Natasha spun gracefully in circles, balancing on the tips of her toes, framed by the doorway like a painting in motion. She danced just as she fought: clearly, effortlessly, with precision. Unlike the cold detachment with which she dispatched her enemies, however, she danced with eyes closed, passion in every movement of her limbs, every stretch of her muscles, the way she parted her lips to breathe.
It was at this point she noticed she wasn't alone. Her eyes flew open and landed right on Loki.
"So," he said, as she descended from her tiptoes, "the spider can dance."
Strolling over to the barre to grab a towel, she smiled to herself. "I have talents other than killing and mind games, you know," she told him, wiping the sweat from her face. "My body can do more than wring the life out of another human."
He smiled. "What form of dance is this?"
"It's called ballet. Very common on Earth."
"It's similar to a dance we have back home on Asgard. My uncle Vili made all of his students learn it. We were to be well-educated in not only war and science, but in the arts. Where yours seems to be a solitary dance, though, ours requires a partner."
Natasha arched an eyebrow, her lips curved into a slightly amused smile. "Teach me."
He took her hand and led her to the center of the floor. "The basis: a rødspette." He placed his heels together and bent at the knees, easing into a graceful bow with his back held straight.
"We call that a plié," she said, repeating his action, arms outstretched.
"From here, the unnslippe; your feet change position in the air, and we come back down to the original position, though our feet are different." He demonstrated.
"Similar to an échappé sauté."
"Then a series of turns; then the porsjon glede, which literally means "leap of joy" in my language."
Natasha echoed his jump with grace.
"And now we put it together. Join hands with me."
They stood opposite each other, and Natasha laced her fingers with his. For a moment, Loki was rendered motionless; Natasha's hands were warm, and steady, and firm.
"Now," Loki instructed, "rødspette, or... what did you call it? Plié?"
She smiled. "Yes."
They began to dance, moving slowly through the steps until Natasha learned to connect them fluidly. They moved together as one, something Natasha had never felt in any pas de deux no matter how skilled her partner; it was brilliant of the Asgardians, she thought privately, to never ask the dancers to part their hands, to truly have them learn to move as one being.
As Natasha's palms pressed against his, Loki felt better than he had in years. Here, in the vacuum of this dance studio, he was engulfed by hope: bursting, beautiful, overwhelming hope. He held Natasha's hands carefully, afraid to frighten her again; he never wanted this moment to end, wanted to dance forever, alone with her, away from the burden of the universe.
They soared across the dance floor, feet lighter than air, easily escaping gravity for porsjon glede after porsjon glede.
"Leap of joy," she said softly, never taking her hands from his.
"It is the court dance," Loki replied, "one we use for celebration."
Her eyes met his. "It's a beautiful dance."
"And you have learned it so quickly. It took me a long time to master it. Where did you learn to dance?"
"In Russia, when I was young. We each got to pick one skill to learn; I chose ballet. It was- and always has been- my escape."
"And young, for you, was quite some time ago."
She sighed and let go of his hands, turning away.
"Natasha." He risked setting a hand on her shoulder. "I only meant that you have been dancing for a long time. Please, I do not wish to make you feel uncomfortable."
"You know how Steve is a super soldier?" Natasha asked, turning back around to face him. "He wasn't the first."
"You mean, you...?" He trailed off, leaving his question unfinished.
"Maybe I should start at the beginning." She sat down on the padded bench and began to untie her toe shoes. "I was born in 1929 in Stalingrad... what's now called Volgograd. I don't remember anything about my parents. I was told they died in a house fire, and that it was irrelevant."
She tossed one shoe to the ground. "From almost birth, I was raised in the Red Room facility in Stalingrad. It was a facility where they raised spies: blindly loyal spies. My mother was Mother Russia, and my father the director of the facility. Ivan Petrovitch." She pronounced the name with such rancor that Loki thought she might strike. "In 1936, when I was six years old, Petrovitch introduced me to Dr. Erskine and Dr. Ivchenko, a German and a Russian who had been working together on a serum designed to give a human being superhuman abilities. They were way ahead of Avery, MacLeod, and McCarty; they had already deciphered the human genome. And they had a serum: one that would rewrite the DNA of the person they gave it to. They needed test subjects, and Petrovitch needed peak spies. So I was chosen." She unwrapped the tape from her feet, not looking up at him. "Did Clint tell you about Steve? What he went through during his transformation?"
"Well, the process had been refined by the time it got to him. I was in that coffin of a machine for two days, just a little girl, not allowed to eat or sleep, no one to hold my hand through all the excruciating pain. So when I tell you that I know what torture feels like..."
Instinctively, he reached for her hands; she didn't pull away. "If they were still alive," he said sincerely, "I would hunt them down and make them suffer."
Despite herself, she gave a soft laugh. "That may be the nicest thing anyone's said to me." Stripping off the last of the tape, she continued. "Anyway, Erskine and Ivchenko both failed and succeeded. I wasn't the only guinea pig. My friends were subjected to this too... the other orphans at the facility. Some died during the process... too much for their small bodies to take. Seven of us survived it. Five died within the first year. Their bodies rejected the serum, wouldn't keep the changes, things like that... they suffered so much before the end came. The last one, my best friend Grigor, died when we were fourteen." Her voice became hard. "He tried to kill Petrovitch."
"Brave of him," Loki said, unsure of how else to respond.
Natasha shut her eyes. After such a long time of blocking it from her memory, the day was suddenly crystal-clear in her mind. 1943; World War II. Petrovitch had come under pressure from the government to release his agents into the war, but Petrovitch and his staff believed that they were still too young, that they shouldn't be in a war zone until they were sixteen. They've been in the field, argued the government, but Petrovitch stood firm.
They aren't ready for combat situations until they are just a few years older.
Those years at the Red Room were the worst; under the stressed Petrovitch's iron fist, their training became even more rigorous. And Natasha could no longer escape the director.
Since she was a child, Petrovitch had taken a liking to her. As a child, it was a good thing; she got extra sweets now and then, and was given the easiest chores. But as she grew into a young woman, his displays of affection changed to something more sinister.
That day in 1943, Grigor found her crying in the kitchen, her knees gathered to her chest, and he vowed revenge. We are stronger than all of them, he'd said. It's nothing to kill him.
You know what he'll do, she responded, jaw set. He'll kill you, and he'll take it out on me. Please, Grigor.
But he didn't listen, and left the kitchen with a butcher knife in hand.
The last time Natasha saw him, he was being subjected to brutal medieval tortures at the hands of Petrovitch, on display before the entire group of orphans as an example. This is what a traitor deserves! Petrovitch's words still rang in her ears, his face bright with glee, his hands red with Grigor's blood. This is how a traitor dies!
That night, as the wolves tore her best friend's body apart, Petrovitch tore hers apart.
"Yes," she said quietly. "Very brave."
"So you're the last one."
"I stopped aging at twenty-five. I heal three times as fast as other humans. I'm immune to disease and illness. I can dodge a bullet at point blank range. I have nearly endless strength and stamina. On the other hand, it takes a hell of a lot to get me drunk." She offered a half-hearted smile. "But never mind that. You came looking for me, and I'm sure it wasn't to teach me an Asgardian dance."
Loki allowed her to put up the wall. He knew she needed her emotional defenses. "Fury's helicopter should be landing- well, now. It's time to make our last plans."
Natasha nodded. "All right, then. Let's go."
When they entered the lounge area, Fury and Coulson were already there, just settling in to seats. Bruce came in right behind them, looking very relaxed.
"You missed all the fun," Natasha told him. "We could have used you."
"Sounds like you handled everything just fine," Bruce replied, easing into an armchair. "And it helps to lock myself away from the world every so often. I know there's no danger of becoming the- the other guy- at a Vipassana retreat."
"Own it, Bruce," Natasha called, joining Loki on the couch, neglecting to tell him what she thought of his meditation retreats.
"The Hulk," he finally said, after her stare wore him down.
"That's better. Hey, where's Hill?"
"Holding down the fort and dealing with the aftermath of Brand's little vigilante raid," Fury told her, folding his leather coat over the side of his chair and turning to Loki. "Word is, Thanos is coming."
"Yes. But-" He exchanged a glance with Thor.
"Loki and I refuse to let him come here," Thor declared.
Fury laughed. "And how are you gonna stop him? Most powerful being in the known universe, and you're just planning to hold up a stop sign, or what?"
Loki and Thor exchanged a glance. "I'm going back to Asgard," Loki responded. "He is after me, not your world. And I refuse to let this planet suffer any more for my wrongdoing."
Thor nodded. "The princes of Asgard have caused enough damage here."
Fury gave Loki a long, appraising look. "I want to know what we have for weapons."
"Did you not hear me? We are-"
"I heard you. Do you think we're just going to sit back and watch the fate of our universe be decided? There's much more at stake here than Earth. We're coming with you." He turned back to the rest of the group. "Or at least I am. Been a long time since I was in a good fight. Anyone else?"
Natasha looked straight back at her boss. "Absolutely."
Clint looked over at Loki. "Maybe we'll get to save each other's lives a few more times."
"Yeah. Yes, I'll come." Bruce nodded.
"I never thought I'd travel in space," Steve said, "but why not?"
"How could you get by without me?" Tony raised an eyebrow. "You need me, of course I'm coming."
Fury nodded. "All right. Weapons. Coulson?"
Coulson tossed a folder on the table. "Prototypes. We have what we had on the Helicarrier; there's been no time to make any real improvements. We've produced a couple more, but nothing in final stages."
Loki nodded at one of the photos Fury was looking at: it was the weapon modeled on the Destroyer. "Well, that one seemed to do enough." He made eye contact with Coulson, who chuckled.
"Stark, what about you?"
"Like I said, Fury, these stay with me. I let you use them, they don't become SHIELD property. And if I find you're trying to replicate my designs, I'll destroy your facility myself."
Fury met his hard stare. "Fair enough. Show me what you've got."
Tony opened the case which sat on the floor. "Repulsors in a handheld weapon. Clean and paralyzing; or lethal, if you want it to be."
He eyed it with some skepticism. "Like a Star Trek phaser? Set to stun?"
"Well," he said, leaning back with his glass of Scotch, "they were an advanced people. An armada of intelligent peacekeepers. I'm still working, by the way."
Fury chose to ignore him. "Thor, you obviously have some good weapons on Asgard. That hammer you've got-"
"Not every Asgardian carries a war-hammer made from the metal of Uru."
Loki leaned forward with a sudden revelation. "But Ixchelians do. And they have pledged an alliance with Asgard."
"Ixchel," Thor whispered, remembering. "Loki, you're right. Emperor Chauhan would honor his promise," Thor mused, "and their army is a strong one. If I explained the threat to our universe..."
"Excuse me, who are we talking about?" Fury wanted to know.
Thor and Loki exchanged a glance. "There is a world called Ixchel," Thor explained. "Some time ago, one of their rebels made an attempt on our king's life. When we went to investigate, we discovered that there was a usurper on the throne. We restored the rightful emperor, and he pledged to fight at Asgard's side if ever we needed them."
"Do you think Odin will give you the Rúmdyr?" Loki wondered.
"I fear not, even though it is for the good of us all. He will be furious that we are bringing the fight to Asgard."
Loki set a hand on his brother's shoulder. "It is time for you to take your rightful place as king. Odin has ruled for far too long. He is beginning to lose sight of what is important. His mind is clouded with anger and revenge; he cannot see what is at stake."
Thor smiled. "My wise brother. It may not be time for another to take the throne yet; that belongs to the Allfather until he chooses to pass the honor. And it will not go to me. For my treason against him, he has disinherited me."
"What? Because of me..."
"Do not blame yourself, Loki. It was I who made that choice. He has appointed Sif in my place. She will be a fine queen."
"Yes," he agreed, "she will. Still, Thor, I am sorry."
"Do not be. Choosing between the crown and my brother's life was an easy thing to do."
"Well, that's a damn fine promise this Chauhan has made," came Fury's response, "but will he come when he finds out what we're fighting?"
"Emperor Chauhan is an honorable man," Thor said, "and his nephew means to marry the future queen of Asgard. Our alliance has strengthened. He will come. If I can find a way to speak to him."
The mention of Sif's possible betrothal stirred no feeling within Loki's gut; he could only think of how to send Thor to Ixchel without the Rúmdyr. "There is a way to Ixchel," he told Thor. "Another bridge. It's in Vili's book."
Thor's eyes were bright blue. "Show me."