Jane wanted to scream, but Loki's hand was tight around her throat and his long fingers held her mouth closed as effectively as a gag. She flailed against his tight grip, but could barely get a few inches before he yanked her back against him again. Her nails scratched ineffectively against his hand, and at the touch, he bent down and murmured, "Come Jane, haven't we done this dance before?"
His cool, sneering voice doused her in ice water. She stood stock still in the circle of his arm and closed her eyes, using the darkness to give herself some space from what was happening. Her heartbeat was thundering in her ears and she felt the blood rushing chaotically all over her body. Her feet tingled, longing to run, but she forced them to stay still. Her hands still shook, wanting to try dragging his arm away from her mouth, but Jane clenched them into fists and didn't stop until the pain of her fingernails digging into the palms finally pierced the haze of panic that enveloped her brain.
Stop, Jane, she commanded herself, stop, and think.
There was a flurry at the end of the corridor, and Loki straightened behind her, though his arm didn't relax one bit.
"If I see anyone but my dear brother," he called out, "I'll break her neck. Thor!" he shouted, "You know I will do it!"
Jane wanted to be sick all over his fingers at the realization that this was one time he just might be telling the truth. Her very logical, but entirely useless conscience laughed bitterly and berated her: didn't we agree that you were done with this craziness? And yet here you are, a chew toy being fought over by two mastiffs, either strong enough to tear you to pieces. Good job, idiot!
And as she saw Thor slowly emerge from around the corner, she wholeheartedly agreed. She was an idiot, she was such a goddamned idiot.
Thor advanced evenly down the corridor, hand hanging loose next to Mjolnir, but Jane could feel his fury in the electricity that built in the air, the sharp smell of a storm about to break. He had not yet called his armor though, and that was reassuring. Loki held out his other hand, and his brother stopped. There was no sound, for neither man moved a muscle from where each stood, tense and battle ready, but Jane's ears drummed to the beat of her frantic heart.
Twenty paces stood between them, no more. For Jane, it was such an insurmountable distance that she and Loki might have as well been standing on the top of Everest. Still, Thor's presence did help relax her. Short of being crushed in a contest between them, she would never believe he would allow her to be harmed.
"Well, son of Odin," Loki began, leaning forward until his chin brushed the top of Jane's head, "how familiar all this seems. Do you not regret not following my advice of these many months past, in not ridding yourself of love for this mortal? Look at her!" and he shook Jane until her teeth rattled, "Defenseless. Pathetic. I could crush her throat without a thought."
Thor flinched, and Jane held out an open palm to him, desperately trying to convey that she was all right. He stopped, and the gentleness around his eyes showed her that he understood. Thor took a deep breath and forced himself to relax.
His voice was calm when he said, "You will not hurt her."
"I have been in this prison—banished by Odin's edict and without intercession from you or my mother—for years. Do not," he hissed the words like a venomous serpent, "tell me what I will and will not do."
Jane tried to repeat "years", but it turned into a muffled moan against his palm.
"I think your beloved has something to say," Loki lowered his head so his ear was next to Jane's mouth, "Would you care to hear her cries for help? I confess," he laughed bitterly, "after so long left to my own devices, it is a pleasure even to hear this insignificant speak. So Jane," his hand took a firmer grip around her throat but left her mouth free, "what have you to say?"
"Years?" she had time enough to get out the single word before Loki's fingers closed off her windpipe. Jane choked for a moment—Thor took a lunging step forward—and Loki gagged her again.
"Stay!" he commanded Thor, and at Jane's outstretched hand, he reigned himself in. Rivulets of lightning flashed between the metal casings of the prison cells.
"Do not push me, Loki," he growled, as the lightning started to spark, "I offer you a single warning: it has been many months since I stopped thinking of you as the brother I once knew. The love I felt for him no longer extends to you. Hurt her, and I will kill you."
"I have heard this song from you many times, brother," Loki replied, and Jane could feel him smiling when Thor grimaced and closed his fists tight, "so you will forgive me if I have the words memorized. But we are being very rude," he went on in a tone of forced unconcern, "to our dear girl. I think you have been keeping secrets from your darling love. Shall I enlighten her? Or would you care to indulge in an exercise of honesty?"
Anger drained from Thor's face as he looked at her. Though half her face was still covered by Loki's hand, she knew her eyes were begging him for the truth. He swallowed twice and looked down at his closed fists before finally saying, "Jane, you must realize that punishment for us must, by reason of our very nature, be different. I did not approve my father's judgment in this—"
"Don't lie!" Loki snapped. "You were at my sentencing, and you said nothing. It has been six years, and you condemned me to endure every single one of them."
Jane put her hand on Loki's wrist, and it was only because of his distraction that she was able to move it far enough to say, "Thor, tell me. It's only been thirteen months for me…how is it so different for you?"
"It has been the same for me, but…" he sighed, "the All-Father can influence the environment of Asgard in fundamental ways. Even," he stopped again, then repeated, "even to the passage of time."
"Are you saying," she said slowly, "that your father—Loki's father—screwed up time's flow…" the idea was so incredible, so cruel that Jane almost wanted to stop, "just to make his punishment more severe?"
"Swift as ever, Jane," Loki answered for Thor, whose tight mouth and averted eyes told her how close to the truth she had been, "The All-Father—a misnomer, as he is not my father—decided that a mere life sentence would not be enough for me to ruminate on my crimes," he snorted the word, and Jane remembered the man who once declared humans as incapable of self-rule, "so he settled on a more…lingering torment. He decreed that I should not age in accordance to time's passage in my cell, but that for each day that passed for him, and Thor, and the blessed of Asgard," his bitterness made Jane cringe, "close to six should pass for me."
Thor tried to interrupt. "Loki—"
"Silence!" in his fury, Loki dragged Jane a few steps backwards. She choked behind his hand and clawed against it, but he remembered her in time and his grip loosened. "With every word you speak you bring her death closer."
Thor ran his hand over Mjolnir's handle, his grip settling just behind the hammer's head. Yet he believed Loki's threat, and was silent.
Jane felt Loki's breaths, harsh and ragged, pressing against her. He was trying, she knew, to control his anger. Even after so many months in solitude, and after so many years of suppressed hated and jealousy, Loki was nothing if not a strategist. It was impossible to scheme when motivated by the hot flood of wrath.
"What do you want?" there was enough space for her to say the words. Her voice was quiet—she didn't mean for Thor to hear—but Loki answered her loud enough for both of them.
"What do I want?" he seemed almost amused by the question, "There is not a day when I have not dreamed of exactly what I desire. What a strange coincidence, Jane, that you should be the one to make possible these dreams."
"Answer her, Loki," Thor said, "I have no desire for this to continue."
"And yet," he snarled, "you now await my pleasure, Odinson. Is it not a chafing irritation?"
"If you wish me to admit my faults against you, brother—"
"I thought we had abandoned the pretense of being brothers."
"Loki," Jane said, louder this time, trying to keep his focus on her, "please, tell me. What can I do to make this better?"
The choice of words was unconsidered. Yet somehow, Jane felt they were apropos. From Thor's letters, she'd been aware of Loki's trial, and had assumed his punishment would be proportionate to his crime. However, the idea of Loki—immortal by her standards—being forced to live six times his natural lifespan, all in this subterranean cell, was appalling. Somehow, a life sentence for an Aesir seemed more cruel than for a human. And she wanted to fix it…if she could.
"You can shut your pretty little mouth," he growled. "Do you not think I know how quickly you forgot me? You are of use to me now as you always should have remained…as a hostage against my brother's good behavior. He may value something of your irrelevance, but I no longer do."
Jane's throat gave a quick, tight spasm. Somehow, the idea that her influence, her importance with Loki had disappeared during his imprisonment, was painful. Though he might have been able to forget her over time…she couldn't say the same for herself.
"I'm sorry," she said, despite the warning fingers she felt against her throat. "I should have tried to get here sooner, I should have asked Thor if I could speak at your trial—"
"Well-intentioned, Jane, if useless. As are most your efforts," she winced, "If there is one who cares less for human life than I, it is certainly the All-Father. Even if you had made it here at the time, you would not have been allowed to speak. And by some miracle, even if Odin had heard your words, he would have regarded them no more than the inane chittering of some jumped-up animal."
"You do him an injustice—" Thor said, only to be cut off once again.
"Do I?" Loki asked with a laugh, "Surely it's a coincidence then that you bring your lover here…only after Odin has disappeared?"
"How do you know about that?" the tension that Thor had forcibly kept from him was back. Jane couldn't help but feel it too. If Loki had truly been under the restraints Thor claimed, he should never have known of Odin's vanishing. And yet…Jane bit her lip and waited.
At least Loki loved to gloat. "I know what you want of me, Thor," Loki said, shaking his head. "I know everything. Did you truly think that you could keep me caged and ignorant? I, who have walked through the different planes that bind the many Yggdrasils together? Did you think I did not see the Convergence coming, would not be able to anticipate its effects?"
"Then tell us what we need to know," Thor growled, frowning darkly, "and leave off this empty crowing."
"But it has been so long, dear brother," she could hear Loki's self-satisfied smile, "you must allow me at least a few moments of triumph. And had you not brought Jane to me," he went on, "I might have been tempted to trade the knowledge of Odin's whereabouts for my release. But now, I need do nothing. Jane will accompany me until I feel secure you do not follow…and then, if I am feeling generous, I will let her return to you with the knowledge you seek."
"The hell you will," Jane cried, almost giggling as she felt Loki start behind her. Facing Thor still—Loki gave her no leeway to turn around—she said, "If you really knew where Odin was, you would have said so by now. He disappeared two weeks before Thor came to get me. If time was passing as slowly as you say, that's almost three months you sat on your hands and waited. Why?"
The brightness was back in Thor's eyes and a smile turned the corners of his mouth. "You always get more than you bargain for with Jane, brother."
"Don't I just?" Loki said, slowly. "And I'm beginning to find it rather tiresome. Even if she is right," and he started moving backwards, dragging Jane's reluctant heels easily across the cobblestoned floor, "she is still my hostage. You will let me go, or she will pay the price for your stubbornness."
"Thor brought me here to try and get you to help us," she spoke as quickly as she could, not thrilled at the prospect of being Loki's interstellar baggage, "so rather than take me hostage, can't we work something out? If you help me understand the Convergence, Odin will be so grateful he'll have to let you go."
Loki paused, and Thor must have seen some hesitation in his face because he stepped forward and said eagerly, "Listen to her, Loki. We need your help. What you would ask in return for Jane's safety, you could have in exchange for your assistance. Please," he held out a hand, "come with me to our mother and we will discuss terms. There is no need for this."
Loki's fingers danced restlessly on Jane's throat, lingering at her pounding pulse. He sounded uncertain as he said, "There is more to the Convergence than either of you know. I would be well away before it is upon us."
"If my research—and the research of other scientists—has shown anything, it's that the full effects of it aren't on us yet. We have anywhere between six weeks and two months." Jane put her and on his wrist, and he was relaxed enough for him to draw away the hand and turn to face him. "We solved the Skrull problem in two weeks, you and I," she said, so softly that Thor wouldn't hear, "please," and there was a flicker in his eye that was somehow like the Loki she remembered, "help me figure this out."
His eyes lingered on where her hand rested on his. They flickered to hers for a brief moment before he pressed his left palm against her wrist. There was a searing pain and a sickening smell of burning flesh, but when Loki's hand moved, Jane saw no sign of harm beside a tiny black rash.
"We will talk, Thor," he said, bland and business like over Jane's strangled scream, "but though I no longer have her by the throat, Jane's life still remains in my hands. If you betray me, or return me to my cell, this immolation spell will consume her before you could do a thing to stop it."
"Immolation?" she gasped, cradling her wounded wrist, "You'd burn me alive? No," she said numbly, shaking her head. "No, you wouldn't."
He smiled down on her. "Why, Jane…don't you trust me?"
The room Thor—and then Frigga, who had met them at the entrance to the dungeons—led Jane and her tall, dark shadow to was a fussy, overdone parlor somewhere in the center of the palace. Though it was still as fine a chamber as Jane could imagine in any castle on Earth, it had a distinct lack of that elegant, simple comfort that Frigga clearly favored. There were no windows for natural light, no fresh flowers on the tables, and the furniture was straight edges and dark woods.
Frigga had chosen a heavy armchair that stood with its back to the door; Loki sat opposite her on a long divan, one leg thrown casually over the other, while his long arms rested on the back of the seat. Thor sat to his mother's left, and Jane rounded out the square by taking the seat opposite him, as far from Loki and as close to Frigga as she could manage.
She sat on the edge of her chair, fighting the urge to cradle her spelled arm. Thor could barely keep himself from staring at it, and her, as though the knowledge of his silent support could drive the danger away. Jane didn't meet his eyes; his worry reminded her of her own.
The only person who looked at ease was, of course, Loki. He looked at each of them in turn with a faint smile breaking the smooth mask of his face. The smile deepened somewhat when he took in Thor's carven scowl, and faded when he met his mother's weary, disappointed eyes. Jane had no idea what expression he wore when he looked at her; every time he turned in her direction, she looked at Thor, or Frigga, or the floor.
The room was as cold and silent as a cave. When Frigga sighed, it echoed between them.
"Oh Loki," she said, shaking her head, "why must you always make things worse?"
"My dear mother," he replied, "I have said before and I shall say it again, you and I have vastly different definitions of the word. My circumstances are nothing but improved. Though, of course, I apologize for the unkind position I have put you in."
"You mean, by threatening to kill her guest?" Thor put in, "A woman you once valued as you did no other person in her Realm?"
"We all make mistakes," Loki drawled. "I readily admit to having made more than my fair share."
"You are—" Thor rose to his feet, towering over the man who only looked up at him and let his smile widen.
"Thor," Frigga said, her outstretched hand and stern voice a command in and of themselves. When he sat down again, she turned to her other son. "What do you want of us, Loki, in return for lifting this curse?"
"I want what I have always wanted," he replied, leaning forward and fixing his mother with a hard-eyed stare, "What I always should have had. Odin will acknowledge his error in punishing me, and I will be granted my freedom."
"It'll be hard for Odin to apologize if no one can find him," Jane said, "Maybe it'll be better if you stick around long enough to help us."
He barely looked away from his mother. "For one who has suffered—and is likely to continue suffering—on the All-Father's behalf, you show a surprising amount of concern for him."
"I'm concerned about this Convergence," she said, "and its effects on the Realms. If things are going to get as crazy as it sounds, it'll be nice to have someone around who understands it."
"Eminently practical," he smiled, "as always. However, you really must learn at some point, Jane, that hostages are usually seen and not heard."
"Yeah…" she sighed. Frustrating as Loki was, and as frightened as the idea of her skin peeling off in a blinding sheet of flame made her, Jane had no intention of biting her tongue while these three people decided the course of her life. So she smiled back at him, and said, "How well did that work out the first time?"
Now she had his full attention. But when his shadowed green eyes, narrowed like a panther's, settled on her, Jane's heart jumped and she wished—not for the first time in her life—that she had a little less pride, and could stand to keep her mouth shut.
His fingers twitched, the thumbs sliding against the forefingers. Jane remembered the callouses on his hands—and how they related to his magic—the instant before the burnt patch of skin on her wrist flared bright and sent a bolt of flame down to her bones.
"Don't push me Jane," he said, gently, and let his hands drop. "However, you are right, as you have the annoying habit of being." When he turned back to his mother, Jane breathed a silent sigh and wrapped a cool hand around her scorched skin. "So, what can you tell me about his disappearance that I might not already know?"
"It happened two weeks ago," Frigga said, standing as she spoke and taking a seat beside Jane. Her long fingers were cold and Jane almost moaned with relief when they prodded her wound and seemed to leech some of the heat away. "Odin was in the small council chamber, and when he rose to leave, he passed through the door ahead of his advisors. They emerged into the hall, and he was gone. Similar disappearances have been reported throughout Asgard, but as yet, our scientists can neither identify a pattern nor track where the vanished ones have gone."
"The same things have been happening on Earth," Jane put in, watching as her smoking flesh repaired itself under Frigga's quickly moving hands. By the time she was done, there was just a blackened circle the size of a dime; the evidence of a curse even Loki's mother could not erase. "Patches of stars in the Milky Way appear and disappear from night to night. People go missing at random places; those that come back tell us about landscapes and beings that don't exist. We believe they're traveling to other Realms."
"It is possible," Loki agreed, "the early symptoms of the Convergence mimic the chaos that is to come." The grin that spread over his face at the idea of chaos made Jane sick to her stomach. She remembered that smile; remembered it in her nightmares from those days of fear in New York, imprisoned in Stark Tower.
He hummed, the smile fading. He replaced it with false concern as he said, "Well, despite the many possibilities such turmoil offers, I fear that the Convergence will be devastating to a developing society like Midgard. There are too many people there I wish unharmed—until I harm them, that is. Very well," he said, leaning back and looking from Thor, to Frigga, to Jane, "I will help you locate the All-Father and prepare for the Convergence. But I require something…something very nice, in return."
"Your freedom is not enough for you?" Thor asked. The frown that creased his face had not moved once during this entire interview. Clearly Jane was not the only one who was disappointed by the return to madness she saw in Loki.
"My freedom is my birthright," Loki snapped, "I should never have had to earn it or bargain for it. Lest you forget, Odinson, you are as guilty as I over the crimes of murder in other Realms. You nearly started a war with Jotunheim—"
"Which crime you compounded by genocide—"
"Only in attempting to save Aesir lives!" he cried, fury flushing his face as he slammed a fist into his knee. Jane tensed; Frigga extended a hand. But Loki made an effort and reined himself in. "This is…irrelevant. We both know that you will never be brought to account for your sins, even as I am pilloried for mine. So," he breathed deeply, and relaxed. "So in acknowledgment of that, I will require something that will free me forever from the fear of punishment from Odin."
"No," for once, Thor seemed to catch on faster than either Frigga or Jane. He shook his head, the frown smoothing out in amazement at Loki's audacity. "No. Our mother will never agree; Odin will never let you take it."
As soon as he said "it", Jane understood. She forgot her pain, she forgot everything in the terror of considering Loki—this Loki—free in the wide universe, with all the power of the Tesseract at his beck and call.
"And yet," Loki looked between Thor and Jane, slowly, "that is my price. Should I prove unable to mitigate its effects, this Convergence will bring enemies untold to Asgard's door, many of whom would like nothing more than to make me pay for my other crimes. If I agree to stay here and help, I must have the means to defend myself.
"Besides, Thor…" his smile—if possible—grew crueler, "Is there anything you would not do for the life of your mortal beloved?"
"Don't do that to him," Jane snapped, as she saw Thor falter and glance guiltily at her. "It's not as if I'd let you take the Tesseract either, regardless of what happened to me. You think I don't know that the moment you have it, you'll head straight back to Earth?"
"Not everything I do is in consideration of your precious Midgard," he sneered.
Frigga interrupted them all. Her quiet, clear voice somehow cut through all the contention in the room. Everyone looked at her ask she sat forward in her chair, fixed her unwavering eyes on Loki, and said, "While Odin is gone, I must rule with his thoughts in mind. He would never allow you to take such a powerful item."
Jane held her breath.
"Therefore, neither will I," Frigga concluded. She spared one soft look for Jane as she said, "I beg your pardon, Miss Foster. But you must realize that I cannot allow Yggdrasil to be at my son's mercy."
Her throat was tight and it seemed that taking another breath might be the last thing she would ever do, but Jane's voice hardly wobbled as she said, "I understand."
Loki's smile had vanished. His mouth set itself in harsh, straight lines as his eyes narrowed and he frowned. "Is that all, Lady Frigga, Queen of Asgard, All-Mother? You will not even pretend to comply with my terms? You would condemn a woman to death simply because she is too insignificant for you to sully yourself with a lie?"
"It is in your nature to lie, to fool, to play for time," Frigga answered, still grave and calm as a statue, "not in mine. I cannot, I will not give you any hope in this matter. While no living being is insignificant, I cannot weigh one person's life against the ten trillion souls that would then be yours to torment."
At her words, Loki seemed to fold inward. His careful façade of control was a memory; he bent his head almost to his knees. His long fingers, tight on his knees, trembled under the strain of holding himself back.
No one moved. No one spoke. Jane—though no stranger to death threats—didn't know what she was feeling. He hadn't killed her yet; with every moment that passed, she felt more and more certain that he would not do it. Maybe it made her a fool, but she just couldn't believe that the Loki who had confided in her, who had saved her, who had honored his promise to her, was totally gone. Jane didn't want him to be gone.
The agonizing wait finally ended. Loki looked up. His eyes were wild, bloodshot, and the smile he wore mocked himself instead of them.
He spoke to Frigga first, "Well played." A single gesture of his fingers, and the dark pucker of skin on Jane's wrist faded away. Then, to his brother, "I suppose this means we are both fools, Thor."
He stood; Frigga and Thor mirrored him, but Jane just sat, looking up at the face that never once glanced her way.
"I agree to help you locate Odin and lend my expertise to solving the riddle of the Convergence," Loki said, quietly. "But you will give me your word that once Odin has returned, nothing he says will condemn me to that cell once more. If I cannot have my security, I require my freedom."
"Granted," a hint of tenderness was back in Frigga's voice, and her eyes shone as she looked at her son, "I will swear an oath, if you require it."
He waved off the offer; he almost seemed not to hear it. "If you will excuse me."
With the barest hint of a bow, Loki moved past them and out of the room. For a moment, they all stood silent in the aftermath of a scene none of them could possibly have expected.
Frigga was the first to move. Addressing a guard at the door, she ordered him to follow Prince Loki—she did not strip him of the title—and ensure he had everything he needed. She turned to Jane, who still sat, shell-shocked, on the edge of her chair.
"Jane," her voice was soothing as her own mother's had been, "I must beg your pardon. I—"
Jane held up her hand, cutting off her apology. She'd heard too many from people required to make hard decisions. Nick Fury, Phil Coulson…even Thor. She knew the reasons behind each and every choice that had cut her off from what she loved or put her life in danger, but she was getting a little tired of hearing them.
"I'd just like to be alone for a minute, if you don't mind," her voice was still steady, but Jane could feel the breakdown coming.
Frigga nodded, and with a quick gesture at her other son, left the room. The other guard followed her out.
Jane could tell Thor wanted to say something, and she couldn't stand to hear the words she already knew. She just shook her head. "It's okay," it would save her time just to say what he needed to hear, "I'm okay. I just want to be alone for a while."
She should have looked at him; she should have smiled. He would need to see that she really forgave him, and words alone would never convince him. But she couldn't. So she heard, rather than saw, Thor leave the room and shut the door quietly behind him.
Alone in that vast, inhospitable room that echoed every shaky breath back to her ringing ears, Jane bent forward and rested her flushed face in that fussy, frilly, ridiculous skirt.
So, Loki's plan is revealed. As well as his reason for being so anxious to escape from prison.
Part of my reasoning behind this time change is Loki's attitude in Thor: the Dark World. I mean, not all that much time passed from the end of Avengers, but Loki was pissed…way much more than such a short time in prison would have made him. Especially since the beginning of the movie shows him still in contact with Odin and Frigga. His "appeals process" was clearly still going on. I wanted to take that away from him. By spending so much more time in prison, he's had time to lose all the ground he gained in World Under Siege. We'll see if he can get back to that point…
As always, please remember that fanfic is unpaid, save in appreciation from readers. Please leave a note if you enjoy. Also, feel free to follow me on Tumble at nofearofwaves. I always post my updates there.