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The Lost

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Prologue

It’s Jane Foster’s first time in the Tower, and she’s nervous.

She can’t help but think of it as the Tower, capitalized and everything, because it’s been looming in her head for as long as she’s known of it.  Stark Tower, barely finished and half-destroyed, rebuilt and rechristened and now home to the Avengers.  Everyone calls it just the Tower, though, and even in a city as jaded as New York, people talk of it with awe and speculation in their voices.

She shouldn’t be nervous visiting the Tower.  She’s invited, first off, so it’s not like she’s breaking and entering.  And second, Thor’s been staying there, when he’s been on Earth, and since he’s her boyfriend, she’s had a standing invitation to visit for practically as long as the Tower’s been inhabited.  Third, the Avengers work for SHIELD – at least, mostly – and she’s sort of working for SHIELD too, or at least being funded by them.  So she has every right to visit the Tower.

And how weird is it that her boyfriend is the god of thunder and only occasionally on Earth, and that she works for a super secret government agency who has her researching ways to travel between worlds? 

The Tower can’t be weirder than her life, at least. 

Jane’s still nervous, though, and wishes she’d accepted that drink on the flight over.  Not that it would have helped, but Darcy always called liquor liquid courage, and God, could she use a bit of extra spine about now.

The elevator glides smoothly up past the last bit of the interior wall, and light floods through the glass front.  Jane squints, shields her eyes, and looks out into the setting sun.  New York is spread before her, painted in orange and red from the last bit of evening light.  It’s a breathtaking view, especially considering that she’s been stuck in northern Siberia for the past four months staring at tundra, tundra, and occasionally tundra.  The city rises up all around her, and then beneath her as the elevator continues to ascend up the side of the Tower.

The city’s healed, she thinks, looking out over the reconstructed streets and skyscrapers rapidly shrinking beneath her.  It’s been over a year since the invasion, and Stark Industries had been nothing if not generous in aiding in disaster relief.  New skyscrapers stand next to repaired buildings, replaced streetlights prepare to flicker on to guard against nightfall, and roads are patched and repaved.  It’s hard to tell that the Battle for New York was fought on the blocks Jane looks across.

The elevator starts to slow, now, approaching the top of the Tower.  Jane catches herself smoothing down the shirt she wears, clutching at the bag slung over her shoulders.  She straightens her shoulders deliberately.

“There’s nothing to be nervous about,” she says aloud to soothe herself.  “I’m an invited guest, and it’s just like hanging out with my boyfriend’s friends.  Right?”

“Perfectly correct, Dr. Foster,” a smooth British voice assures her from the speakers above the elevator’s buttons.  Jane considers it a heroic feat of self-control when she does not scream from surprise.  “I’ve notified the others of your arrival, and they should be up to meet you shortly.”  The elevator comes to a gentle stop.  “Welcome to the Sky Lounge,” the voice continues as the doors whisper open.  “Would you care for a drink?”

“No, thank you,” Jane says, and she grips her carry-on roller bag with a steady hand and pulls it off the elevator with her.  Because she’s at least as fascinated by the voice as she was surprised by it, she asks, “Are you an AI program?”

“Indeed I am, Dr. Foster,” the disembodied voice confirms, and the elevator shuts smartly behind her.  She can’t quite pinpoint a source for the voice now, and suspects the whole lounge – which is gorgeous, expansive and sprawling, filled with couches that look far more comfortable than airline seats and have a better view of the city than even the elevator – is probably wired with speakers.  “I respond to JARVIS, and would be happy to answer any questions you have throughout your stay.”

Computer science isn’t her strongest point, but she’s worked with enough technology to be interested.  “Are you one of Stark’s technologies?” she asks, and does her best not to worry about how no one is yet here to greet her.  Thor, at least, knew she was coming, and she’s been sure there’d been someone else at the edge of the screen when she’d talked with him as she’d finished with Customs…

“I am,” JARVIS tells her.  “A work constantly in progress, if you will.”

There’s a clattering of shoes from a doorway to her left, and voices bantering back and forth in a kind of rhythm.  “Ah, the troops arrive,” JARVIS says, and though the voice is certainly just programmed, it sounds nearly amused.

Jane takes a deep breath and turns toward the door as it is flung open.

Thor, thank God, is the first one she sees.  “Jane!” he says, and he’s clearly delighted to see her from the way his smile spreads across his face in an instant.  In three long strides, he’s crossed the room to her side; strong hands grab her waist and lift her up, and she’s spun in a joyous circle before he pulls her in for a hug.

She’s grinning, she knows, but she can’t help it – he’s so obviously happy that her fears are eased.  So she smiles and burrows her head into his shoulder, into the leather and metal of what she still thinks of as his informal uniform, the one he wears when he’s not expecting the end of the world, wrapping her arms around his waist and breathing him in.

“I missed you,” she hears him say quietly into her hair, and she tightens her hold on him and shuts her eyes.

“Missed you too,” she says, and it’s true: it’s been four months since she went out to that research station in Siberia, and another two before it since he’s been able to visit her.  Even then, it had been just a quick day together in Norway, where Thor had barely turned any heads as they’d walked through the streets down to the docks and spent the day exploring the older parts of the fishing village.

“Ahem,” says a voice from somewhere behind her, and Thor’s arms loosen around her.  Jane opens her eyes and turns to see a group of people standing together by the door.  Most of them are smiling, but that doesn’t make her any less nervous, and she’s glad Thor’s still touching her, his arms still around her as he turns to see them as well.

“My friends,” he says, the rather old-fashioned term sounding affectionate and habitual, “this is Jane.”

“I kind of assumed that, what with the hugging,” the man at the center of the group says, and Jane realizes that it’s Tony Stark.  He’s shorter than she expected, in person, and a bit older, and while she can see traces of the exuberant spirit the media love in him, he almost seems contained: a compact bundle of energy, rocking back and forth on his feet as he studies her.  “You’re shorter than I expected,” he tells her.

“So are you,” she says back before she can censor herself, but he doesn’t seem to take offense.

Instead, he turns to the woman at his side.  “They always say that,” he complains.  “Always.  What is it, I’m tiny compared to the suit?”

The woman merely smiles at Jane.  She’s a tall, classy-looking strawberry blonde in killer heels and a business suit.  “Hello,” she says, and her eyes sparkle.  “I’m Pepper Potts. The short one-” 

“Hey!”

“-Is Tony Stark.  And I’m sure as soon as he remembers his manners,” her look at him is pointed, “he’ll welcome you and introduce everyone.”

“Make me,” Tony dares her, but there’s affection in the challenge rather than annoyance.  He looks at Jane.  “Want a drink?”

She finds that yes, she does.  “Sure,” she says, and looks up at Thor again, because his arm is snug around her shoulder and that’s a comforting weight. 

He smiles down at her, at once tender and proud and delighted with her, and a little hum of happiness settles into her heart and stays there.  “I will introduce you, if Tony will not,” he tells her, and then takes her hand and leads her forward as though she were descending a staircase into a formal ball.  “Captain Steve Rogers, an honorable warrior,” he says, stopping in front of the first man he comes to.

Captain America, Jane thinks, and she remembers her older brother’s action figures and trading cards and drawn-out battles in the backyard involving cardboard boxes, nerf guns, and the neighbor’s dog.  “Pleased to meet you,” she says, a little too quickly, and her cheeks hurt from smiling.

He’s tall, and nearly as muscled as Thor.  It should make her feel intimidated and very small, but the smile he gives her is warm and friendly.  “Miss Foster,” he says, and shakes her hand.  “It’s an honor.”

“That’s my line,” she very nearly blurts, and manages to censor herself only because the man with rumpled hair next to him interrupts her.

“It’s actually Dr. Foster, isn’t it?” he asks, a bit hesitantly.  “Astrophysics, right?”

“Yes, actually,” Jane says, but she’s still smiling at Steve Rogers because God, her brother would kill to be in her shoes right now and she’s going to text him the instant she can.  “But that’s all right,” she quickly reassures Captain America, who winced at getting her title wrong.

The man who remembered her doctorate beams at her.  “I’m Bruce Banner,” he tells her, a bit eagerly.  “I read your last paper, the one on neutron star radiation, and –”

The name clicks in her head, enough to have her jerk out of childhood awe.  She turns toward him, thrilled.  “Wait, wait,” she says, “You’re Dr. Banner; of course you’re Dr. Banner, you put out that paper on the gamma radiation theory with black holes-”

They grin at each other in perfect scientific excitement, and both start to talk about questions they want to ask each other in such detail that for a few brief seconds, everyone else stares at them.

Jane breaks off with a nervous chuckle as she realizes the rest of the group has no idea about astral radiation and even less about low-energy gamma radiation as it relates to wandering objects and black holes, and she really does want to make a good impression on these people.

“Well,” Tony says, standing off to one side with two drinks.  “That was enlightening.”  He says it so simply she’s not sure if he’s sarcastic or not, but she thinks she sees a glimmer of respect in his eye as he hands her a drink. 

“My Jane is smart,” Thor insists, and looks down at her proudly.  “Brilliant,” he adds, and she can’t help but be pleased.

“Sometimes,” she admits, and looks back at Dr. Banner.  “I’d love to collaborate sometime,” she tells him.  “I don’t have a lab set up here, but-”

“I do,” the dark-haired doctor answers with a smile.  “We’ll find a time.  I look forward to it.”

“And this,” Thor says, steering her towards the next man, “is Clint Barton.  A very fine warrior.”

Clint’s smile is easy, his handshake firm but not crushing, and it’s a very big relief to find he appears normal – no childhood hero, no scientific legend, no billionaire vigilante, just a man she’s never met before with well-muscled arms and an easy-going stance.  “Hi,” Jane says, because she’s run out of things to say.

“Hi,” he says back.  “Hope you had a good flight over.”

She blinks, because it’s an innocuous thing to say, and decides she likes his smile.  “Yeah,” she agrees.  “Wasn’t too bad at all, really, and it’s good to be out of Siberia before winter hits.”  She takes a sip of the drink Tony gave her, and nearly chokes.

“Oh, it’s a bit strong,” Tony mentions with a grin, handing Pepper a drink.  “Anyone else want one?”

No one says no, and Thor steers her towards the last member of the group.  “This is Natasha Romanov,” he says, and squeezes Jane’s shoulder.  “She’s strong like you.”

Stronger, Jane thinks, judging from the quick handshake Natasha offers her.  She’s gorgeous, petite and clear-skinned, with wavy red hair and a body that seems to be all curves and lean muscles under a tidy shirt and jeans.  But she’s at least around Jane’s height, and that puts her at ease among the group of tall, muscled men and the stunning blonde, all of whom tower over her.

“Hi,” Jane says again, because she still can’t think of what else to say.

Natasha’s lips curve.  “Hi,” she returns.  “We’re a bit much all at once, aren’t we?”

“Yes,” she agrees, with feeling, and she can feel Thor shaking as he represses laughter at her emphatic agreement.

“We had to come up and see the girl who tamed the god of thunder,” Tony says carelessly from where he’s at the bar.

“She’s hardly a girl, Tony,” Pepper says drily, and she moves away from the little group to help herself to the first drink he’s made.

“And I’m hardly tamed,” Thor adds, sounding a bit miffed.

“You didn’t deny being the god of thunder, though,” Captain America – Steve, Jane reminds herself, she’s not allowed to fangirl over him – teases him.

“Well, I was,” Thor says right back, unapologetically.  “It’s not my fault humanity is no longer as enlightened as they once were.”

“What, enlightened enough to believe Asgardians were gods?” Clint asks, taking a seat at the bar besides Pepper.  “Some enlightenment.”

“It’s hardly my fault Midgardians are so… fragile,” Thor protests, but Jane can hear the laughter in his voice, the humor that so very much demonstrates the difference between him and his brother.  “When confronted with that which outshines you at every turn, is it any wonder you considered us gods?”

“Just because you were the only one of us left standing after the Eckthanoi exploded that egg-thing,” Steve mutters, but it sounds like an old argument and Thor only laughs.

Dr. Banner coughs something that might have been “puny” and might have been an actual cough, it’s hard to tell.  But it sends the group into gales of laughter, and just like that they’re a relaxed group of friends, leaning together on the bar and chattering back and forth on any number of topics.  Jane sticks near Thor, both for the comfort of his presence in this group of mostly strangers and because it’s been six months, damn it, she’ll stand next her boyfriend if she wants to.  She finds, after thirty minutes, that she’s forgot her nerves in lieu of complimenting Pepper on her shoes, discussing black holes with Dr. Banner, and defending Thor’s hair – of all things – to Tony.

She’s laughing when her phone rings, sitting perched on Thor’s lap and unworried about cutting off the circulation to his legs because God, her boyfriend’s thighs are like small trees and she’s clearly the luckiest woman in the room because of that.  Tony’s standing beside Pepper, who’s sitting on a stool and leaning against the bar; Clint’s sitting next to her, elbows resting behind him on the bar, with Natasha perched up on the bar itself on his other side.  Captain America – Steve, she reminds herself again, but his hair is exactly like the hair of the four action figures of him that Rick had kept well into his preteens, and Jane’s having a hard time thinking of him as Steve the man rather than Captain America the action hero – Captain America is leaning against the bar beside Natasha, beer rolling back and forth in his hands as he debates some kind of martial art, she’s not sure which, with her.  Dr. Banner is sitting on the chair next to the bar, because he’s talking with her on her last paper and it’s absolutely fascinating to discuss the possible implications of astral radiation on interstellar travel with someone who understands the theory and doesn’t believe attempting to recreate bridges between worlds means she needs her head examined.

So when her phone rings and she fumbles it out of her jacket pocket to check that it’s not some kind of emergency in any of the three labs she’s currently running projects with, Jane’s laughing and having the time of her life.  When she sees her brother’s name on the caller ID, she can’t help but accept the call.

“Rick!” she says, and she’s laughing still, “you’ll never believe where I –”

His words stop her laughter cold, have her smile freezing into brittleness on her face.

“Maddie’s gone,” he says, and Jane’s world stops, crystallizes around the fact that her heart’s turned to lead in her chest. 

“What?” she repeats dumbly.

“Maddie’s gone,” Rick says again, voice anguished and cracking.  “Maddie’s gone, and the cops say it’s a kidnapping, and Jane, Maddie’s gone.”

“What?” she says, and this time her voice has gone sharp, shrill, a little panicked.  It’s a noticeable enough difference that the others are turning towards her, quieting down; she barely notices.  She feels Thor’s hands on her back, and barely registers that he’s steadying her as she slides off his lap to pace towards the window as she talks.  “Rick, what’s happened?  What’s going on?”

His words are dull, almost rhythmic.  “Andrea put Maddie down for a nap at two,” he tells her, and it already sounds like a story he’s had to repeat too many times.  “Maddie’s bedroom is the little side room, remember?  She put Maddie down for a nap.  She was wearing the yellow outfit you sent her, the one with the snaps and the duck on the front.  Maddie went right to sleep.  Andrea set out the baby monitor, and took the other set out into the backyard so she could rake out the leaves.  Wasn’t outside for more than a half hour.  She came back in, and Maddie was gone.”

“What do you mean, gone?” Jane asks.  Her stomach’s gone tight and cold, and her hands are tense.  She paces in jerky steps up and down the expansive windows, oblivious to the darkening skyline and the jewel-like display of lights coming on across the city’s skyscrapers.  “She’s sixteen days old, Rick, she can’t wander off.  Can she?”

“No, she can’t.”  Rick swallows.  “The front door was open, and Andrea couldn’t find her.  She called the cops.  She called the cops,” he repeats carefully, “and they came out and I came home from work, and Jane, they said it’s a kidnapping.”

There’s quick motion behind her, and Jane only realizes that she’s fallen to her knees when there are large, steadying hands on her shoulders, a warm body crouched behind her.  “What do you mean?”

“They said it’s a kidnapping – that someone came and took her.  They’ve put out an Amber Alert, but they won’t tell us anything else.  I called Mom – Andrea’s called her folks – and I just…”  He sounds helpless, her older brother, and it scares her, has her shuddering against Thor’s hands.  “Just wanted to let you know.”

“I’ll come out,” Jane babbles, desperate to do something.  “I’ll move my ticket to as soon as I can.  I’ll come out and help.”

“You don’t have to,” Rick starts, and she cuts him off.

“Damn it, Rick, she’s my niece,” she says, and feels tears threaten.  “I’ll come out, and I’ll do whatever I can.  Help somehow.  I don’t know.”

“I don’t know what to do,” her brother admits wearily.  “Mom’s driving up, and Andrea’s folks – I don’t know what to do.”

Jane gulps in a deep breath.  “We’ll find her,” she promises.  “I’ll get a ticket, a flight, and I’ll come out and help, and we’ll find her.”

“Okay,” he says, and he sounds both defeated and relieved.  “Okay.  I’ll tell Andrea.  Call when you get a flight.”

“Call if you hear anything,” she counters, and makes him promise before she says goodbye and disconnects.

She drops the phone, puts her hands up to cover her face, and desperately tries to not cry.  Thor’s hands are gentle on her shoulders, and the entire room is filled with a hushed silence which seems to echo off the windows and rebound onto Jane until the entire world is focused down onto the feel of her hands on her face and Thor’s hands on her shoulders.

“Jane,” he says softly.  “What’s happened?”  And then, one of many reasons she loves him, “How can I help?”

She swallows hard, takes a deep breath, and uncovers her face.  She pushes herself up from the carpet to find that the whole group is staring at her, everything from genuine concern to polite confusion on their faces.

“I have a niece,” she manages, deciding that’s the best way to start.  “My brother Rick, in Seattle – I’ve told you about them,” she adds to Thor, sees him nod, though the worry doesn’t leave his eyes.  “She’s sixteen days old.  My niece, I mean.  Her name’s Maddie.  That’s why I’m back in the States, to go out and see her.”  She takes a deep breath.  “My sister-in-law put her down for a nap today, and she got kidnapped.  Maddie,” she clarifies, realizing she’s not explaining well.  She presses a hand to her head, tries for clarity.  “Not Andrea.  Maddie’s gone.”

Someone – she thinks Clint – swears; the polite confusion has melted away into honest worry and sympathetic  alarm.  Pepper’s rushed forward, put a hand on her arm, eyes full of horror.  “Seattle?” Tony says, and the whole way he’s standing has changed.  “When?”

“Um.”  She shuffles time zones in her head, from Siberia to New York to Seattle, does the math.  “Three hours ago.”

“How far to Seattle from here?” Thor asks, because of course Thor has no idea where Seattle is, but he’s still going to help her get there.

“Across the continent,” Dr. Banner says grimly, hands balled into fists at his side.  “You’ll have to take a plane.  Tony?”

“Got that covered,” the man says, already in motion.  “You’re still packed, right, Jane?  Clint, you know where everything is?”  He opens a small drawer under the bar, picks something out of the jumble of items within it. 

Clint catches it when it’s tossed to him.  “I’ll warm her up,” he says, and catches Natasha’s eye.  “Grab my stuff?” he asks, and doesn’t wait to see her nod before he turns and disappears up a set of stairs behind the entertainment center.

Thor looks down at her, and frames her face in his hands.  “We’ll get you to Seattle,” he promises her, blue eyes serious.  “We’ll find Maddie.  I promise.”

“Thank you,” she says, because it’s all she can say.

“Dinner,” Pepper says briskly, and squeezes her hand before moving away.  “I’ll pack dinner.  Tony, you’ll want – ”

“Yeah,” he agrees to her unspoken question, and Jane can see that he’s fiddling with some kind of holographic interface, bringing up data and discarding it with quick flicks of his hand.  “Good.”

Natasha slips by quietly, moving quickly and with purpose, disappearing down the elevator.  Steve is following her, but he stops to squeeze Jane’s shoulder, a brief reassurance, and then he’s gone.

Jane takes a deep breath, decides she needs to panic for just a minute, and shuts her eyes tightly and hugs Thor.  He holds onto her until she’s sure she’s not going to cry, and when she’s opened her eyes, Dr. Banner is rolling her luggage awkwardly up the same stairway Clint took and Thor is the only one left in the room with her.

“We will get you to Seattle,” he tells her seriously, “and we will help you get Maddie back.”

“Thanks,” she says, and then blurts, “She’s two weeks old, Thor, who would steal a baby?  What would they want with her?”

He brings her hands up, and kisses her knuckles slowly, eyes troubled.  “We’ll help you get her back,” he repeats.  “I won’t say to not worry, because I know how precious she is to you.  But we will do all we can, and I won’t,” he emphasizes, “leave you to face this alone.”

Jane lets out a breath she wasn’t aware she was holding.  “Thanks,” she repeats, and then, because despite her shock, the image is too bizarre for her already misfiring brain to handle, she giggles weakly.  “Have you ever even been on a plane?”

He doesn’t look offended, or even confused, and his smile makes his eyes brighten.  “I have,” he says, and kisses her knuckles again.  “And for my lady Jane, I will suffer one again.”

“It’s an awful nice bird, you have to admit,” Tony says, sauntering into the room once more.  He’s carrying a bag, and his saunter, Jane notes, is a bit less carefree than it was twenty minutes earlier.  He tosses the bag at them; Jane ducks, and Thor lets go of her to catch it.  “Pack what you need, thunder boy, take-off is in ten minutes.”

“Ten minutes?” Jane echoes.

Thor’s smile spreads, and he gives her the little half-bow she’s come to recognize as his farewell.  “It is,” he admits, “a very nice bird.”

“Come on,” Tony says, as Pepper emerges from the door with a box that smells fantastic in her hands, “I’ll show you up.”

Which is how, fifty minutes after she meets the Avengers and four hours after she’s back on American soil for the first time in months, Jane finds herself sitting in Stark Industry’s private jet – well, jet isn’t really the word for something that takes off vertically out of the Tower, but it’s the closest word Jane can find to describe it – with neatly packed chicken fettuccine in a box beside her.  She can see straight through from her spot on the couch – the plane has couches – to the cockpit, where Clint is sitting on one side and Natasha the other, wearing the ridiculously large headphones pilots wear and competently turning the plane’s nose towards the glow of the just-set sun in the west.

Thor is sitting beside her, wordlessly, holding her hand and letting her draw support from his solid presence.  Steve is pacing, twelve steps forward and twelve steps back, up and down between the couches, occasionally looking out the windows and constantly looking back at Tony.  Tony and Dr. Banner are sitting at the desk that covers the back of the cabin, and data flows over the desk in front of them like electronic water.

“There’s an Amber Alert out,” Dr. Banner says, and opens his hand over the information to have it grow larger.  There’s a picture of Maddie, full color, in the center of it.  Her name is printed in bold letters across the top, her date of birth across the bottom.  “It was fast work, too – I’d say within an hour of her disappearance.”

“No vehicle sighted, no subject description, no leads,” Tony says, and it almost makes Jane despair except for the long exhale he gives right afterwards, the way he cracks his knuckles.  “Let’s see if we can’t change that.”

Jane tightens her grip on Thor’s left hand, sees him tighten his grip on the hammer he’s holding in his right hand.

I’m coming, Rick, she thinks, and shuts her eyes.  And God, we’re going to get Maddie back.  Look who’s coming with me.