Talking Heads

September 05, 2017:

Jane Foster invites Jessica Jones to come and help her with one of her own evidence gathering efforts in Wakanda. Jessica discovers Jane is playing with fire.

The Wakandan Border

There are heads. On pikes. Lots. Of. Heads.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Bucky Barnes, Daredevil, Elektra, John Constantine

Mood Music: Blood Makes Noise


Fade In…

With that unfortunate murder attempt behind her, Jane Foster heads due south.

It is an experience, novel and frustrating, to travel not by either memory or a map, but purely by sensation — by a leyline pull that's made knots in her blood and pulls tellingly on Jane only when she goes off-course. She programs and re-programs directions into a car that drives for her, and follows magic's Virgil insistence without sleep.

Her head still swims with magic. It keeps her on edge, almost manic, unable to rest as easily as she should. At one point, blood drips down on the screen of her phone. Jane traces the wetness back to her nose, and patiently tilts back her head until it stops. She spends the rest of the time reading. Or thinking of James.

She keeps in contact with Jessica; even more aggravatingly, she cannot offer any sort of clue where she's going or where her course plans to end. 'Magic,' she offers feebly, as if its excuse can provide an answer for anything.

Finally, the nascent pull — stops. Not that Jane needs it now, at this moment, to realize she's finally here. Finally come to the place Wakandan whispered to her.

She steps out of her car and sees it for herself. Her eyes run the sight. Her body does not move. After a full minute of staring, she taps her current coordinates into her phone and shakily sends it to Jessica.

When she arrives, it will be on the precipice of the southern Wakandan borderlands. Far beyond the reach of S'yan, and in a rolling, valleyed expanse of emptiness, watched by the sinking, lidding sun in the western sky —

— are a sea of piked heads, some so old the skulls bleach white from centuries of sun, and some so fresh that decomposition has not taken the pain and terror out of the twisted, screaming faces.

Jane stands there before it all, her dark eyes grim.

Magic?

John Constantine is going to lose his shit, Jessica thinks, because while she's seen Jane program them a route out of Hell, and use hedge magic to great effect, her friend was not a wizard last she'd heard. Now she's zooming about a foreign nation with magic as her guide. Jessica rather suspects that's a cut above the things she'd ever done. But is Jane going to hear even a hint of a warning from Jessica Jones? Well. No. It's Jane's motherfucking right to do whatever it fucking takes, and Jessica sure can't talk about Faustian bargains. She's wearing one around her god damn neck right now, isn't she?

Being kept in contact with does do a lot to alleviate her anxiety though, and produces a warm rush of affection every time she gets a text. She answers each one, with an acknowledgement mostly, but they're answers just the same.

She'd gone ahead and limped out to a car to take her to S'Yan the moment she'd heard Jane was headed south of there, knowing she can get where she needs to faster. She just can't bring herself to stay in that bed for long, though she'd given herself a full 48 hours of near-immobility to allow her healing factor to address any internal bleeding from Elektra's attack. She's a bit overdressed for the weather to keep it all hidden: bulletproof jeans, a black bulletproof tank top, and her blue and black plaid shirt thrown over that. And sunglasses; the glare of the sun is bothering her. Not cause she's hung over, but because she's in pain. But she's also so used to the heat now it's barely impressing her anymore. She's moving gingerly; walking still hurts, but if she had to fight she thinks she can, and there's just no time to coddle her shit anyway.

Weirdly, she'd thought about these heads in passing just the other day, wondering if there were new ones, relevant ones, but had gotten distracted or abandoned the thought. But now Jane is staring at them, and she wonders if she ought not have pursued that thought a little more after all. Well, there they are, she supposes it, pursuing it now, together— which warms her, too, though she's not about to distract from the case to acknowledge the fact that it is good to see Jane again, in person.

"I'll bite," she says slowly. "What do you hope to find in Herman's Head?" She points to one at random. He gets to be Herman.

At first glance, Jane is smaller than memory of months ago.

She's never regained the weight lost during the months of trial. She was small before; she is tiny now, and hard — not only in the sharp framing of bone but in bearing too, a quiet impatience that wants to erode away every last spot of softness in her soul. Her eyes are sharp as they look upon a field of death — Wakanda's warning to her enemies — and her stare level, even as they ring with sleepless shadow.

There's something different about Jane, the instant she turns her head to look on Jessica's arrival. Something changed. Either something gained, or something lost.

Jane looks through that initial question; her immediate attention fixes on the way the woman moves, not missing that limp.

'What happened?' would be the obvious question to start. Jane thinks two steps ahead from the obvious, and her expression darkens.

"She found you too?" she asks.

Jessica feels a sudden wave of hot sadness to see her friend this way. Something gained AND lost. She's gained toughness, resilience, badassery. She's lost her gentleness, her innocence. Jessica thinks they might not come back, not to the same degree. But that's life. Life is change. Jane Foster becomes harder. Jessica Jones becomes softer. And none of it matters, cause hard or soft she's Jane's friend for life.

"Yeah. It's nothing, it'll be gone in…mmm…four more days, maybe five. It's below the naval, so I don't think she hit anything vital. I consulted WebMD and everything."

She says all this lightly, making a joke of her injury and her own lack of knowledge when it comes to treating them for a variety of reasons. When everything is shit your opportunities for levity are low, and Jane needs some, she thinks. And she needs Jess to not be a distraction. So while she doesn't fail to miss the wound, Jess can at least not make a big deal out of it, to reassure her that she's ready to help and not in so much pain that she can't.

White-hot impatience runs through Jane's blood like a fire. Why didn't Matt just let her put a god damn bomb into that woman?

Of course she knows why. But logical answers give no salve to her quiet fury. Even the WebMD joke can't touch her in that moment.

"Tell me if anything changes." She goes quiet a moment, then adds, "If you see her again, try to break the bones right here."

In gesture, Jane reaches up and taps the tips of two fingers against her own clavicle. "People get distracted trying to protect something more vital. But you could put enough force to injure the brachial plexus. Break it and she won't be able to use her hand. And she seems to like having weapons in her hands."

With one more appraising look on Jessica, and trusting her word she's all right, Jane's attention returns to all those heads. Namely, the fresh ones. "As for this. I don't know. Answers."

She is quiet a moment, before she asides, voice thinned out with memory, "Remember Ozone Park?"

Anatomical advice is good, and a sudden slam with all her strength on the clavicle seems better than the messy fighting Jess tried to do while under the influence of tear-gas. Jess touches the same place on her own body and nods, also aware that being able to give this bit of advice lets Jane feel less helpless about something that has already happened. In much the same way that Jessica's Detective-Henning did the same the other day. She nods, too, that she'll let her friend know if anything changes. It's a reminder that she could have called Jane in the first place, but forgets, half the time, that Jane was a pre-med student first.

Remember Ozone Park, she asks, as if Ozone Park and everything leading up to it weren't life-changing. But rather than say she'll never forget it, which she won't, what she says is: "Nanites," with understanding, making her own several jumps ahead as she looks at that line of heads with new eyes.

And then a few more leaps.

"Aw, shit. Right. Nanites. I've been trying to figure out how Hydra makes an 'incursion' into a place that shouldn't even have cells. But they had three days of conference, didn't they? Three days of science conference before the bombing, to infect all kinds of people."

Granted, that might not be where Jane's mind is at at all.

Bingo, says the drawn, uneasy look layered over Jane's face. Jessica has it in one.

"It's hard to say," she answers, her eyes travelling from skull to skull. Even though most are charred black, features melting under a death or post-mortum that involved extreme heat, they are clearly the faces of foreigners — many countries and many ethnicities in representation. With punishment bestowed equally onto all of them: declared invaders and aggressors and criminals. "But I'll start by telling you what I do know."

Jane pauses. "Of course, easier said than… said. Wakanda brought me here. All of it — its memory. It's people. But something more. It's alive in a way. I don't know how else to describe it. It's like a body, and the body is in pain. It led me to sites of injury, and this is point one for me. Right here is a giant ground zero for a whole lot of anger. And pain."

She breathes out through her nose. There's a weak scratch to her voice like right here and now may be the most Jane's spoken aloud in many many days. "Whatever we've been fighting, one cell of Hydra, or a few of them, it feels like they've been doing it too. And maybe for a long time. A cell may actually already be in Wakanda. And even if they didn't destroy all the heads, they sure put the rest up on display."

With that, she begins rolling her sleeves up to her elbows. "You're good to hold it still for me while I take a look?"

Jessica eyes the heads uneasily. Talk of touching them brings her back to one maggot covered head in particular, the head of the woman she failed to save because she prioritized the lead that led to her— the only lead that had mattered in that case, in fact— dead last.

But soon nothing is in her but grimness. She pulls her evidence collection kit out of her phone by way of answer, and pulls on a pair of rubber gloves. One would think, as often as she has not only handled corpses of late but also downright stolen them, that she'd be over any squeamishness by now anyway. "You taking it down or are you doing it on the pike?" Look, she has no idea what's easiest.

Meanwhile, she says, "You said one of those other pain points was out in the west, right?"

She eyes the mask in that evidence collection kit. The sort of thing a doctor might wear, in fact. She eyes Jane, hardcore Jane.

And then one Jessica Jones puts her mask on. It might keep her from vomiting on vital evidence, and she's so past trying to look cool anymore. Practically nobody seems fooled by her tough act these days, so she might as well just be genuine. Genuine Jessica Jones needs a mask for this exercise if she's going to make it all the way through from start to finish. "Help yourself," she adds, gesturing to the kit, which has more of both gloves and mask where the first came from.

"Off," Jane replies. She has enough sense to look vaguely apologetic. "I have to remove the scalp and hope they've already trepanned the skull. Pike will just get in the way."

Her eyebrows lift with quiet appreciation for Jessica's preparedness; Jane has tools with her, though none of them are purely medical in function or nature. There's a look to her like she was more than planning to do this with bare heads and one of James's borrowed knives. She snaps on a pair of gloves to spare her hands, but doesn't take a mask for herself.

Probably because what she's looking for doesn't need to worry about threat of contamination. That and masks won't do anything to stop the putrescine stink.

"Definitely west," she says, with some unease, as she approaches the more fresher heads, making some sort of on-to-spot executive decision which to pick. She goes for what looks the freshest — and most intact. "Not sure to where. It'll be like here — won't know where it is until I get there. Any correlations?"

She selects one rotting head, tissues congealing under the sun. Taking it in hand, her searching fingers trying to map that either temporal lobes haven't been damaged by impalement, she takes a breath — and yanks it free.

The sound it makes is wet.

Either Jane Foster has a stomach smithed in iron or she's a really good faker. Because she hands off someone's butchered-off head to Jessica with a too-steady, "Can you hold this?"

That squelch turns a woman who is already quite pale to a shade of sheet white, but she takes the head and sits down with it. She takes a breath, controls her strength, and holds it like a vise, not hard enough to squish, but firmly enough that it won't shift or move. She sits criss-cross, with the top of the head now grazing the bottom of her sneakers, and she then takes this moment to look up, admiring the lovely, lovely Wakandan sky. She is probably going to address all of her comments to the sky for the remainder of the conversation.

This is good. Girl time, right? Bonding? Much better than Trish's idea of doing the thing, with the shopping and the nails. Just a little dig through a severed head. Awesome.

"Two, I think," Jessica says, professional in spite of her squeamishness. "First, WIS weapons called 'light panthers' are disappearing, and the west is where they're disappearing to, though we don't have a good pinpoint on where in the west. Second, a person of interest named Dandy Jam the Cut is operating out of Birnan Azzaria; that's where a lot of gang activity is happening and has happened, including a big gang war. Azzaria is also to the west."

Jane Foster doesn't miss Jessica's squeamishness. She looks on it all with a mixture of patience, apologetic humour, and cold remove.

Digging into her phone, she taps into STUFF and selects a couple of James's combat knives, testing the sharpness. Nothing like a procedural scalping to round out girl time?

"Light panthers," Jane repeats the words. "Wouldn't happen to be as, I assume, a holographic-projection weapon? James had one chase him after the explosion in the conference. What he described is something I'd never thought technologically possible, but. Wakanda. I asked him to extrapolate with any specifics, how it works, how it functioned — tell me any details you got from it. I think his answer was, 'It wasn't great.'"

She pauses. "And, 'I didn't like it.'"

Emotion comes and goes through her dark eyes, a brief glint before it's compartmentalized away. She must miss him.

Miss him enough that she takes one knife in hand, and with Jessica holding the decomposing head sturdy, turns her wrist and makes an initial surgical cut to begin stripping the hair and scalp away from the skull. It comes away too-easy, buttery with rot.

"Gang war?" she asks, as her gloved fingers surgically manipulate the flesh away, stripping it down layer by layer. The sky is definitely the better option to look at right now. "West was giving me the same sensation as the south. Blood drawn there, like blood here — as we can see. Anger and fear. Something's happened there, whatever it is, and it was violent."

"Yeah, a holographic projection weapon," Jessica agrees. She has to share a chuffed laugh at James and his taciturn descriptors.

"I swear to God," she murmurs, with fond affection. "I think if the man is ever caught in a flood he's going to call and be like 'so it's a little wet down here.'"

She takes the time to outline the surprising ways in which the drug trade and the struggle between the actual, criminal gangs of Wakanda and the more 'patriotic protest' gangs are impacting this case, taking a moment to note, "That infusion of drugs from an outside source strikes me as something Hydra might have set up and engineered. I've got one of our teammates— one of the ones you haven't met yet— trying to source those drugs for us."

But Jane has given her an opening to do the witness interview she wants to do with her, and so she says, "Look, when I tried to call James about Wakanda back when the news started going into it, I got the same sort of taciturn stuff, and I didn't want to press him cause he was feeling shitty enough. But…would you be willing to walk me through everything that happened that day? Everything you saw and heard, all of it, no matter how inconsequential? Maybe it will help us shake out a new lead."

Squeamish or not, her hands never falter when she listens to the disgusting operation in progress. The head remains steady as a stone.

Mention and talk of James Barnes mollifies Jane Foster; her eyes soften in a way they have not all evening. In that brief glimpse, she looks almost like that woman of many months ago.

It's a brief flicker, and then gone again, her expression clearing to the vacant void that needs to direct her careful hands. "Drugs," Jane ruminates, already quietly fearing the worst. "If you find anything and need me to run a toxicology panel, call me."

Listening, her eyes flick briefly up from her dissection to consider Jessica, and her question. Fondness crosses her features, like a moment's peek of sunlight from behind covering clouds, to hear of James Barnes being taciturn again.

"Definitely," she says, "though I'm not sure how helpful it might be. I wasn't there to see anything. I had him give me the rundown after. He separated from me following a suspicious person. They were acting in a way to tip him off. He followed and it was an obvious lure. Hydra's version of the Lannisters sending their regards, and explosions, and leaving James there by proximity to look the obvious target. It happened fast, and they engaged him almost simultaneous to the rescue attempts underway. I think he talked about — crazy advanced spears, and laser panthers, and then the King himself took up the rest and engaged him personally."

Jessica holds the head steady, enough for Jane to drop the knife and feel carefully for the place she remembers too well — the skull just behind the left ear.

There is a scar, and the flesh is soft with removed bone. Numbness shocks through her hands.

"I was, uh — " her voice stutters, momentarily broken by thought — this could have been me, this almost was me — before Jane breathes in, and recovers. "I was herded away with the rest of the guests. The explosions happened in a different part of the building. I heard them, but didn't see the action. James retrieved me and we left the country fast."

She inhales, and makes a deep, bloodless incision, catching the knife's edge of the trepanned skull and turning the blade until it vices upon with an audible crack.

"Shit," Jane says.

Jane's right, none of that really helps for shit except one little bit. That Hydra took the time to send their regards. They deliberately got James' attention with a suspicious person. "I'll go see if I can't reconstruct that moment in Shoro," says the detective that already told Shoro to go ahead and track James' every move specifically because of things like this. "Maybe I'll get a face on our Lannister, and maybe facial recognition will give us an ID."

She makes a mental note to run Jane herself through there too, to see what drone footage picked up of her, simply because it might reveal footage of other things. Shoro only responds to what she gives it, so she has to give it as much information as humanly possible, even if that means enduring the weirdness of. Well. Running her friends through the thing as though they were suspects, which they patently are not.

But it also will serve as proof, perhaps, later, that their actions were scrutinized.

Jessica hears the stutturing, and of course the crack, and the curse. She looks down quickly, this time too curious to be squeamish. Her tone drops to an even greater level of seriousness, shifting gears.

"What? What is it?"

"Technically, he wouldn't be a Lannister. He'd be a Bolton. It was Roose Bolton who, in collusion with House Frey, ordered — I'll shut up." Jane Foster's voice dries up.

"Tell me what you find, either way," she continues. "All I know is it was a man, and James didn't have time to put him down, so he may still be at large."

And then — cracking open the remnants of the skull, Jane signals her finding.

Looking down, the dissected-open corpse head is a picture of gore, stripped of flesh and splintered open bone to reveal soft, greyish brain matter — liquifying past the consistency of a pudding to something more watery, and straited with old, coagulated blood.

And shining from the left temporal lobe — a very familiar-looking microchip small enough to fit inside a fingertip. Jessica has seen this chip before. Jane has too.

The post-modern leashes Hydra likes to fit its dogs to convince their loyalty.

"I guess that answers who these bodies belong to. Looks like Wakanda took out the trash," Jane says, with a cold blandness that steps close to approval.

"I lost interest after Ned died, but pushed on for four more books and never got to the TV series," Jess says apologetically, in response to Jane's nerding. That, along with the softening when it comes to James, strikes her as a good sign. The Jane she knew is still in there, somewhere. It's enough for her to grumble, "Fucker should have taken that throne."

But of course, neither of them really give a shit about Game of Thrones right now. Jessica only mentally reassigns the new person of interest as Bolton in her mind.

Looks like Wakanda took out the trash, Jane says, and Jessica lets out a high-pitched, "Mmmhmmm," because watery pudding brain matter and SKY! She is looking at the SKY.

She frowns though. "You know, Red and I never hooked those nanites up to anything like, eletronically. They're all crawling through these assholes brain pans. Could that microchip hold…I dunno. Recorded memories or anything like that? Or…a record of commands given or…anything else useful beyond their presence here?"

T'Challa did tell her that they had suspected or went after other people, but Jessica had missed the clue. She kicks herself, a little, but that's what having a whole group here is good for. Different thought processes. Different perspectives.

Meanwhile this proves Hydra's involvement, but it seems T'Challa already knew about it. So she turns her attention to what else this evidence might do for them.

"Oh, fuck me," she mutters, as one answer comes to her. She takes a deep breath, then takes out her phone, and snaps a photo of the head. More fodder for SHORO and its facial recognition protocol. More crime scene reconstruction data. She'll get one, before she leaves here, of every head that looks new.

The Game of Thrones reference draws a small, wan smile out of Jane, which looks all the more disparate against her sleepless eyes.

Like the rest of those glimpses off her, it too is brief, and gone in a blink — but it was there. Signs she's not completely emptied out.

"If it's what I think it is — a manycore microprocessor — then it will have something. A command log, maybe. A table of entire subroutines. It might — if you can imagine the human brain, there's trillions of synaptic connections that change by the second, and within that, the possibility of more underlying permutations than there are atoms of matter in the universe. The processing power to direct and control that — it means there has to be a master controller to allow the nanotechnology to distribute, I don't know, differential continuums of information to whatever Brodmann's area they designate."

Jane whuffs out a tired half-breath. "And I don't even like neurobiology."

Still, she tilts her head, and with steady hands — hands honed by years of delicate engineering work — carefully uses they very tip of the knife to pull the microchip free from the decomposing grey matter, biting her lip as she catches it carefully on a fingertip.

"But it's a smart idea. I just don't have the technology on me here to be able to read something as delicate as this. And if the memory is intact, my laptop won't have the processing power to compile it. But, fortunately, I can improvise. Magic let you cut corners."

Sometimes, when it comes to computers, words seem simple on their surface but actually aren't. Manycore microprocessor. A microprocessor with…many…cores? That term zooms over Jessica's head after all, but ok, maybe a command log, got it. Entire subroutines— she's not entirely clear on what the routines are in the first place.

But Jane is there ready to teach, to her relief. She imagines the brain, the trillions of connections. She gets as far as processing power, but then Jane says 'master controller' and 'differential continuums of information' and what is a Brodmann's area? Oh wait, wasn't that some area of the brain?

She makes a note to go look all this shit up later. It's in the nature of the detective, really, to constantly need to consult more intelligent people, experts who actually know how to read the evidence, and can interpret it for the investigator. Feeling a bit lost when an expert speaks isn't that new or overwhelming.

Meanwhile, Jane jumps from microprocessors to magic in the space it takes for one for a neurobiological impulse to leap from synapse to synapse.

"How can I help?" Jessica asks, boiling it down to the most important bit that she can think of. She has no idea if she can…magic is not her purview, for all that she's got a few dopey time-buying hedge spells under her belt in the event of bullshit shadow tentacle attacks. But if there's something she can give, she'll give it.

John really will shit a big blue brick. Hell, he might shit a whole blue house.

But John's not here, and they don't have a lot of time to dick around. What it takes is fucking what it takes.

For a moment, Jane's expression is two sides of a war.

She didn't think she'd need to do this again, and so soon. She's also relieved she will. Part of her wants to — cut those corners as easily as she can.

Out of STUFF, she pulls out her trusty laptop, though not before stripping off her bloodied gloves, and laying that microchip carefully on the screen of her phone, safe and easy to find.

When Jessica asks how she can help, the tiny woman transparently pauses. Her brown eye look up, reticence in them; that pensive questioning of someone who has worked alone thus far, and solitude has that way of narrowing one's world to a pinpoint trapping: allowing no room for anyone but yourself. There's ramifications to everything, and no one let has seen Jane wield her nebulous, patchwork mixture of magic and science — dangerous as it is. But even more dangerous would be to go in again without a spotter.

"I'm going to, well — connect myself to its memory. If there's a lot, I can cognitively sort it in a second what would normally take days," Jane answers, and though her voice is thin, hesitant — she is speaking. She is not saying 'you can go and I'll handle this.'

"If I can find something, I can — " she tries to search for the language, " — direct it, make it show on my screen. I need you to catch what's important and remember it. I'll be absorbing… a lot at once. I may not notice."

She is quiet for a too-long five seconds. "I also need you to retrieve me if I stay in too long. Don't disconnect. Just — jolt me. It'll be fine. I've done this before." Another pause. "And don't tell John. He'd — get we're desperate. Maybe not. Will you?"

Jessica is as still as someone who doesn't want to startle a fish in the water. It's as if she thinks that if she moves, Jane might stop talking. Might stop confiding in her. Might decide not to trust her after all. When Jane finishes, asks her questions, Jessica Jones allows herself to breathe again. Her response is firm, resolute. She doesn't answer the 'will you' cause she's not sure if Jane means 'will you jolt me', 'will you catch this shit' or 'will you tell John.'

Instead, she just rephrases to make sure she gets it, asks the big question that she's developed during this explanation, decides, and gives her word.

"Catch the facts as they show on the screen, give you a jolt— like a poke? Typing Jane wake up?— and don't tell Constantine because we don't have time for him to spew a litter of kittens," Jessica replies. "You have my word, and I have your back."

She strips off her own gloves— and the mask, which truly did not help— and pulls a legal pad free from her STUFF app, along with her lucky pen. A little luck seems called for. She stands, and repositions herself so she can see the laptop screen. She asked to help. And. She will.

Asked to specify the jolt in question, Jane gives sincere pause. Apology crosses her face to not know the answer to that question — she's honestly making this up as she goes.

"Not sure," she confesses gingerly. "Something to snap me back. It's — dense in there. Maybe a slap. Something more painful. So long as I don't disconnect. I could become, uh, slightly braindead. Maybe. I'll leave it to you."

With that, Jane consults STUFF to materialize out some strange hardware: namely a long, uninteresting line of cord, USB'd one end into her system, and the other cut and sharpened and tied haphazardly around a hooked needle. Sigils mark the wire's entire length, razorblade-cut into its plastic sheath.

She rigs the tiny microchip in with rudimentary wiring, her careful hands slipping from pathology to engineering, and then —

Jane looks again at Jessica. Her eyes crease self-consciously.

"This will look — weird," she murmurs stiltedly, before inserting the needle at the crook of her left elbow, sliding it into the vein. There is bruising there, enough to suggest she's done this before — and enough times — like some technomagic track marks. Spreading some lost blood, she writes a few quick runs down her same forearm.

Her laptop screens to what looks like a script editor — prewritten code that spans screen after screen.

"Be right back," Jane promises, and then executes.

The breath knocks out of her. Her eyes slip unfocused — and then change colours, brown mutating into unnatural blue. Her body goes limp, loosing muscle coordination — tilting enough that Jessica may need to steady her. An empty shell, a vessel without its mine — because Jane Foster may well be a million worlds away.

The laptop flickers. Windows switch and open, and a simple wordpad file opens to cursor data across a screen.

It is in binary, endless 1s and 0s, a screen of data fluttering into existence before an eyeblink loses it again, information pulled forward and sorted past instantaneously. Her open eyes stare with dead, unregistering pupils.

And then, amidst fragmented data, meaningful words come:

// — Amandla. No, the operation must be curtailed. Get in touch with Birnin Zana. Tell them we will pay for unrestricted access to the conference. Tell them — //

"Oh, just slightly braindead," Jessica mutters ruefully. "At least mostly braindead isn't all braindead."

And Jane's leaving that to her, the woman that read about stab wounds on WebMD, did the thing she found out only through a too-late internet search you're not supposed to do— cauterization— and poured a bunch of booze over the thing before and after. Not exactly a genius when it comes to any kind of anatomy, now entrusted to ensure a lack of brain death. She herself would probably be dying of infection if she didn't cheat with a healing factor.

But it all circles back around to the same thing. There are no choices, they are running rapidly out of time, and they still don't have anything like a case that clears Bucky's name. Desperate times.

Meanwhile, she eyes the USB cable thing that jacks directly into Jane's body. "It looks painful," is what she comments. There's a lot of worry in those brown eyes, but not so much that she says a word against the exercise…even as she mentally notes that this shit is nothing she would have had the ovaries to try.

Eyes slip to blue like some sort of posession, or moment out of The Matrix or maybe Tron or Flatliners or something. Jessica does indeed shift to ease Jane to the ground, pausing to ease out of her outer shirt with a hiss so she can ball it up under Jane's head. She brushes hair out of her friend's face gently, tenderly, eyes crinkling with an even deeper level of concern than she'd let Jane see. But she's got a screen to watch, and they're both committed now. Fortunately, the meaningful words don't happen until she's done getting Jane situated.

Amandla. That's maybe a name.

It's working. Already there's a lead. Hot fucking damn.

Fuck. She forgot to ask what too long would be. After a moment, she sets a timer on the phone. She's giving Jane ten minutes. Ten minutes, then she's…jolting her. Somehow.

It looks painful. It feels painful. But blood seems to be the conduit that links these two separate words: science in one end, magic in the other.

Blood is the bridge and the payment it exacts, and blood is what runs in webbing droplets from the link needled into Jane's left arm. At least in consolation, whatever the pain must be —

— she doesn't look like she's even home to feel it.

Laid out flat by Jessica's hands, Jane's stranded, dormant body is boneless and docile, ventilating breath in-and-out as her blue eyes stare someplace unseen and far away.

And there, she stands in the eye of a perfect storm, surrounded by vast and sweeping wings of data, churning violently around and around — all in reach for her to grasp. Back and lost to burn of magic, lost to the thrill of ecstasy it burns into the spaces between her atoms, she lets it possess her. Lets it feed from her as she bridges magic and machine, lets it guide her forward.

It comes to frequent dead ends. Damaged data — burned the same way the corpse was burned. Corrupted. Jane slips free and finds new roads to take her, crossing current after current and fighting through where splintered data tries to bramble her still.

She searches still because she needs to find everything — there might still be information lost amidst the tangle that she can find, and there —

Minutes pass, and the screen moves again. The first lines are all hexadecimal, lines of meaningless:

20 22 46 6f 72 20 61 20 67 6f 6f 64 20 74 69 6d 65 2c 20 63 61 6c 6c 20 74 68 65 20 68 41 63 6b 65 72 2e 20 3c 33 22 20 20

— until the cursor moves and they parse, Jane's faraway mind running mental mathematics to translate it into written language.

It's in Armenian script, the characters exotic, and when Jessica will eventually translate that to English, will read:

"For a good time, call the hAcker. <3"

Time passes after that. Bare more minutes. Time Jane spends what feels like days, trying to court the data for something more —

— and turning around to realize her last way out is trapped. Corrupted data on all ends. It forces her mind to compile more. An entire human brain's worth of fragmented, broken information, caging her in on all sides. She tries to pull away —

— and it becomes harder to think. The data drowns her. What is her name?

Blood runs from her nose.

There he is. The hAcker, <3. Fucker. And this other name started with A. Could it be that simple?

Then, well before the timer beeps off, there's Jane bleeding from her nose and…and fuck the timer.

She's already hurting, Jessica notes, physical pain that she doesn't want to inflict anyway doesn't seem to be the answer in the slightest. Three seconds of thought, and then she does what Phillip once did to wake her up when he'd deemed she'd slept too long instead of getting up to play with him, back when she was still young enough to be convinced to play.

Though not that day.

Jessica sticks her index finger into her mouth. She gets it good and slobbery. She sticks it into Jane's ear and wriggles it all around. And as she delivers this wet willy, she does exactly what her silly baby brother did all those years ago. She takes a deep breath and bellows the climactic line from Neverending Story at the top of her lungs, scattering Wakandan vultures as she shouts, "Moooonbeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaam!"

Little brothers, and the detectives who emulate them, are weird.

But if it works…

The more she struggles, the more she fights — the easier it seems to slip away.

So much data, and only so much Jane, and it's getting harder to even remember why she is here — even harder to /be/ within a constant cascade of so much, too much.

There's something she thinks of to get herself out, she knows — she thinks — but she can't even seem to retrieve the thought. It's been pulled away from her, and every way she turns there is another dead end. The corruption cannot sort, and still it presses down on her.

It hurts to be something else. She forgets, little by little, and at the very last of it, she begins to forget she's afraid.

She — jerks back to life, consciousness sieved to a single sensation, one the only child Jane Foster has never felt in all her life, so weird and disconcerting and HORRIBLE —

— that she remembers, she is, shocked back to cognition and pulled into a sliver of memory, enough that she twitches and jerks with renewed sensation through the nerves of her right hand. It reaches to smear the bloody runes down her arm.

Jane comes to, her blue eyes darkening back to brown, hitching a shocked, rough breath, and immediately twisting over onto her side to throw up a deep, gagging mouthful of blood.

"That's — gross — " she chokes, before she turns again to throw up again.

Jessica would have the grace to be embarrassed if she weren't so relieved that it worked. She immediately withdraws her wet finger from Jane's ear. Weirdest lifesaving method ever; we will never speak of this again.

Meanwhile, Jane is vomiting, and that has to be dealt with before anything else. Her mouth sets into a grim, tight line. There's a discussion to be had here, and she has to handle it carefully or she's going to drive Jane off, and Jane is going to go kill herself with this MacGuyver magic without any rudder or counterbalance. Jane, Jessica suspects, is in help or get the fuck out of the way mode.

Focusing on material support is both what she's better at, 90% of the time, than verbal support (though eeeeevery now and then she does okay with the latter), and an opportunity to think her way through the right course of action here.

Thus, she doesn't even answer Jane's complaint that it's gross. She just slips her arm under the woman to lift her up, holding her close and giving her some support so she won't choke on all that vomit. She gently pulls Jane's hair back with her other hand. Her hands are cool to the touch, even in this heat, and so gentle some might marvel that they could ever be associated with one Jessica Jones.

"Alright," she murmurs. "Alright, I got ya."

The moment Jane's hair is no longer in danger of getting stained in blood and bile she frees up that hand to pull a bottle of water and a wash cloth out of her phone. She wets the cloth down, folds it up and gently presses it to the back of Jane's neck.

Only blood comes up out of her — blood that already smells old and dead.

Magic demands a price for its use — cutting corners, creating shortcuts, telling reality a lie as John puts it — and Jane pays hers. Some health taken, some life gone, and she coughs up blood, straining for breath between the racking heaves.

When Jessica touches her, holds her steady, Jane does not fight her; maybe she doesn't notice it, maybe there's nothing in her that can fight, hanging limply and unresisting as her dark hair is carefully pulled away.

Some part of her is cognizant to what happens, and while it's comforting in many ways — it leaves her painfully self-conscious in others. Jane, who has always done things alone. Jane, who has always been the caretaker for everyone in her life — from her sick father to even James Barnes now, broken still in many ways he would not show others — is and may never be used to the strange rarity of comfort turned back on her.

Though she admits it's nice — not having to brace herself up with her arms as she feels like her body wants to empty itself of everything.

Fortunately, it ends fast, and she catches her breath, one of her first, fumbling movements to pull the needle free from her left arm. Then, quietly, wordlessly, she pats the outside of Jessica's arm. All good, the gesture seems to say.

That little pat is code for Jess to let go, but it's far from 'all good.' Still, Jessica does, conscious of unwanted touch, conscious of this situation where asking for permission was not the highest good— taking care of Jane was. She sits back on her heels, offers the water bottle so Jane can wash her mouth out, spit some of that dried, dead blood away.

"We got leads," she says quietly. "What you did was incredible. Powered by your own blood?"

That's not a terribly foreign concept to Jess, who once cobbled together a weak but semi-effective communication spell from Steinschneider's nightmare realm, whispering her need for help into John's dreams while piggybacking on the traces of his own ward spells.

She's thinking, it's clear. She may only know a little about a little, but she knows blood vomit=bad. Really bad. She can't think of a single time when 'hey I vomited blood' meant 'go take a Tussin.' It's a situation that has to be dealt with. She doesn't think Jane will survive her next attempt. And so she deals with the first problem, first.

"You're in bad shape," she observes. "Can you write a healing script that we execute on you that uses my blood as the source?"

She figures Jane couldn't use her blood to heal her own spellwork, that might form a feedback loop. But Jessica can give up some blood. She's already replenished all she's lost; it's just a matter of knitting herself together now, eating her way through a metric asston of food and sleeping every chance she gets. She can give up a lot, when it comes down to it.

Released to sit back, Jane takes the proffered water with profound gratefulness, giving Jessica a wordless thank-you with her eyes before she sips back a careful drink, before swigging the rest of the blood out of her mouth.

She spits red, gives the mess a weary glance, then wipes her mouth with the hem of her sleeve.

"Good," she says raggedly about the leads, voice viced with relief. Her memory feels like too-tight knot, detail that may not work itself out for days. "And yeah. It's a bridge. There's probably other ways. Better ways. Need more lessons and time."

Concentrating on breathing in and out, feeling like a truck hit her — electric with energy in some ways, and wrought with nausea in others — Jane rubs feebly at her eyes

The only open again to Jessica's question — her profound offer, really. She wants to use her blood to replenish Jane's.

The self-consciousness comes back, just a twinge, the worry that she may look worse than she thinks she does — and this isn't about her. This is about James, and there's little time already. "I'm good," she says, "promise. Did this before — it resolves fast."

Her raw eyes soften. "Could write something but — debugging would take days. It might error and I end up eating your soul or something." With that, she pushes her wobbly body up to stand. "That would — blow."

Jessica studies Jane for signs that she's downplaying the danger more than is strictly honest. Her mouth tightens, but it's with obvious concern, not anger, the lines around her eyes deepening with worry. But she doesn't argue. She believes Jane could eat her soul, and while it's crusty, black, and not very big, she kind of needs that thing. She saw how Zatanna did without hers.

"Watching you die would blow too," Jessica says quietly. "So. Maybe slow down a little on that, okay? Foster and Barnes both have to get out of Wakanda alive. We can do a lot with basic footwork. We have a name that might be the hacker's name."

But if Jane slows down, how will they find the mess in the west? There has to be a footwork solution. Perhaps one that follows light panther smuggling…But Jessica Jones admits that off the top of her head she doesn't have one. 'The west' is a big place.

For a moment she's not sure what to do at all, so she just makes a copy of the page of notes she took down from Jane's efforts and silently holds it out to her before standing to take photos of all of the remaining 'new' heads. It gives her another moment to think, disturbed and fearing for Jane's life as she is. Finally she asks, "What's your next move?"

There are some signs of dogged stubbornness, Jane Foster refusing to be cared for too excessively — also mixed with the little time left nipping momentum into all their heels.

"Promise I'm not gonna die," Jane says, standing her wobbly body to its not-so-significant height in clear, proud testament to that fact. She may not be the strongest person in existence, but she is a born rebel, even to death itself. "I think if I did, James would come kill you guys. And I kind've like you guys too much for that." Her tired eyes crinkle with the bad joke. "But yeah — slowing down sounds fabulous. It's not exactly my idea of a picnic, I promise."

Except when it sort've is, but Jane Foster lets that part go, finding enough balance to knee back down, close her laptop, and begin refiling her things back into STUFF.

The next question is a good one, and it draws Jane's eyes. She's mentally moved onto the next plan of action, any would-be worry about her own life compartmentalized away. Packed to an infinite series of boxes. "Following the mojo again. It's the same sort of deal as this time — not sure where it even is until I get there. I'll give you an update when I get there. Might have the Devil of Wakanda's Kitchen in tow too. He seems to think I need protecting or something," she adds, feigning oblivious humour.

She smiles faintly at both jokes, appreciating the gallows humor even though she doesn't, wonder of wonders, have a lot of return quips to offer.

"Well, he's westward bound, I asked him to go to Azzaria to run some surveillance," Jessica admits. She puts her own things back into her own STUFF app, frowning faintly. The Devil of Wakanda's Kitchen causes a faint smile to flit over her face, but not for long. "Shouldn't be too hard to pick him up on the way. Just…please go with someone. Even I'm trying to do my thing with people in tow, and that was before I got wounded." No shame in it, in other words, she's trying to say. Even though she's not entirely the biggest tank in the group anymore, she's still arguably a tank.

But for this, she agrees Daredevil, right now, is a better choice; she's already feeling exhausted, needing to lie down again, and he is unhurt with a psychological edge against their enemy. Jess is tempted to say all three of them need to go, but there are things she needs to deal with, and if they clump up too much they'll run out of time.

"I'll try to either see if I can't either find Amandla or get one of our friends to, and…find who sold access to that conference and to whom." This really was more productive than she could have imagined from a simple head, and at the end of the day she still is wary of crossing a line where she tries to tell Jane Foster what she can and can't give in pursuit of any of this. She readjusts her sunglasses and says, "Oh, here, updated notes." She shoots over the file so far, just trying to make sure Jane has everything.

"If I see him at the side of the road, I'll pick him up," promises Jane, testing a bit more of that weak humour in her voice. Humour is an armor in itself; people who are weak and hurt and bleeding don't waste the effort to crack funnies, and she hopes it girds her in Jessica's eyes.

After all that — it feels like a punch to the gut to be thought weak again. Weak. Something to be worried about.

Standing back up straight, phone in hand, taking in a deep breath of the clean Wakandan air to rid the last smells of rot from her sinuses, Jane looks down — and considers the blood she's left behind.

She kicks a little dirt over it and stomps it down, some remnant from James Barnes passed over to her, and disliking the idea of leaving physical evidence. She considers the dissected head just as well — possible it needs cleaning-up after, but just as possible the next time anyone comes by this way it'll be picked and rotted to look more like the rest of those empty skulls. Not worth the time, either way.

"Good plan," Jane concedes, letting the moments take her back to that safe place of bland, efficient work mode. She rolls her sleeve down and covers the bruising on her left arm. "I'll get out on the road before it gets too dark. And — have time to review this," she adds, receiving the file in question.

Her dark eyes find Jessica. "I'll text you when we get there. Take it easy. If you see that woman again — be careful."

Except Jessica worries about everyone, as evidenced by her next statement, in response, as it happens, mostly only to Jane's last one. "If I see that bitch again? If I'm not in fighting shape I'm gonna run. Fuck, I might run even then, she shoots from a zillion feet away and comes armed with gas and a bunch of ninja shit."

Jessica ain't proud. She likes surviving. She puts her hands in her pockets and starts going towards her robot car. They're comfy. She's sleeping in that shit. Hopefully the assassin won't shoot the car. But if she does?

Jessie gonna run.

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