They threw Loki down in chains in front of them.
Because that was apparently what you did, if you were a galactic conqueror, and you wanted to break your enemies' spirits. You found the thing that scared them, the thing they had come together to face, the thing they had almost given their lives to destroy ... And you broke that thing in front of them. This thing that had almost killed them. This thing they feared, and defied, and loved, and triumphed over. You took it, and you broke it, and you showed them the shattered pieces.
And in doing so, you basically said 'this thing, that nearly killed you, is no threat to me'. You said, 'this thing you loved, this thing that broke your heart, I have destroyed it'. You said, 'what hope have you, when this thing that tore you open bows to me?'.
You said a lot of shit, in short. A lot of shit. And nothing ... nothing that meant a damn thing. Tony knew that. Looking at the battered, shattered, cowed form of the god who had almost brought them to their knees. Looking at Loki. Tony knew, beyond doubt, that these fucking idiots hadn't a blind clue what they were talking about.
Thor didn't. Thor, raging, desperate, dragging at chains that would not break, trying to reach the remains of his brother. Thor didn't know what Tony knew. Thor was a good man.
Steve didn't either. Steve, his eyes turned away in something like pain, like pity. For an enemy, for someone who had tried to destroy him, for someone who had tried to break his world. Steve looked away from Loki's ruin, and didn't understand. Steve ... was the best of men, in so many ways. A goddamn hero. Of course he didn't know.
Clint, Bruce, he couldn't tell. Bruce maybe wasn't registering much of anything, right now, tranq'd almost to insensibility, heart-beat steady and sedate, drifting through a dream of distant despair. Somebody'd done their homework. Or made Loki do it for them. And Clint ... Tony just couldn't be sure. Clint had ... his edges, a lot of them, but he was still fundamentally good, and Tony ... just didn't know if Clint was broken the right way to understand this.
Natasha, though ... maybe. Fuck. Maybe. Maybe she knew, standing still and silent, glaring defiantly at the black thing that stood over all of them, that held them captive aboard the flagship of an endless fleet, and laughed at their weakness. Natasha, whose eyes had flicked once to Loki, taken him in, and flicked back, cold as Siberia, empty. Natasha maybe knew.
"He wanted you to come," their captor said, cold and gleeful. Tony should probably have made a note of the guy's name, but ... well. Wasn't going to matter, shortly. So. "So terrified, this god that scares you so. He cried out for you, in the end. For his brother." A sneer, as Thor roared brokenly. "He thought you would save him."
And, fuck. Fuck, that was just too funny. Tony ... couldn't help himself. No, really, he couldn't. People often told him that he could, if he just put the effort in, but there were some things ... He laughed. Hard and black and wheezing. Fucking mocking. Tony started laughing.
And Loki ... raised his head. Beaten, broken. Obedient. Supposedly. Loki ... met his eyes.
"Is that what you told him?" Tony asked him, quietly, when he had his breath back. Not the glaring idiot lording it over them. Not the others. Tony looked at Loki. "Is that what he thinks?"
Loki, eyes blank and empty and obedient, Loki, too broken to fight anymore, Loki, too weak to make a stand. Loki ... smiled.
And Tony had to laugh. Oh fuck, he had to laugh.
"He will destroy you," Loki whispered, reedy and broken. "He will break you, and overrule you, and destroy you. You can't stop him. You'll never be strong enough to stop him. You're all alone, and no-one's coming to help, and even if they did, they couldn't stand up to him. You're too weak."
The conqueror smiled. Rich and deep and satisfied, looking down at Loki in a creepy imitation of paternal pride. "He understands," he said, rough and booming and proud. "Listen to him, champions. Your enemy understands what you face."
"Oh, we know," Tony managed. Tony wheezed. Still fighting the laughter. Still fighting the rich, dark glee. The others ... looked at him. Concerned, fearful. Except Natasha. She kept her eyes on the enemy. She kept her eyes ... on the mark. "Trust us, we know." He looked back at Loki. Looked back at the dark, glittering thing shining beneath blind obedience, at the secret darkness lurking in the eyes of a broken god. "You mind? If I enlighten him, I mean. You mind if I let him in?"
Loki ... looked at him. Appraising, suddenly. Intelligent, a gleaming intellect hidden and secret and kept shielded from the tormentors that surrounded him. Loki measured Tony. And then, he nodded his head. Smiling, soft and blackly amused. Carry on, mortal. Carry on, Stark.
Don't mind if Tony did, then. Oh, don't mind that at all.
Fuck, wasn't like there was anything left to lose. And oh, but wasn't that the kicker, too?
"You broke him," he said, grinning a shattered little grin. Moving forward. He wasn't chained. Not like Thor, not like Steve. Not like Bruce. Because he was human, wasn't he? Nothing more. Like Natasha, like Clint. Nothing without the armour. No threat, to these creatures, these conquerors. These morons. Too weak to fight, wasn't that right, assholes?
"You broke him," he repeated, softly, moving to Loki's side. Looking down at the god of chaos, the god of lies. Thor's weak, damaged, insane little brother. All alone. Too weak to make a difference. "You told him he was weak. You told him he was alone. You told him no-one was looking for him. You told him they'd never get there in time. You told him you'd hurt him. Over and over again. Until he gave you what he wanted." He smiled. A black slash of lips, that he'd learned so long ago, in a cave. "And it was all true. And he knew it. And you broke him, right?"
Loki looked up at him. Bound, shackled and cringing. Loki looked at him. And kept smiling.
"We're here to drive it home, right?" Tony crouched down, hunkered next to his enemy, to the broken god. Watching the dark gleaming. "Him to us, and us to him. That no-one can fight you. That you'll break us for even trying, and show our enemies the pieces. Let them laugh at us before you let us die. Hmm?"
"And to prove they won't stand for us," Loki whispered. Mad and gleaming. Shining like the light in Tony's chest. Glittering like a shattered heart. "To prove no-one will lift a hand to help. To prove ... we are weak, and helpless, and alone."
"Yeah," Tony murmured back. Wondering what Loki was seeing in his eyes. Wondering if it was part of why Loki was smiling. "And it's all true, isn't it. We're weak. We're so goddamn weak, aren't we. We can't stop him. Can't even find the strength to try. Because we're too small, and too broken, and too alone." And then, the laugh was bubbling back up. Then, the grin was shining, dark and glittering. "And that's what makes it so fucking priceless, isn't it?"
Loki laughed at him. Rich and light and genuine, and the room was falling still around them, the room was beginning to realise, but fuck. Too late. So very much too late.
"Tell me it's big," Tony breathed, low and savage, into the madness in Loki's eyes. "Tell me it's goddamn biblical, worlds on fire, the sky fucking falling. Tell me it's that fucking big. Please."
Loki tilted his head, smiling faintly. "Why?" he asked, bleak and amused.
Tony smiled. The biggest, baddest of his Tony fucking Stark grins, a little slice of raw, desperate arrogance, black pride. "Because if I'm going down," he said, low and vicious. "If I'm going, I'm going big, baby. I'm going in a fireball to make supernovas cry. Give me that much. Make me happy, one last time. Give me that much."
Loki's lips spread apart. Not a smile. Not this. Something too fierce, too savage by far. "I live to serve," he murmured, low and mocking and goddamn beautiful. Fucking sweet. "I live only to serve, Mr Stark."
Tony laughed, at that. Laughed until he almost couldn't stop. Laughed until he almost couldn't breathe. Laughed even when their captor lost patience, laughed even when pain seared through him, and the world tilted in an endless swirl that ended at the conqueror's feet, that ended looking up into that dark, arrogant rage. Fuck. Tony laughed more. Just for that.
"WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS!?"
Wow, look at that. Almost as loud as Thor. Huh. Pretty cool.
"You broke him," Tony grinned, right up into the maw. Fighting back the laughter. For just a second. "You really did. You broke him. He was weak, and powerless, and too small to fight, so you broke him. And he swore obedience, didn't he? Swore up and down to do what you wanted, gave you everything you asked for. Begged for his brother, let you see him hope. Knowing all the while you'd smash it, just to show you could. God. Fuck. He played you like a fiddle. And you didn't even know."
Somewhere behind him, Natasha was smiling. Bleak and bitter and midwinter cold. Steve and Thor had fallen silent in confusion. Clint, in something hard and blank and made of fucking stone. And Bruce, in something serene, and zen-like, and near peaceful. A clean, pure understanding, from a man who'd once tried to shoot himself in the head, just for some peace and quiet.
Loki, crouched bleeding, was grinning.
"You think we're here to break him," Tony murmured. Feeling the humour bubble up. "Or him us. You think it's about you. Man, oh man. That's just beautiful."
"I wanted them dead," Loki said. All the amusement in the world in his shattered voice. "My brother. His people. All my enemies. I wanted them dead."
"And you too," Tony added. "Yeah, you too. Because he couldn't escape, and he couldn't fight, and you hurt him, and he was too weak to stop you. But, see, that's the thing." He pulled himself up onto his elbows, pulled himself seated on trembling arms. Grinning the grin that forged the Iron Man. "That's the fucking thing. Sometimes, people don't fight you because they're strong. They don't fight you because they have people to protect, because it's the right thing to do. Sometimes, you don't get heroes. Sometimes, you get us."
"Broken people," Natasha murmured, cool and calm and clean. "With red in their ledgers."
"Freedom's just another word for, nothing left to lose," Bruce hummed, somewhere in the background. Huh. Tony wouldn't have taken him for a Joplin fan.
"And down here," Tony finished, soft and dark and savage. "Down where the weak people are. There's one last reason to fight. One last reason not to break, not all the way. One last reason to claw your way out. You know what that is?" He smiled, with an almost Bruce-like serenity. "To fuck you, that's what." Grinning. "To fuck everyone. Everyone who ever hurt you, everyone who ever put you down. To take them all down with you, and fuck every last one of them up, baby."
He laughed. God, it was just so fucking funny.
"We're at ground zero," he murmured, to the boot on his chest, to the hand around his heart. "We're here because he wants us to die, and this is ground fucking zero. Do you get it now?"
Loki smiled, cheshire-like. "You know," he mused, lightly. "You were always my favourite, Stark."
Tony grinned at him. "Liar," he said. Amiably. "You hated my guts with a dark and vicious passion, admit it."
Loki flashed a grin. "Yes," he agreed. "But you were still my favourite."
"We came here willing to die," Natasha said, quietly. Defiance in her eyes, for Loki as much as those who held them. For the architect as much as the tool. Whichever way around you wanted to take that. "The victory isn't complete. We came here willing to die, to keep our planet safe."
Loki shrugged. Shackled and shaking. Pain and exhaustion and bright, bright hate. "You'll still be dead," he said. His eyes hot on Thor, on his brother. "At this point, I'll take what I can get."
"Loki," Thor whispered. Gut-punched. In so much fucking pain. God, Tony thought. Why were the strong ones always the easiest to hurt?
"Going down swinging, big guy," Tony cut in. Trying to be gentle. Shit. Someone had to be. "That's an Asgardian thing, right? Just look at it that way. Your little brother ... is going down swinging."
"And," Steve interrupted. Gone grave and serious. "And this swing. It will keep Earth safe? It will stop this fleet here? Destroy it?" His chin tilted, sacrifice and determination in every line of him. Every heroic inch.
Fuck. Fuck, they killed Tony, sometimes. He wanted to protect them so bad, sometimes. And he couldn't. Because that was the killing thing, that was the first thing, that was what he'd learned in Afghanistan, with Yinsen's blood on his hands. He couldn't protect them. He never could.
That, more than anything else, was what being weak meant. You could kill the world. But you couldn't save one man. One damn good man, who believed. You couldn't save him.
"It will," Loki said. Exhausted, rueful, hateful, fierce. Proud, in that black, vicious way of his, that Tony loved, and hated, and knew so very, very well. "It will bring them to their knees." Head up, hate shining, staring into the maw of those who'd broken him. "It will break them open. Bring them down." A small smile, in Tony's direction. A little grin. Just for him. "A fire to make stars weep. Just for you, Stark. Just because you asked."
And Tony laughed again. Laughed a little more, as the room burst into panicked activity around them, as the fleet turned on itself, tore itself apart in search of the weapon that would slay them. Tony laughed, and dragged himself through the chaos to Loki's side. Dragged himself over to Thor's mad, bad, dangerous little brother, grinning bloodied in the chaos. As Steve moved to Thor, and Natasha drifted to Clint, and Bruce smiled distantly at Tony across the breaking of the world. He pulled himself to Loki's side.
"Your turn, huh?" he murmured, quietly. Tucking himself into Loki's side. Curling beside the man who'd killed them. Loki, smiling distantly, wrapped a gentle arm around him, and pulled him close.
"It was always coming," Loki said to him, curling close, lips at Tony's ear. "I am the ending of things. It was always going to end on my turn."
"Yeah," Tony whispered, nodding faintly. "Fire. Always figured I'd die that way." A little grin. "I'm an explosive kind of guy, you know?"
"Mmm," Loki said, and leaned down to kiss him. Leaned down to touch him, and drown him darkly first. "You were always my favourite, Stark," he whispered, soft and hateful and vicious and sweet. Goddamn beautiful, like fires and the endings of things. "I wanted to kill you last. I wanted to savour you, all the way to the end."
"Yeah," Tony grinned, into the fire that tore them open, into the breaking of the world, as Death spread burning wings around them. "Yeah," he said. "And fuck you too."
"Mmm," Loki agreed. His dark whisper the last thing Tony heard. "To the last, Stark. To the very end."
Into the beauty at the end of things, and a fire to make stars weep.