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How to Stop Hating Your Enemy and Not Be Friends (Really)

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They're not friends. Not really. After all, it's hard to be friends with someone who was trying to kill you a couple of months ago, and they both had been aiming to do that, up until the fabric of reality had literally ripped open and grudges like my family lied to me all my life and you're a psycho pseudo-god and even I just don't like you became little more than background noise to the battle to continue to exist.

The things that Clint can appreciate about Loki are far and few between. After all, they're very different people in a fundamental way, not just that they're aliens from each other's points of view but that Loki is still quite unhinged. Maybe Loki was always unhinged, in kind of that unstated way that wasn't really understated but you could get away with, at least when your good days outnumber your bad. Either way, Clint can't just trust the guy. Loki, if anything, is a moody bastard, more so than most women that Clint has met, and Clint hates moodiness for the sake of being moody, which, he suspects, is what Loki really is.

But the one thing he can appreciate is Loki's skill with his throwing knives. It was never really apparent when Loki was fighting with them (perhaps because Loki was crazier at the time, and being that crazy did tend swap real talents in favor of things that go BOOM), but now that Loki is working with the Avengers, it's become apparent that his skills with throwing knives (or, really, any sharp, bladed object; Loki isn't picky) is excellent. Maybe it's regular meals and a stable place to sleep, or maybe it's being accepted, albeit out of utter necessity, but the throwing knives appeared one day, a month into this fight, and Clint hopes they don't go away any time soon.

The knives, like Clint's guns and arrows, are tangible, unlike Loki's usual magic and illusions, and, although Clint doesn't trust Loki, he can trust Loki's knives. Not to be real, necessarily, but at least to do actual damage, the kind that draws blood and leaves their opponents wounded and in pain. Clint even knows which knives are Loki's real ones, and they're curved, evil-looking things, all smiling shine and frowning promise. Loki can be brutal with those knives, Clint knows, has witnessed Loki backed into a corner and using them to make literal mincemeat of one of the monsters that the rift in reality had spawned. He didn't boast about that feat after, just sort of faded into the background of the clean-up, and suddenly Clint had understood why the knives had never shown up before, why Loki had kept his physical skill largely hidden:

He's afraid of it.

After that, Clint watches Loki. Loki knows Clint is watching, sometimes puts on a bit of a show, sometimes gives him a glare, and even other times simple indifference. He's nothing like Thor, Clint has always known, but watching Loki closely drives that truth home. Where Thor is confident, Loki is unsure. Where Thor shines, Loki shadows. And where Thor cannot tread--be it in reality or figuratively--, Loki goes, always there in the mirror or the dark to make sure his brother does not fall to the unseen. It seems to be a way of life for both brothers, Thor charging the obvious threats and Loki putting down the creatures in the dark, and Clint thinks of other marksmen and women he's known, S.H.I.E.L.D. and otherwise, and he thinks he's begun to understand why Loki is crazy.

It's the stress. Loki is a person used to stress. It shows in his build, the way that his body sometimes seems almost like it's stretched and compressed at the same time. Clint has seen it in a lot people like Loki (like Clint himself), has seen it bleed out on battlefields or cause a good man to snap and then earn them an honorable discharge to a psychiatric ward. Loki obviously snapped, but there was no one to catch him or understand what had happened, much like an undercover agent too deep in the second life to be rescued, even if someone figured out what was happening before it was too late. Clint knows the signs far too well.

He also knows the signs of someone coming back from the edge. Loki smiles much less than he did when he was their enemy, but he wasn't really smiling then, more like mimicking the expression. Now, though, when Loki does smile, it's small and quiet, much like Loki himself really is now that he's not trying to kill them, to make them all see him. What's more is that Loki's aim--with his magic, with his knives, even with his fists--is better, almost on par with Clint's, which doesn't rankle in the way that Clint would have thought it would. For Loki, the marksmanship simply is, something he doesn't need to think about but that he can depend on, just like how it is for Clint, when it comes down to it.

Tonight, he comes down into the kitchen in the Avengers Mansion to find Loki pondering the ever-present fruit bowl that rarely was ever eaten from except by Natasha and, apparently, Loki. Loki glances up momentarily--sharp green eyes but no threat in them--before turning his attention back to the fruit bowl and selecting a granny smith apple, turning it over absently in his hands. Clint moves to the cabinets and extracts a bag of peanut butter pretzels, tearing the plastic top apart to help himself to the salty, nutty goodness inside.

"So, where'd you learn to throw knives like that?"

Loki looks up abruptly. "I'm sorry?"

Clint waves a hand flippantly, popping a pretzel into his mouth. "Knife throwing," he says after chewing for a bit. "Did you learn that on Asgard or...?"

Loki doesn't answer right away, instead taking a bite out of the apple in a manner that isn't entirely human, really more like watching a predator sink its teeth into tough flesh, sucking the apple's juices from the flesh in his mouth before chewing just enough to swallow. Thor eats like that sometimes, although the in-humanness is usually masked by the voracious manner by which Thor consumes his food. Loki, on the other hand, never eats voraciously, rather in what must be the Asgardian equivalent of dainty, which, unfortunately, simply accentuates how alien Loki is in this world.

"Yes."

Clint blinks and hides his surprise behind another handful of peanut butter pretzels. He hadn't actually expected Loki to answer, but it seemed he'd caught the trickster in one of his rare good moods. Loki doesn't look at Clint, instead gazing contemplatively at the bite he'd taken out of the apple.

"We all receive basic training with all weapons," he elaborates, although it's not really for Clint's benefit, more just because Loki wants to talk. "Eventually, we specialize, and I went with the knives. They're conductive of most magic and are good at both close and mid-range, when some offensive spells can become a hindrance."

Clint nods. Loki's point is sound, considering that a good deal of Loki's offensive spells involve a lot of fire or massive explosions or creatures of horrendous proportions. A couple months ago, Loki hadn't been worrying at all about that sort of thing, but insanity definitely put a damper on self-preservation. That was what really destroyed those others Clint has seen, and it's faded somewhat over the past few weeks. Clint is grateful for that, even if Loki isn't really a friend.

"What about you?"

He blinks, surprised again although he doesn't bother to hide it this time as Loki stares at him with those intense green eyes. "What about me?"

Loki smiles, just a little bit, somewhere between his old expression mocking of humanity and actual amusement. "Where did you learn your craft?"

It's a fair question; Clint licks his lips. "I worked as an archer in the circus for a while, and then I met Natasha, and we took jobs together until we joined S.H.I.E.L.D. I had a mentor at the circus who taught me what I know with the bow, and I've honed my skills on the field. It's -"

He pauses, but the continued stare tells him he hasn't paid enough. "It's a way of life for me."

Loki inclines his head slightly in understanding, and Clint breathes out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. He watches as Loki takes another bite of his apple, lets them fall into a silence that isn't companionable exactly, but something close to it. It's rare that Loki appears to be content, and even rarer that he is comfortable enough just to be. Clint has only glimpsed it when he's seen Thor and Loki when they think they're alone, the way that all they seem to just meld and flow together. In those few moments, the stress slips from Loki's form, and Thor softens, just enough. They're good for each other, Clint has come to realize, better together than they ever were apart.

He folds the pretzel bag's open top down, grabbing one of the snack bag clips from a drawer and securing it before returning the bag to the cabinet. By the time he turns around, Loki is taking another bite of his apple, expression calm and eyes on a point faraway. It looks like they won't be conversing anymore tonight, and Clint is content to leave it that way. After all, they're not friends.

Clint yawns, stretching as he heads towards the kitchen door. "'Night, Loki."

A pause, surprised, before a quiet, almost gentle, "Good evening, Agent Barton," follows Clint out the door.