When Natasha entered Loki's room, he was still awake, his sharp features outlined by the flickering candle. He turned to look at her, but said nothing.
Though she had no idea now, Natasha would remember this night for the rest of her life. Years from now, she would think about the staccato beat of wind-whipped rain against the window, the dancing shadows giving shape and form to the otherwise plain walls, the soft glow of city light beyond the heavy curtains. She would recall the exact angle that the wingback chair faced the bed, and the deep ochre color of the candlesticks that spilled wax as they burned.
It was silent for a long moment until she spoke, in a voice so quiet Loki barely heard her. "I used to be a bad person."
A gust of wind rattled the window. "Tell me." The request was more an orison than a demand, softer than last time he'd asked for details about her life. He wanted to tread lightly, in order to not scare her away; above all else, he wanted for her to stay.
Natasha resumed her place in the chair at his bedside. "You know the story."
"Not all of it, I think."
"It's a long story."
"What else have we to do?"
Sleep, she thought immediately, but knew that she couldn't close her eyes until this was off her chest. Whatever this was, this nameless feeling that gnawed at every wall she'd built to protect herself, every atom of good sense she possessed. "I got caught up with the Russian mafia about fifteen years ago, back in '94. That set of skills I have? It's a deadly set, and it made me quite valuable to them."
"How did they win your allegiance?"
She wanted to rage, to break the window with her fist. "It's not important."
Loki saw her face and knew her pain at once. "Of course it is," he said quietly, surprised at the warmth of his own voice. "One of your scientists... he says that for every action, there is an equal and opposing reaction."
"What does Newton have to do with this?"
"What is done to us creates us," he replied in a small voice. "I have learned this."
She folded her arms. "What was done to you?"
Loki's instinct was to refuse, to make her reveal her secrets first, but he had a feeling she wouldn't make herself vulnerable to him without a show of faith on his part.
"I have told no one the entire story," Loki began, "no one except you and Thor. You know my story already. You heard it when you found out about Thanos."
"The torture," Natasha said, "on the other planet."
"What are these Frost Giants?" she asked.
"On my world- on Asgard- stories are told of great monsters who inhabit the realm of Jotunheim. Frost Giants. They are no myth; Odin, the Allfather, defeated them long ago when they tried to invade your world. That is when the Tesseract was given to Earth. As a way to call for aid."
"That's where the stories come from," Natasha whispered. "They're all real?"
"Your historians were right on some accounts and wrong on others. But, yes. The stories are real enough."
"They are universally hated by Asgardians, and feared by young children. Bedtime stories on my realm are filled with tales of brave Asgardian warriors fighting the evil Frost Giants. Parents get children to mind by threatening to send them to Jotunheim. To us, they are monsters. The embodiment of all that is evil. Our mortal enemies. I, too, grew up with these stories; I grew up repulsed by the blue, scarred skin of the Frost Giants, grew up hating them for taking my father's eye in battle. I was a proud Aesir; they were my enemies.
"Then I found out, after centuries of trying to prove my worth to my father, to show him I was a worthy son, that I was not an Aesir at all. I was a Frost Giant, taken from Jotunheim as an infant, where I had been left to die by my real father. I had been changed in appearance by Odin's magic. One father did not want me; the other only wanted me for a political pawn. He did not see a helpless baby in need of a family, but a means of achieving peace between our realms. He had planned to use me for his own gain when I was older. But never did he want me just as a son; never did he see me as a possible king of Asgard; never," he said, voice breaking, "did he love me as he loved Thor."
Natasha felt a pang of sympathy, and her knuckles turned white as she gripped the arm of the chair. "I would have put a bullet through his heart."
"I snapped," he admitted, thinking back on his actions with regret. "I went to Jotunheim and found my real father: their king. And I told him I would bring him to Asgard to kill Odin. My plan was to get revenge on the father who had abandoned me to die, and to prove my loyalty and worthiness to Odin. I would arrive just as Laufey was about to deliver the fatal blow, and I would kill him, saving Odin. Then, to further show my loyalty to Asgard, and to prove that I could be a good king, I would destroy Jotunheim once and for all, ridding the universe of our mortal enemies. I was able to do all of this but destroy Jotunheim. Thor stopped me. And when he destroyed the Bifrost, I fell. But he caught me. And Odin caught him. And as I tried to tell Odin that it was for him, that it was for all of Asgard, he looked at me the same way he'd looked at me since I was a boy: with disappointment. I knew at that moment I would never please him. I could never do anything that would make him treat me like a real son. There was no honor left for me on Asgard, no life worth living, and so I let go. I wanted so badly to just die; instead, I fell into the void. You know the rest."
Natasha was not good with words of comfort or reassurance; she could think of no response other than to begin her own story. "The Soviet Union had collapsed." Outside, rain pounded against the windows, and she felt like she was back in Stalingrad, back in her second-floor flat with stacks of books and the familiar smells of home cooking. She had no idea why the words were spilling from her lips, but now that they'd started, she couldn't stop. "I never knew my parents. From almost birth, I was trained as a spy. When the old ways were made obsolete by Gorbachev, we were turned loose. We lost our leader in the coup. Some agents were killed; some committed suicide. A few of us survived. Most of them went underground, joined the militants who wanted to overthrow Gorbachev's reforms. They tried to recruit me, but I just wanted a normal life." She tried to hide the longing in her voice. "So I faked credentials and an American passport, and got a job teaching English at a university in Stalingrad under the name Nancy Rushman.
"Another professor, Anya, began the same year as I did. She taught French." She paused. "I had never fallen in love with anyone in my whole life; it wasn't a risk I could afford to take. But now... now that I was going to live a normal life..." Staring into the shadows, she trailed off.
"One day, Anya didn't come home. I didn't think anything of it at first; sometimes she stayed late at her office. But when it got past ten, I began to worry. When I called her, she didn't answer. An hour later, I got a call from her kidnappers. It was the Underground. They had an ultimatum: join them, or they'd kill Anya.
"I remember it was pouring outside when they came to get me. I swore my allegiance in the car; they gave me a job to do to test my loyalty. They put a .22 in my hand and dropped me off in front of the U.S. Embassy. Yeltsin's reforms scared them; Gorbachev had changed things, and now Yeltsin was changing them even more. At that time, the President of the United States and Yeltsin were in negotiations to detarget strategic nuclear missiles. The message was clear: Russia and the U.S. were on their way to becoming friends. The militant Communists wanted to take action. They wanted to send a message by taking out the United States ambassador. That was my job. I had no desire to become part of this, but they had Anya. So I did it.
"After the job was done, they brought me down to the trainyard and opened up a boxcar. I expected Anya to be there; but I did not expect her to greet me so coolly, with not a single scratch or bruise on her, no duct tape over her mouth, nothing to restrain her hands. She said-" Up until this point, her voice hadn't faltered; but she had told no one about this, not even Clint, and the overwhelming torrent of emotion threatened her trademark nonchalance. "She said 'Welcome home, Natasha.'" The words began to tumble over one another. "Two years of lies. I allowed myself to fall in love, and it was all a ruse to gain my allegiance. She was never in love with me; she was an agent, on a mission to make me vulnerable so that they could win my services." A tear slipped down her cheek. "And I fell for it."
Loki wished he could comfort her. "So that is why you say love is for children."
"It is," she said, voice tough again. "But you know that, Loki. You see, I know what it's like to be 'loved' for nothing but political gain, just as you do."
"How did you escape them?"
"Fought my way out."
He glanced down at the bed. "Anya?"
Her expression was unreadable. "Dead."
"I am sorry."
"I don't need your pity."
"I did not imply that you did, and I do not offer pity. I offer sympathy. As you say, we have suffered through similar trials."
She bit back an abrupt laugh. "You have lived thousands of years; you have lived through horrors of your own, that's true. I'm not trying to minimize what you've been through. And you're right, as much as I hate to admit it, we are alike in some respects. But you have no idea of the horrors I have suffered in my eighty-three years of life. I know what torture is."
Loki stared at her. "Eighty-three? I was under the impression human lifespans were much shorter. Is eighty-three not considered old age?"
Natasha managed a half-smile at Loki's shock. "It is. But, then again, I'm not like most humans."
"What are you?"
"I'm-" She hesitated, her eyes locked to his green ones, wide and full of innocent curiosity, and the innocence scared her. "I'm tired. And you should get some rest," she said abruptly, getting to her feet. "I'll be in the next room."
As Loki watched her go, he realized Thanos had known him far too well; he wouldn't let Natasha be tortured as he had been. What she'd gone through had scarred her, and he knew there were worse stories lurking in the depths, stifled by years of hardening herself against any sort of affection. He knew how tough it was to hide, to put up a wall and a facade and pretend everything was all right. He knew how frustrating it was to carry a burden that big. Without Thor, I couldn't have done it; the one person I could talk to. My brother. And Natasha, of course, had Clint. But neither of them had shared everything with their respective confidants. Maybe we need each other, Loki thought recklessly. Maybe I can tell her what I cannot tell Thor. Maybe she can tell me what she cannot tell Barton.
There were many people he would still feed to the dogs; Thanos could have the damn Earth if that's what he wanted. But he would not allow harm to come to Thor, Jane, or Natasha. Weak as he was, he'd die before letting Thanos touch them.
After speaking with his father, Thor went to Loki's chambers and found them guarded by two of his mother's oldest friends. As he was about to speak to them, Sif came into the passage. "Thor," she said warmly, embracing him. "I did not know if you would return."
He gestured to the guards. "What is this?"
"Since you fled with Loki, things have been- well, tense would be quite an understatement." She nodded to the guards. "Your mother and father are at war with each other. Frigga is standing up for her sons. She is afraid that Odin will have Loki's chambers destroyed, so she has enlisted her two old friends to stand guard."
Thor turned to them. "Let us in."
The guard on the left twitched uncomfortably. "We are under strict orders from the Queen to only let you pass."
"Then, clearly, she wanted me to come here, and I am telling you it is all right for Sif- the future queen of this realm- to accompany me." Thor's voice was authoritative. "You will let us both in."
"So you have heard." Sif glanced tentatively over at Thor as the guards reluctantly parted to let them pass.
Thor shrugged. "I am not the young fool I once was. The crown is not my goal; I only wish for Asgard to be safe. You will be a good queen: of this I am sure."
"And I am sure that I will not rule as well as you would," she argued. "When I ascend the throne I will abdicate in your favor."
"No. It is your birthright."
"Sif, I must return to Midgard. They- and we- are facing an enemy that has rarely tasted defeat, and it is likely that I shall dine in Valhalla before long. So I want you here. I need the peace of mind- I need to know that the throne of Asgard will be inherited by a worthy successor. I do not doubt your ability to rule, and neither should you. You will make a fine queen."
For a moment, Sif stayed quiet, watching Thor move about the room, collecting items of his brother's. Her eyes landed on the sketch of herself, ripped into pieces on the floor. "It's because of him, isn't it?" Not quite accusatory, not quite neutral, her voice had an edge that she couldn't hide. "This threat you are facing?"
"We are facing," he corrected, fingers running over the leather of Loki's sketchbook, his eyes unable to meet Sif's. "Yes," he replied at last. "It is."
"Is he still alive?" The question felt crass, but she wanted to know.
Thor nodded. "For a while, I was not sure- I did not know if he would survive. I think, if I had not taken healing stones to Midgard-" He broke off, not wanting to imagine what may have transpired.
Sif turned away and sat on the couch, the same couch on which Thor had spent so many nights as a boy. "I thought about going to the square," she admitted. "More than once. If I had not been a warrior of the realm... I thought it indecorous for a noblewoman and a warrior to mete out justice in such a manner."
"You will be a better ruler than my father, then," Thor said sourly.
"Did you not hear me? I was ready to go to the square and-"
"But you didn't," Thor pressed, sitting opposite her. "And that is what makes you different from my father. It is the one thing Loki and I have agreed upon, and the one thing we have been right about: my father is an old man and a fool. There is wisdom there, yes, and he has fought many glorious battles to protect this realm. But he has also been self-serving, reckless, and violent. His wisdom is dwarfed by his temper. Have you not noticed, over the past couple of centuries, his slow decline?"
"Brynhild Sigurdsdatter would have been executed had your mother not interceded," Sif mused.
"And her father was."
"And you think Loki did not deserve his punishment."
Thor turned a violent glare on Sif. "Of course not. Not to that extent."
"Damn you!" She flew to her feet. "You are so blinded by love for your brother that you cannot see him for what he truly is. He is not the harmless prankster we once knew, Thor. He is sadistic, and violent, and a menace! There is no saving him now, not after all he's done. You need to come to terms with that!"
"He is changing! Even now, on Midgard. I see it in his eyes. He regrets what he has done. I do not forgive his actions, but neither am I so consumed with hatred that I will refuse to give him a second chance."
"You think he's changing?" Her tone was incredulous. "Your brother? Loki Silver-tongue? Loki, God of Lies? Do you honestly think he is telling you the truth? You need to think long and hard about what he has told you, Thor, because all he does is lie and manipulate to get his way. He is plotting something, as he always is. He knows your weakness; he knows how badly you want him to be your good little brother again. So he will exploit that weakness for his benefit. Have you forgotten how his mind works?"
Though they were ugly, Sif's words contained some truth. Deflated, he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, letting the sun warm his face. "Perhaps he is lying to me," he managed eventually. "But I cannot give up on him."
She hit the wall. "Why are you so insistent upon being his savior?"
"Because I am responsible for what he is right now!" roared Thor, voice echoing off the smooth stone walls. "I am the reason my brother is what he is today! I am to blame! And if I can help him, if I can guide him back to the right path, then perhaps I have not entirely failed my little brother!"
"What do you mean you are responsible?"
Thor felt like a helpless animal, backed into a corner with no way out. "This path of destruction started long ago," he said quietly, "when I asked him to follow me to Jotunheim."
"We all went," Sif began, but Thor shook his head.
"No. Much earlier. When we were boys."
She waited for him to continue.
"I will not reveal the things which he wishes to keep secret," Thor told her, "but I will tell you this: he suffered greatly at the hands of the Frost Giants. Then, all these years later, to find out he is what he has always so hated... it has torn him apart." He paused. "And I am the one who brought him there."
"Thor..." She sat down again. "I am sorry. I did not know."
He shook his head. "I must leave." He gathered a few more books and slipped them into a satchel. "I trust you will have the strength to stand against Odin should he continue to lead this kingdom astray."