A/N: So no sooner am I back in my own house do I get called back to London again. But plenty of train writing awaits. Hope this chapter will tide you over until whenever I'm back in my house for more than five seconds again. Let me know what you think!
Natasha hits solid ground, hard. She groans and pushes herself up, getting unsteadily to her feet while her shoulder throbs. She's in some kind of vast golden dome with a central dais, the hilt of a large sword sticking out of the top. A huge hand reaches out to take the sword, listing the blade easily out of its slot.
Natasha turns to see an enormous man, easily a foot taller than her, his biceps bulging under smooth, dark skin. He's wearing a heavy looking golden helmet, though in the small square of his face that's unprotected, there are two bright amber eyes, watching her curiously, and perhaps a little cautiously. Loki had told her that Heimdall can see everything, all at once, and she'd taken his tales with a pinch of salt, not believing it were possible. But staring into those eyes, the eyes which seem to be both watching her and not watching her at all...well now she's more inclined to believe it.
"Heimdall?" she asks.
"Lady Natasha," he responds, bowing his head in greeting, his hands resting atop the hilt of his sword. He has a deep, calm voice and speaks slowly, steadily.
"Could you use your, uh," she points vaguely at the dais, the correct word just out of reach in her mind, and any alternatives sounding far too much like they've been pulled from a fairytale.
"The bifrost..." Heimdall supplies.
"Yeah," Natasha says, "Could you use the bifrost to send me to Loki?"
"It was Loki's explicit wish that you were kept from harm."
"Yeah?" Natasha says, raising an eyebrow. "Well it's my explicit wish that I go and help the team."
"Loki is fighting the good fight on the condition that you remain safe, not because he has changed his morals."
"So why did you bother bringing me here then? Why not just leave me trapped in New York? I'd never have made it out without help."
"You would have found a way. Not a safe way, but a way," Heimdall tells her, still watching her with those eerie amber eyes.
Natasha is about to argue, about to demand that he either send her to Loki or send her back to New York, but then she hears the clatter of hooves and turns to see where the noise is coming from.
"Heimdall, what news?"
A woman wearing a long flowing gown, her hair intricately braided, enters the dome, her cheeks flushed from her journey. At the sight of Natasha, her mouth opens a little, the most minute gasp escaping her lips. Natasha glances between Heimdall and the woman, trying to put the pieces together. her brain is still cloudy from her injuries, and her bifrost journey has only exacerbated her problems.
"Natasha?" the woman breathes.
"Yes?" Natasha responds coolly.
"I am Frigga, Loki's mother," she says, gathering the skirt of her dress and rushing up the steps towards them. When she reaches them, she casts her eyes over Natasha, her brow creasing in concern. "But you're injured, you should be resting, did Loki bring you here for safekeeping?"
"I'm fine," Natasha says patiently. "I asked Heimdall to send me to Loki but he refused."
"Well naturally, Loki's on a very dangerous mission -"
"I want to help. I can fight," Natasha interrupts. Every second that passes is another second wasted, another second in which Loki might grossly misinterpret what the 'right thing to do' is. She doesn't even know how quickly or slowly time passes on Asgard - is it the same as Earth? Or have hours already passed by since she left SHIELD HQ?
"I know you can fight," Frigga says, placing a placating hand on Natasha's upper arm. "Thor has told me of your strength, your courage."
This revelation throws Natasha. She knew Frigga had been interested in her, but had only thought it had been as far as her relationship with Loki and a few surface details. She hadn't considered that Thor would describe her as strong, and especially not corageous.
"Come," Frigga says. "I'll take you to the healing room and we'll find chambers for you to rest. You can have Loki's chambers if you prefer, or we have plenty of guest rooms." She takes Natasha by the arm and tries to guide her down the steps, but Natasha pulls away.
"I need to go to Loki," she says, "I don't think you understand -"
"Heimdall has sworn to watch over you and ensure your safety at my son's request. He will not break an oath."
"Natasha I know," Frigga says, her eyes wide and imploring. There is something Loki-ish in her manner, something that reminds Natasha of those few occasions where Loki desperately tried to tell the truth. "I know you fear for him, but Loki is battling mortals, and Thor is by his side, nothing will happen to him."
"Really?" Natasha replies sceptically, "Because as far as I'm aware Loki has a habit of doing the exact opposite of what Thor says."
Frigga closes her eyes and sighs. "I know that," she says brokenly. She touches her fingertips to her forehead, as though trying to soothe a migraine. Natasha feels the unpleasant heat of guilt in her stomach. Clearly Frigga blames herself for Loki's fall from grace, though from the little Loki has told Natasha, it sounds as though Frigga was one of the few people that Loki still cared for, even at his lowest point.
"I know Loki can handle himself," Natasha says softly. "But I'm worried that the others can't handle Loki. If this thing escalates, if innocent people get hurt because Loki can't control his temper -"
"Speak with Odin," Frigga says, her eyes snapping open, her hand falling back to her side. "I cannot overrule Loki on this. Only Odin, or Thor."
"I thought Loki was still technically exiled? How can he have more authority than you?"
"The second his powers returned, his exile ended. He stays on Midgard because of you. He has no interest in the throne, or his royal duties. Only you."
This only leaves Natasha feeling worse. Despite her hearing that he had been welcomed back with open arms, she had assumed that things had been so strained between Loki and his family that he had decided lving on another world would be much better than living at home. She hadn't realised all his titles and authority had been reinstated along with his magic. She had just assumed that he'd enjoyed being the big fish in the small pond of mortals.
"Come," Frigga says, guiding Natasha to the exit of the dome. "You can speaks with Odin after you've been to the healing room. Loki wanted to bring you here initially, but you were not well enough to survive the bifrost journey." Frigga raises a finger and thumb to her lips and lets out a short sharp whistle.
Natasha's jaw drops as she steps outside. The rainbow bridge had always seemed like such a /fantastical notion, but it is just as Loki had painted it, every hue imaginable fading seamlessly from one to another. In the distance, Natasha can pick out individual buildings from the memory of Loki's painting. The view is breathtaking, and when she looks down, she can see a choppy ocean stretching out into the darkness and ending up god only knows where.
Her attention is caught by a rumble in the distance and she looks out across the bridge to see a dark horse speeding towards them.
"Can you ride?" Frigga aska.
Natasha smirks as she thinks of Budapest. "Yeah," she says. "I can ride."
The healing room is a huge, bright white expanse that stretches on for hundreds of yards. Natasha waits patiently for her healer, Kadin, to return with his promised medicines. Frigga has departed in order to update Odin, and suddenly Natasha feels very small, all alone on another world with a healer guesstimating the appropriate dosages for a mortal. The silence is overbearing, but soon she hears footsteps and Kadin returns.
"This won't hurt," he says, scooping a handful of cream out of a porcelain jar and moving the strap of Natasha's vest to full expose her shoulder.
Natasha frowns, and Kadin rubs the cream into her burn. Natasha gasps, her hands gripping a fistful of mattress as her skin hisses and sizzles. She squeezes her eyes tight shut and trusts that the pain will recede eventually. When it does, Kadin wraps a soft bandage around her shoulder, and Natasha opens her eyes.
"Won't hurt?" she croaks.
"I lied. Do they do that on Midgard?"
"Yeah," Natasha replies, "They do that. You guys aren't the only ones."
"Drink this." Kadin presses a goblet into Natasha's hand, a dark shiny liquid swirling around inside.
"What is it?" Natasha asks, peering into the goblet distrustfully.
She doesn't receive a response, for Kadin is frowning, staring over her shoulder. Natasha turns and sees a faint shadow move. Immediately she feels her brain switch into combat mode, as she tries to work out the shadow owner's exact position, height, build, and any potential weak spots.
"Fandral!" Kadin snaps with the air of a strict teacher.
A blond head appears around the corner, and Fandral grins.
"Kadin!" Fandral booms as he steps around the corner, followed by a dark haired woman with an irritated expression on her face. "How are you my old friend?"
"Why are you here?" Kadin demands.
"Do I have to have a reason to come and see my favourite healer?" Fandral asks, peering curiously at Natasha, his eyes quickly flicking back to Kadin.
"He wants to meet Loki's mortal," she says exasperatedly.
Natasha frowns at her phrasing, the way she makes Natasha sound like Loki's pet, but doesn't say anything.
"I told him it was improper to attend the healing room, but he insisted."
Kadin rolls his eyes and Fandral approaches regardless. He casts his gaze over Natasha's injuries, then takes her hand and kisses it.
"My lady," he says smoothly.
"Yeah..." Natasha says, extracting her hand from his. From the corner of her eye, Natasha sees Sif smirk.
Fandral recovers quickly and puffs his chest out. "But Sif, she is of your ilk! A warrior maiden - she even wears breeches!" He points to Natasha's jeans and she shakes her head, unable to believe that on a world that claims to be so far above her own, in all respects, the sight of a woman in trousers is something worth commenting on.
"Well you didn't think Loki would give himself away for a pretty face, did you?"
Natasha quirks an eyebrow.
"Not that I mean -" Sif says quickly. "Forgive me." She smiles apologetically and Natasha lets her eyebrow slide back into its normal position.
"Don't mind Sif," Fandral says, "She must be feeling a little less special, now she's not the only warrior maiden in the kingdom."
"Time to go," Kadin says sternly. "Lady Natasha must rest."
"Very well," Fandral sighs. "Until next time, fair lady."
Natasha doesn't respond, and Sif grabs Fandral by the shoulder and hauls him towards the exit. Moments after they've disappeared, Frigga rounds the corner, walking quickly towards Natasha and Kadin.
"Odin will speak with you, after you have had your rest," she says.
"But there isn't time," Natasha argues. "They've already been gone for days."
"It is his final word. Your healing solution will need four hours to take full effect, after which he will see you."
Natasha looks down at the goblet in her hands, then around the room at the bright walls and sighs.
"You can rest in Loki's chambers," Frigga says softly. "Would you like that?"
Natasha nods, and slides off the bed, picking up her jacket with her spare hand, and nodding her thanks to Kadin. She follows Frigga from the healing room, down long corridors, deeper and deeper into the heart of the building. She tries to keep track of the route, lays mental breadcrumbs at various junctions, but after so many twists and turns, and going upstairs and then downstairs several times, she loses track completely.
"This place is a maze," she says.
"Loki likes people to get lost several times before they reach his chambers," Frigga replies. "He's really not that far from the main chambers at all, it's just his trickery." She smiles fondly, but Natasha doesn't find it to be Loki's most endearing trait. But, she supposes, it would take care of unwanted visitors, and that's something she could definitely do with.
"He's always liked being alone then?"
Frigga purses her lips. "When he was younger he would traipse around after Thor, but as he grew, and as Thor became...arrogant, he preferred his own space. Thor never had the patience to reach his rooms, which suited Loki well."
"I can imagine..." Natasha says quietly.
After three more sets of stairs, a dozen more corners, several of which Natasha is sure she's seen before, they reach an enormous set of wooden doors, arching high above them. Frigga doesn't open them however. Instead, she turns to Natasha.
"Place your palm against the door," she says.
Natasha rearranges her goblet and jacket to free up a hand, and does as she is told. She feels the wood gently vibrate at her touch, and then the doors swing open. Natasha glances at Frigga, who nods encouragingly, then she steps inside.
"If you need anything, ring the bell. I'll come and collect you when Odin is ready."
"Thanks," Natasha says stepping inside, and as she turns around to take one last look at the corridors beyond Loki's room, the doors close with a soft thud, and she is immersed in darkness. After a few moments, the candle brackets on the wall flicker into life, casting the room in a soft golden glow.
It is, like everything else in Asgard, far bigger than necessary. The ceiling is so high above her that Natasha has to squint to make it out, while the marble floors have no tile seams, no mark upon them whatsoever. She wonders if Asgard was built with magic, because she can't get her head around most of it. There is a large fireplace on one side of the room, an elaborately upholstered chaise longue placed in front of it. On the small table at its side, there rests a thick leather-bound book, and Natasha's eyes immediately move to the impressive range of tomes on the shelves either side of the fireplace. She spots the empty slot immediately, and notes that the book is one of the later volumes of a large collection. She wonders just how long he's spent reading them. Months? Years? Centuries?
Deciding that she'd best take her medicine and get her resting sentence over and done with, Natasha downs the contents of the goblet and immediately becomes sleepy. She dumps her jacket on the nearest armchair and stumbles over to the huge four poster bed, pulling back the soft emerald covers and all but falling into the mattress. She kicks off her boots clumsily, and rolls into the most comfortable position she attain without much effort. Before she can register that the smile on her face is due to the familiar smell on the bedclothes, she loses consciousness.
When she wakes, Natasha has no desire to move. She feels wonderful, calm, and wants to stay wrapped up warm in bed forever. She inhales deeply, and then lets out a happy sigh, but then her mind wanders to Loki and she remembers why she's here.
She sits bolt upright and looks around. Frigga is sitting by the fireplace, casually flicking through the pages of one of Loki's books. She turns at the sound of Natasha's movement and smiles.
"Feeling better?" she asks.
"Yeah," Natasha replies quickly, throwing the covers off of herself and getting out of bed. She jams her feet into her boots, looks around for her jacket, and then, when she's located it, pulls that on too. "Will Odin see me now?"
Frigga puts down the book and nods. "He will see you now."
It's only now that Natasha notices, standing opposite the fireplace, that hanging on the wall above the mantel is a very familiar portrait. Frigga follows Natasha's line of sight and smiles.
"It's a very good likeness, isn't it?" she says. "I think he's captured your spirit very well."
Natasha tears her eyes away from it, not willing to be distracted, and Frigga stands and gestures towards the doors. Natasha heads towards them, with Frigga following, and when they leave, the doors close automatically behind them. Natasha rolls her shoulder as she walks, testing out its manoeuvrability. It feels a lot better, and although the skin feels just a little tight, she thinks she'll be able to handle it. The ache in her bones has lessened too, and she wonders if it's because of the healing solution, or the comfort of Loki's bed after days on the stiff mattress of the bed in the HQ sick bay. Perhaps it's a combination, but despite the churning in her stomach about how much time has been wasted on her recovery, she feels ready to fight, and has no qualms about how well she'll match up to the others when she arrives.
If she arrives, she's reminded by a nasty voice in the back of her head, if.
Frigga leads the way back through a maze of corridors, but the journey away from Loki's room is faster than the journey there, and she imagines that that's just how Loki prefers it. Eventually they arrive at a set of double doors, a uniformed guard standing either side, and Frigga hangs back.
"Aren't you coming in with me?" Natasha asks.
Frigga shakes her head. "You are to speak with Odin alone."
"Okay," Natasha says, taking a deep a breath. Frigga gestures for the guards to open the doors and they follow the unspoken order. Natasha tries to make out the figure sitting in the throne at the end of a long aisle, but the distance is so great that she can just see the whiteness of his hair from afar. She pushes her shoulders back, brings herself up to her full height, and takes her first step into the room.
As she strides along the aisle, she considers her options. She could just go in all guns blazing and demand to be sent to Loki, or she could take Odin's side, acknowledge that he'll make the best decision for everyone concerned and just hope that it'll fall in her favour. Or, and this is the one she's less keen on, but unfortunately the one that will most likely secure her ticket to Loki, she can tell Odin about how royally fucked up his son is, how unstable, volatile and dangerous to everyone, including Thor he is, and that she and she alone will be able to steer Loki away from madness.
Natasha has no idea how Odin sees his son, only how Loki assumes he is seen by him, and she knows well enough that Loki's perception when it comes to his family is warped at best. She's going to have to follow her instinct on this one, and hope that neither her injuries, nor the cocktail of drugs, both from Earth and Asgard haven't affected her judgement too badly.
She soon reaches Odin, and looks at him cautiously, unsure of Asgardian etiquette. Does she even have to abide by their niceties when she's technically being held against her will on another world? Or is it a 'when in Rome…' situation?
"You wish for me to overrule my son?" Odin asks, his voice ringing clear in the cavernous hall.
"Yes," Natasha replies simply. "I do."
"On what grounds?"
"On the grounds that I should be able to make my own decisions. And the last time he did 'what he thought was best' we nearly lost everything." She is sure to meet Odin's eye now, she must assert some authority – he needs to believe that he won't be sending her to die.
"But if my son loses you –"
"He won't. I'm tough."
"For a human, maybe," Odin says. His tone is not a mocking one, just plain, just stating the facts.
Natasha skews her lips. Granted, her nearly being blown to pieces less than a week ago isn't really helping her case, but she's recovered quickly, she's ready, she can handle it.
"I admire your desire to aid your friends," Odin says, getting up from his throne and stepping down towards her. "And am thankful that you wish to fight by my son's side. But after so much unhappiness in his life, I am unwilling to put at risk the light at the end of his tunnel."
"I have made mistakes," Odin interrupts, holding up a hand to silence Natasha. "Grave mistakes where Loki is concerned. No longer. I shall not undermine his judgement."
"But his judgement is flawed, it's atrocious, even with the best will in the world he doesn't understand consequences."
"My son is no fool!" Odin bellows. Natasha falls silent, but stands her ground.
"Your son," she says quietly, as Odin turns away, "Has been to the darkest corners of the universe. He has not come out unscathed."
Odin grips his staff, and Natasha waits for his reply. She wonders how much further she will have to push the blame in Odin's direction, whether he will respond to her vague suggestions before she airs the truth of it all for him to hear.
"But he's better now, because of you. He's better, and I won't put that at risk." For the first time, Odin sounds uncertain, his voice holding the faintest of tremors. He sits down heavily on his throne, still gripping his staff so hard that his knuckles pop under his skin.
"If he makes the wrong decision, if for just one moment he thinks of what he wants to do, or what he's capable of doing, instead of what he needs to do, he'll be banished from Earth. He'll never be able to see me again, and that will all be because you wouldn't let me be with him when he needed me." She speaks quietly, gently, knowing that softly spoken words have a habit of worming their way into the listener's mind far more effectively than shouts and screams. If he doesn't let her go, if Loki makes a mistake that she could have prevented, it will be her voice that Odin hears in the back of his mind, saying five poisonous little words: this is all your fault.
"Nothing will ever prevent you from being here with him, you are welcome in Asgard always," Odin replies.
The sentiment is nice. The reality of it less so. If she had to choose between Earth and Asgard, she'd pick Earth every time. But to choose between Earth and Loki…well, the Asgardian had better get used to her jeans. Somehow though, none of it is enough. She knows that Loki would be happiest if he could spend a good portion of his time on Earth, painting for a living, eating ice cream and just living a life where he's not constantly reminded of how he's not as important as his brother, or how he has to behave a certain way because he's a prince.
"Loki will not jeopardise –" Odin begins after a long silence, but Natasha interrupts.
"Loki will not think he's jeopardising anything at all," Natasha argues. "That's the problem, that's always been the problem. He doesn't see anything he does as wrong. Not until it's too late."
Odin closes his eye and inhales deeply. Apparently Natasha has pushed him to the very limits of his patience, but she is determined to get her way. She needs to, for Loki's sake, if nothing else.
"There are conditions," Odin says, so quietly that Natasha almost misses it.
"Fine," Natasha replies.
"If Heimdall perceives you to be in danger, he will return you to Asgard via the bifrost, and you shall remain here until the battle on Midgard is done."
Natasha chews on the inside of her lower lip for a moment, then, realising she has no real choice in the matter, says, "Agreed."
"Second," Odin says, and Natasha groans inwardly. "If you are going to battle, then you will go prepared."
Natasha's attention piques, and when she looks up at Odin, she sees the faintest hint of a smile, tugging at the corner of his mouth.