100indecisions: my chains are broken (lost little monster)
[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.

Fury puts one hand to his ear as he leaves, speaking quietly enough that even Loki cannot hear him, and then Loki is alone in his cage again. And now, of course, all he can do is wait and see if the humans manage to put the pieces together soon enough to stop what is coming. They will have to deal with Barton and his men, first, and then there is the Tesseract itself, and he will go mad (again) if he is forced to sit here and do nothing.
Assuming he is strong enough (not at all certain), he could eavesdrop invisibly on the meeting so he will at least know whether the Avengers have understood his warnings. It’s another risk, because he is not at all sure he can sustain that type of working without the scepter’s help and attempting to do so might leave him more open to its influence—and if his words have already alerted the Other, it will be harder to hide his intentions, the more he has confirmed what he tried to do. But—aside from his own restless unease at knowing nothing, he has to know what they are thinking if he is to adapt his plans and continue trying to avert utter disaster. On balance, remaining unaware seems the greater risk.
            Loki settles himself on the bench and leans back against the cell’s curving wall. He shuts his eyes, feeling around the edges of his abilities. His seidr is badly depleted, so much that he can only assume he was deliberately prevented from realizing the extent of it, to ensure he would depend on the scepter and remain weak and ignorant, but there is enough for a working of this kind, as long as he is careful not to overextend himself. With the mental equivalent of a deep breath, he casts his mind out, leaving a tether back to his body. He can feel the strain already in the slight pressure building behind his eyes, and he takes a moment to strengthen the connection before he reaches out for the Avengers. They are nearby, bright glowing spots of life in his senses, and he anchors himself in Thor’s familiar energy before he can think better of it. This is not the time to make things more difficult for himself simply because his relationship with Thor is…complicated.
            It still takes as moment for the room to resolve in his mind’s eye, and if his impression of it is not quite as detailed as he would prefer, it is good enough for now. Rogers and Banner are seated at a long table with Fury standing at its head, hands resting on the back of his chair. Stark is sitting on the edge of the table itself, and Thor is pulling out a chair for Romanoff.
            “I hope you were all paying attention,” Fury says, “because it’s pop-quiz time. Thoughts?”
            “I think ‘bag of cats’ was generous,” Stark says. “More like rabid Tasmanian devils or something.”
            “Do I really have to specify helpful thoughts?” Fury snaps.
            “If he’s trying to convince us of something and he isn’t just posturing,” Rogers says, “it’s still a pretty hard sell, and I don’t like how he told us to hurry. Could be he just wants to make us nervous so we rush into a mistake.”
            “You know him the best,” Banner says to Thor. “Does that sound like something he’d do?”
            “Yes,” Thor says after a moment’s hesitation, and Loki wants to scream. “It has long been his preference, to manipulate others through his words rather than stating his desires outright. But…I am not sure, in truth, that I ever knew him as well as I always believed. I can no longer be certain of much, where my brother is concerned.”
            “He called himself a monster,” Banner says. “At first I thought maybe he was talking about me, but…”
            Thor winces, and Fury pounces on the reaction. “Something you wanna share with the rest of the class, Odinson?”
            “I mentioned that he was adopted,” Thor says reluctantly. Of course he did; he wouldn’t want his new admirers thinking he shared blood with a beast. “What I did not say is that he is an entirely different species.” Shame colors his expression, and even from here Loki can feel his stomach clenching to see it. He should not be surprised to know Thor’s pretty words about brotherhood were lies, and this sudden rush of hurt and betrayal marks him truly as a fool, to think perhaps somehow Thor could look past what Loki cannot. Banner is right that Loki called himself a monster; why should he now let it pain him that Thor is clearly ashamed to name a monster his brother?
            “Oh my god,” Stark says, “is he a shapeshifter? That’s potentially both awesome and horrifying.”
            “What you have seen is his accustomed form,” Thor says. “Until very recently, only our parents knew it was not his natural appearance. In truth, he is a Frost Giant, a member of a race that Asgard has…regarded unfavorably for quite some time.”
            Rogers straightens in his seat, and Fury’s eye sharpens. “What does that mean, exactly?”
            Thor looks down at his hands. “Their king was bloodthirsty and aggressive. He tried to seize your realm about 1,000 years ago, and we defeated him. And since then, Asgard has tended to view the Jotnar as…well, monsters. I was not there, when Loki learned he was Jotun, but…he did not take it well.”
            “The Destroyer incident,” Fury says.
            Thor grimaces. “Among other things. If he is now calling himself a monster, then…he may not believe me when I beg him to return to the family that loves and misses him. I…think now that he has always doubted, to some extent, and now he is certain he does not belong with us.”
            Stark throws up his hands. “Great, so on top of the bog-standard crazy, we’ve got racism, family issues, and an identity crisis. What’s next, a bad hair day? No, wait, he’s got that covered too.”
            “So,” Fury says, ignoring Stark, “the things you think you know about your brother might be completely inaccurate by now.”
            Thor shrugs, a strangely helpless gesture. “It is possible.”
            “Well, what about the grandstanding?” Rogers asks. “Is that normal for him?”
            Thor hesitates again, then shakes his head. “My brother has always been clever, and he rarely speaks without purpose. He would not boast in this way and risk showing his hand, not unless it was part of some strategy. At least, I do not believe he would. What that strategy might be, I do not know.”
            For a moment Loki is frozen with surprise, to hear Thor willingly claim him as family even after revealing his true nature, and to realize Thor has perhaps not been so blind as Loki has long believed. He pushes it aside; he cannot afford distractions now.
            “Agent Romanoff, you’ve been pretty quiet,” Fury says. “Observations?”
            She nods and folds her hands on the table. “I think he’s being monitored and he isn’t being straight with us because he can’t. That was my impression anyway, based on what he said and how his behavior changed between when I first talked to him and when the three of us did, and it tracks with what Thor’s just told us.”
            Oh, thank the Norns. If they all survive this, Loki will have to find some way to repay her, especially for trying to be objective even when her hawk is in danger.
            Rogers is frowning. “You think he might be trying to warn us?”
            “I think it would be a mistake to take too much on faith, one way or another,” she says, “but it’s a strong possibility.”
            “Okay,” Stark says, “so who wants to translate out of self-aggrandizing Viking bullshit into something that actually makes sense?”
            Romanoff’s eyebrow twitches as if she wants to say something pointed, but she simply shrugs. “It’s not that complicated. He outright told us things are more complex than they might seem, that he’s working for somebody named Thanos, and that he has an army coming. He also strongly implied that it’s dangerous to keep him and the scepter in the same place, which could mean Barton and whoever else he picked up will use it as a beacon to attack the helicarrier.”
            “Uh,” Banner says, his voice suddenly higher. “Maybe we want to land, then? If things are going to get exciting, you really don’t want me to be here, or I might end up doing Loki’s job for him.”
            “I told Hill to put us over water already,” Fury says. “We’re over the Atlantic now, with the bridge standing by to descend if necessary.” Good: at least Fury is taking basic precautions. He turns to Thor. “What do you know about Thanos?”
            “Legends,” Thor says, looking troubled. “It is said he wanted to sacrifice all life in the universe to Death, his lover. If it is he who sent Loki after the Tesseract, it is all the more crucial that we keep it from him.”
            “Okay, and are we thinking Loki was coerced into working for him?” Rogers asks. “That seems like it might be a real stretch. If it’s true, though…”
            “His specific words were ‘powerful’ and ‘cruel,’” Romanoff says. “He did say it was a willing partnership, but—”
            “He also spoke of a conversation that never happened,” Thor says. “On the Bifrost, he told me he never wanted the throne. Now he reminds me of it and claims he said the exact opposite in the same breath as he insists his hate drove him to choose this alliance with Thanos. You truly think…?” The growing hope in his eyes is painful, and Loki cannot look at him—for pitiful gratitude that Thor is still willing to believe something other than the worst of him, and sick anger that he was so ready to assume otherwise until a handful of mortals presented compelling arguments otherwise.
“I think it’s possible,” Romanoff repeats.
            “Okay, so now what?” Stark says, his voice gone very slightly blurry. “We just believe him and act on information that could be another trap, on the off chance that we’ve got a bigger enemy? Because look, he busted up a town because of a fight with his brother, singlehandedly destroyed a SHIELD installation, took out a guy’s eyeball, and threatened a freaking Holocaust survivor. Even if he doesn’t want to be this Thanos’s tool, he’s still a tool in general.”
            Banner straightens, frowning at the monitor for the laboratory where the scepter is being kept, then at the one that displays Loki’s cage. For a moment Loki has no idea what’s caught his attention, because he isn’t doing anything interesting, although the connection is getting harder to hold, all the Avengers beginning to grow indistinct.
            “So, what,” Rogers says, sounding incredulous, “you want to ignore something that might be good intel just because you don’t like the source? I’m not saying we should blindly trust him, but we’d be irresponsible if we didn’t take this into account.”
            “Um, guys?” Banner says.
            Something is wrong. Something is tugging on his mind, weakening the connection, and he struggles to think past the sensation that his head is stuffed with wool. His awareness is fraying, split between his distant body and his hovering consciousness, and it seems to take a great deal of effort to focus on anything. He can see himself on the monitor, slumping forward with one hand on his head, which must be why Banner is looking at him, but he isn’t—he hasn’t moved. Has he? He would feel the difference. Should feel the difference.
            “Oh, come on,” Stark says, “like you’re the soul of responsibility. You have any idea how many crazy stories my dad told about you?”
            Rogers’ eyebrows draw together. “Everything I did was to serve my country. You just made yourself rich.”
            “Gentlemen,” Fury snaps, “if you’re going to have a pissing contest, do it on your own time. I’m not asking you to like each other or the God of Crazy, I’m asking if you’ll put on your big boy pants for five seconds, do what’s necessary, and work together.”
            “Guys!” Banner says, and something in his voice finally catches the others’ attention.
            “What’s up?” Stark asks.
            Banner doesn’t even look uncomfortable at the sudden attention, which is as good an indication as any that something’s wrong. “The energy levels coming off the scepter are going crazy, and Loki looks weird. Weirder. Something’s happening.”
            Yes, Loki thinks. Something is wrong. Something—
            Stark moves to join him, and then the gem at the scepter’s heart pulses in a blinding flash, and Loki feels it jerk painfully at his mind. Hooks sink deep into his mind and yank, and there’s a surreal moment where he is caught like a fly on a pin, his mind torn in three different directions and each part of him too paralyzed to move. He sees himself on the monitor, dropping to his knees and clutching his head while blood runs in thin streams from his nose; feels, but distantly, his knees hitting the floor with bruising force; and feels the Other’s claws burrowing into his mind.
Thor seizes the screen. “What’s wrong, what’s it doing to him?”
Loki doubles over, choking, and vomits dark blood on the floor—sees it doubled, once in front of his face, once on the monitor, and then everything is ripped away and he can see nothing at all. He knows what’s coming, and he doesn’t have the strength to stop it. Agony floods his spirit-body even before the asteroid field has finished forming around him and he can feel the rock under his knees, and cold terror douses his rage.
            He is Loki of Asgard and he will not be used, but something inside him shrivels at the thought of more pain.
            “You think yourself clever, don’t you, little god?” the Other says, one misshapen, clammy hand gripping the side of Loki’s head. “Did you think your master is as foolish as you are? He does not part with his tools and toys without knowing that he can retrieve them.” His thumbs press in hard and Loki’s vision turns white with pain, as if all the stars above him have forced their way inside his body to burn him up from within. The fire is all-encompassing, inescapable, and when he tries to scream he gags on his own blood.
“And did you think we would not notice your pathetic, grasping attempts to warn the humans?” the Other asks. “Or are you truly so incompetent that you cannot see your own folly?”
            Damn, Loki thinks dizzily. Well, at least he did buy himself some time; he has no doubt the Other would have responded instantly if he had not tried for subtlety, though that is small comfort when his skull is threatening to crack open. If he can salvage the situation, or at least gain a little more time— “Neither,” he gasps. “I wanted—they listened, I can make them believe I am on their side, I can—use them—” Every cell screams with pain, and he can feel his mind beginning to unravel as the Other starts to reassert control.
            “Did you think we needed you so badly that we wouldn’t watch you?” the Other says, his voice clawing through Loki’s head. “Did you think we would let you run wild and try to thwart our plans? It is done. Everything has already been set in motion, and we have no greater need of you as anything but an example of failure and disobedience.”
            “Please, I am still—I can still be of use—” It’s so hard to think, everything tearing apart inside him, and he scrambles for any lie that might yet save him. “They will trust me now, I can deliver these heroes to your master, just let me—”
            “Of course you can still be of use. You will be a mindless weapon until we retrieve you.”
            He can feel cold fingers worming into all the cracks inside him and prying them apart, splitting him open along fault lines he didn’t even know existed until just a handful of minutes ago. It is not just agony but violation, nauseating and relentless, and it has to stop, he has to make it stop, he will do anything
            Reality snaps back into place around him with dizzying abruptness. He is curled on a cold metal floor, weak and disoriented, and his mouth tastes of blood and sour vomit. When he tries to spit, he gags, and a sudden fit of coughing leaves him breathless, so he decides he is going to stay very still and do nothing for the foreseeable future.
            Except a very familiar, insistent voice is battering at him, and he has a sudden and equally familiar desire to throw something heavy in the speaker’s direction. Probably a book, although anything near to hand will do.
            “Brother, please, listen to me—” The voice turns away. “Open this door, you must let me go to him!”
            “After that? Not a chance,” another voice says flatly, and it takes Loki an instant of confusion to recognize it as Fury’s. Uneasily, he wonders whether he said anything out loud when he was pleading with the Other. “If the scepter’s controlling him, God knows what he might do.”
            “At least one of you is paying attention,” Loki mutters.
            “Loki!” Thor’s voice is louder again, and Loki winces. “Can you hear me, brother?”
            “I suspect…even the dead can hear you.” Very carefully Loki slits his eyes open; he is still in the cage, Thor watching him anxiously from the other side of the barrier, with Fury and Romanoff a few paces behind him.
            Thor’s shoulders slump with relief. “Thank the Norns.”
            “Thank me,” another voice says, this one a little crackly as if it’s coming from one of the mortals’ communication devices, and Loki recognizes it as Stark by little more than the annoyance it engenders. “Told you it would work.”
            Moving cautiously, Loki sits up and edges away from the pool of bloody vomit on the floor. “What did you do?” he croaks, doubly annoyed by the way his own voice sounds. He must have at least been screaming physically, then.
            “Made an energy shield,” Stark says, and somehow he’s even more irritating when he’s just a disembodied voice (and Loki wants no reason to be grateful to him). “Well, Bruce helped. I’m actually using a spare arc reactor to power it and basically just blocking everything it’s emitting. Well, almost everything. For now. But uh, I don’t actually know how long it’s going to last because the energy’s so damn erratic, and yes, you can all mark your calendars, I did just admit to not knowing something, it’s not gonna happen again anytime soon.”
There is no longer a point to attempting subterfuge—or to grandstanding, as Rogers put it, so Loki stays seated on the floor. “Listen to me. Tha—the Titan is real and he sent me to bring him the Tesseract so he can reenter the Nine Realms. He must not be allowed to succeed, no matter the cost. Selvig has the Tesseract now and he will use it to open the portal above Stark Tower—”
            “Seriously?” Stark’s voice says.
            “—and bring in an army of Chitauri. I do not know if there is time to intercept him but if you cannot, I think the scepter can be used to shut down the portal—”
            “You think?” Fury says.
            “My mind was not entirely my own and I still managed to work in a bit of sabotage without realizing I was doing it,” Loki snaps, “so you will have to forgive me for not making things more convenient for you. I still can barely think with the Titan’s lackey trying to reclaim me through that damned scepter—and if he does, at best he will tear apart my mind and leave me a drooling wreck that can give you no more information. More likely he would seize control entirely and turn me into a mindless puppet bent only on your destruction. So by all means, continue to waste everyone’s time with pointless questions.”
            “Brother,” Thor says very quietly, and Loki flinches. “What did he do to you?”
            “What did I just say about pointless questions,” Loki says, deliberately looking anywhere but at Thor. “You have to land this ship now—”
            He is cut off by a distant explosion, and the ship shudders under them. Fury grabs a handrail and barks, “The hell are you idiots doing to my boat?”
            “That wasn’t me!” Stark yelps. “Bruce, hey, you’re good, right?”
            Another male voice, a bit muffled: “Keeping a lid on it. Yep. Trying.”
            The ship rocks again, and Fury claps a hand to his ear. Loki is almost certain what the director is hearing through his earpiece, and it’s confirmed when Fury drops his hand and glares at him. Romanoff’s gaze is slightly more impartial but no less intense.
            “It’s your hawk, isn’t it,” Loki says, and he hopes his weary amusement doesn’t show on his face. Of course his plan to sow chaos on this vessel would begin falling into place exactly when he no longer wants it to succeed.
            “Apparently not mine at the moment,” Fury says. “If you’re actually trying to help, why haven’t you called off your damn attack dogs?”
            “It is not that simple,” Loki begins, and then he hunches forward with a gasp as a flash of pain sizzles through him. It’s not as bad as before and he doesn’t lose his grip on reality, but the building pressure in his temples is a warning that it’s only a matter of time.
            Thor’s knuckles go white on the handrail. “Stark, what did you—”
            “Nothing, I didn’t do anything, why does everybody always—shit, okay, whatever’s coming off the scepter was already burning through my field, but that last explosion knocked something loose and now the shield’s deteriorating about three times as fast, and even the arc reactor can’t keep up with it.”
            “Can you fix it?” Thor demands.
            “Maybe, if I can get five seconds without everyone bugging me—” There is another explosion, the ship drops with a lurch that sends even Thor staggering, and the voice dissolves in static. When Stark speaks again, his voice is crackly and distorted. “—shit, no I can’t, the lab’s basically gone now and I can’t get back to the scepter so you’ve got whatever’s left of the shield and that’s it—Bruce, hey, look at me, think nice calming sciencey thoughts until I get to my suit—”
            “Thor, I need you on Hulk duty now,” Fury says.
            Thor casts a torn look at Loki, who realizes vaguely through the throbbing in his head that his nose has started to bleed again. “I cannot—”
            “I’m not asking you—”
            “Guys, I got this!” Stark says. “Come on, buddy, you keep doing whatever you’re doing, almost there and I’ll get you somewhere better, okay?”
            “Director,” Loki says, “you need to get me or the scepter off this ship immediately.”
            “In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re kind of under attack right now, so that might be a little difficult.”
            Loki grits his teeth and forces himself to say, “Then I want you to drop me.”
            “Excuse me?” Fury says.
            “Do what you threatened and put this cage to its intended use.”
            “And why the hell would I want to do that?”
            Loki struggles to his feet, one hand pressed to the glass for balance. Whatever happens, he will face it standing. “Unless you can think of a better way to put a great deal of distance between me and the scepter very quickly, the situation in which you have found yourself is going to get much worse.”
            “You could drown,” Thor protests.
            “This cage is part of a ship, I am quite sure it will float,” Loki snaps. In truth he is sure of no such thing, but that is not the point, as usual; for Thor, he only needs to be convincing, and derision tends to accomplish that handily.
            “No,” Thor says. “No, this is—”
            “A bad idea,” Fury says. “Your guys are attacking my ship, you’re the only one who knows what the hell is going on, and now you want off?”
            Loki’s already tenuous control snaps, and he slams one fist into the barrier, voice cracking as he shouts, “I will not have that thing in my head again!”
            Romanoff is standing almost directly behind Fury, so he sees the sudden, subtle shift in her expression, and he knows that this, at least, will be all right. She understands why he needs this, she sees what must be done, and she will do it.
            He was more right than he realized at first, when he thought Romanoff and Gamora were very much alike. Romanoff, too, knows what it is to be made a weapon for others to use, that any scrap of regained personhood is precious, that cruel mercy is still mercy.
            Without a word, she takes two steps to the console and hits a switch, and the floor under the cage disappears. Thor starts forward and Fury wheels on Romanoff, whose hand is already touching the control that will send the cage plummeting. She looks at him in an unspoken question and he is suddenly unable to speak because he is going to fall again, he is asking for it, and he can’t
            This fall will not last forever, and whatever happens when he lands, it cannot possibly be worse than what awaited him at the end of his last plunge into the abyss.
            He nods, her hand moves, and the cage drops.

November 2016

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