She finds an apartment three days after her father's heart attack and Loki's apology. The apartment lies on East 23rd street. It isn't better than her previous one and the sink has a leak that smells like sewer. But it's a start, and Aileen isn't very high-maintenance. She can work with this. She worked with less while she was in college. The apartment has a kitchen, a bathroom, and a combined bedroom and living room. She is just happy that the kitchen and bathroom are separate. She prefers not to shit where she sleeps. One of the windows sticks if you open it too far, and the apartment is on the tenth floor while the elevator is partly out of order and stops at the eighth. Other than that, the place is as good as any other downtown Manhattan apartment. Tony takes her shopping for furniture. Apparently he is still in the mindset of being her caretaker, although now she is starting to feel like a charity case. With Tony in charge of the furniture, he refuses to let her pay. She hits him and tells him to take a hike, but somehow he still manages to manipulate her into letting him buy the furniture. And Tony's taste really doesn't match the overall crappy and cheap feel of the apartment. But Aileen gets her furniture and she doesn't have the energy to complain about how. Besides it looks good. Designer good and designer expensive. And the Avengers killed her last apartment, so Tony kinda owes her this. Especially since he was personally involved.
"If you're doing this because you're afraid I'll tattle to Fury about your secret deals with Loki, you can stop now. Because I won't," Aileen says after they have assembled her new couch. Surprisingly, Tony has been very hands on with this project. She knows he loves his machinery, but she never expected that to extend to furniture, too. Also, why has he bought stuff that they have to assemble themselves?
"I can't want to spend time with you?" he asks.
"You don't know me."
"That would be why I'm here. Quality time is important for a blossoming friendship."
"Oh God, shut up," Aileen says and pushes her way through empty moving boxes. Tony follows, and they make their way into the kitchen. "Really. You're done babysitting me. This was officially the last favor you will ever do me. Is that clear, Tony?"
"Why do I get the feeling you don't want me here?"
"Remember how you once said you wanted me out of your penthouse? Also, I need to restart my life. And my life will not include Tony Stark, superheroes in spandex or S.H.I.E.L.D. It will include job hunting, paying my bills and eating crap food out of plastic containers. I need a microwave. Why didn't I get that? Why didn't you remember that?"
"Sorry," Tony says and pops a beer open that he grabs from inside the fridge. "I only heard how much you love to have me around."
"I really mean this," Aileen says and grabs the neck of Tony's beer bottle, where he holds it in front of his chest. "I can't have you around here. I need some sort of closure. For a month or two. After that, I should have settled down and you can stop by whenever you want. But I need to be alone for a while. You need to give me that."
She knows that Tony will understand the need for solitude.
"You're monitored by S.H.I.E.L.D," Tony says and wrestles his beer bottle out of her grasp.
"That's different," she says. "They're not physically here."
"So I can install cameras, too?"
"No. Why are you this persistent?"
"I'm a creature of habit. Your charismatic persona has grown on me and I'd loathe seeing it disappear."
Aileen rolls her eyes and opens the fridge to grab a juice for herself.
"Wanna try that again?" she asks him, and plugs the straw into the juice box.
"Helping you gives me an excuse not to work on Fury's next big thing," Tony says and takes a swig of the beer. Aileen sucks at the juice straw.
"I'll buy that one," she says and smacks her lips. "What does he want you to do?"
"Confidential. Can't say. Is that your boyfriend?" Tony asks and points to a picture that lies on top of one of the unpacked moving boxes.
Aileen honestly thought that she had thrown out that picture. She doesn't have a lot of stuff left from her old apartment, but most of it is tucked into the box that Tony is pointing at. Her former apartment really has been disintegrated into rubble. Just like Fury claimed those weeks ago. It's currently being rebuilt. Aileen stopped by to check it out as soon as S.H.I.E.L.D unleashed her from their protective custody. Although, that isn't to say that S.H.I.E.L.D itself didn't total the apartment complex in honor of Fury's lie. Aileen honestly doesn't remember that the battle was so intense. She doesn't remember a falling building. Perhaps it happened gradually, and the building fell apart after she was brought to the Avengers headquarters? But she doubts that. And she also doesn't want to think that S.H.I.E.L.D ruined an entire building and the lives of the people living in it just to cover up Fury's lie. The building probably just collapsed after she left the scene together with Tony and Steve.
"If I had a boyfriend, don't you think he would have stalked me down during my S.H.I.E.L.D imprisonment?" Aileen asks Tony. The picture is, in fact, a picture of her ex-boyfriend. But Tony doesn't need to know that. Her nostalgia is her own. Especially since she was dumped only weeks prior to the Loki incident. She hasn't had much time to cope. She has focused on staying alive. Now that the Avengers business is done, she suspects that she will embark on a week of relationship mourning. Or maybe not. The picture of Jasper doesn't evoke any feelings except for confusion. Not even a little sadness or regret. And the confusion is because she has just been reinserted back into her real life. Maybe she won't enter a mourning period. Maybe she is just that much of an ice cold bitch. Maybe her adventure with the Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D and Director Fury has made her an ice cold bitch.
"Your family didn't stalk you down while you were at the tower," Tony says.
"I don't talk much to my family. I have to talk to a boyfriend. No blood ties keep him from leaving me," Aileen says.
"Are you implying something?"
"I'm implying that you should take your girlfriend out for dinner. If she still is your girlfriend. And that you stay out of my relationships and stick to your own. They need more work than mine."
"Ouch. Then I suppose I shouldn't mention a trickster God in green leather, since that would be an even sorer spot for you?"
There is a knock on the door, and Tony is saved from being strangled by Aileen. Instead, Aileen looks at the door warily. She isn't expecting company. She hasn't even registered her address yet.
"Stay out of sight," she tells Tony and takes the first step towards the door.
"Because you're Tony Stark. In my apartment. I don't want a reputation as a gold digger."
"I don't see what's wrong with that," he says, but he still heads for the bathroom while he whistles a jolly tune. Aileen almost stops him, because it's better to have a reputation as a gold digger than to let Tony wander about unsupervised in her bathroom. Then again, she has little personal items, so there isn't anything for him to accidentally stumble upon.
A cop stripper has knocked on her door. At least that is the initial impression Aileen gets. The police officer outside her door certainly has everything going for him. And she has been around a lot of gorgeous guys lately. It seems that hotness is a requirement to be a superhero. The officer is a couple of inches taller than her. She thinks that she can see blue eyes beneath the brim of his hat. Black stubble covers his face. It looks airbrushed. And the bone structure of his face is absolutely perfect. Same can be said for his body. The man's buffness can rival Steve's, and that says something, because Aileen is still convinced that Steve's body must be slapped onto posters and handed out to every gym around the world. For its motivational factor. If she ever catches a glimpse of a stripped down Captain America, she will die a happy woman.
"Hello?" she asks the officer. Opening the door completely seems like too much of an invitation. She opts for leaning against the doorframe instead, and thus blocks the view inside her apartment.
"I thought I heard voices in here," the stranger smiles charmingly.
"Who are you?"
"Right, sorry, I just came from work and passed your door on the way to my own. I'm your neighbor. 7A."
That explains the uniform. But Aileen still hasn't asked for a welcome committee.
"Aileen Palmer," she introduces herself.
"Yes, I know," 7A says. He really should introduce himself properly with a name like Aileen just did.
"Excuse me?" Aileen asks, miffed at the man's lack of manners.
"You haven't been out much since the Avengers took you under their wing, have you? It's all over the news," 7A says and Aileen really doesn't care for this right now. Cop Stripper Neighbor is acting starstruck. And stalkerish. She doesn't watch the news, because all news channels have gone completely down the drain since the emergence of the Avengers. New York City is divided into two camps. Pro-Avengers and anti-Avengers. It's ridiculous, so she doesn't watch it.
"I'm sorry," she tells 7A. "I'm right in the middle of something. I need to cut this short."
7A's smile falters. A slow realization bubbles in the back of her mind, but Aileen is fighting it hard.
"Oh, of course," he says. "You can knock on my door if you need help with-"
"Thank you for offering, but I have enough superhuman manpower already."
She closes the door in his face. When she turns around, Tony is there.
"You need to get some girlfriends that can teach you proper feminine wiles," Tony says.
"Why?" she asks and locks the door. "We're doing so fine."
"That's the problem. I don't make friends with the opposite gender. Which must mean you're a transvestite. Or have undergone a sex change. Which one is it?"
"That's rude. And prejudiced."
"Do you know me at all?" Tony asks.
"What did Cop Stripper Neighbor mean?" Aileen finally asks. The thing that has bubbled in her head finally emerges to the forefront of her mind, and she hopes that Tony will refute it. Sadly, she doubts that she is so lucky. He will most likely confirm it.
"Some tabloids and stuff may have snapped a couple of pictures of you leaving the tower," Tony explains with a vague hand gesture. He has his guilty face on. "On numerous occasions. And one time, they caught you shining that particular yellow hue of yours. That caused a bit of a commotion."
So her initial suspicion was right. She has become the public pet of the Avengers squad, and she only realizes it now – now when it's too late to do anything about it. That is brilliant. Just brilliant.
Unfortunately, she doesn't have a life philosophy that is worth sharing with the world, but hey, she now has a platform where she can promote such a life philosophy, so maybe she should make one?
"You don't watch the news and by the time I gave you a new laptop, the story had already peaked," Tone says. "I can call Pepper and she fix up a press conference-"
"I'm not making a public statement. Go home, Tony."
It is a testament to the severity of the situation that he leaves without kicking up a fuss.
She is walking down the street the following day when she is approached by a kid wearing a Thor costume. She isn't heartless enough to turn the boy away, but ends up spending a good fifteen minutes on answering his questions about Thor's eating habits. Does he eat broccoli, too? Aileen is surprised that only one person has approached her today. It's the first time since the Avengers business that she's smack-dab in the middle of downtown, and she had feared much worse. Perhaps the media hasn't gone all out on the story like Cop Stripper suggested? She hopes so. And Tony said that the story has already peaked, so maybe there is nothing to worry about?
She turns up late for her first job interview that day. She has to skip directly to the second one. Even though she has her degree from Brooklyn Law, she hasn't managed to cash in on a job where that is useful. Instead her second job interview today is for a grade school substitute teacher. She isn't quite sure what to do. She almost has half the mind to stomp up to Fury's office and demand that he hires her as the lawyer of the Avengers. At the moment that is her best shot at getting a steady job with a steady paycheck. As everything stands now, she will need to work several part time jobs to pay her rent, since it is impossible to get a job interview for any full time jobs. Apparently, experience is all that matters nowadays. Nobody wants to hire a rookie, but how do you stop being a rookie if nobody will hire you?
"So, Miss Palmer is it?" the man who is interviewing her asks. Mr. Haraway. Aileen looks him over. He sits behind his desk with his coffee mug in one hand and her CV spread out on the desktop. His fingers smudge the ink on the pages. She hasn't thought of Loki in days, but now his face suddenly reappears before her inner vision. She brushes it aside and focuses on the situation at hand. She can't do anything about Loki. He shows up when he decides to show up.
"Do you have any preferences?" Mr. Haraway asks.
"Preferences? For classes, you mean? I thought substitute teachers get called in whenever there is need?"
Aileen has grown accustomed to the swirl of ice that will enter her chest and abdomen from time to time whenever Loki taps into the magic that she is storing for him. She woke up this morning with that exact feeling plummeting low in her stomach. She hasn't thought much of it, since it happens regularly, but typically it stops within a couple of hours. It is now going on the fifth hour. Something is up and she probably can't ignore it for much longer.
"Anything pertaining to my degree should do as my preference," she says and tries hard to keep the 'really?' out of her voice.
"Well, yes, certainly," Mr. Haraway says.
She has no idea what she is doing in this office.
She wants out. This is not her thing.
Especially now that her chest is starting to feel like a balloon that is about to pop. She coughs into her hand and her palm comes away with a faint sheen of frost in the center. She wipes it away with her other hand. She doesn't panic. She just coughed up frost, but she doesn't panic. A lot of this stuff happens to her on a regular basis. Granted not the frost in particular, but other things like it. Although, is her palm turning blue now? It is, isn't it? Her palm is turning blue. Oh yeah, that is definitely a blue hue, right in the center of her palm where the frost landed. Okay. Okay, maybe it's time to panic.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Haraway," she says and stands up from her chair. "I need to make a very important phone call. Can we take a short break?"
Aileen walks out of the office, but she makes no call. She makes a mad dash for the bathroom, turns on the hot tap and shoves her hand directly into the spray of the hot water. It burns like all hell and tears spring into her eyes. Her makeup isn't waterproof and she tips her head skywards to keep the tears from overflowing. She is a professional and she is in the middle of a job interview. She will not go back in there with mascara streaks down her face. But fuck, her hand hurts. It feels as if she has shoved it into a bag of hot coal. The hot water was a bad idea. A very bad idea. But it's natural instinct to put your frozen hands under the hot tap to warm them up, right? Of course, her hand isn't cold, but simply blue.
She has to finish this interview. She can't start bawling her eyes out, because her hand has turned blue. She turns off the water and looks down at her hand. It is powder blue. Her hand is a light powder blue from her wrist up to her fingertips. Aileen digs forth her leather gloves and slides them on. She winces when they chafe the overly sensitive skin of her left hand. She will finish her interview. It is probably just a Loki-instigated frostbite of a more extreme kind than what she has experienced so far. It will disappear with time. When she returns to Mr. Haraway's office, she signs a wad of papers and leaves with her hand still attached to her body. She is prepared for it to fall off. If it does so, the glove will keep it in place.
It is eight in the evening when Aileen caves in and calls Tony.
"I need to talk to Thor. Is he there or is he back in Asgard?"
Before she called Tony, she was sitting with an apple in her hand by her kitchen table. When she took a bite of it, it was frozen. So she called Tony. Because apparently her blue hand now turns things to ice.
"He's here," Tony tells her over the phone. "Why do you need to talk to him? He doesn't like phones."
"Just get him on the phone-"
"This course of action is highly unadvisable."
Aileen whips around in her seat. Loki sits on her couch. He studies the white-black pattern of the couch, running his fingers along it. Aileen didn't sense his approach this time. No ice in her stomach to signal his imminent arrival. Has she lost the ability to sense his presence? Is it because of her blue hand? Because that is shitty. She will rather be able to monitor Loki's nearby presence than be able to turn things to ice.
"Never mind, Tony," she says into the phone. "I'll catch Thor another day."
She ends the call perhaps a bit too spontaneously, but Tony doesn't call her back.
"I didn't feel you approach," she says to Loki. He looks up from the couch and she is struck by a reminder of their last conversation. She feels the need to sit up straighter in her chair and cross her legs.
"Do you typically feel me approaching?" Loki asks.
"S.H.I.E.L.D has bugged the apartment," Aileen says. "You can't be here."
"If you are referring to S.H.I.E.L.D's inferior attempt at keeping a log of activity within your home, you need not worry. I will not appear on it."
She clutches her blue hand in her lap, both trying to hide it and show it to him. "I need you to look at my hand."
"That would be why I am here," he answers and gestures for her to move closer. She has been afraid to touch anything close to room temperature since the incident with the water tap. She has deduces that warm stuff is bad, so she expects it to hurt when she shuffles onto the couch, and lets Loki grab her hand to examine it. But it doesn't. In fact, his grip on her hand is pleasantly neutral. She almost says so, but she doesn't want to interrupt him.
"I put it under hot water," she says when the silence becomes too stifling.
"That was foolish," Loki says, his voice distant.
"It's the natural reaction to feeling cold," Aileen says in her own defense. "You warm yourself up."
Loki lets go of her hand and stands up from the couch.
"You appear to have reversed the flow of energy," he says. "Or balanced it out. I do not know which yet. Or, in words that you are more likely to comprehend, you are drawing active use of my energy inside you instead of passively storing it for me."
His magic has manifested in her hand? It's now her magic, too? She can tap into it just like Loki?
"I can use your magic?"
"You cannot," Loki says with a lazy flick of his wrist. "It takes centuries to access and master such energy."
"But you just said I can draw active use of your magic and not just passively store it."
"I should have rephrased it. It draws use of you. As proven by your hand. I assume you did not actively try to do that yourself?"
She can see his point. "Can you do something about it? Can you stop it? It's not very practical. Or human. Or very pretty, for that matter."
She thinks she hears Loki laugh. Quietly.
"Well?" she asks. "Are you going to answer me?"
"I beg to differ. I find your hand much prettier than the rest of you," he says. She doesn't know if she is supposed to feel offended or flattered.
"Will you turn it back to normal?" she asks.
"I will look into it."
"That's it?" she asks. "That's your parting comment? You will look into it? What if I'm dead when you finally manage to squeeze in some time for the crapload of physical health issues you shovel onto me? I didn't enter this vessel arrangement with you, so that you can dismiss-"
"What if you died because I acted rashly and forewent research in favor of immediate action? Would that be preferable to you?"
"You told Fury you fixed me. This is not fixing me. What if he sees-"
Loki grows tired of her nagging. Understandably. One moment he is there, and the next he is gone. She feels like crying. She has always dealt with her own issues without the help of others. She has always been independent. Stupidly so, she will admit that now. But this is so far out of her reach that she can't fix it alone. This is the work of a God and with her human limitations she has no way of countering it. If she dies from this, she is going to hunt Loki's ass all the way back to Asgard. In her worry, she forgets that this was the first time Loki saw her new apartment. How did he find it? And why didn't he comment on it? It was also their first conversation since the misunderstood 'sexual favors' incident. And Aileen forgot to call it off. Dammit. This happens every single time. He spins her around in circles every single time. Silver tongue be damned.