This is a big chapter, and I hope it will compensate for some of the long wait. Still snowed under with work/school stuff, so this chapter was done in a long sleepless night's worth of work, but I hope you enjoy it. Please leave me a note; your words of encouragement really do keep me writing!

()()()()

Two days earlier…

()()()()

It had been two full days since Loki had left for Russia. Two days during which everyone at the Villa had started to relax. Two days during which Jane began to realize that there were more people in that house besides herself, Erik, and Lucia who weren't thrilled to have Loki as their lord and master. At first, Jane was very skeptical; after seeing the horror show in the Vatican, she had a very poor opinion of most Italians…especially anyone who might have had the slightest idea of what was happening there. It had taken her the better part of a day to even speak to Lucia, who had looked just as sickened and pale as Jane had upon learning of the prison camp there.

She wasn't certain whether or not to believe her claims of ignorance, but Jane wasn't about to alienate one of her few allies. Nor did she want to burden Erik with this knowledge, so there wasn't much she could do. She just had to hope that the mutants would be more motivated to change the horrible conditions that Loki's rule brought.

Despite all Jane's doubts about the people surrounding her, she was really enjoying the time away from Loki's stifling, unsettling presence. She could wander the Villa without having to fear running into him; she could spend time in the garden, talking with Erik on entirely unrelated subjects. Lucia even put on a fantastic staff dinner the first night he was gone, and all twenty permanent residents of the house had gathered together, laughing and smiling, over delicious food and good wine.

It felt nice. It felt normal. Jane had had precious little of either nice or normal recently, so she enjoyed it wholeheartedly. But always in the back of her mind was that tense readiness, waiting for word from Wolverine about the mutants' plans. While the rest of the staff got drunk and danced around the grand hall, she stood to the side, nursing a glass of wine…just waiting.

She didn't have to wait long. Two days after Loki had left for Russia—which meant three days after Jane's horror show in the Vatican—she stumbled into bed and heard paper crumple under her pillow. It took her two tries to sit back upright—something her fuzzy brain found absolutely hilarious—since she, Lucia, Erik, and an uncharacteristically chatty Maria had spent the previous two hours polishing off three bottles of very fine wine raided from Loki's private cellar.

Her hands fumbled with the nice linen fiber envelope, and eventually she gave up and just tore it and the letter inside in half to get it out. Matching up the two sides of the single sheet of paper made her chuckle some more, but at least the author didn't have difficult penmanship. In bold, square print, the letter read:

Kid,

Sunday it's a go. Meet us riverside 2 PM.

Only one person she knew in this country called her "Kid". She smiled and lay back, cradling the mutilated paper to her heart. "Wolverine," she said, grinning like a child. "Wolverine."

Then the content of the letter actually struck her, and all the warmth and goodwill from the wine turned to ice in her veins. Her stomach felt scraped out and hollow; she tried to swallow, but her throat was chalky and dry. Tomorrow. She would have to throw herself into another life-or-death situation…tomorrow.

She couldn't breathe. Her hands shook, holding the letter, and she pressed the paper to her sweaty, cold forehead. For a long moment, she sat there, shoulders trembling as she fought to contain her fear. The idea that this might be her last night of warmth, of companionship, of sharing smiles and good food and wine…the idea that this might be her last night of life…it was overwhelming.

Finally, she sighed. "You were dead the minute he got hold of you, Jane," she reminded herself, "You were dead," she said again, the words oddly comforting in their finality. She lay back, weary eyes searching the dark shadows of the ceiling for some kind of divine intervention. There was none, of course. "Just do your best," she said, softly, "Do what you have to. Do what you can. You're not dead yet."

There was still time for her actions to make a difference. She would get all the mutants through that gate, and afterwards—even if a Skrull plunged its skeletal claws right through her chest—she would have done what she'd set out to do. The mutant and human prisoners would be freed, and the resistance would go on. There was comfort in that thought, if nothing else.

The idea of sleep—impossible just a moment ago—now not only seemed possible, but delicious. It was already one o'clock in the morning, which left barely half a day between her and her possible annihilation. And tomorrow (or today, rather) was a contact day. At least she would be able—Jane swallowed hard—to say goodbye.

She rolled on her side and drew her knees tight to her chest. She would have to say goodbye to Thor. Thor, who had no idea what she had been up to all this time. Thor, who would fly to her side in an instant if she asked him to, who would never allow her to face this threat alone. Was there any way she could drop a hint about what was happening; was there any way that the Avengers could help them in the coming conflict? Jane didn't doubt the mutants—not when they had some impressive heavy-hitters like Magneto and Beast—but extra help of the supernatural sort could never hurt.

But Lucia would never allow it. She would be duty-bound to inform Loki of any such plan to attack the Vatican. And Jane would never put their assault at risk of failure just to make herself feel better. No. They would be doing it alone, or not at all.

She sighed, and closed her eyes. It was a proof of just how strange her life had become that it only took her a half hour of tossing and turning to fall asleep.

()()()()

For the first time, Jane was awake and dressed before Lucia came to rouse her in the morning. Her assistant gave her the incredulous quirk of the eyebrow that Jane was used to, but didn't comment. She simply set down the breakfast tray—Jane's SHIELD cell phone placed next to the fork—and rummaged through Jane's wardrobe, straightening up the clothes that she had shoved in rather haphazardly from the night before.

"Are you planning on going out today?"

You could say that, she thought wryly. However, Jane settled on saying, "Yes, I think I'll go for a walk this afternoon."

Lucia tsked under her breath. "You should really start taking a European siesta, like everyone else. It's almost indecent to be out during those hours after lunch; especially during the summer, it's so hot. And it can't be very interesting, passing all those closed shops."

"Well, it's not very warm at this time of year," Jane replied, sitting down to breakfast. "Although I think it's getting towards mosquito season." There was a red bump in the crux of her elbow that itched like crazy. Damn thing must have bitten her while she was asleep. "Anyway, I like that it's quiet," she went on, knowing that her queasy stomach wouldn't accept any food, "and that no one's around. Whenever I go into a shop, people stare at me. I don't like it; it's uncomfortable."

"Hmm," she conceded, "well, suit yourself. There are some things I need to oversee this morning, so I'll be back in about a half hour to monitor your call, all right?"

Jane nodded. "Fine."

"I'll make sure to wake Dr. Selvig, too," Lucia promised over her shoulder on the way out. The door closed softly behind her, and Jane realized…Lucia had left the cell phone in the room. With her. Unattended.

Her heart leaped. Did she dare? The Avengers could help tip the scales in their favor…even if they couldn't come, this was a chance to find out the true state of world affairs, something Jane had not had the chance at since leaving the helicarrier. She grabbed the phone and unlocked it with shaky, greedy fingers. She was about to punch Thor's number when a thought stopped her dead.

What if Loki found out? What would happen to Lucia?

Jane already knew the answer. Lucia would be in deep, deep trouble. Maybe the kind of trouble that she wouldn't be able to recover from. And hadn't she decided last night that tipping anyone off about the upcoming offensive was more trouble than it was worth?

It took more willpower than almost anything she'd done—including facing death in the Vatican—but Jane carefully replaced the phone on the tray. She took a slice of toast and buttered it, putting a lot more care in the action than it was worth, trying not to think of all the things (unrelated to her situation) that she wanted to say to Thor. Finally, she stood and took her toast over to her window seat, physically removing herself from temptation. Lucia had been a friend to her; she wouldn't risk getting her hurt just to quench her sense of loneliness.

Jane scratched her elbow—that bite really stung—and ate her toast, staring out the window at the pleasant day dawning over the city. This spring had really been a nice one, so far. She could only remember a few days of inclement weather during her entire stay in Rome. The good weather, however, was no balm to her frayed nerves. Storm clouds and rain might have actually helped their cause and provided some cover. She sighed. Oh well.

A half hour later, both Lucia and Erik came back into the room. Lucia made a beeline straight for the table, where she snatched up the phone and quickly scrolled through (what Jane assumed) was the call log. From her pale face and tight-lipped expression, Jane knew that her assistant had only just realized her mistake in leaving Jane alone with the phone. Jane also noticed the unconscious sigh of relief that Lucia's body gave when she realized Jane had not used the opportunity to contact SHIELD. Lucia looked over at where Jane sat, cuddled in the window's alcove, and smiled weakly, nodding her fervent thanks.

Jane smiled back, a little bitterly. If she were more ruthless…but no. It was just not in her nature.

"Help yourself to breakfast, Erik," she gestured towards her tray where the granola, fruit and toast lay more or less untouched, "I'm a bit sick from last night."

Erik helped himself to two slices of toast heavy with butter and jam. "We should probably start cutting back on the wine anyway," he agreed, "after all…" he had to force the name out, "Loki will probably be coming back soon, yes?"

Lucia nodded, still a bit pale from her narrow escape. "He has contacted Leo Giachetti—his lieutenant here in Rome—to inform us that he will return the day after tomorrow. Negotiations with Russia have been concluded to his satisfaction."

"Another unconditional surrender?" Erik scoffed, viciously spearing a grape on the end of his butter knife.

Lucia hesitated. "Yes. Once Moscow fell…and he already had the eastern regions…there wasn't much to negotiate with. Putin has managed to maintain power,"

"Surprise, surprise," Jane interjected.

"Mmm; he'll be one of the regional governors. But Russia is so large and still has pockets of insurgents," Lucia continued, "I wouldn't be surprised at all if once summer comes around, Lord Loki does not relocate all of us to oversee the true subjugation of Russia."

The idea of being relocated as part of Loki's retinue was disgusting. At least the chances of that happening were minimal. After today, Jane might be dead…and wouldn't have to face it. Oddly, that made facing the afternoon slightly more bearable.

"It's eight o'clock," she reminded her aide, approaching the table. Lucia nodded—once again sending Jane a quiet, thankful smile—and dialed.

Thor's voice was heavy as lead when he answered. Clearly, SHIELD—and the rest of the world—knew about the resolved situation in Russia. Loki had not waited to spread the news. Losing Russia was a blow for Europe…and the rest of the world.

"Jane," Thor said, slowly, "Have you heard?"

"Just now," she replied, sighing. "I can't really say I'm surprised, but…it's going to be bad, isn't it?"

"As I understand it, yes," he answered, "Russia—according to Captain Rogers—was a major defender of the far Eastern regions. Japan and Korea will find their northern fronts undefended, now."

Hearing Thor talk Midgardian politics was cute, if really depressing in the current context. "Let's talk about something else," she said, "we've had some small triumphs over the tyrant," she tried to sound flippant, "by raiding his wine cellar."

Thor chuckled. "Any triumph, however small, is a true victory. I take it you have been enjoying your free time, then?"

"As much as possible," she said, "there are a lot of nice people here. It's amazing that everyone is so…normal, now that Loki is away. I've been so used to thinking of almost everyone here as the enemy, but…they're just people, like us."

"Try not to judge them too harshly," Thor said, "life under a dictator is difficult, and requires compromises that many people are not accustomed to making. Still, be careful, Jane," he finished, quietly, "I always worry for you."

A hard lump clogged her throat. "I'm fine," she croaked, coughing to cover the rough sound. "You know me, I keep my head down and stay out of trouble."

Erik and Thor scoffed at the same time. "You couldn't keep your head down if you tried, Jane," Erik said.

Lucia gently cleared her throat, reminding Jane that she was still on a five-minute time limit. Though she had stretched it that one time, she was not willing to put her neck on the line all the time. Jane swallowed.

"I think that's all the time we have," she said. Then, she said the words that she'd always avoided saying thus far. However, this time, they were probably relevant.

"Goodbye, Thor."

If he noticed her strange phrasing, he didn't bring it up. "Farewell Jane, Erik. Until next we speak. Be safe."

Jane couldn't say another word; the pressure in her chest was too tight. Erik was the one who spoke up and said, "You as well."

The line went dead. Erik sighed, and stood. "Mind if I take the rest of this, Jane?" he gestured towards the breakfast plate.

She nodded, "Go ahead." There was no room inside her for anything but sorrow, regret, and fear. Even the single slice of toast she'd managed to choke down before the call felt uncomfortably tight in her stomach.

"I can bring you your own tray, Dr. Selvig," Lucia said, standing to help the man balance the dish in his arms. He shook his head, smiling thinly—he was always a bit antagonistic to anyone in Loki's employ after talking with Thor.

"No need. Don't want to waste." As Lucia moved with him towards the door, he continued, "I've got it. I'll see you later, Jane."

She nodded, eyes fixed on the phone resting in the center of the table. She'd said goodbye. The one word she had never, ever said to Thor…she'd said it today. And he hadn't noticed. Expecting him to notice, of course, wasn't at all fair to him. It's not like they had ever established any sort of codeword or system. And she knew that Thor wasn't the most detail-oriented person in the universe. Hell, Erik hadn't noticed her choice of words either. However, Jane would be lying if she said it didn't hurt, just a little bit.

What hurt even more was the sneaky suspicion that Loki might have noticed.

She shook her head, hard. Now that was a truly ridiculous thought. She didn't want anyone to notice her farewell…any tip-off to Loki would end in disaster for them all!

Lost in her thoughts, she hadn't noticed that Erik was gone until Lucia sat down at the table across from her, fixing Jane with one of those shrewdly appraising stares that she recognized from her first few days in the Villa; those stares that had gradually softened over time as the two women got more comfortable with each other. Jane stared back, waiting.

"Why didn't you call?" Lucia said, at last. "You could have done it. I didn't realize until just before coming back that I'd left the phone here. I know that you noticed; so why didn't you call?"

Jane shrugged. "Why do you think? We're friends. Loki would have found out, and you would have taken all the blame. Besides," she finished sadly, "I don't know anything that would change the course of the war. If I did, I might have been tempted. But risking a friend's life for some sweet-talk with my boyfriend," so what if she was playing a little fast and loose with the truth, "isn't really worth it. That's all."

Lucia was still staring. "Are you all right, Jane? You seem…I don't know, different, this morning. Sad; more sad than usual."

"Am I usually sad?"

Lucia gave a weak chuckle. "You have been so unhappy for so long, Jane Foster. I am worried that even when this is over—however it ends—that you may never be able to be truly happy again."

The truth of that idea hurt, and Jane had thought that accepting death put her beyond pain. Was it possible that Lucia was right? That even if the Avengers won and the earth went back to the way it was; that even if Loki was banished to some eternal prison and Thor was allowed to remain on earth—with her—and all her dreams came true…was it possible that the dark sorrow that weighed down her heart would always stay with her?

Jane sighed, and pushed the thought away. By this afternoon, chances are it wouldn't even matter. "I don't know," she said, shrugging. "And right now, I don't care. I just want to go back to sleep."

"Of course," Lucia stood immediately, "is there a time you would like me to wake you?"

Ever the dutiful servant. Jane shook her head. "I'll take care of it. Thank you, Lucia."

"You're welcome, Jane."

()()()()

She left the Villa by way of the garden gate, taking her time as she walked north, up the river. She wore comfortable jeans, boots, and a simple tee-shirt and carried the same black duffel bag with a different dress and makeup kit inside. She had no idea what the plan was, nor where the mutants were going to meet her, so she had planned for contingencies and left early so that they would have a chance to find her.

Jane's feet were on autopilot as she took the now-familiar path next to the Tiber. The beauty of the day and the magnificence of the scenery was totally lost on her. There was just one objective before her—getting everyone through the gates of the Vatican—and no future beyond that. Funny how simply living in the moment cleared up the constant white noise in her head. Jane had had no idea how often she thought about the future. Now that there was no future…she felt strangely peaceful. It was a different kind of peace from any she had known before.

I may be about to die. I am about to die.

The thoughts didn't make her panic as they had last night. Oddly, she was just curious. What would death feel like? The idea of an afterlife had never really made a big impression on her; her parents were both religious, but Jane had never paid much attention to Christianity. She supposed, in a desultory fashion, that she believed in heaven and hell, but which would she end up in?

Then again, she had met Viking gods, and they had their own myths about the afterlife. Perhaps, if she fought well and died bravely, she would find herself in Valhalla?

Jane was so wrapped up in these ideas that she barely noticed when Wolverine fell in next to her, walking along with his hands in his jeans pockets like he hadn't a care in the world. She didn't even flinch when he said, "Ready for this, kid?"

"As I'll ever be," was that really her voice? It sounded so…docile.

"Hey," he took her by the elbow and dragged her zombie walk to a halt, "look at me, Jane."

It was hard to focus on his face. Her eyes kept wanting to cross, to keep a nice blurry glaze between herself and harsh reality. Wolverine shook her by the shoulders, hard; "Look at me!"

"Ow!" she snapped, jerking backwards, "What the hell?" She had been so comfortable, just a moment ago!

"I know that look," he growled, "and I want you to cut it out. You're not dead yet, kid. Don't put yourself in that grave. Someone else will dig it for you, I promise. But you make that someone else do the work; don't you help them. Do you understand me?"

Jane nodded. It hurt, but he was right. "Where there's life, there's hope, I guess."

"Damn straight," he grunted his approval, "and if I've got anything to say about it, which I do, your life is gonna go on for a good long while. The second you give up is the second you die. Get me?"

She nodded again, but it wasn't enough for him. "Jane Foster," he said, "do you want to die?"

"No," she said, and it was the truth. "I was just…trying to be ready."

"Hell, what is there to be ready for? Death comes fast."

That made sense, in a very strange, morbid way. "All right," she said, stronger, "no more zombie-Jane. So what's the plan?"

"Plan is: you occupy the guards at the gates, we jump them, take their weapons and then you get us through the door. Then you're done; you get your stuff and go home. We'll take care of the rest."

"Oh," she said, "That's…a lot simpler than I thought it was going to be. I thought you'd want me on the inside to tell you where everything was."

"You already told me everything you saw, right? I've got a good memory. We're gonna review the map and everything just before you go in, but afterwards, there's no reason for you to be in the line of fire."

Jane smiled, relief flooding her veins. "Well now I feel really stupid. I think I may actually live through this!"

"That's the idea," Wolverine gave a chuckle, "we know you're not a fighter. But, just in case," he reached into his jacket and pulled out a pistol, "do you know how to use one of these?"

Jane took it out of his hands and gave the gun a once-over. It wasn't a Glock like the ones Clint trained her on, but it had all the same parts. "No problem," she said, putting the weapon in her duffel bag. "Got any spare clips?"

He gave her three. "You got guts, kid."

The two of them meandered through some side alleys before reaching another safe house. Climbing three flights of rickety back stairs, Jane finally found herself in a crowded room, full of all the mutants she had seen before. Each one of them had on their game faces—in some cases quite literally—and a hush fell over the group as she and Wolverine entered.

Beast ambled forward. "Miss Foster," he took her hand delicately in his large paw, "it is an honor to have you among us once again. We are extremely grateful for the information you were able to provide and your bravery in joining us here today."

Jane blushed. Being under the eyes of so many strange creatures—humans, she reminded herself firmly—some of whom still looked at her with mild distrust was very embarrassing. And the look that Magneto was giving her—full of secret amusement—was not making her feel comfortable at all.

"I just did what I could," she said, nodding and conjuring a weak smile, "I'm glad to help."

"Help you must certainly have," Beast went on, smiling. "Now, before we launch our assault," he moved toward the front of the room with the blacked-out windows, "we must confirm that the information you gave Logan is correct." He pulled down a scrolling map of Vatican City, on which Jane could see the location of the prison highlighted.

"As far as I could tell, the Etruscan Museum was converted entirely to a prison. But I was only on the first level," she clarified, "so it may be a good idea to have some people search the upper floors. Also, I only saw one wing; the others may also have prisoners as well."

"I am familiar with the area," Nightcrawler said in his clipped German tones, "So I will explore all the rest of the Museum while the others deal with the Skrull."

"Our plan is to attack in two waves," Beast said, "the first will be to draw all the guards away from their posts. Therefore, all our strongest fighters will begin. Magneto will be leading this group," murmurs spread through the room, but being mostly in Italian, Jane could only pick up on the note of unease with which they spoke, "and their task is to draw all the guards to the central plaza.

"The second group—headed by myself and Nightcrawler—will proceed to the museum to liberate the prisoners," he continued, "We will lead them to the gate on the other side of the plaza—away from the fighting—and get them out that way. Nightcrawler and half the second wave will oversee the safety of the refugees, and the rest of us will return to the plaza to ensure that the guards cannot follow us."

"Everyone know their groups?" Wolverine put in. Everyone nodded or quietly spoke up.

"I trust Logan has briefed you on your part of the plan?" Beast asked Jane. She nodded.

"I'm to get you in and then get out of there. I'm just wondering, though…" she petered off—Jane, what the hell are you doing? "I could stay behind—hidden—and be your rear guard. If reinforcements come through, for example…I could let you know."

"We had already made plans for one of our own telepaths to stay behind," Beast replied, as a tall, muscular blonde girl nodded in agreement, "She will be able to let us know much more efficiently. But again, we thank you for your bravery, Jane. You will be much better away from this fight."

"All right, then," Wolverine said, shifting and flexing his fists. "What say we get goin', Beast? Everyone knows what to do. Longer we wait, more time there is for something to go south on us."

"Very well, my impetuous friend, I agree. Miss Foster, are you ready?"

Jane nodded, licking her very dry lips. "Let's do it."

()()()()

Jane made the long, lonely walk towards the Skrull at the gates. This time, she felt just the tiniest bit less afraid; knowing that thirty mutants were hiding in the alleyways behind her did make for more confidence. Unfortunately, her walk was a good deal more awkward; having a gun holstered to her thigh under a rather tight sheath dress would do that. The butt of the gun brushed her other thigh with every step she took, and it tickled.

Unfortunately, the Skrull recognized her this time around, and remembered her fear. Their laughter, guttural and raucous, echoed off the walls of the buildings around her and dragged like nails against her spine. The captain strode forward as she approached, looming over her as Jane fought her—very strong—flight instincts.

"I'm here to take Angela Capello to the Villa Farnesina. Lord Loki wanted her waiting by the time he returned from Russia."

The aliens growled among themselves, drawing ever closer and motioning with their rifles. Every muscle in her body tightened and she longed to reach for her gun, but she held her breath, bit her lip, and waited. Finally, seeing that they could not bring her to tears again, the captain swung open the gate.

Jane took two steps forward, and hit the ground, diving forward to catch the gate as the mutants above her attacked.

The Skrull had only a few seconds to react, and they were too slow. Two of them slumped to the ground, felled by bony spikes shot from a boy's hands. Another was strangled by its own rifle, wrapped around its throat in a metallic noose. Beast smashed the skull of another, and Wolverine plunged his claws into the final guard's heart.

Jane held open the gate and stood in the archway, feeling the magical barrier pour over her skin. The longer she stood, the more intense it became; what was a simple vibration when she had passed underneath it the first time became almost bone-jarring in the minute it took for all the mutants to get inside. She clenched her teeth and dealt with it.

The two groups divided in the shadow of the archway. Nightcrawler disappeared in a puff of blue-black smoke.

"Is everyone ready?"

In answer, there were three quiet pops. Beast looked puzzled, searching for the origin of the sound. Everyone was confused, until three people collapsed, blood and brains oozing from the freshly-made holes in their skulls.

"Snipers!" Wolverine yelled, shoving Jane back towards the gates, "Everyone move!"

Jane grabbed the handle, and screamed. Her hand came away red and blistering. Two others who had grabbed the bars at the same time got the same treatment, one of them getting his flesh seared almost to the bone.

"It's no good!" Jane cried, cradling her wounded hand to her chest, "we're trapped!"

"Scatter!" Wolverine barked, blades ripping from his hands as he turned to run towards the plaza, "Make for the other gate!"

The minute he broke out into the light, a sharp shriek went up from the assembled—yes, assembled—Skrull. At least two hundred of the alien soldiers were standing ready in the plaza. And hovering above the scene—gold and green armor brilliant in the sun—was Loki. He looked directly at her, and the mocking smile on his face told her that he had known. Her heart plunged in her chest and she thought she might faint. He had always known.

Jane had got it right. They were trapped. And it was all her fault.

()()()()

The mutants refused to go down without a fight. Beast and Wolverine bellowed with fury and plowed through the soldiers, flinging them left and right as the weaker mutants behind dealt with the stragglers. Jane retrieved her gun and took cover from the snipers on the walls, aiming at them and trying to pick them off. Her hands were shaking so badly that she missed every shot for her first clip. She reloaded, taking the precious moments it took to try and stop the frightened tremors in her hands.

The shrieking sound of twisted metal sliced through the air. Magneto was manipulating them by their weapons and armor, crushing them like sardines in a can. The harsh, acidic smell of Skrull blood burned in Jane's nose and she gagged, thankful only that there was nothing to come up.

But the Skrull were trained warriors, and they had no fear of humans; even mutant humans. They pushed back, and soon there was a significant amount of red human blood mingling with the blue alien slime on the tiles of the courtyard.

"Jane, focus," she snarled at herself, slamming the clip in place. She leaned around her pillar and fired into the fray, aiming for a team of four Skrull moving in on a wounded telekinetic. The man pushed them back with ribbons of yellow-tinted light, but blood poured from a gash in his arm and it was only a matter of time before they got through. Jane put a bullet through the mouth of one, wounded the sword-arm of another, and ran out of bullets again.

She fumbled in her pocket for the second clip; by the time she looked back, the mutant was dead.

Jane gave a strangled scream of frustration and slammed back under cover, pressing her head hard against the pillar. "No, no, no!" she yelled, the sound smothered by the clash of steel against stone, the firing of weapons, and the cries of the wounded. "God damn it!"

"To which God do you refer, my Jane?"

It was useless, but Jane put up her pistol and fired three shots right at the gap between his armor and helmet. At five paces, she could hardly miss; but to help her, Loki let his head fall back to expose his pale throat. Her hands itched to just throw the pistol at him, but she didn't. Someone's life might depend on her aim.

"Stop this," she snarled at him, "this will be a massacre."

"Indeed it will," he stepped closer, leaning against a pillar opposite to her, watching the fight with narrowed, appraising eyes. "And once it is done, the mutant resistance in this city will be crushed. I do thank you, Jane," now his attention was back on her, and he smiled, "for bringing them all here. Attacking them in their hideout might have been difficult. The Domus Aurea has so many secret passages and catacombs, after all. This is much less effort."

Jane lunged at him, wishing that she had the strength to just tear his throat out. He caught her easily and didn't even allow her the satisfaction of a struggle. He merely took her hands and swung her around until he held her, back pressed against his chest and hands clutched immobile between his.

"I've told you," he hissed in her ear, "you cannot save everyone. As long as you try," he faced her towards the battle, "there will be more pointless deaths. Lose hope, Jane," he tightened his grip around her, even as she struggled to get away, "just give in."

She stopped struggling; his grip was verging on painful and she could feel bruises on her upper arms already. Jane stopped struggling, but still fought back. "I don't see any reason to give in," she spat over her shoulder, "I see thirty mutants going up against hundreds of your thugs…and I see them winning."

Shock loosened his grip as Loki really focused on the fight. Jane had spoken the truth; more Skrull than mutants had fallen on the field, and Beast, Wolverine, and Magneto were rallying the rest to make an organized stand. Some Skrull were even attacking each other, controlled by the telepaths in the group to betray their own kind. Then, from the Basilica behind the Skrull…

Jane laughed. A column of thin, sick, furious mutants poured from the Basilica, throwing whatever strength they had into the fray in support of their brethren. Navy blue smoke puffed up all over the field as Nightcrawler—duty done in the Museum—joined the fight; rescuing mutants here, taking down a Skrull there.

"Maybe you should consider your own "pointless deaths"," Jane crowed, not caring when Loki's grip threatened to break her bones, "because unless my eyes deceive me, we are winning this!"

His nails cut bloody crescents in her skin and he threw her aside. Jane's shoulder took the impact as she fell to the ground, the skin on her knees leaving bloody swaths against the stone. Pain radiated all over her body, but she didn't even notice. They were winning; there was still a chance!

Then Loki joined the battle. More than half the Skrull were dead, but his magic turned the tide again; turned it against the mutants. Green fire scorched the field, nightmarish creatures of shadow and energy swallowed people whole, and dozens of doppelgangers confused and led the mutants into deadly traps. They could not hope to last against a master sorcerer.

"Get outta here!" Wolverine bellowed, gesturing at the stream of mutants who had broken rank and started to run for the gates or scale the walls. "Everybody move it!"

Jane—shaking, bloody, and weak—pushed off her knees and started running around the periphery of the courtyard. In the shadows, she was relatively protected, but both hands clutched her gun, ready to bring it up to fire at any moment. Her shoulder burned and the blood trickling down her arms and knees made her feel faint, but she kept going. The column of escaping mutants drew nearer, and her breath was just starting to come easier…

She screamed. Something—some invisible force or power—caught her and started dragging her backwards. It jerked her off her feet and into the air so fast that she lost her grip on the gun; it clattered to the stones beneath her.

The same numbness from the morning descended over her—her breath stopped and her vision dimmed.

I am going to die. Loki is going to kill me.

But it wasn't Loki who had her.

A familiar voice muttered in her ear, "Now, be so kind as to scream for me, my dear," and then Magneto was flinging her into the air and pulling her apart so that each joint, each artery, each vein, felt like it was tearing apart at the seams.

Jane screamed.

()()()()

Loki's gaze dropped to her, and his expression widened into a true smile. Loose, free…he'd been drunk, the few times he'd smiled at her like that. He was—in his own strange, twisted way, of course—saying goodbye to her. Well…she supposed it was the thought that counts. Somehow, she managed to dig up a smile—though something much weaker and paler—to match his. Now would be the time for some snappy last words; but as it usually did when put under pressure, her brain was empty and numb. Jane Foster would die as she had lived; plain, kind of boring, and unremembered.

He blinked once again, and opened his mouth to speak.

()()()()

"Fool,"

Power washed over Jane's head so fast that it knocked her flat on her back. Magneto flew backwards and smacked into a pillar, crumpling with a groan. Jane was petty enough to enjoy the grimace of pain that twisted his face, but then Loki was on him. The two sorcerers struggled for control; Magneto forced Loki back by his armor, and Loki retaliated with a hailstorm of stone daggers.

Magneto pulled a shield from a fallen Skrull in just enough time to avoid most of the daggers, but some sliced through his cape, glanced off his helmet, or scarred his legs. He dropped to his knees but threw the shield—the edges flattened to razor-blades by his power—at Loki, who bent backwards to avoid the thing taking off his head. He gathered his cape around him and turned, doppelgangers spilling from the shadows of his cloak. Magneto reached towards Jane—she felt his influence on her blood—but Loki cut him off with a scepter slash that nearly took his arm off.

"Miss Foster!"

Two strong arms closed around her middle and Jane vanished into nothingness, only to slam into sunlight and hard wall a moment later. She—and a few other injured, groaning mutants—were hidden behind an ivy-covered garden gate; the tiny plot insulated on three sides by tall buildings. Jane slid down the wall and pressed her burning face against the cool, sweet-smelling grass, ears ringing with the buzzing of the bees in the flowers.

Above her, Nightcrawler vanished once again.

"Quickly!" a man's voice hissed, "You must get out of here! We cannot keep you all!"

His hand was tugging at her elbow, and Jane wanted to scream at him. She coughed into the grass, streaks of blood clinging to the blades as he dragged her upwards.

"Please Miss!" he begged her, "You cannot stay!"

She was so tired and disoriented that she allowed him to guide her—shaky legs and all—towards the gate. Before he opened the door, he took both Jane's hands between his, brow furrowing with concentration. "It is not much," he murmured, "but I will do what I can."

Jane felt strength flow into her limbs; her lungs felt stronger and she no longer wanted to cough. She looked down in wonderment, only to see the cuts on her arms and knees scab over and stop oozing blood. It wasn't much—she was still sore, tired, and hurt—but even that tiny bit of aid made her feel much better. She let him send her through the gate with no further protest.

Once outside, though, Jane had no idea where to go. She started wandering vaguely to the left, with no other idea than it seemed like a good direction to head. She couldn't think; she was still hearing the screams of the injured and feeling the pain of being pulled around by her own iron-poisoned blood.

"Shell shock," she muttered, putting one hand against the alley wall. The words made sense…she had no idea why, but she was fairly certain she was in some kind of battle-related shock. What should she do?

Nothing came to mind.

Jane kept walking.

Sounds were muffled as they came to her. People walked past her on the streets and spoke to her, but she couldn't hear them. She actually started to smile, thinking about what she must look to them; a woman in a battered dress and high heels, covered in bruises and blood. She would make a good topic of conversation at the dinner table: "Honey, you'll never guess what I saw today…"

They touched her, and she shrugged off their hands. It wasn't good for anyone to be near her…she needed to get away from people.

Jane kept walking.

Eventually, the space around her opened up. A magnificent split staircase linked a plaza below with a plain church above; people were buzzing up and down the stairs, gathering in clusters, smiling, living. Jane stared. Her brain supplied a useless fact: these are the Spanish Steps. You lied about having been here.

She shrugged. Whatever. It looked like a good spot.

Each step up made her knees ache; she had to lean most of her weight on the railings to get up to the first landing. Her strength was gone. Jane sat and leaned against the wall, insulated in her cocoon of deafness. Not moving was good. She pressed her head against her knees, and passed out.

()()()()

In which we find that Loki would never have been ignorant about Jane's whereabouts. After all, if we can track people with cell phones, certainly he can track people with magical GPS.

I have thrown Jane into…so much trouble in this chapter. I'd always intended to, but the magnitude of trouble impresses even me. It may also be hitting me particularly hard because it's 5 AM here and I haven't slept, but…wow.

What do you think?