Tony got to his feet and nodded to the trickster god, the tension in the air tangible.
'Rock of ages.'
'Anthony.' They greeted one another almost formally as both Hill and Maia got to their feet. 'Ms Hill.' Loki bowed his head before turning to look down on Maia. He gave her a quick once over before their eyes met and he quirked an eyebrow at her curiously. 'And you are to be my handler, I presume.'
'Loki, this is Maia Tomson.' Hill introduced them.
Maia offered him her hand, determined to treat him as she would have anyone else, despite how he stood around a foot taller than her, but one thing he said bothered her. 'It's a pleasure to meet you, although I don't think handler is the right word.'
He took her hand but didn't shake it so much as just held it. 'And what word would you use, Ms Tomson?'
'I suppose I'm more of a guide?' She looked at Hill who nodded.
'And just how do you plan on guiding me, little Midgardian?' He released her hand and stepped forward, making her tilt her head back to look up at him.
'Any way you need to be.' She said confidently, realising just how much of a challenge he might be.
'Why don't the two of you start with coffee in the common room?' Hill suggested before passing Maia the folder. 'There's files on you both inside, talk about what you hope to be able to achieve together. We'll meet back here at two. Any questions?'
'A few but I might have more after.' Maia shrugged. 'And they might be answered in the meantime.' She glanced to Hill then back to Loki.
'Alright.' Hill turned to Stark. 'You want to escort them to the common room?'
'Yeah, why not? Squirrel might let something slip.' He gave her a hopeful look as he went to the door.
Loki held his arm out for Maia to go ahead of him and with a nod of thanks she went first, which surprised him. Not many here were happy to have him at their back. Stark led them to the nearest elevator and instructed FRIDAY to take them to The Avengers common room, giving security clearance for Maia to join them, and he turned to look down on Maia again, his hands in front of him almost in a begging motion. 'Okay, Squirrel, last chance. What's your deal?'
'I don't have a deal, I'm just here to do my job.' She smiled, but it was forced, Stark's persistent trying really starting to grate on her.
Loki watched the exchange with interest. Stark tying to get this small, Midgardian woman to part with some great secret about herself, but she stood firm, smiling despite her obvious irritation, something about her special skill set; perhaps that was part of the reason she had been chosen as his new guide, as she had put it, but what exactly he couldn't fathom. Stark gesticulated wildly with his hands and the girl took a step back but still didn't give up whatever it was Stark thought he wanted from her and it gave him the opportunity to really look at her. She was barely five foot five in her sensible two inch heels, unlike many of the Midgardian women these days who seemed to insist on wearing shoes that put them at risk of a serious injury. She barely even came to his shoulder. Her body was perfectly proportionate for her height; petite yet shapely, her suit fit her curves while still being modest. Her skin was milky and freckled, her eyebrows delicate and naturally auburn but her hair was a darker shade, like ripe cherries, and while Loki didn't understand why Midgardian's were so fond of changing their hair colour he admitted it suited her and brought out her blue eyes. Besides the physical however there was...something. He just couldn't quite put his finger on what. While he was a little disappointed by his own assignment, having to serve under The Avengers, particularly being back on Midgard, this may alone help alleviate the boredom he had feared.
'You were schooled there, you taught there. You're one of them.' Stark argued as the young woman glanced at the numbers on the elevator creeping towards The Avengers secure floors.
'Really, Mr Stark...'
'There's nothing you're missing. I promise.'
'You're killing me here!' Tony said in sheer exasperation.
'Not my intention.'
The doors pinged open but Tony didn't move. 'We're going to be working together, Squirrel. I'll find out, eventually.'
'Good luck.' She gave him a challenging look before turning her smile on Loki. 'Shall we?'
Once again he held out his arm to allow her to go ahead of him and he gave Stark an amused look before following her.
Maia looked around at the modern glass and chrome room, with large black leather sofas by the enormous picture windows. A bar sat on the left complete with a coffee machine. Stark finally came out of the elevator and poured himself a coffee before excusing himself and going up a staircase to one side of the room, leaving Maia with Loki.
'I suppose I am to act as host, as you are new.' Loki looked down at her, he had no choice of course, but he had stopped so close beside her the angle was uncomfortable for them both.
'If we're going to be working together I'd prefer it if you just showed me where things were.'
'As you wish.' He led her to the bar and showed her where the various fixings were kept yet still insisted on making a cup of coffee for her how she liked it. She thanked him and he showed her to the couches. He waited for her to sit before doing so himself, on the couch at a right angle to hers, and she put her coffee on a coaster on the corner table between then, resting her hands flat on the folder in her lap.
‘Before I open this and we see what the powers that be think is going on maybe first we could say why we think we’re here, on this assignment?’ She had slipped easily into her teaching mode, trying make a start but not patronise.
Loki rested his elbow on the arm of the chair and his chin on his knuckles. ‘Very well. Would you care to begin, or shall I?’
‘I don’t mind.’ She shrugged and Loki noted she glanced at her hands, as though she wasn’t exactly sure herself. ‘I guess I’m here because I’m good with people, I have experience with people with special gifts and powers, and I like a challenge.’ She said hopefully. It was all she could think of.
‘What sort of experience, may I ask?’
‘I’m a qualified counsellor and I’ve been living and working with powered individuals for a long time.’
'How long is a long time?'
'Well over a decade.'
'And they have asked you, as a counsellor, to assess my mental stability?'
She shook her head. 'They haven't mentioned it, just asked me to help you adjust, but I don't think either of us are naïve enough to think they won't ask for my assessment of that too.'
'Very true.' He lowered his hand, impressed by her having realised the fact. And why wouldn't they want him assessed in the real world too? 'I have been informed I am to have an associate spend extensive time with me, aiding my adjustment to both Midgard as my new home and working under them.'
'I can definitely help with the former, but as I don't know what you'll be doing I may not be of use, until I know what I'm preparing you for.'
'You cannot be any worse than your predecessors.' He rolled his eyes at the thought of the numerous almost identical agents assigned him so far who, he admitted, he had delightfully antagonised, but they were all far too interested in keeping him under extreme supervision than being of any actual assistance.
'Have you had many?'
'Eight in the last two weeks. None of whom seemed half as interested in the larger scheme of things so much as my behaviour.'
'Well, that's not what I was hired for.' She picked up her Stark Industries mug and blew across the top. 'Do you know any more than I do?'
'Considerably, I believe.' He crossed one leg over the other and leaned back in his chair. 'You were not even aware I was your charge until I walked into the conference room, were you?'
'Not a clue.'
'Then you, my girl, have been thrown in at the deep end.'
'I did say I liked a challenge.' She gave him a small smile in response.
'You will find I am that.' Loki was trying not to like this girl; his guide, his handler, but he couldn't help it. She was confident without being brash or cocky, she was cut from a truly different cloth to his previous handlers, she didn't look at him with fear or contempt, plus there was still that something he could not put his finger on about her that sparked his curiosity. And it didn't hurt she was very pretty to look at.
Maia tried not to shift under his gaze. He was looking at her, a lot, and while it was polite to look at the person you were speaking to he was studying her, gauging her in some way, while she was trying her hardest to take him in without staring in disbelief about just who he was and how handsome in the flesh. She put her mug back down. ‘I think you're avoiding telling me the rest of the story.' She continued to smile at him, now knowingly as though she had him figured out, and damned if she hadn't.
'Is that your professional opinion?'
'Just an observation. Of course, I could read the file, but I think it will tell a different story to your version. Similar in places, of course, but nowhere near identical. Official documents never are.'
'I imagine so.' Loki realised she was astute and perhaps not as inexperienced as her youthful appearance suggested. The fact she valued his opinion enough to push him for it showed a strength of character most had avoided showing him since his arrival. 'I have been sent here to Midgard to make amends for my past actions. I have this,' he pulled back his sleeve to reveal a wide gold band, 'which limits my power to mere parlour tricks, however in the interest of redemption I have accepted it and your assignment as whatever you are supposed to be without question. I am to become one of "Earth's Mightiest Heroes", and to do so I need to know, or at least understand, what it is to live on Earth. To see what I am protecting.'
'That makes sense.' She nodded. 'And thanks for giving me your side.'
'No thanks are necessary.' He picked up the tea he had made, much preferring its fragrant taste to the bitterness even the best of coffees held.
'Now, shall we see what the people upstairs think is going on?' She patted the file.
'This should be interesting.'
She laid the file out on the arm of the chair and found a document on each of them. She offered Loki his choice of which he read first and he chose hers, grateful of her consideration. As she read she realised that unless those in command had left out some choice information, there was exactly what she would have expected; a full run down of Loki's "crimes"; how he had been tortured and manipulated into committing his atrocities under the Chitauri; the accord with Odin and the nine realms for Loki to pay his penance by aiding The Avengers. Notes were made by experts who gave their opinion and diagnosis, although names were omitted.
Loki learned all the information he would have expected to from her file, with a few surprises thrown in. She had a degree in the classics, had the highest grade possible, which promised her to be an intelligent companion with decent taste if nothing else. Most surprising was her previous place of employment, where The Avengers had borrowed her from.
'You worked for Xavier?' Loki asked as she turned onto the final page.
'Mmm.' She finished the final conclusion, which told her there was hope for him but the power limiting tracking bracelet was not to be removed until further assessment were complete. 'Sorry, yes, I did, I mean I do. I'm on loan, unless...'
'Unless?' He prompted and she finally looked back up at him, his brows knitted curiously.
'Lots of unlesses.' She shrugged. 'How do you know Charles?'
'He is the expert who assessed me.' Loki sat back with his tea, her profile in his lap. 'He was, perhaps, the most instrumental in assuring my integration into the team, for gaining trust.'
'Because he could tell you were telling the truth, about what happened.' She nodded, understanding.
'Indeed. I owe the man a debt of gratitude.' Something clicked into place for Loki and he gave her a small smile that could have meant anything. 'Xavier's school is for what you Midgardians refer to as mutants.'
'That's right.' She saw no reason to hide that fact when it would be in the paperwork.
'And is that why Stark was haranguing you in the elevator?' She leant her chin on her hand as he continued to speak. 'He believes you are a mutant but knows not what kind?'
'I don't think there are different "kinds" when it comes to mutants, but that's right, he does.'
'You have had dealings with Stark before? He seemed very familiar with you.'
'A few times, nothing like this though.'
'And is he correct in his assumption?'
She looked at him carefully. He was a secret keeper, from what she knew, and he didn't need to know hers. 'Stark doesn't like not knowing things, and I don't think you like being kept in the dark either. Having said that it's my business and has no bearing on my work, other than to say Stark doesn't know the whole story.'
'That is not a no.'
'It's not a yes either.' She smiled and offered him his profile. 'Swap?'
He did but instead of reading he watched her, felt what he could with the limited powers left him, and he could not fathom what set her apart, something did but he was unsure what. He had planned on antagonising this new handler, as he had the previous, to see how far they could be pushed to break or quit, knowing if they didn't then they were, in a way, worthy of the position they had been given, and it would give him distance; he was determined not to form an attachment of the same magnitude his brother had, and yes, he finally admitted despite their different parentage that Thor was indeed his brother in all but blood, and his automatic response was to create friction so no bond could form, however he did not have it in his heart to be rude to her just for the sake of it. And if he were to learn her secret before Stark he would certainly enjoy having one up on the cocky man of iron, but it was not something she would give up easily or freely. He would not badger her for it, as that would not work, but he would remain as polite as he could. Perhaps having her as his handler would be no bad thing at all.