Continuing Tales

To Cleave the Stars

A Marvel Movieverse Story
by Hollywithaneye

Part 18 of 19

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To Cleave the Stars

Song(s) of the chapter: A Drop in the Ocean, by Ron Pope & Sideways, by Citizen Cope

"So this is where you have been hiding yourself."

Thick velvet panels flew wide as Thor flung them apart, and Loki blinked peevishly up from his reverie at the intrusion. The wide padded windowsill that snuggled up against the panes was long, but could scarcely contain the bulk of two men as Thor dropped carelessly to what little cushion was left at the end of Loki's sprawled legs.

"Obviously not well enough," Loki said dryly before he turned back to the book that hung half-forgotten from long fingers.

Thor craned his neck and squinted at the title embossed on the cover. "Do they not have books in the other realms? You have scarcely left this library in days, one would think you were making up for lost time."

"Or it's entirely possible that I am just avoiding all of you," Loki sighed, but lifted his eyes from the page at last to fix Thor with a wary gaze. "What is it that you want, Thor?"

"Just to know that you are well." The faintest hint of a frown creased Thor's forehead as he hesitated. "You take all your meals in your chambers, and even Mother says she has seen you only briefly."

"Did she put you up to seeking me out, then?"

"Is it so hard to believe that I would look for you of my own volition?" It was impossible to miss the softly wounded look that damped the sun of Thor's mood, skittering across his face like clouds chased before high winds.

Loki busied himself with turning the page, letting Thor's comment slide past without comment. But the knowledge that his brother had kept his promise and had braved Jotunheim for him perched doggedly on his shoulder, regardless of how keen he was to shake it off. The echo of Thor's embrace, fevered against his icebound skin, clung to him even now.

"I am hale enough," he said at last. "If that satisfies your curiosity, then you may consider your filial duties fulfilled."

He hoped it sounded dismissive enough, but then Thor had never been one to pick up on subtleties easily. Rather than leaving his brother settled further into the seat, propping his elbow up on one nonchalant knee.

"If it is no ailment that has made you scarce, than whatever could be the matter? Surely you're not upset at Jane's departure. You seemed rather tolerant of her," Thor observed..

His knuckles paled as the hard leather cover of his book dug into his fingers, but no sign of how deeply her name stung made it onto Loki's face. He snorted derisively. "Mortals come and mortals go. It is their nature - to get attached to them is absurd."

"Perhaps," Thor conceded. "But even you must admit that Jane has her charms."

Loki snapped his book shut with an exasperated sigh. "Have you come here simply to extoll the many virtues of your lady? Spare me the sodden praise, if so. I have no appetite for listening to you recounting another conquest."

"Not a conquest yet, sadly enough." Thor angled his gaze sidelong at Loki, an uncharacteristically calculating look pulling the skin about his eyes taut. "More the pity I suppose...perhaps if I had plowed her thoroughly she'd no longer hold my interest so."

Loki didn't quite recall dropping the book. Or moving much at all, really - at this moment, anger was crystallizing into something hard and sharp that sheathed his bones, and he felt immobilized by its rigid hold. He must have though, for seconds ago he had been reclining in the window, and now Thor was sprawled in an undignified heap at the base of the bench with crimson smeared across his lip and cheek, as Loki's fist throbbed in time with his pounding heart. He braced himself for the rebuttal that was sure to come. He'd always been faster than Thor, but his brother's right hook had been as steely as Mjolnir since they were young.

There was no snarl of outrage from Thor, no glare to accompany the deliberate wiping of blood from his mouth. The only spark Loki's searching gaze found was humor dancing in Thor's eyes as a satisfied grin spread across his face.

"Do you feel better now?" Thor asked, as he began clambering upright.

Loki slithered to his feet and his clenched fingers snapped out again, catching Thor squarely in the jaw with a sucker punch he never saw coming. Thor staggered back into a nearby table laden with books, sending a stack of them scattering across the floor, sheaves of loose paper fluttering down like autumn leaves. Breath hissed from his mouth as Loki shook his aching hand, but the grimace that bared his teeth was more a smirk than expression of pain.

"Now I do," he said.

Thor righted himself, and braced one arm on the table as he shook his disheveled hair back into place. He still offered no violence though, only stared at Loki with an unreadable expression. "You thought me serious? You, who accused me of being soft, of being changed?"

"No, but if you think that blow was for Jane you are mistaken. That was payback for your clumsy attempt at manipulation." The tension slowly seeped from Loki's rigid frame as Thor remained still, and his fists sank back to his sides, but his glare grew baleful.

"Clumsy it may have been, but at least you prove capable of doing something other than hole yourself away. Don't try and pretend Jane means nothing to you," Thor scoffed. "Dissemble before others all you want, brother - but do not think you can hide from me. I am neither blind nor dull."

Loki bent to gather scattered books, more for an excuse to hide his expression than any real desire to tidy up. Blood seeped slowly from the knuckles of his right hand, but the fingers of both trembled equally. "You see only what you want to see," Loki murmured. "Sentiment and emotion are an invitation to ruin. I do not bow to them."

"You lie to yourself as glibly as you lie to others," Thor said. When Loki turned, Thor's sad gaze fell heavy as a hand on his shoulder. "Once I was your confidant."

"And once I was your brother," Loki snapped, bitterness crackling like frost over the words. "Stop clinging to things that shall never be again."

"Why must you speak such words?" The first hint of anger clouded Thor's brow now, a storm that darkened the sky of his eyes. "The only person standing in the way of that now is yourself. Everyone is willing to forgive you, and yet you keep us all at arm's length still. Slinking about the palace, hiding in the library, avoiding all company."

"You assume I wish to be forgiven. You assume I have some need for you, for them...for all of this." Loki gestured about as his lips twisted. "Arrogance, as usual. Why does no one ask forgiveness of me? I was lied to first!"

"We both were! How is it that you can absolve mother so easily, when she is as guilty as Father? How is that fair to any of us, Loki?" Frustration gouged deep lines on Thor's face.

"Nothing is fair in life, that is one thing I am sure of now. No amount of wishing can change that."

Thor was silent some moments. "Then if everything is at such an impasse, why are you still here?"

A whispered threat slithered through his memory like a fetid snake, the Other's hot breath still rank on his cheek. One more nightmare to run from, one more devil to haunt his dreams. Bitter fruit he'd sown still waiting to be gathered. "Because my options are limited." Loki squared the corners of a stack deliberately, to give his anxiety a task. "And because...mayhap I am just looking for answers."

The gathering storm broke at last, and words exploded from Thor like thunder.

"And you think to find them here, moldering amongst these pages? I offer you honesty, and you keep knocking it aside! You only want truths that are convenient for you to hear, but those don't exist, Loki! You must listen, no matter how much you don't want to. You must." Hands clamped on his shoulders then, shook him desperately. "Every day for the past year I woke to the same thought: What if this is the day Father asks me to take his place? What if this is the day I cease to be Prince, and become King at last? And do you know how that made me feel? It brought me no joy, nor satisfaction. It terrified me. Because you weren't there. Do you understand what I'm saying? I cannot do this without you, Loki, you know I can't. Please don't ask me to try."

Unspoken words burned in Loki's throat like a mouthful of saltwater, and Loki curled his fingers in on themselves against the sudden sting, choking on the raw wash. "It is the rankest of folly to rely upon others," he ground out finally, but the words were weak and unconvincing even to himself.

The hard vise of Thor's grip relented slightly as Thor shook his head. "Nay, brother. Believing one's self a pillar is the true folly. It is a wretched king that rules alone."

Loki lost himself in the twining pattern that wound about the carpet at their feet, but there were no answers to be found in its labyrinth.

"Will you never let go of this anger?" Thor's voice was lost, adrift.

Long seconds tiptoed past. "It is all I have left," he admitted at last to the floor.

"You would have us, if you allowed yourself," Thor bit out in disgust. "You would have her, if only you were not such a coward."

Who exactly Thor referred to needed no clarification.

"Do not mock me," Loki snarled, and wrenched himself away from the hands Thor still had on his shoulders.

Thor's eyes narrowed. "You think it was I she came back for? You think it was I she stayed here for? You're the cleverest person I know Loki, but sometimes you're such a fool. Jane cares for -"

"No!" Loki's bark of denial came out sharp and edged with something like panic, cutting Thor off more cleanly than any blade. His thin chest heaved with unreasonable anger that burned like a bellyful of coals, the same fire that had been kindled over and over since their childhood from an ember than never truly died. "Do not finish that sentence. Do not feed me false hopes. We both know that she will find me weighed against you, everywhere she goes." He shuddered, and folded arms about his middle as if they could keep everything out. Or everything in. "I cannot, will not, endure such constant measure. Not when the outcome is so blatantly biased."

Books and papers shivered as Thor's hand slammed down upon the tabletop. "Still you sell yourself short! If you had left this library at any point you could scarce have missed it."

"Missed what?" Loki echoed, confusion breaking him from his distress.

"How the very halls echo with songs of your deeds! Tales of how you braved the Jotnar's worst trials and never flagged! Your name is on everyone's lips right now. You won even the admiration of the Lady Sif, and the Norn's know she hasn't forgiven you for that bit of mischief with her hair in a millenia." Thor sighed, and scrubbed one hand through the loose locks of his hair. "I will admit that I never tried hard enough to change her opinion of you. Nor anyone else's. I have been...dismissive in the past. But no longer. I took you for granted, Loki, and I am most sorry for that above all else."

Thor's admission fell like a ball of thorns into Loki's hands, something he juggled this way and that, searching fruitlessly for a comfortable way to hold it. "An apology fixes nothing," Loki said, but the words lacked venom.

"No, it doesn't." Thor shook his head, holding Loki's gaze carefully. "But it needed to be said, regardless. And you need to know that no one dares think you the least of us now. Certainly not her."

He had to turn away then, from those piercing blue eyes that looked so much like Odin's, eyes that sometimes saw too much. Dust stirred up by their scuffles drifted lazily in the shafts of sun that angled over the shelves and stacks, golden echoes of the snow that would never darken Asgard's skies, as scattered and patternless as his own thoughts.

"Why are you so eager to push Jane on me?" he asked at last, giving voice to the suspicion that would not cease gnawing on this fragile moment of peace. "What do you stand to gain by conceding defeat so easily?"

"A brother, perhaps. I cannot say what might have become of Jane and I. I could see myself loving her, if given time...but I would give up a thousand Janes to see you happy again, Loki. I would give up a thousand more to have you home again. Trulyhome. Not just biding your time here."

He was stunned into silence, all his wit and cynicism sloughing away beneath the harsh abrasion of Thor's admission.

"Consider coming out of here. For mother's sake, if no one else's?" Thor asked eventually, a small wistful smile playing about his lips as he turned to leave. Loki's shoulders rose and fell in a knee-jerk shrug that he knew was fooling neither of them, and somehow he managed to keep his attention anywhere but on Thor as the red smudge of his cloak faded slowly from sight.

Jane wrestled with the recalcitrant zipper of her small suitcase, and wondered for the thousandth time how she'd managed to accumulate so much stuff in such a short span of time - considering she'd arrived in New York with literally the clothes on her back. Huffing with exasperation, she eyed the offending piece of luggage and considered the logistics of just sitting on it, until another pair of hands pressed down on the lid.

"I wish you would stay, Jane. Here amongst friends, instead of going back alone." Frustration thickened Eric's faint accent, lending a lilt to the sharply-bitten syllables that softened the blow of his harsh tone. She flashed him a grateful smile and hurriedly closed the last few inches of gaping zipper, setting the suitcase aside before flopping beside him on the couch. Sighing back into the soft leather Jane gratefully reached for the cup of coffee that had been languishing atop a nearby table.

"I know," she murmured, watching her reflection on the surface of the black brew.

It was touching, this fiercely protective side of her old friend, and she knew her father would have been grateful to Eric for such a display. But how did she explain to him that all she really wanted right now was to be somewhere familiar? Somewhere far away from the ceaseless concerned looks. Where she might still have exhausted circles beneath her eyes but at least they weren't thrown back at her in a stark, spiritless mirror within a stark, spiritless apartment. She'd never have thought it when she first moved there, but Jane missed New Mexico. She was more than ready to breathe air that wasn't tainted by fumes, to fall asleep serenaded by silence rather than incessant traffic.

To finally see the stars again, in patterns that made sense.

The unforgiving angle of Eric's shoulders softened with resignation when she refused to elaborate. "We're just worried Jane, that is all. You leave without any word, and if JARVIS hadn't existed we might have never known where you went. And then nothing's been the same since you returned. Not that anyone could have gone where you've gone, seen what you've seen, and not be changed somehow," he added hastily, as a frown crept onto her face.

"It's not that. Not exactly," she hedged, but she'd never been much of a liar.

"Oh Jane," Eric said softly, sympathy warming his voice as understanding dawned. "I told you, nothing good comes about when man and gods meet. I should have tried harder to discourage Thor."

She could leave him laboring under his false assumptions. It would be easier, in the long run. But the mollifying smile she tried to plaster on her face felt wrong and stiff, an ill-fitting mask. Anything less than the truth seemed a betrayal of Loki suddenly, cheapening the anguish he'd suffered. He'd earned her respect, washed away the worst of his sins with blood...but would it be enough to convince others? Slurping her coffee to cover her silence, Jane made her choice.

"Not Thor," she said softly, and Eric blinked with confusion.

"Some other Asgardian then?"

Jane hunched in on herself, bracing for the moment Eric's quicksilver mind put two and two together.

It didn't take long, heralded by the dull thunk of Eric's mug falling from nerveless fingers, spreading its contents in a dark blotch across Tony's flawless white carpet.

"God, Jane - surely not…" Eric sputtered. "How? How can you...that monster! Jane, you weren't here to see it. Maybe you don't realize -"

"I know what he's done, Eric. To you, to New York, to the Avengers. To me. I don't need reminding." Her knuckles were white around the handle of her cup, clenched against the tremor that Eric's disapproving glare brought to her fingers. "But youweren't there to see what I saw. A serpent like some beast from a legend, on a world made entirely of ice. A man that couldn't die being killed over and over again."

The echoes of Loki's horrible screams still haunted her at night sometimes. Even here, in the bustling city so far removed, the ancient wasteland of Jotunheim ran frigid claws down her spine. Some tiny fragment of the horror she felt must have crept onto her face, for Eric's own rigid frown bent slightly.

"Like in the myth?"

He didn't have to specify which one. They both knew.

Jane nodded mutely and forced another gulp of coffee down, as if its tepid warmth could melt the frozen knot of memories still lodged in her belly.

"I don't know if that's enough," Eric said, bitterness making each word jagged. At Jane's small sigh though, he seemed to relent ever so slightly. "But if he's found some way to earn your compassion Jane...maybe someday it might be." A humorless laugh worked its way free of his unyielding mouth. "There's something ironic about forgiving a god, isn't there?"

"A bit," she admitted, the hint of a smile quirking her mouth.

An answering smile tilted across Eric's face, one brushed with melancholy. "I forget sometimes that you're not seven years old anymore, playing beneath my desk as James and I argue about some silly theorem. I've been your teacher for so long now that it's hard to let that go...but you're a grown woman, and a damn better scientist than I'll ever be Jane. Don't let all this distract you from the fact that you made history. I'm very proud of you, and I know your father would be."

As beautifully painful as it was to swallow around those words, she'd have traded a thousand of these moments to hear that just once from her father himself. "Thanks, but we both know nobody in this field works alone. Without you, or Tony, even Darcy...none of my theories would ever have been proven true."

"One more reason you should stay here, then. What can you accomplish back in New Mexico, all alone?"

"Writing, mostly. I've got tons of data that I need to prepare." Her eyes flickered to satchel that held a laptop and other carry-ons, as if she could see through the leather of its exterior to the bundled packet of papers wrapped and packed carefully inside, ribbons still in place. She hadn't even so much as glanced through the pages since she'd been given it. "I'd like to prep some rough drafts for articles to submit to the physics journals too, if you'd be willing to go over those and give me your input as well."

Of course. " Erik glanced at his watch. "I should let you catch your plane." He stood, and Jane followed suit, but he hesitated before turning away. "Be careful, Jane. This world is changing, whether we like it or not."

"I will, Erik." She nodded and lifted one hand in a small wave as her dear friend saw himself out the door.

She was alone with her thoughts for only a few minutes before a staccato knock broke the silence.

"Hey," greeted Tony as she opened the door, looking as irritatingly impeccable as ever despite wearing a plain t-shirt and jeans. She'd scarcely seen the eccentric genius since he'd joined Erik and Bruce in reaming her out over her secret jaunt a few days ago. Jane huffed and tugged her own, decidedly less-impressive outfit into order, bracing herself for another potential lecture. "Happy's downstairs with the car, he'll take you to the airport."

"Great, thanks." Jane reached for her bag and suitcase as Tony leaned nonchalantly against the doorjamb. She wrestled its rebellious wheels into behaving over the plush carpet and then drew up short as Tony made no move to vacate the doorway, his languid posture at odds with the keen stare he leveled at Jane.

"So that's it? Just a wham, bam, thank you ma'am? Never thought I'd be on the receiving end of one of those," Tony said.

Jane couldn't seem to stop sputtering.

"All that work, and you're set to leave without even giving me any real answers. I'd consider that a pretty bad return on my investment, wouldn't you?" The sting of accusation was muted by the crooked smirk he wore.

"I-" Her mouth fell open, ready to protest, before she realized that he was exactly right. She'd been so caught up in her own drama and accomplishment that she'd forgotten completely the reason Tony had been helping her in the first place. "I'm sorry, Tony...I've been distracted, I guess."

The mirth fell from his face, and Tony's dark eyes grew flat. Haunted. "You saw things, things no one else on Earth may ever see. Believe me, I can understand that, but you've gotta give me something here, Jane. I can't sit around New York waiting for the other shoe to drop - I'll go crazy."

"We're safe. Earth isn't under any sort of threat, I can tell you that much." Jane didn't know what else to add. She was sure that of any member of the Avengers, Tony might have been the one least interested in hearing of Loki's part in that resolution.

The expectant silence was broken by Tony's snort of derision. "That's it?"

Sudden, irrational frustration had her slamming the retractable handle of her suitcase back down into place. "No, that's not it but you don't want to hear the truth Tony, just like Erik didn't. That we're all standing here safe and sound, with Earth most definitely not being overrun by frost giants from some other dimension, because Loki of all people paid their blood price."

"What?" Tony couldn't have looked more stunned if she'd actually punched him.

"It's true. We weren't the only realm he trashed his way through apparently, and the frost giants were ready to hold Earth hostage unless Asgard gave him up for punishment. But he went willingly."

"Why? Why would he do that?"

Jane felt the weight of too many sleepless nights, reaching up to rub one hand over her tired eyes. "I don't know, Tony. He knew what they would do, that they would torture him - Thor said as much when he came to Puente Antiguo. This isn't American justice we're talking here. This is practically biblical stuff. Eye for an eye, and all that. I assumed at first he was forced into it, but...we both know there's probably not a lot that can force Loki to do anything."

Even Tony blanched, his eyes gone far-away. Turned inwards, as if he was lost in his own recollection. "Is he still there?"

"No. Thor and I went for him, when he didn't return on the appointed day." She licked dry lips, almost convinced she still felt the brush of chilled flesh beneath them. "I assume he's still on Asgard, recuperating. His family seemed eager to have him back."

Tony's focus snapped back to her with frightening intensity, the whole of his formidable intellect narrowed on her. "So let me make sure I have all of this straight - overpowered sociopath has a sudden change of heart and turns himself in for horrendous torture, coincidentally protecting a world that he has only one apparent connection to?" His pointed look left little room for misinterpretation.

"That', that's not…"Jane kept trying for something more coherent, and failed miserably. Tony wasn't really implying that Loki had done what he did for her, was he?

"Jane." She glanced up, and that irritating smirk had worked its way back onto Tony's face, like the cat who'd eaten the proverbial canary. "You know, if you need advice on how to domesticate a super-genius badboy with an ego and a checkered past, you could just call Pepper."

"Oh my God." Jane smothered a groan, and felt a dull flush flame her cheeks. "You're insane, and I'm not having this conversation with you. Goodbye, Tony." She took advantage of his laughter to duck past him into the open hallway, luggage in tow.

"I'll drop by sometime next week maybe, to bring the mini-Bifrost, as you call it. It's yours after all," he called down to her.

She pulled up outside the elevator , punching absently at the button as she peered back over her shoulder. "You built it, it's more yours than mine."

She'd hated leaving the device behind, looking so forlorn on its pedestal back in the lab, but she didn't really feel right taking it when Tony had bankrolled its creation. Not to mention, she couldn't imagine how she'd get the thing through security and onto a commercial airplane anyways.

He ambled down the hallways towards her, ever-present reactor a circle of light even through the dark fabric of his t-shirt. "I've got the blueprints, I can always make another. You did the real heavy lifting here, Jane. I think you should have it." He shot her a sly arch of one brow. "Never know when you might need to go sightseeing on short notice. And besides, I'm just going to make a bigger, better version anyways. Probably before dinner."

Jane rolled her eyes, but couldn't stifle the grin that tugged at her lips as she stepped into the waiting elevator. "Alright, alright. Thanks Tony, that's really nice of you. Now I almost feel bad about the carpet."

"Carpet?" Tony echoed blankly, the faint beginnings of alarm creeping into his voice, just as the elevator doors slid closed.

Every time, she forgot a book.

Jane flipped apathetically through the in-flight catalogue, full of absurd claims and kitschy knick-knacks. They'd gotten stuck in traffic and she'd barely had time to race through security, let alone pick up something to read at one of the little shops that lined the terminal. She closed the pages on another ad for the cure to baldness and sighed, squinting out the window beside her at the patchwork land far below.

Nothing for it, then. If she let her mind wander, it ended up back on Loki anyways. She might as well be semi-productive about it.

Stuffing her head into the ridiculously small space between her seat and the one before her, Jane dragged her tote into her lap and pulled her notebook and the bundle of ribbon-bound papers carefully free. The seatback tray was just large enough for her to work at, setting each read page atop a slowly growing pile as she scanned through the flowing lines of script and numbers, pointedly ignoring the inane urge to bury her nose in the cedar-tinged sheaf.

"Such lovely handwriting, you don't see that anymore. Is it yours?"

Startled, Jane blinked up to find her neighbor staring at the paper in her hands. She was a tiny elderly woman with a nimbus of thistledown hair, her clothing pressed and starched and neat as a pin. The smile that seamed her face was so beatific that Jane couldn't help smiling back.

"No, not my handwriting." Jane glanced guiltily at the open notebook that so proudly displayed her cramped, crabbed scrawl for all the world to see. "A friend's, actually."

The old woman nodded sagely. "I used to teach, when I was very young. Language arts, Literature, that sort of thing. Students used to have to write prettily too, not just well. Nowadays its all computers and one remembers the beauty of a carefully penned word."

Jane nodded absently, listening with half an ear as the woman continued prattling on good-naturedly. Her read pile grew rapidly until, somewhere over Kansas she set aside the second-to-last leaf of paper.

Only, this final page wasn't covered in dry, analytical notes at all.

She was staring down at herself, sketched in vivid bold lines of black ink on the creamy vellum. Sitting atop a cushion, hugging her knees, with forgotten binoculars dangling from the fingers of one hand. Her gaze was tilted up towards the sky and a small secret smile hovered about her lips as strands of her hair danced with the wind. She knew that exact scene, could almost hear the rolling cadence of coyotes wooing the moon, just as they had that night.

But surely she'd never looked that beautiful.

There wasn't enough air in the narrow row of seats. Her chest felt far too small, her lungs far too feeble, and her pulse was the dull thunder of hoofbeats in her ears. Her hand was trembling just enough to make it nearly impossible for her to read the writing beneath the vignette.

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself, and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possest,

Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, - and then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;

For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings,

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

The verses were familiar enough, she'd read them a hundred times in her volume of Shakespeare, and they were hauntingly accurate here. But it was upon reaching the post-script that she discovered the ink was not quite waterproof, as a stray tear hit the page and black bled to grey.

- I am ever the coward, Jane.

To Cleave the Stars

A Marvel Movieverse Story
by Hollywithaneye

Part 18 of 19

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