Where we left our hero…
'The truth can be painful,' Loki said with mock sympathy. 'But what is it you humans say…ah, yes. It sets you free. How quaint.' He spread his arms wide. 'Unlock your shackles, Agent Barton. Let yourself become what you truly are. What point is there in clinging to false ideals, when all they do is hold you back? You are no hero, Agent Barton; the blood that stains my hands stains yours as well.'
Loki was right. It was what haunted his nightmares, what shadowed his every step. There was blood on his hands; the blood of strangers and friends alike. He was responsible, and he would never be free of it. A lifetime of good deeds could not even begin to wash away his sins.
'You…made me like this.' He rasped.
'I think not,' Loki stepped forward. 'Admit it, Agent Barton. You were lost long before my sights fell on your pitiful planet.'
'I followed orders – there were reasons.' His grip was slipping, cold metal sliding against the sweat beading on his skin.
'Did you know them?' Loki's voice was soft, gentle. 'Tell me, why did they have to die?'
'I don't…I don't,' he shook his head to clear his thoughts. He hadn't needed to know – didn't need to know. They were marked for death and he was the deliverer.
'You never knew. Perhaps you never cared. After all, the death of a stranger matters not. But answer me this, Agent Barton, what right have you to judge me?' The words were piercing even as the demi-God's honeyed tongue imparted them with such false sweetness. 'We are the same, you and I. That is why you hate me. I am what you could become were you not so afraid, so weak. Chained by the ideals you so desperately cleave to. Do you believe them to be your salvation?' He laughed cruelly. 'It is a foolish notion.'
'You have it all wrong.' He whispered. His fingers tightened, the index curling firmly around the trigger.
'Is that so?' Loki grinned, clearly delighted. 'Do enlighten me.'
'I hate you,' he locked his eyes on the target. 'Because you're evil.'
He pressed the trigger.
For a moment it seemed as if nothing had happened. Loki was still standing there, face frozen in his typical wolfish smirk. Then he fell to his knees, his right hand coming up to scratch at the cloth covering his chest as blood began to seep through. The smile seemed to stutter; his eyes creasing as he looked down and then back up at him. Clint, too, was frozen in place. His finger still curled over the trigger, his breath caught in his throat. Their eyes locked.
The corners of Loki's mouth twitched before he was back on his feet quicker than Clint's eyes could follow, an amused chuckle reverberating off of the walls.
'Oh come now, Agent Barton.' He placed a palm to his chest and the blood receded. 'Did you truly believe you had killed me? With this?' He twirled the bullet between two fingers, a metallic glint in his green eyes. 'You should know better.' A flash of his fingers, and it was gone. Banished.
The next one hit him dead centre in his forehead. It also caused him to stagger back a few inches, though he remained on his feet.
'Is that absolutely necessary?' Loki complained, dragging the bullet out.
'It's mildly satisfying.' Clint dropped the gun, it was out of ammo. He didn't bother to reach for the other one. 'Better if it had killed you, but…' he shrugged.
'I think you will find that an impossible task.' Loki's voice, for once, was not mocking.
'I think you'll find that I'm more than happy to try,' Clint settled into a balanced stance.
'You will fail,' Loki warned him.
'Or you will die.'
'So be it.'
Clint was on him in a second or, rather, where he used to be. It was like chasing smoke. Loki was fast. He didn't just dodge punches, he vanished. One second he was right there, smirking, and the next he was half-way across the room, leaning against the wall with a bored expression on his face. Clint had nothing but air in his hands and simmering anger in his heart. The bastard wouldn't even hit back. He had to even the odds somehow, or he was going to collapse from exhaustion long before he even got near the guy.
'You're cheating,' he accused.
'Magic is as much a part of my arsenal, as your bow is yours.' Loki countered, his eyes dancing.
'I don't have my bow,' Clint pointed out.
'No, I suppose you do not.' The demi-God seemed to ponder it for a moment and then acquiesced. 'Very well.' His eyes flashed. 'I do like a challenge.'
They had managed to pinpoint Barton's location via the tracker Tony had hidden in his boot after the first one – planted on one of the butter knives – had been detected. Although he knew Barton's reaction should he find said tracker would not be kind, it somehow hadn't frightened him as much as the thought of planting a tracker on Natasha had.
Tony respected Barton, sure. He knew the man was capable of killing him in just as many ways as Natasha (maybe even more); he was just…quieter about it. Ergo, not as scary. He was therefore surprised at the scene that met his eyes when they, the Avengers, burst into the little room to find Loki sprawled out, and seemingly unconscious, on the floor while Clint leant against the wall looking down the barrel of the gun he held firmly in his hands. In the many scenarios Thor had worriedly concocted while they were all fretting over Barton, the archer had never once come out on top. It was supposedly a fact that Loki could not be stopped, or killed, by any 'mortal' means. Yet there he was looking relatively unharmed while the demi-God was clearly out for the count.
Barton looked up abruptly as they entered and Tony blinked in surprise. There were actual tears in the other man's eyes. That wasn't to say he was crying. He wasn't. In fact, if Barton's sudden movement hadn't dislodged one, single, tear Tony probably wouldn't have noticed at all. Everyone else was starting to look relieved – even Thor, who had panicked initially – except for Natasha. She looked worried. It was testament to just how worried she truly was that Tony had even picked up on it.
'Clint?' Her voice was softer than usual as she took a tentative step forward.
No one else seemed to notice. Thor and Steve were too busy with Loki; the former checking each and every bruise or cut, the latter wrapping their new prisoner into a neat little present for S.H.I.E.L.D. That is to say he was applying the special security measures that Banner had developed to detain the demi-God. Banner was overseeing the process which left Tony to take a closer look at Barton to see if he could spot what Natasha apparently had.
The agent was still looking at the gun, his eyes fixed on the barrel. His hands were clasped around it as if he were about to shoot. Tony glanced at Natasha, the question dying on his lips. It was obvious what she thought.
'Clint? She took another step closer, stopping as his head snapped up.
'He's right, Tasha.' Barton murmured, distress clear on his face.
'Right about what?' Natasha prodded gently, her gaze darting to his hands and then back to his face.
'Me.' The agent said simply. His hair was slightly damp, like he'd been sweating, and stray tendrils were plastered to the side of his face. He was bruised in several places, dark colour blossoming in his cheeks. A lone scratch that looked to be caused by a fingernail stretched across the line of his neck. There was despair in his eyes. He looked like a man at the end of his rope. Tony wondered what Loki could possibly have said and cursed him for it. If there was one thing the trickster was good at; it was tearing people apart.
'Whatever that psychopath said, it was a lie.' Tony told him. 'It's what he does for a living – God of lies, remember?'
'Not a lie,' Barton shook his head desolately.
Natasha shot Tony a furious look that clearly said stay out of it you idiot, or I'll rip out your intestines with my fingernails.
'What did he tell you?' She questioned gently, taking another step forward and kneeling so she was at eye-level. Tony could see her eyes flick to the gun, probably calculating if she could snatch it without setting it off. He wondered why she just didn't grab it; it wasn't like Barton would actually…would he?
'The truth,' Barton rasped. 'About me…I knew it before but…' he lapsed into mumbling undecipherable words.
'Knew what?' Natasha prompted. Her knuckles were almost white with the pressure she was exerting and Tony was sure she'd have little marks on her palms when the whole ordeal was over. She stole glances at Loki every so often as if to check if he was awake. Tony had no doubt what awaited the Trickster and, in his opinion, the guy deserved everything he was going to get and then some. The others still seemed to be preoccupied. Thor was picking Loki up to carry him to the ship, Steve hovering near him and trying to be helpful. Banner was watching them out of the corner of his eye and Tony had the feeling that he knew exactly what was going on.
'I'm just as bad as him, Nat.' Barton said finally. 'I've killed as much, and for as little reason.'
'That's ridiculous,' she said flatly. 'You can't take all the credit.'
Tony was mildly concerned that veiled humour was hardly the best method for dealing with this particular crisis but stopped his protest when Barton's lips actually quivered in mild amusement.
'Guess not,' he allowed. He looked down at the gun, his gaze distant. 'It's so easy…to end a life. So easy…so final.' A shadow of pain creased his face and he looked up, eyes frantically searching for something Tony couldn't identify. 'I should have missed.'
Understanding dawned on Natasha's face.
'No, God, Clint.' There was an edge of frustration in her voice. 'That wasn't your fault, you can't blame yourself.'
'It was,' he growled. 'You don't get it, do you?'
'I wasn't just under Loki's influence,' he dropped his gaze. 'Mindless, compelled to cater to his every whim.' His voice was bitter, his eyes dark. 'I was thinking and I wanted to do it. I wanted to kill you, Nat, and I would have. I would have,' his voice broke mid-way through the word. 'If you'd given me the chance. I can't just forget that. I can't pretend that it never happened.'
'Clint, it didn't happen.'
If Tony hadn't known any better he would have thought Natasha looked ready to slap the other agent.
'Guys, what's the hold up?' Steve obliviously poked his head back around the door, his hand resting on the frame.
'Get out.' Natasha spun around, rising to her feet, her voice venomous.
Steve's eyes widened and he backed off immediately, throwing his hands up in the 'defenceless' posture.
'You, too, Stark.' She growled, sending a chilly glare his way. 'Get Loki to S.H.I.E.L.D.'
'Go.' She turned back to Barton, dropping once again into a crouch.
Tony hesitated, torn between staying and eavesdropping (and potentially getting mauled) and respecting her violent wishes by getting the hell out of there. Self-preservation won out and he headed to the door, walking slowly in the hopes that he might catch something on his way out. Natasha was talking softly, though, and he couldn't make anything she was saying out. Barton was silent, his face creased and his hands still clasped around the gun. Tony paused by the door, looking over his shoulder just in time to see Natasha slowly place one hand over Barton's and gently draw it away. The move was so uncommonly tender that he turned away, feeling somewhat voyeuristic – as if he was looking in on a private moment between the two.
He found Steve just outside the building leaning against the wall with a perplexed expression on his face.
'What was that?' He demanded the moment he noticed Tony's arrival.
'I'll explain it to you later,' Tony promised. 'For now, we need to get Rudolph to S.H.I.E. then onto the next intergalactic subway with the farthest possible destination.'
He was drowning. Drowning in an endless ocean of self-loathing and hatred. Everything Loki had said to him, he had already known. His words had only confirmed the knowledge that plagued his every thought. He was not just a killer, he was a murderer. He had never thought of himself thusly, had always believed that there were reasons – good reasons – for every life he had taken, every family he had torn asunder. He had deluded himself. Maybe there were reasons, maybe they were justified, but that wasn't why he had done it. He enjoyed it. He savoured the thrill of the hunt, the adrenaline that suffused his system with every flawless kill. He was a monster, like Loki. They were the same. It sickened him. Everything he thought he had stood for had been a lie. 'False ideals' he used, desperately, to retain a semblance of humanity. The truth – how ironic that it had taken the God of lies to show it to him – was that he was lost.
He was trying to tell Natasha. Trying to show her why she was wasting her breath, that it wasn't worth the effort to save a soulless monster. She, of course, wasn't listening.
'Do you enjoy it?' He cut in, desperate to prove his point.
'Do I enjoy what?' She was still clasping his right hand, though his left remained wrapped firmly around the gun.
'You know that I don't.' She searched his eyes, her gaze penetrating.
'I do.' He whispered, looking away. Her hand hands tightened around his, fingernails digging into his skin.
'No you don't.' She said firmly. 'Loki may have tricked you into believing that, but it doesn't make it true.'
'It is true,' he wished she would just understand.
'No, Clint.' She forced his chin up so he met her steely gaze. 'I know you, you aren't like that.'
'What if I am?' He asked, almost desperately.
'You once told me that you could remember every single person you had ever killed.' Her voice dropped to a whisper. 'It was the night you were sent to kill me – the night you saved my life.'
He remembered. She had been a mercenary assassin selling her considerable services to the highest bidder, irrespective of the target, and S.H.I.E.L.D had wanted her stopped. They'd sent him.
'You said that every day you could see their faces and it reminded you that death was not a game.' Her fingers moved, gently brushing against the skin of his neck. 'It is not a power to be wielded over others, nor an escape from demons better faced and overcome. Death is final, there is no coming back and it should never be taken lightly.' She moved closer, the heat of her breath ghosting across his lips. 'We deserve to bear the burdens the use of such a weapon places upon us because it keeps us sane, it makes us human.'
'You remember that?' His breath hitched slightly at her proximity, his gaze falling to the millimetres of space that separated them.
'Can you still see their faces?' Her left hand was still pressed against his neck, her right curling around the barrel of the gun.
'Always.' He let it go, his grip loosening as she pulled it from his grasp and tossed it aside.
A/N: Another short one. It's wrapping up now though guys. One more chapter I think and it'll be the end. Thanks so much for the lovely reviews, faves, and alerts from all of you wonderful people. It's amazing how inspiring a single review can be to a writer even if it's only a few words.