Sol's Notes: I apologize for my very long, very inconvenient absence. I had the majority of this chapter written before I lost any and all drive to finish it. I still intend to finish the story, hopefully sooner rather than later. Fortunately, there are only one or two chapters remaining. Thank you to all those who encouraged me to keep going and kept sending me their support.
For the second time in her relatively short life, Jane was certain she was about to die. On her knees in the wet sand, clutching the wound in her side and staring with shocked, dismayed awe at the masked face of her assailant, she'd was unable to think of anything except: this is how it ends. Here. Not on Earth. Seconds had ticked past. She felt her own blood trickle slowly between her fingers to land as scattered crimson beads in the sand. With every shallow breath she felt the hurt, a razor-edged flaring of pain between her ribs. Around her the world had become still and silent. The other two masked men stood on either side of her, waiting, she knew, for her to die.
And between one breath and the next all was undone.
The men were gone. Standing before her was Loki, regarding her with a gaze shuttered and cold. She made a sound of panicked inquiry—had he sent them away? Had he truly come to her rescue? And then reality struck—she could no longer feel the wetness of blood on her fingers—could no longer feel any pain at all.
"Illusion," she said in a ragged voice as she struggled to understand the flood of events she'd only just undergone. That single word was part question and part statement.
Wordlessly, Loki nodded.
Jane felt her stomach drop at his confirmation. She realized instantly why he'd done it. Realized he felt no remorse for doing it, either. Licking her lips, swallowing dryly, she spoke again. "There was pain. I felt it."
"There was no pain. You were not injured. It was merely your mind supplementing the reality you were presented with."
Jane lifted a hand that trembled, ran her fingers over her lips, her jaw, feeling for the tenderness that should have been there from the blows to the face she'd suffered. She felt only the cold clamminess of her own skin, a result of her abject terror. The numbness was dying away, and replacing it came the slow, hot tendrils of fury absolute.
She said, "You left me here. On this planet. Alone."
He shook his head. "I did not leave."
Her chest rose and fell as she took deep breaths. She was going to choke on her rage. She was going to suffocate on it. She got to one knee and then stood, letting her eyes find anything to rest on except him. There was her hoodie, still folded some several feet from the water's edge and beside it, her hiking boots. There were the imprints of her own feet in the sand. There were no other tracks. She'd truly been alone this entire time. Everything else had been a part of Loki's manifestation.
She wanted to hurt him. The desire to slide a knife between his own ribs was so strong that she felt it in her teeth as she clenched her jaw so tightly it ached. Carried by the urge, she unconsciously took one step toward him. He watched her without expression. If he saw the fury in the set of her shoulders or her tightly balled fists, it was obviously of no concern to him.
"Night nears," he told her, his voice as inexpressive as his face. "Come. There is shelter."
He waited while she retrieved her boots, put them on, and picked up her hoodie. He then turned and began to walk. After a long moment, Jane followed.
She trailed after him with a gait that could only be called unsteady. She passed by trees and rocks and thick stands of leafy undergrowth. She put one foot in front of the other. The only thing she was clearly aware of was that Loki had made her think she was dying—and that he'd meant to do it to force her into submitting to his superiority. This was not what lovers did. This was not what anybody with even the smallest sliver of compassion or empathy or a soul did to another person. This was wrong.
After a time, Loki halted. Jane came to a wary stop some several feet behind him, wanting to avoid getting too close not out of fear of him, but because of her desire to attack him some how. He turned and with the same lack of expression he'd had before, said, "There is a spring just down that hill, if you wish to drink."
Her eyes followed his hand as he pointed in the direction. Wordlessly, she moved, stepping carefully down a small yet steep incline. At the bottom, surrounded by fronds of water lillies and aquatic grasses, was a small, clear, bubbling pool. Jane knelt before it, dipped her hands in and cupped them. She splashed water over her face and neck, blinking to clear her vision. The second handful she brought to her lips, drinking deep of it once, twice, three times. When she was done, she stood and shook her hands dry, feeling reluctant to turn back around.
When she did, she saw him standing above her, watching. He was always watching. She made her way back up the slope carefully, her foot slipping once as she neared the top. He reached for her as she tottered, only to jerk away as her head snapped around and she hissed a warning. Without his support she stumbled, three quick and uneven steps backward that brought her up hard against the trunk of a tree.
"You don't touch me," she said in a voice so low that it was nearly inaudible.
"Even if you're falling?"
Sarcasm, arrogance, condescension—he managed to pack all three into that short, simple question. The enormity of the betrayal she felt was literally choking her, and it was all she could do to force the words out past it, "You will not touch me again."
There was confusion there, flitting about the edges of the frustration that had lined his brow. And she understood in that moment that he truly didn't realize how badly his illusion had affected her or how the fact that he could actually do such a thing shook her to her core. He was used to such manipulations. He was used to being obeyed.
It startled her, the tear that had escaped her eye and fled quickly down her cheek. In the act of raising her hand to brush it angrily away more escaped, flooding her vision. And suddenly it was hard to breathe past the sensation of falling, past the anger and the hurt. It was a delayed reaction to what she'd just been through, she knew, but hated that Loki was there to see it. She turned away from him quickly, dropping to a crouch and trying to calm her breathing, willing this attack of panic to fade.
She got to her feet and spun around as she heard him approach, backing quickly and awkwardly away, back down the hill. Her words were marred by sobs, by the jagged hitch of her emotions, "Stay away!"
And there it was, his sudden realization that he'd pushed her beyond her breaking point. She saw it in his eyes, in the way he sharply inhaled. He'd wanted things to change by showing her that illusion. For all his brilliance, for all his superior powers, he hadn't been able to predict that rather than cling to him, she'd hate him for it.
They regarded each other in a strained silence, she through eyes that still wept and he through eyes blue and clouded. Finally he turned and began to walk again. Jane, with a shuddering sigh, followed after. She had no choice.
Her only guide in this cruel and thankless universe was a man who used and twisted and hurt for his own gain.
"Understand, Jane—it was a ruse. An illusion. A threat. I meant to humble you, to frighten you into submission, to make you comprehend that I am all you have—all you had. You are … you are aggravatingly mulish in your convictions. I admit I am not accustomed to those that stand against me—not accustomed to mortals doing it, though among Asgardians only Thor and the Allfather ever dared. And Mother, though her declarations were iron wrapped in silk rather than the cold steel of my fath—Odin."
"You … infuriate me so, at times. Even Thor in all his blithe ignorance … he does not rile me as you do. And instead of despising you as I should, instead of loathing you for the impermanence that is intrinsic to your kind, I …"
A longer pause. A slow, deep inhale that radiated frustration. When the words came next they were forced, stilted. "I feel. For you. A lust, a craving, a need. At first I banished it, condemned it as a baser instinct. But it persisted despite my resolve to an extreme that never before have I known. And it intrigued me then, the possibilities offered, the sheer novelty of it—your mortality, I surmised, was the draw. And I admired you, Jane, for the fact that even after the enormity of what you have endured you remained intact. There were obvious holes, of course, chinks in your armor that I was aware of immediately after speaking with you that first time. A lesser being would have faltered. A lesser being would have given way. And you endured, too, all that I assaulted you with in my attempts to belittle you, to make you as small as I imagined you to be."
Silence. When next the words came they were softer, slower, as though each one was considered and weighted. "So willingly you came, joining me in my exile. Even though the choice I gave you was no choice at all, you did not fight me. You did not despair. You thrived. And in you I found … I found a certain kind of tranquility I never thought to know. If I were not who I am, it would have been so easy to slip into the role that that peace demanded. But I am … this. And you are as you are, mortal and lovely with your vulnerabilities that morph like quicksilver into something harder, something far stronger than ever I expected …"
A deprecating laugh, nothing more than a short, quiet exhale of air. "I abhor weakness. Particularly when I find it in myself. There is a peculiar, pointed irony to the fact that I speak now to you as I do, as though you are my confidante. I feel as though I should seek absolution from you and I hate it. I answer to no one. I am governed by no one. I exist as I am, free and unmitigated in my ambitions. I have murdered. I have enslaved. I have burned and destroyed and ravaged. Not without reservation—as much as I despise it, I too must fall victim to sentiment periodically. But what I have done, I have done with the clearest of intentions. I have done it all without the guilt that cripples others so, Thor and the Allfather and Frigga and of course your kind, as well."
"Perhaps it is because I have been so unfettered by guilt that I founder as I do here. Most every decision I have made where you are concerned, Jane, has left me with the unfamiliar and bitter taste of contrition. Again, I must acknowledge the irony in that, you being what you are. I am unaccustomed to feeling this way. I do not like it. But what is between us has come too far, has grown too much, for me to untangle myself now. No, I am caught as surely as the fly in the spider's web. What's more, I find that I have no wish any longer to be free of you. These are words that never have I thought to speak to anyone, mortal or not: I anticipate a future where you are near."
Another long, heavy pause. "… but I suspect, if ever you felt the same, that you no longer do now."
Jane, sitting with her back against the uneven stone of yet another cavern, stared at Loki mutely. It was a hard silence, cold, a suppression of her rage that was nearly palpable. She had maintained it now for quite some time. She had listened to him speak. She had watched him as he did so, noted the way he couldn't hold her eyes for long, noted the way the fingers of his left hand played absently with small pebbles on the ground beside him. She'd studied him, sitting on the opposite side of the small cave cross-legged, and wondered how she'd ever been stupid enough to fall for his deception.
Wondered, too, if she could ever learn to stop the way she felt for him.
When she finally spoke long minutes later, her voice had altered. Like her silence it was hard, brittle, every word containing the fury that boiled just beneath the surface. "If I asked you to return me to Earth … ?"
His gaze had been transfixed on the cavern floor. As she spoke his head shot upwards, his eyes fixing unerringly on her own. She couldn't read his expression as he replied, "No."
Jane inhaled sharply, preparing a verbal assault. He raised a hand and went on, "I won't return you to Earth. I was not lying when I told you that Fury intended to keep you imprisoned for the rest of your life. I would not condemn you to that. However I will … I will take you to Asgard. If you wish."
"And what about your promises?" Jane demanded, her words rapping out with all the brutal emphasis of gunshots. "What about your declarations? I'm yours, Loki, and you never leave behind what's yours—that's what you told me, isn't it?"
Something had changed between them in the moments after Jane had realized just how far he would go to get his way. The balances had tipped. Finally, it had been Loki that had pushed Jane beyond the breaking point. He'd been completely and totally unprepared for the consequences of that fact. In the face of her lividness—so different from what it had been before, so controlled and restrained and cold—he'd had to accept the brunt truth that Jane was only, truly his if she desired it. He could have her by force, of course, but she would never be wholly his. And all of this, Jane knew, was why he was the way he was now—quiet. Unsure. Almost hesitant. Loki, whom almost always won when it came to his ambitions and desires, was suddenly about to lose.
His flinch at those words was nearly imperceptible, but she saw it in the way his eyes darted away from her for the merest dissection of a moment. "Nor will I, unless it's something you desired."
"You're suddenly so considerate," Jane said in a voice that was very much like a snarl, "in regards to what I want."
"I've wronged you," he said quietly, holding her eyes with his own, "I can admit to that."
"You've wronged me on so many fucking levels I've lost count! But you expect me to be humbled by the fact that you can admit you screwed me over? What about an apology, Loki? Can your great and powerful self stoop to something like that?"
Jane's voice had risen, and carried by her rage she'd gotten unthinkingly to her feet. With both hands clenched at her sides she stared down at him and it was all she could do not to leap at him, to strike at him, to claw his eyes from his head.
He asked, "Would an apology help?"
Jane sucked in a breath and held it, struggling to control the urge to lash out physically. When she released a sigh, it was a cross between a laugh and a sob. "No," she said, her voice grown soft and weary, shaking her head. Slowly, she sat back down.
Another extended silence fell between them. Jane found that it was too hard to look at him, too hard to see him for the beautiful, exciting, deadly creature he was. Too hard to pretend that she hadn't wanted so much for things to work between them. And so she shut her eyes and leaned her head back against the unyielding, uncomfortable wall of the cave, trying to shut out every single thought until merciful nothingness remained.
Of course, it was his voice that intruded on her temporary peace. "If it's what you wish … I will take you to Asgard."
"And then you'll leave."
"And what's—whatever happened between us, it'll be forgotten?"
Jane's eyes opened. He was watching her, speaking still, "Even if I wished it, I could not forget you. Would not want to."
"And my other choice?"
"Remain with me."
"And if I did, would we have another day like today?"
It was he that looked away, unable to meet her eyes in the face of her accusation. "I am not infallible, Jane—"
"You'd certainly like for everyone to think so."
"And I admit I made an error in judgment." His voice had hardened and risen to continue over her interruption. "It will not happen again."
"But something else might. Because you can't stand it when something doesn't go your way. You can't control someone and expect to have their gratitude, Loki. You can't manipulate everything that happens in the universe."
"I know that."
"Maybe you do, but it hasn't stopped you from trying."
She was glaring at him again and this time he was glaring back. Their silent clash of wills ended when Loki stood and turned his head away. "You've always known what I am, Jane. I made no pretense of it. Despite that, you are still here. You've still done what you've done."
"Mistakes have been made on both sides," she said softly, echoing what he'd said to her just a short time ago.
He closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he was staring at the entrance to the cave. "I will give you however long you need to come to a decision. Choose what you wish to do. I will take you to Asgard and surrender you to Thor's care. A life there may suit you, despite the fact that you are mortal. And should you wish then to return to Earth, I am certain Thor can appease Fury somehow. And if you—should you choose otherwise …"
She waited for him to say it, watched him struggle to find the words. But in the end he shook his head, glanced her way, and made his way to the exit. "I'll bring you food and water. I'll leave them just outside. You're free to explore. There is nothing out there that can harm you. I will be nearby, even so."
She remained silent. A curt nod indicated his understanding of her mulish desire to say nothing, and then he stepped around the corner and out of her sight.
He was true to his word in this, at least. He left her alone. In the hours after his departure she remained where she was, resting her head against the uncomfortable stone, uselessly spinning her thoughts around this very large, very grim dilemma she was faced with. Loki was no saint. Loki was, by the very definition, a villain. And it was Loki who—because Fate's humor was cold and remorseless, because irony had great designs on her life—held, if not her heart, then at least a large part of her soul, such as it was, rent and tattered and worn.
She was not hungry, though Loki had left her food as he said he would. Eventually the raging turmoil of her thoughts gave way to exhaustion, and she curled up on her side on the floor of the cave and slept deeply, dreamlessly. When she awoke the cave was lit with the glow of daylight from the entrance, informing her that she'd slept the entire night through. She got to her feet slowly, feeling stiff and sore, and drifted to the cave's entrance. Loki was not there, as she'd half hoped and feared he would be. Instead there was only a small pile of edible things leaves and berries, mostly—and a bizarrely shaped earthenware container that held water. After standing motionless and staring at Loki's offering for long moments, Jane knelt, gathered them up, and took them back into the cave. She ate some of what she'd been given and drank a bit of the water before opting to store the rest. After all, there was no way of knowing if Loki would really keep providing the way he'd said he would …
She didn't want to believe he would. She wanted to know with certainty that he'd leave her here, that he'd abandon her the way he'd made her think he had, that he'd cast her off to the merciless whims of the universe. It pained her to know that he would do none of those things. He'd remain here, provide for her, guard her until she finally made up her mind. He would care for her. And that was what made this so incredibly difficult—she couldn't hate Loki the way she should because of the fact that she had changed him, in ways both subtle and not. He'd been altered due to what he felt for her. It gnawed at her, hurt her, that any changes he'd undergone were not enough to reconcile their differences and the chasm between her mortality and his immortality.
That night passed like the one before it. She spent the evening lost in thoughts of anger and sadness, sleeping only when weariness could no longer be held at bay. The next day she ventured out of the cave for a short while, daring to take a walk through the forest. She saw no sign of Loki, though when she returned there was fresh food at the entrance to the cave. And so the days slipped into a cycle of sameness. Every morning she rose and spent the daylight hours immersed in thoughts of sorrow and frustration, and every night she slept, sometimes easily, sometimes not.
It was the sixth day that Jane heard the sound of footsteps encroaching in the cave. She had just finished bathing, using the bulk of the water she'd saved that Loki had brought to get clean. She'd just finished donning her jeans when she heard the footfalls. She paused in the act of braiding her damp hair, her body going tense as she wondered why Loki was showing himself now and what he would have to say.
But it was not Loki that shaped himself out of the shadows of the cave. It was Thor.