Deep down, Jane preferred her lab in Puente Antiguo. The gritty realism of doing fringe science on the fringe of civilization, on the edge of the desert and the unpolluted sky, struck a chord within her that was ultimately more authentic than the warm glow of pretend acceptance she'd felt during her short time in Tromso. She didn't stay. How could she stay? Knowing that it wasn't earned made her feel fake. She'd take reality over lies any day.
But there in itself was a depressing thought: lies. So many were wrapped around her now. Her mystery funding source, her mystery access to research equipment, her mystery quietness; these were just a few of Erik's new favourite enigmas. And how could she even begin to tell him the truth? Oh, by the way, Erik, my beloved mentor and adopted parental figure, you know that guy who stabbed you in the heart and hijacked your brain? Yeah, he's the mystery guy who's funding and enabling my research! Five guesses why he might be doing that.
Jane groaned aloud as the cheery, guilt-stricken voice in her head once again interrupted her work. She pushed her chair slightly away from her desk, letting her head fall heavily onto her arms, which folded themselves protectively over her laptop. There was a small part of her that told her, each and every day, to walk away from her research, or to at least stop dipping into what she had come to think of as the "Forbidden Funds." Forbidden not for lack of use, but for the reminder that using them was technically illegal, unethical, and wrong. Not just because they weren't real in the sense of having been issued by actual governments, but also because the money was essentially extorted from a criminal with blood on his hands.
She, Jane Foster, had extorted money from Loki, the Norse god and war criminal.
The wrongness seemed to extend on and on. Rationalization would work for a little while, and then she would be faced with the memory of him leaning in towards her, a manic gleam in his eyes and a bitter smirk on his face. It wasn't the words he'd said; she'd forgotten exactly what he had said by now. It was the way his gaze had looked into her and pointed out that she wasn't really any better than he was. The crime didn't matter, said that look, it was the moral bankruptcy behind it that condemned them both.
It was that look, that sentiment, that filled her with shame when she had to look Erik in the eyes and lie. Because how could she possibly tell him the truth? That there was every possibility that Loki might one day get free; that freedom wasn't even all that necessary in light of his ability to project himself, even when the Avengers had collectively thought him bound. That if he returned, he might well come to collect on her research. That all her work to understand the Bifrost, to perhaps even build one, would legitimately belong to the maniac immortal. It was a frightening thought, that Jane didn't really want to consider. Because what could she do? Fight? Refuse to give him the research? It was technically his to hear about, if she was going to still honour their original agreement. And if she refused to, would that make her a better person, or a worse one? Where did honour stand against preventing a war criminal from gaining the knowledge to build an Einstein-Rosen Bridge through space, and possibly, time?
Jane lifted her head, regarding the blurred time stamp on her laptop screen. One a.m. and she was alone with her thoughts and her research. She wondered what normal twenty-nine year olds were doing at this time. Sleeping, maybe? Cleaning up the daytime messes of their young children? Sitting and watching television with their significant others? Had she meant to shut those possibilities out of her life?
She shook her head, leaning up now so she hovered over her laptop's keyboard on her elbows. The worn fabric of her old sweater offered little cushion from the solid, old wood of the second-hand table. Jane pushed herself up from her seat, grabbing her long-empty water glass. Her eyes drifted over the coffee mug she'd been using and refilling for the past few days. She shrugged at the mug, more caffeine at this point would likely only worsen her headache, spawned of moral degradation as it was.
Denim, made comfortable by years of desert-living, clung to her legs as she shuffled out of the nook-like space that formed her office. She rubbed her eyes as she began the journey of twenty well-known paces to the kitchen sink. Her hand fell from her eyes just as she passed the stairway that led up to the rooftop. The movement of the dark shape that sat upon them caused her first to drop the glass, and then to scream.
"What the hell?" Jane shrieked at the figure. The silence that rushed in upon her eardrums in the aftermath of the fatal crash of glass breaking was almost unbearable. "Loki?" she gasped, her voice quieter now that she was looking at him properly.
He sat a few steps above the floor, his feet settling far enough below him for his knees to provide comfortable resting places for his elbows. His hands were clasped thoughtfully before him, and his attention had obviously been focused elsewhere, for even now he looked almost surprised to see her standing before him. Rather than wearing the armour of his failed invasion, or the designer suits of his invented persona, he wore what seemed to be somewhat loose-fitting, black clothes. Whatever fabric they were made of was evidently of fine quality, but the style was just beyond Jane's recognition. Normal clothes for Asgard, perhaps. In those few, fractured seconds, his expression suggested some sort of internal confusion. His eyes looked softer than Jane had seen them, and for a moment, she wondered what he had been like when he was younger. He couldn't have always been bad, she realized with a start. Not if he could look so completely… lost.
But the seconds passed and she watched him shake his head, only once, and very sharply, and when his gaze settled back onto hers it held all of the cool condescension it ever had. A nervous twitch ran down Jane's spine as she half-turned to look back at her makeshift office and then back at him. "How long have you been there?" she demanded, amazed once again at how strong her voice sounded, considering that she was addressing someone who had murdered more people than she could properly fathom.
"Long enough," he replied lightly, his eyes reflecting a mix of amusement and bitter spite at her. It took Jane an instant to realize that her eyes probably held a similar look for him.
"Long enough for what?" she challenged, her brain already going to work coming up with reasons she shouldn't be quite so snappy. Even if he was only a projection, she didn't really know how far his powers went, or what kind of limits there might be on them. Maybe demanding answers wasn't the brightest idea.
She watched his thin lips twitch into a smirk, enigmatically failing to answer. Instead his eyes swept across the space before him. He turned his head slightly, eyes focused on her.
Jane felt herself growing impatient with his game, whatever it was. She was standing in front of him, in the middle of a minefield of broken glass, in threadbare clothes she'd had since her undergrad days. The look in his eyes suggested that he was deriving some sort of amusement from the whole situation, and it was starting to make her blood boil. "Well?" she said finally, her tone conveying her frustration, "What do you want?"
"Come now, Miss Foster," he drawled, leaning back against the stairs now, "Surely you're aware of the fact that one day you need to pay the devil his due?"
Jane rolled her eyes. "So you're the devil now? Isn't that just a little egotistical? I mean, even for you?"
His eyes seemed to shine with even more amusement, "I'm simply playing the role you assigned, dear Jane."
Jane stared at him for a long moment, her mind racing as she placed her own words. "I knew it," she hissed, "I knew it!" She raised a finger and jabbed it toward his projected figure, "I could… sense you were there. Watching. Like… some sort of watching person." She was trembling now, almost incoherent with the rage that filled her at the thought of being followed and watched and… "Stalking!" she spat. "That's what we call it."
He simply looked amused. "Oh Jane," he said heavily, his eyelids drooping slightly, "You should calm down before you hurt yourself." With a wave of his hand, the hundred tiny fragments of glass around her lifted off the floor and glided, like a cloud of deadly edges and pinpricks, into his hand. Even as she blinked, the cloud of glass fragments became a solid glass. She watched him study the vessel, as if looking for imperfections. He rose then, stepping lightly down the few stairs between them. The glass remained in his hand, now extended towards her in offering.
Jane looked from the glass to Loki, failing to make the connection as her brain frothed on in outrage. "You do not get to follow me around, spying on me," she snapped, "And… fixing things!" She jabbed her finger at him once more, this time misjudging the now shrunken distance. Her finger encountered the firmness of soft cloth-covered chest and Jane froze.
"Not projected?" she squeaked, her finger retracting and poking again, the scientific method overruling the preservation instinct that likely should have guided her actions. Once again, her fingertip encountered matter. Jane swallowed reflexively, her gaze flickering up from that very solid chest to the eyes that gazed down at her in superiority and amusement.
"Not projected, Jane Foster," he repeated, his free hand curling around her still-poking finger and pulling it from his person. Still holding her hand, he rotated her wrist, elegant fingers prying her clenched hand open.
Jane felt herself swallow again, her mouth so much drier than she'd thought it was when she first risen from her desk to get water. Loki's eyes bore down into her own, the laughing condescension in them making her feel small and foolish, and regretful of her tone and fury. And yet, the touch of his hand upon hers was possibly the most singularly terrifying part of the whole scene. Because his touch was so light, so painfully slow, but it spoke of such power, that Jane felt frozen. He brought his hand below hers, supporting it so that it was palm up and for one horrific moment, Jane remembered that her hand knew what his lips felt like.
Loki placed the reconstructed glass onto her open palm and Jane nearly fainted.
It took a moment for her to reclaim her wits and her dignity, but once found, Jane screwed them to the sticking point. She snatched her hand and its cargo of the now unbroken glass away from his grasp, her expression as feral a snarl as she'd ever managed. Spinning on her heel, Jane practically sprinted the remaining distance to her kitchen and yanked the water tap up. Water came tumbling and splashing into the sink and Jane thrust the glass under. Pulling it half-full from the torrent, she slurped the water noisily, patiently ignoring the Norse trickster god in her hallway in favour of wetting her stupidly dry throat.
Jane Foster did not find war criminals attractive. Nor did the memory of their kiss upon the back of her hand make her want to turn to jelly. She certainly did not find the sense of danger and mystery interesting. She had beaten down that sort of self-destructive, painfully stupid and adolescent desire years and years before. She was not some seventeen-year-old girl in a bad young adult romance novel. She knew better than to be pulled in by the seductive nature of evil things.
And it didn't matter. Jane shook her hair back, calmly refilling the glass. It was all irrelevant. Because she did not find Loki attractive. Not in the least. At least, that was what she told herself when she finally turned back around to find him leaning against the opposite counter, smirking at her with wicked eyes.
"So," Jane said in a voice that she hoped sounded as cool and collected as it was supposed to, "Devil collecting his due. What do you want?"
"Your help, Miss Foster," he replied silkily. "You see, I plan on building a Bifrost."
Jane felt her stomach twist sickeningly. It was all her worst fears from the previous hour come to haunt her in person. "You just expect me to help you?" she replied, the frown on her face audible in her tone.
"Yes," he snapped back. There was a pause as Jane debated internally just how she was going to fight this. He'd never threatened her with violence, or even suggested it was within the realm of possibility, so maybe she wouldn't die. But then again, the reality of television and SHIELD reports suggested a different outcome for her if she resisted. Maybe it would be better to just pretend to work with him…
Where before his body language had been relaxed, it was now jarringly sharp and angular. There was something else going on, Jane realized. His distant look of confusion from the stairwell flashed across her mind's eye and Jane's brain went whirring away with theories and possibilities. After all, what on earth was Loki doing on Earth and in person, when Thor had supposedly (unless SHIELD reports lie) taken him back to Asgard for punishment.
His gaze was hard upon her, as if he could follow the path of her thoughts. And for a long moment, Jane wondered where all of this was going. Just what she would be forced to do.
And then the moment passed and the limits of possibility solidified. Choices and possible futures branched, and then were suddenly made concrete.
"Yes," Loki repeated, softer now, "Because the whole universe is at stake."
Jane stared at Loki. "I thought…" she whispered, "I thought you were out to destroy the universe?"
Loki looked at her with something Jane almost dared to call chagrin. "So did I," he admitted, "So did I."