It was three in the afternoon when the world went to hell.
Tony remembers it like it were yesterday, even a year after the fact. He remembers redirecting the bomb (please God please just let this work please just let this work), he remembers falling, closing his eyes (This is it. This is it. Love you, Pep.), and then he remembers waking, being dragged through the streets of New York City, facing the pavement. He could see the boots of the Chitauri - feet? are those feet? do they have feet? - thumping against the ground under him, and he's not strong enough to pull his head up and actually look at his captors. He huffs out breath, gasping it back in again hungrily, straining to remember what the fuck just happened to him.
He comes up with nothing, but his body is sore and his lungs burn and his eyelids are so fucking heavy, and he slides back out of consciousness, a soft mutter of pain leaving him.
The sudden jostling of his body, along with a sharp, vibrant pain in his legs, snaps him back alive. His eyes focus ahead, and he wheezes, disoriented, looking up and ahead. Chitauri surround him. He's in the plaza under Stark Tower, the doors still intact some ways in front of him. There's a dull noise, like someone's yelling, screaming, roaring that slowly gets louder as his ears adjust and awake - Christ, Bruce - and he notices the Hulk being dragged to the ground, and he's actually bleeding. Tony drags his parched tongue over equally dry lips, blinking slowly, trying to clear his head. Captain America looks like hell; his body is bleeding, his suit is ripped, and he looks like he's been hit by a car. His hair hangs in his face as he hangs between his own Chitauri holders, and Tony can't see his face. Steve, he thinks, as loudly as he can, trying to get his treacherous lips to follow along- and they do, eventually, but he's only capable of mouthing the Captain's name, his throat refusing to work.
He can't see Natasha or Clint. He doesn't know where Thor is. Very vaguely, these concerns pop into the back of his mind, behind the foggy pain and confusion. He realizes slowly that he's surrounded by chunks of metal and technology, that he's surrounded by the corpse of his suit, torn apart from his body. His sweat-soaked body is entirely vulnerable. He feels his breath catch with the sudden shock of realization. We lost it.
We lost it, big.
"Finally awake," a voice proclaims, smooth and sly, and his eyes flick upwards, ahead of him. The Chitauri rustle. "It's about time, Stark," Loki murmurs, a smug half-smile on his face. "You had me worried there."
Tony blinks at him, his breathing faster. Why didn't it work? He raises an eyebrow at Loki, looks away petulantly, up at the (totally ruined, Goddamnit) Stark Tower, looming over him like a quiet reminder that life was normal, once. That, at one point in time, Tony Stark had nothing to do with fucking aliens.
"What? Don't feel like speaking? Wherever did that silver tongue of yours run off to, I wonder?" Loki gloats above him, standing in front of him now, and Tony swallows again, his throat too dry to actually work. "It's a shame. Might I offer you a drink?"
"You got me," Tony replies, his voice barely above a whisper, not that he didn't try. God, what he wouldn't do for a glass of water.
"Not just you, Stark," Loki croons, kneeling down on one knee to better look Tony directly in the eyes. "You. Your friends. Your tower. Your city." His smile is crooked. Tony looks away. He can't do this. "And soon, I'll have your race, too. I would call that a total victory, wouldn't you?"
There's no way to get out of this. This is a disaster. This is unthinkable.
"What did you say, before? That there was no way I would come out on top? I rather think I've quite outdone your expectations, then, haven't I?"
He can't bring himself to look up. He stares down at the pavement, at his ruined masterwork, at the booted foot of Loki of Asgard, the soon-to-be conqueror of Earth.
"Look at me."
"What do you want from me?" Tony asks, stubbornly keeping his head down.
"I gave you an order."
"I asked you a question."
"I said look at me," Loki hisses, and were it not for the iron grip of icy fingers on his jaw forcing his head up, Tony might have obeyed; the sudden order is so vicious and hateful that it struck him with fear. He's powerless, without the suit. Always has been.
Vaguely he remembers what Bruce said about not having a suit - I'm exposed, like a nerve. It's a nightmare. - and if it weren't for the cold eyes glowering into his now, he might laugh. It all seems so comical, so unrealistic, so unbelievable. He's never failed this colossally before. There is no contingency plan for world domination.
"What do you want from me?" Tony repeats. He is trying so, so hard not to seem afraid, but the truth is, he is afraid. He's absolutely fucking terrified.
"Name me as your god." Loki's eyes are unwavering, holding Tony's gaze. "Tell me I've won. Say it."
"Or what?" Tony croaks in reply, glowering.
"There is no 'or what'. You will. Or you die." A half-smirk. "I need a knight. Someone to champion my successes across the world, as I claim it as my own. Someone to stand by my side. As I've already gracefully extended the offer to your friends and they've refused, you are my last ...hope."
He can't control his breathing. He's on the verge of panic. He doesn't know how he manages to stay calm enough to stare at Loki, as if he's unafraid, and reply, his voice only wavering slightly. "If I refuse."
"You die. I already gave you that answer."
"So, by that logic, you're going to kill my friends, aren't you."
"Oh, yes," Loki replies, and the wolfish, hungry look in his eyes makes Tony's stomach drop.
"What if that's my condition?"
"..What?" The confusion on Loki's face is obvious. His smirk slides a little and he cocks his head. "Are... are you honestly demanding my compliance in something I've demanded of you?"
"Yep." Tony holds his head up high. "Yes, I am. I'll do it. I'll do whatever you say. But, you have to let them go."
"Let them go?" A sneer, and a growl. "Do you honestly consider me that ignorant?"
"Fine- let them live. I'll be your... 'knight' if you spare their lives."
Tony can see Cap raise his head in the background, hollow, angry, tired eyes falling on him in an almost incomprehensible mix of confusion, rage and defiance. Don't, they seem to say. Don't you do this, Stark. This is too far.
So much for cutting the wire.
"You swear?" Loki asks, but his voice is flat, and it almost doesn't sound like a question. "You'll obey me if I let these people live."
"Yes." He's got to find the conviction to make it sound believable, but he manages to scrape a ghost of a promise up to color his words. "I will... obey you if you let them live."
"And what's to keep me from killing them as soon as you're mine?" Loki replies quietly.
"Not much, really, I guess." Tony shrugs, as much as he's able in the iron grip of the Chitauri, as much as his sick stomach and panicking mind will allow. "You'll just be in the market for a new knight, then. Won't you."
"Still so confident, even in defeat." Loki looks him over thoroughly, raising an eyebrow, head still cocked. "You honestly believe I'll stay true to my word."
"Hm." A long moment passes, punctuated with a enraged, primal shriek. Loki's head snaps up and he is suddenly in motion- one long step back and he's standing again, his coat shifting around him. It's Barton, and his eyes look wrong, like his irises are filled with broken glass. He's dragging a kicking and screeching Black Widow with him, struggling along as she fights him. Her hands are bound but she keeps digging her boots into the pavement, trying to flip up and catch him off guard with her legs, but he keeps fighting her down again. Loki smirks, and walks to greet them.
Barton throws her down, panting. His face is bleeding and he looks like hell, but he stands straight, staring at Loki. Tony swallows.
"I made you a promise," Loki murmurs, kneeling beside Natasha. He's very clearly speaking only to her, but Tony can just hear him. "And I fully intend to make good on it."
Natasha snarls at him, kicking up at him, but he staggers back and blocks it with his staff, jabbing at her with the end and hitting her, hard, in the face. She jerks with the pain, going limp, and Loki looks at Barton.
"You know what you must do," he says quietly, evenly. "Take all the time you need."
Barton simply nods, collecting Natasha up again, and dragging her towards Stark Tower. Her face is bleeding. Tony's body jerks, wanting to run at Barton, hit him hard, but the Chitauri keep him from moving. Loki sweeps back towards Tony, a little smirk on his face.
"She counts," he breathes, eyes still on the limp form of Natasha Romanov as she's dragged into the building. "She's one of my friends."
"No, she doesn't," Loki replies, still smirking. "She and I had a bargain. It's time to fulfill my end of it."
Tony shakes his head. "Then it's off. I won't do it."
"You would have me end the lives of all of your friends over one woman?" Loki murmurs, leaning down to Tony's level again, his smirk becoming cruel. "You would watch them all die for one person."
Tony can't help it: he looks at Cap again, who's staring once more. He shakes his head subtly. Don't do this. Tony squeezes his eyes shut, thinking. What's the probability that Loki will let Natasha go? What are his chances at getting them all out? What's the ultimate bottom line? If he dooms them all, the world has no chance at all, but if he can save them all, instead of just most of them...
"Okay," he whispers, his voice betraying his inner turmoil and fear, and he shakes his head and repeats the word louder. "Look. I get the whole bravado thing, wanting to stick it to her and us and the world for whatever reason you've got, but she's an Avenger. She's one of mine." He opens his eyes again, determined, staring straight at Loki unabashedly. "If you're going to kill us all, you're going to kill us all. Easy as that. I doubt you're going to change your mind just because I ask you to. I told you I'd do what you wanted in exchange for their lives. That means all of their lives."
Loki stares at him for a long time, silent, his face betraying nothing. He cocks his head slightly, a ghost of a laugh leaving him. He's amused. We're all doomed.
"Very well," Loki replies quietly, and Tony is actually shocked enough to forgo a reply. Loki stands at his full height, and glowers down at Tony, placing the end of his staff on Tony's forehead, between his eyes. "But know this: should you betray me, should you renege, I won't just kill your friends. I will hunt them, I will torture them, and I will make you experience every second of it personally."
"Right," Tony says, nodding once against the staff. "No reneging. Okay."
A look comes upon Loki's face, one Tony has become very accustomed to over the last year: his eyes are half-open, and his half-smirk is amused. "Say I am your king."
The words in his mouth feel grainy, horrible, wrong. In the corner of Tony's vision, Cap hangs his head, and he can't tell if the man's disgusted or not. Tony licks his lips, and lets out a steadying, shuddering breath.
"My king," he murmurs, bowing his head slightly.
"Excellent," Loki purrs.