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gnossienne - n. a moment of awareness that someone you’ve known for years still has a private and mysterious inner life, and somewhere in the hallways of their personality is a door locked from the inside, a stairway leading to a wing of the house that you’ve never fully explored—an unfinished attic that will remain maddeningly unknowable to you, because ultimately neither of you has a map, or a master key, or any way of knowing exactly where you stand. --the dictionary of obscure sorrows

 

I.

"Loki?"

Loki tensed, recognizing the voice even if here was the last place he wanted to hear it. He turned and—

—and yes. It was Cli—Barton.

~~~

"Why really? Why are you leaving?"

"Do I need another reason than I wish to call an end to this?"

"I’d think so! I thought everything was fine—what happened? What changed?"

"It is none of your concern."

Barton scowled, grey eyes flecks of stone.

"This is good-bye, Clint."

~~~

"Barton," Loki said stiffly, too much emotion far too close to the surface. Even as Barton came closer, Loki was hyper-aware of how his shirt-collar was yet damp, his own posture and features. His shirt there was nothing for, but he could certainly smother his desire to clench his hands and will his face still and distant. It was not as if he lacked practice.

Of course Barton noticed despite his best attempts; his eyes as hyper-quick as always. A feature Loki loved dearly, once, if not now because he could not allow his heart a measure of love given to anyone not his son.

"What are you—" Barton stopped himself, looking back to Loki’s face. “Are you alright?"

Loki’s lips twitched almost on their own, a razor sharp curve.

"One could ask you the same thing," he said smoothly. “They allow you to leave?"

"I work here," Barton said, mouth tightening and grey eyes turning flinty. “You?”

~~~

"Is he…? Tell me, please, is he…?"

"He’s alive. Fractured wrist, mild concussion. He’s very lucky it’s not worse." The doctor—Banner, his name tag said, Dr. Banner, and Loki committed the name to memory as he once did saints in his childhood—paused. “Mr. Lokason—"

"Laufeyson," Loki corrected, mouth dry. He cleared his throat. “Patronymic. Immigrated when—never mind. Vali? Valentine?"

~~~

"You know what? None of my business," Barton said when Loki did not reply immediately. “Have a good night."

The open air outside was sharp with the malice and chill that Loki had not been able to muster inside despite a lifetime of practice. Once in the car, he rested his face in his hands and let his shoulders slouch. Exhausted, a scream yet lodged behind his teeth aching to get out, the only hot thing to him the liquid burn of tears unspilled.

"It will be okay," he said to no one, voice thick.

 

II.

Clint met Loki at a bar. Clint met most people he knew at a bar, but in this case he’d point out that it wasn’t because he tried to pick Loki up.

It’d been a party.

Clint wasn’t entirely sure who Loki knew to get invited to the annual Christmas party, though as the night went on and Tony got drunker he began to suspect it wasn’t entirely just Loki's professional standing. Sometime around midnight, when Loki had been trying to excuse himself and Tony hadn't been taking a hint, Clint stepped in.

That got him Loki’s phone number; Clint sometimes thought it had been to spite Tony.

Clint had had a couple of flings since Natasha, but none quite like Loki. It started as uncomplicated, messy sex complicated by growing attached to Loki's sarcasm and dry humour, his quick but discrete smiles, his intelligence that kept shining through.

And unlike every relationship before, Clint found he didn't mind the complication

Seeing Loki at work—seeing Loki where Clint worked, the mental health center, seeing Loki without his symphony-level composure or cat smiles—was a blow.

If he had known, if he hadn't let himself get attached, if--

 

III.

"We’re going to try this," Nurse Romanov told him. “Dr. Coulson recommended it. You’ll still eat meals with me or Nurse Rogers in private."

He gave a slight nod through distance and haze, vague sensations drifting over his surface: the tightening of muscle as he frowned, air rustling his hair, unplaceable noise either fluorescent buzz or his ears ringing. Nothing concrete, he only a filter, flit-filtering everything until it finally drained like everything else, broken and flawed cup he was.

"I’m so tired, pabbi, so so tired, why won’t—" and pabbi's hands caught his face and he thought I have caused this I have caused this by failing I have made this worse he is crying because of me why can’t I just disappear stupid stupid stupid and pabbi moved and kissed his forehead and whispered, “Then rest, Vali. Rest," and how he wished he could stop sobbing, stop and stop and stop because he could feel pabbi flinch distantly but—

"Valentine?" Nurse Romanov asked.

"I am here," he lied softly.

 

IV.

Loki looked.

He looked through papers and notes and old report cards—immaculate grades and compliments and words that made up in sparsity with their careful choosing. He looked through favourite movies and favourite songs, through old pieces composed and new pieces played.

He roamed memory like a house, vast spaces crammed with detail and moment, rooms filled with casual and not so casual words, questions and concerns put to rest because always, always Vali spoke to him, always Vali could talk to anyone if he but asked, if he needed. He found words spilled across the floor—it’s only a story, pabbi—and scrawled on the walls he found must be growing faster than I can eat underneath layers of clothes to hide form and he found doors he did not remember being locked.

And at the center of it all—only tired, only tired, I am fine, of course I would tell you if something was wrong, don’t I always.

If he had not been distracted, Loki thought. By cases and trials and his relationship with Clint. If he had only asked

but he did, but he did, and what if Vali thought this was normal, that everyone was always so tired as he sobbed against Loki’s chest

—if he had only asked.

 

V.

Clint stared at the newest arrival to group therapy; he’d seen the file earlier, of course, but he hadn’t thought anything of it. Valentine Lokason, odd last name, but that was all—suicidal, bulimic, depressed.

Green eyes, malachite and melancholy, sharp cheekbones honed razor by weight loss, black hair loose and tips curling past his shoulders. Younger and shorter physically, even as his eyes looked ancient and older and exhausted.

"Lokason?" Clint asked Natasha next to him quietly.

"Patronymic, Icelandic," Natasha supplied without looking up.

"I can’t work with him," Clint said.

~~~

"So we need to talk," Clint said.

"Oh goody, those are invariably the words that herald all things good in relationships." Loki didn't even roll over, sheet spilled around his waist to reveal the curve of his back.

"Ha-ha. But really."

Loki rolled over to look at him.

"Well?" Loki prompted. "Which is it? I'm too cold, you feel like I exclude you from my life, you've discovered I have a son and need to leave, you find my law practice abhorrent, I'm too temperamental?" He stretched lazily, but his eyes gleamed green glass shattered and ready to cut, smirk concealed switchblade.

"Woah, what? Only you would use the word abhorrent to describe anything, for one. Two, no, I'm not leaving because of your son, which I didn't even know you have a son, thanks for sharing. You need to work on your thinly veiled tests of whatever the fuck they are because that was downright obvious." Clint grinned, situating himself on Loki's chest, earning a quirked brow as the edge to the smirk eased. "I don't need to talk to you about breaking up with you."

"How lovely," Loki said dryly. "So it is something I will want to leave you for."

"You are the most cynical asshole I know, and I see myself in the mirror every morning."

Loki laughed, a full and satisfied cat-smile twining his lips in its wake. Clint grinned, leaning forward to kiss the corner of his mouth.

"You are the most optimistic person I know."

"Isn't that a cheerful thought." Clint shook his head. "Anyways. No. I wanted to talk about us. Just--"

"What about 'us', as you so quaintly put it?"

"Shut up and let me finish," Clint laughed, smacking Loki's arm. It got him another smile and the last of Loki's tension easing. "Jesus, everything is a test with you. Why didn't you become a college professor? Anyway. I just. Us. That's a thing now. I care about you a lot, and I'd hate to see you go, but it seems worth clarifying. It's not just fucking for me anymore, but if its still just fucking for you, I need to know so we can decide whether we keep doing whatever this is."

"Ah," Loki said, still and face going blank. "So it is a breaking up conversation."

Clint rolled his eyes instead of let his face fall.

"If you want it to be, sure. At least I don't have to do the walk of shame to the car."

Loki snorted, but his face stayed blank exactly the way Clint hated.

"What," Loki finally asked, "is the point of telling me this?"

"Avoid drama. Figured I could try giving this communication thing a shot."

"Mm," Loki hummed, eyes examining Clint's face. Clint looked back until Loki's eyes met his. "It is not 'just fucking' for myself either. Truly you must be the single most crass person I know." Loki hesitated, tongue flicking over his lips, one hand settling at Clint's waist. "But I do not know what you expect that to mean."

Clint shrugged.

"I dunno. Whatever you want it to mean, I guess. Nothing has to change. You don't even have to tell me about your probably-made-up-but-possibly-not son, if you don't want." Clint rolled away, reaching for his phone. "Take out? Usual?"

"Yes." A pause behind Clint, heavy with the thoughts that seemed to chase Loki around, depths of ocean that Clint could never hope to explore fully. "His name is Vali. Perhaps you can meet him one day."

"Woah there," Clint said with a grin as the phone rang, "that was almost a marriage proposal, coming from you. GIve a guy some warning."

~~~

Clint made himself scarce at six.

"He’s gone," Steve said, looking curious. “Do you need to—"

"No, I’m good. You and Natasha are rotating on schedules, and you two are the ones working with him. I’m helping with Kate and otherwise just doing the ol’ hawk eyes thing."

"Right."

"Exactly," Clint said, then paused. “Steve, how the hell do you apologize to someone for making something more difficult than it had to be?"

 

VI.

I named you for love, and strength.

He thought how he was empty, draining draining draining, and tired, and hurt.

 

VII.

Patient Incident Report

Date: 16 Dec 2013, 5:46pm

Patient: Valentine Lokason

Location: On-site, Ward 2A, common area

Name/title of first staff member to respond: Steve Rogers, nurse

Other individuals involved: Clint Barton, nurse

Description of incident by first responder: After finishing dinner at 5:25, the patient became agitated, frequently running his hands over his ribs, demanding to return to his room and be left alone. Patient grew increasingly angry at being refused, attempted to harm himself, and when stopped tried to attack myself. Nurse Barton aided in restraining and sedating the patient, and was elbowed in the eye during the process.

Injuries: Valentine—bruising on upper arms, split lip (self-inflicted), scratches on stomach and hands (self-inflicted); Rogers—several scratches, bruising on shin; Barton—bruising around eye

 

VIII.

"I’m sorry."

Loki paused before turning around, unable to stop his hands from balling into fists.

"Were you simply lying in wait for me to pass you by, to assuage your guilt?" Loki asked, voice attempting disinterest and instead wormwood bitter.

It wasn't Cli--Barton who was guilty, though, was it? Only Loki, only he and his inattention. There had been a reason Loki avoided relationships.

"No," Barton said, tell-tale twitch of his eye at his annoyance. “But I made things more difficult than they needed to be, so I’m sorry."

"If you are under the impression this will change anything, that you can know and apologize and I will magically change my mind, forget it now." Loki took a step towards Barton, what little reserve he had shattered and instead angry, boiling and wet and twisting, crawling up through his chest and making him feel like vomiting—

"Sedated at the moment, though he should wake shortly. There was an incident after dinner."

—and took a breath, eyes damp. “I do not have time to deal with you or your attempts of swooping in to save anyone. I do not need your pity."

Barton stared at him and Loki wondered where the irritation lining the other man’s face went, because surely he could not see Loki's own anger at himself. His masks were not so poor, even considering the circumstances.

"Okay," Barton said. He opened his mouth to say more, then swallowed whatever words were on his tongue with a bitter grimace. “Yeah. Okay. If you need anything, you’ve got my number."

~~~

"He has a point," Natasha said, breaking apart her chopsticks.

"Why do you both think I’m trying to save him? Or his kid, for that matter?" Clint grumbled, poking around the box of take out.

"Well, that second one is part of the job." Natasha snatched a mushroom out of his carton. “How is your eye?"

Clint shrugged.

"I’ve had worse."

"Clint," Natasha said. Clint looked up at her, scowl firmly fixed in place. He knew what she would say, of course he did, but it didn’t mean he needed to like it. More of what Loki said, about pity and apologies and saving, and he wished he could do something to show that it wasn't about how much he cared.  Natasha sighed, shaking her head. “Never mind."

"I already know. I’m not trying to save anyone. I meant what I said—I’m not getting involved."

Natasha leaned against him, just a little, shoulder to shoulder.

"You already are."

 

IX.

Transcript

Coulson: When did you first feel this way?

Lokason: I don’t know. Always. I’m tired. I want to go to sleep.

Coulson: Always? Were you like this when you were younger?

Lokason: Yes. No. Maybe. I don’t know. Probably.

Coulson:Think about it. Write about it, and we’ll talk about it tomorrow. How are you liking…

~~~

Note, Nurse Romanov:

Few issues eating in front of others, freq. more talkative than usual while eating. Attempts to withdraw 15-20 min. post meal, alternatively aggressive and distressed.

~~~

Transcript

Coulson: You seem close to your father.

Lokason: I guess.

Coulson: Do you trust him?

Lokason: Yes. No. Yes. I guess. I don’t want to talk about him. Why can’t I go back to sleep? I’m tired.

Coulson:You and your father talk quite a bit when he’s here. Did you ever consider telling him how you felt?

(sounds of movement)

Lokason: Why bother?

~~~

Note, Nurse Ramanov:

Since incident on the 16th, Valentine has tried to refuse meals. He has repeatedly withdrawn from his surroundings. He has not shown any further aggression, but he has been prone to crying, with repeated requests to see his father.

 

X.

"Nurse Barton, I am sorry. For your eye." Stiff, formal, shrouded in thin and over-worn misery.

"Don’t worry about it. You didn’t mean to." Clint offered a grin—small and tight, but at least it was sincere. It wouldn’t be the first time or the last time an inpatient hit him. “Besides, it’s nearly healed."

Vali's eyes roamed, never quite looking directly at Clint, arms folded over his chest and shoulders hunched inward. Steve frowned at Clint from just behind Valentine.

"I’m sorry," Vali repeated again.

"I forgive you," Clint said.

 

XI.

"It isn’t—" Vali paused, eyes glancing up to Loki’s face and down before drawing his feet next to him on the couch. “Much," he finished. “Open it later." Then, “You didn’t need to come."

Loki reached forward and cupped Vali’s face, stroking his cheek.

"Of course I did," Loki said, shoving aside ache, “of course I did. It’s your favourite day."

"I don’t deserve anything," Vali mumbled, closing his eyes.

Loki moved to sit next to Vali, pulling him into a hug, holding him, feeling how still he was, how quiet, press of bones like birds’ against his chest.

"You deserve everything," Loki said.

"I should tell you that," Vali said, laughter dry and cracked side-to-side.

~~~

Loki stared at letter, hands shaking, before setting it down on the coffee table and standing on unsteady legs to walk through the house.

Silent. Silence and stillness—

"Snow! It snowed, let’s go sledding—"

"Do you like it—"

"Pabbi, get up. I made breakfast, come on—"

—and empty.

He paused at Vali’s room for a few long minutes. Still disorganized, but the threat of lifeless was settled in its spaces, a glimpse of might-have-been.

Loki swallowed.

 

XII.

Pabbi,

There isn’t very much that I can give you from here this year. I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry for a lot of things.

Dr. Coulson asked me if I always felt like this—I don’t know if he told you.

I thought about it some, since he asked.

(I know I have a lot of time to think, but I haven’t thought much. I’m tired a lot. I’m sorry.)

I don’t think I always felt like this. I don’t remember feeling like this when I was younger. Sometimes I’m not even sure what this feels like, but when I was a kid, and I was unhappy, I was just… sad. You know? I guess like normal people get unhappy. It happens and then you move on and you aren’t any more.

(Is that what it’s like for you?)

I don’t really know when it got like this. I mean, Dr. Coulson says depression, and they talked about it at school—you know, those dumb flyers and that speaker they brought in?—but I don’t know. That all sounds like something you just know. Like chicken pox. You know when you’ve got chicken pox.

But I guess that’s not a good metaphor, or maybe it’s too good. You remember when I got chicken pox? I had no idea what was going on. I guess this is a bit like that. I don’t know why I’m so tired, and you’ve got a name for it. Well. You know people with a name for it. You’re good at helping name things.

It just crept up on me. I didn’t wake up one day and think ‘wow, I’m tired.’ And it’s not—I mean, I want to say everything is grey, but that sounds really dumb, everyone says that. Everything is just distant, and then I start thinking about how nothing I do now is really going to matter, and how everyone seems so put-together and smiling and I wonder if everyone is faking like me, and then I feel like fading or disappearing and I don’t want to eat anything, I just want to—

(I just reread that. Ignore that paragraph. It doesn’t make any sense.)

Anyway. It’s not your fault. That’s mostly what I wanted to say. You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just me. Bad brain chemistry, Steve (that’s Nurse Rogers) says that sometimes. I thought—I don’t know what I thought any more. Not really. I thought you’d be happier. I thought if things weren’t going to get easier then why— I don’t know. I just hurt.

I still hurt, and I’m still very tired. I don’t feel like I’m getting any better most the time. I feel like everything is the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done but then I’m wrong and the next thing is really the most exhausting thing, and I feel like I need to disappear and sometimes I just feel like I am disappearing.

(Yes, I’ve told that to Dr. Coulson.)

But yeah. It’s not your fault, pabbi. Sometimes I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. Not always, sometimes I wish you hadn’t come home early, sometimes I wish you hadn’t found out, but more often I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I just

Didn’t want to worry you.

Thank you for coming today, even though I didn’t really deserve it. Thank you for not hating me even though I’ve managed do exactly the opposite of what I wanted and now you worry all the time. I wasn’t going to give you this if you didn’t come, you know? And it’s an awful gift, probably way worse than anything you’ve gotten me, but it’s what I’ve got this year, maybe all I have right now, that it’s not your fault and that I love you and I’m glad you’re my dad.

eg elska thig (is that how you spell that? we’ve only ever said it)

Vali

PS - Everyone keeps calling me Valentine. It’s kind of weird, but it seems like too much effort to make them stop now. Nurse Barton doesn't, though. Did you tell him? Can you get him to tell the others?

 

XIII.

"—wait, wait, no, you are drunk, I am not—"

Clint pushed, twisting from underneath Loki, wincing a little as the taller man tripped and fell onto the couch. For a few minutes, Loki didn’t move; Clint took advantage of it to shut the front door of his apartment and then study his ex.

Because that's what Loki was supposed to be--his ex. Clint had been angry, but it was a choice. It just meant the changing of a label; while it wasn't just that easy, it helped. In theory.

In practice, Clint still hurt.

"Loki," Clint said crouching down next to the couch, "not that I'm entirely opposed to drunk sex, but you left. Remember that? It's Christmas. Why are you here?"

"I hate you," Loki said, turning his head just enough to glare at Clint.

Clint pressed his lips together tightly instead of point out that Loki wanted drunk sex with someone he hated, and called it his Christmas miracle.

"Right, well stay on the couch." Clint paused. "How did you get here?"

Loki muttered something into the couch; Clint waited, grinding his teeth and resisting the urge to grab Loki by the collar of his coat and shake it out of him.

"Drove," Loki finally said, louder, sullen, each word carefully enunciated. "I am aware it was ill-advised, thus I stopped and came here." He rolled over on the couch, lacing his hands over his stomach, eyes on the ceiling. "I do not need you to expound upon why it was ill-advised."

Clint stared at him.

"You are--no. Okay, you're serious. You got completely drunk and then drove to my apartment while drunk. Did you not notice the snow and ice outside? Just miss that?" Loki sat up, glaring as he opened his mouth; Clint cut him off. "No, I'm not done yet. Jesus Christ, Loki, that has to be the stupidest fucking thing, how the fuck does someone as smart as you manage to make such god-damn idiotic decisions? What the fuck would have happened if you got hurt? What the fuck do you think Vali--"

"I do not need you to tell me what would have happened!"

"You clearly need someone to do it! Why the fuck else did you show up here? You already knew what I was going to do, you aren't that stupid!"

"Because it's too quiet!"

Loki froze, staring at Clint. For a moment, no more than the space of inhale-exhale, it was like before Loki left--open and raw and aching, and Clint stepped forward like he used to, a hand out and palm up, an offering.

Loki looked like he might take it.

Then he snarled, pushing himself to his feet, brittle shell drawn close again.

"No," Loki said, stepping forward unsteadily, a finger pointed at Clint. "No. This was a poor decision. I am leaving, I do not need you to speak to me about how my poor choices would affect my son because I am already perfectly well-aware of the damage they have done!"

"Yeah, you sure about that, because personally I love telling the suicidal patients their dad died because he was so fucked up over them he decided to drink and drive. It's great, let me tell you."

"Coming here was a mistake," Loki said stiffly.

"Fucking right it was," Clint snapped. "You're the one who fucking left me without a reason why. I don't know why you thought you could just hop back in my bed. Remember that? More than just--"

"Because you were my mistake! I should never have given you my number, never have slept with you, never..." Loki trailed off, gritting his teeth and pacing the living area, running his hands through his hair.

Clint froze.

"What?" he asked, mouth dry.

"You. There. Because I was distracted--by work, by you, by our relationship--I did not notice my own son's despair, his collapse, and very nearly lost him." Loki stopped and drew a shakey breath, swaying on his feet and face wrecked by guilt. "This--Clin--Barton. Barton, I nearly lost him, and I cannot risk--"

Clint stared at Loki, his hair in disarray, clothing wrinkled, undone and shattered, anger and grief and guilt. Loki stared back, fists clenched and shaking.

"That," Clint finally said, "is the stupidest fucking thing I have ever heard you say. No. No." He pointed at the couch. "Sit. Sit. Take your shoes and coat off and stop tracking snow all over my apartment. Sit." Clint shoved a hand through his hair as Loki finally complied, sitting across from on the edge of the coffee table.

"It's true," Loki said, sullen and drunk.

"Fuck, are you even listening to yourself?" Clint started to reach for Loki, then drew back. "Look at me. Listen to me. You having a life is not why you didn't notice Vali was and is depressed. Seriously. Do you get that? I don't talk to him much at the clinic because conflict of interest, and I'm not on his case, but that kid loves and trusts you. He asks for you when he's upset." Clint paused. "Okay, he's probably hoping you'll take his side against his nurses, but that's not the point. You following me?"

"I should have noticed," Loki said hoarsely.

"You did," Clint said. "You remember that night?"

The look Loki shot Clint could have left blisters. Clint brushed it off.

"You noticed he was being weird. You remember? He called you to say good night. That was weird for him and you could tell, so you left to check on him. Remember?"

"Yes."

"You know why you didn't notice before?"

"Because--"

"Because he didn't want you to notice. Because he knows what normal looks like. I am willing to bet you the only reason he's not anorexic is because you would have noticed if he didn't eat, and he knows that."

"Then why hide it? Why not tell me? He had to have, and I did not see, Vali tells me--I know him," Loki said, confusion bleeding through his eyes.

"I don't know," Clint admitted. "Maybe he thought it was normal. Maybe he couldn't get up the energy. Maybe he wanted it to be normal so he wouldn't be not normal. I can tell you: him hiding it? That's not weird. That's not unusual. People do that all the time, even smart people. You could probably ask him, and he'd probably tell you, but Loki--"

Loki looked up at him; Clint caught his gaze, made his voice as kind as he could.

"Loki, even if he tells you, you probably won't get it. Not fully. Not really. That's just how it is. It's just... it's part of him."

Loki looked away. Clint stood, clasping Loki's shoulder on his way past the couch and pretending not to notice how Loki leaned into his touch.

"I suppose," Loki said when Clint came back, taking the offered glass of water, "I owe you an apology."

Clint flopped on the couch next to Loki, sprawling and taking a sip of his beer.

"Nah," Clint said. "We'll call it grief brain and forget about it."

"I don't suppose..."

"No, Loki." Clint put an arm behind Loki on the couch. "I don't hate you. Yes, you're still more than just someone I like fucking. For the sake of your way too-easily bruised pride, yes, if you want to boyfriends again, I'm for it."

Next to him, Loki stayed stiff, and Clint almost worried he'd assumed too much.

"Very well,” Loki sighed, relaxing against Clint. “If you insist.”

Clint grinned.

“There’s the insufferable lawyer I know and love.”

~~~

"I didn't expect you to be here."

Clint stirred from the end of the couch he'd managed to stake claim to despite Loki being sprawled across most of it.

"It's Christmas," Loki explained, arms still wrapped around a pillow and staring at the television. "You should be with your family, or friends, or... not here. I wanted you to not be here."

"Why, so you could blame me for having a life?" Clint snorted. "Classy. Why aren't you with Vali?"

"I was most the morning, through lunch. He--wanted to rest. He was tired. Again."

"Sounds right, from what Nat's mentioned."

"You?"

"Hmm?"

"Why are you here?"

"Ah," Clint said. "Personal." He stopped and shifted uncomfortably. "I don't really have anywhere to go this year. Steve's working, Nat's out of town. I'm better off not talking to blood relations. You were--" he made a weak hand-gesture. "Gone," he finished lamely.

He glanced over to Loki and frowned at the way the other man was looking at him.

"Not your fault," Clint said. "They're all assholes anyway. That includes you, by the way. In case you forgot."

Loki snorted, but he grinned, just a little.

"I hate you," Loki said almost cheerfully, closing his eyes and leaning his head back, leaving the long line of his neck exposed. "I hate you and your heart and how easy you make things." He swallowed, and Clint followed the dip of his adam's apple. "I am glad you were here."

 

XIV.

"Mr. Laufeyson," Dr. Coulson greeted, standing and offering his hand to shake, "good to see you. Come in. Take a seat."

"Hello, doctor." Loki shook his hand, coat draped over one arm, before sitting down. He glanced around the office--unfamiliar, compared to the generic office at the center he typically met with him at, yet still as unassuming as the psychologist's smile.

"I hope you didn't have any difficulty finding the place," Coulson said, sitting down in the chair by Loki's own instead of behind his desk.

"Not at all."

"Excellent. if you don't mind...?"

"Not at all," Loki said, smile tight and uneasy and small, nervousness twisted in his stomach like it always was--yet getting less as time went by. "That is why I am here."

Coulson nodded.

"I think," Coulson stated, "that the proposed vacation could potentially be quite beneficial to Valentine. He's continued to show improvement, and the last two weeks have been without incident. To be frank with you, Mr. Laufeyson, I have high hopes to be able to recommend his discharge within the month if he continues as he has."

"But you have concerns," Loki said dryly. Coulson's smile was modest, almost you caught me in its bashfulness.

"I do. Your son is very skilled at hiding his distress, and still adjusting to not needing to do so. His meals and time directly after are still under observation; it is not unusual for those with eating disorders to suffer relapses, and he has certainly tried to return to old habits even during the past two months. The structure and routine of the clinic has had a large effect on Valentine's recovery, and it's difficult to tell how much he will be affected by being removed prematurely, even just for a week."

"It is not as if he would be alone," Loki pointed out, mildly irritated no matter how sensible Coulson was being. "Nor would I be the only one who to watch him. The benefits outweigh the risks." He hoped. He hoped rather desperately that sun and sand and light, clear ocean waters and bright coral with brighter fish, all things Vali loved dearly, would be enough, and he hoped that he was not being wilfully blind.

"Mr. Laufeyson, you need to understand that there is more to it than simply being present. If Valentine protests eating, then you need to be able to insist that he does eat despite what he can--and will--say. There is no 'just this once.'"

"You think I do not know that?" Loki asked, voice low and silken. "That it has not been made clear to me that I hardly know my own son, and that he might well attempt to undo his own health again?"

"I am simply trying to make you fully aware of the situation," Coulson said smoothly, unperturbed. "If you're set on this, there's very little that I can do to stop you. One question, if I might?"

Loki nodded.

"Who else would be there besides yourself?"

"Clint Barton. I understand he is employed by the same clinic?" Loki kept his voice casual, as if it Clint's employment had not occurred to him when sorting through how to propose the vacation.

"Ah," Coulson said, momentarily brought short. Then, "That at least explains his refusal to work with Valentine."

Loki gave a slim smile. After a moment, Coulson returned it, his considerably more rueful.

"This is slightly unorthodox," Coulson said, "but perhaps..."

 

XV.

"What? You want to introduce me with a vacation? You didn't even--"

Loki kissed him.

Clint grumbled once Loki pulled away, teeth grazing over his bottom lip.

"That was unfair," he complained.

"Would you?" Loki asked. "You mentioned having the week off but nothing to do."

"So you're making me go on a real vacation?"

"Consider it an apology," Loki said lightly despite the tension in his spine. Still cautious. Clint wasn't an idiot. He understood, a little, what Loki was looking for--resentment, bitterness, all the things Loki would feel if their situations had been reversed.

"Sure," Clint said. "Why not?"

 

XVI.

"Pabbi," he said, hurrying forward. "I wasn't expecting you until later, you're early."

Pabbi smiled, pulling him into a tight hug, holding him for a moment. Vali didn't protest--pabbi did that often, these days, and Vali liked it, a little. A reminder.

"It was meant to be a surprise," pabbi said. "I needed to verify a few things." He smiled, tugging one of Vali's hands. "What's this?"

"Paint," Vali said, ducking his head. "From the set you got me, for Christmas."

They walked to one of the conference rooms. Vali thought his father walked lighter lately, less weight in his shoulders and the edges of his mouth, and thought how he could notice that about his father at all. How he noticed things, and found things worth noticing even when he felt exhausted.

"Vali," pabbi said, "how would you feel about a trip to the Virgin Islands?"

Vali blinked at him.

"There would be some... conditions," pabbi was quick to add. "But if all goes well, you won't need to come back to the center. It would only be a week, and no scuba diving this time." He smiled.

Hopeful, Vali thought. Painfully brightly hopeful.

Why bother, why care, why--

Because, Vali thought firmly.

"It wouldn't be just you and I, Vali," pabbi added. "I can't--" He stopped, a look on his face like he'd nearly swallowed his tongue.

"Watch me by yourself," Vali said softly. He smiled—small and forced and difficult to reach for, but at least he could reach now, sometimes. “I understand. Who?"

"Ah," and pabbi smiled with his eyes, pleased and embarrassed, "I believe you might have met him before--"

"You mean you'll introduce me to your boyfriend?" Vali asked, half-teasing. "Or should I call him your fuck buddy?"

"Vali!"

Vali gave a crooked grin--and how easy that one came, flying on the breath of pabbi's amusement.

"I guess if it means I finally get to meet him, I'll go," Vali allowed when pabbi finished laughing. "I'd like to go. It would be... be something to look forward to.” His eyes darted to pabbi’s face, nervous. “That’s important, they say, things to look forward to.”

Pabbi smiled and squeezed his hand.

“Yes,” he said, “it is.”