Thank you so much to all of you who commented on the past chapter, especially to wish me well in Georgia. I'm enjoying my time here very much (for details, you can read my updates on Tumblr: nofearofwaves), but it is a bit lonely being without internet access. Some of you have asked if I have any original writing out there, and I do! You can find it on FictionPress, where my username is C Terrance. I highly recommend the stories Cash and Change, Older and Far Away, Blindness, and Christmas Eve, as well as the novel The Horse Prince and my WIP, The Family Story. Please look me up!

()()()

Their jet departed before dawn the following day, carrying a specially-chosen team. Jane sat sandwiched between Agents Romanov and Coulson, opposite Tony and Bruce. At the end of the plane, leaning nonchalantly against a stack of bundled parachutes, was Loki. The six of them sat in stony, uneasy silence, avoiding each other's eyes. Even Loki was uncharacteristically quiet, each moment losing the opportunity to bait Tony, his favorite sparring partner, or Bruce, his most likely escape route. She didn't know whether that was a sign he'd decided to accept just punishment or if he was merely biding his time until an opportunity to escape presented itself.

The flight was to be a long one, and the plane that was taking them was a comfortless one. Jane scraped her sneakers against the exposed metal decking of the floor and shivered in the poorly-heated space. She wanted to talk, but couldn't think of anything worth saying. She'd give quite a bit for Tony to start egging someone on, just so she could enjoy listening to the repartee.

She knew nothing about their destination, save that they hadn't veered about when taking off; she assumed they were headed across the Atlantic, though whether to Europe, Africa, or somewhere farther beyond she hadn't the slightest. Romanov and Coulson knew; Tony probably did from the multiple system hacks he had running on SHIELD's computers, and Loki…well, who knew?

After twenty minutes of climbing, Jane's stomach settled as they leveled out and she unfastened her seatbelt to stand and stretch. Romanov and Coulson headed towards the cockpit, murmuring softly to each other, and bypassed her without so much as a glance. Tony had pulled out his phone, and Bruce's nodding head showed he was trying to ignore the tension in the plane by falling asleep.

The universe seemed bound and determined to pair her off with Loki, she thought, with more than a little rueful amusement. She settled herself against the opposing stack of parachutes and met his straightforward gaze with one of her own.

"Tell me about Asgard," she said. It was perhaps the worst thing she could have asked, but she was curious—had been for ages—and so far no one had taken the opportunity to satisfy that curiosity. She and Thor had never discussed it in their brief moments together, and she and Loki had always had…other things to talk about.

He didn't reply. "Come on," and she almost couldn't believe the light teasing tone in her voice, "we have a who-knows-how long flight in front of us, and it looks like no one has anything interesting to talk about."

"And you believe that Asgard qualifies as an interesting topic?"

"It is to me," she said, "You don't seem to understand that a person bound to a single planet—like me—finds all the hints you've been dropping about other planets to be pretty fascinating."

He managed a thin smile. "Why do you think I tried to entice you into the wide universe? Of all humans, I know that you are one of the least likely to find Earth satisfactory to your ambitions. Perhaps I should punish you for your refusal," and his grin grew wider, "by refusing in turn to satisfy your insatiable curiosity."

It was somehow unbelievable that he was teasing her back, "Even you wouldn't be that cruel."

"I'm surprised you doubt my capability for cruelty."

Jane gave a pale smile of her own and studied the corrugated metal that caught at the sole of her shoe. This was not a subject she wanted to pursue even at the best of times, and that went double for the day they were trying to save the whole damn planet. So she shrugged and let the subject drop.

"If you won't tell me about Asgard," she said, stealing a glance upward at Loki's stony expression, "you could tell me about your favorite place in the universe. You must have seen quite a few in your time. And don't," she jabbed a finger at him, "try to fool me by saying it's Midgard, because I know the unpleasant truth about your feelings for my beloved planet. You can't trick me on that."

"As though I would try to," he snorted, "I am a talented liar," he went on, "but that comes from knowing where my efforts are best spent. And I do not care to spend them on Midgard."

"Good to hear," she said, wrapping her arms around her knees and fixing him with her expectant eyes. She really did want to hear his answer; anything to keep her mind from chewing over what had been, and more importantly, what was to come.

He saw it, and took pity on her. He drew up his own legs and rested his arms on them, looking away from her as he considered his words.

"I suppose one of the most beautiful places in all the nine realms is the Grove in Vanaheim. You can wander in it for days and not come across another person, and all the way you have trees that have stood for thousands of years and flower groves that spread between their massive trunks, spreading color and fragrance through the undergrowth," as he spoke, he sank into a reverie. His face smoothed out, losing some of its tension and watchfulness. Jane found herself focusing more on him than the story he told; it was nice to see him so unguarded. "Streams of water spring from deep wells; the whole forest sings with them. And from these springs drink creatures that exist only in legend in all the other realms; aurochs and hedge-sprites and lilk-wights.

"I was young when I went there the first time," he said, shaking his head almost at the memory of his former self, "and while the rest—Thor, my parents, and our attendants—were at the palace, I stole away and lost myself. It never grows truly dark on Vanaheim," he murmured, and Jane leaned forward to catch his quiet words, "just…deep. Indigo and violet, with stars in the sky so large each one is like your moon. I walked until I could go no farther, and when I laid down to rest, the sky was turning pale orange and pink. The leaves of the trees change with the light of the sun. At that time, they were so pale green as to seem transparent, each one nothing more than a window to the heavens.

"And night or day, you can feel the magic. It's different from the kind on Asgard, which is only evoked through summoning or invocation. The magic of Vanaheim is wild; it flows through the roots of the trees and the stems of each plant. Lying there, I felt my power—so untaught and almost unfelt—growing. I knew then that magic was to be the purpose and means of my life."

He stopped, the quiet monotone of his voice fading into the rumble of the jet's engines. Jane let out a silent breath; she'd been holding it from the start. His vivid recollection of the place itself—the colors, the scents—was second to the clear sense of who he had been at that time. Jane could just imagine him; dark hair smoothed back neatly against his scalp, big green eyes that seemed to see everything and everyone, and a voice that was rarely heard, save to say something unconsidered and unexpected.

Walking off and losing himself in a world of raw magic, instead of staying and taking part in a conversation that likely had little interest…it was exactly what she could see him doing now.

She had been silent too long; Loki's guard was back up.

"Not what you expected to hear?" he said, a harsh smirk curving his lips. "I suppose that I should have said—"

"No," she said, a headshake and an outstretched hand all helping to interrupt the mocking flow of his words. "I was just thinking…I could see you doing that. I think I can imagine it," she shrugged, trying to shake off her gravity, "Vanaheim. It must be beautiful..." she laughed at her own pale words, "of course it's beautiful. But I'm just a scientist, and I don't think that even if I saw it I'd be able to describe it like you just did. When we—humans, I mean—start to travel to other worlds," her heart surged at the thought, however unlikely she'd see it in her lifetime, after all that had happened, "we should send poets too. They might get it right."

"I think you would do more than simply provide a catalogue of the plant life, resident fauna, and constellation charts."

"You're being generous because you never saw any of my short story attempts in high school," she winced at their very memory, "If you had, nothing would convince you that I had any gift for poetic description at all. I can never find the right words for anything…even when I want to."

"I would never accuse myself of possessing generosity, or you of lacking any," he said, "But I suppose you are correct; to judge without evidence is a fool's gamble. So I will have no mercy on your unknown artistic abilities."

Jane could have risen to his teasing manner; she could have teased him in return for not even offering her the benefit of the doubt, but it seemed too flippant, too casual. She had already been a little bit too much so; especially considering the revelations of yesterday, she needed to be careful. It would be a disaster for Loki to guess what was so recently a secret even to her.

So she settled for sincerity. "Thank you for telling me. If I never get to travel anywhere beyond this single world, it's good to have an idea of what's out there."

"And will you be satisfied merely with knowing it's out there?" he asked, "Or will you burn to see it for yourself?" At her silence, he continued, voice stiffening, "You have not thought of what the love of Asgard's heir will bring you. It may be the only way for you to see the universe; humanity will not find the technology, or allow it to be used freely, before your brief life ends."

"Is this something you've seen in your many visions of the future?" She spoke bitterly, but he only spoke the truth that she knew so well. SHIELD would put the technology under lock and key after all this, and Jane was nowhere near being so trusted by them as to ensure her inclusion in any extraterrestrial research.

"Something like that," he said, "But I would need no special knowledge of the future to interpret what I see. You are too much what you are to be of use to Director Fury and his organization."

"What does that mean?"

"Surely you need no compliments from me, Jane."

"Maybe not," and she was smiling again, "but I did need confirmation that what you said was actually a compliment. You know," she settled back against the firm cushion of the parachutes behind her, "I don't know if you're aware of this," a nap would be so nice right about now, "but sometimes what you say can be taken to have a double meaning."

"No," he gasped, pressing a hand against his chest, "surely not. I would be devastated if I thought that my very straightforward words had ever been mistaken by anyone. How mortifying."

"You can also be a terrible actor, too," Jane said, chuckling. "But that one I'm sure you knew."

He only gave a mock bow to her assertion. She shook her head and leaned back, feeling the thrum of the jet rumble through her head as she lay there. Soon, the silence from the rest of the plane had her in a fair way towards that nap she wanted. Just before she nodded off, she asked,

"Do you have any idea where we're going? Not that," she looked at him through her half-open eyes, "it's not absolutely thrilling, rocketing into the unknown with the prospect of facing an alien horde at the end of the ride," he smiled at her poor attempt at sarcasm, "but it'd be nice to know what part of the world we're going to be in when we land."

"Africa, as far as I understand, is our destination. SHIELD has a research station in the desert that should have the materials we need, as well as having the benefit of being in the absolute middle of nowhere. The exact country is Namibia."

"Namibia," Jane repeated, closing her eyes as she tried to picture a map of Africa. Though she could have filled in a star chart for every season of the region, her knowledge of political divisions was very weak. "Thanks."

He nodded, and she closed her eyes again.

()()()

Natasha shook her awake before they landed and Jane stumbled back to her seat to buckle up. No one bothered to extend the same courtesy to Loki, who remained in much the same position as she'd seen him earlier; back to the wall and eyes roaming from empty ceiling to barren floor. Then again, she didn't suppose he needed the warning. If they did crash, after all, he'd be the one most likely to walk away without so much as a scratch.

They landed without incident, and the ramp descended, letting in a gush of simmering air and fine dust. Jane sneezed three times before getting off the plane and glared at both Tony and Loki's smirks at her mousy sniffles.

"It's not my fault that I've got a ridiculously cute sneeze," she grumbled to Bruce, who was at least smiling and not smirking. "Or that this whole country," she continued to herself, looking around at the rolling hills covered in scrubby brush that bordered the hard-packed runway, "is no good for anyone with a dust allergy." Neither was New Mexico, but she had much kinder feelings for that sneeze-fest dot on the map than this barren country.

"Follow me," Coulson said, and he and Natasha led them towards a simple glass-fronted building off the side of the runway. They were greeted with a nod and businesslike scan of ID cards from the two agents behind the counter, and proceeded to pack themselves into a not-overlarge elevator. Jane was uncomfortably conscious of being sandwiched with Loki at her back and Agent Coulson frowning at them both from the front. Jane was well aware (if she hadn't been before) that Fury had told his right hand man all about his suspicions about the pair of them.

Loki definitely caught his looks. She knew it by the way he preferred to press against her back instead of using the six inches of space between him and the wall of the elevator car. Jane was no longer in the mood to be teased; things were getting serious. So she lifted her heel and brought it down with as much pressure as she could on Loki's booted foot. Her reward was in his flinch; she heard him chuckle as he moved away.

After a few silent minutes, they touched down in the subbasement's subbasement and stepped out into a brightly-lit room rigidly marked off by lab benches and blocks of equipment. Jane smiled at the sheer range of what they had to work with, even as she shook her head at the ridiculous regimentation of it all. Offer what they might, SHIELD would never get her into one of these labs. Tucked away in secret, working for someone else's goals and never allowed to see the sun…it was enough to make her shiver.

Of course, it might have been better for her career if she could see herself working happily here. If she couldn't—and she knew she couldn't—Loki was right. She'd never get off planet Earth.

The lab techs—all identically goggled and swathed in white coats—stared at them as their odd party marched the central aisle to the tables in the back, which had clearly been prepared for their use. Jane could see some of her own machines—constructed when SHIELD had stolen (and she would always say stolen) her prototypes.

She stared at one of them—a frequency resonator that had been clearly modified with some extra bells and whistles—and planted her hands on her hips.

"I should sue you for unauthorized use of my ideas," she grumbled, prodding at the extra sensors. "I don't think you bothered to consult my patents before building this."

"You could say SHIELD is a non-profit organization, Miss Foster," Coulson's expression verged on the amused; although that could just be the bland half-smile that always haunted his face, "and as we don't derive profit from the equipment we modify or use, there is no infringement in the case."

"You're a government organization," she said, incapable of believing his bland disregard for the rules, "Shouldn't you care at least a bit about the laws the government sets regarding patent laws?"

"And shouldn't you care that there's a better time to pursue the matter?"

Bruce stepped up behind her and said, "There's no point in fighting them, Jane, believe me," he sighed with mingled anger and resignation, "They'll always get their way in the end. They've got an ocean of paperwork to sink you in if you try, and always the fallback of plausible deniability." Coulson merely blinked at them, that same bland smile lingering patiently at the corners of his mouth. "You'll never be able to prove that they have it. Let it go."

"Let it go?" she repeated, a powerful wave of deja-vu seizing her as she thought of when last she'd brushed up unfavorably with SHIELD, "I wouldn't be where I am today if I were in the habit of letting things go. You're right," she calmed herself enough to speak to Coulson, whom she honestly wanted to punch, "this isn't the time. But don't think that I'll forget any of this."

"Very well," Coulson replied, "Now that we can get on with it," Jane nearly bit her tongue in two over his casual dismissal, "Let's get to it. You've all been briefed on the plan—"

"We made the plan, Jeeves," Tony said, clearly irritated over his treatment of Jane, "so maybe we should brief you."

He continued as though he hadn't heard. "Dr. Banner will use his tracking algorithm to locate the Skrull presence in this country, while Miss Foster and Mr. Stark prepare the portal generator. With Iron Man's assistance, we will then deploy the portal generator in the vicinity of a likely target. Upon activation of the portal, we will see if Loki can force the aliens through."

"Of all links in this chain," the latter drawled, "you should be least concerned over mine's breaking. I would have not made a claim to power that I do not possess."

Tony chuckled. "Far be in from me to argue with anyone, but I seem to see an unconquered world which you'd claimed to have almost under your very fancy boots," he smiled in the face of Loki's glare, "So maybe he's right to ask if you can do what you claim."

"You do your part, and have no fear of mine," he replied, fury threading through his words, "and take a friendly suggestion to mind your tongue. Like Miss Foster, I do not forget or forgive insults. When this is over, we will have debts to settle."

"Not in my house, you won't," Jane wanted to laugh at Coulson's deadpan interruption of the superhero grudge match in front of him, but his calm manner seemed to imply that he could and would take care of them if they started to raise a fuss. "I'd prefer it if we could all cooperate at last for the next 24 hours."

A moment of tense silence spread between them. "Let's get to work," Bruce said, shedding his jacket and readjusting his crooked glasses. Jane joined him at the bench, opening a factory-fresh laptop and booting it up. She plugged in her USB, and their calculation and models flashed up on the screen. Most of the heavy lifting was already done; all that remained was the weary work of calibrating the three pieces of equipment necessary for portal generation.

And that was exactly what she started to do, as Tony was far too busy in his staring (or pissing) contest with Loki to be of any help.

()()()

It took four hours for them to be ready. Jane and Bruce chatted quietly at the coffeepot (she was only on her third mug) while Tony double-checked their calculations and calibrations. Loki—as he had been for the past three and a half hours—was pacing through the rest of the lab, smirking as the techs flinched at his shadow and taking far too much care in his inspection of the equipment. Jane couldn't help but smile at his suppressed expressions of surprise; he was clearly impressed against his will by the advances of those he'd denigrated as talking apes.

Despite being well aware of the capabilities of the human race, Jane was impressed enough at the technology at SHIELD's disposal. The razor thin screen in front of them flashed a map of Namibia, dotted here and there will Skrull patrols, isolated and displayed in real time by Bruce's refined tracking algorithms. If there was an expert on Skrull bioelectric emissions, it was easily him.

Bruce caught her looking at the display. "I'd say there's a few hundred of them here, no more. I wonder," he continued, sotto voce, "why SHIELD lets them hang around. You'd think that letting an invading force near your super-secret base would be bad for business."

Jane shrugged. "Maybe it's safer than otherwise. If all the Skrull in the country disappeared, they'd probably just send more…and start looking for the people that made them vanish. Would be bad for the local population."

He nodded, satisfied by her answer. "I guess it's better for us anyway. The closest cluster seems to be stationed thirty miles south of here. We'll be back before dark."

"You're coming with us?" she asked, unsure whether the Hulk's presence made her feel safer or otherwise. She'd never seen Bruce other than his carefully-controlled self, but she'd been briefed on his alter-ego's capabilities. The situation they were heading into was likely to be less than calming.

"Believe me, I'd rather not," he said, staring at the board, "but in case things go pear-shaped…the Other Guy is useful in a tight spot."

Despite her fears, Jane smiled. "You know, you could start calling him O.G. Then everyone would wonder if you were talking about the Hulk or the Phantom."

He looked puzzled, and Jane was just getting ready to explain the plot of one of her favorite musicals when Tony interrupted.

"Yeah, I can just imagine how he'd look in a mask and a cape. Although if we're gonna go for literary metaphors, we'd be much more accurate with a Jekyll/Hyde type thing."

"Gee, I'd never thought of that before," Bruce said, dryly, while Jane stifled her laugh. It really wasn't funny. "And no one's ever pointed it out, either. Not in the hundreds of hours of TV coverage or the endless radio op-eds—"

"Yeah, yeah," he brushed off the sarcasm, "whatever. So, usually I'm in for a bigger fanfare, but you know, if we want to end a war, now's the time."

The words end a war echoed between the three of them. Jane was caught between feeling a surging hope so strong it could drown her, and certain dread that something would go wrong. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Loki staring at them and knew that he had heard every word.

Jane believed in their work. She knew that their portals would work, that Bruce's information was correct, and that Loki could do as he said. The only doubt—and it was a big one—was whether he would.

Coulson had overheard them as well. "If that's the case, Mr. Stark, Miss Foster, and Dr. Banner, please follow Agent Romanov for mission briefing. Orders from HQ say we should be ready to go in a half hour."

"And where am I to go?" Loki said, amusement clear in his voice as he surveyed Agent Coulson.

"Your part of the briefing is simple," the man replied, batting not an eye as he returned the alien's superior smirk, "Don't screw us over."

Jane tensed; there had been a time—and she knew, because she'd lived through it—when Loki would have torn a person's throat out for saying something like that. The agents standing by—all of whom stood ready to fight—could over no protection, no opposition to power the kind that Loki wielded. Even the Hulk…even if Dr. Banner could shed his human form fast enough, would the beast be enough to resist him?

But Loki just laughed. "Very well," he said, chuckling as tension leeched away from everyone, including Coulson, "I shall endeavor to remember your instructions."

Almost exactly a half hour later, they were speeding over the barely-marked roads in black jeeps, growing ever closer to the Skrull patrol stationed nearest them. Jane's heart was pounding. She hung on to the smallest piece of machinery, but her hands were slippery with sweat on the cold metal. Time and again she wiped her palms against the black cargo pants SHIELD had issued her, and double-checked the Glock in her right holster. The presence of the weapon did nothing to calm her down; nor did remembering that the group of aliens they were going to fight was only ten strong.

The Skrull didn't frighten her.

Her gaze went out the window and to the car flanking them on the right. Even through the tinted glass, she could still see Loki's tall figure, head almost brushing the roof as he sat, long hands crossed and patient smile a fixture on his face, as though he'd taken a page out of Agent Coulson's playbook. She remembered the look he'd given her just before the closed doors separated them. She still didn't know what to make of the mixture of amusement, resignation, and scorn she'd read there.

She and Bruce jostled against each other as the jeep turned off into softer sand. They pulled up underneath a ridge of hard packed dirt and scrub brush; the patrol was encamped five hundred yards away. This was the last safe haven before the open plain gave them away.

Jane jumped to the ground, lugging the quantum stabilizer by its thick handle. Tony—face set in grim lines as Loki gave him one parting grin—joined her from the other car, the mini arc reactor humming and gleaming in its casing. A cluster of agents, Natasha among them, climbed to the edge of the ridge to reconnoiter. The remaining agents and Bruce stood tense and ready, while Loki—despite his escort of three burly SHIELD enforcers—looked as nonchalant as if he were on a picnic.

"I don't know what you see in him, Jane," Tony grumbled to her as they put their gear on the tables that several faceless agents had set up for them, "But I can't believe you made it through weeks with a constant audio track of his voice."

"But I don't see anything in him," she murmured back, nettled by Tony's matter-of-fact appraisal, "And I put up with him because the fear of death is a powerful incentive. Being a smart ass didn't do you much good in Stark Tower, if you'll remember."

"I know," he looked genuinely surprised at her tirade, "I was just kidding. Relax, sweetheart."

Jane sighed. "I'll feel much better when this is all over and done with, that's all. Who's got the particle generator?"

"Be ready," Coulson said, "as soon as we have confirmation on the number of targets, we'll move."

"Figuratively speaking, of course," Jane said, hands flying as she connected the machinery and entered the portal coordinates. Once they were loaded, she stepped back, stuffing her hands into her pockets so no one could see them shaking. She heard a soft footstep behind her and turned to Loki, smiling uncertainly.

"Is this it?" she asked him, her breathless chuckle sounding more like a sigh.

"It may be," he replied, simply.

They had no time for anything else. Romanov was sliding down the hill; when she spoke, her crisp military voice betrayed no fear, no anxiety, no anticipation. She was absolutely calm as she said, "Twelve of them in two clusters; coordinates are being sent to your devices now. Long range scans detect nothing closer than two hundred miles. Couldn't be better for our test."

Her dark eyes cut sideways to Loki, including Jane in the sweep of her distrustful gaze. "Are we set?"

Jane cleared her throat. "Should be," she checked the readouts on the stabilizer and the generator; the coordinates were correct. The arc reactor's levels were within parameters and the emissions were stable. "Yeah," she said again, "Ready to go."

"Follow me," Romanov spoke brusquely to Loki, gesturing with a jerk of her hand, "We'll get into position."

A moment later, and Jane, Tony, and Coulson were standing alone. "Are we ready?" the always imperturbable agent muttered into his radio. Natasha answered with a thumbs' up where she and Loki lay crouched just under the lip of the ridge.

"Then let's start the show," Tony said, and he flipped the switch.

Even from this distance, Jane felt the currents of power that the portals generated. Her skin prickled and hairs rose on her arms. She didn't look away from Loki for an instant. He made one decisive gesture; thrusting both palms before him as though he were shoving the aliens away. Romanov was just as intent; a moment after Loki moved, she cut the air sharply with one hand.

Tony killed the power; Jane ran to the ridge, ignoring the agents who reached out to stop her. After thirty seconds of pawing the red-hot sand, Jane was staring down at the empty plain. Not a trace of the Skrull camp remained.

She collapsed on her knees, adrenaline leaving her a cut-string marionette. "We did it," she whispered, "It worked!"

Loki was smiling at her, the kind of smile he'd only given her when he was drunk. "Did you doubt it?"

Jane smiled back; his grin was infectious. "Do you really want me to answer that?"

He started to answer, but a thin whine pierced the air and Jane turned immediately to the camp below. She knew that sound—

An instant before the three portals tore through the fabric of space above them, Loki dragged her to his side. He took the impact of the Skrull's rifle blast; Jane felt it shudder through both of them as the force sent them rolling down the other side of the ridge. Branches whipped her face and rocks and pebbles bruised her skin. The world turned into a kaleidoscope of confusing glances and terrifying sounds; the agents were shouting to each other, bullets screamed through the air, and the Skrull snarled. Above it all came the tearing roar of the Hulk. She heard the sound of rifles hitting flesh and breaking bone; she had a moment to feel sick and then they were sprawled flat in the dust.

"The alarm!" she cried, coughing and struggling upright, "Portals!" She offered Loki her hand and winced as he took it. His grip was unforgiving as he dragged heavily on her arm. He hadn't been wearing his armor, Jane remembered, and she looked at the blood seeping from where his hand covered his ribs.

"You're hurt," she said, the thought more startling than any other. His face was gray with the pain and it looked like all he could do too to stay upright. Jane unclipped her gun, fighting the shock that threatened to overwhelm her. She fumbled twice at the clasp and even more at the safety catch.

"Thanos," his growl wasn't meant for her, "he knew. He knew the whole time. There must be something, some connection to the scepter…" Loki closed his eyes, concentrated for a moment, and then straightened up. The blood had stopped flowing and Jane could see that the puckered gash in his torso had scabbed over. He snarled something under his breath, something that wasn't English, but Jane was familiar with a variety of Aesir curses by this point.

She ignored him. "We have to help them!" Jane started for the top of the hill that hid them from the others. The only thing that stopped her was Loki's hand, even stronger now that his power had recovered. She had one last glimpse of the brilliant blue sky and the radiant yellow sand—one last echo of the screams, shouts, and gunfire mingled with crumpling metal and shattering glass—before she was yanked through non-space to reemerge, panting and sicker than before, in a pitch-dark storage room.

Loki let her go the instant they arrived; Jane reeled and grabbed a shelf to regain her balance. The contrast—brilliance to darkness, sound to silence—made it almost impossible to hold onto reality. Where were they?

After a moment, she choked, "Where are we?"

"Safe," he replied, a groan suffusing the simple word. A moment later, Jane heard him fall heavily to his knees.

"Safe?" she repeated, turning on him. "Safe! When all the others are back there in that ambush?" She took a step towards him, grip tightening on the gun still in her hand. His pale face was clear even through the gloom. "Take us back," she said, "We have to help them."

"And what could you do," he shook his head, "besides adding to the count of the dead? There is no help for them Jane," he went on, slowly standing up, "unless we end this entirely."

Jane, though unwilling to admit the truth of his words, paused to catch her breath. As she did, she had a chance to actually look at their surroundings. Black boxes—each stamped with that ubiquitous eagle logo—lined the shelves. She felt cold, despite the sweat and the African sun she could still feel on her skin. Dread certainty churned in her stomach.

"Where are we?" she repeated, knowing the answer before he said it.

"Five hundred feet underground, in SHIELD's New Mexico compound," he said, holding her frightened eyes with his own steady ones, "The Tesseract is in the next room."

()()()

Eek! I go home in a few days, just in time for Christmas. Let this be an early present for those who celebrate in December, like my American self. As always, if you enjoyed, please leave a note; reviews keep me going!

Also, I have to share some amazing news…well, two pieces of news. First, I'm coming back to Georgia for another teaching semester. Second, I have a really good chance of being admitted to the University of Glasgow to do my PhD in American Political History! I'm finalizing my application now and hope to even get a shot at some funding if everything goes well. Cross your fingers for me, dear readers!