circ_bamboo: (kirk_saltshaker)
[personal profile] circ_bamboo
Title: Hardest of Hearts (also on AO3)
Fandom: Marvel Cinematic Universe
Pairing/Characters: Bruce Banner/Loki; they're the only ones who show up
Summary: This is, yes, the Bruce and Loki Canadian Shack-Snowstorm-Oh No There's Only One Bed story you never knew you needed in your life.
Rating: NC-17/Explicit
Word Count: 13,600 total
Content notes/warnings: Nothing I can think of but please comment if I'm mistaken.
Author's notes: Written for [ profile] jou. Thanks to [ profile] feels_like_fire for beta work and also encouragement, and the title, which is from a Florence + the Machine song. Also, the book summarized in there somewhere is Vision in White by Nora Roberts.

Bruce Banner hitched his knapsack a little higher up over his shoulder and set the carryall down for a moment, kneading his hand inside the down-filled glove as he looked up at the sky. The weather radio was predicting at least a foot of snow, and not living on anything approximating a main road, he'd stocked up accordingly. The snowpack was already a few inches deep, and although he'd cleared out paths from his tiny cabin, he was pretty sure he'd be stuck inside for a few days.

It was a good thing he was alone; he could probably manage to stay in control if he was by himself, even in such a small place, but he couldn't possibly endanger anyone else.

Besides, there wasn't anyone he particularly wanted to be snowed in with, at least not for the four or five days it would likely take for the track to his cabin to be cleared. Bella Coola, British Columbia was known for its snow and not much else, and he lived a few miles outside of town. His pickup truck was in town, still at the garage from having broken an axle in the last snowstorm, and he had gotten a ride back as far as he could from the guy who worked at the shop. It still left him with a bit of a walk, though. He picked up the carryall again and hiked the last few hundred yards up the hill.

Before he even got home, though, he realized something was strange. Not necessarily wrong, but not completely right, either. There weren't any strange footprints; the snow was churned up by his shovel and a few random deer, but nothing new. The door to the cabin wasn't ajar; everything outside looked exactly as he'd left it. And yet . . .

Bruce set the knapsack and the carryall on the ground as quietly as he could and hunched over, creeping up to the side of the house to look in the window. He'd left one unshuttered, hoping to catch a little bit of the last few rays of sunshine before the storm, and now he was glad that he had.

Someone was in his cabin.

His heart sped up, and the Other Guy tickled at the back of his mind, but he put his hand on the wall of the cabin and counted to ten in a lot of different languages, concentrating on his breath as best as he could despite the cold air. Once the Other Guy receded a bit, he looked through the window again.

The person in his cabin was gone, and--was that the door opening?

"Please come in, Dr. Banner. It's cold outside, and the snow is supposed to start any time now."

Bruce took two steps to the corner of the cabin and peered around the corner carefully, still breathing carefully. On the step in front of the open door was a tall, slender man, dark hair swept back from his forehead, skin paler white than even most of the locals. He was dressed in a full-length black wool coat and boots, and he had his hands in his pockets. "Who are you?" Bruce asked.

"I'm certainly not going to hurt you, and you cannot hurt me," the man said in lieu of answering, an upper-class English accent flavoring his words.

Bruce tipped his head to one side and said, "That's nice to know, but who are you?"

"Loki. Do come in; your bags are starting to soak through."

Bruce automatically looked at his knapsack and carryall, which were starting to get wet from the snow, and then turned back to--Loki. "Like the trickster god?" He'd read American Gods, like everyone else in his demographic, and some people named their kids weird things. He picked up his bags.

"Exactly like," Loki said, apparently amused. He stood back and gestured through the door into the cabin.

Bruce considered his options for the moment: take a few minutes to kick the strange guy out of his cabin, or desert the whole mess and go find somewhere else to wait out the snowstorm? Obviously the first was easier, so he said, "After you," and followed Loki inside.

The open door had let a fair amount of heat out, but Bruce put the supplies in the kitchen area and hung up his coat before he went to poke the fireplace. Loki was perched on edge of the bed, and while that was annoying, it wasn't exactly something Bruce needed to do anything about at the moment.

When he'd gotten the temperature in the cabin back up where he wanted it, he turned to Loki, still lounging, and said, "What are you doing here?"

"Why, Dr. Banner, I'm sure you're aware of the snowstorm coming. I needed somewhere to stay."

"There's a town about three or four miles that way," Bruce said, pointing. "If you leave now, I'll throw in my snowshoes for free."

Loki laughed. "I'm not going anywhere, my dear doctor."

"I don't exactly think there's room in here for both of us." The cabin was maybe twenty feet square; Bruce had lived in smaller places, and sometimes even with other people. The fact that this place had electricity and indoor plumbing was a bonus. But it wasn't really square footage that he meant.

"Oh, you mean your large green other self? I'm aware of his existence."

Bruce started. "Are you from General Ross?" Not yet, not yet, he told himself, trying to hold back the spike of fear. Don’t transform yet.

"Who?" Loki said. "Someone with your military? No." He lay back, sprawling, arms out. "I'm here of my own accord and I have no desire to tell anyone about your secluded little existence here." One hand raised and gestured in a circle.

"So why are you here?" Bruce resisted the urge to add a four-letter word or two (or ten) to the sentence and concentrated on breathing in through his nose, out through his mouth.

"Seeing the sights, of course," Loki said. "It's quite lovely up here."

"Yeah, no." Bruce turned and started pacing back and forth, counting in his head. He was starting not to care even the slightest why Loki was in his cabin, but he wanted him gone. "I don't believe you, and I don't actually give a fuck why you're here, but you're going to have to leave."

"Too late," Loki said. "The snowstorm has already started."

Bruce shook his head. "It can't have. It wasn't snowing five minutes ago."

"And yet." Loki indicated the window by the bed in another elegant gesture, and Bruce went to look out a completely different window in a fit of pique.

Yes, it was snowing out there, thickly enough that he could barely see the big pine tree not fifteen feet away. Damnit.

He sighed and turned to look back at Loki, who had taken his overcoat off and was wearing, of all things, a business suit in a medium gray. Bruce looked down and yes, Loki was wearing dress shoes, black leather perforated in a fancy design over the toe, complete with leather soles. "Seriously?"

Loki frowned. "I'm sorry?"

"You're wearing a wool suit and dress shoes. How did you even get up here? You know what, never mind." He sighed again and turned to the dresser, pulling out a set of thermal underwear, flannel-lined jeans that were a bit too long for him--and a belt, because Loki looked narrower in the waist than he was--a long-sleeved shirt, a wool sweater, and a pair each of cotton and wool socks. "Here."

Loki looked from the pile to Bruce's face and then back down at the pile of clothing. "Oh. You feel I'm insufficiently dressed for the weather. But is this a prelude to renewing your requests that I leave? I'll remain in my own clothing."

Bruce rolled his eyes. "It's already snowing. If I make you leave now, you'll die." He didn't add, if you stay you might die anyway, because he thought it was too obvious. "You might as well be comfortable."

"You think I'll be--comfortable--in that?" Loki said, disbelief radiating from every inch of him.

"You'll be warmer," Bruce said. He didn’t want the guy in his cabin, and probably he should have left Loki in his business wear, but he didn’t want him to have to ask for clothing later.

Loki raised an eyebrow. "If you insist--"

"I do insist," Bruce said, and turned to kneel by the fireplace again. He rearranged the embers for a moment, and heard a rustling noise. Turning to look over his shoulder, he caught a glimpse of white skin--a long expanse of white skin--and turned back hurriedly.

"You're welcome to watch, Dr. Banner," Loki called.

"I'm good," Bruce replied, and replaced the poker in its stand. So it could possibly be said about him that he had a thing for pale-skinned brown-haired people; so what? Lots of people had types, even types that transcended gender and sex. Besides, this particular specimen was a jerk. An uninvited jerk.

"I'm fully clothed, Dr. Banner. You need no longer stare into the fire as though it holds all your answers."

Bruce straightened deliberately and shot a disgusted look at Loki. The disgust rapidly turned into amusement, as the clothing was simultaneously too big and too small: the sweater's cuffs ended an inch or so above Loki's hands, but was baggy around his midsection. The jeans were cinched rather tightly by the belt, but he'd had to turn down the cuffs--cuffs ironed in but not sewn by the original manufacturer--to get them to be long enough, and the fabric was kinked a couple inches above his feet.

"Are you warmer?" Bruce asked, still trying not to smile.

"Certainly," Loki said, and raised a hand to tug at the cuff of the sweater. "Am I to wear this clothing for as long as the storm lasts?"

Bruce shrugged. "If it's cold in here, sure." He gestured to the fireplace. "I only have so much fuel, so I can't keep it at a nice and toasty seventy-two degrees. Er, that is, twenty-two C." He would make a joke about putting on a cardigan, but he wasn't sure that Loki was old enough to remember when Carter was president.

And wasn't that depressing. Bruce shook his head and went over to make himself some coffee. "Coffee? Tea?" he asked.

"Whatever you're having for yourself; I wouldn't want to put you out," Loki said.

Bruce turned to glare at him again, and Loki was sitting on the edge of the bed with a shit-eating grin on his face. He shook his head, and turned back to the hot plate.

He made two cups of tea, the most expensive kind he could find at the tiny grocery store in town; not his favorite, but drinkable enough. He'd certainly had worse, and if Loki hadn't, well, he'd have to deal with it. "Sugar, milk?" he asked without looking.

"Neither," Loki said.

Bruce picked up one mug in each hand--lucky he had two at all, but he disliked doing dishes after literally every meal--and walked over to the bed, setting one mug down on the bedside table and taking the other one over with him to the table in the corner. He flipped the lid of his laptop open and waited for it to wake up.

"Do you have access to the outside world?" Loki asked.

He only had to turn partway to see the other man, sitting cross-legged on the bed with the mug of tea in his hands. "Sort of," he said. "I don't have a phone but I can usually hack the satellite internet that the people in town use for a couple hours a day." The computer beeped, and he swiped a fingertip over the reader. "Probably not today, though. Satellite dishes don't work very well when they're covered in snow."

"Ahh," Loki said, and Bruce got the strange idea that none of what he'd said made any sense to him.

"There's a dish on the roof," Bruce said. "There's no cell phone reception--er, mobile phone--this far out, so most people use satellite for the internet if they can afford it. And none of this means anything to you, does it."

Loki shrugged. "It matters not." He set the tea down carefully on the bedside table and lay back down on the bed, head on the pillows. "You may continue speaking if you find you must fill the silence, Dr. Banner."

I don't. Also, get off my bed. But he resisted saying both things and just turned back to his laptop, checking in with a program that he had going through a pile of data for him.

No patterns yet, or at least no patterns that he didn't already know about. Oh well. He started writing a database query in another window, to look for a different pattern.

He surfaced finally when he felt someone standing behind him. "Don't do that," he said, as pleasantly as he could. "I don't react well to being startled."

"I'm hardly startling you," Loki said, still smooth as silk. "I've not taken care to muffle my footsteps, and although I am not wearing shoes, the floor in here creaks like an old woman's bones. Would you like more tea? I've made you some."

"Oh," Bruce said. "Tea. Sure." He supposed even if Loki had poisoned it, Loki would deserve the Other Guy coming after him. He took the cup that Loki held out--the same mug he'd drained some time ago, and apparently hadn't noticed its removal--and took a careful sip.

It was hot, exactly the temperature he preferred (just below taste-bud removal) and steeped apparently exactly the same amount of time that the previous batch had been, which probably meant that Loki was a fast learner. "Thank you," he said, realizing belatedly that it was what he should have done. He could get used to having someone else around to make the tea, really.

"What are you doing?" Loki asked, gesturing to the screen.

And in a flash, Bruce remembered why he didn't like people around making tea. "It's complicated," he said. "I've got some data and now I'm looking for patterns. That is, the computer is looking for patterns. I'm . . . directing it where to look," he added.

"Ah," Loki said. "Is this regarding the . . . creation, of your large green other self?"

"Um, well, no," Bruce said, "not this set." He stopped speaking, in hopes that Loki wouldn't ask any more, and he didn't.

A moment passed; Bruce stared at the laptop screen again for a moment, saved a couple of files, and closed the lid before saying, "Look, I haven't asked you any questions, really, and I don't care who you are or what you're doing here as long as you don't, I don't know, give away my location to the US government or any other government with an extradition treaty, and I'd prefer you extend me the same courtesy." He sighed. "We're stuck here for two or three days, maybe more, and I'd like to make this as painless as possible."

"I cannot see how idle conversation with me would be considered painful," Loki said, sounding miffed.

"We can--idly converse," Bruce said, "just not about my work."

"I doubt we have much in common, my good doctor."

"We both like tea," he said, after a moment.

Loki was startled into a laugh, and a stab of--something went through Bruce. He didn't quite recognize it at first, but a moment later he recognized it as attraction. Unwelcome, unwanted attraction to his irksome guest. He willed it to go away immediately, if not sooner.

"Yes, well," he said as he turned back to the laptop, opening it again. "I've got some books on the shelves over there." Mostly they'd been left by the previous inhabitants and therefore skewed a little towards westerns, spy thrillers, and romance novels for Bruce's tastes, but he'd read most of them anyway. "If you want, I probably have some spare looseleaf paper floating around, but I only have one computer."

"It is not a problem, Dr. Banner. I can entertain myself."

"You can call me Bruce." It wasn't meant to be grudging, but it came out that way.

"Bruce, then."

"Do you have a last name?" he asked, and then stopped. "You don't have to answer that."

Loki didn't say anything, and Bruce turned to see him leaning against the second chair, forearms crossed. "Laufeyson, I suppose."

Bruce nodded, but stopped himself from saying, You suppose? because it wasn't any of his business and lord knew he had enough issues with sharing a name with his father that he really shouldn't judge anyone else. Laufeyson sounded like a patronymic, but those weren't commonly used outside of Iceland, he didn't think. Perhaps he'd changed his name due to some tragic event? Or, he thought wildly, maybe in this day and age, Loki had changed his name upon marriage and had recently divorced.

Not your business, Banner, he reminded himself. He brought up a gedit screen and started typing a completely-bogus grocery list to distract himself.

A couple minutes later Loki straightened and walked away; Bruce heard him go over to the shelves, remove a book, and then return to the bed.

Some time later, Bruce twitched a little, realizing that Loki had spoken. "I'm sorry?" he said.

"This double-oh-seven person--he seems to be rather obsessed with his own technology," Loki said, with the air of someone patiently repeating something.

Bruce laughed. "That's one way of putting it," he said, and returned to his data sorting.

It was only twenty minutes or so later that he realized that despite Loki’s perfectly-cultured London accent and affectation, he’d shown no recognition whatsoever of Britain’s most famous modern export. Odd, Bruce thought.

* * *

He fed himself and Loki dinner--spaghetti with sauce from a jar, but the bread was fresh--and Loki volunteered to wash the dishes, which was unexpectedly pleasant. "Dish soap is under the sink," Bruce said, pointing, "and the towel is hung on the cabinet door."

Loki nodded again, and set to his task.

Bruce decided to take a look outside--at some point he'd need to get started shoveling, if he didn't want to have to shovel two or three feet all at once--and put on his coat and a hat.

"Where are you going?" Loki asked.

"Nowhere," Bruce said. "Looking out the door, to see how bad the damage is."

"Ahhh," Loki said.

Bruce waited a moment more, but Loki said nothing else, so he pulled on his gloves and opened the door.

It was definitely white-out conditions; the wind pushed the door out of his hands and slammed it back shut before he could see anything else, or figure out how deep the snow was. "Huh," he said. "Well, that's that."

"Oh?" Loki said.

"It's a little windy out," Bruce said, and he felt his mouth quirk up into a half-smile.

"I never would have guessed," Loki said, and looked up.

If he concentrated, Bruce could definitely hear the wind whistling around them in a circle, but the cabin was very well insulated so it wasn't exactly obvious. And his hearing was definitely better than average, had been even before the Other Guy had given him some marginal enhancements even when he was still himself. So Loki's hearing was probably even better than that. Huh.

Or perhaps he was younger. Bruce shook his head. There were perfectly normal reasons that someone would have better hearing than a forty-year-old academic who'd spent part of the last year working in a factory. He brushed the snow off his coat, stuffed the hat and gloves into his pockets, and hung everything back up by the door before taking off his boots and putting on an extra pair of socks.

* * *

It occurred to him maybe a half hour later that he only had one bed, and nothing like a couch that could be used to sleep on. The bed was large enough to share--the gendered selection of books implied that couples often used it--but still. Bruce hadn't shared a bed more than once or twice in years, and he'd woken up as the Other Guy before, a long time ago, due to nightmares. It could happen again, he thought, although it wasn't likely, and even if not, the nightmares didn't go away, just the transformation part.

Mostly, he didn't want to be asleep and vulnerable, but he couldn't stay awake for three to five days. Sleep deprivation was a very good way to fray his control. Ugh.

He tucked his feet under him on the chair and let his hands rest on his knees for a moment, ignoring the light from the laptop, the faint whistling of the wind, and the occasional page-turn or sigh from Loki, who had returned to his book after finishing the dishes. He counted inhales and exhales, slowing his breath down until it was barely audible, and his heartbeat followed. He closed his eyes and focused on a point above his nose, behind his forehead, and relaxed, consciously, from his scalp down to his toes, pulling everything that was Bruce inside him, into a ball of light, and letting everything else go.

When he felt better, more in control, more himself, he opened his eyes, shook his head slightly, and put his feet back on the (cold, dear lord) floor, tapping on the track pad to make the computer wake out of sleep mode.

If he turned his head just a bit, he could see that Loki had shifted, no longer leaning against the stack of pillows on the headboard. No, instead he was lying on his stomach, feet crossed in the air, arms propping himself up on a pillow except when one hand reached out to turn the page.

It was . . . cute. Inappropriately cute, especially considering the person in question was (a) taller than Bruce, (b) a jerk who had invaded his secluded Canadian cabin and gotten himself stuck there during a snowstorm, and (c) appropriated his bed. Bruce sighed. It was only a little after eight, and even on his own time he'd be awake for a few more hours.

Although normally about this time he'd be switching to the bed, because wooden chairs weren't the most comfortable.

But Loki was on the bed.

He gritted his teeth and promised himself that he'd do yoga tomorrow morning to straighten his back out.

* * *

Another three and a half hours of data crunching--and zero results, although he might have discovered an ancillary use for one of his formulations of the serum in MS treatment--and his eyes were starting to burn. He really couldn't put it off anymore; it had been dark for a couple hours, despite the weird light from the snow, and sunrise was absurdly early. He sighed, shut down the useless processes, and put the computer into suspended mode. "I'm tired," he said, and it sounded more snappish than he intended. "Unfortunately, and despite the risks, there's only one bed, so if you were planning on sleeping, we're going to have to share. Were you planning on sleeping?" he asked, because that was a solution he hadn't thought of.

"I would rather sleep than not, yes," Loki said, closing his book after a quick glance down at the page. "What do you mean by 'the risks'?"

Bruce flicked his gaze up to the ceiling. "I'm sure you can extrapolate what might happen if I have a particularly awful nightmare."

"Ah," Loki said. "It seems no more of a risk than being here with you, in a log cabin, during a snowstorm, with heat provided by a fireplace."

It really wasn't the same, but Bruce shrugged.

"The bed looks more than large enough for both of us, even if we didn't wish to be close." Loki quirked an eyebrow.

"We don't wish to be close," Bruce said, rolling his eyes.

"I shall keep my hands to myself if you promise that you will," Loki said, his expression settling into more of a smirk.

There was really no answer to that. Bruce stood, found his pajamas--flannel pants and a long-sleeved knit shirt--and a spare set, and threw the extras at Loki before retreating.

The bathroom was one corner of the square cabin, blocked off to house a sink, a toilet, and a shower stall all in barely enough space to allow a full-sized adult to turn around, but he managed. It was a luxury to have running water, and hot water, at that. He didn't shower, though; just changed into pajamas, brushed his teeth, flossed, gargled with mouthwash, washed his face, and stared into the mirror for a moment. He sighed at his reflection. "Can't hide in here forever, Banner," he said under his breath, and washed his hands a second time just to make a point. (To whom, he wasn't sure.)

He left the bathroom a moment later and almost immediately ducked back in. Loki was standing, facing the bed, shirtless, pushing the jeans over his hips, and Bruce really didn't want to find out what exactly sort of underwear was favored in Iceland (or wherever he was from), although he--

Yeah. Commando.

Well, that image isn't going away anytime soon, he thought, and sighed.

Which was his second mistake in as many minutes, as the sigh caught Loki's attention and made him turn around. Bruce had half a second to decide whether to close his eyes and risk Loki laughing at him, or leave them open and see a lot more than he intended.

It wasn't much of a decision, really; he'd had enough derision in his life. He kept his eyes on Loki's face, though.

"Why, Dr. Banner," Loki said, grinning. "I'm afraid you've caught me in the middle of changing. You are, of course, welcome to watch."

With the odd feeling that he was doing something completely out of character, Bruce took a step to the right and leaned on the counter, crossing his arms and raising his eyebrows.

Loki laughed, bright and delighted, and started dressing.

Bruce thought about staring over Loki's head to make a point for about thirty seconds and thought screw it. Loki wanted him to watch, he'd watch. And it wasn't going to be a problem to keep himself under control. It wasn't. Really.

It wasn't the most seductive dressing he'd ever seen--that honor belonged to Morgan McKenzie his second year of college, even though the dressing happened right after she'd declined to go any farther than second base--but Loki wasn't exactly throwing his clothes on haphazardly. He turned back to the bed, bent over, stepped into the pajama bottoms, and slid them up his legs slowly.

He did have a nice ass, Bruce was forced to admit, even if just only in his mind. He bit his tongue just a little bit; the pain forced his concentration away from Loki and back to his own body, which was most definitely not reacting. Nope. Not even a little bit.

Next, Loki picked up the knit shirt, balled it up, and pulled it over his head, stretching his arms up to let the shirt fall down his body. It was a nice effect, and Bruce nodded appreciatively when Loki turned back around. "Very nice," he said, trying to sound disaffected and reasonably sure that he did not.

Loki's smirk confirmed it.

* * *

Fifteen minutes later, curled up on his side, facing the door, Loki lying on his back, an extra pillow forming an ineffectual barrier between the two of them, Bruce sighed again. How was this his life?

"If you are chilled, Bruce, I would gladly lend you my warmth."

"No, I'm not cold," he said through gritted teeth. He wasn't; the bed had a down-filled quilt and multiple thermal blankets, and it wasn't less than 60 degrees F in the cabin, anyway. He'd banked the fire properly, and anyway, after a few weeks in the cabin, he would definitely wake up if anything started burning improperly. Some vestige of proper manners prompted him to ask, "Are you?"

Loki chuckled. "I am comfortable," he said, and shifted, making the bed creak. "Do know, though, that you are always welcome to remove the pillow, should you need warmth in the middle of the night."

That does not sound like an invitation to cuddle. "I'll keep that in mind. Thank you. Good night."

"Sweet dreams, dear doctor."

Bruce did not sigh. Not outside of his head, at least.

* * *

All things considered, Loki was an ideal bed partner. He didn't move; he gave off enough heat that Bruce was toasty, but not so much that he was overheated; he didn't snore, talk in his sleep, or turn into an octopus. He even smelled okay; faintly like some sort of expensive, woodsy cologne that Bruce thought he should recognize, if he was the kind of person who recognized colognes.

Even so, there were hundreds of reasons why falling asleep was a bad idea. Bruce himself wasn't a great bed partner, and had been told as much by--by more than one person. He knew he talked in his sleep, at least occasionally; he kicked, and as a matter of fact, he did turn into an octopus. (Metaphorically.) He didn't think he smelled all that bad, but he certainly didn't smell like cologne.

But not sleeping was an even worse idea. Ugh.

He closed his eyes, thought stay in once place, damnit as hard as he could, and counted as he breathed in and out until he fell asleep.

* * *

It didn't work. He woke up the next morning wrapped around the middle pillow, the blankets all rucked up at the foot of his half of the bed. The weird grayish light coming in from the window next to the bed let him know that the snowstorm was still going, and the smell of oranges let him know that Loki had made tea.

"Good morning, Bruce," Loki said. "I trust you slept?"

Bruce sat up, rubbing his eyes. "Did I snore?" he asked.

"No," Loki said, "but I am rather intrigued to know who Betty is."

"That's none of your business." He did mean to sound harsh, but he felt a little guilty after he said it.

"Never mind," Loki said, sounding altogether too triumphant and awake for that hour of the morning--Bruce guessed it wasn't actually later than six in the morning. "I can guess. Very beautiful, very smart, and an absolute joy in between the sheets?"

Bruce almost said, Yes, yes, and it's been so long that I've forgotten, but that would be a lie--he remembered very vividly what Betty was like in bed and yes, she was an absolute joy between the sheets. One that he'd never get to experience again, most likely, because of too many stupid mistakes. "Still none of your business," he said, and got out of bed, heading quickly to the bathroom.

He closed the door behind him; it didn't lock, and he held his breath for a moment to see if Loki was going to knock and insist on continuing their conversation, but nothing happened, so he relaxed a little and turned on the shower. His eyes weren't green, despite the ball of tension in his chest, so he was probably okay.

Well, other than the erection that had tented his pajama pants and bounced as he walked across the cabin. The one he couldn't do anything about other than his usual cold shower, and damned if he really wanted a cold shower. He turned on the tap and sighed. Morning wood, he thought.

And maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't, but it was gone by the time he stepped out of the shower, ten or so minutes later. He dried himself off and pulled his pajamas back on--because of course he'd forgotten a change of clothing--and stopped, his hand on the door. He couldn't hide in the bathroom forever, it was true, but . . .

"You cannot hide in there forever," Loki called out, and Bruce smacked himself in the forehead with the heel of his hand. "Besides, why would you want to? I have successfully made breakfast."

Breakfast? Bruce opened the door about a foot and poked his head out. As soon as the door opened, he could smell some sort of toasted bread and, of course, the tea from earlier.

Loki was standing near the counter, holding a plate in each hand; he extended one to Bruce and said, "He emerges!" He was fully dressed in the clothes that Bruce had given him yesterday; he must have dampened down the sweater and stretched it out a bit, because the sleeves seemed longer than they had been the day before.

Bruce took the plate, ignoring Loki's remark; it held an English muffin, split and toasted perfectly, one half buttered, the other half with mixed-berry jam. At least, he assumed it was mixed-berry jam, as that was the only kind he'd bought. He looked askance at the temperamental toaster oven. Maybe he'd actually fixed it the last time he'd had to rewire the temperature sensor. "Thank you," he said, and stood awkwardly.

"I do believe it is customary to eat at a table?" Loki said a moment or two later.

"Usually," Bruce said, snapping his brain back into action. "Uh, I can get the other plate, if you want to bring the tea?"

Loki smiled and handed him a second plate.

Breakfast was tasty; the tea wasn't oversteeped and Loki had managed to keep it warm. He'd also managed to keep the English muffin at the exact right mix of crispy, warm, and squishy, despite the already-melted butter.

Really, if it wasn't for, oh, everything else about this situation, he'd keep Loki around for his food-wrangling ability.

After eating, Bruce collected their plates and took them to the sink, washing them quickly and setting them on the dish rack to dry. He pushed the curtain back from the window over the sink and looked outside: still poor visibility, although he could see some feet out ahead of him. "I should probably try to clear the front path some," he said, "so there's less to do tomorrow, or whenever this ends."

He turned, and Loki was right there, next to him, rinsing out his tea mug and turning on the electric kettle to make more. "That makes sense," Loki said. "I suppose you also have more data to peruse."

"There's nowhere to go; it's a one-room cabin," Bruce said. "What else is there to do? I don't have any card games."

Loki looked at him for fifteen seconds or so, a smirk slowly forming on his face, and then, right at the exact moment, raised an eyebrow.

"No," Bruce said, and closed the curtains. He tried to make it as final-sounding as he could, and punctuated it with a turn on his heel to go to the dresser to find clothing.

Loki didn't reply; he actually didn't say anything for close to three hours. Bruce managed to remove about a foot of snow from the front stoop and walkway before returning inside to change into dry clothing and ignore Loki, his attention back on his laptop, filling in sudoku puzzles during his downtime. Loki was reading on the bed again, finishing his James Bond novel and then picking up a Zane Grey paperback.

Silence--well, almost silence: the electronics still hummed, the fire still crackled, and the hot-water heater still clicked on and off--reigned, and Bruce was able to breathe a sigh of relief. However, when he got up to refill his water glass, Loki finally said, "You're not involved with anyone else, or they'd be here with you, and you're clearly interested; I am offering, so why deny yourself?"

Bruce very carefully set the glass down on the counter, turned to Loki, and said, "That's none of your business."

"All right," Loki said, and went back to his book.

It took fifteen minutes of deep breathing and another hour of sudoku before his mind would quiet down enough--and not think about Loki's question and offer--to let him dive back into his database. He let the numbers fill his vision until he finally lost himself in them.

He came back when his stomach reminded him, loudly, that he hadn't eaten, and--oh, huh, there was a sandwich near his elbow. He looked over at Loki who was still on the bed, an empty plate near his side, and said, "Thanks."

"You are quite welcome," Loki said without even looking up from his book.

Bruce was just fine with that. Or so he told himself.

Dinner was a similarly-quiet affair, eaten in two different locations, and afterward, he stood and stretched some. He hadn't bothered to change into looser-fitting pants, and he was well aware that the majority of the yoga poses he thought he needed to do involved his ass in the air, so he didn't do any of them, just raised his hands above his head and twisted from side to side to get rid of the kinks in his back and neck.

He didn't look to see if Loki was watching.

* * *

About fifteen minutes after they'd gone to bed for the night, Loki spoke up unexpectedly. "What is a black p-brane?"

Bruce blinked a couple of times, and said, "It's a part of M-theory. Well, what most people call string theory. Um, why?"

"There was a journal on top of your dresser, and it fell open to a particular article. I thought I'd read it, if you liked it that much, and although I'm certain I did not understand seventy-five percent of it, your physics textbook was quite useful in filling in some of the gaps in my education."

"Oh," he said.

"Although I don't entirely agree with the author's contention that it is an alternative to a regular p-brane. It seems that it is similar, although it doesn't describe the same thing."

"Well, it makes perfect sense if you consider it through the lens of Minkowski space." Bruce rolled onto his back and flipped into lecturer mode, fully expecting that a couple sentences of explanation would baffle Loki and he could go to sleep.

And then Loki asked a question, and another question, and then they were having a discussion about nuclear physics and M-theory, in the dark, albeit on a rather intermediate level, but Loki was smart, and oh, Bruce was in trouble.

Onto part 2


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November 2013

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