A/N: I nearly died writing this chapter. I mean I didn't, but like, I totally nearly did. You guys better like it cause you know, I'll be gutted if you don't.
The sound of her name catches her attention. She blinks, looks up, her eyes scanning the table for the most expectant expression, in order to try and gauge who exactly is addressing her. As it stands, all the men sitting at the table are looking at her expectantly, and so she has no choice but to reveal her unusually short attention span to them all.
"As I was saying," Fury says impatiently, his one visible eye bulging slightly as he stares at her. "Natasha is currently on loan to Asgard, so she can't be involved. She can't even pay attention to a conversation it seems."
"Give her a break," Clint says, smirking. "She was up all night with the kid."
The room fills with the sound of snickering, and even Steve smiles, though it is quickly replaced with an apologetic look at Natasha's frosty expression.
"Shouldn't you be hanging out in your nest or something?" Fury asks, turning his attention to Clint, who immediately quietens at his tone. "And as for the rest of you clowns, I don't see any of you building good, working relationships with gods."
"By babysitting?" Tony asks, one eyebrow raised.
"We ask Thor for a favour, I doubt he'll say no. Natasha has him eating outta the palm of her hand, right?"
"Well," Natasha says, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. "He did say that he'd offer up his services in exchange. So I guess if we ever need his help…" She doesn't like the idea of manipulating Thor, nor using him. He has his faults, just like everybody else, but he is one of the few people she's ever met who is good to the core. He, unlike her, unlike Loki, and unlike Fury, doesn't believe in screwing people over in the way that others might. She knows that Loki finds it naïve, almost piteous, but she considers it quite admirable. Not that she'd ever take a leaf out of his book. It all sounds far too taxing, being decent.
"Exactly, and if you're getting Loki to actually behave himself, I daresay Odin would be looking kindly on our world."
Natasha doesn't respond to that. She doubts Odin gives a damn, but she won't burst Fury's bubble. He's always keen to make sure that he's getting something for his troubles, and if he's talked himself into believing that Natasha's work with Loki has formed an unbreakable alliance with Asgard then so be it. She's not sure he realises that an alliance with Thor and an alliance with Asgard are not the same thing, regardless of the fact that he's the crown prince.
"You're getting him to behave?" Tony asks with a raised eyebrow. "How? You give him a spanking?"
"Stark," Fury says cuttingly, before Natasha can retort. "There is a line."
Tony smirks, and then winks at Natasha – a gesture which she has come to realise is the physical representation of the words 'no offence'.
"So…what is he like now?" Bruce asks cautiously, his glasses held loosely in his hand. Natasha's pretty sure they spend more time there than on his head.
"Manageable," Natasha says coolly. "With the right tactics."
"What kinda tactics?" Steve asks, his head slightly cocked to one side in curiosity.
"You know…treating him like a person usually works well. I think it's been a while for him."
Clint's jaw clenches and she looks away. She knows the idea of her being remotely civil to Loki, given the history, and given her and Clint's loyalty to one another, leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. She hasn't even bothered trying to explain that he's different now, she knows there'd be no point, that some wounds run too deep to heal.
"You mean, you're nice to him?" Steve says incredulously. "After everything?"
"Yes," Natasha responds curtly.
"I don't mean anything by it," Steve says, holding up his hands defensively. "I just…you never really struck me as the forgiving type. I just assumed it was a 'sit still, shut the hell up or I'll kick your ass' kinda job for you."
Natasha shakes her head, but then Clint speaks up.
"She takes him gifts. For when he's been a good boy." The last two words come out in a mocking tone and Natasha feels a rush of anger flash through her veins. Clint's gaze is fixed on her, as though he's testing her, to see how much she'll run to Loki's defence.
"Are you jealous?" she asks politely. "Do you need me to validate good behaviour with rewards? Because if you do, you're not gonna be getting any gold stars any time soon."
Tony lets out a long, low whistle, and Bruce looks down at his hands, fiddling with his glasses, turning them over and over in his fingers, the light catching them on each rotation.
"No luxury fairtrade organic chocolate for me then? My God, how will I cope?"
"We can always see how you'll cope with my foot up your ass. Although I'd have to remove your head from there first."
Clint opens his mouth to respond but Fury slams his hand down on the table, the whole thing shuddering with the force of the blow. Silence falls immediately, and Natasha is the only one to meet his gaze. Everybody else is suddenly very interested in the wood grain, even Clint, whose fists are clenched, his muscles tense and twitching.
"Agent Barton, if you have an issue with Agent Romanov's current assignment, you can address your feelings to me. How she conducts herself during the assignment is left to her own judgement, providing she is representing our organisation in a dignified manner. If that involves buying a cookie for the guy when he goes a whole day without blowing shit up, then so be it."
"Nat," Clint says, looking up at her at last. "This is the guy who opened up my mind and crept in like poison. This the guy who stripped me of everything that was me and turned me into his own personal killing machine."
"And if I were to say to you that he'd had the same done to him?" Natasha asks quietly. "If he were being controlled by someone with skills beyond even his."
"I'd call bullshit," Clint says firmly, sitting back in his seat and folding his arms. "He knew what he was doing."
Natasha shrugs. "Believe what you want, but he's civil towards me. Even stood up for me when two of the asshole guards were laughing about me being a woman."
"Oh well give the guy a medal, he's a murderer but at least he's not sexist."
"I think we've heard enough," Fury interrupts, before Clint can get wound up again. "Bottom line is, Thor's happy with what Natasha's doing and Loki's responding well to…rehabilitation, chocolate, whatever you wanna call it."
"What have you got for him this time?" Tony asks. "Etch-a-Sketch?"
"That's not a bad idea," Natasha says, skewing her lips to one side. It would certainly keep him occupied, and it's the sort of novelty that he would enjoy, even if just for a few days. She continues to ponder it while the meeting picks up again around her, keeping one ear open for important information that never materialises.
Come the summer, she'll be longing for the slow, lazy days like this. That knowledge, however, does not make the meeting any more enjoyable.
"You turn the dials," she says, leaning over his shoulder to look at the screen. "And it draws the line based on which way you turn."
Loki scowls as a line shoots off to the other side of the Etch-a-Sketch screen, and huffs.
"You'll get used to it," Natasha says, sitting down next to him. In truth, it had been a genius idea from Tony. The amount of concentration he'll have to use in order to get the hang of using the dials will only be good for him after such a long stretch of monotony and mental inactivity.
"I don't know how I'm supposed to hide this in here anyway," he says sulkily, setting it to one side with a sour expression. "Cards are one thing but this? It's huge, it's red, it's asking to be found."
Natasha opens her mouth to respond then decides to go for a slightly guilty looking smile instead.
"I asked Thor if you could have it," she tells him. "He said yes. He genuinely doesn't care what you have in here as long as it's not a bomb or something."
Loki fixes her with an icy glare.
"You invaded another planet," she reminds him. "But you're still his brother. You need to remember that. Because he certainly does."
Loki ignores her, and decides to focus all of his energy on the Etch-a-Sketch instead. Natasha rests her chin against her palm, watching out of the corner of her eye as he experiments with basic shapes, followed by letters, and then simple pictures.
"You like it?" Natasha asks tentatively after a while. He's trying to draw the main palace of Asgard and isn't doing too badly at all. It's recognisable at least. Natasha's never been able to get more than a squiggle of lines out of one them, so perhaps she's easily impressed.
"It's certainly addictive…" he murmurs, turning the dials minutely, the Etch-a-Sketch resting against his knees as he squints at it.
"I'll take that as a yes," she says with a small smile. She makes a mental note to let Tony know just how much Loki's enjoying his idea, and another to make sure she tells him when Clint is out of earshot. The idea of another argument in front of everybody doesn't really appeal. She wonders if he'd feel the same if he could see Loki now, stripped back, kept away from the demons that taunted him and manipulated him and used him. Or whether he'd just shrug it off, and say he knew what he was doing all along. In truth, Natasha thinks he probably did know what he was doing, but she does wonder what kind of poisonous words were whispered in his ear to turn him from overshadowed younger brother into a fully-fledged maniac. Thanos must have tapped into some pretty deeply rooted paranoia in order to have Loki turn to putty in his hands.
"Did you bring any chocolate?" Loki asks, interrupting her train of thought.
She shakes her head. "Why? Hungry?"
Loki shrugs. "I liked it."
"Maybe next time," she tells him. "Food's coming soon anyway. You gonna eat?"
He nods, still fiddling with the dials on his Etch-a-Sketch.
"You know he wants you to be well. You don't have to save eating only for when I'm here."
Loki finally breaks his gaze away from the Etch-a-Sketch, looking straight ahead at the glass opposite. It's unsteady ground that she's treading on, but it's also getting quite ridiculous. Thor's motives are not underhand or self-serving, but Loki's time alone in his cell has resulted in humungous amounts of overthinking, overanalysing, providing a huge melting pot for all of his paranoia and fears to merge together.
"You're not the same as him," he says, his eyes still fixed on the glass. "He always acts like he's doing me a huge favour, by bringing me food. You don't do that."
"Well I only bring it into your cell, it's not like I cooked it."
"You think Thor cooks any of it? You think he even knows how to?"
"Do you know how to cook?" Natasha asks, turning to him with a smile spreading across her lips.
"I learned a lot of things in my exile. Cooking was one."
This surprises her. She had assumed that Loki, by his nature, would have found somebody else to complete all of his menial tasks for him. She's never given too much thought to the practicalities of his exile, to the ins and outs of day to day life in the darkest, nastiest corners of the universe. The idea of him cooking is a strange one, but then she highly doubts that any of it would have been Michelin starred cuisine. Perhaps his ability to go without food in his cell stems from his exile, where he had to go without.
"He won't think any less of you for accepting food," she says, dragging them back to her main point. "He was worried about you when we were out…when you fell. He doesn't like the idea of his little brother not being well."
Loki gives her a venomous look but she pays it no notice.
"Like it or not, you will always be his little brother. There's no getting away from that, and no matter how far you fall, he will always pick you back up. He can't change what you do, because that's your choice. But he could have left you down here to rot. He doesn't have to bring you food every day, he doesn't have to even come and see you. He fought with your father over letting you out you know. He's worried about you, because he cares." She sits back, taking a breath and waiting for some sort of response from Loki. He's focusing on the Etch-a-Sketch again, twisting the dials, his jaw jutting forward.
There's a clatter that announces the arrival of food, and Natasha gets to her feet, leaves the cell and collects the tray, which has even more food on it than usual. Perhaps Thor is pushing his luck, hoping that Loki's appetite will increase, now that he's been outside and had some exercise. But Natasha fears that she too has been pushing her luck, and will be hard pressed to get Loki to eat anything at all, even though she knows he wants to.
When she sets the tray between them, he puts down his Etch-a-Sketch and picks up a plate, filling it silently, not even acknowledging her existence as they both begin to eat. Only the sounds of their cutlery clinking against their plates break the silence, and Natasha chews her food slowly, her skin prickling as the tension between them builds.
It's not until Loki is cutting up his meat with a little more aggression than is truly necessary that they actually exchange words. He slams his knife and fork down and looks up at her, his eyebrows contorted into an indignant frown. He inhales sharply, as though about to speak, then huffs, shaking his head, picks up his knife and fork once more, but throws them down again moments later.
"How can you come into my cell and try and manipulate me into being his pet? You claimed to understand, and yet you're trying to mould me into exactly what they want, my captors."
"I'm not trying to make you do anything," Natasha replies coolly, pushing her food around her plate with her fork then spearing a potato on the end of it. "I don't gain anything from whatever path you choose to take. I just think you'd be happier if you were out of here and the only way you're gonna get out of here is if you rebuild some bridges." She pops the potato into her mouth and chews it, glancing up at him. He's glaring at her as though he can't believe that she has the audacity to eat while he's having a crisis, but the food's getting cold, and she's not about to abandon it just because he's behaving like a child.
"I burned those bridges a long time ago," he says darkly.
"No you didn't," Natasha replies quickly. "You tried, but you didn't."
"You're gonna have to do a hell of a lot worse for Thor to stop caring about you. And that," she says, jabbing her fork in his direction, "Is not a challenge."
"I don't want Thor to care about me," he snarls.
"Well that's tough, because he does. And the more you claim that he's the most awful person in the universe, the more childish and idiotic you look. All he's trying to do is look after you, even though you tried to take over an entire planet and tried to kill him what, half a dozen times?"
"You have no idea what you're talking about," Loki snaps, dumping his plate back on the tray and pushing the entire lot away. It skids across the floor, coming to a halt just short of the glass on the far side of the room.
Natasha pauses, mid-chew, and raises an eyebrow.
She doesn't argue. She puts down her plate, stands up, and then takes the Etch-a-Sketch from Loki's side. He narrows his eyes, but doesn't say a word as she retreats to the glass, passing through it with minimal discomfort. She places the Etch-a-Sketch on the table and sits down in the wooden chair, making herself as comfortable as possible, her elbow propped up on the carved arm. She doesn't say another word, and nor does Loki. In fact, they both stay completely still, except for the rise and fall of their chests as they breathe – Natasha softly, Loki with sulky, childlike huffs and puffs. She continues to watch him and he stares ahead, his expression set.
The next hour crawls by, and during that time, Natasha's body starts to ache from the hardness of the chair. She'd grown quite used to the floor of Loki's cell, and she's mostly annoyed by his childish behaviour because it's landed her in such an uncomfortable sitting position. She won't move however. She's far too stubborn for that.
She loses track of the time easily after a while, but eventually she hears the sound of footsteps, descending the stairs, before the door is pushed open. She looks up, expecting Thor, but Frejir, the guard, is standing in the doorway, his shoulders squared, his neck extended as much as he can manage, as though he's trying to make himself look even taller than he already is.
"Can I help you?" Natasha asks, not bothering to get up from her seat.
Frejir's lip curls, his cool blue eyes gliding down Natasha's form. "I've come to see how mortals work," he says, stepping further into the room, closing the door behind him. "But apparently," he gestures to Natasha and her chair, "They don't!"
"Well, we're smart enough to know when we need to work," Natasha replies, glancing down at her nails casually before looking up again and meeting Frejir's gaze. "Instead of just being puppets that follow orders."
From the corner of her eye she can see that Loki's back has straightened. He's no longer leaning against the wall, and his fingertips are resting against the floor, as though he's ready to stand at a moment's notice. Perhaps he doesn't have as much confidence in her ability to handle Frejir as he had previously expressed. She's almost disappointed.
"I serve the King," Frejir hisses. "Only the most honourable and noble -"
"Yeah," Natasha interrupts. "I'm sure you're very special…just like everybody else."
Frejir lets out a grunt of annoyance and starts towards her. She doesn't move, having already picked out seven weak spots in his armour, should she need to make good use of them. When he reaches her, he towers over her, and from inside the cell, Loki stands silently, making his way to the glass. He meet's Natasha's eye but she simply smirks and looks up at Frejir, who is apparently distracted.
"What's this?" he demands, picking up the Etch-a-Sketch.
"Nothing that concerns you," Natasha replies. Behind Frejir, she can see Loki's jaw clench, his shoulders stiffen, and she knows, despite the triviality of the Etch-a-Sketch, and the fact that it's been confiscated for his bad behaviour, he takes it as a personal insult that Frejir has dared lay his hands on it.
"Well," Frejir says simply. "If it doesn't concern me, then it shouldn't concern you."
Natasha knows what's coming a split second before it does. She sees the flex of his muscles, his knuckles pop under the skin, and then, the Etch-a-Sketch shatters, red plastic shards shooting off in all directions as the fine, silvery powder pours from the insides, staining Frejir's boots.
"That was mine," Loki hisses, slamming a fist against the glass.
Frejir tosses the remaining pieces to the floor and approaches the glass, only stopping when his nose is inches away. He's far taller than Loki, who doesn't retreat (he's just as stubborn as Natasha is in these situations it seems) and then his mouth breaks into a smile.
"What are you going to do? Complain to Daddy?"
Loki's fingers twitch, as though he's itching to put his hands around Frejir's neck and squeeze every last molecule of air out of him, but instead, a wry smile works its way onto his lips. "Oh no," he says silkily. "But I'll be out of here soon enough, Frejir. I was out yesterday, you probably heard. I'll be out again soon, and when I am, I will break you into more pieces than that -" he waves a hand towards the remnants of the Etch-a-Sketch. "You'll long for death, but I won't give it to you until I'm quite bored of hearing you scream."
"I've killed Frost Giants before," Frejir murmurs, his breath misting against the glass. "I'm sure a Frost Runt will be no problem."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Loki replies plainly. His face has glazed over, a smooth mask in place of his real expressions. Natasha pushes herself forward in her chair just a little. She doesn't know whether Frejir can enter the cell or not, but if he can, then her job description will have to shift from captor to protector. She doesn't mind one little bit, because the jibe about Loki's parentage is way below the belt in her eyes.
"I've heard the whispers, Laufeyson. I wonder what kind of mutts a Frost Runt and a mortal whore will make. Ones that I could crush with a single hand, I daresay."
"I wouldn't anger her, if I were you, Frejir," Loki says coldly, taking a step back from the glass, his eyes sliding over to Natasha. "I've heard stories of her work. She is a legend."
Frejir turns to Natasha, one eyebrow raised. "Midgard has always had low standards."
"Yeah, they labour under the delusion that Asgardians are gods…if they met you they'd soon realise they were very much mistaken."
"You do far too much talking, for a woman," Frejir says, walking slowly towards her.
Natasha laughs in disbelief and turns to Loki. "Is this asshole for real?"
"Unfortunately yes," Loki replies, the corners of his mouth curving upwards in a small smile. His eyes are narrowed, and he takes small, shallow breaths as he watches them, his anticipation apparently building with each passing second.
"When the guy in the cage has more manners than you, it's probably time to re-evaluate your life choices," Natasha says, turning back to Frejir, who growls in response and launches himself towards her. Natasha acts quickly, flipping herself over the back of the chair and landing deftly on her feet, skipping backwards as Frejir smashes into the empty chair, splintering the wood and coming crashing down to the floor. He pushes himself up without a moment's hesitation and lunges again, Natasha sidestepping at the last moment, ducking under his outstretched arms.
As she skirts around the edge of the wall, she catches sight of Loki, his hands and forehead pressed against the glass as he watches them, his mouth slightly ajar in shock, and his eyes wide.
"I don't see much evidence of skill!" Frejir growls. "There is no talent in running like a coward!"
Natasha skews her lips, torn between the sensible option of getting to the other side of the room and ringing the bell so Thor will come and get rid of Frejir for her, or the far more appealing option of showing him a few of her party tricks. Instinct makes her decision for her when Frejir lunges again. Instead of ducking and sliding between his legs (which she's pretty sure would give her enough time to reach the bell) she grabs one of his outstretched arms, twisting and ducking and forcing him face first into the solid stone wall. He lets out a strangled yell as she levers his arm back with all the strength she can muster, but he manages to shake her off and recover far more quickly than any of her human opponents ever have.
Her heart is pounding in her chest, adrenalin pumping through her. It's been so long since she's seen combat, and no matter how much she spars with Clint in order to stay in shape, there is nothing quite like the thrill of danger. Frejir's main tactic, it seems, is to lunge and hope. When he next comes storming towards her, Natasha ducks, throwing back a hand to balance herself before sending her right foot flying into the side of Frejir's knee. His leg gives way and he falls, but before Natasha can get out of the way, he's on top of her, the weight of him and his armour combined crushing her. He reaches out one large hand, grabbing a fistful of her hair, and Natasha digs her nails into his wrist, piercing the skin. Frejir doesn't release her however, and she struggles under him as he tries to grip her wrists with his spare hand.
"Frejir wait!" Loki bellows.
Frejir looks up, and Natasha, hardly daring to believe that it worked, takes the opportunity to send her knuckles flying into Frejir's Adam's apple. He chokes, his face turning an angry shade of magenta, as he wheezes, and Natasha manages to free herself, deciding that it's probably about time for her to call for backup.
She doesn't make it more than two steps. Frejir snatches at her ankle and jerks her leg backwards, sending her plummeting to the floor. When her head catches the edge of the stone step leading up to Loki's cage, she's blinded by whiteness, can feel the warm trickle of blood start to pool, but she fights through it, twisting around and using her free leg to land a kick square in Frejir's face. Her heel catches his nose three times before his grip loosens enough for her to land one last blow to the hand locked around her ankle. His fingers spasm and there is a split second in which Natasha is able to free herself, scrambling towards the bell ropes.
"Natasha!" Loki's shout gets her attention just in time for her to see one of the splintered wooden chair legs come hurtling towards her. She throws herself out of its way and it smashes into the wall behind her. Frejir lets out a roar of fury and Natasha lunges for the ropes, in the rush unable to distinguish which one serves which purpose, and so she yanks them both, a cacophony of clanging sounding in the distance. She raises a hand to wipe the blood from her face, her vision in her left eye slightly blurred and tinged pink from some rogue drops, but before she can catch her breath and evaluate Frejir's next move, he slams her into the wall, the back of her head colliding nastily with the solid stone. There is a sickening crunch and a burning in the lower part of her chest that causes her to sink her teeth into her lower lip to stop herself from screaming.
She is sandwiched between Frejir's armour and the wall, unable to move an inch, her insides searing with pain, while the back of her head feels as though it might cave in with one more blow. There's something hard digging into her skull but it's the least of her worries, especially when Frejir's thick fingers find their way to her throat and start to squeeze, her airway constricting painfully. He laughs as her eyes fill with tears, his breath rancid and warm, but Natasha tries to block it out, along with Loki's pounding against the glass and his desperate, broken calls for help.
Instead, she focuses on the fact that Thor will be here at any moment, that she's not going to die here because she can hang on, if she concentrates, if she doesn't panic or struggle. She can feel her muscles weakening, crying out for oxygen, her lungs burning in her chest, tears streaming down her face, and all the while, she remains calm, ignoring the fact that Frejir's grip is so strong that he might turn her windpipe to dust at any moment.
There is a loud clatter of metal on stone, and Natasha twists her head, hoping to see Thor. Instead, she realises that the chefs have responded more quickly than Thor – a steaming tray of food sitting in the hollow of the dumbwaiter next to her. Black spots start to distort her vision, and Frejir's large, bloodied face is going to be the last thing she'll see if she doesn't act.
Her fingers close around the handle of the wine jug, and with all her might, she throws the wine over Frejir, disorienting him enough for his grip to falter. The few particles of oxygen that she manages to drag into her lungs before he retightens his hold give her a new burst of energy, and she brings the jug crashing down on the top of Frejir's head.
"Your hair!" Loki calls, banging against the glass. "Your hair!"
It takes a moment for Natasha to register what he's saying, but then she realises that it's not the wall digging into her scalp, but her hair clip. She raises a shaking hand to the back of her head, Frejir's thumbs pressing so hard against her throat that she feels as though they might go clean through at any moment.
Instead of finding a hair clip at the back of her head, her fingers close around a solid metal hilt. Natasha looks down at Frejir's armour, and sees that the base of his throat is unprotected. Her lips stretch into a smile, and Frejir frowns, just for a moment, before Natasha sinks the dagger through his skin. He releases her instantly, but Natasha keeps a firm grip on the dagger, wrenching it out of him with a malicious twist as he falls away from her.
His eyes are wide, his face pale as blood starts to pool around his armour, trickling in thin lines towards the floor. He struggles for breath, and there is an unpleasant gurgling sound as he does so. He clasps a shaking hand to his throat, trying to stem the flow of blood, and Natasha gives him one last poisonous look before she staggers towards the cell, pressing one tremulous hand to the glass, staining it with scarlet before she is moved into the safety of Loki's cage.
She's still wheezing, her throat raw and bruised. Her entire body is shaking, and she feels as though her legs might give way at any moment, so it's something of a relief when Loki suddenly has his arms around her and lowers her to the floor gently. He sits behind her, rubbing her shoulders soothingly.
"Just breathe," he says softly. "You'll be fine, just breathe."
The dagger is still in her hand. She releases it, and it drops the floor with a clunk. She puts her head in her hands and tries to regain control of her body, but taking deep breaths only causes her ribs to send shockwaves of pain searing through her, so she settles for fast, shallow ones, which do nothing to regulate her heartbeat. She leans back against Loki, closing her eyes and trying to relax, but moments later, there is a crash, and the door explodes out of its frame. Thor lands in the middle of the room, hammer in hand, ready for combat, but at the sight of Natasha and Loki sitting together, Natasha's chest still heaving, and Frejir, on the floor, surrounded by his own blood, he drops the hammer to the ground.
"What happened?" he asks softly, kneeling down next to Frejir and inspecting the damage.
"Where the hell have you been?" Loki spits, extricating himself from Natasha and standing rapidly, storming towards the glass. "She rang the bell ages ago."
"I was with Father…I came as soon as I -"
"He would have killed her! He very nearly did! Were it not for mother's magic -"
"Frejir?" Thor asks, his eyes wide, his voice barely above a whisper. "Frejir attacked Natasha?"
"You think I did?" Loki snaps, "You think that's why she's sought refuge in here, with me? Because I'm the one who tried to break her neck? Why weren't the chains on the doors?"
"I…I didn't think it necessary, I trusted that you wouldn't -"
"It's not me that's the problem, brother," Loki spits. "But of course you never see that, do you? You come in here and assume it's me that's caused this!"
"Are you all right?"
Natasha doesn't feel like her throat can manage a verbal answer just yet, but Loki answers before she has a chance to even try.
"Get some healing stones," he says through gritted teeth, one clenched fist pressed against the glass. "And get rid of Frejir. He should be punished accordingly for this."
"Natasha, I don't know what to say, I'm so -"
"Hurry up," Loki cuts across. "She's in pain. The food got here quicker than you did, you should be ashamed. Once again your lack of forethought puts everybody but yourself at risk - you claim to be different from the arrogant child of before, but you're no wiser at all. It's just a lie."
Thor blinks and looks down at Frejir, then in one swift movement, he stands and picks Frejir up with ease, slinging him over his shoulders before disappearing from the dungeon. Mjolnir sits in the middle of the floor, amongst shards of door, chair, and Etch-a-Sketch, and after a pause, when the sound of Thor's footsteps have disappeared, Loki returns to the floor behind Natasha, brushing her hair from her face. Even his breaths are a little unsteady, and through the thin material of his shirt, she can feel his heart beating rapidly against the inside of his ribcage. As his breathing slows, so does her own, and she starts to fall into step with him, his hands a comforting presence on her shoulders.
When Loki picks up the dagger a few minutes later, she feels a flash of panic surge through her, but all he does is examine it curiously, turning it over in his hands, letting the silver catch the light.
"This would have gone through the armour you know," he says quietly in her ear. "You could have taken out his heart with it."
"Maybe next time," she says hoarsely.
He lets out a soft breath of laughter, then gently gathers her hair at the back of her head. She feels the hair clip snake its way through her locks, having apparently transformed now the danger is gone. She leans back against Loki, trying to achieve the most comfortable position for what she's pretty sure are a couple of broken ribs. Her head is pounding, but head injuries, despite all the fuss that usually comes with them, are rather easy for her to get over. She knows it'll be sore for a couple of days but the ribs…the ribs will take a long while to heal.
When Thor returns, his hands stained with Frejir's blood, he walks straight into the cell and hands Loki half a dozen chalky white pebbles.
"Natasha, I -" he begins, but Loki cuts across him, ignoring him.
"Where does it hurt most?"
"Ribs," Natasha answers, sitting up and frowning down at the stones. "Healing stones?" she asks.
"Yes," Loki replies.
"Do exactly what they say on the tin?"
Loki nods, then gestures for her to lay down. She does so, on her side, her damaged ribs facing up, and Loki gently slides the bottom of her t-shirt out of the way. She holds the gathered cotton in place with her hand, and glances at Thor, who's taken a seat on the floor too, back to the glass, a deep frown on his face.
Natasha holds her breath, and then she feels something gritty land lightly on her skin. Even the faintest pressure sends small pangs of discomfort, and when Loki lays his hand over the grit, she has to bite her lip to keep herself from making any noise. She doesn't manage to keep her leg from jerking however, and Loki places his other hand on the side of her thigh, holding it steady.
"Stay still, it'll be over soon."
An intense heat spreads through her skin and down to her ribs. There's an uncomfortable lurch as they shift back into place, and it feels as though her entire ribcage is humming, vibrating beneath the skin. Natasha squeezes her eyes shut, her fists clenched tightly, and then, without warning, the sensation vanishes. She lets out a breath, and to her surprise, it doesn't hurt. There's not even a dull ache to suggest that her ribs have been remotely damaged at all this evening. She sits up, looking at Loki in confusion. He looks blankly back at her.
"Well yes," Loki says obviously. "That's why they're called healing stones. Come here, let me fix your head."
She feels stupid for saying it, but she hadn't anticipated a full recovery in less than a minute. She can accept daggers materialising from hair clips and rainbow bridges and magic glass, but that level of healing? No wonder they're immortal. She shuffles closer to Loki and he crumbles a stone in one hand, then with the fingers of his other, dabs the grit into her head wound. The heat seeps into her again, but she doesn't close her eyes this time, instead watching Loki's concentrated gaze, his eyebrows contorted in a slight frown, his mouth ajar, his hands steady. When he catches her staring, she refuses to look away, too proud to let him think that she didn't want him to notice. His lips curve into a smile and he looks down at the last of the crumbly white powder in his hand, before applying the rest of it to her head.
"You see this?" Loki says to Thor, gesturing to Natasha's neck. "He should be executed for this."
"But why would he attack?" Thor asks, his voice cracking. He swallows and runs a hand through his hair before quickly adding, "Not that I doubt that he did. I just don't understand his motive."
"Frejir doesn't need a motive. He's even worse than you when it comes to warmongering."
Thor sighs and rubs his face tiredly. "But why would he come down here? For Natasha?"
"Because he loathes the idea that one mortal woman can do the job of two Asgardian men. I think he wanted to put her in her place." Loki says the last few words with his nose scrunched in distaste. He crumbles up another stone and starts to apply the remnants to Natasha's throat, the warmth of it leaving her feeling slightly nauseated.
"And you put him in his?" Thor asks with a hint of a smile, his eyes on Natasha.
"Naturally," she croaks.
"She wouldn't have had to if you'd put the chains on the door, like you should have," Loki adds, shooting a glare towards him. "Or if you'd gotten here sooner. Honestly, if I'd escaped that would have given me more than enough time to get out of Asgard entirely."
Thor's smile vanishes at this and he lets out a sigh, before pulling his knees up to his chest and resting his chin on top of them.
"I'm sorry," he says after moment. "It's all my fault."
"Yes," Loki says, "It is."
"No it's not," Natasha says exasperatedly. "Nobody except that asshole is to blame."
"Exactly," Loki says briskly, brushing the last dusty remains of the healing stones from his hands. "Like I said, all Thor's fault."
Natasha gives him a look and he grins mischievously, his anger having dissipated. Natasha turns to look at Thor, who seems to be wrestling with the desire to laugh, his eyes a little brighter than usual as he looks at Loki.
Loki sighs and looks out to the mess in the dungeon, Natasha following his gaze. It looks like a bomb's hit it, and it'll take a good deal of cleaning up. She wonders if they'll move Loki to a different dungeon, what with this one not even having a door anymore. But maybe they'll fix the dungeon as quickly as Loki fixed her injuries. She rubs her neck absentmindedly, and Loki looks down at her, frowning and chewing on the inside of his cheek.
"What?" she asks.
"I can't believe he broke my Etch-a-Sketch."
Natasha rolls her eyes and turns away from him, but when she feels one of his hands come to rest on her shoulder, she realises he's just trying take her mind off of her injuries. Her stomach squirms at this idea, of Loki being kind, but ever since she's been assigned as his babysitter, he's been full of pleasant surprises. He's not cardboard cut-out psycho-villain she'd envisaged. She'd always known he was intelligent, but she's known a lot of intelligent villains and they've all been pretty much the same – bitter, twisted, control freaks. Loki's different, or perhaps he's just different now.
When she sees Thor staring at the two of them, a wide, hopeful smile on his face, her stomach drops, and she resigns herself to the fact that things are about to get a lot more complicated.