Another glamorous day in the life of an Avenger, Clint thinks resignedly as the ground heaves beneath his feet and catapults him into the air. His trajectory is impressive enough that he has an instant to reflect upon the pure spitefulness of Loki hurling him in a direction in which none of his teammates are available to catch him, and then he has to turn his attention to landing without mauling himself inconveniently.
He twists in midair just enough to miss the granite edge of a nice planter and instead destroy forever the glorious futures of an innocent patch of nasturtiums. He skids through the garden, plowing up dirt and cigarette butts, and because the universe hates him follows this up by tumbling into a decorative fountain.
He hauls himself out, spitting water and mulch (Clint has seen what dogs and small children do in public fountains, thank you very much), and is gladdened to hear a supernaturally echoing bonggg that can only be from Thor bringing his hammer down on Loki’s latest magical mischief device. Loki’s furious ”No!”, audible even half a block away, pretty much bears that theory out.
There’s another bonggg, but this time it’s accompanied by the shriek of tearing metal and a pure-white explosion that knocks Clint straight back into the fountain.
He hauls himself out again, dread sitting heavy in his stomach, and stumbles back towards the fight. If the impact of that explosion, or whatever it was, was enough to knock him off his feet...
Well. His teammates had all been considerably closer.
He rounds an upended SUV and finds himself at the edge of a perfectly circular clearing. Thor’s flat on his back in the middle, next to Mjolnir and the smoking remains of Loki’s device. Loki’s a crumpled heap of armor nearby, looking surprisingly small for someone who regularly causes so much trouble. Natasha and Bruce are lying just beyond, at the edge of the circle, and Clint thinks that since Bruce has de-Hulked it’s a pretty good bet they’re both at least unconscious.
In fact, Steve’s the only one who’s stirring at all, over near Iron Man. He sits up, his uniform hanging off him, and the part of Clint’s brain that always gets him into trouble in serious situations notes that it’s about time they encountered a scenario in which Steve does not emerge from a fight looking heroically scuffed up and instead looks like anyone else who’s just had his teeth handed to him.
And then he takes another few steps and realizes that no, Steve looks disheveled and human because that’s what happens when you put a ninety-pound weakling in an authentic Captain America suit and then rough him up a bit.
He stares in horror. Steve catches his eye and says, “Hawkeye, are you okay?” and then stops because yeah, his voice doesn’t usually do that. There’s a horrible moment in which Clint sees a lot of expressions cross Steve’s face that he never, ever wants to see again, and then Clint says “I’m fine, it’s okay,” and spinelessly changes direction to go check on Thor.
The big guy’s breathing, which is a relief, and looks like he always does, which is even more of one. He doesn’t seem to be injured, just out cold.
There’s a rustle of cloth and armor behind them, because of course the universe would choose to revive Loki when there’s only Clint and half of Captain America to deal with him.
“What happened?” says a voice, and it’s a child’s voice.
Clint whips around. Sure enough, Loki’s armor is now inhabited by a small boy with dark hair and a scared expression.
“Who are you?” The boy demands, his voice shaking. “This isn’t Asgard. Where am I? What have you done?”
“Loki?” Clint asks, just to be sure. The boy raises his chin in a defiant gesture he’s clearly learned from someone else.
Clint catches Steve’s eye over Loki’s shoulder. On the one hand, disguising himself as a child and pretending to lose his memory just to fuck with them would be a very Loki thing to do. On the other, Steve’s currently barely beating five and a half feet tall and Loki probably didn’t intend for his magic box thing to be hammered to death, so it’s possible that this kid really doesn’t have a clue.
Loki sucks in a breath. “That’s Asgardian armor,” he says shrilly, pointing at Thor. His sleeve covers his hand completely. “And that’s Mjolnir. That’s supposed to be in the vault!”
“Loki, kiddo,” Clint says, using his best talking-to-scared-people voice. “There’s been a bit of a magic accident. You know magic, right?”
“Okay. This is going to sound kind of weird, but a minute ago you were an adult.” He points down. “This is Thor.”
Loki struggles to his feet, holding up his newly overlarge pants, and shuffles over. “He does look a little like Father,” he says after a moment. “And my clothes are too big.”
“Yeah, good point,” Clint says, relieved that the freakout seems to have been put on hold. Benefits of growing up in Asgard, he supposes - they probably get this shit all the time.
“We were in battle?” Loki asks. “Has the foe been vanquished?”
His face is earnest and worried, and Clint’s a lot of things but mean to kids isn’t one of them, even if the kid in question is normally a reality-warping sonovabitch. “Yeah, he’s... taken care of. Don’t worry about it. Hey, do you mind sitting here with Thor for a moment? I need to go check on my friends.”
“Of course.” Loki nods and sits down primly on top of Mjolnir, struggling momentarily with his breastplate. “I shall watch over him.”
“Thanks, kiddo,” Clint says, and ruffles Loki’s hair before he can stop himself. He doesn’t immediately lose a limb or turn into something slimy, which is another mark in favor of the genuinely-amnesiac-child-Loki theory.
Steve’s gamely working at Tony’s armor.
“I can’t get his faceplate open,” he says. “I’m pretty sure he’s just unconscious, but I can’t actually get at him to check. I think it’s jammed or shorted out or something.”
Clint works his fingertips under the edge of Tony’ helmet and tries to pry it up. “You okay?”
“No,” Steve says shortly, and then, “I’m fine.”
Clint snorts. “Yeah.”
Tony jerks underneath them, nearly causing Clint some severe manly distress with his left elbow. “Whathefuck?”
“Tony, are you all right?” Steve asks.
“Ow, shit. I feel dented.”
Tony’s voice is... awfully high-pitched. Steve and Clint trade looks.
“Can you pop up your faceplate for a sec?”
Tony fumbles with one hand, finally managing to release it. “Agh, why does my chest hurt?”
“Uh,” Clint says, when it’s clear Steve’s been rendered speechless. “I think it’s because you didn’t build that suit with boobs in mind, Tony.”
Tony glares. It’s... a surprisingly delicate expression, all of a sudden. “Are you saying I’ve got man-boobs? Because I know you’re an asshole but - “
The penny drops. Tony does a little shimmy in his suit and goes pale.
“Where is my dick?” he grinds out.
“Magic stole it,” Steve says seriously.
“I’m just going to go check on Natasha and Bruce,” Clint says, and bails before he can become Tony’s mortal enemy by laughing his ass off. Clint likes his credit rating where it is, thanks.
Natasha groans and rolls over as Clint reaches her. “Oh, my head...” she stops, staring at a handful of red curls.
“Natasha?” Clint asks warily.
“I’m Bruce,” Natasha says, voice deliberately even, and then her eyes go wide and she lurches to her feet. “Don’t let her wake up!”
“Wh - “ Clint says. “You - aw, shit.”
He throws himself down by Bruce’s - Natasha’s - body just as her eyes open.
“Hey, Natasha,” he says, as calmly as possible. “Lie still, okay?”
Natasha freezes obediently - like him, she’s had enough experience with regaining consciousness after a fight to do what an anxiously hovering teammate tells her to without question.
“Neutralized. Don’t talk, okay?”
“Is anyone else hurt?” she asks, and he sees the moment she registers that her voice is too low and that there’s someone that sounds like her nearby telling Coulson that the Avengers need backup and tranquilizers here yesterday.
She sits bolt upright, looks down at herself, and Hulks the fuck out.
The next few minutes are very crowded.
Bruce was just far enough away that he manages to take cover behind a monument to some guy on a horse - it’s listing a little from their earlier battle, but still solid - even though it looks like Natasha’s body is causing him some balance issues. Clint dives to the side, rolls to his feet, and gets picked up in the nick of time by Tony, who carries him out of Natasha’s range saying “Ow, fuck, ow,” under his breath.
Steve, whose protective instincts turn out to have nothing whatsoever to do with the degree of protection he’s capable of providing, immediately bolts towards Thor and Loki. He pulls Loki down and stretches out his free arm to shield Thor’s head just as the first wave of debris hits.
There’s a sputter of green sparks and the debris patters harmlessly to the ground. Clint has just enough time to catch sight of Loki’s white face and outstretched hand, and then Coulson arrives like the cavalry with a tranquilizer gun big enough to take out - well. Exactly what it takes out.
Coulson eyes them - tiny Loki, scrawny Steve, female Tony and suspiciously un-graceful ‘Natasha’ - and says, “Huh.”
“Let me just get this straight,” Fury says, and even though his voice is coming through a conference phone and Fury himself is (probably) several hundred miles away, Clint finds himself leaning back defensively in his chair. “Banner and Romanov switched bodies.”
“Yessir,” Coulson says. After coming around from being tranqued, Natasha was put in the most soothing room they could manage on short notice. She hasn’t Hulked out again, yet, but they’ve all come to a wordless agreement that it’s probably best not to test her control anytime soon. At the moment, Pepper and Coulson are the only ones allowed to get anywhere near her.
Bruce is spending most of his time trying not to touch his body, or look at his body, or do anything with his body that might be interpreted badly by Natasha at a later date. Clint’s pretty sure that the first time he has to go to the bathroom he’s going to have a nervous breakdown.
“Rogers is no longer a super-soldier.”
“The original project kept very complete records,” Coulson says. “From what we can tell, Captain Rogers has returned to exactly the state he was in before the serum took effect.”
“Stark’s a woman.”
“Yes,” Coulson says, and for a moment even he looks uncomfortable about this. Tony has decided to cope with his situation by wearing the most revealing clothing he can possibly find and calling everyone’s attention to his breasts as frequently as possible. Tony is, in fact, currently leaning against the edge of the conference room table in a manner that can only be termed ‘pornographic’, wearing jeans and a t-shirt he attacked with scissors.
The ragged shirt and ill-fitting pants should not be nearly as hot as they are, and they should not work so seamlessly with Tony’s very visible arc reactor. Clint mostly blames this on the fact that Tony refuses to wear a bra.
“Thor’s in a coma. And Loki is a child with no memory of being a supervillain.”
“Yessir. That’s an accurate summary.”
“And Barton’s fine? Doesn’t think he’s a newt or anything?”
“Uh, no. Sir.” Clint says when Coulson gives him a pointed look. Actually, being a newt sounds kind of peaceful at the moment. Clint’s fairly sure they don’t have the mental capacity to be this confused.
“In other words, what you’re saying is that my elite superhero team now consists of an assassin who can’t be around other people, a genius engineer who can’t focus on anything but his new breasts, a skinny asthmatic from Brooklyn, a man in a coma, and Barton.”
Coulson actually winces. Clint’s estimation of the situation, never that bright to begin with, darkens rapidly. “Yes.”
There’s a long silence. Clint can’t decide if it’s because Fury’s apoplectic with rage or has put them on mute to hide the fact he’s laughing his ass off.
Scratch that. Fury would just laugh at them. Apoplexy it is.
“I expect that the next phone call I get will be news of a solution to this problem, Agent Coulson.” The line goes dead.
Tony pouts. Very unfairly, it’s a good look on him. “He didn’t even ask for a picture.”
“He has access to the surveillance footage, Mr. Stark,” Coulson says briskly, gathering his things and heading for the door.
“What should we do now?” Clint asks.
“Hm?” Coulson says mildly. “Well, I’m going to go have a drink. I’d suggest you all try not to kill each other before I get back. If you can think of a solution to this, that would be excellent.” He pauses at the door and adds, “And don’t get Mr. Stark pregnant, please. You’re in charge, Mr. Barton.”
Clint gapes at the empty doorway. “I think that was the Agent Coulson version of a nervous breakdown,” he says, and, more importantly, “I don’t want to be in charge.”
Tony’s not listening - he’s looking contemplatively down the front of his shirt. “I think I’m going to go pick somebody up in a bar,” he says thoughtfully. “I think I owe it to my future female sexual partners to learn as much as I can while I have this body. I have a fantastic rack and curves in all the right places and they really should be shared with the world.”
Clint rests his head gently on the table. “Whatever, just don’t pick up Coulson by accident.”
Tony cackles. It’s not reassuring, so Clint waits until he’s gone to take his head off the table.
Clint finds Steve and Bruce in Loki’s temporary room (both comfortable and extremely secure - Avengers mansion really does have everything). Loki’s wrapped in a blanket and looks like he’s wearing someone’s oversized t-shirt beneath it - from the Culver University logo Clint’s guessing it’s Banner’s. Bruce himself is sitting gingerly in a chair next to the bed. Steve’s perched on the end, looking fragile in oversized clothes with turned-up cuffs.
“Hey, kid, how’s it going?” Clint asks. Loki still looks pale and kind of shaky - whatever spell he used to fend off Natasha’s debris was a little too much for him in child-size. He’d thrown up immediately afterwards, and then nearly burst into tears until everyone present promised they’d never tell Thor. It had been mind-breakingly endearing and is another thing on the exponentially expanding list of things that Clint is not going to think about until he absolutely has to.
“I am fine,” Loki says. “Really, it was just a bit of overexertion. I should not have tried that spell on such a scale without more practice.”
“Well, I for one am glad you did,” Steve says reassuringly. “I’m sorry it made you sick, though.”
“Will you be okay by yourself for a minute?” Clint asks. “I need to borrow Steve and Bruce for a sec.”
Loki inclines his head. “Of course.”
“Great.” Clint smiles at him. “Pepper should be by in a bit with some better clothes for you.” Clint is half-convinced that Pepper is some variety of divine being, or maybe secretly triplets. Running Tony’s life is enough stress without also running Stark Industries and making sure the Avengers don’t self-destruct in her free time.
Her reaction to female Tony had been pretty priceless, too. It’s the only reason Clint isn’t currently worrying about whether or not Tony’s going to remember to use protection in his quest for comprehensive anatomical knowledge.
He gathers Steve and Bruce together a short way down the hall in deference to Bruce’s continued balance problems. “It’s like operating a body by remote control,” Bruce explains, seeing their sideways glances. “My brain still thinks it’s in my real body. Nothing’s in proportion and all the musculature’s wrong.”
Clint bites back hard on the observation that Natasha’s body is pretty much the definition of being in the right proportions and the musculature’s only wrong because Bruce refuses to learn how to fight when he’s not Hulked out. Insult to injury, and all that.
“Okay,” he says instead. “Coulson left me in charge for some reason so I’m picking you as the two most likely to be remotely sane about this. What the hell do we do now?”
“Coulson left you in charge?” Bruce asks, eyebrows climbing.
“He went for a drink.”
“Coulson went for a drink? Okay, now I’m scared.”
“To be fair, he’d just gotten off the phone with Fury,” Clint says, and the other two wince in sympathy. “So... any ideas?”
There’s an embarrassed pause.
“Maybe Strange can help?” Bruce offers. “If we can get in touch with him, I mean.”
“The Asgardians might also have some experience with this,” Steve says thoughtfully. “One of their own is affected by it.”
“Two of their own,” Bruce reminds him quietly. “How well do you think they’re going to take this whole Loki thing?”
“What’s Asgard’s position on capital punishment?” Steve asks, looking worried. “I mean, evil sorcerer, sure, but right now he’s just a kid.”
“Shit,” Clint says tiredly. “I do not want to be the one to cause an intergalactic political incident.”
Steve squares his narrow, bony little shoulders. It somehow manages to look both ridiculous and disturbingly adorable. “Okay - here’s the plan: we try to contact Strange for help and in the meantime we see if Loki can tell us anything. He’s clearly learned some magic already and he’s the safest and most conscious Asgardian we’ve got at the moment.”
“Without telling him he was the one who caused it all because he grows up evil.”
They trade depressed looks.
“Let’s go see if Pepper’s back yet,” Bruce says gloomily.
Pepper is back, and has also not lost her sense of humor.
“A tunic with Thor on it?” Loki says slowly, holding the garment at arm’s length. It’s one of the ones the PR team came up with - Thor’s exploding out of the front, wielding Mjolnir and looking extremely heroic. His name is written underneath in big, excited letters.
There’s a pause while everybody but Pepper waits to see if Loki’s adult personality is about to rise up and smite them all, and then he beams at them.
“This is most novel! Are there other things with Thor on them? Can I see them?” He pulls on the shirt, tugging the hem straight so he can admire it from above. “Do you have a mirror? I wish to see myself.”
Pepper smiles. “There is a mirror, and yes, I also got you Thor sneakers and pajamas. Put on your socks, please.”
Loki complies, looking as though his life holds every single wonderful thing a boy could ever hope for. “Thank you very much, Lady Pepper,” he says. “This was most thoughtful of you.”
“Okay, he’s definitely just a kid,” Steve mutters out of the corner of his mouth. “Even a really determined adult Loki couldn’t have pulled that one off without setting something on fire.”
They wait patiently while Loki fastens his sneakers (the Velcro demands several minutes of delighted investigation and a half-comprehensible stream of commentary on Midgardian ingenuity) and makes use of the room’s mirror.
When he’s done, Steve asks for his help. “You’re actually the closest thing we’ve got to a magic expert right now,” he explains. “We’re not expecting you to fix this or anything, but could you take a look at what we’ve got and tell us what you think?”
“Certainly.” Loki is abruptly all seriousness. “Although I do not remember you, you are all clearly my brother’s friends. I will render whatever aid you require to the best of my ability.”
“Uh, thanks,” Steve says, caught off-guard.
Loki leans closer conspiratorially. “Are there garments with the rest of you on them?”
Steve smiles and ushers Loki towards the door. “Most of us, I think.”
“I have Thor pajamas. Does Thor have Loki pajamas?”
Clint chokes. “N-no.”
Fortunately, Loki misinterprets Clint’s reaction. “He sleeps in the bare, doesn’t he? I am sorry. I see he has not grown into any class.”
It’s so catty and said with such resignation that Clint is startled into a bark of laughter. Loki smiles, triumphant.
Bruce has finished setting everything up by the time they arrive and is waiting patiently by his laptop. The remains of the device are laid out on a stainless steel table under strong lights. Loki goes up to it but doesn’t try to touch it, content to walk around and examine it from all angles.
“It is most impressive,” he says. “I do not recognize it, although I have learned some of the runes on the sides. I wish it was in better shape.”
“So do we all,” Bruce mutters.
Loki flashes them a knowing look. “It was struck with Mjolnir, was it not?” He sighs. “Thor never did pay attention in our lessons. Do you know what it was intended for? Or who created it?”
Clint makes an executive decision. “Actually, you had it,” he says. “But I’m not sure you were the one who made it and I’m not sure what it was supposed to do.” That much is true, at least. Time to see if the God of Lies was able to spot falsehoods when he was a kid. “I think Thor hit it by mistake.”
Loki frowns. “Did I leave behind any notes? If I did make it I would have had to diagram something this complex.”
Steve shakes his head, shooting a glance at Clint that lets him know they’ll have words later. “Not with us, I’m afraid - you’d only just gotten here.”
Loki’s shoulders slump. “A pity. Has your own technology been able to tell you anything?”
“I’ve got some energy readings - they’re pretty faint, though,” Bruce says, positioning his laptop. “And I’ve started to work on reconstructing the device from the surveillance footage - maybe if we can see it whole it’ll make more sense.”
Loki climbs up the side of Bruce’s chair and peers over his shoulder. “What is an MHz?”
“Megahertz,” Bruce says, and falters. “A... it’s an Earth method of measuring frequencies... this could be more complicated than I was anticipating.”
“It is Midg- it is Earth magic?” Loki asks.
“Science,” Bruce corrects.
“Magic,” Loki says, nodding. “The application of an organized system of thought and scholarship in order to understand and manipulate the natural and unnatural forces.”
“Magic,” Bruce agrees, looking helplessly at Steve and Clint.
Loki hops down off the chair decisively. “Very well, then I require an introductory volume on your magic in order to understand the appropriate terminology.”
“We can go to the library tomorrow,” Steve says, giving in.
Loki blinks. “Would it not be more useful to commence immediately?”
“It’s late, kiddo,” Clint says. “The library’s closed now.”
Loki’s mouth sets. “Can you not demand that it open? This is of some importance.”
Clint quirks an eyebrow at him, amused. “No, we can’t. We’ll have to practice patience and go tomorrow.”
Loki tips his head back and glares, every inch the princeling of Asgard. “Disappointing. Very well, then I shall do it myself.”
Fuck me sideways, Clint thinks. I’m about to try and impose discipline on a Norse god of mischief. He’s seen what an uncontrollable Loki can cause. He doesn’t want to see how much worse it could get later if he doesn’t put his foot down now.
Steve and Bruce are looking nervously back and forth between the two of them. Clint takes a breath, reminds himself that as the only one present who hasn’t been inconvenienced by random magic it’s really his turn, then scoops Loki up and throws him over one shoulder.
“Sorry, kiddo. I shouldn’t have brought you down this late anyway - it’s past time for dinner and bed.”
Loki shrieks in outrage. “Unhand me!”
“I’ll put you down when you’ve demonstrated that you can act like a civilized person,” Clint says, realizing with a dull kind of shock that he’s totally impersonating his old kindergarten teacher.
“Unhand me now!” Loki screams. There’s a flare of green light, a shock like a kick to his ribs, and Clint finds himself flat on his back and gasping for air.
“Loki!” Steve exclaims. “Clint, are you all right?”
Clint’s first instinct is to lash out, hit back - at bare minimum to get himself between Loki and his team - but a lifetime of getting his butt kicked and an adulthood of working undercover have taught him not to lose his temper without assessing the situation first.
He turns his head. Loki’s sprawled on the hallway floor, staring at Clint in horror. As Clint watches, his eyes well up with tears.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.”
“M’fine,” Clint wheezes. He pushes himself upright with a groan. “Am I a newt?”
“No, Clint,” Steve says, sounding infinitely more worried than he was a moment ago.
“Then no harm done.” He levels a stern look at Loki. “I’m not saying I’m not pissed, kid, because that really hurt, but I believe you when you say you didn’t mean it.”
Steve and Bruce are looking at him like he’s a) crazy and b) insane, but apparently his instincts were right for once because he’s barely finished talking when he has an armful of sobbing miniature Asgardian.
Steve gestures frantically to catch Clint’s attention. What did you just do? he mouths.
Clint shrugs hopelessly and pats Loki on the back in what he hopes is a soothing way. Fucked if I know. He has a little experience with kids, from the circus mostly, and likes them in a vaguely generalized kind of way. He is emphatically not cleared to handle a mini-god with mood swings and anger management issues.
Bruce manages to lean down next to them without falling over. “Hey, Loki, when’s the last time you ate something?”
Loki sniffles into Clint’s shirt. “I don’t know,” he whimpers.
“Are you hungry?”
“I don’t know!” Loki wails.
“It’s been a long day, you’re pretty wiped out. Let’s find you some food and put you to bed, okay?”
Clint winces, waiting for another outburst, but Loki just hiccups and says “Very well,” in a tiny voice.
“Do you want to take him?” Clint asks in a quiet voice that mostly doesn’t sound hopeful.
Bruce shakes his head and stands up, wobbling a bit. “That’s pretty much the extent of my child-rearing skills,” he says. “I know you’re supposed to feed them regularly, and then they have to sleep from time to time.”
“Please tell me you don’t think he has to be watered or taken for walks,” Clint says, getting to his feet. Bruce probably wouldn’t have been able to take Loki anyway - the kid’s clinging to him like a limpet.
“But shouldn’t he get exercise?” Steve asks uncertainly.
“We are so unqualified for this,” Bruce moans.
Between the three of them they do, fortunately, at least know how to make dinner, so they successfully feed Loki a grilled cheese sandwich before putting him to bed. Steve offers to tell him a bedtime story, which Clint is frankly looking forward to hearing, but apparently that’s not an Asgardian thing. They make sure he knows where the bathroom is and how to find them if he gets scared in the middle of the night and leave it at that. Loki’s too tired to even fully appreciate his Thor pajamas.
“We didn’t make him brush his teeth,” Bruce worries.
“One night isn’t going to kill him,” Clint says. “I don’t know about you two, but I’m going to call it a night. I’m traumatised and I want to go curl up in bed and cry for a little while. That was a joke,” he adds when Steve looks concerned.
“No it wasn’t,” Bruce mutters. “Jesus, I’m going to have to change clothes.”
“I’m going to go check on Natasha and then I’ll turn in too,” Steve says.
“Don’t get caught,” Clint says, waving him off.
The next morning Clint staggers into the kitchen to be confronted with the bizarre sight of Coulson patiently explaining political cartoons to a fascinated Loki.
“And your rulers allow this impudence?” he asks, pointing to a section of the morning paper. “This is quite rude. The All-Father would undoubtedly smite the offender.”
“Freedom of speech, kid,” Tony says from where he’s leaning up against the counter. He’s wearing a shirt that somehow manages to cover his arc reactor and still be revealing almost to the point of obscenity, and doesn’t look like he’s been to bed at all. His short guy-haircut has been gelled up into spikes, and of course it looks stupidly hot because the universe is unfair that way. “If we want to say something we’re allowed to.”
Loki looks astonished. “How do your people get anything done? This seems terribly inefficient.”
“It is,” Coulson says, with the air of a man who spends most of his life operating in the dictatorship of Fury.
Clint sidles up to Tony. “How was your night?” He asks. He really only means to check up on Tony’s wellbeing, be a good teammate and all that, but of course it doesn’t come out that way and since it’s Tony wouldn’t have been taken innocently even if it had.
Tony grins wolfishly. “Multiple orgasms? Not a myth.”
Loki notices Clint’s arrival and excuses himself from Coulson, hopping down off his chair and coming over. He’s wearing his Thor shirt from yesterday with his Thor pajama bottoms, and Clint spares a moment to note that somebody really needs to find a camera and document the shit out of this for the good of Midgard-Asgardian relations.
Loki stops in front of him, folds his fist over his chest, and bows his head curtly. “Lord Clint,” he says formally, “I tender you my most sincere apologies for my behaviour yesterday. I will accept whatever punishment you deem just.”
Tony immediately succumbs to an extremely suspicious coughing fit. Clint glances at Coulson for help, but Coulson only stares back with his default expression of mild amusement. It’s just as creepy as always.
Avengers Assemble my ass, Clint thinks sourly, and crouches down so he’s at Loki’s level. “Well, thanks, kiddo. Tell you what - I’m going to make a deal with you, okay?”
Loki nods warily.
“Okay. The thing is, we don’t really know anything about kids, so I need you to promise to let us know when you need something. If you’re tired or hungry or you need to, I don’t know, run around and be crazy or whatever, let us know and we’ll do our best to help you out. Sound good?”
Loki turns this over for a minute. “I accept your proposal,” he says finally, still looking at Clint kind of sideways. “The punishment?”
“No punishment. We’ll put it down to cultural differences this time, but please don’t do it again. Oh - and we’re pretty informal, here, so you can just stick to my first name, okay?” The last thing he needs is for the whole ‘Lord’ thing to get out of hand.
Loki’s face falls. “I used the wrong title.”
“Well, yeah, but there wasn’t any way you’d know, and I got what you meant,” Clint says, eyeing Loki nervously for any signs of last night’s tears. He’d forgotten that Loki was raised just as much a prince of Asgard as Thor was. He was probably drilled in court etiquette from the time he could speak - it’s not really surprising it would upset him to get it wrong.
“He’d be ‘Agent’,” Tony says, against all odds deciding to be helpful. Then again, Tony was raised in High Society too - he probably had etiquette lessons until he rebelled and started using them as a set of guidelines for targeted disobedience. “If you were being formal you’d use his last name, so ‘Agent Barton’ instead of just ‘Clint’.”
“Tony, on the other hand,” Clint says, congratulating himself for spotting this one coming at least, “would be ‘Mister Stark’.” He bats his eyelashes. “Or would it be ‘Miss’?”
“Mister,” Tony says, kicking him. “I’m still a man even if I’m not male, jerkass.”
“Don’t repeat that word,” Clint says firmly to Loki.
“Good luck in this household,” Steve says dryly from the doorway. “Morning, everyone. How’d you sleep, Loki?”
“Very well, thank you,” Loki says, brightening considerably. “May I ask, are you an Agent or a Mister?”
“Captain, technically,” Steve says, and correctly interprets Loki’s look of alarm. “We don’t actually each have individual titles. Bruce is a Doctor, but Natasha and Coulson are both Agents.”
Loki takes this in seriously. “And Lady Pepper?”
“Technically a ‘Miss’,” Tony says. “But she deserves the respect of ‘Lady’, so you can keep that one. I’ll tell you from experience that it’s always worth it to suck up to Pepper.”
“Kiss up,” Clint explains at Loki’s puzzled look. “Kiss ass. Uh... brownnose.”
“Ingratiate,” Steve says, rolling his eyes at Clint. “You can’t explain slang with more slang.”
After breakfast, Steve volunteers to take Loki to the library. Loki, who has been scrupulously on his best behaviour all morning, is nearly beside himself with excitement, and Clint is amused to see that Steve is in pretty much the same state. Nerds, he thinks affectionately.
A few minutes after they’ve left Bruce slinks in, towelling Natasha’s hair dry. Clint raises an eyebrow.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Bruce says hollowly. “I thought Natasha would prefer that I shower to the alternative, but I feel like I just defiled something.”
Clint pats him sympathetically on the shoulder and leaves him mournfully spooning sugar into his tea. Now that Coulson’s back and apparently over his little breakdown, it’s time for some actual strategy organized by people who are really in charge, and are not just him and Steve and Bruce trying not to freak out.
Besides, a request for a consultation from Doctor Strange will have more impact coming from SHIELD than from the Avengers’ long-range weapon.
“I had a drink with Doctor Strange last night,” Coulson says before Clint can start, because he is a scary, scary person.
“Oh?” Clint says, as if he was about to ask about something else. Coulson, Clint realises with a sigh, probably took a vow of sobriety when he joined SHIELD and has never even tried to break it, and it should not be surprising that his version of a ‘breakdown’ is ‘forgetting to inform his team that he’s going off to officially liaise with someone’. Coulson would be boring if he wasn’t utterly terrifying at the same time. “Can the good doctor fix this whole thing?”
“He says Loki has to do it.”
Clint stares. “Did you tell him what happened to Loki?”
Coulson gives him an unamused look. “Yes, I did. He wrote down a few ideas that he thought might help Loki along and then he washed his hands of the whole thing.”
“Washed his hands,” Clint repeats. “What an ass.”
“The real problem, of course,” Coulson says, “is what’s going to happen when everyone realises the Avengers are out of commission.” He gives Clint a disappointed look. “It’s really too bad Loki’s device managed to take out all of the most immediately recognizable Avengers. I’m going to go talk to Stark, see if he can make a few casual Iron Man appearances. As long as he doesn’t open the helmet no one should be able to tell that anything’s different.”
“And as long as he hasn’t already made the costume boobalicious,” Clint feels compelled to point out. Coulson sighs and looks like he might be developing a migraine, and because Clint is occasionally a petty person it makes him feel a lot better about being the least recognizable Avenger.
Clint spends the rest of the morning killing time until Steve and Loki get back from the library. He’s too restless to spend time in the range and Natasha’s not available for sparring, so physical activity’s pretty much out. Bruce is in his lab looking harassed and Clint only gets partway down the hall to Tony’s workshop before the loud crashes and creative swearing convince him it’s probably best not to continue.
He winds up going to the local bodega and buying a crapload of novelty junkfood, because he thinks Loki will probably get a kick out of turning his tongue different colors. He also grabs a little Thor action figure from the display of touristy New York tchotchkes at the front of the store. The man at the counter looks at him like he’s insane and possibly dangerous as he rings up the purchases, but it’s not like it’s the first time Clint’s ever gotten that response.
Steve and Loki get home just as Clint’s starting to think about going to look for them, each laden down by stacks of heavy books. Loki is mystified by the candy but overjoyed with the Thor action figure and its tiny Mjolnir, and immediately runs off with it to... settle down and read one of his new books. He tucks the little Thor into the collar of his shirt so it can see the book too, which Clint supposes is a good enough first step towards teaching an alien boy prince how to play with action figures.
Steve is smiling, but there are lines of tension on his face.
“How’d it go?” Clint asks.
“Loki was great,” Steve says. “He called the librarian ‘Lady Gatekeeper of Knowledge’ with that accent and she nearly adopted him on the spot.”
“Because you look a little...” Clint gestures, trying to convey upset and but in a manly way so we don’t have to talk about feelings or anything.
Steve’s smile slips a little. “I... forgot what it used to feel like, walking around like this. In the house is one thing, but...” he shrugs and tries to joke it off. “Everything sure felt bigger, I’ll tell you that!”
Clint squeezes his shoulder. It’s very bony, and a good deal lower than it ought to be. He swallows hard.
“So what did you get?” He asks, before it can get too mushy. The book Loki’s balancing across his knees looks awfully large. “Is that a textbook?”
Steve sighs, his smile getting a little more real. “Yes. Loki was deeply unimpressed with the children’s selection, although the idea of fiction was kind of a novelty for him. I made him get some kids’ science books, but he insisted on the others too. Some of them are college level.”
Clint eyes the stack, impressed. “Do you think he actually understands them?”
Steve gives him a wry look. “In a house full of your cool older brother’s superhero friends, how hard would you pretend?”
Clint snorts. “True.”
“We are laying up so much trouble for ourselves, you know.”
Startled, Clint gives him a worried look. “What do you mean?”
Steve shrugs unhappily. “I mean, I like little kid Loki. He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s nice, he adores his brother. He’s a good kid. And while it’s pretty clear that none of us knows what’s going to happen with this situation, I’d say there’s a pretty good possibility that we’re going to wind up fighting big Loki at some point again. And the whole time... I’m probably just going to be thinking about how much I miss the kid version.”
Clint chews on his lip. “Not to mention how much it will mess him up to find out.”
Steve’s face falls. “God, yes. It would break his heart. We can’t tell him.”
“Do you know what to do?” Clint asks hesitantly. Steve’s their best strategist, but his de-powering has probably shaken him pretty badly for all that he hides it well.
Steve shakes his head. “I can’t think of anything that doesn’t end badly somehow,” he admits.
Clint sighs. They’ll just have to keep trying, he guesses. “Hey - Coulson talked to Strange.”
Steve straightens. “Can he help?”
Clint winces, immediately feeling bad for raising Steve’s hopes. “He says Loki has to do it.”
From the look on Steve’s face, his immediate future has suddenly turned from a return to normalcy into a lifetime of helplessness. “Then I guess we’d better hope Loki’s as smart as Thor’s always said he was.”
By late afternoon Clint’s starting to get sympathetic eyestrain so he forces Loki to put down the books and come outside.
“But I am making progress!” Loki whines.
“Brains absorb information faster if the body connected to them gets fresh air and exercise,” Clint says with authority.
Loki hesitates. “This is truth?”
“Proven scientific fact,” Clint says. “You can ask Bruce.” He hopes Bruce is a decent liar in Natasha’s body, because he was crap at it in his own.
Loki pouts. “Very well. I shall collect some of your fresh air,” he says grudgingly.
There’s a playground not too far from the mansion; Clint’s passed it a couple of times, and it looks like a pretty good one. They have the usual swings, monkey bars and slides (no seesaw, though, because apparently those are dangerous - Clint feels sorry for modern kids sometimes), plus a giant wooden castle thing with a wiggly rubber bridge and a tire swing.
Loki is unimpressed.
“What am I supposed to do with it?” he asks resignedly when they’ve arrived.
Clint flails a little. “You play,” he says. “You climb and jump and sh- stuff. It’s fun! Go have fun!”
Loki gives him a deeply unamused look and trudges off. He performs the most unenthusiastically mechanical job of climbing monkey bars ever witnessed and turns to face Clint when he’s gotten down on the other side, gesturing in a way that very clearly says Are you happy now?
Clint points imperiously. Go play!
“Let me guess,” one of the moms scattered around the periphery says, catching this exchange. “He’d rather be playing video games.”
“Worse,” Clint says. “Reading.”
The mom gives him a confused look. Belatedly, Clint remembers that most responsible adults are supposed to encourage children to read more. He smiles weakly at her.
Loki takes advantage of Clint’s distraction to come over and make a bid for freedom. “I have climbed the silly structure and cast myself down the inclined metal thing,” he says. “It was boring. May we go now?”
Clint rolls his eyes. The mom progresses from confusion to incredulity. “We can leave in half an hour,” he says, giving in. “Try playing with some of the other kids. It’ll be more fun then, I promise.”
Loki crosses his arms over his chest. “Children do not like me,” he mumbles.
“Have you ever played with kids here?”
Loki’s lower lip starts to stick out. “No,” he admits.
“Give it a shot, then!” He puts his hand on Loki’s back and propels him back towards the playground. “There’s a kid over there in a Fantastic Four shirt - go tell her the Avengers are better!”
In retrospect, this is where it all goes wrong.
Clint spends the next few minutes talking to Incredulous Mom, who apparently decides Clint’s just a single parent (very far from the truth) suffering from a genius child (probably not far from the truth). It doesn’t take Clint too long to realize that being the only ‘dad’ at a playground in the middle of a weekday makes him a pretty hot commodity - Incredulous Mom calls over a few friends and pretty soon Clint’s at the center of a gaggle of conversation.
For the record, and whatever Steve might say later, he does keep an eye on Loki throughout. At the half-hour mark Loki’s in the center of a group of kids underneath the wiggly bridge, apparently doing fine, so Clint decides to leave him be until he gets tired.
The first indication something’s gone wrong is when the kid in the Fantastic Four shirt runs up to them in tears with a bloody nose. Her mom actually takes it pretty calmly, but that’s when Clint realises that the normal noise of kids on a playground has morphed into something more like a battlefield, and turns around to see that the entire playground is seething with what can only be called siege warfare.
It takes the combined efforts of Clint and the Mom Brigade nearly fifteen minutes to get everyone separated. By the time they’re done the wiggly bridge is hanging from one side, the tire swing is on top of the castle, and at least half the kids present are crying. The other half are still trying to beat the crap out of each other.
Noticeably, Loki is the only calm one, standing in the center of it all with a pleased expression on his face.
“Did you guys have - what happened?” Bruce says, shocked, as Clint storms in.
Clint deposits Loki in one of the kitchen chairs and says “Sit.” Loki takes one look at Clint’s face and does as he’s told, looking terrified. “I’m going to get Steve,” Clint says curtly to Bruce on his way out.
Steve is in Tony’s lab, apparently mediating between him and Dummy. They stop and stare when Clint comes in.
“What happened?” Steve says. “Did Loki do something?”
“I need you to come up and be the voice of reason,” Clint growls. Dimly he knows he may be overreacting to this a little, but he’s too angry to care. He feels weirdly betrayed, like he didn’t know from the beginning that he was dealing with a child who would one day grow up to be a supervillain who tries to kill his brother on a regular basis.
It was stupid to bring him to a playground anyway. What was he thinking, that Loki would play well with others? What ever made him think that would work?
Neither Bruce or Loki has moved in the time they were upstairs - Loki’s still sitting in the chair, pale and wide-eyed, and Bruce is hovering anxiously on the far side of the kitchen island.
“Would you like to tell Steve what happened at the playground?” Clint asks, leaning up against the counter with his arms crossed.
Loki looks nervously from one of them to the other. “We played?” he says cautiously.
“Oh no,” Clint says. “That was not playing. That was warfare.”
“Yes?” Loki says, as if expecting a trick.
“Clint, maybe you’d better provide some context?” Steve says.
“Mr. Mischief here started a war at the playground. I’m not being hyperbolic, it was an actual war. Half the kids were bleeding by the end, it took us fifteen minutes to split them up, and they’re going to have to do some serious repairs,” Clint says through gritted teeth.
“No one had weapons,” Loki says swiftly. “And all the injuries were very minor.”
“How do you explain what happened to the bridge and the tire swing, then?” Clint asks. To be honest, he’s still not entirely sure about that himself.
“They controlled the high ground,” Loki says slowly, “so we constructed a siege engine with distance capabilities. We acquitted ourselves well - the Avengers were well-represented.”
Steve frowns. “Loki, did you do this because someone said something bad about the Avengers?”
“No,” Loki says. “There was a girl in a Fantastic Four tunic. Clint told me to tell her the Avengers were better.”
There’s a moment of silence. Everybody looks at Clint, who’s staring speechlessly at Loki.
“I allowed her to choose her soldiers first,” Loki says in a small voice, shoulders hunching. “I allowed her the high ground as well. It was a fair battle - I did not use magic or resort to trickery, nor did anyone under my command. I - I understand that I may have conducted the assault under Asgardian rules of engagement and perhaps that was unwise but none of the others seemed well-schooled in Midgardian battle tactics...” his voice trails off. “That is not playing?”
“It’s... not usually the way it’s done here,” Bruce says delicately.
Loki looks miserable. “I apologize. On Asgard that is what children do, so I thought... despite the presence of the castle, I should have understood that the absence of available weapons indicated a reluctance to engage in such training. I am sorry.” He looks at them sideways. “I did try very hard to minimize casualties. On Asgard play on such a scale would have resulted in broken bones at a minimum. I am sorry for the Fantastic Four leader’s bloody nose - she was a worthy adversary.”
Tony starts giggling. Clint glares at him, still a little upset, but that makes him laugh harder. “I’m sorry!” he says. “I’m just imagining the looks on those yuppie mom faces when their kids started acting out Lord of the Rings!”
Bruce hides a smile. Loki starts to look tentatively optimistic about his future.
“Besides,” Tony says, “what the hell were you thinking? A playground? Those are so boring! You should have taken him to the science museum. It’s interactive and shi- whatever.”
Loki perks up. “There is a museum of science?” He looks guiltily at Clint. “Though I am sure that it would not be as fun as the playground.”
Despite himself, Clint feels a smile tug at the corner of his mouth. “I think maybe the playground was a little too much fun.”
Loki puts his fist over his heart. “Agent Barton, I am sorry I caused you distress,” he says sincerely.
Clint sighs. “I think we’re going to put this one down to cultural differences again, kiddo. Just check with one of us before you start another war, okay?”
“Or a battle, skirmish, fight, melee, or fracas,” Steve chips in quickly.
“Fracas?” Tony says, and starts laughing again.
Loki nods, ignoring Tony completely. “I understand.” He gives Clint a hopeful look. “Have I gathered enough fresh air?”
“You can go read,” Clint says, waving him off. “But you have to stop for dinner!” He calls after Loki’s retreating back.
“How bad was it?” Steve asks when he’s gone.
Clint shakes his head. “We’re probably going to have to find an anonymous way to repair the playground,” he says. “It was pretty trashed. None of the kids were too badly hurt, although so many of them all at once wasn’t good. And I think any parents who have ever read Lord of the Flies are pretty creeped out now.” He rubs his forehead. “I think it was genuinely just a misunderstanding on his part, but seeing him in the middle of all that chaos looking so pleased with himself...”
The other three wince. “Yeah, okay, I probably would have completely overreacted too,” Tony admits.
“It makes you wonder,” Bruce says. “At what point did he go from this Loki to the other one?”
Nobody answers; after a little while everyone drifts back to what they’d been doing before. Clint stands in the living room doorway, watching Loki read. He’s tucked his little Thor toy back into the collar of his shirt and he has Mjolnir’s handle in his mouth. He looks ridiculously innocent and nothing whatsoever like Thor’s asshole brother who fucks with their heads just to watch them suffer.
When did you change? Clint wonders. And how much of you right now is what we think it is?
Clint spends most of the next morning getting yelled at by Fury and spoken to sarcastically by Coulson for the whole playground debacle. It’s not entirely unwarranted, but he feels petulant and sulky when he’s finally freed, so he goes and breaks into Natasha’s room for a visit even though he’s not supposed to.
Since he’s not actually an idiot (Fury) or harboring a secret desire to be reassigned to Siberia (Coulson) what this actually means is that he sneaks up to Natasha’s door, knocks quietly, and says “Hey, Natasha? It’s Clint. Is it okay if I come in for a minute?” and then waits for her to say yes before going in. But it’s still not something he’s supposed to do, so yeah. He’s a rebel.
The room is mostly bare, but there are some throw pillows and candles and shit scattered around so it comes off more like a yoga studio than a containment cell. Natasha’s sitting lotus-style in the center of the room with her eyes half-closed; Clint takes a moment to be impressed that Bruce’s legs can do that, because his own sure can’t. He makes his way over and sits down too, far enough away that he has a reasonable chance of making it to the door if she Hulks out again.
“Hey,” Natasha says.
They sit in silence for a moment. Clint’s not sure how good her control is, so he decides to let her set the pace.
“How’s the team doing?” Natasha asks finally, her voice low and even.
“Okay. Kind of freaked.” He watches her closely. “Did they tell you what happened to everyone?”
Natasha shakes her head. “Not really. Coulson said the others had been affected but they were okay. Give me some details.”
Clint hides an apprehensive wince. “Steve’s not a super-soldier any more.” That seems to go over okay. “Tony’s a woman.” That gets him a smile.
“Give me a sec.”
He waits patiently as she breathes, deep and even, and stops smiling.
“Sorry,” she says after a moment. “For some reason Bruce’s body is a lot more sensitive to changes in heart rate with me in control. Pepper says Bruce thinks it might be because his body’s trying to reject my consciousness on some level. Keep going.”
Clint eyes her worriedly. “Thor’s unconscious - magic coma. And Loki’s a little kid.”
She frowns a little and then carefully smooths out her expression. It’s weird to see her like this - besides the fact, of course, that she’s currently in Bruce’s body, which is its own level of special weirdness, Natasha’s all about control. If Clint were to pick anyone on the team with enough self-possession to keep from Hulking out, actually, it would be her. They should all probably be thanking their lucky stars that Bruce hadn’t been standing next to Tony when Loki’s device blew.
“Kid Loki. That must be fun.”
Clint shrugs. “It’s not so bad, actually. He’s a good kid.” When he’s not mobilizing child armies, anyway. Come to think of it... “I actually think you’d like him. He might be your kind of rugrat.”
“Oh God, that is bad,” Natasha snorts, and has to do her breathing exercises again. “How’s Bruce?” she asks when she’s calm again.
“Terrified,” Clint says cautiously. The corner of Natasha’s mouth quirks upwards. “How are you doing?”
“Bored,” Natasha says serenely. “Which irritates me and raises my heart rate. As soon as this is fixed I’m going to do the training obstacle course twice and then scream myself voiceless just because I can. If you don’t fix this I’ll rip off your balls.”
Clint closes his legs reflexively. “Noted,” he says meekly.
When Clint leaves Natasha’s room Loki and Steve are still in the living room, Loki reading and Steve sketching him, so Clint swings by the infirmary to visit Thor.
The God of Thunder is laid out on a hospital cot in a powder-blue smock, and unfairly still looks pretty damn badass for all that he’s unconscious. Clint has it on good authority that when he’s out cold he generally looks like some variety of shit.
Mjolnir is on the floor next to Thor. After some experimentation they’d discovered they could get the hammer from the site of the battle back to the mansion by wrapping Thor’s hand around it and basically using him as a proxy, but it was awkward, of limited usefulness, and it’s not like Mjolnir’s doing any harm sitting there.
“I never look that good unconscious,” Bruce says from behind him.
“Well, you might now,” Clint points out. Bruce doesn’t know how to do Natasha’s hair or her makeup and wisely hasn’t tried, but she’s a gorgeous woman even when she’s covered in debris and bits of other people’s entrails. It takes more than a lopsided half-ponytail to make her look unattractive.
Bruce rolls his eyes. “Has Loki ever asked you about Thor?”
Clint frowns. “Not really.” That seems weird, actually, now that he considers it. For a kid who seems to worship his older brother so much, Loki hasn’t even asked to visit him. “Maybe it’s too much of a disconnect for him - he just can’t think of this Thor as his brother.”
Bruce shrugs. “It’s possible. I had Steve get me some books on Norse mythology when they went to the library.”
“Does it actually seem to correspond to what we know?” Clint asks, honestly curious. He’d always gotten the impression that Norse mythology was basically what happened when a huge guy in fancy armor showed up and shot lightning over the heads of a bunch of drunk Vikings.
Bruce grimaces. “Maybe. Kind of. It’s hard to tell without corroboration, but there’s some stuff that makes sense. For one thing, Odin goes into a kind of healing coma from time to time which might be why Loki’s taking Thor’s situation so much in stride.”
Clint racks his brain. “I think I remember Thor saying something about that. I thought he was being metaphorical.”
Bruce grins. “I admit that is a danger with Thor. But no, I think that one’s real.”
“Did you find anything about why Loki went bad?” Clint asks hesitantly. “Thor never seems to want to talk about it.” He’s said a few things since he joined, generally along the lines of Loki being a good guy at heart and how he’s really just misunderstood, which his teammates have understandably always taken with a grain of salt.
“Well...” Bruce hesitates. “That is partly why I asked Steve to get me that stuff. And maybe I did. I don’t know - like I said, it’s hard to tell what’s true or not, or even what was created in a completely different cultural context for a specific purpose and is being totally misinterpreted by us now.”
“But...?” Clint prompts.
“But... frankly, Loki got a pretty raw deal, mythologically speaking,” Bruce says, all in a rush. “He was a troublemaker just like you’d expect and he did do some awful things, but they came down on him hard for it. He got his mouth sewed shut once, another time he was tied down by the entrails of his own child and then tortured. He had a habit of shapeshifting into things and then getting knocked up, and every time his children were taken away from him and killed or imprisoned somewhere, and some of his kids were monsters but they usually seemed to be taken away because the Asgardians objected to Loki. Once he came to Earth as a woman, got married, had kids, and wasn’t doing anything wrong until Odin showed up and killed the whole family, just because Loki was perverted for turning himself into a woman. That horse, the eight-legged one Odin rides? That’s supposed to be one of Loki’s kids. I know - I know this is all mythology and probably made up and every pantheon needs a scapegoat but it’s hard from a... from a modern standpoint to read all that and not come down on Loki’s side. Or at least feel sorry for him.”
“So you think it wasn’t so much a one-time event turning him evil as him snapping after a lifetime of abuse?” Clint says, wide-eyed. “Jesus. I guess that kind of explains why he freaked out so much in the hallway that first night.” Since his biggest connection to Asgard is Thor, Clint’s always had the impression that Asgardians are all boisterous, lovable giants with a baffling but harmless love of battle. It’s easy to forget that it’s a warrior society and they absolutely would have started their kids out young.
Imagining a smaller version of Thor learning to swing Mjolnir for the first time is very different from picturing the quiet, too-smart Loki upstairs being shoved into an arena full of kids with weapons. God. When they’d talked about the playground Loki had said that kind of play usually ended in broken bones.
“I don’t - “ Bruce gestures vaguely, upset. “Yeah. If any of that was true, then yeah. I think it’s possible, theoretically, that he’d just taken all he could take. Oh,” he adds, trying for a lighter tone. “Also, apparently he’s not really Odin’s son and it’s possible he’s actually a frost giant.”
“Grain of salt.”
“Grain of salt,” Bruce agrees. “I really wish Thor was awake. I can’t believe none of us ever had a comparative mythology discussion with him.”
Despite the conversation, Clint snorts. “Yeah, that’s what I can’t believe.”
Bruce smiles reluctantly. “Shut up.”
On Monday the public figures out that nobody’s seen Tony Stark, Captain America, the Hulk, or the Black Widow in nearly a week, and everything goes apeshit.
“For the last time, it wasn’t my fault!” Tony shouts.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Go-out-and-get-laid,” Clint snaps back. “You have a fucking arc reactor on your chest, of course someone was going to figure out it was you!”
“Hey!” Tony yells. “Unlike you, who I can only assume has not been laid in a very long time, I have enough experience with women to know how to make wearing a shirt look sexy! I know how to hide my own fucking arc reactor! If you want to talk about conspicuous, let’s talk about the guy who destroyed a fucking playground!”
“Look,” Bruce says placatingly. “We live high-profile lives, it was bound to happen eventually. Let’s try to focus on - “
“You shut up,” Tony says snidely. “It might help if you could learn how to walk straight, you actually look like somebody.”
“For the last time, it’s harder than it sounds - “
“If you’re all quite done?” Steve says pleasantly, and there’s the steel that’s been missing from his voice since this whole fiasco began. Also, apparently even as a ninety-pound weakling Steve still has the strength to heave his shield up onto the table. That’s good to know.
“You’re just jealous because the hot playground moms all gave me their numbers,” Clint says to Tony, much more calmly.
“Yeah, so they could sue you for damages,” Tony retorts. “...How hot?”
Coulson coughs pointedly. They settle down, looking innocent. One of the things Clint has always liked best about Tony is his ability to go all-out in a really satisfying shouting match and then get over it the next minute.
“Girl-on-girl is even better as a participant, by the way,” Tony says, because the idea of not pushing his luck is a foreign concept to him.
“Okay,” Coulson says, glaring at them all. “The public has noticed your conspicuous absences. I don’t care if it was someone’s fault. I care about fixing it.”
Bruce clears his throat. He still looks a little miffed by the fight. “Unfortunately, I think our best option is still Loki. In terms of a permanent solution, I mean.”
Coulson waves this off. “I don’t care about permanent right now, I care about short-term.”
“All right,” Steve says. “Short-term... Bruce, how long can you fake being Natasha from a distance?”
Bruce winces. “Probably not long. I think I can manage walking like she does for a little bit as long as I don’t have to wear high heels. Or lean over. Or turn.”
“Okay. I’m sure we’ll have some paparazzi soon - “
“Southeast corner,” Tony says absently, fiddling with his phone. “They set up about fifteen minutes ago. Trying to take advantage of the fence Bruce busted after that thing in May.”
“Great. If we get somebody to do your hair and makeup, Bruce, could you handle going out on the balcony and not making it look too obviously staged?”
“Yes?” Bruce says uncertainly. Clint winces.
“Okay,” Steve smiles at him reassuringly. It’s oddly endearing on his scrawny face. “If Natasha can do the same - “
“No,” Clint says immediately. “Just asking’s going to set her off.”
Bruce and Tony look at him questioningly. Clint smiles a little.
“Trust me, no matter how professional you are, when you get an assignment your heart races. This counts as an assignment.” Coulson nods in agreement.
“Okay, that’s out,” Steve says regretfully. “Still, that plus a few more Iron Man appearances and - Clint, if you could patrol as Hawkeye? - that might buy us a little time.”
“I can plant somebody in a press conference so we can answer ‘no comment’ to a question about ongoing undercover operations,” Coulson says. “We can leak some pictures of Captain America out of the country somewhere, too - the politicians love to jump all over that.”
“It’s worth a shot,” Steve says. “Okay. Now it’s just a question of helping Loki fix all this - “
“ - And hoping nobody calls our bluff before we’re done,” Coulson finishes grimly.
They’d closed the door to the conference room, but Clint and Tony both have excellent projection so it probably hadn’t done much good. Clint isn’t surprised to find that Loki’s fled from the living room by the time the meeting breaks up. He is surprised to finally locate Loki in Thor’s room, sitting on the bottom of the bed between Thor’s feet with his arms wrapped around his knees. He looks small and very worried.
“Hey, kid,” Clint says, putting his hand on Loki’s back. “I’m sorry about all the shouting.”
“It is all right,” Loki says, not looking away from Thor’s face. “I was not frightened.”
“No, I know you weren’t,” Clint says generously.
“I know... I know my lack of understanding when it comes to Midgardian magic is what is causing you difficulty right now,” Loki goes on in a tight little voice.
“Hey.” Clint takes his chin and forces him to look away from his brother. “Not true. Nothing we were just fighting about is your fault, okay?” Technically not, anyway. Mostly. Kid Loki destroyed the playground, but Adult Loki’s the one who made it all possible, albeit with some help from Thor and Mjolnir. It’s a little worrying how easy it is to separate Loki into two different people, but Clint’s fond of his sanity so he doesn’t worry about it too much.
Loki pulls his chin away and hunches down so he can hide most of his face behind his knees. “But if I knew more. It would be better.”
“Maybe,” Clint says. “Maybe if any of the rest of us knew any magic that would be better too. Maybe if we hadn’t all decided to dress up in fancy pajamas and fight bad guys that would be better, except then I think the bad guys would be pretty bored. There’s a lot of maybes, kid. The only certainly is what’s right in front of you.”
Loki thinks this over for a moment. “It is odd to me,” he says finally. “At the age I am now, my brother is not... overly fond of me. I am smaller and younger and I prefer magic to battle, which is embarrassing for him.” He gives Clint a tremulous smile. “It is very encouraging to think that someday we will be good friends even if he stays a warrior and I a magic-user.”
So this is what it feels like to be the worst person on the planet, Clint thinks miserably. “You know what?” He says to cover. “I think this calls for ice cream for dinner. What do you say? As a treat?”
“Ice cream?” Loki says curiously, uncurling a little.
“You’ve never had ice cream?” Clint asks. “Well, we’ve got to fix that. Come on - ice cream for everyone!” He’s overdoing it so badly he’s pretty sure even unconscious Thor can tell something’s wrong, but Loki just gives him a fond look that says very clearly You Midgardians are strange but I’m glad you’re mostly harmless.
Of course, there’s probably also an ...and friends with me and Thor in there too, but Clint’s not going to think about that. Not even a little bit.
“Come on, I’ll give you a piggyback ride.”
“What is a piggyback?” Loki says, truly smiling now, and laughs when Clint scoops him up and slings him on his back. “You Midgardians are strange,” Loki giggles. “But I am glad you are our friends.”
Clint narrowly restrains himself from whacking his head on the door jamb as he leaves. Crap. Steve’s right. So much trouble.
“He finally go to sleep?” Clint asks, slinging the dish towel over his shoulder.
Steve rubs his eyes. “Yeah. He made me read him a chapter out of the Physics Textbook for Scientists and Engineers and I had to leave the rest of his books behind when I left so he wouldn’t freak out, but he’s asleep.” He gives Clint a baleful look. “Feeding him two bowls of ice cream for dinner didn’t help. I’m surprised you didn’t make him sick.”
Clint winces. In retrospect it probably hadn’t been a great idea to pair Loki’s anxieties over fixing everyone magically with his own guilt - the sugar high and resulting meltdown had been pretty epic. For both of them, he’s ashamed to say.
“You should have some real food before you go out on patrol,” Steve tells him, digging in the refrigerator. “I can make you an omelette or something.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Clint says.
Steve just rolls his eyes. “At least this is something I can do to be helpful,” he says, and then tries to cover the truth of what he’s just said with a smile.
Clint winces again. “Hey,” he says, putting his hand on Steve’s shoulder. “You’re still the brains of this operation. If tonight has proved anything it’s that we’re useless and prone to making bad choices without a good strategist. Or tactician. What’s the difference, again?”
Steve’s smile firms a little. “Very funny, Hawkeye,” he says, and Clint pretends that hadn’t been an honest question. “Looks like it’s neuroses night at Avengers Mansion, I guess,” he adds sheepishly.
Clint lets it go; they’re a team made up of misfits and everyone’s got their own quirks and hangups and things they absolutely don’t want to talk about. They’ve all learned to step back and not push too hard. Except Tony, but he’s the one paying for repairs so it all evens out in the end.
Patrol goes pretty smoothly - there’s not much happening in the city, but Clint makes sure he’s seen by a few crowds of people and that one of the paparazzi gets a good shot of him coming and going and calls it a success.
There’s a light on under Loki’s door when he tiptoes down to his room. Clint sighs and edges the door open; Loki’s seated cross-legged in the middle of the floor, surrounded by books and diagrams. He’s scribbling furiously on a piece of printer paper and chewing on his lower lip. He doesn’t even look up as Clint enters.
“Hey. Kiddo. Time to put it away and go to bed, all right?”
Loki waves him off. “I am almost - I thought of something else, it will only take a moment. I will be back in bed by midnight, I promise.”
“It’s two AM, kid. Back to bed.”
“I need to finish this,” Loki says, voice cracking a little.
Clint sighs. “You’ve got ten minutes to finish that thought,” he says, and makes a show of looking at his watch. Loki makes an irritated sound and scribbles faster. To Clint’s uninitiated eye it looks like a bizarre mix of runes and equations, although Loki’s childish hand might be confusing the issue somewhat.
Loki looks up. “I can do this,” he insists.
“Kiddo, I have no doubt,” Clint says as gently as he can manage. “But if you don’t get any sleep you’ll be exhausted tomorrow, and everybody makes mistakes when they’re tired.” He pulls out the big guns. “Even Thor.”
Loki’s face crumples. There are already dark shadows under his eyes. Clint sighs.
“Look... just lie down for a few minutes. Take a little nap and I promise I’ll let you work when you wake up.”
Loki blinks up at him. “Half an hour,” he says suspiciously.
“Half an hour,” Clint agrees.
“You’ll set an alarm?”
“Doing it now,” Clint says, pulling out his phone and setting it to silent.
“I suppose a brief nap wouldn’t hurt,” Loki says grudgingly.
Clint tucks him into bed, eyes the way he’s practically vibrating with tension, and lies down beside him. “I’ll rub your back a little,” he says. “My mom used to do this for me when I couldn’t sleep.” And then his brother did it, for a little while after their mom died. Then he’d decided it wasn’t macho enough. Clint has always regretted that.
Loki blinks at him, eyes already getting heavy. Bingo. “It feels nice,” he says sleepily. “When we were little and I couldn’t sleep, I used to climb into bed with Thor. But then he outgrew the nursery...” his voice trails off. “I used to read when I had nightmares,” he mumbles, eyes sliding shut. “This’s better... I like that Midgardians are so tactile...”
Clint keeps rubbing Loki’s back. It’s soothing for him too, frankly, and it’s been a long day. His phone vibrates at the half-hour mark, and Clint decides to give Loki another few minutes to get really asleep before he tries to move. Loki’s bed is awfully comfortable, actually...
Clint wakes up the next morning crammed into the bottom corner of Loki’s bed with one of Loki’s feet planted firmly in his neck. Bruce is taking pictures.
Clint groggily gives him the finger. Bruce takes another picture.
“Fckoff,” Clint mumbles into a mouthful of blankets, but now that he’s marginally conscious he really has to go to the bathroom. Damn Bruce anyway. He eases his way off the end of the bed without disturbing Loki - face down with his hands tucked under his chest - and manages to get upright, more or less. Sleeping in his armor is never exactly comfortable, whether it’s on a bed or in a sniper’s nest.
Bruce finally puts the camera away, still grinning at him.
“Get his books,” Clint whispers, rubbing his face. “We can hold them hostage and force him to eat breakfast when he wakes up.”
Bruce does as requested, overbalancing twice but Clint manages to grab the collar of his shirt before he falls against the bedside table and wakes Loki, so it’s okay. They make their way upstairs with their loot. It’s a lot brighter than Clint expected - he and Loki must have been out for a while.
Tony, supportive friend that he is, cracks up as soon as Clint walks in. “Nice bedhead, man.”
“I’ve got pictures,” Bruce says, the traitor. Clint rests his head on the kitchen island as Bruce and Steve coo obnoxiously over the evidence. Tony earns his way back into Clint’s good graces by sliding a mug of coffee down the counter at him.
“This is better than usual,” he notices, halfway through the mug.
“Thank you,” Pepper says from right behind him. He jumps. She must have stayed over last night after doing Bruce’s Natasha-hair and makeup yesterday.
“Love that combat-trained hyper-awareness,” Tony says to no one in particular.
Clint just glares at him. If it was a situation, or somebody right now waved a knife at him, he’d be sharp and adrenalized in an instant. Being groggy in the morning is his little way of declaring he’s safe.
“How’s Operation We’re Totally Normal?”
“...For The Avengers,” Tony mutters into his mug.
“It’s calmed down a little,” Pepper says, shrugging. “I think you’ve bought some time. Plus Justin Bieber just got engaged, so the tabloids are all going to start running relationship features.”
Clint eyes her narrowly over the top of his mug. “Did Justin Bieber actually just get engaged?”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re insinuating, Agent Barton,” Pepper says demurely. Tony looks disturbingly proud.
It’s just shaping up to be a really classically Avengers scene of domestic bliss, and then Loki enters at a run, screeches “You stole my research!” and launches himself bodily at Clint.
Admittedly, the presence of violence does not necessarily rule out Avengers-style domesticity.
“Whoa!” Clint yelps. “Loki - hey!”
Tony rescues the cup of coffee, freeing Clint up to bend down and try to grab Loki’s hands. He’s too small to do that much damage, and fortunately it would seem that Asgardians don’t grown into their super-strength until they’re out of childhood, but he’s pummeling Clint’s legs with serious intent and he’s in worrying range of more sensitive targets if he calms down enough to act strategically.
“Loki - Loki, kid, stop for a second - “
“It was mine!” Loki shrieks. “I worked hard on it! Give. It. Back!”
Clint captures one thin wrist and then the other. Loki immediately trades on the fact that Clint’s not going to drop him on his butt and uses Clint’s grip as leverage so he can kick instead.
“Loki.” Steve’s command voice cracks like a whip and Loki freezes instinctively, panting. “Clint’s trying to explain. Let him talk.”
Loki tugs at Clint’s hands but keeps a hold on the all-out attack. Now that Clint can see his face a little better, he can see that Loki’s chin is trembling. He looks scared.
“Kiddo.” He waits until Loki’s looking at him - sideways, but it’s eye contact. “Bruce and I tidied up your research because it was all over the floor.” Partially true. “You can have it back after breakfast, okay?” Totally true.
“You... did not destroy it to be funny?” Loki asks in a small voice.
“No,” Bruce says firmly, appalled on behalf of academics everywhere.
“I’ll let you see it if it will make you feel better,” Clint offers. “But you can’t have it until you’ve eaten breakfast. Deal?”
Loki nods, eyes on the floor. “Deal.”
Clint picks him up and walks him over to the living room. Loki’s stuff is stacked neatly on the coffee table. “See?”
Loki nods and buries his face in Clint’s neck. “You did not wake me as you promised,” he says resentfully.
“I fell asleep too, kid,” Clint says. He’d had no intention of waking Loki anyway, but saying that is hardly going to help the situation. “Bruce took pictures because he is a terrible person. You can see them if you want proof.”
Loki gives a long, trembling sigh. “I apologize for attacking you, Agent Barton,” he says, voice wobbling.
“I forgive you,” Clint says formally. “Do you have something to say to everyone else, too?”
Loki raises his head a little. “I apologize for my unseemly behavior and for causing such a disturbance,” he says. “Hello, Lady Pepper.”
“Good morning, Loki,” Pepper says serenely. Spending so much time around Tony has clearly inured her to emotional volatility - everyone else seems to be suffering from some degree of contact embarrassment.
Loki brightens up and stops clinging during breakfast, helped along by the fact that Pepper’s brought him a new Thor t-shirt (it has a picture of Mjolnir and the words ‘God of Thunder!’ on it in glitter) and an Iron Man hoodie that makes Tony look insufferably smug. Clint makes a mental note to replace it as soon as possible with the Hawkeye one he’s seen a few kids wearing; not only will it annoy Tony, which is always entertaining, but the Hawkeye version has a quiver of arrows printed on the back and is therefore awesome.
After breakfast Loki and an apprehensive Bruce retreat to the lab to try and come up with a plan of attack for the ruined device, and Clint goes off to lurk conspicuously in the background of Coulson’s rigged press conference. On his way back to the mansion he stops by a kid’s clothing store to try and find a Hawkeye hoodie. The Hawkeye merchandise usually isn’t as popular as the rest of the Avengers stuff, but they’re sold out of the ones in what Clint thinks is Loki’s size. Clint spends the rest of the trip home trying to figure out if he can blame Tony for it somehow.
Bruce has cleared out a corner of his lab for Loki’s use. It’s covered in papers and books and a whiteboard has been removed from its stand and propped up against the wall so Loki can reach more of it. The overall effect is sort of like if Indiana Jones and Richard Feynman decided to collaborate on a project and then shrunk halfway through.
Clint and Bruce stand by the doorway and watch Loki work.
“Do you understand any of that?” Clint asks.
Bruce snorts. “Sometimes he asks me some physics questions, and those I get. How it all works with the magical theory he seems to be pulling out of thin air is anyone’s guess.”
“Here’s hoping?” Clint says dubiously.
“I got him to take a few breaks and have a snack,” Bruce says, shrugging. “Otherwise he’s been pretty hardcore. He hasn’t said much about what he’s figured out but he did say that he doesn’t like the feel of whoever made the device.”
They trade foreboding looks.
“How did you get him to take breaks?” Clint asks, impressed despite himself.
Bruce looks embarrassed. “I showed him some funny cat videos on YouTube.”
Clint grins. “Had those bookmarked, did you?”
“The Hulk likes them,” Bruce sulks.
Across the room, Loki steps back from his whiteboard, looks it over carefully, and then announces “I think I have it.”
“What, seriously?” Bruce says, startled.
“Way to go, kiddo!” Clint cheers.
“Yes.” Loki climbs over a stack of books and comes over. He’s got whiteboard ink on his new hoodie (which Clint is in no way happy about because he’s an adult and above such things), his hair is sticking up in odd places and he looks like a tiny absent-minded professor. Clint comes thisclose to making an extremely emasculating noise or, worse, telling Loki how adorable he is.
“Well,” Loki amends, “To be more precise, I think I have figured out the most basic form of the spell that changed us all, and I hope to be able to combine it with the energy from the device to be able to reverse everyone’s transformation. That everyone has changed differently makes it more complex and I think I will have to do one person at a time, but yes. I think I have it.” He beams up at them.
“Loki, that’s awesome!” Clint says. “Gimme five!”
There follows an interlude in which this phrase and its cultural connotations are explained, and then Loki dutifully gives him five.
“I just have to test it and then I will be ready to turn everyone back,” Loki explains.
“Great,” Bruce says. “What kind of test?”
“Well,” Loki says thoughtfully, “It is far easier to perform transformative magic on oneself than on another, so for the first attempt it is best if I try it on myself.”
“What?” Clint demands.
“Oh, Loki, I don’t think that’s such a good idea - “
“Nonsense,” Loki says brightly. “I assure you, this is the most practical course.”
“No, Loki - “
“Don’t - “
Loki’s face screws up in concentration. The air around him goes wiggly and warped, like he’s putting off heat. Clint shoves Bruce behind him and gropes for a weapon. They are so ludicrously unprepared to fight off a grownup Loki it’s not even funny.
There’s a sort of whumph feeling, and then Loki’s standing in front of them.
As a girl.
“Yes!” Loki whoops, doing a dance of victory. “I am a girl! Yes! It worked, it worked!”
Clint just stares at him, trying to perform the jarring mental shift from fight-or-flight to congratulations.
“That.. was not what I expected,” Bruce says faintly, clinging to Clint’s shoulder.
“No,” Clint agrees. Unlike girl-Tony, girl-Loki comes with long hair. Girl-Loki is thrilled.
“Look at my hair, I am the best ever!” She bounces up to them. “Am I a pretty girl?”
“Well,” Clint says slowly, “At that age I’d say you’re more ‘adorable’ than ‘pretty’, but I think when you’re grown up you’ll be quite a looker?”
“Huzzah!” Loki runs over to one of Bruce’s glass-fronted equipment cabinets to admire herself. “Oh, I am quite cute. I have always wanted to try this spell, you know.”
Bruce's hand spasms on Clint’s shoulder. “Then we’re even more proud of you,” he says fiercely.
Loki twirls in front of the cabinet. “I like being a girl,” she decides. “After I fix everyone, may I try it again?”
“Sure thing,” Clint says. “Does this mean you’ll try fixing Tony first?”
Loki nods seriously. “He will be the simplest, so it is best to do him first. Then I think you and Natasha may be switched back. I am unsure as of yet whether it will be easier at that point to revive Thor or to restore Steve.” Her face screws up again, and then with a nausea-inducing warp of reality he’s back as a boy. He staggers, suddenly pale.
“Oh,” he says sheepishly. “That took a little more energy than I expected.”
Clint scoops him up. “We’ll get some lunch and then you can rest a little, how’s that? Maybe this afternoon we can sort Tony out.”
Loki nods and rests his head against Clint’s cheek. “I totally turned into a girl,” he says smugly.
Clint laughs. “Yeah, you did,” he says.
Unfortunately, although some food (and a little processed sugar and food dye) quickly brings Loki back up to snuff, that afternoon there’s a dust-up in the financial district between the NYPD and a bank-robbing robot thing. Hawkeye and Iron Man, as the two only Avengers left on active duty, are called out to deal with it. It’s not a hard fight, even though Clint can basically only play long-range backup for Tony, but the cleanup is messy and Steve makes a point of the Avengers sticking around to help out in those situations. This is probably genuinely because it’s the right thing to do and not because it improves their relationship with local law enforcement.
By the time they get back to the mansion it’s really too close to Loki’s bedtime to launch a risky magical campaign, so Steve calls a strategy meeting instead to decide who gets fixed in what order. Since Loki will probably need to rest up in between each one it turns into quite a debate.
“Tony must go first,” Loki says firmly. “Gender is relatively easy to switch and as a first subject he will allow me the most leeway to adapt to using the device’s energy.”
“All right, fine,” Coulson says. He’d been pushing for Steve first for his greater visibility. “Tony Stark at a shareholder’s meeting will still help.”
Tony sticks out his tongue. “I don’t go to shareholder’s meeting for Pepper, I’m not going to do it for you.”
“Are you sure you want to turn back?” Clint asks mildly. “I thought you were enjoying your new... tracts of land.”
“Fuck no,” Tony says. “I miss my dick and these boobs are going to play merry hell with the aerodynamics of the Iron Man suit if I have to alter the chest piece.”
Steve removes his hands from Loki’s ears, glaring at Tony. “Don’t repeat anything Tony ever says, Loki.”
“I know what boobs are,” Loki pouts. “A boob is an idiot. I am not a child.”
“Still, it’s... not a nice word,” Steve says weakly, goggling.
“Do you think you’ll be able to fix Captain Rogers next?” Coulson asks, undistracted as ever by their shenanigans.
Loki nods. “Probably. Returning Bruce and Natasha to their proper bodies would be next in terms of simplicity because it is mostly a question of breaking the magical ties holding them in place and allowing their consciousnesses to return to the appropriate vessels. But as long as Tony’s attempt is successful and I have a little time in between to alter the basic spell, I do not think it should be a problem to proceed on to Steve.”
Coulson nods. “Mr. Stark followed by Captain Rogers it is, then.”
“And then Thor?” Loki asks hopefully.
Clint, Bruce, and Steve all twitch guiltily, but Coulson’s expression doesn’t change. “If you wouldn’t mind, I would like to get Agent Romanov and Doctor Banner back in their respective bodies before there is another accident,” he says. “But then you can wake Thor.”
Loki nods, disappointed. “I see your reasoning,” he says. Everyone around the table starts breathing again. Thor would probably understand the necessity of continuing the we’re-all-friends-here charade, but the one thing the big guy’s never been is subtle. Clint and Tony had tried once to teach him to play poker and the results had been farcical.
Granted, Thor’s probably the best one to decide about what to do with Loki now that his return to his usual age and sociopathic mentality is an option, but the nastily practical side of Clint knows that it’s best to get Loki to fix as much as possible before they even have to face up to that. Maybe if the device had an unfortunate accident before Loki could alter his age? But no, Loki had said it was far easier to perform magic on himself than on someone else. He might not even need the device to do it, and in any case it would just be another delaying tactic. Loki’s going to find out eventually - the best they can hope for is a little control over when and how.
Clint scowls. Making the best of a bad set of options is hardly new to him in his line of work, and he can already feel his mind hardening in preparation. He doesn’t like it.
The meeting breaks up. Loki follows Clint into the kitchen and leans up against Clint’s leg as he gets himself a glass of water.
“What’s up, kiddo? You worried?”
“A little,” Loki admits quietly. “I... do not wish to... I am very good at magic, my tutors have said so and I already teach myself things from Asgard’s library that they cannot do themselves, but I... worry. Whoever made that device had a very devious mind. I am concerned that mine is not devious enough.”
“You think it might be booby-trapped?” Clint asks, frowning.
“No,” Loki says. “No. I just... worry.”
Clint threads his fingers through Loki’s hair. He leans into the touch. “Tell you what, why don’t you go sit in the living room and I’ll make us some hot chocolate?” It’s maybe a little late to give Loki sugar, but he seems to burn through it really freaking fast so it probably won’t be a problem. Loki can just give Steve puppy eyes if he protests.
“Hot chocolate?” Loki asks curiously.
“Never had it? Well, we’ll have to fix that!” Clint says, smiling. “Go sit in the living room. I’ll be out in a moment.”
When he’s gone, Bruce comes out from where he’d been lurking behind the corner of the refrigerator.
“Natasha’s a lot more stealthy in that body,” Clint remarks.
“And able to walk in heels without killing herself,” Bruce agrees. “We need to come up with some kind of plan.”
Clint sighs. “I know.”
“I don’t want to think about it either - “
“I know. Look, we can grab Steve after Loki’s in bed - “
The lights flicker. Clint scowls. “If Tony blows out the power grid again Coulson’s going to - “
“He’s still in the conference room,” Bruce says frowning. “It’s not him.”
The flickering gets worse. A lightbulb pops.
A few more lights blow and then the power goes completely. In the dimming light Clint can see sparks dancing across the surface of the walls and the floor. Green sparks.
“Shit,” Bruce says with feeling. They run for the living room.
Clint makes it first. Loki’s sitting on the floor with his back pressed up against the couch, surrounded by a steadily darkening nimbus of green energy. Bruce’s laptop is open in front of him, playing a video.
“ - not my brother!” Thor’s tinny voice says over the laptop’s speakers, and oh, Clint remembers that fight. It had been the anniversary of something Thor refused to talk about. Loki had started making his usual trouble, and instead of letting it slide off his back like normal Thor had finally lost his temper. The fight had eventually ended in a draw when both Thor and Loki were too furious to aim and the collateral damage had been staggering.
Tony pushes past Clint and Bruce and slams the laptop shut, silencing it.
“Loki - “
“You lied,” Loki says. “He hates me. You lied.”
Clint comes around the edge of the couch. “Kiddo - “
“Don’t!” Loki snaps. He’s on his feet now - Clint’s not sure how, because he didn’t really seem to move. “You lied.”
The green sparks are getting bigger. “Loki, I need you to calm down. Let me explain.”
“No!” Something shatters. “He hates me! You said we were friends! You all hate me!” Loki’s hovering now, the dark green energy whipping around him and holding him at eye level.
“No, Loki - “
A burst of energy throws them all back. Clint hits the entertainment center and goes down in a shower of plastic shards and DVD cases. By the time he gets himself upright Loki’s gone, leaving shattered glass and a scorch mark behind on the living room floor.
“Jarvis says he teleported,” Tony reports, holding an ice pack to his shoulder. “Did we know he could still do that?”
Bruce sighs. “I’d be surprised if Loki knew he could do that. If I had to guess I’d say he was running on pure instinct. I should never have showed him how to use the internet. I should have known he would want to look his brother up.”
“God, this is a mess,” Steve says sadly. He doesn’t mean the mansion and Clint agrees with him wholeheartedly. The fact that he can’t think of any other way they could have handled this whole shit-show doesn’t make him feel even remotely less like a heartless sadist. “It’s not your fault, Bruce. Can Jarvis tell where he went?”
Tony shakes his head. “I’ve never been able to track him when he does that. Trust me, I’ve been trying for years.”
“He must be really scared,” Bruce says hollowly. Clint closes his eyes. He doesn’t want to think about that. He doesn’t want to think about the way Loki held onto him when he got upset or the way he’d tried so hard to help them and how he’s probably all alone right now. He doesn’t want to think about how much Loki had trusted them.
“Where would he have gone?” Steve asks. “Maybe the library? He liked the library.”
Loki had said he read books when he had nightmares, Clint remembers. The library would probably be comforting for him.
“Could he make it back to Asgard?” Tony asks. “I mean, that’s home. If he’s scared he’d want home and his mom, right? That’s what normal kids do?”
Clint doubts that Loki would go there, even in the unlikely event that he has the power to make it that far. No. Loki had left angry and he’s been on his own for about half an hour now. If it were Clint, the last thing he’d want to do is go find someone else he trusted implicitly in case it was only to find out they’d betrayed him as well.
“Or Thor,” Steve says. “But now he thinks Thor hates him.”
“Jarvis says he’s not in the building.”
“Maybe the playground,” Bruce suggests. “Clint said he didn’t like it much, though.”
He hadn’t, at first. He’d enjoyed it eventually, after he’d gotten the other kids to play his game, but then that had soured for him as well.
Actually, the playground sounds perfect. It’s already been ruined - how could anything spoil it further?
“I’m going out,” Clint says abruptly. Steve calls after him but lets him go when he doesn’t turn back.
The playground is fenced off with caution tape. The tire swing’s been taken down from on top of the castle, but it hasn’t been reassembled yet and the bridge is still broken. In addition half the castle is now charred and smoking, and the slide has been neatly punctured by the fireman’s pole. Loki had definitely arrived angry.
Clint finally spots him perched on top of the monkey bars, arms around his knees, rocking himself gently back and forth. He doesn’t seem to notice at first when Clint climbs up level with him.
“Loki, kiddo, I want to explain - “
“Don’t call me names as if you like me!” Loki says shrilly, scrubbing at his cheeks with both hands. It’s clear he’s been crying pretty hard.
“I’m so sorry,” Clint says helplessly. When he’d left the mansion he’d been thinking that Loki probably wouldn’t want a whole bunch of people to see him upset. Now he’s wishing he’d brought somebody who was better with words. “We’re all really, really sorry.”
Loki turns his face away. “I don’t care.”
“The way we saw it,” Clint says slowly. “The way we saw it, there was no good way to get out of this. Thor hit the device with Mjolnir, and all of a sudden instead of Thor’s angry brother we’d never known that well we had this smart, funny little kid that we all actually liked. At first we thought it would be too complicated to explain and then later, when we saw how much you loved Thor, we knew it would break your heart to find out you’d been fighting. We knew... we knew the truth was going to come out eventually, but we liked you so much, Loki. We liked you so much that we wanted to save you from that heartbreak as long as we could, and then it blew up in your face. And that’s not fair, because you haven’t done anything to deserve it. You’re just a kid who loves his brother.”
Loki presses his face into his knees to muffle a sob. Clint eases forward and puts a hand on Loki’s foot, the only part of him he can easily reach.
“It’s not fair!” Loki wails.
“It really isn’t,” Clint agrees.
“I don’t even know what I did wrong!”
“Hey,” Clint says sharply. “Look at me. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“To Thor!” Loki sobs. “As a big person! What did I do? Why does he hate me?”
“He doesn’t,” Clint says. “No, Loki, really he doesn’t,” he insists when Loki scoffs. “You saw one fight and yeah, it was bad, and both of you said a lot of really horrible things but you’ve got to understand that was really unusual. Thor was upset about something else that day - he never loses it at you like that normally. All we ever hear about you from him is how smart you are, and how much he loves you, and all the adventures you two used to have together. He loves you, Loki. That video you saw was him on a bad day.”
Loki sniffles and scrubs at his face with his sleeve. “He doesn’t like me now, though. I’m too little and I’m too weird. Why would he ever like me? What did I do?”
Clint sighs. “I’ve got to be honest, Loki, I don’t know that much about it. I know you guys were really close for a long time and I know something happened to put you on opposite sides, but I don’t know how any of that fell out.”
Loki finally makes eye contact. He looks exhausted and beyond miserable. “The adult me is a villain, isn’t he?”
“Thor always says we just can’t understand what you’ve been through.”
“I made that device. The broken one. Whoever made it was really angry.”
“The adult version of you made it, yeah.”
Loki nods, either accepting this or too emotionally overwhelmed to take anything else in. “A lot of things make more sense now.”
“Yeah?” Clint says cautiously.
“I have been calling for Heimdall to open the Bifrost and bring us home since the fight in the street,” Loki says tiredly. “Heimdall does things for his own reasons, always, so I thought he must have some sort of plan. But it is because it was me asking.”
“I don’t know enough about Heimdall to answer that, I’m afraid,” Clint says softly. “It could be that he thought here would be better for you than there.”
“Or that he was afraid I would try to destroy everything,” Loki says dully. “I think I want to get down now.”
“Okay.” Clint holds out his arms and is relieved beyond measure when Loki scoots to the edge of the structure and tumbles into them. He has no right to want Loki’s affections back, he knows that none of them have particularly earned it, but God. He hadn’t expected the fallout to be this painful. “Want to go home?”
“Okay,” Loki says, burying his face against Clint’s shoulder. “Did I hurt anyone when I lost my temper?”
“No, we’re all fine. Some of the furniture got a little busted up, but honestly, that happens so often we don’t even notice any more.”
Loki nods. “Clint?”
“Please don’t lie to me any more.”
Clint sucks in a breath. “I promise that if there’s something I can’t tell you, I’ll tell you that instead of trying to make something up.” It’s not exactly the same as not lying to Loki, but in the lives they lead making a promise to never lie is frankly dangerous.
“Good. We really don’t care about the furniture.”
Loki doesn’t laugh, but he doesn’t pull away either. Clint’s willing to take what he can get.
They’re both silent for the trip home, Loki lying limp and heavy against Clint and Clint trying to walk as smoothly and softly as possible, which given his profession and experience is pretty damn smooth. Loki rouses himself enough to get tense as they near the kitchen and hear the others’ voices - Tony’s saying something about lojacking every member of the team, which Clint makes a note to thoroughly discourage later - so Clint just sticks his head in and says “I’m taking Loki down to his room. I’ll see you later.”
The looks of surprise on everyone’s faces are pretty good, even if Clint’s feeling too depressed to really enjoy it.
Loki relaxes as soon as they get away from the others, but as Clint helps him get ready for bed he locks up a second time.
“What’s wrong, kiddo?”
Loki looks close to crying again. “It is nothing. I am fine.”
Clint crouches down. “You want me to stay with you?”
Loki’s face crumples. He nods.
“Okay. Here, lie down. I’ll rub your back.”
The emotional turmoil and heavy expenditure of magic knock him out pretty fast. Clint waits until he’s sure Loki’s out cold and then he pulls out his phone and texts Tony, the only one who reliably carries his cell phone.
L asleep. Upset but ok.
He barely has to wait at all before the phone buzzes in his hand.
Where was he? Can you come up and debrief?
The complete sentences and reliable punctuation indicate Steve has taken the phone from Tony. Clint spares a moment to wonder what Tony would have said - popular culture has yet to designate an emoticon for sarcasm but Tony seems to communicate pretty well without it.
Playground, Clint explains. Repairs needed. Staying here. See you in AM.
He tucks the phone away and moves himself onto the floor. It’ll be more comfortable in the long run, he’ll still be close enough to hear Loki if he gets upset during the night, and most importantly he’ll save himself from the indignity of photographs in the morning.
He only wakes up once, somewhere around two AM, when Loki drags his blanket onto the floor and starts using Clint as a pillow. It’s too much effort to move him back onto the bed, so Clint gives in and goes back to sleep. Bruce probably feels too guilty about the blowup last night to sneak in with a camera anyway.
The next morning Loki is understandably subdued, but they all treat him gently and apologize a lot and by midmorning he’s able to make eye contact again. Bruce spends about half an hour talking earnestly with him while Steve and Clint hover nervously in the background and pretend to discuss strategy, and afterwards Loki smiles at them. It’s a little sad to see the degree of relief on the faces of America’s toughest superhero team at such a small gesture, but at least no one has it recorded for blackmail later.
Unexpectedly, it’s Tony who delivers the coup de grace. He shows up smelling faintly of ozone with a tiny Mjolnir for Loki’s Thor action figure that shoots real electricity. Loki is delighted with it and doesn’t even notice when Steve pulls Tony aside to explain in detail that it’s a bad idea to give children working tasers. No one has the heart to confiscate it, though.
“Well,” Loki says finally, looking pale and determined. “I suppose it is time to attempt to change Tony back, then.”
The tactician in Clint thinks Hell yes, it’s about damn time. The softer, squishier part of him worries that Loki’s understandably still upset about last night and argues that it can’t hurt to give him a day or two to regain some equilibrium. Fortunately, Steve’s the one actually in charge, so once everyone is awake and caffeinated they go down to the sterile strongroom next to Bruce’s lab.
Only Loki, Tony, and the device are allowed into the room. Steve had pointed out the necessity of not allowing a further magical catastrophe to wreak havoc on the team, no matter how beseechingly Loki looked at Clint as he went in. Steve, Bruce, Clint, and Coulson duly crowd into an observation booth with, Clint grudgingly admits, extremely high-quality audio-visual equipment in addition to the large one-way window.
“Okay,” Tony says with the insouciant bravado that all of them know means he’s worried. “You want me to do something special? Chant or light candles or stand on my head or something?”
“No?” Loki says, confused. “I may need to touch you but the rest is unnecessary. Unless you’d like a candle?” He adds, clearly trying to be understanding.
“Nah,” Tony says. “I can never decide what scent to go with. Too confusing.”
From the look on Loki’s face, scented candles aren’t an Asgardian thing. “Very well,” he says. “Stand there, please.”
Loki positions Tony next to the table with the device. “First I will lay the groundwork for the spell,” he explains. “Then I will reach out and take your hand and attempt to bring the device’s energy through myself and into you. If all goes well you will then revert back to your original gender. There should be no pain, although it may feel unusual. Also, the air around us will begin to distort - you may wish to close your eyes if it becomes too disorientating.”
Tony nods. “Got it.”
“All right. I will begin.”
Loki closes his eyes and concentrates. After a moment Clint starts to see the hot-air reality-warp from Loki’s shapeshifting the day before. It builds much more slowly this time, and the shimmer of it seems somehow more regulated. Tony looks like he’s about to have a coronary.
Loki sucks in a deep breath and the shimmer solidifies, nearly hiding him from view. He reaches out one hand and takes Tony’s, who twitches but holds his ground. The shimmer extends up Tony’s arm, fading out at his bicep. Loki reaches out the other hand towards the device, stopping just short of touching it.
The device begins to put off a poisonous green glow. Clint has to grab the edge of the observation window to keep himself from going into the room as the sight of it triggers some primal not good response deep in his hindbrain. Beside him Steve grabs his arm, obviously feeling the same way. Even Coulson twitches slightly.
The glow extends to meet the palm of Loki’s hand. Loki flinches but holds steady, and a moment later a pure-white pulse travels up his arm and down the other. When it hits Tony, there’s an incandescent flash and the whumph feeling from before, magnified enough that Clint can feel it from behind the window. The onlookers curse and look away, shielding their eyes.
The flash dies down as quickly as it had come. Clint straightens, blinking spots from his vision.
Tony and Loki are standing in almost the exact same positions as before, except that Loki has taken his hand away from the device and Tony is back to his old bearded glory.
“Oh, thank God,” Tony rasps, staring down at himself in undisguised relief. “I have never been so glad to have a - “
“Tony!” Steve says sharply over the intercom.
“ - magic user as a friend in my life,” Tony redirects smoothly. He frowns. “Loki? Hey, kid, you okay?”
As soon as Clint sees the concern on Tony’s face he starts moving, shoving past Coulson and out the door. He barges into the containment cell just in time to lunge for Loki as he crumples.
Tony goes for Loki at the exact same time, with the end result that he and Clint crack heads painfully but successfully keep Loki from hitting the ground. Loki blinks woozily up at them.
“Did you teleport?” He asks, clearly impressed.
“Damn near,” Clint mutters, heart (and head) pounding. “Tell me how you’re feeling, kid.”
“A little dizzy,” Loki admits. “My hand feels weird. I don’t like that device.”
Clint takes Loki’s hand in his own - it’s ice cold nearly up to his elbow. “All right, I’m taking you to get checked out,” he says, gathering Loki up.
Loki’s head lolls against his shoulder. “Did it work?”
“Yep. You did good. Give me five.” Loki beams, tangling his fingers in the front of Clint’s shirt, and misses completely when he tries to give Clint five.
Steve, Bruce, and Coulson meet them at the door, Steve and Bruce crowding forward and Coulson hanging back with his hands in his pockets.
“Is he okay?” Bruce asks anxiously.
“Says he’s dizzy. I’m taking him down to medical.”
“Good,” Coulson says. “While they’re checking him out you and I can have a little talk about containment procedures.” Clint rolls his eyes. Coulson gives him one of those looks, the ones that make him wonder if Coulson is secretly related to his long-ago kindergarten teacher. Damn, that woman could glare.
“I turned Tony into a man again,” Loki tells Steve conspiratorially. “I figured it out all by myself.”
Steve hides a laugh. “Say, you must be pretty smart.”
Loki nods. “Mm-hm. You will let me know if it wears off, yes?”
“What?!” Tony yelps from behind them. Loki giggles.
They get Loki settled on a cot next to Thor, and then Clint is persuaded to back off enough for the medical staff to get a look at him. Loki seems bemused but unperturbed by the attention, answering all their questions with a degree of grave seriousness that tells Clint he’s humoring them.
Clint’s just glad he’s answering. Clint’s just glad he’s conscious. When he’d fallen in the containment room...
Well. Clint’s still not sure he actually didn’t teleport. The time between Tony registering concern and Loki blinking up at them is a little bit jumbled in Clint’s mind.
“Hey.” Steve’s hand on his arm jogs him out of his thoughts. “There’s a situation downtown. You and Tony need to go check it out.”
“Now?” Clint demands, poleaxed.
Steve’s expression is sympathetic, but his eyes are commander-cool. He’ll make this an order if he has to. “Yeah. I’m sorry - it looks like it’s another one of those robot things. You and Tony are still the only two active-duty Avengers we’ve got.”
Tony scowls. “We’re not paying SHIELD enough if they haven’t zeroed in on Mister Roboto yet.”
“Technically, they’re paying us,” Bruce points out. “We’ll keep an eye on Loki and we’ll give you updates as soon as we hear anything. I personally promise to be very annoying to the medical staff.”
Clint glances at the bed. They’re taking Loki’s blood pressure, which Loki seems to think is both hilarious and fascinating. It’s a welcome sight after the emotional pyrotechnics of the night before.
“I - okay,” he says reluctantly. Save the world, protect innocents, etc. etc. It’s not like he has a medical degree or anything, he can’t actually technically help here. “As soon as you hear something - “
“We’ll tell you,” Bruce promises again.
“If he gets scared - “
“I’ll tell him it was my fault for sending you away,” Steve says. That hadn’t been exactly what Clint meant but... No. That’s good. Loki should know he hadn’t wanted to leave.
Clint nods, and goes. If he’s focused and on his game, he can be back pretty quickly. And it will be better for the innocent bystanders. That too, of course. Avengers assemble.
The fight is over pretty quickly, and Bruce lets them know pretty fast that Loki’s going to be fine, but the cleanup seems to take forever. Tony immediately takes off his helmet to sign autographs and show off the return of his manly bone structure, which should thrill Coulson, but Clint focuses on getting everything set to rights as quickly as possible. The cops helping them are just starting to look daggers at him to his face as well as behind his back when Tony saunters over and says loudly, “Cap, put Junior on, will you? Hawkeye’s freaking out.” He turns to the nearest cop, a stocky older man with a wedding ring, and says “You’re a parent, right? You know how it goes.”
Clint scowls, but the cop’s expression immediately clears in understanding and the next second Loki’s voice says over the communicator, “Hello? St- the Captain says I am only to address you as ‘Hawkeye’ over this device. Hawkeye, can you hear me?”
Clint grins in what he distantly knows is a really embarrassing way. One of the firemen nearby snickers. “Loud and clear, kid. How’re you feeling?”
“Better,” Loki says. “I ate some soup and drank some juice and I am much improved. The healers said my dizziness was due to low blood sugar, low blood pressure, dehydration, and an... electrolyte imbalance.” He pronounces the last phrase very carefully. “I am assured that means essentially the same thing as ‘overexertion’, which is what I diagnosed myself with initially.”
Clint smiles at the exasperated tone. “I bet you did. It’s good to hear you’re okay now, though. Watching you fall over was pretty scary.”
“Oh,” Loki says, a little surprised. “I did not consider that. I am sorry to have caused you distress.”
“‘Sokay, kiddo.” Clint says and changes the subject, suddenly uncomfortable. “So what kind of juice did you get?”
“It is called ‘Gatorade’,” Loki says agreeably. “It has an alarming color but is reasonably flavorful. What fruit is it made from?”
“It’s made from gators,” Tony chips in. “Alligators. They’re lizards.”
“How... unique,” Loki says politely, sounding remarkably less enthusiastic.
Clint makes a face at Tony. “Iron Man’s pulling your leg, kid. It’s not made from lizards.”
Loki laughs. “Was that for my joke earlier? It was well done, Man of Iron.”
“Thanks, kid,” Tony says, smirking. “Next time say ‘well played’.”
“Well played, Man of Iron,” Loki says obediently. “I must go now. I am being allowed to return to my room.”
“Take care, kiddo,” Clint says, rolling his eyes at Tony.
“He catch that flu bug that’s going around?” the cop says sympathetically when Clint returns. “Mine came down with it last week. Nothing as pitiful as a sick kid.”
“Nah, it’s another thing,” Clint says. “But yeah, I know what you mean.”
The rest of the cleanup goes much faster for some reason, and pretty soon Clint and Tony feel they can leave in good conscience, i.e. in Steve’s good conscience. The cop even claps Clint on the shoulder as they go, which is a first. The relationship between the Avengers and local law enforcement isn’t strained so much as it is delicately balanced; on the one hand, it’s nice for the NYPD to be able to send someone else in to deal with ludicrous threats, but on the other there’s almost always some degree of collateral damage afterwards. Some of Tony’s less sensitive jokes have also not been a big help.
“So, you’re taking this fatherhood thing well,” Tony says.
Clint sighs, exasperated. “Okay, enough. Bite me, Stark.”
“Older brotherhood, then. Cool uncle-ship,” Tony says, and Clint realises with a certain degree of horror that Tony’s being serious. “You know I ran away from home, once?” Tony continues, talking fast in that way that means he wants to say something but isn’t sure he wants the other person to hear him when he does it. “I was like, maybe ten. My mom was out of town and my dad didn’t notice until my school called to ask why I’d missed two days of classes, and then he sent the chauffeur to go look for me. You found Loki in under an hour. That’s good.”
“Thanks,” Clint manages. “My parents died when I was a kid. Nobody would have been looking for me either.” He’s not sure why he says it - their team is generally scrupulously careful about not prying into certain areas of each other’s lives. Even Tony has lines he won’t cross, although they tend to be well past everyone else’s.
Tony flashes him a quick grin. “Well, maybe all of us put together will make one good parent, who knows?”
Clint nods slowly, apprehension dawning. “This is going to be super awkward when Thor wakes up, isn’t it.”
“Oooh,” Tony says. “Yikes. I hadn’t thought of that.” He whacks Clint on the shoulder. “Well, see you back at the mansion!”
“Asshole,” Clint mutters resignedly.
Clint’s on his feet and out the bedroom door before he wakes up enough to realise he can hear Loki screaming. He slams through Loki’s door with enough force to bounce it off the wall.
Loki sits up as Clint gets to the bed and bursts into tears, reaching out for him. Clint picks him up and he burrows into Clint’s chest, clinging desperately.
The door hits the wall a second time as Tony and Bruce crash in, followed closely by Steve lugging his shield.
“It’s okay,” Clint says over Loki’s hysterical crying. “It was nightmare-screaming, not being-murdered-screaming.”
Tony sags theatrically. “Jesus, my heart. My adrenal glands.”
Loki wails and tries to cling harder, so Clint tucks Loki’s head securely under his chin and hugs him as tightly as he can without hurting him. The reinforced embrace seems to help - the edge of hysteria in Loki’s voice softens a little bit and Clint can start to make out some words here and there, mostly ‘Thor’ and ‘sorry’ but it’s pretty easy to fill in the rest.
Bruce’s face twists in sympathy. “I guess it was just a matter of time, huh?” He grabs the blanket at the foot of Loki’s bed and tucks it gently around them both, building a shield between Loki and the rest of the world. Loki’s grip on Clint relaxes a fraction and Clint gives Bruce an encouraging smile as thanks.
“Do you need anything?” Steve asks from the doorway. Tony’s already vanished.
Clint shakes his head. “I think we’re okay. Sorry to get you all up.”
“We can count it as the bi-weekly surprise drill,” Steve says, shrugging.
Bruce steps back reluctantly. “I’ll get your phone from your room so you can call us if you need help,” he says. “And I’ll put a glass of water on the bedside table - crying that much is very dehydrating.”
“That’s a good idea. Thanks, Bruce.”
Once the others have gone (Steve has to tug the doorknob free from the plaster wall in order to shut the door - after the second violent opening it’s probably a miracle the thing’s even still on its hinges), Clint shifts until he’s leaning against Loki’s headboard. It takes a while but Loki’s tears eventually fade to exhausted whimpers and Clint gets him to drink a little water. He doesn’t say anything and only the way he reaches up occasionally as if to make sure Clint’s still there indicates he’s even aware of Clint’s presence.
Loki has another nightmare a few hours later, but doesn’t wake fully and calms down when Clint makes soothing noises and rubs his back. Clint wakes up the next morning still leaning against the headboard, his neck in agony and his spine apparently fused. Loki is drooling into his shirtfront, totally wiped out. Clint leans them both over sideways until he’s more or less horizontal and falls asleep again.
The next time he regains consciousness Loki’s woken up too, although he’s still curled up in Clint’s arms. One of his knees is doing something unfortunate to Clint’s intestines.
“Morning, kid,” Clint rasps.
“Good morning,” Loki says to Clint’s sternum.
“How’re you feeling?”
“I’m fine please don’t tell Thor I was scared,” Loki says, and buries his face in the blankets.
Clint pets the back of Loki’s head with one hand. “We all have bad dreams, kiddo, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We won’t tell him if you don’t want us to.”
Loki nods but doesn’t raise his head.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“That’s okay, you don’t have to. Do you want breakfast?”
“Do you... want an elephant?”
There’s a pause, and then Loki cautiously raises his head. “Are you being ridiculous on purpose or is that an honest question?”
Clint regards him seriously. “I am without a doubt being extremely ridiculous.”
“Okay.” Loki rests his head back on Clint’s arm. “I want to... I want to not be brave,” he says quietly, picking at the edge of the blanket.
Clint pets his head again. “What do you mean, kiddo?”
“I...” Loki makes a face. “...It is nothing. I am speaking nonsense.”
Clint frowns. “Are you worried about trying to change Steve back? Did something happen with the device that you haven’t told us?”
“No, no,” Loki says, patting him comfortingly on the chest. “It is just a feeling. Pay it no mind. I think I would like breakfast now.”
Clint lets it go, but he takes Steve aside at the first opportunity and tells him about the conversation.
Steve thinks it over for a long moment. “I wish he’d said something more concrete,” he says finally. “I think we’re just going to have to be more on our guard. Unless he tells us something we can work with or gets a more specific feeling, there’s nothing we can really do.”
Clint sighs. “Yeah, I know.”
Steve pats him kindly on the arm. “I know you’re worried, Clint. We’re just going to have to trust that Loki knows what he’s doing. So far that certainly seems to be the case.”
They gather in the containment room as before, watching nervously as Steve and Loki enter. This time Loki positions them both well away from the device, explaining carefully to Steve that he has a better handle on the spell and can more easily locate the device’s energy now that he’s done it once.
“When we change Bruce and Natasha back I may not even need the device to be in the same room as the two of them,” Loki says brightly. “Which will be helpful considering Natasha’s current condition.”
“That’s great, Loki,” Steve says, sounding genuinely impressed.
The nauseating shimmer builds more quickly this time, and spreads to cover Loki and all of Steve without any physical contact between them. The device’s ugly green glow is also larger, but Loki and Steve are far enough away from it that Clint is able to restrain himself from rushing into the containment room to protect them.
“Christ, that thing gives me the heebie-jeebies,” Tony says with feeling.
The white flash passes so quickly over Loki that Clint almost misses it, which is all right because when it hits Steve it’s so bright Clint almost feels it as a physical blow. They all duck and cover, swearing. When Clint stands back up Captain America is in the containment room, his hand on Loki’s shoulder, once more towering over everything. Loki wobbles and has to sit down but otherwise seems fine.
Because of that, Clint is able to make a significantly more dignified entrance into the containment room, and even manages to look like he wasn’t just seriously freaking out inside a minute ago. He crouches down by Loki.
“Good job, kid,” he says. “How are you feeling?”
Loki blinks, confused. “I feel... a little strange...” he sways, and an expression of pure malice crosses his face.
“Well,” he hisses. “Is this not interesting?”
The hair on the back of Clint’s neck stands up and he jerks back instinctively. The next instant Loki sways and blinks again.
“Did it work?” he asks, confused by the horrified look on Clint’s face. “Did I do it?”
They park Loki on the couch with Gatorade and a sandwich and retreat to the hallway, where they can keep an eye on him and talk without being overheard as long as they’re quiet.
“Are you sure?” Bruce asks for the tenth time.
“Yes,” Clint says, irritated. “Rewind the security footage if you want. That expression wasn’t a kid-Loki look, it was straight-up adult-Loki. Between that and the nightmare marathon I think it’s safe to say the device’s bringing him out. We can’t let him use it any more.”
Bruce’s face falls. “I don’t know if we can pin the nightmares on the device,” he says quietly. “But I don’t think we can risk it.”
“We have to,” Steve says. “We need Thor.”
Clint glares. Only the thought of Loki in the living room keeps him from shouting. “The Avengers are not more important than Loki’s sanity,” he bites out.
Steve holds up his hands placatingly. “I’m sorry. I know how that sounded but you misunderstand me. If adult Loki takes over, Thor’s the only chance we’ve got to stop him. If adult Loki doesn’t get any further than he is already, we’ll need Asgardian magic to reverse his progress and fix the rest of us, and for that - “
“We also need Thor,” Clint finishes with him, shoulders slumping.
“Catch-22,” Tony says quietly. “To keep adult Loki at bay we need Thor, and getting Thor will bring him further out. We think.”
“You said you don’t think Loki knows what’s happening?” Bruce asks. Clint nods. “Then the other question is: what do we tell him? He’s going to know something’s up when we ask him to fix Thor instead of me and Natasha.”
“Don’t tell him anything yet,” Steve says immediately. “He was pushing for Thor to be woken up next so he may not think anything of it. We don’t want to scare him and we don’t want adult-Loki to know we’re on to him. He hasn’t tried to use his magic against us but if he feels threatened it’s the first thing he’ll do.”
“I promised not to lie to him,” Clint says dully.
Steve’s face twists in sympathy. “You go out on patrol,” he says kindly. “The rest of us will keep an eye on Loki. We’ll let you know if anything happens.”
It’s the smart choice, but it makes Clint feel like he’s abandoning Loki to ease his own conscience. He shakes his head.
“I’ll stick it out. I won’t say anything.”
“Movies,” Tony says.
“We can show him movies all day,” Tony explains. “He has to rest up anyway and there will be fewer opportunities for one of us to accidentally blow this thing sky-high. Hell, it’s a Midgardian tradition for sick days, right? That even makes it educational.”
“Good idea,” Steve says approvingly.
Loki is delighted by the idea, although Clint strongly suspects it’s more because he’ll get to spend the whole day with all of them than because he knows anything about movies. He sits dutifully through the first Lord of the Rings (Thor’s) and is enraptured by Star Wars (Tony’s).
“What do you say?” Tony quizzes him.
“May the Force be with you.”
“Han shot first! Give me five!”
After Star Wars, Steve and Bruce get into a fight over Indiana Jones versus Jurassic Park, with Tony throwing in inflammatory comments whenever the debate looks like it’s starting to wind down. It’s actually a pretty fun day, and the kind of team bonding experience Steve would have killed for in the early days of their attempts to get along. If it weren’t for the way Clint keeps glancing over to see Loki looking back at him with a cold, calculating expression, it would be damn near perfect.
He’s pretty sure he mostly manages to keep a neutral expression on his face when Loki sees him watching, and since adult-Loki doesn’t make a more obvious appearance he guesses it’s worked. It’s a little bit of a relief when Tony and Steve are called out to deal with another robot occurrence, leaving Bruce and Jurassic Park victorious.
Unfortunately, instead of being inconvenienced by whatever SHIELD’s been doing to find him, whoever’s behind the robots has been encouraged to make the biggest one yet. After Tony and Steve arrive on the scene, they’re forced to call in Clint too. Coulson comes over to give Bruce backup, which only makes Clint feel a little bit better about leaving him alone with Loki.
It takes them quite a while to bring the robot down, and Clint knows he’s not the only one missing Thor and the Hulk. By some miracle they manage to force it into the Hudson, which slows it down and reduces the collateral damage somewhat, and then a combination of repulsor blasts and explosive arrows makes enough of a dent in the thing’s helmet for Cap’s shield to decapitate it.
Of course, then it collapses into the water and the resulting electric shock shorts out one of Tony’s boot repulsors and kills every fish within thirty yards. The environmentalists are going to have a field day with them in the morning.
They make it back to the mansion to find Bruce and, hilariously, Coulson getting Loki ready for bed. Coulson is solemnly helping Loki choose between his Thor and Avengers pajamas (with the eventual decision to wear the shirt from one with the pants from the other) and Bruce is in the kitchen, making hot chocolate and looking like he’s trying not to hyperventilate.
“Adult Loki came out a little more after Clint left,” he explains, nearly dropping a mug. “I mean, I think it was him. I’m pretty certain. Kid Loki’s never weirded me out like that before.”
“Bruce, breathe,” Clint says, not unkindly. Bruce sets the mug down.
“Sorry. I guess it rattled me more than I was expecting.”
Loki bounces into the kitchen in his mismatched pajamas and tucks his hand into Clint’s. “Bruce says we can watch part of a movie while we have hot chocolate and then it’s time for bed.” He tugs on Clint’s hand until Clint leans down. “Would you... would it be okay if... would you have to tell Thor if I didn’t want to sleep by myself tonight?” he asks in a small voice.
Clint freezes up completely.
“Team sleepover,” Tony says quickly. “Midgardian tradition. Everyone in the living room in jammies in ten!”
Loki cheers, immediately reassured, and goes off to collect the blanket and pillow from his room. Clint shoots Tony a grateful look. Tony retaliates by dumping bourbon in both of their hot chocolates.
Loki has a few nightmares that night, and by morning has migrated from being tucked up next to Bruce to using Clint’s chest as a mattress, but on the whole it goes more smoothly than Clint was expecting. He’s pretty sure he wasn’t the only Avenger who spent the whole night wide awake and adrenalized.
Of course, after breakfast Loki announces he’s ready to try switching Bruce and Natasha, and the whole charade falls apart.
“Actually, we decided to do Thor first and Bruce and Natasha tomorrow,” Steve says casually. “Do you need to make any alterations to the spell?”
Loki looks panicked. “No, no major ones, but - I am unprepared. I, I do not think Thor would be the best choice right now. I had thought the son of Coul wanted to minimize the possibility of an accident, surely Thor can wait?”
“I thought you were looking forward to waking Thor up,” Steve says, confused.
Loki looks between them apprehensively. “You - you do not think he will be upset with me? For the trouble I have caused?”
“Oh,” Clint says, realisation dawning. He feels like an idiot - of course Loki would be nervous. “No, kiddo, remember we talked about how Thor loves you and none of this was your fault?”
Loki glances up at him and away. “I remember.” He tries for a smile. “Of course, you are right. You know him better than I. We shall wake Thor first.” His expression becomes suddenly thoughtful. “Has something happened to make you want Thor now?”
“No,” Clint says, and Loki’s eyes narrow.
“You promised,” he says.
Clint casts a desperate look at Steve. Steve shakes his head. Clint glares. Steve scowls and puts his hands up, giving in.
“Yeah, kiddo, something happened,” Clint says. “I can’t tell you what, but we really need Thor right now.”
Loki looks away. “Is it... something to do with the device?”
Clint frowns. “Why? Have you noticed something?”
Loki becomes very interested in the coffee table. “I am just curious if you have noticed something.”
An icy feeling takes root in Clint’s stomach. “Loki, yesterday when you said you wanted to not be brave, what did you mean exactly?”
Loki bites his lip.
“Loki, did you know something was going to happen if you used the device?”
“I... can feel him. In my head,” Loki says finally, in a small, strangled voice. “He gives me the nightmares. He is very angry and, and the device makes him stronger.”
Clint stares, horrified. “Loki, why didn’t you tell us? We could have figured something else out.”
“It is my responsibility,” Loki says, shrugging uncomfortably. “I may not remember it, but I caused this mishap in the first place. It is my responsibility to fix it.”
Steve looks just as appalled. “You’re a child, Loki,” he says softly. “It’s our responsibility to protect you, no matter what.”
“I - “ Loki clenches his fists. “I - wanted to. I wanted to prove, I wanted to do what that other me would not. I am not him, I do not wish to become him, I am me and I want to help - “ he gives a full-body shudder and goes still. “How pathetic. I cannot believe my logic was ever so childish.”
Clint and Steve draw back as one. “Loki?”
He smiles. It has none of kid-Loki’s warmth or humor, and the mischief in it is razor-edged. “You need not worry - I will not interfere with my brother’s revival. It will make me stronger and any defeat of the Avengers will be meaningless if he is not around to witness it and make that adorably idiotic kicked-puppy face. By all means, proceed with your cunning plan. I cannot wait to see how it turns out.”
He shudders again. “ - because you are my friends, and I... I...” he blinks at them. “Is something wrong?”
“Your... alter ego had a little chat with us,” Steve says. Clint’s mouth is too dry for speech.
“Oh.” Loki looks worried. “Was he unkind to you?”
Clint fights down a bubble of hysterical laughter. “Actually, I’m pretty sure he just called us adorable.”
“He called Thor adorable,” Steve corrects. “I’m pretty sure he called us ‘cunning’.”
Steve actually uses air quotes. Clint’s day becomes even more surreal.
“Well, that was condescending,” Loki says, wrinkling his nose. “I apologize?”
“Not your fault,” Steve and Clint say at the same time.
Loki takes a deep breath and squares his shoulders. “Shall we revive my brother?”
Steve and Clint trade helpless looks. Reviving Thor will play into adult-Loki’s hands. Not reviving Thor will leave them with most of the team permanently down and the rest waiting to see what adult-Loki will do if he’s feeling thwarted and vengeful.
Fuck hard choices, Clint thinks savagely.
“Yeah. Let’s go revive Thor.”
They decide to put Loki in Thor’s corner of the infirmary and leave the device down in containment - not because they think it will keep adult-Loki from getting stronger, particularly, but because it’s logistically easier. Loki assures them that physical proximity is no longer necessary for the spell to work. There is even an observation window overlooking the infirmary, so the Avengers (and Coulson) can watch from a safe distance.
It is all logically and calmly decided, right up until Loki can’t make himself go into Thor’s room.
“I - I will do it from here,” he tells them brightly, and then can’t get the shimmering thing to materialise.
Clint goes out to meet him in the hallway. “Will it mess you up if I go in with you?” he asks. Steve is glaring at him from the observation window, but Loki’s miserable expression eases a bit.
“No. You will be in no danger and my concentration will probably be better,” he admits.
Neither of them pretends it’s strictly necessary for Clint to be holding Loki while he does the spell, but it does get him up high enough that he can see Thor clearly and it puts Clint in a good position to physically restrain him if adult-Loki gets frisky. Clint can practically feel Steve’s glare on the side of his head, but nobody actually says anything.
“All right,” Loki says, voice trembling. “All right. I am ready to begin.”
He closes his eyes. The shimmer begins to grow around him, rippling over Clint’s skin with a surprisingly pleasant tingling feeling.
“Clint?” Steve asks over the intercom.
“We’re fine,” Clint says. “It tickles a little.”
The shimmer spreads over Thor, who twitches slightly. Clint closes his eyes, knowing the white flash is coming next, and for a moment all he can see is the redness of his own eyelids as the flare of light washes over them.
He opens his eyes. On the bed, Thor is opening his.
“Thor?” Steve says.
Thor blinks and looks around. His gaze falls on Clint and Loki and he looks confused for a moment. Loki’s hand tightens nervously on Clint’s collar.
Thor’s whole face lights up. “Brother!” he says, overjoyed.
And that’s when adult-Loki loses his shit.
Clint barely keeps a hold of him as he arches his back and tries to lunge at Thor, screaming and spitting in what must be some dialect of Asgardian not meant for mortal ears - either that, or it’s just gibberish. Clint manages to drag Loki back from the bed and get down to his knees so that if Loki breaks free he won’t hurt himself falling, and then he just tries to hang on.
In the background he can hear Thor demanding answers and everyone in the observation booth running down the hall. In his arms Loki has mostly gone silent, saving his strength for escaping Clint’s hold. He writhes and twists, clawing at Clint’s face and arms.
“Loki!” Clint yells. “Both of you! You’re too weak after that spell to do anything so calm the fuck down!”
Loki gives one last vindictive heave in Clint’s arms and goes still, panting harshly and vibrating with tension. Out of the corner of his eye, Clint sees Thor do that thing Clint is occasionally so jealous of where he grabs Mjolnir’s handle and is suddenly wearing full armor.
“What is the explanation for this?” Thor demands. “Why is my brother a child and what is wrong with him?”
“Thor!” Finally, Steve’s in the room. “It’s a long story, but there was a magical accident, you were in a coma for a while, and now the child and adult versions of your brother’s personality are fighting for control of his body.”
“I see,” Thor says, taking this in stride, and Clint takes a moment to thank god that Asgardians are used to dealing with freaky shit. He steps towards Clint and Loki. “Brother - “
“Get that look off your face, Thor,” Loki snarls. “I want none of y-your p-p-” he makes a strange choking noise. “I am sorry, I am so sorry, I did not want to hurt anyone, Thor - “
“Shh,” Clint says. “We know. It’s all right.”
“Brother, be at ease,” Thor says, moderating his usual booming voice to a low soothing rumble. “We are none of us injured and you have done nothing wrong.” He reaches out, slowly, so Loki can see him coming and won’t be startled. “Do not worry - “
Loki sinks his teeth into Thor’s hand. Thor freezes.
“Brother, you cannot talk if you have my hand in your mouth,” Thor reminds him calmly.
The irritated look on Loki’s face as he opens his mouth and lets Thor’s hand go would be comical under other circumstances.
“Did he perform the spell to awaken me?”
“Yeah, about a minute ago,” Clint says.
Thor nods and regards his brother seriously. “Loki, you must replenish your energy after such exertion. You know as well as I that it will not benefit you to be recalcitrant on this point. If we go up to the kitchen, will you take sustenance?”
Loki shivers. “Yes, please. Thank you, brother.”
Thor smiles tenderly at him, and then lifts Clint to his feet without any apparent effort.
Clint and Loki settle down on the couch and the rest of the team retreats to the kitchen to make lunch and, Clint is sure, try to strategize a little. Thor attempts to stay in the living room with his brother and hover conspicuously, but Steve successfully steers him into the kitchen where he stands by the door and spends most of his time trying to watch Loki and Clint.
In Clint’s lap, Loki twitches and whimpers occasionally. When he looks, Clint can see Loki’s mouth moving silently, as if he’s arguing with himself.
“It’ll be all right,” Clint says when he can’t stand sitting there silently listening to Loki suffer any longer. “Don’t worry, kid, we’ll figure something out and it’ll be - “
The living room wall blows in, showering them both in debris. Clint has just enough time to take in the sight of a fucking army of those goddamn robot things when Thor’s arms grab both of them from behind and haul them bodily into the kitchen.
“Remain here. I leave my brother in your charge,” Thor says, depositing them behind the kitchen island, and then launches himself into the fray.
A moment later Bruce joins them, ducking as half of the living room coffee table smashes into the kitchen wall behind him.
“Too many,” he gasps. “Tony’s gone to get his armor and Coulson pulled a machine gun out of freaking nowhere but it took three of you guys to take out the last one - “
Clint struggles to his knees. “They must have been testing us out this whole time,” He says. “Take Loki, I have a spare bow in the cabinet - “
“No,” Bruce says calmly. “I can’t carry him and you’re going to have to run.” He opens one of the cabinets, digging out a frying pan, and stands up. “I’ll give you some cover.”
“Bruce, don’t be an idiot, you can’t - “ Clint breaks off, horrified, as a warped shimmer covers Bruce from head to toe. “Loki, no - “
There’s a bright flash of light, and Loki convulses in Clint’s arms. Bruce staggers, and then straightens with Natasha’s fluid grace.
“Stay down,” she says, and charges into battle.
Clint gathers Loki up as best he can while he’s still seizing and runs for the kitchen door. Something complicated shatters behind him and someone screams, but he’s sprinting flat-out for the containment cells and he doesn’t have time to turn and look.
He pounds down the stairs, skids around the corner, slams the door of Natasha’s containment cell open and throws himself to the side. Bruce sprints past a half-second later, Hulking out as he runs.
Loki’s convulsions have stopped. Clint slides down against the wall, frantically checking for his pulse.
“Come on. Come on, kid...”
Loki’s eyes snap open.
“Why, Hawkeye,” he purrs. “I didn’t know you cared.”
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.
When it’s been quiet up above for a few minutes, Clint carries Loki up to check out the damage. He can see out the window that the fight ended up mostly in the yard, and does a quick headcount as he climbs. Everyone’s accounted for but Thor.
He has to climb awkwardly over what looks like the remains of the kitchen counter in order to get through the doorway. The kitchen and living room are now both emphatically open-plan, and bits of robot are scattered about and embedded in surfaces that are not technically permeable.
Thor turns as they enter, his face creased with worry. “Loki! Is he - “
“He’s fine,” Clint says quickly. “He’s asleep.”
Thor hurries over and then pauses uncertainly. “May I hold him?”
“Of course, Thor, he’s your brother,” Clint says, resolutely pushing away a pang of loss. Thor takes him gently, cradling his brother like he’s both fragile and precious.
“I remember him at this age,” he says quietly. “He was forever following me. I did not see it for the love it was, at the time. I was merely annoyed.” He gives Clint a guilty look. “I have spent much of my life being annoyed by my brother and it took me far too long to realise it was because of deficiencies in myself and not in him.”
Clint leans up against a giant robot leg. “Thor, what happened between you two? If you don’t mind my asking.”
Thor looks down, carefully brushing Loki’s hair off his forehead. “I think you have earned the right to that tale, my friend. It is long and complex and I promise to tell you the whole of it later, but for now - my brother had spent far too long forced into my shadow, and at an extremely inopportune time he discovered that my father had stolen him as an infant war prize from another realm with the intention of using him to later unite our peoples. The combination pushed him over the edge into a madness from which he has never really recovered.”
Grain of salt, Clint thinks dully. Won’t Bruce be surprised.
“It’s just his kid self in there, now,” he says. “The adult part is gone.”
Thor’s face twists with grief. “It may be for the best, but I will miss him terribly even so. Was it his choice?”
“Yeah,” Clint says softly. “He wanted what his kid self had here. I promised to have you swear to...” he pauses, rewinding the last half hour in his head, "protect, care for and support him, should you have to stand against Odin himself to see it done."
Thor takes a deep, shaky breath. “I would ask for your help in that mission, my friend. You have been an exemplary guardian for him, from what I have observed.”
Clint swallows down a lump in his throat. “Of course.”
A whine of repulsors and a clatter of rubble by the gaping hole in the living room wall announces the arrival of Tony and Steve. Tony’s armor is dented in a few places and a decent part of Steve’s shirt is gone, but they seem to be otherwise unharmed. Steve vaults over what Clint sincerely hopes wasn’t once a load-bearing section of wall and heads towards them.
“The yard’s trashed, but the last of them are down,” he announces. “Bruce and Natasha got the ringleader - “ he stops, spotting Loki. “Is he - “
“He sleeps,” Thor says. “He is a child once more.”
Steve’s eyes flicker over towards Clint. Clint crosses his arms, feeling exposed and weirdly empty.
“I’m glad he’s okay,” Steve says. “Thor, it may not be the right time, but I’ve got to ask - what is your father and the rest of Asgard going to think? We’ll give you all the protection we can, but we might not be of much use against an army.”
Thor blinks. “We would not hold a child responsible for the actions of an adult, even if they are technically the same person,” he says, sounding surprised. “My brother as he is now has done nothing wrong. There will be no danger.”
“That’s a relief,” Steve says, smiling.
“It will be very hard for him to be trusted, of course, since all of Asgard knows how he grew up the first time, and his banishment may be upheld, but he is in no danger,” Thor continues blithely.
“That’s bull - “ Tony begins, and is cut off by Steve’s shield cracking ‘accidentally’ against his shoulder.
“We understand,” Steve says. “I’m glad it worked out.”
Bruce, Natasha, and Coulson push their way through the doorway Clint used, having come up from the interior of the mansion. Bruce is in his typical post-Hulk state of dishevelment, but other than that seems fine. Coulson’s suit is torn, but he’s carrying one of the robots' giant blaster guns with a faint air of satisfaction. Natasha, of course, looks impeccable and gorgeous.
Bruce stops short. “Is he - “
“Asleep, all kid,” Clint says. “It’s okay.”
Bruce comes over to stand by him. “Are you all right?” he asks quietly.
“I’m fine,” Clint says shortly. “Glad to see you back in the right body.”
“Me too,” Natasha says fervently.
“Hello, brother,” Thor says softly. Clint looks over - Loki’s eyes are half-open, and as he watches Loki realises who’s holding him and smiles.
“Hello, Thor,” he says happily, and Clint nearly has to turn away. “Is everyone well?”
Thor smiles. “Everyone is well, and our enemies have been vanquished. It will be a day passed on in song and story long after we all have perished.”
It sounds morbid to Clint, but Loki laughs. It must be an Asgardian thing. Bruce leans sympathetically against Clint’s shoulder.
“Clint,” Loki says, and Clint looks up, startled. Loki reaches out one hand, grinning.
“The Force was with us this day. Give me five?”
Clint grins back, and complies.