Continuing Tales

To Cleave the Stars

A Marvel Movieverse Story
by Hollywithaneye

Part 14 of 19

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To Cleave the Stars

Song of the chapter: Transatlantisicm, by Death Cab for Cutie

The distance is quite simply much too far for me to row

It seems farther than ever before

Oh no.

I need you so much closer.

"Foster Theory Quantitative Testing, trial number 43."

JARVIS' placid tones echoed slightly in the near-empty workroom over the barely perceptible whir of cameras placed about the ceiling as they swiveled towards the center of the room. Atop a low pedestal was an innocuous looking device - a small square base hardly larger than the palm of a hand, lit by the hot blue glow of an arc reactor embedded within. A square frame sat on end atop the base, a circular hole cut into it, and within that circle stretched a perfect triangle, another circle set within that. Jane eyed the set-up critically as Tony tapped at softly glowing screens beside her, the ragged edge of one nail caught between her teeth.

"I think this model has promise," Tony said, eyes never leaving the dizzying flow of information that streamed before him as he made last-minute adjustments. "Large enough to create the resonant frequencies we need, but small enough to be portable."

"If you think so." Jane's reply was dubious at best. She was trying to keep her spirits up, after so many failures...but JARVIS' pronouncement seemed so disheartening. Forty-two attempts they'd made so far, and all of them had failed spectacularly. She had complete confidence that her theories were sound, that they would work in time...but she couldn't shake the uneasy feeling that time was something they didn't have.

She'd been released from SHIELD custody almost week after Tony's visit, and then had come to stay here at Stark Tower in the five weeks since. Everyone had been incredibly kind, and the tower itself was an amazing testament to science. Jane wondered at times if perhaps she'd really died back in New Mexico, and gone to heaven.

Even Clint Barton had shuffled into the lab one day, dragged along by Natasha, and had mumbled an apology that Jane had immediately waved away. She couldn't hold anyone responsible for what had happened to her - that was just the consequences of an ordinary woman being surrounded by extraordinary events, she figured. She was lucky to have lived at all.

Tony must have heard the trepidation in her voice, because he broke off from his efforts to spare a glance up at her. "Hey! You are not allowed to doubt me when we're in my own lab, understood? Go mope at your own place if you're going to be a Debbie Downer."

She smiled at that, his affront reassuring her the tiniest of bits, and turned back to the setup. On the pedestal before the bridge generator Tony had set a Captain America action figure in place as their test object. Lord only knew where he'd gotten it from - or the 42 that had preceded it. With a last few touches of the screen before him Tony sat back and folded his arms across his chest as a smug grin curled over his face.

Humming filled the room, hovering barely on the edge of perceptible sound as the arc reactor set in the device powered up. Sparks began to dance along the edges of the geometric shapes of the upper portion, crackling faster and faster until the edges seemed furred with blue. As the thrum reached a crescendo it beat at their eardrums until it culminated with a loud crackthat bounced about the room like gunfire.

Jane yelped and dove beneath the desk, Tony huddled beside her as blobs of flaming plastic spattered about the lab - some sliding sadly down the walls, still burning like the charred marshmallow remnants of some campfire accident. Jane choked on the acrid stench that permeated the room, the coughing drawing small twinges of pain from her mostly-healed sternum.

"Damn," Tony swore softly, both of them staring at each other for a moment before breaking into laughter. It was too ridiculous not to, and it was better than crying, which Jane also considered doing. "Don't tell Steve what happened to him," Tony warned, and she only laughed louder.

Just then the lock on the door disengaged, and they both poked their heads above the surface of the desk to see a dark-haired vaguely disheveled man enter, his face rounded in a look of confusion as he took in the charred chaos that streaked the lab, Tony's robots wheeling about and patiently extinguishing stray flames.

"Who says physics is boring?" he asked, shaking his head as he closed the door behind him. Jane and Tony clambered to their feet, a genuine smile crinkling Tony's eyes as he headed towards the newcomer.

"You made it," Tony said and took the man's hand in his own, shaking it vigorously a few times. "Jane Foster, this is Dr. Bruce Banner. Bruce, Dr. Foster."

Jane shook Bruce's proffered hand shyly, pushing an unruly wave of hair back behind her ear with the other hand. "It's nice to meet you in person, finally," she gushed. "When I was studying in the physics department at Culver the staff spoke of you often, but obviously research faculty doesn't mingle with the student body much."

His dark eyes were warm as he returned her smile. "No, but I did hear your name make the rounds more than a few times, Dr. Foster. The physics department was always very impressed by you, even as an undergrad - I'm glad to see they didn't let you slip away to some other university."

"Thank you," she grinned, flattered by the compliment and surprised at how...normal Dr. Banner seemed. It was impossible to live here in Stark Tower and be involved with SHIELD and not know of Dr. Banner's affliction, but she never would have believed it if she hadn't been told from looking at the man. He appeared just like nearly every other dedicated academic she'd met in her life - rumpled, distracted, but genial. Lines about his eyes showed he wasn't a stranger to smiling, although there did seem to be a hint of sadness that lingered about his gaze. Not surprising, she figured, when you had to deal with the sorts of complications that came from having the mother of all split-personalities.

"Yes, yes, we're all brilliant people here." Tony broke in, eager to get back to the puzzle at hand, as always. "Did you have a chance to look over the notes I sent you, Bruce?"

"I did, but you know that particle physics isn't quite my area of expertise," Bruce hedged as he followed Tony and Jane into the room, pausing to inspect the apparatus that sat innocent and inert atop the pedestal, as if it hadn't just incinerated a harmless toy. "This is a different model than the one you sent me schematics for?"

"Yeah, I just came up with this smaller design today. It's got the juice to get things done, but as you can see..." Tony gestured wryly to the charred bits of plastic that still clung about the room. "It's packing too big of a punch."

Bruce made a thoughtful sound as he circled the contraption, and then trailed over to the console. "This is really ingenious, Dr. Foster. Using a magnetic vortex to generate negative mass? Very clever."

Jane faltered at that, her eyes sliding to Tony in a silent shrug. It was true that ninety percent of what they were dealing with here was her theories...but it probably didn't bear saying that the other ten was Loki's. Bruce didn't seem to mind her silence though, just slid into the seat Tony had vacated and began perusing the results of their tests.

After only a few minutes, he began to chuckle. "Well, that was quick. I should have charged you a consulting fee, Tony."

"What?" Tony scoffed and craned his head to peer suspiciously over Bruce's shoulder. "There's no way you've figured it out that fast."

Bruce just shook his head, and his eyes danced with a suppressed grin as he pointed a finger at the figures that hovered in the air. "Right here. The frequency of oscillation is going too high, and you're tapping into a region of hyperspace with way too much pressure. That's why your toy went boom."

Jane groaned and put a hand to her forehead as Tony stared slack-jawed at Bruce. "Of course," she exclaimed, feeling incredibly stupid. "I can't believe we didn't think of something as simple as that. The toy was being compressed so quickly and so fast it literally imploded." Jane did some rapid mental calculations. "We need to keep it closer to 20 megahertz."

Bruce smiled at her, and swiveled in his chair. "Leave it to Tony to assume that more power equals better," he quipped, earning a glare from Tony.

"It can't be that simple," he muttered, shouldering Bruce out of the way as his hands flew over the console controls. After a few moments of running equations, he pushed away from the screen and shook his head in disbelief. "I'll be damned. I think it really might be that simple. Quick, Banner...gimme your watch."

Bruce unbuckled the timepiece and set it into Tony's impatient palm, only becoming suspicious when Tony placed it before the bridge generator. "Wait, that's practically brand new! Tony, what are you doing?"

"Relax." Tony waved a hand at Bruce's protests. "If you're so sure that's the solution, then you have nothing to worry about, right? Let me just tweak the capacitor here..."

Bruce looked as if there were a million more complaints on the tip of his tongue but he subsided, shooting a dark glare in Tony's direction as he came to stand beside Jane, the both of them watching as Tony tinkered with the device.

"JARVIS," Tony addressed his AI. "Govern power to the device, setting an emergency shut-down if the frequency of oscillation exceeds a limit of 20 MHz, and then repeat test."

"Understood, sir." There was a moment of silence as cameras refocused, and then JARVIS spoke again. "Foster Theory Quantitative Test, trial number 44 - Wednesday, July 13th 2011. 4:27 p.m."

JARVIS' calm words were a stark foil to the hope that stretched tentative wings in Jane's chest.

All three scientists stood behind the relative safety of the desk as the arc reactor powered up once more, washing all their faces in a light harsher even than the fluorescent overhead. Again the whine of it built to a fever-pitch, a thrumming that shivered in the bones of Jane's skull and set her teeth clenching. She was poised to drop at any moment below the safety of the desk again when a flare of light seared through her tightly-shut eyes, flashing red and green in the darkness behind her lids. The sound died abruptly away with the light, leaving her ears still ringing with the loss. They all blinked around the silent lab, unclenching eyes and unstoppering ears hesitantly.

To see the generator inert once more, and Bruce's watch resting unharmed atop the second pedestal some feet away.

Jane whooped and threw excited arms around both of the men before gamboling about, too elated to care about propriety or shyness at that moment. "Do you see that?" she cried over and over, gesticulating wildly as Bruce and Tony chuckled. "JARVIS please tell me we got good footage of that!"

Even the AI's unflappable voice held what almost seemed to be a hint of amusement. "Documentation confirmed, Dr. Foster."

"Congratulations, Jane," Tony grinned down at her, his dark eyes sparkling with humor and a hint of pride. "I think we can safely say we've just proven Foster's Theory."

She hadn't even thought it possible for her grin to get any wider.


The sound of his name drew him from the hazy sanctuary he'd retreated to deep inside his own mind, where he could pretend that the pain that chewed relentlessly on the marrow of his bones belonged to someone else. Was happening to someone else. For one breathless moment his addled brain tried to tell him the voice belonged to Jane, but as lucidity slowly returned he knew that was impossible. He'd left Jane to bleed out under the pitiless stars of Midgard. There was no way she had, or would, come for him - even if she had survived. There was only so much he could be forgiven for.

He was alone save for the tattered spectre of misery that haunted him.

"Loki," came his name again, more insistently, and this time the call was accompanied by fingers that wrapped around his chin and lifted his face. For the briefest of moments he leaned into that touch like a starving man - for the proof it gave him that he was still alive, perhaps. Until the chill that soaked into his skin from the flesh lain against his own startled him into full awareness and his eyes dragged themselves open, to find Skadi's unwelcome face hovering before his own.

"Cousin," she chided, and there was an air of sympathy to her that set Loki's teeth on edge and shook his mind awake. He trusted nothing about this woman, least of all her mercurial moods. "I fear you look rather ill."

He summoned the energy for a narrow glare, one that drew a laugh from Skadi's lips. "Not so ill as to be docile though, I see."

She released her hold on his chin and straightened, standing half again as tall as he at her full height. It was all he could do to force his ragged muscles into obedience and crane his neck upwards to keep her in sight.

"I thought at first this was what I wanted, to see you suffer. But with my uncle dead, I realize now that you are nearly all the family I have left. I worry for you, Loki." A mournful frown pursed her features, and to the casual observer her statement might have even seemed genuine - but Loki could see the bright light of calculation deep within her eyes, could taste a lie on the air better than any hound. It was nigh on impossible to deceive the deceiver. "My people demand a heavy price of you, and I comply to win their hearts, but it pains mine to see kin treated so. Seeing you in agony brings me no joy."

He dragged a sandpaper tongue over dry lips, and tried to remember how to form sounds that were something more than screams. "Then release me," he finally managed. "Cousin." His voice was a hoarse shadow of its cultured self but it still managed to make a mockery of the familial term.

Skadi only shook her head. "You know that I dare not. There would be riots at the news, and my subjects would cry for my head. Unless..." She trailed off to tap a thoughtful finger against her lips, sliding a considering look at Loki from the corner of her ruby eyes. "I could offer them some greater alternative. A new prize, to divert them."

He only stared sullenly up at her, unwilling to gratify her fumbling calculation with a response. She was as subtle as a bilgesnipe if she thought to convince him that she hadn't come here with the express intent of offering him some carrot as opposed to the stick she used on him now. The only motion to their standoff was the slow slide of Gargan's coils as she undulated around Loki's neck, their hateful cool glide the sole thing that grounded him at times.

"Not curious in the slightest?" Skadi raised one crystalline brow, and her mouth twisted sardonically. "I can offer you freedom...and acceptance Loki. People will remember your name for eons, they will craft songs and poems that praise your birth as a blessing rather than the shame it is now." She paced a tight figure before him, her voice rising with excitement as she gestured. "Take your place here, in the royal family with me. Be my right hand, retrieve the Casket of Ancient Winters for us, and then with our seidr combined there will be none in the Nine Realms that could withstand our might."

Horror swept the last of the cobwebs from his mind as he stared at Skadi in disbelief. "Ragnarök," he choked, the word slipping its leash before he could rein it in, and Skadi wheeled about to fix him with a frown.

"That word means nothing to me," she said.

Loki couldn't contain the panic that raked at his belly, set him thrashing within his bonds until blood ran hot down his fingers and ankles. "Never!" he cried, and he could feel his tenuous grip on sanity slip a few precious inches more as some dark part of himself whispered how much easier it would all be if he acquiesced. It would be freedom in so many different ways, really...freedom from these bonds, from this misery, but also freedom from the fear. To give in, to give up, and embrace the horrific fate he was beginning to suspect he'd been endowed with at birth...that would be so much easier than the uncertainty that hung over his head like a blade.

But he refused to give that thought traction, at least in this moment. He wasn't so far gone as that. With effort he composed himself, shoved the panic and the terror into the far reaches of his mind along with all the other things he was trying to forget about the past few weeks. "Peddle your rot elsewhere, Skadi," he spat. "I am no jotun, and I will not be your dog of war."

The enthusiasm drained from her face, leaving the planes and angles of it ugly with derision as she sneered at him. "Suit yourself. Perhaps if you are lucky I shall offer again...and we will see if your willpower can deny me once more, Loki."

He clung to the warmth that triumph kindled in his chest as she left the room, even as Gargan began the slow stir that heralded her impending bite. But beneath that glow like a blackened coal was the harsh lump of truth - that as quick as his denial of Skadi had been, he couldn't say with certainty that he wouldn't reach a breaking point someday.

That someday that whisper which had urged him to agree wouldn't become an all-encompassing scream.

Bruce and Tony had tried their hardest to get Jane to go out for a celebratory dinner with them, but she found herself rebuffing all their attempts. Elation still buoyed her steps, but the weightless feeling of victory was dragged down by a lingering feeling of dismay she couldn't seem to shake - a mantra that chanted in sour counterpoint to her joy.

Too late...too late, it seemed to say, and the dirge of it sapped her enthusiasm.

She'd waved a goodbye to them at the front steps of Stark Tower and made her way across the street to a small deli she frequented, the kindly old man behind the counter offering her a friendly smile when she walked in. Minutes later,with a turkey club sandwich firmly in hand, she was back in the polished confines of her guest room in the upper reaches of the tower, the clean lines cooly modern and a stark contrast to the sorts of lodging she'd become used to as an academic with scarcely two coins to rub together. Leather and glass abounded, interspersed with the bright gleam of metal. It was beautiful in its own stripped-down way, especially with the view out the floor to ceiling windows of one wall, but Jane found it all very impersonal. She missed her familiar lab, her comfortable little kitchen and workspace, the constant bright gleam of sunshine outside. Her fireplace and her rooftop sanctuary.

And if she were honest, she missed Loki.

His irritating condescension and his wry humor. The witty remarks that drew unwilling laughs from her, no matter how she tried to fight it. His outrageous flirting. How his smile shattered the breath in her chest, and the way the sound of her name on his lips did strange things to her knees.

She kept half-expecting him to suddenly appear at any moment. Sometimes when a shadow flickered oddly at the corner of her eyes she turned, mouth opening to share some funny thought that had just popped into her head - only to realize she was still alone.

Loki either couldn't, or wouldn't, come back.

She picked at a sandwich that had turned to dust in her mouth, an unhappy frown tugging at her face. She didn't know how to label the feelings she had for Thor's erstwhile brother - just admitting she had any at all seemed ridiculously dramatic. What sort of woman dithered between any two men, let alone two brothers? She was disgusted with herself and the soap opera she'd made of her emotions.

Her chair scraped along the etched concrete floor as she pushed back from the small table, a bark of sound in the quiet apartment. With a sigh Jane placed the mostly untouched meal in her small refrigerator and drummed restless fingers atop the counter. There were countless trials and tests still to run on the bridge generator, a mountain of work to slog through before it would be ready for practical use...but Jane couldn't deny the wild mad certainty that shoved her out the door of her apartment and down the hall towards the elevators, had her bouncing anxiously as floors ticked past the rising car. She'd never been terribly impulsive, or one to break the rules, but she knew only one thing at this moment.

There was somewhere she needed to be.

The press of her finger against the biometric lock set the lab door swinging slowly open, lights flickering on at the motion of her entrance. All was silent and powered down, the generator sitting dark and inert atop its pedestal. Jane's fingers brushed over the cool metal base of it, her touch activating the holographic interface as the device hummed softly to life.

"Dr. Foster," came her name, startling a shriek from Jane as she peered about the empty room before placing the cultured syllables.

"JARVIS?" she ventured, and could have hit herself upside the head. Of course the computer would be watching, he was everywhere in Stark Tower. Her fingers flew over the semi-opaque interface that had sprang into existence before her face, uploading coordinates and charts from her own personal files that mapped out as best she could the exact location of Asgard amongst the stars.

JARVIS was silent some moments before he replied. "I don't suppose there's any point in advising you against this course of action, is there Dr. Foster?" The resignation in JARVIS' voice brought a grin to Jane's face, wondering how many times he'd repeated the same phrase to Tony over the years.

"Not really," she said, entering the last of her instructions into the device. Fear and anticipation sped headily through her veins, setting her hands trembling as she thumbed off the display. She could very well be stepping beneath the guillotine here, for all she knew. She drew a shuddering breath and clung tightly to the memory of jumping into the spaces between, safe in the circle of Loki's arms. She had to have faith that with his help, she had found her own way.

"Would you care to leave a message for anyone?" JARVIS asked, with a painful gentleness to his tone that brought a lump to Jane's throat. She refused to believe this computer was merely a machine, no matter what Tony said.

"That would be nice, thank you JARVIS. Tell Tony and Erik...that I'm sorry, and I will return as soon as I can. And..." her voice faltered, and she paused to clear her narrowed throat. "Tell Tony thank you."

"Understood," JARVIS intoned softly. "Good luck, Dr. Foster."

With a brave nod Jane pressed the button that would begin the power cycle and lifted the generator from its stand, surprised at the lightness of it. The harsh angles of it bit into her palms as she clutched it tightly, its metal a cool contrast to her sweaty palms. The arc reactor flared to life in its base, setting the filaments wrapped about the frames sparking. In the reflective surface of the glass that walled off a part of the room Jane could see the ghostly image of herself, ethereal in the pale blue wash of light and her hair floating about her head as if she were far below the surface of the sea. Her hands went numb beneath the onslaught of the vibrations, and it was only her eyes that gave her proof she still held the generator. Just as she thought she might drop it altogether, as the numbness spread from her fingers up her arms and into her jaw in a blessed reprieve from the feel of her very bones trembling, the light flared again. Impossibly bright, like a baby's first glimpse of the world, it set her eyes watering even through their clenched lids as it burned ever brighter and brighter - and then it all fell away, into the cracks and crannies between stars, into the tiny sliver of death between one breath and the next, and pulled her along with it.

She was born and died a thousand times over in that brief trip, time as inconsequential to her in that moment as air was to a fish. It was somehow exactly as it had been traveling with Loki, and yet nothing alike. She felt as if unseen hands were trying to fray her very being, teasing apart the threads that made her Jane, and they might have succeeded if not for the anchor of the generator that burned like a beacon in her nerveless fingers. Just as she was perilously close to screaming from the discord of it all, as her tenuous grip on who she was began to slip, she landed hard on her knees atop what seemed to be a dizzying kaleidoscope suspended amongst the stars.

Riotous colors stabbed at her weary eyes, shimmering in every shade and hue possible. The surface beneath her knees felt as solid as stone despite looking like spun glass. Far off above the rainbow road that rolled off into the distance the sky was pierced by all manner of delicate spires and towers that gleamed like molten gold. Overhead was cheery and blue but spangled with stars even at midday, and the edges shaded slowly away into the sable reaches of space at the horizons.

Just as Loki had described.

Tears sprang to her eyes, unbidden. For so many years she'd slogged through opposition, shaking off the sting of criticism and ridicule as she'd dreamt of seeing new worlds - and now finally, here she was.

Definitely no longer on Earth.

Jane forced her stiffened fingers to unfold from around the bridge generator as she tried to wrest obedience from her limbs. A constant wind danced about the lonely expanse, sweeter than any air on Earth, and teased her hair into her watery eyes to blind her. As she raked the mischievous strands from her face, she finally noticed the burnished toes of a pair of boots that had come to a stop before her. Her stare followed the sight of them upwards, climbing the towering view of a giant that stared down at her with eyes that shone like new pennies set in his dark skin.

"Jane Foster of Midgard," the mountainous man rumbled, his voice so deep as to fall almost painfully on her ears. Jane found she could only gape at the golden sight of him, armored and armed so exquisitely her foundering brain could scarcely string two thoughts together. He extended a hand to her, one that dwarfed hers as she took it reflexively, and he hauled her to her feet as if she weighed no more than a bit of dandelion fluff. Although his stern features never shifted she was sure there was more than a hint of wry humor that crept into the copper gaze he finally angled down at her. "Welcome to Asgard."

To Cleave the Stars

A Marvel Movieverse Story
by Hollywithaneye

Part 14 of 19

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