“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
2012: New York City, United States
Jane pushed harder, lungs burning with breaths that had turned from heavy to gasping and muscles aching from their continued sprint up the stairs. Rounding a corner, she took a moment to peek over the railing into the depths of the stairwell to see the agents trailing her a few flights below. One of them leaned out, and Jane saw her face reflected in the mirrored lenses before she took off once more.
As if that was going to happen. Did Agent Hartmann think she'd decided to fight him and his men off and climb twelve stories for the fun of it? No, turning back wasn't an option. She had to reach the rooftop. She had to find Loki. If she were to surrender now, they would only proceed to haul her off to Norway.
"Jane, we have to get you out of here!"
Case in point.
Skidding around the last corner, she clambered the last few steps to the rooftop access, threw open the heavy door, and emerged into blinding sunlight, fresh air, and the sound of war. The door slammed shut behind her with a thud that would've been loud were it not for the deadly symphony that occupied the air. Alien and military aircrafts flew overhead, filling the sky with bullets and – were those energy blasts? – that occasionally hit their mark but, more often than not, rained down on buildings and the unsuspecting populace below.
And even though the agents were growing closer, Jane froze for a moment to stare with wide eyes and a slack jaw at the destruction, the sheer devastation that had fallen over the city.
Suddenly, a muffled shout sounded from behind the door, breaking through her immobility and spurring her into action once more. She scanned the rooftop. Smooth concrete, air conditioning units, a small utility structure… nothing that she needed. But then she noticed a jagged strip of metal to the left. Her legs were shaky, unused to the flat surface after the climb, but she forced cooperation from them as she stumbled forward.
With no time to spare, she drug the weighty panel – judging by the half-scorched imprint of a flag at the far end, it was the last remnant of a fighter jet that had recently been shot down – back to the rooftop access. The yelling was growing louder, too close for her to do any more than wince and readjust her grip when the keen edge of the metal sliced open her palm.
It wasn't until the panel was wedged beneath the door handle and braced against the ground that she finally allowed herself a deep breath. Her heart continued to race, but the rest of her muscles dissolved into mush, begged for a reprieve. Wearily, she collapsed against the door and let her head fall back before sliding to the ground.
The pounding of the agents' fists vibrated through her back.
"Open the door, Jane!"
She numbly watched the battle taking place in the sky.
"You need to come with us!"
Her hand stung, felt sticky with blood.
"It's not safe!"
But really, what was safe anymore?
Safe was a straw cot and a heavy wool blanket, listening to the winter wind's fierce howling while being warmed by a fire in the hearth, staring at the comforting crosshatch overhead. It was snowballs and laughter, noses red from the cold, mouths stretched wide in grins, white powder dusting hair and collecting on eyelashes. It was big band jazz, painted lips and kohl-dark eyes, short dresses, long nights, the taste of tobacco and moonshine and rebellion in the air.
Safe was firm muscles and the hard press of fingers, the scent of cedar and frost, breathless moans and quiet whispers, mischievous smirks, the shiver of magic, fingers brushing across cheekbones and through hair, the color green in an endless world of grey.
Jane sighed. Those forms of safety were long gone. Now the things she'd once considered a haven of sorts had been cast aside, the harsh reality of the world replacing them with things that were decidedly unsafe.
Because safe was not the iron scent of blood on the air, blank and glassy eyes atop a grimace, sickness, rape, bile and excrement, prison bars, mushroom clouds, radiation, buildings crumbling into dust, anger and hate and death.
It wasn't a wormhole that allowed an alien force to bear down upon Manhattan at the behest of a god.
It wasn't an antechamber in a land of ice, blue flames highlighting an ancient evil.
It wasn't waking up in a hospital alone.
A whirring aircraft passed a little too close for comfort, effectively scattering Jane's thoughts and sending her scrambling around the structure concealing the staircase to hide in the shadows. There, she watched as the machine continued onward, closely followed by a silver and red blur. A silver and red… wait.
"Thor!" Leaping up, she sprinted to the edge of the building. "Thor!"
Jane screamed his name over and over again until her voice cracked with the strain. However, her efforts were in vain. The cacophony of battle swallowed everything, and she was forced to watch as Thor continued in the opposite direction, ultimately landing on the spire that adorned the top of the Chrysler Building.
Defeat welled up unbidden. It had been a fool's plan at best, but it was still better than running away. In the end, though, there was no other word for it. She'd failed. And now she was alone. Alone and stranded on a high-rise with no way of finding the one person that could definitively end what was happening.
Out in the open, the wind whipped madly, yanking her hair to the point the strands left stinging lashes across her face and neck. The tangled mess obscured much of the view, but nothing could block the whale-like creatures passing through the hole above Stark Tower.
Jane was still clinging to the ledge when everything exploded.
The blast of energy from the passing alien cruiser shattered the concrete beneath her, and she could no longer discern between sky and ground as the force of the explosion flung her through the air like a rag doll.
Time seemed to slow.
It would be just her luck that she'd fly over the edge of the building. Would the fall be as terrifying as she imagined? Was instantaneous death painless? Who would be the one to identify her splattered remains? What if they couldn't identify her at all? She'd be just another nameless victim lumped in with the other unidentifiable casualties of the battle, and the people closest to her would never know the circumstances of her death, would be forced to mourn a body-less casket and an empty grave. Of course, that was assuming they even defeated the aliens.
Time sped up again.
Jane landed heavily against an air conditioning unit. Broken pieces of concrete jabbed into her back and her leg was bent beneath her at an unnatural angle, but there was little she could do except try to remember how to breathe as dust and debris settled around her. It took a considerable amount of effort before the sweet rush of oxygen filled her lungs… only for it to end in a harsh gasp.
Her lungs were on fire, or was that her chest itself?
Pain was a knife swimming through her veins. It was all she could focus on, the intensity of it sending black spots dancing across her sight. She needed to breathe, but right then she needed to move more. Because it was the concrete beneath her causing so much pain, right? Surely, she'd be able to breathe easier without the jagged edges digging into her back.
Jane wiggled her fingers first as a test and, at the success, drew her hands on either side of her. There was a moment in which she gathered her thoughts, a brief second where she gladly anticipated how freely she'd be able to inhale afterwards, but when she tried to push herself up, her chest exploded in white-hot blades of agony. And it was ironic how dull the fire in her lungs felt right then compared to the inferno in her chest.
Darkness swelled and overtook her, and when it finally receded, she had no way of knowing if she'd passed out for ten seconds or ten minutes. The world was a haze. The sky blurred, a dull ringing filled her ears, and she couldn't really feel the concrete beneath her fingertips anymore. Blinking slowly, she desperately tried to restore some semblance of calm even as her heart raced in panic.
Gradually, the sky sharpened and her senses returned, but when she took in a slow, hesitant breath, there was no ignoring the wet gurgle that accompanied it.
A punctured lung.
As if everything wasn't complicated enough, she'd managed to puncture a lung.
The culprit was likely a broken rib – that would explain the ungodly pain in her chest – and if her crackling inhales were any indication, there was fluid in the lung as well. Naturally, that would be her luck. She couldn't recall swallowing since the explosion, but it was possible traces of saliva had leaked down her throat. Then again, it was just as possible she was bleeding internally.
Jane's mind readily settled on something to analyze, clinically noting that if air was leaking out of her injured lung, the other would eventually collapse from a lack of room to expand. Not that it mattered much anyway. A person her size could only live for thirty minutes at the most when suffering from a punctured lung with liquid in it, and with the current state of the city, there would be no one coming to her rescue any time soon. By the time help arrived, she would be long dead, having either drowned in her own fluids or asphyxiated from a lack of oxygen.
Preferable to death as a red smear on the ground after more than a thousand foot fall, but still…
The detached analysis was calming, and in the aftermath, Jane felt strangely resigned. There was no honor in facing death with fear. She'd been raised on that belief. So it was at least some bit of comfort that, although the end she faced wasn't necessarily one to be proud of, it wouldn't be a complete disgrace. Death could come on far worse wings.
Warmth on her face drew Jane's focus to the sun's brilliance first, then the sky.
It was beautiful, vast and endless and boundlessly stretching out as far as the eye could see in wispy strokes of white on unadulterated blue. She traced the cloud's patterns, followed their graceful dance through the heavens. And if she ignored the battle and the sharp, definitive lines that were the modern world, she could almost imagine she was home.
Smell the briny sea and the sharp bite of coming winter…
Feel the earth and the soft edges of grass beneath her…
Hear the gentle ebb and flow of the tides over the cliff's edge…
But home dissolved into steel and rock in the span of a blink, and with nothing left except the sound of war in her ears, smoke in her nose, and ashes on her tongue, the wrongness of it all fueled the last shreds of determination. Because she refused to die in a crumpled heap atop a pile of stone.
Gritting her teeth against the shooting pain, Jane crawled to her feet. There was a second where she swayed, clutching tightly to the coiled top of the air conditioning unit as darkness crept in from the edges of her sight, but then it ebbed and she was able to stand upright, or as upright as broken ribs and a punctured lung allowed.
The sky darkened without warning before being split apart by streaks of lightning and crashing thunder. Jane could feel the energy in the air. The static danced along her skin like a tangible thing, made the hair on her arms and the back of her neck stand on end. And when the electricity dissolved, the lightning faded, and the skies cleared, she was surprisingly unsurprised to see him standing where he hadn't been before.
Alabaster skin, dark hair, grey-green eyes, adorned in familiar shades of green and gold and black that he'd worn since the beginning… it was like looking at a memory, peeling the image directly from the past and pasting it in the here and now. She drank in his form, and it wasn't the first time she thought how easy it would be to drown in the sea of details that comprised him.
"Jane…" Something that vaguely resembled concern flitted across his face before it shifted into that cool indifference he'd always worn so well. "What are you doing here?"
She could have answered, allowed him to take the lead as he so often had in the past. Or she could have given voice to any one of the thousand things she'd thought or felt since the last time they'd seen each other. But still able to hear battle and – hidden deeper in the background – the silence of death, all she could do was revise his inquiry.
"What are you doing?"
"Ignorance has never suited you, Jane." Loki's mouth curled in an unamused smile. "Surely you can surmise my goal."
So they were going to play that game. The combined disregard and blasé attitude had Jane frowning. Surreal as it felt, though, she could go with it, pretend that the last time they saw each other hadn't been nearly six months ago as he fell into the yawning cosmos.
The staff in his hand caught her attention. That, and the smoking remains of a building that had just crumbled under the weight of a fallen Leviathan. "Total destruction?"
"A world made free." Loki held up a hand to correct her. "I would rule Midgard as a benevolent god."
"I saw what you did in Germany." Turning, he walked a meandering path to her left, his pace sorely out of context with the situation. Jane followed his every movement, but he looked up, out, down… anywhere but her. "There's nothing benevolent about carving out someone's eye or trying to kill a defenseless man. True leaders don't need fear to control others."
"Don't they?" At that, Loki met her gaze. "The one thing mortals cherish above all is the idea of freedom, but they fail to realize that freedom is crippling. With too much sovereignty, life results in nothing more than a race for power."
"I already heard this speech."
"Yet you refuse to accept the truth of it, you who know me to be right." There was a steely glint to his gaze that made her shiver involuntarily. "How could I not rule with an iron fist? Resistance is natural when independence is so highly prized. So when the mortals refuse to yield, what choice do I have but to meet force with force?"
Jane shuffled closer, biting back a hiss of pain at the pain that accompanied the movement. "This isn't some you brought it upon yourself kind of thing. You can rationalize it all you want, but the bottom line is that you're killing people, Loki. Innocent people."
"No one is innocent."
"It doesn't matter. They should be able to live their lives how they want, whether it's a struggle or not. You…" One hand flattened against her broken ribs while the other pointed accusingly. "Have no right to take that away from them, from me."
Mirroring her actions, Loki took one step forward, then another. "I beg to differ."
Part of her wanted to look down, but giving in wasn't an option, not in the game they were playing. Because it was a game. A dangerous game of intimidation. And while Loki had always excelled at intimidation, the effect it had on her had somewhat lessened over time while her stubborn willfulness had only grown.
Jane arched a brow. "Oh?"
"Yes." Another step closer. "I have every right." Only a few feet separated them now, and she was forced to lift her chin to maintain eye contact. "This is my due, Jane." How could she ever have forgotten how tall he was? "I was born to be a king."
"And I was born to die in the middle of a battlefield, but sometimes things don't work out like we expect!" The reminder had less of an impact than she'd hoped, and his stony expression made her want to tear out her hair in frustration. "The time you spent in the Void obviously didn't change you at all. You're just as conceited and arrogant as you always were, always thinking you're so superior."
"Then we have both remained unchanged since the ages have done little to dull your tongue. It's as sharp as ever, I see."
"This…" Jane gestured to the wreckage and the aerial battles still taking place. "All of this is bullshit. I know you well enough to know something else is going on, and for the God of Lies, you've never been very good at lying to me. So tell me, Loki, why are you here?"
A cruel smirk tugged at his mouth. "To rule this—"
"Why are you really here?"
Loki's smirk fell. Maybe it was the interruption or the way her eyes flashed with righteous anger or the determination evident in her clenched jaw… whatever the reason, it had him staring at her hard with an intensity that burned like fire. He shifted almost imperceptibly, and for one long second, Jane thought he was getting ready to either kiss her or kill her.
But then he was stalking away. He gripped the remains of the concrete ledge that lined the rooftop to the point the mortar crumbled beneath his hands. He spun back around to face her, the ends of his surcoat slicing through the air before curling around his legs.
"Is this not my legacy, Jane?" Wearing a deceptively calm façade, Loki extended his hands wide. "Is this not what I have been foretold to do?"
And it was oddly funny how a few simple words threw the entire situation into startling clarity.
"That's why you're doing this?" A telling silence was the only response Jane received. "You, of all people, should know the future is never set in stone."
"I, of all people…" Where her voice had risen with awful awareness, Loki's lowered dangerously. "You maintain your belief that the realms are subject to chance. After all we've been through, you hold on to hope that you alone control your life. Why? You are no fool, Jane. You have seen the signs as well as I."
The space between them began to lessen. He crossed the rooftop, approaching her with such purpose that it took every ounce of resolve Jane possessed not to backtrack. Only when virtually no space remained between them did he stop.
"There is no faith to be had, no free will to be executed outside of that which has been written." Loki's hand darted out. It caught her chin in a vice-like grip, forced her to meet his eyes, but when he continued, she was surprised to hear his tone had lost its iron edge. "You think it was by chance that we met?"
She wanted to say yes.
Deep down, however, she wasn't quite sure how to answer that.
Without his fire to stoke it, Jane's exasperation burned itself out, and she was left gazing up at Loki earnestly. "I think the future is vague. It's indistinct. You may think your life is ordained, but you're wrong." The hand not pressing to her ribs reached up to lightly touch his forearm. "The future doesn't bind you anymore than time bound me."
"That is where you're wrong." His eyes flicked back and forth between hers. "I am nothing more than a rat in a maze, confined to the walls that surround me and the road ahead. It no longer matters which path I choose to walk. They all lead to the same end."
"The Norns have spoken." The fingers on her chin softened but didn't fall away. His focus did, though. It lowered until Jane was staring at dark lashes, and the eerie glow of the scepter only seemed to enhance the blue veins crisscrossing his eyelids. "This is my fate."
"It's only a book." She grasped the fabric of his sleeve. "It was just a bunch of stories."
"Stories that became strangely accurate. No…"
When Loki stepped back, the loss of his presence left Jane swaying forward into the vacant space. He took a deep, steadying breath. In that split-second between his inhale and exhale, she could literally see the workings of him as he composed himself, pulled the frayed pieces of his being back into place and stitched them together with a kind of resigned persistence. And when his eyes finally met hers, the look in them made her shiver for the second time.
"Do you not see, Jane? I am a tool forged in the fires of fate. I am the destructor, the godkiller, the slayer of worlds."
She couldn't breathe. The air snagged in her lungs.
"I am death."
And somewhere in the depths of a molten world, Jane could almost feel the devil smile.