall—as loosely as she could—and flopped down on her cot, massaging her tired eyes with the heels of her palms.
"They usually come around with dinner in another half hour," Pepper said, sitting down herself after making sure every sign of their work was erased. "And they bring a candle, if you want to work some more. It never burns longer than an hour, but it's something."
Jane couldn't look up. She nodded, pressing her lips together to keep from crying. This whole scenario was so frustrating, so insane, that she still had a hard time processing that it was really happening at all. Any moment now, she thought wildly, she would wake up and find that the last six months had not happened; that she was still working in New Mexico on a theory that nearly everyone thought was insane.
That she had never met a tall, blond god who could summon thunder.
She took her hands away from her eyes and glared up at the ceiling. No. No, no.
Jane forced herself to relax and breathe deeply. When the candle came, she could keep trying; for right now, she had to take a break so she could return to the project with a fresh mind. She watched the fading light outside the window and battled the insistent thought that she was dreaming—she didn't think that New York had ever been this dark since its founding.
The only ambient light in the entire city was coming from Stark Tower. And even it—as proved by their little room—was not fully lit.
When the buildings outside faded to nothing more than deep blue shadows backlit by a starlit sky, the lock on their door shuddered and hissed. Pepper shuddered and retreated to the far side of the bed, huddling in the corner. It made Jane sick and furious to see such a strong woman reduced to a trembling wreck like this; she sat up and decided that she would never look at a Skrull in fear again.
It was almost impossible. Their long, reptilian faces and flickering tongues reminded her of a Gorn from Star Trek come to terrifying life, but she closed her hands into fists and refused to shy away. Strangely, it was more the knowledge that Loki wanted her alive that gave her the courage to stand her ground than the knowledge that Thor was waiting for her to find him again. The Skrull would hardly hurt either of them when their master wanted them alive.
They were in the room for barely a minute; just long enough to drop the tray and give the chamber a quick once-over. Clearly, they had given up expecting an escape attempt from Pepper, and did not bother to concern themselves with the addition of another weak human woman. Jane hid her smile; pride goeth before a fall, assholes.
The tiny candle did its job, throwing off just enough light to fill the room with trembling shadows. Jane gestured for Pepper to hold it up the moment the Skrulls were out of the room, and pretended not to notice how the light shook as Pepper's shaking hands held it to illuminate the panel.
She worked as quickly as she could, prying back visual feed cables and trying to recognize anything that could reestablish the interface. Her thin tool slipped and threw sparks; she jumped back and shook the burn off her hand, but a blister was already forming.
The male voice sounded as though it were drowning underwater. Pepper gasped, and whispered, "Jarvis?"
Jane dove back towards the panel and twisted the wire she had inadvertently touched. She wigged it this way and that, almost like trying to get a faulty connection to make a clean circuit. After another thirty seconds:
"Oh, Jarvis!" Pepper's voice wobbled, "It's so good to hear your voice!"
"I cannot access primary systems," the AI sounded exhausted, as though it had been actively trying to work despite Loki's intervention, "many of the controls for the Tower are out of my control."
Jane signaled frantically. Pepper said, "It doesn't matter. Can you access the staff elevators?"
There was a brief pause. "Yes. Those pathways are still unguarded."
"How about security feeds? Can you see where the guards are…can you see where Tony is?"
"I cannot. Security feeds have been disabled throughout the entire building."
Pepper groaned. "Is there anything useful you can give us?"
"I can access physical controls only: door locks, temperature controls, lighting levels…I can open the outer doors as well."
Jane punched the sky. Pepper shared her enthusiasm. "So, if we find where Tony and the others are, you can let us out?"
"Then let's go!"
Jane caught her arm and shook her head. She pointed to the nearly extinguished candle, and then the door lock. There was no way they were going anywhere at the moment, and even Pepper had to swallow her excitement and defer their going until the morning. Helped on by Jane's nods and few scribbled words, the two women made a plan with Jarvis.
Tomorrow, when the guards brought breakfast to them, they would figure out a way to incapacitate them long enough to reach the elevator, which Jarvis would have ready for them. Then, they would discretely search the building until they found the Avengers, figure a way to set them free, and get out.
Their candle guttered and went out, but Jane and Pepper worked long into the night to disassemble one of the cots; the long bars that held the mattresses up were sturdy enough to use as clubs, and if they were lucky again, neither the Skrull nor Loki would see it coming.
Jane did not sleep that night. The adrenaline from her early success and the chance of escape that morning kept her brain awake and racing. She was alternately dreading and thrilled to face the challenge of the Skrull; at the very least it would feel great to bash her frustrations out on something. But she was afraid; though she thought her life was safe enough—Thor was not yet under Loki's control—Pepper did not have that same security.
If Tony were already a prisoner…
She beat those thoughts back. Pepper was willing to take the chance; nothing else mattered.
Jane rolled over on her cot and tried to find a comfortable angle to watch the rising light through the window. Her foot jiggled restlessly, and she hugged the strong metal bar from the cot to her chest; dawn could not come fast enough.
But eventually it did come, and she and Pepper stood ready behind the door for their guards. Pepper murmured, "They come usually a half hour after dawn with breakfast." No other words passed between the two women as they waited. Cold sweat beaded Jane's forehead and palms, but Pepper looked surprisingly calm.
The lock hissed. Jane raised her weapon.
They were lucky; a sole Skrull came through the door, and one blow from each of their bars was enough to lay him out flat. Jane was beyond taking chances though, and she whacked him three more times as he lay there. Finally, he was still.
"Did you kill him?" Pepper whispered, staring at the prone alien.
Jane shrugged—who cares?—and squeezed herself around the lock in the half open door. After looking at the state of Pepper's hand, she didn't want an injury for either one of them. She jerked her thumb in the direction of the elevator when Pepper came out into the hall, and started to walk.
"Well done, Miss Foster,"
Jane whirled around, brandishing her bar, but saw no one in the corridor besides Pepper.
Pepper, who had not moved a step.
Pepper, who was merely standing, one hand on her hip, and smiling, a wide, deranged smile that she had only ever seen…
Jane's hand went temporarily nerveless, and she almost dropped her weapon.
Loki, she mouthed, and swayed on her two feet.
"I repeat," and now the voice was a sickening hybrid between familiar friend and barely concealed killer, "well done, Miss Foster."
A furious hissing filled the hallway and the fully conscious Skrull stalked into the hallway.
Jane recoiled backwards and tried to bring her club to bear, but there was no time before the Skrull was on her and a swift blow to her head made everything go dark.
Chapter 3: Chapter Three
Be warned: this chapter is pretty dark. Loki is turning out to be more vicious than I planned, but he seems to write his own dialogue, so I'll let him do his thing. He's definitely the darkest villain I've written, but there's a reason for it, I promise you.
Jane was getting very tired of waking up like this, with a pounding headache from either being drugged or knocked out. She felt her forehead with the tips of two fingers, and yes, she was going to have a sizeable lump on her right temple. Her vision blurred as she straightened, no matter how carefully she tried to move, and she wondered if she might have a concussion.
Her groan of pain was soundless, still, and she gritted her teeth. Just adding insult to injury, he hadn't removed the silencing spell he'd put on her yesterday. Jane rested her elbows on her knees, and cradled her head in both hands. She breathed deeply and tried not to cry; no matter how overwhelming everything seemed, she had to stay strong.
No one was going to come and help her, so she would have do what she could on her own.
"You are remarkably resilient, Miss Foster," his smooth voice, at least, did not add to the pounding in her head, softly as he spoke. But her shoulders tightened automatically as she heard it, and all her muscles cramped in anticipation—a rabbit's anticipation of fight or flight.
"Especially considering one of your size," he went on, and she distinguished movement creeping up on her from the corner of her shadowed eyes. "The Skrull you…" and here he chuckled, "managed to incapacitate was none too happy with you. I thought the blow would put you under for the day, at least…yet here you are, up after a mere two hours."
Jane raised her head and looked at him. The expression on his face caught her by surprise. It was almost as if—
"I must say,"
"I am impressed."
Oh, hell no.
He actually did seem impressed with her. What on earth did that mean? Jane couldn't decide whether to be more or less nervous. The way he was smiling at her certainly did not make her comfortable. She dropped her head to her palms once again, rubbed her fingers lightly over the bruise, and straightened up.
If she could be brave in the face of the Skrull—whom she knew wanted to kill her—she could be brave in the face of Loki—who only might want to kill her. Jane wanted to laugh at the absurdity of that particular slice of encouragement.
Her smile must have showed, because Loki's face creased in confusion.
"And now you smile at me? You are full of surprises."
Jane just stared at him, head cocked to one side.
"Oh, that's right," he drawled, snapping his fingers as though the thought had only just occurred to him, "you still can't speak, can you?" He sauntered towards her, smiling wider as she had to crane her neck back to keep track of his eyes. His hand hovered just above her right temple, fingers twitching towards the bruise. She had to use all her willpower to keep from flinching back from his grasp, but he did not touch her.
The pain from her forehead melted away like the skim of ice that drips away in a March thaw.
"Let's remedy that, shall we?"
A quick pulse of green light, and Jane felt as though someone had just connected a circuit in her vocal chords. She drew a quick breath and actually heard the flow of air; she could speak again.
Loki backed away, watching her face as intently as she had studied his. Jane breathed again, and looked away, touching her throat with one hand and her forehead with the other. A deep shudder of relief ran through her, shaking her shoulders and making her heart surge—she could feel the pulse pounding in her ears—but she did not speak.
"Well, Miss Foster? No longer dumb," she could hear the sneer in the word, "so what means this silence? Stubborn, hmm? No…annoyed."
He laughed. "Do you think to impress me with this show of defiance? Or punish me by withholding your pearls of wisdom? You cannot be so foolish."
Jane looked at him again, and could not help the smirk that played around the corner of her mouth. One of her eyebrows quirked upwards as she looked away again. Bluster he might, but the fact that she wasn't bombarding him with abuse was an annoyance; she was not playing according to his rules.
She knew that this couldn't end well, but if she was going to die, she might as well truly amaze the smug bastard first.
Her suspicions were confirmed. An invisible hand grasped her jaw and swung her face back towards his. She gasped, more from shock than pain—the grip was surprisingly light—but the expression on his face made her shiver with stomach-churning fear.
His green eyes were wider than she had ever seen; the entire white was visible around the jade irises, and his dark brows furrowed together above them. His teeth were bared and completely feral; she would not have been surprised if he'd lunged forward to claw at her face with his clenched hands.
"I gave you your voice, Miss Foster," like a mad dog he snarled, "therefore…speak."
"What do you want me to say?" her voice was less defiant and more shaky than she would have liked, but there were extenuating circumstances, "What do you want from me?"
The question seemed to diffuse some of his anger. He dropped his hand and the hold on her jaw vanished. She did not dare look away again—much less smile—and she felt no relief when some of the anger smoothed from his brow.
The anger faded, but the capricious madness was not gone.
"How should I know?" he said, smiling. "I hardly know how you did it, after all."
"How I did what? What did I do?"
He dropped onto the sofa across from her and slung his arms over the backrest, looking for all the world like a frat boy about to crack open a can of beer. His smile was only slightly more natural as he went on:
"How you changed my arrogant, careless, condescending, oblivious Neanderthal of a brother. In a mere three days. When, for centuries uncounted—by your measure, at least—he has remained the same."
Jane could not stop the sudden tears that prickled the corners of her eyes when his words conjured the beautiful, smiling, comforting image of Thor. What she wouldn't give to see him here now! She swallowed, hard, and pushed the image away. He wasn't here. There was only her.
And him. And he was waiting on her answer.
"I…" she tried again, "I don't know."
"Your erudition is astounding," his voice was drier than the desert, "but I wonder if you might venture a guess?"
Oddly enough, this was a question that Jane had often considered, since her encounter with the god. She had thought of his arrogant attitude when he first arrived—they will suffice—and contrasted that with his willingness to die for them—you are safe—just before he left. She had wondered the same thing, wondered what had caused that shift.
Like the good scientist she was, she had considered all sorts of variables. The shock of being in a new environment, the disapproval of his father, the loss of his powers…hell, she had even considered the huge number of tiny things—like Poptarts, pancakes, and coffee—that might have gone so far in opening Thor's mind to the smaller lives around him that he had never taken into account.
But even in the safety of her own mind, she had rarely had the guts to think that it might have been her, something about her—her desire to learn, her restless questions—that might have altered him, might have gentled him. And though men before had told Jane that she was beautiful, she never thought that it was any special beauty of face or feature that made Thor kiss her the way he had.
The sheer number of variables had made any definitive conclusion impossible. Jane really had no idea.
She realized that she had still not answered the question. Loki had not spoken, however; merely looked at her from beneath lowered eyelids and waited for her to gather her thoughts. The silence and sheer consideration in his gaze sent a shockwave through her.
For whatever reason, Loki really wanted to know. And if he really wanted this information from her…that gave Jane some leverage.
Her brain whirled, throwing together strategies and analyzing possible outcomes. Despite still shivering when she thought of the unknown limits of his power and the madness that enabled him to wield it to its fullest, she had to try.
"I'll tell you," she said, slowly, weighing each word, "if you answer some of my questions in return."
He smiled, opening his eyes wide again. "The time for negotiations was before you acknowledged your complete ignorance about my brother's surprising shift. I'm afraid you are—to use the human expression—shit out of luck."
Something snapped inside of Jane. She laughed. Her body released its tension and collapsed against the sofa back, and she put her hands over her face and laughed some more. After about thirty seconds, her laughter faded to chuckles; she pressed her fingertips over her eyes and took a deep breath.
When she looked up, Loki had not moved. A smile played around his mouth, but he did not seem any more upset than he usually did. He cocked his head at her and gestured with an open palm—please, continue.
"That's not bad," Jane said, still feeling her lips tremble with suppressed giggles, "do you have a tutor on Midgardian idioms, or something?"
"You surely do not think I would be careless enough to attempt the conquest of a world I did not thoroughly understand, do you?" He smiled wider. "I was in this realm long before my brother made his reappearance; I know more about the customs and countries of your Earth than you do yourself, my dear Jane."
The endearment turned her blood cold, and the smile dropped from her face.
"For the most part, I have found your race to be barbaric, ignorant, backwards, and ineffective in self-governance. You will not do what is necessary in most cases to ensure the survival of your best, and seem intent on preserving what is most pathetic among you. And yet…there is enough that is worthwhile here that I do not want to merely destroy you."
His eyes fixed on hers and the expression on his face approached something like lucidity.
"I am going to save you from yourselves."
Jane could barely breathe. She felt pinned by the weight of his gaze, spread open like a butterfly to be dissected.
"You may find some relief to know, Miss Foster," he continued, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees, "that despite wanting to kill you—wanting to kill you very badly, too—I have seen enough worth in you to spare your life."
Jane swallowed, and her hands shook, but with relief or dread she could not tell. His eyes were too intense, and for a wild, terrifying moment she thought he might bridge that small gap between them…
"And my friends?" Her voice was strained in her throat, but she spoke without tears. "Clint, Natasha, Tony, Pepper? Have you found it," she let her anger take over and spat out the word, "worthwhile to spare their lives too?"
"Ah," he said, sitting back, smiling gently, "I thought we might return to that topic at some point. Tell you what, Miss Foster," he smiled, "you tell me what I want to know, and I will tell you what you want to know. Tell me," he continued quietly, "why my brother changed. Why after a mere three days with you and your pathetic species," his voice was dark with malice, "he returned to Asgard, so much more worthy to assume the throne?"
"I'm a scientist," Jane began, slowly, "and one of the first rules of science is that correlation doesn't imply causation. I can give you my hypotheses, and I can tell you my suspicions, but Thor is the only one who can tell you the truth."
"Very good, Miss Foster," he replied, "much better than your first attempt. Please, do share your thoughts with me."
The word "share" sounded wrong coming from his lips, but Jane tamped down on her feelings of dread and tried to organize her thoughts. She folded her hands, stared down at her interlaced fingers, and began to speak.
"Thor was banished from his home and thrown into a situation that he had no understanding of. The last time he had been to Midgard, he was a god; now, we do not believe in thunder gods…" she paused, and without looking up, "or gods of mischief."
"He was without his powers, and for the first time, he knew what it was like to be at the mercy of others. Even I," she chuckled, "managed to get the better of him, once or twice. And when he tried to use only physical force—which had always worked for him before—to regain his birthright, it didn't work."
There was no motion or sound in the room. Loki did not shift in the slightest, or even seem to breathe.
"Every single one of his deeply-held beliefs about how the world should work was challenged. He was a prince, and became a vagrant; he was strong, and no longer had any power; was once beyond reproach, and now everyone doubted him."
Jane swallowed. She had left out any personal notes, but knew that Loki would not be satisfied until he knew how she played into the equation.
"But I…I was willing to believe him. Even though sometimes I thought he was crazy…" she shook her head, "there was something about him that I trusted. And the idea that he might know about the things I have worked all my life to understand," her voice swelled with longing, "I had to at least try to believe him."
"He fell in love with you," Loki's voice was heavy with a swirl of emotions—she could distinguish disgust, derision, and wonder in equal measure—and he continued, "because you took him in like a wounded baby bird."
Jane's head jerked up, and she met Loki's cruelly twisted lips with narrowed eyes. "It sounds like you think we humans aren't the only pathetic creatures in the universe," she snapped, "and if you think that's all there was to it, you don't understand your brother at all."
"He is not my brother," the last three words dropped like stones from his mouth, "and he never was."
"Whatever," Jane brushed that off, "you two were raised together and have known each other since you were babies; you've fought together and bled together…if that doesn't make you brothers, what the hell would?"
He stared at her as though she had started speaking a foreign language. Jane looked back down at her clenched hands and continued.
"Thor had to rethink his entire life," she said, shaking her head, "He went from knowing just where he fit in to not even understanding the fundamental aspects of the world he thought he would have to call home. Maybe at first he clung to me because I could take care of him—but that wasn't the reason he…" she could not even say the words.
Speaking the word "love" in Loki's presence, especially when the thought of having Thor's love meant so much to her, was sacrilege.
"I believed in him," she concluded, "without knowing for sure that he was a god and a prince and a hero…I only knew that he was a man…a man that I could trust, and fall asleep beside, and would have given my life for. He fell in love with me because I was in love with him. With him, alone…not the prince or the god or the hero. I was in love with Thor."
The simple clarity of her words was like a stream of pure water, cleansing all her dark thoughts and confusion. For all her months of analysis, she suddenly knew that this was as close to the truth as she was ever going to get.
The thought made her sigh softly. Would she even survive to ask Thor how close she had come to guessing his thoughts?
She heard Loki swallow and shift in his seat. He did not speak, and Jane decided not to say another word; she had said her piece, and it was up to him to accept it or not, as he chose.
She heard him chuckle, but the emotion behind the sound was not mirth.
"It makes sense that the mindless adoration of an ignorant child would be what finally conquered the heart of that oaf,"
Jane looked up, met his eyes without fear, and spoke with absolute surety.
"If you really believe that, then you don't know him. And you certainly don't know me."
The smile on his face faded, and his eyes went slowly cold. Still, she did not look away; she knew that she was right, and he was wrong, and she was going to sit there and stare at him until he looked away this time.
But of course, Loki cheated. Though she had only known him for less than forty-eight hours, she was starting to suspect that Loki always cheated.
He slapped her. She had no time to register the motion of his arm before pain exploded across her jaw and cheek and her chin smashed into her right shoulder. The sudden shock of it brought a rush of adrenaline; her cheeks flushed and her eyes clouded over with tears. She closed her eyes and clamped her lips down against the sobs that wanted to bubble up.
"What I do not know, Miss Foster," he hissed, "is immaterial. What you should concern yourself with is what I do know. The whereabouts of your friends, for one thing."
Jane took another moment to compose herself but it did no good; two tears slipped free of her control and ran down her cheeks as she opened her eyes. He stared at the tracks of them on her skin and the smile he gave was so truly pleased that she had to close her eyes again.
"Where are they?" she whispered. "Have you hurt them?"
"Here. And yes."
She bit down on the inside of her lip so hard that her jaw hurt. "May I see them?"
"Of course. I would not be near so discourteous as to think of keeping you apart."
Jane trembled. Torture was something that she could imagine—in her heroic fantasies, that is—withstanding, but in reality…she tasted blood in her mouth and the pain helped clear the veil of panic descending on her. She opened her eyes.
"Stand up, Miss Foster,"
She ignored his offered hand—she couldn't think of anything more impossible than putting her hands on him—and stood up on weak-kneed legs. She felt his gaze on the top of her head like a physical weight. Before she could blink, her left arm was folded under his, and though he was smaller than his brother, she felt the iron strength of his grip and knew that nothing she could do would make him let go.
It was terrible, but she was also shamefully glad of the support. Adrenaline, pain, exhaustion, and fear were combining in a nearly overwhelming cocktail wreaking havoc in her system, and though Jane had never done it before, she somehow knew that she was close to passing out. Didn't everyone say that you saw black spots before fainting? There they were, dancing before her eyes like giant, horrible flies crawling at the edges of her vision.
She wanted to be sick.
"Please do pull yourself together, my dear," the scorn in his voice made her want to slap him, this time, "after all," he walked and she trotted to keep up with his long legs, "we are going to see your beloved friends. Isn't that what you were so valiantly attempting to do just this morning, after all? To fly in like a valkyrie and save your brave warriors?"
"That was the general idea," Jane said, focusing on moving the tired muscles of her legs, "But I suppose that Jarvis, like Pepper, was just an illusion?" The idea of Loki, disguised as her friend, laughing at her feeble efforts to free herself was sickening, but Jane tried to be more angry at Loki than ashamed at herself.
"No indeed," he said smoothly, gesturing her politely into the elevator and pressing the button for the second subbasement, "you managed to resurrect the AI. It may gratify you to know that no one put in that room succeeded in doing the same thing, save your talented Mr. Stark."
"I'll bet that Tony almost escaped, didn't he?" Jane said, smiling as she thought of her reckless, genius friend, "I'll bet he made it past most of the Skrulls and nearly got Pepper out."
"Your intelligence continues to amaze and astound," Loki replied. He leaned close enough for his breath to stir the flyaway hairs at her temple, and continued in a whisper "but he paid dearly for it."
Jane did not speak for the rest of their descent, although Loki continued on for another few minutes, describing in nauseating detail the punishments he'd seen fit to deal to Tony for his near-escape success.
The elevator's chime rang gently as they reached their destination, and Loki's grip was just as inexorable as he pulled her from the elevator car.
"You would not think that being beaten on the soles of your feet would hurt quite so much, would you? But I guarantee it is one of the most painful punishments possible…in the realm of blunt-force trauma, that is."
The black flies swarming in front of Jane's eyes clustered into a single, buzzing mass, and she stumbled, her free hand slamming to the ground as she tried to catch herself. Loki did not let her other arm go, and her elbow and shoulder cracked painfully at the joints. She did not make a sound; she just pressed her forehead into the cold tile beneath her and focused on her breathing.
In…and out. In…and out.
She whispered to the floor. "Come on, Jane. Stand up. Get up."
For once, Loki seemed to be in no rush, though he did not let go of her hand. He could have easily jerked her to her feet or merely dragged her along—he had more than enough strength—but he merely stood, and held her, while she scraped herself up off the floor.
When Jane was standing, he continued down the hallway, at a pace slightly more manageable for her shorter legs. She had just enough strength to keep her spinning head from resting on his arm; he might force her into contact with him, but she would not touch him voluntarily.
"You need not worry, Jane," his voice was soft, and almost comforting, "I have no intention of harming you. Even your Mr. Stark…once he had given me what I wanted, I healed him. He has nothing but the memory of his pains, now. And he was the most resilient; all the others gave me what I needed long before. They did not suffer nearly as much, I promise you."
Jane really did think he was trying to soothe her.
"And I likewise promise, that if you do as I wish, I will not harm you in the least."
She could barely find her voice. "What do you want me to do?"
He did not answer. He stopped in front of a large pair of very solid doors and waved his hand. The locks snapped open, and the two doors—which looked so heavy as to only be opened with some sort of power source—eased apart.
The laboratory inside was absolutely state-of-the-art. Jane recognized where they were at once, having made it like her home for the weeks she was in New York, working on the final plans for the Einstein-Rosen Bridge and collaborating with Tony Stark.
"I will let your friend explain," Loki let Jane go and she grasped at the edge of a table to take her weight, "and bid you farewell."
His smile, she was sure, would haunt her in her dreams tonight.
"As always, Miss Foster," he said, backing out through the closing doors, "it was a true pleasure."
Jane put both hands against the surface of the table and let out a shaky sob. She pressed a hand against her mouth to muffle the noise; if he came back in the room, she was sure that she would scream. The tears flowed freely now, hot over her fingers, and she sobbed again, pressing both hands against her mouth until she could barely breathe.
"Oh, sweetheart," Tony's weary voice came from the back of the lab, "are you all right?"
Chapter 4: Chapter Four
He answered his own question immediately.
"Of course you're not," he scoffed at himself, pulling the shocked and shaking Jane in for a hug, "that's a ridiculous question, forget it. I mean; you're not hurt, right? Because if you were," he pulled back and took Jane by the shoulders, staring intently at her face, "I would really have to do something reckless and masculine."
Jane laughed, the sound heavy and wet with tears. "No," she said, swiping at the stray traitor that dripped down her cheek, "I'm not hurt. Not really. I'm just…so glad to see you! And that sounds awful," she shook her head, "because I wish that you were still off in California or Nevada or Tibet, kicking ass, but…" she sighed, and put her flushed face against his shoulder, "I'm so glad to see you."
"I hear you, sweetheart; don't feel bad. I sure as hell wish we were both outta this hell hole, but…I'm glad to see you too."
Jane nodded and felt a weak smile tease the corners of her mouth. Somehow, Tony always made her feel better, even when he made her want to scream. He was so thoughtlessly self-confident, in every situation, that his emotions buoyed hers. Working with Tony was like driving shotgun with a professional racecar driver; he might go way too fast and break all the rules, but at the end of the day, he would get you home safe because he was just that good.
Aside from Thor, she couldn't think of anyone she would rather be held prisoner with.
Her smile grew stronger.
"So what are we in here for? Doesn't this seem a little fancy for two prisoners?"
"Ah," he said, folding his arms and leaning against the edge of the workbench, "we're slave labor, I'm afraid. The great and powerful Loki, apparently, is not so great or so powerful. We've got you to thank for that, by the way."
"Me?" Jane dragged out a lab stool and sat cross-legged, leaning her elbows against her knees, "What did I do?"
"You remember your magical early-warning-system—the one that you developed right before your lab in Uppsala was raided? We still use it. We even miniaturized the original tech so that each operative can wear it as part of standard field gear. Thing kicks up a ruckus when it starts to detect the atmospheric distortions that precede attack, teleportation, what have you, and we can get ready for it."
"He hasn't figured a way around it yet?" Jane asked, feeling her smile widen at the thought of what she had contributed to their fight. She hadn't the smallest idea that SHIELD had been able to make use of her ideas before the war really accelerated, but it seemed as though she might have helped save a few lives, at least.
"He can't really change the nature of his magic, now can he? At least, he says he's not going to, which seems to me to mean that he can't. The bastard would never admit he's weak, but I figure that's the story."
"And I take it that's where we come in?"
"You bet," Tony grumbled, running his hands through his wild brown hair, "he wants us to figure a way around your detection system, and he's not particular about the method. But so far," and here he grinned, and winked, "despite my absolute best efforts…there's no way to do it."
Jane felt her scientific interest peaked against her will. "No shielding, or way to disable the technology on our side?"
"Whose side are you on?" Tony said, looking at her sideways. "But no. Your system was pretty clever; by honing in on the inevitable disturbances that magical forces cause in the universe, you found a way of detecting an incoming spell in a way that can't be countered."
"Newton's laws apply to everything, I guess. That's…kind of comforting."
"Isn't it? But we're still stuck here, trying to figure out a solution to a situation that has none, at least in my opinion, which is a pretty thorough one."
"So why doesn't he just give up? Why are you still in the lab?"
"Well, he's got other problems," Tony's expression was outright gleeful, "you might not have heard this, since it's kind of a recent thing, but the mutants? Most of them have decided not to put up with his world-conquering crap and have started to resist."
"The mutants?" Jane gasped, "I never would have thought they'd come out united in support of anything!"
"Well, I never mentioned united," Tony said, shaking his head. "Most of them are just fighting back in their home countries to keep people from being killed or imprisoned. And some bands of them—three guesses who, of course—have decided to join Loki. Seems he promised them dominion over their home countries, provided they swore loyalty to him first. But a lot of mutants are fighting, all over the world…and since he can't know in advance what their powers are or how many are in each country, he and his Skrull are getting their asses kicked more often than not."
"That's great!" Jane cried, "But what does that have to do with us?"
"Well, he wants us to work on a way to neutralize the mutant threat. He raided the government supply centers for the anti-mutant vaccination, but the production methods were either hidden too well or destroyed before he could get to them. He's used pretty near his entire supply of the vaccine, and he needs more."
"But," Jane shook her head, "neither of us are doctors. The materials and genetic research behind the vaccine were never made public knowledge, nor do we have any mutants to perform any testing on. How does he expect us to come up with anything useful?"
"Not a clue. I told him the same things—in more…colorful language—while he was giving me frostbite. He doesn't much like hearing excuses," he said, rubbing at a puckered patch of skin on his upper arm, "so I've been tossing around some ideas. It's the last thing he wants that I think we can actually do."
Jane felt a shudder of dread creep down her spine. "What else does he want?"
Tony sighed. "He wants portals. Pathways to Asgard and the other realms that can accommodate an army."
"But…" Jane shook her head, "from what I understand, he can already travel between the realms without using the Asbru Bridge. Why should he need us to create portals for him?"
"Oh, he can travel. But he can't drag his army after him, one soldier at a time. Apparently, his power isn't enough to open and sustain a stable pathway; but he knows that we can do it. I've been holding off on it for as long as I can, insisting that you're the only person that had complete knowledge about the bridge…but now that you're here, that'll be a moot point."
"Still, we both have the knowledge to open a portal, but without the energy from the Cube, we can't really create a bridge; we never could. He doesn't expect us to overcome that minor problem, does he?"
"He knows that we used the Cube. And he tells me that he is going to get the Cube back. When he does…" Tony sighed and rubbed the back of his neck, "it's not going to be good for anyone."
"Who has the Cube now?"
"SHIELD's still got it. I don't think old Fury's gonna let that get anywhere out of his cycloptic sight. But it may only be a matter of time. Once Loki finishes conquering Earth," he finished grimly, "he's going to go after Asgard."
Jane stood up. "It's not going to happen, Tony," she said, putting one hand on his forearm, "we're not going to let him do it."
"You're right," he agreed, "but I'm drawing a blank about how we're going to stop him. You haven't been in the fighting, Jane," he went on, putting his hand over hers, "and I'm really glad for that. But it's been brutal. Wherever he's bringing them from, the Skrull seem endless. And even though we know when he's going to launch a magical assault, he can do things that we can't predict and have no time to counter. The best we can do is get under cover. He brought the entire Berkeley complex down in about an hour, and that was with everyone except Natasha and Clint working against him. And you've seen what he's done to the city."
"His power isn't endless," Jane said, "There's no way he can use all this power without draining himself, and the Skrull? They're trying to conquer an entire world. A world where a lot of people are rising up to stop him. If the mutants are fighting, it's only a matter of time before they start turning the tide, and ordinary people see that there are things they can do to fight as well. And we," she finished, "we are going to get out of here. We're going to get out of here, and we'll figure a way to use the Cube's power to stop him cold."
Tony stared at her. "Where did the nervous little chipmunk scientist I used to know disappear to?"
She punched him, "I am not a chipmunk."
"You're right; you're too cute to be a chipmunk. How about a ferret?"
Jane smiled. "That's not bad. Did you know that ferrets are notorious cage-breakers?"
For the first time since she'd seen him again, Tony laughed. "As a matter of fact, I do. I used to have a ferret, when I was a kid. My dad always complained that it was always underfoot. Like me."
"Do you have copies of our original portal research?" Jane asked, turning towards the lab bench, "because I've got an idea."
"Yeah," he went to a filing cabinet and fished out a couple of heavy manila envelopes, "SHIELD managed to destroy most of the vital paperwork, but they didn't get everything. I've put most of what we had together again; take a look."
Jane was half-disappointed and half-relieved to see that he was right; except for a few conclusions and some of the computer models that showed the portal in operation, Loki had managed to recover all their original research. "Who made these notes?" she asked, pointing to the script that annotated some of the final pages of the file.
"He did. At first, he worked in the lab with me, to make sure I was doing my job. Or as he put it," Tony grimaced, "doing what he spared my miserable life for."
"Putting it mildly."
Jane took a pencil from the cup on the table and flipped one of the pages over, scrawling, Do you think the lab is bugged? in her messy cursive.
Tony took another pencil, said, "Here, I'll show you," and wrote back, I'm sure it is, but magically; I can't find anything mechanical doing it.
"It looks like most everything is here," she said: I think we can create a localized portal to transport us outside of the Tower.
"Yeah, we're just missing a few pages here and there," he replied, shaking his head: There's nothing to use as a power source.
What about your heart? Jane hmm'ed under her breath and pretended to examine the other pages of the file.
Considered that; but I'm pretty sure that even a short jump would burn it out.
Jane sighed, and shook her head. Any spares?
Yeah, but I don't think Loki's going to go for the old "help, my cellmate's having a heart attack" schtick.
Where are they kept?
My room, accessible only by fingerprint and retina scans.
"Okay, I think that's everything I need to see," Jane said, finishing: we'll figure this out. For right now, let's just work on getting the portal ready and choosing a destination. We'll work on the power source later.
"You got it, boss," Tony winked at her and said, "let's get to work."
It was a relief to be with Tony Stark. After weeks of living with a semi-comatose and possessed Erik, Jane relished having someone to bounce ideas off of. Though Tony was less sparkling than usual, he seemed to revive a bit with her, and together the two of them worked on recreating the computer models of the portal.
For the purposes of their cover, Jane modeled the destination on a star cluster close to the vicinity of Asgard; but without the exact coordinates of the actual planet, any attempt to use the portal as their equations showed it would just drop the traveler into a cold void of space.
To anyone spying on them, however, it was close enough to fool them.
Meanwhile, Tony calculated the power of his heart, trying to figure out how far he could get them without completely draining its energy and leaving him on the verge of death. His findings weren't all that encouraging; his miniature arc-reactor could get them outside of the Tower and to a distance of five blocks. Five blocks, which would be easily traceable by Loki and would probably result in their immediate recapture.
Jane sighed, and wrote: we could try it when he's not in the Tower?
Yeah, but how are we supposed to figure that out?
She turned the problem over in her mind, and shook her head. "Well, I think that's as far as we can go right now," she said, folding up their handwritten conversation and putting it and their research file back in the cabinet.
"It's almost feeding time at the zoo, anyway," Tony agreed. She'd never heard him sound so bitter before.
"Are you…" there was no way to ask this question, and she already knew the answer. Her voice faded off, and she wrapped her arms around her shoulders.
He got her meaning, of course. "I'm pissed off, that's all," he answered her unspoken question. "I mean, I'm Tony-goddamn-Stark, and I've been kept prisoner—in my own Tower—for months! And with all the tools in my lab, I haven't been able to get out."
Jane shook her head. "It's not that you haven't been able to," she said, "it's that you won't. Pepper's still here, isn't she?"
He was silent. Then, with a shaky breath, he said, "I know where she is, but I haven't been able to see her. I've got no idea if she's okay. He told me…" and his own voice faded away. Then, fiercely, "If she went through anything like what he put me through, I'm going to take him apart one body part at a time."
"She didn't," Jane said, "I mean, he had no reason to tell me the truth, but he said that none of the others resisted for as long as you did. And Pepper…she didn't know anything about the work we were doing. He had no reason to…" she couldn't finish the sentence. What a horrible way to try to comfort someone!
Tony chuckled. "I know you're trying, sweetheart, but nothing's gonna make me feel better. Nothing except getting to destroy that asshole."
"I know." she said. "Believe me, I know."
The door to the lab shuddered as the locks slid back, and two Skrull marched into the lab; one carrying a stack of clothes, the other holding a single dinner tray. Jane stood tall, feeling her muscles clench again as she prepared herself for anything; Tony moved in front of her and squared his shoulders.
"What's on the menu tonight, boys?" he quipped, "I hope you got my request from last night. MREs are fantastic, but a little hard on the digestive system."
Jane smothered her laugh. The Skrull could not speak in a way that humans could understand, but it was clear that they knew he was making fun of them. Their snarls got louder, but they had clearly been told not to react to the constant annoyance that was Tony Stark.
The first Skrull dropped the tray on the table and stood by the door, tail lashing impatiently. The other approached them and thrust its bundle out towards Jane; Tony did not step aside to let it any closer to her, so she reached around him and snagged the clothes.
"So the pretty girl gets new threads, but I'm still in the same old yoga clothes? Most people consider me pretty darn cute myself." Tony didn't flinch as the Skrull hissed and clicked at him. They stared at each other for a few seconds as Jane bit her lip in the anticipation of their fight, but then the Skrull snorted, turned, and stalked away.
The door slammed behind them.
Tony muttered under his breath and went to get the dinner tray. Jane put the stack of clothes on the lab table and noticed the letter folded on top. She broke the seal and drew out a single sheet of paper, upon which—in the same script as the notes on their portal diagrams—a short note was written.
My dear Jane,
Should you have no prior engagements, my I request the pleasure of your company for dinner this evening? Your guards will arrive in a half hour to escort you. Please make use of the garments they have brought—of course, your outfit is charming, if a tad casual.
She snorted, crumpled the letter in one fist, and tossed it to the floor.
"What was that?" Tony said, munching on a slice of bread from the tray.
"A summons," Jane said, running her hands through her hair. They were shaking, and cold dread pooled in her stomach. She wasn't sure she could bear any more time alone in his company.
"What?" Tony snagged the letter from the floor and read it. "This is new."
"I take it he never invited you for dinner?" Jane was breathing quickly and felt herself getting a bit lightheaded. The whole notion of a polite, shared meal was ludicrous; what did he want from her now? Hadn't she already been through enough at his hands?
"No, not really," Tony said slowly, crunching the paper in his own hand. She saw the muscles in his forearm bulge with the force, "there wasn't much time between the yelling for any polite small talk."
"Oh." She couldn't say much more. Her heart was beating too quickly and she felt her face going pale.
"Jane," Tony's voice was quiet, "if you don't want to go, we can figure a way out of it."
"No, we can't," she said, shaking her head, "you know we can't. Besides," she lowered her voice, "this is an opportunity. He'll be distracted, and you can get out, and find Pepper and the others—make sure they're okay. When the guard comes to get me," she whispered, "you can wedge the door, keep it open."
"I don't want to use you like this," he began, but she cut him off with a quick motion of her hand.
"It doesn't matter," she said, "whether I want it or not, it's going to happen. We might as well make use of the opportunity. I want you to."
She turned away so that Tony couldn't see her hands shaking, and busied herself unfolding the clothes that the guards had brought. Though she certainly questioned Loki's taste—whatever it happened to be—she could not, thankfully, object to the outfit. It was a sapphire-colored satin blouse and a black pencil skirt with some strappy black sandals; hardly anything scandalous.
She heard Tony's quick breath behind her. "What is it?"
"Those," he spoke slowly, voice rough, "are Pepper's clothes."
Jane couldn't speak; there was nothing to say. Tony turned away and in a single violent motion of his whole body, launched the tray into the wall of the door, hard enough to leave a gash in the metal. Jane flinched at the sound, and tightened her grip on the shirt. She would go through with this—she would go through with it, and Tony would see Pepper, and somehow, somehow…they would all manage to escape.
She retreated to the corner of the lab, and with her back to Tony, stripped out of her tee-shirt and pants.
The bundle that Loki had put together for her also included a hairbrush and some basic necessities. Jane carefully brushed out her knotted hair—it had not so much as seen a comb since her capture in Stockholm—and used the chemical sink in the lab to wash her face and brush her teeth. The idea that she was doing any of this for Loki turned her stomach, so she focused instead on how nice it felt to be clean again.
There wasn't a mirror in the lab, so she had to part her hair by feel alone. She tried three times to get a straight line, but had to give it up. It hardly mattered, after all. It's not like she really wanted Loki to admire her looks after all. That idea alone was enough to send her back towards hyperventilation, so she pushed it aside and abandoned any other attempts to look "nice".
Tony had not looked at her or spoken a word since his outburst. She had gone about her preparations with as much silence as she could, waiting to put on her shoes until the very last moment.
But the last moment did finally come. As the locks on the door slid back, Jane toed on the black sandals and felt her side; she had tucked one sharp pencil into the band of her skirt, and now held another in the palm of her right hand to wedge into the door, just in case Tony would not do it. Her stomach gave one final lurch, but she squared her shoulders and gathered her courage as best she could.
Only one Skrull came to get her, but one was more than enough; it reacted the moment Tony lunged for it. With a swish of its tail, Tony went crashing over a stool and smashing into the ground. He gave a yell through clenched teeth and shoved himself to his feet, but Jane caught him by the shoulder as he moved to attack again.
"Tony," she whispered, "no. You've got to find Pepper."
Her name seemed to calm him down, but she still felt all this muscles vibrating under her hand as he fought for control. The Skrull looked ready for another round, and Jane was certain he could not win. She tightened her grip on Tony's arm, and whispered, "It's more important to find Pepper."
He relaxed, sighed, and nodded. "Just be careful, okay? Don't let him hurt you."
Jane gave a weak laugh. "I'll try."
She walked forward and allowed the Skrull to grasp her by the left arm, leaving her right hand—and its pencil—free to do its work. As they passed through the door, Jane dropped it, using the sound from her scuffling heels to cover the noise of its fall. The Skrull walked her quickly down the hallway to the elevator, but she had enough time to turn her head and see the door stop a quarter-inch from closing.
She smiled. If nothing else, Tony would have his chance. Now, she had to focus on getting herself ready.
Riding up in the elevator, Jane tried to stop her heart from racing. She tried everything from deep breathing to holding her breath entirely. Nothing helped. She had never really been in a situation where she had felt this threatened, and there was nothing she had ever learned or studied to prepare her for it.
She wished Tony were standing next to her, instead of the softly-hissing Skrull. She wished Thor would crash through the top of the elevator and fly off with her.
Jane bit her lip. She shouldn't have thought of Thor. The image of him—smiling and golden—was more of a torment than a comfort at the moment. He was not there—he was not coming, either. Once again, she had only herself. It was just too bad that she didn't seem to be enough at the moment.
You recreated the Einstein-Rosen Bridge, Jane reminded herself firmly, and you helped the Avengers stay one step ahead by discovering the anomalies that precede a magical attack. You brought Thor back from Asgard. If you can do that, you can manage this.
Her words of encouragement weren't much, but they were all she had. Jane felt her heartbeat slow, and her breathing evened out.
The elevator gave a quiet chime as they reached the penthouse level, and the Skrull grasped Jane by the arm and pushed her forward once again. She didn't fake stumbling in her heels this time—it had been many months since she'd needed to use them—and she made less than the impressive entrance she had planned.
"I hardly think there's a need for this violence," God, she was getting so tired of hearing his voice, "She doesn't need to be on her knees just yet."
Jane looked up and glared. The Skrull dropped her arm and retreated back into the elevator. After another subtle chime, she was alone with Loki. Again.
This time, he was all politeness.
"Miss Foster," he gestured her farther into the room, "I hope that you have had a productive day. May I offer you a drink?"
Jane stepped forward, feeling her knees stabilize in the heels, "Water please, and yes, in more ways than one."
"Ah," he gestured and summoned her another glass, "I take it Mr. Stark has brought you up to speed with the current situation? I hope he has impressed upon you," he drew closer and offered her the glass, "just how hopeless your situation really is?"
She stood firm, and took it from his fingers. "In a manner of speaking," she said, masking her trembling lips with a sip. Her sip turned into a gulp; she really had to watch her hydration.
He waited for her to finish. "So he remains defiant, then, in spite of the progress I have made in conquering your world? I thought that he might have learnt something of the lessons I tried to teach him."
"Tony's hard-headed," Jane replied, taking another drink, "and so am I."
"What a pity," he said, conjuring himself a glass of red wine. "Although, in your case, I do admit that such stubbornness is more compelling than annoying. I have no idea why you would be so hopeful about your prospects, especially since you have no strength or powers to fight me. Mr. Stark, at least, has the hope of regaining his suit, which would give him some measure of power, but you?" Loki looked her over slowly, from head to toe, "You have nothing."
Jane felt her irritation rise, and welcomed it. It pushed away her fear. "I would have thought," she snapped, "that someone who gained his power by studying arcane magic would understand the power that knowledge brings."
Loki laughed; the hairs on the back of her neck rose in response. "Well spoken, Miss Foster," he raised his glass in a small salute to her, "well spoken, indeed. Now I know what kind of pet I'm keeping; scratch her, and she shows her claws."
"You aren't keeping a pet," Jane said, "you're keeping a human being—several of them, in fact—as prisoners. We are not animals."
"Human beings are merely a higher order of mammal," Loki replied, a smile settling on his face as he challenged her, "you keep dogs and cats as pets—both capable of thought, emotion, and communication—so why should I not keep humans?"
"Because we have the will and desire to be free," Jane said, shaking her head. "It's not the same thing at all!"
"And what benefit does your freedom bring you?" he asked, and Jane was curious to hear that he sounded desirous of an honest answer, "It sets you free to do endless damage to yourself and others. You harm yourself with a series of endless addictions, and harm each other by a series of brutal and pointless wars. Now, you set boundaries for your pets so that they do not bring themselves to harm, and I ask again…where is the difference?"
Jane smirked, and gestured with her glass towards his, "I'm not the one indulging in an addiction."
"Don't display your ignorance so quickly," he smirked right back, "alcohol does not harm the immortal."
"But being run through with a sword does," Jane countered, to cover her mistake, "and I know that the Aesir fight wars and enjoy battle just as much as some mortals do."
"That conclusion stems from knowledge of my brother, and his ilk. There are many of the Aesir who would do much to avoid the devastation of war."
"So, that makes you just the same as humans," Jane concluded, "we have warmongers and pacifists both. And you are still the one who is fighting, and killing…although you say it's to bring an end to fighting and killing. What is the sense of that?"
Loki leaned against the bar and paused, his gaze once more settling in contemplation on Jane's face. "I am again reminded of the reasons I spared your life. If humans are more like animals, in comparison with the Aesir, at least you are one of the more intelligent, Jane Foster. You are my trained chimpanzee."
Jane felt her face flush with anger, but she controlled it. "If I have to be an animal, you should know that dolphins are much more intelligent than any of the primates. And I'd much rather be a dolphin than a monkey."
"Indeed?" he smiled at her, indulgently, clearly amused that she was playing along with his game, "I'll have to keep that in mind. But for the moment," here he gestured to the table behind her, "will you sit down?"
It took more courage that Jane thought it would to turn her back on him and take her seat at the table, especially since he stood close behind her and courteously held her chair. His kind—if condescending—behavior was at such odds when compared to his earlier violence that she felt herself unable to relax in his presence. Her shoulders were already aching with tension and her fingers kept flexing restlessly against the stem of her glass.
When he had seated himself across from her, Jane couldn't keep the question in any longer:
"Why am I here?"
His eyes told her that he understood her question in its entirety, but he still played his games. "I assumed that you might be hungry. It has been quite a while since your dinner with Pepper, after all."
Jane eased up on her grip of the glass, for fear she'd shatter it. "You settled for bringing food to Tony. Why the…special treatment for me?"
"Oh, Mr. Stark," Loki dismissed him with a wave of the hand, "I already know him. You'll find, Miss Foster, that if you torture someone you gain an intimate understanding of that person's character." Jane shivered as he went on, "Mr. Stark is a wonderful set of contradictions, but he offers nothing new. You, on the other hand, I do not understand as well."
"Why do you want to?"
He smiled at her again, "Surely you can't expect me to reveal my motivations, Miss Foster? Now," he lifted the lids off the dishes on the table, and Jane's stomach growled uncontrollably, "what may I offer you?"
Chapter 5: Chapter Five
Jane had to swallow some of her saliva before answering. How many months had it been since she’d had the chance to eat something that smelled this good? Even before hiding out in Stockholm, with the food shortages and canned goods, SHIELD’s headquarters in Uppsala had not really catered to her specific tastes. Come to think of it…
“How did you know?” she asked, double-checking each dish to be sure. “How did you know I’m a vegetarian?”
He smirked. “Though your SHIELD handlers did a very good job preventing me from seeing your scientific work, they were less careful about your personnel file. I know your entire history…that is, as well as SHIELD knew it. Maybe you can tell me just how thorough they were?”
Jane reached across the table and spooned some lentil curry—one of her favorites, and did he know that, or was it just a lucky guess?—onto her plate, feeling her hands shaking not with fear but with eager anticipation of the food.
“I don’t know,” she said, avoiding his eyes as much as she could, “I never saw my personnel file. Knowing SHIELD, I’m guessing it’s pretty accurate.” She finished off the plate with a serving of crisp salad and a thick slice of whole-grained bread; it was the kind of meal that she would have made for herself…if she had the money for the ingredients and could actually cook, that is.
“So when it says that you have graduated from two of your country’s top scientific institutions with the highest academic honors?”
Jane smiled vaguely as she remembered her days at Stanford and then Columbia. “That’s true,” she nodded, shaking her head, “it seems like so long ago, but it’s true. Actually, I just finished my second Master’s three years ago.”
“But I understand that a Master’s degree is not the most advanced degree that your universities offer? There is…a Doctorate, am I correct?”
Despite Loki’s having told her earlier that he had made an extensive study of Earth before revealing himself, Jane still found her eyes widening as she looked at him. He seemed earnest, however, in his pursuit of knowledge, and she swallowed thickly, wondering what this could all mean.
“Yes. A Doctorate is our most advanced degree, but it’s often for those who want to become university instructors. I decided not to get a Doctorate because of the time involved; also, my research was already looked upon as too extreme by most doctoral institutions.”
“And yet, by everything I understand of your research, your theories are hardly astounding. I find it hard to believe that you had as much difficulty as your records indicate in finding funding for your work.”
Jane took another bite of curry and forced herself to chew slowly. She was so hungry that she was glad of Loki’s questions; they made her slow down. “Well, you consider interplanetary travel as a matter-of-course,” she reasoned, “here, the idea of a stable wormhole is still very much considered a domain of science fiction.”
“Many of your science fiction writers had ideas that would hardly be outside the realm of possibility,” Loki replied, “It seems narrow minded of your people to ignore ideas that are theoretically possible, if not yet technologically possible.”
“I would agree,” Jane said, “but that’s not how a lot of grant agencies view it. To them, the idea of an Einstein-Rosen Bridge was not only theoretically and technologically impossible, but even if it were, no one was imagining that there would be people or planets on the other side. Until I met…” she broke off her sentence, and tried to mask her uncertainty with a sip of water. Considering how Loki had reacted to her last mention of his brother, she was not certain that speaking of Thor would be safe.
Loki smiled, the expression unusually gentle. “Until you met Thor, you didn’t think that you would find anyone on the other side of your Bridge.”
Jane swallowed hard, and nodded. “That’s right.”
Silence fell at the little table, and Jane was able to take a few more bites in peace. Watching Loki eat from underneath her eyelashes, she mustered her courage and indulged her curiosity. “I didn’t think the Aesir were vegetarians.”
“They are not, as a general rule. Neither,” and here the dangerous expression in his eyes was back, “are the Jotun; you would do well to remember that this has more relevance in my case. But my personal preferences are no excuse to be rude to my guest.”
She couldn’t help it; she snorted. “Your guest? I thought I was your trained chimpanzee?”
“I thought we had agreed that you were a dolphin?”
Jane laughed. “Still…I’m not quite sure where this suddenly polite treatment is coming from.”
“You would rather I throw you back in the lab and relegate you to Mr. Stark’s thoughtfully-stockpiled emergency rations?” His tone was dry curiosity, no more.
“No,” Jane took another bite of her dinner just in case he meant to throw her out, “but I would like to know what sort of treatment to expect from you. I mean, just a few hours ago you were slapping me and dragging me around.”
“Perhaps it’s all in the name of scientific experiment? Subject the creature under study to a variety of different stimuli and judge its reactions?”
Jane felt her dinner threaten to make its way back up again. “So I’m your lab rat, now?”
“You always were,” he said, matter-of-fact as he helped himself to more curry, “and I won’t insult your intelligence by thinking that you did not always comprehend that fact. I think you know that nothing I do is for your benefit.”
She nodded, slowly, and pressed both hands against the table so he couldn’t see her shaking fingers. “I think I did,” her voice was unsteady, and she cleared her throat, “but that doesn’t mean that knowing that doesn’t frighten me.”
“So why think about it?” he asked, shrugging with an elegant motion of shoulders, “Why concentrate on something so unpalatable to both of us? Why not simply take this dinner as a gift, enjoy some pleasant conversation, and not worry about what tomorrow will bring?”
“I’m a scientist,” Jane gave a shrug of her own, “I can’t just ignore the facts, comforting as ignorance might be. I can’t help but be curious about what you have planned; and I know better than to imagine that this is just an excuse for…pleasant conversation for you. I know that you want something from this; I’d just like to know what it is.”
“Perhaps I simply want to understand the thoughts and emotions of those I will eventually rule,” he leaned back in his chair and spread one long hand on the table, fingers splayed. “Is that an impossibility, Jane Foster?”
“No,” she conceded, leaning forward and shoving away her irritation at his presumed victory, “but after treating me in the way that you have, you can’t expect me to believe that my opinions mean anything to you?”
“Your belief is irrelevant,” her questions were clearly starting to irritate him; she could see the tension around his mouth, “if I ask you questions I expect them to be answered. You have no right to demand an explanation behind each and every one.”
“If I have no right to know, then you have no right to expect me to answer a single one,” Jane lost her own temper, and she snapped, “I think you’d better just take me back to my prison.”
Her anger appeared—thankfully, her brain supplied—to diffuse his. He shook his head and with a smile playing around the corners of his mouth said, “You are truly unique. Powerless, defenseless, completely under my control…and yet you continue to annoy me, even though you must know it to be pointless. Why insist on having inviolable rights when you know that all the rules have changed?”
“The rules may have changed,” Jane said, emboldened by his calm response, “but I refuse to surrender to a rule by force. If you mean to rule this world, you will have to realize that you are attempting to rule a collection of people who will force you, every single day, to justify your right to rule. And since you have established your rule as one of dominance by physical force, we will make you prove it…no matter how much you may not want to.”
He was silent, and his gaze dropped away from hers. “I had no idea you were a political philosopher as well as a scientist.”
“I lived with a political science major for four months,” she said, remembering Darcy with a sudden heart-rush of affection and worry, “something must have rubbed off. And my father…” she took a quick breath, and went on, “my father was a philosopher, in addition to being an economics professor. He and my mother,” she had to pause again; the pain in remembering them here, now, was worse than expected, “used to discuss things like this over the dinner table.”
She took a long drink of water, but it couldn’t soothe the tight soreness of tears bundling up in her throat. She was glad that neither of her parents was around to see the state of the world now. Would her father have continued to resist, risking the lives of his wife and daughter, and died a martyr to his better nature? Or would he have gotten on his knees and bowed his head, as thousands of New Yorkers had done when they turned their backs on the Avengers?
No. No, he wouldn’t have. So he would probably be dead now anyway. Jane’s throat burned and she swallowed only with difficulty. Why was she suddenly hurting, thinking about her parents? They had been gone for so long…
“I am sorry,” his voice was quiet, and she almost missed it over the rush of blood in her ears.
She looked up. “What?”
“I am sorry,” he repeated, looking at her, “to have raised memories of your parents which are clearly painful to you. You were young when they died, I believe?”
Her SHIELD personnel file must have been more detailed than she thought. She spoke, her voice quiet and her lips numb, “They died in a car accident when I was nine.”
“You were injured as well in this accident?”
Why was she talking about this? It was surreal. “Compound fracture of my right leg, and three broken ribs.”
“Your mother was the scientist in your family, was she not? A pioneer in the arena of stellar cartography.”
Jane breathed quick and shallow. She couldn’t meet his gaze any longer. Her voice was a hoarse cry as she said, “Why do you want to know? Why do you care about any of this? Please,” she said, turning to him and not waiting for his answer, “if this is just an experiment, please don’t. Ask me about anything else, torture me if you want, but please…don’t talk about my parents.”
The expression on his face was almost repentant; he nodded slowly. “Very well, Miss Foster. We will not discuss this any longer.”
Jane’s sigh of relief was just barely inaudible. She felt the adrenaline rush leave her in a giant breath. “Thank you,” she murmured.
There was silence in the room; a silence which normally would have been broken by endless little noises from the street outside. As it was, Jane felt a sudden and sickening disorientation as she remembered once again that New York, vibrant economic capital of her country, was very nearly a ghost town. It felt as though every single pillar she relied on in her life had been kicked out from under her: her parents, Erik, her whole world…she closed her eyes and sat back in her chair, waiting for her head to stop spinning.
“You asked me why I was doing this; why I was asking you these questions.”
Jane looked up, but Loki was not looking at her. His eyes had drifted out the window, so she was watching his face in profile. She saw the dark brows overshadowing the rich jade of his inward-looking eyes, the strong nose and the pale skin—skin of the immortal, unblemished in rest and smooth, flawless—but she also saw the downturned lips and the bitter, bitter remorse of countless years weighing down on his shoulders.
He continued to speak without looking at her.
“I ask because you and I are very similar. Your parents are gone; my true parents abandoned me and my adopted ones betrayed me. Your ideas made you an outcast; my skills in magic made me one as well. Your discoveries will cause the end of your world,”
Jane felt her blood run cold, but he went on,
“And I will cause the end of mine.”
She had to catch her breath. The matter-of-fact way in which he spoke had not a single note of despair; he was simply stating the truth…that both of them were destroyers of worlds.
“What…” she tried again, “what do you mean?”
He met her eyes with a tired smile, as though he had already heard her questions and had answered them at length.
“You opened doors, Jane Foster,” he said, shaking his head, “doors that lead to things you cannot possibly imagine. And once these doors have been opened, it is extremely hard to close them again. I brought the Skrull into your world, it is true, but they would have found their way to Midgard by following the trails your portals left behind. And without a guiding mind leading them, the Skrull would have simply slaughtered your people, without mercy and without purpose.”
“And after the Skrull, the Jotun would have come. Their people boast some talented sorcerers, and would have been able to widen and stabilize the interstellar paths. Would any humans have been left after these two invasions? It is doubtful.”
She licked her shaking lips and tried to raise a rebuttal. “So we should be grateful to you and your…controlled killings?”
“You should,” his gaze speared her to her seat and she could not get away. “I bring power to Midgard; power and authority. If I control this world, the Jotun and the Skrull will know that there is someone here who can control the world-paths and will not allow incursions into his territory. That is something that no band of Avengers would have ever been capable of doing. If I fail in controlling Midgard,” he finished, smiling at her, “I fear it will be an end for your kind.”
Jane had never really believed that fear could make one’s teeth chatter; now she had to clench her jaw against the terrifying images his words conjured. Her world, devastated first by indiscriminate killings, then laid to frozen waste by giants who planted their ice-blue feet on all that was verdant and thriving. And all of it, all the devastation…her fault?
It was impossible. He had to be lying. “I don’t believe you,” she said, her voice tight and high-pitched.
“I did not wish to believe that I would destroy my world either,” he said, not rising to her anger. His voice was still flat, toneless. “But I know that it is true.”
“How do you know?” she was battling hysteria and wanted almost to leap across the table and shake him, force him to tell her what he knew.
“I fell between the worlds,” he began, “and saw all possible futures…saw all conceivable pasts. I saw myself dying as an infant without Odin’s intervention, saw myself ascending to the Jotun throne, saw myself living out my entire life in my brother’s shadow. I saw you, Jane Foster,” he continued, and Jane felt her heart stop, “and saw you die alongside your parents, saw you choose another career besides science, saw you and your parents living without ever having suffered your defining tragedy.”
He paused, and closed his eyes. “I saw everything. Every possible permutation of our lives throughout the entire history of the universe. But always, in every single possibility I saw…I cause Ragnarok, and end the world.”
Jane could not speak. There seemed no possible response to him, to his absolute certainty. The enormity of what he must have seen, the sheer number of possible futures and uncounted pasts, the blending and warping of the lines between truth and fiction…no wonder he was mad!
She had to say something. “If you think…” she saw his shoulders spasm, but went on, “if you think you are going to cause the end of the world,” she took a deep breath, and heard it shiver in her throat, “then why are you doing this? Why wage a war against a defenseless people?”
He smiled, and for the first time since they had sat down together, Jane saw again the cold gleam of madness in his eyes. His smile widened, stretched, spread across his face until it looked almost elastic and Jane felt sick.
Dinner ended soon after that, mostly because Jane could not bring herself to take another bite. Loki summoned a Skrull to bring her back down to the lab, and Jane let herself be led with no resistance; she was still numb from Loki’s revelations.
Tony was waiting for her and helped steady her after the Skrull threw her none-too-gently into the lab. For the first time, Jane heard the slam and lock of the door behind her with inexpressible relief, and she sagged against the lab table, pressing shaking hands against her eyes and forehead. Her fingertips were frozen; she felt as though she would never be warm again.
Wisely, Tony didn’t say a word; he merely watched for a moment, then came over and held her in his arms while she breathed, and shook, and willed away tears. When she was somewhat more in control of herself and stepped back from him, he asked,
She gave him the outline of their conversation, pausing frequently to both gather her thoughts and consider the best way to frame things. In retrospect, she was surprised at the turns their conversation had taken—as Tony evidently was—and it was strange, the idea that Loki had chosen to be honest with her about so many different topics. Tony reacted indignantly to Loki’s accusation of Jane’s destroying her world—Jane could not leap to her own defense as readily—and let out a low whistle over the idea of Ragnarok.
“And that’s it?”
“That’s pretty much it,” Jane nodded, “I don’t know if I could have handled much more,” she said, chafing her arms in a vain attempt to get some warmth flowing. She felt like a stranger in her own skin, uncomfortable, unfamiliar. Again, she considered: was it possible, what Loki had said? He had seen her…seen her open the portals which, with his intervention or not, would have led to her world’s being conquered and enslaved. The idea was horrifying.
Tony saw the expression on her face. “You shouldn’t pay so much attention to him,” he insisted, “just because he’s a psychopath doesn’t mean that you are. And whatever he might say, I don’t think it’s possible to predict the future. Who knows if the ether-between-worlds or whatever even tells the truth? Who knows if whatever he saw was anything at all except a great big interstellar LSD trip?”
Despite his cavalier attitude, Jane could see that Tony was as shaken up as she was. “Whatever he saw, Tony,” she said, shaking her head, “I think he believes, without a doubt, that he’s going to end the world.”
Tony nodded, mouth tight and face grim. “I think you’re right. But I don’t know if that makes this whole situation better or worse.”
“I think it can only make it worse,” Jane replied. She looked down at her clasped hands and saw that her fingers were still shaking. She had to change the subject.
“Did you find Pepper?” she whispered, motioning Tony over to her side so they could talk quietly.
“Yeah, I did,” he said just as softly, “she’s okay. He didn’t touch her; basically just put her in with Natasha and Clint. They got a little roughed up, but they got caught so early that they didn’t have much information that he wanted.”
“That’s good; that they’re all okay.”
“Yeah, although I wouldn’t categorize either Clint or Natasha as “okay”. They’re both pissed off and doing everything they can to let their guards know about it. Seems like they’ve taken more damage from the Skrull than from Loki. They’d probably be in better shape if they didn’t annoy them quite so much.”
“That sounds a bit like the pot calling the kettle black,” Jane said slyly, smiling at him.
“Lies, slander and calumny,” he sniffed, “I am a model prisoner.”
She laughed, and it felt good to do it; somehow the shadows receded for a few minutes and she remembered normal life. Life before aliens, and mystical portals, and superior beings/gods. Whatever else might happen, she would have this…friendship with people she trusted, people whom she could rely on to help her get through.
But they did have to get through. So, back to work.
“Did you see any way to get up to your room to get a spare arc reactor?” she asked, voice almost silent, “I think creating another portal is still our best way out of here.”
“Well, that’s where things get interesting,” Tony said, “I can’t get to the arc reactors, but Natasha can. Apparently, she found a way to slip my security systems, back when she worked for me; she says it was just in case I needed an emergency replacement and couldn’t get to one on my own, but I have my doubts.” Tony sounded like a pouting child after someone pointed out the flaw in his supposedly foolproof scheme. Jane smothered a smile.
“Anyway,” he continued, much put-upon but smiling himself, “she and Clint have worked out a way to get out of their cells; apparently Loki didn’t see the need to seal them in magically as he’s done with us. So here’s what’ll happen; I’ll get Jarvis working so he can send a message to Clint, Natasha, and Pepper; they’ll get out, Natasha will go for the reactors while Clint and Pepper come here; we’ll set up the portal reaction and when Natasha gets here with the power source, we can all escape together.”
“Escape, unfortunately, within a radius of only five blocks,” Jane murmured, shaking her head. “We can’t do this if Loki is anywhere around; he’ll catch us in a minute.”
“Yup. Timing is gonna be everything. Biggest problem is that none of us can think of a way to find out what his travel plans are going to be.”
Jane bit her lip. “I might be able to,” she said, running her fingers through her hair and turning away.
Tony followed her. “How’s that?”
“He seems to think…that we have something in common,” saying the words were difficult; Jane felt unclean, somehow, thinking of any possible connection between herself—harmless, if klutzy astrophysicist—and him—insane, mass-murdering god—but any advantage could save all their lives. “And if that’s true…if I can get closer to him…I might be able to get him to say something about his plans. It could give us some idea of when to act.”
Tony shook his head. “Sweetheart, I don’t think you want to get any closer to this guy than you have to. Who knows what he could get in his head?”
“But that’s just the thing, Tony,” Jane said, “I might just have to. If we’re going to get out of here, you know as well as I do that someone is going to have to get the information we need. I know I’m not a super spy,” she continued, smiling softly, “but I do have an advantage here.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Me either,” she assured him, “but it’s the best chance we have.”
Tony’s face was pinched and dark; it seemed as though he liked the idea less than even she did. To keep him from fixating on the idea—which was depressing to her as well—she shook her head and turned back towards their plans.
“We should try and find a way to boost the portal’s radius. Even if Loki isn’t here when we break out, the Skrull might be able to track our trail as well. The farther away we can get, the better.”
“I’ve got some ideas about that,” Tony said, pulling out a sheaf of papers that had his messy penciled scribbles all over them, “take a look.”
It seemed that the lights in the lab never dimmed. Jane and Tony poured over their plans until the wee hours—with Tony remarking that only a bottle of vodka could make their discussions more fun—but finally had to call it quits. Jane was exhausted; she felt slow and dragging, and even her eyelids felt like lead weights, hanging half-closed over her eyes.
But the lights made it impossible to sleep. The lights, and her racing thoughts, that is. For though Jane was physically tired, the amount of information absorbed that day—in both facts and feelings—still needed to be processed before her brain could shut down and she could allow herself some rest.
She rolled over on her cot and threw one arm over her eyes, pressing down until she saw spots and tried to breathe slowly and deeply, although every fiber of her being wanted to scream until she coughed blood.
She couldn’t get his face out of her head. She pressed down hard with both hands, but she still saw his deep eyes, his pale skin, his narrow lips. She saw him smiling, laughing, seething with fury…and as she saw these things, she felt herself responding. Smiling when he was happy, and wanting to shrink back from his anger when he frowned.
What was happening to her? She wanted to purge these images from her brain, cut them out with a scalpel…not fixate on them like a starstruck teenager. The fact that she could not absolutely terrified her.
If they escaped tomorrow, would she still think about him? Would her life ever assume the same untroubled (comparatively, that is) flow that it had before?
He was insane. He was a killer. Whatever his reasons, however he might be justifying his actions, these would always remain the facts. Whatever horrors he’d seen in traversing the uncharted flows between the realms notwithstanding, he had no right to barge into their world and make a mess of things. Whatever end he was trying to affect, good or bad, he was using methods that had no justification or excuse.
That being said, however…Jane believed him. She really believed him when he said he was trying to save them from themselves. It was condescending, and infuriating, and she didn’t think by any means that his intervention would help—she snorted and rolled over again—but she did believe that he meant to help them. It wasn’t a justification, but it did mean something.
He had had no reason to take her into his confidence. Clearly he hadn’t done the same with Tony, the other mortal with whom he had spent some time. And once in his confidence, he had had no reason to confess his fears (and he had been afraid) about causing the end of the world. She was sure that he believed his confession to be a weakness—and why would he allow himself to seem weak to a powerless human woman?
Jane sat up and put both feet flat on the cold tile floor, resting her feverish forehead in the palms of her hands. Why would he do any of this?
If he were telling the truth, then he also meant what he had said about the similarities between the two of them. Which meant that, in his mind, Jane was a destructive force just as surely as he was. She shivered. Was it true? Could she, even inadvertently, have caused the downfall of her world?
And if it was true, did she now have a responsibility to help Loki, knowing that he was a force of power that would cause potential invaders to think twice about conquering Earth?
The thought was chilling, and Jane tried to shove it aside, but once raised, she had to consider it. The Skrull were here. That was a fact. And it seemed that he was the only thing that kept them from slaughtering indiscriminately. After seeing them…she didn’t doubt that he had kept their destructive potential to a minimum. If the Skrull had gotten here on their own, or if Loki were defeated before he could send them away…
The consequences were unimaginable.
“So the question remains,” Jane whispered, voice small and uncertain, “what do I have to do?”
There was no answer in the silence of the lab. She lay down again and tried to get to sleep.
I made up absolutely everything about Jane’s history. I’m not sure what her past is like in the comics, so all of this is my invention only! Please let me know what you think…drop a line, even if only to say you hated it :D
Chapter 6: Chapter Six
Jane woke up with grit under her eyelids, feeling as though she had barely rested at all. Tony was already awake, leaning against a lab table and going over their calculations again, his shoulders slumped and tired, hair mussed up. She sighed, and rolled over, clutching the thin blanket in front of her chest and feeling unaccountably like the kid she was in high school who just wanted to hide under the blankets and let the world pass her by.
What was the point of getting out of bed? What was the point of doing anything to either help Loki or themselves? If they escaped, he'd just catch them. If they fought, he'd probably win…
Jane bit her lip and swung herself upright before she had the chance to think another thought like that. That was ridiculous. How could she? There were still people on the outside who were continuing the fight: Director Fury, the mutants, Thor…thinking this way was a betrayal of them all.
She got to her feet and wiped the sleep from her eyes, pulling her tangled hair away from her face in a messy ponytail. Tony turned to look at her, his eyes heavily lidded and bloodshot; he seemed about as sanguine about their upcoming day as she felt.
"Hey, hon," he said, gesturing towards the coffeepot at the corner of the workbench, "help yourself."
"I wonder if the others get such special treatment?" she said, taking a mug and pouring a steaming cup of the dark liquid. The thought was as bitter as the coffee, but she was glad of its burning sting as it scalded down her throat. She blinked again and saw the world come in to sharper focus around her.
"They've got some pretty cozy digs," Tony said softly, "they're in a suite of rooms on the eighteenth floor. We're the ones roughing it down here."
She groaned. "That makes me feel so much better," she grumbled, pulling over Tony's paperwork and giving it a quick once over. She could see that he'd been trying to figure out a way to increase the range of their projected portal, but so far, the three methods that he'd tried were unsuccessful. She grabbed a pencil and started going over his math, knowing that he would not have made a mistake.
"Jane, hey," he said, laying one hand over hers and stilling their restless motion, "stop a minute."
"Tony," she said, shaking her head, "just let me work. I just want to get out of here, okay?"
"We both do. But slamming your head against this isn't going to help. Let me figure out a way to boost the power, all right? I know the arc reactor's capabilities better than you do."
"And what should I do in the meantime?" Jane shot back, jerking her hand from under his and leaving a long pencil mark on the paper, "Do Loki's dirty work? Try and figure out a way to destroy the mutants? Or maybe I should just try to get a working portal to Asgard, so he can destroy that too."
"Hey," he said sharply, "you know that's not what I mean. Take it easy, kiddo."
"I can't!" she said, flinging down the pencil and turning away from him. "I can't stay here, okay, Tony? He looked at me and he said that what I'd done would cause the end of Earth. How am I supposed to handle that? All my life, all I've wanted to do is contribute to humanity, to help us understand the universe a little bit better. And by doing that…" she broke off and put both hands over her face.
"I told you that you shouldn't pay any attention to him; he's a nutcase," Tony said, "but what I meant was that you could try and figure out some other way for us to get out of here. The portal isn't the only way, you know."
"I think it is," Jane said, "and it ought to work, but we'll have to make sure…"
"We'll have to make sure…" Jane repeated, slowly, running one hand through her hair. She stopped, processed her thoughts, and turned to her friend. "I think I know a way."
"Uh, Jane," he said, cocking one eyebrow at her, "you're kinda not making sense anymore. I think I'm the only one here who's allowed not to make sense on a regular basis."
Jane was too distracted with penciling her thoughts and equations on a yellow notepad. She flashed an unusually bright smile at Tony, and said, "You concentrate on boosting the power. I'm going to build us a barometer."
"O-kay," he drew the word out, studying her earnestly bent head, "I'm gonna let you do that…and try and boost the power. You just…sit over there and not be crazy."
She laughed. "I'm not crazy," she didn't look up as she flipped the page, "I'm just seeing things from a different angle. Maybe I slept better than I feel like I did."
"Well, that'll make one of us," Tony grumbled, turning back to his own calculations, "Remind me next time I'm stocking emergency gear that I should really have better quality cots. Although, I never imagined that I'd be hostage in my own tower, so maybe I should just do a better job planning for emergencies in general."
Jane didn't reply. Tony sighed, "I'm a voice crying in the wilderness," and let her work in peace.
Despite a brief, hostility-filled encounter with the Skrull guards who brought in their breakfast trays—thankfully without any notes or other communication from Loki—Jane was able to work for three hours in uninterrupted calm. Not that she was calm, by any means. She had a tendency to talk to herself, swear, kick equipment, and throw her calculator when in the depths of a research puzzle, and Tony had had more than one good laugh at her expense.
She barely noticed. The idea that sparked in her brain was so promising that if she could pull it off, it might go a long way towards solving their problems.
She took a quick break from wielding the acetylene torch and pushed her safety goggles off her forehead, wiping the sweat from her forehead with a filthy work glove.
"I love a woman who can weld," Tony called from across the lab, his vision shielded from the brilliance by a stack of books.
"It's a much-underappreciated skill," Jane said, shaking out her tired arm and testing the temperature of her new barometer's metal. "Give it a few more minutes," she murmured, wiping her forehead once more, "and I think…I think we can do a test."
"You've had me on tenterhooks for the last four hours," Tony said, having crept up behind her to sneak a peek at her invention, "so it had better be just another few minutes. Wanna walk me through the theory while we wait?"
"Sure," Jane said, peeling off her gloves and stowing the tank and welder. "So…it's pretty much a magical barometer. Since it's atmospheric pressure differentials that allow us to predict an incoming magical attack, I figure that Loki must constantly be generating some sort of magical field. Maybe it's not enough to detect with the technology I've already created, but this…" Jane prodded the circular disk with one grimy finger, "is much more sensitive."
"And if we can calibrate it properly…" Tony began, giving his trademark smarmy grin…
"We'll be able to tell just how close he is to us." Jane finished, giving a smirk of her own. "And we'll be able to leave whenever he does."
"Jane Foster, brilliant and beautiful," Tony said, pressing one hand to his glowing chest, "the world needs more people like us."
"Like 'us'?" Jane huffed, planting her fists on her hips, "I seem to recall that I was the one doing all the welding over here."
"Yes, but I provided the encouragement and motivation. Props are due for the fantastic pep talk I gave. And you cannot deny that I am both brilliant and beautiful."
She laughed, and picked up her creation, feeling it gingerly for structural weaknesses. It was an ugly little thing; about six inches in diameter, three inches wide, it was a basic design which was more like a cross between a magnet and a barometer, although this one had an on/off switch on the base.
Thankfully, Loki had kept most of the original supplies in the lab; Jane had been able to get some very thin adamantium rods that, when set in the right alignment to the iridium filings that lay between two panes of glass, picked up the magical vibrations running through the air and caused the whole device to vibrate. Theoretically. Now it was time to see if it would actually work.
"Here goes nothing," she breathed.
She flipped the switch and it started shaking immediately; Jane took it over to the entrance to the lab and held it up towards the magical seal on the doorway and the thing nearly jumped out of her hand. On the far side of the lab, the tremors were much fainter.
Tony took the device and did his own comparison, walking it back and forth across the lab to get an idea of the thing's baseline vibration.
Jane watched him, and saw his face getting progressively darker. She understood his worries; they were the same as her own, and unfortunately, had only one solution.
"One of us is going to have to get right up next to him to properly gauge how this thing will react when he's gone," Tony said, grimly.
"It's gotta be calibrated," Jane nodded, looking at the device where it buzzed gently on the table.
"Shit," he grumbled, folding his arms and giving her a hard stare, "I don't want you to have to get that close to him again."
"Well, maybe you can piss him off and have him fling you around the lab a bit," Jane remarked, snidely, "and you can satisfy your macho protective urges. You know it'll be safer for both of us if I'm the one to do it…and face it, I'm probably going to have the opportunity sooner than you will."
"It's gonna be tricky to smuggle that anywhere around him," Tony said, shaking his head, "The thing's like a hyperactive iPhone, the way it vibrates."
"I thought you eschewed all things Apple," Jane said, taking up her barometer and practicing wrapping it in a fold of her cardigan. Nope, too bulky…it stuck out from her hip.
"Of course I do," he said, "because of these very reasons."
"Exactly these reasons!" Jane laughed over her shoulder. She tucked the barometer in at the waistband of her jeans so that it rested flat against her back. That wasn't too bad…if she put on a chunkier sweater, it wouldn't be noticeable at all. Then again, she might start laughing uncontrollably when it started to vibrate.
She put the thing down and crossed her arms. "This is vaguely ridiculous."
"Isn't it just?" Tony was grinning like a madman. "I think you had the right idea, though," he took up the barometer and swathed it in a hand towel from the lab sink, "and this will keep it from irritating you too much."
"If it went crazy at the door lock, can you imagine what it'll do around Loki?" Jane said, "I'm not sure if I'll be able to keep a straight face."
"Well, you've got time to practice," Tony took her by the shoulders and pushed her towards the door in question, "see what you think."
The vibrations tickled, it was true, but through the muffling of the towel they weren't so overpowering as to put her in danger of exposing their secret. She was still nervous of how different it would be when she came face-to-face with Loki again, but she would bite her tongue in two before doing something to betray them.
"I think I'm good," Jane said, checking her profile in the mirror one last time. With a thicker sweater and careful attention to her posture, the barometer didn't show up as anything other than a fold in her shirt. The constant vibration against her skin was a strange sensation, but already she could see the advantages; she was familiar with the "baseline" level to be found in the room in general and could almost sense how far she was from the door just by the varying levels of intensity she felt humming against the base of her spine.
She looked at Tony. "I think this will work."
"It'll have to work," he said, "since I can't think of anything smarter. And there's no time to make it any smaller. The sooner we get this done, the better."
Jane nodded. The sudden silence in the lab, after the restless activity of the morning, was disconcerting. "So…" she said, looking around, "what do you want to do between now and then?"
"That's a dangerous question," Tony said, smiling, "normally, I'd suggest something irresponsible and fun, like playing with acetylene torches or having an invent-off. But I think you've beaten me in today's round…although don't expect any mercy from me tomorrow."
"I won't," Jane said, resting her elbows against the lab bench, "but don't think I'm going to rest on my laurels. I've already got big plans for boosting our portal's range…some ways of looking at physical space that you might not have considered."
"You know, we should probably do some work on the projects that our lord and master's assigned," Tony sighed, "just in case he decides to give us a pop quiz, or something."
Jane frowned. "You don't really want to, do you?"
"Hell, no. It was a particularly bad joke, even for me."
Her brow was still furrowed. "You've got a point, though. He could come down and see that we haven't actually made any progress on what he wants."
"So? We're not his lapdogs, jumping at every offered treat. He hasn't even offered a treat for us, except not throwing us around. And I gotta say," Tony rolled his shoulders and clenched his fists, "after a few days stuck down here, staring at the walls, I could use a little throwing around."
"You know you can't match him," Jane said, softly. Offending his masculine pride be damned, she had to speak the truth. The grimace on Tony's face confirmed that he knew the truth as well as she did.
He nodded. "I know," he said, crossing his arms and leaning against the lab table, "but it's just so annoying, being stuck down here…knowing Pepper's just upstairs, but I can't go see her. And he took Jarvis offline, so I didn't have anyone to talk to, before he shoved you in here with me."
Jane lowered her voice. "We'll get out, Tony," she said, "we'll get out and then we can fight back. But not before; it'd be suicide."
"Nah," Tony dismissed that idea, "not suicide; he needs us too much. Remember? There's a shortage of beautiful and brilliant people in the world…he needs us both."
She smiled at the absurdity of his logic. They sank into silence again, and Jane jumped on top of the table, folding her feet underneath her to sit cross legged. If only she had a cup of hot chocolate to cradle between her cold hands…it seemed like she could never get warm…
The door lock clattered, and rasped aside. Both of them suddenly sat and stood ramrod straight; Tony's body was locked into a preparatory fighting stance, and Jane dropped one leg in front of her in order to hop down quickly, if need be. She couldn't fight, but she could at least get out of Tony's way…
"Ah, it's Mr. L'Oreal himself," Tony drawled, his attitude so casual that Jane couldn't believe they were looking at the same Loki. She felt her heart beating so fast that she was surprised it was still in her chest, and not breaking through her solar plexus like an alien parasite.
Judging from the sour twist of Loki's lips, if he didn't understand the full meaning behind Tony's jibe, he at least understood that the man was being insolent, as usual. The sorcerer clenched one fist, and the barometer at Jane's back started to shake with such force that she almost screamed in surprise.
True to her inner pledge, though, she clamped her teeth down on her lower lip and nothing else betrayed the presence of the device. The feeling was like a razor flaying the skin above her bones, and she remembered, in a flash of insight, the carnival machines which pretended to give you electric shocks just through very powerful vibrations…
She gritted her teeth against the pain and the panic as Loki spoke.
"Mr. Stark," he said, "insolent as always. One might have thought that after a few weeks in solitary ineptitude in your own laboratory that you might have learnt humility. But as I remarked to Miss Foster, here," and he smiled at her direction, despite Tony's scornful snort, "you seem incapable of learning the simplest of lessons."
"Maybe you're just a bad teacher," Tony shot back, his eyes darting between Loki and Jane, who could not look away from their captor's gaze. "And maybe I didn't think your lessons were worth learning."
Loki's attention could not be swayed. He continued to stare at Jane as he took slow steps across the lab.
"Tell me Miss Foster," he said, gently.
She couldn't tell if it was the increasing pain at her spine or the lure of his magnetic voice that made her sit straighter. She pressed her lips together and focused on her breathing. It gave her a slight measure of control.
"Tell me," he repeated, "is it common in your world to find creatures that are so blind to their own welfare that they will challenge insurmountable forces out of sheer stubbornness? Can you not persuade your…friend," his voice lingered on the word, "to act in a way less likely to get him killed?"
She wondered if she could trust herself to speak. It was a moot point; she had to.
"That's the problem with trying to control creatures of free will," she said, quietly, thanking whatever unseen powers that her voice didn't shake along with the rest of her, "we don't respond well to threats and force."
"Now, that's just not true, is it? You saw some of the news broadcasts, I'm sure, even before Sweden surrendered," Loki studied her face as though he had completely forgotten about Tony, who was still throwing worried glances in Jane's direction, "you saw how most people—your great "creatures of free will", as you say—practically fell over each other to kneel at my feet?"
"I saw what you did to those who didn't," Jane said, and this time her voice shook, but she knew it was not because of the barometer. "I saw what you did to that man in Germany. And those students in Brazil."
"And the woman in Italy, the Prime Minister of Britain, and those poor unfortunate children in Istanbul," Loki continued her recitation with not a shadow of remorse coloring his words. Indeed, he just smiled at her still as he finished, "I can play this game as well as you can."
"You asshole, it's not a game!" Tony snarled, finally getting the god's attention. Jane's whole body slumped momentarily as he turned away from her, but she tensed up again as Loki moved, covering the space of the lab in the blink of an eye and slamming her friend up against the wall.
She prayed that the crack she heard as his body hit wasn't the sound of a rib breaking. Jane jumped down from the table and took the barometer out from the waistband of her jeans, stowing it quickly in one of the filing cabinets under the workbench. As far as she was concerned, it was damn well calibrated.
Tony was wheezing under the pressure of Loki's forearm pressed horizontally against his windpipe and his arms scrabbled for purchase against his bracers, but there was no shifting the god. He was just physically so much stronger than the Tony that there was nothing he could do.
"No, Mr. Stark," Loki said, voice low and gravelly, "it is not a game. In a game, I would advance, and you would retreat, and vice versa. But I have been winning this war, and I have shown that I do not care enough for your miserable lives to spare them just because one of you decides to show the vestiges of a spine."
"Stop it!" Jane cried, wrapping both her hands around Loki's forearm and bracing all her weight against him. It was a pathetic display, and the curl of Loki's lip showed that he knew it too, but she had to do something.
He freed Tony's throat long enough to place his hand against her shoulder and push. The push was enough to send her crashing into the doorway, and her head bounced painfully off the frame. She crumpled, and Tony was still caught.
Jane clutched her head with both hands. He moved so fast. His words came to her through a hazy veil, and she struggled to get back on her feet. The wall helped her, and she was upright again. But the few feet between them seemed so far…
"You are nothing," Loki snarled, digging his forearm deeper into Tony's throat as the other man's defenses became weaker and weaker. "Why is it so difficult for your idiotic race to realize that you should be grateful for the protection of a superior being? That your place in the universe is merely a single step up from that of the ants?
"I should just destroy all of you," power bloomed at his fingertips, green and horrible. Tony's face looked sunken and corpselike in the glow, and he could barely muster the strength to keep his arms up. "I should just destroy all you mortals and begin with my own inventions."
"Stop," Jane gasped, and put her hands on his forearm again. She was so dizzy from the blow to her head—she could feel the blood trickling down the collar of her sweater—that she slid forward on his arm and ended up clutching his hand.
They both jumped from the shock.
At first, Jane thought that it was the power of his magic that was making her feel this way—as though she could sense every nerve in her body, from her hair follicles to her kneecaps. But from the way his eyes widened as his fingers contracted automatically around hers…she didn't think she was the only one feeling it.
The skin of his hand was calloused in odd places—the ridges of the knuckles, the fingertips, and the heel of the palm—but the rest of it was soft and smooth. Still, she knew that a knife probably wouldn't be enough to pierce it, and that the deceptively gentle hand could crush the life from her without much effort (or remorse) at all. But Jane did not let go.
Beside them, Tony slid quietly to the ground, gasping and clutching at his bruised throat. Loki didn't spare him a moment's glance; he was taken up entirely by Jane. She took a quick breath and it shivered past her lips; his eyes fastened on them and his upper body curved towards her in a subtle arc.
She panicked, and jerked backwards, out of his grip. Even without the direct contact, her whole body still felt electrified, and her heart beat fitfully, stuttering in her chest as though trying to get started after a stall.
He was staring at her still, and she was struck suddenly with the thought that he looked tired…exhausted, even. The skin around his eyes was dark and shadowed, and his skin seemed tight and sallow. She wondered if he were sleeping at all.
Beside them, Tony wheezed.
"Please," she said, the word hardly louder than a breath. "Please, stop."
He stared at her, and licked his lips. "Please, what?"
She tried again. "Please, Loki—"
He lashed out at her, and gripped her forearms, jerking her forward and twisting them until she hand to stand on her toes. She cried out with the pain and shock.
"You do not," he spat, "have the right to use my name. You will address me properly."
Her brain raced, and she saw her father in her mind's eye. Would he have bowed?—she wondered briefly, hysterically. It didn't matter. It wasn't the pain in her arms that made her say what she did, nor was it her frantically beating heart. It was the shallow, pained breaths of a friend suffering beside her that made her look up at him, and beg.
"Please," she blinked back tears and smothered her pride, "please…my god, please."
He smiled then, wide, slow, and self-satisfied. He breathed out and she felt his breath on her face, and heard the low sound of the chuckle building in his throat. He laughed low, but long, and did not let her move an inch as he reveled in his victory.
She could not even flinch as he leaned close to her, his cheek brushing against hers as he whispered in her ear.
She thrashed against his grip, but it was useless. If Tony had no chance of moving him, neither did she. He continued.
"I knew you would realize your place," he whispered, the low, intimate sound enough to prickle the fine hairs on her neck. Even as she fought, she shuddered with the sensation. He laughed again, "And as your god," he drew back, "I will spare him."
He turned away from her, but did not relax his grip. "Tony Stark," he said, addressing the man still slumped on the floor, "consider yourself fortunate that you have someone willing to sacrifice her pride on your behalf. Not that your pride is such a great sacrifice, my dear," his smile was cutting and cruel, and Jane couldn't help herself; she gave a strangled scream and lunged at him again, baring her teeth as he laughed harder and stilled her thrashing by catching her wrists and squeezing the bones together.
Her scream of anger became one of pain, and Tony recovered so far as to snarl, "Let her go, you bastard," and lash out with one well-aimed foot.
Loki returned the kick, and this time Jane knew she heard a bone break. Tony's face went pale, and he curled up into himself.
Loki watched him, and shook his head. "Fragile as a fly," he shook his head, "why do you fight so hard?"
"Because we have to!" Jane cried, "Why don't you understand that?"
He did not reply. His gaze had left them both, and turned inward. For a moment, they remained that way, in a silent tableau of uncomprehending and unreasoning pain. Jane focused on her breath and his face; nothing else in the world mattered.
"Well," Loki said, at last, "your pride may be an unworthy sacrifice, but I think I will accept it all the same. So, if you will excuse us, Mr. Stark," he let go of one of Jane's wrists but dragged her along with him by the other. She had to trot to keep up with his long strides, since when she fell behind he crushed her bones again in his grasp.
Tony tried to push himself up against the wall but the pain in his leg sent him to the ground again. "Where are you taking her?" he bellowed, but by then, the door of the lab was already shut, muffling his voice.
Jane was suddenly beyond fear, beyond panic. She breathed, and she walked, and she felt only her heart beating and the iron grip of his hand on her wrist. She did not meet his eyes, did not notice what hallway they were walking through, did not even watch her feet as they moved at his guiding. Academically, she realized she was probably going into shock, but she couldn't expend the energy on that thought. She had to focus on her breathing…it was the only way she could stop from screaming.
They stopped moving, and he let go of her wrist. She still did not look up. Her lungs expanded…breathe in. They contracted…exhale out.
Her fingers were shaking, and they were still cold. God, she just wanted to be warm! Just once, before—if—she died…if she could just feel truly warm again, she would close her eyes thanking whatever god had decided to take pity on her.
He was standing so close to her, she could feel his heat on her skin. It didn't help.
Nothing he did would ever help.
His fingers—his cold fingers—took her chin and gently lifted her head. She did not meet his eyes; her breath hitched in her throat.
It was a nightmare, but not a surprise, when his lips descended on hers and his arms—his impossibly strong arms—tightened around her and pulled her against his body.
And…there we go. Leave me a note.
Chapter 7: Chapter Seven
Jane's mouth had been slightly open, her lips parted, and that was the reason Loki's tongue was in her mouth. She felt it there, and yet didn't feel it at the same time. Her body and mind were cold. Every place he touched her (one hand was on her neck, and trailing lower; the other was at her waist) felt lifeless and numb, as though all the blood in her body were retreating from his touch.
Her eyes were open. They had never shut. Academically, she found it very strange that his were closed—tightly closed—and that he seemed so desperate to get closer to her when she could not have been further away.
He leaned away from her for a moment—his eyes still closed—and took a deep, shuddering breath. She had no time to react before he pressed his lips to hers again, his hand on her neck almost painfully cold and his other arm around her middle like a steel band.
It wasn't until his hand trailed down her neck and slid down the collar of her V-neck tee-shirt that Jane woke up.
She had never punched anyone before. She had barely punched anything before—except at that one kickboxing lesson Darcy had dragged her to—but somehow she remembered what the instructor had told her about how to make a fist and how to hit the bag.
The pacifist in her died a quiet death as Jane did two things in quick succession:
She bit down hard on his tongue, tasting blood in her mouth.
When he jerked back from her, she punched him hard in the face.
It hurt her far more than it hurt him, she could tell. Her knuckles only glanced off his cheekbone before impacting on his nose, but every place her fingers connected felt sore and bruised. He did not move.
Jane welcomed the pain without a whimper. It made her warm, and drove away the lingering cold and numbness from his fingers. She could still feel them—like burning ice on her flesh.
"Don't you dare," she hissed, keeping her fist clenched and taking a few steps back from him, "touch me again."
It was insulting that he did not even acknowledge her anger. He merely stood there and looked at her, and Jane suddenly realized that he was not seeing her. His vision had gone inward—whether to analyze his next course of action or to wage some personal struggle, she could not tell—but he was silent, and still.
Meanwhile, Jane's body was still shaking with delayed adrenaline. Had her fists not been balled up as tight as she could make them, her fingers would have been shaking uncontrollably.
She could not be silent and wait for him to be done. She had been silent too long…never, ever again.
"Do you hear me?" she asked, voice strong with righteous anger, "Put a hand on me again and I will break your fingers."
The same academic voice in her brain that catalogued dry facts supplied her with the idea that his bones were probably stronger than steel, and there would be no way in Hell she could ever damage him. She ignored that voice, and stood by her—very—empty threat.
He could hit her, lock her up, torture her. Anything was preferable to…
She took a deep breath and shoved that thought out of her mind too.
Loki took a step forward. It was a tribute to the differences between their heights that in one single step he closed all the distance that she had put between them. Jane shifted backwards again and felt her back hit the cold glass of the floor-to-ceiling windows. She tried to move to one side, but his hand shot out and blocked her escape.
The impact of his fist shuddered against the window—her ears rang with the sound, and the bruise on her head twinged—but he still did not speak. She stood still, her fists still clenched and her arms bent at the elbow, prepared—she hoped—for anything.
Prepared for everything except what he did, of course.
The sound was low in his throat, at first. Grating…like driving over a gravel road. But soon it grew in intensity and pitch, until he was out of control, laughing and laughing, almost spitting in her face. Jane winced and turned away, though she couldn't escape from the cage that his arms made; she wished she could melt through the glass and fall through the air. Even if no one came to catch her.
The laughter couldn't have lasted for longer than a minute or two, but Jane was close to collapse—her head aching from the shrill pitch of his voice—by the time he finally started to quiet himself. He took two breaths, chuckling each time he exhaled, and caught her chin between his fingers, dragging her face back to look at him.
"Well, Ms. Foster," he said, all his teeth showing as he smiled, "and here I thought one god might be as good as another. But you really are in love with my brother, aren't you?"
"This has nothing to do with love," Jane hissed, though her voice shook as much as her tiny fists, "this has to do with hating you." She punctuated her sentence by shoving her hands away from her face. "I meant it," she repeated, "don't touch me."
The laughter disappeared from his face. His body shifted ever closer; looming, smothering. Jane could barely breathe.
"Don't," he said softly, leaning in so close that he was almost speaking the words into her mouth, "ever," his lips brushed against hers, and she bared her teeth, "threaten me."
He drew back to his full height and stepped back, looking down on her with cold eyes and a curl of disgust to his lip. "It would not be a wise course of action."
Her heart was pounding so loudly, blood racing through her ears, that Jane almost didn't hear herself as she said, "I don't think you're one to talk about wise courses of action. How is r-rape," she stumbled on the word, "ever wise?"
He shrugged. "How does the expression go? You can't rape the willing."
Her mouth fell open in disgust and disbelief. "You didn't honestly think," she said, stepping sideways and getting another few paces of space between them, "that I would ever—could ever—"
"Oh, spare me your disgust and indignation," he said, dismissing her anger with a languorous wave of his hand, "you forget, I have known human women before. In all senses of the word," he went on, smiling, "you are far less unique than you might believe."
"If that's what you think," Jane was so angry she could barely see straight, "I wonder why you'd even be interested in…" she couldn't say the words, and let them die in her throat. He fully understood her meaning.
"Why not?" He looked at her, eyes running slowly along the length of her body. "Can you imagine a better way to torture my brother?"
Jane shook her head, "You unimaginable bastard."
He laughed, throwing his head back. "Yes, no one ever imagined a bastard quite like me," he said, chuckling, "But, in all honesty—I put this question to you because, being such a clever woman, you must know the answer—can you think of a more perfect revenge? For Thor's first love, his steadfast little mortal scientist, to succumb to the superior charms of his rival not-brother? It would eat him alive," and Loki licked his lips, his eyes bright, reveling in Thor's imaginary pain.
Those same bright eyes met Jane's; "Don't you agree, Miss Foster?"
She stared back, swallowing the sudden rush of bile that threatened to make an unsightly appearance all over his boots. Keep it together, Jane. "You're absolutely out of your mind."
"True," he conceded, "true, but irrelevant to the current topic of discussion. You know, I have had all manner of plans in mind for you. At first, I thought I would simply kill you,"
The word had barely left his lips when he was there, in front of her, his long fingers spanning the circumference of her neck and his forefinger dancing over the artery that drummed her frantic heartbeat. His fingers tightened, gently, and Jane reached up in panic to try and tear his fingers away…
But he was already gone. His voice echoed from the walls, the ceiling, preternaturally loud; Jane clamped her hands over her ears as he went on:
"Then I thought, why waste a decent mind? I thought, let her continue her work on the off-chance that she helps me. And you did, Miss Foster," the voice was a tangible thing, swirling around her body like smoke, getting underneath the millimeters of space left by her hands and reverberating in her ears, "oh, you have no concept of how you have helped me."
"Stop it!" she cried, not able to bear another moment of that disembodied voice in her mind, speaking all her worst fears.
Still, he went on:
"Oh, your drive to help and to save and to make things better…so adorable, and so misguided."
There were physical hands on her body again; he took her by the shoulders and turned her around to face the window. Jane could barely raise any resistance. She was a rag doll in his hands, but he still put one palm to the back of her head, almost pressing her face into the glass.
"Look at what your science has wrought! You punched holes in your universe, and look what decided to come through!"
She started to panic. Though every muscle in her body was limp and exhausted from a mixture of pain, fear, and adrenaline-crash, she still fought back. It was like trying to topple a brick wall. She batted against him like a moth crashes against a screen door, trying to reach the safety and comfort of a warm light.
"Let me go, let go!" she yelled, "You're hurting me!"
This fact meant nothing to him. She felt a laugh vibrate through his chest, and then his voice was in her ear again, dark and sibilant.
"After I saw what you were capable of," he whispered, holding Jane's head firmly against the glass so that she could not escape, "I was pleased, but still resolved. I thought I would have your mentor be the one to kill you. What would you have felt, I wonder," he murmured, pressing against her hair, "as he turned on you with a knife, nothing but emptiness in his eyes, deaf to your pleas for mercy?"
Jane whimpered, closing her eyes futilely against the images his words conjured. She found herself flung back to those dark, endless days in Stockholm, each dawning exactly like the other—without hope, without goal. She saw Erik's cold eyes tracking her movements across the room, an alien presence lurking behind his gaze; callous, when he had always loved her.
Cold, when he had always been so warm.
His hands were ice-cold, again. Her brain felt sluggish and stupefied from the frigid pressure on the back of her head. Her hands were frozen, the nail beds blue at the base. She wanted to cry, but the tears were slush, clogged in her lachrymal ducts.
Jane shivered, down to her bones. "Stop it," she said, teeth chattering. She was going to freeze to death from the inside out; freeze, and stand here for eternity, looking over the crumbled wasteland her ideas had created. New York…the whole city, abandoned and brought low.
Because of her.
The tear running down her cheek was so hot she thought it would raise a line of blisters on her skin. She stopped struggling, and let her body sag against the window, supported by his hands. Her breath fogged the glass, and she idly noticed the staggered, haphazard rhythm of her breathing. Would it matter if she just stopped?
Jane closed both eyes, squeezing them shut until she saw stars. But she wanted to live. She so passionately wanted to live. The smooth glass on her forehead helped steady her; she took a deep, even breath, and stood firm on her feet.
Loki seemed to sense her resolve. His grip loosened, and he stepped back. With her eyes closed, his distance was not a comfort; in fact, she felt like a rabbit, hopping along the forest floor, ignorant of when the hawk was going to swoop in for the kill. She only knew that the hawk was still there, and she could not see him.
She opened her eyes, and turned around, still leaning on the window behind her for support. The tear tracks on her face were irritating—reminders of her weakness—and she wiped them away.
"You think you can make the world better," she lifted her eyes to his face, but his gaze had gone above and beyond hers, looking out the window at the ruined city below, "you think you can make yourself better. But no one ever changes. Nothing can change."
"That's not true," Jane said, pressing her hands together to get some warmth into her fingertips, "you know yourself it's not true. You said that Thor had changed."
He shrugged, still not looking at her. "A temporary situation. I have known him for years without end, and will eventually cause his end. Trust me, Miss Foster," and he smiled down at her, the expression soft, and hopeless, "no one ever changes."
"It's not true," her voice was stronger now, certain of her convictions, "we are all capable of change."
His smile grew broader, and more resigned. "I hope," he sounded more tired than anything, "that you have no plans of redemption in your head for me, my dear. Did you not just hear me admit that I planned to kill you myself, or have your old teacher do it instead? Your life means nothing to me…take care you do not annoy me needlessly."
"I know that," Jane whispered, "but you could have given the order to kill me dozens of times already. The first time we met, you could have broken my neck. When I was drugged, you could have told the doctors never to let me wake up. You could have had Erik kill me, back in Stockholm,"
She shivered, again. She hoped that he didn't take this as her rationalizing away his desire not to kill her, but the truth-loving academic in her had to win this argument. She continued:
"But you didn't. You know that I'm not going to help you, and you still keep me alive. There must be a reason."
"I find it amusing that you insist you will not help me when I have not even begun to persuade you to do it," the smile left his face, "After all, you almost fainted when I described how I had tortured your Mr. Stark. And just now, you abandoned what little dignity you had in order to spare his life. Out of curiosity," he took another step back from her, and gestured towards the door, "if I summoned Erik Selvig in here, gave him a knife, and told him to shred his skin from his bones…would you still persist in this fantasy of resistance?"
"You might get me to cooperate," the words tumbled out, as though her willingness to acquiesce would keep him from carrying out his threat, "but the problems you asked us to solve…we can't do it! Not without a greater source of power, not without—"
"The tesseract," he finished, "I know."
"So why are you putting us through all this?" Jane cried, almost stamping her feet, she was so frustrated, "You're never going to get the tesseract!"
"Such confidence," he breathed, "such astounding arrogance, from someone so helpless. Do you honestly think I would let the key to ruling this realm—indeed, all the realms—remain beyond my possession?"
"But," she said, trying to order her racing thoughts, "you don't know where it is."
"Of course I know where it is!" he hissed at her, "Stupid girl! It is the single greatest source of magical power known in the entire universe…wherever it is, it calls to all who have knowledge of the lines of power, the secret forces that bind this world together and keep it from flying outside known space! I know where the tesseract is," he finished, seeming calmer, "and when I am ready, I will take it."
She was going to regret this, but the opportunity was too fair. "Such confidence," she parroted back at him, her shoulders tightening and preparing for the blow, "but what makes you think Thor will ever let you take it?"
"Please," he scoffed, "Thor would not be able to stop me even if I showed him how."
"You're underestimating him," she said, still shrunk back against the window, "just like you've underestimated all of us."
"Ah, yes. It is not as though five members of your elite team—warriors and scientists both—are at my mercy."
She bristled at his sarcasm. "We will escape from here. And we will make you sorry."
His palms slammed her shoulders into the glass, and her head bounced off, the pain from her prior injury making her wince and grit her teeth. His face was inches from hers. Despite the fury in his eyes, his voice was measured, quiet, and calm.
"I should torture you," he said, "I should hang you in chains and have the Skrull flay the skin from your back. I should break all the bones in your hands so you cannot solve another mathematical equation with the twisted remains. I should gouge out your eyes so that you can never look upon the stars again."
She tried to close her eyes; he dug his nails into the flesh of her shoulders until she opened them again.
"I should show you that rape entails far more than a kiss, my dear," he went on, ignoring her increasingly pale face and shallow breathing, "and after I wring from you every tear, every scream you have to give…I should take a trip into my erstwhile brother's dreams, and show him what has happened to his beloved. That way," he finished, "that way he will never dream without seeing your tormented face, and never sleep without waking with screams."
He let her go, and Jane fell to the floor. Her head was heavy and feverish; she tried to steady her breath, but her it hitched in her throat, and then she was crying anyway, in spite of her promises to be strong…crying the way children do, with no restraint or control.
It was fear, and exhaustion, and a half-crazy wish for this all to be done that fueled her sobs. She was so humiliated, so debased in front of him that her logical mind (the one that was soothing her now in a voice reminiscent of her mother's) told her not to worry, and just get it all out.
So Jane cried. Giving up any ideas of equality or control in their constant back-and-forth was shamefully liberating; the feminist in her died and joined ranks with the slaughtered pacifist. She remembered a line from Fight Club—another Darcy-induced experience:
"Losing all hope…was freedom."
Her sobs gentled, mostly because her throat was raw and burning. The tears continued to flow, tear ducts still hyperactive, but they merely surged forward and overran the banks of her lower lids. She was no longer actively crying, and she had control of her breathing again.
Jane closed her eyes, and ran her palms over her face, swiping away the tears and sweat as best she could. She pressed her hands against her pant legs, and then wiped her face again.
She didn't want to open her eyes, but had no excuse not to. With her hands on her thighs for some semblance of balance and grounding, she opened her eyes.
Everything was blurry and dim, the large pieces of furniture seeming like nothing but hazy shadows illuminated by the pale light from the windows; Jane blinked a few times to clear her eyes of residual tears, and her vision sharpened.
Sharpened, and landed right on Loki, who was kneeling not two feet in front of her.
Jane swallowed, and sat back on her heels. The reaction was instinctive and she almost knocked her head against the window. She blinked, and watched his eyes.
He smiled at her, and reached over to hold her face between his two hands.
"I should do all these things," he said, pleasantly, as though he were merely resuming their conversation after a short interruption, "But I will not. You have changed my best and most treasured intentions regarding you, Jane Foster, so maybe there is hope for your changing my mind about other things in the long run."
She jerked her face away from his grasp, but almost started crying again at the knowledge that she was not going to die just yet. She hated him so that she was almost blind with it; the rage filled her throat and kept her from thinking of any response to his mockery. She just looked at him, water and anger in her eyes.
He saw it. "I think that is probably enough for one day. Stand up."
His brusque commands were easy to obey, but her knees shook underneath her and she had to put one wet palm against the window to ensure that she wouldn't fall right back down again. He waited until she could stand unassisted, and led the way from the room.
It was the first time that Jane had actually taken in their surroundings, and her brain shot off one crazy thought—thank God it's not Tony's bedroom—before they passed through the doorway.
Loki set off in the opposite direction to the elevator.
"Aren't you taking me back down to the lab?" Jane asked, biting the inside of her lip in case the answer was…
"So that you and Mr. Stark can keep devising clever ways to avoid your work?" he said, not pausing for an instant, "I think not. You will remain where I can keep an eye on you."
She swallowed, willing herself not to vomit. She had lost a lot of her dignity today, but falling to her knees and retching would probably be the last nail in the coffin. Just because he meant to keep her close did not mean—she emphasized that last thought—what she thought it might mean.
But Tony…she already missed him fiercely. It would have been nice to feel his arms around her and listen to his stupid jokes and toss around another few harebrained theories after an ordeal like this one.
Loki stopped and unlocked a door with a flourish. "Your chambers, my Lady Jane," he bowed to her as she went in, mocking, "I hope you will find your rooms comfortable and convenient."
She swallowed her pride and her bile. "Thank you," she said softly, blinking at the bright late-afternoon light that filtered through the windows. She knew this room; it was one of those rooms Tony called "guest rooms for people I actually like".
Being so high up, Jane could see a stunning view of the entire city clear out to the Hudson River. Well, it would have been a stunning view. At least one out of every four skyscrapers was either missing its upper floors or great chunks from its side. The pavement of most major roads was furrowed or buckled up, impassible. There were neither cars nor pedestrians; no noise filtering up from the sidewalks. She could even see smoldering fires from trees burnt to charcoal in the public parks, the smoke making random symbols in the sky.
She turned away.
The furnishings were luxurious in a way that only Tony Stark could afford. Right now, they stood in the entryway to the suite; Jane could see the bedroom with its mahogany canopy bed to her right. The living room in front of them gave Jane the chilling view, and to her left there was a door that she assumed led to the bathroom.
The moment her gaze landed on the bed, her eyes began to slide closed in anticipation of a comfortable night's sleep. Her head ached fiercely and her eyes burned, but she had one more question to ask.
"How long am I supposed to stay here? I don't see any tools; there's no computer…how am I supposed to work?"
"Since you assumed that your tasks were impossible, I only believed that you no longer wished to attempt them," she wished she could beat the smugness out of his voice, but she barely had the energy to turn and face him, "You will remain here until I consider of what use you are to me."
Her head dropped to her chest. She understood his meaning; she would not be seeing Tony again. They would coexist in this tower—like Tony and Pepper—knowing that the other person was there, but never seeing the other, never speaking or laughing together again.
The loneliness was so sudden and shocking that she almost considered asking Loki to take her back downstairs, with a promise to be on her best behavior. How could she go through this without Tony?
Then, she lifted her head, nodding at her captor with a tiny smile. "As you wish," she said, as graciously mocking as he had been just moments ago.
Keep it together, Jane, her logical brain coaxed, you can do this. You have to do this.
He looked at her, a shadow of admiration back in his gaze. As before, he seemed to approve her shows of spirit; that is, when they didn't infuriate him. "Very well then," he bowed, a wicked edge to his smile, "I hope you have a pleasant evening, Miss Foster. Rest well."
She couldn't return his good wishes—even sarcastically—so she settled for nodding as he turned and left the room.
The moment the lock slid shut behind him, Jane dropped to her knees, splaying her fingers through the rich weave of the Oriental rug as though attempting to root herself in the earth. Her shoulders shook from the effort of holding her up, so she lay down, nose taking in the rich, oily scent of the wool. She sighed, and the sound trembled, but her tears were gone.
She rolled onto her back, relishing the hard wood and soft cloth beneath her back; it soothed some of the aches and pains that tormented her muscles. She pressed her cold hands to her face and felt the feverish, puffy skin around her eyes.
A bath would be so nice. She wondered if the bathroom had a view; it would be painful, but somewhat cathartic to look out at the city and imagine what its glory had been just a few months ago. From this high up, she could just look at the clouds and dream…
Something plucked at her memory. She was quite high up, though not at the top of the tower.
The sudden surge of energy propelled her body upright and to the living room window before she had time to think. How high was she?
Jane focused on a building across from them that looked to be on the same level. She counted floors: one…five…ten…fifteen…twenty—she gritted her teeth—twenty-one, two, and three…
She was on the 23rd floor. Damn. Five stories above where Tony had said the others were being kept. And she was certain the elevators were locked…
Jane used the armrests of the fluffy blue sofas in the room to haul herself upright.
"You're too tired, Jane," she said, softly, "take a bath, go to sleep, and figure this out in a few hours."
She stumbled into the bathroom and started the tub filling—the luxury of endless hot water!—but had to pause. The last thing she wanted to do, after everything, was take off her clothes in a place where Loki could come in uninvited and with no notice. She bit her lip. The water was so inviting!
"Bathing suit," she murmured, and turned towards the bedroom. She opened the wardrobes and found that a good deal of Pepper's clothes (she recognized a powder-blue suit and a black dress, among other things) had been put there for her use. She rummaged through the hangars, then the dresser drawers, and found a pink one-piece suit that would do.
Jane shut and locked the door before changing, but still felt her skin crawl for every moment she was unclothed. After living for so long in the middle of the desert, she hated to feel that her privacy was being invaded, and this was even worse. He could be watching her right now, and she would have no idea.
Pushing that thought aside, she crossed the entryway again and shut and locked the bathroom door behind her. The hot water was a balm to her exhausted muscles; she kept draining and freshening the tub until her skin was pickled and pale red with the heat. It took forever before her fingers and toes lost the stubborn numbness he had pressed into them, but she felt indescribably better when she was warm.
When her eyes became too heavy to keep open, Jane toweled off, went into the bedroom, and crawled into bed; wet bathing suit, towel, and all.
She was unconscious the moment her head hit the pillow.