London, Tuesday June 10th 2014
"There are cave paintings that depict Soulmarks, and make it clear that they indicate love," said Harold Finch. "In the remote past it must have been simple, tribes were so small that Soulmates inevitably met. Today, with a highly mobile population of billions many Soulmates never meet, and Soulmarks are rarely easy to understand before Soulmates meet. But many people's Soulmarks and personal details are now accessible on line, and The Machine can sometimes predict matches. The government feels that most of these predictions are 'irrelevant' and discards them; we do not."
Darcy Lewis re-read the paragraph, rubbed her forehead, groaned, and thought about deleting it and starting again.
Jane Foster looked up from the pile of mail she was reading and said "What's wrong?"
"You remember I signed up for the summer ficathon? The draw matched me up with someone who wanted a Person of Interest Soulmates / Soulmarks Rinch AU."
"I'm sure that a couple of those words are English," said Jane, "and I know you like Person of Interest, so what's the problem?"
"Soulmark AUs can be fun if they're written well, but the premise is totally dumb. It's this idea of an alternative world where everyone has true loves that they're predestined to meet, and walks around with a mark on their skin that'll somehow miraculously tell them when they meet their match, or the first words they'll say to each other. So screw free will, screw getting to know someone and falling in love with them gradually, like me and Ian. Hell, screw causality, because you'd need Time Lord levels of mojo to pull off something like that."
"It sounds implausible," said Jane. "Even Thor and I didn't realise we were in love at first."
"In a Soulmark AU you'd probably have a birthmark the shape of Mjolnir, or his first words to you in Allspeak, and he'd have a mark that looked like… something science-ey, one of your equations or something, or your first words to him."
"And people read these stories?" Jane asked incredulously.
"With the right pairing, when they're written well, they can be a lot of fun, but they're total crack. I really don't know how I'm going to make the story work."
"Well, if you're looking for advice, I'm the last person you should ask. Find someone who knows about this stuff."
"Oh, I'll think of something. It could be worse; they could be asking for alpha/beta/omega fic or a high-school AU."
"Dare I ask?"
"Cherish your ignorance."
Your love is one in a million
You couldn't buy it at any price.
But of the 9.999 hundred thousand other loves,
Statistically, some of them would be equally nice…
A few minutes later Darcy was typing again, seeking inspiration from Tim Minchin's 'If I Didn't Have You…' when Jane reached a letter near the bottom of the pile, read through it, re-read it, and said "Yes!"
"Huh?" Darcy pulled out her earphones.
"You know I've been looking for funding?"
"Considering I typed most of the applications I have a pretty good idea. What about it?"
"I just hit the jackpot."
"Do you remember writing to the American Museum of Natural History? About six months ago?"
"They kinda blur together," said Darcy, "which one was that?"
"They're offering me a post. Senior researcher for their astrophysics department, with full funding for the next round of observations and experiments, and based in New York."
"Handy for Thor. Awesome!"
Jane reached over to a side table, where there were several money boxes with labels like 'Hammer/Penis Jokes' and 'Excess Physics after working hours - yes, you too, Ian,' found one labelled 'Awesome!' and rattled it.
Darcy glared at her and put a ten pence coin in the box, and said "I blame the Lego Movie for this, pretty sure I never used to use the A-word much before I saw it. Or hum that damned tune."
"Thor liked it," said Jane.
"Thor likes lolcats. And admittedly they can be fun, but you don't catch me wasting inkjet cartridges printing them out, unlike some deities I can mention."
"Anyway, you didn't let me get to the best part!"
"I get to appoint up to three staff. Interested?"
"Paying real wages?"
"Scale for New York, with relocation payments."
"I'm in, provided Ian is too."
"Are you sure about that? I could find someone with a mark on his arm shaped like a little woolly hat or a taser…" Darcy raised a finger in her direction, and Jane grinned. "Of course Ian's included, if he actually wants the job. But we'll have to move fast to get him a work visa."
"When do we have to move back to the USA?"
"My contract here ends at the end of June, a few days after the college closes for their summer break. We'd need to be in New York by late July."
"Gives us about five weeks to get organised. Okay, we'll talk it through with Ian tomorrow, if he agrees we'll apply for the visa at the embassy. He'll have to do something about his barge. What about this place? Do we have to find more apartment-sitters for Eric?"
"He'll be back in Britain around the time we're ready to leave, I think," said Jane. "Even if I'd found another post in Britain we would have had to move out sooner or later."
"What about that?" asked Darcy. "Are you inviting him to work in New York too?"
"There's still a lot of people in New York who think he's partially to blame for the invasion, he wouldn't be safe there."
"I hadn't thought of that."
"I think he's got something lined up with CERN later in the year, he'll be okay."
"When will you tell Thor?"
"I'll call him before I go to bed, then he's back in London on Friday, by then we ought to know what Ian wants to do and we can start making plans."
"Aren't you forgetting something?" asked Darcy.
"What about him?"
Darcy rubbed her temples. "Captain America who is coming into town with Thor and is going to be staying here over the weekend."
"I'm pretty sure the Queen only has an official birthday once a year so yes, this weekend."
"Don't worry, it's all taken care of." Darcy opened up another document, her 'to do' list. "He's going to be using Eric's bedroom, I've already made sure that it's clean and put in fresh bedding and sheets. They arrive here Friday afternoon. Friday evening I'm thinking a meal somewhere, maybe that big Indian place down the road if he likes that sort of thing. I've got tables reserved there and at the Thai place. Or we could get take-out, there's plenty of good choices."
She took a deep breath. "Saturday morning I've got a limo booked to pick us up at eleven. We all go to Buckingham Palace. There's the awards ceremony and Captain Spandex gets Peggy Carter's medals, only seventy years late, then you, Thor and the Captain join the Royals on the balcony for the Trooping of the Colour and the fly-past, Ian and I wait inside with the rest of the crowd. After that there's a reception finishing around six, Thor eats all the voulevants, and we head back here, while Captain A heads off to the Tower of London to meet up with some veteran's group, guys who fought with the Howling Commandos."
She scrolled to the next page. "Sunday Doctor Giles invited us all to Bath for lunch, he wants to talk Hydra's supernatural shit with Captain A and Vi wants to play with Mjolnir again. After that Captain A and Thor head to Cheltenham for an intelligence briefing, I'm guessing that's more Hydra news. They'll be getting back here in the late evening. Not sure what time that'll be, hopefully they'll have been fed but I'll make sure that there's plenty of pizza in the fridge."
"Monday morning we visit Greenwich, Captain A and Thor deliver Tony Stark's check for the Naval College repair fund, photo op for the college and the press. After that we get lunch at the college then take him out to City Airport, one of Tony Stark's flying stripper bars takes him to Washington, and the rest of us breathe a huge sigh of relief."
"It all sounds very organised," said Jane.
"It's what you're paying me the big bucks for," said Darcy, "Oh, wait, no, you aren't, are you? It's what you're paying me the teeny bucks for. Trust me, I'll be remembering you said that when we sort out the contracts for the New York job."
"Don't worry - neither of you will be interns, you've both served your time."
"Great. Now, getting back to the weekend, I'm just wondering if we should try to fix the Captain up with someone."
"I thought he was dating the Black Widow."
"Not sure I trust the papers about that, but I don't mean permanently fix up. Just… well, we'll be going out for meals a couple of times, and it'll be two couples and the Captain, he'll feel left out. Is there anyone we can ask along to balance the numbers?"
"What about Kristin from the college?" asked Jane.
"The Goth with the piercings and the tattoos?"
"She has a lovely personality."
"She's worse than you when it comes to talking nothing but physics, she's gonna weird him out with the Goth stuff, and she's about five years older than his apparent age and looks ten years older. Also she smokes and he's supposed to have enhanced senses, I'm guessing he wouldn't like the smell."
"Okay… Don't you have a cousin or something working at the US Embassy?"
"Tanya? She thinks he's a phallocratic stereotype. And let's face it, that costume does kinda support that idea."
"Certainly doesn't leave a lot to the imagination," said Jane. Both women were lost in thought for a moment.
"Maybe Joanne from the college office," said Darcy, then shook her head. "No, I was forgetting, she's married."
"How about Ian's sister?"
"Bird-watching in Norway."
"There must be someone." Jane thought for a moment. "What about Vi?"
"That might work. She's in London, Thor likes her, and she's sort of a super-soldier too. I'll give her a call, see if she's interested."
Alderney, Channel Islands, Tuesday June 10th 2014
Night was falling as Xander Harris tightened the last rope on the tent he was erecting, stared around the camping ground with his single eye, and said "A lot of people died here."
"Yes, I knew that; it's part of why we're here," said Andrew Wells, who was setting up a small portable barbecue. "Can you feel a disturbance in the Force?"
"No, but I plotted the GPS coordinates on our map; as far as I can tell we're right above the tunnels where Hydra had their laboratories during the war." Xander switched on an LED lantern and hung it over the entrance to the tent, then sat on a folding chair.
"Right here?" Andrew said nervously. "I thought we'd camp nearby, not on top of it."
"It's a small island, I guess there was nowhere else they could spare for a camp site."
"They built a camp site on a former concentration camp?"
"Looks like it."
"I guess nobody local wanted to build a house here, it's as good a use for the land as any."
They heard the 'putt-putt-putt' of a small engine and looked up to see Caridad riding a moped towards them. She switched off the engine and put the bike on its stand, took off her helmet, and pulled some plastic bags from the bike's panniers.
"What have you got?"
"A sore butt from riding this piece of garbage. Next time one of you two can get the shopping."
"Seriously?" said Xander, "Whatever happened to Slayer healing?"
Caridad glared at him, and he hastily said "Okay, I'll do the next trip. But have you got us some decent food?"
"The supermarket didn't have anything really exciting, but they had those Big Kahuna burgers you like. I got enough for the three of us, some ready-cut fries, chicken legs, onions, and barbecue sauce. And sausages, bacon, eggs, tomatoes and mushrooms for tomorrow morning. Oh, and some milk and cheese."
"Sounds good to me," said Andrew, switching on the bottled gas and lighting the barbecue. "Better shove the bacon, milk, and cheese into the cooler box, leave the rest with me."
"Okay," said Caridad. She lowered her voice. "By the way, we're being watched."
"I can feel it. Haven't spotted anyone yet."
"We've got this end of the camp to ourselves," said Andrew. "Most Brits don't take their vacations until July or August. And the guy who runs the site office has already left for the evening."
"Not sure it's a human watcher," said Caridad.
"Haven't seen much else," said Xander. "Lots of sea-birds, a couple of cows in the next field, that's about it."
"Could be someone scrying," said Andrew, nervously placing burgers on the barbecue. "Maybe Willow's checking on us."
"I'd know if it was her," said Caridad. "It isn't."
"Just keep on with what you're doing and keep your eyes open," said Xander. "If there is someone out there they'll give themselves away sooner or later."
The burners flared for a second, and Andrew flinched and dropped one of the burgers. "Damn it."
"Don't waste it," said Xander. "When I was in Africa there were times I would have killed for a Big Kahuna burger. Wipe it off and cook it properly, it'll be fine."
"Eww," said Caridad. "You can eat it then."
"No problemo." Xander reached down to pick up the burger, but couldn't see it. "Now if I was a burger where would I go?" There didn't seem to be any obvious holes or routes for it to disappear. He knelt to look under the table. There was something black there, pecking at the burger with a sharp beak.
"Well, here's our mystery watcher. Biggest damn crow I've ever seen."
Caridad knelt to look, as the bird glared at Xander balefully, dropped the burger, and said "Raven, asshole."
Caridad grabbed for it with Slayer speed, pinioning its wings against its body before it could escape, and lifted it into the air. The bird said "Oops! Busted."
"What are you?" said Andrew, "and what do you want? I compel thee, answer!" He traced a glowing symbol in the air.
"Really?" said the bird. "How exactly does that work? Because I'm not feeling much compulsion here. Not from a feeble little truth spell like that."
"Okay," said Xander. "You're obviously a pretty smart bird, you wouldn't be here without good reason. Feel like telling us what you want?"
"Let me go, and give me the rest of that burger really rare," said the raven, "and maybe just a little barbecue sauce, and I'll think about it."
"Why should we let you go?" asked Xander. "They say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bushes."
"Let me go and feed me and I'm in your debt. Keep me prisoner and I'm your enemy."
"What do you think?"
"It's telling the truth," said Andrew. "Or at least it isn't lying."
"It doesn't feel demonic. Not sure what the hell it is."
"Good instincts," said the raven.
"Let it go." Xander picked up the remains of the burger, wiped it with a paper towel, and put it on the barbecue.
Caridad put it down on the chair. It shook out its feathers and hopped onto the arm, and said "Just enough to warm it up a little and get the juices flowing. Oh, and I'm a 'him', not an 'it.'"
"Okay," said Xander, "feel like answering a few questions while Andrew heats that? Like what we should call you?"
"You'll figure it out soon enough," said the raven. It raised a wing as if to preen it, then lowered it to reveal a dark leather pouch about the size of a golf ball, held in its beak, hanging on leather thongs. It shook its head, tossing the bag towards Xander.
Without thinking Caridad caught it by one of the thongs as the raven took off, swooped around Xander, snatched the burger from the fire and disappeared into the dark.
"It's gone. Can't see it, can't hear its wings."
"Andrew, what do you make of the bag?"
Andrew approached it nervously, and cupped his hands around it without quite touching it.
"Something's in there. It doesn't feel evil, but it's some sort of magic. Powerful, I think."
"Caridad, put it down on the seat and back away. Whatever that is, it threw it towards me. I'd better be the one that opens it."
"Or we could get Willow," said Andrew.
"We can't keep calling Willow every time something magical comes up. I'll tip it out and take a look without touching it, after that we'll decide what we want to do."
"Well, don't say I didn't warn you."
"I won't." Xander picked up a couple of forks and carefully used them to loosen the thongs and pry the bag open without touching it. Something rolled out.
"That's an eye," said Andrew. "A blue eye. Not real, maybe glass or some sort of gemstone."
"Thank you, Captain obvious."