The ballroom was just as overwhelming as all the other places they'd seen. Black and white marble tiled floors, thick round columns that reached to the ceiling, heavy velvet curtains along the walls and draped at intervals between the pillars. One wall of massive french windows opened up to a balcony that showed a night sky so thick with stars it was like being on the edge of a nebula.
Ryan was stiff and uneasy on his feet thanks to a coordination disorder--he called it dyspraxia--but he was a good learner. Natasha kept one hand on his shoulder and the other in hers to help him lead, and counted the steps out loud.
About twenty minutes ago, after Natasha had found out the large room on Level Five was a ballroom, but before she stopped by a gift shop for a change of clothes, she had gotten Loki on the communicator.
"Can you dance?" she'd asked.
"I was raised in a royal court," was his response. "Of course I can dance." After a pause, he'd added, "Why?"
"Because you're going to need to soon." She'd cut the connection then without further explanation, just to make him sweat a little. After that stunt in the TARDIS, he deserved it. He'd left the earpiece on during his conversation with the Doctor. Natasha had heard every word.
She hadn't heard from him since, but Ryan and Graham had finished exploring their chosen floor for the scavenger hunt in the time it had taken her to find the ballroom and size it up. Ryan had joined her under the Nautilus-shaped ceiling, glittering with thousands of star-like floating hologram lamps, and Graham had parked himself at a linen-draped table to talk with some of the other visitors with that easy, trusting way he had.
Natasha was surprised to actually be enjoying herself. Even during the brief celebrations at Avengers Tower, she was mentally on duty, never drinking too much, staying sharp, always looking over her shoulder, constantly expecting something to go wrong. Which, to be fair, it often did.
She didn't regret that state of hyper-vigilance. It was part of the job description. But this, guiding Ryan through the basic steps of ballroom dancing, was a nice change.
"You're doing fine," she assured him. "Just try not to look down so much. Look at me."
"I can't, I'll step on your feet," he protested.
"No, you won't. I'm following you, remember?"
He was still awkward and hesitant, but he was getting the hang of it. He seemed to be enjoying himself at least.
"I really like your hair," he blurted out.
"What?" asked Natasha.
"It's nice, the red and the white. Is that a thing on your Earth?"
"Oh. No, it's uh, just me." Her hair was a reminder of how much time they'd lost after Thanos. She'd almost forgotten it, even after pinning it up for the ballroom. But Ryan didn't know that. "Actually, I lightened it to go undercover awhile ago. Super spy stuff," she added with a wink.
He laughed. "Cool."
"After that, I was working a lot from the office so I just let it grow out." She shrugged. "It was mostly an accident."
The string quartet finished their tune, and the guests all paused in their places to clap and wait for the next one. Natasha and Ryan moved to the side of the room, adding their own applause to the crowd, when a voice floated up behind them.
"May I cut in?" Loki asked.
Natasha turned slowly to face him, saying, "Don't you know it's rude to keep a lady w-waiting?" Her tongue tripped over the last word as she tried to reconcile the man she knew with the one standing in front of her.
Wow. He could've stepped out of a 19th century painting. He'd gotten a three-piece suit, perfectly tailored, complete with a silk cravat pinned with a bright green gem, even white gloves. The waistcoat was a bit much, deep green velvet embroidered with silver thread in the shape of twisting vines, but somehow he pulled it off.
"Well," he said, "I won't let it happen again." He held a gloved hand out to her, waiting.
Ryan cleared his throat and said, "I'd better go check on the old man."
Then they were alone. Oh, why not? thought Natasha. She'd told him to bring his dancing shoes, after all. She slid her hand into his and let him pull her back onto the ballroom floor.
The room changed entirely, turning bright and dizzying as they spun across the floor in a rush of fabric and color. Loki clearly knew what he was doing. Her feet barely touched the floor, flying to keep up with him. Her skirt flared out around her, the violet silk flashing silver when it caught the light. She did her best not to notice the pressure of his hand at her waist, barely a hair's breadth below her bare skin thanks to the low-cut back.
"So," she said, catching her breath when the band shifted to a slower song. "Where'd you find the outfit?"
"I didn't," he admitted. "Just an illusion. The dress?"
"Gift shop. I figured every tourist attraction has one somewhere. It was tricky finding one en route with a good blind spot, though."
"So you stole it."
Natasha smirked. He was catching on. "I'm just taking it for a spin. I'll give it back when we're finished here."
"Don't--it suits you."
He stiffened, just for a moment, and glanced at her furtively, as if waiting for her to react.
Natasha couldn't tell if the slip-up was intentional or not. Even more interesting was the quick, blushing warmth she felt at the compliment. The last time she'd let her guard down around him--pretended to, anyway--he'd used the opportunity to twist the knife.
But they were both playing a very different game here. She needed to watch closely to make sure she won this one.
"Tell me about the Oncoming Storm," she said.
His face relaxed. He gripped her hand and sent her into a twirl. "You heard that, then?" he asked.
"Well, you left your earpiece on," she answered.
"Did I? I didn't realize. . ."
She laughed, spinning back into his arms. "It's almost cute that you still think you can lie to me."
"Oh, very well. I assumed, given our history, that a confession coming from her would be more convincing than my simply telling you what she is."
Natasha considered this, but she half-agreed with what the Doctor had said: judging people by their worst mistakes was more Loki's M. O. than hers. "You really think she can fix the Tesseract?"
"I have no doubt."
"And if she refuses, what do we do then?"
"Expose her. Force her hand. Show her new friends the demons from her past, and--"
"And still be stuck here without a ride." She shook her head. "It's really all about the noise with you, isn't it? Did you even think about an escape plan? Or are you just gonna be a petty brat about this?"
"I've been called worse."
"So have I."
Natasha hadn't quite meant to throw that barb, but once it was out there, she let it settle. Let him remember what he'd done to her.
It threw him off-rhythm slightly. "Yes. Well." He cleared his throat, carefully avoiding her eyes. "In my defense, that was a very stressful day for me."
"That's not a defense," said Natasha. "It's an excuse."
"I know that. Be patient with me--I'm new to apologies."
"Is that what this is?" She kept her tone light, but she watched him. She did need his help, but first she needed to know how far that vindictive streak of his stretched. She couldn't afford to wait for him to betray everyone again.
"On Asgard," said Loki, "Admitting fault to a former enemy was seen as a weakness. Highly discouraged. Diplomacy was reserved for nations who had been conquered and would consent to a treaty."
"What about the battles you lost?"
"Asgard never lost. My father, and Thor--they were born to be warriors. They didn't lose. I did, frequently. For what it's worth, I do regret my actions in New York. No, not just because I lost," he said before she could ask. "Though I suppose that doesn't matter now."
That wasn't quite the response she'd expected. Somehow, Natasha had forgotten what he'd gone through, although Thor had told them some of the story. Even before Thanos had wiped out the rest of them, Asgard had burned to ash. Loki had died before he got the chance to see another home. For all he knew, Thanos had won. In fact, both of them only had Gamora's word, and their hope, that the Titan had been defeated.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
Loki blinked. "What?"
"The whole time we've been here, you haven't asked about your brother or the other Asgardians. Not once. Why?"
His mouth twisted. "What would be the point?"
"I just meant--"
"They're alive, aren't they? I don't wish to know more. The last time I saw Thor was when Thanos murdered me, along with half of what was left of our people. So forgive me I prefer not to think about that day. I'm sure there are moments from the last five years you'd rather not remember."
Immediately, Clint Barton's face filtered through Natasha's carefully constructed defenses. Not as she wanted to remember him--brave, selfless, honorable--but standing over a corpse, wiping his blade clean on a sleeve. She didn't understand how he'd gone so dark so quickly. It was like the man she'd known for half their lives had been swallowed whole by the monster he'd become.
She also made a note of Loki's outburst. She'd pressed on his wound just as he'd been on the point of apologizing. Well, sort of. For him, that was more than she would've expected. Admitting fault was a sign of weakness, he'd said. Admitting pain, though? That was worse.
"Maybe," she said carefully, "we should agree to avoid certain topics until we're clear of this mess."
"Isn't there a reason we're in this room, Romanoff?"
So, it was back to terseness and a last-name basis. Okay, then. Natasha glimpsed over her shoulder to check their position. Just a few meters from the control room she needed to get into. Loki may have been dancing the lead, but she'd been steering them towards the right side of the room the whole time.
"That's my target," she said, nodding at the door in question. "I need to get in and out without being seen, so you need to cause a distraction."
He raised his eyebrows.
"So I can peel off without anyone seeing I've left the dance floor. Think you can handle that?"
"Mm. I can do better." With that, he spun her away again, this time letting go of her hand.
Natasha gasped, and was about to chase after him with a retort--but she was still there. She watched a perfect copy of herself, still smiling and chatting, dancing away with Loki. The only giveaway was the faint green glow at the edges of the illusion. Natasha looked down at her own hands--invisible. She could see a shimmer of something when she moved, but only when she was looking closely.
"Huh," she said aloud.
Okay, that was good. She moved to the control room, but just as she was going through different scenarios for breaking through, found it wasn't even locked. It opened automatically at her approach. No resistance whatsoever.
That was not good. Either this was a trap--although probably not for them, since only Gemini knew they were here--or the security wasn't as tight as she'd thought.
It was neither. As Natasha moved into the room, what she saw stopped her cold.
"Oh my god," she murmured. Then she tapped her earpiece on. "Loki. Gamora. We need to get off this ship. Now."