This was not how Clint had seen his morning going.
He’d seen his morning going, more or less, the same as all his other mornings had recently: doing anything he could to stay busy. He’d fixed the roof, built two chairs and a bench, and repaired the hinge on the cabinet before Laura told him that he was driving her nuts. Nathaniel was a handful, and Lila and Cooper were loving the fact that he was home all the time, but...shit.
He was pretty sure he was going to lose his mind. The feds had confiscated his bow (and everything else - they’d even taken the pistol Laura kept in a lockbox in their closet). They came by every other day, lurking around the property, making nice with the kids (who, Clint was pleased, seemed wise to it).
Putting a strain on his and Laura’s relationship. Oh, she was on his side, all the way, but it was wearing on her, and Clint was acutely aware of the unfairness of it. No two ways about it: she was paying for his choices. And so were the kids.
It was probably a good thing that they’d all taken off for the week, even if it made Clint even more aware of how fucking bored he was.
Then he saw a flash of light over past the barn.
Oh, shit, was Clint’s second thought. His first, because he was an idiot, was thank god.
He went for his bow first, remembered it was sitting in the bowels of some government facility somewhere (fuck Ross and the entire high horse he’d rode in on), and scowled. It could be nothing, but Clint doubted it, and he wasn’t a fan of the idea of walking out there unarmed.
You could call your fed buddies, snarked a voice that Clint shut off hard. He glanced at his ankle bracelet and swore .
So how stupid are you gonna be, he thought, but he was already grabbing a meat tenderizer and heading for the master bedroom.
One hole in the drywall later, holding the spare handgun, Clint headed out the front door and across the yard. Glad, suddenly, that no one else was here, because if he was walking into a bad situation…
Well, hopefully he wasn’t about to leave his kids without a dad.
Gauging the distance to where he’d seen the flash of light, Clint realized that it was right at the edge of where his perimeter would reach. He couldn’t see anything yet through the tall grass - not high enough to hide someone standing, but someone crouching, maybe - or lying flat, in wait, for some dumb asshole to come walking along. He might not see them until he was right on top of them, and the second he stepped over the invisible fence line…
“Hey!” Clint yelled, slowing down. “Anyone trying to set up an ambush, do me a favor and get it over with?”
Nothing. Of course, it was possible this wasn’t a person. Some kind of...alien whatever. Or military shit. No way of knowing.
He inched a little closer. Five feet. Four.
And stopped dead, because there was a body lying facedown in the grass.
Not just any fucking body, either.
Yeah, this was not how Clint had seen his morning going.
Loki didn’t twitch when Clint shouted in horrified surprise, scrambling back and raising the handgun. He didn’t know what stopped him from pulling the trigger and putting all six rounds in his head. His head spun and his lungs seemed to have stopped working. Every hair on his body was standing on end, instincts screaming at him to run as far as he could in the other direction, fuck the feds, fuck the ankle bracelet, Loki was here and he needed to be somewhere, anywhere else.
But Loki was also sprawled gracelessly, unmoving, and facedown on the ground, and Clint had seen enough dead bodies in his day to know what one looked like.
“Fuck,” Clint said out loud, and heard his voice tremble. “Fucking hell.” He kept his gun trained on Loki and inched forward, carefully. “Hey,” he said loudly. “Hey, motherfucker, if you’re faking it--”
Nothing. Clint swallowed, a different flavor of unease slipping in next to the panic. He reached out a foot and prodded Loki’s shoulder, sucking in a breath. This didn’t feel right. Didn’t feel like Loki.
Still nothing. Not even a twitch. Finally, Clint crouched down, still keeping the gun on him as he grabbed Loki’s shoulder to flip him over. His body moved limply and fell with a heavy thud.
Clint reared back hard enough that he fell on his ass, gun dropping out of his hand. Loki’s face was an ashy shade of unnatural blue. His head lolled to the side at an angle that was just - wrong, clear marks of manual strangulation written all over his throat. His eyes were closed, features slack.
Loki was supposed to have been dead for four years. This wasn’t four years dead. This was - this was fucking recent, and Clint stared with mute horror because imagining the monster of his nightmares dead was one thing but actually seeing it--
Manual strangulation and a broken neck, a part of Clint’s brain noted analytically. Not an easy way to kill someone. Especially not someone as durable as Loki. Personal, too. Someone had really hated him. Or else was making a point.
“Fuck fuck fuck fuck,” Clint said, pressing the back of his hand to his mouth. He needed to get away from the body, now. And...and what? Who the fuck was he supposed to call?
Clint found himself moving forward again, trying not to look too closely at Loki’s face. Focusing on - on what? Why here, why was Loki’s body here, was this a warning or a, a fucked up present or--
He saw something, out of the corner of his eye, and turned fast, holding his breath. Watching. Waiting. Ten seconds. Twenty.
He’d always had sharp eyes, so he saw it. The slight, barely there flutter of movement just under Loki’s jaw, masked by the bruises. Clint lurched forward, reached out with a shaking hand to put his fingers against his cold skin. Nothing, he couldn’t feel anything, but for some reason Clint waited anyway.
There. Just the tiniest little motion against his fingers. It could barely even be called a pulse.
“Holy shit,” Clint said. “You’re alive.”
Dealing with a dead Loki was one thing. Dealing with a living one - was a hell of a lot more complicated.
There was a second - five seconds - where Clint thought if you do nothing he’s probably going to die anyway. He’s barely hanging on as is. Wait five minutes and it’ll be over.
Then he was sprinting back to the house.
He grabbed a few things (wouldn’t it be great if you had a neck brace right now, how the fuck are you going to move him) and ran back, half expecting Loki to have died in the interim. He sure looked like it, but Clint put his fingers back on Loki’s neck and waited, counting seconds between beats. Twenty seconds. Like he’d gone into fucking hibernation or something.
Maybe he had. Maybe he could do that. Clint had no idea.
Okay. Okay, first things first, make sure he can breathe. Clint had to hold a hand almost to Loki’s lips to feel any air at all, and glancing at the ugly bruising on his neck - his trachea had probably been crushed.
Okay, he thought. Okay. You got this. He got the steak knife he’d brought from the house and the straw from Nathaniel’s sippy cup, taking a deep breath. Then stopped. A steak knife might not even work on Loki’s skin. He stopped, set it aside, and searched Loki’s clothes instead until he found a small knife. Felt carefully down Loki’s throat, right under the ridge, half inch wide, half inch deep, take it easy--
He eased the straw into the narrow incision, blew into it a couple times, and sat back, shaking. After what felt like too long, he heard air hiss out and whistle back in. Not...great. But better. If he could just do enough triage to keep Loki alive until his healing kicked back in…
Then what? What was he going to do then?
Clint pushed that aside and folded the towel he’d brought out into a narrow roll and easing it carefully around the back of Loki’s neck, trying to move him as little as possible. Rope to keep it in place. It was - shit, it wasn’t great but it was the best he could do as far as a neck brace. Broken arm, too, he noticed belatedly, but as far as things went that wasn’t something he was going to worry about right now.
Right now...right now he needed to get Loki back to his house.
And there was a sentence he hadn’t expected to ever think.
Clint rolled his shoulders back and looked down at Loki, towel wrapped around his neck, straw sticking out of his throat, and felt the corner of his eye twitch. It was a damn good thing that no one else was here right now. Just him. And Loki.
And the feds coming around tomorrow.
Clint rigged an awkward sort of travois to get Loki back to the house without making everything worse, though he had no idea how well it was working. Loki was still doing his best impression of a corpse, his skin that ashy blue color. Clint didn’t think it was hypoxia anymore, but it didn’t look good.
He set Loki down, breathing hard, in the middle of the living room floor. There, in his ridiculous leather get up - a different one than he’d been wearing last time Clint had seen him, and gone through the same wringer the rest of Loki had - he looked even more out of place. Clint stared down at him, suddenly feeling as though he was watching from outside himself.
What the hell are you going to do, Barton, he thought, rubbing the heels of his hands against his eyes, and wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Then he heard a whistling sort of sigh and jerked his head up to see Loki’s eyelids fluttering. He lurched forward, then wondered if he should lurch back instead because if Loki came around and freaked out - Clint had no idea what he might still be capable of, even like this.
But he wasn’t exactly jumping to his feet. The fingers of his right arm twitched and he started to move it only to stop, fast, with a thin, hoarse cry of pain. Clint’s stomach twisted and before he could think about it he was crouching down next to Loki.
“Hey,” he said, and his voice sounded far gentler than he’d expected. “It’s, uh. You’re okay.” The instant the words were out Clint wanted to ask. That’s an obvious lie.
Loki’s breathing wheezed awfully, rattling in his chest. Clint eyeballed his pulse - not feeling like it was a particularly good idea to touch him right now - and it looked like it had picked up to something - still slow, but closer to normal. His head twitched like he was trying to turn it.
“Don’t,” Clint started to say, but Loki had already gone still, including his breathing. Clint swallowed hard. “Loki. You need to...stay still, all right? You’re pretty fucked up.” What are you doing, a voice in his head was screaming. What the fuck are you doing, do you know who this is, what are you, still his brainwashed stooge--
He shoved that out of the way. Fact was - fact was that he needed to know what had happened, because something strong and nasty enough to do this...not to mention that Loki was supposed to be dead, and Clint really wanted to know what that was about. He needed intel. And that meant he needed Loki well enough - and willing enough - to give it.
Didn’t have anything to do with the weird ache in his stomach at seeing Loki like this. And he could say it would feel the same with anyone, but he’d looked at a lot of dead bodies - dropped a lot of them, too - and not felt that knot twisting his guts.
Loki’s eyes opened, barely, and Clint hissed at the bright red he took at first for burst blood vessels and only belatedly realized...wasn’t. Absently, he belatedly catalogued the ridges on Loki’s skin, thought adopted, and just as quickly set it aside. Not relevant. His eyes fixed slowly on Clint and his mouth opened, but all that came out was another wheezing exhale.
“Like I said,” Clint said, trying to keep his voice steady. “You’re pretty fucked up.” The wheezing got faster, Loki’s eyes turning a little wild, and Clint recognized the signs of oncoming panic. Seen it before, and it was almost too easy to do the same thing he’d done then. “Breathe,” he said. “Focus on my voice-”
Loki made a choking sound, his left hand groping up and ripping the straw out of his neck before Clint could stop him. His body spasmed and Clint realized belatedly what was happening and turned him on his side so Loki didn’t asphyxiate on his own vomit. He went limp, and for a long moment Clint thought he’d passed out again, but then he pressed a shaking hand to his throat and flinched. His fingers flickered green, briefly, and Clint had to fight not to shy back.
His hand fell away.
“Am I--” Loki sounded like he was trying to speak with his throat full of gravel. He coughed, and then flinched again. “Am I dead?”
Clint swallowed hard. “Would you believe me if I said no?”
“I didn’t think it would hurt this much after,” Loki said. Every word was forced out like he was about to choke on them.
“Yeah, well,” Clint said, hating how his voice wobbled, “I didn’t think I’d ever see you again, so I guess we’re both surprised.”
Loki blinked at him. “They’re dead,” he said after a moment, barely audible. “They’re all dead.” He started shaking harder, and Clint squeezed his eyes closed and opened them.
“Who,” he said, because this was what he needed to know, wasn’t it? “Who’s dead? What happened?”
“Everyone who was left,” Loki said. “There wasn’t time - Thor…”
Clint’s stomach dropped. “What did you do to Thor,” he said roughly.
“Not me.” Loki’s eyes closed. “My fault. But not me. I thought maybe...if I gave him - a little time--”
His strained breathing hitched, and then hitched again, and Clint realized with a dull kind of horror that Loki was crying.
“Who--” He cleared his throat and tried again. “Who did this?”
“Thanos,” Loki whispered. His throat worked and he made a pained sound that broke off halfway through. Clint shook his head.
“That doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said hoarsely.
“It will,” Loki said. He let out a rasping sort of sob. “I should have died,” he said. “I should have died.”
This, Clint thought miserably, even as he got up to find a blanket to drape over Loki. Like that would help. Like he was supposed to be helping at all, like this wasn’t the man he’d had nightmares about for a long, long, time even after he’d gone.
What the hell do you think you’re doing?
And if that wasn’t just the question.
Clint couldn’t tell if Loki was legitimately unconscious or playing dead - he hadn’t moved or said anything for a while, just laid there. His skin was starting to return to what looked like a healthier shade of blue, and the incision Clint had made was gone, but there was still a whistle to his breathing and Clint didn’t think the broken neck was all better either.
Broken neck. Shit. That was above his paygrade. Of course, every goddamn thing about this situation was above his paygrade.
He was going to have a bunch of government assholes here, tomorrow, and somehow he didn’t think they’d accept “I don’t know, he just dropped in here” as a decent reason for harboring an alien enemy of the state. So he’d be screwed, and they’d try to drag Loki off which would either end in blood (theirs) or…
Shit. Clint didn’t want to know what Ross would do. Shouldn’t matter, maybe, but since apparently he was an idiot, it did. Not to mention he still had no idea who Thanos was, or what Loki knew about him, or what he’d meant by it will. If Thor was really dead--
Thor might actually be dead.
Not for the first time, Clint wished he knew how to get in touch with Nat, or Steve, or Wanda, or someone. He hadn’t tried, knew he shouldn’t try - it’d just be putting them in danger - but...I could really use some help on this one, you guys.
Well, you don’t have it. You’re on your own, buddy.
Loki stirred, finally, either waking up or coming out of his stupor. “Are you going to fix up on your own,” Clint asked, “or should I be googling emergency first aid for a broken neck?”
Loki winced when he swallowed, quiet for a long moment, and Clint realized belatedly that maybe he shouldn’t be talking quite so casually about Loki’s very recent very near death experience. “I should...mend,” Loki said, though he didn’t sound completely sure. “Provided that…” He paused, and there was something...bizarre, almost absurd, about Loki, Loki, lying there on his side on the floor, makeshift towel-brace around his neck, huddled under a blanket and looking positively pathetic.
“Provided that?” Clint prompted.
“What are you going to do,” Loki asked, which wasn’t an answer. He sounded resigned, like whatever Clint said he’d be fine with it. Clint’s skin was back to crawling.
“No fucking clue,” Clint said. “Any ideas?”
“No.” The fingers on Loki’s right hand twitched and he let out a very quiet hiss. Right. Broken. That...that at least he could deal with.
He stood up and Loki’s eyes followed him, but otherwise he didn’t react. There was an old sling in one of the closets that Clint pulled out and tossed at Loki. He stared blankly at it. “For your arm,” Clint said by way of explanation. “Unless it needs setting, in which case...that’s another situation.”
“Oh,” Loki said after a moment, not moving.
“I thought you had, like. Super healing.” Clint knew he was talking because he was uncomfortable. That didn’t mean he could stop. “When the Hulk got to you you got up okay.”
“Some things are easier to heal than others,” Loki said. Clint supposed that made sense. Hit a certain level of damage and human bodies started functioning less on “fixing” and more on “surviving.” And he was definitely thinking about the unimportant shit so he didn’t start screaming about...everything else.
Should he be offering painkillers? Anti-inflammatories? Who the fuck knew what might be poisonous, and it wasn’t like Loki was asking.
Well, yeah. Loki’s a traumatized, half-dead wreck barely checked into this reality. Clint shoved that out of his head too and stood up to go get a cup of water, figuring that, at least, probably couldn’t go wrong.
Of course, then he came back to see Loki trying to get up. He’d made it to sitting, more or less, though his color was way off again.
“Hey,” Clint barked, a little sharper than he meant to. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I need to get back to - I need to find--” Loki’s voice shook as much as he was. Clint took a step toward him and Loki started to twist his head toward him only to cut off with a high-pitched sound of agony, his body buckling so he fell back against the couch. His chest heaved and Clint stayed frozen where he was, torn between the urge to go help and the ugly, vicious, part of him that said he deserves this.
He wished Nat was here.
Clint swore and set the glass down on the end-table, crouching down again. “You’re not going anywhere,” he said. “Not like this. Besides - where would you even be going?”
Loki went limp, still shaking. Clint hadn’t said it to be an asshole, but by the way his expression sort of crumpled, Loki heard it that way. Which...shit. Thor would fit as an end to either of those sentences.
The last time Clint had seen Loki it’d seemed like he’d kill Thor and laugh about it. Something seemed to have changed. A lot of things.
Clint pulled one of the cushions off the back of the couch and moved it so that it would prop up the back of Loki’s head. The makeshift brace seemed to be doing good enough, but Clint didn’t want to take chances.
Do you even remember me, a part of Clint wanted to ask. Do you remember who I am, what you did to me, do you care, but he didn’t know if he could deal with hearing the answer. Priorities.
Loki had raised his hands up and was staring at them like he’d never seen them before, a strange expression on his face. “Right,” Clint said. “Yeah, the blue. Is that new?”
A choking sound that almost made Clint panic, and a little jerk like someone had slapped him. “No,” Loki said. “Not new.” He dropped his hands back down. Clint chewed the inside of his cheek and stood up again, walking a few steps away.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay. I need to ask you a couple questions.”
“Ask away.” Even with that fingernail-rasp, Loki’s voice sounded dull. Lifeless. It made Clint’s skin crawl, made him feel like he ought to be doing something. Fix it fix it fix it, like a buzz in the back of his skull, and Clint should’ve just shot him in the head and gotten it over with.
Loki was quiet for long enough that Clint almost repeated the question. “Asgard was destroyed,” he said finally. “Thor was leading the people who were left back to...back here. Thanos found us. We managed to evacuate...some. Not enough. The rest - slaughtered. Heimdall sent the Hulk away - somewhere--”
“Wait,” Clint said, stiffening. “The Hulk? As in Bruce Banner the Hulk? What was he doing on Asgard?”
Loki’s eyes rolled toward him but he seemed to be struggling to answer, so Clint just shook his head. “Never mind.” He didn’t know who Heimdall was, either, but that was easier to ignore.
“Thanos killed Heimdall,” Loki said. “He would have killed Thor, I thought maybe, maybe there was a possibility that if I--” He stopped, the shaking intensifying again.
“I get the picture,” Clint said, even though he didn’t, really. He didn’t have enough pieces. But he didn’t think pushing closer to that one was going to go anywhere. “So Thanos, he, uh...Thor…”
Did you see him die, he wanted to ask, but that was probably a bad question. And at least right now wasn’t...going to help anyone.
“Never mind,” he said. “This Thanos. Who’s he?”
Loki’s eyes closed and his already unsteady breathing stuttered. “He sent me here,” Loki said. “For the Tesseract. The Tesseract for Midgard, that was the exchange, I was so stupid--” He broke off, coughing. Clint realized he was clenching his fists hard enough to hurt and made them relax.
Trying to pin the blame on someone else, you slippery little weasel, Clint thought viciously, but that wasn’t it, was it, and he remembered - bits and pieces in the times he didn’t like remembering. Loki vanishing somewhere on his own and coming back pale and tense, lines of pain around his eyes that nobody else seemed to notice. The way Loki’d looked in that underground facility, like he’d crawled out of hell.
“So...so what does he want? The Tesseract?”
“No,” Loki said, his voice raw. “Or. Yes. But not just...six Infinity Stones. He has two, now. There are four others.”
Infinity Stones. Had he heard that phrase before?
Shit, yes. Thor saying I've had a vision. A whirlpool that sucks in all hope of life and at its center is that. The scepter. The Mind Stone. Vision.
“I’m guessing if he gets all of them that’s bad,” he said, not really a question.
“Yes,” Loki said. “It is.”
“How bad are we talking,” Clint said, mostly to fill time, trying to think. This shouldn’t be him. This shouldn’t be on him, he was the marksman on house arrest, not fucking - well, not Thor. A voice that sounded too much like Barney’s said you’re in over your head.
Now you tell me, Clint thought sarcastically.
“The end,” Loki said. For a second Clint thought he was going to vomit again, but he didn’t. Clint stared at him.
“The fuck does that mean,” he said harshly. “The fuck does that even-” He cut himself off.
“Half of all life,” Loki said, sounding numb. “Gone.”
Clint rocked back on his heels. “You’re exaggerating,” he said, hopefully. Loki said nothing. “Why? Why--” No, that didn’t matter right now either.
“He will - he will be coming here,” Loki said. His tongue slipped out, just wetting his lower lip. “Probably before long. He has the Tesseract - the Space Stone - now.” He let out a broken, awful noise that Clint realized belatedly was a laugh. “Because I gave it to him. I thought I was saving Thor--”
The part of Clint that wasn’t ringing like a fire alarm thought you fucked that one up, didn’t you, but he knew better than to say it. He didn’t even really want to. He just felt heavy, and tired, and he wanted to call Laura.
They were tapping his calls. He wouldn’t be able to say anything important.
“Call your friends,” Loki said. “Tell them to run. You should run. There’s no point in fighting.”
“Giving up’s not my style,” Clint said harshly. “Wouldn’t have thought it was yours, either.”
Loki didn’t argue and Clint felt a spike of anger and frustration, because he needed something, something to push against so he didn’t feel like he was flailing around like a kid in the deep end of the pool. A moment later he just felt like shit for lashing out at someone who - for once - wouldn’t hit back.
He walked away, over to the kitchen, and leaned his hands on the table, then straightened up and went back, picking up the sling off the floor.
“Here,” he said. “Let me help you put this on.”
Loki opened his freaky red eyes and looked at Clint. He held up the sling, and Loki twitched one shoulder.
“There’s no point,” he said. The back of Clint’s neck prickled. He’d seen people get like this. Get hit enough, hard enough, and you stop getting up. It wasn’t just Loki’s neck that’d snapped.
“Humor me,” Clint said roughly. Loki didn’t nod, but he didn’t fight Clint on getting the sling on, either, just watched him, and it was making Clint twitchy. He ignored it as much as he could, trying to think. So how come you never said anything about this before, Clint thought, but he didn’t think now was the time for that question, either. Here they were, and that was the hand Clint was going to have to play with.
And there was only one play he could make.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, shoving himself to his feet and heading for the upstairs.
He changed clothes, pulled a bag out of the closet, and packed light and fast. Slinging it over his shoulder, he descended the stairs to the kitchen and turned on the light.
You’re doing this, Clint thought, putting his foot up on one of the kitchen chairs. You’re really doing this. How stupid are you?
Pretty fucking stupid, apparently.
Clint got the anklet off without setting off any alerts. How long he had - depended on how closely he was being monitored, but it probably wasn’t long. By the time they figured out he was gone, he needed to be in the wind but good.
“What are you doing,” Loki asked. His voice was still hoarse, bruise circles around his eyes.
“We’re getting out of here,” Clint said shortly. “You said some big nasty is on the way fixing to kill a whole lot of people. Stopping that is kind of in the job description. And you know more than anyone else on this planet about him, so I guess you’re coming with me.”
Loki stared at him like Clint was talking gibberish. Clint gritted his teeth.
“I’m not leaving you here,” he said. “So come on. We’re wasting time.”
Loki stood on his own, but Clint had to catch him to keep him from falling over. He bundled him into the front seat where he slumped back, breathing hard, and Clint jogged around to climb in on the other side, throwing the car into reverse.
Last chance to turn around. Put the anklet back on. Go to the proper authorities, turn Loki over, hope they don’t throw you back in jail and do nothing about the actual threat.
Clint swung the car around and jammed down the accelerator. It occurred to him, as he drove for the road with Loki sitting next to him, that this was a lot like another drive six years ago.
It’s different, Clint told himself. I’m different.
(Or you just think you are.)
“Where are we going?” Loki asked.
“To get help,” Clint said. “We can’t fight this on our own.”
“You can’t fight this at all,” Loki said. Clint gripped the steering wheel tightly.
“Aren’t you a ray of sunshine,” he said and took a deep breath. “We beat you, didn’t we? We can handle this asshole. Just you fucking watch.”
That’s it, Barton. Make it sound like you believe your own bullshit. Maybe then you actually will.
So maybe they were screwed. At least he was going to do like he always had, and go down swinging.