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By Candlelight

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On the night of August 5th, it was raining. Anyone else would have been disappointed. Who wants rain on a perfectly good summer day? But to the figure cloaked in black, who walked up a small, lonely hill, the raindrops were nothing short of a godsend. They fell hard and heavy, providing her extra camouflage. No one, not soldier or civilian, would be seeing her tonight, and it was just as well.

She ascended on steps made from decaying wood, with weeds growing uncontrollably every which way. The place hadn't been cared for since the start of the war, and she always told herself that she'd have it cleaned someday, once she had the chance. If she ever had the chance. She stepped over dandelions and splintered planks, eyes firmly planted on the dark building that stood at the top of the hill. It fell over a little more with each passing year, but still looked to be in good condition. She dreaded the day it would collapse into itself, and she'd have to find somewhere else to hold her yearly ritual.

She reached the top with ease. Long flights of stairs didn't bother her nearly as much as they used to. She walked purposefully across the unkempt field to the looming double doors. The lock was undone -it hadn't worked in years- and so she pushed the them open without a thought and walked inside. The air inside was chilly and stale, the dank smell of wetness assaulted her senses and almost sent her reeling. She reached a hand up to her hood and pushed it down, allowing light brown locks to cascade down her back in soft curls.

She looked around, taking in the damaged pews and broken stained glass. The painted Virgin Mary that overlooking the place was missing her head, but was otherwise intact. She could see out one window the rebuilt city that was once Manhattan. It shined with a light that should have been impossible, where it not for the one Earth now called King, lending his power to the people he now ruled. She looked away sharply, not wanting to see it right now. She stared instead at a pipe organ in the corner, caved in from countless attacks and lack of protection.

This whole placed depressed her. She'd never been all that religious, especially not after all she'd seen, but she remembered the homey feel of the church her grandmother used to take her too. It was much smaller than this one, all the patrons knew each other well and everyone could call each other friend.

She missed that, having friends. It had been so long since she had anyone she could really talk to.

At the altar, everything was exactly the way she left it last year. She had set everything up under that last bit of ceiling that still stood, so that she wouldn't have to worry about rain or snow getting to it. The rain tapped against the moldy pews as she walked passed. They splashed, unnoticed, on her cloak, which she would have to have cleaned when she got back.

She approached the twin pillars, and the array of photographs strung out between it. Before them was a set of candles, 12 in all, one for each of them. The knapsack on her back suddenly felt heavier. She stopped before the makeshift shrine and gently knelt, making sure first that the area before her was clear of dirt and debris. Then she secured the traveling cloak tightly, so that her dress underneath was completely covered. Getting down on her knees, she dropped her knapsack and undid the strings.

Out came a bouquet of flowers. Carnations, just like always.

She placed them gently in front of the candles and then reached in again for her lighter. She held it up, but hesitated to turn it on. She looked down the line of photos, of smiling faces that made her heart hurt.

"Hey, guys," she said, without knowing why she was speaking. "It's me, Jane. I'm back again. It's been a whole year, can you believe it?"

The rain was lessening, but the wind still howled, as if to answer her. Jane pulled her cloak tighter around her to keep the cold out.

"I've been doing well, well enough anyway. It's been busy, but I've found some time for myself. He's actually very good about that, believe it or not. Oh, I do have some good news. Remember last time, I told you about that uprising in Nepal and how he wanted to destroy their whole village to smoke them out? I managed to talk him out of it! We sent in some spies instead, and we were able to take them out with no civilian casualties. It's great, because he's a lot more open to my suggestions now. Just last month, we got word of an assassin in France taking out politicians most loyal to us- him, and we've been talking about how to handle it. With any luck…"

Jane trailed off. Stray locks of hair brushed and tickled her cheek. She pushed it back, slowly tracing the curve of her ear. Her mind had gone completely blank, no more words coming to her for the photographs and their smiles that caused her such pain. Most of those pictures, she knew, were taken only a short time before they started losing the war. Back when they were (mostly) easy going and happy people she was honored to call her friends. Back before the war tore them apart, and picked them off one by one.

Jane looked at Steve Rogers, Captain America, smiling nervously at the camera with a glass of champagne in his hand. If Jane remembered correctly, that picture was taken by a slightly drunk Tony at the Christmas party. He'd spent the rest of the night trying to convince Steve to take a picture with Natasha because it would piss Clint off. That was a fun memory if Jane ever knew one.

Steve Rogers had been the first to die.

He had been shot in the back by some random Chitauri soldier while rescuing a group of women and children from a burning Day Care center. He succumbed to his wounds hours later, but all those people he'd given his life for made it out alive. He had died exactly the way he was meant to: a hero.

Clint Barton and Natasha Romanov were next, and they went together. Jane hadn't been surprised when the confirmation of Clint's death came, almost a full hour after Natasha's. Their bodies were found surrounded by arrows and bullets and about 50 dead Chitauri. They were resting against a broken slab of rock, side by side, hands held. They were buried in the same unmarked grave, in a location Jane didn't know and never would.

Bruce Banner went in his sleep. An assassin snuck into his room one night and stuck a blade through his temple before he was even conscious. Jane had been the one to find him the next day, a message written in blood on the wall in the Chitauri language.

Years later, He would swear that that one, at least, he had no involvement in. The Chitauri in question had lost many comrades to the Hulk and thirsted for vengeance. It seemed the Chitauri were just as capable of certain emotions as a human, and knowing this provided no comfort to her.

Jane would never be certain if Tony Stark had planned his death or not. Because he had no chance against the sea of Chitauri he took on all alone, but then again, he'd never been the same after Bruce's death, and Pepper's before that. He flew in without clearance, without conferring with Fury, without a thought in his mind except to fight, and to his credit, he'd done a damn good job. By the time his suit gave out and what remained of the battalion swarmed him, he'd taken out a good 60 percent of them. Jane could still remember his final words, ringing in her ears over the com link.

"It's okay, Sweetheart. I'm long overdue for this, believe me."

He was gone a minute later, both figuratively and literally.

JARVIS, as fate would have it, broke down shortly thereafter. With no Tony Stark around, there was no way to fix the AI, and what remained of SHIELD was forced to go underground, the last remaining safe place from the Chitauri and their Master.

Jane's eyes slid to the next picture in line, and her heart, already tearing little by little, ripped right in half. She choked back a sob, losing control of herself and running light fingers across Thor's face, his cute little smile. He never understood what a camera was, never had the chance to, but he was always so happy to smile for it.

He was the last of the Avengers. Several months went by after Tony's death. The underground base was eventually found, and more SHIELD agents went down fighting than Jane could count. When the Chitauri carried her out, kicking and screaming and fighting futilely with all she had, there were bodies all around her, including those of Nick Fury and his right hand, Maria Hill. When Jane saw them, she had stopped struggling. It was like a block of ice running down her back and into her stomach.

She saw then how hopeless it was, how badly they had lost this war. There was no one left to fight against Him. It didn't matter what Thor did, he wasn't enough. He could bring all the armies of Asgard and it wouldn't be enough.

That didn't stop Thor, of course. It took months for him to track them down, but he did, and Jane was horrified to see him flying up to them out of the blue one night. She didn't want him there, risking his life for her or for earth when it was too late. It was even more too late now than it was the day she was captured. Thor had no idea what had gone on in the time that followed, and she had no idea how to tell him.

The battle lasted longer than Jane expected, possibly because it was one on one. The Chitauri held onto her and screeched as their leader and his brother fought. Thor traded blows with Him, hammer against magic and staff. Through it all, no matter how many times he dodged what would have been a killing blow, or how many he sent out himself, Thor never stopped calling out for his brother.

"Stop this!" he said. "We can still fix this!"

Jane couldn't believe it. After everything, he still believed in some latent goodness his brother no longer possessed. Thor had been laughed at, received nothing but scorn and jeering from his former brother as the fight went on.

Until it ended.

And it ended so fast.

One Chitauri decided he was done sitting around and launched an attack. He was running at Thor, and didn't notice his wayward soldier until Thor had snapped his head around and knocked it back with a mighty swing. Jane watched Him stumble, cry out in surprise, and then the jagged edge of his staff pierced Thor's chest.

Straight through his heart.

Jane screamed. She remembered screaming so loud, the Chitauri around her had doubled over, covering their ears. Thor sunk to his knees, blood streaming from his mouth as his body went into shock. He stood over him, the staff falling from his slacken hands. He watched his brother fall at his feet twitching and trying to gasp out… something. Anything.

He was rigid before this death, one he clearly had never seen coming and maybe never even wanted. By the time he was back to himself, Thor was unmoving, the breath having left his body, and Jane had yelled herself hoarse and was simply sitting on her knees, crying silent tears.

The memory played out in Jane's mind like a film on projector. She shivered, and not from the cold this time. She forced herself to look away from Thor's picture, at the final two that stabbed at her chest just as powerfully. Erik and Darcy stared back at her, respectively smiling and smirking. Jane tried to recall the last time she'd seen them before everything went to hell. She'd never gotten confirmation of their deaths, but she'd never seen them alive either. After all this time, she figured it was safe to assume that they were gone too, and so their photos joined the line up several years ago.

Jane clicked the lighter on, the tiny flame illuminating the shrine and shining against the photographs. She brought it to each candle, one at a time until they were all lit. She shut off the lighter and put it back, she had all the light she needed now.

These candles, magicked to never grow any shorter and to stay alight for one year, had served her well over the years. They were one of a kind, an innocent gift He'd given her after the war ended for good. She'd never told him what she did with them, and he never asked. It made her wonder if he'd secretly known about this place all along. Maybe he was there right now, watching her under a cloak of invisibility. It wasn't like that was beyond his capabilities.

Jane sat up a little straighter, glancing around as paranoia filled her. She could hear no rain now, and moonlight shined through the gaping holes of the roof.

It was time to go.

She looked down the line of photos one last time, starting with Agent Phil Coulson at the beginning. She'd been unsure at first about including his picture, the two hadn't exactly met on good terms, but Thor had told her of the lengths the man went to keep her safe during the initial assault, and how he'd died trying to save him, and Jane supposed she owed in this honor. It would have been wrong to exclude him.

"So… I guess I'll see you next year."

She got to her feet, brushing off the cloak and flattening out wrinkles.

"Sorry for the short visit. Maybe next year I can stay longer. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry… I'm sorry."

Those two words came out repeatedly. She didn't even try to stop them. Her gaze floated along the line up, memories of their smiles and their voices and their lives long gone sent them spilling out of her mouth faster and louder. She stopped at Thor's picture, and suddenly, tears were streaming down her face, and she was close to falling forward.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry," she sobbed. "I am sorry, but- I'll keep going. I'm not going to back down to him. I'm going to do everything I can to- to keep anything like this from ever happening again. I just- I'm sorry, Thor."

And now, she couldn't stay another minute. Everything she'd been holding in was bursting out, in her words and in her tears. She knew she must have looked a mess, her face red and puffy from crying. It wasn't becoming of a woman like her, and she knew how bad it would look if anyone saw her like this.

Jane wiped her eyes and turned to the doors, wide open for her to reveal the clear night sky and the shining city below. Jane breathed deeply, raggedly, forcing air into her lungs. She walked through the doors, closing them fast. She couldn't handle looking at the shrine again, not until next year when it was time to light the candles again.

She ran for home, thankful that she'd worn sensible shoes this time. The incredible palace was too much for the trees to hide, she could see it clearly even from a mile away. When she makes it to the servant's entrance, it was as empty as she left it. She walked in, depositing the cloak and knapsack on a pile of linen and clothing left out for the laundresses. Jane adjusted her hair in the mirror, making sure it was dry and in place. She took extra time to examine her face, searching for wrinkles around the eyes or lips that would never appear. Her face was exactly the same now as it was on the day of Thor's death 50 years ago, and it would be the same 1000 years from now, just as He would.

Jane walked into the main hallway and ran into a passing servant. As soon as he recognized her, the middle aged man gasped and fell to his knees, head bent submissively.

"My Queen," he said. "My deepest apologies. I didn't mean to get in your way, please forgive me."

Jane shifted uncomfortably at the display of groveling. No matter how many years passed, or how long she held the title of Queen of Midgard, the sight of people bowing before her was never going to feel right to her.

"N-no, it's alright," she said gently, as she always did whenever someone did this and she was alone. When her husband was around, she just had to grin and bare it.

"You are a Queen and you are my wife," he would say. "You are so far above them, it's laughable. Of course they will bow to you."

He just didn't understand why it bothered her so much. He never would.

After Jane was finished reassuring the man that he would not be punished, she started back on her journey to the end of the hall.

The door to their room was closed, and Jane felt relief. The door was only ever closed when one or both of them was asleep, and at that point couldn't be opened except by one of them or if there was an emergency. Jane twisted the knob, which turned easily for her.

The room was enormous, five times the size of an normal house, and filled with only the finest decorations. The high ceiling sported several windows, so Jane could look out at the stars whenever she had trouble sleeping. The biggest one was right about their bed, illuminating it and the one currently asleep on it.

Loki had the covers drawn up to his waist, his bare chest exposed to the warm air. Jane walked to her wardrobe, never taking her eyes off him, and reached back to untie the knots of her dress. It fell, pooling around her feet and leaving her in nothing but her undergarments. That was good enough. She didn't feel much like putting on her sleepwear tonight.

She crawled into bed beside him, putting several inches distance between then and laying down. It was useless. Within seconds, he'd shifted in his sleep, growling something in Asgardian that she didn't understand, and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close. He didn't speak again or open his eyes, but Jane wouldn't be surprised if he was really awake. She willingly accepted his embrace, wrapping her arms around him as best she could.

Jane's cheek rubbed against his hard chest, and she inched closer to press a soft kiss to the heated flesh there. Her nostrils filled with his scent. She breathed in deeply, it was familiar to her now after so many years.

She used to hate it, but now she'd grown to love it, just as she'd grown to love him.

Tomorrow, there would be more meetings to attend and another rebel to deal with. She knew Loki would ask for her opinion, and she'd remind him of how much more positively the people responded when he exercised compassion and mercy than when he resorted to violence.

She knew he'd take that into consideration, and ultimately decide that she was right. She didn't even need to say it anymore. Loki had seen for himself what garnered a more positive reaction and he knew that what worked once would likely continue to work.

And Jane would fall asleep in his arms again the next night, possibly after a more passionate encounter, all the fear and misery and anger she'd once felt for him long since dissipated.

All she had left for him was love, and for herself, a powerful and unending guilt.