August 27, 2017:

Cutscene. The path to James Barnes is marked with lines, and Jane must cross many.

Multiple locations


NPCs: Carole Luther

Mentions: James Barnes, Jessica Jones, John Constantine, Zatanna Zatara

Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

For a brief, fleeting moment, Jane Foster is not alone. She is not just a mind. She is not just a body. She is not one errant piece scattered free from a billion others, a mote of ash spread from a single, burned body of what was and punished to wander.

Science and magic bring her home. In an instant that feels like a series of eternities, she connects to something, something vast and powerful and old —

— she hears the heartbeat of Wakanda. Like it's alive.

Its ancient blood pulses like a drumbeat transcendent to the onslaught of information. Jane breathes the country for just a moment, and she is millions, she is a land, she is touching a living heart so braided with life in countless threads — and then she loses it, lost to the pain of her unravelling mind. She fights just luckily enough to sever her soul from the machine.

Even as she coughs up blood, she still hears that heartbeat.

Jane Foster moves quickly; she has to.

The Sword of Damocles hangs over James Barnes, and the singularity-state upload of information to her head can only stay sharp for so long. Or so she assumes. Her eidetic memory has always been infallible, but Jane so far has only learned within the rules and bounds of reality. Cheating with magic may not similarly apply.

And speaking of magic.

She feels electric, like every atom in her body trembles to hold onto its electrons. She feels sick. Neither sensations deter her forward momentum. Jane still coughs up blood and holds her head through dizzy waves, but she also collects a bugout bag of this-and-that: money, identification, laptop, her tools, James's tools too, a few of his guns, and files the lot of it into her STUFF app.

Within the hour, she is on the I-95 out to Washington D.C. Jane takes her own car, her hands white-knuckled on the wheel. The shine of passing street lights stretches the shadow across her face in a constant interval. Lost in thought, her sleepless eyes tunnel into the road.

Her phone rings on silent; the lit screen draws Jane's eyes. The caller reads as Erik Selvig. She lets that call, like the fourteen before it, go to voicemail. She lets the rest go back to her thoughts.

The link in that unending river of data: the place is in Arlington. Tech company called LJOS. Attended the conference. Specializes in union management and payroll for government agencies around the country. Wants to backbone the governments of developing countries. Ready to go global. HYDRA outfit through-and-through. Of course. Correspondence in relation to Mizizi routes back to that corporation, and she needs direct access to their system to find out more. That's about the plan she has to go on.

She lets the long, lonely drive figure out the rest.

The woman's name is Carole Luther.

Nine years with LJOS. Handpicked and hired out of college. Family history with HYDRA. Her life now is manipulating the salaries of politicians. She creates scandals; she hides scandals. She helps direct the ebb and flow of the Capitol, and those who push back too hard against the unseen, unknown system never last long. Few know of the money she makes buying and selling the sensitive information of very important people.

Her recent hobby is playing with the gun lobby. Its power correlates with fear, and she possesses significant shares in its vast market. Embedded in that endless stream of data was her complex mathematical formulae determining how many children of wealthy upbringings need to be murdered by guns — where, how, and in so many numbers — to promote arms sales. They've been using her math ever since.

Jane learns much about her in so little time. Such that Ms. Luther lives alone in some expensive flat in Georgetown, and that she has trouble sleeping. She medicates heavily just to endure a few hours of her own subconscious.

Carole is her age, living the way Jane used to, or would have, if she chose differently years ago. Dark-haired and petite, she even looks the same. It makes Jane wonder if this could be her, in another life, made by other choices —

— no, never.

James taught her things over the last eight months. Such as how to disable a wireless security system; how to open locks on doors.

How to move quietly and breathe in and out, slowly, every step of the way. How not to waste time that is precious on things such as standing over someone's sleeping body and wondering if you can really do this.

She knows she can.

It did not give Jane significant difficulty to make this chemical months ago, something specific for James's use should he ever need it: a drop down the ear and a minute's wait for absorption into the blood: to carry the message to the cervical plexus and silence entire spinal nerves. A quick-acting paralytic.

Carole Luther awakens to the sound of a loading gun. The first thing she sees in the bleary darkness of her bedroom is the empty stare of a gun barrel. Behind it are two dark eyes, looking down on her, and just as hollow.

She tries to scream, but she can neither find the air nor feel her throat to do so. She tries to jerk and move the memory of her arms and legs, but they are no longer there — like they've been taken from her, removed from her body while sleeping.

It feels like a night terror, that numb, helpless sense of paralysis, innervated with pressure crushing down on her chest, vicing the air in her lungs to shallow, breathless sips of air. And with someone in the room with her, someone close, someone there — someone watching her.

But people wake from night terrors. This one is real.

"I know who you are. I know what you are. Concentrate and speak slowly," Jane hears her own voice narrate, soft, patient, "or I'll kill you, all right? How many points of security are there into LJOS?"

It takes Carole Luther time and energy to form the words with a half-paralyzed larynx and most of thick, numb tongue, but she answers obediently, "Three."

In the next half-hour, Jane learns what to do. Two security keys and a fingerprint. She has confirmed what LJOS is, what they're doing, and the precise terminal she needs to access to gain entry.

"Just two people will be on site, just two," Carole promises endlessly, the minutes allowing her more and more sips of her broken voice. "And in different wings. The two cards together let you in outside of security." Then she pauses. Paralysis cannot stop the tears that lick from the corners of her eyes. "Please. Please, please just…"

Let her go? Jane wants to. Even now, with all her anger, all her slow-burning rage, she wants nothing more.

With that thought pounding her heart, Jane looks down on the woman, gun still in hand, its barrel still pointed. "One more question." Her eyes scour Carole Luther's face in the dark. Young like she is, small, smart, with everything. "Why?"

Carole goes quiet, or quiet as she can, her laboured breathing ventilating noisily through the paralysis of her diaphragm. She swallows unsteadily, too terrified to voice her confusion. She doesn't know what that means. "I don't — please don't kill me. I'm just — don't kill me."

Jane remains silent. Her fingers tighten around her gun, and its aim shakes. "Why?" she asks again, because she realizes she has to know, she needs to know, she's found an answer to every question she's ever asked, but not for this. Never for this. "Why do you do these things? To people — children. Why do you do them?"

Carole Luther's noisy breathing thins out. Her paralyzed body can do nothing but look up into Jane's face. She looks at her. Looks through her. A weight in her eyes, for that moment, makes Jane feel like a child herself. A child for asking such a thing. The woman's expression draws in, closes down, locks. There will be no answer. "Hail Hydra," she whispers.

Something snaps.

Jane cannot feel her own hands, and the way one of them covers Carole Luther's mouth, smothering the faint sound of shock under her palm. She does not have to exert much strength, or do much more than turn the head of a woman already paralyzed, and feel out the jugular.

Something else James Barnes taught Jane Foster's small, skilled hands, suited not for force, for strength, but precise, surgical work —

— like the way she threads a narrow, hair-fine needle into the vein without a lost drop of blood. Then she lets go, releasing her with a flinch-quick revulsion.

The woman cannot thrash and buckle her helpless body. Let go, she has enough cervical nerves left to shake her head wildly, eyes whorling with surprise and horror. "What did you do?" she snaps, but the paralytic bridles her voice to a strangled whisper. "What did you do?!"

I have to, she could say. I'm sorry, she could say.

Jane says nothing. She only backsteps, her dark eyes on Carole, absorbing one last look of the Hydra woman immobilized on her own bed, unable to move either of her hands to touch, find, or even remove the poisoned needle lost inside her vein.

She turns away, holsters her gun, opens the closet, steals a change of clothes, and leaves the woman behind her.

Left alone, Carole Luther tries to beg after Jane Foster, but her useless whispers fall away into the dark. She tries to call to her neighbours for help, and no one hears her.

The poison takes twenty minutes to kill her, and she spends it all trying to form sound through a throat that cannot work, will not work, no matter how hard she cries, no matter how desperately she pushes flesh gone numb.

Carole Luther dies before she can scream.

Jane Foster drops her keys twice trying to start her car.

Her hands shake uncontrollably. Minutes ago, she could thread a needle into someone's beating vein, but now her fingers are numb, and it's probably shock, she thinks distantly, detachedly —

— before she hits the wheel and dissolves into quiet tears. She regrets it and does not. She's proud and she's sick. She took a monster from the world and has changed nothing. Has changed everything.

She changes into the dead woman's clothes and makes her appearance as much as Miss Luther's facsimile as she can, and uses her security keys and scanned fingerprint to gain entry into the quiet LJOS building. In the early hours of the morning, the staff is as skeletal as promised, and none question the way Jane Foster slips through their halls. From the back, same build, same hair, both she and the woman she murdered look practically identical.

Jane gains access to the server glossed in her prior mental upload, and begins to dig. HYDRA in its digital body is just as pieced and disconnected, and leads down a hundred rabbit holes, shaking hands with terrorist cells around the globe — some of them familiar to her via James, some she's never even heard of — sourcing from a single point.

A terminal in Armenia. Receiving and broadcasting both. Sending packets to multiple sites all through — she doesn't immediately recognize — and traceroutes it to:


She checks the time and works fast decrypting the key. She grabs what she can. What is being dissiminated? What is the message? And now that she knows where it's coming from, the next step is obvious: where is it going? To whom? She runs every analysis she can —

Until security gets a little too perilously close to Carole Luther's office. Someone calls through, asking why her car isn't parked outside, and enters with a knock —

— and Jane is already gone, data in hand as she slips out of the building without a backward glance.

It looks like she's going to Wakanda.

Her phone rings again, silent, as Jane parks back at JFK. She means to turn it off, but her hands are still trembling, hours later, and she clumbsily hits the call button on.

"Jane?" comes Erik Selvig's voice, small and tinny, through the speakers. The single word is a deluge of relief.

It breaks her heart open. The tears burn in her eyes. She doesn't have time for this.

"Erik, I can't," she pleads, and her voice comes thin and breathless, and sounds like the last begging sounds of the woman she killed. "I can't."

"Jane, wait —" she hears Erik say, before she ends the call and turns off her phone. She leaves behind her parked car and takes the first international flight to Wakanda.

She's unable to sleep a minute on the plane.

She sends a text to Jessica Jones upon arrival on Wakandan soil: I'm here.

There is no public news of the Winter Soldier's execution. She lets this be her hope.

Jane sends off to Jessica what she's learned, what she knows, though she makes no specific mention of what she's done. She isn't sure if she'll ever tell anyone.

But there's no time to think of it, as she walks as a tourist in a land she has not seen since the Mizizi conference, pressed with the gravity of heat and humidity she's never known. The climate does not burden Jane, however, as it usually does her countrymen.

It's not the New Mexico desert, but the heat comes close to match old memory. It speaks dimly of memory when her life was so simple. Just Jane Foster and her stars.

In the seclusion of her hotel room, she prepares. Between some reread spells on ported books and the new data gleaned on her opened laptop, Jane has nowhere to go but to beseech magic once again.

The last time nearly took her mind, and something in her blood craves its draught moving through her veins —

It comes down to a simple question for which Jane knows the answer. Is James Barnes worth it to her? A million times yes.

Again she offers herself up as grounding for the spell, writing an elaborate program and needling herself into the machine, to let her blood be its fuel. Astral sight she wants, even if she's still not sure it's even real, plotted and triangulated with the points gleaned from LJOS.

She executes the script and the river of time sieves to a water droplet.

The world hangs suspended around her, and Jane exists in both states, able to turn her hands and see the vector of displaced spacetime, able to watch the slow way a twitch of her head flips her hair to spread its tresses and never fall.

Her eyes burn blue, and she breathes red smoke. It's the first pleasure she feels in a long time, so long and so good that Jane wants nothing more than to shutter her lashes and fall back into timelessness that will hold her still for years. Is this how it always feels for John? For Zatanna? Is this how magic feels to them?

Her fingers dance and conduct a synaesthesic orchestra, colours and textures of a plane not like this, and though she never leaves the room in flesh and bone, Jane stands and walks this new realm.

The astral plan straits with life, every soul alive and dead in Wakanda, and Jane bows her head to it all, a moment of acknowledgment made before she reaches.

Bared down to her very heart, she is not a killer. Not an investigator. Not even a scientist. Jane Foster is an explorer, set on this world to discover, and she discovers now — touching and unravelling city-strands of thoughts and dreams and feeling, running astral hands through the fear and confusion and anger of Wakanda's people. It moves in rivers that she can see, and she fixates on those leyline currents.

For those whose eyes can open and see, those leylines point her west. They point her south.

Jane thinks of James and pulls herself free from her machine. Her eyes darken brown again and she comes to, breathing shallowly, dripping blood from her nose and tasting ozone on her tongue. The spaces between her atoms sing with the rush of that vacating power, and it aches her to feel it fade.

The leylines still beckon her, the lingering magic leaving her blood giving her this compass.

Jane follows it south.

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