100indecisions: my chains are broken (holding up sunlight)
[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.


The cage drops, flinging Loki off his feet immediately (he is vaguely conscious of an absurd flicker of relief that at least no one else can see this). He hits the wall and scrambles for purchase, but there’s nothing to grip, and then the cage slews sideways and begins to tumble end over end. He crashes into the opposite wall, hauls himself halfway upright, and lunges to the side—putting him in just the right place to slide into the bench bolted to one wall when the cell flips again. Gravity nearly rips his fingers away before he can grab hold, but with a surge of adrenaline and fury, he manages to wedge himself into a slightly better position under the bench.
Were he at full strength, or anything better than this drained state, he could at least slow the cell’s descent. But he has neither the strength nor the focus, so all he can do is cling to the bench as he falls, the cell tumbling end over end and his heartbeat roaring in his head even louder than the wind outside—
            The chamber hits water with stunning force and for an instant everything goes white. When he can see again he is halfway across the room, his head ringing, his whole body throbbing, and a persistent high-pitched whine filling his ears. The cell would, perhaps, have been of the right shape to float had it landed a little more gently; instead the glass, having taken the brunt of the impact, cracks as Loki blinks at it. The cell begins to sink, and the glass shatters inward with the sudden increase in pressure, and the chamber begins to flood.
            For a moment Loki just stares at the water, too dazed to understand what it means, and then he forces himself to his knees. The world dips and shivers around him, and he is not sure whether it is only his own dizziness or the cell tipping as it sinks. He tries to get his feet under himself and staggers, falling hard to one knee in the rising seawater.
            The cell shifts again, more glass breaking away, and still more water floods inside, knocking Loki off balance again. He grits his teeth and begins to drag himself hand over hand toward the opening, fighting water the whole way until the cell tips fully downward and cold seawater closes over his head.
            Under normal circumstances, he could shatter the nearest cell wall with a thought, but his head is still spinning too much to concentrate, and without the scepter, he is not sure he is capable of even that much. So instead he must reach the opening, or he will drown. His lungs are burning already, his body heavy and sluggish, and the cell keeps dragging him further downward. By the time he manages to gain the opening, he can barely see for all the tiny black specks crowding across his vision. He fumbles for the jagged edges, aware only of a vague surprise and no pain when blood blooms from his palms, and then he hauls himself clear of the cell with the last of his strength. The surface is far away, impossibly far, and his body will no longer obey him.
            The first gasp of seawater is agonizing. His lungs try to cough it out and only succeed in breathing more water. His chest feels full of spikes that sharpen and grow with every passing second, and he understands: he is going to drown. He has survived everything the Norns have seen fit to throw at him—Jotunheim, the Void, the Chitauri, even the damned Mad Titan and his children—and now he is going to drown. On Midgard, of all places. Disgust doesn’t even begin to cover his feelings on the matter.
            But at least, he thinks, he was able to choose this. They took that away and he took it back, because he is Loki of Asgard and he will not be used. He clings to that as his body fails and the dark closes in—
And then a blurry, indistinct figure fills his narrowing vision, and something collides with him and he is rising upward, somehow, the light of the surface growing closer and closer until he bursts out of the water entirely. Everything is bright and sharp and then he is on solid ground again, strong arms still holding him up. Strong, familiar arms. Loki vomits up a great quantity of seawater, the majority of which ends up on Thor’s cloak, although he’s soaked enough already that it makes little difference. For a long moment he is helpless to do anything but hold onto Thor and gasp for breath (and try to pretend that he does not feel abruptly, absurdly safe in his brother’s embrace).
“Stop making me watch you fall,” Thor says, his voice choked.
            Loki coughs. “My apologies. Next time I will try to make sure you are not looking.”
            Thor’s hands seize his shoulders and shake him. “Loki, stop. Why must you always—you know that is not what I meant!”
            Sheer force of habit demands further argument, but he is too wrung out for much. “Not everything is about the Mighty Thor, you know.”
            Thor’s grip tightens. “No, this is about you, and you are my little brother and I love you, and if you will not value your own life, apparently I must do it for you.”
            Loki definitely doesn’t have the strength to deal with this now, especially not the treacherous warmth that blooms inside him at his idiot brother’s declaration, so he simply shakes his head. “It was a matter of some necessity, in this case.”
            Thor sighs, hands sliding down to grasp Loki’s upper arms as if he thinks Loki is unable to remain upright without support (which, to be fair, is probably true at the moment). “And did it work? Are you free of the scepter’s influence?”
            Trying to examine the state of his mind just hurts, so he shrugs. “At least for the moment. I also suspect I have a concussion and I have no idea if that will make matters better or worse, so I dare not get any closer to the scepter. Or the Tesseract, I suppose.”
            “Can you heal yourself?” Thor asks, looking worried.
            Loki shrugs again, winces, and brings one arm up to press the cool metal of his vambrace against his forehead. “Perhaps.” He is almost certain he does not have enough seidr or concentration to do so at the moment, but Thor hardly needs to know that. “I imagine your friends could use your help. I am certainly not going anywhere.”
“My place is with you,” Thor says, and for a moment Loki just blinks stupidly at him, unable to comprehend those words in that order coming from Thor. The probable concussion doesn’t help, of course, but that’s far from the only reason. He has heard “Know your place” so many times from Odin and Thor, sometimes with great detail on what exactly that place is, and on rare occasions he has heard Odin similarly lecture Thor. He has never heard…this.
“I have not been the brother I should,” Thor continues, so damn earnest, and he seems to have correctly interpreted Loki’s disbelieving silence. “All this time I thought you lost, I swore I would do better if I could only have you back. I am not going to abandon you.”
Loki squeezes his eyes shut. It is too much, too soon, and he is still too dazed to think straight, and now more than ever he cannot bear Thor seeing him so pathetically weak. He just needs Thor to leave so he can recover—or not—in private. (He wants to do nothing more than rest and let his brother protect him again, just for a little while, never mind that the desire is as shameful as the rest of him.)
            “Well, I cannot get any closer to the scepter, or my dramatic exit will be for nothing,” he says, “and without any way to call them off, I cannot stop Barton and his men from pressing their attack. Unless you wish SHIELD’s flying fortress to fall from the sky—”
“Of course not,” Thor says, “and there may be something you can do. Stark gave me—” He pulls a little device from his ear and holds it out.
            Loki takes it, dubious, remembering the fragile communication devices Barton and his people used, but this one at least looks intact, as wet as it is. He slides it into his ear and flinches as Stark’s voice blares out, “—hearing this, Thor, because—”
            “This is not Thor,” Loki says.
            “Loki, okay, even better. You got any way to communicate with your people? Or like, do you know what frequency they’re using?”
            “I do not,” Loki says. “That is—no. To both questions. It seemed unnecessary at the time.”
            “I was afraid you were going to say that,” Stark says. “Listen, what if I have JARVIS patch you in to the ship’s intercom—you can do that, right?”
            “Of course I can, sir,” another voice says, unfamiliar and oddly metallic.
            “Right. So, we put you on the loudspeaker, you tell everybody to surrender, will that work?”
            Loki sits up straighter and immediately regrets it as even that small movement makes his vision blur and his temples throb. “I—yes. I will try.”
            “And there’s no Fight Club bullshit going on here, right? They’re not going to go ‘oh, you told us you’d say that’ or whatever?”
Loki briefly considers asking what in Hel the mortal is talking about and decides it hardly matters. “I gave them no such instructions, but…it is possible the scepter may have communicated something of the kind to them without my knowledge.”
            “Awesome,” Stark says flatly. “Well, worth a shot. Once JARVIS says you’re live, you’ll be broadcasting to the whole carrier, and everyone on board will be able to hear you, got it?”
            “I’m familiar with the concept,” Loki says.
            “Ready, sir,” says the other voice, presumably JARVIS.
“You’re on,” Stark says. “I’d say knock ‘em dead but frankly I don’t want to give you ideas.”
            “Agent Barton,” Loki says, ignoring this latest bit of inanity, “if you can hear me, the plan has changed. I need you and your men to stand down now. All of you—the plan has changed. Put down your weapons and surrender. The plan has changed. Stand down.” Without a better understanding of the scepter and the gem that powers it, he has no idea whether his thralls’ loyalty is more truly to him or to the Titan’s interests, and all he can do now is hope for the former.
            “Talk to me, J,” Stark says.
“Agent Barton is surrendering to Agent Romanoff,” Jarvis reports. “Of the others under his command, 47% are doing the same. However—”
            There is an explosion, audible even through the earpiece, and Stark swears. “Yeah, Jarvis, I see it. Rogers, get out here and help me restart engine 3.”
“Is Banner—”
            “Meditating really hard,” Stark says. “You two get your asses to New York and stop Selvig, and by the way, Asgard better pay for any damage to my tower.”
            Loki relays the message to Thor (well, the important part), who looks torn, and it is not hard to guess why; he wants neither to leave Loki behind nor to lead him into danger. Loki forbears from rolling his eyes, which at this juncture would only hurt his head, and points out, “I may be able to talk to Selvig, and I am not so injured that I cannot handle a short flight. As long as you don’t drop me.” That is the wrong thing to say and he knows it the moment the words are out, for Thor’s expression spasms with the kind of guilt and self-loathing Loki had never imagined him capable.
            “Never again,” Thor says. “I swear, brother, I will not let you fall again.”
            Loki sighs, even as something in him twinges uncomfortably. “You did not. I let go. I do not intend to do that today.”
            Thor hesitates for a moment, searching Loki’s face, and finally nods. “We will speak later, then.” He offers his arm, and Loki suppresses another sigh but lets Thor pull him close, and then Mjolnir sweeps them both into the air. At least the rushing wind prevents much conversation when Thor flies with him like this; Loki is certain of very little, at the moment, but he is nearly certain he is not ready to face any of the things Thor will want to talk about. But he does surreptitiously rest his head on Thor’s shoulder, and not just to shelter from the wind.
            The city is filling the horizon when he feels it happen, like a punch to the gut and a silent explosion behind his eyes, and he knows what he will see even before he makes himself look: blue light punching upward from one of the tallest towers and ripping open a hole in the sky. He swears, and then flinches when a voice in his ear that he identifies as Rogers says, “What’s wrong?”
            “We’re too late,” Loki says. “The portal just opened.” His hawk swears too, and Loki pushes aside the complicated tangle of relief, guilt, and loss at the realization that Barton is no longer his either. This is not the time for such things.
            “The situation on the helicarrier is under control, and we’re on our way,” Rogers says. “Stark has the scepter and he’ll get there first.”
            Thor lands on the nearest building, and Loki stumbles a little, pretending he doesn’t need Thor’s steadying hand. At least the pain in his head is improving. “Good, because there is no other way to close it.” As he watches, the first Chitauri begin to pour through the portal, followed by the first explosions. “And hurry. I think I kept the portal small, but they are already coming through.”
            “Tell Thor to do what he can to contain them,” Rogers orders. “How far from the scepter do you have to be? We might need you too.”
            “I’ve no idea,” Loki says.
            “I can throw together another shield as soon as I get to the tower,” Stark says, “assuming your alien buddies haven’t already trashed the place.”
            “Brother?” Thor says.
            Loki stares up at the portal, stomach clenching. Close enough to fight Chitauri is almost certainly close enough for the scepter to affect him even before Stark reaches the tower. But—he brought this. He owes them something. “I will have some warning, if the Titan’s lackey tries to take—” (or destroy) “—my mind. If you are willing to take the risk, I will fight them with Thor.”
            There’s a short hesitation, and then Rogers says, “Do it.”
I am Loki of Asgard, he thinks, staring up at the void beyond the sky, with his brother beside him, and I will not be used. You will not have this. You will not have me, ever again. He exhales and turns to Thor. “Let us fight, then.”
It is chaos already, down on the streets, fires burning and vehicles overturned, and for once Loki takes no pleasure in it. This is no glorious battle, as he promised the Other—perhaps it would be, were he still here to sow chaos and destruction from afar as a salve to his rage, but there is no glory in the wreckage of homes and businesses or the terrified citizens fleeing for their lives. He is grateful, he realizes, that he has an unassailable reason to want to save as many humans as he can, to deny Thanos any incidental sacrifices to his lady. That is another thought for later, assuming he is granted the time.
Thor calls the lightning and blasts several invaders away from a vehicle full of civilians, guarding them as they flee to safety, or at least somewhere slightly safer. Loki casts about for a weapon, thinking with frustration of the scepter’s power that he cannot duplicate on his own. If he at least had some throwing knives—
He doesn’t see the Chitauri coming up behind Thor until it’s almost too late. The explosion throws them both back, and the Chitauri lunges, its energy rifle aimed directly at Thor’s head, too close and too fast for Thor to block.
            What happens next is pure instinct, no thought involved beyond something like don’t you dare. Loki dredges up what is left of his seidr and flings out a shield of it, covering Thor and reflecting the blast back onto the Chitauri—and finds himself on hands and knees, gasping, tiny lights bursting in his vision as he struggles to remain conscious. He cannot remember the last time he overextended himself this badly (yes he can, in the Void and in Sanctuary, and he cannot think about that now). But Thor is rolling back to his feet, and that is the important thing. Loki can only watch, his head ringing, as Thor dispatches the Chitauri with a single blow from Mjolnir and then turns to Loki with a broad grin that dims as soon as he sets eyes on him. “Brother, are you—”
            “Fine,” Loki says. “I just need…a moment.”
He tries to stand and nearly collapses again, only Thor’s steadying grip keeping him upright. His face, when Loki manages to focus on it, is pinched with worry. “You should not have done that.”
            “Then try harder not to get shot,” Loki says breathlessly. “Idiot.”
Thor shakes his head, but he is smiling again, small and a little wistful. “It is good beyond words to have you back at my side, brother.”
            “Sentiment,” Loki mutters, but he cannot deny the treacherous warmth blooming around his heart. Thor knows what he is and what he has done, and still he worries, and calls him brother, and wants him here.
            “Are you all right?” Thor asks—concerned, not impatient or mocking, not the tone of someone chiding his tagalong little brother to stop slowing him down. He should be annoyed that Thor seems to believe him incapable, Loki thinks, but he can’t quite muster the necessary irritation. “If you have drained yourself—”
            “I can fight,” Loki says, and grimaces. “Apparently not with magic. I don’t know why.” He scoops up the fallen Chitauri’s rifle. “This will do for now.”
            “Coming in hot!” Stark’s voice blares in his ear, and yes, Loki can feel the scepter now, pressing in at the edges of his awareness, cold fingers groping for purchase—and not quite finding it. His head is pounding again, but it is only pain, nothing breaching his defenses. Well, the concussion must have been good for something, then.
            “I can keep him out of my mind,” Loki says, looking up past the tower. “If you can destroy the Chitauri command center beyond the portal, all the Chitauri troops will fall with it.”
            “Manhattan doesn’t have that kind of time,” Rogers says. “Stark—”
            A Chitauri Leviathan plunges through the portal. Loki swears again, hears it echoed by most of the Avengers, and whirls to Thor. “Get me a skiff. We have to get in the air.”
            If Thor is bothered by taking orders from his little brother, he hides it well, immediately taking off to intercept one of the Chitauri soldiers flying down the canyon formed by the mortals’ enormous buildings. Loki picks off a few of them from the ground, and then Thor is back, still dislodging the charred corpse from the skiff he has captured, and they both take to the air.
            Even if his magic is nearly inaccessible, Loki finds himself grateful for all the time he spent as a boy learning to channel it, because only that intense level of concentration lets him keep flying and shooting with the scepter’s cold presence digging at his mind. They must keep the tower clear, there is no other option, so he keeps fighting even as his vision starts to narrow again and he sees, dimly, the other Avengers joining the fray.
            And then something explodes on the tower’s roof, Stark whoops in triumph, and the portal snaps shut. Some of the pressure goes with it, and the giddy relief of it is almost dizzying. The portal is closed, the rest of the army trapped behind it, and Thanos will not have the Tesseract now. Whatever happens next, Thanos will not have this victory.
            The rest of the battle goes by in something of a blur. The Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man together prove themselves a match for the Leviathan, and Loki is startled but not actually surprised to see Romanoff in the air with him, having commandeered another skiff and rifle. He doesn’t see Barton, wherever the archer is perched, but when Loki blasts a Chitauri chasing Romanoff, he sees the Chitauri coming up behind him plummet earthward with an arrow in its eye.
            Hunting down all the remaining Chitauri takes time, but finally, finally, the sky is clear again, and the Avengers gather on the street below Stark Tower while the human military begins to pick up the pieces. They are all injured and dirty and exhausted, but they are alive, and the day is theirs.
            “Go team, we did it,” Stark says, still a little out of breath. “I don’t know about you guys but I think I’m calling in sick tomorrow. No more Avenging for at least a few days. Pepper can write me a note. Ever tried shawarma? There’s a shawarma joint maybe two blocks from here. I have no idea what it is and I want to try it. Avengers party.”
Loki hangs back, abruptly aware that he has no place in their victory, but Thor pulls him forward as if nothing is amiss, and even Barton does not object.
            Rogers glances at him with a tired smile. “You helped. I’d say that makes you at least an honorary Avenger. You probably haven’t eaten in a while anyway, I’m guessing?”
            “I…do not remember,” Loki says, and Thor frowns at him in a way that reminds him inescapably of Frigga, whenever she is scolding them through her worry.
            “Well, this is Tony,” Romanoff says dryly. “I’m sure it’ll be something unhealthy and filling.” She takes off after Stark, the others following her, and after a moment Loki does the same.
            “We haven’t really stopped him, you know,” he says quietly to Thor as they pick their way through the rubble littering the street. “The Titan. This was only a setback. The Tesseract and the scepter will be safer on Asgard, but he will try again, eventually.”
            “Yes,” Thor says, “but today we have won, and when he returns…” His hand on Loki’s shoulder is warm and grounding, and he is smiling, a little tentative but still achingly familiar and sure. “We will be ready.”
            It will take time, both to prepare the realms for Thanos and to find a place in Asgard again, after…everything. He doesn’t know how to face them, any of them, after what he has done and what was done to him—doesn’t know how to face his own memories and nightmares, new and old alike, as he knows he must. But looking back at Thor now, the hope in his eyes and the steadiness in his hand, Loki thinks for the first time that it might be possible.
            “Yes,” he says. “We will.”
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