They watch the restaurant from across the street- they're in a very upscale area of Manhattan. Rent-A-Cops patrol the streets dozens of times an hour to ascertain no undesirables slip through the cracks. After all, anyone less than the beautiful and elite might sully the immaculate sidewalks that repose between the dazzling shops and posh cafés and the brick-paved streets of this urbane locale.
It's almost hard to believe they're in New York. Unlike the rest of the city, everything here is debonair and bright, from the opulent hotels to the bright jewels gleaming at the throats of women and the highly polished Italian leather shoes of the men escorting them. The women are, of course, swathed in the most elegant and sophisticated of gowns, while the men sport only the most fashionable and expensive designer suits.
But then again, this part of town is designed to be a safe and enjoyable place for the few people making thousands of dollars daily off of the blood and sweat of the rest of the city's occupants, so perhaps the unblemished glitz and glam isn't all that surprising.
Glancing around, Jeanne-Marie is surprised they haven't been asked to leave- or forcibly escorted out- by this point. The boys in blue seem to be passing by where she and her brother are sitting with increasing frequency, and she's getting nervous.
It's fairly obvious that they don't belong here. They're a jarring contrast to the predominant population of this glossy, glittering world that sits in poised isolation from the rest of the city's ailments. Not because Jeanne-Marie and Jean-Paul aren't aesthetically pleasing to match the rest of the stylish, alluring scenery: she knows the two of them are astonishingly good-looking, with slim builds, sleek dark hair, bright blue eyes, and flawless ivory complexions, in addition to their fine porcelain features.
Actually, they look uncannily alike beyond their respective genders, which is strange, considering they're only fraternal twins- it's like they're mutants or something. But their similarities don't diminish their appeal whatsoever- rather the opposite, as Jeanne-Marie knows from the numerous offers they receive each night.
However, the form-fitting clothing they wear to emphasize and profit on their attractiveness makes it clear that they are not only far from the affluent patrons to which this district is designed to entice, but like the surrounding establishments, they are also soliciting wealthy clientele.
Conducting business here is risky- there's no guarantee anyone will pick them up, not when these people can afford many more classy options of physical indulgence. And sooner or later, once someone recognizes them for what they are, they'll be barred from the premises.
But perhaps the reason they have managed to avoid notice thus fare is because they do share a single but vital trait with the propertied citizenry: lack of empathy. Their expedience may be born from desperation and emotional bankruptcy due to facing endless obstacles with no sign of improvement, but it's pragmatism all the same. With that, the two of them can easily camouflage themselves as members of the morally and emotionally vacuous upper class.
A nudge from her brother's elbow brings Jeanne-Marie to end her pessimistic musings and focus on the task at hand.
The roll-top bench on which she and her brother are sitting faces the street, but they're perched on top of the backrest for a better view of the restaurant.
Light spills out of the stately establishment's wide windows, creating an oasis of illumination. The glass is undecorated, only a thin barrier to separate diners from the outside, but a thick wall would be unnecessary, as the well-heeled occupants of the restaurant are amongst their own kind. Thus, they need no protection, not from their fellow frivolous fools.
With the night's dark, the diners can't see anything outside, but outsiders can look inside. Jean-Paul and Jeanne-Marie can see into the window directly across from them and watch the group sitting there at the table as easily as one can watch a television screen.
Three men are there, situated at a carved table of burnished oak, sipping crimson liquid from crystal wineglasses. Any one of their designer suits- no, any one of their silk ties- was probably purchased with more money than the combined total worth of everything Jeanne-Marie and Jean-Paul have ever owned in their lives.
One of the men is young, several years older than Jeanne-Paul or Jeanne-Marie, maybe eighteen or nineteen. He's of medium build, with friendly brown eyes set in an appealing face and thick auburn hair.
Another has smooth golden hair, a strong jaw, and a powerful physique. He's tall and handsome, and a smile complements his chiseled countenances as his vibrant blue gaze rests upon his two companions. He looks kind, deceptively so.
Though it's irrational, Jeanne-Marie loathes him for it, for looking so amiable despite being a part of the crème de la crème, for relaxing and laughing in a sophisticated restaurant without a care in the world, not even worried if his dinner will arrive, if he will have the chance to eat that night. And why should he be? He lives comfortably- luxuriously- regular meals must be as typical to him as the air he breathes.
At the thought of food, a wave of dizziness passes over her, a reminder that the only thing she's eaten all day was an apple she swiped from a supermarket. She sways, almost falling off her perch on the bench top, but Jean-Paul grabs her shoulder, holding her in place.
Jeanne-Marie glances at her twin brother, but other than his grip on her shoulder, his attention is completely focused on the third and final member of the dining party.
This man is of a slighter frame, with spiky dark hair, glinting dark eyes, and features, Jeanne-Marie supposes, that are handsome. His bleached white teeth gleam as his lips pull back in a smile that to her seems gloating, and a spike of antipathy pierces her as she watches.
She's been anxious about him even before she laid eyes on him, but there's something in the way he moves during his conversations- maybe it's his hand gestures, the fast speed and long length at which he talks, the cocky smile that never quite leaves his face- that truly sets her on edge. She's only reading his body language, and she's never been close enough to hear him actually speak, instead watching his interactions with others as though it's a silent movie. Still, she feels a stab of distrust as she observes him.
She's wary of him, and she knows Jean-Paul has been since the beginning. This dark-haired man isn't just self-assured- merely his general mannerisms tell her that he's supremely confident to the point of complacency- and he seems just too slick. He's quite self-approving, very pleased with himself for being able to evade any sort of problem with a swipe of plastic or a flash of bank notes. No one can touch him- no one can ever get the better of Tony Stark- and he knows that, takes a smug satisfaction in that. Jeanne-Marie finds herself despising him for it.
As she returns her attention to the restaurant window to wonder if this is some kind of business meeting or a social outing, another man strolls over to join their table. He's youthful as well, likely a peer to the youngest man at the table. He's handsome, too, attractive in that generic way all rich people seem to be. Overall, he's not too remarkable except for being clad in yet another designer suit, undoubtedly so ridiculously exorbitant in price that were he to donate the money to charity instead, he could feed the entire impoverished population of a small country.
There's general conviviality all around, with this newcomer shaking hands with the two older men. They're laughing and smiling; they look happy to see him, and he, them.
She hates them for their smiles. She hates them for having so much money and for smiling, when she barely has the freedom to frown. Instead, she has to constantly school her features into a sweet smile in order to obtain wealthy clientele, and if she wants to keep them, the smile must remain locked onto her face. She hates these idle rich for being happy, when she so often has to pretend to be carefree but honestly feels like swallowing a bottle of pills or raking her nails down her face.
She watches them as they continue exchanging physical greetings and verbal niceties, inwardly sneering at the insipid and uninspired gestures.
Then it happens, and when it does, Jeanne-Marie feels the breath knocked out of her lungs.
The youngest man there, the one who might still be a teenager, stands and greets this latest addition, wrapping their arms around in each other in an embrace that lasts just a beat too long for their relationship to be platonic. Her suspicions are confirmed when the the auburn-haired man kisses the newcomer on the cheek.
Every muscles in Jean-Paul's body tenses at the sight, his back going ramrod straight. Jeanne-Marie catches a glint of what might be anger in his eyes before it vanishes beneath his usual cool indifference, but then his expression hardens. Face glacial but aloof, and posture stiff, her brother goes as cold and remote as a statue.
As Jeanne-Marie refocuses on the restaurant, the oily, smug man reaches out and ruffles the younger man's auburn hair in an indisputably paternal fashion. The blond man follows up by clapping the younger man on the back in the same manner.
Her mind empties of all thought, and she can only watch numbly as the smug man retracts his arm and instead drapes it across the shoulders of his blond companion in the classically romantic gesture.
The urge to vomit hits her with the force of a speeding train, bile rising in her throat, and she does the best she can to quell her abrupt nausea. She realizes belatedly that this meeting isn't a business affair or a dinner amongst friends, but a family gathering, a boyfriend having dinner with the other boyfriend's parents.
Tony Stark . . . playing the role of "good parent," the father who would do anything for his son.
Her stomach roils.
Suddenly, to Jeanne-Marie, the ruby rich drink in their wineglasses looks more like blood than fine vintage.
Jean-Paul closes his eyes as though attempting to assuage physical pain, then slips of off the bench.
"Let's go," he says, voice toneless except for a hint of weariness that brings Jeanne-Marie to glance sharply at him, questions and suspicions stirring in her mind. As she stands, she opens her mouth to ask, but she's interrupted before she has a chance to speak.
"You two! Wait!" A voice calls out behind them, and Jeanne-Marie and Jean-Paul both pause resignedly. They exchange weary glances at being apprehended for soliciting in this district just as they are about to willingly leave.
But when they turn, they find that it's not a member of the police hurrying toward them, but a dapper man in his mid-thirties. On his arm is a young and beautiful woman, dressed in the most chic and elaborate fashions.
The couple reaches them, and the man glances at Jean-Paul, then back to Jeanne-Marie.
"I want to take you home to spend the night with us," he says, and Jeanne-Marie recognizes the look in his eyes from various other customers. It's intrigued, vaguely intoxicated, yet somewhat vulpine, enthralled by the thought of doing something forbidden with people as young as they are. "Both of you."
The offer is a lucky opportunity- not only does it give them a relatively safe place to spend the night, but it means money for them as well. And if that security comes in exchange for Jeanne-Marie and Jean-Paul getting intimate a couple of strangers, so what?
To her own immense surprise, Jeanne-Marie finds herself declining the proposition even as Jean-Paul starts to accept.
"No thank you," she says briefly, then grabs her brother's hand and pulls him in the direction of a narrow alley that leads behind the restaurant, passing by a billboard advertising the services of an oculist by the name of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg.
They walk quickly in silence for several moments, the alley gradually expanding into a wider series of streets as they move further away from the district. Jeanne-Marie watches her brother slow in his movements several times to steady himself on the sheer brick of the buildings within reach, which are growing fewer in number with each step. She can feel her hunger, too; sharp stabs of pain gnaw at her empty stomach.
"You knew, didn't you?" She asks, her voice soft and tired, not accusatory.
"I had my suspicions," Jean-Paul admits. "That's why I insisted that we follow him, find out about his lifestyle and personality before introducing ourselves. Before Raymond died-" his voice tightened with grief as he mentioned their deceased adoptive father "-he was trying to contact Tony Stark about us. But from the nature of the letters, he was always diverted to some secretary or lawyer, and sometimes to this one especially condescending woman who was some sort of personal assistant. I realize now that it means Stark didn't want responsibility for us."
The words fall like stones between them, increasing the weight they both can feel resting on their shoulders.
They're out of options. They left their latest latest detention center masquerading as a foster home to find Stark, to secure a safe place for themselves. One where they were allowed to have beds and didn't have to worry about someone else "accidentally" falling in with them.
Just a pipe dream, a crazy hope for which they risked everything.
And now they have nothing.
"I guess Stark would rather play father to some random stranger than concern himself with his actual offspring." Jeanne-Marie's voice is full of acid.
Jean-Paul sighs. "It makes sense that he wouldn't want anything to do with us—we’re bad PR. Admitting you sired illegitimate children and promptly abandoned them makes you look irresponsible as best and a jackass at worst. Rescuing some mutt off the street, though, makes you look like a hero, and you become an instant media darling."
“Given what various clients have done with us, I’d never thought we’d face a problem about not being photogenic enough,” Jeanne-Marie remarks.
“That’s another mark against us. We’re damaged, Jeanne-Marie. And no one wants damaged goods, especially not in the manner we are" Jean-Paul says matter-of-factly.
“Don’t you dare make excuses for him," Jeanne-Marie says sharply. “Not after what we’ve had to do to survive because he won’t help us.”
"I'm not making excuses for him." Jean-Paul's tone holds a hint of irritation. "And I never would. How could I? He owns the world and I just own the clothes on my back. He has the freedom to love whoever he wants, to fabricate himself a perfect family, while I have to sell my body just to eat and can't allow myself a preference of whom I want to give myself to. And I can't allow myself any attachments." A note of wistfulness and regret enters his voice.
"Well, maybe you can be just like Stark and pick up a couple strays," Jeanne-Marie says, a razor edge of bitterness in her voice.
"Only if I displace my biological children beforehand, right?" Jean-Paul accentuates his remark by using his elbow to give her a friendly nudge, but the joking gesture can't belie the underlying acerbity present in his usually cool, detached tone.
She sighs from the very bottom of her lungs, a testament to her weariness and disappointment, and gazes ahead into the dark, trying to quell the sense of desperation and panic rapidly rising within her. Her muscles ache with weariness, she feels ill from hunger, her head throbs, and an odd, choking feeling has settled at the back of her throat.
There's a streetlight every twenty yards or so, and Jeanne-Marie can feel its glare each time they pass underneath. They are just about to walk under another one when Jeanne-Marie glimpses movement in the darkness beyond the pool of light. In an instant, she grabs her brother's arm, bringing him to halt, and they immediately take defensive positions.
She strains her ears, listening, being so familiar with her brother that she knows on instinct he is doing likewise. For several moments they hear nothing, and for just an instant they relax, so they tense all the more when a low chuckle reaches their ears.
"Such feeling. So much power and potential. To think your father disavowed you for some mutt off the street is inconceivable. He's even more of a fool than I realized."
"Who's there?" Jeanne-Marie demands, the hair on the back of her neck prickling. She strains to see past the pool of light into the dark, but all she can decipher is a vague outline of a person.
"Show yourself!" Jean-Paul orders sharply.
A figure steps out of the shadows, the light from the streetlamp briefly eclipsing him. A tall, striking man stands before them, vibrant green eyes glinting in a pale, pointed face. Two long horns curve upward from the forehead of his elaborate battle helmet. Tight armor of polished black leather with gleaming gold plates emphasizes his thin but muscled form, and a magnificent cloak of emerald green ripples from his shoulders. There is a tilt of hauteur to his head, a subtle confidence to his demeanor, a cat-like complacency about his air.
Both of them know of him- he launched an attack on New York City. He is Loki, supposedly the god of another world.
“Good evening, children,” he says pleasantly. “I am Loki Silvertongue, God of Mischief. You've heard of me, I'm certain.”
“What do you want?” Jeanne-Marie demands.
“An alliance,” Loki replies, his manner relaxed.
Jeanne-Marie and Jean-Paul exchange an uneasy glance; they have no idea of why anything about them would attract this particular individual's attention.
“What does someone with your power need us for?” Jeanne-Marie counters.
“We both have a common enemy in the form of the Avenger Tony Stark,” Loki informs them offhandedly. “I believe the ruin of all of the Avengers lies within your grasp, in the form of latent . . . talent.”
Jean-Paul stares at Loki dispassionately. “Why do you think we would make any sort of agreement with you?”
“You're starving, homeless, and generally disadvantaged in a crime-ridden city with faint hope of your circumstances improving,” Loki returns promptly. “You current occupation is not one without risk, attracting all kinds of unsavory individuals. But I can promise you that if you help me accomplish my goal, I will give you everything you've ever dreamed of. Be it material, such as wealth- or a significantly more abstract concept, like revenge.” He arches an eyebrow. “What do you have to say to my offer?”
Jeanne-Marie hesitates. This man- this god?- tried to summon aliens to take over Earth. He's not exactly top of the list of people they can trust. She stares at him, trying to get a read on his sincerity, and her gaze meets his.
“It's not selfish,” Loki says quietly, “to want to help yourself. Even if you have to wound a few others along the way.”
Looking into his eyes brings an odd sensation- as though her soul is trying to escape from her body at his command. She tears her eyes from his. Knowing Jean-Paul is considering the same scenario, Jeanne-Marie returns to her musings.
Loki is a terrorist. Aiding him in any form would be wrong.
On the other hand, she's desperately aware of the reality of the situation. Her and her brother have nowhere to go, no means to live by honestly, and no hope of achieving those means in the near future. They are a pair of fifteen-year-olds with no one to vouch for them in an enormous and dangerous city.
And this- Loki- he's the first person to offer them any sort of kindness since they arrived. And while he might not top the list of trustworthy individuals in their lives, Jeanne-Marie struggles to think of what other names could even be on such a list.
They're out of options. Frightening as it may be, this Loki is their only hope of surviving.
She glances at Jean-Paul, and sees her own thoughts reflected in her brother's eyes. He gives her a small nod.
"Well?" Loki inquires calmly.
Loki's eyes are mesmerizing. She tries not to look for too long, because in addition to their startlingly green hue, there's a glint of something else in his gaze, almost as though he's ravenously hungry. It makes her uncomfortable.
"We-" She doesn't manage to finish; she averts her eyes from his, and the sensation is like falling down a staircase. Gravity pulls her down and she sways, coming perilously close to falling to the ground.
Loki reacts swiftly, grabbing her and steadying her.
Jeanne-Marie finds herself standing upright again, but there's a difference- now her arm is extended, her hand clasped in his.
Things are happening nearly too quickly for her to comprehend, but she exchanges a glance with Jean-Paul to find him levelly looking back at her.
Whatever happens, they will face it together. They are family, a team, and the only person to never fail the other.
Loki smiles, and his face renders the expression wolfish and menacing, revealing a mouth of sharp white teeth, a predatory gleam in his eye. "Come children. Let us prepare for your heartwarming reunion with your father."
Jeanne-Marie feels a thrill run through her, as vitality suddenly flows into her muscles, adrenaline pumping in her veins. She finds herself exchanging anticipatory smiles with Jean-Paul. She's itching for a fight, ready for revenge on the father who abandoned them. Impulsively, she glances at Loki.
He studies her expression for a moment before giving a minute shrug. "Well, it's not as good as mine, of course," he says, referring to her effort at a manic smile. "But don't worry, we'll work on it. Come, children, let us go." He snaps his fingers, and a swirling ring of black energy materializes: a portal.
"This way," he says, and saunters to the portal, his long green cloak streaming behind him, and vanishes through the veil.
Jeanne-Marie and Jean-Paul swap one final glance.
"Are you about this?" She asks, to assure herself they're making the right decision.
"What else can we do?" He replies, his voice soft, but not defeated.
Jeanne-Marie grabs her brother's hand and squeezes.
They will not be alone. They have each other.
Still grasping hands, they approach the portal together.
They depart, following Loki into darkness and the unknown.