It had been a long flight from Oslo and Fury wasn't making her day any better.
"Six weeks?" Jane said, barely keeping her voice below a shout. "Six weeks he's been back? And no one bothered to tell me?"
"Your relationship with Thor makes you a prime target for Loki, Dr. Foster," Nick Fury said. The panoramic window behind him offered a stark view of New York's shattered skyline - Loki's handiwork, that. "We thought it wiser to keep you out of his sights."
"That's no reason you couldn't pick up a phone!"
"And have you come running out here?"
"I wouldn't - " Fury's raised eyebrow cut her off.
All right, maybe she would have. But still. S.H.I.E.L.D. and their damn high-handedness.
"I suppose that Tromsø position was set up by S.H.I.E.L.D., too?" she sniped.
Fury nodded as if that was perfectly acceptable. "At Thor's request. Not that you wouldn't have merited it anyway, doctor."
She'd never met anyone so adept at politely twisting the knife. She wondered if Thor had even thought about calling her, coming to see her... A vision of laughing eyes, full of promise, flashed through her mind. He must have, she told herself. Earth had been under attack; she could hardly blame him for prioritizing the safety of the human race. The ruined buildings outside drew her gaze again and an involuntary shiver crawled down her spine. Loki must be something truly terrifying.
"I want to see Thor," she said firmly.
"As soon as we're done here."
She meant to insist, now, but he barreled on.
"We've got work for you, Dr. Foster."
"You can't be serious - " After how he'd just admitted to manipulating her?
"- Work that no one else can do. You're the world expert on interplanetary travel at the moment. Our only expert."
She didn't miss the possessive.
"You can't just call me in and send me away whenever you feel like it! Not to mention stealing all my research and equipment and - "
"Dr. Foster." Fury placed his hands on the table between them and leaned down towards her. "We are in the firing line here. And by we, I don't mean S.H.I.E.L.D. - I mean humanity. I mean every poor sucker on this planet. We've been passed a live grenade and it's about to blow up in our collective face. So unless you want to sit back and let that happen, yeah, we're calling you in."
Her mouth was still open in mid-speech. Fury was tense as a wire; she could see his shoulders trembling with suppressed energy. Behind them, in the distance, a crane turned slowly, starting work on a partially collapsed skyscraper. This guy was even better at guilt trips than Erik. She'd bet money that this wasn't even his real office. It just had the appropriate view.
"What is it you need me to do?" she said, anger deflating a little.
He relaxed the slightest bit. "We need a way to travel between worlds that doesn't rely on the Bifrost. And we need it immediately."
"What?" Jane sputtered. "I haven't even figured out the one Einstein-Rosen bridge we know exists yet and now you want me to start building one from scratch? The Bifrost probably took years or decades to build, maybe centuries, and we don't have anywhere near the kind of energy it would take. Not to mention the computing power for the calculations and the materials, what is it even made of, how do we stabilize it, and and and!" She threw her hands up.
"We don't need a bridge. We just need transport - to Asgard. Any kind. A portal, a wormhole, hell, I'll take a spaceship at this point."
"I don't even know if it's possible," she said, mind racing. A way to travel between worlds without using an Einstein-Rosen bridge?
"Oh, it's possible. Someone's done it and," Fury cracked a grim half-smile, "we just so happen to have him in our custody."
There was really only one person that could be. One person who could make the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. pull that face. Cold dread suddenly made her palms feel clammy. But at the same time, the old familiar excitement began to tingle. Access to the knowledge of a fantastically advanced civilization - from a real expert, no less - entirely new fields of physics, the opportunity to create Earth's own pathway to the stars, not dependent on anyone else -
"Wow," she said. "Feels like I've just been asked to cure cancer by working with... Dr. Mengele or something."
Fury barked a rueful laugh. "Tell me about it." His smile was tired this time. "This is our highest priority project. You'll have all S.H.I.E.L.D.'s resources at your disposal - labs, funding, staff, more coffee machines than you can shake a stick at. Access to everything we know about Asgardian tech. The highest security clearance. And a direct line to me if you need anything else."
And just like that, they'd reeled her back in.
Twenty minutes later, someone finally came to escort her to Thor. It took six hours, several forms in triplicate, and a helicopter journey. By the time she and Agent Hill jumped down out of the helicopter onto a huge flying fortress somewhere over the North Atlantic, she was exhausted. And slightly more sympathetic to Thor's failure to visit her - maybe he hadn't wanted to face S.H.I.E.L.D.'s bureaucratic wrath.
She kept one hand over the small oxygen mask Agent Hill had given her as the wind blew her hair in wild contortions. This place was huge. She could've parachuted out of the plane from Norway onto this platform, easy. S.H.I.E.L.D. had some incredible firepower. Even in the starlight, though, she could see that the surface of the helicarrier had been burned and scored with deep gouges. A crash, maybe. Fury had been unspecific about the details of what had happened here, but she was willing to bet Loki was responsible for that bit of destruction, too.
Loki. Who was somewhere beneath her feet in the depths of this floating skyscraper.
Getting inside was a relief; Jane hadn't realized how cold she was until she stepped into the warm, brightly lit interior. Agent Hill conferred with someone on an earpiece before turning to her.
"We've assigned you a room near the labs and the subject." Hill said the last two words as if they came with capital letters. The Subject. It would make a decent title for a horror film. "Are you afraid of heights?"
"Not especially," Jane said.
"Good. I'll take you below, I'm sure you must be tired."
Jane stopped her. "I want to see Thor. Right now."
Hill gave her an unreadable look, then nodded as if it had nothing to do with her.
There followed another trip that felt like it took forever. Jane was going to have to get a map of this place and learn her way around, otherwise she was sure she'd get lost among the endless metal corridors and indistinguishable silently sealing doors. Every once in a while, they would pass more signs of violent struggle: walls that had been torn open, broken catwalks, areas that had been sealed off with makeshift barriers and red tape. It looked like an army had been through here.
Finally, they came to a curved double doorway. Agent Hill gave Jane an access code and programmed the retinal scanner and fingerprint sensor to admit her. When the door opened, Hill leaned against the corridor wall outside, making no move to enter.
A few steps took Jane inside, the door closing automatically behind her. The room was circular, lined around the edges with equipment and controls. There was no hint of destruction here: everything was gleaming, bright-edged, professional and sharp. It might not be the bridge, but she had the feeling this was the real heart of the carrier. The part people had expended the most effort on.
A round glass cell at the center of the room dominated the space. There was nothing inside except a white bench along one side and a table and chair in the middle, with a person sitting slumped over them like a schoolboy who had fallen asleep at his desk. A schoolboy in armor and a tattered green cape. He was seated with his back to the door, so she couldn't see his face; but he had ragged black hair, and in his hand was Mjolnir.
Not Thor. She stiffened as if a jolt of electricity had shot through her spine. Was this S.H.I.E.L.D.'s idea of a joke or had something happened - something happened to - ?
On the opposite side of the room, someone who had been sitting with his back against the wall stood up. It had been months since she'd seen him, but there was no mistaking the bright hair, the easy, arrogant grace, the smile full of goodwill and good humor.
She ran to meet him and his arms closed around her in a fierce embrace.
"Jane!" Thor said, low in her ear. "Jane. Oh Jane, Jane, I have dreamed of seeing you again."
"Me too," she whispered. He took a deep, shuddering breath, as if he was trying to breathe her in. He sounded, felt, looked exactly like she remembered. The tiny, cruel part of her that had whispered doubts melted away at last. He was here, he was real, she hadn't imagined any of it. The warmth in his eyes, the longing in his voice - just like the memories she had clung to, conjuring images of him every night so she wouldn't forget a single moment of those three brief, exhilarating days.
"I missed you so much," she said into his t-shirt. "I was afraid you'd never come back." It felt all right to say it, now that she knew it wasn't true.
She felt him frown a protest against her cheek and pulled back a little to look up at his face. There was a long yellow bruise on his left cheek and temple, and a deep, half-healed cut across his forehead. She gasped a little, reaching out before she could stop herself, but Thor didn't flinch.
"Did he do that?" she asked.
"No," Thor shook his head. "I fell halfway from Asgard, Jane. Both of us. Father must not have had the dark energy necessary to conjure us and the Tesseract. Even now, I am not entirely sure how we survived." His eyes drifted, suddenly murky and thoughtful, to the figure in the cell, and his frown deepened, emphasizing the angry gash across his brows. She didn't want to think of how he must have looked weeks ago, after the fall.
Jane ventured an apprehensive look at the prisoner, but Loki didn't appear to have moved at all since she'd entered the room. His forehead rested on the table, hands flat on either side. His shoulders rose and fell with slow breaths. Now that she had a second look, she saw that he wasn't holding Mjolnir after all. The hammer lay with its long side on top of his left hand, the skin visibly bruised even at this distance. As she watched, the fingers twitched.
She turned back to Thor. "Can he hear us?" she mouthed.
He shook his head. "They soundproofed the new cell. He says nothing anyway, and never looks at me. You would think I was the one who..." The sentence trailed off into a mutter, as if losing heart in the face of the thundercloud on his brow.
"Why is Mjolnir in there with - him?"
"An unfortunate necessity," Thor said. His hand caressed her cheek as easily as if they'd never been apart and he smiled down at her, mood lightening a little. "Loki cannot shift Mjolnir," - he sounded more than a little smug - "not so much as an inch from his own hand. So its weight confines him. It also dampens some of his power, though not all. And if he somehow escapes that, the cell is meant to fall leagues down into ice and ocean if he breaches its wall. Even so, he's not without power, and I fear it is only a matter of weeks or days before he..."
"Slithers his way out of there?" Jane suggested.
"My brother is devilish cunning," Thor admitted. "I know Mjolnir will never obey him, but I mislike leaving it there, alone with him."
And out of Thor's own hands, Jane thought. She was pretty sure she misliked that, too. The sooner they got Loki back to Asgard, the better.
That was where she came in. It was her job to get the two of them home - since she'd been working on finding a way to Asgard for months. Fate sure had a mean sense of humor.
"Well," she said, through the sudden lump in her throat, "Mjolnir won't be with him much longer. Once we figure out a way to send you two back, you can turn him over to Odin and be done with it."
Thor saw through her pretense at stoicism instantly. "Doors have two faces, dear Jane," he said, smiling. "I will not leave you again, I swear it." He smoothed her wind-blown hair out of her eyes.
It wasn't that she didn't believe him. She knew he meant it. But he'd meant it last time, too. No matter; she let him wrap her in his arms and hugged back with all her mortal strength. His heart beat against her cheek and she closed her eyes, listening to the great quiet life thrum through him.
When she opened them, Loki was staring poison at her. His narrow gaze glittered, the force of his gaze striking her like a slap. Dear God, he hated her, she realized with horror. Hated her. She went rigid with fear, a mouse face-to-face with a snake. She'd hardly expected friendliness, but that look. It froze the breath in her lungs.
"What?" Thor said, alarmed. "What, Jane..." And fell silent. After a moment, he said, "Pay him no heed, Jane. He is beaten and bitter. Loki has never been one to accept defeat with grace. That is all."
"I know," she said, tearing her eyes away. "I know. But I'm going to have to talk to... that."
Thor made a sound like a growl. "Let us leave this dungeon. I've spent too many hours here already, brooding over him. And you - I wish you had never had to meet him." One hand glided down her back possessively as he stared over her head at the cell. "I would well like some hours alone in your company, Jane."
She smiled, shakily. "Agent Hill said I have a room, so..."
"Yes!" Thor gave a small laugh. "The view is something marvelous, I'll say that for it." He looked down at her and his smile came back, tinged with mischief. He inclined his head slightly and lifted her hand with impressive gravitas, kissing it with a whisper of lips. The look he sent her through lowered lashes would have made her weak at the knees under normal circumstances. If she couldn't still feel Loki's stare glued to them like some kind of slimy leech.
"Let's go," she said.
Thor nodded, but before she could move, he caught her cheek in his hand and her lips with his own. The sudden intimacy surprised her and sent a finger of heat shooting down to her stomach. It was a determined kiss, bringing her wobbling to her tiptoes. Then Thor's arms tightened around her waist and he pulled her flush against the warm length of him. Her head spun as she kissed back, fingers sliding along the soft skin of his throat. A sudden, buoyant happiness gave her a rush of confidence. She didn't care what he was god of, she wasn't letting the universe separate them again. Even if she had to build an entirely new Bifrost with her bare hands.
But when they slipped out a few moments later, hands linked like teenagers, she could still feel the weight of that hating gaze, heavy on the back of her neck, and her joy faltered at its force.