Natasha was twelve when she first killed a man. Through the choking fog of panic she slipped his own faithless knife between his ninth and tenth ribs; arterial blood spurted hot over her hands and the hilt slipped from her wet and clumsy fingers.
It was not by design, though it could hardly be called an accident. Her life had led her here, to a dead man and the stickiness of drying blood in a dirty back alley, and she knew it would lead her onward still to other alleys and other men. For years already she had passed information; tales told with endings such as these. Had been, halfwitting, an instrument, or a part of one. But it was better, she thought, to wield the knife than to be it. The thought wasn't quite enough to keep her from retching, but she spat bile and wiped her mouth with a steady hand.
By the time she was nineteen she'd made a name for herself, of sorts. Her name never stayed the same twice, but interested parties always knew how to find her.
In the plush back room of a run down bar, a bratok leaned in too close to her. He smelled of cigarette smoke and too much cologne.
"I've heard tell of you, Marya Morevna. An interesting pseudonym, to be sure " he said, with a shade of mockery. " You may want to reconsider that. Still, the stories are--intriguing."
She flicked her hair over her shoulder with practiced disinterest. "Stories are for children and grandmothers. If you're looking for someone to tuck you in at night, look elsewhere. I deal in information."
Too late she realized how she'd misspoken; he leered at her, all yellow teeth and tawdry intent. "On the contrary, Masha, I think you would be very good at tucking a man into bed."
A guard stood outside the room; even supposing he could get in before she incapacitated his boss, she was still reasonably sure she could handle them both. Still, her heart raced, and she hefted her glass in her hands with affected casualness. It felt heavy and dangerous in her hands.
"I thought you had a job for me," she said with the suggestion of a sneer. "If I wanted clumsy innuendo I'd go to a bar with better drinks."
She made to rise, keeping hold of her glass for as long as she reasonably could. She had only just set it on the table, her palm aching with the emptiness, when he motioned her down with a sigh.
"Not a job so much as a career." he said.
She leaned forward enough to show interest and a hint of cleavage, but she stared him down with a look that dared him to glance. "Tell me," she said.
Five years of the criminal underworld and semi-governmental espionage. She became better at not killing, at getting what she needed without violence, without being noticed, even; got better at killing too: quicker and quieter when it came to it. If it never got boring, it was because her blood never stopped racing.
Her employers were interchangeable, though they each regarded themselves as staggeringly unique. The first tried to kill her when she left; she sent their assassin's teeth back to them, and they more or less left her alone after that.
The fourth took two weeks of her life and left her with a network of tiny scars across her body and a recurring nightmare about drowning. After they let her go, she went to Alexandria and let the sun scorch her skin red. When the burn finally peeled off the skin under it was bright and new, and Natasha knew the shape of what she could withstand.
Not long after, Clint Barton came into her life like a knife and cut her out of it.
When she held a blade to his neck and drew a seam of blood along it, his nostrils flared and his eyes flashed. At her belly she felt the pinpoint prick of a needle.
"Tetrodotoxin," he said. "You won't like it.” He searched her face for the space of a breath, for what she could not say. But whatever he found there made him pause. “I’ll drop it if you will."
By all rights she should have moved away, but a kind of wild, trembling recklessness gripped her. She tasted blood and dirty water. When she didn’t move, he raised an eyebrow. “Won’t back down even to save your own life? I’d always heard you were an eminently practical woman, Natalya.”
“And I’ve always heard you like to keep your distance. And yet here we are.” He blinked in surprise; she wondered how long it had been since he’d last had to wash blood off his clothes. “Besides, I know why you’re here. At least this way it’s on my terms.” She pressed in a little harder with the knife; red welled to the surface, trickled down into his collar. She pressed very close to him, her breasts soft against his chest. “It seems you have a choice to make, Barton,” she murmured.
“You’re very good,” he admitted, expression unfazed. But he swallowed hard under her knife. Still, his body did not yield, not even the tiniest fraction, to hers.
She wanted, with a sudden blazing intensity, to see what it would be like if he did.
“I’m going to put this down,” he said, pricking her belly with the needle one last time. “You can kill me if you want, but I have a proposition you may find interesting.”
He dropped the poison; it bounced off her foot and rolled away. They paused, sharing a breath. Killing him would be the easiest thing in the world; but Natasha abhorred waste.
She released him from the soft cage of her body, dropping the knife so it hung loosely in her fingers. They didn’t both need to be foolhardy; Barton more than covered it.
He touched a hand to his neck.“Join me,” he said softly, as if he asked for some private, intimate thing. “Join SHIELD. We could use someone with your talents, and you could use someone with our resources.”
Now it was her turn to arch an incredulous eyebrow. “What, turn coat and work for the good guys?”
He shrugged. “If it makes you feel better to think of it that way, sure.”
“I don’t have the best track record with job loyalty,” she said by way of warning.
“If you want to leave, you can. But I’ll come after you, and we’ll finish what we started.” And what, exactly, had they started?
She swallowed. “Is that a promise?”
“On your life.”
Over the next three days, she tried to kill him half a dozen times, more to see what he would do than out of serious intent. After that she gave it up; having discovered his weaknesses, she lost interest in the exercise. So with a shrug she accepted his offer.
As it turned out, SHIELD was less than thrilled at Barton’s initiative; but they were preoccupied with some diplomatic crisis, which prevented them from pursuing their rogue agent with any kind of seriousness. But it also meant they were no help when some of Natasha’s previous employers caught wind of her defection and decided they had secrets to keep.
For three months they ducked and ran over the better part of Europe. Natasha dyed her hair dark and they played at being in love, adventurers on a honeymoon. In public they held hands and their matching gold rings glinted in the sunlight. Barton’s arm settled easily around her waist and she leaned her head against his shoulder.
He always pulled away first.
At night they slept in the same bed, touching incidentally across the few feet of space. Away from the prying eyes of the world, they traded their public physical intimacy for murmured words and war stories. He started it; he always started it. But Natasha always responded; the dark gave shape to words she had never before spoken. Neither flinched; in their narrow beds, there was nowhere to go to.
In a little seaside cafe in Amalfi near the end of June, they sipped limoncello as the sun set. A candle flickered in the wind coming off the water.
“Where shall we go next, love? The weather is going to turn in the next few days, I think. If not sooner.” She twined her fingers with his, smiling affectionately. He returned the gesture almost absentmindedly.
Barton scanned the terrace as if to flag down a waiter. Settling at the bar was an man they’d seen around town; he seemed to fit in well with the locals, but his accent was far too northern. Something about him seemed familiar; it made the fine hair at the back of her neck prickle.
“I saw the forecast,” he acknowledged. He pressed a kiss to her palm, his eyes flicking towards the bar.
“We could go to Florence,” she said. They had just come from Florence not four days ago; by Florence, she meant that they should double back on their route to the hotel and look for stakeouts.
“Or we could go north to Turin.” We should loop up through the edge of the city and try to lose the tail.
Under the table, he slid a hand up her leg; she bit her lip and leaned closer to him. “We could always go to bed now and decide in the morning,” she murmured. Leave now, get our things and get the train.
Barton swallowed hard. For a second his fingers gripped her leg, an involuntary twitch that spoke not of necessity but of desire. Oh, she thought. These casual rhythm of public contact was the lie that told the truth, or the truth that hid the lie. Apparently that knowledge sat less easily within him than it did in her.
Still, on the walk back to their hotel he kept an arm looped securely around her waist, his hand resting low enough to be natural and not near high enough to be proper.
In their hotel room, the curtains to the bay window that overlooked the street had been left open, leaving them exposed, though Natasha had closed them before they left. The red light of the sunset spilled across the floor like a warning.
Automatically, she distentangled her hand from his and kissed him; for a moment he froze in confusion. But then he registered the light on the floor, the open window, and he pulled her to him, his mouth opening to her.
At some point, they forgot to stop.
They took a midnight train to Naples, their knees touching in the small cabin. Her body ached familiarly; under his shirt, she knew, his back was a map of red lines. Their eyes met in the dark glass, sharing a faint smile like a secret, superimposed over the rushing night.
In Budapest, she did not leave him.
Their intelligence had been faulty, and what was supposed to be a quiet hit turned into a cat and mouse firefight in a half-constructed apartment building. Their gunshots ricocheted in the enclosed space; they ran in wild, desperate zigzags, but Natasha didn’t need to see him to know where he was.
With the gunmen, she was not so fortunate. Clint knocked her down as she fired. Her shot didn’t miss, but the other did: unfamiliar blood bloomed over her shirt; Clint staggered, clutching his side.
After that it came down to his blood. She staunched the wound mercilessly, hiding out in a locked stairwell that smelled of plaster dust and iron. “What the fuck is your problem?”
“That’s no way to say thank you,” he said weakly.
“Sentimental son of a bitch.”
“You should talk.” He grinned faintly; pale as he was, it looked more like a grimace. “You’d have had a better chance if you left me when I was shot. I appreciate you staying though.”
His eyes slipped shut; he might have fallen unconscious. “No, I wouldn’t,” she murmured. The corner of his mouth twitched; she would have punched him if she’d had a free hand.
His blood was starting to dry under her fingernails. When this was over and she washed it off, there would be nothing left of him for her. Though her arms ached, she pressed harder on the wound, as if she could keep him together with her strength alone.
In the unlikely aftermath, she kept a quiet vigil by his bedside. Agent Ross kept the debriefing short and to the point and allowed her back into Clint’s room afterwards. It was, she supposed, a sign of acceptance, or close enough to one. But more importantly, when she squeezed Clint’s fingers, he squeezed back.
Somehow, the world didn't end. Or it did, when compromised crackled at her through a long distance line, but functioning wasn’t a challenge so much as a refuge. In this, at least, things were the same as they ever were.
The caged god had such bright, wild eyes. He poured poison in her ear and she gave him the trembling, twitching death throes he longed for, let him see into the soft animal of her heart where the watery dreams curled up next to the memories of Clint’s mouth.
With a certain inward grimace she knew she had never done finer work. She did not know his history like he knew hers, but she knew the intimacy of his face in defeat: shocked, yes, but hungry still.
When Clint fought through the blue-eyed fog, aided by her fists, she tied him down and held his hand. “You’re going to be okay,” she said. Clint didn’t believe her; the wound of it was written all over him.
“When this is over, we’ll go to Alexandria.” In the patter of private code that passed between them, this meant, You will withstand it, because I did, and it meant, Do not doubt me.
“Putting an arrow through Loki’s eye would certainly make me feel better,” he said later to Steve, and Natasha did not correct him.
Bruce and Steve and Tony went for some mixture of heroic egotism and high ideals; Thor went for his brother; Clint went for himself.
Natasha went to pay old debts and to call in new ones. Loki had taken what was hers; she would carve her recompense from his very skull if she had to.
Alexandria ended up being a cabin in the backwoods of Quebec--just remote and diplomatically irritating enough that they couldn’t be spirited away by Fury or his shadowy associates.
Clint slept and ate on a regular schedule, because he was a soldier and trusted to discipline to keep him standing when nothing else could. But he was restless in his sleep, and flinched away from her touch. The dead slept in the hollows under his eyes. He spent hours hiking along the highway and shooting targets so that the summer sun reddened his cheeks.
The final report came in from SHIELD on the creaky satellite internet.
“Your total count was 83,” she said to him when he came in from the woods. He pulled up short; his expression remained perfectly blank, but the blood drained out of his face.
“Why would you--” he asked, voice hoarse.
She shut the laptop with a click. “Because what you don’t know can kill you.”
In answer, Clint slung his bow over his shoulder and left, the screen door swinging after him.
Two and a half weeks later, she came back from town to find him gone. Not stepped out, or left, but gone, his absence like a hole in the fabric of the room. If he had left there would have been some trace of his passing--a missing section of the newspaper, a corner of the mat turned up. But the whole place waited with bated breath, exactly as she had left it.
On the green corian countertop lay a knife--unremarkable and familiar, but not hers. Next to it was a bright blue stone, no bigger than her fingernail but heavy and dense in her hands. It gave off no reflection, not even directly under the kitchen’s halogen lights. Last was a hen’s egg, speckled and homey. When she picked it up, it rattled faintly; she rolled it over in her palms prayerfully. Against her fingertips she felt a very faint seam, nearly invisible. Carefully, she prised the egg open with her fingernails; within it, a small sewing needle gleamed slyly, like an old promise fulfilled.
Natasha shut the egg and thought seriously for a moment about simply crushing it: but Clint, Clint, Clint, said her pulse. So she tucked it into her bra, nestling it under her heart. The stone she put in her pocket where it weighed her down like a wild hope; the knife she slipped into her boot, an angular vow against her ankle.
It took Natasha almost two solid days of searching to find Jane Foster. With SHIELD’s network out of the question, she was forced to rely on called-in favours and pointed questions. By the thirteenth hour of her search, Natasha was forced to admit she was out of practice. But even so, there was no rabbit hole too deep, no corner of the world so remote that Natasha could not find it.
Dr. Foster, it turned out, was almost seven hours outside of Helsinki, doing research. Natasha rang the bell to her apartment as an act of courtesy, instead of slipping in the back.
Jane answered the door in penguin pyjama pants, blinking owlishy. Natasha realized abruptly that it was not quite six in the morning. Despite the hour, Jane was unshaken; she glanced over Natasha calmly, visibly unimpressed.
"I've really had enough of these top secret shenanigans, you know. I'm keeping my head down; I told you people to stop bothering me."
Natasha smiled; under it, something cracked with exhaustion. She let the sharp edge of it cut into her smile, bleed into her voice. "I'm not here on business, Dr. Foster. I need your help."
Jane's face softened accordingly; she peered at Natasha a moment longer and stepped back from the door. "Come in, then, and tell me about it."
The temporary flat was small and utilitarian, too well insulated to properly be called cosy. Still, it had some homey touches, the inevitable evidence of having been lived in by someone who left herself around the place. Natasha hung her parka on a hook in the front hall; above it was a framed print done in the scandinavian modern style but nonetheless recognizable as Yggdrasil, the world tree.
In the kitchen, Jane padded around barefoot, making coffee.
"It's only instant, I'm afraid." she said, rearranging the obscure mandala of coffee cups and academic journals on the kitchen table to make room for the both of them. "You wouldn't believe the price of things up here." Natasha made a vague noise of agreement, sitting in the cleared chair Jane indicated with a wave of her hand.
Jane plunked gracelessly into the other chair, pushing a steaming mug towards Natasha. She murmured her thanks and sipped her bitter coffee, waiting for Jane's interrogation, for the questions that would give shape to her own. But Jane said nothing, only looked at her with patient brown-eyed compassion. Natasha smiled inwardly; perhaps Dr. Foster would have made a good interrogator in another life. To judge by her scientific work, she knew how to ask questions; it turned out she also knew how to be silent, to let the long space drag on so the mark had no choice but to speak.
Natasha cleared her throat, acknowledging the hit. "That's a nice poster you have in the hall," she said. It was as good a place to start as any: the whole of the world.
Jane flushed ever so slightly. "Why thank you. But something tells me you didn't come here to discuss my wall art."
Natasha leaned forward. "In a manner of speaking, I did. How far have you gotten with it?"
Jane's face shuttered immediately, her brow furrowed in irritation. "The last time you people came around asking about my work, I almost lost everything."
"That wasn't asking, that was taking."
"And you're asking?"
Natasha reached out and covered Jane's hand with her own. "I am. Please." Natasha studied the tabletop carefully, pitching her voice low and weary. "It's Thor's brother, Loki. He's taken something very important to me and I want it back. You know what SHIELD is like--this is personal. I need your help.”
Jane's face softened, and for a moment she looked very tired. "You know what, I'm just not going to ask. I'll help you, but I just don't want to know."
"So, is it possible?" Anxiety made her chest ache like a bruise.
Jane nodded. "Theoretically speaking, I think I've got it figured out. It's actually quite mathematically elegant, folding space--" She pulled herself up short. "Forgive me, I don't mean to be rude, but I don't know how much the technical details will mean to you. Even if you're a mathematician you sort of have to come at it sideways."
Natasha smiled ruefully. "You're quite right." She had become cagey, Jane Foster. Natasha would let Jane keep her secrets; she didn't need to know them to use them.
"Anyway, the math is quite elegant. It's in the implementation that it falls down." She said it as if the mundane inconveniences of the world personally wounded her.
Jane shrugged expansively. "All my research has been on a shoestring. I'm still waiting for a tenure track position, let alone a serious grant. My most significant contact with the government has been its shadowy underbelly, and you guys either threaten me and steal my work or ignore me completely." She let out an irritated huff. "Dr. Selvig's experience was of significant benefit to me, as bad as that is to say. But still, in order to actually implement the math I'd need resources."
Jane blinked at her. "You cannot be serious."
"And if I am, Dr. Foster?"
Jane pursed her lips, unconvinced. She had this is a terrible idea written all over her face; her resolve teetered on the cliff's edge.
"You can finish your research. You can see him again. I can get you what you need and keep Fury off your back."
With a great sigh, Jane's curiosity won out over her objections. "But I'll need a massive power source, and iridium, not to mention--"
"Whatever you need," said Natasha firmly. She would bend space with her will if she had to.
Jane peered at her for a moment, as if Natasha were a telescope revealing distant and arcane things.
Finally, she nodded.
"Here's what I'll need--"
As Jane laid out a list of materials and equipment, Natasha exhaled a sigh that seemed to come from the very core of her.
Their makeshift portal took shape in a warehouse on the outskirts of Helsinki. Each piece of it was a talisman--a silver spoon, a silver fork, a silver snuffbox, she thought. Each piece of it was a wound, a death. Here was the arrow in the eye, which was held within the broken neck. The slit carotid connected to the gunshot to the head and the poisoning. Drowning provided the frame, a knife to the heart the power--stolen without so much the bat of an eye from Tony Stark himself.
When Natasha brought Jane the iridium, thinking of fire, Jane analyzed it on her computer; the blue glow of the screen illuminated her growing frown.
“It won’t work,” she said at length, a scowl darkening her face. “I was wrong--” she said it as if it was physically painful for her to admit. “We really do need exotic matter--” she trailed off into a litany of curses. “If you happen to know of any top secret facilities keeping imaginary mass material around, now would be a really great time,” she said dully.
Natasha shook her head. “This doesn’t make any sense--Loki wants to be found. He wouldn’t set an impossible puzzle.”
Jane looked very badly like she wanted to opine on the matter, but she swallowed it down. Her frustration radiated out from her; it all but made the air in front of her shimmer.
Natasha thought of the first terrible shock at the empty cabin, of the three objects left on the kitchen counter as a taunt. The knife she knew well; the egg she remembered, but the heavy blue stone she could only question. She drew it from her pocket and held it out to Jane.
Jane frowned in suspicion, but held her peace. But her frustration burned off when the computer beeped an affirmative; she fairly lit up from within. With shaking hands she keyed in the coordinates--Asgard, that distant and unknown place. Jane leapt up, but Natasha hung back.
“Aren’t you coming?” she said incredulously.
Natasha shook her head. “Not to Asgard.” She drew out the egg from within her shirt; freckles like a galaxy covered it, too rhythmic and ordered to be accidental--like a warped grid, like bent space. “I’ll go first. Whatever you do, don’t follow me.”
Jane nodded solemnly. “If you’re sure.”
Natasha set her jaw; there was nothing to be sure of except the knife in her pocket and the heart in her chest. She hoped it was enough to go on.
With a flash of light, she was gone.
She stepped out into a copse of silver trees: little thicker than saplings, but tall, eye-strainingly tall. As far as she could see there were only the trees.
“Well met, Natalya. Welcome to Vanaheim.” said a smooth voice behind her.
Natasha turned slowly, not giving him the pleasure of her startlement. Loki leaned against a slender silver tree trunk, looking pleased but not overly so. Almost, she thought, as if he was pleased with her, rather than himself. He looked exactly as she remembered, but smaller somehow; his heavy coat sat oddly on him without the current of desperate conquest thrumming visibly under the surface.
“You made it quicker than I thought you might. Jane Foster is a clever woman.”
“And I’m a resourceful one,” she said flatly.
“Well, I knew that,” he said, as if it was so obvious as to be not worth mentioning. Still, his soft voice and languid manner lacked the sharp edges he had thrown at her from behind a foot of glass. It made her mind itch.
“Where is he?” she demanded, before he could speak again. The knife he had left was heavy against her ankle.
“At the moment, I confess I have no idea.”
A wild, hot anger filled her lungs like water; before he was all the way through his sentence her fist swung out and connected squarely with his mouth. The impact arced up her arm; it had been a very long time since she had felt the pain of a punch, but his bones felt like concrete under her fist. Still, she was gratified when his lip bloomed red and he spat blood on the forest floor.
Less gratified when he grinned. “I was so hoping you’d come, Natalya. I had thought you might try subtlety first, but this is no less interesting.”
She raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t fold space to play games.”
He leaned in closer to her; some savage part of her wanted to strike him again. “Oh, but I rather think you did.”
Natasha thought of the egg tucked next to her heart; it was one thing to lie, and another to deny the truth. So instead she repeated her question, her jaw set as strong as her will.
Loki smirked. "Oh come now, you didn't think it was going to be that easy, did you?"
"You know for a second there, yeah, I kinda did."
He looked disappointed. "But we're only just getting to know one another." For a moment, the air in front of him wavered, as if it were uncertain of things. Loki multiplied, a long line stretching into the forest, like the infinite regression of images between two mirrors . Some were tall and broad, clad in armour and a golden helmet. Others wore the coat and the hungry look she recognized; still others were blue skinned --but each had a bloodied lip
"Follow me, Natalya. I'll show you the way," His voice echoed from many mouths as the Lokis scattered into the forest. "Be careful; the Vanir don't take kindly to trespassers."
Though they all had the same face, no two were alike; but those that caught her eye smirked at her as they retreated into the forest. She stared after them, searching each for some telltale sign; but there was no telling the true from the false. He wants to be found;, she thought to herself.
Off to her left, one darted between the trees. He was slight and pale, hair short and clothing unadorned. The shadows at his feet seemed to fall more thickly, his steps to echo more loudly. Natasha set after him.
"Natalya!" warned a multitude of voices in a single pitch. She ignored them, picking her way after Loki.
He grinned at her over his shoulder.
"Are you certain?"
'No," she admitted.
For a moment he seemed disarmed. "Very wise of you." With a tilt of his head he indicated the forest behind her: when she turned she saw it had gone empty and silent.
"Did I pass a test or make a choice?" she said to his back.
"Is there a difference?"
He led her onward through the slender silver trees; it didn't seem to trouble him, having his exposed back to her, though he knew she was armed. His tunic was thin; it would offer no protection against the knife in her boot. But then, she allowed herself to be led through unknown terrain to an unknown end, so perhaps they were both fools.
"How did you escape?" she asked, more to pass the time than out of expectation of an answer.
The line of his back stiffened. “I didn’t. I was exiled,” he said flatly.
“That was generous, considering your crimes.”
“Affecting concern for the wronged, now that all is said and done, Natalya? Really?” He said it mildly, but disbelief was inscribed in every word.
“Please. Only one of them.”
“That’s fair, I suppose.”
“I would have killed you,” she said matter-of-factly.
He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “Would you now.”
Her palms itched for the hilt in her boot. It would be simpler--but simple things had never held her attention for long.
Loki sighed. “Thor, ever sentimental, interceded for my life. I was exiled, and the Vanir took me in.”
“The Vanir?” The name seemed familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it. It seemed to fit though, here among the dappled sunlight and silver trees.
“An ancient and powerful race. Aeons ago, when your planet was still cooling, the Aesir waged war against them. As part of the truce, the Vanir were granted this realm, which even Heimdal's gaze cannot pierce.” He glanced back at her, mouth touched by a bitter smile. “The Allfather is adept at making brutality seem like mercy."
Loki paused, the air thick with untold stories. "And so here I am," he continued gesturing at the strange forest, "far from the only home I've known.” He turned to her again. “But you know what that's like, don't you Natalya?"
So there it was, the grasping reach she knew would come. "I go by Natasha now." she said with a frown "As I'm sure you know."
He nodded. "Of course. I simply did not wish to presume."
"Heaven forbid," she said dryly
He stopped so abruptly she nearly walked into him. “Here we are.” They had come to a thick, twisted tree, which was remarkable only for its girth and shape, among a forest of thin, straight trees it was the first of its kind she had seen. Even so, this part of the forest was not recognizably different to her than any other part; she could tell blocks of panelaks apart at first glance and landmark every major city in the dark, but these infinite identical trees left her entirely without bearings. Wildernesses had always been Clint’s strength, not hers.
Loki ran his hands over the smooth silver bark; under his touch the tree shivered and changed. The illusion melted away, revealing not a single tree but two. By accident or design, they had grown into and around one another, their twined branches forming a kind of ladder.
Without turning back to look at her, Loki began to climb; she had little choice but to follow suit. The branches were sturdier than they looked; but still, the ladder began to sway as they climbed. It was a long way up; the wind tossed her hair wildly about her face.
At last they reached a small platform; far below was the forest floor, but they had not yet broken the canopy, which still towered far above their heads. Across from them, nestled in another tree was a strange house, glittering and white as bone. But the distance both across and down was vast, and she could not see a way across.
“Is there a bridge or something?”
She pursed her lips in displeasure. “Are you going to tell me where it is?"
“No.” Amusement tugged at the corner of his mouth. “There is a last test.”
Natasha tamped down fiercely on her exasperation. “I might have known,” she said tartly.
He wouldn’t set an impossible puzzle. Natasha peered across the distance for some sign of illusion--an uncertain shadow or unlikely shimmer. But there was nothing; if it was an illusion, it was not one her gaze could pierce.
Distantly, she heard a memory like the tolling of a bell. It belonged to a name she had worn but not owned: Marya Morevna. Wax, water and salt for magic, she thought. Weapons and words were her incantations of choice, but they would not serve her here--not yet, at least.
Wax there was no hope of; but her own salt she had in sweat, and her life’s water in blood. She rubbed the beaded sweat on her forehead off on the heel of her hand, and with the knife drew a shallow cut through it. The cut welled red; she held her hand out and let a few drops fall the long way down to the forest floor. It would have to do.
For a moment nothing happened; but Loki grinned wolfishly. From the place where her blood had fallen, shoots sprang up, rising up and spreading out to form a fragile green bridge across to the white house.
Loki gestured at the bridge with only a shade of irony. “After you, Natasha.”
The white house glittered, full of strange and secret promises; she had come too far to turn back now.
Their corridor opened up suddenly into the centre of the place, a vast bowl into which a few pieces of pale wooden furniture clustered, as if drawn by gravity. Overhead, a great clear dome flooded the room with sunlight.
In the middle of it was Clint, his back to them as he gazed out one of the oddly shaped windows, surveying the forest below. He held himself as he always had, watchful and tightly coiled; but the alien restlessness at least was gone
“And now the game begins in earnest,”said Loki.
At his voice Clint turned. There were no fading wounds on him, nor did nightmares fill up the shadows under his eyes. When he saw her, his whole face changed: it was the look of one whose faith has been rewarded.
“Tasha.” His voice was hoarse with relief; with the familiar lilt of those two syllables she could lay her worst fears to rest. Though he was alert, strung tight, he seemed much easier and more himself than when she had shut the door on him a month ago. Loki had played true, at least.
He crossed to her, ignoring Loki completely. Oddly demonstrative, he reached out and squeezed her hand: it was a kiss, a reassurance, an I knew you’d come. An apology.
“You’re alive,” she said. “And so is he.”
Clint glanced at Loki, something dark and secret sprinting across his face. “Yes,” he admitted. A muscle in his cheek twitched.
“Don’t tell me you’re surprised, Natasha,” said Loki. He had folded himself into a pale wooden chair, all black and stark angles in the midst of pale curves; he leaned forward, taut with interest. “You could have killed me hours ago
Clint glanced at Loki again, the corner of his mouth turning up. “But I see you’re acquainted,” he said, nodding towards Loki’s split lip.
“In a manner of speaking,” she agreed.
“A most interesting one,” said Loki, touching his tongue to the wound appreciatively..
“And are you acquainted?” she asked archly.
In reply, Loki tapped the very faint shadow of a bruise along his jaw. “Yes.”
“Good,” she said firmly.
Still, she wondered at the shape of what had passed between them in this treetop palace; the two of them circling each other like wolves in a cage of their own making. But there was a way to find out. She pulled the knife from her boot and pressed it into Clint’s hand. “It’s not an arrow, but you can put it through his eye all the same.”
Clint gripped the hilt without hesitation and turned to Loki, his eyes very hard.
Loki did not move. “Ah,” he said, “Now we have come to the crisis, haven’t we? It seems my life hangs in the balance.” It did not seem to trouble him, but nor did he say it lightly--the words were full of a quiet appreciation
“There’s no forgiveness to be had,” said Clint flatly.
Loki arched a single disdainful brow. “I’m certainly relieved. Redemption narratives are so tedious, don’t you think?” He nodded towards Natasha. “No, if you choose not to kill me, it’s because you need me alive more than you want me dead. Because we have a bond, you and I. But spare me the lie of mercy.”
Clint glanced back at Natasha; the lines around his eyes tightened and the tendons in the back of his hand stood out in relief as he gripped the knife. Natasha shrugged minutely. She wanted rather badly to split Loki open, throat to navel--in no small part to see into the intimate inner workings of him. But it was not for her to decide.
The tree held them in its tense silence; the wind sighed through the windows like a dying breath. Loki held himself sacrificially still. The manic, mischievous cleverness with which he had led her here had burned off; having brought them here he surrendered himself, artless and silent.
With the sharpness of an inhale Clint lunged, steel flashing down and in with a graceless grunt.
When he stepped back, the blade was buried almost to the hilt into the pale wood next to Loki’s eye. Loki stared it down for a long motionless moment, as if it could answer his questions. At length he met Clint’s eyes and inclined his head ever so slightly.
“Very well,” he said softly.
Some of the hardness had bled out of Clint. What was left was what there was.
“Alexandria?” she murmured.
Clint paused, considering the question.“Yes,” he said finally. He had found the edges of himself here; now it was for Natasha to feel out the shape of them for herself, to see how sharp he had become.
Loki watched them with the restive interest of a voyeur. She knew better than to expect that he was ignorant of the private language that passed between them, but she found to her surprise that their words could stretch and shift to accommodate his silent presence.
He rose and pulled the knife from the wood in a single easy movement; though he was slight and the blade deeply buried, it seemed to give him no trouble.
“It was a gift,” he said, offering it to her hilt first. Natasha took it with a shrug and slipped it back into its sheath, the weight against her ankle like an amulet.
“What will you do, now that you have not done what you came to do?” he asked of either or both of them.
“Who says I haven’t?” she returned with an arched brow. But her hands itched; she curled them into fists.
Loki smiled faintly, but he let it go. “Fair enough. Perhaps a better question is, do you have everything you came for?” He said, glancing from her to Clint and back again. His tone was perfectly innocent, but something hungry lurked at the edges of him. Clint swallowed and glanced away.
“That remains to be seen,” she said coolly.
Loki spread his hands expansively. “You are welcome in the serpent’s nest for as long as you choose to stay.”
“So kind of you not to kick us out,” said Clint sardonically.
Loki smiled sharply. “You are as free to leave as you have ever been.”
Clint clenched his jaw around a sharp retort.
“Even the wicked Loki offers hospitality,” he said, as if he should not have to say it at all. “Of course, you may not always find it to your liking--though I think you will prefer it to Nick Fury’s loving embrace.”
Cint glanced at her questioningly; she shrugged. He of all people had little enough cause to be surprised. Fury and his operation had been little more than a tool, and a blunt one at that; when it ceased to be useful to her, she abandoned it. Clint sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. He knew better, at least, than to mistake her pragmatism for caprice. Still, it rankled the memory of that doglike American loyalty he bore in his blood.
Loki watched their wordless exchange with faint amusement. “Well, now that that’s settled.” How easy it was for him to reach past their words into their silent spaces; if anything would unsettle her, it would be that. But Natasha had buried disquiet next to remorse quite some time ago.
“For now,” she said by way of caution.
“For now, I would be honoured if you shared a meal with me. ”
With the adrenaline and murderous intent receding, she realized was dizzingly hungry. Out here on the other side of all their intentions, there was no shape to things: just the three of them, awkwardly bound and faintly resentful.
She shrugged. “Why not?”
It was a simple meal of strange fruit and soft bread and hard white cheese, but there was plenty of it--and for the first time in a month the taste of food lacked the bitter tang of worry. They sat in the wooden furniture in the great dip in the centre of the house, Clint’s foot touching hers, an observable contact that felt almost ostentatious--but she didn’t move away.
Loki ate with his fingers like one well-accustomed to it, the movements easy and mannerly. He stuck out incongruously here, as he had behind that wall of glass--fey and strange and no less dangerous, though he no longer paced out his conquest across the floor.
He noticed her attention. “I see I have not escaped your scrutiny.”
“Of course not.” She ran her gaze openly over him. “You look different, is all.”
Loki smiled elegantly, stretching his long legs out in front of him. “I’m not bound to a single form as you are.” For a moment he wavered, as if in a heat haze. A blue tinge bloomed across his skin and his eyes glowed red; he grew taller and broader, nearly upsetting the low table with his leg.
Clint started, wide-eyed but silent. Natasha studied the dark phthalo of Loki’s skin with polite disinterest. Loki grinned at Clint’s discomfiture; with the white flash of his teeth, the blue receded.
Loki frowned, as if he had done something faintly embarrassing. “Wearing someone else’s skin is so distasteful.”
“But you are a frost giant--” said Clint. How easy, she thought, to always be oneself; but she had long since stopped aching for that simplicity.
“I am myself,” said Loki with finality. He stretched a hand out in front of him, now fine boned and pale. “This suits.”
Clint shrugged. “Fair enough. "
With some prodding, Loki told the story of the war on Jotunheim; Natasha listened in silence; if she had been given to wonderment, she might think it strange to share food and wine with a god part of her still longed to cut open, and to listen to his tales of fierce winter and brutal fire. In sharing a meal they agreed to sheath knives and unstring bows; but there were more weapons than that. Desire could be just as sharp, she knew. Loki knew it too--it was drawn in every hungry line of him. She would cut him open, one way or another.
"So what's next?" she asked with affected lightness, when he was done. "Another cosmic war? A rebellion?"
Loki dismissed it with an irritated wave of his hand."Excruciatingly dull. I have no doubt Odin expects such an onslaught, and as satisfying as it would be to raze the whole realm to the ground, I am tired of playing the villain in the Allfather's masquerades."
"Well I'm glad to see you've had a change of heart," she said sardonically.
Loki steepled his fingers pensively. "More like a change of fate. Or a change of tale." There was something soft and dark in the words, something half-considered and still unformed.
"So what's the tale now?" she kept her voice even and her face blank, but she let the words slip out of her all the same.
Loki grinned. "You tell me, Natasha. I think it’s as yet unwritten."
Clint watched this exchange impassively. This wild, unpredictable patternlessness unsettled him; it was visible in the way he held his head. But still: he stayed, watching not from afar but with his foot pressed to hers.
She came with a stuttered shout, and knew the sound would echo through the white house, that it would fall, however distantly, on Loki’s ears. Clint choked off her name in mid-syllable, muffling it against the back of his throat.
After, he kissed her shoulder and slung his arm over her waist. “I’m sorry,” he murmured into the place where her neck and shoulder met
She stirred, shifting to look at him. “Why?”
He traced nervous whorls on her hip. “After everything--”
“Don’t,” she said curtly. “We’re here now. “ Wherever here was. Even now she could not say for certain. It was a held breath, a pause; their myriad futures spun wildly off from the silent space of their bed. Beside her, Clint shifted, as if to crane his neck to see beyond it, to account for their possibilities.
Natasha felt the present clasp itself to her bones. She kissed his temple and wound her arms around him, holding him to her, to the very second.
Beside her, Clint slept on, his face hidden in his pillow; she slipped from the bed without disturbing him. The morning chill nipped at her skin as she dressed quickly in yesterday’s clothes. She replaced the knife at her ankle without thinking; she paused for a moment over the egg: but it had not yet been accounted for, so she tucked it into her bra as she had for a long month.
She traced her way back through the twisting corridors, the floor sloping ever downwards. The sway of the trees grew gentler near the centre of the house.
Under the glittering dome, Loki sat in his splintered chair, turning something over in his hands. he glanced up at her approach, though her footsteps were no louder than the creak of the trees in the wind.
“Good morning, Natasha.”
“It seems I’ve lost my ability to sneak up on you.”
His mouth twitched. “I should count myself a poor god if you could sneak up on me a second time.”
“So sorry to bore you,” she said lightly. She settled across from him in one of the unharmed chairs.
“I never said you couldn’t surprise me.” He gestured at the room; the object in his hands--a small bowl--caught the light.. “Here we are, after all.”
“Indeed.” She nodded towards the bowl. “What is that?”
He passed it to her; it unexpectedly heavy in her hand. Plain silver and utterly unremarkable, except for a sigil cut into the bottom: three interlocking triangles.
“A seething bowl, for water and salt. It’s a novice’s artefact, really, but Freyja was insistent that I learn from the beginning.” He took it back from he with care in his hands that belied the dismissal in his voice. “I learned seidr from Odin’s books, but the art was Freyja’s first; with some persuasion, she agreed to teach me.”
“For me, certainly. I have no doubt she finds it convenient to enlarge the power of her enemy’s enemy.”
“I thought you had given up cosmic wars.” His verbosity on the matter was striking: either he was misleading her, or he didn’t consider the information important.
“Yes, but not threatening them. The threat of violence is generally more useful than violence itself. “ He smiled in self deprecation. “As the circumstances of our first meeting amply demonstrate.”
Natasha hummed her agreement.
Loki ran a thumb over the inscribed symbol in the bottom of the bowl. “I’m afraid both Freyja and Odin will be disappointed.”
“How awful for them,”
“They are both accustomed to it, one way or another; I’m sure they’ll survive.” He shrugged, as if the political machinations and ancient grudges did not concern him. In this, at least, they could agree.
“And you?” she said sweetly.
Loki shot her a questioning look.
“Will you survive?”
“I’ve made it this far.”
Natasha leaned forward; his eyes widened ever so slightly as he tracked her movement. “I meant me.” She drew the little speckled egg from where it nestled next to her heart. "So is this your death, then?"
"Ah, no. You'll find the knife rather more useful on that account," he said, glancing to her ankle. His careless demeanour had evaporated; in its place was that same sacrificial breathlessness of yesterday.
She drew it from its sheath. "This, you mean." In this strange world among the treetops, the hilt was a familiar, grounding weight in her hand. The egg she set on the low table between them like a threat.
Natasha rose smoothly from her chair and circled around him. He remained perfectly still; only his luminous eyes followed her. She came to rest behind him, leaning over the high back of his elegantly carved chair, so that he was forced to crane his neck to look at her. The motion exposed the vein that beat blue in his throat; she rested the knife over his shoulder, the edge against his neck like a kiss.
"I could kill you now," she murmured, pitching her voice so it dripped like honey down his collar. "Clint and I can leave here while you bleed out on the floor.”
He met her gaze steadily; his eyes were huge, pupils blown wide, but there was not even a suggestion of fear on him. The ridge in his throat bobbed against the steel as he swallowed.
"You could," he said, leaning his head back further. "I would understand if you did. But Clint let me live--is it for you to reverse that decision?”
“Not for his sake. But perhaps for mine. “ With her free hand she turned his head forcefully, trapping him against the back of the chair. His breath ghosted warm over her arm, but he did not struggle. She could end this now, in a single easy movement: she knew how sharp the blade was, and knew even better the hot, sticky spill of blood over her hands.
“So what will you decide?” he whispered.
There were so many things she did not know.
With a quick twist of her wrist, she drew the knife across his throat; he gasped and jerked forward, his hand flying reflexively to the wound. It was only a stinging hairline cut, but blood welled up all the same.
Natasha sheathed the knife and resumed her seat across from him; Loki leaned after her as if drawn. He drew his hand away and touched his fingertips to his mouth.
“Blood for blood,” she said, holding up the hand she had cut. “We’re even now.”
"Oh, Natasha.” Loki caught some of the blood in the seething bowl before staunching the wound with his sleeve. “You are ruthless,” he murmured appreciatively.
Behind her, she heard a familiar tread on an unfamiliar floor.
“I sleep in for half an hour and miss all the fun,” said Clint lightly, but his gaze as he surveyed them was serious. She met his eyes and nodded faintly; the side of his mouth quirked knowingly.
“I was away for a month; imagine how I feel.”
Clint smiled wryly. “Things only got interesting once you got here, Tasha.”
“Indeed,” said Loki. He rose, setting the seething bowl next to the egg. “Please excuse me; as compelling as this morning has been,” in the space of a breath he glanced over both of them; his gaze made her skin burn. “I am already late for a lesson with Freyja, and she will not take kindly to it. “
“By all means, don’t let us keep you,” said Natasha smoothly. “I have a feeling we’ll still be here when you get back.”
He nodded, and his face changed; she realized he had looked like someone who was waiting for something. But now he was just a retreating back, and the thought could not be finished.
Clint sat down heavily beside her . “Satisfied?”
“Yes. No.” She pressed her fingernails into the cut on her palm.
“I know the feeling.” Clint bumped his knee against hers.
Natasha smiled faintly. “I know you do.” She pressed back with her leg. “What’s missing?” she asked lightly.
“For me or for you?”
“I think it’s the same thing, in this case,” she said softly.
Clint glanced away, his surface levity gone. “I’d say it’s not normal, but I think that stopped being a useful metric a long time ago.”
“Years,” she agreed. “But I don’t think it’s all that strange. Or that different.” She moved quickly, straddling his hips and bracing against the back of the settee, trapping him with her body. Under her, his eyes widened and his lips parted.
“Rings a bell,” he said, gripping her hips hard and pulling her closer to him. “Though I can’t say I miss you trying to shiv me in my sleep.”
“I don’t know if that’s true.” She rocked against him, pressing against the growing evidence of his arousal; his breath caught in his throat.
Clint made to reply, but she kissed him instead, and stole the words right out of his mouth. Gently she kissed his cheek, his jaw, his neck; but she closed her teeth over the memory of a blade held to his throat, biting him sharp and deep. Clint hissed in surprise and flinched reflexively away from her.
“I’ve given you far worse,” she reminded him.
“I know,” he murmured, burying his fingers in her hair and guiding her mouth back to his. Though she had kissed him a hundred thousand times before, there was something new here in his mouth and hands. The language between them had shifted, stretched into some new shape; so too, it seemed, had the things beyond language.
Still, his fingers had lost none of their quickness; he laid her skin bare with efficiency borne of long practice. He tugged her shirt over her head and the high sun splashed golden over her skin. They traded lazy, wandering kisses that seemed almost strange for their lack of urgency.
A footstep broke open their silence like an egg. Neither of them startled; her eyes widened and Clint coloured--but they didn’t move. Natasha had never had much use for shame.
In the doorway, Loki was for the first time arrested, completely still. “Forgive me for interrupting,” he said softly, his reserve so tightly held she could see the cracks in it.
She glanced down at Clint; he nodded ever so slightly, tracing secret signs in the small of her back. Half naked and unconcerned, Natasha extended a hand to Loki-- as near a gesture of benediction as she was likely to come.
“You’re as free to go as you’ve ever been,” she said. But he didn’t; instead, he came to them, a moment’s hesitation slipping away as quickly as it had come.
He was a clenched fist, a bitten lip; his gaze raked over them like fingernails. Still he smirked, or tried to; it might even have fooled someone else. “And if I choose to stay?”
“Consider it a debt repaid, if you like” said Clint lazily.
Loki nodded, one hand alighting on her palm and the other on Clint’s shoulder. Natasha closed her hand around his, sliding up his arm and drawing him down to her. He let himself be drawn, his eyes wide and bright as stars. But he kissed her without hesitation, his fingers gripping her arm and his teeth worrying her lip. Clint shifted under her, gripping her hips hard.
“Not here,” he murmured roughly.
Loki broke away from her, red mouthed and breathless; Clint twisted, almost knocking her off his lap so that he could drag Loki down for one hard, graceless kiss.
“Yes,” breathed Loki when Clint released him.
In the bed still rumpled from the previous night, they sloughed off their old skins and found bright new nerves.
Loki was spare; whipcord muscle stretched taut over the strut and sweep of bone. His skin was so pale it was almost translucent: under it the tracery of his veins showed blue, as if to tell the secret of his heritage. He marked easily under her fingernails, under Clint’s teeth.
Between his legs was a soft cleft, a slick heat; when she hooked two fingers inside of him, he cursed into Clint’s shoulder and left an imprint of his teeth there--and it seemed strange to her that she had ever expected anything else.
Her desire was vicious; sensation tore through her body --a body that seemed to have twelve limbs and three hearts, each beating a riotous rhythm. They were tangled down to their nerves and sinews, sweat-slick and shaking. When she came, it was with a gasp from three mouths and a shudder that jarred her down to her bones, to the very core of her.
Their mingled sweat dried on her skin; they prised their sticky bodies apart, the cool air outlining and separating them. Clint draped an arm habitually over her waist, careful not to crowd the fragile boundaries of her body. But Loki retreated, lying on his back a vast two inches away from her. He didn’t get up, or move farther across the wide bed; just lay there motionless but wavering, cheeks still suffused red with wanting.
His voice when he spoke was low and still hoarse, despite his attempt at nonchalance. “And I trust the debt is now repaid?”
Clint reached across her and gripped Loki’s leg hard; Loki started at the contact. “Don’t think you could be so easily rid of us,” he muttered, as if it was a promise.
“No, I do not think I would readily make that mistake,” he said, mostly to himself; but something like a smile touched the corner of his mouth. His hand uncurled, the tips of his fingers just brushing hers.
They lay in silence, three tenuously interlocked bodies breathing in tandem; the sun grew red again, the light spilling over the bed. Soon, she would crush the silence like an eggshell: she had her own tales to tell; they all did. Wild, half-untrue, there was no telling their endings.
Natasha began to speak.