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The Trickster's Valkyrie

Chapter Text

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...

“Hello Natasha.”

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.”

“Go. Away.”

“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.

Chapter Text

He came out through the door with a hand on his jaw, his smile unfazed, “I get that a lot…” but realized she was already crossing the street, “Natasha, please hear me out!”

She fumed, and walked fast before she killed him, in need of a few seconds to dial back her anger to something more useful and less impulsive. She was finished with him all the same. Their feet didn’t make any real sound but her imagination filled it in, even his expensively-shod trot behind her. She wheeled to swing at him again, but made it easy to block, to make a point more than to start a real fight. He ducked and blocked smoothly, his expression still conciliatory.

“Natasha, please…”

She swung on him again, an easy warm-up haymaker, and noted his speed clinically. She’d be back in her room soon and a light workout would calm her down, make the most of her little walk. If she happened to kick his ass with bush-league moves, so be it. Either way she’d clear her tolerance clock of the moments he’d managed to grind it through in his quest to get under her skin.

He slid out of her path, hands raised to block but unnecessary. He was smooth, and skilled. Like her, he was clearly accustomed to opponents who were bigger, crazier, more numerous...but not faster. She feinted a jab at his face, and he leapt at the bait like a horny salmon in an attempt to lock her wrist. With a smug, suppressed smile she broke his grip and turned him with his own torque and momentum to force his face down into her rising knee. The ethereal crack of facial bone was so loud all the pigeons in the area took off at once, and if Loki hadn’t already been on the astral plane, she’d surely have sent him there. He lay on the empty street, dazed, and a pair of pedestrians hurried through him as the rain began to fall in earnest.

Natasha straddled him with one knee up, one fist in his shirt collar, the other drawn back like a lead ballista. He muttered groggily, “I deserved that.”

She hit him again anyway, stood up, glared down, and knew she ought to walk away.

He put up his hands, “Can I at least call a time-out?”

She leaned down and put a knee on his chest. He groaned. Alarms went off in her mind. She shouldn’t get involved, she needed to walk away, “You hurt this city. These people had nothing to do with your petty rivalry and you…”

“Sokovia.”

She smashed him in the face again so hard his legs jerked, “You have no right to talk to me.”

He spluttered through the blood but spoke calmly, “This is the first place I think of when I think of how much we have in common,” she cocked her fist back again and he didn’t even raise his hands to shield his bloody face, “because I know I’m a terrible person. Just...the worst. I destroy everything I touch. I’m more tired of me than you could ever be. And I need your help.”

There were actual tears in his remaining eye. It could have just been the broken nose or the shattered eye socket. She got up and pulled him to stand beside her, “Come on,” and headed toward someplace they could sit.

The picnic tables in DeWitt Clinton Park had been cleared by the rain, so they sat without fear of passers-by sitting on them. At some point when she hadn’t been looking, Loki had put his face back together, smile and all. Her fists still hurt, and she was in the mood to demand brevity, “Give me your pitch, the whole thing, right now, and I’ll consider it. Bullshit me even a little and I punt you into the Hudson and walk away. What do you really want?”

He had that misty, admiring look in his eyes again, “You really are just too perfect.”

She scowled, “Loki.”

He sighed, “Fine. I want help with my petty rivalry, as you call it. While you were all cleaning up Stark and Banner’s collaborative parenting, and making Mister Rogers defend his kinetic thesis on the nature of friendship, my brother went and found himself a valkyrie. I want one too.”

Natasha tried with all her might to keep a straight face, but laughter forced its way up her throat like a geyser, “Whaaaaat?” she rocked and howled. When she could see again, Loki's tongue was pushed into one cheek, his lips gathered entirely to the other side. It almost set her off again but she racked her expression together with a will and coughed out, “Do go on.”

He sighed, one hand gripped in the other, “It’s ridiculous, I know. But Asgard has fallen. The city is gone,” he caught her look and spat, “It wasn’t anything I did!”

She held up her hands, “I didn’t say anything.”

He didn’t seem to hear her, “Well alright maybe I did accidentally set all the circumstances into motion, and maybe it was me that literally put Surtur’s mask into the eternal flame, but the realm was a literal dead-loss at that point, and when the rampaging goddess of death is your sister you tend to feel a certain responsibility to make hard choices…”

“Loki. Focus.”

“Anyway...Thor and I are...Thor and I have reached a bit of a truce. It’s delicate but...we want the same things again, at least. He even hugged me. A real one, not a prelude-to-throwing-me-into-a-hole-or-something one.”

Natasha shook her head, “And he came away without a dagger in his back? Why would the bro-scout ever trust you, after everything?”

Loki scowled but looked down, “Because he’s a good person. And because, for him, it is after everything. He knew me before...well...before everything, as well. Anyway I know you’ve met him. You know he can be an oaf, and an ass, but that he’s not a fool. He’s trying to trust me again.”

Natasha sighed, “I’ll admit, I’m intrigued. But what’s with all this valkyrie stuff?”

Loki smiled grimly, “All the survivors of Asgard are currently living out of a giant spaceship hidden in the middle of your Oklahoma. Thor is the de facto king, and he’s making plans to-”

“How do you hide a giant spaceship in the middle of Oklahoma?”

“The same way you hide a wanted Avenger in an enemy’s refurbished asylum: by knowing more than the people that hate you about where they won’t think to look, and playing to their vanities and underestimations.”

“You could just say ‘magic’.”

He got that satisfied smile again, “You valkyrie are all so prosaic.”

“About that…”

“I was getting there. While we were escaping from the caligula-esque reprobate that had captured him and Banner, we picked up this dazzling young woman who happens to be the last of the valkyrie. She’s fierce, hard, lovely, tragic," he gave her a weighted look that she resisted interpreting, "Peculiarly maternal, too. Took good care of the Hulk while he was being kept like a fighting dog all those months. Good with big temperamental animals. Thor’s fallen for her like a spaceship in the American heartland, though he doesn’t know it yet. Banner, too.”

“So you need a date to the wedding? Am I your beard? Or do you keep working Banner into the conversation because you want me to be as jealous of your brother’s girlfriend as you are?”

Loki sighed, “I’m not jealous. I’m petty and venal and angry all the time and scheming and selfish and attention hungry and far too amused by my own cleverness. And maybe I’m envious...I see what Thor has and I...I want it. But not because I want him not to have it. I don’t hate him for having the things I want. I don’t want him to suffer for my suffering. I just want to be part of his life. A good part. But I don’t know how and I...”

Natasha buried her face in her hands, “Please stop. This is pathetic.”

“I know!” Loki yelled, hands clenched, “I’m still getting the hang of this whole sincerity thing and it’s like wearing a straitjacket full of lice.”

“So what, exactly, do you want. From me. Royal back-scratcher?”

He leaned forward on his elbows and the table somehow supported them, “Sort of. I need an ally. I know this about myself. When I’m completely alone I go...a little crazy. I get impulsive and competitive, and I reach for comfort where I shouldn’t. Right now, Thor has me on probation, Hulk hates my guts and the valkyrie looks at me like I’m storm-giant shit on her shoe. I can’t even scrape together enough credit among the other Asgardians to finance a beer fart at Oktoberfest, and I literally saved them all. Thor wants my help to build something good out of all this suffering, but I’ve only got enough influence to make myself a target, an obvious foil for anyone that wants to feel more righteous. That’s my fault, obviously, but I don’t want it to end the way it always seems to.”

“How’s that?”

Loki sat back hard, his shoulders drooped, “I’m politicking dawn to dusk, trying to watch my back while stuck inside my own head, and...I know myself. Someone’s going to push me, and my pride is going to push back. Valkyrie thinks she’s savvy, but she wears her heart on her sleeve, just like Thor. She’s going to pick a fight with me to impress him, or to mollify her protectiveness and heal her broken heart. And when she does," he gestured expansively, helpless, "I won’t even have anyone to second me. Thor and Hulk both are so enamored of her they’ll rip my head off if I defend myself too enthusiastically.”

She folded her arms across her chest, “You poor maligned boy.”

He scowled, waved a hand, and made no challenge her sarcasm, “Anyway, I need a bodyguard and a confidant. Someone who knows how to keep a secret, who knows what it’s like to make terrible mistakes and want to stop, who can take the hits and dish them out but who doesn’t relish hurting people, and who hasn’t got anything to prove. One whose badass aura will keep the little fish off my back. Someone I know my brother can trust to-” he sighed mournfully, “-to change sides if it turns out that I’m the wrong one,” he cleared his throat, his focus back on her, “Someone who might like to build something for a change. Someone who knows exactly what she’s worth, and might have an asking price already in mind, and isn't really doing anything else right now.”

She frowned. He'd really thought out his pitch. “I’m doing what I need to be doing. If S.H.I.E.L.D. or Ross or the U.N. find out where I am-”

“Magic spaceship," he cut in, "In Okla-nowhere. I know it sounds like the kind of thing S.H.I.E.L.D. would be all over, but only a sorcerer would even know it's landed, and the only two sorcerers in Midgard who might both notice and care are off building a sanctum in central America, and neither of them give a fuck about S.H.I.E.L.D. or the U.N. One of them kind of has a crush on Tony Stark, but...I can handle him. It probably won't even come up. You’ll be just as safe as your hole-in-the-ground Hilton, just with more perks, hot meals,” he shrugged hopefully, “better company.”

Natasha sighed. She had a price in mind, and she already knew she was going to do it, “Well…” she shook her head, “two out of three is good enough.”

“Name your price.”

She took the kind of deep breath she usually made huge mistakes with, “Two things. First, I get to keep anything you give me. I don’t do rented gear. Second, you’re going to help me get Clint off the Raft, and once your new Asgard’s established, you’re going to put him and his immediate family up like citizens; medicine, education, protection, livelihoods, everything; for as long as they want to stay, and give them anything they need to get by if they decide to leave. And you personally are going to do everything in your power to stay out of his way and out of his head. In exchange, I’ll give you six months, full time. I’ll be your valkyrie, your conscience, or your champion. But I’m not your assassin. I’m not going to sell my soul to save yours.”

Loki raised an eyebrow, “Are you sure that’s all you want? Nothing you want me to do for Banner? Or to him?”

She sighed, “It sounds like he’s already got your brother’s favor. And I don’t do jealousy either. If he’s over us then so am I.” She was lying, but she was good at it.

Loki beamed at her, “Then I’d say we have a deal.”

Natasha sighed, “Ok. Get us a transport and meet me outside the Absalom compound in eight minutes.”

He got up and bowed with a smarmy gallantry that would have given a young Tony Stark a run for his money, “It shall be a ride fit for a Valkyrie.”

Chapter Text

Natasha stretched, trying to make sure her blood was up and her muscles limber so she wouldn’t get any surprising cramps during walkout. She was more stiff than she’d expected, and hoped that Loki had picked a transport subtle enough that he could wait an extra couple minutes.

No such luck.

The ground pulsed with a chopping beat, the walls humming with the stirring prelude to the third act of Die Walkure . She groaned, and tried calling for the guards, but they’d all apparently run off in the direction of the loud distraction. Amateur hour. Muttering under her breath she popped the archaic lock with a well-placed kick and stalked down the hall. Ultimately she had to subdue far fewer people by hand on her way out and than she’d expected, just enough to commandeer a pair of boots and a layer of expired kevlar, but it was a much bigger mess, especially as seen from the air. Every last mallcop-merc of them that couldn’t take his hands off his ears long enough to draw a weapon saw her shivering sprint across the frozen yard.

“I thought you were supposed to be the subtle one!” she hollered over the noise, pulling herself into the cockpit of what appeared to be a traffic helicopter outfitted for municipal side-jobs.

“Only compared to other Asgardians!”  She couldn’t tell if he was thrilled more by his own cleverness or by how much it annoyed her. The pilot got up, handed Natasha the headset, and went to lay down in the cargo area, slumbering under apparent mind control. That was troubling.

“You don’t think that maybe blasting ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ from a helicopter is just a little too Apocalypse Now?” she hollered, shutting off the sound cannon as they gained altitude. She was grateful for the warmth of the closed cockpit, though the rotor noise was still oppressive.

“What can I say, I just lived through Ragnarok! Anyway blame whoever programmed the option!”

“Nah, I'll keep blaming you for your poor choices, thanks! Speaking of which, where did you even get this county fair piece of garbage? It barely has enough fuel to take us fifty miles!”

“It was the only one at the airfield with a pilot! And I knew you could fly one! And they were fresh out of Quinjets!”

“You’ve completely burnt this resource for me!”

“Resource? They locked you in a basement!”

“Right, I forgot, where you come from they call that family!”

He laughed, surveying the countryside with an energized delight, “Touche’!”

“But seriously, as your bodyguard I’m gonna need you not to automatically take shit to the most dramatic available extreme at every opportunity! I know you superpowered wizard types are really fond of forgetting this, but some of us are just regular human beings with physical limitations to consider!”

“Nonsense! You’re nothing like the other girls, Widow!”

“Actually I’m exactly like the other girls, particularly in that guys who say stupid shit like that immediately convince me they don’t have nearly enough respect for girls!”

He was astonishingly quiet for a second as they sped along in the noisy contraption, “You’re right! I’m sorry! Sometimes I go a little overboard trying to be witty!”

“Skip it! For the next six months, you’re the boss! All you have to do is exactly what I tell you!”

He laughed, “That’s how being the boss works on your world, is it?”

“It’s how being my boss works, when the job is personal protection! Otherwise it doesn’t work at all! Think you can handle that?”

“I expect so!”

She did her best to sound persuasive and rational despite the need to yell, “I’m serious, godling! I do not do guarding temperamental celebrities who think it’s cute to slip their detail! You hire me for protection that’s what you get! If you make that mean I have to knock you unconscious for six months I’ll happily oblige you!”

“Understood!”

“Really happily! Like, so, SO happily!”

“Point taken!” he hollered even louder than required by the noise of the blades.

They were quiet again for a while, then Natasha looked pointedly at the gas gauge, “Sooo…”

“Oh, right! Really just land anywhere once you think we’re far enough away! I expect the pilot can take it from there!”

“But where are we going? I don’t exactly want to land in a populated area in this, even if we could reach one!”

“I’ve got camping gear! We can get a direct flight tomorrow!”

She glanced doubtfully at her clothes, “Whatever you say, Boss!”

They set down in a clearing surrounded by pine forest. Nat checked that the GPS was in good shape while Loki zapped all the flight data, and they headed off towards the treeline. The walking felt good, though the air was far too brisk for her threadbare institutional PJs, and she shivered. Loki gave her his coat, “Sorry, I should have realized sooner. I don’t get cold.”

She shrugged, smirking at how the coat's hem touched the ground on her frame, wishing her borrowed boots had more of a heel so she didn't feel like such a dwarf next to the nine-realms' shortest frost-giant. He was easily a full head taller than his astral form had been, “It’s easy to forget that other people feel the cold if you don't. I’m familiar. I was born in Russia, and dated this really macho Canadian for a while.”

In the distance the sound of a helicopter rose up and faded away.

Loki sighed contentedly, “And there he goes. I expect we’ve come far enough, unless you’d rather keep walking a bit. You were in that prison a fair while.”

“No, it’s getting dark. We should make camp.”

Loki’s biting grin flickered and he began searching through his suit coat pockets, “I had the honor of being the last living soul to pass through the royal vault of Asgard,” he rechecked each pocket in consternation, finally shaking his head and pointing at her, “Right inside breast pocket. Sort of a stone blade.”

She pulled it out and held it out to him, but he demurred, “It should work for you, too. Go ahead and try it. Toss it into the ground and imagine safe shelter. The hearthstone will do the rest.”

Natasha shrugged, flipping the blade once in her hand to get it’s balance and flicking it hard into the earth between them in an unbroken motion. There was a crystalline sound and suddenly they were in a log room with a dirt floor, a cheerful fire in a raised stone firepit at the center. A large pile of furs in a simple frame approximated a bed, and a small table with a few wrapped shapes and simple dishes squatted, chairless, by the fire. A covered pot sat simmering in the coals at the pit’s edge. Natasha nodded coolly as her stomach let out a plaintive gurgling squeal. Loki threw his suit jacket over what could only be described as a lounging-stone beside the fire pit and began unbuttoning his cuffs, “Nice, eh?”

She nodded again, crouching down by the fire to inspect the savory smell coming from the pot, “Certainly beats burying oneself in pine boughs and frozen peat moss. Pretty clever, your people.”

He smiled fondly, sitting on the bed and taking off his expensive shoes, “The hearthstone isn’t as flashy as some, but it’s the oldest relic we had besides the eternal flame. This room represents the origin of my people, preserved in what some would call the ‘mirror dimension’, made by the same sorceresses that learned to harness the first iterations of the bifrost.”

She nodded diplomatically, “I’m honored that you’re sharing it with me. Do you mind if I eat?”

“On the contrary, I insist. Would you like water or wine?”

“Both.”

“Spoken like a valkyrie.”

“I’m really not sure I’m comfortable with that title. I expect your brother’s girlfriend won’t be.”

Loki scowled, “I’m the king’s brother. She can bloody well get used to it and so can you.”

Natasha looked at him in perplexity, sitting on the ground by the table and unwrapping one of the small cheeses, “Why is it important to you? If it’s just a status thing, fine, I can roll with that, but it sounds like it’s more.”

He ran a hand through his hair, “There’s some politics and privilege to it, but mostly it’s just nostalgia. Symbolism. Asgard is fallen and it makes me feel restless for...something I can't entirely define or defend.”

Nat took a bite, trying to go slow so as not to shock her shrunken stomach, trying also not to groan with pleasure, “I expect everyone will be feeling a little restless and nostalgic. Trying to shoehorn a foreigner into a revered hereditary role might not be the right play if you’re looking to deflect challenges.”

He moved from the edge of the bed to the floor, staring into the fire, “The valkyries weren’t hereditary. They were simply the best of the best, from every realm. As close as we got to true meritocracy in our stuffy little dictatorial state,” he shrugged, “though still heavily patronage-based. But I checked the law. I have a sovereign right to choose any one warrior I want. I think Thor will approve, and everyone else will fall in line.”

Nat blinked, taking a long drink of water, “He doesn’t know I’m coming, does he? Does anyone?”

Loki nodded, “Heimdall does. He’s why we’re just sitting tight until tomorrow. He can bring us within the walls of New Asgard, but it’s easier for him to do during midday.”

“So this will be our last chance to really talk before we’re in a situation where we should always presume we’re being watched.”

Loki waved a dismissive hand, “Heimdall doesn’t exactly trust me, but he’s honorable, and once you’re my valkyrie, our time together is privileged. As for privacy from the rest of the gentry, I’m a better sorcerer than them all put together, as long as you don’t mind sharing a suite,” he tried to seem cool and aloof but his aura was preening like a persian cat.

She shrugged, “While working protection I strongly prefer it. Still. We should talk.”

He produced an apple from someplace and took a bite, “Ok.”

“Once I’m done eating because...honestly this is so good.”

Loki smiled, “My ancestors knew how to cook. But I should mention, before we 'talk', the rules of hospitality are in effect by a hundredfold here. So no violence. It would go...badly.”

She frowned, “I’m not going to hit you anymore. I’m not sorry that I did, so don’t go digging, but you’re the team I’m on now. Pax?”

Loki nodded, “Alright. On the plus side it also forbids poisoning. More water?”

“Yes.”

“I can’t tell you how flattered I am that you didn’t cough up that filter.”

She took his measure while they sat on the floor and ate, and he did the same to her. After some time, apparently satisfied, he stared into the fire and just started talking.

“My father would take us out hunting on midgard with him, when I was a child. Just us and a few huntsmen, tracking and camping. I hated it, but I loved tending the fire. Thor would chase his own tail like a kitten looking for track and spoor, but I would collect fallen boughs like gold. It was the first magic, fire. Well, not the first exactly. But the first of its kind, the first of the second age. We may claim to have made fire, but it was fire that made us.”

Natasha pretended to chew to avoid needing to respond, fascinated by his rapt attention to his own catechism.

“Your book-followers believe that in the beginning there was the word. That was indeed the beginning of the book. But there were two ages of gods before the wyrdfire awakened the word. First there was the darkness, and the fire conquered the darkness, and later the word conquered the fire. For the middle gods, the story goes that in the beginning, there was an unbearable fire and an absolute darkness...and then the fire shattered…”

Chapter Text

Natasha refilled his glass on the pretense of filling her own. He accepted her handling of him with an air of noblesse oblige, considering the jewel-red against the leaping light.

“Before the shattering, fire was a single roiling horror; lightning, lava, nuclear fusion and soul-rending rage, all in one, searing and deafening and blinding and maddening, indescribable. To encounter it was to cease to be. The old gods protected their creatures from a light more terrible than any darkness, a heat hungrier than any void, and their final triumph over it was the beginning of their fall.

“In the final sundering, the broken fire fell on Jotunheim, pale sizzling shards of what it had been. Some bore away the hearthfire from the wreckage,” he gestured to the light beyond his glass, “and gave it to the mortal realms they won, becoming the new gods. Some seized the striking fire and escaped from Jotunheim, becoming the storm giants. Them that would become dwarves and fire giants took the forge fire to the centers of planets and stars. The draft fire alone, the wyrd fire, fell into the leys and cracks, billowing between the veils of the universe, supernal and unbound.

“The frost giants and the dark elves were left with nothing but the burning cold, the dark, and the stone of the old time, and these they were forced to hoard, for the darkness too had shattered into parts lesser than their sum. No dark still lives as truly dark as what they sacrificed, nor fire like the fire they conquered. They shunned the spoils of their apocalypse and would not adapt to the rising of days, the ascendancy of color and shade, and soon found themselves stranded beneath a heaven strung with eddying pools of shattered light, blind to its beauty.

“To the displeasure of the Jotun war kings, the new magic was strange and subtle, but far more powerful, more versatile, than the old. Stick magic. Hearth magic. The new wealth was the wealth of spreading tree, swelling fruit, fatted flock; the full woodpile and the winter cheer. The new strength was in feeling and in kinship and in craft. The new wand was root and kindling, spindle and loom, mysteries of tending and gathering, preserving and trading, names and faces, mysteries not suited to war, supplanting claw and spear. The great tree had split the rock.

“And though that wealth will always lure monsters out of the dark, and the old magic has never died, we at last had the wisdom to know that a warrior is only as great as the hall where she celebrates and the home he defends,” he fell quiet, smiling privately at his empty glass, “and we became people.”

Nat put down her plate, “I’m torn between an admission that I find this interesting and an observation that this all sounds like a brag about your praise rock Led Zeppelin cover band.”

He grinned, “This was all thousands of years before I was born, and likely a thousand versions from what really happened. Still, yes, it was given to me as the family history.”

“And it’s lovely. I just don’t see myself converting to Lokism anytime soon.”

Loki snorted, still looking at the fire, “I think you just did. My favored form of worship is heresy and impudence.”

His retroactive wheedling for worship reminded her of Tony, and it soured her mood, leaking more bitterness into her voice than she meant, “Don’t let my disdain swell your head. I’m the world’s foremost puny-human authority on administering tough love to superpowered egoes.”

Slighted by her tone, his snort of laughter turned snide, “And The Avengers did well under your sheltering hauteur, did they?”

She shrugged airily, in no mood, “Well I don’t like to brag but they didn’t literally burn the whole world down recently.”

“No, they didn’t,” he muttered, resting his forearms on his knees, “just yours. How much better that must feel.”

She flinched, swiping the bottle off the table. It was almost empty, so she gave it a mouth-to-mouth mercy-killing, “The widow yeilds to the esteemed prince of Okla-nowhere.”

They shared a morose silence for a little while, during which he seemed to reconsider, “You really should never believe anything I say.”

She gave him a carefully weighted look, “That’s an interesting way to saddle me with the burden of interpreting your sloppy ambivalence. But if that’s the way we’re going, you should probably treat my emotional slips as a compliment. I never do that unless I trust someone a little. I never used to do it at all. You were working really hard before at making me think you want us to trust each other, or else not working hard enough to hide it.”

He squinted at her peevishly, “And what about you? Can you feign stony professional indifference indefinitely, or do you eventually miss having friends?”

The empty bottle felt heavy in her hand, “Not actually mutually exclusive, I think you'll find,” She looked at him a long while, reaching no conclusions beyond an awareness of weariness. Finally she said, “Do you want to go to bed with me?”

His eyebrows went up in a pantomime of innocence, “Honestly the thought hadn’t crossed my mind,” when she just kept looking at him steadily without enticement or accusation he shrugged, “Do you really even want to know?”

She shook her head, “I already know. I’m just showing you the intersection between professional indifference and friendship. I’m trying to find out whether you can answer that kind of question truthfully when it matters.”

He squinted, “Are you saying it matters?”

“There’s only one bed.”

He mouthed the beginning of a lofty well-yes-but, then abandoned it unvoiced. He looked at the bed, then at her, then down at himself, heaving a deep sigh, “I don’t. I don’t want to. I mean, I’m fine to share, to sleep. But not the other. I-” his voice dropped, “I just think we’d both be incredibly weary of it. Before we’d even finished.”

She got up, her smile gentle, “Busman’s holiday.”

He blushed a little, “Or a stalemate, no pun intended. Neither of us giving or getting anything that...we’d want to...or ought to.”

She nodded approvingly, giving him his quantum of applause, “Thanks for being honest.”

He exhaled heavily, glancing away, “Good to have it out.”

“It’s something a good agent does when they have your back. Even when it reveals uncomfortable things, honesty keeps tensions tolerable, so we're watching for threats and not puzzling out subtext cues. Words blunt, eyes front.”

He smirked, “Using words to trap the fire. You truly are a product of the third age.”

“I can’t tell if you disapprove.”

He tilted his head to one side pensively, “Neither can I.”

She shrugged, “So, is there anything you want to ask?”

“None I don’t already know the answer to.”

She put her glass away and moved to the side of the bed, “Ask anyway. Let me show you that I can answer.”

“Can you forgive me for-”

“No.”

He nodded, “Good. We have a lot in common. Which, like I said, I already knew.”

She turned down the edge of the bed, trying to figure out which furs were meant to be on top and which were meant to be underneath, tossing him a measured verbal haymaker, “You’ve been trying not to cry all evening. Why?”

He got up, unbuttoning his shirt and laying it over his coat, clearing his throat, “More than just all evening. And a hundred reasons. And because,” he straightened his undershirt, ”I don’t like the position it would put you in of not believing me, and the position it would put me in of not being believed. My grasp on sincerity is unpracticed and, at best, tenuous.”

She nodded, “That’s fair. It’s ok to not let go, if it’s honest. Sometimes keeping pressure on a wound keeps you alive. Ninety percent of my job my whole life has been making sure to keep the right things on the inside. My secrets, my identity, my center of balance, my organs...the occasional microfilm,” she glanced at him and he returned her smirk, “There’s nothing dishonest about not spilling your guts when your gut's telling you not to. Still, come here,” she climbed into the bed.

He’d hung his pants over his coat, his long undershirt concealing most of his boxers, “What do you mean?”

She sighed, “I mean come here. I mean it’s ok, this isn’t a come-on. Maybe the fire is turning us into people, or maybe my wounds are getting the better of me, but if you want to be held, I’m ok with that. Monsters or people, we’re still mammals. Call it healing pressure or a trust exercise if you want.”

He got in on the opposite side of the bed and slid towards her, seeming oddly bashful, “I’m probably heavier than you think. Let me know if it bothers you,” He leaned in against her and she leaned back, putting an arm around him. They were a good fit, despite the length and surprising density of him. His wasn't the leaden solidity of Hulk, as though she might fly apart like milkweed just for touching him, but she’d never thought he'd weigh even fifty pounds more than her, soaking wet. His head on her shoulder and his arm across her stomach felt massive, and left her estimating that the rangy sorcerer, the one that had come to rely on his cleverness due to being smaller than the other Asgardian children, would easily tip the scales at four hundred pounds or more. The strength it had to take to move himself so lightly was harder to estimate.

“Move your head in just a little, more onto my sternum. I broke that shoulder in two places a long time ago, and it hurts when I press on it just wrong.” He obediently snuggled in tighter against her side and sighed, heavier as he relaxed, and she sighed in agreement, “And, for what it’s worth, I don’t think crying would give anything away. Any one reason you might have is effectively cloaked by the other ninety-nine. You lost your world, and your family’s complicated. That’s about where I’m at, too. If I'm shadowing you for six months, keeping or ignoring a lot of obvious secrets is going to be wearying for both of us. So, yeah, I do miss having friends. Lately it’s not a lack of loyalty that always finds me playing both sides.”

He nodded, "Just the opposite, I'm sure," and gathered her front-to-front, resting his forehead in the hollow of her throat, and she burrowed her nose in the part of his hair. She smelled snow and hearthfire on his skin, and it recalled long nights in the mountains, spooning a sniper rifle as big as herself, watching families in their glowing homes through the venomed pincers of a scope, knowing that she would pluck them all up in another...few...breaths. She hadn’t even been eighteen before she’d lost count of how many...before her ledger had overflowed...

She smoothed his hair, and for a little while she cried, silently. Just a few tears. Not for the pain, just the weariness, maybe a little for the futility. There were no words, and never would be. She missed Clint and Laura and the kids, the occasional flickers of feeling like she might someday deserve them. She missed Wanda and Sam, how unafraid of her they were. She even missed Cap and Tony, but fuck Cap and Tony.

It passed, and she let it. She closed her eyes and pictured a fish.

Chapter Text

“You’re not sleeping,” he murmured after a while, not quite stroking but sort of curiously feeling her back, idly palpating scars under the thin fabric with deft and chiding fingers.

She scoffed, “Yeah, well, I’ve been meditating sixteen hours a day for weeks. I’m not that sleepy. Why aren’t you sleeping?”

“Too busy wondering if you’re going to sleep, I suppose.”

Nothing unnerving about that at all, “Nah, I probably won’t. Not for a while. I expect things will be busy tomorrow, then I’ll get back to something like normal sleep.”

“Should we talk?” he rolled onto his back, transparently keen on the thought.

She propped her head on her hand, “Is there something you want to talk about?”

“Ask me something. I like your game of seeing if I can answer. I feel good at it.”

“It’s not really a game. It’s part of a psychological compatabil-”

“Whatever, I like it.”

She sighed, sitting up, “Ok, boss. Here, put your feet on the floor over the end of the bed and lay back” she scooted her legs off the other end and did the same, her head inverted beside his, eyes level two handspans apart.

“What’s this for?”

“Most of the time in the field, your partner’s just a voice in your ear. This position is meant to mimic that sense of intimate isolation. In my experience it’s accurate.”

He nodded approvingly, “Makes sense. So what’s the first question?”

“The analytical interpersonal field battery involves tactical problem solving and descriptive skill. Frank handling of uncomfortable subjects, spontaneous response style under stress, and quality of information conveyed are tested for. A lot can depend on how you give another operative bad news or admit you fucked up when they can’t see you. There are other trust exercises with other seating arrangements, but if I’m not gonna sleep or meditate I ought to at least stay lying down so I’m not a mess tomorrow," she shrugged, "It’s another one of those mortal things.”

He scoffed, “Immortals have mornings-after too.”

She laughed, “Yeah, but I doubt yours are due to staying up all night being all sexually platonic and conversationally socratic. Truly a wild night in the cabin at the beginning of humanity.”

Loki made a derisive noise.

“What?”

“Nothing. Plato.”

“Not a fan?”

“No just-” he grumbled, “Nevermind.”

“Yeah,” Nat impersonated his low vocal fry and breathy accent, “enough about him, let’s talk about me.”

He grinned, nodding with imperious self-satire, “Exactly.”

“Ok. The questions are designed to be awkward.”

“Go on,” he sounded genuinely eager, like a kid strapping into a carnival ride.

“If I were your mark, how would you seduce me?” half her brain kicked the other half. There were eighteen questions in the first analytical battery and only one about sex. Still, it was less uncomfortable than any of the questions about killing would be. A little too less-uncomfortable.

“Are you serious?”

She shrugged, only technically lying, “It’s the first question,” ...that I picked.

“Sounds more like a leering party game.”

She nodded, “There are certainly formal similarities.”

He pondered, “Did you ever ask Barton this?”

She couldn’t help grinning, “I sure did.”

He eyed her suspiciously, “How did he answer?”

She gave him her best sphinx smile, “Really, really well.”

His eyes went plaintive, his tone imploring, “I demaaand details.”

She turned her face to the ceiling, trying not to laugh, “Your answer first. No cribbing.”

He studied her profile, considering, “This is too weird to answer. You remind me of my...”

She glanced at him as his voice failed, “You ok?”

He nodded, “Yes. My sister. You remind me of my sister.”

She squinted sidelong at him, “The goddess of death?” she weighed the comparison, her bottom lip pressing up like the other end of the scale, “I guess I can take that as a professional compliment.”

“No, well, yes, I suppose. You’ve certainly got that openly-deadly skin-tight black catsuit thing going on...and the where-is-she-even-pulling-those-knives-from thing... but...no I...except for the red hair you sort of,” he shook his head vigorously, wresting the thought away from his indocile yap, “it’s been a long time, I shouldn’t pretend that I actually remember her face...” he trailed off, closing whatever door he’d thoughtlessly nosed open.

A tight frown stretch his thin lips across his teeth like hazard tape, warning her not to press, so she didn’t. She waited until he was ready, then asked, “Ready?”

He nodded.

She gazed at the ceiling, mirroring its blank indifference, “The weirdness is part of the point. For every heightened interpersonal state; fear, aggression, shame, affection, whatever; you’ve got a very short time to decide whether you’re going to escalate, store, or ground the tension, and then do it as cleanly as you can. Meaningless tensions can build up like a static charge in unexamined places, especially when there’s a lot of adrenaline or boredom to deal with, which there basically always is, in the field. When you’re staring someone down or playing a stupid party game, you want to escalate, make things as spark-y as possible. When it’s your own team that’s sparking, you ground it. You call it what it is and work the problem. If you can’t let it go, you store it, but you hold yourself accountable for grounding it as soon as you can. Too much storage is the same as escalation. For this question, you’re asked to ground any sexual tension you’re storing, and give me a clean read on where you think I’m vulnerable to sparking. So. I’m your mark. It’s your job to seduce me. What’s your play, sparky?”

He squared his shoulders against the furs, starting over, “In this hypothetical, do I know that you’re a super-spy?”

“You know everything you know. You’re you and I’m me. Completely non-hypothetical, aside from the goal.”

He puffed out his cheeks, flummoxed. Even mostly naked, knowingly attractive, and horizontal, complete with with a roaring fire, isolation, and hours until dawn, Nat knew how to ground romantic ambitions with just a steady look. It came in handy. She’d been a lightning rod since puberty.

He nodded decisively, “I would alter your body’s genitalia to express a more...penetrative variation.”

She laughed, “That’s a new one.”

He sniffed urbanely over a half-suppressed smile, “Maybe for you.”

“I didn’t realize you so heavily preferred penis.”

He shook his head, “I don’t. I’m an unconditionally omnivorous sexual gourmand. The change would be entirely for your benefit.”

“Can you just do that on a whim? That’s kind of terrifying.”

“The change wouldn’t be real, but I could make you think it was, briefly. It’s largely indistinguishable. And undeniably distracting.”

Her mood clouded over, storing sparks of hostility, “Not a big fan of mind-control, actually.”

“It’s not mind control,” Loki shook his head, “Not like what the chitauri scepter did to Barton and Selvig. Nothing that-” he caught the stony set of her jaw and swallowed, “Maybe a teensy scootch of hypnosis, sensory telepathy, suggestive illusion. But I can’t reach into your heart or mind. I wouldn’t. That was the scepter, not me,” he shrugged, trying for frivolity, “and mind control hardly counts as seduction anyway, so I expect it’s out of bounds for the question at hand.”

Nat’s scowl tightened, going further than was productive and not really caring, “You did more than reach into Agent Coulson’s heart.”

Loki regarded her with a rigid blankness, any one emotional reaction unreadable under layers of others in fragile balance, “Hospitality.”

“What?”

“Just reminding you. Hospitality law is in effect here. If you want to hit me again we should probably go outside.”

Nat took a deep breath, lying, “I don’t want to hit you, I just don’t want your spin on the past.”

His expression was impassive, white noise, “Don’t you?”

“No. I gave up on excuses a long time ago. I carried around a couple dozen for every corpse I left in my wake until the pretense of innocence got heavier than the factual guilt. Your excuses are for you to carry. You haven’t earned any right to foist them on me.”

His throat flickered, his tongue prowling restlessly behind closed teeth. Probably a fanged tirade on her sins, or a threat to throw her out in the middle of frozen nowhere. Here it comes, she thought, oddly relieved after so much strange gentleness.

After a slow breath, Loki unrolled his words carefully, “I appreciate your candor. Let me clarify. My illusions are fragile. Without the scepter, I can’t inflict or,” his voice dropped, the corners of his mouth tightening, “or any of what I did to your allies in the past. I can invite your own thoughts to the surface for you to see, but I can’t read them or change them. I can fabricate some very persuasive appeals, but that’s all they are.”

She shrugged, stalled anticipation prickling the back of her neck. Even if he were secretly decent and misunderstood, which she sincerely doubted, Loki’s impulse control problems, grandiosity, and abusive temper were literally legendary. She needed more information on why she’d anticipated him wrong, but didn’t want to tip any more openings than she already had with that sloppy escalation. She covered cooly, hooding the fire in her gut with words, “Any particular reason why you’d pick that play, then?”

He was worse at feigning indifference, or better at subtly telegraphing hurt and defensiveness without seeming to mean to, “Well, in the dreadful circumstance of you being you, me being me, and sex being obligatory, you’d be on high alert for magic and deception from me, so I’d make them both absurdly easy to spot. And even then,” he shrugged, “you don’t even want me to know which cities you like, so you’d probably kill me in self-defense before having your stickier tastes compromised. Yet if I don’t discover them, I still fail. So option three, I give you a disguise, a role, something fun you’ve never thought about wanting. You reveal nothing. If anything, I’d be handing you insights into myself so easily that you might hazard enjoying it just to kill time,” he glanced away passively, waiting to be told-off.

She nodded appraisingly, feeling a rare blush. It would betray weakness to begrudge him honest feedback, so she briskly grounded her ire, “That would probably work.”

His frown warmed to a tentative conspiratorial smirk, “It usually does.”

She smirked back, “Bit of a routine?”

He shook his head, mimicking affront, “That’s a nasty word. Seduction proceeds from responses regardless of opening tactics,” one cheek twitched in not-quite-a-wink, “Do you need me to show you?”

She sighed incredulously, the playfulness ebbing, “I’m pretty familiar with how it works. You know that.”

He actually blanched, “Sorry. We were getting back to doing so well with the honesty thing. I shouldn’t flirt if I don’t-” he cleared his throat, “Bad habit.”

She shrugged, “Me too. I get frivolous whenever anyone...I have a bad habit of provoking physical reactions to keep people at a distance, using seduction as deflection, or combat as situational control. I'm good at tricking someone else to cross that line first. But you’re not a mark. Foisting my bullshit controls on you just increases tension and confounds situational control down the line,” he blinked at her, stunned at her brisk dismantle of her own defensive hardware into its component pieces. She went on, “Even if it pisses me off that you've got a better read of me than I have of you, I shouldn’t have brought up-” she couldn’t reference Phil again without repeating the offense, so she stowed it, “and I should have started with a more platonic question.”

He made that derisive grunt again.

She laughed, disbelieving, “Ok, seriously, what? Whenever a guy compulsively derides a philosopher I feel like I’m about to be commanded to read 'Infinite Jest'. You don’t like Plato?”

Loki groaned, rubbing his forehead, “No, Plato’s fine it’s just the misnomer ’platonic’ for unerotic. Neo-platonic drivel. The whole ladder of eros thing was never about glorifying abstinence, but that’s how it was popularized later. I swear, if Cromwell hadn’t forcibly wrecked the court of Charles the first and executed that fucking dullard, I’d have gotten around to it. Idiots.”

“Ok. I have literally no idea what you’re talking about.”

He spread his hands “Well you’ve read Plato’s ‘Symposium’, yeah?”

She wondered if hospitality would apply if she killed him with a look, “No. And before you ask, 'Infinite Jest' is also a no.”

He seemed scandalized, possibly just to annoy her, “I thought you went to a boarding school where they taught the arts.”

“Yeah,” she scoffed, “the three B's: ballet, brainwashing and ballistics. Weren’t real keen on enriching our capacity for moral examination. Just get to the point and stop being a pretentious asshole.”

He folded his hands on his chest primly as if he were telling her off, “I can’t. I’m the platonic form of being a pretentious asshole. You can google what that means. Anyway, short story shorter, the Symposium is Plato's fiction of famous greeks at a party belching sophistry about the noblest methodology for fucking teenage boys. They’re too hungover for a drinking contest, so their host proposes an impromptu oratory contest praising Eros.”

She knew that much Greek at least, “Eros the carnal and desirous love, or Eros the winged archer god?”

“It was all the same to them, mostly. The bleary geniuses bloviate in turn about what Eros is and requires, from its capacities and purposes to his divine rank and aspect. They speak beautifully, but it’s mostly aphoristic rot; Plato taking the tricks of other writers and orators and proving he could do them too. They high-mindedly agree that the highest erotic love is a mentor lusting for his budding student. They likewise agree that women are erotically irrelevant, elaborated masturbation, and that divine eroticism is wasted and debased on them.”

“Sounds like a fantastic read,” she deadpanned, “I can’t believe I’ve gotten as far as I have in life without it.”

Loki waved a dismissive hand, pressing on like Scheherazade, “But at last it's Socrates’ turn. He casts sentimental pontificating aside and slyly recites a dialogue between the character of himself, in his youth, and Diotima, the wise priestess who taught him the erotic mysteries. It's an implicit counter to the masturbatory sophistry and rapey chauvinism permeating the symposium up to that point. Erotic love, as Diotima explains through Socrates (and he through her), is neither a god above nor a sentiment within, but an intermediating force between mortal and eternal things. Its urgent response in the presence of beauty is the surest catalyst of the soul. Its generative hunger between lovers will, if explored courageously, hone a progressive hunger for the beauty of animate life's mysteries. That hunger, properly fed and trained, in turn nurtures a passion for social and interpersonal good, the beauty of natural patterns and human patterning,” his eyes unfocused through the ceiling, his recitation rapturous, “From there the hunger refines to the savor of wisdom itself, the deep and nakedly unbodied contemplation of Knowing, of Virtue, of essence and Form. One ascends this ladder as purely and unchastely as a flame, and every step, even the most exalted, is a dialogue, a personal interaction, a seduction, and an aching need.

“Through the masks of Diotima and Socrates, Plato argues that Eros is what drives us to lie with beauty, bear philosophy, and birth truth; to yearn with that same mammalian heat for the hard labor that begets wisdom as we do for that which begets children. It is neither tender nor mindless nor elaborate nor sentimental. Instead it is bristling, searing, inventive, rewarding, sincere. It is not in itself beautiful or good, but it is a hungry hound that leads its master to The Beautiful and The Good.”

Nat swallowed, catching a bit of a glow from his impassioned oratory, “Sounds intense.”

He nodded, sawing at the air above him with his hands, “Plato’s eros never daintily forbids or foregoes carnal contact. Championing those pleasures which are courageous and mutual will certainly sound, to a misogynist or predator or puritan, like a prohibition of every sexual urge in their pathetic catalog, and I would, by all means, prefer that they interpret it that way. But all Plato did was demolish the two fallacies exalted by the previous speakers: first, that the burning and brilliant path of eroticism dead-ends in base carnality, and, second, that self-gratification through use of another is divinely erotic. His Diotima and Socrates certainly believe that erotic sexuality is the lowest rung of the divine ladder of eros, but the ideal way to the top of that refining ladder isn’t to cut off the bottom rungs. One uses a ladder specifically when an eminence is too lofty to leap. And even when one’s refining flame has attained the desired height, the most exalted bonfire is not well improved by extracting and discarding the cruder wood at its base. Indeed, as the author and arranger of the larger dialogue of speeches, Plato suggests that one cannot skip to enlightenment or eroticism from chaste books or one-sided pronouncements, not even his. He hints that the uphill path of spiritual eroticism can have no spectators, no passive or unwilling object, and no scribbling hermetic orders. It must be truly shared. Truly traveled. And it must burn.”

Nat cleared her throat politely to break up her passivity. She wondered if his passion was sincere or a convenient vent for his unusual self-control up to that point. He paused for breath and she interjected, “Got it. Rape bad. Fire good.”

Loki scowled, “You’re kidding but that’s precisely it. In his myth of the cave, Plato analogizes The Good, the ultimate virtue, to a fire casting shadows on a cave wall, with ordinary life being the process of pressing our noses to the cold stone in an attempt to understand the fire. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Even his most abstracted dialogues are still dialogues, seductions of the mind proceeding from questions that are more important than their answers. We are meant to contemplate The Good, not to disappear ourselves into it. The contemplation of The Good may defy words, but it is not silent or solitary. His Socrates is a man who is truly enlightened, who could sit content in a doorway forever in solitary contemplation with the wisest man of his age, and yet he loves conversation with others more than any other pleasure, loves it so much that others love him for it with a passion. Abandoning the self or the world in a sterile ascetic rapture has less than nothing to do with Plato's ideals.”

She nodded, trying to sound soothing, trying to sift clues about why he seemed to take it so personally, “Sounds interesting.”

He ground his teeth, “It was. Then a puritanical misread of ‘platonic love’ became the affectation du jour of the Carolingian court in the years leading up to the interregnum. Suddenly ‘platonic lovers’ claimed to put themselves above bodily passions, even while their lavish entertainments and tastes eroded their awareness of the world that crumbled around them unseen. They degraded philosophy to a rejection of eroticism, just as Plato’s straw pedophiles reduced eroticism to a rejection of true intimacy, just to flatter King Charles’ worship of hierarchy, as if one can claim wisdom and passion by divine right and wishful platitudes,” he spat, “as easily as one mouths a sentiment or swings a sword.”

Nat sighed, hoping he might wind himself down, “So, exactly the opposite of what you say Plato was saying.”

There were actually angry tears in his eyes, “They didn’t just cut the bottom rung off the ladder of eros, they knocked the ladder over and claimed to have climbed it. So now ‘obsessively not fucking’ is the definition we’re all stuck with for Plato's vindication of unselfish passion between spiritual equals, meant to free us from lesser physical obsessiveness to engage the harder work of courageous learning. We’re stuck with the sniffy notion that sexual and elevated love are mutually exclusive, that sex itself or even sexual attraction ruins friendships and souls, taking our definition of fire from people who lived and died with their noses pressed against the stone.”

“So when people mention the idea of platonic love, you get a bit snarly. Because you’ve been hearing people use it wrongly for, what, three hundred years now?”

Tersely, “Almost four hundred. And yes, I do.”

“I can understand that. Still, you could have started with that, just in keeping with the spirit of your rant. I mean, it sounds like Plato understood the danger going in, writing a book of speeches about the inadequacy of books and speeches.”

He sighed, smirking, emotionally winded, "You think I don't know that I'm ridiculous, but I do," he lay one hand back to fiddle with a curl of her hair, “Enough about him, let’s talk about me. How would you seduce me, if I were your mark? I’m really interested now.”

His tone was far too convoluted for the exercise, too much subtext, uncentered, reaching for comfort, adrenalized, sparking, digging for an excuse to cross important lines, and she knew she should call a stop. She could. She knew a hundred methods. She’d been a lightning rod for as long as she could remember, grounding a hundred sexual strikes a day un-singed. But she looked at him, considering, reading him like a burning book.

She pursed her lips, stating bluntly, “I’d fuck your brother.”

His pupils widened like spreading pools of cold gunpowder, “Tell me more.”

Chapter Text

Oh goddammit Nat, this is the worst idea, you can’t need to get laid this bad, she thought, a flush of annoyance skulking beneath a glow of appetite, and all she said was, “First I would make you think that I was up to something, so you’d tail me. And I’d go to him.”

“Tell me more,” his breath swirled hot in the short space between them.

She didn’t like the imperious confidence in his voice, the easy presumption of command, that she couldn’t stop if she chose to. Stop, Nat, she told herself. Stop. He’s a compulsive loner and a sociopath and a liar and a murderer...and...and so are you, ”I wouldn’t say anything to him. He’d ask what I wanted with him at that hour. I'd show him, and he'd respond, always so comfortable in his body. I bet you two are that similar, at least. I bet he’s always up for a little harmless fun, if he’s sure it’s welcome. So I’d assure him.”

Loki nodded, entranced, pressing himself up to sitting, his hip by her shoulder, leaning back and looking down, “Tell me more.”

She looked up at him like a cat at a king. There was something bafflingly guileless and amazed in the way his breath moved his chest and his eyes searched her face. Something almost biddable beneath that smoulder of confidence. She put one hand behind her neck and lazily twined a finger of the other in the hem of his undershirt, “I would want him naked.”

WIth a duelist’s flourish he whipped his shirt off over his head and threw it into the fire. As she watched its flight he scooped her under the shoulders, and pulled her up to sit alongside him, facing opposite, hip to hip, like students on a quad. He let his hand trail covetously across her thinly clothed shoulder blades as he sat back, “Tell me more.”

She touched his collarbone, and the leap of shadows across the planes of his skin kept time with the leap of sparks under their slivers of contact. She shrugged, “I would kiss his chest. Trail down,” fingertips meandered like raindrops down glass, “Simple. Predictable. Boring. You'd watch his responsive face instead of my rote procession down his responsive body.”

Loki responded, leaning across her lap onto a hand by her opposite hip, bringing his face down on a level with her own, his voice lower, “...more.”

She inclined towards him, whispering to his lips, “I would suck him, on my knees," she drew out the sybbalants, "shameless and suppliant, but too slowly, make his eagerness eat into his patience, make his hand,” she played a hunch, sliding her fingers along his scalp, "tremble to grip at me as his confident gentleness begins to...slip...snaring him between the indignity of begging and the dishonor of force.”

His hands fisted in the fur bedding, and he shuddered, tipping his forehead against hers, gruffly, “...more.”

She stroked his hair silently, coyly disinterested in commands.

“More," he brushed the corner of his mouth against hers, "Please.”

Her cheek slid against his, putting her lips by his ear as a hand settled atop her thigh like snowfall, drifting cooly, “I’d linger the mighty legend until he was trembling on his feet like a foal, until he would do anything to be released, until you could hear him groaning regardless of where you’d hidden yourself to watch. Until you realized," she lipped his earlobe, gripping with her teeth, "what I was waiting for.”

He twisted a finger in the gaping collar of her top, and she raised her arms like a carefully choreographed dancer as he pulled it up and off. She had to move quickly to snatch it before he flung it after his own, muttering as she threw it aside that she couldn’t make illusory spares. He didn’t answer, his mouth was on her neck, fingertips smoothing her shoulder and down her arm, others slipping breezily up her thigh. Feverish, she sighed, losing track of her own narrative. She tried, vainly, to convince herself that there was something fishy about how much she wanted him. She didn't tend to want when it wasn't just a tool, an expedient. But then she didn't often feel like she was close to someone she couldn't hurt, who understood and accepted all the risks about who and what she was. Even under her own direction she seldom felt free, and like she could actually do something without destroying everything, or like she could let someone else move freely in kind, who understood the rules of the cold world without being their enforcer.

“I would be hiding right behind you, at your ear,” he whispered, “While your silken mouth draws the storm towards breaking, I'd gather your lap back against mine, make myself a throne for your kneeling, a saddle for your bucking. I'd ground my ready length along yours, here,” his hand skated under her loose waistband, parting her shallowly with the pad of his thumb to find her molten and shivering, her thighs shifting apart, “standing it straight and straining before you, its base as tight against yours as if it were your own, like a tall candle fixed in a dish of scalding wax,“ his index finger joined his thumb, bracing and rolling her pliant, swollen, layered linings to caress the densely innervated axis within, slow and sure, “I would whisper into your mind the swelling pleasure of our thirsting wick, slicked and slaked in this hot dripping tallow,” he rolled his thumb and forefinger too slowly, "And once I had given you my hard cock like no man else ever could, I'd reach into our lap to stroke it in my fist, wet with your velvet kiss, and I'd pleasure every inch of your cock with an impossibly knowing hand."

She moaned softly, her forehead rolling against his, flickering dreamlike between the two versions of his attentions until she felt unsure where to reach for him. Her eyes flicked open, meeting a steady green gaze and falling into his mind like a cartoon coyote making the fatal mistake of checking whether it had outrun the cliff’s edge. And for a moment, everything she felt was just as he described. She knelt in the dark, an impossibly strong hand cupped to her cheek. She felt his hips trembling and buttocks clench as he resisted the titanic urge to thrust, her throat nevertheless full of the straining erection of her fond, shining comrade, the filial perversity of it burning and shameful and deliciously naked. Between her legs, Loki clasped her more greedily than Thor dared, one hand twined possessively around to fondle her chest, the other between her legs stroking thrills through their whole form, his and hers and his, as Loki’s hands sent sparks up her spine that danced from her tongue. The two boundaries faded like three flames meeting, and she could feel the roll in Thor’s neck and shoulders as he groaned piteously, the pulse and tingling in Loki’s fingertips as he plucked and squeezed at her breasts. She knew the heady smell of the back of her own neck, the silken tightness of her throat, the velvety heat of her cleft, her whole being gone wet and hot and melding and pulsing, writhing, attenuated between lovers.

Pleasure tightened towards a crisis, and his whispers grazed her ear, “Our brother loves the feel of coming lips of any kind. If I finish us, I finish him just as surely…” the hand around her cock worked her with a careless intensity that would have sent her flinching away in pain if it were her own tender nub instead of his rampant bough. She didn’t need to slow him, or guide him, or beg him. He knew just what was needed, as if he’d brought her off twice a day for a few thousand years, a sure hand on the tiller of their fantasy. The sensation banked ember-low as he slowed, making Thor moan incoherently as his own edge teased at receding. Loki lingered them all until she was trembling like a flame, until she realized what he was waiting for.

Desperate for release she rolled her tongue, and Thor growled, and Loki gasped, and the fire leapt, and the world went white. Nat and Loki came together like coke and coalfire, erupting like coke and mentos, Nat’s spasm triggering Thor to unload over and over down her throat to her base, the ramming heat of it seeming to sunder her body apart from Loki’s, and she fell back into her own arms from the dizzying height of a floating volcanic cinder.

She landed in fur, sideways on the bed, Loki sprawled against her, panting in unison like a blissfully broken thing. Her doubtful gaze met his as he wiped a runnel of slaver from the side of his mouth with the edge of his hand. They studied each other with a mix of exhaustion, awe, and solicitous anxiety.

She nodded, breathless, “Thanks. That was-” she shook her head, “yeah.”

Though his breath was still blown and he reeled dizzily, he regarded her gravely, “Better than Barton’s answer?”

Her burst of laughter triggered a fit of hiccups, “I am never going to answer that,”

He grumbled, gathering furs haphazardly to cover them both. At least, Nat noted, he looked as pleasantly stunned as she felt. Surprise was harder to fake than orgasms.

She centered herself and willed the hiccups away, still fighting a few giggle-fit aftershocks, “I think I’m going to sleep now.”

He nodded, slumping heavily against her shoulder in a daze before remembering and snuggling closer onto her chest and off her bad shoulder, “Yeah...good talk.”

Chapter Text

The patch of sky in the smoke’s escape-hatch slowly changed from spangled black to limpid blue, birdsong punching notes through the papery sough of skyward pines. She woke to a tousell of black hair still spilled across her chest. It was always the ones she didn’t expect that turned out to be the most tenacious cuddlers. But then he didn’t likely expect her to be the sort to watch him sleep, either, the smell of snow making the snuggling of bare skin and furs especially decadent. 

What was it about her stupid skin, she wondered. Despite all the scars, like tally-marks of cynicism, accounts of hard and indifferent use, burns of every description over lacerations that defied description, her skin remained a gregarious optimist whenever it met another skin. She sometimes wondered if the experimental serums in her bone marrow that helped her to heal faster and age slower worked at erasing more than just the marks, keeping her skin innocent as well as whole. So much so that touch consoled her at times when nothing should have, and that despite her terror of the Hulk, she had chosen touch as the primary trigger for reversions into Bruce Banner. She knew more than most the power touch held over monsters.

She pondered the monster in her arms with more familial tenderness than seemed sane. His heavy nearness blurred her sense of scale. The untouched furrow of his eyelid along the orbiting bone seemed like a miles-deep snowdrift against a hill, the skyline of lashes unstirred by breath or tremor. Her lips parted as she studied the sighing cleft of his parted lips, the jut of his chin, the panoramic planes of his throat. She became so abstracted in reading the terrain of his sleep that he almost caught her at it.

His lip twitched, then his brow, and the return of tension resculpted the peaceful snowscape into a face. She barely got her eyes shut before his opened. Drowsy and warm, feigned sleep was more of a half-truth than a lie. He shifted, a distinctive stiffness sliding incidentally against her lower thigh. He withdrew his hand stealthily, silkily, pressing himself up on one arm and lingering over her a moment before he slid away through the smooth pelts. The box of the bed shifted as he settled on the floor with his back against it. She rolled onto her side and, when he didn’t turn, opened her eyes.

At first she thought he was reading. But there was a quaver in his breath, a roll and slide in his shoulder that slowly built. His rhythm gradually tightened and his head lolled back slightly. His tremors began to jar the bed, so he put one foot flat on the floor and leaned forward, steadying his pliant posture with the opposite hand as well, his tempo redoubled. Three soft grunts of increasing length and earnestness escaped him as his head rolled forward and his rhythm went slack. He sat back and sighed with a resigned finality, relief managed.  

Without looking back, he picked himself up slowly, straightened his shorts, and walked to the fire, his gracile limbs somehow more formal out of his suit, his gait as carefully composed as that of a strandbeest or recently freed felon, minutely intentional out of inherent necessity. He inserted his hand into the flame with indifference, watching his seed burn cleanly from his markless skin. He studied the hissing curls of white smoke in the dim light like cream swirling in coffee, then sat himself against the suit folded over the fixed stone and gazed at the flames, waiting for nothing in particular. She spied on his silhouette a little longer before stretching, sighing and stirring.

“The fire doesn’t burn you?”

He looked down without glancing at her, “It does, it just doesn’t damage me.”

“Is that because of you or because of the magic fire?”

“That’s me. This fire is the same as any other.”

“I hope I haven’t made it weird.”

He shrugged, “What sort of idiot thinks a Black Widow wouldn’t notice him getting out of her bed. I really ought to have given you more of a chance to decline to notice. Sorry.”

“It’s fine. I actually have the same habit, mornings. When I can.”

He was silent for a while, “Would you rather I go or stay?”

“What right now?”

“I’d rather not force you to stand on ceremony for my sake. If you prefer privacy you can have it.”

She shrugged, noticing the room's lack of doors, “I don’t have a preference, as long as you don’t think that being aware of it makes it about you. It’s something I do for myself.”

He hung his head, but not in shame, smiling, “As a general rule, as long at you’re not doing it to me, or asking me to pretend you don’t do that kind of thing, I don’t expect to factor in whether you eat or shit or frig yourself off. Or when. Or with whom. I’m not that kind of boss. Or consort. Or god.”

“I was thinking more about your sensibilities as a roommate, but I take your point.”

He rolled his eyes ceilingward, “I was the boyhood bedfellow of the nine realms’ strategic testosterone reserve. For better or worse I don’t really have any such sensibilities. It’s why I frequently forget that other people do. I’d be more scandalized to walk in on you brushing your teeth.”

She caught the lie in his voice, but stayed quiet for a little while, weighing whether she should say it, “You don’t forget. You’re hyper-aware of others. You’ve got that catburglar walk. You just prefer begging forgiveness to asking permission.”

He made a pensive sound in his throat, “I think ‘prefer’ is too strong a word. More-practiced-at, I grant you. Anyway I do forget things,” he looked into the fire, specifically turning away from her for the first time, “It’s something we pseudo-immortals just tend to do.”

“But not out of carelessness.”

He sighed, “No. Still, leave off, would you? It’s early and there's no coffee.”

“Sorry. Take it as my finally admitting that we have something in common.”

He took a drink of water and said nothing, spooning himself a bowl of breakfast.

She let the silence linger to make sure he was done, unsure whether he was pouting, sure that she ought not to care. Skipping her morning ritual over his turned mood, after such a big explicit deal had been made, would cede her autonomy to his passive cues. Bad precedent for six months cohabitation, better to find out whether his boasts of libertine indifference were genuine. She slid a hand down the front of her pants, a little self conscious of gasping where he could hear, but he seemed to get the etiquette, eating without conspicuous sound or silence, and it was easy to wander off into the secret world under the surface of her skin. She toyed with the thought of being gratuitously loud, but that seemed a little far. She wasn’t naturally loud, or exhibitionistic beyond a certain social indifference, and he’d probably be able to tell.

It took longer than usual, since “usual” was disarranged by new impressions. Not the figures she’d spun for him on her mind’s stage, nor his reciprocation, but a lingering figureless sense that he had joined her on her private catwalk above the play, the one from which she usually watched herself work; the sense that they had touched one another unintentionally in the embellished air and darkness while looking down, mutually pretending not to. The unraveled impression sent an uncomfortable adrenal thrill through her core and she put it aside, opting for the longer, more familiar way around to completing her habit.

When she was done, she sighed, “It’s more psychologically hygienic than erotic,” she explained, unsure why she was explaining, “A reminder that my body is mine. I tend to put it through a lot trying to keep my edge, trying to do my job. I tend to let a lot of terrible things happen to it, deny it a lot of indulgences, and I often ignore it when it complains. Aversive stimuli builds up. A decent orgasm interrupts my body’s hardwired fear of the oncoming day with a reminder that I’m still here, and I belong to myself, and there are good things in this world that are just for me and it.”

He nodded, affirming rather than dismissive, “That’s nice. Poetic. I just do it because I like my pants to fit and this room doesn’t have a bath. I expect that will be our first stop when we get to Asgard, incidentally.”

She laughed, sitting up and stretching to her toes, “That’s fair. I have built up kind of a deadly reek.”

He cleared his throat, his voice slightly changed, “Last night. Was that one of those terrible things you tend to let happen to your body for some larger reason?”

She smiled, “No. It was a weird surprise, but not bad. An impulsive decision not to forego an indulgence. It got me to sleep, that was handy. Honestly I feel like I was the aggressor, after you said you didn’t want to and I said I wasn’t coming on to you.”

He huffed a laugh, “I don’t think you were. Turns out that I did want to. I can’t help feeling we’re setting a bad example.”

The assassin studied the traitor quizzically, at a momentary loss for how to respond. Retrieving her grubby top from the dirt floor, she stretched as she dressed, feeling both perfectly well and strangely out of sync with herself, as if her awareness were trailing her motion by a blurry second, fractionally dissociated. It was an old feeling. Not drugs or conditioning. The sort of thing she only ever did to herself, and had sworn-off long ago. She shrugged “The sky is still where we left it. I expect it’s fine. Nobody’s business.”

He held out a hand to her, inviting. She squinted at him, but took it, kneeling down between his knees and resting her back against his front. He wrapped his arms around her, above and below her bust, pressing his cheek against the crown of her head and sighing with a contentment so deep it was almost lewd.

“Still,” she murmured, uneasy about how her skin agreed with his wordless sentiment, “I don’t want to do that again.”

He inhaled at the part of her hair, “Which 'that'?”

“The mental trick...disappearing into the lie...it felt good, at the time. It worked just like you said. I wanted it then, but,” she stroked his forearm, “everything else was fine, just there’s an old mental aftertaste to that bit now that I’m not enjoying. It’s me, not you, but just don’t do that again, ok? I don’t want it. And I don’t want to explain beyond that.”

He picked up her right hand, kissed her palm, and lay it flat over her heart, presumably because her shoulder was half-covering his, “You don’t have to. I won’t ask. But be honest, have I wronged you?”

She shook her head, snorting slightly and toying with his fingers, “Why, were you trying to?”

“No. It’s just that being an illusionist...a liar, more accurately, I have trouble believing anything that goes too smoothly, that isn’t just a little painful or unkind. Must be a dream if I can’t feel a pinch. Being-” he rested his chin on top of her head and she felt his throat bob as he swallowed hard, “a little harmless fun, free and clear, doesn’t seem much like my life, that’s all.”

She patted his forearm, “As a professional impostor, I’m familiar. If it helps to have a pinch, I also think-” she cleared her throat, “I really wish-” she shook her head, “Add this next conversation to the things I wish we could skip.”

“You also think going to Asgard as consorts is the wrong...play?”

She nodded, “I was thinking more along the lines of casual fraternization, but ‘consorts’ has an appropriately over-complicating ring to it.”

He released her hand in favor of stroking her shoulder, the roll of his eyes evident in his voice, “You’re not wrong. No one with a brain ought to care but everyone does when it’s me or Thor, and I think it would prejudicially diminish your standing as my agent, if your sexual favors were an open subject. My mother was a great woman, and the kingdom became stronger and fairer for her public influence, but...”

She squeezed his thigh gently, rolling her head to the side to let him stroke her neck, “There’s still regressive sex and gender baggage at norse renn faire? I’m shocked.”

He grimaced, nodding, “We play at enlightenment under the never-ending tyrannies of sentimental nonsense. Though in fairness, we were the height of sophistication in the eleventh century.”

“Still, even if free love for the uber-vikings were a moral hill I was eager to die on, carnal extracurriculars are bad spycraft and bad protection.”

“Oh please tell me that ‘carnal extracurriculars’ is a Fury-ism. That’s precious.”

She ignored him, but grinned, “Curation of appetites takes up a lot of attention, no matter how careful or jaded you think you’re being. You start to miss things that could've kept you alive, or tip things you ought to have kept close. Partners-with-benefits is a lot deadlier than enemies-with-benefits. With employers is worse. Not to mention unethical.”

He harrumphed thoughtfully, “How about liars with benefits?”

“Seems accurate, if we’re agreeing not to benefit.”

He nodded, nibbling her ear and moving his hands to her waist, “Of course we do have a few hours yet before we go to Asgard, and nothing we really have to do else in the meantime.”

She sat up and turned to him, “Except maybe to brief me on literally the entire job before I have to navigate it?”

“I can do that as part of the grand tour,” He sat forward, brushing her hair away and leaning to mouthe her neck, “this I apparently can’t.”

She matched the bowl of her palm to the curve of his forehead mid-motion, “Mr. Odinson, you’re trying to seduce me.”

He sat back in a pantomime of affront, “That’s absurd. This is nothing like a proper seduction. I’m merely trying to wheedle, molest, and cajole you.”

She pursed her lips over a smirk, closing them over the bait, “Then what’s a proper seduction?”

His gaze lingered wistfully along the line of her neck and jaw, “Alas, we don’t have nearly enough time.”

“I only meant for you to describe it.”

His eyebrows jigged, “So did I.”

She scoffed, “That is truly awful. Save the creepy boasts about your sexual prowess for the Asgardian...tavern...wenches?”

He reclined, arms folded, consternated, “That’s not a thing. Is that really where you think Thor and I are from? Some sort of poxy Tudor open sewer?”

She put a hand on each of his elbows, unfolding them and leaning back against his chest, symbolically pinning him while tangibly baiting him, “If you want me to know better you should be briefing me now and giving me the lay of the land.”

“The Lay of the Land is presently trying, heroically, to cajole you,” he put his hands on her waist and caressed upwards, drawing up the shirt she’d just gotten back on.

“Cute,” she caught and squeezed his hands still, “except you’re leaving me in dangerous ignorance. Which reminds me not to trust you.”

He laced his fingers together over her belly, desisting, “As much as I respect your professional opinion, I think you’ll find you’re worried for nothing. Asgard’s a very straightforward place compared to what you’re probably used to. What do you even want to know?”

“What kind of threats are we dealing with?”

“With you behind me, things will be fairly tame. I’ve been gone a couple weeks but the people are still in the earnest-love phase of hardship and new challenges. The only intrigue is the race for my brother’s more specific favors, and it’s not terribly subtle.”

“Big guy got the ladies fighting over him, huh?”

“Two in particular. There’s the valkyrie I mentioned. She’s the new-shiney, and represents rediscovering something vital of the Asgard that was lost. He’s quite taken with her, but I know hardly anything about her except that she hates me. Then there’s the doe-eyed scorpion, the Lady Sif. She’s been his sort-of-intended since forever. He has high regard for her, but he’s always treated her as a jolly comrade while she’s carried a torch for him bigger than her sword, which is saying something. She also hates me,”

Nat sighed, wishing she had a knife to sharpen or clips to load, “We have a side in this fight?”

“Yes. Keep it away from me. They’re a couple of snide thirsty amateurs trying their hands at romantic infighting and it’s pathetic. They both believe their sentimental needs are righteous and justified. That-” he coughed, “that can make an otherwise decent person very dangerous. Sif reminds me daily that she owes me my own head on a platter for deceiving Thor and just generally not being as worthy as her, and the valkyrie is a bitter drunk baggage-car, and loathes me for seeing it.”

“Any other players I should know about?”

“No. Asgardians don’t really-” he sighed, “Even if we were more like mortals, more book and less fire, our political landscape’s been stable peace and plenty for a generation under governance by autocratic decree. No formal court or council or church besides the throne, and no chronic want fomenting civil unrest demanding their creation. Among the realms we were the apex predator, sleeping in the sun. The only rebel to conspire against the all-father was the one he summarily banished and erased from our history.”

She frowned, “Can’t get more legitimate than that.”

“Don’t get me started. But my point is, there aren’t any players, per se, none that won’t simply vanish from my heels the moment I’m not easy prey. Understand, I ruled as Odin for a tidy fistful of your years, and it was so easy I began daring the nobles to question me. I literally built a twenty foot golden statue to myself, and they all just nodded earnestly. I wrote the worst play in the history of the written word and made them produce and praise it, and they just took it as the price of peace and plenty, humoring a man’s grief for a son he’d never even liked.”

“And none of them figured it out? That seems beyond passive. What was the plumbing made of in Asgard?”

“Oh, I’m fairly certain more than a few of them had actually figured it out by the time Thor came back to oust me, but they never questioned me. As long as I gave them enough room to pretend they didn’t know, they weren’t about to rock the boat,” Loki chuckled.

Nat didn’t, “You don’t think they might have realized the error of that placidity since? Or realized that Thor isn’t going to be the same kind of king Odin was?”

Loki looked perplexed, “I can’t imagine why they would.”

Natasha buried her face in her hands, picturing a people who’d lived in peace and plenty for centuries trying to make sense of living as refugees in a giant trailer on the prairie, “I’m sure you can’t. But just for fun, could you tell me who ‘the nobles’ are, just generally? Are they guilds, families, houses...?”

“I get what you’re asking, you’re thinking of us as one of your geopolitical situations, but, being an Asgardian...it’s just...different. The pieces don’t move like that. I can’t describe it except…” he huffed decisively, “Being part Jotun, I don’t feel the kind of cold that exists on earth. I experience the feeling of wind, a sensation in contrast to warmth, but not pain. It doesn’t make me shiver or go numb. I might not understand why it keeps your kind inside during the winter, but I can trust that it does, and that it’s not exactly a choice you make that you might suddenly unmake without consequences. There are other things Asgardians experience as pain that you don’t. Senses you’re not aware of because you've never had to be.”

“And that keeps Asgardians out of politics? The way the cold keeps us out of the wilderness?”

He nodded, “A bit like that. We’re naturally disinclined to secretive behavior and conspiratorial machinations. It’s not a matter of morality, just basic sense. There’s sniping and conflict, but it all happens out loud and along fairly straight lines. I know Asgardians seem vainglorious and grandiose, and I suppose we are, but not for the sake of being so, any more than you shiver in the cold out of pride or culture or tradition. Sif or the valkyrie might try to come at me and put me in the wrong, but they’ll come openly, and I expect they’ll read rightly that you’re a match for them.”

Nat nodded reluctantly, choosing to believe him, “So, besides mean-girl staring contests, my job is just to keep you, as the realm’s most politically savvy and even-tempered Asgardian, from losing your temper and falling into any obvious traps meant to make you look bad,” she sighed, “Easy money, seeing as you’re so difficult to provoke.”

He missed the sarcasm in her tone, “Exactly. You’ll really just be-”

Nat tried not to, but she started laughing, her head pitching forward into her hands.

“What?” when she didn’t answer he rolled her away from him onto the floor and she let him, unfolding onto her back with one hand on her forehead and another on her belly, still laughing.

“Oh stop it,” he muttered.

Nat clapped both hands over her mouth, her stomach jumping.

“STOP IT!”

She sat up smoothly, her expression blankly indifferent, head tilted in an unspoken assertion.

There was a tremor in his shoulders and he was glaring at her. He closed his eyes, growling, “point taken.”

“So let’s talk about what provokes you.”

He looked away from her, stretching his hand into the fire as idly as he might study his nails, clearly trying to bottle his temper.

“Besides laughter and the misnomer of platonic love, what provokes you?”

His chin dipped but he didn’t respond.

She went more gently, “I’m sorry I upset you. But I need-”

“To humiliate me.”

“-for my client to have a little realistic humility about his vulnerabilities, yes.”

He didn’t turn. His tongue prowled, “Clint isn’t on the raft.”

It hit her in the gut, “What?”

“Mister Rogers went and retrieved all your friends weeks ago.”

“Where are they?”

“Wakanda. Quietly.”

Shit. “Anyone else?” Laura and the kids? She wasn’t about to tell Loki about Laura and the kids.

“I don’t know. We could go for a visit and see.”

Nat shook her head, trying and failing to sound indifferent, relay facts and her quick read, “I’m not going to Wakanda anytime soon. The last time I saw their king, I shocked him six times in the chest to prevent him avenging his father. I doubt whatever deal Cap’s worked out applies to me, or if he even thought to ask. Anyway...” she tried to find the words to sarcastically congratulate him on the vengeance for his his hurt pride when she was just trying to do the job he wanted from her, but her mind stubbornly spun away on the painful reminder that her best friend had gone down for doing the right-enough thing, and she'd left him there, without even letting his family know what had happened. And she hadn’t gotten him out. And he was beyond reach, beyond apology. Secure communications to that insular nation took a lot more resources than she’d had in months. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been choked on silence before Loki spoke up.

“I just mean...the deal’s off if you want out. I should have told you when you set your terms. I bargained in bad faith, and upon humble reflection I don’t think I can give you what you’re worth for the job I’m asking. You’re free to walk.”

She shook her head, “I’m not. In the first place, I’ve burnt everything I’ve ever had trying to beat Hydra, trying to head-off Cap and Tony’s titanic ego-brawl, trying to wipe-” she laughed bitterly, remembering too clearly the verbal dismembering Loki had given her the last time she’d talked about her ethical ledger, and how easily she’d provoked him into doing it. She wiped one eye, “In the second place, you really do need my help. Your offensive long game is good, well done, touche’, when you’ve got a week to plan you know exactly what to say to hurt a person. But your short game sucks, especially on defense, and you know it. And in the third place, this room doesn’t have any doors. So could we maybe just talk about the job, please?”

Chapter Text

He turned his hand over in the fire, “I’m sorry I yelled at you.”

“I don’t give a fuck if you yell at me.”

He looked down, “Yes, you do.”

“Fine, I shouldn’t give a fuck if you yell at me.”

His tone was outrage, but not at her, “Yes, you should.”

She shook her head, wanting to get back to the job, “Sentiment.”

He glared at her, “What?”

She scoffed, “Goddamn you’re easy. Perceived sentimentality provokes your temper. You’re hardly subtle about it, it’s practically your supervillainous catch phrase. Anyone tries to offer you absolution or compromise, you accuse them of sentimentality and get violent. S.H.I.E.L.D. picked up on that and they had you in custody less that twenty four hours. Anyone that’s lived in the same town as you for a thousand years has probably got the hint, so if I'm keeping you from embarrassing yourself I need to understand its limits and how to stand you down.”

He snorted, “You’d find sentiment galling too if you’d lived your whole life swaddled in blather about the nobility of us only to find out you’d only ever been a them .”

He was deflecting. She pressed, “So by sentimentality you mean, what, aristocracy?”

He flexed his fingers as if trying to catch the fire, “I mean the grand, gaudy, idiot notions that usurp life’s pleasures and steal credit for the hard work of actual feelings.”

She tilted her head clinically, “I need an example, boss. I never went to college.”

He pulled his clenched hand out of the fire, “Honesty co-opted by honor. Want and need crammed into convoluted mythologies of identity and obligation, their corresponding comforts ossified and held to ransom by sacred tradition and the lies of nostalgia,” he studied his hand, opening it in the air, “Altruism that can’t keep its filthy paws off of kindness and empathy's labors. Familial affection, presented-as-required but never given. Love and togetherness," he trailed off briefly, "And the greatest lie, nobility,” he scoffed, “As if anyone can be wonderous in any sense larger than what they do.”

She prodded, “Interesting sentiment.”

His jaw tightened but he kept cool, “It’s not a sentiment.”

She shrugged, opting not to challenge him on whether he was just making larger principles-of-the-thing from his own more sincere sense of disaffection and isolation, “An interesting thought, I meant, coming from a prince among gods.”

“We’re not gods," he huffed, "There’s no such thing that I’ve ever seen. If there is truly any ordering principle in the universe beyond the tiny flickering tunnels of our own awareness, it is that we are undeniably a joke,” he sat back, losing steam, “A well-meaning joke, I think, but still...”

Nat found herself in a conversational variant she’d had with just about every jaded lost-boy merc she’d ever shared a headset with, “That seems like a contradiction to me. Can the world be a joke without that being inherently cruel?”

“If the universe were inherently cruel I think villains would be happier and wiser than they ever are. The joke isn’t cruel, the cruelty comes from our humorless tantrums against the humor of fate,” he looked down, “as if demanding satisfaction from the void at the top of our shrieky little voices makes us any less laughable. As if scheming and striving for imaginary gratification were not inevitably farcical. The cruel are just so many scary clowns pulling each other down in a blender-bottomed bucket, and all the malicious plotting and flailing in the world never stops it from being pathetically funny.”

“But resenting altruism and honor? What’s wrong with following a code of trying to help people in a world where so many other people have codified their malice?”

He shook his head vigorously, “Calculated sentiment might be the opposite face of codified malice, but it’s no less cruel. Even when the con artist makes beautiful art, it’s still a con. A prank. Magic beans from a smiling crook somewhere up the line.”

“You’re saying we’re just pawns of Big Altruism?”

“You joke. But trade someone’s honesty for a code of honor, and all that changes is that you never have to tell them the truth or suffer their honesty again lest that honor be offended. Puff yourself up with altruism and the greater good can be whatever your farts stink of that day. Sentiment leaves its subjects starving to death on a belly full of promises, dying for a country or a cause that won’t even exist in a hundred years for masters that will never know their names. I’ve found myself always on the wrong side of heroic sentimentality’s idiotic rule, and I am ever the gladder for it.”

She wondered how many times he’d unreeled that little speech, whether he actually thought he came off as seeming glad, “Camelot certainly sounds like a bad fit for you.”

“You think I’m a malcontent.”

She shrugged, swallowing words like hypocrite and spoiled the way she seemed to constantly be doing for her friends, “I don't find fancy fatalism useful. I work for a living. But I can certainly see where you’re coming from, I’m just wondering why you keep going back.”

His sigh wavered like a white flag, “It will be easier, once you’re my valkyrie, to show you what it means to be Asgardian.”

She leaned forward, hugging her knees, “Alright, but what does it mean to be your valkyrie?”

He shrugged expansively, “The mantle you take up is more like a knighthood than anything else. I’ll be your patron, but your official role will be largely autonomous. There are only going to be two of you, so don’t expect a lot of structured hierarchy. Likewise, valkyries traditionally serve the throne regardless of office or patronage, but there isn’t even a throne right now, so you're free to do as you please, so long as you generally embody courage, forthrightness, and valor...which should be fairly easy for you.”

“I’m not sure if you’re buttering me up or insulting me. Those sound like the sentiments you so despise.”

He grinned, “Hence it being the ideal role for you as my intermediary. Anyway I don’t mind courage so much. It can at least be proven. Forthrightness I don’t mind if it doesn’t insist on being the only forthrightness in the room. Valor gets obnoxious after a while, but I’m used to it. You’ll only need enough of each to keep me grounded, pick me up if I collapse, and give Thor some peace of mind that I’m being...minded, so he can focus on sorting his woman troubles.”

“So what are you actually trying to accomplish, if that’s any of my business?”

Loki sighed, “A lot. Everything. Building Asgard anew is more than just…” he ran his fingers into his hair, clutching his head, “Thor contents himself that Asgard is a people and not a place. But it’s also a pantheon, a kingdom, a mythical haven. The borders are mutable, yes, and can exist practically anywhere, but it still has to signify...its identity. The tree, the bridge, the throne, the wall, the well, the cave...symbols, yes, but necessary to manifesting the greater whole which they symbolize. I just spent a month studying what it would take to make them anew for him, and I...I can do it with my bare hands and just the narrowest permission to begin. That’s where you minding me comes in. Public efforts requiring public cooperation will be more credible with a valkyrie on my shoulder.”

“But how will I be capable of minding you? I probably understand less about Asgardian magic and politics than the littlest child of your people.”

Loki smiled in a way that was both gloating and shy, “A valkyrie can sense their patron’s worthiness. It’s one of several powers of the role. You’ll know in your heart if my actions are false against Asgard. You’ll also know if I lie to you. There’s never a good harmless reason for a patron to lie to their valkyrie. You’ll be honor-bound to keep my non-treasonous secrets, and uniquely empowered to do so. No one will have the right to question you nor any magic to scry or manipulate you to betray me. Thor alone, as king, would have the authority to require you to discuss my confidences, and only for the safety of the realm. Or his queen could, if he ever gets around to taking a consort and then making her queen. That takes much longer than six months, of course,” he sighed, “though the likely eventuality does spur my present haste. Easier to get this done with as few moving parts in play as possible.”

“Well ok that’s you handled. Am I supposed to police anything else?”

“Technically you can challenge anyone over anything you want, so long as you’re willing to fight over it, but slanders are no small crime, so be sure.”

“What about rules of engagement. What am I allowed to do if anyone picks a fight with you. Or me.”

“As long as we’re not the ones starting it, you can finish it however you see fit. Warriors have a lot of latitude at ‘norse renn faire’,” he rolled his eyes, but not at her, “a lot.”

“And if for some reason I’m perceived as having started it?”

“If you start or pursue a quarrel wrongly, like challenging someone below you and brutalizing them, you could be accused of wrongdoing and punished at the king’s discretion. But the harshest punishment we have for loyal offenders is banishment to live as a mortal so,” he shrugged, grinning, “no problem.”

“Loyal-?”

“The dungeon is only for foreign enemies, traitors, and those known to be an intractable danger to mortals,” his smile couldn’t quite find a discernible setting, somehow gloating and ashamed at once.

“And what am I allowed to do if you start something?”

He feigned shock, “I would never.”

She stared at him with proven skepticism.

He sighed, still smiling easily, “You’d have every right to step in and pull me out, either to defend me if you think I’m right or claim the primary right to reprove my actions if you think them wrong. Like I said, it’s all very theatrical. Without systemic magic and a benevolent dictator, it would hardly be a system at all.”

An image formed in her mind, a predictive strategic assessment, of pulling him from a conflict. It was a habit, second nature, but the images were coming more vividly, more loudly, her imagination charging ahead. Would she grab him, or his opponent, or just jump between them? The opponent would doubtless be the larger, always. What if there was more than one? How best to put herself in harm’s way...how best...to take up his cause...

He narrowed his eyes, “I haven’t anything else to confess. What is it?”

She shook her head doubtfully, dimly realizing that she’d still been staring, unsure how long, “I don’t know. I just-” she forced her eyes to shut and turned her head aside, “I feel strange. Are you doing that?”

He shifted uneasily, “You’d believe me if I said no?”

She gave a trembling impatient sigh, “Well, you know I’m going to check you later, so it would make sense to tell me the truth now. Is this something about this room or...some plan of yours?”

“I don’t even know what ‘this’ you’re talking about. Are you in pain?”

She shook her head, It was hard not to look at him, and harder to think when she did, “No, it’s more of an impulse.”

“To hurt yourself? Or me?”

“No,” She steepled her fingers, bowing her forehead against them, eyes still closed, “I don’t think I can tell you. It’s confusing.”

He sighed, “Not anger then. Or sex.”

She shook her head, “Definitely nothing with a one-word name.”

He sighed ruefully, “That’s a relief. So, deja vu? Psychological transference? Some memory plucking at you?”

She shook her head again, “It’s not a flashback. It’s in my gut, under my skin. I feel like I need...I don’t know.”

“To throw up?”

She smirked, “No. A little maybe, a little like motion sickness,” she huffed, “I feel like...I’m not touching you. Like I can feel myself not-touching you, suspended in it, like I’m a fish too close to the shore and the tide is going out around me, and if I try to stay where I am I’m going to start suffocating.” she risked a glance at his carefully-stacked scowl of concern.

“Alright.” He paused, cautious, “Do you want to...want me to be…” he stumbled over versions of words that sounded as awkward as they had in her head, finally settling on, “would you rather that we were touching?”

She nodded, not moving.

He looked at her, baffled, annoyed, “But that’s difficult suddenly? Even though we were, moments ago.”

She felt her actions fanning out in time like a hand of cards, telegraphing and trailing her intentions in a way that would have been evident to her headmistress and once would have earned her an instructive thrashing for faulty self-posession, “I don’t trust it. It feels like something you’re doing.”

He shook his head, “I can’t think how I would. What little hypnotism I have I can’t do under aegis of hospitality. My reputed silver tongue is just a smoother facility with lies than most Asgardians, save Odin, and that’s like saying I’m a better pole-vaulter than the average penguin. Emotional magics aren’t terribly subtle, and aren’t my forte. Generally if you’re aware of feeling wrong you’d also recall someone having done something to start it.”

Her breathing was beginning to feel too shallow, “But it’s definitely you. I don’t just want to be touched generally. It’s you. What about passively? Do you have an aura, like Thor’s? That draws people to you?”

He looked down over that bitterly amused smile, “I have one, but it definitely doesn’t do that,” he squinted, thoughtful, “Does it mean anything to you that I’ve felt a similarly vexing inclination towards you for some time?”

Even through her creeping distress, she didn’t forego a wry laugh, “Nah, that happens to everyone when I’m not wearing a bra.”

He snapped, “Don’t be flip, it's happened before.”

She tensed, less because he was verging on shouting again and more because his assertion rang inexplicably true, “When?”

“When I was Fury’s prisoner, you came to call with the look of a wetwork interrogator whose plan involved dull drill bits, yet my every neuron and capillary read you as a play for intimacy and trust. That wasn’t some crass libidinal urge. You’re striking, yes, but I could barely tell. You wore black, in shadow, while I was lit up like a magnification specimen on a slide. I could hardly see past my own warped reflection in the monster’s prison-glass to recognize you from Barton’s description. Yet I read you, felt you. Certainly my senses are very very good, but not like that. It was as you say, like a tide yanking at me, but only to you. At the time I thought it could only be a part of my…” he shut his mouth so abruptly his teeth clicked.

She shook her head, her mind trailing, “Don’t do that. Part of what?”

He looked at once fierce and melancholy, “You don’t want to hear about it. You won’t believe me anyway.”

“Maybe I won’t, any more than I believe that you really don’t want to tell me and aren’t maneuvering me into insisting. But say it anyway. Part of what?”

He sneered, “Part of my 'glorious purpose'. Otherwise known as my excuse. The Chitauri gave me tools, and orders, and chains around my mind, just like I gave Barton. When I saw you, the breathless pressure seemed meant to spur me to charming you, as if The Other detected someone easily seduced.”

She scowled at him, “So you chose aggression and abuse instead, because you’re just that noble, and not a raging sadistic narcissist,” the tide around her ran colder and thinner, the air seeming scarce, “You’re right. I don’t believe you.”

His eyes went similarly cold and thin, “No? When did Barton’s enchantment finally break?”

Nat swallowed, “When I’d beaten him half to death and cracked his head into a steel handrail. Thanks for that little chapter in our friendship, by the way.”

Loki didn’t flinch, “And when did I finally start acting like a sensible creature again rather than a wild-eyed fanatical stooge? When was I finally able to admit that I was outmatched?”

Nat felt her lips tighten, resisting. His long game was good. He’d had years to figure out exactly what to say to warp her sympathies in his favor. A good job, appealing to her willingness to blame herself and identify with abusive programming. It was a fight not to accept his spin, but Nat was good in a fight, “Not until the Hulk rag-dolled you into Tony’s floor. The same moment when  you also, incidentally, had no cards whatsoever left to play.”

Loki laughed ruefully, “When I’d finally managed to convincingly corner myself, finally goaded the least altruistic of you into beating me senseless, yes.”

She sneered, the airless tension beginning to get to her, feeling due a little impatience with his nonsense, “Oh stop it,” she mocked his throaty voice melodramatically, “‘That was my plan all along’. Fuck you, mastermind.”

“Hardly!” his voice picked up a rasp of exasperation, and he rocked forward, his gestures like fitful fire hoses, “My plan all along was to have it over and done with the moment I was caught in Stuttgart, but you’re all too damn noble to properly debilitate a prisoner. I thought Thor kidnapping me had potential, but alas, Stark and Rogers felt ignored and we can’t have that.”

Nat snorted, agreeing in spite of herself.

“Once we got to the helicarrier I thought for sure you’d all be marching to my prison the moment you needed someone to tear into besides each other, but you apparently never tired of that. It was maddening. On Asgard it would have taken me less than ten minutes to coax a proper thrashing out of Volstagg or Sif, even without a willfully vicious psychic scepter stirring everyone up.”

“You should have given us more time,” she was letting him eat up air she didn’t have, telling her nothing. Objectively, she knew she wasn’t suffocating, she just felt like she was, stranded in the empty space between them, the sensation urging her to panic and the panic pushing her to hyperventilate.

“I longed to," he moaned, "but Barton was far too efficient in rescuing me, eager, I expect, to secure his own capture. Like me he had to use everything he knew to fulfill his dazzling visions of glorious purpose. But in the small free places of his mind he knew who to stalk, who he could trust to best him, incapacitate him beyond the grip of those poisoned dreams,” his gaze sharpened with his tone, “He knew who would care the most about taking him alive, even if he fought as hard and dirty as he could.”

“That’s a fine story to tell when you know I can’t check it with him.”

Loki was boggled for a moment, “He’s never told you? What the fuck even is the deal between you two?”

Natasha just glared at him, wasting no air to ask why he’d never, apparently, explained any of this to Thor, either.

Loki went on, still gesturing emphatically, “If Coulson had shot me in the head, or knocked me through anything harder than composite polymer with that pop gun of his, it might have worked. Then I thought I could provoke Stark to do it by crashing his phallic clubhouse, but the first thing the he-man trash-can did; after knocking Selvig blessedly senseless, of course; was take his armor off and offer me a drink. I stalled as long as I could but I couldn’t just let a naked mortal keep provoking me or The Other would have ripped-” he coughed, shaking his head and shivering visibly, clenching his fists to continue, “I owe Stark for being a ferocious-enough bullshit artist that the delay stayed credible as long as it did. Then I thought I could get Thor to do it, but I...my resolve faltered, and I’d left myself too much room to move.”

“I did wonder at the time why he didn’t just swing Mjolnir like a nine-iron and tee you off Stark tower.”

Loki nodded earnestly despite the bitter sarcasm in her voice, “That’s sentiment for you. His love isn’t as clear-headed as yours, nor as deep by half, I expect, for all the too-much-protesteth-ing he does when he wants something. I don’t think he’ll ever be able to make the hard hand-dirtying calls for the people he loves the way you did for Barton.”

Nat kept her face still, her phantom self-trails swirling around her, “Don’t say his name again. Just don’t. Keep it out of your mouth or I’ll reimburse you the beating you earned that day on the helicarrier with interest, hospitality be damned. Don’t say his name.”

Loki nodded, waving dismissively, “It’s gone. But believe me, I tried. I tried and I tried to fail catastrophically enough to keep the Chitauri from rolling into your world, to get myself and the Tesseract removed safely to Asgard, but they just had too much advantage. I saw that from the moment they plucked my broken husk out of the void. I thought if I seemed an easy pawn, a useful expert on the peculiarities of a Midgard they knew next to nothing about, I could bring warning, stir up the defenses before the attack. Honestly, if Thor had been at Stuttgart he'd have told you something was off. I followed every arrogant disastrous instinct that’s ever brought me misery, every repressed foolhardy egotistical whim true enough to my nature to fool The Other, but my flailing attempt at double-agency was utterly zero sum,” he sighed, growing solemn, “Though it still haunts my nightmares, I’m grateful to that great green dullard. If it weren’t for him I’d still have been a Chitauri pawn when I was returned to Asgard. And Thor-” he looked down and cleared his throat, “Thor would likely be dead in the dark world by my hand.”

She shook her head, “Your long game really is a marvel. That story is a thing of beauty, truly. Except it’s too perfect, too sympathetic. No pinch in the dream. I’m not buying it. I know what it’s like to function under threat of torture in a hot-wired head. It’s nowhere near as fun as you made it look.”

Loki nodded, looking weary, “Fair enough,” he glanced up, “But you still wish I would hold you?”

She nodded, keeping the humiliating anger off her face as white sparks began to pop behind her eyes. Just the facts. Yes. She wanted him to hold her. So much her body thought she was going to pass out if he didn’t. So what.

He shrugged and held out an arm, making a space for her on the floor between his legs, “Well, alright then. I won’t tell anyone.”

She took a half-step from kneeling and collapsed against him.

Chapter Text

Thanos stretched his hand inside its naked gauntlet, opening and closing, balancing the might for doing with the patience for doing properly . Victory would be far too easy once he set himself in motion. It could begin and end before any of those deserving had time to suffer, to die screaming his name in despair, to carry it like a posey into the halls of Death, to declare themselves his gift to Her. His impatience tasted of anticipation: he would court Her properly, with his head high, his victory absolute, and his pride in full flower. As they both deserved.

First he required satisfaction from those failures and traitors who had embarrassed him. He’d begun that task days before, unexpectedly, with the ragged thing that Death had refused to accept.

The former leader of the Chitauri, The Other, had hung long upon a peg in the rock like a disused cloak, pithed through his broken neck, twisted body dangling beneath, reeking of spoiled sea creature and incense. The undead husk had gurged plaintively for several months and drooped in meditative silence for several more. When Thanos had resolved to be failed no more and risen from his throne, donning his infinity gauntlet for battle, the husk had at last spoken in tones worthy of hearing.

“My Lord...”

He had pondered ignoring it, but he’d kept the husk as a relic of his dependence upon- No, his benevolent delegation of chores upon his lessers. That it should rasp to entreat him in that moment had struck him as portentous just as his rush of devout ambition stirred his magnanimity. It whispered him a warning, urging patience. From the vantage of undeath, it confirmed things he had seen from his throne; the fall of Asgard’s ark to Earth, the secreting of the tesseract beneath the wreckage by the failed godling, Earth’s upstart mystical protector bedeviling the great Dormammu into submission, then as Sorcerer Supreme overseeing new layers of protections for the planet. These and more Thanos heard with amusement. True, his precise plans for piercing the Earth’s defenses and acquiring the tesseract were still fluid, playful even, but it had been some time since he’d engaged his own hands in a war. Smashing the little puzzle-box of a planet and its candy-colored champions seemed apt preamble to taking on foes who comprehended their galaxy far better. But one thing in the twisted corpse's entreaty resonated with the great titan.

“The trickster...defied you…”

Thanos frowned. Defiance was a very raw subject to him, still. He had brooded long over his daughters’ betrayal and his plans for their harsh yet gracious expiation, but gave little thought to the petty trickster’s failure to pacify earth and hand over the tesseract. He'd presumed humiliation at the hands of mortals and a traitor's punishment by his own family to be sufficient for an incompetent puppet. He had thought it the simple arrogant idiocy common in the young. Defiance was a different matter.

“He...must...suffer.”

Thanos chuckled at that, “Shall I hang him beside you?”

The head creaked awkwardly, pivoting a negative on its peg, “He slipped his...magical oath...to pacify Earth...destroy the defenders...that would challenge you now.”

“They will be no challenge. They squabble like scavengers.”

“Like...daughters.”  

Thanos snarled but batted the provocation away, “They succeeded only due to the trickster’s incompetence.”

“No. Intentional...defiance.”

“What?”

“Int…” the twisted throat gurgled, irritated.

The mad titan flipped the revenant’s sagging shoulder like a page to unkink its choked windpipe. A fermented scream erupted like a steam whistle while Thanos waited impatiently.

“He defied me,” it squeaked, resettling into a gritty hiss, “Lord. He defied you.”

Thanos’ pride admitted no such a failing, so his heart was calm, “He defied your manipulation? You lied to me?”

The head creaked awkwardly again, dipping, “You would have...killed me,” a uniquely hideous laugh bubbled up.

“You are not immune to further torment yet you confess it now.”

“I fear no pain. I am faithful. I atone. Your achievement of Her attention is my highest hope. I would earn Her mercy. And yours.”

Thanos smirked, folding his arms, “Proceed.”

“I have divined how he did it, though he is a motley of magics and sorceries that fold and deform one another.”  

Thanos idly straightened the corpse’s cloak, and each jostle elicited such screams that he could hardly hear himself, “Explain more briefly, or I will promote you from tapestry to torch.”

“He moved as The Man on Horseback, the Rival. The scepter gripped his mind by that mantle, his thwarted rage and ambition, but held only a mask. When I showed him visions to delight and horrify him, knowledge and truth, they muddled only his imagination and not his sight.”

“I warned you of tricksters. Of shape-shifters. You assured me he was pacified. I tire of your pointless excuses,” Thanos had turned away then, “and you have lost my willingness to recall you to Her mercies once I have wed.”

The rag quaked on its peg urgently, “If his treachery is not cast down as utter folly, you will never wed. Each treachery against you kindles through the memetic fabric of the galaxy, emboldening all that share the mantle beneath.”

Thanos slashed the air with his armored hand, “What mantle beneath? I have no fear of any such as he. What might he inspire?”

“Your daughters. You have seen the shared mantle's effect on them already, and would be wise to fear it.”

Thanos scoffed, "They share nothing in common with any son of Odin."

"But they share much with his foundling."

His molars grated. Foundlings. Orphans. Lost things in disparate places had indeed, of late, been coaxed together in patterns beyond feeling or knowing, threads enmeshing all across the galaxy. He had seen this without care from his throne, even as his daughters had plotted to betray him, and yet had not seen the connection. His Nebula and Gamora were royalty first, his heirs and property. He had never once thought of them as foundlings, though he had indeed taken them from their murdered families. Troubling, to think of his own daughters as orphans...

That awkward grinding shift, “He has found one like himself, to help him defy the visions of his fate that haunt him still. His oldest ambitions become whole again, and thwarted destinies gather behind the veil like ravens, eager to taste his death at last.”

Thanos snorted, "Then why do you delay me? Destiny cannot help but serve my ends. I am its master.”

“Indeed my Lord. Let it serve you. Give the trickster time to meet it, snared in poorly patched lies and broken magical oaths that cannot help but hang him. His loose ends spindle closer, tighter, with every turn. They shall crack apart the worlds to get at him, serving you unawares, and he shall betray all earth’s defenders from within, trying to slip fate once more. Treachery redeeming treachery, you can take the tesseract from the ruins at your ease, your-” the dead thing caught the thought deftly, correcting, “-my great defeat transmuted into your greater foresight, your plan all along, inescapable.”

Thanos stroked his massive chin thoughtfully.

The revenant pressed, “And when you have flensed the trickster of flesh, mantles, magic, immortality and all, then his agony, and the futility of opposing you, will be felt by every other orphan living now, and all you shall create in your wake, through the foundling's mantle,” a thread of saliva spun itself from the bared fangs, and The Other’s perpetual rictus began, for the first time since his death, to look like a smile, “And you might bring his sundered husk here, to hang where I can gloat over it for eternity.”

Thanos flexed his golden gauntlet, its hollow sockets eager to be filled, “How long must I wait, stinking oracle?”

“Not long. Even now his oldest betrayal gathers to embrace him, goaded to him by my visions of horror and glory, dreams of vengeance upon the usurper and capture of the tesseract. I have shown them the way between realms.”

And Thanos had nodded slowly, and sat, opening his hand a while longer, confident that when it closed again, it would crush one more defiant fool.

Chapter Text

He stroked her hair, “Is this better?”

She nodded, legs folded under, ear pressed against his shoulder. The vertigo was draining away, as was the sense that there was no air in the world a foot beyond the two of them. There was still the lingering sense that she wanted him, not in an especially sexual or even tactile sense but simply to keep him, to have him, to be confident in always having him, “The sick feeling is fading. Why is that?”

“No idea, honestly. But in Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes spins a fable about-”

She planted a palm on his chest, pressing away and holding his gaze, deadpan, “If you start wanking about greeks again, I’m out. I don’t care that there’s no door, I will literally chew through the wall.”

He rolled his head back, loftily disgusted, “Fine. Plebeian.”

She stifled a smirk, returning with equal indignance, “Poseur.”

His eyes slitted, “Vulgarian.”

“Monarchist.”

“Bolshevist.”

“Apex parasite.”

“Insect.”

“Bore.”

“Mortal,” he jettisoned the word like a bite of wax fruit.

She laughed, “Puny God.”

His indignant gasp was almost a chirp, and his caricatured vanity pivoted to a caricatured sulk, “Mean...person.”

It almost made her laugh again, and unnerved her enormously. She knew that sort of pivot, the cagey flash of satiric underbelly, a surrender as charming as his delighted killer’s smile, or his postures of reptilian melancholy: tools of the trade for seductive liars, runty monsters, and underdogs in dog-eat-dog orders the world over. Bastards with an eye on the throne. Survivors who could beam when threatened, chuckle when humiliated, charm when choked with rage, and lie without a whiff of cunning. The sort of people she killed, and the sort of person she became to kill them. Surrender in particular was a very specific play, gratuitous flattery or genuine desperation for favor, both of which were dangerous between monsters.

Even so she felt herself falling for it. Relaxing. Wanting to study his lips in case there might be time to...to...with someone who comprehended unjaded and uncomplicated sensualism. Who didn’t need to be denmothered, didn’t need her to pull her heart open just so he could have a look around before deciding not to bother. For once. But she couldn’t. Not with him. He just wanted her to think she could. Or maybe that was her. But maybe there were worse ways to go.

Fuck.

She gave him a credulous smile and turned to rest her back against his front again, feeling like she was pulling a pistol out of her mouth, grounding her impulse to trust him along with a dozen darker thoughts that clamoured to be entertained on the theme of relief, soldiering on, “So really, what was that?”

If he noticed a change, his unruffled reply cloaked it, “I swear to you, I don’t know. We might ask some other sorcerers to diagnose it once we’re back at Asgard.”

“I thought you were the best. ‘Better than them all put together’ you said.”

He sniffed, “Well I am. That doesn’t mean I’m more well-read on every sort of magic. At least not more than them all put together. I think. Anyway, have you ever been in a room with more than two sorcerers at a time? Insufferable. Practically anything’s better than them all put together, even me.”

She rolled her eyes but otherwise let that pass, “Do you know much about auras?”

He nodded, running his long fingers through her unwashed hair as appreciatively as a child playing with sand, idly sweeping it into simple shapes and then raking it smooth again, “Enough to know that your little fit wasn’t about that. I can’t control my aura any more than you can control whether you blush.”

“I can control whether I blush.”

He turned a lock of hair skeptically, “And you’re a natural redhead?”

She growled in her throat, “It took time to learn. I’m not much of a spy if my face is a mood ring.”

He shook his head testily, “Well, it wasn’t me manipulating my aura. Which is good. Even if that were something I could do, you’re not a sorcerer.  If you ever do see an immortal’s aura hanging out tangible to just anyone, you should run away or put your head between your knees or whatever would most comfort you against inevitable disaster.”

“What happened to Thor, then, during the New Mexico incident? I’ve read the files. According to witnesses, he went from dead to immortal in under ten seconds, and being around him felt tangibly different afterwards. I’ve always thought of that god-feeling around him as an aura.”

“Oh, that. The all-father restored his mantle of worthiness, and with it his power, and access to the Asgardian magic that heals us. We don’t really control those either, mantles. They’re large-scale magic, durable, mostly provide recognition and an ineffable bond between those that share certain sorts. It’s because of his mantles that Thor is recognizable for what he is to any sensible being in any part of the universe, even if they don’t realize it all at once. That god-feeling.”

“They’re part of you?”

Loki shook his head, “Yes and no. They’re part of the magnitude of our lifespans, and help to hold us and the involved magics together. They don’t exactly define the bearer but they do have to fit to be worn. They cover one’s soul, yet reveal more than they conceal, like costumes, or uniforms. That they can pass from one being to another is how you maintain a pantheon when you’re not actually going to live for eternity.”

“The all-father is dead, long live the all-father?”

“Just so. They’re durable and stubborn enough that some think they’re tangible souls, living identities, but that’s a sentimental mistake. They can be granted, layered, or taken away without splintering an identity the way altering an aura or a soul would do. A person can even form their own over time, though most of those are too haphazard to outlive their maker. Whenever Odin lost his temper and stripped one of us of our so-called immortality for a time, our mantle was most of what we would lose.”

“Did that happen often?”

Loki paused, “Compared to what?”

“I-” her breath hovered. She'd mistakenly asked about family intimacies rather than magical theory, and veered into acute overcorrection, “-don’t even know. So what the hell was that feeling, then? Just tell me.”

His tone and posture stiffened, “I’ve already sworn to you that I don’t know.”

She closed her fingers into the palm on his thigh, checking her balance around her center in case she had to move, “You’ve sworn? That’s supposed to mean something to me?”

His breath caught and held. If she’d thought it were possible that he had a weapon she’d have made a move before he could reach for it, hospitality or no hospitality. He exhaled, perhaps counting. Fire was the only sound for long moments, then cold words, “Even if I could do something like that, or would, what has it gained me? You’re offended now. Alert. Righteous, boringly so. Would I risk that for some ruse that would fail the moment there’s anyone else you can ask? Doubt my honesty, or that my sworn word is good, but it would be a miscalculation to think me so facile. And an insult.”

Anger rising around her always seemed to bring out her cutting calm, and she stroked his thigh with her closed hand, “Doubting your tactical elegance is an insult to your honor now? It’s improved that much from chrome lava robot rampages, high-society eye-extractions, screamed obscenities, and brute-force brainwashing? Good thing you so virtuously abstain from sentiment,” a feeling like acrophobia warned her not to push him away, but like her typical hesitation around heights, she noted it and shouldered it aside, “or I’d think you wanted an apology for offending your nobility with my honesty.”

He coughed a deflated, half-earnest laugh, and brought one loose hand to hover over her closed one, gentling her knuckles with his fingertips, “No. I’ve lately recognized that I need to stop wanting things I can’t have. Or shouldn’t.”

She sighed, relenting a little, annoyed that he was probably telling the truth. The attack, whatever it had been, had clumsily interrupted his otherwise smooth trust-building, to the point that she was almost grateful for it. If he’d needed an outside threat, or a pretense to get his helicarrier story on the table, he’d had long-game opportunity and setting advantages to come up with something less incriminating. She did know he was smarter than that, and that accusing him hadn’t really been honesty on her part. She lifted her thumb to touch his finger, resolved not to say it but hearing it slip out anyway, “Sorry.”

He swallowed, lay his hand down on hers, and said nothing.

She lifted another finger between his, “So what’s your mantle?”

He grinned, blushing, “It’s a bit of a patchwork...and not flattering.”

“Total bastard?”

Contrary to her expectations, he chuckled, “Pretty close, actually.”

She ground down more mutinous fondness for him, “Do mantles feel like anything from the inside?”

“Yes.” He fiddled with the hem her sleeve, “You know how Thor, despite being reasonably clever otherwise, is such a pleasant, well-meaning dope? How it’s a real struggle for him to seek anything but camaraderie from others? Well, it’s a little like that. It’s more than just rose-colored glasses, though. A mantle colors the way the world feels as well.”

“Rose-colored fishbowl?”

He nodded as his hands found one another over her navel, “I like that. That’s clever.”

She ran a stiff finger over the hillscape of his knuckles, “I’m unsure how to take a compliment from someone wearing bastard-colored glasses.”

He nodded amiably, “It is what it is, I suppose.”

“So you’re aware of how it warps your perceptions?”

He leaned his head to the side, settling his chin to her head at a jaunty angle, “I’m capable of being aware of it, like anyone else. I know intellectually that I’m not objective, but I still have to play from the hand I’m dealt, and through my...bastard-colored glasses, I can’t always tell which are the hearts and which are the clubs, as it were. There isn’t exactly an objective measure to consult elsewhere,” his hands wandered pleasantly, distractedly, “do I get to ask you about your life now?”

She made a noncommittal noise, pushing his chin away and pretending she didn’t notice his hands, “You’re free to ask, but I don’t do backstory. Anyway you-” a chilly recollection stabbed at her below the heart and she swallowed, “-you already know more than I bother remembering most of the time, from-” her voice dropped, dodging Clint’s name, “-what you said on the helicarrier.”

Loki’s turned his head aside and down, hands pausing on her lower ribcage, “I didn’t keep any of that. Everything faded after-” he abandoned the sentence to a fatalistic sigh, “For what it’s worth, I remember the words I said but not the knowledge that chose them.”

She grimaced and traced the contour of his knee, hoping that he wouldn’t doubt her indifference if she didn’t challenge his claim, “That’s still plenty.”

His exhales deepened and he swallowed hard, probably stifling a meaningless apology. He might have felt sorry, but saying so wouldn’t move her. Still, she didn’t move herself away either, rolling her ear to the hollow under his collarbone and sighing. He murmured, “It is what it is,” and she nodded agreement, dismissal, still pinning him with her slight weight. He caressed her neck, and she let him, wondering why. It wasn’t that he made her feel good. He didn’t, especially, and “good” wasn’t anywhere on her wish-list. But he was company, and he didn’t stir up her need to feel bad, either. Not-feeling-bad had become a rare enough thing.

He tugged idly at the hem of her shirt, “May I?”

She shook her head in disbelief, as much at her own inclination to assent as his bizarre timing, “What for?”

He huffed and his hands dropped away, his response belabored with tact, “Because I’ve caused you a lot of pain. I regret that, but so what? There’s a chance that working with me will cause you more. I hope not, but so what? I’d like to do something to interrupt your sense that pain is all I’m good for,” He cleared his throat, “I mean, I don’t mean to brag but-” he actually managed to catch himself short of bragging, “-it’s...not. And for my own pride as much as anything else. I’d show you, since you seem to understand about eroticism, platonism, and seem to enjoy it. If I’ve got that wrong, I’ll stop. I’m not trying to be a sex pest. Still, with your permission...”

Her tongue prodded at venomous responses behind her teeth. A quip about his ledger. A snide comment on how one can’t balance an eighty-people-in-two-days body count by getting off with some mortal who’d killed twice that many before age fifteen. A rant to inform him that pain was all that any friendship was good for in her recent experience, and that a quickie to service his ego really wasn’t going to change that for her. Pointing out that he’d hardly be the first to mistakenly think that safehouse-sex wouldn't be depressing. But beneath it all, she knew it was his solicitousness that was setting her on edge, and how it fit so uncannily with her desires in the moment. It was the most thoughtful proposition she’d had since Clint had offered to spare her life a lifetime ago. And she couldn’t hear the lie in it, or guess which tells she was giving off if it was a read.

He probably felt the change in her breathing, adding, “I also want to show you something that,” she could hear his wolfish-yet-sheepish amusement, “well it’s pretty sensational, if I do say so myself. And it would mean you’d come to Asgard understanding more about magic than the littlest Asgardian. Even if you still probably will be the shortest. You really are ridiculously petite. I’d pity the first Asgardian oaf that underestimates you except...I don’t. It’s going to be hilarious.”

There was her narcissist. Him she could handle, especially since he’d thought to bring a practical excuse. She swallowed and shifted her low back away from his body, nodding matter-of-factly, “You can take my shirt off. I’ll let you know if anything else is-” she paused as her shirt came up over her head, and lost her train of thought completely as her skin settled against his. Stupid skin. Maybe there was some program in the base of her brain, she mused, one more thing jammed in there by her headmistress to keep her malleable, docile, willing to work, tolerant of...things she’d promised herself were over. Maybe. She’d never had the courage to ask anyone else whether it was a unique to her, her own private dermaphoric fishbowl.

Loki stroked her upper arm with the backs of his fingers and she stifled a start, covering with a dry laugh and a shift to the side, “I won’t call foul if this arrangement gives you an awkward boner, but I’d really rather not get shot in the back.”

He scoffed, nosing her head aside to get his lips by her ear, “I expect you’re safe. I choked out that particular sentry with an especial severity. If we keep our trespasses quiet I doubt we’ll raise any alarms,” he placed his hands on the taper of her waist, sliding down slowly, fingers bumping over the puckered scar of a through-and-through, “Not everything has to be about that obnoxious little prod, anyway. My hands, for instance, have an appreciation for you all their own.”

She put her hands over his, sliding them to meet at her navel, “Stay above my waist. I’m not really...” she couldn’t find words and just shrugged, hoping he wasn’t one of those assholes that liked to debate and wheedle about boundaries.

He drew his hands up her sides, lifting her arms with a long caress, “I promise,” he ducked his head closer to her ear, nimbly lacing her fingers together across the back of his neck, “If you want me to stop at any point but can’t find words, just let go. I take ‘stop’ at face value as well,”

She smiled. It had been a long time since anyone had thought to give her a safeword, “What if I want you to go harder?”

He traced down her arms to her sides ticklishly, lips sliding back from a sharp-toothed smile, “Just wait.”

Chapter Text

Loki marveled at the softness of his battle-scarred champion. She felt like cobweb under his fingers; taut, silent, tremblingly aware, her silken surface unevenly strung with the memorial snarls of each intruder that had invaded her perimeter, torn some hole, and, doubtless, nourished the spider inside as a consequence. He noted each subtle rusch and divot as his hands slid over her, like tailor’s pins in a textile so finely pliant that he feared to wipe it away like dust.

It had been so long.

So long chasing things he didn’t even want in the hopes that they would provide things that probably never existed. It was tempting to believe that she drew his attention so simply because she was something new, unconnected to the sadistic rat’s-maze he’d made of his life, and yet so suited to it that once the idea of seeking her out had tickled his brain there had been no scratching it. And then, suddenly, to want her, to want to tell her everything in an avalanche of babble, as if his rationalizations had been actual reasons. As if he not only needed an ally as desperately as he’d said but had, in fact, found one, and was holding her body to his so much more tightly than he ought to dare. As if she weren’t just mist and cobweb, no more durable or distinct in the universe than the illusions he could make and unmake with a thought, as seasonal a fascination as a dandelion or a goldfish.

Not that he’d ever really discounted humanity as much as that. They'd always proved so specific and surprising, alive moment by moment, with a regularity that even he couldn’t ignore. What made her mortality loom so large was the contrast with what he’d expected. He hadn’t anticipated her humanity at all, not really. He’d sought out Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, the perfect spy, graven and laminated; hard, calculating, untouchably good at her work, ice cold, and almost obnoxiously beautiful.

Yet in every moment since leaving the astral plane, his senses attested to her most keenly in the smallness and softness and baffling intimacy of her, the rich musty smell of her unwashed hair, like barn dust and city rain. The sour “reek” of her skin that, compared to Asgardian feasts, barely registered with him. Indeed, compared to a millennium of hard-drinking revels, which typically followed the strenuous pursuit and fountainous death of some vicious and pungent beast, she smelled of stolen quietness. She was like a worn book and a warm quilt, mingled with the tang of tallow-smoke and maybe a filched slice of fermented creamcake. Where her hair and skin met at the back of her neck, she smelled like a rumpled bed at dawn, before the lingering dreams get shaken out and smoothed over. Each detail felt more and more like a chisel-mark in her singular creation, wordlessly solidifying her life within his stubborn prejudices, his imagination marred into something too real, too necessary, too vulnerable.

His hands slid greedily around her and up her sides until each cupped the outer curve of an almost mawkishly superb breast, perfected on the left side by a razor-thin dent across the join with her ribs, a cut that must have once sunk almost to her heart. On an impulse he bowed his longer frame over hers until his chest was matched to her upper back. She bent with him, rolling into his lead like a dancer. When he tightened his grip and leaned back to hoist her bottom off the hard floor and fold his legs underneath, she moved with him as if it were the thousandth time, weightless as silk.

She tipped her lips towards his ear, “Just so I know we’re on the same page, this is a terrible idea, right?”

He shifted slightly to settle her deliciously round hips into the well of his long legs, nodding, “Absolutely.”

She frowned with mock seriousness as he spread his fingers across her cheek to turn her jaw along his shoulder and bare her neck. She sighed across his wrist, “Good. Great. Just checking.”

And there it was again, the metallic pang of want through his chest and gut, like some stingered insect trapped inside him and twisting blindly to get out. It was her newness, he decided again as he brought his dry lips (chapped from talking, he chided himself) to brush her neck. Perhaps it was even just the superficial newness of the entire venture: hoary old patterns burnished by novelty and limned in vainglorious hope, as if reading an old book in a new room might somehow make it end differently. But his cynical sense was, as ever, no match for the impulses of his sensitive mouth, which warmed and softened in agreement with the fragile skin of her throat. He touched her with kisses around her ear and down her neck, tasting, plucking lightly at silken nerve-endings to see what combination of stir and pressure could beckon the silent spider's attention, knowing it to be just as terrible an idea as it sounded.

But despite the pain and chaos it had brought him, he was grateful for his greedy, impulsive mouth, his brain’s abiding enthusiasm for terrible ideas, and his concurrent inability to abandon what pleased him. Otherwise he’d have been far too smart to ever touch or taste or steal any of life’s pleasures for himself, and likely been just as screwed without a fraction of the fun. And Thor…

Thor...

He sighed against her ear, burrowing his nose into her dull auburn hair, inhaling the scent of stolen pleasures as his dogged self-preservation finally got a word in: Don’t think about Thor.

---

Nat felt her wariness beginning to melt in little shivers, cuing her ingrained defenses to fade her back into an observer. Under most forms of handling, the Red Room’s nonreactivity training let her uncouple from the vulnerabilities of conscious engagement, even with her own body, defending her reactive unconscious from shocks of too much pleasure or pain. It let her trick her lower self into thinking she was in control when her higher mind needed to let go, to let impactful sensations pass through her and vanish on a wave of stoic pseudo-zen programming. It kept her traumatic load small and disinterested, while she watched herself from the dark catwalk in the back of her head, dodging blows and taking notes.

Loki’s silver-tongued attentions, however, kept, dipping into the dark beside her, just below the surface of her skin to catch her interest, finding little filaments of sensation that continually beckoned her forward. Though hardly a fight for her life, the dance to absorb his ministrations from a safe distance was a genuine struggle. It felt like using aikido to evade the lead of a determined tango instructor, two arts combined into patterns that were as intriguingly compatible as they were bizarre.

Just kissing her neck, he was eloquently unpredictable, feeling out her defenses, marking her expectations, but never pressing past them. His hands never even moved until after she’d surrendered, just a little, to his lead, with a few honest sighs from her besieged throat. He answered with a gloating purr from his own, and his freed hand flowed down her ribs and trunk like a manta ray across sandy shallows, caressing and flexing with an unhurried alien grace.

True to his word he stayed above her waist, but the heat his touch generated under her skin sank as steadily through her core as a flame liquefying a candle, droplets of tension skating ahead to pool in her base. His fingertips found her skin continually warm and responsive, and she found his touch unbearably welcome.

It had been so long.

Her breathing tightened, and her body blushed, shifting subtly to caress the length of his front with her back, the cottony frisson of skin tingling all the way to her laced fingertips. The pleasure of it triggered a conflict in her hands he’d no doubt intended; wanting to let go and initiate some touch of her own, but not wanting to signal a stop...or too much eagerness. But there were always other options, other modes of attack. She opened her lips under his thumb, deftly drawing it in, her tongue wordlessly describing its versatility along its length.

His hands trembled and his forehead pressed against her temple, plainly disrupted by the unanticipated strike. She leaned into it, laving and sheathing the sensitive digit as he groaned with naked want and poured hot, staggered gasps down her neck. His grip along her cheek and jaw flexed in gentle pulses, his thumb pressing and easing evocatively between her lips. With a tortured groan he tried to withdraw from her attentions but her teeth caught him behind the swell of the knuckle, holding without biting, and her tongue pressed its persuasive suit.

--

Loki threw his head back so sharply it almost hit the rock behind him, his cynical center admonishing him uselessly (Don’t think of Thor, Don’t think of Thor) while he revisited the fantasy of Nat on her knees, Thor in helpless rut, and his own delicious envy flickering between them, wanting to be both her mouth and the cock inside it all at once. He momentarily abandoned coy caresses and seized repeatedly at soft handfuls of her exquisite breasts, groping like a lathered schoolboy. A tickle stirred in his crotch that begged to grind on her, to rub his arousal into a blaze to be quenched inside her. But she didn’t really want that...and even if she did...

With a will he slid his hand up from her breasts, over the well-nibbled side of her neck to firmly grip her hair, and held her steady as he extracted himself from her mouth along with a gasp from each of them. He nudged and pulled her untouched ear away from his chest, and tipped it upwards to mouthe it hotly, bringing his freed hand down to thumb her saliva back and forth across a firm nipple.

She sighed, her head bent down like a prisoner with her hands still clasped behind his neck, “Sorry, was that wrong?”

He nodded, catching his breath, pinching her nipple in gentle retribution, “Delightfully. And my fault, for not mentioning any boundaries of my own.”

She wriggled briefly then became still under his continued molestation, her selective sensitivity as deftly evasive as ever, “My fault for not asking. You don’t want me to reciprocate at all, or is it just that one thing?”

He shook his head, smiling, “You’re glorious, but I need to concentrate. I need you to relax, stay in the moment. And to trust me.”

“I-”

“Not especially far,” he added hastily, “Not entirely, not implicitly, not indefinitely. Just so I can show you one thing. Question it later, but listen now, from here,” he laid the edge of his little finger against her sternum, and her ribs expanded with a startled gasp to find that she was living right at the surface of her skin, right at the border between herself and him. It was not something she did often, with anyone. He petted her as if he hadn’t noticed, “I think you’ll find it sits in your memory more truly that way anyhow. Annotate later. Listen now.”

She nodded, skeptical but not retreating, “Alright.”

He lifted her hair and pressed a kiss to the nape of her neck, “And I’ll still listen if you tell me to stop. It’s not an endurance challenge.”

She nodded, “I understand.”

He stroked the line of her breastbone to her navel in a manner both calming and stimulating. His other hand reached into the fire, turning over slowly like spitted meat. It seemed so much like a prelude to torture that instinct began to weigh on her, to sink her away from her surface, but she kept calm and present, braced with cool calculation. It would make no sense for him to try to harm her, after everything. Not that Loki’s actions typically made sense. Still, it made better sense to show him that he could trust her, regardless, and that she wouldn’t bolt at the threat of pain. She took a deep breath and rested against him, resolute.

“Our bodies aren’t any different really. It’s just the magic,” he pulled his hand out of the fire and brought it close to her throat, where she could feel the heat radiate off it. He turned the backs of his fingers to touch her cheek, and if he hadn’t kept them moving they would have burnt her, “The heat, the pain, the damage, the comfort, all facets of how hearthfire burns, like colors of light,” the heat subsided to a pleasant intensity as he trailed down her neck to her chest, leaving cool negative trails on her skin as he reached back into the flames.

He continued in conspiratorial tones, “The four fires are interconvertible, but very different in any given state. Hearthfire is the devouring fire of the earth, and that which thrives on the earth. We use it to light our homes, our halls, our arrows, and our pyres. It is the intersection between life and death, the glaring contradiction there. You and I are both, on the scale of the universe, mortal. The only thing that my body does that yours doesn’t,” he pulled his hand from the fire again and his fingertips glowed a dull red in the dim light, “the thing that makes me transiently immortal, is...just a tiny thing, really...a sort of energetic polarization...” he pressed his thumbprint against the bottomost tip of her sternum, and a shock flared in her spine, a pre-sentient neurological scream that she was being burned, “that...separates out the living pain from the killing burn,” she stayed still out of dogged habit, her reflexes long since broken against flinching. A light spring of sweat shone across her brow.

He lifted his finger and the pain stopped immediately. There was no residual sting, no unnerving meat smell. She glanced down and there was no new mark, just a fading oval of flushed pink. She sighed and shivered, a little too late to stifle the adrenal and endorphin response to the false alarm. He shook his hand once into the firepit like he was slinging off water, and laid it back over the pinked spot, his touch soft and barely feverish, “Sorry, did I go too far?”

She shook her head, “Just give me a minute. The pain wasn’t much at all, it’s just that my internal responses are a little overclocked. Habit.”

He nodded, stroking the space between her chest and her navel idly, “Is it very unpleasant?”

Nat adjusted her hands behind his neck as the warm endorphin glow spread, making her feel light and velvety all over, and she stifled a scoff, “On the contrary. It’s...distracting.”

He nuzzled a smile against her ear, “Oh good.”

For a moment she let her mind bathe in the sweet dopey anesthetic response, shifting her shoulder blades against his chest and feeling like a gem in the setting of his lap, wishing he would run those long-fingered hands over her breasts before the gradual recession of adrenaline made her feel cold.

He kissed her on the temple, murmuring, “Do you understand what I told you?”

She shook her head, “My physics education ends at landing on my feet, but I’m pretty sure that’s nothing like the way fire actually works. I get that you can separate fire into its different effects, but only because you showed me. That’s where the whole ‘magic’ thing comes in, I imagine.”

He nodded, “There used to be so much better words for it. But the same way the first fire lived in the darkness, the first words lived in the fire. When the words went into the book, the old cults that spoke the fire began to fade, their power gone. Since then, I can tell you that hearthfire is life and death, that strike fire is control and helplessness, that forge fire is elaboration and annihilation, and that wyrdfire sings as it will, but these words are not...true. Not really. Fire magic will never have truly apt words again. I only get so far with it because I’m comfortable with lies.”

She shivered slightly, gratified when he slid his warm arms around her, “So teaching it requires showing. Like eros.”

He nodded, “Very like, though eros is more like a...reconciliation of a whole. Magic is mere management of parts,” he studied his palm, “Because my life is connected to the magics of Asgard, I can polarize a fire’s life to life, pain to pain, comfort to comfort. I can augment or counter is...resonances, if you will. That’s all it really is. The fire lost its words, but not its music. And the song,” he shook his head, “is the better for it, I tend to think.”

She nodded, “I won’t pretend I know what you mean.”

"But did you like it?"

She rubbed her shoulder blades against his chest in an exaggerated shrug, "A little."

He brought one arm up from under her bust, to brace across her chest, “I shouldn’t show you any more about fire right now. Too hurried, too distracted, I might make a mistake.”

“You sound suspiciously like you’re hoping I’ll beg you to anyway.”

She heard that sheepish wolf’s grin in his tone again, “If you did I’d talk you down to something better.”

“Better for who?”

“Everyone that matters.”

“I’m not loving those odds. Anyway I don’t beg.”

“Please?”

She unlaced her fingers from his neck so she could cover her face, laughing.

“Pretty please?”

She turned towards him, to a smile so sweetly guileless she instantly suspected him, “Why?”

“I don’t know, for the fun of it. Because I’d hate to have gotten you here," he gestured between them, "and wasted it on one little pedantic display.”

She realized that her regard was fixed on his lips as he talked, and she closed her eyes protectively, feigning tested patience, “You want to get me off? Is that it?”

His hand found her cheek again, and his thumb grazed her lower lip, “Yes.”

She let her lips part under his touch, and smiled when he twitched it away, “I don’t really have a lot of luck with that kind of thing. No offense. I never asked for pornstar curves or the assumptions of freakish responsiveness that come with them. A lot of people end up disappointed. Or lied to.”

“Hmm,” he trailed his hand down her neck again, eliciting a shiver, “I’m hardly an expert, but at a guess I’d say the problems are with their assumptions, not with your responsiveness.”

She stroked the back of his hand, grateful for her control of her blush reflex, “Probably also a problem of professional pride. I'm stubborn. I don’t like losing control.”

He scooped her fingers together and pressed her hand to his lips repeatedly, “Call it a loan, then. Nothing lost. Name your terms.”

She scoffed, tempted to bring up how crooked his previous bargain had been, “Ok. A hundred percent interest. If you take half an hour now, at some point later you give me similar control over your body for an hour.”

He kissed her wrist in punctuation, “Outrageous. Done. I do hope you’ll be gentle with me when the time comes.”

“Absolutely. Scout’s honor.”

“I can’t begin to imagine you as a girl scout.”

She turned her back to him again, settling passively, “I never was.”

He grinned into her hair, “Here, give me your hands.”

Chapter Text

Nat’s stomach curled into a familiar uneasy loop at the quiet state-change between agreement and compliance. Planning-nat always felt smart. She knew her worth and her capabilities, and there were odds to count, and cues to read, and details to memorize to keep her from looking too hard past the line she was stepping up to. But then the curtain would go up or the jump door would open or keys would change hands and suddenly…

Suddenly the plan was just a private fantasy perched behind mission-Nat's eyes, and the real darkness demanded a leap, the real silence required her to count beats by dead reckoning and keep all the steps in order with no horizon to keep her upright. Her ballet teacher had called it the flying-fish moment, jumping from plan to mission, with flying being no different from swimming except in every way possible. Working without a net sounds great to a fish, not so great to a spider.

Mission-Nat sometimes hated planning-Nat. Especially when she found herself leaping without a real plan, partnered by an unknown quantity. But it wasn't planning-Nat’s fault this time, she realized. She hadn’t even been consulted, really. What could Loki, of all people, offer her that was worth torching the last vestiges of her pretension to being an Avenger? The complete void that stared back at her from that question implied that, at least to mission-Nat, the price itself was the point.

She looked up through the ceiling smoke-hole as he took her hands up behind his neck again. The jagged pine tops reeled in a wind she couldn’t feel in the dark below, reminding her that she wasn’t even on the mission yet. And none of it was her plan.

She feigned a conversational lightness as he wove her fingers together, “Are you going to feel what I feel?”

He trailed down her arms to her ribcage in a smoothing stroke, “Hmm?”

“Like you made...like I felt from you last night. Sharing...body parts like that. Will you feel all of this from me?”

“No,” he nosed her neck, inhaling deeply, “I can’t take your perceptions or fantasies, only give you mine.”

“Could I somehow- ah...” words derailed as a second pair of hands slid down her ribcage, wandering lower as the first pair caressed her under her bust.

He grinned against her ear, “Surprise.”

She coughed a laugh, “Right. Shapeshifter. That’s clever.”

The new hands slid down over her hips, all four arms lifting to shift and resettle her, “Do I have your entirely-mutable permission to touch you anywhere I like?”

The low notes in his voice sent a giddy prickle through her skin, “Could I somehow make you feel what I feel?”

He shook his head, “No.”

“You said that our bodies really aren’t different.”

“Except for the magic,” he muttered testily.

“Can’t you- Ah!” she writhed like a lasso as he squeezed her nipples with a retaliatory intensity, and it triggered an urge to ply herself around him and throw him to the ground.

He eased off quickly, turning his hands and face aside, his tone finding that self-pitying sulk again, “For fuck’s sake stop interrogating me. I promise you, I won’t invade your senses. I won’t,” he dropped his forehead against her shoulder, “I’m not like that.”

Flexible as a sapling, she spread her thighs and arched, still holding onto his neck and sliding her feet back beside his buttocks, bringing her knees to the dirt behind his, grinding and tilting her ass up against the soft of his lower abdomen and sliding the damp crotch of her pants to rest on the spongy bulge in his, growling, “If you want me present for this, or anything, don’t interrupt me unless it’s both our lives, and don’t hurt me to make yourself feel better. I am so sick of-” she forced a calming breath, “Anyway I didn't ask about sharing to assure that you wouldn't. I’d...I’d rather you did. I'd feel safer. I don’t mind pain, recreationally speaking, but-”

He sighed, nodding, “-careless fumbling gets depressing.”

“Something like that.”

He cleared his throat lightly as his hands sketched apologetic touch, “Well...honestly even if you were adept at the magic involved it takes more concentration than I want you to be capable of. You’re giving me control, remember?”

She shrugged, satisfied at least that she'd gotten her apprehension on the table, “Just trying to help.”

His upper hands massaged each breast in easy circumferential strokes and his lower hands came up to pluck lightly at her nipples, making her gasp and press down in his lap again, riding against his unresponsive organ, “I won’t hurt you, Natasha. On my reputation as a proper son of Frigga, may she ride back from Valhalla in person to swat my palms if I’m ever careless or selfish with a lover’s body. Now may I, please, finger your sopping cunt?”

She nodded, already beginning to feel a little breathless under his outnumbering touch, spiced with the shot of adrenaline from arguing.

Hands slid down and under her waistband, “Are your legs comfortable? Would you rather sit?”

She stretched a little, liking the extra height kneeling astride him gave her, the ability to touch his cheek with hers, “I like being able to move a little. If it doesn’t bother you.”

He shook his head, “As long as you also let me...do as you please,” a single long finger slotted between her labia, levering an oblong stroke like a steam engine’s connecting rod, the other hand patiently cupped around the inner seam of her thigh, waiting.

Her skin accepted him without question, but her brain kept overbalancing her with demands to act or to retreat to an indifferent distance, figure out exactly why he was doing everything he was doing and how she ought to respond. It was a chore to accept passive presence, no matter how good he made it feel. Or perhaps because of how good he made it feel.

The pace of his ministrations slowed and he sat straight, bracing her up, “Natasha…” it was almost a question.

“I’m alright, it’s just been a while. You’re fine, it’s good. I still get performance anxiety, regardless of the partner or the task at hand, I guess,” it was almost the truth.

“What would help you?”

She shrugged against him, “I like your voice. Talk about something. Give me something to think about.”

He snickered, “Are you serious?”

“It helps if I know we’re thinking about the same thing. If I can watch what you’re thinking I don’t have to fall back and watch myself instead.”

“What would you like me to talk about?”

“How about your first time?”

“Hmmm,” he purred against her ear, intrigued, “Man or woman? Or...other?”

“Let’s say woman.”

He squeezed her and nuzzled into her hair, inhaling deeply as the cupped hand slid deeper between her thighs and stirred lazily, “I was...well my exact age wouldn’t mean much to you. I was a bit later than my peers on that particular front, though I could still think of myself as discerning rather than delinquent.”

“Who was she?”

“A charming young warrior, a little older than me, madly in love with my brother. I was lending a sympathetic ear to her denials that she was staring longingly at him at a feast, but when I proposed that we might find our way to his room and wait for him to be done drinking and boasting, she went along with hardly a blush. Aside from the odd wallow in denial, her candor was always delightful. We settled on a sort of fainting couch by his fireplace, waiting, giddy with conspiracy. She liked me well enough back then, I think,” he sighed wistfully, “It was her suggestion that it might set the scene better if he came back and found us a bit more cozy,”

Nat rolled her hips as a pair of slender fingers slid inside her, “She sounds fun.”

He nodded, nibbling her earlobe, his breath moving through him more deeply as he rolled her nipples, his soft sounds of agreement thrumming down his length and against her back, “Most of her straps and buckles were in back, so after I’d reclined a bit so she could help me out of my boots and leathers, she straddled my lap, rather like you are now, and I got her armor off. And her underthings, just for good measure, leaving just her shift.”

“Sounds like a cute trick,” Nat sighed as another finger began massaging the soft petaled flesh around her clit, a third finger squeezing inside her, knuckles kneading and stretching her gently in preparation for a forth.

“Textile magics are so simple even a horny young spindle mage in the dark can pull them off. As it were.”

Nat sighed as he fondled her breasts, shifting her pants suggestively against his, “Textile magics, you say. Fascinating.”

His merry laugh was tinged with apprehension, the fingers in her lap bracing her a little more tightly, “Easy, Romanoff, I don’t copulate with mortals. Too dangerous.”

“I’m not that worried. I have plenty of friends that could accidentally crush me.”

“I didn’t mean dangerous for you.”

“Seriously?”

“Mmm,” he ran fingernails down her abdomen that felt longer than they had the moment before, “Do you want me to tell you dirty stories or not?”

She gyrated with his motions, grinding encouragement on his lower hands, “Oh if you insist.”

He continued pleasantly, “She liked my little underthings trick enough that she decided to get my shorts off me in a way more traditional to warriors. Honestly it was the feeling of that cold steel down my thigh, deftly slicing off my smallclothes, that made me realize I did, in fact, want to shag her rotten if she was willing.”

“You do seem to have kind of a thing for daggers.”

He grinned and nipped her, “What’s not to like? They’re subtle, useful tools. No boast, no compensation, no nonsense,” he ran another sharp fingernail down her neck and around her nipple, “Good for so much more than hurting people, but definitely good for that too. Unashamedly so. Odin insisted I should learn the spear but me, I prefer to be close. Anyway, I thought we’d only been setting a scene but suddenly she had me up her skirt, hard at attention, her quivering loins lipping at mine like a horse inspecting a corn cob.”

Nat’s laugh came out as a series of small jittery sighs as fourth long finger insinuated itself into the tight company of fingers kneading and twisting inside her, as if rolling thread. It was almost unpleasantly tight, and she had to swivel a little to ease the pressure to a workable angle. The fullness was good, and he seemed content to move slowly and respond to her cues, so she renewed her resolve to be handled.

“I confess, I knew the practicalities, but there in the dark, with her back to me and hidden by her skirt besides, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was feeling. According to her, she had her hand against me, and was rubbing her clit off on the rim of my head, but for the life of me I couldn’t have sworn I wasn’t inside her. Virginity is a hell of a drug.”

Nat made a vague series of vowel sounds, pressing down against his lap as all four fingers slid in to the final knuckles, rolling with her hips to work the daunting width past the tightest part of her sheath. 

Loki shifted, unfolding his legs and bending them up slightly, levering Nat’s knees further apart and pressing her butt harder against him. He flicked words against her neck and pressure across her nipples in warm waves, “So then Thor stumbles in, catching me on his couch, backlit by his fireplace, the gorgeous young lady, friend to us both, moaning and writhing on my lap, slathering hot fragrant juices down my shaft like a spitted roast, my fingertips digging into her soft hips for dear life. And the little minx-”

“Loki-” Nat moaned, her body taut, the dripping candle in her spine gradually burning more and more like a lit fuse, connected at the bottom to a volatile store of tension that was getting larger with every motion, "I think..."

“Shh, not yet,” he brought one hand up from her chest to smooth her damp hair back from her face, soothing, “Don't chase it...let it build...” he moved his legs a trifle wider as if opening them both to the room, and Nat shuddered as the hand slid further until stopped by the extended thumb laying flush in her outer furrow, the stretch so intense it burned. The embedded appendage flexing once, slowly, to lever a deep, exquisite pressure through her core that made her whole body grip down in answer, and as her muscles tightened the hand changed oddly, the awkward broadness of the palm narrowing into more of a cylinder; the hard, narrow fingertips softening, thickening, and pulsing gently with every crammed interweaving motion. The fitted digits struggled, slowly, against one another to churn her, pliant pistons swollen to such a size that they became stuck if they tried to withdraw too far.

"Oh...fuck..." she whispered, torn by simultaneous urgent desires to never move again and to start moving and never stop.

"Is that alright?"

She nodded.

"Do you want less? Do you want to stop?"

She bit her lip, shaking her head, the strange burning stretch slowly cooling to an ache paradoxically full-to-bursting and ravenous.

Loki kissed her ear, keeping mostly-still with her, his patter quieter but no less merry, “So...Thor catches us like that, utterly tipsy, and he’s already managed to get himself stripped to the waist somehow that evening. Of course he’s also been brawling, so he’s all warmed up and ready for some softer company. And the little minx, she lifts herself up good and straight for him, every backlit curve visible through her shift as he’s weaving across the room towards us like an entranced moth. And mind you, just humping up against her outer bits I’m already about to come myself inside out, holding off by nothing but a desire to know what happens next if I don't burst or die.”

“Loki-” everything inside felt impossibly tight and lush as she began to move, the anchoring thumb stroking firmly against her clit with every roll and yaw of her hips, and her high breathy gasps began to sink down her center into rib-rattling groans.

“Move slow, let the feeling climb through you...you don't have to chase it, there's time..." his tone didn't lose much of its sultry reassurance as he returned to his raunchy patter, "So Thor sits at my feet and puts a hand on my knee, and he leans in to kiss her, and she lunges into him, and sheathes my cock right to the hilt as she does, and grinds on it like she means for it to hold an edge,” he laughed lightly, mercilessly stoking her rising tension with his fingers, tongue, and voice, lavishing warm and edged sensations over her chest and neck, “and Oh Gods of the Great Beginning, I think I made a sound reserved for livestock. Of course she’s distracted, and I’ve never fucked before while reclining, so I can’t hardly get a workable rhythm into her,” he rolled his lap between Nat's legs, jostling the invading fingers deliciously, demonstrating that he’d since learned quite a bit about how to gyrate while reclining, “and Thor, great greedy git, he grabs her hips overtop my hands and just bears her down on me until neither of us can move, and he’s kissing her down her body and she’s shaking and clenching around me and I feel like I’m going to die, until he's down between our spread legs and starts,” he nibbled the join of her neck and shoulder, smiling, “well he starts licking her like a bear at a honeycomb, right around the base of my cock, and I can feel the pressure of his tongue all the way up as he’s...”

Despite the dramatic sensations inside her, Nat actually laughed. She couldn’t picture it. Or rather, despite the fact that she was picturing it, she couldn’t believe it. Thor was undeniably a sexy guy. If he had any facial expressions that didn’t include bedroom eyes she’d never seen them in almost four years working together. He was considerate and attentive and a huge flirt, but she’d never known him to even touch anyone beyond a slap on the shoulder or a kiss on a hand. At his most jocular, he still maintained a subtle, quiet reserve, like he was everyone’s cool big brother and took very seriously the fact that mom had left him in charge. Even when she’d gotten dawn-destroying-ly solidarity-drunk with him, keeping him company after Loki’s second faked-death, and stayed with him when he asked, he’d just curled himself around a pillow and slowly cried and babbled himself to sleep while she made sympathetic noises and stroked his hair.

Even if all of that was somehow a matter of some danger in relations with mortals, the Thor she knew would never just jump into an incestuous bisexual three-way. It was a wonderful lie, though; just ridiculous enough to avoid feeling uncomfortably private, but juicy enough to be engaging. She wasn’t sure if she was enjoying it as much as Loki, but she was enjoying it enough, for the absurdity as much as anything, and the derailing laughter shook out a whole new dimension of pleasant internal pressures.

Loki's approving purr shivered down her body, “When he finally does let go of my hands, he starts feeling around in the dark, tracing down the rivulets of saliva and desire, and just as we’re starting to move again he starts deep-fingering me. No preamble at all, no hey-do-you-mind-if-I, just slicking up his fingers around my balls and wham, and I’m so keyed up after barely three good thrusts I go off in her so hard I wonder she didn’t fly off and hit the ceiling. Fortunately I blacked out before I could feel properly mortified by my performance.”

Nat alternated laughing and gasping, pressing herself straighter on her knees and throwing her head back on his shoulder, his own skin flushing hot against her, his own arousal apparently stirred by some combination of reality and fantasy. She turned her lips to pluck experimentally at his ear, wishing she could do more to reciprocate. The hand inside her began to work in response to her own rhythm. She smiled as the other snuck around the side of her thigh towards the waistband of his pants. Going off to warn the guard, are we? she smirked inwardly.

“Anyway," his voice hitched for the first time, falling into some twilight tone between amusement and earnestness, "I feel myself being jostled back into the moment, and I find she’s crouched over me, on her hands and knees. Thor's up behind her thrusting her torso across mine like she’s a broom and I’m the world’s most desperately dirty floor. It was the only decent thing of him to do, I suppose, after I'd blow my load before I’d done her a fair turn. So as soon as she sees I’m awake we start kissing and fondling one another while he’s hard at work, and I do my part to get her to her own little blessed piece of oblivion. So she collapses on me and, of course, by that point, being young and in the thick of things I’ve started to rouse again, and Thor’s still hard as an uru stave so...uhn…”

She was so close, and that lower hand had apparently found what it had meandered towards, the silver-tongued story displaced by long sighs and some light motions against her tailbone that let her know long fingers were spreading hot juices over an eager erection. She whispered against his ear, “I’m so close…”

He bowed his head, kissing her shoulder, his voice low and uncertain, “Natasha…”

“It’s ok, you can, you don't have to hurry...but I’m so close…”

“Natasha...slow, please…” something strained, anxious.

The hand inside her was pumping her frantically, his body trembling all around her, “Loki if you keep...oh fuck I’m going to…Loki...”

“Nnnnuh…”

She opened her eyes, finding his closed, his lips parted, his brow furrowed in concentration, everything shaking frantically, “Loki…”

He tilted his head to hers, soft honest sounds escaping his soft lying lips.

Her body went off more like a rocket than a bomb, the descending fuse ending and shooting heat upwards again, propelling her tight against him as she struggled against his grip for no rational goal. It was almost accidental the way her mouth seized on his as tremors took them both. For a moment before the bright world went black, she was struck by vivid sensory images as raw and heartbreaking as the night before, but none of them sexual, none of them kind, and the deep concussive bursts of her body only seemed like distant thunder to the monster movie flickering behind her eyes.

She locked eyes with a blue skinned monster as her own hand turn blue in its grip.

She locked eyes with Thor as their father threw him into an abyss like so much trash, right at the moment she needed him most.

They were children, fixed in the gaze of a one-eyed man. He spoke to them both but looked right at her as he said, the day will come when one of you will have to defend that peace.

She was so alone, demanding to know why, words failing. She’d done everything she’d been asked, kept every secret but the one that had been kept from her, everything she’d been brought up to do...even though it meant nothing. And she was going to have to defend the peace of the ony home she’d ever known, where she never had and never would belong...one of you…one... all alone.

And when she’d burnt every bridge, eaten every sin, shouldered the blame for her father’s lies and her brother’s war, and trapped Thor into a fight to the death she had no intention of surviving…

The one-eyed man dared to pretend that he had never asked it of her. Hadn’t asked it of her all her life. She was dangling over the abyss by the butt-end of a spear pointed right at Thor's heart, the sweet fool clinging to the blade end, unwilling to let go and spattering her with tears.

And she let go. She sank into the dark, snared and weighted in the web of lies she’d spun to catch everyone else as they fell. Sank back from the threshold she'd toed when everyone else had thrown up their hands and feigned helplessness.

These were not her memories.

These were exactly her memories.

She let go of the one-eyed man’s spear, the one she hadn't wanted to hold, hadn't wanted to be in the first fucking place, pointed always at her brother. She locked eyes with Tony, and turned her back on them all.

Back into Loki’s arms.

Chapter Text

The crackle of the fire tapped solicitously at her consciousness. She could feel breath shift her chest, but couldn’t tell whose it was. Gradually her awareness unknotted though her joints didn’t, her hands numb from spending so much time locked in one position. From her shoulders to her fingers she was stuck somehow, her posture impossible. One hand couldn’t feel the other moving but both were clenched tight...down. Her arms were down at her sides, pinned by his embrace around her upper body.

Her one hand was tucked behind her back, wedged against the skin and fabric between his legs, her other hand wedged tight between her own. She wondered muzzily when she might have replaced his hands with hers and slowly realized, judging time by the pressure in her joints and the light outside, it had to have been from the first moment, when he’d said “give me your hands.” She rolled her eyes, how hilarious for him. Everything was sore and more than a little sticky, her brain especially, and she was reluctant to touch anything with any of it.

Loki wasn’t moving. Aside from gripping his own wrists across her chest, his body was slack, and she’d sagged down against him as far as her knees and hips had allowed. His head was thrown back over the crest of the rock such that she couldn’t see his face, and he didn’t stir as she extricated herself from herself, his embrace holding despite the jostling.

“Loki.”

He responded with a groggy and ambivalently melodic “Hmm.”

She sighed, looking at her hands, “Seriously, what the fuck.”

“You broke my concentration,” he pronounced with an uncertain quaver, like reading a peculiar epitaph.

She closed her eyes, counting to ten from negative ten. She wasn’t angry. There apparently weren’t any feelings for her to have so far from her sense of normal, like baggage that had missed a connection in transit, stranding her in a foreign moment with nothing to wear, not even indignation. She shook her head, “You’re deflecting blame. Which means you know something blameworthy happened. While you were supposed to be in control.”

“But I’m not.”

“Yeah. I noticed. But you said you would be,” she leaned forward against his arms, trying to see if she could work up a sufficiently authentic sense of ire to forcibly break his grip, and not finding it.

“I meant that I’m not deflecting the blame. I-” he still sounded utterly baffled, “I mean I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry.”

He sat up straight, nodding, “I actually think that I am.”

She pressed her lips together, almost not wanting to ask, wondering if he were setting her up for some insult about sexual regret, “Do you know why?”

“Well I didn’t mean for-” he realized he was still holding her rather tightly and his hands sprang apart. He sighed curtly, “I asked you to let me have control, and you leant it to me, and I dropped it. I was selfi-” he audibly caught himself, clearing his throat, “did I hurt you?”

She shook her head, “But I’m feeling a little numb inside. I don’t think I’m quite up to unpacking everything that feels wrong about your fisting me and jerking yourself off with my fingers,” something tightened in her stomach like nausea, and surprised her when it shook out as a laugh, “aside from having been fucked my whole life by people who didn’t want to get their own hands dirty.” Her shoulders shook and his hands rested on them. She thought about brushing them away but her own hands still felt clammy and gross, as did the idea of sitting away from him and letting the air touch her back, so she just leaned against him and laughed helplessly, curling slightly to the side as his arms encircled her again.

“I, um-” his voice had that dreadful hesitancy in it that made her brace and become silent, “I didn’t control your hands I just...I blocked the sense of touch, not your motor control. I wanted to see what you would do if you thought it was me doing it. Even though I realize now-” he gathered her up against him as the laughing took her again, harsh and disastrous, “-how many millions of times worse that makes it...in terms of your...allegory.” He put his nose into her hair and she could hear his teeth grinding even over her own hysterical spasms.

She kept waiting for it to overflow into tears, almost hoping it would, but it just stayed sort of sad and funny. His mortification seemed honest enough that her initial sense that he’d been mocking her dissolved and left her with the realization that...he really did understand. He understood pretty clearly how many millions of times worse it was to cycle through being used and feeling complicit, so that every worse-dimension of the crime your sense of vengeance stirs up to spur you to anger against your tormentors just turns into more doubt and self-loathing.

And he did know, she realized. She had seen it, in the odd shadow-play that had ridden through her mind. He knew exactly what it felt like, to be so completely fucked, under someone else’s power, for someone else’s greater good, and to have it still be your own damn dark dripping debt. The laughing eased, and as he began to raise his head she reached up and gripped him by the hair with her messy, dirty hands, smearing their collective mess into his already messy curls and shaking him with an annoyance tempered with admonishment. She felt light and pleasantly hollow of pain. Because she wasn’t angry. For the first time in a very long time she wasn’t angry. Because she wasn’t alone.

As her grip on his head eased a thought grabbed her and she turned, kneeling up to look at him squarely, “What did you see?”

He swallowed, glancing back and forth between her eyes.

“When I kissed you, what did you see? Did you see into my head? Don’t lie.”

“I-”

“Loki, show me you can tell me the truth. I don’t give a shit if you lie about anything else just-”

He put his hands around her raised wrists patiently and took a deep breath, “It happened all out of order. These things usually do. I saw that you have two brothers. One who was fated to be nothing, changed by magic to surpass the other; the other born a prince in manner and mein,  but fell off the edge of the world into the mountains like a dying star, his memory stolen, a mindess weapon.

“I saw that you were born in the coldest part of winter and war, and taken by those with a use for you, changing your blood to be like those princes who are your blood brothers. That watery blue bloodline is widespread, but those two are your family.

“I saw you fated to rule beside the lost prince, but choose for yourself to serve your fellow orphan under your one-eye’d stepfather. I saw you side against them both for their own good, to keep your family together under the one-eye’d king’.

“I saw your father-of-all-lies lay himself down in a parody of death to gather his strength while you became the face of his embattled kingdom. I saw the bruise-eyed iron king take up the mantle of the one-eyed-seer and swear himself to wisdom and the larger world, though his selfish ignorance alone would be his side in the war that would burn down your world.

“I saw you hide from everyone you love for the sake of things you know. And what they would do if they knew.”

Nat coughed, “You saw all that.”

Loki nodded, “We have a lot in common.”

“Did you see what I’m...what I’ve…”

He shook his head solemnly, “And I don’t care what it is. I’ll never ask you another question about your past or anything you think you’ve done wrong if you’ll just answer me this one.”

Nat nodded, “I can’t promise I will, but you can try.”

“Well...not to be gauche, but exactly how old are you?”

She took a deep breath and wet her lips from a mouth gone quite dry, “An orphan never knows exactly. The records I’ve seen say the red room got me in nineteen twenty-eight, and I was ‘not yet a year old’. That’s ten years after Rogers and Barnes were born, but unlike them I never took any extended ice-naps. I got inferior soldier serums and who knows what else from the KGB, who weren't big on informed consent, and a couple weird tonics from S.H.I.E.L.D. which they informed me about but I mostly just trusted them on...which seems insane in retrospect. It’s estimated I’ll live another forty years or so before it all goes to hell.”

“You’re ninety.”

“Or thereabouts, yeah.”

He smiled, kissing her swiftly on the nose, “You wear it well.”

She laughed, “Right. Which millennium are you on?”

He sighed, “Long story for another time. But if you’re feeling better, we really ought to clean up and go. Heimdall will be expecting us.”

Chapter Text

She let him help her up, and they helped each other use the last of the water to clean up the worst of their mess. Nat sat with her back to the fire while Loki rubbed cold water down her spine, then she helped him comb some through his hair and tie it back while she dried, him sitting at her feet.

“That thing you said, about one-eye’d kings. Was that about Fury and Tony?”

Loki nodded, “I expect Fury began laying down that mantle just as Stark was picking up one like it. There’s a certain osmosis to it, a certain stealing of the covers. The one-eyed king. The half-blind man with the vision,” he sighed, “Not always a man, or even a person, obviously, and the literal missing-eye isn’t mandatory. The names of mantles and prophesy were a fire-language, a runic tree-language, and seldom get anything completely into words anymore. This is not their age.”

“Still,” Nat murmured, “when Bucky was breaking out of containment at headquarters, he shot Tony in the eye. If Tony hadn’t been wearing those glasses, he’d be dead. He did have a black eye the last time I saw him, too. I remember,” she sighed, combing out knots with damp fingers, “and I remember helping him touch up a shiner before his birthday party, back when I’d just started evaluating him for Fury.”

Loki nodded and said nothing.

“What happens to the one-eyed king?”

“It’s not a scripted play. There’s no one story, just a shape that underlies many stories. Echoes from an older world, generally more noticeable in retrospect. The tree of the world has a symmetry to it, but not a perfect one.”

Nat sighed, wishing he would just answer what she was really asking, wishing she could just ask it, what’s going to happen to Tony? “What does the one-eyed king do, then?”

Loki shrugged, “Pretty much whatever he wants. He’s the blinded visionary, the honorable guardian and the ruthless spymaster. He is called the twofold father-of-orphans since he destroys families with his blind-eyed wars, and he adopts the lost into his grand vision of a world without suffering. He lives under an ever-growing burden as the all-father, the king that will not compromise, the leader that will not choose. He longs to make himself irrelevant but cannot tolerate losing the love and power of rule, and thus he makes the imperfect world what it is, needs it to hate him and love him as much as he does. He cannot tell his secrets and cannot share his needs, locking them behind his covered eye to feed his vision.”

“That’s...yeah that’s Tony. When I met him he was letting his suit slowly kill him because he just...had to be the hero. More than had-to-be. Couldn’t not-be. After Ultron I really thought he was quitting the hero habit but the moment we-” she shook her head, “Was that what your father was really like, yours and Thor’s?”

Loki nodded, “Oh yes. My father was probably the most famous, at least on your world,” Loki sighed heavily, “but even he wasn’t the first. I don’t know if there ever was a first. I don’t know where mantles come from, but we live with them whether we know it or not. The one-eyed king’s mantle definitely takes a toll.”

“So how does it typically end?”

Loki shrugged, “Best case scenario, he sees what he is. As his wars, or his children, or his own warring self-love and self-hate come to claim him, he lays down his mantle, surrenders the uncompromising vision, and escapes the inevitable fall of his empire, to live or die as the simple, well-meaning, helpless thing he’s always been underneath, and in the sincere hope that some little-bit-more of goodness survives than is destroyed by what he’s done and what he leaves behind.

Loki’s voice deepened, softening, “But his two natures always give him two heirs, real or figurative, who, like all his aims, cannot be resolved with one another. If he dies while they both live, they fight one another in equal measures of love and hate until one falls and the other claims the burden, for that is his legacy. He always leaves a fight behind him. It is the only way he can stand to go. Or perhaps the only way the mantle will let him.”

“And the worst case?”

“He might cling to his righteous vision until the last breath, insisting more and more broadly that he can save it. To that end he tries to bring his two worlds together and make it right, bring the unending story of the universe to an affirming end. He valiantly destroys everything and salts the earth with his tears. Or his blind guilt consumes him, and he actively tries to annihilate himself and everything he’s done, good and bad, without any true power of discernment over what is justly his to destroy. Until he is stopped.”

“That seems like...a pretty bad beat.”

“It is, but not a cruel one.”

“How-” she dropped her hands, “how can you say that? I mean, for all we have in common under men like that, how?”

He turned around, “Because that’s not the whole story. That’s only the mantle, and it has its good sides. He’s as venomous as any snake or spider, and as beneficial too, in the larger scheme of things,” he shrugged, “the much much larger scheme, I grant you. And in between everything there is life, beautiful moments. Things built and dreamed and loved. The role is not the story. Every mantle moves and changes with the sort of person who picks it up, with the other mantles they wear, and the sort of people around them.”

Nat grimaced, not wanting to argue personal things in the moment, “Like his children.”

“Indeed.” When Nat didn’t resume combing out his hair he got up to dress, stretching.

Nat sighed enviously as his clothes seemed none the worse for their time spent as upholstery, frowning as she retrieved her grimy shirt, “So what are they like? The king’s heirs.”

Loki buttoned his sharp cuffs carefully, “They are frequently orphans of one sort or another. They live closest to the center of the world he’s created, where everything’s a riptide of tests and choices, and the bonds between them that survive it are unknowably strong. Warring heirs can be as different as Fury’s corrupted S.H.I.E.L.D and Fury’s assembled Avengers fighting one another, or as similar as King Lear’s Regin and Goneril sniping and warring, their outcomes as triumphal or tragic. But they can never just walk away.”

Nat was idly tearing her own shirt into wide strips and fashioning a field sling for her bust, muttering, “The hell kind of name is that?”

“What?”

“Prince Goneril. What was Shakespeare on?”

He had just gotten his open trousers up around his narrow hips and froze agape, “You’re kidding me.”

“What?”

“You’re playing me. You must be. You’ve been confined to this one planet for ninety years, you’ve traveled the whole thing, you learn languages like they’re nursery rhymes, and you don’t know King Lear.”

Nat snorted, tying her chest as flat as it would go and then strapping the shoddy kevlar overtop for good measure, “I know of it. I know it’s a Shakespeare play. I think I even worked protection for an ambassador during a showing, but I didn’t watch it. If your bodyguard can tell you what the play was about, it’s just luck that you survived. I do remember one guy getting his eyes put out. Was that Lear?”

He held out his long coat to her, his timbre as flat and clinical as a tongue depressor, “Unacceptable. When we get to Asgard, you’re getting a reading list.”

She stood up, slinging the absurdly long coat around herself, “Yeah, no thanks.”

“It’ll give you something to do, you’ll be bored to death otherwise.”

“No.”

He was tucking his shirt in so jauntily that he had to be deliberately missing the warning edge in her voice, “Why ‘no’? It’ll be nice to talk about your realm’s literature instead of just holding forth all the time. Not many Asgardians read Midgard books.”

“Then make a friend and start a book club. I’m not your pet earthling and I don’t read.”

Loki stared so hard his eyes almost crossed, “You don’t...you mean...are you...I mean can you..I mean maybe I could...”

Nat rolled her eyes, “I know how to read. Eight hundred words a minute with eighty-five percent eidetic recall, thanks. Better if it’s a properly formatted mission file in a language I already know. And I read plenty of nonfiction. I’m not ignorant. I’m not illiterate. I just don’t like books. Novels. Stories. Plays. Whatever.”

The lie-smith’s mouth flapped helplessly, groping for traction, “I- I’m sorry, I just have no concept for what you’re saying.”

Nat tightened and tied her boots with a brutal briskness, “No? Well if it makes you feel any better I’m getting a way clearer concept of what the platonic form of a pretentious asshole looks like, so consider your mission of improving my mind accomplished.”

He shrugged, nodding, “Well that’s something at least.”

Nat stood straight, squinting up at him, “Were you seriously about to offer to teach me how to read?”

“Hey now, you assumed I live among tavern wenches, you don’t get to feel indignant. Anyway I might yet just do that. There’s an art to reading stories that’s more than just reading the words.”

“Nope.”

His voice ached with a suppressed groan, “But how can you even know if you like books if…”

Nat squinted at him, “Stop talking.”

Loki turned away in a sulky and temporary sort of surrender, buttoning his suit coat, “Hospitality.”

Nat lowered her eyes, “And stop pretending you’re afraid I’ll hurt you. We both know I’d probably break my hand if I hit you hard enough for you to feel it.”

He glanced a grin in her direction, “True, but I bet if I annoy you in just the right way you’ll jump on my shoulders and sling me to the ground like you do with your really big opponents. I love it when you do that.”

She absorbed herself in trying to cinch his overcoat high enough not to trip her, “Is there some non-creepy reason you’d know about that?”

“I was king of Asgard while you were mopping up Hydra the last few years. I could sit on the far-seeing throne and see anything in the nine realms. I was just keeping tabs on my brother. You're quite the scene-stealer.”

Nat turned her attention to the long sleeves, wondering but not asking if he’d watched Thor grieve in his cups as well. Wondering darkly but not asking if maybe that was the real reason for everything else they “had in common”.

Nat’s fugue broke when Loki crossed to her and kissed her on the back of each hand, squeezing them with an earnestness that shone in his eyes, “Are you ready to go to Asgard?”

Nat nodded, “As ready as I’ll ever be, boss.”

“Thank you for this. I swear I won’t forget it.”

He put a hand on the sitting stone, and with a sound of reversed shattering the room vanished. The high cathedral of pine forest swayed in expansive mundane contrast to the dark, stuffy, magical room, sun slanting through the cut-glass cold all around them. He flipped the stone knife once and tucked it into his inner suit pocket, grinning just a little smugly.

He raised both hands forward, and the air in front of him rippled silver like a heat mirage, “Heimdall, we’d like to come by the baths, if you don’t mind.”

Nothing more happened.

“Heimdall?” His hands trembled just a little, “This isn’t easy to hold you know.”

“What’s happening?”

“Not sure. Heimdall has to open the other end to make a temporary bridge to inside the city’s protections. He might be a little-”

The ripple flashed and a roar of suction swept them inside. Nat barely had time to grab Loki’s collar to prevent her shearing off-course in the strobing tube of air before they were free-falling out the other end.

Chapter Text

They fell to earth from twelve feet up, Natasha flailing as Loki pulled her to him to catch them both through his back.

“Loki don’t I can-!” she couldn’t finish the sentence before impact knocked the air out of them. She coughed as she rolled off him onto all fours in the tall grass, shouting over the wind noise that hadn’t ended with their fall, “I can land on my feet...if you don’t grab me.”

Loki grimaced as he moved, more annoyed at his own reflexive heroics than at her ingratitude. He’d sworn off risking his own hide on unsecured credit after Thor’s return from banishment. He was getting soft. “Noted.”

They leapt up, surrounded by flat grassland that extended to an unbroken horizon in almost every direction. Churning inky clouds smothered the massive sky, lashing hungry twisters against the earth all around. A massive wall of earthwork and stone squatted in the middle distance, the tops of several spired buildings rising above. A wet cough from the ground drew Loki’s eye while Natasha whispered, “I think we’re not in Canada anymore.”

“Heimdall!” Loki bent down. The watchman lay in the long grass, one hand still clasping the blade of the bifrost sword with its tip planted in the sod, “What is all this? What's going on?”

Heimdall groaned, trying to sit up, half his body apparently paralyzed. The turbulent air around him stank of burnt hair and skin, “Giants...storm giants. Only a few, but my King’s lightning is useless against them. The people have retreated behind the gates, which will not hold against the storm,” the gold-plated god stared at Loki significantly, “How are they on Midgard?”

Loki’s tone laid its ears back and bristled, “Heimdall, I don’t know. But I’ll find out.”

A massive bellow, pained and familiar, cut through the storm noise. Nat’s attention snapped towards its source like a weather vane and Loki followed her gaze. In the distance, near the wall, several figures were locked in melee; some grey-backed giants, some brightly clad Asgardians, and one great green behemoth making enough fuss for twenty fighters. Loki shook his head and turned back to Heimdall to help him up.

The voice growled from under the helmet as the massive man struggled up on Loki’s shoulder “You know...more than you say...I had forgotten…” he fell again to one knee and coughed, Loki dropping to the ground on a knee beside him.

He sighed testily. Of course it had to be his fault somehow, “Stay down, we’ll go help and come back for you. This is Natasha.”

The solemn burnt face crinkled with a rare smile, glancing about, “Who is?”

“What?” Loki turned to see the back of his guest as she ran full-tilt in the direction of the fight, his own coat tails flapping back at him like a mocking tongue. He scowled and adopted a satiric falsetto, “I’m going to need you to not take things to the most dramatic possible extremes, boss” before grumbling, “Forget what I said. I’ll be back once I’ve retrieved my idiot mortal’s pulped corpse. But witness something for me first, would you?”

Loki flourished his hand and a flash of light put a bracer into it, a single piece of beaten silver with two curved bands to form a cuff, “As brother of the king, I name The Black Widow my warrior and champion, to defend the realms of the throne, and guard my king and my confidence. And while she bears this mark, if she be worthy, she shall have the power of the valkyrie.” A subtle pattern engraved itself into the bright metal, glowing and fading.

The maimed watchman nodded in witness, smirking slightly, “You still have to catch her.”

Loki smiled, letting his suit shimmer into armor. He drew a forearm-length dagger that gleamed like his hint of a sneer, “Watch me.”

 

 

Natasha had covered half the distance to the fighting before Loki’s illusion began running beside her, prairie grass whipping like a tide around their knees, dodging humanoid hollows crushed into the grass like snow angels, “Slow down, you squishy maniac. At least let me give you a weapon.”

She vaulted a smoking armored body as she reached the trampled path to the gate. Only one of the fallen she'd passed thus far was one of the long-boned giants with silver-grey skin and a top-knot of hair like copper and gold, its head twisted at an odd angle. The rest seemed human, most of them armed, armored, burned, and still stirring slightly.

She shook her head, still running, “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

Even at that distance, the situation looked pretty dire. Four massive broad-backed brutes stood in a trampled field strewn with far-smaller defenders, only two-and-a-half Asgardians still on their feet. The black sky above the city frothed and skittered with unfallen lightning. Most of the action was gathered near the largest gate in the middle of the massive earthwork wall: three giants with clawed gauntlets and metallic mauls the size of car bumpers, held off by two furiously fighting women with black hair and shining armor. They defended a third figure that knelt on the ground, one trembling hand raised to the sky as his red cape whipped around him. Off to the side, beyond where the wall curved away, Hulk scrapped barehanded with a fourth giant, the ground around them torn and pitted with savage impacts. As Nat watched, his opponent grabbed him with his clawed gauntlets and unleashed another in an apparent series of jagged cascades of light, and Hulk howled in pain again.

She leaped over another fallen defender, “Why can’t Thor draw the lightning down?”

Loki swallowed, “Because he’s not trying to. He’s trying to hold it up.”

Natasha stopped and followed Loki’s gaze. In an alcove of clouds between dazzling flashes, she glimpsed a helmeted figure astride a scaly elephantine...thing with membranous wings, the rider’s muscled arms thrashing like a conductor demanding a crescendo.

She squared her shoulders, striding forward and raising her voice above the wind, “What do you know about these giants?”

“Next to nothing. They haven’t been seen in Asgard since long before-”

Nat spat, “Fine. I’m gonna assume stabbing them will work?”

“Only with Asgardian steel, most likely. Mortal weapons aren’t generally sharp eno-”

A ragged cry came from one of the fighters defending Thor as she got a jolt up her arm, having blocked a giant’s gauntlet with her blade. Thor called to her, distressed. A thick bolt of blinding light escaped the sky, and Thor gestured. It bent away from the gates to hit one of the small scrubby trees hardly twenty feet from Nat and Loki, exploding it into a mess of singed limbs and tinnitus.

“Natasha slow down and think, or the next one could be for you! I don’t think Thor can see us and there isn’t an overabundance of secondary targets out here to attract errant strikes!”

She cast around for ideas, mapping the terrain, raising her voice louder to hear herself over the ringing in her ears, “We’ve got to do something! Hulk might not be taking damage from those shocks but he feels every bit of it. Bruce is suffering in there!”

“Forget Banner! He’ll be fine!” Loki yelled, finally catching up and melding with his illusory form, “If Thor goes down I expect the lizard wizard up there is going to shock this field until it glows! Here, take these!” he held out the bracer and his dagger.

Nat swallowed, looking from the blasted tree to her thick-booted feet, “No, wait, no metal…” she ran to the tree in her PJs and kevlar and grabbed a stout stave that was still smouldering, taking off again in the direction of the larger melee, Loki cursing roundly at her back.

The two standing warriors had managed to get one of the shining fifteen-foot brutes down, and each faced her own. Nat ran full-tilt at the first giant’s back, leaping to plant a foot in the fold of its knee and vault herself up to its shoulders. She swung herself across the throat like a vertical  pommel horse, and slammed the thickest part of the bough across its windpipe along the way, catching both ends to choke him as she swung around to the back again. She threw her legs wide through the air in a desperate scrabble for more mechanical advantage, heaving him backwards, and at the end of her arc she planted both feet in the middle of his back as hard as she could. The giant overbalanced back a step and the armored woman on the ground lunged where his chain armor gapped, slithering open his belly and dancing aside before she could be slathered in offal or caught beneath the pitching weight of the body as it collapsed.

Natasha rode the sinking giant to the ground just as Loki hamstrung another on his way past, abandoning his knife in the back of the mangled knee without a look. He reached Thor to kneel at his side, placing a bolstering hand on his upraised wrist.

Those odds evened, Nat tore off to help The Hulk. His opponent was in far worse shape than the other had been, his maul lost and armor shredded, but despite being inhabited by a brilliant scientist, Hulk still hadn’t realized that letting the giant get both hands on him at the same time was what set all his raw nerve-endings ablaze. Unless she could break the cycle of torment he would rage-quit, run off, and possibly reach some unsuspecting town to wreak havoc before calming down. She’d be too busy or too dead to stop him if he abandoned his opponent for her to handle.

Natasha picked a fight with the giant’s left hand, hoping to keep Hulk out of its grip. She whacked the knotty knuckles with all her strength but it was like a manhole cover with fingers. She took a deep breath and dodged into the wildly shifting gap between the two scrumming avalanches of raging muscle before she could talk herself out of it. Dodging furiously, she threw and landed a jousting jab on a pressure point in the wrist. As the stunned limb flailed wide of the fighting, she wedged her bough through a snarled detail of the monster’s gauntlet, holding tight as the arm’s whipping recoil slung her off the ground. Her own hands clenched onto the staff for dear life, she caught the giant’s utility-pole of a forearm with her legs, using every last ounce of leverage she had on the gauntlet to ratchet the hand too far against the wrist. Overextended ligaments popped gruesomely under the skin and a chunk of bone shifted sickeningly between her ankles. She grinned to herself. The stronger they are, the harder they fold.

She lost her grip when the giant roared and shook its arm, cracking her head once against some part of Hulk’s incoming fist. The chaotic flop of the enervated joint put a twist into her motion as she flew off the end of her staff, the earth and sky flashing crazily past her eyes like fluttering paper, far too fast for the waters inside her ringing head to find a level.

It had been rare, all her life, that she couldn’t correct herself mid-air, especially with as much hang-time as she apparently had. It had been even rarer, the last couple years, that there was no one to catch her when everything else went wrong. Working with a safety net had made her soft, she thought. No one to blame but herself, really. The world went mercifully dark and painless as she hit the indifferent ground.

Chapter Text

Nat floated in the vague sense that her brains were splattered all over the ground, and that these were the kinds of thoughts people had when that happened. The muzzy blackness resolved into a room loosely bounded by mirrored glass and icy greenish light. The ceiling was a concrete munitions bunker. She remembered that. The floor was frozen primordial stone. That was someone else’s. As she turned to look, the world beyond the glass shifted from place to place, changing a bright yellow-brown stretch of desert outside for a dark blue icy waste, then a glowing green field of data stretching back in time and spooled on magnetic tape. She knew this odd place like the cracks in her heart, but the pounding in her head was keeping her from thinking, her head too crammed with answers. It was that kind of room; it was several rooms smashed together in a four-dimensional dream, united by a parallel moment in time. A worst moment. A brutal question. It was that kind of room.

Something was going to be taken from her. But she’d gone there precisely because she was...searching...or lost...or running away. What did she even have to lose?

She looked down at her left hand. She was holding a blue shirt with a nametag on it that said “Hi! My name is Dr. Banner ‘Bucky’ Blake ”. It was one shirt with a lot of layers. Good for the cold.

“But he’s not here,” she muttered, peeling off the label, “he’s good at patience, bad at relationships. I hardly remember him,” a lie couldn’t get much balder than that, but she ignored it, “Thor can have his mantle. He’s not dressed warmly enough.”

She threw the shirt to Thor, who was talking to Steve through one of the mirrored walls, comparing chiseled abdomens or something. But Thor’s hair was short, and Steve had grown a scruffy beard. They could almost be twins like that. He only glanced at the shirt and held it in his hand as they went on talking. Why could he never keep a damn shirt on? It was like he enjoyed being inappropriately distracting. It was so weird.

Darcy didn’t think it was weird. The taser-happy intern was leaning on the mirror between the two slabs of beefcake, mirroring their mutual admiration with a blissful shallowness. But she was supposed to be Jane’s Thor, in the desert. Thor was Loki’s Darcy, in the ice palace. And Nat was...supposed to be with Steve, searching for answers...how had it gotten so mixed up? Then she remembered. There had been an incident. An invasion. They’d gone to quest for answers without understanding the question. It lead to Loki’s Thor being banished between realms. Between rooms. Like Steve going into the ice and coming out in a different world. That sort of thing happens to people in the tesseract’s story. Things lost in the tundra could land in the desert. You could run into your other side.

Her brain kept oozing apart and she clung to herself. She knew this room. When you think you have nothing to lose, it proves you wrong. Familial monsters finally catch you by the wrist and…

She looked down at her left hand. There was a journal in it. It was years and years of data, debts, dewy droplets of blood codified into a web of constellations. Book magic. Everything else was in the spinning reels of the glass-fronted data banks, though they only knew her as far back as the nineteen eighties. That wasn’t a lot of time. There wasn’t a lot of time. They had to get what they needed and get out before it all blew up in their faces. It was that kind of room.

She turned her back on Thor. The glassy wall opposite her flickered green with old cold code. Something was moving behind it, stalking her from the next room, from the world before Steve was tossed into the icy abyss. She thought for a moment it was her own reflection, brainwashed Nat, sneaking up on her like she’d snuck up on brainwashed Loki. But that had been the cell, a different room of rooms, after the tesseract had sent Loki between rooms. No, realms. But this wasn’t the cell. That was later, for each of them. They hadn’t met here, only...coincided. It was that kind of room, where Loki had met his real father, who hinted at traitors in Asgard. Where Jane searched in her father’s footsteps for hints of other worlds, and run afoul of an organization full of traitors. And where Nat...oh...oh no. Not again.

She turned again, frantic to remember which terminal she had to start on. The icy ground would start crumbling soon. She couldn’t leave without answers. She couldn't leave well enough alone. Her breath caught as the shadowy, stalking, shimmering green figure of Arnim Zola stepped out of the mirrored wall and took a few digitized steps towards her, a green monster coming to crush the life out of her. No, that was a different room. This room was blue monsters. Only the illusions were shimmering green. She was slipping into Loki’s head again. She closed her eyes, the whirr of the databanks spun Zola into being like a spindled spell. Her hand tighten on the book of her life, suddenly realizing what she had to lose.

Zola’s tinny electronic voice was just a jumble of gloating dream-speak, but the message hammered her. S.H.I.E.L.D. worked for Hydra. S.H.I.E.L.D. had always worked for Hydra. Steve denied it, but Zola had proved it. It was in her blood. Every red entry she’d ever wiped out of her ledger had secretly grown two more beneath the page. She was the monster parents tell their children about at night. She belonged in a cell. Not yet, but soon. When she opened her eyes, frost giants were loading her equipment into a white van. It was agent Coulson circling her, assuring her that they were the good guys. She’d believed that they were.

“You can’t just take what I’ve made of my life!” she brandished her ledger at him, “Everything I am is either in those databanks, or in this book and you can’t just-”

She heard Fury’s voice at her ear, reasonable and steady, tinged with fear and Dr. Selvig’s nordic lilt, “Jane, look around you, we’re outnumbered, our house is full of traitors, you can’t afford to fail this test, you do not know what your actions will unleash…I do...”

A frost giant grabbed her bare wrist, yanking the fairytale book from a hand that went instantly numb. Her voice froze in her throat as her arm turned a sickly soldier-serum blue. Coulson leaned in, his eyes red, tucking a check into her empty hand, his voice a chilly gravelly bass, “This should more than compensate you for what you’ve done. Now hurry home, little princess. Thor is out of time. We’re going to put the hammer on lockdown.”

She couldn’t hurry. She had no home. The ground had begun to rumble like it might crack. The giants got in the van and drove away with her whole life...her connection to her father, her hope of following in his footsteps, and maybe a little greatness along the way...leaving nothing but an unpaid receipt in her hand that slowly dissolved and gushed hot blood down her forearm. Not her blood, though. Her blood was blue. Everything else, everything else, was red. Except him.

My brother, she thought, golden and guileless. He was the only one who hadn’t been lying to her, herself included. The only one whose forgiveness she would believe, herself included. She needed him tell her she was alright. Or else there would be only The War.

She turned to Steve and screamed, “We have to go!” but Steve wasn’t listening. He and Thor were too busy shadow-boxing each other through the mirror. It was her fault. He was just wearing the shirt she’d given him. Thor wanted to be the one-eyed king, just like Tony. Just like Banner had tried to be when he’d poisoned himself into a monster. She’d learned to drain it off him, with a touch and a word, but it kept coming back.

But there would be no stopping the one-eyed king. Some monster had killed his mother...or...attacked his father...it was all blurring together...but he wasn’t going to stop just to save all their lives. He wasn’t going to let Steve put his arms around Nat, pull her under his shield as Fury’s came down on her exactly like a million tons of concrete bunker. The reckless, arrogant, dangerous thing in Thor was never going to stop falling like blows, and Steve’s blind valor was never going to let his blows land. She was left on her own with too many answers. She had to take up the spear herself, become the monster. She had to put the blade into Thor, draw out the poison, and swallow it down. Or else it would be The War.

In the mirror she saw Loki, his blue hand dripping red, ready to drop them all into the abyss. Holding the spear. Hanging by the spear. Wanting to die with the rest of his kind as the world began disintegrating into uninterpretable chaos, blown apart by answers.

“Loki no!”

He glanced at her, his eyes full of poison. But it was an illusion. He was going to spear Coulson in the back and unite the Avengers against him, to hold off The War a little longer. He was going to spear Laufey in the back and unite Asgard and Jotunheim against him, to hold off The War a little longer. He was going to stab Thor…repeatedly...

But not Zola. No one was going to stop Zola. He was already dead. He was already immortal. He’d already had his war. She hadn’t stopped him…

When she’d had the chance.

That thought led back to the bright white of her cell in Absalom, and the pounding in her head as the white got brighter and brighter. She felt herself sliding back down into three dimensions, into her simple single sausage-casing of a body. Into reason, perspective, and sensation, most of them unpleasant.

She slit her eyes cautiously to a grey sky with gaps of blue, framed by a short tunnel of tall grass and the sound of bickering. Blearily she murmured, “Tony, Cap, calm down. You’re both the prettiest,” before remembering that her life was considerably weirder than just needing to threaten to turn a Quinjet around if the earth’s mightiest heroes couldn’t quit their sniping.

She didn’t think it wise to move. The earth spun beneath her, and since she hadn’t been drunk the night before she assumed that meant a concussion, at best. There were sounds on too many sides, and she closed her eyes to make it easier to listen.

Far off above the top of her head, she could hear Hulk making low noises in his throat, and someone talking to him in the sympathetic tones of a drinking buddy, the Hulk answering in actual snatches of syntax.

Thor’s gravelly baritone was off to her right someplace, apparently with others speaking too softly to hear. There were other voices, the sounds of movement through the grass, apparently people gathering up the wounded and bringing them inside the walls, probably starting with those furthest out who had probably been the first injured. That made sense. That made good sense. They would get to her eventually. Nothing to worry about. Her head sloshed lazily like a swirled snifter full of ether.

Far off, Thor roared, “That’s enough, both of you! Go help with the others!”

Heavy footsteps stomped out into the field, accompanied by the thunder god’s oddly mellifluous grumbling. She raised her voice in as loud a whisper as she dared, hoping her head wouldn’t split, “Thor?”

A tall silhouette with a halo of blonde hair crested the grass cliffs of Nat-valley, and a throaty woman’s voice echoed more than a grass cradle should have propagated, “Oh, my girl. You’d better not move. However did you get here? Whatever have you been getting up to?”

Nat tried to talk, trying to quip, “Got up to about forty feet, I think,” but a disorienting ache behind her right eye made her wonder if some burst capillary or other was rapidly filling her skull with blood like a water balloon on a fire hose.

The golden halo descended, blocking much of the increasingly painful daylight. Nat felt a hand on her forehead. A wave of crisp coolness halted the pounding, and she hazarded to murmur, “Thank you.”

Another hand was on her wrist taking her pulse, “I think you’re dying, my dove. You’re so terribly broken. What would possess a mortal to jump in between those two behemoths?”

Nat coughed, and her ribs ran a xylophone-scale of pain. That was good. Her body was still bothering to process pain. Still fighting back. That was good, “Ha...habit.”

The silhouette laughed like a rain of silver, still holding her wrist, “Get up, come with me, I’ll take you where you belong.”

Nat shook her head as much as she dared, “Can’t move yet. Just...give me a little time. Where’s Bruce?”

The grip on her wrist burned and her knuckles ached, smarting like they had when she’d punched Loki the day before. Reflexively she pulled back, jostling everything and hearing herself whimper. Her vision swam darkly and her wrist continued to burn. She closed her eyes and waited for it to pass.

Suddenly a mellifluous voice thundered, “Over here!”

Chapter Text

A blurry pair of one-eyed Thors hovered over her, quickly joined by a pair of Lokis.

Loki seized her burning wrist, rattling off a string of amorphous words and clapping something cold around her forearm.

“Loki, where’s Bruce? Is he ok?”

Loki was shaking her arm like it was a malfunctioning flashlight, carelessly shooting pain through her shoulder, “Banner’s fine. He’s perfectly safe…” he trailed off into sharp mutters as his lips curled back in concentration.

Thor’s voice was unnecessarily resonant, “Loki, what in the Hel-”

Loki was wringing the metal band around her wrist, hissing, “Come on, come on, you stupid useless…”

She didn’t hear the rest. A numb syrupy warmth flooded up her arm, sealing all the cracks of blinding pain. The colors around her became clear and marvelously sharp, and her bones felt like a sort of resin that was oozing back together stronger than before. She hazarded a deep breath and not a single rib creaked or twinged. But more than that, she felt half a century of wear and tear roll off her body. The density of the world thinned around her, like she could break the rocks beneath her with her bare hands, and though gravity hung on her with a steadying weight of many hundred additional pounds she didn’t feel like it could contain her. She took another deep breath, feeling like she might blow smoke, her guts were so alight with giddy fire. Still, caution and discipline kept her on her back. She cleared her throat, swallowing the taste of blood, “Did we win?”

Loki crowed a long laugh and scooped his arms around her, picking her up against him with far more difficulty than the previous night.

Thor shook his head, “Well. You certainly know how to make an entrance, and almost an exit. Loki, why did you-” his gaze fell to the silver cuff around her arm, “Did you…”

Nat held up her own hand, looking at it. The bracer was finely made but had a serious heft to it, despite the profound lightness of the rest of the world around her.

Loki held up his hands as well, speaking first, “I wanted it to be a surprise. I’d hoped to give the reveal a little more pomp but,” he gestured as broadly as he could while sitting on the ground, grinning like a Cheshire cat selling used cars, “Natasha’s agreed to come be my valkyrie. So you don’t have to keep such a close eye on me while I’m rebuilding your kingdom, brother.”

Thor’s smile crumpled in perplexity.

Nat nodded, “It’s true. If it’s alright with-” she smiled, taking some pains to maintain it as she registered that Thor really had lost an eye at some point, and the one that remained was rimmed underneath with dark circles, “Your Majesty.”

He smiled back over a foundation of troubled concern, “I’ve no quarrel. You are welcome in Asgard,” his smile warmed more sincerely, “And a welcome sight, to be honest. Can you stand?”

“I’m not entirely sure I can’t fly.”

“Come, then, both of you. We have much to discuss.”

Loki put an unnecessary hand under Nat’s elbow as she stood up, “I was hoping to get Nat a bath and a quick tour first.”

“There’s no time,” he regarded them grimly, stepping close and speaking low, “there is a traitor in Asgard.”

The serial usurper and the double agent exchanged a look and followed him through the gates behind the last field stretcher.

Just inside the earthwork wall, the two women who had been fighting giants sat together on a simple bench under a red-berried tree, carefully inspecting each other’s burns, trading serious words and dabbing one another with salve from a jar set between them. Both heads of glossy raven-black hair turned in unison to note Thor, and then Loki, and then linger on Nat. She looked back, gauging their expressions, pleased that their wariness seemed as entirely impersonal as it was justified. She nodded to them. The one with paler skin and steel armor nodded back. The other, in white armor and a blue cloak, was staring awestruck at Nat’s wrist. Nat turned her eyes front.

What happened next seemed impossible: she blushed. Her cheeks, her neck, probably all the way down her chest flushed as vivid a shade of rose as her hair was auburn. For a moment she hoped that she was just dying of some unnoticed injury, or maybe having a stroke, but then realized that she was feeling a concomitant rush of...shyness. Embarrassment. Trespass. She was ashamed of being where she was, dressed as she was, intruding as she was in another person’s sight. A person who hadn’t even seemed upset, just taken notice.

What the patiently-waiting hell? She clenched her fists and took a deep breath, Who fucking cares how I look or where I belong, but it was a sensation akin to having been triggered by a code phrase. Her body was simply reacting and she had no control. She checked her internal sense of time. It would make some sense that her adrenaline was wearing off and...something else was taking over in its place. Her knees were getting watery.

She tried to sound calm, but it came out stern, “Loki.”

“Hmm?” he turned, and his cheeky angelic smirk melted into a mou of concern, “Oh. Thor?”

Thor didn’t turn, his tone impatient, “What?”

Loki pivoted on his heel and took a long step to her side, putting a hand on her back as he scrutinized her pupils, “I really think Nat could use a moment. I’m taking her to my quarters.”

“What? Why?” he turned, and his demeanor immediately softened, “Oh…combat drop.”

Loki grimaced diplomatically, like a maitre’d who’d run out of tables, “Yes I expect so. I didn’t exactly have time to prepare her for anything like this.”

Thor frowned gravely, “Alright. I’m going to visit the wounded,” for Nat he found his smile and added, “Happens to everyone. Soak it off. I like to alternate hot and cold,” he gestured at Loki with two fingers, “Come find me in the infirmary once she’s even.”

Loki nodded briskly, hooking an arm around Nat’s waist and steering her towards a different entrance, “Within the hour.”

She’d been so preoccupied with the two women that she’d hardly taken in the massive spaceship and the peculiar township that had been built in its shadow. She did so from inside her swimming head as Loki half-dragged her along, hoping she might draw herself back out of it a little. The core ship, as well as she could make it out, looked like someone challenged Frank Lloyd Wright to turn a hundred mismatched aluminum trailers into a functioning strip mall. It was low, long, accessible, and heaped-up strangely in places that she assumed made more sense from the inside.

The piecemeal harmoniousness of the disparate materials retrofitted to make a spaceship into a building fascinated her. There was more than one spacecraft attached at its back, several standing up on end like towers. Larger stones flanked the main entryway, beautifully carved. Stout poles of natural wood, similarly carved, held up overhangs and canopies along the outside that seemed arranged for aesthetic harmony as much as function, breaking up the green and grey with billows of scarlet and saffron. Even the freestanding structures of stone, wood, and pieces of extraterrestrial scrap had a gleaming modernist sensibility, including arches and peaks and precise symmetries wherever possible.

It seemed impossible that they’d been on earth less than a year, or had fled their home in fear. Modest tree and rock gardens were well-tended along walkways of precisely fitted stones. Balconies on higher levels implied open-air promenades and terraced gardens beyond where she could see. The people, though alarmed and in an anxious hurry, seemed clean and fed and healthy...and far more plentiful than could have arrived on the core ship.

The handiworked loveliness of it all struck her through the heart, and kicked up snapshots of every lovely city and market and village she’d ever sprinted through or blown up a small chunk of. She had memorized them to asses vantage points, but she’d seldom seen them. Never loved them. Suddenly it felt like the beauty was invading her mind, and she couldn’t see anything else. She stumbled.

“Easy there,” Loki pulled her tighter against him and yolked his shoulders under her arm, calling “Make way please,” to children playing ball in a side courtyard. He chuckled, “I so wish I actually needed to yell for someone to get help, but I don’t expect it’s necessary, and don’t think anyone else would see the humor.”

Nat certainly didn’t, and her eyes slid closed against any more aesthetic shocks, her insides burning and tumbling like a lit pinwheel. An interminable sightless stumble later, she heard a door open and close, and Loki let her slide onto a cushioned surface. She lay still, fighting to catch her breath. Neither of them spoke, she just listened as he moved around the room.

A bizarre wave of gratitude rushed through her at the sound of a bathtub filling, and a floral soapy scent threatened to make her cry. Over the scent of fucking soap. She’d had adrenaline drop before; that feeling of desperate, crispy-edged exhaustion after a rush of excitement and terror. This was dimensionally worse, and defied every method she had to muffle, shake-off or re-directed feelings. Her whole body was pulsing with an unrelenting sensation of desperate raw openness, like a radiation burn beneath her skin, and it kept trying to worm its way into her head.

Beyond her eyelids, cabinets opened and closed smartly, glass clinked with ceramic, powder was shaken from a jar. Finally a hand smoothed her hair back from her face, ““Pardon the room, I’ve had no time to redecorate. There’s a bath ready. Why don’t you- Oh shit,” as she turned over and began to sob his hand retreated like it had, for once, actually been burnt. Just like every other horrible sensation since she’d woken up, the sadness wouldn’t stop. It just fell out of her in absurd, knotted, moaning ropes, like the gusted lament of bagpipes being kicked up a hill. Once she’d apparently reached the hilltop and begun rolling down the other side, abandoning bursts of atonality for a more manageable plaintive ongoing sigh, she turned over again and opened her swollen eyes.

Loki was sitting at her hip, amused and horrified, “Sweet Surtur, you cry ugly.”

Her sides already hurt before the laughter started, as she tried to kick him in the ribs. It hurt. Everything hurt. Everything that had ever happened hurt, everything that had ever hurt was still happening, “What-” she kicked at him, sobbing a laugh, “-the fuck-” she tried again, coughing, “-have you done to me?”

“Only saved your life, you suicidal maniac, ow!” he picked up a pillow and smothered her leg, “You’ll be fine. There’s usually a ritual to all this, with lots of regallia and a rundown of terms and conditions, followed by copious amounts of food and alcohol. I was really looking forward to it, if you must know. But I sort of had to skip that bit, since if I’d waited you’d have died,” the last words he punched like typewriter keys, picking the pillow up and pressing it across her shoulders, leaning down to brace her, “The fiendish intensity of what you’re feeling right now is what happens when we take serious injuries and the magic intervenes, multiplied by the staggering amount of damage the bracer is repairing, redoubled by it being your first time. You do get used to it,” he pressed himself up and held her wrist in front of her, the runes glowing a hot orange, “But you’re drawing so much magic right now I’m surprised my armor isn’t browning-out.”

She shook her head, gulping, “Can you make it stop? I’ll sweat the broken ribs and whatever else. I’ve done it before. I’ll do opioid withdrawal, or a soldier chem protocol, I’ll…” she felt herself reaching, struggling to redirect her babbling someplace harmless, distracting, “I’ll deep-cover as a survival cultist. I’ll sit a seventy-two hour stakeout in a Yugo. I’ll give you a Gwyn...I’ll...I’m being torn apart…” but that wasn’t even adequate. She could handle pain in the present moment. Any one moment would only ever contain so much agony. Maybe another would follow it, and another and another, but eventually one would be different. She trusted her body for that, knew the upper limits of pain it would ever feed her. This wasn’t even pain, it was everything at once, her entire sense of being boiling with emotions and stretched out through time and space to be a near-infinite number of Natashas, each one suddenly forced to…

His hand was on her forehead again, and cold flooded down through her skull, behind her eyes, and her soul went blessedly blind, her magnifying fishbowl becoming an over-packed snow globe. She gasped, exhausted. She didn’t even twitch when she heard a long blade whisper out of a sheath, even though her inner sentry faithfully sounded the alarm.

Loki cut away her garbage kevlar, grimy PJs, and makeshift halter top; everything but the heavy bracer, lifting her out of the rags with a soft grunt. He slid her into the tub feet first, and she shivered, the heat so intense that at first it felt cool. The water was scalding, yet never triggered the throb in her spine that signaled pain, panic, and damage. Her skin didn’t blister or weep, it just drank in the heat, pulling it deeper and higher like a thirsting tree. She oozed down the sloped side, the brutal sea-sick not-pain shrinking back into some secret place in her gut, to push out a moan of exquisite relief, “Oh my god…”

He sighed back, “Oh my valkyrie.”

She cracked an eye at him, “When I can move again, I’m going to murder you.”

He seemed relieved and increasingly distracted, “Before or after you give me a Gwyn, whatever that is?”

“Both. And during.” She tried to sound cranky, but her head was apparently an impenetrably sweet fog of incandescent plasma.

He sighed, facing away from her and sitting on the edge of the tub, “as you like.”

He fell silent, and she let the noise inside her slowly find its level. When she opened her eyes again, he was still faced away, preoccupied with the middle distance, “Loki.”

He turned and his eyes were vaulted wide in his still face, as if he’d forgotten she was there. His voice was wary, pleading with an edge of warning, “Please be very careful what you ask. This isn’t your game anymore.”

“Because I’m your valkyrie now.”

“Yes. And because nothing is as I thought we’d find it here.”

He was dead serious. She pulled herself up, still feeling a bit as if she were moving through gelatin, “Then you better explain the rules of this not-game. Fair warning, I’m going to check your version against the opinion of that other valkyrie that hates you.”

He waved a hand testily, “As I’ve known all along you would, and you’ve known that I’ve known, and I’ve known that you’ve known that I’ve known, etcetera,” he stood and paced, clasping his hands behind his turned back.

She looked at the room for the first time as he chose his words. It was smaller than the fire room, and more crowded, like a glorified walk-in closet or covered wagon. Most of the space was taken up by the oversize tub and wide bed. There were makeshift shelves cluttered with things she expected were partly Loki’s personal effects, partly things that belonged to the previous owner, who’d apparently enjoyed a very steampunk-orgy aesthetic. The inset ceiling lights were all dimly tinted, and every surface was either draped with something jewel-toned and silky or embossed with some manner of beaten brass or die cut bronze.

Nat scooted forward, folding her arms on the rim of the tub closest to him, “Well? What’s wrong?”

Loki flinched visibly, and Nat understood why. It was as if the curved endings of her question had flicked out and caught at his skin like fishhooks, twingeing until he answered, “I’ve put you in a worse spot than I meant to. Perhaps a lot worse,” He turned and scowled at her, but eased as he looked directly at her, “I won’t know how much worse until I’ve had a chance to talk to Thor.”

“What would Thor-”

He held up both hands, “Please, no questions. Not right now. Understand, I can’t lie to you. I can’t lie to my valkyrie. That part I told you. I left out the ‘because if I do’ part before.”

“Well?”

He flinched, putting his hands behind his back and pacing, “Because if I do, you’ll know. Because if you know, you’ll have a growing sense that I am not worthy of your allegiance, and a responsibility to have the truth from me, by any means necessary. And there are things that I can’t tell you, things no Asgardian should ever know.”

“So what hap-”

He turned on her, his hands crabbed into trembling fists, “Not now!”

She sat back slowly as he caught his breath, his irritation almost tangibly radiant.

He looked down, slowing his breathing, “Sorry. I’m trying to process a lot, and this sensation of being questioned by you is a lot to adjust to. From what I’ve read, if I lie to you and you don’t correct it, then it becomes your failing as well, and falls to all your sister valkyries; or in our current case, valkyrie, singular; to take up your cause and then punish you, lest the mantle be tainted for all. Both. Whatever.”

“My cause.”

“Of making me very, very sorry for being an unworthy sneak.”

“And...punish me.”

Loki sighed, “It depends. For something minor maybe a public backhanding or a face mark. For more serious derelictions of duty, a summary stripping of all Asgard’s protections of you.”

“That doesn’t sound too-”

He looked at her significantly, “Retroactively. Including all the healing you’re receiving now. It would basically be a death sentence. Which is a fairly impressive accomplishment considering Asgard has never had a death sentence. Aside from waging wars, of course. Maybe in a year's time you'd have a chance of surviving it but...” he shook his head, rubbing his forehead as he kept pacing.

She sighed, carefully framing her question in non-question form, “I don’t suppose there’s a no-fault divorce option in this gig.”

“There is, actually. A valkyrie can always walk away. In fact she keeps everything in the divorce, as it were.”

“I wonder if there’s a catch.”

“If you walk away, it means that I am dishonored, for having chosen my valkyrie poorly or for offending you, and costing the realm your portion of its power. I answer to Thor for sentencing. The typical punishment for misuse of power is the stripping of one’s power and mantle, then banishment to some mortal realm of the world tree’s choosing until such time as the offender has gathered something of comparable worth to what they lost, hopefully learning something valuable along the way about temperance and trust and blah blah blah.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

He shrugged wearily, “It’s not. It’s fairly wretched but, no, it’s not so bad. Feels silly to complain to a mortal about it in any case. That’s not the problem. Now that Odin’s gone, if I’m separated from my powers-" he took a bracing breath, suppressing a shiver, "If things that I’ve put in place fail and I’m not here to fix them...well, frankly, I’d vastly prefer to die.”

Nat put her fingertips to her forehead, feeling like she was stuck between a pair of wrestling monsters again, “But you knew all this going in, except for the whole me-potentially-dying part. I don’t see how the situation is worse now,” she pushed herself up to sit on the rim of the tub, testing her equilibrium and finding it adequate as Loki passed her a towel, eyes averted with a modesty that felt peculiarly arbitrary.

He sighed, “I thought everything here would be reasonably straightforward because...well because I wouldn't be causing trouble, and Asgardians cleave to honor and kinship like your kind cleave to warmth and waterfronts. There would be no need for anyone to question me because I’d have you, and Thor trusts you, and everyone trusts Thor. There would be no need for you to question me because I’d just be building things and keeping my head down. I would just have needed you to listen to me bitch and help me keep my temper while I built a passable kingdom. But now…” he shrugged expansively.

Nat got her feet on the floor, drying herself briskly, “Now someone’s trying to frame you.”

“Frame me?”

“Slipping giants past Heimdall’s watch. Your greatest hit, as I understand it,” she tucked the towel around herself, smirking at his irritated scowl, “You’re not the only Asgardian who likes to both drink and complain about his family.”

He cut her off, his tone acid, “Really? Did the kindly widow kiss it better for him?”

She held up a warning hand, the cool of the air settling heavily on her skin, “No. And before you start, I am not getting in the middle of-" the vivid fantasy of her getting-in-the-middle-of Loki and Thor stopped her voice. She coughed, " I'm not coming between the two of-” she cleared her throat, “-just no. The family drama is all yours. We were co-workers. He thinks I’m easy to talk to.”

He muttered, “Well he’s wrong. You’re a pain in the ass.”

She shrugged, “And you’re a sucker getting framed by one or more of the people he thought was too docile to ever rock the boat. And I’m the one that can vouch for where you’ve been most recently, so be nice and stop taking your cryptic shit out on me.”

Loki grumbled something that sounded like a surrender, “I won’t know how bad it is until I’ve spoken to Thor. If he really suspects it was me,” he shook his head, “It could get very bad.”

Nat took a breath, making a choice, “Would you try to hurt or eliminate Thor for suspecting you?”

The hook caught, but Loki didn’t flinch, “No.”

The cool air had slowly seeped into Nat’s skin like tangible weight, especially in her eyelids. Even with the godawful pain fading, she was acutely aware of having a mood, and of that mood being pressed-upon by what was nearby, as if her wires for her senses and her emotional state had somehow gotten crossed as her eyes slid to crossing and closing, “Fuck I think…”

That time Loki caught her before she hit the ground, lifting her and laying her on the wide bed again, “Alright, you’re in no shape to function right now. Take a nap. I’ll go see Thor. If you wake up before I get back, feel free to rummage for some clothes, have a look around, whatever you like. There’s going to be more to learn than I anticipated, so start as soon as you’re able.”

Nat nodded blearily as she sank into a pillowed darkness.

“Loki.”

The sound of some light rummaging in a drawer, “What?”

“Did you do anything to bring those giants here?”

There was a pause, and much to her surprise he didn’t sound annoyed, “No. I’ve never even seen their kind before. Nor thought of their existence outside stories.”

She couldn’t be sure what made her ask, except for realizing that she’d always wondered, “Did you the first time? On Thor’s would-be coronation day?”

She heard him swallow hard as the door opened. Then, barely audible as each of them slipped away, “No.”

The last thing she knew before she slept was that he was telling the truth.

Chapter Text

Loki idly pared his nails with his sharpest dagger as he went down the hall. Not his favorite, not his uru blade. He’d lost that one to avenge Frigga, but he still always thought of it when he used any other. His most concealable blade and one of his better magical channels, gone in a single act of vengeance. Still, worth it. He put his hand over his stomach, still just a little proud at the memory of that brutal, impaling pain. It was no small thing to die, even in jest. If it was easy, everyone would do it. He tucked the common dagger away in his lower-back sheath as he strode down the hall towards the infirmary, gallantly bowing aside with a smile when the treated and released passed.

A young warrior from Vanaheim stopped to flourish him an Asgardian bow, murmuring, “Hail to my lord.”

He stopped in turn to regard her with a warm smile. Frigga’s training. Never give up the chance to affirm someone’s graciousness. She was tall, but barely grown, her eyes still wide with youth though her shoulders were strong. Her pin-straight hair had been shaved off one side of her head to allow treatment of a jagged electrical burn. Her warror’s bearing needed work, or else was still the worse for her pain’s management, but she had the sort of strong-set jaw that would always help make up for that.

He bowed to her in kind, “Hail to the valiant.”

Her hand closed around her scabbard reflexively, her eyes struck with gratitude at his recognition, and she bowed again before hurrying away. Loki allowed himself a sigh. Oh, to be young again, soul stripped bare by his first real battle, swathed in the most acute awareness of life he’d ever known. He resolved that, if there were no great tragedies to mandate mourning, he would assure that there was a first-victory feast for the young warriors. New Asgard could stand to maintain that tradition from the old without overtaxing their resources. It was still several hours to sundown, probably enough time to arrange something both festive and frugal.

If nothing sufficiently terrible had happened, or did before suppertime.

Thor was in the northern room of the infirmary, making his way around the horseshoe of healing biers to speak to every citizen, warrior, and einherjar who’d been sent there in his name. Most were sitting up, addressing each other with a boisterousness that defied the room’s dim lighting and pervasive haze of anxiety. Thor energetically worked to dispel the clouds of doubt, one fighter at a time. Loki glanced around at faces reflexively before reality reminded him again. He wouldn't be seeing Volstagg, or Fandral, or Hogun again, except the occasional mistake across a room or out the corner of his eye. He took the blow, shook his head, and kept moving.

Loki approached and stood at the foot of a raised bed, not wishing to interrupt, nodding when Thor acknowledged him, “My King.”

“Loki!” Thor boomed with that performative edge of too-much charm, “Come, you remember good Falki.”

Loki stepped to the grip of the heavily-bandaged einherjar, bowing slightly, “Of course! Good Falki!” he racked his brain trying to remember if he’d ever in his life met anyone named Falki, coming up short, “Good to feel the strength hasn’t left this courageous hand.”

Falki smiled through a singed beard, pressing pleats into the weathered skin by his eyes, his grip so calloused it felt like Korg’s “Good to see you home again at last, My Prince.”

It was a struggle to keep his eyes from darting hungrily over the man’s stoically pleasant face in a hunt for traces of suspicion. The old warrior released him and lay back, smiling fondly at Thor, “I will risk your displeasure that I must sleep, for those are Eir’s orders and I fear her displeasure more.”

Thor laughed heartily, “Well said, and rightly, too. Thank you for your courage today, my friend.”

As they moved on to the next bed, Loki leaned to Thor’s ear, “I’ll wait for you by the door. I lack the talent for this.”

Thor’s smile didn’t shift or turn to him, “You didn’t always,” and he planted a hand at the small of Loki’s back, gently bulldozing him to the next convalescent. So Loki smiled and smiled, taking pleasantries from the suffering and learning nothing from their distracted faces. Eir came to the last bed to shoo them out with a terse authority, and so the King left his warriors without any implication that he’d ever choose to.

Just outside the entrance he drew Loki into a dim alcove between two looming storage bunkers, standing close to speak quietly, his manner still oddly reserved, “Was that so bad?”

Loki straightened his coat primly, “You mean coming back to chaos, or the near-death of my brand new valkyrie, or the hour of gratuitous glad-handing? Because yes.”

Loki studied the way Thor studied him. As the bravely jolly facade faded, his brother grew grim. He took too long to say anything, so Loki jumped back in on a more unifying tack, “Natasha’s going to be fine, by the way.”

A small smile kindled under Thor’s dour look, “That’s good to hear. As will be the tale of how you managed to talk her into your service. Quite the epic, I’d expect.”

A spark of levity achieved, it seemed wiser to change the subject, “I’ll let her tell it. But tell me, did we lose anyone today? I was thinking if there’s no cause for widespread mourning we should make sure the young get to have their feast.”

Though the edges of his eyes did not entirely thaw, Thor smiled warmly. He always was a sucker for sentimental observances, “None dead. Some serious injuries but nothing that can’t be lightened with a victory celebration, however disturbing the circumstances...” Thor trailed off, looking at Loki again with that same sad, pointed significance, but caught himself and shrugged, “The timing was fortuitous, in a way. We were gathered in the courtyard, everyone armed and armored, all the einherjar on hand,” he sighed, “It could have gone far worse. And yet for all that-” he slumped back against a bunker, “we barely held.”

“But you held, against their significant advantage of surprise. One they won’t have again, while our defenses are undiminished,” Loki eyed Thor’s increasing pallor suspiciously, “Were you hurt?” he tried not to sound too warm, too worried, too much like he wanted to check for himself, rolling his eyes, “It would be like you to wade through the entire healing room with your guts hanging out under your armor and say nothing.”

Thor eyed him back, shaking his head, “I’m uninjured. Sif and Bru fought like furies to keep me so. And of course your last-minute saviorism. Your new hallmark, it seems. That must gratify you.”

Loki shrugged, leaning against the opposite bunker with a distinctly gratified air, “Honestly, I hadn’t time to notice.”

“Well,” that unsubtly pointed tone again, “no reason to think you won’t get another chance fairly soon, is there?”

Loki stifled the proud impulse to demand that Thor just spit it out if he was accusing him of something. Annoying as it was, when Thor prodded for indications of guilt it was a good sign. It generally meant that he really didn’t care for whatever thought was in his head, and wanted assurance so he could dismiss it. But if Loki pressed too hard to assure him it would seem manipulative...if only because it was. Still, it was just cause to keep him engaged, to try and bring them slowly closer “What was the occasion, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“What?”

“The gathering. Everyone in armor.”

Thor sighed, “I was going to name a consort, actually.”

Loki blinked, “Really?”

Thor nodded, “The embassage from Vanaheim made it clear that if I don’t begin doing this whole Kingship more properly, ragnarok or no, there might be a challenge, peaceably they assure me, for the rank of all-father.”

Loki’s eyes went round, physically startled, “What?”

Thor nodded again more earnestly, “I know. I’m half-tempted to just let them have it.”

Loki tilted his head in disbelief, and approached with measured steps, “You can’t mean that.”

Thor grunted, pouting, running his hands through hair that was spiked with sweat and growing out raggedly, looking far older than his spare thousand years, “True. If I’m honest, I’m more like three-quarters tempted.”

Loki’s expression sharpened as he got confrontationally close, “You can’t,” he pointed back the way they’d come, “Above and beyond what it would lose us in tribute, tribute we desperately need right now in case you hadn’t noticed, it would stick a knife in every last fighter that suffered today. For you.”

Thor scoffed without much outward feeling, eyes and voice low, “Don’t pretend to care about that.”

Loki hazarded a scoff in reply, refusing to let Thor retreat into brooding, “Then don’t pretend not to.”

Thor squared his shoulders in an attempt to rally, “I care. Of course I do. But I can’t-” he cleared his throat and sniffed sharply as something broke loose from his patience. He cast a look and a gesture back toward the infirmary full of treachery’s aftermath, “How did you do this, Loki? How could-” he shook his head, fists tight and trembling like a plucked wire.

Loki swallowed hard. A jump to open accusation was a stark surprise, “How did I-?”

“Bearing the burden of the throne. You’ve done it passably well, in your way. I’d just like to keep it from driving me mad.”

“I-I-” Loki stammered, almost capsizing between opposed waves of personal relief and heartsick sympathy, “That’s hardly a fair comparison, I mean-” the attempt to encapsulate examples of how easy his entire rule had been, in contrast to any given day of Thor’s, shot him through with beauty-barbed memories of things gone, things that had been the words for home to his hand and eye; the contours of rooms, the scent of night flowers, trees as familiar as hands and paths like parts of his feet. He couldn't get his head around it. A whole world gone in a superheated flash. Any world, let alone his. There had been birds native to Asgard, and creatures both terrible and glorious, and stables of horses with names he still knew. Bodies left unburied that his mind kept prodding him to go back for. For some reason his mind kept them on the do-to list, though the cosmos itself had scratched them out.

He shook his head, fighting off the aching phantoms of that extinct life, though they begged him to join in their futile wailing. Thor was rubbing his own forehead, and Loki clasped him by the shoulders to sell an idea he hadn’t entirely bought, “Thor, listen to me. None of this is your fault, and you don’t have to bear it all alone. It’s going to be fine,” he tried not to let it, but it slipped out, “I promise.” Damn his mouth.

Thor rested one hand on Loki’s wrist, “I’m the protector of all that’s left of us, a god in a mortal realm, and I’ve never felt so helpless.”

“Well,” Loki matter-of-factly stifled a rush of fellow feeling, “feelings lie. Try thinking instead, for once. You haven’t even given yourself an hour’s time to consider things yet, let alone eat or rest or hear council. Knowing you, you were too nervous to eat the morning before a ceremony as well. Before deciding how hopeless it all is, tell me you’ve eaten since dinner last night. Tell me you’ve slept at all, or had a moment’s comfort from...” he couldn’t figure out how that sentence ended.

Thor smiled weakly and took him by the back of the neck, pressing their foreheads together, his voice hanging twice as heavy as his grip, “I have missed you.”

Loki squeezed his shoulders chidingly, not quite pushing away but hoping to wriggle out of their mutual morose tailspin, though their familiar, physical closeness exerted a will of its own, “Well whose fault is that? Rest assured, I’m not going to forgive you easily for it.”

Thor scoffed again, pulling himself up a little straighter, “I just said I missed you, not that I actually regret locking you up. I don’t. Least of all now.”

The last words crackled with such bitter certainty that Loki’s heart ran cold and his mind raced to adjust. He’s certain it was me, he thought. Wrong, but certain. And why wouldn’t he be? He kicked himself for not adding it up faster. Giants and Heimdall blinded could be circumstantial. But a public ceremony disrupted as well, one meant to assure Thor’s rule. It made sense not to bother with an accusation when the attack itself was a carefully forged threat signed Love, Loki . Nothing to suss out but what gloating list of demands, what danegeld, might spare the city. Was that what Thor was prodding at him for, to get it over with?

He heard his own voice in his head, from when the collar had been as tight around his own neck: If I’m for the axe then, for mercy’s sake, just swing it. He’d never in his life felt such utter loathing as speaking those words to Odin’s face.

Then it occurred to him that Thor was perhaps subtly offering him the throne for Asgard’s survival, and the thought of it felt like the second end of the world in as many months. He couldn’t help dwelling on a stab of self-pity all the same. He’d grown accustomed to the idea that Thor would never trust him, that his only legacy would be tales of jealousy and selfish ambition, but the idea of himself as someone so blatantly tacky in Thor’s estimation stung deep.

But perhaps it had been inevitable, and couldn’t be helped in any case. He’d lost Thor’s love years ago, his opinion beyond that was merely cosmetic, he told himself. He had to focus on the moment. Control the real damage to Thor, and to Asgard. He tried to keep his breathing even as his mouth went dry. Nothing to do but work the problem. Play for time, but deny nothing. Denial would only seem like guilt, insult, and worse. Let Thor find and express his rage. He deserved that, after everything, and the aftermath would flow more smoothly for it. Ground it, like Natasha had described. But also invite him through the events at his own pace, so hopefully he might see another option on his own. If not, well, back to the cells. He could work with that. He had a valkyrie, after all.

“So who were you going to choose?” he offered quietly.

Thor shook his head, a bitter laugh falling out, “It doesn’t matter now. I can’t name a consort. After that attack, I’m doubting everyone, even our allies, even Sif and Bru. Even Heimdall ,” his face twisted in frustration, “If I hadn’t locked you away, I would now be without a single person in all of Asgard that I could truly trust.”

Loki was struck by the peculiar certainty that he’d lost track of what words meant, “What?”

Thor nodded, speaking as if it were obvious, “The magic that let them in came from inside our walls. I had Gungnir in hand at the time, I felt it. You were the only one that wasn’t here, the only one that couldn’t possibly have been involved. Even if involving others in your plots were your style, which we both know it hasn’t been for years, you’ve been out of conspiracy-range since long before the ceremony was scheduled.”

Loki tried to blink back tears but his eyelids were frozen open in shock, feeling Thor’s confidence wash over him like a breath of spring in a deep cave, “You know it wasn’t me. You-” he swallowed, still trying to process a chain reaction of relief and disbelief, “You know it wasn’t me.” For once you know it wasn’t me, he thought, trying and failing to maintain his protective indifference to whether or not Thor would ever truly know him again or all the things he’d done...

Thor nodded, putting a steadying hand on Loki’s neck, some glimmer of recognition lighting behind his eye, “I do. But right now I’m probably the only one. And I may need-” he hung his head, bracing his other hand over Loki’s heart protectively.

Loki nodded encouragement, “Anything. Name it.” Damn his mouth. It was a wildly intemperate offer. He immediately resolved to walk it back after lunch. He couldn’t let Thor so close. That was always the other danger. But suddenly there was nothing between them but relief, nothing confounding or complicating the warmth of Thor’s hand on his neck but Thor’s need and Loki’s anything .

The narrow space between them prickled with inescapable recognition. Thor cleared his throat, “We may need to keep that between us. Your innocence. Just for now.”

Loki nodded emphatically, stifling a laugh at the irony of Thor begging him to play the villain for his sake, and for the good of Asgard, “Certainly, I agree. Better to draw them out if it seems you’ve been fooled.”

Thor peered at Loki as if seeing him for the first time in an age, some of the mileage sliding from his face as he found no trace of anger or reluctance at his request. They had been so close once, despite being raised on opposite sides of Odin’s machinations, a connection they’d lost after they’d both failed at Jotunheim. Suddenly they were on the same side again, half-broken, adrift, and in crisis, and yet all Loki could think about was Thor’s mouth, and how it was yearning towards his in barely-perceptible motions.

Loki raised his chin just a bit and Thor leaned towards his lips intently. They parted for him without a sound and Thor fell into the invitation as lightly and easily as a blade whispering into a wound.

Damn his mouth.

Longing slid down his throat and loaded his heart to bursting as the agreement of their ardor built. It had been so long, through so much loss. He bit at his brother’s lips, wanting to taste blood, ravenous for the comforting proof of pain. Thor evaded him, instantly and inadvisably playful, competitive, already giving himself over to the place where nothing mattered but striving towards satisfaction. As usual, Thor’s carelessness triggered Loki’s caution, aware that he’d be stripping them both naked in clear view of the hallway in a moment, left unchecked.

“Thor…”

Thor smothered Loki’s mouth with another kiss, a transparent effort to prod the word “no” off the tip of his tongue and urge it back down his throat with purposed thrusts. When Loki’s muffled sounds didn’t cease he beckoned deeper, pulling on his kisses as if to swallow the poisonous syllable down himself.

As if he’d succeeded, Loki softened his admonition, panting, “Thor, not here…”

Thor slowed like a steam engine, coasting and huffing hotly, “I’ve missed you,” his voice rumbling up from depths where dangers lived. Waves of Thor’s delayed grief and loneliness trembled in the air, cold and stinging as sleet, pressing them to cling together for warmth.

Loki took two fistfuls of Thor’s scraggly hair like reins. He willfully crammed his own overexcited hunger down painfully tight, the almost-physical pain helped steel himself against the undertow of feeling Thor need him again, “I missed you too. And I still haven’t forgiven you for why.”

Thor shook his head, plaintive, “Don’t let’s…” he sighed, his lust ebbing far faster than it ever did as reality returned, “I...don’t have time anyway. I still have to meet with the Vanir delegation to reassure them. And as you say, there’s a feast to plan,” he smiled sadly, letting go of Loki’s neck, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me.”

Loki shrugged, not moving away, his diction overly cavalier, “Combat drop. Happens to the best of us,” he cleared his throat briskly, “Who’s on the delegation?”

Thor nodded, rubbing his face as if waking, his gaze still lingering plaintively on Loki’s mouth, “A tidy handful. I thought they just wanted to check in on their own, but it’s most of their council. Frey and Freya are leading.”

“Fair and Feral are both here? Is slumming in vogue again?” he made a pained face, “I do not envy you.”

Thor smirked, “At long last. If I’d known that destroying the whole world and losing my mind were all that it took to finally sate your jealousy of me...”

Loki laughed, his smile flavored with a deferred snarl, “But speaking of slumming,” he straightened his coat carefully and stroked Thor’s cheeks as if straightening his overgrown stubble, “my room is on your way. You could say hello to Natasha properly, if she’s awake. She might not still be there, of course, she was just going to nap and then have a look around. But we could stop in for a look, since you’re headed that way anyway. You really ought to freshen up for your meeting.”

Thor wiped his mouth and looked away, pausing far too long, “We would need to be quick.”

Loki nodded amiably, his gaze too steady and his voice too low, “I think we can manage that.”

Chapter Text

Nat opened her eyes groggily at the sound of voices in the hall and Thor’s familiar stride coming closer. She looked down at her towel-clad self as she heard her name spoken with intent, overly-loud. As she slid off the furthest edge of the bed her equilibrium swirled but stayed mostly intact, her blush reflex still too volatile.

“I’ll just check that she’s decent,” the door slid open and Loki poked his head in. They locked eyes and she raised her hands to wave him off, but Loki gestured and her hands vanished, along with the rest of her. He put a finger to his lips, his eyes imploring, “It looks like she’s already gone out.”

Loki stepped into the room, followed closely by Thor, whose hands went to Loki’s hips as soon as the door slid closed behind them.

Nat hardly suppressed a gasp as Loki turned and kissed Thor hard on the mouth, fumbling aggressively with His Majesty’s pants as he backed him against the door. Nat knelt up on the bed and dodged Loki’s leather coat as it flew past her, unsure of what he meant by what he was showing her, or if she were part of his equation at all. He seemed unaware of anything but Thor, unbuckling and unbinding with swift fingers and serious, downcast eyes.

Thor shucked out of his hardened leather breastplate with surprising facility as Loki freed him from the front of his smallclothes. His face was all hunger, his attention like a nocked arrow on Loki. She’d never seen him look that way before, and she had honestly thought she'd seen all his moods and faces. They'd been fairly close, in their way. Despite being on complete opposite ends of the power spectrum in the Avengers, Thor and Nat shared a respectful pragmatism towards violence, similar tastes in humor and flirting, and identical feelings of protectiveness towards their friends. They’d often ended up alone at the bar in Stark Tower when the others had gone off into their own little worlds to brood.

Those were the only times they ever really talked, but it was genuine talk, genuine camaraderie, even though Nat hardly ever thought about him when he wasn't around. She never had to worry about him, after all, or even consult with him since their specialties were so different. He never needed her to fly him anywhere, and even sparring together would have been an exercise in contrived absurdity. They’d probably have never met in any other life, and yet left alone together under Tony’s roof, their mutual fondness always picked up like no time had passed, and they’d talk until dawn; playing with words, baring their souls, laughing like loons.

So as teammates, housemates, and occasional inebriate besties, Nat thought she’d seen Thor in every possible mood, from triumphal to tender, bragging to broken, hopeful to heartsick. She knew his serious side both at work and at play. She’d seen his steadfast endurance of extreme pain, and his dark unvarnished willingness to inflict it on others. She knew his deep concern for his friends, and the quiet commitment beneath his bravado and fecklessness to do anything for them. Early on, she (and Tony) had even seen him strut unblushingly bare-assed naked around the pool...before Banner came along and explained about bathing suits to him (the prude).

But she’d never once seen his cautious detachment vanish as it did under Loki's touch. She’d never seen such longing in his eyes, or such solemnity in the lines around them, as when he looked at Loki in the low light with his back against a locked door.

In that same vein, she’d once seen him destroy a two-story Hydra railgun transport with nothing but a triple-jump and his fancy joiner's mallet, but she’d never thought of him as a god, never felt that she was living side by side with a creature powerful beyond her understanding, until that moment. All he was doing was snogging her boss, albeit very prettily, like a couple of schoolboys in heat, but every shifting posture and motion pulled at her sense of the sublime, as if she were watching a glacier crack or a tornado uproot an oak.

Her heart pounded at the sight of them pulling at each other with chaotic urgency, each hand and lip and eye fighting like scavengers to get their fill of the other’s body, dizzy with disregard for anything else. She couldn’t quite catch her breath. She could say, without bragging, that she’d pretty much seen everything in the catalog of human flesh in terms of beauty and horror and eroticism, and yet she couldn’t quite catch her breath or move a muscle.

Erratic grasping slowly resolved into waves of embrace, anchored by deep kisses that seemed to suspend each from the other. Thor wrapped his fist in Loki’s hair, his other hand sliding lower as Loki brazenly cupped Thor’s ass with both hands and leaned hard into him. The faint groan of the metal door answered Thor’s louder one as Loki pressed against him. Thor's grip eased, caressing Loki’s cheek and neck and sighing more softly. Loki described jagged paths down Thor’s bare front with his fingers, venturing down with his lips when he found a route that made Thor’s eyes roll back

As Loki started to kiss his way down, Thor seemed to come up for air and glanced at a shelf by the door. He smiled and snatched a small bottle from eye-level as he pulled Loki up against him again, “I want you.”

Loki took a step back, wiping his mouth as Thor squeezed some sort of exotic flower oil onto his fingertips and palm. He shook his head, “No time. It always takes you forever. And too much mess. We’re supposed to be wiping you down, not lathering you up, remember?” His objections lacked any sense of conviction.

Thor took hold of the back of Loki’s neck, drawing him in as he slid his fingers down the back of his trousers, growling against his ear, “You left lubricant in easy enough reach of the door.”

Loki shook his head, gasping lightly, “Not mine, probably belonged to your former owner,” he gasped again and his thigh hitched against Thor’s as Thor scooped them tighter together, “Still...good stuff,” and he trailed off into a string of laden vowels.

Thor stroked his cheek tenderly, grinding in rhythm with Loki’s writhe, his voice low and beckoning, “So you’ll let me.”

Loki’s wicked grin hardly reached his closed eyes as he bowed their foreheads together, “Are you asking me nicely, Thor?” Thor didn’t respond except to press his fingers posessively deep. Loki hardly flinched as he met Thor’s intense gaze, “I hate it when you ask nicely.”

Thor flashed a smile and shifted with astonishing grace, swiftly pivoting around his grip on Loki’s neck to press him chest-first to the door. He wiped the excess lubricant from his hand along the length of his erection, then lifted a small, wickedly sharp dagger from an invisible sheath at Loki’s tailbone. As Thor raised the knife, the only thing that forestalled Nat’s thundering impulse to intervene was Loki’s savage, satisfied grin.

The dagger slid gingerly between the tender skin and the tanned hide at the base of his neck, down the back of Loki’s leathers and completely through the seat of his pants, slicing him bare from nape to taint and stopping ticklishly close to his balls. Thor tossed the dagger away, returning his fingers to Loki’s slicked opening, twisting the other hand back into his long hair to keep his ear pinned against the door, elbow pressed between his shoulder blades, kissing and biting his taut shoulders as Loki wriggled and gasped. Loki made some show to resist and Thor snapped him hard back into position, twisting his fingers relentlessly deeper until Loki’s sounds turned plaintive.

“Is this what you want from me?” Thor crooned, turning his hand and prying his fingers wide, making Loki’s mouth drop open and his teeth clack closed, his smile trembling, “To twiddle you off as you listen to people pass?”  He slowed and pressed himself against Loki’s back, blowing hot against his neck “Or do you want me-" he rolled his hips, stroking his livid head against a pale buttock, "-as I want you?”

Loki’s smile blurred as he pushed off hard from the door. A hand flashed up to break the grip on his hair and wheel himself back to facing. He overbalanced Thor backwards at the rim of the tub, and saved the mighty king from falling into the bath with one hand fisted in the sturdy waistband of his open pants, the other down the back to cradle his bare ass with a dominant impudence, hissing through a knowing leer, “Stop asking.”

Nat saw the counter coming and moved to the furthest corner of the bed as Thor lunged, Loki clearly helping to get himself turned and bent over, his chest pinned to the mattress as Thor aligned his slick cock. Breathless, Nat crept forward on her elbows to watch Loki’s face as Thor sank into him. Tormented bliss rippled his features like wind over grass, his eyes tight shut, his lips parted, the tips of his teeth just touching. As Thor began to stroke slowly, he shivered and moaned as if with an illness.

Thor repeated into the motion like a combat form; precise, meditative, and escalating, his measured breath strung with low, ragged notes. As Thor’s eyes rolled closed Nat hazarded to touch Loki’s hand, longing to check in with him but anxious of intruding. He lowered his lips to kiss her fingers warmly, and pressed her hand under his, squeezing with a grateful-sounding gasp that she couldn’t quite interpret. Was it gratitude for her presence or her discretion? Was it even meant for her? She leaned closer until she could feel the warmth of him, and he homed to her, letting his cheek preen against hers. Sensory memories flickered; unbidden, faceless, clandestine affection tinged with confusion. Wanting without wanting to.

Loki’s forehead bumped Nat’s when Thor leaned forward roughly, sliding one hand around Loki’s hips, but Loki snatched that hand and planted it on the bed, hissing, “Don’t get fancy. Just finish.”

Thor’s voice was strained but still gentle, “I’m so close-” his breath caught illustratively, “-let me touch you.”

Loki shook his head, his own breath too freighted with tension to sound properly scornful, “Being buried up to your hips in me doesn’t count?”

“Please…”

Loki tightened his grip over Thor’s hand, his eyelids stirred to fluttering by internal forces, “I fucking hate you.”

Thor smiled, still half-lost in effort, “Pretty please-” he growled in his throat, "-with-" Loki shifted subtly, and all intention and awareness drained from Thor's face to someplace lower. A taut, earnest groan gusted up from his core, “Please...”

Loki looked right at Nat with a conspiratorial smirk, biting his lower lip with intently as his eyes rolled back to whites and closed. His throat turned blue. The eerie color spread quickly through his face and torso, and a numbing coolness replaced all the warmth near him. Thor’s expression shifted from transported to distressed, disbelieving.

He grunted, his rhythm shifting sharper and harder, “Loki, stop that.”

Loki’s smile was tinged with a flickering snarl of pain as he savored the harsh thrusts, “Stop what?”

“You know damn well what!” his breath staggered with panting, not quite able to bellow, “Stop it!”

Loki’s tongue slid along the tips of his parted teeth, his whisper expectant, “Make me.”

Thor’s face contorted in a desperation that became fierce, reactive, despairing. He seized Loki’s hair and pulled back cruelly, the nails of his other hand sinking deep into the trenches of his shoulder. The cold and color of Loki’s flesh only deepened, his face fixed with a martyred vigilance. The air crackled and Thor’s fingers blazed with light as he groaned, and Loki cried out in unadorned anguish as Thor dragged fire down his body, the icy blue fleeing before the phosphorus white, the chill in the air broken and scattered by a harsh static tang.

Thor keened through clenched teeth as he dug his sparking fingers into Loki’s hips, and Loki moved with him zealously, slammed back over and over as Thor cursed him and grunted to force himself over the final blinding edge in spite of his lover, alone. Loki gasped like a newly-beached castaway as Thor reared high and hard, to thrust and thrust and rattle the rigid bed frame. He finally sagged, spent, until with a last shuddering sigh he planted both hands on Loki’s shoulder blades and pushed up hard, his extraction brisk, terse. Loki’s gasp in response sounded amused. The sudden lack of blinding light and intense connection made the room seem that much smaller, dimmer, and baser.

Loki brushed his lips subtly over the back of Nat’s hand as he slid off the bed. He balanced carefully to one side on the floor and began to work free of his boots, “There’s a wash cloth by the tub.”

Thor said nothing as he cleaned his body and arranged his clothes and armor about it. He didn’t look at Loki, though Loki watched his self-assembly with glazed interest, sliding his own ruined leathers off and gathering a sheet off the bed into his lap. When he was still, Nat touched his hair, stroking lightly, and he lay his head back to let her. Thor poured himself a glass of water and drank it down, refilling it and crossing to the bed.

Thor knelt and offered the water, his expression troubled but hopeful. When Loki took the glass, Thor reached out to stroke his cheek with the backs of his fingers, “We’ll speak on this later.”

Loki’s lazy smile was almost cruelly indifferent, but he smoothed the king’s unruly beard with custodial fingertips, “Doubtless.”

Thor looked down, not quite a flinch, and withdrew without speaking further. He listened at the door, glanced down the hall in both directions, and left, his cape trailing him regally.

Loki raised the glass to his exit and sighed, “Are you decent?”

Natasha just scoffed, but he dropped her invisibility anyway.

“How are you feeling?”

Nat nodded, and snatched his black and green coat from the floor as a trade-up for her towel, “Things are still kind of strange around the edges, but stable," She slid to the edge of the bed and settled her hips near his head, fastening the sleeveless coat closed as far down as it would go, “Are you ok?”

Loki laughed dizzily, drinking most of the water and scooping the last of it across his face before nuzzling into her attentions, resting his damp cheek against the side of her thigh and staring through the ceiling, “It’s been quite a day, hasn't it.”

“And it’s barely half over,"

He groaned in distinct self-pity and covered his face.

She patted the bed, "Come up here.”

“Why?”

She stroked a thumb across his forehead, rubbing the spot between his eyes, “Because His Majesty walked out on your aftercare, and I need you emotionally coherent enough to explain to me what I just watched and about a hundred other weird things I'm experiencing."

He made a bitter sound, turning his face away from her a few degrees, but not enough to stop her rubbing him, "Oh very enticing."

She sighed, "And I want to hold you, and you want to be held.”

Loki scoffed even more bitterly and ran his damp hand through his sweaty hair, incidentally pushing her hand away before letting his flop on the bed, betraying more fatalism than he’d probably intended, “Yes and no.”

“Why yes?”

The simple question caught a little resistance, and he sighed against her leg, “Because, you're right, I’m coasting into a pretty bad drop. I can't even see the bottom from here. So I could use a friend right now.”

“Then why no?”

He chuckled ruefully, picking himself off the floor and letting the gathered sheet fall from his lap, standing before her half-hard, thoroughly glazed with his own brackish milky fluids, and moving very carefully, “Because if you expect me to use a friend right now it would fail wildly and make me feel even worse in every conceivable way.”

When Nat failed to react with shock or scorn, he pursed his lips, casting about for a non-ridiculous place to put his hands. None existed, so he left them at his sides, tilting his head in half-hearted menace.

She shook her head, waving him over loosely, “I know nakedness isn’t consent. And believe me, with the miasma of weirdness in my head, using you or anyone isn't high on my itinerary. Sit with me, at least, I don’t like talking to you at junk-level.”

He caught up the rumpled sheet and wrapped it thick around his narrow waist as he straightened, looking peculiarly angelic, “Not really ready to sit yet.”

Nat squinted at him and shook her head, “Really? I just recovered from a broken everything in what, an hour? Why can't you-” She caught herself as he winced away from her questions, “Shit, sorry.”

He dug at the spot between his eyes with shaking fingers, “Yes, really. Seventy-six minutes by my count. And because-” he slowed and sighed, “because I’m not ready to feel better yet. The pain is the only thing that makes sense to me whenever we-” he smirked at the sound of his own drama, dismissing it with a cynical wave, “It’s not even really pain. Even when he-” he shook his head, “I mean I know what it looked like-"

Nat smirked, "That makes one of us."

He ignored her, "-but he knows my limits, he knows that it wasn’t-” Loki swayed on his feet.

She shifted, hoping she wouldn't have to grab him, “Well, come lay on your stomach. Something. Before you fall down. You’re looking pale. Even for you. Maybe you’re not in pain but-" she shook her head, "-it hurts to look at you.”

He nodded and sighed, but only gazed doubtfully, groggily, at the bed. "I feel the tide," he mumbled, mostly to himself. Finally he stepped to loom over her, and stared at her bare thighs through the slashed tails of his coat, “Open your legs.”

Her gaze unruffled, she did as he asked.

He bent to graze her skin with his fingertips, then lowered himself down to kneel between her knees, resting his head against her lower ribs and sighing deeply, "I don't mean to lose control. I always resolve to be strong, but..."

She kissed the corner of his hairline as he put his long arms around her waist, and pulled his shoulders tight against her as he did the same, “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone.”

Chapter Text

As the god of lies silently fell apart in her lap, their ineffable connection jangled at her nerves. Even compared to the last twelve hours, her sense of him was viscerally surreal, like trying to cross a transparent bridge over a ravine. Her reflexes continually rejected what her higher senses swore to. She could see him. She could feel him. But something new and nagging insisted that she couldn’t, but refused to point out why it thought so, or why that was cause for alarm. Her conscious mind could only register the disagreement, raising a dense prickling in her jaw and at the back of her neck, an alarmed chalkboard shriek that only her throat could hear.  

It shouldn’t have felt so difficult. She just needed information to understand what she was feeling. Making people tell her things was part of her very particular set of skills. Skills she used all the time, on people she cared more about, and for less pressing reasons. And according to him, all she had to do was ask. It would hardly hurt him at all.

But he clung to her, and when she petted him the runes of her bracer glowed faintly, and fire passed through her in small careful doses, down her arm from someplace between her shoulder blades to warm him, calm him, and the thought of hurting him seemed impossible. It was a confusing part of her that had never been part of her before, and it made her feel like she knew more about him than she knew about herself anymore. And she didn’t know him at all. Didn’t trust him. Shouldn’t. He claimed he couldn’t lie to her, but her own sense of that link, whatever it was, was too strange. His world, not hers. She didn’t trust the answers she could compel from him, not really. The pull of them was strange and unconfirmed, and he was practiced at semantic evasion. She put more trust in her past, frightening as that was.

She reached back for her own pain to find her footing beside his, until his could subside. In vigilant discomfort, she wiped water from his eyes as his pain high dropped him, and thought about the Red Room.

“It’s not crying if you do it quietly enough,” she whispered, half to herself.

He looked up and blinked, “What?”

She shrugged in response, “Just something I used to tell the younger girls.” It was the truth, and the acid tingle in her jaw eased as she said it, her sense of reality somehow affirmed.

“That’s quite the lie.”

Nat nodded, “I know. But the ones I could make believe me were the ones that survived.”

“But you don’t do backstory.”

She shrugged again, “So assume I’m lying.” To her great relief, the prickling sensation didn’t re-intensify as she disavowed the confession. Interesting. Saying things was more important than defending their veracity. A reason, perhaps, to cultivate a reputation as a liar, if saying things you knew would never be believed counted the same as honesty. But she had a bad habit of letting her speculations over-run her evidence when she was lost, and with that god-awful prickling gone, it was easier to sink back into ruminations.

Tear are just water, she had told them. Tears fall for a cold wind or an old onion or a broken nose. Pain is just pain, and pain lies to you. There is no elegance, no revelation, no nuance hidden within it. No truth. People in pain are torpid and angry and gullible. People in pain lie because pain lies. That’s all it does. You can’t choose whether it hurts, but you can choose to ignore what it tries to make you believe. You’re only crying if you believe you’re crying. That was the first lesson. Pain lies. Survivors must lie better.

Contrary to legend, the red room academy didn’t teach any elaborate forms of torture beyond the basics: ruthlessness, ingenuity, efficiency; and even those were seldom needed. Most people carry around more than enough pain to break them, and just adding more won’t create compliance. It’s the lies pain tells: the shame of how it’s borne, the fear of why, the illusion of isolation, the hope that it will end; those have the power to compel if believed. That was the second lesson. To endure pain, just ignore its lies. Abandon hope. Abandon shame. Use the pain as a mirror and you’re never alone. They might break you but they’ll never rule you. To create compliance in others, find the lie they already believe in the pain they already carry. Threaten or promise that you’ll take it away, and they’ll cooperate. Pain lies. Hope complies.

But lies are easy and cooperation is simple. Any evil shit with a bread knife and privacy could get any confession, in any language they liked. Just a secret and a cell phone could make good people do terrible things. But getting the truth is far harder. Truth is a golden egg, and the subject is the magic goose: You can cut all day, it won’t be there. That was the third lesson. Pain can’t interrogate. Pain can crush you, but it can’t touch you. Pain doesn’t know the truth or where to find it, wouldn’t know it even if it did. Pain lies. Truth lies deeper.

The fourth lesson, interrogation, was where the pain left off and the cruelty began. There was a fifth lesson as well, but not due to any real need for one she’d ever seen.

From an intelligence-gathering standpoint, the amount of pain Loki carried with him was going to be a problem. If the situation were as dire as he claimed, if the stakes of the mystery were that high, she needed answers she could count on. Magic compulsion might be more effective than torture, but only because everything was more effective than torture.

She needed certainty, her way. The kind only available from a comfortable and confident subject...which would be an interesting reason for an Asgardian with secrets and enforceable obligations to seek out pain. She shook her head. Speculation. At least she could encourage him to talk. He liked to talk to her. He wanted to show her things. In spite of himself he cared what she thought of him. That, at least, was handy, and surprisingly difficult to fake.

Nat spoke low, still petting him, “You wanted me to see that. You and him.”

Loki shrugged, “I wanted him. He needed that. This is the only room I can make private. I didn’t have a better plan. I hoped you would ...forgive me, I suppose, for involving you.”

“I’d forgive you if you were sorry, but you’re not.”

“No. But I don’t think you’re upset either.”

“Just surprised. I didn’t know it was like that between the two of you. Seems like it’s been going on a long time.”

Loki nodded, “Sometimes. In a different  life.”

“I’ve never seen him like that.”

Loki paused, his breath slow in a way he probably didn’t notice, “Like what?”

“The way he looks at you. I’ve never seen him look-” she shook her head, “honestly I’ve never seen anyone look at anyone the way he looks at you,” it was almost the truth. Certainly no one in the last seventy years.

Loki only made a noncommittal sound.

Nat took a deep breath, “I hope you and Thor got a chance to actually talk. About the giants. Because if that was the whole exchange I’m going to need a translator.”

He gave a hesitant chuckle, shifting a little tighter against her, “We talked. He knows it wasn’t me.”

Nat sighed, feeling a warm rush through her gut as she carded his hair with her fingers, “Well that’s a relief.”

His fingers shifted nervously against her back, “It still might be my fault, though.”

Nat closed her eyes and forced herself to be patient, “I hope you told him that.”

“I-” he cleared his throat, “Not yet. And I would really appreciate it if-”

“Boss, you know I’m the last person to lecture about interpersonal transparency, but if-”

“There’s one more thing I have to check before I’ll know for sure, tonight after supper, I’ll bring you with me if you like, and then you can decide.”

“You should tell him before that. Especially if knowing might hurt his belief in your alibi. No matter what it is, it will be infinitely worse coming from anyone else.”

Loki gritted his teeth, “It’ll be fine. He has actual evidence that it wasn’t me.”

“But you have doubts. He knows it wasn’t you and you still didn’t tell him.”

He gazed up at her in despair, hands clawed, “Because for the moment I’m all he has!”

“Which is precisely why-” Nat caught herself yelling at a desperate client and relented. She hung her head and  kneaded the spot between her eyes, “Help me understand this.”

He rested his forehead against her knee, “You didn’t see his face. The stress is eating him alive. He’s never been suited to shouldering the full burden of rule alone but I had no idea it would take such a toll so soon.”

“Sounds bad.”

“He asked me for leadership advice.”

Nat’s eyebrows jumped, “Fuck.”

He nodded, knocking his forehead gently against her thigh, “I know. When he’s had a chance to sleep, when we’ve had a chance to really talk, when I’ve gotten the wall in place, he’ll recognize that it’s not as dire as he’s feeling, then I’ll give him the very slightly more complicated version of the truth. If getting him through today means catching a measure of hell tomorrow, I’ll take my chances like I always have.”

Nat sighed, “We’ll get him through today. You should still tell him. And me. Because if you’re really on his team, or mine, it’s not just your chances you’re taking,” her voice dropped low, “believe me I know what I’m talking about.”

He sat back on his heels and took both her hands, “I will. I swear it. But it’s such a long story I don’t think I can bear it right now, either.”

“Then tell me about this strange prickling feeling I have.”

He nodded, pressing up from the floor and crossing to the tub, “You’ve heard of a third eye? Well, your connection to Asgard is like a second skin. It’s another layer of protection, but also of sensitivity. It connects directly to your heart. Not your real heart of course, your second heart. The imaginary one that swells and shrinks and aches and shatters.”

“Is that like a mantle?”

He felt the tepid water and put his feet in, sitting down on the rim and grabbing a cloth, his back to her, “No, but it’s the surface your mantle is attached to. That it feels prickly probably means you’re very alert, and perhaps a little out of sync with the shape it wants you to be. It will break in.”

“Or I will.”

Loki’s profile smiled over his shoulder, “Usually a little bit of both, not in a bad way. Still if it comes down to it, I’ll put my money on you in any fight at all. Even against a new pair of shoes.”

She snorted, getting up and cursorily straightening the bed, “Speaking of which, what am I going to be wearing?”

Loki turned at the waist and looked her over, leering a little at the way his coat fit her. With the slashed tails and the front that was never actually meant to be buttoned closed, it fit her like a little black (and green) dress, “What’s wrong with what you’ve got on?”

She walked to him with an exaggerated femme fatale strut, “Aside from the fact that it weighs a ton, smells like roadkill, and has fancy inner seams that are already chapping my whole ass?” she plucked the washcloth from his hand and stood behind him, wiping down his back, “Only the sneaking suspicion that it’s got so many blades hidden in it that I’m one good sneeze away from a roman impeachment.”

He smiled and turned away, resting his hands on the tub, “Check in the drawers by the bed for whatever you please. I can alter them for you simply. enough.”

“No valkyrian livery? Or Lokean?”

He tilted his head back and laughed as she wiped him down, “Temptress.”

She snorted, “That would be a sex thing for you, wouldn’t it. Forget I asked.”

His voice dropped into seductive tones, intentionally over-done, “Not a chance.”

She wiped down the front of his shoulder, her other hand in the center of his back to steady him, and paused, “What is that?” she touched his back more gingerly, her fingers feeling the edge of a thick scar where her eyes saw only whole flesh.

He turned towards her slightly, not exactly a flinch but clearly moving his back away from her hand, “Like I said, second skin. Also means a second set of scars.”

She sat her hip on the edge of the tub by him and relinquished the washcloth, “Tell me about that one.”

He shook his head, “You don’t need to know about that.”

She shrugged, “You’re the boss. But tell me what I do need to know about managing this second skin.”

He sighed and wiped his hands to have something to do with them, “I’ll tell you. You’ll be angry. A little. Probably.”

She grimaced, “For once I completely believe you.”

Chapter Text

“The first thing to understand is that, like a third eye or a sense of humor, everyone has the rudiments of a second skin, they just don’t all use them, or encounter things that would require them to. That little bracer isn’t creating something you’ve never had before, it’s just connecting it to a power source that can keep it active,” Loki held up his slender hand for her to consider, “It might be most economical to explain the etiquette of hands. Your hands are significant. Magical. Not sorcery, more like cybernetics. You’re not casting spells you’re just expressing internal cues through a more enabled body.”

“Like blushing.”

“A bit, yes. Touch can tell people things, can literally impress your mood upon them, and so we greet one another accordingly. For rivals, peers, and worthy strangers, we clasp hands,” he offered his to her, and she took it, and there was indeed a subtle buzz of pressure, “Like with any handshake, it demonstrates trust, a default of peaceful conduct, but is also a bit of a dominance display.”

Nat groaned.

Loki nodded resignedly but continued, “A strong person with try to match you, an asshole will try to crush you. Hands don’t listen very well through their second skin. They have their first skin for that, On the second level they mostly only express things, so it’s not terribly intimate, not really a chance to get a direct read on a person beyond raw strength and their willingness to use it. It just feels like pressure, sometimes heat. Here.”

He squeezed gently, but with a pressure into her palm from his, like a resistance between magnets that also stung. She’d never thought what smugness would feel like if it were a material, but there was little else to describe it, “Push me back, see if you can make the balance even and hold it there.”

She wriggled her hand a little, trying to find the right motion, knowing intellectually that it wasn’t a motion but her instincts floundering in stubbornness.

Loki clucked, “Use your sense of entitlement. Swagger. Any reason you would want someone to feel your intention and ability to crush them.”

Nat grimaced, “I don’t think I have one of those.”

“Everyone has one of those.”

“I dunno, sounds kind of like a guy thing.”

He rolled his eyes, “I assure you it’s not.”

She felt like she was going to start sweating, “But I never want anyone to know if I intend to hurt them. Unless it’s a feint, unless you’re doing it to avoid a fight all together, bluff and swagger just tip your hand. That’s why they beat it out of us in the Room. We know that we can kill you, so you don’t have to know.”

Loki’s brows huddled together in a sort of softly horrified pity, “It’s not all-in, just an ante of sorts. Puts you at the table.”

She scowled, “Ugh, I hate this bullshit.”

He shrugged, “I know, so do I. Do it.”

She tried. She reached for her practiced impersonation of swagger. Nothing moved. She tried her resolve, her cunning, her willingness to kill. Nothing. Everything stayed firmly locked within her center of gravity, calm and subtle and assured. She tried to get out of her head, focus on the sensation and just force it to happen.

“Come on. In Asgard your rivals need to know just how happily you’d throw them through the nearest window. It’s almost a sign of respect. You’re giving me a dead-fish handshake right now,” He leaned in with a pitying smirk and murmured, “Sokovia.”

Something stirred uncomfortably in her gut and she jerked her hand away before it could move, turning from him with teeth gritted, “So, hostility, then. That’s what you want.”

He nodded, “I suppose it’s like that. Or aggression. Like horny bilgesnipe, but twice as arrogant. We can practice.”

She sighed with grim finality, “Not right now. What’s next?”

He took her by the forearm and she gripped him in kind, “With friends, people you trust or admire, you greet them like this, by the forearm. The conduits between magical organs, in this case the hand and the heart, are very receptive, even through some materials. They drink in communication like a chimney draws drafts. Sensitive, but not a lot of discernment. If you were to give someone a dose of handshake-aggression to the arm, it would hurt them. It would be an ugly thing to do,” he gripped her firmly, and a warm trickle of honeyed sensation seeped into her veins and spread upwards, so obsequiously sweet that it was almost vile, her mind rejecting her body’s sudden insistence that she was an object of unconditional gratitude and fondness and admiration.

She made a sour face, “Uaugh.”

He looked scandalized, “You don’t believe me?”

She shook her head, incredulous, “You don’t either. Guagh, it’s like an IV of daiquiri mix.”

He sighed, “Well, you’re right. Entirely sentimental. You certainly don’t have to lay it on that thick, I usually don’t, but it’s polite to flatter a little if someone will greet you in kind. It’s the handshake of the mutual appreciation society. It’s like buying someone a drink. Maybe you both know it’s because you both have to act like you respect each other more than you do, but they still get a free drink.”

“Oh I’m well aware that amity between big loud egoes requires a lot of care and feeding,” she grumbled.

Loki adopted that light arch tone that reminded her uncannily of Jarvis, “A willingness to be kinder than one’s most damaged and complicated inward feelings is a form of genuine kindness. Never let anyone tell you different. Try it.”

“I thought you hated sentiment.”

“I do, when it’s offered in lieu of necessary help, or exalted as profound, or given credit for the accomplishments of eros. This is just...a simple tangible kindness. Hello, nice day, love what you’ve done with your hair.”

Nat had to admit, as the little shot of honeyed fire spread through her ephemeral surface, she felt more alert and whole, and it faded without a crash. Whether or not it was substantial, it was freely given, “What sort of emotion is it?”

He blinked at her, “It’s...I...dammit Natasha I don’t know how to explain feelings to you if you don’t know what they are. It’s the one that feels like what you just felt, just directed at someone else.”

“At you.”

“Yes. But like I said, it doesn’t have to be real, just your willingness to make me feel like it is. Compassionate flattery. Surely you know what that’s like. I suppose it’s like sympathy. Care. Pretend I’m one of your superpowered egoes, if that helps.”

She couldn’t dodge a smirk, “Pretend?”

He ignored her, “You were doing a sort of it before, by the bed, like a natural.”

She scowled thoughtfully, “Hmm. Ok,” She’d been thinking about the girls from the room. She took a deep breath and remembered looking into young eyes, full of light and pain that needed to die if the child behind them was going to go on living. She called up the feeling behind the lie, behind telling them that they weren’t crying. Empathy for their pain, their fear, resolved to do whatever it took to end it. She looked at Loki and, for a moment, saw only a wounded child.

Loki gasped and pulled out of her grip, sloshing his feet over edge of the tub and grabbing a robe around his shoulders busily. When he’d just about caught his breath he shook his head but didn’t turn, “Not that. Don’t do that. Unless you want to make a lot of enemies. Pity isn’t a sentiment that’s especially prized here.”

“It’s not pity.”

His voice was sharp, “It’s close enough.”

She muttered, “Sorry. I’ll wear gloves.”

He tied his robe closed briskly, his tone softening, “You’ll get the hang of it. Honestly are you capable of half measures?”

She retreated into blank indifference, “I just did what you told me to do.”

He shook his head, “You’re just a cookie jar full of dark energy crystals.”

She got up and crossed to the drawers behind he bed to find something that wouldn’t chap her ass so much, “Unintelligible criticism won’t get you what you want.”

“I mean you’ve got a very straightforward surface and inside you’re dangerously different than advertised.”

He was good at getting under her skin, “I don’t advertise, I just did what you told me to do!” She was still feeling memories of those girls, like a volcanic vent at the bottom of the ocean. It made his rejection sting.

He crossed to the bed and sat. Finally he said quietly, “ Sorry. We’ve gotten a bit ahead of ourselves. You’re not actually supposed to be angry at me yet.”

She tossed a tunic on the bed beside him, “I’m not, you know I’m not. I’m just embarrassed.  Don’t make me explain. I’ll get a handle on it.”

He shrugged into the garment, “You needn’t explain to me. But you should understand, there isn’t really a handle to get, just what we say and don’t say. There’s no grounding the exchange of wyrd fire. Which is mostly why we drink so much.”

She dug out a second tunic and a pair trousers, frowning at them, “I don’t think you have anything that’s going to fit over my hips.”

“Give it here, I’ll adjust it for you.”

She watched what he did as carefully as she could, but couldn’t tell that he was doing anything at all. There were no flashes of light, he just seemed to turn each garment over in his hands a few times to check its dimensions, but every turn and fold seemed to invoke a change.

She dug around until she also found a pair of black and green leather gauntlets and tossed them on the bed. He sighed and picked them up as he handed her back the rest. She tugged them on, and they were real, the changes solid, “You really weren’t kidding about textile magics.”

He nodded airily, “Leather’s harder. Come here. Put the coat back on, and the gloves. And some boots.”

“The coat’s terrible.”

He rolled his eyes, that snarl of impatience creeping back into his voice, “Which is why I’m going to fix it. Come here.”

She stood obediently with her arms out as he buttoned the coat tight around her and assayed her contours clinically. He asked her questions, how she needed to move to fight, where she liked to have knives available, whether anything was too warm. Again, as his hands moved dispassionately over her he seemed only to measure, to test, but the thick leather lightened and stretched, tightening supportively in some places and flexing more freely in others. By the time he was done she could have been wearing one of her own suits, just with a little more swish at the waist, but there wasn’t a mirror.

“We might want to find you some shin guards or something, but I think that will just about do,” he nodded, settled more than satisfied, “How do you feel about helmets?”

She made a face, “They reduce visibility and hearing. Usually not a good trade-off in close fighting. I’m also not eager to wrap my head in metal if we’re fighting lightning monsters.”

“Fair point. Still,” he rummaged in a low chest from under the bed and came up with a hardened leather circlet with some simple embossed designs, “Just to keep your hair out of your face. Comes in handy.”

She grimaced, “It’s kind of disco.”

He gestured broadly, “Tacky magic spaceship.”

She nodded in resignation and put it on.

He smiled with such glee that she instantly regretted it. She also noted, with a more somber sense of regret, that he was calm, pleased, and as free of pain as she’d ever seen him. As he picked up his own leathers to repair them she knew she ought to lean into him a little, if it were really the world at stake.

“So, I’m not going to grill you. But you and Thor. Tell me about that thing you did.”

He flicked an incredulous glance at her and she rolled her eyes, folding her arms, "Not the sex thing. The other thing. The blueness thing. When you upset him on purpose."

He smiled wanly over his work, “It was a game we would play as children. Well, a way I would torment him into playing with me when he didn’t want to. He had- well he’s always had a terror of frost giants. Not for nothing, our father loved to tell the story of their horrors and how he beat them back, captured the source of their power, and saved earth from being destroyed. Thor would beg for that story at bedtime, and then have nightmares, wake up shaking with cold. I’d pile pillows on him and sit on top until he felt warm again, and he’d have me swear never to tell father that he was afraid. During the day he would be fine, but at night he needed someone that knew.”

“Sounds like you were close.”

The grin returned to his voice, “Well, yes, but we were still children. During the day if I was feeling petty or neglected I would use my skill with illusions to turn my skin blue and scare him.”

Nat gaped in astonishment, and Loki nodded in reply to her thought, “Believe me, I’m aware of the irony. Odin took me from Jotunheim for a purpose, and I played into it nicely. Thor learned how to run towards what he feared. A little too well, if I’m honest,” he stood up and jigged into his mended pants, buckling them up and turning to his leather tunic, “The final joke was that when I was grabbed by a giant on Jotunheim and my arm turned blue, I...well I was in shock and I remember...I tried to tell myself that it had been a mistake, that I had simply snapped and changed myself because I wanted Thor to chase me. I’d had this brilliant plan, you see,” he shook his head, “but that all went the way typical of brilliant plans and clever games.”

“You really enjoy games. You rely on them.”

He didn’t look up, “I suppose you could say that.”

“Not accusing you. I just know what it’s like, is all. When you can’t be honest with the people you love, even about how you feel. For their own good, or the greater good. Or because after enough time you just lose track of what honesty would do, how far back it would have to go and it just seems too dangerous to start. So you make up things that you can share. Ways of touching and expressing your needs that don’t betray feeling.”

He pursed his lips over his work and paused, “You could go for a walk if you’re bored, agent Romanoff. Or you could just say what you’re aiming for.”

She shrugged with false reluctance, “Ok, well, I guess I want to say that I don’t think Thor liked what you made him do, but I understand. I’m not judging.”

He looked up and eyed her shrewdly, “Somehow I rather think you are.”

“I’m not. But of the two of us I was the one that could see his face. And yours.”

“I didn’t force him to do anything.”

“I didn’t say you did. But you made him. I know what topping from the bottom looks like, and I don’t think he enjoys hurting you as much as you need to believe he does.”

He glared, “When you’ve known him for a thousand years you can lecture me on what he likes.”

“I expect this place is crawling with people who have known him for a thousand years. I could ask one of them.”

He stood up, looming over her, “You would threaten me...”

She shook her head, feigning fear, surprise, “What? No. Of course not. I work for you. I’m not going to discuss your private business with anyone. But you hired me because you know I care about him, and I’m telling you, you’ve picked a bad game,” she tried not to smile, fairly certain his narcissism wouldn’t be able to hold back from correcting her assumptions. She shook her head, her voice dripping with pity, “Maybe it is just a game to you, I don’t know. But he told you to stop. You claim to take that at face value. You should have stopped.”

His expression stayed cold but there was a ripple of horror behind his eyes, his voice rising defensively, “He’d have complained louder if I had. If he wanted to stop he’d have stopped.”

She shook her head, “I doubt it. He loves you.”

The lines of his face hardened, “Love is for children. Are you-” he tilted his head to one side, his teeth bared between a snarl and a smile, “Are you interrogating me, agent Romanoff?”

She didn’t flinch, “I’m not an agent anymore. I’m trying to do the job I do have. Maybe I don’t know Thor as well as you do, but I know he doesn’t hurt the people he loves. He can barely bring himself to use his strength in their presence at all except to fight for them. I’m pretty sure that’s why he and Jane broke up. She kept waiting for him to sweep her off her feet, but big guys like that, guys that use their strength to hurt people, they keep that strictly separate from the people they care about. Thor’s more comfortable in his skin than most, but he still has that reserve. Guys that strong know just how dark and indifferent strength can be.”

Loki’s voice was sharp and dark, but his expression had found a degree of balance. He wasn’t subtly crouching towards her as he’d been, “If she would sooner lose him than provoke him into doing what she wanted, good for her. I’ve had the hang of it for too long to give it up, and he comes back to me even knowing what I am.”

Nat nodded, “You’re clearly very passionate about each other. And yet, from the outside it looks like neither of you want what you have to be the way it is.”

“What does it look like we want?” He’d found enough footing to push back.

Nat decided to soften the terrain, “Like you just want to be with one another.”

He gave a mocking laugh, but she knew she’d got him off balance again, “It would never work. Closeness takes a certain amount of willful blindness, we know each other too well. I can’t let that closeness be too easy or comfortable for him.”

“I doubt that’s an agenda he’s aware of. But you recognize that he doesn’t enjoy hurting you, that it’s hard for him.”

“I like to think I compensate him in other ways.”

“But you enjoy it.”

He got that glimmer of recognition again, “No more than you’re enjoying this.”

Nat scoffed, folding her arms, “If you think I’m coming in my pants right now you’re a bigger narcissist than I suspected.”

Loki looked down as if slapped, then glanced at her, several ideas queueing across his face and being dismissed unserved. Finally he stepped back, stroking his chin and sublty massaging his throat as an afterthought, “You learn fast. Can’t manage a decent handshake, act like you don’t understand wyrd resonance, but you’ve got my throat so charged up with rebukes...I should have seen it coming from a mile away and yet,” he shook his head, his wide smile squeezing tears from the corners of his eyes, “I really thought you wanted to help.”

Nat felt a stab of guilt but kept it down, “I really thought you wanted my help.”

“I don’t want your help, I need it, but this...this is never going to work.”

“Not if you won’t talk to me, I agree. So far you haven’t told me a single thing that I feel like I can rely on.”

“I haven’t lied to you. I can’t.”

“You’re not telling me the truth either.”

“Then ask! That’s why I made you my valkyrie! So you can just ask!”

“So you can evade and double-talk and top me from the bottom the way you do to Thor? Maybe some part of you believes what you’re saying about needing my help, yet for some reason you want to play twenty questions. In the last twenty four hours you’ve managed to ambush and deceive me and manipulate me with hazy magic and semantic garbage and land me in a situation where I might have to choose between literally-” she cut herself off and put her hand to her throat the way a child might put one over their mouth, shaking her head at the intense pressure to justify herself, “Son of a bitch.”

He looked at her sidelong and doubtful, “That wasn’t my fault.”

She sighed, her hand travelling to the back of her neck, her own throat pushing her to chastise him, set the record straight, confess her justifications like a green recruit or a hoary villain, “No, I don’t think it was,” she took a few slow steps to the bed and sat down beside him, “This isn’t working, is it. You’re never just going to tell me the straightforward truth.”

“There’s no such thing as straightforward truth. But if you want answers, just ask.”

She put a jagged snarl on her pointed questions, “Is that your goal? To make me force you? To make this hurt? A little penance with your confession?”

He shook his head and flinched, “Not a goal. But I do derive a certain satisfaction from making things difficult for others. A kind of relief.”

Smoothly, no less pointed, “Relief from what?”

He looked up, “From always having to pretend that things are simple. The fact that they’re not is a terrible secret to keep to oneself, in Asgard.”

Nat nodded quietly, “Or anywhere else, really.”

He studied his fingers, “Are you happy, Widow?”

“Am I satisfied with my conduct and what it hath wrought, you mean?”

He shook his head, wincing, “No I mean, are you happy. In general. Ever.”

She shook her head, “To the degree I even know what that means, no. I don’t think it’s in my nature. I’m motivated. That’s about all I’ve got,” as she said it the pressure in her throat eased, “You?”

“I generally manage to stay amused. And there are things I enjoy. But no.”

“I’m trying to think of a way to trust you. Or to make you trust me enough to just be honest with me. But this is never going to work. I don’t even know how to be the sort of person that’s honest. The concept seems insane to me. You certainly don’t deserve it, and I know I don’t. But I believe you when you say Thor needs our help. And that matters to me. He’s my friend. But this, us, working together, is never going to work.”

Loki nodded grimly. He sat up straight, “I’m going to tell you two things. The first might make you angry at me, but I can show you that it’s true. The second, well, you’ll know it’s true because of the first thing.”

Nat nodded, her fatalism undiminished, “Ok.”

“It’s the third thing you need to know about the etiquette of hands and your second skin. The greeting between close friends, lovers, especially if you haven’t seen one another in some time,” he reached and put a hand on the back of her neck, pulling gently until her forehead bumped into his, “the neck is a channel between higher function and truer feeling, unretouched by sinuous tongue and ungrounded by the pragmatism of the gut. It’s the listening post of your being. For feelings beyond words, when you want to assure someone beyond a shadow of a doubt,” he tightened his hand slightly, closing his eyes, “it’s how you tell them.”

A love-like desperation fell on her heart like rain, describing a thought-form etched in echo, an assurance that he needed her help and dared not offend her further. Then it ended, and she stared back at him, reaching to fix her hand over his, bracing his hold on her neck.

“So you got some information like that from me. In the fire room. When I had my hands on your neck. Even after I told you I wanted you to know.”

He nodded, eyes closed, “I just wanted to know if you were capable of telling me the truth if I hurt you. I didn’t want you to know that I would know. But I’m done with that. And I’m sorry.”

The sensation of consonance, veracity, slid down her spine and into her imaginary heart, filling it and pressing that tingling speech pressure back into her jaw.

He let her go, “You have to understand, the more a person shares with you that way, the more you’ll feel an imperative to maintain an equivalent bond of trust. The thing I want to tell you next, it’s...it has the potential to be dangerous, both to me and in general, if you choose to betray me. If I give you absolute assurance of my honesty, you’ll feel a compulsion to tell me something of equal weight, to balance the bond. The sensation here,” he ran a finger down the line of her throat, “is pure impulse, unreasoned and unbalanced, unconnected and unconsidered by one’s own greater good. It knows only the war between what is thought and what is said. But I need you to believe me. Interrogating me or anyone else for confirmation could be very, very bad. Shall I just tell you, or would you rather we were touching?”

She took him by the wrist and put his hand on the back of her neck, resting hers on his and saying simply, “Tell me.”

“I’ve got the tesseract hidden in a room beneath the ship. If someone discovered it while I was gone, it’s possible that that’s how someone let the giants in.”

Nat felt woozy like her blood pressure had dropped. Her sinuses felt cold and vacant as moonlight, the urge to trust him as innate and intrusively contagious as an urge to yawn. Thoughts wavered across one another clear and fast and random like currents in a river. She felt like she might be swept away, and her grip tightened, “The tesseract. You’re hiding it from...a mad titan.”

He swallowed hard and nodded against her forehead.

“But also from Thor. Why?” She wasn’t thinking and she felt the question catch at him quite deep.

He tried to pull back but she held him still, and she felt another tidal rush as he obeyed her question’s pull, “For the same reason I hid it on earth the first time, hundreds of years ago in Tonsburg. So it can’t show Thor what I did,” he shook his head, “We’re all part of the tesseract’s story, rooms within rooms. It knows what I did to him. He doesn’t.”

The river in Nat’s mind became cold fire, burning away the compartments in her mind and leaving her awareness of the universe refreshingly simple, as if she had room to move for the first time in a thousand years. Loki had done something beautiful, something horrible, long ago, for love. And if Thor ever found out, it would unmake their world. She didn’t know precisely what that meant. It wasn’t literal so much as authentic. As she opened her mouth to respond, she felt him grab the hand on his neck and forcibly pull her off him.

“Sorry,” he murmured, “I’m going to need you to respond with words. If you do anything to my neck like you did to my wrist, I’ll probably throw up on us both and pass out.”

Nat nodded, a little disoriented, seeing white fire behind her vision somehow. Her heart was burning, cold smokeless grey fire like sunlight on the sea. But it was going to be alright, because she had a secret to give him as well. And it was going to be a relief. He wouldn’t tell. They were in this together, mutually assured. It felt like a naive belief but also certain. Her cynical mind was not only alert but firing fiercely, and it could find no fault with the perfectly mad notion that Loki had told her the truth, and she could trust him implicitly with a corresponding truth. Different, but the same shape, right hand to left. The one that could unmake her world.

She took a deep breath, “I’m hiding from Tony and Cap because even now that Cap started a war and Tony stripped him of his mantle, I don’t think they’re ever going to stop ripping at the secrets that broke us apart. I did everything I could, and nothing stopped them. I wanted them to care about keeping us all together more than they care about controlling the world. But they don’t. And maybe they shouldn't,” she felt tears threaten and didn’t bother trying to negotiate with them, “I know that now. They’ll never forgive me. They can’t. I’m so angry at myself for how hard I’ve tried and how hard it will all fall apart because I can’t keep it hidden. And I can blame them all I want for coming too close to uncovering what I did, but I’m still the one that did it. I still won’t have a single card to play if they accuse me, not a single way to insist that they still ought to care about me, about anything else but anger. Because if they did they’d have stopped on their own. That’s what spies do when they’re your friends. They’re supposed to stop when you ask. Professional courtesy, between monsters. I know I don’t have any right to feel betrayed, but that doesn’t help me feel any differently.”

Loki looked at her, “Do you want me to stop?”

She shook her head, “No, ask.”

He squeezed her forearm gently, bolstering her with a trickle of nectar-sweet gentleness, “What did you do?"

Chapter Text

“In nineteen forty-five, the Red Room was precariously balanced between serving a number of interests in the soviet war effort while trying to stay clear of the war itself. We leaned into our relationship with Leviathan to help keep Hydra off our backs, and we benefitted a fair bit from the chaos. I’d graduated to operative the year before, and when the headmistress told me that Captain America was a target of interest, I leapt at the chance to lead efforts to acquire him.”

“Why?”

Nat quirked an awkward smile, “Obsessive fan, I guess you could say. He was everything I wanted to be. We watched American and British newsreels for cultural accents and idioms, and they were always mentioning him. How perfect he was, the loyalty of his team,” she smirked at her lap, “I was a cocky little shit back then, as operatives go. Hyper-competitive. I mean, I was programmed to be like that, we all were, but that’s also just me, I think. It’s one part of my conditioning that’s never washed away, so, if I’m honest, I think I’d have managed to be some kind of terrible person even if I hadn’t been raised in the Room.”

Loki put his hand down on the bed beside hers. She put hers into her lap.

“I secretly thought of Rogers as my opposite number, like we were the same. I even remember the moment I was sure, when I got my hands on his enlistment papers,” she chuckled scornfully, “He’d been five-foot-four. Just like me. Can there be any clearer sign of destiny?

Loki smiled, gentle and charming, “Not to an adolescent, I’d imagine.”

She gave a non-committal smirk, “But Leviathan’s interest in him wasn’t as a symbol of U.S. exceptionalism. To them he was the final reserve of Dr. Erskine’s supersoldier work. They needed his blood, to improve on the serums for their own operatives, which they promised would include the Red Room. Of course I wanted that job. They literally wanted to make me more like Captain America.”

“You wanted him inside you.”

Her tone tightened and cooled, and she glanced at him with a weight that chastened him to silence, “I tracked his movements and, as a consequence, Hydra’s. He and his commandos had settled into an aggressive pattern of hitting Hydra strongholds for the Allies in search of their main base and the tesseract tech, codenamed ‘valkyrie’. By the time I was prepared to acquire Rogers, Hydra emplacements were getting scarce and I didn’t know how much longer I had. So I fed the howling commandos radio intel that Dr. Zola was on a train headed through the Transylvanian Alps. And Zola got a warning that Cap was coming and orders to make haste by train. Hardly an airtight plan, but, like I said, I was a cocky little shit back then. I always assumed I could just roll with contingencies and come out on top.”

Loki nodded, “I...can relate.”

Nat gave a fractional chuckle, “Not that it was an irrational assumption. Bunch of heavily armed fanatics speeding along a cliff in a snowstorm, I figured I could pull the hyper-regenerative super soldier out of the wreckage at my leisure. But everyone showed more restraint and skill than I gave them credit for, and from my vantage point, I couldn’t tell who had fallen out. In my heart I was sure it was Rogers. I felt like it had to be, like fate. I was so sure I’d heard the distinctive ring of his shield over the radio before the side blew off that boxcar, and then again before he fell out.”

She took a long pause, making sure her emotions were firmly under control, “I caught up with Barnes’ carcass right before it drained into the Danube. I’d seen him in the films, too. It felt like a stinging rebuke from the universe, but at least I didn’t have to go back empty handed. I bandaged his head and took him to Belarus using the documents I’d faked up for Rogers. My poor sickly brother Stepan. The headmistress didn’t want any chance of Hydra finding out we’d been involved, and decided to keep him instead of turning him over to Leviathan bureaucracy or anyone else that might connect the dots and sell us out.”

“I thought Barnes was Hydra.”

Nat sighed, “Later he was. We had him first. The head of science at the Room at the time was former Hydra, Dr. Mina Navidna. Claimed she was familiar with Arnim Zola’s work on soldiers like him. Claimed she could make him perfectly compliant but still capable of enough higher reasoning to conduct training. If she’d succeeded, foreign prisoners of war could be made into training resources. All the benefits of multi-discipline combat training, none of the intelligence risks of foreign recruitment.”

“Sounds ambitious.”

Nat shook her head, “Sounded like bullshit to me, but I didn’t pay much attention. Shortly after I’d acquired Barnes, Rogers went into the ice. It felt like my fault, insult to injury. If I’d done my job, hadn’t thought so much of my own elegant cleverness and just blown up the damn train, he’d still have been alive. But I’d-” She smiled ruefully, “I’d wanted the crash to be Hydra’s fault,” she gazed plaintively at the ceiling, “Took me a long time to admit that. I couldn’t claim to have saved him if there had been a bomb. My plan was overly simple because the scenario in my head was overly elaborate. And I failed my test to bring him in. And he was gone because of it.”

Loki nodded.

“Once Barnes had been processed, I was basically put at Navidna’s disposal for his experimental training protocols. I’d been a fighter and a killer a hell of a lot longer than he’d been a soldier, but he was so much stronger than me, and he didn’t hold back. It was like ritual humiliation, rubbing my nose in my failure by making him my responsibility. Navidna kept insisting to headmistress that it was valuable, that his experience as an American military fighter would help my training. His brain was so gone, though. He wasn’t the winter soldier then, but he definitely wasn’t James Barnes anymore either. I wasn’t learning anything but what it feels like when a muscle-bound zombie dislocates both your shoulders because you won’t tap out, and the kind of headache you can get from being choked out for the third time in two hours. But she just kept renewing me in the protocol, and the headmistress kept allowing it. I complained too much, and I was punished for trying to fail my way out of the protocol. When things finally got weird, further complaining had already been forbidden.”

Loki scrutinized her, “Navidna was grooming you for his sake, not the other way around.”

Nat glanced at him, swallowed, nodded, “And I played right into it. You saw that?”

“No. Just a guess. I’ve seen it before.”

Nat took a deep breath through her mouth, “So, yeah, turns out she was a devotee of the eugenic theories so popular at the time, and thought it made better sense for the Red Room to breed its own super-children than to rely on acquisition of orphans. Dead parents were, by definition, genetically inferior sources.”

Loki squinted, mystified.

Nat nodded, “She was utterly delusional. But then that’s back to you guys, isn’t it. All that teutonic myth about the ubermenschen, norse mysticism about divine heritage and genetic destiny. You and Thor are really what everyone’s super soldier ambitions have been about from the beginning. All that Wagnerian divine-heritage demigod-hero-bloodline ring-cycle stuff.”

Loki held up a finger “Wagner’s fevered ideological brain is not my fault. I’m not even in the ring cycle. Neither is Thor.”

It was a weirdly defensive tack to take, and she decided to needle him, “It’s got a Wotan, though. Is that just a coincidence?”

“Yes. Wagner’s Wotan steals something that he should have left alone and doesn’t immediately insisting that I fix it for him, so you know I definitely wasn’t around.”

Nat smirked, “But there are fratricidal giants.”

“And shrill stubborn valkyries,” he retorted weakly.

“And gotterdammerung. Ragnarok.”

His reflexive scowl turned speculative, “So, wait, you don’t know King Lear but you know Wagner’s ring cycle?”

Her blankness conveyed something worse than hostility, “It also has plenty of incest. Eugenic snobbery at its finest.”

He ignored that airily, “I’m just saying. If that’s what you cut your teeth on I’m not surprised you don’t like stories.”

Nat gave a resigned shrug, fingering the etched symbols on her bracer, “I’m just ruminating. It’s sad, and funny, I suppose. Everyone pretends that Rogers was the success and the rest of us are bad copies, but the entire branch of mad science that created Steve and the rest of us has only ever wanted to re-create what Asgardians take for granted, and only ever fallen short. You set an impossibly high bar.”

“For sadistic eugenic nonsense to meet, yes, I suppose so.”

“Anyway. Navidna kept her eugenic nonsense ambitions from the headmistress. Her plan was to get a successful test-case, then get Hydra or Leviathan to intervene and put her in charge of the Room. She told me all about it, trying to solidify my cooperation. I smiled and nodded while I figured out how to get rid of her, but I couldn’t make a move while she still had Barnes. He was her only real on-site asset, so he was likely also her failsafe if I told anyone. I’d already had ample evidence that if it came down to a fight, I couldn’t beat him.”

“So how did you get rid of him?”

She shrugged, “I called someone who could beat him. It took a while to track down Dr. Zola, and to reach him anonymously. I let him know that the Red Room had something that belonged to him, representing years of his own work towards a super serum. Luckily enough, he was in Moscow. He’d gotten scooped up by Osoaviakhim in forty-six. Reading between the surviving accounts, I think re-acquiring Barnes enabled him to escape Russia and get into Operation Paperclip in the US, though it meant either trading or abandoning Barnes to soviet Hydra’s Winter Soldier program,” she sighed, “That part I only learned last year, when I dug up Barnes’ file for Rogers, after the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“You were never curious about how he was getting on before then.”

“Not enough to pull on that thread. It’s like you said. Forgetting is just one of those things that we pseudo-immortals tend to do. I felt like thinking about it would make it come back. I redacted everything that implied that there was any gap between his fall in the Alps and Hydra acquiring him. The information to reconstruct it might still exist somewhere, but I can’t imagine either Bucky or Steve wanting it. And even if they found it, as far as anyone outside this room knows, I was seven years old when Barnes killed Tony’s parents.” she went quiet and seemed to stare through the floor.

Loki smiled, doubtful, “Sounds like you’re in the clear.”

She nodded, unhearing, “The weird thing is, despite how it must seem by what I did, I never hated him. Not really. He was like the Hulk, just this looming mass of muscle that sometimes hit things and was supposedly on my side. But I destroyed his life like it was just a part of my own. I mean, I pretty much did that to everyone I touched back then, sometimes I think I still do, but his was up close and personal, and entirely my own idea. I just didn’t have a way around him, the future he represented for me, and I became...”

“Vicious.”

“Yeah. So you’ve seen that before too.”

He scoffed, “More than seen.”

Nat picked at her fingernails, her mouth moving on its own, “When the headmistress got wind that Zola and some NKVD soldiers were coming to toss our house, she sent me and Barnes and a handful of other widows to take them out. I knew lullabies for everyone but Barnes. Before we even got halfway to intercept the rest of the team was safely asleep twenty yards behind us. Sonic weapon of some kind, I told them later. Clearly Barnes had wanted to escape.”

Loki chuckled in spite of himself, “Clearly.”

Nat’s tone stayed distant, meditative, “Barnes fought like a man possessed, though. Navidna’s hold over him, or his terror of Zola, must have been significant, to fight like that just to stay with one exploitative shadow organization rather than be taken by another,” She shook her head, “That was when he lost his arm. That was when I had a moment of doubt and thought...maybe I would shoot Zola in the back, put him out of everyone’s misery. I didn’t. They dragged Barnes away and I looped back to the others for pickup.”

“Do you suppose he’ll ever remember any of this on his own?”

Nat shook her head, “Hydra wiped him hard. Everything was unnervingly experimental in those days, but the protocols for wiping a counter-programmed asset have never been gentle or tentative. I even dared him to remember me when he was breaking out of the Joint Terrorism Task Force headquarters in Berlin. There wasn’t even a flicker. If he ever does remember the Room, or my face in that context, he’d have every reason to assume it’s just a false patch, his amnesia inserting me because he knows the association.”

“So why hide?”

She gave a weary groan, “Because I remember. Because lying to Steve...keeping this from him after everything else he’s been through for Barnes...trying to look Tony in the face knowing what he’d say if I told him... Shit, not even telling him why I knew, just the fact that I knew that Barnes had been the one that killed his parents before everything went down would put me on Tony’s permanent shit list, same as Cap. I saw what they did to each other over Barnes. I can’t imagine the look on his face, or anyone’s, if I broke down and told them that I’m the reason Barnes fell, and the reason he survived, and the reason he killed for Hydra in the first place. I mean...christ…”

“But does anyone know? Fury?”

She shook her head, “I couldn’t even tell Banner. I started to tell him, about everything, so he’d understand, but bailed halfway through and said some shit about being sterile. Because see, the Red Room, they have this added feature to the graduation ceremony now, where they sterilize all of us before we start working in the field. I’m the reason why. Because the headmistress was so incensed when she found out what Navidna had managed to do.”

“What she’d managed to...you were…”

“Yeah, I was. Barely a month. But there would be no more near-things for the girls of the Red Room after that. They jumped to the opposite side of the same dehumanizing eugenics coin as Navidna’s forced breeding initiative and began using forced sterilization. Hundreds of girls since me. Maybe a thousand or more. I can’t know. That’s on me, too, as far as I’m concerned.”

Loki made an incredulous face, “How do you figure that?”

She sighed, bracing herself, “Because I waited. On purpose. Once I’d tracked down Zola...I waited. I wanted the proof of what was happening. In case I got caught. It was a contingency. If I hadn’t let it get that far, the headmistress might not have reacted so severely. I wanted to shake her. And I did. And I made everything for the girls behind me worse.”

Loki huffed a long sigh, “I think it’s a good thing that you don’t usually do backstory,” he threw his hands up dramatically, “Everything I learn about your past is always the worst thing I’ve ever heard and I’ve got to stop assuming that you can’t keep it up indefinitely.”

She smiled incredulously, “Oh well, gee, I’m sorry my past has been so hard for you.”

He grimaced at her, “But really, that all sounds like a nightmare. How can you even tell that story?”

“Well, I don’t, usually. That’s pretty much the point.”

Loki wasn’t listening, “And how can you even feel any guilt about Barnes or anything after something like that? More than that, how are you not just screaming non-stop all the time?”

Nat studied him intently, her expression a mix of confusion and annoyance, “You make it sound like I’m not doing trauma-victim right. I’ve had some anger, it’s taken some work. And, yeah, seeing Barnes brings back more than I’m really comfortable with, but it was literally a lifetime ago. And even at the time, it wasn’t the kind of thing I had any feelings about.”

“How-”

“I don’t know how to explain it better than that. By the time Navidna had me in her scheme, I’d already been through graduation, I’d already been a cold-blooded killer for more than half my life. Barnes was just one more protocol, and frankly it was a lot less painful than the six hours a day of getting my ribs broken or my arm twisted or my mind conditioned to kill other children or even just having my feet bound on pointe for ballet. Anyway, I was-” her voice cracked for the first time and she swallowed, shifting to passive voice, “I mean, he was being violated too. Sure, my life was a horror show, but I literally dragged him into it. Because I’d wanted something and thought I was clever.”

She couldn’t see Loki’s expression, and decided not to look.

She cleared her throat, “It was uneventful, really. The only thing that’s stayed with me in any meaningful way is that...I mean, I think he’s why I like it when-” she smirked and her head wobbled indifferently, “I like being with people that like to talk... because Barnes-” she swallowed hard and shook her head harder, “No matter how they had us arranged, you know, he never made a sound. That’s the only thing that still stays with me about those-” she shrugged, “that protocol. It never hurt much. I was never afraid. It was humiliating but I wasn’t ashamed. It was what I was told to do. There was no requirement on me to respond or even be mentally present, and I was still years away from my first orgasm, they didn’t manage to taint that for me. But it was eerie, being with him. Just blank and cold and silent except for breathing. Both of us.”

Loki remained pointedly silent.

Nat sighed, “Sometimes he’d- we’d look at each other by mistake, but mostly not. Sometimes he looked sad, or sorry, or I’d feel more numb than is really numb, but mostly not. And he just...he never made a sound. Well except once,” Loki’s expression was so pitifully horrified it almost felt cruel to keep talking, but she thought if she could endure it his angstful highness could manage, “Once they tried giving him hallucinogens to see if it would improve compliance. I mean, he was reliable, obedient to a fault, but I think Navidna would have liked a stronger reaction. I gathered that the whole point of in vivo insemination was that it was supposed to be an incentive, a reward,” she laughed bitterly, “Because people that harbor shitty ideas about eugenics and racial destiny tend to also have shitty ideas about erections equating to willingness and eagerness and how men never feel like...how it’s never unwelcome for them no matter how...” she gave a little gasp of disgust.

“Anyway, the drugs weren’t an improvement. It took forever. I was always instructed to relax but I got sore and bored and I wished they would just let him stop. He was performing as required but I doubt he could even see the room. He moaned a little but it wasn’t...it wasn’t desire. His eyes were glazed and his face flickered like he was dreaming, and at one point he said ‘tochka’. I remember that, how his programmed Russian was still so sloppy, even when he was lucid he would code-switch constantly. But he looked at me for just a second and said ‘tochka’ like it was my name.”

“Someone he knew?”

She shrugged, “Not that I ever found. It’s not a name it’s just a noun, for a point, or a period. Maybe he had a dog named Spot at home or something and his brain was putting him someplace safe...or very very weird. Maybe he was aphasic and wanted to call a full-stop. Maybe he was misremembering the word fortochka, which is a kind of little window that very small thieves are named for, but if he were calling me a little thief that would be ‘fortochnik’. I don’t know. I just remember,” she sighed, wishing she could stop, “it was the only time I ever felt dirty. Not for anything that was happening to me, but what it was doing to him. He hadn’t been brought up to be like that,” she winced,  “To be like me. Soldier or not, he was just a kid, really. And I still…” she took a deep breath, “I still just wanted him gone, to never think about him again,” she noticed that her voice had gone meditatively quiet, and that she was betraying just how often she’d thought about that moment over time, but she let it drop and wondered if he’d do the same, “If he’s forgotten all that I feel like I owe him the best possible chance of continuing to do so, no matter what Cap and Tony feel obliged to discover for their own sainted gratification.”

Loki opened his mouth with a breathy vowel sound that clipped itself off. He cleared his throat, he sounded overly stern, probably compensating, “What happened to Navidna?”

“I never found out. Something so bad that the headmistress didn’t even want to use it as an example, I expect. She wasn’t a forgiving woman.”

“Unlike you.”

Nat made a derisive sound, “I’m not forgiving. I just can’t be angry anymore. How would I even begin to do the math, when more than half the variables are already dead. Most of the people that I owe, too. And they had their masters, same as me. All dead now.”

“You don’t think that counts as forgiveness?”

“I don’t know. I don’t try to do the social calculus anymore. I try to balance what I can, but it’s so arbitrary. Money, revenge, it’s just an endless cycle. Maybe if Tony knew he’d hate me-” she scoffed, “More, I mean. Hate me more. Or Cap would. Or Barnes. I can’t control their anger. It took me a lifetime, but I can control mine. And I’m just done with it. If that’s forgiveness, fine. If it’s cowardice,” she scoffed, “well what was I ever going to live up to anyway?”

“So,” his tone turned wheedling, “you forgive me for New York?”

She gritted her teeth to keep from laughing. Of course this was somehow about him, “Not my job. You’re not mine to forgive, and you don’t want it anyway. I was born and raised to be a disease. A biological weapon. I can’t absolve you. And honestly, whatever it is between you and Thor, whatever has you pushing and  pulling at each other, I don’t care. If it’s incest or not, if you love each other or don’t, honestly, if you make each other better, even a little, then it’s none of my business and I don’t have to care.”

Loki sighed, “Actually I do need you to care. Because I can’t be with him, and I can’t trust myself to help him choose someone else. You’re his friend. And mine,” he grinned, “whether you like it or not at this point, I think I trust you. So while we’re fighting monsters, building magical artifacts, and rooting out treason, it would be great if you’d help him find the right consort.”

Nat slumped, catching her forehead in one hand and propping herself up on her knee, “Sure. Great. Sounds like fun.”

“Right now I’m the only person he thinks he can trust. I just brought him back here to remind him of who he is. He wanted for us to be children again and for me to tell him he could give up and I’d fix everything for him, but right now…”

Nat sighed, nodding and pushing up from the bed, “Right now you need him to be a callous badass giant-slaying Odinson,” she smirked,  “You need the other guy.”

Loki nodded, “Something like that. So does he.”

Something squirmed in the pit of Nat’s heart, and she had a feeling he was lying a little, but decided to let it rest. The amount of truth in the air had already begun to get ponderous, “Well, I guess we’ve got work to do. Are you ready to be the other guy too, or do I have to slap you around a little?”

He stood up beside her, his leathers sleek and immaculate, that cocksure smirk back in place as if it had never left, “That’s my secret. I’m always the other guy.”

Chapter Text

Hleya leaned on an angled wall. The pain blockers were making her dizzy, not the wound she’d taken to need them...she hoped. Eir had assured her she would be fine, and Eir would know. But everything felt raw and out of focus, and the jaunty geometry of the repurposed Sakaaran transport vessel really wasn’t helping. Her sense of time was equally warped, and it felt like hours since she’d left the infirmary.

She scowled at the sound of her mother’s voice in her head, look at you, all aflutter because King Thor shook your hand and Loki of Asgard acknowledged you like a real warrior.

“Or just maybe,” she thought aloud bitterly, pushing off and continuing her doubtful progress, “I am a real warrior, who took a real lightning bolt to the head, and took a very powerful draught for pain so she could stand with the delegation to meet the king in the great hall, wherever in the ten gaping hells that is,” she ricocheted slowly off a deceptive turn in the dark, “because there really should be eleven useless warm bodies there instead of just ten.”

The lower levels weren’t highly populated. She might have asked directions, but the few times she had passed anyone, she’d just straightened her spine and done her best to look like she knew where she was going. A few times she’d tried to follow promising echoes, but the corridors were interconnected with so many impassable ducts that navigating by sound was no help at all.

She slumped against a wall again between two tank-like buttresses, wondering if she ought to just slide to the floor, sleep, and hang the consequences. Every option seemed equally humiliating, just then. What really bothered her was that she should have felt triumphant. She’d fought. She’d lived. She’d blooded her blade and proven herself. But she just felt cast-down, stumbling around in the dark and longing for a sign, any sign, of where she was supposed to go.

Not far to her left she heard a door, a pause, and heavy footsteps.  She peeked around the edge of her suddenly-hiding place and saw a familiar red cloak billowing away down the hall.

She closed her eyes, gave a thankful sigh, waited as long as she dared, and followed him. His pace was brisk, and keeping up with his receding stride made her skull throb and her face feel heavy. Finally she heard him boom a greeting beyond a corner, and heard voices she recognized in reply. Her stomach sank, realizing that if she walked in behind him she’d be right in the delegation’s crosshairs. Her absence had no doubt been noted, but if she could slip into place without needing to be openly commented upon, it would be gratifying.

She scoffed at herself. She was about as sneaky as a rutting raathore on a good day, and just then she was shivering with sweat and the dizziness was getting worse. But maybe if she took a moment to rest, she’d be more presentable. Or maybe they’d go for a tour and she could blend in. She slipped between a pair of pylons and closed her eyes, just to catch her breath.

---

Nat took the knives Loki handed her and secreted them about her coat tails and sleeves as they incidentally fell into step down the hall, “So where are we going first, boss?”

Loki kept his eyes front, handing her a small punch-dagger and then smoothing his hair, “First we need to check on Thor and how things are going with the Vanir.”

“The Vanir?”

“Oh,” he hemmed, “Hadn’t I told you about them?”

Nat didn’t spare him an irritated glance, “Nope.”

He shrugged, “Delegation from another realm. Vanaheim. Just hang back, you’ll catch on. I’ll explain the complicated bits later.”

Nat checked the edge of a long blade with her thumb, “Complicated bits, huh.”

Loki flicked a hand, “It’ll be fun.”

Nat shook her head, “You never get to accuse me of being difficult ever again. Look how not-stabbing-you I am right now,” her voice dropped to a mutter, “I’m a fucking saint.”

Loki considered a blade that looked like a double-ended awl before handing that to her as well, “Nonsense. You’re a valkyrie. That’s loads better. Just stand a step behind me so nobody tries to shake your hand, dead fish. And be polite. They’re a bit prickly.”

Nat tried to get her bearings as they went, regretting that she’d come in so deep completely blind. Corridors that couldn’t possibly continue without finally meeting the outdoors just kept going, and the oppressively boxy ship somehow avoided having any true right-angles, everything arranged in inclines and skewed shapes. Walls were bowed and buttressed in oddly harmonious jutting asymmetries and divided into streaks of salmon and gold that might have been jarring if the light were better.

A high-end graffiti war was also in evidence; a noticeable effort to cover up decorative semi-circuitry motifs of lines and circles on the walls with sinuous Asgardian knot designs like the ones on her bracer. They clashed bullishly with the ship’s aesthetic in every way, naturalistic while also aggressively symmetrical.

Because she was studying the walls, she noticed the unconscious woman on the floor beside a pylon, “Loki, wait,” she was more of a girl, really. Her build reminded Nat of Wanda, her prominent wide-set eyes reminded her of Sam.

Loki clucked, “Wait? I’m already late.”

Nat loured at him and knelt down, “I didn’t get the impression that Thor was actually expecting you to show up. There’s someone here. Looks like she’s hurt.”

Loki heeled, sighing peevishly, “Oh. I think I met her coming out of the infirmary,” he bent to brush her dark hair back on one side to reveal an ugly branching burn scar, “Yes, I think so. She’s one of the Vanir.”

Nat grimaced, “She’s flushed and sweating. Should we call someone? It might be a concussion.”

Loki shook his head, “She’d have shaken off a concussion like nothing. The Vanir are even more tenaciously immortal than the Aesir. They don’t have the same cultural pretensions of rugged exceptionalism and live about twice as long,” he carefully put his wrist to her forehead, nodded, and slid his palm across her brow, “As I thought. Combat drop. Eir doesn’t know her, and she probably lied and said she’d been in plenty of battles before,” he shook his head, “warriors.”

Nat grimaced, “Poor kid.”

“Cocky little shit, more like. And probably twice your age at least. Hold her shoulder in case she startles, I’m just going to cool her down.”

Nat smiled in sympathy as the young woman simultaneously relaxed and opened her eyes with a gasp.

“Good morning!” Loki announced.

Her eyes flared wider, “Oh hells is it morning?” she put a hand to her head.

Nat smiled, “He’s joking, it’s just afternoon.”

She looked hopeful, “Is the king still meeting with the delegation?”

Thor’s overly-jolly laugh ricocheted down the hall as if in answer.

Nat gave her a hand up, “Are you ok?”

“Fine. Just a little head wound. Happens all the time,” she put a hand around the middle of her scabbard, hefting it in emphasis, “to...warriors.”

Nat tried to trade a look with Loki as he rolled his eyes.

As the young woman’s attention focused she angled a small bow, “My apologies, my Lord. In the dark-”

He held up a hand, “Not to worry. We’re rather informal here. You can call me Loki, everyone does.”

Nat glanced at him, hearing it cost him something to refuse formal titles, “And I’m Natasha.”

“I’m Hleya. Thank you for waking me, but I ought to be with the delegation right now. I’m going to catch all the hells as it is.”

Loki’s eyebrows went up speculatively, “If you head down that way and turn right, I believe there’s a maintenance corridor to the far end of the room. You might be able to slip in and avoid becoming a topic of conversation, at least.”

Nat didn’t know if Loki caught the deep rush of gratitude in the girl’s eyes, but her blush was evident despite the shadows, “Thank you my...Loki.”

He sunned her with a charming smile, “Don’t thank me unless I’m right. Knowing shortcuts is a particular interest of mine, but I haven’t been here very long. Good luck.”

Hleya angled another small bow with one fist across her chest as Loki took a step back to let her leave.

He muttered, “We should probably hurry if we’re going to be a good distraction. That maintenance corridor isn’t long and getting to the proper entrance is almost as far.”

Nat squinted at him as they started moving again, “You made it sound like you weren’t sure.”

He grinned, “This way I get thanked twice.”

“What? Why does that matter?”

He shrugged, “A person likes to be thanked once in a while, and if you knew my family you’d know that I have to take it where I can get it.”

Nat idly re-checked all her knife positions out of habit, “That was nice of you.”

Loki huffed a small chuckle, “If Frey and Freya noticed their guard’s absence they doubtless hope to embarrass her once she shows up, and I’ll do anything to disappoint Freya.”

Nat tried not to groan too loud, “Oh god, that sounds ominous.”

Loki grinned, “Oh valkyrie, you have no idea.”

Chapter Text

The long metal halls echoed aggressively, and seemed designed to amplify Thor. The corridor’s turn opened on a lofty space. It was well-lit, but the cool lights and bulky high tech cornices along the walls and high ceiling made everything seem shadowed. Unevenly stretched windows slashed the walls and parts of the ceiling, looking out on an equally well-lit and tenaciously shadowed cavern of pale semi-translucent rock outside, and a crescent-shaped cave entrance filled with toothy shafts of sunlight in the distance. Nat hadn’t realized so much of the makeshift city was buried, and tried again, unsuccessfully, to make a confident estimate of the ship’s size.

Thor sat, his back to the door, at a long table with a man and a woman seated catercorner, and ten others standing arrayed behind them. Loki walked confidently towards the small gathering but grumbled under his breath, “Still not eating…witless oaf.”

Thor gestured earnestly to the richly dressed couple, “...our guests for the foreseeable future,” Thor followed the man's gaze as it shifted past him, “Loki!” he stood and turned around, his guests rising with him, and made eye-contact with Nat. She shook her head subtly, and he turned back to Loki without a word. She smiled inwardly. He’d actually learned some subtlety in his time away. Conversations about team signals had left her convinced that the God of Bluster was ill-suited to un-bellowed cues, let alone unspoken ones, but he'd picked her signal and rolled with it like a pro, and it gave her a little flutter of pride in him.

Nat studied the Vanir as Thor wrapped Loki in a robust hug. The handsome couple waited patiently, but traded a look that was practically a conversation. The man was tall, clean-shaven and compactly framed, with deep eyes and a generous mouth. His dark face glowed with health and easy humor, and of the two he was clearly more pleased by Loki’s warm reception.

The woman was just as tall, dark haired, and even paler than Nat. Her features were appealing, but so elfin that they bordered on alien when her expression sharpened in thought. She seemed wary, but not openly displeased. Among the delegation, Vanir fashions favored barer arms, lower necklines, fewer metal trinkets, and earthier colors than the Asgardians she’d seen. Breezier fabrics also contrasted with layered Ashardian dress, though the style of armor was largely the same.

“Loki, you remember the Lord and Lady of Vanaheim.”

Loki held out his hand to the man, who clasped him warmly by the forearm, “I would sooner forget beauty altogether than its eternal heralds. It is good to see you, Frey.”

Nat stifled a glance as the girl Hleya slipped in through an opening behind the delegation, mostly hidden by a large Asgardian tapestry.

Playing a hunch, Nat idly rubbed at her wrist to show a flash of valkyrie bracer underneath her leather gauntlet. Her ladyship’s eye caught the flash of silver like a hawk on a fish, oblivious to any stir in the delegation at large. It was generally more effective to distract one’s fellow spies with subtle opportunities rather than spectacle, if they were any good.

“Good to see you, young prince,” Frey’s sweet tenor echoed light and elegant around the room.

Loki then reached for the woman, “Freya,” she took his hand and held it firmly, and Nat suspected a crushing pressure was finding equilibrium between their hands to match the one between their smiles. Loki eased first and spoke with sincerity, “May I say how glad I am to see you well.”

Freya relaxed her grip and nodded, “You may. Empty sentiment was ever your privilege,” Nat stifled a reaction, knowing Loki likely did as well, though the cut seemed to have no force behind it, and even a touch of warmth, almost a formality.

Frey lit the room with an indulgent smile, “Gently, Lady. As we are honor-bound to accept Thor’s hospitality there is no need to sprint so from the gate. You’ll have days to provoke each other to distraction.”

Loki’s smile never wavered, his tone smoothly conciliatory, “The Lady has ever been the fastest in any room.”

She beamed beatifically, “And the most quick after any duel.”

Thor’s tone was far more directly warning than Frey’s, “Loki.”

“We certainly never need look further than the ranks of the fleet to find you.”

“Nor the most stable company for you.”

Thor cleared his throat. Loki and Freya both blinked at him guilelessly. Hleya slipped into the back of the arrayed group unnoticed. Nat focused on that small victory, rather than how her boss had basically just called a foreign dignitary a whore to her face, twice. Be polite, he’d said.

Thor seemed less sanguine, “We were just finishing up.”

“I am glad you showed up,” Freya beamed, “I was hoping someone might show our daughter to the practice yard while I had a word with your brother in private. She finds your martial exertions amusing.”

Thor smiled, “I’m sure Loki would be happy to escort her. I didn’t realize Hnoss was here.”

Freya frowned, “She isn’t,” the sharp features softened with a genuine sadness and Frey put a hand on her shoulder.

His lordship nodded, “I should have realized, in the wake of so much loss, that a full accounting might not yet have reached you. Hnoss was on Asgard when Hella attacked. When Hogun was killed, she joined the group that later tried to assault the palace, to avenge her cousin,” Frey bowed his head, “She was never a warrior, but she died with honor.”

Thor was stricken, “My Lord and Lady, I am so sorry for your loss, and for my ignorance. If there is any way I might redeem-”

Frey held up a hand, “She would never want it to be the cause of strife. There are none of us unscathed, and she was ever fond of you.”

Thor put his fist over his heart, “We have grieved for Hogun. He was like a brother, and truly the best of us. Pray permit us to do Hnoss honor as well.”

Freya nodded, “There will be ample time I think. Today, we’ve brought our youngest,” she didn’t turn her head, “Step forward daughter, that we might introduce you.”

Moving stiffly with eyes fixed forward, Hleya stepped to the fore and gave an Asgardian bow. Freya blinked in mild surprise but gave no sign of displeasure. Loki smirked. Hleya shrugged.

If Thor noticed any of it he was good enough to play along, “A pleasure. I recall meeting Hleya in the infirmary earlier. I saw you in the field as well, you acquitted yourself most admirably.”

Nat concluded that Vanir were not able to melt into puddles or burst into showers of sparks, or else Hleya surely would have. She only bowed again, her voice tight, “Your servant my King.”

Freya’s wide slender mouth tightened in a forced smile.

Thor bowed gallantly, and even with his back to her Nat could feel the forceful glow of his charm, “And yours, valiant Lady. There will be a modest banquet this evening for the young warriors and our honored guests. As both, consider your presence personally requested.”

Freya stepped forward and twined one arm around Thor’s, “On the condition that you permit us to contribute,” She shook her head wistfully, “I can’t recall the last time the two realms made proper feast together. You must walk with me and let me help you plan, so we can properly assure that it is a night to be sweetly, if only vaguely, remembered.”

Thor graciously let himself be hijacked, “Certainly. Loki would you escort Hleya to the yards and make introductions?”

Loki’s eyes narrowed over his smile, “A pleasure.”

He clasped his hands behind his back deliberately before bowing to Hleya, rather than offering her an arm. For a moment Nat wondered if it was another slight, but realized he was letting Hleya walk beside him like a warrior rather than on his arm like a Lady.

Nat fell in at his left shoulder, whispering, “So when do we start behaving ourselves?”

“I’m behaving exactly like myself. Which is to say badly.”

She bit the inside of her cheek, arguing more out of habit than any expectation he’d suddenly learn any sense of shame, “You said we should be polite.”

“No, I told you to be polite. You were. Well done. If I’m too nice everyone assumes I’m up to something. Now fall back, I think Lord Frey wants to walk with you. He’s a god of beauty, so mind your eyes,” he gave her an admonishing look, “and for heaven’s sake be polite,” he turned away from her pointedly, favoring Hleya with a smile.

The subtly dazzling man strode up beside Nat, and she gave him a graceless little bow.

His voice was mild as stormy springtime, “May I walk with you? My Lady prefers to plot without me underfoot.”

She nodded, “You should know I’m just the help.”

“Where else should a daughter’s father walk but with his fellow hovering protectors?”

She couldn’t help smiling, “You should also know that I’m not paid enough to have the first idea how to address you.”

“You’re doing fine. You may call me Frey. Or Lord Frey, until I know your name as well.”

“Natasha.”

“Midgardian?” he sounded delighted and slightly scandalized.

“Afraid so. I’m also afraid I don’t know much of anything about Vanaheim. His Lokiship’s information sharing skills are,” she paused, noting that Loki’s left ear did in fact prick back, though he didn’t turn, “...well, you’ve met him.”

Frey laughed, deep and sincere with a sweet lilt overtop, as if he appreciated her wit on every possible level, and for just a moment the only thought in Natasha’s head was trying to make him do that again, “You carry yourself like a dangerous creature indeed. Will I get to see an exhibition of your skill once we reach the practice yard?”

Nat swallowed, “Dear god, I hope not.”

“Asgard can be intimidating,” he nodded sympathetically.

She smiled, “It’s not that. I can win a fight. But in order for there to be a fight to win I have to have already failed miserably on about three other fronts.”

As Frey laughed again, Nat noted something odd plucking at her situational awareness. She checked her senses one at a time, sighing deeply when she got to hearing and looking daggers at the back of Loki’s neck. He was silently letting Hleya talk animatedly to him.

“It must be difficult babysitting the god of mischief,” Frey's tone was pointed with admiration rather than challenge.

“I’m getting used to it.”

They walked along in relative silence for a while, up a ramp and around a few large rooms to an open arched door full of sunlight and noise. There wasn’t a lot of energetic sparring, though a familiar pair of dark-haired women were trading forms in a clear space. Others were sitting around nursing minor wounds and cold drinks, gesturing grandly in the earliest stages of personal mythmaking. Nat begged Frey’s pardon and took a quick step between Loki and Hleya, “I’m afraid I have to borrow my employer for a word. Would you mind if we catch up with you in a moment to begin making your introductions?”

Hleya nodded and went out into the sunshine. Nat put on her best imploring face for Loki, “Listen, you have to promise me you’re not going to abandon me in this sea of diplomatic land mines. Suddenly we’re escorting the heir of a rival kingdom, and introducing her to the heavily-armed-women that hate you? Stay right by my side until we go. Please.”

He gave her the most earnest look she’d ever seen in her life, “Natasha, I promise. I won’t abandon you. I'll be right by your side every second.”

“Do you mean that?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

Nat shook her head. In a single move she pulled a long dagger from her sleeve and slashed him through his abdomen. The dagger skimmed through him deep like nothing, its edge glinting with green light, “You’re not even here right now. I couldn’t hear your footsteps, you sloppy fuck. Are you just physically incapable of telling the truth?”

He shrugged, too clearly amused to seem even a little apologetic, “Not exactly. I just have work to do.”

“Gosh, me too. Where could he have gotten off to?” she did her best to sink the question mark as far as it would go.

“I’m on the moon. Come find me when you’re done mingling.”

The deliberate lie sank like a barbed hook into her gut, “I am not going to go mingling alone with your junior fan club and Frey the god of awesome. If me mingling was the plan you should have stayed corporeal,” she shook her head, “your disregard for your friends is just dazzling, you know that?”

He looked genuinely hurt and vanished.

“Wait, where the hell am I supposed to come find you?”

There was a commotion from the practice yard. Nat shook her head at the empty air, muttered, “Son of a bitch,” and went out to see if anything was bleeding or on fire.

--

Loki skulked along the service corridor adjoining the audience hall, attention divided between eavesdropping through the vents and maintaining a convincing illusion at a distance.

Freya was still hanging on Thor’s arm, strolling him slowly around the gloomy hall as if it were one of Frey’s famed gardens. She doubtless made it feel like it was.

“So have you considered my offer?”

Thor answered her playfully, warmly, “Offer? It sounded more like a threat when you made it.”

“Then you misheard. The burden of rule is weighing too hard on your unready mind.”

He stopped and clasped both her hands between his, “Freya, I am not my brother. I do not enjoy these games and would that we could speak plainly. We both know you have us at a disadvantage, but that I cannot, for anything, give up Asgard’s place among the realms, especially now. You needn't remind me of my failings. I am not my father. I know this. And yet, for old time’s sake, beautiful huntress, have mercy on me.”

She put a hand to his cheek and sounded genuinely mournful, “If it were anywhere in my nature, for the sweet boy that defeated an entire field of daisies for me with his first sword, and laid its bounty at my feet, I would. But you know I must first think of Vanaheim and its dignity. The ten thousand years since our fall from the high seat has not made us strangers to its lure, and you are mired in greater difficulty than we faced then.”

Thor shrugged, turning to walk with her further, “Ragnarok is but a season. A season that has not yet ended. We have found a fit place to weather it, can Vanaheim say the same?”

Freya gave a lofty shrug, “Vanaheim endures as the higher ground.”

“An advantage in a season of war, not of fire.”

“Says the man seated highest of all. The season of fire shall end, and we all wish one another well in its enduring. If the next season favors us better, I would that Asgard remain strong, for the sake of all the realms.”

“You worry for me? That’s kind.”

“There are portents of yet more fire, and more-than-fire about in the realms. Wars larger than any I could ever seek or suggest. Vanaheim would lose as much as it might gain in toppling Asgard, not least of all your friendship, but at the moment you are too topheavy, and should accept our balancing hand.”

Thor sounded wary, “You are grown too kind in your age. What will people think?”

She chuckled, “Consider it soberly, Odinson. You give us the high seat, we shoulder the honor and the burden of it as once our fathers did, in amity and kinship. The realms hail the restoration of the cycle your grandfather, father, and sister disrupted. Asgard regains its strength in our fecund gratitude, and you are ever the king that put the good of all nine realms above his pride. It would be a heroic feat that your father, may his hall be blessed forever, never surpassed.”

“You must know how deeply we now rely on tribute. How deeply could we rely on your gratitude once you have what you want?”

“Ask rather, if you refuse our offer of help, whether I might make you another offer? One you might like less.”

“Would mighty Vanaheim so stoop to offer us harm instead? What glory is there in that?”

“Again you hear me only like a warrior, daisy slayer. I offer alliance. The strongest sort.”

Thor chuckled, “Marriage talk again? I’m flattered.”

“Rather you’re fortunate. Hleya needs a consort. Nornheim has no sons for her. Jotunheim lost its only suitable heir. For my beloved daughter why should I not seek the prettiest son of Frigga? Would any mother do less? Yours never did.”

Thor's tone was carefully courteous, “It certainly might please her to be queen of Asgard. She is a fine woman and from what I’ve seen well suited to our customs.”

Freya’s laugh was like a windchime made of knives, “Oh Thor, you are too precious. Hleya would never suit as your throneless queen. I said the prettiest son. I want your brother for her.”

“Ah...w-what?”

Loki clamped a hand over his mouth against laughing, cursing Freya for knowing just how to twist a knife, and probably suspecting that he was listening. Cagey woman.

“Oh don’t be hurt, your Majesty. You have your virtues, but none that would compliment hers. Your brother would bring wisdom and tact to such a match, and a kingdom with two thrones might be the thing to at last mollify his rabid ambition.”

Loki tried to glimpse Thor’s face at being called unpretty, unwise, and tactless in brutal succession. He couldn’t, but imagination threatened to set him laughing all the same.

Thor bristled, “He would still be a lord consort, not a king. You would be taking him to Vanaheim to counsel, to sire, but never to rule.”

“You would offer my daughter any better? Mind your Asgardian arrogance before you call it an insult and accuse yourself.”

“On the contrary I think you very brave. He is a proud son of Odin and Frigga, and rightful king of Jotunheim. I doubt his dignity would endure such graciousness.”

‘We both know he’s endured far worse.”

“And avenged it. Surely you saw his misrule of Asgard.”

“More surely than you, I think, and I say he’s exactly the sort of lord I want by my daughter's right hand. You know the short-sightedness of valor.”

“Do I?”

“If not I will instruct you. I saw your brother rule like a man who foresaw the apocalypse when the realm’s heir had larger duties to the wider world. I saw him place a deteriorating father into care to extend his life, cut him off from his curses and hold off the fall a while longer. You saw only his inattention to pointless border wars, his dismissal of the doomed realm into enjoyment of the time it had left. What do you know of misrule? Where was his tyranny? Where his vengeance? He is complicated, and his tendency not to trust those he should is ever to his detriment, but he is no fool. Indeed I would be loathe to entrust anyone to the grand torments of the allfather’s high seat without him at their side.”

Loki stroked his chin and knew he was being wooed. Like anyone she set her attentions to, he couldn't help adoring Freya. She was astonishingly good at her work.

Thor was quiet for a long time. Then, “Loki is not some pawn for your use. Or mine.”

Freya's tone softened at last in pity, “And yet his old king is gone, the old board swept away. And if you will not take the first move in this new game, we shall. The stakes are too high to neglect it.”

They crossed the room silently, and it was only the odd accoustices that let Loki hear him sigh, “Are you so eager to break my heart, old friend?”

Loki could picture Freya laying a hand on his cheek, her voice tender, “Only to sound it, young king. More rests upon your reign than your own happiness. For all the realms. You know this.”

“I do. But if I am such a fool, you do him a dishonor to ask me to decide for him. Do you really hate him so much?”

Freya laughed sharply in the solemn quiet, “You musn’t think anything of our little amusements. I adore Loki. How could I not when he tries so hard to be just like me? Vanaheim might be a bit rustic for his tastes, but they would adore him as well, and there is much that could be changed for the better to suit him. Consider my offer. Or put it to him if you like. It is made in good faith. But for now I would rather plan a feast, wouldn’t you?”

It was just then that Natasha started hectoring at him, forcing him to abandon his listening post and treat with her instead before heading off to do some other work while he waited for her to find him.

Chapter Text

Hleya picked herself up off the ground once Sif moved the blade from her throat, her eyes stinging with dust, ignoring the offered hand, “A fair hit. Again?”

Sif’s smile was a little too indulgent to seem humble, “Your highness, I wouldn’t presume.”

Hleya’s hackles rose with her father’s droll tone from the back of her mind, Now that you’ve dug your way in, it makes just as much sense to try and dig your way out. She gripped her sword lightly, not sheathing it, “Would it be so much more presumptuous to accept than to refuse?”

Sif took a step closer, dropping her voice, “I would not presume to risk a fellow warrior's health for pride. You fought bravely today, your blood is high, your father is watching, you have everything to prove. I know what that’s like. Back when I began, no woman carried a warrior’s blade save your mother, and it meant everything to me to prove myself in Asgard’s eyes. But you’re also injured. I know what that’s like as well. Taking a fall graciously means more to any of the warriors watching than you might gain by knocking me down.”

“You mistake me for a courtier concerned by impressions.”

Sif smirked, taking a step back, “Apologies, your dread highness. In that case I won’t ask whether you want your ass or your face making the impression on the courtyard on the next fall.”

Behind Hleya’s answering smirk, she quietly resigned herself to the prospect of waking up in the infirmary twice in one day.

--

Nat reached Frey’s side just as a second loud muddle of reactions gusted around the yard, Hleya hitting the ground chest-first as the flat of Sif’s blade fouled her footing. Frey was stroking his frown with long fingers, looking concerned but resolutely passive. He glanced aside, “I don’t suppose you’d be good enough to…”

Nat sighed, “Yeah, I’m on it.”

She strode forward and offered Hleya a hand up, which she took, a sullen sort of gratitude pressing into her palm unopposed.

“Hey Sif, I’ve got next,” Sif’s counterpart in white and blue called from the edges, striding out into the square, her high black ponytail waving like a war banner.

Nat shook her head, smiling apologetically, “I’m afraid Hleya is on a schedule. It’ll have to wait.”

“No worries, Red,” the challenger swaggered up in a cloud of oddly pleasant beer fumes, “She’s excused.”

Sif glanced between them, “Bru, I don’t think-”

Bru pulled a pair of long daggers without breaking eye contact with Nat, “It’s tradition, Sif. Valkyrie thing. You wouldn’t understand.”

Sif rolled her eyes and stepped back, tossing up an exasperated hand and letting it fall helplessly.

Nat tilted her head to the side, shrugging with exaggerated haplessness, “I’m kinda busy right now myself.”

Bru smiled, “A valkyrie can’t decline a challenge.”

Nat sighed, “Is that what that was? I didn’t realize. Can we just declare you the winner then?”

Bru’s gaze cocked skyward as if she was thinking, her lips pursed as she shook her head, “I don’t think so, no.”

“Ok but-” her mind spun, trying to re-sift all the hopelessly random and sketchy bits of information Loki'd given her about the rules of engagement, “-I don’t even have anyone to second me.”

Bru and Hleya spoke at once, Bru’s “That’s not a big deal,” overlaid by Hleya’s “The hells you don’t!”

Nat kept her smile soft and loose as the list of people she kinda wanted to punch unconscious steadily grew and Loki’s name got underlined in red, “I’m busy. And more importantly I’m not interested. You don’t like it, you can take it up with my boss,” she turned her back, quietly counting beats in her head, estimating distances.

Bru’s edged tone went from mocking to earnest, “You set one foot out of this square and I’ll rip that bracer off your wrist and jam it up your decorative little ass.”

Sif stepped up again and took Bru by the arm, “That’s enough. Give it a rest.”

There was nothing difficult about ignoring a belligerent drunk, but for Nat it was complicated by the fact that she was trying to ground sparks from all directions that her gut seemed determined to store. She scanned exit routes, held her tongue, and noticed how quiet the rest of the courtyard had become.

Hleya did none of those things, and shot back, “You watch your mouth.”

Nat turned on her heel and gave Hleya a little pull, stepping between her and Bru, “No, do go on. What are the actual terms of this challenge.”

Bru yanked her arm out of Sif’s grip, “The pallid lackey thinks he can just name you valkyrie and that’s it. You think you deserve to be here?”

Nat kept perfectly still as Bru strolled right up to her face, and noted that her fellow valkyrie was almost as short as she was, “I don’t think I deserve anything. I’ve taken a job and I’m trying to do it.”

Neither blinked as their noses almost touched, the smell of beer and dandelions rolling off Bru. Nothing else in the courtyard made a sound, “What’s your name?”

“Natasha,” when Bru raised her eyebrows expectantly, she added, “Ailianova Romanoff. Some people call me the Black Widow,” she shrugged, “Not my idea, but it’s stuck. Nice to meet you.”

Bru lifted her chin, “What’s your deal, then?”

“Like I already told you, I’m just here to do a job.”

“And what,” she narrowed her big brown eyes, “is your favorite color?”

Nat caught the barest hint of a smile, and dropped her own voice to a grating sneer, “Blue.”

Bru shrugged, nodding, her scowl blooming into an appealingly crooked grin, “Ok, you pass,” she threw an arm around Nat’s shoulders and reeled around to address Sif, “See! Not that hard!”

The whole room laughed. Sif pursed her lips, “Answer’s still no.”

Bru groaned, leaning heavily on Nat’s shoulders, “She’s impossible. C’mon, drinks! I’ve decided that’s another tradition.”

Nat glanced back at Hleya, who was looking completely gobsmacked, and jerked her head for her to follow as she was dragged towards a table.

And so they four sat for a while, drinking. The alcohol was strong, but Nat was accustomed to the fact that, if she managed to pace herself even a little, her enhanced metabolism would process the alcohol four times faster that anyone else at the table could. It was a big advantage when enemies wanted to drug or ply her. Not so great when she was trying to be convivial but kept feeling like the designated driver.

Hleya wasn’t drinking much either. Eir’s orders, she said. But she was young and excited about having new friends, which was its own form of intoxication. Bru’s capacity was formidable, but so was her apparent will to be sozzled. She kept up half the conversation on her own with stories about being some kind of bounty hunter, and still managed to pound back drinks like a platoon on leave.

And Sif was transparently besotted with Bru.

Nat almost wanted to ask, but she couldn’t quite gather if they thought it was a secret or not. Every time one of them looked at the other, or Sif laughed at something Bru said until she snorted, Nat recalled Loki’s assessment of the animosity between the two and wondered if it had really changed that much since the last time he’d been home. She thought about having a serious talk with him about what “fighting” looked like and how, no, Timmy, that’s not what those two are doing when they roll around like that. She smiled inwardly. That might be as satisfying as stabbing him.

During a brief pause in Bru’s energetic oratory, Sif turned to Hleya, “I must say I’m flattered to have been singled out by you as the warrior to beat.”

Hleya shrugged, abashed, “It wasn’t that. I mean, clearly you are. But I expected you’d be the only one who could give me an honest answer to a question that’s been burning in my mind for a long time.”

“What’s that?”

She took a deep drink, gasping slightly, “Whether the fighters in Vanaheim have all been going easy on me.”

Sif smiled sympathetically, “And have they, do you suppose?”

Hleya nodded, studying her drink, “Only physically.”

Sif clacked her mug against Hleya’s, “To doing it anyway,” and drank hers off.

Bru shook her head, muttering rhetorically, “What in the frothing fornication happened to the realms after I left? In my day it was nothing if a woman wanted to fight.”

Sif shrugged, “The war ended. More than ended. It was buried. The history of the valkyrie was mostly plastered over. When I was growing up I was told that the valkyrie just weren’t needed anymore and decided to stop. I got told conflicting things about how women being warriors was an unnecessary luxury or-”

Hleya nodded, “-or a temporary unpleasantness in wartime. Yeah.”

Bru shook her head, “I just can’t believe that Odin would do that to us. Or that Freya would let him.”

Sif squinted at her, “Freya?”

Bru nodded, baffled by all three baffled glances, “Well yeah. She was joint commander of the valkyries. Half our allegiance was ever to her in Vanaheim,” her gaze and her tone slowly sank into her cup, “We were meant to serve the office of the high throne rather than any one realm, and eventually to serve as a unifying force between all nine.”

Nat was suddenly burning to interrogate Bru about the history of the valkyries, but Bru’s reluctance to dig into those memories was so obvious that even Hleya took the hint and stayed quiet.

Sif prodded gently, “So tell us more about Sakaar. I can’t get over how strange their ships are,” and Bru slowly revived herself into boisterous recountings, with a knowing glance at Sif for handling her.

Even though it was Bru’s turn, Nat got up to fetch the next round. She checked her equilibrium and realized that either alcohol on Asgard was even stronger than she thought, or she’d somehow gotten ahead of her usual pace. Her head was definitely swimming, and there was an uncomfortable pull in her gut...an acute awareness of Loki’s absence...an odd sense of airless need for him...the tide of the air going out. The lie he’d sunk into her before he’d vanished seemed to exert a real pull towards the exit. Come find me. She took a few steps, testing her balance, “This has been great, but I really do have stuff I’ve got to do before the party tonight.  I’ll see you all there?”

Hleya made a plaintive sound. Sif raised her drink and nodded, putting an arm around Hleya, “Can we keep an eye on this one for you? I don’t think she’s quite had her fill of Bru’s horseshit yet.”

Nat nodded towards where Frey was sitting in lively discussions of his own, “Ask the unbearably handsome fellow. It’s fine with me.”

Bru staggered up, “Noooo, you can’t go yet!” she threw an arm around Nat’s shoulders that was more show than force, pressing her mug back into her hand and hollering “Friend stay!”

Nat clapped Bru by the shoulders, “Friend is staying, friend just has to go check up on some stuff before we continue this at the party. If friend goes fast friend will even come back here before then, so keep my cup wet.”

Bru grabbed her by the back of the neck and plunked their foreheads together a little too hard, “You're the best!” and a pickled slurry of unadulterated camaraderie sank into Nat’s spine like a gust of gritty wind, and she knew that, at least when she was utterly sloshed, Bru really loved the idea of having another valkyrie around, and hadn’t an enemy in the world. She backed away and gave a jocularly lascivious wink, “And you can bet we’ll keep your cup as wet as you want.”

At least Loki could be completely wrong about things in a good way once in a while.

Nat hadn't taken three steps towards the door when a cloud seemed to scud past the sun, and something huge and green crashed to the ground in front of her, Hulk bellowing “Friend stay!”

Nat’s growing anxiety about the way the air seemed to be slipping away left her with no patience for coddling Hulk, not as their first interaction since he and Banner had decided to ditch her on earth, nor after their other hello that morning, when Hulk had accidentally broken her skull as she’d tried to defend him.

“Settle down, big guy,” Bru called, “I was just kidding. She can go. Come sit with us.”

“Friend stay!” he took a swipe at Nat that she reflexively dodged and parried, something clicking in her mind when she realized she’d actually deflected him rather than just pushing herself off.

A combination of curiosity and alcohol wondered just how strong she was as a valkyrie.

That airless urgency and the realization that Hulk might not actually be able to accidentally crush her anymore brought some deeply buried terrors up to find a new form in anger, “Oh you know some words now, huh? Well good. Go sit with your friends. They’re staying. I’m going. And you just tell Banner to stay in there because I don’t expect he has anything more interesting to say to me than you do,” It felt petulant. It felt amazing.

“Friend stay!” Hulk put a fist down, not quite a smash, and ground his knuckles against the packed dirt.

Nat went to walk right past his other hip, and when he moved to grab her she used every last erg of her new strength and everything she knew about leveraging larger opponents to unbalance him onto his back. It wasn’t easy, it still felt like trying to wrangle a boulder covered in a vibranium canvas, but with skill and the element of surprise he went down with a solid thud. She stepped over his massive wrist as he stared at the sky as if he wondered why it had jumped in front of him like that. She continued towards the door, her heart aglow with bitterness and burning bridges, “Go fuck yourself, big guy.”

She heard him get up and kept her pace even. Maybe he’d charge her, but she was as done running from Hulk as she was done chasing Banner, and was confident that she could put him on his back again as many times as he handed her the momentum to do it. Hulk was a coward. Banner was a coward. They were more afraid of her than she was of them. She’d thought she could help talk the monster around into being something better but, well, she wasn’t Clint. She counted beats, expecting the charge.

What she hadn’t expected was the mournful little, “Friend stay,” like a muted trumpet.

She hated knowing that, if she weren’t almost suffocating with urgency, it would have turned her around.

As things were, she just flipped him and Banner a double bird without looking back, and headed into the ship to find the other guy.

Chapter Text

In the cavern of storms, Angrboda brought her sulking prince a fortifying infusion of herbs. He took it obediently, measured and contemplative. He’d had his fit of rage and come to rest. He would hear her.

“You did well.”

The lights in the cavern’s cragged ceiling flickered fitfully. He grumbled impatience, hunched upon the low stairs that circled the cistern of tides, “We squandered the element of surprise. I should have brought greater strength.”

“The routes to Asgard are much altered. There was only so much I could do to manipulate the boundary into opening for you and your small band.”

His voice was deep and solemn as a grave, “My own strength, my own resolve, should have been greater,” He took her ancient hand in his large rough one, “Do not blame yourself,” he sighed, “I became distracted.”

She took his helmet from his brow and rested it on the side of an upended altar, squeezing the hardened leather of his pauldrons until they flexed pressure into sore muscles, “Report your mission from the beginning, my child.”

He took a deep sip of her bitter concoction and sighed, “Your portal worked as well as it could, as did my storm magics. I was able to communicate with the warriors, and they obeyed me,” he shook his head mournfully, silvery golden hair falling in sweaty coils around his shoulders, “to the last.”

“Their names are being sung in the hall of heroes as we speak. Did you face Thor?”

“Only from the air. I didn’t think he could block me. But we were evenly matched, and I felt a sense of foreboding. I dared not risk the squallsnipe to land,” he hung his head, “I had no idea they had so many standing soldiers. Not just Aesir, aid from other realms, all fully armed and armored. And a monster. And the Lady Sif,” he shook his head, “My intelligence was faulty, and I played it wrong. I am ashamed.”

“No sense in recriminations now, my prince. What else did you see?”

His hand tightened on the mug until it creaked, “Loki was there.”

Angrboda’s pointed ears pricked up, as did the corners of her sharp mouth, “Are you sure?”

He nodded, “With some kind of guard. They rushed in at the end.”

“No wonder you became distracted. Revenge can be both a fuel and a burden,” She smoothed his hair and he leaned his temple against her belly, “I had not thought the trickster would take the field. But this is as I hoped. If Loki is there, then the new Asgard will likely regain its ways between worlds. That one has an obsession for modes of escape matched only by a taste for power. The boldness of your attack will have shaken the kingdom’s already weak sense of security,” her voice dropped into tones of magical avowal, “This I promise you, my prince. There shall be a new throne in Asgard, and your kin shall see a storm giant seated upon it.”

She bent down to pick up the shards of a shattered iron cauldron.

“Leave it, goodmother,” he sighed, “the failure was mine. The tantrum as well. I shall clean up my own messes,” and he began to gather ruined objects from around the ceremonial chamber into a pile. A heavy basin crushed like paper. A stone candelabra melted like wax. A wrought-iron table torn like lace. “I shall join the others shortly.”

She stopped him with a light touch and kissed his seamless brow, “Be sure to finish your broth, as well. Your strength shall gather again like the storm.”

Angrboda smiled warmly as she closed the door behind her. Such a good boy.

 

----

 

Nat almost wished she had fought the Hulk. Her stomach was on fire, and it wasn’t just the booze. In fact it got worse the more she sobered. Rage crackled under her skin, and she couldn’t find a way to ground it. She didn’t want it. She didn’t even care about any of the things she was mad about. Everything had worked out fine. It didn’t matter. She barely knew these people. None of it was her job. None of it was her problem. But her heart was boiling over into her throat. It wouldn’t leave her alone.

Frey should have managed his brat. Hleya shouldn’t have started a fight. Sif shouldn’t have let her. Hleya should have kept her damn mouth shut when Nat stepped in. Bru shouldn’t have made a spectacle of it. Someone should have kept Hulk out of her goddamn face. And Loki…

Godfuckingdamn Loki…

The suffocating sensation in her lungs was joined by increasing breathlessness as her short legs took long rapid strides. How long had she been tearing around the convoluted underbelly of makeshift Asgard? How many times had her brain recycled the raging litany of bitter pointless ire? The hook in her gut seemed to pull her straight, but the corridors all looked the same in the dark and there was no way to know if she was going in a circle.

The fish forgets the bowl is a circle.

Shut up. Frey should have managed his brat…

She heard an echo of footsteps that could have been anyone, but the sound pulled at her like a scent of blood on the wind. The knot in her stomach lurched towards a tall silhouette in the low light striding towards her. If she could have walked faster she would have, her brain making a tactical map of which knife from which part of her body would fit best into which part of his and in what order.

The blur in her vision was the shortness of breath.

The wet on her cheeks was sweat.

The desperate relief she felt watching his shape move towards her was just anger ready for release.

His pace faltered and he bobbled towards the wall. She needed to touch him.

When she was close enough to speak he caught her around the waist and pulled. It crashed them together as she caught his face between her palms and kissed him like he was made of breathable air. He slid his hand behind her neck in agreement, drawing at her mouth with ardor and desperation mixed. He slid his hands down her unevenly, not quite catching her or needing to as she leapt her legs around his waist, but staggering slightly before he could brace her back against the wall.

She tore open the collar of his coat and tunic with a single motion, scooping his neck against her mouth like water and sucking greedily. He murmured frantic profanity to the ceiling, binding her up against him and pivoting towards the opposite wall which, unexpectedly, opened behind her as he approached.

It was his room. How had she not noticed that she’d gone all the way back to his so-called suite? The door closed, shutting out the only available light.

Fuck it.

He brought her down on the bed, freeing his hands to tear open her collar in kind and nuzzle into her neck, inhaling deeply. He shrugged off his coat and let it disappear floorwards. She undid hers, working her way out of it like a cocoon as she scooted towards the center of the bed, half-dragging him along by the hair.

He crashed down heavy against her again, rocking into kiss after kiss that gradually, miraculously, seemed to calm and settle them out, still clothed. Her hands were still hungry for him, her mouth thirsting, but she had him. His skin, his weight, his breath, his attention. She had him. He was assured. She could slow down. He seemed to feel it too, the air around them becoming richer and more livable, the well of rage in her gut slowly draining off, though her rational ire remained.

“Asshole,” she whispered.

He detached his lips unhurriedly from the swelling behind her ear, “Is that a request?”

She snorted a laugh in spite of herself, “Try it and I’ll gut you.”

He traced his fingertips over her cheek, perhaps trying to read her expression in the dark, “I needed you to keep Frey occupied while Freya monopolized Thor. I couldn’t risk either of them following me.”

“You could have said that instead of throwing me to the wolves.”

“It was a decision I made on the fly. Anyway, would you really have let me out of your sight?

She sighed. She wanted to admit that it had scared her, embarrassed her, but he wouldn’t care, “You need to let me do the job you hired me for or tell me what you actually want from me.”

“But I like the way you get mad at me.”

She grabbed a fistful of his buttock and squeezed so hard he had to bite down on her shoulder to keep from crying out, and he pressed hard against her thigh. Gradually they both relented, the almost-sexual desperation to be close giving in to a sweet almost-sexual relief with the fading of shared pain. He lay his head on her shoulder, remembered, and snuggled in closer towards her sternum.

“So where did you go?”

“To check on the tesseract. To see if it had been found or moved.”

“And?”

He sighed, “I think someone accessed it, but I’m not sure how. It should be secure now.”

“Should be?”

He nodded, gliding a caress down her arm and bringing her palm to his lips, kissing her fingertips, a smile evident in his tone, “What on Asgard-annexed-Earth have you been getting up to?”

She sighed, “Mostly just some infuriating bulllshit, followed by some day-drinking with the girls.”

“Then where did the blood come from?”

“Blood?” she took her hand from him and smelled it, “I don’t know, It’s not mine. What the hell…?”

She slid her hands down him again hastily. His linen clothes were whole and dry. She wasn’t in any pain. He ran his hands over her in kind. Her pants and skin were clean. She touched his face, his hair, and then put her tongue to his earlobe, sputtering lightly at the taste.

“Fuck, you’re bleeding from the ears.”

He breathed a sigh of relief, “Oh, that explains it, then. For a second I was worried.”

She gaped at him in the dark, touching his other ear and finding it sticky, “For a second? What in the actual fuck have you been doing, Loki?”

He pressed his forehead to hers with a petulant grumble, “I don’t want to tell you now. I’d thought to impress you and now you’re just going to be angry with me.”

She rolled her eyes, “Turn the damn lights on. Should we be getting you help? Why are you bleeding from the goddamn ears?”

He pressed her wrists down as she tried to sit up, robbing her of leverage. She could have pretzeled out of it, but she didn’t want a real fight.

Dramatic pause, “I made the wall.”

Sour incredulity, “You made the wall.”

He smiled audibly, aflutter with glee, “Want to go see?”

She scowled in a way she hoped he could hear, “No, I don’t. What are you talking about.”

He huffed again in annoyance, “The wall. One of the six symbols of Asgard and our strongest protection against attack. After I secured the tesseract I summoned a fifty foot wall into being around the entire city,” he released her hands, “and if you do anything next besides applaud and pet me and tell me how brilliant I am I’m going to disinvite you to the feast and make you sleep in the bathtub.”

She put her hand in his hair, trying to estimate how bad the bleeding actually was, permitting some gentle petting into her touch, “Did you basically almost kill yourself?”

“No. Probably not.”

“The annoying thing is that you’re not an idiot and you’re still going to pretend like you don’t understand why this might make me angry.”

“Because you love me?”

She half-pretzeled away from his weight and reach before she really did feel compelled to strike him, “Because you’re treating my job like a joke.”

There was silence for a while. She wasn’t crying. If you’re silent it doesn’t count, she thought with a smirk. Even if the gnawing sensation in your gut is lashing you with mockery about how clearly you can’t handle the pressure, the constant testing, the dead weight of never feeling like anyone cares about the heart you’re not supposed to have. Can’t even hack the first day. How are you even still alive, brittle little spider?

He slid slowly to her, bringing his hip to meet hers. He slid his fingers over the top of her hand.

She shook her head, “If you say you’re sorry, I’m going to give you a nose to match your ears. You already used that lie.”

He nestled the bridge of said nose against her ear, “I’m selfish.”

She wasn’t crying, “So what. You’re my boss.”

He ran a thumb over her cheek, “You’re my friend.”

She pulled away, shaking her head, “You’re mistaken. This isn’t how that works. Nothing you do is how that works. I took this job for reasons that matter to me, so I’m putting up with it. We have that in common. But you’re apparently on some mission that nobody else gets to know about because it’s so much bigger than all of us. Fine. I’ve been there. I get it, probably better than you do. But people on that mission, they don’t have friends, because they have to use everything at their disposal, including people. And yes, I understand it. I get why I keep getting burned. I even deserve it. But I don’t volunteer for it anymore.”

He pressed his forehead to hers like an insistent cat, “You’re my friend.”

She shook her head despite his grip on her neck. She hated liking him, “No. Fuck Tony and fuck Fury and fuck Cap and fuck you. There’s no code of honor that makes lies and manipulation into friendship. It doesn’t matter that your goals are noble or that you’re smart and careful and amazing at lying. Friends don’t get to compartmentalize about things that affect their friendships. Maybe you appreciate me. Maybe I like you. Maybe we’ve got goals in common. But we’re not even co-workers until you’re ready to tell me where all the bodies are buried and who the next one will be, because until then I’m just the person you hired to put up with your bullshit who happens to be as good at her job as you are.”

They weren’t crying.

He cleared his throat and let go of her neck, “Well, that’s cleared up, at least.”

She nodded, “Yeah.”

He got up and turned on the colored lights enough to see by. She checked her hands. Her fingertips looked rusty. She watched him look himself over in the mirror. There was some matted hair, and a smudged droplet under one nostril, but he wasn’t bleeding anymore. A dusting of bloody fingerprints sprawled evocatively across his cheeks and neck, like a dance diagram leading down to a conga-line of deep red suction-bruises near his shoulder. In spite of themselves, they smiled at each other’s reflections in the mirror.

He wet a cloth and returned to her, daubing off all the marks that were susceptible to water before handing it off.

She slowly wiped the red off her fingers, “It’s pretty impressive that you made a giant wall. I expect people will have noticed and want to applaud and pet you.”

“I know. But I wanted to find you first. And not just because being away from you had begun to feel like dying.”

“Hmm. That does seem like it’s going to be a recurring problem. Any thoughts on why?”

“It began when I adjusted the tesseract. Before I’d done anything especially complex, just repositioning it to start the spell.”

“Do you think the tesseract causes it?”

“Could be. If someone else accessed it, that might have caused it the first time.”

“Weird,” she pitched the cloth at the bathtub, “Hand me my coat.”

He obeyed her, “Technically still my coat.”

“Technically definitely not. My coat. No rented gear. Terms of the job. And a bargain, if you’ll recall.”

He blinked at her as she buttoned up, “But...there’s something like fifteen of my better knives in there.”

She scrunched her face in a pantomime of sympathetic regret, “True. Except the part about ‘yours’.”

He groaned.

She smiled, “Oh stop trying to make me feel better.”

He sighed, “I wish we had enough time before the feast to give you the proper tour of the city. The one I meant to give you when we got here, before we were so rudely...literally everything since then'd.”

She checked her hair in the mirror, “I’ve been getting my bearings. You can point out things on the way up.”

“I meant the tour of where all the bodies are buried,” when she didn’t respond he glanced at her to add, “Metaphorically.”

He wasn’t lying, but it wasn’t exactly an iron-clad phrasing. She nodded cautiously, “I’d like that.”

He nodded as well, “And I’d ask…” he closed his eyes, “Asgard’s revels are robust and indulgent. Especially the ones for the young warriors. Especially especially when Freya’s had a hand in the planning.”

“Are you appointing me designated driver?”

He looked at her like her head had turned blue, “What? No. I just wanted to agree that we’re coming back here tonight. As your boss, I want you to take the night off and enjoy yourself, avail yourself of every pleasure on offer to you and the other young warriors-”

“Wait, what do you mean the other-”

“But I’d ask, strictly as a favor, that you come back here to sleep when you’re through.”

She shook her head, amazed, “Ok, first thing: I’m protecting you. This is where I’m going to sleep until you manage to get me killed or drive me off. Second, I’m a hundred fucking years old, I’m not great at enjoying parties, and the last twelve hours have felt like a month so, yeah, when you’re bored of being praised for your hemorrhage wall I’m fine to come back here and crash out. And lastly, if you think I’m sitting at the kids' table, that wall took more out of your brain than you’re admitting.”

Loki’s smile was wide enough to fit a fist through, “Technically a hundred years is still adolescent here. I thought you liked technicalities.”

“I’m serious, godling. I’m nobody’s fresh meat, and if anyone tries to haze me I’ll hurt them in ways that will make them spend the next thousand years wishing they hadn’t.”

He shook his head, “As entertaining as that would be, it’s not like that. There’s no hazing. You fought your first battle for Asgard today. Maybe pretend that means something. And yes, you’ve been a warrior for almost a hundred years, but when have you ever had a chance to be young?”

She sighed, softening, “I take your point. I’d still rather sleep.”

He rolled his eyes, “Well it’s sponsored by our king’s guests, so refusing to play along with the minimal formalities would be to insult a foreign dignitary, and I know how sensitive you are about that.”

Nat scowled, “You even know I’m packing fifteen knives right now…”

“And if you stab me with any of them I won’t feel obligated to give them back.”

She pursed her lips thoughtfully, considering how many she actually needed to hang onto.

He grinned, reading her appraisal, "For someone who claims she doesn't like to use threats and intimidation, you talk a lot about trying to murder me."

"You're just special to me that way."

His smile in response was almost sappy.

“So," she hurried on, "are we dressed well enough? I seem to have lost my disco circlet.”

Loki grinned, “Leave it. It’s a Vanir party. If anything we’re overdressed.”

Chapter Text

She’d never had her hair done up in flowers. Not even when she’d been disguised as a ballerina on stage in ribbons and paste jewels, dancing for royalty. Not even for her wedding, when she’d gone deep-cover on a person of interest and eloped with him in “secret”.

The young ladies in flossy Vanir gowns might not have gotten their hands on her if Loki hadn’t distracted her with a quick kiss on the cheek before abandoning her at the door. As she’d shot him a look, they’d caught her by the elbows and hustled her smartly to a bench. They sat her alongside other rugged young warriors who were stoically submitting to twining fingers and infectious giggles at their backs. The table behind them was strewn with fragrant plant life, and trod by children and tweens who went back and forth, combing, braiding, and adorning hair in an artful kind of chaos. She let them, chastened as always by the sound of little girls laughing.

They were probably her same age in years, of course, those sweet little girls, but even as refugees on a foreign planet, they shone with an innocence she’d long since lost. The hard part wasn’t sitting still for their ministrations, the hard part was not turning around and begging their forgiveness.

She was starting to understand what it meant to be Asgardian, and why she couldn’t simply drain her inconvenient thoughts away. The fearsome new magical density of her body seemed to hold onto feelings like a kind of gravity. She couldn’t simply drop them or shake them off. They needed a vector and an escape velocity. It made her uncomfortably aware that things she thought she had let go of she’d simply let bleed away for decades, though the memories still leaked feelings that refused to drain off anymore. Her heart, usually a discerning sieve, was submerged in a transparent bowl, and it was all she could do to filter where things moved with no place to discard them.

When you are Asgardian, she realized, everything you feel fills you, it shines in your eyes and queues on the back of your tongue impatiently. You still have a choice in what you do and say, you still have control, but the burden is different, like she sometimes thought it must be for poets and saints and lovers. No wonder Thor was always yelling or beaming or oathing or crying...or using all of his strength not to.

A little face hovered in front of hers, small hands on her jaw to turn her and inspect her aesthetically, and she couldn’t ignore the pressure in the top of her throat, the insistent way her breath wanted to flap her tongue like a banner to admit in tears I killed a child who looked just like you once. More than once . But she sat and smiled and obeyed the little children, who mostly talked amongst themselves about what would suit each of the freshly blooded youths who were leaving the garden behind.

Her hair had been getting long, and she’d just washed it without straightening it after. The children made a thick, braided wreath around her brow, bound up with flowering honeysuckle vines and juts of rosemary. They nested her crown with purple geraniums and red valerian, and pinned it with rowan sprigs and mistletoe. They kept her longer than the other fidgeting fighters, many of whom left with flowers in their youthful beards as well, smiling like children themselves. At last, a stout child with dark curly hair and eyes like gravity wells gave her a final appraising look. She called for a night-queen tulip, and nestled it behind Nat’s ear.

The child patted her cheek, smiling proudly. Nat was shooed away from the table, and through into a room as heavily festooned with blossoms as herself and her cohort. The impossible density of scent alone seemed like a portal to another world.

It was like something from a royal opera. In a space like an octagonal gym, the great hall of the spaceship loomed two and a half stories high, with a domed ceiling and a broad wrap-around balcony halfway up. The floor beneath the balcony was raised on two steps and lined with dining tables, the central floor left open. The light from the high dome was like a coppery autumn sunset, and cast a blush on the white and silvery walls.  Every other column was hung some form of banner. They seemed too ornate for flags of state, too simple for family crests, so maybe commemorative decorations. Some bore the knotwork volknuts she’d seen around, others a twisting tree with symmetrical roots and branches. The banner closest to the head of the hall, under the royal table, depicted what looked like a golden pyramidal pipe organ nestled in a crystal chandelier.

The air itself was mouth-watering in its fresh, appealing richness. On every column and seam and rail, a sensory feast of floral garlands and herbal brooms lavished color and perfume on the crowd without any acrid musk enhancers or haze of pollen. It made her imaginary heart rumble like a stomach.

There was music from someplace; deep sonorous woodwinds, a steady drum, and a spirited melodic collaboration between a pipe, a mandolin, and a midi player. Music for mingling, not dancing, just loud enough to let people feel comfortable talking while the hall filled. Despite the rich centerpieces and abundant seating on both levels, the only refreshments available came in mugs and pitchers, and almost nobody sat. Someone filled her hand with a pungently alcoholic drink, which she resolved to carry it like a message for someone else.

Amidst all the fantastic beauty she was singularly uncomfortable. With the people looking down from above it felt like a terrarium at best, a kill box at worst, and try as she might she kept reckoning the most likely sniper emplacements and routes of escape for attackers. She was uncomfortably aware that, if it were her, she would choose the shadowy recessed balcony staircases that flanked the large double doors. There seemed to be some prohibition against wandering between levels, so the stairs were notably vacant, and closest to the surest means of exit.

But she could cope, she told herself. She knew how to keep up an invisible sort of circulation without mingling. She knew how to look like she was perpetually on her way to talk to someone else. She kept thinking that she shouldn’t employ these skills, that she wasn’t working a job, but she didn’t have any other party tricks besides tending bar, and that seemed to be covered.

A few people reached out from their boisterous knots to strike a mug against hers as she passed, and she would smile and raise and take a sip cordially, mimicking whatever cheerful sound the group was roaring. Every time she tasted her cup it was different, like layers of fermented and distilled herbal teas. Now chamomile, now cinnamon, now lemon zest, now dark cherry, each burning like blue fire down her throat and mingling for alchemical mischief in her core.

The bite of it even burned her lips and made them feel plump and rosey. There was a definite licentiousness going around where kissing was concerned, unpatterned by number or gender presentation. She was surrounded by laughing and shouting and scuffling and kissing. People sat at tables, sat on tables, leaned on columns, and perched in one anothers’ laps on the low stairs in easy conviviality, and she suspected some synergy there with the drinks. She kept an automatic eye out for any mismatched intentions in contact, but the whole scene seemed entirely pleasant and civil. Everyone seemed to know the rules, whatever they were. That, at least, was a relief.

She could feel people trying to catch her eye, so she studied the balcony instead. Everyone above wore flowered garlands around their necks or pre-woven crowns. Thor and the Vanir were already seated opposite the entrance, so there would be no grand processional entrances. She appreciated that. She spotted Sif and Bru sitting together at a table along one side, drinking and laughing and holding court for another modest throng, giving each other glances that could weld undersea plates together.

The only one who noticed her looking at all was a slender, severe woman in a long grey Asgardian frock, her hair piled in a grey Asgardian bun, still as a standing stone in the gaily circulating room. She didn’t look away when Nat noticed her, either, only changed the tilt of her head slowly to the other side. This was a woman who looks through people, Nat thought, and quietly drifted on, knowing better than to seem to run from a person like that.

As the crowd in the room got thicker, tighter, and more unworkably splayed across navigable circuits, Nat leaned against a column at the fringes of a loud group, making sure to feign engagement if anyone wandered too close by her.

The idleness made her take more frequent sips, (Coriander. Clove. Raspberry. Caramel.) and the relative ease of hiding in such a feckless crowd made her lazy. It slowly dawned on her that she was genuinely tipsy. She looked at her cup. It wasn’t even an inch lower than when she’d started. She took a reasonable swig. Vanilla and blackberry. Still no lower.

That didn’t bode well.

By the time she noticed Banner’s approach, he’d already bumped his cup against hers and had his shy smile firmly in place. He wore a garland of irises and an open-necked white shirt with loosely bound sleeves, along with Asgardian breeches and boots. He looked good. Fuck.

Nat stretched her mouth in a way that wasn’t specifically a frown, “Gone native?”

He bowed his head bashfully in that way that never seemed honest on guys his size, “You mean the pink skin? Yeah, I suppose. I could say the same for you, though.”

She shrugged, “I’m working. Deep cover,” she smirked, “So buzz off before you blow me .”

He narrowed his eyes, trying to be cute, like he could easily overpower her with his cleverness but was actively trying not to, “Loki said you’re not. Said you have the night off.”

Nat scoffed, “And you just believe him?”

“Like you just work for him.”

Nat gave him that sweet smile that a clever boy should know to take as a warning, “What do you want, Banner?”

He shrugged in that stupid bashful asshole way again that wasn’t cute, “Just wanted to say hi.”

Nat’s mouth and shoulders hunched up in a full-body shrug of indifference, “Why? It’s not like you ever said goodbye in the first place.”

He pursed his lips and nodded, granting her a fair hit like she even cared, “And Thor wanted me to let you know that you’ve got special dispensation to come visit the big kids’ table if you want.”

She shook her head, “Nah, I’m doing ok. Kanute was just going to tell a cute story about stabbing something,” she jerked her head at the throng she’d been shadowing as they laughed unhelpfully at something else.

Bruce sighed as if he had some right to be bothered by her hostility, “Well, he also wants you to settle a bet. And he’s kinda the king, so,” he shrugged in prelude to a flounce.

Nat smirked in that openly sexual way that made fussy little angst biscuits like Bruce wet their skinny chinos, “Am I under arrest, doctor?”

His eyes cut away, and he waved a hand as he headed for the stairs, dismissing her to her own bitter wit like he was better than her. Or maybe just more sober, if she was being fair. Which she was in no mood to be, frankly.

She followed. Because fuck him. And fuck the way his stupid butt looked in renn faire pants.

When she got to Thor’s table she leaned back on the balcony rail like a cocky little shit, “You sent your fool to fetch me, your majesty?”

Bruce didn’t react. Freya gave her a smile of wicked delectation. That woman sure loved a cat fight. Money said she was the one who suggested sending Banner. Frey was the only one at the table not looking at Nat. Yeah. He’d reported on her and Hulk’s little scene. Noted.

“Natasha, you look gorgeous!” Thor saluted her with his drink, and the table drank. He had a crown of pink and purple hollyhocks on his head that was really astonishingly fetching against his peaches-and-amber coloring.

She laughed, “Thanks. You’re looking about your usual self as well, your majesty,” and drank to him along with the rest of the table.

By then Bruce had worked his way back and whispered something in Thor’s ear on his way to take his chair at the far side of Frey.

Thor stood up very gravely, “Now, Natasha, I’ve heard a rumor about you brawling in the courtyard. Is that true?” he was incredibly bad at pretending to be serious, even when he was utterly sober, and he was already a third sloshed.

Nat hung her head in expertly feigned shame, “It is, your majesty.” Alcohol couldn’t touch her playacting game. Russians represent. Midgard in the hizzouse.

Thor furrowed his brow, affecting more Moe from the three stooges than glowering thunder god, “Am I to take this to mean that there is a new contender for the title of strongest Avenger?”

Nat put a hand to her chest, clutching at pearls she wasn’t wearing, “No, your majesty. Perish the thought.” And the Oscar goes to...

Thor glanced a little smile at Bruce, “Then pray, as a forthright and valorous warrior, valkyrie, and impartial citizen of Asgard and Midgard, would you settle the question for the assembly here? Who is the strongest Avenger?”

Bruce looked embarrassed, but invested in spite of himself. Thor beamed easily but was practically vibrating.

Nat looked up and down the table like a stunned pigeon, “Your majesty I thought that was long-settled. There’s never been any question.”

“Go on, then, so we can share a toast to them.”

Nat raised her horn, “To Pepper Potts!”

The table echoed her full-voice, even Thor. Even Bruce, who was smiling like an asshole, like they were all buddies back at Avengers HQ. He leaned forward to call to Thor, “I told you she’d never do it.”

She stalked down the line of the table to him, “Are you saying I rendered judgement in some spirit other than deadly earnest?” Alcohol apparently made her better at remembering the hazy points of Asgardian law she’d dragged out of Loki. Most notably the theatricality thing, “Are you slandering my honor before the king, sir?”

Bruce looked at her slowly. She was really and truly getting on his nerves. Good. He took a tone, “I just knew you’d never pick me. Fuck me for being right, I guess.”

“You know me so well,” Nat leaned in, whipping a dagger into her palm and jamming it into the tabletop. She didn’t usually go in for shows of brute intimidation, they weren’t really ever a strong move, but at a party for drunken machismo and emotional license it felt kind of fun, “I picked the strongest Avenger. Like the king asked me to. Pepper is the strongest of us by miles. She certainly isn’t some hand-wringing pseudo-moralist with a failed god complex. She gets shit done, she knows who she is, and she doesn’t run out on people like a fucking coward.”

Bruce pursed his lips, nodding slowly, “Right. Which is why the strongest avenger isn’t me,” he pulled the knife out of the table with a little difficulty, holding it by the blade to hand it back to her, “or you.”

She gave him the reflexive smile she’d perfected even before she’d lost all her baby teeth, the one she could pull out effortlessly whenever she’d been punched in the face, “Very good, you actually parsed a sentence for once,” she tucked the knife away as he turned to walk away from her, “Don’t feel bad. Eight years isn’t really a bad hang-time for a guy with only six doctorates.”

She was gratified by the hitch in his step, though he didn’t actually turn on his heel and correct her to seven. He wanted to, though. So bad it was going to fuck up his ability to sleep. Who knows who now, Banner?

And seriously, who gets seven fucking doctorates? Fucking academia addict. Pretentious asshole.

She glanced at Thor, who motioned her down the table. If Cap had been lead, he’d have been disappointed, requiring her to always be patient because she always was. If Tony had been lead, he’d have muttered at her not to antagonize the fragile genius, pretending he supported her in spirit even though he only ever backed anyone else.

Thor apologized.

“I’m sorry, Nat. I didn’t know you were still upset. I hope I didn’t just thoughtlessly ruin your evening.” God damn him, he meant it too.

She sighed, “I’m not upset. It’s fine. I’m just drunk. And feeling kind of childish. I didn’t eat much today.”

Thor nodded, “Now that you mention it, I haven’t either. Freya would you say it’s time?”

The lady at his left nodded indulgently, “As my king wishes.”

Thor just clapped his hands, and the circulating motion on both levels changed, finding greater energy and direction, “You better go find a seat.”

Chapter Text

After leaving Nat, Loki had climbed a winding stair to the city’s upper promenade, and strolled along the rows of raised flowerbeds to the railed edge. The burgeoning garden walk was surprisingly lonely for such a beautiful, mild evening. It had been a long day for the city, as exhausting as it was troubling. Storm giants out of seemingly nowhere. Good reason to build a physical wall.

The tesseract had shifted in its fourth-dimensional orientation while he’d been away. Almost certainly when Nat had felt ill, and when Thor had felt magic from inside the city, so almost certainly in conjunction with the giant’s attack. And the tesseract was a powerful tool for creating and anchoring portals. It made sense that someone might have used it to bore a hole through Asgard's wards and masks. Maybe some operative in Asgard, maybe some sorcerer outside Asgard with enough knowledge and power to affect it from a foldable distance. Someone more powerful than him who was, ostensibly, trying to frame him. Good reason to build a magical wall.

And Thor had been about to choose a consort.

There were no feelings he could safely have about that, and nowhere to put the ones he did have. So he’d put it all into building a goddamn wall.

It was truly a thing of pure beauty, in his estimation, despite its fraught origins. He’d summoned most of the stones directly from the memory of Asgard. The rest he’d pulled up from the ground around the city, from where they’d lain since before the fiery Permian apocalypse that finally did-in the hardy trilobite. The Asgardian stone was a warm creamy grey, the Midgard stones a blend of dark grey and red-brown, seamed with the sedimented gypsum crystals that receding glaciers had left behind. The stones exhibited the folded layers of the tempered and quenched realm of Midgard, and blended neatly into the fabric of Asgard reborn. A strong alliance. Loki frowned and pushed the thought away. Anything associated with the vanir machinations could wait until morning, surely.

Drawing up the stone had also collapsed a deep defensive trench around the outside of the wall, assuring that the gypsum caves underlying the city were cut-off from any larger networks of caverns. It was astonishingly brilliant, even for him, and an awesome feat of magic, even if the power of the tesseract and Asgard’s own pressure to exist might have helped a smidge. After the well and the cave, pulling the wall into being had been relatively easy.

Still, he was justifiably exhausted, his faculties stretched and twisted and tossed back into his ringing head like a heap of taffy. He needed a few minutes peace before joining the party.

“Nice wall,” a loathsomely familiar voice accompanied footsteps that were somehow both mincing and plodding. Banner came up and stood at the railing beside him, “It’s really something. Don’t think I’ve ever heard a sound like the one that thing made coming up out of the ground. Yours?”

Loki nodded, cautiously non-hostile, “Yes.”

Banner folded his hairy arms, nodding, “Nice.”

Loki shrugged, folding his own arms, “Goodness, please, don’t gush. You’ll embarrass me. It’s only a fifty foot high wall. At least try to contain yourself.”

Banner’s amusement was distastefully obsequious, “Sorry, left my speech in my other coat. I just came up here looking for Nat.”

Loki stared out at the wall, lips pursed, shaking his head, “She’s not with me.”

“Huh,” Banner ducked his head and shuffled, “I’d kinda gotten the impression that she was.”

Loki smirked. He couldn’t help himself, “She is, just not tonight,” he shifted his gaze towards Banner and gave him a dazzling smile, “not until later.”

Banner nodded placidly, looking out at the massive wall, “It really is amazing. How do you even find the power to do something like that?”

Loki appreciated that Banner wasn’t even trying to be subtle. Maybe he was a clever boy after all. He shrugged, “It’s all a bit tiresomely technical, I’m afraid. I’d hate to bore you.”

His obsequiousness slipped, but his smile stayed weighty and calm, “Another time, maybe. The only part I’m having real trouble with is why a guy that can pull a fifty foot wall out of thin air and bare earth needs a bodyguard.“

He was definitely a clever boy. It seemed prudent to throw him off by telling him some of the truth, “With great power comes great need for oversight. Someone to keep me in check. I thought you of all people would understand that much, at least.”

Banner nodded sagely, “Nat’s a good choice for that. Reliable. And she likes word games, too. I never did. I bet she puts you through your paces.”

Loki smiled genuinely in spite of himself.

“And making her a valkyrie. Good way to curry favor with Bru.”

Loki shook his head in sincere disbelief, “I know you won’t believe me, but I honestly thought I was throwing her to the sharks on that front. When I left a month ago Bru and Sif were circling each other like polvarks in a pit, and now…”

Bruce nodded, “Joined at the hip.”

“Hips, morelike.”

Bruce shrugged, “You’re not wrong. But then I think women generally figure that sort of thing out faster than we do. Statistically speaking. Who they can trust. Whether they need allies. When to admit that animosity has run its course.”

Loki smirked, “Are you flirting with me, Banner?”

That actually elicited an uncomfortable wince, “No. But I’d like to make you an offer.”

That was a surprise, “Go on.”

Bruce leaned his elbows on the railing and sighed, “Whatever you’re up to, dragging Nat into all this, consider bringing me in on it.”

Loki scoffed, “Seriously? ‘Take me instead’? I didn’t take you for that flavor of hero. I was all ready for you to threaten me.”

Bruce shook his head, that half-true bashful obsequiousness back in its accustomed groove, “Nah, that’s more Tony’s thing. I don’t like to give people that much notice. But it’s not ‘instead’. I know Nat can take care of herself. There’s not a doubt in my mind that she can handle you. I’m just offering. I know more about tesseract tech and its applications than anyone on earth, present company excepted, of course.”

He let go by the implication that the tesseract was involved. Banner might have just been fishing. But Loki was genuinely intrigued nevertheless, “Why would you offer that?”

“So I can help keep whatever it is you’re doing from blowing up in your face. To keep Nat safe.”

Loki scowled, “As a very clever fellow once told me, she can take care of herself.”

“Oh I know she can. That doesn’t mean that she will, if she has to choose between saving herself or someone else. I’d like to help make sure that whatever you’re doing with the tesseract doesn’t turn into a grenade that she decides to throw herself on.”

Loki smirked to avoid glaring, “I had you all wrong, Banner. You’re not jealous of me. You’re jealous of my hypothetical grenade. You want to be the only ticking bomb she destroys herself for.”

Bruce stood up straight and rested his hands on the rail, his breath deepening notably, eyes fixed straight ahead, “I just owe her. A lot of people do. And if she gets hurt because of you-”

Loki couldn’t hold his tongue, “You insufferable hypocrite. You nearly killed her this morning. If it weren’t for me you probably would have. If you or any of the rest of Stark’s candy-colored cretins cared what happens to her beyond an excuse for chest-thumping revenge, maybe you shouldn’t have abandoned her with nothing left but regret.”

Bruce rubbed his jaw, subtly taking his own pulse, “I’m going to go.”

Loki scoffed after him as Banner turned his back, “You think I won’t like you anymore if you get angry, is that it?” a huff of laughter threw itself after it’s target, “Let me tell you a little secret, Banner. Something I’ve learned. Monster to monster.”

To his credit, in Loki’s opinion, Bruce turned around, head cocked defiantly to one side. And a man that could put his hands on his hips like that when he was feeling pissy had to be fairly secure in his masculinity.

Loki grinned, leaning back against the railing, “If people don’t like you when you’re angry, it’s because they never liked you anyway.”

Bruce shook his head as he left.

Loki made his way down by a different route and lurked along the edges of the festivities, trying to find someplace to settle. It gratified him that Natasha looked as anxious and irritable as he felt. He genuinely wanted her to unbind herself from him for the evening and enjoy the party, when he'd said it, but there was still a distinctly selfish comfort in her mood matching his. He wanted to believe they were the same, that he wasn't alone when she was around, and he did, as much as he believed anything. Which basically meant testing whether it was true at every opportunity, just in case.

He kept clear of the Vanir mead. He didn’t need the literal or figurative headache. For lack of another objective, he shadowed Nat as she circled the room. She looked so beautiful, so colorful, and so discomfited by it, scything through the crowd like a shark in koi’s clothing.

He’d forgotten to warn her about the mead. Oh well. Let her live a little. He fancied he could protect her, from the shadows.

From the balcony Eir noticed his little game, but Eir noticed everything. She’d be a bigger nuisance than Heimdall if she ever found a fuck to give. It was a testament to her unassailable status and social immunity that she could come to one of Freya’s floral fetes dressed like a constipated rain cloud without note or rebuke.

I should have been a healer, Loki thought, submitting to a garland of golden daylilies. People forgive all your ominous social quirks if you’re the one that can knit their reckless meat back together. Tolerance of more indirect lifesaving was always a toss-up in Asgard.

Hence all the procrastination.

He was avoiding presenting himself publiclty to Thor, and it gradually became harder to avoid admitting it. As much as he relished the prospect of applause, if Thor hadn’t noticed the wall, or didn’t understand, Loki truly didn’t know what he would do. True, Thor was not Odin. and had been almost fawningly gracious to him thus far, but Thor was also overburdened and distracted, and they hadn’t discussed the specifics of seeming to suspect Loki of the giant attack. And even knowing all that, a tepid reaction from Thor, even by necessity, could easily break his heart. What Loki needed, right then, in response to the most difficult act of devotion he’d ever attempted (in a startlingly long list of such acts) was complicated and uncommon, and he needed it like air.

He might never be able to let Thor see him for what he truly was, or show him a love that would ever be truly returned, even in secret; but by Surtur’s swinging sulfurous sack he would be treated as if he was worthy .

That was the plan, anyway. And the moment between holding a plan entirely in his own head and entrusting even the slightest responsibility for it to someone else was a perilous leap that gave even the notorious thrill seeker and escape artist in him chills.

He needed courage. Maybe he’d been hasty in skipping the mead. Maybe he could snag a swig of Nat’s, or ask her to sound out Thor’s mood, if she ever stopped obsessively orbiting like flotsam around a drain. She’d welcome a task, it seemed, and feeling alone was never good for him.

He’d just gotten to the opposite side of the column she’d finally hitched up against when Banner decided to foist his fatuous face onto his evening again.

Loki’d relished the way Nat ragdolled Banner’s smarm into the floor and sent him off like the whipped cur he was...before she ruined it by following him anyway.

He huffed a deep sigh. He regretted not warning her about the mead, and went to find one of his own.

----

After her reception at the king’s table, Nat got thoroughly waylaid by Sif and Bru on her way back to the stairs, and she couldn’t even pretend to mind. The riotously tipsy pair had also acquired a heavily garlanded Hleya, possibly under maritime salvage rights given her disarray. They’d literally lunged and dragged Nat across the table onto the bench with them, effectively clearing the decorative centerpiece just in time for diaphanously dressed  maids and youths to lay out a fruit and cheese course.

Finally (if muzzily) finding herself in company worth kissing, Nat drank less cautiously. She may have even caroused at one or two points, possibly achieving a full wassail by the time the soup came out. The food was beautiful and the company delicious. She felt nothing but an immediate sense of good so radiant it whited-out every other worry on her mind. When she kissed Bru, Bru kissed her back so hard that they capsized into Sif’s lap and Nat lay there, contentedly looking up at Sif and Bru locked in epic oral combat, while a giggling Hleya tried to either feed Nat from a distance or slowly beat her unconscious with a steady barrage of small morsels to the face and neck.

All during the fish course, she had Hleya in her lap, and caressed her face and her tender scar as she murmured assurances between sweet soft kisses, and Hleya crooned about how good she felt. Nat found that the more she drank the less she felt like she was actually drunk, and more like she was coasting on a slow high that had the time-slowing effects of THC and the sensory relish of MDMA, without the dizziness and slow-creeping sick of alcohol or drugs. It was a fantastical kind of high, the kind one might think they remember, might sanitize their exploits to portray, and might chase with their next bender, but never experience, the false memory luring them, like a siren crossed with a genii, to drown in a bottle. Nat gradually realized she’d been narrating that profound thought as it unwound in her head, sending her and Hleya into a fit of giggles.

The meal felt like it took days, sprawling and lolling along every bit as lazily as its participants, though Nat’s trusty physical chronometers kept insisting it was only a few hours.

As if sensing the crowd’s slow slide into licentious torpor, the music makers began the dance music during the meat course. The air warmed and clothes loosened as the floor below became a swirl of vaguely coordinated motion.

Nat may have danced on the balcony rail. On pointe. Feeling like she was made of silk streamers.

When she came down Sif and Bru were so tightly wrapped around each other that it seemed like a crime to jostle them enough to remind them of the existence of bedrooms, and a futile crime at that. She sat by Hleya, winded and happy, asking conversationally, “So do these parties ever actually get naked? Because I feel bad for all the clothing that’s going to get worn-through if the dry humping on the dance floor gets any more intense in here.”

Hleya nodded, “Once the Lords and Ladies leave. And the servers. They make an announcement right before dessert that they’re retiring. It symbolizes the sunset, when the flowers of the last garden finally close, and the flowers of the dark open. Anything that happens after that,” Hleya shrugged broadly, smiling.

“Interesting.”

Hleya nodded, “I’ve served at table for these since I was a hundred. The rules are pretty lax about who has to stay and who has to go besides the king’s table. But pretty much anything done between willing warriors to blow off steam and celebrate their survival after that point, just for tonight, is considered separate from their honor and reputation. There’s a general sort of licentiousness that way after any battle. My mother just likes to make a big deal about it.”

Nat glanced over at Thor’s table, “If you don’t mind my asking, who are they exactly? Frey and Freya. As gods, I mean.”

Hleya nodded, intoning, “She is the cat and the falcon, goddess of that savage beauty which calls civilized creatures to feel their wild blood. He is the horse and the dog, god of that profound beauty which draws wild things to serve a civil home and hand. They seduce all they encounter, one way or another.”

Nat blinked, “That sounds pretty intense. What about you?”

Hleya shrugged, “I’m just me. That was never supposed to be anyone else's problem.”

Nat grimaced, biting back pat, meaningless encouragements, “I’m sorry about your sister.”

Hleya shrugged and sniffed, then noticed Loki sitting at the far end of the royal table, one foot up, looking dyspeptic and drinking by himself. She nudged Nat, clearly eager for an excuse not to get drawn into a dark mood herself, “Shall we go check on Loki?”

Nat smiled, “I think we better. If someone pissed in that drink as badly as his face seems to think, as his bodyguard I really ought to stop him drinking it.”

The shortest route on their side was blocked by some sort of waveringly gymnastic drinking game, so they went the long way around. Loki looked up blearily and nodded to Nat and then Hleya, “Aramis. D’artagnan.”

Nat squinted at him. He rolled his eyes and grumbled something about ignorance and bliss. She shrugged, “Just checking in. The sun’s going down soon,” she grinned to herself as she tried to soothe The Incredible Sulk, “It’s getting really low.”

Hleya perched herself on the arm of Loki’s chair and petted him with an overly-familiar sort of coercive jollity that he made no move to resist or acknowledge, though he turned very slightly towards her hand.

He sighed, setting down his cup, “It’s proper for me to leave with the rest when it's time. I was wondering if you’d rather walk down with me or stay here.”

Nat glanced at Hleya, who smirked at her. It struck her as almost surreal to have a genuine free choice. Not a decision that had already been made for her which just demanded her rubber-stamp to avoid trouble, not a problem that it was her responsibility to fix but not within her authority to delegate. Not a reckoning of lesser evils. When was the last time she’d had one of those? Had she ever? Was that what it meant to be young? “I was thinking I-”

“Loki!” Thor called down-table.

Loki pretended he hadn’t heard and plucked Nat's hand from her side to his lips, “Ignore him.”

“Loki! Natasha! A word!” there was a note of strain tickling at the edge of Thor’s voice. She wondered how different her life would be if she didn’t have such a keen ear for that sort of thing, b ecause just like that her free choice evaporated and carefully weighing potential consequences between options returned. Oh well.

Nat sighed, rubbing Loki’s cheek with her thumb, “You can come with me, or I’ll be right back.”

Chapter Text

They presented themselves as commanded, Nat suddenly wondering when her boots had gone missing and why she hadn’t noticed before. Her feet felt cold, her face warm.

Loki bowed, “Your majesty?”

Something was wrong. Thor looked pained, his posture seemed half-melted with drink, but his eyes were alert and he smiled at them theatrically, “I must leave when the sun goes down, but before that happens, our guests have a charge for each of you.”

Nat couldn’t quite keep up the formalities while looking at her friend in a bad spot, however opulent, “Whatever you need, Thor. You know that.”

The gratitude in his smile was guarded, “My thanks, Natasha. Lord Frey?”

Frey got up, steepling his long, perfect fingers, “Natasha of Midgard. You are a formidable warrior with no thirst for war. You place yourself between power and ruin, and face wrath without blinking. You have in you the might to overthrown monsters with your bare hands and bold wits, and to save them from one another as well. I witnessed all this today. Do you deny it?”

Nat squinted, unable to suppress a wry smile, “I guess not. I’d probably want that assertion heavily footnoted before I signed an affidavit, but sure. I mean no. I don’t deny it.”

Frey nodded indulgently, continuing, “I think you are a loyal friend to the sons of Odin, his living heirs, and bear them no ill will. I think you take seriously your role in this place, and are prepared to champion the good of the realms. Do you swear it?”

She was pretty sure she was fantastically-drunk enough to void any oath or contract, but she couldn’t deny that she agreed with him, and it was nice to feel taken-seriously after twenty four hours of Loki’s non-stop emotional yo-yo, “I am. I swear.”

“And you serve no master or cause that would make you disloyal in your duty to the good. As a child of Midgard and a valkyrie of the throne, and of that same free will, is this true?”

Nat thought hard, then nodded, “Loki was explicit when he engaged me that valkyries serve the throne, not their patron. All that I have is freely mine,” Nat glanced at Loki and smirked at him, “I am without obligations here or elsewhere, besides friendship. So, yes, that is true.”

Frey smiled contentedly, “Your life in Asgard is not one night old, your age is as a child to us, and yet you are a fully blossomed and recognized warrior of these people. By the oldest of magics, Vanaheim recognizes your authority to know and act justly when even a king may not. I endorse in you the offices of the Vala, until you comb it from your hair and wash it from your hands, and formally commend you for your actions this day.”

“What-” she began.

Loki tapped his foot against hers and muttered, “Thankyoulordfrey.”

Nat bowed, utterly perplexed, “Thank you, Lord Frey.”

That peculiar exchange satisfied, Frey resumed his seat to polite and muddled applause. Nat looked sidelong at Loki and shrugged.

He muttered out the side of his mouth, “I’ll explain later.” He didn’t sound happy.

Frey and Freya exchanged a significant look as well, and Freya stood, gesturing grandly for silence with a long sweep of her diaphanous sleeves, “Loki Silvertongue, you have turned distress into triumph for your adoptive and orphaned realm, but have not claimed your credit, but I claim the right to praise you for it. The magnificent wall now protecting the kingdom has the tang of your power about it. Do you deny it?”

Nat hazarded a glance at Thor, who was beaming sappily at Loki. Loki didn't look at him as he answered, “I do not.”

Freya nodded grandly as an admiring gasp went around the room, “On your honor, are there any others with whom you must share the credit of this accomplishment?”

Nat studied the smile between the Lady of Vanaheim and the prince of Asgard, oddly sly and fond at once. Loki shook his head, “Only my mother, who learned me the craft, may she glory in Valhalla forever with the brave.”

Freya gestured broadly, “Your kingdom owes you its gratitude, and its love, for your wisdom and effort.”

At her words, a thunder of spontaneous applause rose up from the room, and Loki’s face twitched, unbelieving. Freya met his eyes and then glanced past him, a silent permission to turn his back to her and take his bow. Nat was probably the only one that heard his little gasp of elation as he did, and again as he turned back to Freya and found the whole table was standing, applauding, even Thor.

Loki smiled broadly, and when the noise died down he bowed again, “It is I who owe Asgard, with everything that I am, and will yet repay it.”

Freya’s beatific expression didn’t change, but something in her tone bit at Natasha’s danger sense, “The burdens of the allfather indeed take everything one has.”

Loki’s face hardened, his smile struggling to widen cordially, “I agree. Our king requires the loyalty of all, for the safety of all.”

Nat couldn’t quite tell what was happening. Given that only about a quarter of the room had gone silent, something subtle was being communicated, but she, like most of the room, didn’t recognize the language.

Freya continued airily, “Like that burden, my charge for you, as victor of the day, is not a gift or a recognition, but a further task. You have saved your realm from the fear and anxiety that the giant attack left in its wake. But another injury to Asgard’s safety yet needs redeeming. As you well know, it is in the darkest times that a kingdom’s sense of succession, of propriety and continuation, is most vital.”

Loki’s smile shone, brittle as ice, “I do know it well.”

“And do you agree, in your wisdom, that it is past time for one that would be the High King of the realms to know his consort?”

Loki smirked, “If he can discern one that is clearly most worthy, certainly. But Thor’s good fortunes will not be simplified, and they are too wise to vie among themselves. Between a princess, a valkyrie, and a loyal friend, how could a man, or king, or allfather with honor worthy of the name ever choose for himself, let alone for his realm, let alone for all the realms, a single virtue?”

Freya gestured, “Which is why I would task the wisest sorcerer of Asgard to advise him. We are creatures of more wisdom than honor. From where I stand, there is only one clear choice for the High King and his consort. Would you have me name it before this company?”

Loki laughed breezily, “You know my pride well to prick it so, and the devilish difficulty of what you ask. I do not prefer your answer to be heard before my own. I put it to my king, to hear it from his lips. Would you have me take up the burden of your choice, brother?”

Nat had been attentive to Thor’s body language, but couldn’t make sense of the parts put together. His breathing was up. He was concentrating, focused. His eyes moved naturally, he wasn’t drugged or hypnotized. He wasn’t even dazed. His smile was easy and almost genuine, but also sad. Resigned.

And then his entire expression underneath his expression changed. As he regarded Loki, he had a thought that simultaneously shifted his focus, banished his sadness, and intensified his taut uncertainty. Nat caught his eye and lifted her eyebrows, hoping he would take her meaning and indicate to her whether he needed her help. Something was happening. At a naked guess, she suspected that Loki was being maneuvered into dangerous territory.

The line of Thor’s mouth lengthened, neither a smile nor a frown. He winced apologetically at Nat before rising, bringing his cup with him.

It was never a good sign when a dignitary made any significant eye contact with a bodyguard. Apologetic eye contact was worse.

“I think I prefer my own happy burdens, brother, if I could know that I have your support in whatever I choose,” Thor’s eye found its diplomatic twinkle.

Loki nodded, “You do, of course,” and quiet enough that Nat was perhaps the only one to hear, “anything.”

Thor glanced at Freya, “And yours, Lady?”

She shrugged, “I would defer to Loki. If he defers to you, I cannot object.”

Thor nodded, projecting his voice to silence the casual murmuring around the room, “As you say, brother, a man of honor could never choose, or even have chosen for him, among all the honorable, exceptional, and beautiful women of Asgard and Vanaheim. Their graces defy category and catalog, and cannot contest one another. Every one of them impresses me, moves me, and deserves no less from me than anything she could ever want,” a slightly lascivious chuckle circulated the room, not entirely male, prompting Thor to grin and raise his cup again, “The choice before me daunts, delights, and depresses me more than I can say.”

He turned to Freya, “But, as you have instructed me today, Lady Freya, more depends upon my choice and my reign than my own happiness. And it is very true. But of those that might consent to be wooed by me, how should Asgard’s king choose between a valkyrie who represents our most essential virtues,” he gestured to Bru, who raised her cup to him warmly, “a princess who represents our most necessary and desirable alliances,” he saluted Hleya, who blushed and bowed, ”and a loyal friend and advisor,” he raised his cup to Sif, who looked at him steadily, her face a mask, “who represents the very worth of his own soul, and the very best of who he is as a warrior and king.”

He cleared his throat, his eyes shining, “So, as a man of honor, who would be a wise king, I cannot choose one virtue for Asgard’s future and abandon two others, not while our future seems, at times, so fragile,” Loki sighed, Freya smirked.

Thor bowed his head and took a deep breath that the room seemed to hold with him, “But as a very lucky hero, I can choose all three. Natasha Romanoff, valkyrie of Asgard, princess of the pantheon of Midgard,” he looked at Nat, his smile frozen, eyes begging, “and my true sworn friend and advisor. Natasha Romanoff, whose name is Black Widow, would you consent to be wooed by me?”

Loki gulped. Frey covered his smile carefully. Freya’s eyes flashed but her smile held. A gasp went around the room, followed by growing applause.

Thor extended an open hand towards her, repeating his proposal a little slower, “Natasha Alianovna Romanoff, if you would indulge me to let me plead my case to you, heart, body and soul, it would be my honor.”

She didn’t move. What the fuck kind of play was that?

Loki pulled her into a showy hug, hissing in her ear, “Accept. He’ll lose face if you don’t.”

She was automatically smiling, beaming, murmuring like a ventriloquist, “What?!”

“I’ll explain later. Go with it.”

“This is insane.”

Loki clapped her on the shoulders, pretending to say something cordial, “No, Freya’s insane, this is damage control. Make it look good. Come find me later,” he smiled, but he was trembling. She couldn’t read him.

Fine, she thought. Fucking fine.

Nat strutted right up to the king’s table, calculating the best play to make it “look good” between her, barefoot, and six-foot-three-plus-boots, when her right to be there seemed to hinge, in part, on her being an incomparable godlike badass.

With a standing jump, she planted her feet wide on the table in front of him, looking down.

She considered the imploring eyes of the most beautiful man she’d never seriously considered taking to bed, ever. Her sweet and fragile friend. Practically her brother.

Well, her wry sense of detachment quipped, when in Rome.

With an arduously slow, showy sensuality, she took hold of his hair, bent down, and kissed him like she was trying to siphon his socks up to his throat, melting into his arms as he scooped her down off the table.

The room cheered, and the music swelled raucously, and everyone else’s life went back to normal-for-now.

Thor fell back into his chair, Nat in his lap, kissing her ardently. It might have been the drinks, or the evening in general, but she decided that “make it look good” probably meant “keep making out like obnoxious newlyweds until someone who understands what’s going on tells you to stop.” It seemed like the most prudent course of action, lacking any other ideas.

It had been a long time since she’d been hired to seduce a head of state, longer since she’d targeted one that was actually attractive and trustworthy and had the first clue where to put his hands. She’d forgotten how pretending to be in love always felt sexier than actually being in love. Actual love mostly just stressed her out; made her paranoid, protective, and hypervigilant of whether the other person was just pretending. Pretending, on the other hand, let her live in the performance of each moment, let her brain get out of her body’s way and hover contented on the catwalk above the stage, counting beats.

Thor nuzzled into her ear, “Thank you for this, Nat.”

She grinned, feeling ridiculous, “Don’t thank me until after. I’m into some pretty crazy shit.”

He chuckled fondly, a low thrum in his chest that was pretty sexy once she let herself think about it, though he mostly sounded tired and relieved, “I’m so glad you’re here. You’re saving my throne right now. As it were.”

She laughed. She couldn’t help it. He was so goddamn cute, and she was enjoying his act to a degree that felt awkward, “By making out with you at a party? Why do royalty always have most ludicrous pickup lines? Are we-” she pressed against him hotly, “-actually making out-” he kissed her deeply in return, “-to avert a coup?””

He sighed, “I’m sorry, I can’t explain everything right now. The sun’s going down soon.”

She bit him playfully, “You’ve got the wrong avenger if you expect that to turn me off. That’s Banner’s lullabye. You wanted me, you got me.”

He coughed a laugh that trailed a mournful groan, “No word games, please. Have mercy. I’ve been desperate all day to get a private word with you. There hasn’t been a spare second, and Freya moves fast. She’s relentless. This idea just popped into my head as the only way to head her off and secure a word with you.”

“Seriously? The only way?”

He sighed, resting his forehead against her temple in weary earnest, “It’s been a long day and I’m not a spy.”

“You could have asked Loki to arrange something. I hear he’s clever.”

Thor bowed further, butting against her cheek, tracing a finger along her collarbone before kissing the line of her cleavage, “I needed to speak to you apart from him, as well.”

He was genuinely troubled, and it sobered her. She frowned, “Ok.”

“Will you come back to my room with me?”

“Well yeah, sure. That seems to be the deal, right?” she remembered the need to pretend and smiled wantonly, “Are you in danger?”

“No, not directly. Not tonight.”

“Is there a timeline? How long do you need this act to hold up?”

“I’m not sure.”

She sighed, nuzzling into his neck, vaguely annoyed, “Ok. So how solid is this cover? You were talking a raft of shit about my pedigree a minute ago. How long before someone sees through it and calls you out?”

He pulled back in actual surprise, “I was telling the truth. I wouldn’t lie in an audience. Thats…” he studied her expression for a second, “Loki really didn’t explain much of anything to you did he?”

She shook her head, “He thought I wouldn’t believe him until I’d experienced some of it for myself. In fairness, he wasn’t entirely wrong.”

Thor shook his head and kissed her neck, probably trying to figure out where to even start from.

She grinned against his ear, “So, of the fifteen things I don’t understand, could you explain the one where I’m now masquerading as a princess of Midgard when that’s not even a thing?”

Thor chuckled, “Technically you are. Specifically you’re an Avenger.  By all criteria that matter to the nine realms, the Avengers are the pantheon of Midgard, and you are the adopted daughter of Fury, their king, and sister to his warring heirs.”

She imagined Clint laughing his tiny ass off while sipping a nice drink on a beautiful Wakandan balcony overlooking utopian sanity. She gazed deep into Thor’s eyes, whispering like a sweet nothing, “What about T'challa? He’s an actual king. The black panther heritage is much more spiritual, much closer to  a pantheon. What about the Dalai Lama, for that matter?”

Thor shrugged, “Until Wakanda, or any other power, steps up to defend the whole realm, you guys are pretty much it. It’s a fire-law. Heroism and godhood in the ancient Greek sense. How virtuous or effective or politically powerful you are doesn’t matter. It’s about bloody survival on a realm-wide scale. It's about who shows up to get their hands dirty when hell starts falling from the sky. Fury is the one that took up that mantle for Midgard, a thousand years after my father abandoned it, and brought a pantheon of personalities together around himself.”

“Please,” she whispered prayerfully, not entirely to him, “please tell me you’re joking.”

He traced a thick finger over her ear and down the line of her jaw, crooking it under her chin and murmuring against her lips, “Nope.”

She sigh-groaned, but not with pleasure, “So what did you want to talk to me about that was worth getting hook-up engaged?”

He did a passable job of glancing subtly around the room while she licked his ear, “Not here. It’s sunset. The only place I can expect any real privacy is my suite.”

“Well let’s go. I’d like to find Loki again after, talk to him before I sleep. I kind of promised.”

He grimaced earnestly, nodding, “There’s probably going to be more Vanir magic on the doorway by the time we get there. Tradition. To encourage honeymooning. Not irresistible, but sometimes uncomfortable. Awkward.”

Nat shrugged, “I don’t mind if you don’t mind. Worse comes to worst, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had sex for a cover. Not even my first honeymoon. I’m sure I’ve told you about all that.”

His wan smile deflated her cavalier indifference, “I know, but I always thought those stories sounded so melancholy. I know you’re strong. I know you laugh, but you look sad when you tell them.”

Nat sighed, letting the playact slip, “Ask your brother how easily I talk about my past. You know those stories because I-” she swallowed, “I trust you, and your wellbeing means the world to me,” she smiled, “We’re more than friends, Thor, we’re pantheon.”

He chuckled again, “You always make me laugh.”

She traced his eyebrow out and down the line of his beard, “I know it’s not why you asked to woo me, and nothing has to happen. I know how stressed you are, I don’t want to add to it, but if fake-consort-with-benefits sounds good to you for this one weird night, and it’ll keep up whatever cover story you’re working, it’s probably the best worst-case-scenario I’ve ever been faced with. Anyway, I understand from Hleya that what happens after a party like this is nobody’s business.”

He kissed her with exaggerated blushing timidity, “Promise you’ll be gentle?”

She nodded, “You’re not the only one who has had an exhausting day. If we even get through the entire conversation portion before I’m snoring it’ll be a miracle.”

Nat glanced around the room, noting that Loki seemed to have made his exit, along with most of the rest of the table.

“Friends!” Thor boomed, standing up swiftly and bringing Nat along in his arms effortlessly, “I wish you good revels, and must depart. Enjoy your life this night, and know that I am proud to share kinship with warriors who are so inspiring both on the field of combat…” he paused with a warm leer around the room, “and off.”

It got a genuine laugh from perhaps the easiest audience on earth as he carried her out.

Chapter Text

Thor’s room was close, out through a door off the balcony, across a verdant courtyard of nightblooms, and at the end of a hall that was almost wider than it was long. He carried her the whole way. As abstractly romantic as the gesture was, it mostly made her think of the couple of times Steve had carried her out of combat. It didn’t happen often. She was good at not-dying. But throw enough lead in the air enough times and anyone’s bound to get bitten now and then.

Steve carried her in his arms every time the job fell to him. It was so stupid. He should have lifted her across his back, kept a hand free to hold his shield or at least a weapon. Hydra didn’t respect evac operations any more than they respected anything else.

She’d even given him crap for it once. It was dumb, but blood loss made her cranky. He’d said it was because she was so short that he’d forget she was back there, and too skinny to absorb any bullets for him back there anyway. She knew it was because he’d be too distracted wondering if she was still breathing if he couldn’t see her. Not a great tactical decision, but still tactical. Goofy big-brother tactical.

Like a big brother, he knew a million little ways to pick on her for being short when she got under his skin, though she only did it because his gallantry reminded her, uncomfortably, of her short unhappy lifetime of wishing she could meet Captain America just that way. She always forgave him for the short jokes, too, because he only ever made them privately, never on comms, in a kind of awkward solidarity. He’d been little too, before they made him into a god.

Part of a pantheon.

She sighed, thinking What the hell, Nick Fury? Righteous man. One-eyes king. Wrathful god. What the actual hell did you do, bringing us all together? What kind of story is this? She couldn't even guess.

The honeymoon suite was pretty obvious. The double doors were open and beautifully garlanded, the room beyond candlelit and fragrant with petals and woodfire. Even without entering she could tell it was several times larger than Loki’s room, with a small bar visible from the door and a low-backed velvety couch facing a crackling fire.

Nat put a staying hand on Thor’s chest and reached her feet for the floor. If she was going through that door of dubious consent, she figured she ought to go under her own power. But she stopped at the threshold, the skin of her back crawling with that sensation that her mind and body were dissociating from one another by the span of a few seconds.

She shook her head, admonishing herself against feeling what she felt. Don’t. Don’t do that. This isn’t that.

She wasn’t crying.

She looked away from the shoulder that Thor put a hand on, “Nat? Tasha. Are you ok?”

“Yeah, just anxious all of a sudden. There was another time in my life where I-” she stopped talking before she started crying.

Thor didn’t say anything. When she turned, he bear-hugged her and held still until she moved. When she moved, he asked, “You wanna talk?”

She shook her head, “Nah. My guts are telling me to keep them on the inside tonight. There’s too much to do. But just answer me a question, ok?”

He nodded.

She swiped her cheeks dry, “If we walked away from this room right now, went through any other door in this freaky disco maze, and were still going to be alone together until morning, would you willingly go to bed with me tonight? Would you want me, risk and all? Or are we just bracing up for a bad but necessary trip here? I’m fine either way, I just want to know. It-” she cleared her throat, “It can be a lot harder to talk about afterwards.”

He looked at her seriously. She adored that about him. He looked and sounded like such a bro-scout, but she never had to fight to make him hear her. If anything he turned to her to clarify problems for him when others were posturing and brooding and bickering, like he’d been her brother-in-arms from day one.

And he wasn’t stupid. Far from it. He just considered things slowly, like a guy who knew his missteps could crush people.

He nodded, just a hint of bashfulness at the edges of his assured smile, “I would. And happily.”

She nodded, turning, breathing a sigh of relief.

He took her shoulder hastily, “Hey.”

“What?”

“Well,” he seemed a little flummoxed, “I mean...same question, obviously.”

She nodded, that goddamn involuntary blush coming back, thinking of how her body had begun to respond to the surprising rightness of his kisses, “Yeah. Yeah definitely.”

They went through together and the door slid closed, shutting out any light that didn’t burn and flicker.

She waited a beat and turned, listening closely to her body, “I...don’t feel any different than I did.” She turned her hands over, checked her bracer. Nothing tingled or glowed.

He was doing likewise, looking bemused, “I don’t either,” he gave a hesitant laugh, “So I suppose if you would rather just-”

She stepped a little closer to him, shrugging, shaking her head, “I don’t feel any different than I did.”

He took her meaning slowly, running a finger down her bare arm, taking her wrist and lowering a kiss onto her knuckles. She turned her hand to his cheek, guiding him up until his lips hovered by hers.

He picked her up again, solid tactical thinking, and carried her to the decorative table beside the door, propping her up where he could kiss her properly without stooping, his hands free to slowly explore.

“Careful of the coat,” she smiled, “It’s armed,”

It surprised her that his for-real kisses were significantly hotter and heavier than when he was specifically playacting at going hot and heavy to deflect suspicion. If she were honest, so were hers. She didn’t mind at all how fast their hands and pulses were progressing. After the evening’s fantastical drunkenness and constant flirting, she was ready to go fast. But a thought occurred to her, like a wrench to gears, and she put three fingers over his lips, waiting for him to coast to a stop.

She tried to take a centering breath, “Is this going to hurt Loki?”

He blinked at her, focusing with similar difficulty, “What?”

“Well I mean, it sounds weird but, my doing this. With you. When it isn’t...mandatory. I mean he says he’s not possessive but-”

His eyebrows went up in surprise, “Oh. Well. I- sorry I hadn’t realized the two of you were…”

She swallowed, “What? No no. I mean I thought that you were-” she felt queasy at the thought of explaining what she knew and why, “I mean you two are so close I just-”

His eyebrows went higher, “W-what? You think Loki and I-”

A grim groan oozed across the dark to them from the sofa in front of the fireplace, “You two are the worst,” Loki’s silhouette sat up, framed in firelight far clearer than his tipsy speech.

Thor didn’t even turn, and to Nat’s surprise he grinned with delight, “I was wondering if you’d-”

Loki wove his way around the edge of the sofa, “Yes, I came ahead and took the charms down. Didn’t mean to ruin anything, I just find Freya’s rutting sex magic so goddamn creepy. It’s like she thinks everyone’s pandas that can’t figure out how to fuck otherwise. Anyway,” he leaned on the back of the sofa and gestured accusingly, his tone still relatively playful but concealing an edge, “you’ve got something there that belongs to me.”

Thor slid his hands down Nat’s sides and gave her a wink. She gave him a look of provisional trust, and he answered petulantly, “If you want her, you have to go through me. I saw her first.”

Loki pushed off the sofa and moved towards them, slowly unbuttoning his collar. When he got close he put his lips to Thor’s ear, one hand sliding someplace Nat couldn’t see but which made Thor grin with strained jocularity. Loki murmured, “In the first place, no you didn’t. She’d never even heard of you when she arrested me in Stuttgart, because she doesn’t read stupid fairy tales. And in the second place,” he flashed his tongue over Thor’s earlobe like a sniffing snake, “I wasn’t talking to you.”

Thor gave a nervous, throaty chuckle and Loki rolled his eyes, “She knows. She saw us. My bodyguard is a superspy, you idiot.”

Thor glanced back at Nat, carefully controlled shock in his eyes.

Nat shook her head, “I didn’t mean to.”

Loki rolled his eyes at her, “And you. I don’t know who you think you’re fooling, but if this genius hasn’t smelled you on me or me on you by now, someone’s replaced the rightful king with an impostor.”

Nat studied Thor’s face as he winced sheepishly, “I wasn’t going to say anything.

Loki backed away, hands parted rhetorically, “Aside from marrying her, I suppose.”

Thor sighed, still not turning away from Nat’s loose embrace, “Oh don’t get petty.”

Loki huffed a more earnest sigh, resting his hips on the back of the couch, “I’m not. I tried to go back to my own room. It was depressing.”

Nat put a finger on Thor’s lips, affecting her most reasonable tone, “Well, look, Loki, I mean, you two have a lot to work out, and it does seem like I’m working detail for both of you now,” she carefully slid down off the high table, edging around Thor without moving away from him, his touch following her, “and that sofa looks pretty comfy to me, so if you want my fake-husband all to yourself in my fake-wedding bed on my fake-wedding night,” she shrugged indifferently, then smirked, “You’ll have to go through me.”

Thor laughed, sliding his hands down her lasciviously. Loki grinned and stalked towards them, head down and shoulders gathered.

She pulled a knife, just for fun.

He pulled two.

He came on hard and she did her best to slow-play him, Thor ducking back as if she really were trying to protect his honor. She mostly blocked and gripped, turning him away instead of putting him down, lunging and blocking with a civil regularity that was more like fencing than knife fighting. She never put the edge on him except to flick off a button or two.

With a burst of speed he locked her knife up with his and spun her, pushing her into Thor with a boot at the small of her back. Thor caught her in a way that was sexy but fairly unhelpful, slowing her recovery by the beat and a half it took for Loki to close and press his chest against her back, one knife dropping to the floor as he slid the other around to take a few buttons of his own, his free hand gripping and ripping to free her cleavage.

“Hey,” she snarled, “don’t fuck up my new coat.”

He grinned against her neck, “I’ll fix it tomorrow.”

She nodded, dropping her knife, “Ok then.”

She pushed off Thor hard, resorting to hands and elbows. She let him lock her and try to flip her onto her back, her legs grabbing his shoulders mid-air with enough momentum to spin around him once and sling them both to the ground, panting.

She was smiling, sweating, undoing her coat as he laughed breathlessly, ”Oh, I was hoping for one of those. I love those,” he chuckled dizzily, shaking his head, “I yield, I yield.”

Nat stood up, unlacing the side of her tunic, “The hell you do,” she offered him a hand up, not letting him go as she backed towards Thor, suddenly wide awake and thinking about just how laid they were all about to get.

Loki grinned, “Oh look, you figured out how to give a decent handshake.”

She nodded as one of Thor’s hands came around her ribcage from behind, the other reaching past her to behind Loki’s neck. She kissed Loki with a will as Thor gathered them in greedily, “I think I’m definitely getting the hang of Asgard.”

Getting to naked was easy and yet time consuming. Every garment was simple enough to remove, with a little help and the occasional thrilling show of force, but between the three of them there certainly seemed to be a lot of clothes. Maybe it was just the time-distortion of the evening, but by the time Loki finally sliced her out of her pants, leaving her bracer as the only scrap of covering between the three of them, Nat felt like they’d been wading through bureaucratic fabric hell forever.

Loki turned her to Thor, cuing her arms up with a touch on her sides, pulling her back against his front and helping to lift her as Thor took her by the hips, raising them to his as she slid her ankles around his waist. Loki murmured in her ear, “You want him in you?”

Nat smirked. She hadn’t believed his story about them sharing women after a battle, but they’d clearly done it before. She felt like she was in good hands. Amazing hands. Like she’d just joined a erotic acrobatics troupe. She wound her legs around Thor’s hips, pulling him to her until his thick erection brushed over her pelvis. Loki strummed at her nipples as she nodded, trading a look with each of them. Thor eased back, aligned, and pressed forward slowly, heavily erect but gliding into her sopping slit as effortlessly as a crack through glass.

Loki edged forward with Thor’s slow, drawing rhythm until they were all three pressed tight and kissing. It was as if the full freight of the evening’s sensuality recalled itself to her mouth, finding salty cheeks and shoulders, damp necks and earlobes, stirring and lapping and gusting against each other like waves.

With so many hands supporting her she was free to reach her own hand back to find Loki’s stiff, eager cock, and stroke it deftly.

As Thor’s kisses trailed down her throat she leaned her head back to Loki’s shoulder, lipping at his ear, “Want you.”

He purred, and she couldn’t tell if the hint of scandal in it was genuine, “At the same time?”

She nodded, shrugging, “However you want. But only if you want.”

Loki groaned. He piled her briskly against Thor and moved away, returning just as briskly with the sound of a small cork coming loose from a bottle. He pressed against her as his slicked fingers prodded at her ass.

“Here?”

She nodded, “However you want.”

Loki sighed with vague annoyance, pushing an exploratory digit into her soft, supple sphincter, making her gasp. It had been a while for that peculiar pleasure, but she’d learned to trust pitchers who knew how to catch, and she relaxed into his attentions.

He whispered in her ear, “The word you’re looking for, if you want me inside you, is ‘yes’.”

He screwed his agile finger in further, pressing her in time with Thor’s slow thrusts . When Thor leaned her back into Loki’s arms and took a nipple in his mouth, she moaned urgently, “Ohh yes.”

But Loki was excruciatingly patient and exacting. He fingered her deeper and rougher, until her hole was thoroughly slick and warm and pulsing irritably. The head of his cock was so smooth by comparison it felt like a soothing kiss, pressing and parting her with a delectating roll of his pelvis.

He chuckled under a groan as he worked in, Thor’s hands leaving Nat’s hips and finding Loki’s as they slid slowly together against her. Thor pulled and Loki pushed to fully-sheathed stillness inside her, waiting as her muscles adjusted, kissing over her shoulder while she caught her breath. Loki stepped and Thor stepped back, bracing his back to the wall. For a long time Loki just held her hips and moved with her, pressing them both into Thor’s slow thrusts as a single unit.

Once he’d found Thor’s rhythm and route, Loki shifted, levering his shaft harder against the churning presence of Thor’s, insisting more lapping pressure between the sensitive undersides of both their cocks and tipping Thor’s pistoning head harder against the sweet spot in Nat’s frontal wall. When he finally began to move he offset his own rhythm from Thor’s, setting a sweet turbulence at work between them. It felt to Nat like a pair of pestles gradually grinding all her pernicious doubts and stony self-control into powder.

Thor moaned and arched, bracing himself against the wall with just his shoulders, one hand wrapping firmly around Nat’s hip, the other still clutching at Loki’s.

Loki didn’t touch Thor, both hands bracing and fondling Nat’s chest. Yet it felt, in the heat of the act, as if Loki was in fact going through her. Each tense, carefully timed caress of Thor’s cock against Loki's through her tender flesh seemed to illustrate that she was present, and real, but that she was a uniting rather than a separating presence. The two distinct sensations licked and melded together inside her like flames, like two horny lovesick gods striving to fuck each others’ brains out inside her, intimate and escalating.

To put it lightly, she came. And came. With each peak her body seemed to jettison a massive wave of pulverized tension, and at some point after the fourth one she lost track of her body almost completely. She was almost meditatively unaware of her surroundings until Thor’s breathing began to speed and fray to match hers. He whispered, “I’m close.”

Loki groaned assent, shifting to match his pace, grinding relentlessly into Nat’s ass.

Thor slid his hand up and braced her neck as he kissed her fiercely, whispering, “Should I pull out?”

She shook her head, barely verbal, “Only if you want.”

Thor scowled with concentration, “The word you’re looking for…”

Nat laughed, mostly breathless, seizing the back of his neck and pressing her forehead to his, “No. Come in me,” she turned her head to Loki, “both of you, I want...oh...”

Loki whispered through clenched teeth, “Oh fuck...”

She squeezed the back of Loki’s neck and Thor’s, pulled them together against her as they churned and huffed, hoping that she could press what she felt into her hands and down their spines as she came on them again.

Thor shuddered, his voice coming from low in his chest, “Oh Loki, Tasha, there, yes, oh fuuu-”

A gush of heat and pressure flared through her as they stroked one another past the flashpoint, riding her shared climax beneath each of their own, the whole precarious arrangement slowly shuddering towards the floor as Thor slid down the wall in a barely-controlled collapse, panting and sweating.

Chapter Text

Loki pulled out of her gingerly and ran his fingers down the curved line of her back as she slumped against Thor’s broad, heaving chest. He lingered over the divot of her tailbone, exhaling a long, cool breath. Slowly, surprisingly, his index finger chilled, and he slid it unceremoniously into her slick, sore, pulsing rectum, easing the not-quite-pain.

She moaned with amusement and relief as Thor gasped lightly, the sensation tightening and chilling the muscles around his softening cock. As Loki withdrew, she picked herself up off him, so thoroughly relaxed she almost wanted to laugh. After the most scandalously profane encounter she’d had in over a decade, her insides thoroughly pounded and soaked with the semen of heathen gods, she felt...clean. Perfectly well. As shameless as ever, but for lack of cause rather than care.

Loki brought two half-glasses of water and handed her one with a swagger, kneeling down to offer the other to Thor. Thor pushed himself up, gazing at Loki as he drank. As Loki moved to stand Thor caught him by the wrist and pulled him down, setting the water aside and cradling his head to kiss him properly. Loki stiffened and slackened, yearning into Thor’s mouth for long moments before wriggling and pressing away, laughing, “Stop it, not in front of the wife.”

Nat grinned, “Hey, don’t mind me,” she strolled over to the edge of the bed, sitting down with a glimmer of surprise at how not-uncomfortable her rear end was, ”As an honorable valkyrie, I declare myself gone-through. My conditions are met. He’s all yours, if you still want him, one god of thunder, as-is, no warranty offered or implied.”

She lay back, staring at the ceiling and giving them a degree of privacy, letting her mind wander and her eyes slide closed. Limp and wide awake, she listened to the soft sounds beside the doorway, letting her situational awareness assemble their forms in her mind. She could distinguish their voices, but not their words, bantering tones becoming more earnest, and then silent, and then, when they spoke again, conspiratorial.

Nat shook her head. Thick as thieves. Or possibly bricks. Either would get you through a window, fortotchnik she thought from the catwalk in her mind. She drifted, thinking about the tesseract, about the strange notion that she had stolen through the glass between telescoping stories of one-eyed kings and lost heirs falling into oblivion. She couldn’t quite see how it was all meant to match up, though. Thor was like Barnes, because he fell from his place and returned, but in her previous dream, he’d clearly been associated with Steve. But Thor had never been small like Steve, he’d been born a king, like Barnes. Where did Banner fit? Was he Steve? No, Steve was Steve in their pantheon. Was Banner Loki? She shook her head, it didn’t make sense. Nothing about the tesseract made sense.

She was shaken out of her reverie by a large hand on her thigh, her fake husband kneeling onto the floor between her knees at the end of the bed. She reached to stroke his hair without sitting up, “You guys doing ok?”

He nodded under her touch, his own straying closer to her cleft, “Fine. But there’s another marital custom. A king pleasures his consort after they’ve made love, to increase the chances of bearing,” he kissed her on the inner side of her thigh.

She laughed, shaking her head, “Not really necessary. I think I’m thoroughly pleasured-out. And I don’t...I mean I can’t,” she shook her head, “I was sterilized by my program. I don’t think of it as a big deal but I should have said something before accepting your proposal,” she felt something cold hit her in the stomach, “And I’m supposed to validate your reign by providing heirs?”

Thor pressed in closer to her, kissing her navel and hugging her sides, “It’s fine, I knew when I asked. You’re not my wife, you’re my consort, and if we don’t conceive you’re released from all obligation. It’s convenient, right? Just a holding action. But I still want to keep to tradition.”

She nodded, then tensed up again, “Wait. What do you mean you knew?”

He watched his finger trace idly over her thigh, “Banner told me.”

Nat sat bolt upright, “What?”

Loki laughed, “Guess I’m not the only one whose family likes to drink and tell stories about him.”

Nat glared at him. Thor looked back and forth, “I thought it’s what made this such a good solution to Freya’s little trap. I can’t possibly trap you into a real royal marriage. You just said it wasn’t a big deal.”

Nat gritted her teeth. She put a hand on Thor’s hair, shaking her head, “It’s not, to me, not really, but Banner doesn’t know that. When I told him I was…” she sighed. It was complicated and she didn’t want to care, “Whatever. Doctor genius boy wasn’t thinking. Quelle surprise.”

Thor knelt up, lacing his fingers behind the small of her back and looking up at her earnestly, “I’m sorry, Nat. I wasn’t thinking either. But he was asking my advice, and he did swear me to secrecy first. He was worried about you. Worried that he’d made a mistake.”

Nat shook her head again, not looking at him, “It’s fine, I don’t care,” but a little ingot of ire had begun spinning in her gut, “It’s just a reminder that I shouldn’t try to have friends that aren’t spies.”

Loki wandered over and handed Thor a damp cloth, grinning far too widely. Nat huffed a sigh, “Or ones that are, for that matter.”

Loki sat down next to her, bumping her shoulder, “I’m not laughing at you, I’m just picturing what you’re going to do to Banner, and wondering what to offer so you’ll let me watch.”

Nat scrubbed at her face irritably with her palms, “I’m not going to do anything to him. I’m done with him.”

Loki shrugged, “From what he said to me tonight, I doubt he’s done with you.”

Nat pushed away the urge to ask, leaning towards Loki’s lips, “Well, that’s his problem. He can get in line.”

Loki whispered, “You really should consider letting Thor relieve some of that tension. It is part of our customary wisdom, after all. And he’s got an oral fixation like you wouldn’t believe.”

She glanced down at Thor, who shrugged innocently, his eye was twinkling.

Nat smiled through a put-upon sigh, “Are there any other trials in this sexual gauntlet I should know about now? Because I’m starting to think I should be pacing myself if I’m going to survive the night. Anything else that the traditional honeymoon threesome is supposed to enact by law?”

Loki shrugged and shook his head as Thor leaned in and began kissing and nuzzling her mons, “Not really. The notion that the ruler is functionally their consort’s sex slave for a solid twenty-eight days following the proposal is more of a Vanir custom. But for appearances sake you probably want to stay in bed all day tomorrow, as a compliment to the party-throwers and a testament to your king’s virility if nothing else. Not that either of them needs it. But you are the king’s consort. I’d call that lady’s choice, at least.”

She put a hand on the bed as Thor’s tongue parted her gently, nudging her off balance. She studied Loki’s face, trying to understand what he wanted, out of any of it. She winced and shifted as Thor prodded her tenderized clit a little too forcefully, and he receded immediately to softly flickered touches that fluttered her eyelids. Loki smiled widely, as if they were sharing in a secret.

She twined her fingers through Thor’s hair and leaned to Loki’s ear, “Do you suppose he wants to come again?”

Loki rolled his eyes, “Are you kidding? He refracts only slightly slower than your average prism.”

“Show me what he likes? What he really likes. With you. Not what you think he needs.”

Loki huffed, something troubled behind his eyes, “I can, if it’s what you want. It’s boring though,” he glanced down, as Nat gasped softly, and stage-muttered, “He’s so boring.”

Thor didn’t visibly respond, but Nat had to put her other hand down on the bed as he laved into her.

She leaned close to Loki, closing her thighs a little over Thor’s ears, “He likes it when you’re gentle with him. Is that it?”

Loki nodded, trying and failing to seem unconcerned.

“But-” she sighed involuntarily as Thor massaged her inner lips with his, “-you don’t like it when he’s gentle with you in return.”

Loki swallowed, “Things about it make me uncomfortable, yes. And, as your patron,” he glanced at her bracer, “please don’t ask me any more about that.”

“I would like to know if you would enjoy being gentle with him, if I promise to keep him from trying to...” she squinted, leaning into her read of him, “...make you feel loved.”

He had to glance away too hastily to hide a tell, giving her hand a gentle squeeze, “I would be happy to show you what I know he likes, if you can hold up your end. As it were,” he smirked.

She nodded, “I’ll keep him off you. But I wonder if you would mind if I treated you gently.”

He leaned in, touching her lips with his tongue, gradually teasing until their mouths met, laving into her with a rhythm similar to Thor’s. When he leaned back again, he had that dangerous lour in his eyes, “I wouldn’t mind it from you. You’re closer to understanding what you're getting into, and it hurts you less if you think you like me and I make you a liar.”

He smiled cryptically, sliding off the bed and crouching down behind Thor, nudging his ankles apart to make room and announce his presence. Thor shifted to allow him. Nat moved her hands to cover Thor’s where he gripped her, implicitly binding him.

She curled down towards his ear as far as her back would let her, “If Loki does something you don’t like, just tap on my leg and I’ll make him stop. One for ‘slower’, two for ‘not that’, three for ‘stop everything’,” He nodded slightly, lip-locking into her tender cleft with a growling enthusiasm that made her laugh.

Loki spread his knees between Thor’s in a position Nat recognized, laying his front against Thor’s back. He ran both hands down Thor’s sides, eliciting groans that vibrated through his tongue and a luxuriant writhe.

Loki sighed as his hands slid down Thor’s waist and out of sight around his front. He shook his head, his tone smooth and mocking, “Like a fucking prism.”

Thor growled and lowered his hips on Loki’s lap, his grip on Natasha tightening.

Loki scoffed, “You’re going to have to wait for that. We’re not all freaks of nature,” he kissed the backs of Thor’s shoulers, biting very gently, “We’re going to go slow,” he leaned next to Thor’s ear, mouthing his earlobe, “So control yourself. And Natasha’s in charge of your aftercare, so you’d better not disappoint her in the meantime.”

Thor sighed and slowed and his shoulders sagged, settling in for the long game. Nat stroked down his back, and she could feel his heartbeat pounding through his back ribs. His cheeks and hands warmed, and his tongue slid inside her, thick and hot.

She heard a tiny cork pop, and her ass twitched sympathetically as Thor’s spine curled and his tongue tensed and relaxed.

Loki tutted, “Such a tender ass, honestly,” he glanced a smirk to meet Nat’s eye, “Such a mewling quim .”

Nat narrowed her eyes, “Be nice.”

Loki pouted, still smiling, “I am being nice,” he rolled his hand from the shoulder and leaned to Thor’s ear, “Aren’t I?”

Thor groaned and had to free his mouth to gasp, nodding as Nat continued to pet and soothe him.

“Well be nicer.”

Loki looked scandalized, “I hardly think he’s ready for that just yet.”

“Be kind. No mocking. Be sincere for once in your absurdly long life. Don’t make me interrogate it out of you.”

He looked genuinely afraid for a moment, “You wouldn’t.”

She rolled her eyes, “Of course I wouldn’t. But still.”

Loki scowled at her, “All right, but it’s silly,” he shifted tight against Thor, his free hand disappearing around his front again. He kissed and nipped around the back of Thor's neck, “He knows how much I love him. How much I want him. How much I worship him.”

Nat caught Thor’s wrists as he tried to reach back, “No. Let Loki be, or he might stop.”

Thor whimpered, surrendering. He licked her and gyrated into Loki’s touch with similar tortuous slowness.

After a long interlude consisting of a trio of soft gasps, Loki whispered, “I’m not going to fuck you. I know you don’t like it. But I am going,” Loki shifted his attentions momentarily from Thor’s lap to his own, adjusting, “to fill you. Because I need my hands elsewhere.”

Loki guided him, Thor holding tight to Nat’s thighs and dragging her closer to the edge of the bed as Loki drew him to settle back. His fingers tightened, digging into the rounds of her ass, and he whimpered, but he didn’t tap.

Loki whispered, “Slowly, slowly, you’ll get there. No rush,” his eyes rolled back and he cursed under his breath.

Thor rocked gently, easing back gradually until his hips rested in Loki’s lap. Loki shifted once, sharply.

Thor gasped, grinning, “Always the knife in the back with you.”

Loki gripped his hair, pressing his cheek back against Nat’s thigh, “Shhh. Are you comfortable? Your back is alright? Your feet aren’t going numb?’

Thor nodded.

Loki pulled him back to his own shoulder, “Alright, behave yourself for just a moment. I want to show you to your consort. Put your hands behind my neck.”

Thor racked himself along Loki’s length as ordered, and Loki savaged kisses on his ear, running his hands down his naked skin, stirring the fine hairs and smoothing the droplets of sweat. He studies Thor’s profile covetously, and Nat got the same pang of sublime hunger she’d felt watching Thor idolize Loki.

Loki murmured to Thor, loud enough for Nat to hear, “My cock is all the way inside him, bracing his ticklish prostate,” he nuzzled into Thor’s neck, “He’s so tight, so skittish. It’s hard to keep him calm, to make him accept me,” Thor trembled and Loki winced, “So fucking tight, but he knows I’ll never fuck him unless he begs,” he grinned, “Which he almost never does.”

Thor grinned, panting, but stayed quiet, attentive. Loki slid one hand down between Thor’s spread thighs, cupping his balls and gathering them slowly forward, “I’m going to rub the bulge behind his balls very slowly. I know it looks like he’s hard as obsidian already, but you have no idea how hard he gets from this,” he swirled two fingers softly over the tender spot, “It’s almost painful,” Loki closed his eyes as Thor winced, inhaling the scent of his neck, attending to Thor's physical feedback.

He continued rubbing, sliding his free hand to the base of Thor’s cock, “Do you want me to touch you, now?” he skimmed two finger tips up the sensitive underside, replicating his prostate massage just under his livid head.

Thor nodded, “Yes.”

“Do you want me to make you come,” he stroked him twice for emphasis, “Right...now?”

Thor shook his head, “No, please. Not yet.”

Loki licked his ear amorously, sliding his hand back down to Thor’s base, “You’re so lucky Natasha’s here. You’re as lucky that she likes you as you are unlucky that I love you.”

Thor chuckled, endlessly confident even at his most submissive, and Loki’s eyes rolled back, the tremors massaging his erection. When he caught his breath, he looked at Nat, “Come here and kiss your king. Calm him down. I need him relaxed so he can actually enjoy it properly when his cock explodes. And he needs someplace else he can put his hands.”

Nat slid off the end of the bed, kneeling up so she could reach Thor’s panting mouth. His swollen, fragrant, servile lips seized onto hers hungrily, breathing with small moans that smelled of sex and ozone, the air around him increasingly charged. Nat stroked his hair and cupped his chin, murmuring, “Keep breathing. We’re going to take good care of you.”

His hands came down and wrapped around her waist. His mouth pressed to hers and down her neck, sucking greedily and tonguing her breasts. She murmured something about “slow“ but lost track. She met Loki’s eyes, his smile like a shrug. She pulled Thor’s head up and met his hungering mouth with hers, kissing and biting and tonguing him with a sparring intensity that matched his own until he did, eventually, slow, his breathing deep and heavy and ragged, meditative.

Loki whispered, “He wants to grind into the way I stroke him, but it makes his ass ache."

Thor grunted in agreement, straining between impulses.

Loki purred, "He's just about ready, I think. Do you want to come inside your consort?”

Thor shook his head, pressing his forehead against Nats and glancing into her eyes, “I won’t last.”

Loki shrugged lightly, winking at Nat over Thor’s shoulder, “Maybe the next time. Or the fourth. Or the ninth.”

Thor gritted his teeth, moaning piteously, putting his mouth to Nat’s shoulder, sucking hard and biting lightly as Loki began to stroke him more intently.

Thor's fingertips crackled against her skin with tiny shocks.

Nat cradled Thor’s cheek in one hand and reached to stroke Loki’s hair with the other, kissing him with a sharp electrical discharge as his own lips began to tremble. She turned Loki's ear to her and whispered, “You’re so beautiful. You’re so worthy. I-”

Loki kissed her hard, absorbing another light shock, shutting her up. Thor braced and shuddered, a deep groan rolling into a segmented scream, short and sharp and punctuated with spurts of hot come spattering up between their chests.

Loki gritted his teeth, locking Thor’s pelvis back hard against his own to keep him from thrashing. Nat did her best to keep them from collapsing into her.

When Thor stopped moaning and sagged, Loki thrust up, kneeling up and pushing Thor forward into Nat's arms.

“Now,” Loki declared like a cruise director, “If I stay inside him like this until he’s ready again, until a good fucking wouldn’t be absolute agony for him like it would be right now, he actually gets loose enough to enjoy it. But I’ll leave that up to him.”

Thor smiled, pressing his sweaty forehead against Nat’s, “I’ll let you fuck me if you’ll let me kiss you while you do.”

Loki rolled his eyes and grunted, holding Thor’s hips steady and slowly sitting back, sliding out, padding away to get more water and clean off his painfully hard cock.

She stroked his hair, “You ok.”

He smiled, “Yes, very. I need to lie down though.”

He picked up the damp cloth as they flopped onto the bed like castaways, carefully wiping the copious seed off her chest before trying to wipe down his own. He definitely didn’t get all of it, and frowned, “Sorry about that.”

She shook her head, “It’s fine, I’ll shower. But come here, I’m your aftercare, remember?”

He grinned and lay back, pulling her across him and nuzzling into her hair, “I’m not feeling especially abused. When Loki comes back, if you both want, I’d love to see you together. I want to make him happy, but he doesn’t like the way that I touch him.”

Nat smiled, “I think he does, just too much.”

Thor nodded with old resignation, “Same difference. He’s...got some control issues. And not for nothing. But I won’t try to explain him. Still, as my fake wife, do you want to be with him? And if I don’t fall completely unconscious first, do you mind if I watch?”

She grinned, “Nah, I don’t mind. As long as you know that watching doesn’t make it about you.”

He nodded resolutely as Loki wandered back towards the bed with a glass full of water.

He drank and handed it to Nat, standing over them with a thick towel around his waist that poorly concealed his state of physical pique, “I feel like I should go. It’s almost eleven.”

Nat almost choked on the water, “Only eleven? It feels like it’s almost dawn.”

Loki gave that charming smile, “You can get a lot done if you start at sundown. I’m pretty sure that’s part of the reason for the tradition.”

Nat handed the water to Thor, and held out a hand to Loki, “I don’t want you to go. We don’t want you to go. Come to bed.”

He made a doubtful mou, glancing at the door.

She smirked, “Don’t make me invoke that hour of total control over your body you owe me.”

He glared at her, “You wouldn’t.”

She shrugged, “Of course I wouldn’t. I want you to stay of your own free will, but I do want you to stay. I also kinda want to get you off,” she tossed her head back towards Thor, “while the husband watches.”

Loki glanced at Thor, and didn’t resist when Nat caught his fingers and dragged him into the big bed.

Chapter Text

She pulled him down and herself up until they were both on their knees, touching his chest lightly, “I'll admit I don't think I can follow your act. I don’t know you as well as you clearly know Thor.”

He ducked his head and scooped his mouth against hers swiftly, glancing aside, “That’s alright. We have plenty in common.”

She slid a hand around his hip and down the back of his towel, pressing fingernails into his buttock, “Do we?”

He sucked a relishing breath and nodded stiffly.

She undid his towel, tossing it aside, “You cleaned up?”

He nodded again, “Sparkling.”

She ran her nails down his torso, and her fingertips down the hard length of his cock experimentally, nodding approval at the clean, dry, silken softness of the fragile skin. 

A soft snore off to the side announced that they were alone. She smirked at herself, at how the lack of an audience made things feel too personal, too intimate.

She touched his neck and ran a nail over his shoulder, enjoying the way he looked as he shivered. She looked into his eyes as he lifted them, struck by a hard flash of recognition like she’d experienced in the hearthstone room, but without any accompanying hallucinations. There was something wrong under his stillness, in how he didn’t reach to touch her in return.

She crept closer to him, putting a dry kiss on his neck and lacing her fingers into his by his sides, “Are you alright?”

He swallowed and shook his head.

She brought one hand up to hold him by the back of the neck, bolstering him and hoping he could feel her concern, “Are you dropping?”

He nodded, letting his forehead bow onto her shoulder. She stroked his hair, putting an arm under his to help guide him down slowly.

She sighed, grabbing up a folded blanket from the foot of the bed and shaking it over them hastily as she curled down beside him, speaking softly as he trembled, “So you get top-drop too, huh?”

He nodded, gasping slightly as the trembling worsened.

“I’m right here. I know what it’s like. You were going to try to make it to your room and fall apart there, alone.”

He nodded, grasping at her hands and pulling her tight to him, turning his face into the pillow to stifle a sob.

She petted him, realizing darkly, “I asked too much of you, after such a long day. After any day.”

He sniffled, nodding.

She kissed his hairline, “I’m not upset, you’re safe and everything is fine, and I adore you, and Thor adores you, and I’m not going to abandon you, but I wish you had told me no.”

He shook his head, whispering, “I don’t.”

“You’re very strong.”

He scoffed, his nose gurgling slightly, “Oh stop it, I’m just dropping, I’m not an idiot child. I propped up exhaustion with adrenaline well past the point that I should have, and now I’m dropping. That’s all.” He didn’t loosen his grip. He wasn't telling the whole truth, but only by a little.

She nodded, “I know. I get top drop too, after an intense encounter, even if I’m the one dishing out the abuse. You should drink some more water. Let me fetch it?”

He nodded, easing his grip, and she carefully retrieved the glass. When he'd finished drinking he twisted to face her as he lay back down, nudging her flat, snuggling his cheek onto her shoulder, remembering and moving in tighter to her sternum. It was so sweet she didn't bother to mention that her bad shoulder had never felt so good.

She stayed awake, petting him as he dozed off, letting her mind drift over the problems of giants and walls and four-dimensional space, not really applying her mind to them but arranging them in her head to process as she slept.

She wondered what Frey’s weird pronouncement about her had meant. It was becoming evident that there was no way to just dip a toe in Asgardian society. Perhaps it had been an unusually fraught day for the natives as well, but given their attitude towards a day that, on a scale of one to ten seemed turned up to eleven, they were accustomed to a kingdom that ran at a minimum intensity of nine on slow days.

Loki stirred quietly. He opened his eyes with a sigh.

She didn’t pretend to sleep.

They regarded each other silently. He kept his eyes open, and on hers, as with a ceremonial slowness he kissed her breastbone from top to tip. He rose to her lips, holding her gaze, propping himself up to hover over her mouth. She parted her lips without closing her eyes, and he lowered a dry, plucking kiss onto them, unblinking.

She parted her legs for the unmistakable stiffness against her thigh, sliding her touch down his spine to invite him between. He tipped himself on top of her, his smooth tip dabbing at flesh still slick from Thor’s mouth. She bent her knees up around him as he pressed another lucidly hypnotic kiss.

She glanced at his lips, whispering, “I usually don’t come when I’m on my back. I want you. I enjoy it, just don’t try to wait for me.”

He stopped, “Would you like to be on top?”

She shook her head, “I can get myself off anytime I want. Let me enjoy you without worrying about it. Call it front row voyeurism.”

He nodded, glancing at her lips, “I’ll take care of you, in the balance.”

She grinned, “I know. There’s time.”

He shifted up to align with her, sliding his forearm under her neck. The feel of his skin shivered down her back, communicating how his whole body burned and ached, the slow build as he slid himself prayerfully flush against her. Every time she began to wish he would kiss her, he kissed her. He built and slowed. Built and stopped. Stopped and kissed her for long minutes before starting again. She stroked his long body, vaguely registering that the runes of her bracer glowed dimly, and it felt as if her touch leaked fire into him. He felt it, preened into it, unquestioningly and with mounting ardor. She reveled in the languid eroticism of of his undulating skin under her hands. They breathed together, listening closely.

He slowed again, whispering, “Still ok? Not sore?”

“It’s good. Are you close?”

He nodded, rolling his neck, “Oh yes. But I like to wait.”

She smiled, “Your control issues go pretty deep, huh.”

“I certainly like to think so,” He slid himself against her, grinding down.

She moaned appreciatively, “Well, don’t let me distract you.”

He huffed a laugh, “You think I’m unaware of you, that I’m using your exquisite company for my own selfish luxuriance?”

She squeezed gently and rolled her hips into his thrust, “I certainly like to think so.”

He grinned, a glassy droplet of sweat collecting on the end of his nose as he caught his breath, “There is something you should know, to think about. While you’re just lying here not doing anything else.”

She giggled at him and squeezed his ass, “Oh what’s that?”

“You could, if you wanted, have a child here. Not a decision to be made lightly, or soon, but there are ways. Several, actually.”

She shrugged, “Well, yeah, even on midgard there are things I could try. And honestly the idea of adopting, once I'm in a stable place, has a lot of appeal for me, you know? Orphans have always been my family.”

“I meant if you wanted to have Thor’s child,” he shifted inside her almost nervously, brushing her hair back from her face, “If you wanted to stay here. With us. Not go back. Not step aside once Thor needs an heir.”

She nodded, carefully noncomittal, “That is a lot to think about.”

He nodded, shrugging, “Well, I’m going to be a while.”

She pushed his hair back, “Take all the time you need.”

He smiled, “Same to you. Nothing hurting?”

She shook her head, “No. You?”

He hesitated, “I’ll just say it once, and then I’ll never bring it up again, and I’ll accept your choice a thousand times a day if I have to. But I do...I do want you to stay. You belong here.”

She watched his expression, unsure what to say.

“It wouldn’t have to be forever if you decide you don’t like it. Just the next thousand years or so. Say you’ll stay. Even if you don’t mean it.”

“Loki. It’s been one day. And you’re talking about kids and marriage.”

He shrugged, “I’m mercurial. Ask anyone. Threesomes bring out the romantic in me, and anal always makes me sentimental.”

She laughed, “You’re such an ass.”

He gripped her shoulder with his teeth and went back to work inside her, growling as she yelped.

Thor snorted awake, “Oh, hello.”

Nat smiled at him and stretched her arm out across the bed. He took it and scooted drowsily towards them until he could gather her forearm against his chest, kissing her knuckles as he watched them. Across long moments their breathing began to agree, as if the small space around them breathed and they were simply moved by it. Thor rubbed her forearm, and she realized she was getting a glow of forthright and steadfast affection from him, as Loki’s arm behind her neck fed her echoes of fire. The breathing between them became shorter.

With a sudden shuddering stroke Loki fountained a long, shared groan of relief, his whole body rigid as glass before he melted down on top of her.

Thor kissed her knuckles drowsily, eyes shining.

As Loki trembled she pressed the hair back from his ear and whispered, “Let him hold you.”

Without looking he slid to the middle, pressing his back to Thor’s front as an arm slid around him, dragging Nat's front to his, her leg feeling short as she tried to lay it across them both. They lay like that a long, long time, though Nat noticed that Loki never slept. Finally he kissed Thor’s hand and pushed himself up, “I have to go. How about we make a date for me to bring breakfast tomorrow afternoon,” he leered as he got up and began dressing.

Thor sighed mournfully as Loki dressed, “Until then.”

“Oh don’t look so grim," Loki scolded, "I’m leaving you in very capable hands. And I was careful not to satisfy her in the least, so you’ve got that to look forward to.”

Thor looked at her, aghast.

She scowled at Loki, “I don’t like feeling pressured to perform.”

He hopped toward the door as he pulled on his second boot, “Whelp, work it out, married people,” and he was gone.

Thor huffed a sarcastically reluctant groan, “All right, come here.”

She laughed, “I know your macho honor is probably at stake, but if this fake marriage is gonna work you better stop staking your honor or your pride or your happiness or even your orgasm on whether or not my body decides it’s going to cooperate with what you want from it after I’ve already come I-don’t-even-know-how-many-times. I certainly don’t.”

Thor nodded, pulling her close anyway, “That’s fair,” he brushed her hair back, settling her into his embrace, “Thank you again for this. For all of it. For everything, since the day we met.”

She shook her head, “The two of you are so sappy, I swear.”

Thor’s expression softened and he twirled a bit of her hair between his fingers, “I like that you bring that out in him,” he slid his hand down her hip, pulling her knee to rest on his thigh.

She studied his soft, familiar smile, touching his cheek just to remind herself that she was allowed to do it, “You really are just...too beautiful. It hurts my brain to look at you.”

He waggled his eyebrows, stroking down her body again, “I could put my face somewhere you don’t have to see it…”

She sighed, “I’m not saying no, but just give me a little time. My heart needs a chance to cool off, you know? Everything here is so damn intense.”

“That’s fair. You’re also allowed to just tell me no and I’ll stop wheedling. I promise.”

She shrugged, “I’m not to ‘no’ yet either. I’m deciding. It’s a good feeling. How are you doing?”

He stretched, “Pleasantly destroyed. Gleefully anticipating.”

She grinned, “I hope I have your vigor when I’m a thousand.”

His smile softened again, only mostly joking, “You’re always welcome to stay and find out.”

Though accustomed to his guileless sincerity, it was almost blinding to have it focused on her so intensely, and she lacked the necessary defenses that Loki seemed to have built up. She touched his cheek again, still not quite processing the reality of it, forgiving herself for that given how unreal the whole situation was.

She kissed him. And kissed him. When it was evident that she wasn’t giving her heart a chance to cool off, she let Thor’s hand wander down between her thighs. He tested her tolerances with a tentative sweetness that put her at ease. She cupped his hand against her, showing his fingers where she wanted them, expecting some discomfort but finding none. He stroked evenly, letting her grind on his solid touch.

He flexed his cupped hand, “Do you want me to,” his touch acquired a subtle tingle that gave her goosebumps.

“Oh, oh, fuck, actually, yeah…oh fuck...”

She felt a little anxious at how swiftly and intensely the tightness in her pelvis built, grasping tighter at the back of Thor’s neck as her gasps ran shorter and higher. When the aching tension finally burst loose inside her, Thor held her together, purring in his chest as she shuddered in his arms. As her voice slowly came down from a note she was pretty sure only dolphins could hear, she whispered his name over and over in fond disbelief.

She rolled onto her back, panting, her brain a swirl of tidbits from the day, trying to figure out how she’d gotten where she was. And something occurred to her that would have made her smack her head if she had the strength, “So, what did you want to tell me?”

Thor didn’t even turn his head towards her, beginning to drift off again, “Hmm?”

Nat laughed, “The thing. The inciting motivation for this sexual circus. The thing you didn’t want to discuss in front of anyone else.”

Realization dawned and Thor’s chuckle ran the scale into a giddy laugh. He rolled onto his back and covered his face with both hands, “Sweet surtur, you’re right. Uagh,” he forced himself to sit up, reaching for the water and finding it gone.

Nat sat up, grabbing the glass from her side of the bed, drinking half of what was left and offering him the rest, picking stray flowers from her hair and the sheets as he drank.

He sighed, wiping his mouth, “Yes. Well. When the giants attacked...at first I didn’t understand what was happening. I was standing at the front of the crowd, getting ready to make my announcement, and suddenly it was like someone was yelling behind me. A man’s voice that I thought I recognized but couldn’t place. Yelling formation orders at me. Then I felt a surge through Gungnir, and I had the sense that someone inside Asgard had unleashed some kind of intense magic. When I realized I was hearing an enemy invader directing his troops, I ordered everyone to arms.”

“You could hear him?”

Thor nodded, “I don’t know why. It wasn’t until I was visiting with the wounded afterwards I realized nobody else had heard a thing. It was only me.”

Nat shrugged, “Well, you are king of Asgard. Maybe that’s just one of the weird powers.”

He squinted doubtfully, “He was yelling at his troops to show mercy to the fallen, not to kill the ones they cut down. I knew to fight his control of the lightning because I heard him yelling to them to keep back until he could gather the storm and explode the gate,” he shook his head.

“Maybe some kind of magical connection through the lightning?”

He nodded, “Possibly. But right before the tide began to turn against them," he sighed heavily, "just as he was realizing that I was suppressing the lightning. He…” he shook his head, “He said ‘Kill Thor, take the gates, and bring Loki to me alive. I will have my reckoning'.”

Chapter Text

Bru let her hands fall to the sheets between her bent knees, “Lover, I agree with you, alright? But it’s none of our business. And even if it were, you’d have no place saying anything about it. Least of all to Thor. Now stop pacing and come back to bed.”

Sif tried to scowl across the room but didn’t have the anger to do it, “I’m sorry. I’m worried,” she pulled her night robe tighter around herself, her hand itching for a sword, a shield, a pen, something.

“I know. But,” Bru held out a hand, “come be worried over here where I can do something about it.”

Sif slid into bed, letting Bru pull her down into the nest of warm covers they’d been feathering together for a month.

Bru kissed the crease between Sif’s eyes, “You’re not like this, you know.”

Sif squinted at her incredulously, “I’m fairly certain I am.”

Bru smiled, “Lover, since I started going to bed with you you’ve barely mentioned Thor twice. Then suddenly Loki’s back and I can’t get you to talk about hardly anything else. It’s like you want me to develop a mental complex.”

“I don’t,” Sif sighed, “but you saw Thor at dinner tonight. Something is very wrong, and not just with him. I can feel it in my gut.”

Bru idly palpated Sif’s stomach, “Should have skipped the fish, I expect. Where did they even get those fish? We’re something like five hundred miles inland.”

Sif frowned heavily, “Please don’t.”

Bru relented with a dramatically petulant groan, “I’m just trying to dislodge you from this mindset, my love. It will gain you nothing. Thor saw to that when he chose someone else. If he still trusts Loki after everything you’ve told me he’s done, he’s not going to hear you, and anything you say to anyone else about it will seem like jilted bitterness, and I’m in the same boat.”

Sif gave a grumble and sat up, “I’ve been his right hand in battle. I’ve saved his life, and been saved by him,” she raised a hand and began ticking off labors with exasperated vigor, “I’ve kept his confidences, bled and sweated and faced down death. I’ve sung with him to keep our spirits up in frozen wastes and sodden plains. I’ve advised him, raised up my sword and laid down my life alongside his. Hunted monsters with him. I’ve pledged to follow him into Hel’s realm if need be, and meant it. The work of my life in defense of Asgard hasn’t just been some astonishingly ineffectual ploy to trap a husband,” she scoffed, “but in Asgard’s eyes I’m not his comrade in arms, I’m that woman that hangs around him, and what other purpose could that sort of creature have? Gods’ blood, Bru. I know you’re right, but I also know that not a single person in this city would question my devotion to my king, my concern for a lifelong friend, or my instinct for danger if I were a man.”

Bru nodded, one hand behind her head, the other smoothing Sif’s back, “I know. I’m sorry love. But you’re not a man,” she grinned over an unvoiced elaboration, “and I think you’re noble to have let their version of things stand as it has for so long.”

Sif shook her head, “It’s not nobility. I’m well acquainted with the fine art of not caring for the opinion of others. Trying to correct them would seem petty, at best. At worst, it would only serve to embarrass Thor.”

“He ought to be embarrassed. You’re being the bigger man.”

Sif sighed, “It’s not about Thor in any case. It’s this feeling. There’s been something wrong in Asgard since before Thor’s thwarted coronation, and I’ve been five steps behind it at every crumbling turn. I ignored it, thinking the kingdom well in hand, leaving the machinations to those with a talent for it, but the coming of Hella and Ragnarok make me think I ought to have been paying more attention. I thought I could wait. I was so sure Thor would make you royal consort, that we’d have a chance to speak to him in confidence. And now I don’t see a way forward that doesn’t make things worse, at least at the outset.”

Bru’s lips ruched sympathetically, “Then let it go.”

Sif hunched, regarding her calloused hands apologetically, “Unfortunately that’s what I’m not like.”

“No, I know. You’re a crusader.”

Sif’s expression softened, and she looked back, “You sound so sad when you say that.”

Bru snorted dismissively.

Sif let her observation pass, proud eyes pleading, “But do you believe me?”

“I believe you,” she trailed a finger down Sif’s arm, snagging her hand and pulling it back to kiss.

Sif smiled reluctantly, leaning back down, “I thank you for that.”

Bru smirked, stretching her left arm to show the tattoo there, “Don’t thank me. You’re a loyal subject of the throne. I would know if you were lying.”

Sif grinned, “Is that really true?

“You could become a valkyrie and find out.”

Sif sighed, “My answer is still no.”

Bru groaned, dragging herself to sitting and flopping dramatically over onto Sif, collapsing them both into a pile, wheedling, “But I like it so much more when you say yes.”

Sif groaned in echo, her pique slackening into the distraction of another bout, and slid a hand around the back of Bru’s neck. Bru slid both hands up her sides, parting her robe and laying her bare. Sif sighed, “Then ask me something I can answer honestly.”

Sif’s eyes rolled back as Bru kissed her ear. Bru had such a knack for consuming all her senses. It was madness how fast it had all happened, and how deeply, how completely. She’d entertained infatuations before, embraced the occasional giddy fling with good appetite; but just the sight of Bru, the smell of her, moved her in ways unique and baffling. Of course Bru was beautiful, and brave, and strong, and well aware of it. That didn’t explain the way Sif’s heart ached when she entered a room, how the curve of her shoulder could become her entire world with the twitch of a muscle, or the way her own body responded to her glance.

She poured her delight down Bru’s neck as Bru’s mouth lingered along her throat, down her milky skin to her chest. The tip of Bru’s tender tongue slicked and tickled at a nipple before her fingers plucked and squeezed it. Sif arched, Bru grinned, “Good?”

Sif nodded, her core rigid, “Yes.”

She brought one thigh up between Bru’s to nestle against damp and downy hair. Bru rolled her hips against Sif’s thigh with a lascivious grin and dandled her taut nipple in her mouth. She plucked firmly with her lips, sucking, and when Sif whispered a plea, gripped with the tips of her teeth. She squeezed just until Sif’s gasps took on a hint of voice, then eased off, teasing and teasing while Sif writhed in mock helplessness. And when Sif was on the edge of pleading for more, she moved to the other breast, eliciting fresh gasps.

Sif’s whole skin tingled and she pressed her quads firmly between Bru’s thighs, nudging her up and grabbing her ass with strong hands as her own desires grew like an itch.

Bru surfaced for air, still grinning, “Already?”

Sif nodded, “Yes.”

“You're insatiable.”

Sif jostled her in answer, bucking her hips up, grabbing a pillow and sliding it under her ass, tilting her own slick thatch into a better, more vulnerable, more demanding position.

Bru smiled and spread her own thighs a little wider, sliding toward Sif’s center, one knee up over Sif’s thigh, the other bent and kneeling onto the bed, straightening her back as their centers aligned.

It never really took Bru long to find the right spot, though she always dawdled deliciously over the fine adjustments. Firm hands on soft hips, Bru pulled and shifted her, rubbing up slowly back and forth, spreading Sif’s wet folds open with the undulating pressure of her own crotch and an idly insinuating thumb that dipped between them, bracing her clit to best receive the benefit of their luscious grind. Sif felt her own expression and breathing change unbidden, as if Bru’s careless touches played her. Finally her lover stopped adjusting, “Hmmmm, right there I think.”

Sif nodded as Bru let her free hand stray back towards her chest.

Bru rolled her body expertly, cracking like a glacial whip in a wave from her neck down to her crotch, mounting her satiny slick vulva across Sif’s like a prow cresting a wave, easing down and surging up again, swirling the pad of her thumb in soft eddies alongside the mutual caress of their hardening clitoral tips.

Sif felt her senses slip into the thrall of Bru’s heat, her hunger, her grim and resolute joy, gasping wordless as she watched her lover, her beauty, writhe against and above her, generous and relentless and all-consuming.

She felt her edge slipping closer, wantonly fast. Her breath caught and Bru grinned. Bru’s hips gave a jittery shudder mid-roll and she asked slyly, “This?”

Sif nodded, whimpering, breathless.

Bru did it again, two brief little bursts of trembling rigor augmenting her smooth, maddening waves, “Say it, lover. You know what I like.”

“Yes...yes....Bru...please...” Sif’s syllables dissolved into quavering nonsense diphthongs as Bru shivered her over the edge, riding with her as sparks burst behind her eyelids and all her muscles clenched and shuddered like undersea mountains birthing magma.

Bru sank down beside her and Sif curled upon her like a sea creature, twining and tasting and nipping about Bru’s neck and ears. She pressed back Bru’s lustrous hair, tracing the graceful sweep of her hairline, and whispered, “Did you?”

Bru smirked and shook her head, “Not yet. Was enjoying watching you too much to bother.”

Sif pulled Bru’s top thigh onto her hip and slid her hand down between them, “That’s fair. I know you prefer to have a little something on the inside.”

Bru smiled wide, scandalized, “Is that a crack about Banner?”

Sif shrugged, shaking her head, slipping a finger into Bru’s succulent folds, “Maybe a small one. Tiny, really.”

Bru shook her head, rolling her hips against Sif’s stroke, “Jealousy doesn’t become you, my lady. Don’t knock him until you’ve knocked him.”

Sif sighed, feeling more earnestly sorry than was probably called for, “Sorry. I’ll mind my manners.”

Bru’s eyes rolled back. She took a firm fistful of Sif’s sweaty hair and kissed her deeply as Sif thrusted for her. She moaned and grinned, “Frig me off and then we can process, ok?”

Sif took Bru by the back of the neck, savored her throat, and pressed into her with fingers and knuckles that slowly got soaked. Bru moaned softly, almost hesitantly, as the pressure and repetition stirred the aqueous satin in her depths, and Sif breathed with her, breathed her in. Bru’s body needed a lot of time and care, needed hands with the strength stamina of a lifetime of fine sword work and heavy combat training. Sif cherished the feel of her with every thrust and beckon, listening for that sweet edge of helplessness to creep into her breathing, that tremble in the way a name became a plea, a question, “Sif?...Sif?...”

“I’m right here...I’m so deep inside you...I’m not going to stop...I love the way you feel...I love the way you squeeze me...the way you linger...”

Bru trembled and broke with a sighing one-note wail, her insides tightening down so hard Sif could barely curl her fingers to keep up the slow solid presses that took Bru through that shivering peak and gently down again.

They found stillness and lingered there, studying one another. Sif returned to Bru’s lips like a favorite poem, every line and artful turn memorized and still somehow needing to be discovered anew in every glance. As usual it paralyzed Sif with a heady mix of melancholy and wonder. It was all too new, still, to know if it would last. Passionate love was a thing of seasons on Asgard, uncensured so long as it was handled discreetly, and Sif had had a generous share. But she’d never felt the way Bru made her feel, like their souls both fit together and moved together like a hand in a hand.

Bru pursed her poetically perfect lips, “So, are you going to start?”

Sif sighed, “Sorry. I don’t hate Banner. I don’t get the appeal, but I don’t hate him. I don’t even resent him. He makes you happy, so I’ve got nothing to say about it. It’s not my first time sharing, I didn’t mean to act like it was.”

Bru planted a perfunctory kiss on her forehead, “Forgiven. It’s a bawdy night. I kind of like it when you’re bad, I just don’t want you to be unhappy is all,” she fiddled puckishly with Sif’s fingers, “Don’t suppose you can find that same equanimity for Thor’s wild-card consort.”

Sif groaned. She knew Bru was kidding but it hurt, “Please. Please don’t say it like that, like I’m jealous. Don’t say you believe me then act like you don’t.”

Bru flinched, brought up short. Her grin faded and she looked Sif steadily in the eyes, “Sorry.”

She shrugged, “Forgiven. And I’m not jealous, I actually like her. She’s smart, and for all the chaos she seems to have her head on straight. If anything makes me uneasy it’s that she’s not what I thought Loki would ever bring home. She can tell he’s poison, I'm certain of it. I can’t get a read on her motives here, whether he’s gotten his hooks in her or if she’s got her own game. But I like her. I feel good about the idea of Thor having her at his side, if it couldn’t be you or me. It just makes me wonder what he’s up to.”

Bru shrugged, “Maybe you could talk to her instead.”

Chapter Text

Sif grimaced, “She doesn’t know us. I don’t feel like we know her. Heimdall only knows what Loki’s told her to expect. Bringing her grim conspiracies may play right into that. Loki plays a long way ahead. I try not to enter into the direct line of his machinations lightly.”

Bru ‘s expression clouded, “What is the deal between you and Loki?”

Sif sighed, “I’ve known better than to make deals with him for a long while.”

Bru rolled her eyes, “The situation I mean. I swear, Asgardians. Pick up the slang.”

“What situation?”

Bru gaped at her incredulously, brandishing her tattooed forearm like a banner, “Just tell me.”

Sif winced, “There’s just a lot of history. Where do you even want me to start?”

Bru huffed as if Sif was being stubborn, propping herself up on an elbow, “Alright, you stop me when I say something wrong. You don’t trust him any further than I can spit him. He’s hurt you; home, body, soul, pride, and all; in small wearing ways and large shattering ways. He’s a clear and present threat to everything you care about. But when you think I’m not paying attention, you have that same wistful protective look when you talk about him as you do for Thor. The same as Thor does for him and you. And occasionally Banner. And earth.”

Sif shrugged, “I suppose the short answer is that everything I’ve done for Thor, Loki was there for all of it. The good and the miserable,” she smirked, “the tally of life-saving is comparable, even if it feels like a lifetime ago that we were friends. I don’t even mean to hide the fact that I still care for him, not from you at least. I just can’t afford to give him an inch.”

“He certainly doesn’t seem to ask any quarter. So why tolerate him?”

“In my heart of hearts I believe that there’s more to his compulsive awfulness than I know,” she shook her head, “but I also know that I’m a fool, and what my heart believes means nothing. And I think he counts on that, from me and Thor and...absent friends; that we’ll go on believing that he can’t be otherwise and yet will never truly be beyond redemption.”

“You know how insane that sounds.”

Sif nodded, “Plainly.”

“Do you really believe it?”

Sif shifted her head noncommittally “I do. I shouldn’t. Neither should Thor. But it’s the choice we make.”

“Why?”

“He wasn’t always toxic. His tricks and obfuscations,” her expression softened, nostalgic, “they used to be so sweet. Little favors and gestures in around the edges, making you know how he felt without ever saying. As if he cared too much for words. Even his lies, like Thor’s temper, always went hand in hand with the understanding that he cared about the greater good,” she smirked, “He used to lie to be kind, to smooth over fights, trick us into being better than we were. He could be a bastard sometimes, but he was always our bastard.”

Bru sighed, unconvinced, “Sounds adorable.”

Sif shrugged, “Back then it was Thor that was the handful; arrogant and insecure, always conscious of the pressure to prove himself. Loki steadied him, and spared his dignity while he did it. He had his mother’s gift for handling Thor, and Odin too. Like he saw through them. I think everyone loved Thor more because of how much Loki loved him, whether they knew it or not.”

“So when did that change?”

“Slowly, I think. But long before Jotunheim his usual tricks had stopped being just his usual tricks. It was like he was trying to tell us something, even though he didn’t want to. He would be angry and never say why. His friendly barbs were aimed to hurt. We’d been close, but I stopped understanding him, and he stopped wanting me to. The last time I was sure of whether he was lying to me was when he swore he wasn’t hurting, that I was imagining things.”

“Why not just confront him?”

Sif laughed, “We’d all counted on his white lies and cleverness for so long, we couldn’t justly rebuke him for being a trickster. Even if I had, he’s too slippery. He can talk me into a corner as easy as breathing.” She paused, continuing carefully, “I do think he tried to stop himself. Ambition and resolve are second nature to him, but self-control and discipline are his downfall, always. A few times it felt like he was trying to stop. He would try to isolate himself, then become lonely and behave as if we’d sent him away,” she fiddled with a dark lock of her hair, “he goes a little crazy when he’s alone.”

Bru didn’t seem as taken with Sif’s reverie, “Sounds more like a bomb than a friend.”

Sif shrugged, “I know. But he was never alone when we were children. He always had Thor. When Thor was happy he was the most fun, the most generous, the most effusively admiring, and he made Loki happy. When Loki was happy, nothing could ever go so wrong that he wouldn’t get us out of it. He could protect Thor’s tender heart from Odin’s anger,” she felt herself drifting off into intimate fondnesses she hadn’t spoken of for too long, “and Fandral could infuse the most mundane and petty ambitions with a sense of grandeur, and Hogan made sure that, for all that, we were never too far divorced from reality. And Volstagg,” tears flowed freely down her cheeks, “You could never lose his love. You could lash out at him, curse him, run from him, he would still believe in your goodness, and wrap you in a love like sunlight and honey,” she cleared her throat, “I still can’t believe that Odin hid the truth from all of us, about what was coming. I should have been on Asgard,” she shook her head, “I should have been with them.”

Bru spoke softly, “Don’t do that. Don’t dare pretend like that would be better. Don’t even think it.”

Sif leaned down and kissed her on her temple, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. That was awfully insensitive of me. But I do wish I’d been with you. Avenging them on Asgard. I wish I’d seen it one last time.”

Bru didn’t say anything, her gaze distant.

Sif frowned. Bru still hadn’t talked about her own loss, and tended to float above conversations that brought up grief. The brooding was new. “Lover I’m sorry. I am. I shouldn’t put that on you.”

Bu shook her head, not looking at her, “No, you’re grieving. It’s understandable.”

Sif smiled, “I wish you’d known them. They’d have loved you.”

Bru snorted a little too harshly to seem merry, “I’ve never been much for friendships with boys. But yeah, I’m sure I’d have loved them. If they loved you,” Bru’s tone was too disengaged, and Sif felt it like a draft.

She let a probing edge creep into her voice, “What do you mean ‘if’.”

Bru shook her head, “Nothing.”

It didn’t seem like nothing. If it were a misunderstanding she’d have apologized. Sif gave a warning scowl, “Don’t do that.”

Bru noticed and pretended she didn’t, “Do what?”

Sif pressed herself up on one arm, “Imply that my friends didn’t love me as I loved them. That’s cruel. And it...dishonors the memory of the dead.”

Bru shook her head, her expression hard, “Are you sure that what you remember is what you remember?”

Sif furrowed her brow. Bru was off on some tangent, her point muddled, but it was still hurtful, “What are you talking about?”

“I think your gut was right before. Something is wrong. But it’s not just your grim feeling, it’s also why you can’t tell anyone. You’ve spent your life insisting you’re no less a warrior than any man, in a kingdom where the queen stands during ceremonies and no one even has the sense to be embarrassed by it. We cut such chunks out of ourselves trying to prove ourselves equals and it’s never enough, and it makes us sick. I didn’t even know how sick with it I was until I became a valkyrie.”

“Oh so I’m sick now.”

Bru nodded, unrelenting, “That’s why you don’t want to be a valkyrie, and why you don’t like Banner, and why you rejected Thor when he begged you to travel with him as consort. Because you’re still seeking the approval of men, ghosts now, who never managed to think of themselves as the warriors four.”

Sif boggled, “That’s quite the choice set of points to stab at me with to avoid admitting that you’re being awful right now. You’re not making any sense.”

Bru continued, unchecked, “Womanhood can only be a demotion in Asgard. Even being a queen after having come so close to being a warrior would be humiliating for one of the wonderful warriors three-and-a-half.”

Sif turned away and got out of bed, belting her robe with a severity that cut into her gut as neatly as Bru had. Her thoughts were reeling, “Now who’s being jealous?”

“Not I.”

She rounded, “So you’re just savaging me for sport then, not in retaliation for my daring to grieve in your presence?”

Bru was belting her own robe, her hard tone faltering, “No. I’m just agreeing with you. There’s something wrong here, and I can’t tell if-” she swiped at her eyes, her voice hitching, “I’m tired of the way this realm eats women and then forgets them. I want to leave. I thought I could come back here and I can’t.”

Sif put a hard reign on her emotions, recognizing the bitter desperation in Bru’s well-aimed but poorly conceived gambit, and how they weren’t really talking about the same things at all.

Bru’s posture was tense, aware. She perched on the edge of the bed facing away, braced up to deflect whatever Sif might fire back. Sif went and sat beside her. She cleared her throat, trying to get onto the same page, “You’ve never told me her name.”

Bru huffed, her anger weakening as quickly as it had pounced, “Neither has anyone else, apparently. Body left to rot in the field, but her name got a burial in quick order.”

“Tell me.”

“No,” she shook her head, “I’m not done being angry, and Asgard doesn’t deserve to have her name brought back to it. You’re right about this. About Thor. There’s nothing to be done about it. I-” she swallowed a lump of pride that almost choked her, “I’m sorry for what I said. About your friends. Of course they loved you. Who wouldn’t?” she laughed, but didn’t take the hand Sif put on hers, “but there’s something so wrong here. I’ve tried to ignore it but the memory of Asgard is all wrong. I thought it was just the erasure of the valkyrie. Odin’s treachery. But it’s more than that.”

“Bru. Beloved. I don’t understand what you mean. Please help me.”

Bru took a shuddering sigh, “On Sakaar. I got in a fight with Loki. And, you’re right, he plays a long way ahead. I thought I beat him but looking back,” she prodded the insides of her cheeks with her tongue, “he had me dead to rights. He did something to my memory, and he could have done anything for the moment I was frozen by it. I’m faster than him, but not by that much. He could have run. He could have stabbed me. He could have knocked me unconscious.”

“What did he do?”

Bru snorted, “He waited. He let me knock him cold in a rage and truss him like a cooked bird. He knew I was more familiar with hunting quarry on Sakaar, more likely to find Thor, and if he were my prisoner he’d be along for the ride instead of out in the cold.”

Sif nodded, “Sounds like something he would do. For as much as his pride eats at him, he’s never put much store by dignity.”

Bru sighed, “But it’s more than that. The memory he hit me with, I’d been running from it for a thousand years and he brought it back clear as crystal. And it more than came back to me, Sif, it changed my mind. Changed it to what Thor wanted me to do. Changed it so I thought I could come back here. I’ve gone over it a hundred times. I thought I was delivering him to Thor as a peace offering, but he was delivering me. And now I don’t know if it’s him doing it, or something that predates him that he’s taking advantage of, or if it’s just a coincidence, but there’s something wrong in Asgard, and I’ve been gone too long to ignore it, and I’ve been gone too long to recognize it for what it is.”

Sif swallowed, “You want to leave Asgard again. And you’re hoping I’ll let you.”

Bru nodded at her hands in her lap, and at the tears that fell there, “Before it’s too late, if it isn’t already. What I really want is for you to come with me, but I know you won’t. You didn’t leave when Thor asked, so why would you-”

Sif cupped her chin and kissed her lips, then drew a deep breath and tried to speak steadily, “I’m not saying no.”

Bru’s expression flickered between frustration and desperate hope.

Sif looked away, “You’re wrong about why I rejected Thor. It wasn’t just for Asgard, for warrior pride, for fear of feeling like a woman. The rest of it, maybe, I don’t know. It certainly upsets me that you said it like you did, so, perhaps. Perhaps there’s truth in that. Perhaps I’m sick. But not about Thor. Thor may be the only other thing in the nine realms I’m sure of.”

Bru squinted at her in perplexity.

She pressed on, “When Thor begged me to go with him, it was supposed to be everything I wanted, if I believed the fairy tales. But Loki had just died in his arms, and I know him. He’s fragile. Needy. I knew if I went with him, he would turn to me to love him, to steady him, to fill a void that-” she sighed, “I knew it would be a disaster, that anything he tried to put in Loki’s place would be swallowed up,” she scoffed, “and the implosion of his relationship with Jane Foster has left me with no regrets in that regard.”

Bru nodded, “I feel like this is your fancy way of telling me no. I’m not exactly voidless.”

Sif shook her head vigorously, “I rejected him because I loved him enough to accept that I didn’t love him the way he thought he needed. Maybe not in any way he actually does need, from a consort. And it felt so cruel because it was just...such a relief. Knowing that I could adore him, that we could have the past we’ve had, and the depth of love between us that we do, without binding that up in a romance...and for that to be a complete and perfect thing and not a half of something more. Finally there was nothing missing, nothing we were supposed find that defied detection,” she hung her head, “but that doesn’t describe how I feel about you. I don’t mean that I can ever take her place, but I love you enough to risk finding one of my own. I’m not telling you no.”

Bru’s expression was still mixed, but hope was winning out, “What are you telling me?”

Sif shook her head, “I’m not telling you anything. But I’m begging you to give me just a little time. Just enough that I can try, one last time, to understand my home before I leave it. Whether I do or not I’ll go with you and I won’t look back. Bring Banner, I won’t bat an eye. I know I can’t save Thor from himself, or Asgard from itself, or Loki from anything. You’re right, I’ve been fighting that fight my whole life. And I’m tired. But when I’m with you, I’m not tired, and I feel like my life is more than just a purpose. And yes, if you go tonight, I’ll go with you. And if you stay tonight I’ll stay with you. And if you give me time I’ll use it and I won’t make you sorry.”

Bru didn’t move, didn’t say anything.

Sif kissed her shoulder, “Am I just being brutally stupid?”

Bru sighed, “You’re not. I just don’t want you putting your hand into this mess. I think even trying to know will be dangerous.”

“Dangerous. You really think it’s to that point?”

“Don’t you? There were giants at the gates yesterday.”

Sif cupped Bru’s face in her palm, “We’ll figure it out.”

Bru shook her head again, “Sif. I don’t want to figure it out. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I’m a valkyrie. That’s why I need to know where you stand on Loki. Because if it turns out he’s a traitor to the throne, and we figure that out, I know where I have to stand.”

Sif gripped Bru’s wrist, pressing her with devotion, “Give me three days and I swear, no matter what happens, I’ll stand with you.”

Chapter Text

Bru slept late. Sif puttered quietly. She had nothing especially to do on the morning after a fete, no reason to wake Bru with the sound of the door, or leave her side in any case. She washed and brushed her hair, cleaned her nails, dug about for clothes. She hoped Bru would wake up before she got too hungry, but she was good at waiting.  A warrior’s patience. Maybe that was evidence of a sickness, but it was a choice she knew how to make.

It was a small room, just a bedroom with space for a table and basin. She'd chosen it because the black and gold walls reminded her of Asgard. She’d hoped that would make her feel at home, but even after three months everything was still a half-arranged mess. It wouldn't take much to leave.

She watched Bru sleep, more than a little frightened by how she still meant every word from the night before, both in the synthetic light of late morning and the privacy of her own head. For as much of her life as she’d spent being willing to die for Asgard, she had never felt at home, even before she’d left it to seek infinity stones, for Thor. For as grand as her adventures for Asgard had been, they had never felt like her story. Bru had changed that, and she never wanted to change back.

She had just finished silently dressing when some idiot started banging on the door, working to undo the purpose of all her patient dithering. She hurried to answer it as Bru moaned and rolled over, and resolved that if whoever it was hadn’t thought to bring the most spectacular breakfast ever they’d have earned themselves a swift kick in the head.

It was Banner, looking as smugly jovial and unnervingly non-threatening as usual. He was pleasant enough to look at, to Sif’s way of thinking, at least structurally. She liked his dark curls and softly muscular frame, but his smile never looked like a smile. He only ever looked like a gassy infant, or a good-hearted dragon trying to hold in hiccups. But he had in fact brought a fairly spectacular breakfast, the tray heavy in his hands, so Sif managed to model a proper smile for him, “Good morning, Doctor Banner.”

His smile in return was, as always, so understated and obsequious as to be otherwise unreadable, “Lady Sif. Saw you guys weren’t up and around. Thought you might appreciate something to eat.”

“Brunhilda’s still abed. Please come in.”

“You brought food,” Bru rolled out of bed looking inexcusably beautiful, and meandered to the table as Banner set down the tray. She plucked herself a few grapes and gave him a smile that made him glance nervously at Sif.

Sif scrupulously refused to give him any hint of assurance or hostility. It was as if the man had never shared a lover with anyone before, or else was just constitutionally incapable of not making everything as awkward as possible. She sighed, “That’s a lovely gesture, Doctor Banner. I was just heading out to meet a friend, but you two enjoy.”

She and Bru exchanged a minor debate, entirely via eyebrow, about who was being awkward, eventually agreeing, for the most part, that it was probably Bruce. She gave Bru a chaste kiss before departing with her implicit blessing.

Sif strode with a pretense of purpose down the hall, not entirely sure where she was going or if it mattered. Three days wasn’t a long time and she didn’t know where she even meant to start. Perhaps Heimdall or her mother would have some insight. But if they knew anything that they weren’t acting on, she doubted she had the power to change their course or unbind their mouths.

Her heart insisted that she could always talk to Thor, propriety be damned, but her mind knew better.

Bru’s question about Loki from the night before came back to her with startling clarity: Why not just confront him?

It was certainly a thought. Loki could be brutal if he thought he was being maneuvered, but he was at his best when approached directly and in private. It would be more for his sake than hers, she thought. One last chance, for old time’s sake.

---

When Natasha had fallen asleep out of sheer exhaustion, her brain had left off gnawing on the question of what the storm giants wanted with Loki. He’d said their kind hadn’t been seen since he was a child, and that he hadn’t done anything to bring them. She'd realized, with drowsy reluctance, that she believed him. It wasn’t that she was completely discounting the idea that he’d lied, or that she assumed he was telling the whole truth, it was just a choice about how she was going to feel and behave going forward, like any choice she would make for a friend or a fellow spy. That felt dangerous. She chose that, too, and slept.

When she woke, Loki was still gone, and she was too busy remembering everything else from the previous day to begin again on the last thing Thor had told her before they’d both succumbed to sleep. Mostly she remembered how little of the feast she’d actually eaten, and Loki’s passing promise to bring breakfast in the afternoon. Her internal timers indicated it was still only mid-morning, and skylights in the corners let in a sunlight bright enough to make the silky bed sheets shine as brightly as her bracer. She was already starving. She rolled over to drink some water and see if the hunger would die down on its own. Thor turned over against her and muttered something into her hair through a breezy half-snore.

She pulled away far enough to look at him, fondness mixing with pity, pondering the idle question that always came to mind during pleasant deceptions: if this were real, would I be happy? Perhaps, she concluded. He was beautiful and generous and they had a good time. He needed her help, that was always a plus. He had a good heart and wasn’t a sanctimonious shit about it. In another life, if they’d been required to marry in earnest, they could likely have made it work. In another other-life, she amended, glancing around the alien bedroom with a smirk. Being a valkyrie was already other-life enough. But she still had to admit, she felt happier knowing that it wasn’t real than pretending it was, and that was mostly on her.

His most attractive quality as a friend was that he felt no real need to unearth her difficult parts, and she had a corresponding disinterest in letting him. He knew she had terrible secrets, and it didn’t seem to bother him in the least. That lack of pressure between them was probably why he knew a lot more about her than most of their friends, but her real secrets, the things that locked her alone with herself at night, were really not meant for him. He’d probably never had a deep dark secret in his life. It meant they’d never work as a couple, but it was definitely something she liked about being his friend, that she could leave those things aside around him. His affection was a respite.

But she’d told Loki about Barnes. About Navidna. About the train. And he’d understood in a way that confirmed his own roster of dark, sticky, ugly secrets; that empathic bond between monsters. And still he’d asked her to stay. Not with him, not with Thor, but with them. The mad edge of that tickled at her brain. He and Thor didn’t seem to work any better than she and Thor ever would, but maybe if they all had each other...like a team...with benefits...

Thor yawned and stirred and spooned up tight against her, morning wood pressing against the cleft of her ass.

She reached back and rubbed his hip lightly, grinning, “Hey, stop sporking me, you doofus.”

He sighed, barely half awake, and nuzzled stubbornly against her neck, murmuring unintelligible pleasantries. She sighed back as her body responded to the fantasy, masquerading in the moment as a simple creature of appetite and leisure. She wiggled against the prong in the spoon, “Honey, wake up.”

He opened his gummy eyes disoriented, some dream or other clouding his vision.

She beamed sympathetically over her shoulder, “I hope you’re not suddenly a blackout drunk, because the story here is even longer than you’re probably thinking.”

He regained what little composure he needed, picking up her hand and kissing it, “How is the king’s consort this morning?”

“Shockingly coherent, all things considered. How’s the king?”

He lipped at her ear, “Hungry.”

She laughed, disbelieving, “You’re...honestly I’ve never seen this side of you before.”

“Well obviously.”

“No, I mean really. How did I miss what a lech you are? There were times when we first met I wondered if you were a virgin.” And times when you were grieving, she thought, that I never suspected the extent of it.

He had a hearty laugh at that, sporking against her playfully, “I just don’t consider this sort of thing to be a spectator sport.”

She smirked, “But you’re into mixed doubles. What other scandalous secrets are you hiding?”

He gave distinctly decrescendo chuckle, “None that you didn’t learn last night.” He began kissing her neck in more earnest, but when she didn’t respond either verbally or physically he lay back a bit, “Sorry, I’ll stop if you want. You’re not at all obligated-”

She glanced at him, “Hm? No, no, you’re fine, sorry. Last night was great. This is great. I have no idea what’s actually happening, but I’m not sorry and I’m not eager for it to end. I’m just...I’m really overtrained to think about my mission when I’m in bed with anyone. I’m remembering what you told me. About the giants.”

He nodded, and she could feel his mood change as he pressed his forehead against the back of her neck.

She patted his hip again, “So we’re not telling Loki?”

Thor sighed, “No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know what he’d do. He has this awful tendency to decide that he has to handle everything on his own and- I can’t-” he shook his head, “I can’t take that right now.”

Nat turned over, “Well, it’s happening right now. Something is going to happen.”

“And I’ll protect him.”

Nat grimaced, regarding him seriously, “I know you’ll try.”

His brow crumpled, his eyes closing, “You think I’ll fail.”

She shrugged, “We. I think there’s a chance that we’ll fail. And I-” she took a breath, “I’m not accusing you of being the same kind of person that I am-”

He glanced at her, bemused, “Natasha-”

She held up a hand, “I would never do that, because you’re not, ok? I know that, and so do you. But I also know that most people, even good people, don’t really keep secrets to protect anyone but themselves, ultimately. And I don’t judge that, we all have a right to protect ourselves, and a right to have a past. But it doesn’t protect your friends when secrets are between you. Not with people you love. It just cuts you off from them when they need you most.”

Thor frowned shrewdly, “You’re speaking of Rogers and Stark.”

She sighed, “I’m speaking from experience. A lot of experience.”

He set his mouth in a resigned line, “I’ll call a counsel this afternoon. I’ll have you on it.”

She smiled, smoothing his hair back, sad to have made him sad, “Thanks. Sorry. I promise I'll protect you. Both of you.”

He accepted her coddling, his brow softening, “I always try to run towards my problems, but they’ve always been Out There. Mysteries. Enemies. Nightmares. Asgard’s been where I come when everything’s well. Now I’m here, and so are all my problems. It’s more than a little overwhelming.”

She smiled, “I know what you mean. It’s nice to have a place to leave all those things aside for a while. A respite. What’s say I go find Loki, see what I can get him to tell me about the giants."

He nodded, relieved, grateful, "I would appreciate that."

She smirked, "After I’m done going down on you.”

He started to agree but she was already kissing her way down his body, his knees beginning to churn the white sheets as he writhed.

--

“What are you playing at now?”

“Hleya, mind your tone.”

Hleya stopped just within the guest chamber's doors, mid-storm, “Fine, what are you playing at, my Lord Father?”

Frey dropped a folded robe into a chest upon the bed, “It’s none of your concern, child.”

“None of my- One minute mother’s trying to marry me off to Loki, then you’re maneuvering to get him killed?”

Frey’s expression fell, “Is that truly all you gathered from last night’s revels?”

Hleya tossed her head dramatically, “Much to everyone’s continuing disappointment, I am not Hnoss. But I’m what you’re stuck with for an heir, for the time being at least. So tell me. I expect this sort of cold-hearted whimsy from mother but-”

“So my youngest swings a sword, wears some flowers, and suddenly I must meet her expectations.”

“Why did you name her Vala? Invoking the order of Vali right there between Thor and Loki both? That was obscene."

"I'm sure no one but you saw it that way. It has been a ceremonial honor for valor in first battle for longer than it ever was anything else."

"That wasn't merely a ceremonial honor. Why would you make Loki’s bodyguard, already valkyrie, into the king’s rightful kinslayer for an evening? What message were our hosts, and the court, meant to take? What threat?”

"No message. No threat. The duties of Vali haven't been invoked since the title was founded, no matter how many new warriors bear the title for a day in recognition of loyalty and martial prowess."

"Then why? It's a lesser title than Valkyrie in both respects. You did her no especial honor. She didn't even understand you."

Frey’s face hardened, “It pleased me to do so.”

“But why?”

“Because it pleased my Lady.”

“I'm certain it did. Because you did it right before mother invited Loki, the king's kin, Natasha's patron, to give bad counsel before the whole court.”

“Please. He’s never needed an invitation to give bad counsel.”

Her voice rose in exasperation, “Nor have you ever needed one to lecture me on fine matters of state I’m failing to grasp. Should I have this one embossed?”

Frey pursed his lips, closing the trunk before him on the bed, “Your mother and I and the rest of the delegation will be returning to Vanaheim in a few hours. We informed Heimdall, but opted not to speak for you. Now that you are a warrior, we thought you might like to remain and help defend Asgard in case the giants return,” he nodded towards the shaved side of her hair, “avenge your singed scalp.”

Hleya blinked, derailed, “You would let me stay?”

He shrugged, “It is entirely up to you. Come back with us, resume your studies of statecraft as our heir, and I will happily break down the vital lessons of last night’s feast as they relate to magic and the ancient laws, for your edification. Or you could stay a while on your own. The suite is reserved three more days. Give yourself a chance to work it out for yourself and face any consequences of your choice, as a warrior must.”

“Mother would allow that?”

“She was the one that insisted the choice be yours, freely,” he smiled fondly, “you’ve never truly understood her, Hleya.”

She wasn’t listening, weighing the options. She knew her parents too well to think that a choice was ever truly a choice. Either option would surely get them their desired result. That was just the nature of life under a paired deity, the harmony of their names belying the difference in their faces. The options might seem opposite, but underneath they were closely and inseparably married. The only difference was in what she told them about herself with what she chose.

“I’ll stay.”

Chapter Text

Loki woke up alone, reflexively quashing the short sharp burst of anxiety that solitude and confinement always gave him. His heart-rate reluctantly calmed, and he closed his eyes to give waking up a second try, forearm across his eyes. His skittish instincts grudgingly absorbed a few facts: he was fine, Thor was safe, and everything else that lay in shambles was hardly new. He kicked off the bedclothes to prove to himself that he wasn’t bound down. He touched his face, his throat, his wrists. No muzzle. No collar. No shackles. Just phantom bonds. Iron ghosts. Hardly new.

He stared at the door, wishing he didn’t have to prove to himself that it would open at his command. He picked his tunic off the floor on the way. It smelled like sex. He smiled and put it on. The door hissed open and Sif gasped, hand raised to knock. She apparently took his fixed look of self-scorn to be directed at her, which was efficient, at least. He pushed down his pleasure at being sought-out to maintain the illusion.

“Sif.”

“Sorry to disturb you,” she glanced past him at the empty bed, “You’re looking well.”

He bowed his head to hide a smirk. He looked like shit. Hair askew and in yesterday’s baggy linen he knew he looked like a poet struggling to find a rhyme for “I’m dying of tuberculosis”. Sif, meanwhile, was as crisply appointed as always, not a hair out of place or an ornament in excess. And yet she’d spoken in earnest. He found it adorable in spite of himself. She was just so...good.

He spared her the burnt end of a smile, “I shudder to think what you were expecting.”

“I was worried that I might wake you. I’m glad that I didn’t.”

“Is there some news?”

She shook her head, “I just wanted to talk.”

He squinted but stood aside, “Come in. There’s nowhere to sit, but do your best.” She leaned against the edge of the tub while he went around the bed to root for clothes, “I hope you don’t mind if I dress. I’m going out in a minute.”

“No, of course. I don’t mind.”

He inspected a pair of trousers, “Well? What have I done now?

She smiled wanly and gave a little laugh, “I don’t know. Saved me and Bru. Saved Thor. Protected Asgard. Become the toast of the city. Take your pick, I suppose.”

He frowned, “What do you want.”

She gave a put-upon sigh, “Nothing.”

“Well then what-”

She stood up, “Loki, I’m leaving.”

He tilted his head at her, “If you insist. Nice to see you.”

“I mean I’m leaving Asgard. We are. Bru and I. In a few days.”

“Why?” he didn’t mean to, it just slipped out.

“She’s not happy here. And I’m only as happy as I’ve ever been here, which I’m finding isn’t enough for me anymore.”

He picked through a drawer with a tentative chuckle, “Wonders never cease.”

She pressed on, “I feel we’re leaving Asgard in good hands. Now that you’re back and Natasha is here.”

He nodded broadly, annoyed that he couldn’t detect even a hint of damning passive aggression in her tone. “Oh. Yes. Well, thank you very much for that.”

“I just wanted to talk to you. First.”

He pretended to be absorbed in choosing between two identical undershirts, “So talk.”

“You know there’s something wrong with Asgard. Don’t you.”

He sighed, “Yes. It blew up. But you don’t have to tell me, I was actually there. When did you find out?”

He had hoped it would be enough to make her storm out, but she just sat quietly. He tossed clothes onto the bed, peeling out of his tunic and strolling to the basin.

“Did I ever understand you?” She sounded as if she were asking the air. The weight of it made the base of his throat ache. “Tell me honestly, Loki. I know it’s been a long time, but I remember us being friends, once.”

He shrugged, “We were. But just the once.”

She scoffed, “You’re always so funny when you’re angry.”

“And you’re so nice when you want something.”

She studied her nails as he sponged off, “You want this to be a fight, but I’m leaving. If you really hate me so much, you’ve already won. I just want to understand what went wrong.”

“You want this to be easy, and it can’t be,” he sighed, snatching the fresh shirt off the bed. His blows were landing. He suspected he could wear her down, but perhaps not before he ran out of will. He didn’t have enough to spare, “But if it makes you feel any better, it wasn’t your fault. Does that satisfy you?”

“Do you think that’s what I want?”

He gave her a droll look, “Sorry, was I supposed to fuck you against the door when you came in?”

“Oh please. Don’t try to shock me, Loki. Since the last time you bothered to look me in the eye I’ve stood up to worse than you can do.”

“Then why are you leaving? I can’t imagine rejection has any more power over you than cruelty, considering all you’ve withstood.”

She squinted at him, “Rej-” her jaw dropped, “You...you of all people think that this is because Thor didn’t choose me?”

That was unexpected. He retreated into a blase frown, tucking his shirt in vigorously, “I don’t think anything. You’re the one that’s here to talk to me.”

She shook her head, “I’m just...shocked. You’re always the one that sees what everyone else misses. You even give the people you hate the credit they’re due. But even you,” she shook her head, eyes damp in a way that unsettled him, “Loki, Thor did choose me. I turned him down.”

“What?” He wondered if it would kill her to lie once in a while, honestly.

“Oh don’t be so shocked. It was after you died. I’m not pretending to have outcompeted you.”

“You turned him down?” he pulled on his green leather surplice, “When he needed you?”

“No. I turned him down when he needed you.”

A snarl pooled in the well of his throat as he jerked his coat onto his shoulders, “Typical. If you’ll excuse me I have to go provide a swift exit for the Vanir delegation, in the sincere hope that they avail themselves of it.”

“I’ll walk with you.”

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

Her tone firmed up unattractively, “Too bad.”

He grumbled as she fell into step beside him, but made no effort to shake or outpace her.

“Bru says you did something to her on Sakaar. Some sort of memory magic. You used to tell me about all your lessons. I don’t recall Frigga ever teaching you anything like that.”

“Yes, well if I knew memory magics you wouldn’t, would you.”

“Are you saying it’s true?”

“I’m saying believe what you want. Everyone else does.”

Sif scoffed, “Don’t pretend you’re the exception to that.”

“Don’t tell me what to pretend.” He still couldn’t quite wrap his mind around the idea that she had turned Thor down. It only got harder as she walked along demonstrating how entirely similar she and Thor were, keeping after him and trying to bind him down to their own preferred rules of engagement: forthright to the point of arrogance, so quintessentially asgardian, and compulsively unable to ever do what he set them up to do for their own good. It prickled his curiosity in ways he knew were unwise, but as long as Sif were bent on talking… “You could still be with Thor, you know. Natasha likely isn’t staying longer than it takes me to complete the wonders.”

“I don’t think I want to be with Thor. Now that I’m free of it, I don’t know that wanting him was ever more than some mixture of duty and loneliness. I love him as deeply as ever, but I don’t think that’s the same thing. I want to love him as he lives his own life, and I live mine. Anyway, you’re staying. I don’t foresee you tolerating anyone being with him any longer than it takes you to get bored of being noble. Or anyone being with me, for that matter.”

He stopped dead, “What in Hel’s hotpocket does that mean?”

Sif squared with him and gave him The Look: the rare stern pity saved for those times when it was appropriate for her to condescend to anyone. It made her look like her mother. He hated it. She took a patient breath, “Your memory magics need to get a lot better before anyone that knows you will forget all the times your jealousy has made you vicious.”

He couldn’t think of a reply that wouldn’t set him shouting, so he stalked off. The corridors of new Asgard were too damn claustrophobic, as far as he was concerned. Too close and hard. Sound carried and any idiot could hide close enough to hear. He longed for the massive spaces of the old Asgard, high vaulted rooms and sprawling balconies where pronouncements carried but oaths and arguments could die in peace. But he could finally see the light of the front courtyard.

“Everyone knows, Loki.”

He turned on his heel, “I beg your pardon.”

“How you feel for Thor. How jealously you protect him. How jealously you sabotage any life he might have without you in it. That’s why you can’t let him be king. That’s why you weren’t about to let him leave Sakaar. That’s why you pushed me at him one day and then began hating and attacking me the next. Does Natasha know what she’s in for, now that she’s your latest doomed attempt to let him go? How you love to pretend that you only want what’s best for others, but that the moment you’re alone-” she swallowed and left off talking, and the look of tender regret that overtook her features made him wonder what his own face was doing. The rest of him certainly felt like it had been flayed open. He almost wanted to laugh: who knew Sif had it in her?

He meandered back towards her, wobbling slightly and glaring like a wounded, cornered thing. He got right in her face and hissed, “You don’t know anything.”

She retreated back into that doughty, shallow, asgardian forthrightness, “I know that after you pushed me away and towards Thor, after he started training me and we became close, that you cut all my blonde hair off and made it grow back black. You said it was a joke but it didn’t feel like a joke. You knew I couldn’t make a fuss because every weathered einherjar in the kingdom was eager to paint me as a spoiled little princess. It doesn’t even hurt me as much as knowing, every day, that you mean for it to hurt me does.”

Her sincerity stabbed at him, but the impact of it bubbled up as a cruel, incredulous laugh. He laughed in her face and she didn’t flinch. He stumbled aside and braced against the wall, trying to catch his breath, wiping tears, “You-” he gasped, gusting another grating sob of laughter, “you stupid, pathetic, self-absorbed-” he sighed into another fit of hysterics. He shook his head, catching his breath, “Oh, oh Sif,” he smiled winningly, his expression a mask of beatific pity, “I was just trying to make him want you. You seemed to need all the help you could get, and he prefers brunettes, you see.”

Sif pursed her lips, nodding sternly. He couldn’t tell in the dim if her eyes were damp again, “I’m sure he does. The same way you prefer blondes.”

Loki’s expression of smug scorn didn’t falter, at least outwardly. He straightened, turning down the hall, “I think we’re done talking.”

Sif sighed, falling into step with him again, “I’m sure you think you are. But you’ve never even let death itself have the last word.”

He bowed his head and smiled, wishing he could hate her, letting himself block out her presence in the corner of his eye to focus on work.

Chapter Text

Nat lingered beside the bed, musing on how, for the first time since she’d arrived, Thor actually looked like the Avenger she knew, eyepatch notwithstanding. He had fallen back into a thick mid-morning nap amid sunbeams, that cocky, contented little Mona Lisa smile tucking itself into his cheek as he slept.

She knew she had to dress and get moving, having already let the morning drag out too long.  One quick blowjob had somehow morphed into a long, deep fuck with him up behind her. He’d meditatively churned her with the rhythm of a slow-moving freight train, finally pushing her to completion with a gentle thumb against the soft pucker of her ass and memories of the relentless crushing pleasure of the night before.

They’d caught their breath over a giggling, trivial conversation about the virtues of anal versus vaginal sex, which led to the realization that she hadn’t actually sampled her fake husband’s skills as a classic sodomite. That lead to an entertaining but short-lived experiment that left them agreeing that Loki was the reigning champion of butt-sport in all categories, though a rematch was not out of the question. Cleanup from that had devolved into creating an even greater need for cleanup, which had adjourned them to the bathtub, after which Thor had fallen back into bed and a blissfully exhausted doze.

Looking at him asleep, she still couldn’t quite believe that they’d somehow become lovers, though her skin was still singing with the proof. There should have been some shock of the absurd, some trepidation and over-think if they really had crossed that line, but she just felt safe. Contented. Confident. She hadn’t caught any look in his eye for her that compared to the deep and devastating passion he and Loki seemed to generate in one another, but that felt right. She liked the lightness of them, and her skin adored him. She wanted to slip back into the fantasy and curl in to bed again.

But she felt a stronger need to catch Loki for a private word before he got back, so she hastily retrieved her clothes, doing a quick touch-count of all the hidden knives as she headed out the door. Beyond the haze of Thor’s radiant contentment, she wondered if Loki really had been ok with the previous night, and whether he’d remained ok when she hadn’t gone after him and spent the night in his room as (she realized with a small wince) she had promised to do.

Foremost in her mind was the need to make him talk to her, or to Thor. Maybe that would mean consequences, but whatever Loki was keeping from Thor was only likely to be compounded by what Thor was keeping from Loki, and consequences were beginning to seem inevitable, one way or the other. When they showed up, she just wanted to be able to take responsibility for her share, or at least say that she had tried.

As she turned down what she thought was the ramp that lead down to Loki’s room, she heard voices she recognized coming her way. In the dim distances of the lower level Bru recognized her and waved, “Natasha! Hey! Good morning. We were just looking for Sif.”

“Hey,” Bruce raised a hand at hip-level.

She put on a smile, “Morning, folks. I was just heading down to look for Loki, try to hash out what my job here even is anymore.”

Bru rolled her eyes, “I know. It’s all so haphazard. You and me should probably talk at some point about the future of the Valkyrie.”

Nat nodded, too much already on her mind, “That does sound like a good idea.”

Bru nodded, mirroring Nat’s stance, “It does seem a bit weird, doesn’t it. Asgard has so many thousands of years of important traditions, yet no one’s said thing one to me about what they think I ought to be doing. That’s a big difference from the last time I was on Asgard. Well, second to last. Back then everyone had an opinion and a favored precedent to back it up.”

Nat smiled politely, trying not to indicate that she noticed something probinging in Bru’s manner. She kept nodding, “That does seem weird.”

“Yeah, it’s like everyone’s just sort of forgotten, so I’ve just sort of been winging it. No pun intended.”

Bruce quiet-laughed a little too hard and covered his mouth. His posture shrank deferentially when Nat glanced at him, though his smile was unafraid.

Nat spared him a smile in return, “Hey, Bruce. Listen, I’m sorry about last night. I was in a mood.”

He nodded noncommittally, “No problem, I know what that’s like. When in Rome, right?”

Her smile shifted uneasily over a renewed pressure in her throat to have a more heartfelt discussion than was wise, “Right.”

He peered at her hopefully, “Anyway I had it coming. I know that. Are we good, or…?”

She thought for a second, wanting to answer honestly without sounding like an ass, “Not really. But we’re not bad. And I’m willing to get to good.”

Bruce’s smile warmed to something more genuine and he gave a bobbing nod, “Cool. Cool. Me too.”

Bru’s face broke into a massive grin, “Aw, look at you two. Anyway we were just by Loki’s room looking for Sif and he’s not in.”

“Are you sure?”

Bru nodded, “Yeah. If I knock and he’s in he yells that he’s not. Right now is silence. Is it urgent?”

Nat shrugged, not wanting to go into it, “Just wanted to have a word.”

“Wanna come looking with us?”

Nat opened her mouth to answer when suddenly the world became airless.

“Nat? Are you ok?” Bruce took a step towards her and she surprised him by putting a hand on his shoulder, shaking her head, gulping like a landed fish.

She noted, from her abstract catwalk view, that the onset of the breathless discomfort was faster and harder than the previous times, and she was actually experiencing symptoms of suffocation, her brain becoming blurry and tunneled as she sank to the floor.

---

Loki strode out to the great gate in the newly-formed wall. Heimdall stood in the middle of the dirt path, feet and sword-tip planted firmly. The gold-clad guardian looked well enough, fully recovered from the previous day's wounds, and so grand he seemed out of place astride so rude a road. Loki smiled, “Heimdall, might I-”

“-borrow my sword?” Heimdall finished for him, “I do not think it wise.”

Loki continued smoothly, “I only need it for a moment. I won’t wander off. Wouldn’t you be happier guarding a proper bridge again?”

“Wait,” Sif broke in behind him, “Bifrost? You’re going to try to restore the bifrost? Right now?”

Loki ignored her, “You can watch me like a hawk the entire time. Not that you ever don’t.”

“It is true that I observe you often, when I can,” the last words rumbled with a somber displeasure, “which is why I think that two wonders in as many days would be too much for you. This wall isn’t yet a full day old, and you’ve had neither food nor sleep nor time enough since.”

“Nonsense, the bridge is nothing. In the first place, we’ve already got your sword, so it’s not like I’m making the thing from scratch. It’s practically half done already. In the second place, the old bifrost was more sorcery than material, so I won’t be dredging up nearly the same amount of flotsam from behind the veil, which is the hardest part. In the third place, I used the bifrost personally, back when I held gungnir, and I had a much closer relationship with the mind stone than I ever had with the time stone before I built the wall, so I expect the energies to slot into place without any-”

Sif broke in again, “The mind stone? The- What do the infinity stones have to do with-”

Loki shot a look over his shoulder, clipping out in a breath, “Each of the six wonders corresponds to one of the six infinity stones because our universe is fractally hexagonal so for example the bifrost represents the mind’s ability to transcend place which is also why the stone’s tools and the bridge’s instruments tend to be blades. Do try to keep up if you’re staying.”

He didn’t register Sif’s scowl as he turned back to Heimdall, “So as I was saying, easy. If you’ll lend me your sword for just a minute.”

Heimdall gazed blankly at the trickster, the well-worn furrows of his brow speaking for themselves without augment.

Loki shrugged, “I just thought it would be a nice gesture for our Vanir friends, make their return trip far more comfortable. A show of strength and diplomacy. For your king.”

Heimdall didn’t move.

Loki’s tone took up a thin wedge of pleading, “You won’t even have to let it go. Just let me touch it.”

After a final heavy pause, Heimdall intoned, “No tricks.”

Loki brightened, “No, I swear it. I won’t do anything suspicious, unexpected or astonishing. Aside from pulling a giant glittering rainbow out of my ass, as it were,” he glanced back at Sif, “That ought to give the gossips something to shrill about.”

The bridge guardian lifted the sword and planted its tip in the ground an inch further forward then it had been. Loki, all smiles, stepped up and lay a hand on the pommel.

He took a breath, closed his eyes, and wiped away the feeling of Heimdall’s gaze boring into his brow and Sif’s presence burning upon his back. Just him and the sword, and the boundless space inside his mind. He reached for Asgard and it accepted his touch, recognizing his purpose, his worth.

He recalled the bifrost of old, the magical sensation of opening it with Gungnir. He drew on his awareness of Sif’s righteous scorn to recall that day, when his friends had knelt before him to beg for ruinous clemency for Thor, how he’d scolded Sif in terms that all but guaranteed she would lead the others to defy him, how he’d watched them ride out to the bifrost he’d forbidden Heimdall to open. He recalled the sensation of opening the bifrost with Gungnir from the palace balcony, pressing hard into the command, to send them on the quest that would lead Thor to redeeming himself under the witness of Asgard.

The memory tried to pull him away into further ruminations, pride and bitterness, but he shunned it. He visualized one coherent thought, the shaft of synaptic energy the sword represented, slicing out through the universe like a thrown spear at the speed of light.

When he had that image, firm but trembling, he let the sheltering veils over his memory fall away, uncovering a well of mind-blinding golden light, the spare residue of his time under the mind gem’s power, letting it drive him. He gathered it up and pressed it down into the golden sword, imprinting it into the old pattern, pressing the blade deeper into the earth, pressing the light to burst into being.

And in one purely awful vital moment, he felt his control flagging.

Right at the edge, he realized that Heimdall was right. He wasn’t strong enough. He couldn’t control the pain that came with the memory, not when he was tired, not when he was upset. But he could make up the difference with greater power. With a will, he reached for his connection to the tesseract within Asgard to bolster him, which it did in a rush, pressing his mental energy into the world in a surge and pressing the wind out of his body in a great gust.

There was a shriek like stroked glass that left his ears ringing, and darkness pooled outward from the center of his vision even as he opened his eyes. Something collided with his back and stayed there, and he realized with a weak chuckle that it was the ground.

The air was feeling scarce, rushing away from him as it had the last time he’d needed to manipulate the tesseract. That was definitely interesting. He twitched his fingers over the ground, feeling cool, glassy coherent light instead of dirt. His grin spread as he coughed, tasting blood.

As the ringing began to fade he heard Sif yelling at him as if from a great distance, felt his face being tapped back and forth and his pulse being pressed urgently.

Heimdall’s deep voice cut through, “Take him to the healing room, and find that valkyrie that’s supposed to be guarding him.”

Loki grinned, his voice fluttering weakly as Sif hauled him up onto her shoulders, “Don’t worry. If she’s not in the healing room already, I expect she will be soon.”

---

Natasha was back in the roundish glass room of her trippy visions, but alone. It had more corners and vaguer lighting than before, and as deep a sense of stasis as it previously had of urgency. The multiple flat walls generated an infinite straggling network of her own dim reflection, each facing vaguely askance from the others like standoffish ghosts.

She was able to see more lucidly than the last time, and the room still seemed to change depending on where she looked and how hard, but the confusion happened in the shifting spatial information rather than her shifting mind. She could tell, in the cramped dark vantage behind her eyes, that it was some kind of trick. She felt less like she was standing within a room and more like she was pressed against the inside of her own skin, like a child with her nose against a bakery window, or a canvas pressed against its paint. But the context, at least, seemed stable. She was definitely in her own self, fixed in her own time, all her glassy doubles moving in faithful synch. It was the space that seemed to be having identity problems.

The room tended to behave like a hexagonal cylinder. She knew without looking that the ceiling was a heavy grey-white and the floor was a brittle grey-black, but what attracted her scrutiny was that each mirror image faded into a different colored tint with each progressively deep iteration, ringing the room in a shadowy cyclical rainbow: Red, yellow, green, cyan, blue, and magenta; then back to red, becoming darker at the floor and more saturated at the ceiling.

When she came too close to understanding it, she noticed that each wall actually bent outwards to a seam. That was definitely different, but she couldn’t have said that it changed. Each angled panel still reflected it’s opposite, upper blue reflecting in lower yellow, but her diffident ghosts were suddenly scattered across an escherian stairscape, jutting at one another from above and below. Even lucid, it was odd to see her duplicated self standing about like a string of paper dolls on planes that bent like paper fans.

When she noticed how the colors weren’t combining correctly; the magenta mirror’s receding iterations only ever showing deeper magenta instead of blending in its opposite’s cyan; the room seemed to shift motionlessly again, almost defensively, until she was centered in a more plainly mirrored room made of six-sided pyramid above her, a mirrored floor inverting a second one below her, the angled walls still subtly tinted but more sharply reflective, as if fixing her in a dissecting gaze.

“Stop struggling,” a stern, mellow, feminine voice rang in her head, “I am trying to be gentle.”

Instinctively flexible, Natasha took a breath and relaxed her eyes, letting her mind assume that she was, in fact, simply surrounded by duplicates of herself that paid each other (and basic physics) no mind. She was generally willing to play along with a captor until she was given a good reason not to, “Alright. I appreciate that. Where am I?”

“You’re in a forced perspective, a rudimentary watercolor of four dimensional space rendered on a three dimensional canvas.”

Distant footsteps echoed above her and Natasha looked up in time to see the trailing edge of a skirt sweep out of view in an image that depicted her from behind in blue, four images deep, though the motion went unreflected anywhere else.

The same footsteps came from down and behind and she turned in time to see a woman with a loose blonde bun pass behind a Natasha that faced her in gold, three images deep. There was a quick flutter of footsteps, then a jump, and feet landed right behind her and to her left. She turned, looking up at her own face. An older woman with wry smile-lines gazed mirthlessly at her from over her own shoulder, as if from behind a human shield.

Nat didn’t move, confident that there was no one standing right behind her, and that her odd captor was only figured in the safe remove of the mirror. She had greying golden hair piled up in a loose bun that frayed into a halo. An evidently-habitual smirk cracked her solemn, handsome features, “Let’s call it a rainbow-bridge, of sorts, between what you can comprehend and what you can’t.”

Nat tilted her head agreeably, “Yes, let’s.”

She seemed appeased, “Have you figured it out yet?”

Nat tried to keep annoyance off her features, but saw in her own reflection that she was failing, her emotions pushed too close to the surface and rippling across her expression, “I’m gonna have to say, in the broadest possible sense, no.”

The odd woman nodded slowly, strolling to the next mirror, Natasha turning in place to follow her with her eyes, riddled with the paradox that she was consequently keeping her reflection’s back to her captor.

Something about that profile struck Nat, though, “I know you.”

That unsettlingly familiar chin tilted up as she continued to stroll, “You’ve certainly met someone very much like me, but I doubt you really knew them, either.”

“Ok. Well, you’ve got me, now what?”

She turned and began pacing the other way, “Now I make you an offer, and we settle this cleanly today instead of dirty tomorrow, for largely the same outcome.”

Nat wasn’t focusing on the words. Hostage takers of any skill tended to have their script established to the point of informational sterility, and were likely to repeat themselves. Instead she was doing everything she could to read posture, tone, accent, syntax, sifting for clues as to who she was talking to and what was actually wanted.

The way the woman expressed herself was undoubtedly Asgardian: direct, and with layers of emotion despite a bearing that suggested serenity and control. It reminded her of the way Thor grieved or Loki did anything at all. She wore Asgardian garb as well, though in Nat’s experience that was a less-certain indicator.

Her captor’s somber intensity wasn’t luminous like religious fervor or activist zeal, but it had that same long-simmering intent. Nat’s best guess at the flavor of her motive was revenge. Cold, complicated, indirect revenge, though against who or what specifically were answers she’d have to dig for. Fortunately, she thought, the only people easier to interrogate than ideological crusaders were the righteously and personally wronged.

The vengeful were definitely also the sort that asked their captives if they understood what was happening.

Like the last illusory Asgardian she’d been locked in a mirrored room with, her captor clearly wanted to talk.

“Ok,” Nat nodded, feigning trepidation, unwillingness, and a seductively fragile brave face, “Talk to me.”

Chapter Text

The older woman smiled with an odd beneficence, “Are you trying to interrogate me, serpent of Midgard?”

“No.” I’m succeeding, she thought wryly as she noted the interesting epithet, “You were making me an offer. Just tell me so I can say no and you can torture me and we can all go home happy.”

That got a genuine look of surprise, “Torture you? The long years have made you cynical, my girl.”

Her observing mind underlined the term “long years” and the conspiratorial tone, “I like to think they’ve made me poignantly tragic. And long-suffering.”

The woman began to walk thoughtfully again, making a grim sound in her throat, “Yes of course. From the villain’s point of view, they’re always just the flawed hero.”

Someone who likes stories, Nat thought. Great. Tell me a story. “At the moment I’m just your captive audience.”

A bitter smile, “You're so like your mother.” Something in the curling lilt of the scornful tone tickled at her memory, but found no purchase.

Nat swallowed, hoping a prompt might get things rolling more smoothly, “My mother?”

She nodded, “Such a pity. You can’t have really known her. I could tell you such stories.”

Well by all means, Nat quipped inwardly, trying to keep her expression pathetic and credulous, “She died when I was very young.”

Her face flickered, something mournful and wistful and almost loving, trailing to a stop behind a different Nat, “Is that what you think?”

Some rusty old machinery in her heart gave a faint but surprising groan, taken in by her own act, before her professional brain cut it off. She refused to let such a facile line of bullshit sink its claws into long-abandoned ideas just because the magic of Asgard was making her soft and emotional, “It...it’s all I’ve ever been able to learn.”

“You’ve looked for her, your mother who died?” Her expression was so sincere, so compelling, it was eerie.

“Yes.”

“What did you find?”

She shrugged, expertly feigning badly-feigned indifference, “Nothing. Not even a ghost.”

The woman nodded sagely, and Nat saw her rest a hand on her reflection’s shoulder, feeling the barest whisper of touch upon her second skin, “I had not thought so before, but I believe you are going to like my offer.”

Awesome, she thought, suppressing a caustic laugh. Hinting at family history was a weak and melodramatic gambit. Her official records were on the internet, almost everything about how the red room operated, in the eighties at least. Any armchair psychiatric hack might assume she would crave stories about her birth parents, and would be wrong. But never disabuse a subject of a false advantage, she thought, giving a defeated sigh, “Then by all means.”

The smile curled with a pleasure that was not as cruel as Nat anticipated, merely confident, “One hour before dawn, my son will be at your gates. He will be alone, and unarmed, but not defenseless. Let him bring you to me, and no harm will come to you, or your Asgard, or your precious prince.”

“And if I don’t?”

She rolled her eyes, annoyance tinged with a concession of amusement, “Then harm will come to all the aforementioned. I thought that was fairly clear.”

Just trying to get you off-script again, lady, Nat thought, “But how? I mean, your son tried to harm the city yesterday and it didn’t really work out.”

An eyebrow arched up, tantalizingly familiar. Nat worked to memorize the present as she also tried to imagine the woman with a different hair style, setting, outfit, or accent, “You might think so. Still, have you considered how it would have ended if you hadn’t rushed to the rescue at the last possible moment?”

That confirmed flying-lightning-boy as her son, “Yes, and it’s not a strong argument for me to leave Asgard.”

Her mirth faded to an unaffected seriousness, “I don’t need an argument. And I don’t need to take the city to hurt you, or Asgard, or Thor, if I am forced.”

So “your precious prince” meant Thor, not Loki. Interesting. That implied her captor had some limited yet specific information on her role in Asgard. Nat carefully aimed an assumption that was probably wrong, but probably related, tempting correction, “Are you the one that’s been choking me?”

She shook her head, “No, that’s all been you, ungrateful child, foundering in your own wake."

That meant nothing to her, so she punted, "Really?"

She nodded slowly, "You’ve been chasing control of your own fate in circles, and now that you think you’ve caught it you choke on your own tail. Every draw on the stone beneath you to will tighten the very air from the room, and every time it will be worse.” Her serious admonishment softened and turned speculative, “I taught your father that same magic, you know. He always stood up to torture well, too.”

That was elaborate, and another stab at hypothetical family. Nat avoided being drawn into parsing it in favor of memorizing it for later, “And if I meet your demands, what then? If you can hurt this city any time you want as you claim, what’s to stop your son from blasting it open and killing everyone once you have what you want?”

Dark grey eyes narrowed incredulously, “Because that’s not what anyone wants.”

Nat believed her, but knew that only proved that the woman was charismatic, “Then what do you need me for?”

She gave a dramatic sigh, that small simmer of amusement returning, “Might such questions bother you enough that you will come along just to find out?”

“I’ve gained a lot of self control over the long years. I’m not the same cocksure little shit I used to be.” If she wanted to tease family history, memory lane was worth a shot.

She chuckled, “Yes, clearly. And yet here you stand, a grown woman, rightly dead a dozen times over, flouting the simplest precautions of your position just to be with your pretend-king. I presume the bracer is all that’s keeping your form together?”

She nodded, no sense denying a weakness, “For now. I suppose that’s less of an observation than a threat?”

A bemused smile, patient and pitying, “I suppose it could be, if I didn’t already have something a bit more elegant and personal in mind.”

More elegant than slowly dying of a deferred brain-hemorrhage, she thought sarcastically, the hell you say. “I’m all ears.”

“I suppose I can spell it out, if we insist on stooping to threats and ransoms. You will leave the city when Hell-blind comes to claim you, alone and unarmed. Any that try to interfere will be killed. You go with him, politely, and no harm shall come to you, or your city, or your precious prince for the duration of your stay with us. Do it not, set some trap, or attempt to escape, and I will kill your favorite black-fledged bird.”

Something in the way she said it, the weighty steadiness of her gaze, left no room to suspect she meant anything but the harshest possible cruelty, but Nat’s mind rejected the first image it sprang to, of a quiver full of black-feathered arrows, “My…black-fledged...”

“Well, he’s still your adoptive father’s bird, of course. Ever-ready to wing across the world when sent or called, into even the flimsiest trap,” she chuckled, “But I think of him as belonging to you, since he changed your life. I expect you do as well.”

Nat's hand unconsciously went to the place where her arrow pendant usually hung. How did she have Hawkeye? She couldn’t have taken him from Wakanda. They probably had mystical protections to rival Dr. Strange. But if she’d manufactured some distress call, would he really have...she felt a sick sort of vertigo as she lost her grip on her detached observational perch. She’d been missing for weeks. If someone that knew it had called him... “You couldn’t have…”

“Oh, hadn’t you noticed he was missing? Been a bit preoccupied I imagine. Who’s to notice one little bird, more or less? Particularly when one is so inclined to take everything for granted.”

Nat wanted to accuse her of lying, but she knew that look. Parochial moralizing backed by utter certainty. Real control.

Without a cue beyond Nat’s welling eyes, she continued, “Had you begun to think you could be happy, holed up in your ill-gotten dream? How long do you suppose your life would continue to mean anything to you if you decide to test me?”

“Please don’t.” Her composure shook with her voice, “Please don’t. I’ll do anything you want.” She dearly wished it was a lie.

“I expect you will. But then, you’ve always been so willing to do anything.”

She nodded, scrabbling her calm back together. Who in the fuck was this woman? She knew her. Had the red room wiped her memory at some point, or was she someone more willingly forgotten. What fucking vendetta was following her to Asgard? It was all secondary until she could see Clint, “Yup, you got me. Can I have proof of life?”

With pursed lips, her captor took her reflection by the back of the neck, and Nat felt a whisper of cool, calm assurance slide down her spine, “He’s safe and well. You can see for yourself when you get here. I’m not a monster.” Alright then, Nat concluded, if she's lying it's entirely to herself.

“How have you been spying on me all this time?” she felt like her heart had fallen to rubble, and she could barely think to apply any finesse to the interrogation. She had to get off the subject of Hawkeye. Fortunately her target was in that beneficent place of total power, which made proud monsters condescendingly talkative.

She waved airily, “Oh, the tesseract. It was my burden long before you were its burden.”

“The tesseract.”

“Indeed. It's more than a door. It’s a window. Used properly it’s also a book of its own story. Once inside, there is no place that can truly hide you from one that knows how to read it. Though I admit you did very well there for a while. All your training certainly wasn't wasted. But once you stepped into its story,” she shrugged haplessly.

Natasha sighed, “I don’t like storybooks.”

She scoffed, “Says the enchanted princess to the witch.”

Nat conceded a nod, re-enforcing the subject's condescension, “Yeah, well. None of this is my life, is it. I suppose I should thank you for reminding me of that, when I see you.”

A diffident shrug and a gentle pat, “It’s only polite. You should always thank a witch who doesn’t kill you, and forgetting is so easy for those of us that have lived too long. Tell me, little sea snake, how long did it take you, this time, to forget that you’ve always just been swimming in a circle?”

Nat smirked at herself, “A little under two days. Asgard has that effec-” she embarrassed herself with the transparency of her own genuine double-take, “wait, what did you say?”

Her captor regarded her blankly, not following her sense of shock.

Nat was shaking again, “Th-the fish forgets that the bowl is a circle. The fish-”

The blonde head tilted aside, the smile speculative and amused, finishing the thought in unison, “The fish is free.” The barest hint of a teutonic flutter in the “r”.

Nat felt herself unable to breathe for reasons that had nothing to do with magic and everything to do with monsters, her throat too dry to speak.

“Well, you are still able to surprise me. When did you-” a shivering of the glass interrupted her, and the mirrors began to grow hazy. The woman Nat recognized, barely but definitely in the smudged outline, smirked, “I think Eir is finally bringing you back around to yourself. I will see you soon.”

There was a shriek of glass and Natasha sat bolt upright on the table in the dim amber-lit healing room. Her throat caught and she sputtered, “Doctor Navidna...but...how?”

Chapter Text

A severe woman in a grey dress, the one with look-through-you eyes from the party, was at her shoulder, urging her back down. Nat, disoriented, tried to bat away the grainy brown model of her own molecular composition as it dissipated around her head.

“Sif, help me,” the woman said, trying to stare Nat down as much as push her.

Nat rolled off the other side of the table, landing lightly, working to sound steady, “I’m fine. I need to make a call. Right now. How do I do that?”

Sif appeared at the matron’s side, “Natasha you’re not fine. When Bruce brought you in-”

“Where’s Loki?” Nat glanced past them to the next table. A pair of black and green boots stuck into view. She moved around the end of her table to go to him. Sif moved to intercept her, a sympathetic but warning look on her face.

The older woman spoke, “You both collapsed at the same time. You have to lay down, my lady.”

Nat waved her away, faking an unsteady step right and stepping smoothly left, forcing Sif to reach if she really meant to stop her.

Sif let her pass with a sigh, “Natasha, neither of you were breathing. For nearly three minutes.”

“If you want to help him,” the older woman interjected, “I need you to lay down so I can examine the cause.”

“The cause is a woman named Mina Navidna,” she pulled herself up short, “Wh-what happened to his eyes?” She turned to find the older woman scowling at her, arms folded. Nat looked from her to Sif and then back, “Are you Eir?”

Eir nodded curtly, one eyebrow raised.

Sif broke in, “It’s just blood. He was restoring the bridge, and I think he burst some vessels in his eyes or tear ducts. It looks awful but it’s superficial, he’s not still bleeding,” she gestured at the strange holographic ant farm that described Loki’s figure mid-air.

Nat glanced at it. It meant nothing. “The bridge? The bridge like the wall?”

Sif nodded, “Both Heimdal and I urged him to wait, but he insisted.”

Nat turned back to him. His chest was moving up and down, his face streaked with red that looked black in the dim light, “Is he stable?”

Sif sounded incredulous, “Are you? Natasha, when Bruce brought you in-”

Nat rounded, “Where’s Bruce? I- I have to make a call.”

Sif touched her arm gently, a comfort and a warning, “He’s just outside. Natasha you have to-” she raised her voice cautiously as Nat turned for the door, “Nat, stop.”

“Let her go,” Eir interjected, crossing to the controls above Loki, “They’re two of a sort,” she turned and gave Sif a pointed look, “It’s just like I told you. Sharper than a serpent’s tooth.”

Sif sighed, “Not now, mother. Please.”

Nat turned, “What did you say.”

Eir shook her head, “Go make your important call, ungrateful child.”

“No, what did you say?” she started back, voice, brain and stride all ramping up in unison, “And why does Mina Navidna know who you are? And why did she call me a serpent? And how the fuck is she still even alive to be fucking with me?”

Eir shook her head, not looking away from her work, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, and no desire for one if you’re going to be willful and belligerent. Which of course you are.”

Sif stepped between as Nat got close. Eir continued to work as if she didn’t notice. Nat tried to fake Sif out again, but that trick was apparently only good for one go against the tall swords-woman.

Sif caught her by the arm, “Natasha, don’t. Let’s step outside. Who is it you have to call?”

Nat’s stomach cramped and her eyes blurred, “Wakanda.”

---

Hleya paced opposite Dr. Banner while Bru leaned against the wall. They’d all gotten there at the same time. Hleya had been striding along the mostly deserted halls towards the infirmary wing. Sleep had been difficult because of the pain in her head, which seemed as good a reason as any to avoid delegation business with a visit to Eir. She’d met the Hulk carrying Natasha down the hall, carefully stooped, and had gone in with them, trading summaries of the morning with Bru. Then Eir had shooed them out as a group once Nat was on the table. That was when Sif had strode by with Loki over her shoulder.

A long while had passed since, and no one had come out. No one had even said anything since Bru’s quip of “That’s not what I meant by ‘confront him’, lover” as Sif passed, not even to suggest that Dr. Banner might want to go change his tattered and tied-on clothes.

At last the door opened and Nat burst through, red-rimmed and agitated, Sif at her elbow.

Banner snapped to attention, “Nat, thank g-”

“I need to make a call to Wakanda. How do I do that?”

He froze in the intensity of her gaze, moving gently and speaking slowly, “There’s a communications room in the library. I’ll take you there right now,” he glanced at Sif, “if Eir’s cleared you.”

Sif grimaced, “Close enough. Just keep an eye on her, will you please? Keep her from trampling anyone to death on the way? I should stay here until Loki’s awake. Whatever the news is, Thor should hear it from one of us.”

Bru sighed, “Can we at least come in and wait with you? Hleya was actually here to see Eir.”

Sif nodded, stepping back into the door to hold it open, “He’s breathing again, so it should be alright. Just be quiet. Mother’s in a mood now.” She glanced at Nat, who ignored her.

They slipped into the dim room as Bruce strode away with Nat. The amber light had an immediate soothing effect on the pain in her head. Eir was stonily studying the quantum map of Loki’s unconscious form with the soul forge. Sif took up the slack, leading her to take the table Nat had just vacated and dutifully rebooting the system for her mother.

Hleya folded her hands on her chest as the grainy brown readout began to form above her, “I didn’t realize Eir was your mother.”

Sif smiled wanly and opened her mouth to reply, but Eir interrupted, “That’s understandable. Sometimes she doesn’t seem to, either.”

Sif closed her eyes and took a very deep breath, careful not to make any sound at all. Hleya met her eyes, when she opened them, with a look of intense sympathy, which Sif acknowledged with a long-suffering nod.

Bru spoke up, “What happened to them, Lady Friggeir?”

Sif shot Bru a disbelieving look that screamed could you not?! Bru returned an overdone indifference that was both a denial and a refusal I’m not doing anything, and no I can’t.

Eir stopped and glanced at Bru, “That is not my name.” When Bru said nothing she continued, “Loki has gotten himself tangled in his own lies. I expect if he continues in this way he’s going to kill himself.”

Sif scowled, “He won’t mind. He’s done it before. I doubt he even feels it anymore.”

Eir pursed her lips, “Oh he feels it. He understands it better than his sister did, for better or worse. From what I can tell he’s gotten his little midgardian tangled up with him. When the bonds tighten around him, they tighten around her.”

“What are those? Scars?” Hleya asked nervously, looking at his vague floating soul-form. It was criss-crossed with irregular raised lines that concentrated around his throat and mouth and wrists and chest. On the monochrome model, it was impossible to tell if they were scars or snakes or slender ropes. A few seemed to meander like veins, and one seemed to pierce straight through his sternum.

Eir gave her a sly, tantalizing look, “Death magic, marking his second skin.”

“Mother,” Sif growled, “don’t tutor.”

Eir gave Sif a look very similar to the one Bru had, innocent and obstinate. Sif went to a spout in the wall and filled a bowl with water, conceding that she was outnumbered.

“It is something that Hella, for all her reach, continually failed to grasp. She, and those that followed her, believed that there was power in death,” she shrugged, “but death is nothing. Inert. Death’s power is for Death alone, not for any of the living, not even its puny gods and walking shadows. But interacting with death, even its false shades, has the power to change the living, and there’s a grim and terrible magic in that.”

“How so”

Eir continued without seeming to hear the question, “Hella never understood that the only power she was absorbing beyond Asgard was the pain of those left alive. When there were too few of those, or their souls became calloused with terror, when horrible acts became commonplace to her followers, her returns dwindled. This has always been the way with death cults, no matter how showy their ritualistic pettiness, their greed is their truest limit,” she smiled grimly, “So Loki has always attached himself to Thor, you see,” Eir shot a glance of disgust over her shoulder at the trickster.

“I-I don’t actually,” Hleya offered politely

Eir huffed, “Endlessly strong, perpetually earnest, and striving in his worthiness. He can hurt Thor forever, and no matter how many times or how badly, his heart never hardens and his tears never run dry,” Eir scowled, “A cynical bit of genius. It would be inspiring if it weren’t so disgusting.”

Sif’s jaw worked but she kept her peace, dipping a cloth in water and wiping the threads of blood from Loki’s unresponsive face.

“But what are those cords exactly?”

“They are called lashings. Both the sort that cut one open and the sort that bind one down. His father had a similar set, and they took a similar toll. Though Odin had the good sense to have his applied properly, by a proper spinner, and to take his rest in reasonable and scheduled ways.”

Sif looked up, “Is Loki in an Odinsleep?”

Eir snorted, “Hardly. The Odinsleep was is a communion with the World’s Tree, to which the Allfather was bound, and from which he continually drew power for himself and for the realms. It was arrogance, to be sure, but it was well-wrought for the good of all. What Loki is experiencing, what he does to himself and to others to maintain his power,” she shook her head, “it is a haphazard torment of his own conception and maintaining.”

Sif smoothed the lank hair back carefully, her expression grim and muddled, before going back to the basin to empty the bowl she’d used to clean his face and eyes.

---

“So this crazy mirror lady’s got Clint?” Bruce sounded so earnestly confused it bordered on sarcasm.

“It’s what she claimed.”

“A doctor from the Red Room?”

“Yup,” Nat’s speed-walking belied her patient tone.

“And she’s been manipulating the tesseract somehow? To spy on you?”

“Seems like.”

“And she didn’t make you any kind of offer or ransom demands? That seems weird.”

Nat didn’t risk letting him see her eyes, “That’s one word for it.”

Bruce was quiet for a while, “Nat, do you know where Loki’s keeping the tesseract?”

Nat shrugged, “I think it’s safe to say he’s keeping it in some kind of inter-dimensional space or something.”

“Yeah but inter-dimensional space is still a real place. There’s gotta be some method or knowable location, you know?”

Nat sighed, “I work for him, Bruce.”

“What?” he cleared his throat, “I mean, so?”

“Stop grilling me about his operations. I wouldn’t tell you, even if I knew anything.”

Bruce frowned, “Last night you said in front of everybody that your only real allegiance was to the good. That doesn’t mean Loki.”

Her lips tightened, “Doesn’t necessarily mean you, either.”

“Nat, I’m your friend. Whatever he’s doing it’s hurting you.”

“No, you’re a scientist, and I’m a spy. You’re an avenger, if that’s still a thing anymore, and I’m the magical bodyguard for the guy whose magical villainy made that a meaningful pantheon.”

“Fine, but we’re also friends.”

Nat shook her head, “Friends don’t do what you did.”

Bruce sighed testily, “Yes they do, Nat. Friends fail each other all the time. They make mistakes and they let each other down and they fuck each other over with misplaced good intentions. They choose the wrong thing, outsmart themselves, and have big gaping flaws in their instincts, and they know it but they keep trying. They wreck everything, sometimes because they can’t face what the right thing to do is, and sometimes because there isn’t one even if they could. That’s what friends do because that’s what all people do. Friends are just the people that come back anyway, after all the shit, and keep trying.”

“If you want to know anything about the tesseract, you can ask Loki when he wakes up.”

“If he wakes up.”

“Oh are you that sort of doctor, now?”

“No, but if his disease has something to do with the tesseract I can help. Nat,” he stepped in front of her, turned and stopped, “You were dead, ok? You were both dead, when we brought you in. I’m that much of a doctor, at least. And I know you care about him. Ok? Even I can see that, and you know how bad I am at seeing that stuff. He brought you out of wherever it is you’ve been hiding yourself since everything went to hell, got you back in the world, and I’m grateful. I’m jealous, and I’m terrified,” he looked down and away, “but I’m grateful. I want to help.”

Nat sighed, “I know you do. And you are. But right now I need to help the friend that I failed.”

Bruce nodded, leading down the hall again, “Yeah. Me too.”

---

“Good evening,” an older man with a professionally pleasant voice came up on the holographic HUD above the library desk, his accent as smooth as his demeanor, “This is the palace communications office. I am afraid It is too late for you to get in touch with any of the regular staff this evening, but I will take a message for you.”

Bruce frowned while Natasha paced, “I’m sorry for calling so late, it’s not even afternoon where we are. But I’m afraid it’s a bit urgent. Would it be possible for you to just check if Laura Bond is available to pick up the line? It’s about her husband. Please let her know it’s Doctor Blake calling.”

“Could you please hold for just a moment?” The HUD became a blue-grey mirage of the Wakandan flag when Bruce nodded.

Nat worried at a fingernail with the tips of her teeth, “Code names. That’s cute.”

“Yeah, well. The Sokovia accords allow for monitoring of all satellite traffic involving avengers and associates, but the algorithms that sweep for us are kinda simplistic yet, trying to avoid a blanket allowance for international spying.”

“What’s taking so long?” she knew she sounded pointlessly pissy but couldn’t quite break out of it, “You should have said it was an emergency.”

“Nat, think. What if she doesn’t know? He keeps his family a secret from everyone. It’s possible this Navidna person never sent Laura any demands either. I don’t want her in a panic if she can’t get back to us right aw-”

“Hey Bruce!” the Hud ripped and resolved into a cheerful, crew-cut visage, “Laura’s got her hands full with bath time. What can we do ya for? And where are you calling from? And when did you get back?”

Bruce did a double-take, “Clint?”

“Yeah. It’s great to see you man,” his expression darkened, “A lot has happened.”

“Y-yeah, I heard,” he glanced back at Natasha as she rubbed her temple in disbelief. He beckoned her over with a jerk of his head, and she shook hers, suddenly panicking for entirely new reasons.

“Who’s there with you? What’s the urgent news. Bruce, you’re killing me. What’s the-” he stopped as Nat slid into the chair as Bruce vacated it, “Tasha?”

“Hey man,” her voice was tight, and she could feel her arms doing that overly-busy thing that was her worst tell when she was stressed out and trying to be cool.

Clint noticed, “Hey. You’re not looking so hot. What’s wrong?”

“Um, listen, before I go into it, can you just confirm for me, that it’s you I’m talking to? Can you tell me something about me that only you would know?”

He shook his head resolutely, “No way. There’s not a communication system in the known universe secure enough that I would ever risk it.”

Nat smiled, letting out a breath that had been barely stirring in her chest for the last fifteen minutes, a pair a treacherous tears flowing out with it, “I was gonna come get you. I was. I was gonna let Laura know everything that had happened I just...I got stuck, I got low. But I should’ve-” she swallowed, shaking her head.

Clint waited until it seemed like she’d definitely gotten a cap on the well of babble and nodded, “I gotta tell you, when you didn’t show up, I just assumed something terrible had happened to you. I did everything I knew to try to find you that wouldn’t end up giving you away if you were hiding, and there aren't many options there nowadays. I should have come looking, though. I know I let you down, too.”

Nat shook her head vigorously, “No, no you shouldn’t have. Some asshole just hinted that you’d gotten caught because you came looking for me. So just, until I say otherwise, would you please just promise me that none of you will set foot out of Wakanda for any reason until I can get this figured out? Especially not you or Cap or Barnes?”

Clint nodded solemnly, “We had no plans to go anyplace. You're the first call we've gotten, from anyone. Promise me you’ll call if you need help. Swear to me, Tasha.”

She nodded, “Yeah, ok. But I expect we’ve only got another minute or so before this communication becomes officially interesting. Remind the kids that they have an aunt, ok? And let T’challa know that I’m as incredibly sorry as it takes to get his permission to come visit you guys real soon.”

“Will do. Good luck, Tash. I’m trusting you. Don’t be a hero.”

The HUD went slate-blank and Nat sat back in the chair, visibly winded. She touched her chest, but her arrow-pendant was still safely in a post office box in Nova Scotia. She fingered the green leather of her coat instead, replaying the entire exchange with Navidna in her mind. If she didn’t have Clint, what the hell had it meant?

She idly re-checked all her knives,  her hand coming to rest on a strange subtle bulge in a hidden breast pocket. She pulled it out. It was the hearthstone. The oldest surviving relic of Asgard. When had she picked that up? Loki hadn’t given it to her, she’d definitely have remembered...and refused.

He’d put it in his coat. The one he’d taken off and she’d put on.

They’re two of a sort

She was wearing Loki’s coat.

My sister. You remind me of my sister.

She bowed her head, shaking it from side to side, “Oh my god.”

“Nat?”

The long years have made you cynical, my girl.

She sighed, her shoulders shaking in a laugh, “Oh...my...god.”

Have you considered how it would have ended if you hadn’t rushed to the rescue at the last possible moment?

“Nat? You’re freaking me out.”

I presume the bracer is all that’s keeping your form together?

Nat stood up, looking around the dim room, the walls lined with old books, “Oh my god, Bruce. Help me. We have to find a story.”

Bruce nodded, “Sure. Ok. But you hate stories.”

But then, you’ve always been so willing to do anything.

“Oh, I know. That definitely hasn’t changed.”

But once you stepped into its story...

She took a deep breath, hoping she wasn’t wrong, “But when in Rome…”

Chapter Text

“Seriously?” Bruce grimaced as Nat took the encyclopedia-sized tome from him and handed him the children’s book.

“Don't whine. I know you’re smarter, but you know I read faster.”

He flipped open the front cover, “To Thor, Welcome back, Jane,” he shook his head, “She sent him an old library book of his family mythology as a planet-warming gift?”

“Cut her some slack. She’s only a physicist. They’re not great at earthly gestures.”

"Har har." He sat down to skim.

After half an hour of absorbing translations of Norse poetry and prose, Nat huffed, “This reads like a string of bad code phrases. Thor is nothing like this. Loki’s supposedly bound to a stone by his own son’s guts, though not a son mentioned anywhere else, with a snake dripping poison on his face because he tricked a blind guy with a sprig of mistletoe, and now won’t weep to bring back the invulnerable guy he murdered? And he made monster children with a witch named Angrboda? Including a half-dead girl, a huge hand-eating wolf, and a giant snake beneath the sea that...that circles the earth and eats its own tail.”

That definitely rang a bell. Navidna had called her the Midgard serpent, little sea-snake. Accused her of choking on her own tail, wrapped around a rock too tightly. Navidna claimed to be a witch. Nat wondered if witches knew each other, if Navidna knew this Angrboda? Nat noted it down as something to try and get out of her once she was a captive.

"Well maybe don't try to make all of it make literal sense."

“Literal sense? I can’t even tell if any of the people in here with similar names are meant to be the same person. There are also people with the same name who are kind of the same but aren’t. There’s a Vali that’s said to be Loki’s son, and a Vali that’s Odin’s son who punishes Loki for killing this guy Baldur...the same night he’s born without washing his face or combing his hair.”

Bruce nodded, “Yeah I was wondering about that.”

“About?”

“Frey’s pronouncement about you. Last night. The ceremonial role of king’s kinslayer. I was talking to Bru about it earlier. The order of Vali. Maybe that's what that is. A title instead of a name. Vali for men, Vala for women.”

"I don't know. There's too much here that kind of pattern could apply to but doesn't. I mean if I hadn't literally met both of them, I might assume Frey and Freya were just alternate versions of the same deity. What about Frigg and Frigga? Two women? Nickname? It seems like some scholars want to assume Frigga and Freya were the same person."

"Well, the way people actually are and the way storytellers use characters aren't the same."

Nat grumbled, “Then there’s nothing useful here. It’s all misinformation.”

"Oh, yeah, clearly. That's why its survived a dozen centuries of cultural growth and change, not to mention deliberate erasure by invaders, because there's nothing useful there," Bruce smirked at her, needling with overweening patience, “They’re myths, Nat. Cut them some slack. They were told for centuries before they were written down, oral histories and cult beliefs across multiple tribes that spent a lot of time actively contradicting and ignoring each other, poeticized for mass entertainment and later written down by ancient greeks or christianized leaders with agendas. You kinda have to take them for what they are.”

Nat huffed, annoyed at her own stupid naive plan more than at him, “Yeah, no shit.”

He snorted, “Hey, you gave me the book with small words and bright pictures. You do not get to pretend I’m the one being condescending. I’m drawing the line. Anyway aren’t you always the one saying that deliberate misinformation is more telling than a confession?”

Nat frowned at the book, “Operative word, deliberate. This is just a semi-enculturated mishmash.”

“Well tell me what we're looking for.”

Nat closed the heavy book, sighing, “I need to find out who Navidna really is. What the connection is between Asgard and the Red Room.”

“Besides you?”

Nat nodded, “I don’t count. She was surprised when I brought up the Room. I think...” she shook her head, plucking at the green collar of her coat, “I think she thought I was Loki.”

Bruce's eyes widened but he nodded slowly, “That would be a reasonable mistake to make. He is a shape-shifter, after all.”

Nat nodded, “And I’m dressed like him, carrying an artifact that only he would reasonably have. Hell, I’m pretty sure I even smell like him. And I...I don’t know. He kept saying how perfect I was for the job he wanted me to do, but he's ditched me at every turn when protection or oversight might be called for.”

Bruce nodded, “It did seem a little weird to me when he brought you to protect him. No one’s set a foot in his way since we landed that I saw. I put it up to paranoia.”

Nat nodded, “He’s more a danger to himself than anyone else could ever be. But I’ve been getting these visions, where our lives overlap. And he’s been telling me all this stuff about Asgard and mantles and invisible skins. If you’re a witch looking for a shape-shifter, that stuff might be more definitive than height and hair color, and might be visible to a witch.”

“Or someone with a fourth dimensional vantage point. I mean, that's on the table, right? In a scenario involving the tesseract, or a bridge that creates traversable wormholes, or a hammer that can become fixed without a perceivable force affecting it, we're talking four-dimensional physics.  A person at a fourth-dimensional remove can theoretically see the entire composition of a three-dimensional figure. She very well might have been able to see into your pockets. Or to see extra-dimensional qualities affixed to you. Or to study your pancreas, who knows?””

 

Nat suppressed a shudder and a wave of nausea, insisting to herself that she was over that time in her life and Navidna didn't scare her, “She talked about the tesseract’s story, and came into the program at the same time that I’d-” she stopped hard on the brink of talking about the freight car, Cap, and Barnes, her throat full of the annoying Asgardian impulse to say what she was thinking, “-that I’d first had contact with people involved with tesseract tech. Because of Hydra.”

“Hey look at this,” he turned a picture captioned “Bifrost” towards her, a pair of figures walking down a rainbow to the earth, one with blond hair and a hammer, the other with a white beard, a long spear, and a raven on his shoulder, “Does the cube in Odin’s hand look familiar?”

Nat frowned, “Yes, but…” Loki had confessed to her that he’d been the one that had hidden the tesseract on earth. Maybe Odin had brought it a different time. Maybe that was Loki in disguise. Maybe it was just a stupid picture. But it was all part of the tesseract’s story, which was definitely about Asgard before it was about Hydra.

"Seems like a connection to me. Though admittedly it doesn't tell us much about Navidna."

“Bruce, what is the tesseract, exactly? The one here on earth, I mean. Fine, it’s a four-dimensional object, and those might relate to a lot of possibilities for three-dimensional beings, but why does it look like a glowing cube?”

"All a tesseract is, in theory, is a hypercube. The way a cube is a three dimensional shape made of two dimensional squares, a hypercube is a four dimensional shape made of three-dimensional cubes."

“But is that really what the tesseract we've seen is? How does being four-dimensional make it a power source? Or a gate? Or a book?”

“It shouldn’t. I don’t think it does, inherently. It  may not even be a regular hypercube. It could, conceivably, be the tip of a very large iceberg, if you will, that’s just stuck through our dimension at a cube-shaped side, and is incidentally conducting energy from one universe to another. The math doesn’t exactly check out on that one, though. Tony’s still got some theories in that direction, but I’m beginning to think that we’re interacting with a sort of captured projection.”

Nat knew that Bruce was accustomed to the not-following-you look, even from fellow whiz-kids, and didn’t need a prompt other than silence to launch into a slower walk-through of a concept. He was smart like that.

He activated the flat holographic screen between them and stuck a finger through the plane of the light, “If I were two dimensional, and I lived in this plane, I’d look at a cube and see the properties of a square. It might grow or shrink, but it would look like a square as long it was lined up in my plain by the square cross-section. It could be almost as flat as me in the third dimension, or as long as a power cable, and I’d still just see a square. If something beyond my perception were to cause it to turn, stick a corner through instead, I’d perceive it like a triangle."

He waved his finger back and forth, "I might be able to move it relative to my two dimensions, but it would be next to impossible for me to turn it within the third dimension myself, since I literally have no surface in that direction, and can’t even conceive of the sort of dimensional motion,” he gestured through the plain of light, “I would have to apply to make it turn. And logically it should seem to move around on its own sometimes, or pick up vibrations from nowhere, or appear and disappear randomly, since it’s got functionally-infinite layers of two-dimensional thickness, each the same size as my entire universe, as well as other three dimensional presences I can’t perceive, that could be impacting and altering it relative to me,” he pushed his wrist, skating his hand sideways and poking it in and out of the plane, “But the tesseract, as we experience it, doesn’t do any of that. And as far as I can tell,” he sighed, “in the strictest sense, it’s not actually four dimensional.”

Nat patiently said nothing. Bruce continued, “It seems a lot more,” his eyebrows rose for emphasis, “a lot more, as though there’s some sort of four-d prismatic structure elsewhere, gathering and concentrating a spot of light onto our universe like a screen, and what the makers of the so-called tesseract actually did was create a three dimensional cube that exerts a fourth-dimensional effect that causes that spotlight to always shine directly at it wherever it moves in our universe.”

“But how?” Nat finally caught up enough to feel confused, “Wouldn’t there still be infinite numbers of fourth-dimensionally flat three-dimensional planes between the cube and the source of the spotlight? Wouldn’t that, just statistically, provide a lot of interference?”

Bruce nodded, grinning, “Yup.”

Nat blinked, “Um. Ok. Good?”

“What I think the makers of the tesseract did, if it did have makers and isn’t just an incredibly bizarre physical phenomenon, was to take an extremely powerful object, an object that exerts enormous control over physical space in our universe, and fix it within the beam of that fourth-dimensional spotlight. That three-d object uses a fraction, a terrifyingly tiny fraction, of that extra-dimensional energy to power the cube's adjustment of relative space whenever it’s moved. Since the light is coming from a direct fourth-dimensional vantage, there’s no place on our plane where we could ever position the tesseract to avoid the spotlight. The lack of inter-universe interference phenomena makes me think that the tip of this thing is either just the next universe over, like the finger of Michelangelo's Sistine God, or it’s somehow fixed relative to other three-d spaces as well, as if it threads some sort of motionless axis which motions might occur around, but never through.”

“So, what you’re saying is, whenever we think we move the cube around in three dimensional space, that’s just the cube moving space around itself? Because it functions as a fixed point relative to an actual fourth-dimensional reference?”

“That’s about the size of it, theoretically. I’m not sure if it slides the entire universe around like a moving stage floor under itself or just folds and stretches things within a limited area to make them work,” he shrugged, “but that gets into a weird area.”

Nat smirked, “Yeah, we should definitely stop before we get to the weird part. I assume there’s some rotation-of-the-earth-ish reason why we don’t feel the universe move when the tesseract does. I mean, the day Steve Rogers went into the ice, the cube reportedly plummeted into the ocean from cruising altitude, and there were no reports of strange phenomena reflective of everything shifting by forty thousand feet in a minute and a half.”

“Yeah, everything else in the perceptible universe would stay relatively, well, relative. There are potential exceptions, though. Theoretical radiant conditions and four-dimensional thread-like valances that keep the layered universes from flying apart or crashing together or shifting relative to each other, those might experience some strain. It’s possible for entangled things to experience relative changes on a scale that comparatively small. Theoretically. But we’re so, so small by comparison to the gross motions of the cosmos, if we do feel it it’s probably the way tiny fish feel the rotation of the galaxy.”

“And I would suspect,” Nat said slowly, “that anyone capable of a four-d vantage point...would be able to see the tesseract like a beacon, from anywhere. And if they had a tool like the bifrost…”

“It would be easier for them to target its area, yeah, I think so.”

“But if the tesseract isn’t really a hypercube, isn’t a glass box made of glass boxes, why…” she brought herself up short again, her throat sore with a desire to tell Bruce about the folded rooms like shifting shadow-boxes,  scenes on the same template by different actors, stacked like a flip-book, swirled like a zoetrope, creating the illusion of motion by the repetition of nearly identical figures through a very narrow focus.

The harder she worked to hold it in, the more she wanted to tell him something, anything, as long as it was true. But that was a rabbit hole she wasn't ready to take him down. She lowered her head into her hands, struggling to keep her guts on the inside.

“Nat?”

“I’m so mad at you for leaving, Bruce. I know I don't have a right to be. I wish I wasn't. But I am.”

He looked at her and didn’t move, then slowly pulled up a chair and sat opposite her at the narrow desk, neither of them moving to turn off the grainy holographic plane between them.

She sighed, depressed by how the pain in her chest lessened with that pointless admission, “I know I'm being a petulant creep. I’ve been trying to just let it go. I’m good at that. But I’m really bad at it this time. And that’s not your fault, you didn’t ask for any of this and you’re not obligated. But I cleaned myself up the best I could for you, invited you in, and after window shopping for a couple years you decided you didn’t see anything worth the price. I’m not new to rejection, but I’ve never felt smaller and less real than the moment you switched off that comms screen.”

He sighed, “I can see how you would feel that way.” He caught her smirk as she ducked her head, “Sorry, I don’t mean to play therapist, I’ve just been to a lot of them. And gurus, and tai chi masters. You learn a certain style of communication, and it’s not super immediate but it works for tough conversations.”

“No, it’s ok. Believe me, I get it. Conversational control. It’s like breathing. So if I can ask, was it just that I pushed you off a cliff one too many times or...”

Bruce nodded deep into his chest, deciding, “It’s not that I...not that the Hulk decided that you weren’t good enough, Nat. Or that I wasn’t. It’s just that we’re both too smart to keep from fucking up the way the other survives.”

Nat smiled, “Ok, dumb question, what’s that supposed to mean?”

“I mean you’ve got such a good read of me, that, yeah, you can bring me back from being the Hulk, more reliably than any person in the world. But you also know exactly how to make me feel better, how to put me at ease and I just...I can’t live like that. I have to be on my guard at all times. Even now, me and the Hulk, we’ve got a better deal going than I ever thought possible, around people who don’t hate him, and who he can’t kill by accident, who build things that can stand up to his mistakes. He sees that Thor is king here, and he really looks up to Thor. But Hulk is never just going to be some guy who happens to be bigger and greener than everyone else. He's not just a manifestation of anger, he’s an energy source, and his energy is all destruction. I can’t leave that unattended and wander off to live my life hoping nothing goes wrong. And you’re so great at making me think that I can. You outsmart me every time. You make me think that I can control it, and it’s not just me that suffers when I’m wrong.”

“We could figure that out, though," she hated that she sounded like she was begging, "we could stay here. Loki invited me to stay. I mean I’ve kinda got a thing I gotta do tomorrow morning but after I’m done with that...”

“Nat, you’re not hearing me. It’s not just me and Hulk. I'm bad for your survival too."

"I disagree."

"No, you asked, so listen ok? I’m a scientist, a really good one. I take disparate bits of data and use them to find patterns that describe truth. I dissect bias and subjective models. And no matter how big a researcher’s brain is, how agile their ability to construct models that explain things the way one might wish that they were, no one can control what the truth actually is. You either find it or you don’t…” he shook his head, “I’ve met people as smart as me, and smarter, either in person or through their work, who sank their whole lives into trying to find and prove the version of reality that conformed to their pet theory. Geniuses, with money and fame at stake, all the motivation in the world and egos the size of planets. And none of them came close to how good you are at what you do.”

“And what’s that?”

“You control what you believe, compellingly. You compartmentalize facts until the truth is whatever you need it to be. You erase variables, you change the world to suit whatever truth you need. And you're so, so smart, Nat, and you're so charming, and you care so much. You do it so well, it’s like art, and it's how you get by, staying in a terrible world while keeping your soul intact. But Nat, I can always tell. I pick apart the theories of people smarter than me because coping with the other guy has been a hard lesson in how it’s impossible to control the truth.”

“You think I’m delusional?”

“No, I really don’t. I think you know exactly the way the world is, and you’re ruthless enough to bring it to its knees for the sake of what it ought to be, for the sake of what the people you care about need it, or you, to be at any given moment. But Nat, reality is like Steve. No matter how hard you beat against it, no matter what the greater good might demand, it’s got all the time in the world, and it can do this all day. That’s what makes it reality. It plants itself like a tree, and eventually we’re the ones that have to move.”

“So hulk is just a monster, I'm just a liar, and your inability to be with me is just an immutable fact of the universe.”

He reached a hand across the desk, through the immaterial wall of grey light, and touched her hand, “You know that’s not what I’m saying.”

She smirked bitterly at his obscured face, “Yeah, but fuck what you’re saying anyway. This is why I don’t like stories, you know? They pretend to tell you who you can be based on who you’ve been and who else you’re like. They present these pompous, indirect, incomplete arguments about human nature, nudging you in the ribs like you already agree, when, really, our ability to free ourselves from pointless patterns that are really just someone else’s opinion compounded by some other someone’s lazy repetition, is the only thing about people that makes us people. The only thing that makes life mean anything."

Bruce didn't say anything, squeezing her hand gently when she didn't pull away.

She huffed, wiping her eyes with her free hand and opening the big book again, "But language I’m good at. Code I’m good at. And this witch seemed to like to talk in code, and she meant something specific by it, so let’s keep looking.”

Bruce nodded, reopening the picture book, "Spoken like a physicist."

Chapter Text

Loki writhed back towards consciousness under his convoluted lashings, and dreamed of prison, rotting in the bright ranks of Asgard’s settled questions. His high-functioning madness had been badly exacerbated by countering the mind stone for so long, disappearing himself into a role to avoid surrendering himself completely. The stolen mantle of The Rival was cruel enough on its own, and The Other’s fisted grip upon it had tightened it down on him until it cut. The enduring blisters gnawed at his trembling sense of self almost constantly when he was alone.

He was always alone, except for Frigga. She was the only one that understood him, the only one that saw through and remembered, with the most reason of all to hate him, and the most authority to forgive him. He had wanted her attention every moment; her scolding, her reprovals, anything, but with his brain in pieces his ability to navigate their accustomed doublespeak had broken down, and he’d repeatedly driven her away with some inane outburst, and feared each time that it would be the last. He suspected she had begun to fear for his sanity, and not wrongly.

But Odin’s madness had worsened as well, it seemed, keeping Frigga away most days. The old god had been frothing, delusional, warlike, consumed by the illusion of his own righteousness, even seated upon the throne of vision that ought to help anchor a fractured memory. Frigga had begged him not to make it worse, not to challenge Odin’s failing memory. He’d played along as well as his deranged pride would let him.

It apparently hadn’t been enough to do any good.

Imprisonment had seemed like an eternity, even more so than intended. He’d done his best to endure the time, let it wash over him, but there was always something happening. New prisoners. Frigga’s brief visits. Loud scuffles broken up by the guards. Never enough to be diverting but too much to maintain his serenity, rippling the peace of his miserable fishbowl until trying to meditate made him queasy. If anything the morsels of diversion amplified the crushing boredom, and the trickles of peace amplified the petty annoyances.

But then some creature down the row had decided it was time to make its move.

He’d watched the monster literally burn through the elite prison guard. It felt no pain, took no wounds, and drained life with a touch, killing everything in its path. He’d known Thor and the others would be coming to answer the alarm down the center stairs. He knew, without a doubt, that it would kill every guard and god that stood in its way, eagerly. From his cage, he only had one chance to affect anything at all, monster to monster. Just a suggestion. The best he could do with what he had, as usual.

It apparently hadn’t been enough to do any good.

The response to the jailbreak had been Thor’s first visit to the cells since New York, but he hadn’t even stopped to say hello, or accuse him of causing the chaos from his intact cell, or even just glare at him disapprovingly. Just as none of his new friends had let him out, none of his old friends had let him know what was happening outside. That was unkind, considering he’d saved their lives, diverting the Kursed from the bulk of the fighting.

In fact, despite being imprisoned and unarmed, he’d been the only one to successfully turn aside the Kursed that day, sending it through far fewer guards than if it had taken the long way, diverting it away from the throne room and the vault, preventing the shields from trapping everyone inside the palace with it. It had been all he could do, and he’d done it brilliantly, in his humble opinion. It hadn’t been enough.

Remembering it made his scars ache.

Fighting elsewhere had drawn away the remaining einherjar from the empty prison when Frigga sent an illusion of herself to his cell, sword in hand and eyes dire, preparing to defend Jane from Malekith. He felt afresh the way his heart had leapt to see even the shade of her, despite the grim circumstances. Her decisive briskness made him hope, breathlessly, that she was reaching out to him with some plan for redeeming him, that she still counted on him, needed him, trusted him.

In hindsight, it was pathetic. Isolation made him pathetic. She couldn’t hold him together like she did Odin, with brute force and careful spindle magic. She was too busy protecting her king, and Loki too intolerant of being handled. Still, he’d at least hoped she had come to speak plainly and tell him what to do.

But she rested the blade on his heart, shook her head sadly, and whispered, “The throne has fallen. My king will never recover from this. It is up to you now, to right what you have wrought, if you can. Goodbye, my beautiful Loki.”

Before he could warn her about the Kursed, she’d struck him through his imaginary heart with her illusory blade, spinning a new and final connection that would be completed when she fell on the substance of the same sword. Her final gift. She’d lectured him all his life against the cruelty of death magic, the manipulation of mantles, and their hold over kings. He finally understood, a thousand years too late.

As he dreamed it, it happened again. He felt her fight like a spindle witch, like a norn of the shears, winding and striking with a pride she had set aside for centuries. One strike direct, for the blade. The warning. The second shuttled back and forth like the rhythmic loom. The drawn line. The third spiralling like the spindle, like the caduceus, like the vine, perfect in her art. The lesson. The beauty of her final moments broke his heart as surely as their end.

He felt her die. It hadn’t been enough.

And no one came to tell him.

He sat in his cell, waiting, heart ripped open, staring into an unseen book all afternoon and into the night. All of Asgard learned of the tragedy. All went into mourning. But no one came to tell him.

Her funeral channeled Asgard’s collective grief into an excess of power that burned him, bleeding into his heart through the wound in her body, ten thousand lives expanded and changed by sorrow, hemorrhaging strength into him for whatever Frigga had assumed was coming next.

He knew all her tricks for holding power down, channeling it into stillness, spinning it tight, picturing himself as a fish beneath water as he sat in his transparent cell, cycling through images and exercises to soothe himself. He’d long since learned to manage more power than he ought to have, but he’d never learned how not to need the one who had taught him.

People were always vanishing into the void when he needed them the most, with only himself to consult, only himself to blame, finding only more rage and isolation anywhere he set his hand.

And no one came to tell him.

He couldn’t behave as if he knew until they came to tell him, but the entire funeral passed without him, and the courtesy of letting him grieve with them hadn’t occurred to anyone. No one even remembered he was alive. Many probably assumed that he wasn’t. Either way, no one came to check.

Finally they sent some armored afterthought. Not even Thor. He’d have destroyed his cell even if his brain hadn’t been overflowing with the sort of power that could change worlds.

Thor had waited another entire day to visit him. Then he’d threatened his life, taken for granted his help in the service of treason, and unknowingly soothed him back from the brink of suicide just by being there, late and grim and tedious as he was. That had made Loki smile in spite of himself and the miserable day. Frigga knew, just as Coulson had, how to make them need each other.

That was when he had known what he would have to do to get free, repair the throne, save Odin from himself, and Thor from the burden of rule.

Dying in svartalfheim had hurt miserably, and would for weeks. He’d known that he was going to deserve it. It had been a stupid plan, made worse for being played so fast and loose while needing a perfect opening that might never present itself. He’d tried to predict just how bad it was going to hurt before the moment came, and he’d been pretty close: worse than it ever had before, but still not as bad as he deserved. He’d tried to guess whether Thor still had any grief to spare for him, but dismissed the idea.

He hadn’t known, and it almost scuttled the whole maneuver. He was such a fool. The great golden jackass had almost made him too sad to go through with it.

Still, it had afforded him one of those rare moments where he could say exactly what he meant. He was never prepared for those. They only seemed to come when he was at the point of death, or getting his ass beaten halfway there, or so drunk that he should have been. And for a brilliant moment, Thor had seen him, lavishing the traitor with grief enough to heal a king, at least for a time.

It was just barely enough.

He’d been able to heal Odin enough to manage one last lucid audience with Thor through the flames of illusion before retreating to a long sleep. He’d been able to repair the throne, and the worst of his own madness. Maybe it had been petty to write that play, to smirk and siphon sustaining grief from the nobility of Asgard, but he’d felt owed that much at least.

During his illusory reign, he’d often tried to discover if Frigga had counterfeited her own death as he had. He found only that, if she had, she was resolved to let him suffer with it. But she had seemed tired the last time he’d seen her. Glinting as brilliantly as ever with charm and cleverness, but rightfully weary of terrible secrets and untenable prices. Even at the last, she did not reprove him, though it was, by any measure, his fault. That, as much as anything, had helped him find his willingness to die for it.

Suddenly he was feeling it again in a rush, lying on the black sand, his soul oozing like a spitted slug, watching the Kursed dark elf collapse out of existence and take all the evidence of the lie with it. In a moment of pure abstraction, he’d lain there in agony thinking, Dammit, my dagger.

His best magic dagger.

He might have pulled it off with a simple illusion, the way he’d harmlessly maimed Thor to fool Malekith. It mattered less that he actually die than that Thor believe it, and the wyrd fire had its aspects like any fire. He could have used the visual light of the illusion and left aside the pain. But he’d only just scraped his sanity back together, he didn’t want to disappear into another lie just then. Some things hurt more than dying.

Fortunately, a sword through the guts felt exactly the same, to a Kursed, as jamming it in the back with a magic dagger channeling insubstantial light and pain: barely enough to get it’s attention.

If he’d been unlucky, it could have just beaten him to death with it’s very-real fists. But he’d observed that there was still a dark-elf inside that dark-energy disease, and banked on the hope that those assholes all loved obtuse poetic symmetry as much as Malekith seemed to. You’ve made the universe blindingly bright, so we’ll destroy the throne that lets you see. You’ve illuminated what a shit-hole svartalfheim is, so we’re going to pulverize Asgard. You’ve cornered us into killing our own troops, we’re going to corner you into wasting yours.

Still, with the Kursed, it seemed wise to keep the prompts simple. I’ve stabbed you through the torso...so...

It really ought to rhyme, he mused in a dreamy meander, when you die for king and country. Or for love. Or whatever you do it for.

I didn’t do it for him, he thought again.

“I could have done it, father,” he heard himself pleading. Any of it. All of it. “For you. For all of us.” If you would just let me.

But there at the threshold of death, on that desolate plain, a multitude of sins later, he had known.

He didn’t do it for Odin at all. Not any of it. Not ever. Not even the parts Odin himself had demanded of him. Not really. Fooling himself about that for so long, after even Odin had seen it, had been an enormous burden he no longer wanted as he felt Thor’s pain, Thor’s surprisingly intense pain, washing over him through the hand behind his neck.

Odin already had done enough for himself, had lied to him enough for both of them, until the memory of their exchange over the abyss felt like a joke in hindsight.

“I could have done it.”

“No, Loki.”

He and Odin didn’t doublespeak across other people at each other half as fluently as Loki and Frigga could. Thor had likely only heard him saying he could have killed all the giants, and Odin saying that wasn’t the way. Because that’s how Thor talked. That’s how Thor thought. That’s what Thor had learned.

Odin had likely meant any of a hundred other things besides, none of them any more worth living for.

“No Loki, I know you were thinking of escape.”

“No Loki, I’m not stopping you, but you don’t get to take the spear, or Thor.”

“No Loki, you never did it for me.”

“No Loki, we’re not telling Thor the truth of your errands, even now.”

“No Loki, I’m not your father.”

It was a moot point, of course. In truth, he could never really tell how much Odin knew. He could barely narrow it down between everything and nothing, inclusive. When the bulk of a king’s mind was split between two birds that both liked shiny things, it could vary from moment to moment, incalculable.

Not that Loki’s mind wasn’t agile enough for the task, but his need to maintain any number of viable gambits against unforeseeable circumstances took up most of his his own attention most of the time. Keeping the angles in mind, seeing what others didn’t, seizing opportunities and dodging consequences, finding the win-win course of action regardless of the unknowns. It was what everyone used to count on him for all the time, figure out what course would work out somehow for the good no matter what. Take the impossible, make it bend. Bend the truth, make it a story. He was outstanding at it, and he loved doing it. If it were the only thing he loved, perhaps he could have been contented to do Odin’s bidding far longer than he had been.

Or perhaps it would have broken him eventually anyway. Sometimes he tracked so many possibilities at once that he couldn’t tell which reality was happening and which was merely imagined. Sometimes he worried that he was far more broken than even he realized.

As if to reassure himself, he tried to recall what was real. Which death was he on? Where were his actual senses?

Someone was talking.

---

“I didn’t do it for him…” Loki murmured, still staged for treatment on the brightly lit table.

Nat closed her book quietly and got up, crossing to him. She smoothed his hair back and watching for further signs of life, seeing no discernible change in the inscrutable model above him.

“You in there boss?”

He didn’t respond, he breath labored but steady, his eyes darting.

“You slept all day, after you died. We’ve been taking turns sitting with you. I volunteered for the graveyard shift. Sif’s taking over at dawn, so she should be here in a couple hours. She’s really worried about you. Eir says you’re not going to die, but she has no guesses about when you’re going to wake up.”

When Loki didn’t respond Nat sighed, dragged her chair to the table to sit by him.

“You missed Thor’s council meeting. Just everyone reasserting, at great length, that we don’t know anything. But you already know that, don’t you. Maybe you didn’t bring the giants here, but you know a lot more than you’ve said.”

He didn’t respond. She fingered the pages of “The Annotated King Lear” in her hand fitfully.

“I found this in the library when I was looking for information on mantles. It was sort of slivered in between volumes. I’d read it to you, but I don’t really like hearing myself read stories. I don’t know, it feels too much like letting someone else control what I say. I just noticed a couple things. He doesn’t have two heirs, he has three. Besides the two rivals you mentioned, he has one that tells him the truth, that stands by him when he’s ill. She’s like his fool that way, and can’t speak of her love for him. She never wanted the throne. But he calls her a serpent’s tooth.”

She opened the book idly, not reading.

“There is this vicious bastard that goes about getting his brother banished, too, going on and on about what he’s owed and how he means to take it, but I keep thinking about Cordelia. The third sister. And how there’s a picture of you, in a children’s book, superimposed over a snake. And a story about a snake you made that’s bound around the earth. And a snake over your eyes, dripping poison into them because you won’t cry, even though the power of your grief could save the king’s favorite son. Funny, huh? Feels like there’s something important there. I wish you’d wake up and explain that to me. You said you wanted someone to talk about books with, right?”

He didn’t stir.

“Just figured I’d offer. It doesn’t mean anything of course. Just stories. Not meant to be taken literally, unless you’re living inside them.”

She fiddled with a page she’d dog-eared.

“I guess I could tell you a story you do want to hear. A secret. Charge up your desire to share something with me. You wanna hear about the answer Barton gave? When I asked him how he would seduce me?”

He didn’t stir.

“He’d made me his problem, caught me instead of killing me. He offered to bring me in. I told him S.H.I.E.L.D would never take me. I figured they were right to want me dead, figured I could wait for an opening to fake my death with Barton as a witness, get back off the radar for a while.”

She laughed, shaking her head, “But he wouldn’t give me a plausible opening. Decided to give me the analytical field battery, like I started to give you, to find something that might help him vouch for me. With each question, I tried to shock him, creep him out, get him to pull a knife, swing on me. He got to the one about seduction, and I figured it was all done. I told him I’d give him a Gwyn.”

Nat waited. Loki didn’t ask. She shrugged.

“Gwyn was a cover identity I played, deep cover with this arms dealer in Glasgow. She was a four-thousand-a-night call-girl, into every messed-up thing he was into. He would send his guys away so he could really let his hair down with her. They needed the best, someone that could really disappear into a role and protect herself at the same time, so they sent me. I was promised she would be my last honey-pot project. As a point of messed-up pride, I made her my best. She became kind of a legend in certain circles.”

She paused, smirking. Loki didn’t respond.

“Anyway, he knew what I meant. I told Clint everything I’d done, and that I’d do it to him if I had to. I figured if he was still willing to vouch for me at the end of that story, he was too stupid to trust to vouch for me. Bulletproof. Win-win, right? Perfect play.

“He didn’t say anything, though. Like it didn’t even faze him, so I turned the question back on him. ‘If I were your mark, how would you seduce me’,” Nat bowed her head, hunkering down by Loki’s ear in the dark, “He said ‘I’d ask you to go easy on me, because it’s my first time and I’m a little nervous.’”

Remembering it always made her smile.

“And it absolutely threw me off. Not because I believed him, but because the he way I felt when he said it, my gut response, proved to me, in spite of myself, that some part of me that could be decent. Like I still had that choice. Could want what was good for others. And it let me know that he saw that. That he really believed that’s who I was, under everything else. Someone at least capable of being on the side of the vulnerable and innocent.”

“I think about that, about what you said to get me here. It wasn’t your offer. I mean, it was a brilliant pitch, but it all could have been bullshit, and I knew that going in. The only thing you said that I believed was that you needed my help. I think you’re more damaged than me. By a lot. I think you’re in deeper than I ever went, by choice or otherwise. But at the bottom, I think you know what it’s like to hear those words and be helpless to ignore them. And I wanted to help you. I still do. But you have to understand, I’m not Clint. I wish I was. I wish I could save broken people the way he saved me. But, like with Banner, there’s too much that I want from you to be the one that saves you. Clint’s just a deeply decent guy who saw me, and was willing to see me as I really was in spite of myself, not as the convenient story I told myself and could be used against me.

“I don’t like how stories swallow people up. How they warp us and recombine us and smudge us out as if nothing is real. I know how to use them. I’m great at it. And I hate myself for it. Because I’ve never heard of a story where someone like us gets what they want in the end. Every story manipulatively warns against manipulating people. How very platonic, right?”

He didn’t flinch. She sighed.

“Ok, boss. Well. There’s somebody I gotta go meet. Because it sounds like he’s got answers, and you’re being resolutely useless. I didn’t tell anyone where I’m going. Sorry to vanish on you, but you gotta admit it’s fair play at this point. Try not to die on anybody else until I get back.”

She set the play on the lighted platform, looked down at him for a moment, and exited.

Chapter Text

Thor sat at the head of the council table in his make-do throne. Everyone else had adjourned for dinner and bedtime after a respectable effort at holding council. Sif had given a report from her mother on Loki’s condition, the assurance that he would wake and the uncertainty of when. Heimdall had affirmed that the new bifrost stood ready to facilitate a counter-attack, but that the storm giants’ location was unknown to him, hidden by powerful witchcraft. Those bits had been new and useful. Everything else had been his closest friends claiming they had nothing to add, clearly lying.

He trusted their motives. Holding councils was as much about surveying the mood of those he trusted as establishing facts, and it was a delicate time for Asgard. The toppling of the golden sham had left nothing in its place but a thundering sort of silence, like a drum-roll, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Everyone was feeling it, trying to protect each other, pretending everything must be manageable and they could afford to wait and see. It seemed right. He’d withheld what he knew about the attack from them as well, since he had no helpful explanation, and Loki’s fraught absence already cast an unbalancing shadow on any speculation. They just listened and eyed each other, anxious of triggering any assumptions that might lead to rash accusations or despair.

Bru in particular had been strangely reserved, looking more at the room than at anyone else when she mentioned some memory problems she’d been having, carefully not speculating on a cause. Banner gave up some ambivalent babble about possible scientific properties involved in the invasion, and mentioned doing some unconcluded mythology research. Nat had said nothing. She’d checked in with him at the end, as others filtered out, affirming his perception that no one was saying what they knew, and letting him know she meant to sit with Loki until morning, just in case. With a sisterly kiss and a promise that she felt fine, she’d gone.

It did trouble him to suspect she was hiding something, because if even he could tell, she had to be under a lot of strain. But she hadn’t openly shut him out. She’d asked him to come to dinner, to sit with her by Loki’s bedside, he’d just been unable to accept. He had a responsibility to get his thoughts together and come up with a plan of his own, one that could reassure people enough to come to him with what they knew, but it had been so long since he’d had any coherent space to think that he’d just sunk into a weary and droning sort of mental cloud as the sun went down and the light from the crystal cave darkened alongside his mood.

He paced the hall, brain rattling like a loose wheel. He pondered going to bed but felt frustrated and guilty knowing he’d done nothing useful all evening. His friends were anxious. His people were counting on him. He thought about taking a proper stroll but realized it would be a formal mistake, on the second night of his courtship, to be seen out of his bed and brooding. He smiled grimly to think of Freya’s showy pity if she knew, how she’d relish the chance to offer him powders and poultices for his virility, and favorite-dirty-aunt advice on finding his spark. He sat back down, his stomach rumbling, not feeling hungry, estimating that midnight had passed.

A quiet step from a shadow along the far wall drew his eye. Hleya stepped out from a place where he hadn’t even known there was a door, a strangely shaped satchel slung over her arm.

She nodded, “Hail, my king.”

He nodded back, managing a smile but not rising, “Hail the valiant.”

A hitch in her step half-tripped her and she struggled to keep her satchel level, “Eir urged me to have another meal a few hours after dinner every night until my head is better, for my strength and to help me sleep, I think. It’s eerie to eat alone in a closed room, so I thought I would find an open one. If it wouldn’t bother you.”

He smiled, “It won’t bother me, but tell me true. Did Sif send you?”

Hleya gave a noncommittal head-wobble, “She and Bru and Banner are sort of off in their own little worlds right now, in Sif’s quarters, with nowhere else to sit. I thought everyone would be asleep but it seems like we’re all just kind of sitting vigil. Which is weird considering nobody’s died.” She set her burden down on the table and unwrapped it; pieces of cheese, meat and fruit, too many rolls, and a skin of milk, “I took too much. You weren’t at dinner. Help me eat some of this?”

Thor grinned, “Hasn’t anyone ever told you not to feed moody Asgardians?”

Hleya nodded, tucking some cheese and meat into a roll and slapping it onto the bare table in front of him, “Father mentioned not getting my fingers too close to your mouth when you’re trying to eat your feelings. But you’re the king, and we’re at table. I can’t eat if you don’t. I wasn’t raised in a barn.”

Thor smirked and picked up the wadded sandwich, taking half of it in a single hefty bite and making an appreciative sound.

She began stuffing another for herself, taking a brave breath, “Thank you for not choosing me, by the way. No offense.”

He swallowed, his smile bemused, “No problem. I don’t think your mother wanted me to. She has her eye on Loki for you, apparently.”

Hleya gagged on a swallow of honeyed milk, “Bestla’s backribs. She went ahead and told you about that mad notion, then? She can't mean it. I would bore him to tears.”

Thor laughed and shrugged, “Perhaps. He’s actually very patient with us warrior types.”

Hleya smirked, “So’s mother. Like a cat. Though I suppose they do both manage to keep themselves amused. I just don’t think I’m the right match for anyone who already dislikes people that much.”

“What are you talking about? Loki loves people. It’s the main reason he’s so irritable all the time.”

Hleya nodded slowly, “That’s what father says about mother. Personally I don’t see it.”

Thor smiled sadly, “Parents are difficult.”

Hleya smiled back, “I do sort of wish I had a Loki of my own. Not to marry, I mean, just another option for my parents to put the responsibility and blame on. Someone clever. One that understood rule and actually wanted any part of it.”

Thor shrugged companionably, “You’ve got time. Anyway, I don’t think Loki’s ever wanted any part of it. Not ten seconds after he got it, anyway.”

“Truly?”

Thor nodded, “I know how he seems. But he said once that he only ever wanted to be my equal, and it felt like the truth. He said it with murder in his eyes but I swear, I’ve never felt worse for him than I did then. Knowing I’d let him forget somehow that I...that I’m...I don’t know,” he shook his head, “It was a strange time. I’d gotten so consumed by everything I needed that I’d completely missed what he was going through.”

Hleya chewed carefully, “That was when he... when you... when the bifrost broke?”

Thor nodded, “ A lifetime ago now, it seems. I’d been so angry, so obsessed with the throne,” he looked at the underwhelming chair he sat on with a wry huff, “Everyone knows the story of how he went a little mad back then, but I can’t help feeling like I started it. I went mad with greed and hate and then he was left alone to clean it up. And he did. He embraced it. It was crazy what he did, but by the end of it, he’d taken everything that I’d done wrong upon himself, made me face it, fight it, and carried it away with him into the dark. He made me see myself. He did it with such a will that it made everyone else forget what I had done. Reminded us all of my purpose, myself included.”

Hleya smiled blandly, “I’m glad it worked out.”

Thor rolled a green apple between his palms, “At the time I thought it had been some wisdom of father’s guiding us all, or the world tree’s mysterious symmetries that had caused everything to fall into place. I don’t think that anymore. True, the world tree guided me to a place on earth where I could belong, to a man whose only ambition was to care for his foster daughters, to a woman who,” he smiled fondly, “had problems I could understand and help with. Patterns I knew but could address afresh. I think fate, once consulted, would have happily left me there. Odin might have as well. He never forgave Hela, after all, when she became dangerous. He’d punished me before, but that time it was different. I realized, when I was mourning him on Sakaar, that he’d looked at me and seen her, seen himself. Things he‘d never have been able to forgive, if Loki hadn’t given me a second chance to prove myself.”

“Perhaps. But memories aren’t perfect, my king. They change. Family memories more than most.”

“I know. I know I may just be looking back and seeing what I want to believe. I spent a lot of my life believing that the way things worked out proved that the universe is a just and safe place. But I’ve learned much since my time on earth. From Natasha and Coulson and Fury, and Frigga. There are wars people fight for us that we never see, and fierce feelings that hide in flawed acts and suspicious silences.”

---

Nat slipped down the hall. She was running early, but it didn’t hurt to have some extra time to find the best way to get out unseen, and her gut was telling her to move. It was eerie how quiet the place was at that hour. A trembling sense of anticipation, observation, prickled at the back of her neck like the calm before a surprise party, nerves stirred up by her run-in with Navidna. She ignored it with a vengeance, refusing to look over her shoulder every second. The world would always be full of evil ghosts, but she could trust the silence and her long experience to assure her that she was alone.

“Where are you going?”

Nat whirled and put a fist through Loki’s face, green light glinting off her glove as it shot through the illusion. She shook her head, huffing, “Don’t do that! You scared the shit out of me.”

He shrugged, “Sorry, I only just got back and I can barely stand. There’s no way I could catch you on foot. I feel like hell. And you’re one to talk about scaring the shit out of people. I’m just coming ‘round and I hear you whispering about some clandestine meetup you’ve told no one about. Are you out of your mind? Where are you going?”

Nat walked.

Loki jumped in front of her, “Nat stop. Please. Seriously. You’re setting off every last terrible-idea alarm I have, and I have a lot of those. Who is this person you’re going to meet?”

“Don’t know. You tell me. They think I’m you,” she walked through him, trying to slow herself down enough not to make any wrong turns.

“What?”

She kept her words as brisk as her stride, leaving it to him to keep up, “They think I’m you. They want me to offer myself as a hostage, since Helblindi thinks you owe him a reckoning. Oh, just incidentally, how do you know Mina Navidna?”

“Wait, what? Who?”

“Doctor Navidna. The eugenics nut that took charge of Barnes.”

“Only what you told me.”

“Because if you knew her you sure would have mentioned it when I was pouring my heart out to you, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes. I would have. What does that have to do with-”

“When you came to find me in Absalom compound, you called my room a fishbowl.”

“What? I don’t remember that.”

“I do. You did.”

“Ok? So?”

“Just a weird choice of words, if you don’t know Navidna’s mental exercises. Or were you just reading my mind?”

“Wha- it was a room ringed with one-way mirrors. It was a fucking fishbowl! What are you talking about?”

“Who’s Angrboda?”

His voice dropped, colder and quieter, “What.”

“Angrboda. You know her, don’t you?”

“Where is this coming fr- is that who you’re going to visit?”

“Could be. Don’t know. Does she have a son?”

“Natasha stop.

She shrugged, not slowing, “I don’t have time. I have to figure out how to get beyond the wall before dawn and I hear it’s kind of impregnable.”

Loki half-screamed through clenched teeth, “Alright,” he hissed down to a whisper, “if I show you how to get out past the wall without being seen will you please explain to me what’s going on like a sensible person?”

“Sure,” she sneered, “only fair, since you’ve been so straight with me this whole time.”

He gaped at her in wounded disbelief that didn’t quite pass the smell test, “Are you mad because you think I’ve been keeping things from you on purpose? It’s just that there hasn’t been any time.”

“Funny thing that, because you’ve had a pretty firm hand in setting the pace. I know you didn’t bring the giants here, I grant you that, but the choices you have had you haven’t been making like a person who is being straight with me.”

“Natasha, please stop. At least tell Thor where you’re going.”

“No time. Didn’t make any. See how annoying that is? Anyway I expect he’d forbid me to go and I don’t want to hear it.”

“You should hear it.”

“And yet I don’t see you running off to tell him. Because you know he needs to be saved from whatever’s happening, and you’d be doing exactly what I’m doing if our situations were reversed.”

“Oh don’t be tedious. What can you possibly accomplish by handing yourself over to the enemy?”

She smirked, “You’d be surprised. You’re not the only one who knows how to top from the bottom, remember?”

Loki balled up his fists at his sides, “Alright. Alright. Fine. But just-” his presence flickered, the illusion browning out for a moment as he winced, “Just wait. For one minute. I can save you that much time by leading you out, and I’m coming with you. Just give me a-”

That stopped her, “No way. You’re half dead, and if they see you with me they’ll finish the job. I have to go alone.”

He groaned, clearly struggling where he was, “If it’s me they want, I’m coming with you.”

She shook her head, fury chewing her stomach, “So you’re going to get yourself killed just to be a stubborn shit who has to know better than everyone else, is that it?”

“Yes. Told you we have a lot in common.”

“And what would killing yourself accomplish, exactly?”

He gasped, distracted, but smirked, “You’d be surprised.”

Nat took a deep breath, rooting her tone into the earth, “No. You’re staying right where you are. I’m calling in my hour.”

He glanced at her, perplexed, “What?”

“The hour you owe me. Where I get complete control of your body and you have to trust me. I’m calling it in. You’re not getting up from that table. Or the floor, if you’ve already been stupid enough to try.”

He gaped at her, round-eyed, “You wouldn’t.”

“I just did. We made a deal. You owe me. So stay down. One hour.”

“You…” his voice crackled with loathing.

“Trust me, I’d rather have used it for showing you how a four-thousand-a-night Glaswegian escort sets a dinner table, too, but we make our choices. Yours right now is whether you’re going to help me get out of here without anyone trying to follow me, because I think they can kill anyone that interferes, and I think you care about all of the people that might try.”

Loki glared at her, digging his fingertips into his wrists as if prying at manacles.

She glared back, “You know I need your help. They claim they have a hostage.”

His stance straightened, though his brows didn’t un-knot, “Who?”

“I don’t know. Someone they seem to think is desperately important to you, but who you hadn’t even noticed is missing. Some black-fledged messenger.”

Loki’s image flickered, mouth dropping dryly open as damp eyes dropped closed.

“I take it you have some idea who that is?”

He nodded, straightening his coat.

“You gonna tell me?”

He shook his head, squaring his shoulders, “Still. Follow me.”

Chapter Text

Sif left Banner and Bru tangled up in bed and headed towards the healing room. She was running a little early, but it made sense to let Natasha get to bed for a few hours, and to have someone comforting Thor. It wasn’t like she could sleep anyway, and her gut was telling her to move.

---

Hleya sighed and sat back, watching over the king of Asgard as he slept at table, his arms folded under his head. Unable to determine the least presumptuous way to wake him and send him to bed, she settled on rolling up the satchel linen by his wrist in case he reached for a pillow, and unclasped his red cloak from his shoulders, draping it more fully over him for warmth.

He murmured some thanks to whoever he was dreaming of, and she was quietly thankful it wasn’t her. It wasn’t that she minded taking care of people, she thought, she just wanted it to be on equal terms, like her parents seemed to manage. Thor was a good man, a good person, probably a good king, but she would never be his equal. They were too similar. And in any case, Asgard hadn’t recognized a consort as the king’s equal since before King Bor broke faith with the other realms. In hindsight, Vanaheim should have seen that coming. Any kingdom that breaks faith with half its own people isn’t likely to treat others any better.

She shook her head. Problems of ancient history that wouldn’t likely be solved until the far future. Still, if Thor was a good person, and doomed to rule Asgard, and she could manage to be a good person, doomed to rule Vanaheim, perhaps they could work at repairing things. If the Valkyrie could return, anything was possible.

Looking at him asleep, something he’d said struck her strangely, He said once that he only ever wanted to be my equal…

She was just crossing to watch the main door, spare his majesty’s dignity against any pre-dawn wanderers, when she heard Loki’s voice, hushed and strained but distinct, echo down the corridor that lead to the stairwell up to the courtyard, “Alright.”

His tone retreated to unintelligible tones and sibilants, soft as the footfalls that seemed to be heading her way.  

A thrill of relief went up her back to hear him up and about, yet her gut told her to get out of sight, quickly. Something was happening. She ducked down under the table and waited.

---

Nat glared at Loki again as he lead her into the council room and she saw Thor, asleep, at the end of the table.

Loki huffed irritably, “I’m not betraying you. How would I have known he was in here? It’s your job to look after him.”

“No, my job-” she sighed, “Just shut up. Don’t wake him.”

Loki noted the crumbs and the cloak, “At least he remembered to eat something. Idiot.” He glanced around the room with a suspicious eye. It wasn’t like Thor to remember to eat when he was upset. Or to tuck himself in like that. He wished his senses were better when he was projecting. Someone had been there.

“Loki. Shut it. Show me what you’re going to show me.”

“Fine. Come on.” He strode silently to one of the slashes of glass that looked out on the dark cave, reflecting her face but not his.

He put his hand through the glass, bearing down his thoughts into his projection, that tiny quiver of himself in the air, commanding the invisibly small sprites inside the glass. They heard him and obeyed, opening a hole in the window wide enough for Natasha to crawl through, “The floor is three and a quarter meters down, hard and flat. I can’t hold the glass open long. After you.”

Nat crouched and climbed up onto the window ledge, looking out into the blind dark. She murmured something that got lost in the cavern beyond.

“What?”

She sighed, “Flying-fish moment.”

He grunted slightly with sustained effort, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.” She jumped into the air.

Loki sighed, letting the glass fall closed behind her. He glanced over at Thor, who had begun to snore softly, the sound of it tugging his heart. He shook his head, “The things I do for love.” He walked through the glass into the dark.

---

Hleya waited under the table, trying to understand what she had heard and seen. Where was he taking Natasha? The cave lead out beyond the wall, the glass supposedly impregnable. Why would he be leading her out beyond the wall, through a route Heimdall didn’t guard? The king’s consort, the king’s kinslayer, his own valkyrie...the reasoning seemed to be staring her in the face but she didn’t want to believe it. If Loki wanted Thor, or the throne, for himself, either way it meant getting Natasha out of the way.

That couldn’t be right. Natasha was cleverer than that, wasn’t she? But she was so young, too, and she didn’t really understand Asgard.

But still. Loki was better than that. He had to be. Everyone seemed to believe he was.

Still. He had a history of collaborating with giants. He’d fooled everyone before.

Her head hurt. She hated intrigue. She tried to think of what her mother would do, and then resolved to do the exact opposite.

“Thor,” she nudged his shoulder, “Thor, wake up.”

---

Sif opened the healing room door as quietly as she could in case they were sleeping, only to hear the sound of labored, guttered breathing. Loki was still on the table, hands clamped tight to the edges, one knee bent up and swaying in the air as he writhed weakly. Natasha was nowhere to be seen.

He moaned piteously as she rushed to his side, and she noted that his face was again streaked with bloody tears. She swiped at the controls quickly to refresh the readout, “Loki?”

He opened his eyes, jotun red, and looked through her for a moment before seeing her, “Sif? Sif…”

“Stay still. I’ll get Eir.” The image of his soul in the model above him was thready, barely there.

“No!” he snaked a hand around her wrist before she could move, bearing down like iron, “Stay. You can’t go. You can’t- I can’t-” he shuddered, swallowing, “Can’t see. Please.” Something pained him and his eyes winced shut again, fresh rivulets of blood leaking down his temples.

It made her heart hurt, and she laid a comforting hand on his neck, solid as a soldier. He was burning hot. “I’m not going anywhere, I promise.”

A rictus of discomfort briefly became a smile, “Me too,” and he giggled madly back down into a groan.

“Let me get some cold water. Where did Natasha go? Did she go to get Eir?”

He whined and shook as she went to fetch the cloth and the bowl, “They’re trying to get in...they’re trying to destroy everything...destroy Asgard...forever...”

She lifted his head to let him drink from the shallow bowl, dipping her cloth in the rest to wipe his eyes, “You’re burning up. You’re delirious. Let me call my mother.”

“No!” he moaned, “No mothers…”

She pressed her lips together and continued to sponge his brow, “What’s happening to you?”

His gaze trembled across her face, his eyelids fluttering. He gulped once and tried to smile, “The things we do for love…”

She frowned gravely, “Loki, what did you do?”

He shook his head, staring into the dark above the lighted table, through the grainy projection of his own wavering soul, his eyes burning, reciting like a catechism, “I’m not sorry...I’m not sorry…”

---

Bru sat up in bed, her head throbbing. Same old nightmare, same goddamn nightmare she’d avoided for a thousand years until that fucking lackey brought it roaring back, dragging her back to...something. She looked around the dark room, trying to remember where she was, but her brain was on fire. It wasn’t Asgard. It wasn’t Sakaar. What had happened? She needed a drink.

Bruce sat up beside her, careful not to reach for her when he could tell her head was hurting, “Nightmares again?” She knew Bruce. He wasn’t Sif. He wasn’t the Hulk. Everything felt stuck halfway.

She nodded, putting her feet off the side of the bed, “What time is it?”

He checked his primitive crystal light-up watch, “Almost dawn. I guess Sif went to the infirmary. Want me to go get her?”

He was so sweet. He was better at sharing than he let on. She shook her head, “Can you get me a drink?”

He gave a motherly, disapproving sigh but did as she asked. She smirked. That almost made it taste better, helped re-center reality. The ship. She was on the ship. New Asgard. Make-do Asgard. Stuck halfway.

Bruce sat beside her, rubbing her neck with his fragile mortal hand, unaware of all the sweetness and gentleness his skin-blind soul sent trickling into her heart. He really hadn’t the first clue how beautiful he was. Him and Hulk both.

A fresh stab of disorienting distress struck her behind the eyes, pressing flashes of death and falling fairy-horses up from her memory. Her tattoo burned. She moaned.

Bruce stiffened, “That’s new. Are you still dreaming?”

“No,” she held up her wrist, her marks burning dull gold, “Something’s happening.”

She got up and began strapping on her armor.

---

The cave entrance was almost invisible from the outside. Coming out of the confining rocky dark into the airy lavender pre-dawn field was like stepping between worlds. She scanned the horizon and found a lone shape, waiting, tall and broad and helmeted, in the distance.

She looked at Loki, “Ok. You can go now.”

“At least let me walk out and see this creature. It’s not like he can harm me.”

She began trudging across the field, “He can harm me.”

“Not according to your agreement. Technically you’re alone. A certain hospitality applies if neither of you is breaking whatever fucked up agreement you somehow managed to forge the moment you were out of my sight.”

“Stop pretending you have room to complain.”

“Don’t tell me what to pretend.”

“Then save it for when I get back.”

“Oh you have a plan for getting back here, do you? Can you at least fill me in on that?”

“No time.”

“Of course.”

He walked in silence as the grass swashed like swamp water around her thighs, drawing the attention of the figure in the distance as the high wall receded behind them.

A deep voice resonated from inside the helmet as they got close, “Loki.”

Nat stopped well out of the tall figure’s reach, and that of the long sword he had strapped to his side, “Are you Helblindi?”

Loki whispered at her ear, “That is absolutely not Helblindi. Helblindi’s my half brother. A frost giant. I don’t know what that is, but he’s not Jotun.”

The helmet dipped, “I am. And who is this? You were told to come alone.”

Nat sighed, “He’s only here in spirit, and only to spite me.”

The towering figure made an amused sound, then noticed something and made another, “Loki, a valkyrie?”

Nat shrugged and held up her bracer, nodding.

“Why in the worlds would you-” he sighed, “Well, send your little chaperone away,” the slit in the helmet turned to Loki, “No harm will come to her, so long as her agreement holds. You have my word.” Without waiting for the shade to acknowledge his pledge, the armored figure turned away and raised a hand, the pre-dawn air shimmering in a way Nat recognized from when Loki had done it in the pine woods, trying to open one side of a portal. His hand trembled and the shimmering stopped. He turned and glared at Nat.

“Stop that.”

She shrugged innocently, “Stop what? I’m not doing anything.”

“The agreement was that you would come peacefully. Stop fighting the portal.”

Loki spoke up, “You have no right to make demands on that agreement. You’re already lying under a peaceful parlay. Who are you really?”

Nat looked daggers at Loki, “It doesn’t matter. I agreed to go with whoever Navidna sent, and it’s whoever this guy is. Go away.”

The figure stepped up to Loki’s shade. Loki began to flicker and brown out with magical effort, flinching.

The voice behind the helmet sneered, “Do you really want to find out who’s the stronger sorcerer here? I’m fully within my rights to end you for this insult.”

Natasha sighed and rolled her eyes, “You guys, it’s early, I’m tired, and I’m in no mood to referee a mystical dick-measuring contest right now. I’ve got a date to speak with the other responsible adult in this equation, and I’d rather not be late so could you just…?” she gestured impatiently at where the portal had failed to open.

The armored head turned back to her, sounding almost amused, “You never change.”

She shrugged, “You never know. Come on. I love any guy who introduces me to his mom on the first date.”

Loki said, “No, I can’t let this-”

From high above and far away, a familiar voice cracked with rage, “Loki, no!”

A veritable waterfall of lightning struck the helmeted figure in the back, pummeling him to the ground, as Thor leapt from the city wall, flying at them, spear in hand.

Natasha was thrown back into the grass, her ears ringing.

Thor landed several meters away just as the one called Helblindi was pushing himself up off the ground, melted armor rolling off his unblemished skin like beads of mercury. Loki was right, her hostage-taker was no jotun. His skin was smooth and radiant, almost silver under the pale grey sky. His eyes, full of grim annoyance, were as platinum-blue as the curling locks that hung around his shoulders were platinum-gold, sweaty and perfectly tousled. With melted metal dripping out of his hair like seawater, he was so beautiful, Nat noted abstractly, he looked like he ought to be moving in baywatch slow-mo.

He growled and drew his sword, turning to where Thor stood by Loki’s illusion.

Loki’s face went pale, his mouth flapping numbly in dry disbelief, “B- Baldur.”

Thor looked from the bare-chested adversary to his flickering brother, uncomprehending, then to Nat and back again, gripping gungnir, his face set in combat readiness.

The bare-chested, chiseled, beautiful newcomer glanced behind himself as if assuming another contender was coming up behind him. Finding no one, he looked back at Thor and Loki, “Who in the Hel is Baldur?”

Thor’s grip shifted.

Nat and Loki shouted in unison, “Thor no!”

As if summoned by the word, all hell broke loose.

Chapter Text

Nat scrambled out of the way as Thor lunged and who-the-hel-is-Baldur gave ground. Thrust after thrust, the enemy dodged nimbly without raising his sword.

“I do not wish to fight you!” the stranger bellowed.

“Then leave! Now! Never return!” Thor charged him again, blade and spear meeting in a shower of orange sparks, “Leave Asgard in peace!”

The sky began to rumble, darkening just as the day began to dawn.

“There shall be no peace in Asgard until there is justice!” The stranger raised his sword and engaged, blocking and parrying Thor, “I shall tear Asgard down stone by stone before I feel your foul reign over Bjergheim!”

Thor pressed with a roar, a feint with the spear, and an elbow slammed hard across the stranger’s mouth, cracking bone against bone. The stranger reeled back briefly but straightened, unmarked by the blow. He pushed back in kind, sword sweeping and plunging like a sinuous mountain rapids.

Nat picked herself up, shaken but unhurt, and ran to Loki’s image, “Who is that?! How do I stop them?!”

Loki shook his head numbly, “No...oh no…”

She drove every ounce of willingness to kick his ass out of her heart and into her hands, slapping his ghost across the face with a brutal Asgardian handshake. He flickered and stumbled back, just as surprised as she was when it worked.

Loki recovered and looked at her, “Stop Thor. He can’t hurt that creature. No one can. Just take it away from here. I’ll try to open the portal for you.”

“Explain this to me,” she growled.

He shook his head, staring at the brutal melee with red-rimmed eyes, “No time. Please,” he hovered his hand over her bracer, the runes flaring molten orange, “protect the king of Asgard.”

Before she knew it there were two long knives in her hands and she was walking towards a pair of scrapping behemoths.

---

“Heimdall!” Bru called as her boots hit the courtyard, “What’s happening?”

The guardian looked up at the stormy sky, gold eyes grim, “The mighty son of Odin is fighting a giant.”

“Let me pass. I have to help him.”

He looked down mournfully, “I must not open the gate while there is danger.”

Bruce stepped up, stripping off his pajama shirt and adjusting his stretchy pants, “Then allow me. Well...allow him .”

---

Thor’s adversary recovered his footing. He parried Gungnir twice like a slip of yarn and landed a head-butt on Thor with a sound like glaciers breaking. Thor stumbled back several yards and fell at Natasha’s feet, badly shaken.

Nat stepped forward between them, calling out, “I didn’t tell anyone I was meeting you. Please, this is my fault. Let him live. Let’s go. I’ll face your justice.”

The stranger’s blood was up, but he grimaced, nodding, lowering his sword as the sky flashed and the wind began to swirl the grass.

With a roar, Hulk landed in between them, Bru leaping down from his shoulder. They were limned by a flash of lightning in the gathering dark.

Nat shouted “No!” but it was lost to thunder.

Hulk leapt first, smashing a one-two blow across his opponent’s unmarked face. The third swing didn’t land, the target stepping aside and under, pivoting behind and kicking out the Hulk’s knee. Bru came right behind, knives out, slinging cuts and kicks at her foe as the clouds began slinging rain, hard and fast enough to drown an army in. She beat down his sword and the enemy parried with his bare forearm, wincing in pain though she left no wounds.

Nat’s wrist burned, and she began running towards the fray, carefully calculating how she might possibly intervene.

The one Loki had called Baldur locked up one of Bru’s knives just as Hulk recovered and kicked him in the back. He went down briefly, taking Bru with him, planting a knee on her chest and using his lock on her knife to sling it from her hand across the field. She grabbed his wrist and wrenched, rolling, bringing them both up to their knees. Hulk slammed another punch into his face, but the foe pivoted on his knees with a grace that ignored the blow, getting a hand behind Bru’s elbow and forcing her between himself and Hulk before pushing away from her and standing. As he raised his sword, Nat jumped on his shoulders, hauling his head back and forcing him to reel away before he overbalanced.

She swung around, kicked off and landed in front of him, facing Hulk and Bru, “Stop this!”

Before comprehension could register there was a roar from behind her as Thor jumped into the mix again, sword meeting spear. Nat couldn’t turn because Bru charged, and Nat had to catch her, “Bru, no! I was trying to negotiate! You’ve seen with your own eyes, he can’t be hurt!” She caught Bru’s one knife with both of hers, the blades shrieking in protest.

Bru did her best to extricate herself. Her sword-hand was faster, but Nat’s close martial training had more variety, and neither was going for a kill. “Protect Thor!” Bru hissed.

Nat’s arms shook under Bru’s blows. Even with the strength of an Asgardian, sustained heavy melee really wasn’t her forte, “I’m trying. I swear. I-” her mind spun, “Valkyrie to valkyrie, I claim the right to intervene in my patron’s mistake. You know this is somehow his fault. Bru, please! Let me fix this!”  

A scream from behind stopped them both as Thor hit the earth again with a crunch and a splash. She turned, and saw the enemy standing over Thor, his own sword in one hand, Thor’s spear in the other. Bru froze. The enemy raised the spear to strike, but Hulk roared and leapt, forcing him to change his aim and blast Hulk off-course instead.

Thor rolled away, back onto his feet, facing the foe and Loki, his back to Nat. His voice was rough, “What are you?”

The enemy looked past Thor, right at Nat, gesturing as Loki’s efforts to establish a portal finally called up a shimmering oval, “Come with me now and I’ll let them live.”

Nat palmed her smallest knife, the slender one like a double-sided awl.

Thor extended a warding hand in her direction as he glanced back, blood and rain dripping off his lips, “Stay where you are.”

Nat slid up behind him and put a reassuring hand on his shoulder, “It’s all right, Thor. You know me.”

Bru yelled a warning that the thunder trampled.

Nat jammed the small knife sideways into the thickest part of Thor’s lower lats, missing everything vital and leaving the blade in as he arched back and collapsed to his knees in surprise. Her bracer burned like hellfire and she was grateful for the rain, tears squeezing from her eyes. She looked down at him coldly, “Just let me handle this, brother.”

Without looking back she stepped over him, to the approvingly shocked enemy and the shimmering portal. Thor groped stiffly at the blade in his back, the pain and shock unbalancing him onto his side. Hulk groaned on the ground. Bru stood, transfixed.

The foe looked down at Thor in disgust and thrust the spear into the mud through his bare forearm. Thor screamed. Loki screamed. The rain lashed down.

The foe turned, muttering, “There is no honor left in Asgard. You’re a house of thieves and traitors.” He took Natasha’s hand, and they left.

The last thing she saw, glancing back, was Loki vanishing as the portal closed.  

---

The image of Loki’s soul became suddenly more vivid, and he shook once before seeming to fall again into a deep sleep, slack and clammy as a pithed frog. Sif sighed in strained relief and prepared a bed, resolved to put him in it whether her mother liked it or not. She couldn’t see him lying in the soul forge like a specimen on a slide anymore. He needed good sleep. They all did.

She cut him out of his leathers briskly and lifted him off the table like a child in his linen underthings. His breaths deepened as she laid him on the soft surface. She smoothed his damp hair back again, frowning. “We were friends once. I know we were. There was a person named Loki, who looked a lot like you, and we were friends. We even loved each other, a little, maybe. Maybe that’s gone. But I’m not going to forget.”

She gave his hand a little squeeze, and he squeezed her back, eyes fluttering, unseeing, “Sif?”

She shook her head, “Shh, sorry, go back to sleep.”

“...wasn’t supposed to move from the table...gonna catch hell for that...”

“Hush. You didn’t move. I moved you.”

He squeezed her hand tighter, eyes focusing, “Never forgive me, Sif. Please don’t ever. You’re not a monster. It was never your fault. You’re the only one I’ve ever truly wronged. It's all my fault. I can’t bear it if you forgive me.” He slid back into sleep before she could reply.

Sif pulled away, mumbling to herself as she gathered his rags and wiped down the sweaty soul forge, “No danger of that. I said that you’re my friend, not that I’m an idiot.”

Hleya opened the door, followed by more commotion than Sif expected so soon after dawn. Sif put a finger over her lips and motioned Hleya over, whispering, “What is it?”

Hleya shook her head, “Loki took Nat out beyond the wall. Some secret route. Thor followed them. There was some kind of fight. The storm woke half the palace. Banner and Bru went out to help. Thor’s hurt, they’re headed this way.”

“Did you wake my mother?”

Hleya nodded, “She’s on her way. Sif, I’m sorry, it’s all my fault.”

Sif rolled her eyes, “Not you too. Help me clear the soulforge. Do you know how he’s hurt?”

“He was holding both arms across his chest. I only saw a lot of blood.”

Sif glanced over at Loki but shook her head, skeptical of her own reflexive assumption. He could only have been there as an illusion, and it wasn’t like him to stab anyone in the front.

The doors burst open again on a clamoring like the sea, Banner and Bru holding up Thor, all three of them sodden and bloody, with Eir right behind. The doors closed but the clamour continued, Bru dropping a bloodied Gungnir by the door, getting Thor onto the table, Banner and Bru arguing past each other in a way Sif couldn’t follow.

Banner held Thor steady as Bru worked at bits of his ceremonial armor. He was shaking his head, “You’re right, I don’t understand.”

Bru’s expression was shut-down, “Nat claimed the right to handle her patron’s mistake. It’s-”

Bruce huffed, “-a valkyrie thing I wouldn’t understand. You’ve said. Well whatever that guy did, Hulk’s terrified now, and it’s freaking me out.”

Bru parted Thor’s breastplate like a clamshell and Banner lowered him down. Sif went and put a hand on Bru’s shoulder. She shrugged it off, distracted. Eir shooed them away from the table, studying an ugly gash through Thor’s forearm, and a strange grey discoloration of the surrounding skin.

“Bru, look at me. Are you hurt?” Sif urged.

Bru shook her head, “No not much, cuts and scrapes. But Sif...Sif we couldn’t stop him.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know. Didn’t get a name. Strong and fast. Invulnerable. And Sif he-” her blankness crumpling slightly, “-he wielded Gungnir.”

Sif’s jaw went slack, “He picked up Gungnir?”

Bru regarded Sif levelly, “He took Gungnir from Thor. And he used it. Blasted Hulk mid-leap, knocked him out of the sky. And then ran Thor through the arm with it as a final fuck-you. Nat went with him. Through a portal Loki made.”

Sif glanced at the bed in the shadows. Bru followed her gaze and took a step, Sif blocking her, “Not here. Ok? He’s unconscious.”

Bru’s gaze stayed trained on the sleeping shape, “I can fix that. I promise I’ll put him back like he was when I’m done.”

“Hey hey hey,” Bruce held up a placating hand, “Help me understand what’s happening. Is Gungnir like Mjolnir? Like nobody is supposed to be able to lift it?”

Bru looked down and away. Sif shook her head, “Gungnir isn’t quite so rigid in its definitions. Anyone can carry it, but an enemy taking it from the king, and being able to wield its power is troubling.”

Bru shook her head, “It’s not just Gungnir. Something is wrong with Asgard. The magics protecting the king are weak. Nat shouldn’t have been able to stab Thor like that.”

Sif’s eyes widened, “She did what?”

Bruce spoke up, “I think that was just a play. She’s a spy. She needed that guy to trust her. She’ll do anything for a job. I told you about how she pushed me off a ledge in Sokovia. So, yeah. She stabbed Thor in the back. And left with the enemy.”

Bru shook her head, “You don’t understand. She shouldn’t have been able to. Unless Thor was a direct danger to Asgard, or Asgard’s connection to the other realms is too sorely depleted. And I should be feeling like I ought to be following her to the ends of the galaxy to bring her back to answer for her treachery, but I feel...nothing.”

Hleya had been edging closer and spoke up, “There are exceptions. Vala get more leeway in deciding what is justified.” She gave an open-ended shrug.

Sif scowled, “I thought that was only for her first night as a warrior.”

Hleya nodded, “I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I mean, traditionally, she’s not one Asgardian day old until the sun of Asgard rises on her. That sun is far away, circling an asteroid field. A vala on a quest can keep their power as long as they remain in exile. If she’s kept that mantle past dawn, and Gungnir’s acting funny, I expect maybe the magic of Asgard hasn’t quite got the memo about where it belongs yet.”

Sif breathed a sigh of provisional relief, “Sounds plausible. So who was this enemy? What was he?”

Bruce shook his head and Bru shrugged.

From the table Thor groaned, “Loki knew him.”

The four of them moved over to Thor’s side, opposite Eir, who gave them a disapproving glance but continued to carefully solder his forearm closed with golden light. Sif gently checked the wadding under his stab wound for seepage, nodding approval. The wound had already stopped bleeding, “Did you get a name?”

Thor winced, “Yes, but the enemy seemed confused by it. Balor...Beldor...” Eir adjusted something ungently, and Thor sucked breath.

The room seemed to tilt under Sif’s feet, her head hurting like she’d cracked it against an unseen ceiling, “Baldur?”

Thor nodded, “I think. Do you know it?”

She shook her head, the room swirling as she did it. There wasn’t enough air. And then there wasn’t any light.

Chapter Text

Hleya lingered in the corner, in the shadows, watching, her father’s admonition to figure out the mad logic behind the machinations burning a hole between her eyes. The sleeping patients forced a calm on the scene that no one agreed with but all obeyed. The heavy rain that had awakened the citizens of New Asgard had sent most of the crowd away again to their warm homes, hot breakfasts, and heated speculations.

Bru had carried Sif to a bed after she collapsed. Eir had gone quietly to them once Thor was patched up, and the two formidable women watched over the third in a tense truce. Bruce had gone into the hall to think and guard the door, but no one had checked on him in a while. For as much as Hleya thought that he would make a fine god of awkward courtesy and forced peace, he didn’t seem to have much tolerance for it from others

Thor had recovered quickly, on the outside. The bracer of woven gauze around his forearm stayed pristine even when he pushed himself up to sitting. The wound on his back hadn’t even needed a full dressing. Probably wouldn’t even have a scar, on the surface, and he sat vigil at the foot of Loki’s bed without any sign of pallor or weariness.

To Hleya, Thor looked the way her father often looked; patient and pained, adoring and enduring. Troubled and lost but at home, all the same. Every once in a while he seemed about to say something but stopped before anything could escape.

Rain continued to lash the outside wall, a rushing thunderless rumble, as Loki came around. He looked at Thor, looked at the ceiling, took in the perimeter of the room and flopped back in surrender, whispering, “Fuck.”

Thor’s face rumpled with the hasty management of emotional masks: anger and worry to cover the hurt, overlaying the deeper anger and worry, and the doubt beneath that. He looked down and took a resigned breath, “So.”

Loki turned his face away, hiding an intrusively clownish smile. Hleya read it as amusement at the sheer weight of doom hanging over him. She could sympathize. It was sort of pathetically funny, from a distance, and he seemed to be good at distance. He finally tightened his lips against his teeth and nodded, “So.”

Thor folded his massive hands carefully, “You love it when I beg. So I won’t begrudge you that if that’s what it takes.”

Loki’s head rocked diffidently in the cradling pillow, his attention wandering resolutely away, “I don’t always love it. Like everything I love, I usually hate it.”

Thor huffed a laugh in spite of himself, nodding as his shoulders sank a little lower, ”Just look at me and tell me who or what that was. I’ll believe you. Look me in the eye and tell me.”

Loki’s disastrous smile cracked his face again, heaping helpless tears onto the sills of his eyes. He shook his head more earnestly, gasping slightly from a stifled laugh or sob, “Sorry. You really-” he gasped again before looking away, “You really are going to have to pick one of those. I can’t do both at once.”

There was a shudder in Thor’s slow exhale, but he didn’t turn aside, regarding his brother steadily. The rain outside worsened, heavy drops striking distinctly as drumming fingertips amid the neutral rasp. “I really think you ought to try,” he idly stroked his hand up his own bandaged forearm without wincing. “Who is Baldur? What is he?”

Loki returned his gaze as if memorizing. His thin smile failed, and his jaw bobbed open as if he needed to loosen it after a long stillness. Finally he closed his eyes and shook his head, “I expect you’ll know soon. That’s why Natasha was going out to meet him. To get some reliable answers. Apparently it’s a specialty of hers.”

Thor squinted, “You’re saying that meeting was her idea?”

“She wanted to get you some intel you could trust, I expect.”

He did turn away then with a snort, “Trust. After she went behind my back. And then she stabbed me in it.”

Loki shrugged, angling for a smile, “She’s such a shameless flirt.”

Thor leaned his elbows on his knees, head hanging, “You think it’s funny. For me to be hurt. For me to be lost like this. You could help me but you won’t, because you think it’s funny.”

Loki’s wince belied his light tone, “No. I don’t. Well,” his voice dropped, “not much anyway. And not the way you think.”

Thor stood and turned, looming over the raised bed, “No, Loki, no riddles. Tell me. Who was that. I know you know. If not for me then for Asgard, for mother, for whatever it is in the damn universe you do care about. Tell your king . Help me protect our people. ” His tone was low but the air felt charged and fuzzy, even from where Hleya sat, and as he fell silent a repeating throb of thunder shook the walls and ceiling like the roll of a massive drum. Bru and Eir looked over, but no one moved.

Loki’s lips trembled, “You won’t believe me.”

Thor leaned down again, angry, defiant, “I will. If you tell the truth.”

Loki’s eyes strayed and he nodded, returning to Thor with a resigned sigh, “I can’t. I’m not strong enough. That’s the truth.”

Thor nodded curtly, turning and striding away. A moment after he banged through the exit, Banner came in, taking up Thor’s place by Loki’s bed.

“Thor says you’re under Hulk-arrest until Nat gets back.”

Loki nodded, sighing, “I suppose that’s fair. And it gives you what you wanted.”

Banner gave a detached smirk, “Oh?”

“That I deal you in on my nefarious schemes, take you instead of Natasha. Lucky you.”

Bruce boggled slightly, “You’ll...wait...you’ll tell me?”

“And show you.”

“But- but not Thor?”

Loki grew grim again, “If you were Asgardian, you would understand. I can’t be near him and bear to-” he shook his head, “But be that as it may, yes, I’ll show you where all the bodies are buried. Then you can tell Thor. If you want.”

Bruce squinted and slowly opened his mouth in a question, but Loki cut him off, “Metaphorical bodies. Metaphorical.”

Bruce closed his mouth again, leaning his elbows on his knees and nodding, “Lucky me.”

---

“What is this place?” Nat glanced around the yawning firelit space as the man that called himself Helblindi prepared a torch to carry with them. The portal from the plains of New Asgard had let them out in a cave like a granite cathedral, complete with a shadowy vaulted ceiling sparsely supported by ranks of columns that ranged into the dark distance on every side. It was eerily still after the blowing storm, pleasantly dry, and untouched by sunlight.

As he busily ignored her, she considered removing her drenched coat, holding it close to one of the billowing fire pots stationed by the nearest pillar until it was dry, but thought better of it. If he thought she was Loki, it seemed unwise to lose any part of the costume. Self inflicted misapprehensions on the part of her captors was an invaluable asset in bottom-up interrogations. It kept them from knowing what not to say.

But even sidling close to the fire pot, the cold began to bite at her as the wet seeped more thoroughly through her clothes. Loki didn’t shiver in the cold, and if she began to no costume would conceal it, so she shook her hair impatiently, sprinkling the floor and his bare back with chilly droplets.

He kept to his work, carefully fixing a metal basket around the wadding of the torch, “Stop it. I’ll tell you in a moment.”

She ignored his instructions the way she assumed Loki would in her place, falling into his character, “How are you not cold? You’re wet and shirtless, and it’s chilly,” she shrugged and did a decent riff on his trademark leer, “Not that I mind about the chill. Or the shirt. I’m just worried about you. You’re clearly not a frost giant.”

He turned and handed her the unlit torch, jerking his chin towards a fire pot instructively, “You’re not clearly a frost giant either, Loki of Asgard . And yet.” He started walking, his lengthy strides forcing her to hurry along as soon as the torch caught.

She took a quick risk, keeping her tone carefully insincere and open to interpretation, “You know, I can’t help feeling like we’ve met before.”

He said nothing.

“And I’ve forgotten your name again already. You’ll have to forgive me.”

He stopped and turned coldly to her, “Will I?”

She gave a feckless shrug, “It’s my experience that most people do. Eventually.”

His eyes narrowed and his jaw slid to one side. Nat gave him that crooked smile of playful obliviousness, tossing a quick cluster of charged sparks into the conversation to see if she could break something loose on his side, “See, right there, you definitely remind me of someone. I just can’t...quite...” she rested her free wrist in the small of her back thoughtfully, tilting her head to pensively expose the side of her neck, “...get my tongue around it.”

“You can stop needlessly taxing it, then,” he muttered, turning back into his stride, “We’ve not met.”

Nat sighed wistfully, noting that he was easy to annoy but had a lot of storage for annoyance, “Even so. I feel like I know you really well already. Do you ever get that?”

He gave an irritated sigh.

“For example, you’re clearly the strong silent type.” He ignored her and kept walking. She needled, “The stoic, long-suffering, totally proving my point type,” she imitated his sigh, “I hate people like you.”

The corner of his eye twitched as if she’d caught him off guard, eloquently betraying that he actually disliked the idea that she didn’t like him. Perhaps it was just sheltered fragility. Handsome invulnerable guy with a powerful manipulative mother maybe hadn’t dealt with the idea of not being liked before. Or perhaps arrogance, feeling that someone like her had no right to dislike him. Or perhaps what he wanted required Loki’s willing cooperation, and she’d just promised to make that difficult. He capitulated quickly, she noted, without any great show of swallowed pride, so probably not entirely arrogance.

“This is a holy place,” he said evenly, “A dwarven burial ground, hallowed to Eternity. The dwarves had their kingdom in the mountains above us eons before the light, before Asgard swore to protect them if they abandoned their realm for the newborn stars.” he gestured around and for the first time she noticed the pattern on the mirror-smooth floor, black on black, of long rectangular tiles, maybe fifteen feet by nine, with narrow pathways in between. They were carved with runes very similar to those on her bracer, and simple elegant symmetries like the designs of Asgard.

It occurred to her that she hadn’t properly looked around, even to note their entry point or how far they were moving. She’d been entirely focused on him, and could probably sketch his face from passive memory, it was so distinctly engrossing. It wasn’t that there was much to see around them anyway, just acres of repeating pillars, firepots, and darkness, but it was still unsettling. “So why here? As an entrypoint, I mean.”

“Really?” He shook his head, “The valkyrie must have been truly desperate, to accept you as one of their own.”

Nat nodded indifferently, “Oh she was. Desperation is a growth industry lately. Still, why here?”

“Battlegrounds make easy passages to graveyards.”  

“How poetic.” She quieted down and tried to walk using as much unaccustomed muscular motion as she could, to generate heat and pretend she didn’t feel cold. There was something else uncomfortable stirring in her gut, more than just the things she hadn’t let herself dwell on before the leap, more than just the fading adrenaline from the fight or the fearsome nagging ache in her wrist after hurting Thor. Some combination of the place, the circumstances, and the company was making her anxious, and she felt like she didn’t want to playact at being someone else just then. She felt too lost, and it felt too familiar. She pressed it down. Silence wasn’t helping her. “But you do have a name, right? I'm not misremembering that?”

He sighed, looking straight ahead, ostensibly muttering to himself but loud enough for her benefit, “I don’t know why I expected anything different.”

“Different? From me? Than what?”

He gave a comprehensively derisive sideward glance before just shaking his head. It probably would have pricked Loki perfectly. Inside the act, Nat felt an acute stab of strange sympathy for the invincible man. He hated Loki. Obsessively. Personally, despite claiming they’d never met. And yet he was tasked with squire-ing her along. His evident discomfort tickled sympathetically at that discomfort in her own gut.

“What should I call your mother, when I meet her? Are you the rulers here or-”

“No. But her proper title is Allmother.”

“Fair enough. And what should I call you?”

“You shouldn’t have any need to.”

“Oh come on,” she wheedled dryly, “Tell me or I’ll just pick something.”

He turned and seized her by the lapels of her coat, knocking the torch from her hand and dropping their faces into shadow. Semi-reflexively she struck pressure points along his limbs in rapid succession, trying to break his grip, tagging his armored kneecap with the point of her boot, but he held on and gave her a firm shake, lips peeling back from his teeth, “You dare…”

“Hospitality-” she opened both hands in a harmless gesture, “or hallowed ground or safe conduct or parley or...something?”

Twisting one fist more tightly in the sodden leather, he put a warning finger in her face, “Stop. Talking. To me. You’re nothing here, Odinspawn.” He gave a shorter shake, “Say it.”

Her pre-helpless-beating mental checklist swept through her mind, readying her to roll with the blow, unsure whether he would go for her gut or her face, forehand or backhand. “Do you want me to say it or do you want me to stop talk-”  

He spat in her face and pushed her away, not even hard enough to knock her down. That was interesting, she thought, as she retrieved her torch. Maybe there was some magical hospitality in effect, and he’d known he couldn’t go through with harming her when he’d grabbed her. Or maybe he was just expressing his feelings of contempt, and wasn’t as accustomed to doing that with violence as he wanted her to believe. Either way, despite being a trained fighter, he wasn’t a trained heavy, agent, or other professional asshole. He had enough self-control to avoid that kind of rookie mistake, just not the experience to forewarn him that it was one. Abortive shows of force were almost always a weak move.

She knew she should laugh, maybe critique the quality of his phlegm, establish which one of them knew how this sort of thing was supposed to go, and which one of them was out of their depth. But the stimuli were starting to dig into her sense of the real like trigger words. His indomitable strength. The recognition that she couldn’t beat him no matter how much more trained and disciplined she was. The reflexive assessment that if she were going to get free she would need to go around him rather than through. The knowledge that Navidna was probably somewhere close by, that he was some dutiful pawn of hers, doing her unpleasant bidding. The feel of wiping his still-warm fluids off her body, carefully maintaining that it didn’t matter. Conceding that he had been oddly, even naively gentle in venting himself on her. Her stomach turned, and she felt cold.

She tried not to let her breath hitch, tried not to give a single sign, but keen senses were apparently included on his annoyingly long list of exceptional skills, and he spoke quietly, fading anger mingled with surprisingly genuine concern, “Why are you crying?”

She shook her head with a resigned sigh, “Just that feeling like we’ve met before,” he opened his mouth to say something but she waved it away, “It’s nothing to do with you. So when can I see my fellow hostage?”

“That’s where we’re going now. The Allmother would like to meet with you at dinner.”

She nodded, taking deep slow breaths, counting beats, eyes front, “Lead on, Blondie.”

He didn’t seem to react, though she could hear a faint grinding sound from his jaw that she was sure would have gratified the person she was supposed to be.

Chapter Text

“So,” Bruce sighed with sarcastic cheer, “down into the big dark cave then. Great.”

“If it helps,” Loki purred, “It’s a magic cave.”

“If it doesn’t help is it not a magic cave?”

Loki smirked at him and nodded slowly, “Sure. Why not. You coming?”

Bruce climbed through the small passage behind the dressing table, turning on the flashlight that was the only part of his phone that seemed to work in Asgard. The hole lead onto a stairway cut into the rock and he followed Loki down, muttering to himself, “Because why wouldn’t you have dug an escape tunnel out of your own bedroom. All normal trustworthy non-psychotic people do that.”

Loki sniffed, “I work with what’s available. Anyway it’s not an escape tunnel, it’s just a deep dark cave. It dead-ends further down.”

“Oh. Well. Yeah, that’s much less unnerving.”

The stairs only went down half a flight before ending in the natural floor of a wide passage that continued to slope gently down. The walls were the same earthy brown rock, striated with crystalline flourishes, as parts of the wall outside. The ceiling was low, but everything smelled clean, cool, and dry. There was a deep stillness and an air of occult significance despite the common orange extension cords along the wall, beaded at long intervals with mundane work lights that functioned more for guidance than illumination.

“The cave represents reality,” Loki murmured as they went, perhaps for his own benefit, “The reality of life on life’s own level, the crossroads of death and entropy, hearthfire and wyrd fire,” he smirked, “”Plato understood that.”

Bruce nodded, “Death cave. Even better.”

Loki shrugged, “It’s where we all live. Where we watch our shadows and tell our stories. On all the earth, in all the galaxy, of all our far-flung lives and strange linear little tunnels of experience, this is where we are all together. Or at least, this cave is a shadow of that one. Our reality is just shapes moving in the dark.”

The passage twisted and dipped, sometimes uneven but always a path, always seeming to breathe with some distant wind. There were a few side passages, but none as wide as the path they were on. It was brighter ahead, but traveling downward for twenty minutes made it less than comforting to see a strange white light at the tunnel’s end. The passage finally turned and opened into a wide room, roughly circular, with heaps of rock rubble around the edge. The smooth stone walls sparkled abundantly with gypsum, and a sunken pool in the center of the stone floor was the source of the light.

“The well,” Loki gestured, “exists in the bottom of the cave, at the intersection of death and eternity. It represents the transcendence, the impossible escape, the knowledge beyond what reality can teach, what some would call the soul. Sometimes it is water, sometimes it is lava, or an airy drop into darkness, or an ancient story. Each realm’s well nourishes a root of the world’s tree.” He smiled at Bruce, who slowly edged toward the rim, looking into the water until he could glimpse the source of the light. He turned back to Loki, folding his arms with a satisfied smirk.

Loki rolled his eyes, “Yes, I brought the tesseract. You guessed right, you’re very clever. I built the cave and the well when I first got here to help keep it hidden and obscured, and,” he shrugged, “because I was overflowing with death magic to the point that it was giving me migraines. Plus they’re the easiest of the six, and I had lots of natural caves and groundwater to work with,” he cleared his throat, “And the advantage of secrecy.”

Bruce smiled. It seemed like Loki had actually been dying to tell someone. “So you made the cave and the well when you got here, and you made the wall and the bridge since you got back. What’s next on the agenda?”

Loki considered, then answered slowly, “The throne is next. Then the tree. It’s not the same order that formed the old Asgard, but I studied the problem and I think that’s for the best. The dwarves and the norns started from the tree and finished with the throne, when they made the old city. The last artifact is sort of the capstone of the realm,” he looked down, “I don’t think elevating the throne that high did us any favors.”

“So, wait, the old realm was made by several people, and you’re doing all this, and making all these decisions, completely on your own?”

Loki's gaze wandered airily across the ceiling, “Have you ever seen a work of art that was improved by a committee?”

“Is this just art to you?”

Loki scoffed, “‘Just art’? Honestly, why does anyone like you?”

Bruce ignored the jibe, “Your decisions are going to affect all the survivors of Asgard, but have you even asked anyone for advice or input or to check your math? Anything?”

Loki closed his eyes and exhaled very slowly, “The opposite of action, in this case, is not stasis, Doctor Banner. If I don’t act, things don’t just stay as they are. Other factors are in motion and must be answered. Think of it less like Asgard is a bridge that needs building and more like it’s a patient on a table.”

“You sound like Tony.”

His eyebrows went up and he cocked his head to the side, “The man who saved New York from being nuked by a committee? I certainly hope so. Anyway, that’s not what I brought you down here for. You want to know who Baldur is. Yes?”

Bruce considered slowly and nodded, “Yes.”

“Well then,” Loki knelt down and dipped his fingers into the pool. The ripples of the surface became brighter and thicker, reflecting and refracting sinuous rays of light, illuminating the cave wall like a movie screen.

Bruce’s eyes followed blurry and choppy shapes across the wall, “What am I looking at?”

“One of the many things the tesseract does, is that it records and compresses the raw information of the universe. In a way it’s sort of a model of the universe, except it’s...not made of something else it just...is...the universe...small. Sort of.”

Bruce waved a casual hand, “I’m familiar with the theoretical science of it, yeah. Doctor van Dyne did a lot of work with entanglement fractellations. Her book on pseudo-tesserated quantum echoes is a good read.”

Loki pursed his lips and nodded, surprised, “Well...good then. So, there was a part of the universe that was removed, a long time ago. Made as close to never-having-existed as anything in the universe can be.”

“How is that possible?” he was more curious than doubting, “Information in the universe is never erased.”

Loki nodded, obviously pleased, “And it wasn’t. That’s what I’m saying. It was removed from causality, from perceptible existence, from memory. Even its memetic elements were camouflaged across universes to accommodate its quarantine. And the quarantine has remained stable. But the universe, and therefore the tesseract, are still aware that it’s missing. The tesseract knows the shape of it. So within the framework of the cave and the well, I can let you see it, without making you have to endure a brain-breaking vision that would leave you a babbling hermit.”

Bruce squirmed uneasily, “That’s good, I appreciate that. So we could conceivably use the tesseract to see anything that’s ever existed in spacetime? Like a window instead of a gate?”

“Under certain circumstances that don’t presently exist, possibly. With this current arrangement and my abilities, I can only show you...things that are mine. And only because of my relationship with the tesseract.”

“Yeah, see, I was wondering about your use of passive voice there. So this quarantined reality. It was removed because you removed it.”

Loki rolled his eyes, “Yes. You’re very clever.”

He gave a self-deprecating shrug, “Hey, it’s what I bring to the table, you know? So, not complaining, this is fascinating, but why can’t you just explain the story to me? Or just make an image up even? I hear you’re good with illusions. Or Tony has this B.A.R.F. chamber he’s almost perfected.”

Loki gritted his teeth with some unseen effort, keeping one hand in the water but holding his wrist with the other, “I have a difficult time keeping it straight in my head without help, particularly if I’m feeling especially...invested in my life.”

“Like when Thor’s around.”

Loki ignored him, “It’s a necessary component and consequence of its having been removed from objective reality, I’m afraid.” He continued to stir the water, and something in his expression slowly resolved itself, the muscular ripples moving more evenly, “Watch the shadows on the cave wall, please.”

The images slowly congealed and clarified into a sort of silent movie. Two young men fighting, a one-eyed man standing over them.

“Once upon a time,” Loki breathed, “There was a king of Asgard who had two sons…”

“I take it the guy with the eye-patch is Odin. And the two blonde boys?”

Loki spoke quietly, as if awed, “Thor. And Baldur.”

“They were brothers? Was this before you were adopted?”

“Please just watch.”

“Sorry.”

On the wall, the two young men trained in a sunny yard, and Odin radiated pride. The smaller one, who had Thor’s smile, was lunging and slicing with a sword in each hand, pressing the attack. The other boy, taller and leaner and broader through the chest, wore no armor and blocked with a long staff and bare arms. He took no wounds but his expression grew slowly weary, apparently feeling every blow. Bruce winced, familiar with the situation, but Thor didn’t notice, and Odin seemed content to let it go on.

Finally Baldur lost his patience, turning onto the offensive and kicking Thor hard in the chest, jumping after him and beating him until he fell down. He threw another kick at the bleeding Thor, and followed when he rolled aside, intent on landing another.

A smaller, slender shape slid in from off-screen, vaulting over Thor and putting both palms on Baldur’s chest, pressing him back.

“And there was a girl,” Loki chuckled, “There’s always a girl. Usually several. Not that people tend to notice, to remember who they are or what they’re about, but they’re usually there, doing things. Knowing things.”

Bruce squinted, “Is that Sif?”

“No.”

“Hella?”

“No.”

He looked again. Sharp chin, high cheekbones, something about the way she moved her hands when she was driving the larger boy back, “She...she looks like Nat.”

Loki nodded, “A little skinnier, maybe, but yes, I thought so too.”

“Is...is that why you…”

Loki shrugged, “No, actually, the resemblance didn’t strike me until after I’d hired her. But it’s there. I keep seeing it more as I get to know her.”

The image blurred and faded out as Loki’s attention wandered.

“So what happened to them?” Bruce prodded.

The scene changed to a family portrait of sorts. Odin in an ostentatious throne flanked by two startlingly lovely women in long dresses, Baldur behind one of them at the king’s hand, several other people Bruce didn’t recognize, as well as Thor and the girl, sitting close together off to the side.

Loki sighed wistfully, “I admit I don’t know the whole story, about how the family came together, and how everything was bound to go wrong. But as it turned out, Odin had quite the penchant for picking up strays. Quite the motley little family. The big one, Baldur, was by his first wife. Their firstborn.”

“Was his mother Hella’s mother as well?”

Loki pursed his lips, “I’m not sure. I’ve no idea how old Hella was when we finally met her. We didn’t exactly catch up over brunch before settling in to murder each other. Nor do I have any firm idea how long it was after Hella was banished that he started over. Bru might know, I suppose, but she likes talking about those days almost as much as she likes talking to me at all."

Bruce nodded a little too freely in agreement.

Loki scowled, "Anyway Odin’s first wife died. Her name was Frigg.”

The woman at Odin’s right hand, standing in front of Baldur, faded out.

Loki sighed, “I don’t really remember her at all, even with the story in front of me. After her, Odin married her sister, Frigga. They weren’t really siblings, as far as I know, any more than Frey and Freya are. They’d just been close, raised their children together. It’s a naming convention, a bond between magic users that came into vogue with the age of the book.”

“The what?”

“Nevermind. Anyhow the girl, who was Frigga’s daughter but not Odin’s, was betrothed to Baldur, to cement an alliance meant to heal old wounds. Though illegitimate by Asgardian standards, she was the youngest daughter of a king, though she wouldn’t know any more about that,” Loki’s tone grew heavy, “until it was much, much too late.”

“So she married Baldur?”

Loki sighed, “No. As these things happen, she didn’t want Baldur. And she was a willful little shit, so she decided to run away with the man she did love.”

For the first time Bruce felt like he wasn’t keeping up, “You?”

Loki rolled his eyes hugely, “Thor. But Thor didn’t want to go. He loved her, yes, but he also loved their family, and Asgard, and his own honor. He was sure he could sway Odin’s will to let them be wed. But Thor was wrong. Odin...” Loki shook his head, “He’s never taken it well when things don’t adhere to his plans for them. For Thor to even suggest it risked their being separated, at best. Thor wouldn’t believe her, so she took matters into her own hands.”

The image on the wall presented sinuous trees, and the young woman meeting an old woman in the woods, the girl holding a large black bird, the old woman holding a long knife.

“She knew a witch who promised her a way to make Thor into the firstborn son, instead of Baldur, without anyone needing to die, or Odin ever knowing. The first part required cutting the mantle of the rival off of Thor, and investing him with the mantle of the king’s heir. The second part was to change the memory of Asgard so that no one remembered any different.”

“Mantles?”

Loki sighed, “They’re sort of invisible...magical...transferable...monogrammed jackets of destiny.”

“I...can accept that premise. Continue.”

“Changing the memory of Asgard was fairly easy for them. Too easy, really. Odin, for the sake of ruling all the nine realms, had bound his own life to the world tree, sacrificing himself to himself with a noose around his neck and a spear through his chest. For the sake of patrolling the realms, and protecting his mind from the magical rigors of this burden, he invested his thought and memory into two great ravens that were more powerful than he was alone. So, the memory magic of the entire realm was easily accessed and manipulated through his, and the new story took hold with a life of its own.”

The family scene reappeared, changed, Thor swapping into Baldur’s spot, several others moving back and forth. Bruce finally recognizing Sif as she gained her armor.

Loki sighed, “But there are things about people, about destiny, that weren’t known to the girl, or accounted for by the witch. Old, fire-magic things, old wars and alliances and sources of power beyond the scope of the spell. So they just became...flaws. Blind spots in the vivid new memory. It was really no difficulty to make Thor the golden son. He was beautiful and strong and a royal heir in his own right...but Frigg had made her own son invulnerable to all harm, far too powerful for the role of the rival. So his memory was erased, his mantles stripped, and he was sent away.”

Bruce murmured, “There’s that passive voice again.”

Loki ignored him, “But Odin had two sons, you see. That was important. Two sons, of a certain rank and description, to act as rivals under the one-eyed king. It was apparently too integral a thing to change, and the maker of the spell pays any overages of the price, to satisfy the magic and safeguard the cohesion of the universe. So Frigga’s daughter changed to fill the rift. Thor’s sister disappeared from memory and became,” Loki shrugged simply, “...his brother. The rival.”

Bruce didn’t know what to say, watching quietly as the shadow of the slender young woman transformed into a very young Loki, then slowly faded. He turned and tried not to stare at Loki, suddenly unable to not-see both sides of him in his face. It felt impossible not to say the wrong thing next.

“Wow, fellas, that’s a heck of a story!” a clipped voice piped up from the far wall.

Bruce and Loki both turned, Loki flushing almost phosphorescent as a pile of rocks seemed to unfold itself from the rest of the rubble along the base of the wall.

Loki spluttered, “Korg?! What in the...how in the…”

Korg smiled, brushing off most of the rocks that weren’t part of his stony surface, “I was just having a nap. Sorry. Didn’t mean to eavesdrop, just started to seem awkward.”

“B-but how did you get down here?”

Korg rocked back and forth on his large granite feet, “Well, my room’s down here, as well you know.” He dropped to a more confidential register, “I really like living with you Asgardians, but you lot do get a little intense sometimes.”

“I-” Loki seemed more defeated than angry, “I thought I’d sealed all the side passages.”

“I bet you did. But after the wall went up yesterday, a few new connections shook open under the city. Found a new branch off to this peaceful little spot.”

A tiny vein began to throb intensely in Loki’s temple, so Bruce spoke up, “Listen, Korg, what you just saw and heard, you can never tell anyone, ok?”

“Oh, yeah, absolutely. S’none of my business. Far as I’m concerned it’s just between you and Thor, and you know, and Thor knows, so...nobody’s business really.”

Bruce’s mouth flapped open a few times trying dizzily to calculate whether it would be worse or better to correct Korg’s misapprehension.

“Thor doesn’t know,” Loki said softly, “That’s the thing.”

“Wha- he- he doesn’t know? You love him and he loves you and he doesn’t know?”

“As far as he knows, he was born and raised as the first son of Odin. He has no memory whatever of being the second son. That timeline got quarantined and replaced, entirely. He’s lived every second of a real lifetime as the man you know, in every aspect. As have I. As have we all. I'm the only one aware of having lived another life.”

“Well I think that’s a shame,” Korg nodded solemnly, “You oughta change that. Why don’t you?”

“Because if he knows what I did, to him, to Baldur, to Odin especially, he’ll never forgive me. At best, he'd never understand, at worst he would. More than that, he’s the king of Asgard. Letting him remember it would destroy the magic maintaining the quarantine, re-make the memory of Asgard. To be completely honest, I haven’t an exact idea what would happen at that point.”

“But at least you’d get it off your chest,” Korg smiled pleasantly.

“Look I-” Loki sighed and started over, “I don’t think you’re quite getting the magnitude of just how severely I fucked up. Come with me.”

Korg and Bruce exchanged a look and a shrug and followed Loki out of the cave.

Chapter Text

The sound of the rain lulled Hleya to napping in her chair. She woke to find the infirmary still dark and mostly deserted, save for Bru and Eir across the room by Sif’s bed, speaking quietly. So quietly, in fact, that Hleya was surprised she could hear them at all, let alone with such eerie clarity.

“I know nothing that might help you,” Eir murmured, stroking her daughter’s hand, “Nor would I speak it if I did. The past is dangerous in Asgard. To all of us.”

Bru struggled to keep her voice low, her tone even, “More dangerous than an invulnerable warrior? Who maimed your king and whose name has incapacitated your daughter?”

“Possibly.”

“I know you don’t approve of Sif fighting. I know that, by extension, you don’t approve of me. But I need to know how to fight him, and I can’t remember. Please, Lady Fri-” she caught herself as Eir’s eyes flicked up, “Mistress Eir. I want to protect her, but there memories I am missing. You are a healer, and I am unwhole. Please, help me.”

The severe woman studied Sif’s sleeping face for a long moment, then began to speak without looking up, as if reciting a bedtime story.

“Once, there were three clever ladies of Nornheim.

“Their names were Friggeir, the healer; Frigg, the witch; and Frigga, the warrior. These three oversaw embassage to Nornheim’s neighbor, Asgard, and their powers mirrored The Three Behind the Veil.

“As representatives of Asgard’s stately sister city, the three of Nornheim had given many clever things in tribute and in gratitude across time, and each city thrived in the sun of the other’s regard. But this prosperity made Asgard ever prouder and greedier.

“Once, upon that time, there was a prince of Asgard, fearsome and grim, his father’s firstborn, and the high king’s war dog. They called him Ravenkeeper, Gallowsgrower, Smiling Death, and God of Battle. In all his many titles and trials, the victorious prince Odin served his father well, and his vanguard was despair.

“In his greed, King Bor sought not just to steward Asgard’s might, but to solidify it, bending the tree of the world to his will as once his own father had done to the stone. But a grip that girdles the tree of the world lessens every life upon it, including the hand that grips it. He was a grey king, for a grey age.

“When King Bor the conqueror was lost, and Odin, God of War, became king, the three of Nornheim sought audience to take his measure. To their surprise, they found him far wiser than his father.

“Once there was a god of war, who no longer wished to be a god of war, and three ladies of Nornheim who tried to help him.

“They proposed to take from him the mantle of conquest that obscured the view of his wisdom. They warned him that they offered him not freedom, but stewardship, for nothing discarded ever disappears, and evil buried is merely evil planted. They proposed to let his burden of war be seen, and named, and known. His firstborn. He agreed gladly, as confident in his seamless wisdom as any parent to be.

“Thus they bound him to the tree, to suffer by his own power. For three days, Frigga deftly cut from him the mantle of conqueror, death dealer, dog of war. For three days more Frigg unraveled the weave of it with artful fingers as he hung, and for three again Friggeir spooled it about an ingot of Asgard’s might. On the tenth sunrise, he was freed, though he remained forever bound to the tree.

“Once, there was a goddess of death, daughter of rule and of righteousness, hungry and fierce and faithful.

“Friggeir named the child Hela, and Odin vowed to keep her in check and atone for his mistakes. For a time he kept his word. But he was awed by love and sympathy for his child, afraid and ashamed of recognizing himself in her aspect, and loathe to be the tyrant to her his own father had been. Thrice blinded by that which he would not see, he sought to be more a father than a king to his people.

“Once, Friggeir bade the dwarves to make Mjolnir, hammer of the high cliff and stone wheel, a weapon with the ordinary power to deal death, and the extraordinary power to negate it. It was a weighty burden, binding the power of its bearer, but Hela was unable to put it down, lest she leave for another the power to slay her.

“Thus limited, Hela walked silently among the worlds as a reminder of Odin’s power and restraint. He told himself that he was giving her a purpose, and that would keep her in check. He told himself there could be a purpose to the fear of her, and in that purpose all would be well, without bloodshed.

“But death is not the food of death. Fed by fear, by suspense, by dark fantasies, by awe, Hela grew strong, and restless.

“While the silent threat of Hela maintained Asgard above all other realms, Odin destroyed and obscured the ways between worlds, save for the bifrost, such that no realm could have any ally but Asgard, and could not unite to sway or provoke him. He did it to protect the peace, to prevent any need for Hela to be unleashed, but still it troubled him.

“To better survey the worlds and protect his thoughts from the sentiment of his heart, he split his mind between two fleet and fearsome birds that could cross even the veil to shield him from influence. He did it to prevent the intemperance and unease of emotion into his judgement, he said. His wisdom thus severed, he watched restless Hela stride among the helpless, and how the fearful worlds grew quiet, and he called it peace.

“Once, a neighbor of Asgard erred. It matters not who, or how. It never does. It offended the high king’s sense of reason. For his peace to fail required a failure in the arrangement of the worlds, and thus, he reasoned, the worlds needed to be reshaped. In his anger, he felt his restraint to have been in error. He locked the hammer Mjolnir in the vault, and Hela was unleashed.

“The nation that erred was destroyed, wiped from among the stars like a speck upon glass, thought their error thrived into a lesson, and spread like the scent of blood. By her father’s side, Hela shattered Jotunheim, scattering the lands of frost, fire, and storm to different realms, assuring never-ending war between Asgard and the giant races. They shattered the capitals of the Iron Vale and Blesdenbeir, destroying the thrones of ancient realms, now nameless. Insatiable, Hela insisted that the way forward was to expand, to enrich Asgard with the ever-increasing spoils of a galaxy that would slowly grow dark in her wake.

“Abandoning Odin, she raided beyond the borders of Ria, raising her cult upon the outposts of Titan and Midgard in preparation for moving beyond the fractured realms. By the time Odin saw that Asgard itself grew no greater as the surviving realms became weaker, it was almost too late.

“Odin pressed the three for aid, invoking their bond as the mothers of his child. Friggeir denied him, and opposed the idea that they were bound to the selfish king’s folly. She knew that only in acknowledging his own wrongs could the king set the world to rights. She would not be moved on this, though portents gave no confidence that he would find this wisdom before the end of all things.

“When Odin, in his arrogance, named Frigga consort to force Nornheim’s hand, Friggeir forbade it, sending the youngest into hiding before she could be taken to Asgard. In her mother’s anger and her father’s arrogance, Hela became more violent.

“Frigg, the witch, the weaver, the most gifted and the most sensitive to the trembling of the threads of fate, determined for herself that it was time to go against Friggeir’s wishes, for she felt the eldest of the three had become as stubborn as the young king she was determined to educate.

“Turning to older magics, Frigg bore Odin a son fit to bind Hela to Odin in obedience. She bore the Hell-Blind one in the old way, and infused the bearing of him with powerful magics. She was determined that he would be impervious to all harm, and could be a match for Hela’s insatiable violence, a balm to her driving hunger. It was a strain upon her being to create him so powerful, and as time drew near for him to be born, she became ill.

“Distraught that she could not go to the ailing Frigg in Asgard, Friggeir warned Hela of Odin’s treachery, hoping at last that the goddess of death would turn on Odin as kinslayer, and in doing so be destroyed. Instead Hela tried to kill Frigg before the invincible child could be born, turned aside only when Odin took up Mjolnir against her. Hela retreated, but the stain of attempted kinslaying rendered the mighty hammer vulnerable to Hela’s power thereafter, and would not turn her aside again.

“That last hope gone, Friggeir admitted that her ambition in creating Hela had failed. With Frigg’s health failing rapidly as well, and the child not yet born, she told the young king how to stop Hela, and he obeyed her.

“In the final confrontation, Odin bound himself to the tree to force the change of reality, casting Hela out of the entire known cosmos and into a realm where nothing lived, or died, or could be mourned. So long as he never again summoned the mantle of conqueror to himself, and lived the rest of his days in peace and political reconciliation, she would remain buried, forgotten. This he did, though he grieved for his firstborn, always.

“Friggeir, the great healer, grieved as well, for her own blind use of power and for the strife her creation had caused. She shed her name and her worthiness until such time as she has healed as much damage as she caused. Her first act was to oversee the birth of Frigg’s invulnerable son,” Eir sighed and shook her head, “And that is how the rest of the story begins.”

Hleya had slowly sat forward onto the edge of her seat, riveted, and blurted out, “The rest of the story?”

Eir sat up, stunned, turning to where Hleya sat as if she’d just appeared out of thin air. Bru was startled as well, but Eir seemed thunderstruck. Hleya blushed, “I- I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to...”

Sif stirred, “Bru?”

Eir and Bru both turned back to Sif, and Hleya took the chance to excuse herself, trotting for the door as quickly as she could quietly do.

As she slipped out the door, she heard Sif groan, “Mother...who is Baldur?”

---

Nat was lead up a set of stairs and into a hallway no less grand than the dwarven tombs, but far less somber. Walls of red stone, veined with gold, rose to high ceilings plainly and skillfully carved. The lamps along the passage were brighter, warmer, steadier, and more frequent than the torches below. At the end of the hall, she could see a large set of double doors, dark wood carved with that pipe-organ-in-a-chandelier motif she’d seen at the feast, but they turned aside to a smaller door before they reached them.

That door was also a single piece of wood, carved with a simple sentry figure in a horned helmet.

“You know, they say the vikings didn’t actually-” Nat began conversationally, drawing up short as the mythical blond man stopped unlocking the door long enough to glare at her. She smiled agreeably and gave him a half-wink, “You know what? Nevermind.”

He grunted and opened the door. The room beyond was small but comfortable, and the wave of dry warmth made her stifle a small groan of relief. A cheerful fireplace crackled along one wall, flanked by simple wooden chairs and a low table on one side, a small standing harp on the other. The skin rug had evidently been made from something much bigger and furrier than she wanted to try and re-assemble in her mind just then, and a padded bench along one wall resembled a window seat without a window. The corner by the door held another pleasantly bright lamp of indiscernible power source, and the corner opposite that held a small bookcase and large birdcage with a fat black bird inside it.

“You’ll stay here,” her escort grumbled, “I’ll bring you to dinner in a few hours, and the Allmother will make some time to speak to you then. Feel free to take the opportunity to make yourself presentable. No one will enter without knocking.”

“I thought you were taking me to see the hostage.”

He squinted at her like he couldn’t tell if she was messing with him, and couldn’t guess how to respond if she was. She suppressed a flinch when he raised his hand, but he only extended it towards the birdcage, “Right there.”

Nat blinked, still not quite satisfied, but her read of him said that the answer ought to be obvious. She nodded, “Ah. Yes. I wasn’t sure. Thank you.”

“Do you need anything else for the moment?”

Nat swallowed hard, wrestling down the sound of Thor's scream in her memory and putting on a contrite smile, “Only to apologize again. For the flaw in my oh-so-clever plan, thinking no one would find out. It was careless of me, and I’m sorry you got hurt.”

His scowl was wary, “I didn’t get hurt.”

“You didn’t get injured. Big difference. But it was my fault. And I’m sorry. In case that matters.”

He frowned at her again and left.

She shucked out of her wet clothes the instant the latch clicked, stifled shivers surfacing to shake her half apart. She crouched by the fire until she felt warm, then held her linens up until they steamed dry, propping her coat and pants up on the chairs for however long it would take the thicker fabric to dry, hoping the leather wasn’t ruined. 

It dawned on her that an inability to simply mend garments with a touch might blow her cover, but freezing to death would be less pleasant and just as out of character.

A quick touch-count reminded her that no one had even mentioned taking her knives. That was either disturbing for how much control they presumed themselves to have over her, or an encouraging indication that some form of magical hospitality might help keep her safe. Her and...the bird.

She got her tunic on and crossed to the bird cage, the great raven glancing sulkily at her over one shoulder. She looked him over and sighed, “Please tell me you’re a shapeshifter, or a talking bird, or something. That would make my whole plan seem a lot less stupid to me right about now.”

The raven gave a croaking caw that sounded like nasty laughter.

Chapter Text

Loki lead them up to the promenade overlooking the front courtyard. The rain was finally slacking off, the pre-noon sun sneaking bright shafts through the soupy clouds. A small cluster of children, too impatient to wait for the rain to stop completely, were rushing around below them between puddles. They were playing some game that involved chasing a ball, keeping a flag in the air, grabbing each other, and shouting one-word declarations that meant nothing to those watching from above.

“I love the way it smells here after it rains,” Korg smiled, “like a fresh baby, or a really fancy bathroom.”

Loki smiled sadly, unable to look up from the scene below, “I think my biggest problem in what I’ve done is that I’m not quite a bad enough person.”

“I think you sell yourself short,” Bruce quipped.

Loki cut him with a look. He’d thought sincerity couldn’t get any less enjoyable, but leave it to Banner. Still, he had a certain need for it to hurt, and Banner’s assured probative stare was making some high promises in that regard. He turned his attention to Korg as the weighty Kronan ambled up to the railing, “Korg, what do you see?”

He nodded beatifically, “Kids playing.”

“Do you know them?”

“Oh yeah. Most of ‘em. Play king of the mountain sometimes. I play the mountain,” he gave an infectious little titter, wandering back from the rail to lean against one of the planters. He gazed up placidly at the broad-leafed trees that sheltered them from the worst of the mild drizzle, “But why are we up here?”

Loki nodded, bracing up to start, “To explain what’s at stake, in telling Thor. It’s hardly an admission to either of you that I’m a very selfish person. I do try to be better, believe it or not, but even so I find there are a lot of contradictions in the calculus of virtue.”

Bruce shook his head, connecting raindrops along the rail with his finger, “Do tell.”

Loki pushed down an urge to needle him in return, “For example,” he leaned on the rail, staring out at the wall, “when I admit that the problem I’ve created is larger than me, that Thor has a right to know, that’s also when I have to acknowledge that the problem is larger than him, too.”

Bruce rolled his eyes, skipping ahead and swiping the damp rail with his hand, “Oh come on, Loki. One monster to another, you really wanna pretend that refusing to do the thing you don’t wanna do anyway is really about the children?”

Loki scowled, “Oh I know it’s a completely sentimental dodge from any sterile remove, a quibbling insight of convenience, but can you look down there and say that I’m wrong? I honestly can’t. I’m not suggesting that the ends should entirely dictate the means but surely they warrant some blush of consideration.”

Korg held up a finger, “Sorry. What are we arguing about?”

Bruce sighed, “Loki re-made the universe. The Asgard-part of the universe, anyway. And he remembers- stop me if I’m wrong- but he remembers that in the old version some of the people living in this version didn’t exist.”

Loki nodded, spreading his hands and folding them back together, “I didn’t exactly take a before and after census. Things were just different. But, yes, there likely are some living differences, and the further out from the point of causal divergence a person appears in the pattern, like a child who needs both parents to exist, the less likely they are to remain if the quarantine on the original timeline is broken and this one is displaced.”

Korg frowned, “Then...if you told Thor what you did, there would be people that you erased or ruled out before that would get to come back? And people here now that would go?”

Loki squeezed his eyes shut, letting it sting, fighting back the entrenched urge to embellish, justify, dismiss, defend, “I don’t entirely know, Korg. But if I’m honest, yes, I think so.”

“But…” Korg squinted, his eyes almost disappearing, “does that mean...Old Asgard might come back as well?”

Bruce and Loki both shook their heads, but Loki spoke first, “There are certain principles of conservation in causal magic, and some events in a timeline which other things naturally bend for. It’s not impossible to change them, theoretically, but it would be like trying to nudge a planet off-course, with similar repercussions for anything connected to it. It’s the little free-floating stuff, already subject to chance and free will, like people and gods, that tend to change or disappear to keep larger events in their proper orbits. Since I would be initiating the change from this point in this timeline, causes would likely work to preserve major things that have already happened.”

Korg nodded glumly as sounds of scuffling and excited squeals filtered up from below, “I see what you mean, then. How do you choose?”

Loki spoke again before Banner could interject, “Well, rationally, it’s a choice of two unknowable quantities, so I can’t presume to weigh them even if I did come up with some acceptable utilitarian value set, but...I can’t help but  feel  like the people here now are real, and the people who aren’t are merely stories. I mean ask them. They’re real. They matter, if anything does.”

Bruce grimaced, rubbing his palm to dry it, “And if I ask the people who, by definition, I can’t ask? What do you suppose they would say?”

Loki shrugged expansively, “I’m just telling you what I feel. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it’s hard to ignore all the same, at least on Asgard.”

Bruce shook his head irritably, “But it’s still just a matter of your personal comfort then, and not about the children at all. Which brings us back to one world where Thor knows what you did, and one where he doesn’t. One where he and the people of Asgard might understand what they’re up against, and one where they definitely don’t. Those aren’t neutral quantities.”

Loki nodded, “They aren’t. But neither is my position. I realize it’s gauche to consider one’s own wellbeing in moral decisions under one’s own power, but not everyone finds martyrdom to be its own reward. My mother sacrificed too much to live as she did, to die as she did, and it prevented nothing. That’s what I was running away from when I let the whole world, myself included, get re-made. Futile servitude and gilded misery.”

Bruce shrugged, “Doesn’t seem to have been terribly rewarding. You still seem pretty miserable.”

“But can you see why I could still rationally prefer to be miserable in this life rather than that one?”

Bruce folded his arms, “Maybe. Does it have something to do with reigning in hell?”

Loki again pushed down his urge to fight and flee, honesty tasting like lead in his mouth, “Perhaps. But is passivity so virtuous? When there’s no objective tragedy by which to define hubris from heroism, when you factor in that heaven and hell don’t really exist to serve or reign, and that not-deciding is also a decision, does acting according to one’s own role get to have value again? The world changes regardless. When the real choice is between doing what you can or trusting passively to the doings of those no wiser than yourself, why shouldn’t one act? Why isn’t this world just as correct as that one?”

Bruce’s pitch and volume rose incredulously, “Even without hubris, there’s still such a thing as overstepping your moral and ethical limits. What about the people who won’t get any choices because of the choices you make? If freedom is a righteous and valuable thing, how much of theirs are you destroying just to preserve yours?”

Loki grit his teeth, “Why should others live at my expense if living at the expense of others is shameful? If it’s a question of using power wisely and fairly, where were they when it was my life, my body, being made forfeit for their passive peace and contentment? Shouldn’t I at least make them fight me for it if it’s what they would choose? Why shouldn’t the one being sacrificed for the majority’s good at least require the beneficiaries to climb the volcano with them? Why shouldn’t they have to own that choice as I do, if it’s for them?”

“But it’s like you say. You’re here and they’re not. You’re the one whose choice is real, right now. Your choice matters, while theirs is just a story. If their selfishness is deserving of censure so is yours. It was your power that did this, it’s your responsibility to make it right if you can.”

“Who’s to say I didn’t make it right in the first place?”

“Well, no one, if choosing to inflict your will on others without regard for their lives as equal to your own isn’t evil on its face. Which it is.”

“So because I was outnumbered in an arguably unjust and arbitrary system, you want me to admit there’s no real choice for me, just good or evil. I’m to cede the direction of my own agency to precedent or principle or sentiment. Because the way things were must be ‘right’ and what I did to rescue myself from it was ‘wrong’, so the only option is to put it back? If self sacrifice is the only allowable option how is that a self sacrifice rather than an assault by another name?”

Banner’s composure began to slip, “Loki, it’s not like you shot a mugger or cured cancer, you intentionally remade an entire world!”

“Because that’s what was against me!”

“You erased- !” Banner caught himself before his volume became dangerous, “You erased  people! You banished your brother to who-knows-where this whole time and brainwashed Thor, not to mention your whole family and planet.”

Loki nodded deeply, dropping his defensive tone, “I know. But the thing you’re forgetting is, I never meant to.”

Bruce rolled his eyes, “Oh good, yeah, lets bring intent into it, that should simplify things.”

“No, what I mean is,” he tilted his head to the side, laying out his words delicately, “I never intended to erase anyone, yet I most likely did. I never meant to change anyone’s memory about anything besides just Thor, but apparently I did. If it were to change back, what else might I not be taking into account? And what could be the result? There’s a distinct possibility of doing even greater harm, to no certain benefit. Is that really what you want me to do? If I’d started this argument resolved to do it would you be up here haranguing me that I have no right?”

Bruce shook his head, disgusted, “I don’t want anything.”

There it was. Loki folded his arms, leaning back against the rail. “Don’t you? You think the patterns of gods and monsters don’t fall down directly on your broad pasty shoulders?”

“No. I don’t. I don’t believe in gods, and I never asked to be your judge.”

Loki smirked, “No, you didn’t ask. You’re much more the sort that prefers to beg forgiveness.”

Bruce stared for a moment, stung, planting one hand on his hip and slashing the air with the other, “No. Ok? No. You do not get to turn this around and make me the one to absolve you or stop you or defend my moral authority as superior to yours so I can drag you up the volcano or whatever messed-up funhouse mirror job you’re sticking me with here. If you’re so sure that this choice has to be yours, then welcome to it. I’ve said my piece. Do with it what you will.”

Loki nodded, turning back to the wall, “I just wanted you to understand why you can’t do the job you asked for.”

Bruce blinked, glancing at Korg and back, “What?”

Loki sighed, “I don’t think that any of the options before me now are right, any more than the options before me then. Those kids, they’re all in danger now, no matter what I do.”

“So, you’re just yanking my chain, making me argue basic ethics?”

Loki smiled sadly, “No. But last time we stood here, you asked me to bring you in on the job I’d brought Natasha here to help me with. I think you’ve seen that you don’t want it.”

“You- I don’t understand.”

Loki’s tone turned bitter, unbidden, the loneliness pressing at him like a dagger’s tip, “Yes, you’ve made that very clear.”

Bruce ran a hand through his hair, rubbing at his neck, “So, wait, this is what you wanted from Natasha? For her, what, to judge you?”

“After a fashion, I suppose. Help me reckon with the value of my life. Originally I just wanted someone who didn’t hate me but definitely didn’t like me, who was unlikely to harbor any illusions about what a bastard I am, but who’s also seen worse. To ground me. I did intend to come to a decision, but I didn’t exactly count on all the time pressure.”

Bruce’s tone took up a guarded softness, “Loki I don’t think Tasha’d be able to do that for you anyway. I mean the value of a life, any life, I don’t know if that’s really subject to the principles of accounting, you know? I think she’ll be the first one to tell you that. That ledger she used to keep, I don’t think she keeps it anymore.”

Loki shook his head, feeling tired and intellectually hung-over, “A life is nothing special. Life itself is just an accident. A pleasant cliche’ the infinite monkeys of molecular physics and near-infinite time have seen fit to crank out on countless worlds. Hell, you made complex life in your lab, completely by accident. It’s fine for what it is, but it’s useless on its own. Nothing valuable about it happens in the vacuum of one’s own navel. Life only shows its worth mid-stride, when it’s unable to observe itself,” he smiled, indulging in a little flourish, “Only in a dialogue, on a stage, on a cave wall in fleeting shadows, as a beautiful improvisation of bad masks and good jazz that grows like a tree, like a fire, never repeating but always rhyming, never ending except when it does. Life isn’t especially valuable or miraculous, doctor, yet somehow lives are.”

“That’s very pretty,” Korg offered.

Loki couldn’t suppress a grin, “Thank you, Korg.”

“Yes, very pretty,” Bruce nodded in a way that didn’t seem at all affirmative, “Wanting someone else to tell you how to measure yourself against the life you live.” His incredulous nod became an incredulous scoff, “How can you put that on her?”

Loki shook his head, forced to suppress a disbelieving burst of caustic laughter, “Do you purposely blaze the most ironic path to the moral high ground at every opportunity, or is it an entirely unconscious compulsion?”

“Excuse me?”

Loki smiled, “Oh unlikely. How can I put this on her? How can you not?! It was all she wanted from you, to see you as you are, both sides, the wrathful and the benign. She wanted to help you with this thing you did to yourself without asking anyone else’s permission, this thing which continually falls out on everyone else regardless. Not judge you, not lock you away, just see you. Just help you find an answer you could live with. Yet you couldn’t even handle that.”

Bruce threw his arms wide, “Unbelievable. Now you’re clocking me because I don’t drag people into my unresolved shit? Seriously? There are just some things we have to figure out! For ourselves! As people! Other people can’t do that for you!”

Loki felt his mood turn sour, slinging syllables defensively from his silver tongue like a fencer, “No, other people can’t do it  to  you. Sure, you still have to show up, even knowing that there’s no rule, no fairness, no plan, just you, ugly and unfinished and embarrassing, hiding yourself not because no one could possibly understand or help but because you can’t stand to let them. And yet it still falls out on others, despite your delusions of passivity or moral isolation. Your stoic solitude doesn’t make you a harmless lonely bystander, it just makes you a god without a pantheon to check you.”

Bruce took a step forward, jabbing a finger at the ground, “I’m not the one here playing god.”

Loki scoffed, “You couldn’t be more wrong. Everyone, with every choice, plays god with someone else. Maybe not with a lightning bolt or a sniper rifle or a snap of their fingers, but that doesn’t really matter. On the scale of the universe, in the immediacy of life, there’s barely any such thing as scale, and cutting yourself off doesn’t change that. All you abandon is your obligation. The power and the consequences are still yours.”

Bruce shook his head, the corners of his mouth squeezing his lips in and up, tightening control, “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Loki smirked as his resolve towards sincerity got away from him, “Don’t I? You know what’s interesting? Despite all your exposure and expertise and gamma-level connection to the cube, you’re not part of the tesseract’s story, Banner.”

His expression had tightened down for a retort, and Loki found it unforgivably satisfying to watch that implode into confusion, “The what?”

Loki gestured airily, “It’s true. There’s no accounting for you in the pantheon of Midgard.”

“The what?!”

Loki plunged on, “Exactly. You’ve got no part in it. No role. It’s the closest you’ve come to belonging anywhere, and yet you’re so wrapped up in yourself that you’re not even integrated into the symmetry of the world’s tree.” Loki ticked off his long fingers, “Rogers is Thor. Fury was Odin until Stark took that up. Barnes is Baldur, poor bastard. Even Phillip Coulson, and Barton, and Hill. Even Eric Selvig, of all people, even Darcy Lewis and her intern Ian have a place where they fit in the repeating patterns of the tree and the tesseract.”

Bruce shook his head gripping the rail, “Is this meandering to a point?”

Loki grinned venomously, “But not special little genius you. You’re too dedicated to the proposition of touching nothing, standing for nothing. Just a jealous, wrathful, judgemental, bitter, solitary god. Alpha and omega.” He turned away again. ”And yet Natasha faced down a perfectly justified terror of you to invite you down from your little monotheistic tower. And like the solitary mysterious little god you are, you said no. How dare you? I mean really."

Loki glanced over, longing to see some green thews straining under Banner’s whey-and-wheat-straw complexion, but found his face arranged in a placid smile of understanding and warm amusement. It was deeply disconcerting. Loki narrowed his eyes, baffled, scanning for condescension, or insight, or triumph, and finding only ease, almost fondness.

“You know,” Banner held the rail and leaned away to stretch his back, “I once asked Tony why he works so hard at pissing people off all the time. He said that, on the one hand, it’s just that he’s naturally kind of a screw-head with intimacy issues and the attention control of a caffeinated moth. But as a consequence of always doing it he’s found that if he pisses someone off bad enough, they’ll tell him exactly what it is they hate about themselves. And then they don’t scare him anymore.”

Banner’s words slowly crept in, setting Loki’s face to trembling on his skull. He gripped the rail and stared fixedly at the dozen or so children as they flocked in a harmonious rhythm. They laughed at each impact and reversal, struggling and swearing at each other, bound up together by rules and roles and rivalry that only drew them tighter as the energy increased, though rationally it ought to have sent them each spinning off on their own vectors, if their natures were simpler, or if magic didn’t exist.

Loki cleared his throat, “I can’t isolate myself, as you do. I’ve tried. Many times.”

Banner leaned on the rail beside him, “It starts to feel…”

Loki nodded, “Inflicted. Like it’s not my choice. I get worse. So much worse. I’m not cut out to be a monotheist. I don’t think you are either. That’s why your attempt to play god resulted in-”

“A monster.”

Loki shook his head, “A person in desperate need of a pantheon.”

Bruce shrugged, “Maybe. But tell me something, while we’re being honest. Did you mean for Natasha to get captured? Is this all part of that plan?”

Loki scoffed, “No. No, this whole situation is very distinctly fucking with my brilliant plan.”

“Care to let me in on what it should have looked like by this point?”

“Nah. No sense dwelling on what might have been right now.”

“So what are you going to do? She’s not here to judge you or tell you what’s right, and we’ve established that you don’t want me to. Is our next step to try to get her back?”

Loki shook his head, “No. Wherever she is, I can bring her back, if needs be. I didn’t plan for this, but I do have a failsafe, oddly enough.”

“So bring her back.”

“Not yet. She was right. She really is the best person to find out what the hell our enemies want. I’d worry about messing up whatever she had planned. As much as I need her, Asgard needs her more, and…” he smirked at himself, “Like it or not that’s the job I hired her to do. And I have to respect that. I’ve currently got no option that solves this without the risk of greater harm, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. If there’s time to find one, we should take it.”

“Ok. So what do we do while we wait for intel?”

“Asgard still needs a throne and a tree. The throne is difficult, but I’ve remade it before. The tree is going to be...interesting. I need a little more rest before I attempt either. Maybe you should go check in with Thor. If Sif is still out of it he’s probably brooding all alone, and he won’t want to see me for a while yet.”

“Yeah, ok.” Banner began to push away from the rail and paused. “Look, I...I do think you have a right to exist, just as you are, or however you feel yourself to be. But, I’ll be honest, it doesn’t sound like you’re doing that right now as it is, any more than those people existing outside of causal reality, offstage. I don’t think you had some sacred obligation, or at least not a logically provable one, to let yourself be railroaded into a role for the material comfort of others. Heck, if you’re a trickster and a shape-shifter, I can’t imagine why your pantheon thought that would even work.”

Loki huffed a laugh.

Banner continued, “But...I mean you may think all this is just you functioning in your pantheon as a trickster, but, jeez, you have gotten so far away from that. You say it’s not good for you to be isolated but, I mean, look around. You’re isolated. Thor is the most important person in your life and when you’re not entirely cut off from him you’re barely hanging on to him by a thread. The most important fact of your life is something that you literally can’t tell anyone that matters to you. How is anything that might come after fixing that going to be any worse, for you at least, than sitting around with a couple of ogres debating metaphysics and staring at a giant wall?”

Loki felt resentful that Banner was making sense, but he spared him a wry smile, “You never know.”

“Only if you never try," Korg broke in genially, apparently glad for a subject he could follow, "And even if the worst happens, the world moves on, you know? It's like I used to tell Meik when we were imprisoned and forced to murder each other indefinitely for the entertainment of a madman. Trying to stop the galaxy from spinning is a good way to get dragged through the dirt. It won’t. It never has yet. That’s scary, but it’s reassuring, too. Sometimes we just gotta keep going until we don’t anymore."

Banner grinned, "Yeah, that's the spirit. Maybe we ruin our tiny little lives but the universe just goes on expanding...” his eyes got strange.

Loki squinted, “What is it?”

Bruce nodded slowly, “Just thinking about entanglement fractellations…and the tesseract...”

Loki squinted, feeling a bit like a parody of himself for not liking that they’d drifted off the subject of him and his problems, “And?”

“Did you mean it when you said I’m not in the tesseract’s story?”

“I did. Saying you weren’t if you were would be a pretty big lie, even for me. No, I’ve studied it, and you don’t have any attachment to anything I can see.”

“So, I don’t have corresponding entangled echoes in Asgard or any of the other sets that mirror Asgard besides the Avengers.”

“Not that I’ve seen.”

Banner nodded, “We might be able to work with that.”

Chapter Text

The doorless birdcage seemed unbreakable as she tested it, its base and bars apparently welded into a single piece around its occupant. The bird’s indifference to her proved just as unbreakable. That squashed plans A and B, hostage rescue and hostage interview. Even the observable circumstances seemed to be stonewalling her for any new insights.

It had to be one of Odin’s ravens, she reasoned, but that didn’t clarify any of what Navidna had said to her. He’s still your adoptive father’s bird, but I think of him as belonging to you, since he changed your life. I expect you do as well. She wished she’d memorized more nuance of tone and posture in Navidna’s gloating, but all she’d seen at the time was the prospect of Clint’s graveside: Laura veiled in black, the kids dressed like tiny adults, and herself in the far background, unworthy.

She wiped her eyes and huffed. Sloppy, she thought, letting Asgardian emotionalism supercede everything she knew. She’d wandered too far off the job, made it about herself, blurred objective facts into a subjective story of jittery cliches, and in so doing rattled herself right off her analytical edge.

She shook her head, berating herself. Brittle little spider. All alone with hours to plan and still dancing around the real issue. She had to face facts if she was going to survive plan C.

The fact was, Navidna hadn’t recognized her. Moreover she’d addressed “Loki” like a recalcitrant child. That added up. To a pseudo-immortal, the red room might have been like an hour’s stopover in some random airport, the staff utterly forgettable. So who- or whatever Navidna really was, she wasn’t acting in that old identity. That was the hard truth, she thought, and the truth it pointed to was harder.

Coming face to face with Navidna was just a coincidence. A job. No secret connection. No catharsis or closure implied or offered. Her personal context was just a distraction, and treating the op like a confrontation on her own behalf would cede advantage, yield nothing, and potentially cost lives. Navidna. Barnes. The protocol. It meant nothing in that moment, same as it hadn’t for the last seven decades. This was Loki’s story, monsters and magic. Nothing personal.

But living like an Asgardian, “nothing” was still a lot of sparks to try to ground, a lot of pointless ugliness clamoring beneath the knot in her throat, and no certainty that any of it would stay down. Plan C meant meeting with Navidna, or whatever she called herself, to gather intel directly, without giving anything away. Without reacting. Without missing a word of cryptic bullshit. It was a lot to brazen through without backup.

And to make matters worse, she missed Loki. The immediacy of Asgardian emotions seemed to stretch time and experience to the scale of endless childhood days. It hadn’t even been a hundred hours, yet the pleasant parts of being with him, and even the unpleasant ones, had begun to feel tested and accustomed. Not even a hundred hours, and she’d made every emotional mistake in the book, slipped into partners-with-benefits territory, and gone off in a proud snit powered in part by fear for her friends, in part by her absurd frustration that a god of lies was holding out on her. Worst of all, there was that deadly tickle between her ribs, that pointless distracting itch of having something to lose, of having something to hope for. She could feel it like a hot thumbprint on the tip of her sternum, like a chink in her armor, sharp and giddy and secret. leaving her infinitely more susceptible to torture at the hands of a trained interrogator.

Pain lies, but hope complies.

It was a lesson Navidna surely knew.

Loki would have been good to have along, under the circumstances. Even just for company, or his peculiar brand of sympathy. She could still feel-

She pushed it away. Not the point. In fact, she corrected herself harshly, it was the opposite of the point. The relevant strategic point was that her captors thought she was Loki, and Loki managed to keep his secrets, more or less, despite the Asgardian emotional pressure, mostly with simple misdirection. She’d studied it. His catburglar walk, his intrepid sensuality, his gleefully bitter bombast. His pettiness, she thought with a small smile. His indomitable pettiness. But she had to do more than just borrow his tools, as much as her analytical mind kept trying to dance away from accepting it.

She’d realized it might be necessary from the start, of course; that just a disguise might not be enough. She’d just been optimistic. Cocky. Sloppy. Not thinking in the proper storybook context to expect that the hostage might be a literal fucking bird. She’d known that her act wouldn’t get her beyond plan B, and that she might have to resort to deeper misdirection to get intel and get out again.

Misdirection was a surprisingly versatile tool if you couldn’t just ditch your baggage and still had to travel light, hiding the obvious with something more obvious. Hide a crying baby with a screeching bird. Camouflage torture’s torpor with madness. Confess to the murder to distract from the theft. Show a flash of skin to keep them from looking you in the eye. Ignore your restless feelings by sticking your hand in a fire. It was surprisingly effective, if sometimes crude.

But improvising superficial misdirection during a long-term solo op was like trying to dance ballet in a ball gown over plate mail. If she was going to conduct an interrogation of her own at the same time, she needed to be able to watch and listen and memorize. She couldn’t waste energy just pretending, or on emotional whack-a-mole. She had to go deep.

As worst cases went, it was no Budapest, she reminded herself. A little self-hypnosis, a little self-ablation. It wasn’t healthy, obviously. It would set her back, have her skin feeling alien, her relationships feeling somehow both chaotic and contrived, and her sense of self lagging two seconds behind her awareness like a vapor trail. But not so bad. She could sweat that. She’d only ever promised herself that she wouldn’t go there anymore, so at least there’d be no frosty glares from Tony, no wounded sighs from Cap. And, really, she scolded herself, when planning-Nat dropped the ball, mission-Nat had to do something.

It wasn’t so bad, being someone else. After all, everyone was someone else. That was the trick, really. Crafting a convincing identity, be it a Gwyn, or a Natalie, or a Widow, meant inhabiting someone else’s fears, and then imitating the person they became to disguise them from the expectations of others. Wearing the mask properly by wearing the face underneath as well.

Loki might have called that a form of fire magic. Mantles. Shape-shifting. He’d said that it was the fire that made humans into people, after all. That added up. Going deep into an identity was never a process of words, in her experience.

What would someone who had known Loki as a child expect to see in his eyes?

He’d said he’d always loved fire. In her first lucky break of the entire misbegotten plan, fire was good for self-hypnosis, and she even had one to work with.

So she sat at the hearth and watched the curved reflection of the flames on her gauntlet, meditatively letting go, letting her awareness stretch and dissolve, imagining the mantle she needed to tighten around her skin, the fake secret underneath that her captors expected to glimpse. It should have hurt to disappear, to let go, but it never did. It was never even difficult for her, and that always made her last moments before checking-out a little melancholy.

The reflection surged and twined like a tree made of fire, jutting up and up from the mouth of a volcano with limbs of flame and leaves of ash. She imagined a corresponding lava flow like cracks running through a skull, like roots digging into the rocky ground, thirsting towards the sea. She wondered dreamily if the fire could burn her anymore, or if she could fool it as well.

There was a knock at the door.

She smirked, and answered in her under-tunic.

Helblindi immediately averted his gaze with a grimace. He had cleaned himself up with a fresh shirt, a clean shave, and his hair tied back. Unframed by his curls, his face seemed far more severe and angular, but the style exposed the fetching strands of auburn above his ears, and highlighted his silken complexion.

He huffed, turning half away, “I asked you to make yourself decent.”

She smirked, chirping imperiously, “Bad news there, I’m afraid. All my clothes are still wet. Unless you meant morally, in which case I’ve got some even worse news.”

He gave her an incredulous look, “Just dry them. You’re supposed to be a sorcerer.”

She reflected his derision back on him, “No, I am a sorcerer. I’m supposed to be your guest.”

His eyes flashed scornfully and Nat couldn’t help smiling. He was so pretty when he was angry.

He shouldered past her, muttering, “Your laziness is as lewd as everything else about you.”

She gave him a gratuitously sharp smile, irritating him on spec.

He squared his shoulders, slammed his hands together thunderously, and pushed his palms at the garments arrayed around the fire, forcing a fine grey mist out of the fabric and into the hearth with a hiss. He turned to her with a glare. She couldn’t help wondering if he was really having that bad a day. Stern anger didn’t seem like an accustomed role, but he was plainly sincere about it.

He looked chastely past her as he pointed behind himself, “Get dressed. You are expected.”

She tossed her still-damp hair, “Oh all right. Do hand me my coat first, please. I prefer to put my pants on last.”

He shook his head darkly and tried to shoulder past her again to the door.

Knowing his hulk-like strength she didn’t get fancy. She turned with him as he leaned around her for the door handle, and aimed all her weight through the center of his over-extended balance. With a sharp shove, she put his back against the alcove wall with her forearm across his chest. It was almost disarming how startled he seemed, how unguarded, as he looked down at her.

She let some affront sneak into her imperious tone, “Let’s be frank, shall we? I don’t think you’ve earned the right to hate me as much as you do, if we’ve never met. Keep overdrawing on your insults and I’ll take the balance out of your supposedly impenetrable hide.”

He didn’t react immediately, pausing long enough for Nat to note that he smelled like something between sweet hay, poplar sap, and root beer. It forced her to wonder if that were his soap or just him. The caution in his emotional comportment reminded her of Thor. His physical reserve was more Barnes, like a dog on a leash.

He was impossible not to study. It was unsettling.

Finally he said, “Don’t disturb your serene selfishness on my account. I need no further schooling on hate from you.”

Nat gave a little shrug, smile wide and eyes narrow, “Just warning you, pretty boy. Invulnerable doesn’t mean invincible. It won’t do you any favors to be thrashed by a little girl in front of mommy and the whole court of wherever-the-fuck-we-are.”

He put his hands on her fist and elbow and pressed her away from him with an ease that could have crushed her, straightening his shirt. “Get dressed,” he repeated, “You are expected. Now.”

But he looked her in the face as he said it, so she decided to reward him with compliance.

She gave a put-upon sigh and went to her coat, “I feel like there must be something in hospitality law against making a royal guest dress herself unassisted.”

He kept his back to her, “You’re here as a hostage. We’re not obligated to observe your rank, and we’re only forbidden to harm you until Asgard refuses our terms. Or until you violate them.”

She nodded, affecting indifference, “Well I better eat fast, then. My impulse control isn’t much to speak of, and Thor’s brotherly concern for my well being could still fit comfortably inside it.”

He favored that with an ambiguous twitch of his shoulders, annoyed or amused. Hopefully, for the sake of keeping him off-balance, both.

Chapter Text

Loki sat on the end of the long dining table, considering the chair. With the smiling cave entrance through the high windows behind it, the light turning gold as afternoon slid towards evening, it almost seemed like the real throne. The lost throne. The high far-seeing seat. The glorified bird perch that started wars over whose farts would warm it. Asgard’s second most insufferable solitary confinement.

He’d never wanted it. Not when he’d sought it. Not when he’d had it. Not really. Not for more than a moment. There were some perks, certainly. He was damn fond of perks. But in the balance, he thought, if it weren’t for Asgard, he’d as soon say “fuck it” and order Thor a recliner.

But a king needed a realm. A realm needed a throne. A throne had to be made, and soon. If Angrboda were out there, as Nat’s mention out of nowhere had implied, and if she was brazenly machinating with Baldur in hand, he had to hurry.

Except he couldn’t do it.

He was too weak. Just forming that thought filled him with indignant rage, but he had to admit it. Too weak. Always.

It annoyed him that he was even surprised. He could have seen it coming, if he’d had any sense, or even a little humility. He was always so sure that he could maintain control. Run on sheer resolve and his sense of what was right. Prop himself up with feelings that had no other means of expression, that felt like massive molten engines in his guts. And he always came close, much closer than one might reasonably expect. And still, it always fell apart.

It wasn’t as though he lacked for adaptability. After all the psychological abuse, the identity crises, deep black moods, psychotic episodes, and encyclopedic torments both self-imposed and otherwise, he was rightly confident in his ability to adapt, overcome, and recover. There was only one madness he never seemed to shake: that insipidly pithy one about expecting different results. Being too fucking sentimental to ever really change. He could handle the pain, but he’d never found a proper remedy for hope.

He’d remade the throne before, of course. Right after the war with the dark elves. Back then he’d had the tesseract, Thor’s love, Asgard’s grief, and Odin’s blessing all coursing through him. All he had left of those was the tesseract. And if he used it, and the consequences kept escalating, it could kill him. Or Natasha. Or both. Then who would make the tree? Banner? Unlikely.

He stared through the window he’d helped her escape through and wondered what she would say, what she would tell him to do, whether she would bother. How long would it be before she forgave him, he wondered. People tended to forgive him eventually, possibly because it was easier than trying to figure him out. Pure sentiment, treacherous hope. She seemed better at ignoring hope than he was. Maybe they could teach each other , if they both survived, or if he saw her again before the end. She could teach him to abandon hope, he could teach her to expect forgiveness. He wondered if she missed him. He missed her. Maybe she wanted him to miss her. His smile widened. It would suit her brand. Brother-fucker. Shameless flirt.

He shook his head, trying to re-center, trying to focus on the hopeless task that depressed him and wasn’t fair. But as he tried it was like he could feel her pulling at him from far away, stealing the covers, leaving him cold and exposed. Maybe she was thinking of him. Or maybe he was just hoping she was, and feeling cold and raw for every other rational reason imaginable. Maybe he-

He shook his head again, trying to slap himself into line. Focus. The throne. If you’re so fucking clever, so fucking worthy, stop simpering and work it out, you piece of shit. You lying bastard. You mewling quim.

How to make it. Back to basics. The throne represented the power stone, infinity and eternity combined, the elements of forge fire and strike fire, magma and lightning, neither of which he personally had to hand. He might resort to their principles. Control and helplessness. Elaboration and annihilation. Nothing helpful sprang to mind. He could convert from wyrd fire, of course, which he could draw upon fairly freely, but converting both at once, and in such quantities, with his mind so-

“Loki.” Thor’s voice from the door echoed around the room, startling him.

Loki nodded, not standing up from the edge of the table but bowing his head to the side, “Your Majesty.” It was a bad time. He didn’t feel good. Why was Thor talking to him anyway, when he should have been sulking?

“I talked to Banner.”

“Oh?”

“He said he believed you. That there’s a plan in the works.” His words were clipped, but no louder than they needed to be as he crossed the distance.

Loki tried to affect nonchalance, his guts squirming, “Did he say anything else?”

Thor’s tone was dark, “He said that he needed time to figure out how to explain what he had seen. And that you needed some latitude.”

He couldn’t suppress a shiver of mingled disappointment and relief, “And what did you say?”

Thor walked up to the table, shoulder’s square, “I asked him why he wasn’t watching you. He said he’d left you here to work on one half of the problem, and you’d promised not to leave until he came to get you.” H e grabbed Loki by one shoulder and gave him a small appraising shake, testing his solidity, then let him go and turned towards the lonely seat, “I thought I ought to come check.”

Loki nodded, “That’s fair. Well, I’m here.”

Thor sat down heavily, lacing his fingers, “Yes.”

Loki shook his head in resigned annoyance, “And you’re angry anyway. Should I have left instead?”

Thor regarded him evenly.

Loki shrugged and sighed, “Noted. Anything else?”

“Yes.”

“Well?”

Thor’s care in considering him had a grim weight, like a storm cloud considering a cold front after a day of doing nothing but gathering rain, “It’s impossible for me to be a good king if I don’t understand what’s going on.”

Loki looked askance. Thor could be such a one-note bloodhound, “Then give Banner the time to-”

“I don’t mean that.”

Loki blinked, shrugging, “Then give Natasha time to-”

“Not that.”

Loki glared back at him, baffled, annoyed, afraid, “Then what already?”

He leaned back, dropping his hands, “Do you remember the night before my thwarted coronation?”

Taken by surprise, Loki couldn’t suppress a smirk, “Do you?”

“Yes. Answer the question please.”

Loki cleared his throat, looking away, “You couldn’t sleep. You couldn’t eat. I tried to help. As usual.”

Thor nodded, looking down, muddled sadness and determination rippling his features like a slack sail, “And you did. And the whole time you knew. The whole time. That’s the part I keep coming back to, when I question whether I am capable of being a king, and whether I’m mad for trusting you now.”

Loki squinted as if it might help him hear better, “That’s what you care about? Right now? A stupid bout of stage fright? And just that one among hundreds of others?”

Thor nodded, sternly resigned, “It is. Not earth, or father, or the destroyer, or the lies, or anything since. Those I understand well enough, as means to an end.” he looked at his palms, “And as much as it’s within my rights to do, I forgive you for them. But I don’t understand that night. Because you must have hated me, even as you let me-” he closed his eyes and his hands, “You’d already arranged what was going to happen.”

Loki swallowed, smoothing his tone, “Well, first of all, technically-”

“Don’t,” Thor snapped. “Don’t you dare handle me right now.”

Loki closed his eyes, trying not to yell, “So I’m just to let you tell me how I feel and then yell at me about it for the rest of my life, then? Is that what my king wishes?”

Thor winced, but didn’t take the bait, keeping his tone disturbingly even, “No. I just want to hear it. From you. I won’t- there won’t be any punishment. It’s not a crime, at least none of yours. I need to know. Did it start before that? How many days, how many nights, how many times did I touch you while you wished I was dead?”

Loki shook his head, agape, “None.”

Thor stood, “You’re lying.”

Loki rolled his eyes, “Then what does it matter what I say?”

“It matters to me!”

“Then listen to me, for once!”

“You think I don’t?” Thor bellowed, leaning with it, “You think I don’t search your words to try to understand? That I don’t go back over every exchange to try to guess what any of it means?”

Loki stood frozen, hands raised forward in reflexive placation.

Thor saw and sighed, quieting, “You think I don’t hate my strength because of how it makes you fear me? Or any of the hundred other things about myself that it might be that make you hate me?”

Loki shook his head, turning aside, “You always do this, you always act like your feelings should be more important to me than my life. It’s not fair that you do that and it’s not fair that I go along with it.”

“Do I do that?”

Loki folded his arms petulantly, “Yes. You do. But then so does everyone else, so why should you be any different.”

Thor huffed a weak chuckle, running a hand over the would-be throne. “You know damn well why.” He gripped the back of the chair, resting his weight and looking away.

After a long silence Loki laced his fingers together, hazarding sincerity, “Thor. Do you even want the throne? I have to know.”

Thor shrugged, “It has its perks.”

Loki laughed in spite of himself, “True. But you said before that you’d as soon give it up. Did you mean that?”

Thor shook his head, “No. After a meal and a rest and…” he trailed off, smiling, “No. I’m truly and rightly concerned by my failures, but that doesn’t supersede my duty, or my love, for Asgard. You were right.”

Loki perked up, “Oh, say that again. I like the sound of it.”

Thor smiled, sitting back on the arm of the chair, lingering the moment before nodding indulgently, “You were right. You steered me true. I needed to give myself time to see clearly,” he shook his head, “but I also need more than that. From you.”

Loki slouched back onto the edge of the table, “Thor, I’m tired. And I’ve...we both know that I’m not owed your trust, in the balance, nor you my allegiance. So, I don’t know what to tell you that you might believe.”

Thor crossed carefully, passing Loki to lean on the table’s catercorner edge, “Just tell me. Not for my sake, but because our people need me to understand how blind I’ve been. When did you decide that I was unworthy of the throne?”

Loki gripped his head in disbelief, then gestured dramatically at the empty chair, “I’ve been sitting here for the last hour because I’m trying to figure out how to make the throne! For you! Can’t we just assume I've gotten over it, live in the present?”

“No,” Thor shook his head, “Because Asgard needs to be better this time. Baldur’s words reminded me. If I’m the king I must strive to be a good king to all. To the Jotuns. To the Norns. Vanaheim and Midgard. Those that love and hate me both, I must meet with wisdom and humility. I’ve learned that power is about responsibility and gentleness, reconciliation, not strength or impunity. If my reign in Asgard is to be more than a name among the other realms, it is likely to be spent in making amends for things I know not yet about.”

Loki nodded agreement, “Our past is long, murky, and perhaps irreparable,” he cleared his throat, “as a kingdom, I mean.”

Thor nodded at the chair, “Before that throne, before my rule is proclaimed and the calls for amends pour in, I need to make amends to you. I need to hear my wrongs from those I’ve wronged. The times you’ve indulged me, tolerated me, endured me when I didn’t ask if it was what you wanted.”

Loki scoffed in dismissal, “You know I hate it when you ask.”

“Is it because you think I don’t care how you answer?”

“No,” Loki chuckled in spite of himself, “it’s because I know I should say no, and that if I did you would listen. And we’d both be miserable.” He tilted his head to one side, then the other, re-weighing his own words, “More miserable. I hate it because there’s no right answer when you ask me.”

Thor sighed, bracing his arms on the table and gazing at the floor, “Tell me the truth.”

He looked up at the ceiling, wondering what he could say, “It won’t make you happy.”

“More depends on my reign than my happiness. Maybe I need to be unhappy, if that is what it takes.”

Loki took a deep breath, his courage failing him again. Weak. “Thor, no.”

Thor nodded, his sober tone frayed at the edges, “All right.”

Thor moved to go but Loki put a hand over his to hold him back, “I wanted it. All of it. And I missed it every time we swore to stop. If you believe anything believe that. Please?”

Thor stayed, but didn’t react.

Loki cleared his throat, “I’m sorry I never said it as often as I should have. I thought you knew. Or that telling you would be like trapping you...” It was mostly the truth. There was always something more at stake, and even giving voice to small expressions of desire made him long to confess everything.

As if to confirm to himself that he was correct, the contact between their hands sent little shivers up and through him, kindling inquisitive little sparks in his core. It was funny, ridiculous, how he could be so tired and numb and still so utterly “up for it” the moment Thor breathed too close to him. He disgusted himself, sometimes.

Thor raised his thumb to stroke Loki’s little finger, “I wish I could believe you, without needing to understand the things you don’t want to tell me.”

Loki succumbed to a perverse urge, assuring himself it was defensive, ”I’ll show you. Right now. Right here on this table. So you can think of it during every drab state meeting and flavorless diplomatic meal.”

Thor scoffed, taking his hand away and moving aside.

Loki shrugged, “I’m serious.” He pivoted towards Thor, resting his hip on the corner, “You’re going to be the beleaguered king of everything soon. You need to seize and bank whatever joy you can.”

Thor shook his head, smiling as if Loki were kidding, “That’s not what being a king is about.”

“Says you. It was when I was king.”

Thor shook his head, his smile fading, “That’s a lie.”

Loki smiled widely to cover a twinge of apprehension at his misstep, scooting his hip against Thor’s, “But doesn’t my deliberate bad counsel make you want to put me in my place? Technically it’s treason.”

Thor shook his head, intractably philosophical, prodding at the skin around his eye patch. He lowered his voice, “Was this done to us?”

“What do you mean?”

Thor turned to him with that damned soft look, “I’d always thought it was the night before the coronation that was the lie. You swear it wasn’t, and they can’t both be true. So...”

He played ignorant, perhaps badly, unable to keep his eyes from darting, “What are you asking?”

Thor’s expression softened playfully, perhaps reading into Loki’s sloppy evasion and relenting, “Maybe I’m not asking.” Thor gave him a knowing smile that made his blood run cold through his skipping heart, and pivoted to face him, blocking him against the table.

“Thor-”

He leaned in towards his ear, “Maybe I’m begging.”

Thor ran a finger over his knuckles, and Loki felt “no” die on his lips. His eyes closed and he gripped the table’s edge, nerve endings pricking and squirming eagerly at the old cue. His thoughts racing ahead of his sense, goosebumps rising to point after them like hounds on a lead.

He heard Thor shift, lowering himself to his knees. He leaned carefully close and his warm mouth found Loki’s right hand curled tight to the table. He placed a soft kiss on the hard knuckles, then parted his lips and, one by one, teased and sucked them free of their cautious grip, his beard rasping the side of Loki’s thigh. Loki groaned, desire blazing up like a pyre in an ancient ritual grove.

Without opening his eyes, he cupped Thor’s jaw in one hand and stroked his shaggy scalp with the other, sliding into the role like ice into water. He murmured, “So good.”

“My Lord”, Thor whispered, pausing to tongue Loki’s thumb as it grazed his lips, “I beg you.”

Loki moaned, “Oh this is a bad idea.”

Thor nodded agreement on his knees, “Best not to think, then.”

“Dammit,” he murmured, stroking Thor’s scalp with firm fingertips and just a hint of nail, frustration and approval, swallowing harsher and dearer oaths. I’m supposedly the master manipulator, he thought, but you turn me around your little finger like it’s nothing, making me want to own you and rule you, protect and vex and pleasure you senseless until you scream my name. Just a curtsy and a whisper and I’m yours...

 

Chapter Text

Loki smirked, “So I’m to humble and debase you with my horrid desires?” He had to smile, despite the slavering and disastrous want in him that yearned towards Thor like a lengthening shadow. It was just so silly, so tender; their games, their little rituals. The precautions and pleas, the resistance, all of it. Just their private language for “yes”, the one that conveniently lacked words for “we have to talk”. It was so silly. So pitiful. So innocent. He quirked an eyebrow coldly, “That’s unflattering. And a bit over-the-top in terms of villainy, even for me.”

Thor breathed, resting his head into Loki’s hands, “If I have provoked your horrid desires, it’s only just that I be taken to task.”

Loki grit his teeth, wanting to linger his own sweet dissatisfaction and doomed resistance, “And if you haven’t?”

“Then I have failed you, my Lord,” Thor murmured, “and, on my honor, must persist in my goal.”

Damn.

“Stand up.” Loki commanded. Thor moved at his word, and it was almost more erotic than touch, all that power balanced eagerly upon his tongue. It was all he could do to maintain the game, “Do you remember how to be patient? Show me.”

Thor glanced past Loki’s shoulder at the door, the dark hall, but didn’t hesitate in unbinding his clothes and extracting his cock, letting it hang soft for Loki’s inspection. Loki could feel his own racing pulse in his tongue, his throat, his fingertips, himself already hard as a shivering spar. All he said was, “Good.”

Thor nodded, closed his eye and took a slow breath, his cheeks pink in the slashes of low golden light, making his worn face younger than it had seemed in years.

Loki hefted the slack flesh it in one hand, inspecting it like a choice swatch of silk, relishing the warm elasticity, the potent vulnerability freely given. With Thor’s hair shorn, his bedroom eyes wounded, and his view of the world greatly hardened since last they’d played, the softness that was left to him had become even more precious.

Sparks began popping around Thor’s fingertips, signaling that all his concentration was sunk into letting Loki enjoy him. He didn’t even flinch, just clasped his hands out of sight behind his back, gaze averted.

Loki smirked at his own sappy impulse to lavish affection on him for such simple obedience. But, he reminded himself, Thor needed a careful and moderating hand. His appetites as a bottom so often outpaced his capacities.

Still...his heart, Loki knew, could curl up inside a tender word like a contented kitten.

He stroked Thor’s scruffy cheek with a wistful sigh, then rested their foreheads together. “So good. So patient.” He squeezed the back of his neck, “You’re not greedy or thoughtless at all, are you. People don’t see how much tenderness it takes to control the burden of all that power. They’re idiots. Such patience, such sweetness. Who wouldn’t love you?”

Thor whimpered happily, blushed deeper, and kept still.

He pulled him to kiss, tonguing his lips apart to warm welcome, his firm intrusion beckoned deeper with soft humble sighs. Loki stopped fondling his cock and took him by one wrist instead, guiding it to where his hip rested against the table.

Thor moaned, sparks ceasing as he gripped Loki, leaned in, and pressed his plaintive kisses to sue for more. His attention shifted to restraining his fire, and when Loki touched his cock again, it hardened in his hand unchecked.

Loki stopped them both with a hand on Thor’s shoulder, but gave his erection some slow affirming strokes to assure him it wasn’t a rebuke, “Did you bring anything to ease the progress of all the terribly humbling things I’m going to do to you?”

Thor shook his head, swallowing, “Come back to my room?”

Loki made an elaborately reluctant frown, “I told Banner I would stay here. I can’t afford to be made a liar now.” He pretended to think, knowing full well he still had the little vial of flower oil in his coat.

As if to buy time he said, “Kneel.”

Loki was grateful he wasn’t actually trying to think because, gods of the beginning, just the way Thor knelt was distracting. They were likely wasting time they couldn’t strictly afford, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Time could wait.

Loki rubbed the tips of his fingers together, pantomiming an inability to summon what he needed, noticing at the same time, just by thinking about it, that his magic felt...surprisingly strong. More than Thor’s usual ambient charge, the air carried a draught of fire that felt strong enough to stir his hair, as seductively powerful and willing as the kneeling king.

He looked from his hand, to the chair, to the god trembling with strike-fire at his feet. The bold and reckless opportunity beckoned to him, the ample pros and cons splaying themselves to his inspection.

He knelt down before Thor, taking his chin in hand. He briskly swallowed the impulse to ask Do you trust me? There was no right answer to that, and it didn’t really matter. Trust didn’t really apply to the depth and type of Thor’s devotion, any more than want applied to what Loki felt for him as he knelt.

“Thor, do you want to be king?”

Thor looked back at him earnestly, “Do you want me to be?”

Loki swallowed, shaking his head, “Stop submitting for a second, I actually need to know. I’m not playing right now.”

“Neither am I,” Thor gripped Loki’s wrist, making him feel his sincerity, the scope of his question, “I need to know if I’m to answer.”

Loki nodded numbly, “I do. I’ve always-” he cut himself gracelessly short, “But really think because this is more than just a question of intent. I think we could use your power and mine to make the throne, right now, but it’s old magic, fire magic, and it would bind your lightning powers to Asgard’s rule, and to your place as its king.”

“You say that as if it is dangerous.”

Loki shook his head, “Once the realm is complete you’ll barely feel the difference. Your ability to draw on Asgard’s connection to the cosmos would more than compensate for the cost whenever you wished to leave Asgard.”

“But not until the realm is finished.”

Loki nodded solemnly, “Until then you’d have to stay in Asgard, just until the tree is in place, like a capstone. Leaving before then would mean either leaving your powers behind until you return, or damaging the completed symbols, including the wall and the bridge. With all the threats at our door, it may not be the best time to limit your options like that. It’s a risk.”

“But once it’s done, I’ll be stronger? Possibly strong enough to face those same threats?”

“Very likely. Eventually you’ll become as powerful as father ever was. Perhaps more, with the right training.” A fantasy of long evenings teaching Thor the mystical arts and falling into bed every night with him and Natasha was dismissed until the adults were done talking.

Thor nodded soberly, considering. Finally he pinned Loki with a look and asked, “While I am limited, will you be able to protect yourself? Will you be able to make the tree and complete the realm without hurting yourself?”

Loki shrugged dismissively, “I might need a day to rest, depending on how this goes, but yes. The world’s tree represents the space stone. The tesseract. I know the tesseract, intimately. And…” he added another expertly nonchalant shrug for good measure, “I have a failsafe, for emergencies. But there are things about that I shouldn’t speak of in Asgard, when there might yet be a confederate of the Storm giants within our walls.”

Thor’s brow creased suspiciously, “Does your failsafe involve you dying? Or potentially dying? Or almost dying?”

Loki gave a too-indifferent smile, “Nah. Probably not. Define ‘dying’.”

Thor scowled, “I’m not playing. Promise me.”

Loki relented, “Thor, I swear it. Neither my plan nor my contingencies involve me dying on you. Or even seeming to die on you. I’m not a monster.” He smiled assuredly, pressed his forehead to Thor’s, and made a corresponding oath in the hiddenmost part of his mind that it would be the very last time that he would ever lie to Thor. Ever.

Thor sat back on his heels, “So what do I have to do.”

Loki smiled, “Well. It would be a rite of Eros. No spellwork, just combining and concentrating power. We may have to feel it out as we go but,” he stroked Thor’s ear along the edge and felt the energy between them move like a proof of concept, “like the time you wanted to see if we could make the ancient hollow yew tree bear wild strawberries for the feast of Frigga.”

Thor laughed, palming his forehead, “Oh gods, I remember. The look mother gave you while I presented it like a gift, and the whole courtyard wondered and exclaimed. I almost felt guilty.”

“I almost died trying not to laugh. If I had, she definitely would have killed me right there in front of everyone.”

Thor’s laugh stopped short, “Oh. She never said an angry word about it to me. I’m sure she must have been a little proud of you, at least.”

Loki shook his head, “Not that day. She knew exactly why I’d done it, and that you couldn’t possibly have realized that I’d smuggled an act of bald-faced defiance into your sweet and thoughtful gesture. And I’d be lying if I said,” he couldn’t keep up his smile, “that I hadn’t meant it to hurt her well beyond what was funny or clever.”

Thor frowned, but there was no reproach in his tone, “You must have been really angry at her.”

He gave a matter-of-fact shrug, “I suppose. She’d made me swear not to put any more defiant thoughts into your head about Odin’s plans for you, but she hadn’t thought to forbid me from giving my good aid and council to any plans of yours to honor and glorify Asgard,” he grinned, “It would be treason to forbid me from doing that.”

Thor nodded, that sly cocky glimmer seeping in at the edges of his soft look, dismissing the past, “Well, my aid and council are yours, for the good of the realm, my Lord. Consider all that I have to be yours to use,” he tic’d his head to the side provocatively, “if you didn’t already.”

Loki ignored the bait and stood, haughtily unbuttoning his coat. He palmed the vial of oil and tucked it into the tie holding his hair back, “If you think you know what it is to be used by me then the next hour may startle you. And fix your damn posture, you look like a dog taking a dump.”

Thor straightened, knees wide apart, head slightly bowed, hands resting on his thighs, arrogant smile wiped away despite the pride in his bearing. Possessive gratification shivered up Loki’s back clear to his scalp, and his smile broadened darkly. So silly.

He began to roll his sleeves up, pacing to Thor and then slowly around him, opening himself to the jag and swirl of energy between them. It was furtive, troublingly uneven, but warm and rich as summer berries.

He stroked Thor’s hair and murmured, “Good,” and Thor’s exhale quavered.

Muttering a hopeful prayer to his mother not to look down on them in anger, Loki took a few strides towards the chair and knelt suddenly to strike the floor with his palm. The blushing light in the air around them splintered with a crash, surrounding them in an imperceptible dome of glassy shards.

He rubbed his fingertips together as he returned to Thor. “That should protect the curious from their own misbegotten impulses, and afford us some extra time before sunset. Time flows more slowly, and magic more easily in the mirror dimension. Observe.”

Replete with power, Loki pinched the shoulder of Thor’s breastplate and flicked his wrist, the leather consenting to ignore physical law and fling itself off its wearer with every buckle and strap still intact. He circled another half-turn, stroking Thor’s hair and admiring his vigilant submission from every angle before doing the same with his shirt, exposing a pristine plane of gooseflesh, golden hairs trembling like wheat in the slanted amber light, soft shadows nestling into his precise contours.

He paused, “Are you cold?”

“Not at all, my Lord.”

Loki leaned down by his ear, “Kneel before the throne, and grip the arm rests.”

Thor obeyed, Loki strolling up behind and admiring the stretch of his shoulders. He bent and ran a hand down Thor’s gullied back, hooking a finger into his trousers and giving a gentle decoy tug, “I suppose we could make do with semen and saliva, if we’re careful. Do you remember?” Loki insinuated his fingers a little further, prodding the dimple over his tailbone, “The tournament on Ria?“

Thor took a moment as Loki idly stroked his lower back, energy swirling thick in the air. Finally he said, “Yes, my Lord.”

Loki crouched down, lips close to his ear, “They kept me from you, for weeks, said you needed to concentrate, to train, for the glory of Asgard. And then on that first day, four rounds of watching you trade blows with fighters half again your size. Two whole hours I silently  screamed your name in fear for you while the assembled realms shouted and cheered it in awe. And you were glorious, and it was awful.”

Thor turned his head a fraction, “I barely remember that first day at all. Not until you came to find me. Under the arena.”

Loki nodded, “I wasn’t even sure you would welcome me, whether you’d finally accepted all the reasons we ought to stop interfering with each other. I just needed to know you were whole and well, or I was going to fall apart. I had an indifferent harangue all prepared, that you at least let me check your wounds to report back to mother whether they were treating you properly.”

Thor’s visible cheek bunched in a smile, “You never got to give it.”

Loki nodded, laying his weight against Thor’s back and nuzzling into his ear, letting his fingers bump down the over teh scars in his second skin, eliciting a shiver, “No I never got to give it. In the shadowed dressing stall, with the revels still bombinating above in celebration of the first day and anticipation of the second, I suddenly found my tongue too crowded by yours to move intelligently.”

“I suppose you could have tried when I went down on you against the wall.”

“Mmm. Too busy trying to keep quiet at that point. Like a couple of thieves.” He reached down and ran a hand along the inside of Thor’s thigh.

Thor’s voice softened but kept as resolutely even as his shoulders, “I was too green to realize we were probably the only ones in a hundred kilometers sober enough to notice an earthquake if there’d been one.”

Loki smirked, “The way you sucked me off it felt like there had been.”

“And I did it with you swatting at me, babbling about how close you were.”

“To warn you! You’d never wanted me to come in your mouth before, and suddenly you were sucking me off like a pro until I nearly came myself inside out,” he shook his head, the memory still astonishing him, “And then you turned me around…”

Thor nodded, “And then I turned you around. And slicked you up.”

“Still one of the hottest and most disgusting things you’ve ever done.”

Thor shook his head, “I wanted you so much. And you’d obviously bathed just for me.”

Loki nodded, tracing his fingertips up Thor’s shaft, “I thought you’d lost your mind and were just going to shove your dry boner up inside me while I was still coming down, but,” he caressed Thor’s smooth, straining head, catching a drop of moisture on his fingertip, “you whispered in my ear..”

Thor sighed, “Just the tip.”

Loki grinned, nodding, fondling Thor agreeably, “Just the tip. I hadn’t even known you knew that phrase.”

Thor huffed a distracted laugh, “I’d seen some things that week that still astonish me to recall,” he shook his head, voice thick with resentment, “After all Odin’s lectures about a true warrior’s steely masculinity, there were some mighty pleasures being exchanged every night in the guest barracks without shame, between warriors of fierce renown. And I knew it was more than some sentimental crutch or immature curiosity or sin of necessity, to the point that I felt stupid for ever believing what I’d been told otherwise.”

Loki avoided the pull of Thor’s bitter melancholy, steering back towards the tactile with both hands, “And you did it. Just the tip, just to start,” he slid his free hand a little further down, prodding gently against Thor’s dry sphincter, “nestled right at the point of stretching me, pushing ever so slightly as you stroked yourself, whispering to promise you could control yourself until I was ready, that you’d never hurt me.”

Thor stayed silent, but his breathing had begun to keep time with the motion of Loki’s touch.

Loki could feel the energy ricocheting and redoubling between them, and crooned with re-lived relish, “You were so ready to come that I still wasn’t ready by the time you did, pushing in just far enough to slick the next few centimeters of my insides, nestling half-hard and half inside me until you were ready again, and I was ready for you. And for all that, it didn’t hurt nearly as much as I wanted it to after missing you for so long.”

Thor chuckled, his voice husky, “You wouldn’t let me kiss you, though.”

“You’d put your mouth right on my ass,” Loki chided, “Without asking.”

“Just the tip.”

“Hmm. I hardly deprived you. I let you fuck me until you passed out.”

“I seem to recall you demanding it.”

“Well my endorphins had kicked in. You could have done anything and I’d have wanted more. I didn’t even want to come again because I was worried it would interrupt what you were doing to me.”

“But you did.”

Loki nodded fondly, voice falling, “But I did. You can’t know how often that I’ve…” he meant to stop speaking, tried to stop, feeling as though he’d half hypnotized himself with the engrossing repetitive motion and swirls of fire behind his eyes, “...when we’ve been apart, that I’ve revisited that night, that wall…” just the tip, just the tip, “Your weight against my back. That soft specific sound you made when you pushed into me. How we whispered and begged back and forth, my come on your breath. The hope that...” he swallowed against the almost physical strain, “the hope that the next time I see you,” not too much, not too far, they weren’t ready, “we’ll go back there again.”

Thor sighed with that same dreamy meditative tone, “It’s been a favored haunt of my own memory,” he sighed as Loki massaged his tip at the top of a slow, firm stroke, “my Lord.”

Loki flicked his other hand to toss Thor’s gaping breeches and smallclothes to a distant part of the floor. He kissed his neck, long and lingering, feeling honesty and dread pulsing in his throat like a storms wrack against an iceberg. He craved Thor’s confessions of devotion, but each one added more pressure to his ever present disastrous urge to confess everything.

He squeezed his eyes shut, pushing it down, what Natasha might have called storing sparks, paving it over with intent and anticipation, pumping Thor more firmly in his fist. Just the moment, he chastised himself, just the now, just pretend. Just the tip. Don’t think about anything you wouldn’t want to hear falling out of your mouth.

“Do you remember,” Thor asked, breath rising with an undercurrent of a moan, “the feast after the hunt for the Brinnak Slore?”

Loki made a noncommittal sound, “I remember leaving early, feeling in a mood. I remember you following me, trying to coax me back, promising to be my cupbearer.”

Thor rocked a little into Loki’s building attentions, “You were so stubborn, finally I begged you.”

It was impossible not to smile, “You did beg.”

“I think you realized what I was asking for before I did. And you were so-”

“Horny.”

“Gentle,” Thor sighed, rigid in Loki’s hand, his skin hot, his frame shivering, “You’d let me go so hard on you, so many times, I thought you were going to be the same way with me. But you weren’t. You were...you.”

Loki grit his teeth and pressed himself against Thor’s back, building his tempo in a way that forced them both into relative silence. Just as Thor crested the edge, Loki whispered in his ear, “The harder you come now, the sweeter it will feel to me when I fuck you.” Thor shook and gasped with an edge of surprise as he came, Loki hooding his tip to catch as much as he could, gathering it all together off his skin with a simple trick typically used to dry clothing.

Thor sagged, a little winded, still holding tight to the chair.

“Are you all right?” Loki kissed his shoulder, “Still feeling all your extremities?”

“I am...most well. Thank you, my Lord.” A long shiver ran through him.

With only a light touch for warning, Loki insinuated the finger’s worth of warm cum into Thor’s ass with shallow prodding fingertips and magical force, kissing and petting and muttering to soothe him. Thor squirmed and arched with intense semi-pleasure despite the gentleness of the intrusion. There was so much, and it slid inside so easily, that it made Loki’s cock ache, wanting to fill him even as he teased gently over the ticklish sensitivity of the mighty Thor’s asshole. That hunger lead him back, unwisely, to recalling the night of the hunt.

“It was a surprise for me, too,” he murmured, knowing he shouldn’t, “I remember...I was scared of disappointing you. You were always so…” he shook his head, too close, too close, “I hadn’t been with anyone since I’d left off with Sif. I think that’s why I was in such a mood, honestly. Seeing the two of you together on the hunt, what a dazzling fighter she was becoming with your help, how in sync you were, how happy you were with her by her side,” Loki hesitated, “Did you know? About Sif and me?”

Thor nodded, “She told me,” he didn’t sound put-off, but it was hard to tell through the lingering shivers of aftershock and anticipation, “I didn’t know we’d been the cause of your mood, though.”

Loki shook his head, “Probably more of an excuse than a cause, honestly. Not that I need one to be moody. Are you comfortable as you are? Nothing cramping or going numb? You sometimes get tight spots, coming down.”

“I’m fine.”

Loki shrugged, “It had just been a bit of fun between us. We’d agreed our magic tutoring sessions were never going to help her and that she ought to take up with you. It was mostly my idea, if I remember right. But I guess I wasn’t prepared to see the two of you together like that, that’s all.”

Thor gave a soft but genuine chuckle.

“What’s funny?”

“We weren’t.”

“What?”

“I was teaching her. It would have been inappropriate.”

“Really?”

“Is that so hard to believe?”

“Yes!” Loki laughed.

“Why?”

“Well because,” Loki did his best not to splutter, “everyone wants you.”

“I was taking some time for myself. So was she. We did become close, just not sexual.”

“But- but the hunt, I mean I assumed you turned to me because you didn’t want to pull Sif away from her first big adulation, and you knew I’d be discreet. But you could have had any orifice in that overflowing hall.”

He shrugged, “You weren’t the only one in a mood. And I guess I’d finally gotten curious.”

“Curious about having me as a top?”

“Curious about having a top.”

Loki felt the fire billowing up, like an unmanageable hurricane, too much for him to absorb or store. He felt like he was babbling, “But I thought, the summer festival, with Volstagg-”

“He only liked to be on the bottom.”

Loki blinked, “Not with me,” he shook his head, hoping to reach some kind of escape velocity from the looming subject, “Honestly, I can’t be the only-”

Thor sighed, seeming equal parts embarrassed and annoyed, “The only man I’ve ever wanted inside me. Yes.”

Everything stopped suddenly, like the eye of the storm was passing over, and an anxious chill settled in Loki’s stomach, reflexively crushing a throb of treacherous and sentimental longing, “I- I was going to say I can’t be the only person Volstagg ever topped, actually,” his tear ducts tickled at him foolishly, feeling like he was scrabbling for purchase at the edge of the map, panic transmuting to anger, “Why would you say that? What could you possibly want from me for saying a thing like that?”

Thor’s voice was quieter, lacking affect, perhaps feeling the change, “Perhaps I’m in a mood.”

Loki took his hands off Thor, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Thor shrugged, “Nothing, obviously. We both know you hate it when I treat you like you’re special to me.”

Loki struggled to avoid being stunned into silence, “So you want to provoke me to hating you now? With what we’re about to do? Are you hoping I’ll torture you for my amusement while you resent me?”

Thor stalled for a long beat, the chair creaking quietly as his grip tightened, “That does seem to be how it goes.”

Loki’s jaw fell slack. A hard ache stoppered his throat, and his voice thinned considerably to get around it, “You came here haunted by the thought that you’d once vented yourself on me while I loathed you for it. How could you think I would want to do it to you?”

When Thor didn’t reply, Loki pulled his own shirt off over his head, shaking it once into a thick cotton blanket and draping it over Thor’s shoulders, “As much as the concept of honor disgusts me, I have to say, I’m offended. Get up. Put your clothes on and go.”

“Loki I-” his voice broke but he stayed still, pinioned disobediently in place.

Loki tried to keep his tone cruelly neutral but the frustration and rage crept through, heartache and panic tripping over each other, “I’ve got too much work to do to be your expiation right now! Get out!”

Thor let go of the chair and sat back on his heels. “It was unfair of me to say what I did, in the way that I did. I understand that you’re angry.”

Loki couldn’t risk the sound of his own voice, and couldn’t even imagine starting to describe his feelings if Thor wanted to start from “angry”. He planted his fists on the table and leaned on them, waiting Thor out.

Thor’s voice was obnoxiously even, “I still want this. I still want to see Asgard rise. I still want you.”

Nothing moved. The light became pinker. Thor continued, “But I don’t want any of it to be based on lies anymore. Not Asgard. Not us. Not this. I can’t bear it.”

Loki felt a smirk twisting his face and voice unbidden, “Well then by all means tell me what I’m meant to confess to set my king’s mind at ease.”

“Not your lies. Mine.”

Loki closed his eyes, his heart beating in his throat, whispering beneath hearing, “Please don’t…”

It the quiet, Thor got up off his knees and went to stand behind Loki, and Loki barely breathed as Thor’s warm hand settled on his bare shoulder, his thumb stroking the back of his neck. As always, Thor’s touch, unaugmented, tingled on his skin and right through his roiling overcharged core, and Loki shook his head at the crassness of flesh.

“I’ve broken every promise I ever made to you while begging you into my bed,” Thor murmured, “Every promise to stop, to feel in moderation, to warn you if I fell too deep, to let go when the time came. I lied to you, for this,” he ran his hand down Loki’s arm, catching gently at his wrist while his other hand found and followed the same path on the opposite side, “it’s been my unforgivable and selfish habit for a thousand years.” He pulled very lightly as he took a small step forward, cuing Loki to take a small step back.

He stepped back against Thor’s chest. He couldn’t help it. Thor slid his palms against Loki’s, his thumb sliding around the side for a gentle grip that Loki returned. Thor’s breath was on his neck as he spoke, making it harder to breathe, “The truth is, what I feel, what I am, is so far beyond reason, I’ve got no business promising you or anyone that it’s ever going to stop, or change, or be subject to moderating sense. Not for our world or any world, not for any price or privilege. Not for any fear death, or ruin, or the agony of outliving you. I’ve lied to you in word, and act, and omission. Because I’ve been unable to conceive of needing my honor more than I’ve needed you close to me, saving me, trusting me, letting me…” Loki wordlessly brought his own hand and Thor’s to his hip, sighing as Thor’s fingers spread along his naked waist, “...touch you. Knowing that you would reject me if you knew, knowing full well it was both your right to do so, and to know.”

Loki swayed forward just enough to rest the tops of his thighs against the edge of the table, letting Thor lean against his back, just standing, feeling the air burn him like friction. Thor murmured in his ear, “I accept that these feelings are my own to manage, and no claim on you. I accept that, in the balance, this makes you my master, and I your slave. And I am content to know it, and make some new plan to protect you from it besides lying about it.”

His hand strayed across Loki’s waist to an embrace, and Loki’s hand followed, accepting, the other straying back to caress Thor’s hip, his lizard brain briefly revisiting the tournament, the alcove, the wall, and the dark.

Thor’s little finger dipped against the waistband of his trousers, and Loki felt his cock twitch almost angrily against its confines, against waiting, against cowardice.

He squeezed Thor’s wrist and said, firmly, “Kneel before the chair, my king.”

Chapter Text

She took her time dressing. He made a principled effort to ignore her, and she didn’t press her presence. There was no telling for certain what his favorite flavor of obsession would be. He’d need enough room to tell her. When a mark’s sense of discipline seemed so innocent, so unaccustomed to any fuel as heady as hate, or its myriad derivatives, the key was to let him build up a taste for it in small safe doses, let him feel in-control of it, for a while. At least she wouldn’t be the only one burdened with a disastrous sense of hope.

“So what’s for dinner?” she presented herself beside her captive jailer with a “ta-da” smile.

He took a step forward and opened the door, “Whatever they feed you.” He stood holding it for a moment before remembering his lack of manners and stalking into the hall without her.

She let a furious humiliated blush creep into her cheeks and gathered it back slowly. Slowly. Three...two…

He stuck his head back into view to catch the last glimpse of her indiscreet feelings before she hid them behind a glare. He paled so sweetly, as flustered as when she’d opened the door in her sheers, she almost wanted to pet him and assure him it was just a simple trick, that she would never let him hurt her. Recovering, he stood straight, jerking his head sharply but waiting, “Come on.”

She straightened her coat and went to where he stood, her pride limping like a doe luring a predator to follow. With a half-stifled sigh she looked up at him through her lashes, “Well where am I going?”

His expression hardened, but he offered her the dignity of his arm.

Humbly, she took it, and let him lead her. She omitted thanking him with an emotional tremble in her voice. No need to overdo it. Just the barest flicker of grudging respect where her palm met his forearm.

“It’s just through here,” he gestured down the hallway to the door carved with the strange gem-like shape she somehow recognized as Asgard. A small burst of vertigo made her flinch, catching her identity off by a step.

He put a hand over hers, a mixture of steadying her and restraining her, “You don’t need to be worried. No one’s going to hurt you. We do have honor here, however rustic we must seem,” his tone was bitter but lacked energy, coasting into actual manners, “And you’ll have every opportunity to see this resolved without bloodshed of any kind,” he cleared his throat and said in a breath, “You have my word.”

He looked away, and she couldn’t help smiling. He hadn’t meant to say that. She laid her fingertips over his hand just before he could reach for the massive door, “Thank you.”

“It’s just our way,” he said with chilly pride, not pulling away, “No need to thank me.”

“Well no, I’m sure,” she lifted her feather touch to free him, “But I tend to think everyone likes to hear it once in a while.”

He didn’t look at her as he pushed the door open. Dared not, if she guessed right. It almost seemed too easy. “Go then. She’s waiting.”

“You’re not coming with me?”

He shook his head, “I’m having a warrior’s fast. Until I have won my mother’s cause, that is my only hunger.”

She squinted matter of factly, “You see, that’s why I prefer magic. Fire makes such good use of every part of an appetite, not just the pain.” She wasn’t even sure what that meant, but it sounded right.

“I don’t care for fire magic.”

“Except for lightning?”

He pursed his lips, managing not to correct her. So there was some secret about the lightning. Fine. She shrugged, “You may not have had the right teacher. I mean, book-magic is fine for what it is, all respect, but I’d be happy to share some techniques with you to pass the time while I’m here,” she smirked, “Strictly platonic,” she gave him a self-serious lour, “you have my word.”

His face tightened in annoyance, “I doubt you’ll be here that long.”

“Well you’ll have to come visit Asgard once we’re done here. I’m sure we could arrange you a warmer reception than last time.”

His eye twitched, catching on the surface of her too-easy taunt, but she saw no sign that he thought she might not be going home. That was comforting. If Navidna were thinking of double-crossing her, he wasn’t in on it.

He shrugged off her touch, pointing, “Go. You’re wanted inside.”

She released him with a wistful sigh and sidled through the gap in the heavy door, glancing at him over her shoulder, “Think it over. Wars don’t last forever, and we have a pretty good time in Asgard.”

---

Loki sat on the edge of the table and adjusted himself in his trousers. “Fold the blanket so you can have it under your knees,” he instructed as he got his boots off, “and leave some behind you, for me.”

But when Thor knelt, Loki sauntered to sit in the make-do throne before him, legs splayed, admiring Thor’s posture. Even with his eyes averted, the warrior king was surely still catching motion in his periphery.

Slowly he unbuttoned his trousers, letting the fabric gape wide, his shapely erection standing up rather prettily in his own estimation. He leaned an ear into one hand, beckoning Thor with the other, “See if you can coax this mulish cock into cooperating, my king. It’s giving me no end of trouble lately. I want to be good and ready before I’m inside you or else I’m likely to fuck you to pieces.”

He had to glance away to feign disinterest as Thor knelt up between his knees, afraid he might come the moment Thor touched him.

Thor breathed deep, and Loki could hear him gathering courage to speak. Finally, quietly, “May I use my mouth, my Lord?”

Loki nodded, deliberating, “Getting a little saliva involved probably wouldn’t be the worst thing, before we start. But,” he chastised, “don’t get too greedy.”

Thor nodded devoutly. Loki gazed philosophically at the middle distance, leaving him to his task.

Thor ran his palms up Loki’s thighs with care and caution, but once his lips touched him without rebuke, he took the whole length in his mouth in a single stroke, causing Loki’s core to clench and his breath to jerk in his chest. Thor shifted, settling in to churn at him, a shrugging surf that built eagerly towards a hungry rip current.

After barely a minute Loki felt an insistent flutter in his tip.

“Thor, oh...fuck…” he whispered inelegantly, almost wanting to grip Thor but finding his motions too perfect to want to interfere. He could wait. He could wait. He could hold off if it meant not needing to stop. Surely. Surely he could. He had to.

He made it another handful of minutes before the implacable draw of lip and flutter of tongue along his aching length began approaching the crisis point, the sweet sting of it almost mocking him.

“Thor if you don’t stop I’m going to come down your throat...oh…” his muscles clenched like a sign of warning. Thor didn’t stop or even slow. Loki scrubbed at his scalp with shaking fingers, “Is that what you want?”

Thor moaned assent and rocked into Loki’s lap, driving the motion of his mouth with the weight of his whole upper body, drawing hard pulls along his twangingly solid shaft before sheathing him again with equal drive, until Loki’s cock stoppered his breathing and his slick lips nestled against the curls in his crotch. It would have seemed arrogant if his hunger weren’t so earnest, so desperate.

“You should stop, Thor,” he whispered with all the severity left in him, “If you finish me now, I’ll take so much longer when I’m in you. I’ll have to fuck you so much harder. So, so much harder…” he grinned inwardly, struggling not to embarrass himself by coming mid-sentence just thinking about it.

Thor slowed but didn’t stop, sliding his hands up to grip Loki by the ass, pulling at him as he rooted and sucked like a thirsting calf, locking him into the churn of his motions with his massive strength, assent and desire in his low, bestial moans, thick runnels of hot saliva creeping ticklishly down over Loki’s balls.

Loki shook at the edge of breaking, clinging white-knuckled to the chair and to that bright high-keening second where consequences didn’t exist and everything was right, beyond reason or meaning; most especially the base, selfish, and ultimately trivial biological spasms beyond that edge. Thor gripped the waistband at the back of his trousers with both hands and yanked, preventing Loki from withdrawing even if he’d had the least will to try. The impudence.

He gasped, shaking, rigid, “Fuck you, you ridiculous greedy bastard, take it.”

Release broke over him like a beer bottle in a bar fight and he unloaded, feeling each crushing heave of ejaculate vanish down Thor’s tight throat. With his eyes closed and his head thrown back, it felt like gallons and gallons, like the sea surging wantonly into a cave at high tide, yet Thor sucked him dry and pulled at him for more until his insistence became hypersensitive agony and he had to make it stop.

For a gasping moment, Loki considered chastising him unjustly for his recklessness and greed, but slid out of the seat instead, kneeling up chest-to-chest with Thor on the floor, clutching his head and shaking his own, dragging him into deep kisses tinged with creosote and saltpeter. Thor held him, the pressure of his embrace seemingly everywhere at once, squeezing out helpless melting sighs that Thor drank of eagerly, swallowing them as well like liquor and sin.

Loki stroked Thor’s lip with his thumb, “By this mouth, I swear. It’s absurd that my tongue is legendary.” Thor grinned but Loki shook his head. Even freshly drained, it was dangerous how much he wanted Thor, how much his kisses burned. “You just assured that it’s going to hurt, that I’m going to take forever to come again, probably ripping your prissy little hole to rubbery shreds. If I can even get it up again. Idiot.”

Thor didn’t take that as any kind of deterrent, brushing kisses down his throat and chest as Loki tried to lean away. His hands were alive with every reason Loki always avoided being kissed, longing and memory and temptation, the perverse delicious desire to melt into confession and just let the world end.

His cock twitched and his tone hardened, and he barked more sharply than he meant to, “Stop, dammit, stop!”

Thor snapped back into kneeling on his heels, hands down. Loki gathered himself, pushing up with the chair and circling Thor while he secured his trousers shut, catching his breath. He muttered bitter, sane, reproving things under his breath, mostly at himself, when he realized with a cold flash of conscience that Thor was still trying to submit to him.

“Thor, I’m sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong.” He closed his eyes and shook his head in self-derision, petting Thor gently and taking him in hand, “I forget how deep you go into that head without my hardly needing to make you at all. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled.”

He rubbed Thor’s arm and tugged on his shoulder to turn him away from the chair. Thor turned obediently but didn’t look at him, his face frozen in brooding-neutral. He shrugged, “I wasn’t letting you lead. And I didn’t give you clear signs.”

Loki shook his head, “That’s why I shouldn’t have yelled. And why I ought not to let myself slip like that.”

Thor’s voice steadied earnestly, “I don’t mind when you slip, I- It hurts in the moment but it’s gone just as fast. I honestly don’t mind if you yell.”

Loki winced, “That’s not really true. Don’t say things like that, like there’s no room for you to resent being treated badly. It makes me feel like you’re talking about father, and then I want to kill myself.”

Thor looked up, genuinely horrified, and Loki winced again, pinching his nose so hard he felt like he might break it, “I don’t mean...sorry, fuck. I just mean it makes me disgusted with myself. That I could be like that. Like him.”

“You’re not like that.”

“I’m close enough to have fooled all of Asgard for four years.” It was a pointless dodge. Stupid.

Thor hung his head and Loki knelt down by him, “Sorry. I’m sorry. It’s not important. If I want you to let me lead, I ought to lead. That’s all I mean. You don’t owe it to me to be different than you are. Your tolerating my mistakes doesn’t make me feel powerful, just...beastly. I know you’re impatient. I know you like it when I slip, because even deep into that servile headspace you’re still a competitive prick.” Thor looked away from him to conceal a small smile, and Loki stroked his cheek, “You should be safe trusting me to control you so you don’t have to. I do understand...what it costs you. To always be on your guard against yourself.”

Thor’s eye met his and they said nothing.

Finally Loki shook his head, “I want to fuck you ragged and hear you scream my name as I fall apart inside you.”

Thor nodded, pupil widening.

Loki stood, unfastening his trousers again, and cupped his fingers behind Thor's neck, wordlessly drawing his lips back to his sticky half-hard cock, “Open.”

Thor took him, groaning like it was good fortune. Loki shivered, still a little not-quite-down off his last peak but enamored of Thor’s worshipful fixation. He thrust a few times, testing the shaft as it hardened, the jittery almost-too-intense tickle in his gut as Thor seemed to grow more and more intent on pleasuring his own tongue with the taste of him.

Finally Loki stopped him, needing to hold his ear awkwardly, wishing those savages on Sakaar hadn’t shorn off all his delicious silken handholds. “I think that’s wet enough. Hold the chair.”

Thor did as he was told and Loki knelt behind him, slopping spit onto his supple pucker from the head of his cock like he was whitewashing a knothole. He pressed very gently, and though Thor was still tantalizingly limber from the night before, Loki wasn’t quite ready to pierce him, hard as ash but not yet far enough begun to finish before the point of enjoyment had passed.

Thor twitched and whimpered expectantly, and Loki hushed him again. “Patience, my pretty king. Not quite yet." He pushed, stretching the tightness shallowly around his tip with a grossly unsatisfactory slowness, "Breathe.”

Chapter Text

Sif found her way to waking, following the sound of her mother’s voice and the touch of Bru’s hand on hers. That name was tapping at the front of her skull insistently, like an urgent and unfinished chore, and she had to let it out, “Mother, who is Baldur?”

There was no answer, and she rubbed her face, sitting up, “Mother?”

Eir sat silently, stunned, that glacial shine in her eyes that brooked no defiance and promised no answers.

Sif turned her back, putting her feet on the floor and finding her balance sound, “Then I’ll find out on my own.”

Eir answered, hastily, “He is a son of Asgard, banished long ago, in a different time.”

Sif turned half over her shoulder, “And that’s who injured Thor and took Natasha?”

“If he wielded gungnir, surely it was him.”

“But who is he?”

Eir’s expression hardened.

Bru murmured, “Apparently he was created to stand against Hela. The first time. Too late.”

Eir nodded stiffly, taking back the lead reluctantly, “Second-born, to rival the heir that the one-eyed king could neither kill nor keep buried forever.”

Sif looked at her lap, “Then why didn’t he? Why didn’t he return to Asgard when Hela attacked? Why now and not then?”

Eir’s tone was careful and dark, “He was erased, as Hela was, and likely forgot his purpose. But what is done is done. I must say no more. Even knowing this much may harm you further,” she shook her head, speaking almost to herself, “I will say no more.”

“Why?” Bru put in. “Why does his name affect her? I feel nothing when you say it.”

Eir locked eyes with the valkyrie and said nothing.

“Mother,” Sif intoned, “an answer is owing. What was done is clearly not finished. The threat is to Asgard now, and to Thor, my sworn friend and king. If you will not tell me all I may safely know I will hunt the reasons myself, however dangerous.”

Eir looked down, “His banishment put a strain upon the memory of Asgard. You and yours…” she leveled her gaze on Bru, “had already been erased with Hela’s legacy by the time he was born.”

Sif heard what her mother omitted, that Bru had not existed in Asgard during Baldur’s time, but apparently Sif had. And had been made to forget. Enough that the threat of remembering was enough to incapacitate her. Had they been friends?

Bru shook her head, “There’s just no end to that old cyclops’ lies.”

Eir gave a derisive snort, “It was no scheme of Odin’s. Not this. And if you care for Asgard at all you will keep its secrets.”

Bru’s lips tightened, “And if I find I don’t care for Asgard?”

Sif looked at Bru, astonished, and Bru looked away. Sif recognized that she was being more defensive than threatening, but Eir didn’t.

Eir’s voice was sharp, and she pointed at her daughter, “Sif is of Asgard. Its secrets spilled incautiously might wound her. But of course you might not care about that either.”

Sif interjected, unwilling to be the passive object of their sniping. “If not Odin then who?” Even as she asked she felt the skin on her neck prickle with a certainty she didn’t want.

Eir intoned darkly, “One who yet feels no remorse for the crime.”

A cold memory of delirious rambling skittered up Sif’s spine, “Loki.”

Bru sighed, “Of course.”

Eir nodded, “Laufey’s green-eyed get made a pact with the witch Angrboda, and betrayed B- betrayed him into her hands. On that I must say no more.”

Sif tried to calculate. She was older than Loki and Thor by a bit, though they were of the same generation. How old could Loki have been? How long had they known Baldur before he was erased? How many years had Loki kept up the lie?

Sif shook her head, “But why? Why would he do that?”

Eir shook her head, “On that I must say no more. But until he mourns his act, the banishment must not be spoken, and his name must be lost to Asgard. It is a fragile time to be pulling threads from the weave of our story. Surely Angrboda knew that when she sent him. She means us no peace.”

Bru rose, smooth and implacable, “Where are Loki and Banner now?”

Eir closed her eyes, “Banner is in the reading room.”

Bru turned to go but something superior in her mother’s voice stopped Sif, “And Loki?”

Eir frowned, gazing at the empty air above the soul forge, “My spinner’s gift is bound to Asgard, and he is far from my sight.”

Sif turned, buckling her armor and ignoring Eir’s disapproving scowl, “He’s left Asgard?

Eir spoke slowly, “Loki has Frigga’s gift for concealment and illusion. Such magics can hide even a god. Or a giant. Or several. Even from Heimdal, for a time.”

Bru looked at Sif, “Where would he go?”

Sif shook her head, “It’s been too long since I might have made a guess.”

Eir shrugged, rising and beginning to gather up used linen and put away tools, “The last I was aware of him, he was in the great hall, pondering the throne.”

---

Loki ran his hands over Thor’s back to quiet him, murmuring soft praises. The air fuzzed and crackled, and Thor breathed slowly, almost glowing with it, a corona of white among gold and pink shadows.

Loki let his words issue from deep in his gut, low and soft, “Perfect. Beautiful.” The fire licked around them approvingly, smooth and even. Wit barely an effort, he whipped off his trousers and crouched close. Thor braced expectantly, whispering, “Yes, please, now…”

Loki’s mouth stiffened into a line. Presumptuous creature. Thinking just because Loki wanted him badly enough to risk unmaking the world he could dictate terms.

With indifferent slowness, he steadied himself with a hand on Thor’s upper back and commenced, unceremoniously, to masturbate himself with the other, letting Thor feel every tremor. Thor bowed his head and made no further sound as Loki’s breath sped up and huffed on every other exhale.

He’d meant it as a tease, but it did occur to him that he could finish to spite them both, to beat his own slippery vulnerability into submission with a graceless grunt and a disappointing spurt, for being so pathetic and stupid for one another. It was such a fucking idiotic plan, and he was an absolute disgrace for being unwilling to consider any other, after all.

As if agreeing with him, the ambient power flagged and stopped responding to the ways they touched, his own touch feeling particularly airless and dead, the magic abandoning him.

Thor’s body tensed, and he swallowed with a soft gasp, perhaps feeling it as well. Loki shifted onto his knees, leaning his forearm across Thor’s back, letting his breath warm his skin as he brushed kisses onto his shoulder, tasting sweat and leather, smelling anxiety.

Loki stroked his drying head against Thor’s buttock, letting him feel the marble hardness, the menacing friction, “I’m only kidding,” he chided.

The energy between them remained sluggish, and it pressed him with a startling realization.

“You hate it when I tease you,” he sounded laughably shocked to his own ears, “And not in the fun way.” It stunned him further when Thor confirmed it by not objecting. Loki stroked his back clumsily, feeling too embarrassed to apologize. How many times... “It barely holds your attention, being denied satisfaction, being made to wait, feeling ignored. It doesn’t even arouse your anger,” he smirked, “I wonder what that’s like.”

Thor shrugged, his skin flushing, his tone ashamed and begging, “I can stand it.”

Loki’s smile faltered, feeling dirty but not in the fun way, not in the necessarily-mutual way, “Well obviously you can, you can stand anything. Still, that’s just depressing.” He shook his head, muttering, “we’re such an astonishingly bad match, is all. At every fucking turn…” he felt the galling creep of too much sincerity up his back, “It won’t work this way, that’s all. The magic. For a rite of eros we need to be in tune with one another. I know you can endure me no end but for this, we can’t be using each other, even if it’s consenting.”

“I just want you, that’s all. I just-” he shook his head, the fire picking up again with less flow and more sting.

Loki closed his eyes, “I understand that, but if I take you now and everything about it hurts you-”

“I don’t care.”

Loki swallowed, having unusual difficulty with the simple words, “I do. And you should. Bad sex shouldn’t be the price you pay to feel loved. Have you heard a thing I’ve said?”

There was a smile in Thor’s voice, “Well just pretend it’s a dagger and I’ve said something sentimental.”

He was joking. Loki knew he was joking. And that it was entirely deserved. A hundred times over. Still. He tried not to let his voice change as something else shifted inside him, “I just need a minute. Be patient for me. I know you can be.”

Thor’s tone softened, perhaps having heard something in Loki’s, “Yes, my Lord.”

He palmed the vial out of his hair, spreading the oil on his hand, onto his cock, slick as satin. It was a good joke, keying Thor up to expect pain and then pampering him. It would break the tension, surely.

He tried to calm himself, consider all their earnest, gleeful, dirty-minded escapades across the centuries, all the best times, the slapping and spurting and experimenting with laughable fervor and mixed results, but Thor’s suggestion had stirred up something that burned hotter and darker and wouldn’t be shouldered off the stage of memory by clownish antics.

He stroked himself slowly, steadying himself with one hand on the ground, head bowed, letting himself remember the daggers. The cruel jokes. The closed fists across his jeering mouth. The sick rush of relief and control that came from provoking explosions of wrath and loathing. The deeply-buried too-close moments that always needed another protective layer of distrust and betrayal between them, because he couldn’t resist it on his own, and he couldn’t tell Thor why he needed help. And because he was a proud, vain, kinky, selfish little monster in love with a golden prince, needing to drag him down to his own level and feel him love it, feel in control, before he could stand to be touched. Wadding that unending sense of starvation with rags of adrenaline and violent attentions...and that sick, unthinkable fantasy. Not a plan. Never a plan. Just...

His cock was practically pulsing in his burning hand. That last day, on the bridge, provoking a sorely-tested Thor to bloody-minded wrath, their souls stripped bare, brightly barbed, and sunk into one another’s eyes like fishhooks. The never-a-plan coming together. The last contingency, the one that too-large a part of him had really been hoping they would need since the night after Jotunheim...

All the frost giants dead. That much he could give. All of them. Ten thousand by Loki’s hands. And one by Thor’s. Finally, finally, knowing why he’d longed all his life to give Thor everything, and for that to mean something so terrible, so pure, so final…

To die for you, he thought. To die with them, at your touch. To let go of all hope at last while you hold me, burn me, tear me open. Help you pass your test like I should have in the first damn place. Do just that one thing right.

He’d been so far out of his goddamn mind he barely even recognized the fantasy of it anymore, but everything about their exquisite and agonizing attraction had been there, bright and cold and pulsing, brittle as the frozen spear training the bifrost on Jotunheim. Everything that made them the center of the other’s attention. A dark lifetime, between the brief good times, coming to its naturally unnatural conclusion.

The golden king, slaying the monster, saving the realm. The only happily ever after they would ever face together. And in the moment, he could have done it. Could have died to save what he loved. Same as Thor had learned to do.

Remembering it made him angry, and empty, and hard enough to drive spikes into concrete.

It was so fucked up. So damaged.

So completely them.

The fire felt bright and bloody and rich, reflecting back and back between them. There was no knowing how deep it would go if he entertained it, unleashed it, how ulcerated and murky it had become being shut away and ignored like an uncontrollable princess, an unnecessary step-child, an unruly rival.

He snarled in Thor’s ear, “You want this cock to tear into you until it tastes blood?”

Thor nodded, his skin practically steaming with want, “Yes.”

Loki slid his hand up Thor’s back to grip him at the scruff of his neck, touching him with the tangle of deferred lust that consumed him from the ground up. Thor’s head tilted up and he groaned, sagging against the chair and lifting his ass. Loki used the grip on his neck to push him down harder until his cheek was resting on the warm solid seat.

His voice came out low and breathy as a shadow, “You’re mine. Say it.”

“I am yours, my Love.” Thor sighed, so meditatively deep into submission he didn’t even hear himself slip.

Loki’s doubt and anguish flared to rage, squeezing Thor’s neck, digging his fingertips into the bump of his spine like he might try to rip it out, like a lion’s teeth scruffing into a lioness in heat, lust barbed and straining, “I’m going to ream you out like a silted pipe, and you’re going to be silent until I command you to come. Do you understand?”

Thor sighed, his pulse thundering under Loki’s touch, his limbs supple, “I hear you and obey, my Lord.”

Loki grit his teeth against the deep intoxication of Thor’s abject submission. “There is no safe word. It’s not done until I say.”

Thor said nothing, having been asked no question. The safe word was always “Heed me” anyway, but reality was good enough not to wag that finger in Loki’s face. He didn’t need Thor to assure him that he knew the safe word. He would control Thor. When everything else failed them, fondness and trust and good intentions, they could always trust the darkness, the punishment between them, to lock them together and never let go.

Thor’s hands crackled on the arms of the chair as he prepared to bear pain and glorify his love, his lover, with silence, releasing everything that had suffered alone and unsure to embrace Loki's will.

And the fire flared between them, connecting them where they touched, transforming two alone into something combined and singular.

Before Thor could feel reassured Loki fitted his slicked and dripping head to the soft spot in Thor’s tight ass, snarled a contemptuous, “Just the tip,” and pushed with his whole weight, thrusting with all his whip-tight strength besides, gratified when Thor held firm and barely rocked with the impact as their hips met, jarring as a punch.