Trickster

A gift fic for iamartemisday

Lokane Exchange 2017

A stone slid from under Jane's foot, half of a cracked cobblestone tearing free from the connective tissue of moss and fern that had grown from the loamy earth beneath. How many months, years, decades had gone by since someone else had walked this crooked path? The stones were blurred with age, heavy in soft wear, not bowed with the pressure of footsteps.

She stopped, panting, taking her weight off her turned ankle. "Son of a bitch," she swore, wincing, "that hurts."

Mute walls and silent paths absorbed her frustration and pain. They didn't care. This labyrinth was nothing more than a pile of magic-dusted stones, animated to senseless cruelty by their master's will. What few beings actually lived in this fever-dream were twisted, bent, maddened by an eternity of illusions of progress flattened by dead-ends.

Jane forced her foot down and hobbled forward, breaths coming fast with something other than pain. Her heart gave fluttering expansions that stabbed at her sternum the quicker she moved. Sweat dripped stinging into the corners of her eyes, almost mistakable for tears in the light of shifting stars overhead. Jane didn't look up at the twisting panoply of fresh constellations, a brilliant stellar nursery hung with curtains of gold and cobalt gasses.

She had a job to do. Stargazing—if she ever did it again, after this nightmare—could wait.

"Such a pity,"

Jane flinched, putting her back to a wall that groaned under her slight weight. "What are you doing here?" she snarled, flashing beyond fear into white-hot anger.

"It is rare for the things I put in my oubliette to be so...determined," he purred over the words, poised and composed in precise inverse proportion to Jane's dishevelment. "You should've given up by now."

"You've got my intern," Jane swiped at her sweat, ignoring how preposterous she sounded, "I'm not going back without my friend."

"It was your arrogance that put her in such danger," he said, "I might consider leniency, if only you'd apologize."

"All I said was that I doubted you, or any of the Norse gods, existed. You know," a sense of injustice swelled in her throat till she croaked, "like most of my planet!"

He pouted, narrow lips a gash in his otherwise elegant face, "No one ever faulted Midgardians for their intelligence, I suppose. But I did have hopes for you, Jane Foster. You were so close."

"What are you talking about?" The way he spoke, looked at her...there was recognition in his jade-green eyes. They stalked her like a hunting panther.

"Your theories. You were very close. Closer than anyone else in your backwards Realm, that is," he met her slack-jawed astonishment with a demure smile and a wistful shrug. "Who knows...a few more months tracking my portals, one or two fortunate thoughts to inspire your generator, and you might have found your way here all on your own."

"You're kidding," she said, slowly, wonderingly, "I'm on the right track? My theories, my tech...they can generate a stable Einstein-Rosen bridge?"

"Could have, I'm afraid. Past tense. You don't seem to understand how little likely it is you'll win your freedom from me."

Jane bared her teeth and turned away. "My freedom isn't yours to give," was her parting shot.

He was distracting her, playing for time. That either meant he was bored out of his skull or she was on the right path. She was going to find Darcy and get them both out of this craziness—was it a spatial bubble of some kind? There had to be some explanation for a breathable atmosphere on a flat landmass no bigger than a cosmic postage stamp, drifting through open space—and back to her lab.

One or two fortunate thoughts, he said. After so many years, was she only a few lucky breaks away from success? She was close, so close!

His long legs kept pace with her easily. Solicitous, he offered her an arm. She scorned it on principle, ignoring the gritty sensation of her misaligned bones grating against each other.

This time, he didn't take offense at her rejection. He strolled along beside her, aimless and carefree, green cloak billowing with manufactured majesty. There wasn't a breath of air to blow it out behind him like that. Was he using his magic to do that? How...or more importantly, why?

Not important, Jane. "Why are you doing this? I couldn't have offended you. Even if you are the being that inspired the legends about Loki, you have to know that no one worships you anymore."

"Your arrogance is astounding. Here you stand on a phenomena you can't explain, light years from your world, with no way of knowing how pitifully close you stand to death, and you challenge the man responsible for bringing you here?"

Jane's sweat ran cold at his casual threat, presented with mild-mannered pleasantry and a peaceful smile.

"I—I'm sorry," she swallowed. "It's just...you can't do this all the time. If people were disappearing out of mythology courses or academic symposiums, people would know."

"What humans don't notice or know would fill the great void of Yggdrasil," he replied, "I think you know that as well as I."

"I don't," she said, "We may not be as developed as you, but we're getting there."

"Hmm. You are the only human who has the mysteries of interstellar travel practically solved. Does humanity cheer your progress, shower you in materials and accolades?"

She didn't reply. Her stomach turned, uneasy. He knew so much about her, way more than he could have learned in the twenty minutes it took him to whisk Darcy and Jane up into the cosmos. Had he been watching her? For how long? She'd been researching stellar phenomena for almost a decade. It couldn't be...

"You haven't answered my question," she danced off shaky ground as quickly as possible, "Why come after me?"

"You should know. You read that," he chuckled, laughing over the words, "complete and accurate biography of me. Am I not," he plucked the child's mythology text from thin air with a swirl of one gloved hand, "the very picture of the trickster god? Perhaps abducting you amused me?"

Jane didn't want to, but she couldn't help comparing the swat, twisted figure on the cover to the tall, spare, elegant being walking beside her. The book's artist had done neither him nor the audience any favors.

Perhaps Loki would have more acolytes if they knew how handsome he really was.

He was looking at her with a knowing expression. Jane realized she'd been staring, and focused resolutely on the road ahead, which had not turned or twisted for the past ten minutes. Odd.

"No," she said, "But you are Loki, aren't you? The Norse God of Mischief?"

"Indeed," he sketched her a courtly bow, "How nice of you to acknowledge the truth at last. Now, should you feel inclined to kneel, I won't stop you. Anywhere will do nicely; the ground is softer than it looks."

"I'm not going to kneel to you," she snapped. God, her ankle hurt! "And I don't believe you're a god."

"Don't provoke me, Jane," ease and sardonic humor vanished; he was deadly serious, "I am a god, and you will acknowledge it. Now or later, as you wish, but I will not have a mortal question me." The world shook at the thunder in his voice, every stone chattering like frozen teeth in a dead, dried skull.

Fear laid icy fingers on her heart. Jane leaned against the wall again and tried not to shiver. He was too close, too tall, looming beside her like some gaunt, sinister scarecrow. Suddenly the crowded heavens above were malevolent instead of magnificent, and all the impossibilities of what was happening crowded upon her at once.

"I'm sorry," she said again, "You're definitely a superior being; you could kill Darcy and me without breaking a sweat. Is that," her throat was dry, tongue swollen and thick, "is that what you're going to do?"

He grinned, wide, lunatic. Unease prickled Jane's skin. "Probably not. Dead things aren't interesting. Well, sometimes. But dead mortals are just dead. No second lives for you."

"Oh."

They stood together for a moment, Jane huddled in on herself, a mouse afraid to flinch lest it draw the cat's attention again. Loki...she didn't even want to guess what he was thinking. At least his anger had waned. That was, she assumed, a good thing.

"I'm surprised. You're not going to ask, are you?"

"Ask what?"

"Ask what you need to know to create your wormhole."

"Oh," if she'd walked face-first into a brick wall, Jane couldn't be more stunned. "I didn't think you'd tell me."

"Why not try me? I can be generous."

Jane hesitated. Now all menace was gone, as if a shadow had lifted from his face, and warmth and mirth danced around his eyes. Nevertheless, he was still focused, intent. A cat was right. He'd hidden his claws for now, but one wrong move, one false word, and she might end up speared on them regardless.

"I'd rather work it out myself," she said at last, heart beating in her throat.

"Why? I can give you everything you've dreamed of, anything at all."

"If you give it to me, I won't have earned it. It won't be mine."

He cocked his head, smile fading. "What does that matter? You'll still bring knowledge to your people, knowledge that will change everything they've ever known. Is your pride too great to sacrifice for so much progress?"

In that light, Jane had nothing to say.

Loki pursued her. "Are you that selfish?"

"It's not—" she leaped to her own defense before realizing there was no defense to be made. "I don't know."

"I do," he stepped closer, crowding her into the wall. His was the only human warmth in the galactic emptiness above them. Jane set her jaw and told herself not to enjoy it.

His grin bordered on gleeful. "I was right. I like you, Jane Foster."

"You don't know me," her back chafed against dry stones, but she couldn't move away. There was no where to go that wasn't to him.

"Don't I?"

"You just met me today," she wouldn't let him intimidate her. She wouldn't.

"Oh, no. Your efforts to pierce the skies, feeble though they are, attracted my attention long ago. At first, I thought to put an end to your meddling. That thought lasted until I saw you," his hand hovered above her shoulder. When he touched her, it seared her to the bone like a jolt of lightning. "And I saw a creature like myself. Ambitious. Determined. Willing to lie, cheat, and steal to get what she wanted. You have no idea how fascinating those qualities are. How few are willing to embrace them as you are."

"I don't—"

Shocking as the touch of his hand was, it had nothing to the gentle press of his finger on her lips. It bottled the air in her lungs and her words guttered away.

"Don't lie," he whispered, "I'm better at it than you'll ever be. No, deceive yourself if you will, but the truth, unfortunately, will out. You will find your answers, Jane. I would it be with my aid."

"You're lying," her heart was still, her body frozen and numb. The possibilities he offered spread before her, endless as stars and just as brilliant. She couldn't let herself believe this fantasy. "You kidnapped me and my intern. Why help us now?"

"Perhaps it was the only way to attract your attention," he tilted his head, inquisitive, pleased, "You are remarkably focused."

"Yes I am," her shirt, caught on sharp outcroppings of stone, tore a bit as she sidled away from him. He was overwhelming, magic spilling from his cloak with a fragrance sweet and inviting. He wove a spell that fastened on her with a hundred invisible tendrils, winding her in a web she fought to escape.

"You won't distract me," a few steps free from him, her senses cleared. The gauzy mystery around him vanished. "You won't let me go until I find Darcy. You made that very clear. So I'm," his expression darkened, eyes narrowing, dangerous. She took a deep breath and tightened her grip on her flagging courage. "I'm going to go, now."

He was silent, still as the cat he resembled. Jane took another step backwards, balanced on her toes, knowing that if he lunged for her she'd never get away in time.

His eyes gleamed and Jane realized with a sickening lurch that the goblins in this maze weren't the only ones touched by madness. Don't run, she told herself, chanted it. Don't run, don't run.

Loki straightened. "I will not argue with such determination. Therefore, it seems then I must bid you farewell, for now," one hand flourished behind his back and he tossed her something. On instinct, Jane reached out and caught it. Warm, soft, the peach nestled in her hand like a small animal.

She stared, uncomprehending.

"I can hear your stomach from here," was his only explanation. "I would not have you starve."

Jane was still debating whether to thank him when he faded from view. Alone in the corridor of stone, she blinked as though surfacing from beneath a heavy veil of dreams. The peach was her only proof he'd even been there. A damn peach. He had to know they were her favorite. It was too specific for him not to know.

Her stomach growled.

"Yeah," she murmured, "I don't think so."

But she put it in her pocket, anyway. After all, who knew what might happen next?