Remembrance of Things Past
Sequel to The Animal Inside and The Dog Days are Over
Part One: Postcards from the Edge
First, there was Shanghai. Then Taipei, Hanoi, and Bangkok.
Loki sent two postcards from Katmandu and then a series of increasingly contemplative ones from his journey across Russia. Each came with its own musing on whether one really escapes the influence of one's motherland, no matter how far and long one may travel.
Natasha especially wanted to shred those, not wishing to reflect on Russia or her past, but Fury had already threatened to court-martial her for letting Loki go in the first place so there was no way he would allow her to destroy the only evidence they possessed about his activities on Earth. So Natasha had filed them with the rest, willing herself to look away from the pictures of the snowy vistas and onion-domed cathedrals.
The last one she had received was from Berlin, over a week ago. On the back, always in the same absurdly refined hand, was a note in favor of Nietzsche and the Übermensch, which caused Clint to rant for an hour about how this was proof of Loki's evil intentions and how he wished that Fury would give him permission to shoot a few arrows into his evil ass. Fury simply gritted his teeth and pointed to the door, muttering the same lines about diplomatic immunity and negotiations with Asgard and how Clint needed to develop some more patience or Fury would kick some patience into his impatient, arrow-loving ass.
Natasha hated these moments, knowing that she was to blame for Clint's anger and Fury's extra stress as he tried to tightrope between the wishes of the Council, who called for either death or imprisonment for Loki, and Asgard's request for clemency, for a stay of execution.
Natasha hated these moments, so she ran. Everyday in the mornings and sometimes in the evenings, Natasha ran the streets of New York. After a few weeks she knew the back-alleys and by-ways nearly as well as Steve. Sometimes he joined her, ever the peacemaker, trying to repair the strain in relations between her and Clint.
The relations between Clint and Thor were even more tenuous as Thor had expressed gratitude for Natasha's mercy, which prompted Clint to call him a fucking idiot for believing that maniacs could change. The ensuing fight had lasted fifteen minutes and required Natasha, Steve, Fury, and six other S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives to end.
From Tony, she received a snippy email saying that the next time Loki destroyed a major American city that she could pay the bill.
From Bruce, she received nothing, for which she was grateful.
Now, on a crisp October afternoon, she stops outside her building, winded from her run. She peers through the glass doors at the front desk, wondering if there will be another postcard waiting for her. She hopes not, but expects so. She never intended to become Loki's personal parole officer. She only wanted to pass the buck, so to speak, to give him the same chance that she had received and then send him on his way, simply eyeing him, discretely, from a distance in case of a reversal of intentions.
She eyes the desk now and draws in another deep breath. Maybe she could move. She's heard that Canada's nice. Or Kentucky. There are horses in Kentucky, and she's never ridden a horse before. She grimaces at the image and then heads inside. Loki would somehow know she had moved and would start sending her postcards to her new location. Tony would probably tell it to him out of spite.
Instead of a postcard, though, there's a message from Fury telling her to get to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters immediately. Immediately is both capitalized and underlined. Fury's rage conveyed through punctuation and lettering. She glances at the concierge, who winces at her in sympathy, and she wonders what Loki has done now.
When Natasha enters the indicated conference room, the tension emanating from the assembled group of individuals makes her hesitate. On one side of the table sits Fury, flanked by Clint and Maria Hill. Steve sits awkwardly in the middle of the table, directly opposite Natasha. At the other end sits Thor and two men she's never seen before. One is tall with dark skin and amber eyes that peer at Natasha as though he can see inside her, down to blood and bone. The other has white hair and a white beard that gleam under the fluorescent lights and one eye covered by a sleek gold patch.
She stares at him until Fury points to the chair opposite Steve. "Sit, Agent Romanov."
Natasha sits in the indicated chair, and she receives the same wince of sympathy from Steve as she had from her concierge.
Fury turns to Maria, who stands and opens the file folder before her. Then she says, "Ever since Agent Romanov alerted us to Loki's return to this planet, we've been following his progress around the world. This hasn't been exceedingly difficult, given his consistent mailings to Agent Romanov. One thing that has puzzled us these past few months, though, is how Loki has been funding his trek around the world."
Maria pauses and flicks to the next page. She had also questioned Natasha's sanity upon her return from Tokyo, albeit privately to Fury rather than loudly and in the middle of the mess hall like Clint.
"We now know how Loki has been traveling from place to place," Maria continues. "Agent Barton has discovered that he's been skimming money from the accounts of various businessmen and other organizations with ties to the criminal world."
Clint snorts and leans back in his chair. "Apparently he thinks he's fucking Robin Hood."
"Thank you, Agent Barton," Fury says, and his hands clench so tightly around his pen that Natasha can hear it crack from the pressure.
Maria continues, unfazed. "Why this has become an issue now is that Loki's latest target is Victor von Doom."
Natasha straightens in her chair and looks at Fury.
Steve frowns and says, "Who's Victor von Doom?"
Natasha answers. "He's the ruler of Latveria. It's a small country in Eastern Europe. Doom is a scientist, a mystic—"
"He's a goddamn supervillain," Clint interjects, leaning over the table now to stare at Thor. "And now he's about to be best buds with your brother, the last goddamn supervillain who tried to take over the world."
"Or," Thor says, straining to maintain calm, "he will persecute Loki for his crime and execute him."
"In any case," Steve says before Clint can retort, "this is bad, right?" He looks at Fury. "What do you recommend we do?"
The pen in Fury's hands cracks further. "We do nothing, Captain Rogers. Agent Romanov will locate Loki's whereabouts and convince him to come in so that he can return to Asgard." The pen creaks again. "Where he should have stayed to begin with."
A moment of silence occurs, and then Clint starts yelling at Fury and Thor, and Thor starts yelling at Fury and Clint, and Steve starts talking over all of them, trying to restore order. Maria sits down and pinches the bridge of her nose while Fury glares at Natasha. Natasha stays silent and finds her gaze drawn to the other two silent witnesses to this farce: Odin and the man with the amber eyes. She finds both of them looking at her.
A beat passes and then Odin stands and says quietly, "I wish to speak to Ms. Romanov alone."
A hush descends on the table, a testament to Odin's power. He and Fury stare at each other for a moment, and then Fury nods, rises stiffly, and leaves the room. Maria quickly follows. Steve glances once from Natasha to Odin and then circles around the table, squeezing her shoulder before he leaves the room. Clint stares at the three Asgardians in disgust and then stomps from the room, leaving Natasha alone with Thor, Odin, and the man with the amber eyes.
Odin turns to Thor and says, "Please, son, could you also grant us a moment of privacy?"
Thor hesitates, looking from Natasha to his father, but then he, too, yields to the request. As the door shuts behind him, Natasha looks at the two men remaining.
Odin smiles at her from his place at the head of the table. He indicates the man with the amber eyes and says, "This is Heimdall, Agent Romanov, the guardian of Asgard. He has consented to accompany me on this mission, being the most informed on the matter."
Natasha nods at Heimdall, who returns the gesture.
Odin continues. "My original intention had been to speak privately with you about this. Heimdall had seen Loki's error before Agent Barton discovered it for himself and—"
"Wait." Natasha looks at Heimdall and frowns. "You saw Loki's mistake?"
"I am the guardian of Asgard," he says simply. "I see all."
At Natasha's continued frown, Odin explains. "Heimdall can see and hear across the stars. He is our guard, observing threats to Asgard's safety. Lately, however—"
"I watch Loki," Heimdall says. "And you."
Natasha narrows her eyes. "Excuse me?"
"Please, Ms. Romanov," Odin says, striding around the table to stand before her. "Do not be angry. It was at my request. When my son declared his judgment wish to be a visit to you, I desired to know why. Loki is unlike Thor; he regards most Midgardians as inferior. Yet he sought you out and allowed you later to find him. He revealed the truth about his circumstance to you, and the truth and Loki have long been enemies. He has chosen you as worthy, and I wanted to know why. I apologize at the intrusion of your privacy."
Natasha stays silent. She looks at Heimdall and then stands, crossing to the opposite end of the room. She should be beyond surprise now. She's seen the Hulk and Thor with her own eyes; she knows of the Fantastic Four and Spiderman, of mutants and the X-Men. She knows about magic and immortality, yet the ability of this one man to see across all of space and watch her without her knowledge sends a chill down her spine.
She glances down at the cracked pen that Fury left behind. She understands a little better his newfound stress and frustration.
Turning back to Odin, she says, "So what did you discover? Why do you think he's chosen me?"
Odin briefly considers her question; then he says, "You bested Loki at that which he prides himself above all: deception. As he revealed to you, only his mother and I accomplished the same feat. With this, you gained his curiosity and his respect. Now… now he sees affinities between you and he. Your past is also stained with blood. Your origin—"
"So what do you want me to do?" Natasha asks. "Manipulate him like I did in the Carrier?"
Odin smiles sadly. "No. Loki has endured enough deception. I ask you to help him. Thor and I cannot. He will not allow us, yet he is my son and I must help him find peace. If this Doom is all you say, I fear he may sway Loki from the path that he has now chosen, and I will lose my son forever. Or he may kill him, and the same fate will occur."
Odin finishes his plea and waits for her reply. Natasha turns away. A dull ache has formed again over her left eye again. To be thrust back into direct contact with Loki, to fall once more down the rabbit hole, is unappealing, especially when Doom could—literally—be on the other side.
"There is good in him, Ms. Romanov," Odin says. "He simply needs a guide to help him find his way. Guidance, I believe, we've all required at one point in our lives."
A memory of an arrow being lowered, of Clint extending to her the hand that would lead her from Russia and her past to the life she leads now surfaces in her mind. Without him, she would be dead. Without Clint, Natasha would be nothing.
Regrettably, not all of us are so fortunate as you.
…you, with your smitten Agent Barton and his chance.
"All right," Natasha says as she turns toward Odin again. "I'll talk to Loki. I'll try to help him. But if you really want this to work, you're going to have to do something that I know absolutely nobody will like."
Odin waits for her to finish, but Natasha thinks he already knows what she's going to say and has considered the possibility.
"You're going to have to give Loki back his powers."
"You said what?" Fury growls at her ten minutes later. Natasha had left the conference room to give Odin time to reflect on her advice. As soon as she stepped from the room, Fury had demanded a debrief.
Natasha does not flinch beneath the glare. "Loki isn't Thor. Taking away his power hasn't made him embrace Odin and see the error of his ways. It's just made him angrier at everything. Especially since he's been subjected to the same fate as Thor. And this powerlessness denies him what Odin wants most of all— for Loki to choose. He can't choose to atone and to return to Asgard if his choice is thrust upon him."
Frustration and disbelief twist Fury's face. "This is your plan? To give the man who destroyed a good chunk of New York not too long ago back his ability to wreck such destruction again so that you can talk him out of teaming up with Victor von Doom? This is what you want?"
"No," Natasha says through gritted teeth. "This is not what I want. I don't want to have Loki sending me postcards and causing you and Clint to glare at me every time I enter a room. I don't want to feel pity for the man who killed Phil. But I do." Natasha stops and sinks down into the chair before Fury's desk. The dull ache above her eye has expanded to span her entire forehead. All she wants is some quiet and some space to run. She wants to do her job and not open the door to Loki and her past.
She looks at Fury and sees exhaustion on his face as well. He leans back in his chair and says, "The Council wants you to go and find Loki and kill him before he can make a choice."
Natasha holds her breath. "And you?"
"I don't want to piss off the god-king of Asgard, but I also don't want to give Loki the opportunity to return to form. Especially if Odin takes your advice."
"So the wait-and-see approach," Natasha says.
Fury nods. "For now. Loki is contacting you for a reason. And you seem to counter his ability to deceive better than most. So we'll try Odin's way for now."
"Until Loki chooses," she says.
Fury nods again. He hands her the file folder at the top of the thick stack on his desk. "Before you arrived, I asked Thor for an update on Loki. If he knew where he was. He didn't, but Heimdall did." Fury grimaces. "Apparently, he can see across all of space. That'll make me sleep a lot better tonight."
Natasha opens the file folder and sees a picture of a city in water, gleaming in the bright sunlight.
She is going to Venice.
End Part One