Life is fickle, a cruel child's toy, victim to the most callous of whims. Life is no guarantee. One can live and be betrayed, can have everything they hold dear torn away and continue on breathing. If there is one thing the void teaches him, it's this. To promise life is to promise nothing.
There, in that emptiness, there is no air, no gravity to rip him apart. He seeks oxygen that is not there until his lungs burn like a brand has been set to them, until he writhes in pain and silently begs for the reprieve of death, but death never comes. In the void, there is no death.
Nor is there any sound and this, he soon finds; or perhaps he finds it late, it is impossible to tell time in a place of perpetual inconstants; this, is the cruellest denial of all. Over time, he learns to ignore his body's protests of need, learns to catalogue sensation and file it away as a distant notion. He gives up feeling and opens his eyes to the ever shifting gallery of distant stars; realms whose existence at these farthest branches of the universe fall beyond even Heimdall's all seeing gaze. Before his eyes, stars die and flicker into life, galaxies are consumed and for a brief instant, he feels wonder. But when he gives up pain, he gives up his mind's last true defence against the silence.
It creeps up on him slowly, clever silence. It's a persistent itch that grows and grows until he's mad with it. Until the silence; he's never paid heed to the constant companion that is the static rush of blood in his ears, the click of his blinking eyelids, the rhythm of his own heart. Without them, he begins to doubt. What if, his mind whispers, even he does not truly exist here? What if he is just another patch of emptiness in this barren void? Consciousness without substance? That all consuming terror of inexistence is what finally sends his mind retreating in on itself, like a snake coiling protectively around its wounds. There in the deep recesses of memory his last vestiges of sanity seek a safe harbour; a happy reminiscence to hide in. But like a child who lies awake in bed, wracked with the fear of recent nightmares, only the bitterest and most hated of memories will come to him. Every hurt and disappointment, every betrayal in a millennia of life replays itself, and in the darkness he dissects them, wallows in them. The tinniest of slights soon becomes sinister. The most innocent of words take on hidden insults. Suspicions become fact, doubts- conviction.
And just as silence made him retreat into unreality, it's the absence of silence that brings him back. He's journeyed so deep into the dark passages of his mind, that when he ceases falling and slams down on hard, unrelenting land, he thinks the pain is yet another memory; a sunny day long ago when his horse turned her ankle and flung him from the saddle; wrenching his shoulder free from its socket and shattering his arm- until the sound of his own screams ring in his ears, real and true and wonderful. Not memory. So, for what he thinks must be the first time in an aeon he opens his eyes and gazes out disbelieving at the grey, barren land where he has come to rest. Barren, he thinks, because what could live there, in a land of desolate stone and dust?
Later he'll wish he'd never discovered the answer.
The Chitauri, that is what the few in their ranks intelligent enough to form words call themselves. Hulking creatures with a corpse's sallow grey skin and reptilian eyes that stare down at him with dark cunning; eyes that promise pain.
When the torture begins, as he knew it would, he thinks they must want information. Explanations of what he is and why he came. But the questions never come. They take their daggers and dig deep trenches in his flesh- they lash him till blood paints the floor, till the skin of his back falls away in ribbons and his voice goes hoarse from screaming and all the while they are silent. All too soon, the truth becomes apparent. For the Chitauri he is simply a source of entertainment. Something they can cut open and watch knit back together again. The trespasser from the sky, whose strange, warm flesh wells up red under their ministrations. A novelty.
In the end, he supposes that novelty, the very oddness of him, is what brings word of his existence to their allies' ears.
"They told me an infant god had fallen into their nets." Those are the first words he hears leave the mouth of the being he will come to know as Thanos.
The Chitauri come one day and drag him without explanation from his cell; drop him naked and half blind at the Titian's feet.
"But you are no god."
"What is it you want of me?" he growls back, voice rough with disuse. The figure who looms above him is little more than a shadow to his damaged eyes, but he doesn't need sight to tell him it’s not Chitauri. No, he thinks, feeling the invisible tendrils of power that radiate from the figure before him, this being is something older and far more deadly.
"I have come to make you a bargain."
"What kind of bargain?"
"I mean to build a weapon," the mysterious being rumbles. "A destroyer of worlds and you, little Jotun, you and your magic will help me."
"And in return?"
"I will spare your life."
"My life?" Laughter bursts from his throat, raw and unrestrained. "My life?"
"Life is fickle, old man. To promise life is to promise nothing. If you wish my allegiance you will have to do better than that."
"Retribution," he answers, visions of Thor; beloved Thor, beloved counterfeit brother, dancing through his mind, "revenge."
Manhattan, New York- five days after the Chitauri attack
Like so many of the other scenarios in his life that had gone pear shaped in the end, Tony Stark was; with only an infinitesimal margin for doubt, certain in retrospect, that this one could be blamed on the scotch. Had he possessed the sense to join Bruce in a glass of the 1999 Chateau Le Pin he'd uncorked, things probably wouldn't have gone straight to hell. Or at least they wouldn’t have taken the express lane.
But he’d just helped to send a homicidal Norse god back to the other end of the rainbow, there was a hole in the wall of his upstairs den big enough to drive an M551 through, Pep was gone for the week and life was too damn short to waste the amount of time that getting drunk on wine required. That latter thought predominating, he cracked a bottle of Glenrothes that was half as old as he was, poured two fingers worth, knocked it back and poured a chaser of the same.
Outside, the city streets lay silent; pale, disconcerting impostors of their former selves. To the east and across the river the distant lights of Queens could be glimpsed, beckoning to the onlooker, but here in the blocks surrounding Stark Tower, its neighbours loomed dark and skeletal in the moonlight. Windows that had, not even a week prior, perceptually glowed with life and activity; ignoring such petty concepts as day and night, were empty. Devoid of light, stripped of the glass that would normally wink in cheery reflection as the world passed by outside, they stared blankly back; vacuous black pools in the buildings’ scared façades.
Repressing a shiver that had nothing to do with cold, Tony drained a third shot and reached again for the bottle. Across from him, Bruce was tracing the pad of a calloused thumb along the lip of his forgotten wine glass, eyes intent on the dark world Tony had been contemplating moments before.
This was a city too well acquainted with ruin, with loss. It and its people would recover from this trial as they had from those of the not so distant past, but the going was slow. This was destruction on scale that would have been hard, for many, maybe impossible to comprehend before it had come to pass. Seventy billion dollars. That was the number the lawyers had begun tossing around. A number that didn’t begin to take into account the economic repercussions of decimating one of the words leading business hubs and more importantly the loss of hundreds of innocent lives. The people could feel it though, could sense the sum of those incalculable numbers in their very marrow. He could see it in their faces as they shovelled glass from their shop doorways, in the weary set of their shoulders as they hefted plywood to board over the windows of rooms they might never return to and combed the rubble for loved ones they’d never again hold in their arms. He felt it too, a keen, bone deep ache that would not be ignored, could not be satisfied by all the scotch in the world. A lethargy had set in on the people of New York and spirit, Tony knew, was a far harder thing to mend than shattered walls.
The liquid fire of a fourth round was sliding across his numb tongue when JARVIS’s omnipresent voice split the brooding silence, making Bruce- as of yet unaccustomed to the AI’s presence- flinch in surprise and momentary alarm.
“You have visitors Sir, at the 45th Street entrance.”
"Tell'em to make an appointment," Tony grumbled around the rim of his glass, shooting the other man an apologetic grimace.
"I've already made the usual suggestions Sir," the AI responded, apparently affronted by this possible questioning of his efficiency. "But the lady is quite insistent."
"Lady?" Tony asked, his interest stirring.
In the armchair across from him, Bruce had gone from surprised to concerned. Ten to one, Tony reasoned, Bruce was wondering if agent Natasha Romanov had come around for a not-so-social-call. But JARVIS, Tony knew, was well acquainted with his phony ex-assistant and would have said straight out if she was the one lurking on his proverbial front stoop.
"Let's see this lady, then," he instructed, sitting forward in his chair and turning his gaze expectantly towards the plasma screen on the south wall, but the screen remained dark.
"Jaaaarvis?" he prompted.
"Might I remind you of your current romantic status, Sir?"
"What are you, a computerized chastity belt?” Tony scoffed, “Lets have visuals."
After a few pointedly disapproving beats, JARVIS complied and the screen came to life.Unpleasantly inhaling a mouthful of eighty dollar scotch the wrong way, Tony choked and proceeded to slosh the remainder all over his jeans. The pale, angry face of a young woman stared back from the screen and what a face, her features were striking even in the entrance’s dim overhead lights. A wide, darkly painted mouth, a slim patrician nose, sharp cheekbones and a delicate chin, all set off by a pair of bright, intent green eyes that gazed at the camera as though they could see Tony staring back.
Bruce let out a low whistle of solidarity. "Girl Scouts?" he offered, a weak chuckle hedging his words.
"I know you can hear me," the woman on the other end of the video feed snapped- which took Tony a minute to parse, distracted as he was by the crystal clear, HD view of cleavage the security camera was also offering.
"Drunk Girl Scouts?" he ventured, eyeing the second woman who was standing- and he used that term lightly- at the tower entrance. The buxom blonde in question was slumped heavily against her smaller, dark-haired companion, head lolling and mouth ajar. Clearly, Blondie (as he then mentally dubbed her) had gone one too many rounds with a certain pirate named Morgan. And, Tony mused, maybe that was what had possessed them to wander through the ruined streets at this hour of the night.
"We require assistance Stark!" the dark-haired woman practically shouted, her voice echoing shrilly through the speakers.
And once again in retrospect, that Camelot dialogue, coupled with the fact that her fiery green eyes were focused point blank on the lens of the hidden camera, really should have tipped him off, but, well, scotch.
"Umm..." Bruce hummed, as JARVIS chimed in helpfully- "A paternity test in the making, perhaps?"
Shrugging at one and pretending not to have heard the other, Tony set aside the empty tumbler and pushed to his feet.
Hey, he couldn’t just ignore a couple of far-from-home-damsels-in-distress, now could he? He was Iron Man after all and, a tiny, cajoling voice in the back of his head reasoned- just because he couldn’t take the merchandise home, didn’t mean he couldn’t press his nose longingly against the glass every now and then.
"You're going down there?" Bruce asked doubtfully and moved to place his untouched wine on the side table. "There's something... iffy about the conscious one." -and that had Tony grinning as he headed for the hallway and the elevator beyond.
Also in retrospect, Bruce had a gift for stunning understatements.