Important Note: I uploaded Chapter 22 right before this Epilogue. Several people have skipped it and are probably wondering why the story jumped so abruptly.
It was the morning of the big day. Loki and Thor had just arrived from Asgard for this celebration. Tony had immediately asked Bruce, Jane, and Loki to come downstairs into the basement to have a very serious talk.
"We need a team name. And please nothing like Avengers. If you noticed, we didn't avenge anyone, since well there really was no one to, you know, avenge," Tony said all of a sudden.
Across the table, Loki smirked. Tony turned to the side to accept a tray carrying two cups of coffee and two cups of tea from Dummy. He laid them out, coffee for Jane and himself, and black tea for Bruce and Loki.
"Why do we even need one?" Bruce questioned, confused.
"Because we're awesome, good-looking-" Tony blew on his coffee to cool it. "- and don't forget geniuses."
Jane rolled her eyes. "I don't even want to be a part of this, but I have a feeling if I leave you alone, we're going to be known by something ridiculously inappropriate."
Tony snapped his fingers and spit out his first idea. "What about starting with our last initials? What's that… B, F, O, and S. Uh, only one vowel. FOBS?"
Jane covered her eyes with a hand. "You mean like fresh-off-the-boat? Tony, I haven't heard that acronym since my high school days. And no."
"First initials? That's J, L, B, and A or T for me. Hmm, BLT&J?"
Bruce asked, "What's that supposed to mean? Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato, and…Jam?"
"How about JLAB?" Tony tried again.
"As in Jane's Laboratory?" Jane asked, pleased with the name.
"Well better than –" Tony never finished that because in the next moment JARVIS interrupted.
"Sir, Director Fury approaches."
The other three turned to Tony with expectant looks.
Tony dramatically sighed, "I don't think our relationship is working out."
"What did you do now?" Jane flatly asked.
"Well I donated high resolution cameras – you'd think he'd be happy."
Loki noticed the way Tony had stressed the word cameras. "How generous of you. What did you include in your gift?"
"Well… I might have removed the infrared filter and modified the settings."
Jane choked on her coffee. "You – you – oh my god."
Bruce eyed the cameras in the room before putting his hands on his lap – covering as much as possible. "Please don't tell me that these are your cameras."
"Oh these? They're not, just the ones on the Helicarrier. I thought Fury would appreciate the extra security measure – all the cameras on board can see through clothes now."
Loki was trying to hide his smile behind a hand. He hadn't been on the Helicarrier lately … thank goodness. Still it was a good prank.
It didn't take long for Fury to reach them and to promptly harass Tony out of the basement, demanding that he fix the trouble he caused.
Getting back to the original topic, Loki declared with good humor, "JLAB it is – tentatively." To Jane, he said, "Better than Thor's Warrior Three, I suppose. Having you on the team is only a benefit. Thor would be forced to not make fun of it." It didn't mean he wouldn't try manipulating Thor into insulting it somehow in Jane's presence.
At the mention of Thor, Jane quieted down and looked away as she stood up. "I need to practice my speech one more time. I'll see you guys when we're heading out," she said before leaving.
Loki's eyes tracked her until she had gone up the stairs. Frowning, he made a mental note to confront Thor about the tension between them. He thought after all this time, those two would have resolved the conflict.
The basement became quiet, interrupted only by the sound of Tony's bots rolling around and cleaning.
It was Bruce who spoke first.
"How is Lopt … and the others?"
Loki set his cup down on the table as he kept his face neutral. He distractedly rubbed his healed hand - the one that was almost burned off. "They remain alive, but incapacitated. Safe for now as long as time does not pass for them."
Bruce closed his eyes upon hearing the bad news. "What's keeping you from healing them?"
"They would die before I finished."
"Even with the anti-toxin?"
"I have searched through Rappaccini's records. She never created one – but it is not the anti-toxin that I need: it is time. I cannot heal them quickly enough before they succumb to the toxin."
Loki picked up his cup again and drank from it before asking, "What of Agent Black? I had removed Rappaccini's Waker programming from her, but I now believe this to be unnecessary."
"Rappaccini had given her an advanced lymphatic system – the most advanced I have seen in a human. It was already fighting through whatever was responsible for the programming. I suspect Agent Black may receive additional benefits from such a system."
Loki knew from that short reply that Bruce hadn't confronted her yet. "Bruce, from experience, I recommend that you present to her the possibility. Allow her to decide instead of this secrecy and evasion."
Bruce was aware that Loki knew first-hand about secrecy within the family. He sighed, "I guess you're right. Her surrogate parents were AIM agents and she'll start asking about her hair. It's gotten greener. You think it's because of … the other guy?" Bruce nervously asked.
"Ask me again when both of you have decided to learn the truth."
Bruce whispered, "Thank you."
Loki pushed himself closer to the edge of the seat. "Do not thank me yet … for I have a request. You will not be pleased though."
"I'll hear it first."
Loki nodded and began whispering his request to Bruce.
The lights dimmed slowly in the banquet hall. People hushed as a single spotlight was lit in the back. A man in a tuxedo with his back turned away, stepped into the light.
The crowd clapped as Luther Vandross's Never Too Much began to play.
The man started to move his foot to the upbeat music and then turned around to show a dazzling smile. It was Tony in a tuxedo. Moving with the music, he started to swagger across the aisle to the front.
When he reached the microphone, he gave a few claps and a wave to quiet down the audience.
"Oh yeah! Welcome to our grand opening of a new research facility – funded by yours truly. With a little bit from our friends from Washington of course." The crowd laughed along.
With a flourish, Tony gestured to the projector screen behind him showing a helicopter's view of a freshly constructed cluster of buildings with a prominent dome-like structure on the south side.
"I present to you: the Laser-Interferometer Observatory and Propulsion Technologies – and its first Director … Dr. Jane Foster."
The audience clapped as Jane, smiling brilliantly, stepped up to the podium to give her welcoming and acceptance speech.
In the back, Loki and Thor politely clapped along. They had journeyed from Asgard – temporarily suspending their own construction of the Bifrost to come here. Both brothers were seated around a circular table in the very back to avoid attention. Loki's illusion covered the both of them – they looked like a pair of normal humans with general features. Members of SHIELD also disguised as civilians dotted the room. Loki could easily make out Agent Romanova's red hair near the front of the room.
Loki tuned Jane out as he glanced to the side towards Thor. He had already heard the speech before – she had been practicing it all week. He manipulated the air, dampening the surrounding sounds to give them privacy.
Thor turned to him with a questioning look but didn't verbally ask anything. He had been quiet and reserved towards Loki over the months. Odin and Frigga had also noticed but kept silent. It was hard to miss; Thor was a very vocal person.
"Will you continue to court her?" Loki asked with no preamble. He wondered when he had become Thor's counselor again. He hadn't fallen into this role since they were very young.
Thor answered automatically, "Yes." It looked like the answer surprised him.
"She believes you no longer hold interest."
"I – " Thor began and then dropped. He looked Loki in the eyes. "Either I blame you for tricking her into deceiving me or I blame her for agreeing with your plot."
"It was necessary."
"It is trust, Brother."
"How then, would you have me preserve this perfect virtue with lives in the balance?" Loki demanded.
Thor didn't have an answer but he still didn't agree. "She should not have agreed so easily."
"She resisted – it was neither an easy choice nor a painless one. She will face more difficult decisions in the future."
"What do you mean?"
"Your courtship," Loki said as if it explained everything. "She must become stronger."
Thor narrowed his eyes as he realized, "You are grooming her…"
Loki scowled at the accusation in Thor's eyes. "Asgard and more importantly, Father, will not accept her as she is now. You know this. So I ask one last time, do you wish to court her?"
Thor was surprised Loki was being upfront about this. He reasoned it was probably his brother's way of making up - he wasn't sure what to feel. Thor turned to look at Jane. Still giving her speech, she stood straight and proud – a woman who had grown stronger since he had met her in New Mexico. She was becoming a leader.
Thor gave a soft "Yes."
"I knew you were a prima donna," Tony playfully accused. He sat down in the seat vacated by Thor who had gone up to congratulate Jane. He slipped out a canister out from his jacket. He snapped his finger for a waiter to bring them two empty glasses.
Loki smirked. He would repay Tony's cheek later, but for now he decided to use a common human retort. "Takes one to know one."
Tony ignored the comeback. "Your Act III. You thought I wouldn't notice, but I figured it out. Flowers – " Tony pointed to the floral arrangement in the middle of the table. " – no parade, but you got an audience here and a monument built in the skies with your name plastered on it."
"Oh?" Loki asked, acting innocent.
Tony poured the scotch into the two glasses. He picked one up and lifted it to eye level in a small salute. "I'll miss him," he said thickly before drinking.
Loki took the other glass and held it in his hands. "He's not lost yet."
"And you called me optimistic." Tony was talking about the last time the both of them had been at his tower. "You're talking about a localized temporal distortion to get him running again." Tony leaned back on the chair and rubbed his face.
Loki took a sip. The scotch wasn't bad, but he was in no mood for its strong alcohol content. "I'm still searching for a solution."
"Huh – you know, I thought you didn't care about him. He was like your JARVIS."
Loki turned to Tony, already guessing that the billionaire was past tipsy even before the scotch. Tony was blabbing more than usual. "He is," Loki corrected. "He is the first one I found."
They sat there while people ate, laughed, and talked. Tony downed the rest of the scotch in his glass before saying, "I owe you that explanation don't I?"
"Perhaps a better time?"
"No – no, this is good, while I'm drunk."
Loki figured that was why Tony offered the explanation with scotch – to drown another sorrow.
Tony sighed as he wished he had brought more to drink. "His name was Yinsen."
Loki just listened.
Tony swallowed. "He saved me twice. He built me a car battery-operated magnetic field generator – straight into my chest." Tony rubbed the spot over his arc reactor. "To keep the shrapnel I got from an ambush, away from my heart."
Loki raised an eyebrow. It was an offer – to see if he could remove the shrapnel.
Tony laid his hand over his chest. He shook his head. "Ha, I'm not sentimental, but … I don't know – I don't know if I want them out. Yinsen saved me a second time when he was buying time for me to escape. All this is part of Iron Man … and Iron Man was born when he died."
Loki didn't say anything. There was nothing to say.
Tony blinked a couple of times before he shook himself. The smart-ass persona returned. "Anyway, Laser-Interferometer Observatory and Propulsion Technologies. Not so subtle. L.O.P.T." Tony stood up and clapped a hand on Loki's shoulder before leaving to mingle with the crowd some more.
Loki remained seated as he looked up at the projector screen still displaying the facility secretly housing the Cube-powered Midgardian Bifrost.
Loki took another sip. He refused to salute Lopt, the one who gave Loki the first hint of his true form. Loki had pulled Lopt from another universe – at first thinking Lopt's Jotunn form a strange fluke from that alternate universe. He refused to salute Lopt, the only one who had played with him when all the other children had treated him like an outcast.
He refused because Lopt wasn't lost.
Loki waited on a balcony, away from the party inside. He had slipped outside when no one was looking. A glass of Tony's scotch still in his hand – only a quarter down. He preferred the spiced mead served in the Allfather's court.
"I'm guessing you have another brilliant idea," Fury said from behind. He quietly closed the balcony door when the music became too loud.
Loki turned around with a subdued smile. "I would implement them regardless of your approval. Informing you is only a courtesy."
"Diplomatic Immunity will only go so far," Fury warned.
Loki sipped from his glass to cover the smile. Fury wasn't fooled – it only made Loki's smile wider. "What will you do with Rappaccini?"
"She doesn't have long; she was exposed to a fatal dose."
Loki could reverse it, but he chose not to. No one was asking for him to do it either. After a moment, he brought the glass back down and asked in all seriousness. "Do you sense it? Your realm - your world is changing. Are you prepared?"
Fury paused to look intensely at Loki. The topic change was sudden. "It has been changing for decades. It's just all coming out into the open now."
Loki tilted his head up to stare at the stars. "Curious – as if we are all being pushed towards something." He turned back to Fury. "You cannot watch everything – even Heimdallr is unable."
Fury frowned. His network was impressive but he couldn't deny that he could not watch everything.
As Loki stepped forward, his eyes shifted from green to blue, his frame became petite and his face grew more delicate. A manicured hand was held out. "I will be your eyes … watching from the shadows."
"So it was you all these months. I thought they were just trying to protect the company with another decoy after we took over their base." Fury tipped his head back in the direction of the party. "You sure about that? Banner's not going to like it."
Loki's voice rose an octave with a hint of an accent. "He knows. He is a practical man."
Fury took a moment ... and then another to consider, before he firmly shook the offered hand. "A pleasure to work with you, Dr. Monica Rappaccini."
AN: This ends Cognosco. The title means to learn in Latin. Something I made the characters do and something I certainly did. Usually it's dry research articles for me, but here I wanted to try storytelling. It has been an adventure - and thank you for sticking with me on my first story in almost a decade.
Please review if you've made it this far. :)
I invite you to read its sequel Riddle. It's a different main character but there I plan to address some of the things I've left open-ended here. XD I just wanted to play around with a crossover.
You're welcome to suggest ideas. I may include them in Riddle, just as I have included some of your input into Cognosco.