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Monster Culture

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Art by portraitoftheoddity. View full size here!

“Like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself; it is always a displacement, always inhabits the gap between the time of upheaval that created it and the moment into which it is received, to be born again.”
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Monster Culture: Seven Theses”

 

He had been waiting here, in his cell, for an interminable amount of time. In his absence, the cell had been tidied; the destroyed furnishings were gone, and it was bare, empty, blindingly white. For awhile he stood, waiting; but eventually he sat down on the floor, legs stretched out wide, like a child. As time passed he imagined himself slowly turning to stone, a still, silent, cold figure cut of marble. He had spent much of his time while incarcerated in this state. He had first learned to seek refuge in it when he had spent what felt like eternities falling through starlight, the dust of the void clinging to his flesh like a second skin, stiffening him, freezing him to the core. It was easy to slip back into it when he needed.

Loki waited to hear what his fate would be.

He did not have Thor’s confidence that Odin would alter his sentence. He imagined his one-time brother, now, pleading to the All-Father for leniency, and were he capable of movement or emotion at this moment, he would have laughed bitterly. Though he had helped Thor recapture the Aether and stop Malekith, he was not so naive to think that could somehow balance out his past actions. This was what Thor could not understand -- one grand gesture would never be accepted as payment for wrongdoings: his wounds for the wounds he caused; his efforts for the efforts others expended; his loss for the losses he caused; one priceless, dangerous artifact neutralized to pay for the one he’d attempted to misuse.

No.

Never.

Of all people, Loki knew only too well the uselessness of conciliatory gestures.

And anyway, that wasn’t why he had done it.

In the fever state he’d fallen into, when he had succumbed to the wound from Kurse’s blade, there had been peace. Pain as well, certainly, but a pain that he could stomach. Perhaps he had even welcomed it. Faced with the possibility of death, he had surrendered to its inevitability, secure in the knowledge that he would never have to look at his own terrible face in a mirror again.

Then, some time later, he had awoken in the palace’s healing chambers to Thor weeping and smiling over him like a fool. And to his surprise, standing some paces away stood Odin, his gaze unreadable. Before Loki could formulate some kind of response, the All-Father had turned and left.

And then Thor had told him of all that had occurred since Loki had received his injury -- the Convergence, the great battle with Malekith and his defeat, Thor’s plans of abdication … and his plan to help Loki.

Help him. How like Thor to engage in such a pointless exercise, with no encouragement from Loki, no cognizance of the consequences, never realizing that perhaps the object of his supreme forgiveness and generosity might want it in the first place.

But there was no arguing with Thor once he had settled on a course of action. And so Loki waited.

By the time the entrance to the cell dematerialized and Thor stepped inside, Loki was so deep inside of himself that he found it hard to swim to the surface. His muscles did not want to budge. He felt unready to be in the presence of others. He blinked rapidly, his facial muscles trying to remember how to form expressions. It took several minutes for him to take in Thor’s expectant expression; another minute for something in his stomach to dip and twist at the hopeful smile branding his features.

Loki was certain this could only mean trouble.

*
Some time later, when he was bare chested, sweating, and the stave for bind prisoner was being traced onto his flesh just above his sternum by a sorceress, one of his mother’s former handmaidens, he thought that he had been right.

There is great power in symbols. Raw magic is pulled, stretched, spun like thread or forged like metal (every sorcerer has their own technique), bent and forced into a shape. In a binding, however, the difference is that a sorcerer’s magic is pulled from them unwillingly, siphoned out, and then contained, usually in the form of a tattoo or a brand. It is one of the most powerful workings, and the most demanding, and the hardest to break.

Thor stood a few paces away, motionless, watching him. The smile was gone from his face -- as a consequence both of Loki’s pain and the furious words his brother had been spitting at him for the last few hours -- but that pathetic, infuriating glimmer of hope still lingered in his eyes. Finally, the sorceress stepped back, her work finished; Loki continued to lay there, on the bed they’d brought into the bare cell for the binding, incapable of movement. Thor shuffled forward, crouched down next to the bed, and took Loki’s limp hand in his fist.

“It will be all right, brother,” he said. “A new life awaits you. A new chance. May it be as rewarding for you as it was for me.”

Weak as he was, Loki managed to summon enough strength to sit up slightly, rear back, and spit directly into Thor’s face.

*

The Bifrost deposited them at the spot in the wooded glen where he and Thor had been whisked away by the Tesseract the last time he’d been on this Hel-forsaken rock. Loki felt unsteady, weak-boned, as though a thousand spiders were crawling under his skin. His restrained power hummed and throbbed, responding to the journey through the portal like a flower bud attempting to unfurl, but the stave on his chest burned, crushing it. For a moment the world blurred and spun. He felt Thor’s hand on his arm, steadying him; then his vision cleared and his legs straightened, and he pulled away.

And became aware that they were surrounded by a ring of black-clad warriors, weapons drawn: S. H. I. E. L. D.’s finest. And there, walking towards them, was their leader, Director Fury, and next to him, a person who made him instinctively bare his teeth.

His new warden.

“You will return to Midgard. You will learn humility. You will make recompense for the damage you have done. You will find your place in the Realms.”

“I will find a way to escape. I promise you this. You will never rest for searching for me. Why do you laugh? I assure you that you will not find it amusing for long.”

“You may try to escape, brother. But the one who watches you is … quick to anger.”

The Beast.

“Thor.” Fury nodded, and then frowned and narrowed his one good eye. “Loki.” He crossed his arms. “Let’s not waste any time.” He stepped to the side, and the Beast took his place. He squinted in the sunlight, his head tilted slightly to the side, face deceptively calm, but Loki knew only too well the unbridled violence that lay deep within him. "Dr. Banner will take you from here."

“If you’ll follow me, we’ve got a car waiting.” Banner smiled. “I wanted to take the train, but we all agreed it would be best to limit contact with the general population at first.”

Loki frowned and gritted his teeth. He wanted to scream and tear them all to pieces. He did not move.

“Loki, come,” Thor said, but quietly. It is as though he thought Loki had any dignity left to him at all.

With great effort, Loki raised his head high. He walked forward, as though he were walking through the great throne room, a prince of Asgard once more.

Banner turned and walked through the encircling crowd of S. H. I. E. L. D. agents. Thor and Loki followed. They passed beneath verdant canopies of trees, emerging into a brightly lit meadow. In the distance, Loki could see mortals frolicking in the sunshine. He looked down at the ground, his teeth on edge. He would have to live among these fools for an untold amount of time.

They stopped at last at a large black vehicle.

“This is where I take my farewell, Loki,” Thor said.

Loki was taken aback by the jolt he felt at those words. He had supposed Thor would stay with them longer. Ah, but of course, this was not worth the prince’s time. He had many important matters to which he must attend. Smiling drily, Loki raised his chin, looked through his lowered lashes at Thor, and said nothing.

The lines around Thor’s eyes crinkled slightly. “Good luck, brother,” he said. and turned and left.

Banner let out a long sigh. “Well,” he said, and opened a door on the vehicle, gesturing inside, “let’s get going.”

For a moment, Loki imagined resisting. He could so easily turn and run - he had always been so fast - and though he didn’t have magic, he was good at hiding himself without its aid. Then he imagined Banner’s skin stretching, the hue coloring; great fists reaching out and grabbing him before he even made it to the safety of the wooded grove.

Loki swallowed hard, and climbed inside the car.

*

"Seat belt," Banner said as he slid into the seat behind the wheel. "That strap next to you. Buckle up.” He demonstrated with his own.

Loki inspected the flimsy cloth belt dubiously. “What is the purpose of this?” he asked. His voice was rough. He hadn’t spoken a word since they’d applied the stave to his chest. His throat had been tired from screaming.

“To keep you from flying through the windshield if the car crashes.” Banner raised an eyebrow. “Though I doubt that would harm you much. But it’s also the law.” He took a key out of his pocket and inserted it into the console in front of him and turned the vehicle on. As it shuddered to life, Loki was reminded of just how primitive and dangerous Midgardian technology was. He pulled the strap around his chest as Banner had and snapped it closed.

“Do you mind if I turn on the radio?” Banner asked, his tone calm and oddly polite. “It’s a long drive to Boston.” Loki stared at him with a look of aggressive incomprehension. Banner simply stared back at him, blinking. Loki frowned, looked away, and crossed his arms and closed his eyes. After a moment, the mellow drove of mortal voices filled the vehicle and the car began to move.

*

He kept his eyes closed throughout the long journey. He was exhausted but unable to sleep with Banner so close to him. Instead he let himself drift off back into that state of nothingness, only torn out of it the few times Banner directly addressed him, though he barely responded.

“We’re nearly there,” Banner said, and Loki, with some difficulty, opened his eyes to see that it was dusk. Before them was a city, just beginning to light up for the night. The tall, pale buildings reminded him, from a distance, of Asgard. Loki was struck by a surprising wave of homesickness. But as they got closer he saw these structures were dirty, clumsily designed, primitive -- nothing like Asgard at all.

They followed a road into a tunnel, then emerged into a busy, claustrophobic street. It was loud. The car moved slowly, forced to wait for people who were weaving in and out of traffic. He could not find that quiet place inside himself in all the chaos.

Eventually they turned down a small narrow street, crowded in by older, red-bricked buildings and trees. The noise faded somewhat as they progressed through a spiderweb of similar thoroughfares, finally coming to a stop in front of a brick building with a red door, almost indistinguishable from a line of similar buildings. Banner maneuvered the car to rest in front of the house.

“Here it is,” Banner said. He opened the door, unbuckled his seat belt, and stepped out. “Our home base for the moment. A Stark investment property, I think.”

Loki did not care. He didn’t understand why Banner was speaking to him this way, had been speaking to him this way the entire journey. As though Loki were not a prisoner (“leniency” and “reformation” be damned); as though Loki had not killed and destroyed; as though Banner had not, while in the guise of the creature who lurked within him even this moment, beaten the god into a feeble mess little more than a year before.

He didn’t like it.

Banner stretched. “Let’s go,” he said, when Loki did not say anything, and began taking bags and cases from within the car.

Slowly Loki unlocked his own safety belt, taking a moment to find the button that released it. He climbed out of the car, and then, for a moment, he simply stood in the street, inspecting the house that was to be his prison for an undetermined amount of time. There were bars on the windows of the lower floors, and for a moment he was insulted; then he noticed they were old, and that every house had them, and they must be meant as a deterrent to keep monsters out; not to keep one particular monster in.

Loaded down with luggage (he did not ask Loki to help and naturally Loki did not offer), Banner walked to the door and began fumbling for a key. He kicked open the door into a small entry area, dominated by a staircase leading to the second floor. Loki hesitantly followed him inside. He stared back at the open door behind him for a moment before finally closing it. He felt almost as though if he touched anything in this place, he’d never leave.

“I think the bedrooms are upstairs,” Banner called out from whatever room he had disappeared into. “Take whichever you want.”

Loki said nothing, but he climbed up the stairs. The hallway was crisscrossed by peach colored light from the setting sun. He entered the first room on his right; there was a bed in it, and several windows; a half-filled bookshelf; a desk; and a closed-up fireplace, painted over in blue. He closed the door behind him. He was still exhausted, and he was finally alone. Without even being aware of controlling his own limbs, he climbed into the bed and fell asleep.

*

He woke once in the night, confused about his surroundings, but that was not unusual for him, at least not lately. He lay still in the darkness, breathing shallowly, trying to remember where he was and unable to, until distantly he heard the murmur of a voice. It took a moment for it to register in his mind as belonging to Banner. Then it all came back to him: Thor in his cell, the placing of the stave, the long trip to this house, falling asleep in this bed.

Banner’s voice was the only one he heard. He must be speaking on one of their communication devices. Loki focused his hearing and made out a few sentences: “He’s sleeping now”; “It’s fine, Tony”; “No, we have everything we need”. Eventually he gave his farewells and the conversation ended. Banner gave a long sigh. The floor creaked; a door opened and closed. He heard Banner climb into bed. Then, silence.

In the meantime Loki’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness somewhat. It was not truly dark; there was a dim light coming through the windows, from a lantern outside. He became aware that he was uncomfortably warm. He’d fallen asleep in his clothes, even his boots. He shucked those off, letting them fall to the floor by the bed, not caring if the noise woke Banner. The side of his face that had been pressed against the pillow was hot and imprinted with the creases of the covering. He rubbed it and flipped the pillow over, sighing when he felt its coolness against his cheek. He fell asleep again almost instantly.

*

The next time he woke there was sun on his face and birds singing outside his window. He sat up in the bed, and his hand went to his chest, slipped inside the loosened laces of his tunic, and outlined the ridges of the stave. His magic surged and then sputtered and fizzled into nothingness. A full body shudder coursed through him, and he felt nauseous. He breathed his way through it.

When his heart beat had slowed and his nerves no longer felt like they were on fire, he got out of bed. At the door he hesitated. Was Banner awake? He listened and thought he could hear, from whatever room the beast occupied, a faint, even breathing. Steeling himself, he turned the doorknob and stepped into the hallway.

He stood on the bare floorboards for a moment. It was early. The sun had maybe only just risen. There was a closed door across from him, and on the other side of it, Banner lay sleeping. Two more rooms, doors ajar, were down the hallway. One appeared to be another sleeping chamber. The other, a washing room. He tiptoed inside, and, after wrinkling his nose at the very basic facilities, attended to his needs and washed his face with cold water. When he was done he stopped and listened again; Banner still seemed to be asleep. Cautiously, he crossed the hall again, and proceeded down the stairs.

On the main floor he wandered briefly through a sitting room, which was piled with the traveling bags Banner had carried in the night before, a small library, a dining hall, and the kitchens. On a table there he found a bowl of fruit, a loaf of bread, and a dish with butter.

He touched the rim of the bowl and wondered if Banner had left this all here for him. He remembered suddenly the sound of the mortal’s voice the night before, through the closed door: He’s sleeping now. Loki imagined Banner standing outside the door, hesitating, then pushing it slightly open, peering inside; pictured his own prone, fully clothed body, asleep on the bed, and here, in the kitchen, his body alternating between numb fury and fiery shame at the idea of Banner seeing him in such a vulnerable state. But he should grow used to this. His life would be a succession of indignities from here onwards.

Ultimately, he eschewed the bread, but took several pieces of fruit. He brought them upstairs. He felt unprotected down there, though Banner was technically in closer proximity on the second floor; but at least he had this door here to separate himself from the beast. A door demanded a knock. Most of the time.

On his bed, he contemplated the fruit he had taken: the apple and the peach he found familiar. He puzzled over a long yellow fruit with a thick skin, until he discovered how to peel it.

Afterwards, licking the juices from his fingers, he went over to the window and looked outside. There was a tree just outside, and the branches brushed the window. They were studded with small green buds; it must be spring. With some difficulty, he pushed open the window, but there was a wire mesh beyond the glass. He fiddled with the overly complicated locks and finally pushed that open, too, and pushed his head out, the cool morning air brushing against his face. A dark bird, with a keen, sharp beak and white flecks peppered through its iridescent feathers, landed on the brick windowsill. He placed his hand on the sill, and whistled lowly. The bird hopped, curiously, towards it, and with lightning fast reflexes, he grabbed it, holding it gently but firmly in his cupped hands. He smiled. This silly, weak thing. It squirmed in his hands, and then, suddenly, pecked him sharply on the fleshy part of his thumb. Cursing, he let it go, and it flew away quickly.

He watched it go, thumb in his mouth, tasting his own blood, hating everything.

There was a knock on the door.