I NEED AIR

IV.

"Could you please not do that?" Steve asked for the fifth time that morning. It was also the fifth cigarette Loki had attempted to light in his presence, but who was counting. "Look, it's not just a bad habit, it also makes it hard for me to breathe."

Loki scowled at Steve, not moving to extinguish the cigarette. "Can't a man smoke in his own house anymore? Jeepers, Steve, if I'd wanted a nag, I would have found a wife."

Steve scowled at the other man. "Thanks for that," he muttered; Loki just looked at him levelly. He had put out the other four cigs. "Could you at least open a window?"

The Jotunn sighed in defeat, then moved to open the kitchen window. At least it was warm outside; the late-May weather in New York was pleasant, Loki thought. "What's your beef with smoking, anyways?" he asked, leaning towards the window to take a leisurely drag on his cigarette.

"I told you," Steve said, rolling his eyes. "It makes it hard for me to breathe, so if you could please just stand over there, that'd be great." Loki cocked an eyebrow; the kid didn't really have much room to be demanding right now. Steve had shown up on Loki's stoop that morning, all of his worldly possessions crammed haphazardly into a battered suitcase while his artwork was filed neatly in a leather portfolio.

"I've been evicted," he had said morosely, looking up at Loki like the very picture of a soul in need. "I've got nowhere else to go."

"I see," Loki said, leaning against the door jamb. "Why did you get evicted?"

Steve had shrugged. "I don't know the real reason, I've always been a good tenant," he explained. "I'm a bachelor, I live alone. Money's tight and I'm planning on joining the military."

Loki let a few moments pass before he replied, relishing the power he had over Steve. "And what do you want me to do about it?"

The younger man shuffled his feet on the cement stoop awkwardly, his face flushing slightly. "Um, I was hoping you'd let me stay with you," he admitted. "Not for free, of course!" Steve was quick to add. "I'll pay rent, or earn my keep, or… Look, you won't even know I'm here!"

For the first time since Loki had opened the door to a beleaguered Steve, he laughed, the smile lines materializing on his face. "I'm just joshing with you, kid," he'd said, stepping aside so Steve could enter the brownstone. "You can stay here."

Loki turned with a sardonic smile to Steve, who sat at the kitchen table drawing a still life composed of random objects he'd pulled out of his suitcase. He'd said it was an art school assignment, and promptly took over Loki's kitchen with his art supplies.

"You know, Steve," Loki drawled, "I'm not trying to be mean or anything, but… I can tell you're here." Steve didn't say anything, just threw the other man a nasty look. The Jotunn raised his brows and took another drag on his cigarette, this time blowing the smoke at Steve, just for fun.

Loki could pinpoint the moment Steve breathed the smoke; his eyes went wide and his hand clutched at his chest while he gasped for air.

The coughing began. Loki wasn't worried at first; he turned away and took another drag on his cigarette. Steve was still coughing, but what did that matter? The kid got what was coming to him, Loki thought, being so presumptuous at Loki's own house. Surely he was just putting on a show for effect.

Loki glanced over his shoulder at Steve, annoyed that the young man kept coughing. "Will you quit that? I was just having some fun."

"I— can't—," Steve wheezed, both hands clutching at his chest. The young man was drawn and pale, covered in a sheen of sweat. The coughing continued, getting worse, and Loki began to get worried. Maybe Steve wasn't making it up— his fingers flexed on his chest, and the Jotunn noticed that Steve's fingernails and fingertips were blue.

"Jesus Christ!" he shouted, immediately stubbing out his cigarette and rushing over to Steve; that particular shade of blue was not natural, even to Jotnar. The young man's neck muscles were tense, straining beneath his skin as Steve's Adam's apple bobbed up and down in his efforts to breathe. "Jesus, Steve, what's wrong?"

Steve just shook his head, making horrible, deep wheezing noises when he tried to breathe in. Slowly prying one hand off of his chest, he gestured shakily to his suitcase. "Nebulizer," he said, his breath whistling through his teeth, and Loki shot off to the suitcase, wondering what the hell a nebulizer was.

Unclasping the latches on the leather suitcase and flinging it open, the Jotunn dug through Steve's possessions, looking for anything strange that could be a nebulizer. "Christ, Steve, do you have all the nine realms stored in here?" he muttered, frantically tossing clothing and papers aside. The awful whistling and wheezing was growing quieter now, and Loki scrambled faster, sifting through his companion's things.

His fingers hit upon something solid towards the bottom of the suitcase, and Loki snatched it up. It was a box, conveniently labeled "Parke-Davis Gaseptic Nebulizer". Jumping to his feet, Loki ran to Steve's side while he fumbled to open the box. A strange glass object fell into his hands. Two glass bulbs, one with an open spout, and the other attached to a red rubber ball.

"What the hell is this?" Loki said through gritted teeth, dropping the nebulizer in Steve's lap. Steve's hands slowly moved towards the nebulizer, picking it up and putting the spout to his mouth. The young man tried to pump the rubber ball, but his tremors were too strong. His lips were blue now, too, trembling around the spout.

Loki took hold of the nebulizer, squeezing the rubber ball for his companion as Steve inhaled loudly. He began to cough again, and Loki cursed. "Come on, Steve!" he said firmly, pressing the nebulizer into Steve's mouth and pumping the ball rapidly. Steve inhaled again, and it sounded like something was rattling in his chest. He inhaled once, twice before his tremors began to calm down. It was a minute before the rattling in Steve's chest went away, and two minutes before Steve could squeeze the rubber bulb himself.

As Steve took over the nebulizer, Loki slumped into the chair next to him, breathing a little quickly himself. As much as he didn't want to admit it, Steve scared Loki— he was fond of Steve, and didn't want to be alone again.

Loki scowled and shook his head. He liked being alone, he preferred it. He didn't need anyone, especially not a sickly mortal who couldn't even handle some smoke. He dropped his head on the table with a grunt.

"Loki," a feeble voice interrupted his thoughts. "Loki?"

He lifted his head to find Steve peering at him, the nebulizer in his hands. "Yeah?" Loki snapped.

"Thanks," Steve wheezed, but this time it didn't sound like the kid was on his death bed.

"Thanks?" Loki asked with a laugh. "I almost killed you!"

"You listened," Steve said simply. "You listened and got my nebulizer. Most guys would tell me to stop being a girl."

Loki looked at Steve blankly. "What does being female have to do with anything?"

Steve laughed, which turned into a cough, and Loki sat up straight, reaching for the nebulizer. "I'm fine," Steve whispered after a moment. "The doctors think I'm making it up, say I just miss my mother. That I'm looking for attention." Steve's smile didn't reach his eyes. "Well, I do miss my mom, but I'm definitely not looking for attention. You didn't even hesitate to get my nebulizer. Thank you."

Loki sat in silence for a moment. He came from a world where this "asthma" didn't exist, and Steve mistook his ignorance for kindness. He nearly killed the kid because he didn't believe that Steve couldn't breathe, and he thanked him for it.

Loki narrowed his eyes, contemplating Steve. If he wanted to believe that Loki had saved his life, so be it. Maybe Steve would believe he owed Loki in some way, and make it that much easier for Loki to entangle him in his plans.

"You're welcome," the Jotunn said finally. He gave Steve a serious look. "What do you do when you're not at home?"

Steve looked grim. "Pray I don't have an attack."

Loki's lips quirked up in a smile. "Maybe you've been praying to the wrong gods."