"Freedom, freedom, truth, justice, and the American way." Loki balances the curved blade against Steve's throat with the tip of his boot. "No, look up. Look me in the eye. Look me in the eye. Parading around your 'goodness' which is nothing more than fear. You have weakness down to your bones - no, don't interrupt. You have weakness in your arteries. You bleed fear, that's why they made you to be their symbol. A panic-stricken nation swaggering around with their arsenal pointed at anything that coughs."
Steve says, "Well, you'd know all about fear, wouldn't you?"
"Not from experience," Loki says kicking the blade.
The curved edge of the knife sticks in the underside of Steve's chin, and he flinches, because humans do that. They flinch at pain. Loki kicks it again, harder, until the point breaks through the tissues beneath the soldier's tongue, and there is no resistance.
"That all you got?" Steve wheezes, his body wracked with suffering, his skin sweaty with it. Loki takes his foot from Captain American's throat and regains his balance. There is blood welling up through the man's lips, and pouring down his neck.
"This may take a while," Loki says with an apologetic smile and a sincere dip of his head. "It's quite hard to smuggle weapons into here, as you'll have noticed." He draws his leg back for another vicious kick, and when it connects he can feel the ball of his foot smashing bone.
He leaves a bloody toeprint on the floor, but Loki is adept at covering his tracks when he wishes them covered. He has learnt strange magic in strange worlds, at terrible cost to himself.
"And I don't want you interrupting me again," Loki says. He picks up the sceptre, with its cruel horns and the crude depiction of a bull upon it. To the untrained eye it looks like brass; to the trained eye it is a terrifying concoction of elements from outside of the known universe, and to the observant it is not a bull that prowls the sceptre's surface. Nor is it a static engraving.
The horned beast squirms inside its prison.
"I suppose you want me to beg you for mercy?" Steve says, dripping blood from his indistinct words onto the stone floor. The Citadel of Peace is impenetrable to those who come in wrath, and so they sent Steve, wondering aloud - for he had listened - how he had come to be within its walls.
Loki braces his feet at a distance from each other. The sceptre is too heavy for a mortal to wield, and even with his protections in place it is a drain on every atom of his being to hold it for long. He meets Steve's eyes. "Do not insult me by supposing anything of the sort," he says, softly. "Pretend for a moment that you have the intelligence to understand what you are a part of, and know as I know that I will grant mercy to no one."
Loki lifts the impossibly heavy sceptre. It bears within it the weight of an entire world.
He twists his long, lean body at the waist, and braces his foot against Steve's chest. The soldier does not flinch, now.
The might of his swing is such that it almost bears him to the ground. There is an ache in his shoulders that there has not been since he paid the sacrifice due to learn the whereabouts of the sceptre itself. Loki watches as if outside himself (as he has done so many times) the infinite prison and the horned beast smash through the skull of the Symbol of Freedom on the floor of the Citadel of Peace.
The sceptre ploughs through bone, brain, and blood like a falling boulder through snow. The head of Captain America disintegrates into a shattered mess, hitting the far walls opposite, streaking the floor with his last thoughts, and temporarily besmirching the vestments of the true king of Asgard with his blood.
The sceptre is clean when it touches the stones. Loki can barely hold his breath or his grip on the handle from the will and exertion required, and were he not accustomed to the strange and to the unworldly he might think himself dreaming as the beast within the sceptre squirms, deforming the metal.
As the horned beast pushes against the outer walls of its prison, so the inner walls of the Citadel twist inwards as if pinched. Loki steps backwards out of the mortal remains of Steve Rogers, Symbol of Freedom, dragging the sceptre along the stones like a child with a too-heavy load.
The blood of their champion soaks into the stones, the Citadel which has been starved of sacrifice for millennia drinking down greedily a worthy meal. Loki breathes slowly and evenly as the walls pinch, twist, and squeeze inwards: as the sceptre bulges, throwing out a deformity in the shape of what might be a hoof. The walls smash inwards in a limb-shape before the hoof is withdrawn, and Loki's grip on the handle almost weakens as it grows hot to the touch.
He endures the burns on the palms of his hands for the message they impart: this is not enough. There must be others. There are other Citadels: there must be other sacrifices before the prison can be undone.
The horned beast shudders in its jail older than time.
Fortunately, Loki knows many other symbols to deface, and he knows how to call them.
The state of anxiety and impatience in the underground portal room is so intense that, were Tony Stark here, there’s no doubt he’d say something ridiculous to puncture, to alleviate it. But Tony isn’t here in this bunker-like structure with its hundreds of glowing screens: the world continues in spite of their current predicament, and there’s severe flooding in Calcutta that needs managing before it spreads disease. Tony is in India, half a world away.
The portal’s vapour trail, a thin line across the room to the source from which its energy emits, begins to stutter. It is a message, it is not – in an archaic move that Steve would appreciate – Morse code, but machine code. It takes rather longer, in the end.
Nick Fury remains still, waiting for the translation to run its course. The computers are fast, but the signal emanates from the other side of the universe. They have bargained hard with the Asgardians for the loan of this remarkable and dangerous technology: only the threat of their worst son unleashed upon the worlds again brought them to their senses and sent a sheepish emissary with a crate and a list of instructions which Fury and his team promptly ignored.
The message is not of human origin. It is automated; the outpourings of a transworld tracking device it took Tony Stark three weeks to create. In Stark terms, that is the equivalent of a decade.
It says: the bearer of this device is dead.
“He’s dead,” says Fury, reading from the screen nearest to him. The emergency tone should be familiar to them all, but while Fury has faith in his team’s ability to work under pressure he does not have an inexhaustible faith in their ability to do their god-damned homework.
For a moment they all, even Fury, assume it is in error. It has somehow come free of his body and can no longer read his vital signs; Loki Silvertongue is tricking them into mounting an attack on the Citadel of Peace (Fury appreciates this notion: it is what he would do); Loki Laufeysson has reprogrammed the device, they think, despite the assurance of Thor when he was last seen that no Asgardian has the first idea what a circuit board is, let alone the fiendishly complicated nano-workings of Tony’s designs. Loki is, after all, a magician.
Fury might not like having to accept that there is such a thing as magic, but when faced with what Thor’s ugly recurring nightmare of a brother can do, it would be foolish not to accept and prepare against the impossible.
The signal loops. The bearer of this device is dead.
“Can we get visual?” Fury asks.
“Do we want to see the inside of Steve’s ear that badly?” Barton asks, trying to lighten the atmosphere in the absence of whatever Tony would say. He is not Tony: Natasha stamps on his foot to quieten him, and Barton bites his tongue.
“Visual,” Fury repeats, ignoring him. One of the tech team, whose name temporarily escapes him, does something with her calibrating instrument.
They can get visual, which in itself is a bad sign. They should get nothing more than the inside of Steve’s ear canal.
Any possible hope that Steve Rogers has somehow knocked out his device or that, being so tiny, it has found its way out of his body some other way – despite the barbs that secure it so tightly to the recesses of his head – is dashed when they get clear visual. The device has 360 degree camera lenses. The device is lying on a stone floor.
Natasha and Barton, and Fury especially, are not the types to press a hand to their mouth in shock at a fallen comrade. Fury has seen things happen to people he has worked with for decades that would make H R Giger piss his pants. Bruce, on the other hand, is the type, and he does, inhaling sharply in shock.
Fury opens the communications channel to Tony’s suit.
“Steve’s down.” There is little need for anything more eloquent. They are at war – they are always at war, as far as Fury is concerned – and there is no time for elegiacs now.
“Down?” Tony’s voice is as clear as if he were in the room with them all. “What do you mean, down? Like injured-down? Down with the kids-down? Down-and-out down?” He is impatient, ratty, talking at speed, all of which is hardly unusual for him. But Fury has an inkling that he already knows. There are very few reasons for him to call on Tony right now.
“Like dead-down,” says Natasha, who does not believe in sugar-coating anything unless it is required to achieve a specific end. Fury has always found this an admirable character trait: Barton, however, frowns at her.
“Sorry, I think there’s something wrong with this channel,” Tony says, in that specific combination of tetchy and flippant which Fury finds aggravating in spite of himself. Coulson was the one best suited to handling Tony, and Fury finds himself occasionally at a very frustrating loss as to what to do besides shout at him. The channel is so perfectly free of distortion or interference that military sound technicians would cry blood if only they knew of it. “I thought you said Steve was dead.”
“His head’s in pieces across the Citadel,” Bruce says with the eerie calm of suppressed rage. He looks as if he’s about to say something else, but he checks himself and returns to fiddling with his glasses.
“Now there you go again,” says Tony sharply, “I could have sworn you said –“
Without offering Tony a single word of warning – his antics are costing Fury valuable seconds, and he has no patience for them – he connects the visual to Tony’s suit.
Over the communication channel they can all hear the thickness in his voice. “Son of a—“
It is widely held among those who know these things that it is about as wise to anger, to really anger Tony Stark as it is to anger Bruce Banner, with perhaps more devastating results. Bruce’s rage blossoms like an explosion, abrupt and destructive and visible. It can be hard to contain, but it is predictable; Tony’s burns cold. When he speaks again he sounds as if he could out-freeze the winds of the ice world from which Loki came.
“We’re sure it’s Loki?” he says quietly.
“Certain,” says Fury, who amends ‘certain’ to a +/- 2% margin of error and the possibility that someone else has figured out a way to disguise himself as Loki and travel the worlds in a manner somewhat similar to Loki. It’s not impossible – Fury is beginning to understand that very very few things are worthy of that title – but it is unlikely enough to warrant massaging the truth in the direction of his team. “Come in now. We need everyone we can get.”
“Where’s Thor?” Tony’s voice could freeze hydrogen.
Bruce says, “We don’t know,” and no one else looks inclined to offer an answer. Fury can’t think of anything that might be a suitable addition to this; they don’t know where Thor is, only that he left Asgard in search of Loki as soon as anyone realised he was missing from his prison. It was an interval far longer than anyone could countenance, on earth or in Asgard, but Loki, it seems, is not in the habit of being held by prisons.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” Tony repeats. It is impossible to tell what he is thinking.
The third of the Seven Citadels of Peace stands at the lip of a volcano spewing ice. Loki appreciates the alleged inaccessibility, but he is at least half Jotun, and while he may scorn the world of his father-mother as much as he scorns the pitiful world of men and the sad dark floating world of the Chitauri, there are certain advantages his ignoble birth conveys upon him. One of them is that walking up the side of a volcano which is inexplicably erupting with flows of methane ice is no more difficult than walking up the side of any other mountain.
The third of the Seven Citadels of Peace is guarded, according to legend, by a highly-trained elite force of dragon warriors the size of mountains themselves. For the past mile and a half Loki has been hopping along the vertebrae of one, the skull of another will make an excellent hand-hold when he reaches that stage of the mountain.
The problem with legendary guardians is that no one bothers to check up on them, Loki thinks, and if you only travel far forward enough in the stream of their own personal Time they will eventually perish. Even Asgardians live forever only in the technical sense.
In its sling about his chest and back, the sceptre weighs upon him like a mountain itself. Loki strides up the side of the mountain. He has had eternities in the dark in which to think of what strength he possesses, and millennia in the cold in which to test his suppositions. He has learnt, as they will all learn, that he has become all the stronger for his suffering.
Thor may wield a hammer whose weight is measured in worthiness, but Loki carries a sceptre whose very shape is death to those who cannot master it. He lifted it – his shoulders straining and his spine protesting – from the hands of a statue in the mouth of a dead world, surrounded by the rotting and long-rotted bodies of those who had tried before. He cradled it – his knees aching, his hands burning – and saw the horned thing that shimmered and wandered beneath the surface of the metal, within the metal through planes and dimensions his fosterers had heard not of, that Heimdell could not see. He had kissed the face of the prisoner carved upon the sceptre’s horned head, and murmured, “Wait your turn.”
The mountain recedes under Loki’s feet, and the third Citadel of Peace is upon him.
The first, defiled with the blood of the monks that dwelt there, was simple. The second required subterfuge. The third only requires that his brother’s tiny friends keep one of their tempers for long enough to enter: he has left them a trail in blood.
Loki sits cross-legged upon the Citadel floor, amid the dust and the ice and the carved concentric circles that converge upon him as he lowers himself against metal that could kill a mortal to touch – so cold is it – and he lays the sceptre across his thighs.
And he waits.
“As a team,” Barton repeats, but no one is listening. “As a team, that was the whole point of this initiative, that is the only way to overpower him, that was the only thing that worked last time—“
Tony’s movements are almost feverish as he twists and fiddles with the portal calibration. The tech team, who had initially attempted to first stop and then help him, have retreated to the cafeteria and are having some form of wounded-feelings sandwich party to wait for Tony Stark to stop snapping at people, shoving anyone who doesn’t move out of his way fast enough, and generally not behave like a sleep-deprived child.
Fury stands over him, but Tony does not appear to be paying any more attention to him than anyone else is paying to Barton’s – to his mind – perfectly reasonable point.
“Stark,” Fury repeats, in the voice that typically moves entire armies. “Do you remember the intel we have on these places? Are you aware of what you’re doing?”
“The Citadels of Peace cannot be entered by those who come in wrath,” Bruce adds, helpfully. “Tony. The reason I didn’t go, last time. The reason you can’t go. The gate won’t open to you. You’ll die.”
Tony continues his manic calibrations.
As far as Barton understands it, they’ve had no trouble following Loki. He trod on Steve’s transworld tracking device – no one believes it was an accident, not with him – and like ants on the sole of a boot, they find their signal drags them across the wastes of the universe in leaps and bounds that make no sense.
As far as Barton understands it, there will be no admittance to Bruce Banner, ever, to these Citadels. There will be no admittance to Tony Stark if Tony Stark doesn’t completely eliminate a perfectly natural desire for vengeance, and there isn’t likely to be any admittance to him, either. Ever since that greasy-haired freak came and unmade Clint Barton and used his body and mind like his own personal puppet the thought of even his silhouette has filled Barton with the kind of killing rage that is hard to forget.
“A team,” he repeats, certain of this much. “He’s acting alone, he can’t cover all of us at once, we can’t just keep sending people in there alone to die.”
“We don’t have any choice in that,” Natasha says. Barton is almost relieved to know someone is actually listening to him, although he is aware that she’s also undermining him. “I’m the only one who can get there now.”
“Stark,” Fury says, trying and failing to get between Tony and the screens. “You are aware of what will happen if you try to enter the Citadel?”
Tony ignores him. He is half-suited, his face ashen and determined. He looks, Barton thinks, a little psychotic, which was always a possibility with Tony. The flighty wisecracking and sarcastic remarks and perpetual fidgeting give everyone the impression of a thing made of glass and electricity, but his suit is only half the reason he’s known as Iron Man. There lies inside him as well as outside of him a very sturdy and very cold core that will not be dented, only fired into action.
“Do you have a fix?” Natasha asks Tony, cutting across three or four unlistened-to conversations as she checks her weapons. She looks calm, on the verge of serenity. She looks poised, like a knife ready to be thrown; and like a knife, she is not approaching with wrath or hatred, only with the knowledge of a job that needs to be done. She is herself a weapon.
“You’re not going, I’m going,” Tony says shortly.
“You can’t,” Natasha says, her equipment check over. She looks not at Tony, but at the portal.
“No,” Tony says, “I can and I’m going to.”
“Natasha,” Barton says, “A team. At the very least, you and me.”
“Saying I can’t do this alone?” she asks, without inflection.
“Yes. I’m saying no one can do this alone,” he says, because he has known her long enough to know that Natasha does not take offence at slights against her abilities. She has far too much self-knowledge to care what his opinion is.
“Do you have the self-control required,” Natasha asks, “not to lose your cool?” She turns away from the portal to look him in the eye. “Loki.”
In spite of himself, he feels the fire of anger spark in his chest. The name itself reminds him of having his every desire and fear unravelled and picked over for use; it reminds him of being helpless, of being choiceless, of being not his own thing. And he can feel his muscles tense and his breathing change, and he knows Natasha can see and hear these tiny alterations, because it is her job to.
“So you see,” she says, reaching around Tony’s shoulder in a movement so fast that even he doesn’t have time to deflect her, pushing the start code in as quickly as Tony himself would have done it, “there is no other way.”
The vapour trail ignites. Blue fire coils and boils across the ceiling, transforming the wall opposite slowly into the kind of chaotic jumble of impressions that are the province of dreams and hallucinations. Every second something else swims to the surface.
“Natasha, you aren’t –“ Tony barks, but Fury is there like a wall, blocking him as he rises. This ought to be futile; Tony is half-suited and could throw Fury across the room as easily as Barton could toss an arrowhead. However, Tony is also not stupid, and Natasha stands on the far side of Fury with her eyes on the portal, braced to jump. He will not endanger her, and he will not endanger Fury.
“Take care,” Barton says, as she crouches, her thighs tense.
“Meditate,” Natasha says, without further explanation. She jumps like her legs are made of coiled springs, and as she touches the wall of blue fire she disappears.
When the wall of blue fire opens in the floor Loki gets to his feet. His back protests, his knees protest, and his hands burn as he weighs the sceptre. If he is correct, then this glowing doorway will disgorge either Fury or the woman. He has seen every pathetic inch of Clint Barton’s soul, and there is no circumstance under which he will soothe his mind to the degree required to penetrate this Citadel; Banner was always a non-starter, and in the demise of the Symbol of Freedom lies the demise of Tony Stark’s peace. They think they are so subtle; it makes Loki want to laugh.
She rises from the floor ready to fight. Of them all, Loki thinks, as he swings the sceptre with the crack of his own bones echoing in his ears (his wrists fracture and reknit at every second, and it is agony upon agony), she was the one who had the closest thing to potential. If only there had been no guilt in her, she would have been as perfect as a human being could hope to be.
She kicks at his leg, rolls, and twists until the smallest edge of her touches the freezing floor. She is wise to keep moving, but it will wear her out.
Loki allows the head of the sceptre to touch the floor of the Citadel, and the walls shake softly.
“These gates feed on blood,” he says, keeping his voice low as his arms blister and heal, blister and heal. “And you have so much more blood to give them than the others, don’t you?”
She leaps for his head; Loki barely moves out of the way in time, but in the crystalline air of the frozen world she is lower than he. He is half Jotun, and made for cold that even Russians have no defence against.
“Not just yours,” Loki says, stepping backward with the head of the sceptre dragging along the Citadel floor, “but the blood on your hands. The red on your ledger. The orphans. The innocents. The blood you’re dripping in. The snail trail of gore behind you at every step.”
He knocks her out of the air like a cat taking a bird on the wing. The swing of the sceptre fractures his shoulder and her fibia: his shoulder heals itself. Her leg crumples beneath her as she lands, even as she tries to favour the other.
In a wrench that temporarily rips his own spine from his pelvis – the pain courses through him like fire in his blood – Loki pulls the sceptre over his head in an arc that transcribes ancient letters in the frozen air. He shatters her good leg against the metal rings of the floor, and then even she cries out in horror at the shock her body receives.
“I’m surprised they can’t smell it on you when they stand too close,” Loki says, trying to get his breath. The horned beast paws at the sides of its prison, and the sceptre bulges. “Do they turn away when they know what you are? Is that why you crawl through the dirt of that world with worms as your companions? Poor little murderer.”
She does not, as the Symbol of Freedom did, waste her breath on retaliatory chatter. She only withdraws a knife from her waistband and throws it at him.
It slices through his upper arm, and Loki moves quickly to staunch the flow: he shifts to ice.
Her eyes widen only a fraction, but it is enough. No one has warned her about this.
“You know,” says Loki, withdrawing the frozen icicle of his own blood from his arm; he rests the sceptre against his leg. “I know you hope that every word I say to you here is relayed back to your pathetic friends.”
He turns the icicle in his hand, and cups her chin in the other so hard that she cannot move another muscle.
“But they can hear nothing,” Loki says, holding the icicle point-down over her eye. He watches her pupil dilate. “Sound travels not upon this world. These words are inside your mind.”
He pushes the icicle down into her eye until it shatters against the bones of her skull, and as she spasms in pain he reaches for the sceptre. Her blood is already freezing on her face; it will take the heat of the sceptre to feed the Citadel, which Loki believes was a rather obvious design flaw on the part of the greater old ones who built these locks.
“If I were building a prison to contain mine enemy,” Loki says, hefting the sceptre once more, “it would not be breakable by anyone. Not even I.”
And he swings the sceptre at her head.
There is a roar like the eruption of a thousand volcanoes, and the horned beast squirms in its prison beyond the worlds: Loki sees one of its many aspects deform the surface of the prison – likewise the walls of the Citadel – as the sceptre ploughs through the woman’s skull.
For a moment there is the stink of slowly-cooking flesh. There is the indescribable scent of vaporising blood. Red mist condenses in the air around him: red rain falls, turning to hail as it rolls into the gutters left for it.
The floor warms at the touch of the sceptre. Loki’s palms scream and sweat.
The gutter-fulls of blood-ice melt, and the thirsty floor of the Citadel drinks as the hungry surface of the sceptre grows clean and clear.
A horned head with a thousand teeth grazes against the edge of the universe, scattering its image through a billion dreams.
Loki catches his own delighted smile in the surface of the icy walls. His hair is stiff, standing in barbs away from his head. His eyes are alight with some fire even more tempestuous than that which singes his aching hands.
Now, while he waits for Barton to master his rage, he must fetch the next sacrifice himself.
Tony Stark has never been one of nature’s most consistent sleepers, he says. He binges on sleep the way others binge on alcohol (Tony drinks the way other people sleep); sometimes he doesn’t sleep for a week, and then he crashes for three days. Sometimes he has shots of sleep, scattered doses of naps fifteen minutes long standing in for the eight hours required by normal, sane, non-genius billionaire playboy philanthropists.
Dr Bruce Banner doesn’t sleep. He doesn’t need to.
He’s not quite sure when he turned himself into a self-appointed human embodiment of the circadian rhythms Tony doesn’t have, but it makes him feel more useful to this mission than endlessly reworking gamma radiation analysis and trying to teach a medical team who are all terrified of him how to treat transworld injuries and portal sickness or cell degeneration.
So far he has threatened Tony with tranquilisers, actually spiked him twice, and on one occasion promised with absolute sincerity that if the finest mind in engineering didn’t take at least a half-hour power nap then he was going to get the other guy to knock him unconscious.
“No,” Tony says, waving a sandwich at him aggressively when he enters the lab. “No, absolutely not, no, nyet, nein, non. Neg. Look, I’m eating.”
Bruce leans carefully on the door. Even now, he is afraid of his ability to break things. His body feels inconsequential like this, like a fragile shell which might at any minute burst and free something bigger and brighter and more terrifying. He scarcely dares touch the living world; Tony is an exception because Tony will prod him in the navel with a tazer until he loses patience if Bruce doesn’t slap him occasionally.
“I wasn’t in here to nag you,” Bruce says, “I have come for the Bench findings. Somehow they’ve vanished off the mainframe and now no one – including me – can work from them.”
“Can’t help you,” Tony says, his mouth full. Bruce doesn’t try to see what he’s eating; he has little stomach for food himself and Tony eats like a college student still. “You could help me, though.”
“Oh, how’s that?” Bruce asks, unconvinced.
“Take this to Pepper?” Tony says, tossing a small jeweller’s presentation box at Bruce’s face.
Bruce fumbles the catch, because his coordination has never been profound and it has only grown worse the more afraid of his own body he has become. After a moment when he is sure he is going to drop it, Bruce steadies the tiny case in the palm of his hand and says, “Why me?”
“Because then you’ll go away and stop nagging me to sleep and let me work,” Tony says with a bright grin that is somewhat undermined by the deep shadows under his eyes. “There has to be a way into these places that doesn’t involve their weird metabolic scanning or whatever it is they’re using to keep angry bastards like you and me out—“
“Magic,” Bruce says.
“No,” says Tony, “just very advanced engineering. You can open it, if you want.”
Bruce very gingerly pushes open the lid of the case. It contains a pair of small round, exquisitely brilliant earrings. Knowing Tony, they are probably worth more than the GDP of a large African nation: he is prone to giving unbelievably showy gifts in an off-hand manner that belies how much thought has gone into them. Bruce has been on the receiving end of a couple; he has a theory that Tony Stark cannot stand to be seen as lacking in wealth, but also cannot stand to be seen as having an overabundance of heart, which is a pity because it is glaringly obvious to anyone who has spoken to him for a moment or two that the Arc reactor in his chest isn’t the most powerful thing burning in there.
“The occasion?” Bruce asks. He is pretty sure it isn’t one of Pepper and Tony’s anniversaries because Tony makes a point of not remembering them.
“They have other functions besides decoration,” Tony says absently.
Bruce doesn’t doubt that. “You’re tracking your own … assistant … now?”
“I am protecting her,” Tony corrects, through another mouthful of sandwich. “They generate a specific neural defence pattern against, against – Jarvis –“
“Against that. Whatever it was called. I’m busy. Stop asking questions and go and give those to Pepper, she’s not taking packages from anyone I haven’t named and you’re the only person on that list who isn’t currently either sitting around chanting ‘om’ or locked in his room trying to control the world with a phone headset.” Tony swallows abruptly and turns the full force of his thousand-yard, achingly tired stare onto Bruce like an interrogation light. “Please. Bruce.”
Bruce nods, and puts the jeweller’s case in his trouser pocket.
“I made one for you, too,” says Tony, turning back to his work. “It’s a little less feminine, though.”
Bruce leaves: it’s the nearest he’s going to get to acknowledgement right now.
The thing about Tony Stark, Bruce thinks as he walks out of the compound with the shambling step of a man who has absolutely nothing in the universe to fear except himself, is that heart of his. Not the mechanical one, but he one with the fragments of shrapnel suspended an inimical distance from it. The one that, for various reasons relating to what an unending fuck-up he is – Bruce smiles to himself, because he can see his own hypocrisy like the sun in the sky – can never be given wholly to one person. It grows as it divides, like an amoeba. Tony Stark, amoeba heart.
It’s a sunny, soothing day. Bruce’s snarling, vibrating anger is background radiation. Stark Tower 3 is fifteen blocks from here but right now he’s content to walk it.
That doesn’t mean he wasn’t heartbroken when Steve died, Bruce thinks. It just means there are other people he loves just as much. Pepper is one. Sometimes Bruce is one. It’s complicated to explain, easy to understand.
There is a commotion up ahead. Someone is crying out.
This being New York, people are either ignoring her or standing around watching with a certain degree of bored entertainment. Bruce would say New York was the least friendly and humane place on the planet, but he’s been to Paris, and he’s been to London.
As always, his initial reaction is fear. There is most often nothing he can do for anyone, like this. He can administer basic medical help, but in the business of stopping a robbery Steve is - was - rather more suited to the task. Bruce is a nuclear warhead. He is the end game in a series of escalations, and until his unstoppable ire is required, he feels useless. Which, typically, makes him angrier.
The cause of the commotion becomes evident as he grows nearer to it: a woman is lying on the ground, sobbing.
She is tall, and she is beautiful. Bruce can see this even with her face covered by her hands. She is wearing a rich green dress and gold heels, gold jewellery which so far no one appears to have stolen from her, which is unusual. She has long, thick black hair which falls around her like a storm cloud or an ink blot. She is crying as if her world is ending.
“Miss?” Bruce asks, crouching awkwardly. Something feels wrong, and in recent months he’s learned to give a little more credence to his instincts: even when everything feels wrong, all the time, there are additional ripples which must be looked to. “Miss, what’s happened?” He puts his hand on her arm as gently as he can, mindful that perhaps the last thing she wants is for anyone to touch her.
“Help,” she says in a faint and desperate voice. “Help, help.”
“I’m trying to,” he assures her. “I don’t know what’s wrong. Has someone attacked you?”
“I can’t get up,” she whispers.
Ordinarily this would be an occasion for calling an ambulance – Bruce has quite enough money, now, to cover an uninsured woman’s expenses, and even if he didn’t Pepper would plug the gap without question – but he can see nothing physically wrong. She looks perfect; there is not the slightest discoloration about her. Perhaps there has been some form of stroke, some neural disruption.
“Help me,” the woman repeats, sobbing again. “Please help me. I can’t feel my legs.”
Bruce braces himself; he has now very little notion of how much strength he actually possesses – himself, as opposed to the other guy – and sometimes tries to lift things which are too heavy, and overbalances. Tony makes fun of him for it, of course: Steve can - could - be relied upon to be more sympathetic, frequently having the opposite problem.
The woman is surely as light as a child; she is slender, and though she is obviously taller than him she cannot weigh as much. Bruce slides an arm under her knees and another under her shoulders, lifting her free of the sidewalk. People at least get out of his way as she – alarmingly – curves against him and puts her arms around his neck.
Bruce isn’t quite sure what happens then. There is a sting in the back of his neck, and without warning his knees buckle.
His head smacks the sidewalk, the woman falls on top of him, and his vision greys out in the space of a few seconds.
The last thing he really remembers is a hand fumbling in his pocket for his wallet – which he doesn’t have – and the jeweller’s case disappearing from him. He never finds out if it’s a bystander, or the woman he tried to rescue.
The fourth Citadel of Peace lives up to its name. It floats upon the surface of a golden sea, a palace of exquisite beauty and towering arches that would not look out of place in Asgard. It is aggravatingly difficult to reach without drowning, especially under the weight of an unconscious scientist. Loki is less than overjoyed by the iridescent “waters” lapping occasionally into his lungs, but he keeps a fluttering song of joy alive in his heart all the same; this sacrifice shall be made to his own schedule.
The palace remains as steady as if built upon the rock as he climbs the golden steps that descend into the waters, the sceptre strapped across his chest.
Loki takes a moment when aboard to lie on his face and vomit up toxic golden liquid in beautiful, deadly gouts. Each belch and retch could purchase a town upon earth.
He staggers upright once more, and with a bow to his many distorted reflections that is as genuine as it is sardonic, Loki drags the sceptre in one hand and, by the ankle, the unconscious body of Bruce Banner in the other. He walks face-first, though it is harder than pulling backward, for there is no knowing what may await him.
What awaits him is a vast vaulted hall with a golden woman kneeling in the centre of it. She appears at first to be a statue, her forehead pressed to the floor in a gesture of devotion to some unseen god.
Well, unseen no longer: Loki says, “Hail.”
The golden woman does not stir, but her voice echoes like a flute around the vaulted ceiling. It changes pitch and speed, sinking to a bass rumble and raising to a trill as it makes its circuit. “Hail, traveller. What is your purpose in the Citadel of Peace?”
“My purpose is Mercy,” says Loki, gesturing with Bruce Banner’s foot. “I have come to rid this man of his rage.”
There is a long and ringing silence. Loki waits, impatient stirring in his belly. Soon enough Banner will regain consciousness and be expelled from the Citadel of Peace for his wrath, and then Loki will have to do this all over again, and possibly dismember the Golden Guardian, and it is entirely too tedious to be borne.
“Your mission of Mercy is accepted,” says the golden woman, stretching her arms before her. She remains kneeling, and with a plop dives through the solid floor as if it is water. A ripple in the golden substance laps against Loki’s feet, but when he steps towards the centre of the Citadel with his heavy burdens in tow, it is as flat and as solid as stone slabs.
“This is less fun,” Loki says apologetically, arranging Bruce Banner’s body across the central point like a star of flesh. “But I can’t wake you.”
He takes the handle of the sceptre. The head has grown upon it, and the beast is more defined, its movements deforming the surface more easily. The walls of the Citadel are already twitching and shifting in anticipation, like a slave before the blow of a whip.
“I will have Stark suffer twice as much,” Loki assures the unconscious scientist, “to make up for it.”
With a tender pat against the man’s unshaven cheek, Loki leans back and stretches his muscles. The weight of the sceptre brings them to a frenzy of discomfort before he even wields it, now. It is as if his body is trained to fear it even as his mind grows fonder of it.
“O have mercy on this man,” Loki says with great sarcasm, his chest heaving as he lifts the sceptre over the dreamless head. “Free him from his rage, undo his anger, unleash the calm of death upon his body that his soul might ever be clean.”
He drops the sceptre with a thud that shakes the Citadel upon the golden waters.
“O have mercy on his blood,” says Loki, lifting the sceptre out of the ruins of the scientist’s face, already clear of any smears of that self-same blood. He drops it a second time for good measure. “Have mercy on his wrath, and bring him to peace.”
The laugh that comes from him as his arms shake is not intended to be out loud, but it shudders and distorts among the vaults even as the vaults themselves shudder and distort with the squirmings and writhings of the horned beast. The sceptre bulges with the mandible of the beast: the vaults deform inward with the mandible of the beast, vast as a beast itself.
Loki’s laugh returns to his ear as buzzing of innumerable flies, the screaming countless carrion birds, and the roar of a coming storm. He twitches at the sound of thunder, and laughs again as the Citadel floor suckles greedily upon the blood of the wrathful.
“YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO BE TRACKING HIM,” Tony shouts. His voice carries the length of the room and Barton, naked from the waist up and still damp from bathing, winces. He’s not the target of Tony’s anger – that particular unrelishable award goes to Fury, the only person who is likely to withstand it – but if it wasn’t for the sound-proofing Tony would be audible half the way to San Francisco right now.
“You claimed it was impossible for him to go off-world without setting off the alarms,” Fury corrects, without raising his voice. Tony sounds more than a little hysterical, which means the icy rage has been scaled down a little thanks to his lack of sleep. “And why did nothing show up anywhere regarding the breach by Loki? Because I can tell you, Mr Stark, I have had every single incursion point monitored around the clock.”
“What exactly are you accusing me of?” Tony asks, returning to a hiss of wounded feelings that still shakes the chairs at the table.
“We can’t necessarily be sure it is Loki,” Barton begins, and he finds himself caught in the pincher of two blindingly angry glares emanating from two of the most dangerous and powerful non-mutant men on the planet. He backtracks as quickly as he can: “Although under the circumstances he does seem the most likely culprit we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of other entities taking advantage of us being distracted and depleted at the moment –“
“Shut up,” Tony says testily. “This is not good enough. We have no idea where Bruce has gone, if Loki has taken him –“ he inclines his head briefly to Barton, acknowledging his point, “—which damn Citadel he’s taken him to - is there a pattern to this fruitloop’s murders or is he just picking us off willy-nilly, what is he trying to achieve besides some petty vengeance, how is he doing all of this, and when the fuck are we going to get a step ahead of this psychopath?”
“And where’s Thor?” Barton finishes.
“And where’s Thor?” Tony repeats, waving his finger at Fury. “Because I would expect him to be a little more interested in his crazy brother depleting the earth’s defences and murdering his friends than he’s turning out to be—“
Fury does not so much as raise his voice. “No one in Asgard has been able to locate Thor. Heimdall speaks to no one; Thor has been missing since he went to seek his brother.” He leans across the table, apparently trying to stare Tony down. Barton’s not sure who would win, but he is sure that they could very possibly waste entire days with their antlers locked like this.
But Tony lowers his finger, frowning into space. “So far we’ve been following Loki from Citadel to Citadel like baby ducks, what’s stopping us from hitting up a Citadel before he arrives and, I don’t know, shutting it down somehow?”
“Because,” Fury says patiently, “we do not have the first clue how they work, what they are for, where they are, or how to get into them.”
“No, we know how to get into them,” Barton corrects. “Or at least, we know how to get me into one. I don’t know about Tony. Maybe it’s possible to destroy one from the outside?”
“Thermonuclear device, perhaps,” Tony says, chewing the side of his finger. He is unsuited, which is unusual now, but he has been wearing fragments of his suit so consistently that Barton can almost hallucinate them on him. “The edict is against wrath within the Citadel, not without.”
“They run on magic, gentlemen,” Fury says with great restraint.
“No such thing,” Tony retorts. “Sufficiently advanced engineering, that’s all. It can be reprogrammed. Short of that, it can be destroyed. I just need to figure out how.” He is already lost in thought, his unslept stare burrowing through the floor like a laser.
“In the meantime,” Barton says cautiously, “I am going to keep working on –“
“Yeah, yeah,” Tony says, flapping an irritable hand at him, “keep up your fucking chanting.”
Barton lets his ire wash over him like a river. It doesn’t matter that Tony is in an understandably foul temper; it doesn’t matter that he thinks Barton’s plan is nuts. What matters is that Tony is in danger of driving himself insane before they can do anything to stop Loki, or before there is no one left to stop him.
What also matters, Barton thinks as he leaves the meeting room without waiting for Fury to dismiss him, is that Thor has been gone a worryingly long time. They don’t even know if he’s alive.
They can’t be relied upon to keep obligingly showing up to be slaughtered forever, Loki supposes, but after his third night at the fifth Citadel of Peace, sweating and pacing in the molten heart of a sun, protected only by the very lock he has come to smash and with nothing for company but the trapped and fractious horned beast bellowing silently within its prison – he is growing impatient. He could, he supposes, simply return to earth and abduct one or the other of them in the manner of Banner, but it is less satisfying if they don’t know they’re dying.
Still, he hardly has the time for waiting for Tony Stark to extract his pitifully tiny mind from his empty head and use it, or for Barton to develop some form of emotional self-control. Things might go a little better if they have a little push, and if the little push results in him acquiring Fury instead of one of the others then, well, he can spin it whichever way he wants. The beauty of this particular collection of misfits is that, with some arguing, each of them can be made to fit any of the locks, with the exception of the first – monks, simple – and the last (for which he is already prepared).
He abandons his pacing, and sits beside the sceptre, pouring sweat from scalp to toes. The heart of a sun is no place for a lengthy sojourn.
Loki takes a knife from his belt and opens the palm of his hand free hand.
It is old magic, though not the oldest. It is the oldest available to his kind – both the kind he was born, and the kind he was raised, who are more or less the same thing – and it is frowned upon as crude and wild and uncontrollable wherever it has been practiced.
Loki has spent a long time learning to control it, and he has paid, as always, a terrible price for it. Knowledge of this sort is not cheaply bought.
He scores the palm of his hand, the knife slippery in his grip, and as his blood begins to spill he presses his mouth to the wound: it does not do to shed any blood but that of the sacrifice upon the Citadel floor, and the laceration will close too quickly if he does not keep it propped open.
Saliva flows into the cut, blood out.
Loki sucks upon the wound in his palm like an infant at its mother’s breast, until his tongue is covered, and the wound is closed.
With a bloody tongue, Loki speaks a few choice words across the vast void of galaxies and worlds, intended for a specific army of ears. He says, “Hurt them.”
At 16:03:45 Technical Assistant Audrey Li enters the women’s facilities of S.H.I.E.L.D’s Manhattan base with stomach cramps. She is uncertain as to their cause: her period stopped six weeks ago thanks to alteration in her contraceptive pills, and she has not eaten anything today that she didn’t eat without side-effects yesterday. The cafeteria food of S.H.I.E.L.D is not inspiring fare, but it is an extremely rare occurrence that it causes stomach upset.
At 16:04:10 Technical Assistant Audrey Li doubles over the hand basins, struck by a sudden pain that wracks her from belly to sinuses.
At 16:04:30, Technical Assistant Audrey Li’s tongue begins to bleed profusely, and she stoops over the basin to allow the blood to dribble out of her mouth rather than risk choking on it. She is at this point extremely concerned for her health, sweating, and clutching at her stomach, which continues to hurt.
At 16:05:00, Technical Assistant Audrey Li attempts to use her communications device to call for help, but finds she is only capable of making a dull gurgling sound, and that every subsequent breath she takes feels as if it is on fire.
At 16:05:22, Technical Assistant Audrey Li’s blood has drained entirely from her body, and she lies largely lifeless, her body shrivelled and shrunk to a somewhat smaller size. Her blood, which has been exiting her body at an astonishing rate, takes to the drains as one mass, displacing everything in its path like a column of army ants.
Despite what Barton says, when news reaches Fury of Tech Assistant Li’s unusual death, he has only one perpetrator in mind.
“And where the fuck is her blood?” Fury asks, looking down at the pitiably small corpse.
“We don’t kn—we have footage, sir, but it …”
Fury waits for the possible endings to the sentence to come to fruition: it’s been erased; it doesn’t make any sense; we’ve all gone blind; it’s lost; nothing out of the ordinary shows up. After a few years working in S.H.I.E.L.D you learn to accept the weirdest possible explanations as likelihoods.
“It… doesn’t. We can’t watch it, sir.”
“You can’t watch it?”
Technical Assistant Fenton Schwarbage looks briefly at his feet. “We’ve broken three screens trying to view it, sir. Technical Assistants Gale and Oleni are in the medical centre receiving treatment for ocular mutilation after trying to process the footage.”
“Ocular mutilation?” repeats Fury, who has long since found it the case that with junior staff it is easier to repeat what they have said in a questioning inflection than to give in to the temptation to ask them what the fuck they’re talking about.
“They poked their own eyes out, sir. With their fingers, sir. When they tried to view the footage. Sir.”
Schwarbage’s ‘sir’s, like a nervous tic, do not bother Fury. Excessive deference from junior staff is something he is all too familiar with. It is why, until he could no longer do so, he opted to leave their handling to Agent Coulson.
“Because of how … horrible … it was?” Fury hazards as patiently as he can. Schwarbage is shaking, but this could just be an end result of being in the company of an even slightly angry Nick Fury. Fury is under no illusions as to his reputation. He is also not familiar, on a personal level, with the concept of footage too gruesome to view, but he is aware that he is not in the majority with this.
“No sir. We don’t know how horrible it is, sir, because no one can view it, sir. They take their own eyes out if they try to make themselves view it, sir.” Schwarbage looks up from his feet and says, “Is this some sort of mind control thing, sir?”
“I am not at present in possession of all the facts,” Fury says, because of course it fucking is, you imbecile is a bad way to raise morale. He dismisses Schwarbage with an order that no one else is to attempt to view the footage.
When researching the business of meditation, Barton carefully skipped over the sections which dealt with chakras, yoga mats, or anything which his brain tidily categorised as “woo-woo”. He kept to the techniques he has seen others use – including, he supposes, Natasha – in order to flush his mind entirely of anger, hatred, and all the usual normal reactions to someone effectively mind-raping him and turning him into a puppet in the service of evil.
He has been doing well so far.
Barton feels that in some small way the fact that he is achieving great progress in laying aside his anger contributes to his reaction to a shifting, apparently-thinking entity made of what looks to blood expelling itself from the plughole in his basin. Rather than reacting with surprise, alarm, or immediate violent response, he says, “Oh fuck,” under his breath, takes a step or two backwards, and assesses the situation. There is no point in attempting to use any of the weapons in this room against something made of liquid. Previous experience – previous weird experience – has taught him that a liquid enemy’s nemesis is some form of containment, preferably through suction.
It occurs to Barton that some people might consider it demeaning to have to fight something using a vacuum cleaner, but he prefers to think of it as a challenge.
It is with an entirely calm and perhaps slightly exasperated mind that Barton kicks open the supply closet in the hall and wrestles out a vacuum cleaner.
The entity made of what looks and indeed smells like blood explodes in a controlled burst, red mist hanging in the air, swooping towards him in precisely the way that raindrops don’t: with agency and like a swarm.
Barton raises the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner, and switches it on. He has a horrible creeping suspicion that things will go very badly for him if he allows any of the droplets to get inside him, and with them so thinly dispersed in the air there’s a good chance he’ll end up breathing some in.
With his free hand he tugs his t-shirt over the lower half of his face. Barton allows himself one momentary I look ridiculous thought, and waves the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner through the hanging cloud of blood mist.
Technical Assistant Fenton Schwarbage is having what ranks to the worst day of his life so far. He has encountered a young woman with whom he was tentatively pursuing an almost-relationship lying dead and bloodless in a toilet mere minutes after she seemed perfectly well barring a little stomach trouble; he has witnessed two of his colleagues – friends, even – compulsively stabbing at their own eyes with desperate, blunt fingers even as they panicked and shouted for help to prevent their hands from completing an apparently inevitable task; he has even had to face Nick Fury in a mood that can best be described as turbulent.
He is however not the kind of man to cry off and slink back to his quarters purely because the day is not going his way; this tendency to keep at his station regardless of what is erupting around him has earned him the respect of his co-workers, and was indeed one of the characteristics which lead to his recruitment into S.H.I.E.L.D from a standard military training course in the first place.
Therefore Fenton Schwarbage is heading back to his post and back to work regardless of being offered leave, when he catches sight of his reflection in a surface which is not ordinarily reflective.
He does not look well, but Schwarbage feels he is probably allowed to look sickly given the kind of day he is having. He is, however, unable to prevent himself from looking at his reflection again.
His skin is blotchy and red. He might expect it to look this way if he had been dragged along behind a car doing forty over gravel for an hour; he certainly would not expect to look so haggard and so much like road kill for having had a horrendous day at work.
Schwarbage squints at his reflection. He can hear the sound of a vacuum cleaner in the distance.
His face explodes.
In the moments before death – and there are too many for his liking – Schwarbage does not have the capacity for rational thought; he is unable to register that what is actually happening is not an explosion, but rather the abrupt exit of the blood of first his face and later the rest of his body through the pores in his skin, the thin skin of his nose and lips and, later, through the burst capillaries below his eyes, and finally through his eyeballs themselves.
Fenton Schwarbage’s final experience in the worst and last day of his life is only the discovery that there is no point of comparison for the pain of exsanguination by magic.
When Nick Fury finds the man code-named Hawkeye and known to most of his colleagues as “Barton” because he makes faces when anyone calls him “Clint” lying unconscious and blood-smeared next to a vacuum cleaner full of blood he does not waste time wondering what the fuck is going on in his base. He calls a medical team to Barton’s quarters, has the man ferried to a sick bay, and is in the process of calling in a team to check the contents of the vacuum-cleaner in every conceivable way when he receives the call that another Technical Assistant has been found dead.
“Exsanguinated, and missing large areas of skin on his face,” says the staffer on the communications channel in the dead voice that new recruits use when they can’t quite keep their emotions in check and opt instead for numbness.
“Any sign of the blood?” Fury asks, although he’s already sure of the answer.
“No, sir. Schwarbage is … pretty much a husk, sir.”
“Technical Assistant Fenton Schwarbage, sir,” repeats the numb-sounding voice in the channel. The name doesn’t ring any bells.
Fury marches on through the corridors of his base. There are listed forty-five different known hostile entities who have shown some interest in removing blood from their victims and whose methods have brought them to the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D; eighteen of them are dead, twelve of those due to the actions of S.H.I.E.L.D. Three are in custody a mile up in the air. None of the names on the list are any of the aliases he has collated in relation to the demi-God and intergalactic criminal who murdered three of Fury’s best people, but he has a definite hunch that this latest intrusion isn’t unconnected.
He becomes even more convince when Tony Stark hits the communication channel to complain.
“Anyone in the vicinity of my lab with a raincoat and some kind of suction equipment should really consider getting in here as fast as they can,” Tony says in a conversational tone. “There’s a large cloud of apparently sentient blood screwing up my work and distracting me. I’ve suited up and it doesn’t seem able to make it past the air locks, but it’s not making it any easier to concentrate here.”
That, Fury thinks with caustic calm, may well explain what has happened to the faceless, bloodless body that’s just been reported. How it explains it, he’s not sure yet.
At 18:00:01 Clint Barton’s eyes open, and without preamble or warning he climbs gingerly down from his sick bed, waves away the medical team officer who insists he needs to be subject to a test or two to determine the cause of his previous loss of consciousness, and walks out into the corridor.
He moves with his usual tight, springy determination, without stopping to check his route or exchange conversation beyond replies to direct questions, all of which are answered in yes, no, and I don’t with the rapid-fire precision of a man with a lot on his mind.
Several people are forced to move out of his way as he approaches the portal room, as it appears that he is in no mood to stop for something as trivial as the possibility of running down S.H.I.E.L.D staff and injuring them.
The portal room is kept under strict guard, and locked. The guard are under instructions to allow Nick Fury’s Avengers Initiative members and Nick Fury immediate access without question, and the locks are ones with which Barton is intimately familiar: he is inside within moments.
The initiation of the portal set-up sequence and the calibration of the portal’s end point takes rather longer.
“Had a sudden flash of inspiration?” Tony Stark asks, stepping out of the shadows rather like the flickerings of someone’s conscience. He is suited, and his voice has a slight echo in the vast room.
“Something like that,” Barton says, still fiddling with the calibration settings.
“Oh yes?” Tony says, stepping up beside him very quickly for a man encased in metal. “Your om-ing and circular breathing just happened to pop the exact coordinates for one of the remaining Citadels right into your head, did it?”
“Actually I was having a fight with a vacuum cleaner,” Barton says in a far-off voice.
“Right,” Tony says, and as Barton reaches out to tap the initiation code in, he slaps his arm away with a force which could break bone.
Barton merely dips out of his way and taps in the second digit. “That’s not helpful, Tony.”
“You know, ordinarily I’d trust you with my life,” Tony says, trying to yank Barton away from the panel and coming up empty-handed. “In fact, I seem to remember I have on at least two occasions which, by the way, I am still grateful for. But I can’t help thinking that this sudden revelation of yours has just turned up very conveniently right at a time when some pretty weird – I would say unworldly weird, maybe even, I don’t know, demi-godly weird - some weird-ass shit is going down inside this base. Now, call me paranoid if you like –“
Tony makes a snatch for Barton’s wrist, but comes up with air. Barton isn’t fighting him, only squirming away from him like a greased eel.
“—but I’m not convinced you’re acting under your own initiative here.”
Barton taps in the last digit of the initiation code and flashes Tony a bland, unreadable smile. “Believe what you like, Tony, you usually do.”
The vapour trail ignites: the wall of blue fire erupts.
“I also think—“ Tony says, interposing himself between Barton and the portal, “—that you are making a very big mistake here. Yoga and lentils and all the rest is great and all but maybe you should put a little thought into what you’re going to do when you get to the other side of that portal–“ the words come out faster and faster as Barton dodges, ducks, and skips under each of Tony’s blocking ploys, “—because so far he’s causally smashed in Steve’s head and as far as we known done just the same to Natasha and who knows what he’s done to Bruce and Clint – really – no offence – but you’re not up to the standard Natasha was and it didn’t exactly help her to go in cold and calm either –“
By now they are against the wall of blue fire. Two steps closer and Tony Stark will be engulfed, pulled into another world.
“Move out of the way, Tony,” Barton says quietly. “If you go through there the Citadel defences will crush you into atoms.”
“You’re not going,” Tony says shoving Barton backwards.
“I am going,” Barton says, “you aren’t, because the minute you step through there you’ll die. Move aside, Tony.”
“You’re not – thinking – clearly –“ Tony snaps, diving to block Barton’s path again. “I can keep this up all night.”
“You haven’t slept in days,” Barton says. “Let me past.”
“Let him go, Tony,” says Fury, walking out onto the gangways above.
“Do you want him to die?” Tony shouts, making another dive to block Barton’s path. “Or has Loki got to you too?”
“I know he’s got the coordinates for the Citadel, I know he’s not going to die the second he puts a toe through that portal,” Fury says, “and I know Clint Barton can do things in unarmed combat that you can’t even imagine.” He raises his voice. “I also know that if you keep trying to stop him, I’m going to definitely lose two operatives instead of potentially losing one.”
“So you’re just going to sacrifice Barton?” Tony shouts, hurling himself in Barton’s way again.
“He’s asking you to get out of my way,” Barton says. “Now. Tony. Get out of my way.”
“I’m working with what we’ve got here,” Fury calls. “Get out of the line of that portal, Tony Stark.”
“He’s not under his own control –“ Tony shouts, his foot inches from the blue flames.
“But you are. Tony, let him go. I need you here,” Fury says. “Get the hell out of the way of that portal. Jarvis, if he doesn’t get the hell out of the way of that portal you move his damn suit for him. Or he dies.”
Tony stands still. Barton walks past him with another bland, unreadable smile, and disappears into the blue flames.
Clint Barton walks into what feels like the world’s hottest sauna as if he’s walking out of a dream. The fact that the last thing he can remember clearly is vacuuming angry blood particles out of the air does little to diminish the feeling that he’s just woken up.
He is not especially surprised to see Loki Laufeysson sitting on the floor beside what looks like an enormous golden sledgehammer with a deformed bull on the mallet. He is momentarily thrown by the absence of the god’s helm and the look of exhausted sorrow on his face, but he reminds himself that Loki is a liar, and says, “Oh, it was you.”
“Hello, Barton,” Loki says, standing slowly. He looks as if he is in pain. “Have you come to die quietly?”
“When did you ever meet an Avenger who died quietly?” Barton asks. He may not have his bow, but he knows he has several knives on his person and he knows every weak spot and pressure point on the human body.
“Your woman didn’t have a lot to say for herself,” Loki shrugs. He leans away from his gaudy sledgehammer as if trying to distance himself from it. Barton wonders where his other weapons are, and what they are, and if that cheap-looking piece of crap was really what brought the brutal end to Steve that they all saw; and the one to Natasha that they could only imagine.
“She wasn’t my woman,” Barton says. He feels as empty as outer space. No anger, no fear. “And she never did have much to say to people like you.”
“Her betters?” Loki says. Barton wonders if he’s trying to goad him on purpose, to set off the Citadel defences, or if he honestly cannot help prodding at anything that might resemble a wound.
He doesn’t deign to answer, only drops into a crouch, grips the handle of the knife at his belt, and slashes at Loki’s legs. The knife is slippery in his hand: the Citadel is so hot that he sweats what feels like all of the water out of his body in seconds.
“This isn’t as much fun as I thought it was going to be,” Loki says with a kind of wooden sullenness.
Someone else – Tony, probably – might have a sarcastic rejoinder to hand here, but Barton is concentrating on not dying. He rolls on the floor to avoid being knocked to it by Loki’s extended leg, meaning to come up beneath him for a groin shot with the knife. It would be a nasty death for them both: instead Barton’s bare shoulder touches superheated substance and singes, and in the bolt of pain that shoots across his vision, temporarily blinding him, he loses sight of Loki.
The crippling blow to his shoulder tells him that Loki has not lost sight of him.
Barton tries to roll away from whatever has struck him; he tries to use the echoes of the room and the prickling sense of someone else’s presence to locate Loki as his vision greys out again. But the echoes are unnatural, and Loki appears to be everywhere. From what he’s seen, that is a real possibility; Barton rolls into a ball, his shoulder screaming, and fumbles for another knife.
“Has he finished his grand subversion of the Citadel defences yet?” Loki asks, and when Barton lunges, twists, and thrusts towards the sound, something with the approximate weight and force of an aircraft-carrier smashes into his other shoulder and knocks it out of its socket.
“Why here?” Barton asks, unscrewing his eyes to get a better look at Loki in relation to himself. He cannot move his left arm, but his right – while agonising – is still useable. He takes the knife out of his left hand as if disarming a corpse. “Why not kill us off anywhere? Why Citadels?”
Loki gives him the kind of look Barton imagines he might give a talking monkey. “You really are very stupid.”
“And you’re an asshole, we all have –“ Barton spits out a mouthful of his own sweat, grips tighter on the knife handle as he steadies himself against the too-hot floor. “—we all have our down sides.”
Loki does not acknowledge the question. He only says, “Yes, you are a transformed man. You’ll do.” He continues, apparently talking to himself: “They should have worded this with more precision and less poetry.”
Barton ignores the cryptic bullshit and springs for the liar in green as best he can.
He is not even close to half-way there when Loki swings the ugly golden sledgehammer up and round and shatters Barton’s ribs in mid-air.
As he falls onto the scorching floor Barton can feel his lungs tear. He has until now been unaware that this is possible, this sensation of puncturing lungs, of broken bones ripping into the delicate forests within him like knives. He would not have imagined the pain this clearly, nor the sudden feeling that he is drowning in this dry room.
Loki kicks him along the floor. Barton makes a grab for his foot, but it is easily evaded.
“Transformed man,” Loki says, lifting his – Barton guesses it’s a sceptre, the kind of thing they show kings holding in paintings, which figures – with an audible crack. “From rage to peace. The perfect offering.”
“You played us,” Barton says, his chest bubbling. Something like pain crosses Loki’s face, but what with the punctured lung and the dislocated shoulder and the imminent death Barton finds it a little hard to sympathise.
Loki casts a pitying look upon him, “Are you new?”
He swings the sceptre, and Barton doesn’t think or feel a lot after that.
"Stark," Fury says for perhaps the millionth time this afternoon: neither of them is keeping count any more. "There are only two remaining Citadels that we know of. Settle on one of them and concentrate on it." He is temporarily grateful that he lost his sense of smell along with his eye; from the way Tony looks right now he can only imagine how bad he smells. There has been no time for pleasantries.
Tony looks frayed at the edges. His hair is greasy. His skin, deprived of whatever sunbed or orange dye or wood-stain he usually uses to make himself look like an Oompa-Loompa, looks sallow and fragile, like it might tear if jostled too hard. His eyes have sunk so deep into his face that he resembles a pygmy gorilla, and he won't stop fidgetting.
"I can get both," Tony insists. "They use the same mechanisms. And then we're a step ahead of him because he won't know which one we're coming for --"
"Tony," Fury says irritably, "focus."
There are snack food wrappers all over the lab. Fury wants to fly in Potts, have her reason with the man: she is the only person alive now who knows how to effectively guide this particular difficult genius to the conclusions they need, and stop the wheels from coming off. But Tony has threatened dire if vague consequences if Potts is brought within a half-mile of him right now.
He might well want to protect her, but as Fury sees it, Tony really needs her to protect him from going crazy.
"I am perfectly focused," says Tony Stark, almost vibrating as he rifles through schematics in three dimensions that obey different physical laws o the ones holding this base together.
"Remember you need to either lure him out or keep their defences jammed for long enough to incapacitate him" Fury says. He can hear himself nagging unnecessarily, and it makes his gorge rise. "We can't afford to lose you."
"Nope," Tony says in a high, distracted voice.
"Stark. Earth needs you." It would sound cheesy from anyone else.
"And if that nut in the stupid hat succeeds at what he's trying to do - at what I think he's trying to do, based on this, and when have I ever been wrong? Don't bring up Cuba, that was a technical error, not an actual mistake - then there won't be an Earth to need me. There won't be an anywhere." Tony waves a hand through the hovering wall of green lines and arcane shapes, and stares, briefly, at or through Fury. "So I pull the place down on us both."
Fury sighs. "You're not Samson." This is exactly the kind of stupid idea that Tony comes up with after not sleeping for a week, and just because the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D, the rest of the world is too swayed by his infinite personal charm to point this out doesn't mean Fury's going to be shy about it.
"He had the right idea."
Fury casts an appraising eye over Tony Stark. He looks smaller than usual, and it's not just the absence of his vain little Cuban heels. "There's always some way out, right, Tony?"
"That's not important."
Fury snorts. "Miss Potts might disagree."
Tony holds up a finger for quiet, still flicking through the flickering schematics with his other hand. "Oh no. No. She will disagree. That's why I'm not telling her." He lowers his finger. "You know who wouldn't disagree, though? Steve wouldn't. He'd call it putting yourself on the line for your men. I may not be him, but you know what, Fury? I don't want him to have died so that I can chicken out of doing what needs to be done, okay?"
Nick Fury says, "We can't rely on Thor to help us in your absence. If the last few weeks have proved nothing else--" he opens the lab door to leave, and the snack food wrappers do an abrupt dance in the influx of new air. "Tony. You will find a way back out of here alive. Death is not an option."
Tony breaks into a smile at last. "It's always an option. But trust me, it's not my A plan."
Calibrating the settings of the portal generation system to point outside of the Citadel of Peace is not only difficult, but on one of the worlds at which the remaining Citadels are located, it is also suicidal.
“That leaves us one option,” says Fury, when Tony tells him. “You’re not equipped for dealing with zero gravity.”
“I can be,” Tony says stubbornly.
The Technical team have been banned from the portal room. They seem to have gotten over their brief plague of exsanguinations and exploding faces, attempts to remove their own eyes, and other symptoms of something seriously rotten in the state of the base, but Fury is taking no chances. Half of his technical team have been recommended for counselling. There are two very good operatives invalided on permanent disability leave, and two dead. For one of Loki’s incursions it’s an impressively low fatality count, but that’s not a great deal of consolation.
Tony busies himself with the computers. He is, Fury thinks, becoming increasingly secretive and paranoid and he’s not sure he likes it. There is only room for one secretive and paranoid S.H.I.E.L.D operative and that’s the one with the eye-patch.
The vapour trail ignites slowly.
Tony Stark’s gloves close over his hands, and his mask over his face. He strides towards the wall of blue fire as it spreads and shimmers, and the endlessly-shifting mirage of destinations appears in its depths, far beyond where the walls of the room lie. The suit masks his tiredness, rendering Tony an impenetrable machine moving unstoppably for another world.
“Come back alive,” Fury says, as Tony stands at the gate to the next world. “Or I will personally design the machine that transports me into the afterlife to kick your ass.”
“Get in line behind Pepper,” Tony says, “she already has the blueprints.”
“Don’t do anything dumb,” Fury cautions.
“I never do anything dumb. I’m a genius, it’s impossible.”
“Don’t fucking die out there, Stark.” Fury watches him perform a brief weapons check. Tony is carrying sufficient firepower to take out China. If he can’t take down the Citadel he’ll throw the entire world out of orbit.
“Not planning on it,” Tony says, and with spring he’s gone.
Tony Stark drops into the desert like a ball-bearing into pudding.
Preliminary information on this world did provide the necessary information about the increased gravity, and this is the main reason that Tony’s lungs do not immediately collapse.
He is a mile from the Citadel. He can see it, a low flat blemish among the low flat landscape. It must have taken marvels of engineering to build something even this high. Perhaps the people who lived here before were giants.
Nothing in Tony's arsenal will go a full mile in this gravity. He must be closer to the building before he can even begin to attempt to destroy it, and it looks discouragingly impregnable.
He raises himself up on his elbows, bends at the waist, and tries to stand.
The gravity of the place has other ideas, and Tony smacks face-first into the indentation of his own body upon the ground.
“Fine, I get it, I get it,” Tony says irritably, even though Jarvis has been utterly silent since passing through the portal. “It’s a very clever choice of location because it requires penitent crawling. Brilliant.”
Tony’s never been particularly inclined to accept punishments meted out by external sources of authority. He’s quite capable of punishing himself; likewise, he’ll decide for himself how penitent he is and whether or not it merits crawling. Right now he doesn’t feel particularly penitent at all, and he has rockets in his goddamn feet.
After some wrestling with the controls and a hairy moment in which Tony’s almost sure he’s going to blow himself up over something really dumb, he blasts off from the ground, stabilises a full six inches above the surface, and at a speed which would embarrass a sloth, he approaches the Citadel with his head held up.
He is getting one hell of a tension headache.
Within the low-ceilinged, acre-wide Citadel of Peace, Loki, lies flat on his back with his arms extended and his eyes closed, one fingertip pressed to the sceptre’s head as it lies beside him. His chest labours in the in the heavy gravity of the land of penitence.
Tony Stark breeched the walls of this world half an hour ago; he must crawl every step of the way, but Loki would rather rest than watch. His bones hurt, his blood hurts, his tongue hurts, and his head hurts; creeping in deference to the laws of the physical universe as every mortal must is not kowtowing in fear to the power of an immortal king. He will see Tony either perform the latter or die without; he has no interest in the Cheater’s labours until he falls.
The blow that shakes the walls of the Citadel knocks only dust free from the ceiling. The place is a bunker in construction, and it has withstood sunstorms.
All the same, Loki rolls slowly onto his knees and, wobbling, onto his feet. He takes the sceptre handle in his hands. Here, and only here, it is as light as a feather in the pocket of inversion the Citadel represents. His arms strain and his muscles squirm all the same, and his nerves cry out in protest.
The Citadel walls shake and shiver; the sceptre grows lighter in Loki’s hands, and the horned beast bellows silently in its prison.
There is, Loki supposes, an outside possibility that something Stark has invented will puncture the walls of the Citadel, but he has a suspicion that whatever Tony thinks of himself, he wants to see Loki die up close and personal. It is a suspicion upon which he has hung his entire plan for this sacrifice, and this would be risky were he not invariably rewarded in his low opinion of the morality of mortals.
Before he takes a single step from the centre of the Citadel, the bombardment ceases. Loki waits, bent double under the weight of the world, his hand on the sceptre which feels no more solid than a dream, but there are no further blasts. Either Stark has used up everything he has to give, or he has seen the impossibility of his task.
There is a chance that he’ll turn and run, perhaps. Stark more than the others knows the value of his own life; he is also the kind of fool who will not retreat when retreat is needed. Loki doubts that he will run, or crawl, or fall back on his precious Nick Fury. He will come.
Even now the floor looks inviting and friendly, and Loki’s shoulders ache, and his head feels as if it is being crushed by huge hands. He wants to lie down, just for a moment, but Stark is coming.
Loki keeps his balance. He leans a little more heavily on the shaft of the sceptre, but he does not waver. He has no inkling of how Stark will deceive the metabolic scanners at the door – he can hardly emulate Loki, balanced on the edge of hibernation stupor and wakefulness as only a half Jotun can as he crosses the threshold – but he will use some clever trick or other. He will not turn back. They never turn back.
The gates of the Citadel open with a dramatic clang, and by the time the sound reaches Loki he knows Stark must be a third of the way across the hall. Sound travels strangely here, and Stark’s suit still allows him to fly.
“You’ve been a long time,” Loki says, straightening up as Stark’s armour comes within earshot.
“Other priorities,” Stark says shortly, and it’s a good thing he has his metabolic masking technique – whatever it is – because his voice is flooded with a boiling ocean of rage.
“I rather doubt that,” says Loki.
Stark raises his hand, palm towards Loki, and moves as rapidly as he can in the treacle-thick air. His hand glows, but there is no following burst of energy to shove Loki aside.
“You should really know better than to let your enemy choose the field of battle,” Loki says, letting the sceptre take what feels like twice his normal weight with a crooked, exhausted smile. “Oh, that … doesn’t work in here.”
“Figures,” says Stark, and without pause for reconsideration he punches Loki in the head.
The force of it, the blow of this clockwork man’s metal fist, is sufficient to lift Loki off his feet and knock him to the floor, staggering under his own weight. His hand closes about the shaft of the sceptre in an instinctive spasm, not a calculated gesture.
Stark stamps on his wrist.
Loki howls in shock as much as pain, but his wrist has broken and set every time he raises the sceptre: his body is accustomed to the sensation, and he keeps his grip on the horned beast’s lock, key, and prison even as Stark’s foot smashes into his temples.
He grins, and grins, and curls around the sceptre like a wounded beast around the soft parts of its belly; Stark seizes him by the throat.
With a burst of strength that comes from his chest and tears at the chambers of his heart, Loki raises the sceptre and pokes Stark’s reactor with it. It is not a hearty poke, or a hard one, but a spark reaches between the two, and in a blinding burst of blue-white light, Tony Stark’s arc reactor shuts down.
“Well” says Loki, as Stark stumbles backwards.
They roll together for a moment, neither one of them strong enough to gain the upper hand against gravity as well as his opponent. Loki hooks his foot around Stark’s chestplate, fired by dim memories of wrestling with Thor as a child, and straddles the fallen hero as he would a horse.
“No,” Stark says, but without a power source he is immobile.
“Yes,” Loki corrects, levering the plates of his helmet up with the horns upon the sceptre. He peels them away with arms that feel no more strong and powerful than wet rope.
“What the hell is that thing?”
Loki climbs to his feet, standing on Stark’s chest with the sceptre braced against the side of his helpless head. “I was going to roll you onto your face,” he says, breathless and aching. “Banner died on his back. Rogers died on his knees, like a slave.”
Stark’s face is almost purple. Whether it is anger or the shrapnel working its way into his heart is impossible to tell.
“But it doesn’t matter,” Loki says, swinging his hips in order to distribute his unnaturally enhanced weight for the swing. “It doesn’t matter how you die or which symbol you are. It matters that you die. That’s all. They were wrong about that. It’s all poetry and no lore.”
Stark has nothing to offer. Loki is not sure he can speak, now.
“Let me make it very clear,” Loki says, lifting the sceptre to his shoulder. “You are going to die.”
He swings the sceptre into the side of Tony Stark’s head, and the most valuable brain on earth disintegrates into mush.
The walls of the Citadel ripple and pinch: the head of the sceptre bends and bulges. Hints of an animal too large to be contained within such a tiny space batter and buck at the metal, and the great slabs of the Citadel mirror them, bending as if they are made of cloth.
Loki loses his footing on the breastplate of Stark’s armour and falls. He lands hard half on and half off the man he has just killed, hard enough feel his bones crunch and crack, but not hard enough to score the surface of his skin.
He lies for a while, broken and victorious, as the Citadel swallows Stark’s blood. Loki laughs quietly to himself, but it is a sound shot through with misery as gold veins through rock: he feels the weight of ages in the weight of gravity upon his body, and the sceptre blisters his hand.
Thor hangs as motionless as Loki left him, suspended in the light that emits from the cracked and criss-crossed floor of the Citadel. When Loki left, the floor was whole, but Thor has not moved. He does not turn, bob, or waver in the airless air, only hangs as if poised in mid-leap forever, his hair suspended about his face, rendered alien and strange by the light from below. The roof of the Citadel is cracked like a hatching egg, and beyond Thor’s head lie stars.
The Seventh Citadel of Peace hurtles through the void between worlds, where the All-Seeing are blind and the powerful are powerless. Loki floats within the bounds of the airless chamber, the sceptre his anchor, hanging against his chest. This Citadel is half-quenched already, drunk on the intoxication of its brothers.
“Your turn,” he says, pointing at Thor as much for the effect as to direct his magic. There may be no one here to see, but Loki imagines the horrified, pleading gazes of the worlds he is to destroy as they realise their destiny is only to die, all the same.
Thor lifts his head. He is still bluff and bright, unfaded by his imprisonment: Loki finds this unfair, but he has had lifetimes to learn that Asgard’s citizens unblemished hides do not preclude the rot in their insides. So it is with Thor, who casts the longest shadow of them all; he shines too bright for anyone to find their way in the dark that follows him.
“Brother,” Thor says, as Loki directs his hanging body above the old stone table. The concentric carved rings upon its surface expand and contract like the pupils of a cat as Thor comes above them.
“I am not your brother,” Loki says, although this final lock depends almost wholly on that not being true. The sceptre drags at him from its sling; he speaks with feeling.
“You were always my brother,” Thor says.
“There is the matter of blood,” Loki points out, holding up his left hand: it is blue and frozen for this very demonstration. “I don’t believe this is you blood, is it, Son of Odin?”
“You are also the Son of Odin,” Thor says stubbornly, “and you will always be my brother.” He glares at Loki with more mixed emotions that Loki has ever credited him with the capacity to experience, some of which Loki chooses to ignore all together. “You will always be my brother, and I will always be yours, whether or not either of us wishes it.”
“Good enough for the lore,” Loki says with a sharp, tired smile. He lets Thor drop to the altar, but keeps him, arms and legs, locked and paralysed against any struggle. He lifts the sceptre and pulls himself off his own precarious footing for a moment. Trying to gain friction, a fulcrum on which to stand in this tiny, weightless void-world is akin to wrestling with an oiled snake.
“It will not grant you Asgard,” Thor says, watching him with wide and worried eyes. “Loki, you hear me. That creature you want to let from its cage, it won’t make you king.”
Loki wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. They are streaming into the weightlessness, and he has no notion of how long they have been weeping without his noticing. He says with a clipped, clicking precision biting down on the end of each word, “Fuck. Asgard.”
“Brother, you will be king of nowhere,” Thor cranes his neck to keep Loki in his line of sight. Loki spits at him, but due to the nature of the place he misses, and the phlegm hangs in the air between them. “There will be nowhere for you to reign, no one for you to rule. It means to destroy all. It was caged to keep what was left of the worlds intact, you must know—“
Loki cradles the head of the sceptre in his palm. It is close to drawing blood from him. “We have a common goal,” he says, “I will see everything ended. And I will see you all destroyed.” He swings the sceptre.
Thor is unable to give account of what occurs. His memory grows cloudy in battle, and magic fogs everyone’s minds. He knows he is locked to the altar by some infernal new spell of his brother’s, and then that Loki swings the Sceptre of the Horned Beast towards him at the wrong angle to make contact with his head, and then that he is no longer locked to the altar.
Battle is instinct of the god of thunder: he has the sceptre out of Loki’s hands and into his own without pause. He is deprived of his hammer, but for now this evil thing has the same heft and weight; it sits easily in his hands.
In the weightless air of the void-world, Loki comes at him with knife raised and a look in his eye that is not the spark of madness and yet the fire of unreason at once.
Thor does what is in his nature to do, and he swings the sceptre towards Loki’s head as he would swing Mjolnir. In deference to that in his nature which recognises Loki as his blood brother even now that Loki will not reciprocate, he does not swing the sceptre very hard.
To his immediate horror, it is hard enough.
The sceptre touches the skin of Loki’s temple, and his skin pulls back as if tugged. Blood floats free in the air like lost raindrops: Thor releases the handle of the sceptre, and the horned beast’s silhouette behind the metal guzzles blood from Loki’s skin. Thor can see it soak in and vanish.
For one long moment the Citadel shakes and shivers as if it is in the grip of a giant hand determined to claw it open – Thor grabs for the altar, and for Loki’s foot to prevent him from drifting.
A shadow of something vaster than galaxies and older than worlds falls across the face of the night, twists, shrinks, and pours like smoke into the wound on Loki’s head.
The column of shadow, struggling and fighting, is pulled down through the split in his brother’s skull by some terrible invisible hand. Thor sees hooves and horns flashing in the darkness – so many that there must be a herd, a stable of these impossible beasts – and somehow far away, their distance belying their impossible size.
He holds Loki more tightly by the ankle.
The last of the shadow seeps into Loki’s head. The wound through which it has entered closes behind it, leaving not a trace of blood or a dent behind.
“You,” Thor says, shaking his brother by the ankle. “You planned this.”
“Of course I planned it, you moron,” Loki says, opening his eyes very slowly. He is shaking with suppressed laughter, and Thor wishes to every authority he has ever recognised that he might be allowed a moment to shake his brother like a rag doll just for a moment until he stops being so smug.
“But we read—“
“You read nothing,” Loki says impishily. “I’ve never been very sure if you could read at all. But there is always lore behind the lore. If you ever bothered to read you would know that. Sacrifice my brother,” he says, gesturing with impossible delicacy and no small sarcasm to Thor, “and free the horned beast from its prison of eternities to lay waste to the galaxies, gain nothing, see everything ended - or - have you sacrifice me,” and here he begins to laugh, a series of barking giggles that set the hairs on the back of Thor’s neck on end. “And gain infinite powers.”
Thor releases his brother’s ankle in disgust.
“Infinite. Power,” Loki repeats, laughing again. “INFINITE.” He struggles for a moment in the weightless air, his eyes bugling and damp. There is blood at the corners of his mouth, and the shadows beneath his eyes are deep and dark as the void itself. “I could. Do. I could do anything. ANYTHING.”
“Can you undo what you have done?” Thor asks, but Loki ignores him.
“Anything. I –“
He drops like a stone from his poised position in the empty air, and Thor does not have time to fight the unusual forces of the place to reach him; he, too, is busy falling to his unsteady feet as the world grows heavier.
“I can’t,” Loki says, folding in on himself as if compressed from without. “I can’t, I can’t. It won’t.”
He sounds very young. Thor remembers when they both spoke as children; now Loki’s mouth is clogged with his own blood, and his eyes, when he lifts his head, are dark and wild.
“Infinite power,” Thor says, watching him warily. “You are not using it, I think.”
“IT ISN’T WORKING,” Loki screams in frustration. “It. Isn’t. Working.”
“Perhaps,” suggests Thor, “you have read your lore wrong.”
“WHY WON’T IT WORK?”
“It seems,” Thor continues, kicking aside the dull sceptre – it rolls easily across the cracked shafts of light, as if it is nothing more than an ugly bauble – and stooping to see his brother’s blood-flecked face more clearly, “that your horned beast has exchanged one prison for another, and let free none of its … infinite power.”
Loki stares at him with depthless eyes and shapes sounds with his mouth that do not leave his throat. He lies in a heap, a vanquished body amid the strange lights that are even now dimming as this world loses its magic.
“What can you do, brother, with your infinite power?” Thor asks, scooping up the surprisingly heavy body and depositing Loki over his shoulder like a bundle or a cape. “But contemplate your eternity in prison, as a prison?”
Loki says nothing. He does not struggle. Thor believes him to be exhausted, although Thor knows he has been fooled many times before into thinking his brother is at his wits end when he is only shamming lame, the way a bird might.
“You will be freed when you undo what you have done,” says Thor. He can hear his own rage in his voice, but he does not move to break Loki. There is no profit in it; Loki has very ably broken himself.
“I can do nothing but speak,” Loki says at last, his voice hoarse and small. They will be gone from this place soon enough, but it is not for Thor to dictate the moment of their leaving.
“Words shape worlds,” Thor says, patting Loki on his leg. “You are a magician. You will undo what you have done.” Thor holds back his rage. For Loki to have come this far he must have ended lives, many lives. Thor is not so very naïve that he cannot guess whose.
“I tell you I can do NOTHING,” Loki insists, in a temper. His voice is that of a furious child; Thor feels him, tense as a bundle of wires, thump in frustration against Thor’s back. It is the blow of an infant.
“You will consider and find way,” Thor says, half-assurance, half-order. “You will be contained for an eternity. You will have the time.”
“And what makes you think I will make any attempt to undo this?” Loki sneers. His breathing is laboured, and he coughs something down the back of Thor’s armour. Thor can feel the twitching in his muscles, the effort to remain whole and awake. “I’ll not return your ‘friends’ to you.”
“I will not leave you alone with the things you have done,” Thor says from between gritted teeth, as the wall of blue flame opens at last before him, “because you are my brother, and I love you, I will wait with you in the darkness for the rest of eternity, until you undo what you have done.”
“I am not your brother,” Loki croaks, choking on something wet.
Thor steps into the portal with the flesh prison of the horned beast draped over his shoulder.