A/N: Posted this on tumblr first, but I have a mind to do some revamping, so posting it here as well (for safekeeping). The plot ran away from me in the middle, sorry about that.


She regrets the slap the moment her palm connects with his cheek, wishes sorely she thought to bring a crowbar along or convinced Thor to lend her Mjolnir for the occasion, anything to wipe that self-satisfied smirk from his face. As it is, however, she has to clench her smarting hand into a fist, and 'This was for New York' comes out more like a pained gasp than a statement of a righteous anger she's been aiming for. It's a foolish, childish thing to do, and it seems to hurt him not at all, although he makes a show of throwing his head back in a mockery of her strength, and when he meets her gaze again, his smirk has grown into a full-blown smile, bloodless lips stretched thin and a tip of a tongue running over the edge of sharp, sharp teeth.

"I like her," he says, and Jane is certain she has never hated anyone more.

[…]

Once the curse is lifted, once they are back, Jane can't tell the difference right away. The memory of the bitter relentless cold of Svartálfaheimr's plains still gnaws at her bones even as she dozes off in the ever-blooming gardens of All-Father's palace. It's like someone has pulled a few threads loose inside her and now her body unravels, collapses onto itself or, perhaps, she has been made from a shoddier cheaper material from the start - there is plenty of those who hold to this opinion, Odin himself among them. His disapproval weighs heavily on her shoulders as she struggles through yet another sumptuous meal, Thor laughing raucously beside her. Jane is sorry to admit (even if only to herself) that she is jealous of whoever made him laugh, she feels clingy and needy and unnecessary, she feels like she is fading. The radiance that Thor wears around his person like a halo bleaches out whatever color is still left to her - she is a ghost of a girl, she is an afterthought.

Not so when they are alone.

Thor is remarkably easy to love, easy to be in love with. He makes it all seem so effortless, so… so right, and her heart thaws a little. Jane allows herself to relax, to drop her guards, allows herself to make plans, and then one day there is an apple on her bedside table and a decision waiting to be made.

Nothing good has ever come from apples, and this particular apple steals whatever peace of mind Jane has managed to maintain until now.

Thor is away, off onto one of his quests in search of honor and glory (it's all about glory, isn't it?) and she realizes that he gives her space, wants her to make this choice on her own, of her own free will, but without his reassuring presence the world slips out of focus, and Jane finds herself wandering aimlessly through the maze of spacious rooms - one more beautiful than the other - and pleasure gardens.

What is it that royal ladies of Asgard do, anyway? Organize feasts? Support charities? Raise children? An eternity of feasts and waiting for a husband to come home. Can she really do that?

But, of course, she is not being fair, there is more to it - a thousand things to learn, centuries of knowledge to uncover, mysteries and wonders in spades, and all the time in the world to pursue them.

And Thor. Thor who loves her. Thor who she loves in return.

Yet… is this love, is it really?

The thought comes unbidden and seemingly out of nowhere. Jane recoils as if burned.

[…]

Two days later she storms out of the throne room in a fury truly befitting the one beloved by the god of thunder. Her future father-in-law does not like her. Sure, she has risen from the 'sacrificial goat' in Odin's estimation but not by much, and she almost bites the apple just out of spite, just to thumb her nose at All-Father's wishes and has to stop herself at the last moment - anger never got her anywhere, anywhere she wanted to be anyway.

"Insufferable, is he not?"

Jane would love to say that she is surprised, but she isn't, she really isn't. "Came to gloat?" she asks.

"Hardly," Loki replies, "Far be it from me to taunt the future queen of Asgard in her hour of triumph".

Jane gives up. The god of mischief seems to have an inborn aversion to straightforwardness - they would walk in circles forever was she to leave this up to him, - and she just does not have the energy for this right now.

"What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be gone? Away? Plotting the end of the world or whatever it is what you do with your free time?"

He is up and beside her faster than she can blink, looming over, making her skin crawl and her stomach drop.

"Eager to be rid of me?"

He is smiling, amiable as you like, but something lurks behind his green eyes, something that sets all the alarms in the back of Jane's mind blaring Danger! Danger!, yet they have been here before, several times in fact, she does not fear him, or at the very least, she does not fear him enough, reckless as it might be. And, really, she is five-foot tall, she has had a lot of experience of being loomed over, she is practically immune to it by now.

"We made a deal," she says.

"So we did," Loki agrees, "So we did".

[…]

She tells Thor she needs time, tells him she is not ready to look Eternity in the eye just yet. She needs some breathing space and a perspective, and surely he knows it's not him, it's her.

It sounds lame even to her own ears.

[…]

Jane moves to New York (much to Darcy's delight and Erik's silent but steadfast disapproval), trades the starry skies of Puente Antiguo for the neon lights of the city that never sleeps and does not think twice on the bargain. Months after, she is still shaking out the sand from her clothes and squints with a practiced nonchalance at the sun glancing off the glass and metal surfaces of the towering monoliths that make up the city's - now rather ragged - sky-line.

You can take the girl from the desert, but you can't take the desert from the girl.

Huh.

Still, there is a comfort to be had in the spreading net of narrow streets with newly mended cracks in the pavement and just the general beehive that is life in NYC, a reassurance, no matter how feeble or how desperate, that in the end Jane is, too, none the worse for wear.

Her days consist mostly of work - more physics and less astronomy, watching sappy movies, and occasional drinking binges with Darcy (that's not what they called them initially, but somehow alcohol is always involved, so why pretend otherwise?). Then there are weekly talks with Erik during which he worries himself sick over her well-being, her state of mind and her sudden change of heart. Jane smiles, fights the ever-present desire to hang up on him, tells him that she is fine instead.

She is fine - S.H.I.E.L.D. won't let their pet scientist go hungry, not after she made the species proud - and in any case this has nothing to do with giving up and everything to do with moving on, and after years of nurturing unhealthy obsessions and chasing lost causes, it's high time she learned to let go.

Jane even manages to reach some degree of success on that route until one day she opens the door and there he is, green green eyes and a smile so sharp it cuts, but she has smarten up since their last encounter: she goes for the groin this time.

"Such violence," Loki grunts, "Must we always meet like this".

She hobbles all through the following week (you never learn, do you?), wonders if there is a fissure in her kneecap and if she has to get it looked at, vows to buy knee pads or, better yet, a full body gear and make a habit of wearing it daily. The only satisfaction Jane draws from the whole affair is that the grin the god of mischief gives her in reply is slightly more strained than the one he awarded her for the slap, so maybe she did manage to do some damage to the family jewels after all.

It warms the cockles of her shattered heart, truly, it does.

[…]

Despite or, perhaps, because of - you can never be sure with him - their shaky beginnings (yes, plural), Loki chooses to stick around. Which is to say, he pops up now and again with no warning whatsoever and haunts her apartment for days at a time. Jane does not know why her 'humble dwelling' has been so blessed and isn't exactly thrilled about it, but it's not like she can do anything to stop Loki from 'visiting', having gone incommunicado on the rest of the Asgard's populace as she did.

She hopes Heimdall is watching; then hopes he is not.

Will she be the first person to die of acute awkwardness? A fitting end, all things considered.

Surprisingly, Loki does not try to kill her even once, and after a while they settle into what could be called a routine if the definition of 'routine' were given by some deranged person whose closest experience with the phenomenon at hand were rolling dice and getting the same number three times in a row. Still, it smacks of domesticity so much, it hurts.

[…]

According to the myths, Loki is a force of chaos. Jane can second that for he leaves chaos in his wake - be it a veritable wreckage of her living room or an utter mess in the kitchen or clothes and armor strewn haphazardly all other the place. Perhaps, his upbringing is partly at fault - having servants attend your every whim hardly promotes a habit of neatness. Perhaps, magic just makes you lazy - knowing you can simply wave your hand instead of cleaning up for hours on end.

Whichever the case, Jane is glad she has never been a neat freak herself. Her research methods can be characterized as 'intuitive' at best, and her professors failed (repeatedly) to instill the notion of 'keeping data organized' upon her perceptive brain. Must have been why she had so much trouble being taken seriously. Among other things, of course.

What makes Jane significantly less glad is that Loki allows her to see this side of him. The man - well, a god, a demigod, whatever - is crazy about keeping up appearances, and he would never let something like this slip without a purpose. What purpose, Jane cannot guess, but knowing Loki, it's something sinister, no doubt.

The forced intimacy, light as it is, turns Jane snappy.

It's one thing to play Wii with the enemy of the Realm. Knowing, actually knowing him, is entirely different and entirely inappropriate and, most likely, a treason.

Oh, but it's nothing we haven't done before, a voice that sounds suspiciously like the god of mischief himself whispers in her mind. Jane wills it to shut the hell up and concentrates on kicking Loki's royal arse in Mortal Combat with a renewed fierceness.

[…]

"You are unhappy, Jane Foster," Loki declares one evening, out of the blue. Well, maybe not completely out of the blue. She drinks too much coffee (too much in general, she supposes, even Darcy noticed, and Darcy isn't the person to begrudge someone an additional margarita or three) and sleeps nowhere close to enough/too little/not enough. The dark circles around her eyes starting to look like a permanent fixture, just as the stray god who took to lounging around her flat as if he owns it. Wholesome food? Who even heard of it?

So yes, she is unhappy.

It does not take a genius to arrive at this conclusion which in turn makes Jane wonder why she hasn't connected the dots herself. The fact that it has taken Loki stating the obvious (something he actively strives to avoid) for the realization to finally set in annoys her to distraction, and she tells him as much.

"No shit, Sherlock".

"It is some midgardian adage, is it not?" he wrinkles his nose in obvious distaste.

Jane gets up and walks into the kitchen, intent on proving him – on proving everyone – wrong. They are having fish for dinner, she decides, how is that for a wholesome meal?

"Is it true that you can turn into a salmon?" she asks.

He quirks a dark eyebrow at her. "Researching me, were you Jane?" he purrs, "I am flattered".

No, Jane thinks, not you, never you, but says nothing.

Perhaps, she should have.

[…]

The trouble is that there is always an 'after', Jane thinks.

How could Dorothy ever chose to return to Kansas? How could she stand it with the Emerald City burned forever into the back of her eyelids? How does one cope?

Yet, it seemed right to refuse at the time, noble even, selfless, humane. She wasn't cut for Eternity, for under-carpet power-games, for struggles and feasts and songs of glory. For magic. Forever was a very long time, and she knew Thor kept his promises, and Loki did too (when it suited him), but she was neither, she was Jane, she was human, and she was tired, so very tired after… well, after everything, and she wanted desperately to go home.

It was only later, only after, back on Earth again, her heart no longer throbbing with homesickness (because everything is better at the distance, be it miles or years, and Jane is forced to consider if she has been yearning for the stars for this very reason) when she finally understood: you can never go back, never ever.

[…]

It happens when it happens. Jane has a vague suspicion that they were spiraling hurtling down this road since the day he first walked through her door. Perhaps, it has been his angle all along. Loki is a Rubik's cube of a person - contemplating his motives makes Jane's head hurt.

Jane blames the wine, the fruity tang of it clings to the back of her teeth, making everything seem sweeter than it is, more pleasant. Or, maybe, it's Loki who appears to be on his best behavior tonight, taking care not to spill anything too vile and aggravate his easily-aggravated host. He can be charming when he wants to, though half the bottle of red – done mostly by Jane because his-highness-what-is-this-swill-do-you-mean-to-poi son-me-mortal switched to mead after the first glass – definitely helps to smooth things out.

Jane blames the spring. Love is in the air, and so, apparently, is the flu. She has weathered the worst of it over the weekend, but ghosts of high-fever still haunt hidden corners of her brilliant (if she says so herself) brain, clogging up the familiar pathways through which old hatred runs like a sluggish river and scaring off what little common sense the wine has left untouched.

Jane blames her anaemic love-life that has never boasted much action anyhow but has fizzled out completely after her journey to Asgard. It's been too long, and she is entirely too randy to judge soundly, and no, it's certainly not the first instant the idea that getting laid might improve her deteriorating moods occurred to her (and not in regard to any Norse gods either. Which brings her to the next point.

Jane blames Loki's otherworldly descent. He might not, strictly speaking, be a god, but that human form he wears like a suit is god-crafted nonetheless. Loki is a freak of beauty. Not like Thor, there is nothing golden about Odin's second son, no matter how much gold he adorns his armor or his trinkets with. And yet he is handsome, or rather, he is perfect, perfect in a way everything and everyone on Asgard is perfect: flaws and virtues taken to absolution, distilled to their purest state, both beautiful and terrible in the same breath.

Finally and inevitably, Jane blames his smug face. Most of the time she does not know whether to punch him or kiss him, but seeing as the former yields little results beyond injury to her own limbs and her pride, she decides to give the latter a go for once.

[…]

The kiss is soft until it's not, until there are hands around her waist pulling her over, pulling her closer, pulling her into his lap.

He is not Thor, not by a long mile, a mere thought that a comparison between the two exists, is possible at all in this world or the next is ridiculous, is…. laughable,really, and laugh Jane indeed would – her lips curving into a smile already – were she not busy breathing hot air into Loki's mouth. His long nimble fingers slide under her shirt, flit up her rib cage dig into her spine. There is something desperate about his touch, something greedy, something yearning and hungry and oh so wanting, and it makes her whole body light up. Jane Foster, a human torch, she thinks distractedly, now that would be a sight. The image gives her a pause, a memory of Heimdall, a solemn gatekeeper, his gaze like cold steel on the back of her neck, slides past the haze that has taken over her mind.

"Is he watching?" she hisses out, pulling at Loki's hair to get him to look at her. It proves to be a wrong move in retrospect. His eyes are steady, green and sharp. He tilts his head sideways, brushes his lips against hers. "Who cares?" he says, and Jane realizes that she doesn't, cannot bring herself to care if she tried. She wonders if he placed an enchantment on her, wouldn't put past him, but it hardly matters at this point.

[…]

Later, much later, in a sweaty tangle of limbs (gods or not, they sweat and bleed like everybody else), yet another realization hits Jane and makes her let out a gasp that has little to do with Loki's talented tongue (many uses) and capable hands. Or, rather, not one realization but several, first being that all these girls in the stories, all these seasoned world-travelers, falling through the rabbit-holes and stumbling through the mirrors, searching their way home, are liars, liars of the worst sort, liars who lie to themselves first and to others only in consequence. It's impossible to give up the magic world whatever its called, impossible to leave it behind and move on, to get on with your life like a well-adjusted adult, and – it's high time she faced it – Jane has never been fated to become a well-adjusted adult, it just wasn't in the stars.

Speaking of which (the stars): that's just it. Jane is nothing. She barely registers on All-Father's radar, less than a speck, really. In the universe of supernovae and black holes, Jane Foster has no fixed role in the neverending cosmic drama Odin and his kin has been playing for ages without rest.

Jane is insignificant, small enough to slip through the grid and thus free to do as she pleases. Loki grins against her neck, and her skin flushes warm.

[…]

The morning dawns bright and clear – or as bright and clear as it gets in NYC. The sound of traffic rushing through the streets like a belligerent river seeps through the open window, the neighbors from the flat above hers are having a raw, a good old-fashioned row with screeching and breaking plates and everything. Despite the headache pushing persistently at her temples, Jane is smiling. She hums as she makes coffee (makes enough of it for two, in her endless generosity) and picks up her star charts.