Yet another chapter for which I must beg forgiveness. It took me much too long to prepare. Comments, good, bad, or otherwise are always welcome motivation. Please enjoy!
Steve sat at the table, sipping another glass of powdered juice. Loki was leaning on the fridge in the corner. With his arms crossed, hardly moving, he could have been a gargoyle. Elizabeth was playing solitaire in the living room. None of them would admit it, but they all felt the anticipation of something itching at them. After the past three days, most of the food was gone and the thought of powdered milk and eggs was less and less appetizing. Elizabeth found herself avoiding her two housemates while never truly being separated. Being alone, even in the tiny house, made her nervous. But she hated how Steve made her feel guilty and the muzzle, still clamped tightly to Loki, haunted her dreams.
Natasha parked the rental car in the alley before approaching the back of the house. She shifted the package she held and slipped the key into the lock. She opened the door and almost laughed at the scene that greeted her.
Rogers had assumed a protective stance facing the door while Elizabeth stood behind the chair, clutching it with white knuckles. In the far, unlit corner of the kitchen, Loki seemed completely indifferent to the intrusion. The table was set for two and the pot of split pea soup was steaming on the stove. As soon as Steve saw that the visitor posed no threat, he relaxed.
"Ms. Romanov, we were not expecting you. Will you join us for dinner?" Steve said, turning back to the pot. Natasha set the package down on the table with a metallic clunk. "No." She replied. "l'm only here to bring you this." She tapped the box lightly. "I see that Elizabeth has followed my advice to change hair color. I suggest you boys do the same." Steve chuckled. "I tried once after I was unfrozen. Apparently, the strengthened proteins in my body prevent the dye from taking hold." Steve smiled over his shoulder. "It was interesting to try though." Natasha placed her hand on her hip and nodded at Loki. "Why is he still dark?" Loki shot an insulted look at the woman. "Well," Steve said a bit sheepishly. "we haven't tried him yet." Natasha looked at her watch and nodded. "Next time I come back, I'm moving you to a different location." With that, she turned and disappeared.
As soon as Natasha had closed the door behind her, Loki had snatched the package from the table and taken it to the living room. Elizabeth followed closely with a paring knife from the counter. Steve followed after removing the soup from the burner and turning the apparatus off.
By the time he had finished, Loki and Elizabeth already had the box opened and were emptying the contents on the coffee table. Elizabeth pulled out an envelope followed by a jug of real orange juice. Loki grabbed the next item eagerly. It was a small rectangular, metal device with an array of short tines sticking out of one side. Rogers made a move to take the device away from Loki, but Loki grabbed the captain's wrist before he was able to grab the device. The two men glared at each other. Elizabeth had been startled by the sudden movement and was clutching the juice to her chest as if she could hide behind it.
Seeing Elizabeth's reaction, Steve drew his hand back from Loki. Quickly, Loki stood up and took a few steps away from the table. Steve stood as well. Loki placed the tines against the back of the muzzle. Steve took a step toward Loki. "Wait! We don't know what..." But Loki was already pressing the tines into the device. With a soft clicking sound, the muzzle released and Loki let it fall with a thump on the carpet.
I watched Loki leave the muzzle and the rectangular device where they fell. He turned and strolled into the kitchen. He pulled a bowl from the cupboard and dished a hearty portion of soup into it. He sat down at the table and looked at the captain and I expectantly. "Will the pair of you be joining me?" Loki's rough voice shook me from my stupor and I realized that I was hugging the jug of orange juice. Steve was still standing by the doorway, looking defensive. I realized that I was not sure who was more dangerous. When the captain and Loki had threatened violence, I had automatically shrunk into myself and prepared for the worst. Loki had been so tame and harmless with the muzzle on, that I had forgotten how terrified I was of him. Steve, on the other hand, would never hurt me on purpose, but he was clearly just here to keep Loki under control until Natasha could figure out what to do with him.
That left me in a grey area. I was a tool to Loki, an unfortunate bystander to Rogers and Romanov, and a wanted criminal to S.H.I.E.L.D. I wanted to go home to my old life and forget about Loki and Director Fury and the existence of other worlds. But I didn't want to forget about the oddly loveable Darcy Lewis, and almost fatherly Phil Coulson, and the beautiful Asgard, and the motherly Frigga. Frigga, to whom I had promised that I would make sure her son was alright. Looking at him now, I don't think I have done very well so far. I thought, guilt churning my gut slightly.
I watched Loki take a few hungry bites of the soup and my stomach gurgled. I set the orange juice on the table and scooped a bowl for Steve and myself. I put a steaming bowl in front of Steve and sat down across from Loki. He had nearly finished his meal by the time I took my first bite. I watched him carefully scrape every drop of the green liquid from the dinnerware. With the muzzle gone, I could see that his cheeks were more sunken than usual. There was some faint bruising where the metal had held his jaw. He seemed to be moving his jaw a bit tenderly as if it hurt to open his mouth too widely.
Steve carefully arranged the envelope and the papers it contained on the table. He alternated between eating his soup and reading each of the three papers. The first was directions to use the device to remove Loki's muzzle. Steve would have ignored them completely if he had not noticed the note at the bottom. "Stay safe, all of you. PP" was written in small, neat lettering. Steve smiled. He rather liked Miss Potts. She was a sweet woman who always made Rogers feel at home.
The next sheet of paper was almost blank. A small, perfectly straight handwriting populated the top fourth. It read: "Do not drop your guard. Lewis is safe. I am safe as well. Stark is suspect, but not in danger. Buy these items: 12 eggs, 1/2 gallon milk, 1 loaf of bread. Use bus route 12 to the store by way of stop 9. Depart at 1200, return at 0120. Bus guides and pass are in the living room table, money is under the 3rd kitchen cabinet. Be careful. Buy 3 chocolate bars as well to maintain morale. Be ready to move in less than three days time." The note was not signed, but it was not difficult to guess its author. Steve was surprised by Natasha's command to purchase chocolate. It clearly showed her concern for Elizabeth's emotional well being, an emotion Steve had not seen from Romanov.
The last piece was hastily scribbled in smudged pencil. It was a mess compared to its partners. There was even a coffee stain denoting its previous job as a coaster. "I hope that the release mechanism works. I borrowed the designs when I planted that virus. Steve, I have your bike back in my garage. Loki, be good or Cap will cap you. Elizabeth, you will need to explain the previous statement to both of the boys. Good luck!" The letter was proudly signed "Tony Stark".