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The Little Blue Box

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The fall lasted forever. It also lasted a few short seconds. It lasted, until it didn’t. The sound of Vormir’s cold, clean winds roared in her ears. The smell of stagnant water and fragments of shale grew stronger as she neared the bottom. The deep, bruise-colored sky did not move. And the blacked-out sun illuminated only one face.

Natasha meant to close her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see the anguish in Clint’s expression. Now, it would be the last thing she saw forever.

Until it wasn’t.

#

A moment of incredible pain, then nothing. And then . . . something else. Something Natasha had not expected. She felt rain. It was raining. And there was a gentle rumble of thunder in the distance. Weakly, she thought of Thor, but he couldn’t be here. Could he? She’d done what she did to make sure the rest of them could save the universe. If they’d failed. . .

Natasha opened her eyes.

She was lying in a shallow puddle on the ground, surrounded by thick, skyscraper-tall pine trees. A bed of browned needles made the ground soft. The branches and underbrush glistened with the falling rain.

So, not Vormir. It looked vaguely like someplace on Earth, but it didn’t feel right. The sky was the wrong color. Just a bit off from the stormy slate blue she would expect from an afternoon shower. And this rain, it didn’t smell the same.

She pushed up to her feet. She was still wearing the temporal displacement suit Tony had made for them at headquarters. Her hair had come loose from its braid, a few strands of platinum brushing her shoulders before giving way to the red at the roots.

Every direction looked the same. Trees, rain, and solid ground in every direction. So, she picked one, and started walking.

It wasn’t long before footsteps echoed somewhere on the path ahead of her. She ducked behind one of the trees and waited, listening.

Two people, approaching at a leisurely pace, and not bothering to be cautious. Which meant either they were too lazy to mind any danger here, or too confident to think the danger could hurt them, or this place wasn’t dangerous at all. Natasha erred on the side of caution anyway.

Voices joined the footsteps seconds later.

“Is it bad that I’m disappointed?” said the first. “Not that I dislike your company, but we might be stuck here a long time.” His formal, polished accent reminded Natasha of someone. Her mind was still caught on Vormir, and wasn’t putting the pieces together as fast as she wanted.

“I don’t like this,” said the second voice. “It’s too empty, too quiet.”

“It was days before we found the others last time.”

“Yeah, but if the doctor’s plan worked? We might be it.”

A sigh, and then, “Let’s hope they succeeded. But I don’t like it either. Thunder without Thor doesn’t sit right with me.”

Oh, no. The mention of Thor’s name clicked everything else into place. She knew that voice. The last time she’d seen him, they’d been escorting him out of Stark Tower in handcuffs and an iron muzzle. It was Loki.

But it couldn’t be. Loki was dead. So are you, she reminded herself.

She could figure that out later. For now, she unholstered one of the billy clubs from her back, and went into fight mode. Probably, Loki and whoever his companion was didn’t pose an immediate threat. She wasn’t going to take the chance anyway.

She waited for them to pass by. She wanted to track them from behind if possible. But as she moved around the side of the tree to stay invisible, the unfamiliar figure--a woman with green skin and dark magenta hair--stiffened. This one was a warrior.

“We’re being watched,” she said in a low voice, and took out a sword. The blade glowed red, as if it was encased in fire.

Natasha charged her billy clubs and came out from behind the tree as the other woman turned. It was odd that Loki hadn't seemed to notice her watching. There was something wrong about that, but Natasha was too focused on the other woman’s sword to unravel it. She dodged out of the way just in time to avoid the first swing.

Her opponent was fast, and strong. The pair of them swung and dodged and parried so deftly it felt like ages before the blade finally met Natasha's club. The blow threw her back a good ten feet, buzzing with an electric energy that felt strangely familiar.

No. Very familiar. That was Wanda Maximoff's brand of magic. How did she do that?

Natasha flipped back to her feet and struck out again, but the other woman danced out of the way easily. Wow, she was good at this. Definitely trained in combat.

The other woman crouched low, gathering strength for another swing. The sword sizzled, wreathed with red light. Natasha pushed her fist out, aiming her Widow's Bite at her attacker's sword arm.

"Wait--stop!" Loki came between them and threw an arm out to shield Natasha. What was he protecting her for? "Gamora, this is Natasha Romanoff," he told the woman with the glowing sword. "She's an Avenger, she's one of us."

Us?

The unexpected solidarity threw her off enough to make her pause. As did that name.

"Hang on," said Natasha. "Gamora? The one Nebula told us about?"

The woman--Gamora--had Natasha pinned down with her gaze. There was something strange echoed behind her eyes, some dark reflection that made Natasha feel dizzy. But finally she nodded, and relaxed the sword.

Cautiously, Loki stepped aside so he was no longer between them. "Who's Nebula?" he asked.

"My sister," said Gamora. "How do you know Nebula?"

Natasha lowered her arm and put her own weapons away. "She helped us out on Earth, after the. . . After Thanos." Neither of them replied. They didn't need to. Natasha swallowed. "We couldn't have tracked down the Infinity Stones without her."

"Tracked down?" Gamora shook her head. "But Thanos found them all. That's how we wound up here."

"He did, yeah. He destroyed everything, just like he promised. So, we went back in time to get the Stones before he could."

Loki snapped his head around at that. "Run that by me again, will you? You went where?"

Natasha raised an eyebrow. It was nice knowing she could still surprise him. "We should find someplace to sit down. This might take awhile."

~~@~~

Chapter Text

They found a small clearing with a thick canopy that held back the worst of the rain, and Natasha did her best to explain what they'd done to handle the aftermath of Thanos's destruction. Including Tony's ingenious cracking of the secret of time travel. It was brief and messy and left out a few details, but it got the idea across.

She just hoped it had worked. It had gotten them to Vormir at any rate. It was always possible that everything had gone wrong after they'd gotten the Soul Stone, but Natasha couldn't afford to think like that.

"It's really been five years?" asked Gamora. She sat cross-legged with her back against a tree stump, her sword laid across her lap.

"Yeah," said Natasha. "Why, how long did you think it was?"

"A matter of days," said Loki. "Maybe weeks. Time runs differently in here."

Then they gave Natasha their own story, of dying and then waking up in this dim netherworld Gamora called a "chamber"--one of many, apparently. In the first one, the Dust Chamber, the sun rose and set in less than half the time they were used to. Nightfall brought monsters made of shadows and smoke. They couldn't physically hurt them, but if the creatures touched them, they forced them to relive bad memories. Loki and Gamora wouldn't say what those memories were.

Gamora's sword was one of the few weapons that actually held them back. And it was infused with Wanda Maximoff's magic. A little while ago, they'd had company. Not just Wanda, but King T'Challa, Peter Parker, Bucky Barnes, Heimdall of Asgard, Nick Fury and Maria Hill, Dr. Stephen Strange. And Peter Quill, who Natasha had never met, but Gamora's voice got distant and tender when she said his name.

It wasn't everyone who had been decimated. Now, they were going into the other chambers, looking for more stragglers. So far, Natasha was the only one they'd found.

"I think it might just be me," she said. "If we won this time, we would've been able to bring everyone back."

"Except us," said Gamora.

"Yeah. . ."

From what she'd heard about Gamora, they actually had a lot in common. Taken as children, raised as ruthless killers, and let loose on the world until someone more compassionate than they deserved offered them a chance to live better. Which they had. For awhile.

As Natasha mused on this, Loki was watching her intently. He sat on a fallen, moss-covered log, looking like a forest imp with his fair, narrow features, dappled in shadow from the canopy. He was impossibly still.

"Something you'd like to share?" asked Natasha.

He smiled, slowly. Oh, she did not like that smile. "I wondered if you might share something with us, as a matter of fact."

Natasha crossed her arms. "Ask me."

As soon as the words left her lips, she knew they were a mistake. She'd given him a window. It was a trap she'd set herself so often she ought to have recognized it. But it was too late now.

"How did you die?"

#

One of the first things they learned in the Red Room was that their lives did not matter. Only the assignment mattered. They were sharpened and polished to deadly perfection. If an operative did not come back from a mission, she would be replaced without ceremony or mourning.

After leaving, it had taken a long time for Natasha to get reacquainted with the horror of death. She had gotten used to squinting at all the horrible things she'd done. It was pointless and unproductive to look too closely. Regaining her humanity meant reopening all those doors.

Natasha had a dangerous job. But every hit she'd taken, she always assumed she'd come back. Keep living, keep fighting. And even if she didn't, if they won, it didn't matter whether or not she came back. But that was the Red Room conditioning talking. She wasn't sure she believed it anymore.

"Something went wrong, didn't it?" Loki was saying. "Because as much as it encourages me to know that Earth's mightiest heroes found a way to stop Thanos and undo all his work, you," he paused and pointed at her, "are very difficult to kill."

"Is that supposed to be a compliment?"

Loki tilted his head nonchalantly. "If you like. But the others never would have let you die without a fight. Barton especially. So what happened? Who finally killed the Black Widow?"

"Give it a rest," snapped Gamora. "She doesn't want to talk about it." Again, that mirrored darkness flashed across her eyes. Only this time, Natasha recognized it: an obsidian disk eclipsed by a dead sun. It was the black star of Vormir. Suddenly, without asking, Natasha knew her own eyes held that same reflection.

She knows.

Gamora met her gaze across the clearing. The same pain, the same sense of bitterness, that Natasha felt shown in those dark eyes, only for a moment, and then the illusion lifted. One of them had to break the silence.

"It's okay," said Natasha. "Everything went like we planned. We put in the right coordinates and got through the Quantum realm in one piece. But when we went after the Soul Stone, it got . . . complicated."

"So Nebula told you where to find it, but not how to get it." Gamora sighed. "I'm so sorry."

The appropriate response was probably, "It's fine," or "It wasn't her fault," or "I did what I had to do," but Natasha's tongue stuck in her mouth. She felt heavy and brittle, as if the universe was rushing by without her. It was all she could do to nod mutely, her hands in fists at her sides.

Loki watched them from his perch until the unspoken words between them grew too thick. "What happened at Vormir?"

"The Soul Stone requires a sacrifice," Gamora explained. "A soul for a soul. You can only get it by losing someone you love."

"So, who . . . ?" asked Loki, but he didn't finish. Even he seemed to realize that was too personal a question.

Natasha surprised herself by answering it anyway. "Barton. He tried to stop me, go over himself, but," she shrugged, "well, you remember how stubborn I am."

Strangely, talking about it did help. What did it matter now anyway? The whole ordeal was over. The others had carried out their part of the plan successfully. She could feel it. Whatever else happened in this stormy landscape, they'd won.

She hoped.

"So, your debt is repaid," said Loki. He was watching her with a curiosity behind his eyes that Natasha hadn't seen before.

She'd told him too much during their brief conversation on the helicarrier. Not that she regretted it--she'd achieved her objective, after all--but the experience had rattled her. Only Barton ever knew how much.

"No," said Loki suddenly. "There's something else. Something's wrong with the atmosphere here." He jumped off his log and began to pace, moving across the forest floor like he was stalking prey only he could see. “I sensed it as soon as you found us. You must have looked for the Tesseract, yes?”

“Yeah, of course. That’s the first one we all how to find, because we were all there when you were--”

“Trying to start a war and kill everyone, yes,” Loki brushed the admission aside like he was swatting a fly. “So I assume you tried to take it from me. But something went wrong. Either you were spotted and had to leave, or you remained unseen but set something else in motion that kept the Tesseract out of your grasp.” He stopped. He snapped his fingers. “A distraction. Yes, that’s what I’d do. I’d be impressed, but then again, it failed, didn’t it?”

“What are you talking about?” Gamora demanded. “What distraction?”

Natasha didn’t answer her. Loki's thoughts were running together almost too fast to track, but not for her. He’d guessed everything. Not in so many words, but he was following Steve and Tony’s whole plan. How was he doing that?

As if he could hear her thinking, Loki turned to her. “Natasha, you got inside my head. You understood me better than anyone, except perhaps my brother. If I was in the midst of a total failure, that would almost certainly lead to my own death, and suddenly was given a convenient distraction: What do you think I would do?”

Oh. It was so obvious, she was amazed they hadn’t seen the flaw beforehand. She stared at him. A wild glee crept into his face as he watched her figure it out.

“What would I do, Natasha?” he asked again.

“Escape,” she said.

He grinned. “Precisely.” He made a flourish in the air, and a moment later, a luminous bluish cube appeared in his hand: the Tesseract.

Gamora shot to her feet. "That's not possible."

"And yet, here it is." Loki turned the cube around in his hand, gazing at it with the fondness of an old friend.

"No," said Natasha, shaking her head. "It's not possible. Even if the Loki from that reality somehow grabbed the Tesseract, there's no way he could get it to you. He's in a different timeline. They can't intersect."

Even as she said it, a sliver of uncertainty grew in her mind. The oppressive quiet in this place was making her thoughts too loud, and they were overlapping in ways that didn't make sense. She remembered falling from the precipice in Vormir. She remembered New York, marching Loki down from the top of Stark Tower, and sending him back to Asgard in his brother's custody.

But she also remembered a breakdown in security in which the Tesseract was lost, and Loki with it. She remembered Budapest, but now she remembered Barton both sparing her life, and killing her like he'd been ordered to.

Loki moved to her side. "You see them too, don't you? Memories that don't match, a lifetime looping back on itself so the pieces no longer fit together?"

"I was there," said Gamora. "After you found all the Stones, Nebula replaced her future self and brought us to your reality. But I still remember meeting Quill on Xandar when we were both after the Power Stone. Why do I remember it both ways?"

"Because you were there, both times," said Loki. "The other Loki didn't have to send this to me, because he is me. All our paths eventually lead here. And in one of them I did not let this out of my sight again." He lifted the Tesseract again.

Natasha put a hand to her forehead. Her brain kept trying to sort through her memories and put them into a neat line. It wasn't working.

"It's this place," said Gamora. "It's in the rain." She put her hand out to catch the droplets. "In the Dust Chamber, those creatures made us relive our worst memories from one lifetime. This one makes us see all our lifetimes at once. I guess no matter what choices I made in those other lives, I'm still me. Still the same--" She stopped abruptly and looked up at Natasha.

It clicked for Natasha in the same instant. "The same soul," she said. And she knew they were both thinking the same thing. The possibility was tantalizing. If her teammates had managed to get all the Infinity Stones and then return them to their original places, then. . .

"What are you thinking?" asked Loki.

"Can that thing take us anywhere?" she asked, nodding at the Tesseract.

"Yes. Why?"

Natasha turned to Gamora. "What if we could make the exchange in the other direction? If the Soul Stone already has its sacrifice, then--"

"A soul for a soul," said Gamora. "Would that even work?"

"If it doesn't," Natasha shrugged, "what do we have to lose?"

~~@~~

Chapter Text

They weren't going to get out of this one easily. But then, when had the Doctor and her companions ever done things easily?

"Steady, Yaz!" she hollered. "Get that lever into the second notch!"

Yasmin could barely keep herself upright, much less do anything useful with the so-called "Wibbly Lever" on the TARDIS console.

"It'd be easier if this thing wasn't shaking us to pieces right now!" she yelled back.

"I'm trying to keep us out of range of that tractor beam. Trust me, you'll thank me later. Speaking of which--" The Doctor lurched from one end of the console to other, spinning gears, tapping monitor screens, and flipping switches.

This had been going on for, oh, about twelve minutes now. Their pursuers had a massive vessel that dwarfed the TARDIS at least a hundred times. Rather, it dwarfed the Police Box-shaped outside appearance of the TARDIS. But it had not given up the pursuit. The other ship hadn't hailed them or specified what they wanted. It just kept trying to lock onto them with a tractor beam.

Yasmin, Ryan, and Graham knew they were in trouble when the Doctor asked for their help with the driving. She usually never let them so much as touch the console, never mind having them take the wheel. Figuratively speaking, of course.

The Doctor squinted at one of the many flashing yellow crystals on the control panel. "The TARDIS is picking up on a massive amount of Artron energy, but I can't tell what's causing it. It's a miracle we're still in one piece."

"Are you sure about that, Doctor?" asked Ryan, as the low reverberations of the Cloister Bell started up.

The Doctor blanched. "Oh dear."

A moment later, Graham pointed at one of the view screens, which until recently had shown a bright yellow dot migrating slowly towards them. It was now joined by a second dot. "Should that worry us at all, Doc?" he asked.

The Doctor raced around to the other side of the console. "Ryan, give Yaz a hand with that Wibbly Lever!"

"What would that do?" asked Ryan.

"You're taller--just do it!"

With both of them working together, they managed to drag the lever into the right notch. For a moment, the ship steadied. Then there was a burst of pale blue light and a surge of energy that knocked them flat to the deck.

The next moment, all was still. It appeared as if the ship had landed somewhere, and safely. But two things had changed.

The first was a glowing blue cube on the floor, slightly larger than a closed fist, just within arm's reach of the Doctor, who had fallen on her stomach. Her eyes brightened and she snatched it up.

"Hello, little blue box," she said. "I love blue things. Ask anyone. But where did you come from?"

The second thing took a little longer for them to notice. Yasmin stood slowly on wobbly legs, gripping the edge of the console, and said, "Doctor, we've got company."

The TARDIS had somehow gained three new passengers: a woman in a strange, high-tech suit and hair that was half-crimson, half-white; another woman, this one green-skinned, with silvery markings on her face and a sword strapped to her back; and one man, tall and lean, with dark hair and cat-like eyes. For the moment, they were all sprawled on the deck just like the rest of them.

The woman with the sword groaned and clutched the back of her head. "Ow," she said. "Okay, this isn't Vormir."

"So I gathered," said the tall man, getting laboriously to his feet. "And I'll have that back, thank you."

He approached the Doctor and reached out for the cube, but she was already scanning it with her Sonic Screwdriver, not paying him the slightest attention.

"Blimey, this thing's a long way from home," she was saying. "It's not even in the right dimension."

"The right dimension?" asked the redhead, shooting an accusing look at the tall man. "What did you do? Where have you taken us?"

Ryan, who was still hanging onto the Wibbly Lever, kept glancing from their new companions to the Doctor and back again. "Is there a reason we're not worrying about them?"

"Well, those dots are gone now," said Graham, pointing at the screen he'd been keeping track of earlier. "I'd say that's good news, yeah?"

"Does this have something to do with that Artron whatsit?" asked Ryan.

"I think it is the whatsit, Ryan," she said, turning the blue box over in her hands. "Artron energy. It's absolutely pulsing with it." Her eyes widened and she drew in a breath. “It’s a Tesseract.”

The tall man lurched forward a bit, his jaw clenched, but said nothing.

“Excuse me,” said the green woman. “Who are you?”

“A what?” asked Yasmin.

“A Tesseract!” gushed the Doctor. “Tiny but powerful way of navigating through space. Not time,” she added, “just space. But any space, in an instant.” She snapped her fingers for emphasis. “That’s why they were able to get inside the TARDIS, which is supposed to be impossible.”

“It was an unintended detour,” said the tall man. “And we are very sorry to have intruded on your space and time. So if you could just hand it over, we’ll be on our way--”

“Mm-mm, belay that order,” said the green woman. “I cannot handle another trip, not right away. Something’s wrong. It shouldn’t have shaken us out like that.”

The redhead pointed at her and said, “What she said. Where are we anyway?"

The tall man turned back to her and said in a hushed voice, "This is not a place we want to linger. That's all you need to know."

Suddenly, the Doctor's eyes narrowed. "Hang on a minute. Do I know you?" She hustled to the newcomers' sides, holding up her Sonic screwdriver.

"Do not point that infernal thing at me!" barked the tall man.

The Doctor peered at the stranger's face and went, "Ha! I knew it! Loki, isn't it?"

He grimaced.

"Yes--Loki, of Asgard! I thought that was you."

The redhead straightened her spine and said, "What?" at the same time Ryan said, "Hold up--you two know each other?"

"That is the unfortunate truth, yes," confirmed the now-identified Loki through gritted teeth.

"Took me a minute," said the Doctor. "You were a woman the last time I saw you."

"And you weren't, when last I saw you," said Loki.

Graham laughed. "Sounds like we'll have loads to talk about. I'll go and put the kettle on."

"Good man, Graham," the Doctor called after him as he left for the kitchen. "So," she said, turning back to Loki. "Who was I? Sand shoes? Angry eyebrows?"

"Bow-tie."

"The bow-tie! Classic. Bow-ties are cool."

"They're really not," said Yasmin.

"Of course they are. But never mind that--what is that?" The Doctor danced over to the redhead and began sweeping the Sonic up and down, grabbing readings off her suit.

"Um, I usually go by 'Natasha,'" said the redhead. "Didn't catch your name?"

"I'm the Doctor. And these are my friends Yasmin, Ryan, and the bloke who went to make tea is Graham."

"Gamora," chimed in the green woman. "But can we circle back to how you two know each other?" She pointed from Loki to the Doctor.

"In a minute," said the Doctor, taking a look at her readings. "It's a Quantum flight suit. Brilliant! Custom-made, too--only been on one outing so far. No stabilizers though, and the range on the Vortex manipulator is pitiful. Does it even work between planets?"

Natasha raised an eyebrow.

"Oh, but I love it," said the Doctor, smiling indulgently. "Devilishly clever, especially for Earth tech. Especially for twenty-first century Earth tech. Might be the first working model in existence. Am I right?"

"One of a few," said Natasha. "And yeah, it was our first trip out." She spoke in a low, level monotone, not inviting inquiry.

"Wait a minute," said Yasmin. "You're from Earth? Our Earth, our timeline?"

"Don't answer that," said Gamora. "Look, we don't have time for an interrogation. We need to get back on course."

"Agreed," said Loki. "So if you would give us back the Tesseract, we can be on our way."

The Doctor frowned. "No," she said simply. She tossed the Tesseract over her shoulder to Ryan, who caught it. "Firstly, you don't even know if it will get you back on course, otherwise you wouldn't have wound up here. Secondly, you said you were going to Vormir, which doesn't make any sense at all."

"Why not?" asked Ryan. He was holding the Tesseract at arm's length as if he was afraid it might explode.

"Because no one elects to go to Vormir. There's nothing there except the view. So unless you're planning on taking a group selfie by one of the reflecting pools--which, judging by the number of weapons you're stowing, you're not--you three are up to something far more nefarious. Thirdly, you," she pointed at Loki, "are always up to something nefarious."

"Oh, she does know you," said Natasha with a smirk.

"Shut up," hissed Loki.

Gamora stepped forward. "Doctor, we lost something on Vormir. Something important. We're just trying to get it back."

Before the Doctor could respond to that, the floor shook violently. There was a loud grinding noise, like something being dragged across concrete. Then everything shuddered and fell silent. Ryan dropped the Tesseract, but recovered it quickly.

As everyone paused to get their bearings, the Doctor turned to her team and asked, "Everyone all right?" There was a general murmur of assent. No one even noticed the faint, greenish glimmer that appeared around Loki when the Doctor took her eyes off him. Well, almost no one.

"What was that?" asked Yasmin, eying the floor suspiciously.

"Oh, nothing, just the exact situation we were trying to avoid," said the Doctor. "I apologize, but we are almost definitely about to be raided." She laughed weakly.

~~@~~

Chapter Text

"Raided?" said Graham. "Meaning, boarded, ransacked, pillaged? That sort of thing?"

"Pretty much." The Doctor sipped her tea.

Graham had reappeared shortly after the Doctor's revelation. Natasha held off on the tea until after Gamora and Loki had both taken some. Normally she'd have refused anything offered on a vessel she hadn't searched herself, but she was low on energy after that trip, and she'd be no good to anyone until that changed.

"You're talking about pirates," said Ryan, casually tossing the Tesseract from one hand to the other. "As in, space pirates?"

The Doctor nodded.

"But why would they be following us?" asked Yasmin. "Unless they're after that." She pointed at the Tesseract. Ryan immediately stopped playing with it.

"No idea," said the Doctor. "Maybe they just fancy a chat. Maybe I owe them money, or vice versa. Maybe they think the ship is powered by Dilithium Crystals. Maybe they want to harvest our organs on the intergalactic black market--who knows?"

"Did she say 'Dilithium Crystals'?" asked Natasha.

Loki answered with a slightly bewildered, "She did, yeah."

"So what do we do?" asked Ryan.

"Cup of tea!" said the Doctor. She raised her cup to Graham. "Things always seem better after a cuppa, don't you find?"

"Hang on," said Gamora, leaning against one of the glowing crystal pillars that surrounded the console. "You're saying pirates have successfully hauled this ship into their salvage, are definitely going to raid us, and your plan is sit around drinking tea?"

"I said almost definitely." The Doctor reached out and swung a large crank around in a circle. It made a pleasant chiming sound like an old-fashioned elevator reaching its top floor. "There! The TARDIS is invisible. They can't raid what they can't see." She drained the last of her tea and set the empty cup back on the tray Graham had brought out. "Right. Let's get exploring."

#

They split up three ways: The Doctor wanted Yasmin and Ryan with her to look for a power source to the mechanism holding the TARDIS hostage. Loki and Natasha would go deeper into the ship to look for technical readouts to get a better handle on the layout of the place. Gamora and Graham were to stay behind to guard the TARDIS. The Doctor fitted them all with communicators that attached behind the ears, so they could keep in touch.

The arrangement was unusual, but the Doctor seemed more comfortable leaving the TARDIS behind as long as someone she trusted was still onboard. The idea was for the Doctor to shut off the mechanism keeping the TARDIS locked in place once they found it.

"You mean like Kenobi did on the Death Star?" asked Ryan.

"Exactly like Kenobi did on the Death Star," said the Doctor. "Ten points for Ryan!" She beamed and clapped him on the shoulder.

"Who's Kenobi?" asked Gamora, fiddling uncomfortably with the bit of machinery behind her ear. "Another time traveller?"

The Doctor stared at her, crestfallen. "Oh, please tell me your universe knows about Kenobi. That's a tragedy otherwise."

Natasha opened her mouth to explain, but to her surprise, it was Loki who answered: "It's nothing, it's from a movie."

The explanation seemed to reassure Gamora though. She laughed lightly. "If Quill were here, he'd have something to add to that."

Loki moved to her side. "Gamora, if you want, we can--"

"I'm fine." She gave him a tight smile that invited no further questions.

With that, they went their separate ways, Natasha now more confused than ever.

#

It was bizarre to step through a doorway and see nothing of the place they'd just left. The ship really was invisible. Totally seamless, not like the reflective panels on SHIELD's helicarriers. It was like they'd teleported. Then again, time travel seemed to be commonplace here--at least according to the Doctor--so maybe they'd gotten the hang of teleports, too.

Still, that was nothing compared to the sight that greeted them outside. The little alcove where their own transport had been stored was one of dozens. No--hundreds. Tucked away as neatly as a car in a garage. And between the alcoves were massive pillars a hundred feet high, lit up along the side and from windows that striped them at regular intervals. Balconies swelled between the pillars with brass railings that curved out into the empty space like soap bubbles. They were like the biggest elevators and the most stylish hallways in the fanciest hotel that had ever been built.

"Do pirates always travel in this much style, Doctor?" asked Ryan, peering up at their surroundings with an expression that matched how Natasha was feeling.

"Certainly not," said the Doctor. "This isn't a pirate ship, Ryan. It's an interstellar cruise liner."

"Cruise liner, really?" Yasmin touched one of the massive walls, which glowed gently in response. "It's gigantic."

"Let's get to that tractor beam," said the Doctor. "You two," she gestured at Loki and Natasha, "technical readouts. Meet back here in half an hour."

Fine, then. One mind-melting revelation at a time. Natasha stowed the nanotech that kept the Quantum zone flight suit up--she could move easier in her regular jumpsuit--and she and Loki found their way to a series of hallways whose floors lit up as they walked, decorated with motion-activated images of nebulas on the walls.

After a few minutes, Natasha said, "So: Dilithium crystals? Kenobi and the Death Star? What's the deal?"

Loki sighed. "That's just her, she thinks she's clever when she can keep pace with humanity's pop culture. She's always been like that."

"I meant you. Why do you know about that stuff?"

"Well, after the incident in New York, I spent some time in the dungeons at Asgard. Eventually, I ran out of books."

"So you watched Earth movies?"

Loki shrugged. "Among other things. I got bored. Does it matter?

"I guess not." She glanced at him, and noted the faint greenish glow hovering near his right hand. "That was a nice pull, by the way."

"I don't know what you mean." But he couldn't hold back a tiny smile.

Good boy, thought Natasha. Flattery was easy with Loki. He loved to preen, and having her notice him steal back the Tesseract without ratting him out would go a long way toward making him compliant.

It also meant there was something very wrong with the Tesseract, otherwise he would've used it to escape by now. Natasha really wanted to know why their unwilling host recognized him.

"So, what happened between you and the Doctor?" she asked.

"It's complicated."

"You said she wasn’t a woman the last time you met. Is she a shapeshifter too?”

“Not as such, no. She’s a Time Lord. They have a way to cheat death. Come back with a new face, new body, new everything. It’s called ‘regenerating.’”

“She told you all that?”

“No, I studied their philosophical writings for a short while, until Father insisted I drop the subject. It's fascinating, but he considered it a waste of my time. Too much theory, not enough warfare. Except for the Time War, of course, but there's only one book in existence that's anything like accurate on that subject, and it was lost a long time ago.”

Huh. Natasha tucked that detail away for later. In the meantime, she counted. Paces between connecting hallways, number of floors she could see from the ground, approximate distance between balconies, even the seconds of echoes from their footsteps.

One of these corridors had to lead to sleeping quarters. Because if it was a cruise liner, like the Doctor thought, they had to put a map in the hallways with the cabins, in case of an emergency evacuation. She didn't see a reason why being set up for space travel would make this one any different.

One other thing she'd taken note of: the empty spaces in the other alcoves where other ships could have been. This place gigantic, but it was mostly empty. Fully functional and not a single crew member or guest in sight. Way too few of the parking alcoves were occupied.

“Okay,” she said. “What else?”

“What exactly is the purpose of this conversation, Romanoff?”

“Anything that might help. You know her, I don’t. I want to know what you know.”

“Oh? You can’t slither your way into her head like you did mine?” His voice was teasing, but with just enough resentment it didn’t feel innocuous.

“Maybe. It’s early. And I’m still jet-lagged, so.”

Loki scoffed. “Frankly, I’m more interested to hear what you think. You're very clever. I'm curious what you've noticed so far.”

When Natasha didn't react except to raise an eyebrow, he added, "You know you can't trust her. She's a--"

"A liar?" Natasha guessed. "I figured that out already. It's obvious.”

“Is it?”

“Well, she’s like you--she talks too much.” Natasha tossed a wry grin over her shoulder.

His pace barely faltered, but it was enough. “You are really enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“Hey, I’m a spy. This is what they pay me for.” Then it was Natasha’s turn to falter. “What they paid me for, I mean.”

That was weird. She hadn't expected to learn to talk about herself in the paste tense. They walked in silence for a few moments until he said, “Don’t think about it. Just imagine their faces when you come back and surprise them all.”

Maybe he had a point. If anyone knew how to cope with being dead, or even presumed dead, it was him. But why share that with her? He didn’t care if she never woke up again.

“Does it help?” she asked quietly.

It was a longer silence than usual before he answered, "No."

~~@~~

Chapter Text

"So, what did happen between you and Loki?" asked Yasmin.

The three of them, Yasmin, Ryan, and the Doctor, were exploring the alcoves holding other, larger ships, something like a parking deck on the cruise liner. Well, larger on the outside. Yasmin doubted any of them matched the TARDIS on the inside. There were only a handful parked here, but they were impressive all the same.

"Not much, really," said the Doctor with a shrug. "Just had a chance encounter on an ice planet called Jotenheim a few centuries back, for a wedding. Well, almost a wedding. Well, a fake wedding I helped disrupt, but I was barely involved. Lovely place, Jotenheim. Chilly, not easy walking, but terribly interesting."

They stood in one of the empty alcoves, an egg-shaped archway dotted with greenish-white lights the size of basket balls. The Doctor pointed the Sonic up at the lights, and the walls, and the floor, still searching for something only she could recognize.

"See, that's the bit I'm having trouble with," said Ryan. "Whenever we go somewhere and you say we're not going to get involved, we always wind up getting involved."

"He's right," Yasmin agreed. "So what did you do exactly?"

"Ah-ha!" the Doctor exclaimed. She pried open a panel behind one of the lights, the Sonic gripped in her teeth, and pushed herself through the opening. "There's the chap. Basic homing beacon. Compact, not too powerful. Absurdly tricky security protocols, but not enough to work as a tractor beam. What's that about?" She tossed a smallish black box out of the opening.

Yasmin picked it up. It looked like a flat, all-black Rubik's cube, with a couple of blinking lights attached. "You're sure this isn't a bomb?"

"No, no, that would be ridiculous. Ship this size? Tiny bomb tucked away in an empty spot in the car park? Don't think so." The Doctor dropped to the floor and used the Sonic to reseal the panel back into place. "And if you must know, his brother was in a bit of trouble there a couple centuries ago, and I happened to be in the area with my wife, so we dropped in to help. He still owes me a picnic."

Yasmin said, "A picnic?" at the same time as Ryan asked, "Your what?"

"My wife, Professor River Song. Have I not mentioned her? Well, she'll turn up someday, probably when I least expect it. The point is, Loki promised us a picnic at Asgard as a thank you. Give us that, Yaz." She held her hand out for the black homing beacon. "I didn't know at the time that 'Asgard' was also the name of a planet-sized amusement park, and nowhere near his actual home planet."

Ryan stared at her. "That explained nothing."

"You know what's got me mixed up though," said the Doctor, gesturing distractedly with the Sonic. "The other two. The Earthling woman and the Zehoberei warrior."

"Zebo-what?" asked Yasmin. "You mean the green lady?"

"Because here's the thing: the Zehoberei? Historically, not warriors. So what's different about her? And more importantly, what are they doing with him?"

Oh. So that's what she was up to.

"We're not really searching the ship, are we?" asked Yasmin.

The Doctor grinned. "Nope!"

"You're trying to figure out what's Loki's doing with the Tesseract."

"Yep! Well, to be fair we do need to get off this ship eventually, but birds, stones, etc."

"Does that mean we're--Whoa!" Ryan broke off suddenly, staring at his hand.

"What's wrong?" asked Yasmin.

"It's gone. The Tesseract--it just vanished! I didn't drop it this time, I swear," he added quickly when the Doctor swept towards him with the Sonic.

"Of course you didn't," she agreed. "Which puts the range at. . ." She peered at the readings. "Four hundred kilometers. Four-fifty at a push."

"Range for what?" asked Ryan.

"Loki's illusions." The Doctor pocketed the Sonic. "Now we know how far he can get before they begin to disintegrate."

"You mean that wasn't even the real one?" asked Yasmin. "How can he do that?"

"Oh, that's just the tip of the iceberg, Yaz."

Ryan groaned. "He must've snatched it when the tractor beam pulled us in. I felt something bump me, but I couldn't see a thing."

"It's not your fault," said the Doctor. "He's fooled thousands of people. God of Mischief, that's what he does. At least we can get something useful out of it. Now, which of these is the manifest. . ." She started tapping a lighted screen at the edge of alcove, moving rapidly from one piece of information to the next.

Something else was troubling Yasmin, though: four hundred kilometers, she'd said. Just how big was this ship? It could be an entire city. A country, even. There was no way they'd be able to search all of it. If the Doctor couldn't work out how to disable that homing beacon and get them loose from the tractor beam, they could potentially be here for a very long time.

"Oh dear, happens every time," said a new voice.

All three of them whirled around, the Doctor jumping out front protectively.

A smartly dressed person--little white hat with a constellation-like logo, pin-striped trousers, shoes polished to a mirror shine, and a shiny name badge pinned to the front of a starched white shirt--appeared from further along the docking bay and came marching towards them, all smiles.

"Lost, are you?" he asked. But before the trio could answer, the crewman produced a laminated pamphlet and handed it to the Doctor. "Map's on the back. Try not to lose it this time. Although I should tell you, you're wasting your time. They never hide anything in here."

"Hide?" Ryan started. "What are you--"

"Of course not," said the Doctor. "Why would they? How silly of us. Could you maybe give us a nudge in the right direction, ah. . ." She peered at the name badge. ". . . Gemini, is it?"

"It is indeed. Gemini Rorschach, Primary Flight Deck and Docking Bay Associate, at your service." Gemini bowed with a practice flourish. "Now, the scavenger hunt is mainly on levels four through six. And you'd best get a move on, because we've got less than half as many participants as usual, and two thousand credits to give away."

The Doctor's eyes lit up. "Well, thanks very much, Gemini. Lovely to meet you. Shall we?"

Yasmin and Ryan looked at each other skeptically, but they'd gotten used to rolling with the weirdness at this point. Gemini seemed harmless enough. But even though it seemed like pirates wouldn't be a problem after all, more and more questions were piling up.

#

The old man seemed all right. He had a dignified salt-and-pepper look combined with a stubborn practicality that Gamora found oddly reassuring in certain humans. In her experience, age tended to make creatures of all species either grow kinder, or more selfish, over time. Graham seemed to have fallen towards the former.

Gamora ran her hand along one of the yellow crystals surrounding the ship's center console. "You said Ryan's your grandson?" she asked.

"Yep," said Graham. "By marriage technically, but he's finally calling me 'Granddad,' so I'll take it." He pulled out his cell phone and opened up the pictures. He showed her a woman with long, dark dreadlocks, a fantastically colorful shawl, and a brilliant smile, holding onto Graham's arm. "That's my Grace," he said. "Ryan's proper grandmother. Love of my life."

Gamora smiled and took the phone for a closer look. "She's lovely."

"Mm. She'd have loved all this. Pirates wouldn't stand a chance against her." He laughed, but it turned wistful at the end. "I miss her terribly. I still can't get used to it."

"I'm so sorry," said Gamora. She handed the phone back. "How long ago was it, if you don't mind me asking?"

"A little more than a year now. Goodness, has it been that long?" He sighed. "Of course it's hard to say these days. Time travel and all that. So, what about you?"

"What about me, what?"

"Since you lost yours." He gave her a knowing, sympathetic look. "I've seen that face before, usually in the mirror. You've lost someone, haven't you?"

The air went out of the room. Everything shifted slightly out of focus, just for a moment. The truth was Gamora hadn't thought of herself as "losing" Peter. Not really. He'd be grieving for her, but he was the one who had "lost" something. Gamora was just . . . lost. She didn't have a right to feel the same ache.

The silence started to thin out between them. Gamora cleared her throat. "Sorry, it's been . . . less than a year. A lot less."

"Oh, I'm sorry," said Graham. "I didn't mean to--"

"It's fine. I just haven't really let myself think about it. You know?"

"I do." The old man smiled sadly. "Don't worry, love. It will get easier."

Gamora found that hard to believe, but he meant well, so she thanked him anyway. Then, with the smallest twinge of guilt, she asked him to bring her a glass of water.

As soon as he left, Gamora went straight for the console. She was after the navigation charts. She'd studied enough of the TARDIS model ships, even the ancient Type 40s like this one, to bring up the right screen after a little digging. The infinite variability of the desktop made it tricky, and this one had been through over a dozen changes already. Still, a ship was a ship, and the navigation was an essential part. Gamora hacked her way into the recent flight records. If she could get back to the data before their crash landing via Tesseract, she might be able to work out how to get them back.

There was also a log of who else had traveled on this ship before, with pictures too small to quite make out, but one jumped out at her. It almost looked like. . . But that was impossible. It couldn't be who she thought. The TARDIS was a little too smart, though. These machines often bonded to their pilots, built to adapt to a particular personality, and a little bit alive. It wouldn't give her more information without a voice locked override, which of course couldn't be opened by anyone but the Doctor.

Gamora keyed in another command to see where in the universe they were right now. The cruise ship seemed to be hovering over the planet Romulus 4. That was odd. Romulus 4 was notorious for all sorts of dangerous natural phenomena--gravity storms, solar flares, and worse. Why would anyone park a holiday cruise here?

There was something else, too: a heat signature. Not in the cruise ship, but in the TARDIS. She could see the spot in the console where she was standing, and another a few corridors away--Graham, most likely. But there was a third, somewhere far on the other side of the ship. Who else was here?

Graham's heat signature moved closer, along with footsteps to tell her he was returning with her water. Gamora wiped the screen blank and went back to leaning on the pillar a few feet away. Graham put the glass in her hand, and she smiled and thanked him.

He raised his glass. "To old loves," he said, "and new friends."

"I can drink to that," said Gamora. It was a good toast. Kind. And a bit relentlessly hopeful in a way that reminded her of Peter. She wondered what he might've been like, if they'd been able to grow old together.

She was on the point of asking him about their original destination--maybe she could work backwards from there instead of asking the computer--when the loudspeakers crackled to life.

The Doctor's voice said, "Graham, Gamora! How you are getting on back there?" Without waiting for a response, she said, "A very helpful crew member is upgrading our rooms for us. They're coming to collect you now."

"Erm," said Graham, glancing uneasily at Gamora, "Sorry, Doc, did you say 'upgraded?'"

"And what do you mean someone's coming to collect us?" asked Gamora.

"Don't worry, I'll explain it all when you come up to the suite. See you in a bit!"

With that, the speaker went silent. And then a knock came at the door.

~~@~~

Chapter Text

"Excessive" didn't quite cover it. The suite Gemini brought them to was large enough to swallow up an entire ship. Gamora couldn't help gaping as she took in their new surroundings. There were eighteen connecting rooms, including beds and private bathrooms for each of them, a sitting area upholstered in silks and velveteen, a floating spiral staircase leading to a second floor with a full-sized dining room, a game room with felt-covered pool tables, darts, cards, and a wall screen with more high-tech diversions.

After Gemini left them on their own in the suite, the Doctor located a touch screen panel on the wall and tapped it curiously. A soothing, computerized voice said, "Welcome! How may I assist you?"

"Oh, that is good," said the Doctor, grinning widely. "That is most excellent. I will definitely be using the virtual butler in here!"

A few seconds later, Natasha leaned over the second-floor balcony.

"Hey, you made it!" she said. "Get up here, this place is a trip."

Loki and Natasha had already helped themselves to the room service. The circular dining table expanded to seat up to twenty diners, so they had plenty of room. At the moment, the table was loaded up with steaming, covered dishes that materialized into existence at a word, sweating jugs of cold drinks in impossibly bright colors, a continually refilling basket of exotic looking fruit, and trays piled with bread, cheese, and jam.

There was also a bottle of very expensive-looking whisky, already, alarmingly, one-fifth emptied, and two shot glasses. Gamora stared at the spread, wondering exactly how long they'd been at it. Whatever strained history existed between them, it obviously wasn't bitter enough to keep them away from the refreshments.

"Well," said the Doctor, tipping the bottle to see the little that remained inside. "You two have been busy."

"Oh, don't start," grumbled Loki. "We've been forced to exist on cheap snack food and bad vodka--"

"And peanut butter sandwiches," added Natasha.

"--and peanut butter sandwiches for five years. A little indulgence isn't going to kill us."

Natasha let out a chuckle at that.

"That said," said Loki, helping himself to a slab of what looked like roasted boar, "if you told me this was Valhalla, I might believe it."

Natasha tapped the side of a whisky bottle with a knowing look.

“Right--that’s another one, isn’t it?” said Loki, and refilled the glasses.

Graham took a seat. “What are we drinking to?” he asked.

“Afterlives we could have gone to but didn’t,” said Natasha, draining her glass like it was water. “We’re up to four now.”

“Okay.” Gamora swept up to them and moved the bottle out of reach. “You’re done.”

“Let the man drink,” said Graham. “He’s clearly had a long day. We all have.”

“Thank you,” said Loki. “And you have no idea.”

Loki reached for the bottle, but Gamora didn’t hand it over. “I’ve seen him drink,” she said. “Believe me, he's had plenty.”

“I kind of want to see it even more now," said Natasha. "Is that mean?”

“A bit, but I’m inclined to agree,” said the Doctor. “With Gamora,” she clarified when Loki glanced at her hopefully. She took a quick sweep of the table with the Sonic and checked over the readings. “Did it ever cross your mind that a generous spread like this is just a teeny tiny bit suspicious? It’s the sort of trick I’d expect from you, Loki. You ought to know better.”

In truth, Gamora hadn’t thought much about the implications of a fully stocked buffet table and countless other amenities appearing seemingly out of nowhere. This was a cruise liner. That was part of the luxury. What concerned her was how casually Natasha had mentioned “afterlives.” She didn’t like the idea of the Doctor knowing what had happened to them. She’d dealt with Time Lords before. They came across as silly and pompous at times, but they were very difficult to outwit.

"Oh, we were suspicious," said Natasha. "That's why we checked out the area before you showed up. Here's what we found." She tapped a device around her wrist and produced a glowing hologram showing an extremely detailed 3D blueprint of the suite. "There are thirty-seven cameras in this unit, including two each behind some the bathroom mirrors, and twelve audio feeds, all of which I disabled except the one that connects to the virtual room service. And I rerouted the wiring so it’s reporting back on an empty room from the floor below ours so it won’t look like the AV just blacked out.”

“Whoa,” said Ryan. “What are you, some kind of super spy?”

Natasha smiled at him, and said, "Something like that."

“Impressive," said the Doctor. "I take my hat off to you--or would, if I still wore a hat--but that doesn’t change the fact that there is something very wrong here."

“Yeah, I want to know more about those cameras in the mirrors," said Yasmin. "That’s just creepy.”

“No kidding,” said Gamora. “Did you find out who’s watching?”

“Not yet.” Natasha punched in a command on her wrist and the hologram changed to a line of rapidly decrypting code. “But I got a trace running before we sat down to eat. Should be done in another fifty to seventy seconds.”

The cameras were only part of it. Several of the compartments were nearly empty, like the loading dock with all the ships that the Doctor, Ryan, and Yasmin had found. Gamora shared what she'd found out about the planet they were orbiting--although not where she'd gotten the information--and the Doctor was as disturbed as she was.

"It doesn't make any sense, taking a cruise ship out here," said the Doctor. "Gravity storms are no fun at all. A big one could fry the propulsion systems without a warning."

"Is that likely?" asked Yasmin uneasily.

"No, no," said the Doctor. "I've seen them before, they always pass quickly. Never more than thirty seconds or so. Like a quake, really. It'll just invert the ship's artificial gravity, or disable it entirely, causing us to plummet to the surface, where we'd be vaporized instantly once we reach the toxic atmosphere. Horribly painful way to die, but I'm sure we're high enough that we won't be affected. Well, not for long enough to get back to the TARDIS anyway. Hopefully. . ."

"I've so missed these cheerful monologues of yours," grumbled Loki. "Is there good news?"

"Yes," said Natasha. "The trace is finished." She brought the blueprint up again, this time expanding it to another set of rooms on the ship. "Looks like the info is being sent . . . here." She pointed and enlarged what looked a small control room next to a banquet hall. "This is three levels below us. We can get there by one of the elevators, but I can't get a read on the security. I need to get a closer look to see what they've got."

"Is that one of the levels where they're doing the scavenger hunt?" asked Ryan. "If we go in there by mistake, we could pretend we got lost again."

The Doctor shook her head. "I like how you're thinking, Ryan, but that trick won't work twice."

"I'm not against the scavenger hunt, though," said Graham. "We could get a better look at the ship at least."

"Agreed," said Gamora. "What levels did Gemini say?"

"Four, five, and six," said Yasmin.

Natasha checked the schematics again. "Well, the room we need is on Level Five. Doctor, we gotta get in there."

The Doctor wasn't listening though. She was searching through the pockets of her jacket, her face pulled into the scowl. Whatever she was looking for wasn't presenting itself. "Right," she muttered. "Okay. It's probably still on the TARDIS."

"What is?" asked Ryan.

"My psychic paper. Can open a lot of locked doors, but only if I've got it with me. Tell you what: you lot carry on. Scavenge, search, ask clever questions, keep in touch. I'll catch up in a bit."

With that, she skipped away down the stairs and out the door, already on her way back to her ship before anyone could stop her.

Graham sighed. "She does that. She'll be back."

#

With three levels between the six of them, they could cover more ground by going two to a floor, keeping in touch with the ear pieces. Natasha, naturally, wanted to check out Level Five, the better to explore and try to get close to that large room attached to the control room. Loki volunteered to go with her.

But as soon as they split off in different directions, Loki pulled her aside. "She's lying," he said. "She never leaves the ship without her psychic paper, it's almost as indispensable as her screwdriver."

"That thing is a screwdriver?" asked Natasha.

"Never mind that: the psychic paper, it automatically shows whatever kind of identification you want it to. Get your hands on one of those, and you never need a forged passport again."

Natasha raised her eyebrows. "That would've come in handy in my line of work. So, what are you thinking?"

Loki peered down the hallway, in the direction the Doctor had gone. "I'm thinking there's something else on her ship she doesn't want us to know about."

"You wanna go after her."

"Yes, very much." He paused. "Do you trust me?"

Natasha scoffed. "No, but I trust her less. Go."

He gave her a look she couldn't quite decipher, then said, "Fair enough," and headed back towards the parking deck. He was acting so . . . well, Natasha couldn't decide. Not suspiciously, exactly, but something. She'd seen him with his guard up before, but this felt different. Whatever it was, Natasha was anxious to see what he found out.

~~~@~~~

Chapter Text

The psychic paper was tucked neatly into one of the Doctor's many jacket pockets. Where it always was. Naturally. But something else was on the TARDIS. Something she'd almost missed, but definitely something that did not belong.

She hopped over to the console and tapped in the code to bring up life form readings. Just as she'd suspected: a stowaway. Hiding in the observatory of all places. They were moving a lot, whoever they were, so it was tricky focusing the short-range teleport. The Doctor turned a dial shaped like an old rotary phone, narrowing the scope, trying to get closer. She had to bring them into the console room or there was no telling where they'd end up next. If she could just narrow it down a little more. . .

"Gotcha," she said with a grin. "Now come to Mummy."

But before she could activate the teleport, the doors burst open. She huffed, knowing who it was before even turning around. "I see you're still not doing as you're told, then?" she asked.

Loki--of course it was Loki--merely responded, "I see you're still not doing what you say. Why are you here?"

"It's my ship, I can come and go as I please."

"No, I mean why are you here? On this cruise liner. I know you were beamed aboard, but what were you doing so close to a cataclysmically dangerous planet's orbit in the first place?"

"Oh, you know how it is," she muttered, moving to another screen around the console and punching in coordinates to get a look at the local solar systems. "Sometimes the TARDIS gets her own ideas about where we're going. I've learned not to argue."

"Mm." He walked slowly around the console room, hands clasped behind him. "And your new friends are fine with that, are they?"

She huffed. "Yes, Loki, friends trust each other. That's why they're called 'friends.' You'd know that, if you had any."

"Yes, I suppose they do." He paused thoughtfully. "You've turned a corner, it seems. Or are letting them think you are. They don't know about Gallifrey, do they?"

She was punching in commands and pulling levers much harder than necessary, mouth flattened into a thin line. "That was a long time ago."

"A very long time. So long that any new friends you make don't have to find out who you really are. Do they know any of your other names? The Predator? The Oncoming Storm?"

"Oh, that's so you. Thinking whatever someone's done at their worst is who they really are. We aren't all sociopathic narcissists, you know."

"No, and we haven't all attempted genocide on our own people, and yet we keep running into each other. Don't you sometimes wonder why?"

Her eyes flashed. "That is enough." She slammed a lever down and marched up to him. "Don't you threaten me. And don't you dare compare your mistakes to mine. You know damn well I did what I did because I had no choice--and for the record, I've fixed it. I saved Gallifrey, which is more than you can say for any of the lives you've taken. Isn't it?"

Loki went very still. If the Doctor hadn't been, well, herself, she might've even been frightened. She wondered if she might've gone too far.

"Well?" she asked impatiently.

"You can repair the Tesseract," he said. "You're probably the only one in this universe or any other who can figure out why it wouldn't work for us, and send us on our way. I know you want to be rid of my company as badly as I do yours, so what's stopping you?"

"Is that was this is about? You want me to fix your little blue box?"

"Can you?" He plucked the cube out of the air, where he'd been hiding it behind one of his illusion spells.

The Doctor considered lying. She'd scanned the Tesseract the moment it arrived onboard, and she already had several ideas about what had thrown them off-course. But she hadn't quite worked it out yet.

"You could've just asked nicely," she said. "Fine, give it here. I'll take a look. On one condition," she added, as Loki started to hand it over.

He frowned. "What condition?"

"Vormir. Tell me what happened there."

His jaw clenched, and he said, "That is not my story to tell."

"Well then. I guess we're at an impasse."

"I hate impasses."

"So do I. Now, get off my ship. I'm busy."

He didn't argue, but he did take the Tesseract with him. No surprises there. Except one: he hadn't lied. He could have easily made something up about Vormir, or even made some nasty comment about how she didn't deserve to know the truth, but that hadn't happened either. He'd said it wasn't his story to tell.

So, there was a story. The Doctor just had to find out whose.

#

Tony woke up with a splitting headache. His first thought was he'd landed badly at whatever battle they'd been fighting. Where were they this time? The compound? Yeah, this was the big one. The last one, or so he was hoping.

He remembered Pepper leaning over him, and Peter, and Rhodey. They seemed upset about something. His arm felt weird. It didn't hurt, not like any hurt he was used to, but it felt stiff, as if it was made of wood. They were all talking in soft, rushed voices, but only one filtered through: Pepper, saying, "You can rest now."

So he'd shut his eyes. That was the last thing he remembered.

But he must have survived because now he was looking up through a vaulted glass ceiling, at a night sky scattered with billions of stars. There was a massive telescope--brass casing, celestial dial on the side, very 18th century, but clean as if it was brand new. The marble floor was inlaid with silver in the pattern of a compass or astrolabe, but based on a system that Tony had never seen before. Was he back in space? How?

Wait, there was something else, from before. He remembered a forest, and it had been raining. Flashes from his memory that didn't make sense. Losing the scepter to the Hydra operatives posing as SHIELD agents, but also losing it to Loki posing as Cap. But no, that wasn't Loki, it was Cap, from a different timeline. He remembered it both ways, the now and the later.

Then the forest had filled with a smoky bluish light, and he'd woken up in here.

Tony groaned, and tried to sit up. "Friday, tell me something," he said.

But she didn't answer.

"Friday?" he tried again. Then, "Jarvis? Anyone?"

Nothing. Okay. He'd worked with less before, he could do it again. He hauled himself to his feet and headed for a blinking light on the near wall. Maybe a control panel, maybe a lock, maybe something else, but it was better than nothing.

"Hello, stranger," he said to the machinery. "Let's see if you can tell me where we are."

In less than an hour, he had pried the paneling away, gotten a look at the wiring and circuit boards, and concluded that he was not in the eighteenth century, but very little else. This place was a combination of several different technologies from several different time periods, all impossibly working together as a cohesive unit. How could it do that?

More disturbing though was the fact that the stars outside the window were completely unfamiliar. This was either a ship or another planet, but not someplace he knew. Which meant. . . Well, he didn't know what yet, but he didn't get much of a chance to wonder. Because the next moment, there was a high-pitched buzzing noise, a sharp exacerbation of his existing headache, and then all the walls melted away.

"There you are!" said a bright, cheerful voice somewhere to Tony's left. It belonged to a smallish, blond woman in one of the wildest outfits he'd ever seen: rainbow-striped t-shirt, suspenders and floppy pants a few inches too short, a powder-blue hooded coat, and worn leather boots. "Phew! Almost lost you for a second there. You could've ended up in the swimming pool, and the short-range teleport doesn't work with water."

She dragged him to a chair in a circular room that was even stranger looking than the one with the telescope. Pillars carved out of yellow rock formations, a central control hub with everything on from rotary phones to hand cranks to touch screen monitors, and the surrounding walls were covered in gears and hexagons.

"Am I dreaming?" he asked.

"'Fraid not, dear," said the blond woman, pulling a stethoscope out of her pocket. "But don't worry, you're safe now. I'm the Doctor, by the way."

"Doctor . . .?"

"Yep, that's me! Now, hold still, let's take a look." She breathed on the chest piece of the stethoscope and pressed it over his heart. Or tried to, but quickly ran into the arc reactor. "Oh, hang on. That is interesting." She frowned, and moved the device over.

"How long have I been here?" asked Tony. "And no offense, but your bedside manner could use some work."

Ignoring him, she abruptly put the stethoscope away and pressed her ear to the arc reactor.

"Okay--slow down, Rainbow Brite. Let me buy you a drink first." Tony pushed her away and got out of the chair. "Where am I? Let's start there."

She still wasn't listening to him, but now had a yellow device that looked like a laser pointer made of some kind of plastic resin. "Wow--dozens of layers of microconfigurations, all handmade, all designed from scratch and--" she aimed the pointer straight at the arc reactor, "--a strong but highly localized electromagnetic field. That must be why it threw you into the observatory rather than in the console room with the others. It would have caused too much interference."

Tony's ears perked up at that. "Others? What others?"

She twisted the device around--not a pointer, Tony decided, but some kind of scanner or probe--and said, "And that's a latrillium core. Good lord, that's never even been attempted. Is that thing keeping you alive?"

"That's a . . . complicated question, actually." It hadn't escaped Tony that the arc reactor with the synthesized core element--What had she called it? Latrillium? Was that even a thing?--was not the most recent model, and he definitely didn't need it embedded as life support anymore. So what was it doing there?

But the Doctor beamed at the word "complicated."

"Oh, those are my favorites!" she exclaimed. "Do tell."

"Nuh-uh, my turn: What others? Who else is here? You said you're a doctor, are you treating injuries? Casualties?"

"Casualties? Why, have you been fighting someone?"

The question was so absurd, Tony started to laugh. Had he been fighting? Was she kidding? Didn't she know who he was?

The Doctor frowned. She was putting the pieces together in the other direction, just as he was. "Interesting," she said. "That explains why they were carrying so many weapons. Not coming to a fight, but leaving one. A big one, I imagine."

"The biggest," Tony confirmed.

"On Vormir, I suppose?"

"What? No, on Earth. Who else is here?"

"But they said you lost something on Vormir. Something important."

Natasha's face rose up in Tony's memory, sharp-eyed and pleading, like she'd looked on the porch of the lake house. Yeah, they'd lost something all right. Something that couldn't be replaced. So the Avengers were here. Tony should've known they were still looking for a way to get Natasha back.

"Oh," said the Doctor slowly. "Not something, but someone. Oh dear. I'm so sorry."

With that, Tony was out of patience. He grabbed hold of her suspenders and shoved her back against one of the rock formations.

"I wouldn't do that, mate!" she warned, her voice pitching upward.

"You are gonna tell where my friends are, and you're gonna take me to them, now," was what Tony meant to say. What came out was, "You are gon-na. . ." and then a wave of intense vertigo crashed into him, along with a sharp refresher for his headache. He went down on his hands and knees, breathing fast and shallow.

"There, you see?" said the Doctor, sweeping her strange buzzing device over him again. "You're still disoriented. No sudden movements for half an hour. Side-effect of the short-range teleport--the TARDIS still isn't used to it." She knelt down and helped him back to his feet. "Now, I'll let that slide because you're scared and you don't know me, but I won't tolerate another outburst. Meanwhile, your friends are fine. So let's get you to the room so you can have a lie down. Doctor's orders."

"Lady, I don't trust you."

"Yep, getting that." She slung one of his arms around her shoulders and brought them to a blue door across the room. "But I don't have time to argue. Come on."

~~@~~

Chapter Text

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."

~~@~~