Disclaimer (applies to the story in its entirety): I don't own any of it.
Almost a year after Malekith was defeated, the first of Thor's enemies found her.
Jane Foster was an ordinary human being who had experienced extraordinary things. The love of an Asgardian price was foremost among those. Some of the others were pleasant in the same vein—she'd seen Asgard, after all, and experienced the exhilarating and otherworldly method of travel to get there.
The other extraordinary things—well, they were what led her here, to a place far from Puente Antiguo, far from London, far from New York. She had gone to ground, the last resort of the desperate. The Jane Foster from a year ago had not been familiar with this particular brand of desperation, the type that had her eyes finding threats in every lingering shadow and her ears hearing the promise of pain in every whisper which carried her way. No, this desperation was the stigma of the new Jane Foster, who had become something exceptionally important to numerous dangerous, innovative creatures in the universe: she was the one true potent weakness of Thor. And, as a result, Thor's ties to the Avengers had earned her a questionable kind of merit in the eyes of those who had cause to resent the team of Earth's defenders.
It turned out, even on a planet as overpopulated as Earth, she wasn't that hard to find. And yes, she'd been under S.H.I.E.L.D's protective jurisdiction because of her ties to Thor. But even S.H.I.E.L.D couldn't have predicted what was coming.
The first to find her had been a terrorist, intent on using her as a bargaining chip in order to control the Avengers.
The second enemy had wanted blood for blood, vengeance for a loved one lost at the hands of the Asgardians.
The third—the worst—was the one that had caused her to flee, to hide, to change from a regular person into a survivor.
When she'd lived there, Jane had had a healthy dislike of New Mexico's heat accompanied by a reluctant appreciation for the haggard, sun-ravaged splendor of its landscape. When the realization finally hit her that to remain Jane Foster was to court imminent death, she'd made the choice to hide somewhere she'd never been before, someplace remote without being too much so. She'd had support from S.H.I.E.L.D, to a degree—Nick Fury agreed that she needed to be someone else, someplace else, in order to stop being the inadvertent cause of so much trouble. Thor had rescued her once since the fall of Malekith. During the other subsequent abductions, her rescuers had been members of the Avengers, and Fury was of the very strong opinion that one human life did not merit the heroes of Earth repeatedly placing themselves in extreme danger.
She'd been given a new name, a new background, and sufficient funding to exist on her own someplace far removed from the cities and countries that seemed the most inviting for the villains of both earth and the rest of the universe. She'd said goodbye to those that mattered and inwardly grieved for those she'd lost. And then she'd packed only what she needed and drove north, crossing numerous state lines before crossing the border.
She found the home she needed near the Rockies. An acreage bordering a woodlot, set on the borders of the flats where the foothills began. The house was nearly new but small, the property hemmed at all sides by dense forest. The closest town—population 4000—was a thirty minute drive away. She had power, plumbing, and satellite TV. She even had Internet, when the weather permitted. She saw the home and the acres around it for what it was: a refuge. A bolt hole. A place to be alive without always being haunted by the shadows of an imminent threat. Before she made the purchase—S.H.I.E.L.D had been monetarily generous for their part in her relocation—the real estate agent gave her a warning.
"Have you lived through a winter up here?" She'd asked Jane, who was no longer Jane. When the only reply was a shake of the head, the agent went on slowly, her eyes straying to Jane's left hand. Jane noticed and reflexively tightened her hand into a fist. The agent glanced away awkwardly, clearing her throat before going on. "Look—it's a nice place. And the price is good, too. But I have to warn you, in winter, when it snows a lot—and it will—there will be days the roads are impassable. Out here we don't have much in the way of public works services. There may be entire days that pass when you won't be able to go anywhere until a grader comes by."
The warning was delivered in a somber, reluctant tone; she was a real estate agent, after all, and Jane was a sale. But Jane, who had introduced herself as Jill Garritsen, had simply flashed a sad and fleeting smile.
"It sounds perfect," she'd said, and meant it.
The Canadian winter wasn't as bad as she'd feared it would be. It took a lot of adjustment, but her life for the past several months has been one extended period of adjustment, so that wasn't anything unfamiliar to her.
When the first snow of the season began to fall, she stood at the largest window in the living room of her new home and watched with a sense of mutual unease and wonder. The hours passed and slowly, gently, the world without was enveloped in white. There were no streetlights outside, no warm glow from a neighbour's window. There was only her house and the snow-dusted woods surrounding, only a world covered in beautifully bleak shades of white and grey.
She felt, for the first time in a long time, utterly alone. It didn't even occur to her to be worried that this was also the first time in a very long time that she'd felt safe.
Visiting a country in the grips of winter was one thing. Living in winter was quite another. Jane found that the season came with its own serious learning curve. She learned that heating a house entirely on propane was expensive. She had a nice sum of money in her bank account, some of it hers and some of it a living allowance from S.H.I.E.L.D, but she knew it was imperative to conserve as much money as she could in case of an emergency. Because, in her recent experiences, emergencies consisted of something dire and life-threatening that required complicated methods of escape.
The house had a wood burning stove and the previous owners had stocked the small woodshed in the yard to full capacity. And so Jane made the effort to learn how to heat her new home entirely by wood stove. She discovered that starting a fire with the damper closed resulted in a house full of thick black smoke. She also discovered that some of the wood in the shed didn't fit into her stove; a trip to the hardware in the nearby town of Woodrill and the purchase of a splitting axe helped her rectify that problem. And as a result she discovered that chopping wood, though hard work was actually kind of cathartic.
Winter taught her other things as well. She learned that shovelling snow from her walkway and driveway was better exercise than any kind of workout she could get in a gym. She learned that on the really cold days her vehicle wouldn't start unless the block heater had been plugged in. She learned that wearing the bulkiest, heaviest coat in the world would never be warm enough without layers underneath. She also learned that running frostbitten fingers and toes underneath warm water was—almost—the most painful thing she'd ever known.
Despite all the extra work winter entailed, she found she didn't mind. She liked to be busy. She'd made a half-hearted promise to S.H.I.E.L.D to continue her research once she was settled far and away from danger with a new name and a new life. Every time she sat down with her notebooks and laptop, however, she found that her mind drifted too easily to the events that had led her to flee the life she'd known. Later, she would tell herself before getting up and moving on to something else.
It was just as hard to keep her mind from wandering to thoughts of Thor. Granted, these thoughts were more pleasant than the others, but they came with no small amount of negative emotions. After Malekith's defeat, Thor had returned to Earth several times to see her. He explained that Heimdall was always aware of where she was and whether or not she was safe. This was why Thor had been the one to come to her aid the first time his enemies had found her.
Things began to change not long after that particular rescue. During one of his visits, he explained to her that things were changing in Asgard. They were small, subtle changes implemented by his father, but they were changes all the same and he was uncertain of how they would be of any benefit to Asgard.
"There is something ... different about my father," he told her one night, after they'd dined in her small apartment, after they'd sat on the balcony and spoke of simpler, easier things. He'd slid his hand free of hers and stood, placing his elbows on the balcony railing, staring out across the lights of the city. "I know not what it is for certain. I cannot explain it any better. Ever since mother's death, ever since Loki ..."
He trailed off. Jane, sitting in an Adirondack chair behind him, felt her throat tighten with empathy. She knew he was struggling to reconcile his roles as prince and protector of Midgard. She knew too, how much it cost him to visit her here when his presence was demanded elsewhere.
"I am stymied, Jane. My father speaks to me as he always has, but it is different. I fear he is ill, hiding some malady for fear of what may happen. But when I ask, he evades my questions as adeptly as my brother used to."
"Thor—" she said, coming to her feet.
"I tell you this," he interrupted, turning to face her, "because I fear my visits here will be hindered soon. There is unrest in other realms that I must attend to. And there is unrest at home, as well."
She told him she understood. She told him it was okay. And that night, after he'd kissed her goodbye in a manner that was utterly bittersweet, he said goodbye to her with a heaviness that was mirrored in her heart and mind.
That was the last time she'd seen him.
Later, when the other enemies found her, she'd wished and wept and prayed for his intervention. But he could not come. He did not come. And she suffered greatly for the mere transgression of having his love.
He was a prince. He was meant to rule. He had to restore peace on a galactic level. All of this she knew and had known. But she found, in the darkest days of her life after being captured the third time, that this radiant, otherworldly love she'd cherished for a god was slowly turning to poison.
The day the storm came she was outside. She'd just finished splitting wood and had loaded it into a wheelbarrow when she became aware of the sky darkening. Breathing hard from the exertion of swinging the axe, she tugged off her hood and glanced upwards. The day had been overcast with small flurries every now and then, but the clouds now gathering were different from what she was accustomed to seeing in the winter sky. These were clouds more suited to hot summer skies, angry and roiling and dark.
She felt a sudden sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach as thunder boomed overhead. There was no denying what was happening—a conduit was forming. Her first instinct was to bolt, run to her truck and drive hell-bent for any destination but here. On the heels of that urge came anger. He was coming now? When the worst was over and she'd bitterly, angrily learned to heal on her own?
The conduit, as it shot to earth with all the beauty and mystery and power of the universe still veiled to her, startled her enough that she uttered a short, soft cry. And then it was over, as quickly as it had come, the churning clouds dissipating, leaving behind the familiar pale grey cloud cover of a normal winter day. But in the aftermath, she stood alone. The conduit had not touched ground anywhere near her house. It had struck the earth somewhere to the south, in the forest that bordered her property.
She stood where she was for a span of moments, considering. It was now obvious that Heimdall watched her still, which also meant that Thor must be aware of what had happened. Was he free, finally, of the duties of his birthright? Had he come to explain it all?
Did she want him too?
When she finally stirred, her movements were unhurried. She pushed the wheelbarrow back to her house, parking it off to the side of the small deck that spanned the front wall of her home. Later, she'd take in a couple armfuls of wood so that she had fuel enough for the night ahead. She pulled her hood back up and rewrapped the scarf around her neck, making sure it was tight. With a sigh, she turned and began trudging through the snow towards the southern edge of her property, headed in the direction the conduit had touched down.
Reaching the outskirts of the woods, she was relieved to see game trails carved into the snow. She chose the one that seemed most travelled and followed it into the trees. The huge evergreens were blanketed in snow, boughs draping downwards. She moved with care, stepping over fallen logs and ducking under branches and trees that leaned. More than once she jostled an overhanging branch and found herself caught in the resulting shower of heavy, glistening white flakes.
Even with the game trail, it was hard work to walk through the snow. When the trail abruptly veered off to the east, she paused and sighed. There were no trails leading due south, which was where the conduit had been, and standing in her way was a sizeable hill covered entirely in a pristine white blanket. She sighed again, a heavy and resigned exhale. She was tired. She was nervous. She wasn't entirely certain she wanted to face the man who lay beyond the hill again, anyways. After a short and intense internal debate, she stepped off the game trail and began to slowly trudge her way up the hill through snow that, at its highest, brushed against her knees.
It took her long minutes to climb to the top. She stopped frequently to rest, her legs burning from breaking a trail, her lungs aching from gulping in huge breaths of frigid air. Beneath her layers, she was sweating from the exertion. She pulled at the scarf that covered half her face, loosening it so it fell away from her face to allow her to breathe easier. Sucking in a deep breath, she started to move again, walking with dogged determination and proceeding upwards until, finally, she crested the hill.
At first, she couldn't clearly see what lay on the ground below, her vision impeded by the billowing clouds of steam created by her ragged exhales. When finally her eyes could focus on the scene below, she frowned in anxious confusion.
The conduit had been a violent one. A small crater lay at the base of the hill, the snow around it explosively dispersed in a large radius by the strength of the impact. Several trees which had lined the base of the hill had been broken or knocked over completely by the occurrence. A tall, slender tree, uprooted, had fallen across the width of the crater. Pinned beneath the tree was a man.
Her mind did not initially process what her eyes were witnessing. The man, initially motionless when first her gaze had found him, was starting to move. He lay on his back, arms coming up slowly, sluggishly, to push at the tree where it lay across his chest. It shifted easily as he pushed; it was a young poplar and didn't weigh too much. What Jane couldn't understand as she watched was why the effort of dislodging it seemed so hard to him.
What she couldn't understand was why, lying in a small crater in the middle of a snowy forest, Loki would throw back his head and unleash a scream of primal, helpless rage that echoed throughout the forest and resonated within her mind with terrible, desperate purpose.
Comprehension dawned a heartbeat later, and she felt an echo of his scream claw its way up from her lungs into her throat. She choked it back with some difficulty, reeling beneath the weight of the revelation she'd just had. Below her Loki labored to free himself from the confines of the fallen tree. Even from where she stood she could see that he was breathing hard, laboring as any man would.
As any mortal would.
She should have been surprised to see him alive. Staring at him through wide eyes that watered from the bitterly chill caress of the wind, however, she found that surprise was the least of what she felt. He was garbed in gold and green much as he had been when last she'd seen him—dying, in Thor's arms. The garment would not offer much protection against the cold. Left unattended, at the whims of winter's merciless nature, there was a very good chance he would die as he was now.
Jane began to tremble with fury. Here, then, was her proof that Thor still thought of her. He hadn't come himself. No, he'd sent his brother, the war criminal, to Earth. He'd stripped Loki of his immortality and his powers and rendered him as helpless as the humans he so despised. Thor had sentenced his brother to the same punishment he himself had known from Odin. For some reason that she was sure she could never understand, Thor had sent Loki to Jane. She knew with utmost certainty that Thor had done this as a way to keep Loki safe. Had he arrived elsewhere in the world, chances were better than good that S.H.I.E.L.D would find him and imprison him. And there were others, many others, that had scores to settle with Loki after the events of New York.
Thor's plea to Jane was as plain and clear as if he'd uttered the words into her ear. Here is my brother, mortal now. He cannot harm you. I ask of you this: watch over him. Hide him. Keep him safe. Please, Jane.
The sound that left her was half desperate laugh, half strangled sob. And at the sound, Loki's head whipped around. He was still in the process of extricating himself from the tree, but he stopped when he saw her standing above him. For a span of moments, suspended by the gamut of emotions that coursed through them both, they stared at each other. That he recognized her she had no doubt.
Her first instinct, infuriatingly, was to go to him. To pull the tree off of him. To hit him. To strike him as she would strike Thor were he here, to brutalize him with all the anguish and regret and fury she felt now, had been feeling for so many long months.
Instead, she pulled the scarf back up over her mouth and nose. And she turned and began to retrace her steps back down the hill, towards home.