- Death-Major Character
- Discussion-Child Abuse
- Action Adventure
- Established Relationship
Jane pulled her damp hair back into a ponytail and left the bathroom, the warmth of the shower still clinging to her skin. Her muscles were still tired from the events of the past few days, but the exhaustion felt duller now. Moving as quietly as possible so as not to disturb Thor, she folded up the pyjamas Pepper had lent her and tucked them under her pillow.
Going off the irritated mumbling that came from the bed, her attempt at sneaking had been unsuccessful. ‘Jane?’ he asked, blinking up at her blearily.
Sitting down next to him, she brushed the hair back off his face and leaned down to kiss his forehead. ‘It’s me.’
It had been a hard night for him. After they’d eaten, the conversation had taken a turn for the melancholy. Even after they’d retired for the night, Thor had struggled to sleep, his tossing and muttering keeping her up as well.
‘You should stay in bed,’ she said. ‘Tony offered to show me the lab this morning, but you may as well get some more sleep.’
Thor mumbled indistinctly, and she took that as a sign of agreement.
She took a step to the door but then hesitated. ‘How long will you be here this time?’
There was silence; for a moment, she thought he’d already drifted off. ‘Not for long. I must take Loki back.’
‘And after that?’ she asked quietly.
‘I don’t know. Even once I am permitted to leave, Loki may need me to stay.’
She sat down on the edge of the bed, fingers reaching to fiddle with the bunched-up quilt. ‘Do you really believe he can change, after everything he did?’
‘Yes.’ Sighing, Thor rolled over to face her. ‘Do you remember how I behaved when I first arrived on Midgard? I was self-centred and blind to my faults. Being here changed everything for me. Loki just needs something he can care about.’
Thor’s faith in his brother was sweet but troubling. After his mother’s death, he wasn’t in a good emotional place. He believed in Loki so totally; what if he was wrong? If Loki never changed, or if he betrayed his trust and killed again, how would Thor react? ‘Some people never change.’
‘He already has,’ Thor insisted. ‘Time changed him once; it can do so again.’
She nodded, not wanting to make things worse by causing an argument while he was in such a fragile headspace. ‘Just promise me you’ll be back as soon as you can.’
‘I did not intend to be gone so long last time.’ He took her hand in his, stilling its fidgeting. ‘I did not have a choice. In any case, two years is a short time for Asgardians. While I missed you daily, it did not seem as long to me as it must have to you. For that, I apologise.’
Jane intertwined her fingers in his, focusing on them as she thought through his words. ‘You said something like that last night, too. You said there’s a way to extend a human’s lifespan, but you didn’t say how.’
‘The Golden Apples of Idunn. They grow on a tree in a hidden garden, and eating one will slow anybody’s ageing to Asgardian speed. Consorts are not required to eat an apple, but it is encouraged. It takes place during the wedding ceremony.’
The words hit her like a punch to the gut, and she sucked in a breath of air. ‘Wedding ceremony?’
Thor’s hand tightened around hers. ‘Have I misread our relationship? I know it is still early, but…’
She let out the breath slowly, her cheeks heating despite herself. Hope fluttered within her chest. It was too early to consider marriage; even thinking the word in concrete terms was off-putting. Nevertheless, it was reassuring to know he was open to it too one day. ‘No, you haven’t.’
Leaning forward, she kissed him, this time lingering longer. But as she pulled away and told him she should leave, she felt a sense of unease.
The lab would have been any inventor’s dream. Fitted with the most cutting-edge technology, it looked like a scene from science fiction. Jane doubted there was any function a person could want that there wasn’t something there to fulfil. All of it was above her head, of course, but it was clear it was impressive.
‘What’s this one?’ Jane asked, moving over to a nearby gurney. Something lumpy lay on it, covered by a white sheet.
Bruce stepped forward. ‘Don’t — ’
But before her brain could process his interruption, she was already pulling back the sheet to reveal a silver thing. ‘Is this a new robot?’
‘Android,’ Tony said, glancing at Bruce. ‘It’s shaped like a human, so it’s an android.’
‘So it is!’ she exclaimed. He’d already introduced her to Dum-E, U and J.A.R.V.I.S., giving her demonstrations of some of the marvels they were capable of. ‘What does this one do?’
They hesitated, watching one another as though they weren’t sure how much to tell her.
‘He’s called Ultron,’ Bruce said finally.
‘He’s designed to help protect the Earth. We’ve come to the attention of at least three kinds of alien already, and there are others who are still coming for us.’
‘What if it backfires?’ Jane had — reluctantly — heard enough movie recaps from Darcy to know that robot AIs weren’t always the best idea.
‘It won’t.’ Tony’s voice was firm. ‘Our security measures are ironclad.’
Jane raised her eyebrows.
‘J.A.R.V.I.S. could wipe out half the world if he wanted to, and he never has,’ Bruce said. ‘We won’t wake Ultron until we know we can control him.’
‘Besides, the extent of the threat we’re facing… it could mean total global annihilation. The world’s safety is worth the risk.’
‘Who’s coming?’ Jane asked. Both times aliens had invaded, Thor had been there to help force them back. What if he was on Asgard next time? Would he be able to leave? ‘Is there… Does the government know about the threat?’
‘Parts of it,’ Tony said.
At the same time, Bruce said, ‘No.’
‘They know what they need to.’
‘Will Ultron be enough?’ Jane peered down at him.
The circuitry and design were complex, and the engineering work that would go into imbuing the shell with an AI would be breathtaking. But even if everything went as Tony and Bruce hoped, how could one robot — android — face off against an alien invasion?
‘He should be, but I’ve been working on making the Quinjets space-compatible as part of the contingency plan.’
Even without him saying it, she knew that he meant in case the Earth became uninhabitable.
That, more than anything, sold her on the idea of Ultron. Anything that could help them keep their home was worth trying. ‘We should ask Thor for Asgard’s aid. His people know more about other planets and dimensions than we ever will, and their technology would be invaluable.’
‘The more, the merrier.’
‘I’ll ask Thor.’
‘You were there, weren’t you?’ Bruce asked, his eyes bright. ‘What was it like?’
Jane described it to them, retelling every minute detail. They questioned her at length about the technologies and cultural differences she’d observed. When she mentioned the Aether, they pulled that apart, too, with an intensity that made her feel like a science experiment.
‘There are so many more things out there in the universe than we know,’ Bruce said.
Jane met his gaze. ‘And we’re not prepared for any of it, are we?’
‘No.’ Tony rested his hand on Ultron’s forehead. ‘But we will be.’
When Thor woke, the room was quiet and still. Turning, he found the other side of the bed empty. Vaguely, he remembered talking with Jane earlier before she left.
Sadness still hung over him, but the extra sleep had helped to renew his energy. Getting out of bed, he walked over to the window and opened the blinds. Sunlight streamed in, and he blinked several times to protect his eyes from the harsh glare. He hadn’t expected it to be so bright.
‘What time is it?’ he asked, feeling self-conscious for saying the words out loud. Talking to nothing was a bad sign.
‘It is 11:58 in the morning,’ said the disembodied voice of J.A.R.V.I.S., whom Tony had reintroduced him to the night before with a vague instruction to ask him if he needed anything.
It was later than he had expected, but then he had needed the rest. Quickly, he changed and left the suite, retracing his steps from the previous night until he reached Loki’s rooms. Hurrying through the door, he made sure to replace the security protocols immediately.
Two versions of Loki were sitting on the sofa, interposed on top of one another. However, unlike last time, the only difference was his clothing. One version was garbed in dark colours, as usual; the other was wearing distinctly Midgardian material.
At least he had been provided with a change of clothes.
‘How was your night?’
‘Well enough.’ Loki closed the book he was reading and placed it to the side. ‘For all the Asgardians compliment their own hospitality, this prison is more comfortable than my last one.’
Used to Loki’s antics, Thor ignored the jab. ‘Nothing untoward happened?’
‘Does killing a small, insignificant pest that tried to bite me count?’
‘J.A.R.V.I.S.?’ Thor asked, concerned. He hoped Loki was speaking literally about some Midgardian animal. Surely, he could not have harmed one of Tony’s friends without anyone noticing.
‘While some humans do not like to kill mosquitoes, by most people’s standards, it does not count as untoward.’
Thor nodded. ‘Good.’
‘I doubt you came here just to check whether my list of crimes has increased since we last spoke.’
‘I came to ask whether you need anything I can get for you.’
Loki shrugged. His voice light, he said, ‘Freedom would be nice.’
‘That is beyond my power. But when we return to Asgard, I shall ask the Allfather for leniency on your behalf.’ As he had told Jane earlier, his banishment to Midgard had changed him, giving him new connections and reasons to care. Perhaps, over time, he would be able to show Loki a new way to live.
‘You must know the Allfather will never forgive me. You have always been his favourite, and he needs you as an heir, but me…’
‘It will take time, of course, but I believe I can convince him to grant you more liberties.’
‘You are more of a fool than even I believed.’
Irritation flashed through him. Jane’s words from earlier ran through his head. Loki’s actions had devastated New York, yet he expected to continue to live as he had before? ‘Perhaps you are only reaping the consequences of the grain you sowed. Our father has the right to punish you for your crimes on Midgard.’
‘The Allfather is not upset about the loss of Midgardian life; he is upset that I defied him.’
‘Does he not have reason to expect obedience?’ Thor asked. ‘He deserves your respect.’
Still worked up from his conversation with Loki, Thor went down to the lab to find Jane. There was not much for him to do in the tower, and he wanted to spend as much time as possible with her before he left Midgard.
When he arrived, Jane, Tony and Bruce were in the middle of a passionate discussion that seemed to relate to the nine realms.
‘You have perfect timing!’ Jane exclaimed, rushing over to him with a broad smile on her face. ‘We were discussing a new threat that has arisen.’
They described what they knew of the threat, which was very little. There was a myriad of species they could be talking about, making it difficult to predict when or how they would attack.
‘We need as many people on our side as possible,’ Bruce concluded.
‘I thought Asgard could help,’ Jane said. ‘With the assistance of your knowledge and technology, we would have a chance of defending ourselves.’
All three of them were watching him expectantly. Thor wished he could give them the assurance they were waiting for, but it would be a lie. ‘I will have to speak to the Allfather. Whether and to what degree Asgard is involved with foreign affairs is his decision.’
Jane’s eyebrows drew together. ‘But he will agree, won’t he?’
‘It is difficult to say.’
‘How is it difficult to say?’ Tony asked. ‘It’s a yes or no answer. One syllable either way.’
Thor chose his words with care. ‘Midgard is your sole concern, but the Allfather has seven realms to protect, and his first loyalty is to Asgard. If the threat is as disastrous as you claim, he will intervene. But if it involves only your planet, he may not act unless it reaches the point of near-extinction.’
‘You’re kidding — ’
‘How can you — ’
‘It is not my decision to make. I am only the messenger.’
‘If we don’t stop them,’ Tony said, his voice cold, ‘it will get to that point. You like visiting Earth every now and again? Sorry, but if we don’t do something, you’re going to have to find a new vacation spot.’
‘We’ve even been looking at finding ways to leave the planet if we have to,’ Jane said quietly.
‘If it comes to that, Asgard will get involved,’ Thor reiterated. ‘I will ask for leave to return to fight, but that is all I can offer you until then. The Allfather cannot give everything to any one realm; he has a duty to monitor them all.’
‘We can still do this.’ Bruce turned, reading something on a nearby screen. ‘We’ve seen worse — I’ve been worse.’
‘We have to assume we’re doing this solo,’ Tony said, pulling out his phone. ‘We can’t bet on help that may not even come. I’m not going to gamble away the world’s future.’
Shaking her head, Jane crossed to the other side of the room. ‘I can’t believe this.’
‘You judge me, but how is it any different than what you do?’ Thor asked, his temper flaring. He understood their frustration, but this was too far. ‘You help people with your inventions, but you cannot help everyone — nor do you try to. The downside of being in a position of authority is having to make such calls.’
‘It isn’t the same thing,’ Jane said, though Thor noticed that she couldn’t articulate why. ‘Besides, hasn’t Asgard heard of the idea of reparations? Your brother attacked us; this is something your father could do to make amends.’
‘I will have to speak to the Allfather,’ he repeated.
‘I can’t deal with this right now. I’m going to order something for lunch.’ Jane stormed out of the room without a second glance.
Thor stayed near the doorway, his muscles jittery with how worked up he was. How had everything fallen apart so quickly? He had come to the lab to speak to Jane, but now she was mad at him. Why couldn’t they understand that Asgard was not theirs to command?
How had they put him into a position of defending his father yet again that day?
‘When Jane returns, tell her that I am leaving for a few days to clear my head.’ After that morning, he knew that Loki would be taken care of there. ‘I will be back to collect my brother.’
‘Where are you going?’ Bruce asked.
There was only one place he could go. ‘New Mexico.’
Loki turned a page in his mother’s journal. It was a riveting read. Her inner thoughts were engrossing, and her writing brought everything into vivid focus. He had just reached the point that Frigga was first being courted by Odin. His first wife had died centuries before, and he and his daughter Hela were waging battle against anyone they could find.
No part of that sentence made any sense to him. Even Frigga had added a note in the margins to say that she could not remember any of it, but that since she never told falsehoods in her diary, it must have been true.
It was revealing more about his mother than he had ever known before. With the exception of his heritage, she had always been fairly honest with him, as far as he could tell. But this was a new level of vulnerability.
He could see why she had not wanted Odin to know she had given it to Loki; he never would have allowed him to keep it.
The door to the suite opened, but Loki kept his eyes trained on the diary. Why did Thor have to keep bothering him? Perhaps, if he ignored him, he would go away.
‘Tell me about Asgard,’ a woman’s voice said.
Loki’s gaze shot up in surprise. ‘You’ve been there yourself; you tell me.’
Jane Foster stood in the doorway, her expression frustrated. She had to be desperate if she were coming to him for information; her dislike of him had been clear from the first. ‘I want to hear your perspective. I saw it briefly, and I’ve heard about it from people who love it, but what about you?’
Confusion warred with curiosity. He put the diary aside; that could keep until later. ‘Asgardians are a noble people, and they have a great wealth of knowledge. They’re also self-righteous to a fault, and despite their academic tradition, few Asgardians can comprehend anyone who is not made of brawn alone.’
‘You talk about them as if you aren’t one of them.’
‘Then why do you want the crown?’ she asked, sounding genuinely interested. ‘Why seek to rule a place you don’t feel like you belong?’
‘He grinned. ‘Why else? Revenge — or, as you noble types would call it, justice. They took it from me; I am simply trying to get it back.’
‘That doesn’t seem like a good enough reason.’
‘Then why do you want it?’
She frowned. ‘I don’t; I want Thor.’
‘You need to want both. Marrying a monarch comes with more responsibilities than you could ever imagine. If you only want one part of that, neither will last.’
Jane was quiet, staring off at nothing. Then, finally, she asked, ‘Have you been truthful? Can I trust you?’
‘That’s for you to work out.’
As she left, her expression troubled, he returned to the diary.