A/N: My first venture into this fandom. I'm a bit in love with it at the moment. Hope you guys like this, let me know what you think!
The sun is beating down hard on Paris today. She reclines on her blanket at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and peers over the top of her sunglasses at the hundreds of people buzzing around her. She hates these kinds of placements - all watching, no doing. Regardless, she follows orders, her eyes sweeping through the crowds to try and pick out something irregular.
She sees some long pale fingers slip into an unsuspecting pocket and extract a brown leather wallet, while the victim waits to pay for a cheap souvenir for his young daughter. Pickpocketing is not irregular, but a pickpocket with milky white skin in Paris, in the middle of summer? That's a little irregular.
She glances up to see the face, her eyebrows twitched into a small frown, but when her eyes meet his green ones, her jaw drops, her sunglasses sliding down her nose. He's wearing jeans, of all things. Slim fitting jeans with a handful of holes in, and a dark green moth eaten t-shirt, its v-neck collar displaying a pale triangle of white chest. He freezes, the wallet in hand, his eyes locked on hers, and even from this distance, she can see that the pulse in his neck is rapid, panicked.
His victim reaches into his back pocket, then frowns, twisting to check his other pocket, and then his front pockets. All the while, his daughter stares up at him with large round eyes, her ice cream dripping down its wafer cone. And then the man turns. He sees Loki immediately, and grabs him by the collar, but Loki twists, Loki turns, and Loki runs.
The man follows in hot pursuit, huffing and puffing his way through the crowd. Loki's long legs carry him easily, while tourists with large cameras dangling from their necks frown in confusion.
"Stop!" the man shouts, his American accent glaringly obvious, even from the one word. "Stop that man!"
Natasha sighs and then, after a moment to take a breath, she is away, following their path nimbly through the crowd. She rushes past the man's wife and daughter, and the souvenir seller who has seen it all before. It feels good to run, to be doing something, and if she can haul in Loki, and by extension puts a stop to whatever scheme he's attempting to put in place this time, she won't be stuck people watching for much longer.
Loki obviously hasn't been in Paris for very long, for he has run down a narrow alley with a dead end. The man has Loki by the throat, his huge forearms tensed as he squeezes Loki's windpipe.
"Give it back!" the man snarls, a bead of sweat dripping down the side of his face, now shiny and red after unexpected exertion.
Loki shrugs, his eyes reddening at the edges, water brimming at his eyelids.
"What's going on?" Natasha calls clearly. The man's grip loosens momentarily, and Loki wheezes in a breath, though he does not seem thankful for it. Evidently he'd rather die at the hands of a middle aged man than find out what Natasha has planned.
"This little junkie has stolen my wallet!" the man shouts. "Get the cops! Quickly!"
Junkie? Natasha's eyes scan the crook of Loki's arm, but there are no bruises, no needle marks, nothing. It's a ridiculous thought anyway, but he's so much thinner than she remembers, the veins in his arms more pronounced than is healthy. So why isn't he fighting back? Why no vicious retorts? Why hasn't he thrown the man through the wall that's blocking his exit?
And why the hell does he need to steal wallets?
Natasha approaches, and when she is level with the pair of them, she looks up at Loki, his features even more gaunt than she remembers. His eyes are sunken in his skull, with dark circles underneath them. "Loki, give him his damn wallet," she sighs.
Loki says nothing, his lips pressed together into a thin line of defiance.
"I won't tell you again," Natasha says quietly.
Loki reaches behind him, and then produces the wallet, balanced between his index and middle fingers.
"I'm calling the cops," the man says, taking his phone from his inside jacket pocket. Naively, he starts by dialling a nine, but Natasha puts her hand over his phone.
"You're in France," she says, "It's 112 for emergency services. And that won't be necessary."
"Excuse me ma'am but I think it is necessary."
Natasha reaches into her bag and pulls out a badge. She's not sure which one it is, but it's heavy, and when she flashes it at him, he seems placated.
"Run along now," she says. The man takes one last look at Loki whose chest is heaving as he tries to regain his breath, and then departs. When he has turned the corner at the top of the alley, Loki slides down the wall, his head in his hands, and Natasha braces herself for some sort of attack, that deep down, she knows isn't really coming.
"Do I not even get a 'hello'?"
Loki looks up at her with bloodshot eyes, and then he pokes out his tongue, and Natasha's stomach turns. Her hand flies to her mouth, partly in shock, and partly to try and keep any vomit from surfacing. He closes his mouth and looks down at the ground again, running a hand through his hair, which is shorter than she remembers, and unkempt.
"Come on," she says, her hand closing around his forearm. She pulls him to his feet, and he refuses to look at her. "I'll buy you dinner."
She links her hand with his and keeps a firm hold of it. She's not letting him escape through a crowd. No way. He tries to wriggle out of her grip at first, like an impatient child, but her grasp is too strong, even for him. He skulks along beside her, not looking at her once, and she thinks that perhaps, the idea of dinner is good enough for him to put up with her company for an hour. Especially, it seems, if she's buying.
The restaurant is down a small quiet street just a couple of hundred yards away from the main touristy areas. Natasha scans the layout, making a note of the exits, before choosing a table in the corner, facing the door. Loki drops into the seat opposite her, and glances over his shoulder. Perhaps he is expecting an ambush, or maybe to be dragged away by SHIELD, or even by Thor.
A little old man wanders over with a notepad, his black bow tie having seen far better days. "Bonjour!" he says cheerfully. "Qu'est-ce je vous sers?"
"Bonjour," Natasha says with a small smile. "Two waters please?"
"Ah! Americans!" he says, the word just about distinguishable through his thick French accent. "And for ze eating?"
Natasha grabs a menu and glances down it. "I'll have the ratatouille and he'll have the..." she searches for something filling. "Steak au poivre."
"Oh he will?" the little old man says. "How is it you Americans say? Ze cat 'as stolen 'is tongue?"
There is a crash as Loki slams his hand on the table then stands abruptly, towering over the little old man, who takes a couple of doddery steps backwards.
"Sit down!" Natasha hisses.
Loki stares down at the old man for a few seconds more, then finally slides back into his seat.
"He's uh... he's been in an accident," Natasha says. "He can't talk. He's taken it pretty hard."
"Oh, I am sorry to 'ear zat, monsieur. I tell you what: I pick ze best steak we 'ave, and I cook it just how you like!"
"Medium rare," Natasha says, her eyes fixed on Loki. He's breathing heavily, and somewhere, in the back of her mind, or perhaps in her stomach, she's not particularly sure where emotions live, but deep down, she feels a little sorry for him. The loss of his voice must have hit him hard. To go from the god who relishes in having the last word, to the pickpocket who can't utter a syllable must be quite the fall from grace.
The old man hobbles away, barking out orders in rapid French, and Natasha reaches down and pulls her bag into her lap. She takes out a pen and notebook and slides them over to Loki, his head resting on one hand like a bored teenager, looks down at them, and then up at her.
"What's the deal with the..." she gestures towards her own mouth, and he pokes his tongue out. Natasha grimaces and sits back in her seat, trying to distance herself from it. It's black as lead, and looks as though it's rotting. It is in complete contrast to the paleness of his lips. It's shocking, and snake like, and seriously disturbing.
"Can you...I mean, can you taste? 'Cause if not then this is gonna be one hell of a wasted steak."
Loki stares at her for a moment, then raises his hand, his thumb and forefinger half an inch apart.
His jaw locks into a surly expression, but Natasha just raises an eyebrow, and eventually he snatches the pen from the table, flips through the notebook (but finds nothing of interest, she's more careful than that) and smooths out a blank page before him. He begins to write, the tip of the pen flicking upwards frequently in extravagant flourishes that would be better suited to a calligrapher's pen or even a quill.
Natasha can't help but smile, and waits patiently for him to finish. Their drinks are served by a young girl whose eyes linger on Loki's sinewy arms. She catches Natasha's eye and hurries away again, Loki completely oblivious to her.
Finally, Loki slides the notebook across the table to Natasha and she looks down, initially unable to form the slanted, delicate lines into words. After a few seconds of frowning at the paper however, she gets used to his style. Whether it's a product of being an Asgardian or just the fact that he's a prince, she doesn't know. What she does know, however, is that his English is harder to read than Russian, Arabic, or even Hindi.
My father, in his infinite wisdom, decided that the only course of action upon my return was to send me back down to Earth, stripped of all my powers. I'm mortal. I'm weak. I can't even speak. At least when he did this to Thor (who had also been warmongering, might I add) my beloved brother retained the power of speech. I'm powerless. I landed here and I'm stuck here. Unless you take me to Fury of course, which will be barrels of fun I'm sure.
"Will your tongue ever...go back?"
He nods, and pulls the pad towards him once more.
When I've learned my lesson, apparently.
Their food is brought over at this point, which is probably a good thing, because the only comment Natasha could think to make was that the chances of him getting his tongue back were zero. As soon as the plate is set in front of him, Loki grabs his cutlery and wolfs down his steak in a matter of minutes, while Natasha just stares in shock, her ratatouille untouched. When he looks up, the majority of his food gone, he shrugs at her frown and slightly open mouth.
"When did you last eat?"
He swallows his final mouthful and then downs half of his water in one go. When he's done, he pushes the plate away and takes the notebook again.
Scraps now and then. What I can afford from stealing. Nobody has physical money and the cards are useless without a password. My last real meal was in Asgard.
"How long ago?"
Natasha closes her eyes. Even the worst criminals get three square meals a day. No wonder he's so thin, no wonder his cheekbones look as though they could cut glass. He can't even talk his way into a job to try to earn a decent living. She knows that Thor was sent to Earth as a punishment, stripped of his powers, but surely Odin knows he's messed Loki up enough with his favouritism? Surely the solution isn't to punish Loki infinitely more severely than Thor? Surely?
"Where do you sleep?"
Loki puts down the pen and sits back in his chair, folding his arms.
"You think I can do worse to you than this?" She gestures at him, at his dishevelled clothes, his emaciated frame, and his lank, greasy hair. His jaw juts out in childish defiance, his arms still crossed over his chest, and Natasha rolls her eyes and reaches down for her bag. She throws the notebook and pen back in, takes thirty euros from her purse and places it on the table. Loki's eyes linger on the money, and then, as if he realises what he's doing, he shudders a little and looks back up at Natasha.
"Show me where you're sleeping. I'm not gonna tell anybody you don't want me to."
He doesn't move.
"Come on, I just bought you dinner, the least you can do is give me a tour of your place."
He gets up and stalks towards the door, and Natasha follows, waving her thanks to the little old man. Loki is out the door quickly, weaving through the crowds apparently not caring whether Natasha's keeping up or not. He doesn't look back once. Occasionally he'll reach out a hand and pilfer a wallet in the blink of an eye. Natasha doesn't say anything. If she'd not had a decent meal for three months she'd be stealing wallets too. Or maybe holding up a bank at gunpoint...
He leads her down progressively darker, narrower and emptier streets, until he stops in front of a grimy building with boarded up windows. He pulls a key from his pocket and opens the front door. It's dark inside, and Natasha follows him in, her nose twitching at the sickly sweet smell of rotting wood. Loki climbs the creaky stairs, and on the half landing, in a darkened corner, a bored looking girl with chapped lips is being fucked against the wall by a greasy haired man. The girls give Loki a nod of greeting, which he returns, and continues past the pair of them without batting an eyelid.
On the third floor, Loki leads the way to the end of the corridor, where a narrow wooden door awaits, a shiny brass padlock securing it. Loki takes out another key and unlocks it, pushing open the door and finally turning to face Natasha. He gestures for her to go inside, and she glances at him warily before sliding past him and entering the room.
It's not as grim as she expected. It seems he's made some sort of attempt to clean it. There is a double mattress on the floor in the corner of the room, and while the sheets on it are faded with an eighties looking design, they are clean, and well looked after. The floorboards, unlike the corridor, are clear of rubbish and dirty footprints. There is a small table by the window, on which rests a plastic bag of brioches. Next to it is a sink with a couple of rusty looking taps. She supposes this is the kitchenette. Two t-shirts hang over a radiator on the far wall, and Natasha thinks she might be right in assuming that Loki's entire wardrobe consists of three t-shirts and a pair of jeans. In the corner next to the bathroom door, the are some canvases leant against the wall. She sees a few splashes of colour, but a white sheet is concealing most of the pictures.
When she turns around, he's not there, and it is a moment or two before she realises he's sitting cross legged on the mattress, sorting through the contents of his day's hoard. He reaches behind him and grabs his pillow, feeling inside the cotton case until he grabs a handful of money. He counts it out, adds thirty euros to it from his earnings for the day and puts it aside.
"What's that? Rent money?"
He nods, counting out the remainder of his money, fiddling with the little gold coins and dividing them into piles.
"And the rest can go on food?"
He waves a hand in a 'sort of' motion. He has about twelve, maybe fifteen euros left after rent, and Natasha knows that won't last. She takes her purse from her bag and pulls out the notes. She has seventy-five euros, and she tosses them down onto the mattress. He doesn't touch them, and Natasha thinks it's ridiculous that he'll quite happily take money that doesn't belong to him, but he won't lay a finger on money that's given to him.
"What, you think this is a trap? You think the money's got some sort of snare on it?"
Loki raises an eyebrow and Natasha sighs heavily, taking a seat on the mattress next to him. She can feel a spring digging into her, and she has no idea how he can actually sleep on this thing, but decides that reminding him of his awful situation won't do anyone any good.
"Look," she says quietly. "You know what I've done. I have no secrets from you, however much I wish I did. But...I turned it around. With help, of course. I could never have done it without help."
She considers, just for a moment, reaching out to touch his arm. It seems like the human thing to do, but she's not sure that'd wash with him. And then she sees him bite the inside of his lip, his jaw trembling minutely. Before she knows what she's doing her hand is on his forearm, her thumb brushing gently against his skin as she tries to ignore how skeletal he is.
Loki pulls away from her, slumping face down onto the mattress and pulling the pillow over his head. It doesn't disguise his crying. His shoulders shake with every sob, though he is unable to make a sound. Natasha watches him, her insides squirming uncomfortably. This isn't going to reform Loki, this is going to break him, and by breaking him, Odin is only going to further Loki's belief that he has always been the unwanted child. She has always been able to understand why Loki is so damaged, but this is the equivalent of amputating an arm because of a sprained wrist.
After a few minutes, Loki's shoulders still, and he begins to take deep breaths, his face still buried in the mattress. When his breathing evens out, and his knuckles are no longer white as he clutches the pillow, Natasha speaks.
"You want a job?"
He becomes very still.
"I'm not messing with you. I'm tracking down a guy who's been linked to some serious lab break-ins and I need an extra pair of eyes."
Loki sits up, still facing the wall, his hands moving to wipe at his face. When he turns his, eyes are red, though Natasha doesn't let her gaze stay on them. If she embarrasses him, he'll kick her out of here faster than she can blink.
"A hundred euros a day. And I'll buy you breakfast, lunch and dinner."
He turns to look at her and his expression suggests that he doesn't believe her.
"It's not gonna be for long, maybe just a week, but that's seven hundred euros. And you can stay in my hotel if you like. It's a little more fit for a prince than this place..."
A muscle twitches in his jaw and she knows she's said the wrong thing. He doesn't react in any other way however, and she knows that it's a huge improvement on his previously volatile nature.
He gestures for the pen and paper and Natasha takes them out of her bag, handing to them. He flips to a blank page and quickly scrawls one word.
"You're gonna get sick if you're not eating. You're gonna get sick and you'll die."
I think that's the idea.
Natasha's stomach drops with a jolt. She shakes her head. "No, no way. That is not the idea." He starts to write but Natasha doesn't wait for his response. "No matter what you might think, your father loves you. Your brother loves you. You've done some pretty crazy shit that's caused a lot of damage and this is a really shady way of teaching you a lesson, but they have not sent you to die."
Heimdall watches. He can see where I'm living. What I'm doing. What I'm not eating. He knows the life I lead. And yet here I am, three months after my exile, stealing whatever I can to survive.
"Maybe that's why you're still here. Maybe it's because you're stealing."
And the alternative?
"Take this job."
And after that?
"Your seven hundred should last you a little while. We can think of something else in the meantime."
Will you be in trouble for helping me?
Natasha shrugs. "Only if somebody finds out."
A ghost of a smile catches at his lips, but it's gone as quickly as it came. He sits still for a moment, his knees pulled up to his chest. He's never looked so small, and Natasha's sure that no one would ever have expected him to fall this far, and this hard. And then, he reaches out one of his large pale hands, and Natasha takes it in her own. They shake, and Natasha offers him a smile.
Understandably, she thinks, he's not quite at the stage where he's ready to return it.