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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.

Chapter Text

“It’s a subtle thing when you look at me. It’s a subtle thing.” - Marian Hill (Subtle Thing)

He went up to his apartment, slipping back through the wards with ease, to stand in front of his window and wait for her to open her door. His blood was rushing after the first contact—outside of Thor—he’d had in months. The surge of adrenaline as he’d smashed the man into the car and breathed in her discomfort had been exciting, addictive, something he hadn’t realized how much he had missed until that moment.

Now, Loki was looking forward to seeing her reaction play out on the stage she didn’t know she was on when she walked into her apartment. He was disappointed when he saw she hadn’t gone up to her home. Instead, she stood in the small foyer of her building until two police cars arrived within seconds of each other. Cautiously, she ventured outside, her bag clutched tightly in her hand as she talked to one of the officers while the other three assessed the damage to the car and the would-be attacker. An ambulance arrived within another minute and loaded the man up. He likely had broken ribs, but Loki suspected he would live. It gave him no pleasure or displeasure. The man was nothing, a pest. It was her he watched, her he wanted to talk to. Something in her voice, some sort of hidden steel, intrigued him.

The police questioned her for twenty minutes. In the end, she signed a form on a clipboard one of them handed her and went upstairs to her apartment. Her vantage point in the doorway of her building would have allowed her to see him enter his building across the street. He’d been sure she’d seen him, but perhaps he’d been mistaken. She had made no gestures in his direction, given the police no information about where he’d gone. What had she told them? Even the open window hadn’t allowed him to hear over the sounds of the large truck brought in to take away the damaged vehicle.

After shutting the window, he stood there with his shoulder pressed against the frame and waited for her to flip on the lights of her stage. Two minutes after she’d entered the building again, she opened her door and slipped into her small apartment. Loki watched her pace the floor, wringing her hands and running her fingers through her hair—hair that was wild and tangled now. She didn’t eat or go through her nightly rituals that he’d grown accustomed to watching. Instead, she sat on her couch for a minute, then walked in circles around her small living space, entered her dark bedroom, and then repeated the process. She was shaken, and that made him almost gleeful. She’d been affected. Good.

After twenty minutes of restlessness, she turned on the bedside lamp in her bedroom and sat down in front of her small computer. He watched her grim face as her eyes scanned the screen. The pacing started anew, but now she didn’t sit on the couch, but in front of the computer after each round. Her time at the computer lengthened with each bout of pacing until she sat there for over an hour. If only he could see her screen. Not knowing what she’d been enraptured by on it was frustrating. Finally, she stood up and walked over to the last window, the one that allowed him to see her bed. She stood there, framed by the window, and looked down at the street before casting her gaze over his building.

Loki smiled to himself. Was she looking for him? Did she see him enter the building after all? Why hadn’t she told the police? Was she protecting him? He almost dropped the spell that made the window he stood in seem dark to the outside world. It would be too revealing, though. No, he liked watching, but not being watched. She wasn’t trustworthy enough to know his location. Perhaps one day.

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She didn’t leave her apartment the next day. Her computer screen seemed to hold her in thrall, though bouts of obsessive cleaning took her away from it. She seemed like a rat in a cage, terrified of her master, though intent on going about her daily routine. This cleaning—the scrubbing of her kitchen counters and the meticulous dusting of each surface—it wasn’t part of her routine, but an exaggeration of it. She was nervous. Did the man with the knife scare her? Or had he?

The next morning she left for her daily activities late, and he watched as she walked down the street, constantly glancing over her shoulder, hands clutching her bag. His day was uneventful as all of them were, and the television that had once held his attention no longer did when the lure of so much more excitement lay beyond the door to his cage. Why had he indulged Thor for so long anyway? Why did he always find himself coming back to that desire for approval? Though it was there, he detested the weakness in himself.

By the time the sun had set, he’d convinced himself that breaking the wards and beginning the game anew was what he wanted to do, what he needed to do. Instead, he found himself choosing to warp them again, bend them to his will so he could slip out. Before doing so, he tied his hair back and donned a olive-colored trench coat from the closet in the bedroom. The deli below her apartment was busy, and he stood outside and watched the people coming and going. It was a familiar scene from a different perspective. He found it gave him mixed feelings. He preferred these Midgardians from a distance—from the perch above the street where he’d found a strange reclusive rhythm. And yet, being so close to them imbued him with a strange energy, an exuberance he had never found in loneliness even if he was a solitary creature.

Was he a solitary creature? He always seemed to come back to others, always craved that verve that he gleaned from adoration. Power, he told himself. He craved the power that those under his subjugation provided. Not attention, but power.

He leaned his back against the brick exterior of her building, right between the door to the deli and the door to the apartments above, and willed any wandering eyes away from his figure. Midgardians were easily fooled, led, directed. They were more animal than anything. And yet, if that were true, then what was she? Also an animal? An intelligent one, perhaps. A more evolved one worthy of his consideration. No, worthy of his curiosity.

Before the dinner rush at the deli dissipated, he looked up to see her walking down the street. Her body tense, her eyes constantly moving, her back ramrod straight. She was terrified, but trying not to show it. Lucky for her there were no men with knives waiting to rob her of her possessions, only a very bored and very curious one.

He didn’t cast his will outward to divert her eyes, and he idly wondered if it would have even worked. Her keen gaze landed on him when she was still half a block away, and his borrowed coat and swept back hair did nothing to fool her. Loki pushed himself off the wall and stood in the middle of the sidewalk right next to her door, waiting for her to approach. She remained rooted to the spot where she’d stopped. Her fellow cattle flowed around her like running water, oblivious and intent on going about their business.

Loki inclined his head and smiled. She did not smile back. In fact, her lips tightened and pursed in a determined grimace. He watched as she looked to her sides and then behind her, obviously considering her options. Perhaps she saw no viable escape because, a moment later, she seemed to gather her resolve and take several steps toward him. They were short steps, stilted and slow.

Today she was in a pair of gray slacks with a white blouse. A long black coat and boots sheltered her from the cold temperatures. When she was within three yards of him, she stopped. Loki could see her breath, fast and shallow as it condensated in the cold air. His breath didn’t do the same; he was born to live in the cold and ice.

“What do you want?” she asked, her voice loud and full of false bravado.

The question hadn’t been what he’d expected. Why hadn’t he expected it? It was a reasonable question, after all. And yet, he had no answer prepared, which roused irritation in him. “To talk,” he told her.

“Why?”

“Must I have a reason? Perhaps I just want to know your name.”

A man passing by gave her a strange look, likely because Loki was still willing eyes away from himself, causing people on the sidewalk to think she might be talking to no one. Loki extended his reach and pulled her into the bubble before stepping forward to close the distance between them. She stumbled back a step before that steel in her back secured her. Interesting.

“Thank you for saving me last night. I appreciate it, but I… I’d like to be left alone,” she told him.

“Do I make you nervous?” he asked with a grin.

She opened her mouth and then snapped it shut. Finally, she said, “I know who you are.”

Her statement rocked him back on his heels. Who he is? Loki slipped his hands into the pockets of his pants, pushing the coat back as he did so. “Do you, now? And who, pray tell, am I?”

“The… man… who tried to destroy this city a few years ago.”

His gleeful grin fell. He could feel it wither, souring until the muscles in his face were slack and his expression flat. “Is that right?” he asked, taking another step closer. Loki could tell it took everything in her to hold her ground. He could almost smell the pungent odor of fear.

Her response gushed from her pink lips in a torrent of words, hushed with just a bit of a tremble. “You’re him, aren’t you? You actually are. Look, I don’t know why you saved me. And… and like I said, I’m thankful. I don’t know why you’re living in the building across from me. Hell, I don’t even know if you are or if you’re just… hanging on on this block. I just… I’m not important and I won’t say anything. I didn’t tell the police about you.”

“Why?” he asked, enjoying the way the words were just tumbling out of her now.

“Because you did me a solid.”

He took another step closer and tilted his head. Her breath was warm against his face when he leaned down and said, “I did you a what?”

“A solid. A favor. You helped me. And I thanked you… twice. I don’t know what else you want.”

“Nothing,” Loki replied. “Or perhaps just to assuage my curiosity. I can see you from my windows across the way.”

“What?” Her voice was sharp, causing him to pull back to look at her face.

“Your windows turn your dwelling into a stage, my dear.”

“Oh my god… Are you serious?”

Her incredulity made him laugh softly under his breath. He shouldn’t have so easily given up that piece of information, but it felt delicious to knock her further off balance, to turn her little world around. “I find my days are quite boring, and you and your little… life provide some entertainment,” he conceded.

She stepped back and pivoted to turn toward her door. Her keys were already in her hand, and he couldn’t block her way without grabbing her arm. That risked a scene, even with his sorcery turning gazes from them.

“The red dress was more becoming than the black one,” he told her back.

She froze for a long moment, one foot on the step up to the door, and he imagined he could hear the gears turning in her head as she tried to place his comment into context. “What?” she asked.

“The red dress you tried on. Pity you decided on the black one.”

When she finally connected his comments to her life, she jerked open the door and looked over her shoulder before saying, “Fuck you.”

He stood on the sidewalk as the door shut behind her. She stood in front of the door’s glass pane and watched him with wary eyes. Loki stepped up to stand on the other side, the glass of the door the only thing between them. Bringing his right hand out of his pocket and lifting it to the height of her face, he extended his index finger and tapped the glass right where her nose was.

She flinched and turned to hurry up the stairs.

Loki grinned and made his way back over to his building. Perhaps he’d make his great escape another day. Right now he’d much rather see what Gala was doing in her own little cage. Was she pacing again? Fretting over him and what he’d said?

The wards bent around him and settled back into place after he entered his living quarters. As he stepped across the hardwood floors to his preferred window to watch her from, he saw her door open and the light come on. She didn’t shrug off her coat. Instead, she went directly to her bedroom and disappeared into the closet. When she emerged, she had an armful of linens which she dumped on her bed. After rummaging through a drawer in her kitchen, she proceeded to nail blankets and sheets to first one window and then the next while perched precariously on her desk chair.

Loki stood in place, disbelieving of the swift way in which she’d shut him out. The shock turned to irritation which morphed quite quickly into rage. How dare she think she could hang her pathetic little pieces of fabric like she could keep him at bay with something so insubstantial? How dare she flagrantly flaunt her imagined power? Because it was imagined. She was nothing and no one next to him. He could rip that little door off its hinges and kill her as if she was nothing but a fragile insect.

Loki turned and blindly grabbed a decorative vase from the end table by his couch. He smashed it against the wall by the door. The tinkle of the shards of ceramic hitting the floor offered no satisfaction. When he punched the wall next to the window, the wards absorbed the impact as waves of energy rippled out. He should teach her a lesson, the little bitch. Who was she to dictate terms?

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He waited for her the next day. He’d considered knocking on her door that night, but dismissed the idea. Giving her the satisfaction of knowing she’d disturbed his calm wasn’t appealing, and she could make problems for him if she caused a scene or called the authorities. Nothing these Midgardians could do would be of consequence, but his footing with Thor and those who fought alongside him was tenuous. He had to tread carefully to get back to where he wanted to be.

So, he waited. She left at the usual time that morning, wary eyes on the door to his building before sweeping up to look at the windows, three of which belong to him. Unbeknownst to her, they were all neatly spelled to be empty. Not black because black would look suspicious, but empty. His eyes narrowed as she walked up the street and went to wherever she disappeared to during the day. Loki hadn’t felt a lick of resentment before, but now it was fresh in the forefront of his mind. Who exactly did she think she was playing with him? Fuck him? Well, fuck her. She was nothing.

Rain rolled into the city that afternoon, bringing with it a thin, white fog that made everything look damp, even those doorways and windows covered by awnings. He walked a path around the small apartment, taking stock of what he had available to him. Subpar food delivered by his brother or that obnoxiously glib sorcerer Thor had befriended, a wardrobe of cheaply made clothing, and the television that had taught him much more than he’d ever care to know about this world. Perhaps that knowledge might come in handy one day. Ruling these people with their pathetic creature comforts and tiring little routines would surely come much easier now that he knew how they thought, what they valued.

His eyes shifted over the bookcase that he’d devoured more than once since he’d arrived. He’d often seen her with one in her hand in the evenings. She seemed to prefer the written word to the television. If intimidation hadn’t worked, then perhaps he could change his tactic. Perhaps a little sweetness would get him what he wanted.

Loki stood in front of the bookcase. What did he want, anyway? To talk to her, he decided. His mind was withering from the lack of mental stimulation, the dearth of conversation. Thor was not capable of what Loki craved and the sorcerer who fancied himself a doctor was insufferably smug. Was a good conversation so hard to come by? Was it really so much to ask?

So, he waited until the sun set behind the building and the rain slackened to a steady drizzle before he slipped on the olive trench coat and pulled the hood up over his head. He stood under the awning of a vacant storefront two doors down from her building’s entrance and waited. He didn’t have to wait long. Gala was unusually early, perhaps because she wanted to avoid him. Loki smiled at getting one up on her.

She was clutching a black umbrella and hurrying down the sidewalk. He watched the puddles of water splash over the toes of her black boots before lifting his gaze to her pants and then her blouse. Her work clothes were almost like a uniform. She saw him when she was only a few yards away and stopped in her tracks.

“Hello,” he offered, raising his voice so she could hear him over the sound of a car driving past. It splashed water up onto the sidewalk so very close to her feet.

“Are you going to kill me?” she asked, a firm resolve in her tone.

Loki smiled and then chuckled softly. “The thought hadn’t occurred to me until you mentioned it just now.”

She took a tentative step closer. “So?”

“So?” he asked with a lift of his brow. “So, no. I hadn’t planned on killing you. Why do you ask?”

Gala took another step closer, and he could smell her—the scent of her perfume magnified by the damp air. “I said fuck you to you last night. You don’t seem like the type to let that go.”

“You don’t know me, so how do you know my… type?”

“Well, you tried to take over the city not that long ago.”

“The world,” Loki corrected. “I tried to take over Midgard.”

She took two more steps to bring her quite close. “The Earth?”

“Yes, that’s what you call it, I suppose.”

She frowned and adjusted her umbrella. Now, she was close enough for him to see the umbrella was only black on the outside. The interior was a riot of color, blues and reds and oranges and purples, all splashed into an abstract, haphazard pattern. Her face looked grim and lined with tension beneath it.

“I don’t appreciate peeping toms,” she said, her voice pitched for only him to hear.

“What is a peeping tom?”

“Someone who looks in women’s windows and spies on them.”

“Maybe a woman shouldn’t leave her lights on and her curtains open,” he countered.

“Maybe a man should give her a clue instead of watching for… for however long,” she snapped back.

Loki grinned. “For two months,” he said.

She blanched and shook her head. “God, that’s so embarrassing. Please forget everything you saw.” Her eyes widened, and then she added, “How much did you see?”

He knew if he let the pleasure at her discomfort creep across his features that she’d turn on him, so he schooled his expression and said, “Enough. The windows are large and quite transparent as windows tend to be.”

“My mother told me to get curtains, but I thought I knew better. That’s what I get for growing up in the country. I thought if the windows in the building across from me were dark, then the place was probably empty.” She paused and shifted the umbrella to her other hand, looking exposed and uncomfortable. “Sorry about the show. Believe me, it was unintentional.”

“Sorry? Why would you be sorry?” Loki allowed a smile to lift the corners of his mouth. Just a bit, just the slightest bit because she was warming to him and he felt victorious. “I thought you were demanding an apology from me.”

After a moment of consideration in which her gaze was focused on the ground at his feet, she looked up and met his eyes. “Yeah, you do owe me an apology, but I didn’t actually think I would get it. You don’t seem–”

“What?” he asked, interrupting her. “The type? I don’t seem the type?”

“Yeah.”

“Please accept my sincerest apologies.”

She almost physically reeled back at his peace offering. He thrilled at finding a way to play her.

“Why were you waiting for me here? Not just to apologize, I assume.”

He stepped forward, so close his head was almost underneath her umbrella. “I wanted to know your name after watching you for so long.”

Her eyes narrowed in the dark. “Why do you care? I’m no one.”

“Then it won’t matter if you tell me your name.”

“What?” she asked, a breathy puff of laughter lingering in the air between them. “Can you do some magic shit with my name. Like put me under your control or something?”

“Who says I need your name to do that?”

She held his gaze, unflinching. “Catherine. My name name is Catherine.”

“Catherine,” Loki said, letting each syllable linger on his tongue.

“Not Cathy or Cat. Catherine.”

His brows lifted in silent question.

She shrugged and said, “People like to shorten it. I’m not a Cathy or a Cat.”

“Obviously,” Loki agreed, “Catherine.”

She stepped back and edged away from him, still wary, though she’d been faking her bravado well a moment ago. “I ordered curtains. They’ll be here next week.”

“Sheer, I hope,” he replied.

“Thick and opaque,” Catherine said before turning and leaving him standing under the awning.

“Catherine,” he called out before she could reach the door to her building.

She turned around, muscles tense and her back straight like she might bolt at any moment. Her knuckles were white on the hand that gripped the umbrella.

“I brought a peace offering,” he said, reaching into the inner pocket of the coat and producing the book he’d spent over an hour selecting from the library available to him.

She hesitated before taking a couple steps back toward him. “What is it?” she asked, her voice soft and smoky and so very appealing.

“A book. You like books, don’t you?”

“I do.”

He held the book out, but not too far. The awning was barely protecting it from getting covered with a sheen of rain. Catherine came a couple steps closer and looked down at the cover. “Have you read it?” he asked. It was a small, thin volume of three short stories written by a man named Paul Auster. Each of the stories was vaguely unsettling and strange, but it was difficult to put his finger on why. This was likely the reason they appealed to him so much and why he had read the book cover to cover at least three times.

“The New York Trilogy,” she read. “No, I haven’t. I’ve read a couple of his other books, though.”

“Good,” Loki said with a smile. “Please take it. Perhaps we could discuss it later.”

Catherine looked from the book to his face and then back to the book. “Why are you being nice to me? What do you want?”

“Do I have to want something?”

“Look, I read a bunch of stuff about you over the past couple days. You’re not a nice guy. You’re not here to help. You killed people. Why are you trying to start a two person book club with me? I’m nobody. I can’t help you do anything.”

“I don’t want anything.”

“You said you wanted to talk,” she countered.

“Is that so bad?” Loki asked.

After a moment of consideration, her hand shot out and snapped the book out of his grasp. He could have tightened his grip and pulled her closer. It was tempting, but she was volatile right now. He needed to be nice or she’d shut him out again. He needed to be agreeable and ingratiate himself to her. Perhaps she could be a piece in his little drama when he finally revealed the not-a-cage to Thor and his brother’s little friends.

“Thanks,” she murmured before turning to leave him again. He let her go. A gust of wind blew the misty precipitation into his face when he turned to watch her unlock the door to the building and hurry inside. She didn’t hazard a glance back at him, but that was okay. He didn’t mind at all.

Chapter Text

”I want the soul of something simple to take home with me.” - Martina Topley Bird (Sandpaper Kisses)

He let her simmer for two days. It amused him to watch her anxiously search the sidewalks on those nights when she came home from her life during the day. That didn't mean he didn't wonder. Did she read the book? What did she think of it? What did she think of him now? Surely he was in her good graces even if the windows were still covered by blankets.

The blankets were a constant source of irritation because they reminded him of his impotence in this situation. He wanted to rip them down, but he couldn't without revealing himself in one way or another to prying Midgardian eyes and ultimately Thor or to the sorcerer his brother had tasked with this little prison. So, for now, her wall remained and he let her simmer.

On the third morning, he rose from a restless sleep to find a piece of paper taped to her bedroom window right where her bed was.

THE BOOK IS GOOD. THANK YOU.

Loki felt his lips curl into a smile. Caught. He'd been expecting it to be a bit more difficult, but he was happy to claim this early victory.

Hastily, he rummaged through the drawer of the writing desk in the bedroom until he found a thick black marker. Unfortunately, there was no paper to be found anywhere. He settled on ripping the blank page out of a large book on the bottom shelf. After removing the spell that made his window appear empty—which took much longer than he was willing to admit—he used some silver tape from the kitchen drawer to hang the page with his words facing out.

MY PLEASURE, CATHERINE.

He was tempted to write more, but there was no room on the page. Short and sweet would be best, would turn her to his side much quicker. She seemed like a no nonsense woman, someone very different than he'd originally imagined her. The night she'd tossed the would-be suitor out made so much more sense now that he'd had a taste of her personality.

He walked away for a moment. When he returned there was a response taped to her window.

WHAT DO YOU REALLY WANT FROM ME?

He crumpled the paper he'd affixed to his window and replaced it with another.

CONVERSATION.

She didn't respond. Instead, he watched her exit the building an hour later, her raincoat and umbrella in tow. Where did she go during the day?

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He was watching one of the murder programs—he found them the most fascinating—when he felt a presence on the other side of the door. Assuming it was his brother, he remained seated, his eyes trained on the television. When no one entered after several long minutes, he walked over to stand in front of the door, his hand on the frame of it. No one was outside. The sensation was gone. Had he imagined it? The thought irritated him.

Loki pulled open the door, careful not to damage the wards. A plastic bag swung back and hit him in the thigh before it bounced away, dangling from the knob. Cautiously, he unhooked it and glanced in both directions down the deserted hallway. Catherine had been correct; the building was empty for the most part. From what he’d gathered, it was a Stark Industries property intended for short-term employee housing that had never been developed. The only other tenants were the businesses on the ground floor.

After shutting the door, he opened the plastic bag to find the book he’d loaned her along with another larger book that was leather bound. Neatly folded and sticking out of the second book was a piece of paper. Had she been at his door? Had she left this for him?

Unable to quell his curiosity, he sat down in the armchair closest to him and pulled out the unfamiliar book. The cover was a light tan, almost the color of sand, with simplistic and minimalistic artwork of a barren planet with a moon hanging on the horizon. The title was in block print across the top, spelling out the word DUNE in bold letters. The author’s name—Frank Herbert—was in smaller letters right below.

The note was on stationary, cream-colored with a substantial feel. Loki pinched it between his fingers, allowing his thumbs to push the folded side up to reveal her handwriting. Unlike most women, it was spiky and slanted slightly to the right with a strange fluidity. Her capital letters were large, especially the C that she used to sign her name, but the rest of the letters were small and cramped.

Peeping Tom–

I am writing you this letter against my better judgement. I question whether you’re actually who I think you are every day. I’d say you’re a figment of my imagination, but I do have a book given to me by you that is very real. I also checked on the man who attempted to assault me that night. He was in intensive care for two days. You broke his sternum and several ribs. The impact of hitting the car broke his arm and his wrist and hand. He had internal bleeding and a concussion. They’ve asked me if I want to press charges, but it seems silly to do so. I imagine you’ve put an end to his mugging days. Plus, he didn’t hurt me. Does it bother you that you hurt him? I think it’s safe to say you used excessive force.

Thank you for the book of short stories. I enjoyed them very much. I find it difficult to reconcile the person who gave me the book with the person I read about on the internet or the person who nearly killed some stupid mugger. There is shaky cell phone footage of you in Stuttgart with a staff saying very horrible things. You tried to kill an old man. Was that you? Am I mistaken? Why would that person be living in the seemingly vacant building across from mine in Brooklyn? It’s hard to believe. Am I going crazy?

I don’t understand why you’re here and why you want to speak with me. And, I must admit, I am little annoyed that you’ve forced me to cover my windows. These apartments can start to feel like boxes when you can’t see outside. My curtains arrive tomorrow, so I’ll be able to open and close them as I please. I’ll still be paranoid you’re watching when they’re open, though.

Here is your book back along with one from me. It’s a science fiction novel—one of my favorites. I don’t know you, but from what I’ve read, it sounds like something you might enjoy. Plots within plots, political machinations, grabs for power. Up your alley, right?

C

P.S. - If you actually are who I think you are, please don’t try to kill me or take over the world.

Loki smiled as he read the letter again, savoring her words, especially the sentences about him, the way she asked him questions. Perhaps she actually wanted answers, which meant she was willing to talk. He could force people to do many things, but forcing someone to talk—to genuinely converse—was near impossible. He found that the more he pulled out of her, the more he wanted. She was smart, but suspicious. He would have thought less of her is she wasn’t suspicious, though.

He carefully folded the letter up and tucked it away in the book. Just as he reached into the bag to remove the book he’d loaned her, he felt that tingle of awareness reverberate through the wards containing him. Thor. Quickly, he tossed the books on the low table in front of the couch and balled the plastic bag up in his fist before shoving it deep between the cushions on the chair. He wasn't quite ready to admit to Thor that he'd been up to just a little mischief.

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Thor was worried; Loki had sensed how on edge his brother was right away. At first, he’d thought he might have made a misstep and Thor had a way of knowing whether he’d left the apartment, but he quickly dismissed that. He’d left multiple times over the past few days. Surely they would have come running sooner than now if he wasn’t quite as slick as he’d thought. No, Thor was worried about something else—probably some threatening force that would exterminate the little world that he seemed to love so much. Loki refused to admit that he’d developed an affinity for it over the past few weeks. By no means would he go running into battle to save it, but he’d be sorry to see it go.

He spent the better part of the evening reading the book she’d given him while indulging in the pastries Thor had brought him. He’d developed an appreciation for apple fritters, and Thor seemed to think it was endearing so he brought a white box with half a dozen each time he came to check the locks on the cage.

The book was deftly written, painting the picture of a harsh world filled with intellectual and physical violence, rife with schemes and grabs for power. It appealed to Loki very much, and he lost himself in the tale. Shortly after midnight, he licked the sugary remnants of his final apple fritter from his fingertips and marked his place in the novel. The windows were dark and so was the sky above the city. Loki walked over to look across the street, his mind straying to Catherine and her unruly hair. Catherine and those keen eyes hiding an assessing intelligence. Catherine and the way she’d sometimes seemed so very sad before she’d shut him out of the life happening between the walls of her apartment.

It came as a bit of a shock to see light emitting from her two of her four windows. The two looking into her kitchen and sitting area were framed in beige curtains with black embroidery at the edges. The two bedroom windows were still dark, but covered by the beige curtains, not the makeshift blankets. He could only assume they hid her behind them since she wasn’t visible in the windows open to his vision. The book forgotten on the middle cushion of the couch, Loki leaned his shoulder into the window frame and took in the familiar trappings of her apartment. It hadn’t changed since his exile—the kitchen was still neat and tidy, almost depressingly sterile, and the sitting area looked comfortable with the decorative pillows and colorful blankets with fringe lining them.

He held his breath when she walked into view, passing from her bedroom and moving toward the kitchen. She turned off the light above the stove and flipped off the television with the small remote on her coffee table. Instead of turning off the large lamp by the couch, she turned toward the window and stepped up to stand directly in front of it. He watched her search the windows across from her, her eyes surely passing over the window he stood in without pause. She did not know he was just behind the glamour. Feeling wistful and just a little reckless, Loki reached out with his mind and his powers to drop the spell that kept her from looking back into what had become his life.

She jerked to attention when his window turned on like the screen of a television. He looked back at her for the first time since he’d begun watching her, suddenly on uncomfortably equal footing. After a long moment of stillness and cautious gazing, she raised a hand, palm out, and wobbled it back and forth in a wave.

Loki wondered at her and what was in her head. Why did she lend him a book? And how had she done such an excellent job at finding one that would appeal to him? Why had she left the curtains of two windows pulled back so he could see her again? Why was she waving at him? As the questions tumbled through his mind, he lifted a hand and waved back.

She smiled and pressed her palms together as if saying a prayer. A moment later he realized she wasn’t praying, but asking him a question when she dropped her hands open, the pinkies still pressed together. It was as if she were miming reading a book. Her expression was expectant. How was the book?

He smiled back and curled his fingers into his hand, extending his thumb to point up to the sky. Good, he thought. The book is quite good.

She nodded solemnly at him and then pressed her hands together, placing them along her ear on the right side of her face, learning her cheek into the back of her hand. She was miming going to sleep. He nodded back, and she gave him a goodnight wave before turning to shut off the lamp. The room fell into darkness. Her shadowy figure stood there in the dark for a long moment, watching him in his lit room, before she finally retreated to her bedroom.

Loki was unwilling to dissect the interaction beyond his strong belief that the woman in the building across the street was quite odd. He shook his head to clear his thoughts and returned to the book. He did not, however, return his windows to their empty status.

///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\

He finished the novel in the dim light of the early morning hours since sleep eluded him. He didn’t need much, but his thoughts that were typically so focused and sharp were scattered. It made him uneasy and restless. Before the sun rose, he ripped a blank page out of the back of one of the larger books and penned a short note on it with the thick black marker.

CAN WE TALK?

It took effort and tremendous restraint to ask the question instead of just waylaying her as she walked home like he had done twice before. Loki was practical, though. Niceties and deference had seemed to work quite well with her and were much more effective than aggression or trickery. Not that he wasn’t reordering his potential plans to include her. It would be so much more satisfying to involve her in the reveal when he finally did decide to slip his chains. Loki just wasn’t sure how he would structure it and what role she’d play.

Shortly after the sun rose, she walked into view, a faint figure in the weak morning sunlight filtering through the gray clouds. She didn’t glance out either of the uncovered windows in her sitting room, instead going straight to the kitchen to operate the machine that provided her with tea or some similar beverage in one of the mismatched mugs she’d collected. On her way back to her bedroom, she caught sight of his note and, perhaps, him as well. She stopped in her tracks and moved closer to the window pane. She wore an oversized shirt that was loose on her body, but considerably shorter than any of her dresses. Letting her self-consciousness get the best of her, she tugged the hem of it down her thighs as she watched him with a steady gaze.

Seconds ticked by before she slipped away and through her bedroom door. Loki waited patiently for her to return. She did only a few moments later with a notepad and a thick black pen like his. She wrote her response and held it up to her window.

WHY?

Loki wanted to roll his eyes. Were they to repeat the same stilted and useless conversation over and over again? He walked away to find the book, ripping another blank page from the back and responding.

WHY NOT?

He slapped the sheet above his first, holding it in place with his palm, and then watched her scribble her response on the next page of her notepad.

I WANT TO KNOW WHAT YOU WANT FROM ME.

He ripped another page from the book, this one the title page, and wrote on the back of it.

NOTHING MORE THAN YOUR TIME.

When he looked up to watch her read it, she seemed irritated, almost angry. With the corners of her mouth drawn down, she hastily responded before slapping the notepad against the window.

STOP TEARING PAGES OF OUT THAT BOOK!

He almost laughed, but that might have infuriated her. Loki couldn’t decide if she was volatile or passionate or unhinged. All were equally appealing forms of distraction from his lackluster pseudo imprisonment. Instead he opened the book and wrote on the inside of the back cover, technically not ripping any pages.

I HAVE NO PAPER.

She stood there with her lips thinned out in an unhappy grimace. Her hair was a riotous mess, falling over her shoulders, and her bare legs were oddly entrancing. He’d seen more of her—much more—but it had been several days. This tantalizing glimpse of her fresh from bed was something he could appreciate even more now he could not take it for granted. As if sensing his eyes on her, she tugged at the hem of the shirt again, stretching it down to cover another inch of her legs.

Finally, she pulled her notepad from the window and flipped to a clean page.

3PM TOMORROW. COFFEE SHOP ON THE CORNER.

There was a poorly drawn arrow pointing down and to her left. He slid his gaze that way and saw a small storefront with windows plastered with colorful paper advertisements. Two people walked in as another walked out. It was within his ability to go there and keep the wards intact. It would take effort, but he could manage it.

Loki inclined his head toward the shop and nodded once, his eyes focused on face. She replied with a nod before taking her notepad and herself back to the privacy of her bedroom. Tomorrow at three, then. A willing puzzle to unravel. How promising.

///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\

She was already seated with her back against the wall at a small table for two when he entered. He’d watched her go into the shop from his window fifteen minutes before the time she’d given the day before. He let her sit there for ten minutes before he descended the musty staircase in his building and calmly crossed the street. His visage was composed, but his mind was a whirlpool of swirling thoughts, plans, considerations, methods of approach.

Treating others as a game to be not just won, but mastered, came natural to Loki even as a child. Some people were more difficult than others, but in the end, all of them could be manipulated in some way. All of them could be used or bent to his will. His thoughts on Catherine were conflicted, and he hadn’t decided if she would be an easy mark or one of the more challenging games. He hoped she would be challenging.

The shop was bigger than it appeared from the street with some of the daylight blocked by the posters plastered over the lower half of the windows—papers advertising plays and concerts and meetings. Besides the two employees behind the counter, three other customers were in the shop—two women bent over papers spread on the table before them and a man along the front window staring at the lit screen of his computer. Catherine had taken a table toward the back, as far away from the other patrons as she could get.

Her eyes met his when he stepped into the door, and Loki wondered what she thought of him. He’d picked his attire carefully from what was available to him. Holding the wards while close to the limit of his range would take effort and he didn’t want to spare any with a glamour that would dress him in much finer clothing. Instead, he wore a pair of black slacks and a crisp, white shirt that was open at the collar. He left the long, black wool coat on as he sat down across from her in a heavy, wooden chair.

She’d kept her black peacoat on and was wearing a pale green blouse with a black skirt. Though she was sitting, he could see the way it pressed tight against her hips and thighs. If she were to stand, it would probably stop right at her knees. It made him think about her in the shirt two mornings ago and the way it revealed so much, and yet not quite enough.

“I ordered you an Americano,” Catherine said after he’d settled into his seat across from her. She looked just a little nervous and ill-at-ease, and her hazel eyes kept shifting away from him.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what an Americano is,” Loki admitted, watching the way her fingers twisted her cup restlessly in circles on the table in front of her. “Is that what you’re drinking?”

She looked up and locked gazes with him. Some people had expressive eyes that revealed too much about what was going on in their mind. Catherine’s eyes were sharp, intelligent, but not revealing, not easy. “No, I’m drinking a flat white.”

Loki raised his brows in question.

“Steamed milk poured over espresso,” she clarified.

“It smells quite nice.” It was the truth. When playing this game with people, Loki found it helpful to sometimes be completely honest. Honestly in everything was not effective, but honesty on inconsequential topics helped engender trust and rapport. “Though,” he added, “I don’t know what espresso is.”

“Strong coffee. An Americano is espresso and hot water. It’s… stronger than mine.” She looked away, scanning her eyes over the shop before looking at him again. “I took a guess. You seemed like someone who would appreciate a stronger drink.”

He gave her a small smile, barely there, before lifting the mug and bringing it to his lips. Loki did not often take food or drink from strangers because strangers couldn’t be trusted, but he’d make an exception for her. She was too earnest to be deceptive. Maintaining eye contact, he sipped at the warm liquid, letting the rich bitterness flow over his tongue. It tasted like it looked—dark and acerbic and intense. It was also quite pleasing to his palate. Perhaps this world did have something to offer by way of its arts and drink.

“It’s quite good,” he assured her before taking another sip.

She relaxed just the slightest bit before taking a sip of her own drink. Loki let the silence between them stretch out until it became uncomfortable. Finally, she said, “Did you enjoy the book?”

“Very much. I find it disconcerting that you appear to know me so well—choosing these things that will please me like the book or this drink.” It was a truth, one of those pieces of honesty he liked to pepper a conversation with. She didn’t seem to take it as such, though.

“Don’t be weird,” she said. “Everyone likes Dune. It’s a classic.”

“Everyone.”

“Everyone with a brain,” she amended.

Loki smiled. “Are you trying to pay me a compliment?”

Catherine looked up from her mug. “No. Just stating facts.” After a brief pause, she said, “I’ve been vacillating back and forth over whether you’re actually who I read about on the internet or just someone strange guy who likes to impersonate him to get attention.”

“And today?” he asked. “What mind are you of today?”

“That you’re some guy who moved in across from me and likes to pretend he’s someone he’s not. And I’m the dope that fell for his tricks.”

“Would you like proof, Catherine?”

She looked up at him again, an expression of surprise on her face before she frowned. “Proof of what?”

“That I’m who you want me to be.”

She exhaled a soft, breathy laugh. “I don’t know if I want you to be anyone.”

“Wouldn’t that make you feel significant? If someone as important as me wanted to talk to you?”

The fire in her eyes at his probing question made it difficult to suppress his grin. “Wouldn’t that make you feel pathetic that you don’t have anyone to talk to but a book editor in Brooklyn?”

The grin pulled up the corners of his mouth. “Did I strike a nerve, Catherine?”

“No.” Her voice was flat.

Loki held his right hand up to her, palm out, fingers extended. Then, he laid the back of his hand on the table between them, his long fingers curled into the palm. As he loosened them and opened his hand, he watched her expression. Her brows that had been furrowed and drawn inward relaxed and then rose toward her hairline at the same time her jaw dropped, parting her pink lips and allowing him to see her even pinker tongue.

A delicate flower rested on his palm—an anemone that was a deep purple which faded into a violet blue right at the center. It’s petals looked velvety soft.

“How did you do that?” she asked, her voice soft and reverent.

“Magic,” he whispered back.

“That’s the best sleight of hand I’ve ever seen,” Catherine told him, not taking her eyes from the flower.

“Touch it,” Loki urged her, the thrill of showing off thrumming through his blood. He should be focusing on keeping the wards intact instead of performing parlour tricks for this girl, but he couldn’t seem to help himself.

She looked up to meet his gaze. “Why?”

Loki smiled. “It won’t bite. I don’t bite, either.”

“You look like you bite,” Catherine replied before lifting her hand and hovering it over his. The comment made him chuckle as he savored the disbelief and discomfort radiating off her body.

“Touch it,” he urged again.

She slowly lowered her hand until her fingertips were so very close to the petals of the flower. Gingerly, she closed her fingers around it. Loki glanced up from the way her fingertips sliced right through the illusion to brush against his skin to see the reaction—the look of absolute shock—on her face.

“Did you think it was real? That real magic is just sleight of hand?” he asked.

“How…”

“My name is Loki. Did you read that on your little computer, too?”

Pulling her hand back from the illusion, she lifted her gaze to his face. “Yes,” she finally said before the muscles of her neck moved as she swallowed hard.

“Still think I’m an imposter?”

“No,” Catherine replied, her lips parted. Her breath smelled of the espresso in their drinks, a pleasant scent that was bitter and sweet.

“Do I frighten you, Catherine?”

“I’d be stupid to say you didn’t.”

“But I saved you.”

“But I don’t know why, and I don’t know what you want,” she countered. “I’d be stupid to think someone like you just wants to talk.”

Loki gave her a wry smile. “Someone like me…” he said, repeating her phrase. “Someone of my type...”

“Yes.”

“I’m not a type. There is no one like me.”

She frowned. “Maybe not someone who can make holographic flowers, but there are definitely people like you who want power and play people to get it.” She took her mug into her trembling hands, wrapping her fingers around it. “Look, I don’t mean any disrespect.”

“Speak freely,” Loki told her, “I’m not of a mind to hurt you.”

“What’s your motivation? Why ask me to sit down with you?” she asked again.

He chuckled under his breath. “Do you expect someone like me to spell it out for you, my dear?” Loki asked before taking another delicious sip from his Americano.

This made her laugh softly, the sound breathy and feminine and pleasing to his ears. “I suppose not.”

“You’re a book editor?” he asked.

“What?” He voice was sharp and a bit louder than what the conversation had been up to that point.

“You said you are a book editor a moment ago,” Loki replied.

Catherine pulled in a deep breath and said, “Yes. I… I forgot I…” Another soft chuckle and she said, “I thought you were spying on me and researching me. The spying alone is unnerving enough.”

“Yes, I suppose it would be,” he agreed. “Is that where you go during the day? To your job… editing books?”

“Yes.”

“Did you edit Dune?”

She laughed again, louder and fuller and sweeter. “No, no, no. Dune was written and published many years before I was born. It’s art… it’s a masterpiece. I don’t edit masterpieces. I just edit stories. Good stories, but stories.”

Loki leaned back in his chair and took another drink. She was wrapped up tight inside herself, but those moments that he saw a glimpse of her unguarded self were exhilarating. Perhaps she could be a challenging game. He’d win, of course, but the sport would be such an entertaining diversion.

Chapter Text

“Because I’m feeling like I got a sickness. Tongue-tied and white lie addicted.” - Powers (Heavy)

“So, Catherine,” he said after taking a sip from his Americano, “what does a book editor do?”

She tilted her head to the right and held his gaze steadily with her own. Most people who knew who he was did not maintain eye contact like that. She was a tangle of contradictions—reluctant and earnest, timid at times and bold at others. “Do you really care what a book editor does?” she asked.

“Define care.”

She exhaled a sharp breath that sounded amused and exasperated with him. “Is it important to you to know what a book editor does?”

He shrugged and extended one of his legs out to rest not far from hers. The table was small and it was easy to invade her space without much effort. “No, but I'm curious about what one does,” he replied.

“Why?”

“Because I'm curious about you.”

“Why?” she repeated.

She was pressing his buttons and she knew it. “Why is it that you always answer a question with another question?”

Her gaze dropped to the table. Loki watched her buy time to consider her response by lifting her mug and taking a couple sips of the drink. After flicking her tongue out to gather the milk from her upper lip, she said, “Because I don't trust you.”

“You’d be a fool if you did.”

Laughing softly under her breath, Catherine said, “This conversation is strangely combative.” Her hazel eyes were watching him closely again.

“All my conversations are, but it is rare that my partner recognizes it as such.” It was the truth. Assuring her that he was just trying to get to know her would be misleading. He was trying to get to know her, but underneath all that was his motivation to find the way she fit into his plans, to shift those plans around this new piece if need be. Or to discard the new piece if it proved to be useless. Loki found it difficult to understand Thor and the way he collected friends, not because they were of use, but because he liked them.

“I don't see how anyone wouldn't see this verbal tennis match for what it is,” she said, her voice dry and one corner of her mouth turned up in a wry smile. He found it strangely endearing and relatable.

“And what is it?” Loki asked.

“A struggle for the upper hand,” she answered immediately, not missing a beat.

“Do you actually think you can get the upper hand?”

“I thought I had it already. We’re here at your request, but on my terms.” There was no humor or conceit in her tone, just a statement of fact.

And she was right; they were here at this place at this time on her terms. He was even drinking and enjoying the beverage she’d chosen for him. It would have rankled him had he not felt a puzzling respect for her. “Fair enough,” he replied. “I concede the high ground to you, my dear. Have mercy on me.”

She smiled at him, but it was guarded. “I'm not stupid enough to think I'll keep the upper hand for long if we keep talking.” He watched her take another sip of her drink. “I'll only answer your question if I get to ask one of my own.”

“Why is that?”

“Because knowledge is power, and I'm not just going to dish it out to you for free.”

He shifted in his seat and said, “I could lie.”

“So could I,” Catherine shot back.

“I would venture to say I'm a much more accomplished storyteller.”

“Liar,” she corrected.

Loki laughed and lifted the Americano to his lips. He drank deeply, closing his eyes and enjoying the bitter flavor. He’d have to discover the secret to the drink if he left this world. When he left this world, he corrected himself before opening his eyes. “Is there really so much of a difference between a liar and a storyteller.”

Catherine’s eyes were like steel when she was arguing a point, and it exhilarated him. “A liar passes off their stories as truth, a storyteller doesn’t,” she said.

“And if I don’t explicitly promise the truth? What then, Catherine? Perhaps I think you’d like a tale to amuse you?”

She shifted in her seat and leaned forward. “No one wants a tale to amuse them when they’re asking for the truth. That’s just you being facetious.”

“People ask for the truth often,” he told her, “but it has been my experience that they’d rather have a pretty story… or lie, according to your terminology.”

“Well, I’m one of those people that would rather have the ugly truth,” she said.

“Mmm, such a pity. I do weave very lovely stories.”

“Lies,” she corrected again.

“Yes,” Loki conceded. “I’m an accomplished liar. Although, you’re welcome to try your hand at storytelling with me. I’m quite good at sussing out the truth.”

“You're underestimating how much of a busy body my mother is and how motivated I was to maintain my privacy. I've told a lie or ten in my day.”

“You're letting your secrets slip, Catherine,” he said, his voice smooth and warm with unconcealed pleasure.

She sighed and took a long drink from her mug before shifting in her seat again. “An editor,” she said, “reads a piece of writing and makes suggestions on how to make it better—clearer, more consistent, more marketable without losing the author's vision.” Catherine paused and leveled her gaze on him as he took a sip of the quickly cooling drink. “Are you living in the apartment across the street from me?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Ah, ah,” he chided her. “It's my turn.”

Her jaw tightened, but she didn't argue with him.

“Why do you work such long hours?”

“Because I have a great deal of work,” she quickly replied. “Why are you living in the building across from mine?”

Her flippant answer irritated him, but he let it go because he found that he liked her a great deal. She was quick-witted and sharp. The edge to her personality was unusual in these accommodating and mindless Midgardians. “I’ve decided it is as good a place as any to reside while I make future plans.” She opened her mouth, likely to demand he elaborate, but Loki held an index finger up to silence her. “Do you enjoy your work?”

“Yes.” She tilted her head at him and said, “Tell me about these plans you’re currently working on while living in the building across from me.”

Loki flashed her a smile he knew looked slightly menacing. “Nothing concrete as of yet. Just biding my time and learning what makes you Midgardians tick.”

“Is that what I am? Research?”

“Now, Catherine… We both know it’s my turn to ask a question.”

She rolled her eyes to the side in irritation, and he almost laughed with the pleasure of getting under her skin. “Go on,” she said.

“You don’t seem to have much of a… social life. Why does it appear as if you shun people, preferring to be alone?”

Catherine’s mouth opened, and she stared at him in silence for a long moment before saying, “What the fuck? Are you going for the jugular or something?”

Loki raised his brows and said, “I don’t pull punches.”

“No shit.”

“Answer my question.”

She delayed by taking a long drink from from her mug. “I’m shit at relationships. It’s easier to keep people at a distance than risk getting hurt.” Her eyes narrowed. “Happy now, asshole?”

“Why didn’t you lie to me?”

“Lying to you would be useless. I’d have to keep my lies straight, and that takes effort. You’d catch me. Besides, why else do people keep everyone at arm’s length? I mean, it’s not like you didn’t know my answer before I said it.”

“You’re very pragmatic, Catherine.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment coming from someone like you.”

“Someone like me,” Loki repeated with a smile.

“Now, stop trying to distract me. You had two questions in a row, so I get to catch up.”

Loki finished his Americano and nodded for her to continue.

“Am I a research project?”

“No,” he responded immediately. “You hardly appear to be a typical Midgardian. I’ve dealt with your kind before and they tend to be more accomodating and less… volatile.”

Her brows lifted. “I’m not volatile.”

“Difficult to pin down,” he amended. “I’d like you to go along with me and answer my questions, but you’re not very willing to discuss yourself. Midgardians love talking about themselves.”

“Well, that’s not volatile. I think I’m rather level-headed. Actually, you seem more volatile than I do.”

That made him laugh. “Go on, Catherine. Ask your next question.”

“Why did you watch me in my apartment all those weeks?”

“Because I find you interesting and because it required no effort on my part other than gazing out my window.”

“You find me interesting.” Her voice was flat, like she thought he was lying, like the idea of her being considered anything close to interesting was ridiculous.

“A couple weeks ago you came home later than usual one evening. You went to bed and cried. Why?” Loki held her gaze as he asked the question.

She didn’t look away or speak for a long moment. Finally, she shook her head and said, “You know what? Fuck you.”

Loki didn’t move his leg, which made it more difficult for her to grab her bag and leave. She had to step over his shin and turn sideways to slip past him. The fingers of his hand flexed as he suppressed the urge to reach up and grab her arm. Instead, he let her leave, the door swinging shut behind her. He looked at her nearly empty mug just across the table. After a long moment of consideration, Loki lifted it up and swallowed the tepid liquid that remained. She was right; he preferred the bolder flavor of the Americano. He was also right; she was a bit volatile. That was just fine with him, though. Volatile was exciting.

///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\

When he got back to his apartment, her curtains were shut. Exiled again, he thought. Loki spent the evening avoiding the world outside the walls of his not-a-cage. His pride prevented him from gazing at the beige curtains that blocked him from her life. Her venomous words did little to rouse strong feeling in him, but the wall she put up between them when she was angry made him want to forego his patient planning and reveal his freedom to Thor by tearing apart little Catherine’s dwelling.

He sat there in front of the television, staring at it with unseeing eyes, as he tried to figure out why exactly he didn’t want to kill her. She was nothing; she’d even told him as much during their encounters on the sidewalk. She was nothing and no one of consequence. She had no helpful abilities, could not be used as a tool of power or a stepping stone to obtain power, had no knowledge that he needed. Or, perhaps she did. She had knowledge of this world—of the books he’d enjoy and the beverages that would taste pleasant on his tongue. Yes, he thought, she wasn’t useless. Plus, he liked her. There were very few people that he just liked.

Before retiring to bed in the dark, early hours of the morning, he ripped a blank page out of another book and wrote a message to her.

DID I TOUCH A NERVE?

When he woke, he forced himself to wait at least fifteen long minutes before going to look for her response. He felt a thrill of victory when he saw a piece of paper taped to her bedroom window.

STOP DEFACING BOOKS TO TALK TO ME.

Grinning and tearing another page out with great pleasure, he responded.

MEET ME FOR AMERICANOS AGAIN.

Right below that, he taped another page.

WE DON’T HAVE TO TALK ABOUT YOUR LOVE LIFE.

Instead of walking away like he’d done last time, he stood there in front of the window and waited for her. She peeked between the two curtain panels only five minutes later, her face morphing into a sour expression when she saw him standing there.

Loki smiled and gave her a little wave. He knew it would further her foul mood. She let go of the curtains and they fell back into place, hiding her from view. Only a few seconds passed before she appeared again, this time pulling back the curtains to reveal that she only wore one of those oversized shirts again. His gaze jumped from her face to her bare legs before moving back up her body, lingering on the way the material hung around her breasts. He didn’t immediately see the notepad she’d smashed against the window pane with her palm.

I DON’T HAVE A LOVE LIFE.

This time he laughed, and it was genuine and deep. It wasn’t so much the words themselves, but the droll, slightly annoyed look on her face that triggered such a reaction.

Instead of writing a response, he extended his index finger to her, palm up, before curling it in toward his hand in a come hither gesture. Then he pointed to the shop on the corner where they’d met the day before.

She pulled the pad away and began writing. Loki leaned forward, waiting with more anticipation than was merited at what she’d say.

I DON’T LIKE AMERICANOS.

He looked down at the book and marker on the low table in front of the couch. She’d told him to stop defacing books for the sake of conversation. Instead of raising her ire again, he trailed his fingertip over the glass, writing out letters in his flowing penmanship. When he finished, Loki looked up to see her eyes wide at his silly little magical parlour trick. It was nothing any two bit sorcerer couldn’t do, but she seemed genuinely shocked, just like she had when he’d created the flower as an illusion to prove he wasn’t an imposter. It took a long moment for her to stop seeing the lines making up the letters and actually read the words he’d written.

I’LL ORDER WHAT YOU’D LIKE. YOU CAN BE THE BOSS.

She scribbed her response while he gave himself a proverbial pat on the back at slipping so easily into the role of placating her. He didn’t mind letting her have the upper hand once in a while if he could continue to pursue this strange little dance they’d been having over the past few days.

Catherine pressed her notepad against the glass.

SOMEHOW I DOUBT THAT.

He waved his hand over his words and the illusion dissipated into dust. On the blank canvas he wrote his response.

DON’T YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT ME? I’LL ANSWER HONESTLY.

She stood there and looked at his words and looked at him standing behind them. Her notepad was in one hand and the marker was in the other. For a fraction of a moment, all he saw was a beautiful woman with rounded curves framing her voluptuous body and her hair still tousled from bed. He shook his head to clear the intrusive thoughts about a simple Midgardian. He liked her, but… that was all. She was sport.

Catherine watched him with steady eyes, watched him like she knew where his mind had gone and she was judging. Finally, she wrote her response on the notepad.

TOMORROW AT 4. SAME PLACE.

With a predatory smile, Loki slowly and deliberately nodded his head once in her direction. Instead of nodding in return, she shook her head and flicked her curtains closed.

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He was already at the table—the same one she’d chosen two days before—and in her seat with his back against the wall when Catherine walked in the door. Today she wore a skirt that hugged her thighs all the way down to her knees, creating a pleasing silhouette, making him recall the way she’d thoughtlessly undressed in her bedroom while he’d watched all those nights. The skirt was almost as dark a brown as the steaming Americano in front of him. Her blouse was a few shades lighter and unbuttoned to expose enough of her chest to be tantalizing, but not salacious.

When Loki heard the snap of her shoes on the tile floor, he looked down to take in the chocolate-colored heeled shoes with a rounded toe and a delicate strap that cut over the top of her foot right beneath her ankle. He let his gaze linger on her legs before sweeping his eyes up her body and meeting her eyes. She’d started toward the counter, but after catching sight of the table and him, she’d diverted her path toward him instead.

“Hello, Catherine,” he said, twisting his body to the side and crossing his legs.

“Hello….” She trailed off as if she was unsure what to call him.

“Loki,” he prompted.

She stood behind the chair across from him and looked down at him with no small amount of unease. Conversation warmed her to him, even if he enjoyed pushing her buttons while they spoke. However, she always seemed uncomfortable in the approach, in that space where they hadn’t found their rhythm, in those moments when she seemed all too aware of who he was and what he was capable of. “Loki,” she finally said. “Hello, Loki.” The soft, almost husky tone of her voice caressing his name felt like velvet in his mind.

“Please, sit. I’ve taken the liberty of ordering for you. A flat white, you said?”

Tentatively, she pulled out the chair, dragging it along the tile floor in an irritating, scraping sound—so much different than the way her voice bent around his name. “Did you poison it?”

He chuckled. “Darling, I have no intention of killing you. We both know I’ve had a myriad of opportunities and yet… here you are.”

She sat down and put her purse on the chair at the table next to them. Her coat stayed on, no doubt for a quick exit if need be. That was fine. He’d taken his off and draped it on the back of his chair. He’d kept with the black slacks, but today he’d also donned a black shirt. Darker colors made him look more severe, more intimidating. While he wanted to make her let her guard down, he didn’t want her to be too comfortable and forget exactly who he is.

“Here I am,” Catherine agreed, setting into her seat and looking down at the mug in front of her. “Are you Americanized? You use money now and everything?”

“Oh, no. I’m afraid your currencies and barter systems elude me. I do, however, find your fellow countrymen to be quite susceptible to suggestion.”

She raised her brows. “Did you pull a Jedi mind trick on the barista and steal our drinks?”

“A Jedi mind trick?”

She shook her head and dismissed his question with a wave. “Nothing. It’s… a joke. You used mind control to–”

“No,” he clarified. “I suggested. I can’t make anyone do what I want without… some enhancements… but I can nudge a weak mind into forgetting that I didn’t pay.”

She fiddled with the mug, turning it this way and that before saying, “How helpful.”

“Yes,” Loki responded. “Quite.”

“Have you done that to me?”

This made him laugh under his breath. “Catherine, you’re much too difficult to be amenable to suggestion. I can’t work miracles.”

She eyed him with suspicion. “Are you lying?”

“I promised to tell the truth.”

“You didn't answer my question.”

He leaned back in his chair and smiled. “No, I'm not lying. You're aware of who I am and what I can do. If you weren't difficult enough, the knowledge would make it impossible to handle you.”

“Good,” she replied, her gaze shrewd.

“You like control,” Loki said, more a statement than a question.

Catherine shrugged. “Who doesn't?”

“Most people would rather be told what to do than to choose for themselves.”

“I think you're mistaken or fooling yourself so you can feel good about being in charge.” She lifted the mug up to her lips and took a sip. The flick of her tongue on the middle of her upper lip to remove the liquid distracted him from her response for a moment.

Finally, he said, “Fooling myself? Your kind elect idiots to govern and rule you. They enact laws in opposition to the majority of the populace and yet you all remain compliant and content in your little lives. You crave subjugation.”

“You’re reducing a complex societal system into something simplistic so you can confirm your bias,” she said, her gaze steady as her discomfort took a back seat to her desire to verbally spar with him.

“You say this because you're different. You value your freedom. Most don't.”

“Don't think your attempt at flattering me with a half-assed compliment will make me agree with you,” she said, her fingertips rubbing along the warm mug in front of her.

Loki grinned and nodded his head in acquiesce. “You're so very interesting, Catherine.”

“I have to admit I'm a little worried about what happens when you realize I'm not interesting at all.”

He stared back across the table at her and her generous lips and the way she looked at him like her attention was nowhere but on him and what he would say next. “What kind of monster do you take me for, Catherine?”

She took another drink, likely to stall. Finally, she said, “I don't know. I've never met someone quite like you.”

“Mmm, are you trying to flatter me now? Unlike you, I must admit that flattery will get you everywhere with me.” He wanted to preen and draw more information out of her about how unique and interesting and important he was, but it was an indulgence he knew would compromise any upper hand he had with her. She'd see his leading questions for exactly what they were—an attempt to garner praise.

The corner of Catherine's mouth twitched and pulled up into a barely-there smile. “No flattery. Just facts.”

Slowly, Loki lifted the Americano to his lips and took a long, slow drink to savor the bitter flavor. He'd spare her life just for introducing him to the beverage in his hand. And for her willingness to point out that he was truly one of a kind. Shifting and turning in his seat, he pulled the book she'd loaned him from the large interior pocket of his jacket hung over his chair and carefully laid it on the table between them. “I've brought your book back. I enjoyed the subterfuge and intellectual discourse a great deal.”

She left the book on the table between them and said, “I'm glad to hear it. You should try the novels that come after. Some of them—especially the next two or three—are very good.”

“This is not the end of the tale?”

Shaking her head, Catherine said, “Oh no, there are many others. Not all of them were completed by Frank Herbert. Some were written after his death, using his notes. Those aren't nearly as brilliant. There is just something in his style that attracts me.”

Loki licked his lips like he could taste her passion. “Attracts you?” he asked in a teasing tone with an eyebrow raised.

She rolled her eyes. “Appeals to me. Speaks to me.”

“Attracts you,” Loki added as a statement of fact this time.

“Yes,” she agreed, sounding as if she were allowing him this slight indiscretion, this moment of irritating her. It was progress. Slow, but steady and so very rewarding.

“So, Catherine, what do you want to know about me? I did, after all, promise to tell you the truth.”

Chapter Text

“I’m gonna tell you something you don’t want to hear. I’m gonna show you where it’s dumped, but have no fear.” - London Grammar (Nightcall)

“Something tells me,” Catherine said, “that what you consider the truth and what I consider the truth are two different things.”

Loki watched her over the rim of his mug as he drank deeply. Finally, he said, “You don't consider the truth to be unassailable fact?”

“Perhaps in some cases, but most personal questions involve subjective answers that can’t be proven.”

“Like?” he prompted as he lifted one brow.

“Are you a good person? That's a subjective question. I'm asking how you see yourself.”

She was correct, of course. He also had no intention of answering her question. It was too complicated, too revealing if he were to actually be honest. “I see,” he replied.

“Are you?” she pressed, those clear eyes looking right into his.

“Are you?” Loki shot back.

Catherine shrugged. “Most of the time. I have my selfish moments.”

“Ah, selfish moments. Regale me with the telling of a selfish moment since I am quite well-acquainted with them.”

She sighed and sipped at her drink while her eyes drifted up to the ceiling in thought. “My mother wanted me to come home for Christmas. I told her I had too much work even though that wasn't true.”

“So devious. Why?”

“Because I didn't want to deal with my family.”

“You don't get along with them?”

She shook her head. “I do well enough. I just… I don't know how to talk to them. My uncle just bitches about politics and…”

“And?” he asked when she trailed off.

“Nothing.”

“Catherine, we're being honest with each other. Remember?”

“Seems like I'm being honest with you and you're just avoiding my questions by distracting me with your own.”

Loki leaned forward across the small table. “Ask me,” he demanded. If revealing just a little would get her to reveal so much more, then he'd answer her question on his terms.

“Are you a good person?”

“No.”

She stared back at him and blinked twice.

“Surprised?” he asked.

“Maybe a bit. I expected you to tell me how you're just misunderstood.”

“Well, I am misunderstood, but I'm also fairly bad. It's much more interesting than being good.”

“You sound like a bad Bond villain,” she told him with a small smile playing at her lips.

“Explain,” he ordered.

“James Bond is a secret agent in a series of novels and movies. He had a new nemesis in each story—the Bond villain.”

Loki sat back in his chair. “And are they as handsome as me, too?”

He didn't really know what reaction he'd expected, but it certainly hadn't been a roll of her eyes and her saying in a dry tone, “Of course they aren’t.”

Instead of letting the compliment go to his head or dissecting it to determine if she was poking fun at him, he said, “Good. Now that I've answered your question, Catherine, let's talk about the ‘and’ at the end of your sentence. Your uncle discusses politics and…”

She didn't look happy in the slightest. Instead of answering, she sipped at her drink and kept her eyes on the book. He desperately wanted to know what she'd been so close to saying before she’d pulled into her shell again.

“Ask me another question,” Loki said in an attempt at a peace offering, a little give and take.

She didn't even hesitate before she looked up and said, “How many people have you killed?”

Loki opened his mouth, but she'd effectively stolen the words from it. Finally, he said, “Do you really want to know that, Catherine?”

“I figured we should stick to objective questions. Subjective ones are too difficult to determine the truth of.”

Nodding, he said, “Honestly—we’re being honest, of course—I don't know. More than a few.”

“You don't remember each one?” Her voice had a sharp, accusatory edge to it, and he didn't like that at all.

Loki leaned forward suddenly and abruptly, entering her personal space and making her pull in a quick breath of air. “Have you fought in a battle before? Do you know what it is like to strike down foe after foe to prevent your own impending death, a death that seems so close you can feel it breathing down your neck with each thrust or parry that barely blocks your opponent? Do you know what that is like, Catherine?”

Her hazel eyes were wide and filled with fear and something else, something that looked like awe. That's what settled the building irritation in him and made him lean back into his chair again. After a long moment, she said, “No, I don't,” very softly before dropping her gaze.

“No,” he said, “I don't know how many lives I've taken. Many have been in battle and many more have been very bad people, if that makes you feel any better about it in your pristine conscience.”

She looked up at his face again. “Also bad people,” she corrected.

Loki stared back for a long moment before his mouth curled into a cruel grin. “Yes,” he agreed. “Also bad people. Like me.” After a moment of watching her almost squirm under the weight of his gaze while she considered the reality of who he was, while she realized he was no stupid man she could dizzy with her wit and conversation, he said, “Do I frighten you, Catherine?”

“Of course you do.”

“Then why are you here?”

This made the corners of her mouth twist up into a wry, self-deprecating smile. “Because you're interesting and you're fun to talk to. And because maybe I'm a little crazy and a lot stupid.”

“I do love it when you talk about me,” he told her. “I'm interesting and fun. What else?”

“So,” she replied, ignoring his question and pressing further on her own, “you’ve killed enemies in battles, but you've also killed innocent people—bystanders.”

“Lives are lost during times of conflict.”

“But what if it is a conflict of your own making? Aren't the lives on your head, then?”

“Dead by my will, but not dead by my hand?”

“Yes,” she replied, fiddling with your mug, twisting it restlessly on the tabletop.

“Perhaps they are dead because they did not fight well enough.”

“Perhaps you don’t want to accept the blame for being the catalyst.”

He laughed softly. “Perhaps. I’ve always been very selfish. My mother told me it was in my nature.”

Catherine tilted her head and said, “Do you get along with her?”

“She’s dead,” he replied.

“Oh. I’m… sorry to hear that. Do you miss her?” Her seeming sincerity irritated him. What gave her the right to ask questions like that?

“No,” he said, looking right into her eyes and schooling his features.

She broke the connection by looking down at the table between them and then back up to meet his gaze again. “You said you’d be honest.”

Discomfort settled into the back of his mind, and he only remained at the table by force of will. Really, he wanted to get up and leave her sitting there alone so she could consider how she was treading on ground that she had no right to be. He shoved his emotions down and took control of the situation in the only way he could without leaving or striking her down. “Answer my question and I’ll answer yours.”

She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. The discomfort unfolded into satisfaction at making her feel uneasy, making her feel as if she was in an all-too-revealing situation. She did not want to answer his question just as much as he did not want to answer hers.

Her mouth snapped shut, and she said, “What was your question?”

“My request was that you finish your statement. You didn’t visit your family during the holiday because of your uncle’s never-ending discourse and… and...”

Shifting in her seat, she said, “And my mother’s terrible cooking.”

“Catherine…” He drew her name out on a slow exhale, caressed it with voice. “You said you’d be honest,” Loki said, throwing her own phrase back at her.

“No, I didn’t. I just said I’d meet you here.”

There was that flash of impatience with her. It was tinged with excitement and just the slightest bit of respect at her poise. “Catherine…” he said in a soft voice as if he were admonishing a child.

She sighed and said, “It’s the truth. My mother is a terrible cook.”

“But that’s not what you were going to say.”

With each pass of his proding, she appeared to get angrier, though she did a masterful job of keeping her voice level and her face as passive as possible. “Answer my question first.”

Laughing softly, he said, “Fine. Of course I miss her. She indulged me, accepted my nature as my father and brother never could.”

“That must have been nice,” she told him, “to feel like she understood you.”

“I didn’t say understood,” Loki replied. “I said she indulged me and accepted me. There is a difference. Now, answer my question. Don’t evade.”

“I have two sisters and five cousins. I’m the only one who is single. I’m the only one who comes to Christmas alone. It didn’t bother me until two years ago. Now I feel them…” She trailed off and looked to the side, out the half-covered front window of the shop.

“You feel them what?” he asked. Loki knew he was digging into the wound, but it felt so delicious to pull something real and painful from Catherine, the girl inside the shell.

She huffed out a breath of laughter that held no amusement. “Judging? Mmm, that’s not really the word I want.” After a brief pause, she said, “Pity. I feel their pity for me, and I hate it. I… I don’t mind being alone, but if I tell them that, they’ll just pat me on the back and agree with me that they know, that it’s just fine being alone. But…”

Loki raised his brows, waiting for her to continue, holding his breath as she unfolded a bit of herself before him.

“But I feel like they’re just being patronizing. That they think if they really say what they’re thinking then I’d break down. I won’t break down, but they just keep on telling me that it’s okay and isn’t my work interesting and all that other bullshit people do when they’re trying to make it seem like they don’t feel sorry for you. I’d rather just avoid it all. So, I didn’t go home. I let them all think I’m much too busy and much too important to leave the City. It’s easier to seem important when I’m not there being subjected to all that… niceness.”

Instead of the rush of victory he should have felt over dragging this deep, dark secret from her with only his wits, Loki felt discomfort and a twinge of longing as he connected with those words she’d said. The longing twisted into anger quite quickly. Loki recognized it as unreasonable and unhelpful anger because she didn’t know enough about him to know that what she’d said was a low blow. No one knew enough about him to suss out that secret he liked to keep buried deep. The anger and discomfort simmered in the back of his mind as he downed the rest of his drink and pushed his chair back.

She looked up at him as he abruptly stood. He could see the emotion in her gaze over the truth she’d just revealed. It bled out of her expressive eyes, leaving them crystal clear and shuttered to him just like her windows were now.

“Too honest?” she asked in a soft voice.

He had no answer for her as that ugly feeling of ineptitude and loneliness began unfolding in his mind. Without a single word in reply, he turned and left the shop. The cold air outside whipped around him, helping to clear his head of the tail end of their conversation. He didn't look back on his way across the street, and he didn’t allow himself one glance out his windows that night.

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He didn’t sleep that night. Instead, he spent nearly two hours standing in front of the door of his little not-a-cage and considered throwing away his chance at a dramatic reveal of his true powers to his brother, considered throwing away that relationship for good. If he left now, he knew Thor wouldn’t be as forgiving as in the past. The last time his brother had checked in, he’d been distracted and worried. Something was brewing, and if Loki hadn’t sensed it from Thor’s unease, then he’d have felt it crackling in the air each time he stepped outside.

In the end, it was the vague sensation of a confrontation on the horizon that stayed his hand. Huddling down in the small apartment in Brooklyn was as good a spot as any to ride out what was to come before emerging and finding a way to profit in the aftermath. He didn’t stay for Thor. And he definitely didn’t stay for her and her little games of entrapment. She probably thought she had the upper hand with him now. She probably thought his abrupt exit and his absence at the window meant she’d tallied a win of that battle of this private, little war.

As the darkness outside faded into a hazy dawn that was gray and deary with the sun hidden behind her building, he put down the historical text on the Napoleonic Wars and stepped up to his window to find open curtains across the narrow street. Open curtains and an empty bed with sheets rumpled from her body. He stepped closer and pressed his palm against the wall next to the window, searching the apartment for a sign of her. As his eyes swept back over to the bedroom, her bathroom door opened and she came out. Her hair was messy and swept to the side, and one of those huge shirts was draped over her body, brushing against her thighs.

She moved toward the door, likely to go through her morning routines, but stopped when she saw him standing in his window. She stepped up to hers—the one on the far left that showed her bed. Her gaze was as steady as ever when she lifted a hand and waved at him. There was no smile on her face or superiority in her eyes. She looked wistful, almost unhappy. All the indignation he’d been holding onto started to slip away.

Loki lifted his right hand and penned a magical greeting to her.

I GET TO SEE YOU NOW?

She shrugged and gave him a small smile.

MY APOLOGIES FOR THE SUDDEN EXIT YESTERDAY. I HAD BUSINESS TO ATTEND TO.

Catherine nodded, but he could see the truth of it in the way she looked at him. His lie was thin and pathetic, and she wasn’t stupid. She was being gracious in allowing him his pride, but she knew his excuse was a lie. Part of him was relieved that she knew, that she could see inside him and accepted what she’d hit on the day before was something he couldn’t acknowledge without damaging himself. Part of him was livid that his usual armour had been reduced to gossamer before her.

Loki turned on his heel and walked away from the window, replacing the wards that made it appear empty as he did. His hands were opening and closing, the agitation over feeling so exposed eating away at him. He strided across the room and reached out for the first thing of size and weight—the bookcase. WIth a viciousness that he relished, he grabbed the side of it and tipped it over with some force. The wood of the shelves cracked against the hardwood floors and the books scattered, some of them trapped underneath the shelves. He followed this by kicking the coffee table. It flipped over in the air and landed halfway on the couch.

Unsatisfied, he cast his gaze over the apartment for his next inanimate victim as thoughts of leaving stirred in the back of his mind.

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The apartment was in disarray, and he was slumped on one end of the sofa surveying the mess. He could easily put it back in order, but the disaster surrounding him was satisfying, a physical manifestation of his power and strength. The only thing that hadn’t been turned over or broken was the television. It was black and waiting for him to press that red button on the remote so the tales of Midgard could fill it’s empty screen. The remote was nowhere to be found, and he had no desire to search for it. So, he sat in silence and surveyed the chaos of the space.

The wards rippled, and for a brief moment he felt panic surge through him at the thought of Thor finding him like this, looking so weak and pathetic. So fucking impotent. Looking that way, but not actually that way, he reminded himself. He chose to stay. This was part of his plan.

It only took a moment to realize that the presence on the other side of the door was gone and had never felt like Thor. Thor filled a room like his power and confidence radiated from him a waves. It had always been that way with Loki a more slinking, subdued presence. He’d learned to embrace it and play it up. Thor was unmistakable, but he could be sly and smart and, in some ways, better, more dynamic than his brother who only hit that one note.

Loki remained seated on the sofa, half of the overturned coffee table resting against his leg, for another ten minutes before he pushed himself up to check the hallway. He knew it had been her at his door. It hadn’t occurred to him until that moment to wonder how she’d been able to get into the building. The rest of the apartments were vacant, and the door to access them was locked. Bending the wards and opening his door, he found the tale-tell plastic bag hanging from his doorknob. The hallway was empty, and she was long gone.

After only a moment’s hesitation, he pulled her offering off the knob and shut himself away again. Loki didn’t look into the bag until he’d sat down on the couch again. There was a book with a black cover, runes and symbols in faded red and green behind the title in bold print—Foucault’s Pendulum. Instead of lingering on the book, he flipped the cover back and found what he’d hoped to find. Her letter was on the same thick paper that was rough against the pads of his fingers. The way she’d addressed the missive to him, her confident strokes exaggerating the L in his name made him smile.

Loki,

I read this novel for the first time when I was seventeen. I was too young to understand the intricacies of the language, style, and wit, but something about it stayed with me until I revisited it ten years later. I hesitate to say I know you, but what I do know of you makes me think you would appreciate it. You seem like someone who can enjoy tongue-in-cheek humor and a flair for the dramatic.

Have I thanked you for not striking me dead lately? I’m beginning to actually believe you never had any intention of doing so. Which is very strange considering who you are and what you've done. I'm not stupid enough to believe you're just misunderstood, and yet, despite knowing I'm treading on thin ice, I find I actually like talking to you.

Catherine

Loki rubbed the pads of his thumbs down the edges of the sheet before running them lightly over her script. Why was she such an enigma to him? She was nothing more than a terribly young Midgardian with a boring life and of no use to him. Why did he feel such a thrill at her guarded compliments? Why did he read each word in her letter four times before letting his eyes linger on the way she wrote his name? The oversized L bold and standing alone, separate from the letter following. She wrote her own name the same, the C large and sweeping while the rest of the letters were cramped and so much smaller.

Carefully, he folded the letter and placed it back into the book she'd loaned him. He briefly detoured to the window to find her curtains open but her apartment empty. He gazed at her bed before he peeled himself away from the looking glass that led to her world and began to set his apartment back to some semblance of order.

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Two days later, he stood at his window and watched for her to make her way down the street. At half past ten, after the sun was long gone and over an hour after the deli proprietor had closed his doors, she rounded the corner onto the block they shared. He took the stairs down to the ground floor two at a time so he could intercept her at her door. Her key was in the lock when he said, “Catherine,” as he crossed the quiet street.

She turned in surprise, a small canister with a bright red button gripped in her fist. “Oh,” she said in relief, “it’s you.”

Loki raised his brows in question.

“I keep reliving the… the attempted mugging.” She held up her hand with the small canister. “I bought pepper spray.”

“A spice?” he asked, stepping up onto the sidewalk next to her.

She relaxed and looked down at the tube in her hair. It was secured to her by a strap. Loki wondered at how comfortable she seemed to be with him. Perhaps he’d made more progress than he’d initially thought. “It’s a self defense spray. The, uh, solution burns eyes if sprayed in them. It’s supposed to incapacitate an attacker so I can get away.”

“Ah,” Loki said. “Well, I’m not an attacker.”

“Yes, I know.” Catherine adjusted her bag on her shoulder.

He held her book out, just far enough away that she’d have to take two steps toward him in order to reach it. “I’ve come to return your novel.”

“How was it?” she asked, not making a move toward him. She had such poise sometimes, such quiet dignity, and Loki was sure she had no idea that’s the way she appeared to others. She was too deep in her own mind to know it.

“Quite good. I find mysteries to be enjoyable, and this work had many elements of that.” The book was still in his hand, waiting for her to step down from the stoop and accept it. She remained where she was.

“I’m glad to hear it. Have you started the next Herbert novel? Dune Messiah?”

Little did Catherine know, he had no access to books that could not be found on his bookcase. Opening his mouth, he almost told her the truth of it, that he was biding his time in a prison his brother had constructed in order to keep him controlled and contained. The admission would reveal too much, though. It would allow her the upper hand and could result in her cluing Thor in on the situation. Would she, though? She’d shielded him from the police. Perhaps she would keep his secret.

“No,” he finally said. “I haven’t the time.”

She still wouldn’t step forward to take the book from him. He briefly considered the notion that she was afraid and keeping her distance, but her body language didn’t agree with that theory. She seemed at ease with him. Was it a power play? Did she want him to come to her? The thought made him want to toss the book at her feet.

“I’ll bring the next one to you, then. I have it in my little library.”

“Yes,” he said, “I’ve seen your wall of books in your sitting room. You would have appreciated the library in my home. It was vast with texts on any subject you could want.”

“Your home,” she said. “Where is that?”

“Asgard.”

“Another planet?”

“In a way. Perhaps a better way of describing it would be another world.”

She shifted her weight from one foot to another. She wore a heavy coat over a sweater the color of deep, red wine and a pair of black pants. Her hair was loose, but hidden beneath a black hat. “Why are you here and not there?”

“It’s a long story,” he said.

“I’ve got time.”

Loki smiled at her and took the two steps that brought him right in front of her and on the step below. “You don’t have that much time.” He offered the book again, and she accepted it. “Can I ask you a question, Catherine.”

“Sure.”

“How did you get into my building?”

She smiled softly and slid her eyes down to the ground between them. “I get takeout from the Indian place below your apartment, so they know me. They have a key to the door for emergencies. A year ago there was an issue with the wiring and they had to let the fire department inside. I got caught up in it when I was walking home from work and overheard. I, uh…” She chuckled and looked up to lock eyes with him. “I told them a friend of mine lives upstairs and I needed to leave a book for him. They let me borrow the key both times.”

“Ah, resourceful. And how did you know which door was mine?”

“Your apartment is the only one with a welcome mat.”

“A welcome mat?”

She nodded. “A small mat in front of your doorway for people to wipe their feet.” With a chuckle, Catherine added, “I thought it was a bit ironic, considering you don’t strike me as the welcoming type.”

“You certainly like to think about what type I am,” he said.

She shrugged and tucked the book away in her bag. “You’re interesting.”

“Am I?”

She smiled, as if she were indulging him. “You know you are.”

“So are you,” he murmured, using his height and size to his advantage, trying to make her feel just a little intimidated even when she stood on the stair above.

It didn’t work. She just shook her head, the smile still on her lips, and said, “I’m actually very boring. You’ve got me all wrong.”

“Why aren’t you afraid of me any longer, Catherine?” he asked, his voice soft and pitched only for her ears.

She took a moment to consider his question before saying, “I don’t know. I guess because you’ve not tried to hurt me, it’s all just been vague threats you never follow through on. And, honestly, if you wanted to, there’s nothing I could do to stop you or talk you out of it.”

“You don’t think I’d be swayed if you pleaded for your life?”

She laughed nervously. “You know, when you say things like that, I feel like maybe I should be very afraid.”

Loki smiled at her and the honesty behind her words. “You have nothing to fear from me, Catherine. I like you too much to kill you.”

“Gee, thanks,” she said, her dry voice still containing that edge of nervous energy. “Look, why don’t you stay here for a minute? I’ll run up to my place and get that book for you.”

“You don’t want to invite me in?” he teased.

“Is that the catch? You’re like a vampire—you can’t come in until I invite you?”

He chuckled deep in his throat. “No, darling. I’m just a gentleman.”

Her eyes assessed him sharply before she said, “Maybe on the surface.”

The response made him let loose a bark of laughter that made her jump. “You wound me, Catherine. Truly.”

She shook her head and said, “Wait here,” before opening the door and hurrying up the stairs.

Feeling better than he had in a long time, but not understanding why, he leaned against the brick exterior of the building and waited for her. Normally, he did not follow orders and did not wait for anyone, but this seemed like such a small concession to make for her. She was back in less than five minutes, slightly out of breath and with a book in her hand.

Loki could feel the warmth of her breath in the air between them as she handed the novel over and said, “I hope you like it.”

“You’re two for two,” he assured her.

“Yeah, well, I hope I don’t break my winning streak. You might decide I’m not worth keeping around.”

He chuckled, running his thumb along the spine of the book. Her eyes were fixated on his hand and the way he held the book. Loki played it up, delicately stroking his thumb up the spine and around the edge, circling the pad of his thumb over the corner again and again. She always seemed so removed from the press of life in his city, but in a moment like this he could see the way she hungered for a connection, for touch. “I’d never,” he said, responding to her assertion that he’d end up killing her if she displeased him.

“That’s awfully nice of you,” she said in a voice rampant with dry humor.

“I’m a very nice guy, Catherine.”

“I thought you were bad,” she shot back.

He smiled widely, flashing his teeth. “I can be nice, too.”

She just shook her head and tried to suppress her own smile before saying, “Goodnight, Loki,”

“Goodnight, Catherine.”

She disappeared into her building, and he returned to his own, taking his time and considering their interaction from all possible angles. By the time he opened the door and let the wards fall back into place around him, she was behind her closed bathroom door. He stood by the window and waited for her to emerge. When she finally did, she was in one of those oversized shirts that she favored, looking effortlessly delicious as she brushed out her hair and pulled it over one shoulder.

His eyes moved down her body to look at the way the hem of the shirt brushed over her soft, supple thighs. She sat the brush on her dresser and pulled the linens on her bed back. Still rubbing his thumb absently along the spine of the book she’d given him, he dropped the enchantment that kept his windows empty.

She didn’t see right away. Instead, he watched her walk into the kitchen and get a glass of water from the pitcher in her refrigerator. When she re-entered her bedroom, she caught sight of him and walked over to the window after setting her glass down on the bedside table. Even with the low light and the distance, he saw her smile as she gave him a wave. It was just two shakes of her hand as she displayed her palm to him, but it was enough to get him to wave back. Her lips moved, exaggerating her word for him. She’d said, “Goodnight,” again.

“Goodnight, Catherine,” he said out loud in the silence of his room.

Chapter Text

”Can you meet me in the midnight? Maybe I love you. Maybe I want to. Maybe I need you.” - Jessie Ware (Midnight)

He wanted to sit down and speak with her again; the desire was like an itch in the back of his brain that he just couldn’t scratch. Loki had never been one for moderation or impulse control. He wanted what he wanted, and he wanted it now. His mother—he found it difficult to think of Frigga as anything but that—had always admonished him for his impatience as a child, but in those quiet moments between them, she’d doted on him as if the trait were an endearing one. The only time he could temper his drive for immediate gratification was if it made him appear weak. Even then, he could not always suppress those urges.

Seeking her out every day would most assuredly appear weak. He’d devoured her book—which was surprisingly good as it followed the main character after his assent to emperor and detailed all the pitfalls of heading a lumbering, ugly government—but stayed away from her and the windows. He wanted to immerse himself in her life so badly that he knew it would be a vulnerability, if not to the world and his would-be enemies then just to her. She was gracious, though. He’d shown weakness before, and she had seemed to recognize it as such. However, she’d never pounced on it, never used it to her advantage. She’d accepted it and allowed him to retain some dignity in the face of the knowledge. That was not how things were done in his world, though, so he didn’t completely trust her. Was she duplicitous enough, skilled enough in the art of subterfuge, that she was simply allowing him to believe she could accept and overlook that weakness? Would she eventually spring the trap? He found it difficult to give a lowly Midgardian—even her—the credit it would take to fool him.

On the third morning, he stood in the window and waited for her to rise. Her bedroom curtains were closed until the clock was only a few minutes to reaching eight o’clock. That was when she flipped the curtains open, the panels spreading to reveal her body between them, her hands high up on the fabric and the shirt she’d slept in hiked up enough to almost reveal her undergarments. Loki had seen it all before in those weeks that he watched in silence without her knowledge of his gaze, but now the glimpse of the tops of her thighs sent a thrill through him that was almost salacious.

She noticed him right away, dropping her arms so she could tug the hem of the shirt down her shapely legs. It made him smile as he used an enchantment to write a missive to her.

GOOD MORNING, CATHERINE.

She waved her response.

He pointed down and to the right, indicating the coffee shop, before writing his request across the window.

YOU PICK THE TIME.

She smiled and held up her hand, all five fingers extended. Five o’clock. Perfect. He enjoyed how agreeable she’d become. She was just pliant enough, but not exactly putty in his hands—a challenge, but not a frustration. He was not ashamed to say he was looking forward to five o’clock with no small amount of relish.

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He stood outside the shop and waited for her instead of posting himself at the table. Before, it had felt like a battle in he needed to claim the higher ground. Now it felt more like a fun game, and he was willing to even the playing field for her. When she walked around the corner, he wondered at her attire. When he caught her unaware, she was usually in black pants and boots. When they arranged to meet, she always arrived in nicer clothing—this time a black skirt and white blouse underneath her wool coat. The heels of her shoes clicked rhythmically against the sidewalk as she approached, her eyes down. Her distraction permitted him another moment to watch the taunt muscles of her calves and the way her feet looked in the shoes with slender heels.

She dressed for him like she’d dressed for those nameless and pathetic men on those nights she dolled herself up and returned home a little later than usual. He tried to reach down and find a feeling of offense at her treating him like she’d treated them with the same sexy shoes and skirts that fit the contours of her body, but all he could find was anticipation and a vague feeling of pride. She was making an effort for him. Interesting

When she finally looked up, she seemed surprised to see him standing by the door to the shop, hands in the pockets of his slacks. “Catherine,” he said in greeting.

She gave him a small smile and nod. “Loki.”

“Have I told you how aluring your voice is?” he asked as he opened the door for her.

She laughed softly, nerves evident in the quiver of her voice. “Uh, no.”

“It is,” he murmured as she slipped past him and entered the shop.

“I think you might just like hearing people say your name,” she teased.

“Ah, you’ve got me. I do like hearing you say my name.” He held out his hands and said, “Your coat.”

Her gaze, usually so steady and unyielding, dropped and she laughed again. It was at that moment that he realized her biggest weakness. His flattery and focused attention on her made her uneasy. Loki licked his lips and waited for her to turn her back to him.

“See,” he said softly, pitching his voice for only her ears. “I can be very nice.”

Catherine shook her head and turned around, shrugging her arms out of the heavy, wool coat. He took it from her, grazing his fingertips over her shoulders with purpose.

“Thank you,” she muttered, tucking her hair behind her ear and sitting down in the chair he’d occupied the last time. He’d not seen her without the coat this close. The thin fabric of the blouse hinted at her brasserie and the swell of her breasts underneath. She was endearingly oblivious to how attractive she was.

Loki draped her coat and his over the chair to his left and turned his attention back to Catherine. “A flat white?”

“Yes, please.” Before he could turn on his heel, she was digging through her bag. “Here, take my card.”

“Do I look like I need to pay?”

“It’s stealing,” she said.

“Semantics,” he replied, leaning down to whisper his response. It wouldn’t do for anyone to overhear them. “I’m asking and they are giving. That’s not stealing.” Smiling, he added, “Don’t you want to be just a little bad with me, Catherine?”

“No,” she replied, holding a thin, plastic card out to him. “I’m a good girl, remember?”

Loki’s smile widened. “You’re a very good girl, and I suppose I’ll indulge you.” Taking the proffered card, he turned his back on her and walked to the counter to place their order. An Americano for him and a flat white for her. Hiding the transaction with his body, he palmed her card and told the cashier that he’d been paid and tipped, even though he hadn’t. She could go on believing she was a good girl, but he didn’t for once consider using her money to pay for their drinks.

He returned to the table with the mugs and slid her drink and card across the tiny surface between them as he sat down. Tucking the card away in her bag, she said, “Thank you.”

“For retrieving your drink or indulging your need to be good?”

“Both.”

He settled back into his chair and extended one of his long legs to cage her in. She’d encounter his arm draped over the empty chair at the table next to them if she tried to leave one way, and she’d have to step over his leg if she tried to leave the other way. He could almost feel the heat of her through his slacks. The thought of it made him want to slide closer and press his leg to hers.

“So, how was the book?” she asked him, turning her mug until the handle was to her right.

“Very nice, but you already know that. You have quite the ability to find things in this world that I will enjoy,” he told her. It was nothing but the absolute truth, and it felt strangely freeing to be able to talk without ulterior motives to someone like her.

Catherine laughed. It sounded smooth and rich. He took pleasure in her voice. It was like velvet in his ears. “Do I?” she asked.

“Mmm,” he agreed, taking a sip of his drink. He hadn’t enjoyed an Americano in days, and the bitterness of the espresso was as much a pleasure on his tongue as her voice was on his ears. “Yes, you do. Americanos, Frank Herbert, Umberto Eco, you…”

She smiled at him. It was indulgent like she didn’t really believe him, but she appreciated his attempt at being charming. “Me, huh?”

“You don’t think I enjoy our time together, Catherine?”

“You’re not a very easy person to understand. If you think I’ve got you pegged, then let me assure you that I’m barely keeping up.”

“So modest,” he murmured, taking another drink.

Catherine laughed again. “You actually know what modesty is? That’s surprising.”

Smiling, he said, “See. You do know me.”

“Just lucky guesses,” she replied, dismissing what he’d intended as a compliment. Loki watched her carefully sip at her drink as she looked at him over the rim of the mug. “Why are you here?”

“Because I wanted this Americano, and I wanted to talk to you.” Sometimes the truth was so easy with her. Sometimes that made him uncomfortable, but not today.

“No,” she said, “here. Brooklyn. In the building across from me.”

“Just biding my time.”

“What's coming? Big plans? Please tell me you're not going to wreck the city again.”

He smiled. “Something is coming, but I don't know what. I've been out of the game the past few months.” Thinking about the impending storm, his smile soured. Where would Catherine be? Who would protect her? For all her competence and intelligence, she was still just a fragile Midgardian. Thinking of her body lying lifeless on the side of the street, a casualty of a war she could never hope to survive, made the back of his mind buzz with discomfort and anxiety.

She knocked him out of his thoughts when she said, “Out of the game? Are you on some vacation in an empty Stark Industries building in the middle of Brooklyn?”

“Something like that. I'm mending fences with my dear brother.”

“Thor?”

He sipped at the Americano, savoring the flavor and trying to quiet the anxiety over her getting caught up in a conflict and dying at the hands of some stupid, worthless piece of shit that wasn't even fit for the bottom of his shoe. “Mmm,” he agreed noncommittally, “yes, Thor.”

“How is living in Tony Stark’s building and having coffee with me considered mending fences?”

“How do you know it's a Stark Industries building?” he asked in an attempt to side-step her question.

Catherine raised a brow at him. “The internet knows everything. I searched property tax records.”

“Nice andsmart, I see.”

She flashed him a smile that dripped with self-deprecation. “Story of my life.” Leaning forward in her chair, she said, “So, how is living here mending fences.”

Her eyes were clear and engaged and interested, not like he'd seen in her interactions with others. She wanted his answer, and that gave him a potent shot of pride. “Can I tell you a secret, Catherine?”

She sipped at her drink and nodded. “I'd love to hear a secret.”

“And can we keep it between us? Our little secret?”

Her brows furrowed, and she leaned back in her chair. “Would it put anyone in danger?”

“No.”

“Yes,” she agreed, “tell me a secret.”

Licking his lips, Loki said, “My brother thinks he's imprisoned me in the apartment. You see, he has a tendency to underestimate me. I, however, can leave whenever I'd like. I'm here with you, after all.”

She blinked twice, her gaze never leaving his face, before saying, “Why would your brother imprison you?”

Loki waved away her question and, dismissively, said, “He likes to follow the rules. I don't. The point is–”

“Does he think you're dangerous?” she asked cutting him off.

Feeling irritated that she was missing the point of the secret he'd revealed—the point clearly being the skillful way he'd managed to manipulate a situation to allow himself the upper hand—Loki sipped at his drink and watched her silently.

“You're upset with me,” she stated.

“I'm not.”

Catherine narrowed her eyes at him. “You are. You get quiet and withdrawn when you're upset with me.”

“And when I'm not upset with you?” He was genuinely curious what her answer would be.

“You're talkative, deferential... and… well, a bit flirty.” She fiddled with her mug to keep her hands busy.

His irritation at her missing the point forgotten, Loki said, “Is that right?”

“From my perspective it is. Also, don't try to evade my question. Why did your brother lock you away?” She tucked her hair behind her ears and brought her mug up to her lips, carefully sipping at the drink as she warmed her hands.

Loki very nearly scowled at her. “Attempted to lock me away.”

She almost rolled her eyes at him, but that little bit of pushback she gave no longer stirred his anger. “Yes,” Catherine agreed, “attempted to lock you up.”

“He doesn't think he can trust me,” Loki replied.

“Can he?”

“You were supposed to ask why he thinks he can't trust me.”

Her gaze was leveled on him, and it felt like she could see right through every defense he had. “Mmm, if you're going to be honest,” she told him, “then I think the more revealing question would be the one I asked. Can he trust you?”

“Probably not,” he conceded. While it was the truth, he hoped it would instill some discomfort or uneasiness in her.

“Why?” Catherine asked.

“I told you. Because he follows the rules and I don't.” Even he knew it was a pathetic answer, a petulant, poor answer that he hadn’t thought through.

“Is that just a way of saying you cheat when it suits you, when you can profit from it?” If her mouth wasn't curled into a smile, if her eyes didn’t have the glint of playfulness to them, then he would have considered her verbal assault to be a way of shaming him. Instead, she seemed to be goading him on, drawing him out. He didn’t particularly enjoy being toyed with, and he typically fought back with all the tools at his disposal if he thought someone was trying to win a game of wits with him. With her it felt different. She wasn’t out for blood; she was teasing him. No one teased him any longer. It felt indulgent.

“Likely,” Loki conceded.

“Are you going to try and take over this city again?”

“Midgard,” he corrected. “I told you I attempted to bring the entirety of Midgard to heel.”

“Earth,” she said.

Loki chuckled at her obstinate response and said, “Midgard.”

She did roll her eyes this time. She’d grown bolder with him, and he liked it. While underlings and subjects had always been his goal and who he’d chosen to fill his life with these past few years, it felt strangely freeing and pleasurable to have a conversation with someone as an equal. There were certainly perks of ruling, but the position came with the weight of responsibility and, as he’d been a bit late to learn, was also quite solitary. He’d fancied himself a solitary creature, but in moments like this Loki saw how energized a verbal sparring partner could make him feel. Not just anyone would do, though.

“And do you intend to try again?” Her question pulled him out of his ruminations.

“I have no current plans. I’ve already told you that. Perhaps one day you’ll believe me, Catherine.”

“So why are you here?” she asked, tilting her head to the side and setting the mug down on the table. She was so earnest in her question, like she actually cared about him and his thoughts.

“Here with you or here in this city?”

“Either?”

“I'm here with you because you are the purveyor of things that interest me in this world, that make me find it worthwhile and enjoyable.” The truth again. It slipped out so easily, but after it left his mouth, he realized that it was almost too truthful, too revealing, too costly to the way he wanted to present himself.

She was smiling at him, wide enough to show her teeth. The whiteness of them was exaggerated by the dark pink of her lips. “Because I gave you a few books and introduced you to espresso? Boy, you're really easy.”

“Quite easy,” he agreed.

“You know I don't believe that for a second, right?” Her grin got bigger, and her eyes were almost glowing with warmth and amusement. It felt sublime to bask in the glow of her amusement and—dare he hope—adoration.

Grinning, Loki said, “Yes. And that's one of the reasons I like you so much, Catherine.”

“So,” she said, “the purveyor of things you like, huh?”

“Indeed.”

“I don’t know about purveyor. How about curator?” she asked, her eyes never leaving his face. While he enjoyed those flashes of bashful shyness when he flirted with her, the unerring nature of her gaze made him feel powerful. If he could hold her attention, then he’d accomplished something others couldn’t.

Smiling at her, he said, “Is this the book editor in you coming out?”

Catherine laughed. It was everything he loved about the sound—rich and delicious and authentic. “Yes, it is. I’m not a purveyor of the delights of this world, but I can be a curator.”

“What shall you gift me with next?”

“I don’t know. The best breakfast cereal? Fireworks on the Fourth of July? Sand slipping through your toes on the beach as the waves pull the water back out?”

Leaning forward across the table until his face was mere inches from hers, he said, “I'm yours to do with as you will, Catherine,” under his breath. The reaction he was looking for was exactly the reaction he received. She laughed nervously and dropped her gaze to the table between them.

“Hmm, a mix tape,” she said softly, still unable to lift her eyes.

“Mix tape?”

“Yes. Songs. A collection of songs.”

“Your favorites,” Loki added. “I’d like to hear your favorite songs.”

She finally looked up at him. Her eyes were clear and engaged. It was as if the veil she kept over them to hide herself had dropped away. “My favorites,” she said. It wasn’t framed as a question, but he could tell she was looking for confirmation.

“Your favorites,” he repeated.

“But a mix tape should be tailored to the person you’re giving it to.” Her lips were pink, and her breath smelled of the espresso in her cup. A lock of hair had fallen from behind her ear, and Loki wanted nothing more than to pinch it between his fingers and feel the texture of it.

“I don’t know what I like,” he said. “You’ve been showing me your favorite things. Show me more.”

She was stripped of the bravado that made her appear fearless and bold. Now she looked apprehensive, as if she didn’t quite believe what he was saying. “Why?” she asked, the word barely more than a puff of breath from between her lips.

“Because I’m interested.”

“Why?”

He tilted his head and rolled his tongue out over his bottom lip. Her gaze flicked down to his mouth and then back up to his eyes. He could almost hear her heartbeat pounding away like a racehorse over the electricity in the air between them. “Is that your favorite question, Catherine? Why? Why does there have to be a why? Why can’t it just be because?”

“I don’t understand because,” she said.

“Why do you keep agreeing to meet me? Why did you lend me your books?”

She dropped her eyes and laughed softly before repeating his own words back to him. “Because I’m interested.”

Loki smiled. “Why?

When she looked up, the corners of her mouth were turned up in a small grin. “Because.”

“Are you going to play me your favorite songs, Catherine?”

“Some of them.”

“And they will be on a recording—a mix tape?”

She chuckled. “Yes, something like that. I’ll bring it to you later.” Glancing away for a moment, she said, “You’re very intense sometimes.”

Loki sat back in his chair, his leg and arm still caging her in. “I’ve been told that.”

“I’m sure you have. I feel like a bug under a microscope when you watch me like that.”

“Is that why your heart speeds up?” he asked.

She huffed out an exasperated, breathy laugh before saying, “I don’t think I like that you can hear my heartbeat.”

“Maybe I can’t. Maybe that was just a good guess because I can see how much my interest in you makes you nervous.”

Shaking her head, she said, “You make me something,” under her breath.

“What do I make you, Catherine?” He watched her carefully as she considered how to answer the question with no small amount of trepidation. With each layer of her that he managed to peel away, he found the person underneath to be more and more intriguing. She’d occupied the lion’s share of his thoughts since their encounter in front of her building that first night. As the days wore on, he’d shifted his plotting mind to her and away from his eventual escape. It was a bit of a shock to realize thinking of her was more enjoyable.

“Frustrated,” she finally said. “I don’t know how to handle you sometimes.”

It wasn’t what he’d hoped to hear—though, he didn’t really even know what he’d wanted her to say—but it would do. “I think you handle me quite well. Better than most.”

She laughed and shook her head again. “Flattery won’t get you anywhere.”

“I wasn’t trying to get anywhere, Catherine. I was simply being honest.”

His response noticeably flustered her, and that made those emotions deep in his gut that felt like fluttering insects kick up into a frenzy. What was it about her that drew him in like this? Was it some sort of masterful trap? Was she the tool being wielded by a manipulator much more skilled at the art than he? He dismissed that thought quickly. If she was a tool to manipulate him, then he’d happily go along for now.

“I should go,” she murmured, reaching for her purse and standing. “Oh, here.” Catherine pulled a book out of her bag. “It’s the next Herbert novel.”

He took the offered book from her and placed it on the table, but didn’t move his arm from the chair beside him. She'd have difficulty getting out without him moving it. “But I haven't returned the one before it,” he told her.

She looked down at him as she slung her bag over her shoulder. “I know. You can return both when you're finished.”

“Are you running away because I make you nervous, Catherine?”

She stepped forward and looked down at his arm barring her way to the door. “No. I'm going home after a long day.”

Her slight discomfort at his insinuations was shifting into annoyance that was so very close to playing out on her facial features. Both of her emotions felt delicious to him. He savored each time he could get a rise out of her and pull something real from that shell she had built around herself.

Catherine laid her hand over his, curling her fingers around it as she prepared to force him to move. The softness and warmth of her hand suddenly on him made his breath catch in his throat. She hesitated when she felt the discrepancy in body heat and when he didn't concede by lifting his hand from the back of the chair next to him.

Loki wasn't sure if it was stubbornness or force of will that kept her hand on his, but she left it there as she said, “Your hand is cool.”

“All of me is cold,” he replied, trying to regulate his voice so he didn't sound as breathless as he felt.

“Why?”

“Ah, your favorite question.”

Her fingertips moved up to slip beneath the cuff of his dress shirt, and her touch felt like flames licking up his wrist. If he didn't move, he was sure those flames would crawl up his arm and take his chest. She would consume him with all that heat. She'd watch him burn alive with that steady, enigmatic gaze. The most terrifying thing was that he might welcome it. She was no sorceress, but sometimes he was sure she had her own special powers that brought him to heel. Why else would he feel so drunk, so needy for her touch?

Loki jerked his hand off the back of the chair so abruptly that two of the wooden legs lifted off the floor before clattering back down. He cradled his arm to his chest as he looked up at her, fear pacing the deeper corridors of his mind at how much he craved that touch again.
“Did I hurt you?” she asked softly, keeping her voice low. The two other people in the shop had stopped what they were doing and looked up to see what had caused the commotion with the chair.

“No,” he replied.

“You're not… cold. Not really. But you're not as warm as…”

“You,” he finished for her. “I'm not as warm as you.” Forcing his muscles to relax and shed the tension he'd been holding in them at the first brush of her skin against his, he looked up and said, “I'm a Frost Giant.” He had no idea why he'd made the confession. It just slipped out, tumbling off his lips and lying awkwardly between them.

She blinked twice, and then once more before she said, “You're not a giant.”

“Well, I was the runt of the family. How do you think I ended up adopted?” His words were laced with bitterness. Why was he saying these things? Why reveal these pieces of himself he held so close? Would they gain him her favor? Perhaps that was a useful outcome. Perhaps he could twist his past in such a way that she'd feel sorry for him. Why did he want her pity? He didn't.

He'd been infected with her infernal question. Why? Fuck motivation, he thought. Why was a useless question.

“Did you know your birth family?”

He narrowed his eyes at her. Anyone else he'd have killed for the presumptuous question. Not her, though. That didn't mean he was willing to answer it.

She seemed to sense his volatility. “You're mad at me again,” she said. “Too personal?”

“Why did you go home and cry after your dates with those men?” he asked, venom in his voice.

She froze, and her eyes that he'd found so expressive moments ago went cold. “Goodnight, Loki,” Catherine snapped before grabbing her coat off the chair and walking toward the door. The snap of her heels and the swing of her hips in the fitted skirt were oddly appealing. It was confusing. He turned away from her just before she pushed open the door to the shop.

His mind felt like a riot of thoughts and emotions, none of which were helpful or provided direction. It was just a mess of pride and pain, lust and loathing, wistfulness and almost overwhelming want. It was disgusting and terrifying. Standing up, he considered leaving. He considered not going back to his apartment across the street and staring out the window in hopes he could catch a glimpse of a piece of her life. A measly fucking piece, a thin slice, the only thing she was willing to give him. He didn't need her or Thor.

With his mind all but made up, he stepped out the door with his coat clutched in his hand much like she'd had hers. He crossed the street with the intention of letting his steps carry him down the block until he'd left the bubble of safety around the cage. As he passed the entrance to his building, he looked up and saw the lights of her apartment illuminate her sitting area and kitchen.

From the angle, he couldn't see anything but her ceiling, but he could see the scene in his mind’s eye. She'd be hanging her coat and putting her bag by the door. She'd be taking off those heels he found so appealing and unzipping that skirt. She'd be shedding her clothes, probably out of sight now that she had knowledge and curtains. He had not properly appreciated those unguarded moments in which she'd unwittingly undressed for him. Except she hadn't undressed for him, not really.

What was she doing up there all alone? Was she taking off her shell? Loki stopped and leaned against the brick face of the building. The streetlights had just turned on, casting yellow circles on the sidewalks at even intervals. Instead of continuing down his chosen path, he turned around and made his way back up to his apartment.

When he entered his not-a-cage, he saw that she was standing in the bedroom window, framed by the curtains on either side. Loki hadn't bothered to turn on the light, so even without the illusion of an empty window, she couldn't see him. He let a couple minutes tick by as he traced the curves of her body with his gaze. She was still in the skirt, but her blouse was untucked. She'd piled her hair on top of her head and secured it with a clip, but two thin tendrils had escaped and were lying against her neck. His nostrils flared as he remembered her scent, musky and sweet and comforting.

With a simple thought, he turned the light on. She didn't startle or jump back. It was as if she'd known he'd been standing here all along. He looked back at her, feeling strangely raw and brazen in a moment of honesty. You hurt me so I hurt you, he thought. It was the only way he knew. Fight back. Kill or be killed.

He thought of his family. Not the Jotuns, but Frigga and Thor, even Odin. He'd cast the first stone with them. He'd been the first to shove the proverbial knife in. His brother didn't trust him because he wasn't trustworthy. He'd proven it time and again. He was alone because he chose to be, because sometimes he took the initiative and started the fight before someone else could do it for him. Better to cause the action than just react.

She looked soft and sweet and strong enough to bring him to his knees as she stood over there in her window. She was fearful to him and he didn't know what to do with that, so he placed his palm against the cold glass as some sort of pathetic apology.

Catherine lifted her hand and pressed her own hand to the glass of her window. Her hand was so small at this distance, but it was what he needed. Seconds ticked by as they stared at each other across the narrow street. Finally, she let her hand slide down until just her fingertips remained. He watched as she pulled away and gave him a single wave of her hand before pulling the curtain shut.

He was still clutching the book and his coat in his free hand. Reluctantly, Loki removed his hand from the window and tossed the book onto the table by the couch. He'd read it tomorrow. Tonight he hoped for the thoughtless oblivion of sleep.

Chapter Text

“Full fed, yet I still hunger. Turn inside, haunted, I tell myself yet I still wander. Down inside, it’s tearing me apart. Oh, sensation. Sin slave of sensation.” - Portishead (Biscuit)

He avoided the windows and her the next day. Thor entered unannounced shortly after Loki settled into the armchair to read the book she’d given him the day before. As had been the case in the past two visits, his brother was uneasy and distracted. He left four brown bags filled with food on the kitchen counter before pacing the hardwood floors of the apartment. The activity was irksome and grated on Loki’s already frazzled nerves.

“What’s under your skin, brother?” he asked, crossing one leg over the other, but not taking his eyes from the page he’d been reading.

Thor’s boots pounded on the floorboards, stopping only when he paused at the window. “A portal was opened in central Russia,” he said, his back to Loki.

Closing the book, Loki said, “A portal to where?”

“We don’t know. It closed shortly after it opened--less than a minute.”

Staring at his brother’s broad shoulders, he said, “I fail to see the problem.”

“Chitauri came through, Loki. They scattered, and we aren’t sure if we have them all.”

Loki schooled his expression when his brother turned around to look at him. Chitauri eventually led back to Thanos, which would explain the thrumming energy in the air that only spoke of dark things to come. Now that he had a name for it, Loki felt his anxiety ratchet up a notch. Finally, he said, “If you aren’t sure, then you didn’t find them all.”

“That’s my concern,” Thor replied. He leveled his gaze on Loki and crossed his arms over his chest. “I need to know where the Tesseract is.”

“I don’t know,” Loki replied, not missing a beat.

“Forgive me for my reluctance to believe you, brother, but… I don’t believe you. In fact, I know you have it.”

Loki let loose an empty laugh, too high and trembling to fool anyone. If Thanos was coming, then the person holding the Tesseract would be squashed in the pursuit of it. “You know I don’t have it. If I did, why would I be here in your little cage?”

“I know you don’t have it, but you know where it is. That’s why you’re here, Loki. I can’t trust you out there when the Tesseract is here within your grasp.” Thor stepped over to stand next to the chair Loki was seated in and looked down at the book cover. “I know you took it from the chamber. I know you hid it. It’s why we imprisoned you.”

It was all true. He’d been reckless and drunk with power during their voyage to Midgard. The pulsing energy of the Tesseract was like a siren’s call, and his brother—who had developed a more cynical and realistic view of the world in recent years—had caught a glimpse of it when they’d arrived. It had been Loki’s plan to slip away with the Tesseract when they’d set the ship down in the grassy field where they’d last seen their father, but Thor’s more cautious nature had spelled out trouble for him.

The pursuit—and that really was all it amounted to be—lasted two weeks and spanned the circumference of this quaint little rock floating in the black abyss of space and time. He’d managed to secret it away before Thor and his ragtag team of misfits caught up with him. Loki did enjoy the long game, so it wasn’t difficult to surrender for now and bide his time until the fates aligned for him. The Tesseract was the final tool necessary for a power grab. What he hadn’t expected was the overwhelming guilt over the look of betrayal in Thor’s eyes when they’d caught up with him. Loki knew he was creeping perilously close to that line in the sand when his brother would resign himself to giving up and cutting ties. As much as he loved to profess his desire to be free of his do-good brother who was born into power, the idea of disappointing Thor enough to sever their relationship made Loki’s throat close up, made his mind buzz with panic, made his heart heavy and dark.

“I lost it while running from you. Some pathetic Midgardian has it, no doubt. Perhaps displayed on their mantle like a trinket,” he told Thor, idly rifling the pages of the book in his hand.

“Loki, we cannot risk this. Thanos will destroy this place in his pursuit of the space stone. It needs to be protected.”

“I don’t have it,” Loki said, wiedling his voice like a whip. “You made sure of that when you locked me away like some animal.”

“You’re here of your own doing, brother,” Thor replied. He walked back over to the window, his footsteps heavy. “All this,” he said, pointing out the window, “it will all be destroyed if we don’t act, if we don’t take steps to prepare. It’s already begun.”

Loki did not reply, only staring back at his brother with what he hoped was an impassive expression.

“You’ve been here for months, Loki,” Thor said, his voice slipping into a pleading tone. “Haven’t you looked out this window and watched these people? Don’t you care for this place at all? It’s our new home.”

His mind went to Catherine. Catherine looking at him like she found it amusing to indulge his eccentricities over drinks. Catherine standing at her window in nothing but one of those oversized shirts, baring her legs and messy hair to his eyes right after rising from bed. Catherine dressing and undressing, smoothing the fabric over each perfect curve of her body.

Catherine lying dead on the sidewalk in front of this building, blood in a halo around her head, after the Chitauri had taken the city for their ruthless master.

“I don’t have the Tesseract,” Loki said, pushing the thoughts of her to the back of his mind. “Your time would be better spent searching for the Chitauri spies who have leaked into your beloved little Midgard.”

Thor shook his head in disgust. “You disappoint me,” he told Loki.

“Apparently that’s what I’m best at,” Loki replied, bitterness dripping from his voice.

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He paced the apartment for hours after Thor departed. His step was lighter than his brother’s, not making nearly as much noise as he moved restlessly about and considered his options. Things were coming to a head, and he wasn’t exactly in the good graces of Thanos. Loki knew himself and his abilities well, and although he had a tendency to reach far and aim high, he knew better than to believe he could ever hope to defeat or even defend himself against Thanos, a warlord who had spent millenia crushing resistance to his rule. With the Infinity Stones, not to mention his army of millions, he would be unstoppable. The best Loki could hope for was to lay low and keep his head down. Perhaps when things settled, he’d find a way to profit from it.

But what of her? That little voice, that pathetic and weak voice, in the back of his mind whispered to him. Thanos would tear this rock apart if it did not bow to him and fight for him. Thor and those others who had named themselves the Avengers would never kneel. They would all die, and these simple Midgardians would be enslaved. Perhaps he could escape with her.

Shaking the thought from his head, he wondered at how he’d become so enamored of her. She was nothing. She was useless. And yet, she had somehow become so important as he built his days around her, worried over her place in his contingency plans. She was a liability, that’s what she was. She’d also hate him if he pulled her away from her life. Loki prided himself on being able to read people, and she was easy in that regard. She’d probably rather go down with her world that live at his mercy. The knowledge irritated him because she should only be so lucky as to have caught his eye and be the recipient of his generosity.

Shortly after eight o’clock that night, she came home and turned on her lights. She’d left all her curtains open, as if she were inviting him inside. He found he was too weak to turn away, his thoughts still swirling with what was to come and how he could play his hand. She ate her dinner standing at the kitchen counter with her back to him. Dinner seemed to be no pleasure to her, just a requisite moment before she could get on with her day.

When she’d finished, she cleaned up and moved over to the desk in her bedroom. Before she unfolded the small computer resting on its surface, she looked up and saw him standing at his window watching her. For a moment, he thought she might pull the curtains shut. Instead, she gave him a small wave and settled down at the desk to do what he assumed was work. Every couple minutes, she glanced up and caught his gaze across the space between them that seemed at once so minuscule and so vast.

His dignity was slipping away as the seconds ticked by. He couldn’t just spend his evening standing at the window and watching her occupy herself. Yes, he’d done it many times before, but she couldn’t see him those times. Her knowledge of his presence made him feel like a pathetic boy with a crush. She looked up at him and smiled softly before looking back down at her computer screen.

Loki took two strides over to the nearest armchair and grabbed the back of it, dragging it over to the window. He positioned it with some care so he could sit there and read, but also watch her if he glanced to the side. After retrieving the book from the table in front of the couch, he settled down in the chair and opened it. He forced himself to read an entire page before glancing up at her window.

Catherine was watching him with a smile on her face, big enough to show her teeth and crinkle the corners of her eyes. When he locked gazes with her, she nodded and went back to her work. He hoped she didn’t think this was some sort of victory on her part. It wasn’t.

What was it, though? It was almost like spending an evening with her. Almost, but not quite. He couldn’t catch her scent or casually engage her by goading her with some inflammatory remark or reach out and feel the heat her body threw off as she sat there. He couldn’t do those things, but he could share the time with her in silence. It felt more intimate than he would have believed.

His thoughts swirled around her, her wellbeing one of the overriding concerns. She wasn't capable of defending herself. Perhaps she could do so with her wits, but wits only get you so far before strength is necessary. He'd learned that lesson more than once. His emotions slipped down into despair over the impending crisis with a powerful being hell-bent on turning this world upside down just when he'd begun to enjoy it. Despair turned to disgust at how weak and pathetic he was being. And disgust twisted into a potent kind of self-loathing. He'd experienced it before, usually in moments of isolation and hopelessness.

Loki flipped the page of the book, but he wasn't reading. His eyes slid over the text, but none of it sank into his mind and memory. He'd stopped comprehending it in the fifth chapter, his mind going to reality instead of lingering in the fictional world of the page. Instead of pretending, he was reading, he closed the book and looked over at her and her small apartment.

Her bed was made, the sheets and duvet tucked neatly into place. Fantasies of sleeping in it with her came easily in his moments of weakness. Loki usually pushed them out of his mind, but tonight it was so difficult to look at her and the way she absently chewed on her lower lip without imagining what it would be like to be that close. That close without fear and panic, her warm little hands wherever she'd like to put them. Where would she put them, anyway? When his mind turned to maudlin places like these, he craved affection, adoration. He wanted her attention, her touch.

She looked up at him, not understanding the turmoil racing through his blood and tearing his mind asunder. If she knew then she'd run far away. She'd want nothing to do with him if she knew how affected he was by things out of his control, a ball bouncing from moment to moment. He tried his best to come out ahead and plot the course to his advantage, but he was still just reacting. His plans for domination had crumbled time and again. Now, he was grasping at straws, trying to keep himself from the gaping maw opening beneath him. Thanos would stop at nothing to get the stones.

Catherine was blissfully unaware that her world was going to turn on its end when Thanos’ full armies arrived to enslave these people. She leaned back in the chair and stretched her arms in the air as she yawned widely. She had no idea, and he didn't know how he could save her or why he even wanted to.

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He finished the book she’d given him the next day. The world Herbert had built was rich and believable and easy to fall into. Loki was restless now that he’d put it down, his mind cataloging and weighing options. The Tesseract was his most powerful bargaining chip. He could hand it over to Thor and regain some of the trust that had been lost, but no guarantee of safety. He could hand it over to Thanos in hopes of finding himself in the warlord’s good graces again, though there was certainly no guarantee of that either. In fact, after the debacle with the Chitauri army not so long ago that ended in his imprisonment in Asgard, Loki suspected Thanos would sooner eliminate him.

Her apartment was empty. She was out there in the world, living the life he was not privy to, not a part of. It made him feel almost impotent. She had more freedom. Theoretically, he had more freedom—more powers, more abilities, more strength, more options. However, he was boxed in by his own actions and his choices were limited. The best course of action for now seemed to be no action. Perhaps something would transpire that would open the playing field and give him a better choice.

He leaned against the side of the window frame and watched the light fade from the winter sky. It was a bit of a surprise to see her turn the corner and hurry up to her apartment, the collar of her wool coat pulled tight around her neck and a hat worn low on her head. She entered her quarters, but didn’t drop her bag or shrug her coat off. Instead, she went into her bedroom and scribbled something on a piece of paper at her desk. When she looked up to tape her message to the window, she saw him standing there watching her.

Her cheeks were flushed from the cold and her eyes were wide. With a small smile, she pressed her message up to the glass.

I HAVE YOUR SONGS. WILL WAIT FOR YOU AT OUR TABLE UNTIL SEVEN TONIGHT.

Our table. She would wait at their table for him. He thought back to that moment two days before when she’d touched his hand, slid her warm fingers up his wrist. All those what ifs played out in his imagination. What if he hadn’t pulled away? What if she’d pressed her other hand to his chest? What if he’d reached out to touch her? Would she have pulled away like he had?

She was still standing by her desk, waiting for his answer. Loki nodded once in acknowledgment. She pulled the sheet down and discarded it on her desk before leaving the apartment and exiting the building moments later. He watched her disappear into the shop, but didn’t follow immediately. Taking his time, he decided on black slacks and a white button-up shirt with silver cufflinks over a tailored black suit jacket. The long wool coat he favored came last. Her two books were slipped into the pockets. By the time he walked around the small apartment several times as he attempted to convince himself he didn’t really care to see her all that much, ten minutes had ticked by. Good. Making her wait made him seem more powerful than he felt. It was all in the perspective.

As good as her word, she was at their table with two large mugs in front of her. She was in black slacks and an emerald green satin shirt. It was becoming on her and brought out of her eyes. Loki was somewhat disappointed to note that her feet were encased in sensible black shoes with virtually no heel. The disappointment faded away into the background when he looked up and locked gazes with her.

“I take it you aren’t still mad at me?” she asked.

Of all the things he was expecting her to say, that was not one of them. “Mad at you?”

“I would apologize for touching you, but you were being a brat by blocking me in with your arm the last time we were here. I don’t know what you expected me to do.” When he didn’t reply because he was at a loss for words in response to her candor, she continued with, “I’m not a huge fan of being touched by strangers either. A woman I work with tries to give me a hug on my birthday every year.” Catherine laughed softly and said, “I actually ran from her last year. Here I am, a grown woman, and I’m running from this perfectly friendly lady because she’s trying to show affection.”

“She’s disrespectful of your boundaries,” Loki said. He was protective of his own lines in the sand, so he could empathize. There was something that felt so degrading when he was forced to endure his mother’s affections or his brother’s gregarious attempts at wrestling during his younger years. His defense had been to fight back, to become so prickly that they didn’t want to touch him, to hurt them or anyone else if they did. It had worked all too well. No one touched him now. Except, perhaps, for her.

Catherine sipped at her drink before saying, “She is, but that’s her language. Hugs are how she expresses herself.”

“So you run.”

She laughed under her breath. “So I run.”

“I don’t run; I hurt,” he replied.

Nodding, Catherine said, “Yes, I figured. So, I’ll apologize for touching you without your permission if you apologize for trying to intimidate me with your body language.”

Loki stared back at her, drawn in by her unerring gaze. “I apologize, Catherine,” he said, enunciating each word clearly so there was no mistake. It came as a bit of a shock to him that he actually was sorry.

“I apologize, too,” she told him.

Picking up his mug and inhaling the scent of the espresso, he said, “Your apology is unnecessary. I didn’t mind your touch.”

She raised her brows in question. “Clearly, you did,”

“You took me off guard,” he admitted. “There’s a difference between that and dislike.”

Her smile had a touch of bitterness to it. “You snapped back at me that day, tried to hurt me. Didn’t you just tell me you bite back when people try to get too close.”

“Force of habit,” he said, dismissing what she’d said with a wave of his hand. It bothered him more than a little that she could see through him so easily sometimes. The best defense was a good offense, though, so he added, “You’re welcome to touch me again. If you can get over your aversion to contact.”

“There you go again,” she pointed out. “Don’t you ever get tired of treating a conversation like a sparring match?”

“It’s the only way I know,” Loki admitted.

She shook her head at him, but there was a smile playing at the upturned corners of her mouth. Reaching down into the pocket of her coat as it hung over the back of her chair, she pulled out one of her thick, cream-colored pieces of stationary. It was carefully folded and wrapped around a small rectangular piece of equipment that looked similar to, but smaller than, the cell phones all the Midgardians carried with them. A cord wrapped around the two held everything in place. “Here,” Catherine said, “is your mixtape.”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?” he asked, leaving the offering on the table between them.

She laughed at his question. “Not at all. You’re the highlight of my day when we meet. I just didn’t want you to feel obligated to stick around.”

“Catherine,” Loki said, dragging her name out as he lowered his voice. He leaned forward to create more intimacy between them. “Don’t you think you’re the highlight of my day?”

There was that nervous chuckle and her dropped gaze. His flirtatious attention flustered her every single time, and it felt delicious to him. It made him want to grab the back of her head and kiss her until she melted against him. Or, perhaps, that’s not what would happen at all. Perhaps she would jerk away from his touch and flee. She did say her preferred method of avoiding affection was to run. Is that what he wanted to do, though? Show affection? He thought the urge had sprung from a desire to get a rise out of her. If that’s all he wanted, then why did the prospect of her running from his kiss make him upset?

Loki dismissed the train of thought and said, “Tell me more about how much you look forward to seeing me.”

She looked up from her drink and laughed under her breath. “You’re such a little shit, you know that?”

Smiling widely at her, he said, “But don’t you love it?”

“Obviously, I do. I keep coming back, don’t I?” She took a drink and leaned back in her seat to put some distance between them. “Sometimes I feel like I’m your little pet human.”

Loki leaned back as well and took a long drink from his cup. “I’m not a pet person. Why is it so difficult for you to acknowledge that I find you interesting?”

Her response was immediate. “Because I’m not interesting.”

“Most people who are interesting don’t believe they are.”

She smiled. “You believe you are.”

“Well, of course I am. I tried to deny it, but it was simply too obvious.”

This made her laugh again. “I wish I had an iota of your confidence.”

Loki tilted his head. “You do, Catherine. Perhaps you just don’t see it.”

“My confidence?”

“Mmm,” he hummed in agreement. “Try as I might, you simply refuse to let me walk all over you.”

“Gee,” she said, her voice full of sarcasm, “that’s mighty nice of you. What a compliment.”

Rolling his eyes, he said, “Come now, Catherine. I was being facetious and you know it. You’ve caused me no small amount of grief with your infernal backbone.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Do I get a trophy?”

“No, but you get to bask in my presence.”

Another velvety laugh escaped her throat. It was so pleasurable to be the reason she made that sound that he almost closed his eyes to savor it. “Very cute, Loki.”

“You know, I do love it when you say my name.”

“That’s probably why I don’t say it that often.”

Loki pressed a hand over his heart. “You wound me, my dear.”

“I can be prickly, too,” she teased.

He flashed her a wide smile. “Yes, I know. It’s part of the reason I like you so much.”

“Why else would you like me?”

“Well, I am partial to those heels you wear from time to time,” he admitted.

Catherine paused with her mug halfway to her mouth. “My heels?”

“Yes, the shoes.”

She exhaled a sharp breath of disbelief and shook her head. He watched as she tried to suppress the smile curling up her lips, but she never quite managed to get rid of it. “You’re a very weird guy. You try to take over Earth as a dictator and then you tell me you like my shoes.”

“Benevolent ruler,” he corrected.

“Ehhh…” The sound was one of disagreement. “No, it was definitely dictator. It was your way or the highway.”

“How do you know? You weren’t even there.”

“I know we didn’t need somebody coming in and taking over.”

“I don’t know, Catherine,” Loki said before sipping his drink. “If you’ll pardon my language, there are more than a few fucked up things in your little world here.”

She shrugged. “Aren’t there fucked up things in every world, though? I mean, sure, we’re petty and hateful sometimes. We wreck our environment and treat others cruelly and oppressively.”

Raising his brows, he said, “I love that you’re making my point.”

“No, I’m not,” she shot back. “We do a bad job of it sometimes, but other times we get it just right. This place is amazing. Why else would you try to take it over?”

“To piss my brother off?” he suggested.

“Is your life just a reaction to your brother?”

Her question snapped his head back and, momentarily, shut his brain down. “What did you ask me?” he questioned, his voice low and dangerous.

Her lips turned down in just the faintest, sweetest little frown. She probably had no idea how becoming it was on it, even if her question had set off a little fire filled with anger in the back of his mind. “Don’t be upset with me. It was a legitimate question. He seems to be a driving factor in your actions and decisions.”

“I’ve had to stand in his shadow all my life. I grew sick of it. It’s not fair.” He didn’t know why he told her the truth. It was a truth so painful and so petty that it was pathetic.

“Life’s not fair,” she replied. “Besides, I’m sure there are other things you’re better at than him.”

“Of course there are,” he agreed. Her concession calmed that anger that was stirring.

She leaned forward and put her forearms on the table. “Why would taking over Earth–”

“Midgard.”

Catherine shot him a look like she was watching a petulant child “Why would taking over Earth cause your brother such grief?”

“He’s fond of it,” Loki replied. “He fell in love one of you Midgardians and has adopted this realm as his second home.”

“Oh.” She seemed surprised at his answer. “How does that work?”

“How does what work?”

“A relationship between… him and his…” Catherine grimaced. “Girlfriend? Is that what you call it?”

“Lover?” Loki asked, raising his eyebrows at her reluctance.

She grimaced again. “Yuck. I don’t like that word. It sounds so creepy. Loooooover,” she said, dragging it out and making it sound salacious and dirty and, oddly enough, more than a little silly.

“That’s just because you run from intimacy,” he said, his voice teasing and light.

“I run from unnecessary physical contact. And who are you to talk? You wouldn’t know intimacy if it bit you on the ass.”

“I’ll have you know my prowess in the bedchamber is enviable.”

She held her index finger up and shook her head at him. “Nope. Sex and intimacy are two different things. You’d probably stab someone who got too intimate.”

Loki grinned and swept his eyes over her. “Why don’t you come closer and find out, Catherine?” he murmured, not bothering to hide the heat in the way he almost leered at her.

As he suspected, she pulled back into herself, no longer that self-assured woman who liked to verbally trade jabs with him. Perhaps intimacy made him uncomfortable, but physical contact sent her running, just like she’d said. “Don’t be silly,” she told him, dismissing even the idea as ridiculous. He’d be lying if he said it didn’t cause just a twinge of hurt somewhere deep down in his gut.

“I wasn’t being silly, my dear, but if this line of conversation makes you uncomfortable, then I’ll be the consummate gentleman and change the subject.”

“How magnanimous of you.” Her tone was dry, yet slightly amused.

“I’m just that kind of guy.”

She fiddled with her mug before taking a drink. “I’m sure you are,” she finally said, “when you want to be.”

“Yes,” Loki agreed. “When I want to be.”

Chapter Text

“Our love is dangerous. We fill this space with us.” - Wet (Body)

He’d departed the shop first. As much as Loki enjoyed talking with her, she had an uncanny ability to dig down into those places he’d spent years covering. He could only keep up pretenses and enjoy it for so long before her comments about his inability to accept or give intimacy had echoed so many times in his head that it was all he could hear. It came as a surprise that he wasn’t upset with her at all. He was annoyed with himself for being so weak and transparent that a mere Midgardian woman could suss his secrets out.

He’d taken her little mixtape and sat down in the chair by the window. She’d just finished her dinner—eaten standing beside her sink—and had settled down on her couch with a book. When she looked out through her window, she saw him staring back. He didn’t wave or nod, just kept his gaze steadily on her. After a few seconds, she stood and adjusted the armchair closest to her sitting room window so she could sit in it and see out the window, similar to how he’d positioned his. She sat down and opened her book again.

So, he thought, they would spend time together separately in their own rooms. Slowly, he unwound the cord and took pleasure in rubbing his fingertips across the slightly rough texture of the paper. Loki unfolded it and glanced over her print. Her letters were cramped and small except for the first letter of his name and the first letter of hers at the bottom where she’d signed.

Loki,

Mixtapes usually have a theme. I was thinking about your comments on my curating your Earth experience by showing you my favorite things. I gave up my car years ago when I moved to New York City, but I remember never feeling freer or more exhilarated than when I was on the highway in the middle of the night with nothing ahead of me but more road. That moment just isn’t complete without the right music. So, here are some songs that remind me of long drives after the sun has set. I hope you get to experience it one day.

Catherine

Below was a handwritten list of the song titles and musicians she’d included. Loki looked up at her in the window, her face tilted down as she read the book in her lap. What was it about her that drew him in, that made him want to actually be honest and forthright with her? The urge to do so no longer made him uncomfortable; he just felt it was an odd way to be, unusual and novel.

He pushed her earphones into his ears, just like he’d seen them do on those advertisements for iPhones on the television, and pressed the button to begin playing her little list of songs. His exposure to the music of this world went only so far as the television allowed. He found it to be varied and much of it to be strange or silly. Idly, he wondered if he would recognize the songs she’d compiled for him in this little recorder, and if he did, if he would be disappointed in her choices.

He had no reason to worry over that, though. Her selections were each unique, some more intriguing and enjoyable than others. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine what it would feel like to sit in a car, skimming over the road at a high rate of speed in the darkness of night. The closest he could come to actually experiencing that was riding in a small shuttle, but Loki knew there had to be a tangible difference between the feel of the road beneath that he couldn’t quite seem to imagine. Perhaps one day, he thought. Perhaps one day he would get to experience that. Perhaps with her.

Opening his eyes, he looked at her profile, at the way her hair was gathered and pulled over her opposite shoulder, at the fullness of her lips and the slant of her nose and the way she cradled the book in one hand and lovingly turned the pages with the other. She’d teased him about intimacy only minutes ago. Loki thought the closest he’d come to it in a very long time was sitting across that table from her. Their table. Almost squirming under her gaze as she stripped him bare, layer by layer. Almost loving every moment of it as the weight of pretense and expectation lifted off him until he was exposed.

Would she run, though? The thought of shedding all that ornamentation of his persona and watching her turn away, unaccepting, was too much. She was right. He was terrified of intimacy.

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Midgardians seemed to love Fridays. They buzzed about as if it were one of the better days of the week. Loki assumed it was because many of them did not work on the two days following. Catherine did occasionally, or so he assumed since she often left for hours on end during those days. Today was Friday, though, and she’d just left for her office. Sometimes, he felt that frustration that he couldn’t be involved in that part of her life. It was silly. Her job was of no consequence in the greater scheme of things, so it should have no bearing on his thoughts or desires.

Thanos was sending the fingers of his army out to probe this world as he turned his attention to it and it’s nearly defenseless inhabitants. Loki was caught between a rock and a hard place with his only bargaining chip—the Tesseract—also being a possible path to his death. All this was happening as the world turned, and here he was miffed about not being able to visit her office and see her life outside of their time together. It was absolutely unacceptable.

That didn’t stop him from hoping they might spend their evening together, separately. He found he rather enjoyed reading in his chair while she sat across the narrow street and worked or read. He’d already planned on it, decided how it would happen and what he would read when she would come and settle into her chair.

This is why it came as somewhat of a surprise when she arrived home just before five o’clock in the evening. It was early for her. Normally, she didn’t come back until well after the sun had set.

Loki watched as she rummaged through her closet and laid several dresses out on her bed. His mind raced, hoping he could relive those moments before she knew he watched, when she casually undressed for him. Unfortunately, she didn’t. Instead, she took one of the dresses in the bathroom with her. A few moments later, she emerged to observe herself in the mirror. He watched her in profile as she fluffed the skirt of the yellow dress out and adjusted the ruffles at the collar.

She turned to the side to smooth the back of it over her ass. When she looked up, she saw him standing in his window. He could tell she was surprised, but tried to hide it. She’d been so intent on sorting out whether she liked the dress that she’d forgotten his voyeuristic tendencies. He grinned as she walked up to the window and flicked the skirt out and in before lifting a hand and giving him a thumbs up, then a thumbs down.

His opinion. She was looking for his opinion. Loki took the liberty of sweeping his gaze over her. He could only see from her knees up, and the skirt went a little lower than that. The yellow didn’t sit quite right with her complexion or her hair. He wrinkled his brows and gave her a thumbs down.

She nodded like she had suspected as much, but still stuck out her lower lip in a pout before grabbing the next dress and retreating to the bathroom. The next dress was brown, cinched in at her waist with a wide belt, and with sleeves that only came down to her elbows. The neckline was more than modest, covering up nearly all the skin on her chest. However, the skirt was considerably shorter.

Catherine threw her hands out to the sides as if to ask him his thoughts. Loki just smiled and twirled his finger around in a circle. She scowled at him, but did as he asked, turning in a circle so he could see the back of it. Her derriere was quite lovely, rounded and full and begging to be touched. And yet, she was not his to touch. She was in another building, tempting him. Loki pressed his fingertip to the window and wrote her a message.

I LIKE THE BACK BETTER THAN THE FRONT.

She rolled her eyes and moved over to the desk to grab her notebook. On it, she wrote her response and slapped it against the window.

THAT WOULDN’T BE BECAUSE IF I BENT OVER MY ASS WOULD HANG OUT, WOULD IT?

Grinning, he just shrugged, affecting a look of innocence.

She turned on her heel and grabbed the next dress. It was a black one she’d worn on a date before. It looked very becoming on her, nipping in at her waist and flaring out so the hem fluttered just above her knees when she walked. The neckline was a little daring with the way it plunged down until it was between her breasts, exposing no small amount of cleavage.

Loki gave her a thumbs up and watched her smile back at him with warmth in her eyes. Instead of leaving things as they were, he penned a message to her on the glass.

WHAT ABOUT THE RED ONE?

She leaned over the desk and wrote a response before walking back up to the window and pressing the notebook to the glass.

I LOOK LIKE A SAUSAGE STUFFED IN A CASING.

Her comment made him throw his head back and laugh. She looked like nothing of the sort, but her turn of phrase was amusing.

YOU FORGET THAT I SAW YOU IN IT BEFORE. YOU LOOKED VERY FETCHING.

When he stopped writing and looked up, she was scribbling on her pad.

BULLSHIT

Loki sighed and stuck his lip out in a pout, mimicking the one she’d given him a minute before, and wrote his response.

HUMOR ME, CATHERINE.

She hesitated, watching him with narrowed eyes filled with suspicion. Finally, she turned around and grabbed the dress off the bed. He watched as she dug through a drawer and pulled out a nude bodysuit-type thing before closing the bathroom door behind her. Loki waited patiently for her to emerge. When she did, he wondered it perhaps he had forgotten exactly how enticing she’d looked in that dress before he realized that it wasn’t the same red dress. This one contoured to every rounded curve of her body, but it was a bit longer than the other, stopping just below her knees. The neckline scooped low and the arms almost hung off her shoulders, allowing him a gorgeous view of the column of her neck.

Licking his lips, Loki wrote her a message on the window.

THAT’S NOT THE SAME RED DRESS.

A moment later, she slapped her notebook on the glass.

I DON’T WANT TO FLASH THE WORLD. THE OTHER WAS TOO SHORT. THIS ONE IS TOO TIGHT.

THIS ONE IS PERFECT. TURN AROUND.

She was looking at him with suspicion again. Finally, and with some reluctance, she shuffled in a circle. Loki didn’t realize his mouth had opened as he traced the hourglass curves of her breasts and hips and then the enticing way the small of her back sloped out into her ass. It was obvious she was self-conscious in the garment, though she had no reason to be. He told her as much.

PERFECT. WHAT’S THE OCCASION?

Trying to hide her smile, Catherine dropped her gaze and shook her head. For a long moment, she stood there in the window, her eyes on the floor. His stayed firmly on her and the way she filled out the dress in all the right spots. When she moved, he pressed his hand against the window frame, the desire to reach out across the street and touch her overwhelming.

A SOON-TO-BE DISASTROUS BLIND DATE.

Date? Date? Loki felt his gut clench and his brain buzz with thoughts of some stupid, worthless, unappreciative Midgardian man thinking for one second he could lay a finger on her perfect body. The hand hanging at his side clenched into a tight fist as he watched her bend over the desk and write more.

I’M PREPARED FOR UTTER HUMILIATION AND A WASTE OF MY TIME.

Loki didn’t think about what he was writing before he wrote it.

DON’T GO.

She smiled softly and wrote her answer on the next blank page. Her letters bold and large.

HAVE TO. IT’D BE RUDE TO STAND HIM UP.

BE RUDE.

That made her laugh and also made her write a response.

CAN’T BE. I’M A GOOD GIRL, REMEMBER?

GOOD GIRLS CAN TELL MEN NO.

Catherine flashed him a bittersweet smile and wrote a thank you on her sheet of paper. It covered the entire page and had an exclamation point after it. Loki watched as she pulled her curtains closed and shut him out.

He stood there and stared at the pattern of the curtains, his mind running wild with thoughts of what might happen. What if she liked this blind date? What if she brought him home and took him to her bed just beyond the wall of fabric she’d put up between them. The thought made him sick to his stomach. It made him feel murderous for the first time in weeks. In fact, for the first time since that man had attempted to attack her with a carving knife. Why did he want to kill for her? It felt like she was in his blood sometimes, something he desperately needed to survive.

With a hand on the frame, Loki pushed himself away from the window and began pacing his small apartment. Pathetic and weak and impotent. That’s all he was. He was sitting there on the sidelines mooning over some powerless, inconsequential little slip of a Midgardian woman. Just like his fucking brother and his brother's lover. Except this was somehow worse than Thor. Worse because Catherine wasn’t even his lover. He wasn’t even sure if Catherine was an ally. A friend, perhaps? He hadn’t had a friend since he was a child and had lost the narrative of what a friend was.

Disgusting.

If she blocked him out, then he’d block her. With a wave of his hand, he cast the illusion on his windows to make them appear empty before settling in to read a book. He chose the most gruesome and descriptive tome on the second World War. He’d read it before, but he particularly liked the section that discussed this country’s use of nuclear weaponry and the lasting devastation it caused. His eyes scanned the pictures, but his mind kept jumping back to her and whatever pathetic man she was choosing to spend her time with. It was true; he had no claim on her, nor any right to feel jealous. And yet, they’d been close. Closer than he’d been to anyone in a very long time. Perhaps she didn’t see it that way. Perhaps he was just another man who came and went from her life. Running like a strong current beneath the rage he felt was a river of grief and loneliness and self-doubt. He didn’t like to acknowledge it, but in moments like these, it was hard to dismiss.

She came out the door of her building and took the two steps down to the street. Her hair fell in waves down her back and her face was made up to look flawless with dark charcoal around her eyes and a soft rosy red on her lips. She waited on the sidewalk for a moment, her black coat wrapped tightly around her and her red dress peeking out from the bottom. He would have never suggested the dress if he knew she was just going to wear it for some other man.

A minute ticked by, and Loki couldn’t pull his gaze from her as she stood nervously at the curb. Finally, a blue car pulled up. She opened the back door and slipped inside, disappearing from his little world that extended no further than a block.

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It was shortly after after ten o’clock when she rounded the corner to their block. Her hair was tied back at the base of her skull with the wool coat buttoned and clenched tightly to her body to keep her warm. It reminded him of how fragile she was. She looked tired and was walking with a noticeable limp. Had this man hurt her? Loki felt that anger he’d tried to quiet start simmering again. Anger would get him nowhere in this instance.

During the two and a half hours she’d been gone, he’d run through scenarios in his head, most of which involved her returning in one of those yellow cars with a man in tow. Loki hadn’t decided how he would handle that, though the darker side of him wanted to disrupt her night quite severely. Her coming home alone hadn’t entered into his plans because he couldn’t imagine this faceless, nameless man not begging and pleading to accompany her to her bedroom, especially with her in a dress that provided generous hints of what was waiting beneath.

He watched her stop in front of her building and look up at his windows. She saw nothing, though he was standing before her. Loki considered removing the enchantment and looking down on her from his position at the window, hoping it would make her feel even lower than she already felt, hoping it would make her regret stealing away with another man when she could have had him.

He swallowed the lump in his throat. Could have had him? The thought set his mind to humming with anxiety over the position he was in. Had he fallen into that same trap as Thor? Was he actually debasing himself, desperate for the affection of this woman?

She sat down on the top step and pulled her right foot out of her black heels. Loki watched her gingerly rub the foot before putting it back into the shoe, then repeat the ritual with her left foot. Once finished, she pulled her coat around her neck and curled into herself resting her elbows on her knees and her jaw in her open hands. She seemed very tired and very sad. She seems very lonely, he realized.

It was one of those moments just like that night weeks before when he’d stepped in to protect her from the attacker with a knife. His intentions were to watch, but his body didn’t obey. Within a minute, he was standing across the street from her. She saw him and gave a strained smile.

“Hi, Loki,” she said, watching him walk over to stand in front of her.

“Good evening, Catherine. Were you waiting for me out here?”

She chuckled and shook her head. “No, I was resting my feet before I climb the stairs.” Looking up at him, she said, “But you’re a happy surprise. To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”

“Curiosity,” he replied.

“Curiosity,” she repeated as she wrapped her arms around her midsection as if she were hugging herself.

Loki nodded. “Yes. How was your… date?”

Another strained smile graced her fine features. Loki could almost taste the pain in the way she looked at him. “Oh, you know, fucking horrible. Like always.”

“Come now, Catherine. Surely not always?”

She exhaled a small breath of empty laughter. “Yeah, you’re right. Like most times, then.”

“Why do you do it?”

Raising her brows, she said, “What do you mean? Go on dates?”

“Mmm,” he said, inclining his head in a yes.

“It’s what you do, I guess,” she replied. “Honestly, I ask myself the same question all the time. Why don’t I just give it up? You know? Just… be happy on my own. I’m happy enough. I don’t need this kind of grief.”

“You’re upset tonight,” Loki observed as he came closer.

Catherine sighed. “It was just a shitty date. I don’t think I lived up to expectations.”

“And did he?”

She looked up at him, silent for a long moment before laughing softly and shaking her head. “No, I guess he didn’t.”

It felt good to make her laugh in a time like this. It felt triumphant, but he wasn’t sure why. Walking over to the stoop, he turned and sat down beside her. He could feel her body tense as he settled in, so very close to her, the fabric of his pants touching the red fabric of her dress that was molded to her shapely thigh. “Well,” Loki told her as he shifted until his arm was behind her, palm pressed into the concrete step she was sitting on the edge of, “you’ve been spending time with the best, so no other man is going to measure up, I’m afraid.”

She dropped her head and chuckled at his comment. “I really do wish I had a little of your confidence.”

“My confidence is deeply rooted in self-deprecation and sarcasm, so you’ve got a solid basis for it,” he leaned in and whispered.

This made her laugh again, swaying just the slightest bit into his body.

“Really, Catherine, why do you spend your time with these men who don’t appreciate you?”

She looked over at him, eyes wide and clear and almost skittish, like she might shut down or run away any moment. “Why does anyone do this? Because I don’t want to spend my life alone.”

“You’re trying to find a partner,” Loki said.

“I am.”

“You seem to be having no luck.”

She nodded. “That’s true.”

“Why?”

“I thought why was a dumb question,” she said, playing with the hem of her dress. It lifted the fabric up so he could see the inside of her thigh, just above her knee. Loki felt the urge to lean down and kiss her there, but he suppressed it quickly.

“Mmm, I never said that,” he replied. “I just said it’s one of your favorite questions and sometimes there isn’t always an answer.”

“There’s always an answer. Sometimes we just don’t want to admit it.”

“Then why?” he pressed.

“Why what?”

“Why are you having no luck finding a partner?”

She sighed. It was deep and heavy and so very weary. He could feel that twinge of empathic pain in his chest for her. It was a new and unusual feeling. “So many reasons, I guess,” Catherine finally said. “I’ve been told I’m cold, distant, difficult to get to know. That I’m judgemental and a workaholic.”

“And these men tell you all about your faults.”

“Yes.”

“Do they tell you the things they find appealing?”

“About me?”

“Yes.”

She gave him a look like he’d just asked a stupid question and she’d thought better of him. “No. What’s appealing? I probably am all those things they say.”

Loki decided he didn’t like these men of Midgard. They were small, wretched little things who were incapable of understanding a creature like her in all her glorious complexities. Smoothly, he shifted his body and moved his hand braced on the step behind her until it was close enough to allow his entire arm to press against her back. It was as if he had his arm around her, holding her, but his fingertips were still firmly on the concrete and not on her hip where’d he’d prefer them to be. Dipping his head down, he whispered in her ear. “Shall I regale you with what I find appealing, Catherine?”

Her muscles were tense and her breath was warm on his face. “Please don’t. You’ll make this weird. I don’t need to like you any more than I already do. I feel like I might be betraying my country by liking you this much.”

Loki smiled at her, big enough that the corners of his eyes crinkled up. “How much do you like me?”

“Too much.”

“Is that why you went on an outing with another man?” he asked.

“I… We’re not… You and I aren’t…”

“What are we not, Catherine? Lovers?” he murmured softly, his voice pitched just for her.

She laughed nervously. “We’re definitely not that. Unless you have a wildly different definition of lovers.”

“No, I agree. We’re not that. What shall we be, then?”

She shifted, leaning back into his arm. He relished the feeling of her body against his, even if it was so very innocent. “I don’t follow,” Catherine admitted. “Look, I’ve had a long night and… and I’m not exactly at the top of my game. My feet hurt and this bra is digging into my ribs like a motherfucker and I have a low-grade headache, probably from stress. I’m not equipped to do this verbal sparring thing with you right now. I’m just… I just want to be sad for a minute, okay?”

“Okay,” he readily agreed.

She looked over at him, her eyes beautiful in the yellow light of the streetlamps. “Are you going to stay here with me?” It was as if she had been expecting him to leave her to it.

“Do you not want that? You did sit down out here,” Loki told her. “It was as if you were summoning me. And here I am, at your service.”

“You make yourself sound so sweet, but I know you probably just came to dig in my wounds.”

The thought had never even occurred to him, which came as a shock. The old Loki would have definitely considered this a prime opportunity to dig in and find her pain for future use to manipulate her. That wasn’t what he was about now, though, and he honestly admitted that to her. “No, Catherine. I did not. I came to know you.”

“What does that mean?” she muttered.

“You are difficult to get to know. That is true. But, you see, I love a challenge, and I think maybe in this moment you might be easier to know.”

“Because I’m hurting,” she stated, her voice flat.

“Because you’re open. For some people, it takes hurt to get them to that point.”

“You sound like you’re speaking from experience.”

He chuckled. “Oh, I am, my dear. I am. We’re more alike than you know.”

“You know,” she said, leaning in and tapping his chest with her shoulder, “for a sometimes-murderous, would-be dictator, you’re pretty observant of people.”

“Well, Catherine, all sometimes-murderous, would-be dictators must be well-versed in the ways of people in order to obtain some modicum of power. Can’t manipulate if you don’t understand.”

She looked over at him again, and those eyes just drew him into her world, made him want to fix everything wrong so that she didn’t hurt. “Is that what you’re doing?” Catherine asked, “Manipulating?”

“No. I don’t think you can be easily manipulated.”

“Well, you did say you love a challenge.”

He frowned. Couldn’t she see he was trying to be nice, trying to step out of his comfort zone to get to know her? “Don’t contort my words, my dear. I’m not here to manipulate. I just want to see inside. You claim you have no qualms about intimacy. Let’s see, shall we?”

“Excuse me? What?” Her normally rich, husky voice was pitched high and sounded almost strangled.

“Be intimate. Shall we be intimate?” he whispered.

“Uh, what? Wait, are you… are you saying you… Are you propositioning me for sex?”

Loki threw his head back and laughed. “Now, now, Catherine. Weren’t you the one who told me that sex and intimacy are two different things?”

“So, like, what? You want to hang out? Talk?”

“Whatever will allow me to know you.”

“Well, you do know me,” she said, leaning closer to him. Loki knew if he wrapped the arm behind her around her back, then she’d melt right into his side. The lure was powerful. He suspected she would feel perfect pressed up against him.

“Not completely. You hold back and you know it.”

“What if I don’t trust you?”

He shrugged and leaned in to smell her hair. “Then that’s only fair because I don’t trust you completely either.”

“You don’t trust anyone,” she shot back.

“True. Probably because I can’t be trusted. But that doesn’t really matter.”

She turned her head to look at him. Their faces were so close, her nose almost bumped against his. She pulled back a bit and said, “It does matter. You can’t have intimacy without trust. You can’t expect someone to open themselves up to you and risk getting hurt if they don’t trust that you’ll be careful with them.”

“And if I promise to be careful with you?”

“Does your word mean anything?” she asked, her gaze steady and almost intimidating.

“Ouch, Catherine. That hurt,” Loki teased.

“Be honest with me. Does it?”

“No, not really. I’d like to change that, but I feel like an addict, always slipping back into those murky waters of deceit.” It was the truth, an uncomfortable one to admit to, one so revealing he almost took it back with a flippant joke tacked onto the back of it to hide the reality. But he didn’t. He let it sit there between them, heavy and incriminating.

“I just don’t understand why you want to know me,” she admitted. “I don’t want to be a challenge. I don’t want to be difficult. I just want… I just want to be…”

Loki swallowed the lump in his throat. He knew exactly what she wanted to be because as much as he denied it, he wanted the exact same thing. He’d craved it all his life, did rash and foolish things to get it, acted like a petulant child throwing a tantrum when he didn’t have it. But he would never ask for it. Never ever admit to anyone that all of the plotting and betrayals had been his pathetic, flailing attempts to be loved. None of it had worked, even when it appeared like it had. Even when he’d usurped the throne in Asgard, playing at being his father, and received all the accolades and adoration of his subjects, both as his father and as his dead self, even then it had been unsatisfying and empty because it wasn’t real.

“What do you want to be, Catherine?” he asked when she didn’t finish.

“Nothing, nevermind.”

He didn’t push her because he knew the pain of it and felt a strange, almost overwhelming, empathy for her in that moment. “Don’t you think we’re being intimate now?” he whispered in her ear, his arm slipping around her just like he’d been thinking about since he sat down so close.

“Yes,” she replied.

“I’ll have you know this is somewhat uncomfortable for me. You see, you’re correct, this… closeness… isn’t my specialty. I command and I plot and I take what power I can find. But I don’t do this.”

“What? Talk to broken-hearted women on their stoops? Make them feel like they’re worth something?”

“Is that how I make you feel, Catherine?”

“Of course that’s how you make me feel. Don’t be obtuse.”

“Good,” he replied. “Perhaps I’m tipping the scales of good and evil in the right direction by making you feel that way.” He turned his head just the slightest bit and let his lips touch her hair, exhaling his breath onto her scalp. “You’re worth quite a great deal.”

“When you’ve solved my puzzle, then you won’t think that.”

“We’ll see. Let’s go solve your puzzle.”

She glanced over at him, her face so close to his that he could smell the sweetness of the red wine she’d had earlier in the evening on her breath. “How do we do that? I really don’t understand you sometimes.”

“Do you recall those nights that we sat by our windows together?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s do that, but in the same room.”

“Oh.” She seemed almost disappointed. Had she wanted to go to bed with him? Loki would have been more than happy to strip her of the clothes she was wearing and roll her body beneath his, but that was sex, not intimacy. Also, he had the feeling if he moved that fast with her that she’d snap her little shell shut so quickly he wouldn’t have a chance. Besides, his trepidation and anxiety over spending time in her apartment, inside her world, was almost exhilarating. It was as if he were going into a battle, prepared to die, but there was no real threat of death, just the threat of her crushing his heart. His ego, he amended. Crushing his ego.

Loki stood and extended a hand. “Shall we?”

She slipped her hand into his. It was colder than his from the freezing weather and their time spent on the stoop. A desire to take care of her bubbled up in his chest, and he pushed it down deep. He wasn’t a hero. He’d played one convincingly a time or three, but that wasn’t really him. “Did you just invite yourself up to my apartment?” she asked.

“Yes. Are you impressed by how smoothly I managed it?”

Catherine laughed softly before pulling away from him and digging in her bag for her keys. “Sure, Loki. Very impressed.”

Chapter Text

“Not asking anything of me, saying nothing about what it means, without anybody telling me how I should feel. Lead my skeptic sight to the table and the light.” - Jimmy Eat World (Table for Glasses)

It was almost surreal to step into her apartment. He’d watched her so many times on this unintended stage, and Loki found himself unable to move from the doorway for several seconds. She shrugged her coat off and hung it on one of the hooks by the door. It wasn’t until he saw her standing there so very close in that dress that accentuated all her best features that he stopped scanning the room with his gaze and focused on her.

She was worrying her hands, pinching the fingers of one with the other and then switching. He could sense her nerves and wondered if it was because of who he was or if it was due to her lack of self-confidence. Perhaps a bit of both.

“I feel like I’ve been here before, though I’ve never set foot inside this room,” he admitted.

Catherine chuckled nervously and said, “I’d offer to take your coat, but you didn’t wear one.”

“I don’t get cold easily.”

Pulling in a deep breath, she exhaled before saying, “Well, uh, this is my apartment… which, I guess, you’ve already seen. A tour is unnecessary, right?”

“May I walk through?”

“Sure, knock yourself out.” She shrugged, crossing her arms over her midsection and backing away from him. Ahh, he thought, she was self-conscious. It somehow made him feel a rush of relief to realize that she wasn’t anxious because who he was or what he’d done.

Loki walked over to the kitchen, his steps light on her hardwood floor. After a quick perusal of this strange stage, he walked across the sitting room and stepped into her bedroom. Her neatly made bed was before him, and his thoughts shifted of their own accord to being in that bed, to rolling her onto her back and burying his face in her neck as she wrapped her legs around him. What would she smell like if he were that close? What would she feel like if he could freely put his hands where he wanted? Or where she wanted? Would she want that? Instinct told him that she wouldn’t be opposed, but she might be skittish.

“Do you want to watch a movie?

He turned to find her standing behind him. She’d taken off her shoes and padded into the bedroom softly in her bare feet.

“Will you be acting as curator?” Loki asked, watching her carefully in the dim light of the bedroom. She looked so soft and warm with the slopes and dips of her body, the stray hairs that had escaped her clip, the fullness of her lips. It was all so enticing when combined with the way she looked at him. There was reservation in her eyes, but there was also yearning that he recognized and felt himself. Despite the differences, they really were alike in so many ways.

“Yeah, sure,” she said. “What are you in the mood for?”

He almost told her that he was in the mood for her, but bit his tongue. They were in a delicate place; he was intuitive enough to know that she wanted to be on board, but she wasn’t quite there yet. He would easily and quite happily take her to bed at that moment, strip away her dress and lose himself in her body for the rest of the night. However, he wasn’t so sure she would be agreeable, whether it was her self-consciousness or not seeing him in that light just yet.

“Something you love,” he finally answered. Her back was to the doorway, and the light coming from the living room didn't allow him to see her expression as much as he’d like.

“Okay,” she agreed, “but can I change out of this ridiculous dress first?”

A thrill went through him at the prospect of her undressing. “Of course.”

She didn’t move.

“Ahh,” Loki said, smiling at her, “you’d like me to wait in your sitting room.”

“Uh, yeah,” she agreed.

“You do know I’ve seen it all before, right?”

Catherine moved to the chest of drawers by the bathroom door and began rummaging inside of it. “Yeah, I know, but I’m trying to forget,” she told him without turning around. “I’m also trying not to embarrass myself in front of you, so… I think I’ll change in the bathroom.”

Holding his hands up, palms out, when she finally turned around, he said, “I don’t see how you could embarrass yourself, Catherine. But, if you’d like me to wait outside, I’ll do so.” Without her having to ask again, he backed out of the room and shut the bedroom door behind himself.

He felt cut off from the world in her little apartment. Suddenly, everything came down to her and him and whatever happened inside the walls of the rooms. It was an unfamiliar feeling to him. Normally, his mind was searching for his next move, reaching beyond his immediate situation to plan several steps ahead. Just sitting in a room with one other person and no motive beyond her pleasure was new and oddly exhilarating.

He glanced over her bookcase, running his fingers along the spines of the books on the middle shelf. Slowly, he swept his gaze over the room. He walked over to the window and looked across the street at his building and inside his windows. She had a similar view of him and the sterile little apartment they’d placed him in. Taking in the view of his world for the past few months from outside of it made him feel claustrophobic and restless.

Why had he stayed so long, bided his time for these past few months? He could have been accomplishing goals, positioning himself to weather the storm that Thanos was sure to bring. Instead, he was playing games with a Midgardian woman, wasting precious days trying to unravel her secrets like some lovesick boy.

The door opened behind him and she slipped out of the bedroom all furtive glances and fluttering hands. If she was self-conscious before, she was even more so now. All thoughts of leaving, all questions of why he was here with her in this moment flew from his mind like birds scattering through the air. He wanted to be here with her, wanted to know what it was to be close to someone without any motive, with nothing to gain but the pleasure of her company.

Catherine’s hair was loose and pushed behind her shoulders to cascade down her back. Much to his disappointment, she wore a pair of gray cotton pants that hugged her hips and thighs before flaring out around her calves with a white shirt that was big enough to slip down one bare shoulder. He'd been hoping, perhaps even expecting, just the oversized shirt. Wasn't that what she wore to bed?

“So, uh, a movie,” she said, moving over to sit on the far end if the couch, one of her legs folded beneath her and unable or unwilling to make that eye contact that she was so good at when they were battling with words across the little table in the coffee shop.

He approached leisurely, hands at his sides. She looked up and gave him a strained smile, her hand clutching the remote for the television.

“Do I make you nervous?” he asked.

She shook her head and sighed. “No, I… I just don’t know what you expect of me.”

“Nothing,” he replied honestly. He definitely wanted things from her, but he expected nothing.

She gave him a look that said she didn’t believe him.

Loki ignored her suspicion and sat down next to her, close enough that their thighs touched. She was almost vibrating with fear or anxiety or anticipation; he wasn’t sure which. Sometimes she was so difficult to read. The idea of her being fearful of him brought on a weary sense of dejection. He’d never been one to long for moments of connection if they weren’t avenues toward his ultimate goals of power or prestige, but his time with her had instilled him with this wretched longing to be understood and accepted. “Do you want me to leave?” he murmured.

“No.” Her answer was immediate and such a relief. “I want this to not be so weird.” She shifted slightly, turning her body toward his and resting the arm closest to him on the back of the couch.

“Why should it be… weird?” he asked. “We’ve conversed over espresso many times.”

She chuckled and shook her head.

“What?” Loki asked.

“Sometimes you say things in such a strange way and it reminds me that as much as this feels like you’re my new neighbor, you’re actually, like… I don’t know. What are you? An alien?”

“An alien?”

Catherine nodded. “Yes. Not from this world.”

“Well, technically, you’re an alien because you aren’t of my world.”

She hummed her disagreement. “We’re in my world, so I get to call you an alien.”

“I’m a frost giant.”

“I wish I could look up these things you tell me about, but some of them are so foreign that this world doesn’t know anything about them.”

Loki turned his upper body until he could comfortably face her, mirroring her posture with his arm also on the back of the couch, so very close to touching her own. “Perhaps one day I’ll tell you about my world.”

“One day? Does that mean you’re sticking around?”

Her question gave him pause. Is that what he’d said? One day he would tell her? One day? Not this day, but a future day as if she would remain in his life. How could he even think that? Things were afoot, the gears of war were turning; he couldn’t make any promises to her or himself. And even if he could, why would he want to? How could he ever think that he could remain in the not-a-cage across from her? Its days were numbered.

“Perhaps,” he answered, still distracted by his thoughts.

“You know,” she said, a smile playing at her lips, “you might be a little murderous, but I’ve really enjoyed talking with you over the past few weeks.”

Loki opened his mouth, but nothing came out. His confusion over his own motives and her confession had momentarily locked up his thoughts and his tongue.

Catherine continued by saying, “One of the first times we spoke, you asked me if your wanting to talk to me made me feel significant because of who you are.”

He remembered the conversation quite well. In fact, he remembered all of his conversations with Catherine in startling clarity. “Yes,” he agreed, “Does it?”

She laughed softly and laid her head on the arm resting on the back of the couch, watching him with those beautiful, unflinching eyes. “I remember being annoyed with you at the question because it seemed like you were so full of yourself. I mean, yes, you have more… consequence… than me, but…” Sighing she said, “I don’t know. It was like you were trying to make me feel less than you, and even if that’s the case in reality, it kinda pissed me off.”

“Yes,” he agreed, “I was being conceited. I wanted you to feel that way.”

“Why?”

“Your favorite question again?”

“If you don’t want to answer, just say so,” she replied.

It felt like a challenge, though he wasn’t sure she intended it that way. She was too amenable right now for it be a verbal thrust of a sword. This conversation wasn’t the battle he was accustomed to with her. “Why do you want to know these things about me, Catherine?”

“Because I want to know you,” she replied, the answer so easy as if it were on the tip of her tongue before he’d even asked. “You said you wanted to know me a few minutes ago. Why shouldn’t I want to know you.”

“What if I want to know you so I can determine the best way to use you?” he asked, unable to stop himself from snapping back just a bit. He’d be lying if he said her questions didn’t make him uncomfortable.

The corners of Catherine’s mouth turned down just the slightest bit. “Is that what this is?”

“What if it is?”

“Then I’d say you’re pretty stupid,” she replied. “I don’t think I’m of much use to you. I’m not strong. I can’t do… magic or whatever that is you can do. I don’t have control over or even know anyone important enough to change anything of consequence. I’m just a thirty-four-year-old book editor who lives in an apartment in Brooklyn that just happens to be visible from your… Well, what is it? Your apartment? Your prison?”

“I’ve been calling it a not-a-cage.”

She laughed softly, the corners of her eyes crinkling up. “Okay, I just happen to live across from your not-a-cage. Honestly, why are you wasting your time with me?”

“I like talking to you.”

“And?”

“Isn’t that enough?”

“So, you’re not using me like you implied?”

He knew his grin was strained and forced and pathetic, but the way she sorted through his words and pulled the truth out could be unnerving sometimes. “No, I’m not using you, Catherine. I just like being in your company.”

This made her look away. Her gaze, once so steadily on him, skipped away and landed on the ceiling, then the floor, then the window.

“Why did that make you nervous?” Loki asked.

“It didn’t.”

“Don’t lie, Catherine.”

She flicked her eyes back to his face. “It’s just… well, you said you like spending time with me.”

“Yes,” he agreed, raising his brows.

“I’m not sure if I can explain,” she admitted.

“Try.”

Catherine pulled in a deep breath, exhaling slowly, before she said, “Well, that’s what anyone wants, right? To have someone want nothing more of you than to be in your company.”

“Perhaps,” he agreed.

“Like, if I told you that I don’t care who you are or what you can do for me, all I care about is just being around you because I enjoy that so much. That’s better than anything, right?”

She was correct, and he was loath to admit it because it went against how he’d lived his life and conducted himself. To be feared, to be respected, to be revered, to be worshipped, those were all worthy goals, and he’d built his actions around obtaining those goals. And yet, at the heart of it, they seemed to pale in comparison to this woman telling him that she didn’t care about any of it—that she just wanted to know him and hear what was in his head, no expectations. “Yes,” he finally agreed, trying to school his expression so he wouldn’t give so much of himself away.

“Well, you just sprung that on me and it… well, it was a bit surprising that someone like you would feel that way about… well, me.”

“Did you mean that?” he asked.

“Mean what? What I said about spending time with you and not caring about your… powers or whatever?”

“Yes,” he said, his throat constricting by the second.

“Of course,” she replied. “I mean, I don’t know… you’re a little intimidating sometimes, but other times—like now—I feel like I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. And, honestly, that’s a little scary.”

She dropped her gaze again, looking at the point at which her bent knee pressed into his thigh. Heat radiated from her, and it felt comforting. He wanted to touch her, but she was skittish. Where he’d always been pleased to see creatures and people scatter before him, he didn’t want her to run. In fact, he wanted her to stay so much is was painful and distressing. It was something he couldn’t examine right now, but would beat himself up over later.

“You told me that these men say one of your faults is that you’re cold, distant. You say they find you wanting,” he said.

She looked up at him through her lashes. “Yeah.”

“Do you think, perhaps, they believe you are not enough because you find them to be not enough?”

She shifted, her knee pressing more firmly into his leg for a brief moment, and lifted her head off her arm. “That doesn't even make sense.”

“Oh, it does, Catherine. You see, if you find them wanting, then you may put off an air of indifference or distance that in turn makes them classify you as cold, frigid. It turns them away from you.”

She looked at him, eyes unwavering as she considered his theory. He could almost see the gears of her mind weighing his words to see if there was something worthwhile or if it should be discarded. Finally, she looked down again and laughed softly under her breath. “I don't know if I should be flattered or insulted,” she told him.

“Why would you be insulted?”

“Well, you just implied I'm fucked up in the head and it's my fault I'm not in a relationship.”

“No,” he disagreed. “I said these men aren't your equal. They don't hold your attention, and they can sense this. They're intimidated by this.”

She looked up, eyes wide. “Oh. Well, that sounds more like a compliment.”

“You don't agree?”

Sighing, Catherine said, “Well… yes, I'm sure there is some truth to what you said. But if we're being honest, I think it's more like me fucking things up before I embarrass myself by actually caring. Like, uh, I'll not care more than you so when this doesn't work out then I won't look like such a fool.”

“But you do care, Catherine.”

“I do, but… Don't tell me you've never cast the first stone when you knew there was going to be trouble. I know you well enough to know you have.”

She was absolutely correct, and it was disconcerting how well she saw through all his layers, how alike they were in so many ways. Hurt someone before you could get hurt. It was the story of his life, though he was loath to admit it because it was assuredly a weakness. “Yes,” he agreed, “I have been guilty of that. But what makes you think they wouldn't want you?”

She returned her head to her arm that rested on the back of the couch. “Well, I'm not exactly a knockout, as you can see. It's, uh, it's really easy to blame what happens when it all falls flat on a lack of physical attraction.”

“Of you to them?” he asked, not believing what he was hearing as this near lunacy escaped from between her lovely lips.

She chuckled. “No, of them to me. Like I said, I'm not a knockout. Not a ten or even a seven.”

“A ten?”

“A rating scale between one and ten. If you're gorgeous then you're a ten. If you're disgustingly ugly, then you're a one.”

“Attraction is subjective,” he said, narrowing his eyes at her.

Catherine nodded her agreement as she looked up at him with her cheek pressed against her arm. “Sure, but generally people agree. I'm not saying I condone it or rate people myself, but I'm aware of the reality that it happens. When you meet a potential romantic partner, they're going to assess and categorize you, determine whether they are attracted to you.”

“And you say you're below a seven.”

“Maybe a six.”

“Catherine,” he said, pitching his voice deep and lacing it with disapproval. “Don't be silly.”

“What?” she asked, flashing him a self-deprecating grin. “You're thinking four is closer to the truth?”

“I'm thinking ten is closer to the truth, my dear. “

There was that husky, velvety laugh he felt all the way up his spine. “Very funny,” she told him.

“Well, I'm obviously a ten,” Loki said.

“Obviously,” Catherine agreed, that grin still on those full, kissable lips.

“Yes, obviously. And why would I, as a ten, talk to anyone who wasn't a ten?”

“Oh, you can talk to whomever you'd like. But it's a scientifically verifiable fact that most people date and marry within the same attractiveness level. Tens like you don’t really slum it with sixes like me.”

“I find this scale to be ridiculous.”

She scrunched her nose up and said, “Yeah, me too.” Catherine glanced away for a moment. When she looked back at him, she was looking up through her lashes like a little vixen who was sent to tempt him. “I agree with you, though. I do fuck things up before someone can reject me. I, uh, never let them think they have a chance. And now that I say it out loud like this… it sounds so idiotic.”

“Don't beat yourself up too much, Catherine. Even us tens do that. I'm quite familiar with the tactic of striking first and keeping your distance.”

“Story of your life?”

“Mmm, yes. The story of my life,” Loki agreed.

“Tell me another secret about you,” she implored.

Smiling, he said, “What makes you think that was a secret?”

“That was totally a secret and don't you deny it. Tell me another. You wanna know me, I wanna know you.”

“Why?”

She raised her brows. “Look at you, borrowing my favorite question. Why? Just because I want to know you. That's why.”

This time it was he that looked away, his eyes shifting to the door and the gleam of the golden-colored doorknob that was made of cheap metal and coated with even cheaper paint. There were so many secrets he could dredge up as an offering to this unusual woman next to him. Some were more revealing than others, and he decided to tell her something of little consequence. However, when he opened his mouth, he said, “My father—not my actual father, but Odin who took me as his own—is gone, and yet every day I crave his approval and acceptance even though I deny it.”

Loki felt like vomiting after he'd closed his mouth. What an embarrassing, revealing thing to hand over to someone. She could use it to mock him, could wield it to hurt him. Instead, she just said, “Did you ever receive his approval when he was with you?”

“No.” Loki's voice was flat.

“Maybe he didn't know how to tell you. And maybe that's not your fault.”

“No,” he replied, “I was a poor son, selfish and impulsive.” Laughing, he said, “I'm afraid I still am those things.”

“Oh, I don't know,” she said with a smile. “I think being trapped here on—what do you call it—Midgard is doing you some good. You don't seem like such a bad guy. I mean, I was expecting you to be hateful and power hungry and you're…”

“What?” he asked, holding his breath.

“Honestly, I don't know. But I'd like to know. You've got such depth, and I feel like I don't even know the half of you.”

“I'm really not that complicated, Catherine. I just want power and obedience… perhaps adoration.”

“But do you really? I don't know about that, Loki.”

He didn't respond. Instead, he turned his eyes back to the doorknob and wondered how he'd fallen into this little trap in which he'd so willing revealed things to her that he kept buried so deep he rarely even thought about them himself.

The silence stretched out for a full minute before she pushed herself off the couch and moved toward the kitchen. “Do you want popcorn with the movie?”

“What?” he asked, jolted from his thoughts by such an in an inane question.

She opened a cabinet in the kitchen and pulled out a crinkly packet. “Popcorn,” she repeated. “When you watch a movie, you're supposed to have popcorn. Especially if you're watching with someone else.”

“Ah, yes, well then, by all means, let's have popcorn. I'm so fortunate to have you as my guide to the strange and arbitrary customs of this world.”

Looking over her should, she smiled and said, “You can dial that snark back by about half.”

At that moment he felt like it was just her and him, that the world had faded away and she knew everything about him. That she knew it and was willing to accept it, perhaps even happy to accept it. That she trusted him. It was a heady feeling because he hadn’t been truly trusted, especially by someone he could so easily kill, in ages. There was submission and that feeling of being revered, but no trust, no understanding. She didn’t seem capable of subservience.

Perhaps on the surface she was capable of faking it for a finite period of time, but true subservience? No, she was obstinate and headstrong, the kind of person someone like him who tended toward grabs for power wanted out of the picture. Unless she was by his side, that is. Although, she wasn’t suited for ruling either; she had no affinity for it, no desire to impose her will on others. What a strange creature she was. All Loki knew is that the sure and quiet strength of her personality seemed to keep his more rash impulses in check.

She opened the microwave and slipped the package she’d been holding inside. A few beeps later and the machine was humming as it did its duty. Facing him now, leaning against the counter, she said, “Are you mad at me now?”

Her question knocked him out of his thoughts again. “Why would I be mad at you?”

She shrugged. “For poking around in your private world. You got quiet. Quiet usually means you’re mad.”

He smiled at her, warm and genuine. “No, I’m not angry with you, Catherine.”

“Good,” she told him. “What kind of movie do you want to watch? Silly or serious?”

“I want to watch what you want to watch.”

“You know, for someone who thinks us sad little Midgardians aren’t important, you sure know how to make me feel important.”

“Well, you are important,” he said, the words falling so easily from his mouth.

Catherine flashed him a not-quite-a-smile and shook her head as if she didn’t really believe him, and then she turned around to check on the popcorn. He could smell it already and watched as she pulled a small brown bag out of the microwave and dumped its contents into a bowl. He’d not eaten popcorn before. In fact, he didn’t think he’d ever seen it, but he was looking forward to sharing it with her, looking forward to her coming closer so there wasn’t so much space between them.

She reclaimed her spot next to him before settling a slightly warm bowl in his lap. While he tasted the popcorn, she used the remote to find and start a movie.

“Strike one, Catherine,” he told her as he swallowed the dry, flavorless popcorn.

She glanced over before having the sheer audacity to laugh at him. “What? You don’t like it?” she asked as she grabbed a handful from the bowl.

“It is lacking,” he replied, trying his best to be stern in the face her of teasing.

“Is my head on the chopping block?” She’d just swallowed a mouthful of the useless food.

“You don’t seem concerned,” Loki observed.

Catherine shrugged and took the bowl from him as she stood again. He wanted to reach out and pull her back beside him, but Loki stilled his hand before he could act on the impulse. “I feel like I’ve got some wiggle room with you.”

Watching her as she slipped into the little kitchen and pulled something out of the refrigerator, he said, “Is that so?”

She turned her back to him and did something with a smaller bowl before turning around and licking the fingertips of one hand. “Yep,” she replied, “because you like me a little bit.”

“I do,” he cautiously agreed.

“Besides, I can fix it.”

“Fix what?”

“The popcorn.” She smiled and pulled something out of the microwave, poured it over the popcorn, and shook the bowl as she returned to him. “Try it now.”

“Did you poison it?” he asked.

Catherine grinned. “I’d never poison you. Unfortunately, I like you too much.”

“And you wouldn’t be successful,” he added.

“You’re probably right.” Sitting the bowl in his lap again, she said, “Come on, try it. It’s just butter.”

Now it was a bit saltier and a lot soggier. “You’ve made it worse,” he said.

Catherine rolled her eyes at him and took the bowl. “So picky. Watch the movie.”

///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\

The screen was black; the movie had ended over an hour ago. He hadn’t moved because her head was resting on his shoulder while she slept quietly next to him. She’d fallen asleep several minutes before the movie ended, and he’d finished watching it while her head lolled on her neck, eventually falling until her temple rested on his shoulder.

He’d sat there for the past hour, wondering at the amount of trust she must have in him to let her guard fall this far, wondering at himself and how he’d ever convinced her that he deserved that level of trust. Her body moved just the slightest bit with her steady breath—in and out, in and out. It was rhythmic and almost hypnotic. He could easily stay there all night just listening to the inhale and exhale while her warmth seeped through his shirt onto his shoulder, sending tendrils of heat over his chest and across his back.

Loki’s fingers flexed against the legs of his slacks, the material bunching up in his fists. He wanted to touch her, but was unsure of the delineation between where he wanted to be and where they actually were. Surrendering to those urges just the slightest bit, he reached up and pinched a piece of her hair that was lying on her shoulder, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger. The strands were soft and smelled vaguely of coconut.

Gently, Loki used that same hand to push her hair back from her face as it had obscured one of her eyes when she'd laid her head on his shoulder. So trusting, he thought as he looked down at the elegant line of her neck and the smooth skin of her chest above the V-shaped neckline of her cotton shirt. She was perfectly beautiful and yet still oddly untouchable in this moment. Nothing but his own conscience stopped him, and it was more than a little shocking to realize this. He could lay his hands wherever he wanted, but he chose not to. In fact, he'd tear apart anyone who tried to come near her.

Swallowing the anxiety at his line of thought, he turned his eyes back to the television and its reflective black screen. He could make out his silhouette and hers, melting into one on the surface. Loki knew he couldn't stay all night with her. Maintaining the wards in his absence required effort and wasn't sustainable for much longer.

Instead of pushing himself off the couch, though, he closed his eyes and tried to focus on the way she felt against him. This woman who had verbally sparred with him, teased him, shared her intimate thoughts with him, and so very willingly accepted him—she was a strangely beautiful marvel, living and breathing right next to him like he wasn't a monster or a disappointment. Like he deserved a moment of her time.

Minutes ticked by and piled up into another hour of time. Finally, Loki pulled in a deep breath and pushed himself forward onto the edge of the cushion, his arms reaching out to keep her body upright. As he stood, he bent down and swept her up into his arms easily. One arm was behind her back, the other arm wedged in the crooks of her knees. Her head nestled against his collarbone, allowing him to breathe in the scent of her hair. For a brief moment, she stirred, lifting her head before laying it back down. She never woke, though.

He carefully carried her into the bedroom and laid her in the middle of the bed, his knee pressed into her mattress. The temptation to crawl into bed next to her was surging through his veins, urging him to give in and stay with her a little longer. Loki shrank away from the desire in what he could only classify as fear. Fear of what he felt for her, fear that it was a weakness like he'd never had before.

When he looked up through her window, he could see his empty cage across the street and felt conflicting emotions. It was simple and comfortable, but it was also isolation and loneliness. It was cold and this place was warm as long as she occupied it.

Wincing at his maudlin train of thought, Loki brushed her hair from the sides of her face again. Her pink, plump lips were parted just the slightest bit and the skin of her eyelids looked delicate. On instinct, he brushed his lips over her forehead before trailing his mouth down her nose. He felt the urge to tilt his head and kiss her good and proper on the mouth, but he repressed it and all but ran from the room and the apartment.

Chapter Text

“So they pull back, make other plans. I understand, I’m a liability. Get you wild, make you free.” - Lorde (Liability)

It had been raining for hours. In fact, it had been raining when he’d left her apartment, when he’d slipped out into the night while she was lying there in her bed completely ignorant of his chivalrous act. Or his cowardly act. Loki couldn’t decide if leaving her had been a brief flash of selflessness or if he’d just been too afraid of the way he felt for her to stay. He sat in the dark through the early hours of the morning and even after the sky lightened into a dirty gray, thinking about which it was. The clock told him it was almost noon when he felt a presence beyond his door. His heart jumped, wondering if it was her, but plummeted back down into his stomach when he heard the doorknob turn.

It was Thor, looking like he’d been born to live in this world. His brother was in a black coat with a hood pulled over his head. He wore jeans and heavy brown boots. Loki was still in his white button-up shirt and black slacks, but they looked worse for the wear, covered with wrinkles and creases where there shouldn’t be.

“Brother,” Thor said in greeting, sitting the two grocery bags on the floor by the entrance.

Loki didn’t respond.

“I don’t suppose you’ve given any thought to helping save our new home?”

“I don’t suppose you’ve given any thought to my not having the Tesseract and being locked away by my own brother whom I saved not very long ago,” Loki snapped.

Thor placed his hands on his hips after kicking the door shut. “You know exactly why you’re here, Loki.”

“If I did have the Tesseract—and I obviously don’t—what makes you think it isn’t safe in my possession? What makes you think I’d hand it over to him?” He didn’t want to have this conversation. He’d been up all night worrying over what kind of stupid trick his mind was playing on him in regards to this infernal woman who affected him so deeply. Loki knew he wasn’t exactly at the top of his game, half his mind wondering if she was awake and if she was thinking of him.

“You’ve taught me many things, brother, but the lesson it took me the longest to learn is that you can’t be trusted.”

“Asgard is destroyed. This place is all we have. What incentive would I have to destroy it, too?” His voice was rising, but he remained on the couched, slumped into the middle of it, unable or unwilling to move. He wasn’t sure which, just like he wasn’t sure if Catherine brought out the goodness in him that he had difficulty finding or if she just instilled fear in him of his own desires and the lengths he’d go or the ways he’d debase himself to be loved.

Thor paced the floor in front of him, filling the space with the way he held himself and the power he projected. Loki shrank away from it; he felt defeated and it had nothing to do with Thor or his brother’s next comment, which happened to be, “You can’t protect it like I can, like we can.”

“Who is we?” Loki asked, bitterness spilling into his tone. “It’s certainly not you and I, brother.”

“The Avengers. They can fight and they know this world better than you and I. With my help, we can protect the Stones and fight off Thanos. His marching army stops here; it goes no further.”

Scoffing, Loki said, “You’re so sure of yourself, yet you’ve never faced this foe.”

“Neither have you.”

“But my eyes are open. I’m not fooling myself like some,” Loki replied. The comment sat in his brain, leaking out into his thoughts of her and the previous night and the way she made him feel.

Thor stopped and looked down at him before saying, “This isn’t the time for your cynical nature where you think only of yourself. This world is ours to protect. We need you as an ally.”

“And yet you’ve locked me up in this box!” Loki snapped, still reclined on the couch. His words and tone might have a bite to them, but he couldn’t seem to dredge up the will to involve his body.

“I’m not willing to play your stupid pawn any longer! Our people need a leader. I need my brother.”

“I’m not your fucking brother! I never was,” Loki exclaimed as he pushed himself up to stand opposite Thor, his thoughts falling into place as he decided that the entire situation with Catherine had been brought on by Thor. If he hadn’t locked Loki away in this building, he’d have never been bewitched by that woman.

“Father always urged me to forgive you, to give you opportunities to prove yourself,” Thor said, shaking his head. “Perhaps father was wrong.”

Feeling vicious and betrayed and sick to his stomach, Loki almost spit his reply out. “Father was always wrong.”

Without a word, Thor turned on his heel and stomped across the room. Loki closed his eyes just before the door slammed and Thor’s heavy footfalls retreated down the hallway to the staircase.

///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\

He knew he should leave, but he also knew if he did so immediately that Thor would be too close. Loki was unsure of his brother’s little friends and their abilities. Could he be tracked? Would his magical signature leave a trail that would be followed? The sorcerer with the cape had located him before. There was a chance Loki could mask himself, but it would require effort and more time than he would have if Thor was within the general vicinity and on his tail.

And then there was her.

He sat back down on the couch and resumed his slumped posture, sulking in the dim room with his thoughts. The rain was heavy outside, at times blowing against the window. His mood was volatile—at times angry and bitter over the situation and then swinging back to anticipation and curiosity over her. He was almost fearful of the window and that connection it provided. As the worst of the storm eased up that afternoon, he pushed himself off the couch and cautiously approached the window closest to him.

She was sitting at her desk, looking down at her computer. The light of the screen cast a blue glow over her complexion. Catherine hadn’t seen him yet, allowing him several minutes to watch her as she worked. Her fingers poised over the keys one moment and then her upper arm pressed against the desk while she propped her chin up in her hand the next. The bed was unmade, but still relatively neat. She must have woken in the night and crawled between the sheets after he’d left.

Seeing her was a welcome diversion to his dark thoughts of the impending conflict, his argument with Thor, his indecision over the Tesseract. Loki wouldn’t say his thoughts on her were simpler, but they were certainly more welcome than the others. Perhaps her bed would be even more of a happy distraction. She was reserved, but she was also partial to him. He could easily see that, even if she hadn’t told him the night before that she enjoyed his company. Loki got the impression she didn’t think she was good enough for him. His thoughts on that subject weren’t so cut and dry as his enjoyment of her. If asked no more than two weeks before, he would have agreed with her that she was not his equal, not even close. Now, though, the answer was muddled. The answer was that he didn’t know. The answer was that perhaps ranking people, comparing them and setting them on rungs of a proverbial ladder, no longer seemed productive or appropriate. She wasn’t above this, yet below that. She was separate, unique, and that shook his goals, twisted his view of power.

It was true, she had no physical power over him nor could she truly compete with his intellect, but he was loath to admit that she certainly had a clear hold on him. He would happily do a great many things just at her request, just to make her happy. So, who was in charge? If she could control him, who was the leader? Who was the decision-maker? If it was her, then she had the real power. His was culled together by intimidation and circumstance. Hers was more complete.

Loki shook his head, trying to scatter those thoughts that made him question one too many pillars of his worldview. Just at that moment she looked up and saw him standing in the window. With a small smile, she lifted a hand to wave. She looked genuinely happy to see him, like she wanted to spend time with him even though he’d offered her nothing of worth. There had been a time when Loki would say his time was worth quite a great deal, but not now, not when he sat idle in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn, frozen with indecision over his next move. His time meant so very little now, and that appeared to be all she wanted.

Emboldened, he crooked his index finger at her, gesturing for her to come closer. She laughed and nodded when he pointed down to the sidewalk in front of her building. He beat her to their meeting spot in front of the building’s door, and Loki stood underneath the small awning to keep the misty rain off his head. The temperature was unseasonably warm for the middle of winter. She slipped out the door without a pause or any concern for her safety. Her lack of fear twisted his gut, making him feel emotions he’d rather not. “Hey,” she told him slipping her hands into pockets on the front of her sweatshirt. It was oversized and almost reached her knees, and it reminded him of those thin shirts she wore to bed sometimes.

“Catherine,” he said in greeting.

“So,” she said, standing so close to him on the small stoop beneath the awning, “how did I end up in bed last night?”

“Mmm,” he said, shaking his head, “did you forget our night of passion so easily, my dear?”

She laughed lightly as she looked up at him with shining, happy eyes. “You must not have been very good if I slept through it.”

“Ahh, it must have been just in my fantasies, then.”

Catherine shook her head and dropped her gaze to the concrete between their feet. She had on a pair of red shoes with white laces. They looked like they were made for comfort, not style.

“You fell asleep on me; I deposited you in your bed before I left,” he said, relenting so easily and so quickly.

“That’s very nice of you.”

“I’m a very nice guy.”

“You know, I didn’t believe that before, but… I don’t know… maybe you have your moments,” she said.

“Do I?” he asked, leaning into her body. She took half a step away and then her back hit the door to the building.

“Sure,” Catherine replied. “Did you enjoy the movie at least?”

“I enjoyed spending time with you.”

His comment, pitched low and for her ears only, made her chuckle nervously. Pulling a hand out of her pocket, she tucked her hair behind her ear. “Sorry I passed out on you.”

“Why apologize?”

“Because I'm sure you didn't come over to listen to me snore.”

“I didn't mind, Catherine.”

“Still,” she told him. When he just gazed down at her, hopefully not looking half so transparent as he felt, she added, “I don't understand why you're still interested in spending time with me, much less why you enjoy it.”

“I don't need a reason.”

“As much as it pains me to admit it since I've spent the last couple weeks trying to poke holes in your ideas of government and leadership, you are kinda a big deal and I'm kinda boring. Like, why aren't you somewhere calling the shots, being the boss?” she asked, eyes wide and looking up at him with nothing but honesty.

He shrugged. “Trying something a little different.”

“Oh, you're taking orders now, not giving them?”

“Perhaps. What orders are you giving?”

Catherine laughed, angling her body away from him for a moment before turning back around and saying, “Touch your nose.”

Loki lifted his right hand and laid the fingertip of his index finger on the slope of his nose.

This made Catherine shake her head and laugh some more. It sounded soft and downright sexy. Is that how she'd sound in bed with him. “What next, Catherine?” he asked.

Glancing up at him through her lashes, she flicked her tongue out to wet her lower lip. The mostly innocent move sent blood traveling down to his crotch. The way she sank her teeth into the flesh of her lip as she tried to suppress her smile made his growing arousal that much worse. “Turn around in a circle.”

He did as she asked, but he felt a sense of disappointment over it. He'd been hopeful she'd ask for a kiss. Loki would be more than willing to follow that instruction to the letter.

“Go get me a coffee,” she said when he looked down at her upturned face.

Without a word, he turned to descend the stairs.

He heard her laughter behind him. When he turned back to look at her, she had a hand outstretched to him as she said, “Loki, no.”

He held up a finger up to silence her before he strode down the block and entered the shop that sold their espresso drinks. It was nearly empty, and it took less than three minutes to get their usual drinks in paper cups to go. When he returned to her stoop, Catherine was waiting for him.

“I wasn't serious,” she said.

Loki handed her the flat white. “Why demand it of me, then?”

“I didn't actually think you'd get me a coffee.”

“I see,” he replied. “How does your newfound power feel.”

“Power? Power over you?”

“Mmm, hmm,” Loki agreed before taking a sip of his Americano.

Catherine tried to affect an expression of grave seriousness, but the sweet grin playing at her lips robbed her of the gravity of her words as she said, “Well, I'm trying not to let it go to my head.”

“What a wise ruler,” he said as he lifted his brows.

Catherine took a careful sip of her hot drink and said, “You don't want to come up and watch a movie with me, do you?”

“Is that an order?”

She smiled, her eyes almost shining at him. “No, it's a question. This wise ruler knows that the best orders are actually just requests.”

“Ah, is that how you play it?” he asked, winking at her. “Make me feel like I want to do all these things for you.”

“What things do you want to do for me?”

Loki stepped closer. He was nearly on top of her. “A great many things. But I would love to start with a movie. Perhaps you’ll fall asleep on me again.”

She rolled her eyes and turned to open the door. The space on the stoop was so small, she had to step back into him to open the door enough, her ass perilously close to grazing his crotch. Loki flexed his free hand at his side and tried not to think about grabbing her hips and pushing her up against the brick wall beside the door. He tried not think of this, but failed miserably, his thoughts scattered and salacious.

She unlocked her door and toed off her shoes by the mat in front of it. Music was playing from her bedroom, but it was low enough he couldn’t make out details. “You could have woken me last night before you left,” she said, moving toward the bedroom door.

Loki followed her as he said, “You looked tired.”

Her little computer was open and playing music softly from unseen speakers. He stood in the doorway of her bedroom and cast his eyes over the rumpled linens on the bed and the way she was leaning over the desk to turn the soft music off. He wanted her to leave it on and let him crawl into that bed with her, and yet his tongue was too tied up to actually voice his desire even if he thought she might be agreeable. If she wasn’t agreeable, then it was best to live with the possibility and never the reality than knowing that she didn’t want him like that. He’d never been gracious in those moments of rejection, not learning the trick as a child or, perhaps, born with too much pride.

She turned the music off and silence settled over the apartment. “How’s your Americano?” she asked, picking up her cup as she turned around to face him.

“Fine,” he said even though he hadn’t paid much attention to it. He was too lost in his thoughts of her and how disturbingly alike they were. She’d admitted to doing to herself exactly what he was doing to himself. Perhaps now he could see what he was doing only because she’d revealed it to him in her admission.

Protect yourself and your pride by never asking for what you want. But he had asked for—demanded, actually—what he wanted: power, idolization, worship. Getting it had been hit or miss, and when he got it, it was often fleeting. Losing it or never obtaining it sat like a sour stone in his stomach, but he was always willing to try again, ready for his next move even if it required some patience. The one thing he’d never asked for and always denied wanting was love. Loki remembered well the day he’d sneered at his mother and told her that love was for weaklings.

Was his tongue tied with her because he was fearful of what her rejection could do to him? He’d just admitted as much. Why was she so important? How did she obtain this power over him while he thought they were just playing mind games? The thought made him want to flee, run from her apartment and never return.

“Do you want to try mine before I take a drink?”

Loki shook his head like the abrupt motion could clear those thoughts. “What?” he asked, dumbly.

Catherine held out her cup. “Do you want to try mine before I drink any? No cooties, yet.”

He reached out, mind still swirling around the idea of her unwitting stranglehold on him, and took the cup without much thought. What was she asking him? Did he want to taste her drink? “Cooties?” Loki asked.

Smiling, Catherine said, “That’s what I used to call germs as a kid. I haven’t drunk out of the cup yet, so it doesn’t have my germs on it—my saliva.”

“Why would I be opposed to drinking after you?”

“Well, most people don’t like to drink after strangers. It’s… gross.”

He sniffed the small hole in the lid of the cup. It was not as potent as his drink that he held in his other hand. “And you would drink after me?”

Shrugging, she said, “Sure. I guess we’re not really strangers, right? I mean, you, uh, you tucked me into bed last night, so…”

He pressed his lips to the opening of the lid and tilted the cup back just enough for a taste. It was still hot and had a hint of the bitterness he enjoyed, but with creamy milk. It tasted more decadent than his drink. “It’s good,” he told her as he struggled to find his feet again and figure out how to protect against the power she’d obtained. Holding it out, he offered the cup back to her. She took it, accidentally grazing his fingers with her own in the process.

The touch seemed to fluster her because she turned away and took a drink as she looked out the window. Her lips were pressed against the white plastic right where he had been. Right there. Loki licked his lips and swallowed the lump in his throat. Sometimes he felt like she knew exactly what she was doing, but at others—times like this—he knew she had no clue, that she was too wrapped up in her own worries to be actively coming for him. In many ways, that was more disconcerting and more terrifying because he felt this affinity for her, this overpowering desire and care, without her ever pursuing it. This was his fault.

“Am I interrupting your afternoon?” he asked.

Catherine turned toward him where he stood in the bedroom doorway. “No, I was just working. I’d rather…” She censored herself, cut off what she’d been about to say. He desperately wanted to hear it.

“What would you rather?” Loki asked.

She smiled softly and shook her head. “I, uh, I guess I’d rather spend time with you.”

“I’m more interesting than work?”

This time she laughed lightly and slipped past him, saying, “You’re more interesting than a lot of things.”

Loki conceded the space to her, allowing her to leave the bedroom and settle down on the couch with her drink. She sat in the middle, unlike the night before when she kept to the end. One leg was folded beneath her, she looked up at him as he approached and sat down next to her, close enough that they were touching.

Her television was off—a reflective black surface just like the night he’d sat there with her and savored the even rhythm of her breath. They drank their coffees in silence until she finally spoke up and said, “I was thinking about what you said yesterday.”

“About?”

“About why my dates and relationships end with me getting dumped for being cold and distant. You proposed it was because I’m dissatisfied in some way with the man.”

“Yes,” Loki agreed.

Catherine took a drink and said, “I don’t think that’s true. I think, uh, well, in many cases the man is… perfectly fine and things still go to hell.”

Smiling, Loki said, “Perfectly fine? That sounds rather...lackluster. Perfectly fine is just that: fine.”

She didn’t respond to his comment. Instead, she occupied herself with the drink in her hand. Loki let the stillness between them sit for a moment before he asked her a question that had been on his mind since the previous night, perhaps longer.

“Am I perfectly fine, Catherine?”

Her head turned to him abruptly, her mouth open to answer his question, but nothing came out. Their eyes locked for a moment before she looked away and exhaled a sharp breath of amusement, brows raised and her head moving back and forth like she wasn’t sure how to answer.

Loki shifted to turn his upper body toward hers. “What does that mean? You don’t like me, Catherine?”

“No,” she said. “No, I like you. I think I’ve already told you that on more than one occasion. Stop fishing for compliments.”

“So, I’m perfectly fine.”

“You already know I can’t compare you to anyone I know,” she replied, still avoiding his question.

“Why?”

“Because you’re more than perfectly fine.” Catherine’s voice was soft, almost a murmured confession.

He felt like he should grin and gloat in his victory as he pulled the truth of it out of her, but the moment was so delicate, and he could feel her heart as if it were suspended in the air between them, so many of her insecurities hanging in the balance. “Perhaps that’s what you should be looking for.”

Catherine turned toward him, angling her body so they could look into each other’s eyes easily. “I’d be overreaching,” she said.

“How so?”

“You’re out of my league,” she replied, simply, resting her arm on the back of the couch.

Loki chuckled, reaching out to pinch a tendril of her long hair between his thumb and forefinger like he’d done last night while she was fast asleep. “What can I do to prove you wrong?”

“I’m not wrong. You’re… practically a god. I’m… a book editor who lives in Brooklyn and needs to lose more than a few pounds.”

“Darling, I do love it when you stroke my ego like that, but let’s be serious. I’m not out of your league if I want you.”

Do you want me?”

“Can’t you tell?” he whispered back.

She shook her head. “I… I think you’re unhinged.”

What could he do? Perhaps take her to dinner like all those useless men had and make her realize that she was so very wrong about this overwhelming attraction and desire he felt for her. The problem was that dinner would involve leaving the bubble around the apartment that permitted him to maintain the wards. He almost admitted as much to her, but that knowledge needed to remain his and his alone or he’d have no currency, no leverage.

He could take her to dinner, allow the wards to signal his escape, and return to gloat to his brother. Yes, Loki thought. It would be poetic. He would spend the evening with her and attempt to shield his location from Thor’s pet sorcerer. If his skills at cloaking himself weren’t effective, then Thor would find him dining with a beautiful woman who enjoyed his company very much. If he was able to mask his location, then he could return to the apartment and make his escape after gloating to his brother over his superior intellect. Thor could feel ashamed and impotent when he realized that Loki revealed his freedom for something so inconsequential as dinner with a Midgardian woman.

But what about her? Surely she would be impressed by the deft way he’d outwitted his brother. He’d make sure of it. He’d seduce her, have her hanging on a string by the time they arrived back to at his apartment. Yes. He’d enjoy every moment of it, and if he could, then he’d whisk her away with him when he made his escape. It would be difficult, and he might have to return for her later, but she’d come. He could sense her interest and desire, much like his own.

“Come to dinner with me, Catherine.”

She blinked at him, mouth open, but no words coming out. Finally, she said, “What?”

“Join me for dinner. Isn’t that what these perfectly fine men did with you? A dinner date?”

“I, uh, I’m not sure if you understand the connotation of a date in this culture,” she said.

“Is that so?”

“Yes, taking a woman out to dinner… Well, it carries some assumptions with it.”

“Catherine, my dear, you do know that I’ve spent the past few months in this self-imposed prison watching American television, right? I’m very well aware of the assumptions that go along with a dinner date with a woman.” Was it her insecurity that had brought them to this question or was it his? “Are you not… interested–”

“Yes,” she replied, cutting him off. “Yes, I’m interested. It’d be crazy not to be. Or, well, maybe I’ve got that reversed. Maybe I’d be crazy to be, but whatever. I didn’t question you because I’m not interested.”

“Excellent. Then you’ll do me the pleasure of accompanying me to dinner tomorrow, yes?”

Instead of answering his question, she propped her head on her open palm as her elbow dug into the back of the couch and said, “You know, I can’t quite figure out if you’re one of those guys who is a flirt and a ladies man or if you’re one of those guys who doesn’t have time for women. Could go either way.”

“Of late, it’s been the latter, but I did enjoy women in my younger years. They were quite the welcome distraction during my youth.”

Instead of gracing him with that sensuous chuckle, she looked back at him with a clear and steady gaze. “I don’t want to be a distraction. I’m not a distraction.” She cleared her throat and added, “If that’s what I am, then perhaps we shouldn’t have dinner.”

Loki felt the corners of his mouth pull down. He’d not intended the comment to fall on her ears in such a way. “I’m very well aware you are not a distraction, Catherine. Actually, you’re quite a large frustration to my plans.”

“How so?”

“I find my mind occupied by you during many hours of my day,” he openly admitted. “From what I can gather of your culture, there is no better reason to invite a woman such as yourself to share a dinner with me.”

Catherine looked away and inhaled, pulling in a shuddering, deep breath of air before exhaling. When she looked back up at him, there was a familiar glint in her eyes that spoke of pleasure. “You’ve got me all flustered,” she admitted, shaking her head.

“Yes, I seem to have that effect on you, don’t I?”

She laughed softly and angled her body so she was facing forward around. “Don’t get all cocky now.”

“My attraction to you makes you uncomfortable,” he whispered, tracing her profile with his gaze.

“Uncomfortable might not be the right word,” she said. “It shocks me.”

Loki slipped the hand resting on the back of the couch closer to her until he could bury his fingers underneath her loose hair and graze the back of her neck, right where it met her skull. Her eyes fluttered closed and she subtly leaned into his touch. She was so warm, so vital. “Why would it shock you? You’re beautiful.”

“Don’t tell me what I want to hear,” Catherine whispered, her eyes still shut.

“I’m telling you what I want to say,” he replied.

Catherine lifted a hand a laid it over his on her back of her neck, pressing his skin against hers. “Let’s just watch the movie. I don’t know what to do with all this charm. I’m not equipped to process it.” Her voice was soft and self-deprecating and so very sweet.

“Yes, let’s watch the movie,” Loki agreed.

Chapter Text

“So, darlin’, I just wanna say, just in case I don’t come through. I was onto every play. I just wanted you.” - Fiona Apple (Shadowboxer)

Loki had no ability to follow the plot of the movie, nor did he really care. It had been on for almost two hours, and she'd spent the majority of that time in his arms. He had no interest in the characters or the action, though she'd told him it was a classic from her childhood. All he was concerned with was the way her back pressed against his side and chest and the way his arm felt wrapped around her shoulders to keep her close to him. He was using his other hand to twirl tendrils of her hair around his index finger or to squeeze the back of her neck where the muscles were tight.

She was so warm and vital in his arms, so responsive. Each time he massaged the muscles of her neck, she gave sweet, tender groans of pleasure that went directly to his loins. He also found that trailing his fingertips down her arms would lift tiny goosebumps up all over her skin, occasionally make her shudder in pleasure.

The credits were rolling, and he had his nose buried in her hair. “You're very distracting,” she said.

“Does it bother you?” he whispered in her ear.

“You touching me?”

Loki hummed his agreement as he laid the hand on her bicep and ran it all the way down until he reached the crook of her elbow.

“Not at all.”

Smiling, he said, “You told me not long ago that you were averse to physical intimacy.”

“Not averse,” she replied, extending her arm so he could continue gliding his hand down to her wrist. “Just not good at accepting and giving.”

“Do you like when I touch you, Catherine?” he asked with her lips pressed against the shell of her ear.

“Yes,” she whispered back, “I love it.”

Loki lifted his hand off her wrist and laid it on her chest right where the collar of her shirt rested. “You're so trusting,” he murmured before moving his hand until his long fingers were wrapped around her neck.

“Do you think I'm crazy? For trusting you?” Catherine wanted to know. He savored the way her throat rumbled under the light touch of his fingers when she spoke.

“No,” he said softly, “I'd never hurt you. I'd kill anyone who tried.”

He felt her swallow, felt the inhale of her breath. “There are more ways to hurt someone than physical.”

It was true. He tended to forget about those ways to hurt and kill that involved the mind and heart, not brute strength or cunning surprise. In some respects, the most painful blow wasn't physical at all. He didn't lie to her and promise his undying adoration, that he'd never say or do anything that would cause her pain, because he knew he was no good and his nature would eventually get the best of him. That did not mean he didn't want to be better; he was just so weak-willed when it came to doing the right thing.

Instead of answering, he brushed her hair back over her shoulder and inhaled the intoxicating scent of her skin with his nose pressed against her neck. “You're so warm and soft.”

Those were two descriptors Loki had little use of in his life, but she was that and more. Curling his arm a little tighter around her, Loki sighed, feeling content for the first time in many years.

Catherine reached up to lay the tips of her fingers on his forearm, slowly moving her hand up until the tips were resting against the webbing between each his fingers on her neck. Touching like this—lazy and subtle—felt exquisite, almost dreamy. He pulled his hand away from her neck and slotted his fingers between hers, her palm warm on the back of his hand.

The rain had picked up again, and he could hear it hitting the glass of the windows when the wind blew now that the music playing over the movie credits had stopped. “It’s hard for me to believe you’re the same person I read about,” she murmured, curling her fingers into his hands.

“So much has happened since… then,” he whispered in her ear. “Perhaps I’m not.”

“Will you tell me what’s happened in your life since you wrecked the city?”

Loki shifted the arm around her shoulders so he could lift that hand and brush her hair back from her temple. “Why do you want to know?”

“To know you better, to understand you.”

Her simple answer shook him, tightened his chest with unwelcome emotion. “One day I’ll tell you.”

“But not today,” she replied.

“Not today,” Loki agreed.

“Too intimate?”

He smiled and brushed his lips over the crown of her head. “Yes, but I’m learning.”

“It’s okay. I understand.”

His heart felt like it might pound out of his chest. She was so warm and so open in that moment, and all she wanted from him was… him. How was that possible? How was he enough without his position, his power, his title? How did she make him feel like those things were of such minuscule consequence when they’d been his end game before? Because they were never your end game, his mind whispered, because you wanted acceptance and love. He'd been such a pathetic little brat to get it.

Loki abruptly pulled his hand out of her loose grip as the panic welled up in the back of his mind. He tried to shove it down and bury it because he wanted to stay there with her warm body pressed against his, her low-pitched—almost gravelly—voice caressing his eardrums, but the way she perceived him and wanted him made him feel overwhelmed. There was a safe distance between the ruler and his subjects, but there was no such distance between him and her. It made him feel exposed, and his anxiety over her rejection took hold.

As if sensing his shift in thought, she sat up and scooted to the edge of the couch cushion. It allowed him to push himself to his feet. His mind was telling him to flee, to create the space he needed. Perhaps physical space would allow him to regain some of that emotional distance he needed.

“Did I do something wrong?” she asked, standing to face him.

Loki reached out to run his hands over her shoulders and down her arms. “No, nothing,” he told her. She’d done nothing; this was all his doing. His weak mind had fallen too hard and too fast; he’d lost perspective and drive. All he wanted now was her, and that made him feel exposed and sick to his stomach. And yet, he wasn’t willing to give her up. “Tomorrow? Seven o’clock?” he asked, letting go of her and making his way to the door.

“You’re actually serious about dinner?” she asked, walking behind him. When he turned, he saw the small smile on her mouth. Saw lips that looked as if they would be soft and pliant against his.

“Of course.”

“Seven o’clock,” she agreed, standing in the doorway after he’d stepped outside.

“Wear the red dress for me,” he said.

She laughed softly. “I’ll wear pants just because you tried to tell me what to wear.”

Loki laughed with her, feeling every single one of the tumultuous and conflicting emotions tumbling around in his head. Instead of opening his mouth and laying himself even more bare before her, he swallowed his response—that she’d be beautiful either way—and turned to retreat.

///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\

She didn’t wear the red dress, but she didn’t wear pants either. As he was preparing to leave, he saw her standing on the sidewalk in front of her building in a black raincoat that was considerably longer than her dress. The dress was also black and conformed nicely to her body, stopping a couple inches above her knees. It was one he hadn’t seen before, and the idea that she’d saved it just for him sent a thrill through Loki.

He all but vaulted down the stairs and crossed the street, his long legs making the short journey quickly. “Isn’t it customary for me to collect you at your door?” he asked.

She smiled and pulled her light jacket tighter around her. “I’ve never been one to stand for tradition.”

This made him chuckle as he stepped up to stand before her. “Nor have I, though I don’t exactly like seeing the woman I’m courting standing on the sidewalk without me.”

“Courting?” she asked, looking up at him with those gorgeous eyes that he was sure could strip him bare. “Is that what this is?”

“What did you think it is?”

She shook her head and said, “Honestly, I haven't a clue. I’m… You’re… I don’t do this kind of thing.”

“What kind of thing?”

“Uh, go out with guys who are out of my league and probably just using me to get something.”

Her reply knocked him back on his heels. “What?”

She held up a hand as if in apology. “I’m sorry,” Catherine said, “that was… I didn’t mean it that way. I mean, there’s nothing I have that you want, so I know you’re not doing this to get something. It’s just a little difficult for me to understand why you are here with me.”

“Who says you don’t have something I want?” he asked, taking a step closer so she had to look up at him.

Laughing softly, she said, “What? Are you trying to imply… are you implying you want to…”

“Take you to bed?” Loki finished for her.

She flashed him one of those self-deprecating smiles and rolled her eyes. “Yeah.”

“Oh, I do, Catherine. But if I just wanted your body, then I could have had it, don’t you think?”

Her back stiffened, and Loki despaired. How was he fucking this up so quickly? “What is that supposed to mean?” she said, her voice sharp.

“I mean, you’re attracted to me. If I’d wanted to bed you last night, I think you would have been agreeable.”

“Perhaps,” she said, carefully.

Loki lifted a hand to place his index finger beneath her chin and tilt her face up. The skin there was soft and so very delicate. “Apparently, you don’t know that you could have decided the same and I would have been agreeable as well.”

Her pink lips parted. They were darkened with whatever cosmetic she’d used to enhance them. Perhaps she used the same concoction on her flushed cheeks or maybe that was just her reaction to him. “So why didn’t we?” she asked.

His mouth twitched until one corner lifted up in wry amusement. “Because I want more than your delicious body.”

She looked like she didn't believe him when she said, “You're laying it on a little thick, don't you think?” She also looked more than a little uncomfortable and vulnerable.

Loki dropped his hand from her chin to rest on the curve of her hip as he leaned in. She stepped back only to have him step forward to close the space between them. It put her back against the brick exterior of the building. Loki’s pulse quickened at the heat radiating off her body and the gasp that escaped those perfect lips.

“I get the impression you think my sexual attraction is a joke or a farce, Catherine,” Loki whispered in her ear, dragging her name out into three distinct syllables. He slotted his knee between her thighs and it pushed the hem of her dress up a little.

Her fingers were gripping the front of his shirt, the fabric bunched up in her tight little fists. The way she clung to him instead of pushing him away, inflamed Loki's desire. Urged on by that crashing wave of need, he moved his mouth from her ear until he was hovering over her kissable lips. They were parted, and her minty breath was puffing out over his mouth and face.

Loki watched her eyes flutter closed right before he cupped the back of her head in his free hand, keeping the other firmly on her hip. Slowly, he brushed his lips against hers and felt a breathy little sigh ghost over his chin. It emboldened him to tilt his head and press his lips firmly to her mouth. Catherine parted her lips with such ease, like she’d been waiting for this moment just as long as he had. That was surprising because now that he’d glided his tongue over hers, tasting the breath mint she must have eaten right before she’d left her apartment, Loki realized he’d wanted to kiss her before they’d even met.

Curling his long fingers into her hair and leaning into her body, he kissed her deeply, his eyes closed to the world as he was surrounded by only her. When he pulled back to take a breath, he almost lost the ability to suck in air when he saw her pressed between his body and the wall, lips swollen, chest heaving, and eyes barely open, but looking at him like he’d just fucked her. What would she look like when he had made her climax again and again?

Overcome with hunger, he kissed her again, savoring the sweetness of her breath mint and something that was uniquely her. Doing so felt like submerging himself in her—her scent, her taste, her feel, the way her body yielded to his at one point and pressed back against him at another. Her knuckles were digging into his chest as he leaned into her, pushing her skirt a little further up with his thigh between her legs.

Loki took his hand off her hip and grabbed the wrist of her left hand, guiding it down to his crotch as he let up on the pressure of pushing her against the wall. When he pulled his mouth away from hers, he looked down into her upturned face and said, “Can you feel me?”

Her fingers flexed as he pressed her palm into his erection. “Yes,” she replied, looking ravished and ready for bed.

Leaning down until his lips touched her earlobe, he said, “Let there be no doubts about my desire for you, Catherine.”

“Get a room!”

Loki pulled away and glanced over his shoulder to catch sight of a group of teenagers giggling over the bolder one of the bunch who had called over to them. Before he could even process what was going on, before he could even open his mouth to berate the children for interrupting his moment with her, Catherine’s hands were pushing against his chest. Relenting, he let go of her and took two steps back.

Her hair that had been pinned back from her face on one side was askew and sticking out from the clip. It was his fault, caused by the overzealous way he'd grabbed her head to angle her mouth for the kiss. She still had one hand outstretched to him and her back resting against the wall. Her pupils were blown, and she looked like she was trying to catch her breath. The children were still giggling as they made their way down the street. If he could have gotten away with it, he would have killed each and every one of them for the interruption. Apparently, most societies—including the one he was raised in—looked down upon killing pesky children, even if they interrupted something so very important.

“Maybe we should save that for when we have a little privacy,” she quipped, laughing under her breath as she bent over to pull the skirt of her dress down her thighs.

His thoughts were scattered, and it took him a moment to collect them. “We could always skip dinner and go upstairs,” he replied, dropping his voice an octave and stepping back over to her.

Catherine’s hands were flying here and there, fixing the way the fabric of her dress laid against her body and pinning her hair back so it didn’t look like he’d just tried to ravish here. “Fuck, you make me nervous,” she muttered, laughing under her breath, but not giving him any kind of eye contact.

“Frightened?” he asked, feeling like a stone had settled into his gut, weighing him down.

“No, just nervous. Just…” She trailed off and shook her head. “You’re aggressive, but you’re not… It’s hard to explain.”

“I’m pursuing you and you’re not used to that.”

“Well, you just put my hand on your…”

Loki took that final step that brought his body up against hers. She looked up at him. There was that eye contact he’d been missing a moment ago. “Too much?” he asked.

She dropped her gaze to his chest. “No, I, uh, yeah… I didn’t mind. For the record, all of that was… good. Great. It was great.”

“Perfectly fine,” he replied with a grin.

“Perfectly un-fucking-believable,” she said.

This made both of them laugh. She dropped her forehead against his chest as her shoulders shook with giggles.

“You took me by surprise,” Catherine said. “I mean, we’ve spent some time together and you’ve been… affectionate? Is that the right word? But, I guess I just… I don’t know. I thought that you were just starved for touch and I was someone who was close enough right now to give you that. You seemed so…”

He felt his throat closing up. “What?” Loki asked. “I seemed so…”

She looked up at him, one hand resting on his chest, right above his heart. “Sad, maybe? Lonely?” She must have seen the change in his expression because she rushed to continue by saying, “I’m not saying you seemed weak, Loki.”

“What are you saying?”

Her gaze dropped again. “Sometimes you reminded me of myself, even though we’re so different.” She laughed and it was sounded more cynical than joyful. “That’s so stupid to even say that because we’re not the same, but… You… Well, at first you just seemed kinda scary, like you were toying with me. But after I got to know you… Do I even know you?”

He looked down at her and almost lied. He actually consciously made the decision to lie, but somehow the truth came out instead. “Yes, you know me. Mostly.”

“You… you seemed like a wild animal backed into a corner. Like you didn’t know how to get out, but you’d be willing to attack anything standing in your way.”

“That doesn’t sound like someone who is sad,” he replied, struggling to not walk away. He’d just almost taken her up against the wall of her building. This was not the kind of conversation he wanted right out in the open where anyone could hear.

“Well, it is sad if you know how it feels to be trapped and alone and lost. Like, I’ve been there and done that. Maybe I’m still there. Maybe that’s why I’m talking to you. I’m not that girl who puts herself in these situations. I play it safe; I keep my head down. You’re… you’re dangerous.”

“Not to you,” he said, raising his hands to rest them on the backs of her upper arms, urging her to stay close, not to back away.

Deep down he knew she was right. He would be stupid not to realize that he was trapped, if not physically, then by his decisions. He had no idea what his next move was, but he knew it would be alone. He was always alone. Again, that was a byproduct of his decisions. It was difficult to be angry with her for stating the truth. It was difficult to be angry with her because she was… her.

“I didn’t say you’d hurt me. There are other ways to be dangerous. You could make me like you so much I feel like I can’t live without you. And then you could… go.”

He’d spent too many hours thinking of just that. Imagining what things would be like when he left this strange little bubble in Brooklyn, what things would be like without her. He’d even imagined coming back and finding her with another man. The idea made him see red, made him want to tear something or someone apart.

“It irritates me that you see me for what I am,” he said, changing the subject, but not to anything safer or easier.

She looked up at gave him a wane smile. “Sorry,” Catherine whispered.

“You didn’t let me finish,” Loki chastised. “It irritates me that you can see me for what I am, but you can’t see yourself at all.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I snapped and backed you against the wall because you were being stupid.”

She pulled her arms away from his hands, frowning. “Stupid.” Her voice echoed his, but it wasn’t a question.

“Blind, ridiculous, dense. You seem to be under the false assumption that you’re not desirable.”

She dropped her gaze to the ground and turned away from him.

“Catherine,” he said.

She kept her back to him, unwilling or unable to look at his face. Loki swept his gaze down her back and saw a pair of black heels on her feet. They kickstarted his libido, but it was surprising to realize he’d want her just as much in those stupid red shoes she’d worn the night she met him in the rain. She was frustrating and terrifying and perfect, but he had no idea how to tell her.

“You don’t trust me; you don’t believe me,” he said to her back.

Catherine finally turned to look at him. “I do trust you.”

“Then believe me.”

A little crease appeared between her brows as she thought about his plea. It pained him to admit that’s what it was: a plea.

“I’m not playing with you, Catherine. You’re… important to me.”

After a moment’s consideration, she said, “Okay.”

“Okay?” he asked, raising a brow in question.

She gave him that patented self-deprecating smile that told him she was more critical of herself than anyone else could possibly be, and said, “Okay, I believe that you want to have sex with me.”

Loki reached out and grabbed her upper arm with his hand, pulling her closer. “That’s not exactly what I meant, but it will suffice because I do want you in my bed.”

“I’m only believing you because you had a boner,” she said, letting him slip her arm around his so he could escort her to dinner.

Laughing at her comment, he said, “Mmm, I would still have one if it weren’t for your infernal insecurities.”

“Well, isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?”

“Shh,” he said, hushing her as they turned to walk down the sidewalk. “We’re not focusing on me now.”

“Where are we going?” she asked as they approached the coffee shop at a slow pace.

Loki looked down at her. “That’s a good question, Catherine. I hadn’t planned that far ahead.”

It was the truth, but it made her smile and filled her eyes with warmth. “Now, that’s hard to believe. Aren’t you a planner?”

“Usually. You’ve got me flustered.”

“Don’t make fun of me,” she said, pinching his arm she was holding against her body.

“It’s the truth.”

She stopped and turned to look up at him just at the border where he’d lose control of the wards. Seeing her out there waiting for him before their date, the kiss, the strange little disagreement about their perceived weaknesses—all of it had hijacked his mind. He’d not given much thought to the greater plan of revealing himself to Thor and the Avengers. Just a few more steps and everything would be set in motion. His hold on the wards from even here was tenuous and thin.

For a moment, he wanted to pull her back from the edge. What if this was the last night they spent together? The possibility made him anxious, restless, sick.

“There’s a Thai place three blocks up,” she said.

“We could always go back to your apartment,” Loki said, winking at her to cover the distress bouncing around in his weak-willed mind.

Catherine’s eyes narrowed. “I thought we were on a date, not a booty call.”

Her mood had turned, and Loki had no idea what he’d said. “I haven’t the faintest idea what a booty call is, Catherine.”

“Seeing someone just for sex.”

He wanted to laugh, but sensed she might take it the wrong way. Talking to her felt like going mad sometimes. He had his little world that he ordered with controlled chaos. Suddenly she comes along and trips him up at every turn. Here he stood on the precipice of breaking free of this pathetic prison, freeing himself of these entanglements even if his hand was being forced, and he was stumbling about trying to sabotage his plans out of fear of losing her. “I want more from you than sex, dear Catherine. Yes, we’re on a date. Let’s go to this Thai place you mentioned.”

She relented and tightened her grip on his arm as they stepped forward. In the space of just a few yards, he felt his hold on the wards dissipate. Swallowing the emotion trying to crawl up his throat, he closed his eyes and did what he could to cloak himself from Thor’s sorcerer. Everything was in motion now, and she was in the balance.

Chapter Text

“But you’re perfect, poorly wired circuit. And got hands like an ocean, push you out and pull you back in.” - Julia Michaels (Issues)

The ambiance left something to be desired with the rips in the vinyl seat cushions and the dust along the back of the booth they’d been seated in, but the food was excellent. He’d not had much better even during the great feasts Odin had thrown in Asgard. Thinking of his home made him feel conflicted. It had never truly been his home and there were many unhappy memories associated with the place, but there were also times of pleasure and enjoyment. Now it was gone, not even a shell of a city to return to any longer.

He was watching her slide her plate toward him when he realized that Midgard was the closest thing he had to a home now. How strange. He’d always seen it as a silly little place of no significant consequence beyond the ease of establishing control over the backward people who inhabited it. Well, he had thought it would have been easy, but hadn’t counted on Thor and his band of odd friends to fight so passionately for it.

“Really,” she said, looking at him, “try it. It’s amazing. I almost always get it when I come here.”

Now he could see why his brother fought for this place, why all of those who stood by his brother fought for it. That didn’t mean he was willing to lay his life on the line for Midgard, but he understood the allure as she raised her brows and nudged the plate a little closer.

As his thoughts circled down into that uncomfortable place where he questioned what he was doing and why, he speared a piece of broccoli and chicken from her plate with his fork. She was right; it was perfect, flavorful, tender. Grasping for a distraction from his spiraling thoughts, he said, “It’s delicious. Like you.”

She flashed him a look of feigned annoyance. He could tell she was both flattered and a bit flustered, but she also thought his insistence on voicing the opinion to be silly, unnecessary. It was a step in the right direction, he supposed. She’d spent the past few weeks assuming his attraction was a lie or making excuses for what he was trying to be quite explicit about.

“Did you wear the shoes for me?” he asked, sitting back in the booth and looking across the table at her.

“I wore the shoes for me,” she replied. “They make me feel dressed up and…”

“Sensual?”

She dropped her gaze and laughed softly. “Yeah, that’s another word like ‘lovers’. It’s a little strange.”

“You’re so buttoned up, Catherine.”

“Wrong vernacular for this area of the universe, Loki. Sexy. They make me feel sexy.”

He hummed his agreement and said, “Yes, they should. I’ve spent many a day admiring your legs in your various heeled shoes.”

She raised her eyebrows at him. “Have you, now?”

“Yes, you look quite fetching in them. However, to be fair, I think you look quite fetching in anything, including those large shirts you tend to sleep in.”

Catherine actually rolled her eyes at that comment. He found her reactions amusing. Any other woman would have acted coy to try to pull additional compliments from him, but not her. “Exactly how much did you see before I put up the curtains when I found out you were spying on me?”

“Are you going to be cross with me if I’m honest?” he asked, looking up at her through his lashes, affecting a look of shyness.

“Maybe,” she said, “but I still want the truth.”

“Well, Catherine, to be fair, you did undress in a room with two rather large windows that were in my line of sight.”

“You didn’t have to look,” she chastised.

He lifted one brow. “Didn’t I, now? What if you saw me undressing? Would you watch?”

She opened her mouth, but didn’t answer him immediately. Finally, she exhaled a breath of laughter. “I’d like to say I wouldn’t.”

“That’s not an answer, my dear. Would you watch?”

Pursing her lips together, she said, “Fine. Probably.”

“And yet you’re upset with me?”

“Well, I mean, I might have watched once. If you kept undressing, then I would have at least tried to clue you in that people could see.”

Loki grinned. “Yes, but I’m not nearly as good of a person as you are, Catherine.”

“You could at least apologize,” she told him, studying her plate.

He waited for her to look up. When she didn’t, he said, “Catherine.” She lifted her gaze to lock with his, and he said, “I’m sorry. You’re right; I shouldn’t have continued watching you.”

Her eyes narrowed as if she were assessing the authenticity of his apology. She must have decided it passed muster because she finally said, “Apology accepted. I guess I should be glad you were a little bit of a peeping Tom since your voyeuristic tendencies helped save me from the mugger. Why did you intervene, anyway? Not because you saw me naked?”

“I don’t know why I intervened,” he replied. “Perhaps I felt an affinity for you. It was second nature.”

“You didn’t expect anything?”

He considered it for a moment, realizing that he hadn’t expected anything. It was rare for him to help someone without an expectation of reciprocity. “No,” he admitted. “And that’s as distressing to me as it is unbelievable to you.”

“You were scary that night.”

He nodded. “Yes, I intended to be. My default when meeting someone is intimidation.”

“That’s a character flaw, you know,” she said, a grin pulling up one corner of her mouth.

Loki smiled back. “Yes, I know. And I hope you know that I don’t take criticism well.”

“You seem to be handling it well now.”

“Yes, but only because I’m quite fond of you.”

Her gaze was on his face, her eyes warm with happiness. It made him feel a strange sort of pride that he could make her feel that way without giving her anything but his time. “That’s sweet, Loki. You know, you’re really softening up. Next thing I know, you’ll be saving stray puppies and kittens.”

“I’d sooner save them than most of your fellow Midgardians,” he replied.

She just smiled at him and shook her head. “You know, I’d say I disagree, but most of the time I’m right there with you.”

The sleeves of her dress were a sheer lace with a floral pattern. The material covered her chest as well, allowing him an enticing glimpse of her cleavage beneath the mostly-sheer fabric. Extending his leg underneath the table, he felt his leg graze one of hers.

Her brows went up. “Are you trying to play footsie with me?”

“I have no idea what you're talking about,” he replied.

She pressed her leg into his more fully. Loki smiled at her before turning his attention back down to his plate. They’d been in the restaurant for well over an hour, and not a single superpowered do-gooder had busted through the door to detain him. It was more than a little startling to realize he hadn't paid that much mind until then. She certainly did capture his attention.

The clock was ticking. What would happen when he returned to the apartment? Would Thor realize he could be trusted again? If not, would he be able to escape with her? Would he have to leave her behind? Would she go with him? Would his prowess with breaking free of the prison and cloaking himself with his power impress her? Why did his questions about the future revolve around her? A liability, that's what she was.

Loki felt what must have been her foot move up the inside of his calf and press into the back of his knee. When he looked up from his plate, he saw she was eating, her eyes firmly on the table, an innocent expression on her face.

Smiling to himself, he slipped a hand down to capture her foot. He was leaning forward over the tabletop when he felt his thumb brush over the arch of her delicate foot. It was a surprise to realize she'd slipped her foot out of her shoe to tease him.

Tugging her forward, Loki rested her foot on his knee and placed his other hand under the table so he could use both to massage her. One hand held her in place by gently circling her ankle while the other squeezed, only using light pressure.

She was slumped down in her seat across from him, her ass no doubt on the edge of the bench. His libido urged him to escalate things. The restaurant was almost empty. It would be so easy to slip beneath the table and, under cover of the white cloth, spread her legs to press his face between her thighs. It wasn't his preferred precursor to sex since he tended to find pleasure in more selfish pursuits, but there was just something about her that made him want to taste her, surround himself with her.

“That feels amazing,” she whispered. Her lips were parted and her eyes looked dreamy.

“I can do so much better if given a bit more privacy,” he replied. “Shall I suggest the employees look elsewhere to give us a moment alone?”

She curled her toes. “Don't play mind games with people, Loki.”

“Not even for your pleasure?”

She laughed softly, a pretty blush creeping over her cheeks. “Not even. Be nice.”

“One of these days I'll get you to break the rules, Catherine.”

“You sticking around that long?” she asked.

The question gave him pause. His comment that precipitated the question also gave him pause. One of these days? Where was this thing with her going? Was there even room for her in his life, realistically? “Perhaps,” he replied.

“I thought you had big plans to stick it to your brother and show him up.”

Loki ran the pad of his thumb up the arch and pressed it into the ball of her foot. “I do. Can’t I have plans for you as well?”

She smiled. “What are your plans for me?”

“Little of this, little of that,” he replied, evading her question. “For tonight, I was thinking I'd see if I can get you out of that dress. Only if you're agreeable, of course.”

“Buttering me up with my favorite food, compliments, and a foot rub?”

“Yes,” he replied, “now give me your other foot.”

She did as he asked, slipping one foot down and replacing it with the second. His hands were working the tendons there while his mind fretted over the irreversible nature of the evening. Part of him wanted to take her home and go to bed with her, revel in the feel and scent of her body, bury his face in the crook of her neck as he rocked into her. But that wasn't going to be reality and nothing he could do now would change it. Thor and his band of misfits were likely scouring the city. Loki was actually surprised he hadn't seen or heard commotion outside announcing their arrival.

He wasn't ready to give up this little dream yet. Reality seemed to loom, dark and cold and empty just around the corner. What if this is the last time you get to spend with her? The thought bounced around in his mind, closing up his throat.

“What’s wrong?”

He looked up at her, likely doing a poor job of hiding the bewilderment he felt. “What?” Loki asked.

“You look upset about something. What's wrong?”

“Nothing,” he said, quickly dismissing her concern. “Just anxious to get you alone, my dear.”

“And if I say no?” she asked with a grin.

“I'll die of a broken heart.”

This made her chuckle and say, “Somehow I doubt that,” as she pulled her foot out of his grasp.

The waiter came by with their check, and she snatched it off the table before he even realized what was happening.

“What do you think you’re doing, Catherine?”

She flashed him a smug smile. “Paying for our dinner,” she replied, unzipping the small bag she’d brought with her that was resting on the corner of the table.

“I thought it customary for the man to pay.”

“Well,” she said, “two things.”

Loki raised his brows, waiting for her explanation as she pulled out that thin plastic card from her bag.

“One—you don’t have money, or at least not money that would be acceptable on this planet. Two—I’ve never been one for custom or tradition. I think I already told you that.”

“Points taken,” he conceded.

“Just like that?” Catherine asked. “I get my way just like that?”

“You seem not to have fully realized that you get your way more times than not with me.”

“You make that sound like it’s something unusual.”

He grinned. “Well, it is. You see, I love getting my way. I found, however, that it’s quite easy to concede to you, especially in instances in which you pay for my dinner.”

This made her laughed and kick his leg under the table. Loki reached down to grab for her foot, but she pulled back too quickly. He watched her lay her card on top of the slip of paper with the cost of their dinners printed on it. What would he do without her? What if this really was the last time he had the pleasure of her company? The thought soured his stomach to the point that he left the small amount of food on his plate right where it was.

“Are you sure nothing is wrong?” she asked.

“No, nothing,” he lied.

///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\

She was pressed against his side, her arm wrapped around his, as they took the long way back to her apartment. Catherine had been the one to suggest the circuitous route, saying it was a more pleasant walk around the neighborhood. He suspected she was stalling for time, though. Perhaps he was, too. The streets were oddly quiet on this Sunday night, and it made him anxious as he thought about what would be around the corner. Thor and that overbearing green creature that followed him around? It was difficult to reconcile the nerdy scientist with the looming green wall of muscle, so Loki had taken to considering them separate individuals, which was, apparently, exactly what Bruce Banner did.

Would he turn the corner and come face-to-crotch with green? Would he turn the corner and find Thor prepared to shame him and pile disappointment on him? Would he be carted off to some other prison that he would eventually escape from? Or would his brother be so shocked and surprised to find him in the company of a Midgardian woman that he’d be amenable to discussion? The discussion would involve Thor agreeing to stop his futile attempts at containing Loki. Thinking of this possibility, albeit an unlikely one, made Loki smile because it also involved him keeping Catherine in his life in some fashion.

“You seem tense,” she murmured, squeezing his bicep.

“Anticipation,” he replied.

She laughed softly and said, “So, you’ve found me out? That I’ve taken us the long way back?”

“I knew that from the moment we set out, Catherine.”

“Are you annoyed?”

“Of course not. I get to spend the time with you either way,” he replied, his mind still distracted by what would happen over the course of the next few minutes, still somewhat sick over potentially losing her.

She squeezed his arm again. “What an uncharacteristically sweet thing for you to say, Loki.”

What had he said? He’d admitted that he simply wanted to be in her presence. It was the truth, yet something a bit too revealing for this tastes. He chastised himself for the slip. “What did you say earlier? That I was trying to butter you up, yes?”

“Yes,” she said as she laid her cheek against his arm.

“Did we take the long way home because you want to reject my advances and are buying time to determine the best course of action? If so, you should just say as much, my dear,” he said.

Catherine laughed softly. “No, not at all. We’re taking the long way because I want you, but I’m nervous. It’s been a while since I’ve… done this.”

“Done what?” The sound of her heels clicking rhythmically against the concrete sidewalk was satisfying.

“Taken a guy home with the intention of… you know.”

He glanced down at the crown of her head where she’d laid her face against his arm. “You brought home that very boring man not long before we met.”

It took her a moment to process his comment. Finally, she groaned and said, “Oh, god… you saw that disaster?”

“Mmm,” he agreed.

“That was a mistake. I didn’t want to, but I… well, I kinda convinced myself that it was the thing to do, and he was pretty anxious for it, soooo… Obviously, I didn't sleep with him. He was a massive jerk about it, too. ”

“And now? With me?”

“Oh, I want you. Badly.”

This made him smile. “What makes you think you’re taking me home? Perhaps I’m the one taking you home.”

“Is that right?” she asked him, amusement in her tone. “Are you saying I get to see your apartment?”

The mention of his apartment made Loki’s stomach flip over. His vivid imagination concocted images of Thor standing by the window waiting for them, images of Thor ripping Catherine from his grip and having Loki detained. Loki wouldn’t allow it. He’d fight, and he could be deadly when backed into a corner.

“Yes,” he finally said in answer, “as much as I’ve fantasized about your bed, I think I’d like to take you to mine.”

Catherine was quiet for a moment, and then said, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever talked so much about having sex with someone before actually just doing it.”

“Well, I’ve never met a woman so beautiful who seemed so convinced she wasn’t worthy of the attraction I feel to her. Perhaps we’re discussing it so much because you need convincing.”

This made her chuckle softly as she rubbed her hand up and down his bicep, pressing closer to him, enticing him. It was frustrating that, despite all this talk of bedding her, it would likely never come to pass, at least not tonight. He didn’t want to consider the idea that he’d never have the opportunity to touch her in that way, to make her sigh and shudder beneath him. Or on top of him, he thought. What if he never did, though? The future was murky and events were in motion.

As they passed the entrance to a dark alley that smelled faintly of rotting garbage and urine, Loki pulled out of her grasp and wrapped his arm around her waist. It took minimal effort to pull her into the shadows of the alley, away from the streetlights and prying eyes of passers-by. She put up no resistance to his spur-of-the-moment decision, just gasping in surprise as he pushed her back against the rough exterior of the building to their left.

Loki rested one hand on her waist, his long fingers curled around her side and his thumb pressing into the soft flesh of her stomach. He braced his free hand against the wall as he dropped his mouth to her neck. Suddenly, the world reduced to her. Her musky, sweet scent, her soft hair, her sharp inhalations as he flicked his tongue out to taste her salty, warm skin. He could feel the thrumming of her pulse just below the surface of her neck, her blood running hot and strong in her veins. Loki wanted to put his mouth on every inch of her skin, worship her like she deserved.

“Oh, god,” she whispered pressing her hips into his body as he slipped a knee between her parted thighs.

“Technically, I'm not a god, but you're welcome to call me one,” he quipped before her hands buried in his hair and her fingernails against his scalp stole his ability to think properly.

She let out a giddy, sweet laugh that spoke of desire and pleasure. “Oh, Loki,” she amended. Her use of his name, the way she'd said it all breathless, inflamed his need for her in that moment.

The hand that had been braced on the wall ended up gripping the back of her left thigh. The way his fingertips dug into her yielding flesh and the way she seemed to love it made his thoughts scatter to the wind. He lifted her leg up, hooking it over his hip and rocking his body into hers.

“Fuck,” she cursed, one hand still fisting his hair and the other clutching at the lapel of suit jacket. It was unseasonably warm, and he'd not worn a coat like she had. It could have been freezing outside, and he’d have been just as anxious to discard their clothes and take her against the wall.

Concern about Thor and his minions scouring the city for him were as far away as his concern for Thanos and the Infinity Stone contained within the Tesseract. Both were lurking on the edges of his consciousness, of such little consequence when compared to the woman clutching at him, pulling him closer, all but begging him to stay with her. She had no idea of what was coming, and he knew that was unfair, but he was just selfish enough not to speak up. She’d leave you if you told her the truth, the hateful part of his mind said.

Trying to silence his mind so he could be in the moment with her, he trailed his lips up to her jaw. He pressed open-mouthed kisses along her jawline and chin until he found her mouth and slipped his tongue between her lips.

The sharp end of her shoe's heel was digging into the back of his thigh, but the modest bite of pain from it just inflamed his desire. It also reminded him that she was not nearly as durable as he was. Pulling back from her lips, he pressed his forehead to hers and slackened his grip on her leg that was hooked around him. “Am I hurting you?” he whispered, trying to catch his breath.

She laughed softly and shook her head, rocking her forehead against his. “You’re doing a lot of things, but not that.”

Why did he set all this in motion? Why didn’t he tell her about the limitations to his ability to hold the wards together? Why did he create a situation where spending the night with her wasn’t likely, perhaps not even possible? At that moment, Loki knew he’d give almost anything to spend the night in her bed, alone with her. Perhaps he’d regret it later, but it wasn’t like he hadn’t spent his life doing things he regretted. Coming clean with her and spending the next few weeks getting as acquainted with her body as he was with her mind seemed like one of the least regrettable things he could do.

He couldn’t take it back, though. The clock was ticking.

“I want nothing more than to spend the night with you, Catherine,” he whispered into her mouth as he hovered his lips over hers. It was the truth, and he felt like he needed to voice it before things went south and he might not have the chance.

“Ditto,” she whispered back, tilting her head and initiating a kiss as she arched her body into his.

Voices of two men calling out to each other from almost a block away startled them both, and Loki pulled away, letting her leg slip out of his hand. She leaned back into the wall for support and released her hold on him.

“We shouldn’t do this in an alley,” she said, with glistening lips.

He wanted to tell her that if they didn’t, then they might not get the chance to. Later, he told himself. He just needed to be patient and wait things out. He’d have her eventually. First, he needed to savor revealing the shoddy cage Thor had built with his pet sorcerer and make an escape in the dramatic fashion he was partial to. Then he could come back to find her, take his time with her. Or, perhaps, he could convince Thor that he was trustworthy after all. He did stick around when it wasn’t necessary.

“Let’s go,” he said, offering his hand to her. She took it without hesitation, a smile on her face the entire time. She looked happy, and it made his heart beat harder. He’d made her happy with nothing more than dinner and a stolen kiss in an alley. No offer of riches or power or even love. No promises. Just dinner and him.

Loki swallowed the lump in his throat and pulled her out of the alley and into his arms.

Chapter Text

“Darling, don’t you understand that there are no winners, metals hung from silken strands to greet you at the finish?” - Death Cab for Cutie (Hold No Guns)

The building was unguarded and silent. Most of the storefronts were closed already. He let her enter the door to the building first, and followed behind her as she climbed the two flights of stairs. Loki told himself that it was because he could use her as a shield if someone were lurking in the hallway or apartment, but he knew no one was on the premises. He’d let her go first so he could watch the sway of her ass and the flex of her calves as she climbed the stairs. Her coat was draped over his arm, and he reached up to touch her hip as she cleared the landing to the third floor. Just before his fingertips met the material of her dress, he pulled back.

The silence, the lack of Thor and the Avengers, all of it was puzzling. His trepidation slipped into disappointment. The disappointment quickly morphed into a surge of adrenaline. He had her alone. Perhaps he should think of the lack of a welcoming party as a gift. He had received exactly what he’d been wishing for all night: time alone with her.

“Must be nice to have the building to yourself,” she said, her heels providing a satisfactory clicking sound on the tile floor as they walked down the hallway. “The guy who lives below me likes to play guitar on Sunday mornings, which means it’s almost impossible to sleep in.”

She stopped in front of his door, and Loki stepped up behind her, reaching around to turn the doorknob while resting one hand on her hip. It brought his face close enough that he could breath in the scent of her hair and her skin. “You’re welcome to sleep here,” he whispered in her ear as he leaned forward into her body, pressing his front against her back. The swell of her ass pushed enticingly against his groin, and it made his fingers tighten on her hip. She was soft and warm and so very pliant in his hands.

Catherine laughed softly and stepped into the foyer, placing her bag on the floor by the entrance. “Am I allowed to be here? You said this was a cage.”

“A very innocuous cage, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Looks like a regular apartment to me. A little sterile, I guess.”

“One can’t exactly go out and gather aesthetically-pleasing decor when he is supposed to be detained. I’d blow my cover.”

She shook her head and turned around to face him. “I don’t understand why you stay when you don’t have to.”

Loki advanced on her, unwilling to discuss his motivations when she was standing in the middle of his sitting area in a dress that conformed to the rounded, generous curves of her body, when he was so close to peeling the fabric away from her skin to reveal what was at once so familiar and yet completely unfamiliar.

Taking her face in his hands, he pressed his mouth to hers. He could feel her fingers, somewhat cold from the air outside, wrap around his wrists, her nails gently biting into the skin there as he took her mouth like he wanted to take her body. She melted against him, her hands sliding down his forearms and falling away at his elbows so she could fist them in his suit jacket and pull him closer. He couldn’t get any closer without removing their clothing and pushing her onto his bed.

Loki broke the kiss to inhale a ragged breath of air. She looked up at him, his hands framing her face and her eyes glassy. “I’ve never been kissed like you kiss me,” she said on an exhale.

“How do I kiss you?” he asked. His thoughts were flying in so many directions, but she had the strongest gravitational pull on them.

“I don’t know,” Catherine admitted. “Like you can’t control yourself, but you’re trying.”

He slipped his arms around her, his forearms resting against her back. She was trapped, but it was unnecessary; she wasn’t going anywhere. Catherine wanted to be right here with him. It made his head swim with desire. “Oh, I’m trying very hard, Catherine,” Loki whispered, bending his head down to brush his lips against hers.

Her laughter was husky and giddy. It twisted his gut as he thought about throwing her on his bed and ripping her beautiful dress right down the middle. What would she taste like, he wondered. Salty skin and delicate warmth and sweet nectar that would lay heavy and fragrant on his tongue.

Just as he dropped to his knees and grabbed the backs of her thighs so he could bury his face into that spot between her legs, the door flew open behind him and smacked against the wall. One of the paintings hung by the entrance clattered to the ground just as Loki’s stomach fell to the floor. No, he thought, no, not now.

One of her hands was on the crown of his head and the other was gripping his shoulder. He could smell her from this position on his knees, but he had no time to taste her like he’d been fantasizing.

Loki?” The incredulous voice belonged to no other than Thor. “What is the meaning of this?”

Closing his eyes, Loki quickly gathered himself and rose to his feet. He briefly caught sight of Catherine’s beautiful and shocked expression before he turned to his brother with a smile plastered on his face. He’d had years of practice turning his thoughts on a dime, forcing that smug look that he knew infuriated people and opened them up to manipulation.

“Brother,” he said in greeting.

“Who is this? What have you done to her?” Thor looked a mess. His hair was wild and there was a wound on his arm that allowed blood to drip down to his wrist.

Loki’s grin grew. “Ahh, this is Catherine. I’m afraid I haven’t done anything to her as you’ve interrupted us at a most inconvenient moment.”

“What have you done?” Thor demanded. His confusion was satisfying to Loki.

“Oh, the prison?” Loki asked, raising his brows and throwing his hands out to the sides to indicate the room they were all standing in. “I’m afraid the prison has never served its purpose, dear brother. I’ve stayed at my own pleasure.”

“There are wards,” Thor replied. He always was a bit slow on the uptake, more brawn than brains.

“The wards are simplistic and easily manipulated. You didn’t actually think you could keep me in here, did you?”

The skin between Thor’s eyebrows creased as he considered Loki’s question. “Who is the woman?”

“Oh,” Loki replied turning and stepping aside to reveal her to Thor. “This is Catherine. Catherine, this is my brother—Thor.” It wasn’t until that moment that Loki remembered all those times he’d been second to Thor in so many ways, including with women. A flash of jealousy swept through his mind as he watched her face closely, waited for her eyes to widen in wonder as she looked upon Thor. It didn’t happen; she looked almost as confused as his brother, eyebrows furrowed and lips parted.

“How did she get here?” Thor demanded.

Loki rolled his eyes. “I invited her after we dined together. I’ve been sampling the Midgardian cuisines now that we’re to make this our new home, brother.”

“You’ve been leaving? The wards don’t work.” The last comment was a statement, not a question.

“You sure are a bit slow on the uptake, brother. Yes, I’ve been leaving. I’ve been courting this Midgardian.” He gestured toward Catherine. “So, you see, there’s no reason to play this game in which you detain me. I stayed of my own volition. I’m not your enemy.”

“We’re fighting for our lives, and you’re playing games?” Thor asked, his face twisting into one of anger.

“What?” Loki replied, watching the blood dripping on the hardwood floor. He’d noticed it, but didn’t consider the meaning.

“Did you give him the Tesseract?” his brother demanded. “Did you?”

“What?”

“Thanos! Did you trade it for your life?”

Loki stepped back from Thor. “No. No! I haven’t left this city.”

“Are you lying to me, Loki?”

“No.” Thor didn’t look like he was buying it. “Thor, I didn’t. I haven’t seen the Tesseract since you decided I couldn’t be trusted and locked me away.”

“You can’t be trusted!” Thor bellowed. “It’s taken me so many years to learn that, Loki, but I finally have. I can’t trust you with the lives of our people.”

“You did not long ago, brother. You entrusted me with the responsibility of destroying Asgard and your sister. Do you forget who brought the ship to save our people?” Loki could hear the bitterness in his voice and tried to regulate his tone, calm the anger simmering in his veins.

“You do these things for you, not for anyone else. I’ve seen it time and again. Everything is to benefit yourself. Now I see why father never intended for you to rule. A ruler must be–”

“Father never intended for me to rule because I’m not his son!” Loki replied, voice raised an arm extended out to point at Thor. “You were no better, brother.” The last was spit out and sat heavy in the air between them.

“And yet I’ve learned, I’ve grown. You haven’t Loki. You’re the same little boy who tricked me, who stomped to get attention if it wasn’t on you, who only helped when it would benefit him.”

Loki snapped a blade out into his hands, rage rising in him.

“You used me.” Catherine’s voice was soft, barely there in comparison to his and Thor’s.

Instead of advancing on Thor, he looked over his shoulder at her.

“This whole thing has been about him, not me,” she said. Her gaze was on his face, but it was cold and closed-off. The openness he’d spent weeks earning was gone, and she’d shut down on him so quickly he reeled at the realization.

“That’s not true,” Loki told her, feeling slight irritation that she couldn’t let it be until he could sort things out with his brother. However, the overriding emotion he was feeling was panic as things crumbled so easily. He’d anticipated so many different scenarios, but this was not one. In each of his scenarios, she’d gone along with his plans by remaining silent and understanding that there were bigger things at stake than their date night. Didn’t she know he intended on coming back for her?

Catherine frowned and shook her head. “It is true. You’re using me as a prop to make him believe that you’re a good guy, that you’re trying to learn how to live in this world.”

Loki glanced over at Thor, but his brother was of no help. He was looking at Catherine with wide eyes, the blood still dripping from his fingertips onto the floor. “Catherine, don’t be ridiculous. We’ll discuss this later.”

“No,” she replied. “No, we won’t. This was all a mistake. I should have known better.” She took a step away from him and edged around an armchair toward the door, hesitating when she saw Thor blocking the way.

“Catherine, stop,” Loki said, his voice sounding weak, pleading, pathetic. It was all spiraling out of control, and it wasn’t until then that he realized all the anxiety he’d been feeling earlier that night was because deep down he’d known she wouldn’t just go along.

He took a step toward her, but she threw up a hand to block him. “Don’t touch me. I should have listened to myself and stayed away from you. You’re….”

“Poison,” Thor offered, helping her find the word she couldn’t seem to locate.

“Yes,” she agreed, laughing bitterly. “You warned me not to trust you. One of the first times we spoke, you told me that I’d be a fool to do so. I guess I’m a fucking fool.” She moved towards Thor and muttered, “Excuse me.”

Loki watched as his brother stepped aside and let her pass. “Catherine!” he called after her. “Catherine, stop!”

When he tried to follow, Thor blocked his path. “Move,” he told his brother, curling his fingers tightly around the handle of the blade.

“No,” Thor replied. “I won’t let you hurt her any longer.”

“I’m not going to hurt her, you imbecile!” Loki replied, panic taking over the edges of his mind as her heels clicked down the hallway toward the stairwell.

Thor smiled and it looked bitter and hateful. “You actually care for her, don’t you?”

“No,” Loki snapped.

“You do.” He laughed, but there was no humor or happiness in it. “Oh, brother, I hope she breaks your heart. You deserve it for all you’ve done to us.”

“She’s a Midgardian. She’s nothing.”

Thor shook his head. “I can see through your lies, brother,” he said.

“Move,” Loki demanded. “Let me go to her.”

“Why? You said she’s nothing.”

Loki lashed out with the blade in his right hand, but it was a clumsy attempt, all frustration and fear. Thor easily blocked him, turning Loki’s hand to the side and knocking the blade from his grip. He felt Thor’s fist slam into the side of his face, knocking him back. Loki stumbled into the bookshelf across the room.

“I need to know where the Tesseract is, Loki,” Thor said. “If you actually care for her, then you would tell me so we can save her home.”

Loki spat out blood before covering his mouth with the back of his hand. “I care for no one. And I don’t have the Tesseract.”

“Because you gave it to him.”

“I gave nothing to anyone!” Loki snapped.

“Then how are the Chitauri opening portals?”

Loki’s stomach dropped to the floor for the second time that night. “What? I thought that was an isolated incident.” Did Thanos find the relic where he’d hidden it? Loki felt sick over the thought. His last bargaining chip might be gone.

“They’re small and only remain active for less than two minutes, but it’s happening everywhere. Little by little, he’s moving his army in,” Thor said.

“Then he doesn’t have the Tesseract. If he did, he’d rip a hole in the sky and rain his army down on this world,” Loki replied.

“I know you know where the Tesseract is, Loki. If you truly want me to trust you, if you truly want to live in his world, if you truly care for that woman, then you must tell me.”

“What makes you think you can protect it any better than I can?”

“Because I have support from others who are working toward the same goal, who want to save this world! You have no one!”

Loki’s back hit the wall behind him, and he leaned on it for support. Thor was right; he had no one. He’d always been alone and always would be. The little tryst with Catherine was nothing, and he was a fool to have been so taken with her because in the end it would always just be him.

When he didn’t respond, Thor sighed deeply, his shoulders sagging in disappointment. “I thought there might be some good left in you, brother,” he said softly. “Now I see there isn’t.”

///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\

There was little fight left in him when Thor secured his hands and led him from the building. As much as he tried to push Catherine out of his mind, his thoughts kept returning to her. The way she’d smiled at him over their dinner, their conversations over drinks at the coffee shop, the night he’d spent on her couch with his arm around her. Thor had said he was alone and always would be, but he’d not felt alone in those moments. She’d made him feel as if he had a partner, but he’d kept her at arm’s length in some respects. It was something that couldn’t be taken back.

It took no time to arrive at a large facility surrounded by tall brick walls and barbed wire fence with watchtowers. Loki knew Thor intended to detain him here for a short time until the current Chitauri invasion was squashed. The facility was bustling with activity, men outfitted in black who carried assault rifles were calling to each other from two of the towers. At first, Loki thought they were announcing Thor’s arrival with a prisoner, but it took only a short amount of time to realize that they were experiencing an attack from the other side of the property.

“What is the meaning of this? They were nearly defeated when I left!” Thor called out to three men running along the perimeter fenced.

One of them stopped and jogged over, the other two on his heels. “Another hundred came through over in the field. They’ve breached the building. We evacuated everyone we could, but there are people trapped on the top two floors.”

“Where is Steve Rogers?” Thor demanded.

“Virginia. He left when we thought it was under control. They opened a portal just outside D.C.”

Thor looked torn, and Loki felt a surge of adrenaline as he realized the situation his brother was in. Chitauri had invaded the building he’d intended to use as a prison and trapped what sounded like civilians on the upper floors. Thor had a choice to make; he could abandon those people and take Loki to another location or he could save the people, leaving Loki unguarded. Even if he assigned these men to watch over him, they were no real threat.

He knew his brother well enough to know what Thor would choose, and it boded well for him. All the fight that had left him was now back, ready to take action and escape. His relationship with Thor was beyond repair, and any hopes he’d had of manipulating his brother into believing that he was invested in his world and was trustworthy were gone. He’d lost Catherine, stupidly crushed the delicate trust he’d built with her over those strange weeks of limbo in which she’d been his entire world. All that was left to do was run, find a place to hide until this was over, find a way to use the Tesseract to save himself.

Thor looked at the building as an explosion caused chunks of concrete to fly through the air from the far corner. Men on the watchtower began shouting warnings to those below. “Will you fight for them?” Thor asked, leveling his gaze on Loki.

Loki shrugged. “Why would I? You said I have no one. What is there to fight for if not myself?” The words were bitter on his tongue, hateful, filled with hurt. Catherine would be disappointed in him.

Thor shook his head in disgust before turning to the three men standing in front of them. “Guard him. Keep your guns on him at all times. Do not let him move.” With that said, he made his way to the thick of the fighting. His brother was quite capable in a fight, Loki knew this well. Even if there were a hundred Chitauri soldiers, he was confident that Thor would defeat them with the help of these soldiers of Midgard and their deadly guns. They were lacking leadership, and Thor had that in spades. Not Loki, though. He’d tried so hard to lead, but always seemed to fall short. People would follow in fear or in awe or because he promised them something, but they never followed because they wanted to, because he inspired.

He stood in the small grass field between the gate to the compound and the building, the dry winter grass crunching beneath his shoes, and watched the three men assigned to keep him in custody. They were young and terrified. He could almost smell their fear.

“I don’t suppose you’d consider lowering your guns, would you?” he asked.

They didn’t respond, not a single one. He stared down the barrels of the weapons and considered his options. The restraints were not of this world, magically enhanced and impervious to his strength. However, he suspected that one of those high-powered bullets might do the trick if it hit the restraints at just the right point. Of course, he’d risk getting shot himself, which was not something he’d like to experience.

“I could help, you know,” Loki said, tilting his head in the direction of the building.

The man on the right adjusted his grip on his weapon. Loki grinned and lurched toward him before dropping to his knees. All three men fired. Two of the bullets hit the concrete structure yards away and the third hit its mark—the chain that connected the restraints, binding this hands together. He’d held them up, right where his chest had been. These men were gullible and simple, but they were highly trained to hit their target. You just had to make sure the target was the right one.

One of them shouted a warning, but it was too late. The two bullets that were fired bit into the dirt where he’d been kneeling. He was already barreling towards them, knocking one off his feet as he ripped the weapon from the second. He dodged a shot from the third before swinging the stock of the assault rifle around to knock the man out. The first man still had his gun, but it was a simple thing to step on it and bring the stock of the gun down against this temple.

“Don’t kill me,” the second man begged, holding up a hand as if he could fend Loki off. Loki just smiled and kicked him in the head.

As he ran across the dead grass toward the gate, Loki wondered why he hadn’t killed the men. They were still very much breathing as he made his escape.

///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\//\\\

The Tesseract lit the barn up in an electric blue light. Quickly, he flipped a heavy burlap sack over it. The area was remote—deep in the mountains on the border of West Virginia and Virginia—and sparsely populated, but he didn’t want to risk the wrong eyes seeing the brilliant light emitted by the Infinity Stone suspended in the cube.

There were certainly more remote areas of this world to stash the relic, but Loki thought it quite amusing that he hid it so very close to several massive populations centers, so very close to Thor’s little team and where they chose to gather. Thor and the others would assume he’d hidden it in one of the remotest locations—perhaps a glacier in the frozen wasteland of a the Antarctic Sea or the deep and untouched forests of Russia, or even perhaps under miles of water in the Pacific Ocean, a place so vast they would have no hope of finding it. It was all alluring, but hiding it a dilapidated barn on an overgrown and abandoned farm not so far from New York City was so much more exciting. And convenient, he reminded himself as he pushed loose hay on top of the burlap sack.

He’d been here hiding for nearly three days. The sun had set on his third day in the barn filled with mice and spiders. Disguising himself as a local, he’d slipped into the nearest town and lurked around the general store, listening to the news. The Chitauri invasion was slow—a trickle of water that Thor and his team were attempting to stop. The problem was that several leaks had sprung, and there weren’t enough of them to stop so many rivulets from causing real damage. The Avengers were poorly organized and not ready to fight such a scattered battle over thousands of miles—different cities, different countries, different continents.

He idly wondered if the Tesseract could close the portals and at least give them a stay of execution from Thanos. With it, Thanos could open the skies and drop his army of millions onto this unsuspecting planet. Without it, he’d still found a way to cause problems for these people, but perhaps that was just because it wasn’t being wielded, because it was sitting idle in a weathered barn in West Virginia. Using it would reveal his location to those from whom he was trying to hide. All he could do now was bide his time and hope for an opportunity to protect himself from the oncoming wave of war.

What was Catherine doing on this day? He’d thought about her more often than not during his moments of solitude in the barn while he kept out of sight and tried his best to mask himself from any location spells Thor’s pet sorcerer was capable of using. He’d thought about the way she’d felt against him the night they’d gone to dinner, the way her mouth tasted of the spicy Thai food they’d just had, the way her hair smelled of coconut and flowers. The way she’d looked so betrayed, so hurt, as she walked out of his door, the sharp click of her heels disappearing down his hallway for the last time.

He worried about her, wondered if she was safe in her apartment as the world started falling apart at the seams. The Chitauri hadn’t entered into the larger cities, yet, and Thor’s band of merry misfits was doing an admirable job of keeping them at bay, at least on the eastern seaboard of this particular country. She was in as safe a place as possible for now—hidden in the depths of a massive city where she was innocuous, a nameless face. She was also smart enough to watch her surroundings and stay inside. So, she was safe. For now. He didn’t know what stupid things he would do if she weren’t safe. Loki preferred not to think of those.

Loki leaned back on the wooden bench against the wall and sighed. He needed to make his move, but he didn’t know what that was. The sun had set almost two hours ago, and the light had bled from the sky quickly. The silence in this wilderness was uncomfortable, but it did provide the ability to hear someone coming from far away.

“Loki.”

Loki stood, glancing around the empty barn before he realized the origin of the voice before he placed it in his mind. Heimdall. The voice was familiar; he’d known Heimdall since he was a young boy. In the early years of his youth, he’d played at being Heimdall, of guarding the Bifrost and manning the gate. That was before his teenage mind had turned to greater pursuits that involved thrones and loyal subjects who would kneel before him in awe and respect.

Heimdall could not see him; Loki knew that for a fact. He’d spent years learning how to do what many in Asgard believe to be impossible: how to cloak himself and hide from the eyes and ears of the all-seeing, all-hearing guard of the gate. It had become second nature, something he always did. That didn’t mean, however, that Heimdall couldn’t reach out and attempt to contact him. He’d done so several times in the past, but Loki always kept the veil up.

“Loki,” Heimdall’s voice was far away, but seemed to come from everywhere, including the very rafters of this dilapidated building.

If he replied, then he ran the risk of Heimdall seeing him, locating him. It could be a ruse so Thor could find him and, therefore, find the Tesseract. He’d worked hard at making his way in this world, learning how to cloak himself from the sorcerer and Heimdall, how to survive in such a foreign culture. He wasn’t going to throw it all away.

“Loki, it’s Catherine,” Heimdall said.

It felt like the bottom fell out of his world. His heart was in his throat and his stomach was at his feet. “What?” he asked, his voice so loud in the silence of the barn. The veil was still in place; Heimdall couldn’t see or hear.

“Loki,” Heimdall repeated.

Clenching his teeth, he did something so very stupid. It was like the time he intervened when the man was coming at her with the knife. It was instinct, unthinking action. Lifting the veil that hid him from Heimdall’s eyes, Loki said, “What?” again.

Across from him was the man he’d looked up to as a child and learned to fear and avoid as a teenager and adult. A man who knew his transgressions almost as well as his brother. He was standing on a battlefield with his sword in his hand, a fire raging behind him.

“They have Catherine,” Heimdall said, looking right at Loki.

“How?” Loki said, his voice breaking.

“They want the Tesseract in exchange for her.” Heimdall turned to swing his sword, cutting down someone approaching from behind. Loki could only see Heimdall and his surroundings; it was all the connection allowed.

“Where?” It was out of his mouth before he even had a chance to think about the implications of the question. Was he actually thinking of giving up the Tesseract for her, a useless Midgardian woman who held no power, could provide nothing.

“The Stark Building you were in. They grabbed her off the street on her way home.”

Loki ran a hand roughly through his hair, feeling sick over the news. He looked down at the pile of hay that covered the Tesseract as he thought of Catherine. She’d be so frightened, and she was so ill-equipped to protect herself. This was his fault. She was in their hands because of her connection to him. He’d been so stupid, so careless with her life.

They would kill her without a second thought if he didn’t go to her. He paced the length of the barn as the overwhelming sickness he felt in his stomach infiltrated his mind. There were no guarantees that he’d get out of there with her alive. There was a chance she was already dead. The thought set his mind to buzzing with anxiety and anger and guilt. He had to go. There was no choice. Well, there was a choice, but it was one he’d made when he’d opened himself to Heimdall.

They had her, and now all he could think of was her hair matted with her own blood, her broken body lifeless on the floor of what had served has his sitting room. Of how frightened she must be and how much she must hate him for bringing this down on her. Hastily, Loki used his foot to push the hay away from the Tesseract before slipping the brilliant blue cube into the burlap sack he’d found discarded by the door when he’d first arrived.

He closed his eyes and thought of the place where he’d first met her. The sidewalk in front of her building when he’d almost killed a man in front of her eyes before trying his level best to intimidate her without scaring her too much. In hindsight, it was a childish thing to do. In fact, in hindsight, most of this was childish. Why did he insist on doing these stupid things, fighting so hard to be the best when it didn’t really matter? Why?

He felt a gust of air and opened his eyes to find himself on the street in front of her building. His was across the way, and the sidewalk seemed strangely quiet. The deli was still open with several customers inside. No one had seen him appear, though. It was a small favor.

The door to the Stark building where he'd spent months was open and the glass in the storefront next to it had a hairline crack like something had hit it or been pushed into it. He felt rage at the thought of them hurting her. He felt sick that this was his doing. She deserved better. The Tesseract was oddly light in the sack underneath his arm.

Was he here to surrender the Tesseract for her life? If it was the only way, then he'd hand it over for her, Loki decided. It shouldn't have come to this; he shouldn't have let it get this far. Saving her might mean dooming her world, but he had no choice now. It was her or nothing.

Loki stepped into the silent building and slipped into the empty stairwell.

Chapter Text

“Been wondering if your heart’s still open and if so I wanna know what time is shuts.” - Arctic Monkeys (Do I Wanna Know)

The hallway was silent and nearly empty. Nearly. Her bag, the canvas tote she favored when carrying things to and from work, was lying discarded on the floor halfway down the hall. Her black coat—the same one she’d worn on their date—was lying at his feet. His stomach was roiling mess of acid and fear as he reached out to get a sense of the situation. Who was in the room? How many held her? Could he defeat them? The room was spelled to be a locked box he couldn’t penetrate.

His footsteps faltered as his mind darted to and fro. He could call for Thor. He could promise the Tesseract to his brother in exchange for help saving her. Yes, he could risk it and fight through the Chitauri holding her hostage in hopes that he could save her and retain possession of the Tesseract. There was a chance he would be successful. But was her life worth the gamble? Was he willing to give up the Tesseract for her?

Yes, he decided. It was his only bargaining chip, but she was worth more. Even if she hates you and never wants to see you again? That dark, selfish place in the back of his mind taunted him with the idea. Would he give up the Tesseract for her even if she refused him?

Dropping the veil that hid him from Heimdall, Loki called out to the guard. Heimdall appeared at the end of the hall, looking back at Loki with those unsettling, all-seeing eyes. “Heimdall,” Loki greeted with a nod.

“Loki,” Heimdall replied.

“Tell my brother I will surrender the Tesseract to him if he will help me save her.”

Heimdall nodded once and disappeared. Should he wait for help? Should he make his move now?

A scream tore through the silence followed by a sickening thump. Yes, he’d give it up for her even if she hated him. Unfortunately, there was no time to wait for his brother because that scream was just like the one he’d heard on the street that night when she’d been nearly attacked by the knife-wielding man.

Loki’s footsteps were swift as he almost flew down the hallway and kicked the door right next to the knob. It went flying open to reveal the very familiar sitting room covered in the warm glow of the two lamps on either side of the couch. He’d expected to find the room in disarray, crowded with the hulking bodies of the Chitauri. He’d expected to find her dead or dying on the hardwood floor beneath the windows he’d watched her from so many times.

However, he found something very different as his mind raced to catch up. She was sitting in the middle of the couch, her forearms resting on her knees, her hands clasped so tightly that her knuckles were white. She was looking at him with guarded eyes, but she appeared to be unharmed with her long hair tied back. She wore a large sweater with a pair of faded jeans. She didn’t say anything, but he saw her throat contract when she swallowed.

Loki swung his gaze to the windows and found Thor standing there with his arms crossed over his chest. It made him look intimidating and stern. “Brother,” Thor said, nodding his head.

Loki wasn’t nearly as slow on the uptake as Thor, and the puzzle pieces easily fell into place for him. “You tricked me,” he said, a bit of disbelief in his tone.

Thor shrugged. “And not very well.”

The rush of relief he felt at her safety overpowered the disappointment over losing the Tesseract. Thor was right. He’d lost his manipulative touch and his keen intellect over her. If Thor had knowledge that Catherine had been captured, even if he couldn’t save her, he’d have been outside offering his help and, of course, more than willing to relieve Loki of the Tesseract. Loki had been blinded by his fear of her imprisonment and death. He’d rushed headlong into the situation without forethought or consideration. Due diligence would have revealed this trap long before he’d even set foot in the building.

“Yes, not very well. I must be losing my touch,” Loki agreed, still trying to rouse his anger over the situation. He could find nothing but relief. It was all out of his hands now. He’d been bested by his stupid brother and a Midgardian woman who he cared far too much for.

Thor chuckled. “I’ve found love can make one do very stupid things.”

Loki looked at Catherine, but her eyes were on the floor and her shoulders were hunched over her lap. Love. He wasn’t in love. He cared for her, but it wasn’t love no matter what Thor said. He felt responsible for her, that’s what he felt.

She finally looked up at him, her eyes so closed off, like he’d seen them before when she was pulling away to protect herself. He wanted to reach out and tell her not to do that with him, but he’d done everything to destroy her trust and hurt her. He deserved that look.

“No one thought this would work,” Thor said, breaking the silence and turning both Loki’s and Catherine’s eyes to him. “Catherine told me I was mad. She said you would never return for her.”

Loki glanced over at her again. She pushed herself up off the couch and wrapped her arms around midsection, looking wary and uncomfortable.

“Did you truly believe I’d abandon you, Catherine?” he asked her.

She looked up at him, the sadness in her eyes covered by the backbone of steel that he admired, but she didn’t answer his question. Her lack of response said it all: yes, she’d truly believed he wouldn’t return to save her. The thought made him sick to his stomach. What kind of person had he become that someone he held so dear thought he cared so little? He wanted to blame it on her infernal lack of self-confidence or blindness of self-worth, but he knew he was at fault for this.

“You know, Catherine,” Thor said, “I tried very hard to get the Tesseract from Loki. I appealed to him in many different ways—from our relationship as brothers to his selfish nature. I told him that this is now the only home we know after the destruction of Asgard and that the Tesseract might help save it. None of it worked. But you did.” Turning to Loki, Thor added, “I know you asked Heimdall for my help. I thought you’d crash in here and hope you could take them and keep her and the Tesseract. I didn’t expect you to appeal to me.”

“If I truly wanted to save her, then I had no choice. Going alone wouldn’t have guaranteed it,” Loki replied.

“My help wouldn’t have guaranteed her safety either.”

“But it would have given me a better shot at it,” Loki replied. “I’m a pragmatist.”

“And yet you know that I wouldn’t let you leave with her and the Tesseract.”

“She’s more important than the Tesseract,” Loki replied, for once not concealing what he wanted to say in vague terms or questions. There it was, laid bare for all three of them to see, the fact that she was more important to him than a powerful relic that could provide untold power or possibly secure his safety.

“I don’t believe you,” she said. They were the first words out of her mouth to him on this day, and they hurt.

Loki tossed the burlap sack in the floor at her feet. It landed with a thud. “Catherine, I’m afraid my foolish decisions have given you the false impression I don’t care for you. The thing in that bag might be the last card I have to play in this game, but I’d give it up for you.”

“But you didn’t. You could have given him this thing as a show of goodwill long ago, even days ago. Maybe if you did that, then we wouldn’t be here right now. I’m not going to be some silly girl that gets fooled twice by some user who can’t stop lying.”

“Catherine, I’m not lying.” There was a pleading edge to his voice that he couldn’t shake.

“You’re just trying to climb out of the hole you dug for yourself,” she said.

“Catherine–”

“You used me to make yourself seem like a better person to your brother, to make him believe that you’d changed when you haven’t.”

Panic was simmering in the back of his mind. Frantically, he tried to suppress it. “I got caught up in my own game, Catherine. I… I… The things I’ve said to you, they’re all true. I never lied.”

“I don’t trust you,” she said.

“You don’t have to. I just need you to understand that you are more important than my last bargaining chip. Your life is worth more to me, whether you care for me or not.”

She turned her back on him, and Loki felt his heart sink as despair filled his mind. Thor stepped over to him and rested a heavy hand on his shoulder. When Thor didn’t say anything, Loki looked over at his brother, a man who was the opposite of him in looks and attitude.

“What?” he asked.

Thor squeezed Loki’s shoulder and said, “To tell you the truth, I had my doubts about this. No one else is here because they didn’t believe you have a heart.” Dropping his voice to a murmured whisper, Thor added, “They didn’t believe you cared for her because they didn’t think you could care for anyone.”

“So?” Loki snapped, feeling vulnerable and exposed.

“I know you too well to believe you don’t care. For a time, you fooled me into thinking you cared only for yourself, but I see that isn’t true. You care too much, brother.”

Loki swallowed the emotion crawling up his throat. “I don’t.”

Thor smiled sadly. “You do. You always have. I wanted the throne to fulfill my duty to my home and family, to be looked up to and revered. I was naive because the throne is a burden I had not anticipated and was not ready for. But you… you wanted the throne to be loved and adored. I see that now.”

“Don’t be stupid.” Loki’s voice was venomous, but Thor didn’t seem affected by it.

“Your secret is safe with me. I’m just relieved to know you aren’t the hopeless case I had thought you to be. Perhaps one day we might fight side-by-side again, brother? I have never felt stronger than in those times, and I mean that truly, Loki.”

His head was a riot of thoughts and emotions—longing and regret and shame and pride and love and hate and loathing and desire. He looked away from his brother’s eyes. In a way, the choice had been taken from him and now he had no choice but to fight alongside his brother for this place he now called home. Or, perhaps, he made the choice the moment he answered Heimdall and asked for Catherine’s location.

“Perhaps,” Loki replied, stepping away from Thor. He cleared his throat. “The open door, the cracked glass, and her belongings in the hall were nice touches.”

Smiling, Thor said, “They were Catherine’s suggestions.”

Loki raised his brows at her when she turned around. “If the story was that I’d been abducted, then it needed to look that way,” she explained.

“Yes, very cunning,” Loki agreed.

Narrowing her eyes at him, she said, “Shove your compliments up your ass.”

Loki gave her a small smile. “I’m relieved to see you are well, my dear. I know you don’t believe me, but I was very worried over you.”

“Well,” Thor said, “she was attacked by Chitauri. That’s what gave me the idea.”

What?” Loki asked, turning his gaze back to Catherine. “You were attacked? When?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know if I’d call it attacked. I was followed.”

“And she poisoned them!” Thor exclaimed, like a child who couldn’t wait for the best part of the story.

“You poisoned them?” Loki repeated.

She rolled her eyes. “Pepper spray. There were only two. They were wearing these weird cloaks and followed me home from work a couple nights ago right after you… right after you were an asshole.”

“So you sprayed them?”

“So I sprayed them,” she repeated. “And I ran. Except I ran right into this scary-looking dude that Thor says he sent to watch over me. He killed the… Chitauri or whatever you call them.”

Her story made Loki feel ill. “Catherine, I’m sorry I wasn’t there.” He meant it with every fiber of his being, and he hoped she could hear that in his voice. “If you don’t believe anything, please believe that. I never wanted you hurt.”

She regarded him with that familiar steady gaze, but this time he welcomed her to pick him apart, look beneath his words to the heart of what he was saying. “I believe you,” she finally said.

“May I explain myself to you?”

“You can try. I can’t say I’ll believe it all.”

Thor chuckled and slapped Loki on the back. “Oh, I like her, brother.” Looking at Catherine, Thor said, “I’ve known him almost all my life, and I hope you’ll believe me when I tell you that he’s in love with you.”

“Shut up,” Loki snapped at his brother. “Take what you came here for and leave.”

All three of them looked down at the burlap sack sitting in the floor in front of her. “Is it dangerous?” Catherine asked him.

“Not dangerous. Powerful,” Loki said. “It’s yours to do with as you will, Catherine. I give it to you and wash my hands of the burden.”

Tentatively, she bent over and gathered the fabric of the bag in her right hand. He and Thor watched as she opened the bag and peered inside. “It’s beautiful,” she said as the electric blue of the Stone pulsed and illuminated her face.

No one said anything as she looked down at the cube and all the power it contained. After a moment she closed the bag and used her left hand to test the weight of the Tesseract. The only thing between the power of the relic and her skin was the thick burlap.

“What will you do with it?” she said, directing her question at Thor. Loki looked over to his brother.

“We think it can close the portals—the ones that are opening up around the world.”

“Yes, I’ve seen them on the news.”

Thor nodded. “We need to protect it from Thanos—the being who wants it to extend his power.”

“And he’s the one who sent those bug-like thingies?”

Loki almost laughed at her description of one of the fiercest and most feared armies in the galaxy. Thor couldn’t hide his smirk. “Yes, Catherine. He is a warlord who means to enslave this world. If he gains possession of the Infinity Stones, he can’t be stopped.”

Catherine looked to Loki for confirmation. It was such a small thing, but it spoke volumes. Perhaps there was hope for them yet. “He’s correct,” Loki said. “What you are holding contains the Space Stone.”

“Why are you giving this up for me?” she asked. “It’s powerful. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Power?”

“I don’t know what I want, Catherine. But I know what I don’t want.”

“What don’t you want?”

“To witness the demise of your world like I witnessed mine. To see you hurt or dead.”

She stared back at him with eyes that seemed so impenetrable at times like these. He longed for the way she’d looked at him during those nights they’d spent together.

Catherine stepped forward and held the bag out to Thor. “Here,” she said. “Good luck with it.”

“Thank you, my lady,” Thor said, closing his fist around the fabric below her hand and giving a slight bow to her. “Would you like me to take him with me?” he asked, tilting his head toward Loki.

“No,” she said, “you can leave him.” Catherine leveled her gaze on Loki. “If he wants to stay.”

“Catherine, I’d give my kingdom to say.”

“You don’t have a kingdom,” she said. Was that a little smirk pulling up the corner of her mouth. Just slightly? Just a bit? Please, let it be so, he thought.

“Ahh, that’s true,” he conceded. “May I stay anyway?”

“Yes.”

Thor smiled widely at both of them before making his way toward the door. “Brother, I’m pleased,” he said, turning around before leaving. “I hope to have you fighting by my side soon. You know how to find me?”

Loki rolled his eyes. “Don’t I always find you?”

“That you do,” Thor agreed before taking his leave.

With his brother gone, it was just the two of them now. Catherine fiddled with the cuffs of her large sweater. The arms were too long and the back of it covered her ass when she turned away from him to walk over to the window. Loki didn’t move. Instead, he remained where he was as she looked down on the street.

“Well,” he said, finally breaking the silence, “that went well, don’t you think?”

“I’m glad you brought the Tesseract. Those portals are everywhere. Every six hours another one opens. Your brother and the Avengers are exhausted, I think. I mean, I don’t know, but… they must be. I would be if I were them.”

“Yes, I imagine they are exhausted.”

“It’s been like a lottery, but not a good one. The entire world is terrified that a portal will open near them and people will die.”

“I know,” said softly. “I’ve been in the mountains southwest of here. The people there are fearful as well.”

She turned to face him. “Why didn’t you try to help, then?”

Loki felt his shoulders sag. “Because it’s not in my nature. Surely you know that after all our conversations.”

“Then why help me if it isn’t in your nature?”

“Because I care for you.”

“Then why did you use me?”

“Catherine,” he said softly, trying to appeal to that small part of her that still harbored some affection for him.

“Don’t Catherine me,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. He looked down to see her silly red shoes with the white laces.

“I was foolish,” he replied, deciding to come clean and tell her everything. “My ability to manipulate the wards around this apartment only extended to the end of the block, but I did not want to admit that to you at the time. I didn’t want you to know that taking you to dinner would destroy the wards and bring Thor in to find me.”

“So–”

“So,” Loki continued, cutting her off with a raised hand, “I decided that if this little exile had to end—and it did because things with Thanos are coming to a head—then wanted it to end on my terms, that wanted to spend my last night in this strange limbo with you. Yes, it’s true; I knew all along that our night likely wouldn’t end with you in my bed. And, if I’m not mistaken, you asked me several times that evening what was wrong.”

Her brows furrowed, and she begrudgingly said, “Yes, I remember. You seemed distracted and anxious and…”

“Unhappy,” he finished for her. “I was all of those things because I knew what was coming and… Catherine, please believe me when I say that I was so regretful that I hadn’t done it differently. Yes, I wanted Thor to believe that I was invested in this world. Yes, I used you for dramatic flair.”

“Which was an asshole thing to do,” she said.

Loki nodded. “Yes, it was reprehensible. I’ve spent my life doing foolish, selfish things. This is a steep learning curve. But don’t doubt for a second that everything I’ve said I feel for you has been the truth. Everything.”

She stared back, arms still crossed over her chest. “Everything,” she repeated like she didn’t quite believe him. It made panic bubble up in his mind.

“Catherine, please. I’m trying to prove this to you. I’m trying to… show you.”

“Why didn’t you bring the Tesseract two nights ago? Why did you wait until now when you thought I was doing to be killed?”

“Because I’m stupid,” he snapped. “Because I’m selfish and stupid and don’t know how to operate otherwise. But I’m trying, darling. I’m trying so hard.” The pleading quality to his voice made him cringe. “I’m trying for you.”

“I don’t want you to be ‘good’ for me,” she said, lifting her index fingers and middle fingers to curl little quotes in the air when she said the word good. “I just want you to not be a liar or an asshole. I mean, hell, you don’t have to run out there and save the world like your brother, but it’d be fucking awesome if you stopped trying to prevent other people from doing so.”

Her comment took the wind out of his proverbial sails. He’d been ready to argue that he’d change for her, that he’d be a good man for her. But she’d cut him off at the knees with her demand, and it stung to realize she was right. He’d been obstructing people who could save her and her world. “You’re right,” he conceded. “I’m the one who has been putting you in danger.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” she said. “I mean, it sounds like this Thanos guy is a dick, and his army isn’t much better. I don’t blame you for the guys who tried to attack me or for what is happening. I just wish… I just wish you cared more about my home. Like, this is my world. I know it isn’t yours, but how can you… how can you say you care about me when you ran off with the one thing that has a chance of stopping this?”

“I’m a coward,’ he admitted.

Catherine shook her head. “Loki, you came barrelling in here to fight these guys over me. I don’t think I’d classify that as cowardly.”

“Yes, well… you inspire a bit of courage in me. Perhaps it will extend to other areas of my life.”

She sighed heavily and rested her ass on the edge of the windowsill. It wasn’t until that moment that he could see past her reserved nature and the judgment in her eyes to how weary and sad she looked.

“I’ll leave you to your life, Catherine,” he said. “I’ll go assist my infuriating brother in whatever way I can so that your world isn’t destroyed.” Pausing, he said, “Just say the word.”

“Is that what you want?” she asked, looking up from plucking at the cuffs of her sweater with her fingertips.

“It’s not my first choice.”

“Helping keep this planet from being overrun by those–”

“Ah,” Loki interrupted her, “you misunderstand. I’ll use anything at my disposal to save your planet. But I’d rather not leave you to your life as I find that I enjoy being in it.”

“Did that kill you to admit it?” she asked.

He smiled gently at her. “Almost.”

She smiled back, but it looked melancholy. “I’m not sure what we’re talking about here.”

“How so?” he asked.

Catherine shrugged. “Like, you want to be in my life how?”

“However you’ll have me.”

She gave him a stern look that spoke of her annoyance with his avoiding the question. “How?” she repeated.

Smiling, he said, “Lovers?” before scrunching up his nose in concern.

This made her double over in laughter. “Oh, god, I hate that word.”

“Yes, I know,” Loki agreed, “but it does encompass what I want to be to you.”

“So, sex?”

“Lovers goes deeper than sex, my dear.”

“Is that right?”

“Mmm, it does. In my culture, a lover is a romantic partner—someone you trust and respect and desire and…”

She lifted her brows just the slightest bit when he trailed off. “And what?” she asked.

Loki sighed. “And love.”

Her face with eyebrows raised and the little smirk on her lips that spoke of her amusement over the term he’d used melted into a look of surprise. Her lips parted and her jaw slackened. “Love,” she repeated.

“Well, yes. It is part of the word, is it not?”

“And you want…”

“I want you, Catherine, however you’d like me.”

“Are you playing with me?”

“No,” he replied, “not even a little bit.”

“Why?”

Loki chuckled. “Why am I not playing with you?”

“Why do you want me?”

“My dear Catherine, I do believe the last time you questioned my feelings for you, I pushed you back against a wall and put your hand on my–”

“Yep,” she said, interrupting him. “That you did.”

“Shall I do it again? Are we still not clear on that?”

“Mmmm,” she hummed, tilting her head to the side and looking at him with a little bit of the mischievous grin. He wanted to drop to his knees and crawl across the floor to her.

“So, yes?” he asked.

“Yes, what?” she replied.

“Yes, I should do it again.”

Catherine laughed softly and shook her head. “No. It’s just you can shake a girl’s faith if you run off shortly after shoving your face in her crotch.”

“Ah,” Loki said. “Please accept my deepest apologies, my beloved Catherine. Might I have the pleasure of your company for the duration of the night? I’d like to right my wrongs when it comes to you and me.”

“And how are you going to do that?”

He grinned. “Oh, I have my ways.”

Chapter Text

“I wish I could hold, I wish I could touch, but a fool just wants and wants. It’s all what you do when no one cares.” - Jimmy Eat World (Integrity Blues)

“I must be out of my mind,” she muttered, standing from her spot on the windowsill and shaking her head.

“Out of your mind to spend the night with me?”

“Out of my mind for forgiving your ass.”

“So, you do forgive me,” he said, smiling at her, trying to will her to see that he did care for her regardless of all the stupid, selfish things he’d done since he met her, since before he met her.

Catherine narrowed her eyes at him. “Only a little bit.”

“Oh, I’ll work hard to earn all your forgiveness,” Loki assured her with a wink.

She exhaled a breath of disbelief. “I don’t understand how one minute you can be busting in here with this Tesseract thing and risking your life and the entire damn planet for me and then the next you’re flirting like none of that ever actually happened.”

“Compartmentalization?” he said like it was a question.

“Compartmentalization,” she repeated.

“Mmm hmm,” Loki agreed. “I heard about it on one of your television programs featuring a bald man being abrasive to self-involved people.”

“Dr. Phil,” she replied. “You’re diagnosing yourself from an episode of Dr. Phil.”

“Yes?” Loki asked, raising his brows and extended his arms to the sides.

She laughed softly. “You’re unbelievable. Go get my purse and coat.”

He dutifully went to retrieve them but left the door open when he returned, feeling just the slightest bit anxious over what he wanted to ask her. When she looked up at him, he cleared his throat and said, “Would you like to spend the evening at your place?”

“Why?” she asked, suspicion in her voice.

“My memories of this dwelling are not necessarily positive, but I have nothing but fond memories of my time in your apartment. Besides, I thought it might make you more comfortable.”

“Okay,” Catherine agreed, approaching him and taking her purse.

He shut the door and followed her down the hallway. She moved quietly in those red sneakers. “I have no expectations, Catherine,” he said when they got to the first floor.

“No expectations of what? Me?”

“You, everything. If we spend the night as we’ve done before on your couch while watching a film, I’ll be satisfied.”

“What if I’m not satisfied with that?” she asked, pushing open the door and stepping out in the windy night air.

He didn’t know what to say at first, but then he saw the smile curling up the edges of her beautiful mouth. “Then you should tell me how to satisfy you. I know you might find it surprising, but I take direction quite well.”

“Yes, you did go get my purse and coat very quickly. That was nice.”

Loki laughed and placed his hand at the small of her back as they crossed the street. “I live to serve.”

This made her chuckle. “Don’t lie. I thought you weren’t lying.”

“Ahh, well, I forgot the qualifier at the end there, didn’t I? I live to serve you, Catherine.”

“Oh, boy,” she said, digging in her purse for her keys. “You’re laying it on thick again.”

“Only for you, my dear. Only for you.”

They climbed the stairs in silence, and Loki waited patiently with his hand hovering over the small of her back as she unlocked her apartment door and let them both in. Her lights were out and her curtains closed. When she turned the lamp on by the door, he swept his gaze across the apartment. The closed curtains made it look cozy and dark, perfect for a night filled with her and no interruptions.

“It’s so gratifying to be on the other side of the curtains,” he told her, shutting the door behind himself and twisting the lock.

“It’s been a wacky few days. I’ve kept them closed.”

“Because of me?”

She dropped her purse on the floor and motioned to the coat rack where he hung her coat. “You and everything else. Everyone is terrified that one of those portals is going to open in the middle of the city and those… things are going to go on a rampage. Call me a weenie, but I intended on hiding in here.”

“I’d say that’s smart and resourceful, Catherine. You know, I thought of you these past few days. In fact, I thought of you quite a great deal.” Loki watched her walk over to the couch and flip on a small reading lamp.

“What did you think of me?” she asked, looking like a goddess in the warm, yellow glow of the light.

“I wondered how you were, what you were doing, if you were safe. I’d decided that you’d be vigilant and smart. It made me worry less for you when I noticed the trend of the portals opening on the edges of populations centers.”

“That still doesn’t excuse what you–”

He strided across the floor. “Yes,” he said, cutting her off, “it doesn’t excuse what I did. Yet, I do want you to know I did think of you. I always cared for you, even if it was in my own childish way.”

“Wow, Loki, big strides there, admitting you’re childish,” she said, putting her fists on her hips and smiling at him.

“You like that? Ahh, how else can I debase myself to you to gain your approval?”

She laughed and shook her head. “It’s not about that. It’s just… nice to hear you admit to these…”

“Character flaws,” he offered. “I’m working on fixing them now that I see them for what they are.”

“And how do you intend on fixing them?”

“Honestly?” he said, sitting on the arm of one of her chairs by the covered window, “I’ve no idea.”

“Well, at least you’re still being honest.”

“I am trying.”

Shyly, she approached, gaze down at her feet as she took careful steps over to him. “Do you want to know something stupid since we’re being honest?”

Loki smiled and spread his legs so she could step between them. Carefully, he settled his hands on her hips, trying not to rejoice over the intimacy. “Yes, please do tell me all the stupid things.”

She exhaled a breath of laughter. “Even though I was so upset with you that night of our date… I was worried about you after I left. I thought you were going to get yourself killed.”

Sliding one hand over her hip and up the dip in her back, Loki pulled her a little closer. Her confession flushed his chest with warmth. “I still might. I am quite rash with these decisions I’ve been making like barrelling headlong into traps set by my imbecile brother.”

“I don’t know. He doesn’t seem that stupid.”

“Oh, he is. Trust me. You’d stolen my mind, so I was acting quite stupidly.”

“Hey, don’t blame me,” she replied, placing her hands on his shoulders.

“You deserve the blame for being this perfectly wonderful, perfectly beautiful creature who has caused me to act in out-of-character and irrational ways due to my feelings for you.”

Her fingers were playing with his hair. “That’s a very shitty way to say you care.”

“I’m not good at these expressions of emotion.”

“Yes, I see that. I’m not great either.”

Loki took his hand off her hip and reached up to capture one of hers, pulling it away from his hair. He laid her palm on his chest, pressing it right over where his heart was. “Shall we learn together, then?”

Catherine gave him a soft, sweet smile and said, “Sure. I’d… love that.”

“I see you've worn your most seductive outfit in an attempt to have your way with me,” he teased, plucking at the back of her sweater with the hand that held her close.

Catherine rolled her eyes. “Yes, only my Sunday best for you.”

“Sunday best?”

“Yes. It's a saying around here. People go to church on Sundays so the phrase about wearing your best clothes on Sunday became a thing.”

“Ahh, feasting robes.”

She chuckled. “Don't bullshit me.”

Loki feigned offense. “I would never. What? You don't have feasting robes.”

“No, and that's not what you call it either. That's more ridiculous than lovers.”

“Sensual lovers removing their feasting robes as they prepare to copulate.”

She laughed loudly and leaned into him so she could rest her forehead on his shoulder. “Just so you know, that dried my vagina up. You're not getting laid tonight,” Catherine teased.

“We'll see about that,” he replied, feeling exhilarated and happy and at peace for the first time in so very long. As smooth as he could, Loki stood and swept her over his shoulder.

Catherine squealed and kicked her legs as she fisted her hands in the back of his jacket. “Put me down! Loki, put me down. I'm not the carrying type.”

Loki rested his hand on the curve of her ass that was next to his face. “Carrying type? What does that even mean?” he asked. “Shall I put you down in your bed or on your couch?”

“Bed.” Her voice was muffled like she was hiding her face in his clothing. “Ugh, you’re strong.”

Now you’re just trying to butter me up,” he said, smiling. He felt smug and powerful and pleased with himself and the situation. Walking into the dark bedroom, Loki took in the disarray of her duvet and sheets. She'd not made her bed that morning. It worked to his advantage because the scene looked very comfortable, very enticing.

“Light switch by the door,” she told him.

Loki moved his hand that was curled around her thigh up until he could feel the heat from her groin. He adjusted her on his shoulder as he flipped the light on. Deciding her gasp had more to do with his index finger being pressed against the seam of her jeans that cut down the center of her sex than the sudden glow from the bedside lamp, Loki stepped over to the bed and bent slowly to deposit her in the center.

She looked up at him as he leaned over her. “Hi,” Catherine whispered.

“Hello, my dearest Catherine,” he replied. “Are you going to invite me into your bed?”

“Do you have to ask?”

“I'm being a gentleman,” Loki replied.

She laughed under her breath before grabbing a fistful of his shirt and pulling him onto the mattress. It bounced with his weight as his body settled into hers.

“So aggressive,” he chided her, before adding, “I like it.”

She wiggled until they were both on their sides, facing each other. Loki would have much rather have had her beneath him or on top of him, but being beside her wasn’t so bad either. “You know,” Catherine said, pushing the hair that had slipped loose from the tie out of her face, “I have this theory.”

“Mmm, a theory. Let’s hear it.”

“Not about you, per se. More a theory about guys like you.”

Loki slipped his arms around her and pulled her into his body. “I thought we established that there are no guys like me.”

She rolled her eyes at him and said, “Anyway, my theory is that guys like you—you know, take control, alpha, always in charge, my-way-or-the-highway guys–”

“Oh, those guys,” he teased.

“Yeah, those guys. I have this theory that they actually prefer women who are a little mean to them.”

Loki tried to smother his grin. “Catherine,” he said, a warning in his voice.

“Maybe mean is the wrong word. Umm, stern? No. Assertive,” she finally decided. “They like assertive women who put them in their place.”

Now he couldn’t help but laugh. “And my comment about liking your aggressive nature just confirmed your theory, did it?”

“As a matter of fact, it did.”

He slipped one of his legs between hers, savoring the feel of her soft, warm body pressed down the length of his. “Mmm, perhaps there is something to your theory. I generally don’t like to be ordered about, but there is something quite pleasurable when it’s you doing the ordering.”

“You’re just talking about sex,” she said. “I’m talking about everything else.”

He was making innuendos about sex, but she wasn’t wrong. If she’d been deferential to him, if she’d let him say and do whatever he wanted, if she hadn’t challenged him, then would they even be here in this bed together? No, he decided, they wouldn’t. Because she wouldn’t be her and that piece of her personality that he enjoyed so much would be gone.

“Perhaps there is something to this theory of yours, Catherine,” he murmured, trailing his fingertips up her spine. The sweater was thick, and he would have been frustrated that he couldn’t feel the shape of her body beneath if he wasn’t so comfortable and happy to have her in his arms.

“I’ll be sure to boss you around a bit more,” she teased, pressing her face into his chest.

“I’m quite the challenge, you know.”

Catherine laughed. “Oh, I know.” Nestling her face into his shirt, she inhaled deeply. “You smell good,” she whispered.

“You smell better.”

She tilted her head back to look up into his face. “What do I smell like?”

Loki leaned over her, pushing Catherine slightly onto her back, as he buried his face in her hair and neck. “Like you,” he said with lips pressed against the column of her neck.

His eyes almost rolled back into his head when she slipped her fingers through his hair to hold him close. “And what’s that?”

“Coconut and jasmine and sugar and…”

She laughed and tilted her hips beneath him. “Stop bullshitting me.”

“You do, darling.”

“I’ll buy the coconut because that’s my shampoo, but what the hell does sugar smell like?”

“You.”

“I feel like I should smell like limes since I’m a little sour.”

“Oh, you’re a… what do they call them… margarita?”

Her entire body shook with laughter. “Yes, I smell like a margarita—booze and sugar and limes.”

“Shall I taste you to confirm?” Loki asked, sliding one hand underneath her sweater to touch the velvety skin of her back and the other over her hip to grab her ass.

Catherine chuckled and clutched at the fabric of his black dress shirt with the hand that wasn’t occupied with his hair. “Stop with the flirting. You’ll get me all flustered.”

“You know, Catherine,” Loki told her, “I think if there was ever a time for flirting, now is the time.”

“Yeah, yeah, but I still get all flustered when you start with the innuendoes and shit. You know that.”

“You still don’t believe yourself worthy of my affection,” he whispered before pressing a closed-mouth kiss on her lips. When he pulled back, her eyes fluttered shut and all he could see was the lovely way her dark lashes laid against her cheeks. “I’m going to have to do something about that, my dear. It’s very distressing to me.”

She opened her eyes and looked at him, her face so close to him. “Distressing?”

“Mmm, yes, very. Because, Catherine, the fact of the matter is that you’re a much better person than I am. I should be the one in disbelief that you would waste your time with me.”

“Loki, really,” she said, admonishing him as if he were silly. “You’re this… what are you? I’m sticking with alien.”

“Sorcerer.”

“Okay,” she agreed. “You’re this powerful sorcerer who is important, who can make a difference in the world. Like, a big difference. You just saved lives today by handing over the Tesseract.”

“To be fair, you’re the one who handed over the Tesseract. I gave it to you. You gave it to Thor. So, you see, Catherine. You’re the one making the difference. You’re teaching me the error of my ways.”

“Somehow, I don’t think it’s as easy as telling you when you’re being an asshole.”

“Probably, not,” he agreed, “but I would like you to continue to…”

“Keep you in check?” she asked when he trailed off, unable to find the right words.

Loki smiled at her. “Yes. And I’ll keep you in check.”

“I don’t need to be checked, buddy,” she said, lifting her chin and brushing her parted lips against his.

Loki felt a shot of desire course through his blood. “We’ll see about that. You are quite stubborn and far too much of a goody-two-shoes. I'm breaking you out of that little stuffy shell eventually.”

This made her chuckle and urge him to kiss her with the hand on the back of his head. He compiled, touching her tongue tentatively with his before sweeping it into her mouth. Loki rolled Catherine onto her back and started kissing her again, using an elbow to brace himself so he didn’t drop all his weight on her. She was eager and responsive as she clutched at him, pulling him closer, though he could hardly get any nearer to her. When he slipped his free hand underneath her sweater and up her torso to drag his thumb along the lace of her bra, she writhed beneath him. Loki swallowed the sweet sounds she moaned into his mouth as they kissed, but his mind was on the way she was grinding her sex down on his thigh that was positioned right up against her groin, his knee pressed into the mattress.

His mouth watered at the idea of tasting her. A few minutes before, he’d have said that stripping her clothes off and covering her sex with his mouth would have been too forward for her to agree to, but after feeling the way she rubbed herself against him, he was confident he could get away with the indiscretion.

Loki pulled his hand out of her sweater and flipped the button of her pants, freeing it from the little hole that secured it. Her entire body tensed beneath him, and that made him second guess his assessment. “What's wrong, Catherine?” he whispered in her ear, feeling trepidation over going too far. He wanted her to want this as much as him, more if that was even possible. He didn't think it was.

She closed her eyes. “I just hate getting naked with someone for the first time, and you're… you're perfect while I'm…”

He crushed his mouth to hers, kissing her until they were both gasping for breath. “Don't be stupid, my dear,” Loki whispered.

“I'm not,” she insisted.

“Remember my promise only a moment ago to keep you in check?”

“Yes…”

“Well, I'm doing my duty. None of this business of tens and sevens and twos,” Loki said, referring to the conversation about rating attractiveness several nights ago. “I want you.” He slid his hand up her sweater again, palming her breasts over the satin and lace of her bra. “Stop being silly.”

“It's hard to turn it off,” she admitted in a whisper.

He used his free hand to brush his fingertips over her cheekbones and nose, then down to her lips and chin. “Would you like to see a magic trick?”

She swallowed, her throat contracting. “Does it involve me naked?”

Loki smiled. “Oh my, you do know me oh-so-well. It does indeed involve you very naked. Let me rip the bandage off and show you how much I want… Every. Inch. Of. You.” He punctuated each word with a kiss on her lips.

“Okay.” Her voice was soft, her breath warm against his face.

“You trust me?” Loki murmured, looking into her gorgeous eyes.

“Maybe I'm stupid, but I do. I do trust you.”

Her admission gave him a surge of pride and pleasure. She trusted him. No one trusted him any longer, for good reason, of course. And while Loki wasn't sure he was worthy of her trust, it felt so wonderful to have it.

“Close your eyes, my love,” he told her. She blinked twice before letting her lids close. Loki rose up on his knees, straddling one of her thighs. She looked like heaven, lying there on the bed with her clothing askew and her lips swollen from his kisses. He closed his eyes and placed the palm of his right hand over her breastbone, dragging it down her sternum until he reached her belly button. By the time he stopped, her clothing was gone, spelled away in a shimmering glow. His hand was pressed against the swell of her bare stomach.

Loki opened his eyes and took in her gorgeous body, all gentle hills and valleys and curves that felt like nothing he'd ever had the privilege of touching as he brought his other hand up to close over a breast. His lips parted as his gaze lowered to the thatch of hair at the apex of her thighs.

“I’ve never had someone look at me that way.”

Knocked out of his reverie, Loki lifted his eyes to look into hers that were now open and watching him with no small amount of fascination. “What way is that?” he asked.

“Like you don't know where to start.”

He laughed softly, breathlessly. “Oh, I know exactly where to start, my love.” And he did. Loki released his hold on her breasts and slid his body down so he was comfortably between her legs, her thighs spread wide to accommodate his wide shoulders.

“Oh my god,” she muttered, throwing her head back in a show of pleasure before he'd even touched her. It made him grin and urge her legs over his shoulders with hands on her thighs.

She acquiesced so easily, so nicely for him, and Loki leaned in to inhale her musky, womanly, earthy scent. He felt her legs tremble in what he hoped was anticipation right before he lowered his mouth to place a lewd kiss comprised of an abundance of tongue right on the middle of her slit.

“Loki–” she cried out, her voice strangled and harsh.

Instead of responding with words, he focused on making love to her with his mouth, lapping up her juices, surrounding himself with her scent. It wasn't something he'd soon forget, and not something he wanted to forget. The way her body strained to be closer to him, to open for him, the way her heels dug into his back and she held fistfuls of his hair in her clenched hands—all of it made him want to stay in that moment forever. This was true power. She was his, and he'd worked so hard to get her, to earn her. The work was not over, but he wanted to enjoy the spoils for now.

She was so easy to read, even though he was no seasoned expert at pleasing a woman in this fashion. He preferred being the one receiving, but reversing roles with her gave him such satisfaction he didn't even think twice. Anything for Catherine. Her sweet moans of ecstasy spurred him on as he took her to the brink of orgasm and then pulled back just enough to keep her from toppling over. After three rounds of this, she growled and pressed a heel into the center of his back before saying, “Stop teasing me.”

Loki chuckled darkly and went back to work, sliding the tip of his tongue up the side of that sensitive nub of flesh nestled at the top of her slit. When he slipped two fingers into her channel, she choked on her own moan of pleasure. Her entire body tensed and arched up into him while the muscles of her pussy gripped his fingers like a vice—if vices were warm and wet and would feel like heaven on his cock. His cock that was painfully erect and desperately in need of her very willing body.

“Oh fuck,” she muttered, releasing a fistful of his hair so she could cover her eyes with her hand.

“Did you like my magic trick?” Loki asked, his voice mischievous.

She laughed and it sounded sated and disbelieving and relieved. “Yeah, I liked it a lot. But you're still dressed and that's a little weird.”

He looked from her flushed face to his own body, covered in a black suit.

“Hey, do you have any weird alien anatomy I need to know about?”

Loki rolled his eyes at her question. “Oh, you mean my second cock?”

Her eyes widened. “Wait. What?”

His lifted one brow, which made her narrow her eyes at him.

“Are you fucking with me?”

“Yes, Catherine. I'm fucking with you in both senses of the term.”

“I know you said your brother was getting it on with a girl from this area of the universe, but I wanted to be prepared if you had a tail or four nipples or…”

She trailed off with her mouth open. He'd spelled away his clothing, every stitch down to his shoes and socks.

“What were you saying, Catherine?” he asked with a smirk.

“Oh. Uh. Wow.”

“Do you take issue with my alien body?”

She licked her lips and all Loki could think about was how she'd look bent over him, his cock disappearing between those plump, pink lips. Perhaps one day, but not tonight. Tonight he would have her completely, make her his, claim her so all would know if they dared touch her that he would rain down his fury on them.

“Nope,” she finally said in answer to his question. “It's, uh, very nice. Very body-like. Very good. Great. Amazing.”

Loki reached a hand down to palm his cock, encircling it loosely in his fist.

“Oh fuck, that's…” Catherine trailed off.

“That's what?” he prompted.

“Really fucking hot,” she replied. “Holy hell.”

The way she wiggled her hips in what was likely an unconscious display of desire broke his self-control. Sliding his hand up to the base of his cock, Loki pressed the head of it to her opening. For a moment he was sure that neither of them took a breath as he slid home. Then he heard Catherine gasp and press her head back into the pillow, her back arched in pleasure. Loki was clenching his teeth together so hard he was afraid he might break them as he pulled out and pushed back in.

He fell on her, scattering wet kisses across her chest and shoulders, over her jawline and hairline, finally ending at her mouth with his tongue almost as deep inside her as his cock was. It was more than he'd imagined—better, more overwhelming. And yet, it was everything he'd wanted it to be. Her arms wrapped around his neck at the same time her legs hooked over his hips, pulling him into her so there was no space between them.

Loki closed his eyes and just felt her, every inch of her body as she surrendered to him, as he, in turn, surrendered to her without so much as a blink. It was all so simple, so effortless. Her hair smelled of coconuts and her body of sex and sweat. And limes, he thought, remembering her joke from before. It made an emotion he couldn’t name swell up in his chest, making it hard for him to breathe as he thrust into her, a steady rhythm that was building to a crescendo.

Loki gathered Catherine in his arms and flipped onto his back. She gasped at the sudden movement, clutching at his shoulders for support.

“Let me see you, my love,” he whispered in her ear. When she pushed herself up, palms on his chest, her hair was in disarray, only half tied behind her head as tendrils spilled over her shoulders. When paired with her flushed cheeks and swollen lips, she was a breathtaking thing of beauty. And if he hadn't already decided that, then he would have when she lifted herself up onto her knees, straddling his hips. His cock was still buried deep inside her and the effort it took to push herself upright made her muscles bear down in him in very pleasurable ways.

Loki wanted to close his eyes to make this moment last longer, but the vision of her kneeling over him, riding him, was something he couldn’t turn away from.

She hastily used one of her arms to cover her stomach. Loki growled and reached up to interlock his fingers with hers, holding both her hands in front of her, their fingers laced together. “Don't hide from me. You're so beautiful right now,” he said.

Her eyes fluttered closed, and she rolled her hips. “You feel so…” Catherine murmured. “You feel so good. I can't stand it.”

“No,” he said, bucking his hips up. “It’s you, not me.”

She laughed softly, all breathy and sweet for him while she rocked her hips forward and backward. He held her hands for balance, to allow her to move more freely, bouncing slightly on him. He ached to touch her, run his hands over the curves of her body, feel her smooth skin beneath his fingertips. It wasn’t an urge he could suppress. The vision of her over him was lovely, but the prospect of feeling her body pressed down the length of his was even more alluring.

Loki let go of her hands and pulled her torso down against his. Planting his feet into the mattress, he thrust up, moving in and out of her with such ease now that she was dripping wet for him. She was so easy to stimulate, so simple to please. It was as if she was made for him.

Catherine’s mouth was pressed against his ear, her labored breaths an aphrodisiac like no other he’d ever experienced when paired with the way her breasts felt against his chest, the pebbled nipples the only hard part of her. Everywhere else was softness, warmth, decadent pleasure. He was so very close to his climax, chasing it down with every thrust up into her willing body.

Reaching out with his mind, he concentrated on her sex—specifically, the little nub of flesh that stimulated her.

“Loki!” she gasped. He felt her pussy clamp down on him, and it was with a great effort of will that he didn’t come right then and there. “What are you doing?” she murmured in his ear.

“I promised you another magic trick,” he replied, turning his head to capture her mouth with his. “Do you like it?”

Her eyes were closed and her jaw slack when he pulled back from the kiss to see her face. “I’m… you’re gonna make me come again,” she whispered.

“Mmm, that’s the plan, my love. Let me feel you around me.”

She let out a strangled cry of pleasure as her muscles contracted around him, fluttering in her climax. Loki was right there with her, letting out a low grunt of relief as he spilled himself inside her body. For a moment, he lost awareness of where he was, but he never forgot who was on top of him. The comfortable weight of her serving as some sort of anchor. When he opened his eyes, which he’d unknowingly slammed shut as he climaxed, he saw her beautiful face with a sheen of sweat on her forehead, pieces of her hair plastered to it.

“Hi,” she said, flashing him a sweet smile that was only slightly embarrassed.

Loki tightened his arms around her, holding her in place. “I thought you told me I wasn’t getting laid tonight,” he teased.

This made her laugh and the sound made his cock react. She must have felt him stir inside her because she shifted her hips. “I lied,” she said before kissing his mouth.

“What a bad influence I’ve been on you. Sex, lying—what’s next, Catherine?”

She rolled off him and gathered a sheet around her body as she sat up on the edge of the bed. “Don’t be so smug,” she told him, looking over her shoulder with an indulgent smile.

“You look like you’re going somewhere,” he said.

“Just to find my clothes you disappeared.”

Loki shot up and grabbed her, pulling her back into the bed and unwrapping the sheet from her body.

“Loki! What are you doing?”

“Keeping you in check, Catherine. Come. Lay with me here. We don’t need clothing; you’re warm enough for the both of us.”

She laughed, but didn’t argue. Instead, she sidled up to him. Loki was sprawled on his back, his legs spread and one arm wrapped around her as she laid on her side and pressed herself down the length of his body. He shifted until her head was cradled on his shoulder.

In a rare moment of absolute contentment, Loki sighed and lifted his head to press a kiss to her forehead right at her hairline. Catherine made a gentle murmur of pleasure as she drew invisible lines across his bare chest with the tip of her index finger.

“Do you think I’m crazy for forgiving you?” she whispered.

“I’m biased, Catherine.”

“Tell me the truth.”

He considered her question instead of just answering in the negative to keep her happy. “Yes,” he replied.

She stopped the lazy circles she was drawing on his stomach with her fingertip and pinched one of his nipples between her forefinger and thumb. “That wasn’t the right answer,” Catherine told him.

“But it was the truth.” Loki used the arm curled around her shoulder to trace up and down her spine with his fingers. “There was a day not long ago that I would have given you the right answer, not the truthful one.”

“What changed?” Her index finger was moving down the center of his chest.

“So much, but mostly you.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“It’s intended as one,” he whispered into her hair.

“So, crazy, huh?” she asked.

Loki smiled to himself. “Well, yes, I think you’re crazy because I don’t see why you would suffer my histrionics. I’ve been told I’m quite dramatic in a very childish fashion.” He paused and then said, “Not that I agree with that assessment, of course. I’ve just been… told. Personally, I believe my failings are more of the unfocused ambition and too-intelligent-for-my-own-good variety.”

She lifted her head up and looked at him. “Of course,” she agreed in a dry tone.

“You don’t agree.”

“I said ‘of course’, Loki.”

“Oh, I am a bad influence. Is that sarcasm I detect?”

This made Catherine chuckle. “That’s not your doing. I’ve always been fond of sarcasm.”

They laid together in the bed for several minutes, and Loki treasured those moments, wondering at all that had transpired in the past few weeks, few days, few hours. It was a strange relief to be free of the Tesseract. It was true; he’d saddled himself with the burden under the assumption that it would benefit him. Now that he was rid of it, he no longer had those paths to worry about. Fewer options weren’t necessarily better, but it was oddly freeing to have them taken from him.

“What will you do?” she asked, laying her palm flat on the center of his chest.

“You,” Loki replied without a missing a beat.

She tapped his chest with her hand. “I’m serious.”

“What do you mean?”

“What will you do now? Help your brother and the others? Hide? Stay here?”

Loki considered her question before answering with, “I’d like to say stay here, but… I believe you’d think less of me if I did.”

Catherine looked up at him. “Less of you for staying here? Not likely.”

“Ahh, but you will when you find out what is coming. If they can’t stop Thanos, if he arrives here… it will not bode well for your planet.”

“Oh.” She seemed resigned and disappointed and deeply unhappy, all in that one simple sound. “Of course. You can help.”

“I can. I should.”

“You will,” she added, giving him a sad smile.

“Catherine,” Loki said, reaching up to push her hair away from her face, “you seem to be under the impression I’m leaving you.”

“Well, you are. You need to go… out there to… fight or whatever. What if you die?”

“Die? Impossible.”

Her eyes widened. “What?”

“Turn of phrase my dear. I suppose, technically, I can die. I’m just far too good at what I do for that to happen.”

“Oh,” she said, barely stopping that little roll of her eyes

“Would you like to know another of my little… magic tricks?”

“Does it involve giving me back my clothes.”

He laughed. “Never. But it does involve the ability to move from place to place quite quickly. I can come back to you whenever I’d like, within reason, of course.”

“Can you?” she asked. That edge of hope in her voice made his heartache.

“I can. Or you can come with me. I’ll keep you safe. We already know my obnoxious brother likes you, so I’m sure he will keep you safe too. As much as I grouse, he is quite a good person to know.”

“Yes, I’m sure he is.” She laid her head on his chest. “Can I decide later?”

“Anything you want. As long as you don’t want to kick me from your bed and life.”

Catherine shook her head against him, her hair tickling his skin. “No, I don’t.”

“Good.”

The room fell into another bout of silence. It was comfortable and calming to have her at his side, but his mind was running in different directions. There was the fight to come and mending the relationship with Thor. There was dealing with the others and their distrust of him. But mostly, he thought of her and what his future might look like now that he had an anchor.

“Catherine,” he whispered.

“What?” she asked, lifting her head to look at him again.

“I must confess, I’ve never been on a drive in the middle of the night. I listened to your songs—the mixtape—and tried to imagine it, but fell short.”

She smiled, nothing but warmth and affection in her eyes for him. “I’ll take you one day.”

“Let’s go now.”

This time she laughed at him. “We’re naked, and we don’t have a car.”

Loki replaced her clothing, down to her ugly red shoes. She gasped and rolled away from him, holding out her arms to look at her sleeves.

“Now, for a car.”

Standing up and adjusting the clothing against her body, she said, “You can’t fit in a car in here.”

“We’ll borrow one.”

“We will not.”

“Catherine, be bad with me for once. We’re not stealing; we’re borrowing.”

“Loki,” she warned.

He replaced his clothing, but not before he saw her gaze skip down to his groin. He’d do something about that later. Perhaps on the hood of this car they would borrow. “We’ll return it before they even know it’s gone. I want to experience the things you love.”

“Is this because you’re afraid you’re going to die in this… this fight?”

He pushed himself up out of the bed and laughed at her question. It was a legitimate one, and no one was safe, but he didn’t intend on losing his very long life over a power-hungry ogre with no panache or class. “No, my dear. I’m not going to die in this fight. But I would like to take a drive with you and your music before I have to address my brother and his very annoying friends.”

Catherine looked across the bed at him and narrowed her eyes. “Well… if we return the car…”

“Yes,” Loki replied, feeling a surge of victory. He walked over and grabbed her hand, clasping it firmly in his. “What car would you like?”

“One that isn’t going to be missed for the night.”

“I do like Jaguars,” he said, pulling her closer so he could wrap his arms around her.

“I don’t think there are any Jaguars for blocks in either direction. This isn't the right zip code.”

“Did you know Tony Stark has a Jaguar?”

Her eyes widened. “Loki, no. We can’t steal Tony Stark’s car.”

“One of his cars. He’s busy and won’t miss it.”

“Loki.”

He smiled and tucked her head under his chin as she instinctively wrapped her arms around his waist. “Close your eyes and hold onto me. Let’s take a trip.”

He could feel her face pressed into his chest, her breath hot even through the shirt. “Okay,” she said, “let’s go.”

 

THE END