A/N: I don't know what happened with this. All I know is that it was difficult and frustrating and a bit of a ball ache. So I hope you like it.
She had been beautiful, of course. For a Midgardian.
He had seen her across the bar, her pale eyes soaking up the surroundings, glinting in the dim light of the small lanterns bolted onto the walls. She was under dressed, even for a place that struggled to be mediocre - her clothes were a little too small, as though she had held onto them since her teenage years, the hems were frayed, her cotton blouse grubby in places and far too light for the winter weather. The ends of it were tied in a knot over her navel, and the skin of her hip had a warm, inviting glow to it.
He had almost, almost, beckoned her over, but then his confidence had broken the second her eyes had locked onto his, and he had turned his undivided attention to the bottom of his glass. He had swirled around the small amount of amber liquid, his skin prickling uncomfortably, his senses heightened. When he had looked up next, she was leaning against the bar, her body inches away from a rotund, suited man who was eyeing her up like a piece of meat. She took a sip of her drink, and when she pulled the glass away, he had noticed the slight shine of moisture on her lips.
At that point, he had been ready to put his glass down and leave, not wanting to be a fly on the wall during this hookup for any longer. But, before he could take his leave, there had been a smash as a glass dropped from the suited man's hand, his fingers gripping his upper left arm as he stiffened, and then fell to the floor with a thud.
He had been carted off not long after, and the girl, her drink still in hand, that small patch of bare skin at her hip still drawing his eye, was leaning against the bar, in the exact same position she had been when her unfortunate drinking companion had dropped to the floor. She took a step closer, shards of glass crunching underfoot, and he looked up, just for a moment, doing his best to pretend that he hadn't been keeping one eye on her all evening.
"You're not from around here," she had said in a soft purr, her eyes fixed on his.
He had shaken his head, unable to respond with anything more meaningful. His eyes strayed to that smooth curve of her hip again, and he forced his gaze to return to her face, taking in every detail, from the soft, almost pouting lips, to the delicate, slightly upturned nose. Her hair was an unnatural shade of red, falling in waves to just past her shoulders, though, on closer inspection, the ends were split, a little dry, and suggested that she had been somewhat neglecting herself for a while. Nevertheless, she was, indeed, breathtaking.
"I need a place to stay tonight." Her voice had permeated his thoughts, everything about her gentle, cool, and enticing. He blinked, his brain refocusing along with his eyes.
"Why?" It had been a stupid thing to ask. The girl had practically invited herself to spend the night with him, and yet his curiosity had been determined to complicate the matter by asking irrelevant questions.
"I don't have any money and it's cold out."
She was honest, which was refreshing. His experience of women to date, both on Asgard and Midgard, had been one of confusion, of words being used as armour, or weapons, or both at once. He had not come across one so blunt in all his years of dabbling. She was a rarity.
"Do you have a room?"
"Yes," he had said, without thinking. It was a lie, but he had passed a hotel on his way to the bar, and he had already conjured plenty of Midgardian money to see him through the evening. "Well," he clarified, "Almost."
"Almost?" Her eyebrow had arched, her glass halfway to her lips again as she paused.
"I have money," he had continued, before slowly draining the last of his drink and setting the glass down on the bar. He gestured to the bartender for more, and the girl put her glass down next to his. He pulled one of the paper notes from the inside pocket of his jacket and laid it down, next his glass. At this, the bartender had proceeded to pour them both generous refills, her preferred drink being the clear, colourless kind that he had never tried. From the corner of his eye, he had noticed her gaze linger on the money, but it was soon swiped from sight by the barman.
She wasn't much of a talker, preferring instead to drink in silence, having sidled along the bar until she was close enough for him to be entirely too aware of every movement, every soft breath, every brush of her hair against his shoulder.
The snow outside had begun to build against the window ledge, the night pitch black, and one by one, the patrons had slipped out into the chilly street, the door clattering against its frame in their wake. Eventually, he had gained the courage to stand and pull on his coat, and the girl, whose name he still did not know, had smoothly slipped her arm into his. He was under no illusion, he was another in a long line of men who could provide shelter, and he hadn't minded at all. She was certainly practised in getting her way, in gently, yet still forcefully steering things in the direction she wanted them to go, and despite how nervous that made him, it also left him with a feeling in his gut which he wasn't sure he minded.
He will remember until his dying day, the way the snow had compacted under his feet, and how the girl had shrunk into his side, seeking protecting from the biting wind. In a uncommon burst of chivalry, he had removed his coat, slipping it around her shoulders. Her thanks had gotten lost on the wind, but he had seen her lips move, felt her lean more heavily on him. He had sped up his pace, the air cutting at him as it whipped around them, until finally, they had reached the doorway of the hotel. It was by no means spectacular, but it would do for the night.
The snoozing old woman slumped over the reception desk snorted herself awake, blinking blearily in the harsh, unnatural lighting.
"You have a room?"
The old woman looked towards the girl, her eyes lingering.
"Yes or no?"
"Yes," she had said gruffly.
He handed over some notes and was given change and a large, rusting key.
"Third floor," the old woman had said.
The staircase had creaked as they climbed, the wooden balustrade chipped and splintered. When they reached the third floor, the large, cast iron number eight bolted on to the door on the left matched that faintly etched into the key. He inserted it into the lock and twisted it, ignoring the screech of metal on metal, until the door swung open, banging against the interior wall noisily. The girl stepped in ahead of him, shrugging off his coat and slinging it across the back of a chair. He followed, closing the door quietly behind him and locking it. The girl had taken the opportunity to lay down on the bed, on her side, her head propped up by her hand, and she toed her shoes off, each one falling to the floor with a dull thud. He paused by the door, taking her in. Her shirt had ridden up her waist, and then, that bare part of her hip that had gripped his interest mercilessly that evening, led onto the equally alluring dip of her waist.
"You look like a deer caught in the headlights," she commented. "You know I don't expect you to put me up for the night for nothing, right?"
"I know." His cheeks had flushed when it had come out as a croak, but the girl had merely smiled and beckoned him over. Naturally, he had obliged, sitting on the edge of the bed. The dull orange blankets were scratchy, and he had wrinkled his nose at them, but before he had time to find any more faults with their accommodation, the girl had pushed herself up, her hand coming to rest on his jaw. She had pulled him into a kiss and he had frozen once again, but only for a few seconds, before he had reciprocated, twisting his body towards her, his right hand moving to her hip, his thumb grazing across the skin. In seconds, she had him on his back and was straddling him, his heartbeat quickening with every passing moment. She was surprisingly heavy for something so small and slender, and her fingers worked quickly at the buttons of his shirt, pulling it away from his shoulders impatiently. He had slid his hands up her waist, but hesitated when his fingers moved over a hard ridge of skin. He traced the scar with one index finger, the jagged line heading upwards, towards the centre of her breastbone from the bottom of her rib cage.
She had leaned forward, her fingers stroking the skin of his collar bone gently, her hair falling towards him, the tips tickling his shoulder. "No questions," she had whispered. "Please?"
His answer had been to kiss her, and that had seemed to suit her just fine, for she was soon trailing her hand down his stomach, towards his belt buckle.
When he had woken the following morning, it had been to an empty bed. There was a small indent on the pillow next to him, the only piece of evidence that he hadn't dreamed the events of the previous evening. He had sat up, looking around blearily, his skin prickling with goosebumps in the chilly air. He exhaled slowly, his breath misting in front of his face, before pulling the wiry blankets up around his shoulders and leaning back against the headboard.
He didn't blame her for leaving. Not at all, but he had to confess some disappointment. She had been refreshing, a real person, as opposed to the dead-behind-the-eyes girls that he usually ended up bedding. He was well aware that her only attraction to him had been based solely upon the promise of a place to stay, but regardless, he wished he could have said goodbye.
Perhaps it was for the best. His desire for her to remain longer was only due to the fact that he had enjoyed himself the previous night and wished to string it out for as long as he possibly could; preferably until the little old woman at the front desk made it up the stairs to rap on the door with her knuckles, urging them on their way. He'd have been lying if he'd said that the idea of extending the stay hadn't crossed his mind during the night, as she lay next to him, her knees pulled up to her chest as she slept, almost cat-like in her manner. Beneath the assuredness, he had detected a hint of something that felt a little too familiar, perhaps in the way where her porcelain façade had cracked, if only for a millisecond, when he had pulled her close, pressing his lips against her shoulder blade softly, before they had sunken into sleep.
He had been shocked, and more than a little disappointed in himself that he hadn't noticed her leaving. He felt almost ashamed that he didn't catch the creak of a floorboard, or notice the weight of her lift from the bed. He had only noticed how cold he was upon waking, and tried to convince himself that she had only just left, when in reality, she had probably left at dawn, as soon as she'd had enough rest to spur her on to her next destination.
Upon closer inspection, he realised that something was different about the room, apart from the girl's absence. It hadn't been until he'd pulled on his clothes, still not quite accustomed to the lightness of the Midgardian fabrics, that he realised what it was. The coat he had put around the girl's shoulders the previous night, thick, and heavy and ample protection against the biting winter chill, was nowhere to be seen. He vaguely remembered her throwing it across the back of the chair in front of the old, peeling dresser with the rusted handles, but it wasn't there. Grinding his teeth, he dropped to his knees, dipping his head to see if it had been kicked under the bed, but there was nothing but dust hiding under there.
He shouldn't have been annoyed, for they were only conjured Midgardian clothes and held no real value, but he had felt a distinct sense of pride at the level of quality he had achieved this time around, the tight, neat weave of the wool, the soft silk lining that glided over everything it touched. But more than that, she had taken the liberty of relieving him of his scarf as well. The scarf, he was fond of, and she'd taken it, along with his coat, all of his fake Midgardian money, and the small, golden hilted dagger in his coat pocket that he had kept with him for as long as he could remember.
He had descended to the entrance hall after one more fruitless search of the room, just in case she'd left the dagger, or even the scarf, just something for him to keep hold of, but he'd had no such luck. The old woman behind the desk, wrapped in a holey woollen shawl, twisted her cracked lips into a smirk.
"I hope she was worth it," she crowed, turning the page of her newspaper.
"When did she leave?"
"Just after sunrise," the old woman answered gleefully. "You'll not catch her now."
He had tossed the room key down onto the desk, and the woman didn't even blink when it made a loud, echoing crack upon impact. His shoes clicked loudly against the floor as he left, and he slammed the door behind him, the panes of glass rattling ominously in his wake.
Now, as he sits here, looking across at her through the glass of the cage, he's sure she must know, must remember. It was years ago, and yet, somehow, she has aged no more than he has in that time. Her face still has the appearance of a porcelain doll, her cheekbones smooth and defined. She has done away with his coat, apparently, opting instead for a black, all-in-one design with numerous holsters and clips for all of her ammunition. He runs his eyes over her, trying to catch a glimpse of a golden hilt, but there's nothing. He does notice the curve of her hip, the black material of her outfit clinging snugly to it, but forces himself to look elsewhere.
He has already found out much more about her than she'd be comfortable with, knows of her origins courtesy of dear Agent Barton, her fears (limited, though there are a couple) and her nightmares (plentiful, and of the variety that sets his heart pumping slightly faster than normal). He understands a fraction more about that night now, and is certain that she has not forgotten, not completely. He's willing to bet that she's locked everything away in that ledger of hers, condemning it to the past and kidding herself that none of it matters, not if she changes who she kills for.
He didn't start with the intention of scaring her, of seeing those old ghosts flare up behind her eyes, but as the conversation wore on, as she bargained for the painfully ordinary Barton, he grew more and more irate, more and more indignant, that she would place so much value on Barton's life, yet walk out on him at first light, taking half of his clothes with her, without so much as a backwards glance. It's not even jealousy, it's just rubbing salt in a very old wound that he had long since forgotten about. He's met Barton, gotten to know him and his mind most intimately, and while he is a gifted archer, there is little else besides. Nothing worth bargaining for, at least.
When she pulls the rug out from under his feet, he feels his insides ice up, and it's just like stepping out into that mercilessly cold night once again. She even skips down the steps, her red hair, short, and well cared for these days, bouncing around her shoulders. As she disappears into the dark, he feels young again, and he experiences a brief moment of clarity as he remembers how he'd felt upon waking to an empty bed, all those years ago.
But as the vessel shakes and shudders, his mind is clouded once more by the tasks at hand. She may have solved him, laid him bare, for a minute, and he should have known better, having talked to Barton, and having had her before, all those years ago, but it's of no matter. Not when their ship is falling from the sky.
The final insult from her comes when he is bruised and battered, the bridge of his nose throbbing painfully from a deep laceration, grit and glass embedded in the palms of his hands as he drags himself up the steps, his ribs searing with pain from his encounter with the beast. She, along with the other outcasts, is standing over him, looking shaken and tired but on the whole, faring a lot better than himself. In her hands is his spear, pointed in the direction of his chest. In her belt, he sees the gleaming golden hilt of a small dagger. He exhales softly, finding it surprisingly easy to come to terms with his situation. He feels free for the first time in a long time, and if he's honest, it will be somewhat of a relief to return to the comforts of Asgard.
Her lips twitch when he asks about the drink, and it is now that he knows for certain that she remembers their night together. He detects something that might almost be a reluctant fondness for the man he used to be. Confirmation comes a short while later, when she presses a glass into his hand, his shackled wrists not allowing him much room for dignity as he drinks. She rests on her haunches, watching him closely, and when he returns the glass to her, she doesn't stand, not immediately.
"I preferred last time," she murmurs.
"As did I," he replies.
She holds his gaze for a moment longer, and then she stands, heading back towards the bar. As she passes, the backs of her knuckles graze against his cheek, and he closes his eyes, hoping against hope, that he'll meet her a third time, and that that one, as he has heard the mortals say, will be the charm.