“Nah, that one has too many pockets, plus, look at the stitching! Really bad.”
“Hmm, and for five hundred bucks too…”
Jane sighed as one of her coworkers stole her mouse and scrolled the screen down some more while another continued to scribble notes on a pad of paper.
She was never one to really care about office supplies, office wardrobes, or even things like purses and planners and cell phone covers. She woke up, made sure her hair was out of her face, went to work, did her job, and went home. That was all that was required of her. She wasn’t even in the habit of using a calendar, beyond an astrological one for meteor showers and instances when planets would be in conjunction and other regular events.
Oh, and projects and papers too, but that was because deadlines were not to be messed with.
How was she to know that a research company would demand more from her than just doing her job and successfully completing projects and getting new data?
“Jane, what do you think of this one?”
She glanced to her screen and wrinkled her nose.
“I am not going to spend two hundred dollars on a tote bag, not when I have student loans.”
Her coworker’s faces fell a little. They probably understood.
“Then why don’t we check out some other stores? They have nice, appropriate accessories still, but something a little cheaper.”
She nodded. “Go ahead. Open as many tabs as you want.”
If only her boss hadn’t insisted that she “clean up”.
As if everyone was a trust-fund baby with a silver spoon in their mouth.
Her priorities were equipment, bills, coffee, and food. In that order.
Nothing else. Had been like that for years. Why should she—
“May I ask what you are collaborating on?”
Speak of the devil and he will come.
“We’re just helping Jane do some product research,” Carol replied, standing up straighter.
Janice pulled away from the screen, smiling a little in self-defense. “It is our lunch break as well, and we’re ahead of schedule on our work too.”
Loki, the evil overlord who had decreed that Jane needed to start wearing Prada or something similar, raised an eyebrow.
Jane refused to stand up or do anything more than regard him with cold indifference. That was all he deserved after practically humiliating her in front of her peers when he made his declaration in the office earlier that week. If he thought that her wardrobe was not appropriate for their business or the clientele that they often saw, then he needed to pull her to the side and discreetly inform her. Then she would have given it some unbiased consideration. Now it was a matter of pride.
“I see,” he said, his voice dripping with contempt. “Carry on.”
“Jerk,” she muttered once he was out of ear shot.
“He means well,” Janice said, rapidly clicking on the screen. “A lot of our clients are old money, old fashioned, and things like that. They are used to business being done a certain way, and because image is just about everything, hold employees to a really high standard on all fronts. Loki just wants to make sure that none of us will be looked down upon because we adore a three year old dress that still fits.”
Jane scoffed and crossed her arms.
“I hate people like that! They were all over the place in Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge! Even half of my professors assumed I was an idiot because my hair wasn’t styled.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t because you came out of the desert with all these ideas about Einstein-Rosen bridges?” Carol asked, giving her a half smile.
“I had the math, I just needed the chance to physically prove it.”
“And you will,” Janice said, determined. “Now, just loosen your purse strings a little bit so you’ll have one professional looking outfit for your presentation.”
Jane sighed, rolled her eyes, and crossed her arms further, taking satisfaction in looking and acting like a teenager. It shouldn’t matter what she wore or what she looked like when it came to her work and what it would mean for the scientific community. Only the research should matter.
But, deep inside, she knew that all of them were right.
She was a lowly intern in a research company in a high-stakes area of academia. Their research and products put people in space, on the moon, sent satellites out beyond Pluto, and other amazing ambitions. They could not afford to make mistakes or lose backers, even for petty reasons. With the government making further cuts to NASA and private enterprises still crawling along, they just couldn’t.
Resigned, for the next half hour, she shot down a dozen dresses, a few hundred shoes and purses, and jewelry, until she had a few possibilities and Janice and Carol were at their wit’s ends.
“Order it,” Janice snapped, clicking ‘add to cart’ on a skirt and shirt combo that Jane would not want to wear anywhere, let alone to a presentation. It was lovely, but she felt so much better in her jeans and plaid, clothes that were like armor because they had gone through thick and thin with her. She was ignoring the fact that the new outfit would probably look nice on her too.
Plus, it was going to cost a pretty penny—never mind the purse and shoes!
“These men visiting are conservative,” Carol added. “Something like red would be a little too bold, but all of this is understated and mellow, but still well made. Someone will recognize the label and that will earn you points.”
“And if they ask me about this stuff during the presentation? Or after?” Jane asked. “I don’t know a thing about haute whatever!”
Carol thought of an answer for a moment.
“Just say you have been saving up money for something really nice,” she said. “That will make them see you’re not frivolous.”
She sighed again and winced at the total cost.
“Okay, fine. Do it.”
“Rushed ordered it too, or it won’t get here on time.”
Jane nodded mutely as she thought of the telescopes, hard drives, star maps, and coffee she wouldn’t be able to afford for a long, long time.
“It’s not the end of the world, Jane,” Carol said sympathetically. “Some people just have different priorities and interests. I’m sure that if you were an art student, you would appreciate the color choices and effort put into fashion a bit more.”
Two weeks and a few hours of painfully breaking in some new shoes, and learning how to walk decently in those infuriating heels, Jane was still crossing her fingers and hoping that she would be ‘presentable’ enough for her infuriating boss. She swore, she was only an intern, she shouldn’t have this kind of pressure on her! What kind of boss would randomly see something on someone’s desk and then schedule them for a presentation to investors?
If only Bifrost Enterprises wasn’t giving her access to research, resources, and other experts in her field that she wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. Yes, she held multiple degrees in her field and was named on a lot of papers, but like others had said, coming out of the deserts of New Mexico with a ton of scribbles was not very creditable. If only it wasn’t teaching her about dealing with corporate idiots and red tape, possibly connecting her with people who could give her grants or loans for independent research, and more.
Maybe she needed a vacation.
A break from all this pressure and the possible faux pas she could make in a world she was not comfortable in and probably would never understand.
Yeah, that sounded nice. Some place far away with clear skies.
“Soy latte with extra vanilla, black coffee with two sugars, non-fat cappuccino with extra foam and cinnamon…” She rattled off some more coffee orders and was, once again, thankful for the office’s business expense card. No way was she going to spend fifty dollars on everyone’s morning coffee three or more times a week. Carrying them was bad enough.
“So this is where everyone gets their coffee.”
Jane spun around, surprised to see Loki in the local hole-in-the-wall café she had religiously been coming to ever since she moved to the city.
“It’s good coffee. Just because it’s not Starbucks or something…!”
“I know it is good coffee,” he said smugly with a cup in his hand already. “Are you ready for your presentation tomorrow?”
“Yes,” she replied, raising her chin.
“Are you sure?” he asked, narrowing his eyes a little.
“If you’re talking about my wardrobe, you can shut it,” she snapped, not giving him a chance to get a word in. “I spent enough of my savings on the damned outfit! I don’t even see why I needed to conform to those standards—as long as the data works, what I look like shouldn’t matter!”
“Miss? Your coffee is ready!” the server said, looking a little worried at the argument that was about to begin.
Jane flushed and stepped away, taking the two to-go containers filled with various coffee.
“I’ll see you at the office,” she said as she walked past Loki again, picking up her pace so he wouldn’t take that as an invitation to speak to her again.
Thirty minutes should be enough time to calm down enough to stubbornly ignore him again.
Turned out, it wasn’t.
Upon coming to the office once more and delivering everyone’s coffees, she realized that she had forgotten to get her own. Dammit, she had been looking forward to that dark roast coffee and maybe splurging on a scone. That was it. She was going to write off the new clothes come next tax season anyways, or maybe resell them on EBay.
“Jane…?” Carol started, leaning back in her seat to see beyond the cubicle wall.
“If I abuse my keyboard, I won’t abuse him,” she muttered, still pounding away. “Besides, you’re the one who said we’re ahead of schedule.”
“No, that was Janice! I mentioned product research!”
“Whatever,” she grumbled.
“Jane, they’re just clothes,” Janice sighed.
“Then why is everyone making such a big deal about them?”
She should just come in her regular clothes, just to spite everyone. Cancel the order, cancel her credit card, quit this job, and move back to New Mexico.
“Hey, guys,” another coworker whispered. “You won’t believe what I just heard!”
“What?” Janice and Jane both asked at the same time, tones opposite of one another.
“I heard that the investors we’re having include Loki’s family!”
Jane’s jaw dropped.
“You mean Nordic International?” she gasped.
One of the biggest technology developers in Europe, with strong footholds in America, was coming here? The one with millions of dollars in revenue, who were making headlines about once a month, pushing all sorts of scientific and technological envelopes, changing the way the world worked and developed one invention at a time? One of the major competitors to Stark Industries, even all these decades later?
They were the ones coming to see her presentation? This was why Loki was putting so much emphasis on appearances and making sure she was ready?
Why didn’t he tell her? Why didn’t he warn her?
They were coming tomorrow.
“Oh man, no wonder Loki is freaking,” Carol said, coming over. “You do not want to meet his father on a bad day—or even a good one.”
Jane gulped. She had only seen pictures of Odin, but they still did not inspire any warm feelings. Not even the lukewarm ‘he seems like an alright person’ feeling.
Now she was the one freaking out. Her presentation was going to be a disaster. She needed to redo it completely from scratch. She needed to up her power point slide game, find some sort of professional looking font (oh, was she going to have to pay for one, or were there free downloads somewhere?), research into better diagrams she didn’t make herself and—
Jane snapped out of it, but it still felt like she was going to puke and start hyperventilating at any moment.
“I’m fine… I just have to… go to the bathroom…” she said in a distant voice, wordlessly getting up and leaving the office. She wiped her hands on her jeans, trying to swallow. She needed a drink. Vodka sounded good. And after she obtained that, no one would mind if she went to a bathroom on the other side of the building to die of mortification, would they?
She was sure Darcy would make sure her research was donated to one university or another. Maybe they would put a little plaque with her name engraved on some wall. She had not done a ton in science yet, so she couldn’t hope for a building or hall named after her.
Oh, but she wouldn’t be able to curse Loki forever in her will… Something told her that would be a little too bitter and in poor taste.
She wandered the halls, ignoring the odd looks that she received and somehow managed to not bump into anyone. Go unexpected grace. Well, until she turned a corner.
Thank goodness neither of them were holding coffee. That cliché would have been too much.
“You look awful,” Loki said.
Jane swallowed and tried to regain some composure.
“Why didn’t you tell me Nordic Enterprises was coming for my presentation?” she hissed.
Never mind. Looks like composure was beyond her.
“Because I knew it would only cause you unneeded stress,” he replied. “Why put that kind of pressure on you?”
“Why make me do this presentation at all?” she demanded. “You want someone who has done a presentation in the last year! I don’t have those skills!”
“But you have the knowledge,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “Or did I make a mistake, thinking that you were an intelligent scientist who believed in her work?”
“I believe in my work! I just don’t think I can go up there and not faint!”
“Then don’t think about fainting,” he replied, as if it were an easy feat. “Think about your work and prove it to them. These men are old fashioned, set in their ways, and hold their cards close to their chests. I want you to derail them and get the funding you deserve.”
Jane gaped at him in utter disbelief.
“Y-You really think I deserve funding?”
“Would I make you present your research to them if I did not?”
“I don’t know, this whole time it seemed like you had it out for me,” she said.
He gave her an even look. It was almost a little unnerving, how still he was. Maybe that was the problem: he did not react in ways that she was familiar with and she misread him. Maybe he really was just trying to help her. Maybe he just wanted to make sure that her work would not be dismissed because of her clothes. Maybe he wanted to help give her a fighting chance against such high expectations and demands.
“Or maybe I’m an idiot,” she muttered, looking at the floor.
Loki sighed, resigned.
“It is not the first time that someone has misunderstood me. I have been told repeatedly that I need to improve my communication skills. Your work is fascinating and brilliant, Ms. Foster. All you need is the support to actively pursue it, not spend time behind a desk.”
Her jaw dropped again.
“That is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
He blinked once and then he took on a bit of a pleased, if not smug, expression.
“Remind me to compliment your work more often. Now, are you going to wander these halls like a zombie, or are you going to properly prepare for tomorrow?”
Jane crossed her arms and raised her chin.
“I am going to knock their socks off. Just watch.”
As she turned around, she could have sworn she heard an amused snort.
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