100indecisions: my chains are broken (there will be no miracles)
[personal profile] 100indecisions
Title: the kindness of strangers
Author name: 100indecisions on AO3
Characters/Pairing: main relationships are Loki & Gamora, Gamora & Nebula, and Loki & Thor; Thanos is also a major character and various Avengers show up
Fandom/Universe: MCU
Rating: R for violence/torture
Word count: ~25,000
Warnings: Physical and psychological torture, some of it pretty graphic; the AO3 version will have additional chapter-specific warnings
Summary: Gamora is there when Loki falls into Thanos’ hands, and she’s there to watch Loki break under torture. She’s not going to defy her father (yet), but in the beginning, she gives Loki a little advice: find a core truth about yourself and bury it deep, and once Thanos has broken and remade you into what he wants, something of you might still be left.


This is truth: Thanos is patient like Death is patient, with the calm surety that the universe will bow to his will in the end no matter how long it takes. He demands results of those who serve him, of course, but for his own ultimate triumph, he is more than willing to play long, long games. He has been thus for as long as Gamora has known him and much longer before that.
The methods he uses to break and reshape the prisoners for whom he has specific intentions are no different. His children and soldiers have many duties, and there is no need to keep a prisoner constantly occupied when slower methods are just as important to the eventual outcome. Sleep deprivation, thirst, and hunger are constants, wearing down prisoners a little at a time; chaining a prisoner in a variety of stress positions can also be effective in the long term, especially combined with heat or cold or darkness. More than once, the Chitauri bind Loki’s hands behind his back and suspend him by his wrists, so that his own weight slowly drags him down and dislocates his shoulders; or they string him up by a chain around his throat that forces him to balance on his toes if he wants to breathe and chokes him when his legs finally give out.
            For Loki, the darkness seems to be almost the worst; it is very early that he passes the point of being too weak to fight them, but he still tries to struggle every time he is dragged back to the lightproof, soundproof little cell in which he is sometimes kept. Every time he is hauled back out again, hours or even days later, his eyes are a little wilder, and he is a little slower to come back from whatever terror has him in its grip. Gamora wondered at it, the first few times she noticed the flicker of something like relief when Loki adjusted to the glaring light and recognized the Chitauri, but then she has never before heard of someone who survived falling through the Void. She can only guess at the scars such an experience would leave upon a living being’s psyche.
It is, of course, impossible to pinpoint precisely when the fractures happen, and which ones are more meaningful than others. Gamora does not involve herself in a good deal of the process, but she is to monitor any progress or lack thereof, so she is aware of what is done to him. There is a particular poison the Chitauri seem to enjoy, for instance, one which makes the victim’s flesh feel as if it has been turned into molten metal. Almost without exception, victims left unbound have clawed off considerable amounts of their own skin in a mindlessly frantic effort to stop the pain. Often, too, the Chitauri turn to heat and fire; Gamora notices that the bottoms of Loki’s feet, in particular, are nearly always burned black and flaking so that trying to walk is agony, and she supposes the use of heat in any form must be a special torture for a Jotun, regardless of the skin he happens to be wearing.
She wonders, still, how long he will last, and finds she is not pleased to learn that she was right, when she guessed that it would take a long time.

***

Gamora can remember, a little, what life was like before Thanos. She does not think about it often—not about family or friends or the wide-open skies of her home planet. Survival is incompatible with useless longing for something that no longer exists, and she knows that to fixate on the past rather than the present or the future is to invite destruction. But she remembers—a little—what she was before Thanos. She does not try to fool herself into thinking that the girl she was and the assassin she has become are the same; nor does she waste time wondering whether either deserve to survive. But she knows who she was and who she is.
She remembers, a very long time ago now, when Nebula first came to Sanctuary. Thanos had more children then, although not for terribly long, and Gamora’s first thought was that this tiny blue girl would not survive long either, that she was not strong enough even for the least of the necessary modifications. There was something almost fragile about her then, in her desperation for approval, too focused on genuinely pleasing her masters instead of simple survival. Gamora was not much older than Nebula at the time, but she had already survived enough to know what it meant to be a daughter of Thanos. She was hard, and decisive, and inclined to be efficient with her violence, and so she survived where others did not. She has, in fact, cultivated those talents since she understood she could choose to do so. She excels at delivering swift, nearly painless death, and she is proud of that, inasmuch as she is proud of anything she does in service to Thanos.
            And Nebula—
            They were still quite young, both of them, when they were first assigned prisoners to torture—not for information, simply for more focused practice than anything they had yet pursued in training. Gamora already knew how to wall away her horror and do what was necessary to survive, but she could not rid herself of the sense of wrongness, in drawing out a creature’s suffering when she had been trained for so long simply to kill. So she killed, because that was what she knew, and somehow convinced her teachers and Thanos himself that it was eagerness hastening her victim’s death, not pity or even distaste (and never, ever mercy). And because of her skill in dealing death—and in enduring pain, when necessary—she was allowed to focus her attention there, and not asked to cause pain any more often than any of the Titan’s other children. Not so with Nebula. She couldn’t force herself to do it, the first time—she broke two of the prisoner’s fingers, vomited in a corner, and could not return. For her failure, she was turned over to several of her older siblings for practice, and Gamora did not see her again for nearly a month. She was missing a hand and an eye by then, forced to do without until she could prove to her father that she was worth the replacement parts. Never again did she hold back from inflicting pain.
It is hard to remember now, seeing the viciousness with which she obeys orders both to torture and to kill, that she ever hesitated. Gamora has known many who take great pleasure in breaking others, like Corvus or Ronan or Thanos himself, and she does not think Nebula does, not quite—but it is her ferocity that sets her apart, that first made Thanos take notice of her and approve of her, and she is desperate for that approval. There is pleasure in a job well done, too, and if doing a job to Thanos’ satisfaction involves shattering another living being, she is quick to devote her considerable intensity and resolve to the task.
Loki is no exception. Nebula does not spend all her time with the new prisoner that has gained Thanos’ attention, of course, or even most of it; her time is more valuable than that, Corvus is also highly motivated, and the Chitauri are perfectly capable of making a Jotun runt bleed and scream. But Nebula is dedicated, and she is good at what she does, and as always she wants to prove to Thanos that she is worthy. Often, when Gamora checks in on the prisoner—because, after all, it is her job to monitor him too—Nebula is there, alone or with a few Chitauri, her expression always hardened with resolve and determination.
Now, a few months after Loki’s arrival, Gamora finds them in a small chamber hollowed out of rock near Sanctuary’s surface. Loki is sprawled on his back, most of his body covered in blood, with Nebula kneeling beside him. As Gamora watches, Nebula picks up his hand and begins working a knife under one of his remaining fingernails, and he makes a pained noise but doesn’t even try to pull away. Nebula hasn’t paralyzed him, at least not deliberately; he’s simply too injured and weakened to move.
            Nebula glances up and sets aside the knife. “Watch this, sister,” she says by way of greeting. “I figured out how to trigger the change between his two forms, but—look.” She picks up a superheated metal rod, its tip glowing white-hot more brightly than all the stars above them, and touches it to a relatively unblemished patch of skin on his palm. He jerks, mouth opening on a gasp of pain, but outside the new burn, his flesh remains pale and grayish-pink. Clearly this isn’t what Nebula means to show her, so Gamora waits—and then almost protests anyway when Nebula digs her fingers into a particularly large wound on the prisoner’s chest and peels open part of his ribcage. They aren’t supposed to kill him, after all.
            But the flesh comes up easily, and she realizes the gash isn’t fresh; a few of his ribs have already been broken with nearly surgical precision to allow access to his heart. His fingers twitch down by his side, but he can’t do anything to defend himself, not even when Nebula touches the brand to his heart.
            He chokes on a ragged scream, spine arching off the ground so sharply that Nebula has to jerk back her hand to avoid inflicting unintended damage, and blue washes across his skin. His exposed muscle darkens and toughens, shading into a rather sickly purple, and when Nebula leans away to give Gamora an unobstructed view, the heart looks almost leathery, suited to a creature shaped for harsh conditions.
            “It’s a defense mechanism,” Gamora says, intrigued—or rather, choosing to be intrigued, to feel dispassionate interest, because otherwise there will be nothing but rising nausea and the way Loki is staring up at them both, mutilated chest heaving, pain and despair just as clear in his red eyes and blue skin as in his Asgardian form.
            (It has been this way for as long as she can remember, and the choice is nearly always an easy one—but at least it is still a choice, and surely that means something. Surely she will be able to choose differently, when she has the luxury.)
            “Something like that,” Nebula agrees, “but it’s an imperfect one. See—” She finds another patch of relatively unmarked skin, this time just above his knee, and applies the rod with precisely the same amount of pressure she used on his hand. The reaction is immediate and dramatic: his skin turns nearly black, cracking open and leaking fluid, and he makes a thin, agonized sound.
            “It’s a defensive reaction to extreme heat, but his Jotun form is actually more vulnerable to burns,” Gamora realizes.
“The change happens in reaction to extreme cold, too,” Nebula says, “but cold doesn’t damage him, so it’s not very useful.”
            “No, I suppose not,” Gamora says, and wonders what it means that she is still not disturbed, or at least does not feel any unease, even if it exists inside her to be felt. Chooses not to wonder what the girl she used to be would make of this.

***

Another time, the Chitauri haul Loki over to the rack, lock his wrists and ankles in place, and pull him taut until every line of his body is tight with strain. And then they leave him for Gamora to monitor while the rack does its work. This particular instrument is not some primitive construction of chains and pulleys; it functions smoothly and automatically, taking up every infinitesimal amount of slack as Loki’s body struggles to adjust. It will not pull his bones out of joint, not yet; that is for others to do, not an impersonal machine. But the machine can stretch every joint nearly to breaking and hold there for a long, long time.
            There is no specific reason for Gamora to be the one to watch him this time, but her father’s lieutenant had strongly suggested that she take this duty while cleaning and sharpening her knives, and she is not especially inclined to antagonize him when it is not important to do so. So she sits down a few paces from the rack where Loki is laid out, ashen and trembling, and sets to work. His breathing is shallow, but not enough to be an immediate concern, and for long moments the only sounds in the chamber are those of his rasping breaths and metal scraping metal. Finally he makes a noise that bears some resemblance to a throat being cleared for speech, were it not so thin and strained. Gamora says nothing, but she pauses in her sharpening and waits for him to speak. He has not tried, before now; but then, she has not been alone with him since that first day.
“Why,” Loki pushes out, before having to pause for breath. “You could…help me. Kill me. Instead you tell me…find my truth…and do nothing.”
            Gamora leans back, considering him. “I am sure you have a theory.”
            “Two,” Loki says. “That you are…nothing more than…another way to break me. Or that…you are afraid.”
            For a moment, Gamora thinks about telling him the truth, or part of the truth, or whichever truth seems to be ascendant at the moment: that Thanos trusts her, or at least trusts his hold over her, and if she waits for the exact right moment, she may yet be able to take the weapon he crafted of her mind and body and turn it against him. That if she chooses to help Loki now, with the outcome so unsure, she risks throwing away her chance for nothing, thereby dooming more worlds like her own. That she does not know what Thanos intends with Loki, and therefore she cannot gamble everything before she is certain she must act. That yes, she is afraid of Thanos, afraid down to her marrow, and any thinking being should be as well, and perhaps everything else she tells herself—everything else she holds close as evidence that she does not belong to him—is merely an excuse for her own cowardice.
She could do as Loki asks, of course. Truly help him, whether that means killing him outright or planning an escape. But the truth that matters the most in this case is simple: her reasons have not changed, and they far outweigh her pity for Loki (and her desire to prove to herself that she is not a coward). Whether they are still good reasons or merely excuses to salve what remains of her conscience is immaterial. She has committed herself to waiting until the right moment, so that is what she will continue to do. An assassin, after all, must always wait for the right moment or risk losing everything, and if she is nothing else, Gamora is at least a deadly assassin.
She has already considered as well that in allowing her to speak with Loki (because surely he knows that she has done so), Thanos is manipulating her too, either into revealing unquestionable disloyalty, or breaking Loki completely by winning his trust and then betraying him. She would like to think she is too careful to fall into either trap, but arrogance is a flaw she knows she cannot afford, especially where Thanos is concerned, and so she allows herself no such comfortable assumptions. She will continue be cautious, and she will neither say nor do anything that she cannot defend to Thanos if necessary.
            So she says, “Perhaps,” and returns to sharpening her knives, with only the faint sound of Loki’s pained breathing in the background.

***

This is another truth: Gamora does not like to think in terms of what she can and cannot do. It is too much like helplessness, to look too long at the choices she is denied, and she learned a long time ago that helplessness is a short step away from death or worse. Instead she assesses situations and finds choices to make, and then she chooses, and she does not regret or look back—even when the choices are impossible or effectively meaningless. There is always, always a choice of some kind to be made, and to choose is to regain some measure of control over the situation, no matter how small. If she chooses, she cannot be forced one way or the other, and therefore she is not helpless.
            (She knows, on some level, that she is tricking herself and that the illusion of choice is no choice at all, practically speaking—but she also knows that this illusion helps her survive, and there is no shame in that. Or at least, if there is, she refuses to indulge it.)
I am still here, she thinks, over and over again, even when it feels like a lie. I am still here. Still alive. Still herself. I am still here.

***

Nebula is thorough, and Corvus and his Chitauri are thorough, and despite everything she has seen and done and felt, Gamora finds herself grateful that her skills lend themselves to actions that are over quickly and neatly, and that Thanos’ opinion of those skills requires her to spend a great deal of her time carrying out her duties elsewhere. (This is cowardly, she supposes, but she has survived this long in part by knowing when not to speak and act, and trying to prevent the inevitable will help no one.) And every time she returns, expecting to learn that Loki has at last broken to Thanos’ satisfaction, she finds she is wrong. Most such prisoners do not take long to break under sustained torture—days, perhaps weeks. Loki is there for months, still imprisoned whenever Gamora returns; starving, increasingly filthy and bloodied, the majority of his body covered in burns, clinging to fewer and fewer of the last threads of his sanity as they bring him to the brink of death and pull him back, again and again.
Gamora is not there to see him break, but she sees enough to watch his defiance slowly, slowly crumble. And as he weakens, Corvus adds new torments, digging through his surface thoughts and feeding Loki’s fears and nightmares and worst memories back to him. The first time Gamora observes one of these sessions is also the first time she sees Loki truly weep. She sees, too, that Thanos speaks to him, unlike the Chitauri; that sometimes he brings comfort or respite, unlike Corvus. She does not hear everything Thanos says to Loki, either, but she hears enough. He is almost…gentle, sometimes. Almost reassuring. Tells him, “I plucked you from the Void; now I will give you the purpose you have always desired.” Tells him, “The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. I can deliver you from this deception.” Tells him, “Freedom is life’s great lie. Accept that, in your heart, and you will know peace.” Tells him, gently: “You were made for this, for pain and the dark and the bite of blades in your flesh,” and draws the point of a strangely glittering scepter down the side of Loki’s face in a painful caress. “You were made to be ruled.” She sees Loki reject it, at first, and then struggle to remember that he wants to reject what Thanos is telling him.
She is there to hear it when the prisoner finally abandons outward defiance and begins to beg, what do you want from me, what do you want, I’ll do it, I’ll do anything, just tell me, to see Thanos smile as he leaves the Chitauri to their work.
            “He seems ready enough to cooperate,” she observes neutrally.
            Thanos chuckles. “Certainly, if I wanted a servant who will seek to undermine me the moment he has the chance. No. He is not ready yet.”
            “Should we watch for something in particular?” Gamora asks.
            “It will not happen soon, I think. And you need not concern yourself; I will know.”
            She is there, too, when Loki stops desperately offering anything he thinks might save him, only begging please, please, please over and over as if he has forgotten all other words; and she is there, much later, when he gives up entirely and stops trying to speak at all, stops struggling and pleading, stops screaming for his family, simply accepts agony as his due.
            “Soon,” Thanos tells her, his expression satisfied, and something unpleasant curls in Gamora’s stomach, the same mingling of fear and relief she feels whenever Thanos is pleased. It is all the more confusing now, because she knew this would happen, she told Loki this would happen, and she does not care because caring is incompatible with self-preservation, and yet…she did not quite expect this.
She is not there to see it when Loki finally breaks to Thanos’ satisfaction, so she does not know what, exactly, convinces Thanos that it has happened. But from what she has seen, she is not surprised when the day finally comes that Corvus and the Chitauri bring the prisoner before Thanos again. He can barely walk, but he goes willingly enough, as much as he can, and he makes no effort to resist when Corvus shoves him to his knees. Instead he stays there, swaying a little, head hanging and expression empty.
            And Thanos smiles. Gamora does not flinch, because she never flinches, but that smile has become no less terrifying for her familiarity with it. He rises and strides toward the prisoner, scepter gripped in one powerful hand, and Loki just waits without reacting.
            The titan presses the scepter’s blade-like tip under Loki’s chin and forces his head up. “Well, child,” he says, “I think perhaps you will be a useful tool for me now. What do you think?”
            Loki swallows against the metal and does not reply, because it is no longer his place to think.
            Thanos’ smile widens. “Who is your master, boy?”
            “You are,” Loki says dully. His voice is thin and cracked from screaming, but he speaks without hesitation.
            “Whom do you serve?”
            “You.”
            “What will you do for your master?”
            “Anything,” Loki whispers.
            “And what will you let me do to you?”
            “Anything.”
            Thanos picks up Loki’s right hand, presses it open flat, and keeps going, overextending the fingers backward. There is a tiny snap in the stillness as the first finger gives way, then another, and Loki flinches but makes no effort to pull away. Two more fingers break and the thumb is twisted out of joint, and silent tears start to leak from the prisoner’s eyes, but he makes no sound.
            “Good,” Thanos says, and he drops Loki’s broken hand only to wrap his fingers tightly around the prisoner’s throat, and although Loki’s breathing changes to a shallow rasp at the pressure, he still does nothing, hands hanging limp at his sides.
            In truth, it is more disturbing than Gamora expected. Thanos never wanted her quite this broken, and none of the others who’d been shattered like this had begun with so much proud, fierce spirit. But she has already done what she is willing to do, so she watches without expression as Thanos draws his prisoner upright, presses the scepter’s tip against Loki’s temple hard enough to draw blood, and whispers something even Gamora cannot hear. The gem at the scepter’s heart flares, washing them both in pale blue light.
            Loki is trembling now, struggling to breathe, eyes wide and unseeing, and then Thanos abruptly releases him and he collapses to his side. The titan smiles down at him, something both paternal and predatory in his gaze. “And now, child, we are allies, are we not?” he asks, and Loki blinks up at him. “You will fear me and obey me, but you will not remember that I tamed you. You will only know that you serve me.” He nods to Corvus, who waves forward two Chitauri that clamp a collar around Loki’s neck and then haul him up and drag him away, his expression still dazed and blood running freely from the side of his head.
            “Well done,” Thanos says to the Other and his daughters, and if he looks primarily at Gamora as he says it, she pretends not to notice. Nebula clearly does, because she goes stiff at Gamora’s side, but there is nothing to be gained by either of them speaking up, and Gamora at least recognizes that. She has more reason to want to avoid Thanos’ reaction than any vengeance from her sister.
            And she does not exactly hope that Loki will rediscover a seed of rebellion in himself, because hoping is too much like wishing, and Gamora has not indulged in such helpless, pointless behavior in a very long time. But as she watches him stumble away between his Chitauri escorts, she finds herself feeling sorry for him and Terra alike, and wondering if she should have done more—if the quest for this artifact was the bright line she had resolved not to cross, and she was too cautious to realize until it was too late.
            For just a moment, she is caught between hope and equally pointless regret, and then she firmly turns her attention to other matters.

***

            They allow him to heal and rest, after that (but not too much of the latter, or his mind might recover too swiftly), and sometimes they even feed him, although Gamora is not sure whether anyone else remembers that their prisoner-turned-ally might need to eat. Slowly the blankness in his expression is replaced by something just as sharp and feral as the first time Gamora laid eyes on him, only now it is more wary, more focused, both more and less desperate. He does not speak to her, seems almost to forget that she exists—seems to forget that anything exists, in fact, except Corvus and Thanos and their plans for Midgard. Even as his pride returns and brings a new arrogance with it, he seems unaware of the heavy collar or the way Corvus uses it to lead him around like a beast on a chain. His cell is given a little light, and he no longer protests when he is locked away, nor when he is bound to the wall by his collar whenever he is left alone, nor when Corvus takes hold of his mind and forces him through training scenarios that often leave him with glassy eyes and a bleeding nose. Every now and then, Thanos tells Loki that he is pleased with his progress, and Loki smiles to hear it, and his smile is like a brittle blade.
            And so Loki is built back up into the weapon Thanos desires, a process that takes little more than two weeks. Gamora is there when he is brought to the portal Thanos has constructed for this purpose. Loki is dressed now in elaborate armor, heavier than what he wore when they pulled him from the Void, and although his wounds are all gone or hidden from view, he still looks vaguely ill. But he holds his head high, and looks on the Chitauri with something like disdain, and still makes no sign of noticing the chain Corvus holds or the collar around his throat to which it is attached.
            “Time for a final reminder, I think,” Thanos says. Corvus presses one hand to Loki’s temple, and Loki goes rigid, his face drawing tight with pain, but he makes no move to pull away. “Good.”
            Corvus removes the collar, finally, and drops his hand. Loki sways a little but keeps his feet, and his eyes focus on Thanos. “I will not fail you.”
            Thanos smiles. “No, you will not.” He holds out the scepter, and the blue gem at its heart glows palely as Loki accepts it. “Kneel.” Loki obeys without hesitating, sinking to one knee and bowing his head, and Thanos opens the portal. There is a great flash of blue light as it draws Loki in, and in the last instant before the portal snaps shut again, Gamora sees through it a crystalline cube that radiates cosmic power.
Only then does she realize what, exactly, Loki has been sent to retrieve, and she goes cold at the thought of what Thanos will do with the Tesseract. Only then does she learn that Loki has been sent to use it to open a stable portal for the Chitauri army, with which Terra can be conquered or destroyed, and then he will return and deliver Thanos the Tesseract. And for a long moment, all she can think is I have failed. She has not done enough, and Terra is going to fall like her world did so long ago, all because she was so determined to wait for the right moment.
            Despair is an old companion, one she has not indulged in a very long time, learning as every surviving child of Thanos did that some emotions lead only to paralysis and death. Whatever else she may be, Gamora is a survivor, and so she hauls herself back from the edge through sheer force of will. This is what she does: she survives. She does not dwell, ever, on anything that cannot be changed, except what is necessary to identify mistakes and prevent them from happening again. Only the present moment matters, the present moment and what she does with it.
            So: she cannot change what has already taken place. She cannot go to Terra herself, either. Perhaps Loki will recover himself and stop his own invasion, and although she will not say she hopes for that outcome when hope accomplishes nothing, she recognizes that it would be ideal. Otherwise, she will be ready for his return, and then she will act.
            It will not be too late. She will not let it be too late.

November 2016

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