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Screaming Mute and Seeing Blind

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Perhaps he should have seen it coming.

After all, the collar had been forced on him as soon as he’d set foot in Asgard. The shackles were cold around his wrists, and the chains wrapped around his hips and held by four guards evoked only too much the leashes on a dog. It was all for show; he just hadn’t understood the show was meant for him.

Odin… well, he hadn’t changed. He probably would never change.

When they brought him in, Loki’s gaze did not linger on the king of Asgard, neither did it wander across the giant pillars of the great hall. He was looking at the golden-haired woman standing in the shadow of his throne.

“Hello, mother,” he said, his jaw still sore from the muzzle. “Have I made you proud?”

“Please, don’t make this worse,” she said under her breath.

He partially raised an eyebrow. “Define ‘worse’.”

“Enough,” Odin growled. “I will speak to the prisoner alone.”

Loki almost rolled his eyes, but he also pointedly avoided looking at Frigga as she exited the room. After all were gone, except for the guards holding his chains, he looked up again and stepped forward with a huffed laugh.

“I really don’t see what all the fuss is about.”

“Do you truly not feel the gravity of your crimes?” Odin growled. “Wherever you go, there is war, ruin, and death.”

Always so dramatic. Loki opened his hands as much as the shackles allowed. “I went down to Midgard to rule the people of Earth as a benevolent god. Just like you.”

“We are not gods. We are born, we live, we die. Just as humans do.”

Loki gave him a charming grin. “Give or take five thousand years.”

Odin sighed. “All this—because Loki desired a throne.”

Loki's amiable expression faltered a little, and he said in a drier voice, “It is my birthright.”

“Your birthright was to die!” Odin barked.

Loki stiffened as though he’d been whipped.

“As a child, cast out onto a frozen rock!” Odin went on vehemently. “If I had not taken you in, you would not be here now to hate me!”

Loki closed his eyes, withdrawing from a conversation he’d played too many times in his head. Suddenly, he found he has no taste whatsoever for this hackneyed game. He just wanted to get this over with.

“If I’m in for the axe,” he said, “then, for mercy’s sake, just swing it. It’s not that I don’t love our little talks. It’s just…” He let out a faint laugh. “I don’t love them.”

Odin stared at him and Loki stared back. He idly wondered how it would feel. To kneel. To feel cold stone against his throat, and then sharp steel against his nape—and then nothing.

He was almost certain Odin would not have him killed. This was all too grand. Too pompous. His death would have been shameful, hidden, like a bug discreetly squashed under a boot. No, he was going to suffer.

“Frigga is the only reason you’re still alive,” Odin said. “And you’ll never see her again. Thor will be king. You will be a slave.”

Loki raised his eyebrows with a derisive scoff. He had expected many things, but not this. “Thor’s slave? You wouldn’t be so cruel. That poor witless oaf did nothing to deserve me.”

But Odin was smiling. The shadow of a smile, really, the wrinkles in the corner of his lips only barely dimpling.

Loki’s own smile wavered.

“No, not Thor’s slave,” Odin said. “You would be, indeed, nothing but a burden for him. But you did enslave one of his mortal friends, through treachery and magic. It is only fair that he should enslave you back.”

Loki was staring at him. Then he burst into laughter, only barely noticing the guard pulling at his chains to keep him from stepping forward. “I’m sure he’ll agree that this is a… terribly unwise move.”

Odin got up, then. He slammed his spear Gungnir on the marble floor, and looked at Loki. The guards suddenly tensed the chains so violently the demi-god fell down on his knees, barely catching himself with his bound hands. 

“Your magic is mine,” Odin said.

Loki wanted to make an acid comment, but all that came out was a sudden scream—a long, haunted, uncontrollable scream, like someone else was using his mouth, and then a golden glow, a strange, moving energy which spiraled up and got swallowed entirely in the head of Gungnir.

The scream ended and Loki brutally fell forward, wide-eyed and panting in shock. There was a long silence. Loki wanted to say something—to jest—to laugh, he had to laugh—but he couldn’t. He couldn’t. He felt like his insides had just been carved out.

“Your life is mine,” Odin said.

Loki hadn’t even caught his breath; when the spell hit him, he screamed again then—he couldn’t help it; he felt his years being torn from him one by one, each year a stab of ice through his heart, and he had so many years to live, five thousand stabs. At first, all he felt was wrath, but the pain got worse and worse as his body weakened, as his flesh grew feeble and mortal, as what little he had—that loathed Jotun envelope—was taken from him, too. By the end of the spell, he was sobbing brokenly on the floor, trying to revive his fury, to glare, to snarl, but he was shaking too hard and choking on his tears, swallowing snot and drool. He felt naked. He felt like he’d been skinned and then made to wear his own peeled skin as clothes, like it was now sagging in some places and too tight in others. His innards were twisted and heavy, bile rising in his throat. He would not vomit—he would not...

“Your freedom is mine,” Odin said at last.

He looked down at Loki; again, Loki thought of a bug, but this time it was such a repulsive one that it couldn’t be squashed, as it would dirty the boot. Again, he wanted to say something, but he was shuddering too violently and no words came to mind.

“Now,” the All-Father murmured.

He got up from the throne, walked down the few steps and leaned down, reaching for Loki’s huddled figure. He cupped his jaw, resting Loki’s chin in his palm; Loki loathed this small touch more than he'd ever loathed anything—anyone—but he couldn't do anything to escape it. He couldn't even look away.

“I need you to say something, Loki.”

His voice had grown soft and grave and wise, like it did when he told his sons stories, many centuries ago. When he was still Father. Loki swallowed, trembling uncontrollably, still unable to avert his gaze.

“Say it for me,” Odin murmured. “I must not tell lies.”

Loki felt a fury so great it burned him inside like lava. He gritted his teeth, eyes flaming, and spat in Odin’s face.

“Never,” he panted, eyes wide.

Odin didn’t move, drool slowly rolling down his old wrinkled cheek. His hand tightened around the base of Loki’s sharp jaw, where the bone connected to the skull. Slowly, like a vice of steel, it tightened and tightened. Loki let out an inarticulate sound; Odin didn’t relent. He kept squeezing, tighter, tighter, tighter.

This was—this was madness. Odin was strong, yes, but not that strong—Loki was certain he could have bested him in combat; but now he felt like his bones were being ground together by two continents trying to connect along the line of his tongue.

The pain was something new—as an Asgardian, even a false one, every injury started healing the moment it was inflicted; the pain was but fleeting, just a burning flicker that kept him alert. But this—this—this was devouring him, relentless and torturous, lazily settling in his flesh and flaring through his whole jaw. He had never felt anything like it. This was how pain felt to the weak, helpless flesh of a mortal. And in a moment of sheer horror, the reality of his condition hit Loki with full force—Odin could do it, could squash Loki’s jaw like a rotten fruit, leave him mute and grotesque, bones and flesh and tongue hanging against his throat. Loki moaned; Odin crushed him harder, looking him in the eyes, calmly.

And Loki saw nothing but disgust there. Nothing but cold contempt, and maybe even hatred, but a disdainful, dispassionate sort of hatred. The bone cracked, sending a pang of white-hot pain through his brain.

Odin raised a playful eyebrow—and Loki’s thoughts short-circuited.

“I must not tell lies!” he gasped in panic, hurried words tangling in his mouth, “I must not tell lies, I must not tell lies!”

Odin released him and Loki fell forward, gasping for breath, eyes brimming with tears.

He’d always thought he’d stare anything in the eyes—even Death itself—provided it came from the hand of Odin. But a bit of pain had been enough to break him. He hadn’t even resisted for a full minute.

“Never?” Odin repeated with the quiet derision of wise old men.

He turned away. “I am going to give you a few reminders. At the very least, you will die well-behaved.”

Loki couldn’t speak, even as the rune engraved itself in his left cheek and he felt the spell ensnare him in its net. He was shuddering, eyes wide, his tears blurring his vision. He wanted to say something—a last line so Odin wouldn’t win entirely. But there was nothing, only empty threats and hollow curses on the tip of his tongue.

And of course, he ended up saying the very thing he should have never said.

“Father,” he blurted. 

“Take him away,” Odin said, already looking away, and the chains tensed again; before he was dragged out, Loki saw him pull out a handkerchief and carefully wipe the drool off his cheek.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

“Are you ready to begin?”

Clint glared at Sitwell, who smiled at him.

He was always smiling. Coulson used to smile all the time, too. But for some reason, Sitwell’s smile was setting Clint on edge. Or maybe it was just his life in general. He wasn’t having the best of days right now. Wasn’t having the best of months. Of years. Whatever.

He nodded, briskly, and looked away.

“Earmuffs?” Sitwell offered, a thick fluffy pair already hugging his bald head.

Clint shook his head and raised his gun. The paper targets were waiting in the dark. The lights turned on one after the other.

Clack. A man in a dark suit—bull’s eye.

Clack. Iron Man. Hold your fire.

Clack. Chitauri. Bull’s eye.

Clack. Selvig. Hold your fire.

Clack. Fury. Hold your fire.

Clack. Natasha. Bull’s—

NO—no no no. Hold. Hold your fucking fire. Clint closed his eyes and clenched his teeth, trying to push away the shrieking tinnitus skewering him right through his head, from one ear to another.

Paper targets. Paper targets. He sorted them out in his mind. Bad guys, good guys. One side for the bad ones, one side for the good ones. Like dealing cards. The black ones, the red ones. He was great at cards. Loki was grinning at him. Clint scowled. A paper target. You’re just a paper target.

He reopened his eyes, aimed away from Natasha and emptied his gun into the last target, until he’d tried several times to shoot his now empty weapon.

Sitwell was saying something, but Clint didn’t need his ringing ears.

He stared at the paper figure of himself. Shot in the forehead, in the left eye, right eye, in the neck, heart, loins and femoral artery.

A neat job.

 

*

 

Staring at the ceiling had become his favorite activity. Not that he was inactive all the time—on the contrary. He trained hard, he slept, he ate, he dutifully attended his psych evaluations; and then he slept, and he ate, and he slept again. But in what little free time he had, he just stared into space; or he took a deck of cards out of his pocket, and sorted them out.

Paper targets. The black ones were the bad guys. The red ones were the good guys. Clint was turning up the cards one after the other. Natasha was his Queen of Hearts. Stark his King of Diamonds. Fury was the Ace. Coulson was the Jack.

Loki was the Joker, and when he came out, the game was over. Clint looked at the two piles of cards. Bad guys, good guys. There were a few red cards in the black pile, a few black cards in the red one. The Joker was smiling at him in the middle.

“Paper targets,” Clint murmured.

He just needed to smooth it all down. To even it out. Turn everything into paper so he could sort it out like Coulson used to sort out his files. Everything was too chaotic and screaming in his mind, strange, nauseous fireworks painting the world in moving colors and making him want to curl up on himself until it all stopped.

But he couldn’t do that. He shuffled the cards again.

He had this weird superstition that one day, the Joker—there was only one; the deck was incomplete—would end up at the very bottom. And if on that day both piles were perfect, then Clint would be cleared to go back on the field.

He turned the first card. The Jack of Spades. Aka Clint himself, for the second time today.

He put it back in the deck and wrapped a rubber band around the worn cards, before stuffing it down his pocket.

It was a really crappy day.

 

*

 

Life went on, as boring and eventless as it could get in SHIELD HQ. Clint went to sleep like a good soldier, got up when the alarm clock rang, trained and did psych evals and trained again and did more psych evals. The other agents avoided him. Clint sometimes wondered why Fury hadn’t just killed him or—or locked him away in Alaska or some shit. Sure, he was the best at what he did; actually, he was so good that he’d almost taken down the Helicarrier, SHIELD and the world all by himself. The first thing he ever did right, he’d managed to do wrong. That was just his luck.

Natasha was gone on an endless string of missions by Captain America’s side. Clint had no idea how Steve Rogers dealt with the idea of being SHIELD’s weapon. At least it was better than being a discarded weapon, stored away for who knew how long, gathering dust, endlessly shuffling cards, endlessly dealing them, black, red, black, black, red, red, red, black, red, black, Joker, game over. Sitwell was on the red pile, but he wasn’t much, a two of diamonds, or maybe a three. Too often, Clint sorted him out in the black pile. He needed to focus.

It was just so hard. It had made so much sense. Clint didn’t know how to explain it. He could fight many things, he could resist torture and bullets, he could tell truth from lies and he could watch a friend being killed before his eyes and suppress the pain to finish the mission first. This had been his life as a weapon. But then someone else had taken the weapon he was, and turned it against SHIELD, and SHIELD had gotten scared—not as scared as Clint, though; because it had made so much sense. Loki had said kill, and Clint had killed like he did every other day in his life. Where was the difference? Lives were lives. Clint could have been born and brought up as Loki’s thrall; could have been made to think it was right. Loki hadn’t really mind-controlled him as much as showed him… an alternative. And Clint was a weapon to be used, and he’d been used by Loki just like he’d been used by everyone else in his life. No difference. So why…

Sometimes he sat blinking and tried very hard to remember why he shouldn’t kill Natasha, and even though he loved her and missed her so much it hurt, it took him seconds, sometimes minutes, to remember. Because they were all paper targets now; paper targets to be shot, a neat little hole in each paper forehead. So Clint shuffled his cards, then upturned them one by one with a soft little swip sound each time, and he tried to sort it out, to remember that some cards were not like the others, red, black, red, black, black, black, red.

Black.

Joker.

Game over.

 

*

 

He had an apartment in town, an empty place he’d never lived in; he had safe houses, too, some SHIELD knew about, and some they didn’t. But ever since the battle of New York a month ago, he’d stayed at the Triskelion—SHIELD’s headquarters on an island near Manhattan.

He was pretty sure they locked him up in his room at night, but he’d never tried to check.

He wasn’t allowed to carry weapons except on the range, which was kinda normal, and he wasn’t allowed to own a belt or shoelaces, which meant he was on suicide watch. Clint didn’t want to kill himself. At least he didn’t think so. He just wanted to be used again. He hadn’t minded being SHIELD’s weapon. It was the less hollow he'd felt in his life.

Day after day, the haze was clearing out. He could feel it. It hurt; it really hurt; Clint had never liked hatred or anger—feelings which burned him inside, which he tried to flush out as soon as they threatened to appear. But he hated Loki, coldly and dispassionately. His deck of cards was incomplete because Clint had methodically shredded the first Joker the first time it’d come out. Now he was doing better and he didn’t feel the need to tear the second grinning figure to pieces; but he still felt a pang of raw anger every time he turned up that card. The Joker stopped the game and Clint had to start over. Those were stupid rules, but those were the stupid rules he followed.

He’d spent less than a week as a thrall. Loki hadn’t let him sleep or eat, which went to show just how expendable he considered them all. He’d treated his slaves like tools—like weapons; Clint knew that was what he was, but at least SHIELD had the decency to lie about it. Now he was stuck with his hatred for Loki—because Loki had forced him to face that fact.

And his hatred itself felt dead and cold, like charred wood soaked in water; heavy, useless, the fire long gone out but the ashes still there, stuck inside his throat like a grey slick paste whenever he tried to breathe or swallow. Always in the way. Clint wanted to forget; he wanted to be unfazed and serene; but he woke up at night arguing against Loki, stringing together pieces of haggard sentences, who gave you the right, why would you think you can, how could you claim to, and then he fell back on his mattress, burning with anger, and scowling at the uselessness of it all.

He remembered when he’d woken up from the enthrallment. Do you know what it’s like to be unmade? And Natasha’s calm voice. You know I do. Yeah, he knew. He wasn’t special—not even about that.

He was re-making himself, step by step. Red, black, red, black, red. He was nearly there. It felt like an endless cycle, but he was doing better. He almost didn’t get the cards mixed up anymore. He was scoring good results on his psych evals. He slept, he ate. Eventually he was going to be allowed on the field again; he’d prove himself, and then he would be trusted again, and he could finally forget about all this shit.

This was all he hoped for. He’d learned at a very early age not to ask for too much.

 

*

 

Clint had slept undisturbed for three nights in a row when the incident happened.

Someone was pounding on his door. “Agent Barton. Report.”

Clint’s eyes blinked open; he swung his legs out of his bunk bed and silently landed on the floor. He always slept in his clothes—it was a habit he’d taken some time ago; at first, he was only doing it on a mission, but now it was all the time.

There was another knock. “Agent—”

Clint opened the door so suddenly the agent on the other side nearly jumped out of his skin. Clint knew how eerie he looked—always dressed in black battle gear, with deep dark rings under his eyes, his face gaunt and expressionless. Still, being ugly shouldn’t have turned him into a walking target; and yet the agent was now aiming at him.

Clint just stared blankly at the empty hole of the gun. He wondered whether the kid—he was just a kid—was acting on Fury’s orders. He also wondered why he hadn’t fired yet. After a second, he was forced to reassess the situation; the kid wasn’t there to kill Clint, but he was afraid Clint would kill him.

Clint slowly raised his hands, never looking away from the young agent.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“Report,” the other said dryly.

Clint sighed inwardly. “Agent level 8, Clinton Francis Barton. Currently benched. Currently wishing to be asleep in his bed without a gun pointed at him. What’s going on?”

The young agent squinted at him, as though hoping to X-ray the truth out of him—exactly what truth, Clint had no idea; then he slightly lowered his weapon. Only slightly.

“Director Fury is asking for you,” he said.

He was still staring at Clint as though he was about to pounce on him. Clint was beginning to be a little worried. Had he done something wrong? Something he hadn’t even noticed was wrong? That would be bad.

He lowered his hands and gave a curt nod, but the agent answered with another one, towards the hallway; he wanted Clint to go first. Clint really didn’t want to let him—to let anyone—behind his back with a gun, but it wasn’t like he had much of a choice.

He resolutely walked down the corridor, sorting out cards in his head. Red black red black. He’d become great at dealing cards; an entire deck took him less than ten seconds. And he never made any mistakes now. He took a deep breath. He was alright. He hadn’t made any mistakes. He would be fine.

Joker.

Game over.

He briefly closed his eyes, then squared his shoulders and kept walking.

 

*

 

Fury was actually waiting for them, which surprised Clint. Nick Fury was a busy man, and even if Clint had fucked up, Fury wouldn’t have come to strap him on the electric chair himself. Whatever was happening went beyond Clint Barton’s little life: it relieved him for a second, but then he started to worry again. Because he was involved, and now he had no idea how.

“Agent Barton,” Fury said, stopping mid-pacing when Clint entered the room. “How are you feeling?”

Clint didn’t like the question, and he liked the room even less. It was an observation room with a two-way mirror on the wall, showing the inside of an empty cell.

“Fine,” Clint said. “What’s going on?”

“Loki is back.”

Clint didn’t say anything—didn’t move—didn’t let anything show.

The deck of cards was heavy in his pocket.

“Not in my head, he’s not,” he said defiantly.

Fury didn’t relax. Clint wouldn’t have relaxed, either. But the director still nodded, as if to say he appreciated Clint’s effort. The young agent was still in his back and Clint had no doubt he was ready to shoot him.

“Do you need me on the field, sir?” he asked, trying to keep his voice steady. It was highly unlikely, but he didn’t want to dwell on the other reasons Fury might have to bring him here. Maybe he wanted Clint locked down. But Clint already was—he was sure they were locking his door of his quarters at night; they could have kept him there. Besides, they were on the good side of the two-way mirror, and that had to count for something. Right?

“I need to brief you first,” Fury said.

“Then brief me.”

“Take one step forward and I will.”

Clint didn’t move.

Fury glared at him.

Clint licked his lips, then took one step forward. By doing so, he brought into sight the contents of the cell on the other side of the mirror. It wasn’t empty after all.

At first, he didn’t understand what he was seeing. But then his eyes forced his brain to make sense of it.

The cell wasn’t for Clint. It was for Loki. They didn’t need Clint on the field—they had already caught Loki.

But it wasn’t really him. He looked different.Clint couldn’t pin-point why—it wasn’t just about the crimson rune on his left cheek, or the fact that he was wearing black pants and a tight straitjacket instead of his gold-and-green armor.

A straitjacket?

He wasn’t moving, glaring at what must be his own image in the mirror. He was barefoot, sitting cross-legged, holding himself very stiff. His hair was slightly disheveled. Even from where he was, Clint could see how clenched his jaw was. Fuck—an honest-to-god straitjacket. Clint didn’t even know those still existed. Why would they put him in a straitjacket?

Fury followed his gaze, and snorted, humorlessly. “When Thor brought him here, he was in shackles,” he said. “Then some genius put him in regular cuffs. He picked the lock, stole a gun and nearly killed a nurse before we took him down. I thought I’d give him a taste of Midgardian fashion.”

Clint didn’t smile. Was he supposed to? Was he expected to find this funny? He didn’t—he felt mostly nauseous. Loki was staring at the glass like he could pierce a hole in it. Suddenly, his gaze moved—and he was staring at Clint straight in the eyes.

Then he looked away again, lightning-quick. Clint realized he was holding his breath and silently let it out.

“Alright,” he said sullenly. “So what do you need me for? Why is he here?”

Fury huffed through his nose. “I’m not the most qualified to explain this,” he said. He nodded to the young agent standing behind Clint. “Let him in.”

Clint didn’t turn, but his senses were sharp enough—he recognized the oddly silent steps, the deep breathing, and the sheer energy which radiated from the newcomer.

“Thor,” he said. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“My friend,” Thor said, and Clint understand only a split second too late that Thor was about to clasp his shoulder. He stiffened and stared right ahead—stared at Loki, let Loki’s presence ice him down so he wouldn’t turn and lash out at Thor. Nobody had touched him since Manhattan. Not even the doctors. He’d taken his own blood samples.

The pressure on his shoulder was brief and almost painful, but it was expected, and gone the second after. Clint breathed out again, a bit less silently, as Thor circled the table to shake Fury’s hand. That hadn’t been so horrible.

Clint tore his gaze from Loki and forced himself to turn round, even though he hated turning his back to him—more than anything. A paper target, he thought, but these words were meaningless now, as meaningless as the cards in his pocket. Those little games wouldn't help him anymore.

“Sir,” he said. “I’d really like to be briefed now.”

Fury nodded at Thor, who stared gravely at Loki through the glass.

“He should have been executed,” he said. “But our mother would not allow it. Poetic justice was Odin’s second option.”

“Poetic justice?”

“Loki deemed humans inferior; now he is human himself. He wanted to enslave your world; he has been made a slave in turn. He made you his thrall; and for that, he’ll be yours.”

Clint stared at Loki, who was almost as pale as his straitjacket from the humiliations and sufferings of the past hours—days? It had been a long time since Clint had last seen him. He couldn’t deny he felt a dark pang of joy seeing how far he’d fallen. But then Thor’s words, which he’d tried to avoid, caught up with him; and he shook his head.

“You can’t be serious.”

“I am very much serious.”

“Thor—we don’t do slavery here. Not anymore.”

“Not officially,” Thor corrected. Then, as if sensing how politically correct he failed to be, he went on, “But we Asgardians do. Consider him a war prisoner, if you’d like.”

“I don’t want him.”

“Odin’s decision is final,” Thor said in a soft but authoritative voice. He pointed at his brother. “Loki already wears the mark of his enthrallment anyway. If he gets too far away from you, it will kill him. Think of it as a leash.”

Clint stared at the red rune on the pale cheek. He realized that Loki was shivering, very slightly, but uncontrollably; and for some reason, this was what made him snap.

“I don’t want him,” he repeated louder, panic rising. “Sell him to SHIELD—do whatever you want, but for fuck’s sake, don’t give him to me!”

“If he’s too much trouble, you can kill him,” Thor said.

Clint stared at him then.

“What?” he said under his breath.

“He’s yours,” Thor said, meeting his gaze for the first time.

Clint almost laughed. “And you’d let me kill him, that right? You’d let me walk in and put a gun against his head right now?”

“Yes,” Thor said, clear blue eyes calmly boring into Clint’s.

Clint said nothing. And then he brutally said, “Alright then.”

He suddenly whipped round and snatched the gun from the hand of the young agent in one single fluid movement; the agent yelped and stupidly leapt forward to take it back—Clint kicked him in the stomach and slammed him again the wall, letting him collapse on the floor. He left him there, gasping like a fish out of water, then glared at Fury and Thor. They hadn’t moved.

Nostrils flaring, he cocked the gun, then slammed the door of the cell open and walked inside.

It felt like going underwater. Suddenly, he couldn’t hear anything save for the faint hum of the neon lights. It was ice cold in there. Loki didn’t move at all, but the second the door opened, his burning eyes fixed themselves on Clint. They flicked at the gun, then back up at the archer.

Clint stayed still. He felt just like that damn moment when Loki had grabbed his arm and Clint could only stare at him in amazement, unable to break free, before the spear touched his chest and the world turned upside down.

Loki had turned into a statue. He didn’t say anything, not even when Clint finally snapped out of it, crossed the room, then raised his gun and put the cold tip against Loki’s forehead. The blue eyes followed him—never looked away.

Clint realized then Loki wasn’t scared. Wasn't scared at all. He was so furious he couldn’t speak. He was literally trembling with anger. If Clint did kill him, Loki would probably be so offended he’d resurrect on the spot.

“Nothing to say?” Clint murmured.

Loki just showed his teeth, his expression more insane and murderous than ever. He pushed with his forehead against the gun. Clint stared at him, swallowed, and blocked his breath.

He waited. He waited for Thor to stop him. Or for Fury to give the order. But those bastards were just looking at them from the other side of the glass. Nothing moved. There was just this tiny cell with the neon lights and the great silver mirror behind him.

Clint’s finger nearly pulled the trigger—they both heard it squeak in the deep silence of the room. Then he lowered his gun, brushing Loki’s nose and cheekbone and cheek as he went.

Loki took a silent breath.

They waited for a heartbeat, staring at each other; then Clint punched Loki hard across the face.

The blow ripped out a single sound out of him, then he shut up, leaning forward in the straitjacket, reeling and breathing hard; he didn’t try to straighten up, but his eyes slowly moved until they were fixed on Clint again, burning white with anger. Clint felt something dark and intoxicating unfurl inside him then; he hated that defiant look. It made him want to hit Loki again, to scare him—to hurt him—to make him grovel, to make him pay. He realized he was reeling, too; he took a step back, then turned round and left the cell.

The three men were waiting for him on the other side of the mirror. The young agent had gotten back up, grimacing. Fury and Thor were staring at Clint.

“He’s staying here,” Clint said, breathless, pointing at Loki through the two-way mirror with his gun. “He’s staying right here in this fucking cell. I can move around in HQ without killing him, right? What’s the length of that goddamn magic leash?”

“Half a mile,” Thor said quietly.

“Good,” Clint said almost fiercely. He glanced at Fury. “Lock him down. Do what you want to him—I don’t give a shit. I relinquish my authority as a master, or whatever. Just—take him away.”

“I have no use for him if he’s dead,” Fury said in a low voice. “And if he stays in our cells, you won’t be able to leave the Triskelion.”

“As if I was ever going to leave anyway!” Clint yelled.

Fury looked honestly thrown by this. “Barton, you’re not a prisoner. Your return on the field was scheduled for next week.”

Clint took deep, deep breaths, his burning eyes fixed on him. Eventually, he muttered, “Next week?”

“Yes,” Fury said. “I have an assignment for you in Europe.”

“But I’m a traitor,” Clint protested, his voice almost desperate.

Fury and Thor glanced at each other.

Clint stared at them both, helpless. This was new—this was really new, and he had no idea how to react.

“You don’t need deprogramming like Romanov did in her time,” Fury said eventually. “And if anything, your attack on the Helicarrier only proved your worth as a strategist.” He crossed his arms. “Besides, you’re desperate to prove your loyalty to us. I’d say you’re my best agent at the moment.”

“What’s the assignment?” Clint asked brutally.

Fury shook his head. Classified, as long as Clint wasn’t in on it.

“So what?” Clint protested, “what are you saying? I have one week to choose whether Loki lives or dies?” He turned to Thor. “Can’t you cut the fucking leash?”

“No,” Thor said in a final tone. “He is bound to you. It’s part of his punishment.”

“That won’t make much difference if I decide to kill him, will it?” Clint yelled. “Or if he stays locked inside the Fridge until he grows old and dies!”

“Yes, it will,” Thor said. “For he will know his death—or isolation—came from you. You are the master of his fate.”

It was like hitting his head against a brick wall. “I don’t want a slave,” Clint repeated.

“Then kill him,” Thor said again.

He turned away to leave, apparently considering this conversation to be running in circles, and the young agent hurried ahead of him to show him out.

“He’s your goddamn brother!” Clint shouted at him.

“No,” Thor answered from the hallway. “He’s your slave.”

And then he was gone.

Clint turned to Fury, trembling with rage and incomprehension. “What’s the fucking matter with him? You told me—everyone told me he kept defending Loki during the battle. Even after all he did.”

“I guess he doesn’t have much of a choice either,” Fury said pensively as the red cape disappeared round the corner. “Seems like his father doesn’t take no for an answer. And they’re aliens—in nature and in culture, Barton.”

He glanced at the red mark on Loki’s cheek. “Who knows what this rune means. Maybe it was enough to turn him into living trash. Even to Thor’s eyes.”

Clint had followed Fury’s gaze, and regretted it very much now. Loki was paler than ever, staring furiously at the mirror, eyes wide and unmoving. He looked haunted and insane, feverish, like a rabid dog. He swallowed, and it seemed for a second that he was calming down a little, trying to gather what little dignity he had left, to cement it with his molten anger; but it was like watching a kid try to build a sandcastle in the waves.

He jerked his head to the side and murmured something into his own shoulder, then scowled horribly, as though he’d bitten a lemon; he bent double again, almost pressing his forehead against the bare floor. Clint couldn’t look at him any longer—he turned away.

He seriously wondered, then, whether he shouldn’t just kill him. He was an assassin after all.

But he’d always picked his targets. Loki had forced him to kill people he’d never meant to kill; and now some alien god wanted Clint to murder his son because he couldn’t be bothered to get his own hands dirty.

“You’ve got a week,” Fury said, not unkindly. "Use it well."

Clint wanted to say something, to scream, to kick the table or punch someone in the face, but he had a sandcastle of his own, which he’d patiently, painstakingly built ever since Manhattan, and he didn’t want to show just how much it had crumbled during the past hour.

So he nodded and walked away. What else was there to do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clint spent the rest of the night on the neon-lit range, then went upstairs to the agents’ mess with a formidable headache. Practice usually helped him clear his head, but there weren’t enough arrows in the world for him to shoot this time.

He piled up food on his platter, staring into space. He had shot to kill during the Battle of Manhattan. He’d seen Loki, he’d aimed for the eye with an explosive arrowhead, and he’d done it with fierce, vengeful, guiltless joy. Loki was the enemy then, the smooth-spoken monster who’d bent Clint to his selfish will; he was the target. Clint took down his targets and never felt too guilty about it.          

Murdering a prisoner was something else entirely.

Clint refused to say—to think—the word slave. He had been Loki’s slave, that was a given, and Loki had used him in the way he was meant to be used—against Clint’s will, sure; but a tool has no will anyway. SHIELD played a bit nicer pretending Clint wasn't one, but he was.

Anyway, that wasn’t the matter at hand. That poetic justice thing was bullshit. Clint had no use for a humiliated mass-murderer—seriously, a straitjacket, as if Loki needed any more incentive to be out for their blood—and what was worse, Loki’s presence was effectively threatening Clint’s only chance to go back to what he called normal life. He'd worked hard for this—he'd kept himself in shape, he'd said everything the shrinks wanted to hear even when it made no real sense to him. For Loki to ruin it all again sounded like some kind of cruel joke, so much that Clint briefly wondered whether this wasn’t an elaborate ploy; but he was pretty sure nobody could have faked such a look of pure, scalding wrath.

Asgardians didn’t fuck around with justice. Clint had seen similar stuff going on before, mostly in the Russian mafia. Prisoners used as gifts—as delicacies. Truth be told, he was pretty sure he was expected to kill Loki. Preferably torture him a little beforehand, according to the Viking etiquette. Something that the Asgardian skalds could sing for the eons to come. By his former thrall he was killed, the spirit of vengeance fulfilled. Shit like that.

 

*

 

Clint had half a mind to take an hour-long shower and doze off for the rest of the day, but when he got back to his quarters, he found a blond giant sitting on his bed, effectively keeping Clint from collapsing on it.

The only reason he didn’t punch Thor in the face was because he knew how useless it was.

“Get lost,” he growled, disappearing into the tiny bathroom. “Got enough Narnia for the day.”

“I will leave you alone,” Thor said in his soft, grave voice. “In a moment.”

“What are you still doing here anyway?” Clint groaned. “Come to plead for your baby brother’s life now? Is today Flip-Flop Friday?”

“I did not come to talk about Loki,” Thor said.

That was unexpected enough for Clint to come out of the bathroom. He leaned against the doorframe with his arms crossed in blatant skepticism, then raised his eyebrows.

Thor had the gall to stare back. “I came to tell you about Asgardian slaves.”

Clint rolled his eyes, but Thor was undeterred. “You’ve seen the rune,” he said. “It is a very debasing, very painful spell, which binds the slave to the master and to the spellcaster. If the slave attempts to escape—”

“The rune will kill him. You said that already.”

“It also will if his master dies.”

Clint snorted. “Fucking brilliant. Loki can kill himself and me in only one blow. What the hell is wrong with you people?”

“He will not do it,” Thor said quietly.

“Breaking news, dude, your brother isn’t exactly the most—”

“He will not do it,” Thor repeated, “because he’s scared.”

Clint frowned at that. “Scared of what? Of dying?”

“Of the pain,” Thor said simply. “The rune will not give him a quick, clean death. It will burn him through his cheek, little by little, until it melts the flesh, the skull, and the brain; and it will keep him alive and conscious for the whole process, which can last up to three hours.”

Clint just stared at him, lips pressed in a tight line.

“Loki has never been very brave in the face of pain,” Thor said with a quirk of the lips, like the shadow of a brother’s mocking smile. “And I know from experience that your mortal bodies enhance the sensation greatly. The sheer inertia of the flesh makes it a dozen times worse. Loki will not attack you,” he repeated.

“Yeah, well,” Clint said, a bit thrown. He’d heard about worse tortures—but not many of them; and this was slightly messed up even by his own standards, considering that the spellcaster was Loki’s own father.

“Still,” he went on, shaking himself. “Guy’s just a millstone around my neck.”

“You can get him to obey you,” Thor began.

Clint openly laughed in his face. “No I can’t.” He straightened up and jabbed his thumb at the door. “Get out, Thor. You’ve said your piece. No," he snapped when Thor opened his mouth again. “Shut up. You don’t get it, do you? I don’t want to be dragged into your fucked-up family issues. I don’t want to know about your nostalgic childhood and I don’t want to know how to make Loki sit up and beg. I don’t want to bother with any of it—this isn’t my problem.”

Thor got up.

“Very well,” he said in a noble voice. “Since you have cast your decision, I’d be indebted to you if you could at the very least grant him a quick death.”

And he walked away nonchalantly just like the day before.

Clint thumped his head against the wall, and stayed there, his forehead pressed against the cool cement. It helped, sure, but it didn’t help much.

 

*

 

Thor’s passive-aggressive mind games aside, Clint managed to sleep for the best part of the afternoon. When he woke up, he got out his deck of cards and slowly sorted them out. Red. Black. Red. Black. Red. He waited for the Joker, but it wasn’t coming.

With increasing disbelief, he kept dealing his cards until he reached the bottom of the deck.

The Joker was last.

Clint held the grinning figure in front of him and, staring at his paper target, he knew what to do. It was stupidly simple. He had to face Loki. Tell him what was at stake. Loki would spit in his face out of scorned pride, and then nobody could blame Clint for killing him indeed, not even Clint himself.

Yeah, right. Clint knew very well—under the layers and layers of lies and distractions he used against himself—that he couldn’t kill a defenseless prisoner. No matter which one. No matter how infuriating.

But the Joker was smirking at him and somehow, Clint found himself heading down to the cells. His quarters weren’t far from the staircase.

The doors of the elevator opened on Jasper Sitwell.

“Agent Barton,” he greeted him, beaming as always.

Clint almost let the doors close again. He took a deep breath, walked reluctantly inside and stared straight ahead. He regretted it instantly. Should have taken the stairs.

Weirdly enough, Sitwell didn’t speak for the first ten seconds of vertical travel. Then he said, almost under his breath, “I’ve heard about the leash.”

“Yeah?” Clint said, in a very foul mood. “Then I don’t have to talk to you, do I?”

“You’re kind-hearted,” Sitwell said lightly.

Clint felt insulted.

“You got me, I can’t kill him,” he hissed. “But I can’t go on a mission or he’ll die a slow, horrible death. And I can’t take him with me, and I can’t stay at the Triskelion for my whole goddamn life, either. So unless you’ve got a solution, I suggest you stop talking now.”

“Oh, it’s easy; let the problem solve itself,” Sitwell said lightly. “Just take the mission, and leave him a gun with only one bullet before you go.”

Clint gaped at him.

Sitwell kept staring ahead for a minute, then looked at him and smiled.

“You know,” he said innocently. “Like in Pirates of the Caribbean.”

There was a very silent second. Then the doors of the elevator opened; Sitwell nodded at Clint and left. The doors closed again.

The fuck just happened, Clint thought, still wide-eyed.

Last time he’d checked, Sitwell was a mild-mannered desk agent. Not a fucking psychopath in an Armani suit. Or was this his idea of a joke?

Before he could even fully process it all, the elevator stopped again and the doors opened soundlessly.

Clint wasn’t long to find the interrogation room. Nobody was guarding the door, which made him panic for a split second before he remembered Loki was mortal now. No powers. No super-strength. He was completely helpless and completely alone and people were casually discussing the way he should die in the elevator while making fun movie references.

Clint really felt no sympathy for him, but he still found that his anger had died out a little when he walked inside the room.

On the other side of the mirror, nothing had changed. Loki was still in his straitjacket, sitting down on the floor with his back to the wall. But after a closer look, Clint saw that drops of sweat were rolling down his temples. His breathing was quick and shallow, and he was squirming a little, wincing at times. Clint wondered what his problem was, then blinked in understanding—Mr. Laufeyson needed to relieve himself. There was a toilet seat in the corner of the cell, but of course he couldn’t open his pants.

The speakers of the cells conveyed a painful growl which wasn’t coming from his mouth—he hadn’t been fed, either. Clint felt darkly satisfied upon seeing how much he’d deflated after just one day in a bare cell. Thor was right—his baby brother was a soft bastard.

That gave Clint the courage he needed. He walked away from the mirror and opened the door. Loki straightened up at once, all trace of discomfort vanishing from his face to leave only disdain.

Clint let the door close behind him. He wasn’t feeling overly calm, but he wasn’t freaking out like he did the day before, either. They stared at each other for a while.

“You’re a problem,” he told Loki.

Loki grinned and straightened up a little.

“Am I?” he asked in the low, silky voice Clint remembered only too well—he was surprised to hear him talk so easily after last time, and oxygen seemed to desert his lungs again.

“And here I thought I’d lost all power coming here,” Loki went on. He shrugged. “Then again, we both know that I never needed much when it came to you.”

Clint felt the urge to rip him to pieces like he’d ripped the first Joker of his deck. He should have brought a gun again.

“Wonder why you’re squirming like this,” he said.

Loki raised a condescending eyebrow at him. “Because I want to take a piss, Barton. How can you not see that?”

Clint didn’t know what to say and hated himself for it.

“Help me out then, master,” Loki went on, mocking. “Since I am now under your responsibility.”

He opened his crossed legs and looked at Clint, who gritted his teeth.

“People out there are discussing the way you should die,” he said brutally.

Loki crossed his legs again, folding them in a neat Lotus position, and looked politely interested. “Really.” He tilted his head on the side. “Why are you here, then? To ask for my own opinion on the matter?”

Clint felt himself flush, because—this actually was the reason he’d come. Loki chuckled. “How gracious of you. Well,” he said, “master, I’d like to die bedding Natasha Romanov on a pile of my enemies’ corpses. Think you can arrange that for m—”

Clint punched him hard in the face. Loki’s head jerked on the side; before he could catch his breath, Clint kicked him in the stomach and Loki doubled over as much as he could, shoulders straining in the straitjacket, biting back a groan.

Clint stayed looming over him for a second, fists clenched. Sure, Loki was defenseless, but Clint was already being too much of a Good Samaritan trying to think of a way to keep him alive. A few punches certainly wouldn’t keep him awake at night and God, this one was long overdue.

“Harder,” Loki spat between his teeth.

Clint frowned. “What?”

Loki looked up and grinned at him, still panting. “I said harder, Barton. What kind of assassin are you? I might be stuck in this repulsive human envelope, but that’s still not enough to kill me.”

“And you’d really like me to,” Clint said tiredly. “That it?”

Loki just stared at him, nostrils flaring.

Clint turned around. “Look, I’m just going to let you piss yourself for now, but I’ll think about it. Have a good one.”

Loki let out a nasty laugh. “You should have killed me yesterday, Barton,” he called.

Clint walked out of the room, but he couldn’t ignore the fact that he was right.

 

*

It had been a week, already.

“Just get rid of him,” Sitwell said.

Clint tried to ignore him. He’d barely slept. He would have loved to eat with about anyone else, but there were exactly four people at SHIELD who didn’t express something ranging from indifference to open hostility at the sight of him; and three of them were gone away. The reason he was eating with Sitwell was because, surprisingly, the senior agent had offered to be in charge of Loki while Clint was making up his mind.

“Any news of Fury?” Clint said, digging into his mashed potatoes.

“We haven’t seen him in a while,” Sitwell smiled. “Level 10 agents are awfully secretive. But they should all be back soon.”

Clint stared at his plate.

“Did anyone feed him?” he asked at last, reluctantly.

“Fury?”

“Loki.”

Sitwell tsk’ed and shook his head. “We didn’t exactly feed him.”

Clint looked up. “Then what did you do?”

“We tried,” Sitwell said, almost apologetic. “He was so weak we managed to take off his damn straitjacket without him trying to claw someone’s eyes out. But he still refused to eat or clean himself.”

“So?” Clint, cursing himself for the vague hope that Loki had starved to death.

“So we force-fed him.” Sitwell shrugged. “And we hosed him down.”

He snorted a little. “From ruling the world to living in his own filth, you’d think the shock would be enough—but he’s not breaking. He’s getting worse, actually.” He looked up above the rim of his glasses. “This is going septic and you’re letting it happen.”

“Hey,” Clint barked. “I don’t remember asking for any of this.”

“But he’s yours,” Sitwell answered just as dryly. “He’s bound to you—that’s got to count for something. I let you cower for a week; now’s the time to make a decision. You want to keep him alive, you might as well help us out.”

“Doing what?”

“You could try ordering him to behave.”

Clint sniggered. “Somehow, I don’t think he’d obey me.”

Sitwell smiled. “Have you tried?”

 

*

 

Loki, surprisingly, was up on his feet. He was paler than ever, the red rune like a recent scar on his cheek; the cell was still exuding a moist coldness, the concrete still damp from the last hosing. The straitjacket was gone; he was now wearing a black, long-sleeved shirt instead.

He startled uncontrollably when he heard the door open, but he didn’t turn, and visibly clenched his jaw.

“Looking good,” Clint said.

The cell was freezing, which probably explained why Loki was shaking so much. He probably wasn’t used to suffering from the cold.

“SHIELD doesn’t usually hose its prisoners down, just so you know. You got a special treatment.”

Clint was trying to gloat and he guessed he should have felt satisfied seeing Loki like this. Everyone expected him to. The shrinks had been adamant on this point—it's normal to feel hatred; it's a healthy reaction—but truth be told, he didn’t want to imagine how the hosing had gone down. It vaguely occurred to him that Sitwell might not be a psychopath—might just be playing bad cop. Or rather awful twisted cop. Clint didn’t feel like the good cop; if anything, he felt like the butt of the joke.

“I could have done anything to you,” Loki said in a low voice.

He finally glanced at Clint, and for all his pallor, for all the shakiness in his voice, his eyes were burning with so much hatred that Clint almost took a step back. It was a cold, nasty anger, something which almost made the air in the small cell unbreathable.

“You would have been only too happy to comply,” Loki went on, looking actually betrayed. “I could have broken you even more, and I didn’t. I only used you as SHIELD did. I treated you with honor.”

“Yeah, you were so damn generous to me,” Clint said.

Loki took a deep breath, and visibly tried to control himself. “Talking to you is a waste of my time,” he said. “Do what you must, and be gone.”

Clint was taken short. Loki sneered at him. “What? Again, you came only to talk to me?”

Clint didn’t see it coming—Loki suddenly grabbed the front of his shirt and tugged. “Just how pathetic,” he spat, “how needy can you g—”

Clint slammed his knee into Loki’s stomach and swiped his legs from under him; the fallen god fell again, heavily on the hard cement, and clenched his fists in mute pain as he curled up on the floor. Clint stared at him, panting. He hadn’t expected Loki to touch him—he’d panicked and hit him out of sheer gut reflex—but—

“You’re so weak,” he breathed. He hadn’t realized until then, even though he’d hit him once already; but Loki was human. Clint could have killed him with his bare hands. A snap of the neck, and gone.

“How does it feel?” he asked with a sudden rush in his ears. “To be helpless? Huh? To know you can’t do anything, how does it feel?

Loki looked up at him, trembling with rage. “A sliver of power,” he said, “and that’s enough to make you a much worse monster than me.”

Clint froze. Loki got up, still wincing in pain. “Come, hurt me again. Take the hose—believe me, the water is freezing, and in this bare cell, I have nowhere to hide. You can make me pay at leisure.” He took a step closer. “Because that’s all you crave, isn’t it? The rush of the killer—the thrill of inflicting pain. Back then when you were mine, you told me this is why you joined SHIELD in the first place.”

“That’s a lie,” Clint breathed—hating how wan he sounded.

Loki showed his teeth. “It excites you,” he said. “Thinking of what Sitwell does to me. It makes you so hard. Doesn’t it?”

Clint felt blood rush in his ears, and he had no idea what he would have done next if the alarm hadn't suddenly gone off.

 

*

 

For once, nobody looked at him when he burst inside the command room. Agents in blue and black were bustling about, typing furiously and opening screens on the digital walls. The widest one showed the smoking wreck of a black SUV lying on its side.

“Is that—”

“Director Fury’s,” Sitwell answered. He turned to Clint. “The Winter Soldier took him down in the middle of the street.”

Clint blinked, ears suddenly ringing, brain spinning free in his head.

“The Winter Soldier?” he repeated eventually, stupidly.

Oh, he knew that name alright. He’d even seen him—once, from afar, in his long-range gun’s sight, a shadow gone before he could fire. Natasha had run into him several times, and she’d never won. He’d almost killed her.

But Fury—Fury was impossible to kill. Yet the image on the screen refused to go away. Why? And why now?

“Thornton,” Sitwell told the man next to him, before Clint could even process it all. “Go to Loki’s cell and shoot him in the head. Make it quick.”

“Yessir,” the agent said, jumping on his feet.

Clint felt his blood rush again, so much that his head spun once more.

“Wha—what?” he said. “Hey—Sitwell! What the fuck?”

“I need my best agents on the field right now!” Sitwell barked, looking almost angry for once. “You’re ready, Barton—I saw your last psych evaluations—but you can’t make a decision about this, which I respect; so it’s time to let me make that call. This is an order from your commanding officer: focus on the matter at hand. Loki’s problem is no longer relevant.”

Clint stared at him wide-eyed. Sitwell sighed, then turned away from the turmoil to put his hand on Clint’s arm. “Look, Clint,” he said in a lower voice. “You know it was always going to come to this. I’m taking full responsibility.”

He squeezed his arm, then patted it. “Now forget about it and gear up. Okay?”

But Clint wasn’t looking at Sitwell. He was looking at the giant screen behind him. The three main targets were highlighted on the screen—the Winter Soldier in the middle and, flanking him, Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanov.

Clint gazed at the mild-mannered agent again and schooled his features into perfect blandness, before nodding sharply.

“Thank you, Jasper,” he said in a neutral tone. “Really.”

He turned away and left the room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clint wanted to call his superior officer and tell him that Sitwell had blown a fuse. The problem was that Sitwell was his current SO; that Fury was dead; and that the only other two people he thought he could trust were out of reach.

He sprinted up the hallway and reached Loki’s cell just in time to see Agent Thornton slip inside, cocking his gun. Clint hurried after him and banged the door open.

Loki was backed against the wall when Clint burst in; he glanced at Clint with wide eyes—as for Thornton, his training made him whip away from his original target and shoot at the intruder. Sadly for him, Clint had undergone that same training, too—he easily dodged then kicked the gun out of his hands, kneed him in the gut and took him down with a suplex move which threw them both down on the floor.

Barely out of breath, Clint looked up and saw just a second too late Loki crawl forward to take Thornton's gun. Shit—he pushed the agent's body off him and reached for the weapon, but Loki snatched it just before he could grab it.

There was no dramatic pause. Loki straightened up, then fired four times without blinking—and shot the four agents who’d silently followed Clint up the corridor.

Should have put on helmets, Clint thought distantly, stunned, as he turned round just in time to see them collapse on the ground with identical, red bloody dots between their eyes.

He turned round again. Loki was panting, but his grip was firm on the gun, and he turned to Clint with dilated pupils. Insanity was etched on his every feature.

“Stop,” Clint said, crouching up.

Loki scoffed, gun following Clint as he stood.

“You can’t control me, Barton,” he breathed. “Nobody can.”

“I order you,” Clint said in a low voice, “to stop.”

Loki grinned at him and pulled the trigger.

That is to say, he tried.

But—and Clint saw it all happen in slow motion, as though he’d been suddenly privy to Loki’s innermost impulses and movements—the second he made the conscious decision to shoot Clint—the second his brain sent the command to his arm, the rune on his cheek burned him so fiercely and so cruelly that his legs gave out under him and he fell on the ground, took a deep breath and screamed his lungs out.

“Yeah, welcome to my world,” Clint said, feeling very relieved as he leaned down to pry the gun from Loki’s hand. “Magic’s a bitch.”

Loki couldn’t hear him. His eyes were completely rolled back, and what Clint had mistaken for attempts to keep the gun was just his whole body twitching spasmodically from the pain. This wasn’t good—Clint couldn’t carry him in the hallways; he had no idea what was happening, but things were fucked up and they were fucked up bad. Sitwell had been ready to shoot a prisoner in his cell just to—what? Keep Clint moving? Keep him from seeing Steve’s and Natasha’s faces on the screen?

No, it couldn’t be. Because Sitwell had tried to get Loki killed, but he’d also tried to kill Clint. Clint had four corpses for proof. This must have been a test. See if Clint would disobey a direct order.

But to kill him if he did? No—this didn’t make any sense. Clint didn’t get the logic but he knew this was really, really bad, to such an extent that he preferred not to think about it for now.

All his instincts were telling him to fuck off while there was still time, but he still had the same problem he’d had for a week—what should he do with Loki? He couldn’t kill him, he knew that by now; not after he’d taken down Thornton to save the bastard’s life. Besides, Clint had resigned himself to the inevitable long ago. And the inevitable was him staying at the Triskelion. Fury’s week of delay had been a test, too. Had Clint chosen to murder a defenseless prisoner for the sake of his career, he was pretty sure a few of his psych evaluations would have been invalidated.

Then again, Clint thought, looking at the dead agents, Loki wasn’t exactly defenseless. He might be a weakened human unable to use his magic, but he still had a thousand years of war training behind him—and obviously, a spirit that a week in Sitwell’s tender care hadn’t been enough to break.

“Hey,” Clint said, grabbing Loki’s long hair to slightly raise his head off the ground. “Wake up.”

Loki’s eyes were half-open; a faint sound escaped his lips.

The rune grew even redder against his cheek, redder, redder, redder until his eyes snapped open. Having woken him up according to the master’s wishes, the brand instantly began to cool down again.

This really was a fucked-up spell, but right now it was all Clint needed. He pulled at Loki’s hair to make him look up.

“Alright,” he said. “Let’s skip the part where I threaten you and go straight to you doing exactly what I say. Okay?” He released him. “Now get up.”

Loki obeyed without a word, trembling and glaring daggers at him.

“We’re getting out of here,” Clint told him. “I hope you can run.”

Loki narrowed his eyes at that. “What is going on?” he asked.

“Not a goddamn clue, but now would be a perfect time for you to catch a stray bullet,” Clint said, grabbing an agent’s rifle.

He didn’t have much time. He had to get his bow and his stuff from the armory—all the things that had been confiscated for “safety reasons” after Manhattan. The plan after that was simple: go someplace safe, figure what the hell was going on, try to reach Cap or Nat. Or even Fury, who knew—he was supposed to be dead, but Clint didn’t really trust anything Sitwell was saying at the moment.

Thornton whined and moved on the floor—Clint hit him hard on the head with the butt of his assault rifle, knocking him unconscious again. He wasn’t taking any chances.

“Let’s get moving,” he said.

Loki was staring at Thornton, so Clint caught his arm and brutally tugged him out of the cell. Despite everything, he still felt another pang of satisfaction feeling how weak Loki was. Clint certainly didn’t mind pushing him around. He took out a pair of handcuffs and grabbed Loki’s wrists.

“Why are you taking me with you, Barton?” Loki asked as Clint cuffed him.

“Shut the fuck up and thank your lucky star,” Clint groaned, shouldering his rifle. “Let’s go.”

He noted that although Loki did fall silent, he did not actually thank his lucky star, which meant the spell forced him to obey the spirit but not necessarily the letter of Clint’s orders. Or maybe he only obeyed when Clint explicitly said it was an order? Great, subtlety in magic was all he needed right now. Why hadn’t Thor given him an instruction manual to go with the crazy murderer?

“Seems like your little organization is falling apart,” Loki grinned as they hurried up the corridor.

“I told you to shut up,” Clint panted.

The hallways were empty. He hesitated in front of the elevator, then turned away. Better take the stairs. The armory was six floors up, and he had a feeling his little stunt against Thornton—not to mention the four dead agents on the floor of Loki’s cell—wouldn’t go unnoticed for very long.

Clint ran up the first two flights of stairs, then stopped and turned round. Loki had stopped in the middle of the stairs, breathless. Clint cursed and went down a few steps.

“If I get killed because of you, I swear,” he said.

Loki glared up at him.

Clint glared back. “Get moving,” he said. “Now.”

Loki would have answered, but the rune on his cheek turned an angry red again and he snapped his mouth shut. Huh—maybe that thing reacted to Clint’s tone of voice. Or simply to his intention—whether he meant his orders as actual orders or not. Loki didn’t move, though, suddenly stubborn. He really made for a pitiful sight, leaning against the wall of the staircase with his hands cuffed, shaking with pain and anger.

“Come on,” Clint said in a low voice and a little grin.

Loki gritted his teeth, panting; the rune turned an even brighter red and he doubled over, then let out a moan of pain that turned into a cry of anger; he straightened up again, and hurried up the stairs. The mark cooled down with each step.

Clint waited till he’d reached him, but when he tried to grab his arm, Loki violently jerked free and looked at him with such hatred that Clint preferred not to insist. Desperation and fury made for a dangerous mix.

They ran up the last flights of stairs and Clint stopped before the door, panting. Fuck, what was he doing. But his conscience wouldn’t let him leave Loki behind to die a horrible death, and his gut wouldn’t let them both stay at the Triskelion. Bottom line, he had to stop thinking and move.

He burst through the doors and quickly checked the corridors. Nothing—he motioned Loki inside and ran to the armory, but stopped in front of the black door. He put his right hand on the pad; nothing happened. Of course, it was locked, and as a benched agent his prints were worth peanuts.

Clint pressed his left hand on the pad and the door clicked open.

A little trick Fury had showed him. People usually forget that you got two hands or two eyes, and recording the prints of his other hand hadn’t been difficult during that blessed time when SHIELD trusted him to mess around with their computers.

Clint burst inside, grabbed everything he needed and zipped up a bag he slung on his shoulder. His bow and quiver were on the wall; he took them as well and, despite everything, felt slightly relieved to have them in his hand. He turned to Loki, ready to bark an order, but saw something else behind him.

 “Watch out!” he hissed, shoving Loki down as three agents appeared at the corner and opened fire.

Clint rolled on the side and shot an arrow at the one in the middle; a white-hot arc of blue electricity sprang from the head and zapped the three agents at once. Clint got up instantly and hoisted Loki on his feet.

“Alright,” he said, breathless. “Let’s head for the surface.”

“Give me a weapon!” Loki said.

Clint snorted. “Yeah, keep dreaming.”

Loki snapped free from his hold, handcuffs jingling with the violence of his gesture. “Barton, if we’re going to team up, I might as well be of use!”

“We’re not teaming up,” Clint said, jabbing a finger at him, “we’re chained together. There’s a difference.”

“All the same—you cannot be stupid enough to…”

Loki’s words suddenly turned into a hiss and he flinched, as though he’d been pricked by something. Clint frowned at him. “What?”

“Nothing,” Loki said, jaw clenched, but his right arm had jerked uncontrollably.

Clint grabbed the chain of his cuffs, twisted it to block his arms and rolled up the sleeve.

Then he stopped and blinked.

Letters were engraving themselves in Loki’s forearm. Letters—fucking magic letters sinking deep into the flesh as though someone was drawing them with an invisible knife.

Blood was beading from the cuts. More words were scabbing over next to the first one—STUBBORN, REBELLIOUS, MOCKING, DISOBEDIENT.

Loki whipped his arm free and tugged the sleeve back down over the wounds.

“None of your business,” he spat.

Clint was dumbstruck. Obviously, Odin wasn’t confident the rune alone would be enough to break Loki in. Then again, maybe all the Asgardians slaves were submitted to this.

Or maybe not. What had Thor said? Loki has never been very brave in the face of pain.

Clint was surprised to realize he was nauseous. He shook his head. Shit, he had to get it together—he’d seen worse in his line of work, and a few cuts weren’t too cruel a punishment for the destroyer of Manhattan. Right?

Fuck it—now was not the time to think about that.

“I’m not giving you a weapon,” was all he said. “Now let’s go.”

 

*

 

The surface of the Triskelion was surprisingly easy to reach. Clint didn’t like this. There was no one in sight. He hid anyway, staying in the shadows of the hangar as he progressed towards the aircraft.

The attack came from the one side he didn’t suspect.

He saw it in the corner of his eye—and only turned just in time to block the pipe with his compound bow. Loki kicked him in the chest, making him stumble back, then swung his long copper pipe like a battle staff and slammed Clint across the face with it.

The blow rang in Clint’s skull but for some reason, it wasn’t enough to knock him unconscious—Loki probably wasn’t entirely used to his human body yet. Clint rolled on his side to avoid the next blow and got to his feet—only to dodge again. Loki was dangerously good with a staff, even with his hands cuffed. He swung at Clint again and Clint could only step back and block the blows as they fell. He felt something warm splatter across his cheek; he took the risk of glancing down lightning-quick before he dodged another hit, and saw that blood specked the floor with each of Loki's moves. Clint realized the demi-god's loose sleeves were sticking to his skin. Loki suddenly withdrew to roll them up in irritation—and Clint could see the words REBELLIOUS REBELLIOUS REBELLIOUS wrap around his forearms like bloody chains, writing themselves over and over, and deeper and deeper. The rune was glowing on his cheek, too.

“Seriously,” Clint panted, taking advantage of this lull in their fight. “What’s the point?”

“Just treating myself,” Loki answered, expressionless. “I’ve had a rough week.” He swung the pipe so quickly it hissed in the air—and Clint blocked it with a sounding clang.

“You’re gonna bleed out,” he warned. “You don’t know your own body. It’s not the same anymore—it’s not gonna heal within the hour.”

Loki looked hesitant for a second, but then his eyes widened; Clint heard steps and whipped round just in time to see a squad of agents bursting in.

“Fuck,” he hissed, and if they hadn’t lost time stupidly fighting against each other—but it was too late for regrets; they were swarmed and the only thing left to do was fight.

Which they did. Clint was a little surprised to find Loki was now focusing on the agents, but this probably had to do with the fact that the cuts on his forearm didn’t deepen when he attacked someone other than Clint. He could let off steam without sustaining any further injury, and he obviously needed to let off a lot of it. The agents had guns, but seemed reluctant to use them for some reason—probably because, like Clint, they were still trying to figure out what the hell was going on. Loki batted the weapon out of the hands of his current attacker and broke his nose with a backhand blow; he snatched the gun with his free hand and aimed at him—

“Stop!” Clint yelled, and the sudden pain of the rune startled Loki into dropping the weapon.

“What?” he shouted back, furious. “What now?”

“Don’t kill!” Clint barked.

Loki rolled his eyes, but slammed his pipe into the ribs of another agent while Clint knocked the last one out; and suddenly the fight was over.

Clint didn’t lower his weapon; Loki did, and poked one of his first opponents with his foot—only then did Clint notice the demi-god was still barefoot. Jesus.

The man was lying down with his neck at an awkward angle.

“Well, I think this one is dead,” Loki said in a bored voice. “Sincere apologies.”

He dropped his pipe with a loud metallic sound; obviously, he wasn’t even interested in attacking Clint again.

“Don’t kill anyone,” Clint snarled, still thrumming with tension. “Ever again. And that’s a fucking order.”

Loki didn’t answer. Clint took a deep breath, then exhaled.

“Okay—plane,” he said. “Let’s go.”

They ran across the hangar—Clint couldn’t help but notice Loki was quite good at running with his hands cuffed. Bastard was probably used to it. He slipped inside the cockpit without Clint telling him to. Huh—either he’d been hurt enough for the day, or he was actually very eager to leave the Triskelion. He didn’t even object when Clint buckled for him the straps of his parachute, then of his seat, before doing his as fast as he could.

“Clint, what are you doing?” the radio chimed in, in a soft sing-song voice.

Clint's blood iced down in his veins.

He cursed between his teeth, but didn’t put the headset on and flicked three switches on the headboard, making the plane hum beneath their bodies. It was a last-generation Quinjet, top-notch stuff.

“You should answer that,” Loki said. “I’m quite curious to know, too.”

“Another word and I throw you out—then I blast off,” Clint growled. “Several thousand feet away from you. That what you want?”

“Clint,” said Sitwell’s reassuring, paternal voice. “You don’t have to run away. We know Loki was the one who killed those agents.”

Clint finished his check-up and looked up—only to feel again like ice water had trickled down his back. The huge doors in the ceiling were closing.

“Don’t do this, Clint,” Sitwell was saying. “Everyone agrees you’ve been benched for way too long. We already lost Cap and the Widow—but I know I can trust you. You worked so hard. You were so close. Don’t throw it all away.”

Clint stilled for a second. The doors were almost closed.

“Besides, why would you even do this?”

Sitwell’s voice was so sincere. So goddamn friendly.

“For Loki?” He let out a laugh as though it was the most ridiculous thing. And Clint had to admit it was.

“He’s not worth it. He’s precisely the kind of people we’re trying to wipe out.”

Clint tightened his grip on the controls.

“Fury’s dead. We’re working on a new era, Clint. A better era. And I know you can—”

Clint blasted off with all the power of the reactors and literally propelled the plane through the last slit of light between the closing doors. The fuselage screeched again the edges of the door—there went the paint—but the Quinjet got through in a streak of sparkles, and suddenly there were only blue skies all around them.

Clint instantly noticed something was wrong. The controls weren’t responding. He tried his best to steer the Quinjet away, but it stubbornly kept its course. Of course, it was new generation—which meant remote-controlled. Shit. Clint looked at the screen on the dashboard; they were turning back to the Triskelion, in a large loop which would bring them close to the coast in ten, nine, eight…

“Okay, we’re gonna have to—aw, you’re kidding me,” Clint said when he realized Loki was dozing off. He’d lost too much blood. Or he hadn’t eaten enough. Or both. “Hey—wake up!”

Loki’s eyes fluttered open. For a second, he looked lost and terrified, then he turned his head and saw Clint; he swallowed, and his usual disdain spread across his face.

“What is it now?” he said in a low voice.

“Nothing,” Clint said—and he grabbed his bag, then slammed his hand on the command and ejected them both.

The Quinjet dashed away and the sky turned upside down, the setting sun whirling around Clint as he fell through empty space. He spread his arms, filled his lungs, and stopped spinning on himself. He looked down at the sparkling surface of the ocean, then glanced away only to find Loki’s dark silhouette falling next to him.

Absurdly enough, the demi-god wasn’t panicking at all—he’d managed to stabilize his own fall despite his bound wrists, and didn’t let out a single sound when his parachute opened automatically. Clint’s did at about the same time, and their fall was cut short by the twin corollas of cloth. The smooth descent didn’t last for long—they weren’t very high above the water, having barely left the Triskelion; but they were far enough to be safe from Sitwell. For now.

The sea felt freezing cold. Clint unstrapped himself from the parachute before the Atlantic swallowed it with him still in it. The chute looked like a dead jellyfish, floating at the surface; Clint hoped it wouldn’t be too long to sink down. It could be too easily spotted.

Looking up, he thought for a second he’d lost Loki; but after a moment, he spotted him, struggling to stay at the surface with his wrists still bound and the weight of his parachute pulling him down. Clint swam towards him, snapped the straps open and grabbed the chains of his handcuffs to pull him close. Loki opened his mouth, probably to spit out an endless streak of creative curses, but he inadvertently swallowed a gulp of sea water and was still coughing it out when the cuffs clicked open.

“The shore isn’t far,” Clint said, stuffing the cuffs down his pocket—they’d be of use later. “A mile at most. Hope you can swim.”

Loki glared at him, still panting, then looked up at the sky; the slight trail of the Quinjet was still visible. He looked back down at his wrists. The cuts must hurt like a bitch in the sea water, but at least they’d heal faster this way. He looked up again, staring at the coast line in the distance.

“I won’t make it,” he said eventually, in a hoarse, breathless voice.

“Then drown,” Clint shrugged. “I don’t care.”

Loki paled even more with anger. “Then why did you take me with you?”

“’Cause I didn’t want to kill you,” Clint said. “But if you wanna give up and die by yourself, I won’t be the one flowering your grave.”

There was a short silence, disrupted only by the sounds of the sea.

“Why don’t you want to kill me?” Loki asked at last.

He looked suspicious, which was so ridiculous Clint would have laughed at him if he hadn’t been busy saving his strength.

“Because if I do, I’ll be like you,” he answered. “Now are you done asking stupid questions?”

 

*

 

Loki made it after all, probably out of sheer stubbornness. By the time they got to the beach, it was still obvious he was going into hypothermia; he couldn’t stop shaking and his lips had turned an unhealthy blue. He still managed to find the strength to drag himself entirely out of the water, with jerky movements, before collapsing.

At least it was obvious enough—he wanted to live, despite the way he’d pushed his forehead against Clint’s gun on the first day. Well, good. Clint had no desire and no time for a suicide watch of any kind. And bad, too, because Loki killing himself would have solved a lot of Clint’s problems. Then again, a suicidal god of chaos wouldn’t probably be content leaving this world without taking at least a few hundred people with him.

All in all, Clint better keep an eye on him.

By the time they reached Brighton Beach, the skies were completely dark. Clint was so sure Sitwell would be waiting for them that he spent two whole minutes looking for agents who, obviously, weren’t there.

Whatever was going on at SHIELD was apparently requiring their undivided attention. Clint had no idea if this was good or bad.

Loki was busy catching his breath next to him; when Clint got up, he didn’t move.

“Let’s go.”

Loki huffed a dark laugh, then slowly got to his feet, reeling and shaking. He was so pale he looked like he was a blink away from death. Clint wasn’t overly worried, though—Loki might be human, but he was a heavily trained warrior and just like Thor’s a few years ago, his body had kept the same shape if not the same nature. He wasn’t bulky like his brother, but he was wiry and strong. And apparently used to get beaten up.

Still, he’d lost a lot of blood and needed a lot of sleep, and maybe it was what made Clint say, “It’s not far. C’mon.”

“Save it,” Loki rasped.

Yeah. So much for trying to cool things down.

 

 

*

 

The safe-house was one of the smallest Clint had—the smaller the better when it came to those things. It was an inconspicuous apartment away from the center of New York; only one bedroom and one kitchen slash living-room, with a fridge and a microwave on one side, a couch and a television on the other. A tiny bathroom. An even tinier closet. The important part was that the walls and doors were strong enough to withhold a bazooka strike, and pretty much impervious to sensors of any kind—and the whole building was wired with cameras and alarms so Clint wouldn’t miss anyone coming for him.

“Go take a shower,” he said as soon as they entered the safe-house, shoving Loki a little towards the bathroom. “You have five minutes.”

Thankfully, Loki was too exhausted to throw another temper tantrum; he vanished in the bathroom. Clint stripped to his boxers; getting out of his freezing, sticky clothes was a real relief. He opened the closet and found loose pants and a shirt—they would probably fit Loki. It wasn’t like he had anything else at hand. What he was really looking for was at the bottom of it: a house arrest ankle bracelet.

“Alright, time's up,” he called.

The shower stopped, then the door opened and Loki walked out. He was still very pale, but his lips were a normal color again.

If he was surprised at seeing Clint in his boxers, he didn’t show it and kept his expression of cold disinterest. He’d wrapped a towel around his waist, thank God, but the rest of his tall, lean body was bare. He’d kept the perfect physique of his godhood indeed; but he was covered in bruises and scratches made an angry red by the sea water, like hieroglyphs telling a story of pain on the canvas of his pale skin. The words cut out on his forearms were even worse than Clint had first thought—it hurt just to look at them, the scabs red and black; and they went up to his elbows, too. REBELLIOUS DISOBEDIENT IMPOLITE ARROGANT IMMATURE SELFISH DISRESPECTFUL LAZY PRETENTIOUS STUBBORN.

Well, at least they weren’t bleeding anymore.

Clint let Loki dress himself, looking away but still keeping him on the edge of his sight; then he turned to him again. “Give me your ankle.”

Loki obeyed, wrinkling his nose when Clint locked the bracelet around it.

“What is it?” he asked in a low, weary voice.

“House arrest,” Clint said. “It’ll shock you if you try to leave this place. Now give me your wrist.”

Loki opened his mouth to protest, then sighed and complied as well. “I am very flattered,” he said when Clint got out the cuffs. “I had no idea I looked so threatening still.”

“You don’t,” Clint said. “You look like a cat fresh out of the dishwasher.”

He tightened the cuff on his right wrist, chained him to the radiator and straightened up.

“Ow,” Loki murmured absently.

Clint glanced at the cuts which stretched from wrists to elbows. The cuff wasn’t gentle on the damaged skin.

“Yeah, you’ve entered a world of pain,” he said. “Just wait till you stub your toe for the first time.”

Loki said nothing. Clint huffed with irritation, then went into the bathroom, grabbed a roll of gauze and gave it to him. Loki stared at the gauze, then back up at him. He still didn't say anything.

Clint dropped the gauze on the couch, then pushed it near the wall so Loki could lie down on it while being chained to the radiator—he’d have to twist his chained arm in an awkward position, but Clint had no fucks left to give.

He hesitated, then added, “You’re forbidden to signal our position to anyone in any way. Got it?”

“Yes,” Loki said, sounding weary.

Maybe it was Clint’s imagination, but it looked like the rune on his cheek was getting redder.

Loki found enough strength to glare at him, even though it lacked a little conviction. “Are we done, master?”

Definitely a brighter red. Clint squinted at it, but couldn’t find anything relevant to ask, and turned away. “Yeah, for now,” he said. “Now go the fuck to sleep.”

He was pretty sure Loki didn’t need the rune to obey him on that one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Clint didn’t really sleep. He just lay down on the bed and jerked awake every time he started to drift off. He woke up to a grinning Loki, to a smiling Sitwell, to a bloodied Fury, to Steve and Natasha lost in shadows too thick even for his eyes.

He was waiting for the night to end, telling himself he needed the rest, but at 5am, he decided he’d had enough and got up.

Padding silently out of the tiny bedroom, he pushed the door open without a sound.

Loki was asleep on the couch, his head turned into the armrest, his cuffed arm folded over his head, gauze wrapped around the wrist to protect it from the cutting metal edge.

Clint would rather not wake him up—everything was just much easier when he was unconscious—but then again, he was pretty sure Loki was just pretending to sleep. He briefly reconsidered when Loki buried his face deeper into the couch and whispered something inaudible, before slowly relaxing, his arm flinching in the cuff without really moving. Was he pretending? There was no way to tell.

Clint remembered how Loki looked the very first time he’d seen him, in the Tesseract vault. He already had this haunted, sick look on him; but he was also tall and fierce, strutting around like the world was his stage. He had taken Clint with all the arrogance of a god picking a sacrifice among his worshipers. Now he was brought down to his knees, and Clint would be lying to himself if he pretended he wasn’t just a little bit happy about it.

Still—he really could have done without him. He tried to find a bit of solace in the thought that a lot of people were probably after them and that with any luck, Loki might get killed first.

He hadn’t been on the run for a while, but his reflexes were coming back fast. He had to contact Natasha—or Steve. There was no one else he trusted in this world. He knew where Rogers lived, but he certainly wasn’t going to just show up there; as to Natasha, he’d never find her unless she was looking for him too. Which wasn’t likely. They must think of him—if they thought of him at all—as either dead or in the hands of the enemy.

But who the hell was the enemy? Why the fuck was everyone losing it?

It was really too weird, Clint thought, that Loki should return so soon before SHIELD’s meltdown. He had let himself be captured before, after all, so maybe...

But no. No matter how big of a coincidence it was, Clint really didn’t see how Loki could possibly be at fault for what was currently going down. This was just stupendously bad timing.

Clint zipped open his bag and grabbed his laptop, then took it back into the bedroom. Thank whoever had designed the waterproof SHIELD bags; the computer still worked even though streaks of black darkened its screen. His phone looked okay, too. Clint sat in the dark with his bedroom door open. Loki’s couch was in a dead angle, which bugged him—he really should pick his safe houses better—but after all, he was also handcuffed to the radiator.

Clint didn’t have any headphones; he lowered the sound of his computer as much as he could and opened all the news sites he could think of. After fifteen minutes or so, he was able to sum up the situation in broad strokes. Fury was dead, brought down by the Winter Soldier. Natasha and Steve were somehow involved in his murder, hence their demotion from top agents to SHIELD’s primary targets.

No one was saying anything about Clint.

Clint was certain there was a bigger picture he could have seen if he hadn’t been so busy playing cards with himself for the last month or so. That old manic habit of his seemed like something from another life now. The game was over—he’d drawn the Joker last; and the Joker was now sticking with him. Hopefully, he’d soon be discarded as well. But in the meantime, Clint had to balance Loki and his newfound, ironic freedom.

That was a weird thought. Suddenly, he wasn’t afraid of what tomorrow would bring since yesterday had already brought it. He’d made his choice; and if he wanted to go off the grid until this whole mess was sorted out, he could do it. He didn’t have to answer to anyone’s orders anymore—he could…

A very slight noise made him look up—and toss the computer next to him on the mattress to jump on his feet and hurry out of the room.

Loki was standing in the darkened kitchen. He opened the fridge which cast a white, raw light on his sharp features, then looked up at Clint and smirked.

“What? I was hungry.”

Clint didn’t make the mistake of looking at the couch behind him to understand how the hell Loki could have gotten out of his handcuffs. Instead, he said dryly, “Get on your knees.”

It was Loki’s turn to freeze.

“On your knees,” Clint spat, and Loki sank down as if he’d been pushed by an invisible hand, the rune flaring red on his cheek.

He stayed there for a second, obviously swallowing down his anger, then looked up with a crooked smile.

“All I wanted was to find something to eat,” he said. “Interesting fact: were you aware that mortal bodies require food several times a day? It’s a wonder you even made it this far as a species.”

Clint ignored him. “Now you’re hungry, uh? Aren’t slaves supposed to ask for that kind of thing?”

Loki rolled his eyes. “Very funny.”

He got back up on his feet. “Let’s cut to the chase, Barton. You cannot get rid of me, and you can’t afford to lock me up, either. We have to make a deal. If—”

“Drop,” Clint spat, and Loki’s knees hit the floor again.

This time, he couldn't hide the anger and surprise flashing across his face.

“I know how you work,” Clint scoffed. “I know better than to offer you a single chance to have it your way.” He stepped closer and looked down at him. “So you wanna make deals? How about that one: you’ll do everything I say because you don’t have any choice.”

Loki was staring intently at him, nostrils flaring. Suddenly, he smiled, a nasty smile, all teeth. “So you’re breaking me in. But won’t that keep you from sleeping at night? Won’t that make you just like me?”

“You see, here’s where you’re mistaken,” Clint said. “Just because I won’t kill you doesn’t mean I’m a good guy. I’m not Steve Rogers. I’m allowing you to live and that’s pretty much all you get. Trust me, I certainly won’t lose any sleep over it.”

He expected Loki to be at least a little bit fazed, but the demi-god just laughed at him. “Oh, I know you won’t.”

He showed his teeth again. “I know you didn’t lose any sleep over what I made you do. These lives you took didn’t matter, right? Since it was all me. You never once felt guilty about that, just like you won’t feel guilty for abusing me—it’s never your fault. The only time you didn’t sleep was tonight and it’s because you lost your job.” He spat these last words with such venom Clint almost flinched. “I know you’re not a good man, Clint Barton. I saw for myself. I’m seeing it for myself at this very moment—you’re enjoying this way too much.”

His smile turned into a scowl. “Can I get up now, master? Can I get something to eat? Do you want me to grovel for it? To beg? Or would you prefer to stuff it down my throat yourself, like Sitwell did?”

He made a move to get up and Clint honestly didn’t know what would have happened next if someone hadn’t knocked on the door. They both froze, glanced at it, then back at each other.

Loki’s smirk was bordering on plain insanity. One of his sleeves was rolled up and Clint saw a word slowly engrave itself into his flesh. INSOLENT.

Shit, he didn’t have time for this—someone had made it undetected to his door and he had to find out who.

“Stay here,” Clint said. “Don’t make a sound.”

He straightened up, then grabbed his gun and slowly walked to the door. The spyhole was fake in case someone decided to shoot through it; Clint turned on the screen on the wall and selected the camera of the hallway.

It was Thor.

“What the hell,” Clint said between his teeth. He hesitated for a second, but he knew that the door, no matter how reinforced, was no match for Thor’s hammer. Might as well open, which he did.

“Clint Barton,” Thor said with a nod.

“Yeah, wanna say that louder?” Clint snapped. “Get inside, for chrissakes. How did you even find me?”

“Heimdall,” Thor said. Clint had no idea what this meant, but obviously, Thor wasn’t in the mood for details. He slipped inside while Clint locked the door again behind him; when he turned round, Thor had walked around the counter and was facing his brother.

Loki’s pale cheeks were burning with shame, but he couldn’t get up—he could only stare Thor in the eye, as if daring him to speak. Fuck, Clint thought, fuck, fuck, fuck. He wanted to speak up—wanted to tell Thor this wasn’t what it looked like.

“So you’ve decided to train him after all,” Thor said with polite interest. “I am glad to see you are making use of Odin’s gift.”

“I’m not training—I’m not making use of anything,” Clint snapped. “He’s just pissing me off—I was just—look, are you here to cut the leash?”

“I told you there is no way,” Thor said, turning away to go sit on the couch. He stopped again then, staring at the cushions—they were streaked with blood. Loki must have rubbed his arms against them turning in his sleep. Double fuck.

Thor, though, didn’t make any comment and sat down right on a bloodstain.

Loki stared at him with a look of unspeakable betrayal, but said nothing. The rune was shining a bright red on his cheek. Clint was almost tempted to tell him he could get up, but he angrily decided against it the second after—fuck if he was going to focus on Loki right now. Thor obviously wasn’t here to talk about him anyway, although he’d probably come to make sure he was still alive.

“But you are right,” Thor said. “This situation is unfair to you. Especially with the troubles SHIELD is going through at the moment.”

“What do you care about that?”

“If I am being made to pick sides between the Captain and the organization he used to serve, my allegiance is already decided,” Thor simply said.

Clint quirked a half-smile. “Yeah. At least we’re on the same page here.”

“Listen,” Thor said. “When he took over Midgard, Loki caused a chain reaction of uprisings throughout the Nine Realms.”

“Caused them?” Loki yelled—then Clint heard the hiss of burned flesh and Loki’s choked breath of pain. Thor just sighed a little, as if Loki was just a child throwing an umpteenth tantrum. Which he probably was to his eyes.

“Yeah, I understand he’s gotta be punished—I get it,” Clint said impatiently. “But seriously, how is this a fitting sentence? It’s worse for me than for him!”

“It worked on me,” Thor said quietly.

Clint opened his mouth, closed it, then frowned. “You’ve been enslaved?”

“I have been turned mortal and cast out in New Mexico,” Thor reminded him. “And it taught me humility quicker than any other punishment could have.”

Thor didn’t know Clint had been around for this—long enough to notice the lack of rune on Thor’s cheek and the lack of cuts on his arms. But of course, Thor probably hadn’t attacked an entire realm just because he felt like it.

“Why don’t you tell him the reason you were—” Loki began indignantly, then cut himself off with a cry of pain. This time, the smell of burned flesh invaded Clint’s nostrils, and he clenched his fists.

“Pay no attention to him,” Thor said. “He’ll get tired of the pain eventually.”

Clint felt suddenly very much on edge—even more than he’d been when it had only been him and Loki. He really didn’t need Thor to stir up Loki’s already heightened murderous instincts. And the flippant way the thunderer watched his brother being tortured hit uncomfortably close to home for Clint.

He hadn’t thought about Barney in a while—ever since the battle of New York, really. He wasn’t even sure whether he was still alive; he’d vaguely thought of using SHIELD’s resources to find him, but that plan had gone down the drain with the rest of it all.

Clint shook his head. Now wasn’t the time. “Look,” he said, “why don’t you just tell me why you’re here?”

“I was about to,” Thor said a bit impatiently. He ran a hand through his hair, then said, “Fury is alive.”

Clint stared at him.

“Can’t say I’m really surprised,” he said. “What surprises me is how you know about it.”

Thor let out a laugh. “Fury and I understand each other. We both want what is best for this realm of which I have grown only too fond. After New York, I left him a way to contact me in exchange of the promise to use it only for emergencies.”

He slipped a hand under the collar of his shirt and took out a leather necklace on which was dangling a tiny sphere that looked like crystal.   

“Had he died, it would be broken. He lives.”

“But he didn’t activate it?” Clint asked anxiously.

“No,” Thor simply said, without commenting on what it could or could not mean. He put the contraption away, then went on, “I have urgent matters of my own to settle—namely the chaos Loki left in his wake. But I will take you to Fury before I go, if it is your wish.”

He made it sound like an insanely generous act. Clint exhaled. He guessed this was good news. Sort of. Better news than the crap of the last twenty-four hours, anyway.

“When this is over, I’ll give your dad a piece of my mind about the way he keeps dumping the punishment of his sons on strangers,” he said.

“I am not—,” Loki began in a low voice, but the rune sizzled against his flesh and he bit back a groan. Clint guessed more words were also engraving themselves in the trickster’s arms for speaking out of turn. He took a sharp breath.

“Look,” he told Thor, “I—”

An alarm started to beep over their heads. Clint got up and turned on the tiny screen embedded in the reinforced wall: a SHIELD field team was climbing the stairs. Shit. His safe-house was burned and it probably was because of Thor who’d showed up without thinking he could be followed.

“Alright,” Clint said quickly. “I’ll take the offer.”

“Wise decision,” Thor said.

Clint was tempted to add and fuck you very much, but Thor was, after all, an alien warrior prince who was delaying an interstellar war only to bring Clint—or more likely, Loki—to safety.

So Clint swallowed down his anger, grabbed his bag and glanced at Loki. “Get up and give me your ankle.” He quickly unlocked the house arrest bracelet and threw it on the couch, then turned back to Thor. “So how do we leave?”

“The direct route,” Thor said, and without any warning something slammed down on Clint—bright and multicolored, like a rush of pure energy which propelled him up into space.

The last thing he saw, as his body exploded into fire and light, was his door getting knocked down by the men he’d once worked with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Clint landed in a patch of snow and rolled for what felt like a mile before he stopped. He pushed up to get up on all fours, spluttering, and quickly looked around.

Well, apparently, he’d just hitched a ride on the Bifrost itself. A minute ago, he was on the East coast; he’d reappeared in the middle of a thick, snowy forest, only seconds later since the sun was still barely up. A few lone winter birds were letting out plaintive sounds from the branches. There were no hostiles in sight.

No sign of Thor either.

Someone coughed next to him and Clint’s shoulders slumped. Of course he hadn’t lost Loki along the way.

He staggered up; when the demi-god came into sight, propped against a tree with skin as white as the snow all around them, Clint felt like giving up right here, right now, because Loki was still barefoot.

“Oh fuck me,” Clint spat.

Loki raised an eyebrow and said dryly, “Well, I am not at fault, am I?”

His feet were already an angry red; he’d wrapped his arms around his thin frame, but that didn’t stop him from shivering.

“Why am I always so cold,” he said between his teeth.

Clint huffed through his nose, then brushed the snow off his bag before slinging it on his shoulder.

“Mortal bodies. Get used to it,” he said. He looked around. “Where the hell is Thor?”

“He said he would take us to Fury; he never said he would go with us,” Loki sneered. “Thor only ever thinks about himself. You’re not the first one he’s fooled in thinking the contrary.”

“Right, because you’re the poster boy for honesty and selflessness.” Clint looked around again. Not a sign of Thor, and not a sign of anyone else. They were stranded in the middle of what definitely looked like Canadian wilderness.

“I think Fury is not here anymore,” Loki deadpanned.

“You’ve got a pretty big mouth now that your brother left,” Clint told him. “Let me see your feet.”

Loki clenched his jaw. “Stay away from me, Barton.”

“You’re gonna lose a toe, you idiot.”

The venom in Loki’s eyes didn’t bleed out one bit.

Clint felt a surge of anger rising in his chest—and the burn felt good. “Fine,” he spat. “You wanna be a goddamn drama queen? Suit yourself! In fact, do whatever the hell you want—I’m done babysitting your ass.”

He whipped round and started walking away; Loki didn’t follow him. The forest was so thick that Clint lost sight of him in seconds.

He kept walking with long, anger-fueled strides for ten minutes. He guessed he should have been cold too, but he was just too wired up for it.

After a while, he slowed his pace and looked around. He took a deep breath, then exhaled a puff of steam in the crisp freezing air. After staying locked inside the Triskelion for so long—after all those weeks of therapy sessions and miserable loneliness and playing cards with himself, to be under this cloudless sky, in his open, savage land… it was almost too good. Damn best air he’d ever breathed, too. Just on the right side of biting, sweet and sharp at the same time.

How long had Thor said the leash was? Half a mile.

Clint stopped and turned round, squinting. Behind him were only black pine trees covered in too white snow; a monochrome background to hide an equally monochrome psychopath, black hair and too white skin. Clint had no idea how much ground he’d covered already. Would he hear Loki scream, when the rune started to burn through his brain? Half a mile—probably not. Definitely not.

He stayed there for a long minute, rubbing his face and the beard he hadn’t taken time to shave. He couldn’t get himself to get moving again, no matter how much he willed his feet to keep walking.

“Fuck,” he said under his breath.

He sat down and zipped open his bag, then took out a shirt he’d stuffed in there and tore it up into long, narrow pieces of cloth. He stuffed them in his pocket, straightened up with a deep breath, and headed back.

 

*

 

Loki was exactly where Clint had left him. He’d sunk down to sit at the bottom of the tree, arms still tightly wrapped around himself in a futile attempt to feel a bit warmer. He looked pathetic.

Clint walked to Loki and dropped the strips of cloth next to him. “Wrap those around your feet,” he said.

After a minute of stubborn immobility, Loki unfolded himself and did as he was told with jerky, angry movements. His feet looked ridiculous in the bundles of cloth, and that certainly wasn’t going to protect him from the cold forever, but it was a start. With a bit of luck he wouldn’t even get frostbite.

He got up, shivering all over and leaning on the tree for balance. “Have you found Fury?” he asked in a surprisingly firm voice.

Clint frowned. “What? No.”

Loki glanced at him with unspeakable contempt. “Then what exactly was the point of you going ahead?”

Wow. Clint had to hand it to Loki—“princely arrogance” was not an empty phrase when it came to him. Clint had dealt with plenty of targets who’d all tried to preserve their dignity in captivity, and failed miserably each time. They all broke in the end. But not Loki. Sure, he was compelled to obey, but he only tried to make it more obvious that his obedience came from the spell and the spell alone. Bottom line, Clint had come back for Loki’s sorry ass, this was how that this little shit thanked him, and Clint shouldn’t have expected any better.

“Piece of advice,” he couldn’t help saying. “Be nice to the guy who holds your life in his hands. Especially since the last few days have been pretty draining for me too.”

“Well cry me a river,” Loki spat, and started walking away.

Clint considered tackling him from behind, but he didn’t have the energy. Instead, he just leaned down to gather some snow, pressed it into a thick, round snowball and threw it with deadly precision—right behind Loki’s ear.

The demi-god let out a shocked sound and stumbled forward; he grabbed at his hair, obviously thinking he’d been hit by something much more lethal, and found only snow. He whipped round with wide eyes and Clint grinned at him.

“Not gonna lie, that was more satisfying than most of the sex I’ve had.”

Loki would have probably snapped a comeback at him if he could’ve thought of one; right now, he looked more like he was physically suffocating with indignation.

“Oh, get over yourself,” Clint said. “It’s just snow.”

Loki’s eyes watered—and his features twisted in a scowl of ungodly wrath.

“You,” he finally managed to hiss—he stomped to Clint and grabbed the front of his jacket to snarl in his face, “you miserable mortal scum, if you think I, Loki of Asgard, will stand—”

“REPEAT IDENTIFICATION” a voice said next to them and they both nearly jumped out of their skins.

Clint very slightly turned his head.

An automatic machine gun was tracing their every move, hidden in the bushes like some monstrous mechanized boar.

“Let me go,” he whispered to Loki. “Just slowly let me go.”

Loki stayed frozen for a second, then loosened his grip on Clint’s jacket. The second he let go, Clint grabbed his arm and pulled him close, ready to throw them both to the ground in case this was all a trap.

“I’m Clint Barton,” he called out. “Agent of SHIELD, level eight.”

The machine gun immediately stood down and an honest-to-god hidden door opened in the rocky cliff to their left. “Welcome, Agent Barton. We’ve been expecting you.”

Clint let go of Loki’s arm.

“What the hell,” he mumbled. “Is that the fucking Batcave?”

Loki was still pale and unmoving, which helped Clint shake off his own stupor. He snapped his fingers before the demi-god’s eyes, making him startle then glare daggers at him. Yeah, he was okay.

“Let’s go,” Clint said. “Won’t stay open forever.”

They walked inside and the door smoothly closed behind them; no lights came on, and they were plunged into darkness.

It wasn’t much warmer than the outside. Clint looked around, then on a gut feeling, blocked his breath to hear better. He thought he’d caught something on his right; he looked to the left to see with his peripheral vision—better at seeing in the dark. Yes, there was—

“Down!” he yelled, rolling on the side, but Loki wasn’t fast enough and the bullet hit him square in the chest.

He just let out a choking sound as he collapsed against the wall; Clint grabbed him and pulled him under his own body, then cocked his gun.

“Nat,” he shouted on instinct. “Stand the fuck down! It’s me!”

There was a silence. Clint waited for the next shot, heart hammering against his ribs, but nothing came.

“How do I know that?” asked a woman in a very low voice.

Shit. Oh thank fuck, it was really her.

“It’s me,” Clint repeated with the energy of desperation. “And Loki, granted, but he’s under my control, not the other way around. I swear.”

“Drop your weapon.”

Clint hated to do this in any given situation, but he still slowly put his gun down and kicked it away before kneeling up, empty hands held high. “It’s me,” he said for the third time. “Nat. It’s me.”

 There was another silence, long and painful. Then a dim light came on, and Clint could make out the silhouette he knew and loved against the grey background of a concrete hallway. Natasha was still aiming at him, night-vision glasses pushed back on her forehead; Clint very slowly straightened up, telegraphing his every move. He glanced at Loki and realized he was not bleeding—it was a sedative bullet.

When he glanced up again, Natasha was looking at his eyes. She stayed still for a few seconds, then she lowered her gun and hurried towards him. Clint did the same and they fell into a tight hug, one-handed on Natasha’s part since she was still gripping her weapon. Clint didn’t care. He squeezed her in a rib-crushing hold for a precious handful of seconds, then let her go, and smiled.

“Fuck, am I glad to see you.”

She smiled at him, brief but genuine. She looked pretty shaken and Clint wondered how the last few days had been for her.

“Good to see you, too,” she said. “Best news I’ve had in a while.”

“There’s a lot of things—” Clint began.

“Yes, we have to talk,” she interrupted. “First things first—even though I have to say I thought nothing could outweigh my problems this time.”

She nodded at Loki, lips pursed in disgust. “What is he doing here? I thought we were done with him for the next millennium.”

“It’s a long story,” Clint said.

He turned to Loki’s unconscious form. Had Natasha killed him, Clint wasn’t really sure how he would have reacted. Curled up on the floor like that, he looked unhealthier than ever.

“Let’s lock him up first,” Clint went on. “Then we’ll talk.”

Natasha’s communicator screeched on her wrist. “Widow, report.”

“Everything’s under control,” she said. “And I got a surprise for you. Heading back now.”

Clint retrieved his gun and snapped it back into his holster; he went to Loki and checked his pulse. It was weak, but steady. Still, they’d better feed him, and soon; he hadn’t eaten in too long,what with that little stunt he’d pulled in the kitchen this morning. And the sedative wouldn’t help. His face seemed gaunter every time Clint looked at him. Fucking idiot couldn’t even take care of himself.

Clint cursed between his teeth when he realized he’d have to carry him. Well, that little shit wouldn’t be getting it bridal style—Clint lifted him with a groan and threw him over his shoulder; Loki hung limp, black hair trickling down to brush Clint’s side.

Natasha suddenly grabbed Clint’s belt and took his gun out.

For a split second of oddly numb terror, Clint thought she was a traitor too somehow, thought she would shoot him; but she only slipped Clint’s gun in her own belt, flicking at Loki’s dangling hands. “He could grab it. I’m not taking chances.”

Clint nodded with relief, and adjusted his burden with a wince. Damn, he was lucky Loki was so malnourished, because he was so fucking tall he was still pretty heavy.

“What’s that on his cheek?” Natasha asked.

“Long story,” Clint reminded her.

Suddenly, he felt very weary.

“Can you show me the way? I’m already getting tired of this.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Thankfully, the cells weren’t very far. Clint let Loki collapse on the narrow bunk and took a deep breath, then made his back crack like an old man. “Heavy fucker.”

“Let’s go,” Natasha called from the hallway.

Clint looked at Loki, then sighed. God, he hated this. “Wait.”

“What?” she asked, sounding on edge. “Clint—”

“I know,” Clint said. “But—he got pretty banged up along the way and he’s so bent on not looking weak that he’d rather die than do something about it.” He sighed again, out of irritation this time. “How long’s he gonna stay unconscious?”

“Two hours, roughly,” she said in a guarded tone.

“I need ten minutes to patch him up,” Clint admitted. “I’m sorry, but he’s my responsibility.”

Natasha raised an eyebrow. “How the hell did you get caught in this mess?”

Clint felt unreasonably angry. “It wasn’t my fault,” he protested. “For once—I was doing everything right and shit hit the fan all the same. But I can’t back out—trust me, I’ve tried.”

“Is this about magic?”

Clint nodded. “Oh yeah,” he said wearily. “It’s about magic.”

She sighed, then said into her coms, “This is Romanov—we’ll need ten more minutes.” She paused, then went on, “Yeah, it’s Barton.”

Clint felt angry again because what was that supposed to mean?— but then he pushed it away. God, this was unfair, and he was being unfair, too—he was drained. He should calm down, should refrain from speaking his mind until he’d had a bit of rest.

“Alright,” Natasha said. “So what do you need?”

“I’ve got a first-aid kit,” Clint said. “Could use some food.”

Natasha nodded. “I’m locking you up with him while I’m gone,” she said.

Clint froze, then nodded, because this hadn’t been a question anyway. “I really hope you don’t think I’m—”

“I don’t,” she said, although he very much doubted that. “But you’re exhausted, and this is Loki. I’m not taking any chances.”

“Whatever,” Clint said. “Just—let’s get this over with.”

He turned away from the door which clicked behind him. The light sound was enough to make him flinch. He really hoped Natasha hadn’t just tricked him into being locked up because she didn’t trust the color of his eyes. He had no desire to live with Loki in a one-person cell.

He did his best to chase those thoughts away, and crouched by Loki’s side. The demi-god was sleeping the heavy sleep of the weak and drugged. Clint tried rolling the sleeves up, but the whole shirt was crusted with blood; so he just grabbed scissors from the first-aid kit and cut it all off, tearing it off Loki’s body in shredded stripes of dark cloth. He undid Loki’s temporary footwear, too, and dumped it all away in the trash.

The words on Loki’s forearms were even more awful close-up. The angry capital letters looked like they were yelling at Clint. They’d scabbed over unhealthily; some of them were brimming with pus, smearing clear fluid and slimy blood over his skin. Loki’s chiseled chest was marred with purple and blue bruises. Clint remembered kicking him in the gut, but only once, out of reflex, through a thick straitjacket. Didn’t add up with what he was seeing now.

This had to be Sitwell’s doing. Hell, who else could it be?

“What is even going on,” Clint muttered between his teeth. “What the fuck.”

He went to the tiny steel sink and soaked a hand towel in warm water, then came back to Loki’s bedside and carefully cleaned the wounds. He always felt some sort of weird satisfaction cleaning a wound, and this time was no exception, even though Loki was the beneficiary of it. When the cuts were clean, Clint doused them in disinfectant—and this must hurt like hell with how red and infected they were; but Loki didn’t move an inch. He really was knocked out. Good—both he and Clint would get some rest this way.

Clint carefully wrapped gauze around Loki’s forearms, feeling again that strange satisfaction at making the horrible cuts go away under this snow white veil. He then looked at the mean bruises on his chest again, but there was not much he could do about that; he left two painkillers and a glass of water on the nightstand, even though Loki was undoubtedly going to throw them away as soon as he woke up.

After checking his feet for frostbite, Clint was pretty much done—except for the burn on Loki’s cheek. Clint had smelled it—heard the flesh sizzle every time Loki spoke out of turn. He must have something like a third-degree burn.

He was on his side with his left cheek firmly pressed against the pillow, so Clint cupped his jaw to make him turn his head. What he saw surprised him—there was no burn, strictly speaking. The skin looked red and sensitive, but presented no actual wound.

Of course there wasn’t any wound. Burns desensitized the skin in the long run, and this wasn’t what the spell was about, wasn’t it? Loki has never been very brave in the face of pain…

Clint let Loki turn his face into the pillow again. The demi-god was coming out in goosebumps all over his torso and arms; Clint covered him with a wool blanket. He felt stupid and angry at himself, tucking his torturer in. But who else was gonna do it? Like he could dump this job on Natasha.

Loki looked incredibly younger when he was sleeping. And so very small. So weirdly human.

Shit. Clint wasn’t pitying him, he was okay, he’d flushed him out. He was okay. But there was still something about Odin crafting a torture spell for his son—not to mention forcing him on Clint—which made Clint want to get back at the old bastard, even if it meant looking after a homicidal shithead who frankly didn’t deserve it one bit.

Natasha knocked on the door, derailing his train of thoughts. “Are you done?”

He wondered for how long she’d been there—she probably had a way of seeing what was going on inside the cell. “Yeah,” he said. “Got the food?”

“What I could find.” She pushed the door open and handed him two military food ration packs. Clint dropped them next to the painkillers, then declared himself officially done with nurse duty.

He turned round and stared at Natasha for a long second.

“Can I get out?” he asked.

“Of course you can,” Natasha murmured, but they both knew this had been some sort of test. Neither of them mentioned it, though, as Clint stepped out of the cell and locked the door back behind him.

 

*

 

It was easier to count his steps in those straight concrete corridors. Before Loki was chained to him, Clint had never realized just how short half a mile was.

They went up a flight of stairs and found themselves in a much more comfortable level—not exactly what anyone could call home, but still less depressing than bare cement and fluorescent lights.

“So this is Fury’s secret base, huh?” Clint asked.

“Yes. He calls it Providence.”

“How is he?”

“He can tell you that yourself,” Natasha answered.

She pushed a door open and motioned Clint to go in.

“Tetrodotoxin B,” Fury was saying. “Slows down the pulse to one beat a minute. Banner developed it for stress. Didn’t work so great for him; we found another use for it.”

He was lying in a big hospital bed with his left arm in a sling, propped up and staring at a very grim-looking Steve Rogers. Clint hadn’t seen him in what felt like an eternity. Next to him was a guy he didn’t know, in civilian clothes.

“Why all the secrecy?” Rogers asked. “Why not just tell us?”

“Any attempt at assassination had to appear successful,” Fury said. “They can’t kill you if you’re already dead.”

He hadn’t lost any of that energy which always radiated from him, but his usual aggressiveness had been turned down, subdued, somehow—because of his injuries or because he was letting it simmer beneath the surface, Clint couldn’t tell.

“Besides,” Fury went on, “I didn’t know who to trust.” He glanced at Clint. “Hello, Agent Barton.”

“Sir,” Clint murmured automatically.

Rogers looked up.  “Barton?” he breathed, getting up from his seat.

Wow, he remembers me. Score.

“Hey there, Cap,” Clint said, stepping forward, and they shook hands above Fury’s bed. The civilian guy rose as well, but when Clint saw him move and felt his handshake, he corrected himself. That man was military.

“Sam Wilson,” he said, looking at Clint in a way which made him think Wilson knew exactly who he was. He wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

“I’m glad to see you,” Rogers said, and it sounded true enough, but he didn’t smile. “It’s good to know there are still people out there we can count on.”

“Yeah—about that,” Clint said. He glanced at Natasha. “I’ve done nothing but run from people I thought were allies for the past three days. And my superior officer turned out to be even creepier than I thought. Care to explain that?”

“Let me brief you real quick,” Fury said, straightening up in his bed with a groan. “Turns out all of SHIELD has been slowly infiltrated by Hydra from the second we won the war. So far, I’d say they represent about half of our forces. Could be more. They plan on using the new Insight Helicarriers to wipe out a small fraction of the East coast population in…” He checked his watch. “Roughly forty-two hours.”

Clint said nothing for a few seconds. Okay, this—this was a lot to take in at once.

But… somehow, it felt good, too; all the other pieces which didn’t make sense were clicking together now. And even though Clint really didn’t like the big picture, it was a great relief being able to see it.

This meant Sitwell was Hydra. Funny harmless Sitwell. Cold-blooded psychopath Sitwell.

Jesus.

He glanced at Rogers. “So how do we stop them?”

The Captain blinked, then smiled—it was the wry, caustic ghost of a smile, but it was there. Before he could say anything, though, Fury spoke up again. “You’re not coming, Barton.”

They all looked at him.

“I don’t see why not,” Rogers said in surprisingly dry voice.

“We could definitely use a long-range sniper,” Wilson pointed out.

“Not to mention someone who’s got experience in taking down Helicarriers,” Natasha added, a bit slyly.

“Precisely,” Fury said in a low voice. He stared at Clint. “Got rid of that millstone of yours, Agent Barton?”

Clint clenched his jaw.

“No,” he admitted between his teeth. “He’s locked in the cells one floor down. But, sir, that’s irrelevant—I’ll tie him down in the trunk if I have to.”

“You’re not taking Loki on the field,” Fury said, still in that unnervingly serene tone.

“Whoa, wait—Loki?” Cap blurted.

Clint didn’t look at him—didn’t look at anyone as he spoke.

“Asgard gave him to me as a slave. It’s his punishment. He’s under a binding spell so he won’t run away. But that also means if I get away from him for more than half a mile, he’s going to burn alive.”

He’d said this very fast, very low, staring at the wall. When he glanced at them again, Wilson looked like he tried to make sense of what he’d just heard, but Natasha and Rogers just looked appalled.

“Jesus,” Natasha muttered. “That’s really all we needed.”

 “You escaped Hydra and came all the way here with Loki in tow?” Rogers asked incredulously.

Clint took a deep breath. “Yeah. But maybe I shouldn’t have bothered.”

He looked at Rogers, then. “Tell me to do it,” he said, staring hard at him. “Tell me it’s for the greater good. Tell me he’s not worth saving. Give me the order, and I’ll kill him.”

They all waited. Wilson and Natasha stared at Rogers. Rogers stared back at Clint.

“No,” he said eventually, in a soft voice. “This isn’t what we do.”

Clint felt relieved—and hated himself for it.

Fury huffed through his nose. “Captain,” he said. “There are some people you can’t save. Some people you can only stop.”

Clint got the distinct feeling they weren’t really talking about Loki.

Rogers shook his head. “Tell me about the Insight project,” he said in a tone that firmly stated that this conversation was over.

Fury complied, and Clint listened in silence as he explained the triangulation system and the need to re-route each Helicarrier’s targets from the inside. But the more he talked, the more it became obvious that Clint definitely wasn’t invited to this party.

And there wasn’t much he could do about it.

 

*

 

“So what’s the deal with Cap and people you’re not supposed to save?” Clint asked later.

“We’ve got the Winter Soldier on our tail,” Natasha answered. “And Steve says he knows him. Says it’s Sergeant Barnes.”

Clint knew that name. Everyone did. It was part of the legend—Rogers and Barnes, Barnes and Rogers.

“But he’s been brainwashed and doesn’t recognize him.”

Clint stared at her and she stared back. After New York, after Loki’s return, after Hydra, Clint thought nothing could surprise him anymore, but this time he was certain it was the final straw. What could ever top that? Coulson being alive? Loki being sane? What next?

“Then I should be the one going,” Clint heard himself say.

His voice sounded too brutal even to his own ears. “Me—not Rogers. Not if that’s what you’re going against.”

“He’s not going to compromise the operation over this,” Natasha said with an easy confidence which burned Clint inside.

“Maybe not, but he’s going to die.”

She looked up at him.

“He’s going to face him,” Clint said, “and he won’t be able to kill a friend. He’s not like you.”

She tilted her head and looked him like a cat would have looked—with this aloof, cold gaze which reminded Clint she had a few missing pieces, herself.

“I wouldn’t kill you,” she said.

Clint scoffed. “Yeah, you would. And I don’t even blame you. But what you can’t do is leave me here. Not for something like this.”

She held his gaze for another second, then slowly shook her head. “We can’t take that risk.”

“Because working with that guy—Wilson—that’s safe? You don’t even know him!”

“I know Loki,” she said quietly.

She slipped past him and vanished in the hallway.

 

*

 

Back to being benched, then. Because of Loki—again.

If this was some kind of joke, Clint wasn’t laughing.

Fury’s base was more comfortable than most, once you’d gotten past the grim entrance and the cell quarters. Clint’s room was the biggest and the best he’d ever gotten since… even before Manhattan. Still, he would have traded it for a hell-hole any day, provided that he could come back on the field and help. For a brief couple of days, he’d been free, he’d been out there, away from the Triskelion, and damn if it hadn’t felt like life itself being poured back in his veins, cleaning his blood, clearing his head.

And now he found he’d come all this way only to bury himself in an even more secret bunker. One that didn’t even have any real windows and one where shuffling cards wouldn’t be enough to keep Loki at bay.

At least Clint wouldn’t have to take him out of his cell every time he wanted to make a trip to the kitchen; he’d taken a brief look at the plans and confirmed that he could walk everywhere without accidentally getting more than half a mile away from Loki. This wasn’t very surprising; Fury could have never hidden a secret base of larger dimensions. That he’d managed to hide this one was already quite impressive. Talk about trust issues.

Fury, Rogers, Wilson and Natasha were leaving in less than an hour for New York. Clint could have come with them—could have left Loki bound and gagged in the trunk, he wouldn’t have been any trouble—but they’d decided against it and Clint was a good fucking agent who had his orders and this was bullshit.

This was the unsatisfactory conclusion he’d come to when his communicator chimed in. “Agent Barton. A word.”

Fury was waiting for him alone; the other three were nowhere to be seen.

“They’re getting ready,” Fury told him in answer to his quick glance. “And so am I.”

He was sitting on the edge of his bed, already clad in his black uniform, his left arm in a sling. Clint couldn’t believe they were taking a badly injured man with them and leaving the marksman behind, but he said nothing, because he wasn’t a kid, he was a professional, and he professionally admitted that Loki made him a liability at the moment.

“You said something about Loki being bound to you earlier,” Fury said.

Clint very carefully did not let hope flare in his chest. “Yes, sir.”

“Is he mind-controlled or something?”

“No, sir. He’s got a rune on his cheek which heats up every time he’s reluctant to follow my orders. And burns him raw when he tries to straight up disobey.”

“That sounds awfully complicated,” Fury said.

Clint said nothing. Yes, with what Loki alone had proved capable of—bending Clint and others to his will with no violence and no pain, only a flash of blue light—Odin’s spell seemed unnecessarily cruel. As if Loki had been left his freedom of thought only so he could rebel and be punished again and again and again. Loki has never been very brave in the face of pain.

As if this wasn’t about punishing Loki, but just about breaking him.

By now, Clint was pretty sure this whole mess had nothing to do with the Chitauri invasion. Loki’s penalty didn’t look like tough-but-fair justice but rather like personal revenge. Why Loki’s father resented him so much was unclear—Coulson hadn’t been able to debrief Thor after New Mexico; they still didn’t know the reason he’d been exiled—and after the battle of New York, everyone was more interested in the Avengers’ future than in Loki’s past. There was a story there which had never been told; and now, it was too late.

But Clint wasn’t about to share these thoughts. Fury might think he was obsessed with Loki, when really Clint tried to think about him as little as possible. It simply didn’t take a genius, or hours of reflection, to realize that this couldn’t be just about righting the wrongs done to a planet Odin basically used as a dump.

“Asgardian slavery,” was all Clint said. “Works in mysterious ways.”

“Mmh.” Fury straightened up and looked at him. “This is too sloppy an arrangement, and you know it,” he declared. “Hydra’s trying to confuse us; and Loki’s most dangerous trait wasn’t his bulletproof skin or his glowing joystick. It was his mind. He’s still got that and you can’t order him not to think.”

Clint was pretty sure he could, and pretty sure it meant Loki would die a slow and agonizing death as the rune slowly burrowed into his restless brain.

“I know, sir,” he only said. “I get it, I can’t go with you. I’ve come to terms with that.”

“Mmh,” Fury said again, and it was amazing how one hum could convey irritation, disbelief, acknowledgment and irony at the same time. “Remember what I told you last time we saw each other?”

Clint hesitated. “…That you had a mission for me.”

“I still do,” Fury said. “And this isn’t a mission for the future of SHIELD—it’s a mission for the future of this world. Always think five steps ahead, Barton. Hydra got us confused and focused on ourselves while they’re taking the lead. You think I’m leaving you behind, but really I want you ahead of Rogers and Romanov on this one.”

Clint frowned. “What about Loki?”

“Having Loki on your side might actually be a plus.”

Fury straightened up and stood firmly in front of Clint, despite his injuries.

“Thing is,” he said. “You have to find a way to actually have Loki on your side.”

“There’s none,” Clint said bluntly. “I have no real power over him and nothing to bargain with him. I’m just Odin’s puppet in this mess.”

“Well, then,” Fury said in his deep voice. “I’ll be back when I can, and we'll talk some more. Until then, I suggest you find a way to cut the strings.”

 

*

 

Forty-six minutes later, they were gone, leaving Clint behind in an empty underground base in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. With Loki.

Clint might be benched, but he was still an active agent with a working brain and working fingers. He sat in front of Fury’s army of computers and started steering rumors as soon as there was a reported sighting of Captain America near the Triskelion. Clint paid a visit to the major news sites and started several threads hinting strongly at what was actually going down near New York. He wasn’t the only one out there—one username in particular kept coming up, a blue_skye who seemed to know a lot of things as well; but he didn’t worry about it, because he or she was on his side anyway.

After several hours, though, the whole Internet caught on fire when all of SHIELD’s secret files were released in the light of day. Clint leaned back in his seat, brain a mess after nearly a day and a half spent fighting online, and watched as that particular clusterfuck snowballed into a digital nuclear explosion.

He knew this had been one of Fury’s goals, and he wanted to feel relieved—he was feeling relieved; the mission was a success. The three Helicarriers were down, and he was pretty sure the few remaining people he trusted and liked in this world were fine. Captain America was missing, just like Natasha, Fury, Wilson, and the Winter Soldier, for that matter. Missing was good. Missing was safe.

But now Clint had to believe they’d come back for him, and this was a little bit harder.

It was over. There was nothing more he could do—no way he could contact any of them. All he could do was wait.

He shut down the computers, then got up, stretched, and headed for the shower. When he was clean, he curled up in his bed and slept for nearly fifteen hours straight.

He dreamed of nothing at all.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

The worst part about any given situation was how quickly it could turn into a mind-numbing routine.

Clint fought it the best he could. He started by exploring the entire base and listing everything he had at his disposal in case he needed to leave quickly. This took him almost a week; the building was small, but dense. On the habitation floor, there was a gym, a kitchen, a living-room, even a small library, and a range. It was pleasant enough, with fake windows displaying landscapes which changed every twelve hours. The only thing it missed was people.

Although Clint wasn’t completely alone.

Twice a day, he went downstairs and pushed a food pack through the cat-flap in the door of Loki’s cell. In the evening, he came back to collect the empty trays. Sometimes they were there, sometimes they weren’t. He didn’t overthink it.

Clint was doing him a favor by staying away, really—the less Loki interacted with him, the less he had a chance to get burned or cut. It was kind of pathetic to think of him with that literal scarlet letter on his cheek which punished him when he was being a bad boy. Clint thought about him more than he’d like to admit to himself, but his thoughts never went very far—every time they ventured that way, he put an abrupt end to it and focused on other things.

He forced himself to spend several hours in the gym and on the range every day. To keep up with the routine he'd built himself at SHIELD. This would clear his mind, limit the chances of depression, and keep him in shape for the mission Fury would give him when he came back. If he came back.

Clint was still in contact with the outside world, and a few active agents unknowingly reported to Fury’s hidden base; but what little news Clint received were worse each day. On the first week, things were just too scrambled to know exactly what was happening; but Clint was getting less and less reports, and every day, he crossed out another of SHIELD’s bases from the map. The Hub was still standing; the Fridge, too. He wasn’t even sure about the rest. Hydra was fucking everywhere.

Sometimes, Clint wanted to throw it all away—to pack a bag and get the hell out. Start a new life. Without orders. Without betrayals and gods and mind games.

But that was the problem, wasn’t it? That was the goddamn problem. With Loki in tow, staying here was his best option right now.

 

*

 

Clint wasn’t sure when he’d started watching him on the video feeds.

It was dangerous. He knew it was. He didn’t like it, didn’t like that he couldn’t help coming back to Loki. But the fact remained that he was alone, and he was bored out of his skull, and he needed to watch someone who was more bored than him. It had been two weeks. Clint had gone over the entire base twice. He was watching five movies a day. He’d started six different books and hadn’t finished them. At some point down the line, he’d gone into the control room and checked if there was a camera in Loki’s cell. As it turned out, there was. So now he was straight-up creeping on him.

At first, it had been but a fleeting glance a day—making sure he was still alive. Then it started being longer, until Clint had a screen display the feed everywhere he went. He was telling himself this was payback, that Loki was being stripped of his privacy like Clint had been.

He remembered with awful acuteness the storming of his mind—like a bright blue tide. It hadn’t changed anything, not really. It had just showed him his life in a different light. A different color. As though he’d been born to serve Loki and there was nothing more normal in the world. Waking up from it had been tough, real tough, and at times Clint still itched for his deck of cards. At times he was afraid the mind-control could be coming back, since a snap of Loki’s fingers had been enough the first time to tip his whole world upside-down.

This wasn’t revenge, though. Clint felt no satisfaction watching Loki—took no sadistic glee in what was really a sad show. Loki almost didn’t move. He slept for enormous amounts of time, and when he didn’t sleep, he just lay in bed, watching the ceiling. The empty trays he’d kept were neatly stacked in a corner and forgotten there. Sometimes, he picked up the plastic glass on his nightstand and played catch with himself, throwing it aimlessly towards the ceiling, catching it with his right hand. He could do this for hours straight. Which meant Clint was watching him do it for hours straight; and he didn’t really know which one of them, at this point, was the most pathetic.

Loki looked indifferent enough; he fed himself quite regularly, and he took a shower from time to time, absently untangling his long black hair with his fingers. He never attempted to contact Clint, not once.

His façade was good, but really, he lacked conviction. It showed in his every gesture. He stopped playing with his plastic glass and stayed curled up in bed for hours on end. He fell in and out of sleep. He ate like he was chewing paper.

One day, he didn’t get up at all, not even to eat. The next day, he was apparently back to normal, but the pattern was starting to break. He started to cut back on his meals, too. He stopped cleaning himself. His long, black, greasy hair made him look like a ghost, along with his gaunt face, his wide eyes over too sharp cheekbones.

This wasn’t Clint’s problem.

Fuck, this wasn’t his goddamn problem. He turned off the screen and swore to himself he wouldn’t watch the feed again.

 

*

 

Three weeks now. The Fridge and the Hub were still standing, but all other lines had fallen silent.

Clint knew he was slowly going crazy. He’d tried so hard to get away from Loki, to flush him out, to forget him; but now that he had literally locked him away, he couldn’t stop thinking about him. He felt like he was waiting for something, even though he had no idea what. Perhaps he simply felt too lonely. Perhaps what he was waiting for was for himself to blow a fuse and leave, take the bag he’d packed days ago and leave, leave Loki behind, buried under a mountain to die screaming and it wouldn’t matter because no one would hear his screams—he would die alone, forgotten, and it would be like nothing had ever happened…

 

*

 

Clint was startled awake by the alarm and his first instinct was to snap Loki’s feed onscreen.

But the demi-god wasn’t doing anything; he was curled up in his bed and staring at the wall. It took Clint a good heart-hammering minute to understand that the threat was coming from the outside.

He switched feeds and squinted at the glaring whiteness on the bright screen. It had snowed again, and the forest was almost completely engulfed in a thick frozen crust which forbade Clint to even think of taking a stroll outside—it was forty degrees below zero. Clint knew he was letting the winter bury him even further down in this God-forgotten hole. He also knew, at this point, that the chances of Fury coming back were getting thinner and thinner.

Against all odds, though, Thor had showed up again.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Clint said between his teeth.

He was standing in front of the hidden door, looking royally undisturbed with the stinging cold, wrapped in a black cape with golden hair flowing down his shoulders. Clint frowned, then scanned him with every mean at his disposal. The readings looked correct—this was the real Thor.

What the fuck. Had he won his war already?

Clint didn’t stop to think more. He had been alone for too long. He opened the door, and Thor walked inside as though he’d never expected any less.

Clint watched him stride up the corridor on the video feed, then unfolded his body from the chair—exactly when had he begun to sleep in the control room?—and went to find him.

Thor bowed to him like this was all completely fucking normal. “Well met, my friend.”

“Yeah, hi,” Clint answered haphazardly.

Talking to someone else than himself was weird. Clint realized how far down he was when this single sentence made him feel like he was exhausted and wish the conversation was over already.

“So… how was the war?” he forced himself to ask.

“There were complications,” Thor said.

“Then what are you doing here?” Clint asked, too tired and too unsociable for pleasantries of any sort.

“I must speak to Loki.”

Clint raised an eyebrow. “What, you want his help or something? Good luck with that.”

“I thank you for your wish of good fortune,” Thor said lightly, and Clint knew exactly what it meant—show me where my brother is and keep your opinions to yourself.

Clint was fucking tired of Asgardians kicking him around, fucking tired of Thor showing up out of fucking nowhere to make his life worse when Clint thought he’d already hit rock bottom. But Clint had gone over this before. There was nothing he could do. And he was so tired anyway.

He gave Thor directions, then retreated into the control room and decided he would watch the news.

Yeah, right. He turned on Loki’s feed at once and switched it on the big screen.

It was strange to see his bony prisoner shake off his apathy and scramble up to his feet when the door of his cell unlocked. Seeing him stand, Clint was struck with how much he’d lost weight—there was a nervous tremor in his limbs and his wide eyes didn’t exactly speak of perfect sanity.

Clint rubbed his forehead, wincing. He knew he’d done a horrible job of handling Loki, and he could hardly stand seeing it for himself. But what else could he have done other than staying away, when every word they exchanged resulted in Odin’s spell making Loki bleed and burn?

Clint had tried to hide it from himself, but he had to admit it now: he’d never wanted revenge. Not like this. He was a goddamn sharpshooter and he wasn’t trained to handle prisoners for a long time, especially not the ones with whom he shared a history of mind-fuckery and mutual contempt.

The worst part was that he knew Loki probably didn’t even hate him all that much, either. They barely knew each other, and in the Tesseract vault, Loki had picked Clint because he was there—end of story. But the shrinks had insisted Loki was the source of all Clint's problems, and Odin had dumped him on Clint for some reason, so they’d found themselves stuck with each other with no one else to hate.

Clint didn’t feel empathy towards Loki—he did not; he knew he was a textbook psychopath who probably deserved much worse than mere isolation. But still, seeing Loki so vulnerable and so tense was disturbing. Especially since Thor looked all the more imposing and threatening in comparison. Seriously, even the light changed when he squeezed himself inside Loki’s tiny cell, as though he radiated a golden aura of his own.

Loki gathered as much composure as he could. “Thor,” he said.

He was obviously fighting to stand his ground, but he couldn’t control his shivers. “After all this time, you come to visit me.” For a second, he looked like he wanted to say something defiant, something sharp and witty, something mean—but like Clint, he didn’t have the energy; he gave up and let out in a weary tone, “What do you want?”

“I need a way into Svartalfheim,” Thor said.

Loki let out a little laugh. “My help? You want my help?” He was grinning, now. Standing a little taller. “Oh. Is this about the war? Is Odin not listening to you? How shocking. Or…” He took a step closer. “Could this be about your mortal pet?”

Thor backhanded him across the face so hard he sent him crashing into the pile of empty trays.

Whoa there. Clint straightened up, blinking, shaking off the sluggish numbness in which he’d been drowning for days, and which had already started to burst at the seams with Thor’s arrival. Had that really just happened? He understood the need to bitchslap Loki once in a while, but this looked a little uncalled for—and frankly excessive. Thor’s move had been almost nonchalant, and yet Loki was now spitting blood on the floor and struggling to suck air back into his lungs.

“Is this any way for a slave to talk to a prince?” Thor asked coldly.

Loki looked up, his blue eyes burning with hatred. “I am not a slave,” he spat, but his tone edged on despair.

Thor let out a mocking sound and raised his eyebrows. “Really.” He took a step forward. “You should know that when we fought each other in the past, I did so with the glimmer of hope that my brother was still in there somewhere. That hope no longer exists to protect you.” He grabbed the collar of Loki’s shirt and hoisted him up. “Like you said, it has been a long time. Still you show no sign of repentance—still you behave like you have been wronged.”

“Have I not been wronged?” Loki snarled, twisting in his grip. “You invaded Jotunheim—you killed dozens of them, nearly started a war, and how were you punished for it? Three days of exile!” His eyes were watering. “Three damn days!”

Clint frowned and turned up the volume. What? What the hell was that about?

Thor didn’t deny it. All he said was, “Still harping on about this old story, are you? Have you truly nothing else to say for yourself?”

Loki was panting and looking like he might really start crying; it sounded like quick bursts of wind through the speakers. “I was raised to want the throne,” he gasped. “My whole life—only to—” he yelled when the dirty bandages on his forearms began to darken with fresh blood.

Thor let out a mirthless laugh. “Your self-obsession truly is beyond belief. How can you think yourself a victim? You killed thousands of people, Loki.”

“So did you!” Loki shouted. “On countless battlefields! How was my war any different?”

The thunderer brutally let him fall on the floor. “No more of this childish feud.”

“Childish, yes,” Loki yelled, “childish of me, to believe you or Odin could ever listen. The only time he was truthful to me was when he made me a slave—I have never been anything else to him!”

Thor sighed again. “Coming to you was a mistake,” he said.

“Then go,” Loki spat. “Go pray the mortals make you a god! But we both know the truth about you, Odinson. You've only ever used me as a foil—a shadow for you to shine all the brighter, and you would rather see me dead than give me a chance!”

Thor’s expression changed and Clint understood then why he was called the thunder god. Even Loki looked like he realized he’d crossed a line. He swallowed and took a step back.

There was a heavy silence.

“So this is truly what you think of me,” Thor said in a very low voice—but the image on the screen was flickering with the angry energy thrumming in the tiny cell.

He took a step forward. “I reached out for you so many times. I gave you countless chances. Did you ever acknowledge them? No. All you did was laugh and laugh and call me a sentimental fool. Four times already, you tried to kill me. And yet, I am somehow to blame for your actions, now that you have lost everything? And you dare tell me I am using you?”

Loki stared at him and said nothing.

“Apologize,” Thor said in an impressive murmur. “This instant.”

Loki didn’t say a word. Of course he didn't.

“It cannot be that hard,” Thor said, still in a very soft voice, but he was nearly snarling. “Come, Loki. One little word.”

Silence.

“Do you remember what the dwarves once did to you?” Thor said quietly, like it was nothing.

Clint had no idea what the fuck that meant, but Loki abruptly turned very, very pale.

“If you will not use your silvertongue wisely, I’ll silence it. Last chance, Loki.”

Tears started streaking down Loki’s sharp features, but his bland expression didn’t change. He looked so unbearably small in the face of Thor’s cold wrath, so helpless. So human. And Clint tried not to think of Barney standing between Clint and their dad, silent tears flowing all the same, terrified but unable, unable to back off…

Clint shouldn’t be thinking about this—he shouldn’t express any sympathy towards Loki; or else Fury, Natasha, Steve, they’d all think the mind-control had lingered, they’d all speak of Stockholm syndrome like the shrinks had for weeks, Clint could not step in, he could not, he could not, he could not, he was supposed to hate him, he did hate him, he was a good soldier, he did hate him, he was good, leave me alone!

Thor struck Loki back down again and pinned him on the floor.

“Very well.”

“No—” Loki said in a strangled voice, but Thor muffled him with his hand, crouching over him, so Clint couldn’t see what he was doing to him.

It’s Loki, he reminded himself, eyes wide as the fallen god bucked and thrashed in Thor’s unyielding hold, kicking helplessly under his weight. It’s Loki!

Who was he kidding—who was he fucking kidding—when Loki started screaming, Clint cursed, then leaped out of his chair and ran.

 

*

 

When Clint opened the door, Thor didn’t even look over his shoulder.

Clint wanted to say something clever and calm and steady, but all he managed was a breathless, “Thor.” He swallowed, then gasped, “Get the fuck out of here.”

Thor did look then.

He turned, like a jungle cat bent over its pray, and looked with clear blue eyes.

Clint was so fucking terrified he thought he might physically, literally piss himself. He remembered how awfully stronger Asgardians were—he would always feel Loki’s grip on his arm.

“I am not done,” Thor said calmly.

Clint activated the remote in his pocket and a very impressive gun came out of the ceiling to aim at Thor. Except it wasn’t a gun—it was a fire extinguisher. Thor frowned up at it, then back down at Clint; and the worst part was that he looked genuinely confused, like this was just another cultural misunderstanding.

“Whole base is rigged with those,” Clint panted. “Calibrated to take down at least the Hulk. You’re not getting out of here alive if you don’t back the fuck off right now.”

Thor snorted. “This is a family matter.”

“Get the fuck out,” Clint repeated breathlessly. “Now!”

Loki was trembling and fighting sobs beneath Thor; he was hidden by Thor’s cape and it was good—Clint couldn’t look at him right now, he couldn’t—but he couldn’t avoid seeing the blood on Thor’s hands when he rose.

“You are making a mistake,” the thunderer said. “But Loki is yours, it is true. As a token of good will, I shall go.”

He stepped past Clint who literally stopped breathing out of pure fierce fear. He could feel the sheer energy of him thrumming through the air, rolling off in waves of crackling heat. Thor raised a hand—a bloodied hand which had leveled fucking countries and killed hundreds of souls—and clasped his shoulder.

“I’ll leave it to you, then,” he said very softly.

And then he left.

He left, and Clint was left standing there, amazed that his bluff had worked. Feeling dizzy at how close—how close—God, he’d never been so fucking scared in his life. He started shaking and it took him almost a minute to repress his violent, helpless shudders. He had to keep it together—keep it together.

And then he made the mistake of looking down at Loki, and he almost threw up.

Thor had sewn his mouth shut.

The left corner wasn’t done, but the wounds were ugly enough already, the thread black and coarse-looking, blood trickling down Loki’s chin and neck. He was staring at Clint with eyes so wide they were expressionless, but then his features quivered into complete, howling madness, and Clint only understood too late, when Loki’s whole body convulsed in a spasm and he clawed furiously at the thread and pulled—pulled so hard his upper lip tore and blood gushed all over his chin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

“Fuck—stop!” Clint yelled. “STOP!”

He ran inside the cell and crouched in front of Loki. He had to pry his fingers away from the thread—but then Loki jerked free and lashed out at him instead, trying to claw his eyes out. Clint’s training kicked in—he slammed him down on the ground and pinned his wrists on each side of his head, blocking Loki’s body under his own, which wasn’t easy with how much the demi-god was writhing and thrashing and howling through his sewn lips with eyes screaming bloody murder.

“Stop,” Clint said. “Stop—stop—I order you to stop!”

The rune flared a bright scarlet—and Loki abruptly went limp. He stared at the ceiling for a few seconds, breathing hard, eyes wide open; then he screwed them shut, scowling as much as the thread would allow, and started sobbing—ugly, wracking sobs which caught in his throat and came out jagged and hoarse. Scalding tears were rolling down his face and evaporating when they swiped over the still branding rune. He sobbed like he would never stop, shaking with the violence of his spasms.

“I’m sorry,” Clint stammered. “Fuck. Fuck. I’m so sorry.”

Loki suddenly pushed him back and scrambled away until he was curled up against the wall; he hid what was left of his face in his hands and stayed there, letting out animal sounds half-way between moans and gasps.

Clint had brought a first-aid kit with him, but there was nothing he could do while Loki was still freaking out this bad. Except sedate him. And he didn’t want to do that—he hated it, himself, being dosed so he could be handled more easily, like a goddamn puppet. Loki had been pushed around enough as it was.

So Clint just sat there and waited; but after only a minute, it became pretty obvious that Loki wasn’t calming down anytime soon. And fuck, he was losing so much blood. His shirt was soaked in it and Clint couldn’t begin to imagine how much it hurt.

Eventually, he crawled forward and reached out. Loki took a sharp breath but Clint grabbed his wrists before he could attack him again. Loki bucked and growled; he looked so furious he probably couldn’t have spoken even with his mouth free. The state of his body was obviously the least of his problems right now; unfortunately for him, it was also the most pressing matter in Clint’s book.

“On the bed,” Clint said, hoisting him up. “Come on.”

Loki let out a long, loud wail when Clint manhandled him on the mattress and thrashed so wildly that Clint didn’t have any choice—he straddled him again, then took out the handcuffs he kept in his back pocket and chained Loki’s wrists to the bedframe above his head. Loki yelled and tugged and bucked, eyes burning with madness and fury, but he was exhausted after so much time in isolation, and he was too drained of hope to fight much longer.

Clint zipped the first-aid kid open and got out the anesthetic gel. He didn’t like applying it with all that blood in the way, but he didn’t have much choice.

“Hey,” he said again, gripping his hair to immobilize his head. “Don’t move. This is gonna help.”

Loki tugged at the handcuffs one last time then stopped moving, shuddering so hard the cuffs tinkled against the bedframe, eyes fixed on Clint. Clint squeezed a glob of gel directly onto his destroyed lips and slowly spread it with a sympathetic wince. Loki keened and screwed his eyes shut again—but snapped them open when the pain did start to recede as the gel slowly desensitized his whole mouth and jaw. This stuff was real strong, and Clint knew that the numbness wasn’t exactly pleasant, but it was still much better than the alternative.

Clint was very relieved to see Loki looking more lucid as the pain went away. He was still hyperventilating so much he might pass out, but he kept staring at Clint and wasn’t fighting the handcuffs anymore. When Clint got out a scalpel, though, Loki flinched and inched away, trying to say something.

“I’m not gonna hurt you,” Clint said.

Loki managed to sneer at that, but then he closed his eyes, trembling even more. He didn’t reopen them as Clint cut the thread and tugged the pieces out. He wiped the blood away with a towelette, pressed long enough for the bleeding to stop, then soaked it in disinfectant and wiped Loki’s mouth again. He was relieved to see the damage wasn’t as bad as he’d originally thought—he was under the impression Loki had torn his whole upper lip to shreds, but only one of the puncture points had actually given; Loki’s lip was still badly split, with a long gash curving up to his right cheekbone.

“Fuck,” Clint said under his breath.

Loki reopened his eyes.

“I have to stitch it,” Clint said.

Loki closed his eyes again. Clint waited for a reaction, but that was apparently all he’d get. Loki didn’t try to look when the needle pushed into his skin.

Clint did stitch it, as carefully as he could. Archery had given him steady hands, but no matter how precise he was, this would scar and there wasn’t much he could do about it. When he was done, he disinfected the wounds again, then carefully wrapped gauze over Loki’s mouth. It looked like a muzzle, but with the anesthesia, Loki wouldn’t have been able to talk anyway. Clint dabbed disinfectant on the small cuts on his forehead and temples—he’d clawed at his own face in his agony.

Then Clint took a deep breath, and undid the bandages on Loki’s forearms.

His stomach turned again when he saw the new fresh cuts over the ones which had almost finished healing. INSOLENT and REBELLIOUS were plastered across the skin, but they almost disappeared under a swarm of LIAR LIAR LIAR LIAR LIAR LIAR LIAR, barely readable under all the blood.

“Liar, uh,” Clint said through gritted teeth.

Loki had opened his eyes again and was looking at him. He seemed hazy—probably high on endorphins after so much pain inflicted on so weak a constitution.

Clint sighed, cleaned Loki’s forearms and bandaged them again, then unlocked the cuffs. When they clicked open, Loki gripped the collar of Clint's shirt and tugged him down. He stayed, panting, staring into his eyes.

Clint really didn’t feel threatened; Loki had almost no strength left—his trembling fingers could barely hold on. Clint honestly didn’t know if this was Loki trying to hurt him, or trying to communicate, somehow. He was staring as if to dare Clint to say something, but Clint had never been so at loss for words in his life.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated.

Loki scowled at him under his bandages, then let go and shoved him away, as if Clint wasn’t even worthy of his anger after all. He turned on his side and curled up, too humiliated to do anything else, shaking with anger and pain and despair. Clint just sat there, feeling increasingly nauseous, and more useless than he’d ever felt in his miserable life.

 

*

 

Loki wasn't long to pass out with exhaustion. Clint carried him out of the cell, just like he’d carried him in nearly four weeks ago. He took him upstairs and put him in his own bed, since it was the only one which was actually made; as soon as he’d done it, he realized this wasn’t very clever, but he wasn’t carrying him into another room now.

He drew a chair next to it and tried to get some rest—but he kept dreaming of Thor’s electric blue eyes when he’d turned to look at him, and he woke up gasping and lashing out, until he drifted off again only to see in horrible detail Loki’s legs jerking under his brother’s weight as the needle was pushed into his lips. Every time Clint closed his eyes, he spiraled into an endless flood of nightmares he kept trying to wake up from.

Eventually, he gave up and got up to make coffee. Coffee fixed everything.

When he came back, the strong smell seeped in the room, and Loki’s eyes fluttered open.

Clint carefully set the steaming pot of coffee out of reach—he wasn’t sure Loki wouldn’t try to attack him with all the means at his disposal. Truth be told, if they had stayed in the cell, it might have happened; but Loki's hatred and madness were cut short when he looked around him and realized he’d left the tiny, bare room in which he’d been confined for weeks.

He straightened up, trembling, and raised shaking fingers to his bandaged mouth.

“Better not touch it,” Clint said.

Loki startled and glanced at him. His eyes were still a bit too wide.

“Here,” Clint said. He’d found a spiral-bound notebook in a drawer in the supplies room; he gave it to Loki, along with a pen. He wasn’t entirely sure about this—a pen qualified as a very dangerous weapon in his world, all the more so in Loki’s hands—but they had to talk.

Loki frowned at him, looking plain confused this time. Clint took the pen again, drew a few lines on the notebook and gave it back to him.

Loki stared at him for almost an entire minute.

If he hadn’t been so tired, he would have probably sneered or scoffed or thrown the whole thing away. As it was, he leaned against the headboard, then slowly, painfully wrote a few words in elegant, narrow cursive. He ripped the page off and gave it to Clint.

Where is Thor?

Of course he’d ask that first.

“He’s gone,” Clint said. “He’s not coming back.” Fuck, he hoped he wasn’t coming back.

Loki looked like he knew all they could do was hope, too. He wrote something else. What is this place?

Clint sighed and rubbed the back of his head.

“My room,” he said. “Upstairs from you.”

He dropped his hand back in his lap. “I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “Alright? I’m sorry I left you down there for so long. I just…” He licked his lips, then met Loki’s eyes. “I worked so hard to flush you out. I couldn’t let you near me again.” He clenched his fists. “I couldn’t.”

He suddenly felt like crying, too, something he’d never done since New York, he wanted to cry out of sheer nervous exhaustion, but he didn’t—one of them had to keep it together. Loki was writing something else. It took him an even longer time than the first two messages. When he gave him the page, a dozen sentences had been crossed out; at the bottom of the page were only two words.

Now what?

Clint shrugged wearily. “First you gotta heal. Recover. And then we’ll see.”

Loki scribbled five words across another page. I DON’T WANT YOUR PITY.

“Then why don’t you stop being pathetic,” Clint spat.

He’d spoken with such poison that Loki blinked at him. Clint ran a hand over his face. Yeah, he could use a break, himself.

“No,” he forced himself to say, “no—look—we can’t keep this up. Okay? We’re stuck together. We’ve got to cut each other some slack.”

Loki huffed through his nose. His gaze trailed off on his bandaged forearms, and he sat up a bit more, crossing his legs under the covers. He took the pen again.

I am cold, he wrote.

Clint read it and looked up, but before he could talk, Loki took back the paper from his hands and added, All the time. He kept scribbling, the letters getting more and more scrambled. I cannot get warm. This body hurts all the time. It is always hungry or tired or both. Always cold. Is that normal? Is it—

He stopped; his eyes were filling with tears he angrily wiped away.

And Clint… well, Clint did pity him. A little. Fuck, Loki didn’t know how his own body was supposed to work, and he was so utterly alone, so desperately trying to cling to his dignity, that he’d spent weeks without knowing for sure whether he was dying or not.

“Yeah, it’s normal,” Clint said softly. “You’ve been on Earth for a little less than a month and you’ve done nothing but get hurt and lose weight.” He leaned back in his chair. “But luckily for you, I happen to know my way around mortal bodies; I can teach you a few things.”

Loki huffed again, then lamely underlined the words he’d already written with two sharp lines. I don’t want your pity.

Clint rolled his eyes. “It’s just you and me in here. What are you trying to prove?”

Loki didn’t answer.

Clint remembered his coffee and turned to grab the mug. The first sip felt like heaven.

“What Thor said,” he began.

Loki looked up at him, wary.

“About the reason he was exiled. Did he really declare war on another Realm?”

Loki stared at him. Then he wrote a few words, slowly, as though the pen was suddenly much heavier in his hand. He brought war to Jotunheim. It is the Frost Giants’ Realm and the Frost Giants are little more than beasts.

“Yeah, I know the myths,” Clint mumbled when he read the page. “So that’s why all he got was exile.”

Loki nodded again, and Clint got the distinct feeling he wasn't telling the entire truth. Which wasn't surprising.

“Okay, but there’s something I don’t get,” Clint said. “Thor didn’t disagree with you on that.” He reached out and tapped Loki’s forearm. “So why does it say ‘liar’ here?”

Loki stared at him some more. His gaze, for once, was unreadable. Still, Clint didn’t really need an answer—it was obvious, by now, that Odin’s spell wasn’t about spelling out Loki’s sins, but what Odin thought Loki’s sins were.

“This whole punishment thing isn’t about Earth at all,” Clint said. “Is it?”

Loki looked at him for another few seconds. Then he broke eye contact. He scribbled I am tired on the notebook, then put it on the nightstand and unfolded his legs to sink down under the covers again.

Clint didn’t insist and finished his coffee while Loki pretended to fall asleep. When he was done, Clint got out and locked the room behind him. Maybe he did pity Loki; but that didn’t mean he trusted him.

 

*

 

Clint slept in one of the unmade rooms; oddly enough, it felt good waking up to something different than the same old wall. When his alarm clock rang, Clint threw it into a fake window which exploded under the shock, and he felt even better.

The first thing he did was go to the control room to check that Thor indeed hadn’t come back. All the cameras showed that he’d stridden away—Loki’s blood clearly visible on his hands—flown off with Mjölnir, and disappeared in the sky.

There was a report from the Hub. Probably the last one, judging by its content.

The Fridge has fallen.

Clint took a few deep breaths, then went into the shower for nearly twenty minutes. He knew he was stalling, but man, he felt like he’d earned that one. He shaved himself, put on fresh clothes, and looked at himself in the mirror.

“SHIELD is gone,” he said. “Fury’s not coming back.”

And he knew it was the truth. Now he had to deal with it.

He got out of the bathroom and went to his—to Loki’s—bedroom. Unlocking the door, he walked inside to find Loki sitting on the edge of the bed. Obviously, he’d taken a shower too. The bandages on his mouth and arms had come off, and he was wearing black jeans and a dark blue t-shirt Clint recognized as his. The puncture wounds were swollen, the long gash on the rune-less cheek a bright red, and the self-inflicted scratches clearly visible on his pale face, just like the humiliating words on his arms. Loki looked up at Clint when he came in and tried to say something, but he stopped himself with a hiss of pain when the slight motion stretched his abused lips.

Clint zipped the first-aid kit open and got out the roll of gauze. Loki suddenly held himself more stiffly—Clint remember how violently he’d fought him the day before. His pride was still there.

Clint rolled his eyes, then tossed him the gauze. To Loki’s credit, he caught it, even though he had to press it against his chest not to let it fall. Clint walked to him and sat on the chair by the bed again.

“Look,” he said bluntly. “If you want to take care of yourself, it's fine. I hate playing nurse anyway. But you still have to follow my orders or you’ll fuck up this body of yours even more. Got it?”

Loki glared daggers at him, pressing his lips into a tight line, which made him wince in pain again. God, the wounds were really awful.

“This happened to you before, right?” Clint asked in a low voice.

Loki stared at him, in such a way that Clint had to look away. “It’s what Thor said yesterday,” he murmured like an excuse.

The demi-god suddenly put the gauze down, then grabbed the notebook on the nightstand and wrote something down. He gave the page to Clint in a sharp gesture, almost defiant.

Yes, it happened before. But I healed within the day.

When Clint looked up, Loki had sat back down on the bed and was wrapping gauze over his mouth. He was doing it with jerky, angry gestures, but it was very neat all the same.

“This will take at least a week to stop being too painful,” Clint said. “And a month or so to scar properly.”

Loki didn’t react other than by wrapping gauze over his forearms next, with the same kind of obstinate anger. Clint wanted to ask what he’d done to have his mouth sewn shut—he wasn’t sure the myths would be telling the truth on that one—but he didn’t. Loki wasn’t trying to claw his eyes out today, and Clint would rather keep it that way. At least it helped him put what Thor had done into perspective. Asgardians healed like a dream, didn’t scar, and didn’t hurt—or rather hurt differently, a lot less than your average Earthling. So Thor wouldn’t think it was that big a deal.

Except he’d been in a mortal body before—and he’d gotten pretty banged up, too. He must have known he was torturing Loki almost to madness. Hell, he was the one who’d told Clint about the pain discrepancy thing in the first place.

“I thought Thor was still on your side,” Clint said.

Loki only did a weary, irritated gesture that either meant he didn’t want to talk about it or Clint couldn’t understand. Probably both. Clint didn’t insist. This really wasn’t his business, after all.

“Alright,” he said. He walked to the closet and got out the thickest sweater he could find. “Put this on and let’s go.”

He threw the item of clothing to Loki—who didn’t catch it and let it fall on the floor. His eyes were dark and challenging, and his fists clenched in anger again.

Clint suddenly decided he’d had enough.

“For fuck’s sake,” he spat. “You want me to use the rune? That it? So you can go to sleep at night thinking that at least you didn’t willingly obey the puny mortal?”

Loki looked a little unsettled.

“I am not torturing you into putting on a fucking sweater,” Clint went on, furious. “Shit—this is exactly why Odin put this fucked-up spell on your arms.” He grabbed Loki’s wrist. “He knew you’d be unable to show the slightest bit of humility and that you’d end up hurting yourself again and again. You think you’re standing your ground? You’re doing exactly what he wants—what he expects!”

He squeezed Loki’s wounded forearm where Odin’s expectations were engraved in the flesh. “Tell you what; if you really want to fuck with him—and God knows I have a bone to pick with that old bastard too—then prove him wrong and do as I say without taking every single order as a personal offense, you goddamn whiny stubborn little shit!”

Loki was gaping at him now. Clint brutally let him go and took a few deep breaths.

Eventually, he turned round to face him again.

 “If that’s not alright with you, I can bring you back to your cell,” he said abruptly. “Make your choice, and make it now.”

Without looking away from him and still a little wide-eyed, Loki took his notebook and wrote a single line in the middle of the page. He gave Clint the paper, and Clint snatched it from his hands, frowning.

Why do I get a choice?

Clint huffed. This one was fair enough.

“Because I want to leave this place,” he said dryly, albeit a little calmer. “And since we’re chained together, I have to make it so you’ll keep up with me. And it'll be easier if you're willing to heal. That’s all.”

Loki tilted his head on the side. If he’d been able to talk, he would have probably made a snide comment on Clint’s crumbling loyalty or slow-mindedness. But as it was, he said nothing, did nothing.

“Pick up the sweater,” Clint ordered.

For a split second, Loki didn’t move. Then he clenched his jaw under the bandage, slid off the bed and briefly knelt at Clint’s feet to retrieve the black sweater—apparently, extending his arms hurt too much. He quickly got back up and put it on, averting his gaze. It was insanely weird to see the eagle of SHIELD over his heart and on his shoulders.

It had been even weirder to see him kneel.

Clint was filled with relief—but not only. Despite the pain and the bitterness and the weariness, a small but obstinate part of him was still angry at Loki for Manhattan, and to see him obey was very, very satisfying. But, yeah, he was mostly relieved—finally, some progress. He almost wanted to tell Loki he appreciated it, but he knew the demi-god could and would only hear it as an insult.

Loki suddenly looked up and raised an eyebrow at Clint, as if to show his arrogance was still there and ready to bite.

“Great,” Clint said soberly. “Now come on.”

He turned away, and Loki followed him out of the room without a sound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

If he had to be honest with himself, Clint, as usual, had no idea what he was doing. He knew that letting Loki walk around would eventually prove a very bad idea, but they were alone in this goddamn secret base and Clint was making do with what he had. As long as he remembered not to trust him, he’d be alright.

“Let’s get some food into you first,” he said, stepping inside the kitchen.

The sound of a scoff made him turn. Loki pointed at his muzzled mouth, raising his eyebrows.

“Liquid food,” Clint said absently. “It’s not that complicated.”

There were no bendy straws, only straight ones, which was kinda weird and, for some mysterious reason, extremely depressing. Clint picked a soup at random and heated it up; Loki watched him like a hawk, sitting very stiff at the table. He squinted at the steaming bowl Clint gave him, then looked back up.

“Poke a hole in your bandages and sip,” Clint said, giving him a straw. “Careful, it’s hot.”

Loki looked like the concept personally insulted him, but he still tried it—it smelled really good and obviously, he was dying for a hot meal.

The way he ate was pitiful. He burned himself on several occasions, flinching every time, eyes flashing with anger upon the evidence that his body was so weak it could be injured by soup; but he was so hungry, so eager to get warmer, that he couldn’t keep from burning himself all over again.Man, getting him back into shape wouldn’t be a piece of cake.

Loki has never been very brave in the face of pain. And yet Odin had given him the most vulnerable body of the galaxy—apparently—and thrown a fucking torture spell in the mix. Once again, Clint couldn’t help wondering what Loki had done for his own father to hate him so damn much, while Thor had barely gotten a slap on the wrist for his own actions.

Then again, he remembered, Loki—even though he’d complained a lot—hadn’t broken down during their escape from SHIELD. He’d taken out half a dozen agents and swum almost a mile. He could ignore pain when it mattered—he could make this body work. He’d have to.

“Alright,” Clint said. “You and I are gonna spar.”

Loki didn’t need the notebook to convey his thoughts; his raised eyebrows and doubtful gaze spoke volumes already.

“You need to get back into shape, and you need to get to know your own body.” And I need to know exactly how dangerous you can be, Clint added to himself. “Sparring’s a good way to achieve that. Did it for almost a week non-stop after I woke up from your little stunt.”

Great. Now he’d made himself angry. He forced himself to check Loki’s reaction, and was almost a little disappointed to read absolutely nothing on his muzzled face. The blue eyes were cold, very different from the haunted gaze into which Clint had looked that first time, in the Tesseract vault; and yet, he felt the exact same chill.

A mute Loki was rather uncanny. Clint was certain that, had he been able to speak, he would have said something—a nasty lie or a scathing truth, something grating, something bitter. But Loki couldn’t use his mouth and obviously wasn’t going to scribble his every ironic thought in the notebook. This strange lack of venom was unsettling; in a good or bad way, Clint didn’t know yet.

Clint finished his own bowl of soup, then stood. “We can start tomorrow if you’re too tired.”

Loki glared at him.

“Lesson one,” Clint said, unfazed. “The flesh is weak. And if you don’t listen to your own body, it’s gonna give up on you. You gotta feed yourself, you gotta sleep enough, and you gotta admit it if you’re wounded or tired. Don’t waste your time playing tough—you’ll never impress me.”

Had anyone from SHIELD been there, Clint would have been smacked on the head for his hypocrisy. But SHIELD was gone, wasn’t it? He could play wiseman all he wanted. “So are you up for this?”

Loki nodded dryly, once.

“Fine. Let’s go.”

Loki followed him to the gym, dark and silent.

“You should take off the hoodie,” Clint said as he stepped onto the mat. He turned back to him and was satisfied again to see him obey. “Alright.” He put himself in position, feet apart, guard up. “Show me what you got.”

He instantly had to dodge a jab. No matter how weak, how disoriented, and how vulnerable he was, Loki still had something Odin hadn’t ripped away—and it was his training. Clint had seen it for himself already as they escaped the Triskelion. He recognized some of the moves; he’d seen them in New Mexico, as Thor—in a mortal body—tore his way through a bunch of field agents to reach his precious hammer. Loki’s style of combat was even more dangerously efficient. He fought dirty and didn’t hesitate for one second to lash out at Clint, even though the demeaning mark on his cheek glared ominously as he did.

“Wait,” Clint said, stepping back after the first ten blows.

Loki looked pissed off by this false start; he gave Clint an impatient look.

“That thing hurting you?” Clint asked.

Puzzlement flashed through Loki’s eyes, though quickly replaced by irritation. He shook his head.

Clint raised an eyebrow at him. “Is that thing hurting you? Tell me.”

Loki huffed in frustration, then whipped round to fetch the notebook. By the time he’d written the words, he’d calmed down a little. He handed him the page in a jerky gesture.

It reacts to aggressiveness. But we are not truly fighting; I can handle it.

Clint shrugged, then crumpled the paper into a ball and threw it away. “Alright.”

Loki blinked at him again, obviously a bit surprised. Clint pretended not to notice, and the demi-god quickly wiped that emotion away. His anger, too, was gone—or at the very least, well-concealed. When they started sparring again, he was less wild and more precise in his attacks; and the rune didn’t glow as much.

Clint wasn’t long to throw him down on the mat. “That’s one,” he said. “Get up.”

Loki huffed, but did get up. Clint’s lips curled up. “Not even gonna throw a tantrum?”

Loki rolled his eyes, then huffed again, gaze challenging. Clint berated himself for saying this—he should have known better than poking the barely sleeping bear, but for fuck’s sake, he’d been so desperately bored these past weeks. If he had something in common with Loki, it was his love of bantering. Admittedly, Loki being muzzled impeded the back-and-forth, which was probably for the best.

Clint almost let himself be brought down, then turned the tables at the last minute and threw Loki down again. He was slightly worried; Loki was good, frighteningly good, and the only reason Clint was winning so easily was because of the demi-god’s exhaustion. He was still pale from the shock of the day before.

“That’s two,” Clint said, matter-of-fact. “Get up. One more.”

The third time took a bit longer, but eventually, Loki ended up on his back again, out of breath, even more so since he could only really breathe through his nose. Clint looked at the clock. They’d been fighting for almost half an hour, which was a lot considering the circumstances.

“Let’s call it a day,” he said.

Loki looked up like he was going to protest, but Clint gave him a stern look. The demi-god swallowed, then nodded, angrily but still—he nodded. Without thinking, Clint reached out to help him up.

Loki ignored it and got up by himself. Clint tried not to sigh.

“Don’t put your hoodie back on right now,” he said. “Go take a hot shower first; then dress yourself, and rest. There’s a library next door if you want. Dinner at six.”

He was turning away when something soft and damp hit him from behind—it was Loki’s sweat-soaked shirt, rolled into a ball.

Clint snapped round, not sure how to react. Loki simply handed him a notebook page; apparently, he considered it beneath him to make a muffled noise to draw Clint’s attention. Clint opened his mouth, closed it, then settled into taking the page and reading it.

So when can we leave?

Clint looked up at him. “I'm—not sure yet. Now what the hell was that?” he added, brandishing the shirt.

Surprisingly, Loki’s eyes crinkled. He took the pen and wrote quickly: Payback for the snowball.

He crumpled the paper and tossed it at Clint as well; then he left the room, leaving Clint truly nonplussed for the first time since he’d met him.

 

*

 

Loki showed up at six on the dot, carrying a book with him. Clint peered at the cover, then barked a laugh, surprising himself.

“Othello?”

Loki raised a disdainful eyebrow at him and didn’t even deign to use a page as to ask what, exactly, was funny. Still, the notebook was stacked under the hardcover, the pen tucked in the spiral binding, ready for use.

Clint was struck, for a moment, by the strange setting they’d found themselves in. The kitchen lights were a soft golden glow, and the table made of actual wood. Nothing like the harsh neon lights and the metal furniture Clint was used to in most of SHIELD facilities.

He got out a little bottle of pills and put on the table. “For the pain,” he said. “Take one with a glass of water when it hurts too much. No more than three pills a day.”

Loki stared at the small bottle for a long while; then he nodded, expressing neither gratitude nor irritation. Clint didn’t really expect any different. He gave him a bowl of chicken soup and they ate in silence.

When he was done, Loki pushed his chair back and got up, taking the small bottle with him.

“Wait,” Clint called.

He waited for Loki to turn round, then said, “Come back here. I have to check your injuries.”

For a second, Loki looked like he would refuse. But then he came back, drew a chair and sat next to Clint, staring at him, his face carefully devoid of expression.

Clint cut off the gauze covering his mouth, then very slowly took his chin and made him look up at the light. The puncture wounds were just as awful as the day before, but they didn’t look infected, and the long, stitched gash was fine as well. The thin thread would dissolve after a week, so Clint didn’t have to worry anymore about that. Loki was holding very still; when Clint brushed the tiny red holes with his fingertips, the demi-god screwed his eyes shut, but didn’t make a sound.

“Sorry,” Clint muttered.

He let him go, and Loki exhaled through his lips, shuddering and quite pale. Clint wondered exactly how bad the pain discrepancy was between his old body and his new one. Apparently pretty huge.

“Are you still cold?” he asked.

Loki glanced at him, parted his damaged lips, then just shook his head. It was a little strange—a simple “no” wouldn’t have required him to move his lips. Maybe he was getting used to silence.

His blue eyes were drilling into Clint's. Clint suddenly felt like he was too close and backed away. He gave him bandages, then got up to put the dirty bowls away.

“Looks like it’s healing okay,” he said, absently washing them in the sink. He felt on edge. Why was he feeling on edge?

When he turned round, Loki was already done, the white muzzle of gauze back in place. He was picking at his bandaged forearms.

“Better leave those alone,” Clint said. “You can go to bed.”

Maybe Loki was tired of glaring at him; whatever the reason, he left with swift docility.

 

*

 

Clint was about to go to sleep as well when he heard the noise. He looked up from his laptop, frowning.

It came from Loki’s room. He was pounding on the door.

Clint put the computer away and got up.

It’s a trick. It was always his first reflex when it came to Loki. Maybe he’d found something in the room he could use against Clint. Of course, he couldn’t kill him, but he didn’t have to; incapacitate him would be enough. In the cell downstairs, he’d been delirious with horror and pain—yet he’d aimed directly for Clint’s eyes.

Clint knew he was being paranoid, but still, he hesitated until the pounding became more frantic. He walked to the door and unlocked it.

Loki stumbled out of the room and nearly fell into Clint’s arms; he grabbed the archer’s shoulders to steady himself, eyes wide, jaw clenched tight under the bandage, sweat rolling down his neck. The rune was a bright angry red—and Clint actually burned himself touching it.

“Ow! What the f—”

Loki managed to straighten up, let him go and ran to the kitchen, stumbling every two steps, fighting to stay on his feet. He reached the table where he’d forgotten his notebook, grabbed it, collapsed on the floor between the chairs and began scribbling frantically. Clint had no idea what to do—he hurried closer and crouched down, thinking Loki was explaining what the fuck the problem was; but then he saw that the demi-god wasn’t writing for Clint to read. He was writing the same words over and over, like a machine, and the red of the rune dimmed a little with each line.

Eventually, the pain apparently stopped and Loki fell limp on the floor, breath deep and ragged, eyes glazed over.

Clint reached out for the notebook; Loki let out a groggy, muffled sound and tried to stop him, but he was too dazed with shock. Clint pried the notebook from his hand and read what he had written.

I must not tell lies I must not tell lies please PLEASE PLEASE I MUST NOT TELL LIES I MUST NOT TELL LIES I MUST NOT TELL LIES I MUST NOT TELL LIES I MUST NOT TELL LIES I must not tell lies I must not tell lies I must not tell lies I must not tell lies I must not tell lies I must not tell lies I must not tell lies I must not tell lies

I must not tell lies

I must not tell lies

The writing was so scrambled it was barely readable, Loki’s elegant cursive reduced to a wild mess of frantic letters, some almost bold with how hard he’d pressed down—the last lines a bit less so, as though he’d written them as the pain started to recede already, only to make sure the torture wouldn’t start again.

When Clint looked up, Loki was sitting up, slowly, heavily, pushing up on trembling arms. He leaned against the leg of the kitchen table and stayed there with some sort of resignation, too drained and too humiliated to do anything else now that Clint had seen the proof of his shame.

“What the fuck is this?” Clint asked in a low voice.

Loki shook his head.

“No—you’ve got to explain this shit to me,” Clint said firmly. “Is it another spell?”

Loki closed his eyes, then took the notebook back and, with great effort, wrote a few lines with a trembling hand. Clint scooted closer to read it.

I must say it every morning and every night or the Fehu burns me. Writing it works as well. He paused, then simply added, There was nothing to write with in your room.

Clint didn’t say anything for several minutes after that.

He kept re-reading those few lines. Loki, for the first time, looked like all the fight had left him. His gaze was defeated and empty as he stared at the floor, still slightly shivering from shock and pain.

There was a long silence.

“Why does he hate you so much?” Clint asked eventually. “What the hell did you do?”

Loki slowly looked up. They both knew who Clint was talking about. The demi-god sighed, retrieved the notebook and wrote a few more words. Then he ripped off the page, and even that looked like a tremendous feat of will, with how slowly, how dejectedly he did it. Clint took it and read, but he was disappointed.

No concern of yours.

The worst part was, Clint didn’t think Loki was even trying to sound haughty or dry with this. He only looked like he genuinely thought Clint wouldn’t have any use for that information.

Clint just stared at him for quite some time. When Loki noticed him doing it, he deigned to elaborate, writing a bit more swiftly this time.

I believed in his lies.

As soon as Clint read it, Loki flinched and hissed, curling up around his left arm. Tears of pain welled up in his eyes, but he managed not to cry, choking on soundless whimpers. Clint didn’t want to know what word had appeared under the bandage. He let out a frustrated sound of rage which made Loki look up.

“Seriously—is he actively trying to make me sympathize with you?”

Loki let out an unexpected huff of laughter between his bursts of muted pain. He picked up the pen he’d let fall on the ground and wrote, He does tend to lack logic when it comes to me—then tensed again as he was punished for his insolence.

“Alright—stop that,” Clint said, taking the pen and notebook from him and setting them aside. “No use making it worse.”

Loki huffed another laugh behind his muzzle of gauze. It sounded derisive, dejected, and not overly sane to Clint’s ears.

“Come on,” he said, feeling lost. “You’re gonna take a few painkillers, and a lot of rest.”

He got up and offered Loki a hand.

Loki looked at it, wearily.

Then he got up by himself—although he had to lean heavily against the table and it took him almost an entire minute, he got up; he grabbed the notebook before he went, and left Clint to stand alone in the kitchen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Clint would have given anything to talk about it all with someone—anyone. But the more he watched the news, the more obvious it became that SHIELD wasn’t resurfacing anytime soon. Ever since the Hub had announced the Fridge was down, there had been no more reports. The organization Peggy Carter had struggled to build after Steve's death was now deemed a terrorist cell, and all agents were either in trial or on the run. Clint was pretty sure he could have found Natasha himself, but for that, he needed to get out of here, and—same old. So he was left on his own to muse on this increasing frustration he couldn’t really explain to himself.

I must not tell lies.

Clint hadn’t thrown away Loki’s pages from the night before. He’d only slept for a few hours, and then re-read them till morning. He was fascinated and horrified by the way his writing gradually fell apart with pain, like the letters themselves were howling. He thought of how a branding iron slowly applied on his cheek would feel, and shuddered. He thought of a knife carving insults into his arms and felt nauseous.

And yet, this—basically, lines—was somehow even worse. This was plain humiliation.

Loki had been made to repeat these words like some twisted prayer, morning and evening, and now he was made to write them like a punished schoolboy. Every day, he was reminded of his status as a slave. Every day, he fought against the pain of the rune and then gave in to Odin. Every day, twice a day, a defeat.

Clint didn’t know much about crime and penalties—the way he had handled things until then proved it—but he was pretty sure Odin was making things worse with all this.

And pretty sure Odin meant to. Or rather, absolutely sure now that Loki was not supposed to redeem himself. That no one believed he could. He was just being slowly tortured and humiliated until he had the grace to die.

Loki might not be “very brave in the face of pain” (and fuck this shit, no one handled true torture with a smile and a cocky one-liner, certainly not all the way till the end, no one) but he was still pretty fucking brave, simply because he hadn’t killed himself yet—even though he had absolutely nothing left. He was stuck in a body designed to suffer and decay five hundred times more quickly than his own; he had been offered as a slave to the one man who supposedly hated him the most; he had no hope whatsoever his situation could ever improve; and finally, what was probably the worst of it all, everyone thought he deserved this punishment.

And forgiveness was obviously not an option.

Apparently, the one thing Odin hadn’t planned was for Clint Barton, the former thrall, to have more empathy for Loki than his father or brother did. Clint didn’t know what to do. Loki did deserve to be punished, of course he did. But not like this. 

I must not tell lies.

And what terrible lie could he have told, Clint wondered once again, for his own father to loathe him so much?

The weird, weird thing was that according to about everyone, Thor had stood up for Loki till the very end of the battle. The other night, he’d said in the cell that he was pissed about Loki trying to kill him twice. Clint could understand that. But that meant Thor had forgiven Loki for the other thing he’d done before. And yet Odin still tormented him for it every day. How did that make any fucking sense?

Fathers, Clint thought gloomily as he migrated towards the kitchen to make coffee, were not supposed to act like this toward their sons. Clint tried not to think of Harold Barton and failed completely.

Dad, please…

A heavy slap which threw him down on the floor.

Corner, you little shit. Not a goddamn word.

His knees sore from staying down on the bare cement for so long. Barney’s whisper later that night. Why didn’t you just keep your mouth shut?

Clint rubbed his temples and took a deep breath. He would not think about Barney. Even though the way Loki had jerked and struggled under Thor had been exactly like when Clint himself…

No—no—no. He had to draw the line right here. He wasn’t Loki and Loki wasn’t him and they had nothing in common.

Clint suddenly caught movement in the corner of his eye and startled up.

Loki was there, standing in the doorway.

Only then did Clint realize he had forgotten to lock the demi-god’s door again the night before. Forgotten. Jesus Christ, he was too dumb to live. He’d have to watch the security footage later in the afternoon, just to be sure.

Loki tilted his head to the side, then glanced in the direction of the gym.

Clint took the time to catch his breath, then said, “You sure?”

A spark of anger gleamed then died off in Loki’s eyes. He nodded, once. Clint exhaled deeply.

“Alright. Let’s go.”

 

*

 

They lasted a lot longer this time—an hour and a half, maybe. Clint did his best to give Loki a full workout while still assessing his fighting abilities and progress. By the end of it, they were both drenched in sweat. They hadn’t eaten yet, and Loki wrinkled his nose at the embarrassing noises his stomach was making. Clint wondered more and more what an immortal body was to a mortal one. Probably what a Quinjet was to a scooter.

He realized he was staring at Loki’s wiry, glistening back, and glanced away to look for a towel.

They went to the kitchen together and ate in silence again. Until Loki wrote something in his notebook which surprised Clint.

Who taught you to fight?

Clint gave him a look. “Didn’t I tell you that?”

Loki frowned at him, then raised his eyebrows when he understood Clint was referring to Manhattan. Clint didn’t entirely remember everything that had happened during his enthrallment. He hadn’t paid attention to the little things he’d told Loki; talking to him, back then, had felt so normal. Nothing classified. Nothing secret, or shameful. Everything so simple.

Loki huffed, as if Clint was being unnecessarily difficult, then wrote, You did not. He gave Clint a pointed look, apparently expecting his answer.

“Well then, you missed your chance,” Clint only said, getting up to go get some solid food in the fridge. He was getting tired of soup.

When he turned back, Loki was still staring at him. His expression was difficult to read because of the muzzle, but he looked a little amused, a little mocking. A little condescending. Clint didn’t think there was anything funny about it.

“Piece of advice,” he said brutally. “Bringing up Manhattan in front of me? Not your wisest move.”

Loki looked even more unimpressed. Clint did his best to calm the anger which had so suddenly flared inside of him. He tried not to think of all the imaginary fights he’d had in his head during that time he still struggled to sort out red cards and black cards. All those arguments, those useless confrontations. He knew there was no point. He wouldn’t indulge himself.

But then Loki wrote something else.

You know it was nothing personal.

Clint stared at him, incredulous. Loki stared back, and Clint couldn’t believe he had the gall to look innocent, the gall to have a smile in his eyes and an easiness in his posture, as if to suggest Clint grow up and acknowledge it wasn’t such a big deal.

“God,” Clint groaned. “I’m not surprised you got your mouth sewn shut.”

Loki blinked, then couldn’t help flinching when Clint suddenly stood up, pushing his chair back. “You just don’t know when to stop, do you?”

He turned away and left the room—he had to or he’d punch the bastard in the face. He strode away to reach the control room, let himself fall in the chair and brought up Loki’s bedroom feed to rewatch the last night in fast forward. After he’d gone back to bed, Loki hadn’t tried to get up again, but he’d tossed and turned a lot. Nightmares. And in the morning, the pain of the rune had woken him up, and he’d groggily groped for the notebook to write a line across a new page. Clint knew what it said, now.

He sighed and rubbed his face with both hands, his anger deflating again. A knock on the door made him look up.

“What?” he barked.

The door opened and Loki stepped inside, but Clint got up from the swivel chair and grabbed his arm. “You’re not allowed to come in here.” He pulled him out and closed the door behind him. 

He expected Loki to look offended again, but the demi-god simply raised a conciliatory hand, then gave him the notebook.

Clint squinted, then took it and read on—with increasing dismay.

Loki had apparently given this a bit of thought; he’d written a whole little speech there, and he probably had a few new cuts on his arms as a result of the first two lines.

 

You are right: what Odin is putting me through has little to do with my deeds in this Realm. He is using them as a pretext, and you as his tool.

But this does not change the fact that you have power over me. And, like you so justly said, we are stuck together. I cannot afford to let you harbour any rancour towards me.

Punish me.

Take your time to choose a suitable penance. I do not care which, or how cruel or humiliating. We cannot function without a clean slate; so clean mine, in whatever way you shall deem fit, until you consider justice to be done—once and for all.

 

Clint was so stunned when he finished reading that he couldn’t find anything to say; he looked up at Loki, who seemed as calm as though he’d just handed Clint a pancake recipe. Clint’s eyes were drawn to the page again, and he hated the way his stomach twisted with something ugly and feverish when he read the words Punish me.

 This was one of the dangers of his job, indeed; the loathsome thrill of power. And Clint had been encouraged to hate Loki, to wish for revenge. He suddenly realized his shrinks must have been all Hydra. Sitwell had told him to kill Loki from day one.

“Fuck,” Clint mumbled. He rubbed his eyes. “Fuck. I’m going to throw up.”

Loki raised an eyebrow. Obviously, he didn’t think Clint would react like this.

“God,” Clint breathed. “Jesus, you don’t even get it.” He swallowed and tried to control his shaking voice. “I don’t hate you because of what you did. I hate you because you think that you were entitled to do it. Because you actually believe it wasn’t personal.”

Loki blinked.

Clint heard himself laugh. “You think your slate can be cleaned,” he said, voice rising. “What the hell did you hope for? What did you think I would do? Beat you up and then call it even?” He went on in a sudden epiphany, “Is this how you and Thor function? You fuck up, he hurts you, and you think that makes things right?”

He hadn’t realized he was yelling by the end. He stepped closer until he was mere inches from Loki’s face. “That’s not how I work, you sick, sad bastard,” he said, trembling with anger. “I may be not worth much, but if this is how you do things, then I’m sure as hell worth more than the two of you put together!”

They were right in front of Loki’s bedroom; Clint grabbed his arm and shoved him inside. Just before he closed the door, he said, breathless, “You want a clean slate? Try feeling sorry for what you did. Not that you can.”

Loki’s expression was unreadable.

“But if you offer something like this ever again—” Clint swallowed. “This you’ll feel sorry for. Trust me.”

He slammed the door shut and locked it.

He took a deep breath, another one, then walked away. He stumbled into his own bedroom, locked himself inside and stayed in the dark, feverishly running his fingers through his hair, trying to think of something else, anything else.

He remembered Loki’s burning eyes and slow grin—you have heart—and the feeling of being thoroughly used, of being a vessel for someone else’s thoughts, of absolute, mindless submission. How hollow he'd felt waking up, like a goddamn plastic bag. He suddenly saw Loki with that same gleam in his eyes, that same grin—punish me, make me suffer, I don’t care how cruel—and he thought of Loki, naked and white and vulnerable, being hosed down in a bare cell, trying to protect himself from the merciless jet, helpless, begging, all that damn arrogance cracking and splintering...

Clint suddenly shed his clothes, walked inside the shower, turned on the water and stood there. He leaned against the wall with his head bowed and his hands flat against the tiles, taking deep, straining breaths.

He stayed there for a long time, shivering uncontrollably. Eventually, finally, the cold stream made his painful erection go away, and he sagged forward, hands clenching into fists against the wall.

He tried to clean himself, to do something normal to pretend everything was normal; but no matter how hard he scrubbed, he still felt tainted, ashamed, as if Loki had done this on purpose—as if he knew Clint’s dirty secret and was silently laughing in the darkness of his room.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

When Clint woke up the next day, it was past noon.

He felt like shit. Complete, utter shit. No matter how he looked at the situation, it was all wrong, all fucked up, and he wanted to go back to sleep until his problems had gone away. Knowing that he had to get up, to free Loki from his room, to make him something to eat and then spar with him and then put him to bed and then rinse, repeat—that didn’t help. He hadn’t asked for any of this. He just wanted to go back to sleep.

He got up, showered, shaved, dressed himself and got out of his room. Sometimes, there is nothing you can do.

He wasn’t surprised to find Loki up and awake when he unlocked the door—but the brief, wide-eyed look was kind of unexpected. Loki visibly swallowed, his hands clasped on the notebook. Obviously, he hadn’t thought Clint would come back so soon—maybe hadn’t thought he would come back at all.

“Get out,” Clint muttered, and turned away without waiting.

He had taken all but five steps in the hallway when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He grabbed the wrist, twisted it and almost broke it before he realized Loki hadn’t been trying to attack him.

The demi-god was staring at him, tense in his hold, but without trying to break free—without making a sound.

Clint screwed his eyes shut for a split second, then let him go. Fuck. He couldn’t do this. He really, really couldn’t.

When he looked up, Loki seemed as weary as Clint felt, which surprised him.

Clint huffed a mirthless, dejected breath. This was so fucked up. It was just the two of them painfully trying to coexist despite Loki’s anger and pride and madness, and Clint’s resentment and confusion and guilt. At any rate, Clint felt safe in knowing Loki probably wouldn’t bring up Manhattan again—and he sure as hell wouldn’t try to get Clint to give in and act like… well, like him. Like Thor.

Yeah, apparently, Clint really wasn’t the only one with a dysfunctional family.

“Look, all I want is to leave this place,” Clint forced himself to say. “Let’s focus on that.”

Loki nodded, once. And that was that.

 

*

 

From that moment on, life became a lot easier.

Loki complied with Clint’s directions without rolling his eyes or sneering at him. On the fifth day after Thor’s visit, he made Clint step aside from the stove and took his place. Clint shrugged and let him. Loki spent almost fifteen minutes digging through the cupboards, staring dubiously at the various canned foods he pulled out, frowning at the instructions and lists of ingredients on the side. Clint pretended to ignore him, but he kept watching him in the corner of his eye—partly to make sure Loki wouldn’t suddenly snap and try to beat him to death with the pan, partly out of sheer curiosity. Loki’s wounds must still be sensitive, since he ended up picking yet another kind of soup which he absently heated for a bit too long.

In the middle of their silent supper, Clint heard himself say, “This is really too weird.”

Loki looked up.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve lived and worked with targets before,” Clint went on. “But with you?” He scoffed. “That’s a whole new level of crazy.”

Loki’s eyes crinkled with what was probably a thin, ironic smile. He was using his notebook less and less, but he deigned to take the pen to answer this one. The fact that I am a better cook must not help.

Clint snorted. “I can’t believe you took the time to write that.”

He immediately felt guilty for indulging in that small piece of harmless conversation. He knew he shouldn’t have played along, but still—as long as Loki behaved normally, Clint couldn’t help treating him normally. Perhaps he’d seen Loki get tortured one time too many, or perhaps he’d stayed alone for just a bit too long. Clint couldn't stand his own stupidity. After all, the demi-god had killed Coulson—Coulson and countless others, and he didn’t regret it one bit.

But the mere fact that he’d thought his slate could be cleaned meant he genuinely believed he had been in his own right. He’d been raised among warriors, as a warrior. And Clint couldn’t help thinking of Natasha, of the people she’d killed and how she hadn’t regretted at first, either—but then he remembered Loki had made him talk about Natasha, spill all her secrets; and he got angry at him all over again. It was a vicious circle.

Loki looked less and less like a walking skeleton, which was slightly surprising since it had been less than a week since Clint had gotten him out of the cell. But he had a powerful, trained body, and three weeks in the cell hadn’t been enough to eat at his core strength; as a result, he was recovering very quickly now that he was being fed enough and sparred with Clint every day.

The sparring was another problematic thing. At first, it had been like training a junior agent—Loki was simply too weak for his skills to be of any use. But now that his strength was returning at an alarming rate, he gave Clint a hard time on the mat, and the sparring sessions truly profited them both.

The first time Loki pinned him down, Clint wasn’t ready.

Loki swiped his legs from under him, put a knee on his chest—and Clint saw red and punched him in the mouth, hard enough for Loki to cry out beneath the bandages. He instantly backed off and almost fell on his side, one hand raised to his mouth without touching it, fingers curling around nothing.

Clint scrambled to his feet, panting. Loki stayed on the ground.

Clint scowled in frustration, then rubbed the back of his head, turning away. After a short while, Loki got on his feet as well, reeling a little, and looked at him. He didn’t really seem angry.

“Did I reopen anything?” Clint forced himself to ask.

Loki experimentally quirked his lips under the bandage, then shook his head.

Clint exhaled. “Won’t happen again.”

Loki’s huffed laugh sounded a bit too dry, but he nodded and shook his long black hair. The next time he brought Clint down on the mat, Clint got Loki off him in five seconds flat, but he never came near his mouth.

Loki still exerted himself faster than Clint since he couldn’t really breathe through his mouth. When his dark locks began sticking to his neck with perspiration, he took off his shirt—Clint still hadn’t gotten used to see him clad in the black SHIELD uniforms, but seeing him bare-chested was even weirder. The bruises on his ribs had faded to a sickly yellow. Clint realized he was staring at a drop of sweat catching on Loki’s collarbones, and looked away.

Now, this—this was his biggest problem.

Clint came from a world where beauty was sometimes all there was left—where glittering appearances were the only ray of light in an otherwise ugly reality. He had seen beauty in Natasha’s lips, in the Iron Man suit, in the red flow of Thor’s cape. He’d seen it etched in the curve of his bow and painted all over the blue, cloudless sky out the great windows of the Helicarrier. He hadn’t anticipated Loki to be a problem in that way. But the more they fought, the more painfully obvious it was—Loki was possessed by a grace Odin hadn’t managed to torture out of him. In moments like this, after the long training sessions which left him sweaty and breathless, Clint could barely stand to look at him. And it scared him.

A beautiful monster is a too dangerous thing.

But that wasn’t even the worst part. What Clint liked most—what he tried to ignore the most—was the evidence of Loki’s suffering. The faint bruises, the tremors of fatigue, the sweat of exertion, the muzzled mouth. It stirred up something hot and ugly in the pit of Clint’s stomach, and he found himself staring at them at the oddest moment. He wanted to see more. That really didn’t make sense—he’d felt nothing but horror at the sight of Odin’s abuse, of Thor’s awful actions, he was certain of it—and yet, yet, in some perverse way, something there attracted him. Loki’s offer a few days ago—punish me—had opened a dark door at the back of his mind.

As long as Clint kept those thoughts locked in, they couldn’t do any harm, and he could acknowledge them without feeling like throwing up—but he had to acknowledge them, because he simply couldn't pretend they weren’t there. They seized him every time Loki groaned in pain or lost his breath. Ignoring them would have been dangerous. Clint was trained to control himself, and for that, he had to face himself. He had to smooth it down, file it down, come to peace with it. Paper targets.

That didn’t change the disgust with which he regarded himself. There was not much difference between him and Sitwell, after all. Clint, though, had not given in to that dark, loathsome part of him, and he now found himself clinging desperately to that line he hadn’t crossed. Because somehow, even without his powers, even without his silvertongue, Loki was making Clint look into the abyss. His mere existence was enough.

Clint understood a bit better, now, why Thor had been able to defend Loki even as he wreaked havoc over Manhattan, and why he’d been able to torture him even as he begged and cowered. There was no sorting out the good parts and the bad parts of Loki; they were one and the same. He was the god of chaos, after all. His presence was enough to thwart logic, like a black hole curving wavelengths around it. Clint shouldn’t have had to fight to remember Loki was a psychopath. He shouldn’t have appreciated the training sessions, the late-night meals, and the brief, playful messages Loki wrote on his notebook.

But somehow, as long as Loki’s madness didn’t show, it was the easiest thing to forget in the world.

And Clint had no one to blame but himself for not hating him as much as he should have.

 

*

 

The alarm woke Clint up in the middle of the night. He cursed, got out of bed—he still slept in his clothes—and hurried to the control room.

There were people outside. A small group approaching at an unsteady pace.

Clint cursed again and went to Loki’s room. If there was a fight, if they had to run, the demi-god would be of no use locked inside. Clint unlocked the door, strode in and turned on the light—and realized, to his dismay, that Loki was still asleep. He was curled up in his bed, actually curled up on his side and almost entirely buried under the covers, dark hair loose on the pillows.

“Hey,” Clint murmured. “Loki.”

Saying his name was weird. He stepped forward and reached for his shoulder. “Loki—”

The second he brushed his skin, Loki’s eyes snapped open and he grabbed Clint’s throat, fingers digging around the trachea. Clint reacted just as instinctively—he batted his hand away and slapped him hard.

“Hey!” he said as Loki began to frantically grope around for a weapon, eyes wide and unseeing over the white muzzle. He grabbed his wrists and pinned him down. “Hey! Snap out of it!”

Loki struggled in his grip, then froze and started breathing heavily, eyes wide open, still weakly trying to break free.

“Are you calming down? Hey—” Clint tightened his grip. “Can you hear me?”

Still breathing in gasps through his nose, Loki nodded, once. Clint couldn’t know for sure if he’d really tried to attack him or this was all because of a very insistent nightmare. Maybe a bit of both.

He released him, then stepped back and suddenly noticed the alarm had stopped. That couldn’t be good.

“Get up,” he murmured.

The sheet was sticking to Loki's sweaty skin; he pushed it away and straigthened up with slightly haphazard gestures. Clint looked away from the flat planes of Loki’s chest and stomach.

“Dress yourself. We’ve got visitors. Might have to get out of here sooner than planned.”

It only took Loki a minute to slip into his black shirt, combat pants and jacket. By the time he’d laced his boots, all the lights in the corridors flared green.

“Front door’s opening,” Clint murmured. “Whoever it is—they got clearance.”

Loki tapped Clint’s shoulder. Clint glanced at him, frowning at the expectant way he raised his eyebrows. “What?”

Loki opened his empty hands, then tilted his head to the side. Clint rolled his eyes. “For fuck’s sake. I am not giving you a weapon. But this time, you won’t be handcuffed,” he added. “Count it as a win.”

A loud clanking sound was heard from the end of the hallway—the front door was opening.

“Alright,” Clint said. “Stay behind me and don’t make a sound.”

They slowly walked up the corridor and stopped at the intersection. The entrance was just around the corner. Clint heard hesitant steps—four, five persons.

“What is this place?” A young woman. Clint had never heard her voice before. He got out his gun and cocked it silently.

“I don’t know, Skye,” was the murmured answer.

Clint froze, suddenly out of breath.

He exchanged a glance with Loki. No—that—no.

“Freeze!” he called.

The murmuring voices came to a brutal stop. Fuck, this was impossible. This was…

“Identify yourself,” he growled.

“I’m Philip Coulson.”

Loki let out a huff of breath. Clint closed his eyes.

“I’m an agent of SHIELD,” Coulson went on. “I’m…”

Clint turned around the corner, aiming at him just in case, but—yes.

 “Oh, I know who you are,” he breathed.

Clint slowly lowered his gun. Coulson looked equally astounded to see him.

There was a split second of silence. Then a young woman at Phil’s left—the one who’d spoken first—whispered, “Who’s that guy…?”

“That’s Agent Clint Barton,” said another man in the group, with a thick Scottish accent. He was staring at Clint with wide eyes. “He’s the best sharpshooter in the world.”

Clint spared him a glance. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

“I know all about you,” the young man said with barely disguised excitement. “I wrote my ballistics thesis on you. He’s—”

“Later, Fitz,” said a woman in a low, sharp voice.

This one Clint knew. Agent Melinda May—one of the few field agents who could give Natasha a run for her money. She’d been sent on the field with Clint once.

(Once.)

“May,” he said. He couldn’t help smirking. “Thought you were off the field.”

“Thought you were dead,” she said.

Clint stared at Coulson. “Funny you should say that.”

“You were on the casualties list from the Triskelion,” Coulson said in a low voice. “We’ve spent the past few weeks trying to sort out this mess. I didn’t have the chance to get a closer look.”

Suddenly, May was aiming at Clint again. “There’s someone with him.”

Clint closed his eyes for a second. Fuck, fuck, fuck. She’d seen Loki’s shadow on the floor.

When he reopened them, they were all aiming at him—that is, May, Coulson, and the third field agent. The other three apparently didn’t have any weapons.

“Barton,” Coulson said in a strained voice. And suddenly he looked desperate. “Barton...”

Clint almost took a step forward. “Sir, it’s not what you think.”

Coulson didn’t lower his weapon. Clint wished he was anywhere else, anyone else, but really, there was no getting out of that one.

“It’s not what you think,” he repeated. “It’s not a trap. I’m not Hydra. It’s…” He sighed. “Fucking complicated.”

“Whoever’s with him,” May called sharply. “Come out with your weapons down.”

Clint glanced at Loki. There was no need for a notebook this time—Clint could read his thoughts without even trying as he raised his eyebrows. What else is there to do?

There was a tense, tense silence. Clint gritted his teeth, then turned to Coulson again. “There’s only one person here with me,” he said. “And you’re not gonna like who it is. But I promise he’s harmless.” Sort of. “And he’s unarmed. Don’t shoot him.” He swallowed. “Or me.”

Coulson frowned, but then gave a short nod.

Clint took another second, then turned to Loki. “You can come out,” he said. “Eyes down and hands behind your head.”

Loki held his gaze for another second, then complied—and stepped out into the light.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Clint saw the fear, shock and surprise ripple on Coulson’s face like he’d taken a physical blow. His eyes widened and, for a second, Clint thought he was actually going to shoot Loki—his own spike of panic at the thought surprised him.

Had Loki been able to speak, he probably would have; he always did manage to defuse or inflame a situation at will. This time, he did so without his silvertongue—by sinking down to his knees by Clint’s side, his hands still tightly laced behind his head.

Clint gave him a surprised glance, but Loki very carefully didn’t look up.

Coulson did, eyes wild and disbelieving. Loki’s move had derailed his building shock. “What…”

“He has to obey me,” Clint said in a low voice, trying to hide how shocked he was, himself. “It's alright. He's bound by magic.”

Loki strangely relaxed a little next to him. Probably because Clint had just made it so they would all think Loki hadn’t knelt on his own volition. Or maybe he was just reading too much into this.

“Phil,” Clint said firmly. He only very rarely called Coulson by his first name, and the senior agent startled and looked up—he’d been staring in horror at Loki again. “Coulson, it’s alright. He’s depowered. He’s not dangerous.”

“But how—” Coulson uttered.

“I told you,” Clint said slowly. “It’s his punishment. Odin basically chained him to me. And let me tell you, I really didn’t ask for this.”

“Odin?” the girl—Skye?—asked quickly, looking from Loki to Coulson. “Wait, who the hell is he?”

“That’s the man who killed me,” Coulson said in a bland, wan voice.

There was a heavy silence.

Loki took a deep breath.

“Get up,” Clint murmured. “Slowly.”

He put his gun back inside his holster while Loki carefully got to his feet. He’d been keeping his eyes down, but suddenly, he looked at Coulson, and Clint could see the effort the senior agent made to endure that look.

Loki seemed fascinated—his gaze met Coulson’s for a brief second before sliding down to his heart. His eyes were shining with interest, but ice cold, as though Coulson was nothing but a particularly rare specimen of insect. All at once, it was as though the past few weeks had never existed, as though there was no rune on Loki’s cheek and he still held them all in his palm.

That frightened Clint more than anything else.

He grabbed Loki’s arm, breaking the spell. “Stop that.”

Loki glanced at him, slightly mocking. Stop what? his raised eyebrow seemed to say.

“Why is he muzzled?” May asked dryly.

“He’s not muzzled. He’s wounded.”

The second he said that, Clint realized it wasn’t true. It had been a week; Loki could have done without the gauze. The fact that Clint had been too much of a coward to take it off wasn’t very surprising, but for Loki to have kept it?

Hell, there was no time to think about it right now.

“That’s the last person I expected to find here,” Coulson admitted in a slightly shaky voice.

Clint snorted. “I could say the same about you. Especially since I don’t think you just faked your death.”

“It’s a little bit more complicated than that,” Fitz admitted with a tilt of the head, and his team glared at him. “What? You heard the man. We’re safe here. And we trust him—right?”

Coulson gave Loki an eloquent glance, but he still put his gun away, and the other field agent did the same.

May did not.

“Hawkeye,” Skye suddenly blurted.

Clint looked at her. She glanced around, blushing a little, then said, “Clint Barton. I remember now. You were in New York, you’re—you’re Hawkeye.”

Clint quirked a brief smile, then looked at Coulson. “These guys your team?”

“Yes,” Coulson said in a calmer voice, even though he still looked shaken. “Agent Fitz, Agent Simmons, Agent May, Agent Triplett.” He paused. “Agent Skye.”

Skye looked down, then up, and Clint could sense a story here. After all, Coulson was infamous for bringing in people with a dubious past.

“Come on in,” Clint said. “Where are you coming from? Were you at the Fridge?”

“The Fridge?” Coulson frowned.

“It was taken by Hydra.”

Skye suddenly paled and took out her phone, turning away. Clint frowned at her. “Hey, who is she calling?”

“We had a man there,” Coulson said. He was still eyeing Loki, who looked like keeping his gaze on the wall was becoming something of a physical effort.

“Ward?” Skye breathed, causing the others to glance at her. “Oh, thank God.”

Clint took advantage of the distraction. “Let’s have a word in private.”

May’s gun clicked instantly. “You’re not leaving alone with Coulson and him.”  

“Then come with us,” Clint said, a bit irritated.

That took her off guard, but after a second of hesitation, she nodded. “Stay here,” she told Triplett, who nodded and stepped closer to the other three.

As she tagged along, she never took her eyes off Loki. She seemed to mistrust him even more than Coulson did, which was surprising, given that she hadn’t been on the field during the battle of New York.

Then again, if she’d been with Coulson ever since then, she probably knew whether he had suffered in the wake of Loki’s actions. And judging by her protective demeanor, the answer was yes.

“Since when have you been here?” Coulson asked.

“Since Cap attacked the Triskelion,” Clint said, striding up the corridor. He stopped in front of Loki’s room and pushed the door open. “Stay in there,” he muttered.

Loki obediently walked inside—he wouldn’t risk the humiliation of being branded in front of one of his former victims. Clint locked the door without a word, and the other two didn’t make any comments either. Even though Loki was now out of sight, they didn’t relax much.

Clint led them inside the living-room and closed the door.

“Where have you been?” he asked.

“Trying to find what and who was left,” Coulson said. “And we ended up here.”

His tone was back to its usual bland flippancy, but Clint was pretty sure Loki’s presence had deeply shaken him. Coulson looked like he really hadn’t needed that cherry on top of his personal clusterfuck cake.

“What is this place?” he asked.

“One of Fury’s secret bases, but you knocked on the wrong door,” Clint answered, more sourly than he’d intended. “I haven’t heard anything from him since he left me here.”

May looked at him. “Fury’s alive?”

Clint gave a mirthless snigger. "Faked his death, unsurprisingly enough. But I wouldn’t tell your team about it if I were you.”

Coulson frowned and said in a defiant voice, “I’m not going to lie to them.”

Clint stared back, unimpressed and not trying to hide it. “Whatever you say, Coulson. So far, the only person who didn’t betray me in some way during the past month is Loki. You’ll excuse me for having trust issues.”

There was a silence. Clint exhaled, realizing how bitter he’d sounded. God, he wasn’t used anymore to people he wasn’t supposed to hate.

“I'm sorry,” he forced himself to say. “I guess we all had a rough couple of weeks. For the record, I’m glad you’re alive.”

He glanced towards the closed door, as if Loki was standing behind it at this very moment. “If nothing else, it’ll make it a bit easier to bear with him.”

“Why is he here?” Coulson asked.

“Odin gave him to me,” Clint said. “Literally. As my slave. Payback for what he did to me, according to Thor.” But I strongly suspect it’s a load of crap, he didn’t add. He didn’t really want Coulson to know that Hawkeye was being manipulated by immortal aliens again. Somehow, Odin was even worse than Loki about it; at least, the trickster had had the decency to be clear about what little he thought of his mortal playthings.

“Your slave,” Coulson repeated blandly.

“Is that why he’s wearing SHIELD gear?” May asked dryly.

“I didn’t have much choice for his clothing here,” Clint said, and suddenly realized he really didn’t want to carry on with the conversation. Too fucking tired.

“I’d rather not go into the details. Let’s go back to your team.” He turned away, and although he didn’t miss the way they glanced at each other, they followed him without a word.

 

*

 

“I just told Ward our coordinates,” Skye said as the rest of the team joined them in the living-room. “He should be here in a few hours.”

“Injured?” Coulson asked worryingly.

Skye gave a little wince. “He said he’s fine, but it’s Ward. I couldn’t really tell.”

Clint was surprised to realize he was a little annoyed at this careless reveal of the base’s location. He shouldn’t have cared. He’d pretty much decided to give up on what was left of SHIELD. Besides, there was nothing he could do; Fury had never told him about that mission after all. Clint wasn’t sure he wanted to follow Coulson to hell and back, especially since the man didn’t look like he knew, himself, what was going on.

As a matter of fact, when the English girl—Simmons?—asked, “So what’s happening now?” May and Coulson turned to Clint. So did, actually, everyone else in the room.

Clint shrugged. “Don’t look at me. I don’t have any orders for you, or for myself.” He sighed—he liked Coulson, he really did, and it was what made him say, “Look—I’d help if I could.”

He remembered how Fury, Natasha and Steve had gone on without him, and even weeks later, the memory burned him inside. “But I don’t think SHIELD can survive what’s happening.”

“SHIELD will survive as long as people are willing to keep being that shield,” Coulson said.

Clint smiled, a bit sadly. “Very inspiring, sir. But I’m not a shield. I’m a weapon.”

“Of course you're not,” Coulson said.

Clint didn’t look at May; he knew she knew. He knew her story. The Cavalry. “You never treated me as one,” he admitted. “And I’m grateful for that.”

“We could…” Fitz began timidly. “We could really use someone like you. Someone as good as you, I mean.”

“With Loki in tow?” Clint asked a bit viciously.

Fitz looked utterly lost for a second. Fuck, he was so young. Clint couldn’t remember ever being as innocent as he looked.

“Look,” Triplett said. “Either way, we’re not gonna save the world tonight.”

“You’re right. He’s right,” Coulson said. “We’re safe here—makes for a nice change. Get some rest, get some food. Barton, can you show us around?”

Clint cracked a thin smile. “That I can do.”

 

*

 

It was weird, explaining to them the way the fake windows worked, telling them where the kitchen was, the gym, the control room, the supplies room, and all the rest, as if Clint had built this base when really he was as much a freeloader as Coulson’s team. There were enough rooms for everyone, and more importantly—enough food. They didn’t look exactly starved or even particularly exhausted, but they seemed glad to be in a safe place.

By the time they were all done settling in, it was already late in the evening, and they all sat at the kitchen table. Clint sat down with them, ate and drank in silence, then got up, rummaged the cupboards, and turned away with a bag of food.

“Where are you going?” Coulson asked.

“Gotta bring Loki dinner,” Clint said. “He didn’t eat all day.”

Coulson looked a little shocked, as though only remembering now Loki was there. “We should talk some more about this,” he said in a low voice.

“There’s nothing to say,” Clint said briskly. “He’s just bad news and bad luck.”

Clint left the kitchen without another word. He knew they didn’t trust him. There was not much he could do about it, and he hadn't the strength to try anyway. He went to Loki's room, unlocked the door and carefully closed it again behind him as soon as he’d walked in.

Loki was laying on the bed, staring absently at a page without actually reading it. He looked up at Clint when he came in, and sat up, setting his book aside.

“I’m not making Coulson eat next to you,” Clint announced.

Loki took the notebook on his nightstand and handed it to Clint, who pushed it away—he already knew what it said. “Even if I knew how he survived, I wouldn’t tell you.”

Loki’s eyes crinkled with a smile, and he tapped the notebook. Clint read the other sentence he’d written.

That woman wants to kill me.

“Who doesn’t,” Clint said absently. But Loki had a point—May looked tremendously protective of Coulson. Clint opened the bag and looked inside. “Ah, shit. It’s solid food. I forgot.” He looked up. “Just take off your bandages. You must be healed enough by now.”

Loki didn’t look overly happy with the prospect. Clint wasn’t sure why, but before he could dwell on it, the demi-god reluctantly started to unroll the layers of gauze covering his mouth. Clint winced as his wounds came into sight. The puncture points were red and black, and the long gash was only starting to heal.

Loki licked his cracked lips, then glanced up at him.

He could have spoken now, but he didn’t say anything. And suddenly, Clint was irrationally, terribly scared of what he might say. He got up, thinking he wouldn’t manage to leave the room before Loki said something; he turned away, but although it took him several seconds to leave, Loki kept silent.

 

*

 

Coulson was waiting for him outside.

Clint closed the door behind him and locked it, without breaking eye contact. Like Sitwell, Coulson was always smiling, but his smile was definitely less off-putting. A bit bland, maybe. But all agents of SHIELD had cover smiles.

Clint leaned against the door and just sighed, rubbing a hand over his face.

“I kept an eye on you,” Coulson said. “Before the Triskelion fell apart. I got updates from HQ.” He twisted his mouth a little. “They said you were passing all of your psych evals. Said you were ready to go back in the field.”

Clint snorted. “Those were Hydra evaluations. They’re worth jack shit.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yeah, I do. Sitwell was the one in charge.” Clint stopped. “You know he’s one of them, right?”

Coulson nodded, silently.

“Right. Well, when Loki happened, he tried to push me—to see if I would kill him. See if I could do it.”

“You’re an Avenger,” Coulson said. “Of course you didn’t do it.”

“I’m not an Avenger,” Clint said bluntly. “I got in Manhattan in time to kill a few aliens. Big fucking deal. The guys who helped evacuate the city were more of an Avenger than me. You’re more of an Avenger than me.”

“Thank you,” Coulson said politely. “But we both know it’s not true.”

Clint stared at Coulson and at his unmoving smile. He suddenly wanted to punch it off the agent’s face. Coulson believed in him—he always had. But Clint couldn’t stand it anymore. Couldn’t stand those hopes being placed in him. Couldn’t stand being a disappointment again. He knew he didn’t have it in him—felt hollowed out, paper thin. A paper target.

“What do you want from me, Coulson?” Clint asked.

Coulson opened his mouth, but he was interrupted by two people coming up the hallway. That one girl—Skye?—and a black-haired man Clint didn’t know. Probably the last member of the team. If the alarm hadn’t gone off to signal his presence, that meant she’d been waiting for him at the door.

“…and then we can get that drink,” Skye was saying.

He smiled at her. “Deal.” Then he looked up and froze for a split second when he saw Clint and Coulson.

There was something strange about him—in the way he looked from Coulson to Clint to Coulson. Eventually, he turned back to Skye, raising his eyebrows.

“That’s Hawkeye,” she said hurriedly. “From the Avengers.”

“Clint Barton,” Clint corrected as he reached out, refusing to see Coulson’s slightly smug look.

“Grant Ward.” Ward shook his hand with a firm, calloused grip, and it was enough for Clint to know he was a field agent. He looked a little stunned. “I… wow. Didn’t expect to find you here, sir.”

Clint snorted. “Don’t call me sir. Ranks hardly mean anything anymore.”

“A.C., where’s Simmons?” Skye asked. “We’ve got broken ribs here.”

“Still in the kitchen,” Coulson answered.

As they walked away, he smiled at Clint. “I know you think we’ve lost our purpose,” he said. “But we’ll always be a part of something bigger.”

Clint stared at him. “A.C.?” he said coldly.

Coulson’s smile didn’t waver, but he gave a little nod of defeat, understanding that there was no reaching Clint now.

“We’ll talk in the morning," he said, then he walked away as well.

Clint felt bad, but he’d rather disappoint him now than later, when it really mattered.

He screwed his eyes shut. Suddenly, he could feel his pulse hammer in his head. After a day like this, no wonder he was getting a headache.

He just wanted to sleep for now; perhaps tomorrow things would be clearer.

 

*

 

His room looked strangely further than usual. When he finally got there, he pushed the door open and nearly collapsed on the floor. He sat on his bed, feeling like his skull had shrunk, and swallowed thickly. It took him a good minute to realize this wasn’t normal. Something was seriously wrong. He winced, ears ringing, tried to focus.

The answer came to him like a wave of nausea.

Drugged.

When?

The meal. It had to be the fucking meal. Despite all his grand speeches on trust and traitors, he hadn’t kept his guard up. Someone in Coulson’s team had… or was it Coulson himself?

Not him. But Clint couldn’t be sure. Maybe it was him. If it was him—he was screwed. Meant the whole team was Hydra. If it wasn’t him… Triplett? Or May. No, not May. Maybe the biochem girl—Simmons? Or anyone. Really. Could be anyone. Except Ward—he’d gotten there last. So, not Ward.

Anyone but Ward. That narrowed it down.

Clint took a deep breath, then bent double and shoved his fingers down his throat; he convulsed, bent further down and vomited on the floor. It was probably too late to throw up—most of the drug was already in his system. Still, the second the acrid smell filled his nostrils, he started feeling a bit more alert. He took a deep breath. Oxygen. He needed. And—water. But mostly he needed help. Help. But he had no one. He could trust no one.

Except Loki.

And how fucked up was that—how fucked up…

Darkness rose from behind his eyes and he rolled on his side, feeling heavy, so very heavy.

He faded in and out of consciousness for what felt like an eternity. His system was fighting to push the drug back, and he’d probably thrown up everything that was left in his stomach, but his blood was poisoned already. He didn’t understand what the effects were supposed to be. He felt confused and incoherent, feverish, febrile, but he wasn’t falling asleep, and he was pretty sure he wasn’t dying, either. What was it for?

When the door opened, he was awake, but he could do little more than watch. And he begged inside, not Coulson, please, not Coulson.

A silhouette slipped inside and walked to Clint. A man. Clint didn't move, gathering what little energy he had left. When the intruder grabbed his shoulder, Clint jerked free in a last burst of strength and tried to knee him in the stomach. He hit home, but not hard enough—the second after he took a punch to the face which left him reeling. Then a kick to the stomach, then to the head, splitting his brow. His blood felt warm.

When his attacker grabbed his shirt to get him up, Clint saw a glistening needle in his hand. More drugs? That didn’t make any sense. None of it made any sense. He saw the man’s face, then.

It wasn’t Coulson. It was Ward.

What, Clint thought, but then the needle slid into his neck and the curtain fell.

 

*

 

“What about Agent Barton?”

Clint frowned, then twitched. He was tied down. Gagged. Blindfolded. People were talking next to him, but they sounded weird, stifled, like they were locked up in a box. Or maybe he was.

“He’s gone. He made his decision. There’s no point in waiting around for him.” Ward. Clint bit into his gag. Yeah. Drugged. Ward. And the girl who’d just said his name—Skye.

“We’re in a hurry,” Ward added.

Clint shifted his head, then moved a little. He was enclosed in what felt like a coffin. Metal... A tin trunk. Probably.And yeah, Ward must have been in a hurry, because the way Clint was tied, he could easily break free if he hurt himself just a little bit. That meant the rest of the team wasn’t Hydra.

Clint instantly stopped moving—he didn’t want Ward to know he’d woken up. Although that was maybe too big of a word—he felt fuzzy, aching, and he had trouble focusing. Listening. What the fuck was going on?

“Actually, Fitz thinks the 0-8-4 plasma ray we found in Peru might help,” Ward was saying.

“Didn't we jettison that into the sun?” Skye asked.

“Yeah, but Fitz has the specs on it.”

“On the hard drive,” Skye said. “You need me to decrypt the hard drive.”

“The team does,” Ward answered. “And since it's coupled to specific coordinates, you’re in charge. The Bus is fueled up, ready to go. Where to next?”

Thanks for the exposition, assholes, Clint groaned inwardly. Okay—he was most likely on the plane they’d used to come here. Ward was Hydra, Ward needed something from Skye and Skye—wasn’t Hydra, otherwise Ward wouldn’t have bothered hiding Clint in a fucking trunk. But why had he even taken him down in the first place?

“I’ll tell you on the way,” Skye said. “Let’s go.”

They walked out and Clint shifted on his side, biting the inside on his cheek to keep himself awake. The taste of blood helped a little. He heard the low hum of the reactors underneath him—Ward really was in a hurry. If they…

Clint’s thoughts suddenly froze with ice cold horror.

Oh fuck.

Oh fuck.

If the plane took off

—God. Loki was still locked inside his room. If the plane took off with Clint in it—the leash would snap. The rune would…

Clint screwed his eyes shut and tugged on his right hand until his thumb popped out of its socket—pushed back the pain—slipped his good hand free and groped around him to find something to pick the lock. He fumbled with his wounded hand, took off the gag, then the blindfold. It was all dark, except for a faint slit of light outlining the lid.

His thumb hurt, but it was good, his head was still spinning and fuzzy and heavy; he needed the pain to get out of here. He popped it back in, then pushed and bucked, kept groping around him—don’t panic, don’t panic, panic is useless, push it back—he had to focus, but the hum of the engines had turned into a full-on roar which tore through the enclosed space of the trunk, howled in his ears like the full blast of the sound had been redirected into this metal coffin—and he slammed his shoulders up—

—and the lid of the tin trunk smashed up. It wasn’t locked.

Clint let out a cry of anger and pain, and stumbled out of his prison, nearly collapsing on the floor. He had to get out of this fucking plane. He looked around him. He was in the cargo area, and somehow, the low growl of the engines was even worse now that he was free; it echoed like a crazed banshee above him and shook the bones inside his body. His head was pulsing with pain, and his thoughts still sluggish with the cocktail of drugs in his veins.

The hatch lever was in the corner.

Grinding his teeth, he pushed back the pain and the dizziness and wobbled across the room. He leaned against the wall near a window and pulled himself up; he could see the hangar through the small, thick glass.

He grabbed the lever and pulled. The noise swelled and swelled and swelled, pierced through his brain and ears. He had to pull harder.

He tightened his grip on the lever—

—and the roar of the engines tore his thoughts into shreds as the plane soared into the skies, throwing him down with the force of the take-off.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Clint painfully got up and dumbly stared at the blue skies, until the plane went into a thick layer of clouds which obscured the view.

He took a step back, still reeling, and leaned against the wall. He felt like he’d taken a blow to the head.

Loki’s dead.

They were already several thousands of feet up. The hum of the plane was strangely quiet around him—almost made him forget about the throbbing pain in his thumb and the headache pulsing in his head.

Loki was dead. Burned alive in his room. Clint had felt nothing, nothing to indicate that the magic link between them had snapped and killed one of the two men it bound together. Loki was dead, and Clint was free. Just like that.

Clint’s eyes stung with burning tears. He ran his fingers through his short hair and pulled, but his tears didn’t dry out. His throat was closing. Why was he crying. It was ludicrous. Nobody would have cried for Loki.

And maybe this was the very reason he cried. Maybe Loki wasn’t worth mourning, but—he hadn’t deserved such a meaningless death, either. He’d suffered for nothing, and now, he’d died for nothing. He’d been a dead man walking from the start—Odin must have known Clint could not possibly stay within half a mile of him forever; he must have known this kind of accident was bound to happen eventually. Loki was always going to die in this horrible way; but Odin had made it so he wouldn’t even have an executioner. He’d been killed at random, completely ignored even for his execution. A last humiliation. And this was cruel, and sick, and wrong, and Clint really couldn’t stop crying, no matter how ridiculous and useless the tears he shed for an enemy.

He decided to blame it on the drug which messed up his mind and body—so much that he let himself slide down on the floor, wiping away the tears which kept rolling down despite his best efforts.

He had to pull himself together. He had no idea where this plane was going, but once Ward had what he wanted from Skye, he’d take her out and come back for Clint—who was in no state to fight him. He stifled another sob and scowled, trying to think. Perhaps he should wait for the plane to land, and then try to sneak out? There was not much else he could...

He sniffed and wiped his tears again, angry at himself. Fuck, he hadn’t cried like that in years.

“…get there and back to Fitz should take a bit less than three hours,” Skye said above him.

Clint froze. Shit, they were right here! He flattened himself against the wall, looking for a place to hide; but the cargo area was below the rest of the plane, and they’d stopped before coming near the stairs or handrail, so they couldn't see him. He relaxed by a fraction. Three hours, she'd said? That would leave enough time to…

His ears were buzzing. Goddamn drug. Someone else had drugged him, before Ward came for him, and it couldn’t be a Hydra agent or Ward wouldn’t have bothered dosing him again. Three hours. Yeah—sure. He had to think of a plan. Who would have wanted to drug him if not Hydra? But now Loki was dead. Yeah. God. Fuck! Three hours. What, three hours, what, what, what? Why three hours? Why couldn’t he stop thinking about those damn three hours?

He frowned, tried to think. Someone else had told him something about three hours. He remembered dimly. The thrumming air, the taste of ozone on his tongue.

Thor…

He opened his eyes. Thor. What was it he’d said? The rune will keep him alive… No. Wait. Yes. The rune will keep him alive and conscious for the whole process…

Clint’s eyes widened. The whole process which can last up to three hours.

Clint took a deep breath and this time, he felt the burst of oxygen run through his system and clear his thoughts a little.

Change of plan. He was turning this plane around.

 

*

 

Clint's plan was simple. In fact, it was exactly what it said on the tin. Go to the cockpit, lock himself inside, and turn the fuck around. He could deal with Ward when he was back within a five hundred yard radius from Loki—and when he was not struggling to stay on his feet. His fever was getting worse, as though the two separate drugs in his blood were undergoing some kind of chemical reaction with his body as the battlefield.

Skye and Ward were still badly flirting within earshot; obviously, the plane was in autopilot mode.

Clint tried to think, but there wasn't much he could do. Actually, there was only one thing.

He grabbed the hatch lever and pulled as hard as he should have pulled earlier.

The belly of the plane started opening like a giant mouth and alarms screamed everywhere. The air rushed out of the cargo area and tried to suck him out; he held on to the lever for dear life.

“Fuck!” he heard Ward scream. “What the hell—Skye! This way! The command room!”

As soon as they were gone, Clint closed it again and hurried towards the stairs. He flew up the steps, then rolled behind an incongruous couch—who the fuck had decorated this plane?—and tried to block his breath. He felt like his lungs were catching on fire, but the adrenaline was helping. Still, the drugs were smothering his thoughts in cotton again, sending them all in different directions like fireworks in slow-motion. He took a deep breath and held it, but he couldn’t help panting again the next second. He needed the oxygen. He was burning from the inside out, and he felt the worst was still to come.

“What happened?” Ward yelled in the distance.

“It's closed again!” Skye answered, hurrying back. She was very close, just on the other side of the couch. “We’ve got to land this thing!”

“No.” Ward was close as well, now, and Clint heard him take a deep breath. “No, we don't have time. We have to unlock the hard drive. Remember?”

Subtle, Clint snorted inwardly as Skye protested, “What if it opens again? We won't be able to bring Fitz the codes if we're dead! The plane must be damaged or something, what with what happened in—”

“The plane's okay, Skye.”

“How can you know that?”

“Because it didn't open by itself,” Ward said in a low voice.

Clint blocked his breath again. Shit.

He glanced to his right. He heard Ward's feet shuffle on the carpet, then Skye was pushed into sight, turning her back to Clint.

“Stay behind me,” Ward said. “We're not alone.”

You said it, asshole. Clint jumped on his feet, stepped across the couch and leaped on Skye before Ward could turn round—he fell down on her and wrestled her to the ground. He was still reeling but thankfully, she wasn't field-trained. When he straightened up, he was squeezing her neck in the crook of his elbow; she gasped and clawed at his arm, but Clint held on tight.

Ward was aiming at them. Clint looked into his eyes, using Skye as a shield.

“You need her,” he panted. “That what you said?”

Ward raised his free hand in an appeasing gesture. “Agent Barton,” he said, breathless as well. “You're not yourself.”

“Makes two of us,” Clint murmured. He tightened his grip around Skye's neck, drawing a choking sound out of her. “Turn the fucking plane around or I break her neck.”

Ward hesitated, glancing at Skye. She was very tense against Clint, breathing fast. He felt sorry for her, but the clock was ticking. Three hours wasn’t a long time. They were too far already. Way too far.

“Barton—just think,” Ward said. “You kill her, and then what? I’ll still be the one with a gun.”

“I liked it better when you called me sir.”

“Why would you want to die today?”

“You're not gonna kill me,” Clint scoffed. “You need me. Otherwise you wouldn't have bothered taking me alive.” He took a deep breath, wavered a little, then gave him a fierce grin. “You got the good drugs, I'll give you that. Haven’t been that high in a decade.”

“You’re delirious,” Ward said quickly. “Barton—”

The plane suddenly banked so sharply Ward was thrown into a wall and Clint thrown into Ward. He let Skye go, freeing both his hands, and aimed for the gun Ward was still clutching.

He never missed. His fingers closed around Ward's, and he crushed them and ground them and twisted them until something snapped and he heard him scream. He pried the gun out of his hand, but then the plane straightened its course again and Clint rolled on the other side.

He cocked the gun and aimed at Ward who instantly bolted towards the stairs leading down to the cargo area. Trying to escape or to find more weapons. Clint was feeling dizzy again. He struggled to focus. The plane was still shaking; they were in a heavy turbulence area. Thunder cracked and boomed outside. That would teach them to fly on autopilot.

The plane rolled to the side again, or maybe it was Clint’s thoughts spinning in his head, but he kept his eyes wide open, cocked the gun. Took a deep breath. And—

Everything in slow-motion again.

Time stretching like a rubber band.

Ward leaping to the stairs, frozen in mid-air.

The bullet spun though space in a lazy line, slow, so terribly slow, and hit him at the back of the neck.

Suddenly it all snapped—the bang of the gun echoed the clap of thunder on the outside, and Ward tumbled down the stairs into the cargo area, disappearing from sight.

And then only silence.

Clint closed his eyes and lowered his gun.

 

Skye shifted next to him. Clint had almost forgotten she was there. When he reopened his eyes, she was gaping at him, shaking. Clint felt the drugs inside him battling for the control of his mind and body. He bit the inside of his cheek. Stay sane. Just a bit longer.

Skye was breathing very fast, but she didn’t look like she was outright panicking, even though Clint had just killed her friend. Maybe she was field trained after all.

Or maybe he’d never really been her friend.

“Jesus,” she panted at last. “Holy—we should—holy shit, you actually got him. You actually… fuck.” She stared at him for a second. “Okay, I really have to go read Fitz’s ballistics thesis.”

Maybe she was panicking just a little after all. The plane shook brutally again; they weren’t out of the storm yet.

“Sorry about the whole hostage thing,” Clint mumbled.

She let out a slightly hysterical laugh. “No—thank you for that, actually. Faster than my own plan.”

He squinted at her. “You knew he was Hydra.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Coulson and the others got called on a mission yesterday night, and I stayed behind with Ward and May. But then she vanished. You both vanished. I thought you’d left together or something. But I couldn’t be sure so I—” Her voice faltered. “I hacked the security cams. I saw May leave on foot, alone. And I saw Ward—I saw him take you on the plane. And I understood he was—I—look, I went to check on you, but you were out cold and he was looking for me and—there was no time…”

So that was why the lid had been left open. Clint nodded, then pushed to get up and was grateful when she helped him on his feet, eyeing him with concern. “Are you alright?”

“Drugged up to my eyeballs,” Clint mumbled. “S’okay. Just my usual luck.”

“What did he even want with you?”

“No idea. Skye—it’s Skye, right?”

She nodded again, eyes wide.

“Okay, look—I’m too high for this shit, so if you’re the other one who’s tryin’ to take me down, your best window would be right about… now.”

“No,” she said instantly. “No—I’m not—”

“Great.” Clint sucked some air into his lungs, his hands tightening around her shoulders. “So we can work together. And we gotta go back to Providence. Right now.”

“The team’s not there. They left for Portl—”

“I know what I said. We gotta go back.”

She stared at him. And he’d taken her hostage not three minutes before. She wasn’t going to trust him. She didn’t know him. She wouldn’t—

“Okay,” she said. “Okay. Come on.”

 

*

 

Programming the autopilot to go back wasn’t hard, but Clint was still grateful Skye was here to do it for him. He was coming out in goosebumps. He felt feverish and drowsy. He was seeing things on the edge of his sight, hearing things in the back of his head. He tried to ignore them and tried not to wonder what was happening to him.

“You don’t look so good,” Skye said worryingly.

Clint ejected the empty magazine of his gun. “It’ll wear off.”

“You don’t know that.”

He was hearing whispers. Silky murmurs, lips parting, a tongue darting out. He was seeing blue. Feeling long fingers brushing his nape and jaw. He shook his head, willing it away. Away.

“How long till we get there?”

“Ten minutes,” she said.

Clint looked around for another magazine. He needed a gun. In case Loki was past any kind of rescue.

He felt suddenly nauseous at the idea, and the chemicals infesting his blood didn’t help. Skye probably saw him blanch, because she cast him another worried look.

He swallowed and started opening and closing his fist to set his blood running faster. He needed to work this fucking drug out of his system.

“Almost there,” Skye said.

“I need ammo,” Clint muttered.

“Regular bullets won’t fit,” she said. “This is a night-night gun.”

He stared at her. “A what?”

She blinked back. “Uh—a tranquilizer. Fitz designed it. It works on dendrotox—”

“Wait—wait,” Clint said in alarm, straightening up. “You mean Ward’s not dead?

She gaped at him. “What? Jesus, no!”

“And you’re only saying this now?”

“It’s okay!” she protested. “He’ll sleep for hours.”

Naturally, every alarm in the plane started beeping frantically at this very second.

Skye startled violently, staring at the controls. Two fighter jets blinked on the radar, flanking the Bus; then the screen itself flickered and declared, SYSTEM OVERRIDE. The plane began to slow down.

“Bastard called his friends,” Clint said. He took a deep breath. “Don’t blame yourself—he probably did it before I took him down anyway.”

“How are they overriding the freaking system?” Skye exclaimed.

“This is a SHIELD plane. And Hydra is SHIELD right now.”

Clint got up, reeling. “We gotta jump out before they board us.”

Skye stared into space for a few seconds, eyes wide but unseeing, looking like her thoughts were racing a mile a minute. Then she turned to Clint. “You go. I’ll stay.”

Clint wavered and closed his eyes, feeling like he was falling down already. “Kid, that won’t get us anywhere.”

“No, but it will,” she said quickly. “Ward doesn’t know I know he’s Hydra. I can still play him when his friends come in—but not if you’re still here. Go—I’ll tell him I opened the hatch and kicked you out right after you took him down.”

Clint snorted. “No offense, but nobody would buy that.”

“You’re drugged up to your eyeballs,” she said. “You said so yourself.”

Clint stared at her for a single second which felt like an eternity.

Time was running out.

“Okay,” he said. “Fuck. Okay. Maybe that can work. But why would you want to stay behind?”

“I need to look after my team,” she said casually. “The only way I’ll understand Hydra’s play is from the inside.”

Clint stared at her, a bit stunned.

“And you need to go back to Providence,” she said, looking a little anxious again. “Right?”

Clint nodded, closing his eyes. He might not be a shield, but this girl was. “Alright,” he said. “Alright. Let’s hurry up.”

 

*

 

Clint felt like the cold air was sucking the life out of him when the hatch opened. He clung to the straps of his parachute and peered out. All he could see was black and white flying past in a blur. Ward was lying down at the bottom of the stairs where he’d fallen, but they didn’t even look at him.

“Providence is that way,” Skye yelled over the wind, pointing at the rising sun. “Hold onto this.” She slipped a tiny device into his hand, then panted, “Okay, good luck!”

Clint turned to bid her luck in return; but he didn’t feel like he could shout loud enough, so he just gave her a thumbs-up, then ran forward and jumped into the darkness below.

It swallowed him whole.

For a brief second, it felt like flying, and then he spun head over heels and his stomach backflipped as well and—

 

—the shock of the automatic chute opening startled him awake. He shook his head, panted, looked around him.

He was still in the air. He had passed out. While jumping out of a plane.

The realization scared the shit out of him and his adrenaline levels finally climbed high enough for him to shake off his torpor. He looked up and around again. The plane was nowhere in sight. He briefly hoped Skye would be alright, but then he looked back down and became more preoccupied with the ground coming at him fast—the trees holding up naked, twisted, black branches like so many sharp fingers for him to impale himself on. He tried to steer his chute towards a small clearing, but crashed into a tree before he could reach it, and could only close his eyes against the snapped twigs and splinters flying around him as he fell through. He was brutally stopped before he could reach the ground; his chute had tangled up in the branches.

He stayed there swaying for a stunned minute, then looked down. For once, he was in luck—he was only four meters from the ground. Panting, he quickly snapped the straps open and let himself fall down knee-deep in the snow.

He pulled the device Skye had given him—it was smooth and round and looked like a small phone. When he turned it on, it triangulated on his position and displayed a real-time animated map of the area he was in, complete with Providence coordinates.

Clint exhaled and silently thanked her. Death hadn’t changed Coulson—he was still excellent at picking his teammates.

He turned north and started walking.

 

*

 

Somehow, it was incredibly worse than jumping out of the Quinjet and into the ocean, on that dire day when his rat race had started. The drug was still there, making him feverish, making him feel wrong, like his energy could wane at any given moment—or grow so much it would make him implode. He clung to his fleeting thoughts, forced himself to walk. He wasn’t too far away—only two miles, but the snow was thick, almost as thick as his blood which ran slow and felt like it was clogging his veins.

The process can last up to three hours. Clint clenched his jaw. The process. Like Loki was being processed. Put in the revenge machine. Branded, thrown down in the dust for Odin’s entertainment. Watch your son crawl and suffer and die. What fun!

Up to three hours. Meant it could very well be less than three hours. Meant that Loki was probably already dead and Clint had left Skye behind for nothing. And where the hell was Thor? Usually, he showed up every damn time to make Clint’s life even worse—it had happened five times already if you counted New Mexico and Manhattan. But there was no sign of him this time. Not when Clint could have really, really used a ride.

Don’t die, he thought feverishly. His thoughts were hazy again. He wanted to stop, to fall down, to curl up, to fall asleep and die. Don’t die.

He kept walking and walking and walking, until he was there.

It was as though it had happened all of a sudden. He recognized the fake wall—he even recognized the tree on which Loki had leaned, huddled down with bare feet, a lifetime ago. A thick virgin snow had covered it all up.

“Clint Barton,” he yelled as loud as he could. “Agent of SHIELD!”

The wall opened and Clint walked into the base. The wall closed behind him again.

It was dark.

It was completely silent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clint tottered forward in the darkened corridors, leaning against the walls whenever he could. His forehead was glistening with a sheen of sweat. His thoughts were red and blurry.

He kept walking. The echo of his steps was deafening somehow, or maybe it was the beating of his heart—something was hammering in his ears, a pounding which crushed his mind, little by little. The emergency lights were on; the concrete hallways were bathed in a green, radioactive gloom.

He walked up the stairs like a zombie and into the living quarters. They were dark as well, but the fake windows were still glowing, flickering like broken neon signs.

On one of them was engraved in capital letters, WARD IS HYDRA.

Skye’s last message to her team. Had they seen it? How long had Clint slept in that tin trunk before the plane took off? She’d said something like a day. And how long since the plane had taken off—had it been three hours, already?

Clint stumbled forward. He still needed a gun. In case… in case…

His room was there. Fuck the gun. He didn’t have the strength to go look for it. Either Loki was alive, or he wasn’t.

Clint leaned on the door, which gave under his weight and smoothly slid open. The smell of burned flesh seized him and almost made him retch.

The inside of the bedroom was completely dark. So dark Clint couldn’t see a thing. Or maybe his sight was going. He rubbed his eyes. The drugs…

He stumbled inside, looked for the switch, but as he pushed the door wider open, the dim light from the hallway seeped in and over Loki’s motionless form.

He was behind the bed; Clint could only see his legs from where he was. The room was thrashed—the chairs toppled over and smashed on the floor, the fake window burst out, flickering and fizzing with sparks, the pillows and sheets torn to shreds.

Clint walked on, hypnotized. He didn’t want to see Loki’s face. But he couldn’t stop walking and he couldn’t look away.

After what felt like an eternity, he walked around the bed and saw.

Loki was curled up—but curled up backwards, his spine at a screaming angle like a dinosaur fossil. His jaw was unhinged on a silent howl. He was on his side, so all Clint could see of him was the awful charred mess which had replaced half his face. The rune had burrowed into his head, taken out his eye and part of his nose, eaten up his lips to reveal his teeth and jawbone like he was horribly grinning.

Clint was too late.

He fell on his knees near Loki’s body. He was too late.

He couldn’t look away. He was too late and it was too much for his exhausted, drugged body, now that there was no reason left for him to keep it together.

Loki suddenly startled with a huge gasp, causing Clint to nearly jump out of his skin; the demi-god froze again the next second, then jerked on his back, arching, mouth still open on a mute scream, fighting to breathe like a fish out of water. He was still alive.

In a nauseous blur, Clint realized the outcome he’d feared earlier on the plane had come true. He had to finish him off—he couldn’t leave him like this. He had to put him down, put him out of his misery, like a wounded animal, but he didn’t have a fucking gun, and he couldn’t—he couldn’t—

The wound. The burn.

It was nearly imperceptible at first, to the point that Clint thought it was wishful thinking. But then suddenly, the flesh was healing almost disturbingly fast, knitting itself back together, growing the eye back in a matter of seconds, closing again the too wide, skull-like grin into a normal scowl. The charred bits of his flesh fell off as new skin appeared. The puncture wounds and the scar stayed well in place; the only thing going away here was the damage caused by the rune and the rune alone, just like it had healed the countless other times it had burned Loki in retaliation for his behavior.

Loki started to gasp again, huge frantic gasps he managed to string together this time. Alive. He was alive. He was healing, he was alive.

Clint was fascinated by the way his face mended itself. His cheekbones seemed all the sharper, his eyes all the brighter, his pale skin all the smoother. It was like watching a flower wilt in reverse. His beauty was somehow magnified by the horror it sprouted from.

Loki was drenched in sweat, wracked with pain; wide, haunted eyes looked everywhere then fixed themselves on Clint. He grabbed his arms as if for dear life.

“You—” he panted, tears rolling down his face. “You came back. You came back. You c—”

He pulled Clint closer, nearly hysterical, clutched at him like a drowning man. “I thought—you—”

His pale face shone in the dim gloomy light, his eyes too wide, his features too sharp as the rune shrunk back to its normal size. “You—”

Clint felt something snap inside him like a dam breaking. His thoughts blown away by the force of it. Flooding him.

All red.

 “You came b—”

Clint slammed him back down on the floor and crushed their mouths together.

It tasted like smoke and blood. Loki had to open up with the force of Clint’s kiss; he let out a muffled, puzzled sound, tried to push him back—

—and then Clint bit him.

Bit him so hard he tore a cry out of Loki’s throat, and a pang of red-hot arousal blasted down his spine. Yes. His whole body was throbbing with it. He grabbed Loki’s throat and squeezed, sucking on the bruised lip. His head was spinning. He barely remembered his own name. He wasn’t sure where he was, what they were both doing here, why was everything dark and smelling of charred flesh. He loved the sounds he was tearing from those lips. He pushed his hands under Loki’s shirt, felt a pounding heart hammer against the ribs. He stuck his nails into the skin and raked them down his sides. Loki’s halting gasp made lava pool in the pit of Clint’s stomach. He was painfully hard. It makes you so hard.

He crushed his mouth on Loki’s again, pushed his tongue past his teeth, pushed himself between Loki’s legs, grabbed his shirt again and ripped it to shreds. Everything was a blur of sensation. He needed things sharper, to stay aware. It wasn’t working. He had no idea what was going on. He liked it. Needed it. It had been too much ever since—forever. Needed to let it out. To take it out. It was all a blur. It was so good, his mind blissfully free, fiercely empty, hungry. Ready to take. To take. To control for just a moment. He was terrified, too, because he could feel something very important was seeping away from him. The more he let it go, the more he felt like he was falling apart—falling—he needed more, so he bit something, felt the body beneath him jerk and writhe, pinned it down, forced it still, felt the reality of it under his weight, its refusal to fade into nothingness. He was not thinking. He was out. Out of it. Out of everything. Into the heat beyond, the lust of pain. Loving it. And it was building up, up, the burn now unbearable, delightful blood-hot agony, yes, and he loved the sounds he heard, the pleas, and the moans, and the ragged gasping breath—yes, and he obeyed the voice urging him on; he lost himself—he lost himself—heat and darkness and hard muscle giving under his fingers, the taste of blood on his lips, a fistful of black hair in his hand, the last thing he remembered—awful pleasure tearing him from the inside and everything inside and outside him screaming yes!—someone under him screaming—yes—heat bubbling and flaming and blazing inside—and screaming, shouting, howling

YES!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When he woke up, the first thing Clint saw was his hand close by.

 

He could see the veins and tendons on top, the slight bumps of the knuckles, the grain of his skin. The pores, the tiny, tiny lines linking them, like hachures in pencil. His short nails, jagged and broken.

 

Blood. He had blood under his nails.

 

He blinked and frowned. His hand came out of focus and he saw what was behind it—the shattered remnants of a chair, and behind it still, on the wall, the black frame of a dead window, like a rectangle of obscurity.

What the fuck…?

He zeroed on his hand again, turned it. His palm was bloodied too. Had he gotten into a fight? He couldn’t remember a thing. His head was pounding and felt like someone was slowly crumpling his skull like a paper ball. Hungover? Had he gotten drunk?

This wasn’t the first time he’d woken up on the floor of a destroyed room. He tried really hard to think, because he didn’t feel ready to move just yet. Where was he? This didn’t look like the Triskelion. This didn’t look like anything he knew. What the hell had gotten into his system? Couldn’t be alcohol. Not with how heavy he felt. Some sort of drug. Probably…

A drug. That sounded hazily familiar. He blinked, trying to focus. He felt mostly alert, underneath the crippling weight of his sickly hangover, but something was off. He took a deep breath and smelled something unpleasant, like the memory of charred flesh lingering in the air. And a heavy scent, animal, musky.

He pushed up on his arms. Looked around. Was he…

As he sat up, he reached behind him to lean on the floor and grabbed something instead. A hand. A living hand. He turned around and there was Loki.

Clint just gaped at him for an entire minute.

The demi-god was curled up on himself with his dark hair hiding half of his face. He’d dragged a cover from the bed to cover himself, but his chest and legs were still exposed—enough for Clint to see the tattered remains of his clothes. And the long scratches on his sides and thighs. The bruises and the bitemarks.

It was sex. That musky smell. He smelled of sex.

Clint scrambled to his feet, took a step back, another one, eyes wide. Everything came back to him like he’d hit a wall. Ward, and the plane, and Skye, and jumping out, running in the snow, the green gloomy hallways, the dark room, and—and—

Clint made it to the bathroom just in time to fall on his knees and throw up all he could into the toilet bowl.

He retched and heaved for almost five minutes, mouth filling with bile and bitter saliva. He wiped it off, realized he was also wiping off tears. He hadn’t. Had he. What had he. Deep breath. What had he done. What had he done? What had he done?

He closed his eyes, screwed them shut, genuinely tried to remember. His memories were a morass of static. What did I do? He remembered heat and darkness and little else. He remembered loving it. 

There was blood under his nails…

He vomited again.

When he looked up, panting, he saw the toilet seat and thought that it would probably be the last thing he would ever see—because he couldn’t think of a way to get up ever again; couldn’t think of a single reason to get up in the face of reality, only too clear and acute now that the drug had finally left his system. Only too late.

Far, far too late.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

Someone was walking across the room, shuffling between the debris strewn on the floor, coming closer to the bathroom.

Clint did not care. He was hollow, still panting and gripping the toilet bowl, staring at the wall. There was no reason for him to get up. His mind was blank and frozen and trapped in an endless loop. He was staring at the wall. He was staring at the wall. He was staring at the wall.

“Barton.”

He was staring at the wall.

“Barton.”

He was glancing to the left.

It was Melinda May.

“Get up,” she said in her low, hard voice.

Clint got up and walked to her like a zombie. He distantly wondered at the fact that he could still walk, when he felt like he was all but empty skin. She turned away and walked out, without another word. He kept his eyes on her, staring at the back of her leather jacket, and followed her, without thinking.

She led him out of the room and into the hallway. A few lights were on, but it was still pretty dark. The fake windows all showed night-time landscapes. Clint followed her into the control room and sat on the swivel chair she showed him. She looked down at him, with cold eyes. He looked back, numb.

“Ward is Hydra,” he offered.

His voice sounded wrong, external, like he was listening from the outside of his body.

She nodded. “Yes. I saw the message.”

She was unreadable. Not like Natasha who could express anything at any time, to the point she sometimes confused herself and her masks. May was carved into stone. She was a mask.

“I am here for Coulson,” she said. “First and foremost. And he will not let me help him anymore, so all I could do was go and help him from the outside.” Her lips were tight. They’d fought?

“But I had to find you beforehand. Only you’d vanished. I asked your prisoner where you were, and he didn’t know. So I left, on foot. But after a few miles, I saw the plane leave, and then come back. And I saw you jump out. So I came back, too—I’m making my ride wait because of you.”

She spoke slowly, in artificial, clean, short sentences. It still wasn’t enough to reach him. Clint could not ask what she wanted with him. His mind couldn’t formulate any kind of hypothesis at the moment. It was frozen in a protective reflex. He did not want to start thinking. He was on the verge of complete horror and doing his best to ignore it. To look the other way.

“Where is Skye?” she asked.

Clint’s mouth spoke on its own. “On the plane. With Ward. He wants some code out of her. He doesn’t know she knows.”

“Why were you on the plane?”

“He took me. He drugged me and he took me.”

She sighed.

“Do you remember what happened after you got back here?” she asked.

Clint blinked. He felt a drop of sweat roll down his temple.

“No,” he said.

It was the partial truth. He didn’t remember much. But he’d guessed enough.

“What I thought,” she said.

She pushed a button and the main screen turned on.

When Clint understood what it was, he wanted to look away, but he was petrified, trapped in his own refusal to think. On the screen, he saw himself walk inside Loki’s room and find him agonizing on the floor. He fell to his knees. Loki jerked on his side, then grabbed Clint’s arms, stammering a few words—the voices were inaudible, a sizzling buzz in the background—until Clint slammed him down on the floor and—

The real Clint looked away, eyes still wide open. “Turn it off.”

“No.”

“Turn it off. I can’t see this. Turn it off.”

“No,” she said implacably. “Watch.”

Clint looked at the screen again. He was unable to disobey her. Perhaps because he knew there was no way out. Perhaps because he felt like the least he could do was watch.

Onscreen, his other self was tearing Loki’s shirt and twisting his hair to keep him still. The demi-god’s eyes were wide open; he cried out when Clint bit him, began to writhe and got flipped over and pinned down for his trouble, his face crushed against the floor. He started begging him feverishly. Please, please, please, with each breath out. The Clint onscreen didn’t care. He looked completely jacked up, eyes blown and feverish. He forced Loki to spread his legs—

—and then he stopped.

He stopped.

Reeling, panting, frozen over Loki’s body. Like he was coming down.

May turned up the volume.

Onscreen, Loki waited for a second, panting and very still. Then he jerked under Clint’s weight—but not like he was trying to shake him off. More like he was trying to shake him up.

“Oh don’t you dare,” he said, breathless. “Don’t you dare.”

He pushed up to get on all fours, and the Clint onscreen slammed him down again out of reflex.

“Ah—,” Loki gasped out as the air left his lungs, and then he snarled, “yes. Come on. Come on!”

He twisted his wrists in Clint’s hold, but again, he obviously wasn’t trying to break free. He was testing Clint’s strength. “Yes,” he said again when Clint changed his position to pin him down, and it became a litany, “yes—yes—” He locked his jaw in pain when Clint bit him again, but then he moaned, "Yes," eyes blown and hazy, "yes..."

May stopped the video.

“You can guess the rest,” she said.

Clint still couldn’t think, but this time it was out of sheer astonishment. He started breathing again after what felt like a full minute, still gaping at the screen.

“You were drugged out of your mind twice, but you didn’t rape him,” May said simply. “I thought it would be easier to show you.”

Clint glanced at her, then, and all of a sudden felt a dark anger rise inside of him like poison.

“How do you know I was drugged twice?”

She just stared at him.

“Why?” Clint asked, nostrils flaring in his efforts to contain himself. “Why did you do it?”

“I needed to know if Coulson was right to trust you,” she said, sharp and unapologetic.

“So you gave me a fucking hallucinogen?” Clint yelled.

“I gave you a powerful desinhibitor. Faster and cleaner than getting you drunk. I hadn’t anticipated Ward to act separately and throw something else into the mix.”

Clint got up so suddenly the swivel chair rolled to the other end of the room. He felt sick. “Bullshit,” he barked. “There was no reason for me to do—this—to him. What did you give me really?”

“A desinhibitor.”

“Don’t fucking lie to me!” Clint exploded.

“You get off on hurting people,” she said.

Clint was cut short. As stunned as she’d slapped him.

“Obviously,” she said calmly. “As to the why him, it’s even more obvious. You were turning the tables. Taking a bit of power back.”

“Don’t—” Clint found his voice again only to choke on his own indignation. “How—how dare you fucking psychoanalyze me? Label me like I’m—don’t you think I’ve had enough of that shit already? Of people prying my head open and pretending to know—to dictate—don’t you think I—”

He cut himself off and slammed the wall with both hands, then tried to breathe. 

“I’m sorry,” May said in the same even tone of voice.

She shrugged. “But I didn’t push you into Loki’s room, Barton. You were already finished when I got here.”

“Why are you here, May?” Clint asked, only barely holding back. “Why did you have to find me? Why did you come back? What do you want with me?”

“To give you your mission order.”

Clint blinked at her.

“My what?”

“Mission order,” she repeated. “I was here for Coulson, but I take my orders directly from Fury.” She pinched her lips in a way which meant Coulson hadn't been very happy to find out about that.

 Clint's ears buzzed for a moment, and then he felt like hitting something again. “You always knew he wasn’t dead, you unbelievable—”

“Calm down,” she said. “You know I don’t trust easily.”

“Yes, I was under that impression,” said a cold voice.

They both jumped and whipped round, May instantly pulling out her gun.

Loki was standing in the doorframe.

He was wearing his black SHIELD hoodie and tattered jeans he’d probably found in Clint’s drawer. There were no scratches on his face save from the usual rune and scars, as if nothing had happened. But his black hair was wild and disheveled, and on the visible part of his neck was a nasty purple-red hickey in a shell of teeth marks.

Clint felt nauseous and looked up at Loki’s face again, only to realize that the demi-god was now staring at the frozen screen behind them. He smirked a little when he realized what it was.

“Oh dear.” He looked at May, who was still aiming at him, and gave her the sharp grin Clint knew and hated. “Well—I hope the show was to your liking.”

How could he sound like this? So fucking composed? So fucking amused?

The corner of May’s lips curled up by a fraction. She slightly lowered her gun. Then she took a flash drive out of her pocket and put it on the table. “I’m running late,” she said. “We can settle all this when it's all over, Barton. Good luck.”

Then she turned and simply walked away. The sound of her boots decreased in the hallway, and she was gone.

Clint focused on staying upright, because he felt like his legs were going to give out.

Now that May had left, Loki wasn’t smiling anymore—which was a huge relief. Clint took a deep breath, then walked across the room to turn off the screen—it seemed like the most urgent thing to do at the moment. After the blurry image was gone, he stayed there, with his back to Loki.

Eventually, he asked, forcing the words out of his mouth, “Do you remember it?”

Loki laughed a little and it set Clint’s teeth on edge.

“Positively.”

He took a step closer. “It seems like pain is not the only thing you mortals feel with more acuteness.”

It took Clint a minute to understand what he implied. When he did, he felt sick again. He swallowed and tasted bile in his throat.

“I need a shower,” he muttered. “I need seven showers.”

He turned away and tried to walk out, but Loki grabbed his arm as he walked past. “Barton—”

Clint shoved him back so violently that Loki’s rune hissed with heat against his skin.

The demi-god instantly lost his ironic composure and went terribly pale—so quickly it looked like the blood had been sucked out of his body. He staggered, and Clint grabbed him without thinking.

“Fuck—sorry.”

Loki was shaking uncontrollably.

“It’s nothing,” Clint said hurriedly. “It’s over. Didn’t mean to set it off. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.”

Clint helped him sit down on the swivel chair. There was a long, painful silence. Loki took deep, shaky breaths, hands curling into fists. He had spent almost three hours being slowly burned alive with the absolute certitude nothing could save him. It was actually a miracle the pain alone hadn’t driven him insane. To say nothing of the panic—the despair…

Loki has never been very brave in the face of pain, but he was apparently used to pain anyway. Still, the trauma was taking its toll, and Loki kept on shivering for several minutes, weak with shock and retrospective terror. 

“I hate this body,” he said eventually, in a wan voice.

He took another deep breath.

Then he looked up at Clint—and said in a perfectly steady tone, “But it seems like you like it enough.”

Clint gaped at him.

“Always good to know,” Loki added. He wasn’t shaking anymore. His grin was crooked by the scar on his right cheek.

Clint stayed speechless for almost ten seconds.

 “Christ,” he said eventually, in a toneless voice. “I—go fuck yourself.”

He felt like his head was going to explode, and the temptation to smash Loki’s head on the nearest wall was almost too strong. How could he—how could this little fucker say something like—he needed a break, a time-out, right now, or something dreadful was gonna happen. Again.

He strode out, blood buzzing in his ears. God, he needed seven showers indeed, but a three-hours-long one would also do the trick. He also needed to shoot several hundred arrows, preferably into a vaguely May-shaped thing, until the shaking in his hands subsided and he felt like he could breathe again.

He did none of those things.

When he walked inside his room, the first thing he did was dig out the deck of cards from his bag, frantically, throwing clothes across the room until he found it. He snapped off the rubber band and sorted them out with jerky gestures. Red. Black. Red. Black. Red. Black. Black. Red. Red.

And when the Joker came out, he tore it in half.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Clint woke up and regretted it instantly.

He stared at the ceiling for almost an hour, gathering his thoughts, trying to sort them out like he did with cards. It felt like it had all been a really fucked-up dream, but he knew better.

Loki wasn’t dead.

Clint hadn’t even had the time to be relieved about that.

Was he relieved about that?

Yes, he realized. He remembered how he’d felt during that monstrous second when he’d seen Loki’s broken body and he’d thought he’d have to finish him off. And how glad he’d been when Loki had started healing.

So glad he’d fucked him into the floor…

Clint briskly shook his head, then rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, wincing. He got up, stumbled into the shower, and turned on the hot water. He stayed there for a long time, staring at the tiles.

He mustn’t let Loki get to him. Now more than ever. Because Loki would try to use this—obviously. He had leverage over Clint, now; and God knew he wasn’t above using it. Even though he was probably hiding behind his mask of off-handedness. Clint wasn’t even sure what he’d faked the day before—his panic attack or the crooked, mocking grin which had followed. Perhaps this really was nothing to him. He was a thousand years old, after all.

Clint closed his eyes. Screwed them shut, but the memories seeped in from the inside. He remembered something raw and violent. It had felt so fucking good. To let go. To just take and force and own. And Loki had screamed at him to go on, he had. But this didn’t make anything right. He was delirious then, out of his damn mind with agony and the brushing shadow of his death. You didn’t rape him, May had said, like she could just say that and make it true…

Clint took a deep breath. Compartmentalizing was the key. He mustn’t let Loki get to him. Whether he tried to use lust or guilt or both, whether he had a point or not, Clint had to keep him at arm’s length, or he was dead. Don’t let him get into your head. Don’t let him get into your head. As a matter of fact—he ought to stop thinking about him altogether. Focus on what to do next.

He reopened his eyes under the warm stream.

He couldn’t stay in Providence. First of all, Hydra probably knew about it now, thanks to Ward. Second of all, Clint hated this fucking place.

Thing was, he had no idea where to go.

He got out of the shower and dried himself. The drug had entirely left his system, and it was a great relief. He wondered how Skye was doing, but there was nothing he could do for her that the Cavalry couldn’t do. They were all May’s team, not his. He was still furious at her, but he couldn’t say he was really surprised by what she’d done.

And she’d left him a present.

He wrapped the towel around his hips, then stepped out of the bathroom and grabbed the flash drive he’d left on his nightstand.

When he plugged it in his computer and after he’d gotten past the security, a video started to play. It was Fury, dressed like he was living under a bridge, with very dark sunglasses instead of his usual eyepatch.

“Hello, Hawkeye,” he said, leaning back in his seat. “This is a formal invitation to the Playground, aka SHIELD’s brand new start.”

And then he stayed silent for a minute, which was strange on a recording.

Eventually, he started again. “Clint…”

He leaned forward and took off his glasses. Clint had never seen his bad eye before. He felt it was staring at him more than the good one.

“SHIELD’s fallen apart,” Fury said. “Romanov left for a new life, and Rogers’s getting back what’s left of his old one. I cannot stop you doing the same. You’ve devoted almost half of your life to us, and I want to thank you personally for what you’ve helped to accomplish.” A smirk ghosted over his lips. “Attitude notwithstanding.”

Clint snorted at that.

“I find myself forced to take a backseat,” Fury went on, “but I found a better driver than I ever was. And I’d like you to ride shotgun.”

He paused again, then said, “There is a mission no one is aware of, but me. I’ve been chasing SHIELD’s primary targets for a long time with no results. Now I understand why—my own men kept throwing wrenches in my works. Hydra thinks they got us down; it’s the perfect time to strike back. And this mission here has the potential to tip the scales back in our favor. Or end us all if it fails.”

Fury wasn’t the exaggerating type. He was only stating a fact.

“You’ll find in this flash drive everything we managed to gather during the past decade. Again, I can’t order you to take this mission. I’m asking you as a favor.”

Another pause.

“About Loki,” he said.

He leaned closer towards the camera. “Last time, he was the reason I told you to stay behind. This time, he’s the reason you should move on. Don’t let that motherfucking leash bind you as well. We don’t bow for Hydra, Barton, and we sure as hell don’t kneel for Asgard either.”

Clint took a deep breath through his nose.

“The Playground,” Fury said. “Here’s hoping I’ll see you there.”

His image disappeared from the screen and two files blinked on instead, white writing on a black background, with no pictures.

Clint stared at them for long minutes. He ached to call Fury and tell him that he couldn’t fucking take him for granted—couldn’t pretend that suddenly Loki wasn’t a problem anymore, just because Clint was his only asset left. Clint almost wanted to run away. Follow Natasha’s lead, and start a new life.

But he simply couldn’t do that. Natasha might be taking the opportunity to escape her past; but there was no escaping Clint’s present.

He looked at the files again. Just names on the screen. WANDA MAXIMOFF – PIETRO MAXIMOFF.

 

*

 

Clint packed his bag in less than an hour and went to find Loki.

The demi-god was sitting at the kitchen table, eating something which looked like cereal. Clint realized he’d been breathless at the thought of facing him again; but when he saw Clint, Loki grinned his easy, crooked grin, and the puncture wounds radiated around his mouth in deep furrows. His stitches were gone; the thread had dissolved into the flesh just as planned, leaving only the slash across his right cheek, which was slowly starting to scar.

Clint felt the weird urge to touch the hollow on his upper lip where it had split in half. See how it felt.

He took a deep breath. Compartmentalizing.

“We’re leaving,” he said dryly. “Go put on some shoes and something warm.”

Loki titled his head to the side, smile still stretching his mangled lips. “I liked you better when you were drugged.”

Clint put his bag on the floor, very calmly. Then he walked around the table to face Loki. With slow, firm gestures, he grabbed the front of his hoodie, twisted it until Loki was forced to slightly raise himself up, and held him there. They stared at each other for a while, Loki’s breath silent but fast, his pupils a bit dilated already.

Clint brought him higher up, until their faces were almost touching. And then he said:

“If you think you can use this against me, think again.”

He opened his hands and let Loki drop back on his chair.

“Do what I said and come down to the hangar. Fifteen minutes.”

He picked up his bag and threw it over his shoulder, walking away.

“Tease,” Loki said under his breath, loud enough to be heard.

Clint steeled himself against it.

 

*

 

There were no planes left, but several SUVs were waiting in the hangar. Clint picked the least conspicuous one and briefly checked it, in case Ward had left him any explosive presents. But nothing.

Clint suddenly wondered again what Ward had wanted with him. He hadn’t thought of that till now, but this probably meant Hydra needed him for some reason.

Well, he had a feeling he might find out down the road.

Loki showed up fifteen minutes later indeed, fully clad in black battle gear, as dark as the long hair spilling on his shoulders. He’d packed a small bag.

“What the fuck is that?” Clint said, taking it from his hands.

He opened it and saw it was books—five or six books, with the notebook stuffed in between.

“May I keep them?” Loki asked innocently.

Huffing through his nose, Clint shoved the bag back in Loki’s arms and ignored his nasty grin.

Turning away, he hit the button which opened the doors of the hangar, hidden behind another rocky cliff. As they slid aside, Clint shielded his eyes with his arm. The sun was coming up, lighting up the morning haze which hovered between the trees like a shapeless ghost. Behind him, he heard Loki walk to the SUV and open the passenger door—then stop moving.

Clint turned to him, frowning and opening his mouth to ask what he was doing, but his words got stuck in his throat.

Loki’s rune was heating up again, a fiery crimson on his pale cheek. He was holding onto the door handle to stay upright, knuckles protruding under the skin.

His face stayed perfectly emotionless, though.

“I must not tell lies,” he articulated loud and clear.

The bright red dimmed. He stayed still for a second, still tightly gripping the door handle. Then, without another word, he climbed in, settled down and slammed the door shut.

Clint took a last look at the rising sun, then squared his shoulders and turned away. Time to go.

 

*

 

Driving away from Providence was easily the most cathartic thing Clint had ever done. The first few miles were a bit rough, but they were almost in June now, and despite how far north they were, there were only a few patches of snow left in the bluish shadows of the pine trees. After an hour or so, they reached the road, and things got easier. The fog had mostly cleared out, leaving only bright blue skies with a huge dark gray cloud in the east, like a solid wall or a giant wave coming after them. The trees rushing past on both sides of the car made Clint feel like he was running away from something.

Loki was looking out the window without a word, probably enjoying the view as well, even though he’d never admit it. Clint was very thankful for the silence, but of course, it couldn’t last.

“How strange to have you as my driver again,” Loki remarked.

Clint’s heart skipped a beat when he understood what Loki was talking about.

He tightened his hands around the wheel. Loki was so obviously doing this on purpose—after Clint had specifically told him not to bring up Manhattan—that only an idiot would have fallen for it. Clint wasn’t an idiot.

He still wanted to bash Loki’s head against the dashboard. But he didn’t. He was driving.

“And you’d found us a location in record time, too,” Loki added in a conversational tone. “I was impressed, you know. If not for your swiftness, things would have gone a lot less smoothly.”

Clint took a deep breath, then huffed a mirthless laugh. “Man. Thor must be really hot-blooded if you think saying that kind of stuff’s enough to make me lose it.”

Loki froze. There—Clint could play this little game too.

But then, the demi-god smiled and said in a lewd voice, “Well, I certainly needn’t say anything yesterday.”

Clint’s blood buzzed in his ears and he stared straight at the road, flushing with anger and shame.

“Are you blushing?” Loki said, delighted. His voice dropped a notch. “Poor thing, you should have told me it was your first time. Now I understand why it was over so fast.”

Clint took a deep breath, ears flaming. “You know, it’s really no wonder your family hates you so fucking much.”

“I have no family.”

Clint laughed. “Oh, really? Then I guess it wasn’t your father who branded you, wasn’t your brother who sewed your lips shut, and wasn’t your mother who let it all happen.”

Loki paled so much Clint saw it in the corner of his eye. Yeah, the yo mama jokes were always a good investment regardless of culture or species.

“Oh hey, what’s that?” Clint asked. “Did I hurt your feelings, momma’s boy?”

Loki clenched his fists, then let out a very nasty laugh. “Not at all. I was just so stunned by the irony that I had to take a moment.”

Now Clint didn’t like this at all. “What d’you mean, the irony? Sorry to break it to you, but I don’t have any family left.”

Are you sure about that, kiddo? Barney said in his head, but Clint pushed him away—now wasn’t the time.

“But you told me how much SHIELD mattered to you,” Loki said in a razor-sharp voice. “Told me that you could never fit anywhere else. They were your first and only true home. They gave you the illusion of purpose. They used you, and you called it love—you called it family, you miserable dog. And now, look at you—so desperate for them to use you ag—”

Clint hit the brakes so hard Loki’s seatbelt choked the breath out of him.

There was a minute of silence as the SUV softly hummed in the middle of the road.

“Get the fuck out,” Clint said between his teeth.

Loki caught his breath, then looked at him with wide eyes. Good. Let him fucking panic for a while.

“I said out,” he barked, and the rune heated up on Loki’s cheek.

The demi-god unbuckled himself and slid out of the car without a word. He stayed there, too proud to grab the door for balance, too proud to say anything, but still trembling a little as the rune cooled down against his cheek.

Clint stared at the road ahead. All he had to do was step on the gas pedal and drive away. Problem solved.

He pressed a button on the dashboard instead, and a bullet-proof glass whirred up between the front and back seats.

When it was locked in place, Clint said, “Close the door and climb in the back.”

Loki did as he was told. After he’d settled on the backseat, Clint angled his rear view mirror up, so all he could see was the road unreeling away in the rear window.

Then he let the car move forward again, and drove in complete silence for the rest of the day.

 

*

 

They arrived at Dawson City late at night. Clint was too tired and too hungry to think of the next step right away; all he wanted was to find a cheap motel and some take-out food. They’d stopped for drive-thru at some point during the day, but he was still starving.

After asking for directions, he drove straight to the Bonanza Gold Motel on the outskirts of town. He’d forgotten how small Dawson was. The great mountains on the horizon were a comforting sight, but to the east, the menacing clouds were catching up with the day. At least it hadn’t rained on the road.

He parked his car between two gigantic RVs, then he mentally braced himself, and angled his rear view mirror again. Loki was curled up in the back seat, fast asleep.

Clint just watched him for a while. He was still angry at him, a low simmering rage which felt like he was chewing on something he couldn’t swallow.

Everything had happened too fast. The drugs, the plane, and… everything after. Clint couldn’t tell if Loki was just being a little shit for the sake of it, or venting the trauma and humiliation of the past twenty-four hours. Was he even traumatized? He’d been afraid to die, that was for sure. And he’d suffered a hell of a lot.

Clint remembered those few minutes of footage—Loki urging him on, grinding, panting, yes, yes.

He shuddered violently. Had Loki known what he was doing? Or had he woken up filled with disbelief and shame? He looked flippant enough about it now. He was making it sound like he’d simply used Clint for his pleasure.

But he was a goddamn liar. And he put up such a good façade that Clint genuinely couldn’t tell if all this had gotten to him.

It didn’t really matter, in the end. It was all fucked up now. Clint hadn’t even noticed just how quiet things had become between him and Loki; but now that they were at each other’s throats again, it was painfully obvious in retrospect.

No use thinking about it now. He opened the door, got out, and walked around the car to knock on the window.

Loki startled awake, glanced around, then straightened up as Clint opened the door. He climbed out without a word, shivering in the sharp air despite his jacket. Clint recognized the brief but familiar look of dismay on his face. Why am I always so cold.

They walked inside the motel together, without saying a word to each other. The lady at the desk looked a bit put off by their grim expressions and the horrible scars on Loki’s face. She gave Clint the key and he tried to smile at her, hoping she wouldn’t call the cops on them.

When the door opened on their room, Loki gazed absently inside, then back at Clint. “Separate beds,” he observed. “What a disappointment.”

Clint wanted to punch him. Or shake him. But also he wanted to do nothing, to give up, to sit on the floor and wait for it all to pass.

“You stay here,” he said, meaning the order enough for Loki’s rune to glow faintly in response. “I’m gonna get some food.”

Finding something within half a mile distance wouldn’t be very hard in a small town like this. He locked Loki inside and strode out again, across the lobby and into the night. He breathed the cold chilly air in great lungfuls to clear his head as he walked to his car. He turned on the ignition and drove away; and as he drove, he began thinking, thoughts that assembled themselves at the back of his head as though he had no part in it. He tried to pay no attention to it, but he couldn’t take his mind off it, jangled memories of the past hours trying to fit together somehow, as if there was something to understand beyond the horror and disgust and confusion.

 

*

 

“…extra cheese, extra pepperoni, there you go. Can I get you anythin’ else tonight?”

“No, thanks,” Clint said, taking the warm box and trying to resist the urge to breathe it in. Pizza. He’d really fucking missed that, and man, he already knew he wouldn’t need the plastic forks they’d put in the box. Who the fuck ate pizza with a fork anyway? Maybe it was some kind of weird Alaskan custom.

He got up from his stool and began to head out, but stopped as he pushed the door. The jagged pieces in his head had just clicked together.

He stayed there for almost a minute.

“Actually,” he said.

He turned round.

“Is there any sort of… sex… adult… shop… thing around here?”

The pizza guy didn’t bat an eyelid. “There’s Adult Temptations three blocks down.”

“Thanks,” Clint said. “Have a good night.”

He let the door fall shut.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

The pizza had gotten cold by the time Clint got back to the motel. He unlocked the door, then pushed it open with his hip.

The bedroom looked like any other motel bedroom in the world. The door to the tiny bathroom was at Clint’s left; at his right was a small table and chair; further ahead was the first bed, two ugly nightstands complete with uglier lamps, then the second bed, just under the window. Loki was lying down on it, staring into space.

Clint shrugged off his backpack, then put the pizza box and the paper bag on the table. “Come eat.”

“No thanks,” Loki said without glancing at him.

Clint closed his eyes, then rubbed the bridge of his nose, wishing for strength.

“Am I being difficult?” Loki murmured.

“You know, Thor was right,” Clint said dryly. “You always gotta play the victim, don’t you?”

“Ah, yes, here we are.” Loki closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall. “Thor was right.”

He gave a derisive smile. “He always is, in the end. The golden son of Asgard. It really is just a matter of time.”

Clint said nothing for a while.

“I got you something,” he finally declared.

Loki reopened his eyes, glanced at him.

“You got me something,” he repeated blankly.

“Yeah.”

Clint tossed him the Adult Temptations paper bag. Loki instinctively caught it, then put it on his lap, staring at it. He did not open it.

Clint sat down and opened the pizza box. He had already eaten two slices when the noise of crumpling paper made him freeze. Looking up, he saw that Loki was unrolling the folded edge of the bag to peek inside.

His brow furrowed even more, his eyes suddenly widening.

Clint put the pizza away, then leaned back in his own seat to watch. Loki looked at the inside of the bag for another minute, then up at Clint. He had paled a little and when he spoke, his voice was low with anger.

“What is this?”

“You know what it is.”

Loki reached inside the bag and took it out.

It was sleek black leather, with a stainless steel buckle. The wide strap was designed to cover the lips; on the inside of it was a rubber ridge, “for your gal to bite in,” as the sex shop guy had put it. It wouldn’t stop anyone from swallowing, but it’d immobilize the jaw.

Loki clutched the gag in his fist until his knuckles turned white.

“You would have me wear this,” he said slowly, but his carefully controlled voice faltered on the last word; and when he spoke again, he was shaking with anger. “Have you truly no—”

“Chill,” Clint said, even though his own heart was hammering against his ribs. “No. I’m not gonna make you wear it.”

This visibly defused Loki’s rising indignation. He opened his mouth, paused, then raised a dubious eyebrow at Clint.

“What—is it for you?”

“No, it is for you,” Clint said quietly.

Loki’s nostrils flared. “If this is a game, Barton, you are playing it very poorly.”

“I told you, I got you something,” Clint said. “And this is it. It’s a muzzle. It’s yours. Wear it when you feel like it.”

“Why on Asgard would I want to wear this?” Loki hissed.

“You tell me,” Clint said in an even lower voice. “Why did you keep your bandages on for so long?”

Loki gaped at him, blue eyes wide with shock.

Wow. This might actually be the first time Clint had rendered him genuinely speechless. The demi-god kept silent for entirely too long and must have realized it, because he was badly stammering when he spoke again. “I—I did not—I was wounded. You told me to keep them on.”

“But not over the mouth,” Clint said. “That was only the first time, ‘cause I needed them tight enough to stop the bleeding. You made your bandages yourself after that—remember? And you muzzled yourself each time. You never even tried to speak through them. You never even took the chance to speak whenever they were off. You never complained about it.”

He paused, then added softly, “And you took the notebook with you when we left.”

“So what?” Loki snarled. Suddenly, he was up on his feet and looking like he was about to lunge at Clint. “What?”

“Nothing,” Clint said. “Just stating the facts.”

Loki did nothing for a second. Then he suddenly grabbed a plastic fork—

—and Clint caught his wrist, stopping Loki just before he could stab his eye, grinding the bones in his grip.

They stayed face-to-face for a long tense second. Loki clenched his jaw, briefly screwing his eyes shut, and Clint knew punishing words were writing themselves in his forearms all over again. The rune was glowing, too.

“Drop it,” Clint said, almost in a murmur.

Loki suddenly looked desperate. Like he was about to break into sobs. Clint didn’t look away, but he didn’t use the rune, either, when he repeated, “Drop the goddamn fork.”

Loki’s fingers opened and he dropped the fork.

He jerked out of Clint’s hold, then backed off inside the tiny bathroom and slammed the door shut behind him which such force that the furniture trembled.

Clint took a deep breath, then plonked back down on his chair.

His heart was still trying to beat out of his chest. Jesus. Yeah, he’d noticed long ago that Loki had been muzzling himself on purpose; but he’d only just understood why. It gave the demi-god a convenient excuse to stay silent, and thus take a break from… well, himself. From the things he said and what they provoked. Clint and Loki had only ever gotten along—sort of—during this silent week, and they both knew it.

But the bandages were precisely that: an excuse. Something which allowed Loki to preserve both his silence and his dignity, since he could tell himself that he had to wear them, that it was beyond his control.The muzzle was no such thing.

It had still shocked Loki enough to make him face the truth. To make him admit, if only to himself, that he’d liked keeping quiet. He’d taken it about as well as Clint could have hoped.

Clint wasn’t really sure what he expected now. Was this just a petty way to humiliate him—to win the truth hurts game they’d played all day? Or had he stupidly thought this might make things better somehow?

He didn’t know. But he wasn’t very hungry anymore.

 

*

 

After almost two hours, Clint was beginning to think Loki would spend the night in the bathroom when the door finally clicked open.

Clint was very surprised to see the untouched muzzle in Loki’s hand. He thought he would have ripped it to pieces. Or clogged the toilet with it and let Clint pay the bill. But Loki hadn’t calmed down; if anything, he looked even more frantic. He was still clutching the muzzle so hard his fist was trembling a little. His blue eyes looked almost black as they drilled into Clint’s; he was breathless and disheveled, like he’d paced as much as he could inside the tiny bathroom, turning round every two steps, restless, running his fingers through his hair again and again. Clint straightened up a little, bracing himself.

“If you want me to wear this,” Loki spat eventually, in a hoarse, angry voice, “then you’ll have to put it on me yourself.”

Clint stared at him in complete stillness. Loki stared back, nostrils flaring, eyes flaming.

It was a challenge, one Clint wasn't supposed to accept.

“Okay,” Clint heard himself say.

He swallowed, then got up. Loki took a step back, bracing himself for an attack, but Clint just nodded at his chair. “Sit down here.”

Loki was very, very pale, and looked like he was trying very hard not to think. Clint knew, because he was feeling the same thing. He tried not to burst under the pressure, but he was actually beginning to shake, too. His mind was blank.

Loki slowly crossed the room, and sat down on the chair.

Clint walked around him until he was behind him, then leaned forward to take the muzzle from Loki’s hands. The demi-god clutched at the arm rests, fingers wrapping around them, bracing himself there like it was an ejector seat. He was trying to repress his shivers, but they still came out in bursts from times to times, in an erratic pattern.

Clint hesitated, then slowly brought his head to the side of Loki’s head, far enough so the demi-god could see it in his peripheral vision. Then, telegraphing his move even more, he brought it closer and pushed Loki’s long hair on the other side of his neck to clear the way.

Loki jerked, hair falling back on each side of his face. Then he froze again, still clinging onto the seat, breathing fast but in complete silence.

Clint waited a few seconds—but if he waited for too long, Loki was going to snap out of his trance. He looked shell-shocked, eyes wide, like he couldn’t believe, himself, what he was doing.

Clint brushed his hair on the side again, and Loki startled again, hair trickling back down.

Clint took a deep breath, then grabbed Loki’s hair and forced his head still.

Loki took a sudden breath—but otherwise stayed silent and petrified, barely breathing now. Clint brought his other hand close, muzzle flat in his palm. Loki tried to inch away, but Clint was holding him tight.

He fitted it over Loki’s mouth, felt the rubber ridge bump over the demi-god’s tightly closed lips. He leaned down to speak in his ear, Loki’s hair still wrapped around his fist.

“Bite into it.”

Loki was almost hyperventilating. Clint gave a firm tug at his hair. “Bite into it.”

Loki slowly parted his lips; it was enough for Clint to flatten the padded strap over his mouth, pushing the ridge between his teeth. He released Loki’s hair and grabbed both ends of the gag to bring them together at the back of his head, slipping them underneath the black locks.

He tightened the strap in tugs, ended with a jerky one which pushed another brief, choking breath out of Loki. Then he buckled it, and it was done.

Loki leaned forward, breathing in huge gasps through his nose and shaking like mad. Clint was shaking, too. He distantly realized he was hard, very, very hard, but he could actually barely feel it over the sheer shock he was experiencing.

All the elements were there, ready to fall into place. To reveal something big. Clint dreaded the moment they would; he didn’t want to fall into that abyss and find out what was lurking in the dark, the things neither him nor Loki wanted to see. They could not deny it was there, though; not with how much they were both trembling. Not with what had just happened.

Loki had demanded Clint himself put the muzzle on him. It had been a provocation, an attempt at guilt-tripping. Clint wasn’t supposed to actually do it, wasn't supposed to abuse his power again. But he'd done it. And Loki shouldn't have gone along with it, shouldn't have let go of his dignity again; he should have fought and protested and snarled. But he'd just... sat there and let Clint gag him. He shouldn’t have been the one to ask for it, and Clint shouldn’t have done it, and Loki shouldn’t have let him—

They’d tossed the responsibility at each other until they’d found themselves both in it together. And Christ, that wasn’t the intended goal at all. At all. But now, it was done, and Clint was seized with the sudden, ice-cold feeling that there was no going back.

He didn’t even know what from.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

For what felt like an eternity, they just stayed there, breathless and still. Then Loki almost sprung out of the chair and strode to the other end of the room, putting a bed between him and Clint, hands already reaching behind his head to unbuckle the muzzle. He took it off quite quickly despite his frantic fingers, then spat it out in his hand and tossed it on the bed like it had burned him.

He turned to Clint with something which resembled anger in his eyes; the way he held himself, though, it could just as well have been fear. Clint himself wasn’t sure what he was feeling, apart from sheer, numbing astonishment.

Loki was breathing hard now, fists clenched. After a while, he swallowed then said dryly, “Well. No surprises here, Barton.”

This was so completely out of line with Clint’s current train of thoughts—or lack thereof—that he just stared stupidly at Loki.

“You do get off on this,” Loki accused him, and suddenly a ferocious grin split his face in half. “Don’t you? You have been craving this from day one. I must admit, though, after last night, I did not think you would have the gall to reiterate so—”

“No,” Clint blurted.

Loki scoffed loudly, eyes still gleaming with insanity. “No? Then tell me why you are standing behind that chair.”

“I meant,” Clint said, frustration and tension and confusion building up inside him until he was ready to burst, “no, I am not playing this game again—we’ve done it all day and I’m fucking tired of it.” He walked to the bed and snatched the muzzle, then held it between him and Loki. “So let’s be honest for a second—what is it? You want zero responsibility? You really want me to force it on you?”

Loki bared his teeth. “I’d like to see you try.”

Clint stepped on the bed between them and lunged at him.

Loki grabbed him as he landed on him and let himself fall backwards, digging his foot into Clint’s stomach to throw him head over heels on the other bed which let out a loud crack under his weight. Clint bounced right off it and pounced on Loki again before he could get up. They rolled on the floor together between the two beds, trying to block and hit at the same time; Loki wiggled his right arm free, grabbed the lamp on the nearest nightstand and crashed it on Clint’s head. Thankfully, it was a crappy paper thing, but it still hurt enough for Loki to shove Clint off him and aim for his eye with was left of the lamp. Clint deflected the hit only really because he’d expected it, grabbed Loki’s wrist and twisted it until he let go of his weapon—but Loki’s other hand was free and formed a fist which crashed hard on his jaw. Clint jerked back again, letting go with a curse.

Loki tried to sit up, but Clint shook his dizziness away and threw himself at him again to slam him back down. The demi-god bucked under him and almost managed to push him off; Clint swore and tried to grab his wrists again, but Loki was doing the same thing, and they almost head-butted each other tugging and pulling, and suddenly they were kissing, a deep, messy, open-mouthed kiss, panting in each other’s mouths.

It lasted for a few breathless seconds. Then Loki tugged at Clint’s hair to pull him back and slammed his knee up into his stomach. He’d almost managed to shove Clint off him, but he’d given him an idea, too. All that long sweeping hair—Clint grabbed a fistful of it and jerked Loki’s head back so hard his neck cracked; the demi-god cried out in indignation and surprise and couldn’t keep Clint from grabbing one of his wrists, but Loki’s other hand clamped itself behind Clint’s neck and brought him close—close enough to feel the other’s breath on their lips, and they crushed their mouths together again. Clint groaned into it, still striving to hold him down since Loki was jerking his captive wrist in Clint’s hold—all the while firmly keeping him close with his free hand, tilting his head to deepen the kiss even more, hungry and breathless.

Clint let go of his hair and groped around for the muzzle which he’d let fall somewhere; when he grabbed it, Loki probably felt it or something because he broke the kiss and writhed under Clint’s weight again, trying to push him off—until Clint slapped him hard, making him still in shock.

The next second, Clint plastered the muzzle against his mouth and held it there. Loki bucked and struggled, shaking his head to get rid of it, but Clint didn’t relent—didn’t try to buckle it; just held it pressed against Loki’s face until the demi-god got tired of fighting and just lay there, flaming wide eyes staring at him, chest heaving.

“Lift your head,” Clint panted.

Loki closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then slightly raised his head off the ground. Clint buckled the muzzle as quickly as he could, and let him fall back down.

He sat back on his heels, releasing Loki, and took a deep breath.

Loki wasn’t moving anymore. He was defeated. And it made sense. It was normal, to force this on him, because they were enemies and Loki was Clint’s prisoner and he was supposed to resist. What they’d done just before, with Loki letting Clint do it, with Clint complying with Loki’s wishes, it was a mistake. Nothing more. This was much better—much more appropriate; it spared Loki’s pride and Clint’s guilt, and it allowed them to completely forget that strange thing which had happened just before. It was all back to normal.

Yeah, right.

“This is ridiculous,” Clint breathed. “Fucking ridiculous.”

Still sitting on the floor between the two beds, he leaned against the broken one and pressed the back of his hand against his mouth. His lips were still wet and red. And he was hard, so hard it was a wonder it hadn’t bothered him during the fight.

“Ridiculous,”he repeated, and to his own surprise and shame, his eyes watered. He quickly swallowed that back and glared at Loki.

The demi-god was slowly getting up, looking a bit dazed, but overall much less frantic than a few minutes ago. He wasn’t meeting Clint’s gaze, staring into space as he also sat up with his back to the bed. They were both still breathing heavily.

“What happened to avoiding useless fights?” Clint almost spat.

Loki grabbed his bag at the foot of the bed, tugged at it and got out the notebook. He scribbled something in a much more disheveled writing than usual and ripped the page off to give it to Clint, still without looking at him.

I thought we were not teaming up?

Clint fell back against the bed and stared at the ceiling. “God, I hate you,” he said. He rubbed his eyes, scowling, and almost yelled, “I really fucking hate you.”

Loki huffed a laugh through the muzzle. He began to write something else, but gave up mid-sentence and just rolled the paper into a ball to weakly toss it at Clint.

“Don’t fucking do that,” Clint groaned, but his voice was just as weak, and he closed his eyes again, feeling exhausted.

There was a silence as they both finished catching their breaths.

Clint got up. “I’m going to take a shower. And then I’m going straight to bed. And you—don’t leave this room, don’t attack me or—do anything to me while I sleep. Actually, just don’t leave your goddamn bed until I say you can.” He took a deep breath. “And you’re taking the broken one.”

That brought an indignant glare of protest from Loki. Clint scoffed as he walked around the bed. “You’re the one who tossed me onto it.”

He locked himself up in the bathroom before Loki could reply in any way.

He stayed with his back against the door, and exhaled a long, long sigh. He pinched the bridge of his nose. Tried not to think of anything. Thought of Loki locked in that very same bathroom. Alone for two hours with that damn muzzle.

Had he tried it on? Looked at himself in the mirror, at the strap of black leather buckled over his mouth, trembling with something raw and wanting inside him, something he couldn’t ignore any less than Clint could ignore his own fucked-up desires? Or had he adamantly refused to do it—fighting against himself until he couldn’t stand it anymore, until he burst out of the room and confronted Clint, demanded he participated in this, so certain he could only refuse—but then… then…

Clint shed his clothes in a heap, then walked in the shower and turned on the water to cover all noises. Loki already knew what he’d be doing, but Clint didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of proof.

This time, there was no avoiding it. Clint tried to think of nothing and get it done as fast as possible; it wasn’t a minute before he came hard and pulsing in his hand. As soon as he was done, he scowled and pushed his forehead against the tile wall.

He did start to cry, then. He muffled himself with his own hand, screwing his eyes shut. He cried tears of panic and confusion, tears of anger and shame. He cried for all of one or two minutes, and then he let the water wash the tears away, and pushed it all down, taking deep breaths, because he was trained enough to do so, and there was nothing to do but go on.

 

*

 

When Clint got out, Loki was curled up on the broken bed, facing the wall. He was too still to be asleep, but Clint wasn’t about to call him out on it. Even though he’d kept the muzzle on.

Clint felt lost, hovering over his own bed and trying to sort out his sluggish thoughts. What happened now? He had never thought they’d end up in this situation. In a way, it was a relief indeed to have Loki mute again. But this time, they couldn’t hide behind the convenience of wounds and bandages. Loki wasn’t the only one who’d used that as an excuse last time. The muzzle was a conscious choice. On both their parts, no matter how many fights Loki put up so he’d be at peace with his dignity.

Clint noticed there was a single sheet of paper on the nightstand.

Swallowing, he silently padded around his bed and picked it up. He didn’t know what he’d expected, but he couldn’t help tasting something very bitter in the back of his throat when he understood what it was.

I must not tell lies.

Yeah, Clint thought wearily, crumpling the sheet—and suddenly he was vividly remembering Loki kissing him, opening up, his breath in Clint’s mouth, his nails in Clint’s scalp—I must not tell lies.

          

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

He slept oddly well, considering the circumstances. The sun woke him up early in the morning, and his eyes blinked open. Loki was still in the same position, turning his back to Clint, but Clint could still see the side of his face and the black strap of the muzzle still buckled behind his head.

That couldn’t be comfortable.

Indeed, Loki wasn’t sleeping, too silent and too still to be natural. Clint sighed a little, then turned on his back.

“Hey,” he said. “You can get up.”

Loki stayed motionless for another minute, then slowly sat up, still facing away from Clint. Clint got up and walked to him to unbuckle the muzzle. He was intent on not making it last this time, just take it off—but the moment he came close enough, Loki gripped Clint’s wrist tight, without even turning round. His free hand came up; he raised his finger and made a no motion.

He turned, then, enough to see Clint in the corner of his eye, and released him; but his long fingers brushed the inside of Clint’s wrist as they went, in a minute touch Clint could have just as well imagined.

Clint snatched away and took a step back.

“Fine—fucking keep it on,” he said, heart hammering and hating himself for it. “I’m gonna take a walk. When I come back, you better be ready to go.”

He turned away and hurried out of the room, grabbing his jacket as he went—it was the only thing he allowed himself to take off when he slept; and today, he was very glad he didn’t have to spend a minute more in this suffocating room.

He took a deep, deep breath on the front door, and the chilly air of the morning felt incredibly good as it coursed through his system. Enough of this bullshit. He had other things to worry about. Namely, the Maximoff twins.

He took out his phone and slowly scrolled down the files as he walked down the road. There were five videos, but he kept them for later, busying himself with the main intel for the time being. He imagined he was getting Loki out of his system a little more with each breath, and felt a bit better as he read the files.

Yeah. He could see why Fury wanted those guys out of the picture. Where were they even coming from? They were just human, but it seemed like they could give Thor a run for his money. The speedster was worrying enough, if what they had on him was to be believed. He could kill Clint in the blink of an eye. That wasn’t an insurmountable issue, though; Clint just better not let him blink.

But the sister was something else. Under “abilities” was only written reality warper (magic??) With two interrogation points. That didn’t really help with anything.

But it wasn’t even Clint’s biggest problem. Fury hadn’t lied when he’d said this had been SHIELD’s more problematic mission for almost a decade. The agent who’d taken the videos had been killed a few days after he’d sent them to HQ—a few days after Hydra’s uprising. Having fucking been there, he should’ve been able to locate the base, but five locations were listed: Doomsdale (Latveria, Europe) N’Jadaka (Kingdom of Wakanda, Africa), Terre Adélie (France, Antarctica), Minto Lakes (Alaska, USA) and Madripoor (Madripoor, Asia).

Clint really couldn’t tell which one was worse.

He’d come to Dawson City, Canada, because it was close to the Alaskan border. One of Clint’s biggest safe houses was in Alaska; not to mention he could take a plane to Seattle from there, and from Seattle to wherever he needed to be. If the twins were in Minto, a lot of his problems would be solved; but somehow, he doubted he’d be that lucky.

He stopped and leaned against a wooden pole, looking up at the sky, thinking. He had to crack this, one way or another, and he was almost glad for the challenge. He really needed something other than Loki to obsess about. But on the other hand, the whole thing seemed so unfeasible—Fury and all the might of SHIELD had tried for ten years, goddammit—that he couldn’t muster much enthusiasm. Here he was, given an impossible job with no resources after several months on the sidelines, and he was supposed to do it with Loki in tow…

Fucking stop thinking about Loki.

Clint sighed, then stuffed his hands in his pockets and walked away in quest of coffee. Coffee made everything better.

 

*

 

Loki was in the shower when Clint came back. The unbuckled muzzle was on the table. He carefully did not touch it, sat on his bed with his back to the wall and set his cup of coffee on the nightstand before opening the first of the five videos.

It had to be Pietro Maximoff. All Clint could see was a silver blur inside a glass cube. Sometimes, the blur stopped and turned into a young man—very young; very skinny—who smashed himself against the glass, crumpled down on the floor before suddenly whizzing away again like he’d been stung by a bee. He couldn’t be more than twenty years old. His rhythm was fairly regular—ten seconds of hyper speed, two seconds of rest, ten seconds, two seconds. If he kept that up, all Clint had to do was stay in the shadows and count the seconds until it was time to loose his arrow.

The second video was much shorter. Same cage, different person; Wanda Maximoff seemed surprisingly strong in comparison with her skinny, feather-light little brother. She also looked like a trapped animal—as far as Clint could see; the awful quality would not let him see her eyes or general expression, but he could see how she moved, the broken, jerky movements, the constant snap of her head as she looked around.

Circles of light blinked around her clenched fists, blurring the whole image each time. Clint squinted to see better—and at this precise second, the door of the bathroom opened. Loki walked out in his dark clothes, hair still damp from his shower.

Clint’s eyes flickered at him, then back at the video.

A man—a scientist?—was holding a gun and aiming at Wanda Maximoff. Clint frowned.

She sent a burst of light at it; it did nothing. She scrambled back, raising her arms to protect herself, but when the man pulled the trigger, the gun jammed. She collapsed against the glass wall and stayed there, trembling. The man approached her, leaning down as if to comfort her, and the video ended abruptly.

Clint leaned back and exhaled.

Loki was openly watching him. Clint was perfectly conscious of that. He started the video again.

Was jamming a gun enough to declare someone a reality warper? For all Clint knew, that could have been sheer dumb luck. All he’d learned for sure was that the twins were obviously prisoners.

Meaning he’d rather get them out than take them out.

He hit play again. If only he could know where they were…

 “Hexing,” Loki said.

Clint stared at his screen for one or two throbbing seconds, then paused the video and looked up at Loki.

“What did you say?”

Loki gave him a thin smile, then nodded at something above Clint’s head. Clint turned and realized there was a fucking mirror there—Loki had been watching his screen from the start. Idiot!

“Hexing,” Loki repeated. He tilted his head to the side, grinning. “The old-fashioned gambler kind. I had not seen it in a while.”

“You know what this is?” Clint asked before he could help himself.

“Oh, yes,” Loki said. For a second, he looked faintly nostalgic; then he smiled again, and he made with his hands the same gesture as Wanda Maximoff, folding some fingers and raising the others. “Gambling hexes. It was in fashion when I was young.”

He was lying.

Clint must remember this. For his own safety. Fire burned, water wetted, and Loki lied. Simple as that. And right now, Loki was most definitely lying. Trying to appear valuable, even though all he’d seen was a blurry reflection, and all he’d said was something any seven-year-old into fairy tales could’ve thrown out. Hexes. Seriously, he could’ve tried a little harder.

Clint closed his laptop and got off the bed.

“Whatever. We’re leaving,” he muttered.

He walked around Loki, ignoring his slight grin. He picked up his bag, stuffed the laptop in it, then took the muzzle and put it in his pocket—without any pause, as if this was a normal thing they did now. When he looked at Loki again, his little smile had vanished; he was staring at Clint, his gaze unreadable. Expectant, perhaps.

“Let’s get some food into you,” Clint said. “Then I’ll put it back on.”

The corner of Loki’s lips quivered. But then—maybe out of pure spite—Clint backtracked immediately.

“Actually, you know what?” He took the muzzle out and gave it to Loki. “Here. You can put it back on yourself.”

Loki’s eyes turned very cold. “We talked about this.”

“No, we didn’t,” Clint said. “We really didn’t. But maybe we should. Huh? Go ahead and tell me why you want it so bad.”

Loki looked at him with slight disdain. “It was your idea, Barton.” He threw the muzzle on the bed. “I have no interest in humbling myself.”

Clint snorted. “Oh, for—you love it,” he said. “And why wouldn’t you? It’s a win-win for you. You get to complain to yourself about how I’m abusing my power and what a poor little victim you are. You get to shut up and stay out of trouble without actually giving in. And it all fucking turns you on so much.”

He glanced at Loki, who’d fallen silent.

“Aren’t you tired of this?” Clint said. “Constantly pushing back? It must be exhausting, being so goddamn proud. I know I’ve had enough of fighting you.”

Loki’s fists were clenched. “Do you think you can merely tell me to submit?”

Clint raised an eyebrow. “Are you my slave or not?”

Loki’s cheeks flushed a little with indignation.

Clint felt like a jerk. Fuck, maybe he needed a muzzle as well; all it took was Loki pushing him a little, and he started saying things like this. “Look,” he said, “we can make a deal.”

At the sound of deal, Loki perked up, eyes suddenly alight with mischief, all anger seemingly gone. God of Trickery indeed. Clint knew he was on dangerous ground, but on the other hand, throwing Loki a bone might actually be the solution here.

“You tell me about hexing or whatever you call it,” Clint said. “And I muzzle you for the road.”

“What kind of deal is this?” Loki protested.

“Ah, but—guaranteed guilt-free,” Clint said. “I’ll take you down by the book and all.”

Loki pursed his lips, scars furrowing around them, but the feverish glimmer of excitement in his eyes was unmistakable. Of course, he couldn’t say yes. That would defeat the whole purpose of this. But Clint had seen enough.

He stuffed the muzzle in his pocket.

“Let’s go,” he said. “I’m starving.”

 

*

 

It was only after they’d eaten and hit the road that Clint made his play.

He had made his decision. He needed more resources and a safer place before he could make any sort of plan—and Dawson City was too close to Providence for his taste. They were going to his safe house in Alaska. Hell, depending on where the twins turned out to be, it might even bring them him closer to his final goal, for all he knew.

It was a long road, and he’d love Loki to be silent.

He waited till they were in the middle of nowhere, then stopped the car on the side of the road. The sun was bright and high up in a cloudless sky. Loki was riding shotgun; he’d dozed off for the first few miles, catching up on his sleep after his uncomfortable night; but now he was straightening up and glancing around with sharp, darting eyes.

“Why did we stop?” he asked in a low voice.

Clint took a deep breath, looked at Loki. Loki looked back, and something burgeoned in his eyes, like anticipation, or even badly veiled excitement.

Clint took the muzzle out and Loki slammed back against the door, groping behind him to open it—he fell outside and Clint opened his own door at the same time. He ran around the car and reached Loki just as he was getting back on his feet.

This time, he didn’t hesitate—he punched him hard in the face, on his scarred cheekbone, then shoved him against the car and grabbed his throat. Loki struggled against his hold, so Clint punched him again—his head jerked to the side—and again; when the demi-god doubled over, Clint hit him in the stomach and let him fall to his knees. Hand still heavy on Loki’s neck, he quickly put the muzzle in place and buckled it cruelly tight.

Loki was breathless, still reeling from the blows and hunched on himself. His right hand groped haphazardly in the grass, then went up his own thigh to slip between his legs.

When Clint saw it, he grabbed Loki’s arm and slapped him.

“No,” he growled. “We don’t fucking do that.”

He shoved Loki against the car again, then took a step back, panting.

He was shaking. His own arousal was beginning to hurt; he ignored it. Sex was not part of this deal. He was furious at Loki for even trying, but of course Loki couldn’t be trusted over that. Couldn’t be trusted over anything.

But now, he’d gotten what he wanted, and he was still catching his breath, dazed and muzzled, on his knees in the grass. A familiar wave of disgust seized Clint, and he repressed it too, with more difficulty, though. This was what Loki really wanted out of this—to let a high tide of dark desires wash off trash and guilt on Clint’s shore.

“Get back in,” he ordered dryly.

He quickly walked around the car and climbed in, then let himself fall in his seat. He ran his hand through his hair. This felt… God, this felt even more twisted than the day before. Fuck. This felt like Clint had made a deal with Loki, which he hated, but it also felt like he’d basically just assaulted him—again—maybe—which he hated even more. He’d—fuck, he’d beaten him up, and he’d liked it, he was hard, he’d liked it.

The passenger door clicked open, startling Clint. Loki climbed in, movements still very slow, rubbing his cheekbone. He plonked down in his seat and exhaled a deep breath through his nose.

Clint couldn’t look at him. His heart was still hammering in his chest.

Loki glanced at him, then leaned forward to drag his bag up on his lap, opened it, and rummaged for the notebook. He twisted the cap off the pen, wrote something, put the cap back on, then presented the page to Clint.

OW.

He’d underlined it twice, too.

Clint felt hysterical laughter bubble in his throat and let it burst out—slammed himself against his seat and laughed out loud until his stomach hurt. Eventually, it died out, leaving him wheezing and wiping off tears, and shaking violently—but this he tried to hide, and managed after a minute. He looked at Loki, who was giving him an unimpressed glance.

Clint exhaled the last remnants of his laughter, then turned on the ignition again and drove away.

 

*

 

They stopped around noon to grab a hamburger. Clint parked his car at the far end of the parking lot, then tapped Loki’s shoulder. “Turn your head.”

Loki complied silently. Clint carefully unbuckled the muzzle, then took it off. It had left red marks on each side of Loki’s mouth; he licked the inside of his bottom lip, tongue prodding at the swollen corners.

Clint cupped his face, then made him tilt his head to look at his cheekbone. There was a bruise, but it was hardly swelling. When Clint swiped his thumb over it, Loki closed his eyes like a cat, without a sound. He was very still in Clint’s hold, like he’d been when Clint was checking his injuries, back in Providence.

Clint must have lingered a bit too long, though, because eventually, Loki growled, “Enough.”

Clint let go, feeling vaguely sick for reasons he couldn’t quite comprehend. Loki reopened his eyes and glowered at him when he caught him staring. “What?”

“You got a bruise,” Clint said stupidly.

Loki’s eyes could have frozen a small sea. “I can tell.”

He opened the door and got out, walking away with long strides. Clint quickly followed him, locking the car behind him.

They ate in silence, quickly and eventlessly. When they got back inside the car, less than twenty minutes later, Clint waited for Loki to close the door, then began, “About hexing, when you—”

“No,” Loki said.

Clint stopped. “What?”

“No,” Loki repeated. “I owe you nothing.”

Clint stared at him—really took his time to stare at him. Loki looked ahead, stubbornly. He was pissed. And it didn’t make any sense.

Or maybe it did. Loki had the same problem Clint did. He was demanding to be forced, so he wouldn’t feel like he was giving in. But that still meant he was asking for it—which he hated—and that also meant he was being forced, which he must hate even more. Clint’s violence was too much and it wasn’t enough.

Clint leaned back in his seat, feeling his own anger rise. “You do realize you’re the one complicating this, right?”

Loki scoffed loudly. “Obviously,” he said. “As a matter of fact, it was me who cunningly manipulated you into buying a muzzle.”

“Screw the muzzle,” Clint said tiredly. “Okay—it was a dumb idea. Fine. But this is about you not being able to stop fighting even for a goddamn second.”

Loki was paling quite a lot, and his eyes looked a bit too bright. He was still staring ahead like his life depended on it, and Clint realized with surprise he was struggling not to break into tears.

“What else would you have me do?” he said between his teeth. “What is left of me the day I stop fighting?”

And then his tears rolled down and Clint had to look away. The demi-god was too proud to acknowledge them, let alone wipe them off. Just like that atrocious day when Thor had sewn his lips shut, Loki just let them streak down until he’d mastered his traitorous body and all was left were bright trails down his face. He swallowed wetly, burrowing in his seat like he needed something to push against, jaw clenched so tight it made Clint want to scream.

“I get that you don’t wanna stop pushing back,” Clint mumbled, still looking at him only in the corner of his eye. “And I actually respect that.”

He glanced square at him again. “But you’re fighting the wrong person. I’m as much Odin’s toy as you are.”

He turned his whole body so he would face Loki, who was still studiously looking straight ahead. “Do you remember we actually got along at some point? Or did I dream it?”

Loki let out a mirthless, bitter laugh. “You dreamed it.”

Clint was undeterred. “No, I clearly remember us working together to leave Providence. Till Coulson showed up, sure. But it definitely happened.”

“Well, we are not teaming up, are we?” Loki growled.

“Maybe we can,” Clint swallowed and closed his eyes like a passenger before the plane crashed down, “try.”

When he reopened his eyes, Loki was staring square at him.

“Try,” he repeated flatly.

He leaned forward just a little and snarled, “I would sooner suck Odin’s cock.”

He flinched as the spell on his arms worked its cruel magic again. Clint really didn’t want to know what word was being written down this time. But he grabbed Loki’s forearm and squeezed till the cuts oozed blood through the worn bandage—and Loki whipped his arm free with a hiss of pain and indignation.

Clint calmly showed him the blood on his fingers and said coldly, “You’re already doing it.”

Loki’s glare of pure wrath changed into something wounded and near desperate. Tears welled up in his eyes again; he quickly glanced away, but there was not much more he could do to hide them.

Clint started the car and drove out of the parking lot, without another word. Loki was still staring out the window, pressed against the door on the far end of the seat as though he wanted to phase through the glass and disappear.

 

*

 

Clint stopped later in the afternoon to take a leak. He parked the car on the side of the road and took a few steps away, staring absently at the tall pine trees massed against the horizon like a thick dark wall.

Loki had pretended to sleep for the past sixty miles or so, still pressed into the door like he wanted to stay as far away from Clint as possible. Clint would have let him take the back seat again, but he wasn’t stupid enough to offer him anything—no way Loki would take it kindly.

Clint zipped himself up then looked around again. They were still deep in the forest, but the Alaskan border couldn’t be very far. Clint listened to the birds, and breathed the scent of pine, and briefly wanted to walk away and disappear between the trees.

He came back to the car slowly, hands stuffed in his pockets. He was about to climb in when he noticed Loki had opened his eyes, and was looking at him.

“Wanna go?” Clint said, nodding towards the trees.

“No,” Loki murmured.

Clint climbed back in, but didn’t start the car.

When Loki did speak, it was in such a low voice Clint didn’t hear a thing. He leaned towards him.

“Sorry, what?”

“The muzzle,” Loki said again under his breath. He was staring into space, not exactly meeting Clint’s gaze, but not avoiding it either. “I want the muzzle back on.”

Clint looked at him. The demi-god was backed in a corner—literally, as though he was still trying to merge with the car door. This was the most vulnerable Clint had ever seen him.

“I won’t force it on you,” he warned. “I won’t do that shit again.”

“No,” Loki said, a bit louder. “I know. Barton—” He closed his eyes, then said dryly, “Just put it back on.”

“Why? You didn’t say a word in hours, I don’t need to—”

“I am asking you,” Loki articulated, “to put it back on.”

Clint waited almost for a minute. Then he opened the glove box and took the muzzle out. Loki carefully unstuck himself from the door to shift back in the middle of his seat, and stayed there, facing Clint. He looked so weary.

Clint reached out and pushed his hair to the side, like the first time; then he buckled the muzzle behind his head, his forearms framing Loki’s face for a second.

When he was done, he wanted to lean back but Loki gripped his wrist and squeezed, too tight. Clint waited for a few seconds, then gently pried Loki’s fingers open.

“Hey,” he said. “You don’t wanna do that.”

Bitter lines of laughter etched themselves in the corner of Loki’s eyes, and he did let go. He took a deep breath, then looked up straight at Clint, guarded and taut. Waiting to see if Clint would call him out his moment of—what? Of weakness? Of sincerity? Of plain old exhaustion?

Clint said nothing, did nothing. He knew not all clear shots were meant to be taken. He just faced the road again and started the car.

After a while, Loki burrowed in his seat again. But as they drove, he slowly, ever so slightly relaxed; and a few miles later, he’d closed his eyes and was breathing evenly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was dark when they got to their last motel before the border. Loki was not sleeping, although he’d kept still and quiet; he had reopened his eyes a while ago, and he had a look on his face which had Clint vaguely worried for some undefinable reason.

He understood why when they walked into their room.

Clint didn’t even have the time to turn on the lights. Loki slammed him against the wall and grabbed his throat, bringing his face so close from Clint’s only the muzzle prevented their kiss. Clint instantly swiped Loki’s legs from under him and let him fall hard on the floor next to the first bed—the whole place was almost identical to the one they’d left in the morning. Clint left him there and calmly turned on the lights and closed the door, before turning back to him.

“Arms up.”

Loki was still reeling; Clint shoved him with his booted foot. “I said arms up.”

When Loki finally complied, Clint tugged his shirt above his head, rolled it into a ball and threw it across the room. He heaved Loki on the bed and laid him on his back, then got out the cuffs he kept in his back pocket. He chained the demi-god’s wrists to the iron bedframe and straddled him, then slapped him hard to get his full attention.

“Look at me.”

Loki did, eyes wide and wet, pupils blown up, chest heaving.

“We’re past the bullshit,” Clint said, breathless himself, need hot and throbbing in the pit of his stomach. “I’m going to hurt you.”

He curled his fingers around Loki’s throat, didn’t quite squeeze. “But you’re going to ask me for it.”

Loki glared at him. Clint stared back, unfazed. “Nod,” he said. “Just once. Go on. I won’t do anything otherwise.”

Loki didn’t do anything. Even now—even though he wanted this, even though he’d pushed for it every minute of every day, he couldn’t bring himself to admit it. His pride always kicked back in. Clint huffed in frustration. Loki’s stubbornness really didn’t help—just made him want to hurt him more.

“Fine,” he spat. He squeezed tighter. “The other way around. Shake your head or I won’t stop.”

Loki’s nostrils flared, but he carefully didn’t move, eyes feverish and expectant.

Clint’s own doubts resurfaced again. Was this pride too? Was Loki just too stupidly stubborn to seize his chance and opt out?

God, he didn’t want to think anymore.

He raked the nails of his free hand down Loki’s side, scratched him deep, left five red-purple lines on the white skin—and Loki’s frantic struggle and muffled whine were like a shot of heroine. Clint licked his lips, then let go of Loki’s throat, grabbed a nipple and tweaked it like he wanted to tear it off. Loki keened behind the muzzle and screwed his eyes shut, hips jerking up under Clint’s weight, gripping with both hands the bar he was cuffed to.

Clint knew the basics of torture, like all SHIELD agents, but it wasn’t part of a sniper’s job. It was Natasha’s play. Clint had watched her, though, once or twice; most of the time, strapping the guy to the chair and getting out the knife was enough for him to start talking. For actual pain to be involved was surprisingly rare.

But here, it was the whole point.

Clint tweaked Loki’s other nipple, dug his nails into it until Loki lost control over the sounds he was making, arms bulging as he clutched at the bedframe, head jerking back, arching against the mattress. Clint scratched him again, excruciatingly slow, studying the red lines which flared on the skin, blood rising in trails after his nails. The noises coming from Loki were growing more and more frantic; when Clint twisted his nipples again, Loki yelled behind the muzzle and tried to buck him off. Clint slapped him, heavily. Loki fell back on the mattress and screwed his eyes shut again, panting through his nose.

Clint raked his nails down his sides once more, but more lightly this time, a tingling, acute sensation which had him opening his eyes again. Loki stared hard at him, feverish, but not angry—defiant. More.

Clint dug his nails in again, hard, flesh catching under them, and Loki arched again, huffing ragged breaths through his nose, twitching convulsively. He let out a slight sound when Clint grabbed his throat and squeezed, but it was more surprised than anything. It did turn into a moan of protest, but then he saved his breath as Clint kept squeezing.

Clint let him suffocate for nearly ten seconds, counting them calmly in his head as Loki struggled to keep still; then he let him go all at once. Loki started coughing behind the muzzle, hacking and choking, unable to catch his breath through his nose alone. Clint unbuckled the gag, and Loki spat it out, gasping for air.

When he set the muzzle on the nightstand, Clint noticed there was a bottle of water there. He took it, twisted off the cap and pushed an arm underneath Loki’s head to help him raise himself up.

Loki drank a few gulps; then he coughed again, and water trickled out of his mouth, dribbling down his chin and chest. Clint didn’t insist. He took a swig, then set the bottle back.

The back of Loki’s head was still resting against his hand. It was only natural to entwine his fingers in that long hair and pull as hard as he could. Loki’s lips parted; he winced, but didn’t make a sound.

Clint wanted him to make a sound.

He leaned forward, without thinking, pushed his face against Loki’s neck and bit down. Gradually—pinching at first, then sinking his teeth in, deeper, deeper,sucking the flesh, until Loki was panting and moaning incoherently, pathetic little ahh, hnng sounds, and when Clint bit harder the moans swelled up into a scream—brief and sharp, too loud and too close from Clint’s ear.

Clint let go of the skin slick with spit and blood-red where his teeth had been. He knelt up, wiped his mouth. Loki was still breathing hard; he ground against Clint again, and this time, Clint felt his iron-hard erection rub against him. It made him acutely conscious of his own arousal pushing against the fabric of his jeans. Loki pulled at his cuffs, trying to raise himself up, seeking friction.

Clint slapped him again without a second thought. “No.”

Loki fell back down, suddenly, completely limp, and let out a heaving sigh as he started shaking.

And somehow, it was over.

 

*

 

It was nearly ten minutes before Loki opened his eyes again.

Clint stayed on top of him, waiting for him to come back up. At first, Loki was still violently trembling; but then the shivers subdued, and his breathing became incredibly measured, almost religious—deep, rich breaths which sounded like he was filling and emptying his lungs whole.

When Loki finally blinked up at him, eyes hazy and very dark, Clint leaned forward again and opened the cuffs. Loki watched him, motionless, from under his heavy eyelids.

When Clint got off the bed, Loki slowly sat up, his every move slowed down like he was underwater. He spent maybe five minutes sitting there, staring at the wall; then he slowly, slowly got up, and headed for the bathroom without a word.

Clint sat down on the other bed, closed his eyes, and tried to slow down his own breath. It wasn’t nearly as easy. He was dying for relief but he didn’t want to open his pants. He was too hard, almost unnaturally so. He’d never been so aroused before, never so quickly and so ruthlessly.

When the shower started running, he tried to focus on the sound of water; but all he saw in his head was Loki examining his own body under the shower, rubbing the purple crescents left by Clint’s nails, the long scratches down his sides, the red bite mark on his neck. Clint felt awfully cold, like a great heat inside of him was now seeping away. He was breathing too fast, shaking a little.

He needed a distraction. He grabbed his laptop and crossed his legs, setting it on his thighs, opened it.

Of course, he was only really pretending to work; when Loki got out of the shower, wearing his pants again and wringing his long hair in a towel, Clint stared at his screen and watched the demi-god in the corner of his eye. Loki dropped the towel on a chair, walked across the room and picked up his shirt, which he slipped on. Then, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, he went to Clint’s bed and sat next to him.

“Fine,” he said in a low voice. “Show me that video again.”

Clint’s brain froze for a second; he said nothing and opened the Wanda Maximoff footage. Loki watched it with that look of absolute focus Clint remembered from Manhattan—eyes sharp and unmoving.

“Again,” Loki said when it was done.

Clint played it again. Once more, perhaps unconsciously, Loki mimicked Maximoff’s gesture, folding a few fingers, pointing others. Muscle memory, Clint thought, but it was stupid since this wasn’t even Loki’s original body.

When the video was done again, Loki leaned back and said, “That is indeed hexing. Gambler magic. It’s a subtle, amusing little thing, but not very powerful.”

“Good news at last,” Clint mumbled.

He leaned back as well, warily eyed Loki. Remember he’s lying. He licked his lips.

“What do you mean, gambler magic?”

“It plays on probabilities,” Loki said.

His hand traveled across Clint’s lap to select the right moment in the video, when a gun was leveled at Maximoff’s head. “This is a very modern weapon and it is not likely to malfunction in this way. She’s hexing it so the odds of it jamming will be in her favor.”

So, not a reality warper, Clint thought. Only a reality charmer, in some way. A luck manipulator. Spells of fortune, spells of misfortune.

Loki’s hand was still on the keyboard, and his arm was hovering above Clint’s thigh, nearly touching it.

“You know much about guns?” Clint asked.

“You taught me the basics,” Loki said quietly, still looking at the screen.

Clint waited for his own reaction, but was mildly surprised to realize there was none—no anger, no resentment. Only a vague lassitude. He opened the files, if only to keep his hands busy. A sudden idea hit him when he saw the list of locations.

“Could she be the one hexing that?” he said.

Loki glanced at him. “How so?”

“All those places. I thought SHIELD didn’t know which one it was, but they’re so far apart—it makes no sense. Unless they’re in all of them at the same time.”

Loki was silent for a minute, then slowly said, “…Yes. It could be possible. But then she is more powerful than I thought.” He pointed at the screen and tapped at one of the names. “Yes,” he repeated. “They probably built the same lair five times. She is manipulating the probability of their settlement so they’ll change places as convenient.”

“This is why SHIELD could never find them,” Clint murmured. “They switched places…” He paused. “But, wait, that means she can alter the probability of something which already happened?”

“Not exactly. They just never allow one outcome to overcome the others for good. With a bit of preparation, it is doable.”

“Shit.” Clint ran his fingers through his hair. “Means you’d have to attack all five at the same time.”

“Not necessarily,” Loki said.

Clint glanced at him.

“What?”

Loki was slightly smiling, still staring at the screen. “You can manipulate the probabilities yourself. They have limited options—that is their weakness.” He opened the map. “Where are they right now?”

Clint opened his mouth to say he didn’t know and that was his problem, but then frowned and looked at the map, thinking.

“Not Latveria,” he said eventually. “That’s for sure, since they’re at war right now. Probably not Madripoor, either—SHIELD had a lot of stuff going on there; it’s gonna be boiling hot for a while longer.”

“That leaves Alaska, Wakanda, and Antarctica.”

“Terre Adélie,” Clint mumbled. “Reminds me of something...”

He did a quick search and found what he was looking for almost immediately. “Oh yeah. There it is. There’s a French polar expedition going on right now. They’re foraging and everything.”

“Excellent,” Loki murmured. “Alaska and Wakanda, then.” He opened the map again. “There is too much focus on Hydra in your country at the moment. We can safely assume they are in Wakanda.”

“Yeah. Makes sense.” Clint winced. “Wakanda is a really gated country—and I don’t even have a valid passport anymore. It’s gonna take months to get there.”

“There is no need,” Loki said, still smiling. “This is perfect. You can go to Alaska and prepare the ground. Take all the time you need—and you will need to plan ahead if you are indeed doing this without help. Then, when you are ready, find a way to dislodge them from Wakanda. That will be the easy part; leaking their position on the Internet will probably suffice. They will panic and shift to their last remaining location—right into your hands.”

Clint blinked at Loki.

“That’s… yeah,” he said after a while. “That could actually work.”

Loki suddenly looked like he realized he’d maybe gotten carried away. He gave Clint a slightly guarded look.

 “I’m serious,” Clint said. “You’re a fucking genius.”

Loki scoffed a little. “Well, yes.” He cocked his head to the side. “It does sound strange to hear it from your lips.”

Clint looked at him. He looked at him, and thought of what he’d just said and saw the bruise on Loki’s cheekbone and suddenly, out of nowhere, he felt scared. Extremely scared. He was too close.

In every way.

“Alright,” he mumbled, closing his laptop and getting up.

“Where are you going?”

“Outside. Need a walk.”

“Or perchance a helping hand?” Loki murmured.

Clint stopped in front of the door. He took a deep breath.

“I’m not fucking you,” he told the door. “I’m never fucking you.”

“You mean never again.”

Clint’s shoulders tensed. He stayed still for a long minute, then opened the door.

“We’re crossing the border tomorrow,” he said. “It’s gonna be tough. Get some rest.”

Before he left, he added, “And get the fuck off my bed.”

 

*

 

It was dark when Clint came back. His keys clicked in the lock; he dropped them on the nightstand, then looked up. Even with the lights off, he could see that Loki had obeyed his last order. Even though Clint apparently wouldn’t sleep at all tonight, he was weirdly, fiercely glad to know that Loki hadn’t slept in his bed.

He walked across the room and kicked the bedframe. “Up.”

Loki took a deep, sleepy breath, then rolled on his side and sat up. “What,” he mumbled, looking around. “What time is it?”

“Something like 2 am,” Clint said. “We’re leaving.”

“Now?”

“Told you to get some rest,” Clint reminded him. “Get dressed. We have a border to cross.”

Loki rolled his eyes and pushed the covers away. “Why can’t any of you warriors go to battle at decent hours,” he muttered between his teeth.

Clint scoffed loudly. “You didn’t let me sleep for the whole week in Manhattan.”

Loki raised an eyebrow at him. “So this is payback?”

“God, if you were any more self-centered, you’d be a fucking black hole.”

“That makes no sense.”

 “Get dressed,” Clint repeated.

 

*

 

The moon was but a thin crescent over their heads, like a sleepy eye; the air felt chilly, but not unbearably so. They crossed the empty parking lot and got in the SUV without a word, swallowing their tiredness as they slammed the doors shut.

They drove for less than thirty minutes, then Clint stopped on the side of the road and cut the engine.

“Out.”

Loki looked at him like he wasn’t sure whether to worry or not, and Clint bit back a stupid, sour pang of guilt.

“We’ve got to finish on foot,” he explained.

Loki rubbed his face with both hands, exhaled, then opened the door. He looked even less enthusiastic when Clint joined him and pulled a flashlight out of his bag; still, he had no choice but to follow him into the woods.

Clint loved the Alaskan border. No guards, no fences, nothing. As long as he steered clear of the actual road, this was a piece of cake. Soon, he would be in his safe house and planning his attack on Minto Lakes.      

That was, if Loki managed to walk more than ten yards in a row.

“For fuck’s sake,” Clint said when Loki stumbled and almost fell for the fourth time. “Can’t you watch where you’re going?”

“No,” Loki hissed back, getting back on his feet—and apparently stepping on every twig and dead leaf he could find in the process. “That is precisely my problem, Barton.”

“We’ve got a fucking flashlight!”

“You have a flashlight. And it is of no help whatsoever.” Loki stomped to him a bit less stealthily than a crippled bear.

Clint just stared at him.

Eventually, Loki noticed it and hissed, “What?”

Clint wasn’t sure how to put it. “You used to see in the dark, is that it?”

Loki stared back.

“I used to be strong enough to climb a whole mountain in an hour,” he said.

Suddenly, the words were flowing out of his mouth. “I used to sleep once a month and eat once a week. I used to heal in minutes and wave away all aches and pains. I used to travel through the stars in a beam of light. I used to have magic at the tips of my fingers.” He swallowed and nervously zipped up his jacket. “And yes. I used to see in the dark.”

He sounded so bitter, so dejected, that Clint didn't find it in him to further the argument. He sighed a little, then mumbled, “Just take the damn flashlight.”

Loki snorted softly, but started to come closer—and tripped and fell again in a crunching sound of crushed bushes.

“Jesus,” Clint said, hurrying close. “Are you okay?”

“I am fine,” Loki groaned, pushing up.

Clint had automatically reached out; contrary to all expectations, Loki actually grabbed his hand and pulled himself on his feet. Only when he’d gotten back up did he stop and stare as if he hadn’t noticed what he was doing.

He quickly let go and hid his hand in his pocket. When Clint gave him the flashlight, he took it without a word and walked away at once.

“Hey—wait,” Clint said, going after him. “Now I can’t see shit.”

Loki didn’t slow down, but Clint caught up anyway and they disappeared further still into the forest, in the gray mists of a very early dawn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

“And there it is,” Clint muttered, gesturing at the valley in front of them. “America. Land of the brave and all.”

Loki probably couldn’t have looked less impressed if he tried. “This is the exact same forest we’ve been in for the past five hours.”

“True, but we’ve changed countries.”

“And I shall hail your invisible borders indeed.” Loki clicked the flashlight shut and gave it back to Clint. “After I am done marveling at other miracles such as the sun coming up.”

“You know, you’re actually pretty sarcastic. I never noticed that.”

Loki didn’t even deign answering that and they walked the last miles in silence, which Clint couldn’t have been more thankful for. Eventually, they reached a road and hitch-hiked a ride to the nearest town. Loki raised an eyebrow at Clint’s raised thumb, but after a car stopped and took them in, he forgot his contempt in favor of climbing in as fast as he could to curl up in the back seat. The inside of the car was pleasantly warm, but the car itself was an old rusty thing and the driver an older, rustier thing who didn’t even bat an eyelid at their very suspicious presence less than a mile from the border at the crack of dawn.

“It’s very kind of you, sir,” Clint told him as the car started again.

“Kind ain’t free,” the old man grumbled.

Clint looked up into the rearview mirror; Loki had already fallen asleep against the window.     

“I need a car,” Clint said.

“Lots of people do.”

“I need any piece of shit you have lying around,” Clint corrected himself, “as long as you’ll trade it for cash.”

“Trade it for cash,” the old man repeated with a cackle which sounded like a creaking door. “There’s a good one.”

As it turned out, money could indeed be exchanged for goods and services, and the old man took Clint to a very ugly red car. He charged him three hundred dollars, plus an extra fifty because kind ain’t free. There was no paperwork involved and the tank was already full of gas.

All in all, the hardest part of the operation was to shake Loki awake for long enough to transfer him from one car to the other. Eventually, he was buckled in, and Clint drove away yet again, stifling a yawn of his own.

His safe-house was in Fairbanks, two hundred miles west from the border. It was the best one he had; it was as secure as they came, and nearly untraceable since he’d never visited it in over a decade. If Thor blew this one as well, Clint was gonna be really pissed. But it was very unlikely the thunder god would show up again—not after he’d abandoned Loki to his fate when he was burning alive in Providence. It was a relief for Clint; probably less so for Loki.

Clint glanced at him, at the bruises and scars on his face, at the dark rings under his eyes, the way he’d wrapped his arms around himself in his sleep.

He looked at the road again.

It took them three hours to reach their destination, and Loki didn’t stir at all during that time—to the point that Clint was almost tempted to take his pulse. When they drove into Fairbanks, the demi-god was still deeply asleep. Clint thought of stopping for groceries, but took one look at Loki and decided it was probably better to stop at the safe house first.

The house itself was on Eagan Avenue, in the middle of a small patch of land, close enough to the airport and the main streets, yet isolated from the rest of the town. Clint parked his car in the middle of the driveway and shook the demi-god’s shoulder. “Hey. Wake up, we’re here.”

Loki groaned a little, then opened the door and stiffly got out of the car. He followed Clint to the front door; Clint punched an eight-digit code in the doorpad and it clicked open.

The house smelled musty, but not as much as it probably should have. The rooms were ice cold, the air inside stale and still. White sheets had been thrown over the few pieces of furniture Clint had deemed fit to buy the first time around—ages ago now. This was the last place he’d called home before running away from what he thought to be the Feds, only to end up in Portland a week later, aiming at a suit in a violent rainstorm, thinking this was it. The suit had lowered his weapon and introduced himself over the loud patter. Agent Philip Coulson.

And life had never been the same.

Clint had had the time to lock the house properly before he left; he’d kept it as a safety net, but he’d never truly thought he would be back. The phantom furniture made his stomach clench. Or maybe it was the dead smell in the air.

“This is your home?” Loki said in a low voice.

“This is my house,” Clint answered. “Remove all these sheets and open the windows. I’m gonna take care of the water and the electricity.”

It took him less than thirty minutes. The house was powered by a generator in the basement, which was still functional and half-full—Clint just had to dust it off and turn it on. He also turned on the propane heater attached under the cistern, then opened the water and listened to the pipes splutter for a few minutes before the flow evened itself out—it was full after years of rain. He stayed in the dark, between the throbbing generator and the gurgling pipes, rubbing his face.

He really felt like he’d travelled back in time—a time where he didn’t know Coulson and he sure as hell didn’t know Natasha. But Loki had tagged along. Really fucking brilliant.

Clint climbed back up the stairs, and was mildly surprised to find that Loki had done what he’d asked—the white sheets were in a pile in the corner, and the windows were all open, renewing the air, chasing the dust and the musty smell away. Loki was leaning against a window, looking like he was finally waking up.

Clint went to the kitchen island, turned on the water—it came out red with rust at first, but cleared out quickly enough. He washed his hands, slowly.

“We’ve got water,” he said. “Power’s back on, too.”

Loki looked at him. The sun struck his blue eyes at a weird angle which made his irises almost translucent.

“Are we settling here?” he asked.

Clint shrugged. “We’re not far from Minto and it’s the safest place I know. So, yes. For now.”

Loki went back to looking out the window. Clint wiped his hands on his jeans.

“I’m off to buy some food,” he said, turning away. When he reached the front door, he hesitated, then said, “You’re forbidden to leave the house.”

“Of course,” Loki mumbled.

It occurred to Clint that he hadn’t heard Loki say his mantra of the day. I must not tell lies. He must have whispered it under his breath while Clint wasn’t paying attention.

Clint suddenly felt tired, a heavy tiredness which made him want to give up on the future and sleep. He felt like he was trapped in an endless loop just like Loki was. He knew he simply lacked sleep and food, but the feeling lingered as he opened the door and walked out. He ignored it. It would go away, like everything did.

 

*

 

When Clint came back with two bags full of food, toilet paper and other life essentials, he found Loki sitting in a chair by the window, with his eyes closed. He looked like he was meditating. He didn’t move as Clint opened the cupboards and the fridge to store what he’d bought.

When he was done, he stretched, put on a pot of coffee, and glanced at Loki. He still hadn’t moved an inch. Well, Clint wasn’t about to disturb him. He took a last glance around, then grabbed his travel bag he’d left in a corner and headed for the shower with a burst of anticipated relief. Shit, he’d really earned that one.

He’d forgotten how big the bathroom was. There was a shower stall in the corner, and an actual bathtub facing the door. But Clint hadn’t taken a bath in… hell, he couldn’t even remember. The shower would do fine. There was probably enough hot water by now.

He turned it on to clear the water, then took off his jacket and shirt, unzipped his pants, pushed down his underwear and left it all in a heap on the floor. He slid the shower door open, stepped inside the stall and groaned slightly as the clear, hot water ran down his body, easing the soreness in his muscles.

He stood under the stream for ten minutes of heaven, blind and deaf to the world. When he opened his eyes, he could see the white tiles in front of him before water streamed down his face and made them close again.

Inside himself was still this weird clenching feeling, the sense that he was out of place somehow, like he was a colored figure in a sepia background, or maybe the other way around. When he focused on the sound of water, the feeling disappeared. So he did just that. It was almost as good as shuffling cards or shooting arrows.

He wasn’t really surprised to hear the stall door slide open.

He heard the change in the sound of the water when it started running down two bodies rather than one. He did nothing to acknowledge it, and didn’t even flinch when Loki’s lips brushed his neck. So light, it might as well have been another trickle of water.

Clint had closed his eyes, and he didn’t reopen them when Loki slowly made him turn, stepped even closer and swiped his tongue over Clint’s bottom lip, slowly. The water blurred all sounds and kept Clint’s eyelids shut, but he could still feel, and this felt like an electric burn.

Loki tilted his head, opened his mouth and pushed past Clint’s lips; Clint parted them to let him in. Loki’s tongue was long and pointy, and his breath was burning hot. When his hands hovered over Clint’s sides, though, Clint suddenly snapped and slammed him against the tile wall.

He could see, now. He couldn’t not see. Loki was staring at him, lips parted on a halting breath, black hair dripping with water. Clint wanted to break his goddamn composure, to break his teeth, to make him cry and spit blood the water would carry away. Loki swallowed, long pale throat moving up and down.

“But you see,” he whispered, like he was continuing an old conversation, “I am not the only one who ought to stop fighting.”

And Clint’s anger seeped away as though the water had washed it off him. All which remained was the bone-deep weariness he’d felt even before they’d gotten into Fairbanks. And what was the point, really? He had already lost. He couldn’t hide from himself what he wanted, and Loki knew it, too. Hell, May had it on camera. Clint was tired of his circling thoughts, tired of trying to understand what he should feel; the mere presence of Loki was exhausting to him, like a constant weight he couldn’t shake off.

“What do you want?” Clint asked in a low voice.

Loki straightened up and came close again, close enough for the water to stream over them both.

“A bit of warmth,” he said.

Clint did not fight the second kiss. He had nothing left to fight with.

I hate him, he thought coldly as their mouths opened on wet heat, and he did hate him, with all his strength. But, obviously, all his strength wasn’t enough.

There were the gestures he couldn’t control, his fingers running through Loki’s wet hair, his mouth pushing for more against his mouth, and his instinct which made him catch Loki’s lower lip between his teeth, suck it in, and bite. Loki panted in answer and pressed himself closer. And what the fuck was wrong with him, too—how could he like this, when he’d suffered so much already?

Clint spun him round and pinned him against the tiled wall again, face-first this time. He kicked at his calf to make him spread his legs, holding him by his hair, spitting into his other hand before slipping it down into Loki’s ass, rubbing circles there, prodding, trying it out. Loki bit his lip, then snapped his eyes open wide and shuddered when Clint’s fingers breached him and pushed inside. Clint held them in, scissored them and watched him scowl, listened to his quickening breath.

“There,” he said. “You won: I’m fucking you.” He pulled his fingers half-way out and added a third before forcing them back in. “Does it feel like winning?”

Loki was clenching his teeth and his fists, and let out a short, gasping sound of pain when Clint pushed even further in, crooked his fingers in a sharp gesture. The demi-god didn’t complain, even though Clint was being less than gentle as he stretched him, his other hand still cruelly firm in Loki’s hair.

“—Barton,” Loki winced eventually.

Clint didn’t want him to say his name. Not while they were doing this. Not while he was struggling to forget himself and all the things that came from himself.

“Just,” Loki began, fists clenching and unclenching against the wall. “Don’t…”

Clint spread his fingers inside him and a whine caught in Loki’s throat. He pressed his forehead against the wall, shuddering, and he shouldn’t have been so disheveled already, so overwhelmed with sensation, but there he was, struggling to stay upright.

“It feels more,” he gasped between gritted teeth. “This body—it feels—everything—more.”

That didn’t make Clint want to stop.

“Like that?” he said, and he twisted his fingers to press the calloused tips on the exact right spot. Loki buckled and moaned, loud and throaty.Clint was amazed. He did it again, rubbing circles which made Loki’s hips jerk uncontrollably, like he was being shocked. Like he was being tortured. He sounded like it, too. Maybe he couldn’t tell the difference. What had he said he wanted out of this? A bit of warmth. Maybe he’d just wanted to feel something good at long last, but he had underestimated the magnitude of what he could feel in this foreign, too accepting body, in this inert flesh which just passively took; and he was now gasping and trembling like he was about to fall apart. Or was this all part of some plan? Make Clint think he wanted it—make Clint think he was owning him?

Clint crooked his fingers again and Loki cried out. He was owning him. And it felt good. Sitwell had won. All the shrinks had won. Clint was reducing Loki to a desperate, shivering, pitiful mess, dominating him in the most primal way, and it felt fucking great.

“Barton,” Loki hissed again, jerking his head to the side, then pressing it against the wall again. “Gods!”

“Yeah, must feel a bit invasive,” Clint murmured, but he pushed and pushed again and Loki clenched his jaw, holding in a keening whine. Shit, he must be faking it. No one was this ridiculously vocal. But he was hard, so hard he was leaking already, and that couldn’t be faked.

“I think I wanna hear you beg,” Clint said.

Loki clenched his fists so tightly his knuckles turned white. “Am I not—” he panted angrily, “—humiliated enough? Must I grovel? Like a—ah—” He arched, swallowed, and spat, “like a dog?”

 “No,” Clint said lightly. “Just be polite. After everything you did to me, I’d really, really love to hear you say please.”

 Loki clenched his jaw, screwed his eyes shut, but his breath came out in sobs again when Clint set up a pace, stretching him wider as he pumped his fingers in and out, sending spasms down his legs. Clint let go of his hair, then brushed the inside of a creamy thigh and cruelly pinched the flesh there. Loki keened, and arched, but he could go nowhere—he only pushed himself onto Clint’s fingers, and gasped for air when he did, blinking tears out of his eyes.

“Hurts?” Clint asked, and slapped his thigh hard enough to leave a pink handprint. Loki bit his lip to keep himself from crying out; Clint sneered, then slapped his thigh again, pinched it, raked his nails up to his ass, squeezed it hard—and shoved the fingers of his other hand deeper, as deep as they’d go. Loki arched and gasped and yelled, “Please!”

Clint smirked. “See,” he said. “Not that hard.”

He pulled his fingers out and grabbed Loki’s hair to make him kneel; Loki went down with a scowl, tilting his head back to ease the pain as much as he could. He looked like he was hardly able to think or even breathe, what with it all crashing through him. Clint pushed his head down and kept him pinned there, face down, ass up, securing his wrists in the small of his back with his other hand. Loki’s forearms screamed engraved insults at him; the demi-god was breathing hard against the damp floor, eyes wide open. He scowled again when he felt Clint’s erection rub over his rim.

“I’m going to fuck you,” Clint warned. “Better tell me to stop.”

Loki said nothing. Clint twisted his hair, making him wince. “Tell me to stop.”

Loki said nothing, just panted against the tiled floor, but he visibly braced himself as Clint lined up—and groaned loudly when Clint slowly impaled him, scrambled and sobbed into the water like he’d cried a whole pond. Clint hadn’t been gentle until then and he wasn’t about to start now; he tightened his grip on his wrists and hair, and fucked him brutally, using all his core strength for sharp, precise thrusts. His pleasure devoured him inside like black lava and it wasn’t long before he came, spilling inside Loki with a perverse, ugly delight.

The demi-god was moaning incoherently when Clint pulled out. For a fleeting second, Clint thought of leaving him here, used and soiled, as though he wasn’t anyone’s concern. Then he put a heavy hand on Loki’s neck again and reached between his legs with the other. He wrapped him in a tight grip and jerked him off like it was a punishment.

Loki struggled and cried out again, then bit his lip to keep himself mute. He tried to stifle his moans and repress his shudders as his pleasure built up; but small desperate whines escaped him as he got closer to his peak. He struggled to delay it as long as possible, holding back, twitching in Clint’s hold, until he was brought to the edge and thrown over—and when he came, he buckled and shouted so hard his voice broke.

He rested on the wet floor afterwards, Clint still kneeling behind him, and it was silent again—a silence troubled only by Loki’s loud, moaning breaths, and by the whisper of the shower, which was still running, like they’d left it on in the foolish hope to drown.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clint killed people for a living, so he’d learned early on to keep moving with guilt weighing him down. As it was, he’d just fucked Loki without the excuse of a drug. And he knew he’d have to pay for the pleasure he’d felt and the things he’d done. But right now, Loki was shivering in a puddle of cold water, and Clint wished he was enough of an asshole to leave him there, get up and go enjoy his coffee, but he didn’t have it in him.

He started by getting up and turning off the shower. Then he leaned down, wrapped his arms around Loki and helped him to sit up. Loki closed his eyes and held on to Clint’s arms. He was too drained to be proud, and Clint was silently thankful for these fleeting moments of docility. He made him get up and step out of the stall; he grabbed the biggest towel he could find, threw it on his shoulders, then led him into the living-room. Loki’s eyes were hazy and almost glazed over; when Clint made him sit on the couch, he wrapped himself tight in the white towel and shuddered, burrowing into the pillows.

Clint left him there, went back to the bathroom and quickly dried himself. He picked up his jeans, then dug through his bag for a clean shirt and dressed himself. Going back into the living room, he caught Loki staring at the towel he was wrapped in, slightly frowning like there was something there his sluggish mind could not comprehend. He looked up when Clint came in, and watched him cross the room to sit at the other end of the couch.

“What is this?” he asked hoarsely.

“What do you mean?” Clint asked. “It’s a towel.”

Loki said nothing for a few seconds.

“Well,” he muttered wryly. “The last time I was made to beg did not end this way.”

He wrapped himself more tightly and exhaled.

Clint hesitated before asking. He had a feeling he wouldn’t like the answer.

“Why, how did it end?”

Loki shrugged and answered quietly, “I was sent here.”

It took Clint a minute to understand; then he felt very uneasy, even more than he’d felt before, if it was possible. The idea of Loki begging his father for mercy made it all even worse.

“Can you tell me what happened?” he asked.

Loki looked up at him with a hint of coldness already back in his eyes. “Are you asking because we just fucked?”

“Maybe,” Clint said honestly. “But I’ve been wondering for a long time. What could possibly drive Odin to treat only one of his sons like this.”

Loki scowled very slightly, a faint move in the corner of his lips. “I am not his son.”

Clint hesitated, not sure he meant this in the literal sense. But Loki went on, “A thousand years ago, Odin brought war into Jotunheim. He slaughtered most of them and stole their main source of power to ensure they could never rebuild.” He paused. “And he stole me, as well.”

Clint’s eyes flicked down—and he froze. Cherries of blood were blooming on the white fabric of the towel. Loki peered down, sneered and showed Clint his forearm.

LIAR.

“I was but a newborn,” Loki said, looking pensively at the cuts. “He raised me as Thor’s younger brother. He taught us that Asgard reigned supreme, and that the Frost Giants were wild, cruel beasts to be hated and feared.”

LIAR, screamed the cuts in his arms. Loki looked at them develop with cold, defiant eyes.

“Thor’s greatest dream was to kill them all. He did murder almost a hundred of them prior to his banishment. He was a hot-blooded fool, always seeking a fight.”

LIAR, LIAR, LIAR!

“I was in Jotunheim with him then; I killed quite a few of them myself.”

This time, no new cuts appeared.

“But on that day, I also found out the truth.”

Loki smiled, a mirthless little smile, looking at his left hand for some reason. “And from then on things were never the same.”

He leaned back against the couch, looking exhausted. “After Thor’s banishment, I was king for a short while. I acted in agreement with our royal history: I tried to destroy Jotunheim. To get rid of the monsters for good.” He smiled, sharp and bitter, and glanced at his bloodied arms again. “Evidently, that was not a monster’s place.”

Clint stared at him.

“But,” he said eventually. “Hold on. He didn’t tell you? And why the hell did he take you in the first place?”

“For peace,” Loki said. And then he laughed, a nasty laugh. “To make me king of the frozen ruins. To make me his puppet and—” he cut himself off, clenching his teeth and hissing in pain as his arms stained the towel with blood again.

He managed to grin, then showed Clint the swarm of cuts. His speech was halted and he was tearing up with pain. “But—you probably shouldn’t believe a—liar like me.”

Clint stayed silent for a long time. Loki wrapped his arms in the folds of the towel and pressed them together to stop the bleeding; he was pale, and a sheen of sweat was glistening on his forehead.

Clint’s face must have been a sight to remember, because when Loki looked up, he tilted his head to the side with a disapproving look. “Come now, Barton. I am not fond of pity.”

“I’m not pitying you,” Clint said brusquely.

“Yes, you are. You cannot help it.” Loki nodded at his towel for proof. “No matter how much you claim to hate me.”

“That,” Clint said angrily, “is called being a decent fucking human being.”

Decent. It almost made him laugh.

Instead, he took a deep breath and tried again. “I make my own choices. Okay? Maybe they’re horribly bad, but they’re mine. Odin sent you to me because he thought I would kill you. Well I’m not playing.”

Loki smiled a little and said nothing.

Clint swallowed down an anger he didn’t want to feel. Thor had committed the same crimes as his brother and he’d gotten away with it; but Loki wasn’t even being punished for what he’d done. If really he wasn’t lying, it meant he was being punished for what he was.

And Clint understood only too well the pain of betrayal, and the burning wrath which surged in answer, trying to fill the gaping hole left behind. There was a reason he’d never tried to find Barney after all that time.

“Look—you know what I think of you,” he said, even though he never really had a clue what Loki was thinking. “But that,” he added, pointing at Loki’s rune, “is fucking unfair.”

Loki cocked his head to the side again, squinting at him. “You say the strangest things after sex. Was I that good?”

Clint rolled his eyes. Yeah, he was still a little shit.

“You’re drenching that towel,” he said, and got up to go look for the disinfectant.

 

*

 

Loki cleaned the cuts himself, hissing and cursing softly every time the pain stung him. He wrapped his forearms in bandages when he was done, then got up, holding the towel around him. Evidently, he’d stripped before joining Clint in the shower, and his clothes were folded on a chair; he took them into the bathroom to put them back on.

Clint was distractedly cooking dinner, thinking about what Loki had just told him. On one hand, those might all be lies indeed. But on the other hand, some parts Clint knew to be true—like the Frost Giants being regarded as beasts—had warranted Loki the same cuts he’d received for the rest of his story.

Most of all, Clint tried not to think about Barney. About what he’d said on that rainy day in the circus, when he’d beaten Clint down in the mud until bones cracked and blood spilled. You ungrateful little shit!

To this day, Clint still didn’t know if he’d deserved that insult. Should he have let Barney get away with the stealing? His big brother had protected him—probably since the very day he was born—from their father, from the bigger kids at the orphanage, from the hardships of the circus. And yet Clint had ratted him out. Ungrateful. Maybe he had been ungrateful.

But weren’t big brothers supposed to protect the little ones? Was it right, for them to expect something in return, like they were paid to be family?

Clint thought of Thor, of Loki’s legs jerking under Thor’s weight. He was beginning to piece that puzzle at long last. Thor had hated and despised the Frost Giants all his life; despite this ingrained contempt, despite Loki’s actions which only went to prove his alleged monstrosity, Thor had found the strength to overcome it all—prejudices, betrayal, horror and disappointment. He’d reached out for his little brother, almost impossibly so when you thought about it. He’d made that huge effort over a thousand years of internalized hatred, over Loki’s obvious, murderous madness, over the mayhem and the destruction and the war he’d brought. And Loki had tried to outright kill him for his trouble. Clint didn’t need to imagine how offended and how wounded Thor must have felt; how righteous his own fury must feel to him.

You ungrateful little shit.

“Dinner’s ready,” Clint said absently, and looked up as he brought the pan to the table.

Loki had stayed barefoot, but was otherwise fully dressed again in his black gear; his long hair was almost dry, and he’d rolled up the sleeves of his shirt to let his bandaged forearms free.

He sat down in front of Clint, took a plate and started eating his scrambled eggs, without looking up.

“We’re going to Minto Lakes tomorrow,” Clint said. “We’ll buy you clothes on the way. You can’t keep running around wearing the same uniform.”

“It’s functional,” Loki shrugged.

“It’s dirty,” Clint countered. And then he blurted, “Holy shit, did I do that?”

Loki glanced up in surprise, then put a hand on his neck, where finger-shaped bruises were clearly visible where Clint had held him down.

“Oh.” He grinned. “Yes.”

“Fuck, you mark really easily.”

“You were very brutal.”

His smile clearly stated that he wasn’t complaining, but Clint still felt queasy. He focused on his food again, horribly ashamed of himself, and even more ashamed of the hint of arousal uncurling in the pit of his stomach despite his will.

Loki’s fingers tapped the table impatiently. “Barton.”

Clint looked up—and Loki smacked him across the face so hard he nearly fell off his chair.

Clint caught himself just in time, spilling his glass of water. “What the f—” he spluttered. He straightened up and glared at him. “What the fuck?”

“Payback,” Loki said calmly, digging through his food. “Now that we’re even, enough of that useless moping.”

Clint stared at him for so long that Loki eventually looked back up.

“What?” he asked.

Clint sat back down, still staring at him.

“I can’t figure you out,” he said slowly.

Loki smiled, sharp and scarred and all sorts of unkind. “Good.”

 

*

 

Clint had done lots of horribly stupid things in his life, but fucking Loki was taking the cake by far. And yet, he had no reason to stop. There was nobody looking over his shoulder, no Coulson or Steve or Fury to make him guilty. No shrink taking unreadable notes with a raised eyebrow. No reason for him not to fall all the way down.

It felt freeing. It was the most freeing thing Clint had ever done. He’d slept with a few people, but fucking Loki, or hurting Loki—since it was pretty much the same thing at that point—awoke something primal inside him. Something which didn’t think. The thinking part came after, when the weight of what he’d done fell on his shoulders; but then, of course, all he wanted was to do it again, so he would forget for a while longer. In his mind, he was still running away from Providence, from what he didn’t know and was afraid to know.

He already knew he would do it again.

Still, when Loki followed him into the bedroom that night, the first two words out of Clint’s mouth were “Hell no.”

“There is only one bed,” Loki pointed out.

“Yeah. And there are two couches and a chair. I can even dig out a sleeping bag from one of the closets.”

“I’d rather not.” Loki sat on the bed and took off his shirt, then his pants. He was daring Clint to use the rune to get him out of the room.

For a second, Clint almost did it; but then his weariness came back and he simply gave up. He’d rather save his strength for the mission in Minto.

He cursed under his breath, then buried himself under the covers, facing away from Loki. He felt the mattress dip slightly when the demi-god lay down; Clint expected him to stir, to snore, to be a nuisance in some way, but Loki lay as still and silent as the dead.

Clint fell asleep almost by surprise, as if his exhaustion had crept up on him while he was focusing on his unwanted bedmate.

 

*

 

His night was not restful. He tossed and turned, fell in and out of sleep, dreamed of scattered images which all spoke of a terrible, burning guilt. Natasha turned away from him. Fury locked him away in Alaska. I’m already in Alaska. Coulson looked at him with that betrayed look he’d had when Loki had stepped out of the shadows in Providence. The shadows in Providence… and Loki’s unhinged jaw after too much screaming in the dark, too much pain. Too much pain. A bit of warmth. He’d pleaded under Clint’s weight, and someone had screamed yes, yes, yes, and had it been him? Or one of his masks? He’d taken the pain, taken the humiliation for himself—to what end? Pleasure? Or… No, there was a ploy. There had to be a ploy. Lying, lying, always lying. This flesh against Clint’s flesh was an exposed weakness, and was there not a reason for everything he did? For his mouth against his mouth…

Clint’s eyes fluttered open and he huffed through his nose when he realized there was indeed a mouth against his, coaxing his lips open.

He shoved Loki away. “Fuck’s sake,” he hissed. “Don’t do that!”

“It’s almost morning,” Loki smiled in the dark.

His hand settled on Clint’s chest, and he scooted close again. His breath was hot on Clint’s skin. “Shall we go back to sleep?”

Like Clint could go back to sleep after this. Loki’s long leg slyly nestling between his wasn’t making things any better. Dismantled pieces of his dream floated away in his head. Had to be a ploy. A distraction. But from what? A bit of warmth was all Loki was getting out of this. If really he wanted this. Perhaps he was just happy to screw with Clint’s head, but Clint could do that just fine on his own.

Clint turned his head to face Loki again. He reached out, very slowly; Loki held still, until Clint’s fingertips brushed his upper lip and he felt the tiny gap where the flesh had given and split.

He buried his hand in the black hair and pulled him close to kiss him full on the mouth, and despite Loki’s human warmth and human weight, Clint thought he could recognize under his tongue the undefinable, crisp taste of ice.

He pushed on an elbow to spin them both in the sheets and wind up on top; Loki let himself be pressed into the mattress and hummed low in his throat when Clint kissed him again. He didn’t resist when his wrists were pinned above his head, but he squirmed a little when Clint began sucking hickeys down his neck.

“For Hel’s sake—must you bruise me more?” he hissed.

“Shut the fuck up.”

So Loki endured it, wincing, breath hitching with each new mark. Clint completed the line down to the collarbone, then came back up and kissed Loki as though he wanted to bruise his lips as well. He was still holding his wrists tight; he brought them higher up above his head and made him grip the bedframe. He caught his throat next, tearing a choking breath out of him.

“You better not let go,” he said in a low voice, two inches from his face.

He released him and shuffled down.

“What on Asgard are you—,” Loki murmured, raising himself up as much as he could without actually letting go of the iron bar. “You cannot possibly be thaaah—aaah!”

Clint hadn’t done this in a long time, but he had no trouble swallowing him down; the taste was familiar, just like the throbbing weight against his tongue and the tricks he’d developed not to choke. Loki had fallen back down on the pillow, stunned and trembling. It took Clint a minute to adjust; when he really got down to work, Loki whined and weakly thrashed on the bed, already out of breath.

This he wasn’t faking. Of course a blowjob would drive him out of his mind. He cursed and panted and writhed; Clint was throwing his every skill into driving him mad, sucking harder every time Loki’s moans relented, slowing down when he tasted telltale signs. He kept him on that edge for long minutes until Loki cried out like he was in agony.

“Gods,” he yelled at the ceiling, arching against the mattress in frustration. “What? What? What? Do I have to beg again?”

He probably would have, too. Clint looked up and smirked a little when he saw that Loki’s hands were still clasped tight around the iron bar. Clint dove back down, swirled his tongue around the head before taking him whole, and Loki buckled and bit back a curse but couldn’t hold in the long, desperate moan which came out right after.

“Barton,” he panted—and no, he didn’t want to beg, but how he needed to, despair edging in his voice—“Barton, Barton, Barton—”

And Clint really didn’t like him saying his name, so he stopped his nasty game and sucked him hard and fast until Loki literally arched off the bed and choked on a silent scream, making Clint choke in turn as the demi-god pushed into his throat as far as he would go.

It overflowed in Clint’s mouth, warm and musky, and he swallowed with a scowl. He felt like he had to swallow. To face at least one consequence of his actions, as a reminder that he’d have to account for everything one day, that Providence would catch up with him.

And then it was over. Loki was in a daze again, motionless, looking all but knocked out.

When Clint began to sit up, though, the demi-god’s hand haphazardly grabbed his wrist. Clint tried to break free, without much conviction; but Loki tugged him down—raised himself off the bed, clung to him and kissed him, so feverish and so unabashedly eager that Clint’s self-hatred canceled itself out for a moment.

The next second, though, his eyes prickled with tears, and he tried to remember that there was no point in second thoughts now, that the damage was done already. He started shaking, very slightly, and he wanted to get away from Loki, but he couldn’t. He wasn’t strong enough.

Loki sat up. “Don’t think,” he panted, as though he’d read Clint’s mind.

Clint swallowed, and winced at the soreness in his throat, which made him tear up again.

“Is that how you do it?” he asked in a hoarse murmur.

Loki wrapped his arms around him. Clint blinked, but didn’t resist; his lungs felt heavy and liquid. Loki tightened his hold, pressing their sweaty skin together.

“Don’t think,” he breathed again, and he buried his face into Clint’s neck. “Don’t think.”

Clint rested his forehead against his shoulder, and thought it felt like trying to cure himself with poison.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clint went back to sleep after all. He woke up around seven, got up, stretched, and left the room heading for the shower; he washed himself, got out, dried himself, all the while with his back to the mirror.

His bag was still in the corner; he dug out his battle gear and slipped it on, pulling on the hem and rolling his shoulders under the tight, thick fabric to adjust it. Grabbing his bow and quiver, he slung the bag on his shoulder, and took them to the living room. He took the time to get a pot of coffee going, then sat down and proceeded to check his arrows, one by one. Heads, shafts, flights.

He heard something move in the bedroom, but didn’t look up and put down the bundle of arrows to grab his quiver. He strapped on the command glove and moved his fingers to make the mechanical quiver whirr and click. He absently thought of Wanda Maximoff gambling for her life with circles of light. He folded some fingers, raised some others. Whirr. Click. Whirr.

The shower started running in the background.

Clint got up, put a few slices of bread in the toaster, poured himself a mug of coffee and sat back. Whirr, buzz, click. Everything seemed in order. He sipped a bit of coffee, then tightened his hand into a fist to initiate the reboot sequence of the quiver. He picked the arrows one by one and slid them home, all the way down with a final click each time, a whirr as the quiver presented the next alveolus. Click, whirr. Click, whirr.

Loki walked into the room, his long black hair damp from the shower, dressed in the SHIELD uniform he’d been wearing for the past weeks. He walked straight to the coffee pot; the toasts sprung out as he poured himself a cup of coffee. He almost drowned it in milk and sugar, took the toasts and sat on the other side of the table, looking with what seemed like distant interest at Clint’s quiver. Clint hadn’t looked up; he kept fitting in his arrows. Click, whirr.

When he was done, he unstrapped the command glove from his hand and picked up his compound bow. He’d stopped training after Thor’s visit in Providence, and the string had gone lax. He pried it off at both ends, left it on the table and took another one which he tensed gradually, drinking from his mug from time to time. Loki was eating quietly in front of him. The line of hickeys was clearly visible on his neck.

Clint folded his bow, unfolded it, folded it again and put it aside as well. He took out his gun from the bag and started checking it. Loki was finishing his toast. Clint took a piece from the plate and ate it in two bites before cocking and uncocking his gun, then strapping it to his hip.

He got up, grabbing his bow and quiver. “Let’s go,” he said.

Loki obediently drew back his chair. Everything was horribly normal—apart from the fact that they’d woken up in the same bed. Clint ignored the soreness in his throat as he swallowed the last of his coffee—you sucked Loki off last night—shook his head—and tried to focus on Minto and what they might find there. Having a mission always helped.

They left the house and got into Clint’s piece of shit of a car. Clint drove them to the Bentley Mall; the parking lot was half-full.

“Why are we stopping?” Loki asked in a low voice.

“Need to buy you clothes,” Clint reminded him.

They got out of the car and crossed the parking lot to enter the mall. Loki glanced around without much interest. Perhaps it was not his first time in a place like this, or perhaps he simply pretended to be indifferent to such trivial novelty. As for him, Clint was looking for the cameras. He spotted one, two, three, and instinctively ducked his head.

“Look down,” he told Loki.

Loki only shrugged. “No one is looking for us.”

Clint wasn’t so sure about that, but he didn’t elaborate as they walked past a men’s clothing store. He nodded at it. “Go in there, pick some stuff. I’ll be right back.”

Loki was about to walk in when Clint caught his arm. “Do not attract attention and don't talk to anyone, except for pleasantries and shit. Don't leave the shop till I get back. And don’t pick bright colors or thin fabrics. Don’t forget underwear. And think practical. And hurry the fuck up.”

“Yes, master,” Loki said, and Clint rolled his eyes. He released him, striding away.

Leaving him behind was risky, but Clint was being stupid and refusing to think about how stupid he was being as he walked into a pharmacy to buy condoms and lube. Shit. He wanted to believe he’d never fuck Loki again. But if he did, at least this time it would be less of a torture for him.

Not that Loki had seemed to mind.

Clint chased the thoughts out of his head, paid for his stupid condoms and his stupid lube and went back, feeling like a teenager again, and not in a good way. He tried to focus on the mission to come; but those thoughts scattered when he walked into the clothing shop and Loki was nowhere to be seen.

Shit.

Clint turned to the first clerk he found. “Excuse me—I’m looking for a tall man, long dark hair, with a scar on his cheek…?”

The girl was chewing bubblegum; she nodded towards the fitting rooms. Clint walked to them with a mix of relief and apprehension.

There were two rows of rooms facing each other. They had curtains, which were all open except for the third one on the right.

Clint hurried towards it and snatched the curtain open.

“What the fuck!” yelled the guy inside, quickly pulling his pants back up.

“Oh—shit—sorry,” Clint said, backtracking without closing the curtain again. “I’m sorry. Wrong—I’m really sorry.” He finally closed the curtain and turned—only to find himself facing Loki, who hadn’t closed the curtain of his own room—fourth to the left—and looked very, very amused.

Clint would have happily strangled him, but he stopped dead in his tracks when he saw what he was wearing.

Making a point of ignoring all of Clint’s orders at once, Loki had picked an expensive black three-piece suit, complete with a dark green tie. The suit was form-fitting, the waistcoat hugging his slender torso, the black slacks discreetly outlining his thighs. He wore an elegant long coat which made him look more like himself than he’d looked in months.

And he’d put the fucking muzzle on.

Clint’s blood rushed down, leaving him almost dizzy. Something about the contrast between the elegant, sharp clothing and the humiliating gag drove him almost mad with lust. He pushed Loki inside the room, whipping the curtain closed behind him. Loki smirked under the muzzle, then pushed his leg between Clint’s thighs to rub against his crotch.

Clint grabbed the knot of his tie and almost throttled him with it, making him huff a pained laugh. Loki raised his hands in a placating gesture, then reached behind his head to unclasp the muzzle.

“Just a bit of fun,” he grinned. “Calm down.”

Clint’s blood was still boiling. He looked around, seeking something to focus on, and spotted a small pile of clothes in the corner. Loki had picked practical and stealthy clothes like ordered; he’d obviously gotten that out of the way in only a few minutes, and spent the rest of his time picking the classiest suit he could find. This, not to mention his little prank with the curtain, made him look unbearably smug.

Clint took a deep breath.

He released Loki’s tie, then reopened the curtain to take a step back out of the small room and openly look him up and down.

“This is a nice suit,” he said. “How much does it cost?”

Loki paused for a second, obviously trying to guess Clint’s play, then just showed him the label. “Probably too much.”

Clint tsk’ed. “Nah, we’ll take it. Add it to the pile.”

Loki made a move for the curtain, but Clint grabbed it and held it open. “You were fine changing in plain sight just before, I recall.”

Loki paused again. Clint slightly raised his eyebrows, waiting.

Slowly, with very deliberate gestures, the demi-god shrugged off the coat, let it slide down his arms, and neatly put it back on its hanger. He unbuckled his belt and pulled down the zipper, but didn’t take off the pants quite yet. He looked Clint in the eyes as he slowly undid his tie in a whisper of silk; he put it on a coat hanger as well, then unbuttoned his waistcoat, button after button. Clint held his gaze all the while, glancing briefly at his long, deft fingers, before looking back up.

Loki took it off, then unbuttoned his shirt—more quickly—revealing a strip of ivory skin; the bruises on his torso were all gone at long last. He shrugged it off, then finally pulled down his pants. Clint had to fight to stay impassive when he saw his tight gray boxers.

“You’re not supposed to try on the underwear,” was all he said.

Loki hesitated—behind Clint, the curtain hiding the man had moved. But then he appeared to decide that between them both Clint would be the most embarrassed if they were caught; he took off his underwear and stood there, bare and exposed under the harsh store light and Clint’s square gaze. His pale cheeks colored ever so slightly when Clint looked down and got the obvious proof that his own game wasn’t leaving Loki quite so indifferent. 

Clint let him stew for a few seconds, just to see if he would try and hide himself. Loki flushed a little more, but otherwise stood still.

“Alright, put back your own clothes,” Clint said. “Make it quick.”

Loki complied, pupils blown but strangely silent as he put back on the nondescript uniform he’d worn for the past days. Clint waited till he’d zipped up the jacket to tell him, “You’re forgetting something.”

He glanced at the muzzle Loki had dropped on the chair in the corner.

Loki blinked, then his scarred lips stretched in a half-smile. “Are you positive you want me to put it back on?”

“You brought it here,” Clint retorted. “You thought it’d be funny. I won’t be a killjoy. Put it back on.”

“And then what?”

“We’ll pay and leave.”

“In the open?”

“Sounds about right.”

“There are customers in the shop.”

“I know.”

They were staring at each other.

Loki slowly licked his lips, narrowing his eyes as he tried to decide whether Clint was bluffing. Clint didn’t expect him to back off. He hadn’t backed off in front of a murderous Thor; he wouldn’t be scared by the prospect of a public humiliation. Especially since he obviously thought Clint wouldn’t dare carrying this out.

Unsurprisingly, Loki eventually strapped the muzzle tight over his mouth, then gave him a daring look. Clint picked up the pile of clothes and walked out. Loki followed.

They got out of the fitting rooms and suddenly, it felt like all the other customers in the room were staring at Loki. They weren’t, not really—he was getting quick glances at most, most of them confused or curious; the muzzle was smooth and sleek enough to pass as a medical implement or a weird fashion choice. Still, it was black leather, and a few people were looking at him with knowing or indignant expressions. Loki stood tall, but Clint could tell his pale skin could have been much paler than that—he was flushing hot again.

The cashier cast him an odd look, but didn’t say anything else than, “Cash or credit?”

“Cash, please,” Clint said. “Thank you.”

He took his time to pay and even made small talk, ignoring Loki’s impatient fidgeting behind him and the way his breath had quickened. Eventually, they left the shop and walked all the way out of the mall, attracting glances and frowns as they went. A few people outright turned round to stare at Loki. Clint walked as if none of it was his problem.

Eventually, they got out in the parking lot and went back to the car. They got in and sat still for a few minutes, in silence. Loki’s shaky breathing gradually went back to normal.

“You can take it off,” Clint said eventually.

Loki did; he had a few marks in the corners of his mouth, which would fade quickly enough. He worked his jaw and kept silent for a long minute.

“Just when I thought you had no shame,” Clint remarked.

“You enjoyed this,” Loki accused in a low voice.

“And you didn’t?”

Loki glared at him, then looked away, huffing a breath through his nose.

 

*

 

The Minto Lakes were about thirty miles west from Fairbanks. There was no road on the map, but Clint found his way using Skye’s GPS and faint tire tracks on the ground. They led him around a mountain behind which was hidden the lake.

Clint stopped the car behind a row of bushes, away from the assumed location of the base. He cut the engine, then glanced at Loki. “You coming?”

Loki looked at him. “What do you mean?”

Clint raised an eyebrow. “Which word don’t you understand?”

“I was not expecting more than one option.”

Clint shrugged and muttered, “I won’t make you fight for me.”

It was for his own safety, really. An unwilling teammate is worse than no teammate at all. Loki stared at him for a second.

“Waiting suits me ill,” he said.

He opened the door and got out. Clint went after him, slinging on his quiver and bow. A faint drizzle had begun to fall, and the droplets caught in Loki’s long black hair. Clint distantly thought he should cut it.

“Talk to me then,” he said. “What should I be expecting?”

Loki glanced at him, then suddenly smiled—the smile of Tony Stark when accidentally asked to elaborate on his work by a clueless agent.

“Gambling hexes,” he began, “are very subtle, like I said before; mostly because of their creativity. Let’s say there are two cups on a table, one full and the other empty. The odds of you picking either one are equal. I can hex them so you will always pick the empty one.”

He was actually gesturing at his invisible cups as he walked, and there was a sparkle in his eyes. “Now, let’s say there are five cups, and only one of them is full. I can hex them in the same way again. Or,” he grinned, “I can leave one of them empty, fill one with water, one with honey, one with mud, and one with poison.”

“And hex them so I’ll pick the poison,” Clint said. “Got it. It’s a bad luck charm.”

“Expand your mind, Barton,” Loki said, smirking. “There is so much more to bad luck. If you are in full health and clueless, you shall indeed pick the poisoned one.” He tilted his head on the side. “But say you are already dying of thirst. You will not pick the poison, but the empty cup. Say you are choking on bread; you will pick the cup of mud.”

“And if I’ve got diabetes, I’ll pick the honey one?”

“A bit of inventiveness at last.” Loki grinned. “My point being, the gamblers themselves cannot always tell what the outcome of their hexes will be. It all depends on what bad luck is to you.”

“Aren’t there good luck charms, too?” Clint asked.

Loki’s smile grew sharper. “Why would I hex you with good luck?”

Clint didn’t answer. He looked ahead, squinting, but the small hill they were currently climbing hid any potential construction from sight. Clint cruelly missed air support, and tech support, and the little earpiece in his ear telling him what to expect. He wondered where Coulson was and what he was doing.

Loki’s hands twitched nervously, and it occurred to Clint that the demi-god may be missing abilities of his own. They walked to the top of the hill and stared.

“Well,” Clint mumbled after a minute. “There it is.”

The base in itself was nothing exceptional—a low, unconspicuous building in the middle of a clearing near the lake, like a water plant or a small scientific compound. But the building was obviously abandoned; the roofs were blown or collapsed, the windows gaping open, the metallic skeleton bare and exposed in places.

The rain was growing stronger. Clint blinked droplets out of his eyes, then walked straight towards the old building. The front door was open.

“Hello?” he called.

Loki snorted behind him. “Subtle. Why bother to conceal your car?”

Clint ignored him, mostly because he was right, and just walked inside. He pushed a door open on an empty room, looked up at the missing roof, spotted the remnants of an air vent hanging down.

Loki’s long fingers wrapped around his arm. “Barton.”

Cold rain trickled down Clint’s back—he hadn’t noticed the demi-god was so close. He counted to three, then turned to Loki, twisting his arm free. “What?”

“Let us be cautious.” He sounded serious for once. “I would hate to be locked away from the sun again.”

Clint scoffed. “Thanks for your guilt-tripping concern, but I don’t see how else I’m gonna investigate.”

Loki shrugged, which pissed Clint off for some reason. He turned to face him squarely. “Look, why are you even trying to be ominous? This place is empty. That’s the whole point. It’s designed to be a dead end.”

“Most likely,” Loki conceded. Then he winced at the sky and sighed, “But that rain is ice cold.”

“Yeah, want any cheese with that whine?” Clint muttered, and walked on.

He should have left the little fucker in the car.

 

*

 

It took them four hours to explore the entire compound. After they discovered that it had a basement, Clint sent Loki downstairs.

“You were a magic user, you know how to counter it. Try to spot Wanda Maximoff’s cell.”

Clint himself carefully mapped the ground floor, taking notice of any closet, any window, any detail he might use at his advantage. Eventually, Loki came back, got out his damp notebook from the pocket of his jacket, and drew with sharp lines a rough map of the basement, which was apparently a lot less extended than the ground floor. Clint’s spirits could have been worse by the end of the day; even though he was preparing himself to attack an entire base on his own, he’d know the field by heart at the very least. That alone was a massive tactical advantage.

He looked around, wincing at the crumbled walls and the rusted fence beyond them. “You know,” he said, “Fury said he’s been at this for almost ten years, but this ruin looks way older. I’d say several decades over.”

He looked at Loki’s scribbles again. “And why aren’t there any cameras inside?”

“This is how it was built,” Loki answered, shivering in his damp jacket. “These are the decayed remnants of the original. And you just said it was very old.”

“Alright, but they’ll have added cameras and trigger alarms and shit since then.”

“It matters not,” Loki said a bit impatiently. “Only the original can shift—the way it was when Wanda Maximoff hexed it. When they change places, all additions will be lost.”

“Well,” Clint muttered, “best news I’ve had in a while.”

“Does it mean we can go back?” Loki asked.

His teeth were chattering, although he tried his hardest to conceal it. This body feels everything more. Right. Not to mention he used to be a Frost Giant. Did he even know what cold felt like, prior to his punishment?

“Yeah,” Clint said, clapping the notebook shut. “One last thing.”

He took an arrow out from his quiver, aimed at the tall tree he’d spotted a while back, and shot it at the perfect angle. A micro-camera activated itself when the arrow stuck itself in a low branch; it would last for three days and allow Clint to keep an eye on the compound without actually coming back to check every single day.

All he had to do now was find a way to make Hydra shift probabilities and appear in Minto. Afterwards came the problematic part—breaking out two highly powered, possibly traumatized people from the most secret Hydra facility in the world, with the sole help of Loki Laufeyson in a human body.

A walk in the park.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sun was setting by the time they got back to Clint’s house. Even though their field gear was designed to protect them from the rain, the dampness had seeped in and Clint felt like he was squelching with every movement. He was dreaming of a hot shower, but first and foremost, he was dreaming of a hot cup of coffee, which meant he might as well let Loki go first.

Loki certainly didn’t try to negotiate when Clint told him as much—as soon as the door was open, he made a beeline for the bathroom, already zipping his jacket open as he went.

Clint walked hazily to the kitchen counter, got the coffee going, and pulled out Loki’s notebook from his pocket. He looked at the drawing of the basement, then turned the page to look at his own observations. He remembered the camera arrow he’d left behind and vaguely thought of setting up his laptop to display the feed, but as he stared at his coffee, waiting for himself to make a decision, he heard a suspicious noise coming from the bathroom.

He sighed. God, he had no energy left to handle Loki.

He still walked to the bathroom. “What the hell are you doing in here?”

The door wasn’t locked; he opened it and walked in. Loki was crouched next to the bathtub, wearing only his black pants, the rest of his clothes in a heap on the floor. The words of insult were only beginning to scab on his forearms, looking like red-brown tattoos; his damp hair was sticking to his wiry shoulders and sharp collarbones. He looked up at Clint.

 “Why, I am running a bath,” he said as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

The bathtub was filling itself behind him indeed. Clint groaned.

 “I’m not waiting for you to take a bath. Send it down the drain.”

He walked inside the bathroom to take out the plug. He shouldn’t have turned his back to Loki.

A hand grabbed his neck, another one grabbed his belt, and he was expertly flipped over the side of the bathtub to fall in it with a great splash! which soaked his pants even more.

Clint took a second to get over the shock, then started to straighten up to get out of the tub and kick that little fucker’s ass into next week—but Loki then quickly stepped into the half-full bathtub as well.

“There,” he said, crouching down and raising his open hands. “I simply—” the rest of his sentence was lost in a garble as Clint grabbed his throat and squeezed the words out of him.

“The fuck you do that for?” he growled.

“Compromise,” Loki offered in a wheezing breath, before letting out another strangled noise and gripping Clint’s wrist with both hands when his hold tightened.

Clint was too tired for this shit. “I’m too tired for this shit,” he said.

“So am I,” Loki choked. He managed to get Clint’s hold to loosen slightly. “Barton, all I want…”

“…is a bit of warmth. Yeah, yeah.”

Loki’s throat was ice cold, and so were his hands still gripping Clint’s forearm. The rain had drenched him to the bone. He just wanted to take a bath.

Clint shoved him away, sloshing water around, and sat back in the tub. His clothes were sticking to his skin, heavy and soaked. “I should fucking drown you for this.”

Loki smiled, massaging his throat. “How lucky neither of us have the energy.”

“You asshole,” Clint added, zipping open his battle gear and peeling it off his skin with difficulty. He shucked it over his head at last, let it fall into a heap over the bathtub wall, then opened his pants.

“Make it warmer,” he snapped.

It took Loki a second to understand; eventually, he cranked up the hot water, then got on with taking off his own pants. He sat on the edge of the bathtub for it, pushing them off his long legs; by the time he was done, Clint was naked as well, and the bathtub was almost full. Clint sighed, sinking down into the hot water, and rubbed his face with both hands.

Loki cut off the water, then came back into the tub. He shuddered when the hot water enveloped him, then relaxed and let his head fall back against the porcelain edge, looking at the ceiling.

There was a long, steamy minute as the water calmed down and the sloshing noises turned back into wet whispers. Clint tried to ignore their legs brushing underwater, but the bathtub wasn’t so large they could avoid pressing into each other.

“That was stupid,” he said sourly.

Loki sighed. “I don’t care.” He let himself slip further down. “All I can care about now is to suffer as little as possible before I die.”

“Before you die?” Clint repeated.

Loki looked up at him. “I am going to die,” he said blankly. “When Odin is done toying with me.”

The bathroom was almost entirely steamed up, blurring even the edges of the bathtub; Loki looked like he was sitting in a lake, like he was still a god with his flowing black hair— his translucent, angular beauty marred only by the marks disfiguring him. Each of them a proof that he was, for once, telling the truth. From the moment he’d been defeated by the Avengers, all hope had been lost for him. No trial.

It made it harder to look him in the eyes. Loki, though, waited patiently for Clint to meet his gaze again.

And then he asked, “Why did you bed me?”

Clint didn’t allow his features to betray any of what he was feeling—whatever it was that he was feeling.

“I wanted to,” he said, and it was, for better and for worse, the truth.

Loki’s gaze was unwavering.

“Do you want it still?”

 

*

 

Clint grabbed the lube and the condoms he’d bought before they left the bathroom. They climbed on the bed together, but when Clint put a hand between Loki’s shoulder blades to make him lie down on his stomach, the demi-god didn’t fight it; he brought a pillow under his chest, and sighed into it. His well-toned body was still a bit too thin, too bony, too pale in the darkness.

He shook violently when Clint’s fingers brushed the insides of his thighs.

“Calm down,” Clint murmured.

Loki bit back his retort when he felt the slickness of Clint’s fingers between his legs. He let his head fall back on the pillow, mute and compliant. He must be really exhausted.

Clint took his time. In a sense, this was the most cruel he’d ever been to him. He took his time, and it made them both feel like he owned Loki’s body, with how he inspected it, stretched it, lubed it, prepared it for what was to come. Loki kept his face down and his features bland, didn’t make a sound, but he couldn’t help flinching every time Clint’s fingers went a little deeper, and he was gripping the pillow so tight it was a wonder it wasn’t ripping, slightly grinding against the mattress at times.

When Loki was ready, Clint rolled on a condom, turned him on his back and made him spread his thighs wide. Loki was keeping his eyes closed.

“Look at me.”

Loki submitted again—gave in to the humiliation as he opened his eyes to let Clint see the look on his face as he was being taken. When Clint pushed into the tight, slick heat, Loki tensed and winced and panted, arching back, staring at the ceiling with wide eyes. Feels everything more.

Once he was fully seated inside, Clint didn’t move; just kept him pinned there and leaned down to brush his lips over Loki’s pulsing neck. Loki was breathing fast and sometimes clenching convulsively around Clint’s length; he moaned hazily when Clint bit him hard enough to leave a faint mark.

The blue eyes were glaring at him from under the glaze of pleasure when Clint came back up.

“You hate me, don’t you?” Clint asked.

Loki let out a halting burst of nasty laughter.

“If I could,” he panted. He swallowed, braced against the mattress. “If I only could, I would kill you, Barton.” He winced when Clint gave a hint of a thrust. “I would take my time. I would—ah—I would enjoy watching you die.”

Clint thrust in harder and hit that torturously sweet spot—Loki’s whole body jolted like he’d been shocked, and he pressed back against the mattress, canting his hips to meet Clint’s.

“Yeah, you would,” Clint whispered. He leaned down to kiss him; Loki greeted him eagerly, wrapped his arms around Clint’s back, hooked his legs behind his thighs and made him push deep inside him. Clint let out a gasp and Loki laughed into the kiss. “My. Death threats really do it for you.”

Clint thrust hard in answer, making him claw convulsively at his shoulders. “What was that?”

“You—hhng.” Loki jerked his head to the side, then whimpered when Clint buried himself into him, at the exact right angle—he was a sniper after all. It was too ridiculously easy to make Loki fall apart; he was hostage to his own body and no amount of pride could change that. A few thrusts were enough to have him already close, so close, muscles cramping, out of breath, gaze wild and helpless. When Clint grabbed his hand and guided him into touching himself, Loki did it without a second thought, without any shame or hesitation. His breathing grew faster and even more ragged, and he rocked his hips to accompany Clint’s movements. As their pace quickened, the silence sounded more obscene than anything they might have said—nothing to hide behind.

Loki’s thighs were trembling with each thrust; he was rock hard and leaking in his hand.

“Gods,” he gasped out. “I—I—”

“Yeah, go on,” Clint said. “All over yourself. And when you’re done, you’ll suck me off.”

Loki threw his head back; his moans became more frantic, his shudders more violent, and soon enough, he arched and came all over his stomach and chest, eyes rolling back as pleasure rippled through him. Clint didn’t leave him any time to come down; he pulled out, ditched the condom, and manhandled him on the floor still panting and reeling. Loki could only suck in a breath before Clint made him open his mouth and pushed down his throat.

Wasn’t that just living the dream, Clint thought cynically with what little brainpower he had left. To have your arch enemy on his knees and sucking you off. Wasn’t that just textbook revenge.

And then Loki grabbed his hips, made him shift on the bed and took him deeper than Clint would have ever dared to go—and God—God, oh God, he was good, too wickedly good, as though he’d spent a thousand years practicing on his knees. His mouth was too hot, his tongue too clever, and he was too eager. Like he loved this. Like he was crazy with it. His fingers were digging into Clint’s hipbones, his throat was coming alive around him, and Clint couldn’t even breathe—he’d had good sex before, but this, this, this—this felt like dancing on a knife edge.

As his very last thoughts went fizzing into stars and sparks, Clint had the weird idea that there was actually no ploy, no ruse, no secret intent—that this was just sex, just mindless, crazy lust, and they would both pay for it someday.

Then Loki made him come and he stopped thinking, for a merciful while.

 

*

 

“What would Romanov think?”

Loki’s voice was soft and silky in the dark. His long fingers danced up and down Clint’s spine. Clint was facing the wall, lying down, too heavy and too tired to sleep.

“Wouldn’t be surprised,” he mumbled.

Loki’s fingers stilled, his tone slightly curious. “Because you are known to bed men?”

“Because I’m known to fuck up.”

Loki’s fingertips turned into a palm flat against Clint’s side. They just lay there for a silent minute.

“I must not tell lies,” Loki said in a yawn.

He scooted closer and pressed his body against Clint’s, legs to legs, back to chest. His sigh was warm against Clint’s neck.

Clint was too exhausted to hate himself, but his skin still crawled at Loki’s contact. Fucking each other senseless was one thing; this kind of intimacy was another. He was terrified of himself and of the things he was letting happen. He was so scared he couldn’t breathe.

He fell asleep, because sleep was his only escape.

 

*

 

Clint woke up early the next morning. He slipped out of bed without making too much noise, but without trying too hard either—he didn’t think for a second he could leave Loki’s side without waking him.

He made himself scrambled eggs and toast and drank his coffee while waiting for his laptop to turn on, with the sun rising out the windows. He groggily made the connections necessary to display the feed of the camera he’d left on site, then waited for a few more seconds, nursing his hot mug. The greyish image which blinked on showed nothing more than what he’d found the day before. Which was to be expected, at least for now.

Clint was browsing news sites when Loki came out of the bedroom to pour himself a cup of coffee. He was wearing some of his new clothes—a black t-shirt with golden writings promoting some kind of band named Manowar, and black sweatpants with a line of electric green down the leg. Even now, he stuck to his color code. Clint wasn’t sure what to make of it.

Loki grabbed a piece of toast, then casually crossed the room to sit by Clint’s side on the couch.

He took a sip of coffee, watching the unmoving feed with equally unmoving eyes. “Launching the attack?” he asked in a low voice.

“Yeah,” Clint said. He’d signaled a potential Hydra threat in Wakanda to the FBI and the CIA—if SHIELD had been infiltrated, there must be dormant agents in the regular organizations as well. They would find out eventually; there was nothing to do now but wait for the shift.

“If nothing happens after three days, we’ll have to go back there to set up a better camera.”

“How tedious.”

Clint shrugged. “Biggest part of being a marksman is waiting.”

He got up and went to the coffee pot, even though his mug was still half-full. “S’not like I got much else to do.”

Loki stayed on the couch and kept staring at the screen, but when he spoke, Clint felt like he was looking right at him.

“Why not just leave?”

It started raining again. Drops were pelting the windows like so many grains of sand.

“You are free,” Loki went on. “And this is such a vast world.”

Clint kept his gaze on the coffee pot. “Freedom is life’s great lie. Right?”

Loki’s silence was so stunned Clint couldn’t help but look up at him after a few seconds. The demi-god had turned to him and was staring at him over the couch.

“You were enthralled,” he said quietly, “when I said this.”

“I watched the footage from the Tesseract Vault,” Clint admitted. “I watched everything I could get my hands on after Manhattan.”

There was a long silence. Then Loki said, with surprising politeness, “May I ask why?”

Clint set his cup of coffee down.

“I’ve been killing people since I was seventeen. I have so many deaths on my conscience. But I only ever took down people I thought deserved to die. I believed in a better future with each life I took.”

“Yes, and I took that away from you,” Loki completed, in a bored voice this time as he turned back the other way.

“No,” Clint said curtly. “You didn’t.”

Loki stopped his motion and glanced up again.

“That’s my point,” Clint went on. “You kept it all the same. It was the same, and yet I wanted it to be different. I watched everything we had of you—of me—to spot the difference. There wasn’t any.”

He was staring at the ring of coffee left by his mug on the counter.

In the corner of his eye, he saw Loki rise from the couch and walk across the room with soft steps. He stopped on the other side of the counter, leaned against it and stared at the ring of coffee too, as if he wanted to join.

When Clint looked up, Loki met his gaze. And then he grinned.

“My, Barton, but you miss it!”

Clint was too stunned to react. Loki’s slender finger was tapping the counter near the coffee mark. “Sometimes I feel like all you know in life is to bend over for anyone who’ll let you,” he said, amused. “After all, service is all you ever knew. Even now, you still crave to achieve what you just called meaningless—only because no one else will use you.”

Clint stared at him, still motionless—although the only reason he wasn’t moving was because he was unsure whether to throw his coffee in his face or punch him in the throat. Loki was still drawing circles on the counter; when his fingertip smudged the coffee stain, he looked up again.

“But your bedding me shows how desperate you are to break that cycle.” He smirked. “How is that working out for you?”

Clint glared into his clear blue eyes, wanting to break him for those words, more than he’d ever wanted to break anyone. But then he remembered—he could break him. He could tie up his hands with his belt and work him over with a wooden spoon until he was yelling with pain. He could also make him spread his legs and torment him until shame and lust tore him apart and all pretense of dignity was gone. No one would save Loki from it. Clint owned him.

Loki was just words, and he was still waiting for Clint to react to them, and Clint was still waiting for his own reaction. He noticed the slight shift in tension in the demi-god’s shoulders, the way he kept his hands on the counter. He was bracing himself for physical retaliation. He wanted to get that rise out of Clint. To be given that sliver of power, like in the car leaving Providence.

Clint leaned over the counter, grabbed his collar, tugged him close and kissed him full on the lips.

The air smelled of coffee and sounded of rain, and it could almost have felt loving, if it hadn’t been the exact opposite of loving. Loki didn’t kiss back. He stayed, though, for a few seconds; then he broke free and turned away. Clint caught a glimpse of his eyes—dark with anger.

This was all about manipulation after all, Clint thought numbly as he watched him go back to the couch. About chess. Reading the other’s moves and making unexpected ones. Standing your ground, and maybe gaining some, when possible.

But whenever he managed to mark points against Loki, Clint only seemed to damn himself further.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Tell me about hexing,” Clint asked.

It was the first thing he’d said in hours. It was still quietly raining outside; on the screen, the ruins hadn’t changed.

Loki looked up from his book, which he’d been reading all morning. “I already have.”

His tone had been carefully bland; his face was meticulously expressionless.

“But probably not everything,” Clint insisted. “Like, the hand gestures.” Clint awkwardly mimicked them. “What do they mean?”

“Nothing,” Loki said absently, looking back at his page. “They’re just a point of focus. Magic is very volatile; rituals do help very much. Some use words, while some others may use gestures, and some others both.”

“Did you do stuff like that?”

Loki looked up again. He lifted his right hand, pensively studied it.

“Yes,” he said.

He opened his fingers in a swirl, then closed them. “At first. But I grew out of it soon enough.”

Clint looked at Loki’s extended hand too, for a little while. And then he heard himself ask, “You miss it much?”

“Yes,” Loki repeated.

He flipped a page of his book. This time, his answer had been quick and seemingly off-handed. It might be the most sincere thing Clint had ever heard him say.

“Hey,” he said.

Loki looked up again, unusually patient even though Clint kept interrupting his reading. Clint nodded at the unmoving image on the screen. “When they shift. If—they shift. You still coming with me?”

“Yes,” Loki said for the third time.

“Why? Those guys will kill us first chance they get. I don’t remember you being so eager to fight on the front line.”

Instead of taking offense, Loki quietly tapped his rune with his fingertips.

Oh. Yeah. Getting shot mustn’t sound so bad in comparison with Clint getting shot and Loki going through slow heat death again. Of course he would rather stay by his side and try to make sure they both made it, than wait in the sidelines when the rune might heat up and kill him at any given moment.

Clint felt stupid for offering him a choice. He kept forgetting Loki didn’t have any.

Loki went back to his reading, so quiet and so patient Clint wondered if he wasn't just trying out a new way to rile him up.

 

*

 

Hours later, he was certain of it.

They'd lasted all afternoon in apparent quietness. See who could hold out the longest as the day dimmed more and more out the windows. They were doing a good job of it, really—staying in the same room in silence, as if they could be quiet for that long, as if the air hadn’t been thrumming more and more and more with uncoiled tension. Loki was being very, very quiet, had been quiet for way too long; the bland silence had slowly become tainted with irony, then underlying threat, then plain wickedness. He was turning the pages of his book with chiseled scrupulousness, exaggerately careful in his effort not to make a single sound.

Clint kept catching himself thinking stuff like, if you think I'll break first, you fucker or I know you're not reading a word of that book. 

It was all so quiet.

Then Loki stretched his neck and Clint flinched—an aborted, nervous twitch. He could have kicked himself and tried not to look at Loki because if he saw his satisfied little smirk, he was going to kill him.

Loki got up and set his book aside. Clint didn’t look up from the blue glow of his laptop, but he could see Loki in the corner of his eye as he walked around the couch, his long fingers trailing against it—an imperceptible rustle of cloth in the heavily silent room, the first sound he'd allowed himself to make in hours.

It made Clint’s hackles stand on end.

Loki leaned against the couch, bent down as if to see Clint’s screen; his dark hair trickled over his shoulder and brushed Clint’s neck.

Clint put his laptop down.

Loki didn’t move, silent and still—both of them silent and still in the dark.

Clint's heart was hammering inside his chest.

“Perhaps we could take a break,” Loki said in a low voice, very close to Clint’s ear.

And then he grinned.

Clint suddenly grabbed his hair and pulled, forcing him to stay bent over the back of the couch; Loki didn’t cry out, but it was a close thing. Clint got up without letting him go, kept him down as he walked around the couch to get behind him. Loki was gripping the cushions, eyes alight with lust and wickedness already. Clint wondered how he looked and was glad he didn’t know.

He kept Loki down with a heavy hand on his neck and slipped his hand between Loki's thighs. When he cupped him through his pants and squeezed, Loki flinched and let out a trembling moan, fingers digging into the couch. He was already hard.

“You’re so fucking easy,” Clint whispered.

Loki laughed, a nasty, breathless laugh. “And you are not?”

Clint clutched him harder, making him gasp and close his eyes. “I’m not the one who’s gonna jizz in his pants.”

“I’m not the one with a cock in hand,” Loki retorted, but he was already panting, swallowing and panting again. He tried to straighten up and hissed when Clint firmly kept his head down; then he moaned loudly when Clint rubbed him with his flat palm, then curled his fingers tight again, slowly massaging him through the soft cloth.

“You gonna beg for it?” Clint murmured.

Loki said nothing, trying to catch his breath, but his silence was defiant enough.

“No?”             

Loki nearly sobbed when Clint’s grip tightened. “There is—there is—” he gasped for breath, “—no need. You will not resist the idea of taking me—ah—apart.”

“True,” Clint said. “But there’s more than one way to do that.”

He walked around the couch again; this time though, he took Loki with him, forcing him to follow until Clint could sit down and make him kneel on the ground at his feet. He let go of his hair and ordered, “Shirt off.”

Loki shucked his t-shirt over his head, quickly regaining his composure now that Clint was leaving his crotch alone. Clint watched him, vaguely conscious of the guilt he wasn’t feeling. Fuck it. The sight of Loki, painted in black and white by the moonlight, breathless with defiance and anger and yet so eager to play the game; it was enough for Clint’s mind to shift into a different place, to delay the self-hatred piling up behind the dam of his cravings.

He opened his own pants and slid his belt out; then he folded it and made it slap against the couch.

Loki stilled.

“Ever been whipped?” Clint asked.

Loki was resolutely averting his gaze. “Of course,” he said dryly. “Thor got his fair share, too.”

Clint wasn’t surprised to hear this. He remembered Thor’s smile. Loki has never been very brave in the face of pain… Maybe this was what all he’d been thinking about—them, as kids, running around, getting in trouble; and when facing punishment, Thor being brash and loud, Loki repentant and frightened.

Loki was still having a stare-off with the arm of the couch. “You will not make me scream.”

Clint couldn't help smirking. “That a fact?”

He leaned forward and let the leather brush Loki’s wiry back. “Thought this body felt everything more.”

Loki’s nostrils flared, but he said nothing. Clint gripped his hair again, harsh enough to draw a sharp breath out of him; he tugged and made Loki shuffle forward between his open legs until Clint could press the demi-god’s face against his right thigh. Loki’s back drew a bluish curve in the moonlight.

Clint brushed the belt down Loki’s spine, slowly, lightly. Loki shivered with the slight contact, and kept tensing, waiting for the inevitable burst of pain. Clint made him wait, and wait, and wait, until Loki finally snapped and snarled, “Are you ever—”

The folded leather hissed down and clapped against the flesh. Loki tensed, muscles bunching under his ivory skin. A red stripe flared almost instantly across the pale expanse of his back.

Oh yes.

Clint was hardening fast. He whipped Loki again in quick harsh slaps, laying down the blows from his shoulders to his lower back until Loki squirmed and bit back a whine, then took a few deep breaths, pressing into Clint’s thigh.

“Hurts?” Clint murmured.

“No,” Loki let out through gritted teeth.

“Alright then. Make sure to tell me when it does.”

Clint loved the clapping sound of the folded belt and the red, precise welts across Loki’s back; but most of all he loved his gasps of pain and the way he flinched and tensed and tried to relax again. As the endorphins built up, Clint allowed his strikes to become harsher, sharper, and while Loki could still take it, he was crumbling down already. Sobs threatened to burst with each of his ragged breaths. He was shuddering like a leaf and his whole body was so strung up Clint was almost afraid he’d burst with the next blow.

“Hurts?” Clint asked again; and again, Loki bit out angrily, “No—”

 But the next lash almost made him yell. He swallowed it down, gasping, bracing down, then cried out a little when Clint hit the reddest, rawest zone on his lower back. Blood was rising under the skin, and bruises were already beginning to bloom on his sides.

“Thought you wouldn’t scream?”

“I did not—” Loki managed in outrage—and then Clint let the belt unfold and whipped him with the biting end. Loki shouted, a short broken shout which ended in a sob of defeat. He tried to get away, but Clint was still firmly holding his hair with his right hand.

“Hurts?” he asked for the third time.

“No,” Loki gasped. “No—”

Clint resumed the whipping, a series of short blows during almost a minute, still with the unfolded belt—which was less noisy, but so much more stinging, quick hot strips of fire. Loki stifled a scream each time. His back was a red mess of welts. He was still kneeling and sitting on his heels, his face pressed against Clint’s leg.

“No—no—,” he moaned, then blocked his breath and his jaw. “No.”

“No?”

Clint let the belt whip him between his open legs, and Loki arched so hard he almost ripped free from Clint’s grasp—a few strands of hair actually came off—and shouted in agony. He kept pulling against Clint’s grip for a few more seconds, unable to go limp, then suddenly collapsed in place again, gasping for air. He had a betrayed look in his wild eyes—he had the spirit alright, but his traitorous body wasn’t following.

Clint started belting him again up and down his back, and Loki took it with clenched teeth, locked in stubborn silence, until a whine burst out and he suddenly jerked and tried to break free again.

“Gods!” he cried out when Clint tugged at his hair once more, mercilessly bringing him back in line. “Barton, by all the gods!”

“What do you want?” Clint hissed. He pressed Loki’s face into his thigh, felt him pant against the denim. “Say it.”

“You know,” Loki gasped. He was sweating, trembling, fighting Clint’s grip in little jerks, grinding his hips against nothing. Tears of pain rolled down his cheeks. When he spoke again, his voice was hoarse with anger and lust. “I won’t beg for it, for Hel’s—you damn—you know—”

Clint brusquely got down from the couch and shoved him down on his stomach, pinning him to the floor; then he straddled him and wrapped the belt around his throat.

Loki opened his mouth wide when the leather tightened around his neck, but no sound came out, except for a gasp when Clint slipped the strap in the buckle then tugged. He could have strangled him effortlessly. Loki knew it; he was panting in quick little intakes of breath.

Clint slapped his flaming back, making him yell. Then he tugged at his pants, took them off and threw them aside. He didn’t have the lube or a condom and he didn’t care.

He tightened the strap a bit more around Loki’s throat, then freed himself from his pants and underwear, spat in his hand and roughly slicked himself up before slowly, forcefully pushing inside him. Loki scrambled and gasped as he tried to adjust, arched and choked when he strangled himself even more. Clint thrust hard into him, the friction so harsh it hurt him, too; but he liked this, loved this, the animal sounds he heard, all of Loki’s arrogance in shambles, and the obvious agony he was in; but Loki liked it too much, too, because he was grinding and pushing back, even as he struggled to breathe; he let out cut-off sounds each time Clint rammed it in, twitching helplessly, whimpering, arousal building and building and building—then a sharper thrust made him come undone with a strangled, desperate moan as he made a mess on the floor. Clint felt him clench, tight and trembling around him; and he followed him over the edge, in a rush of painful heat, like his entire self was taking the jump and he was coming, and coming, and coming—so hard that for a second it felt like floating.

Or sinking.

 

*

 

When Clint managed to remember how to breathe, Loki was still out of it, eyes heavy-lidded and dark, like the lights had gone out inside his brain. It was another long minute before he wiggled round on his back despite Clint still straddling him, gripped Clint’s damp shirt and pulled him down to crush their mouths together.

Clint hadn’t even caught his breath yet; the kiss made him feel dizzy and drunk. He ran his hands over Loki’s sharp jawline, plunged them in the black hair—and for a split second there, it almost felt... —but then his forearms brushed coarse leather and his bubble popped, hacking him with the first stings of shame.

He hooked two fingers under the belt still wrapped around Loki’s neck, tried to tug it loose.

“No,” Loki gasped in his mouth. He swallowed against the leather, let his head fall back. “Leave it.”

He tried to pull him back down, but Clint broke the kiss for good, hovered for a second, panting. Then he began to sit back up. Loki’s embrace opened; his hands slid down Clint’s sides to flop back down on the floor. When Clint tugged at the belt again, the demi-god just closed his eyes and let it come off.

Clint was numbly but deeply appalled at what he’d done. They’d left a wet, white mess on the floor; the sweat on Loki’s skin was cooling down already, making him shiver, and he had a deep red mark around his neck where the edge of the belt had bitten. Clint haphazardly got up and pulled up his pants before walking to the kitchen, with both hot coffee and paper towels in mind. Rubbing his face, trying to clear his mind from the hot black mud weighing it down. Jesus Christ.

He made hot cocoa instead, because he was still hoping to sleep later. It took him longer than coffee would have; when he turned round, Loki was slowly sitting up in the colorless moonlight, slowly grabbing his own pants, slowly, groggily putting them back on. He looked disheveled and flushed, the way people do after sex; it made his eyes brighter, his features sharper.

Traces of exaltation lingered on his face, but he slightly pursed his scarred lips when he saw Clint coming back with the mugs.

“This is uncalled for,” he rasped. “No lover before you ever bothered with it.”

Clint felt a repulsed pang at hearing himself called lover. But he had no right and no power to deny this.

“Admittedly,” Loki said in a low, sly voice, “that guilt in your eyes is always the best part.”

Clint didn’t even have the energy to feel angry. “Just fucking drink it,” he mumbled, and put the mug in front of him as he sat by his side on the floor.

He took a sip, because he needed something hot and sugary, himself. The chocolate felt like pure warmth, and made him feel a bit better; but the feeling turned sour almost instantly. Sex wasn’t supposed to call for comfort afterwards, yet it was always his first instinct.

Then again, what they were doing didn’t quite qualify as sex. It was a huge part of it, sure, but it was only one thread in their dark, tangled, ugly mess. Clint was scaring himself more every time—and he couldn’t help wondering where it all stopped. If it all ever stopped.

And the looming shadow of Providence wasn’t gone, despite all the proofs of Loki’s willingness, despite what he said and what he did and what May had showed Clint on camera—

Loki took a small gulp and almost choked on it, derailing Clint’s train of thoughts. When he looked up, the demi-god was gaping at him.

“What is this?”

“Uh,” Clint said stupidly. “Hot chocolate?”

Loki took a long gulp. “It’s delicious,” he exhaled, closing his eyes like a cat.

Clint snorted, surprising himself—almost laughed. “You’ve got a sweet tooth.”

Loki looked at him with a slight smile, scars following the line of his stretched lips. “And you have a bitter mind.”

Clint looked at him, not really sure how to react. Loki nodded at Clint’s mug. “Drink up, Barton.”

Clint drank until his mug was empty. This time, the warmth lingered a little bit longer, and was relieved when he found his black thoughts had scattered for the time being.

They felt almost comfortable sitting in the dark and the sugary scent of hot cocoa, but that certainly wasn’t enough to explain Loki’s fingers suddenly lacing with Clint’s. Clint opened his mouth, raising an eyebrow at him because holding hands? Really? but what he saw shut him right up.

Loki’s rune was glowing.

He wasn’t holding hands. He was gripping Clint’s hand like he was trying to break every bone in it.

“Hey,” Clint said softly.

Loki didn’t react; he was shaking, very pale, eyes very wide. Clint didn’t squeeze back, but didn’t twist free, either.

“Hey,” he repeated. “S’okay. Just say the words.”

Loki exhaled.

“I—” he swallowed, then said in a halting, stiff tone, “I must not tell lies.”

The angry scarlet gradually faded until the angular rune was back to its usual red-brown. Loki took another shivering breath, blinked rapidly, eyes gleaming. He looked at their hands, then pried his fingers free.

Clint stared at him without knowing what to feel. Whether it was his instinct or the Hydra shrinks’ legacy, he couldn’t shake off the feeling that Loki was faking on some level. Clint felt bad for thinking so—and then he felt bad for being so naive—and then he settled on feeling just plain bad, and tired, and drained.

“Barton,” Loki murmured.

“No, I—look, right now I really just—”

“Barton,” he repeated calmly.

Clint looked up.

Loki was staring at the laptop left half-open on the table.

The unmoving footage of the gray ruins had been replaced by a dark building, alive with flickering, golden windows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was raining again, of course. The sun was only setting, but the darkness had fallen from the heavy rain clouds hours ago.

Loki got a leg out of the car, then slipped his umbrella outside and flapped it open. He turned back to Clint and said, “Well. Thus do we part.”

Clint tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, then said what he’d said all day, since the very moment they’d begun to plan their attack in the morning.

“This isn’t a good plan.”

“Indeed, no. The scheduling is terrible. Look at this weather.” Loki scrunched his nose. “Positively freezing.”

Clint was staring into the wet obscurity out the windshield. Loki gave a little sigh then shifted slightly back in, still holding his umbrella outside, and seized Clint’s chin in his gloved hand to make him look at him.

“Cheer up now, lover,” he smiled.

Clint glared daggers at him and batted his hand away. “Don’t call me that.”

He grabbed his quiver and slung it on his shoulder as he opened the door. Loki smirked and left the car as well. The rain slapped them both in the face, and the wind made Loki’s long coat flap behind him like raven wings. He angled his umbrella against it so it wouldn’t get upturned.

“It will take me six, maybe seven minutes to get there,” he said over the rain.

Clint nodded.

“I will have taken out the cameras by then,” he answered. “I can also open the fence door, probably.”

“It’s more than enough,” Loki answered in a low voice.

He was staring into the darkness, like he’d gone ahead in thought and was already in action.

Clint turned on his coms, and Loki did the same, before shaking his damp hair to cover his ears. Then he started walking leisurely on the muddy path leading to the compound.

“Hey,” Clint called.

Loki turned to him.

“Be careful.”

Loki just snorted and walked away. Clint swallowed, then turned the other way and disappeared between the trees.

He felt like they hadn’t really agreed to the plan, but that the plan had made them agree with it. The truth was, they simply couldn’t go inside, grab the twins and walk out. They needed a Hulk or something to pull off that move. Although if he’d been alone, Clint could’ve made it, maybe—provided he had some sort of backup, some sort of decoy to help him do his thing on his own.

So Clint was going alone, and Loki was the decoy.

“What?” Clint had protested. “You’re no one-man-army.”

Loki had just smiled, sharp and wicked. “I can pretend to be.”

In the expensive suit they’d bought, with his hair slicked back and a smug grin on his face, Loki looked horribly like himself indeed—like the evil, invulnerable deity who’d made crowds kneel and die at his feet. Still, this was a stupid, stupid plan, because it relied entirely on Loki—which was bad enough—and Loki relied entirely on his own talent for lying, deceiving, and being a general drama queen.

Granted, it was pretty solid.

Despite everything, it felt almost good, to be finally moving after a never ending day—never ending month—of anticipation. Clint ran under the shadows, nearly invisible in his black battle gear, and slipped to the other end of the compound unnoticed. Going in would be a piece of cake. He knew the building by heart, after all.

He climbed a tree, snapped his bow open and aimed at the movement detector on the roof. Easy shot. There were cameras, too, and he already knew where they all were; he killed them one after the other, with swift, lithe gestures—got the whole back of the building blind in less than a minute. He dropped from the tree, ran to the fence which he climbed in two leaps with a grappling arrow, and then hoisted himself up on the roof. He checked his watch. Right on time. He ran across the roof to get to the front of the building, destroying the cameras on the sides as he went.

From up there, he could see the locked door of the fence. He fired an acid arrow at it; the head boiled off the lock but also its own shaft, which fell down invisible in the mud.

“Open and blind,” he murmured.

Loki didn’t answer. Clint crouched on the edge, and waited under the battering rain.

It was another minute before Loki showed up. He’d walked slowly on the muddy road, and his sharp features were glistening with rain even though the black umbrella was still hovering over his head like a great bat. He looked up to the roof, where he knew Clint would be, even though he probably couldn’t see him. Then he stopped just behind the fence and did what he did best: he grinned.

He kept grinning even when the front door busted open and a squad team ran out, guns glistening with rain as they aimed at the intruder. Clint instinctively stepped back into the shadows, holding his breath. It was showtime. He’d make them believe he still had his powers; he’d make them think he’d been attracted here by Wanda’s magic; and it was a really weak lie and he was human and they were gonna kill him and now Clint wanted to call the whole thing off, but it was too late.

Loki tilted his umbrella back to expose his face, thin waterfalls gliding down the smooth black fabric in the process.

“Apologies about the cameras,” he said. “I like my privacy.”

Clint deftly killed the last remaining two while the guards all stared at Loki. They must be on coms with the control room, since a dozen guns instantly clicked alive, slick and black like so many cobras ready to bite. As far as they were concerned, Loki had just willed the whole building into blindness.

Loki rolled his eyes. “Please,” he said, with such arrogant disdain that Clint himself could have fallen for it. “If you mortals could all stop making the same mistake every time. I mean no harm.” The smile came back, sharper. “For now.”

There was a drenched silence. Only a few years ago, he probably would’ve been killed on sight. But these guys had a speedster and a gambling hexer in their basement. They believed in magic.

They believed in gods.

“You’re bluffing,” one of the guards yelled over the rain. “We know who you are. You have no power left.”

“Do I?” Loki asked.

And then he pushed the fence door open like it was nothing.

That ratcheted some of the tension up. But they didn’t shoot. They were buying this.

They were scared.

“Hang on, please,” the guard said, raising two fingers to his earpiece. And at the sound of that please, Clint knew they’d won.

He retreated in the shadows.

Despite what the guys at SHIELD used to say, Clint didn’t crawl around in the vents. They weren’t designed for it; it was impractical and dangerous. Those here were chimneys falling down right into the building, not human-sized pipes conveniently running along the walls and ceilings.

But they could get him inside, and all eyes would be on Loki anyway. So he busted one open and the building swallowed him like a dark, oppressive waterslide to spit him out in darkened closet. Knowing the place by heart really was a big plus.

Clint stayed still, silencing his breath. A ray of light was filtering from under the door, and as his eyes adapted to the change of luminosity, he could see medical supplies stacked all around him, obscure products and tools he couldn’t even name.

His earpiece screeched. “All right,” the guard was saying.

Loki must be really close to him if Clint could hear him, too.

“Can you tell us what you want?”

“Well,” Loki began with a smirk in his voice.

Clint took a deep breath, then pushed the closet door open. The corridor on the other side was empty. There were still no cameras inside; although the building was brand new, it was obviously very old. Almost looked like the fifties or sixties.

Clint hurried up the hallway, going for the stairs. Loki was still talking in his ear.

“I could tell you Ms. Maximoff’s pretty circles of light caught my attention. I could tell you I came to have a look, and I could tell you there is no other reason for my presence here.”

He paused, just as Clint opened the door leading to the darkened stairs.

“But after all, I must not tell lies.”

Clint stilled.

“I would rather tell you the truth,” Loki went on.

The stairs were not dark. Something was glowing down there, glowing a soft clear shade of blue.

“Which is that you have something that belongs to me.”

Clint came down the last few steps like he was in a dream. Or in a nightmare.

The basement was one large room with glass cages against the walls, all of them empty. Lab tables glistened in the obscurity, next to softly beeping machines and sleeping computers. There was a chair in the middle of the room, a sturdy steel chair with leather tethers to strap someone in. On the ceiling, some kind of helmet to be lowered down, with wires and cables sticking out of it. And on the table at the far end…

“And I want it back,” Loki completed.

And Clint understood everything.

Too late, naturally.

Loki had told him. He’d said it to Clint’s fucking face, when they’d spoken of Wanda’s magic. It was in fashion when I was young. Clint had been bracing against his lies so much that he hadn’t even imagined he could be telling the truth.

Wanda’s magic was Asgardian magic.

Hydra was fucking built on Asgardian tech, had been from the very beginning, built around the goddamn Tesseract, but Clint, useless moron that he was, was only connecting the dots now. The Maximoff twins were not natural superhumans; they were products of the Tesseract—but Hydra had lost the Tesseract after the battle of Manhattan—

—but they’d gained something even better in return, courtesy of SHIELD. It was glowing on that damn table, sharp and elegantly curved around its core of blue.

Clint had led Loki right to his scepter.

 

Time started to stretch in awfully long seconds, which left Clint way too much time to think. By the time he could hear Loki being allowed in the building, Clint had it all figured out, the things Loki hadn’t let him see—and the things Loki himself hadn’t seen.

The lab was humming softly in the dark.

The cages were empty.

 

Loki was a good liar. Maybe too good. He was too confident in his own ability to deceive and too arrogant to imagine he could be deceived in turn. So he’d walked inside the building unarmed and thinking he’d won because he’d fooled Clint. But truth was, they’d both been fooled. A few eternal minutes later, Clint would curse himself for not running away at this precise moment, for not fucking off and going for help. But this had never been a reflex of his.

 

If only Loki had told Clint what he knew from the beginning—and how did he know his scepter was there? Had he guessed, simply by seeing Wanda? Or… Oh, Clint was a moron. He’d watched two videos, the one with Pietro and the one with Wanda, but there were three others he hadn’t watched, others Loki might have gotten his hands on since Clint kept leaving his phone around. Coulson would be ashamed—albeit not surprised. Clint was always botching his field prep, and despite all his efforts not to trust Loki, he’d let his guard down.

 

So there was footage of Loki’s scepter. And if Loki had only told him, Clint would have been able to tell him, in turn, something Loki didn’t know: the reason they’d been separated in Providence. The demi-god could not know for sure whether Clint hadn’t just decided to let him die back then, then changed his mind and come back. And he’d sat on that incertitude all this time, maybe because he was afraid to ask.

 

If Loki had told him, Clint could have told him about that night. He could have told him that Ward had kidnapped him—and that even before that, Sitwell had tried to keep Clint, to make him join them after Steve’s and Nat’s defection.

If Loki had told him, Clint could have told him that Hydra seemed to want him for a specific reason—which now became horribly clear. It was a two-piece puzzle and they’d both kept their half to themselves instead of putting them together.

If Loki had told him, Clint could have told him to run, because Hydra had Loki’s scepter, and they wanted Clint who was a victim of said scepter, and they had prisoners they’d struggled to control for a decade, and it really wasn’t very hard to do the math then, was it?

 

But Loki had told Clint nothing, because he’d been too happy to get his first win in months. Because he probably hadn’t imagined mere mortals could be using his scepter as something else than a source of power.

 

So when Clint finally snapped out of it and rushed back up the stairs, it was already too late.

 

*

 

He couldn’t even warn Loki on the coms; when he got out, the demi-god was right there, with the Hydra squad behind him.

He looked tense, and he tensed even more when he saw Clint, bracing himself, ready for battle, and Clint couldn’t tell him anything because there was no time. A red-clad silhouette was slipping between the dark, armored men. And Loki was so persuaded they’d bought his act that he didn’t even notice.

But Clint saw the bright, sickly blue eyes under the crimson hood.

He drew his bow, still slow, excruciatingly slow, and he would’ve killed Wanda Maximoff without a second of hesitation because he knew what this damn scepter did to your conscience, he knew, but there was no time left. A silver blur knocked him down and whipped his bow out of his hands milliseconds before he could loose his arrow. The floor slammed Clint’s breath out of his lungs and his bow fell down next to him, broken in half.

When Pietro Maximoff stopped, all dressed in dull white, his eyes also had the bright blue of Clint’s nightmares.

They’d been prepared for human guards; they’d come for a rescue mission. They hadn’t anticipated blue-eyed monsters, broken children with old power running through their abused veins. They simply weren’t ready. Loki didn’t stand a chance—he still thought Clint had been aiming at him; only when he saw him fall down did he get something was wrong, did he begin to turn around, slow, slow, too damn slow, and that was it.

Clint didn’t even see it happening. The awful stretch of slow-motion came to a brutal end and suddenly everything was going too fast for him to follow. There was a cracking sound, and then Loki was collapsing too, like his puppet master had finally cut the strings.

His black hair spilled on the white tiled floor, and a trickle of dark blood seeped out of it, like a strand growing and growing out of his head. His eyes had locked with Clint’s, but they were bleary and unseeing.

Someone else appeared behind the guards; the blue-eyed twins came to flank him—Wanda at his left, Pietro at his right.

Clint looked up.

Sitwell smiled. Sitwell was always smiling.

“Hello, Agent Barton,” he said cheerfully. “A little late as usual.”

When Clint looked down again, they were already taking Loki’s body away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

“You didn’t have to kill him.”

“Why not?”

Clint was sitting down with his back against the smooth wall. He wished the glass of his cage could’ve darkened and shut it all out. He was tired of Sitwell’s smile.

Only two days ago, this place was almost black with rain and moss and earth; but through Wanda’s power, a new building had shifted in place of the old, and the glass was strong, and clean, and new. The twins were back in their cages, too, inside the row facing Clint’s. The lab wasn’t darkened anymore; a few men and women in lab coats were bustling about, and the machines were humming and purring in the background.

“Why not,” Clint repeated wearily. “I don’t know. It’s his scepter you’re fucking around with. Thought you might want to interrogate him. Or something.”

For a second, he screwed his eyes shut against the harsh white light. He remembered Loki’s blank gaze and the trickle of blood coming out of his head, and he hated himself for giving Sitwell the chance to confirm what Clint already knew.

“He was no threat,” he muttered.

Sitwell chuckled, and it was funny, in an awful, terrible way, that Clint of all people should say something so stupid. “He wasn’t, thank God. But he strove to be, Clint. Did you see how he walked in? The nerve he had? The arrogance? He already thought the world was back in his hands.” He knocked on the glass, as if to wake Clint up. “We can’t have that!”

Clint looked away. “I’m not sure it’s better off in yours.”

“We’re the good guys, Clint.”

Clint scoffed so loudly that Wanda startled in her cell like a nervous animal. “The good guys?”

He nodded at the twins, who couldn’t even see each other—the walls between the cages were opaque.

“They’re kids,” Clint said. “They’re fucking kids, and you did to them what Loki did to me. You did even worse.”

“Yes,” Sitwell said in a genuinely regretful voice, “I wish it could’ve gone otherwise. But when something like the Tesseract falls into your hands, you can’t just wait for the perfect candidate.”

He looked at the scepter. “It’s a tricky thing, this one,” he said. “Very complex. Quite hard to direct. But we’ve gotten better results with it in a few months than we did in the past seventy years.”

“Seventy years?” Clint repeated. “What—”

He cut himself off. He was missing the obvious again. Pietro and Wanda were being shaped into super soldiers.

“So,” he said slowly, “guess even Barnes wasn’t the perfect candidate.”

“The Winter Soldier,” Sitwell corrected, “was a good element. But we didn’t have the opportunity to use the scepter on him.”

“Jumped ship too early, huh?”

“He will be terminated soon.”

Clint smiled, for the first time since he’d gotten in here. “Not sure Rogers will let that happen.”

Sitwell just smiled back.

Eventually, Clint looked away again.

“How long has this gone on?” he asked bitterly. “Since the beginning? Since Schmidt and Zola?”

“Zola was our founder,” Sitwell confirmed with a slight nod. “Schmidt believed in machines; Zola believed in man. As we all do.”

Clint rubbed his face with both hands and muttered, “My God.”

A man in a lab coat appeared next to Sitwell.

“Sir? We’re ready.”

“Good,” Sitwell said. “In a minute.”

Clint let his hands fall down, then brought his knees up and wrapped his arms around himself.

“Whatever you’re planning to do,” he said tiredly, “I won’t help.”

Sitwell sat on a stool facing Clint’s cage. He was still smiling, but his dark eyes were cold and unblinking, and Clint distantly wondered how this mild-mannered pencil-pusher had managed to fool him all that time. To think Clint used to pride himself for never missing, when in truth he’d kept missing, every day of every year.

It didn’t matter now. His bow was broken. Pietro Maximoff had snapped it in half, with a ruthless efficiency which didn’t match what Clint saw of him now—his crumpled, lanky silhouette huddled against the glass of his cage, like a kid who’d grown too fast. His blue eyes were feverish and anxious, his skin glistening with sweat.

“You’re right about Barnes,” Sitwell conceded. “The old procedure was flawed. The human factor’s always the trickiest in the equation.”

He laced his fingers together. “We worked hard to uproot it from our Soldier, but even Pietro and Wanda never quite let go of their attachment to each other. Until a few months ago, it seemed like we’d hit a dead end.”

He smiled again, like a kid with candy. “And then Manhattan happened.”

Clint’s stomach lurched.

“It was you, Clint. You killed those people and you attacked Romanov without a hint of hesitation—as she reported it to me herself. Not to mention you remained docile for a very long time afterwards. So eager to please.”

He winced a little. “Until Loki showed up.”

“I have no emotional attachments to Loki,” Clint said automatically, mechanically.

“No offense,” Sitwell said lightly. “Attachments aren’t always positive. I’m not accusing you of liking him.”

He got up and made a little sign to three heavily armed guards, who stepped closer to Clint’s cage, cocking their guns. When the glass wall slid open, Clint didn’t move, looking around in quick glances, but there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do. They grabbed him and hauled him on his feet; he caught sight of Loki’s scepter, on its pedestal in the other end of the room. It was being connected to a bunch of humming machines. The wires were hooked right into its blue light core; they ran up and across the ceiling, into the weird helmet thing just above the chair.

Clint felt his heart come up into his throat. He knew, of course, he’d gotten it by now, he wasn’t stupid.

“Sitwell,” he said, mouth very dry.

Sitwell poked Clint’s chest, still smiling.

“You are the perfect asset, Clint. You haven’t been told this enough. Think about it. Flawless training, excellent mental disposition.” He stepped back to let them through. “I’m glad we got you back after all. Another subject would’ve been somehow flavorless.”

They forcefully sat him down in the chair and clasped the restraints around his wrists and ankles and chest, and a final one to pin his head against the headrest. A scientist came over with a box full of electrodes, which she affixed on his neck, then on his temples, one on each side. It felt cold and sticky.

The helmet above Clint’s head hummed to life. When it began to glide down, Clint struggled against his restraints—he knew it was useless, but he couldn’t help it.

“No,” he gasped. “No.”

“I know you’re not looking forward to it,” Sitwell said. “But we already know the process can’t fail with you. Try to relax.”

“Jasper,” Clint blurted, tensing against the buckles. “Jasper, I can’t do this, not again, fuck, please!”

“Stay calm,” Sitwell said. “You’ll be fine.”

Then the helmet whirred down, and Clint broke down with terror and fought and bucked against the tethers until everything became dark and muffled.

For a horrible few seconds, nothing happened. He couldn’t see anything; he could only hear himself breathe hard and fast under the helmet.

 “Blue Soldier, unit three, take one,” a female voice said behind him with a weird echo, speaking slow and clear.

They were filming this.

“Clint?” Sitwell said. “Clint, can you hear me? Your heart rate’s a bit high. I need you to calm down.”

The woman was going on. “Barton, Clinton. Subject is a Zola virgin but has already undergone bluewashing six months ago. Now untamed, obviously reticent, requiring full-body restraints.”

The whirring got louder.

“Initiating bluewashing procedure now.”

Clint’s arms bulged against the tethers pinning him to the steel; he tried to shake his head, but the restraints firmly kept him in place. He was panting so fast and so loud he was deafening himself.

“Deep breaths, Clint,” Sitwell said. “Deep breaths. You’re okay. We got you.”

“We’re online in three, sir.”

Sitwell squeezed his shoulder.

“Alright, get ready. It’ll be easy. Just let it happen.”

A last pat, and his hand was gone.

Clint’s eyes were wide open under the helmet; but when the whirring turned into a piercing howl drilling into his ears, when the darkness lit up into a bright, dazzling blue, he took a last breath and screwed them shut.

 

*

 

What a mess.

 

Loki?

 

I think that screaming in the distance is you, Barton. Hooking my scepter to their archaic technology, how could they hope for a clean result?

 

They—they killed you.

 

Well, obviously, you are hallucinating. Not very surprising, considering how they are scrambling your thoughts—ah, there goes another of your childhood memories. This machine has the subtlety of a Chitauri.

 

Help me. Please, help me.

 

Begging me now, are we, Barton? Did they wipe out your dignity already?

 

Loki. Loki, please. There must be something.

 

You are in their cage, and I am dead. On the bright side, none of this will worry you for much longer.

 

 

Don’t let them. Please, Loki, don’t let them.

 

Do you not wish to forget all this? To find peace? To find purpose?

 

No!

 

No? Oh—was that your mother in that one? I couldn’t quite see. They are tearing everything to shreds.

 

Loki. Please. Loki.

 

For Hel’s sake, I am not real. Use your own eyes.

 

 

My eyes?

 

Yes.

 

Their eyes.

 

Yes?

 

The twins. Their eyes. They were blue.

 

And?

 

They were put back in their cages with their eyes still blue. But you never locked me up in Manhattan. You didn’t need to. I was obedient.

 

Good.

 

That means—that means their procedure’s fucked up. It’s weak. It’s fragile. That’s why Sitwell hoped it’d work better on me—because it didn’t really work on them.

 

Better. Now tell me why.

 

It’s like you just said. Hooking your scepter to their outdated machines. They have fucking exposed wires everywhere. If I could just—

 

“Sir, could you get him to—”

“Clint? Clint. Enough, now. You know it’s useless.”

 

It’s not fucking useless.

 

“Sir, at this rate he’s gonna—”

 

Their machine is just a bunch of half-assed junk—they didn’t even test it on Barnes, that means they put it together in less than a month. I could build better in my goddamn garage. Won’t resist a good shake. Just—just—

 

“Clint, I’m warning you—”

There was a huge clacking noise and the bright blue whirred back to black, tendrils retracting from the inside of Clint’s brain—he thought he could feel them worm their way out. Pieces of memories and scattered words crumbled away in their wake, lots of random cries and shouts and whispers, and then it all faded back into deep silence and he was alone with himself again, gasping and half-sobbing in the claustrophobic darkness.

The tether on his forehead had snapped; he’d shaken the helmet so much he must have ripped out something—it sounded like a wire was sparking and fizzing over his head. The helmet whirred up, letting in harsh white light. Clint squinted, gasping for air, tears streaking down his face—and then Sitwell marched towards him and backhanded him with full force, jerking his head to the side.

“You don’t get to fuck up months of research, Barton,” Sitwell said sternly. “If you can’t get that, we’ll educate you.”

Something had left a hard, painful mark into Clint’s cheekbone; when his eyes focused again, he saw Sitwell was wearing a signet ring, now glistening with a faint sheen of blood.

Sitwell stepped back and asked, “How soon can we try again?”

Clint found his breath again. “Fuck you,” he gasped, tears still rolling down. “You fucking—” he lunged forward against the restraints. “—asshole. I’m going to rip off your balls and stuff them down your—”

A needle slid inside his neck, and he felt like he was pumped full of cotton.

“Attitude,” Sitwell said.

Clint was already falling down, but the throbbing pain in his cheek kept him around long enough to hear what Sitwell said next.

“Tell me one thing.” He sounded really amused. “Why did you call for Loki so much?”

And then nothing but darkness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

On top of everything, Clint’s head really hurt.

The Loki of his dream had been right; Sitwell had no idea what he was doing. He was combining what they’d put Barnes through with what they could figure out about Loki’s scepter. Which obviously wasn’t much. Clint felt like they’d put his brain under a rusty plow. The Zola process was something invasive, something which wiped out and scrubbed clean and rewrote, while Loki’s control had been smooth and clean and seamless. Sitwell was trying to combine polar opposites, and he would always fail, but he would also never listen to the voice of reason.

Clint had woken up back in his glass cage; apparently, he’d inflicted more damage to the machine than they originally thought—which was only a meager comfort. Only three scientists were left, busying themselves with the still fizzing, sparking helmet. Sitwell was gone for the time being, being of no use around. Hydra or SHIELD, he was still a pencil-pusher.

Clint winced and buried his head under his arms, curling up in the corner of his cell. He kept trying to remember what he’d forgotten, and it drove him crazy. If the hallucination had been right, then the bluewashing had started at the beginning. He didn’t have many childhood memories, and the thought of losing them made his throat close up with panic.

Locked up under his own arms in a vain attempt to feel safer, eyes open in the dark, he couldn’t lie to himself. He’d fucked up. He’d fucked up so bad. As soon as he’d figured out where the twins were held, he should’ve called for back-up, called Coulson, called Fury, called fucking Tony Stark. He shouldn’t have gone ahead on his own, but he had. Reckless, as always, except nobody was there to make up for his lone wolf routine this time. He’d been the one in charge. And because of him—

“Migraines?” a low voice asked behind him.

Clint’s breath hitched.

No. No. Now this was too much. He didn’t know if it was an illusion or a trick or if he was going crazy. This was too much.

He didn’t turn. Behind him was only the opaque glass wall anyway.

“Makes two of us,” the voice went on.

Clint closed his eyes.

“Are you real?” he muttered.

The smirk which crept up the velvet of this voice was only too familiar. “Did you dream of me?”

Clint hid his head between his knees. He was going to kill Sitwell.

“Fuck,” he exhaled.

“Rude. No one ever rejoices at my resurrections. I wonder why.”

There was a weariness in Loki’s voice, underneath the banter, slightly slurred vowels which spoke of a heavy concussion he struggled to conceal; and this was what made Clint look up instead of breaking down right there and then. He stared at the glass wall in front of him for a minute.

“You jerk,” he muttered lamely.

Loki sounded like he was shrugging. “You cannot blame me for trying.”

“For trying what?” Clint snapped.

One of the scientists busying himself around the machine gave him a nasty look. Clint repeated lower, “For trying what? What the hell were you hoping to achieve?”

Loki’s voice was tired. “It matters not. It failed. I never thought the twins could be more than prisoners.” His tone grew wry. “I must be getting old.”

“You’ll be fine,” Clint muttered. “They need you.”

“They do not.”

“You know everything about the scepter. You can tell them exactly how to brainwash me. You’re valuable.”

“First of all, they know they cannot trust a word I say—regardless of what tortures they put me through. Second of all, they are the fanatics, Barton. The top of the chain. They truly believe in the inherent goodness of their work. They will not associate themselves with me, no more than Steve Rogers would. Sitwell made it very clear last time.”

Clint stared at the glass wall some more.

“Last time?” he asked eventually.

“In the Triskelion,” Loki answered shortly. “He kept saying he was just treading water till he could kill me at the end of the week. Purify his new world.” He let out an awful little laugh. “He could not wait.”

Clint remembered Loki’s bruised ribs, and the force-feeding, and the hosing down, everything he’d let happen. And all the rest, all the damn rest, the repeated tortures and humiliations—and the dark shadows of Providence—so much suffering, so much suffering, all for nothing.

No, he really couldn’t blame Loki for trying. Whatever it was he’d tried.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled dejectedly.

Loki shifted on the other side of the glass.

“It’s fine,” he said in a low voice. “At the very least, I will not die by Odin’s doing.”

Clint exhaled, rubbed his face.

“Was it supposed to save you?” he asked. “The scepter?”

“Nothing can save me,” Loki said quietly. “I wanted a piece of my old life back.”

This was a feeling Clint knew awfully well. He imperceptibly pressed back against the glass, as if the heat of their bodies could carry through.

“Which makes me wonder,” Loki went on. “Why am I not dead yet?”

Clint thought about it. Why indeed? Especially since Sitwell had let him believe Loki was dead for a while—and especially since the fact that Loki had survived the blow was obviously just random luck.

“Probably ‘cause of me,” he said.

“Of you?”

“Yeah. They need me to be reasonable for the machine to work. So, they brought you here, they’re letting us talk, letting me know you’re still alive.”

Loki scoffed. “Why on Asgard would they use me as leverage over you?”

Clint shrugged, even though Loki couldn’t see him.

“Apparently, I called out your name a bunch of times while I was out.”

There was a long silence.

Eventually, Loki murmured, “How lonely can you get?”

It could have been scathing and mean, but he’d said it in such a soft voice.

Clint chuckled mirthlessly. "Pretty damn lonely, I guess." He let his head thump against the glass wall and closed his eyes. “Hey,” he added, “you know, I stand by what I said. You really didn’t deserve all that shit.”

Loki didn't answer.

“We’re back online!” one of the scientists called.

The whirr of the machine filled the room. Clint closed his eyes and took a deep breath. They were probably going to make him kill Loki, like Loki had made him kill the agents on the Helicarrier; but Clint didn’t appreciate the irony. He didn’t hate Loki, no matter what he’d done or said, he just really couldn’t hate him any longer.

“Don’t lose hope just yet,” Loki said in a very strained voice. “The sun is coming up.”

Clint frowned, almost looked over his shoulder out of reflex. “What?” he mumbled.

“The sun,” Loki repeated in a grunt, and then the glass wall of Clint’s cage clacked and slid open. When Clint looked up, Sitwell was back, and he was, of course, smiling at him. There were no guards this time; Clint was under a different kind of threat.

Sitwell immediately made it clear. “I’ll be honest,” he said. “We’re going to kill Loki. There’s no avoiding it. I told you already—he’s the textbook example of what we’re trying to weed out.”

He took a step back, letting Clint see the chair waiting for him. “But if you behave, we’ll do it quickly.”

Clint stayed curled up on himself for a minute more. Then he slowly got up on his feet and walked out.

 

*

 

When they strapped him down in the chair for the second time, he was facing the row of cages he’d been in. A scientist was blocking the view, but after all the electrodes were in place, the guy moved away and Clint could see Loki.

The demi-god was sitting against the glass wall like Clint had been, staring intently at him. They’d torn his jacket off him, took his shoes and tie as well. His hairline was crusted with blood. But his eyes were sharp under the glaze of his concussion. Clint held onto them—it helped, somehow; he felt that his rising panic was contained by this merciless gaze. Loki was his former torturer; he knew what Clint was about to go through. This shouldn’t have been a comforting thought, but both of them had long ago wandered away from logic.

Loki was very pale. His rune was very red.

Clint looked him in the eyes until the helmet came down again and it got all dark.

“Blue Soldier, unit three, take two. Barton, Clinton. Subject complying through emotional incentive. Requiring full-body restraints.”

Seconds later, someone let out a mangled noise of pain. It wasn’t Clint.

“What’s happening?” Clint called under the helmet, although he knew exactly what was happening.

The sun’s coming up.

“He’s faking,” Sitwell said with disdain.

Loki was trying to contain himself now, short sounds of pain bursting out of him, until they bubbled up into a full-blown scream again.

“He’s not faking!” Clint yelled, struggling against his restraints. “He’s not faking! Just look at him—look at his cheek!” He started writhing like crazy. “Sitwell, I’ll bite my fucking tongue off, I swear to God!”

“Clint—”

Now that Clint wasn’t choking on his panic, he realized the restraints were old and felt like they could give. Barnes must have stopped struggling long ago. “No! This isn’t the deal! This isn’t what you promised!”

Loki yelled again; he was breathing so hard and so raggedly Clint could hear it. His pain was real, and his panic was real, too—the branding called forth the shadows of Providence, the looming death and whatever had really happened in the dark.

The helmet whirred up, making Clint squint; Sitwell glared at him, looking severely annoyed, but he didn’t slap him again.

“Please,” Clint blurted instantly. “Please, Jasper, just—it’s the spell, you know none of us can control it. Just—just make it stop and we can go on, I’ll behave, I swear, I’ll let you do anything you want—please.”

Loki was curled up on himself, gasping his agony, eyes wide. His twitches couldn’t be faked. He was in tremendous pain.

Sitwell sighed.

Then he said, “I did promise you it’d be quick.”

He got out his gun, then pressed the switch near Loki’s cell and let the door slide open.

Clint saw Loki’s lips move while the door opened, and it would have looked like nervous tremors to anyone else, but Clint could read the words there, the magic words which made it all stop.

I must not tell lies.

Sitwell cocked his gun and took aim.

It was like watching a jungle cat. Loki had curled up strategically—feet planted against the glass wall, hands ready to push against the cement ground; when the door opened, he lunged forward in an incredible leap and tackled Sitwell down—the gunshot missed his face by an inch and tore through his right ear instead.

Clint twisted and pulled hard—and his right hand slipped free so suddenly he almost smacked himself in the face. The two scientists around him tried to pin him down; he smashed his forehead into the first one’s nose, grabbed a scalpel on a nearby tray and slashed at the second one, slitting her throat right open. He threw the blade right into the eye of the third one who’d flown to Sitwell’s rescue, then tugged at the straps tying his left hand down, freed it in a second and frantically unbuckled himself from the chair.

Loki was rolling down on the floor with Sitwell, hitting tables and stools and sending trays of tools to crash all over the floor. Sitwell wouldn’t let go of the gun but Loki wouldn’t let go of the hand holding the gun; he was still reeling with agony, but Sitwell’s moves were stiff like he was in pain, too. Loki managed to grab Sitwell’s collar and slam his bald head hard against the tiled floor. It dazed him for a second and it was a second too much—Loki’s left hand clutched into a fist and he punched him hard, then did it again, and again, and again, hitting regularly, relentlessly, like a machine, breaking everything a little more with each blow, glasses, and nose, and cheekbones, and teeth—until he suddenly stopped with a shout of pain when he was branded once more.

Only then did Clint remember he’d ordered Loki, very long ago, not to kill anyone ever again.

Loki looked at Sitwell, his trembling fist still hovering over his face, ready to fall down. In his blue eyes burned all the ungodly fury he’d harbored for weeks and weeks—Odin was responsible for Loki’s predicament, but Sitwell had been the first one to welcome him on this Earth, the first one to enforce the lessons of the All-Father, to teach him his new place; the first one of a long list, which included Thor, but also Clint, and even Loki himself, in a way. He’d tortured him for a week—and yet Loki couldn’t strike, because his next strike would kill Sitwell, and he wasn’t allowed.

He ground out a gasp of powerless rage. Sitwell managed to grin at him, even though he was half-dead, a bloody, toothless grin. Loki was shuddering like a leaf, rune hissing and smoldering against his flesh, eyes brimming with tears. 

Clint did not think, really did not think at all. He just heard the words fall out of his mouth and did nothing to stop them.

“I rescind my order.”

Loki stayed frozen for another still, trembling second.

And then his fist fell down.

 

*

 

There was no time to celebrate, and Clint would’ve probably done that by vomiting in a corner, anyway. It wasn’t pretty. Loki was bleeding a lot—his right ear had been almost torn off entirely by the gunshot, and he’d probably broken all the bones in his hand hitting Sitwell, not to mention his hairline was wet with blood again; but mostly he was shaking, eyes wide, frozen in place like he was finally breaking after too much pain and too much horror.

Clint crouched next to him, grabbing his face with both hands to make him look away from the gruesome mess he’d made. The rune still felt abnormally hot.

“Loki,” he said. “Hey. Loki. Can you hear me?” He shook him a little. “Loki. C’mon.”

Loki was staring at him with wide eyes—staring past him; and Clint suddenly remembered he’d forgotten the third scientist, the one he’d only knocked out. When he turned round, it was too late—the glass cage of Pietro Maximoff was opening.

“Kill Loki,” the scientist yelled through his broken nose, “grab Barton!”

A silver blur threw Clint down like last time, ripping him away from Loki. He reacted without looking, without thinking; he grabbed the first thing he found—a stool—and rolled on his side to throw it with full force. Pietro Maximoff was going way too fast for human sight, but Clint didn’t need his sight to aim—he knew where things were and he knew who Pietro was going for; so he targeted the place he was going to be.

The stool dashed over Loki’s head and slammed into Pietro’s face, stopping him just before he could break the demi-god’s neck. He let out a choked sound and crumpled down. Loki startled and scrambled back so Pietro wouldn’t collapse on him; he gaped at Clint, looking less scared than astonished this time. Clint snatched Sitwell’s gun, then grabbed Loki and pulled him under a lab table.

“Hey,” he panted, “you with me now?”

“I—yes.” Loki looked at Pietro again, at Sitwell, then back at Clint. He swallowed, then repeated, voice a bit firmer, “Yes.”

“We gotta take care of the last guy before he rings the alarm.” The alarm case was by the door; at least the man had to get past them to reach it. Clint grabbed a tray of scalpels. “You’re good at throwing knives, right?”

Loki’s eyes were still wide with shock, but his lips twitched a little.

“What?” Clint asked.

Loki was smiling now. “Giving me weapons at long last?”

“Oh my God,” Clint said. “Just fucking take them.”

That was when Wanda’s hex washed over them both.

It felt weirdly cold, like a cloud of mist whooshing past, bright and fuschia; and then it was gone.

Loki and Clint stared at each other.

The scientist rushed past them, running as fast as he could to try and reach the door. Loki hissed and got up, and when he threw the scalpel, his gesture was perfect, a long curve of his spine which unrolled in the swooping movement of his arm; but he missed—the hexed weapon bounced off the wall two inches from the guy’s head. The scientist broke into a last sprint, and Clint aimed and shot—

—and the bullet hit him square in the back. He stopped dead in his tracks, still standing, reeling dangerously.

Loki stopped, a bit taken aback by this unexpected success. Clint lowered his gun, panting.

“I—” he said, unsure. “I got him?”

 Loki glanced at him with a slight smile. “Well,” he said, still slightly breathless. “It seems like the probability of your missing is nil.”

The scientist collapsed forward—face-first into the alarm case whose protective glass broke. A deafening siren blared over their heads, and Clint thought he could hear the steps of a dozen guards already.

Of all the rotten luck.

 “Shit,” he said—and then again, “shit, quick, go shake up Pietro,” before running across the room to find Wanda.

“What?” Loki said, before turning to him and yelling, “you’re not serious!”

“We’re not leaving them here!” Clint shouted back. 

He turned to the end of the room. Wanda was huddled beneath the table supporting Loki’s scepter, blue eyes wide and frightened, wrapped in her own arms and swaying back and forth like a traumatized child.

This here was where Sitwell’s experiments found their limit; she wasn’t programmed to kill like Barnes had been, like Clint had been, each in their own way. Pietro hadn’t even been able to kill Loki the first time. When she saw Clint coming near, she clenched her fists until the knuckles turned white and bright light flared around them.

“Hey, no,” Clint began, even though he wasn’t really afraid, because he didn’t see how his luck could turn any worse, but the hex wasn’t for him anyway—Wanda took a sharp breath and let it burst in her own face, then curled up on herself and shielded her head.

She’d hexed herself with good luck, Clint understood. And now she sat there, trembling, because it probably hadn’t worked all the other times she’d tried—there had been no odds to be in her favor.

Clint stifled his anger and sadness. “Hey—”

She glanced up again; and Clint saw the sickly blue had faded, letting her eyes turn back to their usual brown.

“Now,” he breathed, “that’s lucky.”

Wanda gaped at him like she’d just woken up, then glanced around frantically.

“Pietro,” she breathed. “Oh God, Pietro—”

“He’s okay,” Clint answered at once, and then he yelled over his shoulder, “He’s okay, right?”

“We must go!” Loki shouted back, which meant yes and would you hurry up, please.

Clint held out his hand.

“Wanda Maximoff,” he said, talking over the blaring alarm. “I’m Clint and I’m here to get you both out of here. We’re gonna have to fight our way out, though. You in?”

She didn’t move, eyes still very wide and very panicked.

“Come on,” Clint said in a hurried voice. “You won’t get another chance.”

She stared at him for a time they didn’t have. And then she asked, in a surprisingly strong, vindictive voice, “Where’s Sitwell? Is he dead?”

Clint swallowed, his jaw clenching and unclenching. “Yeah,” he said. “Loki cracked his head in.”

Wanda slid out from under the table and grabbed Clint’s hand.

He hauled her to her feet and was surprised to find she was taller than him—she’d always looked so scared and small in the video. On the other side of the room, Pietro was getting up on unsteady feet with absolutely no help whatsoever from Loki, who’d barricaded the door. People were pounding on the other side.

“Well,” the demi-god told Clint with deceptive serenity as the twins ran to each other. “We are locked in.”

“Good,” Clint panted.

“No,” Loki corrected. “That is, effectively, bad.” He raised an eyebrow. “Unless you happen to have some kind of plan?”

“Actually—yeah. I do. Maybe.”

The alarm was still screaming over their heads. Clint turned to Wanda. “Hey, can you hex the shit out of your brother? Like, make him really really lucky?”

“I can’t make us lucky enough to survive,” she answered anxiously. “Not all of us.”

“No, not us—just him, focus on him.” Clint turned to Pietro. “And you—d’you think you could pull us all out of here?”

Pietro gave him back a frightened look. The blow he’d gotten to the head had cleared his eyes; he still looked mostly like a trapped animal, but the urgency of the situation and the earnestness of his sister seemed to help a lot.

“I—,” he said. Then he reeled again. “I… maybe.” He looked at Wanda. “If I’m feeling lucky.”

“Do it,” Loki hissed.

Clint turned to the door just as it nearly caved in under a hard blow from the other side. They must have a ram or something. He had no idea whether Pietro could really pull three non-fast humans through an armed crowd, but this was their best plan.

There was a flash of light and Wanda breathed, “Done.”

Clint turned to Loki and held out his hand, without a word. Loki looked at him for a few seconds, his eyes unmoving and unreadable.

But then he took Clint’s hand.

Clint entwined their fingers together. Then he turned and with his other hand grabbed Wanda, who grabbed her brother, who swallowed anxiously.

“Alright,” he said, unsure. “I’m opening the door in three…”

Shouts and pounding on the other side.

“…two…”

Loki’s hand tightened around Clint’s.

“…and…”

And then Loki brusquely pulled Clint to him and headbutted him.

The door broke half-open just as Clint stumbled back; he felt through the burst of pain Loki’s fingers twist free from his grasp. When he reopened his watering eyes, the demi-god was sprinting barefoot through the broken glass, going to his scepter at the other end of the lab—but he didn’t make two steps before he fell down on the floor with a yell of pain. Suddenly his arms were bleeding so much it was like the skin was peeling off, blood almost gushing out to pool on the floor.

He still kept going, on all fours, crawling to the table with the blue weapon on it, like an unreachable jewel at the other end of the lab. He dragged himself forward, frantic with the obvious knowledge that he’d never make it. Evidently, he’d lied about the importance of the scepter, and he’d thought he could get to it before Clint recovered—and he’d been wrong. Now there he was, exposed in his ultimate, pathetic effort, like a spastic fish trying in vain to get back to the water before he was slammed on the chopping block.

Laughable. He was a slave, nothing but a slave, and Clint just had to say the word to bring him to heel.

And Clint had to say the word.

Right?

Loki was going back to his scepter. Back to the monster who’d violated Clint’s mind and wreaked havoc upon New York. We can’t have that. Like Sitwell had said. We can’t have that.

The world stretched around them in a blur of colors, as though receding in the distance, and Clint thought with the strangest relief, too late.

Wanda’s hand pulled on his, and it felt like their bodies were stretching and stretching, and when Clint looked behind him, he thought he could see different versions of themselves threading their way through the armed squad bursting in, like in some weird time-lapse photography, and his body got sucked down the path—

—then it all snapped back to normal, and they were outside, Wanda, Pietro and him.

The sun was just coming up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Pietro!”

The effort had been too much; Pietro Maximoff, too frail and too damaged, collapsed in the arms of his twin. She wasn’t too sturdy either but managed to hold him up; she looked up at Clint, panting, then glanced around as well.

“What—” she looked at the sky, the trees, and Clint briefly wondered whether she’d ever actually been outside in her life. Then she glanced back at him, eyes wide and frantic. “Where’s the other guy? Loki?”

“He’s not coming,” Clint said quickly.

“But—”

A loud, muffled noise came from the entrails of the labs behind them. Clint grabbed Pietro and hauled him in a fireman’s carry.

“Hurry,” he said, taking Wanda’s hand to help her on her feet. “Come on.”

They ran across the field to get to Clint’s piece of shit car. Clint threw Pietro in the back seat, slammed the door shut and slid behind the wheel, Wanda sitting in the passenger seat. He drove away one-handed, digging for his phone in the glove box. He dialed the number, waited for someone to pick up. Hell, it probably wasn’t even in service anymore—

“Hello?”

“Coulson,” Clint gasped. “Hawkeye. I’m in Alaska and I need extraction right fucking now, tell me you’ve got something!”

Wanda looked at him with wide eyes—there was no visible reason to panic; no one was running after them. Which was the exact reason Clint was freaking out so bad, because it meant they were all too busy with what was going on inside.

“You’re lucky—we’re still nearby,” Coulson said evenly.

Coulson, unfazed grudgeless Coulson, was a fucking blessing and for a second, Clint was still an agent of SHIELD, the world wasn’t coming apart at the seams and everything was gonna be okay.

“How’s a hypersonic Quinjet sound?”

“Awesome,” Clint panted. “I’m thirty miles west of Fairbanks near Minto Lakes, in a crappy red car. Hurry up—got Fury’s friends with me.”

“Oh,” Coulson only said.

Clint heard him talk with someone, then a different, dryer voice spoke to him. “Be there in twelve minutes, Barton.”

“May!” Clint yelled. “May, wait, listen to me.”

Her tone changed. “Listening.”

“You owe me,” Clint said. “Big time. Said I could have a go at you when it’s all over and done.”

Another pause, very short and yet terribly long.

“Yes.”

“When you get here,” Clint said. “Grab the twins and fuck off. Get them to safety.”

“Without you?”

“Yeah. And then we’re good.”

There was no way Coulson would have ever agreed to this. But May? May was practical, and she knew how to leave people behind. Her cold efficiency was exactly what Clint needed right now.

“Done,” she said.

Clint exhaled and nodded, even though she couldn’t see him. “Done,” he echoed.

“Keep your phone on—triangulating on your position now.”

Clint looked in the rearview. He hoped they were far enough to be safe. He stopped the car with a screech, skidding on the damp grass; he pulled the handbrake then turned to Wanda.

“Here,” he said, giving her the phone. “Hold onto this.”

She gaped at him when he opened the door. “I—what? Wait, wait, where are you—I don’t know how to drive this!”

“You won’t have to,” Clint said. “Just wait. The Cavalry’s coming for you.”

She looked terrified, so he shifted back inside the car.

“Wanda, I’m shit at promises, but this time, I can promise you that these people are good people, and that you’ll be safe with them. You made it. You got out. You’re never going back.”

“But what about you? Why aren’t you coming with—”

Behind them in the distance, a strange, outlandish flash of blue light lit up the forest like a second of bright daylight; two seconds of silence, and then a deafening explosion shook the ground.

They were pretty far already, and yet chunks of concrete whizzed past them and fell all around the car, one of them denting the trunk. They stared at the line of the trees until it was all dark and silent again.

“There’s why,” Clint said. “I gotta hold him back.”

And for the first time in what felt like years, everything was very clear and simple indeed. Clint knew exactly where he had to be.

There was no outrunning it; not anymore.

“Take care,” he said. “Take care of each other.”

And then he slipped out of the car again and started running back to Minto Lakes, where the end of the line was waiting for him.

 

*

 

Everything was deceptively peaceful. The hour was very early and the sun hadn’t gotten past the line of the trees yet; the sky was a strange, colorless silver. It would gradually light up into a warm blue; for now, it was a ghost sky overlooking a ghost forest. Clint was running steadily in the damp, squishy grass, breathing the crisp sharp air in an out. All he heard was his own breath and his own steps.

In a way, it was a real relief, the kind of stone-still serenity you get seconds before the ax falls down.

It took him a good ten minutes to get back. At some point, he heard a low humming, so low he wouldn’t even have noticed it if not for the dead silence all around him. This had to be May in one of the stealthy, new-generation Quinjets. He turned, squinted at the horizon, and thought he could see a shadow cut through the silver skies for a second. Pietro and Wanda were gone; they were safe.

He turned back, took a deep breath and went on, walking this time. A lonely bird sang a few notes, then shut up again, as though the silence had swallowed it.

After a little while, he came across the first corpses.

There were lots of them, more and more as he went, strewn on the ground among big chunks of concrete and bricks and pipes. The whole building had blown up like a balloon; the bodies were laying in the grass, some impaled on the trees nearby, dark lumps in their battle gear or gleaming white in blood-stained lab coats. Clint stepped over them silently, walking slower and slower. There was no need to run anymore.

Not much remained of the compound; it was nothing but a ruin again—only a brand-new one. A faint sheen of dust was still floating in the air, mixing up with the morning fog; in the middle of this haze was a bright, blue light, twinkling desperately like some struggling star.

Clint stopped.

Loki was exactly like Clint had seen him that very first time—he’d dropped on one knee, gripping his scepter, and he was slightly shaking. His eyes were wide open on nothing.

But he wasn’t in pain, and he wasn’t in shock, either. He was fighting beyond the visible. It was obvious, in the slight movements of his eyes and the twitches of his face; and the strung-up intensity which radiated from him was what seemed to silence everything around him.

In this dull picture of blue and grey was a vivid red blot. The rune was pulsing, nastier and brighter than ever; it was actually embossed on Loki’s skin, thick and alive, like some kind of horrible leech stuck to his face. The light of the scepter flickered erratically. Loki gritted his teeth, sweat rolling down his temples. He was at the very end of his rope—but he was stubborn. So fucking stubborn. He had nothing to lose, but he had his despair, and his gut-wrenching terror, and his wrath, the immense wrath of injustice backing him up.

And the rune was beginning to fade.

It was slow, excruciatingly slow. At first, it just lost its horrible swollenness, just went back to a red drawing on pale skin; but then gradually, it went away, like it was scrubbed off his face bit by bit, and Loki was trembling with exertion and tension, but he was winning.

People were screaming at Clint in his head, responsible people, reasonable people, we can’t have that!, the victims of Manhattan and the agents he’d killed. But the first ones all looked like Thor and the second ones all like Sitwell. Besides, Clint had no bow, no gun; he could do nothing to stop it.

That’s what he told himself, anyway, because he couldn’t really root for Loki, could he? Couldn’t root for Loki.

And so he only watched, until the rune vanished for good and all the tension left Loki’s body at once. It was done. It was over. He’d won.

Clint knew that it was a complete disaster. He knew. But in his heart, he shared that victory with him—shared the relief and the triumph and the exultation of revenge. He should’ve been dismayed, but for the life of him, it felt so fucking good to see that damn thing gone.

A cold wind ruffled the grass; the sun was rising and the shadows were long, so long, like black fingers reaching out, slowing receding under the trees. As if someone had called his name, Loki looked up and saw him.

Leaning on his scepter for balance, he slowly straightened up, his eyes fixed on Clint. For a second, he stayed there, slightly wavering, sweat rolling down his temples, his hair disheveled and sticky with blood and dust.

Then a gleam of gold enveloped him like the sun had risen early. When it faded, his tattered clothes had morphed into the fierce glory of his armor; his mangled ear appeared mended, and the humiliating marks on his arms were gone. His long black hair spilled down his shoulders, untangled and smooth, and his face was devoid of all scars.

He waited for a second, a bit hesitant still, like he couldn’t quite believe it, himself. But then he smirked, wide and sharp.

And this time Clint did feel scared—felt true fear move inside him like a live thing trying to get out.

Loki walked down the pile of rubble with lithe, elegant strides. He really was beautiful; Clint had hated him too much in Manhattan to see it, but now he did. He felt very frightened, but also excessively calm.

A bird sang again in a nearby tree. The first rays of sun flickered behind the leaves, lining them with gold, on the very verge of dawn. Loki stopped a few feet away from Clint and slightly tilted his head to the side, looking at him with cold jubilation.

“You should have kept running,” he said in a low voice.

Clint said nothing.

“You knew what would happen,” Loki went on. “Admittedly, you did not know that I had stored power in my scepter.” He grinned. “But you knew me enough to realize I had a back-up plan. You knew me enough to realize that this,” he gestured at their surroundings, the calm clearing, the wide free skies, the ruins and the corpses lying around— “would happen. And you did run, at first.”

“Yeah,” Clint said, as if this was a normal conversation. “I had to go and take the twins to Coulson. They’re innocent,” he licked his lips, “and in New Mexico you didn’t kill innocents.”

Loki’s eyes narrowed. “But you came back,” he insisted. The corner of his lips twitched. “Are you not innocent, Clint?”

Clint said nothing; he just stood there, shivering, wondering if there was the slightest chance Loki would make this quick. He didn’t think so. Loki wasn’t the kind of god who forgave and forgot, and Clint himself had refused him this grace once. So he wasn’t surprised and didn’t back off either when Loki stepped forward and pushed the blade of the scepter against his neck.

It was razor-sharp, and Clint could have been bleeding out before he even knew it; but it was the pulsing blue light which made his stomach twist with ugly fear. He forced himself to look Loki in the eyes. Loki looked breathless with anticipated delight, looking down at Clint with hooded eyes, making it last.

“Go on, then,” Loki said lightly. “Confess.”

Clint blinked. “I—what?”

The blade pushed against his neck, sharp and burning. “Confess.”

Clint kept looking at him. Weirdly enough, it really helped.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not sure. That’s the worst part.” He swallowed. “There's stuff I do know. I know I don’t hate you, even though I know I should. So, that’s one. I, uh, I know was a dick to you that one time when you wanted to take a bath. I know I forced you to kneel back in New York. I definitely know I threw a snowball at you. And I think I raped you in Providence.”

Those last words had escaped his lips just as easily as his weightless babbling had; for a second, he almost couldn’t believe he’d said them at long last. He looked down, exhaled, suddenly exhausted.

“Are you done?” Loki said.

Clint couldn’t look at him now. “Yeah,” he said numbly, and hot burning tears filled his eyes. He didn’t want to sob, because he sounded like a moron when he sobbed, but suddenly the air was thick and liquid and couldn’t fit in his lungs. He swallowed it back, painfully so, took a deep breath, and waited.

“Close,” Loki appreciated, “yet not quite entirely right.”

Clint forced himself to glance up at him once more. Loki’s gaze was still cold and calculating. “You actually made two mistakes.”

The sun was coming up for good, now. Clint swallowed again, throat moving against the blade, squinting against the light.

“The first one,” Loki murmured, “was to believe you could force me to do anything I didn’t want.”

And he moved his scepter away from Clint’s throat.

The light of dawn washed over them, then, blinding and glorious, and Loki wrapped a hand behind Clint’s neck to bring him closer. “You have not been perfect—that I could not have stood,” he whispered. “But you protected me.”

Clint imperceptibly shook his head, but Loki’s grip tightened. “You did. I would have died long ago if not for you.”

“Anyone decent—,” Clint stammered, “anyone else…”

“Barton,” Loki said sharply, shaking him a little, “no one would have let me break the leash. No one else.” He looked at him, hesitating between irritation and some strange, undefinable emotion. “But you.”

Clint recognized that other, foreign feeling just as it won over Loki’s expression; and it was gratitude.

The sharp features had always been tainted by either suffering or irony until then, and sometimes a painful blend of both; in this moment, open and hesitantly sincere, looking almost surprised to be, Loki looked like someone else entirely.

Clint could only stare at him. He didn’t know what to feel, didn’t dare to let the twisted knot of horror in his chest come undone just yet; so he just stared. What he did know was that the same question was running through their heads—had Clint done it only out of guilt? Or out of compassion? Loki couldn’t know—and Clint couldn’t know, either. But he stopped trying to deny it.

Loki closed his eyes, as though shock and fear and exhaustion were catching up with him. Now that they were so close, Clint could feel him shivering. And feel how warm his hand was on Clint’s neck.

“You’re still human,” Clint murmured.

Loki nodded. “The spells I could undo,” he breathed. “But I cannot change nature.”

“You’d have to be some kind of monster,” Clint said.

Loki glanced up at him, surprised; then he laughed a derisive, weary laugh, and then he wrapped Clint in his arms, and Clint couldn’t not return the embrace. It was the tight, tight hug of a survivor.

“Thank you,” Loki exhaled. “Thank you.”

Clint said nothing and just held him, even tighter, because they’d won this together—it was the truth, for better and for worse; they’d done this together.

He almost forgot to ask; but then he remembered and whispered, “What’s the second one?”

Loki pulled back, just enough to look at him.

“You said I made two mistakes,” Clint said. “What’s the second one?”

Loki smiled a little; then he framed Clint’s face and kissed him.

Clint froze and let out a small sound of surprise; but then he parted his lips, out of reflex, really. It was out of reflex that he entwined his fingers in the long black locks, out of reflex that he pushed back into the kiss, pulling hard to bring Loki closer; and when Loki’s breath hitched against his lips, Clint pushed even more, surged against him, turned the kiss into something breathless and open-mouthed regardless of the death and destruction around. He felt this amoral lust in his gut, felt his dark cravings twist under the skin, and he thought this was his answer.

Loki broke the kiss but stayed right there, panting; he pressed their foreheads together, and when he spoke, he was still so close his lips caught against Clint’s.

“The second one,” he breathed, “was to believe Coulson wouldn’t come back for you.”

Clint’s eyes snapped open.

He snatched away and looked up; and of course, the Quinjet was right there, black and sleek, like a silent judge hovering over this kiss shared in the middle of a field of corpses.

Clint glanced back at Loki with incredulous shock. Loki grinned at him, a huge, sharp, shit-eating grin.

“Have fun with it,” he said. And he vanished into thin air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cell was a hundred square feet and brand new, probably like everything else in the Playground. The walls and ceiling smelled of fresh cement; no one else had ever slept in Clint’s sheets before, and the mattress was still firm. The toilet bowl was stainless steel, just like the shower head in the corner.

No windows, of course, but Clint could always stare at the ceiling.

He’d been marched down the corridors and into the cell, told to strip and change into fresh clothes by a very awkward Triplett who couldn’t look him in the eye. Clint hadn’t put up any sort of resistance; he was still too dazed by the past twenty-four hours and he was frankly happy enough to be ordered around as long as nothing else was asked of him. As soon as Triplett was gone, Clint had collapsed on the bed and fallen asleep the next second.

When he woke up, Coulson was there, standing by the closed door.

Clint sat up and rubbed his face for long seconds, then dropped his hands, staring blearily at the floor. He almost made a joke about room service then thought better of it. Neither of them was really in the mood.

There was a second of heavy silence.

“Will you tell me he tricked you?” Coulson asked softly.

Clint laughed a little. “Of course he did.” He looked up. “Tell you what, though, I ain’t even mad. His timing was perfect.”

Coulson looked at him, and Clint forced himself to look back because this was all he deserved. Every choice he’d made—every time he’d chosen to put off consequences led to this moment where it all caught up with him.

 Eventually, Coulson said, “Can you confirm his new status to me?”

 All business. Damn, you’d thought Clint would be used to letting him down by now, but it still stung.

 “Yeah,” he answered mechanically, like this was really just another mission report. “He’s, uh, he’s in the wind. We’re no longer linked together, and he got back most of his powers. I think.”

“All of them?”

“He’s still human.”

“You knew it would happen?”

“I sorta guessed.”

“I see,” Coulson said blandly.

God, the silence. It was almost solid.

Clint was so certain the next question would be about the kiss—about the aggressiveness, the eagerness of it which made it so obvious it wasn’t their first, so obvious they’d fucked, Coulson’s murderer—that he mentally stumbled when Coulson merely asked, “Do you know where he’s going?”

Bypassing the matter entirely, then. Clint tried to stamp down his petty relief. “Didn’t tell me.”

“Fair enough.” Coulson got up. “Well. Thank you for your cooperation.”

 He turned away and opened the door.

“That’s all?” Clint heard himself ask.

Coulson stopped, although he didn’t turn round.

“Phil—” Clint swallowed. “God—you make me wanna scream. Ask me why I did this. Ask me why I just stood there and let him win. Make me explain. Punch me in the face, for fuck’s sake. Just—get angry for once in your damn life.”

Coulson said nothing.

“What about Wanda and Pietro?” Clint asked a bit desperately. “And Ward and Skye? Please—tell me what happened to Skye.”

Coulson waited for another second. Then he turned back to look at Clint and said, “The Maximoffs are sleeping it off. We’re all very thankful you brought them here.” He leaned against the door. “As for Skye, she’s fine. Ward’s in custody. She knows you’re here, but she won’t be coming to see you. She’s got enough on her plate with him.”

Clint nodded, closing his eyes with a soundless sigh.

“I’m not angry,” Coulson added softly.

Clint looked up, surprised.

“You said I should get angry. I’m not,” Coulson repeated. “But the fact is I can no longer trust you.”

Yeah. It was a fact alright. Clint had stood there while Loki regained his powers, fully knowing what he was letting happen, and nothing could excuse that.

This wasn’t like the time he’d taken Natasha in; someone else than Clint might have made the same call that day. But freeing Loki? Hell, after that, there was no telling for sure whether Clint was still under his control—which was unlikely; and yet much more believable than the simple truth, than Clint making the conscious decision of letting him go. And the kiss—Jesus, the fucking kiss made it all so much worse. 

So Clint said, slowly, “I know.”

He forced himself to look up. “So what now, Coulson?”

Coulson said nothing. Clint said nothing, either, because he was a high-level agent gone rogue and there was really only one outcome for people like him. It involved a parking lot, a last prayer, and a bullet in the back of the head.

“I have no idea,” Coulson said. “We’re going to keep you here for now. Till we decide what to do.”

Clint nodded. “Fair enough.”

He hadn’t earned any better.

 

*

 

One long, boring, eventless morning passed, and Clint contemplated the eventuality of Coulson keeping him here forever. Coulson didn't want to kill him, but he couldn't afford to let him go, either. Fair enough, Clint had said, but it wasn't fair. It wasn't fucking fair. He had fought too much to end up here, between four walls, until old age or his own boredom did what Coulson refused to do.

And then the door opened again; this time, it wasn’t Coulson.

Clint sat up, incredulous, then jumped to his feet.

“I did what you asked,” were her first words.

“Oh, really,” Clint barked. “Then I guess it was Opposite Day and no one fucking warned me.”

“You asked me to get the twins to safety,” May said.

“You were supposed to leave me behind!”

She raised a thin eyebrow. “So you could go back to Loki?”

Clint scoffed so loudly he shocked himself. “Oh, I’m sorry—did I upset you by fucking the enemy?”

She pursed her lips. “I didn’t know what Ward was at the time.”

“Yeah, well, you—” Clint stopped. “Wait, what? You—what?” He shook his head. “Fuck, I don’t even care. I’m talking about what happened in Providence. I’m talking about the goddamn drug. Tell me something—does Coulson even know about this little episode? Huh? Does he know the, the shit you’ve been doing for him?”

May looked a bit annoyed for the first time. “I didn’t make you—”

“I know that,” Clint snarled.

He breathed deeply, in and out.

“You’re with the good guys,” he said. “But man, I’m not sure you’re one of them.”

She stared back. “And you’re neither.”

“Fuck you, May,” Clint said without heat. He turned away. “Just fuck you. Get out, go. We’re done.”

He sat back on the bed, facing the wall.

“He sold you out,” May said. “He made sure we’d seen everything, and then he left you behind for us to catch.”

She thought she was rubbing it in; she thought this went to show that Clint had stupidly wasted his mercy. After all, Loki had destroyed any hope he might’ve had of going back to his former life.

But he’d also spared him.

He must have sworn to himself, with every torture and every humiliation, that they’d all pay in the end. That he would have no mercy. He must have dreamed of his vengeance and tasted Clint’s blood in his sleep. He had sworn to him, while they fucked, that he would kill him, enjoy watching you die.

And yet, in the end, he’d spared him.

“Don’t waste your breath,” Clint said. “I knew what I was getting into.”

“You’re starting to sound an awful lot like a Stockholm syndrome, Barton.”

“You realize he was my slave, right?”

“Was he?”

Clint glared at her over his shoulder. “What the fuck is your problem?”

“My problem,” she repeated with the flat voice of people trying to repress their anger. “Haven’t you spent enough time with him? Do you think for one second he’ll leave us alone?”

Her eyes darkened even more. “Don’t you realize how many more people are gonna die because of you?”

Clint stared back. She was right. She was right, she was right and yet he felt she had it wrong.

“SHIELD is almost down,” she went on, “and Hydra is still out there. The last thing we needed—”

“First of all,” Clint said, speaking over her, “it wasn’t SHIELD who stopped him last time. It was Selvig.” He got up again and faced her. “And second of all, you’re flattering yourself if you think he’d waste his time coming back for you. Or any of us, really.”

There was a second of silence. May was studying him coldly, and God, Clint was tired of people looking at him like that. 

“You told Coulson you didn’t know his plans,” she said.

“I don’t. But you said it yourself—I’ve spent enough time with him.”

He remembered the feeling of biting down his neck, heard again his breathless moan, and repressed a shudder. Enough time indeed.

And he realized, then, that he did know what Loki would do. It was almost too obvious, really. He was going to go back and try to kill Odin.

What he’d endured went to show how grotesquely overpowered he was. And yet there was no way he’d avoid the confrontation; in the end, he was tragically predictable, once you had all the elements in hand. What is left of me the day I stop fighting?

Idiot, Clint thought sadly.

Something of it must have shown on his face and it made May say, “You shouldn't have pitied him, Barton. You were trained not to."

“Yeah,” he said, “well, it ain’t working anymore.”

When she spoke again, her voice was low like she was talking to herself. “At least there’s that.”

Clint didn’t fully register it at first. Then he frowned, because— “What?”

But the door was closing behind her.

 

*

 

Clint thought mostly of Loki for the rest of the day. He’d berate himself for it, but he was already at rock bottom; he could think what the hell he damn wanted now, it wouldn’t change a thing.

He thought of Loki locked up in a similar cell, down under Providence, with nothing in his future but pain, humiliation and death. He’d concealed his abyssal despair back then, just like he’d concealed his frantic hope after seeing the footage of his scepter. When had that happened? Somewhere between Providence and Fairbanks, probably. And he must have been so frantic indeed, knowing that Clint would lead him right to freedom if he only played his cards well, knowing that only his ability to lie could save him—the one thing Odin had left him. So he’d concealed it all; he’d kept Clint busy with lust and games, in which he might have gotten a little lost, himself. He’d hidden everything till the very end, till he became convinced he wouldn’t make it; and then he’d let it all burst out, the despair and the terror and the panic. He’d dragged himself on the cement floor, even as Odin’s spell skinned him alive—he’d crawled and groveled towards the miraculous blue light.

And he wouldn’t have reached it, if not for Clint letting him.

Clint looked at the ceiling, a blank screen for his thoughts to paint themselves on; and he watched that scene play over and over again; and he knew Loki, knew what he was capable of; yet each time he dug into himself for remorse, he didn’t find a thing.

 

*

 

A strange feeling woke him up, the gut-twisting apprehension he always felt before an electric storm. He stood up, stepped back, facing the door, and waited.

He didn’t have to wait for long.

The door banged open so hard it dented the wall and stayed stuck into it. Clint expected to be lifted against the wall and maybe strangled on the spot, but Thor didn’t even walk into his cell; he stayed on the threshold, staring Clint down with his electric blue eyes as if waiting for him to drop to his knees and wail for forgiveness. His aura radiated into the cell like a golden wave.

Clint was quite surprised to realize he wasn’t afraid.

“What,” Thor said in a very calm voice, “have you done.”

Still no fear. Clint shrugged. “Might wanna narrow that down.”

“Heimdall saw everything. You freed him,” Thor said in a low growl. “You have defied the law of Odin.”

Clint felt his lips curl up. “Aw, diddums, what’s he gonna do? Turn me human?”

Thor blinked at him.

“But wait—I already am,” Clint went on, even though this was basically suicide. “What then? Give me my own torturer to babysit? Burn him alive and let me pick up the pieces? By the way, thanks for adding your two cents—the lips sewing thing, that was a real classy touch—”

Thor suddenly grabbed Clint at the collar and Clint thought in a flash I’m going to die. But Thor didn’t kill him; he simply held him there and glared at him, nostrils flaring. The whole cell reeked of ozone.

“My mother is dead,” he ground out.

It took Clint a good ten seconds to process that. Eventually, all he could manage was, “Sorry, what?”

Thor brought him closer. “My mother,” he repeated, his voice calm and firm again, “the woman who raised me and Loki, has been killed in the war. If you have but a sliver of respect for the dead, Clint Barton, you will tell me where Loki is.”

Clint blinked at him, dumbfounded. For a second, he wanted to laugh in his face, because no, really—really. But he swallowed it down and asked instead, “What did the rune mean?”

 Thor frowned. “What?”

 “The rune. On his cheek. What did it mean?”

 Thor fixed him with unreadable eyes.

 “Fehu,” he said eventually. “Object.”

 Clint just stared back at him, slightly raising his eyebrows, waiting for him to realize what he’d just said, and put it next what he’d come to ask, and do the math.

Thor gritted his teeth. “You know nothing of us,” he said icily. “You know nothing of our customs and of our family. I have no care for your contempt.”

“Then,” Clint said with a rushing in his ears, “I don’t care for your grief.”

He thought for sure Thor would smash him for that; but the sheer enormity of his outrage caused Thor to drop him as though he didn’t want to dirty himself.

“I don’t even know where he is,” Clint said, a bit breathless. “Can’t you find him with Heimdall, whatever that is?”

“Loki is wielding enough magic to shroud himself from sight.”

“Oh,” Clint said neutrally. “Then I guess he got away.”

A wave of static crackled into the cell. “You let him get away. He was your responsibility.”

Clint did laugh then. “No,” he said, “I was his executioner.”

He was still riding his wave of recklessness which pushed the words out of his mouth. “And fuck, what do you even want him for? You think he’ll mourn her with you? You think you’re still family?”

“We are,” Thor said. “We’ll always be.”

Clint looked at him, really looked. Thor sincerely believed what he said. He shared with his brother such a history of violence that he didn’t even realize their bond was beyond repair this time.

But even Clint could see it now—hell, Odin couldn’t have made it much clearer, engraving it in his flesh: Loki had only ever been a tool. He might have stomached the Jotun thing, if only his whole family hadn’t been a lie as well. Perhaps he’d believed—he must have hoped, at the very least—that his mother had developed something genuine for him; but no matter what scraps of affection he’d been given, they had taken root in a loveless ground. Odin hadn’t taken pity on an orphaned enemy; Loki had been brought in out of sheer calculation. But they’d told him he was family, and he couldn’t get over the immeasurable cruelty of it—to raise him as a servant from the start would have been so much more merciful.

Thor had not known either; and obviously, this was why he couldn’t understand why Loki acted like they’d never been brothers. As far as he was concerned, there had been no lie between them at the very least. But Loki—and Clint both—knew how lies seep into the cracks of appearances to cement them together, and make them pass as truth. Loki was inferior to Thor in essence and function; but for a thousand years, this reality has passed as ordinary sibling rivalry. However, when you scratched the paint, you found only one true reason behind it all: Thor was a fully-fledged Odinson while Loki hadn’t even been a fully-fledged person.

Clint saw them both clear as day now. He understood, then, why he still wasn’t scared—because Thor was.

His mother had died and he was so afraid it’d force him to see what he’d refused to see—that his brother was lost as well. He was just a spoiled child in some way, so terrified of change that he’d deny the truth till the very end.

Clint looked at him. He still wasn’t entirely sure Thor wouldn’t kill him, but as far as last words went, what he was about to say wasn’t all bad.

“We’re not puppets,” he began. “We don’t exist only to further your life. We have a right to suffer. You keep forgetting we have minds of our own, so much that you were ready to let Loki die as long as he died as your brother. Except you never really believed I’d kill him, did you? You already knew I couldn’t. You had me all figured out.”

Thor’s silence was enough of an answer.

Clint went on, “You thought I’d just hurt him, like a good attack dog, until he made amends like he always did before.” He felt oddly lighter. “But he’s not gonna dance for anyone any longer, and—” he realized it as he said it, “—I’m done with that too.”

Thor stared at him for an entire minute. His world was falling to pieces this time; and Clint might have pitied him if Loki’s screams hadn’t been still echoing in his ears.

“No,” Thor mumbled.

Clint wasn’t sure what he was denying. Maybe the whole thing. “No,” he repeated in a stubborn voice, blue eyes too bright, and then he backed off and all but ran away.

It was so anticlimactic a conclusion that Clint just stayed there blinking, not believing that he was really gone—just like that, letting him live, leaving him behind.

Then he looked at the broken door, looked at the empty hallway stretching ahead.

He cautiously left his cell, looking around.

There was no one.

He went up the corridor at a slow pace, without trying to hide or run, in a somewhat dazed state. There was a faint but persistent feeling at the back of his numbness; perhaps amusement, or wonder, or simply disbelief.

Clint reached the main quarters without any trouble; the Playground was similar to Providence in its design, and he found the armory on his first try. Triplett had given him plain jeans and a nondescript shirt to wear, but he was barefoot. He stole rangers which he laced without any hurry. Picking up a gray hoodie, he was pleased to find his bag stashed underneath. His money and fake IDs were still in it.

He shouldered it and left the room, without so much as glancing towards the guns on the wall.

 

*

 

The crisp night air felt like ice cold life in his lungs. It was the last hour before dawn, but he could still make out several buildings in the darkness, and thick woods split in two by the dust road curving to the left and vanishing in the shadows. Clint heard voices in the distance; Coulson was there towards the hangars, along with May, Triplett, and Skye. They were all talking animatedly to Thor, in a tone which meant both parties were demanding explanations from the other and not getting them.

Clint stayed there for entirely too long, but no one looked at him.

He turned away from them and started walking down the path.

 

*

 

He walked until he got out of the forest and reached the main road, stretching straight and flat to both ends of the horizon. When the pale morning cast his blue shadow against the asphalt, he allowed himself to look behind, one last time. They must have realized he was gone by now.

But there was still nothing to be heard or seen, save for the stillness of dawn. So he started walking again and this time, he didn’t turn back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“For that price,” the lady told him over her desk, “I’ve got either Buenos Aires, Toronto, or Reykjavik.”

Clint had only one week of validity left on his passport, and he only wanted to cross the ocean. He’d never been to Iceland.

He shrugged. “Let’s go with Reykjavik.”

There was no way it was a business trip, not with how random his choice was; but she still asked as per usual, “Going away for business?”

The day was bright and blue now, out the great windows of the airport. A white plane soared past, spotless in the rising sun, and Clint was surprised to feel himself smile, a little.

“No,” he answered. “Holidays.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Coulson wasn’t coming after him.

Maybe Clint had wanted to be sure or maybe he just couldn’t muster the energy to care, but he hadn’t even canceled his credit card, hadn’t even changed his name, hadn’t made any effort to hide; but no efforts were made to find him, either. After all, SHIELD was to be rebuilt and the free world to be saved; there was plenty of good excuses not to go running after one stray operative right now. And if that meant they were technically letting him go, well, that didn’t seem to bother Coulson too much.

Clint wished he could have thanked him, but the only real way to do so was to disappear and make it so Phil would never have to regret his choice.

 

*

 

Clint had always thought he’d die an agent of SHIELD. Now, he felt like he’d stolen someone else’s life, leaping into another existence just as Agent Barton was destroyed. He’d gotten out. Which shouldn’t have been allowed, shouldn’t have been possible, and he still couldn’t quite believe it.

He wasn’t sure what to do with himself.

He didn’t stay in Reykjavik for very long; after landing, he rented a car and drove east. He couldn’t have stayed put to save his life, and his instinct made him flee the crowds. He was jet-lagged and exhausted and numb, and on full automatic mode.

 

*

 

The city stuck with him for a while, but the buildings around grew more scattered and sparse with each mile; then it all abruptly turned into something wild and cruel, unlike anything he’d ever seen.

There was no sign of civilization, save for the road splitting the wilderness in half; no sign of life either, no trees, no plants—only endless lava fields, black and sharp and jagged, like the bottom of the ocean; and from above, a waterfall of dazzling white light. It was something of an eerie, dreadful sight, everything flat and black and lifeless. Everything wiped out, razed to the ground. It seemed like the entire world had ended along with Clint’s former existence.

The sun wasn’t setting, even though it was now past midnight. Clint drove on until his tremors got so bad he couldn’t drive anymore, until he felt like he was driving across a sharp-edged nightmare.

He parked on the side of the road and looked around. He felt exhausted and feverish, but the sharp black desert set his teeth on edge. Now that the engine was silent, he felt more lost and stranded than ever. He wasn’t sure why he’d come here and wasn’t even sure he was here at all. It couldn’t possibly be that easy—and it wasn’t, because he’d gotten out and now what? Now what? Now what?

Eventually, he grew so restless he felt he like was going to crawl out of his skin. He would’ve left the car to take a walk, but he was afraid of the outside, and too tired to reason himself about it. He ended up digging through the glove box for something to read, to distract himself, anything to make him look away from the unforgiving, mineral hell he’d found himself in.

He found a little tourist guidebook in English, belonging to the car company. He flipped the pages nervously and opened it at random.

In time, he read, weathered lava fields make for the most fertile lands on Earth.

He stared at the book for five full minutes.

Then he closed it again and looked around once more, this time more calmly. Outside was only rock and light.

He was wrong. This wasn’t the end.

This was after the end. This was what a brand new world looked like, when someone was here to see it.

Bare rock and unfiltered light. Lifeless and empty and raw. But eventually, the edges would grow smoother and wouldn’t hurt so much. Eventually, it would all grow fertile once more. And Clint hadn’t grown anything of his own for years; of course it would take a bit of time to get used to it again.

He slowly put the book back, then turned on the ignition and drove away across the black fields, his fingers still trembling a little around the wheel.

 

*

 

Clint didn’t realize exactly where he’d come until later the next day.

He hadn’t thought about the implications on the plane, and hadn’t connected the dots either when he’d read the signs in Icelandic or seen the little Vikings in the airport gift shop. But after his first, sleepless night, he stopped for food and fuel at a gas station—and that was when it hit him. It was so obvious in retrospect that he would wonder, later, if someone else hadn’t played his part in his not noticing until then. But this time the clues were just too numerous for him to ignore.

There were the books, in English and German and Spanish. Norse Gods and their Stories. The Elder Edda and Snorri’s Tales – Bilingual Version. Sigurd and other Icelandic Sagas. And there was also the jewelry, the tiny silver necklaces with one different rune engraved on each—Vikings Symbols of Power!

Clint picked up the first one, turned the tiny cardboard label and read, Fehu: Possession.

He quietly put the necklace back.

But as he paid for his groceries, he bought the bilingual Edda, and a cup of coffee to go.

 

*

 

He drove for days until he stripped himself of his last shreds of paranoia and realized he didn’t have to.

He stopped in a little village in the southeast. Snowy mountains fell steeply into the tiny harbor, where small colored boats danced like bright toys in the clear water. Clint rented a room, put the Edda on his nightstand, shut the curtains and slept—a deep, rich, sound slumber, which was like sinking down dark waters and nestling underneath the warm soft mud to rest.

When he woke up, it could have been any time in the day or night. Hell, he wasn’t even sure what day it was.

He looked out of his room at the harbor, with the mountains in the background and, further still, the blazing white wall of a glacier, like a frozen wave the size of the horizon. The light was as harsh as before, but there was life here—a bit of life, a few plants and mosses, and gulls cawing high up in the air.

This, he decided, was as good a place to settle as any.

 

*

 

At first, he simply wandered around, peeking curiously at everything he saw and using his bilingual tales to try and make head and tail of the Icelandic language—an attempt which proved vastly unsuccessful. He quickly gave up and reverted to English, since everyone here spoke it anyway.

On the third day, he took up hiking. Everything, he found, was effortlessly gorgeous.

The feeling of being at the beginning of the world hadn’t deserted him. There was, as he’d observed, no night at this time of the year. The sun went down, then back up, and down again, like a phoenix drawing circles over their heads. It rained, then it stopped raining, then it rained again. Clouds were continuously shredding and melting back together in an aerial dance of cotton, shadow and light chasing each other on the slopes of the mountains.

Clint felt like he was on stand-by, trapped in a circle, waiting. He found he didn’t really mind, but he still felt unsure. Should he be waiting?

Logically, the answer should be no. Loki had played him one last time in Minto Lakes—exacting his revenge by exposing Clint, rather than killing him; a softer vengeance, but vengeance nonetheless. But like he’d told Coulson, Clint wasn’t angry about it. If anything, it felt adequate. Yet he was left with the strange certainty that it wasn’t over, and that right here in Iceland was where it all ended.

This wasn’t just a matter of being in a Norse country. Iceland was Loki’s land, almost too obviously so. A mess of ice and fire under an ever-changing weather; split in half deep under by a gaping crack which kept widening; but concealing its chaos under aggressive, insane beauty. Simply being here was like calling his name.

And Clint saw Loki’s name everywhere. Some guy in Reykjavik was writing a play about him. Some hoof-shaped basin in the North was said to be the mark of his son. Some bar in the small village had a drink named after him.

Clint wondered if he should wait, if really there was something to wait for. He wondered if it had been a good idea to come here.

But he didn’t feel like leaving, not just now, so he stayed.

 

*

 

He’d let himself lose track of time, so he honestly didn’t know when it finally happened.

“The Edda,” someone said with a smile in his voice. “I remember.”

Clint’s eyes blinked open. It was the middle of the night and he’d drawn his curtains against the midnight sun; harsh, white lines of light cut through the darkness.

There was a weight on the bed, close enough that Clint had rolled closer, against the solid warmth of it. He had spent days expecting this moment and yet he was still surprised—surprised he’d been right, maybe.

Pages were flipped in the dark and the smooth voice read a few lines in guttural, flawless Icelandic. Then the book was put back down on the nightstand.

“What does it say about me, again?”

Clint had read that part. He slightly propped himself up. “That you’re pretty and wicked.”

Loki chuckled slightly, as if to say they’d gotten that one right. Then he turned his head to look at Clint.

He was dressed very simply, in a dark pullover and green jeans; his unruly hair was a flow of absolute blackness down his back. There was no glamour covering up his scars or the wounds he’d sustained in the lab; Clint could see that while his torn ear had healed up nicely, it hadn’t quite grown back. The cuts on his arms seemed to have faded, although Clint couldn’t see further up than the wrist. The rune was gone, but not entirely—some kind of nacreous watermark remained on his cheek, visible only when he moved. Someone else than Clint might have not known it was there.

Loki looked better, without that restless despair which had possessed him before—and that Clint saw plainly only now that it was no longer there. But he didn’t look peaceful, not by a long shot. Being in Clint’s room—having come to him, after so long, which amounted to admitting he’d followed him all the way to Iceland—seemed unsettling to him; yet he’d let his glamour fade away, allowing himself to look vulnerable, even though he still kept a façade up. There was something strained and brittle about his smile.

He stared at Clint for a long minute, then slightly narrowed his eyes. “Are you not mad?”

Clint shook his head, and Loki looked a bit at a loss. Apparently, he’d come expecting a fight.

“Thought you’d be long gone,” Clint said hesitantly.

Loki’s smile reappeared and grew lopsided. “Yet you came to me.”

Clint almost rolled his eyes. “I didn’t come to you.”

“I got here first,” Loki objected. “Hundreds of years ago, as a matter of fact.”

Clint couldn’t answer anything to that. When Loki shifted on the bed, Clint felt again his weight through the woolen quilt, pressing against his thigh. There was a moment of silence as they both waited for the other to speak.

“There is a volcano,” Loki said eventually. “Stifled under the glacier. It is going to erupt very soon and bring it all to ruin.”

His very voice sounded breakable, like he spoke over something huge which had swelled inside him, leaving him paper-thin. And Clint suddenly knew, just knew, that Loki had heard of his mother’s death. Thor must have found him, somehow. Clint wanted desperately to ask, to make sure, but some words are not meant to be said.

He sat up and asked, softly, “When’s very soon?”

Loki shrugged.

“Maybe it won’t happen,” Clint said.

“Volcanoes do little else.”

There was a silence. Loki sat there in the dark, in a frame of sleepless sun. In his inevitable future was fire and blood; and yet he was sitting in Clint’s room in an obvious attempt to delay it.

Not that he’d admit it.

Clint felt a bit of his old frustration with him return. Fuck whoever had invented dignity, and fuck twice whoever had invented revenge. “It doesn’t have to happen,” he insisted. “And enough with the goddamn metaphors already, Jesus fuck. Just—don’t go back. This old fucker ain’t worth it.”

Loki looked at him; his expression seemed to hesitate between his usual grin, and something… else, flickering beneath.

“You’re concerned,” he said.

“Yeah. I’m concerned. Happy?”

There was a pause.

“Have you forgiven me?” Loki asked, quizzical.

“Have you said sorry?” Clint snapped back.

The grin won out, irony etching itself into Loki’s sharp features again. “Oh, Barton,” he said in mock disappointment. “You know better.”

Clint’s weariness came back like a high tide. He felt utterly helpless—felt like Loki was made of this jagged black rock; he’d been malleable once, but now he was cold lava, and it was too late, for anything. He could not give an inch of ground anymore, not without breaking; or so he thought—and he’d never be convinced otherwise.

“If you just said the word,” Clint said tiredly. “If you just let yourself,” but even as he said it, a nasty little voice said in the back of his head pot, kettle.

Loki was still smiling. “Are you asking me to stay?”

“No,” Clint answered.

He said no because he didn’t want to lie, because Loki was exhausting to be around and Clint was at the end of his rope.

 He said no because if he’d said yes, Loki would have left at once.

Well, hey. He was free, now, after all. Nothing could stop his own pain and anger to drive him back to the stars—unless someone forced him to stop.

But Clint was so, so tired of going down that road.

“No,” he repeated softly, “you’re the one who’s gotta ask.”

In this moment, no matter how weary he felt, he sincerely hoped Loki would. But they both knew how that went.

Loki’s smile grew wistful; he gazed into the darkness, and he murmured, so low Clint barely heard the words, “Damn me.”

Then he looked back up, and his scarred grin was sharp again. “Damn you all,” he said. “You cannot expect me to give up. I have come too far to dream of it.” He tilted his head to the side. “Do you remember that first day in the Triskelion? You really should have killed me then, Barton. While it was still t—”

Clint pulled him close and pressed their mouths together.

Loki stilled; for a second, Clint feared Loki would not even allow this, would stifle it too under hard-boiled layers of scathing irony. But then, slowly, Loki parted his lips and softened by a fraction, his weight shifting against Clint’s again.

Clint scooted closer, plunging his hands in the black hair with a wave of relief; Loki clung to him, and Clint felt tremors of exhaustion run through his wracked frame.

So this was why he’d come back. For a last bout of silence. For a last chance to give in. When Clint pushed him back and held him down, the demi-god went boneless in his grip.

“Only for tonight,” he still breathed when Clint tried to kiss him again. “I am not—”

Clint pulled his hair hard enough to make him cry out and stay very still, lest he broke his neck.  

“Enough now,” he ordered quietly. “Enough.”

Loki swallowed, then closed his eyes and exhaled shakily. When Clint kissed him again, he melted into it.

Enough. It would have to be enough. All they could share in the end was a bit of warmth. The rest was history and would be history—the same old story Clint already knew since some of it was printed inside the book on his nightstand. No effort could be, or would be, made to stray from it. Stubbornness, after all, falls in equal share to gods and men; and so they call it destiny.

Perhaps it is.

 

*

 

Beneath the curtain, the midnight sun had insensibly turned into bright dawn. Loki was asleep in Clint’s arms, tucked against his chest; they were tangled together under the quilt, limbs twined like ivy, fingers laced like vine.

Clint wasn’t sleeping. This was the last night before the rest of his life. He focused on the steady rise and fall of Loki’s chest against his. Not long ago, he couldn’t have held him like this, not without guilt or shame or some measure of disgust; and he was sure he’d feel all these things sooner or later, but right now, for one stolen moment, it was okay.

Clint’s frustration wasn’t gone. It was almost maddening, really, all that could have been; a word from either of them could have turned it all around. But Loki was too proud to stay, and Clint was too selfish to make him. Or rather, perhaps, Loki was too hurt to move on, and Clint too weary to stay. Either way, Loki was heading back, and Clint forward; and that was that.

Freedom. Life’s great fucking lie.

Clint looked at the dark curtains framed in light. He knew that once he opened them, it would be over, past and future rushing back to set the present in motion again. He wasn’t as wary as he should; he had been given a new life, something he’d once ceased to hope for. Right now, it still hurt, jagged and puzzling, but in time all the sharp-edged novelty would become old lava underneath.

He… kind of looked forward to it. Maybe he’d go find Natasha. Or maybe he’d do something else entirely, who knew.

But not just right now. Right now, Loki deserved those last few minutes of obscurity, because he was the one who’d wiped Clint’s world anew.

The Joker stops the game and makes it start over.

So he let the lying night linger; and maybe there were thanks tangled there somewhere, perhaps even some kind of twisted apology, at long last; but from whom to whom it was impossible to say. It was all buried anyway, down into the solidified stone, irretrievable now.

It was useless to discuss any further; but in the dark, Clint slowly came to realize there was still one last thing he wanted to say, before the curtains were drawn open and the light of a new day flooded in.

He shifted minutely against Loki and felt him shift in return, a slow, drawn-out stretch. In this second, Clint remembered the haunted, gaunt man carrying a deck of cards in his back pocket; and he was glad to let him go. He closed his eyes.

“You asked me what was left of you the day you stopped fighting,” he murmured. “It’s not actually that bad; you should try it sometimes.”

Loki hummed, then tightened their embrace.

“Well, lover,” he sighed, “maybe I will.”

It was a blatant lie, but Clint let it slide. This one was almost sweet.

           

 

 

 

They’re not often sure, those who sit in the hall,

Whose kin they are who’ve come;

No man is so good that he has no flaw,

Nor so bad that he’s good for nothing.

 

The Elder Edda, “Hávamál”, stanza 133.