Close your eyes and count to ten from negative-ten.
The fish in the bowl swims a perfect circle.
Close your eyes and breathe from your belly.
The water is cool and the fish is calm.
Close your eyes and center awareness in your fingertips, one at a time.
The bowl is open to the air. The fish does not jump.
Close your eyes and completely relax your tongue.
The fish forgets where it’s already been.
Close your eyes and picture a fish.
The fish forgets the bowl is a circle. The fish is free.
Close your eyes and count to ten from negative-ten.
The fish in the bowl swims…
Natasha barely registered as the meditation cycled through again. The trick was to forget, not to check iterations against the internal chronometers of her stomach or her bladder, not let the sameness of the silence and the walls tick down the t-minus-a-fuckton of her tolerance for manipulation and confinement. Solitary was never a cake-walk, but she would get through. It helped that she’d gone in on purpose.
The slot in the door banged sharply, a ripple in her fishbowl, a time to synchronize her estimates to evaluate efficacy. She remembered three distinct times she was aware of starting the meditation over. So by that measure, about twenty minutes, perhaps. She rolled onto her side and checked the ache in her joints and the pressures in her organs...about eight hours worth. She smiled inwardly. Not too shabby, Nat. Good little fish.
One good cough as she retrieved the tray kicked up the small plastic lozenge in her stomach that held her drug filter. She unfolded the steely mesh layer inside her cheek and spread it against her front teeth as she took a sip of the water. Subtly she touched and sniffed the thin scum of residue it gathered. Dopamine inhibitors again. She shook her head and drank slowly to let the filter work, sarcastically nostalgic for cold-war hallucinogens and electroshock. She made a mental note to find out what entrepreneurial shitheel had convinced mercs that garden-variety depression was the new hotness for breaking people. It offended her on levels she couldn’t dwell on, but at least it let her captors-with-benefits think that solitary alone would be cruise-control for compliance. That, at least, was handy.
It had taken some careful choices to get herself captured by a group that definitely wouldn’t try to publish and ransom her, and almost definitely wouldn’t execute her, but she’d gotten through intake pretty clean. If nothing went terribly wrong, she could coast in the fishbowl, let Absalom mercenaries feed and hide her in solitary like it was their idea, until she was safely upwind of Tony Stark’s latest radioactive shit petard. If nothing went terribly wrong...
Loki sat against the near wall, his grin impish and biting. The Black Widow almost re-swallowed her drug filter, but she regarded him blankly as she continued to drink. It was slow work and she was thirsty, dammit. He wouldn't need encouragement to talk. The effort required to find her demonstrated enthusiasm.
Loki looked around the ten-by-ten whitewashed room of the abandoned asylum the mercenary cell had minimally refurbished. It was furnished with just a small mattress, a drain in the corner, a few mirrored observation windows, and eternity, “Feels like old times, eh Nat.”
She pushed up from her tray, and he rolled his gaze to follow her. She repacked and swallowed her filter as she crossed the room, dropped her drawers, and squatted over the drain for a piss while she looked him over. He’d shown up in a sharp charcoal suit and long cashmere coat. Complete with a scarf and a pocket square. And then sat cross-legged on the floor. He was trying to be cute. She rolled her eyes ruefully, “God…”
He inclined his head, graciously, “Avenger.”
She pulled up and headed to her mattress to picture a fish until he got bored and went away.
“You’re not being a very good host,” he chided.
She gave the tin tray with the empty cup and “cheese” sandwich a little kick in his direction before she lay down. He grunted with appreciative indignation. As she closed her eyes she heard him sniff at the cup, “Uaugh, what is that chemical stench?”
She sighed, and muttered as quietly as she could, “Pretty sure it’s clozapine.”
“You’re taking antipsychotics? I guess Avengers HR really does read the suggestion box.”
Fish...fish...where was that fucking fish...she counted to ten.
After a long silence she parted her eyelids a peek, and had to stifle a yelp at his merrily malicious grin inches from her nose. She looked at him frankly. He exerted no weight on the mattress, no displacement of air or damped vibrations, so he was definitely an illusion...but there was the faintest tremble of his heartbeat on the air so...not just an illusion. Something of him was really there, if only a whisper.
The horizontal stand-off lingered until Loki began to look pained, “Come on. Ask.”
She thought about rolling over. He couldn’t touch her, she could shut him out pretty easily. But the illusion likely cost him less than it would cost her to actively ignore him, and there were no consequences for him. Even the tiny irrational sparks of curiosity, competitiveness, and discomfort he set fizzing in her mind would eat into her tolerances eventually. She had too much time to endure wasting for that. She looked him in his suspended eyes and arched one eyebrow. Apparently it was good enough.
Loki rolled away to float on his back off the edge of the mattress, “I’m here to carry you away to Asgard to be my better angel.”
She snorted derisively, but his smile stayed soft, playful, even pleased, and it hardened her instincts against him instantly. She didn’t want to please and entertain him. He was an asshole. And an enemy. And a murderer. He’d unleashed war on innocents just to mess with his family as far as the analysis she’d compiled had gone. “No thanks,” she whispered. She hoped her curators wouldn't think she’d begun to hallucinate. She hoped she hadn’t.
“I can pay you.”
She closed her eyes, “Can we skip this part? The answer is no. I have no interest in working for you. And I can’t discuss it right now,” she flicked her eyes to the door and around at the shabby mirrors.
“Well then let me get you out of here.”
She shook her head, not eager to explain her predicament to a manipulative enemy, “I’d really rather you didn’t.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Natasha. I know you could walk out of here in under eight minutes. It’s one of the things I love about you. Going to ground in an enemy stronghold. Brilliant. Badass. A little melancholy. We’ve got so much in common, you really should hear me out.”
“I could tell you how things are going outside. I mean, you walked in here because you want no one and nothing knowing where you are, so you can’t be getting any intel. That’s the right word? Intel? I like it. I could give you some intel. As an act of good faith.”
“Nah, I’m good.”
“Are you sure? I could tell you what’s been going on with Banner.”
She felt the temptation bite but swallowed the flinch, “No thanks.”
Loki frowned, “...and you wouldn’t believe me anyway. I know. Trust me, you’re not the only one who wishes there were parts of this process we could just skip. But no, seriously, I could bring you out with me, just for a little stroll. Astral projection, your body stays here, silent and inscrutable, but we go wherever you like. Just for a change, a little break, while you hear me out. What do you say?”
“Anywhere?” she let her eyes shine with a lure of expertly reluctant hope and fascination.
His own eyes flared like he was about to burst into a chorus from Aladdin, “Anywhere you could ever possibly want.”
She shrugged, “Nah, I’m good.”
He sighed wistfully, “You really are.”
“Just tell me what you actually want so I can tell you no.”
“At least take a walk with me. Give yourself a break from this fishbowl.”
She sighed, and hoped his word choice had just been an eerie coincidence, “All right.”
He stood up in his sharply tailored outfit and offered her a gallant hand, a simmer of excitement behind his eyes, “Where shall we go? Paris? Too predictable? How about Reykjavik? They love me in Reykjavik. Mother Moskow?”
“There’s a bar down the road. They’ve got booths.”
Loki laughed, “We don’t need booths. We could go scream off the top of the wailing wall and no one would notice.”
“I’m not going to hand you intimate intel on my favorite places. You want something from me and you give no shits about wrecking cities just to…” she gasped, suddenly upright, and looked down at her body on the shabby mattress. She looked small and cold.
Loki sighed, “All right, Jane Bond. Gentleman’s choice it is,” but instead of an immediate whoosh of capricious power, he studied her intently in the silent, tiny room. She studied him back and, to her horror, realized he was nervous.
She soft-balled him a rudimentary open, “See anything you like?”
He squinted, distractedly sincere, “You’re...not actually the dinner and dancing type. You don’t like romance, excitement, adventure. Glamour and intrigue...busman’s holiday, for you.”
She shrugged. He wasn’t wrong.
“I mean,” he gestured at the empty mirrors with open palms, “this is what you do on your summer vacation. Solitary confinement. Bad food and simple problems...knowing exactly where you are and being the only one that does.”
She must have twitched because he seemed satisfied. She indulged in a glare, “Don’t think you know me, Loki. It’s tiresome.”
He didn’t smile. His eyes were...concerned, “But I do. Don’t worry, it’s entirely a two-way street. We’re a lot alike.”
“Or you’re a raging narcissist.”
That sweet, obnoxious, delighted smile spread across his face again. She’d seen that same clear-eyed cocksure pleasure in the eyes of warlords and drug lords and mass murderers and televangelists, “I really did miss you.”
She sighed, “Well if we’re so similar, why don’t we just go to the first place you think of. It’s bound to be perfect, right?”
His mirth clouded over, “If you insist.”
He snapped his fingers and they were on a street corner surrounded by concrete and asphalt and tall buildings. Twilight and tasteful neon threw a glow into the misty rain. Stoplights blinked drowsily over an intersection closed to the traffic that hummed a few blocks away. One great chunk of asphalt at the center of the intersection was heaved up on one end like the Titanic and draped with well-weathered hazard warnings.
She reached to touch the crosswalk pole, fascinated in spite of herself as her fingers passed through it, “This...this is midtown. Manhattan.”
He reached out and plucked her hand from the air, squeezing it earnestly, “You said the first…” and she punched him so hard he flew backwards into a charming Thai restaurant.