Well, I promised myself that I *would not* begin another multi-chapter fic. But I have been lurking in the Lokane fandom for awhile now and the simple fact remains: there is just not enough of it. So, here I go. I actually have two potential paths for this story to go in, and the feedback I get will determine if this stays short and simple, or turns into something massive and epic. So if you like it, please review and tell me what you like. If you don't like it, please review and tell me what you don't like. If you think I should take this is some wild and crazy direction, please tell me so. If you think it should stay smaller and better contained, tell me that instead.
Thank you for reading...
Normally, Jane was not the sort to attend very many conferences, particularly not those hosted at swanky New York hotels and boasting a cocktail hour that allowed astronomy's best and brightest to connect with those looking to throw money at researchers. In fact, that was the exact sort of conference to which Jane had never been invited, for obvious reasons. The nutcase with the wild theory, who did most of her research perched on a lawn chair in Puente Antiguo, was not commonly thought of a good investment at best. At worst, she was the distraction who discredited the entire research community.
And so it had been. Until SHIELD finally agreed to let her publish some tiny fraction of what had happened in the New Mexico desert. Suddenly, Jane had an invitation, a brand new cocktail dress, and the distressing opportunity to wear high heeled shoes across a luxury hotel carpet. The sum total of the experience was leaving her feeling slightly overwhelmed, and it was with chagrin that she realized the half-empty champagne glass held loosely in her left hand was not helping matters.
It was the first day of the three day conference. After sitting through the almost typically mainstream keynote speech on low frequency radio astronomy, Jane couldn't help but feel out of place. Her research was so… unbelievable in comparison to that which was normally presented here. Furthermore, half of the supporting data was still being withheld by SHIELD, which would only bring headaches for her tomorrow when she was set to present her paper. It seemed a foregone conclusion that this, her first invitation, would likely also be her last. Which left Jane dizzily staring around the cocktail reception with the heartfelt goal of simply enjoying the evening while she had the chance. If she could just bask in the glow of assumed acceptance for just a moment, she might feel like less of a pariah. It would be balm to the long-scabbed wounds of dismissal and meager funding. And perhaps, to the fresher ones left more recently to her heart.
Jane rolled the stem of the champagne glass between her fingers as she studied the effervescent liquid before allowing herself another sip. It was only as she let the glass slip from her lips that she realized the almost determined solitude she had established around herself. Despite what her head was saying, she had subconsciously sought out the quietest section of the ballroom housing the reception. Her slight figure was likely only barely visible behind the decorative shrubbery she had found herself tucked behind. The emerald green of her satiny sheath dress likely served only to hide her further.
Jane sighed into her glass as she raised it once more, finishing its contents. Some things were simply meant to remain as they were. After her peers finished tearing her work apart tomorrow, they would all, quite firmly, reassign her to the category of fringe research and impossibilities, and she would once again disappear into the New Mexico desert. If only certain Asgardians could keep promises, she might not be so restricted in what she could reveal… but then again, perhaps it wasn't fair to hold things against a god.
A wry smile crossed Jane's red-painted lips as she stared into the near distance with amusement and just a hint of sadness. Her life had taken far too many unpredictable turns in the last six months for her to accurately predict what the future might hold. For all she knew, tomorrow's presentation might actually go well! It was that thought that very nearly made her laugh aloud.
"Something amusing, Doctor Foster?" a rather cultured voice said silkily from the other side of the potted plant.
Startled, Jane sucked in a sudden breath. Which, of course, led to her choking, which, in turn, led to her face being a terrible shade of red when the alarmingly attractive owner of the voice leaned forward to regard her, eyebrows piqued with concern, from around the plant's fern-like fronds.
"Are you… alright?" the stranger asked, his voice suddenly hesitant, losing some of its previously seductive promise.
"Quite," Jane coughed again, doubling over slightly as she turned away, "Quite alright!" She coughed again, "Just give me," interject another cough, "a moment."
All in all, Jane felt horribly foolish, and wished, more than a little, that the floor would just open up and swallow her whole. But this was her life. In front of gorgeous strangers, she would forever embarrass herself. And though one such gorgeous stranger might promise to return, hoping that such things might be true was, in the end, illogical and could only lead to more pain. It was the inevitable conclusion drawn from every vaguely romantic encounter Jane could remember. She is endearingly awkward and a little pretty, but then the real world enters the equation. And in the real world, endearingly awkward does not make up for the insecurities of men, or for lives and careers with vastly different trajectories. It would most certainly fail to compete with an otherworldly realm of beautiful, ridiculously tall immortals. No, Jane was not on best of terms with the real world, particularly not in recent months.
Her personal dismissal of her worth as both an intellectual and a romantic interest meant Jane could only feel confused when the stranger was still at her side when her coughing finally subsided, his eyes dark with concern. "Are you entirely certain you are alright?" he asked again. "I am terribly sorry for catching you off guard. I had not expected to have quite such an effect." His eyes twinkled slightly with mischief and Jane found herself smiling. He might be lingering only to be polite, but Jane appreciated that in people. It took a lot of guts to let yourself be seen with a nutcase having a coughing fit in the corner behind the potted plant.
"Normally," she began, one hand smoothing the slightly rumpled front of her dress, as she attempted to balance herself. She paused, "Actually, I'm normally too wrapped up in my work to even notice the people around me. So, really, that was kinda typical, for me, anyway." She winced, cursing herself for her innate honesty, as the stranger seemed momentarily at loss for words. "I mean, you don't need to feel sorry," she amended, "Because it probably would have been the same if it had been anyone." And now she wished twice as hard for the floor to open up, as she realized that she had likely insulted him.
Jane swallowed hard. "I'm so sorry," she said finally, "I'm making such a mess of this." She straightened her shoulders and smiled the best smile she had. "I'm Doctor Jane Foster," she paused, "Which you already knew… but, I'm pleased to make your acquaintance. And you are?"
The stranger looked her up and down, as if reassuring himself that she was, in fact, alright. "You may call me Aldric Hemming," he replied, "And believe me, the pleasure is all mine."
Jane felt her already heated cheeks get just slightly warmer. Now that she was no long trying to hide from the man, she could better appreciate just how attractive he really was. Tall and lean, though not lanky, he stood with oddly regal posture. His dark hair was longer than most would wear, though neatly combed back. Dressed in what Jane could only assume to be a designer suit, he looked terribly wealthy. Which probably meant that he was one of the potential investors, rather than a fellow scientist. Which further begged the question as to how he knew her name, and why on earth he was still standing near her.
"I've taken a look at the paper you are presenting tomorrow," he began, his voice once again taking on a silken tone, "And I must say, I am most intrigued." He gestured with one elegant hand toward a server passing with a tray of fresh champagne, "For the lady," he directed the man.
Jane accepted the offered glass, her decidedly inelegant fingers closing nervously around the stem as she tried to ignore her stubby, chewed nails, which even professional manicure services couldn't quite hide. "Well," Jane replied absently, "There's still a lot missing…"
"Yet the theories themselves suggest otherwise, my dear doctor," this Aldric Hemming continued, winking at her, that oddly mischievous twinkle in his eyes once again. "I can't help but feel that the missing pieces having been… omitted? Perhaps not by the wishes of the scientist?"
Jane bit her lip as she smothered a smile. "I can neither confirm nor deny your conjectures, Mr. Hemming," she replied with all the art SHIELD had managed to force upon her.
"But you rather wish you could?" her companion parried.
Jane let her smile shine on through. "If it were up to me," she admitted, "I would share the truth with the whole world and tell everyone that ever thought my theories were crazy that I told them so."
Hemming seemed interested by this. "Do many people think your theories are crazy?" he pressed. "They seem… close to the truth, to me."
"And you know the truth?" Jane pushed, a note of sarcasm slipping into her voice despite herself. "All there is to know about travel between worlds… or even… realms, perhaps?"
Hemming's eyes danced with something Jane couldn't quite place. "Perhaps I do," he replied, "If I did, wouldn't that be something you would like to know?"
It might have been said in jest, but Jane felt the possibility of such a thing vibrate straight through her. "More than you would believe," she breathed, her voice as haunted as she had ever heard it. To travel across the worlds was all she had ever really dreamed of. Thor's descriptions of Asgard had only further fanned the flames of her desire. To see these other realms that she now knew existed would be beyond anything she could hope for, even though they were all she dreamed of. And perhaps, perhaps being the first mortal to find a way between worlds might even be enough to make others look twice at her. To consider her. As an equal in science. As a potential… something.
She wondered later, if it was the tone, more than the words, that so caught Hemming's attention then. The quality of his gaze seemed to change. It was as if he became somehow sharper and more real for a fraction of a second, as he truly looked at her, sizing up her intelligence and passion and capability. And then he spoke what seemed to Jane to be magic words.
"I am… looking for an opportunity." His words were carefully measured, as if only part of the truth was ever to be privy to her ears. "An opportunity I think you have just given me, Doctor Foster. I have a great deal of power and wealth, and I believe such assets might be valuable in your endeavours. So I would propose a mutually beneficial arrangement. My assets in return for your research into the ways between worlds. A fair deal?"
To his credit, Hemming didn't even blink, let alone reconsider his offer, when Jane dropped her champagne glass onto the floor.
In the flustered moment of broken glass and spilt champagne, Hemming had somehow slipped away. Jane couldn't find it in herself to blame him. She was so terribly awkward, especially since meeting Thor. Keeping herself grounded in the waking world had always been tricky, but now it was even more so. The promise of greater, grander things, of other worlds that existed and waited for her to find a way into, was almost too much to bear. The idea that her own mortal mind had caught some fragment of the truth was humbling and empowering all at once. If she had been a bit single-minded before, she had doubled in intensity now.
Jane didn't really fit into normal society, and even the scientific community had its limits. As she had predicted, her presentation could barely be processed as a success, and the aftermath of the conference was merely a melancholic return to solitude and obscurity. A small part of her had clung to that crazy moment where all had seemed possible – funding for her research, possibly at a scale she had barely hoped to reach. The better part of her had dismissed it as something too good to be true. She had tasted that forbidden fruit before, not so long ago, and dismissing such things was slowly becoming easier.
Thus, it was a week after the conference when Jane first realized that Hemming's offer had been real. The realization took the form of a very large number written on a very small slip of paper, which came by courier in the middle of the day. "Fenrir Holdings" had sent her a cheque for more money than Jane had ever had at one time. It came with nothing but a note that read: "I trust you will use this wisely, but do not hesitate to ask for more. Aldric."
She had stared at the courier in shock, a hundred questions on her lips, the first perhaps being how exactly she was supposed to contact this Aldric who seemed to be taking on an almost mythological shape in her life (and this she was familiar with). Instead of answers, the courier had shrugged at her questioning eyes. "I just deliver stuff," he said, one rough hand removing the ball cap he wore as he shifted uncomfortably under the New Mexico sun, his dark coloured uniform offering him little relief. "'Fraid I can't answer any questions 'bout it."
Jane was left on the doorstep of her makeshift lab with a slack jaw and wide eyes. She looked down at the cheque, only to find her eyes suddenly scanning the horizon line. If this much was possible, maybe… she shook her head. Immortal gods don't really keep promises to unknown scientists, she repeated in her head for the millionth time. Even as she amended the mantra to include clauses about how Asgardians aren't really gods and random wealthy men can suddenly hand you impossible, personal cheques.
It wasn't for another month that Jane really paused and wondered at Aldric Hemming's motives for funding her research on such a massive scale. In a way, she felt almost scared to look such a gift horse in the mouth. Hemming had given her enough money to go wherever she needed, to access whatever equipment necessary, to find what she needed to cement her theories. It was even enough to bolster her when SHIELD had coming knocking in the dark of night. They had requested, in barely respectful terms, that she join their research team. They promised her funding and a lab and access to things confidential, at the low price of her freedom and her ability to publish her findings. With a tight smile, Jane told them that she could, in fact, refuse.
Hemming even seemed to predict the things she would need. Already, there had been a long moment, when she had sat cross-legged on the bed in her trailer, staring in wonder at the email granting her time on the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, when she had only just realized that she wanted it the previous day. Apparently he had read between the lines of her research and seen the gap before even she had. It made her wonder, just how intelligent her mysterious investor was, and why he wasn't doing this research instead of her.
In the present moment, Jane leaned back across the warm red steel of her rental car's hood. She stared up at the clear afternoon sky, blithely ignoring the radio telescope array that spread out across the valley before her. Like a lizard, she soaked up the sun, relishing it for the first time in a long time. Her natural habitat was dark rooms and star-filled nights. For so long her work had been theoretical, then done with patched together, homemade instruments. To have access to some of the most advanced research equipment in the world, and to see data (miles and miles of it) spill out, all in confirmation of her theories, was more like a holiday than work. She felt absolutely giddy.
Except for the nagging feeling in the pit of her stomach that doorways into other worlds could, theoretically, be used to less than moral ends. Or to vastly commercialized ends. Either was distasteful to her. Either could provide the return on investment a wealthy, intelligent, forward-thinking businessman would be looking for, particularly after investing in a crazy long shot out of New Mexico's desert. It was a thought that chilled her.
"Doctor Foster," the voice pulled her from her reverie, startling her enough to make her topple from the hood of the car she had so casually lain upon.
"Doctor Foster," the voice began again, a hint of amusement colouring the mild displeasure it held, "I really must stop having this effect on you."
"Mr. Hemming!" Jane chirped, guilty thoughts swimming under her skin as she popped back to a standing position, swiping dust off her jeans as she ran a hand hopelessly through her tangled curls. "I… really didn't expect you here. I mean, the last time I saw you…"
He looked about ready to laugh at her, those dark eyes dancing as his thin lips tweaked into a smirk. "Was at the conference, when I promised you large sums of money in return for your research. A deal I've followed through on. I'm merely checking up on my investment."
Jane stared at him for a long moment. "In person?" she replied dumbly, her suspicions and the nagging, chilling feeling from before his arrival choking coherent thought. If all her work was going to be for the sake of… invading another planet… she just wasn't sure she could do this. Better to work for SHIELD, with their triple top secret labs and hidden research projects, than to be an accomplice to.. whatever it was Hemming had planned for those other realms she might unlock the doors to.
"In person," he hummed in agreement, running a hand down the hood of Jane's car, as if taking the measure of the machine. "Unless you are offended by my sudden appearance?" he retorted, a careless note to his voice, even as his dark eyes pierced her own.
"No… not at all," Jane stuttered, "I just… I'm not sure why the crazy theories of a fringe scientist are worth a personal inspection?"
"Because you interest me, Doctor Foster," he replied, "You and your theories. They are unique among humankind, which suggests that you must also be unique in some way. Figuring out such mysteries is not the sort of thing that one sends an assistant to do."
Jane stared at the man for a long moment, drinking in the lithe shadow he was in the golden sunlight of late afternoon. He was remarkably pale, she realized, seeing him in the light of day. Despite the dust and the desert, he still wore a suit that seemed to be of better quality than anything she had ever owned, especially as it was failing to gather any dust at all. His features were sharp, almost angular, and seemed capable of being both intensely severe and brilliantly warm and open. There was no doubt at all that he was handsome, perhaps even more so than she remembered from the night of the conference.
"How did you even get here?" she asked finally, ignoring what she figured must be some sort of eccentric compliment, as she gazed about, trying to identify what vehicle could possibly sneak up on her so completely.
A dismissive hand gestured at a black Maserati which Jane could have sworn had not been behind her own, less formidable Ford just a moment before. "How did I not hear that creep up?" she murmured, half to herself.
"You were deep in thought," Hemming replied, gaze fastened upon her. "Thoughts which, I imagine, have to do with what you really want to ask me."
Jane swallowed hard, letting her eyes gaze out over the array. There were many things she wanted to ask this man. She had googled him, out of curiosity. He didn't really seem to exist. His company, yes. Him, not so much. Seemingly wary of the lime light, he was a mystery. A mystery who could predict her needs and seemed to appear from thin air. If her life hadn't become strange in the months before she had met Hemming, she might even have been alarmed. Now, she was only suspicious, and curious as to how much he would really be willing to tell her.
"Why are you interested in my research?" she said suddenly, before she could rethink the wisdom of it. "What do you plan to do with doors between worlds, if I can even find them?"
He shook his head, as if momentarily disappointed. "Predictable," she thought she heard him say, as he leaned against the hood of her car beside her. "Imagine the universe," he said softly, a single, pale hand reaching out into the space before them. "Endless worlds, endless possibilities. A hundred million places to explore. And one, just one, might offer something greater. Something beyond imagining. Wouldn't it be enough to be able to be one of the first to see it?"
Jane narrowed her eyes. Suspicions multiplied. The words were right, but his tone was nearly bored, as if he were reciting a script rather than expressing a passion.
"No?" he bit, his smirk widening as he turned his head to regard her. "A beautiful story not enough to keep you content?" His smirk lapsed into a toothy grin. "Perhaps I want what those worlds might have to offer. Or is that what you fear? That you might be the one who opens the doors to the destruction of other worlds? That you might go down in the history of the universe as the harbinger of the universe's destruction?"
Jane felt herself pale. It was everything she feared, served up with a dose of haughty condescension. Hemming couldn't be trusted, she could see this now. He was so much less a gentleman than she remembered. Then again, perhaps she had seen only what she had wanted to see. Maybe he had always been this obvious in his desires.
"If that is all you fear, Doctor Foster," he continued on, "Then you can put your mind at ease. Even if I did desire the destruction of worlds, I would not let you take so much as a footnote in it. If I truly desired to rule the cosmos, no scientist would be remembered as the one who put me there."
Jane shifted awkwardly, more confused than ever about Hemming's true intentions. "So you don't plan on doing harm with whatever doors I might find?" she said finally, her voice surprisingly firm in her ears.
This time it was her turn to break him from thought. He looked at her as if he had not expected her to still be at his side, as if he had expected an entirely different image instead. "No," he said after a long moment. "I would not do harm with whatever doors you find, Doctor Foster."
Jane looked at the man hard for a long moment, judging the truth of his words. He looked at her with an almost lazy surprise as he lounged against the car. His dark eyes (what were they? Green? Blue? The colour of the ocean during a storm?) seemed unfocused, gazing almost through her. She stood up a little taller and jutted out her hand. "Then call me Jane," she urged, "No one calls me Doctor Foster. At least, no one used to. And truthfully, I'm not used to it. I prefer Jane."
"Jane," Hemming turned her name over his tongue, his eyes focusing back upon her with a trace of surprise in their depths. "Alright, Jane, then you must call me Aldric. Only fair, yes?" His smirk had returned, his voice once again taking on a tone that seemed to send warm shivers down her spine. It was enough for her to pull her hand back into her own space before even letting him touch it. It wasn't right for a voice to do such things when only moments before one had decided not to trust its owner.
"Alright, Aldric it is," Jane agreed. "So tell me, Aldric. What actually brought you all the way out here?"
"I already told you," he slouched against the car hood, "I'm checking up on an investment." His eyes took on a hooded quality.
"And are you happy with that investment?" Jane asked, realizing perhaps a moment too late the possible connotations of her statement.
Those hooded eyes gazed down upon her. "Truthfully," he said in reply, licking his lips, "I'm not entirely sure what I've gotten myself into."
Jane shrugged, uncertain how she was supposed to take such a comment. "I already warned you it's a crazy idea."
"It's not the idea that I'm uncertain about," he corrected, his tone suggesting a distance or double meaning that Jane had no way of grasping. "I suspect you're closer than any other human on this planet to finding a door between realms."
Jane blinked slowly. "As opposed to what other species?" she asked leisurely. "I highly doubt the squirrels have it figured out."
"No?" he replied, "Perhaps the mice then."
Jane found herself laughing despite herself. She met his surprised eyes with less suspicion now. "There's things you aren't telling me," she said lightly, "I can tell."
"And there's things SHIELD won't allow you to tell anyone, even though you've turned them down and agreed to share all your research findings with your new investor," he countered.
Jane felt the laughter die in her throat. "You know SHIELD?" she whispered softly, hope barely fluttering to life in her throat.
"An incredibly short-sighted organization that thinks it knows best for the entire human race? Yes, I'm familiar. They have secrets that should never be known, and some that should never have been kept."
Jane gave the hope a chance to spread its wings. Darcy had returned to school. Selvig had disappeared, apparently working on something top secret with SHIELD. She had no one she could talk to about the most wonderful, terrible, world-altering events that had ever occurred in her life. Just this much, a shared dislike of the same secret organization, was enough to make her rethink her decision to be suspicious and wary. "So you aren't a big fan of theirs, I take it?"
"You could say that," he looked down at her, his gaze searching out truth in her eyes. "You could also say that I enjoy the idea of taking them down a peg."
"Like stealing a pet scientist from them?" Jane added wryly.
"Like stealing a pet scientist from them," he agreed, nodding his head slowly as a devilish smirk crossed his features. "I don't suppose my new pet scientist would be willing to share the story of just how she ran into SHIELD?"
Jane paused for a long moment, her eyes darting around their silent surroundings. Her car sat perched at the edge of a precipice overlooking the valley and its seemingly unending collection of radio telescopes. Behind her, Hemming's car boxed in the dusty road. Nothing but insect hums met her ears.
"So, I was studying these atmospheric disturbances in New Mexico," she began, sharing a bright-eyed look of mischief with her companion as she shared SHIELD's most classified of information.