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they'll talk about us and discover how we kissed and killed each other

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The first time it happens, it happens like this:

It's the middle of the night, but Clint has only just gone to sleep. He's halfway into a dream when someone bangs on his apartment door. It startles him back to wakefulness, and his first thought is that he really needs to write a damn reminder: Take your aids out before bed, dipshit.

It's only as the banging continues, so loudly it would probably wake him even without his aids, that he realizes someone is actually knocking on the door to his apartment. Not the door to the complex, which should be locked at this hour of the night, or the buzzer up to his apartment, which would be the way to reach him from the lobby, but the door that leads directly from the building's hallway to his living room.

He makes it a point not to know any of his neighbors.

With a sigh, he takes the gun from under his pillow and a knife from the bedside table. His shoes he slips off, so his guest doesn't hear him approaching the door, although it would be hard over the continued knocking. He creeps down the hallway and crouches to peer in the peephole. The face is in shadow, but - shit.

He recognizes the form, the way it stands. It was all he cared about for weeks. It was all he dreamed about for months.

Why is Loki standing outside his door?

It's a testament to... something... that he doesn't just shoot Loki through the door. He wants to, don't get him wrong, he really, really wants to. But it would piss off his landlord, and honestly? No one who knocks that long and hard at an enemy's door is anything but desperate, and he's -

Well. 'Curious' will do just as well as anything else. (Vengeful. Pissed. Positively vibrating with hatred. Still, a little, hopelessly obsessed.)

He opens the door.

Now, Clint's not an idiot: he's got his gun up before he touches the latch. Loki knocks against empty air for a moment before he realizes he's been let in, and then he kind of freezes a little. The ambient glow from Clint's kitchen - lit-up appliances, digital clock, flickering under-cabinet lighting - doesn't illuminate much, but it's enough. Loki's eyes are fixed on his gun, shining full of the same desperation that led him here to Clint's door at three in the morning.

"What are you doing here?" Clint asks. He doesn't pronounce the question mark.

Loki opens his mouth, then shuts it again.

Clint tries a different tactic. "What do you want from me?" He angles it deliberately short: bitter and as cruel as he can make it. It's not the desperate plea of a slave hoping to avoid punishment, or the painful hope of a lover seeking recompense. It's the clipped request of a false friend revealing their true colors. He's heard it on and off his whole life. At least he's putting it to good use.

"I - " says Loki, which is progress.

"If it's going to take you that long to string words together, you might as well sit down."

Loki collapses to the ground, right there in the hall. Clint goggles at him a little.

"I meant in here," he says, gesturing at his apartment. That easy, as though he's not inviting the man who haunts his nightmares into his only safe space.

It's too dark to see if Loki blushes, but he stands and walks inside and sits on the bench Clint would use to store his shoes if he didn't sleep in them.

"So," Clint says. "Tell me why you're here."

The order seems to do it where the questions before failed. Two words startle out of Loki's mouth: "Kill me."

Loki honestly looks just as surprised to hear them as Clint, who wishes he could put the words down to Loki's sarcasm. Suicide is really, really not his strong suit, but even a year later he can read the expression on Loki's face: desire and anger and a hint of fear. It's as familiar as breathing. (More so, right now.)

"You're suicidal," Clint says. Master of the obvious, he is.

"Really?" says Loki, half caustic and half just-giving-up. "I hadn't noticed."

"Why?"

"Why?" echoes Loki. "And here I thought you of all people would stab me in the eye without questions."

Clint swallows. "Don't get me wrong, I'd love to, but I really can't afford not to look the gift horse in the mouth."

"Please refrain from speaking in mortal idiom," says Loki, voice all silver and proud, but he's sitting hunched over in a corner of Clint's apartment, and there are still tears in his eyes.

Clint sighs. He flicks on the light and sits in his armchair, still keeping his gun pointed at Loki. The way his living space is set up, Loki's mostly in profile. He looks ghostly and wrong against the fake wood of Clint's apartment door, and for the first time Clint wonders if this is a dream.

(He had just as many of those dreams, after Manhattan, as the other kind: dreams where he was the one in power, and Loki was the slave, and Clint was petty and terrible and cruel. They were the hardest to wake up from.)

"Why?" Clint repeats.

"Norns, Barton, could you please just kill me?"

"No," says Clint.

Loki turns to face him. "I can provoke you, if that's your problem, if you don't want to kill me in cold blood. I could remind you of the childhood memories you shared with me, and of all the times you wept. I could recall the last words of all the people I made you kill. I could - " and he stands and lunges, in one smooth, ugly movement: all raw power and caged animal terror. He's got his fingers crooked like claws, aimed for Clint's eyes.

Clint discards his gun and grabs Loki's wrists. He pulls Loki down so he's kneeling, eyes almost level with Clint in the chair. "If you want me to kill you, then you'll damn well tell me why." With his free hand he lays his knife along the arm of the chair, but he keeps his fingers on the hilt.

Loki pants. "And what, pray tell, will you do instead? You won't let me go, not when you know firsthand the kind of havoc I wreak. And you won't hand me over to your masters, because that takes me quite neatly out of your control." He pauses, then adds, "You know more than most, Barton, how little torture scares me." There's more rawness in that last sentence than Clint was prepared for. Even now, when he calls himself recovered and has no dreams he lets himself remember, the pain in Loki's voice makes his chest twist, a little. His grip tightens, instinctively, on Loki's wrists.

"Maybe I just know you're not the type to back down from a fight." Even - especially - a battle of wills.

Loki's face contorts so quickly that Clint wouldn't see it if it weren't for his practice. Pain and fury and despair, rage and hope and fear - all in a fraction of a second, after which his face returns to his usual calm mask. (There's no doubt it's a mask, now - if there ever was.)

"You know," Clint says, leaning back, "when you enslaved me, did you have any idea that one day it would give me power over you?" Loki's face stays blank. "I can read you better than probably anyone in the universe right now, and you're the one who trained me to."

"I need hardly tell you why I wish to die, then."

Clint raises an eyebrow. "Has it all caught up with you? The guilt? The self-loathing? The - "

"Barton, stop."

It's not Loki's voice of command, but Clint shuts up anyway. He keeps his eyes fixed on Loki's, and he waits.

It takes nearly ten minutes for Loki to drop his gaze. "I..." he starts. He swallows repeatedly. His pulse beats faster under Clint's fingers. "It seems fitting."

Clint sighs. "I'm not asking why you want me to kill you. I'm asking why you want to die."

Loki shrugs one shoulder, still not looking up. "Maybe they're the same thing."

"Yes, because I'll obviously trust you when you say something like that."

Loki closes his eyes for a long moment. When he opens them again, they're clouded. "Please," he says.

The mask is starting to crack, and Clint's honestly not even sure he likes what he can see behind it. It would be easy to lift his knife, or reach over and pick up his gun, or move his hands to Loki's neck and twist. He's killed Loki those ways and dozens more, hundreds more, in his imaginings and his dreams. But there, Loki doesn't want to die. He begs for his life, for mercy, for redemption, and in his dreams Clint gets off on denying him.

Here and now, Loki doesn't want to live. Here and now, Clint doesn't want to deny him.

"Tell me," Clint says, and lets it sit a minute. Lets Loki squirm, and is disgusted by how disgusted he is. "Why not do it yourself?"

Loki turns his head away. "I tried," he says. "It didn't work."

"Why not?" Clint asks. He expects the answer to be magic, or super healing powers, or weird Asgardian rituals.

But Loki says, "I don't know."

"You don't know? How the hell don't you know?"

Loki wrenches his wrists free, but stays kneeling in front of Clint, head down and twisted away. "If I knew that, do you think I'd be here?"

"So, what? Your own attempts to off yourself failed so disastrously that you came to me?"

"Something like that."

Clint sighs. "What did you try?"

"Everything," Loki says, voice anguished. "Everything."

"Yeah, I got it the first time. Do me a favor and tone down the hyperbole, turn up the reality."

Despite all of Loki's earlier protests against "mortal idiom," he knows exactly what Clint means. "Would you care for a list?" he asks, caustic as the first day he stepped foot on this world. He still won't face Clint.

"Sure, why the hell not?"

"Fine." Loki wets his lips. "I threw myself off a building. I slit my wrists. I starved. I burned. I - "

"Wait," Clint says, realization crystallizing at the back of his brain. "The problem isn't that you can't kill yourself." Dear god. "It's that you can't die." His stomach turns over and over on itself, again and again.

"Nothing lasts," Loki confirms in a murmur. "Nothing stays. All the pain, none of the..." He trails off, shaking his head.

"Permanence," Clint volunteers.

"Mm."

"So - why me, then?"

"Maybe it will work," says Loki, miserably. "Maybe if you hate me, it will work."

What's Clint supposed to say to that? He hates Loki less in this moment, sick sympathy twisting in his gut, than he ever has. For the first time in his right mind, he wants to reach out and comfort.

It's the same instinct that led him to bring Tasha in. It's the same instinct that kept him alive, back when Loki was in his head. All of his empathy and all of his fury, so twisted together that he can't tell the difference. That he's not so sure he wants to.

"What makes you think that?" he asks. "Seems to me you hate yourself enough for both of us."

Loki shakes his head. "The closest I came - the longest I was dead - it was my execution. It was when my father killed me."

There's too much there for Clint to unravel right now. There's a lot there he doesn't want to unravel at all. So he takes a deep breath instead, and works to make sense of the least terrifying knowledge. "How were you executed?"

"I would rather not discuss it."

"Do you want me to help you or not?"

"I want you to kill me."

"You know what I mean. Stop avoiding the damn question."

Loki swallows. He still won't look Clint in the eye. "Barton, please," he says, and that's just disturbing to hear. "Just leave it. Just - stab me, and leave it."

There's not actually anything in his SHIELD training that tells people not to assist with suicide, but Clint's pretty sure it was heavily implied. On the other hand, if he called up any person on the planet right now and explained the situation, they'd tell him to shoot Loki in the goddamn head and be done with it. If the person responsible for the worst of Tasha's pain showed up on her doorstep right now, she wouldn't hesitate to slit their throat. It shouldn't be this hard. It shouldn't be this easy. "I have to know," he says. "You can't just ask this of me and expect me to do it without reason. Not after everything you did."

"As I said," says Loki, "I assumed that our... prior relationship... would help me avoid these sorts of questions."

"You assumed wrong. If you wanted no questions asked, you should have gone to Tasha. I'm sure she hates you plenty."

"But I am on my knees for you ," says Loki, quiet and imploring. "I am giving you your revenge on a silver platter. Flay me, torture me, I don't care, just end me . End it."

And why not? It's not like Clint hasn't killed before. It's not even like he's never been torn up about it. And Loki deserves it, and Loki is asking for it, and Clint's dreamt about this. He tries to imagine what it would be like to want to die so desperately, and what it would be like to be denied it. Nausea surges in his stomach. "Okay," he says. "Okay. Fine. Into the bathroom. I don't want to get blood on the carpet."

Loki sighs, heavy, and gives a full body shudder. He stands quickly and gracelessly, and almost trips over his feet on his way to the hall. The door to the bathroom is open, and he hurries in and then stands there, frozen, as he waits for Clint.

Clint turns on the light. "Get into the tub," he says.

Loki does, all long limbs and eagerness. He's practically vibrating.

Clint kneels next to him. "What," he starts, and has to clear his throat. "Is there anything special I should do with your body?"

Loki shakes his head. "I'm not - that is, I don't - no. I won't leave one."

"You won't leave one?" Clint echoes, skeptical. "How does that work?"

"I melt," says Loki.

"Is that an Asgard thing or a you thing?"

"Neither," says Loki, and doesn't elaborate.

Clint manages a sick-sounding chuckle. "At least it saves me the clean-up."

"Yes." Loki's gaze is on Clint's knife hand. Well, he'd better get on with it, then.

"Are you sure about this?" he still asks, as he gets the knife in position.

"No, obviously," says Loki, acidic enough to raise blisters. "I came here and bared my soul as the first step in some masterful plan. Of course I'm sure about this. Kill me! "

So.

So Clint does.

He stabs Loki first in the femoral and then in the carotid artery, draws the knife long and twists it so the gashes gape. It's maybe ten seconds, then, as the blood comes in spurts and then a steadier gush. Before long Loki's dead. Then, as he said, he's melting.

It's slow, more snowman than ice cream cake, and Clint doesn't stay to watch the whole thing. He turns on the shower head and lets it run cold as he heads back to bed. He's getting up in less than two hours anyway, and he's taken showers twice that long. He'll finish clean-up in the morning, if there's anything left by then.

He curls up on top of the blankets. This time, he remembers to take out his hearing aids.

~

The second time it happens, it happens like this:

Four days after the Loki Incident, Clint's out getting lunch at his third-favorite hole-in-the-wall pizza place, because it's the closest to his apartment. He's just placed his order - half pesto and feta, half spicy marinara and pork sausage - and is leaning against the wall in the corner. The smell here always settles his mind, just a little. He stopped somewhere similar, half a world away, back when things were just starting with Tasha. It reminds him -

Someone exits the bathroom and leans against the wall next to him. No one has entered the bathroom since a lady left ten minutes ago, back when Clint was still in line.

"I guess it didn't work, then," he says, voice pitched low.

"No," says Loki. "It seems it did not." He's wearing slim-cut black jeans, a long-sleeved burgundy shirt, and a low ponytail. Wisps of hair escape to frame his face. He looks nothing like the mad god who tried to destroy the world last year. If Clint weren't half-expecting him, even he may have missed him.

"Any clue why?" he asks.

A restless shrug. "I used exsanguination several times myself. It never worked, which I should think is obvious."

Clint's very glad the place is too full for people to overhear them. "So you're thinking it's not just the identity of your killer, but the method of execution?" It's like a sick, twisted logic puzzle: if the super-villain owns a silver knife and a white cat, and the megalomaniac owns a blue scepter and a black dog, how many times will the monster die before it stay dead?

"There are countless variables," says Loki. "My location, my state of mind, the clothes I'm wearing, when I last ate..." He's getting visibly upset; he hasn't rebuilt any of his masks since Clint saw him last, frail and empty in his pink bathtub. "But yes, those two seem the most likely."

"There's also a chance that whoever cast the no-death spell on you is just fucking with your head. That they added the time dilation just to - give you hope?" This is too surreal, talking with Loki as though they're on the same team again. He liked this, Clint remembers, when everything was blue. Loki's an incredible strategist, and Clint always felt smarter just listening to him. And unlike most of his SHIELD handlers, Loki would listen in return.

But that's a path he can't go down again. He won't. Loki coughs. "If it is a spell," he says darkly.

Clint files 'what the hell is that supposed to mean?' next to 'so just how did your father kill you?' - things he'll ask once the need is pressing, but certainly not in public. "When you tried to - when you 'used exsanguination' - how long were you dead? How long this time?"

"The longest..." Loki 'hmm's. "Perhaps forty-odd hours. The shortest was not even five. This time was more than four days."

Clint doesn't need to do the math. "You came to me right as soon as - I mean, you just woke up and teleported here?"

"If you're content with the crude vocabulary of 'woke up,' then yes, I suppose I did."

"How did you know where I am? Actually, how did you know where I live?" Clint makes a conscious effort to lower his volume. Getting kicked out of his third-favorite pizza place won't help anyone.

"You won't like the answer," says Loki.

"Is there a question I could ask you where I would?"

Loki makes a noncommittal sound.

"Answer the question."

"I... when I took over your mind, it left a sort of magical signature. I can - not track it, precisely, but use it to follow your path." A pause. "Although you told me about the apartment."

And Clint was just starting to feel a little sorry for the guy. But now, now he realizes that the person he hates and fears most in the world is able to follow him around like a goddamn bloodhound.

It's pretty easy to imagine killing Loki, right now. Even with the smell of garlic and yeast in the air, Clint just wants to take out his gun and - bam! But technically he's not allowed to carry said gun here, and he still hasn't gotten his pizza.

"I told you not to ask," Loki says when Clint doesn't respond.

"Yeah, well, better to know about it now." He can ask Thor, next time he sees him, if there's anything that can be done.

"If you say so."

"You of the opinion that ignorance is bliss?"

Loki takes a long time to answer. When he does, his voice is low, and almost sad. "Most of the time, yes."

"Yeah, well." Clint crosses his arms. Behind the counter, someone finally puts his pizza in the oven. "I'm of the opinion that the truth always comes out."

"Oh, I never said it didn't," Loki says, voice back to regal smoothness, "but we're only talking about the time before."

"Sounds like you have some experience with that. Got anything to do with your death wish?"

Loki doesn't answer.

"Huh. Usually you so seem to love the sound of your own voice."

Loki chuckles. "I knew we had something in common."

"That why you chose me as your slave?"

"Barton, darling, I only picked you because you were there." Now his voice is like silk, gentle and cruel.

Clint actually smiles. "You know, I already agreed to kill you. You don't need to convince me."

Loki lets out a long breath through his nose. "Will you get on with it, then?"

"No." Before Loki can exclaim in outrage, Clint continues. "I'm going to wait here, get my pizza, head home, and eat it. Maybe you can have a slice, if I'm feeling generous. Then I'm going to kill you the exact same way I did Tuesday night, and we're going to see how long it takes you to come back."

There's that "we" again, the one that makes Clint's stomach lurch. Before he can think too hard about it - or Loki can respond - a woman at the counter calls out "Samson!"

Clint pushes himself off the wall and heads to pick up his pizza. Loki trails behind him.

"A pseudonym?" he asks, once they're outside.

Clint changes the hand he's using to hold the pizza. "Right now, I'm the only Avenger without a very visible public identity." Well, there's Tasha, but she doesn't quite count. "I prefer to keep it that way."

"Yet you're walking down the street with a known alien mass-murderer."

Clint gives Loki a sideways glance. "You and I both know that nobody recognizes you in that outfit. That's the whole point." When Loki doesn't respond, he continues. "But if you really wanted to die, you could just magic up your old conquering clothes and stand in Central Park." He turns a corner. Loki hurries to keep up with him. "Someone would slaughter you soon enough."

"Don't think I've not thought of it."

"And your conclusion?"

"Too much uncertainty. Maybe I'd die. Maybe I'd end up in a prison where I'd want to even more than I do now." Loki pauses as they cross a street. Then, "You can't have been serious, earlier."

"Which part?"

"You really intend to attempt to isolate the variables of my death?"

"I want you dead just as much as you do. Maybe more."

"Unlikely, but regardless, why bother analyzing?"

"You haven't been?" Clint shifts pizza-arms again. Loki moves so he's on the opposite side.

"I... Let us just say I haven't had the opportunity."

"Because...?"

"I will refrain from answering that."

Clint sighs. "I won't be able to help you unless you answer my damn questions."

"I'm here for your hands, not for your help."

If Loki had gone to Nat, she would make a lewd joke. Then again, if Loki had gone to Nat, she wouldn't bother trying to talk to him. Clint just sighs. "Unfortunately for you, my hands come attached to the rest of me." He smiles, wry and dark. "They wouldn't do you much good if they weren't."

Loki echoes his sigh. They have to stop at a crosswalk, and the crowd thickens as they wait. Someone pushes Clint into someone else, and he starts to drop his pizza.

Loki intervenes. "Here, let me get that for you," he says, and sweeps the pizza out of Clint's arms before he can say a word.

As soon as Clint's got his wits back about him, though, the light has turned, and everyone hurries across. He needs to scramble just to keep track of Loki. At that point they're only half a block from his apartment, though, and trying to take the pizza back would cause more of a scene than anything. So he leaves it.

He leaves it as they finish the walk to his building, and he leaves it as he greets Lilly in the lobby, and he leaves it as they climb up the stairs, and he leaves it as he fumbles with his keys, and he leaves it once they've entered the apartment and he takes off his jacket. By that point Loki's put the pizza on the end-table  by his chair, so he just sits down and opens the box.

"I wasn't kidding," he ends up telling the awkward silence about ten seconds later. "You can have a piece."

Loki, who, after abandoning the pizza, had retreated to the bathroom door, creeps closer. "What is it?"

"Pizza, remember?"

Loki gives him an eloquent look.

"Melted cheese on flatbread, with sauce and toppings."

"We have something similar in Asgard, I think." He still lurks at the edges of the room.

"Seriously." Clint angles the box towards him. "Try some." Asgard must be a piss-poor place to live, if it doesn't have any pizza.

"It's yours," Loki says.

"Yes, and I'm offering it to you, because maybe it'll make you less likely to stand in that corner, which is also mine, giving me that kicked-puppy look."

Loki takes a few more steps and frowns down at the box. "What's the difference?" he asks.

"The green is, uh, an herb sauce and a mild cheese, and the red is a different cheese, a spicy sauce, and some sausage." If Loki doesn't know 'pizza,' chances are he won't know 'pesto,' 'feta,' 'mozzarella,' or 'marinara,' and that's almost a tragedy. Clint's life hasn't been great, but he's at least reached a point where he can feed himself.

Loki's still frowning at the pizza, but it's a different frown. It's the frown he gives when he sees something he wants, but isn't sure how to get it. "Perhaps," he says, "... one of both?"

"Sure," Clint says, shrugging. Loki gives a small, shocked smile, but covers it up so quickly it's almost like it was never there.

Maybe, Clint thinks, it wasn't just a lack of pizza that made Asgard a shitty place to live.

For the next ten minutes they sit in a silence that, if not companionable, is at least not outright hostile. At last, when Clint's more than halfway done with his pizza and Loki has finished carefully licking the grease from his fingers, Clint broaches the subject.

"So, are you ready to die tonight?"

Loki waits just a fraction of a second too long before answering. "I've been ready since I greeted you."

"'Cause you don't have to go through with this, you know." Clint's not really sure why he's pushing. Didn't he shoot to kill during the battle of New York? If Loki gave this up and attacked again tomorrow, wouldn't he shoot to kill then? But like this, with his knife, in his apartment, after sharing his pizza... "I mean... you can choose to live."

There's no hesitation this time. "No," Loki says. "I can't."

And that, Clint supposes, is that. For now. Maybe. "I'll be in the bathroom in a minute," he says, and goes to his room to get his knife. He dithers a moment over his choices, but settles on the same one he used before. Isolating variables, and all that.

By the time he's in the bathroom, Loki has settled into the tub. He's too long-limbed for it, and has to sit at a strange angle, arms overhanging the sides. It's too close to endearing for Clint to deal with right now, with the sun streaming through the windows and a killing knife in his hand, so he folds it away and stores it in the same vault in his mind where he keeps all the blue-washed memories.

"I," Loki says once Clint's got the knife in position, and doesn't elaborate.

"What?"

Loki smiles, frowns. "I preferred the green pizza," he says, pronouncing the word carefully. "For what it's worth."

"Okay? Good to know, I guess." This part hasn't gotten easier since the first time - the part where they have to stop talking and Clint has to start killing. It's too intimate, this. Clint has no qualms about killing up close - he's a marksman because he's best at it, not because he prefers it - but he's starting to think he does have qualms about arranging it beforehand, like it's a, a, a goddamn BDSM scene.

"Get on with it," says Loki. Clint realizes he's been kneeling like this for the better part of a minute.

"Okay," Clint says. "You ready?"

Loki doesn't dignify that with a response.

Clint closes his eyes and stabs. Opens them, moves the knife, stabs again. In instants Loki is gurgling, struggling to take a full breath, his blood rushing towards the drain. An instant more and the gurgling is gone. The only movement is the blood. Clint turns on the shower, but he doesn't leave the room this time. He cleans his knife at the sink, lays it out on the rim of the bath, and then he sits on the toilet.

He sits on the toilet and he watches Loki melt.

~

By the third time, Clint is ready.

Loki first showed up at three on a Tuesday night - or Wednesday morning, more accurately - and the meeting at the pizza place occurred around one on Sunday afternoon. If Clint's math is right - and Loki's curse is predictable, a much less likely outcome - then his unwelcome guest will return at 11:00 pm on Thursday.

Even though he suspects the curse isn't that precise, he still spends Thursday evening preparing. He got the bloodstains out of Loki's clothes (hydrogen peroxide works wonders), went to get a pizza, and pulled his not-for-shoes bench in front of his armchair. On it he has set a garrote, a gun, a knife made for slicing instead of stabbing. It's a morbid little display. Somehow it's still less disturbing than the end table, with Loki's neatly folded clothes and a whole pesto-feta pizza.

The worst that happens, Clint figures - or maybe the best, he's not at all sure - is that Loki doesn't show, Clint eats a pizza slightly different than his usual order, and anyone who tries to spy on him gets one hell of a guilt trip. It's not as though he's hoping Loki shows or anything.

But really, isn't it? Isn't that the whole rotten point of this thing? Some vague hope that whatever Clint's doing, it somehow works out?

Maybe he's just deluding himself. Probably he's just deluding himself. Almost certainly he's deluding himself. As much as it pains him to admit, he had reached some sort of balance with himself, post-Manhattan. It took him the better part of the last year to get there, and he's not certain he'll ever be back to 100%, but he had - managed to reclaim at least a part of his peace. Then Loki knocked on his door, and shattered it all, and what? He thinks some good might come of it?

Yeah, he's deluding himself.

Luckily, before he goes too far down the path of introspection, there's a knock on the door. If Clint's life were sunshine and roses, he'd be able to call 'come in,' but he's not an idiot. He's an Avenger. He can't leave his door unlocked.

Still. It's weird, and harder than it should be, to stand up, unlock the door, and invite Loki in. It's even harder not to look away from the expression on Loki's face when he sees Clint's displays: all longing and hope and mourning and some terrible raw broken edge.

Belatedly, Clint realizes there's nowhere for Loki to sit.

"You can sit in the chair if you want," he offers before he can think better of it.

But Loki shakes his head. His gaze is fixed on the bench-cum-coffee table.

"I shouldn't impose," he says.

Clint has to laugh a little. "I'm sorry, what the hell did you think you were doing?"

Loki's expression shutters. "Providing you much-longed-for vengeance, to begin with."

Christ. Maybe Clint should be sitting down for this. It wouldn't feel right, though, sitting when Loki still stands there. Not when he's barely able to mask whatever pain drove him to this in the first place. "Don't pretend you're so selfless," he says, because Loki angry is better than Loki lost. (Or at least more familiar.)

"I never did."

For fuck's sake. "If you won't sit on the chair than at least sit on the floor. I got food. The pizza you like."

"I noticed."

Great, now he's entirely shut off. Eyes blank, face motionless. He showed more in the early blue days than he's showing now. "Look," Clint says, sinking into the chair, "I can't just - kill you, man."

If it's possible, Loki's face closes down even more. "Then I can take my business elsewhere." He's already moving towards the door.

"Wait, shit, no." Clint runs a hand down his face, because fuck. "First of all, don't call it business. One, that's just wrong, and two, you're not my fucking customer. I'm not providing some sort of... service, or whatever. I'm not a goddamn hairdresser, or reupholster-er, or, or car detailer." Loki clearly has no idea what he's talking about, but Clint forges on. "I'm doing this because - " But he doesn't actually know the end of that sentence, so he just sort of lets it hang there.

"You want to kill me," Loki fills in, under the apparent delusion that he's being helpful.

"No!" Clint says, with an amount of vehemence that surprises even him.

Loki is looking increasingly befuddled, which is at least an improvement on no expression at all. "I should think you would want it more than anyone else," he says, adding after only a moment, "or the scientist, the other one I - " Here he cuts himself off, probably aware that he's skirting too close to forbidden territory, and well. Clint did the same thing just a second ago, so he can't judge too harshly, though a part of him itches to know what Loki calls it, that terrible thing he did. Clint hasn't been able to put a word to it himself. (Tasha calls it 'rape.')

"I did," Clint admits. "For a long time. I still do sometimes."

"Never when I'm actually around to reap the benefits, I see," Loki shoots back, caustic, which, well, caustic's a fair sight better than baffled.

"Shut up and let me finish." A beat. "I did want to kill you. Shit," and his laugh is a little too hollow, too real, "I wanted to do a hell of a lot worse than kill you."

Loki closes his eyes and tilts his head back, so Clint can't see the expression on his face.

"But I got it sorted. I'm alright now, for a certain value of alright. Normal people generally find a way to work out murderous urges, you know, instead of bottling them up and trying to conquer the world. Or normal people who used to be assassins, at least. You know, just because I used to kill people for a living doesn't mean I enjoy it. In fact, I distinctly remember telling you I got out of that line of work for a reason."

There are people out there, Clint knows, who enjoy killing. Not psychopaths and not sadists, but something in between and messy and terrible. For a long time he thought Loki was one of those people. He's beginning to have his doubts.

"So like," he continues, "don't go thinking this is something I want. Not everyone wants to kill you, Loki."

Apparently he hit the nail a little too close to the head, because Loki looks stricken. Ill, too. "I - " he says, but can't get any farther than that.

Clint's not sure what he's doing. He sure as hell didn't sign on to be Loki's goddamn therapist. But he didn't sign on to be his murderer, either, not after Manhattan ended and he dusted his hands of it all and Thor escorted Loki off in chains. Even before, during the battle, if he had killed Loki - if any of them had - it wouldn't be murder. War isn't murder.

Neither is suicide.

Loki still looks terrible, so Clint holds out the pizza box - shoving Loki's clothes aside - and forces a grin. "Seriously, grab some pizza and sit down, man, this is starting to feel weird." He drops the box on the floor, equidistant between them. When Loki dithers, Clint rolls his eyes. "Think of it as an order or a condition or some shit, if it makes you feel better. If I have to kill you, at least let me feed you first."

Loki's shoulders actually seem to loosen at something in there, and he reaches out to grab a piece of pizza. He hesitates, and Clint remembers how he felt the need to ask for two, last time.

"Man, I got it for you, don't be so stingy," he says, and when Loki's shoulders fail to ease, "I can call that an order too, if it makes you feel better."

Loki gets a second piece, and then, after a fraction of a second, a third. He sits down, cross-legged, back against the wall. He balances two of his slices on the outstretched fingers of one hand, curved a little so the heat won't reach his palm, and gets to work on the third one. He even folds it in half like a seasoned Midgardian, like it's not only his third slice of pizza ever.

Shit, now Clint's all sad and introspective again. He knew Loki was really fucked up, during the time he was blue, and it mattered so deeply to him then. He kinda... jerked in the opposite direction, during recovery. Pinned it all on him in a way that dismissed Loki's own traumas, which his shrink said was okay and normal in that sort of situation, but Clint at the time thought he'd never see Loki again. He certainly thought that, if he did, it would be from opposite ends of a battlefield, and not as Loki's chosen means of suicide.

He thought that he would be SHIELD's weapon, not Loki's.

Fuck, he hasn't even had any pizza yet, and Loki's midway through his second slice. Clint takes two, and shoves them down so fast that the cheese manages to burn his mouth almost twenty minutes out of the oven.

By the time Clint's reaching for a third piece, Loki has finished his, and is looking at the box like a poor abused dog might look at a steak. Suspicion sneaking in, Clint grabs two more pieces. As soon as he's pulled his hand away, Loki reaches out and gets one.

"Have you even been feeding yourself?" Clint asks, because Loki might flip out if he stressed again that he got the fucking pizza for him .

Loki shrugs, and finishes chewing before he speaks. "I confess I haven't seen the need. I get a new body every time I die, after all, and it's always in the same state it was the first time." And he jumps from death to death so fast, Clint's sure, that he doesn't feel the need to feed himself between them.

"And what state was that?" he asks, keeping his voice deliberately flat.

"Well-fed enough," Loki says, clearly trying to shut down the conversation. He takes another bite of his pizza.

"Define 'well-fed,'" Clint says, because if he's going to be Loki's therapist-slash-killer he damn well deserves to keep pushing. "Define 'enough.'"

"Better than you in your childhood," Loki snaps, and Clint gives him a thin smile.

"Yeah, you know what a low bar that's setting." It's weird, that Loki knows everything. That Clint told him everything. Not even Tasha knows everything. He suspects Coulson came close, but certainly not because Clint told him.

"Not as bad as the week I spent in your SHIELD's holding cells."

That gives Clint something of a range, but not a range he's happy with. "Yeah, we're gonna have to agree to disagree about the definitions of both 'well-fed' and 'enough.'"

Loki's face gets pinched. "Norns, are you going to feed me every time I come here?"

"With a reaction like that? Yeah." Clint uses his foot to push the box of pizza in Loki's direction. "Eat more of that."

"It's yours," Loki says, echoing all his doubt from last time. Clint's filled with the urge to kick someone, but he's not sure who. He settles on the pizza box, sending it careening into Loki's legs.

"And I want you to eat it," he says. So are you , he'd been about to say. You're mine too , but he's not actually an idiot. "There're only two slices left, c'mon, you like it and I'd rather you eat it warm than I eat it reheated tomorrow." Especially because, if the past two times are anything to go by, he'll wake up tomorrow feeling cotton-mouthed and miserable, all the fun of a hangover without actually drinking. He'll probably stay in bed all day, take his ears out, and fight back the waves of depression and self-loathing that engulf him.

Loki scowls and pulls the pizza box closer. He polishes off his fourth piece and retrieves the next.

Now that Clint's just watching him eat, he's forced to admit something he hasn't touched since he was blue: Loki is attractive. It hadn't really mattered, then. His feelings about Loki were too caught up in, in, in servitude and desperation and a misguided sense of fraternity. It doesn't really matter now, either, but it goes to his gut in a way it never did before. Makes him shaky, shakier than he was when this was just one more fucked-up thing in a long list of fucked-up things.

He's pretty sure that's still all it is. He's less - but still reasonably - sure that he doesn't want it to be.

He's almost as glad as Loki when the pizza's gone. "Happy now?" Loki asks, eyebrow arched.

Hell no. "Happy enough," Clint says, faking glib reasonably well, and he manages a real grin when Loki bristles at the intentional echo.

Loki doesn't push, though - at least not in that direction. "So can we get on with it?"

Fuck, this whole thing was a mistake. I want you dead just as much as you do , Clint said last time. Unlikely , Loki had answered.

Yeah. Goddamn unlikely.

There's nothing for it, though. "Well," Clint says, gesturing to the bench-table, "I figured I'd give you options."

Loki studies the table, his gaze intense. It lingers on the knife, which in some strange way isn't that surprising, and skips over the gun entirely. That's probably a good thing. If his neighbors woke up to a gunshot this late, even a silenced one, they might call the cops.

"What," - Loki wets his lips - "what are my choices?"

"We-ell," Clint draws the word out. "The knife is for bleeding you again, obviously, but I'd - " His mouth is suddenly dry. He swallows. "I'd slice along your veins, instead. See if that takes longer for you to come back."

Loki looks decidedly less interested in the knife, now.

"The gun... probably isn't a good idea, to be honest. Volume and everything." Loki nods. "The wire is called a garrote. It's for - "

"We do have those in Asgard, you know."

Clint takes a deep breath. "You said you had pizza in Asgard, too. Doesn't mean you recognized it last time. Doesn't mean you knew what it was called."

"You are insufferable," Loki says, but it sounds almost fond. As though he's not planning on dying in the next ten minutes. As though Clint is still his favorite slave.

Clint screws his eyes shut and spends a minute just breathing. Why is this so hard? Why can't he just finish it? (And finish it, and finish it, and finish it...) "Just pick something," he finally says, not opening his eyes. "I want this over with."

"I'd rather," says Loki, and is silent again. He doesn't finish his sentence. Clint doesn't open his eyes. "Could you..."

"Yes?" Clint asks, after a long pause.

"I would not blame you if the answer is no, but if I can ask... are there any other options available?"

Clint sighs, opens his eyes. "I suppose I could suffocate you. Drown you?" A beat. "Those would have been harder for you to do alone."

"Yes," Loki says, voice desperate. He looks at Clint with the same expression he directed to the pizza box. "Drown me."

And now for the part Clint hates. Why can't he be angry? Why can't he be cruel? "Let's go," he says, standing. He leads the way to the bathroom. Loki follows, all nervous energy and hungry eyes.

His bathroom is really too small for two people, but they manage. Clint leans over to stopper the tub and start the water running. "Hot or cold?" he asks Loki, who shrugs.

"Does it matter?"

For what feels like the umpteenth time tonight, Clint sighs. "Let's just say it does."

Loki presses his lips together, looks away. When he speaks it's a murmur, and he doesn't look back at Clint. "I do not like the cold."

"Alright then," Clint says. He twists the hot water tap, checks the temperature. "Is this good?" he asks.

Loki raises an eyebrow.

"You should check it too," Clint says, rolling his eyes. "I don't know how hot you want it."

"You're running me a grave, not a bath," Loki snaps.

"That's no reason you should be miserable."

Loki's eyes flash. "I want to be miserable! That's the point. A happy death won't kill me. It will just - "

And he stops dead. His gaze is fixed on the wall, but really he's staring at something Clint can't see. Clint recognizes that expression. He's seen it on Tasha's face. On Loki's. On his own.

Loki reaches out a shaky hand and turns the hot water off. Clint doesn't argue. He files 'what do you see when you're dead?' next to 'how did Odin kill you?' and 'why do you want to die?'

They wait silently while the tub fills, Clint crouched next to the tap and Loki standing awkward by the door. Clint can't help but check the temperature again when it's almost full. It's not too cold on his fingers, but he definitely wouldn't want to sit in it. He doesn't particularly want to use it to drown anyone, either. What , he wants to ask Loki, would you do if I told you to stop? That question, more than any of the others, presses against his teeth.

But he doesn't really want to know, and Loki wouldn't answer even if he did.

Clint turns off the tap, then stands. He takes a half-step away from the tub - all he can manage, in his bathroom - and gestures toward it. "All yours," he tells Loki.

"You will have to hold me down." Loki doesn't move for the tub.

Clint manages not to roll his eyes. "Just figured you'd want to get settled yourself." He has to fight the urge to turn away, give Loki his privacy. It's not like he's stripping, for god's sake, and even if he was Clint would be seeing it all in a minute anyway.

The water barely ripples when Loki steps into the tub. His mouth thins at the temperature, and the lines around his eyes tighten, but he doesn't hesitate to submerge himself. He pauses only a moment before he slips down and immerses his entire upper body in the tub, letting his knees fold and poke out above the waterline.

"Well," Clint mutters, not sure whether Loki can hear him and not particularly caring, "I guess we're skipping the formalities." He crouches next to the tub again and leans over to put one hand on each of Loki's shoulders. The angle makes it awkward, but less so than it would be if Clint actually got in the tub with him. It's hard enough watching Loki's face contort through the hazy four inches of water. Clint sure as hell doesn't want to feel a drowning man buck between his legs.

Air bubbles escape Loki's mouth on a gasp and pop on the surface. Not much longer now, Clint knows. Even if Asgardians can go without oxygen for longer than humans, there'll only be so long Loki can last without any air in his lungs. He'll try to fight, and when that fails, he'll try to inhale. After the water enters his body, it won't be longer than a minute or two.

Right on cue, Loki starts to thrash. He attempts to uncurl his legs, and his feet ram into the side of the tub at top speed. Under the water, his mouth opens in a silent scream.

Clint shifts his stance so all of his weight bears down on Loki's shoulders, and then he closes his eyes. Loki bats at his arms, but he's so weak from lack of oxygen that it doesn't move Clint an inch. After a long moment, he stills. His chest moves up and down beneath Clint's hands. He's calm, now. Entirely calm. Completely at ease in a way that Clint has never seen him.

He read, once, that some drowning victims feel a profound sense of peace before they lose consciousness. Is this that? Even knowing it was what Loki wanted, Clint can't help but feel vaguely sick.

He waits a long count of three hundred - at least ten minutes, at the rate he uses - before letting Loki go. When he does, he opens his eyes. He moves to the other end of the tub, to pull the stopper from the drain. He manages to see an expression of honest-to-god contentment on Loki's face before the water sinks below that level. It takes runnels of Loki's skin and hair with it, like he's the Wicked Witch of the goddamn West.

Shit, Clint must be off his game. He hasn't even made that joke yet. He allows himself a feverish, slightly manic giggle.

When the last of the water swirls down the drain, it's taken about half of Loki with it. Clint's left with something in his tub that looks like a demented wax statue, except he's pretty sure those don't have half-melted skeletons and organs inside of them. Even if they do, wax hearts don't glisten wetly under Clint's shitty halogen bulbs. Wax brains don't shine gray.

Clint whirls around. He's abruptly thankful they do this in the bathroom, because the toilet is right there for him to gag into. When he's emptied his stomach, he forces himself to stand. He flushes the toilet. He turns on the shower. He makes sure it's working to send the rest of Loki down the drain, and then he leaves the room.

He throws away the empty pizza box. He puts his weapons away neatly where they belong. He shoves the bench back into its spot against the wall.

He takes off his jeans and t-shirt. He takes out his hearing aids and sets them neatly in their spot on his bedside table. He gets between his sheets in just his boxers and pulls all the blankets over his head, not bothering to turn out the lights.

Only then, ensconced safely in his bed, unable to hear the soft patter of the shower from across the hall, does he let himself cry.

Chapter Text

The fourth time is very nearly a disaster.

Loki's been gone for more than a week this time - eight days and fourteen hours, not that Clint's counting. He's out having his monthly lunch with Tasha, at the Indian place that she loves and he tolerates. The server has just delivered their naan - the big platter comes free with the meal - when he spots Loki leaving the bathroom.

Thank everything good and holy that Tasha's facing the other way.

Clint drops the bread he'd just picked up. "I need to go to the bathroom," he says.

"Want me to order for you?" Tasha asks.

Clint rolls his eyes. "You always do." It's the reason he tolerates this place - the expression on Tasha's face each time she makes him try something new.

"You more in the mood for spicy or savory?"

He manages to force a smile that, if one were being extraordinarily generous, could be defined as rakish. "Surprise me." And then he turns tail and flees for the bathroom. He grabs Loki on his way, and hauls him into the men's room behind him.

"What the fuck are you doing here?" he asks as soon as the door closes behind them.

"The same thing I did the last three times," Loki snaps. "I found you when I needed you."

Clint scans the stalls before he responds. Nobody. "I wasn't with an avenger the last three times, you - if Tasha had recognized you - "

"How was I to know you were with your spider?" Loki counters. "I'm hardly omniscient."

"Maybe check next time, before you come waltzing out as if you own the place?"

"Why should I do that? Your woman is more likely to kill me than you are."

"Don't call her that within her earshot, or you'll wish she had." A beat. "On second thought, just don't call her that. Ever."

Loki frowns. "The point stands."

"That is as may be, but if you ever want me to kill you again, you won't drag her - or anyone else I love - through any of this shit."

"Really?" Loki asks. "And who, exactly, is it that you love? I seem to recall you reporting that everyone you loved was dead. There were tears, if I recall."

As soon as the words are out, he pales - he should not have said that. "Jesus fucking Christ," Clint snarls, reaching for his gun. "I could kill you!"

"I should think," Loki says, suddenly stiff, "that that would be obvious."

Okay, yeah, way to step in it, Barton. Clint moves his hand from his gun: that stumble takes the edge off his rage, but only the edge. "Give me one good reason why we should continue this arrangement," he says. He makes his voice perfectly calm. He puts ice in it, and shivers at his own tone.

Loki, if possible, grows even paler. "I cannot," he finally says, timid-quiet. Clint shudders again. Where did Loki learn to grovel? "You have already made it clear you do not care for vengeance, and for some reason you are not inclined to cause me pain. I do not know - I have nothing else to offer."

Not 'to offer you,' Clint notes. Just 'to offer,' as though Loki's only worth is in how other people hurt him. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Why can't his conscience just leave him the ever-loving fuck alone?

He sighs. "You know what?" he says. "Just - teleport yourself back to my place, okay? I'll be back in about an hour, maybe a little bit longer."

"Am I not more important than your - than the Widow?" It's mostly mocking, Loki already moving to restore the status quo, but there's also a vulnerability there, badly hidden behind the scornful tone and the confessions of uselessness.

Fuck literally everything in the entire known universe. "Nope." Clint pops the 'p.'

Loki frowns, but he doesn't look surprised. "Then I shall see you there, I suppose." He steps into a stall. After thirty seconds, Clint opens it behind him. Loki's disappeared.

Clint tells the empty bathroom, "Fuck." It does not answer. He washes and only half-dries his hands before he leaves, to keep up his charade.

When he returns to the table, the menus and half the naan are gone. "I saved some for you," Tasha says, unnecessarily. She frowns at him.

"Thanks." Clint collapses into his seat and grabs his unfinished piece from before.

"There's something wrong," Tasha announces.

No shit, Sherlock. Clint stuffs more naan in his mouth to avoid having to answer.

Tasha tilts her head to the side. "Whatever it is, you don't have to tell me," she says, somber. "Just let me know if it blows up in your face."

Clint finishes chewing, swallows, washes it down with half his glass of water. "I'm pretty sure," he says, heavy, "that it already has."

She raises an eyebrow. "Are you going to tell me anything else?"

Before Clint is forced to come up with an answer, their food arrives. Tasha ordered them both a chicken dish. The meat is cut into small pieces and smothered in a fragrant dark sauce. Smells of cumin and turmeric waft up from the plate. The rice is sticky and soft, just how Clint likes it.

"This isn't actually half bad," he says, even though he's still too pissed-off to enjoy it.

Tasha smiles around a mouthful of rice. "What did I tell you?" Next to her nude-colored lipstick, the sauce makes her teeth look bloody. Clint's mood fractionally improves.

He uses some of his naan to sop up some of her sauce. "Next month I'm dragging you through a tour of all my favorite pizza places again. Food you can eat with your hands. That right there is real food." To illustrate his point, he shoves his bread in his mouth.

"Real food," Tasha says, with dignity, "is anything that makes you uncomfortable."

Clint laughs. Right now, everything is almost normal. He can almost forget that Loki is waiting at home.

Tasha must see the shift in his face, because she frowns at him again. "Look. You don't have to tell me anything, and I understand that most of the things that blow up in your face are out of your control. If you get burned, though? Or pierced by shrapnel? See a goddamn doctor."

That's too many layers of metaphor for Clint to work through before at least two drinks. He compromises on sipping his water. "You think I should see the shrink again."

Tasha shrugs. "She's there for a reason. And it's not like you have to pay for it." She lifts her glass in a mock-toast. "To SHIELD's dime!"

Clint takes a few more bites of his food to stall. What's the best way to phrase this? "Hypothetically," he says, once he's chewed and swallowed, "let's say SHIELD shouldn't know about this particular 'explosion.'"

Tasha's frown deepens, which for her manifests in extra lines around her eyes, like miniature sunbursts. "Honestly, Clint." She reaches out and covers the hand holding his fork. "Tell me you're not in danger."

Clint flips his hand to squeeze hers. Neither of them really show affection with physical touch, but during the worst times it helps keep them grounded. Does this count as the worst times? "I'm always in danger," he says.

She withdraws her hand, but leaves it on the table within reach. "I'm looking for an actual answer, not a cop-out."

Clint takes another drink of water while he figures out how to phrase it. Pretty soon he'll have to go to the bathroom for real. "I'm in no more danger in this situation than I was in Morocco."

"You almost bled out in Morocco."

"That was my fault, not the mission's."

"Wow," Tasha says, entirely deadpan. "That makes me feel infinitely better about the state of things. Now I have complete faith that you'll come out from this entirely unscathed, mentally or physically."

Clint laughs. In some ways, Tasha is a lot like Loki. "I'll tell you," he says. "If it gets out of control, I'll tell you." She won't tell SHIELD, he knows, not if he asks her not to. The thought of SHIELD getting their hands on Loki - shit, even now, it makes him ill in more ways than one.

"Good," Tasha says. She reaches across the table to steal some of his naan, and just like that the conversation's done. They move on to lighter topics: Tasha's cat (he's gained another two pounds), the new prototype taser bullets (they defeat the point of using bullets), which of Cap's politics the media will try to vilify next (Tasha's money is on Planned Parenthood, but Clint is sticking to his guns in re: upping the minimum wage).

Before Clint can believe it, an hour has passed. He pushes his half-eaten food away and flags down a waiter. "Can I have a box?" he asks. The waiter nods and scurries off to get it.

"You're eager to go," Tasha observes. There's no judgment or inquiry there, but Clint answers her unspoken question.

"Let's just say there's some dynamite at my apartment."

The waiter, of course, chooses that moment to return. He frowns at them but doesn't ask any questions, which is probably the best Clint can hope for. He's just glad Tasha's paying. Even though his debit card is under a false name, he'd rather not have the cops called on him.

He boxes up what's left of his food, stacking the two remaining pieces of naan on top. They'll get soaked in the sauce, but that's kind of the point. He stands to go.

"Clint," Tasha says before he can move. She locks eyes with him. "Be careful."

Clint closes his eyes for a long moment. When he opens them, she's still staring. Her gaze is soft with concern. He loves her so much right now. "I always am."

She nods once, crisp, and gestures for him to go, all elegance and grace. "Next month, then."

"Unless the wold ends again," Clint agrees.

He leaves the restaurant, bag of food swinging from his hand. It's a ten minute walk to his place, and the air is nice and crisp, winter's last gasp before it dies for the year. He takes deep breaths and walks slowly, savoring these last moments before everything is horribly complicated again. These last moments when he can pretend it's not horribly complicated now.

When he arrives at his building, the lobby is empty. He goes up the four flights of stairs and down the hall, unable to shake the feeling of being watched. It's bullshit, he knows - anyone who would actually spy on him is far too talented for that - but the sight of Loki in that restaurant, Tasha's restaurant, has left him shaken. He needs to try twice to get the key in the door, and then again to actually make it turn.

When he finally wrestles his way inside, it's to Loki sitting on the bench by the door, hands folded neatly in his lap. "I was beginning to get worried," he remarks. "What would I do if someone accosted you on your way home?"

"You're prickly today," Clint says.

"It seems I'm not the only one."

Loki trails Clint as he enters the kitchen and finds a paper plate to set his carton on. When Clint starts the plate in the microwave and begins rifling through one of the drawers, Loki frowns.

"You would feed me after I insulted you?" he asks.

"Yeah," Clint says absently. With relief, he finds the plastic forks buried beneath an assortment of stained potholders. He's not quite at the point of doing dishes for Loki.

"Why?"

Because I hate myself enough for this, Clint carefully doesn't say. "I've got nowhere better to put my food," he says instead, deliberately light. "I'd hate to waste it."

Loki bristles. Whether it's because of Clint's insistence on feeding him or his false reasoning behind it, Clint can't tell. "I would think I'd be the very definition of waste," Loki says. "You don't squander resources on a dying man."

The microwave beeps. Clint takes the plate out and stabs the fork into the carton, then slides the whole mess over to Loki. "Last I checked, you're still very much alive." Loki doesn't touch the food. "Eat."

"Nor," Loki says, eyes sparkling as though he's holding the winning hand, "do you waste them on someone you hate."

Well, fine. If Clint has to go there... "Maybe," he answers, because if he has a royal flush he might as well play it, "I don't actually hate you."

Loki stares at him, expressionless.

"Eat," Clint says again.

Loki doesn't respond.

Clint waves a hand in front of Loki's face. "Hello? Anyone home?"

Loki grabs Clint's wrist. He stares at Clint's hand with something like wonder, eyebrows furrowed and mouth pursed. "I don't understand," he finally says.

Clint sighs. "Yeah, I got that impression." That impression slapped him in the fucking face. Clint eases his wrist free and backs up a step. How did he stumble into this shit show? "Has every single person in your life really been that terrible?"

Loki fixes him with a withering look that only holds one-tenth of its usual power. Clint's not sure how to break it to him that he hasn't been cowed by the full-strength ones for some time now.

"I get that your dad was - and apparently still is - a giant asshole. I know that for some inexplicable reason you think Thor hates your guts, even though he still sings your fucking praises whenever he drops by. And you were pretty horribly tortured before everything that went down in Manhattan, but I refuse to believe you were never actually introduced to the concept of 'forgiveness.'"

With each word, Loki shrinks smaller and smaller. When Clint finishes, he gulps, visibly afraid in a way that means he's forcing himself to show that fear. All Clint can see is the movement of his throat under the fluorescent blue light, soft and obscene.

He is abruptly disgusted with himself. "Fine," he says, and can't make himself meet Loki's eyes. "How do you want to die today?"

Loki breathes a sigh of relief. When he speaks, his voice is naked of all its usual layers. "I assumed you would drown me again."

Clint thought about it, actually, but it made something sick roll over in his stomach. "I think we've already proven that there's regularity here to take advantage of. We know now that there are variables. We don't need to prove that."

Loki looks uncertain. "Then I will admit that I'd thought no further."

Clint forces himself to focus on the problem at hand. "It would help if I knew more about what you have tried."

"I'd hardly give you a list," Loki scoffs.

Clint doesn't punch the wall, but it's a damn close thing. "Why? Afraid I'll think it's a weakness?"

Loki flinches, just a little. "It is," he mutters.

"I see," Clint says, because he doesn't. "Asking me to kill you is a-okay, but telling me the ways you've killed yourself is just crossing a line."

"Life," Loki says stiffly, gaze fixed past Clint, "is full of trade-offs."

Well, it's not like he's wrong. Clint sighs. "If you won't tell me what you've done, at least tell me what you haven't."

"If I must." Loki is suddenly very interested in his still-untouched chicken. "I have yet to let myself die of dehydration. I have been neither strangled nor decapitated. I have not been shot with one of your guns, and I have not had the opportunity to poison myself." He reports all this in a tone more monotonous than Clint has ever heard from him.

The worst parts are all the things he doesn't say, the dozens of ways to kill people that he's so clearly used to kill himself. That same sick thing rolls in Clint's stomach. He tries to ignore it. "I can't decapitate you in my bathtub," he says, "and I don't have any poisons with me, but I can strangle you."

Feeling floods back into Loki's eyes. "Please," he says, and his voice is far too broken for Clint to buy the numbness of a moment before. He leaves it be, though. He's torn enough from Loki for one day.

"Come on," he says, and heads for the bathroom. Loki follows.

When they arrive, Loki gets in the tub without needing to be asked. He kneels, and twists his upper body so Clint can face it head-on. He closes his eyes and tilts his head back, expectantly.

He looks, Clint thinks, like a martyr. Like a sacrifice to an even more ancient god. Clint has never wanted to kill him less.

He puts his hands around Loki's neck anyway. The one mercy about this is that he can kill Loki quickly, by cutting off blood flow along with oxygen. The worst thing about this mercy is that he can feel Loki's heartbeat, starting as a terrific patter beneath his fingers and slowing to nothing.

The whole time, Loki does not struggle.

When it's done, and Clint drops Loki in the bathtub to finish melting, he realizes he still has bits of Loki on his hands. A few layers of skin, damp and sticky, that rubbed off while his hands were still on Loki's throat.

Oh, god.

He hurries to turn the sink on - using the back of his hand, to avoid getting Loki everywhere - and scrubs immediately. He uses a bottle and a half of soap before he feels even vaguely clean. Even then, he'll feel Loki between his fingers for weeks.

Fuck. Everything.

~

The fifth time is a disaster.

Not even a day passes. Clint is curled up in bed, pretending nothing matters, when he hears knocking at the door.

Oh. Oh no. Oh fuck no.

He can just pretend he doesn't notice. Loki knows about his ears - he can lie, say he didn't have his aids in.

Yeah, right. That'll end well.

He drags himself out of bed. He drags himself down the hallway. He drags the door open.

"You look like shit," he tells Loki.

"It seems I'm not the only one."

Clint glances down at himself. Boxers; a thrifted t-shirt for a high school in Ohio he's never seen, let alone attended; fuzzy zebra-patterned socks that reach halfway up his calves, a gift from Stark last Christmas. His hair's probably an unholy mess. "Fair enough."

Loki looks worse, though. His clothes are impeccable as always, but his hair is greasy and unkempt; how he managed to get it that way between coming back to life and arriving at Clint's door is a mystery. His eyes are hollow, sunken in, desperate.

"It didn't work," he says.

"I can see that."

Loki closes his eyes for a long moment. His mouth crooks, like someone stuck a hook in the corner and pulled. Clint has never seen him so expressive, or so miserable.

"Come on in," Clint says with a sigh.

Loki steps in far enough for Clint to close the door, but doesn't sit down or move farther into the apartment. He stands frozen by the entrance, gaze fixed on the bathroom door. "Will you insist on feeding me today?" he asks, voice hollow.

"That depends. Is something wrong?"

Loki shifts his empty gaze to Clint. "What answer are you looking for?"

Yeah, there's something wrong. "The true one."

Loki laughs once, high and sharp and furious. Clint flinches. "There's no such thing."

Clint is so not equipped for this. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure there is."

Loki shakes his head and doesn't respond. His gaze drifts back to the bathroom door.

Clint hates everything. He collapses in his chair. It creaks under him.

He decides to hate it extra.

Loki does nothing. He's like a modern art installation: 'Still Life With Nightmare.' Maybe Clint can turn his apartment into a museum.

Yup. His landlord will be thrilled.

"Look," says Clint, just to fill the silence. But he's not sure what he means to say, and honestly it doesn't seem to matter anyway.

Loki blinks once. Almost a full minute passes before he blinks again.

Clint doesn't have an analog clock in his apartment, but he swears he can hear time tick-tocking away, like this is a fucking sitcom or something.

Loki sinks to his knees.

Yeah, Clint thinks, that's about right.

At some point his stomach rumbles. If Loki weren't here he'd probably just ignore it, but he's been harping on about the importance of feeding oneself. Yeah, he's a horrible hypocrite and he knows it, but he couldn't stand being called out on it right now. He'd shoot himself in the head instead of Loki, and then where would they be?

So he wanders past Loki into the kitchen, where he sticks some instant oatmeal in the microwave. He then proceeds to stare at it for the next three minutes and forty-five seconds, only remembering plebeian things like sugar and bowls and spoons after the timer goes off.

He puts half the oatmeal in a new bowl and sets it on the floor next to Loki, out of some vague notion that he needs to keep up appearances. Like anyone would give a shit whether or not Clint stuck to his guns about Loki's eating disorder. Like Loki gives a shit himself.

Clint brings his own food back to his chair. He wolfs it down so fast that even the last bite burns his mouth. He feels raw when he's done, and scoured clean.

It doesn't help.

"If I eat," says Loki suddenly, and doesn't follow it up. He keeps his gaze fixed on his rapidly cooling oatmeal.

"Yes?" Clint prompts, when it becomes clear Loki won't say anything else.

"If I eat," Loki repeats, and clears his throat. He shakes his head a little, like a dog trying to get water out of its ears. His voice, when he speaks, quakes with the effort to keep it steady. "If I eat, will you hurt me?"

"Come again?"

"Will you hurt me?" Loki repeats. Clint can tell by his averted eyes how much the answer matters. It's a shame he doesn't know what to say.

"Aren't I already?"

Loki's eyes flash, but he still doesn't look towards Clint. "Apparently not enough."

"What do you mean?" Clint asks. He's afraid he already knows.

"What do you think?" asks Loki, dry and vicious. "You know what I ask." When Clint doesn't respond, Loki draws a deep breath. "Do you wish me to beg for it? Crawl for you and lick your feet?" He swallows, visibly bracing himself. "Shall I pull down your ridiculous Midgardian trousers, take your cock in my mouth, repeat my plea when you are sweating and shuddering and - "

"Jesus, no, stop!" Bile rises in Clint's throat. "Fuck, no, I just - let me establish that that is NOT on the table, period, and certainly not as - as payment for my services."

Loki blinks rapidly, but otherwise doesn't react. He still won't look at Clint.

"And no, I don't want any of that shit. This isn't transactional anymore." Was it ever? "I'll - I guess I'll kill you whatever you do." And isn't that horrid? "But you're obfuscating. Stop beating around the bush. Tell me what you're really asking."

"Fine," Loki says, and he finally raises his eyes to Clint's. "You want it in so many words? I am begging you to torture me, Barton. I want you to reach within me and twist all my organs apart. I want your sweat and tears in my veins. I want your hands so deep inside me I go blind. I want, all I want, is for you to cause me so much pain I forget why I crave it in the first place."

He follows this proclamation with a ghastly smile. Clint follows this proclamation with a sudden and intense desire to jump out a window.

"What?" Loki asks, one eyebrow raised. "Too vivid for you?"

Clint closes his eyes. Swallows, again and again and again. "No," he manages to say, voice hoarse. "I've heard worse." (He's seen worse. He's done worse.)

"Then I fail to see the problem," says Loki, now every inch the haughty prince. The way he changes... Clint was here, and he still can't quite believe that the Loki in front of him, all aggrieved impatience, is the same desperate man who showed up at his door. "You already drowned me, bled me, strangled me, all because I asked. Torture is hardly worse than murder."

Clint's not even sure where to start. The problem? He hates torturing people. He hates dismantling a soul to its component pieces. He hates watching it try to build itself back up and failing, invariably failing.

He hates hurting Loki. He doesn't want to hurt Loki.

Even with Loki sitting here and begging for death, begging for pain, Clint just...

God.

"You're manipulating me," he finally says.

"I always am."

Is this what they are, when all the lies are stripped away? "I want you to stop."

"I'm not sure I can."

"I know." A beat. "I don't want to hurt you."

Loki looks down. "I know."

Clint sighs. "I'll do it anyway."

Loki raises his eyes. The effect, through his eyelashes, is almost fragile. "That, I did not know."

"Well, at least I can manage to surprise you."

A corner of Loki's mouth turns up. "I hear that there is a first time for everything."

Clint huffs a laugh. "Eat your oatmeal."

Loki falls back to sit against the wall and pulls the bowl closer. He makes a face after he takes his first bite. "Do you have fruit of some sort?"

"Some bananas on the counter." Clint pauses to think. "Strawberries in the fridge. And check the pantry. I think there's some dried mango."

"And you will be?"

"Getting some stuff together." Clint manages to say it without wincing. He manages to get all the way to his room before he puts his head in his hands.

He sinks to the bed.

He just agreed to torture someone. Maybe the fact that Loki wants it should make it suck less. It doesn't.

SHIELD's had him on interrogation duty before. He's good at it, mostly because he hates it. He does everything he can to get answers without pain, and when the pain is necessary he knows to measure it out, how to push people just far enough but no farther.

This is different. The pain's the point.

He forgot how much he hated this.

He closes his eyes and tries to dig up the early, ugly dreams. The ones from immediately after Manhattan, when he was still locked away in a containment facility and thought he'd never leave. His unconscious mind did such terrible things to Loki, then.

He swallows against the sudden lump in his throat. He flayed the skin from Loki's body, in those dreams, and burned the lies from his tongue. He mutilated and ruined him, in one dream after another, and every time he fell asleep a fresh canvas. None of the tame torture SHIELD asked of him, not then, but a new and terrible kind. A kind that he rejoiced in.

(He forgot how much he wanted this.)

He wishes Tasha were here. She would be if he called, but -

But.

Instead, Clint gets to his feet. He opens his bedside drawer and retrieves a particularly vicious knife. He goes to the toolbox in his closet and gets a box of matches. His hand hovers over the hammer for a long moment before he slams the toolbox shut. He doesn't need that. More importantly, he doesn't want it.

When he returns to the kitchen, Loki is gone. His spoon and bowl are in the sink next to a small knife, all of them clean. Next to the sink rests a small cluster of strawberry tops. Clint sweeps them into the trash.

He heads to the bathroom. He flicks the lights on to see Loki sitting on the edge of the tub, shirtless. The missing shirt - navy v-neck, three-quarter sleeves - is folded on the sliver of counter space afforded next to the sink. To put it there, Loki moved Clint's soap and toothbrush into the sink proper.

"Did you do all this in the dark?" Clint asks, sinking onto the toilet.

Loki gives him a long look.

"Okay, fair enough." Clint shoves Loki's shirt into the sink so he has room for his knife and matches. Loki frowns faintly but doesn't protest. Clint leans forward. "I have one question before we start."

"And if I don't answer?"

"Then you don't answer." Clint shrugs. "I told you. This isn't transactional."

Loki still looks doubtful, painfully so, but he nods. "Your query, then."

"This - this. This request for pain. The desire for that. How related is that to your desire to die?"

Loki opens his mouth to speak, appears to reconsider, and shuts it. After a long, long moment where he doesn't look at Clint, he finally speaks. "It is true that I believe a more painful death has a higher chance of being permanent." A brief pause. "It is also true that I have craved pain for far longer than I have wanted to die. Which of those needs drove me to open my mouth today... I cannot say."

"Can't say? Or won't say?"

Loki gets that pinched, irritated look about his face, but he doesn't answer. That's answer enough.

Clint decides not to press. "Just - what exactly are you asking of me here?"

"I'm asking," Loki says, voice remarkably steady, "for you to torture me until I die."

Clint tilts his head. "It takes an awful lot to make even a human body shut off from pain alone. Yours? And with what you've already gone through?" He sighs. "I know better than most, Loki, how little you respond to torture."

The pissed-off look is back. "Don't turn my words back on me. We are not children."

Could've fooled Clint. "The point holds. There are things I can use the pain to do - bleed you out again, most likely, not sure I've got the resources for much else - but I probably can't kill you just from the shock."

"That will have to do, I suppose." Loki crosses his arms over his chest, then uncrosses them. He still looks pissy and scared, but now the effect is transmuted, somehow. He seems younger, and desperate, and impossibly human. "In that case, please don't, how shall I phrase this - 'strike the blow' - until I ask."

Clint raises his eyebrows. "I don't think I'm comfortable giving you that much control."

"And I don't think you're prepared to deliver the degree of pain I'm asking for."

'No,' Clint wants to say, 'I'm definitely not.' Instead, he holds back another sigh and says, "That depends. What are you asking for?"

Loki fidgets with his fingernails. He still won't look at Clint. "How much do you recall," he finally says, "of what I told you of my time in the void?"

"A fair amount. It seemed rather important, at the time." He makes the words pointed, but Loki doesn't flinch. Too caught up in his own drama, probably.

"Then you know some of what happened to me there."

"Enough."

"To?" There's something to Loki's voice... Clint can't quite figure it out.

"Know that I have neither the means nor the desire to hurt you to that degree."

"Nothing so extreme," Loki says, masking his disappointment well enough that Clint can barely see it. "If you find yourself lacking for inspiration, however, that is a good place to turn."

"Right," Clint drawls, "because I have the resources to rip your spine from your back, or poison you with the blood of alien beings, or crawl into your mind and - "

"Enough!"

Hunger, Clint realizes. That's what's buried in Loki's eyes, what lurks in his voice. Desire so fierce it's been transmuted into need.

He's going to be sick. He can't afford to be sick.

So he clears his throat. "I decide when you die," he says, keeping his voice low and clear. "I don't trust your judgment and I don't trust that you would respect my limits. Because I do have limits. I am not a weapon you can use to kill yourself." God, that feels good to say out loud. "I am a person who has wants and needs that don't always line up with yours. I am helping you because - " Why is he helping Loki? Sympathy? Empathy? Leftover mind-control magic? " - I think it sucks," he finally settles on, and ignores Loki's twitch of amusement. "I guess I always thought that suicide was the last option, you know?" he continues, softer. "The one choice the world could never take away from you."

"A foolish thought," says Loki, but he sounds sad instead of mocking. Like maybe he thought that once too.

What a fucking pair they make.

Clint picks up his knife. "Might as well get this show on the road. If you could get all the way into the bath - it's a bitch to get blood out of grout is all."

"Oh, certainly." There's a glimpse of the Loki Clint knows, droll and mercurial and bizarre. He shifts so he sits in the tub instead of on its edge, legs curled beneath him and doing his best to face Clint. "So, where shall we start?"

Clint interrogated all sorts of people for SHIELD, who reacted in all sorts of ways. Some were shit-their-pants scared, some were stubborn, some were arrogant, some had no idea of the gravity of the situation. Nobody - not even the masochist in Peru, not even the Belarusian woman whose life he'd saved - nobody was ever hungry.

"I'm not sure," Clint says, truthfully. "I figure start with the things that are easier to bear, then progress from there. Are there any types of pain that affect you more than others? Easier ones that would be good to start, or stuff you want me to stay away from entirely?"

Loki gives him a flat stare. "You have in your possession one knife and a half-empty box of mortal matches." There's a challenge there.

Clint wiggles his fingers, keeps his tone deceptively light. "You did at one point tell me you were here for my hands." A beat. "So. My question?"

Loki frowns. "Stay away from bruises, I think," he says. "I find them - " he makes a face " - enjoyable."

Yeah, no, Asgard's got no fucking idea what masochism is, do they? What, is he Loki's sex ed teacher on top of his therapist now? Great. "That's fine," he says easily enough. "Not enough time to work with them anyway." When Loki doesn't continue, he prompts, "Anything else?"

Loki's eyes slide to the side. "I do not like the cold, but my - this body does not react well to heat." A long pause, during which Loki seems not to breathe. "My hands are... particularly sensitive," he finally says, sounding slightly strained, "but there is a lot of scar tissue in my forearms. I do not think there is very much you could do there that I would feel."

Clint's gaze lingers on the smooth skin of Loki's arms. "You said before that the body you're reborn into is in the same state as the one you first died in."

"It is," Loki says, a challenge in his gaze. Then, milder, "These things are not always visible."

No, Clint supposes, they're not. He should be more aware of that himself.

"I know you pity me," Loki continues, voice returned to sharpness, "but if we could please get on with this..."

Of course. "I feel like I should apologize," Clint says, positioning the knife between the thumb and finger of Loki's left hand.

"For taking so long, perhaps."

When Clint doesn't move, Loki sighs and shoves his hand into the knife. It cuts deep into the webbing between his fingers, sending a wash of blood down both their wrists.

Loki releases another sigh and tilts his head back, pupils blown. He seems to gather himself after a moment, and turns his gaze back to Clint. "There," he says. "The first blow is done. Now will you get on with it?"

'Are you sure this is a good idea?' Clint wants to ask. But then, the time to call this off came and went long ago. He's in too deep.

He looks at Loki's eyes, blown wide and quiet for the first time he's seen him.

Way, way too deep.

He moves the knife between Loki's index and ring fingers. "Let's get this done," he says, and cuts.

~

The sixth time...

Well. The sixth time.

More than three weeks pass, and Clint walks around with the horrible taste of hope and fear at the back of his mouth. Did it work? Was Loki right? Was - and Clint can't bear to call it 'torture', not and live with himself - was the pain the final ingredient?

Hell only knows.

Three weeks and six days in, he's called on a mission.

It's basically routine - four days, him and the target and a cabin in the Canadian wilderness - but the whole time he has that knowing in his gut that something's going to go wrong. He's been running missions since he was fifteen, of one sort or another: shoplifting up to contract hits and all the way back down. Every time he's had this feeling - the terrible premonition, the ache behind his eyes, everything in his stomach raw and oily - he's been right.

But four days later he's free and clear, codes in hand, mark none the wiser. Fury believes his uneasiness during the debrief - Clint's gut has led them right often enough - and lets him stay around to watch the tech team use the codes. His heart is in his throat the whole time, but everything goes off without a hitch. So Clint sighs and shifts his shoulders and lets the quinjet take him back to New York, as all the while the knot in his stomach tightens and twists.

The plane drops him off a distance from the subway, on the roof of an abandoned building that nobody monitors too closely. It's been his rendezvous point for the past few years, and he wonders if this is it. Is there an ambush waiting for him here? He's not armed well enough for it - he left most of his arsenal back at SHIELD, and only has his personal gun and one knife.

He takes the interior staircase instead of the fire escape, more worried about the sniper sightlines outside than the lack of structural integrity in here. He reaches the ground undamaged, though, and nobody waits for him there. Fuck.

The closest train that goes where he needs it to is eight blocks away, and Clint spends the whole walk on high alert. Something horrible is about to happen, he knows it, the same way he knows his own hands.

The subway, of course, is obscenely crowded. It's a ninety-minute ride, which made a hell of a lot of sense when they set up the rendezvous point - more security for SHIELD and his place both - but now? Now, Clint has to focus in order to breathe. He needs to be ready, when whatever is going to happen happens. He pictures the train crumpling like an empty soda can, the people inside flung every which way as it tumbles off the rails. He pictures the man over there, bouncing on his feet as though he's had more coffee than he does sense, pulling a gun from his big yellow backpack. He pictures invisible gas drifting down from the vents, settling in passengers' lungs and veins before they collapse to the sticky floor.

Nothing happens.

When the doors finally sigh open at his stop, Clint is the first one out. He shoves his way up the stairs, not even bothering to apologize to the people he charges past. He bursts out the doors on street level, half-expecting to see the city burning. The skyline is clear when he emerges, though, and so is everything else. Just ordinary bustle: gridlocked cars, flickering streetlights, a line out the sandwich shop on the corner.

Shit fucking fuck.

Clint allows himself exactly eight seconds to panic before he forces his breathing under control. Rationally, there's no reason to expect disaster. The mission is over. He's two and a half blocks from his building. He can go home and relax, maybe even pick up a pizza on the -

And then he realizes.

Loki.

This time he swears out loud.

He launches into a run. Buildings blur into smears in the corners of his eyes. Whatever's about to happen - and he'd bet his left arm that Loki's about to do something incredibly stupid - he can stop it. He has to.

He has to.

He stumbles into his building and up the stairs, where he turns the key so hard it snaps off in the lock. Not before it does its job, though, so he can worry about that later.

He charges headlong into his apartment. "Loki!" he calls, loud enough that the neighbors can probably hear and still not caring. "Loki!"

No response.

He checks the kitchen first, even all the places Loki couldn't possibly fit. He's halfway through checking the living room when it hits him - he's being stupid.

If Loki's here - and Clint knows in his bones that Loki's here - he's in the bathroom.

And then Clint's standing in front of his closed bathroom door.

It was open when he left.

After a moment, he knocks.

Nothing.

He eases the door open. It's not even halfway through the arc when it hits something.

"Loki," Clint calls, quietly. At first nothing, but then -

"Barton?"

His voice is low and wet and sick-sounding. Clint fights off panic. "I can't get the door open."

"A moment." Some shuffling on the other side of the door. Whatever's blocking it withdraws. "Try now."

This time, the door opens far enough for Clint to slip inside. Loki sits in shadow on the far wall, his knees drawn up to make room for the door.

Clint gets the light.

"Oh my god," he says. "Oh my god."

He was wrong, earlier. 'Something horrible is going to happen,' his ass. Something horrible has already happened. It happened right here in his bathroom. It hasn't stopped.

Loki has a knife in his left hand. Slowly, not looking up, he draws it horizontally across his right wrist. As Clint watches, he moves the knife down half an inch and cuts an identical line. There are dozens of lines like it everywhere on his body: in the meat of his shoulder, on the flat plane of his stomach, up the inside of his bare legs. Some of them are still open, little red mouths like garish clown makeup. Others are almost healed, just long raised scars beneath flaky brown blood.

"What the fuck?" Clint says. "What the fuck?"

Loki finally looks up, knife dangling from his fingers. "Barton!" he says, sounding perversely pleased. "So glad you could join me!"

"Jesus," Clint says. It's the happiest he's ever heard him. "Are you drunk?"

Loki tilts his head. He looks from Clint to the knife, then back to Clint. "Am I? I don't think so. I haven't ingested anything yet." His eyebrows scrunch up. "My blood is red. Did you know my blood is red?"

Fuck. Shit. Before Clint does anything else - before he can even think about what doing anything else would require - he has to get that knife away from Loki. Christ, how much blood has he lost? He should be dead. "Yeah, actually, I did," he says, keeping his tone conversational. He crouches down by Loki's legs. There's not really enough room on the floor for both of them, so he's pressed between Loki and the toilet, and Christ. Fever wafts off Loki like a wave. Some of those cuts must be infected. "I've seen you bleed before, remember?"

Loki blinks long and slow. "I suppose you have." Then, petulant, "Where have you been?"

"Working." Loki seems not to be paying attention to the knife. Clint considers the best angle to pluck it from his limp fingers.

"I couldn't find you." Shit, Loki's full-on pouting.

"Yes," Clint says, trying to keep his voice soothing. "That's because I was working."

Loki gives him a petulant look. "But I couldn't find you. I can always find you, but I couldn't."

Right, the magic homing beacon or what-the-fuck-ever. Hell if Clint knows what happened to it, but he'll count his blessings. Except - "Loki. Did you hurt yourself because you couldn't find me?"

"No," Loki says, and Clint feels a swoop of relief in his stomach, except then he says, "I didn't hurt myself."

And Clint thought he was the king of denial. "Yeah? What were you doing with the knife, then?"

Loki gives a beleaguered sigh. "The body isn't me, Barton."

Jesus flying fucking fuck, this is the biggest mess Clint has ever been in. "Yeah? What makes you say that?"

Loki laughs, soft and hollow. "Where should I start?"

"How about the beginning?" Clint manages to pull the knife from Loki's unresisting hand.

"The beginning. Ha." Loki, absently, digs his now-free fingers into one of the cuts on his stomach. Clint wants to scream. "I was never a person, Barton. I was a weapon and a treaty and a foundling and a god, but I was never a person."

Clint's gut curls in on itself. He knows that feeling - bits of it, at least - and to hear some of his oldest, most secret thoughts come out of Loki's mouth... Shit, this was already awful. Now it's surreal. "What do you mean?"

Loki's mouth twists. "And it's not like this is my body anyway," he continues, ignoring Clint's question. "My body melted the first time I failed to end myself. Everything since is a - a facsimile, a simulacrum. A lie." He pinches the flap of skin on his stomach and wrings it; his face doesn't even change.

Clint grabs both of Loki's wrists, not even thinking about it. "Stop," he says, his own voice so harsh he barely recognizes it. "Listen to me. Stop."

Loki's eyes finally focus on his. "Give me one good reason why." It's a challenge; it's a plea. Clint wants to cry.

"Because I say so."

Loki takes a breath that is more like a laugh. "I don't think that counts."

"Doesn't it? You've stopped, haven't you?"

Loki gives him a look.

"What do you want me to say, then? That only I'm allowed to hurt you?" Clint spits the words, and something horrible twists in his stomach at the thought.

Loki's eyes widen a fraction. "Yes. Would you?"

"If it means you stop doing this? Fine, yeah. There's not much I wouldn't."

Loki tilts his head back and gives a weak laugh. His wrists have gone limp in Clint's hands. "Why do you persist in helping me?"

"I told you last time, I - "

"No, no," he says, sounding exasperated, "not the killing part. The rest of it. You feed me, you care for me and I don't - it's only - " his voice breaks. He swallows. "Why?"

Clint releases Loki's wrists and sits back on his heels. There are so many answers he could give, and all of them a little bit true: he doesn't like vengeance; he still sees himself as Loki's; he's never been able to sit by when someone is hurting; he still sees Loki as his.

"I guess," he says, once the silence has stretched far too long, "I don't really think anyone's past saving."

Loki stares at him, struck dumb, for almost a full minute before he scoffs. "You of all your people should know better." His voice is hollow.

"Yeah, I probably should. I don't, though."

Loki gives a soft, drugged-sounding laugh that rapidly turns into a wracking cough. The force of it bends him double, opening all the half-closed cuts on his stomach and thighs. It sends a wash of fresh blood over Clint's tiles. Clint's stomach rolls again.

"How long since you came back?" Clint asks him, gently.

"Five, six days, perhaps." Loki runs his hands over the tops of his thighs, and then stares at the blood collected on his palms as though he's still shocked by the color.

"How long have you been here?"

"Almost as long."

Jesus. Jesus. "And you've been... using the knife the entire time?"

"On and off."

"Have you eaten? Had anything to drink?"

"I already told you I haven't ingested anything." He's like a petulant child. A homicidal, suicidal child.

Clint uses the sink to lever himself to a standing position. "I'm going to get you some water or something."

"Must you? You're going to kill me anyway."

For half a second, Clint thinks about putting his foot down. 'No,' he could say. 'I'm not about to kill you today, and I might never kill you again.' But whatever breaking point led Loki here, to Clint's pink-tiled bathroom in a dried crust of his own blood... That's not something Clint can fix. And he's never been able to walk away from someone in this much pain.

"I don't give a shit about that," he says instead. "I'm getting you some goddamn water."

Loki doesn't react, so Clint heads for the kitchen. He goes for ice chips instead of water. With a fever like that, they'll probably be easier on Loki's stomach. He slops some chicken broth into a pot and leaves it to warm on the stove. Before he returns to the bathroom, he grabs the bottle of antacid tablets. Even if Loki doesn't need them, Clint might.

It's just - Jesus fucking Christ, he's never seen anything like this. Well, he's seen things like this - it's an unfortunate hazard of the job - but he's never seen anyone do this to themselves. It's nightmarish. It's sickening. It makes him long for the days when everything was simple and blue, when he could care for Loki and not be questioned, when he could obsess and not hate himself for it.

He adjusts his grip on the antacid bottle and marches back towards the bathroom. "Hey," he says, crouching down again next to Loki. He sets the bottle on the closed toilet lid. "I brought you some ice."

There's a split second where Loki's eyes widen and he freezes, terror writ plain on his face. Then he lashes out, hands curved like claws, nearly upsetting the cup in Clint's hand. When he settles, he's panting, and his gaze is fixed on Clint, full of unerring ferocity. "You said you were going to help me." Despite the fury in his gaze, he doesn't sound angry. His voice is flat and emotionless.

Clint looks from the ice to Loki. He just stepped right into some sort of trigger, and he has no idea what or how. 'I do not like the cold,' Loki has said, twice now. "You have an issue with ice?" Clint asks, trying to keep his voice casual. It doesn't quite work.

"Not particularly," Loki says. His eyes, full of fear and lingering on the cup in Clint's hand, bely his words.

Clint sighs. "Don't lie to me, please. If you don't want to talk about it, you can say that, but no lies. I don't have time for that."

Loki frowns, some of the anger going out of his eyes to be replaced by irritation. "I don't wish to talk about it."

"See? That was easy." Clint leans back on his heels and holds out the cup of ice. "These are just ice cubes. I don't know how well your stomach would do with too much water all at once. If you keep a couple of these down, I've got some soup started on the stove."

"I am not ill."

"Mm-hmm." Clint fishes a piece of ice out of the cup. He holds it out. "Open up."

Loki scowls and snatches the ice cube out of Clint's hand. He winces, just slightly, when he puts it in his mouth, but they both pretend not to notice.

After about five minutes, Loki reaches out for another ice cube. Clint gives him the cup and stands up. "I'm gonna go work on the soup. Call if you need me."

Loki nods. Clint waits a moment to see if he'll say anything, but that appears to be the extent of his response. Yeah, that's about right.

He brings the knife with him when he leaves.

The broth is steaming when he arrives in the kitchen. He grabs some frozen peas from the fridge, egg noodles from the pantry, and leftover shredded chicken from the barbecue place where his handler slipped him the Canada assignment. After tossing it all in the pot, he adds a liberal amount of pepper and stirs.

Focusing on the soup - he's been subsiding on takeout and leftovers for months, and it's centering to use the kitchen like this - helps keep his attention from gnawing on the Loki problem. Because oh, god, yeah, there's a problem. There hasn't been a bigger problem for literally a decade. Maybe ever.

Carrots. Carrots would be nice. He doesn't have any frozen, though, and the ones in the crisper would probably complete Loki's death of the day. He starts peering through his leftovers. He thinks he got some nice carrots in the Japanese he got last Tuesday. He can pick those out and put them in the soup.

The problem isn't just that Loki's suicidal. It's not even the self-harm, or how that's tied into and fucked up by the masochism, or the way he has depression written across his every feature.

The Japanese food has gone bad. It's not that surprising, really, since he's been away for a week. Also, putting those carrots in the soup would have a bad idea anyway. Clint grabs some frozen corn, adds it to the soup along with garlic powder and a touch of nutmeg, and punches the goddamn wall.

Yeah, no, that didn't help.

The problem is that Clint's the only person in Loki's life.

Somehow he's become Loki's entire support system, social group, and extraction plan. That's unhealthy as shit in the best of circumstances, and these certainly aren't. The god bleeding out in Clint's bathroom testifies to that. (The god bleeding out in Clint's bathroom testifies to a lot of things.)

Clint shakes his hand and surveys the dent in the wall. It's not bad, by which he means it's quite impressive. Says nothing good about the strength of the wall, but hey, he knew this apartment was shit when he moved in.

He deems the soup done and pulls it off the heat. He serves two bowls and heads for the bathroom.

While Clint was gone, Loki moved into the tub. It reopened a lot of his cuts, and there's a fresh slick of blood at the bottom of the pink porcelain. "I should apologize," Loki says, before Clint can say anything.

"Huh?" Clint says, dumbly.

Loki won't meet his eyes. "You'll have to clean up the blood."

Clint can't help it: he laughs a little. "Yeah, so? I've had worse."

"Last time - "

"Fuck last time. It was stupid on a whole bunch of levels."

Loki's lips thin.

"Anyway," Clint says, because he's a goddamn master at changing the subject, "I brought some soup." He holds one of the bowls out. Loki frowns at it.

"I do not..."

Clint rolls his eyes. "You kept the ice down, right?"

Loki nods.

"This is the next step, then."

"It would be, if you were nursing me back to health!"

"Which I'm not," Clint says, mostly to prevent Loki from saying it. He gestures a little more violently with the soup. "Yeah, I know the drill and I don't care. Eat the soup."

"Or what?" Loki asks, apparently under the mistaken belief that he's being sly.

Clint sighs. He sets one of the bowls on the edge of the tub, then sits down on the toilet. He moves the antacid tablets to the sink. "How's the soup?" he asks, instead of answering. Loki hasn't touched the bowl yet.

Loki shoves it over, letting it spill across his blood on the floor in a big arc. It splashes on Clint's field boots, which he still hasn't taken off.

Clint offers Loki the second bowl.

Loki gives half a laugh, high and wild. "What are you, Barton? What is twisted wrong in you?"

"I'm not sure. What's twisted wrong in you?" Clint keeps his voice deliberately mild.

Loki gives the other half of his laugh. "A score of things and more," he says, voice a little wild, "starting right now with you!"

"Gee," says Clint, deadpan. He can give as good as he gets. "Have I moved up in the world?"

Loki must still be out of it, because quite abruptly he sobers. He pushes himself barely more upright and locks a deadly serious gaze with Clint's. "You've moved up in mine."

Fuck, how is Clint supposed to kill this guy? "Well," he says, trying to lighten the mood. "We didn't set a very high bar, did we?"

Loki's eyes go glassy and slide to the side. "No," he murmurs, so low Clint's aids don't even pick it up and he's reduced to lip reading. "I don't suppose I did." Then Loki's arms give out and he collapses back into the tub. "Please just kill me," he tells the ceiling, loud enough now that Clint's ears can pick it up. "That's all I ask." Then, quietly again, so Clint has to change his angle to read his lips, "Stop making this so damn hard."

Clint stares at the soup in his hands. All the chicken has sunk to the bottom, and a bed of noodles floats on the top, with peas and corn dotted throughout like a Jackson Pollock painting.

The steam smells good.

With a sigh, Clint perches the bowl on the edge of the sink. It's not the end of the world if it spills, anyway. His bathroom's a wreck. Stray noodles squish under his feet as he takes the one step it takes to reach the tub and crouches down.

"Alright," he says softly. "Okay. Fine. I'll do it."

Loki just stares up at him.

Clint has no tools, but then, he's never needed them. He reaches out and cradles Loki's head in his hands, feeling out each vertebrae until he reaches the right one.

Then he twists, and Loki collapses the rest of the way into the tub.

He manages to get his hands away fast enough this time to avoid getting half-melted Loki on his fingers.

He feels the phantom muck on his hands anyway. He starts the shower and heads to the kitchen to get cleaning supplies. It's going to be past three in the morning before he's done in the bathroom.

Blood is a bitch to get out of grout.