AN: More information from Thor: The Dark World about Asgardian customs is used in this chapter. Also, some adult language as well as angst and sexual content ahead. You have been warned. Or intrigued. ;D
Remembrance of Things Past
Part Forty-Seven: Talk That Talk
The scar cuts a thin pink line across Natasha's throat, the only remnant of her fight against Doom. It was a stark contrast to the last time Clint had sat beside her bed, waiting for her to wake after they had rescued her from Latveria. Then she had been bloodied and beaten and tied to a dozen different machines to help her heal. Now she lies in a small golden bed in a small golden room in a huge golden palace on a broken golden world with nothing but the scar on her throat to show how she almost died.
And then, of course, he had been alone in his vigil.
Now he isn't.
Clint shifts in his chair and glances at Loki. In the two days since the Carrier crashed, every time Clint paused from searching the ship for the living and the dead, every time he had come here to check on Natasha, to remind himself why he had let the ship crash and all those people to die, Loki had been here, his healing wounds the only marker of the passage of time, Loki always in the same chair, in the same position, with the same look on his face.
The look, more than anything the past few days, unnerves Clint. He knows it's not because of Natasha dying. She'll live, Loki knows that she'll live, so he can't fear her dying, at least not now. But maybe it's because she will live that he's afraid. Natasha won't like the cost for saving her; Clint's already bracing for the anger that he knows she'll direct his way. But he doubts that Loki will care.
This is what I do. This is who I am.
It must be done and no one else can, or will, do so.
No, Loki won't fear her anger. He did what he thought was right, and he has Clint and his request for aid to justify him. So it's something else. Clint settles further into his chair and runs through the past few days. Doom was still alive, locked away somewhere in the palace, but Clint doubts that Loki fears him escaping; if Asgard had restraints strong enough to contain Loki after New York, Doom would be secure and Natasha would be safe. Hell, if Doom did find a way to break out, Clint figures Natasha would kill him before he got two steps from whatever dank cell he currently resided in. So not Doom.
Maybe Frigga? Clint doesn't know what occurred between she and Loki before Loki brought her to the storage unit, but he's seen glimpses of their interaction the past few days and he knows that something went down, Frigga too stiff and Loki too surly for nothing to have happened. But surliness negates fear. You only risk such sullenness with those you trust, not those you fear, so the fear is not due to Frigga.
Clint looks at Loki again. A hazy memory bursts through as he stares from his time underground with Loki. Something had made Loki afraid then, whatever had driven him, beyond his own ambitions, to acquire the Tesseract. Whatever lay on the other side of the portal. Clint remembers how Loki had looked when he burst through the portal, his skin soaked with sweat, hollowed out and shadowed and just plain wrong.
Freedom is life's great lie.
Once you accept that, in your heart, you will know peace.
Loki had failed in his mission. On Earth, perhaps, he had been safe, the Tesseract in Asgard, the portal for his allies presumably powerless. But did he expect retribution now that he was on Asgard? Clint frowns at the possibility. The Chitauri were formidable, but in large numbers only and even then killable, especially by a planet full of gods.
So something else then. Something worse.
"Are we safe?" Clint asks, the question sharper than he intended.
Loki jerks, torn from his contemplations. His eyes dart to Clint, and the surprise in them confirm for Clint his fear.
"Why do you ask?" Loki asks, looking away.
He was already cagey too. Shit. Shit.Clint twists in the chair and leans over the armrest, gaining a superior line of sight on Loki. "You're sweating fear. Literally. So something's wrong."
Loki tenses. He looks at Natasha a long moment before drawing in a deep breath.
"Don't," Clint says, waving a hand. "Don't even try to lie. You're afraid. I can see it."
Loki glares at him. Clint prepares for the offensive, for the passive aggressive dismissal. He doesn't have to wait long.
"You see only yourself," Loki says, his body a coiled spring in the chair.
Clint raises a brow. "Is that so?"
Loki nods. "Truthfully, Barton, have you even seen the girl since we crashed?"
I love you.
Worst timing ever. I know.
Clint looks away, his jaw tight. So Loki had been awake, he had heard Darcy. Clint thought that he had, and the thought had frozen him and Darcy too when it had come to her. Breathing in, he forces himself to look at Loki again, to unclench his jaw, to remain calm. "Stop deflecting and answer my question."
Loki smirks. "Why? You haven't answered mine."
The urge to dive over the bed and punch Loki in the face rises within Clint at the sight of that fucking smirk; he grips the chair and tries his best to restrain it. Natasha would answer the question. She'd carve off a piece of her soul and lay it bare before Loki to get the information she wanted. Clint looks at her now and tries to do the same. "No, I haven't seen Darcy. I've been a bit busy, you see, trying to deal with the mess we made. Unlike you."
Loki shrugs. "Why should I? I care not for S.H.I.E.L.D. or Asgard."
"But you do for Natasha. So I ask again, are we safe?"
"We, Barton? And who is we?" Loki shifts in his seat, mimicking Clint's posture. He pitches his voice low, a silken murmur of sharpened steel. "Is it Natasha and I? You and I? Or might it be you and Natasha?"
Why him? Why not me?
Clint glares at Loki, yet the glare elicits only another smile. "Tell me, Barton, how must young Darcy feel revealing her heart to you only to have you run and to run to Natasha?"
This is why I stay by the door.
I'm not going to be your distraction.
Clint swallows down the rage clogging his throat. He forces himself to look at Loki, to see the cause for the words and not simply their effects. "I know what you're doing," he says through gritted teeth. "But pissing me off isn't going to stop me from asking."
"You said yourself," Clint barrels on, raising his voice though he knows he shouldn't, not here, "that you work better with me… with me on your side, so stop being a prick and tell me what the fuck is going on."
Remarkably, Loki shuts up, his mouth closing with a snap. He sinks down into his chair, his eyes once more on Natasha. The brittle mask is gone, the live nerve exposed beneath. Clint waits, skilled enough in interrogation to know the power of silence. Loki works his jaw, contemplating, and then he meets Clint's eyes. He draws in a breath and Clint feels explanation imminent, but then the door opens and a healer walks in and Loki pushes up abruptly from the chair.
Clint follows as he heads for the door. They enter a long hall, glimmering and hushed, each room housing the wounded and dying. "No," Clint hisses, close on Loki's heels. "You're not going to walk away. You can't. You know that she'll wake up, and when she does, she'll take one look at you and she'll know just like I did. And what are you going to do then? Are you going to lie to her too, or will you run, just like you're running now?"
Loki stops, halfway down the hall. He breathes hard, his head tilted to the side to peer over his shoulder at Clint. Clint stops a few feet away and waits again, thinking his words have hit their mark, but instead the air cracks, green light flashes, and Loki teleports away.
The boats stretch from one end of the harbor to the other, hundreds in a row, for both the Aesir and Midgardian dead. Thor knows his decision to proffer boats for the fallen members of S.H.I.E.L.D. stirred controversy in the realm, many in Asgard viewing those from Midgard as inferior and thus unworthy of so sacred a custom. Others simply blamed S.H.I.E.L.D. for the destruction of their city. But Thor will not disrespect his friends from Earth by denying their comrades a burial. And he will not allow his world to do so either.
Should I have spoken false about our prior contentions with the Frost Giants?
No, but you're the king, aren't you? You couldn't have changed the view after that?
He glances into the boats as he passes by. A few already contain items for the dead. Others remain empty, yet none will he allow to pass from this world without some token, whether gathered from the palace or the fallen Carrier. All who died deserve tribute for their sacrifice, be they soldier or seamstress, baker or king.
Swallowing at the thought, Thor peers down at the helmet in his hands. So imposing in his youth, inspiring both him and Loki in their designs for their own armor; it's polished now to a high shine, yet the gleam cannot hide the scrapes and scars from many a battle. Odin had endured for thousands of years, and Asgard had endured along with him, yet within days of Thor ascending to the throne, two hundred of his people had died and his city had burned and crumbled.
Asgard is under your protection now. Yet I do not fear for its future.
I know the realm will be safe.
Was that a fool's dream or a genuine sign of faith? Thor swallows again and tries to clamp down on the doubt brewing within him. Doubt ability accomplished nothing. He must lead. He must guide the realm; he must heal the realm. There was no one else.
Ahead, Thor spies his father's boat; Heimdall stands beside, waiting for him, staring down at the armor that lies inside. Thor had placed Gungnir in the palace vault. Odin had intended for the spear to pass to Loki when he died, at least before he had, before Loki fell and laid siege to the Earth. Thor with Mjolnir, Loki with Gungnir, ruling Asgard with might and magic, with heart and mind. It was a pleasing image, one Thor, too, had cherished. But he lacks the hope now to believe in its fruition.
It is not I that holds you.
"How is the Queen?" Heimdall asks as Thor stops before the boat.
"Sustaining. She grieves for Father and for Asgard." He pauses, shifting the helmet from hand to hand. The idea that had occupied his thoughts much the past two days takes possession again, yet he hesitates to voice the idea, to give it reality.
Heimdall, though, notices the hesitation. "You feel there is something else occupying her thoughts?"
"Yes." He pauses and looks at Heimdall. Then he plows ahead. "Has she spoken to you of her concerns?"
The question catches Heimdall off guard. "The Queen does not hold me in such confidence."
"She does, as do I." Thor feels the helmet heavy in his hands. He glances at it and his throat tightens, the tide of grief washing in once more. "As did my father."
Heimdall follows his gaze. "You are not responsible for his death."
"Nor for what occurred here."
Thor looks up. His hands tighten on the helmet. "I am—"
"King. Yes. You are. But this does not mean that every attack on the realm derives from you and your failure. A King cannot protect against all foes."
"Your father did not see the truth of this scheme either. Nor did I, and I am the guardian of the realm. If fault should lay with anyone here, it should lay with me."
Thor shakes his head. "Were it not for you, more from S.H.I.E.L.D. would have perished and by our own hand. The realm owes you much, Heimdall." He peers down at the helmet in his hands, at the boat before him, at those stretched from end to end beside the harbor. So many dead, and Thor powerless to stop it. Swallowing hard, he says, "Perhaps you should be King."
The ferocity of the refusal stuns Thor. He looks up at Heimdall. As he does, Heimdall moves closer. His expression is as fierce as the dissent in his voice. "Doubt yourself, if you will. But do not doubt your father. He spoke truth to you before he died. The realm is safe in your hands. This does not mean that Asgard will never suffer war or death. Both will occur, and have occurred, but neither will blight our world, not for long, not with you as our King." He pauses, and in the pause, the stoicism of the Guardian flickers and Thor sees instead the man he had idolized as a boy, the older brother of Sif, the one who had helped train him and Sif and Loki in their youth, who had let them shadow him in the Bifrost and make as though they aided him in his watch. Heimdall regards him another moment and then he says, his voice a soft murmur above the lap of the harbor, "I have watched you grow from a brash boy to a prideful youth to the man you are today, one who has cast aside arrogance for compassion and ferocity for reflection. There is no one better suited to lead Asgard. Odin felt this, the same as I. So doubt yourself if you must, but I am proud to call you my King."
The show of faith overwhelms Thor. His hands clench around the helmet and he looks away, the hot prick of tears in his eyes. "Thank you."
Heimdall places a hand on his arm. "Do not thank me. Just attempt to believe, if not for me, then for your comrades. They believe in you. Sif believes in you. She may have forsaken Asgard, but she has not forsaken you. And neither has the Queen."
I do not doubt you.
You are not Asgard.
The memory surfaces, he and Loki and Sif in the tavern on Earth, the revelation from Loki then so long sought and yet so fleeting.
You are a fool if you believe that Asgard will ever change.
You don't trust your brother to tell you the truth?
It is not I that holds you.
Frustration rears inside Thor and dissolves the gratitude at Heimdall and his faith. Leaning down, he places the helmet atop Odin's armor. "Not all share your faith."
"No," Heimdall concedes as they turn from the boat. "Yet is—"
"What news from Jotunheim?"
Heimdall quiets at the question. Thor feels his gaze upon him, heavy with concern, yet he does not accede, having no wish to converse about Loki. "Have you searched the world?"
Heimdall looks away, his jaw tight. The man vanishes and the Guardian returns, stiff and formal. "Yes. All is quiet. Yet the world has not completed its revolution. There are parts I have yet to see."
They pass from the harbor to the path leading to the palace. Doom had claimed that Jotunheim had not forgotten the assault from the Bifrost, yet would the Frost Giants dare attack the realm, even with Odin gone? Their strength had waned over the centuries, their world a shadow of what legend once claimed it to be. Their offenses leaned more toward deception and stealth now, the attempted theft of the Casket, the attempted assassination of Odin, though Thor knows that those had been influenced by Loki. Perhaps they had learned from him and used another to attain their desires, lying low while Doom wrought their destruction instead. Or perhaps Jotunheim plotted nothing, perhaps Doom had lied, perhaps he had placed that world before a raging, vengeful Asgard for distraction or ruin or some other reason. Thor needed to know. He could not wait, not with Asgard in disarray, yet Jotunheim revolved too slowly, especially if war lay in its shadow.
He contemplates the matter, watching his people rush by, some with baskets and bags in their hands, others with bowed heads. "I should go," Thor says after another moment. At Heimdall's look, he clarifies. "To Jotunheim."
Thor stops and turns to Heimdall, who halts beside him. "Either Doom spoke truly or he lied. If he lied, then someone else informed him about Loki and Farbauti and for some purpose. Likely wicked. If this is so, Jotunheim must be informed for they may be targeted as well."
"And if he spoke truly? If the Frost Giants move in war against us?"
"If he spoke truly, we must act, but I will not bring war to the realm if I can stop it." He pauses and draws in a breath, giving voice finally to his thoughts. "Yet I cannot stop it from here."
I believe we should open the borders of Asgard more. Perhaps if we had…
Tales of you run rampant throughout the galaxy. Tales of your arrogance. Your war-mongering.
No, but you're the king, aren't you? You couldn't have changed the view after that?
Heimdall stares at Thor. For a moment, Thor thinks he's going to oppose the plan, but instead he glances off to the side and narrows his eyes.
"I understand your concern," Heimdall says, looking back at him, his face once more composed. "But question Doom again. Try at least to confirm the truth or the lie before you go."
"How?" Thor asks. "If he lied to me with the threat of death before him, he will again. Physical intimidation will glean nothing."
"And it was not physical intimidation that undid Loki when he strove to conquer Midgard."
Thor stares at Heimdall, his brows drawn together, and then clarity dawns.
And that is what you do best, isn't it? Hostile interrogation?
Isn't that why Fury allowed you to stay?
Thor shakes his head. "No. I cannot ask Natasha. She is not—"
"—the only one."
Another moment and then another burst of clarity.
Aren't you supposed to be the best?
I am. But who do you think taught me?
"The Winter Soldier?" Thor asks, raising a brow.
Heimdall nods. "Sif revealed that he is once more himself. Or that he is striving to be. You requesting his aid may benefit him as much as Asgard."
Thor ponders the possibility. The Captain had mentioned much of the same in their discussions the past few days, yet his relief at the return of his friend had been tempered by anxiety at his absence since the crash. In that time, he had seen as little of the Winter Soldier as Thor had seen of Loki. Thor understood why Loki avoided him, too many ghosts made prominent by their return to Asgard, yet the reason for such an action from the Winter Soldier eluded Thor. And worried him too. Yet Heimdall would not propose a plan that would harm Asgard, and Sif would not vouch for James Barnes if she did not deem him worthy.
Thor turns and resumes their walk back to the palace. "I will consult with the Captain. And then I shall ask him. But if he declines—"
"He will not."
Thor glances at Heimdall. "You are certain?"
Once more Heimdall looks away, this time in the direction of the Bifrost. He is quiet a moment, as though he listened to something that Thor could not hear, and then he says, his voice again soft, "I have faith."
James wanders, lost in Asgard. The fact that he stands on an alien planet and that that fact isn't the strangest part of his life right now is undoubtedly the strangest part of his incredibly long and incredibly strange life. His past bubbles within him as he walks, the soldier and the Soldier and the orphan and the lover and death and death and death and death, but he tries to focus on the buildings and the streets instead.
He tries to keep down the scream that strives to burst forth and consume him.
There is no peace for men such as us.
Stopping, James leans against a column and closes his eyes. His metal arm clinks against the gold, and James flinches, moving it, holding it away from his body. He remembers being the Soldier, he remembers accepting the arm, the appendage nothing more than a tool for him to use, and it is, he knows that it is, but he can't look at it or touch it or become aware of its existence without wanting to puke. The arm killed people. He killed people. Not Nazis. Not soldiers. People. And not to protect others. For money. For power. For revenge.
So you're just a pawn?
They say kill, and you do?
He did. He had. For nearly seventy years he had been in Soviet custody. How many missions had they sent him on? How many people has he killed?
—a mindless machine—
—a mindless beast—
"Are you ill?"
James opens his eyes, a gasp in his throat. The young boy from a few days before stands a couple feet away, his gaze bright and locked on James. James swallows down the gasp and tries to process the question. After a moment, he shakes his head. He expects the kid to leave then, his curiosity sated, but the kid stays where he stands, his eyes still on James.
James shifts against the column. He can't remember the last time that he talked to a kid. Or a person. With Natasha, they had rarely talked, nothing much to say, their lives what they were. He took comfort in her presence and he thought she did in his.
You love her.
You love her.
"Are you certain?" the kid asks, inching closer.
"Yes," James says, the word harsher than he intended. He licks his lips and breathes in, striving for casual, for normal. "Do you, uh, do you need something? Are you lost?"
The kid shakes his head. Then his eyes drop down to the metal arm, and James understands. "Do all Midgardians look as you?"
Of course, only for a moment. "What?"
In Midgardian tongues—
The kid takes a few steps closer. "Those from your realm. Do they also possess limbs of such material, like you and the red man?"
James eases away from the column and away from the kid. "I, uh… The red man?"
He has a red star on his arm from a Red Room. Red for blood. Red for Russia. Blood and Russia and Natalia and Steve and the Good Old US of A, White, and Blue.
Let's hear it for Captain America!
"He means Tony."
James opens his eyes, unaware that he had closed them. Steve stands a few feet away, a crease in his brow as he stares at James. They hadn't seen each other much the past two days, Steve focused on the fallen ship, having to with Hill gone. James understands, he'd even welcomed it, what could he say to Steve, what can he say, he can't be Bucky, but maybe he is, he doesn't know. The crease deepens as James stays silent. He wipes a hand across his mouth and tries to smile, he tries to swallow and breathe in and be normal, but normal exists beyond his capacity now.
You're just trying to figure out a way to kill us all, aren't you?
Steve turns to the kid and kneels down before him. "What's your name?"
Steve repeats the name, once to himself, a trick to remember for later. Then he smiles and says, "It's nice to meet you, Nali. I'm Steve. This is James. And the red man is Tony. And to answer your question, some people on Midgard have arms and legs like James. But Tony's different. He was wearing a suit, like armor."
Nali nods, his small face serious and thoughtful. "Yet I saw him fly."
"You did. It's a special suit."
"Special. Like Mjolnir?"
James watches a smile break out across Steve's face. "Not quite like that."
The kid opens his mouth to ask another question, but Steve stands then and says, "I'm sorry, Nali, but we have to go. We're supposed to talk to Heimdall right now."
At the mention of Heimdall, the kid's eyes widen. He looks past James and takes a step toward him before moving back, nearly vibrating with excitement. James turns to see the cause, and his mouth falls open at the sight of the long colored bridge pulsing with color (was it glass? was it real? was it alive?), the golden dome (a telescope? an observatory?). The stars beyond gleam, bright and immense even in the light of day.
James hears Steve chuckle, presumably at him. Then he says to the kid, "Not this time. But I'll ask Heimdall if it's okay for later."
The kid gives an unholy screech of glee before dashing away. James hears Steve move toward him as he looks at the stars, and he thinks about turning back toward Steve, but he keeps his eyes fixed on the view as much for the view as for another moment to pull himself together and banish the past back to the past.
I don't want to remember.
James tenses at the thought. The memory isn't his. Neither are others. He feels them, floating in his brain like lights in a fog. Whatever Loki did to bring him back brought them into his head. It brought Lokiinto his head.
Loki and Natasha.
You love her.
She's a hell of a woman.
I love you. And I know you love—
James starts again. He never used to be this jumpy, but then again he never used to be able speak Russian or know seventeen ways to kill a man with shoelaces either, he had been one person before, not two or three or none or more, but now he does know and now he is those. Or maybe he isn't. Trying to shrug, to do something other than shake, he says, "Sorry. Head's kind of full of—"
—death, ice, murder, war, guns, kill, help, Steve, who—
Steve nods, his face serious and thoughtful like the kid's. He takes a step forward and inclines his head toward the bridge and dome. "Come on."
James follows, grateful for the direction. They leave the bounds of the city. Water soon rushes beneath their feet, and the sound, as the stars, soothes him, blocking out the screams and the sighs in his mind. James breathes in the crisp air, over and over, each breath a mantra, a plea.
Who are you?
Who are you?
Steve clears his throat, breaking the plea. "I'm sorry I haven't been able to, you know, talk. Things have been, they've been… bad."
James tilts his head to look at Steve. His face is pinched, the crease again between his brow, but not for him now, not completely. "How many?" he asks quietly.
"452 at last count. Most from the crash."
He drifts off then, lost in the number of dead. James stares down at the bridge, at the glass swirling, breathing and bright and bold. "I'm sorry…" He stops, swallows, tries again. "I'm sorry that I wasn't there. Helping. I tried, but…"
"People looked at you as the enemy?"
"They'll accept you. Eventually. They did for Natasha. And for Loki, too, and he's—" Steve breaks off, his eyes darting to James. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean… I mean, I know— She told me, Natasha did, only a little, you know, about you and her, and I—"
As Steve rambles, James feels himself smile. The movement is stiff, his face unaccustomed to such a gesture, but it's genuine. "It's nice to know you're still lousy when it comes to dames, even if it's just talking about them. Although you think by now you'd be ace."
Steve slows to a stop, a slight frown on his face. "What do you mean?"
James stops too, a sliver of doubt worming its way into his gut. "You know, seventy years, that's a long time. I figured by now…" He trails off as the frown on Steve's face deepens.
"Did no one tell you?"
James gives him a look. "No one's exactly lining up to chat with me, Steve."
Steve quirks a brow at the sass, but lets it go. "I was in ice. Frozen in the Arctic. They only found me…" He pauses and calculates quickly. "…about six months ago, I guess."
Winter, cold, death, snow, freeze, hollow—
"Schmidt." Steve eases forward and they fall into step once more as James listens to the tale of Steve's last mission against HYDRA, of the plane crash and the strange blue stone known as the Tesseract, the link between then and now, the cause for Loki's invasion and the fight in New York. He listens to Loki's return and the conflict against Doom and Natasha going to Russia to find answers, only to find him.
By the time Steve's finished, they stand before the golden sphere. James shakes his head, his mind overrun with all that Steve said, with his own memories and those that aren't his, the ice and the gods, the guns and the war, the magic and machines and death and the strange, improbable returns from the dead. He closes his eyes. Nothing fits, who he is, where he is, how he is—
James feels hands on his shoulders. He flinches, but he stops himself from jerking back or striking out.
Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes of the 107th.
"That's not… I can't…" He turns away, his jaw clenched.
You're my family.
I'm a soldier.
You're my friend.
—a mindless beast—
They say kill, and you do?
James gasps and presses his hands to his eyes. He sees them, the people, the victims, the liars and the thieves, the men in power and the women too, Natasha and Natasha and Natasha and the Madam. His metal hand cuts into his face, but he presses on, only for the hand to jerk away, Steve holding the wrist in a desperate grip.
"How? How?" James wrenches his arm from Steve.
"I don't know. I just— I know you think you're alone. You did then, too, after Zola. You never…" Steve pauses. James looks at him, but briefly, the emotion in his eyes too much, the guilt too bare and raw. "You never talked about what happened," he says now, pressing on. "And I should have—"
"You should have done shit, Steve. If I wanted to talk to you, I would have."
The dismissal snaps the guilt inside Steve, sparking a flare of anger in its stead. "Why didn't you? Why don't you now?"
"Right. Why don't we just sit here in this cozy golden bubble and I can tell you all about the throats I've slit and the people I've shot—"
"I've killed people, too."
James gives him a look and turns away.
"Okay, so it's not the same," Steve says, stalking past James until he stands before him again. "But it is for Natasha. And it is for Clint. You want to talk to someone who understands? There you go. And he didn't kill random people. He killed his own, and if he can come back from that, you can too."
And then what, once you've killed me?
Will the guilt lift from your heart? Will your dreams stop?
James drags his hand over his face. Clint before the cage swirls from the fog only to dissolve into Sif.
Kick me again. You'll see who I am.
In Midgardian tongues, it means affinity.
"And if I can't?" he asks, trying not to shake.
Then you will run.
He looks at Steve, fear thick and hot in his throat.
"You will," Steve says simply, though the answer is far from simple. "I believe in you."
Loki paces the length of his room, the hand of death upon him. He steps around books strewn across the floor, around clothes and weapons, around scrolls and parchment and ancient, wizened artifacts. He understands the plan. The pieces have come together now. They fit. A simple man from Midgard would need aid in learning such magic as Doom performed, wound need help in concocting his schemes, in daring to decimate the Realm Eternal. And there would be few who would provide such aid, few who would dare challenge the might of Asgard or of its King.
Their reasoning indeed would have to be great.
Your ambition is little and full of childish need.
We're beyond the Earth to greater worlds the Tesseract will unveil.
Yes, Loki sees the plan. Beyond Doom, Thanos lies, wielding Doom as he had once wielded Loki, both of them tools in his quest to acquire the Tesseract. The Other had never specified the worlds that were in their sights, but Loki had suspected. At least one of them he had suspected. They had already known of the Tesseract when they raised him from his perdition in the Void, allegedly for his knowledge of what had once been the prize of Odin's treasure vault. What they had not known, though, were the rest of the treasures that lurked inside or the security that guarded them or the secret paths that allowed one to enter the realm unseen by Heimdall.
Loki had told them this, of course he had told them. He had wanted to tell, desiring to rage and revenge against Odin, but he had also known that he needed to tell, his death by Thanos ensured if he remained silent. And telling had garnered him power, it had gained him the scepter, it had given him release from the Void and room in which to maneuver, and room gave him the possibility of survival when Thanos achieved his goal: the Tesseract and then dominion over all.
A devil's bargain, yet was Loki not a devil?
You're a monster.
He stops in the middle of the room, his eyes on the mirror hanging on the left wall. Could he make another? Loki could acquire the Tesseract. Most of the guard still revered him as a member of the royal family. They would not question his presence in the vault or his removal of a relic, even one so prized as the Tesseract. And those that did, those that knew the truth about him, Thor and Frigga, Heimdall and Sif, they were focused on healing Asgard. Loki could take the cube and he could find Thanos and he could bargain with him, he could bargain for his life, his and Natasha's.
The Tesseract for them.
Asgard for them.
The universe for them.
You will leave your mother all alone?
You are my brother, but what am I to you?
Am I lost to you as well?
Loki closes his eyes.
Do you think someone such as I has friends, Barton?
You did. Long ago.
They would fight. All of them would fight. And they would die. Barton and Sif. Thor and Frigga. Even Natasha. She wouldn't run with Loki. He knows she would not. She would stay and she would fight. And she would die.
She fought bravely, thinking, I am sure, of you until the end.
He opens his eyes and stares at the feather at the edge of his bed. He'd invoked the Helm when death had first threatened Natasha, Loki needing more of her, having just discovered her. But he had failed. Doom had found a way around the Helm; he had nearly succeeded in killing Natasha.
There would be no nearly with Thanos.
You think you know pain?
He will make you long for something as sweet as pain.
How long did they have? How long would Thanos wait while Asgard reeled from its ruin before he entered the realm and slaughtered them all and claimed what he desired? Loki looks again at the mirror. Then he crosses to it, needing to know.
Reaching out, he touches a finger to the glass; the image wavers and fades and resolves into the mountain beyond the plain. Loki touches it again to move in closer, to search for the crack to Svartalfheim. The Dark Elves would welcome the chance to witness the destruction of Asgard; they would grant Thanos passage through their realm. Yet Loki sees no warp of time or shimmer of space around the passage. So if not there, then where? He stares at the mirror, contemplating the few options, and then he knows.
Your death came at the hand of Laufey.
And your death came by the son of Odin.
Of course. Of course Thanos would go there. Why wouldn't he, knowing what he knows about Loki? Breathing in, he prepares to change the view, to confirm the truth, to the see the path that lurks on the other side of the world.
The one that leads to Jotunheim.
"Travelling?" she asks.
The air catches in his throat at the sound of her voice. Three days since Loki had heard her last, her voice soft and just for him, the two standing in the dark of her quarters. Natasha had pulled him again from the brink, from letting his jealousy and doubt devour him and her too, but how had he repaid her for her efforts?
Remuneration for stolen funds.
I got shot. It happens.
Do you know she thought she would die in her little mission to save you?
Loki clenches his jaw at the memories, at the endless, ceaseless cycle of him. He had let Doom capture Natasha. He'd called her nothing, a liar and a whore. He'd abandoned her when the Red Room started their pursuit and then he had sent her on an impossible mission against Odin and the Destroyer. And in his arrogance, his belief in his superiority and that of the Helm, he'd let Doom take Natasha again and, this time, he let Doom kill her.
Do you see what I am?
I am death. All I know is the kill.
You can be more. I saw it.
He tenses against the remembrance, Natasha kneeling beside him in Paris.
I feel, and I wouldn't, not like this, if it weren't for you.
You can inspire, Loki, and you can guide.
You need only try.
Loki hears movement, the scrape of a shoe on stone and the snap of the door as it shuts. But he does not turn as Natasha comes closer. Instead he drops his hand from the mirror and waits and, after a moment, she says, "I saw you, didn't I? In Switzerland. When I died. Or was it just a dream?"
Sometimes I think this is still a dream. How could this be real?
Because it is.
How can this hurt if I'm not real?
Loki opens his eyes. He sees Natasha at the edge of his vision. Her question hangs in the air between them, waiting for his response. His eyes on the mountain and the plain, Loki draws in a breath and says, "It wasn't a dream."
Then he turns toward her.
At the sight of Natasha a few feet away, the visions of her shot from Winter, of her overrun from the Casket, of her cold and lifeless upon the Carrier floor vanish. She wears the cream linen from the healing rooms, but everything else is life and color, her cheeks flushed and her eyes bright and her stance straight and strong. Relief floods him, but then he sees the scar on her throat and he tenses once more.
She fought bravely, thinking, I am sure, of you until the end.
Natasha notices his look and raises a hand to the scar. "It's the only one left," she says, her voice soft. "The only scar. The rest of them are gone. Why do you think she left this one?"
Loki opens his mouth only to close it, unable, for the moment, to speak. Then he swallows, trying not to tremble, and tries again. "Some wounds can't be healed. Not completely. Not even with magic."
Her fingertips trail the length of the wound. "No. I suppose they can't." She pauses then and eyes him; Loki tries not to squirm under her gaze, to feel blame as she lowers her hand or reproach as she moves toward him. Natasha stops before him, and the world stops as he waits for her to give voice to the voices screaming inside him since she fell, screaming out his failure, but instead she shifts and her hand touches his and she says, "But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try."
The mistakes don't mean you shouldn't try.
I've got red in my ledger. I'd like to wipe it out.
Loki closes his eyes. He grasps her hand and the clasp of hers in return stills the shaking within him. He is alive. She is alive. They are both—
What will happen now? Now that Thanos knows you've failed?
Something far worse than hell.
Loki opens his eyes and finds Natasha looking at the mirror, and he knows then that Barton had been right, that somehow she knows, and that when she asked him about travelling, she had really been asking, as before, if he was going to run.
There's everything here. You're just too afraid to take it.
I'm not afraid.
Loki licks his lips.
Then prove it.
He raises a hand and touches the mirror again, his fingertips trembling as they find the glass. The image wavers and fades, replaced by the view of the other side of the world, of the barren, rocky land upon when he waited with Thor so long ago, the two of the silent and solemn from their first brush with death. He watches as Natasha stiffens; her gaze fixes on the image in the glass. Loki doesn't look, he doesn't want to look, the face of the man before them burned into his brain along with the scars on his body and his memories of his time in the Void.
Loki lowers his hand from the mirror. "He will kill us all. Gladly and swiftly."
"Maybe," Natasha says, still looking at Thanos. "But maybe not." Her eyes shift to Loki then, and in them he sees the strength that he has always seen, strength enough to challenge a god time and time again, on the Carrier and in Switzerland, in Russia and Latveria, the strength that sent her to Asgard to barter with Odin, that fueled her mission to reclaim Barton from the mist of the Tesseract, that had caused her to look at Loki across a kitchen island in India and lower her gun.
"Do you ever wonder," she asks now, "what would have happened if I hadn't lied to you about Anna?"
The question catches him off guard, and he narrows his eyes.
"I hadn't," she says, giving his hand a squeeze before moving away. "At least not until I was lying in that bed." He watches as she picks her way past the items, staring down at them, her face pensive. "I did what I thought I had to. What I'd been programmed to do. Me, alone against the mark." Natasha stops by a pile of books and looks back at Loki. "It's not that I didn't trust you. I just… reverted. Anna had tortured me. She'd taken everything from me. Whoever I had been before, she'd twisted and broken, and I was…" She pauses and breathes in. Her eyes find the feather at the edge of the bed. "I was afraid," she continues, moving toward the bed. "I was afraid that she'd do it again. She almost did, but only because I let her. Because I played the game on her terms." Reaching the bed, Natasha leans down for the feather. "I did the same with Doom," she says, glancing at him. "I knew he was coming, him or Winter, and I sent Darcy away. I went alone. It was my fight. My fear. Not of dying," she explains, turning her gaze to the feather. "But of loss. And I almost did. Again."
She fought bravely—
She fought bravely—
"Don't make the same mistake I did."
Loki starts, pulled from his memory of her lying prone on the Carrier floor. The plea in her eyes is stark and direct. "What?"
"Don't make the same mistake I did," she says again. "You're afraid. I can see it. All this—" She waves one hand, taking in all of his research, his desperate search for some clue, for some aid against Thanos. "You won't even look at him. But don't… don't—"
And Loki understands. He ran from himself, from the truth of his birth, running from Asgard. He'd run from Thanos to the Earth. Then he ran from Natasha, again and again, denying and evading, choosing death before acceptance as he allowed the energies of the Casket and the Destroyer to rip him apart. Yet all of his running had led back here, to her and to Asgard, to the sins of his past. Death looms now and Loki could run again, he could touch the mirror and slip through the worlds, cast an illusion over himself and hide, but if he did, he wouldn't have her, Natasha who does not run, not even from death, who always, at every turn, dares him to be more as she herself dares to be more.
We could go to Paris and just sit, just sit in a café and drink wine and we don't have to think about Doom or S.H.I.E.L.D. or spying.
We could just… we could just be.
We could just be Loki and Natasha.
An illusion, he thought, nothing more than a deadly dream dangled before him by fate only to be snatched away, as Asgard before, for his sins, for himself, the monster that parents tell their children about at night. But he wants it. He lost it, he threw it away and Doom crushed it in his hands. But he wants it. He wants her.
You're going to lose.
You lack conviction.
He wants her.
See beyond yourself, Odinson. See what they see.
And if I can't?
Then you will run and they will find you and all will begin again, but all may not end as you wish it to end.
Loki wants her. He wants Natasha.
Sometimes I think this is still a dream. You came to me in July, and you changed my life. So… quickly. So completely. How could this be real?
Because it is.
Because it is. Because he'll make it so.
Whatever it takes.
"Not running," he says, moving toward her now. "Searching."
Her shoulders settle at his response, relief relaxing her stance. She watches as he comes closer, stepping around books and scrolls, his eyes on her. Natasha lowers her hand and places the feather back upon the bed. Her fingers trace the seam of the blanket; her foot brushes again against the platform upon which the mattress lies. Two paces away, she looks up at Loki, and he tries to fix this image in his mind, the curve of her lips as she smiles, her eyes as they find his, bright with life and heated now as they peer at him. He tries to banish the image of her dead upon the Carrier floor, but the sight of the scar pulling at her throat blurs the thought in his mind and spurs him forward. Natasha reaches out as he reaches her and pulls him in, she pushes past the folds of his armor and tries to find skin, digging in a desperate grip. They stumble over clothes as they cross the room. Loki shoves out with his mind, scattering the items to the far corners; a few smash against the walls. His hands slip under the hem of her shirt, and he gasps at the warmth of her body, his gasp swallowed by Natasha as she threads her fingers into his hair and pulls him down for a kiss.
The kiss mimics their grip on each other, desperate and demanding. He palms her breasts and squeezes, and Natasha wrenches at the strap crossing his chest, at the folds of fabric and metal encasing him. Releasing her, he shucks off his coat and chestplate. Loki watches as she eases back, her eyes dark, the fire in the hearth blazing behind her and illuminating the curves of her body beneath the linen. He moves in again, pressing her against the stone wall and claiming her lips in another kiss. Natasha shoves at the hem of his tunic, yanking it up his chest and away from his breeches. Her fingers jerk on the laces as his tug on her pants, as he eases them down until they fall in a heap by her feet. She steps out of them and kicks them away and then the laces give and she frees his cock and Loki breaks the kiss at the feel of her hand around him, her palm soft and her grip hard in a slow pull that sends a shudder through his body. He braces one hand above her head and moves the other between her legs, and she is warm and wet as he slides a finger inside and watches as she trembles and gasps. The way her hand tightens in response breaks him, the sight of the scar on her throat, slick and taut beneath the pounding of her pulse, breaks him. He had meant to go slow, in Omsk they went slow, but in Omsk they had time and here death nips at them, it cuts them down, and he can't, he can't, Loki can't go slow, but neither can Natasha. He moves his hands to grip her hips and Natasha wraps an arm around his neck, lifting herself as he lifts her. He braces an arm on the wall by her hips and she wraps her legs around him, one around his waist, the other over his arm, and then she guides him closer, she pulls him flush before easing him in.
The heat of the fire and the heat of her envelop Loki. Natasha reaffirms her hold on him, one hand in his hair and one on his waist. Her breath is ragged in his ear, and at his first thrust, it stops and his does too. Her nails dig into his skin and her arm tenses around his neck. Natasha tilts her hips forward and Loki thrusts again, the movement smoother now and deeper, drawing a moan from them both. His grip tightens on her hip as he moves again, as he strives for a steady pace, but he can't, he can't, Natasha lifting her hand from his waist and drawing her fingertips against the cuts that still linger, on the bruise darkening the bridge of his nose and the slight swelling beneath his eye. He leans into her touch. Heat suffuses him and his muscles clench and Loki breathes her in. The light catches her scar and he closes his eyes against it, feeling her, her hand on his face, the brush of her breasts against him as she breathes.
I love you.
Natasha kisses him. Loki feels her shudder, he feels her legs shake and her muscles quiver. He pushes in, needing her, needing to cast away the pall of death that surrounds them. They move together, the pace quick and rough, desperate, the walls hurling back upon them their harsh breath, the scrape of his boots across the ground as he seeks for balance. They are alive now, but will they? They are alive now, but will they? Will they survive? The thought runs through his mind, racing around the heat that shoots through him. Natasha tenses and breaks the kiss, her hand clenching in his hair as her orgasm takes hold, and Loki presses his face against hers, his lips on her cheek.
I love you.
And I know you love me.
He whispers the incantation as his body grows taut, as heat floods from his gut, along his nerves and throughout his veins, from his lips to the Helm, the magic within the rune shifting and stretching and drawing him in.
Remuneration for stolen funds.
I got shot. It happens.
You think you know pain?
It's not easy, atoning.
You think you know pain?
I've got red in my ledger.
Isn't it funny?
I'd like to wipe it out.
Can you? Can you wipe out that much red?
Isn't it funny the way the worlds turn and the fates fall?
To be continued. Feedback is glorious and gives me life. :D