Chapter 1: Tony's POV
Tony first found the kid because there was a wallet in his pocket.
Tony didn't have a wallet. He had a famous face, a phone, and an assistant to take care of anything that might need a wallet and none of them messed up the lines of his suits.
Well, his assistants before Pepper had sometimes messed up the lines of his suit, and at the moment he was post-Pepper and pre whoever came next, so maybe he should have been carrying a wallet, but the fact remained that he hadn't been at the start of the evening and by the end of the evening, he had been.
It had been a wallet for a Bernard Hugh Cunningham the fourth, which was just embarrassing.
He hadn't needed to hack into any security systems to figure out what had happened because it turned out that nearly everyone who had gone to that party with a wallet had gone home with someone else's. The venue was highly embarrassed, most of the party-goers were highly incensed, and Tony was highly amused.
What did take some extra hacking was to figure out who had done it, because the venue's security detail had failed entirely to pinpoint any particular individual.
Tony, well, okay, JARVIS had managed to identify one person and track him down to the New York Public Library the following day, where he was writing a combination of rude comments and brilliant corrections into the physics texts. Tony recognized that look of sulky boredom. He'd informed the kid that he was hired and then asked him his name, since not even JARVIS had managed to actually find the kid's records yet.
Young, gorgeous, brilliant, a sense of humor that led to practical jokes, and without the money that had helped Tony survive, Tony wasn't at all surprised that the kid—Loptr Laufeyjorson—was also sullen, defensive and hurting. He couldn't do anything about the past, but he could do something about the future.
Their discussion about quantum particles on the drive back to his place had been wonderful and given him all sorts of ideas. They were co-writing an academic article for publication and trying to figure out a practical implementation within three days.
By the next week, when Loptr let him know that there was a board meeting in the afternoon and either Tony was going or Loptr was going with Tony's proxy vote, the glint in Loptr's eyes had Tony suiting up and paying attention in the meeting.
Pepper was impressed. Tony was impressed, too. Working with Loptr felt a bit like driving one of his cars on the best of twisty mountain roads. Tony was in control, but only just. Any moment, any lack of attention or just plain bad luck could throw them both off a cliff at high speed. Loptr was clearly Tony's kind of assistant.
Chapter 2: Loki's POV
Loki is a god of chaos. Of chaos and lies and trickery.
It is insult added to injury, then, to discover that Odin lied and tricked Loki himself into believing himself one of the Asgard when he was truly one of the Jotunn. Loki should have known. He should have recognized the lies, been instigator rather than target of the trickery.
The fact that he was victim rather than perpetrator just rubs in the fact that Loki is not a god after all, but one of the despised frost giants.
To fall to Midgard of all places is further salt in the wound.
Here he is powerful, here he could conquer and rule, here on this miserable scrap of dirt he would be able to convince the pitiful creatures to see him as a god because in comparison to their weak forms he would be. What point is there in proving himself over those too lowly to matter anyway?
He spends his first month on Midgard wandering around one of their larger cities making half-hearted efforts at mischief in an attempt to amuse himself and annotating all of the so-called "physics books" in their public library with pointed comments about the ways they are wrong.
He doesn't even use magic, just slight-of-hand and well-chosen words. He doesn't expect anyone to be able to notice, regardless, but somehow Tony Stark does.
Stark is… impressive. For a human.
Stark is arrogant and intelligent and tricky and Loki can practically smell the chaos that emanates from him like a perfume. He's also Ironman, Loki recalls, one of the more powerful of the individual humans, likely capable of fighting on a level with some of the Asgardian warriors.
And that is what gives Loki the idea for what to do now.
Here on this pitiful planet with such weaklings that Thor had treated the whole planet's population as damsels in need of rescue, Loki would build strength. If they were so weak that Loki was embarrassed to be on their planet, then he would change that. By the time Odin managed to re-build the bifrost, by the time Heimdall managed to peer through Loki's veils, the humans here would be a great deal stronger than they had ever hoped to be. The humans might become allies or might become enemies to the Asgard, but either way Loki would ensure that, when the ways next opened, they, and he, would be respected.
Chapter 3: Pepper's POV
The first time Pepper met Tony's new assistant, it was by phone.
She had called Tony to remind him of the board meeting and to demand/beg/bribe/threaten him to show up. Instead of reaching Tony, though, she found herself speaking to a rather gorgeous (of course) androgynous face with cheekbones to die for, wearing a green t-shirt (a t-shirt!) that really brought out his (her?) eyes. Who answered the phone with, "What do you want?"
She had wondered how Tony would manage to kick his conquests out of the house after he was done with them without her to do it, but she had always assumed that he would manage. She gave this one a tight smile. "Can you please put Tony on the line."
She glared. He (she was pretty sure the person was male at this point) looked bored. (God, she hoped he was over eighteen. It had never been a concern before, but this person looked and acted like a teenager.)
"I'm Pepper Potts, the CEO of Stark Industries, calling about a professional matter. Put Tony on the line."
"And I'm Loptr, his assistant. If I think the message is important, I might decide to tell him."
After a moment, Pepper decided that while she had never done anything in her life to make her deserve having to put up with this, Tony certainly had done plenty for him to deserve it. She would let him deal with it.
"The board meeting is this afternoon at 2 PM. Please let him know that I expect him to be there."
"Is it?" And suddenly the guy looked very interested, with a sharp smile on his face. "E-mail me the board packet."
She raised an eyebrow at that command, but thought she'd go ahead and see what happened. A few keystrokes and "It's in his in-box." If this guy really was Tony's assistant, he'd be able to access it there. If he wasn't, then he wouldn't.
He typed a few keystrokes on his end, and apparently he really was Tony's assistant. "Interesting. I'll be there with Tony at 2."
And he hung up.
Tony not only attended the board meeting that afternoon but he paid attention through the whole thing, with Mr. Laufeyjorson sitting quietly in a chair at the back of the room, taking notes.
She decided that she was impressed.
Loptr showed up as Tony's proxy for the first time to an emergency board meeting.
Proprietary information on some of Tony's most recent developments had somehow made it onto the Internet, free to anyone with a connection. Pepper had managed to get it removed, but it had already been too late. Message boards around the world had been active in their discussions of the potential new technology.
The board meeting had been scheduled for sixteen hours after the leak had been discovered. Pepper had worked straight through hoping and praying that she would be able to present the guilty party and a satisfactory conclusion by then. Unfortunately, luck was not favoring her in that.
She had just been glad that at least luck had favored her by not having Tony there. Tony had gone straight from being Iron Man to a Hollywood party last night and she had expected him to be sleeping in, to not even have received the message about the meeting and she had been glad of it. Putting up with the board regarding such a massive leak would be difficult enough without Tony's version of histrionics.
Loptr appearing as Tony's proxy had been a pleasant surprise, at first. Loptr quietly taking notes in the background would be taken as a sign of Tony's support for her. Quietly taking notes was what Loptr did in board meetings. At least that's what he had done in all the previous board meetings that he had attended with Tony present.
She had most definitely not expected Loptr to brush aside the blame-game entirely and take on the whole board, using Tony's vote to pressure them into making the leak an official open-source donation to the public domain.
One of the more bombastic of the board directors had been building up steam to start a full-scale witch hunt to find the perpetrator. "Heads are going to roll!"
Loptr had cut him off. "Are you more interested in punishing someone or in making the company successful? Because my understanding is that a board member must have a primary interest in the success of the company."
"It is the success—"
"To focus on the past to the detriment of the future?" He'd asked with heavy sarcasm. "I think not." And then he'd simply turned away from that man as if the issue of finding the guilty party had been taken off the table entirely and somehow it seemed that it was.
"Ideas can't exactly be taken back, so we might as well make use of the PR opportunity."
A somewhat shell-shocked board of directors had voted in the idea of publicizing the leaked information officially, along with a competition, complete with awards, for developing the technology further.
They were already discussing the potential for tracking the benefits of the leak when Tony showed up, looking hungover.
Even with his sunglasses on, he looked haggard. His smile was even more artificial than it usually was at board meetings. At least he was smiling.
"Ah, Loptr. Thank you for being my proxy for the first half. Why don't we take a break right now. I'll go over the notes and we can reconvene in half an hour? Does that work for everyone? Excellent." Tony smiled widely at everyone.
This was apparently a day for being bulldozed.
"Ah yes, lovely to see you Tony." "We've accomplished so much." "A break is a great idea." The babble of words were barely audible by the end as the members of the board made their escape. Pepper thought about fleeing, too, but knowing what was going on, was definitely more important than trying to regain her balance at this point.
Tony noticed her presence but didn't comment on it, when she shut the door with herself still on the side with Tony and Loptr.
"So why exactly did you leak this technology?" Tony asked Loptr. (Pepper had to suppress a squawk of outrage.) "Because, really, I was expecting it to go to someone in particular, rather than just released into the wild, as it were."
Loptr snorted in disdain. "It can be taken up another level. I know it, and you should know it."
"The math doesn't work."
"The fact that you can't find the right math to make it work, doesn't mean the math doesn't work. Someone else will manage it."
"And you didn't think that perhaps I could just hire someone else to review it?"
"You don't think it can be done. You certainly don't know who to hire to do it."
"Then who would you have hired for it?" Tony was clearly exasperated. And as horrible as the whole set up was, for the business she was trying to run, Pepper was kind of delighted to see Tony of all people having to be the responsible adult to a brilliant loose cannon. It was karma playing out in front of her.
Loptr checked his phone. "Apparently I would have hired two seventeen-year-olds and a fifteen-year-old from Poland. They seem to be the ones making the best advances, but I might have gone with the Chinese government who are a bit late to the game but seem to be advancing quickly."
"The Chinese. Christ."
Loptr rolled his eyes, but didn't respond.
"Are you trying to start world war three? I'd just like to know so that I can prepare my bomb shelter."
Loptr sneered. They both knew that Tony's bomb shelter had been ready for long-term habitation for the last three years.
"No, really, what was your intent here? It wasn't just to get the math right on this problem."
"Obviously. You and this company of yours are the acknowledged leaders in both energy and robotics research. There are no competitors to push you further and you have made absolutely no attempt to develop some competitors."
Tony squinted at Loptr. "So you're not so much a socialist as a really determined capitalist."
Loptr shrugged. "Call it what you will. You now have competitors snapping at your heels. What are going to do now?"
The squint turned into a glare. "We are now going back to the lab and you are going to compile a report about what developments have been made. Pepper, can deal with the board without us."
Pepper jumped at the opportunity. "Excellent, Tony. Just, don't let him come alone again, okay?"
"Hmm." Tony mostly looked speculative rather than apologetic.
"And Loptr, don't leak proprietary information!"
Loptr waved a hand casually dismissive, providing even less of an agreement than Tony had.
Chapter 5: Fury's POV, Day 1
“Sir? We may have a problem.”
Fury scowled at Coulson, who just continued to stand at ease in front of his desk. Coulson always seemed to be at ease, even in pitched battles, and he was more than capable of taking care of most problems on his own.
“How bad is it?”
“Hard to tell, sir. It’s more, ah, political, than our normal type of problem, really.” Meaning it probably wasn’t aliens attacking New York or someone in desperate need of getting shot. Probably.
“Spit it out, Coulson.”
“Stark Industries released a couple of scientific discoveries to the public last night. No press release, just posted the equations online. Mostly regarding matter-energy conversions. Our researchers are scrambling to understand the implications but say it’s potentially huge. Every other government, academic institution, amateur research organization and scientifically inclined individual is scrambling, too. The Chinese appear to be making particularly impressive advances.”
“And Stark just released this to the world. Does he realize this could very easily be seen as treason?”
“I try not to mention legal ramifications to Ms. Potts, Sir, unless I feel like dealing with Stark Industries corporate attorneys. There have been some rumors that the release wasn’t intentional, that it was a leak, and some of the early evidence would support that. However the company is denying it and there do not appear to be any efforts to track a culprit. Their public relations department is touting it as the greatest corporate donation to the public good ever, and they may be right.”
“Releasing that kind of weaponizable information does not improve the public good.”
“It might be considered a good cause if it defines an equitable relationship. It’s more likely to start a second cold war than it is to start a third world war.”
“Somehow I do not have that very reassuring. What does Stark have to say for himself?”
“I was unable to reach Stark, but he appears to be in direct communication with some of the individual researchers.”
“What do you think?”
“I think that intentional for Stark Industries is significantly different from intentional for Tony Stark.”
Fury snorted with some amusement. Tony Stark was pretty much the definition of a loose cannon. “How does this effect Phase 2?”
“Well, Sir, it mostly makes it obsolete. We have the physical weapons right now, but other governments and factions will have better ones within six months.”
“How the hell did he find out about it?”
“We’re not sure. We haven’t even been able to confirm that he has found out about it. He’s not known for keeping his displeasure quiet.”
“Releasing the information for energy weapons to the general public isn’t exactly quiet, now is it?”
“But he hasn’t called me, or you, to yell at. We’re still scanning all the data files, but so far haven’t found any of the comments I would have expected him to have left, if he had hacked into them and found information he didn’t approve of.”
“So it’s still a secret. It’s just a useless secret.”
“Yes, sir. Unless the aliens attack within the next six months.”
“Thank you, Coulson, for that bit of cheery information.”
“My pleasure, Sir. What would you like me to do?”
“Confirm or deny if it was a leak and who did it. I’ll visit with Stark later.”
Chapter 6: Fury's POV, Day 2
“Sir? We may have a problem.”
Fury looked up at Coulson who was standing just where he had been yesterday, saying the exact same thing. Had his tie been blue or grey yesterday? He was fairly sure it was different today. Probably.
“Don’t fuck with me, Coulson.”
Fury glared. He was pretty sure he wasn’t imagining the hint of a smile in Coulson’s eyes, but otherwise his face was completely deadpan. Fury hadn’t played poker with Coulson since that first year and had no intention of ever doing so again. He also tried to send Coulson out to fuck with other people’s heads whenever possible to hopefully get it out of his system.
“Maybe Stark needs some closer supervision. How about I just assign you to him?”
Okay that was a definite smirk, but only for a moment and then Coulson was serious again. Or serious for the first time, serious for real.
“Unfortunately, that may be true, sir. While I still haven’t been able to completely confirm or deny Stark’s personal involvement, the evidence currently points to a leak from Laufeyjorson, Stark’s personal assistant. Using Stark’s proxy, he was certainly the driving force behind the public relations campaign.”
“What do we know about Laufeyjorson?”
“That’s the problem. When he was first hired, we ran a basic background check. According to that check, Loptr Laufeyjorson is a twenty-one-year-old physics genius from Iceland. Given recent events, I instigated a more thorough check and we’ve been unable to find any living individual who can confirm his identity. It looks like Stark created the identity from the ground up. All the digital records are perfect, all the physical records are completely absent.”
“Shit. Start a search with face recognition. Do we have fingerprints?”
“Only the ones that are in his records.” Coulson shrugged. “I would imagine they were created by JARVIS rather than his actual prints, but I’m running them through our databases, just in case.”
“Assign a surveillance team. If Stark has been compromised…”
“Yes, Sir. I’ve reviewed that protocol in preparation of the necessity. I would say that Stark is a difficult asset to acquire and a worse one to manage. Any organization attempting to compromise him is going to have a difficult task.”
“Unfortunately, he’s proved that he’s worth the trouble. And anyone who manages will be a major player.”
“Yes, sir. Which is why I’d like the surveillance team to scan for alien technology and unusual radiation as well as unusual behaviors or contacts.”
“Fucking aliens just have to make everything harder,” Fury muttered mostly to himself. “Okay, give me a file on Laufeyjorson. I’ll speak with him when I meet with Stark.”
Chapter 7: Coulson's POV
Okay, I think I have a plot mapped out, more or less. Maybe. However, since there are still ten billion characters to keep track of (“ten billion” in this case, meaning about a dozen), I’m still going to be writing in short segments, keeping the character interactions slightly more manageable. I hope.
Darcy Lewis came through Phil’s office door without knocking and sang out, “Hey Agent Son-of-a-Son-of-a-Son-of-Coul!”
Phil allowed a visible wince. “Must you?”
“I was being nice. There was only three “Son of a”s in there, even thought both of us know there should have been ten. I haven’t figured out how to insert an etcetera into the rhythm, but you know I’ll be teaching Thor the long version when Jane gets him back.”
The first thing Lewis had done with her research position, the day when her security clearance was still being arranged, was to research her new boss. She had explained that she would have done it for any job, but even without clearance she hadn’t been able to get his personal records. Instead, she’d backtracked his genealogy to the original Coul, father of Coul’s Son, father of Coulson. Phil would never tell anyone that he had been both impressed and amused.
“Ms. Lewis. What brings you here?”
“Out of the depths of the research department and to your office, you mean? Because I’m fairly sure what brings me to SHIELD was a heavy-handed recruitment offer with mentions of national security. Not that I don’t appreciate having a government job right out of college, with benefits even, but a choice would have been nice, too, you know.”
“Yes, Ms. Lewis,” Phil answered. “What brings you here to my office, today?”
“Just to ask: Really? I mean, really?”
“You have a bunch of guys researching this guy Laufeyjorson and coming up with bupkis, and none of you thought to just, I don’t know, Google the guy?”
And that, Phil thought, was one of the reasons why he was not unhappy with her recruitment. Most of the people who were recruited because they knew too much rather than any particular skill set, were a combination of arrogant and idiotic. Lewis somehow managed to maintain perspective.
“Mr. Stark had his digital records created. Anything Google would come up with would be fake.” Phil answered, mostly to be an ass and see what she would say. She had definitely found something of interest.
Lewis rolled her eyes at him. “Well yeah, all of his individual records, but JARVIS can’t exactly change wikipedia. I mean, well, obviously he could, but if he tried, he’d be marked as a troll and someone would fix it. God, I hope someone would fix it. But anyway, he apparently didn’t try to change the Norse mythology sites. Loptr Laufeyjorson is another name for Loki Odinson.”
That certainly caught his attention. “Go on.”
“Strange guy who has no real records, assisting Tony? Pretty good chance he’s Thor’s brother. Or, I suppose, trying to frame Thor’s brother by using his name, except then someone would have to actually notice him doing so. So…”
“Thank you, Ms. Lewis,” Phil broke in when she took a breath. “What can you tell me about Loki?”
“Mostly that the Norse gods have messed up family lives. Like wow, the dysfunction. But he’s sort of a trickster folk-hero type of god, has a bunch of weird creature kids, and sometimes he’s the father and other times he’s the mother, so yay, genderqueer mythology.” Lewis bounced a little as she spoke, Phil noted. Her reports were always amusing.
Phil nodded his appreciation of the report. “Thank you, Ms. Lewis. That is very helpful. I’ll let Director Fury know.”
“And maybe next time you can assign the fun research project to me rather than the other stuffed shirts? Because really, I think they would be much better at researching the punching bag construction issues. Plus, it’s boring.”
“You’re doing a very good job. Captain Rogers is finding the bags very helpful.”
Lewis rolled her eyes again. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Then she strolled out of his office, just as informally as she had arrived.
Phil was already composing the report for the Director by the time the door closed. It wasn’t certain yet, but all the evidence currently pointed towards Laufeyjorson being an alien power. A suitable mixture of diplomacy, threat, and threat assessment were required.
Chapter 8: Fury's POV
Hands in his pockets, Fury settled into one of Stark's extremely comfortable armchairs and allowed himself to relax in the peaceful quiet while waiting for either Stark or Laufeyjorson to discover his presence. Since he hadn't been able to decide if he wanted to interview Stark or Laufeyjorson first, he would allow chance to have its way.
As necessarily delicate and potentially dangerous as these upcoming interviews would be, it was pleasant to simply relax while observing the truly lovely view out of the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Fury didn't visit Stark at his home all that often, mostly because he was only willing to do so when he could slip past JARVIS and surprise Stark. Unfortunately, any given method for getting in only worked once. Coming up with hacks for JARVIS was an ongoing assignment for several of SHIELD's more brilliant programmers. Fury also refrained from using any method that actively harmed the AI, keeping those in reserve against some unknown emergency.
It was a good half an hour before Fury saw the reflection of Laufeyjorson entering the room from the stairwell that led down to Stark's personal workshop. Interesting.
Even more interesting: Laufeyjorson noticed Fury's own reflection in the window within five steps.
The man paused for a moment before he took a few more steps, giving himself plenty of room to move, in case of a fight. He didn't move like an untried kid.
"You may stand and face me now."
He didn't sound like one, either. Fury stood up casually, flicking on the scanner in his pocket before he removed his hands from his pockets and turning around.
Laufeyjorson froze. He had been still before, but for a moment he froze. It was a good thing that Fury had been waiting for the reaction, or he might have missed it. But he'd turned slowly clockwise, waiting to see what Laufeyson would do when he saw the eyepatch.
Most people looked surprised or pitying or curious. Laufeyjorson froze.
Fury smirked. It looked like Coulson's theory might have something to it. "I am not Odin."
Laufeyjorson visibly flinched at that, before getting control of himself.
"What do you want?" Laufeyjorson was angry rather than confused, which was useful.
Even more useful, the scanner finally vibrated in Fury's pocket with the information that not only was it registering two sources of that token radiation given off by all living beings, but that one of those sources was abnormal for a terrestrial.
There had always been the chance that Fury would simply be making a fool of himself treating a regular human who had somehow managed to fall through the cracks of modern tracking methods rather than an alien threat.
"I want to know what your intentions are."
"My intentions? I'm not the one who broke into this house."
"But you're the one on this planet with unknown motives." Fury spoke with certainty that he mostly felt at this point.
Laufeyjorson sighed. "I didn't intend to come to Midgard. But now that I'm here, I fully intend to be benign. So you don't have to worry."
And that was close enough, for now, to confirmation that Loptr Laufeyjorson was really was Loki Odinson of the Asgard.
"Thank you for that reassurance." Fury spoke dryly. "Now, what are your intentions?"
"What makes you think I have any intentions other than living my life?"
Fury raised an eyebrow. It was an idiotic question. There was just no way this guy did not have intentions of one sort or another.
Laufeyjorson glared but also stopped playing coy. "My intentions are largely aligned with yours. I want my people to be a power equal to any other in the universe. I will not be considered weak."
"And who exactly, in this instance, are your people?"
"They are our people. The people of Midgard."
"And Midgard is?"
Laufeyjorson actually rolled his eyes. "This realm called Earth."
"You're not from Earth, though. Do you change loyalties so easily?"
Laufeyjorson snarled. "It was not easy. I was cast down. I was cast down and barely managed to make my way here from that eternal fall. Here, in this realm of mortals with a broken bridge and not enough knowledge to protect itself."
"And you want to protect it?" He projected cynical suspicion with his voice but couldn't help believing that Laufeyjorson was telling the truth. The problem, Fury thought, was that he was always inclined to believe that people wanted to protect the world because, to Fury, it was the obvious thing to want. Thus, anyone with any brains would say they wanted to protect the world in order to fool Fury. It made him suspicious.
"Protect it? No. I want it to not need protection. If I am to be here, here must be worthy."
Fury raised an eyebrow but thought it was a pretty good point, actually. "And if that's the part that's aligned with what you think my goals are, what doesn't align so well?" Laufeyjorson opened his mouth to respond, and Fury cut him off, "And yes, I do expect an honest answer to that question."
Laufeyjorson shut his mouth on what Fury was sure had been a snide remark about asking questions that so begged for lies in answer. Then he spat out, "I will be respected. I will not be insulted or ignored."
Fury was genuinely surprised. He raised his hands a little to show that they were empty and he wasn't an immediate threat. "I was not trying to disrespect you. "
Laufeyjorson laughed, but it was a harsh sound. "Not yet, you haven't. But if you ever do, I will make sure you do not make the same mistake twice." It was a threat, which normally would have made Fury respond in kind, but this time… this time it made Fury wonder if Asgard were truly so different from here that a person like this felt the need to make a demand for respect.
"Oh, I assure you, Loptr Laufeyjorson, you could not prevent me from giving you the utmost of respect." Fury bared his teeth in the kind of expression that he had previously tried to tell various council members was a smile, but most intelligent people backed away from. It was the kind of thing one said to once and future enemies, when there was no open warfare, but there was respect.
Laufeyjorson nodded his head in regal acceptance.
Fury made a mental note to try to get more information on Asgard, if it was the kind of place that exiled powerful warriors like Thor and failed to respect clever creatures like Laufeyjorson.
"I'm going to need a bit more explanation of what you're doing here if you want me to believe that all you want is respect."
Laufeyjorson smiled sweetly and seemed to relax, apparently pleased by Fury's suspicion. Fury suppressed any sign of amusement, but it was oddly pleasing: most of the time when meeting with various allies and assets, he had to hide his suspicions in order to maintain polite relations.
"I didn't come here by choice. I was exiled."
"And why was that?"
"Because they wouldn't respect me until I made them do so."
Fury did allow a snort of amusement at this circular argument. The information he had gained in this conversation was enough for now. He would be keeping an eye on Laufeyjorson. There would be other opportunities to question him.
"Are you going to tell Tony Stark?" Laufeyjorson spoke with studied disinterest. Fury took a moment to wonder why he seemed to be dealing with so many overpowered adolescents.
"If you haven't told him, then I don't feel any particular need to interfere. Just make sure you don't do anything to provoke me."
Laufeyjorson's smile was almost enough to make him regret that decision.
Then Tony skidded into the room, coming to a stop at what Fury was pretty sure was a carefully chosen spot, tangential to Fury and Laufeyjorson.
"Hey, Fury, what brings you here? And why are you pestering my assistant?"
Fury snorted but allowed himself to be manipulated into turning away from Laufeyjorson. "I was just telling your assistant that I don't appreciate him releasing new technologies to the world at large."
Hopefully Laufeyjorson would take that as the warning it was to not do something like that again.
"Hey, that was all Stark Industries. And there's nothing wrong with using the academic community to further some research."
"Uh-huh. You might even be able to convince some judge of your altruism."
Stark gave a big grin. "I'm an altruistic kind of guy."
"I'm not that judge."
"But justice is blindfolded and you're already halfway there."
Fury ignored that entirely. "What is definitely illegal is creating a false identity for someone and hacking into however many government databases you needed to do it."
"I'm just helping them out. The government takes such issue with illegal immigrants. I didn't want to trouble their little bureaucratic hearts."
"My people are perfectly happy dealing with those little illegal immigrant issues. What they are less happy with is people living under aliases. Be very careful or you will discover that you've painted a very large target on your new friend's back."
"You're just unhappy that you haven't been able to find his real identity yet. Or original identity, since this one is definitely real; way too many governmental databases know about him in order for it to be false.
Fury actually smiled. Stark was fishing for information. And Fury was in the mood to provide it, at least some of it. "Agent Coulson has already interviewed Mr. Laufeyjorson's brother."
The look on Stark's face was fucking perfect. With one sentence, Fury had managed to demonstrate SHIELD's superiority, focus Stark's attention on Coulson rather than Fury himself, and give a subtle warning to Laufeyjorson that Fury had contacts.
There hadn't been a real interview with Stark, but he'd gotten the information he wanted and this was a good time to remove himself from the situation. He made sure to catch both of their eyes in a final look. "Be good."
Chapter 9: Coulson's POV
"I sent Ms. Lewis the recording from your trip to transcribe. Since it was her theory, I thought she might have insight into the results of the test. She asked me to tell you that you are quote: very bamf."
Fury gave him a pained look, which was what Phil had been intending. Phil wasn't sure if the director knew what a BAMF was, but he was entirely sure Fury would never admit to knowing it.
But after that look, Fury went back to acting… oddly.
Not to sound too sensitive, but Fury was looking at Phil funny. If this were an undercover operation, Phil would assume that he was about to be made. Since they were on the same side and Fury had Phil's entire record available to him anytime he cared to look, he wasn't entirely sure what to make of the looks. He wondered if he should schedule his annual review earlier this year than usual.
"And how is Lewis? And more to the point, has Dr. Foster finally accepted the change in position?"
"Ms. Lewis is proving to be a competent analyst able to bring creative ideas to unique situations." Phil recited by rote from his most recent evaluation of the new analyst, while he continued to think about what Fury was getting at. "Dr. Foster continues to e-mail demands for her return during her daily coffee break, since that appears to be when she misses having a non-scientific companion. May I ask why the interest, sir?"
"Laufeyjorson mentioned the bridge. It was a fairly clear offer to work on it."
"And you don't want Dr. Foster and Laufeyjorson to be working together without someone keeping an eye on them."
"Yeah. And the regular agents are a bit too predictable to keep up with a fucking god of mischief."
"You'll want a regular contingent of guards there, too, both in case and to distract from Lewis' role." This would definitely be interesting. Throwing together a bunch of interesting personalities and seeing what happens was something that Phil suspected Fury enjoyed just as much as Phil did.
And now Fury was back to acting oddly. Normally after planning an assignment like that, he would leave Phil to deal with the paperwork while he went off to convince the council that it was a good idea and that they'd already given their approval anyway. What he did not do was continue to stand in Phil's office without clear purpose.
"I told Laufeyjorson that I would respect him."
"From what we know of him, he's smart, tricky, and powerful. We'd better respect him. Did you have another idea?" And if so, why wasn't he just saying it? Fury had always been fine before with running even his crazier ideas by Phil.
"Yeah. I plan to keep a very close eye on him. The Asgard are idiots."
Phil smiled faintly at that. "Most of the gods in pantheonic mythos are pretty idiotic."
"Hmm. But it made me wonder if I'm making the same mistake."
"You are one of the smartest, trickiest, and most dangerous people on my payroll. And I've gotten into the habit of taking you for granted."
This was no longer humorous. Phil put his hands flat on the desk and took a breath. "Are you questioning my loyalty, sir?"
"For fuck's sake, Coulson. No. I'm trying to ask if I'm not giving you the respect you need."
Phil relaxed. Okay, not a lack of trust, just Fury's usual lack of any personal socialization that wasn't directly related to manipulating and predicting targets.
"Ah. The answer is 'yes,' you are giving me enough respect. Was there anything else?" Phil kept his voice bland but he was fairly sure Fury could sense, if not see, his renewed amusement.
Okay, time to be at least somewhat blunt. About his feelings. With Director Nick Fury. Why was this his life, Phil wondered. He sighed. "It's not lack of respect, sir. Nick. It's trust. You trust me enough to do my job so that you don't have to. Being taken for granted… it's the other side of being trusted, being reliable. It's not a bad thing."
"It can lead to bitterness."
"It can. People react differently to situations. But it won't for me. You're going to have to trust me on that, too."
"Well, okay." Fury gave one more of those odd looks, but then apparently decided to put the whole thing behind them, thank god, and returned to his normal state of determined action.
"Get a lab set up for Dr. Foster near Stark. I may want them working together, but I want it to be in a SHIELD lab and not a Stark lab. Hill! What's the status on…" Fury continued to talk even as he left Phil's office.
Phil smiled down at his paperwork even as he drew up the forms that would set a whole new level of chaos into motion.
Chapter 10: Loki's POV
"Your brother, Loptr? You have a brother and you didn't tell me?" Tony pouted and attempted to make what some people apparently referred to as 'puppydog eyes.' Loptr thought the phrase somewhat disturbing. Even as a puppy, Fenrir's eyes had looked nothing like that, nor anything much like begging, either.
"You should invite him over! We can have a family dinner. And you can show off how much more successful you are than him. I'll talk you up and be a perfect host, I promise."
Tony was talking too much, again, but Loptr was pretty comfortable at this point, keeping half an ear open to make sure he didn't miss anything while ignoring most of the words. It was not at all surprising that Tony understood about wanting to outclass family members.
If any of his so-called family ever did make it down here, Loki would make sure that they had the pleasure of being hosted by Tony. And that Tony had the pleasure of upstaging the gods of Asgard. Because, really, if anyone could do it, Tony could.
Loki was pleased with his patron. Tony was smart and sneaky and had found a way to make his weakness into a strength, with his shredded heart and his flying armor. He understood the benefits of tricks and lies and understood the problems as well.
Loki had thought himself unusually lucky to have fallen into such company.
But now, after meeting the man named Fury, Loki wondered. Were lies and tricks such a part of Midgard society that it was not luck but inevitability that Loki would find such a one?
On Asgard, Loki had been alone in his mischief.
On Midgard, there was Tony and the foreign researchers he had contacted online and now the man Fury.
Fury had looked like Odin and Heimdall and yet in some ways he acted more like Loki himself, with his curiosity and his unspoken threats. It had unnerved Loki.
In his uncertainty, Loki had spoken perhaps more truth and fewer questions than he might otherwise have. Had his instincts betrayed him or proved true? Truth sometimes made for the very best of lies, and if Odin were to ever fix the Bifrost, then any lies of his would have to be carefully interwoven with the truth, such that all evidence would support his statements.
Tony did not know of Thor or of the Asgard and while the man Fury knew of Thor, he would know only that which Thor had spoken of.
He wondered if the man Fury had the power and the interest to take the bait Loki had offered regarding the bridge. If he did, then Loki could learn more of what had happened when Thor had been banished here and what had been seen when the bridge had been destroyed.
Whether the bait was taken or not, though, just this one visit had given him a better sense of which lies would be believed and which ones would be doubted. And he had met one of the people who would make those judgments.
Loki found himself grinning.
Chapter 11: Tony's POV
Tony had enough experience with making a nuisance of himself that he could pester his assistant about his past on autopilot. He was fairly sure that Loptr was responding on autopilot, too, which led to some pretty peculiar exchanges that he would get JARVIS to play back for him later. For now, though, he needed to think through the possibilities.
Fury only came to his house when he could control the setting, which meant disabling JARVIS.
Tony hated thinking that anyone was smarter than him, and someone blocking his AI pissed him off. He consoled himself with the fact that Fury had a whole organization behind him and JARVIS was made entirely by Tony himself. And each time Fury got one past him, Tony upgraded JARVIS to prevent a repeat. And, Tony thought smugly, not even his money would be able to buy the kind of regular security test that Fury gave Tony for free by showing him where the holes were.
So maybe these exchanges were worthwhile from Tony's perspective in order to point out a weakness in JARVIS in need of fixing, and maybe they were worthwhile from Fury's perspective in order to demonstrate his ability to get to Tony. But they would be highly expensive for Fury and nothing to be wasted.
So why then had Fury spent one of his entrances on Loptr?
His assistant was a genius and a runaway and had decided to name himself after a Norse god of mischief, because no way was that his real name. Although if it was, then that might explain why he ran away from parents cruel enough to inflict that on their kid.
Although, really, not is real name: Tony had looked for someone with that name and came up empty. Then he'd had JARVIS perform a search, and finally had created the identity papers for his assistant because Loptr refused to tell him his real name and identity were.
Tony hadn't been able to find out who he was, not by name, or face recognition, or even by tracking the types of mischief that Loptr liked to get into if he wasn't closely supervised. He was fairly sure that Loptr had to have come from the type of wealthy family that would cover for an errant kid's mischief making, even as it sailed too close to fraud and theft. But even in those social circles, maybe especially in those social circles, rumors spread and Tony should have been able to find the rumors.
And the fact that he could mingle with the rich and famous without showing any discomfort or uncertainty but also not being recognized at all… maybe he had been a scholarship student among the wealthy, possibly with a friend whose parents had protected him?
But it didn't make sense, and for the most part Tony only toyed with the possibilities when he was taking a break from some engineering problem, because Loptr's past didn't matter nearly as much as his present did, and Loptr's present was made up of helping Tony with his math and physics.
And yet, SHIELD had managed to track down who Loptr really was, when Tony hadn't been able to, and had thought the findings significant enough to warrant Fury sneaking into Tony's house in order to try to intimidate the kid.
And given the grin on Loptr's face, it hadn't worked.
That grin was the reason why Tony had to attend each of the board meetings for Stark Industries. Tony had saved his board of directors from Loptr the one time they had met without supervision.
That grin made Tony wonder if he would have to save SHIELD in the near future.
And if the need arose, Tony wondered, would he be siding with SHIELD against his chaotic assistant or with Loptr against the militarized agency?
Chapter 12: Darcy's POV
"You want me to what?" Darcy looked up at her boss from her seat in her cubicle. The boss she had previously thought actually liked her.
"You'll be observing Loptr Laufeyjorson and reporting back regarding his actions and your impressions of him. For this purpose, you're being assigned to Dr. Foster again, while she works with Stark, doing the same work as your internship." Phil didn't appear to see the craziness of that assignment. Clearly he needed someone like Darcy around just to have common sense.
"See, that's what I thought you said. Except that what I'm hearing is that I'm supposed to stalk a potentially-evil God. All while doing a day-job that I'm not at all qualified for."
"You've worked with Dr. Foster before," Phil responded in his usual bland manner. Given how sharp the guy really was, it was pretty amazing the level of denseness he could project. She wondered if it was a test for young agents. If they actually thought Phil didn't get the subtleties, they weren't very good at threat assessment.
"Yeah, when I was the only applicant for an internship. That does not make me qualified. But let's get back to the part where I'm supposed to be, what, performing a threat assessment on a god. And somehow surviving to report back?"
"Your self-defense skills are coming along quite well. You're getting much better at evasive maneuvers."
"Oh God." Darcy let her head fall onto her desk and continued speaking into the wood. "This is revenge, isn't it? Are you ever going to let it go?" She couldn't help the somewhat plaintive wail.
She had just been exploring the building early one morning and had figured that since she had the security clearance to be in the building, those parts that she shouldn't see would be protected by internal security. She hadn't meant to find her boss and the Director sparring in the gym. And okay, maybe she should have left immediately, but two hot older guys using mad skills to fight each other? What kind of girl turns away from eye candy like that? Not the kind of girl that Darcy Lewis was, that's for sure.
Unfortunately, the pretty had made her forget that Phil saw everything and the Director had a reputation for knowing everything without even having to see it. She'd had barely five minutes of loitering and ogling before Phil had summoned her in to play obstacle.
"Not at all," Phil remarked, answering both questions at once, and that was just cruel. "A third party innocent bystander makes a sparring scenario much more realistic."
Why had she not learned her lesson with her SHIELD recruitment? But no, now she had been recruited—again—this time to be the hostage or protectee or just plain innocent bystander to Phil and the Director's sparring matches, except without being allowed to be a bystander. At least she now knew why no other agents ever came by that gym on days when those sparring matches happened.
"If Laufeyjorson does attack, I would hope that Stark would defend against him and you would be able to get yourself and Dr. Foster out of there. But I don't expect that Laufeyjorson will attack and neither do you since you drafted the preliminary analysis."
"Way to go to make me doubt myself."
"I have the utmost faith in your ability to assess his intentions."
Which Darcy was pretty sure was a big fat lie, of the type that management books told supervisors to use. Tell the employee that you have faith in them and maybe they'll live up to it. God, even knowing it, it still worked. She wanted to show her boss that she could do this.
She just didn't want to die in the attempt.
She raised her head again. Time to change tactics. "I'm not a physicist. I study politics."
"This is a matter of politics. We are attempting to design protocols for dealing with members of an extremely foreign power."
"Why not one of your actual agents who have training in fighting and stuff? You probably have agents who have training in both fighting and physics. Why not assign them?"
Phil sighed. It always took her somewhat aback when he did that. She wasn't sure what it was, maybe the human-ness of it. He was a badass with a nice suit and a bland voice. He shouldn't be sighing at her. "Because, honestly, you really are the best person for the job. You knew Thor, so you have someone to compare Laufeyjorson to. Dr. Foster trusts you, so if something goes wrong, she's more likely to follow your lead in getting out of there. All of your physical training has been in evasive maneuvers which are exactly what is necessary when dealing with superstrength. A thorough grasp on theoretical physics would just make you more likely to get distracted by the actual research."
The problem with Phil was that he always did have reasons for his actions and he could explain them logically. There was no arguing with him because he was always right. Also, Darcy could feel herself blushing. "The fact that I'm your best option does not reassure me as to the competency of this organization."
"And, finally," Phil stressed, ignoring her comment, "you actually are doing a very good job as an analyst."
"Oh." That was not helping to stop the blushing. She knew perfectly well she had been hired to avoid a potential security breach. She tried hard to do a good job, but there was always the question of how much of what she did was just busy work.
"I can assign someone else if needed, but I believe that for the best chance at getting good information as safely as possible, you are our best option."
At least this wouldn't be busy work. She took a huge breath and slowly let it out. "Okay."
"Okay, yes, I'm in."
Chapter 13: Tony's POV
The science in this is about what you should expect from something set in a comic book universe, i.e. completely ludicrous and largely made up of a mishmash of scientific jargon and made-up words.
SHIELD was one cold organization, Tony thought. He found new depths of ruthlessness every time he interacted with them.
When they offered to arrange for an attractive young astrophysicist doing cutting edge research to collaborate with Loptr, he'd thought it was a simple seduction scheme. He had inserted himself into the arrangement (and had to read up on astrophysics of all things to make it at all believable) planning to seduce the scientist first before she could get her claws into Loptr.
He would be taking one for the team, as it were. He'd seen pictures. It wouldn't be that much of a hardship, and suborning one of Fury's people was a goal worth working towards.
But Dr. Foster herself appeared to be on the level, at least for a first glance when Tony, Loptr, and a SHIELD minion arrived together to pick her up from a civilian airport of all places. She seemed like a regular obsessive scientist who was more interested in the science that Loptr knew than his history or person.
Loptr's first words to her, after she exited the airport security, were, "So, how are you accounting for potential differences in cosmological constant?"
Tony didn't bother disguising the grin. If she had been here to seduce Loptr, she would have had her work cut out for her. But Dr. Foster was apparently just as obsessive in person as she appeared on paper, since she didn't even blink before beginning to expound. "When we get to a computer, I'll show you the boundary conditions. But I am relying heavily on virtual particles."
"The Stark interferometer will be able to give you more precise results," Tony interjected.
Dr. Foster acknowledged the comment with a surprisingly nice smile but didn't break off from her lecture for any social niceties such as shows of gratitude or even formal introductions. "I'm currently theorizing that an Einstein-Rosen Bridge allows for complex phase transition, which could explain the rainbow appearance as well as open more possibilities regarding travel on it."
"Hey Jane," the SHIELD minion attempted to interrupt but didn't even get an acknowledging smile. She had been interestingly informal for a SHIELD minion, though. She also rolled her eyes at being ignored, rather than looking more disgruntled like most SHIELD minions or even long-suffering like Coulson sometimes did.
"What? Oh, Darcy! Hey." Dr. Foster actually broke off from her conversation with Loki to look at the SHIELD minion and didn't even look unhappy about it. "What are you doing here?"
"I am here as a representative of SHIELD. And if we move this conversation to Stark's ridiculously fast car, we can get you to a lab where this discussion can really progress and we won't be in an airport anymore or relying on my ability to snitch napkins from a coffee shop to take notes."
"Oh. Yeah. That makes sense. Lead on. But, why are you SHIELD? I thought you didn't like them?"
"Well, I got to pay my student loans somehow."
And that right there was what made SHIELD a cold, ruthless organization. For all their existence as a military organization, they had apparently expanded their recruitment practices beyond those people trained to actually defend themselves in combat.
"Anyway, so I'm back to being your minion on their behalf. I hope you don't mind. It's a lot better paid than the internship."
"Not at all, it's great to have you. Umm…"
The SHIELD minion, Darcy apparently, rolled her eyes, and seemed to know the unasked question, since she answered it with, "You'll also have regular science minions, but they'll all get distracted by the crazy science, so I'll be on hand to do coffee and stuff."
Tony looked over his sunglasses at that. "A SHIELD minion to 'do coffee and stuff' for Dr. Foster?"
The young woman shrugged. "Yup. And keep an eye on stuff, I guess."
"Is that so?" Loptr said in a surprisingly silky voice, quite different from how he sounded when he was talking about science. "You're here to keep an eye on… stuff?"
Darcy the SHIELD minion winced. She was clearly not a fully trained SHIELD agent: they don't wince. "Um, yeah. I'm just here to keep an eye. On stuff."
"Hmm. Just a single young lady?" Loptr sounded cynically curious.
"Uh, yeah," Darcy stammered slightly. "Well, I'm pretty sure there's a perimeter guard, but there's only me assigned to Jane."
Tony echoed the same sentiment as his assistance, but didn't speak it aloud. Loptr had clearly guessed that whatever SHIELD knew about him, Darcy knew, too. And given the confused looked that Dr. Foster was giving all three of them, she didn't know.
"So how about those quantum particles?" Darcy spoke with forced cheer.
Dr. Foster rolled her eyes, but also gave Darcy a quick hug before turning back to Loptr to continue their conversation.
This time, Tony left them to it, and led the way to his car.
He was used to SHIELD being ruthless, he'd expected Dr. Foster to be some sort of femme fatal, after all. And it was faintly possible that that is what Darcy Lewis was, but he was currently betting that she was just what she appeared to be: a recent graduate, who knew more than was safe, assigned to be in the middle of everything if and when something bad went down.
"JARVIS," he spoke quietly into his phone, "run a full background check on Darcy Lewis."
"And the other thing?"
"The results are still inconclusive. I'll continue to look for patterns."
"Okay, keep at it. I'll be home soon."
"Very good, sir."
Tony really hoped the background check came back with some inconsistencies that spoke of childhood training as an assassin or a militarized mutation or something.
Because JARVIS was still having trouble analyzing the test results from Loptr's DNA sample. Tony wasn't sure if Loptr was one of the most severely mutated people on record or if he was completely alien, but whatever he was, SHIELD knew. And they had sent Darcy Lewis and Jane Foster to him anyway.
Sending Dr. Foster to collaborate might have been a necessary risk. But sending someone like Darcy… that spoke to Tony of keeping a canary in the coal mine. Whatever Loptr was, SHIELD thought he was too dangerous to waste a fully trained agent on.
And that was extremely interesting to know.
Chapter 14: Tony's POV
"So, aliens!" Tony had possibly had too much caffeine during his all night hacking session since even he could hear the insane energy in his own voice.
The reactions of the other three people in the lab were interesting, though:
Loptr just went still and did that thing where he faded into the background to watch.
Darcy rolled her eyes but didn't otherwise react from where she was playing a game on her phone.
Jane looked like she was caught out with big deer-in-the-head-lights eyes. "Er, what?"
Thus, Jane was clearly the person to address. "Dr. Foster, you don't think I let anyone in my labs without doing a background check, do you? Because I keep all sorts of dangerous stuff here and it just wouldn't be safe."
Darcy put her phone away and rolled her eyes again, which made it really hard to think of her as an agent of SHIELD. Which was probably good for undercover work, but even knowing that… she was still rolling her eyes like a teenager.
"Yeah, don't worry, Jane, I think the big bosses are pretty OK with him knowing."
"If they were okay with it, then why didn't they tell me?" Tony pointed out. He had, after all, broken through SHIELD security and discovered secret intel about aliens and gods and giant destructive robots made by alien gods.
Darcy shrugged. "Because this way you test their cyber security for free? I don't know. I'll let my boss know that you know and he'll sigh and look somewhat annoyed and that will be that. I'm pretty sure he knew you would find out."
"Hmm." Tony considered her, but she was way too blasé about the whole situation. But it was interesting how Jane seemed to be taking her cue from Darcy, relaxing at the girl's words. "So, Jane, tell me all about your hot alien boyfriend."
"I don't think so. I'd rather talk about the method to get my boyfriend back. Science!"
Tony had to smirk at that. Ah the rallying cry of Science!
"Okay, we'll talk astrophysics for now, but I want to hear about aliens eventually."
"Once we get him back here, you can ask him yourself."
"Well, then, I will."
They smiled at each other. Tony was a complete womanizer, he knew that about himself, but as much as he liked sex, he liked science more. It was oddly nice to know that Jane had an alien boyfriend because that made her all the more of a science bro for him.
And well, aliens. Aliens might explain so much about Loptr, too, who was still silently lurking in one corner. It was something to think about.
It occurs to him to wonder what has happened with his life that he is just as blase about aliens as Darcy. Huh.
Chapter 15: Loki's POV
Patience was finally paying off, Loki thought.
Sure, the science communities around the world were already pinging with new developments. It would take another few decades at the same insane rate to really start to challenge the might of Asgard. But that was the general goal.
This payoff was personal.
It took three weeks to get Jane Foster relaxed enough in the lab to talk about her prior experience with the bridge in anything other than scientific terms.
The science was actually fascinating and Loki enjoyed it quite a bit. He was (somewhat unwillingly) impressed by this woman who Thor had somehow managed to attract. She was smart, she was knowledgeable, and she was focused—three virtues that Loki would have not have thought Thor capable of appreciating.
Of course, she was also beautiful—a virtue that Thor was more than capable of appreciating. And she had a certain wary loneliness about her that must have called to his brother as a siren song.
Thor always did like coming to a lady's rescue.
Loki didn't react to weaknesses in quite the same way.
It took three weeks before Jane, as she had asked to be called, lowered her barriers enough to talk about Thor.
"I wouldn't have thought to look at it this way if it hadn't been for Thor."
"Are some of these equations his?" Loki asked, working hard to keep his voice as innocuous as possible. As if his brother would ever understand enough to translate Asgardian magics into the language of Midgardian scientists.
"No, he wasn't a scientist. He just had a whole other perspective on the bridge. He gave me the perspective I needed to understand what was happening."
"What was he like?"Loki attempted to sound only mildly curious, but he wasn't sure how well he did at it since Tony was casting him odd looks.
"He was, well, he was beautiful," Jane's words were almost mocking, and Loki nodded with real sympathy, for that. Thor was too beautiful for his or anyone else's good. "He looked like the worst of the jocks, really, but, but not. He understood the value of science. Even when he didn't know what I was doing, he understood that it was important. That I was important. He didn't look down on me."
"Which is kind of funny," Darcy interjected, "since he was like six and a half feet tall, and you're tall Jane, but not like that."
The melancholy air around Jane dispersed a bit as she rolled her eyes. "That's not what I meant, you know it."
"Uh-huh. He made you feel like a delicate little lady." Darcy was teasing.
And that was the perfect opening that he had been waiting for. Projecting innocence for all that he was worth, he said, "From what I understand of Viking culture, he probably thought of you very much as a delicate little lady. The sciences would have been women's work."
There was a moment of silence. Loki could practically see the dart hit exactly on target.
"What?" Jane asked, but her voice was flatter than normal.
"The sciences are something that women and old men would study. Those not capable of being warriors." Loki spoke as if he weren't perfectly aware of how hard a female scientist in Midgard must have struggled to break out of the women's role.
As if she hadn't just told him that the reason she liked Thor was because she thought Thor respected her as something more than a gender stereotype.
Even as Jane looked like she was trying to not have emotions, Tony was now looking at him with hard suspicion. Before anyone else could say anything, Loki continued, allowing a hint of honest bitterness to creep into his voice. "Young men who studied the seidr were considered homosexuals and weak."
Let them believe that Loki had been hurt, too, by the social moors of the Asgardians, or at least whatever aspects of the culture that must have remained in Midgard. It should give Jane sympathy towards Loki even as it further separated her from Thor.
Jane was giving him a rather stricken look.
"Loptr," Tony spoke abruptly. "I need to speak with you in a private for a moment." There was no humor in his patron's voice, which was rare.
"Of course." He spoke innocently, as if completely unaware of why Tony might want to speak to him. He offered one last remark to Jane before going towards Tony. "But it doesn't matter now. You can ask him of his society when you see him next and for that, we need the bridge. So let's keep working on that." He spoke cheerfully.
"Yes, of course, the bridge!" Jane's cheer was likely more forced than his.
This was just the start, but Thor would have a harder time seducing his lady love when he next managed to return here.
Chapter 16: Tony's POV
Tony made sure that he and Loptr were out of hearing range before he spoke, but then, "What the hell was that?"
"What?" Loptr had a talent for projecting innocence but Tony had lots of personal experience being a genius and a trouble-maker. There was no way that Loptr hadn't known exactly what he was doing.
"I may be a womanizer of the first order, but I do not allow my scientists to be harassed."
"I don't know,"
Tony cut him off. "You know exactly what you were doing. You were trying to break Foster up with her boyfriend. I want to know why."
"I told her nothing that was no true."
"Yeah? Don't care. He's not here. We are. If you want her for yourself, that's not the way to go about it."
"I don't!" Loptr looked honestly offended.
He kept a careful eye on his assistant. He was fairly sure that Loptr really was being honest, but he couldn't exactly be sure. Aliens obviously had different reactions than humans did, but this alien knew how to manipulate humans enough to make Foster unhappy.
Tony was still mulling over the fact that there were aliens. And it had been Foster's background check that got the information rather than Agent Lewis', which, again, weird.
Or possibly gods, but Tony didn't believe in gods and he hadn't really believed in aliens of the super-powered-humanoid type either, but he was a lot more willing to accept the alien explanation than the god explanation, so.
So he was just as curious as Loptr was about Jane's relationship with an honest-to-god alien, but he wasn't going to be malicious about it.
And dammit, why hadn't he made more of a study of biology? He's a genius, sure, but he's been spending his last few weeks pushing his way through astrophysics, which is at least physics.
DNA, on the other hand, is weird and even JARVIS has to slow down in order to do the comparisons the Tony wants.
So far the results have been interesting:
* whatever Thor was, his DNA was significantly different from standard human, and
* whatever Loptr is, his DNA is as different from Thor's as it is from human.
Tony still isn't sure what's going on, but he wonders if he's just stumbled across his first experience with interspecies alien-god conflict.
It didn't matter.
"It doesn't matter." Tony told Loptr. "You will be absolutely polite to Dr. Foster and refrain from messing with her."
"Or?" Loptr raised a haughty eyebrow and Tony was reminded of a teenager.
"Or nothing." Tony rarely worked in a traditional managerial role, but he knew how to do it. He was rarely serious, either, but he knew how to do that, too. "I can't have an assistant who harasses my people."
"Uh-huh." Loptr sounded dubious. "You harass your people. And you like it when I harass your board members."
"I know where the boundaries are. And the board members do, too. What you just did here was intentionally malicious, and that I won't have."
Loptr tried to stare him down but Tony had faced worse.
Eventually Loptr lowered his eyes. "Very well."
He went back to work and Tony trailed a bit behind him, waiting to see how Jane and Loptr interacted. Loptr gave her a brief apology and they both settled in to work at their respective workstations. Tony had a feeling that he may have just won a small battle, but there was a lot more to this war that he didn't know yet.
Chapter 17: Darcy's POV
Sorry for the long delay in updating. Real life has me under siege at the moment and it appears to be winning.
"Hey Jane, what's your take on Loppy?"
"Loppy, Darcy? I don't think you should let him hear you call him that."
Darcy rolled her eyes. "Loptr. Really, what kind of name is Loptr?"
"Apparently a Nordic one."
"Yeah, Nordic. Anyway, what's your take on him?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Originally, because I'm not sure what I think of him and I want a second opinion. But now totally because you're avoiding answering the question. You're spending a lot of time with him, are you having a lab romance? You cougar, you! Thor will be devastated but you're a free woman. Are you giving up on him cause he's a homophobe? If he is, you really should, because that's not good, but at least give him a chance to explain, because we're only going on heresay at this point."
"What? No! I mean, yes, I'm going to ask him. And no! Loptr is just a kid!" Darcy was impressed. Not many people knew how to respond to her ramblings.
Jane sighed. "Okay, he's an adult and he's smart, really smart, but for all that, it's like he's a kid, academically speaking. He's making all of these amazing discoveries, but doesn't have the confidence yet to push it that one step further. I've been trying to get him to that point, but…"
Darcy found her eyebrows rising all on their own. Loptr was a little messed up, sure, but a kid lacking in self-confidence he was not.
"He keeps on trying to give me credit for the advances he's making. Except that he's not quite making them. About half the time, he gets right up to them and I am utterly amazed and he doesn't see his own results. And then he insists on telling everyone about I discovered whatever it was."
Darcy regained control of her eyebrows and lowered them appropriately. A Loptr being a manipulative shit was definitely a lot more believable than him lacking confidence.
"Actually, Darcy, maybe you could talk with him."
"Ah..," Darcy said. Talking directly to the probably god of mischief and lies had not been part of her plan.
"Come on, you're a lot closer to his age."
Darcy tried hard not to choke on her own tongue at this. Jane was clearly brilliant in the hard sciences but clearly needed to work on her social science skills. Or ability to read people. Even Stark knew something was off about his assistant even though he tried to pretend otherwise.
"Help build his confidence a bit. You have no problem with talking back to me or Stark. You could really help him."
"Thanks, I think." But it was true enough. Lack of confidence wasn't one of her weaknesses anymore than it was one of Loptr's, as far as she was concerned. She shrugged. "Okay, I'll have a talk with him and see how it goes."
One talk with a potential alien-god-prince coming right up.
Chapter 18: Loki's POV
"You're up to something," the young SHIELD Agent said. Darcy. The one who watched them all. She also chattered and provided sustenance at request, but mostly she watched them. She had never approached him directly before.
Loki raised an eyebrow. "I am a genius," he said and wondered if it were true. He was certainly smarter than these mortals and even most of those Asgards, but he wondered, was he unusually smart for a frost giant? He wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer. He ignored the thought. "I have many projects."
"Those I know about. Well, no, I don't, but Tony or Jane or someone else at SHIELD knows about those. This is something different."
"Oh, what makes you think that?" Director Fury knew at least something of Loki's motives, but he had had a lot more information. He wondered what this young mortal girl thought she knew and what she had based it upon.
She studied him for a minute. "You want to know what I've guessed and how."
She sounded delighted by the idea. Loki, on the other hand, felt unnerved. She was mortal and not a mind reader, he was certain. Well, almost certain. He studied her closer.
"I'm a good guesser." She sounded smug. "I passed a lot of tests based on being a good guesser."
"Hmm." He didn't know what tests she was talking about and he really didn't care. He considered the wisdom of allowing the conversation to drift down a tangent versus drawing her attention back to his plans. Then he considered the fact that he had never really based his actions on wisdom in the past and he didn't really feel like starting now. "What do you think I'm up to?"
"You're setting Jane up."
He raised an eyebrow.
"What I can't figure out is why. She's a genius herself and she makes plenty of discoveries all on her own. But you're leading her to discover extra stuff. If you just wanted to avoid taking credit for some reason, then you'd spread the ideas around among all the scientists. Instead, you're setting her, specifically, up to make the final conclusion."
"What does she think of this theory of yours?"
Darcy looked aghast. "I wouldn't tell her something like that! What kind of horrible friend do you take me for? But she told me that she thinks you have a block of some sort, because you keep on getting close, but don't quite have the confidence yet to make that next leap. That's why she's working with you so much: she's trying to get you past that block."
"Or she just likes taking credit for my ideas?"
Darcy glared. "If you're setting her up for an accusation like that, I'll go to Director Fury right now. In fact, now that you've said that, you had better come up with a really good reason why I shouldn't."
It had been intended as nothing more than an insult, not as a threat. Loki wanted to kick himself. Of course, it could sound like a threat, and he supposed it really would be one, if he made such an accusation. "No, you needn't worry. My intentions are benign. I merely wish for her to win the greatest honor this world can give."
Darcy stopped looking angry and started looking bemused. "The greatest honor? I'm not sure… you mean a Nobel Prize?"
"If such a prize is worth riches and accolades and respect from around the world, then yes."
"If this is about you having a crush on her, you're going about it the wrong way. Also, you shouldn't go about it at all, because she's got a boyfriend. He's just hard to reach right now."
"She has a boyfriend," for all of his trickery, Loki still had trouble even mouthing the word in reference to his brother Thor, God of Thunder, "who is a prince of the Asgard, who are considered Gods by your people."
"So will she go to him as a pauper? Nothing more than a beggar to be lifted into greatness by a venereal transmission of power?"
"Okay, first, ew. Second of all, really? That's you're reason? You want Jane to be worthy of your brother? She's already worthy! She's amazing and she doesn't need you faking ideas for her to be great."
"But she does need it for her to be recognized as great."
"Not by Thor! He loves her."
Loki shrugged. "I don't know that, it doesn't matter anyway. It is not his opinion that matters. His people must recognize her as a power equal to their Prince, and for them to recognize that, your people must recognize her as someone greater than all others."
"You're mind is a twisty place, especially since I'm still not seeing the purpose. Especially," Darcy suddenly noted, "since you've been bad-mouthing their society to Jane for months."
Loki opened his mouth to respond but Darcy suddenly raised a hand, "No, no, stop, don't say anything. I was a poli-sci major. Shut up. I know what you're doing. You already know they love each other and will get together but you want to orchestrate it so that it's a state wedding. Historically princes could get it on with anyone they wanted, but they only married ladies of wealth and rank, and sometimes even then it was morganatic and the woman wasn't made a princess or the kids heirs."
Loki kept his mouth shut.
"Fury might think the bigger and better weapons are going to make Earth an force equal to the aliens, because he's a crazy military guy who thinks nuclear deterrents work, and Tony thinks better quality of life in general will make us better, which I totally agree with, but you think we're still going to be lesser. At the very least, we'll be a lot younger and less established as a power." Darcy was rambling. Loki worked hard to keep his face completely expressionless.
"Thor was pretty gung ho with protecting this planet before, but well, no one likes be a protected damsel in distress waiting for someone else to come in and save the day, so how do we go about making a contract to protect the planet while we establish ourselves without being mere beggars? With a royal wedding and a pre-nup agreement. And that, Loptr, is why you've sowed just enough doubts for Jane to want a few things settled before throwing herself into her best boy's arms. Am I right? I'm right, aren't I. I am so totally right. Wow, you are a tricky god, aren't you?"
Loki finally allowed himself to blink. "On Asgard you would be reviled as a creature of trickery and guile."
Darcy looked insulted for a moment and then more contemplative. "So I take it Thor is par for the course regarding brains? Because he's a great guy and all, but, well, not the brightest bulb in the box, I'd say. Not that I'd actually say anything like that."
And there was the question again, was he unusually smart or were the Asgardians unusually dim. He'd thought it before, of course, but he never expected to find anyone who believed similarly.
He attempted to smile benignly. "You have found out my plot. You needn't worry. Now go away." He needed some time with his own thoughts.
"Nope," Darcy popped the 'p.' "You're going about it wrong. You can't give away scientific discoveries like that. First of all, it's dishonest. Second of all, Jane is way too smart to need your charity. And third of all, in this type of lab setting, any Nobel Prizes would be shared between the three of you."
"Yeah, oh. So you got to stop trying to give Jane credit for stuff she didn't do. She does enough on her own."
"If I agree to this, will you go away?"
"For now." Darcy smirked. Loki was beginning to understand why so many Asgardians hadn't much cared for his own smirk. He glared at her for a moment, but she just looked at him with patently false wide-eyed innocence.
"Very well. I will refrain from crediting Dr. Foster with any discoveries not her own. Now go away."
"Okee-dokee." Darcy bounced away and Loki was—finally—left with his own thoughts.
Chapter 19: Loki's POV, cont'd
Loki looked after the SHIELD agent as she bounced away and hoped he didn't appear as completely flummoxed as he felt.
He'd had a plan.
He was going to make Jane Foster so honored by her home world and so appalled by the society on Asgard that she would refuse his brother when next he came courting.
It had seemed a bit of sly planning. He was, after all, a god of such trickery.
Now he was beginning to think that the Midgardians would consider his plans as simplistic as he considered Thor's.
It was not a pleasing thought.
He had thought himself unbelievably lucky to have discovered Tony Stark, who understood the importance of study and the art of manipulation. No one was like that on Asgard. The closest person was probably his father, his foster father, Odin, who had retired largely from his warrior days. Now, Loki was beginning to realize that while, yes, he had been unbelievably lucky, it had been in a matter of scale rather than in content. Stark was brilliant and one of the best of his kind, but he was not unique in Midgard the way Loki had been unique in Asgard.
The people on this planet respected knowledge and study, trickery and manipulation. They respected it and they studied it. There were books on it. Reading Machiavelli's The Prince and Sun Tzu's The Art of War were transformative experiences. These were people who thought Loki's manner of warfare was… worthy.
And young agents like Darcy Lewis saw his actions, made semi-accurate guesses at his motives, saw the potential flaw in his plan that was Jane Foster's devotion to her beloved, and assumed that he had already compensated for such a flaw by changing his plan to allow for it.
He had considered himself a trickster without parallel because in Asgard he was, but here, on Midgard, he was beginning to think he was but a beginner. This would not do.
It was time, as these mortals said, to up his game.
Chapter 20: Fury's POV
Fury read the report over carefully before placing it down on his desk and considering Phil.
"Normally, you summarize this shit for me."
"Yes," Phil responded with his usual imperturbable serenity. "This time, I thought you would find the original report more… useful."
"She's barely out of school and she has no fucking real-world experience analyzing megalomaniacs. There's no damn way a fucking royal marriage is his actual plan."
"No, I don't imagine it was."
"But you think it should be our plan."
And that got an honest to god grin from the man. "It would be an interesting way to promote homeland defense, don't you agree?"
"Get the fuck out of here."
"Yes, sir." Phil smirked at him for a moment longer before turning to leave.
Phil was closing the door behind him on his way out when Fury finally called out, "And get me a fucking report on fucking Norse marriage customs."
The fucker was actually laughing as the door clicked shut.
Chapter 21: Loki's POV
Sorry for the long delay in updating. Real life has been keeping me very occupied. In theory, it's beginning to settle down a little bit, but I'll have to see how it works out in practice.
"All warfare is based on deception." Loki spoke as if to himself, although Darcy Lewis was also in the kitchen, preparing sustenance for herself and Jane Foster. He wasn't willing to ask her for her opinion, but he wanted the view of a native Midgardian. Would she stiffen in outrage at his insult to warriors as an Asgardian would? Or, well, what was the alternative?
Apparently, the alternative was good cheer, since Darcy replied with a cheerful, "Sun Tzu." Then, "War is a continuation of politics by other means."
Loki tried not to look blank. "That is not Sun Tzu." He couldn't help the slight continuation, "is it?"
"Nah, that's Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian guy from only a few centuries ago."
The warriors of Asgard were not very complementary of politics or politicians. They would be no more pleased with a comparison of their great achievements to politics than in the comparison to deception.
"Sun Tzu also said: Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak."
"Uh, yeah. Scare them off or lure them in. What's the question, Loptr?"
"Is that not the behavior of a coward?"
Darcy looked at him with more disbelief than she did when confronted by magic and science clearly beyond her ken. "Are you seriously asking me if Sun Tzu was a coward?"
Loki glared at her. He didn't care about some long-dead mortal. He wanted to know about strategy.
Darcy rolled her eyes in response. "Okay, listen, I read The Art of War because I was a poli-sci major and because it's a useful thing to have read, for all sorts of situations. But do you remember the bit about reputation and courage, and how a really good general isn't going to get credit for anything?"
Loki not only remembered, he could recite the exact passage. It was a troubling passage. "What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage."
"All those great battles between great armies are all well and good in the movies, but if a conflict has gotten to that point, you've pretty much already lost. It goes back to the quote about war being a continuation of politics. If you're fighting a war at all, then you've already lost the political battle."
"But what of honor!" The words were Odin's, were Thor's, were those of a thousand Asgardian warriors who had never once considered Loki to have gained honor, even in his victories.
"What of it? Competition fights might show off skills, but when you're fighting for something you really believe in, when it's important to win, then you don't give your opponent extra chances. When it comes down to self-defense, you use every dirty trick you can and you survive." Her voice was harder than he'd ever heard it before.
"You have experience with fighting." He hadn't expected that. She was a woman, but Sif was a woman and some mortal women were clearly warriors, too. Darcy Lewis didn't behave as a warrior, though, or even demand respect like the Pepper Potts did.
Darcy Lewis shrugged casually, but her voice was still hard. "I went to a large college and there's no such thing as a 'fair fight' when a guy gets pushy."
"What happened?" Loki couldn't help his curiosity. She was not a warrior, but neither was she a damsel to be rescued.
"He didn't know me. And that, as Sun Tzu would say, is a more than half the battle lost."
Loki considered that. "Hmm."
Chapter 22: Heimdall's POV
The ways the Bifrost had once traversed grew more complex the longer the bridge stood unfinished. Odin had commanded the most skilled architects to rebuild it, but they stood around and argued about the changing shadows in the depths. Thor stood ready with his Mjolnir to perform feats of strength and power, but unable to act. And Heimdall looked out into the chaos and frowned.
The paths grew more complex, without the steadying influence of the bridge. The bridge had existed for as long as Heimdall had been alive. He hadn't realized how much the paths would change without its presence.
The changes troubled the architects, but they were not the cause of Heimdall's frown.
"What troubles you, Heimdall?" Heimdall could see many things, but he had to admit, if only to himself, that he hadn't seen Thor's apparent change of heart coming. Thor was much more observant than he had been before his banishment to Midgard.
"I am unsure, my Prince, but I watch Midgard."
"Is Lady Jane in trouble? Or Erik? Or Lady Darcy?"
"…. No. They are not always visible, but they live their lives and your lady Jane Foster continues to search for the Bifrost."
"Could this be what troubles you?"
"I do not think the mortals of Midgard should know as much as they do of the bridge, but your lady's study's are not what troubles me."
"Is there some threat to any of them?"
"My prince, when you were banished, I watched Midgard closely. You never met any person there capable of standing as a shield brother beside you."
"Of course not. I love my Lady Jane deeply, but the people of Midgard are mortals. I am a god among them."
"And yet, when you were there, I saw a few men, a mere handful among millions, who might hold his own against an Asgardian warrior."
"Surely not! Tell me of these men! Describe them to me!"
"There was a man of great rage who gained power from his anger and could kill a hundred men with a single strike from his fist. There was a clever smith who encased himself in armor of great might. There was a man of rock who could attack like an avalanche, and a man of fire who flew like an arrow."
"They sound like mighty warriors indeed. Where are they now, that I might meet them when I travel finally to Midgard?"
"That I know not, my prince, nor do I know where they went or how or why. I can no longer see them."
"Ah, then I will miss them, but surely they must have left Midgard search out greater battles than are possible on Midgard."
"That may be so," Heimdall agreed reluctantly, "but I am troubled that I did not see them leave."
Thor was quiet for a moment, as he rarely was. Thor was loud as thunder in battle an in peace. Only in grief did his voice quiet. Thor spoke quietly, "To have left Midgard, without the bridge to travel by, they must have used magic, such as my brother once used. You always had trouble seeing him, too."
"Mmm." Heimdall could not share in Prince Thor's grief for his brother, but he avoided displaying his satisfaction in Prince Loki's demise. It was true that Loki had frequently escaped Heimdall's gaze, but it was also true that it was the intentional drawing in of shadows rather than the mere presence of magic which had accomplished such invisibility for the trickster god.
Thor shook his head as if to shake off water, seemingly shaking off his grief. "Worry not, guardian, for if these warriors are as you have described, we shall hear of their feats soon enough. I will instruct the storytellers to search out their stories. Such warriors will surely inspire ballads to sing their praises."
"I will look forward to hearing of their adventures," Heimdall agreed. He would look forward to knowing what had happened to those great warriors to Midgard. He had not missed such happenings since Loki had fallen.
He would continue to watch Midgard.
Chapter 23: Jane's POV
Tony stomped in to the workshop and threw something down on the central table that they all shared.
"What the hell is that?!"
Tony took some getting used to, but Jane didn't mind. He was worth getting used to, with the ideas and the equipment and his way of thinking of new theories and new ways to test those theories. And when he threw a new piece of equipment, it was generally an interesting piece of equipment.
Not so much in this case, though.
It was a phone.
Jane glanced over at Darcy, who was useful for situations like this.
Darcy, who'd looked up from her own paperwork when Tony stormed in, caught her glance and rolled her eyes, before obligingly stating the obvious: "It looks like a phone to me."
Tony glared at Darcy for that, but only for a moment, before he returned to, oh, he was glaring at Loptr. And Loptr had not looked up from his computer screen. Huh.
"Loptr! Explain this!"
Loptr finally looked up, raised an eyebrow, and drawled, "Do you need me to explain the function of a phone to you?"
"What I need you to explain to me is why Hammer," Tony's sneer at his competitor's name was an impressive thing, Jane thought, "thanked me for my assistant's introduction to Victor von Doom, and their resultant partnership."
"It sounds like you have all the pertinent facts already." Loptr stood up, but then leaned onto his desk with one hip, completely negating the formality of having stood up in the first place.
Jane considered that for a moment, while Loptr and Tony continued their stare-off and Darcy meandered over to start playing with the phone in question.
No, Jane decided, those didn't sound like all the pertinent facts to her. "Tony, why do you care? Hammer Industries has always been the poor man's Stark Industries. What's new?"
Darcy, on the other hand, chortled. "I can tell you what's new. This is awesome. Check out some of these features."
Tony more than growled, he tried to swipe the phone back from Darcy. She dodged around a table and showed it to Jane.
Ooh, those were some pretty cool functions. Hmm. The star tracking one in particular opening up some interesting possibilities for avenues of research. Why hadn't she thought of this perspective before?
She moved over to her computer and only kept vague track of the argument happening behind her.
"Why would you do this to me!" Tony was practically howling.
"I didn't do anything at all to you. In fact, the introduction had nothing to do with you at all."
"That's a lie and you know it! Doom is a vicious madman but he's innovative as hell, and Hammer is a slimy thief, but he knows how to market ideas. And you had to go and introduce them to each other!"
"Yes. Did you want to work with Doom?"
"No! That's not the damn point!"
"I think it's exactly the point. Someone has to deal with Doom and now keeping him on task is Hammer's job and not yours. I think you should be thanking me." Loki's voice was bland enough that Jane wasn't sure if he was intentionally baiting Tony or being sincere. She wasn't going to risk drawing their attention by looking.
Darcy wasn't even pretending not to watch, though. She'd somehow managed to acquire a bag of popcorn, too. Mmm, popcorn. Jane stole a handful, then went back to playing with the Doom/Hammer star chart ap.
"No one needed to work with Doom! He could have stayed in his castle playing with his robots! He didn't need to be marketed at all! And certainly not by Hammer Industries!"
"You would prevent innovation from happening just because you aren't the innovator?"
"Y-!," Tony broke off before he could complete his vehement agreement.
It was actually the silence that drew Jane's attention back to the argument. She thought back about what they had just been arguing about. Or rather, that Tony had been yelling about and that Loptr had been at least simulating mild confusion over.
"Huh." She said.
"What?" Tony spun around and asked for viciously than he normally would.
She shrugged. "In science, you don't try to hobble other people. At least, in theory," she corrected herself. "In business and international conflicts, you do."
"And this is a business situation!" Tony interjected.
Jane ignored him. "Or rather, you hobble your opponents, but you try to support your allies. And Loptr knows this. So, in this business scenario, the question is not, why did he do this, but who he thinks the opponents are, if they're not Hammer Industries."
Often, the most important thing in science, more important than any answer, was getting the question right. She was pretty sure she had just asked the important question.
Loptr had gone utterly still during this.
Tony began to look contemplative.
Darcy held out the bag of popcorn for her to grab another fistful. "Go you, Jane."
Jane took another handful of popcorn. Still. "I don't understand why you think I have any interest in political strategies, but I do listen to you when you lecture me, Darcy," she pointed out wryly.
Darcy grinned and shrugged.
Darcy had taken to lecturing her on topics ranging from monarchical governments to international contracts. Jane wasn't sure what Darcy was writing her master's thesis on, but she was a bit scared to ask given the lectures she'd gotten without any prompting.
Meanwhile, Loptr had still not spoken.
Tony had calmed down entirely, like he sometimes did when confronted with a new issue that required his entire concentration. When he finally spoke, it was with a certain amount of careful precision. "You think we are going to be facing an extraterrestrial attack within the near future. Don't you?"
Loptr remained still and silent, but, unusually, Tony did not repeat his question or say anything else.
Yes, the question was significantly more important than the answer, in this case. Because it didn't actually matter what Loptr thought of the situation, although Jane imagined that he did think Earth was going to be attacked. What was important was that they knew extraterrestrials existed. Thor's visit had proven that.
Darcy had lectured her enough that Jane knew about culture clashes and inevitable disagreements.
There was no way to judge a time frame, but there would be conflict in Earth's future.