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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.

Part II: Midgard

The plan is unfolding perfectly, and still Loki cannot shake the growing sense that something is very, very wrong. Not with the plan, exactly, or at least not in the way it will further his goals; Selvig has the Tesseract and his iridium and he is on his way to an ideal power source, and Loki is being marched onboard SHIELD’s helicarrier to play his part in crippling the Avengers before they can properly come together as a team, and something is not right.
            He is careful to project unconcern and even disdain for the human soldiers that surround him and the agents who watch him through every camera he passes, and in truth he finds it highly unlikely that any of the mortals would truly be able to hurt him if they tried. They are inventive, and they have Thor now to advise them, but he is not actually worried about what they will do to him. And yet—
            There is something about the long rifles, the metal corridors, the simple fact of being imprisoned that makes his skin crawl. Something about shackles and collars—never mind that the humans have used none with him—and the ever-present ache in his bones that has faded since he stepped through the portal but has not yet vanished entirely (and he still cannot determine why he felt so ill in the first place).
            It is fine, he tells himself. The Other is impatient, but Loki will not fail, will show the Other and his master that Asgard’s castoff prince is a force to be reckoned with. He will bring them the Tesseract, and they will be pleased, and—everything will be fine. He will have what he deserves. He need not fear the Void, ever again.
            Who controls the would-be king? Thor demands in his memory, and Loki’s lip curls (even as uneasiness stirs somewhere in his mind). No one controls him. Not ever again.
            No one except—
            No, that is wrong. Isn’t it?
            Fury leaves him in a circular prison made of glass and metal, and Loki is alone (for the first time since—something. Since the Void?), and his mind will not stop worrying at it, the wrongness like an itch he cannot quite ignore. It is worse when he thinks of Thor, until the anger drowns it out; worse when he thinks of the image of his mother that appeared to him before he stepped through the portal, that he dismissed as a trap. Better when he thinks about the army waiting for him, ready to fall on the humans at his command; worse when he catches himself wondering, very vaguely, what happens after.
The Black Widow’s arrival is a welcome distraction, but only for a moment. “After whatever tortures Fury can concoct, you would appear as a friend, as a balm,” he says, smiling. “And I would cooperate—” and why is he suddenly certain he has had this exact conversation before? Or—not this precisely, but something very like it, speaking to someone very like Romanoff of her intentions, and why can he not remember?
“I want to know what you’ve done to Agent Barton,” she says, as he thought she might, and this is good, this is all part of the plan, he knows what to do with her concern for Barton. He draws out the story, a little at a time, and he is almost sorry they must be enemies. There is true steel in her, both fire and pragmatism. Well, perhaps he can make an ally of her too; certainly Barton would be pleased. (Except—he doesn’t want that. Does he?)
“I like this,” he tells her, with a wide smile he knows looks more than a little mad. Something is tugging at him, something— “Your world in the balance, and you bargain for one man?”
She lifts her chin, but only a fraction, and her eyes are hard with resolve. “Regimes fall every day; I tend not to weep over that. I’m Russian. Or I was.”
There is something about her, something he cannot name, and why is it so damned familiar? “And what are you now?” he asks, and that is somehow worse, every word drawing him closer to—something.
“It’s really not that complicated,” Romanoff says, and then: “I’ve got red in my ledger. I want to wipe it out.” There is…a cadence to it, something he knows, not the words but the sense of…something practiced, repeated, held close…
            Can you? Loki wants to say, means to say. Can you wipe out that much red? He knows enough about her from Barton to know where the old wounds are, knows what to say to destabilize her and the rest of this ragtag group. Instead he hears himself ask, “Is that your truth, Agent Romanoff? Your touchstone?”
            “I guess that’s one way to look at it,” she says.
            There is more that he means to say, and more that he needs to know, and for a long moment he is silent, struggling to think. What is he missing? It is something important, it has to be, but what
            Romanoff is waiting silently too, watching him, her expression revealing nothing. A tiny certainty slots into place, and he finally puts words to part of it: “You’re the wrong color.”
            Her eyebrow rises in what he thinks is genuine surprise, although the expression of it isn’t. “What color should I be?”
            Of all the utterly inane things to fix on— But it is true, somehow he knows he is on the right path, and he is at least certain about this much: “Green. You should—you should be green.”
            Romanoff glances down at her black jumpsuit, then back up at him. “You want us to match?”
            “Not your clothes. Your skin.”
            Her other eyebrow goes up, and her expression flickers with interest. “Sure you’re not confusing me with someone else?”
            “Of course I am,” he says impatiently. “And no, I do not mean Banner. I am not blind. There was a green woman, and she was like you, an assassin, beautiful and deadly, and she spoke to me—” He falls silent, digging through his strangely clouded memories. Romanoff, wisely, doesn’t comment on his inadvertently complimentary comparison and simply waits.
It occurs to him that this is the first time he’s truly tried to examine his memories of his allies or how they came to be his allies, which is exceptionally strange, and as he thinks it, he realizes something else: that his mind seems less clouded now than it has in…a long time. He doesn’t know how long.
            “She spoke to me,” he says again, as if he has to convince anyone but himself. But that doesn’t make sense, does it? There was the Other, his master, pain and darkness, and he made this bargain freely, he must have done, so what is this lingering sense of the green woman and some strange, harsh kindness?
            Is that your truth, Asgardian? Your touchstone?
If you can do it…if you find a hard little core of truth and bury it deep enough inside you…
For just a moment, everything inside him goes still, and in the stillness there is a single phrase:
            I am Loki of Asgard, and I—
I will not be used—
Memories threaten to overwhelm him, blood and pain and a huge hand twisting in his hair, and he pushes back with something like panic, because he cannot lose this fragile thread of control he has regained. He will remember everything, if he survives, and that is not a particularly cheering thought, but he cannot afford to do so now, when he has a glimpse of the truth and enough anger to do what he must. He has one chance and he can already feel himself slipping, blood and pain and a terrible voice that seems to resonate inside his skull, You were made to be ruled and This is where you belong, on your knees like the beast you are and it’s true, he knows it’s true, but—
            I am Loki of Asgard, and I will not be used.
He breathes out, once, twice, slowly, grasping for control, and forces his fists to uncurl; realizes his has drawn blood, without noticing, where his nails bit into his palms. More blood, of course, and he—fool that he is—tricked into turning on himself.
            He laughs without humor, startling Romanoff. She’s too practiced to flinch, but her calm regard sharpens. She wouldn’t understand the cosmic joke of all this, of course, but Loki is as much the punchline as the humans are, and now that he knows, he wants—he wants—
            Loki refocuses on Romanoff and says, “I need to speak to Thor. Immediately.”
            “I’ll pass that along,” she says. “Might be a few minutes.”
Loki nods and turns away, giving in to the urge to pace as he thinks. He is suddenly fascinated by his own word choice, back in the Tesseract facility, because to say that he is burdened with glorious purpose is, perhaps, to indicate that someone else carried out the act of burdening him in the first place. If his buried truth was working its way to the surface even then—
Yes. Not just in words but in actions. He could have crafted a better plan, could have taken Fury under thrall from the beginning, could have chosen subtle manipulations over showmanship, could have picked off the Avengers quietly instead of giving them a common enemy, could have done so many things differently if he truly wanted to win. If he truly wanted Thanos to win. And instead, he has been…sabotaging himself, already, without even realizing it, and he owes that at least in part to Gamora’s words.
He does not remember choosing his touchstone, not really—his memories of Sanctuary have mostly blurred together, but even so, he does not remember deciding anything. It simply was, a truth his subconscious mind clung to even before he realized he was doing it. And it is truly curious, the words that became his touchstone laying claim to the home that had cast him out, perhaps even to his family. He is not entirely sure he wants to examine what that means and equally aware that he will have to, eventually.
            Because he remembers…he is not sure what he remembers. I remember you tossing me into an abyss he told Thor and that, he thinks, is not entirely true, but he is not sure what is. Surely not Thor’s idea that Loki’s grievances are “imagined slights,” he knows that was not true, but…he is also not certain that Thor’s shadow loomed quite so large in his mind before he fell. He cannot rule out the idea that Thanos might have tainted his memories.
            Later, if he can, perhaps he will be able to untangle those memories. He is at least certain that he wants nothing to do with the Titan, and for now, that is enough. The question is what he is going to do about it.
For a tantalizing moment he considers seizing Midgard after all, uniting it under his rule to defend against Thanos. He could do it, he thinks—be a king in truth, a good king bringing peace to the squabbling mortals, and he could finally show everyone—
            And with another breath he lets the idea go, because a scheme like that still involves far, far too much risk, and it is inevitable that at least a few more humans would die for it, which would please Thanos regardless of the ultimate outcome. With the knowledge that Thanos manipulated his mind somehow, he knows he cannot trust any idea that would further the Titan’s plans, even in a small way. He has been compromised, as the agents say, and anything he does must take that fact into account. Galling as it is, then, his best chance is to truly work with the humans rather than trying to use them.
He has no idea how the scepter’s hold on his mind functions, whether he is always being watched or only when Thanos bothers to take specific notice, whether his thoughts and memories and intentions are completely open over such a great distance or if perhaps the Other can only perceive what Loki sees and hears. He is certain only that the Titan’s manipulations will not be easily undone, that he cannot seal up the fissures in his mind on his own, and that he must be exceedingly careful now in what he says and does. Thanos used the scepter on him with some degree of finesse, and Loki suspects the same level of precision would not be possible from a distance, but he also has little doubt that a more brute-force form of control would be effective. They do not need his conscious mind, after all, as much as they need his knowledge and abilities—and at this point, considering what he has already set in motion, they may not need him at all.
            So: he cannot simply tell them straight out the details of his plan, or those of the Titan’s greater schemes to the extent that he understands them. (He is not entirely certain he wants to either, but he suspects that reluctance is simply part of whatever Thanos twisted in his mind and therefore does not deserve to be heeded. He knows, with absolute certainty beyond genuine anger or implanted loyalty, that he hates Thanos and wants to stop him, that this was true even when he was incapable of consciously realizing it, and that his best chance of frustrating the Titan’s plans lies with Thor and these humans.) He only hopes that someone here is better at hearing what is left unsaid than Thor is wont to be.
            Thor is not alone when he arrives, accompanied by Fury himself, and Loki is relieved to see Romanoff making no move to leave either. Out of the possible audiences he could find on this ship, they seem the most likely to understand at least some of what he needs to tell them—if Fury’s judgment is not already clouded by anger and Romanoff’s by her attachment to her hawk.
            “So,” Fury says before anyone else can speak, “I hear you finally feel like sharing something with us ants.”
            “I daresay what I feel like is irrelevant,” Loki says. He must be so, so careful, layering every word with a double meaning, and already he is not sure he has the energy to do this properly. “But perhaps you were misinformed, or perhaps I misspoke.” He glances toward Romanoff with a lazy smirk. “I believe I said I would speak with my dear brother, not with you—and I do not believe I ever indicated I intended to cooperate with SHIELD.”
Romanoff’s eyebrows draw together very slightly, and Fury’s eye narrows. At least they are paying attention. Thor, whose expression of thinly veiled optimism faded to disappointment as Loki spoke, crosses his arms and scowls. “You said you wished to speak with me—so speak, and for once in your life, speak plainly.”
            “Ah, Thor,” Loki says with mocking pity. “Always so certain that every circumstance you encounter is as simple as you are. No, I am afraid that I can say nothing any of you will be terribly pleased to hear. I merely wish you to understand the depths of your own hopelessness if you truly think your motley band alone can stop what is coming.”
            “Loki, enough,” Thor growls.
            Fury cuts him off with a wave. “You know, you’ve got a lot of big talk, but I haven’t actually seen anything that impresses me yet. So if you’re not gonna tell us anything new, I think I’m gonna take a nap.”
            It’s a blatant jab at Loki’s pride, but it’s useful for now, so he lets it stand. “You can barely cope with me and a handful of human minions. What can you possibly do against the army that is coming after me, or the being who placed that army under my command?”
            “I’d say we’ve done pretty well for ourselves so far,” Fury says.
            “And you forget that I have allied myself with these humans,” Thor says. “No army can stand against the might of Asgard.”
            Bless Thor for unwittingly giving him a perfect opening. “Are you so certain of that, Thunderer? You know nothing of my—benefactor. What would you say if I told you that all the Nine came together to defeat him once, lifetimes ago, and could do no more than banish him?”
            That gives Thor pause, and he frowns. “I know of no such being.”
            Loki is suddenly visited by the horrible and rather hysterical desire to laugh. If his gamble fails because Thor could not be bothered to pay attention during his lessons— “I will not speak his name,” he says, “but I should hope you remember the stories of Death’s lover, the Mad Titan. That is what you face.”
            “Those were stories,” Thor says. “Not…” He trails off, and Loki lets him think (Fury and Romanoff remain silent as well, further proof of their intelligence). “You would have me believe that Thanos exists in truth?”
            Loki flinches at the name, unable to control it, and he curses himself for not expecting this. At least his involuntary reaction might yet be useful, if the spies interpret it correctly. He bares his teeth in an expression no one could reasonably mistake for a smile and says, “Oh, he exists, and he is crueler and more powerful than your feeble imagination can grasp. And to think, Odinson, I would never have encountered him if the Allfather had seen fit to pull me back from the Void instead. Isn’t that funny?”
“And you hate us so much that you would join with such a being to bring destruction to innocent Midgard?” Thor demands.
            Loki gives him a brightly false smile. “Do you not recall what I said to you on the Bifrost, brother? I have always hated you for taking the throne that should have been mine.” He is certain, at least, that he did not say that. If Thor is still too dense to realize something is amiss, Loki cannot imagine what will get his attention, but at least this does not all depend on Thor. “And now you have done it again, bringing a monster into your midst that will doom you all, just the same as your idiot parents.” He presses one hand against the glass, fixing Fury and Romanoff with a stare that he knows is more than a little mad. “It’s too late. Don’t you see? Try to save yourselves if you like; it will avail you nothing. As long as that scepter is on board, you are all doomed.”
            “You talk a lot about doom for a guy in a cage,” Fury says.
            Loki laughs. “I am precisely where I want to be, Director. Can any of you say the same?” This lie tastes sour on his tongue as none of the others did, and his head hurts, and he knows he is losing the thread, unable to strike the right balance between telling them too much and too little. It is already so hard to think.
            Fury looks at him hard for a moment, then nods once and turns to go. “Thor, Romanoff, time for a team huddle. Let’s go.”
            “Do make haste,” Loki calls after them. “I would hate for you to miss the fun.” Thor, frowning deeply, seems to want to say something but holds his peace when Romanoff ushers him out. She glances back at him, expression reassuringly thoughtful. 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.

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