February first, and Clint Barton kneels down next to his nice, comfy bed in his nice, too-big room in Tony's mansion, folds his hands together, and shines his most winning smile up at the ceiling, where he thinks JARVIS doesn't have a camera placed.
“Well, God, I hope I don't have to tell you what a good boy I've been this year,” so far, “and I think it's time you did a little something for me.” Clint doesn't receive an answer to that, which he takes as tacit consent. “As you know, I now have two months to come up with the best prank ever. I was hoping you would give me some help with that.”
“What did you have in mind?” asks a curious, slightly muffled voice behind him, prompting an awkward moment where Clint is suddenly on the other side of his bed with a gun pointed at his intruder's face. The guy's instantly strange and familiar- wearing a pair of black sweatpants that cling to narrow hips, a toothbrush half in his mouth, snow-white skin and long black hair and green eyes and shit, it's Loki.
“Shit, it's Loki,” Clint sighs, but after the initial shock it's hard to maintain a sense of surprise about an actual god of chaos doing unexpected things. Clint's hand is discreetly wrapped around his communicator, but Loki waves a hand and it's suddenly in midair, floating over Loki's shoulder.
“Not here to fight,” Loki tells him, sounding almost... cheerful. Clint seriously considers pulling the trigger, just to see if Loki'll pluck the bullets out of the air, too, but decides against it when Loki stops brushing his teeth and makes everything- toothpaste, foam, toothbrush- disappear with a snap of green light.
“So what the hell are you here for?” Clint gets to his feet, but slowly, and wonders why the hell JARVIS hasn't sent Tony and the rest of the Avengers running in here yet.
“As it so happens,” and damn, this skinny asshole sounds way too happy for someone who's usually cackling madly and trying to kill Clint, “I like to plan ahead, Agent Barton. When I first came into contact with your little troupe of adventurers, I cast a spell upon each of you. Would you like to know what that spell was?” Clint scowls a little, his mind thrown back to the last time Loki used his magic on them- last month, the thing with the giant bats and the screaming lizard monsters.
“I actually think I'd be fine never having to deal with you and your spells again, Loki,” Clint grunts, watching the trickster warily. Loki grins expectantly, looking for a moment exactly like Coulson does when he has an assignment for Clint that promises to be entertaining. Clint grinds his teeth a little at the comparison. “Alright, I'll bite. What was the spell, Loki?”
“If any one of you were to call upon me for help in something, I would hear your request,” Loki says gleefully, striding towards Clint, rubbing his hands together like a cartoon character. It doesn't help, Clint thinks sourly, that Loki mostly looks like a scrawny kid going to a sleepover right now. “And if it was worthy of my attention, I would grant your wish and thereby possess you in my debt.”
“That's... creepy beyond measure, but I didn't ask you for anything,” Clint points out, peering over at Loki. “In fact, I'm pretty sure you're just an extradimensional troll prince, and also pretty sure I was asking the god with the great big beard for help there.”
“Odin won't help you plan a prank worthy of songs told decades after your mortal form rots into nothingness,” Loki says, and for a moment he looks and sounds earnest, like when Cap starts talking about the American legal system. Clint fights back the urge to pet Loki like a puppy or something.
“When you say debt,” Clint begins, occupying his hands with checking his gun for some nonexistent thing. “Do you mean any kind of a debt, or just a debt equal to the thing I'm asking from you? Because if it means shooting Tony in the face later just because you helped me punk the crap out of the guys-” Clint stops, but he moves his hand along in a gesture that Loki grimaces a little at.
“Well. When I cast the spell I had imagined that it would be something more extreme, like begging me not to kill someone you love, or reviving one of your dead companions. Or asking for my aid in battle.” Loki steps closer, and in the dim light of his bedroom Clint can see just the faintest hint of old scars on his body, silver-white and just a shade paler than the rest of him. “This is an agreeable trial run, however. It puts me in no danger and will illuminate what, if any, limitations I will have upon the fulfillment of my reward.”
“Right,” Clint says, frowning. “I have to ask how you're still standing here and Thor isn't in here walloping you with Mjolnir.” Loki narrows his eyes a little at that, but it's hard for Clint to see the menace in the expression.
“I have encased this room in a protective enchantment,” Loki says, slinking forward. “A relatively simple one, it prevents information from entering or leaving its boundaries. Your digital guardian, while terribly clever, is not much more than information run through wires and waves.”
“That's kind of cool,” Clint says cautiously, spotting a flaw that he isn't sure he should point out. “But, uh, it doesn't actually keep anyone else out, right?”
“Why should it?” Loki seems... surprised, if anything. “They are not alerted to my presence, so-”
There is a resounding boom as the door flies off its hinges, a fully-suited Tony rushing in with Natasha and Bruce in tow. Both of them are wearing what they planned on going to sleep in; only one of them still looks absolutely lethal. One guess which.
“Ah,” Loki says, eyes lighting up. The three assembled Avengers seem to be speaking, but none of what they are saying makes it to Clint's ears. “In my haste to join you, Hawkeye, I may have neglected a few things.”
“The fact that we keep watch over everyone at all times for a reason?” Clint asks. Loki laughs a little, still in his good mood from earlier.
“Very well. Consider my offer, archer. I'll hear you when you call.”
With another little snap, Loki vanishes, and Clint is hit with a wall of sound as the barrier goes down and all of his team mates are suddenly audible.
“Right,” Clint sighs, mostly because Natasha is looking at him like she absolutely knows this is his fault.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Steve Rogers tries and tries and tries, but he somehow cannot figure out how this is not actually Clint's fault.
“Agent Barton, we're not blaming you,” he tries again, and Clint gives him a dark, sullen glare that suggests otherwise. For that, at least, Steve doesn't blame him- it's been eight hours since a confrontation that apparently started when Clint was about to climb into bed. Now his room is peppered with debris and his things are all being scanned for what Tony is referring to (probably sarcastically) as magical pixiedust fairy particles, and he hasn't had so much as a catnap on the couch for all the debriefing he's been put through.
“Just... run through the details with me again, alright?” Steve puts on his best USO smile, which usually gets a laugh out of Clint. Now it gets a derisive snort and some fidgeting. “You were about to climb into bed, you were... saying your prayers,” Steve doesn't want to do the finger quotes, so he clutches onto one of Tony's prototype Starkphones, “and then Loki teleported into your room and prevented our security feeds and surveillance systems from seeing or hearing anything while you two were together in there. And he did it so he could offer you a favor.”
“That's the gist of it,” Clint growls, and Steve is a little taken aback. To be completely honest, when he'd first gotten to know the team, Clint had been something of an unabashed fanboy, which absolutely tortures Steve to this day. It's nice that Clint can talk to him like a normal person nowadays, but Clint's actually pissed off at him now.
Steve clears his throat and gets to his feet. “You know what, we've been over this a dozen times. Why don't you get some rest?”
“Gee, Cap, that's a swell idea,” Clint responds, his tone so dry Steve actually needs a glass of water. Clint pushes past him and is camped out on the couch before Steve can actually apologize for anything- which is stupid, because this isn't Steve's fault any more than it's Clint's. It's Loki's, and probably Thor's, if only because Loki mainly does this stuff to bug his brother more than anything else.
Steve's starting to get a headache just from thinking about it, and he almost misses it when Clint punches a couch pillow into a comfortable shape and mutters a quick, fine, whatever under his breath.
Steve, naturally, assumes Clint is talking to either himself or to the less-than-ideal couch cushion, and chalks it up to stress and exhaustion.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Let me make sure you get something through your head before anything happens,” Clint begins, utterly without preamble. He's perched high above a relatively simple fracas between the Avengers and Doombots. Normally, he'd be shooting things with those nice arrows they make for him down in R&D, but the rest of the Avengers are handling things well and he's ready to shoot if he has to.
Also, he's still really frickin' annoyed at the guys for what happened last week after Loki left.
“I'm all ears,” Loki purrs, floating next to him in in a pair of track pants and a light sweater. The sweater is a sort of creamy tan color that Clint thinks would look good on Pepper or Natasha, maybe that one ginger agent who works with Coulson. Loki's shoeless again, but at least he's wearing socks. Clint squints at them. They are covered in little candy canes.
“Actually, before we go any further, I need to know why the hell you dress like this,” Clint says, finally. “Your armor looks pretty cool, from what I can tell while you're in the middle of fighting us.”
“Thank you,” Loki says, sounding like he means it.
“Okay, yeah, but then you ruin the illusion by showing up to a meeting with your adversary-slash-prospective partner looking like a terribly distracted soccer mom,” Clint finishes, adding, “And not the naughty sexy kind, dude. You look like you don't know how to dress yourself. Even Thor knows about jeans and shirts and sneakers.”
“I dress for comfort,” Loki mutters, sulking. Clint considers this, dismissing it from his mind. Below, Thor and Hulk are bashing the crap out of some robots, which is always nice to watch.
“Whatever, man. Whatever. Back to what we're doing, then. This prank thing? First things first. Nothing lethal, nothing permanent, and nothing that'll mentally scar anybody so much they actually hate us.” Clint raises a finger, waving it in Loki's general direction. “That seems to be a major rule that you haven't really grasped about pranking down in Asgard. If you prank someone and you care about them, you can't be a douchebag.”
“And if you are pranking someone you do not particularly care for?” Loki prompts, and Clint shrugs.
“You still have to keep things nonlethal and mostly legal, then. And because these guys are my friends,” most of the time, “that means I decide that this is the first kind of prank, and nobody gets hurt. Got it?”
“Anything else?” Loki sighs, examining his nails.
“As long as we're working on this prank thing, you're not gonna do any of your normal crazy bullshit that you do,” Clint says bluntly. “No randomly attacking us. No randomly attacking anything. In fact, just don't be random.” Loki opens his mouth to protest, but snaps it shut of his own accord, looking thoughtful. Clint glares a little, waiting for Loki to agree.
“I suppose I have nothing immediately urgent to do,” Loki finally sighs. Clint decides to count this as a victory in the raging Steve-versus-Tony debate about whether their enemies can be used as forces for good. “Anything else, mortal?”
“Nope,” Clint says cheerfully. “But if you don't cut the “mortal” crap, you're going to be impossible to work with. Clint's fine.”
Loki stares at him for a moment, before his mouth twists into a weird little smile. “Clint it is, then.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Steve doesn't know if he likes how things are going with Clint lately. After the whole Loki thing happened in February, Clint seemed so... sulky and angry, at first. Clint eventually cheered up, sure, but Steve still gets the feeling that something's off about him, and it's unsettling.
The only one who agrees with him is Natasha, but when she finally does talk to Steve about Clint, she's short and to the point.
“Just let things settle on their own, Steve,” she grunts, throwing Steve to the floor of the sparring area with a move that ought to be impossible for someone with her legs. “He'll warm back up to you when he's comfortable again.”
“But we're a team, Nat,” Steve sighs miserably, as she helps him to his feet. “I know Stark's a lost cause and all, but we really need everyone else to like each other.”
“Stop pushing him, Steve,” and Natasha sounds way more gentle than he'd ever have expected from her. “Clint's got his own way of dealing with things. You just need to be patient.”
Steve shrugs glumly, and lets her lead him out of the gym.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Whatever you're up to, I want in,” Tony says, flopping down onto Clint's bed without the slightest concern for Clint's laptop or the fact that Clint was currently stretched out on the bed, using it to watch funny videos to decompress after a long hard day's avenging.
“Tony, it's just a cat with its head stuck in a box,” Clint says slowly, because he knows exactly what Tony really means. Tony just continues to peer at him over those stupid shades of his, and Clint quietly shuts his laptop.
“You know, ever since Loki burst in here blowing your stuff up-”
“Tony, that was you, you asshole-”
“-he's been real quiet, hasn't he? I mean, Thor's getting worried, because he hasn't gone this long without hearing from the guy since-” Tony makes a vague gesture, somehow not spilling his drink on Clint as he does so. Clint understands- ever since Thor thought he died. “And, strangely enough, you've been pretty quiet yourself. Now, sure, some people might think these two things aren't all that connected-”
“Most people, Tony,” Clint corrects, because really, being the most normal person in this bunch of crazies has to count for something. Tony acts like he doesn't hear Clint, anyway.
“-but you've actually gotten under our buddy the Patriot's skin with this thing,” Tony finishes, giving Clint a frankly obscene eyebrow waggle. “Ergo? I want in. Anything that bugs Rogers this much is bound to be worth doing.”
“...right,” Clint sighs, picking up his phone. “The first thing you need to know, Stark, is that I've been doing a little research on my downtime, okay? I'm not saying the guy's perfect, but if you look at the patterns, he doesn't actually seem to be doing much on the evil scale, alright?”
“Who, Rogers?” Tony asks, sipping his drink with an expression of ultimate smugness. Clint closes his eyes and counts to ten and tries to remember all the years when it was just him and Coulson and Natasha and Fury and Sitwell and Woo, normal people who were not actually crazy.
“Stark, focus. The guy causes mayhem, but for someone who attacks us as often as he does, he's still in the double-digits for civilian casualties, and even Banner's racked up a higher number from back when he could barely control the Hulk. Hell, if we counted you as a supervillain, you'd probably-”
“Is there a fucking point to this?” Tony snaps, good humor evaporating. Clint sighs.
“I'm not saying he's not a bad guy who engages in stuff we absolutely have to stop, Stark, just that- when you actually get to know him, he's not such a bad guy.”
“Who are you talking about?” Tony asks slowly, putting his empty glass down and staring hard at Clint.
“I texted him earlier, alright? He'll be here in a minute,” Clint promises. Sure enough, in a few seconds there is a snap of green light and Loki- chopsticks and a carton of take-out in hand, wearing a pair of ridiculous Superman pajama pants and a wrinkled polo shirt- is suddenly there, in front of them, looking vaguely bemused by the situation.
“This is terribly inconvenient,” Loki says simply, eyes grazing over Tony's shocked and disgusted face before turning back to Clint. “You realize that with Stark's involvement, we're simply going to have to discard Operation : Whale Drop.”
“Yeah,” Clint sighs, before Tony punches him in the face, hard.
WARNING, alludes to past child abuse and children witnessing spousal abuse, sorry.
Tony and Clint are both sulking on the bed, held in place by green bands of light, courtesy of Loki's magic. Loki is tapping away on Clint's laptop, humming softly under his breath.
“We could affix tape to the cat,” Loki asks suddenly, glancing up at Clint.
“That only works when you have a cat,” Clint grumbles, not looking at Tony. “We could make JARVIS only speak a language that nobody ever speaks or ever will speak, like Esperanto.”
“Fuck you, Barton,” Tony snarls, sporting a nasty black eye from their little scuffle. “You're not fucking with JARVIS, he's not a thing.”
“And I could simply choose to speak only in Esperanto of my own volition,” JARVIS reminds them, sounding more than a little smug. Clint glares up at the ceiling, but shrugs a little in defeat.
“Why can't we just use my cat?” Loki persists, the laptop balancing on his stomach. “You said you liked Dragon. He is a fine specimen of feline perfection.”
“Loki, the prank has to actually affect the people you're pranking,” Clint sighs, rolling his eyes. “If you use Dragon you're just being weird with your cat, alone in your house at night.”
“You've been to Loki's place,” Tony hisses, giving Clint the evil eye. “And you've met his cat? Jesus, Barton, are you on our side or what?”
“Don't be jealous,” Loki murmurs absentmindedly, opening a new tab on the laptop.
“Really don't be jealous, trust me,” Clint mutters. “This guy's place looks like a flashback to one of Coulson's episodes of Hoarders.”
“...I actually sort of want to see this, now,” Tony admits after a moment, wriggling. “Look, can you let us go now? We're not going to start hitting each other again, it was all a misunderstanding.”
“Dragon would be really adorable with tape,” Loki insists, waving a hand and releasing the two Avengers. “This pranking thing is a lot harder when you mortals keep adding all these rules to the game.”
“You could wrap all of Steve's stuff in saran wrap,” Tony says brightly, flopping down onto the floor next to Loki. “You could ruin his credit score and sign him up as a registered sex offender.”
“Stark!” Clint wants to hit Tony again, but Loki is giving him the Eye, so he refrains from doing so. “The first one is lame, the second one is against all the rules of pranks, and they're both centered on Steve. This is a prank on everybody.”
“This is a prank on Steve, Thor, and Coulson,” Tony replies crisply, “I'm not endangering my house just to prank Bruce, Fury, or Natasha.”
“I have an idea,” Loki says slowly, his face lighting up. “Time travel. We'll send our victims thirty years into the past!”
“...Loki, can you actually do that?” Tony says slowly, a grin spreading across his face. Clint scowls at both of them, because what the hell kind of a prank is that.
“Loki, no. You're not sending them to the past. I like Coulson where he is,” Clint says firmly, before hastily adding, “Steve and Thor too, obviously.”
“I could send them back for a few hours?” Loki asks sweetly. “Not long enough to cause any damage to anyone or anything, just long enough to completely disorient them?”
“Yes,” Tony crows, giving Loki a fist bump. “Clint, let me just stop you right there. Imagine Thor in the eighties. Imagine Steve. It's our cultural responsibility, Barton, neither one of these guys knows who Michael Jackson is!”
Clint eyeballs the two of them, trying to find the obvious fatal flaw in the plan. He gives up in the face of a combined puppy-eyed assault from the two of them.
The fatal flaw, of course, is Thor.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Something's definitely off about this fight. February and March passed by without so much as a whisper from Loki, and now here he is, floating around Central Park, throwing green lights around and cackling crazily.
Actually, Steve thinks, he's really almost... giggling? And, Steve notes sourly, Clint and Tony are making a great big show of dodging and weaving his blasts, but aren't actually doing anything.
“Hawkeye, Ironman,” Steve says into his communicator. “We're going to have a little talk after this.” Both of them actually stop what they were doing to exchange glances, which does not bode well for Steve's suspicions. Even Loki stops laughing, sparing the two of them a single glance as he continues to toss bolts of magic that Thor all too easily bats away with Mjolnir. Bruce is not even Hulked out, just sort of hanging back with Agent Coulson as the man liaises with local cops.
Steve is about to wonder where the hell Natasha's gone when she pops up behind him with a toasted bagel covered in that strawberry cream cheese Steve likes so much. She holds it out to him. It's still warm.
“You might as well,” she shrugs, biting down into a cruller. “They're fooling themselves if they don't realize that we know it's all fake.” Steve sighs in exasperation, eating a bit of his bagel.
“You know,” Steve begins, watching Thor with a growing feeling of impending doom. “You and I know it's fake. I think it's pretty clear Bruce and Agent Coulson know it's fake.”
Natasha's eyes narrow slightly, and she shakes her head a little. “Thor doesn't know it's fake.”
“No he does not,” Steve mutters, licking cream cheese off the thumb of his glove. “They sort of deserve it, Widow.”
“We should probably put an end to it before the park gets any more damaged,” Natasha says, her voice doing that lovely thing it does when she's howling with laughter deep, deep, deep inside. Steve can't exactly say no, not to that, so he finishes off his bagel and trots over, just in time to see Loki pull something out from behind him. It's some sort of device and it's beginning to glow a deep, pulsing red and it looks awfully complicated, and Clint is grinning like an idiot right up until the moment Thor takes one look at the device and raises Mjolnir high above his head and blasts it with an honest-to-god bolt of lightning.
Loki and Clint crumple to the grass, and Steve knows something is wrong. Thor is rushing towards his fallen brother, and Tony is kneeling next to Clint, his faceplate flipping up as he grabs Clint's shoulders (narrow, why are they so narrow?) and is yelling at Clint to wake up, but the thing is, either Clint's somehow shrunk or-
A six year old boy in Clint Barton's clothes opens startled blue eyes and swings a fist at Tony, the protective arm guard he wears flying clean off his skinny arm. Next to Thor, a pale little boy about the same age with thick black curls gives a terrified little squeak, scrambling to remove armor that weighs more than he does.
Steve reaches Tony in a matter of seconds, the man rising to his feet just in time for Steve to grab the armor at the throat and snarl straight into Tony's face.
“What. Did. You. Do!?”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Clinton Francis Barton knows he's not smart. (Momma and Daddy tell him this, and he knows they're right.) Clinton even knows that he's not much good at anything. (Daddy again. And Barney, sometimes, but at least Barney only says it because he has to help Clint so much.) Still. Clinton Barton might not be smart, or good at things, but he's not actually stupid and he's not a stupid baby. He knows what you're supposed to do when strange men kidnap you; you kick them right in the face, like on TV. He manages to hit creepy beard guy right on the nose with his little fist (lucky punch, why isn't Barney here to do this?) before Beard Guy gets hauled away by Captain America.
Clinton pauses, squinting up at the guy in blue. He doesn't look exactly like Captain America. Also, Captain America was from World War Two. Also, guys who are smart and strong and brave like Captain America aren't real, so probably Captain America isn't real, and this guy's just a big phoney. Satisfied with his conclusion, Clinton turns to look at the kid next to him. The big blonde Viking guy who'd been shaking him is now yelling at Creepy Beard, and Clinton can see the tears running down the kid's face from here.
“Don't cry,” Clinton tells him, and the kid sniffles and rubs at his face with a stupid cape. They're both wearing clothes that are way too big, and Clinton's mad, because he should be wearing his warm blue pajamas and instead he's wearing some dumb giant's tank top. The kid sneaks over to Clinton, glancing fearfully over at the three screaming grownups.
“Do you think they're going to kill each other?” the kid asks softly, which startles Clinton a lot. Where the heck is this kid from, jail?
“No way, that's just in movies,” Clinton reassures him, although the kid looks confused still, so Clinton adds, “Grownups punch each other in real life, but nobody kills anyone.”
“That's not true,” the kid says, after a moment. “My father is a mighty warrior. He's killed many on the field of battle.”
“Oh, your dad's in the Army? That's different,” Clinton explains, waving a hand. “Is that your dad over there wearing the cape?”
“....I don't know,” the kid says quietly, looking and sounding mystified. “He does look like Father, but he seems a bit... less old.”
“I bet he's your uncle,” Clinton reasons, and the kid nods. Clinton likes him, mainly because his hair is really funny looking, all curly like a picture of Cupid, but black instead of yellow. “I'm Clinton.”
“My name is Loki,” the kid tells him, and Clinton gives Loki a tiny smile.
“Your name's cool.” They scoot closer to each other, worry gnawing at Clinton's tummy. The fighting between the three giant guys is getting really intense, and it makes Clinton think about- about Momma bleeding, and Daddy standing over her, and Daddy standing over Clinton. Clinton doesn't want to think about that, so he gets up and grabs Loki's hand and pulls him to his feet.
“Let's get out of here before they remember us,” Clinton says urgently, because that Viking Uncle was shaking Loki and Clinton punched Creepy Beard Guy, and between the two of them and no Barney to look out for them, Clinton doesn't feel good about where this is going. Loki understands right away, but there's a huge problem with running away while you're wearing pants and boots about a million sizes too big for you, and that's that it's really, really easy for other people to catch up to you.
“Barton,” a man's voice says, back behind Clinton, and Clinton knows what it means when people say your last name like that, like you're in trouble. He hikes up his ridiculous pants with one hand and grabs Loki's arm with his other one and they book it over to a footbridge that's only a few yards away. The man is calling Clinton's name, and he sounds louder and angrier and closer, but they manage to clamber up into the dark little hole between the bottom of the bridge and the ground, Clinton's arm wrapped so tightly around Loki's shoulders that he isn't sure if the kid can breathe okay.
Clinton can't let him go; Barney's not here, but Clinton knows that you're supposed to protect kids littler than you, and Clinton's bigger so he has to look out for him.
The man comes up into the shadow of the bridge, wearing a plain black suit and a tie, and he looks like a bank man or something. His face seems nice, and he stares up at Clinton and Loki, blinking.
“Barton?” he asks softly, and sure, he sounds nice now, but Clinton isn't dumb enough to think that'll last one second after the guy gets them out of their spot, and he thinks Loki isn't that dumb, either. The guy just stares up at them, taking a tiny little step forward. “Barton, get out of there.”
“Go away,” Clinton blurts out, even though he knows his stupid mouth is what gets him into trouble. Bank Man starts to move closer, and Clinton grabs a handful of dirt and throws it at him, screaming in a stupid baby voice that Barney would definitely make fun of, “Go away!”
“Barton,” Bank Man says, and it sounds a little bit like when Momma's asking Daddy for something, or to stop doing something. Clinton doesn't like it, and he squeezes his eyes shut and squishes Loki closer, and he can hear Bank Man step back and walk away, but then he hears him walk right back up. Only it's a different voice that talks this time.
“Hey,” a guy says, a new guy, and Clinton opens one eye to look at him. His eyes are big and brown and his hair is messy and brown and he's got glasses on and he's crouched up under the bridge with Clinton and Loki, but he's still too big to get in close, so it's okay. Loki is crying a little, and Clinton feels bad, because he thinks he probably got them into this mess.
“Hey. Hi there,” the guy says again, arms around his knees. “Are you guys okay?” His voice is soft, kind of like Clinton's kindergarten teacher, and Clinton opens both eyes to look at him.
“Not goin' back,” Clinton tells him, his voice hitching. “That guy was hurting Loki. And they're gonna get us if we go out there.” The man's eyes widen slightly, but he shakes his head a little.
“No, no, nobody's going to hurt you. I'll stay with you, I won't let anyone hurt you guys,” he promises firmly, glancing over his shoulder. “Hey- you guys want to get out of here? It's pretty dark and dirty in here, and it looks like you could use some clothes that fit you better, right?”
“No,” Loki wails, clinging to Clinton. He wonders if this is what it's like to be Barney, to be the one the little kid has to hold on to. He wonders if Barney likes it as much as he does.
“Hey, it's okay, Loki,” the guy says quietly, and his voice is nice. He reaches a hand out to them, palm up. “Do you guys know who I am? I'm Bruce. And you're Clint and Loki, right?”
“Clinton,” he says sternly, wrinkling his nose. “Why you chopped my name in half?” Bruce seems a little startled, shrugging.
“Clinton, then. Come on out, guys. As long as I'm with you, nobody would dare touch you.” It's weird, because for a second Clinton thinks Bruce's eyes aren't brown at all- for a second, he thinks they're green, like Loki's.
But he looks again and they're just brown, and Loki is looking up at Clinton like he knows what to do all of a sudden.
“Okay, Bruce,” Clinton says quietly, and starts to climb out, his hand still tangled in Loki's shirt.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The idea that Loki is somehow controlling Clint in order to use him to pull some sort of stunt isn't all that hard for Steve to believe, if only because Loki's actually done this before and was involved with some sort of weird thing with Clint a couple of months ago. What Steve can't believe is that he's somehow tricked a guy as smart as Tony Stark into thinking this was all just fun and games. Either Stark's a lot less smart than advertised, or the man's just plain out of his mind.
The fact that Stark is actually trying to disagree with Steve on this, though- that's what's really infuriating. Thor, now- on the one hand Thor is bellowing at Steve that Loki's his brother. On the other hand, Thor's bellowing at Tony that Loki is not to be trusted, so whose side is Thor supposed to be on, anyways?
Steve feels like he's about ready to just give up and storm off when Tony and Thor both sort of stop and look at him. Or, rather, behind him.
“Gentlemen,” Agent Coulson purrs, and Steve is jolted into turning around and looking, really looking at the man. His face is in its usual calm expression, but he's terribly pale, with two spots of violent pink high on his cheeks, and his mouth is twitching. “Do you think you could perhaps act like the adults you claim to be, instead of the raging animals that just terrified two small children into fleeing the premises?”
Steve might be a supersoldier and all, but right now he is actually scared to death of Phil Coulson. He and Tony and Thor exchange glances, and that's when Steve sees them- Bruce leading two little kids by the hand, herding them gently towards Natasha. Natasha kneels down and says something to the kids, and the one with black hair practically throws himself into her arms. Bruce picks up the blond boy in Clint's clothing and-
“Hawkeye and Loki?” Steve hisses, and Tony's head whips around to look at them. Thor, at least, has the grace to look remorseful once he realizes what's happened- Tony, Steve thinks irritably, doesn't even look like he gives a crap.
“You three are in for a long debriefing,” Coulson hisses, eyes blazing pure murder.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Clinton likes Bruce and Natasha, and after a short car ride Bruce and Natasha bring them to meet two grown up ladies. One of them is called Betty and one of them is called Darcy and they both keep petting Clinton and Loki.
It's Natasha who tells them to leave Clinton and Loki alone, and to bring them some pajamas.
“My pajamas are blue,” Clinton says firmly, looking over at Loki. “What's your pajamas colored like?”
“I don't know,” Loki is real quiet, and he looks upset and confused, like he doesn't know the answer to anything. Clinton thinks for a moment, then tells Darcy that him and Loki both like blue and gotta be matching. Darcy tells them that they're actually the cutest and she's lost all of her cans.
“I could help you find them,” Loki pipes up, and Clinton nods enthusiastically, but for some reason that gets Darcy cooing and squealing again.
The three ladies and Bruce put Clinton and Loki in some clothes that fit better, after making them take baths, and they set the boys down on a couch to watch a show. Loki curls up and goes to sleep real fast, but Clinton is a big kid and big kids aren't as tired as little kids. His eyes are tired, but that's not the same as being tired.
His eyes are still open when he sees Bruce peek in on them, or the big happy smile on his face, and the way Betty gives him a lot of little kisses, but they're all on his cheek so it can't be as gross as mouth kisses.
Clinton closes his eyes, just for a minute, because this show on TV is really really interesting. It's about all these people who are fighting a monster- Captain America, like the guy in the park, and a red robot man, and Loki's viking uncle- but also a big green man, and a blurry lady with red hair-
-and a guy sitting on top of a building with a bow and arrows.
Warning : threats to a child's safety, allusions to verbal abuse of a child.
Some time in the night, Loki crawls over and plunks down almost on top of Clinton, but it's still nice, so he goes back to sleep.
Not that much later, Clinton wakes up again, because Loki's moving, getting up- only that's not right, there's a man leaning over them and he's picking Loki up, he's taking Loki away, and Clinton is all the way awake now.
“No,” Clinton says sleepily, sitting up and grabbing for Loki, but he's out of reach. The man sighs, putting a hand on Clinton's shoulder.
“Go back to sleep,” the man says, and Clinton would, but Loki is waking up and he makes a scared little sound, and the man puts something that looks like a little gun against Loki's neck and there's a noise and then Loki is limp in the man's arms and Clinton is screaming for the man to put Loki down, now.
Bruce comes running in, followed by Betty and Darcy. Darcy scoops Clinton up and is trying to shoosh him, and Bruce looks at the man holding Loki and asks in a very quiet voice, “Just what exactly do you think you're doing here?”
“He's fine, Doctor Banner,” a lady says, stepping out from behind the man carrying Loki, and she sounds- well, kind of like Momma, the way she talks to Clinton, whenever he's being stupid or bad, which is most (all) of the time. “The sedative is just a precaution while we move him to a secure location. Stark indicated that the original effects were only supposed to last a matter of hours, so we have no idea when this will all wear off.”
“Agent Hill,” Bruce says softly, “the device that caused this is in SHIELD possession Everything that can be done to try to reverse the effects is being done. There's no call to abduct this kid-”
“Abduct?” the Hill lady retorts, looking at Bruce like he's stupid. “Banner, this isn't about the device or this mess- Odinson is one of SHIELD's top priorities, we're taking him into custody.”
“No,” Bruce says, and for a second he sounds mad, he sounds so mad that Clinton's almost scared, and Darcy presses his face against her neck so he doesn't have to see. Clinton hears Betty say something to Bruce, real quiet, but Bruce pulls away from her, stepping forward until he's right up in front of the man holding Loki, and the man looks scared. Bruce takes Loki and holds him close, and Clinton's so relieved that he feels like he could cry a little bit.
“I have no problem sticking you in the containment cell with him, Banner,” Hill Lady says, and for a moment Clinton really thinks Momma's here, and then there's a sound and it's a lot like growling, like a dog, and Clinton can't figure out where it's coming from, or why Darcy seems so scared now.
“What the hell is going on in here?” somebody asks, and it takes Clinton a minute to remember who that guy is. His Creepy Beard gives it away, though. “I don't actually remember giving you goons permission to come in here and harass my team.”
“Stark,” Hill warns, but Bruce cuts in.
“They're drugging and kidnapping a five year old boy, Tony, that's what the hell is going on in here,” he says, his voice sounding different, rough. “Get these people out of here before something bad happens to them.”
Clinton is super tired and sleepy, but he's getting the idea that Bruce is a lot like Barney, only bigger and nicer.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Steve sits through the morning meeting with SHIELD, because he's supposed to be in charge of these Avengers, but right now Clint's just a kid and Bruce won't let him and Loki out of his sight, and Tony's taken off and come back home with a big ugly ginger cat that launches itself at little Loki's bed and refuses to move away from the sleeping (sedated) boy. Steve sits through the meeting because it's expected of him, because it's his job, and when it's over he turns and walks out of the room and is almost surprised- almost, but not really- to see Thor hanging around, watching anxiously, a slim stack of papers in a manila folder tucked under one huge arm.
“Hey, big guy,” Steve says quietly, and Thor gives him a mournful look.
“This is all my doing,” he murmurs, his voice the rumble of thunder on the horizon. “I was overeager to fight my brother, to best him. I should have seen the merriment in him and in our comrades.”
“It's not your fault, Thor,” Steve tells him, even if it might be, a little bit. “So you really believe Stark's story about this just being a prank gone horribly wrong?”
“It does sound very like my brother to stage an elaborate jest without considering the consequences of catastrophic failure or deviation from the plan,” Thor sighs. Steve considers this, scowling.
“Uh, yeah, Thor? The prank going right would have meant you and me being zapped back to the past for who knows how long,” Steve reminds him, because really. “I've half a mind to kick Hawkeye and Stark off the team, or at least suspend them after this all ends.”
“Hawkeye- Agent Barton is-” Thor stops talking as they near the elevator, his jaw twitching slightly as he glares up at the ceiling. “He seems quite taken with my brother in this form.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, punching the button repeatedly until the doors open and he and Thor get to walk in. Steve thinks for a moment, glancing nervously at the Asgardian. “You heard about what happened last night, didn't you?”
“I did,” Thor growls, looking away. “It is lucky I was not there at the time. I do not know if I would have shown as much restraint as our dear doctor did.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, and is surprised to realize that he means it. Loki is... Loki, alright, but right now he's one of the smallest kids Steve can remember ever seeing, himself included. Something about it seems off- sometimes he says something that makes him seem a lot older than he looks, but he barely speaks unless Clint's there, and even then he tends towards silence.
He's just so small, and the idea of him being manhandled away from Clint in the middle of the night, of waking up in a strange place, alone and behind bars, vulnerable and confused and scared-
It's a disturbing train of thought, and Steve's grateful when Thor interrupts it.
“Seeing him at this age again... I had forgotten much about our youths together,” Thor says slowly, looking... hesitant. Nervous. “There is still much I do not know or remember. And the new information I have only serves to muddle things.”
“Was he always that... skinny and quiet?” Steve asks, fiddling with his sleeve. “He looks kinda like I do- did, at that age, I mean.”
“Aye,” Thor seems distant, lost to the memory. “He was always... sickly, as a child. I remember that he was confined to his rooms for much of the time.” Thor hesitates, glancing at Steve. “Truth be told, friend Steven, I... I don't know if I recall seeing him out of his room before a certain age. I may have been on the cusp of manhood the first time I saw him in the light of the sun.”
“Really?” Steve asks, mainly because he's having a hard time figuring out how old Thor and Loki would have been. “So you're... what, one year older than your brother?”
“Three,” Thor replies, blinking. “He would have been nearly twelve at the time,” he adds, guessing at Steve's reason for asking. “I am worried for Hawkeye. If Loki was abed with an illness that spread easily to Asgardian children-”
“-then he might get Clint sick?” The door opens and Steve and Thor share a terribly awkward moment where they both try to let the other one pass first. Thor finally darts through, and gives Steve a shrug when they are together again.
“It may be a baseless fear. I do not want to ask my father for help in this matter if it will resolve itself soon enough as it is,” Thor says reasonably, but there's something in his eyes that Steve's just not reaching.
They meander over to Clint's room, which is now set up with an extra bed and some monitoring equipment. Neither one of them is actually shocked to see Bruce there with the boys- but the fact that he's on the bed with them, reading from a large book about dinosaurs, almost boggles Steve's mind. He's barely thought of the man outside of a few limited terms- brilliant scientist, raging monster, devoted to Betty, reliably snarky towards Stark. Steve makes room in his head for makes a good father.
He thinks about Bruce's blood, the radiation poisoning it to lethality in the tiniest of quantities, of the implications if the radiation has had a similar effect on every part of him. He thinks of Bruce's inability to let himself get too excited or work too hard, the Hulk ready to tear through him at the slightest exertion, and he thinks of how careful he is around Betty. Steve thinks about it, and it hurts him to think of Bruce falling in love with these kids, knowing that it can't last forever and doing it anyway, simply because they need it from him.
Steve is slow to walk in, because the image of Bruce lost in conversation, Clint against one side and Loki on the other side with that horribly ugly cat, is so startlingly idyllic that Steve is afraid to break it. Thor is faster, moves into the room, although Steve knows by now that he is hesitant and meek- well, for Thor.
“Loki,” Thor says simply, and something in Steve's stomach clenches when Loki's entire body tenses, his eyes a little too wide, his arm curling protectively around the cat that Tony's been calling Dragon. “I have many questions for you. Come with me, and we will discuss this,” he says, gesturing with the folder.
“This might not be the right time,” Steve says, because Bruce is watching Loki with something like grief or understanding or both, and Clint is climbing over Bruce's lap to be closer to Loki, and Steve feels a little like screaming because Thor is the only one in the room who doesn't seem to see that his little brother is looking up at him like he's the scariest thing on the fucking planet. “We should just let everyone relax right now, come on-”
Thor looks at Steve, and it really hits Steve that this is taking more of a toll on Thor than anything else they've ever faced. They all have their weaknesses- Tony's dependency, Clint's pride, Bruce's self loathing- and Loki, it is increasingly made clear, is Thor's.
“I have been translating some of the notes my brother gave to Tony,” Thor says quietly. It's not nearly as hard as it sounds- Thor just has to read the notes aloud, since anything he says in the Alltongue is heard in the listener's native language, and SHIELD has a small army of agents happy and willing to take dictation. Steve also understands that right now, Thor needs to do something that feels useful. “It is slow going with only one, and if Loki is feeling up to it, we could halve the work and be that much closer to finding the remedy to this.”
“I don't-” Loki says softly, eyes darting nervously from Thor to Steve, “I don't know how to read yet.”
“You-” Thor stops, looking down at Loki as if he's grown a second head. “You do not know how to read?”
“Thor said he would teach me,” Loki mumbles, looking down. For the second time today, Thor looks like he might be sick or pass out, and Steve wishes there was anything he could do.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Clinton waits until the Giants are gone and Bruce goes to do something with Betty to scoot up next to Loki and help him pet Dragon. Dragon meows at him and butts his head against Clinton, which makes them both smile a little before Loki's face falls again.
“He is angry with me,” Loki tells him, burying his hands in Dragon's orange fur. “I wish Thor were here. Thor can do anything.” Clinton pets Dragon's head, sighing.
“I wish Barney was here, too. He wouldn't let those guys mess with us.” Dragon starts batting at Clinton with his paws, sprawling across Loki's lap with loud meows. “I like Bruce, though. He's nice.”
“I like Bruce, too. He knows everything,” Loki beams at Clinton, sniffling a little. “Also I think he smells nice.” Clinton squints at Loki, thinking for a moment.
“He kind of smells like soap,” Clinton agrees. “Soap and something else.” Clinton plays with Dragon a little, because Dragon's a nice kitty, but something's bothering him, so after a while he scoots even closer to Loki and pokes him.
“How come you're so scared of your uncle? He doesn't seem that bad.” Loki's face twists into a weird shape, and he takes a deep breath.
“I don't want to live with my uncle. I want to live at home with my brother and my father and mother,” he whispers, and the cat starts trying very hard to climb into Loki's shirt. “I don't understand why they got rid of me. I don't know what I did.”
“Oh,” Clinton says, because he doesn't know what else to say to that. It hasn't occurred to him that maybe he's here because his parents simply don't want him anymore, and the thought isn't exactly surprising. He knows he's not good, and that he makes a lot of problems for Momma and Daddy- but he can't figure out why Loki's parents don't want him, is all. Loki's not like him.
Clinton pokes Loki's side again. “Maybe that means Betty's gonna be our Mom now. She's nice.” Loki shrugs and buries his face in Dragon's side, sniffling. Clinton stretches out on the bed, kicking his feet at the sheets. “What's your Momma like?”
Loki blinks up at him. “I don't know.” Dragon meows at him, and Clinton thinks about it for a moment.
“Well, what's she look like?” Clinton tries again, and Loki shrugs.
“I don't know,” he says again, petting Dragon to make him shut up. “She's going to have a baby and she's very ill. I'm not allowed to see her or I'll make her even more sick.” Loki shrugs a little, rubbing his eyes. “I think her hair is yellow, like Thor's.”
“My Momma's hair is yellow, too,” Clinton says brightly, just as Darcy walks in. She gives Clinton and Loki the same smile she gave them yesterday, and ruffles their hair until they're both blushing.
“Come on, party animals, it's lunch time,” she tells them, picking Dragon up. “I didn't know what you guys would eat, so I made you a bunch of different things.”
“Thank you, Lady Darcy,” Loki says shyly, and almost has to duck under the bed to escape Darcy's cooing and petting at that.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Steve gets Thor back to Jane's with a little less fuss, so that's alright, but then he runs into Tony when he gets back, which is... less so. They glare at one another for a moment, before Tony scrubs a hand over his face with a sigh.
“I don't have time for this, Rogers. I need Agent Coulson so we can go and pick up Clint's medical files-”
“Why do you need him for that?” Steve asks, and he more than a little resents the look Tony gives him, as if he's too stupid to understand the answer.
“Because he's Clint's- oh, hell, I'm not getting into this with you, Mr. 1940's Morality. JARVIS, where-”
“Agent Coulson is in the kitchen with Miss Lewis and the children,” JARVIS says quickly, and for a moment Steve imagines that the AI is just as desperate to avoid this conversation as he is. Before Tony can brush past him, something in Steve snaps, and his hand moves on its own, snagging the man by the arm.
“Wait, Stark- wait,” Steve sighs, taking a deep breath. “Look. Whatever this... thing between you and me is, can we just call a cease-fire for the time being? We don't know how long Clint and Loki are going to be like this, but I don't really like the idea of making those two go through a second childhood where everybody's screaming at one another, alright?”
Tony softens at that, understanding enough, and whatever it is that makes Tony respond, Steve doesn't know whether to thank Howard's ghost or to hate it.
“Sure, Cap. Whatever.” Tony's acquiescence seems to surprise him as much as it surprises Steve. Tony even manages a faint half-smile, shrugging his arm out of Steve's grip. “If we're gonna be staying together for the kids, we may as well see if they left us any lunch, right?”
“Right,” Steve agrees. Heading into the kitchen, Steve is once more confronted with evidence that certain members of his team and support staff have been hiding their parental skill levels from him. Loki and Clint are laughing hysterically, the free, unfettered, unashamed laughter only the very young seem capable of, and Darcy's snorting into her sleeve and leaking tears as she hugs the ugly cat to her chest, which means oh sweet jesus, Coulson is actually using a muppet to tell Clint to eat his vegetables.
“What,” Tony says, staring. Coulson turns to look at them, still smiling, and dear sweet lord, the muppet looks at them, too.
It's a green furry monster muppet with a tangle of black hair and torn purple pants.
“Hi, hi Tony,” it says, sounding like the furry red muppet Steve remembers from the single episode of Sesame Street Darcy and Jane made him watch a few weeks ago. “Do you wanna eat some greeeeeen beans?” Cue more uncontrollable laughter from the boys and Darcy. Tony actually grins, holding out his hand.
“Hey there, buddy, I don't know if we've met yet. My name's Tony,” he says, turning the charm on full blast as the muppet shakes his hand.
“Hi, Tony, my name's Kronk,” the Hulk-like muppet chirps. Steve can't help but smile at the boys. Clint is grinning like a loon, and Loki... well, no, now Loki's not smiling anymore, and he looks unsure, unfocused.
Lunch is soon over, Darcy herding the boys over to the living room to watch a movie, and Steve and Tony are both sort of transfixed at the sight of Agent Coulson calming putting the muppet in a black carrying case. Finally Steve blurts what he's sure Tony was thinking.
“How do you know how to do that? And where did you get that thing? I mean, just, why?” Agent Coulson just raises an eyebrow at him, as if he's being silly for assuming Coulson wouldn't know how to use a puppet or where to purchase one.
“Agent Barton volunteers at the pediatric ward on his weekends,” he says, as if that explains anything. Seeing Steve's confusion, he finally sighs and adds, “I had to pick up some sort of skill to compete with his ukelele-playing. Kids just aren't as impressed with juggling as they used to be.” He gives them a tight little smile, picking up his case. “Gentlemen. I'll be back in time for dinner.”
He leaves the room, leaving Steve and Tony visibly shellshocked in his wake. It's Tony who finally speaks up, his voice tinged with hysteria.
“Did we really just witness Coulson muppeteering?” he asks shakily.
“Yeah,” Steve replies, his voice just as weak. They exchange glances before bursting into undignified giggles, and for just a moment Steve can see Howard in Tony. He keeps it to himself.