A numb feeling overcame Jane as she stared blankly at the creature, not comprehending. A twinge in her gut reminded her of what she had given up to free Loki, to free herself. She now mourned the loss of her starlight, but not of Sindri. Curious. She ran the thought through her mind again, but still there was no emotional reaction to the dwarf's death. She had done it, and she was suddenly aware of the weapon still clutched tightly between her fingers. Murder. The word seemed to send surreal echo through her head, but she found that her grip would not loosen on Loki's knife. She could have stabbed the dwarf even now without an ounce of pity left to spare him. Was this what it was like to kill? She felt hollow, a biting wind stinging her insides as it rushed out of her lungs in ragged breaths.
A hoarse voice slithered into her ear. "We should move."
She nodded absently, barely feeling Loki brush against her arm. It was when his hand closed over her right hand that her mind snapped back to attention. "No."
"Give me the knife, Jane."
His voice hardened. "Jane-"
She felt desperation well up inside until in spilled over in words. "You said I could use it how I wanted to. If I didn't have it, he might—he might have—"
"Give it to me."
Loki gently pried the dagger from her hand and slowly held it up to study it. His gaze flicked between the bloodied blade and Jane, his expression solemn, though Jane thought she caught a gleam of satisfaction in his eyes. Reaching inside his tunic, he pulled out a crumpled dark rag and carefully wiped the blade clean until it glinted once more in the dim torchlight. His hand found hers again and pressed the carved hilt against her palm, holding it in place until her fingers closed around it once more. He did not step away, however, but instead shifted toward her, the dagger still clasped tightly between their hands.
"His death was necessary," he murmured.
Jane felt a lump tighten in her throat as the tears stung her eyes. None of this was supposed to happen. All she wanted was to experience the stars, not—
"Sometimes killing is necessary."
Jane bent toward him with a muffled cry, not caring when her forehead came to rest against his golden chest plate. She felt him start to pull back, then stop and stand still, hands at his sides while she gently leaned against him. Safety washed over her amid the acrid smoke of the caves as she breathed in the scent of leather and dirty metal. Loki was clever and dangerous, and if he was on her side, it must be something like protection…right? She was quickly realizing how little she knew of her universe after all—there had been no room for monsters and mythological creatures in her careful equations back on Earth. She felt herself losing control, like a yo-yo spinning unbalanced at the end of its string. Numbers and charts she could control, even manipulate; scientific laws she could follow because they were certain and predictable. But nothing she had seen so far seemed to fall into the strict order that she was used to. Instead, everything seemed to whirl about in loosely bound disorder in defiance of science itself. Now she found herself pitifully grasping for stability, for the most familiar thing she could find in this world of leering faces and hissing smoke. Loki was just as unpredictable as the worlds he lived in, but he seemed to command the forces of chaos without the slightest fear of the consequences. Her tired mind locked onto this thought—Loki was the order she needed now, and trust would now have to come from necessity rather than by choice. The thought left a bitter taste in her mouth, but it would have to do for now.
"How do you feel?" Loki's question was curious, but not comforting.
"I don—I don't know."
"You will grow used to it."
"You say that like this was inevitable."
"It is. We're all monsters in our own right."
"Speak for yourself." Jane pushed away from him as she felt a sour weight drop in her stomach. "I'm nothing like you."
Loki let out a breathy chuckle as he moved forward to close back the space between them. "Do you understand what you've done?"
"I fended off an attacker in self-defense."
"But it wasn't enough to just fight him, was it?"
Jane stared at him. "Are you saying I wanted to kill him? I mean, you—you slit his throat!"
Loki's eyes gleamed. "We make a good team, Miss Foster, but he was already dead at your hands."
"There's a difference between self-defense and murder, Loki!" Jane cried, incredulous. "They're not the same thing!"
Loki's hand tightened around hers and lifted the knife blade up between their noses. "Is defense not intentional as well?"
"I didn't murder him!"
"Facts, Jane. A life was ended on purpose. Reasons have nothing to do with it."
She felt sick. Nausea roiled in her stomach as she tried to think straight, but the glittering knife in front of her face did nothing but scatter her thoughts along its fragments of light.
"Did it feel good to stop him…so permanently?" Loki pressed.
"He deserved it." The words slipped from her mouth before she could stop them. Her eyes widened and she turned away from him, hoping he wouldn't see the shock she felt frozen on her face.
He spun her back to face him, hand still gripping the dagger between them. "That—" he purred, pulling her even closer, "—is what I like to hear."
"I didn't do anything wrong!"
"No, you didn't."
"Then why…" Her voice had gone watery again as she trailed off, silently cursing the warring emotions that threatened to drive her over the edge. Why do I feel so guilty?
"Don't let your perceived morals interfere with this."
Jane flinched. "It must be so easy for you, since you don't have any."
He tried to smile at this, but there was no humor in the gesture. "Some lives deserve to be ended, while others do not. Is that so difficult to understand?"
Jane lifted her chin to better glare up at him. "What about all those people in New York? What did they deserve?"
"It doesn't matter now. The Chitauri killed them."
"You let those monsters in out of—of—whatever the hell dimension they came from! It all happened because of you!"
"I was simply fulfilling my end of the bargain."
She was incredulous. "You really don't see yourself at fault, do you?"
"I did what needed to be done."
"That's bullshit. You didn't have to do it. You didn't have to do any of it!"
Loki's eyes began to ice over and the safety Jane had felt earlier quickly dissipated in the close air around them. She wrenched the dagger from his hand and stumbled back, gaze still locked with his. He merely tilted his head and studied her as if she were a toy he was unsure what to do with, but perhaps one he was considering disposing of.
"You are too small to understand much of anything," he said finally, his voice falling hard and flat in the space between them. "There are larger forces than humans at work in the stars."
"I think causing a large scale disaster in the name of world domination isn't all that difficult to grasp," Jane snapped. "It doesn't take mastery of the universe to get that."
"You neglected to calculate the reason," he snarled back.
"Why did you do it? Boredom? Compensation? Just plain evilness?"
The green ice in Loki's eyes sharpened and gleamed. "You have earned no right to question me."
"I just saved you, in case you forgot."
"I am curious as to why you did that."
Jane snorted. "Well, at least I can be honest about my motives. I wanted you to take me back to Asgard."
"So soon?" He sounded genuinely disappointed.
"Not soon enough. This isn't what I thought it would be."
"What were you expecting?"
"Just to explore and record new data in peace—"
"Please. Admit that you were naïve in coming and be done with it."
Jane felt her anger flare up at his superior tone. "I am done with it! I'm done with constantly running for my life from every monster that shouldn't even exist. I'm done getting tangled up in your ridiculous past and—and—" she gestured wildly at the dead dwarf, her voice choking again, "—This! All of this! Just take me back!"
Loki was studying her, his scarred lips twisting to the side in thought. He could not hold the gesture long for the pain it caused, and his face quickly fell from the effort. "You will be wanting your lakelight," he said as he began to crouch toward the scissors.
"I thought you wished to study them."
Jane refused to look at the gleaming weapon now, bloodied and defiled. She could never in good conscience enjoy exploring the energy source, not any more; its final use would haunt her from now on. The magnificent loss nearly brought her to tears again, and she vaguely hoped she might one day forget that Álfheim's lake had ever truly existed.
She cleared her throat with some effort. "No, it's ruined now."
"There is no returning to Álfheim."
"I know, all right? Just take me back to Asgard."
Another pause. Loki's anger seemed to slide away as smoothly as it had come. He was maddeningly unpredictable, Jane thought ruefully.
"What would it take for you to stay?"
The question came like a slap in the face. She stared at him as if he had done it physically. "What?"
"You heard me."
"But I guess you didn't hear me! I just told you—"
"What if there was another source of lakelight…a larger source…being held elsewhere?" His voice was cautious, as if too many words might spook her from listening to him. "One that could be taken without too much trouble?"
Jane was instantly curious. It was impossible to tell if he was telling the truth, but if he was—she would give anything for another pure sample of the liquid starlight.
"What do you consider to be 'too much trouble'?"
A sly look of triumph passed over Loki's face. "Death, mostly."
"Great. More danger."
"It comes with the territories."
Greed and reluctance warred relentlessly in Jane's mind. She couldn't pass up another chance at obtaining a force science had never seen, and the thought of spending hours experimenting with its properties and recording the data analysis was overwhelming to say the least. And for what? A few more days, maybe weeks, with Loki? The thought was jarring, especially in light of their recent argument. She was quickly learning the careful lines she had to walk with him, which topics appeased him and which ones were off limits. It was all a game. Jane straightened as her confidence began piecing itself back together. She could stop this at any time and find her own way back. She was free to do as she chose, and quitting was beginning to look like a second thought. If Loki could manipulate people into accomplishing his ends, so could she.
She pushed the memories of Nidavellir to the back of her mind, and not without difficulty. For sanity's sake she did it, or else they would linger, unsolved, until they consumed her long before she could give them a proper analysis. Recently, her judgment was feeling completely muddled with every quick decision that was forced on her; she needed time to think, but there was nearly none now. It was maddening, but she would have to adapt.
She was getting tired of trying to justify any of this anyway.
Her feet began to drag from exhaustion, though Loki seemed to become more and more restless with every dead end they ran up against. They had been wandering through the winding tunnels for what seemed like hours in a fruitless search for another portal to Yggdrasil. Loki's mood was quickly souring again, and Jane's sluggish pace was not helping. She briefly wondered how much longer it would take the dwarves to discover the death of one of their own and the escape of their prisoner. It couldn't be long before the hunt began.
The air became suffocating with the heavy scent of earth and water, and Jane suddenly remembered the light behind the rocks and the roots that had healed her shortly after her tumble into Nidavellir. Would it lead to something? It might be their only hope now.
"Do you know where the big fork in the tunnels is?" she asked, thinking of the two passages she had encountered earlier.
"They all fork off, Jane," Loki said over his shoulder.
"Fine. Forget I asked."
But he was now stalking the distance back to her, hands twitching at his sides as his eyes bore into hers. "What do you remember?"
"I saw Yggdrasil, or…or its roots, I guess, after I woke up from my fall. Maybe we could—"
"Where did you see it?"
"Well just give me a second to get out my map of Dwarf World."
"Don't be smart with me."
"I can be smart all on my own, thanks." Exhaustion was sharpening her tongue, and not in the best way of ways. Loki had never looked further from amusement.
"Try again," he said between clenched teeth.
"It was in a tunnel with torches all down the walls."
"That could be any of them." Loki was pacing, his stiff coat sweeping around his hips with each sudden turn. "Anything else?"
Jane thought for a moment. "It was at a higher elevation. I remember walking down a hill to that big chamber they had you in. I went down a few little hills, actually."
Loki spun on his heel, leaving Jane to stumble after him.
"I thought you had been here before!" she said when she had caught up with his long stride. "How could you forget the way out?"
His reply was cold, if not a little distracted. "The tunnels change with every visit and only the filth that live here know how to navigate one end to the other."
"You mean the tunnels physically change? Just on their own?"
Loki had found another path, this time leading upward into the stifling darkness. There were no torches here.
"Do they?" she pressed again.
"Not now, Jane."
A golden light sprang from his fingers, its tendrils winding tightly around until they formed a crackling flame just above his cupped hand. He pushed the fire outward with an outstretched palm and the energy obliged, twisting and snapping before him like a tethered flame. Jane was mesmerized: he had just summoned and controlled fire as if it were nothing.
"Wait, wait. How did you just—"
Jane jumped back as he sent the orb of fire spinning toward her with the flick of his fingers. She raised her hands to fend it off, expecting to be burned, but was amazed when it floated over to settle between her palms, prickly and cool to the touch. It seemed like a freeform version of the plasma globes she had seen in countless science museums.
"Oh my God."
"It's just a torch, Jane."
"How is this even possible?"
Beneath Loki's bored tone was that same hint of satisfaction, as if he delighted at every opportunity to baffle her scientific reason. He was clearly doing it frustrate her, and Jane was torn between rabid fascination and something not unlike loathing. That he would not explain how he did it made it even worse.
Loki summoned several more fiery globes and spun them in orbit before them as they walked. The torches threw shards of light against the pitch walls where they shattered and dissipated before another shaft of light sent the darkness scattering once more.
Now he was just showing off.
Once he knew that they needed to travel upward, Loki seemed remarkably quick in narrowing down the drooping passages until they found the one Jane had landed in a half hour later. Eager to see Yggdrasil again, Jane hurried forward, the orb of fire now dropping from her hands but still trailing her fingers as if in obeisance. But Loki was at the wall first, his long fingers working over the fissures in search of anything out of the ordinary. When she saw his shoulders slump, she braced herself for his fury.
"Where is it?"
She looked around—as far as underground passages went, this looked like the one she had been in. Same torches, same earthen floor. Who am I kidding? The next tunnel over is probably the same. She suddenly felt tired again, and wondered if she could curl up on the ground to sleep the light and darkness away. If she was lucky, she wouldn't remember much of anything when she woke up.
"Jane." His voice had an edge now, almost accusing.
"I swear it was here. I even hurt my ankle when I fell and it-it healed me."
Loki's mouth twitched. "It healed you."
Jane stepped forward and ran a hand absently over the craggy stones. "Yeah, it looked exactly like—"
The sudden neon colors were blinding and Jane gasped as an ethereal root of Yggdrasil shot out from a thin fissure in the rock. It was instantly followed by dozens of spidering claws that rent the rock to rubble as the greens, blues, and purples crashed through the wall and sizzled against the floor. Then the essence of the World Tree was whirling about the room like a cyclone as streams of light brushed around and against Jane, warm and comforting.
It took her some time to realize that Loki had backed away from it all. He stood several feet away, a look of utter confusion etched across his sharp features. Jane might have delighted in his bewilderment if she had not detected a glint of malice in his eyes.
"What's the matter?" she asked, half-expecting him to snap out of this latest mood.
"It responds to you."
Jane watched the roots twist and twine, and couldn't help the tiny smile that found its way to her lips. "It may have the characteristics of a magnetic field, so if I could just determine which source serves as a retroactive pole—"
"The World Tree has no such thing."
"Then maybe it just likes me."
She had been joking, but the question in Loki's eyes seemed to dissolve into a dark pall of suspicion as he watched the colors flow through the air, race along the walls, then double back to their source.
A tendril of fire suddenly sprang up out beside Jane, and she reached down to absently grab the small torch she had dropped earlier. But the orb had long since vanished, and this fire gnawed her ankle in searing flame as it dragged her down and backward.
One glance was enough for her to realize it was the same fire from her dreams.