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Observer Effect

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Jane’s heart pounded in her chest as she pulled up behind Stark’s bright red car, parking on the street outside the low, unobtrusive building. They were in the next town over, a slightly bigger place about an hour’s drive from where Jane had her research outpost, and the building they’d stopped in front of was in a quieter part of town. There were other cars parked along the street, but no one walking past. Though, in this heat, Jane could hardly blame them.

Her skin was still reddened from the burn that was almost fully developed now, but she’d treated it with aloe before they’d left and was just going to have to live with it.

In the truck with her was Erik, who was silent and grim, and Darcy, who winced with pain when the poor shocks of the truck made it bounce and jostled her. Jane figured Darcy was burnt worse than she was if her sour mood was any indication, but they were in the same boat. There wasn’t anything they could do until the burn cleared up on its own.

They got out after Stark got out of his car. They’d taken time in getting there and not just in driving. Stark had gotten breakfast, found himself an actual hotel room and had showered and changed. Jane figured he’d packed some clothes into a bag he kept in his car because, otherwise, she wouldn’t be able to explain where he got the electric blue shirt or the white suit that he wore with it. The white definitely was a different look for him, as far as Jane knew from his tastes, but it suited the desert heat better.

That it also was a drastic difference from the black suits and white shirts of the agents and employees they found when they went into that secret agency building didn’t hurt either. It was a bit strange thinking of Stark as a white knight on a noble steed, but the Cadillac was pretty noble looking and he was eye-catching in his crisp white clothes.

It made the bright pink of the bakery box he carried all the more jarring.

Stark walked right into the building without any sort of hesitation. Jane had to hurry to keep up and had to force herself not to look around anxiously as she followed in Stark’s footsteps. He didn’t even slow down as he crossed the foyer, paying not mind to the office manager who called out to him and then got to her feet. They reached a door, the four of them stopped and Jane looking over her shoulder at the woman who now approached them, frowning.

Then Stark placed the pink box into her hands and reached into his jacket. Jane held the box, balancing it carefully so she wouldn’t damage the pie inside, peering around Stark’s shoulder to see him swipe the badge across register beside the door. The light flicked from red to green and the door unlocked.

“Sir!” the woman shouted as Stark pushed open the door. He flicked a smile back at her, all teeth and false pleasantness. Jane ducked her gaze to hide her shivering. Stark wasn’t bothering to wear his shades to cover his eyes. The orange stood out even brighter against his blue shirt.

The woman didn’t stop them as they walked through the door.

In fact, no one stopped them as they marched past, with Stark in his white suit blazing a trail down one hallway and up another and into the elevators without any hesitation. Darcy caught Jane’s eye and, with a wide-eyed look, conveyed the question that Jane herself was wondering about him. How did Stark know where to go? Had Stark worked with these people in the past? Had he been in this building before and knew exactly where to go? He’d said he knew someone to call to get the information, but was that true or had he made a different call when he’d stepped out earlier? It wasn’t like Jane had lingered by the door and listened in.

It’s not like Stark hadn’t shown up the very same day that their stuff had been taken, the day after Thor had dropped out of the sky and changed everything. Jane believed in a lot of stuff, but not that it was chance that brought the feds and Stark to her research on the same day.

Within hours of each other, too.

But she didn’t want to believe that Stark was betraying them to the feds. He’d salvaged Darcy’s iPod and her notebook. He’d promised to bring things back. He had promised her research was secure. So maybe he was at odds with the feds now, but he’d been on their side before. After all, Stark Industries once had military contracts and defense contracts and weapon manufacturing contracts- this agency probably had some of those contracts.

It was one elevator ride and two more hallways that finally brought them face to face with someone who was unwilling to let them pass. Jane immediately recognized the woman who barred their path as the one who had stood with Agent Coulson with her hands on her hips, displaying her gun to them as if Jane really needed a reminder of how dangerous a federal agent was.

“Stark,” the woman said, eyes trained on him in his spotless white suit, “What do you think you’re doing here?”

“Saving you all a massive headache, a huge expense in new tech and from committing interplanetary diplomatic suicide,” Stark gave a shrug of his shoulder, “You know, the usual. What are you doing here? We’re not in your way, are we? The elevator is just over there.” he gestured over his shoulder.

“You really think that I’m going to believe all that?” The woman asked lips turned into the thinnest wire edge of a smile, “That you’re here just out of the kindness of your heart, to save us from ourselves?”

“It’s a bit early for that part,” Stark said, far more at ease than Jane felt. The woman who stood in their way wasn’t the only one in the hallway now, as two others noticed what was happening and came to stand behind her. Jane edged closer to Stark, though she wasn’t sure what she would do if they tried to attack or arrest them or something. “And I really don’t care what exactly you believe, Agent Hill, because I’ve got business with Agent Coulson and your director if he’s about.”

Jane saw the woman’s smile twist into a firm frown when Stark said her name. Jane had thought that Stark remembered it from whenever he worked with these people before but this woman, Agent Hill, looked suspiciously at him as if he had no right knowing her name at all. Jane glanced at Darcy, who met her gaze and turned her hand at her side slightly, showing Jane where she had her taser.

Jane hoped they wouldn’t need that.

“What sort of business?” Agent Hill asked.

“Why don’t you point me in the direction of Agent Coulson and-”

“You don’t get to make any sort of demands here, Stark,” Agent Hill took an aggressive step forward, “You broke into a secure government facility and you’ve been making threats. Answer my question, what is your business here?”

“I have permission to enter here,” Stark said, “I’ve got the badge. I’m on your registers. I’ve got clearance higher than you even know about, Agent Hill. Go ahead and check your records if you doubt me. I’ll wait.”

Agent Hill stared silently at him for a long minute. Then she half turned her head, looking back at one of the others behind her. The man she glared at jumped and lifted the tablet he had in his hands. He tapped at it for a solid minute and then stopped, his eyes going wide, so wide.

He took the step forward he needed in order to bring himself to Agent Hill’s side and then turned the tablet to her. She took it, staring at it, and then shoved it back into his hands. Rounding on Stark, she demanded, “How did you do it, Stark? Did you hack our servers?”

“I didn’t do anything,” Stark said, lifting his hands up to reveal empty hands. “Now, will you tell me where Agent Coulson is? Or do I have to keep looking for him myself?”

There was a brief set of whispers that broke out behind Agent Hill, who stared hard at Stark, hand close to her side like she wanted to draw her gun and shoot him. Jane held her breath.

Then the man who had the tablet stepped forward, just a little ahead of Agent Hill, and, though he looked pale and kept nervously glancing at Agent Hill, he cleared his throat and said, “I can show you to him, sir.”

Stark clapped his hands together, “Wonderful. And you are?”

“Agent Clement, sir,” The man said with a little nod of his head. He wore a suit like the rest of them, though instead of a black tie he wore one with a red and blue stripe to it. With a short trimmed beard and short trimmed hair to match, he could’ve passed for a cousin of Thor, if not for red in his beard and the brown of his eyes. He didn’t look very happy about helping them, but mostly he didn’t look too happy about putting Agent Hill to his back as he stepped forward. “While your clearance is sufficient enough for me to take you to Agent Coulson, I’m afraid the others with you aren’t. They’ll have to go back out.”

Stark stood there for a moment, then he turned and looked at Jane, Darcy, and Erik. “Would you three like to wait in the lobby? I won’t be very long. And it looks like things will go just fine.”

“Sure we can,” Erik said immediately, putting out a hand on Darcy’s arm and Jane’s elbow. “We’ll be just fine waiting in the lobby.”

“Remember, don’t eat the pie, it’s for Thor,” Stark said pleasantly, “And call if you need anything. I’ll answer.”

Jane nodded, mumbled some sort of agreement and then watched as Stark turned and crossed over to Agent Clement. She wondered, somewhere distantly in her head, why she felt such a sinking feeling in her stomach. Agent Hill had left during their short exchange and Agent Clement seemed very professional when he greeted Stark but still…

Jane’s fingers tightened on the pink box as a pair of agents came towards them, apparently eager to urge them back to the elevator and to the lobby below. Jane tossed one last look over her shoulder at Stark, who walked beside Agent Clement, talking and waving his hands about, and hoped he’d be all right.

So many questions burned inside of her, but Jane would have to just hold onto them for now. Hopefully, she’d get time to talk to Stark, really talk to him, soon enough.

 

 


 

 

Midgard was a strange place.

Thor sat back in the chair that was one of the three pieces of furniture in his small cell and tested the bonds that held his wrists together. They were not very strong, made mostly of thin metal and thinner chains, as if the symbolic nature of them was enough to hold the accused in place. They were almost an insult with their weakness, but Thor kept forgetting just how weak Midgardians were. They did not have the strength that flowed through his veins, the might that could snap such weak metal and could be used to easily free himself from this container.

He felt no magic force that kept the door contained or prevented the glass from being broken. Truly, he was held in place by the suggestion of containment more than actual containment and, if it were not for the memory of the electrical shocks, in triplicate, Thor would have escaped within the first half hour of his capture.

However, he did not fancy being ‘tased’ again. It had been annoying but charming when the delicate but fierce Darcy Lewis had done so. Such a protective spirit in such a small body was quite adorable, like the large paws on the lion cubs of Asgard’s mountains, holding deadly claws but oversized on their small bodies. Dangerous but clumsy. Cute.

The three taser charges while he’d burned with the frustration and embarrassment of being unable to lift Mjölnir had not been quite as charming.

So Thor sat and waited, recovering from the tasers, testing the bonds on his wrists and wondering what it was that these Midgardians could want with him. If they were agents of the realm, perhaps he was to be taken to Midgard’s ruler, though he’d heard little of what said ruler was like. Darcy had made disparaging comments whenever anything relating government had come up in conversation, but Thor assumed that was her youth speaking. He had not looked fondly on the politics that came with running a kingdom when he was younger. There had been nothing exciting about it and, truly, Thor did not look forward to the tedium he had seen his father have to work through.

Still, he would like to meet the ruler of Midgard. To see what sort of Midgardian that could rule over the rest. They seemed a vibrant and short lived people, and because of that, they were a turbulent race, colliding and clashing with each other nearly constantly. He’d only been here a few days and already he had a feeling that Midgard was a place on the edge of wildness.

There was technology here, but it was strangely developed. The transport vehicles came in so many variations that he’d almost questioned if the one that the aristocrat Lord Stark had driven in was really the same sort of thing that had been driven by Jane and had unceremoniously run him over in the desert. There was medical machinery but still the crude methods of hand stitching and chemical disinfectants were in use. Thor’s brief time in the healer’s hall had been interesting. The place had the undersmell of grief and fear, of blood and stress. The energy of so much pain from so many people had bled into the very walls and made it nothing like the healing halls of his home in Asgard.

He felt sorry for the people of Midgard. They suffered. They bore the heat of their sun on their skin and it burned them. They suffered injuries that had no cure and suffered grief that seemed to have no end. They struggled and clashed against each other, victimizing each other with larger, more organized and powerful groups taking over smaller ones that had the information or resources that were in current demand. Thor had no doubt that Jane’s patron was Stark- he had moved and acted like a man with money and status- but clearly, that had not been enough to move against the agents of the realm. Even against the Midgardian government, Stark’s hands were tied.

So it came to his surprise when he heard voices approaching the door to his cell and he recognized one of them.

Thor sat up, chains rattling on his wrists, and looked to the door.

It swung open and Thor blinked, momentarily blinded by the bright blue and brighter white of the man’s clothing. Purity and loyalty, the cloth of the righteous, is what Stark wore when he walked into the cell that Thor had been placed in. In the overhead lighting, some electrical form that shone more harshly than that of the sun, Stark positively glowed. He looked pleased to see Thor, or at least see him all in one piece, and he came over to where Thor sat without hesitating.

“It’s good to see you’re up, Thor,” Stark said, “How are you feeling?”

Thor ran his tongue over his teeth, “I have a great thirst, Son of Stark. Pray, tell me what news you have of my containment with the agents of the realm. Might they lose my hands and free me from these constraints?”

Stark half turned towards the door. Another man who Thor did not recognize stood there. He looked nervous but obedient as Stark asked him for the key to Thor’s chains. The man gave them over and Stark came around behind Thor.

“You really gave the girls a fright, running after Mjölnir like that,” Stark said, speaking low as he reached behind Thor and worked on the cuffs that bound him. Thor was both pleased and surprised to hear Stark correctly pronounce Mjölnir. But Thor could not definitively place Stark’s familiarity with the hammer- whether it was from the fables that surrounded Thor on Midgard, the ones that spoke of him as a Norse god, as Darcy had mentioned- or from another source. “You really couldn’t pick up the hammer?”

“I am undergoing a King’s quest,” Thor said sourly and that was mostly true too. His father was a king and this was a sort of quest. Well, more closely it was a test or a challenge, but Stark did not need to know the particulars. “I apologize for startling the good ladies. They need not worry for me, though. I am quite capable of handling myself.”

Stark chuckled and, with a clink of metal, pulled the cuffs free in one hand. He pats Thor’s shoulder with fleeting fingers before stepping back around to his side, “Oh I believe you on that. So you should save your apologies for them, hm?”

Thor barely heard his words. He hadn’t noticed the chill when Stark had been unlocking the clasps because his fingers had been mostly on the metal and not Thor’s wrists, but he felt it clearly when Stark’s hand slid over the thin cloth that covered his shoulder. It was a cool touch, cooler than Thor expected from someone from Midgard.

It reminded him somewhat of Loki’s touch, whenever his brother was in a particularly foul mood. Loki didn’t burn with anger the way others might, he let it ice over his feelings, making him brittle and jagged wherever his anger broke through and spilled over. Thor brought his arms around and rubbed at his wrists, mostly for show. He looked up at Stark, who stood at his side, one hand lightly resting on the edge of the table, his body forming a barrier between Thor and the man at the door.

An aristocrat, a patron and a scholar, these things Thor knew that Stark was, but also he seemed to be a protector. Thor did not feel like he needed the protection, but he was also unlearned in the ways of Midgard. They might not be able to do enough damage to him to hurt him fatally, but they had proven themselves capable of rendering him unconscious and willing to drag him about to unknown areas.

There was a real possibility that the agents of the realm could and possibly had intended to spirit Thor off somewhere, hidden away from Jane and Darcy and any other who knew he was there. If they kept him separated from Mjölnir long enough--

No, Thor did not think his father would leave him on Midgard for an endless age, and he certainly did not think Loki would keep himself away for very much longer, but the idea of having to truly be rescued from someone of Asgard was more embarrassing than having a notable man of Midgard coming to his aid. He nodded to Stark, a silent acceptance of his actions and a thanks, and then got to his feet to stand with him.

Stark relaxed, stepping back and letting his hands rest loosely in the pockets of his white pants. “They didn’t really want to believe me when I told them who you were,” Stark said, “And I don’t think they are fully convinced, your highness,” Stark’s lips quirked into a secretive little smile, as though he told a joke that only he understood, “but they’re willing to let me take responsibility for you. Well. They don’t really have a choice in the matter, but that’s not really here or there.”

“I appreciate that a man of your status upon Midgard would take the time to attend to me personally,” Thor said with a humble little nod of his head, “From what the Lady Darcy has told me, you are an influential man of your realm, both an inventor and patron of many arts and sciences. I am in your debt, Lord Stark.”

Thor smiled when he saw Stark’s eyes widen, the golden glow of them burning bright like the hot coals of a blacksmith’s forge, but beneath that the honey brown of something far softer and gentler looked at Thor with surprise. Stark’s mouth opened, though he didn’t speak, and Thor felt a spark of pride at turning a silver-tongued man like Stark to silence.

The moment did not last very long, however. Stark turned his head, speaking quickly and a little too loudly, as if that could distract Thor from the way his cheeks flushed in surprise or pleasure, reddening like he had spent too much time exposed to the burning Midgard sun, “Please, none of that Lord business with me. Call me Tony.”

“Then you must call me Thor,” Thor said, “None of that prince or your highness business. We shall be like equals, here on Midgard.”

That brought another one of those strange smiles from the man, another secret or joke known only to himself, but before Thor could press him on it, he had turned to the doorway. “Come on, Thor. We’ve got to meet with Agent Agent and see if we can convince him to not make the biggest mistake of, well probably not his life but certainly this month.” He made a beckoning gesture as he headed to the door and Thor happily followed.

The man at the door backed out of the way as Tony approached. He looked nervous still, but resigned to his actions. Tony gave him a sharp smile as he led Thor into the hallway, “Agent Clement, I think I know where to go from here. If you could get a bottle of water for Thor? The desert sun is rather unforgiving. We’ll meet you at Agent Coulson’s office.”

“I-” Agent Clement opened his mouth to dispute it, but thought better of it almost immediately. “Of course. Would you like anything else, sir?”

“No thank you,” Tony said, effectively dismissing the man. He was given one more uncertain glance before he turned and went in the opposite direction. Tony walked for a while, until the man vanished around the corner, and then Tony stopped. He held out his hand to Thor, not quite grabbing his arm but almost. Thor could feel the coolness of his skin and, curious, shifted his arm so that Tony’s hand bumped against it. Tony didn’t seem to notice that Thor’s arm was definitely warmer than his hand. He just gave a little pat of his hand and said, “We’ve got a short detour to take before we get to Agent Agent. If we hurry, we can get in and out before they realize what we’ve done.”

Thor’s brows rose. That sounded an awful lot like theft. “What is it that we detour for, Tony?”

Tony’s eyes flicked towards Thor and then away again and he said the words without barely moving his lips. “The Tesseract. It’s here.”

Thor stilled. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, since he was already standing still, but his muscles turned to iron and his heart slowed, his breathing held deep in his lungs as Tony’s words washed over and through him. Perhaps it was because Tony projected so much power and confidence that Thor did not expect it, but he should have. Men who had power often wanted more of it. More power. More control. More.

Surely, Tony did not know what the Tesseract meant to Thor, what kind of item it was or what powers it held, but the sheer fact that he knew it, knew that it was here and told Thor about it gave Thor plenty to think of. And his first thought was that he would rather such an artifact be in the hands of a man that he trusted than in the hands of the agents of the realm. Tony was a defender, a protector, he was more than the power he held. In some ways, Tony reminded him of Loki, a man who hunted for knowledge the way that Thor hunted for adventure and glorious battle. Though, Thor had to admit to himself, there were many differences between Tony and Loki. Very important differences. Like the fact that they were not brothers.

That was very important to Thor.

“Let us go and collect it at once,” Thor said, speaking quietly. He reached out and put his hand companionably on Tony’s shoulder, mindful of his strength as he squeezed. An eager thrum ran through him at the thought of this new turn in his quest. There was little doubt that these agents of the realm were not companions of Tony, though they were not outright enemies as well. A covert mission to collect a powerful artifact was unusual for Thor as it rarely allowed for him to clash in glorious battle with his enemies. This was more the kind of effort his brother went through, to gather information and collect power into his eager hands, for use later.

Though without his hammer, his armor or his warrior companions- in fact, Thor did not even have so much as a blade to his own name- Thor found that he was a little less eager to run headlong into battle upon Midgard. Who knew what other projectiles they would favor if the taser was their first line of defense?

“This way,” Tony gestured with one hand and began to walk. He was a shorter man than Thor was used to walking with, but he used the longest length of his stride that he could and he moved quickly. Thor admired the man’s determined gait and one curious glance down told him the answer to a simple question.

Tony’s brilliant ensemble was complete with white shoes. They did not have even a breath of dust or scuff upon them, speaking of either high maintenance or little use, both options viable ones for a man with such wealth. True, Tony did not wear the fine pelts or gold of most nobles. He did not favor any sort of jewelry or silks or other marks and trappings of nobility that Thor was used to, but he walked like a noble man and he carried himself like royalty.

And there was no doubt that he had chosen his wardrobe not just for the fine cut of the cloth but to blaze like a star in the grey of the long halls they walked down. Thor would not have chosen such an outfit for an action of espionage, but Tony did not seem worried they would be stopped.

Indeed, they were not accosted until they passed through a door that required Tony to swipe a card across an access panel and place his hand to the digital pad above it. The door slid open and Tony stepped through it, one hand lingering over the door’s opening so it did not shut and leave Thor on the other side. Thor ducked his head and stepped through, looking around the room they went into.

It was a larger room than Thor expected and he hesitated walking in too far. This was a Midgardian workshop of some kind. There were a dozen or so men and women working at different tables, a few pairs talking animatedly between themselves.

All conversation came to a dead stop when they turned and saw who it was at the door. Tony dismissed them with little more than a turn of his head. His eyes scanned the room, as if he could determine the location of the Tesseract even though concrete and then frowned. “We’re close,” he said, “But it’s not in here.”

Thor looked around with a touch of interest. He couldn’t tell what the Midgardians were making, though there was a display upon a screen nearby that had the sleek aerodynamic lines of an airborne missile. As far as Thor was aware, Midgard was a closed planet, not even advanced enough to travel within their own system reliably, so to see such an item troubled him. Was there such division within Midgard for them to be at war with themselves? If that was the case, it no longer surprised him that a people with such advances, small as they were, could be considered below the notice of the rest of the intergalactic community. There was little opportunity to place a foothold in the worlds beyond if they were preoccupied with the wars at home.

Tony headed to a door, another one locked with that electrical code box, and as he reached it, one of the others lurched away from their table.

“Wait,” she cried, “You can’t go in there!”

Tony flicked his badge over the box, unlocking the door. He gave the woman a bored look, waving the plastic card at her. Thor figured he was displaying the band of color that crossed one edge of the white badge. It was a rich black line, about an inch thick. “I can, actually. Level ten clearance says so.” Then, without waiting for her to say another word, he ducked into the room.

Thor caught the door with one hand and followed Tony into the darkness.

 

 


 

 

Tony would never understand why people went through such theatrics for storage rooms.

Sure, he understood the reasons why it was important to impress and dazzle, but for a storage room? Even he doubted that the Tesseract needed such a display.

Tony stepped into the room, one hand reaching for a switch that, after a moment, NOBODY informed him did not exist. He dropped his hand. The motion was caught by some infrared camera and the lights came on, one pair at a time, with an audible click, until the whole aisle was lit in a double column of pooling fluorescent light.

Tony sighed and refused the impulse to look around curiously. He didn’t care what Shield or Hydra kept in this base’s secure storage areas. Anything they had he could make twice as well on his own. That is, except for the Tesseract.

That was the only thing of worth.

Thor moved behind him, imposing but silent and Tony did his best to keep his mind from considering the Asgardian a threat. He had dreamt of hands at his throat, fingers digging in deeply to the soft flesh, leaving purpling marks that no one else could see, but if anything it was nice to have a change from his usual nightmares of ice and biting metal.

Though, he’d had less dreams of the shield after he’d melted the damn thing down.

NOBODY directed him with soft murmurs in his ear, the earbud wedged deep in his ear canal in the hope that no one would notice it. He’d considered being obvious about it with a bluetooth earpiece or something similar to the ones that the Agents wore in the field, but had decided against it. The confidence with which he walked down the hallways, directed by an unseen voice, made him look better than the obvious reliance would have. Plus, it was good to see how it unnerved people when he knew exactly where to turn, which way to go, to get where he wanted to.

Poor Clement, who’d floundered when Tony had taken a sudden turn, deciding on impulse to pick Thor out of his cell before continuing on with his path. It had been a good choice, too, giving him a way to get rid of Clement without too much trouble.

Tony listened to NOBODY, walking down to the fourth set of overhead lights and turning to regard the alcove there and the shelving unit inside. He waited until NOBODY told him which panel and then, without faltering, he reached for the handle and pulled open the drawer.

He’d seen the Tesseract plenty of times before, both in person in his previous life and in video recording in this life. The moment he’d been able to give NOBODY access to the world, he’d tasked her with finding it and keeping track of it, which she had done as it had moved from secure location to secure location over the last few months. Fury had begun prodding at it, but nothing substantial had come from it, yet.

Of course nothing had. The Tesseract was resting.

Tony stared at the glowing blue cube and felt something strange curl through him. He felt a familiarity with this artifact, more than the knowledge that he’d seen it before. He felt- Something. A bond perhaps? A connection? Something that synced the beat of his heart to the shifting glow of blue upon the Tesseract’s surface.

Without realizing it, Tony’s hand reached out and settled on the top edge of the Tesseract. He had expected heat, or perhaps ice, something to reflect that it felt almost alive, but instead there was no change in temperature. It was the same temperature as the shelf it was stored in, the same temperature as the handle he’d pulled, the same temperature as the room around them. Tony let out a long breath from deep in his lungs.

He curled his fingers over the edge of the cube and lifted it from the velvet case it sat in. Tony cradled it in both hands and closed his eyes, feeling the weight of it, feeling the pulse of energy from within the cube. He’d always thought that the Tesseract was made of some sort of special energy crystal or perhaps a special metal or mineral much like vibranium. But as he held it there in his hands, eyes closed, his whole world focused on the cube in his hands, Tony knew without any question that whatever it was that gave the Tesseract its power lay deep in the core of the cube.

And whatever that something was, it plucked at Tony’s core, his soul, the thing that made Tony who he was beyond his memories and beyond the flesh and blood of his body. It plucked and produced a pure note out of the taut string of Tony’s soul and the thing inside of the cube hummed along. Not the same note, but one a step away, a note of harmony.

Hands closed on the outside of Tony’s, warm and solid, and Tony slowly opened his eyes. Thor stood close to him, looming almost, his hands curled around Tony’s on the Tesseract. His blue eyes reflected the light of the Tesseract with a brilliance that startled Tony and for a brief moment, he thought Thor’s eyes were like his own, ringed with an otherworldly, inexplicable light.

For the first time, Tony realized that whatever it was that had happened to him in Siberia, whatever it was that brought him here and held him in this body, and that gave him the ring of fire in his eyes could be explained. He’d not peered to hard into the thought of it, worried that if he unwound the mystery it would unravel and send him back to the Siberian wasteland to die in truth. He’d avoided finding an explanation because there was too much else to do and be concerned with.

It hadn’t occurred to him that he might find the reason anyway, that it might lay in the realm of strange almost-magic that Thor carried with him. A technology so advanced that it seemed more magic than science could be that which put Tony in this position.

His heart hammered hard, his pulse jumping in his throat as he stared up at Thor, tongue-tied for the second time in the Asgardian’s company.

He hadn’t expected any of this. Thor was supposed to be simple. A nudge for Jane in the right direction. A distraction for Shield so he could get the Tesseract. One of the initial connections to the worlds beyond Earth. Thor was supposed to be simple.

“Shall I carry this for you, Lord Stark?” Thor asked in a softer voice than Tony thought the man capable of. On his face, the blue light of the Tesseract lit him from below while the harsh light of the fluorescent-lit him from above. Still, with his head tilted, it was his eyes that held that light in them, burning and bright and would’ve been so eerie if Tony wasn’t used to glowing eyes from his own reflection. “You may trust me with the Tesseract. It is a mighty artifact and I understand it’s worth.”

Tony’s fingers tightened on the cube. He needed it. He must have it. The desire for the cube ran deeper than his knowledge of his plans. It cut through to his bones, through skin and muscle and soft tissue, telling Tony that he’d never be able to give up the stone now that he held it in his hands.

A shudder ran through Tony’s thoughts and then through his muscles. Cube. It was a cube. Not a stone. He didn’t know where that thought came from, where that image came from, but he had to stay in the realm of reality. He couldn’t get lost now.

“There should be a case to carry it in nearby,” Tony said, nodding to Thor. “And it’s Tony. Not Lord Stark.” He strained to bring levity back to his voice, but it only cracked down the center like frost-covered snow under a heavy boot heel.

Thor nodded and, despite the way Tony’s embarrassment coiled through him with the crack in his words, Thor smiled and agreed, “Tony.”

His hands squeezed a little harder around Tony’s on the cube and Tony wondered where all the breath in his lungs had gone to. He consciously had to lock his knees and keep his back straight. NOBODY whispered in his ear and he jerked his chin towards the open drawer. “The case is in there.”

Thor let go of his hands and pulled the drawer out further. In the light, which seemed so dim when Tony looked away from the cube, he pulled out a black case much like a briefcase, though it was thicker than a typical briefcase. There was a socket for the cube to rest in and Tony lay it in the spot, fingers trembling as he pulled his hands back. Thor closed the case, flicking the latches shut and picked it up.

Tony slid the shelf shut and forced himself to look away from the case. It was easier to do so, now that the cube was out of his line of sight. He could still feel it near him, the pulse of it’s energy that rang through him whenever he concentrated on it too much, but Tony could also compartmentalize that away from the surface of his thoughts. He could move past this moment and into the next one and for that he was grateful.

“Come on, we’ve got one more thing to do before we’re done,” Tony said, turning from the alcove.

“Where do we go after we complete this errand?” Thor asked, following Tony back down the hall and to the door.

“We’ll need to bring things back to Dr. Foster,” Tony said, “That is if Agent Agent doesn’t decide to be a complete moron. If he does, I’ll have to make a few calls, get things back in order for her.” He glanced back at the case that Thor carried, “Though, with that in hand, I probably could cajole her out of New Mexico and into other efforts. Ivan could always use a hand.”

“Ivan?” Thor asked.

Tony hesitated at the door, hand on the handle. He gave a single shouldered shrug and smiled at Thor, “A friend of mine. Russian guy with a bird and pretty good head on his shoulders when it comes to mechanics and physics. He’s been working on a big project with me, one that Dr. Selvig and Dr. Foster could help with.”

Thor nodded, “The Lady Jane seems well versed in the science of your world, though her knowledge in the science of other worlds is… lacking.” He had a frown on his face, like he was thinking of the way Foster refused to believe that he was from another planet.

“Well, you can’t blame her for that,” Tony said as he pushed open the door, “There’s little evidence of other inhabited worlds here on Earth,” he blinked as he walked into the Shield workshop, where there was much more and much brighter light. “With some good evidence, she’ll change her mind.”

“Ah, Mr. Stark.”

Tony would never quite get used to that voice, never quite forget the way the man died but didn’t die, never quite forgive the way his death was used to forge a collection of people into a team, never quite believe that Fury had been in the right to use a man’s memory and death to do that. But he didn’t let the way cold iron settled in his body at Coulson’s voice show in his face. He came to a stop, hand up slightly to keep Thor just behind himself. Yes, Thor was a big boy who could protect himself but Tony couldn’t help it.

The Tesseract sang in harmony to Tony’s heartbeat and he needed to make sure that it was safe.

“Agent,” Tony said pleasantly. The scientists had been removed from the room. The screens were blank. The weapons they had been working on put away. Coulson stood across the room from him, two men at every exit and four behind the man himself. Tony saw Clement, pale and drawn tight like a bowstring, a bottle of water in either hand, standing behind Coulson and his immediate entourage.

A glance around the room told him Hill was off somewhere else, probably reaching out to Fury, probably watching over Foster and the others. As long as she wasn’t in his way, Tony didn’t really care what she did.

“Imagine my surprise when I left my office to go and have a little chat with our friend here only to find that you’d let him out before I could,” Coulson said with a little shake of his head, “If I hadn’t run into Agent Clement on the way, why, I would’ve been left with quite the mystery.”

“You shouldn’t have bothered,” Tony said, “We were on our way to your office anyway.”

“With a minor detour of your own, of course,” Coulson’s eyes settled on the box at Thor’s side. Tony heard the creak of the handle as Thor’s fingers tightened on it. “I’m afraid you are going to have to put that back, Dr. Stark.”

“No,” Tony said.

Coulson’s hand twitched at his side but he didn’t curl them into fists like the hands of the man beside him. “That wasn’t a request.”

“And neither is this,” Tony said, “You’re going to give back Jane Foster’s equipment, all of it, today.” He saw a few eyes roll, a few mouths thin as people reacted to his arrogant tone, “Every box, every cord, every smidgeon of data. Give it all back to Dr. Foster now.”

“Cute,” Coulson said with a smile that didn’t touch his eyes. Tony didn’t even have it in him to mourn the loss of the man’s friendship. They’d never really been friends. Coulson was just Fury with two eyes instead of one. “But not happening. Put the box on that table and step away from it, Mr. Odinson.” his attention flicked to Thor, sliding off of Tony for the moment. “We realize that it’s easy to get roped into Mr. Stark’s antics. His charisma makes one think that they can get away with much more than one should. If you just listen to me now, I can make sure you get out of here in one piece.”

Tony turned his head and stage-whispered to Thor, “Hey, I think he’s threatening you.”

Thor grunted. The handle of the box made another one of those whines, the grip complaining under Thor’s hand. “He can threaten as he likes,” Thor said in a low, dark tone, “But upon the field of battle, we will see whose blood shall run the farthest.”

Tony looked back at Coulson. “I think that means that you’ll be the one to bleed more if you were to try and fight.” Before Coulson could open his mouth to speak, Tony continued, “But I think my friend here doesn’t realize how little your lives matter to you or your agency. After all, who keeps track of the dead in an organization that doesn’t exist? You’re already constantly training new people to fill the holes left behind by those who die or vanish. It doesn’t matter to you how much blood you spill, so long as yours is the hand that reaches the finish line first.”

The agents that watched barely stirred at Tony’s word. But that didn’t surprise him. Shield and Hydra got on so well because they were cut from a similar cloth. You had to believe, completely, in the cause to be part of it, to work towards it, to give everything to it. If you didn’t believe, you were just a weakness and they would be happy to abandon you.

Fury had seen weakness in Tony in his old timeline, had manipulated that weakness to get Tony to do what he wanted.

This Fury had seen Tony’s weakness as too great a hurdle to get around, too much to handle.

Tony didn’t much care about their definitions of weakness or strength or loyalty or honesty.

Tony leaned to the side, looking past Coulson who had opened his mouth and started saying something, “Hey, Clement,” he talked over Coulson, who actually stuttered to a stop, anger flashing in his eyes. “Are those waters for me and Thor?”

Coulson turned, looking over his shoulder. Clement jerked under the sudden scrutiny. His hands crinkled the plastic of the bottles and his eyes grew wide. He glanced to Coulson, then to Tony. Then he nodded.

Tony made a beckoning gesture, “Well, come on then, bring them over.”

He took one step towards them.

“Agent Clement,” Coulson’s voice was so flat it made Tony think of a still pond, mirror smooth on the surface, a churning of water and turbulence.

“He has level ten clearance,” Clement said back, his voice clipped and gaze hard on Coulson. “I saw his file, Agent Coulson. What am I supposed to do about that? Disobey orders from someone with the director’s approval?”

“He doesn’t have the director’s approval.” Coulson argued back, “He’s not even a consultant. He’s a civilian and a former contractor.”

“He has level ten clearance,” Clement repeated. “Look it up. I showed Agent Hill earlier when she tried to stop him before.” He took another few steps forward until he stood level with Coulson, half turned towards him as he argued.

“Agent Hill stopped him and that didn’t tip you off that letting him wander through the base was a bad idea?” Coulson asked with one brow raised.

“So I’m just supposed to ignore clearance levels for people that I don’t particularly like?” Clement asked stiffly, “I don’t know why no one told you he was cleared up to level ten but you don’t have to take it out on me. Look it up yourself.” He gave Coulson a deep frown and then turned, walking towards Tony with a rod-straight spine. He handed over the two water bottles while Coulson gestured to someone in his retinue. They hurried over to the nearest computer and display and pulled up the relevant information. Or at least Tony assumed they did. What he did was take the two bottles from Clement. He cracked the seal on one, opening it and handing it to Thor, who drank the water with a gusto.

Tony cracked his own bottle open and drank some, smiling slightly to Clement, “You know, if Shield doesn’t work out for you, I’m sure I can find an opening in Stark Industries for you somewhere.”

Clement shook his head, “I appreciate the offer, sir, but I’m quite happy with the work I’m doing here.”

Tony shrugged. He glanced behind Clement, to Coulson who had stalked over to the monitor where, even from across the room, Tony could see his own face on the screen. He made sure his face held nothing but mild curiosity even though he wanted to laugh and laugh. Of course, the records in Shield would say he had top clearance. They were all digital records. Everything was digital.

Tony’s records could say whatever the hell he wanted them to. All he had to do was tell NOBODY what he wanted it to say and when to put it in there. She was so deeply imbedded in the information that any changes she made looked like they’d always been there. Only in the deepest layers of Shield’s database, the ones that housed more of Hydra than Shield, would Tony have to physically import NOBODY in. Everywhere else was connected to the outside world, to the internet, to that which NOBODY watched and studied and tinkered with.

“How about you escort me out of here, then?” Tony asked Clement. “It looks like Agent Agent over there is going to make some important phone calls and I have a pie waiting with Thor’s name on it.”

“A pie?” Thor perked up, turning back towards Tony from where he’d been watching the nearest door and the agents there.

Tony grinned at him, “Cherry pie. Best in the state if the advertisement is to be believed.”

“I can,” Clement said with a nod to his head, “Though I do not think Agent Coulson would approve. If we could wait until he finished his call with the director?”

Tony made a show of looking down at his watch and sighing. “Well, I suppose.” Straightening his jacket with a few quick tugs, he asked, “Tell me, have you begun the investigation into Dr. Foster’s equipment?”

Clement shrugged, “That’s not my department. I’m more in charge of transportation, sir.”

“Oh? Excellent. Then you know the quickest way out of here, I imagine. We’ll need to get back out onto the street as soon as we can,” Tony said, “I’ll contact Dr. Foster and have her meet us outside.” He reached into his pocket for his phone. He saw Clement eye him, but he didn’t draw his weapon.

“Stark.”

Tony rolled his eyes but turned to look at Coulson, “Yes, Agent?”

Coulson strode over to him, his expression set in hard lines. Clement wisely stepped to the side, saying nothing as Coulson went past him and into Tony’s personal space. Tony eyed Coulson’s hands, though they were empty, and eased his own hand out of his jacket pocket where his phone was.

“I don’t know how exactly you got into the systems, but I know that you did and I know that you changed them,” Coulson said, speaking quietly. Tony was actually surprised. Coulson had never been so confrontational with him before. He’d always assumed that Coulson just preferred to go around people than through them.

But then again, he used to have something Coulson wanted. He hadn’t just been an obstacle.

Tony smiled charmingly, “You mean the same way that you know I did something to Obie even though I haven’t seen him since they put him in jail? I didn’t even go to the hearings.”

Coulson’s eyes narrowed to show he’d heard, but he didn’t let himself get distracted, “I’m going to find out what program you used to change things and you’re going to answer for this, Stark. Shield isn’t your company that you can come into and do as you please with. You don’t belong here.”

Tony just smiled pleasantly at him. He said nothing about how it was his father and his adoptive Aunt who had started Shield. He said nothing about how it was Shield who had worked in secret with his company for years, depending on Stark Tech and goodwill during their years of operation. He said nothing about how Shield had rotted away from the inside, their good intentions paving a path for Hydra to take their heart and replace it.

Instead of rising to that bait, Tony said, “I’ll ask one more time for you to return Dr. Foster’s research. It belongs to Stark Industries and thus has some powerful firewalls on it. You’d do better setting up meetings and discussing things with her than taking them by force. I highly suggest you pack it up and take it back. It is the smartest thing you could do all month.”

Coulson gave him a smug look, “We’ve already breached your firewalls. Soon, we’ll have all the information we need. After we get that, we’ll give it back. Not before.”

Tony sighed and shook his head. “Your loss.”

“Speaking of loss,” Coulson said. His attention moved to Thor again, “Return that case to us. You may not leave the facility with it.”

Tony opened his mouth to say something but felt a warm hand press to the small of his back as Thor came forward wordlessly and held out the case. Coulson took it and immediately opened it. The blue light of the Tesseract looked weaker in the fully lit room of the workshop. Tony frowned at it. Was it just that first look that had so enchanted him with the cube? He didn’t feel drawn to it anymore.

Coulson nodded in satisfaction. He passed off the case to some other agent and then gestured to Clement, “Get them the hell out of here, Clement. He’s more trouble than he’s worth.”

Clement opened his mouth but then closed it and nodded slightly. “Yes, sir.”

He led them too the door, where the agents on guard there let them through with sharp looks. Clement frowned as he entered the hallway, glancing back to the workshop with a stormy expression. Tony reached out and pat him companionably on the shoulder.

“Sorry for the trouble, Clement, but you know how these things go,” Tony said with a shrug. Thor was still walking close to his side. He could still feel the warmth of Thor’s hand through the cloth on his back. He was trying not to think about that.

Clement’s face twisted more, “That’s just the thing, sir. These things don’t usually go this way. Agent Coulson usually respects those who have been cleared at the highest levels. And it shouldn’t be surprising that you would come to recover the data of your scientist. I am- I’m uncertain why we had to go and simply take it all. This isn’t the sixties anymore, there are levels of secrecy that have been peeled back so we can work more efficiently with others instead of scratching over territories like wild dogs.” He shook his head abruptly, “Shield shouldn’t have to take things out of the hands of others like this. Especially when the data we do find probably won’t be very much. It’s not like Dr. Foster made a breakthrough. She just ran into him.”

He motioned to Thor, who said nothing, just looked kind of irritated, his brow furrowed together.

Thor’s hand pressed a little harder into Tony’s back, urging him to keep walking forward, even as Clement’s backward glance made him slow. Tony nodded to Clement, “I’m very sorry about what’s going to happen, in that case. But you did hear me warn him. The firewalls on Stark Tech are very strong.”

“But Coulson said they’d gotten through them already?”

“If that was the case,” Tony said, “We wouldn’t be walking out of here so easily. He’d be far too angry with me to just let me go. As it is, he thinks he got the better deal, keeping the case and the data while I get our new interplanetary guest as my responsibility.” They had reached the end of the hall, now, and waited at the elevator doors.

NOBODY murmured something about using the elevator on the left, as the right one was shut down for maintenance. Maintenance on the left one had already been completed. Tony nodded absently to her and shifted closer to the left set of doors.

Clement looked off to the side, arms folded across his chest. He looked troubled and thoughtful. Tony let him think and used the moment to half turn towards Thor, hoping to dislodge the hand from his back. It worked but then Tony noticed the strange way Thor held his water bottle in his hand, fingers curled around the bottom edge of it instead of hand wrapped around the middle. Tony’s eyes caught on the bottle and stopped. He- There was something- It-

The image of the bottle flickered and in its place was the Tesseract. Thor let out a heavy sigh, shoulders sagging, and Tony looked up to see a bit of sweat on the man’s temples.

“What?” Tony asked, dumbfounded. Thor didn’t help matters by pressing the cube back into his hands. Tony fumbled his own water bottle into the crook of his arm but managed to take the cube. “How?”

“I have spent many years in the companionship of my brother who is a master at these small illusions,” Thor said, “He has always attempted to show me some of his magics, though I have never been gifted the way that he was. Still, with enough concentration, I can manage to change the visual appearance of an item for as long as I can focus.”

Tony blinked at him. Thor hadn’t said much since they left the room and his furrowed brow-

“But how did you switch the bottle out for the cube while it was in the case?” Clement asked.

“An easier trick of sleight of hand than an illusionary spell,” Thor said. He didn’t look smug, though, just a bit tired, maybe a bit sad. “My brother could do better in such a situation, but I-” He pressed his lips together and shook his head, “The skills I have would do little to help us escape without the shedding of blood, and there is no glory in a battle against those who do not value their lives.” His blue eyes flicked to Tony, reminding him of what he’d said about Shield’s agents.

Tony grimaced, “I see,” he said. “Well, good job, Thor,” He looked down at the cube and felt content. He had the cube in hand again. It belonged with him.

“It belongs at your side. You should keep it close,” Thor said quietly, tapping the top of the Tesseract with one finger. Tony shivered. He knew that Thor couldn’t read his mind but still. Creepy.

The doors of the elevator finally opened. Clement stepped inside and Tony followed with Thor. As the doors began to slide closed, NOBODY said into Tony’s ear, “Father, why did you go into the right elevator? It’s under maintenance- It’s not working properly- The cameras in the shaft have been disabled.”

Tony turned to the doors. He’d been distracted by the Tesseract that he’d forgotten about her warning. And, really, the maintenance didn’t worry him so much as the inactive cameras.

“What-” he started. Then he heard the clink of metal and the hiss of gas escaping under high pressure. Some small container bounced through the gap between the doors seconds before they slid shut and a white smoke began to fill the elevator. “Get the doors open!” Tony shouted, mostly to NOBODY, but Thor reacted as well, turning to the doors and gripping them.

He held his breath, pulling his jacket up to cover his mouth, but he could taste the chemicals on his tongue already. The smoke or mist or whatever it was, was quickly filling the room. Tony staggered back against the wall, clutching the Tesseract close to himself. Clement stepped forward, past Tony, wearing a partial filter mask over the bottom of his face and holding his gun.

Between NOBODY and Thor, the doors slid back open between floors. Gas escaped the room. Tony’s vision swam. He had breathed in too much. He tried to slow his breathing. The Tesseract thrummed under his fingers.

There was shouting and then a voice in his ear. NOBODY spoke. She told him to stand and Tony struggled to straighten his legs. She told him to go to the door and Tony staggered forward. Thor held the doors open with one shoulder. His face was flushed, sweat at his temples. His blue eyes swam in Tony’s eyes. He reached out to him or Thor reached for him but either way, he ended up leaning against Thor who was all warm, solid muscle.

The shouting was from downwards, where the doors had opened on a hallway below. Clement crouched down, cautious, hiding behind the other door and talking to those down there, shouting. Tony couldn’t focus on the words. He had to focus on his breathing. He had to maintain consciousness. He should call Jane, tell her to go. Get in her car and go.

He must have said the words out loud because NOBODY told him she would call Jane. Or someone would. NOBODY would be there, with him. She wasn’t going anywhere.

Tony wanted to laugh, but that was a bad idea. There was still so much smoke-

Hands reaching up in the gap. Clement put his gun away. He trusted the hands. That was good. Probably. Whoever had tossed the smoke in had done it from the floor above.

Then Clement was tugging on his arm. He wanted Tony out first, that was clear. Tony didn’t have a mask. Tony wasn’t a fucking Asgardian. Tony was beginning to black out, the edges of his vision fading away. Tony was easy to pull down, to dangle his legs between the doors, and if he didn’t think about them closing on him, or the elevator suddenly moving, Tony would be fine.

Hands pulled him down, caught him. People in suits pulled him from the doors of the elevator. There weren’t many of them. They held him tightly, hands on his shoulders, his arms. One tried to take the Tesseract but Tony wouldn’t let it go. He hugged it tightly to himself, wished he could just put it in himself and protect it with his body.

Tony took in breaths, clean air, and his vision started to steady. His thoughts became more solid again. They still didn’t let go of him as if afraid he would bolt with half a chance. It was a dumb concern. Tony wasn’t going anywhere without Clement, without Thor.

Clement dropped down out of the elevator and onto the floor. His relief was palpable. Tony relaxed.

Two gunshots rang out, hard and sharp, making Tony jump, making Tony freeze up. Blood and brain and bone splattered the wall. Tony felt the fine spray of it hot on his skin. Clement’s body stood there for a second without the top half of his head attached. Then it slumped to the side and fell. Tony heard someone scream. The hands that held him dug in tight. A cloth was pressed over his mouth, the chemicals stronger there than had been in the gas form. He refused to breathe.

He heard Thor shout. Saw another metal container arc through the air into the elevator. A woman spoke frantically in his ear- NOBODY panicking. Tony couldn’t calm her. His heart raced in panic, in horror.

He gasped for a desperate breath. His vision blurred. The Tesseract was torn from his fingers. Then everything went black in a blossom of pain from the back of his head.