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the kindness of strangers

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Part I: Sanctuary

For as long as Gamora has known him, Thanos has been a collector, entirely unmatched. He has been so for much longer than that, in fact; Gamora herself and all her siblings are proof.

His collection is never static, and it certainly does not exist merely for his enjoyment (although she is quite sure he does take pleasure from both the pieces he cherishes, in his own way, and the ones he discards). He is not Taneleer Tivan, to keep something because it is interesting and leave it intact, suspended in time in a transparent case.

Thanos’ interests have always been rather more practical. And he is very, very good at pulling other beings apart to see how they work.

He does put them back together, eventually, if he finds them meet for his purposes. But they are always warped, pieces fractured and missing, because there is no point for Thanos to engage in reconstruction that is not in his image. And he always knows where the cracks are, how to break and remake everyone who crosses his path.

(Sometimes—often, in fact—he breaks and then discards, but it is better not to think of that.)

There is nothing unusual about the day Thanos adds a new piece to his collection, nothing in particular to distinguish it from any other. There are no true days or nights on Sanctuary, after all, no sun to rise and set, only endless corridors of metal and stone surrounded by stars and the darkness of deep space. Time is marked in shifts, and Sanctuary never truly sleeps. For the Chitauri, the lack of natural light and an accompanying cycle is irrelevant; for the rare visitors who choose to come, it is unimportant. But for the prisoners unlucky enough to have caught the Titan’s interest for their knowledge or abilities or some indefinable quality that lends a special savor to their deaths—for them, Gamora thinks, Sanctuary’s eternal night must seem horribly appropriate.

Especially for this one. Gamora is standing by her father’s throne with Nebula when Corvus Glaive makes his report: they plucked this creature from the Void, still alive, still capable of speech, still (relatively) rational. Thanos does not visibly react, but she can feel him come alert, his attention bearing down on his lieutenant. It is not hard to understand why; as far as Gamora knows, no one survives the Void unaided, and for this creature to have done so, even barely, marks it as something special, possibly even unique. Something useful.

“I would see it,” Thanos says.

Corvus bows, looking pleased, and makes a sharp gesture at two of the Chitauri with him. They leave for a moment, and when they return, they are dragging a stumbling blue-skinned figure with black hair and tattered clothes. Kree, Gamora thinks, but no, the blue recedes as she watches, momentarily turning his skin patchy and sick-looking before fading into pale grayish-pink. The remnants of his clothes appear to be armor, at a closer look, and the metal is scorched, the leather torn or shredded. When they let him stop, he sways on his feet, and a nudge to one bloodied shoulder is all it takes to push him to his knees. He catches himself on both hands, winces, and then pushes himself sideways so that he is no longer quite kneeling, and Gamora’s eyebrows twitch upward at this pointless but unmistakable show of defiance.

Corvus steps forward and seizes the prisoner’s head in both hands, one twisted in his hair, the other pressed to his temple. The prisoner’s eyes aren’t focusing, but he shoves weakly at Corvus’s hand at the side of his head as Thanos looks down at him.

“He is Loki of no father, fallen prince of Asgard and lost son of Jotunheim,” Corvus says, “Liesmith and Silvertongue and Skywalker. I will dig all the secrets from his mind, and he will serve you.”

“Is that so?” Thanos says, and smiles. “Show me.”

The other’s grotesque thumb presses hard against the prisoner’s temple, and he jerks, eyes widening—and then Corvus recoils as if he’s been burnt, and Loki slumps forward in a graceless heap, bloody teeth showing as he grins.

“You will pay for that,” Corvus growls, reaching for him again, but Thanos forestalls him with an upraised hand. If anything, the Titan simply looks amused.

“You have spirit,” he says to Loki. “I can use that. You will not be tamed by a mere underling so easily, hmm?”

“Go to hell,” Loki rasps.

Thanos’ smile widens. He crouches, still towering over Loki, and seizes the prisoner’s head in one hand. Loki tries to push him away too, but Thanos ignores his fumbling hands, holding him still. After a moment Loki goes rigid with a choked gasp and then starts to shake in Thanos’ grip, his eyes wide and panicked. His chest isn’t moving, Gamora realizes; he’s stopped breathing.

“There you are,” Thanos murmurs. “You are too strong for my lieutenant, aren’t you? For a little thing like you, your defenses are…formidable. But that is no matter.” He turns his hand, forcing Loki to look up at him. Loki stares, eyes watering with strain, lips starting to lose color. “I am stronger, and you will serve me yet.” He lets go abruptly and the prisoner collapses, gasping for breath.

“Take him away and make him secure,” Thanos says. Corvus hurries to obey, snapping orders to the waiting Chitauri, who haul Loki upright and simply drag him when his knees buckle.

“Have you further instructions, my lord?” Corvus asks.

“I need him alive,” Thanos says, “and I need him broken. I hope that is enough for a beginning. But do not attempt to breach his mind again. Not yet.” He turns away in dismissal, gesturing for his daughters to follow him, and halts in the shadow of his floating throne.

“I have plans for this one,” he tells them. His eyes gleam in a way Gamora does not quite recognize, and something inside her goes cold.

“Plans?” she asks neutrally.

“Terra,” he says. “There is an artifact I want, and he is the key to gaining it.”

“What do we need to know?” Nebula asks. “I can do it. Whatever it is, I can make him tell us.”

“Don’t be a fool,” Thanos says, and the very mildness of his tone somehow makes his rebuke all the more terrible. “This creature is not one of your pathetic targets, to spill all his secrets after a few well-placed blows.” He turns his gaze on Gamora, suddenly enough that she almost flinches. “Perhaps you have been paying enough attention to tell me why that is.”

“He is defiant,” Gamora says. “Focusing on breaking his body would only harden his will to resist.”

“Precisely. Even in this weakened state, he possesses certain defenses that render him not entirely tractable. Breaking his body must be merely a method to break his mind and weaken those defenses. I wish to mold him for my own use, and so I need him utterly broken, not merely in body but in mind and spirit. When he is malleable, when his will is irrelevant, then he will belong to me. I am confident you will not fail me.” This last is theoretically addressed to both of them, but the warning it contains is clear (as is the attempt to manipulate them against each other).

“Of course,” Gamora says, because it is the only thing to say.

He turns back to his throne, dismissing his daughters as clearly as he dismissed his lieutenant. “I must plan. You may attend to your duties.”

“I will not fail you, Father,” Nebula says, but Thanos is no longer listening, and after a moment she turns on her heel and stalks away. Gamora waits under the stars for a moment before seeking out the nearest access hatch that leads beneath Sanctuary’s surface. Once there, she walks through the corridors, keeping her strides purposeful and her expression closed, with nothing to give away her thoughts. She has never liked standing still very long when she needs to think—it’s too obvious, too vulnerable, too much like helplessness—and it is not wise, even for her, to appear to be without purpose.

And she needs, very much, a little time to think. She does not know exactly what Thanos wants with Terra, only that it cannot be anything good. She is not familiar enough with Terra’s history to be able to guess at what the artifact might be, either, but if Thanos desires it, then it must be something powerful, something capable of great destruction. And if that is the case, it will not bode well for the rest of the universe.

She is a daughter of Thanos, by necessity and unyielding determination (and by something she refuses to call desperation, even in her own mind), but she is also the last surviving member of the Zehoberei race. This second identity is not one she considers often; at best it is not useful to the life she leads now, and at worst it is dangerous, but it still exists, always, alongside anything else Thanos might make of her—a kind of sacred responsibility, almost, even if she has little time or patience for religion or superstition. And the last survivor of the Zehoberei, in the name of all the unknown dead that she alone carries, burns with quiet rage at the idea of Thanos gaining the power to wipe out another race.

But: she does not know, this time, and she has not survived as long as she has by gambling on incomplete information. She is not such a fool as to begin now. If she is partly responsible for this new prisoner, however, there is no harm in speaking to him. She will be expected to speak to him, in fact, and there are many things she might say—now, when he is lucid, or later, when he is vulnerable. Thanos wants him broken, and she knows what might be said to nudge him toward despair, if she chooses to do so.

Or she might tell him…something else.  

She waits about an hour to go to him the first time, long enough that the Chitauri will have finished locking him away but not so long that she expects anyone to have begun the true work of breaking him. There is no rush, after all, and simple hunger and thirst are effective ways to prepare a new prisoner.

In the intervening time, she accesses his file (she is not at all surprised to find that he already has one), because she is always thorough, always preparing carefully for anything she chooses to do. The information there is brief, to be updated whenever necessary, and it seems to consist primarily of things Corvus must have gleaned from Loki’s surface thoughts without much effort: that he is a sorcerer of no mean skill, that he learned only recently that he shares no blood with Asgard’s royal family, that he fell into the Void when the Bifrost was broken. That he is a Jotun runt, abandoned as an infant, and he sees himself as a monster. There is nothing tactical, such as Asgard’s weaknesses or the location of particular artifacts, but those are not so important, not yet; as far as Gamora knows, no one can truly keep secrets from the Mad Titan, particularly ones that indicate where cracks will begin to form when the appropriate pressure is applied. And then Corvus and Thanos will be able to take from his mind anything they wish, perhaps control his will entirely.

Still: Thanos did not seem to think the new prisoner would break quickly. Only time will tell.

Sanctuary has many detention areas, some larger and more populated than others. Loki is being held in one of the smaller ones, a section that is completely sealed off from everything else and located near the edge of space where only cold vacuum awaits him if he manages to escape through a wall. It is also devoid of other prisoners with whom he might try to communicate. Even this detention area has many chambers, some large and full of tools, some small enough that they would more accurately be termed cages than cells.

At the moment, Loki is in one of the larger cells, a dimly lit room hollowed out of rock with a single chain hanging from the center of the ceiling. At the end of the chain is a hook, such as one might use to string up a carcass, except that the body on the hook is Loki. It’s not entirely accurate to say that he’s dangling from the giant hook piercing his shoulder, because his bare feet are almost flat on the stone, but he already seems to be having trouble keeping his balance. His hands are bound behind his back, and most of his clothing has been stripped away, revealing old bruises, burns, and evidence of freshly healed wounds. Despite the hook he is more alert than he was when she saw him first, judging by the way his eyes immediately focus on her when she enters the room. He has already been given some manner of very basic healing, then, which does not surprise Gamora; breaking a prisoner’s body is far more reliable if one controls the process from the beginning rather than starting off with significant but unknown injuries.

 

His voice is still raspy, if slightly less than it was (and it does not take much effort to imagine how it will sound, soon enough, when it breaks from screaming). “You…do not look like the Chitauri.”

“I should hope not,” Gamora says. “Do you know who I am?”

“I would take you for a Valkyrie,” he says, quiet and hoarse, “but if that were so you would not come to me, for I cannot succeed even at dying and I know Valhalla is barred to me.”

“Well, you are not entirely wrong. I am a warrior, and I suppose I have been a herald of death for many.”

“You are not going to kill me now,” he says. It is not a question but a resigned statement of fact.

“No. My father has plans for you.”

“Your—” He squints at her and musters up a smirk. “You’re adopted, I take it.”

“I think we have that in common,” she says with a smirk of her own. He twitches at that and glares at her, jaw tightening, but he doesn’t answer, and she says, “Thanos reshaped me, as he will reshape you. He is very good at that.”

Loki sneers at her—rather impressively, considering his position, but she can already see him fraying at the edges. He holds his very self together with nothing but pride and rage, and it is impossible to say how long that will last. “I will not kneel. I will give him nothing.”

“Yes, you will,” Gamora says. “You will break, sooner or later, and you will give him whatever he wants.”

Loki’s foot slips, momentarily putting more weight on the hook, and he hisses through his teeth. “And you are here to…what…sweet-talk me into cooperating to make things easier on myself?”

Gamora leans against the wall, eyebrow raised. “I’m a living weapon. What makes you think I am here for any other reason than to add to your torment?”

He has the presence of mind not to move his shoulders, but his eyebrows lift in a tiny shrug. “His other servants are quite capable of that while lacking some of your…particular charms. It follows that you are here for a slightly different purpose.”

“I sincerely doubt Thanos believes you are likely to crack for a pretty face,” Gamora says dryly. “Perhaps I wanted to speak to you for my own reasons.”

“Well then,” he says. His legs are beginning to tremble. “At least…you are more interesting than the Chitauri and their loathsome leader.”

“High praise.” She pushes away from the wall and takes a few steps toward him. “I am here to tell you one thing,” she says. “This is what you must understand: he is inevitable. No one can see you here, and no one is going to find you. Even the flow of time runs differently here, when Thanos wills it. He is patient, and you will break. And then he will get what he wants from you, because he always does.”

“If you are trying to intimidate me,” Loki begins, and she wants to laugh at his bravado.

“No,” she says instead. “I am telling you a simple fact. What you think of it is not my concern. But here is another fact: there is one thing that cannot be taken away from you, if your will is strong enough, one thing that might prevent the utter dissolution of your self.”

“And what is that,” he says.

She straightens, pinning him in place with her gaze. “Truth.”

His laugh is a broken, desperate thing. “Then I am indeed doomed. I have been called Liesmith and I earned that title, but all my life I lacked the intelligence to see that the greatest of lies were being acted upon me. I am no longer certain I would recognize the truth if it confronted me to my face.”

“You misunderstand me,” Gamora says. “You know how to trick and persuade, and you are a sorcerer. You already know what it is to believe something, even when all logic and your subconscious mind resist it, and believe so strongly that you make it true. That is what I mean.”

“It is…not always so,” he says, but the arrested look on his face suggests he at least understands her point.

“No,” Gamora agrees, “and clinging to a belief when the universe is tearing it down requires great strength of will. But if you can do it, if you find a hard little core of truth and bury it deep enough inside you, where even you might not always remember it exists for anyone or anything else to extract from you…then, when you are finished being broken apart and remade, some part of your self may yet remain for you to recover.”

“You know this,” he says.

It isn’t phrased as a question, but Gamora answers anyway, “I do.” She considers saying more, perhaps that Nebula was genuinely sweet once, a long time ago, and that even after she grew accustomed to her new life and could kill without flinching, for quite some time she hated to inflict unnecessary pain, until Thanos burned out of her everything that did not suit him and left behind nothing but frustrated rage. That Gamora was never nice except when it suited her, even before; was already hard, and fierce in her defense of anything she considered hers, and so once Thanos had broken and remade her, she had something left of herself, harder even than the shell he made her create.

“And what of you, my lady?” he asks. “What is your truth, that you may do anything at all against this false father of yours, and what have you done with it?”

Her lips twitch in another smirk, the same that has often been the last sight of many who have underestimated her. “That is my business, and none of yours just yet. But if we meet again, and your mind and your will are still your own, perhaps I will tell you then. Now—” She reaches for a switch on the wall. “If you are wondering, this isn’t personal,” she says, and cranks the chain tighter until he really is dangling from the hook with several inches of empty air separating his feet and the rock floor. He jerks once, instinct making him struggle, and then he goes as still as he can, eyes squeezed shut in pain and chest heaving with rapid, shallow gasps.

With all his weight on the hook through his shoulder, every breath must be agony, and yet he still manages to smile sardonically and say, “You are…full of contradictions.”

“I am still alive,” Gamora says, and even she is not sure whether she is giving him a reason or simply restating what he’s said. It will take a very long time to break him, she thinks now, and she suddenly knows she will be sorry to see it happen, but Thanos is patient when he needs to be (like Death is patient, knowing all things come to her sooner or later), and inevitably, the lost Asgardian will shatter. If he is strong enough to take Gamora’s advice, perhaps there will be something left, after Thanos breaks and remakes him.

“Find your truth, Asgardian,” Gamora says, staring up into his eyes, and he is watching her again as if unable to look away. “Your touchstone, if you will—a word, a phrase, a memory. You will have time, for now, before Thanos decides you have weakened on this hook long enough and truly begins to take you apart. Use it well.”

She can feel his gaze follow her as she leaves, his strained breaths loud in the cavern, and she does not look back.

Almost immediately, she has business elsewhere, so it is several hours before she returns to check on him. Her motive is not, of course, borne of some foolish sentiment or weakness disguised as compassion. After all, it is a matter of legitimate importance to monitor the well-being of a prisoner like this who must be carefully broken and reassembled. Well enough for him to think himself forgotten; far less so for her to be negligent, as long as she shares this responsibility, and risk some accidental harm coming to the prisoner in her absence.

These are solid, reasonable defenses. It is entirely possible she will not even need them, but it is always best to have them ready and believe them herself.

Loki is limp on the hook, turning just a little in place; he looks even more gray and sickly than he did when she left, and his eyes are squeezed shut, but they flutter open when she lets him hear her approach.

“Come to…see your good work?” he asks hoarsely. “If you think this will break me—”

“Not at all,” she says. “As I said, my lord is patient and creative. This is only the beginning.”

“You…do know how to charm a man,” Loki says.

“Of course. Is that what you think I am trying to do?”

“What…else?” He stares at her with bloodshot eyes. “If he had wanted to break me with kindness…he could have started there. Instead you give me a taste of your cruelty…and think that will make me…desperate enough to submit to a little sympathy? I am not…such a fool as that.”

“My kindness is my own,” Gamora says, not sharply because she does know how to control her own reactions. “It is also, at the moment, irrelevant. Have you given any thought to what I told you?”

“Yes,” Loki says. “I thought…I might tell your father, next I see him…that your loyalty is weaker than he thinks.”

“You could, that’s true. He would not believe you, but you could try, and with your silver tongue you might succeed in planting some doubt. But for you, it will change nothing, because I do not believe he will send you away from here until he is convinced that he owns you.”

“I can be…very convincing.”

For the first time she feels a stab of pity for him, proud little prince who hasn’t yet realized he’s in the grip of monsters the like of which he’s never dreamed. She keeps that particular emotion off her face without effort. “I do not doubt it. But you will not see him for some time, I think. The Chitauri will come for you soon enough.”

He bares his teeth in a rictus grin. “Good. I grow…rather bored.”

Gamora’s lips twitch. “My father is right, you know. You do have spirit. I wonder how long that will last.”