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The Orchestrator

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Thor finds his brother sitting, his posture bent in defeat but his spirit far from broken.

If Loki has ever been anything at all, it is persistently defiant.

His armour is rent in places, his resplendent battle garb dulled and ripped. He favours his right side, his bloodied face turned from the approach of his self-styled jailors.

Thor remembers this spectacle well. What he does not fully recall is the detail, the way each anomaly and indignity stands out against the picture of this scene he holds in his mind.

The dark smudge of bruising high against a cheekbone. The way his brother’s fingers clutch a little too tightly at his surcoat. The hitch to his breathing. The hollows and the lines that stand out in stark relief where before they seemed to fade into shadow. All the signs that are so obvious now, now that he cares to look.

Thor swipes the card Stark has prepared for him through a seam in a panel by the glass. With a hiss of compressed air the door to the cell slides open.

The space beyond is more compact than the cylindrical cage that lies in fresh pieces on the surface of Midgard. Even crowded as it now is with Thor’s bulk at the entrance, there seems to be an almost insurmountable distance between him and the man he’s come to find.

The quiet is broken by a chuckle and a low murmur, though the back Thor must address remains deliberately turned against him.

“Are you angry with me, brother?”

Loki’s tone is mockery and derision, the endearment insincere.

Something clenches tight behind Thor’s ribs. His mouth goes dry, the words he has prepared and rehearsed deserting him all at once. He had braced himself for this -- for coldness, for disdain, for a reception of scorn and vitriol -- but to actually receive it, to face its full force with events still so recent and raw in his mind, with hope and anticipation still so sweet and fresh in his breast… It is like a lance to his aching, vulnerable heart.

What he feels more than anything is pride. Pride and sorrow and love and regret.

“No,” Thor says simply, quietly. “No, I am not angry with you.”

Anger could not be further from what he feels this time.

This answer is not one Loki expects. Thor’s brother straightens almost imperceptibly where he sits hunched forward, something changing in his bearing that Thor cannot quite identify. There is a vague sense of unease in the air now, and already Thor fears he has dashed what small hope he had of success.

Speaking with Loki always was like navigating a maze Thor had no map to. One riddled with pitfalls, traps and unseen hazards.

“I do not want you here,” Loki says to the wall, all pretence at even a dark and mocking humour dropped. “Go.”

Thor does not go. He has come too far, risked and lost and sacrificed too much to be turned away by Loki’s denial of him now.

“I have something to ask of you,” Thor says instead, and Loki’s shoulders hitch minutely towards his ears. “I will not leave until you grant it.”

The pause is heavy and tight with tension, the silence of the room loud in Thor’s ears. Loki breaks it with a snort.

“Always so dramatic,” he mutters to cover the hesitation. Then with more heat: “I owe you nothing.”

“But I would ask this of you anyway,” Thor responds.

Loki huffs, annoyed. “Ask then, but expect no favour from me.”

Thor waits, and he feels his brother’s impatience in the palpable prickling of the air. This is something he would say to Loki’s face, and he will not let him cheapen the moment with a display of childish pique. Thor sighs when it seems Loki will not oblige him, his disappointment a weight he knew to expect but resents carrying all the same.

“Loki. Brother. Will you not look at me?”

The laughter is low, mirthless and dark. And still Loki does not turn.

“You are no brother of mine,” Loki says with ominous calm, and though the declaration comes as no surprise, his next words do. “You are not in fact my Thor at all, are you?”

Thor’s silence must give him away, because it prompts Loki finally to turn, a sharp and cunning grin stretched across his face. Thor’s breath catches in his lungs despite the ugly expression.

Brother.

Even as his heart swells to look upon the face of his brother once more, his eyes are drawn to the dirt and the blood, the evidence of a swift and ignominious downfall, the physical tale of all the ways Thor has failed him. The nasty smirk speaks of this too, though the pain it inflicts is not the kind Loki would intend. Instead of disappointment, Thor feels only grief and a crushing compassion.

Loki allows his eyes to rake over Thor’s frame from top to toe with lazy distaste. His gaze lingers overlong on the scarring Thor will always carry around his eye and at the crop of hair Thor thinks he will never quite become accustomed to. There is meaning in everything Loki does, and the cruel message does not escape Thor in this instance. “The years to come suit you ill,” Loki says as he turns back around, dismissing Thor once again.

How Loki can know of Thor’s long journey, Thor cannot guess. He always has been a fey creature, his ways kept close and his secrets closer. And he was a master of observation from the time they were children, a life spent skirting the fringes of court life the only teacher a liesmith might ever need. Where Thor’s power had always lain in strength, whether the strength of his arm or the strength of his character, Loki’s currency was that of knowledge. Thor’s pride swells that little more even now to witness it being counted once again.

“You do not ask how I come to be here,” Thor observes. He knows better than to ask Loki for an explanation outright. After all these years, he seems finally to be learning these lessons.

“I care not,” Loki’s voice tells him, though the lie is loud for all to hear.

“Hmm. I think that unlikely.” Thor moves to sit, the sweet relief to the ache in his muscles enough to help ease him into this familiar game. “Shall I tell you the tale? It is one of heroic deeds and mighty feats.” And pain. And death. And tragedy.

The sigh Loki releases is quiet enough that Thor knows it to be genuine. He shifts his position slowly, his careful movements favouring the injuries Thor knows will still be healing. He swings his long legs over the edge of the ledge on which he is awkwardly reclined and allows the momentum to bring him a little further upright, though it is clear to Thor that he dare not straighten fully. Instead he leans his forearms on his knees, his eyes gleaming at his uninvited visitor through the matting of his hair. For all his obvious hurts the effect is somewhat sinister, and Thor is reminded once more of the reputation his brother has earned for himself among those who do not love him as Thor always will.

Loki does not want to play this game. His role is usually one of faux-innocence and patience while he bides his time, waiting for an opening to cut his opponent down. Today he refuses even this much courtesy, and Thor finds he mourns its loss despite years of frustration and humiliation at its mercy.

Thor tries a weak smile despite it all, but Loki’s hard expression remains the same.

“Come now,” Thor says, his heart not really in it. “This is the part where you mock my ignorance and steal my thunder. Don’t be such a spoilsport.”

The attempt at levity is clearly a wasted one.

Loki leans forward just slightly with an effortless menace. His lips peel back from his teeth as he spits out his words. “I can taste the reek of power on you. You stink of it.”

Thor jerks back in surprise before he can catch himself.

Ah. So the issue is exposed at last. He should have guessed this. His use of the stone still crackles across his nerves and sits heavily in the vertebrae of his lower back, like a weight wrestled into submission but fought at much cost.

His little brother sees much, it seems.

He knows it is unwise, but Thor cannot contain the satisfaction that lifts the corners of his mouth, the relief and the absurdity of it all manifesting as wry amusement. He has had so little experience of the upper hand in conversations such as this that he must admit a small part of him is pleased to revel in superiority for a moment or two.

Loki misinterprets this mirth as he is often quick to do, and his ugly expression sours further with what Thor first takes for anger.

Thor is too slow to rescue the mood (poor though it already is). He has realised his mistake too late.

It is not needled pride that he has provoked. No. It is fear.

Something sharpens in the air around them both, a prickling energy that bodes ill indeed.

Loki leans forward further still. “Come to kill me, creature of Thanos? Come to do your master’s bidding in payment for my failure?”

The pause Thor cannot afford stretches long for all his efforts to contain it.

“You judge me hastily, brother. Whatever it is you think, I promise you are mistaken.”

Loki barks a harsh sound that Thor takes for mirthless laughter. “Empty words and hollow promises. What else am I to expect from an emissary of darkness? From one drunk with a power he could never take without aid? From one who must be given what he cannot earn?”

It is a mistake. A lapse in judgement. A hasty rebuttal. Almost as soon as the words leave his mouth, Thor knows this to be true.

“Of whom do we speak now, Loki? You, or I?”

Yes. Thor knows he is nothing if not rash.

For all his apparent weakness, it would seem there is malice enough there still to fuel Loki’s rage. He lunges from his seat with uncoordinated strength and an animal snarl. Thor is swift enough to capture the hands that claw for his throat but is unable to prevent being knocked from his seat. Loki tackles him to the ground, and torn between protecting himself and his injured brother both, it’s all Thor can do to hold Loki at arm’s length as he thrashes and rails against him.

Loki spits and hisses at him like a demon, screeches of frustration accompanying every thwarted attempt to land a strike. Thor holds fast and turns his face from the worst of it, his clothing tearing and muscles screaming with the effort of containing such raw ire.

And Thor is sorry. He’s sorry for the vitriol that pours from Loki, for the contempt he has inspired in one once so close, for the centuries of slow rot that has led, somehow, to this.

This is no mere display of hatred. This is no righteous smiting or demonstration of strength. This is a lancing of poison, an uncontrolled fire. This is the first genuine outpouring of emotion Thor has seen from Loki for a long time.

It lasts longer than Thor cares to count.

Loki is flushed and breathing hard by the time he starts to subside, and as his struggles become weaker Thor lowers him to slump against his chest. They lay in that forced embrace for some time, the silence broken only by their exploding breaths. It is an almost familiar end to what could have been a simple childhood spat, though Thor feels the serious weight of this moment like he never has before.

It is Loki who finally pulls away, rolling forcefully to the side with a wince and a small noise of pain. He props himself gingerly against the wall of the cell. Thor raises himself to sit as well and studies his brother miserably. All the fight has left them both. They are a sorry sight for it.

He thinks perhaps Loki will say something -- anything -- to break this unbearable quiet. He waits, giving Loki time, offering him space, an apology in the way he neither pushes for more nor presses closer. It is torturous, but it is necessary. His brother won’t even look at him.

Loki spits a pat of blood to the floor in front of him and rakes a trembling hand through his hair. He is eerily expressionless.

“We are finished, Thor,” Loki eventually supplies. “When this is all over I want nothing more to do with you.”

This dispassionate statement might be the most frightening Thor has ever heard Loki utter.

This is not how this day was supposed to go. This is not how his plan was to work. There is so much at stake here -- the weight of the universe is the burden he carries -- and yet already he is floundering. He is as much at the mercy of Loki’s opinion of him as he ever was, and even with the fate of the universe hanging in the balance, he cannot help but be drawn into this age old battle.

Despite all he knows of the coming years, despite the certainty that this can be salvaged, that they have salvaged so much already, Thor cannot help but feel crushed. Those old emotions, so long since put behind him, so arrogantly dismissed in all his new wisdom, come piling back in an instant. For a moment, it is all he can do just to breathe.

Loki glances at him from the corner of his eye and sees enough to warrant a closer look. He squints at Thor and frowns.

“What are you… are you weeping?”

If his anguish shows more fully at this, Thor doesn’t care to hide it. He beats a closed fist against his own chest, the pain there threatening to consume him. “And what if I am? I bear no shame for it. I bear no shame for mourning the kinship we once shared. We are brothers.”

“I swear, if you call me that one more time--”

“You’ll what? You’ll deny it? As you’ve done before when it suited you, and forgotten when you’ve dropped your pretence of hate?”

“Rage all you like, Thor. It makes the thing no less true.”

Thor will not have it. He simply will not have it. “What, then? What name would you have me call you by if not that? I can think of none I like better.”

Loki’s sneer hides something vicious and broken. It is hard to look at. “Fine words you speak now. You forget the many others you have spoken before. Here, I have some more for you. What of ‘liar’? Or ‘monster’? Or ‘traitor’? They are no less true, but now that they are no longer convenient--”

“I have never labelled you these things.”

“No. But they are deserved, are they not?”

Thor does not answer this. The trap is well laid, and there is no way to negotiate safe passage. Even half-truths can cut deeper than lies, and Loki is clever enough to turn even double-edged blades to his advantage.

The slight curve of Loki’s mouth speaks both of cruel satisfaction and bitter triumph.

“There,” he says into Thor’s silence. “Agreement at last.”

He moves slowly to stand, leaning heavily against the cell wall as he hauls himself painfully upright. Thor watches miserably from the floor, the power to move momentarily lost to him.

“Why do you always do this?” Thor asks, more to himself than to his opponent. “Why must you always draw out the worst of me and claim it for yourself? Why must you invent new ways for me to wrong and wound you even when I strive to do otherwise?”

“Is that what I’m doing? I rather thought I was stating the obvious. It’s what you are thinking, even if you are too craven to admit it. Only traitors and monsters earn a prison. Only proven liars have their every word contested.”

Thor shakes his head, his words coming quick and without thought in his passion. “And I will not allow you to twist my every word and deed in this way. I will not be made to play a part in this cruel game you are playing.”

There is something like pity in the small smile that Loki allows. “There, you see? Even when you seek to defend me you perpetuate the crime. I know what I am, Thor. You need not deny it for my sake.”

It cuts Thor deep to hear this, but it is not a novel pain. Loki’s words always were his keenest weapons.

Thor inhales a deep breath and allows his eyes to close. He must put this petty squabbling to one side if he’s to get anywhere, though a part of him recognises this fight as but a taste of all that still lays beneath an undisturbed surface. Thor reminds himself that he has lived past this day, that he and Loki both have come to terms with their place in each other’s lives, that there is time still to correct all that Thor knows he is yet to address.

This is of course what he’s come here to do for Loki, after all.

Thor rises to stand. “You think to bait me, but I will not allow you to provoke me to anger. Not this time. Not with all I know now.”

Loki now is bold, his confidence bolstered by Thor’s momentary falter. For all his self-professed disinterest, it seems his appetite for the spar can always be stoked by a sign of weakness. “And what is it that you know?” he asks sweetly. “Enlighten me. Bestow upon me your wisdom, oh great traveller in time.Teach me the lesson you would have me learn.”

“I know that you did not intend this. That you have made a mistake you regret. That you are caught up in something that has got out of hand but that your pride will not allow you to admit it.”

Loki swallows a growl and whirls to pace, his stiffness leaving him in his pique.

“Who are you to judge me? You who would see me in chains, who would have me caged like an animal, disgraced for all to see--”

“No, Loki. That is not what I want. That has never been what I’ve wanted. You know that.”

“Oh do I indeed? Then please forgive my obvious doubt. You will be the one to escort me home, I take it. A hero’s welcome awaits, I’m sure.”

Thor will not lie. Loki would not believe him, and anyway, he has promised himself this much at least. “You will return home, and I will be the one to take you. What awaits you there will be in your hands as much as it ever was in mine.”

“Ah, so this is to be your prophecy. Cryptic riddles and bland assurances. No more than I should have expected, I suppose.”

“You know full well what to expect. You have hurt me, and I will be angry with you. I don’t expect you to be patient, but you might try to remember that I only ever want to help you, Loki.”

Loki stalks away from him with a look of disgust. “You claim you are not my enemy. Do not pretend to be my saviour.”

“As you wish. Then let us speak no more of the immediate future. My purpose here looks ahead much farther than that.”

“Yes,” Loki murmurs, his gaze passing through his own reflection in the tall glass that encompasses his cell. “I imagine it does. You have not come here to free me, I notice.”

Perhaps if Thor could be confident Loki would not run. Perhaps if he could trust him. Perhaps…

“Where is he, Loki?” Thor asks softly. “Tell me how I can find him.”

It is clear to Thor that Loki knows of what they speak. It is clear in the way the tension loosens from his shoulders, in the deliberate way he relaxes his face, in the casual stance he effects as he turns. He feigns ignorance as poorly as any master craftsman asked to lower their standards. His effort of will must be strong indeed to set aside his true feelings so readily.

“I don’t know what makes you think I would have such knowledge,” Loki says with a sniff. “Or that I would share it with you even if I did.” He seats himself primly back on the bunk, the only small comfort afforded to him in this otherwise empty cell. He leans back against the wall and allows his eyes to close. A clear dismissal. A demonstration of contempt. A final gambit to refuse Thor his satisfaction.

Thor is not riled by this as he may once have been. He knows this act for what it is. “You need not play this part with me. You are a skilled actor, but you forget my advantage in this game.”

A single eye cracks open, allowing Loki to regard Thor down is nose. Thor waits.

“Really Thor. You credit me with too much insight. How should I know the Mad Titan’s movements? I cannot read minds.”

The almost familiar exchange makes something squeeze tightly behind Thor’s ribs. He inclines his head. “Of course. You’re not a witch.”

Loki frowns slightly but otherwise ignores this. His eye closes again. “You make less and less sense the longer you stay. And you’re starting to bore me.”

“I know where you have been since you fell from the Bifrost. I know you have knowledge of that place and the ways between it and here. And I know you receive your orders through the Chitauri leader. You have told me as much yourself, though I had to pry it out of you at the time.”

This interests Loki at last, it seems. He stares at Thor in silence, his final defence a refusal to speak at all. Thor must be merciless. He must continue this gentle torture. He has no choice.

“He is an enemy,” Thor presses on. “Perhaps the most dangerous we will ever face. You know that as well as I, though you would ally yourself with him to survive. I see that now, even if I contrived not to before. He is powerful, and he means to cause us much harm, but he is not invincible. Not if I can reach him in time.”

The lingering threads of the Time Stone’s power thrums along Thor’s veins, searing his blood and picking at his mind. Time is a weapon he has now at his command, though he does not fool himself it is entirely under his control. Such treacherous, fickle and indifferent entities as the stones are, they can never be relied upon entirely. They play on the mind and whisper to the darkest aspects of the soul. They feed on ambition, on injured pride, on betrayal. The promise of vengeance they offer is sweet.

Thor looks at Loki where he sits on the bunk, rigid and brittle and likely to shatter at the merest application of force.

Yes. The seductive power of the stones is insidious indeed.

“If I am to stop him,” Thor presses, “if I am to fix all this, I will need your help, brother.”

Still Loki does not speak. The hand not braced against some unseen hurt at his side fists tightly around the lip of the bunk.

Thor tries the one last angle he can think to leverage. The one that has never failed to bring his brother on side before now. “He has wronged you, that much is clear. I do not call it betrayal, as that would imply an equal footing we both know he does not recognise. You have a score to settle, and I will lend you my arm in the fight. It has grown stronger these past years, I can promise you that. As has my rage. Come, brother. Let us face him together.”

Loki stands so abruptly that it takes Thor aback, though he holds his ground well enough in the end. He will not flinch back from one he knows so well (you do not know him as well as you would claim, an insidious inner voice whispers) and he will not turn (again) from his brother’s obvious distress.

Loki’s clenched fists tremble at his sides, his teeth bared in a snarl that Thor is grieved to recognise. There is fear there. Fear and desperation and a dangerous edge of something else.

The words explode from Loki, uncontrolled and frightening for it. “Do not speak to me of what you do not understand! You have no idea what you’re dealing with.”

Thor sees that he has at last dropped his gambit of denial. He does not truly believe Thor to be under Thanos’ thumb. Not anymore.

“Then tell me,” Thor implores. “Tell me where he is so I can see for myself.”

Loki raises a trembling hand to his temple to tap his fingers hard against his skin. He is wide-eyed and frenetic, the thwap thwap thwap of this forceful action adding a manic flavour to his words.

“Here, Thor,” he hisses urgently, leaning forward. “Thanos is right here.”

It is not the answer he needs, nor is it an answer he likes overmuch. Loki vibrates with a strange tension Thor is loathe to recognise, and though his first instinct is to offer comfort, he must first draw Loki out, if he can.

“It is the Mind Stone, is it not?” Thor presses. “That is the means by which you are connected. The sceptre--”

A sound of wordless protest interrupts Thor’s words. Loki begins to pace, hands wringing in increasingly frantic motions before him. He appears hunted, something that disturbs Thor on a level he cannot fathom. To see Loki so stripped of self-control -- it is a sight that tilts his world off its axis.

“Even if I wanted to help you,” Loki says, “and believe me, I don’t, your precious mortals would never surrender their war prize so readily.” He laughs shakily. “You are undone by your very allies.”

“Again you forget,” Thor answers. “I have the benefit of experience and friends who would aid me against their past selves. It would be a simple thing to secure whatever I need.”

Perhaps it is a mistake to threaten so baldly. It is certainly an effective strategy. Whatever doubts Loki had of Thor’s intentions, he has overcome them now. If anything, he anticipates more than Thor would ever ask of him.

“I won’t do it,” Loki insists, backing away. “Whatever you’ve done, whatever you want, you cannot force me to help you.”

He gasps when Thor lunges forward and grasps his upper arms, the force of the action enough to shake his balance momentarily. The way his eyes widen shames Thor deeply, but Thor does not release his hold.

“I cannot promise I would never hurt you, brother,” Thor tells him earnestly, “we know each other too well for that. But know that I will never stand by and watch you destroyed, or rest while you suffer at another’s hand. Not while I can act to prevent it. Not while I still draw breath.”

With that, his eyes locked to Loki’s, their breaths still exploding between them, Thor reaches a hand to his hairline at the base of his left ear and presses firmly on the small metal panel embedded there.The nano technology responds to his touch like a blooming flower, expanding smoothly to cup the base of his skull and settle a probing arm flush against the scalp behind his temple.

The cell around them snaps out of existence in a bewildering realignment of colour and form.

Loki pushes himself from Thor’s awkward grasp and stumbles backward, his eyes wild as he takes in their surroundings.

“What is this?” he demands shrilly, panic close to the surface.

The splendor of their mother’s chambers is all that Thor remembers. And of course it is, pulled as it is from the depths of his recollection, projected into being by the unfathomable technology of his genius mortal friend.

He has revisited this scene so many times, Thor is almost certain not a detail has been missed.

Light streams in from the tall windows and catches at the motes that dance in the air. The breeze plays with their diaphanous hangings, billowing and pulling at them with a light surrusus of movement. And on the tiles beneath, his mother’s blood shines ruby bright where it spreads from beneath her fallen body.

Behind him, Thor registers distantly the movements of his brother as Loki snatches for a means of escape. He examines the hands that pass through every weapon and exit, finally turning an accusatory glare upon the agent of his humiliation. When he notices what holds Thor’s attention he goes rigid, though Thor now has eyes only for the sight before him.

Their father cradles their mother’s head, his lips moving in silent prayer over her inert form. Thor’s younger self stands on the balcony behind, tears streaming down his face, frozen in a grief so intense it locks him in place.

“You see what your actions have led us to,” the Allfather says calmly from his place by his wife’s side. The phantom addresses his words not to the Thor of the memory, but to Thor as he is now, the Thor who has lived through this day once before, and many times in his dreams since.

These are words that Odin did not utter when this wretched scene came to pass. In truth, that day played out much as battle does, as a series of blunt and muted moments, driven by reflex and barely registered. Of dulled sensations and deep shades of red. Of disconnection, denial and meaningless platitudes.

It is as Stark had warned. Thor is at the mercy of his own guilt and shame, whether he would will it or no. If the scene is not entirely faithful to that which truly transpired, it at least amplifies those elements of greatest import. There will be no comfort here. Neither he nor Loki will have anywhere to hide.

“What is this,” Loki says again at his shoulder, the tremble to his voice enough to betray that he has already guessed.

“This is what waits for us, a short time from now. This is the price our folly commands, yours and mine both.”