He is not the same.
Leah comes back to him. He is sitting in the driver’s seat of the old pickup with his seat pushed back and his feet propped up on the steering wheel, contemplating the dented roof of the car, all the windows down, and he hears her hand on the door handle of the passenger side. He can smell her hair. He isn’t looking at her yet, the seat’s in the way – oh, but he can feel her – her small palm against his calf, light glinting off of her watch – he’d know her anywhere.
“Come home,” he says.
It’s bright outside, it’s golden. She pats his knee and doesn’t speak.
“Leah,” he says. “Leah, please.”
Sometimes when he’s not thinking about it, when he forgets, he stretches out for her in his sleep. He can never see her face. She is always turned away from him. In his dreams, her gold hair falls down past her shoulders and he is always reaching.
You’ve lost me, her silence seems to say, you let me go.
A blur of green in amongst the ruin and the arrow is in his hand, the string drawn to his cheek.
“On your left!” Steve bellows into the comm. Not talking to him, talking to Tony, that fiery streak forty stories up; something complicated is happening up there. “Iron Man, are you – ”
Loki pauses where he stands, two hundred metres away. Down the shaft of the arrow, he can see the flash of gold in the sunlight, the pale shape of Loki’s face. Paused like waiting for a photograph. He sees the slow, indulgent slip of a smile. Come get me.
He lets the arrow loose and it sails through the air, a perfect arc.
A scant metre from Loki’s body he watches it erupt, a flock of crows whirling up into the sky, their wings casting patterns on the rubble.
Natasha comes crashing into him. She knocks him cleanly to the ground. The wall behind where his head was a second ago has a fresh, smoking crater in it; looking at it he feels suddenly reckless.
And then it drains out of him. He blinks the cement-dust from his eyes.
She helps him up, perfunctory. “You’re not concentrating.”
“I was trying to shoot the fucker, cut me some slack here.”
“You missed him?”
“I don’t miss,” he says. Something in his chest aches and he thinks, get the job done, Jesus Christ.
That old, mincemeat feeling of being nobody, no-one – he throws up into the toilet. There are bruises all the way down his back and his ribs are sore. Someone kicked him. He can’t remember who.
He’s worried about something. Every now and then he’ll walk past his bathroom mirror on the way to have a piss and the light will play up, and in the quick snatching glance he gives his reflection, his eyes will flash electric blue.
“Tell me about Leah,” Loki had said, the corner of his mouth twisted up. “Go on.”
He’d told him, he hadn’t had much of a choice. Mind-control and all that.
Tony claps him on the back, a full-throttle slam of the palm right over his vertebrae. Sometimes Tony forgets that other people get hurt; Tony wears too much armour.
“I can hold your hair back for you,” Tony says, “but don’t expect me to take you to the prom.”
“You talk such shit sometimes,” he says.
He’s braced up on his elbows over the toilet seat. He thinks, fucking pathetic. Back before this whole mess he knew where he stood: always on the fringes of something. On the edge of his family, ready to slip away at any time without notice, let his brothers do the work. On the edge of an apartment he rented week by week. On the edge of an idea – Coulson, that impossible bastard, with his hands spread on the table and saying, We have a proposition for you. But Loki’s trying to edge him right out of his own head. You will do this. You will do that. You are mine.
“Something wrong?” Tony says, dropping the jackass act and peering into his face closely.
“I think I sprained my ankle.”
Tony rolls his eyes, relieved. “Well at least you didn’t break a nail.”
“Fuck off, will you?”
He’s sweating, but the air-conditioning’s on full blast. He remembers the first time this happened, poised to jump out of a chopper on the outskirts of Kabul, the heavy summer night swallowing up the stars.
Loki is sitting on the end of his bed.
It’s midday, hot and sultry. He’s coming out of the shower when he senses it, hair damp and trickling down the nape of his neck, scrappy old t-shirt, serrated knife from the inside of the bathroom cabinet poised in one hand.
“You,” he says.
Loki is in full battle armour. The gold glint of his horns, curling up viciously. “Me.”
He can’t see the staff anywhere, but that doesn’t mean much. Something jumps in the back of his skull like an old bullet-wound. The handle of the knife is warm in the palm of his hand – he thinks about throwing it. He’s close enough to do some damage.
Loki tilts a narrow chin towards the windows. “Lovely view up here. Does my brother have a view like this in his bedroom also?”
“Probably,” he says. “Why don’t you go and find out?”
“Why don’t you tell me?”
He snaps his mouth shut. He’s already told Loki too much. Loki knows too much.
“I don’t understand you,” Loki says eventually. “The whole lot of you.”
“Get out of my room,” he says.
“A rag-tag bunch of mortals trying to play God. What are you trying to do, exactly?”
He throws the knife. It slows in mid-air, coming to an elegant stop like a freeze-frame before spinning back towards him, thudding loudly into the ground at his feet.
Loki is looking back out of the window.
“You, especially,” Loki says. “I will admit, I’m especially curious about you. Are you a mercenary? Putting your neck on the line like this, one would think you had something to prove, or nothing to lose. Or both. Is that what this is?” The slash of sunlight coming down through the glass, those green eyes. “Let’s be honest, you don’t care about all those little people down there, you are not Captain Rogers.”
“You’ve already been inside my head once,” he says. “You should know more about it than me.”
“I know you’ve lost something. Dropped a coin down a gutter.”
“The same as you, then.”
Loki’s eyes narrow, sharp as ice. “What do you know about me?”
The true answer is nothing, but they’re playing a high-stakes game. Leah brushes his elbow and he feels it like she’s touching something deeper than skin – the cold and slippery hands of a ghost.
He says, “Everything.”
In Budapest, he saves Natasha’s life.
In the bowels of Fury’s flying headquarters, that invisible monster in the sky with enough space for an army, Natasha saves his.
She breaks his hand; she gives him the nastiest bruise he’s ever seen; she nearly kills him.
It is, just barely, enough.
The alarm goes off in the middle of the night. Somewhere upstairs, Bruce has accidentally hulked out and he can hear Steve pounding off down the corridor, those steady footsteps going at a gallop.
Natasha appears in his doorway like a trick of the light. “You awake?”
“Yeah,” he says, surprised. He’s grabbing for his boots in the dark. “What are you doing?”
“Supervising your lazy ass.”
“Since when do I need supervising? Unless it’s the sexy kind.”
She disappears again before he can get a good look at her expression. She’s the wrong kind of girl for him: fast, furious, knives up her sleeve at every turn, that savage light in her eyes when she goes into a fight – they all have it to some degree. Even Steve. Kind, peaceable Steve.
Down in the city someone is blowing up cars, one by one, along the street like playing a xylophone.
He thinks, this is what it’s coming to.
Loki materialises in his room afterwards and he goes for the jugular, for the carotid pulse.
Loki flips him into the wall. There’s a crack that most certainly is not the plaster, Loki’s hands fisted firmly in the buckles of the armour he hasn’t taken off yet. He thinks, what am I doing, I’m fighting a god. What the hell am I? He’s got a knife in his boot but before he even has time to reach for it Loki has it out already, flipping the familiar blade between those long fingers, pressing it into the soft flesh underneath his chin.
“Don’t sneeze,” Loki says with a smile, fingers cold on the plane of his cheek. “I might slip.”
“Motherfucker,” he spits.
He’s burning from the shoulder down. He’s on fire. He can barely breathe. He’s probably broken something; broken lots of somethings. “You piece of shit – ”
Loki lets go of him and it’s even worse because he can’t hold himself up. He grabs for the wall but he’s still sliding down it, going to his knees, he can hear Loki’s voice in his head: kneel.
“You’re making it too easy,” Loki says, nudging him with a boot. Sharp, white teeth. “Get up.”
“I’m going to kick your fucking ass.”
“A mortal like you? You can’t even stand.”
He opens his mouth. “A guy like me – ”
Footsteps outside, coming at a run. Loki’s head tips towards it.
He thinks, a guy like me, I make the most of what I’ve got. A guy like me, no super-serum running through my veins, no fancy metal suit to keep the bullets away, no magic hammer the size of someone’s head. Nothing but my hands. A knife in a holster at my back. A guy like me.
Thor comes barrelling in but by then Loki is already gone, there’s a smooth slick of blood inching across the floor, he’s got the knife in his hand, the blood isn’t his.
Natasha is sitting in the chair next to his bed, her legs crossed neatly.
He’s hit with a moment of déjà vu – that time she sat by him as he came back into his own mind, as the blue slowly leached itself from his eyes. As Loki seeped away.
“Don’t try to move,” she tells him. There are needles going into him everywhere.
“Do you want a drink?”
He must be burning up, because when she bends over him the light fractures over her hair and he thinks, Leah. He must be drugged to the eyebrows. Normally he can keep a lid on it, most of the time. Natasha doesn’t look anything like her; eyes the wrong colour, hair the wrong length, mouth set with a cynicism that doesn’t belong. Natasha is the future.
“You’re lucky it’s me here and not Bruce,” Natasha says, bringing the mug to his lips. “He wanted to experiment on you. Shoot you full of chemicals.”
“I’m already – shot full of chemicals.”
“Not by Bruce’s standards, you aren’t. Trust me.”
He blinks. He realises this, like a bolt of lightning, like one of Thor’s less hilarious jokes – he trusts her.
Fury is living up to his name. “What the hell is going on here, Agent Barton?”
Two broken ribs, a snapped wrist, a fractured vertebra that is doing something hellish to the nerves in his leg. He’s tempted to say, I’m not Steve fucking Rogers. I don’t charge up like a car battery. I want to sleep.
In his dreams, Natasha is wearing green and she is trying to pull him off of a cliff. He keeps trying to talk her out of it, but she looks at him with that strange brand of pity she has, like he’s got it all the wrong way around.
He can’t stop hovering right on the edge. A step forward, or a step back?
He wakes up, his back aching.
In the second week he wakes up to Loki watching him from across the room. The gold at Loki’s throat shines dully out of the shadows. He doesn’t try to sit up in bed because that still hurts like a bitch, but he can feel his heart ramming against the underside of his ribs; he wonders if Loki can hear it.
“Here to finish off the job?” he says. “Now’s a premium time, since I actually can’t stand.”
Loki says nothing.
He can’t move but still his entire body’s wired up and ready to bolt. In the trenches he’d slept on his feet, finger resting on the trigger of his rifle, a thumb on the safety.
“I underestimated you,” Loki says at last.
“I forgive you,” he says. “Now run along, or I’ll call your brother. He’s been dying to talk to you.”
“I’ve no wish to speak to him.”
“Then let me get back to sleep.”
Loki shifts, quietly, in the dark. “Is she still alive?”
The last time he’d tried to spar with Thor there’d been an accident and he’d copped a blow of the hammer to the head. He’d felt like his skull was splitting. He’s lying in bed now at least three weeks later but the feeling comes back to him, like someone’s clubbed him again, forced all the breath out of his lungs, one of those medieval torture devices Natasha is scarily knowledgeable in, the loop of iron wound around his chest and the screw tightened.
He doesn’t want to talk about this. He has a feeling Loki already knows the answer.
“Did I get your kidney last time?” he says instead, trying to make out the look on Loki’s face. “I was aiming for the kidney.”
“You barely scratched me.”
“You bled a lot for a scratch,” he says. “And all over my favourite pants. Asshole.”
“You’ll have to try a lot harder than that,” Loki says, standing, “if you want to hurt me.”
He laughs. “Hurting is easy. Hurting’s something I’m good at. You still sneak back into Asgard every now and then? Thor thinks you do, and that guard-of-the-portals guy thinks you do too.” Loki is frozen where he stands, arms stiff at his sides. “You got something important back there? You accidentally leave your hair straightener in your old room, have to go back for it?”
“Shut up,” Loki hisses. He’s never heard Loki that angry, it’s almost thrilling.
“You go back to make sure Mummy’s ironed all of your capes – ”
An icy hand slams onto his windpipe. Nails, hard as claws, dig into the meat of his throat like Loki’s tempted to rip it out of him. “Say another word and you are dead – ”
“I’m dead anyway,” he says.
Loki’s hand tightens.
“Why else am I here?” he says. “Why the fuck are we all here? You think we actually buy into that save-the-universe shit? We’re a rag-tag bunch of mortals trying to play God, remember? We’re all dead.”
Something is flashing red in the darkness, like a pair of eyes.
“We’re here because we’re bullet-proof,” he says. “We’re here because we’ve already lost.”
“I can still kill you,” Loki says. “Slowly.”
“If you really wanted me dead, I’d be dead already.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
“Why not?” he snaps, suddenly fed-up. “For fuck’s sake, just make up your mind. You want to play the evil supervillain card, you got to stop sneaking back into your old bedroom to cry into the pillows. You want to be the misunderstood tragic hero with a heart of gold, boohoo, whatever, you got to stop blowing things up. You can’t be both. Pick a side.”
Loki flexes his hand with a snarl. A chill washes down his throat, thin and paralysing, and he thinks that his mother was right after all. His big mouth’s the thing that’s going to get him killed.
There’s the smell of snow in the air, the frost rattling into his bones.
“How dare you speak of that to me,” Loki spits. “You, when you’re still pining after a woman who’s been dead for ten years, how dare you tell me I have to be one thing or the other. You can’t even make up your mind whether you want to be dead or alive.”
His tongue is sluggish from the cold. “At least I know who I am.”
“Then who are you?”
The cold reaches the base of his chest. His wrist twitches where it’s held down by two medium-bore needles, tubes going every which-way; his body forgets how to breathe. He slips into a moonscape lit by a wash of blue light. He is dreaming. Ice crunches underneath his feet.
He is sitting upright in his bed in the old apartment, the sheets twisted around his hips. He’s trying to coax a spark out of his stupid lighter. He ran over it the other day with his bike – it’s still spluttering.
She’s trying not to look at him. More and more, he’s noticed that she turns away. In the kitchen, when he passes her the spatula; coming home, throwing open doors, hair blown wild from the freeway, baby, I’m back. She doesn’t really let him touch her anymore. She leaves a careful, precise distance, like she’s measuring it out from a quota and he’s falling short.
“I want to know where you go,” she says.
He’s still got the unlit cigarette in between his lips. He flicks the lighter again. “Hmm?”
“You don’t think I notice.”
“What are you talking about?”
She falls silent. He waits, suddenly afraid of a thing he can’t really work out, like he’s seen this all in a movie before and they’re sticking too close to the script. He drops the lighter back onto the bed.
“Sometimes it’s like you’re a mile away. I’ve got you here, but you’re not – you’re not home. Do you know what I mean? I can’t reach you.”
“I’m here,” he says, staring at the side of her face. “What – ”
“I don’t know what happened to you in Afghanistan,” she says. “I can’t get into your head, Clint, ever since you came back it’s like I don’t know you anymore. Sometimes you just go. You drift off, like something else has taken over. I can’t stand it.”
He wants to beg, but he doesn’t know what he’s begging for, it’s all so unclear.
She’s waiting for him to say something.
“I love you,” he manages. “Leah, listen to me. I love you.”
She looks at him, incredulous. Even now, all of the hot blood shunting down to his limbs – even now, one foot on either side of the line, he’s getting ready to run.
Natasha doesn’t give any quarter. Broken ribs are not her problem. He feels the breath slugged out of his stomach and then she follows it up with a deadly kick to the jaw, her eyes narrowed.
He’s flat on the mat, sweating into his last clean shirt.
Who are you?
He gets up. Natasha shifts forward onto the balls of her feet, arms loose and ready.
He sees Steve’s shadow before he sees Steve.
He’s tonguing at a loose tooth, gingerly tasting all the cuts in his mouth and at the edges of his lip.
Steve drops onto the bench next to him. “Those look pretty nasty.”
“Natasha,” he says by way of explanation. It’s a testament to how fucked up they all are that Steve accepts this without a blink. “I had to work off some steam, she’s always ready to beat the crap out of someone on request. Etcetera, etcetera.”
“You shouldn’t be fighting. You’re still injured,” Steve points out.
“I’m fine. I’ve been a good little boy. I take my vitamins.”
Steve hesitates and he thinks: here it comes.
At least Steve has the decency to look sheepish about it. “What happened, anyway? Between you and Loki. Fury’s been pretty tight-lipped about it, nobody has any details. I don’t mean to pry,” he adds, like it actually matters at this point. “But everyone is worried about you.”
“He threw me into a wall,” he says. “Doesn’t Tony have it on camera or something?”
“Have you asked him?”
“All the cameras in the complex were down that night,” Steve says, and he can feel Steve taking a layer of skin off his face with that stare. “And they were down last night as well.”
He thinks, Loki, you sneaky bastard. “Huh.”
“Do you have any ideas about what Loki’s trying to do?”
“He’s trying to kill us,” he says, “and half the population of New York. As per usual.”
Steve’s eyes darken. There’s a genuine anger in the set of Steve’s jaw and in the way his hands knot into fists. He watches the steady bunching of Steve’s shoulders, helplessly fascinated, wondering how the hell Steve can still find it in him to care about what happens to New York. To anybody.
There’s a small charcoal portrait of a woman sitting on Steve’s bedside table; there’s the gun Bruce puts, again and again, into his mouth; there’s the sweat on Tony’s upper lip whenever they go underground, his sharp eyes darting. Natasha and the way she hits first, asks the questions later. If at all.
Thor chasing a brother who doesn’t look back, not once.
He thinks, if we put everything we’ve sacrificed into a pile, the weight of it would tip the earth off balance.
And then he thinks, this is the choice we made.
They are fighting a swarm of robots the size of traffic lights.
They’ve fought off aliens and neutralised a nuclear missile by shooting it through a portal into space.
There is a blue box that holds the key to everything.
He has had his mind overrun by an anarchic Norse deity and two metres to his left the brother of that deity is pulverising their enemies to bits with an oversized hammer. To his right, there is a man running about in star-spangled Lycra; above them, the whup-whup of a media helicopter, getting in the fucking way, Tony flies past and flips the pilot off.
He thinks, letting an arrow loose: I should stop being surprised at the workings of the universe.
Half an hour into the carnage, Loki materialises. He feels it first as a brush against his wrist. It’s too intimate and it jolts his aim to shreds, the arrow flying off-mark, shattering the window of an office block.
Loki’s curved smile follows him as he scales the building he’s on, trying to get a better sightline.
“You’re not going to try and kill me?” Loki says. He sounds sly, like he’s setting up a tripwire for everybody to fall over and break their necks on.
He ignores the question and jerks his chin down at the mayhem below. “This isn’t you, is it?”
He nods, taking a robot out neatly in the eye. It explodes. The asphalt splits open and there’s a couple thousand of taxpayer’s dollars, right there. “Didn’t feel like your particular brand of crazy.”
“I’m flattered you can tell my handiwork apart from that of others.”
“Don’t be,” he says, and means it. “Are you going to help?”
“No,” Loki says.
He swivels and puts an arrow through Loki’s forehead. It emerges cleanly from the other side. Nothing happens, except Loki’s image flickers slightly, like bad reception.
“You fucker,” he says. “Get out here and stop messing around with me, this isn’t playgroup.”
He can feel the exact moment when Loki complies. The air next to him solidifies with an almost audible hum, and then Loki is sliding a hand across his wrist again, as if he’s rather tempted to break it. Two times lucky. He pauses – caught between one arrow and the next, bow dangling uselessly in his grip.
He remembers the strength in those long, slim fingers, what the hell am I doing, this is a god.
What am I?
“I’m not planning to make things easy,” Loki says, abruptly. He doesn’t blink.
“I’m not planning to let you.”
Leah scrabbles for purchase on the edge of his sleeve. Distracted, he lifts a hand, the one that’s holding the bow, the one that Loki isn’t touching; he pushes her away.