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Lead My Skeptic Sight

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”I don’t have a soul like you do. The only one I have is the one I stole from you.” - London Grammar (Stay Awake)

He didn’t have to stay. He chose to stay. It amused him to do so, to bide his time and let them think he was under their thumb and trapped in the ridiculously small quarters they had placed him in. It amused him to allow them to believe a silly little spell could contain him. Maybe in the dead of night, when the fascinating black rectangle on the wall showed him nothing but sales pitches for pots and pans and miracle facial creams, maybe then a piece of him was fearful that flexing his muscle and slipping those proverbial chains might result in losing his brother.

Thor wasn’t his brother, but… he wasn’t not his brother. As much as he liked to point out his true ancestry, as much as he liked to viciously throw his adoption—his strangeness—in Thor’s face, thinking about not having a brother… Well, he didn’t like that much. But he only thought about that in those quiet hours when his only entertainment was a man on that screen trying to sing the praises of a cooking implement.

Loki didn’t sleep much, didn’t need the rest all of these Midgardians required. So, he spent his days thinking of how he’d finally reveal that their prison of a Brooklyn apartment with warded doors and windows actually wasn’t the cage they thought it was. He spent his nights trying not to think about what would happen if he pushed Thor too far by doing so. Those thoughts were uncomfortable. Existing in between caught and free was enough. At least for now it was.

Resting a hand against the pane of the tall window that overlooked the narrow street below, he watched the people of Midgard bundled up in their coats, hats upon their heads, and scarves wrapped around their throats. When he’d first arrived—Loki didn’t like to call it imprisoned—he’d avoided the windows. Seeing those puny, weak little animals moving from here to there had annoyed him. Boredom had finally driven him to the black mirror of a screen that, when turned on, brought to life the world outside of his quarters. Seeing the entertainment the Midgardians created for themselves drew him back over to the windows. What he saw on the screen seemed so removed from what he saw out there on that stretch of street, though.

Watching them became a game or an exercise to amuse himself. He imagined who they were, what they were doing, where they were going in their vehicles and on their legs. The businesses opposite his building had sent emissaries out that morning to clear the heavy snow from the sidewalks and make what he could only assume was banal small talk with those who passed by. Now, the roadway was glistening wet in the glow of the streetlights, but the lighter-colored walkways were gathering another coating of snow since night had fallen.

She was the first person who stuck out to him from his perch on the third floor of this old building. After a few weeks, he’d begun to call her Gala in his head. It was an old name, one that the people who used to worship him had called those with a lovely voice. Loki had never heard her voice. He lived in a vacuum, no sound penetrated his cage, out or in. He still thought of her as Gala, though. She looked like she would have a pleasing voice, soft and melodic, a gentle soothing cadence that would be agreeable to his ears.

Her hair was dark—a chestnut brown—and straight, falling halfway down her back. She often pinned it up when she left her own little cage that happened to be directly across the street from his. Her face was heart-shaped with full cheeks, a strong forehead, and a tapered chin. While many of the women on Midgard, including his brother’s beloved, were willowy and delicate, Gala had a more voluptuous build—an hourglass and then some. She liked to hide herself under layers of garments, keeping a careful shell around her body, but he’d seen her shed those layers as she undressed in the privacy of her bedroom.

Perhaps if he were good like his brother, then he’d have averted his eyes and allowed her some modesty. Loki knew he was not good, though, so he watched her peel away her blouses and pants and skirts and sweaters and sometimes even her undergarments on the rare occasion she removed them before entering the bathroom. He watched this solitary Midgardian disrobe for him from across that narrow street, through brick and glass and the dirty air of New York City, and he didn’t blink. In fact, he found he enjoyed watching her bare herself to him, even if she didn’t realize she had an audience.

Her shell was not just physical, though. He’d seen her smile at the man who operated a deli below her apartment, but there was something empty about the expression. Her life was hidden inside her, not on display for the world to see like so many of these other humans. It made him dislike her at first. It also intrigued him. The intrigue won out, especially when he realized her life was like a television program for him to watch play out through those windows of her quarters.

She had no curtains to obstruct his view of her, and he knew all too well why she wanted the light—even if it was weak and gray many days—to filter into her quarters. When he’d first arrived, Loki had pulled the drapes and sat down to make his plans, but found quite quickly that the modest Brooklyn apartment began to feel like a coffin, began to shrink and close in on him. Pulling open the drapes helped stem that feeling, helped the place feel bigger than it actually was.

As the minutes turned into an hour, the foot traffic waned. A couple yellow taxis drove by, making dark tracks in the road that had begun to turn white from the falling snow. Just after ten o’clock, he saw a figure bundled up in a puffy coat, bedecked in a dark scarf and hat, carefully advance down the walkway and stop in front of the building across the street from him. Her face was turned down to watch her feet, but he could distinguish her gait and the hidden curves of her body beneath the layers.

After a long moment of fumbling with the door, she let herself inside and disappeared into the innards of the building. Loki tilted his head and let his temple rest against the wooden frame around the window as he counted the seconds in his head. Navigating the two flights of stairs and the hallway usually took her two minutes from the entrance of the building to her apartment door. He’d watched her do this countless evenings, even watched the reverse on countless mornings.

Loki didn’t see the door to her apartment open, but he knew she had entered when a warm light flickered into life, bathing her quarters in a soft, yellow glow. She entered into the frame, so like the one hanging from his wall. Loki didn’t mind the soundless vacuum he lived in, insulated from the noise of the world at large, except for moments like these. He wanted to hear the rustle of her coat as she shrugged it off and hung it by the door. He wanted to hear the plop of her canvas bag as she sat it on the floor or the clink of her mug on the countertop in her small kitchen. He could hear these things on the television and tried to let his imagination invent them as he watched her go about her evening routines.

Four large windows spanned the length of her apartment. One straddled the view of her kitchen and the narrow bar that separated it from the living quarters. The other was positioned squarely in the middle of her sitting area. The final two windows were side-by-side in her bedroom, the first of which was over a small desk and the second of which gave him a view of her bed. She was private, he knew. She rarely invited anyone up to her quarters. In fact, he rarely saw her with others, though Loki did not know where she went each day for all those long hours she was gone. Perhaps she had a vibrant life elsewhere he was not privy to see. Somehow he doubted that was the case, but he’d considered slipping the useless chains they’d shackled him with and following her to that daytime life. The risk was too great, though. He had the element of surprise now. Thor and his pesky confederates weren’t aware of his capabilities and his actual freedom might depend on slipping out of their silly little prison one day and retrieving the Tesseract. Tipping his hand to assuage his curiosity over Gala and her life seemed foolhardy.

She warmed her dinner in the electric box in the kitchen. He had one like it—a microwave—but didn’t enjoy using it. Food should be warmed over flame, not inside some almost mystical contraption. Loki watched her eat it while standing at the bar. She looked tired and didn’t even bother to sit to enjoy her meal. Midgardians had strange customs, and he found that her tendency to eat her dinner alone, standing in the kitchen, was one he disliked. It seemed wrong. It seemed pathetic.

She took her mug of tea into the bedroom, flipping the switch that would illuminate that dark room when she entered. Sitting her drink down beside the computer on the desk, she settled into the chair facing the window. Her face was cast in the unflattering blue-tinged light of the screen. It made her complexion sallow and enhanced the dark circles beneath her eyes.

His eyes traced her arms as she lifted them and unpinned her hair, letting it fall around and over her shoulders, the tendrils resting on her thick sweater. Running her fingers through the roots of her hair, she rearranged the way it settled more to one side than the other. After a heavy inhalation and exhalation, she sipped at her drink and focused her eyes on the computer screen.

Loki watched her for another ten minutes before turning away from the window. He looked at the door to his quarters. The exit hummed with magical energy, but it wouldn’t take much for him to break through. He could do so without even opening the door. A blink of the eye could have him standing on the street outside, their wards still intact and untouched. Thor wouldn’t know until he made his once-a-fortnight visit, and that was likely days away.

Perhaps another day, he told himself. When an opportunity presented itself.

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She’d come home earlier than usual. Gala often was away—working, perhaps—from nine o’clock in the morning until nine or ten in the evening. Today she came home at six o’clock and proceeded to go through what he knew as her morning rituals again even though it was not morning. She stood in the bathroom, the door frame halfway obscuring her from his view and reapplied the paint and glitter to her face that so many of the Midgardian women seemed to favor.

She pulled off her blouse, let her ill-fitting black slacks fall to the floor, and stood in front of the mirror at the foot of her bed. He watched her in profile as she smoothed her hands over her hips and stomach. She sucked in her gut, which pushed her already full breasts up and out. Loki let his gaze trace the lines of her body, encased only in a utilitarian white brasserie and pale blue underthings. He’d seen her in these small pieces of clothing many times before, but had never seen her stand before the mirror to assess herself in them.

Gala’s head dropped until her chin rested on her collarbone. Her shoulders lifted in a sigh as her arms dropped to hang limply at her sides. She didn’t like what she was seeing in the mirror. It was true, she didn’t look like most Midgardian women he saw on the television, didn’t look as thin as some he’d see in the flesh, but there was something that drew him to her, else he wouldn’t be standing there watching her watch herself.

Loki looked on as she turned away from the mirror and slipped a red dress from her closet over her head. It was tight, revealing, hugged the exaggerated curves of her body. When she turned around, he could see that it brushed against the back of her thighs, just a scant distance from the curve of her ass. She also noticed this in the mirror, using her palms to smooth the fabric over herself before no doubt deciding it was too short and unflattering. It was short, but not unflattering.

A quick succession of dresses, skirts, and blouses went onto her and were pulled right off with a growing sense of frustration. The pile of clothes on her bed was quite high now, and she kept checking her watch. Finally, she dug through the fabric and found a plain black dress. It had white embroidered flowers on the pleated skirt. In his opinion, it looked just fine on her, though the red dress with its shorter skirt titillated more. She slipped a cardigan on to cover her bare arms and finished things off with heels. He couldn’t see them, but he could see the slight increase in her height.

Loki had found fairly quickly through his television viewing that he quite enjoyed the way shoes with heels—especially those impossibly high, narrow heels—made a woman’s legs look. Gala did not often wear them, perhaps because she left home on foot every day. They did not appear to be comfortable, and the advertisements on the television told him his thoughts on their long-term wearability were correct.

She walked into the living room, slipped on a coat, and picked up her purse. The streetlights were on, and city was as dark as it ever got. Loki did not find it dark at all in this Midgardian metropolises with their electric flames powered by coal and huddling masses. When she emerged from the door downstairs, he saw that he’d been correct. The hem of the dress brushed her calves and just below were those black shoes with a delicate, slender heel lifting her foot up from the pavement, forcing her calves to tighten and flex.

He licked his lips and turned away as she walked down the street. Where was she going at such an hour in clothes so out of character for her?

He bided his time over the next two hours watching the customers of the deli below her apartment. Business picked up around seven or eight, but sharply declined by nine o’clock in the evening. The shop owner shuttered his store shortly after and went the same way Gala had gone. For a moment the street was quiet, still, no car in sight or person walking by. The lack of sound made Loki feel as if he were watching that infernal television and had accidentally hit the pause button. The world had stopped.

And then it started again when he saw Gala come around the corner just within his line of sight. She walked with a different gait, her feet perhaps in pain from the shoes she’d chosen for this night. The climb from the first floor to her apartment on the third took twice as long as usual, and when she shut the door to her quarters, she leaned back against it and slipped off her shoes. He could see the grimace on her face as she limped into the bedroom and pulled her dress off without a second thought. Next came her brasserie, and Loki strained to see her in the dim light of her bedside lamp. He could barely make out the darkness of her nipples before she pulled on a large shirt and retreated to the bathroom to wash her face.

Fresh-faced and clad only in a shirt and underclothes, she flipped back the linens on her bed and crawled beneath them. She rested on her side, looking out the window. Though Loki knew his windows were warded and would appear empty to anyone who happened to look in, for a shocked moment he thought she was looking right at him. Her eyes trained on his face as he stood just to the side of the window, his shoulder resting against the sill. Watching him, watching her. But that was madness, so he continued to stare back until his excellent eyesight allowed him to see something that made he terribly uncomfortable.

She was crying. A tear slipped over the bridge of her nose and cut across her cheek before it soaked into the pillowcase her head rested on. Why was she crying? She hadn’t appeared to be hurt. Surely her feet weren’t so damaged it would cause her to weep in such a way. Pitiful, pathetic, weak humans.

Loki turned away and walked over to the sofa he spent most of his days on. His gaze caught the remote, and he told himself he’d watch one of the crime programs that aired this time of the evening. Instead, he walked back to the window and saw her body curled into a tight ball in the middle of her bed. It shook with what he could only assume were sobs and rattling gasps of breath that spoke of grief and pain. He looked away, and then found his eyes drawn right back to her. This time she’d uncurled herself, and he could see her tear-streaked face and red nose. The glimpse was brief before she extinguished the light on her nightstand and plunged her bedroom into darkness.

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It had been many days since the night she’d left in the black dress and heels and returned with tears in her eyes. Loki built his day around her rhythms, rising to watch her drink coffee and leave for work, waiting until she turned off her light before he settled onto the couch with his feet resting on the low table in front of it. The advertisements that played like a program and lasted for half an hour were strangely relaxing and often made him nod off, even if he didn't want to do so.

He happened to be watching a police officer search the bag of a young man half a block up the street when he caught sight of Gala from the corner of his vision. It was early for her to be home. Normally, he didn't see her until later in the evening. He watched in fascination as she went through the rituals of a week before. She wore the black dress again. She also wore the cardigan over it, though Loki would have told her she looked much better without the oversized garment covering up her body. This time when she stepped out onto the sidewalk, he saw more sensible shoes—black and still high, but with a wider heel. They still made her legs look enticing.

The deli closed and the traffic on the street dwindled to nothing. Loki found himself pacing his small quarters, glancing out the window with each pass. It was well after ten, and she was still gone. She was always home by ten-thirty. Since he'd been watching her, she’d never been out there in the world past that hour. What was she doing?

Shortly after the hour he'd appointed as her curfew, a cab pulled up and stopped in front of her building. After a long moment, she pushed herself out of the back seat. Instead of shutting the door behind her, she left it open. A man climbed out and joined her at the door to her building. He said something, and Gala nodded.

Loki narrowed his eyes as they both went inside and disappeared into the areas of the building he could not see. Was she courting this man? Is that where she was spending her nights? Was he the one who had made her cry?

Two minutes passed and her lights were still off. Three minutes. It made him anxious, but he didn't know why. His real life television program wasn't supposed to go like this. When the lamp in her sitting room flared into life, he stepped closer to the window pane and watched her shrug her coat off and take the man's to hang by the door. He was a forgettable Midgardian man by any estimation. Average height, average build, average face, no distinguishing marks or features. He wore a suit that Loki was certain was cheap and poorly made.

While he'd been assessing her suitor, Loki realized Gala had moved into her kitchen to open a bottle of wine. She poured two glasses, offering one to the man who accepted it with a smile. They both moved to sit on her sofa. She turned sideways to face the man, but it also turned her face toward the window, toward Loki. He watched her smile at her suitor. It was the same smile she gave the proprietor of the deli and her neighbors. It was the surface smile that never quite made it to her eyes. Interesting.

The man seemed to be doing most of the talking while Gala just nodded her agreement. Well, she had been nodding up to a point. Now Loki could see the crease between her eyes and the slight downturn at the corners of her mouth. She responded to the man, who in turn reached out and laid a hand on her thigh.

Loki watched in fascination as their rendezvous fell apart faster than he'd thought possible. Within a minute, she was standing and extending a hand toward the door of her apartment. The man didn't seem to like the direction of the evening and was attempting to placate her or, perhaps, argue with her. It only resulted in her walking over and opening the door. He must have said something particularly nasty as a parting shot before he left because after she closed the door, she leaned against it and sank to the ground.

Unable to see her, Loki watched for the man as he pushed open the building's door and made his way back up the street with his cell phone against his ear. By the time he returned his gaze to her apartment, she’d pushed herself back to her feet. With a tear-streaked face, she grabbed her glass of wine from the end table and knocked it all back in one go. Next, she dumped his glass in the sink and retreated to her bedroom.

Loki watched with a sense of unease as she pulled her dress off and discarded her under clothes in the dark room, the only light coming from the living room. It allowed him only glimpses of her silhouette, made him hungry to see more even if he'd deny it. He caught the briefest flash of her ass when she turned on the bathroom light and stepped out of his field of vision where her shower must be.

Annoyed with himself and the flickers of jealousy and protectiveness deep down in those places he liked to ignore, he threw himself onto the couch and vowed not to look out the window again until morning. He didn't, but he also didn't sleep.

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Out of spite and irritation with himself, he avoided the window for two days. He read five of the books made available to him on the bookcase beside the bedroom door. Three of them were historical accounts of this country’s more tumultuous times. One was a murder mystery and another was the tale of a young boy on an adventure. Loki preferred the murder mystery and had spent an hour searching the bookcase for another. Alas, he found a romance with elements of mystery, but no actual murder. It was disappointing.

On the third night, he gracefully stood from his spot on the couch, fully intending to retire to the bedroom. Instead, his feet carried him over to the window. Loki focused his gaze on the street below, still wet with slush from the snow earlier that day. It only took a fraction of a minute before his gaze lifted to the third floor of the building across from his.

Her hair was secured on top of her head with, and she was sitting on her couch with her legs folded beneath her. Loki watched as she leisurely licked a spoon before scooping up more ice cream from a small carton in her left hand. Her television was on, but the angle did not allow him to see what she was watching. If he knew, then perhaps he could tune into that channel and watch with her from a building away.

The thought made him recoil from the windowpane. Pathetic. Perhaps he could force sleep even though he didn't feel tired in the slightest.

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Days blurred together. He’d found himself tracking them by her routines. On Saturday mornings she would leave later than usual, though she was usually gone most of the day. On this day he noticed movement through her windows earlier in the evening than normal. It only took two long strides to carry him and the book on the American Civil War he’d been perusing over to his own window.

She was going through a process that was becoming familiar—the process of readying herself for an outing with the man. Or perhaps it was just a man, not the same one he’d seen, but a different one each time. He found himself idly hoping it was a different man each time, that she was trying each of them on for size and finding them all wanting. As he watched her put on the red dress again and discard it again, he considered whether he could follow her without tipping his hand to his adoptive brother.

The wards weren’t nearly strong enough to hold him and could easily be warped to allow him passage without any danger of breaking them. However, they were cast by a sorcerer skilled enough to include a trip wire. The trip wire prevented him from traveling too far from the cage, even if he could slip free of it. It certainly wouldn’t harm him, but it would notify this captors. The trip wire was solid; he’d spent his first few weeks trying to dismantle it or find a way around it. His plan had been to allow Thor to believe he was imprisoned while he was not. After realizing that wouldn’t work, Loki had settled on plotting his extravagant escape and trying not to think about how it very well might be the final betrayal that would result in Thor cutting him out of his life, out of everything.

He wasn’t ready yet. His plan hadn’t come together in his mind. Another day. He might be able to follow Gala along on her outing, but if she went further than a block, then he’d trip the wire or be unable to follow. It wasn’t worth the risk. And, although he was curious about her life beyond that little box she lived in across the way, she wasn’t worth the risk.

She decided on a skirt that hugged her hips and thighs, narrowing around her knees. It was black and her blouse was white. She looked severe and stern and unhappy as she slipped out of her apartment and emerged on the sidewalk in front of the building moments later. No heeled shoes this time, just black, flat ones with a rounded toe. A pity.

Loki returned to his book, flipping through the sporadic pictures, all black and white, some with a sepia tone to them. Grim men with dark eyes stared back, rifles in their hands and dust on their uniforms. He found the skirmishes these Midgardians had—the reasons behind them and the outcomes of them—to be far more interesting than he’d originally considered. Pride, power, viciousness, he understood those things. He didn’t understand why this woman across the narrow street cried when she returned home from these outings of hers. Looking up from the page, he saw her as she turned the corner to leave his line of sight. His gaze wandered up to her dark windows and he frowned.

She was lonely. That’s why she cried. The thought skittered across the back of his mind, unwelcome and uncomfortable. He pushed it out by moving back to the couch and settling in to read about the Battle of Antietam, one of the bloodiest battles in this country’s history. The pictures that accompanied the text showed bodies in poorly and hastily dug trenches, most dead. The darker colors in the grey photos were blood, and there was plenty of it. Death. He understood that. The next page showed a picture of a young girl in a dirty dress, her dusty face streaked with tears. He averted his eyes and found another picture with bodies stacked like cordwood and found it to be less disagreeable.

The sun had set behind the building long before she’d left her dwelling. The streetlights came on shortly afterward. The deli below her rooms closed. The few cars driving past dwindled until he saw none. Pedestrians thinned until there were none of those either. Each streetlight cast a yellow glow, almost a perfect circle, right below it. He’d finished with the book detailing the major battles of the American Civil War over an hour ago, and he had been contemplating finding another on the bookcase. Before he did so, Loki stood by the window, watching for her to return, wondering if she’d bring along a man like last time. Surely not the same man, though.

Instead of Gala, he saw a larger, wider figure. It was a man of imposing stature in dark clothing making his way up the block with his head down and his hands in the pockets of his coat. He stepped into the empty doorway of the deli and pulled his hands out. Loki thrilled at the flash of light bouncing off the blade of a knife in the man’s hands. What was this? Perhaps he intended on breaking into the deli? Stealing something? Causing damage? The idea made Loki smile. The smile faltered just a bit when he saw another body moving a block up. This body was familiar. It was a body he knew all too well because he’d watched her dress and undress for him over many days and weeks.

The man with the knife heard her footsteps and pressed himself further back into the recessed doorway. Loki’s eyes narrowed as he glanced back and forth between the two figures. Gala, steadily making her way toward the man and his knife, ignorant to what was likely to happen. Would this man hurt her? Kill her?

The blade of the knife reflected the yellow streetlight. The man adjusted his stance. She took step after step toward her door and the knife. Loki felt frozen to the floor, watching in fascination as the scene played out before him. He could feel his heartbeat pounding loud in his ears in the silence of his apartment. Couldn’t he drop the ward that muffled the outside world? Just this once? Just to hear her when the hand holding the knife appeared in her line of sight.

Loki touched the tip of an index finger against the pane of cold glass. It felt like the pop of a bubble. The sounds of the city were muted by the glass, but he couldn’t hear her footsteps or the heavy breath of the man with the knife. Carefully, he flipped the silly latch on the window and lifted it two inches. Now he could hear the way the wind whistled through the narrow spaces between buildings and the hum of a metropolis. He could also hear the scuff of her shoe on the concrete walkway as she arrived at the two steps leading up to her door.

That’s when things happened quickly. The man stepped out of the alcove, causing her to jerk her head sideways to look at the movement. The knife flashed into view at the exact same moment her scream rang out. It was sharp and panicked. And while Loki had had no intention of intervening a moment before, he found himself quickly twisting the wards around the apartment just enough to allow him to slip through. Her keys hit the sidewalk while Loki pushed the window up the rest of the way.

She stumbled back a step while the man lurched forward, the point of the knife now only a few scant inches from her stomach.

“Give me your bag!” the man demanded, his voice not much more than a gruff hiss through lips that barely moved.

Her bag hit the ground at the same time Loki’s feet hit the sidewalk across the street. Neither of them heard him, and he found himself excited over the idea of violence and power. This stupid man thought he was a hunter, but he was a delicate little thing compared to others like Loki.

“Take it,” she said, her voice high and strained and unlike the beautiful, melodic tone he’d created for her in his head.

“Your phone, your watch,” the man demanded again.

She reached into her pocket with a trembling hand and pulled out her phone, but never offered it to the man because in that moment Loki had stepped between her and the mugger.

“What the fuck?” the pathetic Midgardian man muttered, taking a step back.

Loki reached up and slammed his palm into the man’s chest. He watched with satisfaction as the would-be attacker flew back several yards and slammed into the hood and windshield of a car.

He turned to look at her, the woman he’d been watching for weeks. Her eyes were wide and her lips parted in shock. It felt surreal to be so physically close her after only seeing her from afar for so long. “How did you do that?” she asked.

Tilting his head, he considered her and the sound of her voice. It wasn’t sweet or kind, not melodic or soft. It was slightly smokey with crisp syllables that melted in the air between them. His initial aversion to it quickly shifted into a strange kind of craving to hear her talk again.

“Do what?” he asked, baiting her.

“Throw him across the block.”

It wasn’t until that moment Loki realized the ramifications of his instinctive action. Her scream would bring people to their windows. If she or anyone else started talking, then his cover would be blown. He had no concern for the Midgardians coming for him, but he wasn’t ready to reveal the secret of his not-a-cage to Thor.

Loki smiled. “I didn’t.”

Her eyes narrowed and she backed toward the stoop and door of her building. “You did,” she insisted. “Why did you do that?”

The way she was sliding away roused a vague feeling of annoyance in him. “You can’t get into the building without your keys,” Loki told her. “And your keys are… there.” He flicked his gaze down to the sidewalk where her keys, phone, and purse lay in an oddly neat line between his feet and hers.

She watched him with wary eyes for a long moment. “Why did you do that?” she repeated.

“I saved you.”

“Why?”

Her question was at once absurd—who would question being saved—and insightful. Why, indeed? “Because I could,” he finally said. It was as good an answer as any and not a lie.

She bent over and snatched her keys off the sidewalk with trembling hands. Loki could feel her fear vibrating through the air, and it gave him a familiar thrill. “Where did you come from?” she asked, trying to keep her voice even, calm. Without turning away from him, she backed up the two steps and fumbled behind her to unlock the door.

“Does it matter? I saved you.” Tilting his head to the side in thought, he said, “Aren’t you going to retrieve your bag and phone?”

The would be attacker groaned as he rolled off the hood onto the pavement. She stood there in the open doorway and let her eyes move from him down to her purse and phone, then back to him. The keys had been closest to her; the purse was only a few scant inches from the toes of his shoes, the phone just half a stride closer to her.

They stood there, looking at each other. She was different close up, so much more. More alive with more intelligence hidden in her cautious gaze. Just more. Her voice, while not what he’d been expecting, was oddly appealing. Deeper with a bit of a rasp, a flat edge that told him she wasn’t easily won over or impressed.

Loki broke the stand off by bending over and picking up her bag and phone. He presented them to her with a flourish, standing at the bottom of the two steps, but didn’t move any closer. She’d have to let go of the door to take them.

A door down the block opened and a man said, “What’s going on out here?”

He ignored the man’s question and watched her with a steady gaze before dropping her phone inside the soft leather bag. She leaned closer to the open door when Loki climbed the first step to stand within her reach. A police siren was getting closer and he couldn’t be seen on the street. That wouldn't be good.

This close he could see the flecks of green in her hazel eyes and the remnants of rouge on her lips. She was wearing a musky perfume—something earthy but pleasing to his nose. She also looked like she didn’t trust him one bit with that guarded look in her eyes and the way her knuckles were white from gripping the door to the building so tightly.

Loki felt a flash of irritation that she didn’t appear to be grateful for his help, and then the shuddering exhalation that passed over her lips distracted him, made him insatiably curious. He extended the bag until she reached out and grabbed hold with her free hand.

Instead of letting go, he held onto it, instigating a little tug-of-war with her. “Thank me,” he demanded.

“Thank you,” she replied, her gaze locked with his, unusually bold for a weak Midgardian.

Loki smiled at her and relaxed his fingers until she could pull the bag away and flee. The police siren was building, much closer now. The man down the street called out again, and Loki had to quell the urge to shut him up. Instead, he calmly walked back across the street and used a minor trick to flip up the lock of the front door to his building.