Clint recoils instinctively. Loki laughs.
“Oh, come, Agent Barton. We’ve shared so many wonderful experiences over the past few days, you can’t possibly feel any revulsion now.” He rolls smoothly off Clint’s lap to sit next to him, a mocking smile playing about his lips. “I think my favorite was the time you swore to me that my brother and I were the very best of friends and spent our free time frolicking hand-in-hand through fields of daisies.” He pats Clint condescendingly on the cheek. “Throwing you against the wall afterwards was the only bright spot in this whole dismal week, so thank you for that. Well, and the playground war. Midgardian children can be surprisingly bloodthirsty, I shall have to keep that in mind.”
Clint’s mouth is dry. “Technically only the present tense of what I said about you and your brother was a lie, you know.”
Loki gives him a disgusted look. “Really, you argue semantics with me? I am the God of Untruths. In any case, you are incorrect - I have never frolicked anywhere and the only field of daisies my brother has ever enjoyed is the kind that quickly turns into a messy battlefield.” He leans back on his hands. “I have to say, I will mildly regret killing you all when I begin my conquest of this world,” he says idly. “This whole charade has been vaguely entertaining, in its own limited way - a little like sitting through a Three Stooges film. But I am quite past bored now.”
Clint’s shoulders are pressed so hard against the wall that they’re going numb. It couldn’t have been a lie all week, could it? Kid-Loki had been real, and a good kid, and those other times had been aberrations, explainable...
“I know what you’re trying to do. It wasn’t you this whole week, it was him.”
Loki dissolves into giggles. “Oh, please. Your brain is pathetic even for a mortal, you have no idea what I was trying to do. Can’t you imagine the look on Thor’s face when his hope of a darling, biddable, moldable baby brother is snatched away and he’s handed a monster in return?” He eyes Clint gleefully for a moment, then sighs in frustration. “No, of course you can’t. I wish the tin man was here - at least he has a few limited sparks of imagination.”
Clint shakes his head to clear it. Adult Loki is a master manipulator, he knows this. He’s also arrogant, destructive, and there is no way he could have kept the masquerade going so completely for so long without a much bigger payoff at the end than Thor’s disappointment. No - the last week was genuine. It had to have been.
“You know what I think?”
“Oh, you are capable of thought?” Loki says archly.
“I think the device worked exactly the way you intended. I don’t think what it did was random at all.” There’s a glimmer of an idea at the edge of Clint’s brain, faint but steady, and if he can just coax it into being...
“Yes, darling, it’s good to know you haven’t been listening to what I just said,” Loki sighs.
“You turned Tony the manwhore into a woman,” Clint says thoughtfully. “You made Captain America vulnerable. You took the Black Widow, a beautiful, capable warrior, and put her in the body of an uncontrollable monster. You gave her body to the one person on the team with no combat training. I think if you’d been able to set the device off the way you’d wanted, I would have ended up as a kid, which is a pretty mean thing to do to one of the least powerful Avengers. You did to each member of my team exactly what would cause the most confusion, pain, and disruption.” So far, that’s a pretty classic Loki plan, actually. There’s only one flaw.
“I don’t know if I should take a bow or applaud you for stringing three thoughts together in a coherent fashion,” Loki muses. “It must be a first for you - would you like to lie down?”
“And then you knocked Thor out,” Clint continues, “and that’s weird. The rest of us you targeted specifically and accurately and Thor, the one you know best, gets... unconscious. He wasn’t even aware that he’d been missing anything. Not only did you not do anything to harm him, you let him sit the whole thing out. He didn’t even have to watch.”
Loki’s expression is darker now, shadowed. “As you said, the effects were random.”
Clint shakes his head. The idea has solidified in his mind. He may not have much one-on-one experience with the adult-Loki, but he likes to think he’s gotten to know the kid version pretty well lately. The kid version adores his brother and all he really wants in return is to be loved and thought valuable. “I don’t think it was random. I think you like to fight with him, you like to yell at him and upset him, but when it really comes down to it you don’t actually want to hurt him, do you?”
“I take it back,” Loki says stiffly. “This is not coherent thought at all. In fact, I think it may count as a hallucination.” He tries to get to his feet and has to sit down abruptly.
“Still too weak,” Clint says. “Loki used up too much energy. And you can’t use magic at all in that body, can you? If you could you would have done it by now.”
“My magic will recover with time,” Loki snaps.
“Maybe. Maybe not,” Clint says. He tries to imagine what it was like to have Thor as a brother; enthusiastic, commanding, excessively competent Thor who demands attention just by existing. It’s hard even being his teammate sometimes, through no deliberate fault of Thor’s own - what must it have been like to be his brother?
He has no idea which of those myths Bruce looked up are true and which aren’t, but Loki’s clearly never been the golden child.
“I want to make you an offer.”
“Well, I could do with some light entertainment,” Loki says, and his words are idle but there’s an edge to his voice that destroys the illusion. “What is it?”
Clint watches him carefully. “Respect for your intelligence. Free reign to practice your magic and live how you choose. A place by your brother’s side.”
There’s a flash of - something - in Loki’s expression, and then he tosses his head. “What makes you think I even want those things?”
Clint shrugs. “I’ve spent the last week with your kid self. Kids are a lot more open than grownups. You’d be surprised what you can pick up if you’re paying attention.”
Loki looks away. Aha. “And how do you plan to deliver these promises?”
Clint leans forward. “Kid Loki’s already got them. All you need to do is leave that body to him.”
Loki’s face goes utterly blank. “You would kill me for the sake of the child?”
“Thor’s own brother. I am, you know, at least as far as he’s concerned. And you would kill me to save a child you have known for a week.”
“Known and loved,” Clint repeats. “Yes.”
“Please,” Loki says, but it falls far short of the derisive tone he was probably aiming for. “You cannot possibly think to tempt me with something so trite as love.”
“Is it trite?” Clint asks. “Is it? Your elaborate plans always spare Thor at the last minute. It must be exhausting, to keep extending that hand and have Thor not notice it. He recognizes a child’s love easily enough.”
The moment seems to last forever. The sounds of combat up above fade away as Clint and Loki stare each other down across the hall.
“I want two things in return,” Loki says finally, softly.
Clint cocks his head. “Explain it to me.”
Loki smiles humorlessly. “I want your word that you will continue to protect the boy Loki, to care for him and support him, should you have to stand against Odin himself to see it done.”
“And the second?”
“You are mortal. You will wither and die long before the child does the same. Before you do so, you will extract the same promise from Thor.”
Clint thinks this over.