All that is required, for evil to prevail, is that the good do nothing.
There was something was wrong with her.
It was like a fault in the code. Something was off. It was as though it had been redacted from her original design, forced back behind a barrier that she press against but could never quite break through, no matter how much she screamed and pounded and raked her nails against it until she drew blood. She wasn't herself- and yet she was at the same time, because she knew that something wasn't right.
It was terrifying, how perfectly the remaining pieces felt like they aligned with something in the way that a demigod had looked at her, and dreams that she shouldn't be having.
And yet, after he had rescued her, she was perfectly and unassailably composed- as though, despite being locked in a room designed to hold people infinitely stronger and smarter and more skilled than her, she was in control.
"Let's start off simple. If you could state your full name, for the record?"
Astrid North Strange.
Saffron. Victoria. Astrid Stephenson. The firecracker. Celsius. Fahrenheit.
"Country of origin?"
The United States of America. But I grew up in England- that's where my schools were, that's where I made friends, that's where I got this accent. He thought it would be safer, be harder to find me, for those who would hunt me down and use me whether I consented or not.
Like your agency, for example.
"I'm getting a little déjà-vu here."
"Maybe it's because you're asking the same stupid questions that I'm not going to answer as the last time you kidnapped me," Astrid suggested, staring him down. She had been gazing off to the side - staring through the raised panels of silicon-carbine-vibranium alloy that lined the room, arranged in a honeycomb structure across every inch of the walls and ceiling, broken only by the seams of the door when it opened into the cell- and steadily ignoring the interrogation until that point.
"Okay." Phil Coulson- very not-dead, and very faux-amenable; anyone who thought that he was made of anything less than iron was delusional- replied, lacing his fingers together atop the table between them. Astrid would resent him more, had he not genuinely believed that SHIELD's purpose was protection for those incapable of protecting themselves. For the purity of that conviction, she tolerated him somewhat more readily. "Why did Loki rescue you?"
"I don't know." She answered truthfully.
"Surely you must have some idea. I've seen you work- you tear through lies like they're tissue paper. Even Romanoff's."
Coulson wore the echo of a personable smile, one that was both unassuming and self-assured- but it felt like armour. She didn't blame him; the demigod that was the subject of their discussion had sliced his heart in two.
She would have assured him that Loki had been completely, almost unnervingly sincere in his promise to her that he wouldn't shed blood upon his potential return to Earth, but she doubted how much good it would have done.
"If you are asking me to speculate on the inner workings of his mind, I can't help you," Astrid replied flatly, sinking down in her seat and slouching to one side, crossing her legs beneath the heavy table. "I doubt anybody could. People are complicated to begin with, but I think he actually enjoys being unpredictable."
Coulson gave a half-shrug, expression unchanging. "Still. He must have given you some indication of his motivations during those three days you spent with him."
"That was two years ago."
"Two years and six weeks, actually," he corrected her, mildly.
Astrid ignored this as the immaterial fact that it was. "You can learn everything there is to know about a person in three days, or you can learn absolutely nothing. I think I learned both," she admitted, meeting Coulson's eyes directly. "I don't really understand him any more than you do."
A voice like dark honey murmured through her memory, sinuous as a shadow.
You will, in time. You always do.
"And yet- he blew his cover for you." Coulson said in a light, almost amiable tone that suggested that they should be discussing the matter over coffee. She held Coulson's stare, unflinching. "Thor informed us that Loki died in battle, saving his brother's life."
Astrid paused, the information sinking in, catching the inside of her lower lip between her teeth.
"I can believe that," she eventually said quietly.
"That he would reveal himself as alive, to save you?"
"What? No, no, not that," she said impatiently, her gaze snapping up from where it had drifted. "I have no idea where that came from. No, I can believe that he would give his life for Thor's."
"He's tried to kill him on at least three occasions," Coulson pointed out, glossing over his disbelief.
"Yes, and Loki loves his brother with the same intensity as he tries to convince himself that he hates him," Astrid replied, candid and detached. "That's the truth. It's not neat or pretty, but the truth rarely is."
"Believe me, I know."
"Somehow I doubt that," she muttered, turning away and closing her eyes, resisting the urge to rub her temples. Shadows were clinging at the edges of her mind, and all she wanted to do was lie down, curl in on herself, and sleep.
The low humming within her brain reminded her of a song she recently been directed to- Arsonist's Lullaby. The person who had chosen it for her knew her well, that she would find the title amusing and the song itself oddly soothing- the slow pounding of the beat, like a heart's pulse or resolute footsteps, and gritty thrum of bass strings and rapid piano glissando and muted pain of its chanted lyrics, the harmonies almost a hymn. I knew love's perfect ache. Some would sing and some would scream. All you have is your fire, and the place you need to reach. Don't you ever tame your demons, but always keep them on a leash.
Auguries of Innocence. Hallelujah. And now Arsonist's Lullaby. A lullaby, indeed.
Her father had flawless taste in music, but she missed his voice.
Coulson regrouped. "What do you remember about him?"
Astrid sighed wearily, letting her head tip backwards until she was facing the ceiling. "Can't you just look at the surveillance footage?"
"We would, but, the audio somehow got recorded to a different place on the servers. You may have heard that SHIELD has been experiencing some- administration issues."
She didn't bother to attempt to disguise her contempt, letting it surge to the surface, acrid and ugly and hot enough to cut steel. After discovering that HYDRA had been operating within their ranks for decades, SHIELD had rid themselves of the parasite in one of the most efficient ways possible: by killing the host. The agency's many catalogued secrets and operations, still encased in layers of encryption, had been unloaded onto the internet for anyone who felt so inclined to unlock and access, and SHIELD had promptly been branded a terrorist organisation by most of the world.
Astrid strongly suspected that she could blame SHIELD's fall for everything that had happened to her over the last few days.
Or, more accurately, particularly those events.
No matter how subtle they thought the surveillance had been, she damn well knew that they were watching from the moment she left their custody. And as long as they were, she had known that she couldn't risk- it was that part that enraged her. That part, that was infinitely worse than any of what she had endured in the past few days, needles and bruises and knives and all.
Astrid didn't care whether the orders came from HYDRA or SHIELD, whatever the difference was worth. She would never forgive that.
"We're still hunting it down. For now, all we have are visuals."
Astrid could feel a headache forming, deep behind her brows, behind the bone of the upper orbit. "I told them about that at the time- weren't they listening?"
"Priorities," Coulson said in the verbal equivalent of a half-shrug.
"There was something more important than ensuring a trickster demigod who had already escaped a similar cell once before stayed secure until his brother could return him to their own realm." Astrid, addressing the ceiling expressionlessly, reamed off.
"Look, I don't know if you heard, but I was kind of- dead- at the time," Coulson replied, a little tartly. "It wasn't my call. If we could get back to the matter at hand: Loki. How did he act towards you?"
Astrid forced herself to sit up straight, gesturing aimlessly. "I- he was-"
To expect her to translate Loki into something that they could understand and calculate and mitigate for- she was almost certain that the words for him hadn't been invented yet. The phrase tempest in a teacup came to mind, particularly because the idea of frightening intensity trapped in a porcelain exterior, chaos beautifully contained under terrifying cold serenity, appealed to her- except it was less of a hurricane in crockery and more of a galaxy constructed into flesh and bone like marble and dark blood and eyes that shrieked and lips that poured symphonies and cold fingers that tapped full truth before pouring a little out, voice as cool and soothing as a clear night and mind and smile like a keen knife. He was unstable- hateful and vengeful and brimming with malice even as he took pains to protect her from the barbed tarlike blackness roiling in his throat and chest for reasons she wouldn't pretend she understood- sepulchral, and erudite, intelligent and introspective, bright as the moon and so, so very broken, the pieces of him beautiful and twisted.
- th' innocent tattered flower sweet in its bloom beneath the venomous serpent beneath the rotting flower o'er-ripened-
Astrid refocused on Coulson abruptly, eyes hard as she lifted her head up from where it had been resting on her knuckles of her fist, elbow propped on the arm of her chair. She was annoyed to realise that her eyes were brimming with tears, and that Coulson was looking at her with rising concern.
"You know Hershey's?"
"Hershey's. The American chocolate brand." She blinked, swiping the wetness away. "It's awful. You take the first bite, and everything seems fine, but then slowly- the taste changes in your mouth and takes on this tang- like bile- literally sickening in your mouth. At first you think that you have to be imagining it, because it tasted fine at first, so you swallow it and take a second bite. And it happens again, but you keep going in the hopes that you're wrong, that it's just you, but- eventually you just have to stop. Yet even then, you know you might go back, convinced that the next bite will taste right."
Coulson observed her carefully. "I like Hershey's."
"I'm not apologising for your bad taste," Astrid said brusquely, an eyebrow twitching up briefly. "My point is that was what it was like with him- at first."
"And later?" He pressed.
She exhaled sharply in frustration, slamming herself back in her seat.
"You saw the footage. He was- sweet. Caustic, but- charming. Witty, perceptive- a sense of humour- he made me laugh, talked to me like a person. He was nice to me. I saw Thor's brother," she clarified with a helpless gesticulation. "I saw the person that he so badly wanted to bring home."
Astrid watched Coulson struggle to process the concept.
"You'd be surprised," she answered his unspoken doubts, without any confidence that it registered. As much as she had railed against it at the time, she knew that Loki had been right when he said that no one would believe her- then or now- if she confronted them with the unedited, unabbreviated truth, relayed every detail that Loki had revealed to her in that steel chamber, told them how their villain was made, piece by piece.
If they kept looking for the audio files, they would find it for themselves soon enough.
"So, what did he want from you?"
Astrid sighed. She was so tired. It felt like her body was burning the marrow of her bones as auxiliary fuel. She hadn't felt this exhausted since- before. Since long hours of flesh and bone and sutures and scalpels, long shifts in blue scrubs and a vibrant white haze of patient alarms and operating rooms.
She missed it.
"Conversation," Astrid said dully. "I think. Mostly."
"I know it's not exactly convenient," Astrid bit out, "but it's the truth."
Coulson considered her for a long moment. There was an odd set to his mouth.
"Sounds like he got attached to you."
"That's the logical conclusion. I guess," she said, biting one side of her lower lip again.
He paused- she could almost see the distrust on the surface of his professional mask, like cloudy fingerprints of condensation left upon chilled glass- before closing the slim manila file he had bought in with him. She knew what he was thinking; he may as well have spoken it aloud. Sometimes she wondered at that endless ways that people could lie, and the ways she could pull the truth out of things, when she could bear to without feeling like her mind was about to splinter under the flood of sensory data.
Yet as much as she wanted to correct him, Astrid had neither the time, nor the patience, nor the silver tongue of a demigod to deconstruct whatever scenario they had convinced themselves of and rebuild it with solid truth. The truth being that, she wasn't afraid of being harmed, or of harm befalling others- those who didn't earn it, she added as a mental caveat. She had assumed that Loki's promise had logical limitations, but she was too exhausted to try untangling the question of why the exclusions extended to keeping her safe. But he had made her an oath, and she knew that he would keep it.
It was in how he had uttered her name- like an absolution- no, worse and more confusing than that, like something familiar, even beloved- Astra- and what it could mean. That scared her. Astrid wasn't comfortable with not knowing; she wasn't accustomed to it.
She wanted everything to go away, shut up and leave her alone. She wanted sleep. More than anything, she wanted to go home.
"You'll need to remain in custody for your safety-" Coulson began efficiently on her peripheral awareness.
"Joy." She heard herself say. Astrid had known they had no real intention of keeping close watch on her; SHIELD had bigger problems than her, and dealings with Asgard were more the territory of the Avengers, considering that the Crown Prince had chosen to fight beside them in defence of the Earth.
"- but, to be honest, SHIELD isn't equipped to deal with this right now," he continued, unperturbed. Astrid felt a ripple of amusement that he thought he needed to tell her that. Either that, or he was attempting to build a rapport, subconsciously or otherwise. "We've arranged something else. ETA is twenty minutes."
Astrid snapped back into reality, her eyes narrowed dangerously.
"Exactly what is this arrangement? Where am I going?"
Before SHIELD, before Clint, before STRIKE Team Delta, it would have been literally unthinkable for Natasha to express misgivings about a mission. Unthinkable at first because it was beaten out of her; unthinkable later because she was driven by survival instinct and didn't know any other way to live. Even at SHIELD, it was expected of Black Widow by reputation to be comfortable with everything.
And, as a general rule, she was. At least it seemed that way when compared to her partner, who could follow orders in the same breath as questioning the reasoning behind them and formulating another way to fulfil the mission objective. It was why all of their handlers, save Coulson, could barely stand to work with Clint Barton. They never seemed to grasp that he didn't follow orders from anyone unless they allowed him to ask why or attempt to find a workable alternative- that his loyalty was given sparingly because of its unyielding nature- that he wouldn't blindly follow. Trust for trust, in other words. It was a good system, in Natasha's opinion.
It was probably his influence that had caused her to speak when Fury handed her the assignment.
Project Apollo was just one of many highly classified ventures that Fury created and oversaw within SHIELD, one of many secret weapons and contingency tools. It was fairly well known- or at least speculated- that the director had been toying with a design for a highly advanced lie-detector system for a while. Less well known was that Fury had decided that his own experience, as well as that of any espionage agent or psychological researcher at SHIELD, was not enough; he wanted absolute certainty.
For that purpose, the girl had been tracked down. She wasn't particularly notorious or sought-after in her field, but that wasn't what Fury was interested in: it was rumoured that she saw through any lie, but couldn't tell an untruth convincingly if she had a gun to her head- something that SHIELD quickly found to be true, making her the perfect research subject for the parameters of the APOLLO system.
She hadn't come to SHIELD voluntarily. In fact, as Natasha interpreted from the carefully worded report, it was clear that they had neglected to even ask nicely before taking the nuclear option- to keep the project classified, apparently. Natasha could see the logic in that, but also couldn't help but think that things would have gone far smoother if they had just sent her out to have a civil talk with the girl- she could never quite think of her as a mercenary- and lay out her options. Instead they had stormed her safe-house, thrown her in the back of a van and resorted to threatening her with the removal of the thing she apparently valued most- global anonymity- to force her to cooperate. Even then, she had refused to divulge her real name. Clint had begun calling her firebrand mostly because he thought the pun was funny- the worst that anyone could link her to was a little non-fatal arson- and because she disrupted SHIELD upper management at every available opportunity, causing them a few minor headaches. Which Clint also found funny.
Fury had handed her the assignment personally: watch the girl, operate as her handler, and act as a baseline for APOLLO testing parameters.
Natasha told him, in simple terms, that she didn't like it. The director had given her a look- one that was enough to tell her that she had surprised him, not an easy feat- before dryly commenting that her objections were noted. They both knew that it didn't mean she wouldn't accept it; refusing the assignment would change nothing.
But it left a bad taste in Natasha's mouth. SHIELD was supposed to be voluntary- that's what made it different, that its people believed in the cause and chose to be a part of it.
Then SHIELD's core turned out to be a shell, and Natasha had to reconsider everything- reconstruct, again, her reality.
Just over nine weeks after Natasha had poured SHIELD's secrets out into the swift-moving currents of the internet, the girl was snatched by a group with interests in acquiring scavenged SHIELD tech and blueprints, selling off anything of worth on the black market. Fury informed Natasha of the development through a secure line, linking her to the live video feed of where the girl was being held, advising her to observe only and record anything the girl let slip- and, although he was in no position to give her orders, as a general rule Nick Fury had good reasons for whatever manipulation or ruthlessness he employed on any given day.
Natasha said the words again anyway: I'm not comfortable with this. She had been making the case that she could trace the feed, pinpoint the location and extract the girl with few complications when someone else entered the frame, and sent her carefully formulated argument scattering.
They had been reliably informed that said someone else was lying dead in the wastes of a barren alien world, having taken a sword to the chest to save his brother.
Instead, she watched the demigod calmly slaughter anyone who stood in his path, spiriting the still bleeding girl out of the concrete box where they had been holding her with cool focus and purpose.
Fury told her that she should brief the other Avengers, and said that he would see to the rest. She didn't doubt him; he wouldn't let a known potential threat fester.
Twenty-three hours later, Natasha and Clint were at a secure location- a Stark property, a few hours outside the city- waiting for someone to drop off the girl. She was, by all accounts, perfectly fine, and had been found waiting for them at her last known location in Toronto. The place hastily chosen for their purposes was both the best and worst choice, tactically speaking: two storeys of sprawling oceanfront luxury, surrounded by private land, corded with technology and security systems that outstripped the Pentagon's protocols thrice over, allowing the other Avengers to monitor their status from the Tower. It wasn't demigod-proof, but it was a decent temporary solution while the team gathered their bearings. And, considering the girl's recent ordeals, Natasha had silently agreed with Tony when, as he was offering up the house for use, he had implied that not only would it was a good a place to keep the girl out sight for a while, away from the city, but that the location would be a good place for her to recuperate.
It's a great place to get some R and R, which is- useful, you know, in this case. Can't imagine that kid's exactly in the best shape right now, so, were his exact words. Tony had afforded them the same tone he used when he was talking about nothing just to hold the attention of the room, or when he was pretending to talk about nothing. Just be careful of the Hamptonite gossips- I'm pretty sure they bite. The house is nice, though. Good views, close to the beach. Practically glass-walled the place, even the bedrooms.
Beneath the smokescreen of bravado, it was evident that the deceptively ever-observant Stark had noted the girl's discomfort in windowless rooms. Natasha gave him credit for that.
Natasha waited out on the sunshine-soaked decking, the afternoon breeze catching at her, the salt shaving off the surface of sea and relentless rush of the ocean thick in the air; the sliding glass doors behind her were flung open, and she could hear Clint moving around in the kitchen. Reclined on a deck chair, she was halfway through a semi-decent New York Times bestseller when she picked up the distant rushing drone of a light aircraft's engine in the distance. There was a shift in the air a few minutes later, turbines kicking up a miniature hurricane, and she got to her feet.
A light aircraft turned smoothly from its path overhead and descended, landing stabilisers deployed, but it barely touched down. A figure jumped from the mouth of the lowered ramp, landing heavily, a duffel bag and blonde braid swinging over her shoulder. The small jet rose again, drifting upwards, landing gear folding back into the streamlined body before rocketing away, the sun flashing off its dark panels.
Apparently, they still had allies. Or, perhaps more accurately, Maria Hill knew when and where to call in favours.
Natasha came down the steps to meet her, book in one hand, fingers flexing against the paperback cover. Despite assurances, Natasha had decided to reserve judgment on the girl's state until she saw her- she remembered the footage. She had picked deep-tissue bruises out of the grainy feed, counted the gouges scored down her arms, blood spilling from her lip and down her temple, into her eyes. Natasha also suspected a few broken bones or fractures- those would be unpleasant to set and wrap, if no one had bothered to do so, but she and Clint had dealt with worse with less in the past- and the girl was tough. Her strides were stubbornly long as she approached the deck steps, wisps of blonde curling loose from her braid and drifting across her wan face in the wind, like brushstrokes.
"Nat," she said, relief thick in her voice. She halted at the bottom of the steps, shrugging off her heavy bag- Natasha caught the straps, taking it from her easily. There were dark crescents smudged beneath her eyes and the looseness of exhaustion in her limbs, but the girl didn't look too bad, all things considered.
"Hey," Natasha said, a faint smile curving her mouth. "Not exactly the best way to meet again, huh? You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm-" The girl gave a strange short laugh, more like an exhalation, lifting her arms slightly and baring herself indicatively. "I'm fine."
Natasha let her gaze dart down.
Both arms, exposed by the short sleeves of her shirt, should have been wrapped in medical gauze, bandaging where the shackles had bitten and raked, sealing over broken skin where stitches and butterfly bandages and new tissue were holding her together. Yet there were no dressings, and no fresh wounds- not even evidence of healing or scarring.
There wasn't a mark on her- not even a fleck of blood.
With a slight crease between her brows, Natasha met her eyes.
"Did Loki do this?" She had to ask, carefully taking the girl's wrist, her touch cool and light- just in case it was some new medical technology she hadn't come across yet, or an unnerving illusion.
"I think so," the girl replied evenly, head dropping to examine where her flesh had been torn open and apparently knitted back together within a matter of hours. "I woke up like this, afterwards. It doesn't even hurt."
Natasha's mind spun in place in a blur of magic and aliens and things that the skies had spat out that she had compartmentalised and left others to sift through- and the girl who had been caught in the middle.
A sick feeling settled in her stomach, as though she had swallowed a mouthful of gasoline.
Natasha took the girl's hand. The swirl of thoughts drained away, leaving her expression as bare and hard as ceramic.
"He's not going to hurt you," Natasha said firmly, snow and iron behind it.
"I know," she replied calmly.
With a tilt of her head and encouraging tug on her wrist, Natasha led her up the stairs and up to the large porch. She nudged her through the glass doors, and the girl wandered ahead into one of the rooms beyond as Natasha placed her luggage and the book aside.
The interior was modern and minimalistic, open-plan and flooded with natural light, decorated and furnished in a carefully neutral colour scheme of sheer white, silver and pale beige-gold. Truthfully, it lacked something of the Avengers Tower and its smooth slate floors and curved glass partitions, everything streamlined and tailor-made to suit its inhabitants, a hollow carved out for each of them to slip into like a comfortable niche. While each member of the team had an entire floor of the skyscraper to themselves, generously outfitted with every amenity and luxury that Tony could think of- plus the large communal kitchen, bar and living room in what was once the penthouse suite, and several laboratories, gyms and training areas- the house felt infinitely emptier, despite its size. Like any self-respecting Stark property, it wasn't lacking in space, possessing five bedrooms, three of which had an ensuite, but it was at least compact enough to ensure that Natasha and Clint could perform efficient security sweeps.
"Nice place," the girl commented blandly, most likely sensing all of this as soon as she stepped inside. "Stark's?"
"Yep. Comes complete with the usual security systems, all of which runs on a private power grid," Natasha said lightly, leading the way through the solarium towards the kitchen. "There's also a fully stocked bar, pantry, and icebox- big ones, since we're a pretty long drive from the closest convenience store. No noisy neighbours though."
"Ah." She glanced over her shoulder, following Natasha with a smile like a fault line. "I see. That's good."
Neither of them noticed her shadow falling out of sync with her, fluttering like fabric caught in the breeze.
The shadow slid back into place, settling like the feathers of a raven, silent and watchful.
Clint was wearing a grin and a dusting of flour in addition to the distressed t-shirt and board shorts he had donned that morning, whisking a thick, pale gold batter, the mixing bowl held against his ribs by one strong arm. The silver-grey granite countertops were covered in various breakfast foodstuffs, arranged in some nebulous sequential order known only to Clint, bacon and butter, flour and fruit, cereal and cream. There was a stack of clean plates in one corner, a skillet heating on the stovetop, and a mixing station set up on the large island unit at the centre of the kitchen, clear glass bowls and jugs dusted and smeared with the remnants of measured ingredients. Behind him was one of the smaller lounges, the sofas arranged around a low glass coffee table and in front of a large plasma screen mounted on the wall, displaying the paused screen of the latest first-person shooter.
"Great timing. You hungry?"
"I honestly can't tell anymore," the girl admitted, tangling her fingers together behind her back as she circled around and approached the round-edged island counter. "What are you making?"
"I was thinking chocolate chip pancakes."
"Never had them before. Are they good?"
Clint gave a look of almost melodramatic horror, his whisk stilling. "What? What the heck do you eat for breakfast on Sundays? Warmed cardboard?"
"Pastries, usually," the girl answered, expressionless.
He placed the bowl of batter on the counter in front of them with a hollow heavy clunk, grabbing a packet of milk chocolate chips and tearing it open, dumping the contents into the bowl. "We're gonna have to fix this. You need to know how good this is."
Natasha rolled her eyes, but there wasn't much real scorn in it. Pancakes were one of the first things that Clint had fed her during those first weeks at SHIELD, after he had brought her in, full of calories and emitting a rich, comforting smell that the elegant empty Stark property could use.
"So, pancakes- and we've got orange juice, blueberry juice, milk, iced coffee, regular coffee, a couple of different types of tea- do you want bacon?"
"I never really liked it."
"Then it wasn't done properly," Clint replied decisively as he ladled a scoop of pancake batter from the bowl, pouring it expertly into the skillet. "I'll stick some on the griddle in a second- you have to try it when it's been done right, even if you don't eat it all. I was thinking eggs, too-"
"I can do those," Natasha offered, despite already knowing the reaction it would provoke.
"Stay out of my kitchen, Tasha," he said briskly, wiping his hands on a dishcloth and tossing it over his shoulder.
Natasha hoisted herself up onto a barstool facing the stove by the heels of her palms, unoffended. "Isn't it technically Tony's kitchen?"
"Like he's ever cooked anything in here," Clint snorted derisively. "It takes him three hours to make an omelette, and that's when he doesn't get distracted trying to tune up the toaster."
"I don't know. His steaks are pretty good."
Clint paused, and grudgingly conceded, "Okay, yeah, the man can grill a mean strip steak."
The girl listened to them talk without comment, watching them through heavy lashes, distant and barely more substantial than a shadow.
Clint served her first by silent agreement. Setting the first stack of piping-hot pancakes in front of her, thick and generously pitted with pockets of melting chocolate, he coaxed her with a gentle hand on her shoulder to just eat whatever she could. Her forkfuls were tentative at first- her stomach having shrunken during her captivity- but her body quickly reacted to being fed, her bites becoming more voracious as her appetite reawakened. Clint efficiently refilled her plate as soon as she had cleaned it, while Natasha encouraged her to take it slow, knowing that she would only end up vomiting otherwise. As it was, Natasha considered it a minor miracle that what Clint loaded onto the girl's plate didn't prove so rich that her stomach rejected it.
Still, the girl ended up consuming two plates of pancakes, one drizzled with maple syrup and the other with melted butter, an extra round of crisp griddled bacon, a shallow bowlful of chocolate and almond muesli drowned in frosty full-fat milk, two tall tumblers of orange juice- and also managed a bowlful of natural yoghurt, oats and chopped strawberries as she went into the attached lounge to watch Clint mow down enemy NPCs.
"You doing any better, firebrand?" Clint asked, thumbs darting over the controls as he took down another enemy unit. "Thought it might help to get some good food inside you."
"Yeah, thank you," the girl said, curling up on the loveseat that was arranged perpendicular to the longer sofa where Clint was seated, directly in front of the screen. "I didn't realise how hungry I was. And you were right about the bacon. Although, I don't think I'll be eating it again unless you've cooked it."
"Please don't say that to his face," Natasha called from the kitchen, wiping down the counters. "You'll give him ideas."
"My cooking's awesome, Tasha, she's allowed to appreciate it," Clint threw over his shoulder with a grin, before cursing under his breath as the edges of the screen were spattered with luminous red.
The girl watched Clint wage digital war idly, her head drifting to one side. "You're spoiling me," she pointed out idly, scooping up another mouthful of yoghurt haphazardly, sinking further back into the cushions; Natasha fully expected her to fall asleep within the hour.
"What's your point, kiddo?"
"No point, per se," the girl said through the spoon still stuffed in her mouth, teeth clicking against the stainless steel. "Just- you know, making an observation. So you know that I know. It's good to be on the same page."
Clint smirked, amused by her drowsy ramblings, but Natasha didn't like the knowing double edge of her words.
Despite the constant sprays of loud gunfire and shouted orders thrumming through the surround-sound speakers, the girl was out within thirty-two minutes. She didn't even stir when Natasha eased the empty bowl away from her.
"She's not naïve, Clint," Natasha directed towards her partner softly as he came back downstairs. The large flannel comforter he had retrieved was thrown over his arm and trailing on the hardwood floor, his footsteps deliberately soundless despite the fact that the girl was sleeping like the dead. "She has to know the kind of danger that she's in."
So why is she so calm? She's not faking it- she's not capable.
It's like she's just- waiting.
"We're going to protect her," he replied firmly, walking back into the lounge and opening up the blanket, carefully tucking it up around the girl, drawing it up over her shoulder- the double-bed breadth of it almost engulfed her. It was a warm day, particularly for so early into summer, but the ground floor could get cold in the evenings without direct sunlight and with the wind-chill coming off the ocean. "She knows that too."
"Our only real defence here is obscurity," she argued, heading into the kitchen and rinsing the bowl in the sink, an odd chill settling across her shoulders like a dusting of shaved ice. "If he finds out where she is, and he comes after her, it's not going to be enough. We're not going to be enough."
Clint moved into the kitchen to join her, leaning back against the counter beside her, close enough that Natasha could feel the furnace-heat rolling off his bared arms, folded across his chest. "I don't like it either," he said quietly, "but this is the best place for her right now. We're dealing with the God of Mischief and Trickery and Chaos and Magic and Lies and hell knows what else. Our best plan is to get creative and hide her in the last place he would look."
In the short but significant pause, both of them wordlessly resolved not to comment on how Clint had come to observe and take note of Loki's tendencies.
"Besides, we both know that the kid would hate being locked up again, even for her own safety," he continued with a slight shrug. "At least this way she has room to breathe, and the calmer she is right now, the better. In the meantime, the others are back at the Tower working on hunting him down, and either we'll be moving her in a few days, or we'll be getting some backup. Personally, I'm hoping for the second option just for a chance to see Hulk smash his pretty face up again."
Natasha exhaled sharply. "I just don't want this blowing up in our faces. Why he would let her go?" She murmured, letting the hot water overflow in the bowl as her hands fell still. "It doesn't make sense."
"Well, like Bruce said- brain like a bag full of cats. Maybe it's a weird code of honour, releasing her first then recapturing her fairly, giving her a token chance to escape. Or maybe he just felt like he owed her, and we're wrong in thinking he's coming back for her. Maybe rescuing her was just paying some kind of debt. Like you said, doesn't make sense to rescue her, drop her off in her apartment, wait for us to pick her up then take her again."
It sounded a little too much like wishful thinking, much as Natasha hoped that he was right.
The girl should have never been involved. It was another drop of red in the ledger she needed to balance with black.
Clint glanced over at the sofa where the girl was sound asleep, thoughtful. "You think she'll sleep through 'til the morning?"
"Probably. You're not thinking of waking her up?"
"Nah, of course not. I'll carry her up to her room later. Let the kid rest- she needs it."
Natasha snapped off the tap. "Yeah."
The shadows cast by the sofa fluttered.
Turning fluid, they swooped up, lengthening, sculpting into a familiar profile, slipping across the cushions. Brow creasing, Astrid stirred, shoulder blades flexing as she tensed, brows contracting nails scraping and leaving dark streaks in the suede.
The shadow stilled, and began to retreat- but, making a soft noise of protest at the back of her throat, she reached out, snagging and lacing her fingers with those of the shadow. The tension in her melted, and she sank back into a contented sleep, drawing their interlocked hands into her.
The shadow hesitated, and settled into place, carefully folding the comforter up over her shoulder.
A/N: Clarification: this directly follows a story posted under the Thor section. You don't necessarily have to have read it to understand this work, and considering that it is 32K words and three chapters (and, uh, does drag), here's a short summary.
tl;dr: After the Battle of New York, an 'agent' is sent to monitor Loki until he leaves for Asgard. She bears an uncanny resemblance to someone who was close to Loki, and is supposed to have died centuries ago, but appears human and has no apparent memory of Loki or Asgard. However, she does have the unnatural ability to see through lies, and realises that Loki was being used as a pawn by Thanos against his will. It's implied in the conclusion that she is the Goddess of Fidelity, Astrid, whose birth name is Sigyn.