Harlene Quinzel, properly "cured" of her mania and obsessive behaviour, the Joker's grooming finally undone, certified sane and released from Arkham, quickly realises how hard it is to get any kind of a job in Gotham after having been a costumed villain. Peace of mind, too, but the job is more immediately pressing. As in a way to get money to survive that doesn't include robbing folks, thereby screwing up the peace of mind stuff.
She changes her name, moves to a different state (yes, with the full knowledge and permission of the Gotham police and judiciary! Heck, Bats and his Boy Wonder came to see her off, and shook her hand and wished her luck even!), and decides - you know what? Time to get some new qualifications too. Nothing like college to remind a gal how to be and how not to be a functioning member of society.
She stops dying her hair blonde, lets it go back to being brown. Starts wearing her glasses again rather than contacts all the time.
And when the lady she's interning with for some college credits runs over a guy in pursuit of better data in the middle of a storm – well, she maybe gets a little triggered that the guy is yelling up at the sky calling names she recognises from that Mythology course she took (which had, itself, been a little triggering but she'd been able to take it at her own pace and desensitise herself to some of it enough to pass). Then she gets a lot triggered when the guy calls himself The Mighty Thor – not because she's ever met a guy called Thor, but because of the way he presented. It reminded her a bit of Aquaman and Superman and all the super macho guys back at Arkham, and she's left that life behind.
No one who has ever lived in Gotham (and wasn't a meta human or mutant or whatever they wanted to call themselves) ever goes anywhere without a gas mask, a kevlar vest, and a weapon of some kind – strictly for personal defence reasons. Wayne Enterprises made such things affordable to the citizens of Gothamm, and for all that, for a while, she'd been one of the bad guys, she'd still been squishy compared to pretty much everyone else. It's a hard habit to break. She's still got both a good-sized mallet and a baseball bat stashed in different parts of her trailer, but the one that's easy to carry with her is the taser.
The big guy goes down.
"What? He was freaking me out!" she defended herself to Jane and Erik when they both stared at her, slack-jawed, for dropping the large, threatening guy.
Erik helps her get the guy into the van so they can take him to the hospital once Jane has collected her data, and she puts in her headphones and starts assembling a new playlist. Soothing songs. Things that will help remind her why she burned the jester costume, and that even though she keeps up with the acrobatics for physical fitness reasons, she really doesn't want to go back to those days.
She just had to spot the anomaly in Jane's pictures, had to help her boss/friend get the guy back from the hospital. Dammit.
"You know, for a homeless crazy person, he's pretty cut," she says, and hopes hopes hopes that one of these geniuses will pick up that this particular detail is deeply suspicious. The guy can't be homeless. He's too beefy. Homeless folks, if they've got muscle tone at all, tend to be more stringy. Not having enough food does that to a person. Bone structure will only explain so much of that mass, and yes the guy is huge on a skeletal level as well, but muscles like those need feeding.
As proven, when they go to the diner, and the guy is shovelling down eggs, bacon, waffles, all this after having already eaten the rest of their pop-tarts. She snaps a picture, and shoots it off to one of the very few people from Gotham that she's kept in touch with, just to make sure that this Thor guy isn't someone that Bats is gonna come looking for to bring back to Arkham. She really doesn't need that kind of past-coming-to-visit right now, thanks.
Pam at least assures her that Thor isn't one of the Costume Crowd – on either side – so far as she knows. Pam is still living in her greenhouse in Gotham, though why she hasn't uprooted and gone looking for greener pastures like she had done, she doesn't know and isn't gonna ask. Right now, she's just glad she's got someone she trusts and can contact to get this kind of information.
She retreats back into her ipod, only for a bunch of jerks in suits to show up and take it away from her. She doesn't dare raise a stink. A suited operation this comprehensive? An alphabet soup suited operation this comprehensive? If they're legit, and not bullshitting, then they can dig her up and haul her off just for mouthing off and having a criminal record under her old name.
She does her best to comfort Jane and keep her from getting her head blown off by these guys. At least they gave Jane a cheque, so she can make a start on rebuilding. It's a pain, but if the cheque is legit, then it's something. Something is always better than nothing. Even if the cheque not-bouncing means that the alphabet soup suits are a legit organisation and should therefore be properly feared by the former Arkham inmate.
But then what did Jane go and do? She went with the extremely suspiciously buff guy they'd knocked over in the desert, and watched as he invaded an alphabet soup agency set-up. The petite astrophysicist even came back determined to liberate the Aquaman-alike (seriously, the flowing blonde hair, the massive shoulders, the vaguely archaic speech patterns and references to a mythical pantheon...) from he alphabet soup agents.
Well, female solidarity. This was such a bad idea.
They sent Erik.
It was such a bad idea. Oh, it worked. For a given value of 'worked'. The alphabet soup agents probably decided it was less of a bother for them to let Erik take care of Thor. They currently had the whole town under surveillance anyway. Jane and Erik might not have noticed, the average Joe on the street might not have noticed, but she had. Ya get into the habit of checking the skyline, living in Gotham. For that matter, you get in the habit of checking the sewers, the air conditioning vents, the pot plants, and any truck rolling down the street, when you live in Gotham – and for all that she's been gone a couple of years? Habits that you know have saved your life on more than one occasion aren't habits you break.
Speaking of habits – she ran an assessing eye over the quartet that Thor greeted so happily (seriously, those were Harley Obsessed With Mister J levels of thrilled grin, which from the outside and a few years distant, she could now absolutely recognise as kinda creepy). Those were not boffer weapons, and that was not the kind of flashy piece worn by the usual Costume Crowd back in Gotham. That was actual, fitted, metal armour. Sure there were a few of the Costume Crowd who were a bit more metallic than others, but not like this!
Apart from anything else, kevlar was cheaper and easier to patch than metal armour.
She was absolutely justified in losing her grip on her mug. As triggering as Thor had been when they'd 'met', this grinning quartet of armed-and-armoured were worse, and she didn't have her taser handy just now. The girl in the group, Lady Sif, was giving her some serious Wonder Woman vibes, just with an outfit that, yanno, made more sense than a swim suit and a pair of gold bracelets.
The conversation that followed wasn't much better either, honestly. She excused herself from the company. She still didn't have her ipod, so instead she needed affectionate, fluffy animals to lick her face and love her until she could calm herself down.
(She missed her hyenas, but had recognised early on that they weren't an appropriate civilian pet. Pam had agreed to make an exception to mammals for them, and decided they were good for making fertiliser the pooper-scooper way rather than the rotting bodies way. She sent pictures any time they did something cute, and once a month regularly besides.)
When the giant destructo-bot with the fire face started walking down the street, even that plan went to hell. She helped the pet shop evacuate their animals, helped pull more than one kid to safety, and then also had to pull Jane out of the way because she was fighting Erik to stay next to Thor when there was something hurtling through the sky towards the guy. Yes, he was down, yes, her tiny boss had become emotionally invested ludicrously quickly (the Joker had worked his way into her brain over months of sessions, thanks), but imminent impact was not something that fragile little Janey should be hanging around for.
Frankly, seeing magical armour slapping itself onto Thor in the middle of a localised electrical phenomenon, was practically calming by comparison. There wasn't anybody that she'd known in Gotham who could do that sort of thing. Or if there was, they'd never done it in front of her. Once Thor was out of his light show though, the resemblance to Aquaman was even more uncanny. It was the scale-mail armour sleeves. Aquaman wore a whole shirt of the stuff, and Thor's armour wasn't orange and green, but the resemblance had been there before and it was even more there now. Also, guy was apparently a prince of a far-away (previously considered mythical) place. So. Another thing Thor had in common with... well, a whole bunch of the folks who did the hero thing, actually.
Maybe definitely don't tell him about her criminal background either. Not that she was planning on telling anyone she didn't absolutely have to. New starts, right? But it kinda reinforced things all over again.
Thor beat up the fiery robot of death, may have flattened the town a bit more than it had been before in the process (see?! It wasn't only the criminal types who caused masses of collateral damage! Sometimes it was the 'good guys' too!), then took off (literally) with Jane, back to where they'd first run over Thor with the van. The blonde guy with the moustache gave her a kiss on the hand before the whole armed-and-armoured group vanished in a column of light and colour.
She really wasn't sure how to feel about that. Should she be flattered? She didn't feel like she should be flattered. She felt like she was going to have to be supportive of Jane for a long time to come while Jane got to work at actually finally proving her theories and making it so that she could set up her own way to make lights and colours that transported people (safely, somehow) through space without a space ship.
This wasn't the science she'd set out to major in this time around!
Oh well. At least the alphabet soup agents had given Jane all her stuff back, let her keep the money, and were even hands-mostly-off funding-and-supervising the lady's research. Her ipod was even returned, with a gift card and a note complimenting her playlist-building skills. (She was kinda PO'd that someone had been listening to her music on her confiscated ipod, but she got it back and could afford more music to boot. She decided to call it even and let it go.)
Of course, just as their little group was hitting their stride properly, the suits stole Erik away to a completely different research facility somewhere far away and top secret. That was fine. She and Jane had things covered, really. Well, no, they didn't. They needed an engineer. Don't get her wrong, she was good, but not as good as she apparently needed to be to cobble together a portal making machine.
They weren't getting anywhere in the portal-building, for all that the math lined up right. Other clever inventions for measuring the world were coming up though, so the funding kept coming. At least, until the suits decided they had to hustle Jane out of the country for some reason they weren't stating explicitly – which for anybody with a brain meant that trouble had come knocking and somehow either Jane's research or personage were involved, however peripherally, and they felt the need to get her to safety.
She, on the other hand, was not permitted to leave the country without clearing it with certain individuals back in Gotham first (which sucked all kinds of ass, but them's the breaks). The suits thankfully didn't know about that particular limitation, but they did know that she didn't have a passport, and even shady alphabet soup agencies required the people they were evacuating to another country to have a passport. Shady alphabet soup agencies didn't, in general, want the countries they were moving in to have any reason to get upset at them and kick up a fuss, which meant being totally above-board and legal. When moving civilians around, at least.
So Jane went to some place that started with a T, and she stayed behind. No biggie, really. For all that she'd hitched her cart to Jane's for the time being, she still had her own life. It had become an important thing to her since she'd left Arkham, that she had a life that was hers and for her, and not centred around anybody else.
She went back to that horrible secretary job that she was using to pay her way through her second round of college classes, and of course, back to the classes themselves. She had her credits from her internship with Jane in hand. If the suits decided to keep the tiny astrophysicist she'd become friends with in T-place, then that would suck a little, but she'd manage, same as she'd managed leaving Pam back in Gotham.
She saw Thor's brother on the news. He was in Germany, but that didn't mean anything. Not when he fought Captain America and Iron Man and gave a speech like that.
She damn near bolted for New York.
Which isn't necessarily the smart, sane, or healthy thing to do (she's gonna need a lot of sessions with a professional other than herself to unpack this all with, really she is), but she's doing it anyway.
The live, breaking news with the live feed of what was going on all around her was playing on her phone when she swings into a parking spot in front of Stark Tower (parking in New York has never been so good as when half the cars are on their sides in the middle of the road, the traffic when there were aerial fighters and cars on their sides in the middle of the road, less great, but she was a former Gothamite. She used other cars as ramps to get where she was going if she had to.) and lets herself into the fire escape and starts vaulting up the flights with the kind of acrobatics she hadn't used outside of gyms since her Costumed Criminal days.
Good to have her guess confirmed. Maybe.
For some reason, and against code, the fire escape doesn't go all the way up to the penthouse, but that was what grappling hooks were for. Just as soon as the Hulk himself had swaggered out of the penthouse and back to the fight outside, she slipped in.
"So, how did you go from the sensible one to this?" she asked as she squatted down next to the crater in the floor that held Thor's brother.
He wheezed. Understandable, really. He was literally in a crater he'd been used to make, and there were a couple of other craters in the floor too. If the Hulk had used her to do this trick, she'd be burger, not breathing. She gave him a quick check over, picked him up out of the hole and dragged him over to some cushions that Stark had in a more deliberate sink in the floor.
This was such a bad idea. Look at what had happened to her the last time she'd done this kind of thing with a guy who had a killer smile.
She grabbed a couple of glasses and a bottle of water, pulled out a legal pad and a pen, sat down, and brought Dr Quinzel back to the forefront after a long time of not being that person. It was almost surprisingly easy.
"So, talk me through your reasoning when you sent that walking flame thrower to Earth."
The look he gave her for that was pointed and involved a look out the window as well.
"Oh, we'll get to your very loud cry for help later, but I really think the root of the issue is back a bit further than your most recent trip to Earth, and I saw some things in Thor and his warrior buddies that raised some flags that I think you might be able to help me sort out. So, again, talk me through your reasoning when you sent that walking flame thrower to Earth."
And, to her surprise, he did. No further prompting. He needed several glasses of water, and a couple of tissues – yes, there were tears – but they'd gotten through Loki's Daddy Issues, Brother Issues, Academic In A Warrior Society Issues (and like woah that was a big one), Self Esteem Issues, Self Worth Issues (yes, they were different things), and were just starting to touch on what had happened after he'd let go of Gugnir and fallen into the Void when the Avengers (patent pending) showed up.
"Lady Darcy?" Thor queried, confused.
She waved quickly for all of them to shush.
"Back up a bit would ya? We're making progress. Sorry for the interruption, Loki. You said you didn't expect to land?"
"Would have been better if I'd just died in the void, rather than what happened."
That made even the Hulk pause, and the angry-looking archer let the tension go on his bow, though he kept his fingers on the fletching, ready to draw again at a moment's notice.
"Would have been easier on you, maybe," she allowed, "but not better."
"Mortal, look around you. I brought an army to your realm! How is it better that I was alive to do such?"
"Oh piffle, we humans do this kinda damage to each other all the time. For that matter, mother nature is pretty good at this kinda destruction too. This is nothing we won't get back up from, and hey, now there's government types who know about an intergalactic threat and can maybe start making moves to get ready for it. I mean, they shoulda known already, all things considered, but governments need regular and forceful kicks in the pants to get things done. But I digress. You landed somewhere, and it wasn't great."
"'Wasn't great' is an understatement," he said, and tears began to gather in his eyes again.
He fought them.
"No, let them out. I told you already Loki, crying is part of the body purging emotional poison. Screw the macho bullshit about crying being weak. Crying is necessary," she reminded him gently as she nudged the box of tissues she'd fetched the first time the tears had come. "Tell me about where you landed."
("Is this random girl in my home really doing the psychologist thing with Reindeer Games?" Tony Stark muttered.
"Looks like," agreed the red-haired woman next to him. "It even looks like she's doing a good job, too."
"Huh. Maybe leave her to it?" the billionaire suggested, though he sounded dubious of his own suggestion.
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Captain America countered. "What if he hurts her?"
"JARVIS, how long has this little interview been going on?" Tony checked.
"The young lady has been present in the penthouse and working through Loki's long list of issues since shortly after the Hulk used Loki to destroy the flooring three hours ago. At no point has Loki made any move to harm her. He has cried on her a few times already, however."
She's peripherally aware that the Team go and get something to eat and come back again, by which time she's gotten the name of the guy who whammied Loki between dropping off the Bifrost and showing up on Earth, as well as a vague outline of what the planet as a whole has coming for them from that corner of the universe.
"Now, I'm gonna recommend you have regular sessions with a practising psychologist, because you very obviously have a lot more you need to get through than we got through here, and since I'm pretty sure Asgard doesn't have psychologists, and we both know that it does have Odin, I'm also gonna recommend that you put yourself at the mercy of the Earth legal systems that you've offended," she said as she folded up her note pad, and handed Loki one more glass of water.
"Lady Darcy, why should my brother not be presented to our father?" Thor asked, confused.
"Your father," Loki snapped.
"That's why," she said, with a gesture to Loki. "I'm sure Odin's been an okay king, but he has definitely not been a great dad to Loki, even discounting having kidnapped him as a baby, raised him in ignorance of his heritage, taught him to hate those of his own race, and looked down on him any time he didn't conform to the Asgardian standard – which Loki couldn't have no matter how much he tried simply because he's not actually Asgardian."
"That's not a short list," Tony Stark commented, blinking in surprise.
"Yeah, and again, even discounting all that, Odin has been kinda shit to Loki for a long time, and Odin is the one who'd be in charge of judging and sentencing Loki if you took him back to Asgard. Maybe give it a few years. Like, say, until Loki's paid his debt to society down here on Earth before you disappear off into the wild blue yonder again."
"The Tesseract -"
"Is not an issue as long as no one fiddles with it. Put it in a lead-lined box, seal it in a concrete block, use the concrete block as part of a construction project, let it be forgotten about again," she advised. She'd gotten the synopsis of what was going on there from Loki as well. "Recommend you do the same for the crystal in the staff, actually. Different lead-lined box, different concrete block, and different building though. Don't want those things too close together."
"What do you know?" the red-haired woman demanded, green eyes sharp.
She couldn't help the full-body twitch, the involuntary shiver, that crawled up her spine.
"Enough to have the heebie jeebies. Way too creepy." And she was saying that as someone who had once wanted the white-picket-fence-and-kids situation with the Joker.
"May I?" the red-head asked, with a gesture to the legal pad.
"I don't want to violate any privacy here. I'm not a legally practising professional any more, but still -"
"It's fine," Loki permitted tiredly. "I believe that I may owe Agent Romanoff an apology for... when I wasn't exactly myself. Certainly I owe one to Agent Barton and Doctor Selvig, for enthralling them with the Mind Stone just as Thanos enthralled me. I hate to say it, but I owe the creature thanks for breaking that control."
"Creature? Oh, you mean Hulk. Huh, where is the big guy? I'd swear he came in with you guys..."
A man with moppish, dusty black hair (was it going grey, or was there just that much dust going around that it was impossible to tell the difference?) raised a hand.
"Yeah, that's, uh, that's me. Well, kinda. He's in here," he explained, and tapped at his temple.
"Physically manifesting split personality? Sounds rough."
"He manifest already an adult in all aspects, or is his mental progression equivalent with child development along the same timeline?"
He blinked in shock at the question.
"I've... never stopped to consider that before," he admitted. "The other guy is just... an exposed nerve, a consequence of elevated heart rate, and... well, a rage monster."
"So are most two-year-olds, or so I'm told," she pointed out with a smile.
"She's not wrong," quipped the archer with a smile. The kind of smile that said he'd either worked with kids, or had friends with kids, or had kids himself. Whatever the case, he's definitely a person who's had hands-on experience with toddlers.
"Not a come-on, but can we keep you?" Tony Stark asked, expression sincere and hopeful.
"That depends on who 'we' is -"
"Stark Industries, not SHIELD, I'm privatising world peace, thanks."
"Stark," the red-head said, and it sounded like a reprimand and a protest and about a ton of exasperation all rolled up into one syllable.
"- If there's a salary included in the keeping -"
"- And if you still want me after you've completed your no doubt extensive background checks."
That one stopped Stark short, and he blinked as he considered it.
"Since you bring it up, that means you're expecting me to find something to put me off. Do you want to skip the investigation and just confess?" he offered.
"I have the right to remain silent," she said as she shook her head. "But I'll answer relevant probing questions after you've done your checks if the offer is still on the table at that point."
"Fair," Stark allowed, then he grinned. "We're keeping you."