The first time it happens, it happens like this:
It's the middle of the night, but Clint has only just gone to sleep. He's halfway into a dream when someone bangs on his apartment door. It startles him back to wakefulness, and his first thought is that he really needs to write a damn reminder: Take your aids out before bed, dipshit.
It's only as the banging continues, so loudly it would probably wake him even without his aids, that he realizes someone is actually knocking on the door to his apartment. Not the door to the complex, which should be locked at this hour of the night, or the buzzer up to his apartment, which would be the way to reach him from the lobby, but the door that leads directly from the building's hallway to his living room.
He makes it a point not to know any of his neighbors.
With a sigh, he takes the gun from under his pillow and a knife from the bedside table. His shoes he slips off, so his guest doesn't hear him approaching the door, although it would be hard over the continued knocking. He creeps down the hallway and crouches to peer in the peephole. The face is in shadow, but - shit.
He recognizes the form, the way it stands. It was all he cared about for weeks. It was all he dreamed about for months.
Why is Loki standing outside his door?
It's a testament to... something... that he doesn't just shoot Loki through the door. He wants to, don't get him wrong, he really, really wants to. But it would piss off his landlord, and honestly? No one who knocks that long and hard at an enemy's door is anything but desperate, and he's -
Well. 'Curious' will do just as well as anything else. (Vengeful. Pissed. Positively vibrating with hatred. Still, a little, hopelessly obsessed.)
He opens the door.
Now, Clint's not an idiot: he's got his gun up before he touches the latch. Loki knocks against empty air for a moment before he realizes he's been let in, and then he kind of freezes a little. The ambient glow from Clint's kitchen - lit-up appliances, digital clock, flickering under-cabinet lighting - doesn't illuminate much, but it's enough. Loki's eyes are fixed on his gun, shining full of the same desperation that led him here to Clint's door at three in the morning.
"What are you doing here?" Clint asks. He doesn't pronounce the question mark.
Loki opens his mouth, then shuts it again.
Clint tries a different tactic. "What do you want from me?" He angles it deliberately short: bitter and as cruel as he can make it. It's not the desperate plea of a slave hoping to avoid punishment, or the painful hope of a lover seeking recompense. It's the clipped request of a false friend revealing their true colors. He's heard it on and off his whole life. At least he's putting it to good use.
"I - " says Loki, which is progress.
"If it's going to take you that long to string words together, you might as well sit down."
Loki collapses to the ground, right there in the hall. Clint goggles at him a little.
"I meant in here," he says, gesturing at his apartment. That easy, as though he's not inviting the man who haunts his nightmares into his only safe space.
It's too dark to see if Loki blushes, but he stands and walks inside and sits on the bench Clint would use to store his shoes if he didn't sleep in them.
"So," Clint says. "Tell me why you're here."
The order seems to do it where the questions before failed. Two words startle out of Loki's mouth: "Kill me."
Loki honestly looks just as surprised to hear them as Clint, who wishes he could put the words down to Loki's sarcasm. Suicide is really, really not his strong suit, but even a year later he can read the expression on Loki's face: desire and anger and a hint of fear. It's as familiar as breathing. (More so, right now.)
"You're suicidal," Clint says. Master of the obvious, he is.
"Really?" says Loki, half caustic and half just-giving-up. "I hadn't noticed."
"Why?" echoes Loki. "And here I thought you of all people would stab me in the eye without questions."
Clint swallows. "Don't get me wrong, I'd love to, but I really can't afford not to look the gift horse in the mouth."
"Please refrain from speaking in mortal idiom," says Loki, voice all silver and proud, but he's sitting hunched over in a corner of Clint's apartment, and there are still tears in his eyes.
Clint sighs. He flicks on the light and sits in his armchair, still keeping his gun pointed at Loki. The way his living space is set up, Loki's mostly in profile. He looks ghostly and wrong against the fake wood of Clint's apartment door, and for the first time Clint wonders if this is a dream.
(He had just as many of those dreams, after Manhattan, as the other kind: dreams where he was the one in power, and Loki was the slave, and Clint was petty and terrible and cruel. They were the hardest to wake up from.)
"Why?" Clint repeats.
"Norns, Barton, could you please just kill me?"
"No," says Clint.
Loki turns to face him. "I can provoke you, if that's your problem, if you don't want to kill me in cold blood. I could remind you of the childhood memories you shared with me, and of all the times you wept. I could recall the last words of all the people I made you kill. I could - " and he stands and lunges, in one smooth, ugly movement: all raw power and caged animal terror. He's got his fingers crooked like claws, aimed for Clint's eyes.
Clint discards his gun and grabs Loki's wrists. He pulls Loki down so he's kneeling, eyes almost level with Clint in the chair. "If you want me to kill you, then you'll damn well tell me why." With his free hand he lays his knife along the arm of the chair, but he keeps his fingers on the hilt.
Loki pants. "And what, pray tell, will you do instead? You won't let me go, not when you know firsthand the kind of havoc I wreak. And you won't hand me over to your masters, because that takes me quite neatly out of your control." He pauses, then adds, "You know more than most, Barton, how little torture scares me." There's more rawness in that last sentence than Clint was prepared for. Even now, when he calls himself recovered and has no dreams he lets himself remember, the pain in Loki's voice makes his chest twist, a little. His grip tightens, instinctively, on Loki's wrists.
"Maybe I just know you're not the type to back down from a fight." Even - especially - a battle of wills.
Loki's face contorts so quickly that Clint wouldn't see it if it weren't for his practice. Pain and fury and despair, rage and hope and fear - all in a fraction of a second, after which his face returns to his usual calm mask. (There's no doubt it's a mask, now - if there ever was.)
"You know," Clint says, leaning back, "when you enslaved me, did you have any idea that one day it would give me power over you?" Loki's face stays blank. "I can read you better than probably anyone in the universe right now, and you're the one who trained me to."
"I need hardly tell you why I wish to die, then."
Clint raises an eyebrow. "Has it all caught up with you? The guilt? The self-loathing? The - "
It's not Loki's voice of command, but Clint shuts up anyway. He keeps his eyes fixed on Loki's, and he waits.
It takes nearly ten minutes for Loki to drop his gaze. "I..." he starts. He swallows repeatedly. His pulse beats faster under Clint's fingers. "It seems fitting."
Clint sighs. "I'm not asking why you want me to kill you. I'm asking why you want to die."
Loki shrugs one shoulder, still not looking up. "Maybe they're the same thing."
"Yes, because I'll obviously trust you when you say something like that."
Loki closes his eyes for a long moment. When he opens them again, they're clouded. "Please," he says.
The mask is starting to crack, and Clint's honestly not even sure he likes what he can see behind it. It would be easy to lift his knife, or reach over and pick up his gun, or move his hands to Loki's neck and twist. He's killed Loki those ways and dozens more, hundreds more, in his imaginings and his dreams. But there, Loki doesn't want to die. He begs for his life, for mercy, for redemption, and in his dreams Clint gets off on denying him.
Here and now, Loki doesn't want to live. Here and now, Clint doesn't want to deny him.
"Tell me," Clint says, and lets it sit a minute. Lets Loki squirm, and is disgusted by how disgusted he is. "Why not do it yourself?"
Loki turns his head away. "I tried," he says. "It didn't work."
"Why not?" Clint asks. He expects the answer to be magic, or super healing powers, or weird Asgardian rituals.
But Loki says, "I don't know."
"You don't know? How the hell don't you know?"
Loki wrenches his wrists free, but stays kneeling in front of Clint, head down and twisted away. "If I knew that, do you think I'd be here?"
"So, what? Your own attempts to off yourself failed so disastrously that you came to me?"
"Something like that."
Clint sighs. "What did you try?"
"Everything," Loki says, voice anguished. "Everything."
"Yeah, I got it the first time. Do me a favor and tone down the hyperbole, turn up the reality."
Despite all of Loki's earlier protests against "mortal idiom," he knows exactly what Clint means. "Would you care for a list?" he asks, caustic as the first day he stepped foot on this world. He still won't face Clint.
"Sure, why the hell not?"
"Fine." Loki wets his lips. "I threw myself off a building. I slit my wrists. I starved. I burned. I - "
"Wait," Clint says, realization crystallizing at the back of his brain. "The problem isn't that you can't kill yourself." Dear god. "It's that you can't die." His stomach turns over and over on itself, again and again.
"Nothing lasts," Loki confirms in a murmur. "Nothing stays. All the pain, none of the..." He trails off, shaking his head.
"Permanence," Clint volunteers.
"So - why me, then?"
"Maybe it will work," says Loki, miserably. "Maybe if you hate me, it will work."
What's Clint supposed to say to that? He hates Loki less in this moment, sick sympathy twisting in his gut, than he ever has. For the first time in his right mind, he wants to reach out and comfort.
It's the same instinct that led him to bring Tasha in. It's the same instinct that kept him alive, back when Loki was in his head. All of his empathy and all of his fury, so twisted together that he can't tell the difference. That he's not so sure he wants to.
"What makes you think that?" he asks. "Seems to me you hate yourself enough for both of us."
Loki shakes his head. "The closest I came - the longest I was dead - it was my execution. It was when my father killed me."
There's too much there for Clint to unravel right now. There's a lot there he doesn't want to unravel at all. So he takes a deep breath instead, and works to make sense of the least terrifying knowledge. "How were you executed?"
"I would rather not discuss it."
"Do you want me to help you or not?"
"I want you to kill me."
"You know what I mean. Stop avoiding the damn question."
Loki swallows. He still won't look Clint in the eye. "Barton, please," he says, and that's just disturbing to hear. "Just leave it. Just - stab me, and leave it."
There's not actually anything in his SHIELD training that tells people not to assist with suicide, but Clint's pretty sure it was heavily implied. On the other hand, if he called up any person on the planet right now and explained the situation, they'd tell him to shoot Loki in the goddamn head and be done with it. If the person responsible for the worst of Tasha's pain showed up on her doorstep right now, she wouldn't hesitate to slit their throat. It shouldn't be this hard. It shouldn't be this easy. "I have to know," he says. "You can't just ask this of me and expect me to do it without reason. Not after everything you did."
"As I said," says Loki, "I assumed that our... prior relationship... would help me avoid these sorts of questions."
"You assumed wrong. If you wanted no questions asked, you should have gone to Tasha. I'm sure she hates you plenty."
"But I am on my knees for you ," says Loki, quiet and imploring. "I am giving you your revenge on a silver platter. Flay me, torture me, I don't care, just end me . End it."
And why not? It's not like Clint hasn't killed before. It's not even like he's never been torn up about it. And Loki deserves it, and Loki is asking for it, and Clint's dreamt about this. He tries to imagine what it would be like to want to die so desperately, and what it would be like to be denied it. Nausea surges in his stomach. "Okay," he says. "Okay. Fine. Into the bathroom. I don't want to get blood on the carpet."
Loki sighs, heavy, and gives a full body shudder. He stands quickly and gracelessly, and almost trips over his feet on his way to the hall. The door to the bathroom is open, and he hurries in and then stands there, frozen, as he waits for Clint.
Clint turns on the light. "Get into the tub," he says.
Loki does, all long limbs and eagerness. He's practically vibrating.
Clint kneels next to him. "What," he starts, and has to clear his throat. "Is there anything special I should do with your body?"
Loki shakes his head. "I'm not - that is, I don't - no. I won't leave one."
"You won't leave one?" Clint echoes, skeptical. "How does that work?"
"I melt," says Loki.
"Is that an Asgard thing or a you thing?"
"Neither," says Loki, and doesn't elaborate.
Clint manages a sick-sounding chuckle. "At least it saves me the clean-up."
"Yes." Loki's gaze is on Clint's knife hand. Well, he'd better get on with it, then.
"Are you sure about this?" he still asks, as he gets the knife in position.
"No, obviously," says Loki, acidic enough to raise blisters. "I came here and bared my soul as the first step in some masterful plan. Of course I'm sure about this. Kill me! "
So Clint does.
He stabs Loki first in the femoral and then in the carotid artery, draws the knife long and twists it so the gashes gape. It's maybe ten seconds, then, as the blood comes in spurts and then a steadier gush. Before long Loki's dead. Then, as he said, he's melting.
It's slow, more snowman than ice cream cake, and Clint doesn't stay to watch the whole thing. He turns on the shower head and lets it run cold as he heads back to bed. He's getting up in less than two hours anyway, and he's taken showers twice that long. He'll finish clean-up in the morning, if there's anything left by then.
He curls up on top of the blankets. This time, he remembers to take out his hearing aids.
The second time it happens, it happens like this:
Four days after the Loki Incident, Clint's out getting lunch at his third-favorite hole-in-the-wall pizza place, because it's the closest to his apartment. He's just placed his order - half pesto and feta, half spicy marinara and pork sausage - and is leaning against the wall in the corner. The smell here always settles his mind, just a little. He stopped somewhere similar, half a world away, back when things were just starting with Tasha. It reminds him -
Someone exits the bathroom and leans against the wall next to him. No one has entered the bathroom since a lady left ten minutes ago, back when Clint was still in line.
"I guess it didn't work, then," he says, voice pitched low.
"No," says Loki. "It seems it did not." He's wearing slim-cut black jeans, a long-sleeved burgundy shirt, and a low ponytail. Wisps of hair escape to frame his face. He looks nothing like the mad god who tried to destroy the world last year. If Clint weren't half-expecting him, even he may have missed him.
"Any clue why?" he asks.
A restless shrug. "I used exsanguination several times myself. It never worked, which I should think is obvious."
Clint's very glad the place is too full for people to overhear them. "So you're thinking it's not just the identity of your killer, but the method of execution?" It's like a sick, twisted logic puzzle: if the super-villain owns a silver knife and a white cat, and the megalomaniac owns a blue scepter and a black dog, how many times will the monster die before it stay dead?
"There are countless variables," says Loki. "My location, my state of mind, the clothes I'm wearing, when I last ate..." He's getting visibly upset; he hasn't rebuilt any of his masks since Clint saw him last, frail and empty in his pink bathtub. "But yes, those two seem the most likely."
"There's also a chance that whoever cast the no-death spell on you is just fucking with your head. That they added the time dilation just to - give you hope?" This is too surreal, talking with Loki as though they're on the same team again. He liked this, Clint remembers, when everything was blue. Loki's an incredible strategist, and Clint always felt smarter just listening to him. And unlike most of his SHIELD handlers, Loki would listen in return.
But that's a path he can't go down again. He won't. Loki coughs. "If it is a spell," he says darkly.
Clint files 'what the hell is that supposed to mean?' next to 'so just how did your father kill you?' - things he'll ask once the need is pressing, but certainly not in public. "When you tried to - when you 'used exsanguination' - how long were you dead? How long this time?"
"The longest..." Loki 'hmm's. "Perhaps forty-odd hours. The shortest was not even five. This time was more than four days."
Clint doesn't need to do the math. "You came to me right as soon as - I mean, you just woke up and teleported here?"
"If you're content with the crude vocabulary of 'woke up,' then yes, I suppose I did."
"How did you know where I am? Actually, how did you know where I live?" Clint makes a conscious effort to lower his volume. Getting kicked out of his third-favorite pizza place won't help anyone.
"You won't like the answer," says Loki.
"Is there a question I could ask you where I would?"
Loki makes a noncommittal sound.
"Answer the question."
"I... when I took over your mind, it left a sort of magical signature. I can - not track it, precisely, but use it to follow your path." A pause. "Although you told me about the apartment."
And Clint was just starting to feel a little sorry for the guy. But now, now he realizes that the person he hates and fears most in the world is able to follow him around like a goddamn bloodhound.
It's pretty easy to imagine killing Loki, right now. Even with the smell of garlic and yeast in the air, Clint just wants to take out his gun and - bam! But technically he's not allowed to carry said gun here, and he still hasn't gotten his pizza.
"I told you not to ask," Loki says when Clint doesn't respond.
"Yeah, well, better to know about it now." He can ask Thor, next time he sees him, if there's anything that can be done.
"If you say so."
"You of the opinion that ignorance is bliss?"
Loki takes a long time to answer. When he does, his voice is low, and almost sad. "Most of the time, yes."
"Yeah, well." Clint crosses his arms. Behind the counter, someone finally puts his pizza in the oven. "I'm of the opinion that the truth always comes out."
"Oh, I never said it didn't," Loki says, voice back to regal smoothness, "but we're only talking about the time before."
"Sounds like you have some experience with that. Got anything to do with your death wish?"
Loki doesn't answer.
"Huh. Usually you so seem to love the sound of your own voice."
Loki chuckles. "I knew we had something in common."
"That why you chose me as your slave?"
"Barton, darling, I only picked you because you were there." Now his voice is like silk, gentle and cruel.
Clint actually smiles. "You know, I already agreed to kill you. You don't need to convince me."
Loki lets out a long breath through his nose. "Will you get on with it, then?"
"No." Before Loki can exclaim in outrage, Clint continues. "I'm going to wait here, get my pizza, head home, and eat it. Maybe you can have a slice, if I'm feeling generous. Then I'm going to kill you the exact same way I did Tuesday night, and we're going to see how long it takes you to come back."
There's that "we" again, the one that makes Clint's stomach lurch. Before he can think too hard about it - or Loki can respond - a woman at the counter calls out "Samson!"
Clint pushes himself off the wall and heads to pick up his pizza. Loki trails behind him.
"A pseudonym?" he asks, once they're outside.
Clint changes the hand he's using to hold the pizza. "Right now, I'm the only Avenger without a very visible public identity." Well, there's Tasha, but she doesn't quite count. "I prefer to keep it that way."
"Yet you're walking down the street with a known alien mass-murderer."
Clint gives Loki a sideways glance. "You and I both know that nobody recognizes you in that outfit. That's the whole point." When Loki doesn't respond, he continues. "But if you really wanted to die, you could just magic up your old conquering clothes and stand in Central Park." He turns a corner. Loki hurries to keep up with him. "Someone would slaughter you soon enough."
"Don't think I've not thought of it."
"And your conclusion?"
"Too much uncertainty. Maybe I'd die. Maybe I'd end up in a prison where I'd want to even more than I do now." Loki pauses as they cross a street. Then, "You can't have been serious, earlier."
"You really intend to attempt to isolate the variables of my death?"
"I want you dead just as much as you do. Maybe more."
"Unlikely, but regardless, why bother analyzing?"
"You haven't been?" Clint shifts pizza-arms again. Loki moves so he's on the opposite side.
"I... Let us just say I haven't had the opportunity."
"I will refrain from answering that."
Clint sighs. "I won't be able to help you unless you answer my damn questions."
"I'm here for your hands, not for your help."
If Loki had gone to Nat, she would make a lewd joke. Then again, if Loki had gone to Nat, she wouldn't bother trying to talk to him. Clint just sighs. "Unfortunately for you, my hands come attached to the rest of me." He smiles, wry and dark. "They wouldn't do you much good if they weren't."
Loki echoes his sigh. They have to stop at a crosswalk, and the crowd thickens as they wait. Someone pushes Clint into someone else, and he starts to drop his pizza.
Loki intervenes. "Here, let me get that for you," he says, and sweeps the pizza out of Clint's arms before he can say a word.
As soon as Clint's got his wits back about him, though, the light has turned, and everyone hurries across. He needs to scramble just to keep track of Loki. At that point they're only half a block from his apartment, though, and trying to take the pizza back would cause more of a scene than anything. So he leaves it.
He leaves it as they finish the walk to his building, and he leaves it as he greets Lilly in the lobby, and he leaves it as they climb up the stairs, and he leaves it as he fumbles with his keys, and he leaves it once they've entered the apartment and he takes off his jacket. By that point Loki's put the pizza on the end-table by his chair, so he just sits down and opens the box.
"I wasn't kidding," he ends up telling the awkward silence about ten seconds later. "You can have a piece."
Loki, who, after abandoning the pizza, had retreated to the bathroom door, creeps closer. "What is it?"
Loki gives him an eloquent look.
"Melted cheese on flatbread, with sauce and toppings."
"We have something similar in Asgard, I think." He still lurks at the edges of the room.
"Seriously." Clint angles the box towards him. "Try some." Asgard must be a piss-poor place to live, if it doesn't have any pizza.
"It's yours," Loki says.
"Yes, and I'm offering it to you, because maybe it'll make you less likely to stand in that corner, which is also mine, giving me that kicked-puppy look."
Loki takes a few more steps and frowns down at the box. "What's the difference?" he asks.
"The green is, uh, an herb sauce and a mild cheese, and the red is a different cheese, a spicy sauce, and some sausage." If Loki doesn't know 'pizza,' chances are he won't know 'pesto,' 'feta,' 'mozzarella,' or 'marinara,' and that's almost a tragedy. Clint's life hasn't been great, but he's at least reached a point where he can feed himself.
Loki's still frowning at the pizza, but it's a different frown. It's the frown he gives when he sees something he wants, but isn't sure how to get it. "Perhaps," he says, "... one of both?"
"Sure," Clint says, shrugging. Loki gives a small, shocked smile, but covers it up so quickly it's almost like it was never there.
Maybe, Clint thinks, it wasn't just a lack of pizza that made Asgard a shitty place to live.
For the next ten minutes they sit in a silence that, if not companionable, is at least not outright hostile. At last, when Clint's more than halfway done with his pizza and Loki has finished carefully licking the grease from his fingers, Clint broaches the subject.
"So, are you ready to die tonight?"
Loki waits just a fraction of a second too long before answering. "I've been ready since I greeted you."
"'Cause you don't have to go through with this, you know." Clint's not really sure why he's pushing. Didn't he shoot to kill during the battle of New York? If Loki gave this up and attacked again tomorrow, wouldn't he shoot to kill then? But like this, with his knife, in his apartment, after sharing his pizza... "I mean... you can choose to live."
There's no hesitation this time. "No," Loki says. "I can't."
And that, Clint supposes, is that. For now. Maybe. "I'll be in the bathroom in a minute," he says, and goes to his room to get his knife. He dithers a moment over his choices, but settles on the same one he used before. Isolating variables, and all that.
By the time he's in the bathroom, Loki has settled into the tub. He's too long-limbed for it, and has to sit at a strange angle, arms overhanging the sides. It's too close to endearing for Clint to deal with right now, with the sun streaming through the windows and a killing knife in his hand, so he folds it away and stores it in the same vault in his mind where he keeps all the blue-washed memories.
"I," Loki says once Clint's got the knife in position, and doesn't elaborate.
Loki smiles, frowns. "I preferred the green pizza," he says, pronouncing the word carefully. "For what it's worth."
"Okay? Good to know, I guess." This part hasn't gotten easier since the first time - the part where they have to stop talking and Clint has to start killing. It's too intimate, this. Clint has no qualms about killing up close - he's a marksman because he's best at it, not because he prefers it - but he's starting to think he does have qualms about arranging it beforehand, like it's a, a, a goddamn BDSM scene.
"Get on with it," says Loki. Clint realizes he's been kneeling like this for the better part of a minute.
"Okay," Clint says. "You ready?"
Loki doesn't dignify that with a response.
Clint closes his eyes and stabs. Opens them, moves the knife, stabs again. In instants Loki is gurgling, struggling to take a full breath, his blood rushing towards the drain. An instant more and the gurgling is gone. The only movement is the blood. Clint turns on the shower, but he doesn't leave the room this time. He cleans his knife at the sink, lays it out on the rim of the bath, and then he sits on the toilet.
He sits on the toilet and he watches Loki melt.
By the third time, Clint is ready.
Loki first showed up at three on a Tuesday night - or Wednesday morning, more accurately - and the meeting at the pizza place occurred around one on Sunday afternoon. If Clint's math is right - and Loki's curse is predictable, a much less likely outcome - then his unwelcome guest will return at 11:00 pm on Thursday.
Even though he suspects the curse isn't that precise, he still spends Thursday evening preparing. He got the bloodstains out of Loki's clothes (hydrogen peroxide works wonders), went to get a pizza, and pulled his not-for-shoes bench in front of his armchair. On it he has set a garrote, a gun, a knife made for slicing instead of stabbing. It's a morbid little display. Somehow it's still less disturbing than the end table, with Loki's neatly folded clothes and a whole pesto-feta pizza.
The worst that happens, Clint figures - or maybe the best, he's not at all sure - is that Loki doesn't show, Clint eats a pizza slightly different than his usual order, and anyone who tries to spy on him gets one hell of a guilt trip. It's not as though he's hoping Loki shows or anything.
But really, isn't it? Isn't that the whole rotten point of this thing? Some vague hope that whatever Clint's doing, it somehow works out?
Maybe he's just deluding himself. Probably he's just deluding himself. Almost certainly he's deluding himself. As much as it pains him to admit, he had reached some sort of balance with himself, post-Manhattan. It took him the better part of the last year to get there, and he's not certain he'll ever be back to 100%, but he had - managed to reclaim at least a part of his peace. Then Loki knocked on his door, and shattered it all, and what? He thinks some good might come of it?
Yeah, he's deluding himself.
Luckily, before he goes too far down the path of introspection, there's a knock on the door. If Clint's life were sunshine and roses, he'd be able to call 'come in,' but he's not an idiot. He's an Avenger. He can't leave his door unlocked.
Still. It's weird, and harder than it should be, to stand up, unlock the door, and invite Loki in. It's even harder not to look away from the expression on Loki's face when he sees Clint's displays: all longing and hope and mourning and some terrible raw broken edge.
Belatedly, Clint realizes there's nowhere for Loki to sit.
"You can sit in the chair if you want," he offers before he can think better of it.
But Loki shakes his head. His gaze is fixed on the bench-cum-coffee table.
"I shouldn't impose," he says.
Clint has to laugh a little. "I'm sorry, what the hell did you think you were doing?"
Loki's expression shutters. "Providing you much-longed-for vengeance, to begin with."
Christ. Maybe Clint should be sitting down for this. It wouldn't feel right, though, sitting when Loki still stands there. Not when he's barely able to mask whatever pain drove him to this in the first place. "Don't pretend you're so selfless," he says, because Loki angry is better than Loki lost. (Or at least more familiar.)
"I never did."
For fuck's sake. "If you won't sit on the chair than at least sit on the floor. I got food. The pizza you like."
Great, now he's entirely shut off. Eyes blank, face motionless. He showed more in the early blue days than he's showing now. "Look," Clint says, sinking into the chair, "I can't just - kill you, man."
If it's possible, Loki's face closes down even more. "Then I can take my business elsewhere." He's already moving towards the door.
"Wait, shit, no." Clint runs a hand down his face, because fuck. "First of all, don't call it business. One, that's just wrong, and two, you're not my fucking customer. I'm not providing some sort of... service, or whatever. I'm not a goddamn hairdresser, or reupholster-er, or, or car detailer." Loki clearly has no idea what he's talking about, but Clint forges on. "I'm doing this because - " But he doesn't actually know the end of that sentence, so he just sort of lets it hang there.
"You want to kill me," Loki fills in, under the apparent delusion that he's being helpful.
"No!" Clint says, with an amount of vehemence that surprises even him.
Loki is looking increasingly befuddled, which is at least an improvement on no expression at all. "I should think you would want it more than anyone else," he says, adding after only a moment, "or the scientist, the other one I - " Here he cuts himself off, probably aware that he's skirting too close to forbidden territory, and well. Clint did the same thing just a second ago, so he can't judge too harshly, though a part of him itches to know what Loki calls it, that terrible thing he did. Clint hasn't been able to put a word to it himself. (Tasha calls it 'rape.')
"I did," Clint admits. "For a long time. I still do sometimes."
"Never when I'm actually around to reap the benefits, I see," Loki shoots back, caustic, which, well, caustic's a fair sight better than baffled.
"Shut up and let me finish." A beat. "I did want to kill you. Shit," and his laugh is a little too hollow, too real, "I wanted to do a hell of a lot worse than kill you."
Loki closes his eyes and tilts his head back, so Clint can't see the expression on his face.
"But I got it sorted. I'm alright now, for a certain value of alright. Normal people generally find a way to work out murderous urges, you know, instead of bottling them up and trying to conquer the world. Or normal people who used to be assassins, at least. You know, just because I used to kill people for a living doesn't mean I enjoy it. In fact, I distinctly remember telling you I got out of that line of work for a reason."
There are people out there, Clint knows, who enjoy killing. Not psychopaths and not sadists, but something in between and messy and terrible. For a long time he thought Loki was one of those people. He's beginning to have his doubts.
"So like," he continues, "don't go thinking this is something I want. Not everyone wants to kill you, Loki."
Apparently he hit the nail a little too close to the head, because Loki looks stricken. Ill, too. "I - " he says, but can't get any farther than that.
Clint's not sure what he's doing. He sure as hell didn't sign on to be Loki's goddamn therapist. But he didn't sign on to be his murderer, either, not after Manhattan ended and he dusted his hands of it all and Thor escorted Loki off in chains. Even before, during the battle, if he had killed Loki - if any of them had - it wouldn't be murder. War isn't murder.
Neither is suicide.
Loki still looks terrible, so Clint holds out the pizza box - shoving Loki's clothes aside - and forces a grin. "Seriously, grab some pizza and sit down, man, this is starting to feel weird." He drops the box on the floor, equidistant between them. When Loki dithers, Clint rolls his eyes. "Think of it as an order or a condition or some shit, if it makes you feel better. If I have to kill you, at least let me feed you first."
Loki's shoulders actually seem to loosen at something in there, and he reaches out to grab a piece of pizza. He hesitates, and Clint remembers how he felt the need to ask for two, last time.
"Man, I got it for you, don't be so stingy," he says, and when Loki's shoulders fail to ease, "I can call that an order too, if it makes you feel better."
Loki gets a second piece, and then, after a fraction of a second, a third. He sits down, cross-legged, back against the wall. He balances two of his slices on the outstretched fingers of one hand, curved a little so the heat won't reach his palm, and gets to work on the third one. He even folds it in half like a seasoned Midgardian, like it's not only his third slice of pizza ever.
Shit, now Clint's all sad and introspective again. He knew Loki was really fucked up, during the time he was blue, and it mattered so deeply to him then. He kinda... jerked in the opposite direction, during recovery. Pinned it all on him in a way that dismissed Loki's own traumas, which his shrink said was okay and normal in that sort of situation, but Clint at the time thought he'd never see Loki again. He certainly thought that, if he did, it would be from opposite ends of a battlefield, and not as Loki's chosen means of suicide.
He thought that he would be SHIELD's weapon, not Loki's.
Fuck, he hasn't even had any pizza yet, and Loki's midway through his second slice. Clint takes two, and shoves them down so fast that the cheese manages to burn his mouth almost twenty minutes out of the oven.
By the time Clint's reaching for a third piece, Loki has finished his, and is looking at the box like a poor abused dog might look at a steak. Suspicion sneaking in, Clint grabs two more pieces. As soon as he's pulled his hand away, Loki reaches out and gets one.
"Have you even been feeding yourself?" Clint asks, because Loki might flip out if he stressed again that he got the fucking pizza for him .
Loki shrugs, and finishes chewing before he speaks. "I confess I haven't seen the need. I get a new body every time I die, after all, and it's always in the same state it was the first time." And he jumps from death to death so fast, Clint's sure, that he doesn't feel the need to feed himself between them.
"And what state was that?" he asks, keeping his voice deliberately flat.
"Well-fed enough," Loki says, clearly trying to shut down the conversation. He takes another bite of his pizza.
"Define 'well-fed,'" Clint says, because if he's going to be Loki's therapist-slash-killer he damn well deserves to keep pushing. "Define 'enough.'"
"Better than you in your childhood," Loki snaps, and Clint gives him a thin smile.
"Yeah, you know what a low bar that's setting." It's weird, that Loki knows everything. That Clint told him everything. Not even Tasha knows everything. He suspects Coulson came close, but certainly not because Clint told him.
"Not as bad as the week I spent in your SHIELD's holding cells."
That gives Clint something of a range, but not a range he's happy with. "Yeah, we're gonna have to agree to disagree about the definitions of both 'well-fed' and 'enough.'"
Loki's face gets pinched. "Norns, are you going to feed me every time I come here?"
"With a reaction like that? Yeah." Clint uses his foot to push the box of pizza in Loki's direction. "Eat more of that."
"It's yours," Loki says, echoing all his doubt from last time. Clint's filled with the urge to kick someone, but he's not sure who. He settles on the pizza box, sending it careening into Loki's legs.
"And I want you to eat it," he says. So are you , he'd been about to say. You're mine too , but he's not actually an idiot. "There're only two slices left, c'mon, you like it and I'd rather you eat it warm than I eat it reheated tomorrow." Especially because, if the past two times are anything to go by, he'll wake up tomorrow feeling cotton-mouthed and miserable, all the fun of a hangover without actually drinking. He'll probably stay in bed all day, take his ears out, and fight back the waves of depression and self-loathing that engulf him.
Loki scowls and pulls the pizza box closer. He polishes off his fourth piece and retrieves the next.
Now that Clint's just watching him eat, he's forced to admit something he hasn't touched since he was blue: Loki is attractive. It hadn't really mattered, then. His feelings about Loki were too caught up in, in, in servitude and desperation and a misguided sense of fraternity. It doesn't really matter now, either, but it goes to his gut in a way it never did before. Makes him shaky, shakier than he was when this was just one more fucked-up thing in a long list of fucked-up things.
He's pretty sure that's still all it is. He's less - but still reasonably - sure that he doesn't want it to be.
He's almost as glad as Loki when the pizza's gone. "Happy now?" Loki asks, eyebrow arched.
Hell no. "Happy enough," Clint says, faking glib reasonably well, and he manages a real grin when Loki bristles at the intentional echo.
Loki doesn't push, though - at least not in that direction. "So can we get on with it?"
Fuck, this whole thing was a mistake. I want you dead just as much as you do , Clint said last time. Unlikely , Loki had answered.
Yeah. Goddamn unlikely.
There's nothing for it, though. "Well," Clint says, gesturing to the bench-table, "I figured I'd give you options."
Loki studies the table, his gaze intense. It lingers on the knife, which in some strange way isn't that surprising, and skips over the gun entirely. That's probably a good thing. If his neighbors woke up to a gunshot this late, even a silenced one, they might call the cops.
"What," - Loki wets his lips - "what are my choices?"
"We-ell," Clint draws the word out. "The knife is for bleeding you again, obviously, but I'd - " His mouth is suddenly dry. He swallows. "I'd slice along your veins, instead. See if that takes longer for you to come back."
Loki looks decidedly less interested in the knife, now.
"The gun... probably isn't a good idea, to be honest. Volume and everything." Loki nods. "The wire is called a garrote. It's for - "
"We do have those in Asgard, you know."
Clint takes a deep breath. "You said you had pizza in Asgard, too. Doesn't mean you recognized it last time. Doesn't mean you knew what it was called."
"You are insufferable," Loki says, but it sounds almost fond. As though he's not planning on dying in the next ten minutes. As though Clint is still his favorite slave.
Clint screws his eyes shut and spends a minute just breathing. Why is this so hard? Why can't he just finish it? (And finish it, and finish it, and finish it...) "Just pick something," he finally says, not opening his eyes. "I want this over with."
"I'd rather," says Loki, and is silent again. He doesn't finish his sentence. Clint doesn't open his eyes. "Could you..."
"Yes?" Clint asks, after a long pause.
"I would not blame you if the answer is no, but if I can ask... are there any other options available?"
Clint sighs, opens his eyes. "I suppose I could suffocate you. Drown you?" A beat. "Those would have been harder for you to do alone."
"Yes," Loki says, voice desperate. He looks at Clint with the same expression he directed to the pizza box. "Drown me."
And now for the part Clint hates. Why can't he be angry? Why can't he be cruel? "Let's go," he says, standing. He leads the way to the bathroom. Loki follows, all nervous energy and hungry eyes.
His bathroom is really too small for two people, but they manage. Clint leans over to stopper the tub and start the water running. "Hot or cold?" he asks Loki, who shrugs.
"Does it matter?"
For what feels like the umpteenth time tonight, Clint sighs. "Let's just say it does."
Loki presses his lips together, looks away. When he speaks it's a murmur, and he doesn't look back at Clint. "I do not like the cold."
"Alright then," Clint says. He twists the hot water tap, checks the temperature. "Is this good?" he asks.
Loki raises an eyebrow.
"You should check it too," Clint says, rolling his eyes. "I don't know how hot you want it."
"You're running me a grave, not a bath," Loki snaps.
"That's no reason you should be miserable."
Loki's eyes flash. "I want to be miserable! That's the point. A happy death won't kill me. It will just - "
And he stops dead. His gaze is fixed on the wall, but really he's staring at something Clint can't see. Clint recognizes that expression. He's seen it on Tasha's face. On Loki's. On his own.
Loki reaches out a shaky hand and turns the hot water off. Clint doesn't argue. He files 'what do you see when you're dead?' next to 'how did Odin kill you?' and 'why do you want to die?'
They wait silently while the tub fills, Clint crouched next to the tap and Loki standing awkward by the door. Clint can't help but check the temperature again when it's almost full. It's not too cold on his fingers, but he definitely wouldn't want to sit in it. He doesn't particularly want to use it to drown anyone, either. What , he wants to ask Loki, would you do if I told you to stop? That question, more than any of the others, presses against his teeth.
But he doesn't really want to know, and Loki wouldn't answer even if he did.
Clint turns off the tap, then stands. He takes a half-step away from the tub - all he can manage, in his bathroom - and gestures toward it. "All yours," he tells Loki.
"You will have to hold me down." Loki doesn't move for the tub.
Clint manages not to roll his eyes. "Just figured you'd want to get settled yourself." He has to fight the urge to turn away, give Loki his privacy. It's not like he's stripping, for god's sake, and even if he was Clint would be seeing it all in a minute anyway.
The water barely ripples when Loki steps into the tub. His mouth thins at the temperature, and the lines around his eyes tighten, but he doesn't hesitate to submerge himself. He pauses only a moment before he slips down and immerses his entire upper body in the tub, letting his knees fold and poke out above the waterline.
"Well," Clint mutters, not sure whether Loki can hear him and not particularly caring, "I guess we're skipping the formalities." He crouches next to the tub again and leans over to put one hand on each of Loki's shoulders. The angle makes it awkward, but less so than it would be if Clint actually got in the tub with him. It's hard enough watching Loki's face contort through the hazy four inches of water. Clint sure as hell doesn't want to feel a drowning man buck between his legs.
Air bubbles escape Loki's mouth on a gasp and pop on the surface. Not much longer now, Clint knows. Even if Asgardians can go without oxygen for longer than humans, there'll only be so long Loki can last without any air in his lungs. He'll try to fight, and when that fails, he'll try to inhale. After the water enters his body, it won't be longer than a minute or two.
Right on cue, Loki starts to thrash. He attempts to uncurl his legs, and his feet ram into the side of the tub at top speed. Under the water, his mouth opens in a silent scream.
Clint shifts his stance so all of his weight bears down on Loki's shoulders, and then he closes his eyes. Loki bats at his arms, but he's so weak from lack of oxygen that it doesn't move Clint an inch. After a long moment, he stills. His chest moves up and down beneath Clint's hands. He's calm, now. Entirely calm. Completely at ease in a way that Clint has never seen him.
He read, once, that some drowning victims feel a profound sense of peace before they lose consciousness. Is this that? Even knowing it was what Loki wanted, Clint can't help but feel vaguely sick.
He waits a long count of three hundred - at least ten minutes, at the rate he uses - before letting Loki go. When he does, he opens his eyes. He moves to the other end of the tub, to pull the stopper from the drain. He manages to see an expression of honest-to-god contentment on Loki's face before the water sinks below that level. It takes runnels of Loki's skin and hair with it, like he's the Wicked Witch of the goddamn West.
Shit, Clint must be off his game. He hasn't even made that joke yet. He allows himself a feverish, slightly manic giggle.
When the last of the water swirls down the drain, it's taken about half of Loki with it. Clint's left with something in his tub that looks like a demented wax statue, except he's pretty sure those don't have half-melted skeletons and organs inside of them. Even if they do, wax hearts don't glisten wetly under Clint's shitty halogen bulbs. Wax brains don't shine gray.
Clint whirls around. He's abruptly thankful they do this in the bathroom, because the toilet is right there for him to gag into. When he's emptied his stomach, he forces himself to stand. He flushes the toilet. He turns on the shower. He makes sure it's working to send the rest of Loki down the drain, and then he leaves the room.
He throws away the empty pizza box. He puts his weapons away neatly where they belong. He shoves the bench back into its spot against the wall.
He takes off his jeans and t-shirt. He takes out his hearing aids and sets them neatly in their spot on his bedside table. He gets between his sheets in just his boxers and pulls all the blankets over his head, not bothering to turn out the lights.
Only then, ensconced safely in his bed, unable to hear the soft patter of the shower from across the hall, does he let himself cry.