He's surprised the first time he sees her.
He doesn't really know what he was expecting, maybe a countess in furs and jewels and maybe an uptight ballerina, maybe a young prodigy in tatters. He wasn't expecting her.
They're in a bar in Moscow. She orders a whisky and doesn't ask him how he found her. She doesn't seem to care.
"So you're the best?" he asks, because it looks like the type of question she wants to hear, the type she can answer.
"Yes," she answers neatly, sharp like a knife.
He draws up a contract in ten minutes on his laptop as she drinks silently, long hard gulps, like a soldier. He's rarely certain of anyone or anything, often takes more precautions than are needed, but he's sure of her.
He has a moment of hesitation before he hits 'Send'; he wonders if maybe he should at least ask to see her skate, but then she glides to the door, as graceful and effortless as a ballerina in casual attire, and it's gone.
He doesn't actually learn her name until the first practice. He's probably read it when he went over the contract, but the Olympics are in three months and there isn't anything beyond that for him, not anymore. His brain makes the selection between what's important and what's not, and that probably didn't make the cut.
It doesn't really matter, anyway, he thinks when he sees her slink into the rink, wearing all black except for her hair that's a disturbing kind of red. They match well, that's a good thing. Black and green and red. Not ordinary; people will remember them.
"I'm Natasha," she says when she's near him, the sharp edge of her skates glinting against the ice.
"Alright," he says. "Let's see what you can do."
She doesn't show off; it's only in the third hour that he sees her do a double axel, and he's not breathtaken, he really isn't.
They get drunk together for the first time that week, on vodka she brought back from Russia.
"Why aren't you more famous?" he asks her, because he knows talent and he knows skill and she has both. She's probably more talented than him, and he's in the international top ten, so that's saying something.
She shrugs, tipping her head back to down a shot. He understands, 'I don't care for fame,' and he's probably not that far off.
"Why don't you skate with someone more famous?" she asks. It sounds a little biting, like she's implying that he's too hung up on this, the glitz and the glamour.
"I want to beat my brother," he says, and downs his shot too.
She cocks her head, as though to say it's a good reason. It isn't.
Loki was ten the first time Thor beat him. It was in the rink of their little town in the North, and Thor had smiled and roared and then made an apologetic face, ran over to Loki and hugged the breath out of him. It’ll be fine, Loki had thought as Thor’s warmth made the jealousy melt out of him.
But it happened again. It happened over and over, and it kept happening, until Loki was so mad with envy he couldn't breathe sometimes, couldn't cough out the feeling of being second best.
It became even worse when Thor started finding partners, people that weren't him (they'd skated together when they were kids, but it didn't work, because Thor was too gentle and Loki was too forceful). And then Jane, but by then Loki and Thor weren't talking anymore. It didn't make it any less painful.
"I just don't like losing," he says to Natasha, and Natasha nods, like she gets that it's so much more than that.
They have the same skating style. Gallina is happy about it, says that Natasha makes Loki better. She probably does, too, and that's the thing about her, when she smirks and does something incredible with almost no warm-up at all, it makes Loki want to be right up there with her, makes him want to practice until his muscles ache and he's sweaty and triumphant.
"Thank you," he says once as they head out. He doesn't say thank you a lot, but she deserves it.
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't want to," she says, and smiles red red red and he gets the urge to kiss her, but he doesn't.
The week before the Olympics is the tensest he's ever been. He always gets nervous before competitions, his skin stretched taut on his bones and millions of thoughts swirling in his brain, but he's taking a chance with Natasha, and he swore to himself he wouldn't lose to Thor again, not after last time.
There are flashes when they get off the plane at Heathrow, and it throws him off for a second. Natasha's hand closes on his bicep, like a warning, focus. He smiles, glad for the sunglasses hiding his eyes.
She hovers near him when they get to the hotel, her chest out and her back arched. She looks like a feral cat trying to protect her own.
"I'm fine," he says, and watches her shoulders slump a little, fascinated by the way he can see the muscles shift in her shoulders, strong and intricate.
"Yeah," she says, and then seems to shake it off. "Yeah, okay."
She pecks him on the lips, half laying her claim and half saying she's glad he's okay. She's gone before he can say anything, or kiss back.
(They smoked together once. She was sick (stupidly, he was kind of amazed that she could even get sick, that she wasn't the superwoman she seemed to be) and he came to her house. She opened the door in sweats and with a red nose and messy hair, red bangs brushing her jaw.
"You're here," she said, sounding surprised.
He didn't back down, walked into the house and made himself at home, ordered two pizzas, chorizo and extra cheese. He didn't comment on the stark walls – his aren't much better. Sometimes he wonders what family he would put up there, framed and smiling, his father who hated him or his brother who was never his equal.
He showed her his weed and she smiled, a real smile with teeth and everything. It turned out making her smoke was a good idea – it made her smoother, mellower, unclenched her body and opened her chest, her arms hanging limply at her sides.
"Don't you miss Russia?" he asked, only slurring a little.
Her eyes darkened and he regretted ever asking. "There's nothing to miss there," she said.
"Yeah," he said, because that's something he gets, being homeless and having no one to rely on but yourself. It's not so bad, once you get used to it.
He kissed her, then, despite her runny nose and furry mouth, kissed her until they were both breathless and panting. They fell asleep tangled together on the couch and woke with cricks in their necks. They didn't talk about it.)
Natasha is beautiful. It's never been a question, never been a problem either, it's just a thing. It's not important because she's so much more than that, strong and powerful and graceful and talented, but sometimes through all this Loki catches snippets of her waist, the side of her breasts and the defined jut of her collarbones peeking out of the spandex and doesn't know what to do with it.
Knowing that she's beautiful is something, though, but seeing it reflected through the eyes of thousands of people as they step onto the ice is overwhelming and crazy and for a moment Loki is afraid that the strength of it will knock him over. He draws her towards him for a second, presses his nose in her hair. She smells like sweat and her spicy perfume, the melted spotlights.
"Win for me," he says, tight and determined.
She doesn't answer, but it's answer enough.
Loki remembers the first time he competed against Thor in the Olympics. He wishes he didn't, but it's burned into his mind, probably never to be forgotten. He skated with Sif at the time, but they fought all the time – about Thor, mostly, because she was still on his side, and Loki ached for someone who would be faithful to him, only him. She called him selfish.
He'd thought they could win, win the gold, but halfway into it he'd realized that it wasn't going to happen. It had been like a slap to the face (a Natasha slap, full of sharp painted nails). Loki's jealousy was burning so bright he'd been sure Thor could see it from the inside of the changing rooms, a breathless Jane pressed against him.
And then he'd lost, hadn't even gotten a bronze, and it was a fucking punch in the stomach, losing to your brother. Losing to Thor. Loki remembers it like you remember the disasters, complete with all the sordid details. He got drunk. He cried. He made soggy pasta and remembered all the times he'd loved Thor and how he'd never really stopped.
But that's all in the past. He's going to win, now. It's the only thing that really matters.
He'd thought it could happen, but this – standing on the podium, with the medal, seeing Thor look up at him from second place, for once. But this – everything, everything, the clapping and the routine and lifting Natasha and seeing her look down at him from where she's flying, flying, her eyes dark and understanding what she means – has no name, no colour. Victory.
Loki goes through it in a sort of daze – everything is acute, the sounds multiple and the movements fast, but his elation is a wall of cotton. He reaches out to touch Natasha and it's a relief, her lips full and chapped under the pad of his fingers.
"You should use chapstick," he says before he leans in to kiss her.
She sighs against his lips. It means she won't, but he doesn't care, he kisses the joy out of her, to the last drop. And then when he realizes that he can't, that this is theirs and not just his, that there – this is someone who believes and wins and kisses him back, he pulls away and he thinks, so this is love?
She smiles at him, quick and sharp. Cocks her head, sorry.
It's cold when they trail out the stadium. Loki sees Thor walking towards him and thinks about running, taking to his heels and running, but Natasha is here and Loki is proud, has always been proud. He doesn't run.
"Brother," Thor says. He looks apologetic, serious, generous, loving, everything he always was and Loki wasn’t. Loki would hate him, if he could.
Loki nods to acknowledge him. Thor doesn't look disappointed to have lost, angry or even resentful, but he wouldn't. He's above that; a proper hero.
His hand on Loki’s shoulder feels too familiar.
"You did good, brother," he says, looking sincere. Natasha's fingers tighten into his and he lets her nails find their way to his palm, keep him focused.
"Thank you," he says. Jane nods at him, melted into Thor's side. They're too nice for the ice, Loki thinks, too in love.
"You're welcome," Thor says, and Loki wants nothing more than for him to go away, but Thor hesitates, adds: "We should convene for food one of these days.” Natasha's fingers wrap themselves around Loki's wrist.
"Maybe," Loki says.
It's not a no. It's not a yes, either, but for now it'll have to be enough.
Exploring Natasha is like exploring Russia, trying to find secrets in the cold expanses of her skin, in the nooks and crannies that make her gasp, head thrown back almost against her will. Loki drinks her until he's giddy with it, clutching at her arms with the strength of a desperate, victorious man, and she rises up against him and gives it all back.
"Thanks for winning," he whispers as she leaves the bed to go turn the lights off, body cut like a cardboard shape by the shadows.
"You won too," she says.
She settles back on the bed. They're not touching but they don't need to be; it's enough to be like this, close but separate, feeding off each other's warmth. They smell like sex and sweat and salt; there's greatness to come.
They don't look back when they leave the Olympic Village. They're not this kind of people. They keep close as they walk through the airport, sunglasses rhythming the tick-tack of heels, and when they get back they have sex and they sleep.
After, he asks her if she knows how to play poker. She does, she says - she even knows how to cheat. He thinks about gambling, about taking a chance, risking his carefully collected chips, and then he looks at her and he thinks about winning.
He leans in and she tilts her face up to kiss him. His hand tangles in her hair, red stark against his skin. They're not there yet; there are other competitions and flashes and Olympics, Thor lurking like a sun somewhere in the background, dirty, impatient love. But they'll get through it. For once, he doesn't doubt.
So that's how it feels not to be alone, he thinks, and she laughs, because she understands.