persephone_kore: (write on fire)
[personal profile] persephone_kore
Title: A Tale of Two Lokis
Authors: Khilari and Persephone_Kore
Summary: Thor and Loki were not the first of Odin's loved ones to bear those names. After the events of the movie, Loki is planning his next moves when he discovers a frost giant imprisoned in a volcano, who proves to be both the uncle he was named for and Laufey's first child. Soon Loki has a new mentor, Asgard is shaking off isolationist tendencies, Jotunheim is receiving foreign aid, and Earth is suddenly and vividly reacquainted with the existence of aliens....

Chapter 13

Odin gave the message to Heimdall, who passed it to Muspel's best far-seer. He didn't need Vedrfolnir now that the extradimensional space around the Bifrost was mostly clean. It was an extremely formal note and very brief, mentioning that Asgard was well on its way to restoring the Bifrost and had lately discovered the missing prince was making forays of his own into world-walking and the combination of disparate types of elemental magic. Perhaps, then, it would be appropriate to investigate further whether it was certain he had not contacted anyone from Muspelheim?

Sigyn tried not to be impatient. Would Muspelheim take the hint? Take too much offense at the very quiet threat implied in discussing Prince Loki and the Bifrost? Turn out to genuinely have no idea what was going on? Launch an investigation?

The response, when it came, raised eyebrows all around, because it was not precisely an answer. Sinmara asked an audience.

This took some effort to arrange. Heimdall was by no means the only one who could converse across the worlds, but he was the expert and it was more trouble for anyone else. Odin and Frigga joined him in the working of it, and Sigyn followed at Frigga's right hand as assistant and attendant and, to be entirely honest, curious onlooker.

Heimdall raised his arm, straight forward from the shoulder. White fire blossomed across their vision, hot and dazzling. It struck tears into Sigyn's eyes and refracted shards and rings of rainbow as if the Bifrost had exploded. While she blinked hard, a shimmering mirrored shadow of Heimdall released his hand and bowed. He returned the gesture and they both stepped formally aside.

As Sigyn's vision cleared and adjusted, a blot took shape against the fierce light, as if she were looking at a person made of sunspots.

Odin spoke first. ‘Hail, Sinmara, Kindler of Muspelheim, Keeper of the Sword.’ There was little contact with Muspelheim, between the heat and brightness of their world and the people's inability to travel, and Sigyn had to stop and think about the titles. Kindler was loosely equivalent to Allfather as a title, treating the queen as lifebringer to her people; Keeper of the Sword referred to her role of deciding whether to go to war. It might also be a dig in this case, as the sword Laeveteinn that they'd given to Hod was one of a very few forged in collaboration with the Muspel giants. Sigyn didn't let her expression change.

‘Hail, Odin, Allfather of Asgard. Frigga, Queen of Asgard.’ Sinmara's expression was difficult to read, mainly because Sigyn couldn't see more than the faintest hint of it. Her voice, though, held a subtle note of strain. 'Muspelheim must cast itself on your mercy.'

That wasn't subtle. There was a somewhat stunned pause before Odin said dryly, 'This is a more drastic shift in position than we were expecting. Please explain.'

'We treated with your wayward child and concealed the fact,' Sinmara said stiffly. 'I knew it was not wise, but we are desperate.'

'Do you know where to find him?' Frigga asked.

Sinmara said reluctantly, 'No.'

Frigga inclined her head, disappointed. 'Tell us everything. What dealings did you have with him, and in what desperation?'

'Our star is changing.' The deadly white heat behind Sinmara seemed to fade a little and take on a hint of dull red. 'We have delayed it as long as we can. Some of our population can adjust. Many cannot. Your prince came near and spoke with Surt, Wielder of the Sword, and offered us rescue. He said he would find a way to take us to Midgard's star if we would then deliver him the living planet.'

'Evidently,' said Odin, 'he is making some progress.'

'Indeed.' The white flame brightened and shimmered; Sigyn resisted the urge to wipe at her eyes and wondered if Sinmara could see if her tears spilled over, or had as much trouble seeing them as they did with blaze and shadow. 'But we might lose more than we gained if Asgard should turn its wrath on us.' The Muspel queen's voice was bitter. 'Particularly if you catch him before he can help us.'

'I would have said, before Midgard burns,' Odin replied. 'We bear no ill will toward your people. Tell us if he does speak with you again, Kindler, and we... will seek a better solution.'

There wasn’t actually much in the freezer except for chocolate ice cream and ice for drinks, which was what Loki was looking for when he opened the door and found…Asgard. It was taking up a whole shelf, sculpted in ice, and recognisable instantly despite an oddity of scale and perspective which left it full of sweeping lines and strange angles that the real Asgard didn’t notably contain.

‘Why is there an ice sculpture in the freezer?’ he called.

‘I felt like making one,’ Lopt called back. ‘Why? Is it taking up too much space?’

‘Not exactly. But try to restrain yourself from larger sculptures. Waking up to some sort of nightmare dragon looming over my bed once was enough.’

‘I thought you weren’t raised around other Jotuns?’ said Lopt, appearing in the kitchen doorway.

Loki grimaced. ‘My brother is a weather mage. Do Jotuns often play such tricks?’

‘All the time,’ said Lopt. ‘It’s very rare for one to be born without enough weather magic to work ice and sculpting is encouraged as a way to learn fine control. Most children find uses for their creations other than simply leaving them to be admired at some point. There was one village…’ He broke off and glanced at Loki, possibly to see if he was about to be stopped. Loki gestured at him to continue. ‘There was one village where a group of young children came home one day saying there was a dragon in a nearby cave. People were skeptical - a lot of hunters had sheltered from wind storms in that cave - but the children were obviously distraught so they sent a group to look. They came back to say that there was a dragon in the cave, although it had thankfully been asleep at the time.

‘They prepared to evacuate - if a dragon moves in nearby you’re lucky to lose only livestock, well, you’d know, there’s a similar species on Asgard - and to send notice to the palace. At that point a group of older children came forward and admitted to sculpting it to scare the young ones - their younger siblings hadn’t believed their tales of a dragon in the cave so they’d decided to make it a bit more convincing. The sculpture’s still there, it’s quite famous. Or it was a thousand years ago.’

‘And did you play such tricks?’

‘Frequently,’ said Lopt. ‘The other children were twice my height but trickery made me useful to my friends and a problem for my enemies.’ He sighed. ‘I lost most of my friends once they were old enough to realise my father despised me, no one wants to be in disfavour with the king.’

Loki thought of his own childhood, he’d always been smaller than those around him but by inches, not feet. Perhaps that was the reason Lopt disliked fighting, attempting to learn by sparring with someone twice as big as you could only be painful and humiliating. The freezer was still open and Loki was looking vaguely at Asgard’s towers while he thought, he shook himself and reached for the ice cubes he’d been after in the first place.

‘I did better in other kingdoms,’ Lopt continued thoughtfully. ‘As a servant, but at least not a despised one.’

Loki shut the freezer door and turned to him, drink, now with ice, in his hand. ‘What other kingdoms? You can’t mean Asgard. Did you go to Alfheim, or Vanaheim?’

‘Other kingdoms on Jotunheim,’ said Lopt. He continued, with deliberate cruelty, ‘Jotunheim was far more like Midgard politically, back then. Before Laufey forced it to unite.’

Loki hid his discomfort behind a sip of his drink. It was unexpected, somehow, to have words with a bite thrown at him, even though Lopt had once been famous for his sharp tongue.

‘If you’re so interested in carving things you should be working on the falconskin,’ he said, deciding to ignore that subject. This was no time to start doubting his purpose.

Lopt shrugged, probably waiting a chance to return to the subject of Laufey. ‘Ice is easier.’

‘Did you break the energy balance again?’ asked Loki. The piece, a thin and perfectly symmetrical pair of coils, had been driving both of them mad. They had given up on making a practise piece in normal amber on the basis that when they did finally get it done they wanted it to be a piece they could use. Fortunately, even though Loki felt horrible about the amount of sap they were wasting, Tree didn’t seem to mind, and was, in fact, flourishing.

‘Yes,’ said Lopt, eyes going distant as he mentally reviewed what he’d done wrong and how to do it better next time. Lopt was easily distracted by interesting puzzles - Loki had occasionally considered buying a sudoku book to throw at him when he was being annoying but that, sadly, was probably not interesting enough. ‘How is enchanting the ones I have managed to carve going?’

‘Nearly done,’ said Loki. ‘And I’d better get back to it.’

'So,' Sigyn concluded her summary for Jane, 'we are trying to solve the problem first.'

Jane rubbed her eyes, feeling as if she'd been the one staring into a star, and said, 'You threatened them with the Bifrost?'

'Obliquely,' said Sigyn. She looked a little put off her stride, as if she hadn't been expecting that reaction. It was unsettling, and Jane found herself remembering Freya casually mentioning Sigyn had set her on fire more than once. 'We may as well let Prince Loki's rashness work to our advantage.' She must have seen that Jane was disturbed, because she added in a less careless tone, 'The message to Muspelheim merely noted that the Bifrost was working again. It's been used to transport warriors often, but only that once as a weapon itself.'

'Right,' Jane said, a little faintly.

'No one is actually planning to destroy their star, even to defend Midgard.'

That made her feel better. Sort of. 'And they weren't planning to destroy Midgard,' she said, half to herself. Just... conquer it and hand it over to Loki. She might have to examine her reactions a little more closely later.

'No,' said Sigyn, 'but some of them were -- and possibly still are -- prepared to attack it in payment for a new home. It would make things considerably easier if they don't feel they have to.'

'Because the star they live in is running low on hydrogen and about to transition to a red giant.' Lower temperature. Lower density. Less mass overall. It was hard for her to wrap her mind around living in a star, even though it was the case in two of the nine realms, but it was certainly easy to see why that level of environmental shift would be a problem. It was remarkable that they only wanted to move part of their population.

It was easy to see why they'd be desperate.

Jane's mouth quirked ruefully, just a little, as she looked up at her newest mentor. 'I can see why they need to move, but I'm glad I don't have to talk people into thinking they'll be great neighbors.'

'They probably will, honestly,' said Sigyn. 'Aside from the current issue, I don't believe you have any conflicting interests as worlds. Your internal wars wouldn't be likely to affect them, nor theirs you. You'd be to some degree natural allies in the event that some other realm or faction went to war against you. And they could probably extend the lifespan of your star, although that's a rather long-term consideration.'

'Uh, yes. Just a little.' Somebody carrying on a war in the sun wouldn't affect Earth? Well, no, maybe not. Or not more than the existing sunspots and solar flares. Jane flipped open a book in shimmering ink that Sigyn informed her was spectral data on Muspelheim. She was pretty sure she could translate it into familiar conventions with enough questions. 'But come to think of it, why our sun? I mean, is there any specific reason for it besides Prince Loki wanting Earth, or would some other star do as well?'

'I don't actually know,' Sigyn said after a moment's thought. 'Svartalfheim wouldn't do them any good, of course, and I'm not sure Niflheim's is habitable for them. But most of the others are relatively similar.'

'But travel is the same basic problem regardless.' And one that had gone unsolved for a very long time. Jane frowned and removed the pen she had unthinkingly put between her teeth. 'I'm really not an engineer. It would probably help to talk to Tony. It would definitely help to know more about their physiology, or at least their, um, energy readings. What the extradimensional predators are sensing, how it's transmitted.... Can they leave at all? I mean, I assume it would be tricky to study extradimensional predators, but if they could just step out of the star briefly and let somebody take measurements....'

'If they do that, you won't have any trouble finding extradimensional predators.'

'O-kaaay. Well. Maybe we can try to start with a prototype.' Jane realized she was chewing on her pen again and wiped it off with a sigh. 'I'll talk to Tony. And maybe figuring out how extradimensional space works will give us some ideas.'

Figuring out how extradimensional space worked was after all her new project. It was a little outside the field she'd trained in, but then it was a little outside the field anybody else had trained in too, practically by definition. Jane wasn't the jack of all trades remotely applicable to mechanical engineering that Tony Stark was, but she knew multivariable mathematics, she knew how to start trying to measure the properties of space, and in addition to her particular area of speciality she was more or less well acquainted with several other highly esoteric areas of physics that were rapidly turning out to be special cases.

She was also, and this turned out to be very important, acquainted with Jormungand. Her first several experiments in extradimensional space had to be conducted only with what she could carry with her, items held in position relative to one another by her expectation that they would stay that way. The results weren't exactly useless, but she couldn't find a way to avoid thinking of them as suspect, even though she couldn't seem to make Sigyn understand why. The only thing Jane was sure of on the subject was that she didn't know enough yet to decide to what degree this disconnect reflected different attitudes toward how to acquire knowledge (and perhaps the difference in magic and science as disciplines), versus something about Sigyn's greater awareness of how extradimensional space worked or even her extra few thousand years of practice in being sure whether she had, as she'd put it when Jane asked about this in the first place, metaphorically put her thumb on the scales.

The point was, however, Jane was trying to learn about extradimensional space without taking any more for granted than she absolutely had to, and she didn't have several thousand years of practice in doing magic and in not doing it by accident. Which was why she wanted a laboratory that would hold together without her actively telling it to. (Sigyn asked, half joking, how she could be sure it wasn't doing that because she expected it as well. Jane paused and then said she'd keep it in mind as something to question later, but she had to stop somewhere short of solipsism as an assumption or the whole endeavour became pointless.)

So one of the first things she'd done was to start trying to design a laboratory. And when she faced the question of how to keep it still -- at least, still relative to something -- she turned the question over in her mind and looked at it from angles she had not previously been able to envision, and she ultimately decided that the idea that struck her on the way to Earth with Nari really might be the best possibility.

And she went to talk to Jormungand.

She still hadn't gone into extradimensional space on her own very often. The first time, even knowing Sigyn would come after her if anything went wrong, had been exhilarating and terrifying and as dazzling as the first time she saw it. Maybe more so because by that point she'd been able to see, or sense, or recognize and process so much more of her surroundings. It still gave her a rush every time.

And this was definitely her weirdest project proposal ever, and considering her last one had involved identifying the atmospherical effects of a theoretical deep-space phenomenon, that was saying a lot. She'd never actually asked to stick a laboratory to someone before.

Jormungand stirred ahead of her, head looming larger than the moon seemed and with more depth. (The moon was only three-dimensional, like her, and did not think.)

Greeting-and-welcome. The thought nearly swamped her being -- not destructively, like some of the mental predators or even the ones that could bend you out of shape trying to be friendly, but like being caught up in an ocean wave without anything to bash against. Jormungand was in many ways far more alien than anyone else she'd talked to, but did like company. And not to eat.

(It was not wholly clear to Jane what Jormungand did feed on. The energy of Yggdrasil, maybe, though that was one of the things she was still trying to make sense of. But she also got the impression, between communing with Jormungand and talking to Nari, that Jormungand viewed having a territory as supplying the requirements of life. There was possibly a point of view here by which Jormungand had already eaten the Earth, but as this didn't seem to interfere with its being habitable, Jane was saving it for the next time she wanted to freak somebody out.)

'Hi, glad to be here.' Jane grinned up/out at the serpent, reciprocating the senses of greeting and happy-to-see-you in thought and body language as well as words. And added, 'I have an idea.'

Jormungand felt interested at her.

'You know I'm curious about this place. About extradimensional space in general.' What lay outside the three dimensions she was familiar with, what lay beyond the type of three-dimensional space she was familiar with.

An enormous assent arrived, and Jane didn't bother to fight down a laugh. Jormungand didn't personally go exploring, but seemed to approve of curiosity as a general concept. And heartily agreed that Jane was curious.

'I want to study it,' she said slowly, 'and I think it would work better if I can have things hold still relative to each other without having to actively hold them that way myself.' And because this was a particular kind of conversation instead of a formal document with everything spelled out, she could sort of feel Jormungand looking at the concepts and assumptions in her mind and tried to keep them clear and at the top of her attention, partly for his sake and partly because it was good for her to have her thought processes on this out where she could see them. 'Would you be able to help with that? Would it be okay with you and, um, comfortable for you to let me attach things so they'd hold still relative to you?'

The corrosive whipsnap of offense was a shock to her, and she reeled back a step, bewildered and frightened. What had she done? What was Jormungand going to do?

--And Jormungand gentled the communication, though it still caught in her throat like the smell of bleach, and she could understand that the reaction was not at the request but at the idea of being discomfitted by anything of the sort. It was also more like being miffed than seriously offended and Jormungand was rather worried about her now.

'I'm not hurt,' she said, then paused to swallow hard and grimaced at the burning sensation in her throat. At least, she didn't think she was. It felt like she'd just swallowed back a mix of bile and hot peppers and alcohol, which could involve mild chemical burns but didn't seem likely to represent a serious injury to mind or body. 'Humans are more fragile than Jotuns and Asgardians, though.'

Jormungand did not so much promise to be careful as resolve, and let her in on it.

'Thanks.' Jane took a steadying breath. 'I didn't really think it was likely to hurt you. I can see that you're very tough and wouldn't dream of implying otherwise. But I'd be annoyed if people just assumed it was okay to stick things to me, even if it wasn't actually uncomfortable. And while I'm sure it wouldn't actually prevent you from moving if you felt like it, for example, it would kind of be a problem for me to have everything break the first time you decided to wiggle.'

This was, Jormungand acknowledged, reasonable. And this laboratory she wanted to build would mean more company?

'I'd probably be spending a lot of time there,' said Jane. 'And I'd probably need to bring other people here to help at some point....'

She was suddenly being propelled, against a texture of soft-furred hard scales. (Could that be right? The tendency for body and brain to interpret unfamiliar sensations into familiar ones was one of the reasons Jane wanted more objective readings out here.) Jormungand directed her, with an air of helpfulness, to what seemed to be a wall of huge faceted scales that tesselated or overlapped depending on just how she angled her head. She touched one surface, and it felt furry and smooth and sharp-edged in turn as she moved her hand.

'This is a good place?' she asked aloud.

It was. Jormungand hadn't had occasion to move it since wrapping around Midgard, and it was a comfortable place to watch over. Would she need a place on the outside of the coils to compare?

Jane paused over that. 'That's not a bad idea, especially if there are any different properties due to being your territory.' Wouldn't help with identifying different properties due to proximity to Jormungand, but it was a start. 'But outside might be a more dangerous place to be lost in thought.'

Not with me paying attention to you, Jormungand informed her with an air of utter certainty.

She looked up from inspecting the scales and trying to think how to attach something to them. 'That's really nice of you.'

The Midgard Serpent's response was merely a rather smug purr.

SHIELD had already approved, conceptually, of the idea of an extradimensional laboratory. Possibly even one attached to Jormungand. It would be more accurate to say they'd told her to find a way to make it happen, which she'd have resented more if she had been less eager in the first place. And the funding... well, Jane was not used to the kind of money either SHIELD or Tony Stark threw around on a regular basis. SHIELD, of course, still required as much paperwork to account for it as any other government agency, but the speed when they wanted something done was astonishing. It still felt weird to be essentially working on military research, even if she wasn't sure about its immediate military applications.

And Tony was entirely capable of blowing enough money to fund a five-year lab-founding grant on a whim. It exasperated Pepper, but he could do it. He was fiercely jealous of his independence and thought everybody else should be too even though (because?) his father had built the company largely on work he'd done with the military. He insisted that people should have responsibility and control over how their work was used, which sounded great but Jane was mildly curious how this worked in terms of Stark Industries' employment contracts.

The point was, this project was fast-tracked and had what Jane considered a wildly extravagant budget with some strings of uncertain length attached. Accomplishing it was nevertheless a puzzle.

She worked through several ideas until she hit dead ends, then rang up Bruce (not really his area, but she didn't know of any zoologists who were aware of Jormungand's existence) and Tony (who reserved 'not really my area' for things that didn't interest him) and tried to describe the structure of the scales to them, wishing she had Nari there to do it better. Tony kept shoving holographic reconstructions at the camera. Suddenly she stopped, eyes lighting up, and both men regarded her with immediate alertness. 'How about if I take you to see it?'

'Okay, that might help,' said Tony.

'You can do that?' asked Bruce, sounding rather startled.

'Yeah, I didn't exactly realize that was an option.' Tony said. 'What kind of preparations would it take? Should I fly over?'

Jane couldn't stop grinning. 'I'll come get you.'

'You'll wh--'

Jane stepped out of her usual three-dimensional space, took a second to orient herself as Sigyn had taught her, and then went back in and leaned over Tony Stark's shoulder as he peered into the area of holographic space she had evidently just vacated. 'Boo.'

Tony spun around. 'Whoa!'

In the next floating holographic monitor over, Bruce applauded. 'That didn't look like a lot of preparation,' he remarked. 'Are you coming here next? Can we just--' He wiggled his hand in the air.

'Well, I've been being instructed for months,' said Jane. 'But yes, as long as you stay in contact with me, I think I can take you there. It's confusing, and the area around Earth is actually relatively safe but you can still get lost or make bizarre mistakes.' She paused. 'Maybe we should tie ourselves together or something.'

'If there are extra dimensions, won't knots just slip loose?' Tony asked, mercifully letting multiple opportunities for innuendo slide for once in favor of practicalities. She supposed being taken on a walk in extradimensional space had innuendo beat in terms of novelty.

'Theoretically they could, yes,' Jane said. 'But a lot of things could kind of... unravel, and usually don't seem to do so spontaneously.' She refrained from mentioning that there seemed to be no problem with inadvertently slipping out of your clothes in an unexpected direction. There was no point presenting him with that much temptation. 'I can probably find you as long as you don't get too far away, anyway.' She paused thoughtfully. 'And if I can't, Jormungand probably can.'

'Here.' Tony picked up a couple of coils of an odd-looking cable, looped one around his waist, and pinched the end against a spot on the length of it. What looked like tiny metal fibers flashed out around the point of contact as if it were fraying, then apparently wove into each other. He handed Jane the other end and rubbed his hands together. 'Lead on, then.'

'I knew you were the right person to consult about a materials question,' Jane said. 'Bruce?'

'Come on over. I'll let them know to expect you in the lobby.'

Jane grinned at Bruce. 'Sounds good.' It was preferable to teleporting onto the street and less annoying to SHIELD generally than trying to bypass their security. And in this particular case, Bruce was currently consulting on the tesseract's small periodic bursts of radiation, so bypassing the security this way might be hazardous to impossible given that they were actively trying to avoid Loki doing it.

She grabbed Tony's arm and pulled him in a direction he had presumably never gone before, and promptly ran into problems. He was craning his head in all directions and nearly following it for the next several seconds, and Jane had to struggle to hang on to him and not be dragged off. 'Hey! Hey, follow me here. Come on. I'll take you back out later.'

Tony focused on her, and she managed -- panting a little -- to drag him to just outside the SHIELD building in whose depths the tesseract lay. At which point she stopped, staring, at a fine mesh of twisting, thorny vines winding through and around it.

'What is that?' Tony asked.

She yanked on his arm reflexively as he started to drift toward the thorns like a wayward balloon. 'Those must be some of Freya's traps. Please don't poke them.' As Tony settled down, she added, 'It looks like Sleeping Beauty ought to be in there.' Now that was an eerie thought, the whole of the SHIELD personnel trapped in sleep. Jane shook herself a little. That was obviously not actually what was going on here.

Tony snickered. 'Or the Beast.'

'That's a different story,' Jane said absently, towing him toward the edge of the vines and from there into the lobby.

'I do know that,' Tony said. 'Oh, hi, Bruce.'

'Hi. Thought I'd come to meet you. Jane, you look a little frazzled.' Bruce frowned at her. 'What happened?'

'I forgot to explain,' Jane said ruefully, 'a lot of what goes on out there is mental. If you think about going somewhere, you're likely to do just that. I almost wound up on the moon that way before Sigyn pulled me back.'

'I was going to ask you what kind of weird mistakes you meant,' Bruce said. 'So, if we concentrate on staying with you, we should be all right?'

Jane took a steadying breath. 'I think so.'

'Well why didn't you say that in the first place?' Tony asked. 'Focus. I can do focus. Just in case, though--' He looped his strange cable around Bruce as well. 'Let's go!'

The second effort was less strenuous. They were both fascinated -- Jane could hardly blame them for that -- but Tony could indeed 'do' focus, and Bruce had his own practice at mental discipline.

Now that she had other people out here with her, she breathed in the glinting darkness and wished, with an ache that caught at her heart, that she could bring Erik Selvig to see this. But her mentor, unsettled by the idea that Loki had had a gateway into his thoughts, was taking some time with his own, lower-security projects. She'd take him out later, she promised herself. When she was better at it. He'd love it once he got out here.

'In what way is the area around Earth safer?' Bruce asked, carefully looking around without drifting too far.

'A lack of extradimensional predators,' she said, 'because they can't get past that.' Jane bobbed a little toward each of them, then tugged at both their arms and directed their attention to a pair of sightlines marked by arrows glowing with dull red light. (For some reason, this fell under illusions even though Jane was pretty sure it was real light. Sigyn insisted that they were not real arrows.) She could see the exact moment when each of them spotted the bulk of the serpent ahead -- Tony's goggle-eyed expression, Bruce's mouthed 'wow' -- and then the surprisingly identical shock-and-freeze when Jormungand looked at them, and they processed that they were being looked at.

Jormungand's greeting rolled over them like a long slow wave, Jane waved back, and then Tony whooped and shot forward. Jane laughed and let him tow them, turning to grin at Bruce.

Bruce shook his head. 'Only Tony,' he said, 'would meet a snake that size and decide to lunge at it.'

'I heard that!' Tony called. 'What do you think I'm going to do, scare him? Hello, giant world-snake-cat-creature. I am here to have a look at your body, although I can see that's going to be quite a job. I should warn you I am not a biologist. My appreciation of bodies is ordinarily on a very different, uh, scale. But if you want an engineering problem solved there's really no one better.'

Only Tony, Jane thought in amusement, would meet a snake that size and decide to flirt with it. Well, sort of.

'No wonder I don't make you nervous,' Bruce quipped in her ear.

Jormungand's surface seemed to ripple slightly as Tony examined it, angling the different types of apparent textures toward him in turn, and the enormous head levelled on Bruce and caught his eyes. Jane, who'd still been trying to formulate an appropriate response to the joke, abandoned the idea and just stood back from whatever private communication was going on.

When Jormungand withdrew that overwhelmingly focussed attention, Bruce looked thoughtful and a little shaken up and... rather delighted. They spent a while longer there, examining the scales, and at the end of it Tony nearly found his way right back to his workshop all on his own, apparently through sheer eagerness. (Sigyn would later confirm that world-walking could be guided, to a limited extent, by a sense of home.)

It was a busy time and a gleeful one, despite the two urgent hovering questions of what Loki was up to and whether the Muspel giants could be rescued. (And, subsequently, where they would actually go.) They figured out -- mostly Tony figured out -- how to build something that would hook onto the texture of Jormungand's scales like an extraordinarily complex form of Velcro, and the laboratory took shape as scaffolding and platforms. The first few items had to be very light, as they had to be walked out there. But once Jane figured out how to describe the extradimensional coordinates and Tony successfully scaled up the rainbow bridgelets, moving equipment got a lot easier.

Tony discovered that she knew her way around circuitry, and the arc reactor that was going to power her equipment was accompanied by a bunch of monitors of its own. (This was actually standard; having user-accessible readouts was the unusual part.) Jane, giddy with the successes so far, tried out a far-seeing spell to get in touch with Sigyn, who was astonished and pleased to hear from her, and told her to stop it and go to bed immediately. The brief conversation left Jane exhausted for three days, during which Sigyn and Thor dropped in to see her, hear everything she'd been doing, and tease her about trying to be Heimdall.

Jane settled in to collect data, losing herself happily in basic research and emerging periodically to hash over her discoveries with a few of the engineers and magicians on multiple worlds who had turned their attention to moving the Muspel giants. The repaired Bifrost would not serve, though it was -- ironically enough -- saving lives on Jotunheim by moving large quantities of food, medical supplies, and apparently Elves.

'It also helped a great deal,' said Freya, who was taking a break from Jotunheim to catch up with her brother and her adoring fans on Earth, and had relayed the bit about the Elves, 'when the Mists heard about the situation.'

'The... who?' Jane asked.

Freya laughed suddenly and clasped a falconskin around Jane's neck. 'Come and see.' She swooped out past Jormungand, and Jane followed as best she could, still a bit clumsy but surprised at how much easier it was this time.

They landed on a rock beach covered in a thin slick of ice from freezing rain. Jane's panting breath struck cool air and steamed, but the falconskin kept her warm enough not to be very uncomfortable. Several very tall blue people turned to look at them, as did a horde of penguins. Jotunheim, then. The giants' attention drifted away after a moment -- Jane supposed they must be getting used to this sort of visit, no matter how abruptly out of place she felt.

'Look there,' Freya murmured, somewhat unnecessarily as Jane was already turning instinctively to look the direction everyone else was looking, toward the sharper cold--

She saw a... sort of humanoid figure, wreathed in flowing clouds, that was sliding in and out of extradimensional space in stages and seemed to have several heads. Ice spread out from where the figure stood, on what did not look precisely like feet, and the rocks cracked when they shifted.

'Niflheim,' Jane breathed. Mist-home. 'You -- you went and translated on me.'

Freya smiled. 'Their planet's atmosphere is mostly liquid. Their ice magic is magnificent. Jotunheim is uncomfortably warm from them in general; they normally only visit the poles, and that during winter. That's why this one keeps moving.'

'Does Jotunheim have a tilted axis and seasons like Earth, then?' Or did their seasons work differently? (Jane wasn't sure she could rule that out. If she understood correctly, Asgard used to be a somewhat smaller planet and had been... built up, in ways she still didn't quite follow.)

'It does. More dramatic seasons than Earth, in a way. Substantial parts of the ocean freeze over or thaw. The poles are harsh climates even for frost giants -- well, normally -- but they are valued places to go for working magic. As are the yew forests near the equator, for different purposes.'

'The Elves are working with those... right?'

Freya nodded. Then called out, 'Angan! May I introduce someone to you?'

The Mist turned and then gestured upward -- at least, it looked that way from the movement of the billows -- and out; Jane took a breath and followed Freya into extradimensional space, where the fog of condensation around the Mist promptly fell away. Jane... had not been prepared for this. The Mist appeared to have three bodies back to back, topped with a quantity of androgynously pleasant-faced heads she couldn't quite manage to count because they were all looking around and kept moving out of her accessible fields of vision, and supported by a mass of tentacles spreading out like (and possibly under) a very full brown skirt. The face and hands were a glossy charcoal grey; she was guessing the bright red on the torso was clothing.

'Angan, this is Jane Foster, a scholar from Midgard and Sigyn Incantation-Fetter's new protégé. Jane, Angan is a--' Freya paused briefly. 'High-temperature farmer. Relatively speaking.'

'Hello,' Jane said, a bit nervously. 'I... have no idea what your world's protocol is and am suddenly not sure I'm physiologically capable of it.'

'Hail and well met!' The head looking most directly toward her grinned, an unexpectedly familiar expression amid strangeness. 'People who are too fixated on ceremony don't usually visit the other worlds. I think there are groups on all nine who go in for handshakes, and if we're involved, that's likely to be painful for all concerned. Shall we just bow?'

Jane wasn't so good at that either, but she managed one of her more graceful bows mostly because Angan was too relaxed and friendly to make her particularly self-conscious. 'So... if you don't mind my being curious... high-temperature farming?'

'I tend useful plants and livestock that live in the hotter parts of our planet,' Angan explained, readily enough. 'What do you study?'

'Astrophysics,' said Jane. 'And, uh, I'm starting to learn magic, and trying to study the properties of extradimensional space.'

Angan nodded politely in the same way humans tended to respond to that sort of answer. Well, the astrophysics part, anyway. 'I've heard human magic is pretty flexible, but I never met one before. I'm actually nothing special as sorcery goes -- don't tell the Jotuns that, please -- but our intrinsic ice magic is enough to be useful here and I can tolerate the heat better than most.' The eyes on two or three heads rolled. 'As long as I take frequent breaks, anyway. My thanks for the excuse, though I shouldn't stay long.'

'We won't keep you,' Freya said. 'I whisked Jane from her own work, too. But I thought you'd both appreciate the chance to meet.'

They both thanked her and then parted amicably, with Jane's mind reeling a little at the realization that they'd just gone almost casually on a jaunt between worlds for a few minutes of conversation.

'Angan suits his name well,' Freya said cheerfully on the way back. 'He's a delight. He's also fond of travel, but your type of interest in extradimensional space -- or even mine -- is to his like the difference between a geologist and a hiker.'

'I thought it might be,' Jane said. 'I'm used to polite incomprehension. It's people who know what I'm talking about and don't think I'm out of my mind that I'm still getting used to.'

And there were a lot of them to get used to. SHIELD was forced to be selective in what they kept private because the existence of ambassadors from other worlds naturally made other people wonder about methods of travel, including -- rather to Jane's delight -- the possibility of visiting the rest of the solar system. Jane ended up spending rather a lot of time trying to help with this, although helping partly involved explaining that just because it was a couple minutes' walk to the moon didn't mean it was safe, and then that she was very well aware of the hazards of space travel but these were not the same ones. One of the easiest ways to demonstrate how easily you could get lost was to take someone out just a bit. Explaining the increase in hazards once you got past the guardian serpent was somewhat more complex.

She managed, with considerable difficulty, to resist both external pressure and her own enthusiasm and not spend all her time teaching NASA employees how to navigate extradimensional space. After the first flurry it became easier, as people settled down to projects such as calculating how to get to Mars and whether it was necessary to perform the whole walk in a spacesuit or if you could tow a planet-suitable suit in a predator-proof case and put it on once you got close. Jane though the rainbow bridgelets might be a good solution, but those were currently supposed to be a secret and anyway they were still working out the navigational kinks there, too.

And she did finally persuade Erik Selvig to come out with her. Not to her lab -- he still had a security clearance but refused to look at anything that would require it, tesseract or no tesseract -- but out, nonetheless, to share a whole new level of wonder with the man who'd first driven her into the night, away from all the light pollution, to gaze up at just how big the universe could be.

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January 2014


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